Watch out for people who lean on you to validate their pain and misery. They may be using you to justify their unconscious decision to hold on to their brand of suffering.
Sometimes, of course, we can help others in their suffering as we listen to them and comfort them. Friends and family members are justified in reaching out to us at times of need for our emotional support.
It’s a different story, though, when we’re being used by others for the purpose of helping them to cover up their participation in their suffering. We’re dealing here with the weird and wacky determination of people to use whatever means necessary to deny their affinity for pain and misery.
Let me explain with an example. Suppose that Tom is really angry at Jane because she rejected him and took up with another guy. In his hurt, Tom tells his friends how mean and cruel Jane was. He paints her in the worst possible light, portrays himself as an innocent victim, and in passionate intensity convinces his friends that he was grievously wronged.
Tom, however, is blind to his own true role in the drama. He has an unresolved issue with feeling rejected. It’s how, in part, he interpreted emotionally his relationship with his mother who lacked a nurturing sensibility. Tom has been rejected by previous girlfriends. He has been completely unaware of the dynamic in his psyche through which he repeatedly acts out the experience and feeling of being rejected. He hides this inner weakness from himself. He can’t handle this truth. It’s “too much” for his ego to bear. He blames others in order to cover up his own role in his recurring self-sabotage.
As part of his defense, he enlists friends and relatives to agree with him that Jane is the problem. Why is he so desperate to get this validation from them? In the courtroom of inner reckoning, Tom is under an inner accusation from his superego (inner critic) that he’s indulging in the feeling of being rejected. Tom instinctively feels the need to defend against this accusation. One of his defenses contends: “Look, it’s natural that I would suffer considering the way that Jane rejected me. My friends agree that she was cruel to me. Jane is the problem, not me.”
When Tom adopts this defense, however, it causes the feeling of rejection to linger. It means he’s not willing to let go of his suffering. (As part of his resistance, it can feel that “letting go” and moving on lets Jane off the hook.) It also means he’s likely to repeat the dynamic with another woman because he isn’t getting the insight or self-knowledge that could resolve his inner conflict. (The conflict, by the way, involves two opposing emotional positions. Tom might express the conflict in the following words, if he were to become conscious of it: (1) “I dislike and wish to avoid the feeling or experience of being rejected; (2) “I expect to be rejected and I’m tempted, because the negative emotion of rejection is unresolved in me, to indulge in the experience of it.”)
Ironically, while he complained fervently to others about Jane’s alleged meanness, he likely was (or had been) provoking her to reject him. This is accomplished with subtle or not-so-subtle comments and quirks of behavior. While these comments and quirks are intended to provoke rejection, Tom, for the most part, produces them unconsciously.
If we have friends like Tom, we can be a true friend by telling them in a kindly way that they may be overlooking their own role in the disharmony.
Be careful, though. People can react quite defensively or negatively when they’re “called out” on their unconscious determination to suffer. Recently on the Psychology Today Facebook blog, a psychologist posted a story in which he wrote, “If you think that validation [from others] is what you need, you will try to get someone to confirm that your pain is justified. This keeps you hyper-focused on the pain and the reasons for it.” Some readers of his post objected vigorously, claiming that the writer got it wrong and that empathy from others was vitally important in the healing process. The psychologist then wrote a subsequent post in which he apologized for “a regrettable misunderstanding” concerning his earlier post. In my opinion, he should not have backed down from his original position. Unfortunately, psychologists and mental-health counselors frequently do back down when confronted by their client’s vigorous defenses and protests against seeing their participation in suffering.
A while ago, I posted an article, “Avoidable Miseries of the Workplace,” that described some of the unconscious ways we chose to be miserable in the workplace, even when we hold excellent jobs. A reader then sent me an email in which she emphatically chronicled the (alleged) reasons why she had no choice in her workplace but to suffer. She makes her case convincingly, as these excerpts from her email attest:
Hello Kind Sir, I was wondering if you could assist me . . . In my trade, graphic designer, I need to maintain 100% concentration at all times . . . Repeatedly, I have kindly asked the owner of this small company to please keep the noise levels down (barking dog, loud walking, and distracting talking), but that suggestion was repudiated by the owner. Not only was my plea for solitude disregarded, but the noise level seems to have increased . . . Not only does this owner micromanage my every move by looking over my shoulders every 15 minutes, I have to deal with a barking dog, too. . . (The owner will accommodate AND respect the DOG’S WISHES- BUT NOT MY PROFESSIONAL CONCERNS.) . . . at lunch the dog sits next to my desk waiting for me to offer it food and the owner will pass by my desk, witness this behavior, and walk on as if this type of nonsense is acceptable. What total disrespect!!!!!!!!! This owner just don’t care!!!! If I make even the smallest mistake, due to the excess noise levels, the owner goes completely BONKERS – I MEAN LITERALLY ALRIGHT CRAZY – totally insane, out of her mind, off the charts screaming, stooping around like an angry, irate and pouting child. Which takes the word out-of-control to a new level of CRAZY. I’m at my wit’s end AND depressed. I have never worked for a Company like this before and hope NEVER AGAIN to encounter such tacky behavior that exemplifies morbid disrespect, malice and unprofessionalism. . . . In my opinion, this owner is a micromanaging dictatorial self-serving diabolical hovering control freak. . . Owner is also exceptionally nosy and condescending LIAR. I am so miserable. . .
I wasn’t going to validate her suffering. I sent back this brief reply, for which she later thanked me.
It sounds as if you do indeed have a difficult work environment. Nonetheless, since it’s your job and you’re working there, you can try your best to minimize the aggravation. You might be embellishing emotionally on the feeling that your boss doesn’t respect you or care enough about you to tone down the noise. Sometimes, as well, we can unconsciously be embellishing on the feeling of being controlled, which makes us feel more trapped and restricted. If so, that will make the situation more difficult for you. Thanks for writing. Best of luck.
Individuals who are “moved” to write comments are often feeling an urgent need, after reading a post, to defend against their participation in suffering. Nonetheless, I do appreciate comments, particularly in the form of readers’ personal experiences and challenges in the face of suffering. Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.