Essay: Mom and Dad have a Donnybrook

When I say that we create our existences, in part, by the stories we tell about ourselves, this does not deny my belief in the autonomous power of the psyche.

That is to say that my experience of myself and of other people, including people I am close to personally and those whom I work with professionally, leads me to believe that our will is not fully or always in charge of our lives.

How to bring our will into balance with our total Existence--which I think of as having Body, Mind, and Spirit aspects and into balance within our Mind (or psyche) which I think of as having Feeling, Thinking and Willing aspects--is a challenge for all of us.

Our Psyche or Mind seems to develop a mind of its own, sometimes separate from our awareness and our will. This has both positive and negative consequences. The psyche can be a source of healing energy and movement without our having to will it to be so.

A few weeks ago I was working with a client who was trying to make a life decision--not in a life-or-death situation--but in relation to an action that was important to him. He experienced himself as deeply conflicted about the matter and he experienced himself as paralyzed. His will was of no help in making the decision. As I helped him to articulate the two horns of his dilemma, I began to think that I was hearing internalized aspects of his mother and father battling within him. I concluded that the intensity of the conflict was not because of his own judgment about the matter, but related to opposing life and self outlooks he had learned from his parents. These beliefs and attitudes were still alive and active in his psyche and were being activated by his facing the life situation which confronted him.

My helping him to become aware of these aspects of his paralysis helped him to make a decision and begin to move forward, although it did not entirely free him from the power of these internalized parental imagoes which seem to have autonomous and conflicting power within his psyche.

Strangely enough, I found myself facing a very similar internal situation last week and I feel free to write in more detail about my own experience so that it might be illustrative and helpful to others.

Reading Ursula Leguin's Earth Sea stories has added a hero to my life. (I think I'll write a blog about the place of Heroes--not hoagies-- in the development of personal narratives as part of our psychological growth). Ged the wizard goes on a journey to confront his shadow--first he had to realize with support from someone else that he had to stop running from what was chasing him and chase it. On a sparse and foreign shore he is given a small boat in which to complete his journey. In payment for the boat, Ged removes the cataracts from the eyes of the man who gave him the boat allowing the man to regain his sight. The man told him to rename the boat the Look Far and to paint eyes on her prow so that the man's thanks could look out from the blind wood and keep him from rock and reef.

Soon after reading this story, I became aware that I actually live on the water and that I could conceivably have a small boat. Not really being a Wizard, I began searching the Internet for a craft which might be small enough to fit into my apartment or some nearby storage space and which I could easily transport down to the River.

Eventually I found what seemed to be what I was looking for and I sent a down payment for the collapsible dinghy to the man who manufactures these boats in Canada. I was pleased and excited, and while I still had some problems with storage and transportation to the water to solve (I purchased a wagon which I think will get the Look Far, Look Deep down to the Schuylkill), I managed to quiet my fears and keep alive my sense of adventure and hunger for the experience of being able to be on the water.

And then, I began to get messages of delay from the man who was to be making the boat. His chief molder had a family emergency, a part needed was not available. The time for shipping crept beyond the outer limits of the time "promised", and I found some surprising doubtful thoughts arising in my mind.

I found myself reviewing the evidence that I had which had led me to Pay-Pal the money to this man in a foreign country, 3000 miles away, whom I had never met and really knew nothing about other than what he had told me. I suddenly began thinking how possible it might be that I was being scammed and that no Look Far, Look Deep was being built and that I had already thrown away the money I had sent as a deposit. Furthermore, I knew the time would come in the not too distant future when I would have to send another equally large payment in the same manner over the same electronic path and still without having any tangible evidence that my boat had existence other than in my mind.

I felt fear creeping into my body and when I decided to call the boat maker and three times got messages saying that his number could not be reached as dialed, the fear invaded by whole body and began taking over my existence. My stomach churned, I felt nauseous, my body felt as if its temperature was rather rapidly moving from cold to hot and back to cold again.

I began working to soothe myself, reminding myself that I had talked to the boat builder on the phone for quite a long time before I ordered the boat, that I liked his voice and what he said. I know that there are con-men in the world that can fool anyone, even a trained psychologist like me, but I had felt a lot of confidence in this person's sincerity and his being who he said he was. I reminded myself that his website seemed perfectly in harmony with his business as he described it. I reminded myself that I had gone looking for him, he had not solicited my business. I reminded myself that my judgment has been quite good in my life, that I am not easily taken in. Finally, I reminded myself that this was not a life and death matter. At worst I would lose some money, and although it would be a real loss, I was spending the money on something that was not a necessity and that the worst consequence would be that I wouldn't get something I wanted, not needed. I would be disappointed (sad and angry) and I would not have these feelings forever.

