About four years after my adoption, my mother and I were having a mini-vacation at her friend’s house and without provocation, she began telling me how horrible a person I was.
I had treated our host badly. We do not treat people this badly. We do not treat people like this. I had made our host feel very badly. It is never ok to make someone feel as bad as I had made our host feel. We were guests here and I was making our host sorry to have invited us. I was a shame and embarrassment to her. Only bad people made other people feel bad.
And it went on and on. And on. I was unaware of having done anything rude. I thought I had done everything I had been trained to do. My intentions had always been to be respectful. I never learned what I had done to upset our host, but whatever it was, I felt bad about it.
Using the tools available to me as a twelve year old, I did my best to make sense of what she had said. Stripping the argument of its rhetorical niceties left:
- My mother is a reliable source of information.
- Good people do not make other people feel bad.
- I made our host feel bad.
Therefore, I am not good.
No problems with this train of logic. I was well acquainted with it and my family regularly told me that I was not a good person.The conclusion was familiar and it flowed easily from the propositions above it which are all known to be true. No news here.
A second set of propositions could be brought up:
- My mother is a reliable source of information.
- Good people do not make other people feel bad.
- My mother is making me feel bad.
Therefore, she is not good.
The conclusion could not be right. Something must have gone wrong. Steps 1 and 2 were givens. There must be something wrong with step 3: my mother was making me feel bad.
Perhaps I didn’t feel bad even though I was pretty sure that’s what I felt. This was a possibility, but seemed silly. Alternatively, maybe I was feeling bad, but maybe I was feeling just a little bit bad. Maybe our host was feeling really bad. I was making other people feel even worse than my mother was making me feel! That would be horrible because I feel pretty bad! And if I’m making other people feel even worse than this, that is very terrible! I’m so sorry! This logic makes other people’s feelings more important and more reliable, than my feelings. It is easy to see how growing up with this belief could get someone into trouble.
Another belief that got me into trouble is the idea that people can make other people feel a particular way, that one person can control another’s feelings. I am responsible for how other people feel. It raises the possibility that other people are responsible for how I feel. Believing that I am responsible for how other people feel means that they can get me to act in ways that they want by telling me I am making them feel bad. It makes me easily manipulable. Believing that other people are responsible for how I feel absolves me of responsibility for the contents of my own heart and steals my power to control my own life.
Alternatively, perhaps there was an exception for my mother to the rule “good people don’t make other people feel bad,” because she was the adult and I was the child. It was OK for the adult to do whatever they felt needed to be done in order to correct the child. I already knew that I was going to have a hard time in life because I had so many undesirable traits so I should really be grateful for all the correction I could get. At least I wouldn’t drive people away by making them feel bad. I had to guess what I had done that was upsetting our host so much, but that was the least of my problems. From interactions like this, I would be left thinking that if someone said they were trying to help me, they could be as mean as they wanted. It is easy to see how this belief would prove unhelpful.
Perhaps there was another reason that the rule “good people do not make other people feel bad” did not apply to me. Perhaps I was such a bad person, that I, myself, was the exception. I could be made to feel bad without contradicting the rule because I was so bad it didn’t matter. This was a real possibility. Clearly, I was very bad. My mother had just spent fifteen minutes telling me so. Surely someone as loathsome as I could be made to feel bad with impunity. It is not difficult to see how this would cause adult me problems.
In the usual pattern, after the lecture went on for a while, my mother would say, “You make me so angry” and begin hitting me. Because we were at her friend’s house, she did not hit me, but confined herself to a semi-whispered tirade. With my adult brain, “you made me so angry that I hit you” is laughable, but when your full size parent says it, it is tough to argue with. Little Mary, of course your mother was able to control herself. She did not hit you when she deemed it inappropriate. She never hit you at her friend’s house, or while she was driving, or in church. She only “lost control” when there were no witnesses. Have you ever, Mary, become so overcome by emotions that you have hit someone else? You, loathsome as you are, can control yourself and your mother cannot? The problems with this statement became obvious to me when I was just a little older.
