Emotional abuse, Family Issues, Relationships, Uncategorized

“Nearly 1 in 3 children have been physically abused, while 1 in 5 have been sexually abused, and 1 in 10 suffer criminal neglect (CDC). Nearly 1 in 10 witness family violence (Safe Horizon). Half of the men who abuse their spouse also abuse their children. In cases when only one parent is abusive, the other parent will often permit the abuse or refuse to believe it. Half of homeless youth are running from abusive situations, many because of sexual abuse. […] Some parents continue to abuse their children into adulthood, while others only abuse them when they are young or for a certain period of time. Other parents leave their children in the care of relatives and re-emerge years later. Or raise their children in loving homes, only to disown them for coming out as gay, trans, or marrying outside of their religion.

That leaves millions of adult children to grapple with the decision of whether or not they should provide support to their abusive or estranged parents when they become ill or elderly.

One study of 1,000 caregivers found that 19% had been abused as children and 9% had been neglected. Caregivers of abusive parents were more likely to experience signs of clinical depression.

Some people make peace with their abusive parents, but that doesn’t mean there will ever be a healthy relationship between them.” — Michelle Daly for The Caregiver Space, Aug 11, 2015

21st century Western culture has some very, VERY conflicted ideas about elder care, especially in palliative stages of mental or physical decline.

“Can she really turn her back on an elderly, ailing parent?

That would violate a deep-seated social and cultural understanding (even, in many states, a legal obligation). Your parents did the best they could for you; when they’re old and need help, you do the best you can for them. But physically or emotionally abusive parents have already violated that convention. Is there still an ethical duty to assist them? Even “filial responsibility laws” requiring adult children to care for parents make an exception for those whose parents abandoned them or otherwise did some injury.” — Paula Span, for The New York Times, October 20, 2011


“We know relatively little about how many adults become caregivers for abusive or neglectful parents, or about why they choose to — or not to. But thanks to a recent study, we can see that those who report having endured childhood maltreatment are more vulnerable than other caregivers to depression when tending to their abusive parents.

The researchers divided their sample into three categories: those with no history of childhood abuse or neglect; those who had been abused and were caring for their non-abusive parent; and those who had been abused and were, to borrow the study’s memorable title, “caring for my abuser.” They also compared caregivers neglected as children with those who were not neglected.

Those who had been abused or neglected were more likely to have symptoms of depression — like lack of appetite, insomnia, trouble concentrating, sadness and lethargy — than those who had not been. No surprise there, perhaps.

But the link was strongest for the third category. “The key was caring for the abusive parent,” said the lead author, Jooyoung Kong, a doctoral candidate in social work. Years later, “they are still affected. They’re more depressed.” — Paula Span, for The New York Times, January 20, 2014

I have previously written about families as “sick systems”; the more work I do within family systems, the more convinced I become that what we are taught to believe MUST be our strongest instinctive bond is often the deliberate OR unwitting author of some of our society’s deepest and most damaging trauma. The sense of unhealthy fusion into the abuser’s care seems to have little concern for gender or birth order of the caretaking adult child(ren).

The sense of obligation and loyalty to dysfunctional family structures is a difficult thing to address when it feels like it’s rooted bone-deep in our values. As a therapist, I always start a line of questioning there: are these actually YOUR values, or are these something you were told SHOULD be your values (and if that’s the case, we have to wonder: WHO told you these had to be your values? My odds are always on the abusive elements themselves, or at least those who implicitly condone or support those systemic elements). Standing by our abusers is similar in reasoning to why women in particular tough it out with domestic violence; it’s why adult children succumb to implicit or explicit pressure to involve themselves with aging or palliative parents in the elders’ decline. We feel we SHOULD. It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated.

