Getting Out of Your Head: Solving the Problem of Negative Self-Absorption

April 13, 2014


Sometimes it helps to realize that you are not the center of the whole world. Not so easy, is it?

In a moment I’ll suggest an exercise that may help, but first a few words on the problem of being too much “in your head.”

We know our own thoughts and feelings directly, from the inside out. With others, we understand them only from the outside, no matter how close we are to them or however much empathy we feel. We see what they look like, what they do and say, and how they describe themselves.

Too much absorption in our own thoughts about ourselves, however, can be a problem. It is easy to feel unique, not just in a way that feels good, like some strutting peacock or narcissistic overlord. We are not talking about self-love, but about something more like self-doubt or concern, and potentially anxiety or depression.

When our sense of uniqueness becomes attached to the idea that few others feel as bad as we do, life can be miserable. That includes the time you spend worrying about what others think of you, as well as all the moments preoccupied with distressing thoughts. An inner life that is spent targeted almost exclusively on one’s own problems can create a life-sucking whirlpool inside your head.

Regrettably, the more we think about our troubles, the worse we sometimes make them. Anxiety, worry, and self-doubt tend to feed on themselves. Downcast thoughts become automatic. Looking down piles up until those ruminations tower over us and block the bright side from our view. It can feel like living alone in a cave with only a hand-held torch providing any light.

Before you get too far down that looming road, here is an exercise that might help give you a little perspective and prevent you from falling into the cycle I’ve just described. Start by taking a walk, or ride a bus or a train.

What I’m suggesting is that you look at some of the cars on the streets and highways, parked or in motion. As you do, ask yourself a few questions.

Who might own that car? Might they own it outright or be paying for it on an installment plan? Might they have had financial problems, present or past?

What could go wrong with that car? What has already been broken and fixed? Don’t nearly all cars need maintenance, repair, and eventual replacement? Don’t cars sometimes get into accidents?

Remember that someone specific owns that car. Try to imagine the life of that person, both the good and the not so good. Might he be out of work? If not, what kind of job or jobs does he have? Is he happy with his boss and co-workers? What might his job be like, both the positive and the negative?

Who has ridden in the car with its owner? People he loved, friends, coworkers, dates, and so forth. Now imagine the range of possible relationships he has and those he has lost, from a very small number to a large one. Might he even be alone more than he wants? Might he desire more social contact, but be afraid of it? Think of the good times and the not so good times, the varieties of human social experiences.

Do you see anyone in a parked car who is reading a newspaper? Think of the news stories and problems involving other people who have nothing to do with you or with the reader. Don’t miss the reported awards and successes either, those that inspire you or fuel your ambition.

By now, I think you’ve got the idea. We endanger ourselves by too much inward focus. Most lives have much in common. The routine events tend not to be a big deal. The surprises, especially when they aren’t welcome, certainly can be a big deal; but, we aren’t as unique or special as we think most of the time. We don’t see more than a little of the lives around us, and people tend to put a good face on their public selves. Still, the laundry needs to be done, the heart will break occasionally, and we all laugh and suffer at one time or another, however much of the latter is hidden.

We live in a world that portrays itself unrealistically on TV and elsewhere. It is far too easy to believe that everyone else is having a better time and a better life — one that we’d grab if only it were offered. But scratch the surface and realize that few lead truly charmed lives, as the poem Richard Cory reminds us. For a wonderfully alive (but realistically) upbeat take on our shared human condition, also read Walt Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.

You probably have more in common with all those people who own all those cars than you might think. If you can take that knowledge and generate some activity that moves your mind away from your own troubles, there is no dishonor in doing so. Even reading out loud to yourself can be active enough to get you out of your head and into someone else’s: the writer’s head and his characters’ heads.

One thing to remember in particular: everything is temporary. All those cars you saw on the road won’t be there forever, nor will most problems feel as they might today. Get on with your life the best you can. That’s what the other drivers are trying to do. The more you try to do it, the less time there will be to think introspective thoughts that might not be helping you.

The roads lead in lots of directions. Explore them, especially those that might aim at something bigger than yourself — outside yourself.

