To Pretzel or Not to Pretzel

To Pretzel or Not to Pretzel

The verb form of the word pretzel means to “twist, bend or contort”. I’m sure there are many applications for the term, but I have a very specific usage in mind when I say “pretzel” in therapy. What I am referring to almost always is the tendency of some people to spend a lot of time and energy trying to discover what and who others need or want them to be and then a lot of their remaining energy trying to become that.

The truth is all of us have to pretzel ourselves sometimes. There are days when we don’t feel like putting on the happy face for work, but we know that when we encounter our customers, they don’t really care that we had a long weekend of travel or that we woke up with a headache this morning. They expect to feel like the most important people in the world to us and that our very joy is derived from serving them. Or how about sitting around the Thanksgiving table and really wanting to complain about something someone else did or said but realizing that ruining the fun for everyone else is not worth it. So, we smile and make small talk like a champ but even through gritted teeth. These sorts of responses are mostly adaptive.

But there is a level of this that I believe as truly problematic and even damaging to oneself. I see it all the time in life and relational therapy, and I’ll bet when you think about, so do you. Maybe you even see it in yourself. It’s the potentially close and very important relationship to you where you are so other focused all the time. You try to anticipate what will make the other happy on every occasion. You think what they would like to see you wearing. You think about what topics to avoid so as to not get them upset. You make plans based on what you think will make them happy and never do you dare ask for compromise or reciprocity. You praise and affirm every word and breath without expecting the same in return. You work so hard trying to figure out who they want you to be and to become it and all the while losing by degrees who you really are and the important needs that are a part of your psychological makeup.

Don’t misunderstand. Trying to make your loved ones happy is a good thing. Trying to give your overworked spouse a calm evening at home is a lovely thing. Looking nice for someone is a great idea. Going on their dream trips and vacations is a marvelous thing to do. All of these are great unless your needs, your moods, your ambitions, your bad days, your growth edges, or your longings for affirmation are never their priority.

If you are in relationship with someone who expects you to pretzel yourself for them all the time, beware. Beware that you may lose yourself in a not so healthy way. Beware that no matter how hard you try, you will likely never be able to become enough in their eyes. Beware that this pattern can create an unhappy relationship and, in some cases, an abusive one.