Give me a hand when I’ve lost the way,
Give me your shoulder to cry on.
Whether the day is bright or gray,
Give me your heart to rely on.
Send me the warmth of a secret smile,
To show me you haven’t forgot,
That always and ever, now and forever,
Little things mean a lot.
— Little Things Mean a Lot – Kitty Kallen
So true, Kitty, and thanks for sharing. Most people aren’t asking for the world – they just want some acknowledgment that they exist, that they are heard, that they (dare we speak it aloud?) matter. In ‘civilian life’ (which, to me, means outside of therapy), these little things are the answer to man’s perennial question: “What do women want?”. What women want is (surprise!) pretty much what men want: that you (the partner) thought about me; that you are willing to step aside and make room, in your psychic life, for me; that you are willing to slow down and actually listen, without judgment, to me; that you are willing to do an occasional trade-off of priorities; that, while sometimes, it is about you, it can also, sometimes, be about me. We all want these things, and we need them.
There – was that so tough, everyone? Well, actually, according to the latest returns: YES. Hmmm, something’s wrong here. It sounds so easy, so reasonable, in theory. Give a little, take a little. One hand washes the other. I scratch your back, you scratch mine.
Sounds wonderful – on paper. But, apparently, most of us aren’t paper-trained. What sounds fine, in theory, doesn’t feel that way, in real life. It feels more like, “My god, what the hell do you want from me – my heart, my lungs, my soul?” or “You don’t want a person – you want a trained dog that knows only one command: Roll over and play dead!” That’s not even so far-fetched. I used to see a couple where the man always snarled at his pet-doting wife, “When I die, I’m coming back as your dog!”
What’s happening here? It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard to satisfy another person, to make them feel valued. Why does it feel to us, like “we” are asking virtually nothing from them, whereas “they” are demanding the moon and stars (and our right kidney!) from us? A lot of it has to do with the universal (unconscious) assumption that “they” are just a slightly different version of “us”. Yes, we’re all human beings. Yes, we all need food, water, affection, contact, some freedom and some security. But HOW we want these things differs tremendously.
Let’s take a look at it from a therapist’s perspective first. The therapist is in an ideal position to tailor what he/she does, to fit the patient, right? Therefore, it should be a snap to figure out what someone needs, and then customize your presentation to give it to them. So – easy as ABC, right?
But why not? Aren’t people pretty much the same, after all? Well, let me relate a few things from inside the therapy world. I’ll give you a very specific example from my practice. I was working with several patients who had narcissistic parents. You know the kind of parents I mean – people who are very self-absorbed, focused on looking good, maybe using the child as a means to show off to others (and rejecting the child is he/she is NOT able to be shown off), has a very limited ability to feel unselfish or unconditional love for the child. So, this type of parenting can produce particular kinds of problems in kids, which they take with them into adulthood. These problems can include inability to feel pride in oneself (parental voice: I’m the star – not you!), difficulties with intimacy (Thou shalt have no other before me), focusing on the needs of the other person to the detriment of your own (You only exist to fulfill my needs), and a kind of self-sabotage where, when you get close to a positive accomplishment or an emotional milestone, you begin to feel despair, inadequacy and “I should die” (This town’s not big enough for the two of us, hombre!).
Well, there is a wonderful book I found, that not only describes these issues, but relates the author’s own struggles with them, including her fear that writing the book itself (a positive accomplishment that ‘spotlights’ her) was going to get her punished in some scary, unspecified way. I don’t mind giving it a plug here: Trapped in the Mirror, by Elan Golomb, Ph.D. What could be better for a patient who has been subjugated like this, than to read a direct testament about it all, from someone (a therapist, no less) who has ‘been there’?
So, over a period of maybe three months, I excitedly told all four of these patients about the book, hoping, and expecting, that they would all come in and say, “Wow – now I see what you’ve been trying to tell me all this time, and now I see my behavior so much more clearly, what caused it, and what i can do about it. Thank you!”
And, what happened in “real life”? One person did in fact say that it had made a difference, to finally be able to identify the forces at work in her inner life, to finally understand the seeming contradiction of feeling BAD when you’re doing WELL. Great.