You won’t always succeed. Nobody does. But be sure to keep driving, with your eyes on the road, looking inward only when necessary. The person who taught you how to drive must have told you to keep your eyes wide open and alert to what is happening on the highway. Good advice, too, for the highway of life.

The top image is called Mirror Image and is the work of Amartya5, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The “Vomit Cleanup Fee”

April 7, 2014


If you throw up in a Chicago taxi, they will charge you $50 for the mess you make. Indeed, the driver might ask you to empty your entire wallet, given his loss of revenue during the time spent scooping your gastric juices, in addition to the need to have the upholstery steam cleaned.

The reason I know all this is that I’ve been in lots of cabs due to the awful winter we’ve had in Chicago (and much of the USA). With idle time sitting during one of those rides, I spied the list of charges that included the “vomit cleanup fee.”

Of course, taxi rides can be interesting for many other reasons. The drivers can be from almost anywhere. One such was a recent emigrant from Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa. A little research indicates that most of the six million or so inhabitants of that country speak Tigrinya, a language I never knew existed. Nice learning opportunity.

Not so nice is the fact that sometimes you are subjected to the aroma of recent passengers. I’m pretty sure that someone who preceded me lately left some pretty serious body odor behind. Fortunately, my journey didn’t last long or I would have gotten out quickly and taken another cab. No “deodorant failure fee” was on the aforementioned list, by the way.

Out of curiosity, I googled to find out how all this is handled in New York City. As some of you know, Chicago is sometimes called “The Second City” (after New York), and it does turn out that we are behind in the cost of messing-up-cabs, too. According to an Associated Press report of September 19, 2013:

Manhattan city commissioners have given cab drivers permission to charge a $75 fee to customers who vomit or otherwise soil their vehicles.

Clearly, they anticipated all the possible foul things that could happen in a taxi. They further indicate that St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve are the big winners (or losers) for the taxi business in this particular area of concern.

All of this got me to thinking about the things — inappropriate and offensive things — that people do in public or where someone else can observe them. If we are going to penalize people for vomiting in a cab, there are a few other penalties that might make the world a bit more civilized:

Here is a short list with a little commentary:

  • The failure to wash your hands after using the washroom/WC fee. Men are especially guilty of this. However small the amount of the penalty, I’m quite sure that a properly enforced charge would allow us to retire the National Debt in a matter of weeks.
  • The bumping into you without saying “sorry” fee. This problem is relatively new. It didn’t exist 15 years ago. I suspect the proliferation of people walking the street with backpacks the size of Cleveland — all the while preoccupied with smart phones — have made a contribution to this latest form of incivility. I’ve seen people almost decapitated by linebacker-sized civilians who show no awareness that they might actually have hurt someone.
  • The “way too much” perfume or cologne fee. This can be almost as bad as the body odor problem mentioned earlier.

As I said before, it has been a tough winter. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is unlikely to accept my invoice.

The top image is an Xi’an taxi in the People’s Republic of China photographed by Xianxing. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Lament of the Middle-Aged Sports Fan

March 31, 2014

Dale Kasel

Spectator sports, like therapy sessions, have their ups and downs. For the middle-aged baseball fan, even some of the downs have value. And so, as a public service, I will offer you a few thoughts on why millions of people spend billions of dollars watching something they can’t do and probably never could do very well; something that causes much aggravation and that, by season’s end, leaves most of them disappointed, year after year.

First, the painful fiscal facts. There are thirty Major League Baseball teams. In every season, the fans of 29 of them will observe that they rooted for a team that did not win the World Series. In the 2012 season:

The Fan Cost Index, the total price to take a family of four to a game increased by 2.4 percent to $207.68, according to Team Marketing Report’s exclusive survey.

The Fan Cost Index is created by combining four non-premium tickets, two beers, four soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, two programs and two adult-size hats.

I’m thinking the two adult-size hats were included because the alleged adults needed to cover the hole in the head that allowed them to spend over $200 for the privilege of a bad seat and a day shot on fighting the traffic just to watch the home-favorites lose. And remember, I’m a baseball fan!

So what explains this exercise in self-flagellation and taking the fast-track to a life of poverty?

