letting go of fixing people [cc]
Many targets of abuse wrestle with a desire to fix people in the abusive situation. Sometimes that desire is directed at their abusers. Targets offer boundless love, reassurance and understanding in the hope of counteracting the abusers’ negativity and healing their destructive compulsions. Sometimes the urge to prepare is directed at other targets, who they hope to rescue from their abuse. In both cases, individuals can drive themselves to exhaustion trying to mend people they can’t mend. I want to reflect on these attempts to fix people and what causes them to fail, and explore some more productive focuses. Might seem odd for a qualified therapist to talk about letting go of fixing people. Isn’t that what therapists do — fix people? Not quite; if clients do get fixed it’s because they’ve worked on fixing themselves. The therapists role is to facilitate that process of self mending. It’s useful to reflect on what happens in therapy because it illuminates some of the reasons we fail to fix people. We could think of therapy like this: Between where the client is and where they want to be, there’s an obstacle course. Together the client and therapist view the obstacles ahead and consider how to navigate them, assessing the relative risks of different options. Some are straightforward; some are more involved. The therapist stays in close contact, offering an additional perspective and drawing attention to traps the client might not have noticed. But it’s the client who has to traverse the course and work through the issue they’ve come to address. And, not every kind is ready to do that. Some clients hope the therapist will give them a magical quick fix solution to a deeply entangled crisis, a solution that requires no thinking on their part: no grappling with difficult choices, no unfavourable outcomes, no loss. In the obstacle course analogy, they want the therapist to lift them up and carry them to the finishing line. Even if that was possible, having avoided the personal development that comes with working through a crisis, the client would be left just as unprepared for the next crisis and just as dependent on others to solve it. Some clients want the therapist to help them fix someone else in their life: if only that person was different, everything would be okay. For these clients, there’s no obstacle course of personal development to work through. The problem isn’t with them, but the other person. And yet, they’re the ones coming to therapy. Sometimes abusive individuals, including malignant narcissists, do come to therapy — not necessarily to fix themselves. Years ago when I was working in a charity who offered clients blocks of six free therapy sessions, one client came because she thought it would make her appear more sympathetic in a child custody hearing. After attending the first of her six sessions with me, in which she exhibited a range of narcissistic traits, she then failed to attend the next four sessions. It later emerged that she had decided, on a whim, to go off on holiday, obliging me to preserve an empty room for four weeks, and delaying other clients on the waiting list who could have been seen. When she turned up for the final session, she was outraged that I refused to extend her sessions to make up for her absence and that she wouldn’t be getting a written declaration from me that she’d attended therapy. Clients like these try to construct their own brand of obstacle course for their therapists — and it has nothing to do with personal growth. Being in a therapy room doesn’t mean therapy will take place. For that to happen, the client has to be open to change. Trying to force change on resistant clients can make matters worse, activating all kinds of psychological defences that can further entrench them in their situations. In their 2002 paper “Resistance in Psychotherapy”, Beutler and colleagues found the low directive and self directive therapeutic approaches could work for some highly resistant clients, letting them take full control in leading the sessions. But even the most hands-off therapeutic style won’t work in cases of extreme intransigence, and unfortunately, some of the most intransigent individuals happened to be narcissists — and their targets. When neither party in a conflict is ready to change, the result is psychological gridlock. It’s a mistake to view the extreme intransigence of either of these two populations as conscious pigheadedness. What we’re looking at isn’t willful perversity, but deeply rooted aspects of their respective psychologies. When looking at human traits, things are rarely black-and-white. It’s more useful to think of spectrums, spanning between absent and abundant. When it comes to narcissism, there’s huge variation in the range and intensity exhibited by different individuals. Within the milder end there might only be one or two narcissistic attributes If they’re having a significant impact on relationships, and the individual possesses enough self-awareness, emotional resilience and openness to change, there’s every hope they can be effectively addressed in therapy. In many cases, these attributes might be better conceptualized as bad habits. what are called narcissistic fleas picked out by exposure to narcissistic behavior. As attributes increase in number and expressional intensity, hope of change begins to decrease. It might be some awareness of the problem. There might even be some attempt to engage in therapy. But, results can be volatile. Among my close and wider relatives, a number of individuals exhibited pronounced narcissistic traits. One of them would express her narcissism with brazen openness, declaring that people were there to be used, and