Compartments

I recently had the opportunity to overhear someone describing the part she played in a conflict with her elder sister. Both grown and married now, these sisters continue to bicker as though they are children. Judging by the pained expressions on the faces of bystanders who are regularly subjected to their carping, everyone but the participants seemed aware of how petty and irritating these ongoing feuds are. Witnesses could see that they are equally responsible for the chronic relational difficulties. Neither will yield or change, and each takes whatever opportunity presents itself to belittle her rival. It’s as though they’ve agreed that if love can’t bind them together, loathing will.

As the younger sister described their most recent skirmish, it became apparent that she saw herself in a much different light than others do. A successful business woman, she has many clients and an extensive network of acquaintances who presumably conduct themselves in the same mannerly, personified way that most of us do as we navigate social waters. This young woman has apparently mistaken the personas of others for their real selves, and makes the same mistake when evaluating herself. It’s as if she’s decided that she is as she thinks and feels she is, not as she appears to be to others. In fact, others don’t seem to figure into the picture at all. This young woman is like the movie director who doesn’t care what the audience or critics think about her work. Such people exist in a vacuum in which they are the producer, director, cast, critics, and audience. In effect, they watch themselves watching themselves and uncritically approve of what they see. Lapses into shadow behavior–anger, vindictiveness, hatred, selfishness, weakness, etc.–are excused as provoked. It is always someone else’s fault when they go to the dark side.

This type of compartmentalization of one’s personality is common. A person wants to appear to be good or helpful, successful or nice, a good parent or good at whatever role they are playing, and eventually becomes so attached to her perception that she favors it over reality. Seeing one’s failures, weaknesses, disabilities, flaws, and sins require the courage to ‘fess up and work to change oneself. It is so much easier to compartmentalize, shift blame, and glide along life’s surface.

Reality Check

Some years ago during a family vacation, we stopped at a convenience store to buy gas and load up on snacks for our children. One of our children did something to offend an older woman in the store, perhaps darting in front of her or reaching past her for a candy bar–some trifle–and the old woman crossly rebuked my child, using a comment with racist overtones. An older sibling standing nearby reflected the old woman’s rude behavior back to her, which escalated the situation and made it appear that my children were disrespectful when, in fact, the old woman was simply cranky and rude, exhibiting an unrealistic sense of entitlement to have what she wanted when she wanted it without little black children interfering with her space.

Without having seen the entire exchange but having witnessed the older sibling taking up for the younger, I took the side of the cranky old woman on the basis that children should respect their elders, and required both children to apologize to her. This set up a ruckus in the family, and a heated debate about right and wrong broke out as we gathered around our vehicles before continuing our drive. I argued that age alone was enough to warrant respect from the younger. My children rebutted that being old didn’t give a person the right to be rude, and racism ought always to be confronted immediately, which is what we have always taught them. We were unable to come to an agreement about the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ of the situation. My son finally went to apologize to the old woman, but she was long gone by the time I won my point. I remember feeling unhappy about the situation for some hours afterward, but the bad feeling dissipated as we once again began to enjoy the drive and finally arrived at our destination.

The week after we returned home, we decided to watch the videos of our family vacation, and to my chagrin we discovered that one of my older daughters had videotaped the entire family argument. My memory of the debate had been bathed in the soft glow of my rosy outlook, which championed fiction over truth. When I watched the videotape, I saw what others had seen that day, namely me at my worst: strident, critical, argumentative, forceful. I saw my teenage son repeatedly trying to make his point while my husband sat silently and I poured out more words. In a culture of family awards, this video could win an Oscar for its lucid portrayal of our family dynamics of that moments.

To this day, I wince when I recall the video and even at times morbidly re-watch it to remind myself of what I presented to my most beloved family members that day. I presented a fiction, a lie that had to do with neeeding to be the best possible mother of umpteen children, which requires Looking Good In Public and Not Acting Up In Public and For-God’s-Sake-Do-Not-Appear-to-Be-Rude. In that circumstance, I shoved my inner bitch into the trunk and slammed it shut, then leaned smugly against it as she banged to be let out and eventually fell silent. I had no idea that she merely escaped another way and would be videotaped in all her glory, being Bitch in the bosom of my family when, in fact, her abilities needed to be channelled, refined, and used in a brief confrontation with a crabby, rude, and racist old woman who was mean to my child in a convenience store.

