Tag Archives: assertiveness

Don’t Take the Bait

When Jim returned home from his Saturday fishing trip, his wife, Marlene, was withdrawn—cold as ice. Alas, the all too familiar silent treatment had set in. He asked Marlene if there was a problem. With her head turned away, she murmured a mere, “No.” Remaining calm and unaffected, he said, “Well, you’re not acting as if nothing’s wrong.” He then encouraged her to say more. She didn’t respond. At this point, Jim had two alternatives: either invest agonizing energy into altering her mood, or just let it play out. He chose to let it play out.

A wise choice on his part because silent treatments are best ignored. Attempts to squelch them have a way of simply reinforcing them. Silent treatments are a substitute for verbalizing. As children, indirect communication may have been the sole option for some. Perhaps they were screamed at or ignored for speaking up directly.

As a young child, Marlene may have been taken seriously only when she got quiet and emitted vibes of being annoyed or hurt. If so, she learned that there is a greater payoff for going quiet than for speaking up. Her manner, though, is self-defeating in an adult partnership of equals. How can Jim be attuned to her needs if she alienates him—if he’s left in the dark?

Before he started counseling, whenever Marlene would go silent on him, Jim’s urge to fix the situation would be overwhelming. Tormented with guilt and unrest, he would try anything—short of turning cartwheels—to appease her. It never made a difference. Instead, it only left him feeling disgusted with himself.

Now, Jim doesn’t get caught up in those antics.

He has come to realize that the solution to dealing with Marlene’s silent treatments lies in changing conditions in himself as opposed to changing external factors.

In the past, if someone was withdrawn or angry with him, Jim automatically assumed he was at fault. But Jim is no longer inclined to accept blame that doesn’t belong to him.

In our counseling sessions, I emphasized to Jim: “Don’t be managed by silent treatments. Refuse to take the bait.” Instead, I urged him to practice integrity. Silent treatments are designed to control or punish. Thus the term “punishing silences.”

Inherently, they are an insidious form of aggression. Not only do the aggressors hide their weapons, they don’t see themselves as aggressors. Intent on believing they have been wronged in some way, they view themselves as victims and therefore feel justified to punish.

Being on the receiving end of a cold shoulder can be an intensely frustrating experience. Because there’s an unwillingness to discuss the unspoken complaint, people in Jim’s position are declared guilty without knowing why and without being given the opportunity to defend themselves.

The fair and open approach entails dialogue between both parties, mutually engaged in seeking a satisfying resolution.

Jim made such an attempt soon after returning from his Saturday fishing trip. In a forthright manner he invited open dialogue, giving Marlene ample opportunity to express what was on her mind. He wasn’t nasty about it, nor did he come off like a puppy deserving of a good whipping. He merely attempted to address an obvious problem.

Jim went as far with it as he could—the rest was up to her. Her manner exuded alienation, leaving him no healthy alternative to backing off. In so doing, the responsibility for Marlene’s mood was appropriately placed squarely in her lap.

Jim and Marlene went about their weekend barely speaking a word. The atmosphere was thick with silence—and tension. By Sunday evening the silence broke.

Apologizing for her behavior, Marlene explained what her problem was. She was disappointed when he chose to go fishing because she had been anticipating a romantic weekend—time with just the two of them. Ironically, since Marlene failed to be up front about her desires and expectations she sabotaged the entire weekend with her sulking. Her apology was a victory for integrity.

Had Jim manifested his former pattern of absorbing blame and engaging in feverish attempts to appease his wife, a different outcome could be anticipated. More than likely, the silence would have culminated with Jim groveling apologetically and Marlene enshrined in her self-righteousness.

Instead of surrendering to guilt, though, Jim displayed strength and poise, thus uplifting the dynamic between them. Quite possibly, Jim’s demonstration of unyielding integrity stimulated some healthy soul-searching on Marlene’s part.

Her use of silent treatments may become a relic from her past. Now, at least, Jim is breathing new life into the pattern of their relating. By changing his behavior, he’s stimulating Marlene to follow suit.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Feed the Lightness

 

“The evil of our time is the loss of consciousness of evil.” 

~Krishnamurti

A Wrinkle in Time, a recently released movie based on the book by Madeleine L’Engle, is a magical story about good winning over evil.  I found the movie to be a breath of fresh air, providing an element of hope at a time when the world around us seems to be darkening.  The main character, a young girl named Meg, stood her ground on multiple occasions. She wasn’t one to surrender her convictions or her sense of truth. Interestingly, that character asset proved to be the crucial factor in conquering evil in the story.

