Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for the ‘Belonging’ Category

Re-Posting Because of Today’s LA Times: Father Boyle

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 26, 2014,0,3300815.column#axzz2rYqlcmp4

Previous LA Times….,0,5754852.column

Father Gregory Boyle, a jesuit priest, , and reminds me of my earlier post Father Boyle knew intuitively that when gang members can find an alternative sense of belonging they can find a new way to be in the world. He proves, through his life’s work, the value of attachment. He invests emotional energy in “kids” who have never “experienced dignity before.” By dignity, he means that when one begins to respect the individuality of these gang members, then the adolescent can change their lives and contribute to society. He gives them work skills and in so doing he proves to the ex-gang members that they have hope to make their lives better. In my mind, he re-parents these young adults such that these youngsters can “navigate the treacherous waters of their lives.” As Father Boyle says “people say I give them a second chance, but I say, it is really a first chance.” “Gang members are coming from a place of despair” he says. Without formal mental health training, Father Boyle recognizes the essential need to have a family that instills hope in the future. He teaches coping skills, parenting skills, and responsibility such that they can deal with the challenges of their world. His work inspires therapists to work on a one on one basis to change lives, by believing in their client, such that the client can eventually change course and live in the world in a new way. Inspiring.

Posted in Adolescence, Aggression, Anger, Attachment, Belonging, community psychoanalysis, gangs, Musings | 8 Comments »

Feeling Left Out: For No Good Reason

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 13, 2012

Heidi, fifty-five, reunites with relatives that she has not seen in forty years. It was not that she has hard feelings towards her cousins, nor do they have hard feelings towards her, but their parents, siblings, had a falling out, causing the children, the cousins, to have no contact. Heidi, as an adult, wanted to change that. When visiting other relatives in the Midwest, she decided to try to connect with her cousin Alan. Alan appears to Heidi to be willing, but not excited, to connect. Heidi conveys the story. They go out for lunch, after not seeing each other in decades, and they have a very pleasant interaction with only one “glitch”. Heidi says, building my anticipation. Alan begins to talk about how their mutual uncle, Uncle Leo, who just passed away, gave an endowed chair to a very prestigious University in honor of Alan’s dad, Louis, who was a prominent neuroscientist, and who passed away over a decade ago. Alan, with tears in his eyes, describes the ceremony in which this endowed chair is celebrated and how “all the family” came to this event to mark this momentous occasion. “Why was I not invited?” Heidi says to me with anger. “I mean, I know that I do not have a relationship with Alan, or any of my cousins for that matter, but I am part of the family, and he could have invited me, and I would have wanted to come.” Heidi says, yelling at me, as if somehow this is my fault. “I know what you are thinking,” Heidi says to me. “I am crazy to think I would have been invited, since Alan does not consider me to be part of his family. I know that, but it still hurt.” Heidi says, as if I am going to solve this puzzle for her. “You were wishing you had an extended family,” I say to Heidi, “that is why you felt so bad.” “Yea, I know, but I was still stunned by my internal reaction.” Heidi says, not embracing the idea that feelings pop up in all kinds of places. “My mom talked about Uncle Leo my whole life. I always heard that he was going to do this when he passed away. I also heard about Uncle Lewis and all the wonderful work he did. I felt like this was my story too, but Alan reminded me that I was not a part of it.” Heidi says, expanding on her hurt feelings. “You were a part of it, but just not in Alan’s mind,” I say, reminding her that she is part of the family, and the stories of Uncle Leo and Uncle Lewis are part of her mosaic, but it was up to Alan to decide who he thought was family and so from Alan’s perspective, Heidi was not important. “You have no idea how much that gets to me,” Heidi says, returning to her angry voice. “I think I am getting the idea. I think this situation is bringing up feelings of anger towards your mom for creating a large wedge in her side of the family.” “Exactly,” Heidi says with the enthusiasm of recognition. “I sure am angry at my mom. May she rest in pieces.” Heidi says, using a frequent joke to transmit her hostility. “Maybe you detected a lack of enthusiasm in Alan because he was afraid of the feelings that your interaction would bring up in him.” I say, bringing us back to Heidi’s opening remarks. “Yea, I see that now,” Heidi says. “I guess he was more in touch than I was. I did not think it was going to be difficult to see him. The two of us have no bad blood.” “Yea, but bad blood crosses generations,” I say, knowing that the intergenerational transmission of trauma is a well-known phenomena. “I guess it does,” Heidi says, now no longer angry, but despondent.

