The Voice of a Therapist: An Interview with Dr. Gerald Stein

When you get old enough, survival becomes a kind of distinction. I was therefore not surprised when my interview by Masters in Counseling was called, Career Longevity in Psychotherapy with Dr. Gerald Stein. For those who would like to know how I sound, here is a chance to find out what this 70-plus-personage knows about that and several other topics; from — pardon me — the horse’s mouth.

If you listen, you will hear my kind interviewer Megan Hawksworth, herself a therapist, tell you why she claims I’m worth attention. My response to her request for “words of wisdom” was, “I have lots of words, but I’m not sure how many of them are wise.” Later however — my brain stirring — I asked myself, “How have I come to know whatever it is I know (or think I know) beyond what I learned in school?”

Well, maybe the most important way was being open to new ideas. A conversation shouldn’t always be about defending yourself or trying to win, but listening and evaluating what the other says. Not to apologize, not to defer, but to enter regions beyond one’s imagination and experience; to be enlarged by such gifted souls as still walk the earth. I can say I prefer the company of people who possess ideas I’ve not considered to those who think as I do or live as I do.

Getting “banged-up” also contributed to my enlightenment. Not just physical dings, and dents, and divots; surgeries and sedation and stitches.

I’ve strived and failed. I’ve tried and triumphed. Once I won a battle and lost some friends who opposed me. I’ve been cheated of lots of money. I gave away plenty, too. I helped a philanthropy I started with friends raise funds. My heart has been broken by a few lovely women and I’ve broken a few hearts.

What might be worse? Breaking your love’s heart and your own simultaneously. It happens.

Are those words of wisdom? If you think so, here are 10 more:

  • Over time I learned to give sentiments a prominent place beside clarity of thought: laughter and tears, both, but love above all.
  • Disappointment and loss are the forge of character, but only if you pass beneath and beyond the blacksmith’s hammer without losing your faith in the promise of life.
  • There are things I cannot possibly convey to you unless you’ve lived some version of the same event. Only music might come close to communicating them.
  • Much as I am a hard guy sometimes, kindness is essential and in shorter supply than macho competition; and therefore, more precious.
  • I know I will never know everything, though I try.
  • Life moves too fast to keep up with all that is important. How do we know what is important? Pay attention, at least, to the words of William Bruce Cameron:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

  • While the probable is most likely to occur, many improbable things will happen in any life. Be grateful for the ones that give you joy. And perhaps, if you realize your luck could have been otherwise, disperse your good fortune to others by paying it forward.
  • Whatever wisdom I own today applies more to the present version of myself than the 30 or 50-year-old models. I did not know then all I am relating to you now.
  • Smile at the checkout clerks and call them by name.
  • No one can “have it all.” If anyone ever accomplished this miracle, we never met. Life is rich without “everything.”

Enough. If you listen to the interview you will hear the voice my patients heard; hear me tell a joke, a story, and have a good time. I am indebted to Megan and Scott Hawksworth for giving me the chance. I think you’ll be able to tell that, too.

Do remember, you won’t be listening to an immortal personage. I subscribe to Woody Allen’s words on the subject: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”

Here again is the link: Career Longevity in Psychotherapy with Dr. Gerald Stein.

The photo just above is the author during his days as a cowboy. Unfortunately, it does not include the horse’s mouth mentioned in the first paragraph.

The Ups and Downs of Living in the Past

The conventional wisdom about “living in the past” tells us the place is a toxic sinkhole to be visited sparingly, if ever.

I’d say this is often true, but not always. In my last post I described the value of “living in the present moment.”

Not today. Let’s look back. Start with the upside of spending time in

THE PAST

THE THERAPEUTIC USE OF THE PAST:

Psychodynamic psychotherapy allows us to observe repetitive patterns of our historical behavior, the better to recognize areas we need to change. History is grist for the treatment mill. The close examination of our life course permits the discovery of unresolved relationships and misfortunes. Historian George Santayana advised us all to keep hold of our bygone experience:

When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

My friend Henry Fogel put the same message a different way: “I like to make new mistakes.” In other words, don’t replicate the old ones.

