The need for approval
There were times when the need for my parents’ approval became so dominant that I wasn’t sure whether I was doing something for myself or my parents’ approval. For example, I earned a doctorate degree and became a college professor partly to please my mother. I literarily handed her the original parchment after the graduation ceremony and she gladly accepted it.
I wanted to become a jazz pianist but my parents quickly convinced me that it “was no way to make a living.” “Better you should be a professional,” my mother kept repeating. I resented taking her advice and years later resented that she was right.
In 1977 I rented a one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village around the corner from Bradleys and the Knickerbocker, which were two neighborhood bistros which featured live jazz every night. I loved listening to Ron Carter, Buster Williams, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Barron, and Sir Roland Hanna, but also appreciated the thought that by not becoming a musician I didn’t have to perform every night from 10 P.M. to 2 A.M. or have to play when I didn’t want to.
After reaching some of my professional goals as a psychologist, I began feeling validated, but from others more than my parents. After I became a college professor, my mother asked, “Is this what they pay you after all those years in school? I know Herricks High School teachers who make more money.” After I left academia and began making “good money,” my father’s favorite expression, he added, “You’re doing well but you work so hard.”
When I published articles in psychology journals, I sent reprints to my parents. I was hoping to hear something like, “We’re proud of you.” I would have even settled for them attaching my articles to the refrigerator door the way they did with my kindergarten masterpieces.
After reading a reprint, my mother said something polite which I knew from the tone of her voice she didn’t mean. Then she quoted something from Reader’s Digest which contradicted my research findings.
Here I was publishing original research in a refereed professional journal, and my mother was casually disqualifying my work by quoting Reader’s Digest. In our house, past issues of Reader’s Digest were neatly stacked next to the toilet. So my original scientific contributions were being disqualified by bathroom literature. I was incensed.
I never stopped longing to hear my parents say something simple like “That’s terrific.” Nothing complicated. My mother endlessly boasted about my accomplishments to her friends and later on would tell me, “Were your ears burning?” which was her generation’s way of saying that others were impressed with my deeds. But bragging to others had more to do with her need for approval. It was for my mother. Not me. And certainly never expressed directly to me.
I felt trapped in an endless cycle of longing for my parents’ approval and not receiving it. “The most painful thing in life is to go through it unnoticed,” wrote Camus. Instead of giving up on seeking their validation, I simply tried harder. Maybe I wasn’t working hard enough. Or the right way. Or achieving things that my parents valued.
The therapist in me knew that after my parents finally validated me the way I wanted them to, I’d emotionally move a little away from them since I wouldn’t need their approval as much. And in some small way they may have known that too. This idea is supported by my mother telling me as an adult about my parents’ quiet disappointment when they received rave reviews from my kindergarten and first grade teachers during the annual parent-teacher conferences.
“There must be something wrong with him. He’s not perfect you know,” they’d protest to Miss Schactnow, my kindergarten teacher whom I adored. By the time I was five years old, my parents were beginning to sense that they were losing me to a larger world that went beyond our little family.
One way out of this dilemma was to give up on my need for their approval–no easy undertaking. But it happened nevertheless in 1984 after I returned from Europe where I had just given lectures in Geneva, Rome and Belgrade. I felt flattered when I was first invited to train European psychotherapists, since as a group I find them more well read and thoughtful than American therapists. American psychotherapists, on the other hand, impress me as more creative and bigger risk takers than their European counterparts.
So I was quietly feeling proud over my recent “European tour,” and thought my parents would be equally impressed when I called them after I returned home.
“Thank God you’re safe,” they began. “We were so worried about the terrorists.”
“You know, what’s happening between Iraq and Iran?”
I sarcastically thought to myself that I didn’t know my parents were following the Iraqi-Iranian conflict that closely.
“What does that have to do with my trip to Geneva?”
“Well, these terrorists are all over Europe and you never know.”
I felt deeply hurt as I hoped to hear something like, “That’s wonderful,” or at least, “We’re proud of you.” Not “We were worried about the terrorists?”
I suppose you could argue that they were being protective of their little boy on his red tricycle crossing the George Washington Bridge. [This tricycle is mentioned in an earlier chapter, “Returning Home.”]. On the other hand, it became clear, like never before, that I was not going to get validated by these people. What more did I have to do from them to acknowledge me? How many sons and daughters earn doctorate degrees, become college professors, publish books, and get invited to lecture in Europe?
