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Posts Tagged ‘pleasing’

hqdefault-18Before I was a psychotherapist, I was a patient, and at some point in my time as a patient, I participated in group therapy, and witnessed an unsettling interaction. (Unsettling-interaction-witnessing occurs in groups, where you spend time watching people “work their stuff out” and often “work your stuff out” at the same time.)

A new group member, a twenty-something, showed up for his first session with us, and like new members sometimes do, he presented as quiet and a bit deferential – eager to fit in, and above all, to please.

Eventually, the therapist leading the group went to Newbie directly, and asked how he was doing on his first day. He replied with some variant of “fine” and she probed further, asking if there was anyone in the room he felt drawn to, or perhaps shy to approach (this is typical group technique, designed to make the Newbie conscious of how he’s relating to others in the room.)

Newbie opted for the “drawn to” half of the question, probably aiming to sound upbeat rather than scared, and gestured towards an older guy sitting beside him.

“I guess I’m drawn to Joe. He seems like a father figure to me.”

To which, without a flicker of hesitation, Joe snapped under his breath (loud enough for everyone to hear): “I’m not your damn father.”

Newbie winced, and he wasn’t alone. That was a chilly welcome, coming from a member of your new therapy group.

On the other hand, Joe’s statement was true – he wasn’t Newbie’s damn father. More to the point, he didn’t want to be, to judge from his reaction. That wasn’t Joe’s role. He didn’t sign up to parent Newbie in that therapy group; he was a member like anyone else, trying to make himself a bit less neurotic and maybe happier. It was Joe’s right to be there, in that room, for himself, taking care of himself. And maybe Newbie wasn’t the only one there longing for a father figure – maybe Joe could have used a father figure, too.

I realized at that moment that I’d been like Newbie in my first group, too – searching for a father (for reasons I won’t bore you with), and drawing close to folks I might have been better off shying away from.

There were larger implications: I’d done the same thing at workplaces, including at my law firm, with disastrous results.

A lot of lawyers make that mistake. After working as a therapist with lawyers for a dozen years or so, I can say plenty of attorneys confuse their law firm with a parent figure, then relate to the firm like eager-to-please children. It leads to hurt feelings, resentment, anger and much unnecessary human misery.

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Groucho Marx once said he would never join a club that would have him as a member.

That’s how one of my patients seems to run her romantic life.

Somehow she always seems to chase the guys who don’t want her – but has no time for the guys who do.

This is a common syndrome, which therapists term “the seductive-withholding love object.”

Here’s how it works:

My patient, like plenty of people, had parents who were impossible to please.  Hers were especially so.  Her father was a cold, distant math professor; her mother a schizophrenic, lost in a maze of paranoid delusions.  They were less interested in their daughter than they were in themselves.

But children are parent-pleasing machines.  They are the product of evolutionary forces that ensure that the child who best pleases his parents is the most likely to survive – and so pass on his genes for parent-pleasing.

If a child cannot please a parent, he has failed in his evolutionary mission.  He places the fault within, and blames himself.

Later in life, he unconsciously continues his hopeless childhood mission – trying to win over people who withhold love.

That’s why my patient chases seductive-withholding love objects.

This syndrome leads to a lot of pursuing people who aren’t interested in you.

Even worse – you end up ignoring attempts at closeness from people who ARE into you.

If you are used to chasing seductive-withholding love objects, you will probably respond to an accepting, interested love object with anxiety or disgust.  You will wonder why someone would want you, when you are clearly not lovable – and it will make you nervous, to try to live up to their positive image of you.  You might also feel a twinge of disgust for a person who would openly pursue someone like you, whom no one should truly want, since even your parents turned you away when you came asking for care.

That’s a bad situation.

What to do about it?

As always, the answer in psychotherapy is AWARENESS.

If I said you were standing in a pot of water over a fire – you’d probably jump out.

Being made aware of your situation might convince you to change your behavior.

One final thought.  The seductive-withholding love object is a powerful force in human societies – in fact, it’s how the military turns young people into fighting machines.

That tough-as-nails drill sergeant who treats the new recruits like dirt?  Yup – a seductive-withholding love object.  They’ll do anything to please him.

By the time he grudgingly acknowledges that they might be okay after all…he’s got them hooked.  And so does the military.

They’ll obediently follow orders, even if it puts their life in danger.

Anything to locate approval and love.

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