At the end of an essay on the American painter David Salle in Janet Malcolm’s new collection, Forty-one False Starts, Salle asks the author, “Have you ever thought that your real life hasn’t begun yet?” It’s a sentiment many of us share. Increasing numbers of my psychotherapy clients complain of a life in which they play a bit part. They are fearful of really being themselves, and they don’t know who they are or what they really want and lose sight of their dreams. They skillfully and seamlessly discern and adapt to what other people desire. As a result, they long for lives in which what they value will be taken more seriously.
In Toward an Emancipatory Psychoanalysis, the late American psychoanalyst Bernard Brandchaft called this “pathological accommodation.” Most of the time accommodators passively go along with what they believe other people want from them. They periodically get frustrated and rebel against what they imagine is expected in an attempt to carve out a modicum of freedom. Occasionally they punish the people they think are neglecting them. They are alienated from what they really yearn for. I’ve known pathological accommodators who worked at jobs they hated and married partners they didn’t love. The results? Depression, despair, and even manic attempts to break out of the stranglehold of self-neglect.
As I often tell my clients, we come by our self-dismissal honestly. Many of us learn in our families of origin that there is a stiff price to pay for thinking for ourselves and living authentically.
As I often tell my clients, we come by our self-dismissal honestly. Many of us learn in our families of origin that there is a stiff price to pay for thinking for ourselves and living authentically. Adults who habitually accommodate were taught as children that maintaining a connection with one or both parents required forgetting about their own needs—conformity was safer. Pathological accommodation keeps alive the hope that the love we long for is forthcoming.
Changing harmful patterns in relationships is a more emotionally laden and less concrete process than learning a new skill—say, cooking or yoga. Most of us work on our strengths, which feels safe and comfortable but thwarts constructive change. Genuine growth comes, however, when we train our weaknesses. And we can do this in our relationships.
In my own attempts to transform pathological accommodation, I discovered that there are three stages to the process. First, we have to notice its existence. This takes time and patience. Initially we might only be aware of the unhappiness or deprivation the pattern generates. Sadness and free-floating resentment are often incorrectly ascribed to external things, like the state of the economy or the way someone handles a trivial matter (such as placing dishes in the dishwasher). Blame hides what truly haunts us—namely, that we are sick of being marginalized in relationships. Our discontent can be feedback that accommodation is robbing us of a life in which we are in charge.
Next we protest our situation, but remain trapped within it. We need to illuminate the source of this pattern of behavior. This will help us understand its emotional logic and the nearly magnetic pull to repeat it. By doing so we’ll develop more self-compassion and become alert to triggers. Understanding what benefits we derive from accommodating—for example, decreasing our fear that we will be abandoned—also loosens the grip of feeling compelled to put ourselves second. And then we feel more entitled to play a central role in our relationships.
When we train our weakness in relationships we experience more joy, less resentment, and greater intimacy.
When we train our weakness in relationships we experience more joy, less resentment, and greater intimacy. Not only have we freed ourselves from the prison of automatic accommodation, but we show the people close to us how they might live more authentically and passionately. And that is a great gift—to ourselves and to those we love.