Put the resistance to work for you
Shame, neuroticism, and some armchair therapy for clients
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The post below is about therapy and trying to help others when they can’t help themselves.
Maybe you’ll see a bit of your own experience reflected in there.
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The survival rate drops to zero
There’s an oft-quoted line from Fight Club that occasionally runs through my mind: On a long enough timeline, the survival rate of everyone drops to zero.
As if to say: We’re all gonna die, best do what makes happy.
Now as much as I enjoy Palahniuk and love Fincher and want to lick Brad Pitt’s cartoonishly erotic abs, I’m not terribly fond of referencing Fight Club. It was transgressive and absurdist and anti-establishment and anti-consumerist when it was filmed, then things like Columbine and 9/11 and the internet happened, and then we all got very literal about how we make and receive art, and accordingly the movie was misinterpreted as a vessel for male rage and mindless violence and now, even though I feel like the movie’s a masterpiece, I think maybe the kids like Fight Club in the same way they like Scarface: they celebrate the fuck-em-up mayhem and don't realize the whole thing's a lampoon.
All of this confusion could be avoided, if only more people went to therapy.
Which is actually why that line from Fight Club has been in my head recently, except the version I hear goes like this: On a long enough timeline, all consultants become therapists.
That is, instead of focusing on execution against specific requirements, you start focusing on execution against generalized anxiety.
Which is not to say you actually begin to do therapeutical work!
Nobody, least of all in marketing, is actually improving anyone’s mental health!
I just mean to say that there seems to be a natural and unavoidable teleological progression towards the point where you’re valued less for your hard skills and more for your ability to lend a kind ear, listen to an executive’s troubles, and proffer some good advice.
Then we all die anyway, but currently that’s not my point.
Does that sort of work energize you?
Recently I was speaking to my therapist telling him about this progression. I may have referenced Fight Club. He’s a big Fincher fan. Maybe he also likes Brad’s abs? Hasn’t really come up.
I told him that sometimes when working with a client I feel like a therapist, that clients occasionally speak to me as if they were unburdening themselves, and that accordingly I have a great and deep appreciation for what he does, especially how he seemingly doesn’t judge while helping me, ever so deftly, towards my own conclusions.
I confess that I’m concerned I’m not very good at doing the same.
He listens, and he listens, and he listens, and then he simply asks: “Does that sort of work energize you?”
I love this question. Sometimes I forget to ask myself.
I have, historically, tended to focus on doing work that is good, rather than noticing whether I feel good about doing the work.
Which is an unfortunate habit, considering that our feelings are the best tools we have.
Right now we have a feeling about this moment. Soon we will have a feeling about a new moment, and then we will have yet another feeling about yet another moment.
Facts and feelings, followed by new facts and new feelings, followed by new facts and new feelings. This is how every day goes by: a pattern of facts, a succession of feelings.
There’s a word that describes a succession of feelings about a pattern of facts.
That word is “story”.
Mostly you can’t control the changing facts, but you can always tell yourself a different story. That is, by the way, why your parents told you can do anything you put your mind to, and also why therapy works.
We’re all just telling ourselves stories about feelings we have, and feelings we remember, and feelings yet to come.
So I told my therapist yeah, absolutely, it’s invigorating to talk with my clients about their challenges as long as I feel like I can be helpful.
Put the resistance to work for you
Sometimes I’m not sure how to be helpful.
I am, after all, not a therapist!
My qualifications consist entirely of a) having a large amount of experience with content and creative marketing problems, and b) sharing the human condition.
But it’s difficult, when you work closely with an executive for a good amount of time, not to see, bit by bit, how their decisions might be holding them back, and you want to help.
The question becomes how to be a good listener and steer them, within the bounds of your engagement, towards a better decision.
When I explained this to my therapist, he told me a story.
Let’s say you know a guy who’s been married for many years. Has a few kids, but he was caught cheating on his wife. And let’s say this guy’s personality, his baseline inclination, is to feel ashamed. And he comes to you and says something like Oh god I’m so awful, I don’t deserve my wife or my kids, I can’t be around my kids I’m the worst, I should just leave they’d all be better off without me.