And the others? Not so much. One of them stated flatly, “I don’t know why you gave me this. I stayed with it through the first five pages, just out of respect for you, and then slammed it shut. What a waste of time – I’m surprised at you!” Oops – we had to spend the rest of that session ‘recovering’ from my bright idea. The other two said they had tried hard to see themselves in the book, but couldn’t follow what the author was trying to put across, felt kind of insulted that I thought they were ‘like that’, and really couldn’t relate to most of it. They didn’t want to hurt my feelings, but the book was boring and stupid.
So, what went wrong? Only this: people are DIFFERENT. Yes, I had correctly grouped them all as children of narcissism – that wasn’t wrong, and they could all see how it had created major problems in their lives. I continued to work with them all, in their OWN ways, and all eventually improved significantly. But, even as a therapist, in a perfect position to fine-tune my strategy to each particular patient, I had batted a lowly .250 – not very impressive. Why did my brilliant plan bomb? Because there were factors BEYOND my little niche (‘children of narcissism’) that affected each person’s receptivity to the book. For the first patient, my introducing her to that book was one of those ‘little things’ that I did right for her – and ever after, she thanked me for knowing her so well, for knowing just what she needed, at a very vulnerable time in her life. Nice going there, Bernie.
And the others? Well, a long time later, one of them did tell me that she now, in retrospect, understood what the book was saying, and that she had been too defensive and stubborn at the time, to let it in. The other two, through the course of their (successful) therapies, continued to refer to “that time you gave me that stupid, boring book.” Oof.
So, even as a ‘professional’, I had goofed. My god, how can people in ‘civilian life’ be expected to decode the complexities of what their partners want, when even in a setting where “all I had to do” was focus on them, I had struck out? Fortunately, there are some clues out there. There are many, many systems people have come up with for describing these differences and making sense of them. Personally, I prefer the ones that don’t blame the person, that don’t rank-order people’s problems (“I’m better than you – ya ya ya!”), and don’t pathologize them (as you probably know by now, I am not particularly fond of the DSM V – or DSMs I through IV, for that matter, despite their fancy numerals). I respect the systems most, that just say, “Here are some of the ways people can be – if you recognize yourself, great.”
As I say, there are many such systems, but one that has been particularly helpful to me is the Enneagram. Again, what I like about it (and others, such as the Myers-Briggs type indicator), is that they are non-pathologizing. They are not about, “Here’s what your problem is,” but “Here’s what type of person you are, in the realm of the normal personality types that people can be” (and again, by personality types, I do NOT mean ‘personality disorders’ – if that’s your bag, the DSM V will be happy to help you out). The Enneagram divides people up into nine types, and each type has a ‘wing’ as well – kind of like the type is your major, and the wing is your minor. No type is better than another.
Not that the Enneagram, like any system, can’t be misused. Anyone who has spent time around “Ennea people” has heard things like, “Oh well – what do you expect from an 8?”, or “His being a 6 is alright, but that strong 7 wing is killing me!”. I learned, early in my career, that knowledge, and particularly specialized knowledge or insight about people, must be used only for compassion and understanding, never for ‘lording over’, putting down, slotting, snobbery, or elitism. For me, the proper use of something like the Enneagram, is in helping me bridge the gap between myself and someone else, to see how, and why, I am not communicating optimally with them, and in offering suggestions about how I might do better.
Anytime two (or more) people have to deal with each other, especially when it’s vitally important that they do their best, a system like the Enneagram can be helpful, because it at least gives you a way to see what the other person’s actual motivations might be, as opposed to what you’re projecting onto them, or how YOU would feel in that situation. It is not about good/bad, or healthy/unhealthy, or evolved/unevolved (for you spiritual snobs out there); it’s about learning how the other person takes in information, how they make meaning of experience, and what they value, in self and other.
Imagine, just as a simple exercise, that you’re dealing with the type of person who “just wants to do it the correct way”; now shift the slide to someone who is okay “just as long as we do it together”; now, “we have to do it my way”; now, “whatever you say”; now, “as long as it’s beautiful and elegant” – can you see what an enormous difference it makes? And what an advantage it might be, to know the other person’s basic motivations in transactions, in values, in life? Can you see why some kind of typing system might be of use for couples, for parents and children, for employee work groups?
