Being uncomfortable with our aggression can lead to justifying inaction even when we need to address a difficult situation
One of the interesting things I have observed in my counseling and psychotherapy practice is the way in which some people justify or validate their fears and, therefore, defeat their efforts to make some of the changes they entered therapy to achieve.
This behavior takes many different forms, but there is one type that may be relatively easy to work on if someone is helped to recognize it.
Me: “…So what is stopping you from asking him for that raise?”
Caitlin: “I can’t just go up to him and say, ‘give me more money!'”
Me: “How do you handle it when your roommate eats all your food?”
Judy: “I do nothing, really. If I say, ‘why the hell are you stealing my goddamn food,’ we’ll probably wind up fighting and that would be worse than just losing the food.”
Me: “You mean to tell me that he asks to borrow $40 or $50 bucks every week? What do you say when he does that?”
Frank: “What I want to say is ‘who the hell do you think I am, Chase Manhattan? But it’s not me to talk like that, so I say nothing and give him the money.”
Me: “So what do you think is preventing you from seeking the divorce you have wanted for so long?”
Ralph: “I just can’t go up to her and say, “I’m outta here!”
These exchanges illustrate an interesting phenomenon: people who are either afraid of or uncomfortable with their own aggression—like the patients in the above examples—tend to find a way of justifying doing nothing when they genuinely need to handle difficult situations with the people in their lives. In the above examples, the patients involved were expressing their needs or feelings so harshly and unacceptably because that’s probably how they believe those comments would sound if they were on the receiving end of them. It’s hard to imagine anyone approaching an employer for a raise by saying “give me more money,” yet because Caitlin had not imagined any other way of approaching her boss, she avoided making the request for two years, while watching her co-workers seek and obtain salary increases during that time.
Similarly, Judy, a self-described “conflict-avoider,” inhibited her reasonable requests and expectations of her roommate in order to maintain a peaceful coexistence. Her angry script for handling the problem ensured that she would remain silent and continue to suffer the consequences of her avoidance. Frank and Ralph’s stories were not very different. They, too, constructed angry and unacceptable ways of handling their needs and feelings. As a result, they did nothing.
In each of these instances, the task was to help these clients express their desires in a reasonable way consistent with their values, social judgment, and sense of fairness.
Eventually, Caitlin was able to advocate for her raise in a way that felt right and acceptable and reflected her style of relating to others. Rather than remain a “wimp” by avoiding the issue altogether, Judy, too, found a humorous way of safeguarding her food from her roommate’s late-night raids and felt satisfied with her approach.
As long as Ralph had only one way of ending his marriage (to a seriously addicted spouse who refused to seek help) he would never leave. When he developed a thoughtful, sensitive, and caring way of departing, he was able to do so.
The guidelines that emerge from these vignettes can be helpful to all of us when we have occasions to convey difficult, but necessary, information to others. Communicate it in a way that sounds reasonable to you and accept the fact that there are times in our lives when we must ensure that our needs are met even though it might involve discomfort—or even conflict—with others.