If you want to know the number one reason people enter therapy, it’s because of relationships. Sure, they will tell you they are having panic attacks. They will talk about hating school. You will hear the struggle to find a job, to get accepted to seminary, to find a shidduch, to be organized, overcome trauma, or dozens and dozens other presenting issues with which people enter therapy. But do some digging, and everything loops back to some relationship or another that is making this client miserable, that is at the root of any stint in therapy.
So they are having panic attacks because they can’t get along with their boss at work. They will hate school because nobody is their friend. The struggle with finding a job is all about getting along with co-workers, a feat they can’t seem to master and so can’t seem to stick with a job. They can’t get into seminary because they have managed to alienate every teacher in their life. Same with shidduchim with potential matches who got scared off with their personalities, their demands, their insecurities or whatnot. And what defines trauma work is often the deep feelings of betrayal and hurt that those who should have protected them, failed dismally, causing a cycle of failed relationships that continue the cycle of trauma as it wheels its way into the therapist’s office.
Relationships, like I said. A client comes in with what we call the presenting problem, but the presenting problem is always masking the relationship failure. The therapy is all about relationships.
Which is why, as a therapist, I need to listen to what my client is saying to help them in the ghosts of relationships that haunt them into my room. Because, although healthy relationships are the most important human need that exists (after food, drink, and shelter), despite the best efforts of my client in—and—out of therapy, not always can a healthy relationship be achieved.
But here is my answer to the question, “Why can’t all relationships be successfully repaired?”
A relationship cannot be repaired, no matter the lip service paid to that lofty concept, if one person in the relationship is egocentric. No matter how selfless and special and earnest are the efforts of the second person in the relationship. Whether the egocentric person is my client, or the other.
Let me explain.
Egocentricity is defined by the inabiility to see a situation from another person’s point of view.
I watch clients come into my office experiencing intense pain about various relationships in their lives. With their daughter, with their husband, with their mother, with their friend or teacher or neighbor or mother/daughter-in-law.
When my cient talks about the relationship that pains him/her, of course my client will talk about how much s/he wants a relationship with that other person. But this is what I listen for when I assess for egocentricity. Two simple things. 1. Can the client acknowledge their own role in the relationships rupture? 2. Is the client more invested in the relationship repair than in being right?
I will give you an example, not based on any client obviously for confidentiality purposes, but universal in what therapists see in their office. A principal will express concern for a student in her school, asking for advice how to help this teen’s behavior. The principal will appear invested in the relationship with this teen. (Substitute principal for teacher; substitute principal for parent. Substitute daughter-in-law for student; substitute spouse for either. It’s all the same dynamic).
As a therapist, probably the first question I will ask the principal or mother or spouse (using more subtle language, of course) is what is more important, the relationship or the conforming of expectations of the student/son/spouse to the principal/parent/spouse?
The reason this assessment question is so crucial, is for two reasons. When a child is acting out in ways that annoy her school or parents, often when the relationship stabilizes, so does the behavior. Although I do not necessarily fault a parent when a child is acting out, when the parent is able to engage in relationship-building behaviors, the acting-out usually dissipates over a matter of time. The second reason this question is crucial, is when the relationship is between two peers, or two adults in which there is an equal balance (or should be an equal balance) of power, as in two friends, co-workers, or spouses; then what causes friction in the relationship are expectations. Usually, these expectations are arbitrary in nature, not necessarily problems in the relationship per se. for example, one friend expects to always study with the other, or co-workers get insulted when another doesn’t join them in after-work get-togethers. Then the question is, what is more important, the expectations or the relationship? (When people are nasty or unpleasant to each other in an equal relationship it is usually as a result of these unmet expectations.)
And while the principal will initially pay lip service and say, “The relationship!” upon closer inspection, the principal will admit to something like, “Of course my relationship with Student X is so important, but it is more important for Student X to know she must conform to the rules of the school and not wear her hair not even one inch longer than the school rule.” Or, “My wife must first realize that I must have a clean house by the time I come home from work and then we can have a good relationship.” Or, “Of course I want to love my daughter, but it’s impossible as long as she refuses to buckle down to work in school.”
Sometimes, it’s my client who displays these egocentric ways of thinking, and sometimes my clients are the sane ones (albeit wearing her hair beyond school rule length or floundering around her messy kitchen or acting the infuriating teen at home), and it is the parent or principal or spouse NOT in therapy who exhibit egocenticity; evident through my client’s narrative of the problem, or directly in session obvious when they speak to me via phone or as collaterals in my client’s session.
Before moving on to explore how one deals with a painful relationship when one person in the dyad is egocentric, I would like to address two points. Firstly, what is the nature of egocentricity, specifically in context of Jean Piaget, a psychologist who is famous for his theory of cognitive development. (Piaget is the person who initally coined this phrase to describe the cognitive limitations of children ages 2-7 and how egocentricity dissipates with cognitive maturation at older ages and stages.) Secondly, in the context of relationships such as we are discussing here, do we differentiate between adult egocentricism and narcissism, and if yes, how?
Next column, darling readers. Stay tuned. Part 2 coming up next week...
And until then, try not to squirm uncomfortably in your seat if you think I may be describing you.
(On second thought, if you are egocentric, or narcisstic, I doubt you will notice anyway.)
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