Continued from yesterday:
“12. Glorify or vilify the past. Glorifying the past is telling yourself how good, happy, fortunate, and worthwhile life was when you were a child, a young person, or a newly married person—and regretting how it’s all been downhill ever since. When you were young, for example, you were glamorous and danced the samba with handsome men on the beach at twilight; and now you’re in a so-so marriage to an insurance adjuster in Topeka. You should’ve married tall, dark Antonio. You should’ve invested in Microsoft when you had the chance. In short, focus on what you could’ve and should’ve done, instead of what you did. This will surely make you miserable.
“Vilifying the past is easy, too. You were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, you never got what you needed, you felt you were discriminated against, you never got to go to summer camp. How can you possibly be happy when you had such a lousy background? It’s important to think that bad memories, serious mistakes, and traumatic events were much more influential in forming you and your future than good memories, successes, and happy events. Focus on bad times. Obsess about them. Treasure them. This will ensure that, no matter what’s happening in the present, you won’t be happy.”
Exercise: Make a list of your most important bad memories and keep it where you can review it frequently. Once a week, tell someone about your horrible childhood or how much better your life was 20 years ago.
We all know they guy who was the star of the high school football hero or the Prom Queen whose life peaked during high school and has gone nowhere since. Rather than address their lack of forward progress in life, they dwell on their glory days and make excuses and blame others for not having achieved anything they consider noteworthy since then. In extreme cases, thirty years down the road she still dresses and wears her hair and make up like she did when she was 16; he is still laddishly enslaved by sports on TV, beer in hand, and behaving like he was still 17 and about to throw that winning touchdown. It isn’t so much that they’ve never grown up as it is that they’ve never moved past those moments of glory and have never moved on.
Their opposite number is the person who had a childhood devoid of “crowning achievements” or whose achievements went unacknowledged. Such a person may have suffered abuse in her childhood…and then again may not have suffered abuse but simply didn’t get what she wanted: when we grow up feeling entitled and don’t get what we want, we feel ill-used (this explains GCs who think their lives were as bad or worse than the SGs in the family). When we grow up abused, also feel ill used. When we are miserable in our present life and a good part of that misery is focussed around our history, whether is it to glorify that history or to vilify it, we sacrifice the present. We fail to live in today as we re-live yesterday. And that is not healthy, whether we were abused in truth or not.
For ACoNs, this can be tricky to negotiate because in order to heal, we must address and resolve our unhappy pasts. But we must also be careful not to let the study and redress of yesterday’s wrongs keep us from moving ahead today. We must not obsess or allow our past to overwhelm and control our present or yesterday’s misery overwhelms today. Resolve the past, yes, but don’t continue to live in it.
“13. Find a romantic partner to reform. Make sure that you fall in love with someone with a major defect (cat hoarder, gambler, alcoholic, womanizer, sociopath), and set out to reform him or her, regardless of whether he or she wants to be reformed. Believe firmly that you can reform this person, and ignore all evidence to the contrary.”
Exercise: Go to online dating sites and see how many bad choices you can find in one afternoon. Make efforts to meet these people. It’s good if the dating site charges a lot of money, since this means you’ll be emotionally starved and poor.
I have to wince at this one because I can’t tell you how many times I have done this…and how hard it was to stop picking partners I perceived as “needing” to be reformed. “He just needs love,” I would tell myself. Or “His ex just didn’t understand him.” Or “He wouldn’t do it if he just understood how 1) much it hurts me or 2) much I love him or 3) it affects the people around him…”
First, this is self-delusional: this requires that you delude yourself into believing you have the power to change another person when, in fact, you only have the power to change yourself. It requires you go into denial when faced with the truth of another person’s inability or unwillingness to change. It requires you to buy into whatever pop-psychology or New Age or old-fashioned rubbish that promises to give you what you want rather than face the truth that this other person does not want to be who or what you want him to be.
Second, it is distracting: this was my hook…if I could focus enough on rescuing some other person from him/herself, I wouldn’t have the time or energy to focus on fixing my own problems. The more screwed up the man, the greater a challenge he offered me, the more distraction…and the more volatile, offering me ample opportunity to have justifications for my explosions of rage. It did nothing to help either of us, ever.
And third, it is very disrespectful! I really didn’t realize this until, after therapy, I hooked up with a guy who was constantly “doing things” for me…like answering questions that were addressed to me...and generally usurping my autonomy. After dumping him, I hooked up with a guy who, it turned out later, tended to say things like “People would like you more if you would…” or “You’d be more popular if you…” My reaction to this was to be affronted. Who the hell was he to pick me apart and then try to remake me into the image of what HE wanted me to be??
It was then that I learned to look for men who didn’t need fixing. Oh…maybe in somebody else’s eye they might need fixing, but what they took as faults (like my extremely shy-with-strangers geek husband) I found endearing. And guess what? In the 20+ years since I ended therapy and learned this lesson, I have had two good, solid marriages to two really great men (the first one died after 9 years). I am no longer emotionally attracted to the walking wounded because I did take the time to focus on myself and I learned, through experiencing it myself, just how intrusive and disrespectful it is to presume I had the right to tell someone else he needed to change into MY version of what he should be.