  • Comradery. Most of us find it very easy to talk at least a little to our fellow-fan of the home team, for the simple reason that we know he thinks like us and feels our pain; he experiences the same joys and sorrows as we do. We are bonded just by sitting in adjacent seats. It is a pleasant feeling and people out for a day in the sun usually start that day in a pretty good mood.
  • An Opportunity to Complain. Complaining, unless you are a member of the Tea Party, is seen as being a bad sport here in the USA. We think of ourselves as a “can do” people, who need to be blindly optimistic no matter the circumstances. But sports gives us a socially approved opportunity to vent and we all need some venting. That’s why we purchase air-conditioners and keep the windows open when we drive.
  • The Illusion of Youth. Where else can a 350 pound middle-aged man get away with saying, “That was an easy ground ball. Heck, I could have fielded that.” This, from a man who cannot see his own shoe tops while standing. Really. We all want to think of ourselves in the heady and fit days of our youth, when agility had not yet been replaced by flaccidity and ill-timed flatulence. For $207.68 you get four tickets to a place where people don’t laugh at you when you imply that you are a better man than someone half your age.
  • Distraction. Baseball is a pastime. It takes you away from the fact that your car needs repairs that you can’t afford, your son needs braces on his teeth that you can’t afford, the boss needs work you can’t afford to botch, and your spouse wants you to repair 18 different parts of the house that you can’t afford and have no idea how to fix on your own. A baseball park offers a place of escape, a Never-Land of illusion, a temporary refuge from the steam-roller of life.
  • Identification. Most of us lead pretty ordinary lives. We are not great heroes and athletes. No one we pass on the street points to us and says, “There goes godlike Achilles! Wow, I wish I could be like him.” But at the ballpark we can identify with wonderful athletes who can do things that we can’t and never could. When they hit home runs, so, in some sense, do we. For our $207.68 we borrow the hero’s prowess and glory in his achievements, at least a little bit. And, should the team actually win a World Series Championship, we hold up the foam finger we bought for even more cash and shout “We’re Number One!” We?
  • Looking for Something Bigger than Ourselves. Nietzsche said “God is dead.” That wasn’t entirely good news. Most of us seem to need something bigger than ourselves to attach to and believe in. We need other fellow-worshippers, too. And so we go to the ballpark, where the faithful at the green cathedral continue to hold on to the belief that, finally, “This will be our year.” That all those who believe in other teams are actually worshipping false gods. That the ballpark is a substitute for a church, a temple, or a mosque. And that the cost of admission is like a donation or a tithe — a small price to pay for the privilege of worship; to see the ballplayers, AKA the priests, perform (we hope) their magic on the field of play and give us reason to “believe” in spite of the fact that the team is 30 games behind the leader in the standings with only 25 games left to play. It is, in other words, a place where a die-hard baseball fan prays for a miracle.
  • Bonding with Our Children. Whether you have a boy or a girl, there is something quite wonderful about watching the game together, teaching them the rules, letting them share your excitement, and recalling for them the time your dad took you to the ball park, and the time that his dad took him to the ballpark, in a never-ending line of shared experience and love.

I have a confession to make. Until I was in my early-60s and suffered a torn meniscus in my left knee, I actually thought I could still play ball passably well. Yes, I was one of those people I’ve just described. Self-deluded. Holding on to a youth that was long past. Rooting for a team (the Chicago Cubs) that still hasn’t won a World Championship since 1908.

We need our illusions, our attachments, our distractions.

Perhaps $207.68 is a better deal than I thought.

The top image is a photo of Dale Kasel in 2007, then an outfielder for the Air Force Academy baseball team. It was taken by an unknown author and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Important is “A Room of One’s Own?”

March 23, 2014

poor schools

How many of you, I wonder, have a room of your own? Most, I would guess, but that doesn’t mean that everyone does; certainly not in the current economy. And what is life like if you don’t have such a place where you can retreat from the world, be silent, think, read, write, watch TV, go on the computer, or do whatever you want?

