I met a woman in a bar. The place was nearly empty when she came in, sat down next to me and ordered a glass of wine. It was late afternoon and so was she -- a disheveled mass of silver and red hair bunned up with half a chopstick holding it all together. She was wearing a long, tye-died skirt, white sneakers and an over-sized grey sweatshirt with the words "ALL WOMAN" emblazoned across the front. Her glossy red lipstick was swiped across her lips in a way that smacked of I don't give a damn.
I knew what was coming, so I waited, staring steadfastly ahead, savoring my last sips of peace. After a few minutes, she turned toward me and began. "Hi I'm Annie. I just had to get out of the house. My son is driving me crazy, you know what I mean?" "Well, no," I said, "I'm not sure I do." She ignored that and went on with her soliloquy, throwing in the occasional, "you know what I mean." I got it. It was her way of taking a breath and so I stopped answering at all, simply nodding occasionally with a question mark of a face that said... no, not really.
Apparently, her son Raymond, a 42-year-old software engineer, was depressed. His best friend had broken his heart, stolen a program they had developed together, sold it for big bucks and on his way out of town, had decided to take Raymond's girlfriend with him. "I told him," Annie said, "a million times, don't trust anyone, its the only way to protect yourself... they're all out to screw you... its the only way to keep your heart from being broken... you know what I mean?"
This time, I turned directly to her in a slow, emphatic voice: No, I'm not sure I do!" She backed up, exasperated at not having found a confederate and said, "you don't talk much, do you?" and walked out.
From what I gathered of the situation, Raymond, taught early on that people and love were not to be trusted, but being the good son he was, spent half a lifetime finding folks that could prove the thoughts that his mother had planted in him.
Annie and Raymond's story is an example of how distorted, usually negative, thoughts and beliefs can be passed down in a multi-generational fashion from grandpa to mom to son and so on to form core beliefs and automatic thinking about people and the world in general.
Carl Jung said of it: "I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors."(1).
In my practice I see it all the time, sometimes in adults; the dam bursts and they are flooded with a lifetime of contradictory thoughts and beliefs, desperate for their own truth, their authentic selves.
However, sometimes it happens early on in a child who senses that something is amiss in the collective family perception of the world. That child may become the identified patient, manifesting the very beliefs or behaviors he/she is so troubled by, or else behaving in a 180° contradiction to those sacred canons. It may be a heartfelt attempt to bring these dark conceptions into the light and restore a more reasonable, optimistic, civilized and elegant way of viewing the world.
These children are the lucky ones, resiliently bowed but unbroken. They can effect positive change early on and may be lifesavers for a whole family caught in a whirlpool of dysfunction.
For the rest of us, like Raymond, it may not be quite so easy. It can take tremendous courage and stamina to face our core beliefs and question their validity after a lifetime of unquestioned following. This warrior's quest towards authentic thought can also wreak havoc in a family system. For no matter how distorted or dysfunctional certain family beliefs and behavioral systems are, they may still be part of an integral fabric; the glue that holds a family together.
Which may be why we so often see when a family member changes his or her core beliefs, beliefs that go directly against the family system, that individual may have to leave the family for both to survive.
So, the next time your kid shows a prolonged manifestation of behavior you find particularly distressing, take a moment and go take a long look in the mirror.
And for Annie, whose Raymond is driving her crazy... you may have it upside down and backwards.
1. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (London 1983) p. 260