THOUGHTS FOR REFLECTION ON SELF-LOVE AND SELF-LIBERATION:
DEDICATED TO BARTHOLOMEW T. COSGROVE, JR.*
EDWARD C. PAOLELLA
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create....
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"....
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
---T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1914)
"...I tell you...let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects
INTRODUCTION: Insecure relationships in childhood influence negative emotional and social functioning. Unhealthy relationships are among the most destructive of experiences of the young child. Bad relationships have a strong negative influence on social and emotional functioning. children learn to manage their emotional responses to people and events from the behavior of their parents and other care givers. When a child does not feel safe and secure, he cannot rely on his care givers to help him develop a healthy self-image to learn how to effectively regulate his own behavior.
What makes the psychoanalytic process "unavailable" to the vast majority of neurotic human beings is that they are petrified of emotionally reliving the experience(s) that caused the formation of the neurosis in the first place, understanding that a neurosis is a flight from reality into the domain of wishful-thinking, illusion, and/or delusion.
For as Freud explains, ""The neurotic turns away from reality because he finds it unbearable--either the whole or parts of it" (Formulations regarding the two Principles in Mental Functioning," Collected Papers, Vol. IV). Reminding oneself of the fact that one is intellectually no longer six years old is valuable, but such conscious awareness of an idea is not the necessary equivalent of reliving emotionally an actual experience from the past as captured and fossilized in one's memory that lies at the seat of the neurosis.
My mother, whenever she was frustrated with my behavior, in addition to often using physical punishment, would also repeat time and again, "Edward, you are no good, you never were any good, and you will never be any good!"
That "mantra" of my mother's, that I internalized and that became an indelible part of my identify and self-image--at least by the age of seven or eight years old and most definitely quite consciously by the age of ten--proved to be disastrous in the formation of my behavior as an adult, especially when it came to my being gay and my choosing love-objects during the course of the first half of my life.The choice of love-object--as either life-partner or friend--is based upon the nature of the relationships one develops early on with one's parents or their surrogates.
Freud discovered that in working with his patients who had dysfunctional relationships with either a mother or a father or both determined whom they chose as friends and possible life-partners. He demonstrated through his case studies, and sought to have the patient recognize, that whatever neurotic elements constituted the relationship with one's parents were carried over into one's substitute relationships with all other significant others in one's life.
For, as Freud clinically observed, husbands and wives or life-partners, called by whatever name, are "refound" mothers and fathers with whom the social conventions of civilized society now allow the children-turned- adults to consummate the sexual relationship as two adults, which the same social conventions, because of their tabooed incestuous nature, whether heterosexual or homosexual, disallowed in one's relationships between children and their parents.
(As an important, but passing aside, one does well to remember that the "Oedipus" and "castration" complexes are operative in both homosexual and heterosexual child development. However, there are two differences to note for the homosexual child: 1) the homosexual child falls in love with the parent of the same sex, desires to consummate the relationship with the parent of the same sex, and to do so, wishes to efface, by whatever means necessary, the physical existence of the parent of the opposite sex, which desire, in turn, causes the feelings of fear of "castration" and 2) the homosexual child must face a double "castration": one resulting from the fear of wanting to destroy the parent of the opposite sex and another resulting from the fear of the society that wants to efface him for "falling in love" with the parent of the same sex.
Lesbians suffer even worse feelings of "castration," for to their double "castration" is added a third: the initial "castration" the girl child experiences when she discovers that, unlike little boys, she has no penis because she has already been "castrated," a "castration" that results in "penis envy," a concept much misunderstood by most feminists of usually all persuasions, but especially by most lesbian feminists. (<http://www.blogger.com/; Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, ed. and introd. Freud on Women: A Reader. London: Hogarth, 1990)
What neurotic elements in the parent-child relationship that never get resolved in childhood never fail to show up in all future intimate relationships with friends and life-partners.In my early adult life, up until the time I was about thirty-five years old, I never failed to choose partners who were certain to let me know that I was fundamentally "no good"--that is, men who were the wrong, unhealthy love-objects for me to choose, but whom I chose, nonetheless, because it was certain that they would reject my love, not only because of their own unresolved neurotic conflicts stemming from their early childhood, but also because I could keep fulfilling my mother's prophecy that I "was no good and would never be any good" to anyone whom I chose to love or whose love I sought and consciously wanted reciprocated.
