Saturday, January 6, 2007

One more thought on Shadows

For SplendidIreny (et al)

IN THE END (from the movie Shortbus)
by Scott Matthews

We all bear the scars,
Yes, we all feign a laugh.
We all sigh in the dark,
Get cut off before we start.
And as the first act begins,
You realize they’re all waiting
For a fall, for a flaw,
For the end.

There’s a path stained with tears.
Could you talk to quiet my fears?
Could you pull me aside
Just to acknowledge that I’ve tried?
And as your last breath begins,
Contently take it in
‘Cause we all get it in the end.

(Chorus) And as your last breath begins,
You find your demons’ your best friend
And we all get it in the end.

We all get it in the end.
Yes, we all get it in the end.


Dawn Coyote said...

How do we end up sublimating parts of ourselves into the shadow? What motivates us to do that? (I forget). I was impressed with how Splendid_IREny talked about the inner critic in juxtaposition to what she was subjected to in that thread. Fierce. A friend of mine recently told me how a friend’s thoughtlessly critical response to some of her fiction had left her blocked. She’s a brilliant writer with some very respectable credits, but none of that really matters in the face of that (internalized) critical voice that has the power to choke the life out of us. The following is not much of an exaggeration compared to some of the things I’ve actually heard in creative writing classes.

TenaciousK said...

Uhm, my inner critical voice has ended up sounding an awful lot like my daddy. Coincidental, I’m sure.

Well, you know – shame, and all that. It’s easiest to talk about in families – as a father, I observe and interact with my kids, who’re busying themselves going about and learning about the world (you know – developmentally appropriate stuff). Part of my job is to make sure I’m providing and adequately protected space for them to do that without, you know, dying or something. So, I watch them to make sure they don’t put themselves in danger. It’s my kids’ job to both soak up some modeling (imitative behavior) and explore their environment in a bottom-up fashion.

But what are you supposed to do when they do place themselves in danger? You provide a learning experience, of course: a consequence that serves as a substitute for the natural consequence that might have otherwise occurred, but the severity of which is too extreme for the child to manage. As they get older, the magic of symbolic thought and language makes it possible to impose consequences that are entirely internal, and they learn to predict things they haven’t actually experienced. It really is magic.

In a perfect world, parents are able to accurately discriminate which dangers warrant parental intervention from those they can just let the kids learn about on their own, and they are able to gauge the optimal degree of aversive stimulus involved in their aversive conditioning exercise (of “learning experience”) according to the degree of importance (or danger) associated with the problematic activity.

But there are a lot of places where this process breaks down, of course. When we’re talking about an internal critical voice, what we’re usually referring to is a critical, parental introject. In this case, there are (usually) two places this process has broken down (which we then get to live with, and to one degree or another, are prone to perpetuate with our own children if we’re not careful. Actually, it’s an unavoidable aspect of parenting, though it can be mitigated).

If I am a parent of a more narcissistic stripe, I might get quite a charge out of my children’s’ performance potential; when they perform well, I get an ego boost. To the degree I rely on, or crave that experience, and use it to prop up my own self-esteem, I also begin to fear the flip side of this reliance – feeling invalidated when my children don’t perform well. This really sucks for kids, of course, because it tends to screw up their own opportunities for learning. Outcome is expanded, sometimes overshadowed by, parental reaction; or put another way, it doesn’t really matter whether my teacher or classmates thought I did a good job, or if I get to feel good about demonstrating some mastery – all that matters is whether daddy and mommy are proud.

And if mommy and daddy are disappointed, I feel ashamed. I feel ashamed because my parents have conveyed a distorted assessment of threat in performance situations – motivated by their own aversion to the shame they experience on my behalf, when I hit the wrong notes. [One of my favorite movie scenes: Annette Benning in American Beauty saying to her daughter: “You didn’t screw up once!”] My attention has been unfortunately directed away from all the things I’m doing right, onto the few things I might be doing wrong. Sometimes parents do this seeming to be all sweetness and smiles, and if I’m really, really good, I might be able to morph into the perfect little performer that they want me to be [Alice Miller: ”Whenever someone tells me they had wonderful parents, I cringe.”]

Unfortunately, this usually tends to impede performance – it is impossible to teach any type of complex behavior by relying on aversive stimulus (i.e. Punishment). What you end up teaching is avoidance – appropriate if you’re trying to keep your 3-year-old from approaching strange, mean-looking dogs, or from walking into the street. Not so appropriate when you’re trying to teach them how to play the piano (unless your goal is piano-avoidance).

And we internalize this – because that is, as children, what we are supposed to be doing: learning about the risks of the world from our parents. Well, we’re learning to be like them, really. [Me to my therapist: “I want to raise children with entirely different issues than mine.” She thought it was a noble goal.]

This comes out in other ways as well, of course – the gay child with a homophobic parent, for example, or any teenager with a parent who is freaked out by their kid’s sexuality. This is why Freud (and others) focused so much on issues like toilet training: it’s one of the earliest contexts for this to occur, and because there are genitals involved, parental shame about sexuality comes into play.

Other breakdowns in the process take other forms, of course. Uniformly neglectful parents (not really teaching anything), for example, are raising kids with other issues – though that whole “What, I’ve had a booger hanging out of my nose this whole time?!?” dynamic may come up too – parents aren’t the only people kids learn these hard lessons from. Parents may be ill-equipped to teach their children how to avoid environmental hazards as well (ADHD children, for example, usually end up with some pretty significant self-esteem problems, because they found it impossible to perform in the manner expected, and there was no one around who could teach them).

Anyway – long, (but sort of incomplete, for all that) answer. Should probably add the note that bright, educated parents are (for a variety of reasons) more prone to this, and bright, relatively enriched kids are (for a variety of reasons, not all of which are the same) subjected to it. So, you see it most often with people who are creative, and who actually do have the talents necessary to create wonderful things, or perform well, or whatever. And you see all kinds of dysfunctional attempts to cope with it – from self-handicapping, to self-medication, avoidance to over-achievement. No matter how you look at it, it sucks though.

And it’s not even accurate – there are so many risky things one might attempt where the consequences of failure involve little more than embarrassment or shame, but the consequences of success can be astounding. So, novels never get written (or languish in the bottoms of drawers if they do), businesses never get started, inventions never invented, and some of the most successful people one can point at are neither bright, capable, nor particularly socially aware (this latter being associated with either some protection from the critical internal voice, or its absence).

Fucking parents*, anyway. Maybe this is what Chango was referring to.

Oh – the shadow self is, for the purposes of discussion, the part of ourselves we’re denying for the sake of our parents’ comfort. So, we dance around it, come to grips with it, and sometimes we find ways to fuse with it, because it’s actually more who we are than who we thought we were. Which is why I loved Shortbus, actually: if you can be comfortable with visual depictions of various sex acts, it’s a phenomenal movie about coming to grips with denied aspects of yourself (sexual, in this case). But you already know that.

*This includes me, of course – it’s impossible to be a parent without giving your kids oodles of things to bring up with their own therapists, as adults.

TenaciousK said...

PS: Well, I just got off the phone with my (18-year-old) son's (new) high school, and discover he's attended, oh, maybe two or three class periods since Christmas break ended.

[sigh...] Parenting is really fucking complicated - there are many, many more obvious ways to screw up than there are to do well.

But, we've had the first of our little talks (by telephone - he's on his way to work. From the mall, probably), and I guess we'll wade through this with as much grace as we can manage.