September 23, 2009

Why We Believe, Part 2: When the Payoff Is Hard to Find

When a client (or I myself) can't easily answer the Question Three subquestion, "Why do you hold this belief? How is it serving you?" I use this additional subquestion: "What do you fear would happen if you didn't believe this thought?" This is another way to reveal how the client has been using the stressful thought to attain or to avoid something.

Example: The client' statement is, "My husband shouldn't have affairs." After doing some inquiry, she still believes this is true. I ask her if the thought is peaceful or stressful and she says, "It's a peaceful thought. We took marriage vows. I didn't agree to his being unfaithful."

"Okay," I ask, "And what is the reality of it? Is he having affairs?" "Yes." "Is that peaceful or stressful for you?" "Well, of course that is stressful."

"It is stressful,' I say, "because it is what is true—he is having affairs—and you want that to be different from what it is."

"I can see where fighting with reality is driving me crazy."

"Then why do you hold the belief that he shouldn't have affairs, when he is? How is this thought serving you?" The client says the belief isn't serving her at all, and yet she believes it, and because she relies on her husband for financial support for her and her children, she won't leave him.

Mext, I ask her what she fears would happen if she didn't continue to believe this stressful thought. Her answer: "If I didn't believe that my husband shouldn't have affairs, I'd be a doormat; he'd just cheat on me forever and I would have to pretend it didn't matter."

Usually, the client's answer to this subquestion points to what is already happening, if only in his/her mind. In this case, my client is complaining about a man who is already having sex outside of their marriage. She already feels like a doormat with the thought that he shouldn't, because it flies in the face of what's true: he does. And she is already pretending nothing terrible is happening, so as to spare her children any grief.

So again, I ask, what is it the payoff for holding this belief? She hopes it will help her not to feel like a doormat. She thinks it gives her some control over her husband's behavior. ("He'd cheat on me forever" is another thought that the client could question.)

The client sees how she has been causing herself stress in the name of trying to get peace. It's an honest mistake, one that I daresay most of us make quite often. It doesn't mean she has to condone her husband's behavior, or divorce him, or stay with him. This is just a window on her inner world.

What followed was that the client realized she didn't really care that her husband had sex with other women (in fact she was relieved that he wasn't pressuring her into sex); only that his doing so would mean she might be deprived of his support. "If he cheats on me, he'll leave me, and it means that I will be without support."

Now, seeing that her "shouldn't" thought was a projection into a frightening and non-existent future (could it be that he wouldn't leave her, or that if he did, she would still be supported?), she was able to be, if not sanguine, at least saner about the situation, aware that she had choices and did not have to be a victim of her husband's behavior.

But what if you believe you really do need things to be different? In Part 3 of this series, we'll look at whether our thoughts are really about needs...or if they are merely tantrums.

©2009 by Carol L. Skolnick. All rights reserved.


PCarino said...

I don't understand the disclaimer "It doesn't mean she has to condone her husband's behavior." In what sense is this not condoning his behavior?

Julie said...

Love this. And when I'm convinced someone else shouldn't, I get to be right!

Carol L. Skolnick said...

Dear Paula,

The words "should" and "shouldn't" indicate matters of duty or propriety. They are best applied to oneself, in my experience: I can't know what behavior is right for someone else. It doesn't mean I have to like what others do, stay in the situation where I'm unhappy. It doesn't mean I don't work for change, for my own sake.

If I take a "they shouldn't" belief and turn it around to "they should," it is simply a statement of fact: they should do what they do because...they do. It's what is happening now. This is not to say I welcome what they are doing, that I have to live with it, that I can't have an opinion about it or speak my mind, or that I won't mourn for losing what I thought I had, or for not getting what I thought I wanted.

"He shouldn't cheat on me" is like saying "It shouldn't rain." Lots of luck in controlling that!

What is truer in this instance? "I shouldn't cheat on me." I am cheating on myself if I remain with a cheating husband and if I am clear I want a partner who is monogamous. I can ask him to stop, and he will or he won't; that is not under my control. Can I be true to myself and what I want, either way? If I stay in the situation I say I don't like, that is tacit approval, condoning; there is something in it for me.

PCarino said...

I think I see what you're gettin' at. Thanks for expanding.

Lisa Biskup said...

Nice article, Carol. Thanks.