that they were like pieces on a chess board. You had to move them into the positions you wanted. She’d self-congratulatory stories about how she’d manipulated individuals in various underhand ways, including romantic partners. When her life began to derail after the end of a romantic relationship, she engaged a therapist. She was disconcerted when he started challenging her on her manipulative behavior and her lack of interest in the feelings of others. Wasn’t what she’d bargained for. But in the following months there were some changes in her behavior. Instead of endlessly talking about herself, she began for the first time to ask other people about themselves. Although it was plain to hear her therapist’s coaching in her mechanical delivery, it seemed like a step in a positive direction, but the effort of showing a basic interest seemed to exhaust her, and within a few weeks her behavior swung sharply back into even more negative territory than before. as she began to use her therapists social training tips not to improve relationships, but to become a more slippery manipulator. As we tip over into the more extreme side of the narcissism spectrum, hope tails off exponentially. We start seeing a very bleak clinical picture. With full blown narcissists we’re no longer even looking at a human personality as we recognize it — we’re looking at a suit of armour. All of us have to carry around some armor to protect ourselves. In healthy scenarios, that armour is flexible and economical, and adapts according to the specific social situation. In contrast, narcissists maintain full armor in the shape of a human suit. A fictional self, a phantom which they use to navigate the social world This avatar is no casual deception. It guards the narcissist against immobilizing fear: fear of rejection from others, and fear of facing the desolate void of their own inner landscape. It’s a tool of survival. Tampering with that survival tool can arouse a sense of extreme existential threat. Change is unthinkable. The same absolute refusal to change can be seen in narcissistic collectives who armour themselves with a false image of ideological perfection. Again, this false image is a tool of survival. To accept external criticism and admit to flaws and transgressions undermines the infallibility and superior moral virtue that’s come to define their very existence. As in therapy, we can confidently predict that attempts to force change on highly resistant groups will intensify their defenses. There’ll be more hardline policies, more control over image management, more secrecy, more paranoia. Individuals who succumbed to narcissistic abuse have often incurred a similar loss of self, through damaging exposure to dysfunctional people in their formative years. But while narcissists respond by elevating themselves above other people in the form of a fantasy self, these individuals respond by elevating other people above themselves. They become pleasers, fixers, codependents, turning themselves into whatever other people want them to be. In Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”, the Martians show a similar trait: they’re empathic shapeshifters. When Mars is colonized by earth visitors, the Martians try to avoid annihilation by transforming themselves into the people the colonists want them to be. One of them becomes the long-lost son of an elderly couple who take him in as their own. But when the couple takes him into town the Martian is unable to resist the dreams and fantasies of the other colonists in the crowded streets, He is forced into a succession of identities: a wanted murderer, a lost husband, the town mayor, a young girl. He is melting wax, shaping to their minds. Eventually overwhelmed by trying to be all things to all people, the Martian dies. Like the Martian, codependents can feel an irresistible compulsion to be what people want, and can end up feeling pulled apart when the assembled company wants conflicting things. They’ve been groomed to serve others and to feel responsible for other people’s feelings and needs, to the detriment or exclusion of their own. They’ve been trained to feel responsible for other people’s problems and for fixing them. In polar contrast to the narcissist who wears excessive protective armor, codependents suffer from a lack of armor and a magnified vulnerability. This vulnerability is double-edged: In the right circumstances, their over-receptivity to other people’s ideas can be the path to restoration. If codependent types are fortunate enough to meet healthy partners or fall in with a decent supportive crowd, there’s every hope that they can construct a sense of self, and over time learn to internalize their sense of worth so they no longer have to rely on others to provide it. But the outlook can be very different if they’re unlucky enough to become involved with a narcissist, and unfortunately their vulnerability acts like a shining beacon to emotional predators. In fact the pairing of an empathic codependent and a self-absorbed narcissist works like a star and a black hole: The strong empath is like a bright star offering endless light to others, understanding them, seeing things from their point of view, affirming their feelings. While the narcissist dehumanizes, the empath humanizes. The narcissist is like a black hole. Once a star itself, the black hole collapsed under its own gravity. Now instead of emitting light it absorbs light from the stars that fall into its pull. In a similar way, narcissists have collapsed under their own grandiosity, which now feeds voraciously on the affirmation of others. Some codependence idealize the narcissist unreservedly and try to be whatever the narcissist wants. Other