Saturday, November 10, 2012
Learning About our Childhood from our Children
Several weeks ago I noticed a marked shift in my behavior and reactions. To bottom line it: I was losing it a lot with my children. As all parents know, children will test your resolve on a daily, sometimes hourly, sometimes minutely (is that a word?) basis. As the child of severely toxic parents, it was imperative in my run-up to parenthood that I learn to do my best to not lose my cool with my kids. That’s not to say I don’t believe in discipline, teaching manners and respect and personal responsibility. I insist on it. But I’ve also had to work very hard at not being the impatient, often intolerant father my father was for me and my siblings. As every parent also knows, there is no preparation for the constant onslaught of demands children make upon you and the frustration a parent in this day and age can feel trying to serve both pupil and master. My youngest, who turns 4 this year, is best described as a blender with the top off. At any given moment she can be screaming her head off, dancing with a huge grin on her face, telling her older sister she’s adopted, or hugging me and my wife and telling us in the sweetest voice possible, “I love you guys...thanks for breakfast.” And we never know what we’re going to get or when. The other night she was in a particularly difficult mood. It was hard to discern what was really bothering her, but she was so frustrated over something that didn’t go her way she threw herself to the ground, began tearing at her clothes, pulling at her hair and smacking her own face. As best I could, I tried to calm her down and get her focused on something else...a book she loved, her blanky, anything! Nothing worked. After about 30 minutes of full-on 110% tantrum, she turned up the volume and began an attack on her sister. First she told her she didn’t love her and that she was mean, then she scratched her face and left deep welts on her cheeks. My oldest daughter is a sanguine, sweet, calm person and simply took the abuse knowing that to do otherwise would cause more upset for all of us. But for me, I had enough. I picked up my little Tasmanian Devil suddenly, carried her upstairs, put her in her room and slammed and locked her door and left her there for the rest of the night without dinner, without a bath or without brushing her teeth. As someone who prides himself on always being his best, I was at that moment certainly not. And it wasn’t because of how I reacted to my daughter; it was the feelings I was feeling along with the reaction. I was resentful, and for the first time in her young life, I simply didn’t want to be around my daughter, nor did I care about her feelings in that moment. That feeling -- or more accurately, that lack of feeling for my baby -- frightened me. I knew something was up and I had to find out what. Resentment has been my Achilles heel since I was a boy. As a sensitive kid who always seemed to be the brunt of abuse, teasing, bullying, or sheer neglect, I regularly battled the pain associated with the incongruity of being a good person and getting negative feedback despite it. I’ve worked very hard in my life to eliminate the triggers that cause the feelings of resentment, but lately, in the last several months, I noticed that resentment was getting the better of me in more places than just my home. I was experiencing it with clients, with my parents, and with my brother as well. Something was up and it was time to take a look under the hood. I took a long walk around my neighborhood one early morning and just allowed whatever thoughts or feelings I had at the time to pass by me. After about two miles on foot, I still hadn’t discovered what it was that was getting to me, so I went home, showered, got dressed and went to my office to work on a new project I was researching -- about family dynamics and the roles each person plays in a dysfunctional family. And that’s when I discovered it. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I found this interesting quote in a write-up about codependency: What the family dynamics research shows is that it is actually the good child -- the family hero role -- who is the most emotionally dishonest and out of touch with him/herself, while the acting-out child (the scapegoat) is the most emotionally honest child in the dysfunctional family. In my family dynamic I was the family hero, the quiet one who stayed out of trouble to spare my mother more pain as she dealt constantly with my squeaky wheel brother. The phrase emotionally dishonest and out of touch with himself shocked me! I needed to figure this out because now I was really confused. After all, I have spent 25 years of my life challenging myself to live an honest life of openness and integrity, and now I’m reading that I’ve been out of touch? To understand why I had such outrage, you need to know more about my family. My brother, who is now a successful sober business man living in Westport, CT with his wife and two children, had rough beginnings. His severe dyslexia and hyperactivity disorder steered him into an early life of acting out and dropping out which led to drug use, alcoholism, and other destructive and narcissistic behaviors. I was regularly the brunt of his alcohol-fueled rages often being roused out of my bed late at night because he came home drunk (at 15) and wanted to sleep there, sometimes teased, sometimes physically abused, often humiliated by my brother’s incessant pranks and careless insults. As the youngest in a family torn apart by alcoholism, abuse (both mental and physical) and a broken family dynamic which can best be described as "Every Man For Himself", I looked to my