Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Eyes that don't see

What is the name of the problem where a person – a family member, in the two scenarios presented – sees another family member through a film?  A film not over the eyes but the mind, a vacuformed sheath over every hill and depression of the brain, a film of attitude, emotionalized philosophy, feeling, assumption.  A film of superiority, or of inferiority; of child-feeling, or of false-adult feeling.  A film the seer doesn’t know exists and would, despite a general perspicacity, deny the existence of.  And if they could effect some gracious or intellectual distance from their true nature for a moment and admit the existence of the film, it would nevertheless remain, after the flicker subsided, like a pilot light or a heartbeat.
It is a problem of identity because it is carried everywhere, not just to the family target, though it will be even more covert in the general environment than in its assimilation in the family atmosphere.  Does that make it a personality disorder?  It is a problem of identity because it began in childhood, became part of the analgesic self and therefore more and more critical and structural as loss, pain and time went on.  And because it remains part of the self now.

It seems not to be a personality disorder because its essence is projection, one defense.  A shame-bent girl, for example, represses her shame then “sees” the dying and pathetic potential in another person, whom she cannot disappoint in a favor asked or a hope floated, upon pain of mutual disintegration.  Things that I will never know happened in my 1950’s family where some need or hurt in my sister was met by my own passive personality.  I can suggest generic causes – jealousy, absence of love, contempt – but will never know what built her character that must be patronizing and assuming even in its sad and helpless moments, fifty years on.

“Glad you responded to Dave’s query.”

Bestow upon me the blessings of your approval and encouragement, always-older sister!  This is the kind of parenting artifice – pats on the head – that shapes little boy into a good person, as he absorbs these words of moral light delivered from high to low, is altered by them.

It is this subtle and gentle solipsism, this film transparent yet suffocating, that more than anything else led to my leaving the family.

Thinking, now, of a client, there is a poisoning I find hard to describe, where one changes in the gaze of another.  In general, a child reduces herself to fit within the neurotic constrictions of a family.  A result is “pain comfort,” where she feels connected and possibly loved by being the inferior, or reduced, or labeled one.  This is the unruly child, the mild defect, the invisible one, the class clown, the good student or the computer genius.  In an orbiting-moon dynamic, a parent or sibling, hurt but not able to be aware of it, will see one weaker child in a skewed way, thereby making her live that new way, a self-indentation, a delivered identity.  Inarticulate, she cannot dispute the powerful person’s delusional disapproval or branding.  She carries it into the world, limiting her in any number of ways.  But it is in the home, where the seed was inseminated, that the worst regressive effects will happen, where the rape will continue to happen.

The pre-biopsychiatric era concept of Expressed Emotion generally describes this effect:

“Expressed emotion (EE) refers to care giver’s attitude towards a person with a mental disorder as reflected by comments about the patient made to an interviewer.  It is a significant characteristic of the family milieu that has been found to predict symptom relapse in a wide range of mental disorders.  The empirical data show that EE is one of the major psychosocial stressor[s] and it has direct association with recurrence of illness.  The importance of EE depends on research that has consistently established that persons with mental illness, such as schizophrenia, who live with close relatives who have negative attitudes, are significantly more likely to relapse. . . . .
“The construct of EE comprises of [sic] the following factors/behavioral patterns: Criticism, hostility, and emotional overinvolvement (EOI).  Like many other environmental stressors, EE behaviors are not pathological or unique to families of mental disorders, but they can cause relapse of psychiatric symptoms among people with a vulnerability to stress.”*
My client** has never been able to reject her family, a family that is as demeaning and projecting as any I have known of.  Forty years of pain, of being seen through a film that projects her defectiveness, her paper-thin significance.  Forty years of having blind parents and a brother who feel they are all-knowing about her.  Most recently, she raged against the indignity of being replaced in a family tradition by the sister-in-law.  In the face of her mature defense and generous apology, she was attacked:

“We had every right to chastise you for your comment for being outrageously rude to our guest [the parents’ term for the very center-stage sister-in-law].”
“Your inferiority complexes are only in your mind.”
“Are you that selfish you cannot let your brother’s wife to be a part of our tribe?”
“Your feelings of inferiority and insignificance need to be addressed with a support group, religious group or fellowship.”
“I do worry what will become of you.  You have outlined the downfalls of your life.  Now find a way to improve your circumstances.”
“You have excused yourself with your limited apology and your ‘I, me, my’ excuses why you should be permitted to act as you did.  So [your] letter is purely a demand for our sympathy for your ‘hardships’ and your needs to . . . right your imagined wrongs.  That isn’t gonna happen.”
“I don’t know about your memories, since they are faulty.”
My client had appealed to the “tribe”:

“Finally, although I have tried not to carry the negative points of [past conflicts] with my mother into the present, I still feel that it is too easy for mom to overreact in a negative, accusatory manner to something involving me.  Truly, when an ‘incident’ presents, I try to use my better-self to communicate, but there is so much history of disagreement and negative interactions that it inevitably reverts back to a dysfunctional dynamic.”
When this explanation was rejected and abused by her parents, she fell backwards into the film’s projections, and requested an emergency session.

Throughout my career I have found it difficult, sometimes futile, to work with clients who seemed immaturely dependent on bad-object (see post “Strength,” Jan. 17, 2014) parents, seeing this mostly as a developmental abort.  But now, feeling the regressive pull of my sister’s comment – Glad you responded to Dave’s query – I understand how someone cannot fight or even clearly see what is invisible and denied, and in the past.  I see better how a dysfunctional family will always be in its childhood home, the dynamics remain the same, and all are hurt.  The one who is less needy can leave the ring, the needy one will go down for the count.

*      *      *

What is required for someone to see her family member objectively, as objectively as she might see a stranger?  Wanting to is probably required.  The question of why one would want to see that clearly, from a distance, is a personal one.  A more fundamental necessity is to be significantly free of drugs – the drugs of self-medicating projection and delusion.  I could say that’s a desirable state, but in fact it may not be: To be self-stripped of the family feeling, of the comforts of attitude and the cloak of assumption, may leave a person naked and hollow, and returned to childhood alone.  That is because family is forever, even when it is rejected.

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* “Expressed Emotion in Schizophrenia: An Overview,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, Indian J Psychol Med. 2012 Jan-Mar; 34(1): 12-20.   

** My client has given me permission to quote from her family’s letters.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.