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Transcript of
Nathaniel Branden's Honoring the Self
- Side 4


Heim Ginott was a genius at teaching parents and teachers how to interact with children to provide an enriched sense of visibility and self esteem. A favorite anecdote of mine taken from Ginott’s book, Between Parent and Teacher, illustrates some of the principles I’ve been discussing and has special relevance for the issue of visibility.

Ginott writes: David, age seventeen, was interviewed for a summer job but was rejected. He returned home disappointed and depressed. Father felt sympathy for his son and conveyed it effectively.

Father: “You really wanted this job, didn’t you?”
David: “Yeah, I sure did.”
Father: “And you were so well equipped for it, too.”
David: “Yeah. A lot of good that did me.”
Father: “What a disappointment.”
David: “Sure is, dad.”
Father: “Wanting a job and not getting is really tough.”
David: “Yeah, I know. It’s not the end of the world. I’ll find another job.”

Let’s think about this interaction for a moment. It’s very likely that while the boy is feeling disappointed and depressed, he is also resisting the feeling of disappointment and depression. He tenses his body against it to shut off and deny his emotions. By recognizing what the boy feels, by naming it in words, and by communicating acceptance and respect, the father is in effect, permitting the boy to experience his emotions fully – to accept and integrate them into conscious awareness.

The boy has received much more from the father than sympathy. He feels better because his feelings don’t remain trapped inside him. He can assimilate the painful experience and therefore move beyond it. His natural healthy sense of reality is now able to assert itself. In this way, the father’s response has a great healing effect.

Most parents do not respond to such situations like the father in Ginott’s example. Instead they respond in a manner likely to prolong and aggravate the depression. Ginott gives seven examples of destructive responses often given by parents.

“What did you expect, to get the first job you wanted? Life isn’t like that. You may have to go to five or even ten interviews before you get hired.”

“When I was your age, I went looking for my first job. I shined my shoes, got a haircut, put on clean clothes and carried the Wall Street Journal. I knew how to make a good impression.”

“I don’t know why you’re so depressed. One job didn’t work out. Big deal! It’s not even worth talking about.”

“I’m so sorry dear. I don’t know what to tell you. My heart breaks. Life is so much a matter of luck. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And we don’t know anybody.”

All these responses have one thing in common: they encourage the child to deny and repress feelings. They convey lack of confidence in the child’s ability to arrive at a healthy, balanced perspective. They alienate the child from his or her experience, and they leave the child feeling invisible.

These are the kind of responses that most of us received over and over again, in the course of growing up. None of them serves the needs of healthy development or positive self esteem.

A child who experiences invisibility in the early years of life is caught in a universe that is not only painful but bewildering. The same result occurs if the child feels badly frustrated with regard to other basic needs, like physical contact, affection, respect, recognition, love, or confidence in his or her strengths. The child has almost no way to understand his or her suffering, and this makes the suffering harder to bear. In addition to feeling pain, the child feels helpless.

You can hardly expect a child or four or five to think, “I understand why daddy won’t play with me or allow me to sit on his knee. No need for me to take it personally. It’s just that daddy’s father was a terribly repressed man, cut off from his own feelings and emotions. He was so cold and unfeeling in the way he brought up daddy, that when daddy was a little boy, he shut down emotionally. He numbed himself in order not to feel the pain. He kept himself numb through his whole life and now he doesn’t know what to do. It’s not that he intends to hurt me. But if he were to open himself to me and to my needs, he would have to reconnect with the small, lonely abandoned little boy in himself. And that would just be too painful for daddy.”

A little girl could hardly be expected to say, “I understand why mommy shouts and screams so much. It’s not really me she’s angry at. It’s just that daddy’s coldness and lack of affection is tormenting her unbearably, and she doesn’t know what to do. Her nerves are torn to shreds, so she explodes over anything and everything, and it’s easier to get mad at me than at daddy.”

No. This is not the typical thinking of children. From their point of view, what is happening is incomprehensible. All they know for certain is that they hurt. It would make them powerless to feel that their hurt is just an effect of their parents’ own unresolved problems. If their hurt bears no important relation to their own actions, what can they do? They can’t solve their parents’ problems. At this point, their need for understanding, and the need for an experience of effectiveness, act against the child.

