Hidden Motives

A look at the hidden factors that really drive our social interactions

Ambition's Illness

A team of psychologists set out to study the resilience of high achieving disadvantaged youths, starting with the assumption that their “success stories also translated into physical health benefits.” Read More

It has been extremely

It has been extremely difficult to come from a "bad family" and achieve any measure of success. You have no idea what "normal" people do or how they behave. You have to figure out everything by trial and error, and make dumb decisions in the process. What are the right decisions to make about career choices when you don't have any idea what the decisions mean or even what questions to be asking? You have no concept of inviting someone over for dinner, let alone interpersonal politics or social climbing or mentoring...

Of course, without any wealth or family help, there is no mistake that does not threaten your very survival. And every mistake or set back lights up the most painful doubts about your self-worth and efficacy.

You don't have access to capital, or recommendations from respected persons in the community, or the right sort of friends. You don't know proper social protocol, or how to dress, or what to say. You don't have any experience of parties, celebrations, weddings, funerals, church, clubs, teams, graduations, baby showers, lessons, activities, dinners...

You have to figure out how to answer questions about your family and childhood: what sorts of clubs or sports you were involved in, what do your parents do, where do you vacation...all manner of innocent questions that would betray the truth about you. You don't want to lie, or come across as deceptive or unfriendly, but you are kidding yourself if you think that you won't be tainted by the truth. Passing yourself off as "normal," especially if you are white, gets you all sorts of interesting commentary about the poor and why they are what they are. Talk about awkward...try to smile politely while your new boss tells you that the poor (YOU) are just a bunch of animals living off the government.

It is no surprise to me that being successful and climbing out of the hole would not translate into mental well-being. Every choice you make, every action you take is a test of your worth. You are forever trying to prove that you are not a loser, not like the rest of your family, not actually rotten or deviant or crazy.

In some ways, you accomplish so much, and in others, you are still a loser. It's really, really hard to deal with trying to "fix" so many things about yourself all at once, with only a vague notion of what the "proper" version should look like. You can get yourself a very good education, but success depends a lot on fitting in. That is what is so difficult. How do you reconcile the things you know are true about the world with the fantasy version you hear described by people who have never missed a meal? Maybe there is just something permanently stressful about moving between different versions of reality.

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Ken Eisold is a psychoanalyst and organizational consultant whose book about the unconscious, What You Don't Know You Know, came out in January.

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