Unlovable: Seeking Approval

Let me tell you about a client I was seeing. Now he and his wife had been married for 12 years and my client, George would go into uncontrollable rages over nothing at all.

When his wife asked why, he would always say, “I don’t know what got into me.” His wife, Nancy, was afraid of his anger. She was afraid to talk to him for fear of setting off an eruption. She experienced anxiety most of the time when he was home, and sometimes even when we was not.

In counseling, I asked George “What made you so angry last week when Nancy asked you to help with the housework?” George, replied “It was the way she said it.”
(Therapist) “What way was that?”
(George) “Telling me what to do, not giving me a choice. It sounded like an order, do it now or else. I hate that.”

(Therapist) “Who does that remind you of?”
(George) “My father. She sounds just like him when she gets like that.”

(Therapist) “What did you father do when you didn’t do what he wanted?”
(George) “He’d yell and threaten to punish me if I didn’t do it fast enough or if I didn’t do it right.”

(Therapist) “What did right mean to you?”
(George) “It meant his way or else.”

(Therapist) “Did you know what his way was?”
(George) “I thought I did, but he’d always find something wrong.”

(Therapist) “What is it called when there isn’t anything wrong at all?”
(George) “That never happened.”

(Therapist) “It’s called perfection and no human is perfect. It wasn’t fair that you were required to be perfect. And as a child, you couldn’t figure out what was a mistake and what wasn’t. If you can’t tell what is a mistake how can you correct it? You couldn’t read his mind. He set you up to be criticized and punished. Did you ever feel like, no matter what I do it isn’t good enough to get his approval?”
(George) “I still feel that way with Nancy.”

(Therapist) “Your emotional memory doesn’t know the difference. It feels the same way. Your heart doesn’t have eyes and cannot tell someone from the past from someone in the present. It wasn’t helpful that you father blamed you for not meeting his unrealistic expectation, but it isn’t helpful to lash out at Nancy either. That is what you father did you, it never made you feel better and it’s making her feel the pain now that you felt then.”
(George) “I never thought of it that way before.”

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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