by Mark Sichel, LCSW
"My father always had a list of people who he felt were "bad." These bad people, he felt, had insulted, injured, or treated him unjustly. I was often on that list; at one point, he would not talk to me for a period of five years. As he got older, his list grew and he became even more isolated, angry, and bitter. It was very sad to watch, and it was horrible to have to worry about it until he died when I was in my fifties."
Barbara* is a 67-year-old woman who is telling me about her difficulty in letting go of a chronic need to please people. She feels that her need to please others is highly related to having grown up with a parent who was an injustice collector. Barbara identified with her mother, who was a People Pleaser until the day she died, but her sister Eileen, on the other hand, inherited their father's destructive habit of collecting wounds, insults, slights, hurts, lack of respect, lack of understanding, and whatever other grounds either of them could use to place people on their "Bad List." Barbara and her mother are examples of People Pleasers; Eileen and her father are examples of Injustice Collectors.
"Eileen seemed to want to spoil every moment of happiness in everyone's life but her own. She always seemed to be able to manipulate a story and present it in a way that would portray her or her family as poor pitiful victims of whoever in the family seemed to be having a good day. For years, rather than get angry, I would, as I had learned from dealing with our father, quickly apologize and scramble to make everything ok again. I never really felt that I did anything terrible to Eileen, certainly nothing to merit her levels of rage, but whatever it was, I'd always make the peace."
Barbara told me that her sister's chronic drama would repeatedly take the form of hurling accusations at her or her husband or children, and then saying, "I'm done. I'm never speaking to you again." Barbara would immediately say she was sorry, and then spend inordinate amounts of time courting Eileen for forgiveness. Whatever Eileen accused her of did not make sense to her; nonetheless, she immediately felt that it was her fault. She felt overcome with shame and guilt, and in her self-blame would readily prostrate herself before Eileen, groveling to get through the episode and avoid an ugly scene at a family event.
When Barbara's oldest son Lawrence was getting married, he had decided to have a small wedding, and to that end, while he had invited his Aunt Eileen and her husband, he had not invited their grown children with whom he had never been closely involved. Two days before Lawrence's wedding, Barbara had received the dreaded call of rage from Eileen. This time, however, when Eileen shouted, "I'm never speaking to you again, instead of scrambling to fix it, Barbara simply said, "OK. Goodbye." She hung up the phone and never looked back.
"My father died a bitter, lonely and angry man, taking his precious "bad list" into the coffin with him. The funeral was sad for me, not because I would miss him and his atrocious behavior, but because by that point he had alienated everyone but my mother and sister, and we were the only ones at the funeral. I realized with my sister that she was going to play out the same ugly drama, and I finally decided that I didn't need or want to be part of that."
Characteristics of Injustice Collectors:
- Injustice Collectors are convinced that they are never wrong. How is it possible that they are never wrong? It is simple: They are always right.
- Injustice Collectors never apologize. Ever. For anything.
- Injustice Collectors truly believe that they are morally and ethically superior to others and that others chronically do not hold themselves to the same high standards as the injustice collector does.
- Injustice Collectors make the rules, break the rules and enforce the rules of the family. They are a combined legislator, police, and judge and jury of those they consider their loyal subjects.
- Injustice Collectors never worry about what is wrong with themselves as their "bad list" grows. Their focus is always on the failings of others.
- Injustice Collectors are never upset by the disparity of their rules for others with their own expectations of themselves.
- Injustice Collectors rationalize their own behavior with great ease and comfort.
The unfortunate outcome in the dysfunctional family is that either the People Pleaser has to become progressively more crippled and entrenched in their subservient role in the family, or else they become healthier and stronger and ultimately are accused of breaking up the family. The sad part about this drama is that once the People Pleaser has grown to the point where their self-respect is high enough to not grovel and shake in the presence of the injustice collector, the family remains divided.
To find out more about People Pleasers, read People Pleasers.
To discover why a family estrangement is almost never about one single incident, read I'm Done: The Family Drama.
To learn more about rifts in the family, read When a Family Divorces.
*The names of all clients have been changed to protect their identities.
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