Now of course this is a stupid idea.
Almost certainly, dude wouldn’t be doing himself a good turn by abandoning his kids. Wouldn’t help him out of his shame.
And sure as hell his kids wouldn’t be well-served by dad abandoning them. All sorts of ill effects there.
But our guys is wallowing in that shame. He’s resistant to hearing anything different.
Option one, you could go against that resistance, which would be something like look buddy, everybody makes mistakes, you made one mistake, it’ll be ok.
You’d be trying to make him feel better. And that’s very nice of you. But in doing that you’d be setting up two opposing forces: his shame vs. your solution. That’s not going to be productive. It’ll just be an argument about who’s right and why.
Instead, what you you want to do is collude with the shame.
Use the shame to your advantage and, by asking questions, put the desired behavior on the track of the shame.
So one way to respond might be to validate his feelings: yeah dude, you fucked up, you’ve dug a hole for yourself and now you’ve got a hole you need to get out of.
Through conversation, you arrive at the noble way to dig out of the hole, which is to take more childcare responsibility from your wife. Be more involved, do more things to help around the house—not leave a big turd in the middle of the room and disappear.
He wants to be ashamed? Well, help him to do something that may seem shameful but is actually helpful to him and his family.
So in other words, frame the behavior in the way he wants to resist.
Thank you, I said, when he had finished.
That’s a good lesson, I’ll be sure to use it. Even if I don’t have a lot of clients telling me about their extramarital affairs.
He says yes well, I’m your therapist, not a consultant, how the fuck should I know.
Instability of self-esteem
A few years back I worked for an executive who was defensive.
Whenever I gave him an example of a marketing tactic or strategy that had worked for me, he’d react as if I’d attacked him.
I remember once I said something innocuous like in my experience the best brainstorms occur in psychologically safe environments.
Oh I’m *very* good at creating safe environments, he said. I’m great at creating safe environments, I’ve been creating safe environments my whole career.
Reader, he was not.
Another time, he asked me to help with recruiting. The org had been struggling with some bad hires, and he needed to replace someone in a key marketing position. I’m really good at reading people in the room and making gut decisions, he said, so if you’ll just bring me some candidates to interview I’ll know right away which ones are good.
Again, I am not a wizard, and I suggested some fairly non-wizard like and mundane things, like: in my experience it can be helpful to create a some structure to the process, like with a hiring scorecard to qualify candidates and a timeline and etc.
Oh, I’ve been hiring people my whole career, he said. I’m great at structured processes.
Reader, he was, to judge by the staffing situation, definitely not, nor had he ever been.
I told my therapist about this.
I said man, maybe this isn’t appropriate for therapy, it’s not really about me. I mean it’s about me, but it’s really about somebody else.
I paused. He was silent. Like stone cold silent.
Easter Island statue, this guy.
I tried again.
Everything I say is about me isn’t it?
He raised his eyebrows. Look it’s on your mind, he said. You’re interested in it, so I’m interested in it.
Well isn’t that just the kindest fucking thing to say ever. You see! Psychological safety!
So look, he said. With those kinds of people—and here I imagined he was smoking a pipe, but we were on zoom and he was actually windexing his office kitchen—With those kinds of people, direct confrontation is totally useless. They may have instability of self-esteem. They feel completely grandiose at one moment and like they’re the worst person in the world in another. So all of their defenses are organized around maintaining the impression of themselves as amazing.
And isn’t it hard to be a consultant in those cases.
You’re hired to do something, ostensibly to provide advice, but your client’s defenses are organized against taking that advice.
If you can’t tell a person what to do, my guy said, or sometimes even suggest it, you can always explain what the situation is, reflect back to them what they’re hung up on at the moment, reiterate to them what decisions they’re making, and the consequences of taking actions.
I thought about my conversations with the defensive executive.
If you do X, what are the downsides? What are the upsides? And if you do Y, what are the downsides? What are the upsides?
In that way you don’t challenge them directly, he said.
Instead, you challenge them by helping them to make the most considered decision possible for who they are.
Which is really all we can ask of anyone.
Tell me about your mother.
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