How to Treat Your Flaws

Cringing with affection is a useful attitude.

Posted Jan 02, 2020

I knew a woman whose son was extremely hyperactive. He’d constantly knock things over, disrupt conversations, slam doors for no particular reason, and leave the refrigerator open. He’d interrupt you to demand his mother’s undivided attention. She’d speak to him softly but firmly and remind him about other people, remembering to caress him. Occasionally, he would run into the table and knock over your coffee. Mom would get a crooked smile on her face that said, “I’m so sorry you have to put up with this, but what can I do?” She would shudder in sympathy for you, but she wouldn’t break the bond between her and her son. The boy grew up to be just fine. I remember that smile and that shudder, an attitude I think of as cringing with affection. This is how I would like to look at the mistakes I’ve made in my life.

The second week of graduate school, I wore a t-shirt to class with a large picture of Tweety Bird on it. Dr. S confronted me in the hall: “What on earth could have prompted you to wear such an inappropriate shirt to a doctoral training program?” I looked down at my shirt, back up at him, and replied, “I tot I taw a puddy tat.” He didn’t laugh, but I did. If he had shown the least bit of affection while cringing at my behavior, I might not have spent the next three years irritated and oppositional. I look back on that graduate student with cringing affection, but when I think of the number of times I recommended a book to patients or explained what was going on rather than helping them with it, I cringe without affection. I see an image of a delighted me explaining, with the joy of understanding like someone who has just solved a difficult crossword puzzle, a morbidly depressed man’s suicidality to him while he stares hopelessly back at me. This image makes me want to curl up in a ball of shame.

Not surprisingly, the humorous, iconoclastic me, for whom I cringe with affection, was easily converted to the cause of psychotherapy. He behaved inappropriately, but the affection made him want to participate productively as part of me when I was doing therapy. Intellectual me, for whom I feel little affection, never truly felt he belonged in the therapy chair, so he participated only disruptively or not at all.

All too often, “acceptance” means complacency with ourselves rather than an acknowledgement of our flaws, humility, and a desire to change for the better. What we ought to accept is that we need to work, not that our flaws are just fine.

Cringing with affection is a good model for parenting, therapy, and supervision. It signals that the other person’s behavior is wrong for the occasion, but it also signals a welcoming attitude toward the essentials of the self. Sometimes, I think I have an advantage in clinical supervision over my colleagues because I flunked out of college. That made me recognize and accept my slacker self, preparing me for cringing at the antics of graduate students with affection. My colleagues, generally speaking, have goofed up far less than me. One of my cherished memories of my mentor is going to him and confessing with anxiety that I had alienated 40 of the 45 psychologists associated with my training program. He replied, “You only need three to graduate, so you can alienate two more.”

My view of relationships is that most are pro forma, and the psychologically important ones cannot be prescribed; they develop through trial and error. Overcoming errors and resolving their effects requires a commitment to do so, and one of the things that successful therapy or marriage requires is a degree of relational bonding that will see the dyad through the participants’ inevitable mistakes. If you don’t have affection for the part of you that makes the errors, it’s a lot harder for you to acknowledge them and take responsibility for them. I call this making messes and cleaning them up, but it’s better known as rupture and repair. One of my favorite supervision moments was the time a student forgot to attend a session with a patient, and instead of acting mortified or pretending it hadn’t happened, he announced, “I think I’ve mastered rupture!” He knew perfectly well that forgetting a session was cringeworthy, but his cringing was larded with affection for himself. I would predict that he will have a relatively easy time managing the inevitable resentments about having to show up that accompany parenthood and therapy practice, since his impulse to break that obligation is not disowned and hidden from himself.

Eventually, I would like my students to speed up the process of affection. For myself, I still cringe with shame when I say the wrong thing in meetings and social situations, and it can take several days to find the affection (usually after confessing to my wife and colleagues, whose affection is pretty reliable). You can’t speak as spontaneously as I do and expect to avoid all the potholes, and accepting myself after a few days represents a lot of progress. With people I’m close to, it’s much quicker because what it means to be close, in my opinion, is that there isn’t an expectation of getting it right; there’s an expectation of accommodating each other. In therapy, I learned to narrow this margin down to a few seconds. I would say the wrong thing to a patient and look at myself like the mom with the hyperactive kid. This seemed to invite patients to disagree with me, laugh at me, and correct me. When I say something useful to people I’m close to, I feel I can rely on their appreciation as genuine if I know that they’ll roll their eyes or poke fun when I make mistakes.