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.”

Confession and Psychotherapy

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8b/The_confession.jpg/500px-The_confession.jpg

An old Woody Allen joke goes something like this. The comedian is talking about problems in deducting the cost of therapy on his income tax return. He wanted to make it a business expense, but the government insisted it was “entertainment.”

They compromised by making it a religious contribution.

Therapy is a little like that, no joke.

Carl Gustav Jung, one of Freud’s disciples, wrote about the likeness between therapy’s confessional function and Sacrament of Penance in the Catholic Church. For those who aren’t Catholic, the faithful individual is expected to enter a small partitioned booth, where a priest will hear his confession of sins without being able to see who is speaking to him. If the penitent is thought to have fully disclosed his wrong doing, shown sincere remorse for the transgression, and if he performs whatever acts of penance are required by the priest to make amends, he is absolved of his sins.

Although I am not Catholic, I’ve long thought the Catholic Church was on to something therapeutically important here. That is, the human need to admit to another human being, out loud, something of which one is ashamed, in order to cleanse the metaphorical stain this person carries inside. Other religions handle this differently, often permitting and encouraging confession in the form of prayer directly to a supreme being.

But for therapists, the human interaction is essential — the telling and the listening and the seeing eye to eye — even if your ultimate, otherworldly reward according to religious doctrine doesn’t require it.

Why?

In part because, while heaven can wait, the guilt-ridden mortal is troubled right now — here on earth — in his relationships with other people; troubled by the secret that stands between him and a need for acceptance by someone who knows, really knows him. An intimacy he does not think he can risk.

Even if he believes the gods will forgive him, his problem is lower on the food chain: he fears the disapproval of the creatures made of flesh and blood.

We learn the lesson “not to tell” early.

We make mistakes, lots of them. And especially when you are young, there is the potential for an enormous amount of painful judgment being rendered concerning those “mistakes,” some justified, some not.

Kids are prone to feeling guilty. When we are small, we are entirely dependent upon the good will of our parents. Without them, we are at the world’s mercy, unable to fend for ourselves. Equally important, they inform us of our value to them — by their words to us, physical expressions of affection or violence, the time they spend (or don’t spend) in play or attention to our needs, in angry outbursts or self-sacrifice; and in looks that display tenderness, disappointment, rage, understanding, or indifference.

Some amount of parental disapproval is inevitable and necessary. Indeed, it is required to civilize us. But since there is no competing panel of experts to counter any misplaced verdict rendered by the parent (who is the child’s judge, jury, and headsman) even enormous miscarriages of justice by a cruel and abusive elder tend to stand without refutation.

You are guilty!

You are bad!

Off with your head!

Case closed.

Most children do not have anywhere to go with this. There is not only no court of appeals, but since they have been made to feel ashamed, kids are unlikely to turn to anyone else to recount their alleged misdeeds and risk the possibility of further painful disapproval, not to mention the sense of having betrayed the parent by reporting out what has happened. Moreover, the child continues to need the parent’s good will. Carrying a grudge against the parent, expressing it directly to that parent (at least when one is very young) is dangerous — likely to produce more disapproval still.

Better to accept the parent’s condemnation. At least that way, the little one may still hold on to the hope that by changing for the better he can achieve the love and approval that has been wanting.

Even for rebellious youth, there tends to be a portion of the parent’s negative opinion that is indelible. Sort of like a tattoo, it is written on the personality, the sense of self. This metaphorical image of the tattoo overlays and alters the self-image. And like the tattoo, it is the product of a painful engraving; not easily removed, but still present long after the moment of imprint, reminding you of your iniquity.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/50/Blinded_by_The_Lights.jpg/500px-Blinded_by_The_Lights.jpg

Whether the child does his best to “behave” or knowingly misbehaves, he will disappoint a parent who cannot be satisfied even by perfection, who undermines self-esteem; the kind of parent who tells you to “run fast, get ahead,” and then finds ways to trip you up or tie you in knots that make any forward movement difficult.

Almost certainly, the young one will do some things that are less than admirable: perhaps raging, stealing, lying to avoid more disapproval, or violating curfew; as well as forgetting something the parent wanted him to remember, day dreaming, performing poorly in school, withdrawing from contact with the family, and acts of alleged ingratitude; or visits to a sexual or drug-involved dark-side in a search for acceptance and love or a simple self-distracting escape from inner misery. There is no end to the list of things that can be considered offensive, real or imagined. Perhaps just as troubling, the youth will think contaminating, “bad” thoughts.

