Being the Odd Man Out in Your Family


Every home is a theater. Every family has its roles to cast. Even with no outside director, positions must be filled, characters assigned. We are all auditioning in each moment of early life. Someone must “wear the pants” in the family, whether he or she wears a dress, a suit, or shorts. The ensemble requires a caretaker, not necessarily the adult variety. In dysfunctional homes one role is the most challenging: the person who recognizes the dysfunction for what it is.

You don’t get paid for taking this part, except in tears; nor will your fellow cast members applaud. Indeed, you become the clan’s scapegoat, the one who takes on most of the blame for the whirling, muddy mess of life at home. The part can kill you or liberate you, or both. One thing for sure: you will need strength and endurance.

The job of portraying “the bad one” doesn’t always demand that you do any major wrong. A fine student and a good citizen can fit the slot so long as he is not what a parent was hoping for. Were you supposed to be a boy, but turned out a girl? Are you artistic when an athlete was expected? Were you required to be forever devoted, but began having ideas of your own, a life of your own? Do you bear a resemblance to someone a parent disliked? Perhaps the elder is jealous of your beauty, intelligence, or his spouse’s affection for you. Maybe the issue comes down to knowing too much for the comfort of others.

Your character’s script gives voice to pained pleadings for the guardian’s approval, but allows only inconsistent success, at best. The parental judge is not impartial. Brothers and sisters, better treated than you, won’t acknowledge the truth in your complaints. Perhaps the other parent instructs you not to upset his spouse, as if you own more power than you do, as if the trouble is your fault and not his.

The odd man out attempts to find a regular ally. No takers, I’m afraid. This job would not only put him in the crosshairs, but worse. He’d have to know the family for what it is, share the psychic pain of realizing its truth is false; its court unjust, with no hope of appeal.

Sides must be picked, teams chosen. You might have a single ally only on occasion, but not anyone with the courage and insight to make common cause with you and speak truth to power.

A kind of brainwashing occurred in your home. The family “drank the Kool-Aid” or breathed in the air of the household delusion. They are blinded to the truth, as you are not.

The one who is immune to the family’s warped vision is dangerous. What might happen if everyone recognizes the reality of the home dysfunction? No, this can’t be permitted. The play would fail, the audience depart. The odd man out must be crushed.


Such a person is likely to become the “identified patient (IP)” of the family, the one who is “wrong,” the one with the problem. He may be depressed, angry, rebellious or all of these.  The IP can lose years, decades to the stamp of imperfection emblazoned on his personality. A lifetime is not long enough for such a one to find approval on this morally bankrupt stage. If, however, he enters treatment he might grieve the undeserved contempt that is his lot. Now, finally, he escapes from home psychologically, perhaps physically.

The family condemns him for betrayal, of course. Disloyalty is added to his list of transgressions and if guilt can be induced he will return to them for more of the same life: more of the same mistreatment. His role in the play resembles Sisyphus, the mythological character who was assigned the punishment of pushing a huge boulder up a hill until it rolled back down; up and down, never reaching the top, for all his days.

The identified patient can be drawn to a mate who also rejects and ridicules him, persuading their children our hero is the problem. Thus, we reach the second act of the performance, where the lead character enacts a new version of the torture, one he has chosen, unconsciously replicating his early misfortune. Perhaps he resembles Tantalus in his futile, unending search for that which is unreachable. Despite knowledge of the familial corruption, he cannot resist the temptation, the desire for proper acknowledgement. The Greek myth tells us Tantalus stood in a pool, forever hungry, forever thirsty. Bending, the water receded, leaving him parched. Reaching for fruit from a branch just above, the nutrition raised itself and could not be grasped. He was “tantalized.”

Do not lose heart. With sufficient courage and time in treatment our protagonist can become the healthiest person in the clan. The rest, you understand, continue bumping into many of life’s obstacles, the parts to which they are blinded. They too play a role assigned in childhood. They do not know themselves well, since this would require seeing the family as it is, not the imagined world of pretend functionality that was the first lie taught at home.

Terrible choices? Yes. Victims all, but in different ways. Yet a scapegoat need not enact the role night-after-night, as if indentured to a long running play. All of the players in the small ensemble can, at last, say “enough.” Ironically, the one who saw the home-grown theater for what it was — the one who suffered the most — has a head start for the sign marked EXIT. The bright letters shine in the darkness and lead to a world of possibilities.