People are not lumps of clay to be moulded into our vision of what our mate “should” be: they are human beings with the same right of self-determination that we have. So, rather than delude and distract yourself with a partner remodelling project, the smart money is on spending that time finding someone who doesn’t need the remodel…someone who is perfect for you just as s/he is. And the smartest money is on fixing yourself before you even bother hunting up that perfect partner...
“14. Be critical. Make sure to have an endless list of dislikes and voice them often, whether or not your opinion is solicited. For example, don’t hesitate to say, “That’s what you chose to wear this morning?” or “Why is your voice so shrill?” If someone is eating eggs, tell them you don’t like eggs. Your negativity can be applied to almost anything.
“It helps if the things you criticize are well liked by most people so that your dislike of them sets you apart. Disliking traffic and mosquitos isn’t creative enough: everyone knows what it’s like to find these things annoying, and they won’t pay much attention if you find them annoying, too. But disliking the new movie that all your friends are praising? You’ll find plenty of opportunities to counter your friends’ glowing reviews with your contrarian opinion.”
Exercise: Make a list of 20 things you dislike and see how many times you can insert them into a conversation over the course of the day. For best results, dislike things you’ve never given yourself a chance to like.
This, too, is a two-edged sword for ACoNs. On the one hand, we have to be critical because we have to set boundaries…we have to redefine right and wrong, good and bad, healthy and unhealthy because the definitions we grew up with were skewed towards the benefit of the Ns in our lives and away from their objective definitions. Some of us grew up in households so repressed, we even have to learn that it is ok to disagree with an authority figure, and then how to do it. So, for many of us, learning to be critical is an essential part of our recovery.
But, like glorifying/vilifying the past or rumination, we can get stuck in criticism and let it become a way of life rather than a useful tool. Hardest for me to learn was balance…when it was appropriate to criticize, even in my own head, and when it was not. And learning to not hear negative criticism when it was not intended. And how to deal with kindly mean but poorly delivered criticism.
There is a difference between criticising when necessary and appropriate and being critical. Nobody likes a critical person…but people tend not to trust “yes men,” either. There is a balance that has to be struck. What kind of friend are you if you don’t speak up when your BFF hooks up with her fourth alcoholic boyfriend in a row? What kind of parent are you when you find out your child is behaving like a bully and you look the other way? What kind of spouse are you when your other half is behaving irresponsibly with money? Criticism and recognizing wrong are necessary parts of life, as is sometimes having confrontations…but being critical is NOT a necessary part of life any more than turning blind eye to wrong is.
My grandmother once told me that every person has something about them that you can compliment if you just look hard enough. I found she was correct and in making myself look for that something in everyone…my co-workers, my colleagues, my neighbours, my friends…I found I was generating more positive responses from people. Something as simple as “cool tie!” or “you have such a great laugh…” just perks people up. Even if you have to say something critical to them later, they are in a better frame of mind if they don’t perceive you as a critical personality.
It also benefits you: when you are critical, you feel critical…and negative. Nobody like a wet blanket, a balloon buster, a moaner and complainer. Perhaps you need to read more, get out more, come up with some new topics…and perhaps you just need to adopt a new habit, like not allowing yourself to be critical without first acknowledging something positive and uplifting.
Remember, criticism has a valid place in your life…but it doesn’t have to be your personality type!
Madanes closes with: “I’ve just listed 14 ways to make yourself miserable. You don’t have to nail every one of them, but even if you succeed with just four or five, make sure to berate yourself regularly for not enacting the entire list. If you find yourself in a therapist’s office—because someone who’s still clinging to their love for you has tricked you into going—make sure your misery seems organic. If the therapist enlightens you in any way or teaches you mind-body techniques to quiet your anxious mind, make sure to co-opt the conversation and talk about your misery-filled dreams from the night before. If the therapist is skilled in dream analysis, quickly start complaining about the cost of therapy itself. If the therapist uses your complaints as a launching pad to discuss transference issues, accuse him or her of having countertransference issues. Ultimately, the therapist is your enemy when trying to cultivate misery in your life. So get out as soon as possible…”
This is the game of “Ain’t It Awful” in which the person “…overtly expresses distress, but it is covertly gratified at the prospect of the satisfaction they can wring from their misfortune.” By avoiding or repudiating the therapist’s suggestions, the person gets to cling to those misfortunes and their misery and even feel righteous about it. It perpetuates the misery in a way that the “victim” feels that she doesn’t have to take responsibility for it.
I can’t address what you are doing or have done in your life but I can address what has transpired in mine and I can tell you, this article is dead on. I didn’t want to take responsibility for the unhappiness in my life because I didn’t feel that I had created it. Why should I have to all that hard, painful work when all would be well if my bitch of a mother would ’fess up to the abuse, apologize, and start behaving like a real mother? What I was refusing to acknowledge was that even if my mother did do that, it wouldn’t fix a thing! It not only wouldn’t take away the years of hurt and humiliation, pain and anger, it probably would have made me angrier still…for making me suffer for so long before the acknowledgement came. And even after that, it wouldn’t be gone…the work still would have to be done and it would have to be done by me because nobody can change me but me.
So if you are miserable…even if you just have miserable parts to your life…the first place to look for relief is inward. What are you doing, what kinds of choices are you making, that aren’t bringing you the joy and happiness you deserve? Only you can change your life.