Ditch the Blame: From Curiosity to Change

Suzanne came in frustrated with her family. “I’ve been taking care of my elderly father for the past few years. I turned my life upside down to accommodate his needs and wants, building an addition on my house, making sure he gets to his doctor’s appointments, taking him on trips to visit family and friends, and generally integrating him into my life. I love him and am glad to be there for him, but my brothers and sisters never help out. I’m doing all the work and they can’t ask me what I need?!? I don’t get it!”

Joseph was angry with his parents. “All they do is lecture me, millennial this and millennial that. I tried college, but it wasn’t my thing. I’m working, but I just don’t make that much money. I don’t want to go to a trade school. I just want a good job so my girlfriend and I can get married. Why can’t they just get off my back and leave me alone?”

Thelma was sick of her friends. “All the do is want to play with dolls. I hate dolls. Why can’t they ever do what I want to do?”

Any given day I sit across from people complaining about other people. The old joke is, “there’s a therapist somewhere that knows everything about your life, but you’ve never met them.”

To address these challenges, I begin with using the technique of curiosity. There’s always more to the story, especially if the main theme is blame. You’d be amazed what people don’t mention until you ask! Turns out not only did Suzanne specifically volunteer for the caretaker role (without asking or offering it to her siblings), her father also pays a significant part of her monthly expenses. Joseph, it seems, has been living with his girlfriend rent-free in his parent’s basement for ten years. And not only had Thelma never suggested a different game to play, she has been pretending to like dolls, so her friends didn’t know she was frustrated.

For the next step, I work with each person to find the emotion underneath the anger, and validate their experience. Suzanne felt lonely and invisible, Joseph felt incompetent and like a burden, Thelma felt weird and alone.

Finally, we brainstorm and experiment! Suzanne needed more social time away from her father, including spending time with her siblings. She also joined a caregiver support group, where she could share her challenges with others who could relate. Joseph and I created some short- and long-term goals with specific steps, including getting a place of his own with his girlfriend. Thelma practiced with me how to be honest but kind with her friends, and was delighted when they said yes to her suggestion of playing a game.