In looking at the advice and support available online to caregivers of abusive elders, there are some frustrating limitations placed on those who can’t afford to hire in professionals to provide the service the adult child(ren) don’t feel safe providing themselves. Suggestions of placing the ailing elders in some kind of long-term care, or hiring a care manager or non-familial legal guardian, often require the adult caregiver have the financial means to pay for these services. Even with the privilege of that kind of financial security, there may be more resentment for assuming that financial burden than alleviation of guilt for not doing the work themselves. It’s a Catch-22 that strains a lot of adult-elder relationships even in the best of circumstances.

Beyond the potential for financial burden, when these adults do take on the responsibility for some or all of that abusive eldercare, what’s the invisible price tag? Fear of decline and death may exacerbate the elder’s abusive behaviours that caregivers remember from childhood, triggering a whole new round of the abusive cycles. At best these might be simply awkward and uncomfortable, or at worst escalating (for example) as adult children now in role reversals begin to exercise their new powers in retaliatory fashion. Attempts to repair and reconcile are emotionally perilous if the elder abuser is still in denial about owning their actions or the impacts–both intended or otherwise–of their actions. Especially if the caregiver is an only child and feeling trapped on the hook of providing care or support even from a distance for an unrepentantly abusive elder, there will be precious little safety for them in this situation.

If the members of the sickened family system can step outside those old habitual patterns and fears, there might be a chance to reconcile old issues. That is an exceptionally large “IF”, however. Holding onto the hope of reconciliation can be costly; the risk of reoffence is high, therefore so is the impact of newly-redamaged or repeating disappointment or reopened wounds. Therapy can help keep a balancing, observational eye on the caretaking relationship as the situation develops. We implement a series of self-assessments and situational assessments for the caregiver, and we give explicit permission to consider alternatives. We also use therapy as a safe(r) place to vent frustrations the caregiver will preferably choose not to vent on the ailing parent. The venting space also allows the caregiver to give voice to feelings and experiences an otherwise-supportive spouse may have trouble hearing or managing for themselves, especially if the eldercare situation extends over long periods of time without respite from the care… or the abuse.

There are no clear-cut paths to “right” or “wrong” in caring for abusive elders, especially if the adult child is facing any amount of obligation-driven guilt. The sentiment “blood is thicker than water” fills a family system with a sense that the entitlement of some members to mandatory loyalty is more important than the individual mental and emotional health of other members. Often this sense of entitlement involves considerable upheaval to the caregiver’s life: relocating temporarily or long-term to be closer to ailing elders, or moving parents closer to the caregivers; full or partial financial support; intervention and/or advocacy with the parent’s medical, therapeutic, or palliative care providers; estate planning and management; acute or ongoing family mediation. All of these tasks bring their own levels of turmoil to a relationship already pockmarked or undermined by unresolved abusive behaviours, past or present.

As with any survivor of abuse, emotional support is key. Permission to consider options outside the struggle to fulfill a sense of obligation is also important. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout is a big part of supporting adult caregivers under any condition (and this also applies to those supporting the caregiver, who may burnout in their own support processes). Unpacking a sense of helpless entrapment and layers of familial guilt are work best done in therapy, even if it’s not going to be a quick process. Families will always be our most complex systems, and the ties of embedded obligation among the most difficult to unravel.

Uncategorized

“Woke is a political term of black origin which refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice.” —Wikipedia

Today’s post is borrowing, with respect and apology, a very heavily-laden term from one highly-charged political context to another. Justice and oppression are deeply concerning topics in the news right now. Many individuals are struggling to “wake up” to clearer understandings of their actions and consequences, of the impacts those consequences have when they move out from the individual to a broader societal context (when many people “normalize” a particular behaviour out to the broader group-level enactment of that behaviour, and when that behaviour has been normalized on the broad spectrum for so long that it has become embedded or entrenched as a defensible cultural VALUE). Systemic oppression is a factor hitting many people in a maddening variety of ways: sexism, racism, ableism, classism.

Add to that list: relationism.

