Chris has come a long, long way, in many areas of growth, except for one very fundamental one. His sense of self is lagging. Always has. As a baby, toddler, and adolescent, he would be what he thought anyone wanted him to be. He expressed no preferences of his own, just took the preferences of others. I sensed his not wanting to confront or struggle while he was in the womb. (A possible clue: He was born twenty seven days overdue!) In high school, it kind of went undercover. He had friends, activities, school work to focus on. Then, boom, going away to university caused his non-existent sense of self to come tumbling down. My regret is that I should have recognized this a problem that he wouldn’t grow out of without some help, rather than thinking that he would eventually find himself. It’s a huge challenge for him now.
Today is Ascension Day, a holiday in many European countries. Chris knocked on our bedroom door around 9 a.m. to announce that he was going to his piano lesson. “On a holiday?” I asked. Apparently. Less than an hour later I heard the key in the front door and Chris was back. Why was I not surprised? “The trains are only running on the hour, instead of every half hour, ” said Chris. “So, why didn’t you call me and I would have come and picked you up and driven you there?” said I, knowing full well that Chris never asks for anything that he thinks might cause others even slight inconvenience, which is why he never asks. He used to be endlessly apologetic; if you stepped on his toes, he’d figure it was his fault, but thankfully, less so these days. On the one hand, this particular character trait often reveals a kind heart and generous spirit. The dark side of this trait is not setting your own boundaries.
I got exasperated. “Chris, why do you deliberately sabotage these things? You must have known that the holiday train and bus schedule is always slower, and yet you went through the motions of going to your piano lesson, something you profess to enjoy, seemingly ignoring the fact that you need to plan ahead for the changed schedule. Why are you doing this to yourself?”
Tangled in with all of this is Chris’s huge fear of failure and a perverse perfectionism, so an unwillingness to try too hard.
Chris and I sat down and we went over the pattern of behavior. Chris feels bad, knows it’s a problem, but can’t for the life of him figure out what to do about it. (Eight years of psychiatry and we’re only beginning to crack this one.) “Do you read self-help books?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered.
“Chris, you can begin by small things. (I’ve been giving him this advice for years now, but it hasn’t sunk in.) Start asking people for help. Reach out. You’ll get mainly yes’s, but you’ll also get no’s, so deal with it. And, when your father sees you and asks you how your piano lesson went, what are you going to say?”
“Great?” ventured Chris.
“You’re learning, Chris.”
Chris has a pathological inability to lie. Telling the truth is admirable and the best policy in most situations, but white lies can be useful protective devices from going into conversations you don’t want to have.
Half an hour later Chris asked me if I would drive him later today to a rendez-vous outside of town.
“Oh, I should have said please,” said Chris.
“Why don’t you temporarily abandon ‘please’ while you build up a better sense of self? I said.”Look at your brother.” I pointed to Alex, who had just groggily emerged from his room.”Huge sense of self, doesn’t do anything that doesn’t suit him. He can be a pain in the ass, but he at least he gets what he wants.”
We both laughed.