Powerlessness and Perspectives

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A mother of an eight year old daughter who is having severe emotional problems has come to me for help with the conflicts she is having with the girl’s father.  Their brief marriage ended just after the girl was born. 

There are a couple of upcoming meetings with the daughter’s school and with the clinic which is addressing her emotional problems.  These meetings could be held separately with mom and dad or they could happen together.  It is hard for the parents to be in the same room with each other but Mom wants to work at addressing the issues between her and Dad so that their daughter experiences less stress.

When Mom received an email from school about the plan for separate meetings she hit “reply all” and suggested they meet together.  She then contacted Dad to suggest that they should work at working together.  He replied that she was once again trying to control everything and that he had set up a separate meeting.

Mom wrote to me aware that the feelings she had discovered of a sense of strength and purpose in acting on behalf of her daughter had withered in the face of Dad’s attack.  She was again feeling sad and weak.

My response to her: I hear your discouragement at how Dad is showing up in the relationship with you and that your efforts at reconciliation are no match for his efforts at alienation.  You are noticing that the feelings you have about yourself for what you are trying to do changed back in just 24 hours and you would like to recover a sense of power and purpose.  So let me offer a couple of observations.

When we were talking about what you see going on and what your concerns are and how you would like things to be, you began to feel more calm and focused and even powerful.  When you begin to focus on Dad and what he is doing and whether his choices make sense, you begin to feel out of kilter and even sad and weak.

When we are focused on things we can do something about we feel powerful.  When we are focused on things we can’t change we feel helpless and hopeless.  When we are focused on things within ourselves we feel centered.  When we begin to focus all of our attention on others we start to feel off center.  We start to wobble.

I am not suggesting that you don’t pay attention to what is going on with Dad.  It is even helpful to try to anticipate how he will feel about and respond to what you might do.  I am just suggesting you do that from a vantage point which is within your sense of your Self, your values, your perspective.

Having said that, I will now appear to argue the opposite position.  You look at the choices Dad is making—as that he doesn’t want to meet with you at school but will go to a meeting with you at the clinic—and you don’t see them as making sense.  And that is true; from your perspective they don’t make sense.  They only make sense from Dad’s perspective.  For you to see the sense they make, you would have to want to be able to see from his perspective.  Is there any benefit to seeing things from his perspective?

We get stuck on this because we assume there is only one valid perspective.  When we make that assumption, we then fight over who has the right perspective.  When instead we start with the assumption that there are many valid perspectives but that they are all partial…even my own…then there is something to be gained by seeing from the perspective of the other.  I can get a fuller sense of what is going on.

So, holding fast to your own perspective and not abandoning your own values and hopes, can you see anything that is valid about Dad’s perspective which is different from your own?

One thing that occurs to me (and I don’t really know much about what is going on) is that the school and the clinic are the ones creating the meetings and they may have different goals for the meetings.  Those differences require meeting separately or together.  Another is that neither of you likes being in the presence of the other.  You both feel like the other is trying to make you lose.

So there are aspects of the perspectives from which you both approach this situation that are the same and arrayed against each other.  You are both afraid.  You are both feeling controlled by the other.  You are both looking from the same place, just in opposite directions.  You may not be ready to acknowledge this to Dad, but, if you can hold onto this awareness for yourself, it may help you to stay calm and centered.

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