Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Self-Righteous Memory

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 17, 2012

Frank, sixty, furious with his sister for calling him at the last-minute when she comes to town, yet his sister, Theresa, fifty, tells me that the opposite is true. “It is he that calls me at the last-minute. It is amazing how confused he is. He comes to town, calls me and says can we meet tonight for dinner, as if I never have any plans. Yet, when I go visit him in Nebraska, I give him a few weeks notice.” “Well he knew someone was calling at the last-minute, he just got confused with his pronouns,” I say, reminding Theresa that people remember feelings, but to make themselves feel better they often attribute their own negative behavior  to someone else. “I understand that, on the one hand, but on the other hand, I was shocked when he said that.” Theresa tells me, explaining that cognitively she understands the ‘pronoun issue’, but emotionally, she felt falsely accused. “Then, when we did meet, he told me that he found our interaction to be ‘useful’. I was so hurt by that word. I was pleased to see him and I had a good family feeling, but he, as is typical for him, was trying to figure out how to leverage our interaction into some sort of greater good. I thought the word ‘useful’ implied a certain emptiness to our relationship and that hurt.” Theresa says, reiterating that her family feels so cold to her. “Well, he might feel cold towards you, but that does not mean that you feel cold towards him.” I say, reminding her that relationships are often asymmetrical. “That is a sad truth,” Theresa says with deep feeling.

4 Responses to “The Self-Righteous Memory”

  1. Shelly said

    How very sad for Frank. It reminds me a bit of your piece on the benefits of play and how I had commented that I needed to spend more time learning how to do it. Play, to me, seemed like a waste of time until you taught me that it was useful; meeting Theresa, it seemed, was a good use of Frank’s time too. I can see how that word “useful” would be hurtful to Theresa because it implies that Frank benefited from the interaction instead of it being a meeting between siblings. In fact, the entire encounter, between the argument of who calling whom and how much notice one gives one another was one giant power play and meant to show Frank’s dominance over Theresa. No wonder Theresa felt slighted.It’s a good thing that at least Theresa still feels loving towards Frank, which shows her humanity above it all.

    • Shirah said

      Thanks, Shelly. Yes, you understood the post that Frank dominated Theresa in a way that was very hurtful, but also very reminscent of so many previous interactions. Thanks again.

  2. Shelly said

    Sibling rivalry is one thing but Becky and Theresa’s “relationship” or lack of one, is another thing. Thus far, we’ve met two of Theresa’s unfortunate siblings, Frank and Becky, and one has to wonder how Becky could have survived and flourished in a family of origin which contained siblings such as these. Is neither Becky nor her patents have mentioned Theresa to others, it must make Theresa feel as if she doesn’t exist at all. How could Theresa have ever moved past childhood and young adolescence, gained self-esteem and self-respect, made friends, a career, gained an education, and have moved past the hurt that her family has put her through? I have found that when I divorce myself from people who hurt me, I feel better about myself. I sincerely hope Theresa can do the same.

    • Resilience in childhood, the issue that you are referring to, is a very interesting question. What makes some children thrive in adverse circumstances, whereas other children are stunted in their growth. Theresa’s wounds, while not immediately visible, persist beneath the surface, such that others dismiss her pain, leading Theresa to question why she feels suffering. Understanding the external world and the internal world are often vastly different spaces has helped Theresa validate her own experience, giving her more compassion towards herself. Like you, she has also discovered that distance is very helpful. Still, Theresa struggles with how much distance she wants for both herself and for her progeny. Thanks Again.

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