Josh Killam, LPC
The Unending Distraction
I recently had a conversation with a client about how we use general or vague questions to distract from real solutions to our problems. Her question was, "what if, when I ask my husband for what I need, he doesn't listen?" My immediate gut response was, "I don't know." That's the truth; I do not know what she should do if he doesn't listen and attend to her needs. I guess she could yell at him for not listening or, even worse, ask for a divorce. However, neither of them would resolve her problem of not feeling heard. We get caught up in these abstract questions, thinking about the different scenarios that might happen when we try something. The truth is my client and I had no way of coming up with an answer to that question at the moment because she was asking the wrong question.
No matter how hard we want or how much effort we put into it, we cannot change someone or make them do what we want them to. People are autonomous and can do as they please. To be honest, most of us struggle to understand why we do what we do ourselves. Let alone trying to make someone else change or dictate their decisions. When we focus on how someone else, we allow for distractions from real solutions. It is a really lovely thing we do for ourselves when we allow our attention to focus on how someone else might react to us. It is one of those defenses we use to feel safe. This allows us to keep the attention off of ourselves. Protecting ourselves from attention keeps the solutions hidden. When genuine solutions are hidden, we can play naive. However, the downside is when we are willfully naive, it keeps us from taking action towards meaningful change.
"Well, I don't know what I should do; there are too many options to choose from; what happens if"? Just thinking about not knowing what to do can be scary. So we rely on these abstract questions to try and soothe our fear of uncertainty. We have good intentions, but we are misguided and need realignment. Putting the blame on someone else protects us from a sense of failure. When we take responsibility for our situations in life, we simultaneously say to ourselves, "if this doesn't work, I am the only one I can blame." This alone can be too overwhelming for some of us. So we keep our attention on "the other" that person we can wish or hope will change or act on our behalf. Allowing for that sense of security to remain.
Back to my client, who is concerned about her husband listening to her when she asks for what she needs. What do we do if we don't focus on what someone else might or might not do? Instead, we focus on ourselves and work to change what we can change, ourselves. This is not to say that we are to blame. Although, generally, we are at fault. I disagree with placing blame. For an individual, it is most effective to recognize where we are responsible rather than place blame on the other. This means asking what part did I play in how my life got to where it is. In my client's case, she wants to get to a place where she feels her needs are attended to by her husband. So she starts by asking herself what part she played in allowing the relationship to get to where she does not feel heard or attended to.
This takes us all the way back to the beginning of the problem. Where real change can take place. Otherwise, we end up arguing about things in the moment that are unhelpful in resolving the real issue. Many people, whether in a relationship or single, struggle with taking responsibility for their circumstances. Especially when those circumstances feel unfair or out of our control. We focus on how today's mishaps are derailing our life rather than looking back at how we allowed ourselves to get there in the first place. To continue the example of my client, I asked, "when did it become acceptable for your husband to not listen to you?". Her response, "its never been ok for him not to listen to me" after some contemplation, it changed to "I have never known what it felt like to be heard and to have my needs attended to, so I didn't know to speak up and say I don't feel heard."
This understanding can lead her down a path of practical change and action. She could now take the focus off of what her husband was "not" doing and put it on what she "could" do. For example, exploring why she never learned how it felt to be heard allows her to understand why she could never speak up. This can lead to identifying what it is like to feel heard so that when she does not feel heard, she can say something! Suddenly, the abstract questions about "what if" are no longer relevant because she has something to change before asking the question about her husband's actions.
General abstract questions protect us from identifying what we can do to change because when we recognize our responsibility, we also recognize how we can fail. Remember, these defenses think they are doing you a favor, but generally, they are not helpful. Taking responsibility for her needs allows my client to communicate in the moment. Turning abstract problems into minor practical issues that can be resolved. She can express her needs explicitly and effectively so that her husband has an opportunity to listen and she has a chance to feel heard. If she doesn't feel heard, the focus becomes "not feeling heard," not what her husband could or should do. Then a once overwhelming abstract problem can become a minor, manageable problem with actionable steps in the moment.
We find power and security in our agency; rather than being paralyzed with fear about "what someone might or might not do," we find power and safety in our agency. Identifying where you are responsible for a problem is an effective start. Do you remember the abstract question, "what do I do if my husband doesn't listen to me?" After all of this exploration, this question is no longer abstract. When she can identify how it feels to be heard, she can ask for it, knowing confidently that she is being clear and effective. Her husband's response will answer her question, "what do I do if he doesn't listen to me?" Maybe he never knew any better and needed to be taught to listen. Or he doesn't want to hear and has no interest in caring for her needs. No matter the reason for the husband's shortcomings, all of these experiences can answer my client's critical question: How can I change to get what I need from my husband? Starting with personal responsibility defends us from the abstract questions that can distract us from achieving meaningful change.