Thursday, September 7, 2017

Our Struggle for Identity

by Nancy Carter Pennington & Lawrence H. Staples

The struggle for identity and the enduring challenge of disentangling it from our parents’ remains with us all our lives. And the fairy tale, Snow White, seems to us to capture the complex dynamic that is at the root of the problem. Snow White’s mother cannot mirror Snow White; she can only see herself. The mother is so starved herself for mirroring that she can’t feed her daughter. And so the deficit of mirroring passes from generation to generation. Many of us are both parents and children and have a sense not only of our own shortfall in the receipt of mirroring but also our own difficulty in providing it sufficiently to our children. It seems like a kind of vicious circle that nature possibly intends.

In our experience, it seems to us that the greater our deficit is in the receipt of mirroring the more powerfully drawn we are to creative work. We believe the reason we are drawn to it is that creative work is probably the most unfailingly accurate mirror of our selves. The process of finding our identity is never ending and, at best, asymptotic. We never quite get there. But the process is so essential to us and is so interesting that it is worth the effort.

As therapists, we know that one of the difficulties in disentangling ourselves from our parents’ identity is that we have some qualities that are identical to theirs and we need them. We have other qualities that are unique to us. But our complete identity seems to be a mixture of them and us. That is particularly true of some qualities we detest in our parents that we have in our shadows. Jung wrote somewhere that the negative mother or father complex is detected when a patient says: ”Anything but like him or her.” We know that some of the detested qualities of our parents may be ones we very much need to survive.

All of this has made us wonder if the difficulty parents have in mirroring children isn’t a more general human problem in which no one can really accurately see someone else. We think of what happens with an artist, say like Cezanne. He looks at a landscape but he really doesn’t see it like the accuracy of a photo. Something of himself is projected onto it and interferes with it being seen as it is. It’s as if our biggest job is to see ourselves rather than others. Nature, by projecting ourselves on to everything and everyone, forces us to see our selves by making it virtually impossible for us to see anything or anyone that doesn’t reflect our selves. If we accuse a girlfriend or boyfriend or parent of not seeing us, we suspect that the only really honest answer they could give is: “You are right. I can’t see anyone totally free of a reflected image of myself.” We yearn futilely to get something from parents and others that they simply may be unable to give. That’s why we have to find a way, like doing creative work, to see ourselves.

Of course, we can’t be sure that what we’ve just said is true. The whole issue of identity is so filled with mystery that we likely will never understand it completely. And part of that mystery is, we suspect, that to completely see ourselves is to see God. And ancient wisdom says that to see God is to die. And that is why we need mirrors, as Perseus did, to see our selves indirectly and safely in reflection. The difference between seeing our selves directly and indirectly is the difference between seeing a horrible accident in a movie or actually being in one. Creative work actually produces our own movies where we can see our selves safely as a reflected image rather than directly, which we couldn’t survive. In the end, if seeing our selves is seeing God, it is also seeing Medusa, if we believe God is a totality that contains all. So, the fear of seeing our selves is as great, possibly, as the desire to see our selves. We spend our lives struggling with the conflict between a great fear, on the one hand, and a profoundly yearning desire on the other. It is, perhaps, the crucible in which we make the thing we call our selves.

Nancy Carter Pennington, MSW, Psychotherapist, co-author with Lawrence H. Staples of Our Creative Fingerprint and The Guilt Cure.

Lawrence H. Staples, PhD., Zurich trained Jungian Analyst, retired. Author of: The Creative Soul: Art and the Quest for WholenessGuilt with a Twist: The Promethean Way; co-author with Nancy Pennington of The Guilt Cure and Our Creative Fingerprint.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The 'Primum Non Nocere' Principle

Nancy Carter Pennington & Lawrence H. Staples

If you like fiction, you might try the obituary page. While it’s not great fiction, it definitely is fiction, although it lacks drama. Clearly missing are many of the literary elements that produce dramatic impact: contradictions, point and counterpoint, the play of opposites, and change of pace, to name a few. Instead, obituaries tend to be linear and one-sidedly positive. Rarely revealed are the dark and shadowy sides of the decedent. After the initial glow of a gushing obituary has faded, we may begin to feel some discomfort. We may begin to compare the radiant claims of virtue and good character revealed publicly in the obituary with what we know privately about ourselves, what we conceal inside. We see that our private view of what’s inside us doesn’t compare very favorably with the very public lauding of another’s sterling qualities, the polished part they showed the outside world. Of course, we can only guess at what the interior truth about their lives may have been. But if we assume they were really anything like their obituary claims, we may feel bad about ourselves, perhaps even depressed.

There is a very powerful taboo against criticizing the deceased. We remember a patient whose mother called to let him know his paternal grandmother had died. His mother talked about what a wonderful person his grandmother, her mother-in-law, had been. At some point, our patient stopped his mother and said, “Mom, stop it. You know grandmother could be a real bitch and often treated you like dirt. Are you forgetting when she called you ‘K street trash’ to your face or accused you of being the hussy who married dad for money and security?” His mother couldn’t bring herself to criticize his grandmother except to add, “Well, maybe she wasn’t perfect.”

Our patient’s conversation with his mother exemplifies the taboo. To speak ill of the dead feels somehow blasphemous. It violates some more-or-less unconscious, sacred boundary. We worry we’ll be punished, as if we’d taken God’s name in vain.

We can wonder why talking about someone’s dark side in an obituary is so taboo. After all, they are dead. Perhaps the answer has something to do with our need to love and be loved. For example, if an important challenge of love is being able to accept and tolerate others as they are and ourselves as we are, perhaps the death of another allows us to love in ways we couldn’t when the other person was alive. And, since we also have similar dark qualities, our willingness to overlook someone’s faults after their death could help edge us along the road to accepting ourselves.