The child often comes to a “solution” that gives short term benefits, while laying the foundation for a long-term disaster, in which the self esteem turns against itself. The need for the experience of effectiveness, so natural to a child, turns into a tool for self-destruction. The unhappy solution – the tragic solution – that the child often forms in response to this kind of unhappy treatment, is some version of the following idea:

“There’s something wrong with me. It’s my fault. I’m bad. I’m wrong. I’m not enough. I’m unlovable. I’m undeserving. ”

For the child, this self-condemnation is a survival strategy. The child is attacked at one level, to protect some sense of efficacy at another. An analogy may be helpful here:

When human beings developed the notion of a god who was omniscient and omnipotent, they quickly added the attribute ‘all good.’ It would be too terrifying to imagine a capricious or sadistic god. Therefore, if some bad thing happens, the fault must be ours. Someone or something must be sacrificed to appease this god. A child’s relationship to his parents is in some way like our relationship to this god. The problem is compounded by the fact that when we begin to think that we are bad, we usually proceed to prove ourselves right. We strike a younger sibling, we smash a friend’s toy, we tell lies, we get pregnant at age fourteen, we get arrested for reckless driving at age sixteen, and so on.

In the early years of practicing psychotherapy I remember being puzzled by the intense attachment the clients seemed to have for their own guilt. They would come to therapy, talk about feeling bad or unworthy or unlovable or undeserving. When I would ask what was wrong with them, they would rarely give examples that would remotely equal the degree of their self condemnation. When I suggested that perhaps they were being too harsh on themselves, they looked at me as if I were annoying, irrelevant, and insensitive to the reality of the situation – which in a way, I was.

I hadn’t yet discovered the usefulness to them, of their self condemnation (the usefulness, that is to say, within the context of their private model of self in the world). Slowly, I began to realize the survival value of their self-blame: It helped to make the world intelligible. It helped to make them feel not quite so helpless and powerless. Unless, as adults, they came to see that better alternatives for living were possible for them, they would not abandon the only life belt they had even known.

When I began working with my sentence completion technique, I found a way to demonstrate to myself and my clients the use of much of their self condemnation, in other words, the unconscious purpose it was serving.

This is how the technique works: The client is given a sentence stem by the therapist, and asked to keep repeating the stem, adding a different ending each time. He or she is asked to go as rapidly as possible without worrying whether each ending is literally true, and without worrying whether one ending might conflict with another. Just find some grammatical completion for the sentence, and keep going.

Whenever I suspected the problem I’ve been discussing here, I asked the individual to work with this sentence stem:

If it turns out, I’m not a bad person and never was…

Here are the kinds of endings I’ve heard over and over again:

“If it turns out, I’m not a bad person and never was…

…what has my whole life been about?”
…my father was crazy!”
…I don’t understand anything or anybody. ”
…then what’s the matter with my parents?!”
…I want to kill my mother.”
…I’m so angry!”
…I’m scared.”
…my whole life has been a joke.”
…then it’s not fair.”
…why did they do the things they did?”
…how am I ever going to understand anything?”
…no, no! This is too frightening to even think about.”
…I’m alone. I’m alone. I’m alone.”

It can be difficult for the child within us to let go of the self-condemnation used to make sense of out of the world, and to help allow the child to survive. It’s not easy to let go of the notion of badness. We cling to the strategy of self-blame and perpetuate it by behavior that we as adults ourselves condemn. We don’t notice that the strategy that may have helped us at age five is killing us at age thirty five, forty five, fifty five, or sixty five.

When clients in therapy come to understand this, they begin to realize that the most courageous task life may ever ask of them is to relinquish their attachment to the vision of themselves as inadequate, unworthy, or not enough.

On the day they give up that strategy, they will stand face to face with the fact of their own aloneness, and with a need to accept responsibility for their own existence as self-responsible adults.

As adults, there are many additional payoffs to self blame beyond what I’ve said so far. People can tell themselves that they have higher standards than others. They can manipulate others into feeling sorry for them, and assure them that they are better than they think. I mean, if I tell you I’m rotten, I can get you to tell me, “I know you’re not rotten. You’re terrific.” They can send out the signal to themselves and to others: ‘Expect nothing of me; I’m inadequate’. They can remain where they are -- stuck, paralyzed, passive, irresponsible, and unresponsive to the challenges of life.

So you can see, there can be a lot of very important payoffs for self blame, self-condemnation, and guilt. Don’t be so quick to assume that self-blame reflects a virtue.

One of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is a belief in the child’s competence and worth. In the same way, one of the greatest gifts you can give another human being is not to buy at face value his or her negative self esteem. When you deal with people as if you expect them to be rational, you increase the probability that they will be rational. When you deal with people as if you expect them to be honest, you increase the probability that they will be honest. And the same principle holds true for self responsibility or any other virtue you wish to encourage.

On the other hand, if you deal with people as if you expect the worst, you tend to get it. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. This principle has been most intensively studied in the context of parent-child and teacher-student relationships, but it applies to all human encounters. Virtually everything I’ve said about child-parent relationships – please understand this – applies to all caring relationships. I could go still farther and say, applies to all human relationships.

One of the characteristics of good relationships – love relationships or friendships – is that they have a mutually enhancing effect on feelings of self-worth. But sometimes people confuse the desire to feel seen, visible, understood, or appreciated, with the desire to be approved of or validated. These are not quite the same thing. In fact, not the same thing at all.

The desire to be validated, confirmed and approved of in our being and behavior is normal. I would call it irrational only when it becomes so important to us, that we sacrifice honesty and integrity in other to achieve it, and in such a case, clearly we as suffering from poor self esteem. But even so, the desire to be validated is not the same as the desire to be understood or to be visible.

I want to emphasize that the desire for visibility, for understanding is not an expression of a weak or uncertain ego, or of low self esteem. On the contrary; the lower our self esteem, the more we feel a need to hide, and the more ambivalent our feelings about visibility. We both long for it, and are terrified by it. In contrast, the more we take pride in who we are, the more transparent we are willing to be. I might add, the more transparent we are eager to be.

One of the characteristics of a self esteem deficiency is an excess of preoccupation with gaining the approval and avoiding the disapproval of others. There is a hunger for validation and support at every moment of our existence. Some people dream of finding this validation and support in love or in what they call love. But because the problem is essentially internal, because the person does not believe in him or herself, no outside source can ever satisfy this hunger, except momentarily. The hunger is not for visibility, it is for self esteem. And this cannot be supplied by others.

To the extent that we have successfully evolved toward good self esteem, we hope and expect that others will perceive our value, appreciate our value, not create our value. We want others to see us as we actually are, even to help us see ourselves more clearly -- but not to invent us out of their own fantasies. Even if the other person’s fantasies about us are complimentary, still, we feel invisible, unseen. We feel unreal to the person who may be professing to adore us. In the responses of others, we long for, we need appropriateness.

The unfortunate truth is that most people from childhood on are the recipients of many inappropriate responses. They are the survivors of many occasions when they were misperceived, misunderstood, transparently lied to, unfairly criticized, when their person was not respected, their dignity not acknowledged, their thoughts met with indifference, and their feelings denied or condemned. In other words, I’m talking about an average childhood.

And because this state of affairs is so widespread, when we meet a person of high self esteem, we are probably looking at a person who knows how to honor the self even without much or any external support.

Some psychologists look for the causes of a person’s behavior just in the person’s history. They believe that there are a number of people in our past who made us what we are today. If they see a person with good self esteem, they want to know who made or him that way. And if they see a person with poor self esteem, they want to know who’s responsible, since they assume it cannot be the person they are looking at.

They overlook that we are active contestants in the drama of our own lives, and that we bear central and significant responsibility for the kind of self we evolve and the level of self esteem we attain. And this leaves me to a story -- a favorite of mine -- I’d like to conclude this cassette with:

Once upon a time, there were two brothers who aroused the interest of a psychologist. One brother was an alcoholic while the other hardly touched liquor at all. The psychologist was curious about the causes of this difference, so he interviewed each man separately.

To the alcoholic he said, “You’ve been an alcoholic for most of your adult life. Why do you suppose that is?”

The man responded, “Ha, that’s easy to explain. You see, my father was an alcoholic. You might say I learned to drink at my father’s knee.”

To the man who hardly touched liquor at all, the psychologist said, “You don’t like to drink. How come?”

The man said, “That’s easy to explain. You see, my father was an alcoholic. You might say I learned very early in life that alcohol can be poison.”

Ultimately, you must take responsibility for the life decisions you make. You are ultimately responsible for the conclusions you draw from your experiences. That responsibility cannot be pushed off onto other people. The kinds of decisions and conclusions you arrive at, inevitably reflect the mental operations though which you process the events of your life -- what you do inside your own head, with the material of your experience.

Those internal mental operations are the single most decisive factor to your level of self esteem. Your self esteem, to say it differently, is a consequence of actions taking place inside your mind. Ultimately, that’s where self-esteem finds its source.

Let’s turn now to the internal sources of self appraisal.


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