We all used to be children. Some people were validated by their parents as worthwhile human beings in spite of their childhood faults and imperfections. Others were not so fortunate. They tried to be good little children, successful in one arena or another. However, when they saw a sibling being praised while their successes were ridiculed or merely ignored, they felt that their efforts were all for nothing.
At that young age, there is no middle ground between worthwhile and worthless. If they have an attribute, such as intelligence, that is not valued by their sports-loving or appearance-mongering elders, they take their disfavor personally, as if it were a reflection on their worth as a person. Their asset then turns into a liability.
Young people tend to define themselves in terms of their external success and their personal attributes. When these qualities are despised, they have little left to fall back on. As most children do, these individuals have made the understandable mistake of perceiving the absence of validation as if it were an invalidation.
Irene has come in for counseling because she has an anger problem. She is not aware that a major source of her difficulty is her vulnerability to feeling unappreciated and good for nothing. She does not see the connection between her childhood experiences and her over-reactions to disappointment in the present.
To this day, she is unaware of her dependence on others for the validation of her worth as a person. She has placed this responsibility on her own child and he is doing a terrible job with this burden that he shouldn’t have in the first place.
Irene: “Well, I did it again. I got so angry at my son Gary that I screamed and shouted at him. And, you know, I don’t regret it. I don’t feel guilty, so don’t tell me I should.”
Therapist: “Telling you to feel guilty wouldn’t help, Irene, but tell me why you don’t feel guilty.”
Irene: “Because this time he had it coming, the little jerk, and I gave it to him. And don’t tell me I was wrong. You guys are always saying that the parents are always wrong and the child is never wrong.”
Therapist: “What did he do that was so ‘wrong’?”
Irene: “He saw this toy advertised on television. In the commercial, the kids were having such a good time with it, so he wanted it. I tried to tell him that it was too old for him, he’s only 5 years old. He cries every time the damn commercial comes on. I figured that I’d get it for him just to keep peace in the house. Well, I got to the store Saturday and the damn thing cost $200 I don’t have $200to throw away.”
Therapist: “No one does, Irene. What happened to make you so angry?”
Irene: “It broke my heart to buy that piece of junk, but I thought I was doing the right thing.”
Therapist: “How many minutes did he play with it?”
Irene: “It wasn’t even minutes! It was seconds! He took one look at it, kicked it around a little while, and then started to play with the picture of it on the box! That’s when I saw red. I blew up and grabbed him by his little shirt and screamed something vulgar. I left him there, crying. He should show a little more respect!”
Therapist: “There’s no doubt about it, Irene, you were `right.’ Your predictions were right on the button, and I’m sure that any jury in the world would agree that you are smarter than your five year old child.”
Irene: “Then I wasn’t wrong?”
Therapist: “`Wrong’ is the wrong word, Irene. You feel that your behavior was `justified’ under the circumstances.”
Irene: “You’re damn right, I do. The ungrateful brat didn’t even say, `Thank you.’”
Therapist: “That’s it. It isn’t just the money, is it Irene? It isn’t just the fact that you let your child control you into doing something that you `knew’ was a mistake. Irene, it makes you very angry when your sacrifices are not reciprocated, doesn’t it?”
Irene: “I don’t expect Gary to reciprocate. I just expect him to be a little more appreciative of what I do for him. Is that so wrong?”
Therapist: “There’s that word `wrong’ again. Being appreciative is a form of reciprocity, isn’t it? When you do something good for him, it’s only natural to want him to do something good in return, such as saying, `Thank you, Mommy’, or cleaning up his room for three days in a row.”
Irene: “That’s right. That’s just how I feel, and I can’t see what’s wrong with expecting a little cooperation from your own child.”
Therapist: “One thing wrong with it is that it sets you up for painful disappointment when your child doesn’t live up to your expectations. Another concern is to expect reciprocity from a five year old child who is not on the same wave-length as you are. Third, the child senses that you have expectations for him, and he isn’t sure that he can live up to them. He can only `fail.’ He learns to feel inadequate when he has to measure up to your expectations for him. He learns to perceive himself as a `disappointment’ and a `failure’; he learns to feel worthless. In his discouragement, he doesn’t bother to reciprocate at all. Fourth, there is something intrinsically, inherently misleading about this expectation of fairness, expecting `good for good’. People resent having to be good because it’s expected, not because it is their spontaneous wish to reciprocate someone’s kindness. Irene, did you learn as a child that if you do something good, your goodness will be rewarded?”
Irene: “I know that I always got a treat if i did as i was told. What’s wrong with that. Every kid goes through that.”
Therapist: “It’s called bribery, that’s what’s wrong with it. You learned to expect compensation as your legitimate `right’ for doing what the reality situation demanded of you. It’s a short-cut that parents take when they are too lazy or uninformed to secure the child’s cooperation on a more realistic basis. It teaches children to expect life to reward them for doing what they have to do. For example, they expect life to reward them for being `not bad.’ `For ten dollars, I won’t break your window’.”
Irene: “I never thought of it that way.”
Therapist: “Most people don’t. It also teaches the child that, if there is no rewarding incentive of ‘compensation,’ then there is no point in pursuing `good’ behavior. It just doesn’t make sense, and so we teach our child to be calculating, manipulative, self-centered and cynical. When such children grow up, they will carry these inappropriate, unrealistic expectations into adulthood. They will expect their child to reward their `goodness’ in the present just the way their mothers used to, and they will get angry when the expected compensation doesn’t materialize.”
Irene: “Is that why I felt so `justified’ in doing what I did to Gary?”
Therapist: “That’s part of it. You carried some of your childhood lessons and expectations into your relationship with Gary. You assumed this was a realistic and helpful parenting style, but it is not. Your assumptions are based on false premises, which have not been identified, let alone corrected.”
Irene: “What false premises?”
Therapist: “One false premise is, `One good turn deserves another.’ That is your definition of `fair.’ To you, it sounds like an ideal way of conducting your life. But it’s only an ideal. Your mistake lies in getting upset when imperfect human beings don’t live up to your ideal. You exaggerate the importance of this noble ideal, You stand in self-righteous judgment of people who do not reciprocate as you expect them to do. You would be less vulnerable to these fits of anger if you could learn to perceive this ideal of perfect reciprocity as merely a preference. I agree that life would be much lovelier if everyone gave as good as they got, but it’s only a preference. You don’t have to lash out when you don’t get what you prefer. You can live without it. You just think you can’t.
Angry mother image available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 18 Feb 2014