Think about this: a couple has a baby. They believe, and expect (reasonably) that they will both be good parents, both love the child equally, both be equally close to the child, both ‘get along’ equally with the child. So what happens – in real life? Wow – all kinds of things: great things, unexpected things, frustrating things, hurtful things, joyful things, maddening things, easy things, hard things, crazy things. Why? Because, quite aside from all the “we’re doing our best” that the parents pour into the child, aside from the emotional problems, and strengths, that skew the interactive experience the child has with the parents, there is a whole other layer in play: the child’s type, as played against the parent’s type. Let’s put it this way: if you sat down on a bus bench next to Charlie, a random stranger, how likely would it be that you would love and treasure him to the end of your days? Uh, not very, I’m thinking. And why? Easy, you’d answer:
How the heck do I know if i would get along with this person, or be able to deal with them, or understand them, or them me, or even have any desire to hang out with them? They might not even be my type.
Well, there you have it. And, why would it be any different with your child? Because it’s yours? Because “blood will tell”? Because “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”? Because ”like father/mother, like son/daughter? All I can say it, good luck with that. Because your child is a person on a bus bench – sure, there’s some genetic similarity, that shows up in appearance (maybe), in the workings of the brain (maybe), in tendencies and habits (maybe). But the only real difference between your child and that dude on the bus bench is that you have to ‘make it work’ with your child, whereas you can walk away from ol’ Bus Bench Charlie.
So, you can see there’s a good chance that your joyful, well-intentioned, gushy assumptions about Junior, or Juniorette, will be way out of line. Not because of lack of effort, or lack of love. But because you really have no idea whether Junior will be the type of person you get along with easily, and want to hang out with, or whether he/she will be the type you never could understand, that always rubbed you the wrong way, and that you always steer clear of. Except, you can’t steer clear of this one – because, see, Junior’s yours, to have and to hold, till death do you part.
Don’t be shy – I’ll wait while you get up the nerve to say it. No? Well then, I’ll say it for you:
But, doesn’t love take care of all of that?
Well, as much as we might wish it so, actually, no — love is not enough. What love does is ensure that you’ll be in there swinging, and hopefully, give it your best shot. But love isn’t enough, as millions of divorcing couples find out every year. There is nothing more poignant than working with a young, sincere, couple whose relationship is falling apart because of a genuine, deep, incompatibility. At some point, they may look up at you and say, “But, we really love each other.” Yes, you do, but is it enough? The sad truth is – no. Is it a reason to give it everything you’ve got? Yes – but there are things love can’t overcome.
Of course, in the case of a parent-child type mismatch, there is no divorce, and it is not a matter of the relationship being ‘bad for both parties’, as in a marriage, because the relationship primarily exists so that the child gets what she or he needs, not the parent. So, regardless of any ‘type-antipathy’ the parent may feel toward the child, regardless of the fact that the parent may not ‘relate’ to the child, or agree with his values, the parent must work at it, and work at it, to maximize what can be made of a ‘bad’ situation.
However, this doesn’t mean that the antipathy must be swept under the rug. I am strongly in favor of being realistic with parents, and even children, as appropriate. By this I mean helping both parties bring the ‘incompatibility’ out into the open, in a safe and respectful way: to say, “You’re hard for me to deal with – I don’t understand you,” rather than, “What the hell’s wrong with you, anyway?” What is the difference? In the first instance, the parent is openly acknowledging what the child already knows, emotionally, that the two personalities are like ‘oil and water’ at times, and that the problems are due to a DIFFERENCE, not a DEFICIENCY. In the second, the parent is saying there’s something WRONG with the child, because, “As my child, you should be more like me,” which is absurd and damaging. The child does not ‘owe’ the parent being like the parent, or being ‘the type of person’ the parent knows how to deal with: the child does not have control over his type – he just IS what he is.
The parent, on the other hand, DOES owe the child a best effort at bridging the gap between what the parent is, and what the child is. And openly admitting these incompatibilities is a respectful starting place for the road back to connection, one that doesn’t make the child feel like a loser, a failure, and a disappointment, for not being easy for the parent, and doesn’t say, “What you are is wrong,” but rather, “What you are is hard for me – but let’s work on it together.” This is the work of love.
So, the “little things” are not little after all, because they require being a big enough person to do the work of love: standing back from the ‘fray’ and learning the other person, really understanding that people are different, keeping your own ego in check, and seeing that when you give, freely and with respect, you are not only loving the other person, but yourself as well.
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.