Okay, so that one’s not really a word, but in its own way, relational systems (family or intimate/romantic) *CAN* be as oppressive as any other system we encounter. We don’t start out to enmesh ourselves in oppressive systems, but it sometimes happens so subtly we never see it coming until we start to wake up to the weight holding us back. In family dynamics, it’s not like we really have much choice for most of our formative years BUT to live in and survive families as best we can. Sometimes the erosion of connection and intimacy in our romantic relationships becomes the thing that slowly buries us under the weight of invisible expectations and assumptions and the (sometimes non-consensual) enforcement of hidden values.

When people come into counselling, either in a couple/group relational format or as individuals, those of us who work from a systemic perspective are KEENLY aware that one person pursuing individuation, or attempting to create differentiation from an oppressive system, face particular challenges. One of the first steps in any differentiation process is to step back a little from the system and simply observe it, and to observe the self as it reacts within the systemic influences: where do we feel hooked in, and where can we choose a different behaviour when we become conscious of the patterns we’re observing? What do we see in terms of systemic values in action, and how do we become aware of where we reflect those internal values outwardly, inside and outside of the system? What do we think or feel about the values we’ve internalized, and the somewhat instinctive behaviours that enact them?

We encourage clients to observe their relational systems for a while and ponder their observations once they get clear somehow of the provocative circumstances. It’s damnably difficult to make decisions about change processes while one is sitting in the discomforting fire of an actively-provoked mindset, so gaining some kind of minimum safe distance is also part of the process. With observation and distance, we gain space to make decisions and consider how best to enact changes in our own behaviour within those systems.

That’s when things get REALLY complicated.

As soon as we introduce change in our own behaviours, we invariably destabilize a carefully-balanced system of expectations and assumptions. As soon as we start to behave in what appear to our relational counterparts as unpredictable or opaque ways, they will (in clinical, formal parlance) lose their shit. Harriet Lerner, in much of her writing on the dance of connection and intimacy, refers to the “CHANGE BACK!” pressure that is the common result to one person differentiating within, or from, a system. For the person struggling to differentiate, the challenge lies in being what feels like the ONLY person who seems aware of the behaviours in operation to enforce compliance and conformity to systemic values and expectations.

We often hear relational partners lamenting in therapy about one or the other making “arbitrary decisions and changes” that are disrupting the longtime stability of their status quo. One person’s attempts to carve out and defend the new boundaries that define their individuated space from the systemic collective will, quite often, be perceived as excising themselves from said system. Especially in family and intimate relationships that have never experienced healthy boundaries, ANY boundary will be met with resistance when others encounter it by running into it unexpectedly. It’s about as pleasant as running face-first and full-tilt into a brick wall you didn’t expect to find blocking the previously-open thoroughfare. (Why yes, I do speak from some personal experience there; why do you ask? Also: Ow.)

Individual clients who are themselves trying to differentiate, trying to change themselves, struggle with how to do so while remaining within a system: how do I not alienate my partner? How do I not cut-off from my parents? How do I not estrange my children? How do I become more of the person I see myself as being, while still honouring those relationships I want to be part of, but who may not have signed up for this kind of upheaval?

These are challenging questions for any relationship to navigate. When we’re trying to change how we engage in dysfunctional systems, the pressure to stay in and confirm, to engage in the safe herd patterns, is often overpowering, and can become harsh or toxic in short order. When we “become woke” to systemic values or individual enactments of those values within a system, especially once we begin to change how we interact with those others, our tolerance for those behaviours also drops quickly, and sometimes dramatically. We may not feel safe calling them out, so we find new ways to deflect them, or remove ourselves from engagement arenas. We will be challenged at every turn, and the sicker the system, the harsher the judgments and emotional penalties. The greater the perceived cost of differentiation, the greater the risk of capitulation.

