Self-concept is Destiny
I met her when she came to a workshop I was conducting on “Self-esteem and the Art of Being.”
She was thirty-two years old, pretty, and worked as a receptionist in a law firm. Early in life she had decided that she knew what she was—“a bad girl.” How else could she explain the endless screaming reproaches of her mother, and the emotional coldness of her father, and a home that lacked any trace of love, affection, or kindness? As an adult, she supported the claim that she was a bad girl trough sexual promiscuity, and an inability to remain faithful to any lover or boyfriend.
I met him at the same self-esteem workshop as the one where I met her.
He was thirty-five, athletic, and worked as an artist in an advertising firm. He had come to the United States from Norway.
Months later—when he became a therapy client—he would tell me their story as he saw it.
When he was six years old, his mother had deserted him and his father to run off with another man. He knew what this meant. “If your own mother doesn’t love you, what can you expect from another woman?” He decided that he was unlovable. With the help of his embittered father, he also learned that no woman can be trusted, all women are sluts, and to love is to be hurt.
Picture about one hundred-and thirty people in a hotel meeting room I give an opening talk of about ninety minutes, then there is a fifteen minute break, and then I ask the group to stack the chairs against the walls and sit on the floor in circles of four. “Do not sit with anyone you know,” I say.
I take the group through a sentence-completion exercise. Then I invite them to share their experiences and what they may have learned. I stand on the stage scanning the room, and I notice a young couple whose hands and other aspects of body language suggest an immediate connection.
I ask the group to stand up, stretch, and then move into new circles of four, but only with complete strangers. “Don’t sit with anyone you sat with in the previous circle,” I say. I see that this couple ignores my instructions and moves together into a new group. This happens two more times as I keep “reshuffling” the groups until the evening program ends. Then I see them standing near the exit, until their bodies convey a kind of tension that is unmistakable in its meaning. “How in hell can it happen so fast?” I ask myself, fascinated.
I see them finding each other with the terrifying accuracy of two guided missiles meeting in space.
Within a week, as I learn later, they were on fire with love. They felt born to a new innocence. All feelings of guilt, sinfulness, or weighted sadness were washed away in the cleanliness of a love liked nothing they had ever experienced. They did not feel that they were unlovable. They felt that they were the essence of love.
Then the time bomb that lay sleeping in both of them began to tick—the sense that they were in danger, that love such as they imagined is illusion, that to love is to be hurt.
Anxiety awakened first in him and then in her. He became a little impatient with her, a little critical, and she responded by becoming defiant, contemptuous of some of his mannerisms—each of them gearing up to defend against the rejection they dreaded and felt to be inevitable.
In one moment, she would complain of being “suffocated” in their relationship and in the next she would beg for more time and attention because, she would say, “I don’t know how to live without you.” Then he would suggest that perhaps he had not paid enough attention to how few books she read. She would say, bitterly, that she was not an intellectual, and he would mutter under his breath that she could say that again. Then he would weep, “I love you so much.”
It lasted a few months longer—until the day when one or both of them were no longer able to believe their relationship was salvageable.
As he would tell me later, on the day that was the “official” end of their “romance,” they stood on the steps of the building where she lived, and they hugged each other, and then she watched him walking away and she cried “Why? Why? We were so happy together! What was wrong with us?” He did not turn around, but merely shrugged. Then, once again, she shouted “Why?”
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