Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Marionette

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on May 24, 2012

John, fifty-three, made all of his decisions based on his mother’s ideas of what was best for him. He “decided” to be a physician, but then he says that his mother told him that was the only “real” job for him. He had partial awareness of his mom’s role in his life’s goals, but most of the time, he felt that he was at the center of his agency. His wife, Janey, grew tired of living with a man who exerted little control over his own life. “Janey thinks you are a marionette,” I say, highlighting this issue that although it might appear to him that he makes his own decisions, in reality, his mom is pulling those strings, making him move in the direction that the mom wants him to move to. “So, what if I am a marionette,” John says to me in a defensive manner. “Well, it might be helpful to understand the center of your decision-making.” I say, not wanting to pass judgment, but wanting to help John be more aware of his existence. John could be more conscious of his thoughts, I think to myself. “Well, it is a pretty depressing idea to think that I am not pulling my own strings.” John says with more defensiveness and seemingly little interest in self-awareness. “Depressing is one thing,” I say, “but clueless is another.” I say, trying to point out that his choice is to understand and then feel the understanding, or to remain in his fog. “I am going to have to think about what you are telling me, but I can tell you right now, I don’t like this discussion,” John says with hostility towards me. “Not liking this discussion is different than not agreeing to the merit of these ideas.” I say, pointing out to John that he is not telling me that I don’t make sense, but rather he is saying that he does not want to hear what I am saying. “Understanding one’s self can be a struggle,” I say, repeating the idea that soul-searching can be a troublesome, although ultimately helpful, experience. “I am not enjoying this,” John repeats in his characteristic way in which he partially resists self-understanding, but at the same time, allows himself to digest the ideas over time. “Maybe you could cut the strings and make different decisions for yourself,” I say, shedding hope on top of understanding. “Maybe,” John says loudly, with a big grin, as if to say, “so now you want to get positive.” “See ya tomorrow,” I say, appreciative that we have another opportunity to explore these ideas further. “Yep, you will,” John says as he seems excited to leave.

4 Responses to “The Marionette”

  1. Jon said

    While John may not be enjoying this discussion with you, it is obvious that he needs to come to a deeper understanding of how he has made major decisions in his life. This understanding is best when it comes with no strings attached….

  2. Shirah said

    Hi Jon,
    Hee. The issue here is that we are all operating with imaginary strings in that we make decisions to please other people, both consciously and unconsciously. The more we can be aware of these “strings” the more we can make positive changes in our lives. In other words, it might make sense to make decisions that please folks who are good to us, but it might not make sense to please folks who end up hurting us. Understanding this dynamic is the first, and sometimes, very strenuous step. Thanks, as always.

  3. Shelly said

    Hi Shirah. Good to see you blog again. When you ask John about his decision-making process, what does he say? Does he say, “My mother says…” or does he answer, “I want…”? My other thought about this blog is that all of our values are basically shaped first by what our parents instill in us on a primary level, before the values of our social peers and society begin to affect us. Perhaps John is more affected by the values his mother has instilled in him (i.e. his career choice…) but that doesn’t necessarily mean those values are wrong or that he is the puppet of his mother. I can appreciate Janey’s feeling that she lived with a man who exerted no ability of making his own decisions, but unless her mother-in-law intrudes on a day-to-day basis or has undue influence over her son, is her claim warranted?

    • Shirah said

      Hi Shelly,
      John is “not sure” about his decision making. He does not feel a strong sense of what Kohut termed “agency”. Yes, our values are shaped from an early age, but that does not mean that one cannot rise above that to pivot our value system which is more suitable to our temperament, as opposed to our culture. He is a puppet in that he is not considering what makes him happy or fulfilled, but rather he is living without much conscious appreciation for his daily life. This deep appreciation comes from a sense of inner peace which John does not have. Janey wants John to have a greater awareness of his passions such that their life together can feel more authentic to their value system, not the value system of John’s mother. John’s mother’s influence is insidious and as such, it is hard to address without a lot of confrontation and self-examination. Thanks, as always.

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