Is a Breakup Ever Harder Than a Death? Reflections on the Complexity of Grieving

“You need to grieve,” is easy to say, hard to do. Some equate it with “feeling sorry for yourself” or insufficient religious faith. Others tell you the endeavor is not “manly.” A few give it a time limit and cut off the process too soon.

What else might block this dark passage to recovery?

The short answer? It sometimes takes longer to recover from the end of relationships with the living than those who are dead. Their continuing life holds out the possibility of a long shot, perfected resumption: a second chance at the prize.

As terrible as it is to survive the demise of one you love, the psychological remedy is relatively direct. Death means losing not only the departed, but the disappearance of whatever future you desired. Was there an apology you never got, but awaited forever? Would he have said, “I love you,” the words you never heard? “I’m proud of you” perhaps? Were there plans in the offing for a continuation of your bond with a being like no other?

All hopes are shattered by Death, a bigger than Life opponent with an undefeated record. Grieving becomes the only way to reconcile yourself to what you missed.

But what about a person who yet lives, but not within the relationship you desire?

Let’s say you reside with your parents or an unloving spouse, are financially dependent, and the object of unrelenting emotional neglect or abuse. Your dependency evokes grudging gratitude, but also fear of losing financial support.

Were you to open the full extent of your heartbreak and anger, it might be more difficult to contend with the ones who continue to heap misery on you. The wall built to endure mistreatment could crumble. A darker depression and rage against them or yourself will not now improve your life. Postponement of this therapeutic exploration (beyond awareness that you need to get out) is often the wisest course until your living circumstances are favorable.

A faith community that believes in instant “forgiveness” (or reflexive honor to parents and spouse) is also challenging. If you lack congregational support for the therapeutic process, you are likely to experience the very kind of invalidation, guilt, and misunderstanding you want to escape. Beware, too, an internal and external pressure to “be good,” win the approval of your coreligionists and friends, and don a smiling mask disguising private unhappiness.

Parental death, at whatever age, supplies notice of one’s permanent eviction from childhood. We receive automatic sympathy upon its publication. Widows and widowers are honored in the same fashion.

Not so for the ones who cannot have the other they prefer. No plot of land called a cemetery — respected and visited — is dedicated to their loss; nor the black attire or armband officially signaling their grief.

The graveyard of ended love affairs exists only in the mind of the bereft. Visiting hours are listed in the imagination as “anytime,” the garments of mourning observed from the inside alone.

Many face this grief in the world of divorce and shared child-rearing responsibilities. Continuing friction between the adults can endanger the well-being of the child. Treatment must honor the heartbroken parent, and enable a tightrope walk over a cesspool of emotional turbulence that might swallow you as well as your offspring.

Another roadblock to ending a living grief resides in a simple word called hope. Who can say when it is time to give up hope? How do you know when hope is misplaced? Who among us is certain when a fantasized future is the equivalent of a sunk cost: in effect, throwing good money after bad because you have already invested so much in another human being?

Exit from love’s casino is always a gamble. Memory and desire insist, “‘Tis not too late. …” When friends suggest you move on, however, they are not always wrong.

I recall a young lady in her early teens. Her father’s death years before did not unmake the “relationship’s” continuation. The worshipful veneration at the shrine she erected permitted an idealization that made the stepfather pale in comparison.

The latter was a fine man who wanted to give the teen all possible affection and guidance, but could not leap the barrier with which my patient surrounded herself. Only when she recognized the cost of her preoccupation with the biological father, did she embrace the decent man holding on to his own version of hope.

Loss of love, whatever the cause or consideration it receives, is not well-captured by the clichéd word heartbreak. Rather, the heart cracks, seeps, bleeds; it shudders, submerges, or bursts. The tissue tears and weeps. For most of us, the blessed thing will force itself to repair, reform, and — yes — take heart and try again. The heart, remember, is a muscle.

Patients always need to clean their wounds and suffer the sting such cleansing brings, even if touching them requires delicacy on the counselor’s part. The demands of work, child-rearing, housekeeping, and the daily indignities of life must also be respected for the therapeutic obstacles they can be. These complications function like the huge linemen in American-style football, blocking your progress toward the place you need to go.

Like therapy, American football is played 60-minutes at a time.

The best players find a way to get around and over those giant opponents; not as fast as one would like, of course, and not without bruising. Those who “break through” to victory are talented and relentless.

Courage takes more than a physical form, you know.

I saw it displayed in my office, in the therapeutic integrity of people just a few feet away.

They have long since left that place, but my awe and pride in them have not departed.

———————-

The first image is called, Knock Apparition Cloud by Froshea. The next one is entitled, Sad Woman. Jiri Hodan is the creator. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom photograph is Georgia O’Keeffe, Abiquiu, N.M., 1984 by Bruce Weber.