Posted in Belonging, Feelings, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy | 2 Comments »

‘I Want To Belong, But Not To My Family’

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 16, 2011

Marty, thirty-three, left home when he was seventeen, never to return again. By that I mean that he was angry with his family since he did not share their political or religious values. He decided, during his early adolescence, that as soon as he could “he would get out of here,” he said to himself. Marty went to college, taught English in Japan, worked for UPS, then traveled extensively in South America. Recently, he has “settled” in Los Angeles, working as a high school teacher. Marty complains of a vague sense of “uneasiness”. “I don’t belong anywhere,” he says with complete despair. “I want to belong, but not to my family,” he explains. “I was angry when I left and I am still angry,” Marty continues. “Maybe you were angry because you did not feel that they cherished you and so it is not so much that you left, but rather that you felt like an orphan within your family and so you left because you felt unwanted,” I speculate. “Gee, that is worse than I thought. I am glad I came here today-not,” Marty says, letting me know that I might have given him too much to think about. “It is very painful to feel like an orphan. Maybe it was less painful to see yourself as angry because that way you are in control of the situation,” I say, again speculating about why he feels so disenfranchised from his family. “Yea, I used to be angry, but now I am just uncomfortable,” Marty says, again struggling for words to describe his lonely, disconnected feelings. “It would be nice to find comfort,” I say, implying that his current relationships maybe an opportunity. “Yes, but I have not ever felt comfort, so I can’t imagine feeling it now,” Marty says, with a sad tone. “Well, maybe you can start imagining. Maybe that is the first step,” I say. “Maybe” Marty replies, sounding skeptical.

Posted in Belonging, Psychotherapy | 4 Comments »


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 30, 2010

Roger, a psychoanalyst, sixty-two, was deeply involved in his psychoanalytic institute for his entire thirty year career as a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst. He served on committees, he taught candidates at the institute, he gave parties, he went to conferences, symposiums, presentations by local and out-of-town speakers. He enjoyed the camaraderie, the intellectual stimulation, the feeling of belonging, similar to the high school experience of “fitting in”. Regimes change, the leadership of the institute began to shift, such that his buddies were no longer in positions of power. As such, the new leaders tapped the shoulders of their friends, their cronies, to do the “work” of the institute. Roger began to feel marginalized and demoralized. His years of voluntary service began to fade away in his colleagues’ mind. He no longer felt he belonged. Understanding the issue is clear to Roger. The adage “it is not what you know, it is who you know” rings loudly for him these days. The emotional overlay of disappointment and abandonment also rings loudly for him. Roger wants to feel appreciated. He is searching for validation. His world has changed; Roger has to adapt. Grief, followed by rebuilding a professional community is his path. Good luck Roger.

Posted in Belonging, Professionalism | 2 Comments »

Belonging as Affirmation

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 28, 2010

Joanie, seventy-one, comes in, wearing a red shirt and beige pants, and so was I. She says, “we look alike”, reminding me of Peter Blos, an expert on adolescent development coined the term uniformism to describe the teenager’s need to be just like his peer group. Judith Harris, another authority on adolescents, proposed that peer relationships are more important in character formation than parental values. Joanie continues in the session telling me how she has never “felt a part of anything.” She describes her childhood where her mother was overwhelmed with her five children. Her dad, never had an emotion, “at least not one I could see,” she says, almost as if she is trying to be funny. “I miss not belonging,” she says, causing me to  wonder about her choice of the word “miss”. “It is interesting that you miss something you never had; it is like a yearning, an imaginary experience in which you think belonging would solve your inner discomfort,” I say, not wanting to be too picky about her word choice, but at the same time, wanting to separate out missing from yearning. “Yes, I can see that,” she responds quickly, seeming to have a deep understanding of my point; her projection, or her idea, that she wants to believe that  belonging would solve her issues of painful insecurities. She says “it  is a wish to have an external fix for an internal problem. ” At the same time, Joanie and I both acknowledge that group affiliation can be character affirming. The weaving of the internal and the external are alive in our session today. Our matching color choices made her feel like she came to the right place. She belonged.

