A good friend called me last weekend trying to kill some time while waiting on her chronically late sister, "We live exactly the same distance from this café, a place we meet each month, and 9 out of 10 times she is 30-40 minutes late, it never fails!” My friend went on to share other “flakey” aspects of her sister’s behavior in their relationship such as forgetting dates, not following though on tasks, and so forth.
This is a pet peeve for many people, including yours truly. Of course, everyone is late because of traffic, a client/work issue, or due to an emergency or illness now and then. And every human being will have his or her “flakey” moments on occasion; there are no perfect people, nor should there be.
However, why is it that some people are chronically late, while others have no problem arriving on time? And why are some people dependable, and other’s flake out constantly? Why can some people simply make a plan and stick with it, while others flounder around? While I could dive into family of origin, attachment issues, and child hood wounds, today I would like to explore the world of meta messages and secondary gains.
Executive Functioning and Shame
Before we dive in to the world of meta messages and secondary gains, it is important to point out that sometimes a person's inconsistent behavior is due executive dysfunction.
What does this mean? In a nutshell, a person's executive function consists of various skills that assist a person's brain to organize and act on information.
Healthy executive functioning enables people to organize and focus, it assists with memory and helps the person prioritize and execute tasks. Additionally, healthy executive functioning also helps people use information and experiences from the past to solve current problems.
For people who have experienced head injuries, mental illness, intense trauma, or other challenges that impact executive functioning, they can come across as "flakey" or unreliable. If their behavior is then followed up by lectures, judgement and anger from loved ones, this can leave the individual with shame based thinking. Shame can then shift into defensiveness, self loathing, withdrawing from others, or even blaming others. Especially if the person has not been supported in therapy.
If you believe that you are struggling with impaired executive functioning, then I encourage you to seek the help you deserve and work with a therapist who can support you.
However, as stated at the start, the purpose of this blog is to take a look at meta messages and secondary gains for people who are "flakey" and have healthy executive functioning that is not impaired.
Meta Messages and Secondary Gains
Being late and creating a "flakey" reputation can have powerful secondary gains for some folks. This kind of behavior sends a message that silently states, “I am unreliable and therefore you should not place expectations on me or ask me for anything.” Or, “I am overwhelmed and cannot take care of myself so you do it for me.” Or, “My career/family/life is busier and more important.” Because meta messages and secondary gains are so prevalent in relationships, yet are so misunderstood, it may be helpful to break this topic down a bit further.
Simply put, a meta message is an underlying message that masks a deeper unspoken meaning. The sender is usually unaware of the meta message they are sending, and the receiver is often left confused, frustrated, angry, doubting their reality, and left to read between the lines.
For example, my friend at the café shared that once her sister had finally rushed in, rather than taking ownership and apologizing, she stated in a loud and exasperated tone, “Ugh, what a morning, my phone is exploding with work texts! I am so damn sick of everyone’s stupid crap!” The meta message she was likely sending was a warning, “My job is really important with lot’s of demands so don’t give me flack about being late or I will punish you.”
However, rather than feeling intimidated and once again swallowing her hurt and frustration, my friend screwed up her courage and calmly let her sister know that waiting on her for 30 minutes was no longer acceptable. The sister used excuses at first, then attempted to blame shift saying that my friend’s expectations were too high, then moved to a bait and switch stance where she attempted to reframe that she thought my friend would appreciate some time to relax alone at the cafe given she was a busy mother.
When none of the above worked, the sister resorted to eye rolling and silence, choosing to ignore my friend while she focused on her smart phone. As the lunch concluded, the sister abruptly huffed away. This is a very clear message that states, “I am punishing you for not heading my meta message and calling me out on my crap.”
Which brings us into exploring secondary gains.
Let’s name the late sister, Flakey Fran and the other sister Codependent Cathy. If Fran feels obligated rather than excited to meet for their monthly sister’s lunch she will likely choose lateness and meta messages to convey this rather than stating her truth which could be, “I don’t like/have time for these monthly lunches.” By using meta messages, she is setting up an eventual confrontation with Cathy who finally let her know it was not Ok to be that late. By responding in a hostile way to Cathy’s boundary setting, the secondary gain for Fran is that it is unlikely that Cathy will be motivated to continue meeting for lunch. Rather than telling Cathy upfront that she doesn’t enjoy the monthly lunch, and then working through the potential feelings of guilt that Fran may experience, Fran creates the same result [no more lunches] without the responsibility of ownership and clarity.
