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I HAVE A LONG HISTORY OF BEING REJECTED

Dear Doctor:

I have a long history of being rejected, first by my father and brother and later by others, such as co-workers at my places of employment. Now it is my daughter-in-law and son who are rejecting me. I feel pushed away, pushed out, turned away from, scorned, and belittled. What can I do to gain a good feeling about myself?

Dear Bothered:

Those of us who grew up in a bad home are particularly vulnerable to attacks of negative thoughts. We are not good at bouncing back. We are prone to all the dangers of being outside the pale, and fears multiply. Being outside is like being out in the cold where wild animals roam and unfriendly tribes attack. Terrible events are like an open sore that won't heal. There is no comfort or reassurance. Some of us awaken in the middle of the night feeling vulnerable.

As a child, a victim of scorn, belittling, and contempt felt small, helpless, and unimportant. Maybe you were picked on by a caregiver and grew up perceiving him or her as powerful and yourself as inferior, giving yourself such thoughts as, "I am inferior. Who I am doesn't matter as much as who the other person is. I should pay attention to the other person in favor of paying attention to myself. I deserve people's slights. I am disliked." These thoughts carry forward into adult life, where the false idea of inferiority maintains a strong foothold.

Feeling inferior develops in a person because of the offenses of other people. When someone is rude, he or she is giving the thought, "I am putting you down." Rudeness is an action of excluding, pushing away or out, or turning away from. When one person turns his or her back on another person, he or she is leaving the other person out in the cold, alone, abandoned, vulnerable, unsupported, unprotected, turned out, dropped, and subordinated. The circle has closed, leaving the rejected person outside.

If you are stung by someone's insult, you are buying into the false idea of the other person's superiority, even though the other person is of little consequence to you. The taxi driver who doesn't thank you for a tip, the office worker who gives you the cold shoulder, and the redneck who sneers at you all play a very small part in your life. You don't need them to be nice to you. It is the distortion of your perception of their relative status that causes you to take offense. You see the other person as at the center of existence and yourself as off center.

Feeling outside gets in the way of becoming an insider again. Fear causes withdrawal. Resentment and envy cause hostility. Winning the interest of other people is then all the harder.

A person who is excluded often suffers from lasting effects. A case in point is Tennessee Williams, who wrote, "My adolescent problems took their most violent form in a shyness of a pathological degree. Few people realize, now, that I have always been and even remain in my years as a crocodile an extremely shy creature - in my crocodile years I compensate for this shyness by the typical Williams heartiness and bluster and sometimes explosive fury of behavior. In my high school days I had no disguise, no facade. And it was at University City High School that I developed the habit of blushing whenever anyone looked me in the eyes, as if I harbored behind them some quite dreadful or abominable secret." (Tennessee Williams, Memoirs (Garden City: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1975), 17.) This effect on Tennessee Williams can be traced to his rejection by his father. Tennessee felt excluded from the normal society of males, with the consequence that he felt put out, put down, and vulnerable. He lost faith in the kind offices of normal society. He wrote that, after the success of "The Glass Menagerie," he felt "a great depression, probably because I never believed that anything could maintain its ground. I always thought there would be a collapse immediately after the advance." (Ibid, 92.) He saw himself as outside the pale, alone: "My greatest affliction, which is perhaps the major theme of my writings, [is] the affliction of loneliness that follows me like a shadow, a very ponderous shadow too heavy to drag after me all of my days and nights." (Ibid., 99.) "I existed outside of conventional society while contriving somewhat precariously to remain in contact with it. For me this was not only precarious but a matter of dark, unconscious disturbance." (Ibid., 162.) In his worst moments he couldn't interact well with other people: "The most painful aspect of the depression was always an inability to talk to people. As long as you can communicate with someone who is inclined to sympathy, you retain a chance to be rescued."

This kind of person reacts to any criticism as if it were life threatening. All of his or her defense mechanisms are aroused, and he or she comes to be known as being defensive. If, feeling inferior, you are kept waiting by someone, you interpret the occurrence as a deliberate offense designed to confirm your inferiority. If someone says he or she will call and then doesn't, you feel that something is wrong with you that you have elicited this affront. If someone doesn't greet you, you think you are unlikable, that the person doesn't want to say hello to you. In many ways you make an assumption of others' scorn or dislike.