The top painting is Franz von Stuck’s Sisyphus. An illustration by Koloman Moser follows: A Modern Tantalus. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thoughts about Dependence on My Grandson’s First Independence Day

This morning I found myself thinking about my grandson’s first Independence Day: how he is growing, keen to learn and master the world, but also how he will react to the dazzle and display of fireworks. Thrilled, I’m sure, whenever he can stay up late enough to watch. And, I couldn’t help but wonder about an implicit trade-off as children begin to master the world, but perhaps lose some of its magic in the process.

My free association took me to a 1956 nighttime baseball game my uncle promised to take me to — take me to watch the great center fielder Mickey Mantle. I fairly burst with anticipation to monitor Mantle in a contest under the lights, the latter still a novelty for the adults and a first-time experience for me. I continue to enjoy baseball and have traveled to nearly 20 cities for games in ballparks old and new. But I’m not anymore the nine-year-old boy blown away by the idea — the impatient, invisible, excited expectation of attendance — or the youngster of a similar age on another occasion who was stunned by the color green and the expansive daytime beauty of Wrigley Field as I walked up to the concourse from the shadowy underworld of the old stadium, feeling as if I were in a better place — as if the gates of heaven opened for me.

We become more experienced, more confident, and wiser while losing a bit of the thrill of accomplishment. You notice the growing security in any small child and the tenacity and curiosity driving it, but he can’t yet imagine his adult self who will be more used to things, less overwhelmed; a person who, having “seen it all,” won’t get as excited, stimulated, and intoxicated. Perhaps, in part, that’s why we drink or drug to mimic the feelings of a world from which the cellophane wrapper has just been removed.

The little one is so desperate to get away. Yes, he checks over his shoulder to assure himself that the parent has his back, but eventually no longer checking and no longer wanting to be checked, supervised, reigned in. Freedom and competence and recklessness rule. Later come maturity and jadedness, too. We are like toothpaste out of the tube, pristine for a moment, then losing something hard to define. The rewards of the life of one who has broken free are different, more dependable and therefore more essential, but less remarkable and joyous. The colors are duller.

Perhaps, as adults, some of us go places not seen and seek the thrill of a fresh relationship with a younger body to recapture the old intensity: an unconscious effort to touch an uninnocent-innocent in the hope her relative newness will rub off.

Our mature challenge is to make the day new, a bigger effort than for the 10-month-old for whom it simply is new.

But, little boy, I’m sure you wouldn’t be happy as a forever dependent oldster, even for all the moments of untarnished delight joined to your present dependency. Yours is the wonder of a life of constant enlightenment and unfolding, but there is no profit in perpetual incapacity, of reliance on your parents. You must know this deep down because you work so hard to escape it and enter an existence full of mastery achieved at the expense of routine.

One of the happiest memories of my life took place after being taken to a drive-in movie by my parents. It was not only the first film I’d ever seen and the first outdoor movie I’d ever attended, but 3-D to boot! You had to wear special glasses to get the effect, of course. (The trailer above displays an over-the-top promotion of said entertainment: The House of Wax).

I possess little memory of the video. What I do recall is the ride home in the family Chevrolet. The horizontal, seven-year-old version of myself drifted into that Neverland between waking and sleep on the pre-seat-belted bench behind my parents. I was as content as I have ever been, fully confident of having mom and dad to myself (since my two little brothers were back home with a sitter) in the days when I still thought of my elders as Zeus and Hera, god and goddess of the universe. I was sure of being taken care of: safe, serene, and inexpressibly happy, as though a fairy god-mother had touched me with her wand.

I have no advice for the little guy who will visit our home today: it would make no impact on his not-yet-perfected word processor-mind. But if my experience would make a difference, I’d say this:

Don’t grow up too fast, tiny man. Your parents will never again be so young, handsome, and wonderful. You will never be loved with more self-sacrificing intensity. The sparklers on this still dependent Independence Day will never so astonish you.

Seize the day, now and forever.

How We Grow Up — Confused


We grow up by inches. The pencil marks on the wall measure our lengthening.

Or perhaps we grow up by pinches: the painful squeeze some adults perform on us, unasked. They reach for a cheek, grab skin between thumb and curled index finger, then tug. They smile and say something complimentary. Confusion follows. The friendly face and the pain are at odds. What we make of the event informs our understanding of love.