“Being woke” to systemic (dys)functions means needing to make a hard choice about our place within those systems: maintain silence and implied or complicit support for those systemic behaviours, or take a stand against them, either in terms of our own engagement with them, or attempting to introduce change across the system. When clients confront this decision point, we discuss as many options as we can identify: we do a risk/return, ROI-type analysis; we talk about the scope of change the client desires for themselves. We talk about consent, especially if their differentiation attempt involves introducing expected change on others in the system, and how to shape conversations that invite others into that change process, rather than dropping arbitrary changes.

And we spend a LOT of time sifting through the frustrations and disappointments of integrating their own observations and newfound (hard-won) perspectives into relational systems that don’t want to be as woke to those challenges as the clients are. We discuss the desire to have partners “want to change for the better as much as I do”, and how that can add a lot of pressure and tension to a relationship, to a partner who maybe isn’t so keen to wake up. It’s a lot like Morpheus and Neo discussing whether to take the red pill or the blue pill, to stay asleep in Wonderland or to wake up and see how deep the rabbit hole goes; we can only choose for ourselves, we cannot force someone else to take the pill with us.

When we look at the risks of being woke versus remaining asleep, some people make the wistful remark of wishing they could “go back” to the simpler times, before they became aware of just how much of their systemic life makes them unhappy or dissatisfied. They talk about feeling exhausted with the effort of maintaining vigilant observational posts, of defending those nascent boundaries from the pressure to “CHANGE BACK!” I gently disabuse them of the notion that we even CAN go back. At the end of the day, we can’t unknow what we know, no matter how much we wish otherwise. We have to integrate new perspectives and understandings gained from observation into every decision we make going forward; mindful self-awareness and awareness of the systems in which we operate can never be unseen. It’s the cost of being woke: once we see the “violence inherent in the system”, we either consciously choose to do something about it (or ourselves in relationship to it), or we have to willfully choose to do nothing, and then what does that say about us? Will that be something we can live with?

Being woke isn’t always a blessing. It can mean loss and distance or disconnect, but it also creates new opportunities to examine the people we chose to be, and the decisions we make, or values we enact, in becoming that person. It allows us perspective to examine and selectively maintain or jettison systemic values that we determine are no longer welcome or applicable to who we choose to be. We create inviting space to examine our behaviours within relational contexts and ensure we are congruent within ourselves, and work to improve our willingness and ability to communicate what’s going on within our new internal processes to those important relationships outside our heads.

And once we learn how to wake up in our close or intimate systems, it becomes harder to turn off the observing capacity in broader systems. Many of us become sensitive, sometimes, to the oppressive factors in broader systems, and find the same kinds of decreased tolerance and/or increased motivation to do *something*, even on a small scale, to push back against the dysfunctional aspects of those systems, and to wake up others as we go. (I freely admit, part of why I became a therapist when and how I did was, in part, to help wake people up so I didn’t have to be out here by myself… but that’s a story for another day.)

Emotional abuse

One of the hallmarks of emotional abuse is the use of gaslighting, defined as, “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.” While it has long been held as something of a truism that “truth is subjective” by philosophers, psychologists, and scientists alike, gaslighting is an abusive tactic that uses subjectivity against its victims by causing them to question their own perception and understanding of events and feelings… and often themselves at the core.

There is some science behind the brain’s fluid ability to accept new information as factual, as truth. “Cognitive ease“, sometimes also called “processing fluency“, defines the speed with which our brains process and integrate new information. When exposed repeatedly to specific, targeted messages in familiar contexts, we’re more likely to accept the message as factual, as truth, even when on some level we know this isn’t necessarily either factual OR truth. This has been a longstanding, fundamental principle of marketing; in the past two years we’ve also seen this practice play out on a global scale as politics have infected media and journalism to the point where the message, however inaccurate and untruthful, is still repeated in targeted ways to specific audiences… who then accept the message as their subjective truth whether it is factual or not. Anyone active on social media sees this happen on an almost daily basis as friends and family share misinformation as if it were fact, because they believe it to be true.

