When the world walks all over you, do you smile politely while quietly seething? If so, Martha Beck can help you stop catering to other people’s whims and start expressing your own needs for a change.
By Martha Beck
If Nu Nu had been bigger than a doorknob, someone would have shot him. He was like a tiny chain saw with fur, a snarling, fang-baring nightmare of a Chihuahua who viciously attacked anyone brave enough or crazy enough to go near him. Tina Madden, Nu Nu’s owner, was as saintly as he was diabolical. She never sank to Nu Nu’s level by reprimanding, much less punishing, him. She simply showered him with love and tenderness, believing that taking the high road would eventually dissolve Nu Nu’s wrath.
I’ve had clients who took a similar “high road” approach with difficult people in their lives. For example, Yvette stayed politely silent when a coworker, Fred, brazenly stole her ideas. Janae cleaned up pizza boxes and drinking glasses left by her college-age daughter, Emily, as uncomplainingly as she’d once changed Emily’s dirty diapers. And Cynthia and Rob’s romance was based on lots of give and take: Cynthia gave — back rubs, compliments, gifts — and Rob took full advantage without ever reciprocating.
All these women were as long-suffering as Tina Madden, and the people around them responded just as Nu Nu did: by exploiting the living hell out of them.
The problem is that trying to change unfair behavior with submissive niceness is like trying to smother a fire with gunpowder. It isn’t the high road; it’s the grim, well-trod path that leads from aggressive to passive, through long, horrible stretches of passive-aggressive. The real high road requires something quite different: the courage to know and follow your own truth. If anyone in your life is exploiting your courtesy and goodwill, it’s time you learned how all of this works.
1. Are Your Relationships On The ORC Road?
First let’s look at the dynamics of an unbalanced relationship like Nu Nu and Tina’s. Though Tina’s endless tolerance appeared to stem from a deep and abiding love, it was based more on fear: fear of anger, of conflict, of losing control, of emotional abandonment. It was the passive response to an aggressive attack — both behaviors that fall into a category I call ORC. Here, ORC stands not for those gnarly dudes who, as we all know, would destroy Middle-earth if given half a chance, but for behavior that is opaque, reactive, and closed.
By describing behavior as opaque, I mean that we hide — even from ourselves — the actual motives that drive it. For example, when Fred stole Yvette’s ideas, her silence didn’t come from inner peace but from an unacknowledged fear that speaking up would ruin her reputation as a “team player.” Janae didn’t realize that her real reason for catering to her daughter was to keep Emily from wanting to move out — and tamp down her own dread of living in an empty nest. Likewise, Cynthia was unconscious of her terror that Rob would leave her unless she constantly fulfilled his every wish.
When opaque behavior disengages us from our inner truth, we stop acting on our own desires and become purely reactive instead, focused not on what we want but on what others will think, say, or do. We never express negative feelings about the relationship — which means that it becomes, in the words of organizational behavior expert Chris Argyris, “self-sealed” against learning. Opaque, reactive, and closed: in a word, ORC.
Of course, it’s not always easy to know if you’re in ORC territory. This very day, you may perform completely ORC-ish acts without even realizing it. Luckily, there are two red flags that will always tell you when you’re on the ORC road. Red flag number one: a tendency among the people around you to become increasingly selfish, exploitative, and unfair. Red flag number two: a growing disconnect between your own feelings and your actions — directly proportional to how badly you’re being treated and how far you’ve managed to stray from your truth.
Here’s a guide to ORC signals:
You easily brush aside your feelings and continue your nice, polite behavior.
You appear cooperative around the offender, still pushing away resistant feelings but now fussing grumpily to yourself or to others.
You may actually increase niceness to hide the fact that you’re feeling seriously wronged. Anger seeps out passive-aggressively — a snippy question, a slammed drawer.
The offender’s misdeeds begin to occupy more and more of your attention. Kvetching about her becomes a daily pastime; you begin to shoot her angry looks while claiming that absolutely nothing is wrong.
The offender’s bad behavior becomes a central feature of your thinking. You complain constantly to others, and despite continued “niceness,” try to undermine her with passive-aggressive strategies like the silent treatment, backhanded compliments, and gossip.
