Letting Go of the Way We Wish Things Would Be

Letting go of the way we wish things ideally would be can lead
to more human development than the ideals themselves
article by Lawrence H. Staples

There are many worthy arguments for the existence of ideals. These include the role of ideals as an organizing principle around which people with similar values can gather. Like goals, ideals motivate us.

We would have to be blind, however, not to acknowledge their danger. By definition, when ideals are our guide, we strive for perfection that does not exist in the real world. We strive for something that in the long run will frustrate us and depress us because we will fall short. We will experience failure. Goals are different. Having realistically attainable goals can serve us well.

Real development often requires the sacrifice of high ideals; it often demands that we get real. Letting go of the way we wish things ideally would be can lead to more human development than the ideals themselves. We can’t give up or fail to meet ideals, however, without incurring guilt. I asked a patient what he thought it would take to really satisfy his self-righteous mother, who admired preachers. He said: “In my case I probably would have to become Jesus.” It made me think that Jesus probably is the unconscious model for the goals of achievement for many children. If the child is not to become the savior of the world, he simply is not special enough. It is a terrible burden to feel that one can please or save a parent only by achieving such heights. Failing one’s parents is like failing God, and failing either one brings guilt. Letting go of the need to be a savior can be a daunting task. Once children become aware of the burden they are saddled with, they feel anger—that the goals they are encouraged to attain are for their parents, not for themselves.

At a point in his life, Jung himself became aware that he harbored a similar ideal about the need to be Jesus. He wrote, “Only after I had written 25 pages … it began to dawn on me that Christ—not the man but the divine being—was my secret goal. It came to me as a shock, as I felt utterly unequal to such a task.”(1) The task could become even more problematic if one raises the question as to whether the model is to be the gentler, kinder Christ of the first four Gospels of the New Testament or the harsher model of Revelation.

Rarely is someone able to give voice to, as the person in the previous paragraph and Jung did, the need to be a Jesus or the Virgin Mary if they are to have a worthy life; usually such an impossible ideal is unconscious. The demand to be something more than life-size was laid upon them, by a parent’s soaring expectations, stated or implied. A person’s need to help or save on a grand scale may also come from a compulsion to be recognized or loved by a parent who never responded to them as a child, or as an adult. People seldom become conscious of such an outrageous burden on their lives unless or until the unconscious is stimulated by a dream, by therapy, or by creative output.

The need to be Jesus can lead to guilt, disillusionment, and dissatisfaction. The need to avoid the painful guilt of failing to achieve ideals often interferes in very practical ways with career development because they can never be satisfied with ordinary jobs. The shortfall from this ideal is predictable. This unconscious need to be great is often expressed by patients as dissatisfaction with their jobs, or as feelings that their work is meaningless or soulless. Sometimes the complaint is stronger; they feel that they are prostituting themselves. They may feel the same about their colleagues and bosses, who think only of profit. They say they want to do something that helps people or helps the environment or helps bring social justice. They often believe there is a job out there that will permit them to use their talents for some greater good or noble purpose.

The longer I live the more I am convinced that if we want to help, we should do what we are good at. What we are good at is usually what interests us most, whether it is selling, typing, mathematics, or myriad other talents and activities. Everyone doing what he is best at is the best way to contribute the most to society. During my days in business, I remember offering a good promotion to a competent secretary, and her turning it down. She said she liked what she was doing and that her current job was what she was good at. She did not like the idea of supervising others. At my then tender age, I was astonished that anyone would turn down such an offer. But she had a commonsense wisdom that protected her.

I need to emphasize here that the guilt that makes us feel we are prostituting ourselves is complex. Its interpretation requires great care. It’s a guilt that can cut two ways. It can protect our soul if we are, in fact, “selling out.” It can tell us we are trying to do something that is not right for us. We need to listen carefully to this feeling and take it seriously. On the other hand, the guilt we are feeling may be based upon parental needs that have little to do with us, and much to do with them. These assault the core of our being. If the feeling of guilt is serving our parents’ ambitions, and we misinterpret it, we may ruin the world of work for ourselves. We may feel constantly dissatisfied with our jobs.

People who need to achieve great things, even save the world, hate to hear suggestions that there may not be the one unique job they were destined to have. Such a thought makes them feel they may be consigned to the hell of a meaningless job. This whole business is made all the more tricky by the evidence that some do feel called to a task. The call may begin as a faint and distant voice that grows increasingly clear. In my experience, the call usually becomes sufficiently insistent to be heard and acknowledged. Asked for or not, such calls need to be taken very seriously.

