Dr. Miriam Adahan 23/02/2010

For many years, scientists wondered why neglected children will sometimes bang their heads against their cribs or a wall. They concluded that the head-banging creates a kind of colorful light show in their brains which relieves their loneliness and boredom.  To such children, the pain they arouse is preferable to the lack of stimualtion.  Many people engage in an adult form of "head-banging," as they desperately try to get people to change.  Head-bangers will often complain, "I've been trying for thirty years to please my wife/husband/child or get him/her to respect me, appreciate me, give me more attention, find a steady job, lose weight, get organized, get spiritual, stop being addicted, etc."  

            Head-bangers will do anything to please and will continue to call, send e-mails and give gifts even if there is no expression of true appreciation and even if they are rebuffed, insulted and stonewalled. Then they get furious at or hold resentment toward those who do not appreciate their efforts to connect.  Their fury provides an inner light show which gives them the illusion that a relationship is taking place, even though it is only in their own minds.  

            Why would people persist in knocking on closed doors like emotional beggars, trying to get through to people who rebuff, insult or ignore them? There are many reasons.

  1. Repetition compulsion. We all tend to repeat childhod behavioral patterns, just as we repeat the language we learned early in life. If, as a child, you tried desperately to win the attention of a parent who did not like you or did not want to spend time with you, you may think that it is normal to persist.
  2. Intermittent conditioning. If you want to "condition" a behavior, you simply have to reward it. If you never reward the behavior, it will eventually be extinguished. Thus, a scientist can program a pigeon to perform a certain behavior by giving the pigeon a food pellet each time it presses a certain button. As long as it gets food, it will continue. If no food is forthcoming for something like 1000 times, it will eventually stop pressing. However, if the bird receives a food pellet only once during those 1000 presses, it will continue to press indefinitely, expecting that eventually it will be rewarded.  At times, you probably did get some "crumbs" of affection or attention. Perhaps you won an award and were rewarded with a big smile or a rare hug of affection. Perhaps you got sick and received a few moments of serious concern. Even if were able to elicit a desired response only once in a few hundred attempts to engage with a person, you might never stop trying to repeat the happy memory and fulfill your dreams of success and love.
  3.  Love. Many people believe that the measure of a person's love is determined by how much abuse he is willing to take. Thus, you think that your ability to bear the scorn or indifference is proof of your love. The more abuse you take, the more you convinced you are that you love that person. To stop loving someone that you have invested so much in might make you feel quite stupid and foolish. By persisting in trying to get through, you believe you are saving your sanity and self-esteem. 
  4. Error in thinking. People tend to believe that others are really like them, underneath it all. Thus, people who crave communication believe that everyone does really want to communicate and that if they keep trying, they will develop a relationship. Good people believe that everyone is really good, underneath it all and that they will uncover that goodness with persistence. 
  5. Illusory hope. Many people are proud of themselves for engaging in this futile "peace process" even if they are getting no response.  They are proud of being heroic and optimistic and may insist that abuse is sign of concern!  According to this reasoning, why would the person be angry and critical if they didn't care about you? The very fact that they are taking time to be angry can be interpreted as a sign of concern in the mind of a person who suffered physical or emotional abuse as a child.
  6. Blind loyalty.   Many people believe that family must stick together no matter what and suffer scorn because there is no other way to maintain a family.
  7. Addicted to angst. Whenever one attempts to break an addictive pattern, there is anxiety about what will take the place of the addiction.  In this case, what will replace all the "angst" which has resulted from years of trying to get the other person to change? The angst is like a thunder and lightning show, entertaining us like a child banging his head. If you are no longer calling, writing e-mails, sending gifts or trying to get them to visit, how will you fill your time? What will you do with the grief and sense of failure and rejection?  One woman I know regularly drives over 100 miles to bring her daughter little gifts, hoping against hope that this time, there will be a smile and a bit of warmth. Inevitably, the daughter is irritable and impatient and the mother drives away in tears, feeling like a failure for not being able to create the emotional connection she craves, arousing the same feelings she experienced as a child when she could not get her own mother to pay attention to her. Yet she is afraid to stop, afraid of the abyss of grief which she is sure she will fall into if she stops trying to fulfill her dreams.    

 It is not easy to change any habit. And the head-banging "addiction" is very cunning and seductive, since it looks, on the surface, as if you are being hopeful, helpful, optimistic and courageous. Many therapists and advisors will encourage head-banging and promise that eventually, the person will turn around and return the love or become more productive, responsible, reliable or spiritual. While people definitely do become more mature and caring, there is no guarantee that your efforts will bear fruit. Ultimately, it is Hashem who decides whether or not it is good for that person to change or good for you to get what you want. In the meantime, your life is on hold. You are missing out on the present by putting all your hopes in a doubtful future.

If you have taken the role of "emotional beggar," constantly seeking more love and attention than you are getting or have taken the role of "coach-parent," trying to get a family member to become more responsible and mature, it will be very difficult to let go. Your goal is to give the problem over to G-d and to humbly think, "I will allow Hashem to run other people's lives according to what He thinks is best for them and, ultimately, for me, even though it seems as if I know what direction they should be taking and how fast they should be progressing." Try to wean yourself one day at a time. Each day, decide that "Just for today, I will not lecture or plead for change." Think of the word "release." Release the person to Hashem. Allow him to take responsibility. When you stop pressuring them, you might create the space they need to take the initiative and come towards you. If not, then put your energies to better use.  If people are slamming doors in your face, open other doors. There are many volunteer organizations where you will find people who need your caring heart and will appreciate your desire for connection.      



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