When we recall prior examples of resilience under the duress of a painful present, we can also boost our confidence. Knowing we came through earlier challenges reminds us of what enabled our survival and recovery. Those capacities are likely still within us.

POSITIVE REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST: 

The past can be a sweet reminder of loving relatives and friends, triumphant moments, hurdles surmounted, and what has been good about life. In those who are middle-aged and beyond, remembering the youthful beauty of your sweetheart can spark continuing attachment, even though you and your love no longer resemble springtime flowers. In the elderly or the infirm, positive memories sustain one in the present, especially when a limit exists now on what might be experienced and accomplished. Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX ends this way:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

THE NEED FOR A COHERENT STORY: 

Most people value their own story to make sense of the life they are currently living. It binds them to those with whom they have marched together through time. It tells them what they valued and what remains of importance. No wonder amnesia sufferers are so distressed. Their self-definition has been lost along with their story.

One cannot doubt, however, that the past can resemble the sinkhole mentioned earlier, if used to foreclose present opportunities. What is the downside of living too much in the long ago?

VICTIMHOOD IN SERVICE OF THE EGO:

A focus on the past allows some people to claim a status they would be unable to achieve in the present. I treated a woman of about 40, disfavored by nature and fate. Testing revealed her intellectual limits. She was neither physically attractive nor graceful. Worse still, her early life had been one of abuse, neglect, and rejection. Life’s unfairness to her historical-self was what she focused on, to the point of telling new acquaintances of her bad luck soon after meeting them. They fled, thus further confirming her sense of unique disadvantage.

One day I questioned her about the extremity of her beliefs. After once again acknowledging how fortune’s wheel had been unkind, I asked if she thought perhaps there were also others who met similar tragedy. “No.” What about in the history of the world? “No.” Not even Jesus or victims of genocide or torture? “No.”

In coming to grips with this, I wondered what advantage she found in the belief she was the most unfortunate person ever. I concluded this attitude allowed her to claim a distinction she could not otherwise attain. In effect, she prided herself on her disadvantage. Such a manner of living caused her to continue pleading her case with every new acquaintance, always failing to obtain the friendship and validation she wanted. In her own way, she gave it to herself in the ever-present litany of woe she called up daily. Her ego was thus bolstered.

AVOIDANCE:

Yesterday may appear safer than today or tomorrow. Whatever happened at a distance tends to be less acute. The past will not change and holds no surprises. Even if it is a dark place, no new demons arise. You know the territory. Indeed, one becomes quasi-friends with those demons. Stay put, some people think. They rationalize their stasis as a wise avoidance of fresh pain and heartbreak, humiliation and failure.

Psychotherapy helps a willing client recognize the cost of such an escape into yesterday, thus encouraging a return to human contact in spite of the risk we always face in our effort to live full lives and attain happiness.

POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS:

This condition is not a voluntary choice. One who has witnessed a murder or shocking death, or been threatened with the same, can be triggered by reminders of the event into a visceral return to tragedy, sometimes unable to tell past from present. They then re-experience the awfulness and are re-traumatized.

The worst example known to me of such repeated reliving – due to brain damage and not PTSD – was an elderly women about whom I heard the following. Her memory was so compromised that each morning she awoke believing her long-deceased husband was alive, and proceeded to search for him in desperation. The nursing home staff then had to inform her of his death. Thereby she was newly stricken every day. To the good, actual PTSD can be treated, as this woman’s condition could not.

TREATMENT STUCK IN THE PAST: 

Significant focus on the past is a necessary part of many psychotherapies. Still-tender wounds and long-nursed grudges must be grieved. How much your history remains a central topic is up to you and your therapist. At some point life has to be lived, because we cannot repurchase our yesterdays. Cognitive behavioral therapies try not to delay such a reentry into life. Remember, there is always more self-examination possible, in or out of therapy. Even Socrates – the man who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” also lived his life.

As Kierkegaard wrote, “Life is understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” No one ever understands everything about himself, past or present, including this writer.

Understanding is but one part of human existence. The driver’s seat in the vehicle of life faces forward, just behind the windshield and steering wheel. Rearview mirrors are less prominent. The rules of the road tell us to consult the latter only on occasion.