Bam! Meta message sent and received. Secondary gain achieved.
Now, Fran can tell herself any number of things to justify this outcome [i.e. my sister expects me to be perfect; my sister is so anal; my sister is a stay at a home mom; my sister is too sensitive; my sister is the one who decided to end our lunch dates; my sister is so controlling, etc.]. This kind of blame shifting allows Fran to avoid taking ownership of her actions, processing through challenging emotions, and honoring Cathy’s reasonable request.
If you relate to Fran, you may be feeling defensive right about now. I understand and I empathize - it is hard for any of us to look at our own character challenges [and we all have them!]. Instead of personalizing this information, how about we explore some other secondary gains you may receive by being unreliable. It is likely that no one asks you for help, or very rarely asks. This means you get to navigate life on your own terms without ever having to be inconvenienced by supporting others. So, what’s wrong with that you may be asking? The short answer is absolutely nothing as long as you choose to live your life in isolation, or a narcissistic bubble, or set up shop in a hermetic cave. If that is not part of your life plan however, then it is unrealistic to expect that your personal and professional relationships will not require time, attention, and leaning out of your comfort zone to provide unselfish, other centered support now and then. It means that you will need to learn to negotiate and discuss boundaries, and own and work on your flaky crap.
We are all busy people, and any one of us can fall into seasons of self-absorption where our world orbits around our work, errands, family, social life and hobbies. It takes on going effort to be in relationships with others. Every human being has a deep-seated desire to feel special and loved. The corner stones of safe human relationships are consistency and predictability – or when our words and actions match a good portion of the time. If you choose to be flakey and unreliable in your relationships, refusing to show up emotionally or physically, or take any ownership and action for change, the pay off is that after a while people learn that you are not someone to be counted on. They may attempt to discuss their boundaries or needs with you, but if you continue to ignore the mirror they are holding up to your behaviors, or to shut them down with anger or apathy, or if your words and actions don’t match, over time the people in your life will feel ignored, unimportant, misunderstood, unappreciated, unloved, resentful, and eventually with withdraw and look elsewhere for love, connection and support.
And if you are doing this in your work life dear Flakey Fran [or Fred], you won’t last long as your reputation for being unreliable may get you ushered right out of the door. If you are a small business owner and you choose to treat clients this way, get ready for some lean times ahead. Your reputation will precede you and clients will go elsewhere.
Or perhaps you relate to Co-dependent Cathy. I stood in those shoes for years so I get how frustrating and crazy making that role can be. If you are a Cathy [or Charlie], my gentle question is this: What are you doing to reinforce the secondary gain of the Flakey Fran or Fred in your life? What part of the dance do you own? Do you make excuses for the flakes? Do you overcompensate? Do you seethe in silence? Or do you withdraw and then explode?
Is there someone in your life right now that you know better than to ask for a ride to the airport, to help with a party, to be on time for a lunch, to listen to a problem, to make a dinner reservation, to return an email, call or text in a timely manner, to respond to an invitation, to entrust with a chore, to plan a trip, to help out with an important task, or event to plan a little something for your birthday? I’ll bet a name is coming immediately to mind where you are required to do all of the heavy lifting in the relationship. If so, what feelings surface when you reflect on this person? If you experience feelings of resentment, confusion, sadness, anger, or apathy toward this unreliable friend, co-worker, family member or mate, you are in good company as that is a normal response for most of us.
Yet when we Cathy’s [or Charlies] of the world sit on our voices and allow for this kind of chaotic dance to continue with the Frans and Freds of the world, we unknowingly reinforce these unhealthy behaviors. Our own meta message might be, “I’ll do anything to gain your approval and love.” Or, “I am afraid of being left.” Or, “I feel like I have to be the do-er to earn your love.” The secondary gain is that we don’t risk losing the relationship – even if the relationship is no longer working.
That said, let me be clear dear “Cathy and Charlie” this is not to say we are responsible for another person’s choices and changes, we are not! However, we are certainly responsible for our own courage, choice and change.
Boundaries & Consequences
So, how do we make these changes? By allowing for consequences is my nutshell answer. People do not change without experiencing consequences of their behaviors. And even then they may never change. But we can make different choices that respect our worth and value in the world while stepping away from resentment and anger.
Again, good to keep in mind what that person is dealing with - is this a result of impaired executive functioning, unresolved trauma, mental illness, or an undiagnosed personality disorder? If so, then gentle encouragement for your loved one to seek clinical support is wise. However, it may not be heeded, and you can still give yourself permission to implement non-shaming boundaries that take care of your own sanity, while not creating more pain for your friend or family member.
