A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

You're Asking For It?

"You're just asking for it:"Just a figure of speech?


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In my last blog post of 12/11/2011, I mentioned the case of a mother who stuck her nose in her teenaged daughter's face and started berating her just as the daughter was starting to go into a rage.  The daughter had an extensive history of violent temper outbursts.  Not surprisingly, the daughter responded by socking her mother in the face.

Ever hear the expression, "You're asking for it?"  Parents will say to children, "You're just asking for a spanking."  People use that phrase facetiously, as if they do not truly mean that they think the person literally wants what they are "asking" for.  Why would anyone ask for a beating? 

The point of today's post is that they actually do believe the person is "asking for it."  The reason they say it as if they're just using a figure of speech is that the person uttering the phrase knows he or she will be attacked for offering this theory seriously.

They fear that they will be accused of "blaming the victim."  They hear what now happens to, for example, rapists who try to blame their victims because they wore provocative clothing.  They know how terrible that sounds - as well it should.

 On the other hand, if you frequently walk down dark alleys in bad parts of town at 2 AM in a bikini with hundred dollar bills hanging out of your bra....

Before I proceed, let me quote my fellow blogger, the Last Psychiatrist:  "If you think I support domestic abuse-- if you think my not explicitly writing, ad nauseum, "NO TOLERANCE" or "IT'S NOT THE VICTIM'S FAULT" is evidence that I think "sometimes the bitch deserves it "then I can tell you without error that 2012 is going to be way too complicated a year for you to endure, and you are seeing a psychiatrist, and it isn't helping. Stop being you. The world does not have to validate your prejudices. Take a minute, you may learn from people you disagree with."

Michael Kerr, protégé of family systems therapy pioneer Murray Bowen, talks about the "reality wagon."  If you say either "It's all my fault," or "I had nothing to do with it," you may have fallen off the wagon.

Anyway, to get back to my point, let me give some examples of what I mean.

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In the advice column by Dear Abby  of 05/13/2011, a 19-year-old woman complained about the way her two younger sisters were treating their mother. When the writer was 4, the mom had gone to prison for eight years, but the experience of jail had somehow turned Mom's life around. At 38, the mother had a college degree, a loving husband, a good job and a new home. 

The two sisters said that they did not want to be part of the mother's life, but they never failed to call her at holiday and birthday time to pick up the gifts they know Mom has bought them. Afterward, they would not contact her or answer her calls and texts until the next holiday. From the letter writer's perspective, this repetitive dysfunctional interpersonal interaction would leave the mother depressed and feeling used. If the writer tried telling them to stop this, they would tell her to get out of their business. 

In her answer, Dear Abby opined that the two younger sisters were manipulative, selfish and self-centered, but correctly pointed out that the mother was enabling them to behave in this way. Abby astutely said that the mother might be giving and giving out of guilt, while the sister may be taking and taking in order to punish her.

On the surface, the younger sisters were in fact being manipulative, selfish, and self-centered. But - just maybe - they were really responding to what they believed the mother needed and wanted them to do. Perhaps Mom was feeling so guilty for being in jail during their childhood that she was actually inviting the girls to abuse her in this way. They may have been "helping" her to atone for her sins. The mother's seeming "need" for this was evidenced by the fact that Mom kept giving them stuff in spite of their mistreatment of her.

Under this interpretation, the sisters are giving the Mom the punishment they think she feels she deserves, while taking the heat off the mother by looking to everyone else as if they were the villains in the story. They are the ones who appear to be "acting badly."

Again, what I am proposing here is that people mean it when they say, "You're asking for it." They really think people are in fact asking for it when they do something knowingly that will surely lead to negative consequences. Why else would they do that?

The individual who says, "You're asking for it," however, does not know why the "asker" is doing so. He or she has to come up with some sort hypothesis to explain it. Maybe the other person is mad, bad, stupid, guilty, or just a masochist.

For another example, let's take the case of one not-uncommon type of abusive husband. In my most recent book, I describe the case of a woman who was married to a hyper-jealous and hyper-possessive husband with a history of violence.

One morning in a fit of pique [apologies to Tom Lehrer], she torched his prized vehicle and then had sex with his best friend. She then went home to tell him all about what she had done - in the nastiest way she could think of - and blamed her misbehavior on his inadequacy as a husband. So what happened next? Duh!

As I alluded to earlier, I am not suggesting that this guy's behavior should be excused. One should not beat someone else up no matter what the provocation, except perhaps in the case of Osama Bin Ladin. If I am a judge, he goes to jail and she does not. So do not write me a nasty note!

Now, if this husband were to tell, say, a marital therapist, that his wife was "asking for a beating," what response would he be likely to get in return? The therapist would almost certainly exhibit an angry and disgusted facial expression and accuse him, perhaps in a sugar-coated but still easy to spot way, of trying to justify his vile behavior through rationalizations and deflecting the blame for his own shortcomings onto his victim. The average abuser generally knows better than to subject himself to that - unless he actively wants the therapist to hate him.

Such a response would hardly be limited to a therapist. Most people would attack this guy unless they were afraid of him or somehow complicit. Better to use the phrase facetiously, no?

Now, "asking for it" does not have to be this clear and dramatic. Subtle behavior can draw out hostile responses just as well as can gargantuan provocations.

Eric Berne
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The great Eric Berne, founder of a type of psychotherapy called Transactional Analysis (TA) and author of the best-seller, Games People Play, describes a "game" that he calls Kick Me: This game is played by people whose social manner is equivalent to wearing a sign that reads "Please Don't Kick Me." The temptation for everyone is almost irresistible, and when the natural result follows, the person cries piteously, "But the sign says 'Don't kick me.'" Then he adds incredulously, "Why does this always happen to me?"

The mother in the Dear Abby letter might have been acting in such a manner with the younger daughters, while acting very differently with the eldest daughter. If this were the situation, the eldest daughter would probably not understand what the younger sisters were really reacting to, and blame them. Just as they would want. People are so thoughtful that way!

For a last example, let me explain my theory about why a parent harping on something his or her children are or are not doing tends to backfire and actually increases the odds that the child will keep doing the opposite of what they are ostensibly being told.  Some parents, for example, are so afraid that they are going to be bad parents that they start micromanaging their kids.  As parenting columnist John Rosemond pointed out, "Invariably, micromanaging results in four problems: deceit, disloyalty, conflict, and communication problems."

But why?  The reason is that children will often come to the conclusion that their parents need to micromanage them.  If they become independent, their parents do not seem to know what to do with themselves.  Far be it for a child to deprive a parent of a cherished role.

A common pattern I see is that parents, whose own parents may have been drug abusers or alcoholics, constantly monitor their children's every move to make sure that they are not tempted to drink or use.  They will turn their children's bedrooms up and down looking for contraband to make sure of this, even when their children have given absolutely no indication that they are doing drugs.

This parental behavior gives the children the message that the parents need to find contraband.  Why else would they keep looking for it?  Rather than decreasing the risk that the kids will become users or addicts, this parental behavior actually increases the risk.

You're asking for it.

 

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

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