Monday, July 26, 2021

Character building

Imagine for a moment a family which struggles. Let's put some details around that. Imagine a man looking to gain some autonomy, a man that was raised on a farm by a father that went to war; a father damaged psychologically and unfit to raise the boy. Survival of the spirit demands that the man leave the family farm and make it on his own.

The man has good intentions. He wants to succeed and he is willing to work very hard to make that happen.  There is no issue with perseverance here. He's a hard working man. The farm may require the clearing of much of the land, but he'll do it a tree at a time if necessary. He will get up early and come in late if that is what he needs to do.

He wants to do right by his children. His birth family demanded that he be responsible from a young age and he has taken on that hard work ethic message. There is a great deal of anxiousness around his responsibilities and he exhibits this with flare ups and angry words. Success is a standard that must be met, not just by him but also by his offspring. It's natural to him to expect the children to focus on work, on achievement, on grades, on the higher education he never had, but wanted.

In this environment, those children with a relatively easy scholastic aptitude and an inbuilt sense of their place in the world, most likely the first born child, will fare all right. There are issues, because that hard work ethic is likely to plague the first born child's life also, but the scholastic aptitude and the attention given to the first born are assets.

If, in the mix of the family, there is a child that has a difficulty, maybe a reading difficulty or a more soft and anxious disposition, there are likely to be considerable issues. Since academic success is the measure of a child in this family, a sense of Self will be damaged and a need to prove one's worth will be high on the agenda.

Such a child is likely to try very hard to attain academic success, or any success, in the eyes of the father. A sporting achievement might be useful here, or simply hard work; taking on responsibilities beyond the age of the child.

Imagine in this family, there is illness that falls upon the family. The empathic member of the unit, the mother becomes chronically ill, terminally ill. Imagine that she is encouraged to travel the world in what might be her last year(s) of life, leaving behind children away at school but also children at home, at the local school. 

Imagine this young and vulnerable child, academically challenged, not at all failing but struggling to get those super duper scores to impress the father, now asked to take on much more responsibility than a child of his tender years should be asked to do, without the softness of his mother to offer him the succor and support he so needs. To survive, he must, he realizes intuitively, control his emotions; keep on keeping on.

In these early years of life, born into this family with this disposition and these challenges, to not display one's emotions, to keep one's head down, to work hard, to keep aiming high and to try everything in one's power to impress makes sense. It is a child's primary goal to survive one's childhood and so the child does what he needs to do.

In adulthood, and as the boy ages over time, the strategies are not nearly so successful. There is some semblance of  flexibility with his own children in terms of what success looks like, but academic scores are still what matter. It's only when his own children begin to exhibit significant signs of creativity that he is forced to surrender to the notion that there is more than one way to live a successful and happy life. 

Hard work, long hours, relentless striving with not much recognition of day or night, weekday or weekend is his life. It goes beyond need to work. This is a striving that has a life force of its own. And, a logic of its own. Certain tasks are avoided, sometimes for decades, whilst other tasks are undertaken with a microscopic precision; the details sometimes far more important than the overview demands. The big picture is not able to be seen.

When I think about such characters for a story I find myself wanting and yet unable to get them to a place where damage is healed. If a person strongly believes that the way they live is the right way to live, what can the family do about this? Where would a therapist begin if such a man ever agreed to evaluate his thinking and strategies? This is all so unlikely.

I listen to a podcast of two psychologists shooting the breeze about various issues relating to treatment of personality disorders and it was interesting to hear what they had to say about a personality such as I have painted above. For one thing, a year's therapy was seen as a minimum, 50 sessions. The goals would be to reduce the high standards, re-scripting, which largely means re-parenting, or chair work; looking at what a healthy parent might have said or done in certain circumstances.

Another interesting treatment strategy would be for the person be set a goal but in a shorter time than they would allow on their own. The idea is to break down the perfectionism whilst also getting tasks achieved.

Pushing the notion that emotions are a good thing was another strategy; not just anger which comes so naturally to someone who has been traumatized in childhood but a whole range of emotions; re-evaluating vulnerability as a way into true intimacy. No small task.

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