In spite of all this soothing, which worked fully at the cognitive level--I stopped most of the worrying that I had been doing--my body staid full of turmoil and emotion. Not as intense, but the fear had not disappeared. As I was letting myself continue to be aware of these sensations and feelings, I became aware that I knew all along, that the thoughts that evoked this fear had been spoken by my several years departed mother. The words--"How could you send all that money over the Internet to someone you don't even know? You are being foolish. You trust too easily. You shouldn't be buying a boat anyway. No wonder you don't' have enough money to retire"--all of these are her words and when I listened carefully I realized that had been hearing them her tone of voice.


Then I realized that there had been a second voice inside, saying things like, “don’t be stupid.   Of course it’s alright to trust people.   Most people are honest and mean what they say.   Take a chance, everything will be alright.  Stop worrying.” 

I realized that in part my mother’s words weren’t entirely directed at me,  but in part were aimed at my father. My father, perhaps partly in reaction to my mother's extreme caution, fearfulness, avoidance of risk taking, lack of valuing of adventure, was--overtly-- fearless, overly trusting, seldom cautious, adventure loving.  Sometimes he did take foolish risks and some of his decisions to trust people didn’t turn out so well.  My parents were often at war about these matters, and perhaps had not too bad a balance in their joint life because of the over-caution of one and the under-caution of the other.

In me, they exist as an internal war, that when engaged brings about fear and a sense of paralysis. Until I actually exchanged some more e-mails with the boat builder and heard what seemed like plausible explanations for the delays and apologies for not communicating more regularly and his reassurance that his phone was still connected and his giving me his cell phone number as an additional back up, I wasn't sure if I would really be able to send the rest of the money, without some kind of "proof" of the existence of the boat. And would I take a bill of lading from the shipping company as proof? And if not that, what?

The fear passed, I didn't feel doubt, I was again excited about the prospect of actually getting the dinghy. I let go of the disappointment evoked by the fact that the boat would be coming later in the summer than I had hoped.

When the boat builder wrote me an e-mail saying that he had to have my Social Security number to give to the customs agent who would be getting the approval to import the boat into the United States, my mother "went crazy" again. This time, I had very little visceral reaction, not much feeling, but I could clearly hear her voice--"You see, now he wants your Social Security number. He is going to steal your identity. You can't send your Social Security number to someone in a foreign country you've never met. You are not just going to lose the money for the boat, he is going to steal everything. Don't be stupid, just cut your losses and don't send anything more. Or, go get the boat yourself, it will be worth it so that you don't lose everything you have."

I listened to this tirade much more peacefully this time and began speaking directly to my mother. "Now Mom", I said, "I will be cautious and I will find a way to communicate my number to the customs agent rather than the builder, but beyond that I am willing to take this risk. I want that boat and I don't believe I am in the clutches of an identity thief. It is all going to be alright. I am going to get the boat I want and I am not going to lose all my money. Why don't you help me solve the problem of where I am going to put it instead of worrying about the money?" I could hear my Dad in the background quietly saying, "I always wanted a boat of my own, I am so glad you are going to get one. You're not going to be cheated."

I don't yet have the boat, but according to all the electronic sources she is on the way and I am about to send the money.

What was surprising to me in all this is how much reality and power my parents still have inside of me. They are both dead and I spent many years in therapy working on achieving a great deal of psychological independence from their neuroses which they shared with me and my own which I developed partly in relation to them and partly all on my own. In the process I battled overtly with them, as a teenager, as a young adult and even into my middle age. At some point that external battle ended, in more than a truce, and we were able to claim our love for each other in spite of the pain we had caused each other and our ongoing fundamental differences as people. I have reaped so many rewards from the positive aspects of their love for me, and I was fortunate enough to have gratitude for that before they died so that I could share it with them, and I still have it today.

Yet, some of the negatives still remain, as legacies, as remnants in my psyche. They are autonomous, they operate at times without my awareness, and at times beyond my own will. I am, thankfully, not at their mercy most of the time. I have resources that balance their negative influence and I can make use of the legitimate caution my mother passed on to me (It was good that I reviewed the evidence for my trust, it was right for me to have caution about sending my social security number over the internet to someone in a foreign country). I can also make use of the trust and love of adventure my father bequeathed to me (I am glad I am getting a boat at age 70; I expect to find joy in the access to adventure it will give to me. I will experience my connection to my Dad and his love of the water as I row and sail up and down the Schuylkill).

Since I am not a wizard I cannot magically write my warring parents out of my life story (even Ged had to confront his Shadow and incorporate it--he couldn't magically obliterate it). I can write a story which includes their ongoing place and autonomy (with by grace and hard work, now limited power) in my psyche. I can then recognize them when they make their presence felt and work with them to achieve the best possible results for myself. That's the best I can do.