codependents realized the narcissist is damaged, but instead of taking a step back they rush forward, offering boundless empathy in the hope of eventually filling the hole. They have no idea of the depth of that hole, which has room for them and hundreds more like them. When they’ve been drained to a husk, having given everything, they’ll be abruptly discarded and replaced with the next supply They didn’t realize they were empathizing with a hoax. To understand other people’s responses, we generally use our own minds as a road map. We assume a similar landscape: similar values, feelings and basic motivations. As we get more detailed information, we update the landscape, erasing erroneous assumptions, adding new features. We’re emotional cartographers, creating mind maps of the people we encounter. To create accurate, high-resolution mind maps takes a lot of focused listening and observing. Failing to listen and observe can lead to huge errors: we might ignore important differences or overemphasize trivial ones. If we’re in the grip of a powerfully tribalistic outlook, when we look at non-members we might overlay alien landscapes on what in reality are very similar terrains. Imperfect codependents often do the reverse, misguidedly overlaying similar terrain on very alien landscapes. It seems contradictory to suggest that strong empaths could be so out of touch with the feelings of a person in their midst, but empaths are just as reliant as everyone else on the map they’re using. Given the correct map, the strong empath will feel the other person’s feelings while a weak empath might merely imagine them. Given the wrong map, the strong empath will still feel the emotions indicated on that map, they’ll just be the wrong emotions Unfortunately strong empathic codependents can have special problems with maps. One of those problems is over-identification. Empathising involves stepping into the world of another person to see things from their perspective. In effect, we have one foot in our world and the other in theirs. Keeping both feet in our own world could be described as sympathy. Here, we see things from our own point of view and our assessments can seem a little remote and disconnected. On the flipside, if we put both feet in the other person’s world, we can fall into overidentification. Lines get blurred in both directions. We begin to mistake the other person’s stuff for our own, and our own stuff for theirs. We become emotionally enmeshed. With their loose emotional boundaries, strong empathic codependents can easily slide into overidentification. They might see themselves in their abuser: a damaged individual who needed saving, but who no one came to save, and they can become stuck in a vicarious rescue mission, determined to be the one who saves their abuser. It seems a win-win: by saving their abuser, hey save themselves. But it’s a lose-lose. Their abuser is not like them, and their abuser will just hold them down in perpetual misery. If empaths redirected their immense compassion towards themselves, they could salvage at least one win, the only possible one. Their own. But for the codependent empath, self compassion can feel like blasphemy. Maintaining some firm grounding in our own world gives us a degree of objectivity. We listen to people’s words, but we also observe their actions. And when the two don’t match, we know it’s the actions that need our focus. Without that objectivity, strong empaths can end up being overly impressed by emotional displays, when their abusers promise for the umpteenth time that they’ll never abuse again and swear that they’ll change. Empaths feel that desperate emotion exuded in those words, so much so that they can even end up comforting their abuser. Overwhelmed with empathy, the codependent loses sight of what they know from bitter experience. The abuser’s promises are just worthless words, never honoured with action. Aside from maladaptive empathy, codependent individuals can exhibit a sweep of other mutually reinforcing maladaptive habits, including maladaptive hope, maladaptive problem solving, and maladaptive curiosity. Codependents learn to feel maladaptive false hope in the fleeting moments of their abusers’ magnanimity. A small act of apparent kindness gets interpreted that as a shaft of sunlight, an expression of personal value from the abuser. They hope that behind the broody gray clouds, there really is a bright sun, and that one day the clouds will part permanently, but there is no sun. Codependents have just grown so accustomed to the dark that any dim light can seem dazzling. Codependents pick up maladaptive problem-solving strategies, Being trained to feel responsible for all problems, problem solving is a nonstop occupation. In the brief moments when there’s no current crisis to deal with, codependents will often be either dwelling on past problems or anticipating future ones. Sadly, all their efforts are pointless. Problem solving for codependents works like superstition. Superstition is about an illusion of influence. By performing superstitious rituals or avoiding superstitious objects, we give ourselves the false comfort that we’ve brought ourselves good luck or escaped bad luck. The roots of superstitious thinking are plain enough. Humans are pattern-seeking. We look for connections between events, between actions and consequences. Where our pattern-seeking is disciplined with critical thought, we gain new insights about our universe. Where our pattern-seeking is undisciplined we fall into prejudice, dogma and superstition. Targets of abuse often believe that by staying on that hamster wheel, endlessly working to solve problems, they’re having some positive effect on the situation