Can You Be Happy and Sad At the Same Time? Ask Yisro.

Find happiness by discovering and understanding your sadness, too.

A heartwarming reunion took place in Parshas Yisro. Moshe led the Jews out of Egypt and through the Red Sea to a miraculous survival in the barren desert. On their way, they met Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who had been in Midyan and didn’t experience the Exodus.

When Moshe saw Yisro, they warmly embraced. In vivid detail, Moshe related the miracles of the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea to Yisro. Yisro was spellbound as Moshe enraptured him with descriptions of the plagues in Egypt, the miracles at the Yam Suf, and the victory in the ensuing war with Amalek.

The Torah describes Yisro’s reaction. ויחד יתרו – and Yisro had “Chad.” Rashi explains that the word Chad is like “Chedva,” jubilant rejoicing. Yisro was elated to hear about the miracles and the salvation that the Jews experienced. Not only were the Jews saved, his own family was involved and experienced it. Yisro had חדוה. 

Rashi then quotes the Gemara that interprets it differently. Yisro’s skin broke out. He was upset to hear Moshe’s description of the vanquish of the Egyptians. The word “Chad” means “sharp” and refers to חידודין – goosebumps, hives or skin irritation. Yisro was so disturbed at the downfall of the Egyptians that he had a severe dermatological reaction.

Despite Yisro’s identification with the Jews, He felt an emotional connection to the other side. He used to be a heathen and an advisor to Pharaoh in Egypt. He was forced to relocate to Midyan after he gave Pharaoh advice that Pharoah didn’t like. Some time later, Yisro embraced monotheism and Judaism.

When Yisro heard about the total defeat of the Egyptians, he couldn’t help but react negatively. He knew them and felt bad for them. Their suffering resonated with him so deeply that his skin showed it.

Does the contrast between the two meanings of “Chad” strike you as strange? On the one hand, it means that he was exuberant. On the other hand, he was crestfallen. Which one is it?

Yisro experienced true ambivalence.

In common speech, we use the term ambivalent to mean that we have mixed feelings. We are unsure and feel pulled – our feelings are ambiguous. Here’s an example:

“Do you want ice cream?”

”I am ambivalent. On the one hand, I love the taste, on the other hand, I don’t like the calories and fat.”

 I have a mix of feelings and I am unsure which one I should follow. I am ambivalent. The decision can be hard to make and I might feel frustrated.

Freud used ambivalence in a much deeper way. He saw ambivalence as experiencing two absolutely opposing feelings about something at the same time. It is a uniquely human ability to have both positive and negative feelings simultaneously . We can harbor both love and hate for something, or for someone. This awareness calls to attention things we sometimes don’t want to admit, or don’t want to feel.

For example, in a true sense, parents can love and hate their children. They can deeply adore their kids and find that life would be meaningless and unfulfilled without them. At the same time, they can hate them. They eat up their time, energy, money, and resources. It doesn’t sound nice or politically correct, but I might be the truest expression of deep human emotions. In the search for emes within oneself, it can be helpful to give words to that and acknowledge it. We are humans and Hashem gave us the ability to hold two completely opposite feelings at once. 

Rashi is telling us that Yisro has Freudian ambivalence. He was deeply happy to hear about the miracles of the Exodus. At the same time, he was deeply pained by it. Yisro had both, and Rashi calls attention to that complexity.

We can have ambivalence about the things that are most dear to us or most important in life. Rashi pointed it out about Yisro. Often, no one will point it out to us. Ambivalence is still there, but it’s hiding.

Can you allow yourself to be in touch with ambivalence about people and things in your life? If you do, it can make you happier, healthier, and more successful. It can also allow you to live life with a sense of truth.

Are you ready…or are you ambivalent?

Freedom Has Its Price: The Upsides of Negative Thinking

Do you want to think positively? First, get in touch with what benefits you get from negative thoughts.