You feel lower rather than equal. Focusing on your inabilities, you withdraw from situations where abilities are required. Not meeting challenges, you never have the chance to feel the power that comes from success. Instead of asserting your value, you retreat, according higher respect to others than to yourself. You are silent out of fear of having your ideas ignored or scorned.

Fear pinches one's personality, causing it to contract. The term "cold with fear" is well chosen, because fear is like being cold, when the skin pulls together, like a leech that has been touched with salt. The effect of fear on the personality is also a pulling away from being touched. The person turns away from experiences that he or she sees as dangerous and lives isolated, standing on a small spot of ground, always turning from side to side in anticipation of an attack.

When we speak positive thoughts to ourselves, we turn toward ourselves. On the other hand, when we speak negative thoughts, we turn away from ourselves. Then, the victimizer in one's mind is able to live its own, independent life. It freely sends hurtful thoughts, such as directing one's attention to one's shortcomings, failures, and inferiority, as if it were an alien inside. Not faced, it gets out of hand. The person is constantly subject to its barrage of barbs. An enemy seems to have captured you, when in fact the enemy is a part of the self. Thinking that the self is single and unified, the person feels overwhelmed by this alien presence.

Such a person ignores the fact that other points of view and judgments are excluded. One may see oneself to be weak, foolish, unwanted, disliked, ridiculous, stupid, and unattractive to the exclusion of ever seeing oneself as strong, sensible, wanted, honorable, intelligent, and attractive. In such a case, the person always interprets his or her experiences to his or her disadvantage.

This way of taking one side in one's mind can be seen in dreams. In one of my dreams I was in a restaurant. A man runs in, escaping from a pursuer. There is much excitement. Someone shows the man a hallway through which he can escape, and he runs down it. The pursuer enters and, instead of being puzzled about where the man went, he follows the man down the hallway. I had thought that the man was going to be safe, because he had been shown where to run, but I hear his screams. He has been caught! While I was dreaming I felt the horror of the man's predicament.

In the dream I took the side of the observer, even though another part of my mind, which I did not recognize, was the author of the dream. The author created the observer, the pursued, and the pursuer, but I was unaware of the author of the dream story and unaware of what was going to happen. I followed the story just as if someone else was the author, so that the outcome was a surprise. My "I" was in the role of observer in the dream story, to the exclusion of the author and of the other characters. They seemed alien to me, even though I invented them.

In another dream a friend and I were learning to play a board game. My friend asked me if I knew how to play it. I responded that I didn't but that the silver disks were playing pieces. A bit later we learned that the silver disks were for keeping score and were not playing pieces at all. I felt embarrassed just as if I weren't the author of the dream but, instead, one of the players. My perception of myself was limited to just one player.

People who suffer from abiding fear, shame, hostility, or guiltiness are continually feeling vulnerable. We feel that our minds have a flavor, not of sweetness but, rather, of sharpness or bitterness. Our minds feel cold rather than warm. Since we are continually under attack, we are engaged within our own minds and are not free to deal creatively with present concerns. Fearful, we are continually alerted to the possibility of danger. Ashamed, we are continually alerted to the possibility of social rejection. Guilty, we are continually alerted to the possibility of being in the wrong. These thoughts put us into a weak position, where we often choose either to withdraw or to push back in anger. Because we think that the suffering is integral with who we are, we are passive to it.

It is a basic point that feelings of shame and blame can be activated in a person whether or not the person is shameful or blameworthy. Just being shunned can activate them, regardless of the justice of the case. Once activated, they live a life of their own inside the person, blaming and shaming, unless they are actively objected to. Once a victim, you come to see yourself as outside and the other person as inside. You abandon your own side and adopt the values of the insiders. The person's enemy is then himself or herself.

Feeling inferior, you repudiate who you are in favor of who you wish you were. Who you are is not clear to you, because you look askance at yourself. Being under attack from yourself and not being sure what there is about you that you like, you dare not move away from what of yourself you think you do like. Instead of finding a new "in" group, you are stuck in longing for the "in" group that rejected you. You lose flexibility to experiment with different roles of being, different "you are's." You are held back from changing by holding tightly to the little self-respect that you have.

In summary, it is true that being a victim has happened to the person, who has indeed been assaulted, blamed, punished, humiliated, and dropped by others. The person has been told, "Who you are is not good enough. Don't be who you are. Be who you are not." However, it is the person who has then carried on by telling himself or herself, "Who you are is not good enough. Don't be who you are. Be who you are not."