The Narcissists in Your Life: A Guide to Identifying Them

There are narcissists among us. We love them, go to dinner with them, and tolerate them. They are our bosses, subordinates, and neighbors. I’ll give you three examples and then guidance on how to recognize people so taken with themselves they have little affection left for you.

First, though, the top-line description of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as found in the DSM-5:*

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts … .

Or, as I like to picture it, someone who stands so close to the mirror (the better to admire himself) he can see nothing else of importance in the world.

  • TWENTY-YEAR-OLD GWEN DESIRED not only an easy life, but a delightful one, requiring little effort and guaranteeing an avoidance of unpleasantness. She wanted the center of attention, being unconcerned with the wants and needs of others, including her family. This young lady envisioned a world created especially for her, like a custom-designed outfit, where her stunning beauty and innate wit won every eye and red carpets forever laid at her feet. Work, accomplishment, and service sounded distasteful.

Gwen overestimated her gifts as an untrained singer and suffered a narcissistic injury when an accomplished musician deemed her talent modest. She enjoyed the thrill and diversion of risk and reward, never considering that one person’s gain is often another’s loss. The beauty didn’t dismiss the misfortune of her fellow-men so much as fail to notice it. The world of Gwendolyn consisted of a circular room full of mirrors, each one reflecting her image alone. If your approach made her environment less pleasant or more complicated, she dismissed you by smiling you away. Dazed and alone, you wondered what just happened. No surprise that the young woman had never been in love, except with her dazzling self.

  • CALL OUR SECOND EXAMPLE, MC. Here was a man who, to use a Barry Switzer quote, “was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” He had the right parents and a fat wallet because of them. MC owned an impressive physical bearing and cold command. The esteemed gentleman reluctantly offered the social niceties, but calmly scouted the passing human parade for those advantageous to him. Without such potential, your presence wasn’t required or tolerated. The job of a fellow-creature was that of a chess pawn on the board of his existence, to be moved about as needed; just an instrument or an object, nothing more. The man had no friends.

Actually, MC was rather a bore. He didn’t read, didn’t study, simply arranged the world to his liking. MC enjoyed yachting, for example, because it permitted total control, escape from the world of obligation, and avoidance of bothersome humanity.

If you studied this man’s handsome face, you noticed eyes of unusual length and narrowness. Later you might recognize the reptilian quality.

Unlike members of his class, MC didn’t subscribe to the idea of “noblesse oblige.” He believed in no requirement to serve others, only to be served. Once in his vicinity, you either bent your knee instinctively or he bent you to his will. He’d charm you just long enough to grip your shoulder and push down.

  • MY FINAL EXAMPLE WAS A WOMAN of high middle-age. She rebelled against her father’s wish for her to become a conventional wife and mother in a dutiful, subservient role. Instead, this lady broke free and imposed her own vision on others. I’ll call her Countess. Talented and ambitious, C took the world of musical theater by force and rose to continent-wide acclaim. When she became pregnant she decided she could not love the child: he would be an obstacle to her career. Countess gave him up.

This proud woman knew many men and was loved by even more, but chose those who submitted to her domination, allowing her to set the path of their lives without complaint. Though the Countess recognized the imposing self-love at her core, no motive to be otherwise existed for her. In sculpting her life to exactly the shape desired, this magnificent presence consisted of the hard, dark marble of her own chiseled perfection. Had you seen her in a museum you might look atop her pedestal, but not touch. She owned a dictionary lacking the word apology.

How do these people match up with the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder? In addition to the sentence quoted above, you must meet five of the nine following diagnostic characteristics:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e. unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
  6. Is interpersonally exploitive (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

In general, narcissists seek therapy only when they have suffered an affront to their overblown sense of self-esteem. Responsibility-taking is not their forte. Treatment gives them a place to vent and provides bolstering support. Once reinflated to their out-sized vision of themselves, they most often itch to end counseling. The therapist merely is expected to find sufficient wind to inflate the balloon back to normal.

I don’t advise taking on a narcissistic business partner or mate in the hope of remaking him into a person who is reciprocal: to create something close to a 50/50 relationship. On the other hand, the woman in the first example was one who did begin to recognize her self-involvement after a major trauma. She and the others are, in fact, not real people, but characters in George Eliot’s towering novel Daniel Deronda.

Eliot was a master psychologist long before the profession and its diagnostic categories existed. Read her (yes, her) for knowing sympathy with and optimism about the human condition, as well as beauty of language. The antique notion of a woman’s inability to write well caused her to take the pen name by which we know her.

Her real name was Mary Ann Evans.

*The acronym DSM-V refers to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.

The first image, I Love Me, is the work of Misky.

The second visual is named, Cliché of Narcissistic People, by Nephiliskos. Its German text is translated as:

The mirror speaks to the youth: ‘I love you!’ The youth speaks to the mirror: ‘I love myself too!’

Finally, It’s’ All About Me: Me, Me, Me,  is the work of Gürkan Sengün.

All three are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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 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.”