THE IDEALIZED AND FEARED FATHER: "THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE WHOLE WORLD"
When I asked Steve to describe his core struggle with depression, he replied, “I think overall the- I think the overarching uhm way that that it expressed itself for me was uhm a battle with myself against my worthlessness.” He added that when he was depressed, he felt “inadequate and frightened. . . . Pretty much all the time. From the time I . . . for as long as I can remember.” Steve was able to locate the origins of many of these difficulties in his childhood relationship with his father, who, although very loving, was also at times hypercritical and abusive. Steve described the impact that this had on him by saying that it had instilled in him a lot of anxiety and fear and that “the most important was fear of my father.”
Steve’s father eventually sought therapy at the urging of his wife (Steve’s mother). Steve said that the psychiatrist he saw explained that Steve’s father was “trying to kind of retroactively correct the . . . mistakes that he had made in his life” and that he “saw all the mistakes that he had made coming” through in his son. However, the “mistakes” were often minor and resulted in much harsher consequences than might be reasonably expected. For example, Steve said, “Of his seven children, if you know if somebody spilled milk o- on the table, he would say . . . (banging on the table) ‘Be care- (bang bang bang) you have to be more careful!’ If I did it, he would he’d hit me.” Steve was the only one of his siblings to receive the brunt of his father’s anger to this extent. He said it was
Just me. Only me. And so I was I was completely singled out. And, and I was abused. There’s no question. I mean uhm . . . there’s no other way to explain it. When he, when he would you know uhm discipline me for something, he would discipline me far in excess of what he would do to any one of the other kids. And and much more uhm severely than most people would do. (Clears throat) And . . . that affected me a lot.
Steve’s relationship with his father had a major impact on his self-esteem. Outside of the strain on their relationship that was brought on by his father’s explosive temper, Steve idolized his dad. He felt similar to him in many ways and looked up to him a great deal. So in moments when he was being yelled at, hit, or reprimanded for some minor offense, Steve internalized all of the negative things that were directed at him. This served as a devastating blow to his ego that created a profound sense of loss. Steve described the pain this caused him:
You know because . . . here you are . . . and this’ll probably get me crying . . . when can I say I really noticed it? . . . It really began to affect me when I was like five or six years old. I mean really young. So here is (clears throat) here is this person who is the- the most . . . (swallows and exhales, then inhales) ahh the most important (voice gets softer and wistful) person in the whole world. (Crying) The person you look up to more than anyone else. And and and you’re convinced that he thinks you are like the lowest form of shit on the earth. Uhhh it’s it’s it’s terrible. Terrible.
Despite his belief that his father thought of him as “shit,” Steve’s relationship with his father was not one-dimensionally bad. Steve described his father as a man who was very exuberant in his expression of emotions, both positive and negative:
My father’s the kind of person who . . . when he . . . expresses . . . you know joy and . . . good emotions, he does an equally . . . volumous (job). He’s very . . . giving. And he . . . it’s weird though. I never doubted that he loved me.
Freud describes melancholia as a process of mourning an “ideal” loss (1917). Unlike actual mourning, in which the object of one’s affections has died or left, melancholia can be brought about when a person feels “slighted, neglected, or disappointed” in a meaningful relationship (1917, p. 245). During those moments when his father would yell at him and abuse him, Steve temporarily lost his father as a love object; the ideal relationship in which loving feelings and positive regard dominate was temporarily suspended. Rather than accept this loss—as he continued to have a relationship with his father—Steve internalized his disappointment and anger and applied them to himself in a process that Freud calls “identification” (1917). In this way, he could preserve the hope of repair in the future.
In light of Steve’s idealization of his father, it was important for Steve to be able to maintain a positive impression of his dad. His father was a performer, and Steve recounted the sense of pride that he felt in watching his father in shows and in seeing the reactions from the audience:
Growing up (I was) incredibly proud of my father . . . we used to go to see his . . . shows you know see him doing . . . all these . . . serious plays, as children and . . . I’ll never forget how proud I was sitting there in the- and the audience is clapping and clapping and they’re saying “Bravo” and they’re standing up and when my father comes out last ‘cause he was usually . . . a lead, they would you know they would be clapping and then there would be like a thunderous you know clapping and I would be like wow! - and then I would read, you know they were always reading reviews. . . . So I’d be reading the . . . review and they’re saying these fabulous things about my father. And I was like man. I was terribly proud. I . . . always have been.
Although his father held an idealized position in his life, Steve also likely feared him when he was being yelled at and beaten as a child. This made it unlikely that Steve would express his anger toward his father for fear of retaliation. After all, children have very little control over their environments. It is, therefore, much easier to monitor one’s own behaviors and reactions than to create change in a powerful parental figure. Taking responsibility likely helped to preserve a sense of control and agency over his own life, which became very important in regard to Steve’s anxiety. The alternative would be to accept that his father got unpredictably mad at him (which he could do nothing about) and that his father himself had some of the negative characteristics that Steve attributed to himself, which would demean his father’s position as the hero of his childhood. This identification allowed Steve to believe that he had done something to drive his father to anger, instead of accepting that he was prone to unreasonable bouts of aggression. This preserved a sense of safety and faith in the external environment, as Freud suggests (1917). Steve describes this process clearly when he comments on his relationship with his father:
I never doubted that he loved me . . . and I think I understand why . . . I always felt like it was something that I was doing wrong and that he really loved me and that he was treating me the way he did because I just (tap) wasn’t (tap) doing what I was supposed to be doing because that’s what I was told. (Tapping on the table with each word) “Why don’t you ever” (bang bang bang) you know that kind of thing. And so I assumed it was me, not him. And so that made it hard.
Despite this, Steve was able to recognize the toll that this took on his development and the ways in which it contributed to his depression, low selfesteem, and anxiety later in life.
And that I think set the stage for . . . insecurity and other things that ultimately uhm made it difficult for me . . . as . . . an adolescent and a pre-teenager. And then probably directly relate- rel- you know led to my alcoholism which I I’m I’m a recovering alcoholic. Uh as well as uhm you know somebody who has depression.
Steve was not willing to attribute responsibility to his father for causing his depression or his alcoholism, as he believed that these were innate predispositions that could have developed anyway given his family history.
I’m not willing to say that, that, that I blame my alcoholism on it because there’s- I absolutely believe that there’s a genetic component and that you know people like me are just genetically predisposed to not being able to process alcohol the way other people do.
Bollas (1987) describes parent-infant relationships as a “transformational aesthetic experience” in which we learn to care for ourselves by internalizing our parents’ treatment of us as an object. Thus, one aspect of subjective experience is the treatment of oneself as one’s own object, based on these formative relationships with caregivers. In this context, it is probable that Steve developed a sense of himself as a person that was based on the way that he was treated by his father as a child. As a result, Steve internalized the harsh relational schemas that were characteristic of his father’s typical way of relating to him and, in turn, applied them to himself. His relationship with his dad thus shaped his perceptions of himself in the world in relation to others and contributed to who he became as an adult. The voice of Steve’s father echoed in his head: “Why can’t you-” “Why don’t you ever-” “You have to be more careful!”