Being considered a “perfect child” by one’s parents feels fantastic. Basking in the glow from parents’ approval and love can feel safe and special, like one is living in a magical world where everyone is happy and satisfied. These feelings are very seductive. The child is usually not aware that they pay a price in order to maintain the parents’ continued extraordinary approval. That price is the giving up of one’s unique sense of self in order to comply and be the child and then the adult that the parents adore. Being kept on a pedestal distracts from being aware that one has wants and needs that are not defined by one’s loving parents. This interference with developing an individual self can result in difficult and/or empty relationships as one becomes an adult.
Here is Grace’s story. After Grace and I said our goodbyes during our last session, after 5 years of working together in therapy, I began to think about her journey from the pedestal to the development of a unique self. Grace had become a person with her own separate, individual needs, thoughts, and feelings.
Grace came to see me for therapy when she was 28 years old. She was a pretty young woman who described herself as feeling depressed and confused. She told me she was unhappy with herself and her life. She expressed puzzlement about her feelings, as she described herself as having a successful job, good friends, and a wonderful family. She wished she had a steady boyfriend, but she dated and had been in two almost-year-long relationships. Those relationships “just sort of petered out” and she wasn’t sure why. She shrugged and said, “Something seems off about my life. Nothing feels satisfying; I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what’s wrong.”
As Grace and I worked together in therapy, Grace began to describe how she always felt her life was wonderful. She was an only child and was especially close with her mother, who always referred to her as the perfect child. She told me that she felt special to both her mother and father. They idolized her and believed she could do no wrong. In fact, she told me she did no wrong. She was happy to do whatever they asked: set the table, be home on time, practice piano, not hang out with friends they felt were not a good influence. Grace felt her parents knew what was best for her and she complied.
In therapy, Grace began to talk about how it felt to be seen as so perfect by her parents. She told me she really liked it. She felt safe and loved when they would tell their friends what a good daughter she was. They were so proud of her good grades and her outstanding abilities on the piano and flute. When I asked Grace if she had ever felt like skipping piano practice or coming home later than expected, she looked surprised by the questions as if such behavior was unimaginable. Then she responded that she never behaved that way.
One day, Grace came to our session wondering about why she didn’t have any differences with her parents. She noted, for example, that most of her friends went away to college. She went to a local school and lived at home. She had no memory of wanting to go away to school but realized that now she regretted staying home for college. Grace’s sense of regret about her life began to pervade our work. Over time, Grace posed a number of questions to herself and to me.
Grace wondered if she didn’t consider the possibility of going away to school because she knew her parents wanted her to stay home. She wondered if she majored in music because her parents were so thrilled with her music making. She wondered why she went with her parents on vacations rather than taking vacations with her friends in college. One day Grace began to cry in our session. She was remembering her middle school friend Fran, who her parents didn’t like. They told her she should stop seeing Fran when they overheard her use a curse word. In our session, Grace became angry at herself and her parents. “How could I have agreed to such a thing? Fran was my best friend!” I asked Grace why she thought she should go along with her parents. What did she think would happen if she asserted what she wanted? Sobbing, Grace said she didn’t know. Her parents were good people; they loved her, why couldn’t she say what she wanted to them? Then, Grace stopped crying and gasped: “Oh! I would disappoint them.” I asked “What would be so terrible about disappointing them?” Grace looked very sad and was silent for a long time. Then she looked at me, tears returning to her eyes: “I wouldn’t be the perfect child!”
As Grace and I explored what it would mean to give up being the perfect child, it became clear that such an idea was frightening to her. She loved the feeling of making her parents glow when they saw her. She believed she kept them happy as long as she continued to be their good and perfect child. If she stopped being compliant and who they needed her to be, she worried they would become sad and hurt, and she believed this would harm them. She also would feel guilty. Talking about Grace’s concern and need to keep her parents happy led Grace to the realization that she not only wanted to make them happy, but she was worried that if she didn’t keep them happy, they wouldn’t continue to think of her as so amazingly special. Grace began to understand that to give this up felt like she would be losing their love. She was willing to consider, however, that in fact, she probably wouldn’t lose their love, but that maybe it wouldn’t continue to feel that she was quite so amazing.
Feeling less anxious about the idea that her parents would be hurt and that she would not be loved, Grace began to notice that the way she related to the people in her life was similar to the way she related to her parents. She didn’t like to disappoint or make anyone in her life unhappy. She considered whether the people in her life seemed to like her so much because she always went along. She realized that she didn’t express what she wanted if she knew it would conflict with others. One day she excitedly came into our session and said “I think the reason my relationships with men don’t work out for me is that they never really get to know who I am because I never know what I want and I am always avoiding conflict.” She said with a smile, “I am never satisfied because nothing that happens in the relationship is about me!”
Grace’s smile told me a lot. I congratulated her on the discovery she made and our work turned to focus on Grace’s wishes, desires, and needs for herself in the world. While Grace was eager to embark on a journey of discovery to learn more about herself, she was understandably anxious about how this would affect the relationships she was in. Would the people she was close to, her parents, friends, and new boyfriend, still want her in their lives? Would they love her? Would she hurt and disappoint them? Would it feel like love to her if she didn’t feel she was the most special person to the other in the relationship? These were all important and real issues that Grace would have to contend with.
Over the next 2 years, Grace gradually began to learn what she wanted and liked, what she hated, and what thrilled her. She discovered a passion for cooking and went to school to train as a chef. She weathered her parents’ disappointment that she gave up a career as a musician. And she came to believe she had the right to recognize and follow her own dreams. Her parents didn’t glow as much as they did when Grace first came to therapy, but they didn’t stop loving her.
Grace’s friendships changed. Over time and in spite of her anxiety, Grace pushed herself to reveal more of her wants and feelings as she tested the waters and developed more of a voice with her friends. Some welcomed this new Grace and were excited to learn more about her and make room for another voice. Others were not so welcoming to this new assertive Grace, and some friendships didn’t last. Grace’s dating life changed too. She felt more engaged with her boyfriend. She said “Now the relationship is about us because I am more of a whole person.”
When Grace described her new feelings and new ways of relating, she realized that she is much less compliant as a way of being in the world. She no longer felt perfect in her relationships. She knew she had to continue fighting her resistance to keep her needs quiet. Now Grace feels much more authentic with her family and friends.
Grace often smiles at me ruefully and sighs: “I do sometimes miss the feeling of being so special. Now I struggle to express what I want and it’s hard to accept that sometimes my needs aren’t met. But it is worth it. What I didn’t have, that I do have now, is I feel like a person. I usually know what I want and how to get it. I am not so scared that people won’t like me or that I will disappoint someone. In my relationships, I try to talk about what I want and feel. Sometimes it’s hard, like when I have a fight with my boyfriend or when I feel my parents disapprove of my decisions. But now I make decisions. I don’t go along automatically. I like me. How wonderful is that!”
Grace terminated therapy with the ability to continue the process of discovering and growing her unique self. While she was not yet able to assert herself as much as she wished, she was committed to the struggle to tolerate her uncomfortable feelings and risk that others might not always have the feelings she wished they would have.
That is very wonderful!
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