We need everybody to be in touch with their “Megness” in this day and age.

Silence and a shuttered soul are the enemy.

It takes courage to take the high road by opposing something that’s just out and out wrong! The students—turned activists for gun control—from Parkland, Florida are recent examples. Rather than appease the status quo, they’ve chosen to take it on.

How many times—in our day-to-day lives—are we faced with the choice of siding with darkness or taking a stand against it? How about the times we observe insults, disrespect, abuse and discrimination? Do we cozy up to silence at those times?

Cowardice allows the darkness to expand.

We’ve all found ourselves in a group of people engaged in a bashfest. Some unfortunate individual is being maligned or trashed behind their back.

What to do?

Join in to feel a part of things? Or stand there, silently uncomfortable? Either choice makes our soul uneasy. It feels like we’re participating in a betrayal of sorts. And we are. It’s a betrayal of the person being targeted and a betrayal of ourselves at some deeper level.

Not long ago a friend of mine, Tina, found herself in one of those situations. The conversation started out as idle chit-chat, but then regressed to badmouthing other people. “It didn’t feel good,” she said, “but I didn’t know what to do.”

The model for “what to do” arrived in the form of a woman who happened upon the scene. The first words out of her mouth were:

“Enough feeding the darkness. What are you doing to feed the lightness?”

That brave woman didn’t wait for an answer to her question. Without a moment’s hesitation, she took charge of the conversation, redirecting it to a positive topic. “It was amazing,” Tina said. “The energy shifted immediately.”

Simply put, the atmosphere morphed because one person decided to feed the lightness. I don’t know her name but I think I’ll call her “Meg.”

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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My Girlfriend Is a Bully

Avoid people who don’t care what they do to you.

Picture a large, ugly, brutish ogre who frequently pummels people over the head with a club. More than likely, he’ll be catered to because doing so will make things a trillion times more pleasant than the alternative. Standing up to him will have the same effect as throwing gasoline on a roaring fire. Better to shrink down and become docile than incur greater fury.

Not all bullies look like ogres. Some are pretty. Alan’s girlfriend, Vicky, fits that description, and yes, her hot-headed tirades trigger an impulse to appease.

“I have to watch what I say around her,” he said. “She’s quick to take offense.”

So Alan treads cautiously, taking care not to ripple the pond.

This inclination to avoid making waves is exactly where bullies get their power. Defusing that power involves overriding our built-in response to fear—our natural impulse to steer clear of trouble.

The automatic flight or fight response, writes Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D., author of Emotional Vampires, was necessary for our primitive ancestors. “Without it, they wouldn’t have lived long enough to become our ancestors,” he said. To assure survival, the rules were plain and simple: “If the danger is smaller than you, kill it and eat it. If it’s bigger, run away before it eats you.”

According to Bernstein, bullies take full advantage of this instinctual fear response. So it’s understandable why bullies would use intimidation, aggression and anger as tools to gain control over others. It works!

Bernstein points out that “When regular people get angry they distrust their own feelings and hold themselves back.” But, he continues, this isn’t true of bullies. They “lean into their anger,” using it to their utmost advantage.

Vicky believes it’s high time Alan marries her, so she’s applying pressure. Her bullying tactics aren’t always thunderous. Sometimes she tones down the anger and uses sarcasm—a subtler form of aggression. She’s also been using guilt-inducing digs. So the question weighing heavily on Alan’s mind is whether he should marry her or run away before she devours him.

In our counseling session I tried to give Alan some things to chew on.

“Do you really want to be in a relationship where you have to shrink down in order to make it work? Is ducking and placating a life you want?”

Alan shook his head. “That’s not living,” he said. “She would have to change.”

I continued, “The next question is, will she? Is she likely to?”

The odds are against it because Vicky rarely takes a good, hard look at herself in the mirror. Instead, she’s a classic blamer, pointing an accusing finger.

How can we be self-corrective if we’re not self-reflective?

If Vicky were to turn her life into a play, the cast of characters would consist of villains and she would be the victim. In her mind’s eye, she’s constantly being wronged. Consequently, she feels justified to lash out, sometimes unmercifully.

Typically, such “victims” are blind to the wounds they inflict on others. In fact, if those wounds are brought to their attention, they’re likely to respond by saying: “But look at what you did to me,” or “How do you think I felt?” So instead of heart-felt compassion, the victim becomes defensive—feeling wronged one more time.

Alan has a kind heart. Casting him as a villain is not only erroneous, it’s an insult to his innate goodness.

Defeating bullies, Bernstein points out, takes place in the arena of our own mind.

