A client tells me that she has spent her whole life trying to please her father. “But nothing is ever good enough for him,” she says. “If I got an A on a paper, he wanted to know why it wasn’t an A plus. When I played field hockey, I never got enough goals. When I got my first job, it wasn’t impressive enough. And my first promotion, barely six months later, took too long.”
Her story reminds me of my relationship with my own father, who never seemed to care much about me, but who, when he did make his presence known, was almost always critical of me. As a psychotherapist, I have learned to pay attention when a client’s stories stir up thoughts about my own life, as those memories can hold a key to something that the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has called “the unthought known.”
My memories contain some unformulated ideas that will be important to the work that my client and I are doing together. I listen carefully to what she is telling me, while allowing my memories to emerge at the back of my mind.
My dad and I weren’t close when I was growing up. He worked long hours and seldom paid attention to me when he was home. I was pretty sure that he didn’t like me much at all. I figured it was at least partly because I was a girl, although my brothers tell me now that he didn’t seem to like them much, either. I told myself it didn’t matter. My mother was the warm, energetic, caring center of our family. I didn’t need my father.
In my therapy, I mostly spoke of my mother. One day Martin, my therapist, asked me to talk about my dad. “Not much to say,” I replied. “He wasn’t around much, and he and I didn’t have a great relationship.” Martin encouraged me to talk about any memories I did have of him. To my surprise, I recalled a time he had comforted me after the death of a beloved pet. “In fact, now that I think of it, he did a burial service with my brothers and me for every pet we lost.” Which was strange, since my dad was not a religious man.
I began to remember other times my father had comforted me, times that my mother’s effusive reassurances had felt unrealistic, but my father’s sparse words had been soothing.
“I guess he has shown that he cares about you,” Martin said.
Then he mused, “I think you and your dad may be more alike than you realize.” I waited, puzzled. “I wonder if he feels rejected by you. You’ve always said your mother was the important parent. Maybe he feels hurt and withdraws from you as a result.”
I knew, as soon as he said it, that Martin had a valid point. Not only was my dad probably often hurt by my dismissive behavior, but that it was the same thing I did in my own relationships – with friends, lovers, and with my father. Martin and I had talked about this characteristic often as I had, with great anxiety, gotten closer to a new man in my life. Joel had many wonderful traits and a lot of highly irritating ones; but the first time I tried to walk away in anger (over a completely trivial, but infuriating argument), he told me that he had no idea what I was so angry about, but that he was going to stick with me while we argued out whatever it was. It was a novel experience for me, and one of the reasons that I trusted him enough to fall in love with him.
Martin suggested I use the same technique that Joel used on me with my dad.
“I can’t argue with him,” I said. “He doesn’t like arguments.”
“Okay, that’s fine. But don’t let him push you away. Stay connected. Let him know that you love him even if you don’t agree about something. See what happens.”
These were the memories that gently nudged me as I listened to my client talk about never being able to please her father. Martin taught me that both positive and negative memories of childhood may be far less accurate than we like to think. He used to say, “What we think we understand about our parents from childhood is colored by the fact that we were children when we first recorded the memories. That means that our adult understanding of our parents often doesn’t develop past a child’s eye view.”
The psychoanalyst Roy Shafer once wrote that each of us constantly reconstructs – or rewrites – our own history as a result of growing maturity and capacity to understand human behavior. But as I listened to this young woman who felt rejected by her father and simultaneously allowed my own memories to flow, I thought of another psychoanalyst, Michael Basch, who described a young woman similar to my own client.
“Could your father be trying to protect you in some way?” I asked her. “I mean, I know that’s not what it feels like, but is it possible that he doesn’t want you to feel the kinds of disappointment that he’s felt in his own life? And that his way of protecting you is to keep you from getting too excited about anything?”
She said, “It’s a pretty lousy way of protecting me.” But I could see that something about the idea had caught her attention.
“Yeah,” she went on. “He doesn’t talk about it much, but I know he was really hurt and disappointed because he couldn’t go to college. He was a top student in high school, but then his father got sick and stopped working, and his parents couldn’t afford to send him to college. And even though he got a scholarship, it wasn’t enough. He had to go to work to help support the family. He finally went to school at night and got his degree in accounting, but it wasn’t what he wanted at all. And then he and my mom got married, and they started having kids…I never thought about it, but a lot of what he says is that life kicks you in the butt and you have to figure out how to make the most of it. And he says you can’t expect life to keep giving to you. You’ll just end up disappointed.”
In his book Doing Psychotherapy Michael Basch wrote that realizations like this can dramatically change relationships between parents and adult children by removing an implied or explicit criticism of the parent. In an interesting confluence of events, I was reading Magda Szabo’s book Abigail for my book group as I was thinking about this material. Abigail is the story of teen in Hungary during World War II, sent by her father to a horror of a boarding school. She thinks he has sent her away because he is getting married and his new wife doesn’t want her. She believes that he no longer loves her or even cares about her, but she eventually learns that he has sent her to the one place where she will be protected if his secret resistance work is discovered. “So my dear father,” she realizes, “you have taken good care of me. You made sure I would have some means of support if our home were blown away in the storm.”
My own relationship with my dad changed dramatically once I began to think that he might be protecting himself from feeling rejected by me. My parents lived in Florida, and I called them once a week. I often complained that my dad got off the phone after only a few quick words, but I had never before realized that when I spoke with the, I wasn’t actually talking to him – I was just talking to my mother! I started asking him questions about himself, and he stayed on for longer each time. Joel and I made a special surprise trip to be with him on his sixtieth birthday. And when he walked me down the aisle for our wedding, I was blown away by the look of pride on his face.
As I listen to my client struggle to deal with her feelings of disappointment in her father, I hope that I can help her find a way to connect with her dad as Martin helped me connect with mine. Her path will be different, and she may not be quite as lucky as I was. But as I listen to her, I think, as I often do, that connections are the healing tools of therapy. I hope that with my help she can find a way to make her own sort of connection with her dad.