Did anything similar happen to you? A young person can miss how language sometimes disguises the infliction of injury. The smiling words say, in effect, nothing is wrong. Stress results. Some children reduce their anxiety by ignoring the contradiction between words and deeds. A blind spot is thus born.

Too bad. The immediate relief of your worrisome thought (“He doesn’t love me”) sets you up for greater harm. You become unable to distinguish those who hurt you from others who are genuinely loving. You’ve been conditioned to accept that an excruciating squeeze signals something good, at least occasionally — even though your nerve endings tell you otherwise.

Life requires us to make sense of nonsense. Our youthful minds are confounded. Who and what are we to believe?

I was probably under 10-years-old when my dad first took me to a White Sox game at old Comiskey Park in Chicago. He found a space for our Chevrolet on a street near the stadium.

A small boy about my age rode up on his bicycle.

“Watch your car for a quarter, mister?”

“No, thanks,” answered dad.

We walked toward the giant steel and brick amphitheater.

“Why would we need our car watched?” I asked my father.

“Protection. He was selling ‘protection’ — that something would ‘happen’ to the car if we didn’t pay him.”

“What do you mean?”

“He or one of his buddies might damage the Chevy.”

“Are you afraid they will?”

“No. Don’t worry.”

The car survived unscathed. Remember, though, we lived in Chicago. I learned my town was a place where mobsters once sold shopkeepers an adult-sized version of protection: pay us every month or we will wreck your business, destroy your merchandise, break your legs. What I’d seen was a mini-version of an Al Capone universe, all disguised as a proper business deal: standing guard over dad’s property, providing him a service. A contradiction again. Like the squeeze your relative expects you to believe is a sign of love, the protection offered was no protection.

You wet your bed. The parent screams at you.

“You’re too old for this. Look at the mess you made. Now your mom has to wash the sheet and covers again!

Mom comforts you.

“Dad didn’t mean it. He was frustrated. He did it for your own good. Your father really loves you.”

Really? Love = screaming? Since the math doesn’t work, you choose one or the other. Love feels better. When you are yelled at again will you believe you are loved? The worse for you if you do. Especially later.

By adulthood, friends are puzzled.

“How can you let him do that to you? You’re too good for him. You’re beautiful and smart. Why do you stay with him?”

We are misled by those whose unkindness is hidden by smoke and mirrors. They can be understood only by a fog-piercing X-ray vision we don’t possess. If blinders to inconsistency are put on early, they turn invisible, but still restrict our sight. Incomprehension becomes automatic, unconscious.

No wonder we go to therapists. No wonder they say, “Tell me about your childhood.”

The top image is Scolding by José Ferraz de Almeida, Jr. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

My Seven Fathers


This comes late. Late because Father’s Day was last month and late because this essay was appropriate 50 years ago.

I read several “Father’s Day” blogs this past June. Only then did I realize I had multiple dads. To discover this in my seventh decade was quite a surprise.

When I say I had more than one, I don’t mean official stepfathers. Nor did my dad die young, followed by others trying to fill his spot. Yet, the truth is, others did, with his knowledge. I bear no grudges about this. My father was, as the trite saying goes, “doing the best he could,” working as many as four jobs at a time, providing for us all. I never doubted his love. I never doubted his pride in me. Still, he was not present a lot. Not for me, not for my brothers Ed and Jack, and not for my mother.

Not there physically. Elsewhere. Away.

Part of a parent’s job is to be home, but that’s not always possible or easy. It wasn’t for him, a child of the Great Depression, claimed by the necessity of making a living. Every other consideration came after the long shadow of a scary time.

There we were, Milton Stein’s family, with him in the lead, racing hard to escape his shadow. My mom ran to catch up, pursued by her own shadow, holding hands with me and my brothers. All of us were in a dash for dad and his time. To the good, dad won the race with the specter of financial ruin, in reality if not psychologically. Ed, Jack, and I settled in the second shadow behind mom, a darker place than the first: a mixture of her personal insecurity, teenaged malnutrition and tuberculosis, poverty, her alcoholic dad and paranoid mother.

I like to say I came upon my interest in psychology honestly. Including the extended family, living examples of text-book emotional problems could be studied every day.

Other father figures embraced me. Did they recognize what I needed? I’ll never know. What follows is a tribute to these men and all the nameless adults who fill-in for a biological parent. They are rarely acknowledged. It took me much time to realize they should be.


