One Way of Healthy

After dealing with Mari’s e-mails in the last post, I had some time to reflect and I faced doubts about how I had handled it.  Not to say that I am berating myself because it was the one of the first times I tried to assert myself.  Maybe I should have gotten her number and called her (instead of trying to clarify what happened via e-mail) went through my mind.

When Mari brought up subtly my choices in food and took it further by insulting things I like to do (writing, drawing, exercising, etc.) and the food dish I brought, I had wondered if I had provoked these attacks.  Did I build understanding through conflict with my approach or help create a potential battlefield?

I focused on the positive shift: the fact that I wasn’t going into the evening angry because I was going to eat something I didn’t want to eat.  In the past I have giving in to my boundaries in order to be ‘seen’ as less difficult and I have reacted passive aggressively toward others not realizing that I was angry with my decision.

Even with the subtle comments and insults, I didn’t react to them.  Instead, the evening was easy-going and I took her comments in stride and enjoyed the evening.  This was a small factor into why the evening went well, the other factor that helped was the other couple’s behaviors.  They behaved in ways that were healthy and addressed Mari and her husband’s inappropriate behaviors very well.  Besides the lesson I learned from asserting myself, I also learned from interacting with them.  Here is a list of behaviors I noticed, none are new, only it was refreshing to see them in action.

1. They Listen (I mean really listen)

This seems like a no brainer.  The OC (other couple) let others speak and waited their turn.

2. They Empathize

The OC have an adult daughter who is taking university entrance exams.  She failed the first round and is re-taking them shortly.  When telling their daughter’s story the mother clearly empathized with her daughter’s angst when it comes to taking standardized tests and seemed to be in tune with what her daughter felt yet, let her daughter navigate her path.  She wasn’t preaching or speaking about solutions for her daughter.  She was neither critical or unconcerned when telling her daughter’s story.  She was empathetic.

3.  They openly share their opinions and feelings and accept others’

Conversation flowed from topic to topic and on many subjects we differed in opinion.  The OC readily accepted others’ views and voiced their own.  This helped create an atmosphere of sharing.

4.  They speak for themselves

What is interesting is that the husband and wife of the OC spoke for themselves.  It was the manner in which they presented their feelings and opinions that spoke to their individulaity in the relationship.  Of course, they spoke of their common interests as well, yet at the same time I got even a better idea of who each of them were by how they told their own story.  I was able to better discern the differences in the their personalities by how they spoke.  It was clear that they were not enmeshed but still connected!

5.  They speak up for those that don’t have a voice or who haven’t found it yet

There were several times during the evening that Mari made subtle insults about my exercise routine, my enjoyment of writing, etc.  Such comments, I wondered, could have been provoked by my initial assertions and boundaries (as an attack).  I missed some insults however, the OC didn’t.  They addressed them as they came up, sometimes I didn’t realize I was being insulted until the OC said something to show their support.

At one point, Mari makes a forceful comment to her toddler daughter about her food and the OC also addressed Mari’s comment in a way that illustrated that they had the child’s back (welfare).

6.  They fight the ILLOGICAL, not the ASSERTION

Mari talks about how the women in a certain European country (she travels there for work) always are dressed nicely and well manicured and that she felt like a total slob when she works out of that office.  Everyone waits to let her finish her story.  She then adds that she can’t understand how they do it.  She states that she works ungodly hours and that these women leave at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.  The OC says “It looks like you found your answer to your question.”

At another point, Mari states that they can’t travel because of the toddler daughter (and tilts her head towards her).  The OC address the illogical reasoning in blaming the child.

7. They know their limits

The OC set limits.  Mari had said in the beginning of the evening, “Men are cooking, women are drinking” and the OC didn’t follow this suggestion.  They also set limits on when the conversation wasn’t inclusive or involved insulting what another person said or did.

Aggression and Passive-Aggression

Thank you to all the comments and stories from the the recent post about gift giving as they helped me understand more about my in-laws’ behaviors.  Shortly after, I read the book, Emotional Vampires, by Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D., where he briefly discusses acts of kindness and gifts as a passive-aggressive behavior.

“Your BiL’s gifts to your husband went beyond passive aggression and entered the zone of ‘insult gifts.'” ~CS (@ Caliban’s Sisters).

