“My dad can lift up an entire car. In one hand. Standing on one foot.”
“My dad can jump over our house.”
“My dad knows everything.”
“My dad is the most handsome man in the world. And the smartest. And the nicest.”
Does any of this sound familiar? It’s common for children to idealize their fathers when they are little — and even to make up stories about the wonderful deeds accomplished by idealized fathers they’ve never known. And it’s hard for any parent to live up to the superhero expectations placed upon them by their children; and in fact, according to child psychologists and developmental theorists, that’s okay. Dads have to disappoint their children in order for their children to develop psychologically and emotionally (see my last post on disappointment for more on this subject). But it’s best if the rupture can be small enough, at least in the beginning, so that a small psyche can handle it.
That’s one of the reasons we need myths like Santa Claus. Finding out that the magical little man in the red suit is a fairy tale is a rupture that occurs for most youngsters when they are able to tolerate the de-idealization and disappointment that come along with it.
Even a relatively big break in the image can be handled, though, if a parent is able to acknowledge the child’s experience and help manage the pain. This can be hard to do. Parents can over-empathize or over-apologize for setting limits that a child actually needs; and they can also have difficulty taking responsibility for causing wrongful pain.
When parents can’t help, or the trauma is too big, it leads to what Kohut calls “traumatic” disappointment. And such disappointment almost inevitably leads to anger, which may be directed at the perpetrator, at oneself, or even at an innocent bystander. Underlying a wish for revenge and retaliation is often a sense of profound loss. Interestingly, I have seen over and over again that it isn’t always necessary for a parent to apologize for his wrongs, although a genuine recognition of wrongdoing and an honest attempt to change the behavior often helps. What seems to be truly healing in many cases is that someone recognizes and validates the feelings, and making some kind of sense of the behavior. (The issue of validation is, as I understand it, is the idea behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was set up in South Africa to try to deal with the terrible consequences of apartheid, as well as similar programs around the world.) Understanding, of course, does not necessarily undo egregious harm done; and it does not have to mean that a parent needs to or should be forgiven for abusive or unacceptable actions.
But looking at childhood experiences from the perspective of adulthood can, in and of itself, be healing.
Sometimes in therapy the path goes through the therapeutic relationship. In Doing Psychotherapy, Michael Basch (an early follower of Kohut) describes a male therapist’s work with a young woman named Lena, who criticized him repeatedly and continually questioned his competence as a therapist. Exploring the therapist’s possible reactions, Basch says that anger, a wish to retaliate, and feelings of hurt and self-doubt are all normal in such a case. But what is most important, he says, is to recognize that the client’s behavior might actually represent a struggle with something in herself, and that it would be better to explore these issues as they emerge in the therapeutic relationship than for the therapist to try to make her see him differently.
This is a first step in dealing with disappointment: understanding what it means to the disappointed individual, rather than what it says about the disappointing person.
Then Basch does something extremely important. After he tells his readers that “psychotherapy is not a spectator sport” (client and therapist are often tossed head first into whatever dynamics are most problematic for that client), he shows how the therapist’s anxiety when the client begins to attack him can help him understand Lena. His anxiety reflects the intensity of her fear of being disappointed by him. The therapist does not want to disappoint, and Lena does not want to be disappointed. Fighting and arguing and criticizing can help them avoid the pain of disappointment.
As painful as anger may be, it is, for many of us, far better than feeling disappointed. Anger makes us feel strong and powerful, while disappointment can make us feel weak and helpless. So we may opt for anger, even though it may actually make the situation — and our feelings — worse than before.
Basch then goes on to explain the parallel between angry attacks and a child’s temper tantrum as a reaction to feeling “overwhelmed by helplessness and becoming enraged.” The tantrum, Basch says, is not just a way of venting, but also an expression of the desperate need for help in managing the feelings. As Lena and her therapist explore her fears of being disappointed, they make links to her parents. But Basch makes it clear that to connect everything to a client’s past can be problematic. The threads that tie the present and the past together are complex and often emerge in surprising ways.
Lena has always felt that her father disapproved of her. And she has been angry at herself and at him for it. She gradually discovers that her father is actually as afraid of disappointment as she is. In one interchange the therapist says, “You know, even though your Dad blusters angrily, I wonder if underneath all the noise he’s frightened for you or scared of life generally. Behind his anger seems to be his fear that things won’t work out for you…”
This is a very different picture of her father. Over time, and with the help of her therapist, the client comes to see him not as an idealized grown up, but as a human being with needs and anxieties of his own. Her rage at his failings turns into a more empathic understanding of his imperfections. And as a result, she feels better about herself, her work, and many of the other important people in her life.
In my experience, this kind of resolution is one of the great benefits of recognizing that disappointment is a normal, albeit not always pleasant, part of life. Even between dads and their kids (grown or otherwise). Hope this helps make your Father’s Day a little happier!
Michael Basch, Doing Psychotherapy, Basic Books, Inc. (publisher), 1980.
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