What is this emotional-relational process called?
August 16, 2017 10:05 AM   Subscribe

I am embarrassed that I don't know the answer but the Hive Mind is very smart. I trust you to help me figure out what this problem or process around emotion and communication is called so I can deal with it better.

Someone has trouble with certain life activities. Let's say they have trouble managing meal planning, preparing a meal to be completed by a certain time, and all that comes with it. So I initiate a conversation about meal planning in an administrative sense - because meal planning needs to happen, and I am unable to do it myself for Reasons. I need an update from the other person in their meal planning efforts because I will need to eat.

Let's say I try to approach it in a delicate or neutral manner because I know it is a touchy subject. They feel negative emotions internally, and assume that I am the cause of those negative emotions and I am accused of attacking them or abusing them. (Or they pick a fight so the conversation cannot continue.) They already feel bad about their performance on meal planning, so they are tapping into that feeling inside themselves but attributing it to me as the cause. So then I am blamed rather than self-reflection happening to increase insight and awareness into their internal emotional landscape so that over time they can identify this triggering process and recognize that it is coming from within not outside.

I know this is some form of defensiveness but I am trying to figure out how to increase insight in a person who is experiencing this sort of emotional reaction, and if there is a name for this dynamic that would help me in my research. If it helps, this is part of a larger executive functioning issue. But it shows up frequently for any subject where this person already feels bad (shame I would guess), and somehow the fact that they feel bad already becomes my fault.

It is difficult to make progress on resolving matters if any touchy subject is seen as an attack regardless of how hard I work to not sound attacking.
posted by crunchy potato to Human Relations (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Let me add that a conversation about meal planning didn't actually happen, because this person cannot execute a process like that so I would not expect them to, but this dynamic has occurred for similar subjects as well as others that are more commonly touchy for people.
posted by crunchy potato at 10:06 AM on August 16, 2017

"tapping into that feeling inside themselves but attributing it to me as the cause"

I would call this projecting.
posted by juliplease at 10:10 AM on August 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

they are tapping into that feeling inside themselves but attributing it to me as the cause.

I am not an expert or a professional but I think this is related to projective identification, though not identical to it -- a person "projects" some hated inner aspect into someone else and hates it there, from a distance, so as not to have to hate their own self. I'm not sure if there's a formal term for the opposite, where the thing they hate was never within them but is carefully excluded from their ego -- the parental function, the conscience, the director of the self -- and resented, also from a distance, because they don't want to incorporate it into their own self. but not, in this case, because it's a hateful object, but because it's a necessary and difficult one they just don't want to have. so, rather than "this is part of me and I can't tolerate it," it's "this should be part of me but I don't want it to be, someone else has to do it for me, this is owed to me."

but this:

I am trying to figure out how to increase insight in a person who is experiencing this sort of emotional reaction,

this is the dynamic. You trying to increase insight in another person who is not yourself or your patient, that is another recreation of the same thing -- increasing insight in this non-mutual, unidirectional way is job for the introspective self, or for a parent or teacher, or for a highly skilled mental health professional. making them aware that they are requiring you to do it and then blaming you for it is an endlessly recursive task because it is, itself, a job that is not appropriate for them to have done for them by you.

I don't mean it is wrong for you to try or to want to. just that I think the essential nature of the problem, that you're trying to pinpoint here, is the reason it is not likely to work without outside assistance. maybe you could get that assistance in the form of a book, if they'll take a book as an authority without resenting it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:20 AM on August 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

Sorry, one more additional thought then I will go away. I didn't specifically ask for suggestions on handling this dynamic to make things more productive or promote some self-awareness, but I welcome your ideas if you have any. I'm at a loss. Describing the dynamic occurring isn't changing it. Naming my best guess at the deeper dynamic (toxic shame, etc.) does not create a better outcome either. I would love your proposed solutions or approaches to this. Thanks.
posted by crunchy potato at 10:21 AM on August 16, 2017

It takes a lot of emotional labor on your part to deal with this - basically you need to convince their defensive, reactive brain that you are a safe person who is not going to trigger pain that needs defending against.