I wish he (she) were dead.

I wish I had a different father (mother).

I wish I were dead.

Some few will grow out of this desperate experience and achieve a gift of self-cleansing and self-soothing that requires neither confessor nor therapist; others will be able to rationalize their early life misbehavior into benign disappearance. But for too many, by hook or by crook, by word or by deed or by thought or by feeling, there will be guilt under the surface, however bright and shiny the surface may seem.

That is where psychotherapy and the psychotherapist’s role as a confessor comes in.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/11/JASNAG%C3%93RA6.JPG/500px-JASNAG%C3%93RA6.JPG

The “confession” usually doesn’t happen at the beginning of therapy. Trust in the therapist must be earned by the counselor.

But come it does, often in the middle of a course of therapy, but sometimes very late.

It goes something like this:

There is something I haven’t told you. (Eyes now looking down). I haven’t told anyone. Ever.

No small amount of courage is required to tell the things that cannot be told. Until this point the patient has carried his secrets inside — these awful, disqualifying, contaminating things that make him unworthy — the history of thought and action he believes would cause everyone and anyone to reject him, “if only they knew.”

Unlike the priest in the confessional, it is important the patient knows the therapist and the therapist knows the patient’s identity. Otherwise, any absolution is too generic, too cheaply won, not specific enough in its application to the “sinner.”

The therapist must be non-judgmental. The counselor’s office is not a court of law. The purpose is healing, not retribution. There is no automatic amends to be made, although sometimes it will be therapeutic to do so. If needed, the patient may discover that writing a letter (even an apology that is never sent) can be helpful; sometimes the grave site of a deceased parent can be visited. Atonement can also be found in acts of future kindness or projects dedicated to improving the human condition.

But often, no atonement is required because the patient comes to realize he was the victim, not the victimizer. And that his failure…

  • was being born a boy when the parent wanted a girl
  • or an intellectual when dad wanted an athlete
  • or a tom boy when mom wanted a little lady
  • or an introvert when the parents hoped for an extrovert
  • or simply that one of the elders was threatened by the growing child for reasons defying explanation.

And that with enough poking and prodding, resentment and ridicule, the authority figures triggered and tripped the child into behavior that could be used as further cause, if any was needed, for affixing guilt; as if the guardians were unsatisfied until they could create flaws to justify their history of disapproval.

The therapist will help the patient look at the “guilty” acts or thoughts from many sides. The therapist is a witness of sorts, someone who has to hear you (however horrible your action might have been or seems to have been), meet your gaze and see the guilt in your eyes, and still accept you, even then.

One or more others might need to be told the same story now revealed to the healer, again face-to-face,  so that the patient (in telling it and observing the reaction of the person being told)  comes to know he is acceptable and forgivable, not only in the eyes of the counselor, but also by a select soul whose love and respect outside the consulting room are important. Great care must be taken if others are to be told, however, for some of the potential listeners will only add to the accumulation of negative judgments that already burden the patient, while a few people will be unnecessarily injured by the knowledge and should be spared.

What then might be the result of such therapeutic exposure for the patient who has chosen his therapist well, and made no unfortunate choices of disclosure to family or friends?

In the best cases, the light and air that are allowed into the room holding the dark secret can transform it, making it seem less terrible, less disqualifying. Internal repugnance diminishes. The weight or responsibility attached to the transgression is shifted and reduced. You feel purified.

There is freedom and grace in this, as in the confessional booth. An unburdening.

The simple act of another human being listening to you — still caring for you and about you. Believing in you and your value.

You are no longer alone — alone with a secret that makes you feel like a pariah; disqualifies you — only you, however irrational that thought is — from membership in the human community.

Now, at last, it is possible for you to reevaluate and affirm yourself.

And life — a better life — goes on.

The top image is The Confession by Pietro Longhi, thought to have been painted in the 1750s. The photo that follows is called Blinded by the Lights, authored by Suicide Girls from Los Angeles, CA, USA. The last image is the work of Reytan. It shows a number of confessional booths. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.