The primary mode of connection in my family when I was growing up was arguing. That had some really beneficial developmental effects, as well as some questionable ones.
This page is a stub, created on 2020-05-02 (last updated on 2020-07-09). Its contents are notes on the issues and angles I want to address about this topic.
One theme that really stands out for me from my childhood is how everything was an argument. I don't just mean that things were often combative (though, really, they really were); what I mean is that everything had to have reasons.
Our arguments, whether they were about what I'm allowed to do, whether a grounding was legitimate, whether someone made unilateral plans (wow, was there ever a blow-out conflict over that in one of our last vacations on Kauai just before the turn of the millennium), whether I had to finish my Russian School homework before going to the beach, whether I'm allowed to stay up late doing homework, or whether about something philosophical like whether the government can prohibit billboards advertising Will & Grace that portray homosexuality in a positive light, everything was about the logic of it.
Personal attacks were called out as illegitimate argumentation techniques. Boy, did I ever quickly internalize all the various rules of logic, logical fallacies, cognitive biases, etc.
"I don't like how you're talking to me." was dismissed as irrelevant to the truth or legitimacy of a particular argument. (Hello, seeds of "Emotions don't matter.".)
Without using the word "objective", that was an implicit premise of all our interactions: There is an objective truth about everything, and our arguments are about uncovering that. (When I discovered Objectivism around the age of 18, I was immediately attracted to it as a crisp articulation of so much of what I already held dear, not too unlike my recent experience with Brené Brown. But all that is properly the subject of a different post.)
My parents were children when I was born (my mom 22 and my dad 25), so all this was quite accidental.
Despite the fact that I think they had some pretty strong authoritarian streaks, one of the consequences of this family climate was that they completely undermined themselves as authority figures. I credit my allergy to authority and fierce independence to this, for which I'm deeply and profoundly grateful. (See also Gratitude for Results versus Gratitude for Causes.)
Whenever they tried the "Because I said so." line with me, it was a complete joke. They made it impossible for me to accept that. I pushed back hard whenever they tried that nonsense with me, and I had the force of logic behind me. And in a way, they knew it.
I was the most willful and self-righteous child you can imagine. (I'm now the most willful and self-righteous adult you can imagine.) And boy did my parents deserve it; not just because it was the result of their parenting, but because they deserved at least that for the ways in which they mistreated me. (Okay, so that's something to explore in a different post. I am grateful for what my parents did right and the ways in which they were good parents. I am so grateful that I always felt like my "love tank" was full, despite what was otherwise a miserable childhood. And while I know that my parents were doing the best that they could (I hope? maybe?), the idea of any human being treating another human being the way they often treated me fills me with despair and rage.)
One of the most profound outcomes of all this was that it ingrained in me the idea that there is nothing more important, no higher standard, than my own independent judgment of what's true.
It meant that I was never fundamentally motivated by seeking my parents' or others' approval. Sure, I enjoy others' approval, but it was never a fundamental motivator. If anything, others' approval stood in my mind, rather arrogantly and self-centeredly, as reflecting well on them and allowing me to judge them well.
I think this was a critical ingredient to my always feeling fundamentally worthy and lovable...mostly because worthiness and lovability were not social phenomena for me. Somebody's failure to love me or judge me well was just that: a failure. Their failure. It affected me (and believe me, I cared), but it was ultimately not my problem. My self-esteem was (and is) unassailable.
There's probably something more here, something I can't understand or articulate quite yet. Fundamentally caring about one's own judgment (rather than others') is important, but it doesn't explain why my self-judgment is that I'm good, worthy, more than "enough". I wonder what the role of my always-full "love tank" was. Or maybe that I happened to also be smart, talented, skilled, efficacious. I don't know how many of these things are intertwined versus coincidental, happy accidents that summed up to how I developed my sense of self. But there's something else there.
This is why it's always been okay that I'm "different". Did I wish that I could "fit in" (in that counterfeit sense of "belonging" that Brené Brown describes)? Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes, feeling like an outsider felt painful. But if anything, the pain was about the effects of non-acceptance, never that there was something wrong with me. At the end of the day, I always knew that I had to be myself and act in a way that was consistent with my values and beliefs. There are only a small handful of times in my life that I can remember trying to "fit in" in a disingenuous way, and they felt so horrible that they stand as powerful reminders that anything less than authenticity is intolerable and disastrous for me. When I read Braving the Wilderness, my reaction was "YES YES YES! This is how I've always been. This all makes so much sense. Oh my gods, my heart is breaking for how people suffer for not being able to be their true selves.".
