Do As I Say: Be Oppositional!

Are people oppositional only because they think that their family expects it?

Posted Mar 23, 2015

In several of my posts, I have discussed the phenomenon known as kin selection and have opined that most people are willing to sacrifice themselves and their own personal inclinations and opinions to the seeming demands of their family of origin. If this is true, how do we explain all of the people who seem to be consistently acting in direct opposition to what the family says they want?

The operational word in the last sentence is says. Could it be that people who are almost compulsively oppositional are that way only because they think, despite what the family expresses verbally, that that is what their family wants and needs them to be?

In order to understand how this could possibly be the case, I need to make a digression into discussing the language used in dysfunctional families. In my post of December 29, 2014, I discussed the idea that there are hidden aspects of language created by its inherent ambiguity. Any sentence in any language can have at least two different meanings. Sometimes meanings that are complete opposites from each other.

Language does not just communicate ideas but is used to get other people to do as we wish. Linguists refer to the way language is used to affect the behavior of other people as the pragmatics of language. In today's post I will give three examples of how language also reflects a basic split in human nature between what is called the persona or false self and what really transpires in the human mind.

We all keep many of our thoughts to ourselves in various contexts, because we must always negotiate the social order of which we are a part. We do not act the same way with a boss as we do with, say, a mistress. In each situation, we must all decide: Do we say and do things because we really want to say and do those things? Or do we say and do what the groups to which we belong want, need, and/or expect us to do or say?

The false self is that image we project to the people around us, which may or may not be an honest reflection of what we really feel and believe. For example, we may be furious with someone yet respond with nothing but sweetness and light to them because we fear how they may react if we expressed our anger.

In no other situation is this phenomenon more pronounced that in our relationships with our families of origin. As I have argued, we are all biological inclined, although not predestined, to act out roles or scripts that help our families to function. However, sometimes, for reasons I will not elaborate on here, the family becomes confused or ambivalent about what they expect from us, putting us in a huge bind.

A simple yet deadly example of this occurred in the case of a woman of East Indian descent who was born and grew up in the U.S. shortly after her parents emigrated here. As she got older, because of her English language skills and familiarity with American culture, her parents expected her to be the front person whenever they had to deal with the larger culture, and she learned to try to fit in with its expectations to better serve this function.

She became quite Americanized, but in reality still had one foot in each culture. She made the mistake of falling in love with an Anglo-American. Her parents, on the other hand, expected her to marry the man that they had, by their tradition of arranged marriages, picked out for her. She ended up committing suicide because she saw no way out of this dilemma.

Going back to my question about whether oppositionality can perhaps be more apparent than real, I say yes. With many of my patients who complain about other family members’ behavior, I find that there are some heavy duty mixed signals going on. The family may, for example, leave money and credit cards around knowing that their children will steal it, and then complain about their children being thieves.

Some parents make demands of their children over and over but never actually stop their children from disobeying their instructions. In fact, they may smile as they tell stories about how what their children do (and by children I also mean adult offspring) is so terrible. Or alternatively, they may seem to have a compulsive need to keep repeating the same demands of them over and over, as if their children did not hear them the first 500 times they made the demands.

That brings us to the first common example of ambiguous language: the oppositional teenager who yells back, “Why do I have to listen to this?!?” when repeatedly lectured about what to do. Because kids who say this rarely obey the instructions, a seemingly more appropriate response would be, “I heard you the first time, and I’m not going to do that.” After all, most people would reason, the kid does not have to listen to the lectures—all he or she would have to do to stop the lectures would be to do what he or she was told to do!

Well, maybe and maybe not. Teens who go ahead and finally do what they are told are often then told that they are not doing whatever it is they were told correctly. They feel that no matter what they do, they will never be able to please their parents.

I believe the correct translation of “Why do I have to listen to this?” in such a situation is actually, “Why do you have this compulsive need to keep telling me over and over again what to do? Nonetheless, because you have this need, I will be oppositional so you can continue to indulge yourself!”

Another well-known, often-heard statement that refers to this very same process is, "If I am going to be accused of it anyway, I might as well do it." That would only make sense in the way it is usually interpreted if the person wanted to do what they are being accused of having done. Often they do not, so in that case it must mean something else: "You keep accusing me of it because you need to believe it's true that I did it, so I'll go ahead and please you by going ahead and doing it.

A somewhat similar statement came from a woman who was rather wreckless in being sexually promiscuous. She told me, in the context of explaining this behavior, “I am always afraid of disappointing my father.” The average person who heard this from her might come to the conclusion that this woman was deluding herself. Surely the father must be disappointed in her current behavior, so how can she say that she is promiscuous because she is afraid of disappointing him?

Let's assume that it is true that the woman is not deluding herself. If this were the case, then the correct understanding of her statement in context would have to be, “My father would be disappointed if I were not promiscuous." Maybe the father was secretly angry at women who withheld sex, while outwardly pretending to adhere to his own family’s belief that sexually free women are all sluts and whores.

My third and last example came from a mother who screamed at her adult daughter with a disapproving look and tone of voice, “I just can’t believe you talk to your boss that way!” I believed that the look and tone of voice actually reflected the mother’s false self, not her real feelings. In fact, I saw evidence that her mother actually admired the daughter’s assertiveness! If we look at just her words apart from tone and body language, we can see that her statement actually contains no value judgment at all. It merely expresses surprise about the daughter’s behavior.

In my opinion, the tone and body language accompanying a statement are often reflective of a false self, while the words themselves can reveal clues to a person’s true feelings. This is the exact opposite of what many psychologists believe.

In this case, it is very likely that the mother can not openly express her admiration for the tough stances her daughter takes because to do so would violate the gender role behavior norms that were assigned to the mother by her own family of origin.