Thursday, May 2, 2013

Changing "The Game"

Changing "The Game" 
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

"Whenever I talk to her, my mom turns every conversation into something about herself. I feel so unimportant, like I'm not good enough."
"I hate it when my dad drinks. He gets so sarcastic, it makes me feel so bad. I avoid going home at all costs, and when I do I'm so uptight that I end up eating too much."
As a therapist I am often asked by my clients how they can stop someone from saying or doing certain things that make them feel bad about themselves. I usually recommend Harriet Lerner's book The Dance of Anger, in which, as I mentioned in the last newsletter, she describes relationships as circular dances, where each person's dance steps perpetuates and reinforces the other person's dance steps. By changing our own dance steps we can change the whole dance.
Deep inside, I know that isn't what they really want. Essentially they are asking me how to change or control the other person. It is very difficult for us to accept that we really, truly cannot change other people, nor can we control anything that they do or say. But, on a lighter note, there is something that we can do to protect ourselves from other people's peculiarities, problems or character traits; what I call "quirks". A long time ago, I invented "The Game" to cope with my family while I was recovering. Everytime I visited my family, I was on guard the whole time, waiting to fend off what I felt was the onslaught of "barbs". Little things everyone did or said drove me crazy, made me feel bad about myself and usually, I ended up turning to some kind of negative behavior on my part. Somewhere in my recovery I decided that I needed to accept the fact that I could not change or control these people. I needed to separate my self and my self-esteem from their quirks. And so, "The Game" was born. When I recently taught "The Game" to one of the groups at The Awakening Center, many of the women were laughing hysterically as I described it to them. The game can be as low key or dramatic as you want to in your mind. You can imagine a game show host and an announcer who may say "Our next contes tant is Mary Smith from Chicago, Illinois!" Then the crowd applauds as you step onto a brightly lit stage with flashing lights and buzzers. The object of the game is to accurately predict in advance what certain members of your family will do; not what you would like them to do or what you think they "should" do, but what you know deep down they really will do. For example, if your father always gets sarcastic if he drinks, your prediction may be that he will make a negative comment after you arrive. Or if your mother turns every conversation into something about herself, you may predict that she changes the subject when you bring up a topic. So before each visit you sit down and list your predictions of what you think will actually happen.
Next, you need to pick a prize if you predicted correctly. It can be something funny such as a trip to Paris, a years supply of pantyhose or a refrigerator/freezer. Or you may choose something nurturing like a long novel. One client paid herself money for each prediction which she then saved up for a massage when she got home.
Now for the "hard part", when you are in the midst of the family visit: you need to remind yourself of "The Game" and of your predictions. It helps to be more objective if you can picture the stage, the lights, the voice of the announcer etc. As the game begins, you anticipate with excitement for your predictions to happen. When your father answers the door with a negative remark, you hear the audience break into applause while bells and buzzers ring to let you know you scored a point in "round one". Instead of dreading your dad's attitude, you can say "Yes! I won a bubble bath!" Rather than being on guard because your mom will talk only about herself, you can actually look forward to it so that you can collect your next prize. (No fair cheating! Offering your father a drink or asking your mom a question about herself is not fair!)
A lot of times people give me real strange looks right about now. "Why would I look forward to my mother's incessant talk about herself? Why should I anticipate my father's attitude?" Because since we have no control over what they say or do, and in reality you know they are going to do it anyway, we can only change how we feel about it rather than let it in and hurt us. We are separating our selves and our self-esteem from their quirks. Eventually you will be able to take these quirks for granted as part of them, not as a reflection of your worth as a person. If my mother talks only about herself, that says something about her, not me. If my father drinks too much, that's his problem, not mine.
By separating from their quirks, you are giving their quirks back to them and not blaming yourself. Their quirks are not your fault, they are not your problem to solve or control, just as their height or their hair color is not your fault or your problem.
The by-product of playing this game is that you accept them as the people they really are, not spend wasted energy blaming them for who they aren't and never will be. You also let go of your own guilt that it somehow is your fault, or that you are to blame.
As their quirks lose their "barbs", you may find as I have that your visits can become more enjoyable. My parents and I have the best relationship now than we ever had. I do not take their quirks personally. And because I have stopped reacting as I did in the past, (as I changed my dance steps and therefore the dance) they don't do their quirks as often and some have even been eliminated. Some quirks I actually find humorous and amusing now. Thus, by changing my own attitude towards their quirks, I accomplished what I wanted in the beginning, a pleasant and meaningful relationship with my parents.

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