Witness

During his dream seminars, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung told the following story:

I had an aunt who was a bad woman, bad with her tongue, and my uncle was an inventor who had a phonograph and made records. One day she gave him an awful sermon, and without her knowing it he made a record. Next day when she was reasonable, he said he had something to play to her, and put the record on. She said, “I never said that, it is not true!” I often advise people to keep a diary and read the old entries, or hear other people describe their lives for them, then they may break through the compartments. Hearing someone else give a vista of one’s life is very illuminating. The things we do are in compartments which keep us singularly unconscious. [. . .]  When they do come together there is a conflagration. (Dream Analysis, Princeton University Press, pp. 210-211).

Jung’s story reminded me of the video my daughter shot and which has provided endless amusement for my children and husband, who seemed unnaturally happy to see me squirm over behaviors they have witnessed from time to time their entire lives. I am content to watch it and laugh with them these days, knowing that such glimpses into reality through the lens of either friend or foe have been invaluable, for they have changed my behaviors and thus my life. Though I am not a happier person, I am a better and more conscious person now than I was all those years ago. I continue to want to look at myself with an unblinking eye. It’s not easy.

The Price of Awareness

An aware person pays a high price for his or her awareness. When we give up our illusions of the good self, the nice person, the excellent parent, the best friend, the dutiful employee or wife or boss, we see ourselves as we probably are in actuality: smaller, less accomplished, more primitive and reactionary and selfish. We have much but offer little; we have been given great bounty, but give a meager return. We think ourselves better than we are. We do look fat. We do sound silly. We’re regularly boring and lazy, wasteful and judgmental and self-righteous. We’re rude to people who don’t deserve it–and yet we all deserve it. We are unforgiving of others and unwilling to apologize because to do so would be to admit fault, and the cardinal sin is to admit fault. It is better, we unconsciously think, to wound a fellow human being than it is to wound ourselves. We know we don’t have the character or mettle for wounding ourselves, so we tell others that they’re wrong. We believe our own lies, and we traipse along through life, whistling gaily and telling others about how everyone else is wrong and how everyone else ought to live their lives, when in fact if we had videotape of our interactions with others, we might see their pained looks and the anguish we have caused and that would keep us awake at night rather than how to get revenge, rather than how she done me wrong.

The next time a close friend or family member starts in on their compartmentalized version of “What They Did to Me and Why They Were Wrong,” I think I may videotape it. I think that my friend–the younger sister who is always right–would be shocked to see what we see. She would be shocked to see the hardness in her own eyes and hear the cold, merciless tone she uses when rendering judgment. I think that if she knew that she projects this personality nearly all the time–a hard, humorless, bitchy sort of petulance–she would think twice before always blaming her older sister for their conflicts. Perhaps she’d consider the possibility that she’s the bitch.

What then?

21 responses

  1. Eve- this post has given me much to think about as well. I’m afraid to admit that I would have not liked what I saw of myself the other day. I was really angery at my son for his childish and accidental action against his new curtains. After I cooled down, I realized how much of my ‘self’ I was angry at, not him, and what the curtains represtented to me. (for the record, I asked my son to forgive me- but he is still under the threat of certain doom if he messes up these curtains! 🙂
    So, all that to say, it is interesting for me to imagine myself watching myself, — it gives me pause.

  2. litlove –

    Your response reminds me of two things that I’ve been thinking about lately. The first is the sacrifice of Iphigenia and looking at that sacrifice from her perspective rather than the more common perspectives of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. The second is Kate Bush’s song “Love and Anger” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82G6UxbLH0Q). Thank you Eve, litlove, and others for sharing. There is a lot of richness here on this blog.

