I’ve named this phenomenon Compassion for the Other Person, meaning compassion for someone other than the person sitting in front of you.
This happens when you’re telling a friend about a hurt or a problem, and the friend explains what the other person probably intended. The person, that is, who’s not even there, the person who you think caused the hurt to begin with.
I run into this when talking about my mom. Some understanding friends express a lot of understanding of my mom, in reaction to one individual anecdote I’m sharing at that time. “She must have been doing her best,” they say. Or, “Gosh, I’ve done the same thing to my kids.” Or, “She probably didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”
They don’t understand that the one anecdote I’m sharing is emblematic of her mothering, that it’s a single component in a big pattern. In any event, I feel unheard.
I realize now that I’ve done this to other people. I have jumped to the defense of the mother, sister, friend, or husband — the one who’s not even there. And I have to admit that doing this made me feel magnanimous and insightful. Now I realize that I was overlooking the feelings of the person sitting in front of me, who should get first dibs on my compassion.
This frustration was a motivation for me to write Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother. I wanted, once and for all, to get it all down in one place so that the syndrome, the pattern, the illness, was revealed. There’s “normal” parenting — a very wide spectrum of good and bad behavior. And then there’s behavior — day after day, month after month, year after year — that extends beyond normal boundaries.