- lots of reflective listening,
- lots of support for how hard is to do the thing,
- lots of positive messages that show that you like them, respect them, care about them and don't want to hurt them.
- Backing off from problem solving for while so you can work on all of the above.

If you do need to insist on behaviors make it as emotionally neutral and not about the relationship as possible. If you can, focus on the external demands, not your personal needs (My boss/doctor/the rules say....) When possible, set boundaries (this is what I will do) rather than demand behavior (You must).

This kind of unidirectional, unbalanced relationship can be appropriate between parent and child or teacher and student or therapist and client. It gets unhealthy if it is the dominate pattern between peers - lovers, friends, roommates.
posted by metahawk at 10:31 AM on August 16, 2017 [8 favorites]

This feels way too impractical and hand-wavy to me. It feels like you're avoiding discussing what's really happening, and instead you're trying to discuss it at such a high level that you'll only end up discussing discussing, and not discussing the thing that's actually the problem, i.e. meal planning. Personally, I find this soul crushing, frustrating, and ultimately a complete obstacle to resolving anything.

If my partner attempted to do all this mental work — labeling, discussing things in such abstract terms, referring to me as "this person" lacking "self-awareness" in such a condescending way, using the passive voice, and apparently taking no responsibility for the thing that needs to be done (saying "meal planning needs to happen, and I am unable to do it myself for Reasons. I need an update from the other person in their meal planning efforts because I will need to eat.") — I'd be pretty unwilling to actually solve the problem.

I'd feel blamed, unfairly. I'd feel burdened, unfairly. I'd feel unheard and frankly I'd feel like it wasn't my problem to solve. I'd likely say, "Get your own damn food." It may be that the dynamic you're experiencing (and trying to label) is actually just a very negative reaction to your passive-aggressiveness.

This isn't what you're looking for, no doubt. But it's the reaction I'd have, and maybe that gives you insight into what you're bringing up in "this person."
posted by Capri at 10:37 AM on August 16, 2017 [20 favorites]

I would love your proposed solutions or approaches to this.

Boundaries. Seriously.

If you are not this person's therapist or chosen working-emotional-stuff-out friend, then solving their emotional reaction is not your job, nor is it a job you *can* do. What you can do is figure out what you need, state your needs and what the other person could do to meet them, and then figure out what your alternative means of getting them met is.

To continue your example, you need meal planning to happen. You cannot take on this task. This person could do it, and that would solve your problem, or perhaps you could both contribute to one of those meal-plan-delivery services, or decide that a big pot of chili made every Sunday and frozen in portions is the meal plan you can manage, etc. The other person can decline to do meal planning, decline to contribute to a service, and refuse to eat chili. What then? That's where your boundary is. And it might be "That's fine, you handle your own dinners then, it's me and the pot o' chili against the world."

It may be "I can't do as much as seems to be needed to care for both of us and I need to stop trying." It might be "I can take over dinners but I need to drop this other thing I've been handling." Etc, etc, but the whole point is these are I-statements. You control you. You can't control the other person's reactions. So come up with a proposal and a couple of fallback plans and treat this like a logistical problem, and let the other person's emotional reactions to it be a separate issue.

This sounds awfully cold, and it... kind of is. But what I've often found is that knowing what I need and where my limits are enables me to have these conversations in a way that is less stressful for the other person. They don't have to do emotional labor for *me* - I've already done that for myself, and I'm centered.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:37 AM on August 16, 2017 [32 favorites]

This sounds so much more exhausting than just making your own dinner would be. A pot of chili really could be your friend...

I'm so sorry, because I'm assuming that there are indeed reasons that it's reasonable for "this person" to be the one to make dinner. But, if "this person" is not willing to do it, and would rather accuse you of abuse than assure you that dinner is waiting for you when you get home from work, then I don't think a clinical term is going to be what helps you here. (The term, I think, is "deflecting," by the way.)