As spring begins to spread its warm embrace, Passover rapidly approaches. On the holiday’s majestic eve, millions around the world will sit down at the Seder and vividly discuss the nascent Jewish nation’s exodus from Egyptian bondage millennia ago. Jewish law stresses that an integral aspect of the Seder is for each participant to make the story personal. The Seder cannot be complete with a participant reclining and merely recalling a story of long ago. A fully engaging Passover experience can only be attained if you envision yourself as if you were freed that evening from brutal servitude in Egypt. Consequently, the Haggadah liturgy transforms the Exodus into a three dimensional narration that unfolds as the Seder proceeds.

As your thoughts focus on personalizing the jubilation of freedom from pitiless Egyptian oppression, you might contemplate mini-redemptions that you have experienced in your own life. In the same vein as the Exodus, you might consider the joy you have felt as you were liberated from an unpleasant employment experience to a job that fits your passion or from a souring personal relationship to a thriving and dynamic one.

One of the victories that you might not be able to yet celebrate is a freedom from the affliction of self-doubt, negative thoughts, and an internalized image of both past and future failures. In our generation of self-help books, positive psychology, and motivational blogs, it is curious that these pernicious thoughts still plague most people. Why is it that a society committed to self-growth and actualization suffers so prominently from the very scourge that it is trying so hard to obliterate?

Perhaps one reason that these undermining ideas are part of our collective and personal conscience is that we work too hard to simply eliminate them. The first step to effectively removing these biting ideas is to come to notice that self-defeating thoughts and feelings of worthlessness are painful, damaging and detrimental…and helpful. Usually, a thought that you are unable to achieve your goals or your happiness has a silver lining. That is often why your mind creates them and keeps them around. Until you become in touch with the benefits that your mind sees in self-effacing thoughts, there is a great chance that they will linger and grow, despite all efforts that you make to dissolve them.

There are many pluses that your brain might see in negative thoughts. Some might be easier to focus on, and others are more difficult. These benefits aren’t necessarily rational or logical, but your brain has taken them as evidence that negative thoughts are a way of accomplishing something positive. When you see how you mind wants to perpetuate negative thoughts because of the redemptive value they have, you can become closer to letting them evaporate.

One advantage that your mind might see in self-critical thoughts is that they prod you to be more productive. Since you are constantly barraging yourself with thoughts of worthlessness, you work harder to prove your worth to yourself and the world. As you make phenomenal efforts to escape the pain of those negative thoughts, you rise up the corporate ladder, garner societal prestige, or increase your income. Your mind notices that your adverse thoughts also have a very positive side. Since they have such benefits, it is highly unlikely that your brain will let go of those negative cognitions.

Your mind might see disapproving thoughts as bringing you another desirable goal. They might help you maintain your memory or closeness to your parents. It is likely that your parents created your internal compass of self-censure which developed into a necessary component of your thinking. The reproach your parents provided as a child might have been necessary, deserved, and important. They might have had your best interests in mind, their own welfare as a priority, or both. They might have rebuked in a way that was gentle, measured, and balanced…or perhaps not. It doesn’t necessarily matter. Criticism comes from parents. Accordingly, even though self-criticism is caustic and undermining, it provides the strong advantage of allowing your mind to connect you to your parents. That benefit is something your brain can sense, and will not allow itself to dissolve those feelings easily.

Focusing on positive thinking alone will not be as productive or sustained. The brain wants to keep the negativity around because it perceives value in that. If you think about how your brain sees positive results from negative thoughts, you can begin to try to replace the harmful cognitions with encouraging ideas that might achieve similar results.

As we approach the clear air of spring and the freedom of Passover, your mind might yearn to breathe free. A crucial step closer to that goal is to let yourself become aware of how your brain sees gain from your pain and positive from your negative. As you allow yourself to probe the complexities of what good you get from the bad, you might be able to attain goals and feel freer than you have in the past. When you sit at your Seder you might not only rejoice in the euphoria of the national and individual Egyptian exodus, but the sweetness of personal freedom from the bondage of your own mind.

Creation, Individuation, and a Nation

What are your relationships like?

A beautiful newborn lies in his loving mother’s arms. He silently sleeps as his mother marvels at the tranquility on his sweet little face. After a while, he wakes up with a tiny yawn. He stirs and then starts crying. Mother senses that he is hungry and tenderly nurses him.  As she does, she thinks about the special and unique connection that she is creating with her precious baby.

