“And should you wish to learn about cats, only a cat can tell you”—Sōseki Natsume, I Am A Cat

Recently a social worker who works with substance abusers at an inner city clinic wrote to us that he was seeing the “irrelationship problem” in one of his supervisors.

We receive a lot of responses to our blog from readers who say that the irrelationship model speaks to them, and then proceed to relate experiences in which they’ve found themselves in the role of caregiver for others — being the Performer as we say. But they’re puzzled that, instead of gratifying, the connection leaves them feeling curiously angry, resentful and isolated, even from the person they’re caring for. 

“The dreaded ‘needy help rejecter’. A set-up for total powerlessness for any Performer worth his salt, and the cement for super-strong brainlock.”Grant

When working with individuals, couples, families and other groups affected by irrelationship, the greatest challenge is for each person to learn to keep the focus on her- or himself.

Projection, a well-known cornerstone of psychological defense, distracts our awareness of our own undesirable traits by making us “see” those traits in others.  The tough question implied is not, “How do I deal with this difficult person?” but “What is this person showing me that I don’t want to know about myself?”

This issue is particularly poignant for those of us in irrelationship territory when we find ourselves asking questions like:

  • How can I help this person be better or get better?
  • What can I do to help?

If we always seem to be asking questions like these, and our reflections reveal that we have powerful feelings about taking care of others which suggest it may mean more than simply being a caring and compassionate person, we need to take another look at both ourselves and at the situation we want to “fix”.  To be sure, this is no less true for psychologists, nurses and other “helping” professionals: we can get bound up in irrelationship as much as anyone. So yes, we do ask ourselves the same questions as we are writing about others, and yes, we find irrelationship among ourselves and yes we find our own approaches very useful for dealing with our own irrelationship dynamics as they kick-up all the time. 

“Helping professionals are probably no better and no worse than anyone else at maintaining boundaries in both personal and professional relationships. ”Daniel

Awareness of our proneness to the irrelationship routine allows us to step back and ask what is really happening:

  • Am I attempting to “help” someone (perhaps through constructive criticism, unrequested advice, imposed counsel) who didn’t ask for it?
  • Do I need to help someone, and if I don’t get to discharge this urge, it feels intolerable or drives me to do something else to deal with my feelings (e.g. over-eat, drink too much, get into fights with others, etc.)?
  • Could my offer of assistance seem patronizing or condescending even if I don’t intend it that way?
  • As I put myself forward to offer assistance, am I, at the same time, placing a barrier between us that prevents our connecting on a more fundamental human — even empathic — level?

Irrelationship is a device we use to keep ourselves distant from others, particularly those who potentially “threaten” to become important in our lives. It can play out in many ways, more and less deceptive. For example, at the job I may have a boss who, though not very effective, makes my workplace feel “secure” to me.  To maintain a stable, safe-feeling work environment, I may step in to make the boss look more competent than he is. By doing this, I become a caretaker for the boss, thus reversing our roles and making myself responsible for how well he at least appears to do his job.

In a situation like this where power dynamics are also at play, I may press further and further into the boss’s territory, leading to a confusing situation that finally blows up in my face, leaving me looking for a job. Or it can become a quietly accepted, mutual song-and-dance routine that continues “below the radar” for years, leaving me with a bellyful of resentment because the boss never quite learns to “cut it,” even though he’s taking home the paycheck for it! 

“Hey, aren’t we projectively pointing the finger ourselves in writing this piece?”Mark

Our everyday lives are loaded with potential for such situations, many, perhaps, less significant than the above. But any situation in which we guard ourselves from genuine contact with others potentially blocks us off from essential experience of our own feelings and needs.

In responding to the enquiry from the social worker, above, we wrote, “Does your desire to help your superior reveal in you a need to turn the tables and take care of those who (at least professionally speaking) should be looking after you? Does this resonate for you on some deep level, or is your interest in the irrelationship concept ‘purely academic’?”

We’re hoping to hear more from “Anonymous,” but so far he hasn’t taken us up.


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