Posted on | February 21, 2014 | 16 Comments
Too many people go through life in a search for scapegoats, seeking someone to blame for their unhappiness, so as to avoid having to confront the fact that they are responsible for their own problems. Whatever their problem is, someone must be blamed, and that someone cannot be themselves, because if they ever were to accept responsibility for their disappointments and misfortunes, their entitled worldview — their status as Special Snowflakes™ — would crumble into dust. Therefore the Great Scapegoat Hunt continues, and some of this blame-shifting is perversely marketed as “self-help.”
Now, I love Amy Alkon, the Advice Goddess, and so I don’t want this to be misinterpreted as criticism of her, but she tweeted out an article by one of her podcast guests that struck a nerve with me.
Peg Streep’s article “Daughters of Unloving Mothers: 7 Common Wounds” may be helpful to some women seeking to understand their troubled relationships with their mothers, and learning how to deal with the consequences of these relationships. But it also resembles the kind of gooey feel-good psychobabble approach to life that is at the heart of so much modern emotional misery.
In a way, you can blame Sigmund Freud for this trend.
The Viennese quack’s psychoanalytic theories located the sources of all unhappiness in early childhood, and every neurotic hypochondriac was encouraged to think that their problems were rooted in various unresolved “conflicts,” with the result that the family was depicted as a nightmare incubator of mental trauma.
We are a few decades past the Freudian heyday of the 1950s and ’60s, and the neuroscientists have long since dethroned the psychoanalysts as the chief “experts” in the mental health field, but the legacy of Freud lives on in the nervous sense of parental incompetence in which parents are afraid that their child will be permanently warped if they are not raised in the expert-approved way. And the Freudian legacy also endures in the way unhappy people tend to blame their unhappiness on childhood misfortunes, for which they ultimately blame their parents. If kids called you “fatso,” or you didn’t make the cut for varsity cheerleader, somehow this explains your adult problems and, if you follow the psychoanalytic method, it all goes back to Mom and Dad.
This is a dead-end trip, the negation of personal agency.
Good mental health does not begin with a resentful backward glance at our unhappy past. It begins in the here and now, with the idea that we are ultimately authors of our own destinies.
Nobody has perfect parents and a perfect childhood, and contemplating the variation of imperfections can be enlightening. But chances are your parents were more or less average, and your childhood was not much more unfortunate than the average. In fact, in my experience, the people most prone to resenting their parents are actually quite fortunate — they come from middle-class or upper-middle class backgrounds and are themselves usually well-educated and affluent. However, their comparatively privileged backgrounds often equip them with a sense of entitlement, and when their expectations are not met, they seek scapegoats. This is where Special Snowflakes™ Syndrome kicks in.
What is lacking — what we as a society have lost in the century or so since Doctor Freud taught us to second-guess our “impulses” and blame our problems on “complexes” — is the Stoic sensibility, the idea that enduring hardship without complaint is a virtue.
Our 19th-century ancestors — my Alabama dirt-farm forebears, for example — did not have the luxury of sitting around wondering why they weren’t happy. They had to work from dawn to sundown just to put food on the table, and the Culture of Complaint was alien to their worldview. Toiling at hard physical labor simply to avoid starvation has a way of making “happiness” more tangible, less a matter of abstract and transient emotion. It is only in the comfortable affluence of middle-class life that people care about “self-esteem” and other such psychobabble nonsense. When survival is taken for granted, ironically, “happiness” becomes harder to obtain.
OK, so that’s my rant about that. You can now go listen to Amy Alkon’s podcast interview with Peggy Streep about her book, Mastering the Art of Quitting — which is actually a good idea for a lot of people. My decision to quit the Washington Times in 2008 proved in hindsight to be a genius move. After I left, the place went to hell, and most of the people who stayed under the new management (people who thought I was crazy for quitting when I did) were laid off over the course of the next two years.
— Amy Alkon (@amyalkon) February 21, 2014
Sometimes you find yourself in untenable situation, where you feel trapped, and the tendency is to blame others for the situation. Regardless of whose fault the situation is, however, the only person you can control is yourself, and taking responsibility for your life sometimes requires you to sing that old Johnny Paycheck song, “Take This Job and Shove It.”