One of the major causes of my mother's frustration with me was my uncanny intelligence. She told me over and over again that I was too smart, that my being smart made her feel inadequate because she did not know how to handle not only what I did, but also what I said by way of an explanation of why I did what I did--although when I was twenty-six years old, two years before her death, she acknowledged to me that while I was the most difficult of her three children to raise, it was from me that she learned the most. She simply did not understand me, and the only way she knew how to control my behavior was to physically punish me and verbally abuse me by telling me that I was "no good."
Young children do not have the appropriate defense mechanisms to deal with such profound conflicts with a parent. In the child's mind, the parent is always right and the only authority of the "truth" that the child knows. So what the parent says "must be true" because the child believes the parent to be the "all-knowing" individual in the child's life. (One can see here also the etiology of the origins of religion with the "All-Knowing God offering unconditional love" who is but a projection of the "castrated" child-parent relationship. This is a gross over-simplification of a profoundly complex subject that needs its own basis for discussion at another time and in another separate essay.)
Whenever my mother got frustrated with my behavior, physical and verbal, she heaped her own physical and verbal abuse on me, and, worst of all for a child, she threatened me with the withdrawal of her love and proceeded to do so, temporarily at least. But "temporarily" as a child feels like "forever." I became, for as long as her anger lasted, a "persona non-grata," a human being fully unacceptable and unworthy of living! And that is exactly, as an adult, how I came to feel and act--unacceptable and unworthy of being loved and of even living.
Just as my mother felt threatened by my intelligence, expressed through behaviors she (and my elementary school teachers) did not understand and did not know how to cope with for lack of her (their) own self-awareness and self-enlightenment, I became the "victim" and continued to "victimize" myself because "I deserved it," for, remember, buried within me was the belief in the deepest part of my being that "I was no good," unworthy of any kind of love from anyone, let alone from myself." How could I love myself, for I had never adequately learned how from my parents?
Such deeply-seated feelings of unworthiness led to a life tormented by clinical depression, fantasies and near-attempts at suicide, mental hospitalizations, and electro-shock therapy.The deeply-seated feelings of unworthiness are at the very hub of the psychological matter: someone who does not love himself is bound to choose others in his quest to love and to be loved who will also ultimately choose not to love him--more often than not out of their own fears and neuroses having absolutely nothing to do with the self-rejecting human being. And for me, the cause was always the same as a result of the pattern having been set in childhood: "I am not worthy of loving myself or being loved by anyone else. What I am worthy of is verbal and physical abuse both from myself and from others."
My intelligence made me an extremely curious child and adult man who wanted to know "about everything about everything" that caught my fancy and to say whatever I really felt and thought, and I challenged others to be as honest as I was trying to be--often a chief cause of a fear of what was lurking in their own deeply repressed unconscious. What a set-up for a life of rejection and pain, for most people run away from either asking themselves profound questions, asking others such questions, and they certainly do no want anyone around who is asking them the very same questions despite what sexual attraction that they may feel for one another.What took me years and years and much pain and suffering to realize is that it was not I alone whom they disliked but themselves as well.
Moreover, they did not like that I asked either myself the "overwhelming" questions that the vast majority of human beings spend their entire lives avoiding, let alone anyone else insisting on asking them the same "overwhelming" questions because only by getting their answers to my questions would I find out if they truly loved me for who I was. But how could they love me for who I truly was?--not even my parents did that (that job is relegated to a man-created God to do)--nor were they capable of loving me for myself, for like myself, they did not love their true selves much more than I loved my own true self.
Often, life-partners who do share genuine feelings of love for one another choose one another out of a tacit unconscious agreement not to "disturb" one another's inner "universe." I learned this to be so from my own mother who, when I lived away from home for about eight years--and even when I was a child--she often, having no one else she felt that she could turn to, would discuss with me what caused her unhappiness in her own relationship with my father, who for ten years while we three children were growing up, was having an affair with another woman.
Some neurotic adults turn to sex to "drug" their pain, while others turn to the bottle, domestic violence, or equally self-destructive means of struggling with the contradictory and terrifying battle between Eros, the desire to live, and Thanatos, the desire to die. Freud says of such neurotic symptoms that they "are exclusively...either a substitutive satisfaction of some sexual impulse or measures to prevent such a satisfaction, and are as a rule compromises between the two, of the kind that arise according to the laws operating between contraries in the unconscious" (An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Ch. 7).
