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.
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.
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.