Virginia Woolf, the great English author, presumably thought it desperately important, especially for women. I will take only a moment of your time to think about a few of the ideas she expresses in her short fictionalized essay/novel, A Room of One’s Own, published in 1928. Her book was written nine years after English women won the right to vote.

The essentials that the book’s narrator believes to be required for the life of a writer are a room of one’s own (with a lock that you control) and the equivalent of $33,283 dollars per year. The actual amount she names is 500 pounds in UK currency, but I’ve converted it to 2014 U.S. dollars. That precise number isn’t crucial. She — Woolf’s character — is trying to name a figure that will make you sufficiently independent to have the intellectual freedom to do some serious writing.

Woolf anticipated some criticism of these ideas. Here is one that might have occurred to you already:

…I think you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things. Even allowing a generous margin for symbolism, that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that lock on the door means the power to think for oneself, still you may say that the mind should rise above such things; and that great poets have often been poor men.

Woolf then looks to a man to defend her position, one Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a famed literary critic of the day and the author of On the Art of Writing (1916). He begins by naming 12 famous English poets of the last 100 years. He continues:

Of these, all but Keats, Browning (and) Rossetti were University men; and of these three, Keats, who died young, cut off in his prime, was the only one not fairly well to do. It may be a brutal thing to say and a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius (is to be found) equally in poor and rich, holds little truth. As a matter of hard fact, nine out of those 12 were University men: which means that somehow or other they procured the means to get the best education England can give. As a matter of hard fact, of the remaining three you know that Browning was well to do, and I challenge you that, if he had not been well to do, he would (not have succeeded as a writer)…

Quiller-Couch goes on to describe poor, but talented writers who became psychologically troubled out of their frustration or committed suicide. Then comes his powerhouse conclusion:

…It is — however dishonoring to us as a nation — certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for 200 years, a dog’s chance. Believe me — and I have spent a great part of 10 years in watching some 320 elementary schools — we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.

Money = intellectual freedom. Usually only with enough money do you automatically have the time and space and opportunity to “think” about something other than how you will receive your next meal and who you must answer to in order to earn it. That is the belief both of Woolf and Quiller-Couch. Woolf also confronts the historical “belief” that women were incapable of serious thought and inferior to men in almost every other important way.

Yet we live in a more liberated time you might say. My answer to that would be to ask you to realize that Quiller-Couch is referring only to men. Moreover, I have seen yearly one such school of the kind I believe he is describing, although it is not an elementary school. Chicago’s Mather Public High School is my alma mater, much changed from 1964 when I graduated. The poverty induced stress in the homes of many of Mather’s students is heartbreaking.

We know this from talking to these kids, reading their personal essays, conversations with their teachers, and reading the letters of recommendation written by those instructors. We know that by age 16, at least for some of them, they have already been so discouraged by their circumstances that they believe the “American Dream” does not apply to their lives. Indeed, we know that many of the friends of the best students tell them that their academic hopes and career ambitions are unrealistic.

As some of you have read on my blog, my graduating class created and has supported the Zeolite Scholarship Fund for 15 years, to give some of these poor kids better than “a dog’s chance” to receive an education and make a good living sufficient to the intellectual freedom that has been described here — the education needed to get a job that allows you to rent or buy the room and the lock and create an atmosphere conducive to serious thought.

As Quiller-Couch said of the England he knew, it is “dishonoring to us as a nation,” in the USA, that his words apply to our time and place as they did in his. I know there are no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean one should wait for someone else to do something. It could be tutoring, mentoring, donating money for books or scholarships, or becoming a teacher yourself. It could mean voting for those who have some good ideas about how to change the situation or running for office yourself. Many other actions — governmental, social, educational, and nutritional — are possible.

Nor is this simply a matter of dishonor or unfairness. It is a waste of young lives, plain and simple, some of whom would benefit the world given the right conditions.

My suggestion? Start by visiting a public school in a poor neighborhood. Unfortunately, they are very easy to find.