The second image is Brassai’s 1936 photo, Les Escaliers de Montmartre. The following photo was captured by  Alfred Stieglitz in 1894. It is called Venetian Canal and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

In Which Part of Life Do You Live: Past, Present, or Future?

How much is well-being or its absence – depression and anxiety – dependent on what you pay attention to? I mean the present moment, the past, or your future? Does one best way to focus your attention exist?

Let’s look at each of these three possible orientations to time. Today I’ll start where your body is, even if your mind isn’t:

THE PRESENT

Philosophers remind us that the present is all we really have. The past is gone and the future might not come.

At least three paths allow us to live within the fleeting instant:

1. MINDFULNESS BASED ON MEDITATION PRACTICE:

Much effort is needed to develop and maintain this kind of “in the moment” way of being; daily meditation practice for the rest of your days. In doing so you can train the mind to stay in the present and refocus whenever attention begins to move toward a distraction, worry, preoccupation, memory, or anything else but your being within one second at a time. No before or after. No holding on to feelings. You observe the world rather than dwell on it. Thus, for example, pain is less fraught because you do not obsess about it. A benign sense of detachment comes to master meditators. They notice everything, but don’t pile meaning and intense emotion on everything, thus freighting the bad into something worse. Research suggests these are the most contented people on earth.

2. EMOTIONAL OPENNESS TO THE PRESENT AND WHATEVER LIFE OFFERS IN THE NOW:

Unlike the meditation experts, those in this group lead intense lives. Their openness allows for much joy, as it does for sorrow. At their best they are unguarded and brave. I am not speaking here of people with ADHD, who risk being caught in a whirlwind of thoughtless and impulsive action, untroubled by the past or future. Rather, I refer to those who are free with themselves, not self-consciously governed by what others might say or see. They are quite natural, unaffected, and spontaneous. Their self (and self-consciousness) is lost.

Such lives are not full of rigid angles and rectangular shapes. They don’t always conform themselves to boundaries drawn on hard surfaces, as one must in formal sporting events, with perimeters decisively marked as fair or foul, in or out. Think ocean or sky, not ground, when you behold them: creatures who swim or fly. Theirs is a life of discovery and bright eyes. They wish to play, not keep score; celebrate while the sun still shines.

These gifted people (whether by nature or choice) don’t achieve the dispassionate serenity of meditation gurus, but they are more “alive.”

As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence,  the talented few are able

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

3. ACHIEVING “FLOW:”

This is a cousin of #2, but applies best to work, competitive play, and hobbies. Here the path is not so much social or relational, but the singular focus on a task. In the case of elite athletes, for example, their concentration is extraordinary: They have been known to so “tune out” the sound of the crowd, that overwhelming cheers (when they finally do break through) can startle them, bringing them back to the amphitheater from the smaller arena of man against man. They had lost awareness of a stadium full of 60,000 observers. The psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi tells us, “this is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by … great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill … during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored. The ego falls away. Time flies … and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

The mastery and experience within you is matched to the challenge at hand. You won’t get this often watching TV (only seven to eight percent of the time). Neither will relaxation transport you into “flow.” You must do something. Csíkszentmihályi would have us believe ecstacy is possible in the “flow.”

Some suggest, however, we be careful of too much “in the now” living as defined by the first two paths. Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and social/political historian, thought the detachment achieved in a Buddhist type meditation (Category #1) could be a cheat of life experience, a kind of defense mechanism against injury; valuable, but missing the full essence of life.

Those taken by the moment (Category #2) also risk some of the avoidable misfortunes that those who spend more time looking ahead might dodge. Members of this group would push back, however, claiming the reward of emotional and behavioral vulnerability is worth the risk. Take opportunity on, they might say: this life is the performance and not the rehearsal.

Nor should we forget, people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are characterized as living in painful extremity too often. They can miss or discount the notion that nearly everything they are feeling at this instant is temporary, therefore potentially succumbing to passing emotional catastrophe. For them “the now” seems endlessly excruciating.

Want some homework? Ask yourself which “time zone” you usually occupy and which makes you happiest.

Stay tuned. One of my upcoming posts will deal with living in the past, which also has its ups and downs. An essay on future orientation will follow, along with some thoughts about the three types of time-focus and how to manage them.