You daydream about thrashing the offender in a cage fight. You have knots in your stomach and can’t sleep. You’re irritable or depressed. You may occasionally lash out at loved ones in what appears to be irrational rage. Toward the offender, however, you still act “nice” and “polite.”
2. How to Leave the ORC Road and Find the TAO
If you see yourself anywhere on the ORC chart, don’t despair. Many people who wind up here believe the only alternative to groveling niceness is aggressive dominance. But there’s another path, one that never needs to intersect with the ORC road. I call it TAO, which is Chinese for “the way,” and also stands for transparent, authentic, and open.
This way of relating, which I teach all my clients, is based on honestly assessing what’s happening both around us and within us, expressing our truth as authentically as possible, and staying open to feedback without abandoning our own perspective. And it happens to be exactly what Tina was able to achieve with Nu Nu — thanks to dog behaviorist Cesar Millan. Tina and Nu Nu were featured in the original episode of Millan’s TV show, Dog Whisperer. (I keep a DVD of the episode to show people like Yvette, Janae, and Cynthia.) Here’s how it went down: As the episode begins, Millan learns that despite Tina’s desire to live a normal life with normal human contact, whenever anyone comes near Tina, Nu Nu does his level best to kill them. So Millan sits next to Tina, puts his arm around her shoulders, and calmly lets Nu Nu go ballistic. Tina tenses up as though she may spontaneously implode, but Millan simply holds Nu Nu so he can’t attack and waits for the fit to pass. Which it does.
Astonishingly, that’s all it takes to move from the nightmarish ORC road to the TAO of healthy relationships. Three steps: 1. Figure out what you really want to do. 2. Do it. 3. If someone pulls a Nu Nu, wait it out.
Now, if Nu Nu had been a Rottweiler, or Tony Soprano, it would have taken more than Cesar Millan to hold him while he raged. If you think moving into TAO behavior will cause someone you know to become truly dangerous, you need to take appropriate measures. But if all you have to fear is snottiness or angry backlash, you can handle it.
For example, Yvette asked for a meeting with her supervisor and her unethical coworker, Fred. She calmly described how Fred had co-opted her ideas and produced an e-mail trail to back up her claims. Fred threw a fit, accusing Yvette of being dishonest and uncooperative. Yvette stayed transparent, authentic, and open, matter-of-factly restating her point and asking him to show evidence of his position. Having no truth to turn to, Fred ran out of gas. In fact, Yvette’s behavior scared him so badly, he started stealing from other people instead.
Janae realized that while she was afraid to let her daughter leave home, she also resented Emily for not growing up. I asked her to explain exactly this to Emily. Janae did — then braced for a Nu Nu. To her surprise, Emily thought for a moment, then said, “That sounds fair, but you’ll have to remind me to clean up — I’m sort of a slob.” Later Janae jubilantly told me, “She wanted to be TAO all along!”
Cynthia’s story wasn’t such a fairy tale. When she asked Rob to be as kind and supportive toward her as she was toward him, he went into a rant about why this was impossible and irrational. She held her ground. “Well,” said Rob, “I guess we’d better call the whole thing off.” This move was meant to frighten Cynthia into obedience. Instead it showed her that Rob wasn’t the gallant prince she’d pretended he was. As she continued to be transparent, authentic, and open, Rob’s Nu Nu fits grew so wearying that Cynthia broke off the engagement herself.
3. Walking the High Road
Years after watching Nu Nu and Tina model ORC behavior, then move to the TAO of genuine connection, I saw another episode of Dog Whisperer in which Tina was working at Cesar Millan’s Dog Psychology Center. When a muscular pit bull began to tangle with another dog, Tina calmly stepped in, pulled away the pit bull (which nearly outweighed her), and held it gently but firmly until it exhausted itself and relaxed. Then she continued walking with the pit bull and several other dogs. As for Nu Nu, he had become as affectionate and joyful as he’d once been demonic. Dog and human walked the high road together, showing the rest of us how it’s done.
Martha Beck’s latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press).