An Example of Personal Responsibility

Dog Day, a Story by Duen Hsi Yen with Comments by Dr. Irene

Life is comprised of the myriad of minute interpersonal interactions that occur throughout the day, not the major decisions we make from time to time. Yet, we thoughtfully agonize over major decisions, but give virtually no thought to the second-by-second exchanges. They are left to “automatic pilot,” and are executed without logic, choice or consideration of personal responsibility.

Dog Day

by Duen Hsi Yen from From his “Malama Learning Facility”


John and his wife Jean were having an argument at the dinner table. This is what was happening. John had served himself some sliced bananas with vanilla ice cream over it for dessert. As he was getting to the end and finishing it off, he encountered a problem: there was a layer of banana rounds on the flat dessert plate, in some melted ice cream. He was trying to scoop them up with his spoon, but they would slide to the end of the plate, and then he knew if he pushed any further, they would fall onto the table. Now the first solution that came to his mind was to put his index finger against the sliding banana round, holding it steady so that the spoon could slide underneath. He quickly rules that out because he doesn’t want to get his fingers sticky with ice cream. You know that feeling. When ice cream gets on your fingers, you have to get up and wash your hands off, because it is impossible to remove the stuff off with just a plain paper napkin. The napkin just tears and then that too gets stuck to your fingers.

So what he decides to do is lower his head to the table, and slide the banana off the plate neatly into his mouth. Jean sees this, and maybe she is having a dog day, so she speaks up sharply, and says,

“Only dogs eat like that!”

John fell silent. He could feel the tension rising, since she has nagged him before about some of his other manners.

“You’re not a dog,” she says next.

“Wooof! Woooof!” he says, attempting some weak humor.

Silence.

“Bow wow!”

This response did not please her. So then they start to argue.

“Well, I do know what good table manners are. Do you ever see me eat like this in a restaurant?” John says defensively.

“No, but I’m trying to have a nice pleasant dinner, and I find it distressing to see you eat like this,” Jean scolds.

John is recalcitrant. Perhaps scolding shifts your frame of reference to younger days. Transactional analysis frames the interaction as between parent and child. Jean is the parent, John is the child. John falls into the familiar pattern of reacting as a child. He starts to reason:

“Well, we are not in a restaurant,” he intones. “We are at home, and can’t we relax the rules. No one is going to see us. There are no guests.” This line of reasoning fails to mollify her.

“You’re not a dog. You are a human being. Only dogs eat like that,” asserts his wife.

John is very good at arguing. He is a scientific researcher. Like lightening, he applies mathematical logic to the problem, and tries to think of exceptions to this rule. In what cases can a human being eat off of a plate like a dog.

“Well, I could be a thalidomide baby,” are the next words that stumble from his mouth.

For those who remember, thalidomide was an anti-nausea agent. Unfortunately, when given to pregnant women, it had the tragic side effect of causing a grotesque birth defect: the babies were born without arms or legs, and only had hands or feet sticking out where the limbs would be.

“I wonder how they eat. Wouldn’t they have to eat the same way as I did?” he continues. His mind races on. Like a squid trying to outwit its rival, it squirts a jet of black ink, hoping to escape by reducing the visibility to zero:

“And come to think of it, most animals eat this way. Cats, cows, birds, indeed, I cannot think of any exceptions except monkeys, which are like us anyway.” Pause. “Oh yes, I can think of one now: raccoons. Raccoons wash their food and hold the food with their paws when they eat.” “Anyway, if the majority of the creatures in the animal kingdom do it, then why not I?” he smugly says, satisfied with the weight of his argument.

At this point, something happens. In psychology, its called a content to process shift.  So far John has been in content mode. To shift to process, is like an out-of-body experience. Part of your mind steps out and views the whole panorama of the situation, like a flying bird, and sees that this argument is ludicrous. It is a mystery as to how it happens, It’s like when you look at a Necker cube, and it shifts from looking from one way to another. Or like the optical illusion of the old hag-young women, you see one, then the other, but not both at the same time. Its a paradigm shift, and in the realm of this family’s dynamics, it is as momentous as the Copernican revolution. It just somehow happens.

