I often see adults in my practice who cannot tell me what they are experiencing. Inquiring into the nature of their depression, anxiety, or stress is like asking them to close their eyes, stick their hand into a bag and tell me what they think is there. Their answers often sound like guesses. Or, they might say they are sad but smile and chuckle as they describe their thoughts and feelings. Others seem to have a relatively good idea of what is going on, but are too afraid or embarrassed to say. As a psychologist, I am very curious as to what may have happened in the lives of these individuals to create such uncertainty and/or discomfort in being able to talk about themselves. This article looks at one of those possibilities.
The other day I was ordering lunch at a food stall at the Market on Granville Island when a father, mother, and young girl of about 5 years of age arrived. I was initially quite touched at the apparent care and love this father seemed to be showing her. He would kiss the top of her head, rest his hands gently on her shoulders and seemed tuned in, and devoted.
In front of the girl at eye level were five of the biggest and tastiest looking pizzas she may have ever seen. For about ten seconds she scanned them back and forth then pointed to the cheese pizza and turned to look up at her father’s face. The natural response I might have expected from him would have been to inquire if she was hungry, or maybe what she thought of the pizzas, or at least some question relating to her experiences and what she was trying to convey to him.
But he didn’t do that. Instead, he reminded her she had just finished eating something or other and calmly said to her, “You’re not hungry are you”. He was not asking if she was hungry, he was telling her she was not.
I don’t know if he was right, but there seemed to be considerable room for doubt for that. He knew full well she was either hungry or at least interested in tasting the pizza, but he wanted to move on, or perhaps didn’t want to spend the money. So rather than finding out what was she was trying to convey to him, talking to her, and working it out one way or the other, he chose to unilaterally define her reality for her. This seemed oddly contradictory with his other caring actions towards her.
I watched to see what would happen. Would she simply agree because she actually was not hungry, would she complain and fuss, would she turn to her mother for support (the mother who remained silent throughout)? I tried to put myself in her shoes.
On the one hand there is her daddy, who I assume she must have loved and trusted (in her five year old way), who was not only telling her she was not hungry, but asking her to confirm this to him. And then there was her own experience, apparently telling her something quite different.
What a dilemma! My daddy is telling me I am not hungry. But these pizzas look so good. If I am not hungry then why am I standing here looking at these. Maybe this isn’t hunger I am feeling. Should I quickly agree to please him or do I tell him I want to taste it because it looks so good. Listen to my experiences, listen to my daddy.
She turned away from him and continued to look at the pizzas for a few moments. He repeated to her again she wasn’t hungry. She nodded her head in agreement, turned away from the pizza, and they moved on.
Rather than being clear and direct with his daughter, the father manipulated her into accepting his own wishes and created some doubt for her with regards to the meaning of her own experience. Rather than using this opportunity to help her become more familiar with her experiences and learning how to communicate them to others, he confused her.
I am not suggesting that this one pizza incident would lead to psychological complication for this little girl. But if it is her father and/or mother’s general inclination to either override their child’s experiences, or fail to help her articulate those experiences, then that will almost certainly have an adverse effect later in her life.
The sad part is that this incident didn’t happen because he didn’t care for her. I don’t doubt he was responding to her in a manner he believed was thoughtful and caring. Rather, I believe it happened because he didn’t know any better.
The idea that we as parents have a responsibility to help our children learn how to interpret and become familiar with their inner experiences in an age-appropriate manner is essentially foreign to us. We generally seem willing and capable of teaching them what they need to know to be safe and familiarizing them with social rules and regulations.
Additionally, we are typically willing to have them taught within a fairly standard educational system where they will learn to read, write, think logically etc.. But in many, many ways, we fail miserably at helping them become familiar with themselves, with learning how to identify with and utilize their own experiences.
It is not because we don’t care. Instead, it seems as though the essential idea of familiarizing our children with their interior, with their thoughts, feelings, wishes, hopes, fears, fantasies, etc., has no meaning, no intrinsic value or purpose for us.
This is not so surprising. Most of us weren’t taught this as children by our parents, or by the educational system. So really, how could we know any better?
The more I see how much we all suffer because of this type of social ignorance and confusion the more I am convinced it is the root of many of our social ills. This is a topic I will write continue to write more about and hope that in some small way it helps to not only clarify the nature of this problem, but also provide some solutions for addressing it.