I’ll use an example from my therapy practice.
Though rare, if I am working with a client who has healthy executive functioning, yet still runs 10, 15, or 20 minutes late every single session, I will discuss this pattern with the client early on and try to help them better understand what the meta message is and what the secondary gain is by being late to session. I will discuss how they might better support themselves. I will go over boundaries and expectations in a non-shaming way. I will do what I can to support better choices and healthy changes for the client, but…I will not work harder than the client.
If the client continues to be late, my session will still end on time. Period. A client may try to extend past the 50 minutes using traffic, work, or any excuse under the sun, and I will respond with empathy and… still end on time. The client may not like this, may feel they are entitled to a session that runs over in to the next client's time. They may be acting out an attachment style, or narcissistic wounds, or family of origin stuff. Again, this is assuming the client does not have impaired executive functioning.
My role is to support building insight and healing in those areas. And…I still end on time. The client may sulk, get angry, use sarcasm, or feel hurt. That is their choice to feel how they wish and I do not judge them for these feelings. I use our therapy journey to help them sort through this tough stuff in real time. Change is hard. But it is possible.
And, you guessed it - I still end on time!
If there is a push back, I will state kindly, “Your time is reserved for 50 minutes. We have discussed ways in which you can be on time. You are choosing not to use those tools. That is your choice. However, I take 10 minutes between sessions to take care of my needs and to prepare for my next client. I also wish we would have had a full session and I support you in being on time next session if that is what you choose to do. For today, we will need to wrap up.” Then I stand up and kindly walk them out. Where I am flexible is when a client is experiencing a rare emergency, a life event like a death in the family or birth of a child, has executive functioning impairment, or if I am running late due to another client. In these cases, I extend with flexibility up to the hour. My clients will tell you I give a lot to the clinical relationship while upholding and modeling healthy boundaries.
Quick review: A meta message is an underlying message that the sender unknowingly sends which confuses and distances the receiver. A secondary gain is a "pay off" to the meta message. For example, for people who are chronically late, unreliable or flaky, the meta message is “do not ask me to do things for you” and the secondary gain benefit is that over time, others expect less of them and do not ask much from them, or others will do all of the heavy lifting.
My friend “Cathy” took on the responsibility of scheduling the lunch each month, chased down dates with her sister “Fran”, then rearranged that date if Fran flaked, then called to reschedule the reservation, then sent text reminders to Fran, and then double checked the morning of the lunch to make sure Fran would be on time, and then rushed through her own morning tasks to arrive on time, only to sit and wait for her sister. Time after time after time. By creating chaos and arriving late time after time after time, Fran sent a consistent and powerful meta message that eventually resulted in secondary gains. No more lunch.
Another example of a meta message and secondary gain is the husband who does not like hanging out with his wife’s friends or family. He arrives home from work on Friday night cranky and tired, sore back, headache, feeling sick, upset, depressed, or whatever the latest problem is week after week. The meta message he is sending is, ‘I am too tired, sick, overwhelmed, socially anxious, exhausted to do anything but rest this weekend.” Yet the wife may complain that he finds time and energy for his own friends, family, interests and hobbies.
At the start she may feel sorry for him, or may walk on eggshells to avoid an argument if she has experienced him shutting down her concerns with anger or avoidance. If she eventually lowers her expectations about his participation in any social activity at all, his meta message pattern is reinforced and a secondary gain occurs for him.
Overtime, unless she clearly and kindly states her needs, sets and maintains boundaries, and allows for him to experience the consequences of his choices, her needs will go unmet and she will likely experience resentment, frustration, sadness, and anger. If she is not allowed to express her voice due to his more avoidant or intimidating meta messages, then she may begin to find other ways of soothing herself – food, alcohol, work, TV, shopping, affairs and so forth.
And the dance will continue until someone breaks the cycle.
As you can see meta messages and secondary gains are unhealthy ways of expressing oneself. If you are a Co-dependent Cathy or Charlie it is better to use clear language, self-advocacy, be authentic, ask questions, and state your needs. And then step away from the heavy lifting and overcompensating, and allow for consequences when required.
If you are a Flaky Fran or Fred, then taking time to explore why you choose words and behaviors that distance others will be important, and then make a change that honors and respects yourself and others.
If you are a person who believes you are dealing with impaired executive functioning, or if you are in relationship with someone who is, I encourage you to seek mental health support.
Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S