The second image is Macaca fuscata in Jigokudani Monkey Park – Nagano, Japan, by Daisuke Tashiro. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Psychological Lessons of Literature

When is a story more than a story? I’m not suggesting a common page-turner, a thriller sweeping you away. Instead, I refer to a fine short story or novel, and its ability to reveal something more about human inner-workings than even a mass market psychology text or a self-help manual.

Take Herman Melville’s 1853 short story, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. Not a title to make you think the writer knew much about the unsettling emotional complications of two psyches within a law office. He did though.

A scrivener is a copiest, a scribe, such as lawyers employed in the days before off-set printing and Xerox machines took their jobs away. Legal documents had to be duplicated by hand: back-breaking, carpel tunneling, mind-numbing work. Long hours bent over an unsuitable desk made it worse. Your profession was known by the permanent ink stains on your hands and clothing.

The unnamed attorney who narrates the story tells of a quiet, strange employee. He gives us his first impression of the man: “I can see the figure now — pallidly neat, pitiably respectful, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby!

Mr. B. was a good worker, too — for a while. Before long, the boss makes a routine request to which the scrivener’s only reply is “I would prefer not to.”

More and more such responses challenge both the lawyer and Bartleby’s three co-workers. The stand taken is never explained. Eventually the employer even discovers the fellow living in the firm’s offices after hours: not to do anything amiss, but to pass his solitary time. And he “prefers not to” do otherwise.

Our narrator tries many means to impress Bartleby with the necessity of compliance. The lawyer, however, is a Christian man in the best sense, and feels a human connection to the odd creature, thus stopping him from calling the police for his removal from the building.

What have we here? Is this a tale about mental illness, social isolation, or a passive-aggressive soul’s ability to control a situation by saying no? Is it an indictment of the oppressive conditions of long days spent in work that requires attention to detail achieved through concentration on a mindless, repetitive task? Is Melville making an indirect social comment on entitlement, such as Mr. B’s presumption in turning a job into a work-free, free-ride to salary and a residence? Does he mean us to recognize the title character’s employer as a charitable man or one with too weak a will, thus becoming hostage to an employee who does nothing?

Could the novel be trying to point out the absence of a satisfying place for many of the residents of a capitalist-dominated world that is too concerned, as Wordsworth told us, with “getting and spending?” One more possibility: might the author wish us to consider why two men very differently situated in the pecking order of professional life would continue to behave as they have rather than change, no matter the consequences?

The reader is put into the role of psychologist, trying to understand Mr. B. and the attorney. Both are extremes and we learn from extremes perhaps more than those examples of life in the middle of things. The underling is stubborn without limit, the individual “on top” displays limitless charity.

Does Bartleby offer us an everyday example of a person so mistreated in the past that he can no longer differentiate a man offering a helping hand from one whose hand is prepared to strike him? If so, those of us who engage in creating our own slow motion, step-by-step tragedy should take note.

The reader is left wondering whether Bartleby might even be heroic, displaying passive resistance to an increasingly demanding, corrosive, and alienating work life that is unfitting to him and us. Is he a precursor of the kind of people Martin Luther King, Jr. described when he said, “A riot is the language of the unheard?”

I could as easily call Mr. B. a depressed and self-destructive man, acting in such a way as can only end in his misfortune.

Melville’s 36 paperback-pages can be read many ways to be sure. It is laugh-old-loud funny, on occasion, as well. And if you find yourself siding with Bartleby or his employer, you might ask yourself why one and not the other?

Regardless, try not to judge these two men harshly. Like the remaining three wage slaves in this law office and a few we meet along the way, they are just trying to make the best of the hand dealt them by nature, their upbringing, and the world of other men and women.

As the old saying goes, “but for the grace of God there go (you or) I.”

What Does Emotional Infidelity Consist of?

You tell yourself you are faithful. You love your spouse. You pray every day, attend religious services once a week. You believe in the strength of your will — the ability to resist temptation, the perfumed heat emanating from a delicate hand.

Ah, how we fool ourselves. All around are enticements. They are the banana peels you don’t notice, the black ice waiting to skid the vehicle of your soul into dyscontrol, the quicksand but a step ahead. Springtime and flowers and a glass of wine. A comely presence attached to a sympathetic listener (a therapist, maybe) when you are unhappy about something.