It helped that in middle school, I was among a lot of other "misfits", but even among those friends, I always felt so, so different. Yes, these were (and still are) "my people", but, even today, I continue to feel so different from them in a way that is far beyond the sense in which, as "misfits", we were already different from one another. Like, there's a "miscellaneous" bucket. And then there's me. So maybe this is a manifestation of a phrase I heard recently: "terminal uniqueness", the idea that we all think that we're all so unique, nobody understands our situation, etc, but in reality, we're more alike than we might think. Maybe? As I continue to read more, think more, and write more, while I do see some things being more similar than I previously thought, I'm uncovering weirdness and "uniqueness" at a much more rapid pace.
Another beneficial manifestation of all this is that I never had a "rebellious" phase. As a teenager, there was no authority for me to rebel against. The only authority was my own mind. If I disagreed with my parents about something, we'd have an argument about it. If I agreed with them, great. There was no reverse-psychology crap going on. It's why, for instance, I could always welcome their input and perspective because of whatever experience and wisdom that they had. For me, it was another data point for me to judge and make my own decision about. Who they were was irrelevant, other than that I knew how they could be helpful. It's why, for instance, when I was transferring into UCLA as a junior, I had my mother accompany me to the Math Department counselor's office to help plan my academic trajectory. To me, that seemed perfectly natural: I wanted to leverage my mother's experience and judgment. I didn't have any weird hangups about "I can do this all by myself." or "I don't need my mommy.". I didn't realize it in explicit terms at the time, but the counselor unintentionally tried to shame me for bringing my mother in with me by saying something about how having her there was highly irregular. Like who gives a fuck about that? It's funny: Most people might interpret the superficial fact of having my mother with me there as a sign of lack of independence. In reality, it couldn't be more the opposite: It's my extreme independence that enabled me to embrace potentially valuable input, regardless of who it came from. It was about the facts and the truth, not any of this stupid cultural shame crap and idiotic ideas about parent-child relationships and independence. Gimme a break.
Relatedly, my allegiance to the truth meant that I always pursued being right. Unfortunately, the way this lands with most people is that I always have to appear right in the context of a disagreement or argument. And while I won't pretend that there wasn't some amount of that earlier in my life, a sort of self-conscious attempt to project confidence and legitimacy (see also Objective Truth and Comfort with Uncertainty), my fundamental motivation was always to be right as a matter of fact, not that I always had to win an argument in the sense of what people mean when they charge "You just always have to be right, don't you?". (Sometimes, it's the fact that I had already considered many angles of a topic that enabled me to have a ready answer to some objection, and that comes off as quick-witted rationalization, but it's really just preparedness...but that's tangential to my present point.)
So here, I managed to avoid acquiring so many of the shame triggers that are prevalent in our culture. It meant I never had to muster up the courage to be myself. It meant that I could be open and authentic without feeling vulnerable. Ironically, this is what made it difficult for me to connect with Brené Brown's work when I first watched a few of her TED Talks. My attitude was "Like yeah, I guess, right? This seems to explain what's going on with a lot of people.", but I had trouble personally connecting to all this talk about shame and vulnerability. It felt largely alien to me. It's not that I didn't understand shame (there's a lot more I want to write about that), but it's just not something that's felt like a major barrier or issue for me, certainly not in any of the typical ways that Brené Brown describes in her work. And in another way, what she described about authenticity I now think of as "Does a fish know it's in water?", meaning that there was a lot I didn't understand was a particular (unusual) thing I was doing or way that I was being because it was so natural and obvious to me. But I reengaged with her work some months later, and I'm ever so glad that I did. I still think that there's a certain truth for me in the expression "I don't do shame.", but not in the way that Brené Brown makes clear is self-deception. Interestingly, she talks about the alternative to experiencing shame as sociopathy, and I sometimes find myself wondering whether some aspects of how I am is actually manifesting a sort of sociopathy (eg, how much I tend to elevate ideas over people, how I cognitively regard people as just other facts in the world to be dealt with), but I know that that's not the right way to think about it: How would one explain the sense in which I'm a deep empath, feeling others' feelings directly and intensely, able to cry at the drop of a hat?
Switching gears, a way of thinking about some of this is that I developed a very strong sense of internal boundaries. And relevant here is that it's inoculated me against succumbing to codependence or giving up who I am for other people. So while, in my pursuit of love and human connection, I naturally, often, and intensely become intertwined with another person (related to my believing that human interests are inherently harmonious), all that manifests as an expression and pursuit of my values, no matter how much it may look superficially that I being codependent, needy, obsessive, etc.