One was a portly, white-haired, candy store owner named Mr. Sharon, who talked with me about our favorite team, the Cubs, and called me “son.” A neighbor — movie-star-handsome Mr. Maddock — sometimes played catch with me. Add to the list Mr. Hanel, a tall man with a small dog. On his walks down the alley behind my house he let me play with his pet, something my brothers and I didn’t have. The roster includes a fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Friedman, who believed in me enough to give me a double-promotion. Nor should I forget Jim Bryan, my adviser in graduate school. His letter from Northwestern, informing me I’d be his teaching assistant, said he would “work with me and on me.” He did, to my benefit.

By far the most important father substitute was my Uncle Sam, mom’s only brother. As the first Fabian grandchild I received lots of attention, the most from Sam. My parents, Sam, and his wife purchased a two-flat building together in West Rogers Park, Chicago, when I was six. Sam and Charlene Fabian lived upstairs and the Steins lived downstairs. Until Sam had a male child (Marty) I was almost his adoptive son. My cousin calls us brothers of a different mother.

Uncle Sam took me bowling, to baseball games, and introduced me to famous bowlers. My dad didn’t know anybody famous, so you can imagine the thrill of meeting the keglers I witnessed on TV. I met Carmen Salvino, Don Ellis, and even received bowling tips from an older bowler, Joe Wilman, who’d once been named Bowler of the Year in the 1940s.

Sam secured autographed pictures inscribed with my name from Hall-of-Fame baseball player Luis Aparicio and Billy Pierce. We watched Mickey Mantle, the Yankee slugger, hit two home runs (one batting right-handed and the other left-handed) from box seats on a May evening in 1956. Mom’s brother built a table-top basketball game we played, carving the “shooters” and the baskets out of wood with his own hands.

Best of all, my uncle talked about his view of life. Sam offered guidance in how to live — how to “make it” in the world. My youthful home provided little wise parental advice. The house was a place where I often had to figure out how to proceed by my own inexperienced wits.


Most of the adults I knew reacted to the world. Unlike them, my uncle took charge, created a business, displayed leadership. Sam was 6’4,” outgoing, generous, and unafraid of voicing strong opinions — a person with a large presence in every sense. His fatherly embrace and powerful hands offered a tangible understanding of what it meant to be a “man.” His interest in me conferred a feeling of worth almost by osmosis.

Things changed between us when his son, Marty, was born. I became yesterday’s news and, in retrospect, I can’t imagine how it could have been any other way. At 16, I worked a regular after-school job for Sam, but my employment loaded the relationship with unbearable emotional weight. We occupied the dual roles of uncle/boss and nephew/employee at a time when even one role was too much.

The growing psychological distance became a physical one, too. My folks purchased Sam’s portion of their two-flat at his request and the Fabians moved from Chicago to the suburbs. With the end of high school I saw relatively little of him. Sam died of a heart attack at age 49, leaving a wife and three children with an emotional vacuum impossible to fill.

Perhaps we expect too much of relationships: that they should be forever fulfilling, at least as long as both parties live. Experience tells us most serve for a time, not more. We change, the other changes, the times change. Life goes on with new people and fresh concerns. Accepting this reality is difficult. Sam served more than well in his fatherly role and, perhaps, I was what he wanted for a time: a son borrowed, not yet born. As Marty says, we are “brothers of a different mother,” and therefore sons of the same father, in tandem.

Still, when I think of Sam it is with a sense of wistfulness. I regret few things in my life, but wish we had been closer at the end. Given a magic wand, I’d like to spend a few more minutes with him, knowing all I know now. I’d give him a big hug and say thanks.

Seven fathers. A lucky number. I could have done much worse.

Much worse.

The top photo displays four generations of the Hebert family, three of whom are (or are about to be) dads. From the rear, Tom, David, Keith (my son-in-law), and ______? The fourth generation is shown in an ultrasound image. The compilation was created by my daughter  — Keith’s wife, Carly.

The second photo was taken at my Uncle Sam’s wedding. Left to right: Aunt Charlene, me, Uncle Sam, and Aunt Florence Fabian. The final image is of my father and mother.

A Big Question You’d Like to Ask Your Therapist: “What is Your Story?”


The ultimate question is always: “What is your story, doc? Not just hints about your life or anecdotes that are instructive or amusing, but a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. What is the truth, if there ever is such a thing, about how you came to be the person you are?”

To start, I didn’t learn anything in my first 20 years. OK, I did learn some things, but many of those needed unlearning over the coming decades.

