Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Blame Game: there is no winner

So often it is the case that when a person feels the emotion ANGER and exhibits angry behaviors (aggression, yelling, blaming), what is really happening is that they are experiencing some other uncomfortable emotion (by this, I mean a feeling that they do not enjoy having such as embarrassment, fear, shame, guilt, hurt, abandonment, etc).  Being unable to handle the uncomfortable feeling, a person is likely to COVER IT UP by choosing to feel ANGRY.  Anger is much easier to handle and usually results in distracting from the real emotion by escalating a situation to where it is necessary to address the angry behavior and the uncomfortable feeling can be overlooked by others OR allowing the individual to feel more powerful and capable by bullying others with angry behaviors so that others don't hold the individual accountable.

When I teach ANGER MANAGEMENT classes, one of the points I stress is that when a person is emotionally competent, he/she can verbalize and deal with uncomfortable emotions without using ANGER to cover up his/her real feelings.

Unfortunately, we are so accustomed to blaming others or situations for our angry feelings, it is difficult for people to see the truth: we are each responsible for our own feelings and behaviors.

I want to focus the rest of this post on one aspect of the ANGER issue: BLAME.  Blame is especially toxic because it pulls participants in and traps them, preventing healing or recovery.


Person A chooses to feel hurt, but being unable to express/deal with it ----> Person A tells Person B, "You hurt me." (a blaming statement)

Person B, not at all wanting to be responsible for Person A's feelings, gets defensive and either denies complicity or chooses to be angry and responds with angry behavior, thereby justifying Person A's feelings.  Either way, Person B, through words or actions, exhibits blame back on Person A.

One other possible outcome is that Person B has weak ego strength and accepts blame, but far from being able to handle it, wallows in self pity, which is equally unhelpful.

Neither outcome invites Person B (or Person A for that matter) to accept responsibility and change the outcome.  Rather, BLAME invites Defensiveness which escalates to ANGER and feeds into more BLAME.

So, how do you get out of the BLAME CYCLE?  It is straightforward, but difficult.
1) Accept your own complicity / collusion in the cycle and resolve to do something different.
2) Get rid of blaming language and behavior
3) Only state how you are feeling about a situation without commenting on the other's motives or beliefs.  Don't be a mind reader.  You don't KNOW what someone else is thinking or feeling.
4) Recognize that it is a process that takes time to re-program a communication pattern.
5) Learn to recognize the underlying emotions behind your anger and learn to express your feelings without blaming.

Here is a sample of a session with an adolescent who is hurt because his/her father did not follow through on a promise to attend an event.  Note that the Youth has been pre-trained by experience and society to fall back on Blaming behavior to explain what he/she is feeling.

Youth: Here is something we can talk about: I'm mad at my father.
Therapist: You feel angry at your father?
Youth: Yes, he promised to come to my event, which I told him about a month ago and he said he would come.  Yesterday, he told me that he couldn't come, and it is tomorrow.
Therapist: You feel like he is breaking a promise to you.
Youth: Yeah.  He's done it before, but I know he could come if he wanted to.  I mean, he is the manager and when I've been visiting with him, he sometimes takes off in the afternoons when he wants to.
Therapist: It has been my experience that when people think that they are angry about something, that there is usually a deeper emotion underneath that anger.  What feeling word or words would you say are behind the anger?
Youth: I don't know.  Sad.  Mad.
Therapist: How about... hurt?
Youth: Yeah!  It hurts that he doesn't want to see me.  Dads should want to come and be proud of their kids and stuff.
Therapist: It hurts because...
Youth: Because... because it feels like other things are more important to him than I am.
Therapist: You feel devalued.
Youth: Yeah.

**At this point, the therapist has helped the Youth to identify and express the underlying emotion that is covered up by being angry.  Now, the therapist will coach the Youth on how to express it in a healthy way**

Therapist: I think it is good that you are able to express how you are really feeling.  Some people just get angry and do hurtful things, like punch walls and say ugly things that they can't take back.  What do you think would be a good way to share how you feel with your Dad?
Youth: I don't think I could say any of that stuff to him.  Maybe I could write him a letter and tell him that I'm disappointed that he lied to me about coming to my event.
Therapist: If you were a parent and you got a letter from your child like that, how would you feel?
Youth: ... bad, I guess, but he should feel bad for lying to me.
Therapist: I don't disagree with you, but I have found that if we can share our feelings without blaming others for them, the other person is more likely to respond without getting angry back at us.
Youth: What do you mean?  I don't get it.
Therapist: I think it is a good idea to express how you are feeling, but think about this, if you are basically going to tell him, "I'm mad at you because you lied to me", do you think he is more likely or less likely to try and defend himself and come up with some excuse for his behavior?
Youth: More likely
Therapist: Okay, so I've usually experienced that when someone gets defensive, the best defense is a good offense and they usually get angry back.  So, I'm just saying that if we can stick to talking about how YOU feel, instead of blaming him for making you feel that way, he is less likely to get defensive about it and remain open to hearing what you have to say.
Youth: Okay.  How do I say it then?
Therapist: How about something like: "I was excited when you told me you could come to my event and I was disappointed when I found out that you weren't going to be able to make it.  Part of me feels like if you really wanted to, you would find a way to make it.  I know you are busy, but when you chose other things before me, it feels like I am less important to you.  I would like to feel like I am important to you."
Youth: But isn't that still blaming him?
Therapist: I know it sounds similar, but by only stating the situation and how YOU feel about it, you lessen the chance that he will get defensive and by using gracious language like, "I know you are busy" and "it feels like" instead of accusing him of doing something to purposely hurt you, it doesn't make him responsible for how you are feeling.  Stating what you want from him allows him to accept responsibility for his actions and choose to start behaving differently.