One day I was talking to my psychiatrist at the time--an excellent one--asking him why it was that I recognized that he loved me more than I loved myself--for such was quite clearly the case that I eventually had to ask him why. I received his answer as if I had been struck by a bolt of lightening that cracked open the inner-most core of my being. He said to me: "You deserve to be loved, Edward, simply because you exist!"
I had never heard any human being make such an unqualified and absolutely truthful statement in my entire life--but one that I had all my life longed to hear. Originally, it was from my parents that I was expecting to hear such a statement of such love as well as demonstrated to me through their actions and not just their words. Yes, my parents gave me much to be grateful for to this day, as I came to realize years later, but they did not help to instill in me sufficient strong and supportive feelings of self-love. For one only learns to love oneself by first feeling loved for who one is by one's parents or parent surrogates.
Once I left home at the age of eighteen, I eventually hoped to find another man, since I was homosexual from as far back almost as I had conscious memory of myself and my sexual feelings toward my father, from whom I wanted to feel coming from him--some of which did come through, but all to scantily--that same kind of love for me and a man who would tell me that I was "lovable" to him as he wished me to feel for him.
And as an adult, when I did think I had found a man for whom I had such feelings, because I thought that that man with whom I had chosen to share my life felt that same way about me, those very feelings caused me to fall in love with him in the first place.
Unfortunately, too often, I mistook wishful thinking for reality! In spite of all the signs, I just "had" to believe that he loved me for me. But in my twenties and thirties, I chose men who both were incapable of loving me, and for that reason I wanted them all the more to continue to perpetuate the feelings I unconsciously had about myself as not being "lovable."
The "only" problem was that not only did the men I chose not love me for me--and my intelligence played no small part as well in their rejecting me, for they felt intimidated by my seemingly inexhaustible probing spirit and acute, analytical mind that perceived connections among apparently disparate ideas where other minds did not--but not even I loved me for me. even though I had reason more and more to recognize what intellectual abilities I did possess, for I was graduated from New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, at the age of seventeen as co-editor of the senior year book, as valedictorian privileged to deliver the commencement address to my graduating class, and as the winner of two additional medals with my name added in gold on both the Scholarship and Leadership Boards on public display (which are still up to this day, I believe) in the main corridor of the high school.
My "smarts" led me to pursue an academic career, studying first at Brooklyn College, then the Sorbonne in Paris, and finally at Columbia University. My most brilliant professors with whom I studied and who recognized my passion for learning slowly encouraged me to prepare myself for teaching English and Comparative Literature and wrote letters of recommendation for me to have me be considered, at first, for part-time teaching at Brooklyn College in 1965 just about the time I was to turn twenty-four years old, and eventually full-time teaching starting in 1969 at the age of twenty-eight leading to becoming tenured in 1974 at the age of thirty-one.
For the next thirty five years, I devoted myself to my career as both teacher and scholar--a career for which I felt nothing but absolute good fortune and inordinate gratitude. There were very few times during all the years spent in the classroom teaching and in libraries doing research and in writing articles that did not prove to be among the major loves of my life. Now I was the parent-surrogate who got to probe the minds of my students with the profound questions and soul-searching probing of myself and the ideas of some of the world's giants in literature and philosophy. What had been denied me while growing up--free thought and free expression of thoughts, feelings, and ideas--became the hallmark of my professional career. It never ceased to amaze me to see both my students growing in self-awareness and knowledge at the same time that I myself was growing. I was as much the student being the teacher as I was a teacher to the students. It was, indeed, a "marriage made in heaven."
But all along the way, there were periodic episodes of deep depression and clinical emotional despair and feelings of hopelessness in my private life that fed off of my extremely low self-esteem as a human being, in general, and as a gay man, in particular. What compounded the problem further was that the very men I chose to seek to develop a permanent mutually loving relationship with did not love themselves sufficiently either and did not want to be with anyone who caused them to examine their own inner worlds as I had begun doing on my own as a child and then with a psychiatrist-psychoanalyst starting at the age of eighteen or nineteen.
