Interested as I am in psychology, and more specifically understanding what makes people tick, or do the things that they do, which can often include what to a third person seems like a completely irrational behavior, the movie Dear Zindagi (please note that this post assumes that you’ve seen the movie) showed a classic example of how incidents or lessons learnt in our childhood can have disproportionate impact on behavior as an adult, especially in relationships. And by relationship, I don’t just mean romantic relationships. Childhood lessons can impact relationships with friends, parents, siblings, co-workers, and of course romantic partners.
The lead character of Kaira or Koko is shown to have problems in committing to romantic relationships as she’s shown to be quick to reject partners after being in relationships with them for some time. She’s also shown as self-centered in her friendships. And she has significant problems with her parents, with whom she doesn’t get along, and doesn’t even want to talk to them or visit them despite the fact that they live in Goa. The parents’ obsession with getting Kaira “settled” is a problem. So is the societal expectation that her career as a cinematographer isn’t a very stable or respected one. However, her problem with her parents goes beyond that as we find out later on in the movie.
When Kaira was a young girl of 5-6 years, her parents were going through significant financial problems due to which they decided to work in Africa to run a more profitable business. As they had a young son as well, they decided to leave Kaira with her maternal grandparents as they didn’t think that they would be able to manage everything. Despite being well cared for at her Nana-Nani’s place, Kaira missed her parents and kept asking them on phone and through letters when they would return or when she could join them. But they didn’t give any answer to her. When the parents were visiting India, Kaira asks her mom why they aren’t responding to her letters and her questions, the mom says that we’ve been busy but now we will and that you will come to Africa also very soon (am not sure of the exact plot here). However, Kaira is shocked to find out that her mom was lying when she overhears her telling her Nana that things aren’t going to change as of now.
Kaira says that day she decided to stop talking to her parents and her relationship with them became a very perfunctory one. While her grandparents still took good care of her, she was unhappy about life. She stopped studying and failed Grade 2 and only then did her parents come back. She then holds on to the grudge all her life that her parents abandoned her and that only her poor academic performance got their attention. And the childhood lesson that she learns is that:
Rejection in relationships is painful and therefore it’s safer and less painful for me that I reject someone before they reject me.
And this childhood lesson is then what she applies to all her relationships. She rejects boyfriends before they even have a chance to reject her. She’s unable to form deep relationships with her friends. She’s not able to connect with her parents any longer. And most importantly, she doesn’t even understand why she’s behaving like this.
Now if you are a reasonable person like we often are when the situation doesn’t involve us, you might be forgiven for thinking that – “Common, how’s it possible that what her parents did when she was 5-6 years old has such a significant impact on how she sees relationships today?” This is where my interest in psychology and my informal and formal psychotherapy classes comes into the picture.
At Fountainhead School, we have these life classes for staff members that focus on personal development. Relationship issues form a significant part of what’s discussed and especially in what we call the love classes and the integrity class. As a participant and then a facilitator of these classes, we’ve come across many examples of childhood lessons. There’s this lady Neena (name changed), whose grandmother once said when she was dressing up, as young girls often do, that dressing up is for bazaaru (slutty) women. This childhood lesson meant that she was very uncomfortable dressing up as an adult, even for formal occasions. But it especially caused her problems, because her husband kept buying her expensive clothes as that’s what he thought was his expression of love, which she kept rejecting, causing significant friction among them (also known as core dynamics).
I also remember at least 3 young women, who came from homes where they witnessed a lot of fighting between their parents for different reasons. As a consequence, their faith in the institution of marriage was quite low and they had a lot of trouble trusting or even forming romantic relationships. Lest it seem that women are the ones more affected by childhood lessons, let me narrate one of mine. Growing up, my father expected me to be independent, which was a good thing. But I didn’t feel that I was ready. And one summer when I wanted to go and sign up for a football coaching camp because I loved the sport, my father asked me to go the academy and sign myself up. Even now I don’t like asking strangers for help. As a kid, when I reached the academy, I didn’t find any information easily about the football camp. But they were signing up students for a cricket camp which I found myself signing up for instead of football.