What Money Can Do to You and for You

March 15, 2014

bag of money

Is a preoccupation with money like a religion? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines religion in three ways:

1. The belief in a god or in a group of gods.

2. An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.

3. An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.

The last of these competes for our attention with the organized and historic religions. Some people even state that those of us in the West worship the dollar. Lots of sayings display the long shadow that money throws over human existence:

    • “Money makes the world go round.” (Others say it is love that makes the world go round).
    • “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life: now that I’m old I know that it is.” (Oscar Wilde)
    • “The lack of money is the root of all evil.” (Mark Twain)
    • “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (Timothy 6:10)
    • “The only thing money gives you is the freedom of not worrying about money.” (Johnny Carson)

Of these, I think perhaps Johnny Carson (the long time host of the Tonight Show before Jay Leno) is the most intriguing. Carson enjoyed being a wealthy man, but recognized that it didn’t guarantee a happy life. All the problems with relationships, alcohol, broken marriages, infidelity, an even an ever-present bit of anxiety before every comedy monologue he ever gave — all these were well-known to him. He appears to have enjoyed being a rich man, but equally seems not to have been a very happy one.

Carson’s comment only deals with the problem of having lots of money. No, his worry was not the same as the person who wonders if he has enough for a room and a good meal or how to put his daughter through college. In his short story, Under New Management, Joseph Epstein expresses a different perspective in the voice of his character Artie Abrams, Marty Abrams’ son. Marty was a father who became wealthy in middle-age or, as his son put it:

I had to wait until my twenties to acquire a father like everyone else’s: a man distracted, concentrated on moneymaking, with less and less sense of the everyday adventurousness of life.

Artie blamed his father’s second wife for this. Artie’s mom had died of cancer some years before the new Mrs. Abrams transformed her husband into a money machine. And what did Marty himself think of the “magnificence” of his own wealth? He told his son exactly what he thought:

Some magnificence. It’s just about money, and money isn’t always magnificent. Sometimes it isn’t even a lot of fun. You always have to be watching over the goddamn stuff, making sure it’s producing on its own, that someone isn’t making a tenth of  a percentage point more than you, which leaves you feeling like a schmuck. This is not a problem I expected to have.

Most people would call it a happy problem, Dad.

But for Marty and Artie there was a bigger problem. Marty had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As Johnny Carson said, “The only thing money gives you is the freedom of not worrying about money.”

Beyond the necessity of money in order to purchase life’s necessities, it is almost like a projective psychological test that all of us take without giving our permission. A dollar bill is the same in anyone’s hands: it looks the same, it feels the same, it smells the same, but from one person to another it doesn’t mean the same thing.

What do I mean by this? I’m talking about why it might be important to you beyond the essential things like purchasing food. Think of some of the possible meanings money has for people:

  • a sense of financial security
  • public status
  • making a living
  • helping out your kids
  • a way to improve the lives of others by giving it away
  • a way to make yourself feel good by giving it away
  • the necessary ingredient to obtain the permanent sexual partner of your dreams, who might otherwise not give you the time of day
  • a way of measuring how you are doing in life in comparison to your business competitors or friends
  • a method of exerting influence over the political direction of the country (think of the Koch Brothers or George Soros)
  • a way of boosting your private level of self-esteem
  • the ability to see a ballgame or concert of your choice from a good seat
  • what you are willing to do in order to get more of it (get a good education, work hard, cheat, put in long hours away from your family, etc.)

For those who hope to alter their self-esteem by making lots of money, I’ve got some news for you: there are limits here, too. In my therapy practice, I saw a great many people who had made lots of money. Many of them suffered from low self-esteem, nonetheless. Some felt that they were frauds. The looked good on the outside — fancy clothes, nice home — but the money hadn’t changed what they felt on the inside.

Too many had believed that lots of money would solve all their problems and discovered what Johnny Carson knew, even if they’d never read the quote I mentioned. For most of us, the purchase of a new, fancy, expensive car feels good for only a while. As the “new car smell” fades, so does the emotional boost it gives us.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has some important things to say about money. First he defines two kinds of happiness. There is the happiness that comes from thinking about (evaluating) your life. This is called “life satisfaction.” Then there is the happiness or well-being that you experience from moment-to-moment. He cites a Gallup world poll to draw some lessons about money:

  • “The conclusion (of the Gallup research) is that being poor makes one miserable and that being rich may enhance one’s life satisfaction, but does not (on average) improve experienced well-being (the second definition above).”
  • “The satiation level beyond which experienced well-being no longer increases was a household income of about $75,000 in high-cost areas (it could be less in areas where the cost of living was lower). The average increase of experienced well-being associated with incomes beyond that level was precisely zero.”
  • “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”*

Put all this together and one comes to realize that the American Dream to which so many aspire, is something quite imperfect. If you are looking for happiness in making tons of money, you may be searching in the wrong place. The legend of King Midas, whose every touch made objects into gold, was a cautionary tale.