To discover the truth about ourselves, we have to pay careful attention to our feelings and do the analytical work necessary to differentiate them. We have to find out what belongs to us and what belongs to our parents and other authority figures. Sometimes a dream will help, like the one cited earlier where the King/Son was repeating words said by the Queen/Mother. Finding what is really right for us can be long and exhausting work.

Jesus, in fact, is a source of guilt for many people. One of the great, subtle causes of guilt is Christ’s admonition to love. The admonition itself can cause guilt, when people have negative or unloving thoughts about friends, family, colleagues, even strangers. To avoid guilt we must pretend to love one another and to appear to be happy with each other, even when we actually are not. Who can possibly live a life without negative or unloving thoughts? A similar admonition is seen in the fairy tale, Cinderella. Cinderella’s dying mother tells Cinderella to be good and pious. Kathrin Asper, a Jungian Analyst in Zurich, has suggested that this admonition is the source of Cinderella’s depression and would be a source of depression for any child.(2) Such an admonition, whether uttered by God or by a parent, loads a child with an unbearable burden. It sets an impossible standard that ensures failure, and failure spawns guilt.

Many of my patients give voice to an insidious, guilt-inducing ideal. Even while voicing it they are unaware of the impact such an ideal has on their happiness. This is the American Dream, the ideal that if I am honest, competent, and work hard I will get what I want and need. Much anger and depression results from the failure of this ideal to materialize. They are so convinced of this moralistic formula that they do not seriously consider the numerous other variables including pure luck. A more devastating side of the belief that I will get what I need if I am honest, competent, and work hard is coming to believe that not getting what I need and want in life is evidence itself that something is wrong with me, that I am damaged goods.

We can feel guilty, when a dream or ideal does not come true and we think we have done all we were told we had to do to make it happen. In the real world, it seems to be more complicated. And, ultimately, as angry as we are for not getting what we want after doing so much, we still feel guilty that there must be something that we did not do or that there is something wrong with us.

Still another guilt provoking ideal is the belief that I am not worthwhile unless I totally engage in worthwhile activities. This ideal suggests that we should be super strong and to a large degree subordinate our animal, instinctual needs to our intellectual and spiritual needs. It is actually a Christian ideal that a patient, who had been in Opus Dei, said was clearly embraced by this Catholic lay organization. For example, I had a woman patient (as well as many men patients) who worked 12-hour days, 6 to 7 days per week. When she came home after these exhausting hours, she would drink, eat chocolate or potato chips, watch television, or read “trash.” She often felt guilty about these “inferior” after work activities because they did not meet her definition of what was worthwhile. Play was not even in her lexicon of worthwhile activities. For brief periods, her guilt would lead her to try to write poetry, read spiritual and classical books, or study subjects related to her profession. It is as if there was a wish to be an automaton without animal and instinctual needs. Her definition of worthwhile things also manifested as a kind of asceticism, in which she paid minimal attention to her needs for nice furnishings, clothes, and vacations. She had a harsh critic inside her, who “cut her no slack” even after incredibly long hours at work. Her “harsh critic” is masculine. In a woman it is the negative animus, the unconscious masculine side of herself. In a man it is the negative father complex. It is ruthless. It has no pity or maternal caring. It could care less if we work ourselves to death. It cares only for “right” performance.

The problem is we remain human and find we cannot work at that pace without something to relax us. And because we work such long hours we do not have enough time to relax in healthy ways. Eventually, we slip into easier and quicker ways to relax, such as eating junk food, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, having sex in a variety of ways, gambling, or similar activities that make us feel good quickly without much work. Until we suffer from these unhealthy ways to relax, we do not even consider working less. It often takes much suffering to overcome the resistance to the change that is essential to a cure. Remember the fast relief that the first sip of a martini can bring? Martinis are just one of a host of potentially destructive possibilities that may tempt us if we cannot balance work with play. It is as if we have been “lashed to the mast” by our guilt. We feel guilty for being human and wanting things that do not fit our definition of what is worthwhile. Sometimes we must get physically sick before we can change this work habit. Such a change can be a positive development.

The irony of guilt spawning ideals would not be complete without two examples of undeserved guilt. Guilt can afflict women who are consciously liberated enough to successfully pursue careers. They may suffer guilt from feeling that they do not spend enough time with their children. This feeling of guilt is especially common in women whose own mothers were stay-at-home moms. They feel the guilt even when they consciously reject their mother’s way of life. Consciously they know that they can have careers and be as good or better mothers than some of those women who stay at home. Their feeling of guilt does not seem valid intellectually, but that does not keep the feelings entirely at bay.

