Certainty keeps us from growing and healing; worse yet, it can lead us to potentially dangerous and harmful places. Certainty and authoritarianism often go hand in hand. Tara Westover, in An education, Memoirs of her troubled upbringing as the daughter of survivors in the mountains of Idaho, tells a story of growing up in an environment characterized by authoritarian certainty. In a telling example, her mother sustains a serious head injury in a traffic accident early in the morning after her father insisted that the family take a 12-hour trip overnight. But, due to her father’s certainty about the ills of hospitals, he kept her at home instead of seeking medical attention. She remained in her dark basement for weeks, unable to tolerate the light, and the long-term shock came in the form of debilitating chronic headaches, memory disturbances and an inability to resume her work as a midwife. Although none of us know the author, we wonder if the creative process of writing her memoirs helped to leave behind the tyrannical certainty that characterized the circumstances in which she was raised.
In deviant relationships, we see individuals with a surprising lack of curiosity. One or both members of the relationship communicate absolute certainty. Leaving no room for doubt, they are remarkably confident that they know, understand, and can speak from the experience of others without further discussion or questions.
Nadia lived in an apartment five floors below her sister Olga’s. They were very close, they grew up while their family survived the pogroms in Russia in the late 1800s and emigrated to the US But, when their brother Endre died, a lawsuit broke out over his belongings, causing a rift between sisters, which was not known. repair. They were both sure that the other was wrong. Both died at the age of 90. His children took sides and the entire family remained caught up in the conflict in an effort to maintain their entrenched positions.
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Milton and his sister Delia seemed to be going down a similar path. Captive in anger embedded in misunderstandings around the family business, for many years they barely spoke. The dispute was fixed when Milton’s adult son sought help for his debilitating anxiety. The lessons she learned unleashed a cascade of events that proved healing for the entire family. In his own therapy, he learned to pause and breathe when overwhelmed with fear. He taught this technique to his father, who applied it when his anger towards Delia threatened to block his thinking. That change created a space for her to recognize that her sister had a different perspective; he wasn’t necessarily right, but he understood that he had his reasons for his views. This was enough to allow him to break down the wall that separated them. (…)
As these two stories show, people get stuck when they leave no room for disorder and uncertainty. Dr. Brazelton demonstrated the value of uncertainty when one of the colleagues he worked with recounted his encounters with the family of a newborn on two house calls. In the first, he said that the home felt calm and organized. Impressively coordinated, the parents and baby looked flawless. When happily informed of his findings, Brazelton did not seem to share his joy. A week later, things had deteriorated. The mother was a mess. The father seemed to have not slept in months. While the colleague was concerned as he related these events, Dr. Brazelton seemed relieved. He said, “They’ve already made room for the baby.”
The pronounced disorder reflected the inevitably chaotic and uncertain process of raising a human being. Uncertainty plays a fundamental role in the development of the sense of self from the first months of life. As we have seen, after the stage of what Winnicott called “primary maternal concern,” when the mother anticipates all the needs of the helpless child, there comes an essential moment when she cannot and should not do so. As the child becomes more competent and develops as a separate person, the mother will naturally not be sure of what her child needs. The good enough mother is not perfect, and these imperfections give her children room to grow.
The concepts “certainty” and “uncertainty” have broad implications for the way we raise our children. Authoritarian parenting, a “because I said so” style, may be related to the difficulty of emotional regulation in children. Dominant parenting, in contrast, is associated with children having a greater capacity for emotional regulation, flexible thinking, and social competence. An authoritative parenting stance encompasses respect and concern for a child, along with restraining strong feelings and behavioral limits.
Parental authority is something that, under ideal circumstances, comes naturally with work. It is not something to be learned. So what could cause parents to lose their natural authority? Stress is by far the most common cause. That stress may, in part, come from the child if, for example, it is a particularly irritable or dysregulated baby. It can also stem from the daily challenges of managing family and working in today’s fast-paced culture, which many parents face without the support of the extended family. It can also come from more complex relational issues between parents, siblings, between generations.
When therapists work with families of young children, their goal is to help parents reconnect with their natural authority. By offering them time to tell their story and by addressing the wide variety of stresses in their lives, they help them find meaning in their children’s behavior. (…) Premature advice without a full appreciation of the complexity of the situation can lead to failure. In contrast, when a parent has that moment (eureka!) Of insight, the joy and pleasure that comes from recognition and reconnection can be exhilarating for both parent and child.
Similarly, when people work to repair moments of discord, they experience the surge of energy that promotes growth. That kind of joy can occur when a mother is able to accommodate her baby to breastfeed; when parents and a child effectively deal with a tantrum; when the sisters survive years of fighting and end up being each other’s maid of honor; when friends, husbands and colleagues work, through disagreements, to reach new levels of intimacy. Your sense of self and your capacity for intimacy are two sides of the same coin. When the most intimate relationships of a couple offer space for uncertainty, with each repair, those involved reach new levels of complexity and have a greater tolerance for the new uncertainties that inevitably arise.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.