Joan Poelvoorde

Psychotherapy & Healing Arts

On Questioning: The Right to Protest


First childhood, no limits, no renunciations,
No goals. Such unthinking joy.
Then abruptly, terror, schoolrooms, boundaries, captivity,
and a plunge into temptation and loss.

Defiance. The one crushed will be the crusher now,
And he avenges his defeats on others.
Loved, feared, he rescues, wrestles, wins,
And overpowers others, act by act.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke
(Robert Bly, trans.)
New York: Harper & Row, 1981

Somewhere around the age of two, we learn one of the most powerful words we will ever invoke— "No!"

"No!" announces to the world the beginnings of our individuation. The long journey toward discerning personal boundaries begins, and boundaries become an issue worth fighting for—if the fight in us has not been beaten into submission. To habitually crush a the child's protest mechanism is to defeat the child decisively, time after time. What results from this crushing is a self-defeating being full of hidden, impotent rage which can be expressed only passive-aggressively. 

The ability to protest is an inalienable right— why is it not named in the Constitution? The answer springs from our Puritan history. It is a history of hatred and fear of the child's needs and emotions. Complete control "protects" the caretaker from fear and loss of power. These culturally-ingrained notions of unmitigated power-over have gone increasingly underground since we have become more enlightened—beginning, I believe, with Dr. Spock in the late 1940s.

Education is not the only important variable here. These impulses exist in us as instincts independent of our upbringing and education. They are alive in the realm of the unconscious—the shadow—and generally at complete odds with our conscious beliefs. These fear-based notions are acted out in moments of stress, often to our own horror.

Perhaps we hear an expression coming from ourselves that we had promised we would never say to our children. Perhaps they are words our parents or teachers used. What a shock it is to hear them erupting from the depth of one's own unconscious. Do we have the courage to make amends—to apologize for our lack of self-restraint—to turn the situation into an example of our humanity—thereby giving the child license to make mistakes herself?

But how should it go then, this confusing problem? Is there a way to respect the individuality of the child and still accomplish what needs to be completed? I am reminded of a fortuitous incident with my then-3-year-old granddaughter. I was attempting to get her dressed for an 8:00 family dinner reservation.

No sooner did I get one arm in the sleeve of her dress than she pulled it out again. She was thoroughly enjoying the game. Eventually I held her gently but firmly between my knees to finish the process. She was soon dressed and mad as hell.

After the storm passed and we reached the street, I asked her what had just happened. "I had a baby fit," she replied with obvious satisfaction. I believe the satisfaction arose from the fact that she was allowed to protest, even though she had to get dressed. 

It may be useful at this time to take a few moments to reflect on the parental/cultural reactions to one's own expression of "No," and one's attempts at individuation.

Often the client is protesting just to practice what was impossible for her in the past. As a therapist on the receiving end of such protest, in those times that I am centered and self-possessed, I rejoice in her victory. However, if I feel attacked or victimized by the protest, I must metabolize those feelings until I can manage them in supervision or personal therapy.

The point is not to re-injure the client's burgeoning sense of inner-authority. This is a process that begins with the therapist's curiosity, separateness, and the requisite practice of unconditional positive regard for the client. The goal is to help the client regain her freedom of expression, her trust in herself and others, and "Such unthinking joy."

Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy