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Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I created a rule for myself called “One Friend at a Time.” I had to.

This is one of the junctures. It’s one of the joints where Family Rules and The Story of Hanna dovetail. They lean against each other like a house of cards.

I have explained trying, and failing, to create closeness and safety within my family of origin. You can go back and read about it if you want but I’ll sum up here: I was never going to get everyone in my family to get along at the same time AND the effort was taxing AND I kept trying. Just call me Sisyphus.

This dynamic is one I have played out many, many times: finding, or happening, or arranging myself between two individuals–or as a hub for several–who then begin to relate to one another through me. I try to be all things to all people. I don’t do it on purpose. At this point, I have become so conscious of this trap that I rarely get too far into it before I smack myself silly.

I see my counselees doing this all the time: they unknowingly recreate their painful pasts in the hope that their story will eventually end happily. This madness even has a name: repetition compulsion. ‘Round and ’round and ’round she goes. Where she stops, nobody knows….It can’t be an accident that I sought specialty training in couples therapy. At least now I use my damage for good. And in most cases, we all get a better outcome.

Back to the rule.

I knew how to be a friend. That wasn’t the problem. I just had a hard time being friends with more than one person at a time. I sought one-on-one interactions because they were the safest. Being with one person made it less likely I’d disappoint, annoy, or get stuck in a triangle in which I had to manage more than one relationship at once. I do mean manage. Parties gave me palpitations well into my 30’s. I had to have a single neat box for each friendship. On my plate, the peas; carrots; and mashed potatoes weren’t supposed to touch. Mixing them could get too messy.

The best way to work the one-at-a-time method was to have only one really close friend. I took the title “best friend” as gospel. I had to find one person—Karen was my first best friend–and squeeze close enough so that we practically heard each other’s thoughts.

I don’t think I would have betrayed my family in any serious way; but in in day-to-day matters, I chose my best friend over my family every time. When Karen came over, I played cruel pranks on my sister and made rude gestures at my mother’s back while she stood at the kitchen sink. When Karen went home, I behaved differently. My conscience troubled me but my best friend thought I was funny; and securing her was paramount. I needed a sure thing.

Hanna was my last best friend. I am no longer willing to use that designation for anyone except my husband. I’ve retired her jersey.

I always said my husband was my best friend because that is what wives are supposed to say. I’m not sure I was completely truthful. Maybe I crossed my fingers behind my back because he was my best male friend and there was no competition.

Hanna and I had been “family” for over a decade by the time I met Henry, and it was as though we agreed to shove over a bit and make room on the plate. Did I love him? Yes! Did I want to want to spend the rest of my life with him? Yes! Did I want to have his babies? Oooooooh, yes! He was and is the only guy for me. But did I actually leave and cleave?

Well.

Yes.

It just took me decades to complete the process.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the trouble this hanging chad has caused. Maturity came late in this area of my life. I’m glad I’ve grown up a bit but the collateral damage has been considerable.

This post belongs both to Family Rules and The Story of Hanna. You can find the prior post in the Family Rules series here and the next post in the series here. You can find the prior post in The Story of Hanna series here and the next post in the series here.

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Rule # 9: I Know You Better Than You Know Yourself

Photo courtesy of TMAB2003

Photo courtesy of TMAB2003

I think I was my father’s little boy.

I say this tentatively and with an apology to my younger brother Will. Both because I may have misunderstood–and that makes me sound queasily grandiose–and because it might sound like I am blaming him for not being chosen as heir. Maybe I should apologize to Gwen as well. If one daughter could be his son, why not the other? I believe it had little to do with our individual merits.

Maybe birth order is to blame since both my siblings are loveable and gifted individuals. Looking through my adult vantage point and my therapist goggles, I see that my father was prone to bending logic when it suited him. It is deforming to spoil, provoke, or ignore a child into brazenness, neediness, or despair and then point at that child’s behavior to justify your concerns about his or her goodness or stability.

The fact that I learned to negotiate the shifting shoals is both an achievement and a source of shame and guilt. I rarely ran aground in any obvious way. While I was astute enough to figure out and operate within the rules of engagement, I did not save or defend my siblings when I might have. Instead, I stood quietly by and watched as they were branded with various labels and then punished for bearing them. Older and stronger, I sometimes even threw them under the bus.

I know, I know. I was just a kid. But it still feels bad sometimes. Back and forth, back and forth I go. Was I a victim or an accomplice? This is how I wear my damage. They wear theirs differently.

Allowing myself to contemplate my brokenness brings self loathing. If I claim I am damaged, I selfishly compete for balm at the expense of those who need it more. I have shown I can manage. If I claim I am undamaged, I smell superior and condescending. There is no way out. Thankfully, the reverberations have become dampened over time. I don’t spend a lot of time or tears on this matter. It generally stays in the back of my mind, held comfortably in check by God’s cleansing and my adult logic.

Occasionally old feelings still build and threaten. Writing this–right in this moment–I feel the edges of madness pressing in. That slow sinking. Eyelids falling shut. Bad Jane, bad Jane. Time to take a break…

…The brands I received were different but no less constricting. Though I never struggled with sexual preference or identity, being Junior and being entrusted with my father’s inside views on my mother’s shortcomings caused me to associate my womanly emotional makeup with weakness and disown it as inferior. I was just as uncomfortable with my body.

I got to be the Good Student, the Responsible One, the Dutiful One. Whoop dee do. These labels came with the designations Stoic One and Stick In The Mud. I think in time I also got Sneaky One, and sometimes that one fit.

Gwen got to be the Feminine One, the Cute One, and the Artistic One. Sigh. Sadly, those were padlocked to the brands Dramatic One (never to be taken seriously, even in extremis) and Messy One (“She can’t help herself. It’s because of her artistic temperament.”). How would you like to labor under those prophetic burdens? And what do you think happens when two girls, so differently regarded and so close in age, have to share a single small room? This was not a recipe to cultivate sibling love.

Will had other brands but those escape me now. The comparison between me and Gwen was sharpest given our 18-month age difference.

Dad labeled me because he knew he knew me and what I was about. Looking at me was looking in the mirror. It was a Fun House mirror–wavy and distorted–but only one of us seemed to realize it. I was supposed to be an engineer like him. He knew it was a fit for me. I knew I would never, ever, do it. Even the thought of it made me clammy.

I stood up to him about the engineering major but compromised by giving in to his expectation that I enroll in 21 credits my first semester in college. He had done it. No problem! Never mind that I was participating as a scholarship athlete on a Division I sports team. I lasted a few weeks before quietly adjusting my schedule and doing my own thing. To his credit, he was entirely supportive. This marked the start of a better phase in our relationship. On the cusp of my adulthood, I began to understand him differently. I came to view his behavior as motivated more by a lack of insight than a spoiling for malice. More on that soon.

I ended up studying Bio and German. I said I might try for medical school though I knew I never would.

In retrospect, this may have been the most Jane I was able to be at this time in my life. The finding of Jane has been a molasses-slow and ongoing process. Bio was not my thing. German, I love, but not as a profession. Years later, I ended up in counseling and then in grad school for counseling. It’s a great fit.

As for writing? Too artistic for me to even contemplate.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

 

The Chicken or the Egg

The Chicken or the Egg

A little girl lives within the wrinkling woman.

She answers only to Pippi—if she answers at all. She is semi feral.

Pippi looks at me with her cool, unblinking grey eyes. Her head cocks slightly. And then she is gone, pigtails swishing. She moves like lightning.

For the longest time, I didn’t know she was there. She skirted the corners of my vision but was gone before my mind could fully apprehend her.

Things went missing here and there but I still doubted–until one day when she went too far. She carried off a jar of green olives I had been saving for myself. I caught her sitting against the bricks of my childhood home in the secret spot beneath the shrubs. I know where kids like to hide. Her toes were happily kneading the clean dirt while the rest of her was engrossed in my olives. One by one, she popped them in her mouth, sucked their delicious brine and then, as penance, swallowed the lifeless pulp.

I watched her for some time before she noticed my spying. We sized each other up in silence for several moments, and she did not run. Her calm unnerved me. It was I who backed away. I had the odd feeling it was I who had intruded instead of it’s being the other way around.

I tried offering Pippi food and clothing. The clothing she had was worn and dirty, her bare feet stained green with grass. Something sticky and now dirt covered ran down her chin and neck. I am pretty sure she had been in my peach tree. She ran from me every time I held out my hand.

I learned to pretend. Usable items ended up on my doorstep in a paper bag designated for charity. I looked the other way when articles disappeared. Other times, I made a big show of leaving the house after grocery shopping or cooking a good meal. Of course, I forgot to lock the door behind me. Warm sugar and spice cookies were her favorite.

I guess Pippi needed to know I wouldn’t try to control her. A wild creature senses that dependence can be dangerous. What if she allowed herself to rely on me? She might lose the stamina and skills she needed to return to life on her own, and that could be fatal.

Over time, we have become friends of a sort. Pippi can talk, but she says little. She doesn’t seem to have need of it, as she prefers the ways of leaves and earthworms.

Once Pippi decided I was no threat, she became comfortable enough to continue her singing in my presence. I learned she could read when I saw her sitting in the boughs of her beloved apple tree last August singing Christmas carols from booklets she could only have pilfered from my attic.

I took an enormous risk one day and hired a neighbor to build a sturdy tree house in her tree. I knew she would never ask. But would she accept? She did. As if in thanks, she walked into my kitchen the next week in broad daylight and whispered: “Cookies and milk, please.” We celebrated communion.

We’ve entered a new chapter. Every now and then, Pippi sneaks into my bed at night and curls up against me. I pretend not to see her even as I stroke her head and listen to her sighs of contentment. I cuddle her the way Jesus does me.

I Want to be a Mighty Oak

I Want to be a Mighty Oak

When I grow up, I want to be a mighty oak. Grounded and strong. Expansive. Well. Wise. Generous. Knowing. Kind.

To date, each piece of writing I have posted about my family has been taken from material I wrote a few years back. I experienced intense feelings during the process of writing these bits. Sometimes I felt nostril-flaring rage or indignation. Other times, I felt sadness for Young Me and her siblings. Grief was in the mix too.

I am a labored writer. I hacked and sawed my way through, eventually producing something with form and smooth (enough) edges. In the course of this writing and rewriting, my experience changed. I got in touch with some of my less vocal feelings. These have turned out to be the ones which have lingered now that the thornier ones have subsided. I am grateful.

Yes. Wrangling words onto a page was and is good therapy for me. Once the suffocating growth burned off, enough sunlight reached the forest floor for love, longing, mirth, and appreciation to unfurl their tendrils. Maybe other seeds slumber in the earth and wait to surface in due time. I suspect there may even be some familial pride.

In their 2007 article “The only way out is through: the peril of spiritual bypass,” Cashwell, Bentley, and Yarborough discuss the snare of spiritual bypass and the gifts awaiting those who take the long route.

Spiritual bypass occurs when clients seek to use their spiritual beliefs, practices and experiences to avoid genuine contact with their psychological “unfinished business.”

and

According to Hillman, all humans, like the acorn, have a mighty oak spirit inside that yearns to grow and strive—to manifest our full human potential. Unfortunately, for humans, this spiritual essence often becomes obscured with emotional, mental, interpersonal, and physical struggles that accumulate across the lifespan. When this occurs, people begin to identify with their acorn qualities rather than their mighty oak qualities. The work of spiritual healing and growth includes the clearing of these obscurities to reveal and connect with the true and transcendent self. To follow the acorn analogy, the constricting shell must first be opened for the mighty oak to emerge.

I do not seek to injure or provoke. And I am trying to keep a respectful distance from stories which are not mine to tell.

I am just working my way out of this acorn.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post, click here. For the next post, click here.

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