“A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another.” – Buddha

“Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible — the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.” – Virginia Satir

Family Matters: A Case Study

Old New Life Future Past Goals Success Decision ChangeAmy grew up in middle class suburbia, with needs provided by her hard- working parents who taught her that by putting herself fully into everything she did, she would excel.  Her father had blue collar jobs, as a mechanic and then a bus driver, and her mother ‘pink collar’ work as a switchboard operator at a local department store. Neither of them had a college degree, but were worldly wise and street savvy. They encouraged her to get an education, believing that was the route to professional success. She followed their advice and adopted dual careers in the therapeutic and educational fields.

Both parents came from immigrant families; her father was first generation American born and her mother second generation. Her father’s family, which consisted of his parents and three siblings, lived in a multi-ethnic working class neighborhood and needed to tap into the government welfare system; which was a part of her family history. This was something for which her father carried shame. He was determined to support his family well, even if it meant working far more than full time hours; picking up overtime when it was offered. Even in his retirement at age 65, he worked another 18 years until Parkinson’s Disease took its toll.

Her mother and uncle lived in relative luxury when compared to her father’s upbringing. Amy’s maternal grandfather was a mechanic as well, and managed to keep his family in comfort. They lived on the proverbial ‘other side of the tracks’ from Amy’s paternal kin. There always seemed to be money for necessities and luxuries, such as renting a house in Atlantic City, New Jersey with other family members and even after Amy’s grandfather died, family legend had it that her grandmother had a ‘money tree in the backyard,’ since she always seemed to have funds for whatever need arose.

Some other details:

  • Amy’s paternal side fled Russia during the pogroms, as highlighted in the Broadway musical, “Fiddler on the Roof” during which Jews were compelled to leave their homes due to persecution.
  • Amy’s paternal grandparents came to America on board ships in their teens and had an arranged marriage.
  • Amy’s maternal grandfather died when her mother was 18.
  • Amy’s paternal grandfather died when her father was in his middle 30’s; soon after her parents got married.
  • Both were hard working men.
  • Both grandmothers were ‘stay at home moms’ whose primary role was to raise the children.
  • When her maternal grandfather died, Amy believes that he left some money for his wife and that her mother and uncle helped take care of her grandmother until she herself died in her 70’s.
  • When her paternal grandfather died, there was no financial cushion and her father, aunt and uncles supported her grandmother until she died in her 80’s.
  • None of the women in Amy’s lineage (including aunts and cousins) were independently wealthy and any money they had, was provided by men they married.
  • Several of the women were widowed young and never remarried. They raised their children as single parents.
  • Many of the women worked in either the clerical, teaching or nursing fields as was common for the women of their generation.

Amy brought her story to her therapist since she has been struggling with career and financial inconsistency. Amy revealed to her therapist that throughout her adulthood, she had never held only one job. Even when she had full time positions, others overlapped as a ‘safety net’ in case something went wrong. She also attributes that to workaholic tendencies that had her spending more time at the computer or her counseling office than providing much needed self-care.

She had not taken a vacation in many years. It was when a series of health crises occurred that she needed to take stock of her life. She slowed her pace, did indeed take several sojourns at the behest and in some cases, insistence of friends that had her traversing the country and to Canada, Jamaica and Nassau. These opportunities came because of a seemingly out of the blue dream job that afforded her that level of freedom and financial stability. Throughout her tenure in that position, what lurked beneath the surface was a fear that the proverbial ‘other shoe’ was going to drop and this ‘too good to be true’ experience would be taken away.

A year and three months after she began the job, budget cuts necessitated layoffs and ¼ of her team were given their pink slips. Having a resilient spirit and her parents’ “You’ve got this” attitude, she immediately applied for other jobs and within short order, had another lucrative position lined up working for a non-profit. She was told by the director that it was to be long term. Three months later, they lost their funding which sent her back to the drawing board. She has been able to patchwork together consulting positions.

Sounds good, right?

On the surface, this determined and sturdy woman has rebounded well. Her friends see her filling her schedule with appointments and freelance work. She has managed thus far, to keep her financial commitments. For Amy, her monetary instability, is a source of shame, as it was for her father. She tells herself that she ‘should’ be doing better. She harangues herself for not walking the talk; since she guides others in finding their own way through the challenges in their lives.  Even small successes are diminished in her mind, since she somehow internalized the belief that she will never do enough, be enough or have enough to satisfy the unyielding inner critic.

In working with her therapist, she recognized a phenomenon known as imposter syndrome, by which, regardless of level of observed success, the person experiencing it, fears being outed as a fraud. They often take surface suggestions for change as criticism when it may only be re-direction. They toggle back and forth between discouragement and desire for life events to change. The repetitive pattern is that even when experiencing a modicum of stability financially, there is often an entrenched belief that something will take away the gains made.

Amy witnesses friends exhibiting various levels of career success. Some are in the same boat as she is; making it paycheck to paycheck, while others seem to be soaring through. When she hears of friends whose financial status afford them the opportunity to do the things she used to be able to do when she held the ‘dream job,’ rather than feeling envious, she questions what they have done to achieve that pinnacle.  Some are mainstream business people, while others are wellness oriented professionals. She is still in the investigation stage, since, while there are patterns, there is no conclusion. Amy’s therapist suggested that she ask those who embrace the career success she desires, the steps they took to reach that point.

Working with the Unconscious Blueprint: Not Just Ancient History

Amy unearthed the unconscious blueprint of deprivation that had obvious roots in her family’s refugee experience. Her grandparents feared for their existence and travelled nearly 5,000 miles likely in steerage class on a sea voyage from their homeland, to the one fabled to have streets paved with gold.  The primary wealth they found was in connection. Her parents would say, “We’re rich in love.” Her father’s workaholic tendencies came from the same source; since he would often caution, “You never know what tomorrow will bring.”  She realized later in life that her pattern of ‘professional polyamory,’ working many jobs simultaneously was designed to ward off the symbolic wolf at the door. In her mind, it howled ominously. Her father inherited his worrying tendencies from his mother who practiced ‘smother love’ as an art form. Amy’s mother was the one who would reassure that all would be well, with her ‘Que’ sera, sera’ attitude as she would proclaim, “What will be, will be.”

During a period of anxiety, Amy asked herself, “If money weren’t an issue, how would you be feeling right now?” Her immediate response was, “Calm and safe.”  She took a deep breath and could recalibrate her thoughts so that she could rest in the moment and contemplate concrete ways to seek solutions to her concerns.

Once Amy was aware of the precedents, it was far easier to notice when her thoughts turned to apprehension about her future. The next step was to determine a plan of action. She continued to sort through her limiting thoughts that blocked the door to her ultimate success. She has come to acknowledge that she is a work in progress.