Baby sees it differently. He doesn’t see a relationship between himself and his mother. He simply sees mother as part of him. He is hungry, and he is then fed. He needs cuddling and is held. Developmental psychologists suggest that for the first period after a baby’s birth, he thinks that he is the same person as his mother. His mother is part of him, and he is part of her. He’s unaware that she provides food and care for him. He just sees her as an extension of himself.

As baby matures, he gradually learns that his mother and he are not the same. She can feed him, or not feed him. She can satisfy him or frustrate him. This astonishing realization can provide baby with a sorrowful awakening to the realities of life. He is alone and dependent on the world for survival. Although he tries to control that world with his cry, he is not always successful. The world might respond to his needs, and it might not.

From that epiphany and on, baby begins a lifelong journey of psychological differentiation. He starts comprehending that he has a unique existence that is not connected to anyone else. The journey of individuation continues for years, and perhaps throughout one’s life.

Years later, this differentiation can include the individual becoming aware of his own sense of self in a deeper way. He can become aware of his own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. He comprehends that the ideas are in his mind and not shared by anyone else. Many people might even disagree with his concepts or thoughts. In a more profound sense, differentiation means understanding that he himself is responsible for the ideas in his head. Even if others have created experiences, shared connections and conversations, or given presentations that have impacted him, the thoughts in his brain are the products of his own processing. It is also his choice to try to alter or dismiss them if he chooses to do so.

Psychological individuation can be very significant for a person. Individuation brings with it a sense of responsibility and ownership of oneself. Perhaps it is the only way to fully exist. If one is psychologically tethered to his home and his early influences, he is not really an adult, but a grown child, connected to his early caregivers by a psychological umbilical cord. He is not his own person with independent thoughts and desires.

Despite the beauty and power of individuation, the mind craves the safety and security of its early existence when it was one with Mom. It deeply desires the comfort of childhood where one’s caregivers’ ideas were one’s own. The process of differentiation connotes greater and greater separation from one’s parents. Leaving psychological home and moving further on that path can be dreadful and bitter.

It is possible that relationships that one develops through life partly imitate the original parental connection. Peer relationships such as marriage or friends can partially echo the longing for caregiver connection. They can provide comfort to an individual whose mind silently mourns home. When one connects with a spouse, associates, or acquaintances, they can partly take the place of parents in one’s mind.

For example, it is often significant for each spouse to care for and responsible to the other. Sometimes a spouse can demonstrate an intense and consistent need to be taken care of that stresses the marital relationship. This might be a manifestation of that spouse’s wish to recreate a parental relationship in her marriage. If the latent wish to recreate a parental connection becomes prominent enough that it upsets a relationship’s functioning, it should be thought about and analyzed closely. Perhaps this is a simple meaning of the Torah’s description of marriage when it describes Adam and Eve, “one should leave his mother and father and join with his wife and they will be one flesh.” The Torah is describing the psychological differentiation that is necessary to create a peer marriage rather than a recreation of the parent – child dynamic.

The same analysis might be important in peer relationships. Connections with friends can be an important aspect of life. At the same time, if social groups usurp one’s individuality, it might be important to question that friendship or peer group. In some friend groups among adults, one can find it hard to be accepted if he engages in a certain mode of dress, style, or religious practice. One often obliges because that social circle is significant to him. Is that a peer group or a recreation of a desperate need to connect with others that are representing one’s parents? When Chazal relate that the Jewish people surrounded Sinai to receive the Torah “like one person with one heart,” it seems to be describing a powerful peer relationship where everyone was accepted and there was little hierarchy.

As we approach Shavuos, perhaps it is worthwhile to examine our relationships. Do they echo the beauty of Matan Torah, “like one person with one heart?” If they do, they might be very worthwhile to invest in further. If not, perhaps there are changes that one might consider as he becomes an individual, with the freedom and power that it produces.

I Am So Different Than You…and Let’s Keep It That Way

Interacting with people can be so hard! Find out why…and how you can think different.

I hate socializing.

Awk- waard!