There can be so much in a smile and a tilted head. And those eyes!

How do you know when you are unfaithful, even a little? Or heading for it?

A few questions:

  • Do you sometimes think about the “other” when talking to your spouse?
  • Do you, even a bit, wish your mate were more like someone else?
  • Do you imagine what you’d do if free to pursue something elsewhere?
  • Does your present lover know the stranger exists?

The ice is getting thin, no?

  • What do you imagine your mate would think if he/she overheard you talking with this special person or read your email?
  • Does the arrival of a new message give you a rush?
  • Can you sense the “sex of things” even if you haven’t acted on it?
  • Do you lie to disguise any aspect of the new relationship?
  • Is the mental and emotional space devoted to the stranger enlarging?

None of the above necessarily includes any sexual contact, not even a kiss.

  • Do you engage in secret phone calls with the other?
  • Have you arranged meetings in a park, coffee shop, restaurant or the like?
  • Do you share confidences not offered to your spouse?
  • Is your sexual desire for your mate now much smaller or larger than before you became otherwise preoccupied?
  • Are photo exchanges part of your new, hidden life?

Many of these actions can be rationalized. The new friend perhaps is a co-worker or someone you met on a commuter train. Each step seems small enough and might be something you minimize. Flirtation is enlivening. Sympathetic listeners are necessary in any life. A new person is fresh by definition and the glare from the unwrapped cellophane hides whatever imperfections reside in the package.

At some point the frail self is caught in a wave, swept away, young again. The experience moves you from underneath a pedestal to the top of one. Routine breaks. Your spouse knows you too well, but the fresh friend is dazzled. Your life goes from static to ecstatic. You assume your mate will not find out. You don’t face what your friends or kids or parents might think. No one will be hurt, you say to yourself. STDs? You laugh thinking they can’t happen to you and nothing will pass to your mate.

You are a fool in love. The early stages of love make us all fools. I do not disparage amour here, but surely you recall muttering (in the past, of course), “What was I thinking?” The question comes too late.

Some argue you should simply enjoy the ride, ignoring that you are not encased in protective bubble wrap. Better, ask yourself what is of ultimate importance in your life. What are the reasons you chose your spouse? Consider the gratitude you feel still toward him or her; all you share and have shared. How can you enliven the relationship to make it better? Who are you really, your best self? Who do you want to be?

An emotional affair is still an affair of sorts, even if not yet so dreadfully complicated. The new romance will almost make you believe the other is Christopher Columbus and you are the America he discovered. And vice versa. All this while you are upside down and so much the plaything of your emotions that you will not even recognize you are drowning. Your stable life was built of blocks made of prose (and prose is essential to sustain any lasting relationship), but the weights pulling you under are full of poetry.

Perhaps you can find some of the old poetry back at home, too.

You have my best wishes and deepest condolences. No judgement here: these things happen even without seeking them. Friends and therapists are waiting to help.

Just remember:

The brakes on your being are balky. The steering wheel is unresponsive. You’re heading for a cliff at high-speed.

Think about it.

Oh, but wait!

I forgot your brain no longer works.

The Search for Besties and Soulmates

An old Groucho Marx joke tells us, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” Indeed, we often find ourselves hoping for an acceptance hard to come by, from just the right one; from a group or person who recognizes we are special: special in terms of our best qualities on our best day. The “other” uncovers us and discovers us as we’d like to be seen. When the connection clicks, we discover he has the characteristics we desire, as well.

Yes, we want a fitting kind of recognition: the key to our lock. True, we pursue enough money to live comfortably. Respect is sought for our good work, too. But lots of people accomplish those goals, even receive applause, yet don’t obtain understanding of their best inner self, the self they want to be appreciated.

Isaiah Berlin touches on this in Two Concepts of Liberty:

What I may seek to avoid is simply being ignored, patronized, or despised, or being taken too much for granted, in short, not being treated as an individual, having my uniqueness insufficiently recognized, being classed as a member of some featureless amalgam, a statistical unit without identifiable, specifically human features and purposes of my own.