For Alan, this means he must first become convinced of his basic goodness and that he doesn’t deserve Vicky’s degrading treatment. Having mastered that, he will naturally stand up against her demeaning assaults. He won’t shrink, he won’t skirt trouble—he’ll defend his integrity head-on.

When Alan changes his dance step, Vicky will invariably be challenged to do the same. If she doesn’t, he’ll be faced with a choice, and hopefully he’ll make the right one.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Poke the Tiger

“I pray every night that God will take my life.”

Vince, 56, apparently would rather die than leave a life-sucking relationship. He’s been with his wife, Gail, for eight years. And for the bulk of that time he’s been unhappy, merely enduring his existence instead of living.

In our counseling session, he depicted Gail as having a sharp tongue and a hair-trigger temper.

He recounted several irritating incidents of being nagged and belittled. Instead of objecting to this dignity-squashing treatment, he continues to tolerate it. “Why ignite her wrath?” he said. “I survive by withdrawing.”

“Why do you stay with her?” I asked.

Vince gave a heavy sigh. “I can’t bring myself to hurt her.”

When we protect people from hurting, we may be doing them a disservice. When offenses go unchallenged, we inhibit the soul-searching process.

“You love her, Vince, but maybe she needs to hurt a little,” I said. “The truth may hurt, but it makes us take a good hard look at ourselves and possibly grow. “She’s oblivious to the extent of your misery,” I continued, “including how badly you want out and your reasons why. How can she change for the better if she isn’t given that information?”

“You don’t know Gail,” he said. “She’ll explode!”

“Perhaps,” I said. “And it’s that behavior she needs to open her eyes to. Her temper, along with a few other habits, is chasing you away—and probably everyone else.”

Vince nodded. “It’s true. But how can I possibly tell her that?”

“Come from the caring you naturally have for her,” I said, “a space of compassion, one that’s non-critical and minus blame. In other words, don’t attempt it when you’re gritting your teeth and seething with anger.”

I suggested he write it in a letter because in a face-to-face encounter, defensive reactions are likely to be triggered in both parties.

Vince and I explored what he wanted to say in the letter. He wasn’t inclined to flat-out tell her of his intentions to walk out. That’s because he was no longer certain about that particular course of action.

He has hope—for the first time—that she might change. Vince has also come to understand how he’s been perpetuating the problem by biting his tongue.

His withdrawing behavior sent the wrong message to Gail: “Vince might not like how I’m treating him, but, hey, he still takes it, and he’s still around. It must be working.”

In short, because he continued to cooperate with toxic conditions, she failed to see it as toxic.

Cooperating with an undesirable or toxic system, situation, or person—pretending that all is well—merely reinforces it.

The question is, if he starts to assert himself in a respectful manner, will she change things on her end? Time will tell.

In the meantime, the letter. It needed to be a declaration stating that the status quo has been detrimental to Vince and their relationship. Here’s Vince’s letter:

Dear Gail,

I’m moved to write this letter because I love you and I want to improve our relationship.

Up until now, I have tended to keep my feelings locked deep inside myself. I don’t share them with you and that isn’t good. It isn’t good for either of us, and our relationship has suffered because of it.

I went to a counselor. I told her that I pray each night asking God to take my life. I’m miserable and I don’t communicate that to you. I should have a long time ago.

She helped me see that no one’s at fault here. We’ve fallen into a rut that neither of us can seem to get out of. It seems you’re critical of me almost all the time, and I feel like I can’t make you happy, no matter what I do. I clam up so nothing gets better.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t go on this way, Gail. But I have hope. I want to fix this. I want us both to be happy. I think we can be! I’d like us to go to counseling together.

Your husband, Vince

Along with this letter, Vince needs to stop withdrawing. When he feels nagged or when there’s been an insult to his dignity, he needs to learn to respectfully and immediately object.

Blocking the soul-searching process doesn’t do anyone any favors. Others remain stagnant if we’re not direct and truthful. Waking up someone who is blind to their behavior can be a painful thing, but if we really have the other person’s best interest at heart, the result will be better for everyone.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Listen to Your Soul

 

meditation-class-fremantle1-e1454334609459

So much about our world today is making our souls shudder.

I’m referring to things like unleashed hatred, brazen condemnation of differences, unbridled exploitation, an emerging epidemic of violence, rudeness and disrespect in all forms.

Increasingly, we’re seeing that a cold-hearted mentality is valued—even admired—over a kind and warm heart.

These disturbing elements have been around for eons—though only faintly visible, so they’ve been easily ignored and denied. That convenience has evaporated. We’re forced to own some harsh truths about “us” and the evolving character of our world. Daily examples are displayed on every screen we own. They’re rampant in the entertainment industry, on social media, in the news and in the political arena.