Where this becomes particularly influential on a personal level is when it feeds into particular cognitive biases, reinforcing internal beliefs a person may not even know they hold until “supporting evidence” becomes readily available. In short, “the things we’re exposed to constantly feel more true.” This is part of the devastating effect of gaslighting, even in the short term; the abusive statements are repetitive, and delivered with an air of authority or force that imply the abuser knows whereof they speak better than the victim does. This is part of how seeds of doubt come to take root. “What if they really *ARE* right?” is a question we, the support workers, hear from victims all the time, and it is a devastating effect on self-esteem when the gaslighting attacks and distorts a person’s self-worth at its very foundation. Part of what makes gaslighting behaviours so powerful to so many is that the abusers are very effective observers of their fellow humans and find weakness to exploit fairly swiftly. These weaknesses may already be well-tied to internal value scripts the victims carry about themselves; this is where the manipulative agenda meets an existing confirmation bias and exploits the victim’s processing fluency to introduce a whole new set of behavioural routines. And voila!, we have a perfect storm of devastating emotional abuse.

When we look at gaslighting in relationships, we start with noting the abuser’s behaviours, including emotionally-destabilizing tactics that may commonly (though not exclusively) manifest as a push/pull, “I love you/I hate you” or “come here/go away” attachment behaviour. When the victim is uncertain about their place in the relationship system (see also: sick systems), it becomes much easier for the abuser to introduce reframing perspectives and interpretations that support their own positions and agenda while effectively dismantling the victim’s views, values, and ability to trust their own judgments. Gaslighting practices often also go hand-in-hand with isolating behaviours, in which the abuser works to cut off the victim’s connections to outside influences and perspectives that may undermine the abuser’s distorting control. Gaslighting works best when there are few or no effective outside influences working to support the victim, and abusers will use the victim’s emotional turmoil resulting from any attempt to reconcile two conflicting sources of information as a way of keeping the victim uncertain, and unable to act decisively in their own defense.

When we work with victims of gaslighting in the counselling room, the very first steps we take, almost always in this order, are: (1) establish the client’s safety, first and foremost, and (2) validate their experiences and feelings as real and authentic. From there it’s often a case of re-establishing some baseline understandings: abusers often attack their victims at the level of who they are, as much as what they do, so we counter that in counselling by establishing that “this is a thing that happened because of who the abuser *IS*, not because of anything you said or did to deserve this treatment.” NO-ONE DESERVES THIS BEHAVIOUR, EVER. Not from parents and care-givers, not from teachers and leaders, not from employers, not from lovers and partners. It may be true that many abusers choose their victims carefully, but the truth is, they are often going to exhibit some or all of these behaviours to everyone in their world, to some degree, at some points. Romantic abusers will certainly repeat these patterns in all of their relationships; parents continue toxic behaviours with their adult children; toxic bosses will continue to be tyrants in the office to some or all of their employees as long as *their* bosses tolerate it. THIS IS NOT BECAUSE OF THE VICTIM, IT IS ONLY BECAUSE OF THE ABUSER. But the nature of gaslighting means that we often have to reconstruct some fundamental beliefs in our victimized clients’ own sense of self-worth and good judgment, and that takes time.

Rule number one in dealing with abusers who engage in these kinds of behaviours is to cut off all contact as safely and swiftly as possible. There may be reasons why this is not entirely possible (shared custody of children, financial entanglements, etc.), and for this reason we might often suggest seeking legal assistance as soon as possible, as well as documenting any and all forms of contact and their nature. We often hope this record never needs to see the light of day, but in the event of things needing legal intervention, the more the survivor of the abuse can document, the clearer a window of contact they can provide to the police or courts as required. Maintain a copy of all written contact, but don’t respond any more than absolutely necessary for logistical purposes; stay out of emotional engagements at all costs. Come vent at the therapist, at friends and family, anywhere there is dependable safety to do so. Don’t vent online; it’s imperative to keep oneself clear of social media platforms where the written word can be captured and shared without consent to the one person you might most NOT want to see what’s being said about them. It’s most important to stay safe, and that means not opening oneself up to further assaults as much as possible.