We want acknowledgement from the proper person or group: a mate, our family; a religious community, perhaps. I must underline, man wants to be recognized in a particular way. Thus, if seen as “the handsome guy” or “the hot chick,” he may yet lack fulfillment when such a quality masks what is underneath.

I’d venture most of us wish to hear, “You are the one. You are the essential one” (for me or our group or our work), depending on the identification we are yearning for. I have encountered people with admirable lives, who perhaps never knew what was missing until such recognition came to them. If it came.

Recent research implies that the individuals we seek in friendship or love may be predetermined in some portion. Dr. Carolyn Parkinson, a UCLA cognitive scientist, described the possible “chemistry” enabling closeness in the New York Times article below:

Our research suggests that friends might be similar in how they pay attention to and process the world around them. That shared processing could make people click more easily and have the sort of seamless social interaction that can feel so rewarding.

Is this what some mean when they refer to a relationship as beshert (meant to be)?

Life can be thought of as an insecurity making machine. Among the young, ever-present photo-phones and internet bullies guarantee it. In the distant world of villages and small groups your place in society was not so hard to create, competition not so feverish. Your name was known and you might have been the sole local craftsman with a particular skill or the only medical doctor. There was value in being a big fish in a medium-sized pond. You were a solo-proprietor of your small business, a cottage industry, or the family farm, not today’s wage slave. The modern world makes almost all of us anonymous.

Aging, too, can reduce one’s sense of value. Beyond a certain span, women and men must work harder to hold their place. The body gives in to inertia, gravity, and fatigue. Defined features and figures blur, distractions challenge, flagging energy requires an extra cup of coffee.

But the lack of recognition is more generally present than in any one societal sector. Here is how Vincent van Gogh put the dilemma in an 1880 letter to his brother Theo:

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney, and go their way. …

No wonder the modern world also is fertile ground for demagogues who appeal to a portion of those with little sense of distinction, but much displacement. Many struggle for existence and dignity. In some cases machines replaced their labor. Life diminishes them. If a political figure conveys that he sees them, hears them, and understands them, they feel connected, enhanced. Even those leaders who might be better able to improve their lives can appear less attractive.

The former leader enlarges their sense of themselves. He resonates.

A man or woman does not simply want to own things, he wants the respect and acknowledgement offered in another’s measure of his value and stature. Indeed, the last 100 years demonstrate that many will sacrifice even their freedom for the worth conferred by a man or a movement in which the beleaguered soul believes he is important.

What can one do to find this kind of recognition?

Do not hide. Show the best of yourself. Step forward. Join, do not retreat.

You never know, even to your last day, when someone might comprehend and esteem you as significant in the world. The smoke signals from van Gogh’s bonfire may finally be noticed and read by others who value the message.

Which makes me think of my late friend, Mel Nudelman. Mel was an old friend in both senses of the phrase — I’d known him since the 1970s. At age 87 he was devasted by the loss of his wife of 50 years. To his credit, he fought through and grieved his broken heart, even making a new girlfriend! And so, Mel lived as he always did: learning, taking classes, counseling others, being with his children and grandchildren, offering friendship to young and old; ever curious about politics, music, sports, medicine, and the world. All this until death came in his 90s.

Put differently, Mel was open to life and whatever it would reveal to him; whatever it would reveal to others about him. He had something to offer the world and was recognized.

My advice then, to you and to myself, is to keep learning and keep being open to “possibility,” including the possibility there are things yet unseen, unexpected, or unacknowledged to enlighten us (and enlighten others about us) if only we keep our eyes open, our hearts open, and our guard down (at least some of the time).

If we keep looking, perhaps the right one yet will look back.

The top image is called Fall in Love. It is sourced from http://www.larsen-twins.dk via Wikimedia Commons. It should be noted, however, that the link does not lead to an active site. If anyone has such a link for Larsen Twins Orchids, I be grateful. The van Gogh Self Portrait with Straw Hat dates from 1887.