He starts to laugh. He finally sees her point of view, that it does look rather funny to be eating off of a plate like this. After all, this is expensive Wedgewood china, the Oceanside pattern. It is beautiful china. It has a scalloped edge in a seashell motif. The china is a translucent white color, so when you hold it up to the light, you can see a beautiful pattern of sea shells ringing the plate. And the tableware is also of high quality, from William’s and Sonoma, 18/10 is branded on the stainless steel, a mark of quality. John now sees the situation more clearly. Here he is, trying to eat off of fine china like a dog. He starts to laugh with this picture in mind. The incongruity! This is what his wife is seeing! She is trying to imagine a more romantic setting. He is now starting to emit loud guffaws. He can’t stop. She starts to giggle too. Perhaps you, the reader, have already been laughing, because you have had the process point of view all along. You can see the wife’s point of view better than John could, until that moment.

So his laughter defuses the argument. They can continue with the earlier conversation, but in a more relaxed mode. His wife mentions that she was watching a nature show just before dinner:

“It seems so natural that the calf could suckle at the mother cow’s teats in such an easy manner, as if they are perfectly matched,” she says.

He is agreeable, and says in a gentler tone of voice, comforted that the thundershower has passed:

“Yes, they are perfectly matched. What if the calf were too short? Then it couldn’t reach the mother’s udder and then it would starve, and that would be the end of cows,” he muses. “But maybe not.” He puts some more thought into the problem and then says “Maybe the cow could kneel or lie down on its side to nurse the calf, like other animals.” ……., “But then this would leave it open to predators, since it is especially hard for a cow to quickly get back up on its feet.” “Yes,” he softly says, “It is perfect.”

Copyright © 1999 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved. E-mail: yen@noogenesis.com

  Dr. Irene’s Comments


Analysis: Jean tries to impose controlling rules on her husband’s behavior. She is out of her own boundaries and is trying to run John – according to her rules. She will feel better if John obeys her rules. That is her problem. She has given John the power to make her feel good or bad. Jean is out of control and needs to control herself instead of John.
John initially feels put down and begins acting out. John is engaging with Jean’s stuff. That is his problem. However, John self-corrects and no longer personalizes his wife’s misbehavior. This completely diffuses the tension and John feels good about himself. John no longer has a problem. (John has also taken care of Jean’s problem as a byproduct of fixing himself.)

My comments to Jean: When your husband’s behavior bothers you, sit with it. Why can’t you stand it? What does it mean to you? What don’t you like about yourself? Why is it so important to you that you project a certain image? Etc., etc. (Whatever it is Jean, you have the capability to deal with it, if you choose to.)

My comments to John: You did a great job! You took your power. However, given your stated frustration with repetitions of this sort, you need to consider:

Despite your ability to diffuse attack situations, you are clearly angry & resentful that you are putting up with repeat instances. You need to decide whether or not it is OK with you to take responsibility for diffusing situations your wife has difficulty not imposing. Apparently, it is not OK since you are so angry.

Talk to Jean about her criticism. If she agrees to respect your feelings, she needs to stop directing you. Because her responses are automatic and hard to catch at first, perhaps you can agree on a signal indicating she is doing “it” –  and is to stop immediately.
If she will not respect your feelings regarding unacceptable aspects of her behavior, you will have to consider whether the pros & cons of the relationship merit your staying by taking responsibility for diffusing the situation, or by leaving.

If you decide to stay, to maintain your inner peace, you need to train yourself to depersonalize her control more quickly and consistently than you do now (this is about self-control, self-discipline – good stuff). Also, consider how you think about what she is doing. Is she doing this to hurt you, or is she trying to feel OK about herself to the best of her ability? (Probably #2, but you still have the right not to put up with it.) You will want to watch what happens as you accept responsibility – does she up the ante? What are the relative contributions of the partners, and are those contributions OK with you? What are your limits? Etc., etc. By the way, one of the toughest parts is to be honest with yourself as to whether or not you can deal with your partner’s behavior – without getting sick, chronically angry, or the like. Also, periodically reassess. You can change your mind.

If you decide to leave, consider making reconciliation contingent upon her acceptance of your limits over her control stuff.

Read about boundaries here.

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