What lesson did I learn? That I would have to shoulder or take the burden of all I needed or wanted to do. That I would have to be Atlas. And that I became. I rarely asked for advice or help. And while I could collaborate for work or activities, I would tend to assume far more responsibility that I sometimes needed to. It made me into the leader that I am today, but it also made me miserable at times, to feel, that I have no choice but to do on my own. It was a lonely feeling and it took me a bunch of years and at least 2-3 life classes at different times to overcome this.
While it is often difficult to make connections of problems you’re facing today to your childhood, I have often found that there are strong connections like the ones mentioned above. The question we should then ask is why does this happen. I believe that it has to do with the expectations that we have from our parents. As innocent kids, for whom the parents are literally their world, their parents are perfection personified. Parents can do no wrong. Parents are those benevolent gods that almost all of us desire innately (who will take care of all us, never let us down, never let anything harm us, always do the right thing etc.).
No problems as yet. The problem arises because as children, we then believe that whatever parents do is representative of what the world is. If my parents behave this way, the lesson that I learn is this is how the world behaves. And in fact, this is how children learn so many good things as well. But unfortunately, as children, we don’t have the capacity of distinguishing the right from the wrong, or poor decisions from good ones, or judging parents by their intentions rather than their actions or words. So when parents err, which they often do, as all humans do, we believe that’s how the world works. And this becomes a deep-rooted paradigm if it’s repeated over the years or if the incident has a deep impact on the child’s psyche (even though the incident may seem trivial to us as adults).
So Kaira expected perfection from her parents like all children do. And when they failed, when they rejected and abandoned her, that’s what she learned about the world. Dr. Haim Ginott says that the fear of abandonment is akin to the fear of losing a parent when it comes to children. And that’s how she saw relationships in her adulthood.
Fortunately, Kaira found a competent albeit unconventional psychotherapist in Dr. Jehangir Khan, who helped her see things differently. With his help, she could see that she was blaming her parents sub-consciously for the way she views relationships. She realizes that expectations of perfection from parents are unrealistic and that even if she can’t forgive them for the hurt they caused her, she can still move on in her life. As Dr. Jehangir Khan says:
Don’t let the past blackmail your present to ruin a beautiful future.
We need to recognize that “small issues” in the childhood can become big issues as an adult unless resolved. Often, the recognition that there’s a problem in the first place is something that doesn’t happen in the first place. But if you have identified such a problem then it would be wise to seek the services of a competent therapist. Even otherwise, if you introspect into your own childhood, you may find that the sources of your problems today may lie not in the past, and very often, it’s about the parents or some significant caregiver in your childhood. Confront your ghosts from the past and do whatever it takes so that you can move on. For some, just the awareness might be enough, for others a showdown with the people involved or for some writing a forgiveness letter even if you never actually give it to them (which is what I did). But what’s for sure that unless you confront and make peace with your past, it will be difficult to find that inner peace in your present, as Master Shifu from the Kung Fu Panda series finds out.
If you are on the other side, then you too have a responsibility. You may not even recognize the issue, and even if you do, you haven’t raised it. You could proactively seek forgiveness for the mistakes you made. But at the very least, if you see that someone close to you has “adjustment” issues with his/her world, try and understand beyond the surface what the problem might be.
Finally, a word of appreciation for the emotional depth of the movie Dear Zindagi as well as its competent execution. It touches upon many relevant themes that need to be confronted. I haven’t even touched upon the feminist ones in this post, but I whole-heartedly endorse the messages on that front. I am leaving you with some other themes, questions that came up as I watched the movie:
- Dr. Khan asks Kaira whether it’s fair to put the burden of all your expectations only on romantic relationships. It seems to me that far too many people, especially now that nuclear families are becoming the de-facto urban family-type, have similar expectations from their romantic relationships. What are your expectations on this front?
- Why does Kaira cry and then smile at the gate after the last therapy session with Dr. Khan? Does she realize that having feelings for your therapist is a common phenomenon known as transference?
- What’s Dr. Khan disturbed about on the boat ride? And why does he cancel the appointment? Does Dr. Khan also fall in love with Kaira? If yes, then is there any other reason other than professional ethics that he doesn’t reciprocate? Could he be concerned that Kaira’s personal growth that has taken off as a result of the psychotherapy sessions, would be arrested if he gets into a relationship with her (even if it is at a later stage)?
What do you think? Do leave your comments below.