Voicelessness and Emotional SurvivalRichard A. Grossman, Ph.D.

Holiday Blues

If you are unhappy or dissatisfied with your life, chances are you suffer even more during the holidays.  People compare their lives to those around them–when they perceive others are intimate and connected, their alienation becomes even more painful.   They also blame themselves for their inability to take pleasure in events that are supposed to be satisfying.  They tell themselves:   “Everyone else is having a good time–there must be something terribly wrong with me.”  Family members echo this self-blame, if not in words then in actions:  “We are a wonderful family–you have no reason to feel bad in our presence, so snap out of it.” 

Of course, there is no snapping out of it.   And sometimes there is nothing ” wrong” with the holiday sufferer. In fact, very often he or she is the member most sensitive to the damaging hidden messages and the “voice wars” that occur in the subtext of family life.  Voice, the sense of interpersonal agency, is like any other essential commodity.  If it is in short supply within a family everyone competes for it: spouse vs. spouse, sibling vs. sibling, and parent vs. child. At holiday time, when families are together, the battle for voice intensifies.

Consider, Patty G., a single, 32 year old financial planner who is a client of mine.  She always feels depressed as Christmas day approaches.  Her mother, Estelle, makes a lavish, picture-perfect dinner at the family house–the same house Patty grew up in.  Her father, grandfather, and older brother all participate.  The house is lit brightly, a fire roars in the fireplace, and one would think that Patty should look forward to the occasion.  But she dreads it.  Below the surface charm, a fierce voice war rages in the G. family.   It is a war that no one is allowed to address–everyone must pretend that all is well, otherwise the family begins to come apart at the seams.  Cheerful fiction is the glue.

In the kitchen, Estelle is in complete control–otherwise things won’t be done “right.”  Patty helps out, but she is not allowed any initiative.  She does what her mother says, chopping this, adding a little spice to that, and quickly she finds herself shrinking so that she barely hears her footsteps on the pine floor.  She cannot make even a side dish, to do so would make the dinner more hers and less her mother’s, and the meal must be a reflection of her mother.  Estelle has good reason to maintain control–she can’t do anything right in her father, Walt’s, eyes.  The dinner is about proving herself–and Estelle has to do it every year. 

Last year, Walt shoved his plate aside because Estelle had put sliced almonds rather than walnuts in the sweet potatoes.  “You know I hate almonds,” he bellowed.  From the rage in his voice, one would guess his daughter had tried to poison him.  He looked at the almonds as if they were dead cockroaches, and then laid his fork and knife next to each other in the plate.  Estelle jumped up, carried his plate to the kitchen, and then returned with fresh servings of food, this time, of course, without sweet potatoes.

“Don’t you have any sweet potatoes without the damn nuts?” he asked bitterly.

This year the family waits for Walt’s explosion, but so far nothing has happened.  Charles, Patty’s older brother, gulps down his fourth glass of wine, and while his mother is out of the room, he coyly puts two serving spoons upright in the bowl of sweet potatoes.  As soon as his mother returns he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a quarter, stands it on edge on the table, and then flicks it with his index finger between the “goal posts.”

“Three points!” he says, as the quarter clatters across the table and comes to rest next to Patty’s water glass.

Estelle explodes.  “What are you doing?” she screams.  “I spent hours cooking this meal.” 

“Lighten up, Mom,” says Charles.  “I was just joking.  I didn’t kill anyone.”

“Stop being obnoxious to your mother,” says Andrew, Patty’s father, half-heartedly and out of obligation.  He has learned not to get involved in the hopeless struggle that will follow.  “I have an idea,” he adds.  “Maybe we can get back to the task at hand–eating dinner.”

“I wasn’t being obnoxious,” says Charles.  “I was fooling around.  And screw the dinner.  This family is way too uptight.  I can’t even swallow.”  He slams down his napkin on the table and says “I’m going to go watch the football game.”  On his way to the den, he stops at the refrigerator to grab a beer.

Patty looks on silently.  Throughout the meal she continues to shrink until now she is now a speck of dust floating in the air.  She hates the helpless feeling.  She struggles to re-inhabit her adult size body, to locate her self.  She begins to imagine our next session–what she will say, what my response will be.  This gives her solace.

