Joining through the Truth
In traditional therapy, once we've secured an alliance with our difficult clients (which may take months or even years), we may then finally feel ready to tell them the difficult truths. In RLT, as soon as we've gained the leverage that sets the stage for therapeutic change, we form the therapeutic alliance by telling clients the difficult truths right out of the starting gate.
The organizing principle that drives David's selective obtuseness is easy to see: selfishness. In fact, with this particular couple, the difficult truth isn't something that's hard to acknowledge. When I bring up David's being, at times, selfish, they both warm to this description surprisingly easily. They speak animatedly about the ways he can "suck the air out of any room," the ways he exaggerates and brags, overtalks others, brings the focus of conversation back to him and his interests. They've discussed all this for years, referring to a bad interaction as one of David's "manic moments."
"I can see myself doing it," he complains, "but I can't seem to stop." Sometimes the struggle to confront difficult truths may not come in the present, but in the past, where a particular relationship stance was learned. Professional life coaches aren't trained to pursue family-of-origin or early childhood issues, but therapeutic coaches are. In contrast to current therapies, which focus on the traumatic influence of childhood experience, we stress identification and social learning. For example, we don't see grandiosity as always a defense against traumatic shame, but simply a legacy from childhood. We don't see tending to the wounded little person underneath the child's grandiose attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors as enough to make these personal characteristics simply fall away when such vulnerability surfaces. Grandiosity must be dealt with per se: as it was learned, so it must be unlearned.
When my father raged at me in childhood, two things occurred simultaneously. On the receiving end of his anger, I was traumatized and disempowered. But he was also modeling for me, giving me the message each time he raged that when I grew up, to become a man, if I got angry, I had the right to inflict my feelings on others. I was falsely empowered--a different form of trauma and abuse--as proposed by Pia Mellody in Facing Codependence and other writings. I went through years of "trauma" work, dealing with my disempowering abuse. But my grandiosity--criticism, selfishness, and control-cost me many relationships over time and came close to costing me my marriage. My couples therapist of many years dealt with neither Belinda's nor my own grandiosity, and our marriage came close to rotting under the corrosive effects of our bad behaviors--despite our exquisite understanding and many moving therapeutic experiences. It took years of floundering on our own with these issues before we managed to convince our therapist to take us on. I didn't want to make the same mistake with David.
The Burden of the Golden Child
"Some families tolerate children who act like they're perfect," David looks at me and smiles. "But in my family, to this day, it's not as if--I am perfect."
"That's not so easy. . . ." I begin.
"No, listen. I really was perfect. I was a straight-A student. I was captain of the football team and the prom king. I graduated from a top-tier college magna cum laude. In fact," David muses aloud, "it was murder that I missed being summa cum laude. No really," he pursues, "I was depressed for weeks at that. I mean, I was vicious to myself."
"Welcome to the joys of perfection," I tell him. But he's deep in thought, seeing things, learning things quickly. "You know," he says, "I think that's why I get so angry and defensive with Sarah."
"Go on," I say.
"I think I can't stand it that she thinks I'm not perfect. I mean, I can't stand it."
"So, whatever she says must be wrong," I offer.
"Whatever she says is nuts," he affirms.
"What a burden," I tell him.
"Your supposed perfection," I respond. "What an incredible burden for you both!"
Before this session, David had never questioned his need to be perfect. He hadn't thought about it one way or another; he'd just acted it out. For the first time in his life, he found himself holding this belief, this self-image, this stance at arm's length. Something that had been perceived as him, as an essential aspect of who he was, was now seen at a distance--as a part of him. I call this process "disidentification."
"Why a burden?" David asks.
"Look at what its effects have been." Indeed, as we explore the matter, the bad combination of David's selfishness, perfectionism, and dismissiveness has cost him friendships, business opportunities, his wife's good feelings, and, perhaps most painfully for him, closeness with his own children. As his sadness enters the room, I see an opening and pursue it.
"Tell me what you're feeling right now," I ask.
"They love me," he says. "Down deep and all, my kids respect me. But . . . I don't know . . . the warmth factor is missing."