    Matt

  3. What a brilliant post. As ever, Eve, you lay bare the human soul and give us something really rich to think about. My mother cannot accept her own tendency to rage, a tendency that she inflicted on me from my youngest days and which left me terrified of her. It is something we cannot talk about, nor ever will. Just a few weekends ago I had to attend my parents’ wedding anniversary party and I found it so anxiety-producing that I was on the verge of a panic attack throughout and then was stuck at my parents’ house overnight because of extreme anxiety. It was my own inner violence that I longed to get out, my own rage always trapped inside because my mother’s response to it was to get madder herself, and that was too scary to contemplate. I learned as a child never to let that anger out and it has caused me serious issues with anxiety and ultimately been a big factor in chronic fatigue.

    If only someone had shown my mother a tape of her behaviour! But it would have destroyed her, because she needs so badly to believe her perfect self-image. I feel very much that I was the child who took the family’s pain so everyone else could keep functioning and it causes me terrible anguish that no one sees that sacrifice. It’s about time I started to be a bit braver and showed a little more what I felt (even though that old stuff will have to be let out at other times, being now inappropriate). If your kids were sharp with that old lady, it was a good thing because they knew to stand up for themselves. The tricky part is to acknowledge it all – their appropriate anger, the old lady’s bad temper, the need for someone to rise above provocation and let the conflict go because ultimately it wasn’t about what it appeared to be about. It’s hard for any mother to get all that into a few sentences!

    • Litlove, I’m sorry that I’m just now coming around to read newer comments and reply, because your comments here touched me deeply. I too had a raging mother, and I too shoved my reactions down, down, down. I thank God that somehow I was able to react back at her in my early 20s, and then the struggle ensued. It has taken many turns over the years, and like all of us I continue to struggle with the archetypal Mother and sometimes my actual one, even though these days she can’t get much out of me any more.
      In thinking about your liberation, I’m wondering what would happen if you were to write it all out, or paint it out or otherwise depict what you’ve done in your family of origin, the sacrifice of yourself you’ve made, what you’ve carried? I wonder what raw beauty we would see, what power, what love? On the other end of it, underneath, I wonder too at the rage, the hatred, the fear, the terror, the weakness, the self-loathing… I wonder what you would say if your task were to tell your story to your family of origin? What if you were like a child, putting on a play on a backyard stage, blankets draped across a clothes line, and you were to begin to depict how you experienced your life in your family of origin, up to this very day? I wonder, and I wish you would do that. I wish you would do that for yourself, and for the rest of us out here who similarly suffered in our childhoods and carried this or that for our families, and had a mother or father who just had to appear perfect, and never came out of that personified existence? What a service that would be.

  4. My inner bitch wants help. Help with my mum and help with Katie. I’m so tired of people saying, “I don’t know how you do I.” How about giving me some help without me having to beg for it! That’s what the bitch wants.

    • Lilith, that is the most marvelous typo in your comment — there’s scope for hours of interesting reflection just in the many things it could mean, although it was (perhaps) inadvertent … it seems that your inner bitch wants you to do more “I,” and a lot less “them.”

      • I’m chuckling here… it IS marvelous, isn’t it. “I don’t know how you do I” when you have to do “they” also. If this isn’t the quest in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

  5. Excellent post! (I’d side with your kids by the way, age doesn’t per se deserve respect IMO.)

    I think that compartmentalization often reflects a lack of self-love. By that I mean the good kind of self love (to “love your enemies as yourself” requires you love yourself, after all), one where one can accept the self with faults and problems just as one accepts that from a loved one. If one can do that, one can always forgive oneself. Compartmentalization may come from people trying to convince themselves they are worthy individuals, requiring they behave as humans should. Or to be Freudian, a strong Superego (or weak ego) leads to more compartmentalization.

    • Scott, you get an A for your knowledge of Freud and masterful analysis. I agree with what you wrote, and mightily suspect anyone who is compartmentalized in either direction–too good or too bad. I know a couple of people who are just like this, one being too good, and the other being too bad. The good lady is just always good, always nice, always cheery, can never admit her wrongdoing. The bad lady is always bitchy, always angry, always negative, always mean. They both loathe themselves and idealize others, and they are both hopelessly neurotic because they appear to not have any concept of themselves as truly worthy. They are always looking to someone else to be worthy or unworthy and thus forever doomed to being terribly one-sided. Being whole requires being truly whole–the yin and yang, light and dark, and so on. Yes, we must love ourselves first.

