What “Ruthlessness”Feels Like From The Inside

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Amy: For some reason, when I first heard my co-blogger Dave use the word “ruthless” I loved it. I’m not sure why, except that it seemed so incorrect, so impolite, so selfish. As I said, I loved it. I may be wrong, but I think this word may feel especially alien to women. Despite the profound changes in terms of gender roles, I believe  that women still tend toward greater degrees of accommodation, paying attention to what’s good for the relationship, not just the self.  And this is, often, a good thing.

I also think this collaborative tendency of women is probably nature, as well as socialization. In her wonderful book, “You Just Don’t Understand”, linguist Deborah Tannen explores some of the differences between the sexes, as she observes the way little children play on the playground. Little girls are, of course, often talking, negotiating, aligning and re-aligning relationships, while little boys are playing some version of “King of the Hill.”

That said, I enjoy being invited to think about my own “ruthlessness”, both personally and professionally. My take on ruthlessness has to do with how we maintain our beliefs, our vision, our ethics–who we are–in the face of the demands for conformity. In other words, how free are we to think for ourselves, openly, in the face of opposition or disapproval?

One thing that I learned about myself rather early on is that I have an aversion to being coerced. I react poorly, and I think it has to do with my need to honor my personal freedom and integrity. It’s very difficult, if not impossible for me to do something, or say something, I don’t believe in.  For the most part, this subtle ferocity doesn’t usually present problems in my relationships with people: My Russian grandmother famously commented that “Amela (her nickname for me) gets along with all the children.” And this ability to “get along” has held true for all my life.

But…but… there’s a risk in holding true to one’s self.  And the risk is that we, I,  must deal with the disapproval of others. To maintain one’s integrity–ruthlessness–requires the ability to tolerate not being liked. Ouch.

An early test of these waters for me occurred in high school, one  of my first public displays of ruthlessness. It was the 1968, the height of the social protests against the Viet Nam War. My boyfriend and I attended our school’s Friday night basketball game, which always began with the playing of the National Anthem. This particular night, in a protest against the killing in Viet Nam, we decided not to stand, as was customary. I still remember the feeling of being the only one, with my boyfriend, among several hundred people, not standing. I don’t remember that anyone really cared, and we certainly didn’t get heckled.  But sitting there, uncomfortable and embarrassed, waiting for the damned Anthem to end, I remember feeling a kind of inner pride for staying true to myself.

This kind of stubbornness shows up often in my family therapy practice.  I think it’s a prerequisite for effective therapeutic work. Every couple or family who come to see me arrives with a certain unconscious script that they would like me to follow. They want me to see things as they see them, to conform to their ideas of themselves. And of course, part of my job is to disrupt their way of seeing themselves, and each other. This is a subtle process, and one which puts me at odds with  the people who come to me for help. As Dave Keith says, “Psychotherapy is the only business where the customer is always wrong.”

I’m reminded of a recent couple I worked with, where the wife’s inability to get me to see things her way ended the treatment. This was a middle-aged couple, with two kids, the last of whom was getting ready to head to college. When they came to see me, the wife clearly thought her husband, whom she saw as “loud” and “boisterous” was at the problem. She brought him to me to fix.

I liked this couple, and helped them, to a certain extent. The wife was quite an intelligent and  intuitive person, with a strong spiritual orientation. The husband, superficially rougher around the edges, turned out to be a very caring guy, and quite astute psychologically. But when I work with couples I am never fair. I may “side” with one partner or the other, for a while. Sometimes for one session, or maybe more. This is needed to bring the relationship into better balance.

In this case, the therapy ended because the wife couldn’t get me to see her husband exactly as she did. She needed to keep him as the patient, and was very reluctant to become a patient herself. From my therapist’s perch, I observed how she contributed to the pain in the relationship, how she controlled her husband in ways in which she was unaware. And she tried to control the therapy; I wanted to bring in other family members–especially one child who apparently had a lot of anxiety, as well as parents– all of which she refused. It became clear she didn’t trust me. I think she couldn’t trust me to do it her way. Which I didn’t, couldn’t, and wouldn’t do.

That’s one way therapeutic “ruthlessness” can manifest in the office setting. I cared about these people, including the wife. But I could see things she couldn’t see, which I am supposed to do. In this case, the wife only saw the therapy as useful when I “sided” with her. Then I was great. Otherwise, I was not to be trusted. I addressed this openly, both seriously and playfully,  with her.

She decided to end the therapy, short of getting what they needed out of it. I was sorry, and not sorry. The therapy had begun to feel impaired. I knew I couldn’t do what she wanted me to do. I knew I wouldn’t be helpful to her if I did it her way, not matter what she thought. I could not be “supportive” in the way she wanted me to be.  My sense of personal responsibility, professional honesty, my brand of “ruthlessness” doesn’t allow for me to want to be” liked” at all costs. And I’ve learned to live with that.

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