I listened to stories and — much later — became a good story-teller, to which my children will attest. I had to get over the awful stories I imbibed in order to tell my own. Mom’s stories were tragic, a snapshot of her childhood unhappiness as Jeanette Fabian: the misery of her starvation due to poverty, tuberculosis due to starvation, and the Great Depression driving it all. From these I learned fear of what might (and would, in her estimation) go wrong. Much time passed before I recognized many things were already going right for me; and I could improve still more if I took hold of the chances before me and deafened myself to the footsteps of disaster at my back.

My father, Milt Stein, told funny tales he made up out of nothing. Dad and I were co-hosts in an imaginary radio program of his invention when I was tiny. The “broadcast” was called the Jedna Chennai Peanut Show, named after two Polish language newspapers he sold on Chicago streets as an 11-year-old; and, I imagine, I was the “peanut,” an edible he loved to the end of his days. Real peanuts and me, I mean.

The major stories of dad’s life had to do with acts of self-assertion, something he didn’t always do, but made a difference when he did. The tales were told and retold. For example, he took a course in wood shop in high school, requiring him to make things with saws, planes, and other tools. He was poor at this, but did manage to build a shield, one of the items the instructor said was enough to pass the course.

Somehow he failed. Undeterred, Milt reminded the teacher of his statement about the requirements to get a passing mark. The instructor grudgingly changed dad’s grade to that of a “conditional” pass: if he completed the next course in the sequence with an acceptable mark, dad would be awarded the lowest possible “pass” in the one just finished, thanks to his barely adequate shield. It didn’t occur to me then, but there was a message within the oft-told anecdote: to stand up for yourself and keep plugging. In other words, not mom’s prediction of impending disaster: in effect, that a brick will inevitably fall on your head if you walk beside tall buildings.

My mother was trying to protect me from repeating the trauma of her own life, but succeeded only in terrifying me. How difficult for a parent to grasp the world has changed — the world of their child is not the world of their childhood. I spent 20 years and parts of several more living in the shadow of Jeanette Fabian’s catastrophic youth. Sometime later the sunlight conveyed indirectly by my father broke through the threatening clouds called “your future.” Dad’s “shield,” quite real in my imagination, might be used to push through the everyday battles of life. I needed only to decode his obscure message: the advice to stand up and keep plugging; the advice I don’t think he realized he conveyed, but awaited my discovery nonetheless.

LESSON: You are going to grow up with stories; the things said and those unsaid, like pieces of a puzzle; the anecdotes of your parents and perhaps your grandparents, and some composite version of all the tales you hear as they collide with each other and form a “family” story. You will also fashion a tale from the lived experience of your own existence. NONE OF THESE STORIES IS TRUE! They represent, instead, one of many possible ways to make sense of life in general and the specifics of our time on the planet, in particular. DON’T BELIEVE ANY OF THEM. DON’T IDENTIFY TOO CLOSELY WITH ANY OF THEM. Your relatives’ stories are not yours. You can’t relive them, even if that were a good idea.

As far as your narrative is concerned, you are in the middle of it now. Your story is malleable, like bronze in the hands of a metal sculptor. The creation is a work of imagination and slant, giving you lots of room to experiment — to change its shape. The architecture isn’t frozen until you live it. Indeed, not even then, as you reinterpret the events. You can be the guy who didn’t pass his wood shop course cleanly or the one who persuaded the teacher to do the right thing.

Change your story and you will change your life, your life satisfaction, and the lives of those around you. Think you will crash and burn, and you cut the chances of prosperity. Believe you are as good as your press releases, a self-made person who never benefited from any luck or help from others, and you will be full of hot air and look down on those around you. Every one of us must change our story as we walk through time — refining, redefining, recreating; and making the best of what we have learned from others, all we’ve experienced, heaps of our successes, and a dash of suffering.

What’s your story? You never know whose tiny ears are listening.

The top image is the April-May, 1939 issue of Marvel Science Stories. The artist was Norman Saunders, restoration by Adam Cuerdan. The cover is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


Homecoming: On the Fantasy and Reality of Family


Most of us invest a lot in the idea of home. Even if we don’t think about it, home claims us. It is the place where some of our most intense experiences happened.

At its best, “There’s no place like home.” At its worst, there is no place as destructive. I’ll address both sides, in order.

