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Understanding Ourselves: Do You Deserve a Treat?

by Dorothy Rowe(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 106 - December 2004

Rachel was coming out of the patisserie with a small box of cakes in her hand when she saw me. She went pink with shame and stammered, "It's been a difficult day. I thought I deserved a treat." I said, "Of course you do," but thought, 'If you fancy a cream cake why don't you just buy yourself one? Why bother about whether you deserve it or not?'

I knew the answer to those questions. Rachel is a good person. A good person is someone who believes that, as they are, they're never good enough. They have to work hard to be good. Like most good people, she believes that her life and the life of all of us is ruled by a system of rewards and punishments. She believes that we live in a Just World where good people are rewarded and bad people punished. All religions teach this, and many non-religious people still believe in a Just World. Rachel doesn't want to be punished so she will allow herself a reward only if she feels she deserves it. Buying herself a cream cake just because she fancies it would be wicked. What caused her shame was the possibility that I would think she didn't deserve a cream cake.

I think Rebecca deserves her own mountain of cream cakes. She's bringing up three children, looking after her aged parents and working part time in her husband's business. Her family is healthy and she keeps herself fit and trim. But, no matter how much she does, she always feels it is not good enough. She might sneak a cream cake but that night she'll deny herself dessert after dinner. No wonder she never feels relaxed and happy and sometimes she slides into the miserable state she calls 'the blues'.

A great many people like Rebecca lead a life dominated by the rule of reward and punishment. Advertisers often use this belief to persuade us to buy their goods. Their advertisements are based on the themes of 'You deserve this' and 'Naughty but nice'. Thus people who believe in the Just World are easily seduced into using shopping as a way of comforting themselves when somehow the rewards aren't materializing as they feel they deserve, or into allowing themselves a pleasure only when it can be accompanied by a shiver of guilt. No wonder personal debt in the UK runs into trillions and so many people try to diet but don't get thin!

The shiver of guilt that goes with the undeserved pleasure gives a clue to what is happening to the people who see their life as dominated by rewards and punishments. When we are children and the adults around us are always criticizing us and telling us what to do, we have to fight back somehow to maintain our sense of being a valuable person. We do this secretly, breaking the adults' rules and not letting them know what we're up to. As children it's a necessity to do this because we have to survive as a person. We get a thrill out of deceiving the adults, but there's also the fear that we may be found out and punished. Feeling wicked is exciting and we don't want to give it up. Unfortunately, in not giving up this guilty pleasure we stop ourselves from growing up. Our body may become adult but in ourselves we are split in two, a child being who is supervised by a parent. We have not become one whole adult person who takes responsibility for ourself.

Freud's clients were such childlike people; from observing them and observing himself Freud developed the concepts of Superego, Ego and Id. In his clients the childlike Id battled the parent-like Superego while the poor Ego tried and failed to control the other two. Some years later the therapy called Transactional Analysis used simpler terms, Parent, Adult and Child. TA therapists get their clients to listen to the conversation which is going on inside them, what therapists call self-talk, and identify what each speaker is saying in the conversation between Parent, Child and Adult.

Rebecca's self-talk is dominated by the constant squabble between her Parent and Child. Her Adult tries to present a reasonable, adult point of view but Parent and Child shout Adult down, especially when Adult questions whether we really do live in a Just World. Parent and Child each have a vested interest in believing in the Just World. Parent can be very bossy because she believes she knows what is best for other people, and Child can tell herself that she doesn't have to grow up and take responsibility for herself because there's some else, perhaps Parent, perhaps the chap who supervises the Just World, who'll always look after her.

Of course Parent, Adult and Child don't really exist. They are just ways of thinking which we've acquired as we've been growing up. They are ways of thinking which conflict with one another but at the same time stop us from questioning the ideas we hold. When Rebecca finds the adult part of herself wondering whether good people are always rewarded and bad people punished, as she always does when someone she knows to be a good person suffers a terrible disaster, she immediately feels guilty for daring to criticize her parents for teaching her about the Just World. When the adult part of her says, 'Put your feet up and have a coffee and a cream cake', meaning 'Take the time to live in the present, and enjoy' her parent-like way of thinking gets in conflict with her childlike way of thinking and the pleasure she was taking in having some time to herself is destroyed.

I'll know that Rebecca has finally grown up when she stops talking about treats she may or may not deserve and just says simply, "I fancy a cream cake."

Further Reading

Dorothy Rowe. Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison. 3rd edition. Routledge. 2003.

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About Dorothy Rowe

Dorothy Rowe is a clinical psychologist, well known for her work on depression. She has written 12 books, each concerned with how we create meaning, and is a frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines, television and radio. Her website is www.dorothyrowe.com.au

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