Barbara Fish Counselling Services ... helping your life work

Showing the Way

Helping Your Life Work

Volume 9, Issue 3

March 2013

Dear Reader

This is the second in a series of guest writers. Evelyn Sommers is a psychologist in private practice and the author of two books about giving voice including The Tyranny of Niceness: Unmasking the Need for Approval and Voices From Within: Women Who Have Broken the Law. She has also been a friend and colleague for 25 years.

On a recent walk my four-year-old grandson waved his arms about his face as he complained loudly about the gasoline smell from an idling car and the smoke blowing into our faces from a puffer standing on the sidewalk. The driver of the car did not hear his protestations but the smoker certainly did. We didn’t stick around long enough to notice the smoker’s reaction but the incident stayed with me.

As a psychologist working with people who can’t be so open I am always challenged to find creative ways to help them reclaim the ability that they lost somewhere between birth and their visits with me--the ability to speak their truth. I am convinced that the loss of this ability is the nucleus of most mental health and relationship problems. Somewhere between the first cry and now they have become fearful and inhibited, self doubt has replaced candour and fear has become normalized into depression, anxiety, and a myriad of psychological problems that require years to mitigate whether by psychotherapy or drugs.

Where did this—does this—fear come from? In my book, The Tyranny of Niceness: Unmasking the Need for Approval, I talk about the powerful ways that parents and culture control their children and citizens, by limiting their behaviours to those deemed acceptable. All global populations struggling to make their way together engage social values that make themselves manageable with each other. These are the rules of engagement of any given culture and their purpose, to greater or lesser degree, is to keep populations from descending into chaos. The problem is that the idea that people can speak their truth and still cooperate to run a society, seems to have eluded us on a global scale.

I’m no stranger to this in my personal life. It occurred to me that at another time in my life I might have quieted my grandson by unwittingly transmitting a sense of embarrassment about his comments. Certainly I would have heard his complaints in private and agreed without reservation, but I would have struggled with the public expression of them. I might have rationalized that he needed to learn to be polite and respectful and not borrow trouble. I might have told myself I needed to protect him from retaliation. I did that with my son, his father. I know it was done to me.

We live in a world that has moved from the eternal optimism of infants whose instinct seems to be that they will be heard if they wail loud enough, to one that is ruled by dire pessimism. We give no one credit for being able to hear our direct, honest, thoughtfully formed opinions. Instead, we take up the social spin, stifle ourselves, and paint ourselves into anger-filled, pathology-ridden corners where we recognize that something has gone wrong and try to undo the tangled threads that got us there. In the process we remain miserable and unable to speak in a direct, non-blaming way.

Despite the fact that so much of this problem revolves around speaking, our best change agent is not instruction. I could have acted on my embarrassment, shushed my grandson in public, taken him home, raised the topic, and told him that he was absolutely right. But the damage would have been done. So what works? The most effective way of freeing the next generation is to look our own fear in the face, take stock of our anger, and model behaviours, ways of interacting and speaking with each other, that can liberate them.

I’m happy to report I’ve learned a lesson or two and the conclusion to my opening anecdote went like this: As we passed the offenders and my grandson turned up his nose and waved the smoke away from his face I said, just as loudly as he did, “I agree, it smells bad”, and continued a dialogue about second hand smoke and gasoline fumes and the damage they can do (at a four year-old’s level of understanding, of course). These were simple words and acts of validation that moved me out of my old comfort zone to another plane of relating and conveyed the message that talking about his experiences and observations is acceptable. The by-product? It felt good to me, too.

Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
“Helping Your Life Work”

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