I think the answer to the lack of dinner situation, as suggested above, is for you to get your own dinner. (Not make it for them, though!)
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:47 AM on August 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think the dynamic that's going on here is actually happening before the conversation even starts. It's happening at the point where you are tacking on an assumption to this person's "trouble doing X" -- the assumption that they actually can and should do X, despite their trouble with it.

Imagine a person who has trouble walking. Would you ask them to walk to the post office for you? Only if you had the opinion that they should be overcoming their handicap by walking more. Does this person agree that it's possible to walk with less difficulty, and that the way to accomplish that is to walk more often?
posted by xo at 10:56 AM on August 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

It's very difficult to address this without a lot more information. Are you in a relationship with a peer? Co-worker, spouse, friend? Then you are taking on way too much of the responsibility for their behavior. In the stated example, a grown person without serious disabilities should be able to make a meal happen for their family. It's a fair thing to request, for the most part. Just be sure that you are not requiring someone to do things your way. You want someone to make sure food is provided. If they have the funds, it's fair for them to get takeout, even if you think homemade is a better choice.

I think there's a whole lot more going on, and therapy is probably the answer.
posted by theora55 at 11:03 AM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

"Someone has trouble with certain life activities. So I initiate a conversation.. in an administrative sense -(it) needs to happen and I am unable to do it myself for Reasons."
I would ask why is there a need to place demands  (even politely or professionally worded)  upon a person, who you admit, has difficulties in that specific area to begin with. Is there another person you can ask for help in this area that is capable of managing the task you require help with or cannot do for yourself.
"I need an update from the other person in their meal planning efforts because I will need to eat. "

Is this truly a need or a want?
Now you're placing additional demands upon a task which is already difficult. To not only execute the steps,  but to keep you updated of each step. Do you hold expectations of the request to be done in a specific way, on a specific timeline? Do you require supervision of the steps in which the task needs to be completed? Are you in a position of authority to hold them accountable for said task? Why is this person, who you know already has difficulty in this area for themselves, being held responsible for essentially, your survival? Perhaps that is a lot of pressure to hold them to? These are additional demands placed upon an already difficult task for said person. Perhaps they feel criticised? Infantilized?
"Let's say I try to approach it in a delicate or neutral manner..They feel negative emotions internally, assume that I am the cause... and I am accused of attacking them or abusing them. "

How it is approached is irrelevant. Simply approaching them may indicate that: You do not trust that the task will be completed, or completed to your standards.
Are you assuming that they assume that? Perhaps they feel negative emotions about the specific task, yes. But perhaps, Also, the indeed do feel negative emotions from you doing what essentially might feel like nagging from their perspective. Are you experiencing anxiety or worry that the task won't be completed, or completed to your standard/timeline and do they additionally feel responsible for managing your worries about This? Why does the task need to be discussed during it's process?
"They already feel bad about their performance on meal planning, "

Then why are they responsible for an essentially task that you both acknowledge they are poor at. Is there someone else who can do it?
"so they are tapping into that feeling inside themselves but attributing it to me as the cause."

I think that's assuming a lot? Ask: Is mean planning an essential task, or something they/you  have survived without. Is this about you or them, really?
"So then I am blamed rather than self-reflection happening to increase insight and awareness into their internal emotional landscape so that over time they can identify this triggering process and recognize..."

They may simply be reacting poorly to the external reminders of areas in which they fail to perform adequately. Are they receiving enough positive reinforcement in areas in which they do perform adequately?  Or are they always feeling like they cannot perform to any given demand successfully.
"I know this is some form of defensiveness but I am trying to figure out... it shows up frequently for any subject... the fact that they feel bad already becomes my fault."

Honestly, I would feel just bad peroid, if someone in my life expected me to perform essential and regular tasks for them in areas I found difficult and non-essential for myself, And having said person "check in" on a regular basis to make sure it was going to be completed on their timeline, in their way.
I would also feel very put off that this person felt they were in a position to be both my psychologist and life-coach, if I had not requested that kind of help from them.
Reminding someone regularly of something they are already poor at, absolutely would *contribute* to feelings of inner shame, not cause them, And chances are they are already beating themselves up inside over the inadequacy,  without needing an external reminder. Therefore you are essentially offering yourself as a secondary outlet for their internal frustrations by placing the demand upon them, and giving regular reminders of the demand.
"It is difficult to make progress on resolving matters if any touchy subject is seen as an attack..."

