The Coping Gang of Eight

  1. Accept who you are, even those traits and emotions you may not like.
  2. Keep your perceptions of events around you independent of your wants.
  3. Take responsibility for who you are and the actions you take.
  4. Communicate with others calmly, coherently and honestly.
  5. Be flexible when different situations require different emotions and actions.
  6. Develop a core base of values that includes traits like integrity, honor, honesty, morality, and a social conscience.
  7. Use your values to cultivate humility, and recognize that life is not always about you.
  8. Allow your humility and communication with others to blend into empathy for others.

Donna had an alcoholic, lazy father, and a co-dependent mother who generally lived in denial about problems in the family. The mother was very good at making Donna feel guilty if she did not help out around the house. She also sought sympathy from Donna for being a martyr in putting up with Donna’s no-good father.

Donna remembers her father as an alcoholic since she was twelve years old: “He was a lawyer but was unemployed much of the time. He sat around and watched TV all day. Mom basically enabled this behavior by acting like nothing was wrong or that he just wasn’t even around. It was weird. I’ve often wondered why I felt unemotional during my high school years. I figure it was because we were ‘guilted’ into not expressing ourselves; saying anything about dad’s alcoholism was an unspoken ‘no’ at home. In our house, emotional expression in general seemed to be stifled. I learned to be a self-sacrificer – put my needs below peace and harmony at home.”

Donna met Phil while living at home and enrolled in college. He was a student at a different college, but close to Donna’s. After they had been dating for about a year, Donna began going to counseling sessions because she was having problems in the relationship. Phil came from a family that had a lot of money, and he got pretty much whatever he wanted. His entitlement expectation grew and continued into adulthood, and he developed many narcissistic tendencies. Donna felt Phil was trying to control her life, watching her every move, and making considerable demands on her. For instance, he was calling her on the phone several times a day, asking what she was doing, not in a casual, “How is everything?” tone, but in a confrontational, “Are you behaving?” tone. When asked about the obsessive calling, Phil said he could not stop himself. He said, “I heat up. I can’t control myself. I just have to know what you’re up to.”

Donna stayed with Phil for more than three years. In spite of the rough moments, she found him mostly sweet, fun, and romantic. It took her a long time to realize that his kindness was usually serving a purpose for him: he was simply a very manipulative, controlling, dominating type. For instance, after a big fight he would be sweet to her, crying and saying, “I’m sorry, I love you so much.” At other times he would threaten to end the relationship. He would constantly demand that she prove her feelings for him. Donna says, “He was the best boyfriend, and the worst boyfriend.” The bad times with Phil were really bad, but the occasional good times gave her hope and kept her going, avoiding the reality that she was in a losing battle.

Finally, encouraged by a supportive counselor and group of friends, Donna gave Phil an ultimatum: Change his ways or she was walking. Phil kicked the manipulative moves into high gear, but she stuck to her guns, although only with great effort and help. She eventually had to have her friends next to her to help break up with him over the phone. She said, “I would not have been strong enough to break up with him alone and face-to-face. He was just too strong.” Free from Phil, Donna continued in counseling and gained insight into her own actions, and those of her mother and father, whose influence put her on the road to becoming a self-sacrificer. In the context of our “Gang of Eight,” Donna had to fight multiple attacks on her coping efforts: Her reality was based on submission to her father’s dysfunction, and later to Phil’s, whose domineering personality perfectly fit the father’s model. She could not communicate with Phil in a productive way. Her humility was based on weakness, not empowered ego strength. Her values were submerged in Phil’s dysfunctional control. In the end, however, Donna broke away from Phil’s influence by turning to a support system that could be objective about Phil and his negative effect on her. That support system helped her re-build her Gang of Eight, and begin coping with her stressors in constructive and productive ways.

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