On Tuesdays I share a personal story to illustrate our weekly topic, and this week’s topic of Significant Life Events brings up many possible stories. I would love to share about my travel adventures, since these have been very positive, lifting events in my Life Story. Instead, though, I will share about the origins of a situational social anxiety, because I want to document how early Significant Life Events can have a lasting, dramatic impact and about how understanding that influence can also help to manifest Better Endings.
Every year for at least between when I was 12 and 17, my parents held an annual Christmas party. My father was an executive at Bell Aerosystems, so he staged this annual party for his professional colleagues. I, my three sisters, and my brother until he left for college when I was 14 were required to stay home on the night of the annual Party. We were paraded downstairs to the entry foyer once most of the guests had arrived, for brief introductions, then we were promptly sent upstairs to watch TV in my parents’ room for the duration of the Party.
Some aspects of the Party night were fun for us kids. We would plot a foray down to the kitchen island to nab plates of my Mom’s most wonderful chocolate meringue pie, and I was usually the scout and the procurer of pie. But the Party had its dark side as well, one that deepened from year to year. Let’s just say that since alcohol was freely flowing at the Party downstairs, we kids would have to keep raising the TV volume to try to drown out the increasing crescendo of conversations below that would ultimately coalesce into some loud altercation or another before the night was through. Then afterwards, once the guests had left, invariably my parents would collide over some issue that had surfaced at the Party. One next early morning, my sisters and I woke groggily to see my father dragging his full-sized bed down the stairs and into his den; it stayed there for the next several months. That day, Mom had a blackened eye, and Dad’s face was striated with three lengthy scratch marks. You get the picture.
Flash forward to my own later professional career. I am always warmly invited to the annual departmental Christmas party, held at a much respected colleague’s home. I attended the first few years, until one time, someone I was having some issues with, also attending, stringently avoided friendly contact. The next year, I aimed to go. I bought Belly Jellies to share and sat in my living room recliner counting down to the appropriate time to depart. I continued to sit, well past time to have left, for another hour or so, pinned in my recliner, until finally I called my older sister, Lee, for moral support. I had experienced a genuine panic attack over the very thought of attending the Party. And from then til now–the Party recently having come around and passed again–even though I genuinely like and highly value every colleague and the students I work with, I have not attended a single instance of the annual Party since. After many years of kicking myself and offering fervent apologies on the following Mondays, I have finally come to examine and name my situational anxiety for what it is. I have come to a better understanding not just of its roots–that much seems obvious–but also of why, as a rational adult, part of me is still so adamant that this one thing–the professional Party–I shall not do.
In fact, this situational anxiety has become a solid proof for me of the reality and value of Archetypal Psychology, a la Carl Jung, James Hillman, and Charles and Nin Bebeau. I have become acquainted with two “parts of Self” within me that together conspire to absolutely shun the annual Party. One is an Elder Leader archetypal persona, one to whom I have unconsciously assigned final say when he asserts himself so strongly as to put his foot down. The other is “Little Linda’, an overly sensitive early childhood figure who prefers much of the time to stay alone, from an array of early childhood social hurts. I know that the archetypal Elder Leader member of my ensemble cast of inner characters, or Inner Council, has a purpose in forbidding me from attending the Party; he is protecting me (and Little Linda and himself, no doubt) from potential conflict and emotional injury.
Surely there is more to this avoidance behavior. I am single while most at the Party are not. I don’t drink alcohol at all; they likely will, evoking my childhood inhibitions from my parents’ annual festivities. But I have come to accept and to value and appreciate the wisdom of my Elder Leader protector, which may be the closest to a Better Endings scenario I will be able to achieve, at least for now. I have let my colleagues know not to expect me, and they are goodhearted about that although this antisocial tendency surely does not go unnoticed. I no longer pretend to myself that I will finally make it ‘this year’. Well, sometimes I still do try but after the time for leaving again has come and passed, I no longer beat myself up over it. Lately I might even journal a dialogue or converse inwardly with my Elder Leader, acknowledging his concern and thanking him for his care. And so, while this might not seem to many to be yet the ideal solution, it has taught me to listen to and to include my Inner Council in my outer decisions. I am no more, nor less, ‘multiple’ than any of us are. Different situations can bring forth otherwise subtle or submerged parts of Self that help us to cope with or to master whatever it might be that the situation calls for. Significant Life Events often have their most obvious impact upon recurring kinds of situations in our lives.