It’s important to note, this does NOT mean survivors need to stay silent. Part of our role as therapists is to provide safe space to process the horrors of this kind of experience, to make space for a voice that’s been buried in self-doubt for long enough. It’s hard enough to dissociate from the abuser and the abusive situation without needing to suppress those feelings any further. Getting to safety, regaining perspective, re-establishing self-trust; these are our goals. And we help support, as best we can, those who for whatever reasons are not in a position to safely get clear of such situations just yet.

Article links, Uncategorized

I wasn’t always a therapist. It’s been ten years since I started grad school to begin this path, six years since I opened my private practice as a part-time operation, and T-minus one week until I begin working as a full-time  therapist for Bliss Counselling… in addition to maintaining my current roster in my own practice. Up until November, I was still working by day as a technical writer for Waterloo Region’s single biggest industry: the high-tech world of IT and software development.

The Regions is known as “Silicon Valley North” for good reason. Global businesses open development offices here because the University of Waterloo’s programming creates some of the best-of-the-best engineers and developers. Incubators and startups have been a part of the landscape since well before I moved here to go to UW as a bright-eyed undergrad in 1986. (For the record, I sent my first email in 1985; in 1986 when I became a UW student, I was given my own student email/internet account, and I have been online ever since.) I have been working in the local field as a writer since before I left my undergrad to become a tech writer full time, circa 1992. I survived the dot com boom and bust cycle, watching more startups come out of the woodwork in a five year window than I can count, and most of them fail within that same window.

I have worked for a LOT of companies in the intervening years before hitting a burnout in 2007 that wasn’t going to be fixed by simply jumping ship to a new company. At that point I came to realize something that has since influenced my therapeutic work with clients coming out of IT companies in the area: things rarely get better, because the mindset underlying many employers’ expectations is one deeply rooted in a deadly combination of aggressive, do-anything, self-sacrificing startup culture mentality, and the pervasive  requirements driven by shareholders and investors to maximize profits while minimizing cost margins. “We need you to do more with less, and for less” is a bottom-line narrative that benefits a corporate quarterly report, but often at the cost of those very-human resources expected to deliver products and services under often unrealistic deadlines.

Sometimes companies recognize the outrageous demands placed on employees, and try to help by offering incentives like cash bonuses, time in lieu, or benefits that include EAP access or incentives to join specific “wellness programs”. These often look good on paper, and at least in the short term can, in fact, bring some ease to the beleaguered workforce. But the bigger problem remains the internal culture of excessive expectation. The last job I held as a tech writer, I failed out of spectacularly in part because I couldn’t buy into the degree of self-sacrifice that had other team-mates working 80 hour weeks, driving from homes in other cities on weekends or logging in for hours from home at night to finish projects that were desperately understaffed *by design*.

This was not the first such company *I* had worked for with that kind of environment, not even close. It’s not unusual that when profits start to fall (note: when the profit margin merely decreases, NOT “when we actively start to lose money”), corporate management will cut the workforce by significant numbers YET STILL REQUIRE the same delivery of product and service without adjusting downward the volume of work to be executed by remaining team members.  But pushing back on those unrealistic delivery requirements? Is generally not only not encouraged, but sometimes actively punished:

“Nothing can alleviate the stress of overwork except working less. Like the road signs say, only sleep cures fatigue. We need to be reminded of this because tired long-haul drivers can be deluded into thinking that coffee, a can of Mother or an upbeat bit of music might help them stay awake. For the madly overworked, we need reminding that the only cure for working too much is to stop. It’s as simple as that.

In the last month or so I’ve had several clients raise the issue of overwork with their managers, with the following results. One had a consultant brought in to assess her team’s workloads against their position descriptions. Each member was found to be working at between 130 and 160% of their load. So the load was reset and anyone working at below 150% was told they weren’t pulling their weight.