All that said, I think there are a number of downsides. For now, I'm just going to list out a few themes, rather than going too much into them:
- My feelings of "good/right by default" or fundamental worthiness have a built-in failure mode: It's hard for me to recognize opportunities for growth and improvement. Because I have worked so hard on myself, so much of who and how I am is by my own intentional design, so my attitude about that is that the burden of proof has shifted: If there's something I could be doing better, that is the proposition that needs to be proved. And a meta-point here is that I have worked damned hard to continue to identify those opportunities for growth, precisely because my fundamental orientation is to the truth, not how I happen to be.
- I have reified the truth in an almost religiously dogmatic way. I now jokingly call it "the supreme sanctity of the truth".
- I am extremely preoccupied by others' believing the truth because the truth matters, damn it. And it's not enough that the facts are what they are and that I understand and believe the truth. Each person's apprehension of the facts is an independent instance of the truth. (I don't mean that in the subjectivist sense; only that the truth is an epistemological concept, an individual mind's grasping the facts.) So when someone doesn't believe the truth, especially if it's the truth about me, that feels horrifically intolerable. I think this is related to my feeling so frustrated at being misjudged and misunderstood, as well as why it is (or was?) easy to bait me into arguments on Facebook, and why I don't even care whether someone has any standing to offer a viewpoint or for me to care about their viewpoint (I'll engage with the idea anyway, because it's the truth that matters).
- My natural (though not exclusive) mode of human connection and interaction is via exchange of ideas. Everything else I had to learn. If I'm not mindful, that natural disposition means that I might not calibrate my communication to my audience in a way that they can understand me, if their primary mode of connection is not through explicitly discussing ideas. So in my excitement about ideas and the truth, I talk past some people, without necessarily recognizing that I'm not connecting with them (or getting frustrated that I'm not), running roughshod over them, and that undermines the relationship. I mean, look at what I'm doing here: I've created a whole website, full of words and super intellectualized content, to try to get understood. Talking is important, but I need to learn how to use words in a less directly intellectualized/academic way when connecting with people whose natural dispositions differ from mine.
- I tend to regard people as being their ideas.
- It seems like those developmental influences simultaneously created conflict-aversion (because it was painful to have that frequent acrimony with my parents) and a willingness to engage in any argument to defend the truth (because of its supreme sanctity).
- I wrote all of the above and even published a few edits by adding more content, and not once in all that time did everything around my being gay and coming out ever occur to me as being a manifestation of so many of those principles and issues, even when I was writing about the argument about the billboards portraying homosexuality in a positive light, which was the catalyst for my coming out to my mother! I wouldn't say that being gay is a trivial part of who I am (though it's certainly non-volitional, so probably not nearly as important as things I have intentionally developed), but the fact that that it didn't even occur to me to use it as an example of being okay with who I am is rather telling. And let me tell you, my parents were not okay with my being gay. But is it any surprise that I never struggled with acceptance/tolerance and why I've never identified with any of the "gay pride" culture?
- It's probably worth noting how we were allowed to talk (and argue) about everything in our family. Maybe this was a particular manifestation of a typical Jewish cultural value, or maybe it was something specific to our family, since we weren't especially culturally Jewish. The point is that there was no topic that was off limits. (Interestingly, this is probably related to how we were able to argue about homosexuality for years (?) before I came out to my parents.) This might be related to how it's relatively easy for me today to push through discomfort (or for the discomfort to not even register) with a difficult topic and stick with it until I feel like the topic has been fully explored. (In the past, conversations usually ended angrily, but now, it's more peaceful and organic, as I've learned better communication skills.)
- Perhaps related to my side note above about why my self-judgment developed as "I'm good" is that there was a default assumption of greatness and ability to achieve anything in my family. There wasn't any explicit "talking up"; it was just a sort of unstated assumption, like "Of course you can excel at anything.", and coupled with a very diverse set of activities that our parents encouraged us to pursue (eg, academics (especially math, science, language, reading), music (especially piano), sports (especially soccer, tennis, swimming)), I felt like it was obvious that I could just do whatever I set my mind to. This is maybe another one of those Russian-Jewish things: Excellence was always expected. But maybe unlike the perfectionist/shaming trends that are common in other Russian-Jewish families, "failure" (or not achieving the highest levels) was never punished. I guess there was disappointment, but I can't ever remember feeling like there was condemnation or any implication that I was "a failure".