Excuse-giving disguise

Inevitably there comes a time when the person finally gives vent to feelings he has previously managed to hide.

With Sue this came when she had a baby and the baby was a girl.

"I can't feed her. I can't dress her. I can't handle her!" She sobbed. "She's so tiny, I seem to be scared."

Sue was scared. But the reason wasn't that the baby was tiny. The hostile feelings toward another little girl baby earlier were coming out now.

By saying, "I can't be nice to the baby!" Sue was disguising the fact that her unconscious emotions were saying, "I won't be nice." By selling herself a reason for acting as she was acting, she hid the real feeling behind the act. That was one disguise she was using. There was also a second.

By removing the hostility from her sister and putting it onto the baby, she was hiding what she had been ashamed and afraid to show her parents earlier. By changing the object of her sentiments, the feelings could come out disguised.

But in spite of all the hiding and disguising, Sue was still afraid and desperately unhappy because of the belated push of the accumulated feelings by which she had come to label herself "bad."

"Why on earth should Jed always be late with his papers in school when he's always been so prompt about everything at home? . . . "Harriet's always been so sweet to her father, why should she be so snippy to boys?"

The answer in each instance may well be that these boys and girls are now letting out in changed-target disguises, feelings that they could not let out earlier toward their parents.

They also use the excuse-giving disguise.

"I can't get my homework done; that darn teacher piles it on so high!" may be saying "I won't please my parents by doing well." . . . "I can't help necking" may mean "I won't stop doing something I know hurts them." . . . "I feel too tired" may mean "I feel too unwilling to help wash the dishes or clean the house."

But just as Sue felt guilty and miserable in spite of the disguises, so do our own girls and boys. Often they want, in consequence, to punish themselves. And so they often choose a target that permits them self-punishment at the same time that it furnishes hostile outlets. Instead of directing hostility onto some outside target, they let it boomerang back onto themselves.

The boy who failed unnecessarily in school punished his parents incidentally. But primarily he punished himself. The girl who failed to make contacts with boys punished her parents, but even more she punished herself.

That "awful sense of inferiority," that miserable feeling of being no good and worthless, is a kind of self-inflicted torture. So also are repeated accidents that seem to have no rhyme nor reason.

"I don't know why Ted keeps smashing the car and getting himself banged up. His eyes and his coordination are perfect and yet he does it time after time . . ."

Of all possible disguises, illness is the most convincing.

Medical science today has established that ulcers, allergies, hypertension and other illnesses can have an emotional component.

Take seventeen-year-old Barbara. When she was four an episode occurred that was a kind of on-the-spot illustration of how the disguise through illness works. It was summer and the circus was coming to town, and Barbara's father was going to take her. For weeks ahead Barbara had gazed at the billboards all splendid with elephants and clowns and black, shimmering horses blazoning their promise of the day when she and Daddy would get tickets and peanuts and walk in together proudly to the booming of the band.

When the day finally arrived, Barbara jumped out of bed in excitement. She rushed to her parents' room screeching, "Daddy. Daddy." At the door she stopped.

"Keep quiet, Barbara," her father snapped.

On the bed her mother was moaning. The doctor was bending over her.

Barbara heard long words such as "emergency" and "operation." She didn't comprehend. Nobody noticed her. No one explained. And then Daddy was gone with Mother and the doctor, and the long-faced neighbor lady took Barbara and Barbara's prettiest china doll for company to her house.

That night in the strange bed, Barbara hugged her doll closer and slipped into the forbidden body pleasure of sucking her thumb that, much to Mother's disgust, she had never outgrown.

Remembering back now from her seventeen years of greater wisdom, Barbara tried to talk herself out of the childish pain. "It was an emergency. They couldn't help it." And then, the child sobs caught up with her and the forgotten child fantasies connected with her experience returned.

In her imaginings she had envisioned that somehow Mother had been angry because she and Daddy were going to have fun together. And Mother had taken Daddy from her. And besides, Mother was so disgusted over that old thumb-sucking business that she too had left her. Nobody wanted her. There was no circus, no Daddy, no Mother . . . And she, Barbara, was a bad girl, a nasty girl, doing forbidden and nasty things.

Seventeen-year-old Barbara also recalled that next day small Barbara wandered dejectedly out onto the sidewalk, staring up the street for Daddy's car, when suddenly another fantasy struck her, as illogical as most fantasies are: All of this is mother's fault.

In blind rage Barbara lifted her doll. In fury she threw it down on the concrete. "I hate you. I hate you. You're dead. Dead. Dead."

For a moment she stared at the shattered pieces. Then picking them up she ran toward the house. As she rushed up the steps she stumbled and one of the sharp broken edges cut her arm.

That night Barbara did not suck her thumb. She was going to be a good girl. Then maybe Daddy and Mother would come back.

Toward morning she had her first attack of asthma.

"That was the start of it," Barbara now realized. She had had asthma ever since.

Subsequently Barbara talked more about this experience and came to understand it better along with other old, forgotten feelings. Belatedly she was able to bring the "bad" feelings out. And gradually her asthma disappeared.

"It's so easy," said Barbara in retrospect, "to hide things in illness and to disguise by boomeranging the suffering onto yourself that you wanted someone else to suffer.

"I see now that the doll was my mother. I see too that I tried to comfort myself with good body feelings. But when you've gotten the idea that bodies are bad and resentments are bad and you say to yourself, 'Poor me!' you're really saying, 'Bad me.' And you really don't like yourself at all."

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