I have nothing to say at the table.

Everyone else is so different than I am.

They sooo don’t get me.

A chief complaint that we can feel when we are in a group of people is that we are markedly different than the others. Sometimes we might feel inferior – not as knowledgeable, less “with it,” or not too sociable. On other occasions we might feel that we are “better” – more intelligent, further refined, or superior conversationalists. These thoughts can leave us feeling that we have little to talk to everyone else about. We might feel “out of it” or not too energetic as the conversation buzzes around us. Then, the ideas that we had about the group become even more true as our prophesies of difference fulfill themselves.

There is a fascinating background story to this experience. A tension exists deep within us. On the one hand, we deeply desire to feel unique. That yearning was with us since our earliest days, and perhaps before then. We wanted our parents to take care of us, protect us, and show us their love and how we were special to them. As we matured physically and emotionally, we remained with that perpetual desire to feel unique. In addition, each of us really is unique. We are each different from one another physically, and that reflects the exclusive nature of each of our thoughts and feelings. We might know that, but we want to feel it more potently. Each person is distinctive from a religious standpoint, too. The soul that each person has is individual, and represents his connection with the Divine.

At the same time, the perpetual desire to feel and express our uniqueness can backfire. It can cause us to focus on it too much when we are with a group of others. Instead of connecting with the other individuals in a group, we hone in on our uniqueness. This is self-preserving. When we are with a group of people, our uniqueness can feel threatened. Paying disproportionate attention to our uniqueness feeds it and preserves it for us. In our efforts to keep our uniqueness, we create an I – You barrier.

In addition, when we focus unduly on our uniqueness, we often make a judgement about it. We can see ourselves as different and see the others as better than us. Although it might seem strange that we criticize ourselves, it actually works to our advantage. Our tale of woe as being less than everyone else highlights that we are different – and unique. We create a reality that the others shine and we fall short. It might be true that the other in a group have some attributes that we do not. Yet, we can be so desperate for a unique point of differentiation that these thoughts often feel truer than they are. This way of thinking is often painful and distances us from others, and from ourselves.

On other occasions, we might make a judgement of superiority of self. We might feel that the group that we are with is below what is fitting to us. We are smarter, more complicated, or better conversationalists than the other people there. In truth, the delusion of feeling superior also stems from a feeling of inferiority. We are so desperate to feel unique that we hone in on some positive traits or characteristics and favorably compare ourselves to others. This allows us to preserve our uniqueness that we perceive as so fragile.

Social situations can acutely bring out our deep desire to perpetuate our uniqueness. Ironically, true uniqueness is tautological. It is the very defining trait of who we are. One is unique. One is not unique because of something. “Unique” is not the middle of a sentence. It is followed by a period.

An apocryphal story tells of a man who walked into a restaurant in the South and ordered sausage and eggs for breakfast. When the waitress brought him his order, he noticed a white mound on the plate, too. He asked the waitress what they were. “Grits, sir,” she replied. “But I didn’t order grits,” he responded. “Sir, you don’t order grits, they just come,” she exclaimed. Similarly, our uniqueness is not something we need to rationalize or explain. At its core, it just is – it’s who we are and who we will be.

This was the eternal paradigm provided by the Machatzis Hashekel, the half-shekel that was required to be collected yearly, and is described in the beginning of Parshas Ki Sisa. The Torah highlights that each person was required to donate a half shekel coin for the needs of the Temple in the coming year. The Torah emphatically states that an affluent person may not increase his donation, and an indigent one may not decrease it. The lesson, highlighted by many commentaries, is that each person is central and important in maintaining the Temple. Those with deeper pockets do not have more gravitas than those with shallower ones. By extension, more or less intellectual ability, personality, or capability does not make a person more unique. Uniqueness just is.

When we think about our uniqueness as being an integral and immutable part of ourselves, it can allow us the freedom to foster it and still connect with others. We might even allow ourselves to see value in being in a group because others will enjoy our uniqueness. The more we are in touch with uniqueness as an integral part of who we are, the more it can begin deep conversations within ourselves and with the others that we associate with.

A Deep Sense of Sheim

Do roses always smell as sweet?

