Have You Been Set Up to Fail?

By Aaron Karmin

Melissa had become very upset while at work. She had been working on the quarterly budget that was due in two days. She was ahead of schedule, and she had a clear plan for the steps ahead. Then she saw her manager Vince go into the Vice President’s office. She could hear her manager complaining that the budget was behind schedule, and that Melissa would never be able to get it out on time.

The VP knew that Melissa had everything under control; he also knew that Vince was a chronic worrier and that his fears were not grounded in reality. He reassured Vince that he would look into it. Vince left, muttering under his breath.

Melissa was immediately filled with panic. She had knots in her stomach, a throbbing headache, and a racing heartbeat. She had visions of being fired and not being able to pay the rent. She knew that her anxiety stemmed from her anger at Vince and from trying to live up to his unrealistic standards. He was bad-mouthing her and there was nothing she could do about it. She could not make Vince understand that she was a competent employee and that he could trust her to meet the deadline. Melissa felt it was pointless, he couldn’t be convinced that she knew what she was doing. She felt helpless.

I began by asking Melissa: “when else have you felt this way?”

Melissa: “I remember one day in 6th grade I was late coming home. I hated being late, but my little brother always slowed me down on the way home from school. I couldn’t make my parents understand that it wasn’t my fault. My mother would blame me anyway – ‘No excuses’ she always said. One time I was late because choir practice ran long. My mother knew I was in the choir, but I guess she forgot. Anyway, I couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes late when she saw me come in the back door. She came charging through the kitchen and she started yelling at me.”

“She was screaming ‘Where were you’ and when I tried to tell her she said, ‘Don’t you talk back to me.’ Finally, I said I was in choir and she said, ‘Why didn’t you say so? I’m not a mind reader!’ I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. She never did admit that she was wrong for yelling at me, and she never said she was sorry.”

This is an example of how Melissa came to feel she couldn’t win for losing. Melissa was ordered to explain and then criticized when she tried to do so. Melissa was being set up to fail. She had tried to respond to her mother’s question in good faith, only to find that she had made things worse for herself.

After dredging up this early recollection, Melissa could see how it related to her experience with Vince, and why his irrational accusations upset her. Like her mother, Vince was unreasonable. His distress had nothing to do with the reality situation. These were insecurities he developed in the past, which he brought to the situation in the present.

Melissa felt that it was her responsibility to get through to him and make him understand so that he wouldn’t punish her. She now knows that she has no such responsibility. She is not stupid, she is not out of control. She cannot define control in terms of “straightening Vince out” or “satisfying” his unrealistic standards.

She is in control of herself and her efforts, whether he believes in her or not. She is not a terrified eleven-year-old being criticized by an angry authority figure. Vince is blind to reality, but that is his problem. She does not have to solve it. She has a right to be angry at him for his self-indulgent, destructive antagonism. She doesn’t have to be angry at herself for “failing” to get through to someone who is on a different wavelength altogether. She is not a failure; she is not guilty.

Vince had put her in a double bind. He had told her what the deadline was and she set out to meet it, as she had always done. Then, he invalidated her judgment by appearing to want it done even faster than she was doing it – just to be on the safe side. This was his insecurity that spoke a desire to gain control.

To compound Melissa’s distress, Vince went over her head to her boss. He was making false accusations and saying things that were not true, which she could not stop him from saying. Vince had triggered Melissa’s old vulnerability of being terrorized by authority figures. All of her feelings from the past erupted from the emotional memories that had never been addressed.

The antidote to Melissa’s insecurity is to trust her judgement and see herself as a worthwhile human being in spite of her faults and imperfections. It is not conditional upon pleasing other people. She is not dependent upon their approval for her confidence. She is not required to solve problems that don’t exist in reality, but dwell in the potential catastrophe of her manager’s imagination. She now has the power to validate her own efforts, not the outcomes. She can remind herself that this is not 26 years ago. She can choose to live in the present.



Do You Make Demands or Offer Choices

By Aaron Karmin

shutterstock_119493124Think about how the words ‘should’ and ‘must’ are used in language. These small, single syllable words limit options and creative problem-solving by fostering rigidity.

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Who is at Fault: It’s a matter of Perspective

By Aaron Karmin

shutterstock_121017127From time to time, you may have had thought if you did X then a person would react in a predictable, desirable, anticipated way.

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Being Romantic: What makes a Great Date

By Aaron Karmin

shutterstock_174929810What is the secret to having a great date? There’s no official definition for a “great date”, but its usually associated with romance, connection and this-is-the-one excitement. But with so many random people getting together, there is sure to be some mismatches. What is the science of a good date?

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Dating Rejection: Being Judged and Finding Fault

By Aaron Karmin

shutterstock_197364020Rejection, it’s what causes so many negative emotions from shyness, to depression, to anger and even despair. Rejection is never easy to accept. In matters of romance, rejection can do even more damage. When you are rejected by someone you deeply want, it can make you feel worthless, unwanted and insecure. It can rob an otherwise friendly and happy person of their self-confidence. And yes, the truth is that some men and women do simply enjoy rejecting others and causing those hurt feelings.

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Coping with a Demanding Child

By Aaron Karmin

shutterstock_134860055Therapist: “I suspect that you are parenting your child as your mother parented you, and solving problems the way she did, even though it makes you and everyone else miserable.”

Irene: “That’s why I’m here. I see that it isn’t working. I don’t deliberately get angry with my son. But I end up feeling so stupid after I blow up over such small things.”

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What do Rewards Teach Your Child?

By Aaron Karmin

shutterstock_213498766Irene: “I remember that I always got a cookie after dinner, if I ate my vegetables. What’s wrong with that. Every kid goes through that.”

Therapist: “It’s called bribery, that’s what’s wrong with it. It’s a short-cut that parents take when they are too busy to secure cooperation. It teaches children to expect life to reward them for doing what they are supposed to do.”

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Preventing Mistakes: Criticism and Control

By Aaron Karmin

shutterstock_957347Jack: “Should I kiss my kids on the cheek for being sloppy?”

Therapist: “Is there no middle ground between kissing and abusing? Do you see how scornful you are of people who do not live up to your impossible standard of perfection?”

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Do You Punish the People You Love?

By Aaron Karmin

shutterstock_189515033Jack couldn’t see why he shouldn’t be “hard” on his wife and kids. It was for their own good. “I’m no harder on them than I am on myself,” he would say, as if his self contempt justified his brutalizing of others. In reality, no good could come of his barbaric approach to personal improvement.

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Are You “Too Sensitive”?

By Aaron Karmin

shutterstock_129036653When Karen’s boyfriend Kurt pushes her buttons, she blows up. He knows that she can’t stand comparison with other women, so he tells her about Mary down at the office and what a great conversationalist she is.

Karen is angry at herself, as if this praise of Mary implied that she was deficient in some way, and that it was her fault for not identifying and correcting this deficiency a long time ago. Her anger at herself spills over and she rages against poor, “innocent” Kurt, who says, “What did I do? I only said that Mary was a great conversationalist.” Kurt may or may not be conscious of the fact that the last twelve outbursts were triggered by comparing Karen unfavorably with other women who are doing something “right.”

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  • Upsie Daisy: Greg also has the opportunity for some personal growth. Instead of having an emotional reaction, he...
  • Upsie Daisy: This is a great example of how we unknowingly play out old unsolved problems in new situations....
  • Paul: Thank you for your reply. I have read books on aspergers in the past. No book is ever going to provide a...
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