NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Changing Maladaptive Coping Strategies that No Longer Work for You: Passive Behavior

In my last blog post, I addressed the maladaptive coping strategy of avoidance, and how it develops due to a combination of early childhood experiences and a person's particular temperament. Another maladaptive coping strategy is passivity, also referred to as lack of assertiveness or surrendering to the will of others.

As mentioned in my prior blog post, coping strategies that develop in early childhood often help a child to survive in a situation where he or she doesn't know what else to do and/or doesn't have the ability to do anything else. 

These coping strategies, which are usually unconscious, develop outside of the our awareness so we don't realize that we're continuing to use the same strategies that we used as children. And, whereas when we were children, these coping strategies might have helped to deal with an overwhelming situation, as adults, these strategies are no longer adaptive.

What is a Passive Coping Strategy?
A passive coping strategy is usually associated with a person being overly compliant and subjugating his or her needs to others. 

Coping Strategies That No Longer Work: Passivity

Often, this occurs because the overly compliant person fears being abandoned or punished or that they will incur the anger of others if they don't comply. 

There might also be a wish, often unconscious, that by complying, this person will gain the love or admiration of the other person. For an overly compliant child, this person is usually a parent or some authority figure. 

 So, the passive coping strategy is an effort to ward off negative repercussions that the person fears as well as, at times, a wish to feel loved.

The following fictionalized scenario, which is not related to any particular person, is an example of a passive coping strategy and how this strategy can be overcome:

By the time Ronald started psychotherapy, his wife was threatening to leave him because she was fed up with Ronald's passivity. Ronald, who was in his 40s, was unable to assert himself with his domineering father, which was affecting Ronald's relationship with his wife. Ronald was also underpaid and overworked at his job as an engineer because he couldn't assert himself to ask his boss for a raise and a change in his workload. The demands of his job were also affecting his relationship with his wife.

Ronald grew up in a household where he was taught that his emotional needs weren't important. Neither his mother nor his father ever told Ronald this explicitly, but he was given this message implicitly nearly all of the time.

Ronald's father ruled the household with an iron fist. The father controlled almost every aspect of that household from how money was spent to what they ate to the clothes that they wore. The father had an explosive temper, and if he didn't get his way, he would yell, break furniture, and threaten to hit the mother, Ronald, and Ronald's siblings. The father never actually hit anyone, but he was a big man and his threats were enough to keep everyone in line. Ronald grew up not only acceding to his father's every wish, but he also learned to anticipate what his father wanted before his father even expressed it so that he could comply with his father's wishes and ward off any negative repercussions.

After Ronald got married, he and his wife bought a two-family house so that his parents could live downstairs and he and his wife could live upstairs. Even though Ronald was now an adult, he continued to comply with his father's dictatorial style. His father continued to control everything from the heating system in the house to what plants were planted in the garden. Without consulting with Ronald or Ronald's wife, he took it upon himself to hire a crew to paint the house one day a color that Ronald's wife hated.

That was the last straw for Ronald's wife. She had been telling Ronald for years that she was fed up with his passivity and she wanted Ronald to stand up to his father. Now, she told him that, unless he took a stand with his father, she was leaving. At that point, Ronald felt caught between wanting to comply with his father's wishes and also wanting to comply with his wife's demands, and he didn't know what to do. At his wife's urging, he sought therapy.

During his psychotherapy treatment, Ronald's therapist helped him to understand the particular coping strategy that he developed as a young boy. Ronald was able to see that, when he was a child, he did the best that he could do by complying with a domineering father. 

He was also able to see that he was still reacting to his father (as well as to his boss) as if he was still a young boy without choices and that his passivity was now detrimental to his marriage and his life in general.

Ronald's therapist worked with him by helping him to recognize where he was capitulating to his father's demands. Then, Ronald chose certain situations where he could begin asserting himself with his father. His therapist helped him by doing role plays where the therapist was the father and Ronald was his adult self.

Over time, Ronald recognized that he was continuing to operate from his old fears that his father would either hit, abandon or ridicule him. He also recognized that these old fears didn't apply any more. Not only wasn't he a small boy looking up to his big father but, at this point in his life, he was a strong man who was bigger than his father, and his father was no longer a physical threat to him. 

He also became aware that his deepest wish was that by complying with his father's demands, he would gain his father's love and praise. Since his father tended to be more critical than praising or demonstrative of affection, Ronald's deepest wish remained unfulfilled.