  6. A wonderful post, Eve. I don’t know know whether to wish I had video of myself from certain moments when I have been possessed by shadow or to feel grateful that I don’t. However, I am captivated by the idea of how viewing the action from outside yourself changes your perception. I have been sitting here playing with images from memory, trying on different views, and looking for a more honest perspective.

    This post also addresses an issue that I was discussing last night with some other women: When is it okay for women to be angry? I have difficulty expressing anger unless I let things build up too much, and then I become Artemis and destruction ensures. Our culture brands an angry woman as a shrew and a bitch, and I recoil from being labeled as such. And I myself don’t like to be in the presence of angry women, as so often they are simply selfish. But my dreams constantly speak about unwrapping things, and I know I need to work on expressing myself honestly.

    Thank you for describing your courage in confronting your persona. As always, you leave me challenged and stimulated.

    • Oh, Elaine, you encapsulated so much truth in just a few paragraphs here! Yes, yes! You’re just so right about it: shrews and bitches when we’re angry… and so many angry women being selfish (i.e., narcissistic and in narcissistic, infantile rages). Talk about infecting an entire gathering–ugh.

      For many years I didn’t show anger directly and never lost my temper. I had learned what most of us do from our culture, which was how wrong it is to be angry. Once you get mad, it seems you can’t go back. A woman can spend the rest of her life angry–God knows we have enough excuses for being angry! Hee hee.

      What did you and your friends conclude about being angry? Is it only acceptable to be angry when someone is threatened? Are there some things it’s not OK to be angry about? What other emotions are off limits to women? Are the taboos all gender based, or are they only taboo for ‘nice’ people? What a great discussion group topic this would be.

  7. You are brave to confront yourself, and watch yourself and suffer the critique. I think 99.9% of the human population would implode if they watched their unfettered behavior…this is probably the reason why we don’t have the capability to watch ourselves. Self preservation!

    • Brave or living dangerously! haha! We are fans of Big Brother (the reality TV show), and my husband regularly says what great subject matter our large family would make for reality television. I reply that I would ruin our good family name single-handedly with my natural shenanigans and conclude that no matter how many millions might be forthcoming, or how many people would be endlessly amused, it wouldn’t be worth it. A few doses of seeing oneself caught on tape will do that to a lot of us. ;o)

  8. What a great post Eve, and as always so thought provoking. I am always wondering if I am presenting my most authentic self–which is sometimes such a leap of faith in certain settings. I think that when I trust myself (and others) to do that, then I am also more likely to look more carefully at our relationships and handle things with more compassion.

    • Lee, it’s exhausting to always present one’s authentic self, and I wonder if any of us can pull that off? :o) I like the connection you draw between compassion and authenticity. I have the same sense of this myself, that when I am real, I fall into compassionate thought and behavior much more easily than when I am defending myself or hiding.

  9. To me this is the weight of family history, our long term deeply held pains, regrets and suffering at the hands of others, and adults, who had the same done to them, and so on. How important it is to be self-responsible. How to not get possessed in the very moment when the bewitching takes place, when we react from such unconsciousness.

    I’m speaking from the pain of another recent family event – Father’s Day. My goodness, what a tangled up mess we are. My sister’s children, as we sat to eat, regressed into sour, whiny, bad mannered ‘I don’t want to eat’ behaviour, as, actually, happens often. My sister, a single mum, threatened and cajoled, but for some reason, didn’t make good on her threats. The eight year old started to slide under the table. Everyone started to get really annoyed, at them, at my sister, at each other. What a landslide! And, of course, everyone had an opinion (me included), pitched in to tell the little ones to behave, which they just ignored. The ten year old started to cry. Then my sister cracked it, going deeper into herself, and suddenly left the table. Later, she left the house, leaving the kids, went home (just in the next paddock on the same property) and took the phone off the hook. My older sister, a primary school principal, was able to talk to the boys, and get them to understand how their behaviour was not good.