Outrage, revulsion and anguish are natural responses, but we can’t bear to experience such emotions for sustained periods of time. So we have coping mechanisms that make reality seem a little more palatable. Here are a few:

  • Resort to anger and then blame or attack. Anger is a numbing agent. It gives us the illusion of power and control.
  • Discount the truth or seriousness of certain circumstances. We downplay or deny their existence.
  • Rationalize. We humans have a tendency to reflexively justify and side with the status quo . . . even when it’s wrong.
  • Adapt. That is, we get used to or oblivious to disturbing and unpleasant occurrences or conditions.

I have a recent example of adaptation in action:

Not long ago, while making a purchase in a department store, the background music was . . . well . . . let’s just say hard to take. The longer I stood there, the stronger my empathy grew for the employees, including the one waiting on me. “That music has got to get annoying after awhile,” I said. “Not really,” she said flippantly. “I’ve learned how to tune it out.”

We humans are wired with an ability to adapt to almost any annoying situation. It saves us from unending and sometimes unbearable torment. That can work to our advantage, as in the case of the sales clerk. But adapting has a downside. Consider what happens when we ignore the weeds in our garden. Not good.

Closing our eyes to troublesome realities doesn’t serve us very well. Things go wrong. In essence, the weeds get out of control.

We see this happening when we put Band-Aids on problems at home, when we ignore wrongs at work, and when we turn a blind eye to what our soul finds repugnant on the national or world stage.

Robert Bly, acclaimed poet and author, has garnered attention for his thoughts on the collective human condition—how we behave as a society and how that impacts the human psyche.  There are people, he says in Men and the Life of Desire, whose souls shudder when exposed to “the cruel things people can do to each other.” He also points out that “when you learn to shudder, you can’t take part in it any longer.” To illustrate, Bly used the movie Casualties of War. The character played by Michael J. Fox couldn’t bring himself to participate in a gang rape despite the fact that he was harshly ridiculed by the other men for refusing. Such men, according to Bly, are “not men, but bully boys.”

Fox’s character went against the gravitational pull of conformity and listened to his soul instead. I label that courage.

Bly goes on to say that our culture discourages shuddering. Let’s face it, we’re paying a stiff price for that—personally and socially.

In one of my posts from a few years ago, Be Brave and Speak UpI wrote:

Every time we ignore or neglect to speak out against unkind acts, we allow one more piece of debris to contaminate the collective spirit of humankind.

In other words, weeds multiply.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2017

 

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The Making of a Narcissist

narcissism-in-leadership

 

Letting people experience the consequences of their actions is the loving thing to do. Rescuing people interferes with the lesson plan in the classroom we call life.

Sarah wishes she would have had that valuable piece of information when her son, Colby, was a toddler. But today he’s 22, and she’s paying a hefty price for habitually sheltering him throughout the years.

Colby is notorious for mismanaging money, and Sarah is equally notorious for bailing him out. He always promises to pay her back but fails to deliver. Invariably, Sarah seethes with resentment over having her trust betrayed. And as for Colby, he doesn’t grow up.

Instead of learning from his mistakes, Colby repeats them. For example, he has wrecked more than one vehicle, resulting in costly repairs. But he doesn’t pay for the damages—Sarah does. So by escaping the full brunt of his reckless driving, he misses out on the lesson.

When she’s not rescuing him financially, she begrudgingly assumes other responsibilities that should fall squarely in Colby’s lap. These include doing his laundry, cleaning up after him, balancing his checkbook, setting and reminding him of his appointments.

“I’m disappointed in him,” she said. “It took me a long time to admit that to myself.”

Who he is today doesn’t match the dreams she’s carried around in her head and heart. “I have trouble saying this,” she continued, “but I just don’t respect him, and I don’t like the person he’s turned out to be.”

She described his most disturbing personality traits:  “He’s rude, self-absorbed and insensitive. He doesn’t care who he hurts. He has a nasty mouth and a nasty temper. He can’t hold a steady job. If he gets annoyed with someone at work, even his boss,  he blows up and either gets fired or quits. He uses people, including his best friends.”

There are exceptions, Sarah noted. “He’s nice when he wants something,” she said.

Tired of having “sucker” stamped on her forehead, Sarah sought my advice. I asked her why she continues to overindulge him. “I would feel guilty turning my back on him,” she said. “And no matter what he does, I should love him unconditionally.”

So if Sarah stopped bailing him out, she would equate such action with being hurtful and neglectful.