Suddenly, I began smiling to myself as I grandiosely predicted how my parents would react if I was awarded the Nobel Prize. First, my mother would question whether Alfred Nobel was a Nazi. “No, Ma, he was Swedish.” Then, she’d wonder whether the award ceremony would deliberately be scheduled smack in the middle of the Jewish High Holy days. And finally, my father would seriously wonder how much money accompanied the award and whether I thought the prize would further my career.
I remember the joy and pain I felt when my first book was published. My mother was touched when she saw my name (and her last name) in print and kissed me when I handed her an autographed copy. My father said nothing which deeply disappointed me. I was in psychotherapy with Ian Alger at the time, and he began to giggle and explain that showing my father my book was like asking Abbott and Costello to check out the Apollo shot before it was launched.
In effect, Ian was telling me that my father was so overwhelmed that he didn’t know what to say. Maybe he was speechless, but I still wanted to hear something positive, even if he didn’t mean it like “That’s terrific” or “I’m proud of you.”
My father couldn’t put into words what he felt or thought, and lacked the social skills to say something appropriate even if he didn’t mean it.
Years later, I wondered whether my book made him feel competitive with me. I knew he was proud of me, but I never dared to think of the competitive part. I assumed that he saw my accomplishments as his own–as if I was raising the family’s prestige with my deeds. But, I never considered the competitive side because it was too frightening. I couldn’t understand back then how he could love me and be competitive with me at the same time.
From time to time, I also wondered how he felt about having a high school equivalency diploma and me a PhD. Or what his reactions were when my mother referred to him as “a working man” (particularly when I asked my parents to help me with college tuition) and her expecting both her sons to become professionals.
Being a professional was my mother’s idea. Being successful was his. I didn’t know how he felt because I never asked and he never offered. But had I asked, I suspect he would have paused for a very long, awkward moment, and then said something that he didn’t mean. Seldom did he say what he really thought or felt because he didn’t know how or because he chose not to. So he’d blurt almost anything out to quickly change the subject and take the focus off him and what he really thought and felt.
It was ironic that after I received my PhD–my “union card” so to speak to call myself a psychologist in New York State–my father suggested that I continue paying my monthly dues to the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local # 28, “just in case.” He got me this union card when I was a high school senior, and it helped finance my college education by letting me “make good money” while working summers in the building trades. How good? Six dollars an hour back in 1962.
Either he didn’t trust higher education or have the confidence that I’d be fine with my new Ph.D. Or maybe, just maybe, he was continuing to be protective of me because that’s one of the ways he showed his love.
The issue of being validated became even more pronounced ten years later when my second book came out. After Fishing for Barracuda: Pragmatics of brief systemic therapy was published by W. W. Norton in 1985 I mailed autographed copies to my parents who were now living in Florida.
My father, who usually called me only on Sunday afternoons before 5PM when the phone rates were the lowest, phoned me in the middle of a Wednesday morning to say that he just finished the book and thought it was “disgusting.” He was upset over some cute stories I wrote about growing up in my family. They were not embarrassing or humiliating and were written for professional psychotherapists who hear these stories every day. But that didn’t matter to him.
A few months later, my parents began seeing a marital therapist in Florida.
“You wouldn’t be related to Joel Bergman, the New York psychologist?” the counselor asked.
“We happen to be his parents,” my mother answered proudly.
“What a coincidence,” exclaimed the therapist. “I’ve been trying to get a copy of Fishing for Barracuda for the past month and can’t find it in any of the local bookstores.”
“Don’t worry,” said my big shot father “I’ll get you a copy.”
That day, I could see him tripping over himself as he ran home to order a copy of my book on Norton’s toll-free number. So when speaking to me, the book was disgusting, but when talking to his therapist, he bought her a copy. Go figure. Like my mother, he was seeking validation for himself.
Over the years, I had grown weary over the need for my parents’ approval. It wasn’t an either/or situation. They could have sought recognition for themselves and validated me at the same time. But that didn’t happen.