One day many years later, yet at another of my sessions with a different loving psychiatrist, I mentioned the story of the "mantra" my mother repeated each time she got frustrated with and angry at me: "Edward, you are no good, you never were any good, and you will never be any good." For some mysterious reason as I tarted to repeat the refrain, at that moment I completely broke down and cried and sobbed and saw myself standing in front of my mother listening to her repeat those horrific words.
I cried in my doctor's office until I had no more tears left in me and no more pain to expunge. When I looked at my doctor eye-to-eye, he said to me, with a warm, loving smile on his face, "Now you know, Edward, that that is simply not true."In that instant, what I realized emotionally--not just intellectually, for realizing it intellectually alone is not purgative enough--is that what my mother said in frustration and anger simply was not the "whole" truth.
There were any number of men and women over the years, younger, older, or my own age who, as fellow students, friends of mine or even students of mine as I began teaching part-time at twenty-three years old in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Brooklyn College, who perceived me quite differently. Some of the former students I still communicate with until today.
And there have been, as well, some "boyfriends" along the way who have loved me and thought of my intelligence and sensitivity as incredible gifts, who respected me and embraced me, and were grateful to me for what part of the gifts I possessed that they wanted me to share with them because they found them so helpful.
For they were and are men and women on their own life's journey of self-discovery--of the profound kind--a journey that is reflected in the Socratic teaching that "the unexamined life is not worth living," recorded by the most influential ancient Greek philosopher of the western world and the most brilliant of all of Socrates' students, Plato, in his dialogue on the trial and condemnation to death of Socrates, in The Apology [Defense] of Socrates, passed on to the world some 2,500 years ago, continuing to be read and studied in nearly every required course in classical civilization taught throughout Europe, America, and parts of the Middle East.
But the most important realization of all is that I did not have to change anything about myself and my personality to have others like, and some few, deeply love me, for I discovered that I have reason enough to love myself "simply because I exist."
My loving myself is in no way contingent upon pleasing anyone else. I no longer need anyone's approval, as I once needed my mother's approval and my father's, as a condition that has to be met before I let myself love myself--"with warts and all," as the saying goes.
For, to be sure, loving oneself, obviously, does not in the least mean that one is without faults. What it does mean is that one loves oneself even with one's shortcomings, ever mindful that practice does not make perfect--one of many harmful myths perpetuated by society--but that practice makes for the possibility of deep-seated, long-lasting changes for the better in one's life.
I had to sever ties with any number of men and women as my life progressed, including a few men I truly loved, but who did not love themselves sufficiently to let themselves be honest with themselves to accept and love themselves so as to be able to accept and love me for who I was and I love them for who they were.
To be at peace and content with oneself--which is tantamount in my mind to the closest one comes to being able to experience joy and happiness--the only person whose love is truly necessary in one's life is one's very own, and no one else's, for who one is. For no matter how much one person may love another, if the individual does not love himself, the love of others simply has no constructive lasting effect whatsoever on his life--unless he has the kinds of break- throughs that took years for me to experience--and will continue to
And anyone who feels, thinks, or believes otherwise is someone continuing to live still with illusions and who does not truly love himself and is only deluding himself that he is "in love" with another or is in a relationship with someone who is "in love" with him.
There is no such "animal" as "being in love." There is only the reality of loving oneself and sharing that part of oneself with some few others who may wish to receive it with as few strings attached as humanly possible, for loving is in itself its own reward. What most men and women call "true love" is just another name for narcissism.
I have known any number of men and women who call "love" what is really an underlying, overwhelming fear of loneliness and a profound fear of death and an equally deep-seated need to attempt to satisfy feelings of co-dependence. It is also often a mutually unspoken, because mostly unconscious, agreement not to challenge one another to grow and, by so doing, to mutually avoid one another's true inner natures and profoundest gifts and talents. It may also be an adoption of a mutual fantasy of "true love," and/or a financial arrangement that proves economically beneficial to one another to acquire more and more of what, in reality, they truly need less and less of.
Love is that most unique and precious gift such that the more of it one gives away freely, including of course to oneself, with the least number of accompanying expectations or demands, the more of it one has to give to others as well--with learning to give it to oneself, and not just harbor the mere illusion of possessing it.
*This piece is dedicated to Bart, the only man I have ever truly loved from the very top of my head to the very bottoms of my feet--and will ever do so, for there is no way for me to undo or want to undo what he in his life has found and calls "true love." Edward