Posted in Belonging | 3 Comments »


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 10, 2010

Patty, a mother of three kids, two dogs, two cats, three rabbits and a tortoise, comes in describing to me that her husband complains that he does not feel like he is a “member” of his family. I began to think about this feeling of membership, this feeling of belonging. I thought about my earlier post, entitled the Narcissistic Bubble,, in that Patty’s husband, Zac, complained that he was not included in the bubble. I thought there were three possibilities; Patty could be excluding Zac, Zac could be excluding himself ,or a combination of both. Although Zac is not my patient, I wondered that perhaps Zac suffers from feeling unimportant, despite the fact that he has a good job and he does important work for other people. Perhaps this feeling stemmed from Zac’s childhood and now he is blaming his wife for his old wounds. On the other hand, perhaps the marriage is such that Patty feels like her only sense of power in the relationship is to exclude Zac from being important to the children or to the pets. I float these ideas in my head until I feel confident enough to have my thoughts see the light of day.

I enjoy creating hypotheses and then testing them out to see how they sound. I do not  want to be “right” but I do hope to start a conversation. In this case, Patty took my words to mean that a sense of belonging is complicated because it involves the past, present and future. That is, each person has a history of feeling included and excluded throughout their lives. Likewise, there is a current sense of being one of the “group” or not, and then there is a sense that this belonging feeling could be transient or a sense that there is permanence.

Freud looked at belonging in the classical Oedipal triangle. The little boy loves his mother, but since his father also loves his mother,  he must pull back from this intense love of his  mother and he must begin to  identify  with his father. This negotiation of the Oedipal conflict results in the formation of a superego, the part of the personality which decides right from wrong. The little boy develops a sense that his urges must be curbed for the greater good of the family unit, for the greater good of society. The boy has to learn to accept that he is not a part of the marital union. He needs to take this “insult” to propel him forward to develop his own marital union in the future. Hence, how the boy negotiates being left out is a large factor in determining the formation of his personality.

Kohut looked at belonging as a narcissistic need. We need others to mirror us, to reassure us that how we think and how we behave is first understood, and  second admired. When we do not experience this kind of acceptance as a young child, then we hunger for it our entire life. Feeding narcissism promotes healthy psychological growth, such that a child who is made to feel important will have an easier time fitting into groups than a child who is made to feel like a burden.

Kohut made it acceptable to want to belong,  in contrast to Freud who said that the child must accept that he is not part of the  marital union and hence he must learn to cope with his challenging world. This difference between Kohut and Freud has created large theoretical arguments about how to help people who complain that they do not feel alive, that they do not feel important.

I am reminded of   another post,, where the patient both acted like a corpse and told me he felt that way. He needed affirmations, but his marriage was such that he was not getting any from his wife. He did not feel like he belonged in the universe, a profound sense of being left out.  I tilt towards Kohut’s view that we all crave validation and when we don’t get that, we wilt. At the same time, I appreciate Freud’s view that a child has to navigate his world in which he must eventually separate from his parents. He  needs to have the confidence to move forward into his own life, despite the fact that his primary love object (his mother) cannot be his permanent love object.

In Patty’s case, my first thought is that Zac’s complaints about not belonging is about Zac’s narcissitic needs to belong, a need, which I suspect goes back to his childhood. I may be  wrong, but since my goal is to show Patty another way to look at her situation, a way to see that she may or may not be the cause of Zac’s feelings, then I give myself permission to play with ideas. In other words, the play is important, the ideas are secondary. Once Patty and I can begin to engage, we can exchange ideas, we can play; the world expands. There is a sense of belonging between us. Maybe, just maybe, this models a way for Patty to develop that sense of belonging with Zac.

Posted in Belonging | 2 Comments »

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