Shame and guiltiness are different from their companions, fear and hostility, in that they are a put-down, that is, they cause feelings of inferiority. Fear and hostility are mechanisms aimed at coping with aggression and intrusion, whereas shame and guiltiness are judgmental - they convict you as a whole person.

Because shame and guiltiness are a capitulation to an attack from within the boundary of oneself, they are the worst feelings in the world. The enemy is oneself, and it is in charge. Because it is not resisted, it becomes imperious and cruel, and the bad feelings of its victim multiply to the point where it seems (although it is not) impossible to sort them out.

Of the two, shame is worse. Shame is a feeling of being excluded from membership in one's group, whereas the person suffering from guiltiness feels that, although he or she has given offense, membership is still intact. With guiltiness all is not lost. There is always the possibility of penance. With shame, all is lost - the person feels shut out and alone.

The worst kind of shame, producing the worst of the worst kind of feeling, is humiliation. This extreme shame, humiliation, in which public notice is made of a person's rejection, is the most powerful kind of shame and is the cause of many suicides, particularly in young people. The person feels that everybody sees his or her stupidity, unattractiveness, handicap, or inability. The person takes the side of the scorners, rejecters, and shunners against himself or herself, according them respect.

The common solution is to turn away from it. Instead of dealing with the suffering objectively, the person lets it be and distracts himself or herself. The problem is avoided rather than faced. The person tries to wall himself or herself off from his or her abiding shame or guiltiness, as if it didn't exist, retreating further and further, not standing up to it but folding completely, as if it was in the right. If one stood up to it, one would see it for what it is, mean and intolerant, without a shred of compassion. When one avoids facing it, one allows the meanness to prosper. Since the person is not dealing with it, it can develop a life of its own, unimpeded. Its power grows, because the person is passive to it.

Shame and guiltiness can be powerful masters. They can poison all one's thoughts so that one feels continually bested, put down, hurt, ignored, scorned, and rejected.

It is the feeling of public disgrace that leads to one of the mind's ways of dealing with shame: obsession.

In this case, the mind fixes on some object, the feelings about which mask the feeling of humiliation. To counter such a powerful bad feeling nothing but a persistent relief is adequate. The object of an obsession is something that seems to make the person equal, in contrast to one's conviction of being inferior. By fixing on some object that provides a feeling of being all right and whole, the mind pulls itself out of the hole of being wrong and defective. Because the feelings of humiliation persist, the obsession persists, and a lifetime can be spent under its sway.

Obsession is a response to aloneness. It is a way of connecting.

Obsessions provide satisfaction in a very narrow range. The person obsessed with food concentrates on the food to the exclusion of other pleasures. The person obsessed with sex concentrates on sex. Obsessed people are not able to enjoy other things, since they are absorbed with thinking about the object of their obsession. When a person is serene, his or her mind moves swiftly from one sensation to the next, enjoying one thing after another, moment by moment, in contrast with the obsessed person's mind, which is stuck in its obsession.

The connection between humiliation and obsession is hidden. The person does not see that the cause of the obsession in his or her own mind. Primarily, the person is obsessed by a feeling of humiliation and only secondarily by the object of his or her obsession.

It is of some value for people who have been humiliated to know that, in every case, people who deliberately humiliate other people feel themselves to be at a disadvantage. The worst humiliators are those who think thtat they are low class or stupid. The social costs of this problem are enormous. At the extreme are the Nazis and the Klu Klux Klanners. Closer to home, people who humiliate others use ethnic slurs, ridicule people who are handicapped and infirm, scorn gays, and get angry at mistakes. They are mean and impatient, living in a narrow world unenlightened by kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy.

What to do? The way out is to focus on being authentic. You are okay. It is the scorners who are not okay. There is a wonderful person inside each of us. However, this wonderful person might well not be brilliant, talented, good-looking, suave, humorous, funny, and creative. On the other hand, this wonderful person can be a good friend, a good worker, a dutiful son or daughter, a conscientious parent, and a person with interests of his or her own. If you are looked down on by racists and snobs, you are not therefore shameful or guilty. If you are taunted for anything personal - your looks, your hair, your stature, your clothing, or anything else about you - you are not therefore an outcast. For this reason, shame and guiltiness are unreliable as guides to behavior. You might feel ashamed and guilty, but this is no reason to convict yourself. You can and should see any shaming, belittling, or ostracizing as the ignoble behavior of racists and snobs, and you should see your consequent feelings as unwelcome but manageable.

Useful sayings:NEXT

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