by Monica Ross
A couple of things I’ve noticed in working with clients. A couple of observations I guess you can say that I’ve made about human behavior is that it seems sometimes that people assume responsibility for things that that they are not responsible for in an attempt to feel as though they have control over a situation. Here is an example, maybe someone has a child who is flunking out of college. Maybe the child isn’t passing several classes. Let’s say something about the parent, maybe the parent has a PhD.
I’m just pulling this example off the top of my head to prove a point. But in this example, I can easily see a parent coming in for therapy because they feel as though they are at fault for raising a child who is struggling so much academically and where did they go wrong? Maybe what is causing the child to flunk out is an issue with drugs.
This is such an important family value for this family, education. In this example, the parent is taking on responsibility for things outside their scope maybe in an attempt to gain control of a situation that seems out of control for them. I can think of a million examples like this because I see it all the time. It’s as though by laying claim to the control of something we are also tacitly saying it is in my power then to change or fix it. I own it.
To accept that it is outside of our control is to accept that we won’t be the ones changing or “fixing” it. Which means, it is not within our power. Which means, we don’t in fact own it. That can be a scary thing for some people who are experiencing cognitive dissonance.
In this example, the parent thinks of themselves as the type to be able to raise a child who like them values education, but the reality is that the child is interested in other pursuits, hence the tension or dissonance. Maybe the child is relying on drugs as a coping mechanism because she can’t confront the family with her disinterest in academia.
Here is something else I’ve seen. I’ve seen it in both my personal and professional life. I come across people who seem to have a perpetually negative bent on life. It’s as though nothing can go right. If something does go right for a brief period of time it’s almost dismissed as luck or a fluke and the person goes back to thinking life sucks. I think for people who are chronically unhappy the stance of chronic dissatisfaction serves as a defense mechanism and almost a kind of a safeguard. How so?
Well it seems to me that if I were to take a pessimistic view of life at all times then I would never have to go through disappointment. In other words, disappointment is my baseline. Why be hopeful about something only to get disappointed in the end? Why not save myself the disappointment and never be hopeful in the first place? I can see perhaps for some that maybe chronic unhappiness is really about an issue with repeated disappointment. It’s like one’s wings have been clipped in some way, maybe by previous trauma.
Both of these examples do tie into a psychological concept known as secondary gain. It was Freud who actually came up with the concept. Basically it boils down to the idea that for everyone who comes in with an issue that they are working on that they define as problematic and keeps them stuck in life, there is some type of secondary benefit or gain that they are getting from holding on to the problematic behavior.
Let’s take the two examples I laid out. In the first example, the benefit of taking on responsibility outside one’s scope is the potential of developing a sense of control, a false sense of control but a sense of control none the less. In the second example, the benefit of starting out with a pessimistic viewpoint is never to have to set oneself up again to be disappointed.
In both examples, the person is protecting themselves from psychological pain. The way out of this, as I see it, the way out of so many issues is to first develop an awareness of the problem. Oftentimes people aren’t even aware of the mechanisms at play in their behaviors.
If we don’t develop awareness then we are powerless really to any problem-solving mode because we don’t even know that our issues are issues. So for a person to come to me and say, my marriage is on the rocks, or my life is a mess, or I feel stuck, or unhappy, or I feel like life has no meaning, or I hate my job, or I miss my former spouse, or whatever the distress is I say great, you are aware that whatever is going on is affecting your happiness. So, you can do something about it.
Now how can we work together to get through to the other side because I hold out steadfast hope for the possibility of it, whether that be with me in sessions or later on in life with someone else. I hold out steadfast hope for my clients, believe for them that there will come a day when their distress is relieved—be it through working with me or someone else. The day will come when it is meant to come and in the right timing.