The Long-lasting Toxicity of Parental Labels

When I treated adults who had been verbally abused by their parents, I sometimes wondered if they needed a stain remover more than a therapist. The disfiguring mark was not on the surface, however. Below the scalp, the mistreatment created a misunderstanding of their human qualities and mangled the internal mental machinery; warped their reasoning about themselves. I will offer some thoughts on the confusion caused — the fouled self-image the abused soul believes to be true, not recognizing the phony bill of goods he received.

Epistemology is a word you might not know, but frames how the negative label distorts the victim’s thoughts about himself. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. The field is important because it deals with how we process information to determine what is true (factual) and how we distinguish what is supported by evidence rather than a matter of belief, misunderstanding, or a misapplied label.

When did our tarnished child become discolored? He almost always was the target of family criticism, outside bullying, or both. The young one’s actions were mocked. Names were called over and over. I’ll concentrate on the home. Children are not in a position to find another one.

Kids need whatever protection parents provide, even as little as it is. No matter what, they must stay close to the caretakers when they are small. No Plan B exists, no reason to expect more kindness outside the family than in.

The small one’s dependency on the parents requires belief in the latter’s competence and knowledge about the world.

Think of the child as both who he is objectively, that is, how we might evaluate him in the absence of any bias; and as a social construct: the person described in the adjectives and nouns of the parents’ choosing, regardless of who he is in reality.

The child holds little knowledge of the world other than what is offered in the house. He claims no other authoritative information to suggest the social construct/label is wrong. Since parents are the first and primary authorities, nothing suggests they are misguided. Especially if their words are characterized as being “for your own good.”

Any hope of parental love, approval, and protection would depend on the ability to persuade the parent that the label has been misapplied. The small one cannot afford (even to himself, even were he able to put the concepts and words together) to challenge the parents’ description of him without causing internal terror. Such awareness would require his recognition of the dilemma he is in: a tiny person at the hands of powerful, disturbed adults upon whom he is dependent. The opinion of the home’s commanders is therefore taken for truth. Only if the girl or boy can accept the verdict and do better to please those in charge might he have a chance. This necessary bit of self-delusion allows him to hope his situation might be changed by something in his control.

He already accepts the truth of something for which the evidence is weak or nonexistent. Use of his cognitive equipment is thereby impaired from an early age.

Since the label now must be considered valid, let’s think of how the labelers treat our growing child as a personality, and how they respond to his behavior:

  1. The boy’s character, nature, and existence are seen as unworthy. The parents communicate — sometimes just by a look — that he doesn’t measure up. His presence alone is displeasing. No matter how inoffensive he might be in a given moment, he inhabits the status white bigots confer on people of color. The latter would need to vanish in order to make the racists happy. The child, to produce the same result for mom and dad, would have to, as well.
  2. Mistakes (and every child makes lots of them) are used by the authority as evidence the label is valid.
  3. Any behavior that is objectively good is either minimized in importance or ignored. No amount of proper behavior nor rational argument is sufficient to change the overseer’s verdict.

All of this is bad enough by itself. Worse, however, the child carries not only a dishonest label, but a warped way of thinking about himself. The internal mental machinery continues to inflict damage — even in the absence of the parents — when he takes on the world outside. Thus, whatever success he achieves there, it is never enough.

The past becomes present.

Too often the adult will carry the internalized words wherever he goes, continuing to search unconsciously for people who are like his folks (since their authority and value have not yet been overturned), and think about his own worth in the way he was taught. He remains characterologically flawed in his very existence. He believes he is a person who behaves in negative or inadequate or foolish ways, and someone whose strengths are trivial in contrast to all of the qualities inside that count against him.

The individual lacks self-awareness. He continues to see himself in terms of the social construct given by his parents. Moreover, the deforming quality of his thought has doubtless led him to many errors in dealing with the world, further confirming the verdict he received from the biased jury at home.

Only with enough unhappiness might the pain cause him to challenge the internalized parental voice, or seek treatment which will encourage such a process. His descent into the suffering can actually be the first step to discarding the social construct he was given, alter those self-defeating behaviors he since adopted, and transform his self-image. Without opening the emotion attached to the humiliating label, therapy is not likely to succeed. Indeed, had verbal persuasion by himself or others worked, counseling wouldn’t be needed.

The mountain top of truth — knowledge of who he is — is a long distance away. But, as the old Chinese proverb tells us, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”