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You Can't Change the Past - Why Talk About it?

The purpose of talking about the past is to change how it affects the present.

“The past is never dead. It's not even past.” - William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

This post is Part 4 of my continuing series, How to Talk to Relatives about Family Dysfunction. They provide win-win strategies for overcoming chronic repetitive problematic interactions between potentially loving family members.

In Part I, I discussed why family members hate to discuss their chronic interpersonal difficulties with each other (metacommunication), and what usually happens when they try. I discussed the most common avoidance strategy — merely changing the subject (strategy #1)—as well as suggesting effective countermoves to keep a constructive conversation on track. In Part 2, I discussed the avoidance strategies of nitpicking (#2) and accusations of over-generalizing (#3). In Part 3, I discussed attempts to change the subject by getting into the blame game, and taking a shifting stance as to who exactly is to blame for a given family problem (#4).

The goal of metacommunication is effective and empathic problem solving. I will once again discuss counterstrategies. As with all counter-strategies, maintaining empathy for the Other and persistence are key.

In this post, I discuss strategy #5, the use of fatalism to derail metacommunication. Fatalism basically boils down to the illogical statement, "You can't change the past, so why bother talking about it?" The sentiment behind the question is a non-sequitur, meaning in Latin, "it does not follow." There are other reasons to talk about the past besides the impossible wish to change it. Most importantly, one purpose in talking about the fast is to alter its effects on relationships in the present. We do have memories, you know.

Non-sequiturs are one example of logical fallacies, or what I like to call mental gymnastics, that can be used to stop attempts at family problems solving. This post will also cover non-sequiturs more broadly - their general use is strategy #6.

I again repeat the strong caution: Please be advised that sticking to the counterstrategies that I describe may be extremely difficult, so the services of a therapist who knows about these patterns are often necessary. For families in which violence and/or shattering invalidation of people who speak up is common, a therapist who can coach you in effectively employing the techniques is essential. Also, the advice in my posts is designed for adults dealing with other adults. It is not meant for metacommunciation with children and teens.

Strategy #5: Fatalism

Fatalism is a doctrine that advances the idea that almost all events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them. It is commonly used to refer to an attitude of helplessness and resignation in the face of some ongoing events which are thought to be unalterable, or in the face of some future event or events which are thought to be inevitable.

In metacommunication, fatalism is most commonly invoked in order to resist and discourage further attempts at solving family problems whenever somebody tries. When one family member wants to bring up a highly emotionally salient past event that has led to unresolved feelings, for example, a second family member protests, "Why are you bringing this up again? You cannot change the past."

Well of course you cannot change the past. At least not as far as we know, anyway. The past seems to be rather fixed, does it not? No one denies that. Perhaps there is an alternate universe out there somewhere, but if so, we have no access to it.

The fallacy here, as mentioned above, is the implication that the past is no longer having any effect on the present, nor will it have any continuing effect on the future. It implies that people are not affected by memories in the here and now, and that they do not use past events in order to predict future ones. It almost seems to be arguing that every moment in the present is entirely independent and disconnected from each and every previous moment.

Fatalism is unfortunately a significant component of the belief systems of many cultural groups that have emigrated to the United States. Many times, patients who attempt to metacommunicate about family problems so that they can be solved are accused of being troublemakers.

Another accusation based on a belief in fatalism is the charge that patients who are known to be in therapy are inappropriately trying to be psychiatrists themselves. "Quit trying to analyze everything!" is a frequent family rallying cry.

Fatalism-implying accusations can, however, be used to pave the way for individual family members to question, rather than perpetuate, established fatalistic family belief sys­tems. Individuals can empathize with fatalistic family members by admitting that they themselves used to think just as the family does. However, they then go on to add that they now have developed real doubts about those ideas.

Why shouldn't they try to analyze a situation? Understanding a problem is benefi­cial for figuring out a way to solve it. People in the family may disagree, but only because they feel helpless about changing their future. These feelings of helplessness often stem from past experiences or catastrophes that befell their forefathers. That anxiety has been passed down from one generation to the next, often with the source of the original anxiety becoming lost. Times have changed for the better, but the family continues to act as if these somewhat ancient horrors are still in operation.

