Greg

This manís 16 year old son had been unsuccessful in his search for a summer job. Greg was a schoolteacher and knew of openings in the summer program, no training or experience required. He offered to help his son get a position at the school. According to Greg, his sonís response was a rather disinterested "Nah", to which Greg then replied, "Well, then you arenít getting any spending money for next year." Well, it was pretty obvious to me as it must be to you, that this man was angry at his son. Also that he was hurt. Heíd reached out to help, his son had responded in a dismissing way, and Greg had lashed out in return. Obvious to us, but Greg insisted he had no such feelings. He maintained that his only motivation was to "just tell him the financial facts", his only feeling during and after the exchange being "some disappointment". 

Just to be sure weíre not engaging in groundless speculation, letís go over the logic: If all he wanted to do was inform his son of the financial realities, why did he say it with such a vengeful tone? He doesnít usually speak to his son or to anyone else with such rudeness. Nor is Greg a stupid man; he knows how to talk to people. He knows full well that such speech could only antagonize his son, decreasing the chance that heíd accept help with the job search and further poison their relationship. Why then would this otherwise intelligent and reasonable man remain unaware of what is so obvious to us? And how powerful this resistance must be to protect him from so much. How dominant must it be in his personality, his daily functioning, for it to overwhelm awareness of even the simplest data -- feeling anger at his son, and the words and tone that expressed that anger. 

And why does Greg need this resistance? Well, at the simplest level it is unflattering to think one is taking vengeance on oneís son; how much more appealing and comfortable to interpret oneís behavior as simple fatherly concern. (Remember, though, that this reinterpretation is an unconscious process.) More unsettling than that, however, is the can of worms that is opened by awareness of even this simple incident. If Greg sees his true feelings and behavior in this exchange with his son, it exposes him to a whole realm of painful experiences. These include other moments of hostility and resentment towards his son, other dissatisfactions with his life and his family, feelings of neglect and dismissal by them and by others in his life, consequent rage and hostility, earlier and more painful experiences of a similar nature, and on and on. So awareness of this single incident, of what happened inside him and between him and his son, runs the risk of shaking up his whole experience of himself and his life, his whole "take" on everything.

Now guess what Greg told me in our first session he wanted from treatment: Would you believe "help getting along with my son"? The area of his life he explicitly wants help with is that which he most resists. (Ironic contradictions like this contribute to making psychotherapy such a quirky task for both patient and therapist. But then they also make the process interesting.)

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