Another workplace appointed an organisational psychologist to assess the team’s interpersonal relationships as a way of responding to a workload complaint. As a result, my client was told his personal commitment to reasonable working hours was putting his team at risk and he was put on a program of performance management. Another was simply told not to come in again.”

I hear the same stories over and over again from IT clients: often they want to seek therapists who are NOT with their EAP because they have come to mistrust the EAP motives and methodologies. EAPs are selected by the corporation, and are tied to benefits provisions, themselves provided by other corporations with a goal of paying out as little money as possible for a process aimed solely at returning the worker to functional/employable status as fast as possible. Therapists working for EAPs are often hamstrung in that regard, as we are required to employ short-term, solution-focused approaches as bandaids to symptomologies that may or may not themselves be rooted in different or deeper locations than we are allowed to explore in 6-8 sessions. That’s not to say there’s something wrong with short-term, solution-focused approaches. On the contrary, they’re very effective ways of developing tools and strengths with struggling clients. But when it’s the ONLY tool allowed on the board, there’s a limit to what we or our clients can achieve. And therefore, many EAP clients in high-stress fields often come in and out of therapy as the same problems continue to crop up again and again.

The problem isn’t the client. The problem isn’t the therapy. The problem is the workplace culture that often deliberately cripples its people by normalizing outrageous demands and rewarding the willingness to sacrifice everything outside of the workplace in the name of the corporation’s reputation or bottom line. And in Waterloo Region, that is an ENORMOUS problem. It’s not just one company who works that way, it’s the endemic mindset across a great many of them.

So it behooves us as therapists working in the Region, and working with clients who work in the high-tech industry, to be VERY aware of two particular issues:

  1. stress and anxiety related to job performance are HUGE factors for a very great many of our client base
  2. there is currently no effective way to push back against unrealistic corporate demands, nor is coaching a client to consider employment elsewhere likely to be a guaranteed change so long as the potential job field remains limited to IT

What’s left, then?

Normalizing the idea that this is what the industry itself has normalized. It’s been my experience over almost thirty years in IT that it’s rare to find companies who *genuinely* allow and encourage a balanced quality of life without at least hedging bets (“Well, it’s only like to get REALLY bad around project release time, ad that only happens a few times a year”).  We can encourage clients to have conversations with their bosses about setting reasonable expectations—and to me, being EXPECTED to persistently work 150% OVER one’s job description is not reasonable—but be aware the likelihood of effecting sustainable change without threatening employment status is realistically slim. Work with clients to change how they relate to the inherent stresses of their chosen profession.  American feminist and author bell hooks, in her book All About Love: New Visions, wrote:

“Work occupies much of our time. Doing work we hate assaults our self-esteem and self-confidence. Yet most workers cannot do the work they love. But we can all enhance our capacity to live purposefully by learning how to experience satisfaction in whatever work we do. We find that satisfaction by giving any job total commitment. […] Doing a job well, even if we do not enjoy what we are doing, means that we leave it with a feeling of well-being, our self-esteem intact. That self-esteem aids us when we go in search of a job that can be more fulfilling.”

Help clients learn to be realistic about what’s demanded of them, and work on finding some kind of balance with the rest of their lives. Help teach them how to create and sustain relationship intimacy in the face of their worklife demands, and work with them to develop effective emotional language to communicate with intimate partners authentically and realistically about the impact of their work on their availability to non-worklife demands.

Sometimes the best we can do is help teach swimmers how to stay afloat. Teach them to recognize the signs of exhaustion, but also be compassionate and educated in your own understanding about the realities of the industry they work in. IT is a wide ocean, and it takes a special swimmer to make it effectively from one side to the other. Being an effective swimming coach also means being aware of the conditions of the ocean we’re swimming in.

It’s not always a pretty reality, but it’s the reality of living and working in Silicon Valley North.