In response to the accusation that they are dwelling on the past, individuals can point out how those past situations are continuing to affect the family's present situation. They can say that they are bringing them up because they want to have better relationships with the family. The old problems are creating distance, and they want to be closer.

In response to the charge that they are being troublemakers and creating dissonance in the family, individuals can reply that the dissonance already exists, and they are trying to reduce it by discussing its causes. They can add that if the bad feelings can be reduced, then the whole family will wind up feeling happier and warmer with one another.

Strategy #6: Non-Sequiturs

Family members frequently use logical fallacies to confuse the issue under discussion. The person who hears this type of “argument” is thrown for a loop and begins to doubt the validity of his or her own position. The most basic logical fallacy is the non-sequitur.

A non sequitur occurs when a conclusion is drawn deduc­tively that does not follow logically from the preceding proposi­tions. Someone will take a fact or make a generalization or a categorization, assert than some other fact or generalization is an example of this, and then draw a conclusion. This process is called deductive reasoning.

Correct deductive reasoning can best be demonstrated using syllogisms. Let us look at perhaps the most famous of all syllogisms:

All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The first thing one should understand, if one is to correctly evaluate deductive reasoning, is that this is a valid deduction whether or not the initial statements "All men are mortal" and "Socrates is a man" are true. A deduction - the last statement in the syllogism - can be judged to be valid if the structure of the syllogism is correct. This means that a conclusion can be completely wrong but the deduction can still be valid logically if the conclusion follows correctly from the initial propositions.

The truth of a proposition, as opposed to its logical validity, de­pends upon the truth of the information from which the propo­sition is deduced. In a valid syllogism, if the first two statements are true, then the conclusion must be true. The presence in the syllogism of the word all is extremely important. If some men are mor­tal and some are not, Socrates might fall outside the set of "things that are mortal," and the syllogism would become invalid. This is precisely why the equally famous fallacious syllogism

The Virgin Mary was a virgin.

My name is Mary.

Therefore, I am a virgin.

is invalid. The set of "people named Mary" falls both inside and outside of the set of "virgins." Therefore, Marys may or may not be virgins, and the conclusion is thus invalid. In this case it is not true that if the first two statements are true, the conclusion must be true, as would be the case with a valid syllogism.

A word here regarding inductive reasoning is in order. Inductive, as opposed to deductive, reasoning attempts to go in the reverse order. One attempts to make a generalization by examining several phenomena that seem to have something in common. One then makes the leap of faith that because all observed instances of the phenomena have this characteristic in common, therefore all instances of the phenomena, now or in the future, observed and not observed, share the characteristic.

For example, every ­time an object of whatever size or shape is dropped on earth, it falls down. The inductive conclusion is that the set of "things that fall down" entirely subsumes the set of "things that can he dropped" and that anything droppable will fall down if dropped. One makes the prediction that any new object that can be dropped will head earthward if one picks it up and lets it go.

Now the deduction "since all observed instances of a cer­tain phenomenon behave a certain way or have certain things in common, therefore all future instances of the same phenomenon will continue to behave in the same way and have the same things in common" is in all instances a non sequitur. One might come upon an exception to the rule at any time. In other words, all inductive conclusions are invalid!

Nonetheless, induc­tive conclusions are not necessarily unreasonable and are fre­quently correct. I have in my hand a pencil, which I plan to hold up and then let go. Will it fall? I predict, on the basis of induc­tive reasoning, that it will. Let’s see. Well, I'll be. It did it again!

The reasonableness of an inductive conclusion is evalu­ated not by logic but by whether enough instances of the phe­nomenon have been observed to make a generalization possible and by whether there are any instances that contradict the gen­eralization. Deductive reasoning, or reasoning based on proof, would not be possible without inductive reasoning. It would be impossible to conclude that Socrates was mortal if one could not make the generalization "All men are mortal."

The deter­mination of how many instances are required to decide whether an inductive conclusion is reasonable is a very subjective matter, because no matter how many instances there are, the next one could always be the exception. For this reason, anyone look­ing for mental gymnastics when someone else makes an inductive conclusion best asks the questions: Are there significant excep­tions to the generalization that the first person is is making? If so, are they obvious, if only the person would look for them?