Targets who step off the wheel often find that the situation stays much the same. Part of effective problem solving is identifying superstitious components, extraneous procedures that have no effect. That means testing our underlying assumptions. Endlessly explaining to abusers how their behavior makes you feel has no positive effect. This superstitious ritual falsely assumes abusers don’t know what they’re doing, and that they care about your feelings. Correct those assumptions, and you’ll stop explaining. Offering endless forgiveness and love in the face of abuse has no positive effect. These superstitious rituals assume abusers will appreciate the chances they’re given and value targets more. Instead what abusers learn is that targets will take anything, and they value them less. Holding on to their false assumptions about their abusers, targets become their own impossible problem Maladaptive empathy, hope, and problem-solving can keep targets effectively chained to their abusers. Even those who managed to escape the situation can fall prey to another trap: maladaptive curiosity. Many escapees from abuse feel a temptation to check up on past abusers to see if they’ve changed. Maybe their departure had a transformative effect. If they find their abusers on their best behaviour, it can re-energize all the old illusions they had that there really is hope. Within days of giving things another go, the false smile twists and the abuse recommences. Curiosity is a healthy instinct, the desire to know and learn. The curiosity that fails to absorb information starts looking like something else, namely, denial. When we’re in denial, we have all the information we need, but we decline to know it or learn from it. When we look at codependents from the outside with detached sympathy, we might ask ourselves, why don’t they just leave? But when we see some of their inner world, it’s amazing that they make it out at all. One target of abuse said his inner landscape felt like being on a tiny raft on a stormy ocean, constantly getting knocked overboard with no land in sight, and using the brief moments when the sea was calm just to get his breath back before the next wave hit. Some targets have described their inner landscapes as a rollercoaster you can’t get off. Amusement park themes are common; one of the images I use to describe my old inner landscape was a Hall of Mirrors, with no exit, where bizarre distortions are constantly thrust on you. Mazes, kaleidoscopes, whitewater rapids. The metaphors for perpetual disorientation are endless. Each of us has to want to look for a way out of these landscapes, to find land, to get off the ride, to discover an exit. No one else can force us to want that. No one can fix us. But, as outsiders we can be ready to help when the desire to change exists. Surviving abusive environments often comes with a mix of joy and pain: the joy of reclaiming acres of headspace previously colonized by our abusers, but also the pain of leaving others behind. Giving up trying to fix people doesn’t mean giving up on people. It just means acknowledging we can only be of help to people who are ready to change. There is no magic bullet. There’s no single thing we can say or do that’s guaranteed to shake someone into recovery. When we hear the stories of people who’ve escaped abusive individuals or groups, there’s a huge variety of individual turning points. For some it happens when their abuser pushes them too far Inconceivable as it seems after all the mistreatment they’ve endured, they discover they do have a threshold of tolerance, a line that won’t be crossed. That discovery can shift the whole dynamic. For some targets it’s the chilling experience of peering into that suit of armous one day and seeing there’s nothing inside. People refer to it as seeing the mask slip. It’s a moment that can stay with you and swiftly ravage all your previous illusions. For some empathic targets, it’s the experience of seeing other people abused. Even though their own pain is often invisible to them, they can feel the pain of others acutely. These moments of personal insight can’t be orchestrated from the outside. People will see what they’re ready to see. The abusers mask might already have slipped many times before the target finally registers it. Trying to force change on people who aren’t ready can end up doing more damage, arousing powerful resistances. And if, in their eyes, we just become another person telling them what to do, we can end up further reinforcing their sense of being invisible their lack of autonomy and independent thought, their lack of self. Recovery is about breaking dysfunctional patterns, counteracting dysfunctional messages. While we might not be able to wake targets up, we can at least work against those old patterns and messages. We can show targets they’re visible to us. We can invite them to make their own choices, to encourage their autonomy We can offer non-directive empathy; we can let them know we see the confusion and pain they feel. Sometimes just knowing they’ve been seen and heard is the most important experience targets can have Constantly caught up in other people’s thoughts, it reminds them they exist; that can be the start of a sense of self. Talking of breaking patterns, it’s instructive to examine our own. What old patterns might lie behind our desire to fix people? Are we taking responsibility for problems that are not of our making? Where did we learn to do that? Are we over identifying with other targets, unable to separate ourselves? There might still be a lot of healing ahead for us. In fact, it could be said that one of the biggest signs of healing in ourselves is when we can start letting go of fixing people.