Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Harsh Superego: Inability To Forgive Yourself

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 6, 2011

     Sherry, recently turned fifty, spends her internal life being mad at herself. She hates her body, and she is mad that she is overweight, even though she is not. She wishes she had more money, even though she pays off her bills every month. She wishes she had better friendships, even though she is beloved my many. In essence, Sherry never lives up to her own expectations and so she lives with a chronic anger inside of her. To meet Sherry, one sees an exuberant, curious and engaged person. Her exterior is both charming and attentive to others. Yet, her interior is tortured “beyond belief,” as she says.

   Sherry’s sister, Ruby,  died when she was four years old and her sister  was eighteen months. Ruby tragically died suddenly as she choked on a walnut at the dinner table, surrounded by her helpless sister (Sherry) and their mom, Rosemarie. Sherry, although she understands she was four years old at the time, never recovered from that fateful day. Rosemarie did not either, according to Sherry. Sherry feels close to Rosemarie, now seventy-three, but they stopped talking about Ruby years ago, knowing that when they did talk about Ruby, they both got upset and so it was not comforting. Sherry believes that this traumatic event, even though decades have past, has created an indelible internal experience of guilt and bad feelings which she cannot describe or resolve.

     “Gee, you must not come to therapy to deal with those bad feelings, as it seems like you feel pretty confident that that area is untouchable for you.” I say, with some compassion and some confusion. “Yes, I come to therapy to deal with more superficial experiences, like my frustrations at work, or trouble with my husband.” Sherry explains with a sense of painful resignation. “The part of your personality which is punishing, your superego, has a loud and chronic roar,” I say, bringing in Freud’s useful concept of a layer to our brain which judges ourselves and others. “You could say that,” Sherry says as she starts to cry. “I just don’t like myself,” she says as she cries more deeply. “I am sorry,” I respond, knowing that in this moment I cannot help her like herself, but I can join her in feeling bad that she carries this weight of self-hate. “Maybe turning fifty has made you realize that this feeling is not going away and maybe you hoped it would have disappeared by now,” I say, postulating that her birthday was a disappointment to her in that her dark interior world still persists. “Yea, it was a hard birthday,” Sherry says with the tone of recognition along with a feeling that she was relieved to say that aloud. “Maybe fifty-one will be better,” I say, pointing out that fifty is just an arbitrary number. “Maybe” she says, as if to please me, but not convincing me that she has any hope.

4 Responses to “Harsh Superego: Inability To Forgive Yourself”

  1. Shelly said

    Do you think that Sherry will be open to speaking with you about the death of Ruby, since you feel confident that this seems key to her negative self-image? How is it that she was able to successfully put away the horrendous feelings of guilt for so many years, even though it affected so many different aspects of her life? Does the fact that outwardly she appears so successful and she is valued by her friends and family have any impact on Sherry, or does her self-hatred overshadow everything because of Ruby’s death?

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    • Actually, Sherry is the one who identified Ruby’s death as the central organizing principle of her internal dialogue. Her openness to this discussion, like so many things, is intermittent, so I go with the flow. Sherry is a good example of the vast divide between internal and external worlds. Sherry lives a double life in that way, and some days/months/years, she is more integrated than others. The sands are constantly shifting, making it hard to answer your question directly. Thanks, as always.

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  2. Oh my……I could be way way off here (really not enough information about family dynamics, etc in this complex situation), but my first gut reaction was that there could be some sort of tragic deep seated unconscious oedipal victory/guilt going on here with Sherry, among other things. Children at times wish their siblings harm and and at that age, with their concrete thinking, can assume that “wishing so might actually make it happen.”

    In addition, Sherry might also have internalized her mother’s guilt to add to her tortuous feelings of badness.

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    • Hi Eleanor,
      Thanks for your comments. Yes, the oedipal victory/guilt is certainly at play, along with losing her mother Rosemarie, in that Rosemarie was not the same mom before and after Ruby died. It was a double loss, to be sure, for Sherry. And yes, as you say Sherry may also have internalized Rosemarie’s guilt, layering over her own guilt making the internal landscape even more deeply disturbing. Combine all these factors in a young child who cannot make sense of her world, due to a limitation in her cognitive abilities at that age, leading to a cauldron of dark and confusing feelings. Thanks again!

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