“I am so tired I can’t even keep my kids’ names straight!” How often do you experience something like that? Mixing up names can be very frustrating. You might see it as an indication of our own fatigue, stress, or lack of presence of mind. You might also attribute it to diminishing memory.

In some of the most famous lines in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet proclaims:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title.

Her words run deep and most correctly apply when there is forethought into changing one’s own name, or the name of a loved one. Yet, when one inadvertently misnames another, the sound might not be as pleasant.

New research, published this past October, indicates that misnaming has little to do with our state of tiredness or memory retention. It seems to be a common phenomenon based on the way our brains process information. It might also indicate something about how we access that information when we are under time pressure or are distracted.

A fundamental aspect of cognition is that our brains chunk information, or group it together. We try to create orderly file systems in order to process, make sense of, and retain the overwhelming amount of information that we encounter. That is part of the reason that mnemonics work so well to help us remember things. When learning the order of operation for grade school math, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” makes more sense to us as a group of words than “Parentheses Exponents Multiplication Division Addition Subtraction” or even “PEMDAS.” Therefore, we can group that sentence as one, so it is more easily accessible and processed in our memories (which might be part of the reason I still remember it from elementary school).

The recent study suggests that our brains do a similar thing with names. We group people’s names in virtual file folders. We might place all children in the “children” folder. Sometimes, perhaps when we are short on time or lack focus, we access the folder, and grab the wrong file, such as a different child’s name. This same phenomenon can happen with coworkers’ names. Since coworkers are often grouped in the same folder, it is easy to access one file or name instead of another.

It seldom happens that the folders get mixed up. It is not as prevalent for someone to mistake a family member for a coworker’s name or vice versa. What if you find that you do? It might indicate that that coworker is in a “family” folder, so his name is able to be accessed instead of your family member’s. Why might this happen?

There might be other aspects of our psyche that are involved in our cognitions and categorizations, in addition to those research findings. Misnaming might indicate something about ourselves and the person we are addressing. For example, someone might be grouped in multiple areas of memory. A close friend might be categorized as a “friend” and as “family.” You might sometimes think of him as a friend. On occasion, you might use your sibling’s name for him, too. That can indicate that he is somewhat of a brother to you, as well. What if you often misname your sister with you friend’s name? That might hint to you that you have some aspects of a closer relationship with your friend than with your sister.

In addition, there might be fluidity in your mind from category to category. In large families, one might chunk “older kids” and “younger kids” in two groups. It might be that it is most common to misname older kids for one another or younger kids for one another. What about the child that is in the middle? He might sometimes be misnamed for an older sibling, and sometimes for a younger one. It might depend on his behavior or the situation and his parent’s frame of mind at that moment. Is mom seeing him as one of the younger kids or the older ones at that second?

In a broader sense, sometimes misnaming might indicate the lack of uniqueness that a person has to you at that instant. If a parent interchanges names, it might partially indicate that he loves all the children he interchanges names with equally, or that he feels that way at that time. On the other hand, it might demonstrate that he is seeing them more prominently with the identifying factor as “children” rather than as individuals.

What if you switch spouse and children, bosses and parents, or rabbis and friends? Those inadvertent switches might indicate something to you about the way you are processing that relationship at that moment. It does not have to mean that you are equating them. It could mean that there is some commonality that your mind is processing at that specific time.

The representation that a misnomer has to the user, and the one who is being misnamed, might differ based on the situation. When Juliet tells Romeo that she loves him for who he is, not for his name, she is using it as a mechanism to draw closer. On the other hand, inadvertent misnaming might create distance, or just be humorous or irrelevant to both parties.

The subjective value we give to names may wax and wane in communal and religious significance, as well. Our Sages greatly laud the Jewish people for not altering their Jewish names during their two centuries of brutal Egyptian labor and bondage, which we begin to read about this week. That intransigence was seen as a demonstration of extreme fortitude. The Jews preserved their national identity despite their being subjected to work that could have shattered their morale.  (It is interesting to note that the entire Book of Exodus is also commonly called Shemos – lit. “Names.” That is also the plural form of the word sheim – name used in this title.) At the same time, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe O. C. 4, 66) observes that in post-Exodus Judaism there have been many renowned Jews that have solely used secular names. He posits that the supreme importance that our Sages attributed to the preservation of distinct names was when there were few other characteristics that defined Jews. After the Torah was given, Judaism had its own legal system and codes, and maintaining distinct names paled in importance. Likewise, the significance of names or misnaming may depend on situational factors.