    And here you speak of how children reflect adults, and that adds even another dimension to all the underlying complexities of this situation – grandpa who thinks he know better then everyone else, grandma who just says ‘leave them alone’, and my husband and I who firmly believe that these kids need to be taught better manners and respect. I just felt so pissed off at my sisters usual spinelessness. Well, yes, I guess everyone in our family thinks they know better than the other!

    On reflection, I felt a dark heaviness descend on the family that day at the table. I realised there were other issues going on for my sister, and that possibly her boys had even eaten earlier with their father whom they had spent some hours with that morning. And were possibly told they ‘still had to eat something’ and ‘don’t say anything about it’ – my conjectures, mind, but based on past events. And I see of course, issues surrounding family dynamics, the family shadow. My anger/fear and powerlessness played its part. Later, after a couple of hours, as the children grew fearful from the lack of contact with their mother, my pain grew (she had asked via text to be left alone). How can she reject them this way? At what cost? I spoke with the boys later too, sat with them, cuddled, massaged their feet.

    Their vulnerability and fear has been breaking my heart all week. I know it affected me for more reasons than theirs. I imagine, as you say, if this were taped, what would we have seen? I suspect a lot of pain. And I am so angry at my sister, blaming her for her incapacity to act as an adult, a loving mother who differentiates between her children and their behaviour. But I think I would be shocked to see my own inflexability, and my own lack of compassion. To see that my own shadowy possession and arrogance prevented me from seeing what was really going on. Had I woken up to it, perhaps I could have stepped in and helped to divert the inevitable, when my sister left the table.

    • Irene, I find it so startling that you used the word “possession” more than once, for what I didn’t write in this piece but have been thinking about was a chapter I just read in Jung about what he calls ‘infection.’ He says quite clearly that all of us–children and adults alike–can and often are infected or ‘possessed’ by the unconscious demands of others. He says it is a sort of bewitchment that happens with projection or the unconscious needs, wishes, or demands of others. People later consider how they behaved and say, “What got into me?!” That’s a sort of possession. In a family system that has too much of an element–such as control, or maybe too much apathy or too little of something–then the imbalance is not showed necessarily by each person, but by the one or ones with a ‘hook’ for that. Someone baits the hook, someone takes the bait: only one child becomes an addict, and the rest are the reasons the parents can say, “Look here, it wasn’t our fault! Our family was just fine, because only this one child went wrong,” or something along those lines. One member carries the pain, another is the family healer, and so on.

      But I went off on a tangent because of your wonderful (but sobering) reflection on your family shadow. Yes, every family has one. I know I hate to see ours in my family of origin.

      • You know, I never used to feel it that way until quite recently – this was the second event in my life where I really felt it ‘come over me’. A numbing sensation, a mindless action repeated from the past, over and again. The first time, I propelled myself in a familiar way toward a man I’d only just met – what can he have thought!

        I also reflected on this in combination with recent reading in “Descent to the Goddess” by Sylvia Brinton Perera. I was looking for my next book to read, and I flicked to a page where she describes how a woman can “unknowingly put her negative animus superego first” and be overpowered. I then reflected on a recent painting I did of a man swirling a woman in dance, who has no legs… It’s always amazing how the message reveals itself, despite myself!

  10. I visited my brother this summer. Within a half hour of being at his house we had an argument. I was talking about how stressful it was caring for my daughter and my mother and my brother said he understood how hard it was. I said no you don’t and maintained that there was no way he could understand because he’s not here, doing it. He got mad, went back outside and didn’t come back in for quite awhile. We didn’t speak of it again.

    Talking to my analyst she said that perhaps it was my own fault, that was it really necessary for me to argue with my brother when first arriving. I could have just shut up and nodded my head but I just had to be right dammit! He can’t know how hard it is for me caring for the two of them but me rubbing his face in it and arguing with him didn’t help anyone. I was being a bitch.

    I’m still learning, slowly.

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