It takes time ILLUSTRATION: Tim Furey

It takes time

Negative behaviors can be unlearned

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 01/12/2012

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Dear Patti, 
A year ago, my daughter and I moved to Pasadena. Although our neighborhood consists mostly of two-parent households, I met a single mom named Beth, whose children are close in age to mine. I thought she was really nice, funny and attractive, and she’s given me beauty tips that have brought lots of compliments from the opposite sex as well as other women. Another thing that made us close was the way she inspired me to be more playful with my daughter. In turn, I’ve helped Beth get better organized in paying bills, taught her how to make healthier meals for her family and encouraged her to get along better with her ex for her children’s sake. 
 
Unfortunately, our friendship took a bad turn on Thanksgiving. I made a large family dinner, and all I asked her to do was bring a vegetable dish and some cranberry sauce. Beth showed up late with three cans of green beans and canned cranberry jelly. Ever since then, we’ve been arguing constantly. Beth complains I act too uptight, work too much and am never any fun. She thinks I’m too critical and controlling and is tired of my nagging and scolding. I think she’s too childlike and wild. She stays out really late on dates with multiple men, does what she pleases without thinking of consequences and doesn’t take her parental role seriously enough.
 
We obviously have different values and points of view on how to live life, but I want to know from a professional: Which way of being is healthier? — Sylvia

Dear Sylvia,
Your friendship with Beth may have veered off course, but the history you share tells me that if you’re both open to the task of exploring your respective behaviors, it’s possible to find a balance that will lead to a more harmonious relationship.  
 
Inside each individual are three distinctly different aspects — a child, a parent and an adult — that control your behaviors and personality traits. If one of these ego states strongly overpowers the other two, disharmony results. In order for you to feel happy and at peace, all three need to not only get along, but also be free to express themselves. 
 
Let’s start with the “parent” ego. Much like real parents, this internalized parent expresses negative feelings through scolding and criticism (i.e., judging oneself harshly for not keeping a meticulous home) as well as positive feelings of nurturing and protection (i.e., leaving a fun party at a responsible hour in order to get the babysitter home on time).Whether a person has a predominantly positive or negative parent ego state often depends on the parental models he or she was exposed to as a child.
 
The “adult” ego is about the ability to solve problems. This is the intelligent, organized part of a personality. A person who has an overdeveloped adult ego state, however, might be perceived by others to be stiff and boring — a product of relying too heavily on logic and lacking emotional, creative expression. An example of this might be a mother who finds it difficult to laugh, be silly, roll around on the grass and play with her children.
 
The emotional, creative part of the self that engages in passionate, artistic, musical and spontaneously fun activities and outlooks is governed by the “child” ego. Is it any wonder, for instance, that the imagination of a great novelist depends heavily on an active and healthy “inner child?” On the flip side, an unhealthy child ego state might lead someone to stay up late, party too much and skip work. 
 
Is it possible your rigid adult or critical parent ego states are running your life? Is your child ego state underdeveloped, perhaps justifying Beth’s remarks that you need to play and laugh more? While it’s laudable you’re a conscientious mother, it’s equally important to reward yourself with some occasional fun. As for Beth, it sounds as if she might be neglecting/ignoring her parent and adult ego states and allowing her inner child to run the show, a situation that could impact her mothering skills or her ability to be taken seriously.
 
Although you and Beth are very different, you can either learn from each other or become polarized and widen the current rift. Negative behaviors can be unlearned, and unbalanced ego states can be changed; it just takes time and a willingness to work on it.

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site: patticarmalt-vener.com.

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