Emotional Symbiosis: Definition

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Emotional Symbiosis
The Disease of the Disease

by Al Turtle


Most everyone in our country suffers from this disease.  Its origins are in early childhood treatment of babies.  Because most people have it,  we don’t notice it easily.  Awareness of the disease is usually in the way other’s are infected.  Rarely does a diseased person recognize their own infection.  There are three symptoms.


 1) The belief that there is a RIGHT way of seeing, describing, understanding, and valuing What-Is-Going-On.


Each person perceives things differently.  The differences are greater with more abstract issues such as values. Agreement is actually exceedingly rare. The disease shows itself whenever you say, “Well, the truth is … such and such.” or “You are wrong.”  or “Tell me what is the right thing to do.”  “In reality, this is what happened.”


2) The limited capacity to be aware of, respect, appreciate, comprehend the subjectivity of another.

The sufferers think of themselves as the “center”.  Or sometimes they put others in the “center of a world of correctness.”  Still it is their belief, their disorder.  For most it is difficult to be aware that others are immutably different and that all are equally unconnected to “the Right way of seeing”.   Sufferers tend to think others feel what they feel, see what they see, value what they value.  “Everyone likes broccoli.”  “Everyone calls that yelling.”  “Everyone thinks smokers are bad.” “I’m a failure and everyone knows it.”  “Everyone’s mad at me!”

3) Primary Symptom: A tendency to derogate, put down, distance, shame, punish, argue, etc. another person when they, by act, show disagreement with your way of seeing what-is-going-on.

When someone differentiates, when they display that they don’t see what we see, etc., the sufferer will put them down crudely, politely, directly or indirectly.  “You’re too stupid to see it!”  “You don’t like rock music!?”  “Anyone in their right mind agrees.”  “Well, you’re just a kid (woman, democrat, etc.). What do you know!”  “Obviously, you’re not as smart as you look!”  “You are wrong, absolutely!”  or Non-Verbal gestures.


This page is a summary of some of the thoughts shared by Dr. Harville Hendrix in 1994 on “the source of the Power Struggle”.  He spoke during a Clinical Update to Imago Therapists on September 30th.  Click here to download an MP3 recording of the central part of his words.  The file is about 56 minutes long, and 18 Meg in size.  Please remember that this material is copyrighted by Sounds True Recordings and is also the material of Harville Hendrix.  Please be appropriately respectful.


Emotional Symbiosis: Definition — 2 Comments

  1. Dear Jeff,

    This is a great question that fascinated me many years ago.

    I find myself in your situation, not necessarily with Born-Again Christians, but with people who are absolutely confinced of their beliefs to the exclusion of their awareness of other peoples' beliefs. All that stuff I've written on Master/Slave and Power of Passivity, etc., represent my solutions to the problem. 

    But I think you have a specific question here – how to deal with it. So, let me be serious. There are two things I wanna say.

    I think it easy to Validate someone. And let me go further. I think that to Validate someone you must feel free to be and think differently. I don't think you Validate anyone when you think you agree. It could be that I am pretty picky about that word "Validate." (Look this up elsewhere on my website.) Thus Validating this person is a matter of listening, seeing their points of view, reflecting to them you grasping of their points of view. In doing this I am maintaining my point of view happily in my hands, while the other person isn't getting to hear it. "Oh, I get it. You really value such-and-such, and believe that all people should do so-and-so, because you believe that behavior is what you call right, and you want them to be happy. Did I get you?"

    I think the other part of your question is "how to skillfully get them to also see your point view as valid, too." This is more tricky. What I have done with these people is to

    1. never attack them or their beliefs,
    2. mirror and validate them, and
    3. provoke them (very gently) to be curious about my beliefs.

    I did that with a wonderful client some years ago who was a very strong narcissist. It took quite a while. I mirrored and Validated him for hours and hours. He talked a lot. Every 15 minutes or so, I would drop into the conversation a brief and gentle comment that "I see things differently. But go on…" I saw myself as tickling him with my diversity. On he would go, chattng. Then again I would drop in that little note, "Well I don't agree with you but please tell me more." This went on for about 7 hours of therapy time. Then, once, he asked me, "Well what do you think?" I didn't think he was really seriously curious, so I just deflected him by,  "Well, but your last story was so interesting. Please go on." Finally at the end of 9 hours he stopped dead in his tracks, verbally. He was quiet. Then he said, "Look, Al, I didn't come to you to have you tell me I was all ok. I am messed up. I really need help." (Mind you in all of the 9 hours he had never referred to himself as being a problem or having difficulty. Everything was always someone else's trouble.) My response to his stopping and asking for help — "Well, I think that now therapy can begin."

    I believe these self-centered people have to be invited into contacting our diversity, and cannot be pushed. Good luck.

  2. So – how to skillfully handle it? I am reminded of this problem as I am engaging an old friend who is now a born again christian. She continues to raise the idea of me becoming a born again christian as well. She is determined to change my 'sense' about it. I'm imagining this all makes perfect sense from where she is looking, but for me things are different. Is there a way I could validate her while at the same time maintaining my own diversity?

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