I'm unsure of what you really want to resolve Here to be honest.
Is it your own worry/ anxiety that the task won't be completed?
Is it that you have to rely on others to complete tasks for yourself that you are not capable of?
Is it their reaction to their perceived mistrust,  criticism,  nagging, reminders of inadequacy?
Is it that you feel responsible for their emotions/actions?
posted by OnefortheLast at 11:20 AM on August 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

You're making a lot of expertise-free assumptions about what's going on in someone else's mind. You want MeFi to provide you with a term that corresponds to your assumptions. Do you believe that having this term will validate your approach to this problem? I'd suggest instead that you guys get some couples counseling.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:27 AM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Look either it's reasonable for you to expect them to make dinner or it's not, but the end result may not be all that different.

If they can't make dinner, then you shouldn't ask them to make you dinner. They can't do it. Begging them to do it is pointless and cruel if they really can't. You need to make your own dinner.

If they can make dinner but don't anyway, then you still need to make your own dinner, since you need to eat.

And if this person is the spouse you've told us about before who doesn't work or take care of your kid, while you work three jobs, then this situation is part of a bigger pattern.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:28 AM on August 16, 2017 [16 favorites]

I mean, it's just defensiveness. People get defensive when they are ashamed, when they are wrong but unwilling to change, and also when they are doing their best and it is being judged insufficient.

But yeah, if this is your spouse, he's defensive because he is so deeply seriously in the wrong on so many levels and likely knows it. You will not increase his insight.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:50 AM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

I just wanted to express empathy since I struggle with a similar dynamic in one of my close relationships, and to say that in contrast to several previous posters, I read your tone/phrasing as your attempts to: (a) protect the privacy of someone close to you, (b) identify a recurring communication pattern rather than get bogged down in the particulars of one manifestation of this pattern, and (c) learn more about how you can help yourself and the other person by creating a different pattern. In my case, I can't just choose to just not rely on this person to do anything that's hard for them because of the nature of our relationship and shared responsibilities. I get the sense that is the case for you as well.

The level of hostility and judgment in this thread seems unwarranted to me; it sounds like you're struggling because you have real needs that you cannot even discuss with the person who could meet them due to his/her defensiveness, and you're doing your best to figure out how to address that defensiveness so you can improve your relationship and have your needs met.

"Defensiveness" and "deflection" are the terms my own counselor has used when I've talked about this dynamic. For me, it helps to focus on concrete things that can be implemented in the short term, then reinforced and repeated to institute long-term change, rather than really discussing long-term change. It also helps to (a) state my needs gently but clearly and be as flexible as possible about how the other person manages to meet them, even if it's takeout food for dinner 3x/week, (b) continually remind myself that those needs are reasonable and that the other person's response to the gentle, clear way I state my reasonable needs is their responsibility, and (c) be clear up front about the scope and tone of the conversation I am hoping to have and either redirect it or end it if it veers into a fight. For example, "Hey, I have a super-stressful work week coming up and want to make sure we have a dinner plan worked out. Can we take like ten minutes to figure out who is doing which days and what we need to buy & prep?"
posted by xylothek at 11:53 AM on August 16, 2017 [18 favorites]

posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:04 PM on August 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would also ask, what part of this process is you trying to have this person appear to be more functional, in a way that you percieve that to be, as opposed to them actually being more functional in their day to day life?
posted by OnefortheLast at 12:07 PM on August 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

how to increase insight in a person who is experiencing this sort of emotional reaction

This is like the old therapy joke: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Depends on whether the light bulb wants to change.

I strongly recommend reading Harriet Lerner's The Dance of Connection. She talks about how talking about things and processing things and endlessly examining each other's childhoods, etc., sometimes works for relationship issues but often...does not. (And she is a therapist/self-help guru.) In that book she talks about setting boundaries and bottom lines. And I think that's where the issue is here.

