This week I spoke with two different women who were in crisis regarding people for whom they felt responsible. One was the mother of a teen-age child and the other was the daughter of an elderly mother. Each was suffering in similar ways. They were flooded with anxiety, pain, anger, and frustration and attempting to deal with all of this by assuming a burden of guilt that did not belong to them. These women were both raised in cultures which encouraged them to be co-dependent.
I have known both of these women for years. They typically approach any situation by first attempting to understand what motivates the others in their lives to behave they way they do. They want to know why grandma, son, sibling or friend is inconsiderate or abusive to themselves or others. Why do they act in ways that are clearly destructive? In each of these situations, these women want to assume both a level of power and responsibility for making things better that they cannot have. In listening to them talk about their problems, I hear them constantly focus on “what can I do to make them see? Why can’t I just explain it to them and help them change their behaviors so that these destructive things they are doing go away? Why does it feel like my fault when they do not change their behavior and continue to experience negative consequences of their actions?”
I frequently ask these women, “What can you do that you have not done?” They will cry that there is nothing, but there should be something! If only they were smarter, stronger, had more power, etc. they could stop these behaviors and “make” the person they love both behave and be better for it. They are frustrated by their powerlessness, and usually they are frustrated because they have no one who will hear them or listen to them. That is one of the reasons they come to me. I will listen.
To me they can say whatever they want or need to say and not feel guilty. I will not laugh, nor will I accuse or deflect or shame or guilt. In fact most often, I am gentle and supportive and reflect back to them that these are the things I hear in what they are saying: I hear your strength, I hear that you are frustrated and maybe even a little angry with these people or these situations. I hear that you wish you had the power to make a change that would help, and that you feel guilty for not being smart enough, fast enough, etc. to cause the loved one to make these changes. I seldom do more than that. There is seldom more to be done. It is helpful to be able to vent, helpful to be heard, helpful to have a supportive and caring ear.
Sometimes we problem solve together, but I find that most of these efforts are focused on how to change someone else’s thinking or behavior. It is seldom what these women need. They need to be able to figure out how to change their own behavior and thought patterns. I talk to them about boundaries. It is usual in this type of situation that people do not have good boundaries. They allow themselves to be scorned, scolded, guilted, and dumped on. Their lives are disrupted and their hands are tied and their resources are consumed. Much of this happens because they do not have good personal boundaries. An example would be a story that was recited to me about how this person tried to help someone by doing something for them. In this case it was clean up a very disheveled house. The person to whom the house belonged was a very depressed hoarder. When the hoarder got home and found that their things were cleared out, cleaned and organized and that some of the things had been packaged for disposal since they were clearly trash, the hoarder exploded. My client could not understand why the hoarder was so angry with them. They were only trying to help and the person they loved was so clearly helpless in this matter. The situation was killing them, according to the perceptions of my client. It was a very painful discussion that my client and I had about who owned this problem and what the actual problem was.
I believe that the hoarder is ill and needs help. That being said, until they are ready to receive help, the hoarder cannot be helped. It is not helpful for them to be violated by the needs of their child or mother who is being “helpful” by taking away their freedom and power by arranging their stuff the way the child or mother feels the stuff should be arranged. It is not helpful, nor is it legal (in the case of an adult who has not been declared incompetent) for the relative to come in and dispose of their stuff! The need of my client to do this “for the good of her loved one” is dishonest. My client needs to do this for herself in order to feel comfortable about herself. My client is the one with the world-view that this behavior is unacceptable and shameful. She is the one who is trying to “arrange” the choices and behaviors of her loved one so that they fit comfortably into her expectations in order that her stress is reduced and guilt is avoided.
In counseling, we have to get each of these individuals (the child or mother and the “broken other”) to accept the honest exploration of their problem and their issues. Usually, the only client I have access to is the adult child or mother who wants to talk to me about their sense of being stuck by not being able to fix the one with the problem. They feel horrified, guilty and helpless. We work on their script, and on their boundaries. I try very hard to not spend time discussing why “her child” or her “her mother” behaves the way they do or has the issues they have. None of this is immediately relevant to the session I am having. What is relevant is how my client feels about it. What are THEIR problems and what options for their own behavior do they have? One of the biggest challenges my clients face is the ability to be honest and admit that they are not responsible for the choices of the other. Nor do they have the power and authority to take over and force or coerce their loved one to behave in “acceptable” ways. My clients really resist being able to hear this message. They tell me that I just don’t understand. They love this other person and it is their responsibility to step up and take care of them. It is their job to clean up their loved one’s life until the person is once again able to do so for themselves.
As a clinician it is hard to keep focused and not get sucked into the story. My client is the one I have access to. My client is the one in pain with whom I can work. I may have concerns about my client’s loved one, but I need to avoid getting sucked into a conversation of a speculative and hypothetical nature about how to cure and understand someone I do not know and probably will not meet. My clients are very seductive in trying to get me to do this, but I must be aware, strong and focused so I can avoid it.
Ultimately the potential for helping my clients fall into two areas. One is the safe holding environment where they are heard accurately and cared about so that they can cleanse themselves by venting, crying, raging, etc.. They have to do a data dump and I have to monitor the process of that. The second area is helping them construct better boundaries based on honest reality testing of exactly what their responsibilities and options are for dealing with their loved ones. These are distinctly different tasks and can happen in sequence or in parallel. We can interweave them both at the same time or deal with them one at a time. If we are interweaving them together, then as her counselor, I must be able to follow the story as it jumps around from venting and anguishing, to problem solving, to speculating about causation. I need to clearly remember that their other loved one is not my client and that I am not helping them. My client is the one in the room that I can work with. I have to create that safe holding environment and encourage good boundaries. I have to help them learn how not to be co-dependent. This requires perspective, discipline, attending skills and clear thinking on my part. I cannot get sucked into the story and I cannot chase the rabbit of the “other” who is not there. I must avoid the seduction of the power of speculative interest and cultural “shoulds.” I must help my client to change her way of thinking about the situation and to make free and healthy choices for themselves. This does not mean that we do not care about what happens to the problematic loved one, but it does mean that we are clear about the ownership of the problem and the limits of the power we have to take on responsibility for others.
This process is very painful for my clients. My heart hurts for them both.