It is often most challenging for anyone, much less an insecure teenager to reveal negative aspects of oneself when vulnerable. Imagine asking someone to reveal the emotion that is hardest for him/her to show to an intimate other person when one is at his/her worst. When at his/her worst the way that one acts is often from covering a vulnerable feeling. Many people puff up and get grandiose to cover up fear. Someone may act out aggressively to hide feelings of shame. Getting increasingly louder may be a way to hide feeling inadequate or out of control. By being angry, no one (hopefully) can tell that one feels vulnerable and scared. Unfortunately, this can be highly effective to distract the other person- an adult or ones parent for example, not just from the vulnerability but also from him/her soothing or supporting the teenager. Surprisingly, sometimes a direct question in a calmer moment is acceptable. A trusted adult can ask what feelings come up when most stressed that are the very difficult to reveal to another person. If one, including a teenager can own and reveal such feelings, it becomes possible to consider what might be a more productive response- especially, a reaction that improves rather than harms important intimate relationships. Can the teenager say, “It’s hard for me admit I’m scared… that I screwed up… and that it’s ok for me to not be perfect,” and to expect understanding and compassion? “I feel inadequate,” may be hardest thing but most essential thing for a teenager to say. Or perhaps, the most essential thing for an adult to know about the teenager.
Vulnerability is a Key
Intimate relationships require that individuals own fears of being harmed by another, being unappreciated, or being inadequate in meeting the other’s needs. Insecure teenagers, however may not openly bring up such feelings/experiences despite these being key vulnerabilities for intimate relationships. One may not reveal him/herself to others for a number of different emotional, psychological, cultural, or other reasons. This may be particularly true when a teenager has forced or coerced into a conversation or relationship. The teenager may start an interaction or relationship with recriminations and accusations against others present or outside the interaction or relationship. This could be distrust of authority figures such as teachers, therapists, or parents, or of school or organizations specifically or in general. The challenge or “trick” of a positive interaction with a suspicious teenager is how to have communication without repeating any existing negative dynamics. Some repetition of negative relational dynamics may help the adult (particularly, someone new to the teenager) understand the teenager, but elimination or reduction of such dynamics is critical to relationship intimacy. Often it is more productive to avoid focus on the fact or fiction of behaviors but instead focusing on feelings of harm, lack of appreciation, and inadequacy. These are all forms of injury or harm. The accused teenager (or adult) will often want to argue the accuracy of some transgression. Often, the interaction gets waylaid into the minutia of details and specifics.
- Not at 3pm- it was at 3:15pm…
- No, it was only 3pm or at most, 3:05pm…
- No, the show had already started and it starts at 3pm…
- That show doesn’t always start on time…
- Yes, it does!
- No, it doesn’t!
- You hardly ever watch that show anyway…
- Yes, I do!
- No, you don’t!”
This is the “Arguing the Facts” game which does not work except to waste time and distract from really important issues. As long as one keeps playing the “Facts” game, frustration and continued non-resolution result. Someone (teenager in trouble or partner who messed up) can purposely trick the other person into a revolving cycle of nonsensical assertions of what is precise reality or not. He/she thus avoids having to take ownership of some more compelling behavior that has either directly or indirectly harmed another person, or has negative implications to his/her life. The duo talk NOT about respect, responsibility, mistakes, injuries, harm to self or others, integrity, moral values, and any number of important issues. Instead they quibble furiously about 3-4-5-6-7 or oh my gosh… 10 whole minutes! A detached outside observer may want to just shout at the teenager and adult, “Stop it! I don’t care what time it was! It doesn’t matter what time it was! Stop it!” The facts don’t count! In the process of arguing irrelevant minutia, the core feeling from the core point is often lost. In many cases, the core point is something like, “I expected you at a certain time and I waited for you.” And most importantly, the core feeling is “I felt alone and abandoned by you.” THAT is important! Not 3pm, 3:05pm, 3:06pm, 3:10pm, or 3:15pm!
Who’s the Biggest Victim?!
Or, the argument can be another game called, “Who’s the most hurt!?” AKA as “Who’s the biggest victim?!” or “Who has the biggest case against the other!?” Drawn into the argument of who is the aggrieved person or who was the more critically emotionally injured person does not resolve any grievance. Or, much less deal with the hurt placed on the conversational or relationship table. This can be teenager OR the adult. This can be a very tempting game. It often is the consequence of someone who has not experienced power, control, or respect in life from affirmative empowering experiences. It is a kind backwards dysfunctional attempt at self-esteem. Unfortunately, being the biggest victim forgoes having personal power and control in one’s life, and adopts a self-definition or identity of being a victim.
It may be incumbent upon the adult to be more self-aware… and more mature than the developmentally less secure teenager. Hopefully, the adult has processed this tempting game to be a victim and done enough personal work to feel empowered through affirmative behaviors. Unfortunately the adult including a parent being more mature or emotionally stable… or less reactive than the teenager is not always the case. The adult may have to do his/her personal growth work of self-empowerment simultaneously with dealing with a difficult teenager. In the healthy dynamic, the aggrieved person- teenager OR adult has attempted to reveal his/her vulnerability by naming an interaction where he/she was hurt. Unfortunately, poor communication habits often result in the emphasis NOT being placed on the hurt or vulnerability. Instead, the aggrieved person emphasizes the negative behavior or labels the other person’s intent as purposefully hurtful. The other person in some home, work, academic, or social situation is first often readily drawn to argue the degree of negativity or the specificity of the accusation. Secondly, but often bypassed, he/she attempts dispute that he/she had negative intentions. One or both persons can get caught up in a “You Messed Up First” or “You Messed Up Worse” contest. Or, in a different but common version of this game, one person attempts to dismiss a grievance or deflect taking responsibility by invoking the “You Did It Too!” game. The implication is that the other’s grievance has no validity since he/she has transgressed in the same or similar manner. Thus, the recipient of the complaint avoids having to answer for or address what he/she has done wrong or poorly. Of course, this can get the two into another game- the “Is It or Isn’t It REALLY the Same As What You Did!” Far too frequently, acknowledging much less attempting to soothe the aggrieved person’s injured feelings is completely lost in the swirling arguments.
This or similarly highly problematic dynamic may be purposefully or instinctively prompted by an individual to avoid the accusation or possibly the shame of having failed the aggrieved other person. Owning the behavior becomes being at fault… being bad, rather than taking responsibility for a personal failing- too intolerable. That could be the teenager who feels he/she has failed to please his/her parents. It could be parents feeling that they have failed as parents. Ironically, the aggrieved person’s expression of vulnerability often triggers intense vulnerability in the criticized other person, especially if they are close and important to each other. The criticized person may become internally (and secretly) worried or terrified that he/she has messed up, or that any response may be inadequate for the aggrieved person. The criticized person’s defensive mechanisms may manifest to frustrate the aggrieved person instead of being affirmative or having validating reactions that are soothing. Underlying both individuals’ anger, anxiety, and hurt may be betrayal. This happens in any intimate relationship, and perhaps especially in romantic relationships. There are key expectations that intensify the sense of betrayal that will be discussed in the next blog.