“What is wrong with you? This is not how I raised you! I raised you to use your brain!”
So went a mom’s reaction when her daughter came to her for help after hurting herself in an effort to feel relief from grief symptoms she was experiencing. As might be the urge of a scared parent in the situation, the mother reacted in anger, screaming and personalizing her daughter’s actions. In this situation, of course the pressing concern is the daughter’s health and safety, and a positive was that the teen had reached out to her mother—though the child later said, “I’ll remember not to do that next time.”
The mother explained that this was her “personality”; she did not “hold anything back,” allowing people to know “exactly how she feels, even if it’s harsh—that’s how I got where I am.” This action did not prove helpful, as the vulnerable child was not in a position to hear a harsh critique and it apparently made the child hesitate about telling her mother the next time she felt unsafe. In this situation, the mother mistook her own common reactionary style (explosive anger) as an unchangeable part of her personality. The truth is, we are able to change the way we respond to others and to ourselves. It isn’t as “fixed” as it can feel.
Feeling doomed to one style of interaction isn’t uncommon. From the child who thinks talking back to her parents is “who she is,” to the significant other who believes it’s OK to berate her boyfriend because “I’m just whiny, that’s how I’ve always been,” to the man who believes “I fall in love fast, I can’t help if it’s with the wrong person,” or, “I just don’t talk about how I feel, I never have,” individuals often treat their patterns as unwavering personality types.
Why We Believe This
There are a few reasons we may feel afflicted with rather than responsible for our response and communication styles. First, it takes practice to respond differently in the moment than we have before. We typically speak to people without thinking twice, as if filtering our words is someone else’s responsibility and not our own. Second, it can be scary to explore a new way of handling a situation. We can feel particularly vulnerable if we perceive that the change compromises our value system. This is especially true when our reactions have been reinforced in some way.
The mother in the example above perceives herself as successful because of her anger, making anger seem beneficial to hold on to. It’s easy to minimize the negative effects of her anger by focusing on the positives. If the mother values “being authentic,” this might feel like an authentic reaction to her.
Cognitive dissonance is the third idea that allows us hold on to our behavior patterns. Cognitive dissonance is essentially the brain’s way of eliminating discomfort by keeping its ideas consistent. If the mom in our example had failed to change her anger responses in a romantic relationship 10 years ago, she might be motivated to maintain consistency with her anger, as changing now would require her to understand that she could have made a change 10 years ago. Cognitive dissonance allows her to say, “If I couldn’t change it then, I cannot change it now, and I shouldn’t be asked to do so.”
Continuing with the belief that we can’t control our own responses allows us to shift blame outward and focus on the traits of other people—“You should know what I meant,” or, “You should receive my message in whatever tone or verbiage I want to use to send it,” or, “You should know better than to ask how I feel.” The fallacy here is that the only changes each of us is allowed to make are the ones within ourselves; our own reactions, our own coping skills, our own communications. Demanding another person to be less sensitive or expect less of you will stifle rather than grow a relationship.
How Do We Move Forward?
- Incorporate awareness, validation, and accountability into each exchange. Notice when you are responding out of habit and not out of a desire to find the most helpful approach. Look for patterns, and consider what fears are allowing the patterns to continue. Think about how different responses might be helpful in different situations. Explore what makes you think certain reactions have been helpful, and what your values are in given situations. This will allow you to be true to yourself while making improvements.
- Practice validation (the recognition of another person’s experience). It requires the listener in a conversation to realize that it isn’t necessary to agree with the statement, just to understand where the speaker is coming from. To use the example of the mother and daughter, the mother may have expressed validation by responding in an understanding, concerned, and neutral manner to her daughter’s admittance of dangerous behavior. Certainly, this calm response may have taken much more energy in that moment than mother’s typically explosive response type, but it may have resulted in more open communication between mother and child. Additionally, it would role-model for the child how to respond to a situation with the most helpful response rather than the first response.
- Ask yourself, what am I willing to change? How will I do it? Then practice your responses. Ask for time in a discussion or conflict while you gather your thoughts. Life isn’t like Gilmore Girls, where every communication must be stated immediately and as quickly as possible. You can agree to revisit the topic at a specific time after you’ve been able to find the nugget of truth in the other person’s position. Make sure to explain that you’re taking space to think about the topic so that the person you’re communicating with does not fear the topic has been abandoned. In the ongoing challenge of acting and reacting, it is possible to make small changes that start with simply recognizing the things that can be changed and the benefits that can result.
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