After practicing in a role play with his therapist, Ronald went home to talk to his father about his hiring a crew to paint the house. Before Ronald could get a word out of his mouth, his father began telling Ronald about the renovations he envisioned for the house. Ronald had planned what he wanted to say but, hearing his father's words, his stomach turned queasy and he began to perspire. Feeling defeated, he lapsed back into a state of passivity and abandoned his efforts to confront his father.

Ronald almost cancelled his next psychotherapy session because he feared that his therapist would be angry with him for not being assertive with his father. But instead of cancelling, he went and told his therapist that not only did he feel that he was not complying with his wife's wishes, but now that he was in therapy, he also felt that he was not complying with his therapist.

As he and his therapist talked about what was happening between them and how Ronald was applying the same passive strategies in their therapeutic relationship as he did in the rest of his life, that session was one of the best sessions that he had. 

He had a here-and-now experience of how he felt victimized even in his own therapy, and how this was the type of interpersonal template that he applied to most of his relationships. He also realized that, rather than owning the part of himself that wanted to assert himself with his father, he was projecting it onto his therapist--as if she was the one that was coercing him to be assertive rather than it coming from inside of him.

In addition, Ronald also began to become aware of a very important aspect of psychotherapy--that psychotherapy is a process, and progress in psychotherapy is usually not linear, but more like a spiral where clients make some progress and then they revert back to their old ways before they move forward again. 

This often happens many times in psychotherapy and it's all part of the process. In Ronald's case, his progress was his continuing to come to therapy, talking to his therapist about his hopes and fears, and being willing to put into practice what he learned in therapy. Even though he had a false start with his father, this is a common experience for most people and it's all part of the process.

Ronald and his therapist did other role plays where his therapist played the part of his father in a way that was similar to how his father had come across when Ronald tried talk to him about having the house painted. Ronald practiced how he could assert himself under these circumstances. With a few false starts, Ronald found his voice and he felt even more determined to assert himself with his father.

On the day that Ronald decided to talk to his father again about the house, Ronald's father interrupted him, and he began telling Ronald that his arthritis was bothering him. As if for the first time in a long time, Ronald looked at his father and saw a certain fragility in this strong man that he had not seen before. 

His father was no longer the towering, fierce figure that he had been when Ronald was a child. He was now a man in his late 60s who was starting to have the kind of health problems that many senior citizens have. This made Ronald feel sad and guilty about what he was about to do.

Ronald's first inclination was to back down. He felt that internal child part in him that wanted to please his father, hoping that his father would express some affection or praise. He began to think about how one day his father wouldn't be around any more, and this made him feel sad as well as guilty. But Ronald and his therapist had prepared for this, and he gathered his inner resolve and began to talk to his father.

Much to Ronald's surprise, his father listened to him that particular day. Ronald talked for a long time. He hadn't anticipated that he would say as much as he did, but after he told his father about how he felt about having the house painted, he poured his heart out about how he felt unloved by his father. His father began turning away at that point because he was a man who was uncomfortable with any talk about love or affection. But Ronald asked his father to hear him out, so his father stayed, looking uncomfortable.

When Ronald finished, there was silence for a couple of minutes, which seemed like an eternity to Ronald. Then, his father apologized to him about the house, and he told Ronald that he had always told other people how proud he felt of Ronald, but he never told Ronald directly because he was afraid that Ronald would develop a "swelled head." He apologized for that too.

This was the beginning of Ronald's learning to be more assertive in his relationship with his father. It continued to be a work in progress for a long time because his father would often revert back to his domineering ways and Ronald would feel the old pull to revert back to his old passive behavior. But Ronald was definitely making progress. He also began working in therapy on asserting himself with his boss so he could ask for a raise and some changes in his workload.

When Ronald's wife saw that Ronald was starting to make progress, she decided not to leave the marriage. Over time, their relationship improved.

This scenario demonstrates how maladaptive coping strategies develop and continue into adulthood, and the underlying issues that continue to influence an adult's behavior. It also demonstrates that people with maladaptive coping skills can learn to change and grow in psychotherapy if they're willing to work on these issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you feel that you need to change coping strategies that are no longer working for you, you're not alone. 

This is a common problem for many people. 

Rather than struggling with this on your own, you can work with a psychotherapist who has expertise in this area and learn to develop healthy coping strategies.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I have helped many clients to improve their coping strategies so they can live more fulfilling lives.

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

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also, see my articles
Changing Coping Strategies that No Longer Work: Controlling Behavior

Coping Strategies that No Longer Work For You: Avoidance