One of the advantages of working from home is that I get to spend part of each day working from cool spots all over the city, thanks to my trusty iBook and an abundance of wireless Internet connections in Los Angeles. Yesterday I spent a few hours at my favorite “office,” Susina Bakery on Beverly Blvd. near La Brea. Susina is home to a loyal crowd of writers and editors who spend countless hours nibbling on fine pastries in the blue glow of their laptops and feeding off the wi-fi signal coming from the Starbucks next door. Susina has some of the most exquisite baked goods this side of the 16th arrondissement but I try to limit myself to a plain croissant or perhaps a cornmeal-raspberry scone. Owner Jenna Turner couldn’t be more accommodating to the regulars who set up their home offices on the café’s small tables, nursing their lattes and reworking their screenplays or books.
I was deeply engrossed in a proposal for a book about progressive education called “Teaching on a Tightrope” when a woman and her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter sat down at the table next to me. The woman carried a pot of gunpowder tea and poured herself a large cup. She then gave her daughter a few drops in a demi-tasse that was the pefect size for her tiny hands.
The woman’s cell phone rang and she began a conversation with her husband. Normally, sitting next to someone blabbing away on her cell phone would annoy me to no end but the woman was so excited and animated that I didn’t mind the noise. The little girl was running all over the place, which again, under different circumstances would have provoked a tirade of silent judgment, but I was mesmerized by the world she had created with the miniature teacup and the stuffed animal she had set up at the table on the other side of her mother. “I want to talk to Daddy,” she squealed and the woman gave her the phone. After they ended the call, the mother was beaming. The daughter, noticing, was delighted.
“Are you happy, Mommy?” the little girl asked.
“Yes, I am, sweetheart,” the woman replied.
I was so taken by the concept of this little girl inquiring about and being moved by her mother’s happiness that I looked over at her with a big smile on my face. Seeing me, she turned back to her mother and said in a loud stage whisper, “Mommy! Everybody likes me!”
The innocence of that comment brought tears to my eyes. It didn’t matter that the little girl’s assessment wasn’t grounded in “truth,” what was remarkable to me was that she was so unpolluted by neuroses and self-doubt that she could take the approving smile of a total stranger and extrapolate that into the best possible interpretation for herself. Why can’t I do that? My extrapolation techniques only work in reverse. Many people in the course of a day can say positive things to me and I’m glad to hear them but my inner voices kick in before they’ve even finished their thought:
“If they only knew what a fraud I am.”
“They’re wrong, how could they be so misguided?”
“They think that now, but wait until I fuck up, then they’ll change their tune.”
“Yeah, yeah, they’re just saying that to be nice.”
But the second I hear one negative comment I am quick to hyperbolize it into an all-powerful Proclamation of Divine Truth that often results in the polar opposite of the little girl’s observation.
“Everybody hates me!”
I’ve been in therapy long enough to know that such an extreme reaction is my “stuff” coming up, I really don’t believe in my heart that the world hates me. But the daily machinations I have to go through to try to hear and let in any positive comments while not over-dramatizing the negative ones is exhausting to say the least. Of course right now I’m worrying about how unflattering it is to admit all this and I normally wouldn’t. But I can’t get the Susina kid out of my head. So please forgive my online therapy session and feel free to move on if it seems too simplistic or treacly.
For the rest of the day I was acutely aware of how uncomfortable it was for me to hear praise. I love HAVING heard it, I just can’t handle HEARING it as it’s being said. Maybe that’s why I love blogging so much and why I’m such a comment junkie. Tell me in person that you were affected by something I’ve written and the defense mechanisms spring into action, doubting your words and wishing that they would stop. But when I receive comments that are not part of a face-to-face social interaction I am much more likely to take them seriously as a freely given reflection of that person’s feelings.