My mother’s tirade hinged on being convinced that another person can make you feel a certain way. This is a very complicated thing. It was obvious to me that other people could affect my emotions. My mother was making me feel bad (more accurately, sad, ashamed, remorseful, embarrassed, and unworthy) so it made sense to me that I had made her feel “bad,” too. However, as I aged into adolescence, my self awareness was growing. Soon, I would be making the discovery Marcus Aurelius did. Other people cannot control how you feel. Marcus says it in book 7:
Let there fall externally what will on the parts which can feel the effects of this fall. For those parts which have felt will complain, if they choose. But I, unless I think that what has happened is an evil, am not injured. And it is in my power not to think so.
I knew from my own experience, when someone in the room feels angry and yells at me, I felt afraid. When someone told me I was lazy, dishonest and unlovable, I felt bad. When I became a little older, I realized that it lasted for a brief moment and then often I was able to have a more reasoned response to the lecture. My response was consistent with what Viktor Frankl describes:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
This was the beginning of developing my own Stoicism. I have previously written that the Stoic maxims can be like a foot shoved into a slamming door and can help me avoid giving assent to the initial feeling I have and spiralling into feeling “bad.” There is the stimulus (angry person in the room) and I cannot help the initial flash of feeling, but assenting to that feeling in the next moment is voluntary. If I can do something besides assent to it, I do not have to react to my emotion. I am in control of myself.
Figuring out that other people do not control my emotions was a huge freedom. That freedom didn’t make it hurt any less to be hit, but it did start to provide a way to look at “If you didn’t make me so angry, I wouldn’t hit you” differently. After this discovery, things in my family actually got worse as I experimented with saying, “It doesn’t really matter if I line the silverware up correctly” for the pleasure of watching my mother’s face contort in rage. I would think, “I did that. I can make her lose control of herself so easily. And she cannot make me lose control of myself even by grabbing my hair and using it as a handle to knock my head against the wall.”
The idea of controlling my response to my emotions provided me with a way to evaluate her statement that I made her angry and provided me with the start of a way to resolve the cognitive dissonance that I have described above. But it also provided me with more pain. Sadly, I could only control my mother in one direction. Try as I might (and I sure tried hard!) I could never find the switch that turned her into the generous, fun, loving mother that she could be every now and again.
And now thirty years after those lectures have ceased, I am still learning about the space between the impulse and the response. I know to notice what I am responding to when there is an angry person in the room. When things are going well, I will feel the anger, notice it, point it out to myself, remind myself that the person is angry, carefully check that I’m not responding to make their anger go away, remind myself that I am safe, and then attend to the situation at hand. This is easier to do professionally and more difficult to do with my family. Some days I’m successful and some days I’m not. I am still living out the legacy of believing other people control one’s emotions but I am better at logic than I used to be.
Mary Braun, MD is a primary care physician in rural New Hampshire specializing in internal medicine and palliative care. In childhood, Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism to cope with being orphaned. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She applies ideas from Stoicism not only for her own life but also to help her patients. You can find her at her Medium Publication
Excessive fault finding is a sign of insecurity. Needless to say, children exposed to insecure adults are vulnerable targets. Repression of these memories can create health problems. Modern stoicism provides an admirable platform to cope with both bad memories and the resultant health problems.
Insecurities or ignorance of the cycle? Repeating the way one is raised, sounding and acting like our parents is as normal as breathing.
I read Meditations in high school and I think it both reinforced what I heard at home ( you can feel strongly about something without sharing that with the whole world) and gave me a powerful tool with a name.
I’m sorry you had that childhood but as my mother used to say “it’s hard for adults when they find out someone knows more than they do. You have to be patient with them.”
Your stoic response was the worst punishment you could have conceived for her.
(Yes, I realize that enjoying their frustration is still giving weight to them.😉)
Well said, Mary! And your rational habits of mind are beautifully systematized in Albert Ellis’s REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy), which draws its key beliefs from the Stoics.
“Stoic maxims can be like a foot shoved into a slamming door and can help me avoid giving assent to the initial feeling I have and spiralling into feeling “bad.””
What a visceral simile! I’ll have to remember that illustration—seems to be a nice way of expression how natural proto-passions (a strong “slamming door”) interact with cognitive practices.