To keep my parents from continuing to use my achievements to validate themselves in the eyes of others, I “poisoned” small parts of the book while I was writing Fishing for Barracuda. Since my father was so secretive about his family, I included some funny stories about our family. Then, if he wanted to turn my accomplishments into his, he’d have to become less secretive. I’m not sure whether my poisoned pill worked, but I suspect that his need to hide his family’s “secrets” was stronger than his need to take credit for my book.
Since the need for my parents’ approval played such a major dynamic in my life, I’ve given a great deal of thought to the possible reasons why my parents didn’t validate me. Or didn’t give me the recognition I needed. This is what I have discovered so far.
First, my mother had trouble admitting that I knew something that she didn’t. If she openly acknowledged that she didn’t know everything, that admission might make her feel insecure or stupid. Her lack of self-confidence kept her from saying, “I’m impressed that you know that.” Sadly, my accomplishments lessened her in her own eyes. To say something praiseworthy to me meant she was unpraiseworthy. Try squeezing approval out of a relative who is not feeling too good about themselves.
Another reason my parents didn’t validate me was because it would have changed the definition of our relationship. If they openly admitted that I knew something they did not, in their minds, they would lose the familiar, omniscient position they held as parents to young children. If they lost their historic stature and position, how could they now relate to me as an adult son?
Losing power, status, and control is hard enough. However, validating me would have forced them to connect with me as an adult instead of their infant child. It was “simpler” to continue relating to me as their young child than recognize my adult status and accomplishments.
Another reason my mother didn’t recognize my achievements was because of her own need for validation. She never stopped seeking everyone’s approval. My mother would have felt snubbed over not being invited to a cocktail party hosted by Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini.
She would effortlessly redirect all conversations back to herself. The joke goes, “Enough about me. Let’s talk about your thoughts about me.” She didn’t validate me because she was too focused on her being validated by others.
My mother did finally acknowledge me ten years after Fishing for Barracuda was published, and ironically, it was on Mother’s Day. I was giving a weekend training workshop in Fort Lauderdale at a hotel near my mother’s home. I invited her for lunch that Sunday at the hotel where the workshop was being held. After lunch, she asked whether she could sit in on the afternoon session. One hundred and fifty family therapists in the audience got a big kick out watching the presenter’s mother in the audience and crowded around her during the coffee break. They thought she was cute and were touched that the workshop leader took his mother out for Mother’s Day. She was a celebrity that day and we both enjoyed it.
After the workshop, I was struck by the genuine interest she showed in my workshop presentation. She asked the kind of astute questions smart therapists ask. She didn’t give me a hard time the way she did in the past by pretending that she was also a trained, experienced psychotherapist. She didn’t question why I asked this and not that. Instead, she said that she always knew I was a good teacher and therapist, but that she didn’t actually witness it until that afternoon. She went on to say that she enjoyed the workshop and was proud of me. And this time I believed her.
Why did she validate me that afternoon after 40 years of not validating me? Perhaps, in part, because she was acknowledged. As a mother on Mother’s Day. As the lecturer’s mother. Only after she felt validated by my audience could she validate me. I had sought as an adult her approval without thinking about the acknowledgement she needed from me. I was looking for a “freebie.” It just didn’t happen. What I learned that day was that the more I acknowledged her the more she could validate me.
After a lifetime of looking for recognition from my parents, I finally felt it. And, of course, when it finally happened, it no longer had the same meaning it might have had five, ten, or twenty years earlier. On the other hand, I was pleased my mother said what she did without us having to wait for the melodramatic deathbed scene for it to happen.
As a child, I felt validated. There was lots of hugging, kissing, holding, and kvelling. “Look at that little momser climbing out of his crib at nine months old.” Alternatively, I’d hear, “Gotenyou (Oh, my God), is he gorgeous” from my mother and her neighbors. Actually, the only criticism I remember receiving was being teased because I couldn’t skip. I could run, walk, and hop, but my skip always quickly deteriorated into a hop.
As a boy, I remember the scratchy feeling of my father’s beard against my cheek when he kissed me. I hated the sandpaper but loved his kiss. The validation stopped when I felt I was too big to kiss. And it continued to be a problem throughout my adolescence and adult years because my parents and I couldn’t find an adult version of picking me up, holding, hugging, and kissing me the way they did when I was little.