Home is the site of firsts: the first place we lived, the first day of school; our first friends, first love, first victories and failures.

One of my best memories comes from a time before my brothers were born and therefore, from my first five years. My folks and I were leaving a “drive-in” (outdoor) theater.

I was small enough to lie across the back seat of the Chevrolet (no seat belts then). Sleepy after a long day of play, I half-listened to my parents’ conversation. The rhythm of the auto and the sense of safety that comes from the childhood illusion of parental omnipotence and perfect benevolence made me feel as good as I ever have. Of course, we were going to the refuge we called home.

There are probably as many songs about home as about love. Stories too.

Remember Homer’s Odyssey? Odysseus is side-tracked on his return from the Trojan War. He escapes the Cyclops, the Sirens, and other trials to get back to Ithaca, his kingdom. His wife Penelope, who waited 10 years for the war to end, waits another 10 for his return. In that time, she fends off suitors who want her (and the kingdom) for their own. His son, Telemachus, also hopes for his father’s overdue arrival. Upon reaching Ithaca, Odysseus battles the rivals encamped in his estate. He succeeds in defeating them with the help of his son.

Isn’t that what we all want? People who remember us and will always be there for us? People who have unending faith in us? People who love us and still exist, even with the passage of great spans of time, in a place called home?

Think of The Wizard of Oz. It’s pretty much the same story, with a young woman, Dorothy, as the heroine. Swept away from home by forces out of her control, she searches for allies who can help her in finding the “Wizard” and transportation back to Kansas. Like Odysseus’s various nemeses, she encounters an evil witch who makes her life miserable. Dorothy must survive many trials to return where she belongs.

Most of us might write an autobiography of our quest for something worthwhile and the hurdles we overcame to reach a happy ending. The average life can have a heroic quality.

In the end, Dorothy finds herself again on the family farm in Kansas; with Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and the people who love her. The movie ends with her words, “There’s no place like home.”

When comfortable, we often say we “feel at home.” In baseball, our goal is to score more runs than the opposition. How do we do this? By crossing “home plate” more often than they do. If done at one blow, it’s called a home run. Sports teams play better on their home field, supported by their loyal fans, stand-ins for family. And a part of our heart breaks when the stadiums of our youth — those substitutes for home — are razed.

We go to “homecoming” at high schools and colleges, and to class reunions to meet the old friendly faces who attach to us by the memory of home. Of course, these places age, but we still care about them.

Home is a place most people idealize. However wonderful, parents are rarely as good as we imagine them. The “good old days” tend to get better with age and distance.

Unfortunately, the home (and the family there residing), can become a concept that is (like patriotism) “the last refuge of scoundrels.” In corrupt families the idea of loyalty stands above morality and decency. One member of the home “covers” for another’s hateful, abusive, or illegal actions. Parental authority trumps fairness.

Denial reigns in this group of blood and bloodied relations. Pity the person who sees through the psychological mist to things as they are. Beware if you observe the knives behind the smiles. Voicing such knowledge risks becoming an outcast.

Home and family have sufficient claim on us that we wear metaphorical blinders, narrowing our vision and obscuring the dark side. The adults who are cruel or dishonest attempt to maintain the illusion of love for fear of being exposed. Equally, however, other members — usually children — are comforted by not acknowledging the painful truth. Nor do they wish to put themselves in the line of fire by looking behind the curtain. Unlike the Land of Oz, the person who would be unmasked is not as benign as the “Wizard.”

The loyalty, love, and attachment attributed to “family” are special only to the extent that the reality in which you live or to which you return approximates the fantasy.

Otherwise, home is worse than another four-letter word beginning with “h.”

Harold Pinter’s play, The Homecoming, lifts the veil on such a place.

Watch if you dare.

The photo by Kurt Nordstrom is called Celestial Tide and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How do Therapists Become Empathic? Another Question You were Afraid to Ask Your Therapist


Several weeks back, Spacefreedomlove sparked my interest by posting questions she’d been afraid to ask her therapist. Though not her counselor, I answered those queries here. I also requested her readers to offer their own. I’ll respond to one such today and more in the future. I don’t promise any other retired therapist would answer as I do.

This question comes from Possibly Penny, with my thanks:

“What is your story? What helps you to appear empathetic toward what can seem like trivial external triggers?”

