On damaging relationship styles - further considerations

NB: To understand this article fully, readers should read first ‘On damaging relationship styles’ that I wrote previously.

The humanistic psychotherapist, Everett Shostrom, proposed that the healthy, self-actualizing adult should possess the following feelings-based stances towards others and the world: caring (healthy love); compassion (healthy vulnerability); assertion (healthy anger); and courage (healthy exercising of one’s personal strengths).

He was, however, only too well aware that it is a challenge for practically everyone to embody these stances - at least in any sustained way. His explanation for this was that, when we were children, we were much more focused on surviving rather than on self-actualizing (becoming our true and best selves), and this means that we tend to substitute the above with a (sadly) more familiar list of feeling-based stances: placating and people-pleasing (an unhealthy form of love that is based on denying our anger); weakness (an unhealthy form of vulnerability that manifests as apathy and withdrawal and is a denial of our personal strengths); blame and hostility (an unhealthy form of anger that is a denial of our tender feelings); and conniving and ruthless power-seeking (an unhealthy form of strength that is based on a denial of one’s vulnerability).

Interestingly, these manipulative tactics match quite closely the Karen Horney relating styles that I described in a previous article on this site. To describe this more fully:

  • Moving away: this is what happens when someone is feeling that they are weak and unable to confront the challenges that life poses. Withdrawing is both an implicit declaration of defeat, as well as a means of manipulating others to take care of the tasks that you do not want to face.
  • Moving against: this is the style adopted by someone who is caught in the trap of asserting their prowess (mental/physical), ‘invulnerability’ and their sense of righteousness (i.e. blaming others). The manipulative nature of this stance is that by tricking, intimidating or impressing others, you can get your own way.
  • Moving towards: this is the style adopted by those that want to be so loved that they are unwilling to stand up for themselves. They are too agreeable, but they secretly hope on some level that this yea-saying will lead to the conquest of the loved one. More fully, as Sartre observed, masochistic submission is passive, but with a very ambitious aim: by being so agreeable, one hopes that the lover will see oneself as the answer to all of his/her desires (after all, you will not say ‘no’ to any of them) and so you will become his/her world.

Shostrom’s descriptions offer some more specific ideas on tackling these damaging relationship styles and moving to a more balanced and more varied way of relating to others:

  • Moving away: it is important to realise that you have been living your life according to the idea of strength as a kind of invulnerability; consequently, since you do not feel ‘invulnerable’, it is difficult for you to believe in your capacity to face situations using your personal strengths and resources and withdrawal seems the strategic thing to do. What you need is a definition of strength that is realistic and that you can eventually ‘inhabit’: courage fits this description, as courage is not unadulterated strength, but taking action in spite of one’s fears and vulnerabilities. Either on your own or with a suitable therapist, work on becoming aware of your strengths and undertake, in a gradual way, more and more challenging actions in spite of how you might feel unnerved.
  • Moving against: on some level you believe that expressing tender feelings is a form of submitting to a ‘stronger’ person and it puts you at a strategic disadvantage, as your openness means you can be hurt. In your own personal work, either on your own or with a therapist, it is crucial for you to become aware that your ‘hardness’ is actually more weakness than true strength: yes, you may not be taken readily advantage of, but your denial of your tender and vulnerable feelings constitutes a denial of a big part of who you are - indeed, the part that connects you to others. Working on your own or with a therapist, try and get back in touch with your vulnerable inner child and try and incorporate that trusting and open part of yourself into your relationships with others.
  • Moving towards: what is vital here is to become aware of how much your constant agreeableness is a most self-destructive act, precisely because it is to act as if one did not have a self. Self-assertion is, in the most fundamental sense, the ability to say ‘no’ when someone violates our fundamental values. Either on your own or with a therapist, get in touch with your anger (hard as you might have tried to suppress it, you will have felt anger) and also work on defining clearly what matters to you and what you would fight for. More generally, work on spending time on your own at points and following interests that involve solitude; this is a way of starting to define yourself in ways that do not always involve another person.           

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16
Written by Dr Alexander Fox, (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))
Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16

I am a pluralistic counsellor in private practice in the city centre of Dundee. I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches, so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.

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