Last week’s post dealt with “acting-out,” arguably one of the most (if not the most) misunderstood and misused (even by professionals) psychological terms (see: Acting Out and Other Commonly Misused Psychology Terms). It’s important to understand and speak about certain concepts correctly because holding erroneous perspectives on behavior, especially the behavior of disturbed characters, is one of the main reasons people get bamboozled and otherwise victimized by bad actors. And it’s certainly no help that traditional psychology paradigms, much of the “pop psychology” literature, and ill-informed mental health professionals have all inadvertently contributed to and even promoted many of these erroneous perspectives. This week’s article discusses other commonly misconstrued concepts and terms. I’ve written about some of them before, sometimes in depth, and links to the relevant articles are provided.
Here are some other of the more commonly misused and misunderstood psychology terms:
For starters, let’s clear the air a bit on codependency. I get lots of emails from folks who reference this term. And I’ve been asked by many clients as well as the folks who’ve written to me whether I think they might be codependent. To help determine this I always ask: “With whom, and upon what, do you think you might be dependent?” Usually, this question is met with some surprise and a fair amount of curiosity. But depending upon how the question is answered, I’m usually able to glean whether codependency is indeed an issue.
Most of the time, when folks (especially professionals) use the term “codependent,” they don’t mean codependent at all. Sometimes what they describe sounds much more like mutual dependency. Other times they seem to be referencing interdependence. But by far, the vast majority of the time I hear someone use the term codependency what they’re really describing is just plain dependency, or more specifically, emotional dependency.
The term codependence came out of the self-help “recovery” literature (based on the 12-step model of addiction treatment) of the 70s and 80s and was originally meant to describe the phenomenon whereby the life of the non-using spouse, partner, or other family member became just as governed by the substance(s) involved as the life of the active substance user. So, in effect, both the user and the non-user were in some way dependent (i.e. co-dependent) upon the same substance(s), even though one was not technically addicted. The concept of “enabling” also came out of this formulation. The active user was often viewed as being “dependent upon” the non-using spouse or partner for the management of all household responsibilities (e.g., paying the bills, seeing to the welfare of children, dealing with all the consequences of the user’s irresponsible behavior, etc.) and the non-using spouse was viewed as being dependent upon the substance user for a sense of worth and purpose. But while the active user might truly be in the throes of a genuine addiction and, therefore, chemically dependent, their abdication of responsibility for matters that by default were assumed by the more responsible partner cannot be rightfully construed as an issue of dependency. Rather, that type of situation is clearly one of abuse. And sometimes, the main reason the other party tolerates or even unwittingly perpetuates or “enables” the abuse is because of their emotional dependency (Now, there are certainly other reasons why a person endures this kind of abuse, none of which involves any true dependency at all, but I’m referencing here a particular kind of common circumstance). If this kind of dependency is present and not addressed, the cycle of abuse is not only “enabled,” but most likely intensifies, and the dependent party’s emotional growth remains severely stunted. That’s how ancillary groups using the same treatment model became popular for the non-using partner. And, as you might expect, given the dynamics at work in that partner, such groups and programs proved to be of great value, often proving more successful for the non-using partner than for the addict (or more often more accurately, the substance abuser).
I’ve long had the feeling that the main reason some folks seem to find the notion of codependency appealing (I’ve had hundreds of folks readily and almost happily report their so-called codependency), even when it’s not genuinely present, is because to think of oneself as just one-half of a co-dependent “system” is a lot more acceptable to one’s self-image than acknowledging and “owning” one’s stunted emotional health or facing the harsh realities of being the duped party in an abusive, exploitative relationship.
Passive-Aggression is another term that’s rampantly misused both in general parlance and also by professionals. But the word “passive” has meaning, which becomes clearer when viewed in relationship to it’s opposite: “active.” Perhaps an example will help clarify here: There are such things as passive water filters. These filters don’t actively do anything nor do they require power or circuitry. They’re comprised of a series of meshes and fine particles that simply allow water to pass freely while passively affording resistance to the passage of metals and other contaminants. They are different from active filters that apply electric charges to the water or heat it to boiling then refrigerate to distill a pure product. Active filters do something to the water to purify it. Passive and active aggression work the same way. In one case, conflict arises from what a person fails to do or resists doing. In the other case, it’s accomplished by what the person very actively and deliberately does. Many times, when people (professionals and lay persons alike) use the term passive-aggression, they really mean covert-aggression. Both forms of aggression can involve indirect (as opposed to direct) expressions of anger. But the two types of aggression are very different from one another on many other dimensions. I’ve written several articles on this (see, for example: Passive-Aggression: Top 5 Misused Psychology Terms – Part 3 and When Passive-Aggression Isn’t Very Passive) and also discuss it in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance. More importantly, the impact of these two types of behaviors couldn’t be more disparate. For one thing, passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., not so “accidentally” forgetting to do something for someone you’re unhappy with, giving someone you’re mad at the silent treatment, not cooperating with someone because they hurt your feelings) is almost always far more self-defeating in the long run than it is truly injurious to the target of that behavior. It may cause the person on the receiving end a fair amount of frustration, but it certainly doesn’t seriously wound them. Covert-aggression is very different. Slickly trying to get at someone, trying to get the better of them or trying to dominate or control them while keeping your aggressive intentions concealed or intentionally misrepresented is almost always self-advancing and generally at the other person’s expense. Make no mistake, as I insist in all my writings, covert-aggression is very active (as opposed to passive) albeit concealed or disguised aggression, which is just one reason why erroneously labeling it passive-aggression distorts the reality of things. And the person on the receiving end of covert-aggression has usually been directly targeted as well.
Some of you might still be wondering if it’s worth being so apparently nit-picky about terms. But remember, it’s largely all the misperceptions that exist about covert-aggression that allow it to be such an effective vehicle of manipulation. Because how we see things matters. Once you know what someone is really doing and why, everything changes. It’s always important to see things in the most accurate light. We’re instantly empowered when we see things correctly and have the information we need to take the most appropriate action. This is true in therapy, too. And when terms are bandied about inaccurately and events are misconstrued as to their true nature, well, it’s akin to the blind leading the blind.
You might notice there’s a new tab on the homepage menu that links to the page that provides information on consultations. And soon I’ll have information on 3 more foreign language publications of my books as well as a forthcoming Spanish language edition.
If you haven’t already done so, let me encourage you to tune in to Character Matters on Sunday evenings at 7 pm Eastern time. It’s a great opportunity for real-time discussion of issues and information-sharing.