From Negativity to Compassion

Stephanie considered herself a caring, loving person, she loved her family, her children, and her husband. She considered herself to be an exceptional employee. She saw herself as practical, no nonsense, and efficient. But how Stephanie saw herself was in stark contrast to how others saw her.

If you asked her children, they would describe her as demanding and angry. They often lied to their mother to avoid the endless lectures and searing judgment, to her face they were compliant but behind her back they were rebellious.

Stephanie's husband had a detached relationship with her. Her comments to him were frequently emasculating and his attraction to her no longer existed. She didn't seem to mind or notice his lack of interest. He felt like one of the kids rather than her partner. There was a great deal of guardedness between them. On more than one occasion, Stephanie had revealed embarrassing and inappropriate details about her husband in public, and her comments were always cringe worthy by those who happened to hear them. Even though her husband tried to ignore her passive aggressive comments, they affected him deeply and he didn't trust her. He often fanaticized about disappearing but his love for his children kept him from leaving.

Stephanie's coworkers kept their distance too. She was often critical and liked to point out mistakes other people made, though only behind their back. Word always got back to them and she had been confronted on a number of occasions but Stephanie never felt the need to apologize. After all, she was right, they were the one who had made the mistake. Her relationship with her boss was complicated. On the one hand, he knew she would always report any misbehavior or problem that occurred in the office. On the other hand, she was always stirring the pot and seemed to be involved in every office conflict. She did do her job well but it came at a high price in terms of office morale.

While Stephanie was quick to point out the mistakes and shortcomings of others, she avoided introspection. For her, she focused on being right and attributing blame. Her approach to life and relationships didn't really work but she was unable to see any problem on her part. She always focused on the problem "out there". The only problem she was willing to partially own was her weight problem. Yes, she had a problem with her weight. She wanted to lose weight but how could she when she was surrounded by all this stress!

Stephanie didn't go to therapy to deal with her negativity or ineffective relationships. She went to therapy because her teenage daughter was pregnant. Stephanie was furious, embarrassed, and hurt. She thought she had better control of her daughter. She had forbidden her daughter from seeing "that boy", but to find out she had been discover her daughter's immoral deal with the consequences of her unfortunate decision, it was more than she could handle on her own. So Stephanie went to therapy to have another adult help figure out how to handle this "impossible mess" her daughter had created.

While Stephanie wanted to focus her therapy sessions on affirming her parental decisions (i.e. I was right to forbid this relationship...), her therapist needed to get Stephanie out of the blame game and into a place of compassion. Her daughter was in a crisis and needed to make a life changing, adult decision. The nature of Stephanie's relationship with her daughter needed to change. While Stephanie played the "blame game", her daughter was playing a game of her own called "I'll show you, I'll hurt me". Stephanie had always focused on controlling her daughter and treating her as a child. By getting pregnant, her daughter proved that Stephanie couldn't control her and that she wasn't a child. If Stephanie didn't change her relationship with her daughter quickly, it was only going to get much worse. Her daughter now had another card to play called "I'll show you, I'll hurt me and your grandchild." The fallout from this game would be even more disastrous.

In cases of severe crisis, therapy needs to be directive and confrontational. There isn't the luxury of time. For the therapist, it's a tough balance between telling your client what they need to hear and not alienating them to the point they won't return. In this case, the therapist asked to see the entire family and then each family member separately. When the family dynamics became clear to the therapist, she had the family confront Stephanie about her negativity and controlling her behavior. This was not a "slam mom" session, but a wake-up call to how she had alienated each of them in her own way. They acknowledged the love they had for her and their appreciation of her love for them. They all agreed, Stephanie did love them, but her negativity and controlling approach kept them from feeling that love and connection. The family request was simple, they wanted to be treated with respect and given the freedom to be themselves rather than who she wanted them to be.

While the daughter began therapy with her own therapist, the mother continued in her own therapy to focus on herself and her relationship skills. It wasn't easy for Stephanie to focus on herself, she had a habit of focusing on others. Stephanie was also surprised to realize that she was seen as a negative person. She saw her comments as simply being honest. "Sometimes the truth hurts" she replied. Her therapist pointed out that insulting someone, true or not was not an effective relationship skill. Her therapist also pointed out that "being right" was what often cost her relationships. "So what is more important, being right or being in a relationship? You can't have both." explained her therapist.

Over time, Stephanie was able to build better relationship skills. She became more compassionate and enjoyed the feeling of being close. She stopped trying to control everyone else and started taking better care of herself. Her health improved and she looked and felt physically better. She was prone to "blow it" from time to time, but her family didn't let her slide. They called her out on her negativity whenever she slipped back into her old ways. The kids were honest with her about how her criticism pushed them away. Her husband began standing up for himself in a way that Stephanie found arousing and Stephanie's weight loss had a positive effect on how she interacted with him, if you know what I mean.

Finally, Stephanie's daughter had a beautiful baby girl. Although the new mom had many issues to resolve surrounding her education, her boyfriend, and the care of her new baby, she did appreciate the help of her mother. What was once an "impossible mess" is now the best thing that has ever happened to her.

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