When we witness people in our lives headed down the wrong path — it’s a natural instinct to correct them, educate them about what’s wrong with what they’re doing, and argue the merits of our position. But this approach, rather than helping people change their ways, can rope us into a frustrating and exhausting struggle. Even worse, though we may be “right”, this logical strategy frequently backfires and, unbeknownst to the helper, ends up reinforcing the other person’s will to do the opposite — on top of creating conflict in the relationship.
Jenny, 21, was afraid of conflict, unpredictability and loss. Her boyfriend, Dan, was sometimes unreliable and unsupportive. At these times, she was left emotionally distraught — questioning whether they should be together. At other times, however, Jenny denied the negative side of Dan, making excuses for him particularly when talking to her mom — who was clearly against the relationship. When Jenny was upset about Dan her mom would say, “You should surround yourself with positive people, sweetheart, and not this boy. He’s not good enough for you.” Such comments made Jenny defend Dan and feel more alone, leading her to stop confiding in her mom and become more aligned with Dan.
Why did the mom’s seemingly reasonable approach have the opposite effect and make Jenny feel protective of Dan and closer to him?
Compartmentalized internal struggles can be disowned and get rerouted into relationships
A part of Jenny recognized the problem in her relationship, but she hid that part from herself. Self-knowledge can be compartmentalized and kept out of awareness, or shift in and out of the foreground at different times, as it did with Jenny. When things were going well, Jenny’s fear of conflict and loss overwrote her concerns about the relationship. However, during episodes in which she felt abandoned by Dan, the balance of her fears shifted — and then her worries about him as a partner took over.
Mistakenly taking a side
Jenny’s mom made the mistake of aligning herself with the feelings that were most frightening to Jenny, triggering her daughter’s self-protective instinct. Emphasizing these feelings and associating herself with them caused Jenny to retreat back into the all good,” safe” compartment, and away from her mom. The mom became the receptacle of all the negative feelings that Jenny had towards Dan, allowing Jenny to disown her own negative feelings and play out her internal struggle in their interaction — with each of them holding one side of the conflict. A similar polarization can occur when we take a side or use emotional force with people who are sensitive to being told what to do who may not have otherwise taken the wrong path. Here, feeling controlled propels people to do the opposite of what we want in an effort to protect their autonomy — even if it means acting against their own self-interest or the interest of others.
In this example, by stepping in and taking a position against the relationship, Jenny’s mom unwittingly hijacked the part of her daughter that actually felt the same way as her. In doing so, she enabled Jenny’s internal struggle to manifest between the two of them, rather than inside Jenny, squandering the opportunity for her daughter to bear and face her own conflict about Dan.
Timing and leveraging the other person’s own feelings
When Jenny’s mom sought guidance, she learned a more effective approach. She refrained from bringing up her opinion and feelings about Dan and accepted that she was not going to get Jenny to break up with him. But when Jenny was feeling mad at or hurt by Dan, her mom recognized the opportunity to leverage her daughter’s awareness of the side of her own feelings which corresponded to a side of Dan that she didn’t want to see.
Articulating both sides of the conflict and respecting the feelings that go against your position
Jenny’s mom learned to be empathic to her daughter’s pain, while explicitly recognizing both sides of her feelings. In doing so she gave voice to and leveraged Jenny’s conflicted emotions, as well as supported her autonomy. “I know how attached you are to Dan and really need him to come through. When he acts like this, it causes you pain and feels unbearable.” Or, “It’s so hard to get disappointed like this when you care about someone and want things to work.” With this more impartial approach, Jenny’s mom took herself out of the equation, reducing the likelihood of a struggle between them. Respecting Jenny’s positive feelings towards Dan, while recognizing her distress, made Jenny feel understood and more receptive towards her mom. In addition, this gentle strategy helped Jenny begin to tolerate a more realistic appraisal of Dan and the relationship, rather than reinforce her need to block out, or disown, her negative feelings.
Protecting success and not stealing the show
When the person you are helping has finally made a difficult positive choice — or is on the brink of making one- it’s not time for excessive celebration, or reinforcing why you think it’s a good decision. Such victories are at high risk for reversal and must be recognized as fragile in order to avoid sabotaging success. We can unknowingly push people back into a fear based or rebellious position if we fail to recognize that the conflict can be reawakened and do things that steal ownership of their decision such as: over congratulating them, taking credit, or reminding them of why we think it’s the right thing.
After a long period of feeling out of control and unhappy, Steve decided he wanted to go to therapy. As the appointment approached, he complained to his wife, Jill, that he wasn’t sure he really wanted to go. Jill became angry and frustrated. “You need to go to that appointment because of how you treat me. You have to deal with your issues and how you act just like your dad.” This reaction led to a struggle, and resulted in Steve refusing to go.
What did Jill do wrong and how should she have handled Steve’s resistance?
Jill panicked and, feeling defeated, lost sight of the fact that Steve had come to this decision on his own. In an improved version of this interaction, she calmed herself and stayed out of the struggle. She worked with herself to try to have faith that Steve would go, as well as remember that forcing him would backfire. Referencing Steve’s own reasons for wanting help, while recognizing and validating the part of him that didn’t, she told him, “I can understand you feeling uncomfortable about seeing a therapist and not wanting to go. Of course you have those feelings still. It took so much for you to make this decision but I know you said that you were tired of feeling this way and wanted to try to take action.”
Being aligned with the other person, rather than a position
When trying to help a spouse, friend, co-worker, or adolescent at risk for this interpersonal dynamic, the first step is to be aware that having an agenda can backfire. The most effective role is being an ally, rather than expert; facilitator rather than leader. The strategy involves a milder, less directive approach in which we step back from being overinvested in the outcome and take care not to argue, lecture, or actively persuade. By aligning ourselves with the other person and their struggle, rather than a position, we can find and leverage that person’s own wisdom, rather than become incorporated into the battle.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas in families and relationships.