Friday, October 15, 2021

Self = Bad

 “So I’ve been thinking about where we ended last time,” Paula says, starting right in from our previous session. “You said we’d need to figure out why I can’t forgive myself for not being more attentive to my mother when she was dying. I’ve thought about it and I don’t see why I SHOULD forgive myself. I know I was a teen-ager, but I was old enough to know better. I did know better. I was being cruel and nasty and just plain BAD.”

“So what made you bad?”

“I suppose I was just born that way – selfish, self-centered, only caring about myself. And that’s how I was being when my mother was dying, paying attention to me not her.”

Convinced of the futility of arguing with Paula’s view of herself, I pursue an alternative approach. “How does it feel for you to see yourself as selfish and self-centered?”

“It feels …” Pause. “It feels accurate and true and I guess kind of shitty….” Pause. “And familiar.”


“Yeah, like I’ve always seen myself like that.” Pause. “And I guess my parents, especially my mother, always told me I was selfish, like ‘why can’t Monica go with you to the movies?’ My mother was always trying to get me to take my sister along with me and my friends.” Pause. “I hated Monica. I hated her from the moment she was born. Everyone fussing over the baby. I didn’t see anything so special about her. She just lay there and stared. And then when she turned out to be autistic, well that just made everything worse. All the attention went to poor Monica, understanding Monica, making allowances for Monica. But you see, you see how selfish I am, wanting all the attention, wanting Monica and all her problems to just disappear.”

Here again I feel the pull to reassure Paula, to tell her she was just a child who of course had angry, rejecting feelings towards her younger, challenging sister. Yet I know that Paula will only dispute what I say. “Paula, if I were to try and reassure you, to tell you all children have negative feelings towards their siblings, you’d tell me that your feelings were worse, stronger, more heartless, right?”

“Yes. Because it’s true. And you’re only trying to make me feel better. But I don’t deserve to feel better.”

“Why don’t you deserve to feel better?”

“Because I’m bad, very bad.”

“It sounds as though being bad is almost like a core sense of who you are. Being Paula equals being bad.”

“Yes. I’m bad because I hated my sister and didn’t want to be there for my mother.”

“I wonder if you had fantasies about killing your sister.”

She nods. “See, I told you I was bad, worse than bad, evil.”

“It’s not unusual for children – or adults for that matter – to have fantasies of killing a sibling, or a parent, or boss or whomever. But I suspect my saying that isn’t going to make you feel any less bad.”

“I’m bad. I’ve always been bad. My grandma used to tell me that I was like that girl in an old movie, “The Bad Seed,” I think she called it.”

“Why did your grandma think you were bad?”

“She never liked me. She thought I was mean to both my mother and sister. And she doted on Monica. The sun rose and set on Monica.” Pause. “I think grandma might have been on the spectrum too, but of course no one talked about that.”

“Paula, do you have a sense of who you’d be if you weren’t ‘bad?’”

“But I am bad.”

“I understand that’s your view of yourself. But I’m asking if you can imagine you as someone who isn’t bad.”

“No, that’s impossible.”

“So that’s one of the big problems we have here. Being ‘bad’ is such a core sense of yourself that to imagine anything else is destabilizing. It’s like you said, being ‘bad’ feels familiar.”

“It’s familiar because it’s accurate.”

“Do you want me to dispute that with you right now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it feels as though you’re almost asking me to say ‘no, that’s not so.’ But If I disagree with you, does that give you the hope that you might in fact not be bad or does it just help you shore up your argument when you counter me?”

“I’ve never thought of that.” Pause. “I wouldn’t want you to think I’m as bad as I think I am.” Pause. “So I guess maybe I am hoping that I could eventually see myself as you see me. It makes me sad when I say that.”

“I understand that. If you see yourself through my eyes, it means giving up seeing yourself through the eyes of your parents and your grandma, which means leaving them behind and bringing up feelings of loss and sadness.”

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