It is a fine and necessary thing to have money. It is not so fine for the money to have you.

The money bag pictured above is the work of Barbara Lock and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Joseph Epstein’s short story, Under New Management, can be found in The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories published in 2010.

*The quotations from Daniel Kahneman come from his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Are Your Strengths Also Your Weaknesses?

March 9, 2014


Most of us think that we can never have too much of a good thing. I’m talking about human qualities, not money or physical possessions. But if you examine your very best qualities you might also find that they have a flip side. Your strengths can actually be your weaknesses, too.

Take a person who is enormously outgoing, action oriented, and confident. He may dominate a conference and be a leader, but just might overlook some of the thoughtful ideas expressed by the quiet guy in the corner of the room who has a better answer than anyone else. By the same token, that introverted person who works well solving problems alone in his head is less successful in groups where the loud voices dominate. His quiet and contemplative excellence doesn’t transfer well to a team meeting and costs him the ability to make a strong impression that might be useful to him and his company.

In each of these cases, the strengths are double-edged: they cut both ways. The outgoing leader might be too quick to come to a decision that feels exactly right for him and of which he is sure, but wrong. Meanwhile, the quieter, more cerebral type can have difficulty getting his ideas to be heard.

Now think of politicians. They must be tough enough to withstand the enormous public exposure and criticism that comes their way. But that same ability to tune out opposition (a thick skin) can make them tone-deaf to some of the criticisms that they desperately need to hear in order to serve the public good.

What about qualities like beauty and celebrity? If you rely on your good looks to get ahead you may find that it too has a down side. Do people want to be near you or your handsome face and attractive body? Do you depend on those looks when there are other personal qualities and talents that might be important to develop rather than neglect? And then what happens when the gorgeous face fades with age?

As far as celebrity is concerned, the applause of a big audience everywhere you go must be a pretty heady experience. But the loss of privacy for someone like Steve Martin and the expectations of his admirers for him to “be” like the Steve Martin image he created came at a high price. Eventually he decided to stop performing the nightly comedy routines that were sucking the life out of him, according to his memoir Born Standing Up.  And what happens to those same celebrities when they want to go to the theater as anonymous members of the audience? Some actually do so in disguise.

The point here is that whatever your strengths are, it can be informative to look at the possible downside. If you do, the exercise below might enlighten you about your potential limitations and those characteristics you need to work on. Or you can ask an honest friend for his or her opinion about your strong and weak points. In each case you should think of only those situations in which the strength that is listed below has either limited your ability to achieve your goals or actually done you harm:

  • bold self-confidence
  • thoughtful, quiet, careful deliberation: a cautious, well-studied approach to problems
  • physical attractiveness
  • a thick skin (the ability to endure criticism and brush it off)
  • very high standards for your performance
  • being kind and forgiving
  • tenacity or never giving up on solving a problem
  • independence from others
  • being empathic (feeling the pain of others)
  • relying on intuition
  • being very rational
  • being detail oriented
  • focusing on the big picture
  • fearlessness

I’m sure you can think of many others. If we are to be well-adjusted, sometimes a frank self-evaluation is needed. Whether we know it or not, our best qualities do not fit every situation.

Adaptation and adjustment will eventually be required, no matter how successfully you’ve depended on a particular quality for most of your life. Even such a widely praised trait as assertiveness will sometimes work less well than a quiet, less direct fashion of getting what you want.

Life is a teacher. It expects us to be good students.

