As I sit down to write this morning, I’m listening to an interview with Barbra Streisand on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She’s promoting her new memoir. She was huge when I was a teenager. I love some of her songs but was never a serious fan. Until this morning…
She said something that struck me. She said, “Maybe it was my mother’s negativity…I don’t know if it was like ‘I’ll prove you wrong’ ’cause she kept telling me to get a job as a secretary…I think it’s hard sometimes parents who would have loved a career for themselves to have their kids become what they wanted to be…”. Apparently, her father died when she was tiny. A stepfather is remembered as never speaking to her, acting as if she wasn’t there at all.
I reflect on this for you for a few different reasons. First, this isn’t what we typically describe as trauma. Second, I’m reminded of something Freud call Reaction Formation.
There was nothing in this interview that suggested that Ms. Streisand wasn’t a loved infant. One does wonder, however, how her mother coped with her father’s death. Was she able to meet all the physical and emotional needs of the baby? What I did hear, was that a young woman knew her mother was not on her side in her endeavors, her dreams for herself. Ms. Streisand was only 19 when she landed her first role on Broadway. The only time her mother saw her act, her only comment was, “Your arms are too skinny.” Betrayal might be a better descriptor than trauma.
We listen to a talent like Ms. Streisand’s, and it never occurs to us that she is swimming against a current like this one. We credit performers with so much confidence, even arrogance. We read about stage fright but may doubt its sincerity. It is hard to imagine what it takes to be the person who puts themself in the spotlight but is plagued with self-doubt.
I think we are in the territory of Reaction Formation. Reaction Formation is what we do when we are not proud of our first impulse, so we do the exact opposite thing. It is a defense mechanism. It is a way to protect ourselves from indulging our worst idea of ourselves or the darkest side of our nature.
I have never considered myself a very coordinated person, so I never played sports or tried out for drill team in high school. It also happens that there was never any money, and certainly no encouragement for participation in anything that might cost extra. But I loved riding my bike and I was a really fast runner, a strong swimmer, and a great tree climber so rather than resent the lack of support, I simply believed (and became) the opposite about myself: I’m not coordinated, not an athlete, not a dancer. On the other hand, my Mantra could easily be summed up as “Fake it until you make it.” This is also my Reaction Formation. I don’t want to indulge my feeling that I am not worthy or that I don’t belong so I enter a space ready to carry the conversation, ready to learn what I can from anyone ready to share. It doesn’t cost a cent (OK, maybe a suitable outfit, decent dental care, a good haircut, and the ability to listen well. Being Caucasian can’t be denied, either.). This has worked for me for a very long time. It is absolutely a defense mechanism. I suppose it is the foundation of what has come to be known as Imposter Syndrome, or a nagging belief that one’s accomplishments are nothing much or not to their credit.
This isn’t the trauma that leaves you afraid of other humans. This is the emotional neglect/abuse that erodes your self confidence and hope for the future but is “rescued’ by Reaction Formation! Ms. Streisand says of herself, “I want to be open to change.” Interestingly, it is her inner voice that is the source of her self-doubt; she is consistently able to ignore those whose criticism is never constructive but only destructive.
I wonder if some of you are living with such imposters; teens who just fake their way through the day, never claiming their achievements (Oh, it was easy; it’s nothing; no big deal) and unable to take a compliment. Teens whose identity is still too fluid, with too few friends, no sense of what they are good at, or what they bring to or want from the world.
Stories help. A review of memories can strengthen a sense of self over time. Processing the highlights of the day helps. The person who loved those pancakes was the same person who hated the fried fish. The person who wore that dress was the same person who carried the casserole in. It is so easy to overlook these tiny moments, these tiny details that help strengthen the boundaries of the emerging person; the person who will have to encounter the world on their own soon.
Inventories help. Generous inventories full of baby steps. Inventories that recognize when a skill developed in one arena was employed in another (remembering to get a backpack at the end of the day now extends to removing it from the car without prompting). These are such little things, but they attest to the continuity of self: the person I was this morning is the person I am tonight. The person who was angry about having to wait their turn is the same person who is happy to be talking to her sister on the phone. We call this exercise providing ego supports. When I am dysregulated, my caregiver brings their own calm and offers rhythms to sooth me. When I am fragile, my caregiver helps me with context, connection, and continuity. When I can’t figure out what to focus on, my caregiver does it for me until I can do it for myself.
Thanks, Barbra. I never know where inspiration will come from. Today it was you.
- Check out the AZAFAP Event Calendar at https://azafap.gnosishosting.net/Events/Calendar.
- Our Friday night Happy Hour and Tuesday afternoon Coffee Chat continue. Some find me and a single other participant; others find a conversation among 4 to 12 people. The topics range from the silly to what hobbies have us in their grip to what life has thrown in our path. If you ever find yourself wanting a bit of grown-up conversation, consider joining us (check your email for the unchanging link).
- Parent Mentor Partners: AZAFAP has trained volunteer parents as mentors who are ready to help support foster, kinship, and adoptive parents through one-to-one conversations. Interested? Fill out the form at https://www.azafap.org/family-support-services/
- I encourage you to check out what Dr. Bruce Perry has to offer. Find his thoughts at https://youtu.be/uOsgDkeH52o?t=3 and at https://www.neurosequential.com.
Thanks for listening. Maintain yourself so you can be there reliably for others.