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Shifting Gears / Tormenting others in search of self-worth

Published 4:40 pm, Sunday, July 28, 2013
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I was in court recently, subpoenaed to testify in an ancient divorce case involving two children I saw in therapy over several years as their parents went through the split. I first met them when they were preschoolers. They are now almost teenagers.

Their father, whom they choose not to see -- because they were afraid of him when they were younger, now because he is "weird" and totally self-absorbed -- has spent college educations several times over and forced their mother and stepfather to do the same by endlessly going back to court.

The father, a trust-fund child (and that is an appropriate word for him), goes back to court when he needs to stir up trouble. Trouble invigorates him, gives him a sense of being alive and attended to -- a sense of value he cannot generate in himself.

Lots of mischief is made for this reason. Generally, it is the domain of kids. They don't have the same options that adults do for directing their own lives. They get bored. Hopefully, they will grow into their lives, finding genuine interests, developing a will to persist at tasks that will bring them satisfaction and mastery. Their mischief is, usually, a sign that they are itching to grow, to expand their competence, test and stretch the boundaries of their world. But they must grow out of it if they are to grow at all. Good parents try to refrain from smiling at their pranks, remind them of such boundaries as respect and consideration for others, and, when necessary, enforce consequences.

The mischief of adults, however, is just plain annoying. Often, it is costly to them and others. It is rooted in meaninglessness. Like the old joke about someone looking for the money they lost, not where they lost it, but under the streetlight, because it's easier to see there. Likewise, the mischief-making adult is trying to satisfy a need for a sense of realness, not by pursuing the difficult work of substance but by acting-out, because it's easier.

The art and trap of adult mischief-making is that it is difficult to pinpoint or confront. Why, we ask ourselves, make a big deal out of something that seems, on the surface, innocent and reasonable? The problem with annoying and mischief at the adult level is that it doesn't end. We start out receiving it politely; we engage a little with it; the legal system takes it seriously. It seems harmless, even though it doesn't feel harmless.

It is not harmless. In the lingo of our times, it is dysfunctional. Children who get played by a parent with such dysfunction are confused, feeling badly but not able to understand why. They just know they don't like being around that parent. But that's a tough one to swallow. "How can you not want to be around your parent," they are asked and ask themselves. "Ah, parental alienation," says the dysfunctional parent, the attorney, the court. "It's the other parent's fault" is the gambit. Now, lots of mischief can be made out of that, costing lots of money, wasting lots of time, even the time of the court (which we all pay for).

Professions, legal and psychological, are made around the unwillingness to say what everybody knows -- that this mischief-making at the adult level is a symptom of serious psychological illness. It's not a prank. It's not funny. It's a pattern. It causes distress, not to the maker of the problem but to those in relationship to the maker of the problem.

Over the past decade or two, this seems to be the disorder of our times. It is, if you haven't guessed already, narcissism. Books, blogs, chat rooms, support groups, websites attest to the explosive need of people to understand it and how it effects their lives. Narcissism is primitive functioning that masks as high functioning. We can all be readily fooled by it. Its embodiment often looks quite attractive. Its ultimate goal, at any cost, at any inconvenience to others, is attention.

The legal system is the uber-parent of adults, laying down rules and boundaries and enforcing consequences for both silly and serious violations. Like a wise parent, it would do well to not allow indulgence in foolish and costly mischief. We all have more important things to do and more important places to spend our money.

Carol Swenson is a counseling psychologist with a practice in Westport. Her "Shifting Gears" appears monthly, and she may be reached at shiftinggears.swenson@gmail.com.