Moving Mountains. . .of Underwear

I once had a therapy client who couldn’t get her unemployed husband to do anything. She’d beg him to apply to jobs. She’d lecture him about going to therapy. She criticized him for leaving his dirty underwear on the bathroom floor. You can guess how effective this strategy was.

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If you’ve ever participated in any communication training, you’ve been taught to use I-statements. You’re told that a feeling statement helps a person understand your point of view. “I feel X when you do Y.”  My client had tried this approach. “I feel sad when you don’t take care of yourself.” “I feel hopeless when you avoid looking for jobs.” “I feel angry when you leave your underwear in the bathroom!” All this did was dial up the anxiety in the relationship.

You might be shocked to hear this from a therapist, but I think feeling statements are overrated. At their core, these statements are still commands. They may have the word “I” at the beginning, but they still imply that the other person must change in order for you to calm down or be content. They often communicate, “You are to blame for my distress, and you are responsible for making me feel better.” Yikes.

I-statements are great for making someone feel even more guilty or anxious. But if you’d love to calm down, and increase the chance that someone will change, let me suggest a different strategy. In Bowen Theory, it’s called the I-position. To make one, you simply announce what you are going to do, when someone performs said annoying behavior. And then you do exactly what you say you’re going to do.

I asked my client what she currently did when her husband left his dirty underwear on the floor. She shared that picking them up and putting them in the hamper didn’t seem to work. She wanted to try and leave them where they were. So one morning at the breakfast table, she announced to her husband, “I’m just letting you know, that I’m not going to pick up your underwear anymore. I’m going to leave it where I see it.” Her husband swallowed his bite of bagel, and said okay.

Saying it was easy enough, but then came the hard part. This woman had to manage her distress while she waited for the change to happen. She had to walk past a growing mountain of dirty underwear for a few weeks. But one day, her husband was bored enough, and bothered enough by the mountain, to throw it in the washing machine. Victory. He now knew that his clothes wouldn’t magically disappear and reappear clean in his dresser.

When you take an I-position, you’re not being aggressive, or even passive aggressive. You’re announcing to the other person, “This is what you can expect from me from this moment.” Sure, you might get pushback, or refusal, and then you may have to take another I-position. But your focus is on your responsibility, and not trying to manage the other person. This can give them the breathing space to calm down, and to take responsibility for themselves.

Let me give you a few examples

Scenario: Your mother calls you 27 times a day.
Don’t Say: Will you please get a life, woman!
Try Saying: I am not available to answer the phone all day. I will call you on Sundays and Wednesdays at 8pm, and we can catch up. Otherwise, I can only respond to emergencies this week.

Scenario: Your brother loves to get into aggressive political debates when he’s drinking.
Don’t Say: Stop trying to debate me when you’re buzzed. It’s so annoying!
Try Saying: From now on, I will have to leave when you’ve been drinking and want to argue.

Scenario: Your kid takes forever to get started on her homework.
Don’t Try: You need to stop stalling and get started now.
Try Saying: I will be unplugging the Internet router at 6pm if your homework is not finished.

Few people change instantly when you take your I-position. In fact, they’re likely to dial up their helplessness. They will complain, throw a fit, or accuse you of being cold. But the initial pushback is simply a sign that you’re shaking things up. If you can hold the position long enough, it’s surprising to see how a relationship system will reorganize itself. Sure, the person might go find someone else to annoy or to overfunction for them. But now you’re off the hook.

When we’re stressed or anxious, we put all our energy into making the other person change. Learning to step back and calmly state what they can expect from you takes a lot of observation and practice. But it is a wonderful strategy for calming down yourself, your family, your office, and any group of humans. It’s also a great strategy for helping the people you love learn to be more responsible for themselves.

This week, I’d like to think about how you try to get other people to change a behavior that bothers you. How can you turn your focus back on yourself, and communicate what you’re going to do? How can you make space to be surprised by other people’s capabilities?

News from Kathleen:  

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