I’m not proud of this dysfunction and I’m working hard to be able to accept other people’s positive comments with more grace. God knows I believe any comment that I define as critical (“Aha! NOW they’re telling the truth! Wow, what insight!”). I remember once having dinner with Tamar at a conference. Being someone who is much more skilled at expressing her feelings, she began telling me how important our professional editor-author relationship was to her as well as our personal friendship. Without realizing what I was doing, I heard a reflexive “Awwwww” coming out of my mouth. As in, “Aww, isn’t that cute!” As in, “I don’t really feel comfortable hearing that right now so I’m going to dismiss it by marginalizing you as an emotional, demonstrative woman who wears your heart on your sleeve.” Oy. Luckily, I caught myself after this happened a few times and we were able to discuss my uncomfortable reaction. Once I got past my fear of such a statement as somehow being “unsafe,” I was able to hear it, acknowledge it, and express my own reciprocal feelings.
My therapist recently noted that I’m okay with “I felt…” but I still have problems with “I feel…” I can wax on and on (especially in writing) about how I felt sad, depressed, angry, happy in a certain situation, but in the actual moment of the feeling I am rarely able to express or acknowledge it. It’s as if I feel I don’t have a right to my feelings as they’re happening, or I don’t trust them, or I think they might hurt other people, or I dare not make them known for fear of ridicule.
My father is one of the most supportive parents on the planet. My friends used to make fun of his constant over-the-top praise for anything his kids did. (“Look at how well Danny can write upside-down.” “Danny is so brilliant he can do anything.” “Danny knows so much about the movies he should be the new film critic for the Chicago Tribune.”) It was easy to dismiss his comments as the good-natured ravings of a father blinded by his love for his children. I used to complain that my parents were so supportive about everything that I did that their praise lost all meaning because it wasn’t connected to who I really was, it was too generic to count. Then I’d feel horribly guilty for complaining about this when some of my friends were dealing with abusive parents who accused them of being idiots or sluts. My father called me yesterday to tell me how moved he was by my last post about the Marshall Field’s name change. I was suddenly aware of how part of me enjoyed hearing his comments, but part of me couldn’t wait for the positive remarks to end, I was practically holding my breath waiting for him to stop. I didn’t want to be ungracious so I kept trying to deftly change the subject. Why? I turned to my internal “generic praise has no meaning” mantra, and then had to admit to myself that this wasn’t generic, my dad was actually sharing his honest response to something very specific. I realized in that moment that my dismissal of his comments had become such an ingrained reflex I didn’t even realize how unfair it was to both of us.
What am I so afraid of? Oy, don’t answer that. Maybe I should just submit this post to an eTherapist. The little girl’s comment at Susina moved me so much that I spoke to the girl’s mother. She explained that she and her daughter had been talking a lot about emotions that day and so she wasn’t surprised when the girl asked her if she was happy. I told her I thought that was great, especially if sometimes her answer was, “no, I’m not particularly happy right now.” She said that indeed, they’d already been through the gamut of emotions that morning and the girl knew that it was normal to feel sad sometimes, that this wasn’t something you needed to hide or feel ashamed of. Lucky kid. I think the most destructive thing my well meaning parents did as they slogged through their hideous divorce was to blatantly pretend that all was well even in the face of screaming matches and violent episodes. They’d go after each other within full earshot of their children and then afterwards say, “Everything’s okay. Nothing just happened. We weren’t just yelling. We didn’t just break the door down. We love each other very much.” Huh? I can’t remember a single time when either of them sat us down and said, “I realize you just heard that fight and I’m sorry we’re having such a difficult time right now. We’re very sad and upset but we love you very much.” Again, I’m not blaming my parents at this point—they were young and in pain and doing the best they could, but even in less troubled times the modus operandi in my family was to act as if everything was okay, regardless of what was stirring underneath the thin veneer of calm. I sure don’t want to do that with my child and yet I don’t want to reveal too much either. I know that it’s okay and quite beneficial to acknowledge the times when I’m feeling sad or having a bad day, but I have to watch that I don’t go overboard and give her more information than is necessary or healthy for her developmental level or sense of security.
I wonder if I ever had as pure a channel into my feelings as that little girl in the bakery. Is one of our definitions of “maturity” learning how to dismiss or repress our true feelings more skillfully? No wonder I used to envy my relatives who had, shall we say, a more tenuous hold on reality. They may have been barking under the table but at least they were in touch with their emotions.