Now, I know that it is highly possible and even probable that the Youth's father will feel bad or ashamed or even guilty and that he will not respond to the Youth's invitation to step up and behave differently.  That would be unfortunate, but it would not be because the Youth didn't do her best.  Of course relationships are complex and it helps if both parties are interested in becoming emotionally healthy individuals.  The bottom line is that when even when it is justified, BLAME doesn't help.  It only encourages defensiveness and reciprocal anger.  Note also, that BLAMING is different from helping a person to accept responsibility.  They sound like the same thing, but they carry different connotations.

Feedback?  Questions?  email or comment!


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Listen and learn

There is an old saying, "God gave us two ears and only one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk."  I don't know who originally came up with that, but in my experience, it is good advice.

I frequently get to observe the communication process between individuals in a relationship and I am almost always intrigued to discover what their interactions reveal about their relationship.  It doesn't matter what the nature of the relationship is, marriage partners, parent-child, friend, boss-employee... all behavior is communication and it is very revealing if you know what to look for.

When a relationship is in conflict, research indicates that having conflict itself is not an indicator of the health of the relationship, but how each individual conducts themselves in the midst of conflict is a strong predictor of the stability and health of the relationship.  People who have a high positive regard for each other tend to be able to have conflict and still like each other because they aren't cruel to each other during the conflict.  They can disagree without being disagreeable.

Too often, the communication patterns I witness are locked in a pattern where the same arguments are made over and over and the conversation never goes anywhere, except to reinforce the hurt that each individual feels.  I try to coach individuals who are stuck in a situation where there is no traction that they need to spend less attention on what is being said and more attention listening to how it is being said.

Being attentive to the emotions of the other person is a miracle communication tool.  When a person feels like they are being heard and understood, they feel valued.  Conversely, when in an argument and we are more focused on making sure that the other person sees how right our viewpoint is... it is easy for the other person to feel less valued because they don't feel heard or understood.

Daughter: I feel like I have to always walk on eggshells at home because I never know how Mom is going to react.
Mom: She says that I overreact and don't talk to her for weeks, but she ignores the fact that I still do her laundry, I still cook for her, I still work to pay the bills for her computer and her cell phone.  How is that ignoring her?  I give her plenty of opportunities for her to come and talk, but she is always walking away.

 In the above snippet, the daughter is expressing how she feels, putting the mom on the defensive.  Because Mom is more attuned to her hurt feelings, she is unable to acknowledge and validate her daughter's viewpoint.  To be fair, the daughter is doing the same thing (thus the traction-less cycle they are in), but I don't expect the child to be more capable than the adult of being able to control her emotions, it is something I try to teach the parent before I work on the child.  So, I challenge the mom: "Right now, don't focus on whether you agree or disagree with what your daughter is saying, just try to reflect what you think she is feeling.  You may not agree with her, but right now it is more important that she feels that you understand her."  I ask the daughter to restate her last statement

Daughter: Sometimes it feels like no matter what I say or do, you overreact.  I feel like I can't tell you anything because nothing is ever good enough for you.
Mom: (bristling) What do you want me to say to that?  She is just attacking me again!
Jeff: What do you think she is feeling?
Mom: (sighing) She feels like she can't talk to me because I overreact.
Jeff: That is what is happening.  What do you think she might be feeling?
Mom: I don't know?  Hurt?  Frustrated?  Lonely?
Jeff: Okay, how about asking her if she feels those things because of the situation...
Mom: (thinking about the phrasing...) Okay... so... You feel hurt because when you tell me stuff, I blow it out of proportion.  I can see how that could be frustrating.
Daughter: Yeah, it is.  I mean, I used to be able to talk to you about lots of stuff, but lately it seems like you are just looking for something to yell at me about.

And the mom is stunned that her daughter hasn't completely shut down again.  The previous exchange shows how reflecting a person's feelings can help to break the blame and defensiveness cycle and gain some traction in the conversation.  It allows the conversation to move forward. 

It sounds pretty easy, but in practice it is a difficult thing to do, to ignore the gut reaction to respond and tell the person why they are wrong.  Instead, if we can push that instinct back and instead, try to reflect what the other person is feeling, it breaks the cycle of devaluing language and behavior and invites the other person to feel like they are being heard and understood, giving the communication process traction to move forward.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!