Posted by fxckfeelings on December 8, 2011Share This Post
When people you love act like jerks, you can’t help feeling responsible for doing the impossible and setting things straight (if it was possible, you wouldn’t be writing me). So whether you’re driven by worry or guilt-trips, stop making yourself responsible for easing their pain. Use your own ideas about right, wrong, and actual impossibilities to protect yourself and others as much as you can, and go about your business with a clear conscience while they go about being impossible and clearing the room.
My brother is really an upbeat, cheerful, friendly guy, but he turns into a viper whenever someone tells him what to do, even when it’s sure to get him into lots of trouble, and afterwards he’s convinced he’s been calm and diplomatic. When he and his wife got divorced, he was so argumentative with the judge that he lost custody of his kid. When his boss asked him to do something stupid, my brother fired off emails to Human Resources declaring he was being unfairly attacked. The funny thing is, he doesn’t mind when I tell him he’s being stupid, and the next time something happens he’s sure he’s done better; but he hasn’t. He’s not nearly as difficult as he seems to be, so my goal is to keep him out of trouble.
God bless the antagonists, for they know not what bile they speak.
Whenever someone is particularly quick to resist being pushed, we assume there’s an emotional reason for his actions, and that understanding why will help him to control himself, or help us shut him up and make him more tolerable.
Truth is, we often can’t explain or control oppositional behavior, which suggests there’s a basic force of nature driving some people to be reflexively, unthinkingly oppositional.
It’s actually on the spectrum of Asshole ™ behavior, but, since it lacks the malice required to actually fulfill the Asshole criteria, it remains a general pain in the ass, especially for those people, like you, who are close to him.
Maybe the Oppositional Instinct springs from a genetic trait that spurs creativity or guarantees that not everyone will follow the leader of the human herd, thus guaranteeing that some will survive if the herd leader is fatally wrong. The Bible’s Abraham certainly wasn’t a get-along kind of guy, Steve Jobs wasn’t a people person, and no shrink with a blog fxckfeelings.com is eager to go with the professional flow. Most of the time, however, instant opposition doesn’t win friends among authority, co-workers, family, and/or most mammals.
Since their actions are often infuriating, we think oppositional people must be furious, but in reality, they’re often just doing their thing, taking courage from the fact that everyone else is getting mad and is therefore the irrational party. You can’t try to change your brother then, or teach him how to protect himself.
Short of averting your eyes, you can help other people who care about him—the victims of his accidental provocation—most of whom will hate and love him in equal measure. Friends will feel he wasted their help and ignored their advice, family will blame him for endangering their security, and they’ll all speculate about the impact of the things they could have or should have said or actually did say.
If you brought them together in a support group (or did individual sessions), they’d discover that everything had been said, more than once, and it did no good. It’s sad, but, on the other hand, no one failed.
While you and those who related can help each other deal with the pain (in your ass), sadly, you can’t stop him from being an ass in the future.
“I can’t help feeling that I could save my brother from his worst problems if only I could get him to shut up, but I know better. The best I can do is appreciate his better qualities and accept the fact that it’s probably more painful to watch him than be him, since he’s always doing what he knows is the right thing to do.”
My father is the kind of guy who would always complain about my mother (his ex-wife) to my face, even when I was little, but, if I objected, he would get mad at me for being ungrateful and unsympathetic. He still does it now that I’m an adult, and there’s got to be a better way to deal with him then just avoiding him so I don’t have to hear it. My goal is to set limits on him that will stick.
While you may be in a unique position to know that your father has good reason to be hurting, you also know, from experience, that airing grievances repeatedly is a good definition of whining. It may provide your father with temporary relief, but it also binds him to his role of victim/husband in a relationship that’s long over.
The fact that he attacks you for not being sympathetic is the icing on the cake, as far as proving the unhealthy nature of his kind of venting; he widens his victimhood by sucking his near and dear into the role of villain. OK, I know he can’t help it but still, it’s not good for you to have this kind of conversation.
You’re right to want to stop it, and telling him how unhealthy his father-son venting is is a start, but you need stronger weapons than reasoning with him about his violating a parental boundary. In order to prepare, ask yourself what you’d do if he ignored your wishes and crossed that line, and be ready for when it happens.
List the reasons that you believe it isn’t good to listen, even though he believes, in his heart, that this makes you a hard-hearted kid. You know your listening does no good, brings out nothing good in him, and has you walking on eggshells. You also know that you won’t get him to understand this point of view.
Ironically, once you believe in your own values, over and above whatever your father tells you, you’re an adult, not a kid. It’s as an adult that you tell him it’s not a good subject to get into and you don’t’ want to talk about it. Knowing that he’ll object, and refusing to explain, is what an adult does.
So what’s important is not what you tell him, but what you tell yourself. If you believe that what you’re doing is best for everyone, then your silence speaks louder than words, and distance won’t be necessary.
“I’ve always felt trapped by my father’s complaints and confessions, particularly because he jumps on me if I don’t listen, and I can’t help but feel guilty. I’ve thought through the consequences of his actions, however, and my sense of what’s right is stronger than the guilt reflex he can always make me feel. As long as I stick with what I know is right, I’ll never be trapped.”
More advice from Dr. Lastname