November 18, 2012
Self-awareness entails a messy and disorganized process much of the time.
While the process remains a quintessential part of the fully lived life, most of us do not experience self-inspection as an enjoyable form of rest and recreation. We do not like the process in part, of course, because there is a great deal of painful and difficult experience stashed away in the archives of memory along with the joys and successes we have experienced. But we dislike the process for another reason: the archives of memory are compiled in ways that defy analytical logic.
After a bit of intensive excavation in our inner world, we may find ourselves echoing the opinion of the Cat in the Hat:
“I do not like green eggs and ham;We often find ourselves adding in exasperation, “…And how did the eggs get green anyway? Did I ever see a green egg in real life? This is absurd and a waste of time.”
I do not like them, Sam I Am.”
The fact that something seems consciously absurd does not mean, of course, that it is unreal or unimportant. It means that we do not have a working cognitive context in ordinary life for the events and feelings that we have uncovered in our inner archives of meaning and memory. Often we do not recognize—at least initially—that what we are dealing with is the past that has surfaced in the present.
At one point in my work, I saw couples who were seeking help with difficulties in their relationship that their problem-solving efforts had not been able to resolve. One couple (Jack and Sally, for the purposes of this story) explained in the initial interview that their conflict pivoted around Sally’s alleged failure to “support” Jack in his career path, and Jack’s alleged failure to “support” Sally in the stress and demands of parenting three lively boys alone while Jack was traveling on corporate business.
The “green eggs and ham” in Sally’s archives included an alcoholic father whose frequent absences from home left Sally, her younger sister, and her frail frightened mother at economic and emotional risk. The “green eggs and ham” in Jack’s emotional archives included a harsh and unrewarding childhood with a critical, demanding father for whom Jack could never do enough to win approval and recognition.
As outsiders it is not difficult for us to see that for Sally the challenges of “single” parenting in Jack’s absence were real and not easily solved. It is not difficult for us to understand as well that for Jack the long weeks away from family in the context of the cut-throat corporate competition made week-ends with family a needed space for rest and recuperation.
What is less easy to identify, however, is the ways in which the past had oozed into the present for both Sally and Jack. Without conscious awareness, Sally’s definition of ‘support’ included a wordless expectation that “if Jack really loved me he would make all my old feelings of abandonment go away.” Similarly, Jack’s wordless expectation included marriage as a relationship in which he would never be criticized again.
Some of the problems Jack and Sally faced required practical problem solving. Computer and telephone could increase Jack’s participation in parenting throughout the week away. Sally could make Jack’s home-coming different. She could reduce the litany of problems and the critical non-verbal message of neglect with which she greeted Jack on his return. They could together both recognize Jack’s economic achievement, and consider whether the standard of living that Jack’s job permitted the family to enjoy was worth the cost to the family of the travel time Jack was required to invest.
But there were two things they could not do.
Jack could not make the marriage relationship erase the emotional archives left by his father’s critical rejection and his mother’s passive acceptance of his father’s emotional abuse.
Sally could not make the marriage relationship erase the archives of abandonment that her alcoholic father had left as a part of his emotional legacy.
Can a present relationship modify the impact of past experience? Of course—thankfully. Can present relationships erase the archives of past experience? No—and no amount of wishful thinking or abortive effort can make this happen.
It remains each individual’s responsibility to manage the past as it emerges within a present relationship through self-awareness and conscious acts of self-care. Present relationships provide rich resources and rewarding companionship as we learn to live with the emotional legacy of our past. However, it is an invitation to relational disaster if we expect friend, lover, spouse, sibling, parent, casual acquaintance or business colleague to erase the archives and their contents. Living constructively with the legacy of past experience remains the life-long responsibility of every individual.
What expectations in relationships do you have? Are you expecting present relationships to erase, rewrite, or reframe painful pieces of your past?
Thinking with you today about the incredible gift of relationships: they can indeed help us reframe the meaning of the past. Thinking too, however, that we produce disastrous relational consequences when we think that erase or rewrite are the same thing as reframe.
See you next week.