In an earlier article, Fear And (Self) Loathing on I-95, I discussed an internal dialogue that I had with my old nemesis, the one who lives in my brain. I have since rediscovered Transactional Analysis, a branch of psychology begun by Eric Berne in the 1950s, and elaborated upon by Claude Steiner and others, and it has shed a rather interesting light on my predicament.
It calls my internal tormentor the Critical Parent. I would go so far as to call it the Abusive Parent, and even the Archfiend, but whatever you call it, it is the part of me (and you and most other domesticated primates) that is convinced that deep down, I must not be OK. Now, my own parents, by the grace of “Bob,” were and are pretty awesome people. If they did err, it was on the side of caution – I was never physically disciplined, and I was told to use my words rather than to accept invitations to step outside. It was a loving household with plenty of attention paid to each of us three kids (though as the oldest, I admit that I had a bit of a head start in terms of attention).
But the Critical Parent archetype got in just the same, and it categorically denies the benefits of this style of upbringing – emotional intelligence, compassion, curiosity, intellectual freedom, and unconditional love, among other things. When thinking about this, my Critical Parent claims that I could not hold my own in a bar brawl or mosh pit, fend off some maniac on the street, or rebuff some creep who threatens my girlfriend. The Critical Parent tells me that I would not lift a hand in my own defense, or in defense of those I love because of my candy-ass, bleeding-heart liberal upbringing, that my compassion is a mask for moral weakness, and my flabby physical form is evidence that I know deep down I am not worth even a show of self-defense. And it is hard to argue with that voice because I’ve never had the chance to gather relevant data to contradict it.
That’s not the only thing that my inner Critical Parent has to say, but that will suffice for my point.
The kicker here is that we all have some measure of the Critical Parent inside us, no matter how we were brought up. Freud thought of this facet of ourselves as the internalized voice of society, like a cop in your head, observing and criticizing and sentencing you to emotional jail time every time you transgress the boundaries that you were taught to believe in. We seek recognition, known in the jargon of TA as ‘strokes,’ in order to counter this nagging negativity, but society limits the ways in which we can seek these strokes, creating a tightly regulated ‘stroke economy’ (thanks, Obama).
Society demands a lot from each of us, and there are precious few, if any, who can truthfully fulfill everything expected of them. There may be no one, however, who can fulfill the demands of the Critical Parent. No matter how hard we work, how good we are, how far inside the lines we color, the Critical Parent is there to say we could have done better, we didn’t give it our all, we should be doing other kinds of work: in short, giving us different rationalizations for this rule: “You don’t get to feel OK yet. Do this, and then maybe I’ll allow you to feel OK.”
The Critical Parent begins to sound like certain United States politicians, doesn’t it?
The Critical Parent also sounds a lot like the social commentators who look at everything from marijuana to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and say that they will ruin society. Their arguments often center around people, substances, events, and other phenomena that make us feel OK without ‘earning’ it.
This in turn, the argument goes, will lead to a country full of lazy, entitled, amoral degenerates, and so on and so forth in the grand old Puritan style. How will the wheels of industry turn, the pundits wonder, without the clawing, grasping, fire-under-the-ass-lighting need to earn the ability to feel OK?
It raises an interesting question: Do domesticated primates operate optimally when we’re desperately seeking permission to feel OK, or when we start from a feeling of OK-ness? Do we work at all when warm fuzzy feelings are free? Do we just laze around? Or do we work differently, toward other purposes? There are great rationalizations for both sides of this, and perhaps both/neither are optimal working conditions for different situations. I certainly have an opinion about this, but I want to hear yours down below.
I also want to know more about your experiences of the Critical Parent, its complaints about you (if you feel like sharing), and any ways that you have used to cope with or master the Critical Parent.
Thanks for reading! You’re OK. And maybe I am, too.