Hope this is helpful.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:08 PM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would call this defensiveness, but the circular thing here is that there is not going to be a way for you to "increase their insight" about defensiveness, because it will require you to do something that makes them defensive (point out a perceived flaw.)

Without context, I don't know whether to get behind the responses that point out you might be demanding the impossible and picking on them, or the ones that point out you seem to unfairly have to micromanage someone's entire life/brain in order to get them to halfway pull their weight. Either way this sounds exhausting.

Once you get to these sort of metameta argumentarguments, the writing's on the wall, ime.
posted by kapers at 12:22 PM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm going to project myself and ask if it's possible that the person has ADHD. ADHD impacts executive function and is also linked to Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, which can mean difficulty dealing with criticism from important people in one's life.

The link is about how to treat but obviously I am not suggesting you attempt to treat this person. Just tossing out the possibility that it could be a contributing factor

posted by bunderful at 12:24 PM on August 16, 2017 [8 favorites]

I don't feel there's an all-encompassing term, but my first thought was 'lashing out', because usually when someone lashes out, it's often due to a reaction to something else. When they feel attacked, or in fear, etc. Eg. 'She was criticized and lashed out,' implies a cause and reaction, rather than say, something like an angry outburst. But even that doesn't quite describe what you mean. Other than that, I suppose it is a defense mechanism.

As for how to cope with it, it's a toughie. We know that shaming seldom helps people stop bad habits. Ultimately, you want them to do a certain thing, and you can't make them want to do said thing-- no matter how you approach the subject, or how delicately, they need to want to make these changes themselves and do them. All you can do is control your own annoyance/reaction to said thing, and encourage them as best you can. If this is a need, then it may well be a dealbreaker to not have it met.

But if it's not a dealbreaker, then I can only advise gentle, less loaded language. Is it possible you come across as judgmental or guilt inducing? Even asking, 'how's your job search going?' or 'how's your diet going?' can make people get their hackles up sometimes. A lot of it is guilt and shame at play. Sometimes there's no good way to bring these things up.

If you're worried that in not bringing it up, no progress will be made on the task at all, then again, you need to revisit this relationship. You can't force someone to act a certain way, or be a certain way, even if you're responsible for them, such as your kids.

But I'm a firm believer in that praise is more helpful and productive at getting people to change their habits than even gentle constructive criticism. I think building people up, and making them feel strong is the way to go. YMMV.
posted by Dimes at 1:22 PM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

regardless of how hard I work to not sound attacking.

If this person knows you do actually need them to accomplish X task, or that you were or are angry or resentful about their failure to do it, it doesn't matter how gently you phrase things on any given occasion. They know they're failing at X, and that you're disappointed and frustrated. They're either deflecting (externalizing, projecting, whichever), and/or are saying, "I really can't do this [because of Y - deep shame, the executive function problem, perhaps secondary issues] and your expectations are misplaced". You can't be the safe person they might feel they need (and it's unreasonable for them to expect you to be... but people can be unreasonable. When they are, forget about reaching them with logic).

If they don't want to even begin address Y, you can't make them do that, either.

I agree that the answer to this is, yes, to make your own dinner (and whatever else "dinner" represents). To release your expectations of them. To plan and live as if they were unable to contribute, because they're not contributing. I think you have to accept that they're stuck, and probably emotionally detach yourself from them, for your sake. (Because you need a way to get some dinner, and living with anger about being hungry, on top of being hungry, feels awful.) And I think you have to make a conscious, careful decision about how long you're willing (or able) to wait for them to do something about Y.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:20 PM on August 16, 2017 [7 favorites]

What is the outcome when this person is left to complete the task (or not) as they see fit? Are the results satisfactory?

If so, I would give them more freedom to self-manage and plan independently. If the tasks are not completed to a reasonable and mutually-agreed-upon standard, though, and talking about it is not possible because of defensiveness, then I think both of you should attend therapy together and discuss the dynamic.

