To get something out of this life, you’ve got to put something into it – from the heart…
On Dangerous Ground, 1951
Trying is the hardest thing people can do. Just plain, unadorned, flat-out trying. We will go to fantastic lengths to avoid it: ‘hedge our bets’; act like we don’t care, to cushion ourselves against possible failure; try in ways that don’t count; even fail on purpose, so that we didn’t ‘really’ fail.
So why is it that someone will virtually throw their life away in mediocrity, live with terrible regrets, wake up in the middle of the night knowing they cheated themselves, and go through life half-there, to forestall the unbearableness of ‘failure’?
Well, first of all, our self-image is a very vulnerable and fickle thing. Doing therapy is a perfect microcosm to watch the way in which this crazy thing called self-esteem yo-yos back and forth. I see it constantly, for example, in patients who are therapists. I often hear that, in the course of a single day, they feel they did a great job with someone, so it’s “I’m a living god”; an hour later, they do a poor job and it’s “I don’t even have the right to call myself a therapist”. So, which is true – the good, the bad, both, neither? Each one feels real at the time, then later it may feel like, “How could I have deluded myself like that?”
In therapy, people can develop the capacity to maintain a (relatively) stable view of themselves, one that allows for failure without despair, and success without grandiosity – that, in short, allows them to try their best, without terror. But how does this happen?
As young children, we have wild fluctuations in how we see ourselves, and how we see others. “I hate you Mommy,” lives right next door to, “I love you, Mommy”; and “I’m a bad boy” is right there alongside “I’m totally amazing”.
I remember my son, at about two and a half, in a single session of trying to play catch with me. When he dropped the ball, it would be, “I hate baseball!” When he caught it, it was “I’m going to play for the A’s!”. This ‘extremism’ in how we view ourselves and others, is called splitting in the psychological literature. Of course, there are debates, hostile camps and cultic fervors attached to all the different ways of seeing, defining and understanding splitting, but for our purposes, they all involve the concept that a child sees self and ‘other’ in extreme terms of good and bad, and that somehow, the long voyage of emotional development must take the child from the raging seas of extremism to the calmer waters of a more moderated and complex view of self and other.
This teaching,by a famous rabbi, expresses this more complex capability we are all shooting for:
Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me. From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each one.
Well, actually, rabbi, the secret isn’t in the knowing, it’s having both sides emotionally available to you, and having the capability of ‘reaching’ when it’s clear you need one or the other. And please note, neither ‘dust and ashes’ nor ‘the world was created for me’ is a self put-down – they are just different ways of holding one’s self-view.
And speaking of holding, that’s where therapy comes in. Thanks for asking.
How does one attain the capability of having these two ‘slips of paper’ in one’s pocket? Well, the way the system is designed to work is something like this: while the child is gyrating wildly between hate and love for the ‘other’ (such as Mom), the parenting figure is stable, not being devastated by the hate, not being unduly gratified by (i.e. desperately needing) the idealization by the child. And similarly, when the child fluctuates in his feelings towards himself, the parent still ‘holds’ in mind the good when the child hates himself, and the ‘normally flawed’ when the child is grandiose. The child gradually internalizes this balanced holding, which creates the capability of seeing himself as both special, and ‘regular’, depending on what is appropriate or called for at the time.
Similarly, the child starts out idealizing the parents (i.e. seeing them as perfect) and gradually, gently, as time goes by, he or she begins to see the ‘human’ flaws and weaknesses in the parent, and ideally, is able to interact openly with the parent honestly about these weaknesses, with the parent able to acknowledge these flaws without defensiveness or anger. And, likewise, the parent is gradually, gently, able to talk to the child about his (the child’s) problems, his weaknesses, but within a context of respect and appreciation and balance. Thus, through this mutual process of seeing the parent as flawed, but still pretty good, ‘special’ and ‘regular’, and seeing himself as flawed, but still pretty good, and both ‘special’, and ‘regular’, the child is able to develop a realistic, and complex, view of self and other.
And all this sets the emotional foundation, the confidence, the ‘reserve self-esteem in the tank’ that allows him to ‘try’ things, without being terrified that failure means he’s a total loser. And someone who can TRY, and be bad at first, but stay with it, and gradually get better and better until the thing is mastered, is indeed blessed. After all, we are, by definition, ‘bad’ at anything new, so if we cannot tolerate ‘not being good’ at something, how can we possibly learn new things? And if we can tolerate not being good at something, we can learn anything.
So, how does this parent-child process go off the rails, and how does therapy help? I have been talking about this complex, interactive process between parent and child, but the thing that strikes me so often in working with patients is not that their parents were bad to them, or abusive, as much as there just being little or no interaction at all, especially about emotional or relationship things.
A typical sequence might go something like this:
Someone tells me something horrible or traumatic that happened in their ‘personal life’, as a child (say, being teased and taunted for years on the school bus) and I ask, “So, what did your mom say about that?”
“Oh, I never told her about that.”
“Hmm, I don’t know – I guess we just never talked about things. Why – is that unusual?”
No, sadly it’s not that unusual. But it is very telling as far as the child’s emotional future; how can the complex dance of becoming human happen when there is no interaction, no sharing, no relying on others emotionally, no truth-telling back and forth, no real sense of belonging, emotionally, to one’s own family? A human being has to be brought in to the human race, socialized, not just ‘there’, to be served breakfast, and ‘there’, to watch TV or play video games all day on his own. Human beings have to be shown, by caring interaction, by interested attention, that they matter, not just instructed, verbally, on the ‘rules of the house’.
And in the absence of the kind of caring, individualized interaction, that gradually allows for the integration of the split self and the split other, vestiges of these extreme views persist into adult life, leaving the person not with an integrated range of self-feeling, but with a split self: a sense that they are flawed (bad me), plus a grandiose self-concept (perfect me), both of which must be shielded from ‘real life’, lest the bad self be confirmed, and the grandiose self shattered. And shielding these part-selves from real life is a severely limiting business, preventing true intimacy with another, and precluding ‘trying’ new things, because you might look bad, you might fail.
For so many people in therapy, the therapy relationship is the first time they have had anyone committed to go through things with them, not just in physical proximity to them. Human beings are social creatures, and in the absence of feeling that you have your group with you, you learn not to use others for support and self-correction. You learn self-protection, not self-expression; how to not care, not how to care.
It is HARD to care – it is HARD to try: it takes help, it takes support, it takes guts. It takes an ability to tolerate short-term pain (“I failed, temporarily”) for long-term gain (“I did it!”). But the payoff for trying, for caring, is a rich and meaningful life, lived with other people, not just around them.
A life lived with love, with trying, with caring, with help, is worthwhile, while one lived from not trying is filled with regrets, with loss, at two in the morning.
It’s true, in trying you might lose, but you’re still in the game, and you’ll have other chances; but if you don’t try, you have already lost, for not trying is the biggest loss of all.
Never regret anything you have done with a sincere affection; nothing is lost that is born of the heart.
— Basil Rathbone
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.