brother to be my strength in the chaos of those early days, but he was so wrapped up in his own pain he never saw the damage he was doing to himself, my mother or me. Being the quiet, introverted one meant not being a problem for my mom, I kept my feelings, aspirations, pain, and self esteem locked up and learned to cope by living in a world where fantasies and unrealistic expectations gave me hope of an escape. The biggest example of how I simply wasn’t living in the world everyone else was showed itself when I auditioned for the school play Carnival. There were two parts that I was up for. One was Paul, the brooding misunderstood puppeteer with a limp and low self esteem, and the other was Marco The Magnificent, a dynamic, womanizing magician who steals the girl from Paul, breaks hearts while he wields a sword and a cape and an “F-you” grin. Obviously I wanted to play Paul, the depressed puppeteer, but the director insisted that I audition for Marco as well. I told the director –- in fact, I insisted –- that I play Paul, but despite my connection with the character, the director cast me as Marco and I was baffled. Throughout rehearsals I hemmed and hawed and played the character as small as possible until opening night I was so upset about playing this character –- a person I couldn’t possibly connect with – I wound up in the bathroom throwing up an hour before curtain. The director pulled me aside and told me, “I’ve been waiting for Marco to find you, and I’m concerned that he won’t make it tonight.” I was surprised. “Don’t you mean me finding Marco?” I asked. “No, Marco knows who he is but you don’t,” he said, “Do you know why I cast you as Marco?” “Because I wanted Paul?” I said sarcastically. “No,” he answered, “Because you ARE Marco! You don’t even know it.” This was the answer I wasn’t expecting to hear. He went on: “One day you’re going to see that Paul chooses to be sad, he’s a victim of his circumstances. But Marco – who may have a similar or even worst past – chooses to believe in his own power. He doesn’t listen to his past, he creates his NOW and he does it powerfully.” I had never been spoken to in that way by anyone. Up until that point in my life I believed that the best way for me to get along in the world was to keep my head down, stay out of everyone's way, and suffer in silence a lost life that would never amount to more than an apology for being in the way. In that moment, I didn't just hear the director's words, I felt them. For the first time in my life I realized that I had a choice to do, be, and feel something different than I thought I should - that I could be better than I thought I was allowed to be. It was an awakening for me - one of the first kick's in the ass in my life that would lead to more and more discovery of who I was meant to be. The experience with playing Marco was one of the several kickstarts to my empowerment journey that I have been on for over two decades. And despite my never-ending search for the Marco in me, I find that now and then I can still be blindsided by frustration over things that I don’t even understand -– like my resentment over my daughter’s behavior. But it was the article I read that opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of myself. I realized that the good boy I was trying to be as a kid seemed to only receive pain and disappointment, and that my brother’s behavior was given attention and eventually help despite the pain he caused those who got in his path. Watching my younger daughter scream, throw a tantrum and scratch my other daughter’s face triggered the resentment I have carried from my own experiences. Watching my two kids interact, I saw my brother acting out and hurting me all over again right in front of my face 30 years later, and out of pure rage I punished my squeaky wheel child when all she needed was understanding, while at the same time ignoring my quieter, gentle child when all she needed was a kiss to make it better. I understand so clearly now the difficulty my mother endured trying to raise the two of us, how hard it is to split favor between two very different kids with very different needs, how simply reacting to behavior instead of understanding it and working with it can inflame the situation, and how past experiences often cause us to ‘fix’ presenting problems in the now, despite the fact that the now may not need fixing at all. Parents teach us so much about the world, but the first lesson always comes from the instinctual reaction we give to our kids to make a bad situation better. Some of us are quiet or reserved, some of us yell, some know just the right balance. But in all cases our kids are watching to see how they fit into the mix. For me, as the family hero, I believed that my pain and disassociation with reality was real and that a fix for it was to hide my greatness. Much like the puppeteer Paul, I did a disappearing act into fantasy land to survive the real world just outside. And despite 25 years of work on myself, in some ways I feel like I’m just now emerging from the fog of that original dysfunction. Not by my own design necessarily, but out of circumstances over which I have no control; mishaps which force me to open old wounds to make sure there’s no lingering infection, like watching my kids as if I were watching a film of my own life 30 years earlier. I’m also learning this year that I don’t always have to like my life to love it, and understanding that allows me to be a human being, to make mistakes, and to forgive myself for the lessons I still have to learn. Luckily for me, to my children I am Marco The Magnificent. And I intend to earn that title every day by bringing a little magic to both of them.