Worst case scenario, you would need to take over all of the tasks yourself or hire someone to do so, if they otherwise just don't get done.
posted by delight at 2:24 PM on August 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thanks so much for all your feedback! I have marked a couple of best answers, and have gotten some great food for thought from each one of you. Please continue to share if you feel inspired to do so.
posted by crunchy potato at 6:55 PM on August 16, 2017

I agree that the answer to this is, yes, to make your own dinner (and whatever else "dinner" represents). To release your expectations of them. To plan and live as if they were unable to contribute...

I think this is really brilliant. Even if you want to engage in this process of figuring out that the problem is, being attached to getting whatever results on whatever timetable is going to be a hindrance. If the person is perceptive at all, they are going to be able to tell the difference between you trying to help them out with their thinking process, or trying to improve you communication, and on the other hand your pressing need to get something done on some timetable, which will always make the first, necessarily more open-ended process, hit a wall. They may even think, "This person acts like they are trying to help me figure something out, but they are really only interested in getting me to do something."

It's not that you are wrong to do both. If this is an important relationship, you probably have correctly perceived that you need to improve your communication and help each other on that level. But it should be for its own sake, and on both sides.
posted by BibiRose at 3:48 AM on August 17, 2017

Here's what I can feel like from the other side, when something like this comes up.

If I'm very anxious about Doing The Thing, talking about it can feel completely impossible. My entire body locks up and I feel trapped. I try to shut the conversation down, sometimes with shouting and anger (unless I feel like I can just absent myself, which I can't, if we share a living space) because the quickest way to get the other person to stop talking about Doing The Thing. I know intellectually that I'm not being attacked; I don't harbor any actual anger towards them about it long-term, not really. But it feels like I'm screaming at someone to lift a heavy weight off my chest. And every time they bring up Doing The Thing, the heavy weight comes back.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:22 AM on August 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

That is to say: the other person is the cause of the negative feelings in a proximate sense. If they hadn't brought it up, those feelings would be safely compartmentalized and not brought to the surface. Being angry and making a scene is a pretty good strategy for squishing those feelings back down in the short-term. I might understand intellectually that the other person didn't cause the feelings, but by talking about it, s/he evoked those feelings, and was the proximate cause of me feeling them (but for the person, I wouldn't have been feeling that way at that moment, so it's not completely unreasonable to attribute causality this way).

To put a name to it: experiential avoidance.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:32 AM on August 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

They get mad, you don't react and say after they're calm, okay, but it needs to get done. Be persistent. Do it as long as it takes.

They're not actually incapable of changing, they just don't want to do it because they get you to go away by being upset. Get behaviorist. Stop rewarding their outbursts and defensiveness.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:13 PM on August 19, 2017

You can check out the common defense mechanisms but perhaps this information will not be so helpful in resolving the impasse.

I can't tell from your description to what degree this person's reaction is due to their past experiences, and how much is because of the manner you are approaching the situation. Certainly you are contributing somehow; even if they are a super sensitive snowflake, there will be more effective and less effective approaches.* Without knowing more specifics about the person's history and the interaction, any suggestions would be guesswork. Though, in general, if talking about the pattern isn't helping, then going more behavioral is likely to be more successful.

The only thing you can change is your approach, you cannot guarantee their response to your stimulus. Sorry, I know that's not very helpful.

* And if there's truly nothing that helps, then that's the relevant answer.
posted by dancing leaves at 5:59 PM on August 20, 2017

This seem so ridiculously obvious to me?

Yelling at the other person (you) to avoid having to cook.

The person does not want to cook but you want them to. They feel that food should be made, but the demand that they prepare it is making them feel negative.

It is a sort of tariff. They want you to feel as bad asking them to do it as just doing it yourself.

Emotionally, they feel this is fair, since your asking them to cook is also increasing their suffering.

It is a sort of behavioral economics. They are manipulating you. Maybe not with awareness, but certainly because this strategy is the most likely to get you to stop asking.
posted by benadryl at 4:06 PM on August 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

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