Dear Nick and Nora:
A rose by any other name: damage control.
At my last session with Paul, he told me that shortly after his baby was born that his best friend, Laura, took the baby to Rose as part of her regular hospital duties. Rose immediately bombarded Laura with abuse and accusations. Everyone in the maternity ward could hear her loud and emphatic voice, and they remembered the things she said because her charges were so serious and alarming.
All of us can tell a story, so the response confirms what we believe. I thought this was what Paul was doing so I’d sympathize with him and condemn Rose. I was wrong.
When Paul learned what Rose had staged, he knew that it would be a hot topic of hospital gossip for months, even years, to come. The story would morph in unpredictable ways, but it would stick to Laura. Envy of her extraordinary credentials would ensure the tale would be retold long after the loss of its novelty and entertainment value. Paul said he was furious with Rose, and this, the day their child was born, was the end of the marriage as far as he was concerned.
Nevertheless, he knew better than to confront or criticize Rose. Paul had spent years establishing independence from his father, but that’s who he called for Laura’s sake. Paul went to and stayed with Rose while they both admired the baby, and Paul pretended that he didn’t know what had happened.
As soon as Paul’s parents found Laura, they brainstormed about how the mess caused by their daughter-in-law could be contained. What follows is Paul’s reconstruction of the conversation between his parents and Laura.
• • •
They quickly agreed there was no point in criticizing Rose or her behavior. It would be a waste of their energy. Instead, they focused on creating something positive from a very negative incident.
After a few false starts, Paul’s mother observed, “Laura, you’ve always been a superstar. I doubt that you’ve ever had someone challenge and humiliate you the way Rose has just done. Am I right?”
She was, and so she went on, “I don’t know where I’m going with this, but you, Laura, have been immune from criticism. I have to say this for Rose, she knew exactly how to get you. She knew what to say and exactly where, when and how to say it.”
Paul’s father said, “Maybe you’re right, but where does it get us?”
They didn’t know. Laura was on the verge of tears for the first time, and Paul’s parents felt nearly as bad as she did.
Then Laura spoke, “I’m absolutely humiliated. I became a doctor so I could help people. When I am dealing with a sick child and his family, I hold a tremendous amount of power — and I admit that I want to be the powerful person in the white coat rather than the suffering sick person. I know power is circumstantial; I have it because of the situation not because I, by myself, am powerful. I could be kidnapped or I could get sick or I could be accused of a crime — so long power.”
Paul’s father used the power he was accustomed to having as a way to define who he was. He didn’t want to hear about its transitory nature from his protégé, Laura, or from anyone else. He asked, “Laura, what are you talking about?”
“Well, it’s something that’s occurred to me, but I’ve always refused to think about it. I’ve spent the last few years of my life with suffering people, but I’ve never suffered myself. In a way it’s obscene. But what can I do? Should I seek out and submit to artificial suffering? That would be disrespectful of the genuine suffering that’s all around me.”
Paul’s mother asked, “Are you saying that Rose caused you to suffer and it was a good thing?”
Laura said, “Maybe, but let’s be careful with the word suffering. No matter how painful my 30 seconds with Rose this morning, it doesn’t begin to compare with what my patients and their families have endured.
“The word ‘ego’ is used in different ways. A psychiatrist I know defines his use as: ‘the person you think you are.’ Our perceptions of ourselves are always distorted. It’s a life-task to come to a better and better understanding of who we really are: know thyself. To see if your ego is working up a defense of some false aspect of itself, see if you resonate with the sentence, ‘How dare you?’ How dare you is what I wanted to yell back at Rose as soon as she got going.”
Paul’s father asked, “What can you do about it? What can we do about it?”
Paul’s mother answered, “I might have this wrong. Maybe I should let Laura finish, but I need to see if she and I are on the same track. Laura could acknowledge that she has been humiliated by what Rose said. Rose was injured by something Laura did, so Laura has learned that she isn’t quite the healer she would like to be and she never will be able to avoid hurting people when she doesn’t know what she is doing to cause harm. She’s not beyond criticism and she’s not beyond humiliation. A person acting in a certain way can take Laura’s power away. Laura is also subject to humiliation that will have a long-lasting effect in spite of and because of her accomplishments.
“So with amazing efficiency, Rose has helped Laura to see that she can injure without intent, and that her near-divine power can be taken from her in less than a minute. Laura, who values humility but who has not had many opportunities to feel humble, was given an experience she needed and will never forget. She’s actually grateful to Rose for the efficiency of the lesson.
“That’s what Laura should say to anyone who wants to know about the incident. When we are asked about what happened, and we surely will be, that’s what we’ll say about it. The message to filter back to Rose will be one of gratitude.”
Laura said, “That’s it. That’s it exactly.”
• • •
How people learn and how they express what they’ve learned is fascinating. This was the turning point in the case for Paul. He didn’t tell me anything about his attitude or about his power to influence the way he felt or what he thought about.
Instead, he told me two stories — including one that re-created a conversation he wasn’t part of (to a considerable degree it was a product of his imagination, not historical record). His first story was about the way his “successful” friend Coby instantaneously changed his attitude from abusive to subservient to get what he wanted.
This story was about how his family and oldest friend found a way to recharacterize Rose’s behavior from vicious to nearly charitable. With these stories he was telling me that he “got it.” He did.
• • •
Now it was time to see if I could help Rose. First, I would check to see if she was using her visits with her family to fuel her anger — and their anger — toward Paul. For this, I might simply ask a straightforward question.
The second question was more delicate. The rejection by Paul was Rose’s humiliation — and worse than humiliation was her possible sense of shame. As Paul’s wife and as a mother, Rose’s high-achieving, competitive and closely connected family had given her a big and approved role to play; she couldn’t do it. By “shame” I mean Rose’s fear that this failure would result in a distancing or even an exclusion from her own family. If she was experiencing that fear, it might be without basis or it could be something that could happen.
If the cycles of anger toward and punishment of Paul were a way to avoid coming to terms with her sense of shame, it could go on indefinitely. As insightful as Paul had just become, his tolerance and forbearance couldn’t go on indefinitely. If I could “explicate” the issue of shame in a way that didn’t frighten or humiliate Rose, I thought it would be better to let her deal with it and her family on her own. Rose was volatile, so an attempt to persuade her to act in a particular way carried a risk that had less than an identifiable benefit. Paul should be easier to deal with, and I was considering one or more acts he could do to mitigate Rose’s grief.
— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.