Thinking about your misnaming might provide insight into yourself and your relationships. What might be true for you at one time might not be how you are feeling at another time. Alternatively, it might ring so true that you prefer not to notice it. That might depend on if you are willing to looking beyond the name. Will that help life’s roses smell even sweeter?

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…A Very Good Place to Start

What is your personal Genesis?

The first book of the Bible is called Genesis because it deals with the genesis, or creation, of the universe. The name has its roots in the term used by our Sages, “Sefer HaYetzirah – the Book of Creation.” Nachmanides (Introduction to Exodus) comments that the name refers to another formation as well. The Jewish People was founded as Abraham concretized monotheism and transmitted his beliefs to his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. Then, the twelve Tribes of Israel began and laid the groundwork for a nation. Nachmanides elaborates that the Patriarchal lives microcosmically foretold the development of Jewish history. Events that transpired on a miniature scale to the first Jews portended events that would occur again to their offspring. This was national genesis, the creation of a people.

This can be true in the individual realm, too. An aspect of your personal psyche was created long before you were. Your parents, and their personalities, principles, and tendencies, have influenced you since we were born and throughout your life. One answer to “who are you?” is “the child of your parents.” Your genesis began with their creation.

Recognizing that how you assimilate life, manage problems, make decisions, and deal with others is influenced by your parents and your upbringing can be enlightening. That awareness might provide you with greater insight into who you are and where you have been. It might also help you better understand your current life situation and how you can change it.

At the same time, there are pitfalls and roadblocks that you might encounter when you travel down memory lane. It might be exceedingly difficult for you to trace a negative reaction or behavior to parental influence. We are culturally, religiously, and societally inclined to honor and protect our parents. Discovering that something adverse about yourself has its roots in your parents’ behaviors might seem like you are disrespectfully besmirching them. Sometimes, even people that have grown up in homes with severely deficient parents still find it hard to criticize them or see their negative influences with clarity.

A way to approach this resistance might be to suspend your judgement of your mother and father. You might find it productive to think about your parents and how they interacted with you as an observer. You might find it productive to curiously investigate some of their patterns of behavior, reactions, and parenting methods and see how it made you who you are. Your goal might not be to judge them, but to strive for a greater understanding of who you are because of them. The approach of the observer might allow you the freedom to explore your parents and their influences on you without your feeling compelled to pass judgement on them or their actions.

Also, a drawback to exploring and trailing some negativity about oneself to mom and dad is the blame game. There is a certain ease and freeness that might come from dumping your problems on someone else. Noticing that part of who you are comes from your parents can create a degree of scapegoating onto them, which might translate into shirking your own responsibilities. You might contend to yourself that if unfavorable aspects of your psyche were molded so early in life, you must be almost powerless to change them. Even if you were to consider modifying them, it must take a superhuman effort to do that – and you are only human.

It might be worthwhile considering that the aim of understanding where your personality and behaviors come from is not to shift the responsibility to your parents. Instead, greater understanding of “Me’ayin Basa – from where you came” might expose layers of thinking and default behaviors that you maintain as axiomatic. Seeing those thoughts and actions as resulting from your parental modeling and influence might make it easier for you to mold them and adjust them.

This week, we conclude the communal reading of Genesis. Perhaps is it meaningful to thing about your own genesis and how your parents have influenced who you are. Whatever stage of life you are in, it might provide you with a new genesis and a magnificent future in your own book that is still being written.

Great is the Enemy of Good Enough: The Overextended Parent

Shaindi is not adequately available for her kids and it troubles her.