Patty had two tasks in therapy.  The first was to understand her history and her family from a different perspective.  Dysfunctional families often create their own mythology in order to hide painful truths.  In the G. family, people were supposed to believe that Christmas was a joyous, loving occasion.  Anyone who challenges this mythology (as Charles did) is seen as crazy and difficult.  Unless challengers change their minds and apologize, they are pariahs.  Patty could not verbalize the damaging subtext in her family.  All she knew was that when she spent time at her house, she shrank to nothing.   But this she considered  to be her problem, not theirs.  Deep down she believed she was defective and the family was normal.  She was also rewarded for thinking this way: as long as she maintained these beliefs, she could remain a member in good standing.

In fact, Christmas was hardly a joyous family holiday in the G. family, but instead an occasion for each member to remember how they had been chronically unseen and unheard and, in response, either diminish their expectations even further (like Patty and her father) or to resume their desperate quest for voice (like Walt, Estelle, and Charles).

Voicelessness is passed from generation to generation.  A person deprived of voice may spend their whole life searching for it–leaving their own children voiceless.  If a parent is continuously striving to be heard, acknowledged, and appreciated, there is little opportunity for a child to receive the same.  As Estelle and Charles illustrated, often this results in a “voice war” where a parent and child continuously fight battles over the same issues:  do you see me, do you hear me, do you appreciate me.  Charles experiences his mother’s preoccupation this way: “Why is the meal (and Walt) more important than I?  Why can’t you pay attention to me?” He senses the holiday has little to do with him, and more to do with his mother being “on stage.”  Nevertheless, he can’t say these things. After all, he is a grown man and not a child: admitting such vulnerability and injury is not masculine. Furthermore, he knows what his mother’s response would be: “I cooked this meal for you.” Being partially true, the statement is unassailable.  Instead, he drinks, acts out his need for attention, and alienates everyone.  This solution, while indirectly addressing the problem of voicelessness, is really not a solution at all:  ultimately, it is self-destructive.

Patty is temperamentally different from Charles.  She can’t aggressively do battle.  But she craves voice just as much.  If only she can be good enough and flexible enough, she will receive tiny scraps of attention here and there.  During her childhood, she subsisted on these scraps–she asks for little more from anyone in her life.  Now, her relationships with men are all the same:  she contorts herself to fit their narcissistic needs.

The first task of therapy, understanding one’s history and one’s family from a different perspective, is, by far, the easier of the two.  Patty understood the personal histories and destructive patterns within a few months.   But, insight was not enough.  A therapist can address a particular pattern:  “This is what you do and why you do it…” many times, and the client will still not be able to change.  The most powerful change agent in therapy is the relationship between therapist and client. Because voicelessness results from relationship problems, the restoration of voice requires a very special relationship to undo the damage.

Patty was very willing to listen to what I said about her family, and let me know that she understood and agreed.  She was as flexible with me as she was with everyone else.  On the surface, it appeared that she trusted me.  But she didn’t yet know me, and given her past history she had no reason to trust me.  Instead, she was doing what was necessary to build and maintain a relationship. Because of years of prior experience, she believed I couldn’t possibly accept her for who she was, and therefore she would have to prove herself by being accommodating.  Ultimately, it was my job to show that this was not necessary–that her true, vulnerable self could be appreciated.  I did this by listening carefully, by accepting her thoughts and feelings, by truly enjoying the time we spent together.  This was not difficult:  Patty has many wonderful qualities that had never been appreciated.  Being valued was initially scary and confusing to Patty.  Her initial emotional reaction was, in part, to push me away to avoid attachment and inevitable disappointment.   A therapist’s humanity and goodness abrasively grind away at the very same defenses that allowed the client to emotionally survive his or her childhood.  On the basis of our relationship, Patty was ultimately able to carefully and actively look for intimacy elsewhere in the world.

Two and a half years into therapy on the session before Christmas, Patty arrived in my office with a small bag from one of the local bakeries.  She pulled out two cupcakes with blue icing, and she handed me one of them along with a napkin.  The other she kept for herself.  “For once in my life I want to celebrate Christmas on my own terms,” she said.  Then she pointed to the icing and laughed:  “Holiday blues,” she said.  For a split second she looked at me, wondering whether I would appreciate the irony.  Then her face relaxed.

She knew I did.

(Identifying information and situations have been changed for the sake of confidentiality.)