Our Compulsion to Comply: How to Break Free
Many of us know the feeling – the pull to do what another person wants and to let our own needs take a back seat. Whilst to put another person first can be a generous and courteous thing, when it becomes compulsive and our own needs become impossible to assert, we may well be in the grip of what can be termed pathological accommodation, a compulsion to comply.
In a recent book, Bernard Brandchaft explores this issue in depth. He builds a compelling picture of what it is, how it arises and how therapists can work to help their clients that suffer from it. Pathological accommodation is often a very deep pattern and can impact our home and working life. You see it all the time.
It starts in childhood
So how does it arise? According to Brandchaft it is something that has its genesis in childhood; it is a response to the lapses of our caregivers. In the normal caregiving situation, a growing child will express needs (to be fed, nurtured or understood). The caregiver will then, to the best of their ability, respond to the child’s needs. In this way the child gets to understand that it can express needs and that they can be satisfied. Knowing this, the child doesn’t need to enter an agitated state when a need arises; it knows that it will be responded to. Further, this met expectation of responsiveness will help build the critical connection between the child and the caregiver.
Inconsistent or faulty caregiving
Sometimes the caregiver isn’t able to respond to the child. This is normal but can cause distress for the child. The damage is often not long lasting and can be repaired with further responsiveness. However, Brandchaft claims that some of those in a caregiving role are not consistently and reliably able to respond to the needs of the developing child. In this situation, the child can no longer take for granted the connection to the caregiver. This is the most important thing in the world for the child; even if the connection is to an abusive caregiver. In order to maintain this essential connection, the child will start responding to the needs of the adult. A similar thing can happen when there is a strong focus on evaluation in the family.
This seems like the only way to elicit the responsiveness it craves. If this successfully starts to restore this needed connection, the child will quickly embrace this new behaviour. In essence, the child forestalls its own development for the sake of attachment.
The child's sense of self
It's a problem when the child learns to shelve its own sense of when self in order to better respond to the caregiver. The child’s sense of self becomes stunted and more marginalised; this happens until the need to accommodate the adult becomes pathological. This is insidious as there can develop a seemingly unbreakable link between the child’s developmental needs and the possibility of connection; the existence of one seemingly destroys the other, and this split grows ever stronger.
As the child grows into adulthood their needs turn from nurturing into the need for self expression. To have their own sense of self, the person feels that they can have their own sense of self or they can have connection to another; but that they can’t have both. Since most people need connection to other people above all else, our sense of self becomes muted.
The expression of self
Even more tragically, an unconscious link becomes entrenched between the expression of the self and destruction of the link to other people; “any expression of my own thinking or self-expression, even privately, may lead to a re-emergence of my supressed sense of self and if it does, this will destroy my connection with the people I love”. The compulsion to comply becomes further cemented.
In a very cruel twist, the constricted adult, unable to express his own needs adequately and limited in the way that he can respond and be responded to, becomes the sort of caregiver that has such difficulty in responding to the needs of his own children, and only feels comfortable when his children respond to him; in this way is the cycle perpetuated.
It's outside awareness
So how do we deal with pathological accommodation? Because the damage happens at a pre-reflective stage of development, the full pattern is outside of awareness. It is also outside the area of conscious revision. This means that therapies that focus on the cognitive and the behavioural will seldom effectively penetrate to this level. The treatment for pathological accommodation is to firstly bring the mental process that underlies the need to accommodate the other into awareness. We do this by giving minute attention to the way that the pathological accommodation unfolds; what triggers it, the thinking that accompanies it and the process by which that the needs of the self are relentlessly ceded to the needs of the other.
The work of therapy
Throughout the treatment the therapist will pay great attention to aligning himself with the client’s state of mind (especially how the client experiences it) and welcomes the client’s expression of himself. Through allowing and encouraging this expression, the therapist fosters the client’s growing sense of self and holds onto the possibility of it, even when the client feels they are sliding back. It can be a slow process. The therapy will start to awaken the entombed sense of self. This awakening will give rise to a sense of panic that the relationships that the client depends on will be threatened.
The growing self
The more the self starts to grow, the more the client will feel a sense of panic. They will feel that their connection to other people is at risk. In the face of this, the client may retreat better to what they best understand and can trust – responding to the needs of the other so the relationship remains unthreatened.
It is only by slowly realising that the needs of the self can grow and that the relationships – including the therapeutic relationship, which becomes a template – can still exist and not be threatened that the emerging sense of self finds its feet.
– Tim Hill
Brandchaft B., Doctors S. & Sorter D. (2010) “Towards and Emancipatory Psychoanalysis” Routledge, New York
Now, read about when pleasing other people can be a problem.
The problem is that the pathological accommodator needs to recognize that it is his/her issue that needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately the pathological accommodator usually blames everyone else ( especially his/her partner) for the resentments that build up over time because of the inability to express his or her needs, dissatisfactions, unhappiness. Because the pathological accommodator is a pleaser he needs to make the partner the ” bad person” to justify his, in many cases, running away or detaching from the family. In other words, it is everyone else’s problem but his/hers.
Hi Janine, thank you for your interesting comment. For a person to be pathologically accommodating usually means that this pattern has been in place for a while, usually since childhood. The person can feel that this way of being will get results because it may well have done so in the past. However, in relationship with another adult, a different strategy is called for. Like all other strategies, this is best learnt deliberately. The danger is that our frustration of living with an accomodating person like this will cause us to display this frustration towards them; this is likely to only trigger their need to pathologically accommodate through their discomfort and fear. In other words, it is only reinforced by our actions to try to change it. Counter-intuitively, it can only be usefully resolved through our attempts at understanding and patience. Ultimately, it’s a shared problem – no-one is getting what they need out of the situation – so the solution may need to be shared as well.