 

It was hard for me to pinpoint what was happening when my in-laws’ gifts looked so harmless.  The nicely wrapped box with the bow on top disguised something all together more primal – aggression:

“To a psychologist, aggression refers to a continuum of thoughts and actions that have to do with imposing your will on the world.” ~Bernstein

Bernstein further outlines that at one end of the continuum are simple attempts to act in our own self-interest and at the other, assaultive behavior.  This continuum exists in all of us.  At one end, when I stand up for my needs by directly expressing them to the person I need it from that is a form of aggression (assertiveness).  But at the other end, I have thought of duck-taping my sister-in-law’s mouth to stop her from speaking and at really difficult times, I have thought of B613-ing her (for fans of the TV series, Scandal).  DH has said he has wanted to stick his foot out to trip his co-worker whom he can’t stand.  Most of us don’t act on this aggression, however enticing it is in our minds.  The one thing that stops us is ‘impulse control’.

On the other hand, passive-aggression involves poor impulse control of aggression involving two circumstances: (1) where there is conscious awareness of anger and aggression or (2) where anger/aggression is denied all together (thereby the aggression is not under conscious control).  Under both circumstances, the aggression is expressed indirectly.

With the first type, when I was angry at Lydia (former friend) I purposely did not capitalise her name when I wrote an e-mail to her but capitalised everything else – “I” and “TR”.  Yes, I did that consciously.  As for the later, I have realised (in hindsight) that I handle my anger poorly through selectively listening and in many other indirect manners (still discovering).

When it is regarding those that give until it hurts (you), the passive-aggressiveness is due to the later.  This type of severe denial is a form of splitting, where one accepts the loving and giving parts and denies the whole aggression continuum (a symptom of childhood abuse, as a child does this to protect against psychological pain of the abuse).

This denial which starts out as protective can lead to the belief that one has no inappropriate impulses to act on.  This law of nature, then, does not come to fruition:

“Everybody takes…Everybody wants something, and everybody gets angry at not getting it.” ~Bernstein

Continued denial of this is often found in people who behave consistently with the behavioral patterns of Passive-Agressive Histrionics.  Their giving may be sincere but they give and give and give until we get the hint that they want something from us.  They believe in the binding contract of quid pro quo: “If they do unto others, others are supposed to do back.” ~Bernstein.

“Gifts are either passive aggressive or have strings attached.” ~Kitty (@ Brave New Kitty)

The problem with the binding contract is that you are not aware that you are signing one.  AND the payback is more than you signed on for!  Reading the fine print is a must.

FiL said (about Christmas gifts): “I figured that will bring in dividends throughout the year, ya know.”

Bernstein wrote about pathological givers: “…, in their own minds at least, their accounts payable look great.”

How funny that Bernstein would use similar accounting terminology?  His true intentions with his ‘acts of kindness’ became more apparent with his neighbors at his retirement community:

When I helped FiL sort through some clothes, he wanted to give ‘new’ clothes (clothes with tags still on, never been worn) to his neighbors.  The woman who got them was very grateful.  The woman said to FiL (paraphrasing): “Thank you so much, I have a wedding to go to and I needed something, let me know if there is anything you need.”  FiL immediately responded: “Just make me dinner.”  The ‘payback’ dinner was not only ONE dinner, I found out later that this had lasted once a week for six months.

Since FiL doesn’t believe in the law of nature that everybody takes, he has no conscious control of it and therefore, it is not under self-regulation.  He can only see the ‘good’ aspects of himself which are reinforced by his need to foster as much gratitude.

“…it seems to me that Ns want a lot of appreciation for their gifts and get angry if you don’t like them…” ~Kara (@ Through the Looking Glass)

A simple “Thank you” is not enough for FiL.  He is a master of highlighting what he does for us and others so often that the need to feel appreciated is exaggerated and when this exaggerated need is not met, he gets angry – passive-aggressively (like mentioning it over and over again).

“A passive-aggressive gift is a real crazy-maker. It’s an insult that requires the receiver to appreciate/thank the giver.” ~CZBZ (@ The Narcissistic Continuum)

That is maybe one of the most frustrating things about receiving gifts or help from my in-laws.  There are two conflicting feelings making us feel crazy.  The double message: they are actually taking (time, money, emotional draining) in the act of giving (often to others it looks like they give so much, reinforcing the double message).  Such double messages work well in dysfunctional families.  

“In fact, when they (dysfunctional families) encounter an adult who does not communicate this way, they think something is wrong.  Thus, they shy away from people who communicate in healthy ways, and in so doing, manage to recreate the dysfunctional system they grew up in.” ~ J. Friel & L. Friel

 Further reading & References

Caliban’s Sisters: Passive Aggression, a Primer

Otrazhenie Reflections: Be Assertive!

Related posts @IBC: The Give/Take Ratio — Summin’ It Up

Bernstein, Albert J., Ph.D.: Emotional Vampires – Dealing with People Who Drain You (2nd edition), McGraw Hill, 2012.

Friel, John & Friel, Linda: Adult Children – The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families, Health Communications, Inc., 1988.