I told her that letting someone struggle isn’t the same as neglect, and unconditional love isn’t about unconditional tolerance. I can love someone deeply, but this doesn’t mean I ought to tolerate their appalling behavior. Overlooking or accepting such behavior isn’t love. It’s neglect.

In its purest form, love is focused on what’s best for the other person at his or her core level. What’s best for the eight-year-old boy who approaches his parents with a long list of toys he wants? What will further his personal development most? Getting everything on his list or learning the hard lessons of discreet spending, coping with disappointment and facing denied requests? Character-building involves learning how to earn and manage money. It entails grappling with life’s difficulties, including those we create for ourselves.

Another vital aspect of the maturation process is social development. Colby’s an unabashed taker and is puffed up with his own self-importance. In contrast, others are completely insignificant. Consequently, respect and cooperation are foreign concepts to him.

The advice I gave Sarah was simple.

“Stop making things cushy for Colby.”

“So, I hear you saying I have to let him fall?” she asked, giving me a look of disbelief.

“Actually, yes,” I replied. “That would be the first step toward helping him.”

I shared with her a bit of wisdom from a former high school football coach, Don Armstrong:

“It’s so empowering when we love people enough to let them fail.”

I emphasized that to love her son in the truest sense, she must always ask herself what’s best for his character. It boils down to this question: “Sarah, how is doing his laundry hurting him at his core?”

She smiled . . . getting it.

In essence, I told her to stop doing his laundry for him, and quit doing everything else he should be doing for himself. Doing those things doesn’t teach him the lesson of personal responsibility. It just reinforces his self-centeredness, his sense of entitlement and his inflated expectations of how the world ought to treat him.

A few years back I learned of a father who parented his children with this guiding philosophy: “You won’t respect me for what I let you do. You’ll respect me for how I teach you to live.”

He nailed it.

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2016

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The Unhappy Chameleon

chameleon2

Doug wowed me with this in one of our sessions:

“I always wanted to blend in . . . like a chameleon.” Then looking away reflectively, he added, “You know, it takes a hell of a lot of energy to change my colors.”

He’s right. So why do we do it? It’s all about making sure we’re liked and loved. If we don’t make ourselves acceptable, we fear rejection. And rejection is a very lonely place.

We all do our share of adapting and approval-seeking. It only becomes problematic when we lose sight of our true selves. In the book, The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner describes that condition as being “submerged” or “de-selfed.”

Here’s one of Doug’s examples: In the midst of ordering chicken from a menu, his wife interrupted, “You don’t like chicken—you like roast beef!”

He remembers his meek, defeated response at the time: “I guess you’re right. I don’t like chicken.”

Sadly, Doug didn’t really know what he liked. He was used to being defined by the outside world.

When I first met Doug, he described himself as unhappy most the time. That makes sense because de-selfed people can’t be happy. They live a compromised existence which includes spending endless amounts of energy pleasing and accommodating others. The end result is often depression, a depleted interest in life, and hidden anger forever percolating just below the surface.

Adrian was a card-carrying member of the de-selfed club when I started seeing her. Her comments echoed Doug’s:

“I’ve spent most of my life adapting to others,” she said, “disguising and burying myself to get approval. I’ve done it so well for so long, I now have difficulty grasping who I really am.”

“Who is the real me?”

“I’m a chameleon and I don’t know my real color.”

Adrian started submerging her true self at an early age. “My mom’s love would turn off if I didn’t say and do what she wanted,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to have a self.”

Adrian’s habit of self-denying followed her directly into her marriage … beginning, actually, on her wedding day. Her father handed the newlyweds $500 with special instructions. “He insisted we use the money for having a good time on our honeymoon—and nothing else,” she said.

“Well . . . that didn’t happen,” Adrian said with a defeated sigh.

That incident was a snapshot of things to come. Adrian listed off a series of comparable incidents that took place throughout the 23 years of their marriage. She then lowered her head solemnly and said, “I think my mantra has always been: ‘Yes dear, anything you say.'”

Adrian so needs to speak up in this relationship. She needs to share the person she really is with her husband—not just with me. How else can she relieve her depression and resurrect her actual self? And how else can the relationship possibly change if she doesn’t change?

When Adrian first started therapy, she thought her problem narrowed down to two people, her mother and her husband. Her thinking: If only they would change. But she has moved beyond that and is realizing it’s not what others have done to her, but what she’s been allowing. Until she realized that, she was powerless to change things for the better.

Something very interesting happens when we communicate directly from the depth of our natural being. Our total person comes forward. Call it our true self.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2016 Salee Reese

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