“Aggghhh!” Shaindi says to herself. Her fourth grade son, Avi, needs help with his homework, and her second grade daughter, Aliza, cut her knee. At the same time, Shaindi is tending to her 6 month old baby, Ephi. She comforts Aliza with one arm as she balances the baby in the other. Then, still holding baby Ephi, she sits down to help Avi, but Aliza keeps on moaning, interrupting them. Shaindi begins to tear.

She isn’t upset at any of the kids. She isn’t even bothered by the tug of several demands on her at the same time. Shaindi explains that her crying is because she feels that she is deficient as a mother. Shaindi knows that children need emotional nourishment to become thriving, successful, well-adjusted adults. She makes sure to show her kids love, care, and concern as often as she can. But she feels it is simply not enough. As much as she tries, she feels like she doesn’t give enough attention, time, or demonstration of her love to any of them.

It’s not only Shaindi that feels this way. The kids seem to feel it, too.

“Mommy. How come we can’t do homework without being interrupted?”

“Mom, why can’t we have supper at a normal time like all my friends?”

“Why can’t you take care of me without holding baby?”

These are common questions she hears from her kids. Shaindi clarifies that she is not concerned about “having it together” or being a supermom. She wishes she could be worrying about that. She has more basic concerns. She is concerned about her kids’ development and future. “Who knows how they will turn out when they grow up?” she asks herself. “I hope they remember my love and they manage to mature OK,” Shaindi thinks. She wants to be the best mother that she can be for her kids…and she is failing.

Or is she? Dr. Donald W. Winnicott (1896 – 1971) was a pediatrician in London who noticed that a baby’s ability to grow and adapt well to the world was correlated with the mother’s love and care for her baby, just as Shaindi believes. Yet, as Winnicott observed this among his patients, he coined the term “good-enough mother.” He observed that if a mother was responsive to her baby’s needs most of the time, and generally held, fed, and cared for the baby, the baby developed properly and matured. The mother did not have to always be responsive, or perfect, or caring. Sometimes she could have been selfish, preoccupied, and/ or ambivalent. As long as she usually showed concern for the baby, the baby was equipped to transition through life’s developmental stages. As Winnicott stated in his seminal paper the mother needs to be “alive and real and good enough (not too persecutory).”

Furthermore, Winnicott explained that a mother’s complete attention to the baby’s needs dissipates. He suggested that, “the good enough ‘mother’ (not necessarily the infant’s own mother) is one who makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that gradually lessens, according to the infant’s growing ability to account for failure of adaptation and to tolerate the results of frustration.” That means that a mother does withdraw, and the baby’s ability to tolerate that is a fundamental way that babies grow cognitively. Ironically, the fact that the mother withdraws her constant and absolute care (maybe even a few days out of the baby nursery, as life happens!) is central to the baby developing properly and wholly.

Many have suggested that the power and insight of Winnicott’s approach and phraseology is that mothering is a microcosm of the child’s present and future. The mother’s need and desire to do other things that distract her from her baby is the best preparation for life. As he matures the infant will encounter some situations and relationships where others fulfill his needs, and others where people either don’t or deny that those needs they exist.

The good-enough mother is realistic, both as a mother and as a cultivator of future expectations. “One of Winnicott’s main contributions to psychoanalytic thought was his idea of the “good-enough mother,” the mother who sometimes responded promptly to our needs and sometimes didn’t. The beauty of this concept was that it was so widely applicable—most people had that kind of mother—and also that it bestowed some honor on her. (Those mothers typically had other children to care for, plus dinner to cook.)…[An analyst] regards Winnicott’s good-enough mother as not just good enough but the best, because she tells us the truth: on occasion we’ll get satisfaction and on occasion we won’t. We need understanding sometimes, not every time” (Acocella, 2013).

Shaindi appears to be a “good enough mother.” She spends time with her children and demonstrates her love through her actions and interactions. She is not perfect, but it seems that a mother doesn’t have to be. Furthermore, her imperfection might be beneficial. It helps her kids get ready for life’s ups and downs. Some like saying that “good is the enemy of great.” With parenting, great is sometimes the enemy of good-enough.



Acocella, J. (2013)

Winnicott, D. W. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena.The International journal of psycho-analysis34, 89.