The World War II poster at the top was called Save Your Strength For Your Job. It was produced by the Office of Emergency Management’s Office of War Information Department between 1941 and 1945. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Why Siblings Disagree About Their Parents’ Parenting

March 2, 2014


Siblings don’t always evaluate their parents in the same way. Mom was a good mom; mom was a bad mom. Dad was a good dad; dad was a bad dad. You get the idea, but the question is, why do children raised in the same home ever differ in these opinions?

Simply put, it comes down to a few things:

  • Parents, however much they might try, can’t treat each child identically. Nor should they, because each child has a unique nature: they don’t typically emerge from the womb as identical little personalities and bodies.
  • Each child has a different set of emotional needs and, therefore, is likely to view his parents in terms of the extent to which those needs are met, at least in part.
  • The children are not born into the same circumstances. That is, each new child adds one more person to the family and changes the equation of what the family is. The first child makes a family a unit of three. The third child makes the family a unit of five, and so forth. The time available from the adult guardians is often less as more children are added. Each new life has a separate relationship with not only his two parents, but each of the preceding siblings.
  • The passage of time changes each of the parents. A person of 22 is not the same as a man or woman of 35. If they have children early, the folks may still be in school themselves. Later on, the family’s level of wealth and status is likely to change, up or down. Various stressors happen, sometimes in an unpredictable way, perhaps affecting the elders’ abilities to be adequate parents depending upon when the next child comes along and what that new life requires.

Here is an example of how this all can play out. It is, in fact, my mother’s family: my grandfather (Leo), my grandmother (Esther), my eldest aunt (Nettie), my mom (Jeanette), my uncle (Sam), and my youngest aunt (Florence). All are now deceased. I won’t give you every detail, but enough to get a sense of how each child was born into a “different” family from my perspective.

Leo was a tall, suave, outgoing house painter who emigrated from Romania. He made a good living in the period before the Great Depression. His wife, Esther, was physically less attractive than her husband and more intense, less socially at ease. As far as I know, she never worked outside the home after they were married. Each was born in the 1890s.

Nettie, the first-born, had the advantage of their prosperity, including luxuries like a family car, which not everyone had before the Great Depression. She was born before the USA entered World War I and received her parents’ relatively undivided attention as the only child.

My mom was born in 1918, the year of the Great Influenza Pandemic that almost killed my grandfather and did take over 20 million other lives. While his business continued to flourish in the “Roaring 20s,” his use of alcohol became greater. Meanwhile, Esther had a tendency to play one child against the other, something that was not possible when Nettie was the only child. My mom’s older sister was better able to handle this than my mom. Additionally, Nettie was not as beautiful as Jeanette, and likely, therefore, received less of my grandmother’s smothering attention as time passed, although Nettie did eventually marry.

Uncle Sam followed in the early 1920s, the only boy and a charming and outgoing one at that. As the single male offspring he received a different set of expectations from his parents to his detriment (more about that shortly). Finally, the youngest female, Florence arrived later in the 1920s, when the family was still doing well economically. Unfortunately, however, my grandmother (a Lithuanian immigrant who never learned to speak English well) was overmatched and frustrated by her job as a housewife and mom with a husband who was increasingly out of the home, either working or drinking.

The Great Depression struck in late 1929 when my mother was 11 years old. Nettie, the oldest, already had most of the family’s “good years” under her belt. While rather self-involved, she was more independent and less the focus of the two troubled parents, to her benefit. My mother, Jeanette, went to school in the 1930s with only enough money to buy a candy bar for lunch, contributing to the destruction of her self-confidence and her physical health. She eventually contracted tuberculosis.

My Uncle Sam, as the only boy, was expected to chase down my future grandfather in bars, where he spent more of his time now that his business was all but destroyed by an economic downturn that left 25% of the labor force out of work and another 25% underemployed. No social safety net like unemployment insurance was yet available. My mother told me that it was not uncommon for bill collectors to come to the door of their apartment and for the family members inside to pretend not to be home.

