I am fascinated by the ways in which people can offer each other support. I include in support expressions of care and reassurance, deep listening and validating another’s subjective experience, but I also include hard-to-hear feedback, meaningful but challenging questions, and even silence — if that silence conveys confidence in the other person’s capacity to handle their own problems. There are as many variations on these themes as there are conversations.
We all have preferences for the kinds of support that strengthen us and help us remember who we are. It is interesting that people in leadership roles, even as they complain about others and express through their tone how unsupported they feel, will when confronted often deny the need for any support at all. For sure, this is a defensive reaction to the idea that needing support is a weakness and therefore something that cannot be acknowledged.
I believe it’s possible to trace this denial of needs back to the culture, to the strange ideas about community and friendship and support built into our pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps culture. And it often starts in the culture of families.
I remember growing up I had a music teacher, Mr. __________. I went to his house for clarinet lessons every week when I was about ten years old. One day when I arrived I found his wife and their daughter waiting for Mr.___________ to come out of his last lesson. The daughter needed to play a passage for him on her violin. While we all waited together, she practiced, and to my young ears played beautifully. It was hard to imagine someone close to my own age that accomplished. Eventually, Mr._________ got out of his lesson and he asked me to wait while he listened to her play. Now more nervous in front of her father, the girl’s playing suffered slightly. He immediately interrupted her playing with loud, stern, impatient criticisms. When Mr. __________’s wife attempted to intervene, since the daughter was obviously getting more and more upset at his corrections, Mr. ___________ became even more demanding. “She needs to learn how to play under pressure,” he shouted at his wife. Turning to the girl, his foot already tapping the expected beat of the passage, he pronounced: “Now play it!” She tried once again, but in the middle he turned without saying anything, using his eyes to tell me it was time for my own lesson to start, and simply walked away from his daughter. I had to wonder how many times that day she’d tried to play the passage for him.
I guess this must have been his form of support, toughening her up for adult trials she might one day face. Of course, it told me a lot about what to expect from him, but I would say he was at least two or three times harder on his daughter than he was on me (except for the wrath I experienced some years later when I dropped out of the band class he conducted). After that scene with the daughter, I felt very lucky about life. At least Mr.___________ wasn’t my parent.
I’m sure a case can be made for pushing children beyond their self-perceived limits, but what a lonely space can also be created. What a need for ultimate approval and accomplishment. What a desire to stand out in order just to be seen as a person.
No one walks with this child. No one accompanies this little girl or little boy. And then these children grow up and become all kinds of accomplished people, some of whom lead and manage — and expect that others, just like themselves, should have no support at all.
Oh, I know this all too simplistic. There’s no such absolute cause and effect relationship, at least not in child rearing. A child might just as well learn to swallow their own needs by taking over for parents who are overwhelmed or inept. And he or she might just as well grow up into someone who is constantly supporting others, trying to get what was missed by giving it to others. One way or another, however, the subjectivity of the person has been damaged.
The nightmare is what this damage does later in organizations. The analytical boss who believes it’s his divine right to poke holes in everything anyone else creates. The perfectionistic micro-manager who can’t allow herself to delegate or foster others’ potentials. The insecure professional who has to dominate every meeting with her intelligence. The smooth CEO who trusts no one and who no one trusts in return. All these children, all with a vulnerability, an inner loneliness, who ostensibly do not want to be accompanied or witnessed or supported in any real way. We can say, well, they hunger for it inside, and sometimes they do. But the truth is also that many live their scars and make a kind of success out of it at the expense of others and the world.
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