Article links, Family Issues, Relationships

I’ve found myself saying this a lot recently, and I’ll keep saying it if it makes a difference for someone who needs to hear it:

Biology and genetics are no longer sufficient excuse for feeling compelled to remain part of a sick system.

Sometimes a “family” (biological *OR* chosen) is the single most toxic and dangerous environment there can be. As a human being, you’re entitled to safety and respect for your personhood. If that’s threatened by your own family — GET OUT, get safe, and heal.

In this case, a “sick system” is one that manipulates one or more participants into remaining fused in the relationship, constrained to support the manipulative relationship partner even to the other participant’s own detriment (unhappiness, ill health, depression, risk of violence, etc.), but all in the guise of love and care. It’s a form of gaslighting, or rather, gaslighting is a common tactic in creating and sustaining sick systems: make someone doubt themselves so much that it only seems safe if they rely on you for perspective. Abusive or emotionally-manipulative parents and care-givers will do this to children, other family members, and to their partners; romantic partners can do this to each other.

One of the best descriptions of sick systems I’ve ever encountered is found on LiveJournal:

A sick system has four basic rules […] All of [which] work together to make a bad workplace or a bad relationship addictive. You’re run off your feet putting out fires and keeping things going, your own world will collapse if you stop, and every so often you succeed for a moment and create something bigger than yourself. Things will get better soon. You can’t stop believing that. If you stop believing, you won’t be able to go on, and you can’t not go on because everything you have and everything you are is tied into making this thing work. You can’t see any way out because there are always all these things stopping you, and you could try this thing but that would take time and money, and you don’t have either, and you’ve been told that you’ll get both eventually when that other thing happens, and pushing won’t make that thing happen so it’s better to keep your head down and wait. After a while the stress and panic feel normal, so when you’re not riding the edge, you feel twitchy because you know that the lull doesn’t mean things are better, it means you’re not aware yet of what’s going wrong. And the system or the partner always, always obliges with a new crisis.

The same author later wrote a companion piece to examine the qualities of the people most likely to become trapped in such a relational sick system, available here. These qualities do not guarantee you *will* become trapped in these kinds of dangerously-destructive relationships, but they seem to be the common characteristics of those who find themselves stuck.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks when its a *family* system is the pervasive cultural belief that because it’s *FAMILY*, we *HAVE* to remain loyal. This is absolutely not true. In truth, it never has been, but it’s one of the great cultural myths we propagate from one generation to the next: from one level of sick system to another. “Family above all others”. So how does a person finally waking up to the reality of the system’s destructive nature get free of it? Escaping the gravitic pull and emotional enmeshment of a sick system is hard, but necessary. Gaining perspective from friends outside the system is often how change starts, followed by seeking professional help if you can. Sometimes a complete cut-off is the only way to enforce new self-protective and self-respecting boundaries from toxicity and violence, and that’s a hard thing to hold up in the face of pressure to remain loyal, to remain compliant to the herd, to avoid ostracization from other members of the system with whom you have healthier relationships (but who conform to the systemic expectations).

One has to begin a process that Murray Bowen (father of modern family systems theory) termed, “differentiation”, the gaining of self within the system or, if not possible to achieve selfhood within the family system, then outside of it. It starts with creating new boundaries and defending them, of valuing yourself as a whole person inside those boundaries who is individually deserving of love, compassion, and respect. If those things are not to be found within the system through the larger change process of differentiation, they can only be found outside. A sick system almost never changes for the sake of the differentiating individual; a sick system exists solely to sustain its own sickness. That’s the trap, ultimately: you can almost never change the perpetrator, no matter how much love and care you bring to them.

In addition to Issendai’s articles above and the wikipedia definition of “gaslighting”, I also highly recommend the following readings:

Emotional manipulation: how to recognize and free ourselves from it

When parents are too toxic to tolerate (NYTimes article)

The Guide to Strong Boundaries

Love is NOT Enough