Florence, as the baby of the family, probably got the most of my grandmother’s focused favoritism at this point. She also imbibed a bit more of Esther’s rather paranoid and distrustful view of the world. Florence was very attractive and clever, leggy and buxom, but my grandmother conveyed to her that the attention of males could be dangerous and, in any case, that she was too good for any of her many suitors. Thus, Florence spent the rest of my grandparents’ lives in her parents’ home and never married. As time passed, she also began to take on even more of Esther’s characteristic mistrust and tendency to play people against each other to the point of psychiatric hospitalization after she retired from her work as a legal secretary. Too much closeness to her mom clearly was a not good thing.

How did the others turn out, you might wonder? Leo was alcoholic and eventually came to work for his son, my Uncle Sam, who built his own business and tried hard to be the “big guy.” Indeed, he was 6’4″ tall — the kind of man who smoked cigars and picked up checks for his friends at dinner. He was intent, I think, on attaining a level of prosperity and status that eluded the impoverished family when he was a kid. He also bore most of the responsibility for looking after his parents’ affairs as they aged, since he was the only male child and the only one who was self-employed. Yes, sexism was doubtless part of the reason, to Sam’s disadvantage. When I worked after school and summer jobs for Sam during high school, I saw the resentment he continued to hold against his failed father in his occasionally demeaning public outbursts toward Leo that were troubling to my young sensibilities.

Nettie, the oldest child, seemed less affected by any of the family turmoil and less inclined to think unkindly of either of her folks. Perhaps this was because she had received the best of their attentions when they were young and prosperous, when she had no competition from the presence of any other siblings. Her early life did not include the increasing animosity between mom and dad. She became, perhaps not surprisingly, the most self-confident member of the family and seemed untroubled that she never had children. In fact, she probably didn’t want them.

My mom, Jeanette, grew up insecure about anything but her physical beauty (although she was extraordinarily witty) and was continually needy of her mother’s undependable approval. Esther, her mom, often played her off against Florence, the family’s other comely daughter. I heard my mom argue (in tears) on the phone with one or another family member, usually her mother or Florence, though she continued to defend her parents to anyone who tried to encourage her to keep more distance from them. Her view of her parents was clearly very ambivalent, but she did go for years without talking to Florence.

You might ask how it was that my mom was allowed to marry and Florence was not. Well, as I heard the story, my grandmother felt that my mother was “damaged goods” because of her bout with tuberculosis, even though it had been effectively treated. Thus, Esther was grateful when my dad came along. She recognized that my future father was a good man who idolized my future mother. Although his economic prospects weren’t marvelous in the late 1930s, Esther thought that he would find a way to make an acceptable living.

My parents married in 1940 and my dad spent almost all of his working life as a supervisor for the US Post Office after his stint in the military ended with the close of World War II. The family that my parents produced (that is, my own family of origin) probably would have been considered lower middle class or middle class at the time I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s.

So there you have it. Four children raised in the same home by the same parents, but with different life paths and a mixture of different attitudes toward their folks.

I should add a few items to the short list of reasons that siblings don’t always see eye-to-eye on who their parents really “are.” Some kids are favored because of their gender or their looks or talents; others because of having (or lacking) a particular temperament favored by one of the parents (sweet, tough, not sweet enough, not tough enough); some because of physical strengths or disabilities. Children often resemble the parents’ own older relatives, which can be good or bad depending on the extent to which those resemblances are seen as positive or negative. Finally, some kids are more forgiving of whatever failures their parents display. Goodness knows, all parents are imperfect.

Here is another very important point. You have just read a version of several life stories that I know partly by being a witness and partly by hearsay and my own interpretive viewpoint. As you might have already guessed, my own brothers and Sam’s children (my cousins) might give you a different version of who their grandparents were and how adequate they were as parents, not to mention who their own parents were. In other words, this proves my point: children don’t always agree about historical family parenting.

I’d guess that there are more such differences in unhappy families. As Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

In light of all of this, I’m rarely surprised when I’m told by one adult that his view of his folks is different from that of anyone else in the family. Of course, some siblings actually agree on who their parents are or were and whether they did the job of child rearing adequately. Perceptions and evaluations of this kind are endlessly fascinating to me. I guess that is part of the reason I became a clinical psychologist.

The above image, a 17th century woodcut of a Family Dining, from the Roxburghe Ballads, was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


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