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Friday, April 9, 2010

Psychotherapy: You Feel Mistreated, But Are You Giving Mixed Messages?

Over the years, as a psychotherapist in NYC, I've seen many clients in my psychotherapy private practice who come to me to talk about how they feel mistreated by others, including spouses, children, other family members, bosses or coworkers:

"My husband takes for granted that I'll do everything in the house."

"My children don't listen to me and do whatever they want."

"My wife ran up my credit card again and now I'll have to pay it because she doesn't work."

"My boss expects me to work overtime everyday, even though he knows I have a family."

You Feel Mistreated, But Are You Giving Mixed Messages?


As I listen to clients talk about how they feel mistreated, I also listen to how they handle these situations and what unintentional mixed messages they might be giving to the people they feel are mistreating them.

Ideally, in a perfect world, everyone would follow the Golden Rule and we would all treat each other the way that we want to be treated. But we live in an imperfect world and, at some point, someone is going to hurt your feelings, cross a personal boundary or do something that you don't like. Does that make it right? No. But when we're talking about a dynamic between two or more people, we need to look at our own behavior in these situations and how our behavior is affecting the situation:

  • Are we setting appropriate boundaries with others?
  • If someone has done something that we don't like, do we let him or her know in a tactful way?
  • Are we able to assert ourselves appropriately in these situations?
  • Are we telling them one thing, but secretly hoping that they will know how we really feel without our telling them?
If we're not communicating how we feel, we might be giving the other person the unintentional mixed message that it's okay to mistreat us.

The following vignette is a composite scenario of various cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality:

Jessica:
When Jessica began coming to psychotherapy sessions, she said she felt mistreated by her husband, her children and her boss. When she was growing up, she also felt taken advantage of by her parents.

She often felt sad and exhausted by the demands she felt others were placing on her. She talked about how her husband expected her to watch the children every Sunday while he went off to play golf with his friends. She also said that her teenage children didn't listen to her when she told them to clean their rooms. In addition, she felt that her boss loaded her down with his work, on top of her own work, and she often had to work long, tiring hours. She felt that no matter how hard and long she worked, the work was never done.

When we explored Jessica's family history, she told me that her parents expected her, as a child of nine or 10, to take care of the younger children while they went out to have fun. This happened a lot. She said she never felt that she was allowed to be a child herself because she had to help her parents take care of her six younger siblings and the work seemed never ending.

When we looked at the various situations where, as an adult, Jessica felt taken advantage of, it was interesting to explore how Jessica handled them. It turned out, much to Jessica's surprise, without realizing it, she was actually encouraging the very situations that she said she didn't want.

For instance, when we explored the dynamic between Jessica and her husband, she actually encouraged him to go play golf every Sunday and offered to take care of the children. But she secretly hoped that he would figure out on his own, without her telling him, that she really wanted a break most Sundays and would have preferred that he stayed home to help her. Not only was she not telling him how she really felt--she was telling him to go and not to worry about her.

As we looked at this situation, it was very surprising to Jessica. She realized that she was repeating an old pattern that began with her parents. That small child in her internal emotional world that felt taken advantage of by her parents was recreating the old scenario with her husband, but hoping for a different outcome this time. That part of her that was the small child secretly hoped that, without being told, her husband would see how she really felt. All of this was totally unconscious on Jessica's part.

Once Jessica realized what she was doing with her husband, she also realized that she was doing the same thing with her children and her boss. She realized that she asked her teens to clean their rooms, but she also gave them mixed messages by going ahead and doing it herself--and then feeling resentful about it. She wanted them to see how tired she was, without her telling them, so that they'd clean their rooms themselves. What she said and what she did were two very different things, and this created mixed messages.

At work, Jessica continually asked to help her boss. She never told him that she felt exhausted by her own workload--let alone taking on his work. But when she asked him for his work and he gave it to her, she felt resentful that he didn't see how tired she was. Once again, the small child in her internal world who felt mistreated as a child was hoping to be discovered and seen in a way that Jessica was not seen when she was younger.

It took a lot of hard work and practice but, over time, Jessica learned to assert herself in these situations. It was difficult for her at first, and sometimes she continued to give mixed messages. But as she worked in her psychotherapy sessions on her family of origin issues and we dealt with her inner child, who really was not seen when Jessica was younger, Jessica learned to say what she felt as an adult. And she learned to do it in a tactful way. She no longer kept her real feelings to herself hoping that others would see, without being told, what she really felt.

This was all new for Jessica. It was also new for her family and her boss, so they had to adjust to this new way of interacting with Jessica. But, overall, it worked out well.

It's important to remember that interpersonal dynamics involve two or more people. While the other people in the situation might not be emotionally attuned to how you feel, you might also be giving mixed messages without realizing it. Often, these mixed messages have to do with earlier unresolved issues from childhood that are operating in the situation without your awareness.

So, if you're feeling mistreated in a situation, before you blame the other person for it completely, it's worthwhile to look at what mixed messages you might be giving to the other person. And ask yourself if there might be a part of you, perhaps a younger inner child, who is secretly hoping to be discovered, seen and heard without your letting the other person know how you really feel. This doesn't take the other person off the hook for his or her behavior, but we can't control other people's behavior. We can only control our own.

Getting Help
If you continually find yourself in situations where you feel mistreated or taken advantage of, it might be worthwhile for you to explore these issues in psychotherapy with a licensed psychotherapist.

I am a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com


photo credit: Stephen Poff via photopin cc credit: bark via photopin cc

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