I will now describe a case in which a patient presented a therapist with a goodly number of non sequiturs. She was a single woman who came in complaining about being subjected to severely and significant repetitive sexual harassment by a co-worker. The question the therapist posed was why she had made an appointment to see a psychiatrist in the first place, since she did not seem to have any evident psychiatric problem.

As it later turned out, she did not really want to give the real answer because she was protecting her mother from both the judgment of the therapist and from her own rage. So she gave spurious and very subtly non-rational reasons in order to throw the therapist off the track.

Her chief complaint was that she was upset - but only because someone was doing something to her about which almost anyone would be upset. People usually see a therapist because they believe there is something wrong with them or with their reactions to things. That did not seem to be the case with this woman. Why wasn’t she talking to her boss or a lawyer, the therapist wondered? Actually, she was in the process of doing both!

The therapist could not seem to get a satisfying answer from her to the central question, and knew for certain that something else was going on with her when the non sequiturs began.

She first stated that she must have done something to make the co-worker behave in this extreme fashion, because people do not hate you unless you've done something bad to them. This was a non sequitur because she had no proof that her tormenter’s behavior was based on hatred of her, and even if it were, she was quite aware that the causes of hate in the world include a great many other things. Hate can be based on prejudice, jealousy, a chip on the shoulder, or any number of things other than what someone has done to the per­son who hates.

The next bit of curious logic occurred when the patient told the therapist that she just could not seem to make her tormenter understand that his gossip was disturbing her. How she could possibly have thought that he was not aware of that was simply beyond comprehension. The therapist told her he thought it kind of her to wish to give him the benefit of the doubt after all he had done to her, but it seemed that she had too much evidence to the contrary to support this thesis.

The first clue about the real reason she thought she needed a psychiatrist came when the patient is­sued yet another non sequitur. She began to get upset with herself for being disturbed by some of the slurs verbalized by her nemesis. She stated that he was just calling her names, after all. Why should just names bother her? Sticks and stones, and all that. She should be able to ignore it, like water off a duck's back. The therapist told her she would be quite an unusual person if she had not found the barrage of insults disturbing.

When faced with a recommendation that we explore why she was so upset that the whole situation bothered her, she balked. She said that if she were to get to the reasons behind this seemingly self-defeating behavior, she might find something terrible. Well, she might, but how terrible could it be? How did she know that she would not discover something wonderful? The odds were, of course, that she might find something uncomfortable, but as Albert Ellis (the founder of cognitive psychotherapy) says, feeling that one would not be able to tolerate the discomfort is irrational, espe­cially when the level of discomfort is already so high, and when bearing some additional discomfort could reduce it over the long run.

She correctly guessed that certain information she had re­lated to the therapist might incline him to think that her parents' divorce when she was a pre-teen had something to do with her current reactions. She then added a non sequitur that later turned out to be the essential clue to what was really going on. She said that she was puzzled by why everyone seemed to think that a parental divorce had so traumatized her and added that she had taken the divorce in stride. It was done, and there was no reason to get upset about it. The event just did not bother her.

When she made this statement, she was trying to take what may sound like a rational position. After all, the belief that one cannot stand an unpleasant occurrence makes one suffer more than necessary. The patient was saying more than this, however. She was saying that one should not be un­happy about a traumatic experience. No disappointment. No regret. No anything. Ellis states that regret and disappointment are emotional re­sponses that make sense. She was stating that she was unaffected entirely. Furthermore, the available evidence strongly suggested that she was more than just disappointed about what happened. She could hard­ly discuss the matter without breaking into tears.

Much later, the therapist discovered that what the non sequitur really alluded to was the patient's very rational concern about seeming to be bothered about anything. As it turned out, the patient's mother had been subjecting her for years to frequent guilt-ridden harangues about how bad the mother felt about the divorce. The mother would literally badger her with questions about whether she had been upset and traumatized by it. If the patient appeared distressed about anything, her mother would begin drinking herself into a stupor.

No wonder the patient tried to project an image of not being bothered by things! If she were to admit to being the least bit upset, the mother would feel even guiltier. The mother was already self-destruc­tive; perhaps she would become actively suicidal.

Now that seemed like a valid deduction.