Anatomy of the Crackdown

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What does it mean when someone suddenly “gets tough” and starts making demands? “Crackdown” behavior has predictable causes and predictable results.

One of the joys of working as a therapist is the never-ending stream of human drama coming through my door, hour after hour. With this huge corpus of stories and characters with twists and turns to rival anything in fiction, it’s impossible not to see patterns and repetitions. Our brains are pattern matching organs and they’ll look for order anywhere and everywhere. Other theoreticians have described human interaction as being like a dance with very specific steps arranged in a predictable, repeatable sequence, and I’ve found this to be abundantly true.

One pattern I latched on to right away was a sudden flare of anger and a need to immediately dramatically redefine a relationship. Sometimes I was talking with the person making the demands, but more often I was hearing the one receiving them. Either way, I started to piece together the psychosocial dance that leads to a flare-up and how they tend to resolve. I call the whole cycle of behavior a “crackdown.”

The name “crackdown” is intuitive. In politics, we’re familiar with crackdowns on crime or corruption, a war on drugs or a war on poverty. For the overwhelming majority of us who have more dealings with family and friends than global politics, recognizing crackdowns at the social, employment, or familial levels may be more relevant.

Crackdowns are easy to recognize by the time that someone is screaming, stomping around, or making demands. But the roots of the crackdown can be subtle. A number of factors must align before a crackdown proper unfolds. Crackdowns happen between two people or groups with a power differential. There can be no crackdown between equals since an equal can argue back or walk away in the face of a crackdown attempt. That’s why interpersonal crackdowns most frequently happen between parents and children, teachers and students, or employers and employees. For easy identification, let’s call the party being cracked down upon the underdog, and the party doing the cracking down the overdog.

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Before the blow up, the overdog starts to notice the underdog behaving badly. Maybe it’s dirty dishes left in the sink, or a report filed late, or perhaps something as subtle as a sense of disrespect, but whatever it is, there is some sense of wrongdoing. The overdog may make some effort to problem solve, but it’s either ineffective or not even perceived by the underdog. This failure to resolve the problem leads to silent, simmering anger for the overdog as well as a sense that they are losing their legitimate control of the situation.

Just before the shouting starts, there will be a triggering event, though the underdog may not recognize the significance or even the violation at all. But this event is a red flag for the overdog, and it epitomizes all the other offenses that have come before. Now the covert anger becomes overt in a big way. There is rage and accusation and the airing of grievances. Since the underdog doesn’t have the power to fight back, it’s often a one-way conversation. The underdog is most likely terrified and perhaps confused if they have a very different understanding of how they’ve been doing up until this moment.

I want to break away from the narrative here for just a moment to clarify an important point. It would be easy to paint the underdog as the innocent victim of a raging overdog, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Sometimes the underdog has really offended massively and repeatedly against the overdog and justice requires them to be reined in. A crackdown doesn’t indicate whether the overdog or the underdog is in fact wrong. It could be either one, both, or neither.

Blowing off steam is cathartic for the overdog, and what happens next I’m tempted to call unique except that I’ve seen it so many times: righteous fury brings out the wordsmith in the overdog. Aggrieved overdogs, having said their piece, will sit down and write florid documents describing exactly what is wrong and more importantly all the things the underdog will need to do differently from now on. What’s notable about such writings is that they tend to be very long, very detailed, and consist of an unrelenting stream of absolutes such as “always”, “never” and “absolutely must.” This writing exercise is again cathartic for the overdog as they get the chance to have control over the situation, at least on paper, and then put the paper before the underdog for agreement.

As a therapist I’ve seen a number of these “armistice treaties” put before me by overdogs who perhaps want me as a witness to their agreement, as if I might be some kind of psychological United Nations to enforce the peace. Ethics and good clinical practice require that I not enroll in such a deal, and I let my clients know this promptly.

With the acute phase of the crackdown over, the underdog signs the treaty and life goes back to more or less normal. The shock and awe of the crackdown may drive some change on the part of the underdog, but the flaws in the armistice treaty tend to surface quickly. Because there are often so many terms in the treaty and the details are so overdetermined, compliance is difficult if not impossible. Few of these documents count the cost of monitoring compliance and so underdogs often go off course without being noticed, setting the stage for additional crackdowns and revisions to the treaty, and the cycle repeats.

Crackdowns are bad not (necessarily) because underdogs don’t deserve them, but because they’re 180 degrees from the kind of interaction that motivates lasting change. If you’re an underdog, and an overdog is cracking down on you, understand that they think you’ve done something egregiously wrong. Presuming that wasn’t your intention, you’ve got your work cut out trying to get past all the anger and see what the real issue might be. When the armistice treaty comes around, that’s your opportunity to ask for revisions that simplify, clarify and make transparent what the overdog really wants. At it’s core, every armistice treaty I’ve ever read can be summarized in a couple of sentences that capture the intent rather than the details of what needs to change.

If you’re the overdog, and you’ve just cracked down, or you’re feeling the urge to crack down growing inside you, get control of your anger. No doubt the underdog in your life has compiled a long string of misbehaviors and you’re losing your control over the situation, but rage only works if you can truly terrify your counterpart and only lasts as long as they know you’re watching. Far better to start communicating continuously with your charges. Make them aware of how you see what they’re doing. Don’t assume they know your viewpoint. Don’t assume without checking that they can even deliver what you want. Don’t assume that they can change a longstanding behavior overnight. Instead of one big push in the form of a crackdown, consider a series of smaller, simpler, kinder nudges that push them ever closer to your ideal. Watch for every nugget of improvement you can see and reward the heck out of it. Replacing the crackdown with continuous nudges will lead to more cooperation over the long-term, and as a bonus you don’t have to lose your voice.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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