For example, a 44-year-old patient was an accomplished professor and devoted to her work. She had never married or had children, and after returning from holidays with her parents, she found that she was especially depressed. She told of holidays spent at home after finishing her education. With much regret and feelings of failure she recounted that the holiday would have been more fun for everyone if there had been children to share it with them. Her parents filled the air with this message, nuanced with subtle hints that she had let her parents down by not marrying and having children. But they never approached the subject directly. For one thing, an open demand for children would expose them to the inconsistency of their push for children with the pressure they had imposed on their daughter to achieve in school and get her Ph.D. When she was in school, they had even discouraged her from getting involved with men.

During holidays her parents did not openly express their disappointment at her not having children. Rather, they made quiet and innocent-seeming (but poisonous) comments about their friends and how much joy they had experienced with their grandchildren. They made these comments in such a way that she did not have a target to strike back at or an opportunity to point out her parents’ huge inconsistencies. The comments made her feel anxious because of the sense of failure they implied. Subsequently, she felt rage that eventually led to depression.

Stashed behind her depression, however, she found guilt at her failure to meet a collective ideal. The guilt implied that she was bad, that her worth was diminished, and that is depressing if we cannot get it into proper focus. Many women, who cannot or do not have children, are assaulted by this ideal. The failure to achieve it undermines their sense of self-worth, despite the fact that they may have achieved far more than women with many children. This ideal can be of such importance in a woman’s unconscious (until psychological work brings it to awareness) that the measure of her worth, no matter how much she attains in other venues of life, is trumped by her failure to marry and have children. For many women this ideal becomes the sine qua non of happiness and fulfillment.

In some ways this ideal results in an odd sense of values. This happens to be an ideal that the vast majority of women actually attain, no matter what their physical appearance, social standing, or intelligence. Human worth is measured by a standard that almost all humans and animals meet without any special training. Earning a Ph.D. would seem to distinguish a human more from animals than having children, but nevertheless, this failure to meet the ideal causes most women to feel unsuccessful, at least to some degree. Some women do accomplish it all—a truly amazing feat of drive and strength.

Interestingly, however, married women with children seem to need antidepressants about as much as single women without children. This suggests that the hope for happiness and fulfillment that the ideal holds remains more of a hope than a reality. The truth is that the duality of life doubles everything and makes all achievements a mixed blessing, whether it is children or career or both.

Returning specifically to the ideal of having children, ultimately, women, married or single, must let themselves off the hook. A completely impersonal, powerful instinctive force of nature that supports survival of the species wires them all. Nature puts the urge there and is indifferent about a woman’s happiness or unhappiness while serving the instinct. The instinct serves continuation of the species. The problem arises when its expression becomes an ideal and the main measure of our worth. This is a much too limited view of what comprises our worth. Men, too, can feel unfulfilled at the failure to serve this instinct.

Sometimes I think that the power of this instinct makes it impossible for a woman to win. I often wonder if there is a way for a woman to do it “right,” if there is a way to do it and avoid guilt entirely. It is as if there is a kind of conflict within the creative instinct itself, a collision between different ways of expressing it. The creative instinct can be acknowledged via the production of children and it can be honored with the making of art, music, or science. It seems, however, that the energy and devotion required to honor one side of the archetype of creation must be stolen from the other side. A woman gifted with maternal or artistic gifts could well ask herself, “Is it better to be a Marie Curie (3) or to give birth to one?” Or she can ask if she can do both. Even both does not necessarily resolve the problem. She may feel that relative to her standards her child-rearing activities dilute her scientific or artistic production and her scientific or artistic activities water down her child rearing. The Promethean dilemma is apparent in this conflict: I must steal something from one side or the other to deliver something of value. There seems to be no way to resolve this conflict unless the ideals are somehow modified. Ultimately, I think a woman simply has to bear guilt to grow and get what she wants and needs in life. She has to bear guilt whether her wish is to be just a mother, just a career woman or both.

1 Jung, C.G., 1973, Letters, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, vol. 1, pp. 479ff.
2 Asper, Kathrin, lecture presented at C.G. Jung Institute-Zurich, 11 June 1990. Also see her book, The Abandoned Child, New York, Fromm International Publishing, 1993.
3 Nobel prize for physics 1903, for chemistry 1911

This article by Lawrence H. Staples is from his book Guilt with a Twist: The Promethean Way © 2008. For permission to reproduce/repost this article, contact Fisher King Press.

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