Several things. I was a sensitive little boy, both sensitive in the way most children are (to their own injuries) and sensitive to the many moods I encountered in my home. As the first born and first grandchild of my mother’s parents, I received lots of attention, especially for the four-plus years before my brother Eddie (and later Jack) arrived. So, I knew love and loving at the start.

I think my family was happier in my first few years than at any other time. No, it wasn’t due to being wonderful, but because a first child who fits the household’s expectations creates parental bliss. A progeny of three active boys (my brothers only one year apart) demands more than a solo flyer. Moreover, Milton Stein and Jeanette Fabian married in 1940 and, not long after, the future-dad found himself in a European war zone. I was conceived in the joyous heat of his return from the defeat of the Nazis. The intensity of their desire to be together is reflected in his Love Letters. Their world was new with promise. The hardship of the time apart got repaid in a metaphorical second honeymoon upon dad’s return. I doubtless benefited.

I think my identification with the underdog derives from several roots. While the extended family held mild prejudices in private, they gave everyone respect in the world of lived public experience. I listened to many stories from my folks about their lives prior to marriage (during the Great Depression). Mom was malnourished and humiliated by her family’s poverty and her father’s alcoholism. I identified with her pain because I loved her.

Both sets of grandparents were secular Jews. Outside I received the occasional anti-Semitic slur, but nothing more. Nonetheless, I intuitively understood discrimination, not only against Jews, could lead to horrors beyond imagining. From dad’s mother came eye-witness stories of Russian pogroms. By high school I’d made friends whose parents had numbered tattoos on their arms, casting indelible shadows on all of their lives.

Uncle Sam, mom’s brother, owned a business in which he employed both black men and women. This was prior to civil rights legislation, a period when lynchings still occurred in the South. During high school — in summers and after class — I worked with them side-by-side.  Experience confirmed my expectations having to do with their basic decency, intelligence, and kindness — neither inferior nor superior to whites. They deserved better than to be “other.” One of my two best friends in first year college was a bright, funny black young man named Lou Sterling. We did things out of school (including at my house) at a time when blacks and whites socializing in public still was uncommon.

I grew from an uninhibited small boy to a smart, but introverted teen with interests I thought few others cared for (like classical music). The sweet child who worshiped my mom was replaced by a stranger (still me) who saw enough of her flaws and unresolved anger to judge her and struggle with her. In other words, I knew the role of the outsider even within the family. Time passed before I understood what was required to work through the psychological after effects. Fortunately, I found a terrific group of high school buddies who reconnected many years after graduation to give college scholarships to disadvantaged teens of varied races and religions. We still maintain contact.

My wife, the finest person ever, is a model of kindness and consideration. I’ve had the boundless good fortune of having two female children of whom I am immensely proud. More pertinent to Possibly Penny’s question, I learned from them, experiencing by osmosis the big and little hurts each suffered when they were small. These three women showed me a side of life I didn’t experience growing up in a home of one female and four males.


I’ve had a lucky life, but one (from an early time) that permitted me to peer into what it could have been had I been a young man in the Great Depression or a malnourished, ashamed teenaged girl or a Jew caught in the Holocaust or a black person before civil rights reforms. My empathy, to the extent it exists, is due to this and all the lives I’ve been permitted to enter. Whatever compassion I have works to counteract my judgmental tendencies, with less or more success, depending…

One other element of Possibly Penny’s question: she wonders how empathy is possible in response to “what can seem like trivial external triggers.” She is, I believe, referring to a patient’s overreaction to an event that appears small to an outsider, but reminds the client of something associated with trauma.

My answer is simple. It consists in knowing a triggering stimulus, however trivial, can be psychologically powerful. The capacity to be empathic follows from understanding how you (the therapist) overreact in your own life, even if you never were as traumatized as the patient. You must look through your client’s eyes back at yourself to understand his viewpoint.

Therapists are people. Patients often put them on a pedestal and sometimes underneath one! In both spots are flawed human beings. We mental health professionals strive to rise above our limitations, for ourselves and our clients. And we do care about our patients, although not in the same way we relate to spouses, children, siblings, parents, and friends. We endeavor to find whatever is best in them all. We don’t always succeed.

Every one of us in a clinic office is swimming upstream, some with more success. My job in therapy was occasionally to give my patients just a little push against the current. Looking back, I think I got the better of the deal. As I said, call me lucky.

The first image is the Compassion Logo of Projekts der Schulstiftung der Erdiözere by Schulstiftung. The photo is called Taking Care of the Heart by Enver Rahmanov.