Injunctive Messages 2

Two Decisions and One Coping Behavior


The Gouldings were not the first to use the word “Injunction” in the early literature of transactional analysis, but they were the first to identify individual recurring injunctions.  And they were the first to talk about the concept of an early decision to those injunctions.  It was obvious to them that there was just that one decision.  They only speculated about specifically worded decisions for one injunction, Don’t Exist, sometimes referred to as Don’t Be. They put forth phrases such as, “If things get too bad, I can always kill myself,” “I’ll get you to kill me,” or “I’ll show you even if it kills me.”

Something became intuitively clear to us (my training groups in LA and Rome) as we worked with what we now called Injunctive Messages (IM’s): there are two decisions to each IM, not one.  There is a Despairing Decision and a Defiant Decision. Bob and Mary’s concept made sense only in the context of their stated belief that a young child had the capacity to decide whether of not to respond to the IM.  This fit into their larger concept of people being responsible for their lives. (Indeed, the first time I told Bob that I had just finished the section of my dissertation where I described Redecision Therapy, his immediate remark was, “Did you emphasize the importance of responsibility?”)

In illustrating this point, I use the example of my childhood home, a very nice but small one bedroom apartment.  My father smoked heavily so that the space was always full of smoke when he was there, a thin blue cloud visible about three feet off the floor.  If my brother, mother, and I were home we had no choice.  We breathed in smoke.  The smoke was not good for us, even if it was quite acceptable in that time.  The smoke is a very good metaphor for IM’s.  One does not have the option to not deal with them.

The first of the two decisions (see Injunctive Messages Chart) is what we call the Despairing Decision, that is a decision that is congruent with the power of the IM.  Small children can’t discriminate.  They don’t have the ability to self reflect, “My dad is being cross all the time because he is an alcoholic and he is drunk.”  Everything that happens in their world is personal. “Dad is angry.  That means something is wrong with me.”  That is the Despairing Decision.  They always have the quality of, “Something is not right about me.” 

The Gouldings had one thing right in their thinking about the responses to Don’t Exist.  All those responses had the quality, if not the exact words of, “I’ll show you.”  That is a Defiant Decision. There is an impulse toward health in human beings and a deep distaste for the feeling of helplessness.  Those drives are the genesis of the Defiant Decisions.  They arise out of a perceived sense of power and are an attempt to consolidate that feeling.  The sense of “I’ll show you” is far better than “I should never have been born.” 

The problem with the Despairing Decision is that the person actually believes it to be the real truth.  Think of all the people who fear disclosure of their “secret selves.”  That is actually the terror associated with the despair and the fear that it might be true.  It is better to show a false face to the world, lest my secret be revealed.

The problem with this false face is that it is a huge energy drain.  Maintaining the façade created by the Defiant Decision takes a lot of work and brooks no lapse, no let down of effort.  In a certain ingenious way, the Defiant Decision works.  But it works at the expense of life’s real pleasures and leads to exhaustion.  One can be “perfect, strong, heroic, always right” only so long.  And when one’s performance slips to less than the expected level or a mistake or a flaw is unveiled, then comes the inevitable slide back into the desperate conclusions contained in the Despairing Decision. 

The defiant side of this equation looks and even feels much better than the obvious discomfort of the Despairing Decision. Unfortunately, both are different aspects of being enmeshed with the Injunctive Message.  One response looks healthier, much healthier, while the other response looks, well, despairing.  This is what happens.  A person tries resolutely to defy the Despairing Decision and puts out lots of “I’ll show you energy.” 

But life happens.  There is a setback, large or small, either through fate or the person’s own fault.  That small child and their early Despairing Decision lurks.  Remember, the small child doesn’t know that what happens in the world is not about him.  The world acts, mistakes happen, and, bam, back into the Despairing Decision.  The cycle repeats and repeats.  To get out of the despair, the person doubles down on the Defiant Decision with even more energy, more vengeance. 

Out of the Defiant Decision comes what we came to call the Coping Behavior.  This is very important and the key to diagnosing an individual IM.  Our approach was this: if IM’s actually exist, then there has to be some signature that appends their presence.  There must be a way to diagnose them apart from the intuition of the therapist or the conclusion of the patient.  There must be visibility.  The visibility is the coping behavior and that comes directly from the Defiant Decision.  That original “I’ll show you” decision, so useful in its particular moment, has become generalized in the person’s life.  So now, she or he is not just using that energy to fight for life. It is used to win conversations or beat other people to the next stoplight. 

As clumsy as it is, here is the example I often use to make the point, even if it is a little crude.  You meet someone and you are trained in all the Coping Behaviors.  While in conversation with this person you say, “Do you by any chance have an elephant in your living room?”  The other person turns red and confesses that he does, “but it is a family secret and we don’t tell anyone.  How did you know?”  “Because you are carrying a very large shovel over your shoulder.” You get the point.  The coping behaviors are actually just that obvious once you know them and you have another person’s permission to be looking for them and revealing them.

When we go to a medical doctor, he or she looks for diagnostic signs.  We might be questioned, but the physician knows what to look for and makes a diagnosis basis on observed phenomena.  The doctor doesn’t ask if we think we have pneumonia, she listens to our chest and knows what breathing patterns to listen for.  Then she makes the diagnosis and prescribes the treatment.

The Defiant Decision was helpful, even life saving in its time.  Over time, though, the behaviors that came out of it get generalized to all sorts of situations in life and become ritualized into the person’s life.  This leads to all sorts of self-destructive behavior.  Show me someone who is reasonably well-off and is working seventy hours a week at the expense of health, home, and happiness and I will show you a Coping Behavior. 

It is not enough to say to someone, “Stop doing that.”  The despair behind the Coping Behavior must be identified and resolved.  Remember, deep down, the person still believes the Despairing Decision is true.  In the next post, I will talk about Redecision Therapy as a process of acquiring new beliefs and building a structure to support the new beliefs.          



John McNeelComment