The Elephant in the Room

It is amazing how much we unconsciously “choose” to forget – until something brings it back.  Reading Laura Gray’s The Weight-ing Game,  a memory flashed back from my early 20s.

Throughout my upbringing, and particularly memorable after our yelling contests during my teenage years, my mother lamented that I was way too sensitive, just like her.  “Don’t be like me!” she said.  Consequently, I had taken away that being like my father was much better.  Only decades later, I realized that I had also taken away the message that to her, being me was not good enough. (And only as I write this, do I realize that it probably meant that to her, being her was not good enough, either.  Thanks, Laura, that is why we write these stories down; to process.)

I got an apprenticeship as a computer programmer in a big insurance company right out of high school.  I didn’t know a thing about computing and very little about insurance, but I was good at math.  As I started my new job, I also started an evening course in accounting that many evenings classes, home-work assignments, and years later turned into a BA in Business with a concentration in accounting.  Just like dad.

During the time I was going to business school, the company sent their young tech apprentices to classes at IBM and to the Insurance Industry School – the idea being that “you can’t teach all the employees about computers, but you can teach the tech employees about insurance” – so they could speak the language of their company-internal customers.  Safe to say, spending weeks at Insurance School with homework assignments in between, while becoming an accountant and a software engineer working full time, was a bit stressful.  Good thing, I was stoic like my father…

For the first years of my career, I still lived with my parents.  Just as I turned 21, I got a good scoop for leaving home, moving to an old apartment in central Copenhagen, five minutes from my office.  A family friend had bought a 17th-century building that needed renovating, and I could get this place with the condition that once he was ready to renovate my apartment in 3 to 6 months, I would move out without a fuss.  13 rent-free months later I got notice.  During much of this time, when I came back to my place after visiting my parents for dinner, the contents of my stomach ended up in the toilet.  As my diet now differed from what my mother used to serve, I thought this was my body saying “no, thank you” to her cooking.  Today, I am not so sure.  Could it be my first rejection of whatever my mother was serving up, literally or figuratively?

Even when I later vacationed with a group of friends and found out that one of them had bulimia, I didn’t make any connection to my own pattern.  After all, bulimia was for unhealthy people, not something that happened to stoics like my father and me.  By then, I had stopped my own purging – just as I had purged spending much time with my parents.

One of my friends had several mental breakdowns and I regularly visited her in a place where door handles are only on one side of the door.  Listening to her story, I realized that I could also talk to somebody because, by then, it was evident, that it took me a lot of energy faking to be like my father.  Also, I didn’t know what I was like?

I had a good relationship with my dad while my relationship with my mother always was volatile.  What really helped me during this phase was that he asked me what was really going on and how he could help.  As I told him how mom had always scolded me that I was too sensitive, too much like her, he said: “Sure, you are sensitive like her.  That is one of the reasons I love you so much.”  Being sensitive could be a good thing?  That was news.  It gave me stamina.

But how to embrace my sensitivity?  That was the big question for decades and I saw nothing offered in the business world that could prove my father right.  Until I coincidentally bumped into T-groups.

In the communication trainings Stanford provides, their metaphor is that our rational thought is the rider on our emotional elephant.

As long as our emotions are not stirred, the rider is in control.  But when the elephant stampedes, it doesn’t care about what the rider wants – and there is not much the rider can do about it. 

Today, I am an older wiser big elephant.  Her knowledge is based on many million years of experience – much, much longer than the rider – that is also me – has been around.  The two have a dialogue in mutual respect.  The rider has learned better to translate the vibrations coming from the elephant’s rumblings and can speak up for her.  Yes, she can become agitated, but once she hears the rider is aware she is upset, she calms down.  And, as memories are often attached to emotions, she has the memory of – an elephant.

The irony is, that in this process of embracing being like my mother, letting go of trying to be like my father, I have probably become more like him than I ever was before.

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.

~Joseph Campbell


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Oh Charlotte, what a powerful and courageous story! It’s amazing, isn’t it, how family messages run so deep? My sense is that your current stoicism is now rooted in an examined-life rather than stuffing the uncomfortable feelings and parts of yourself that you didn’t understand.

    It seems to me that a lot of people who chide others for being “too sensitive” are often ill equipped to say hard messages in a way that they can be heard without judgement. If we were to really dig into their intention under what they had to say that was experienced as hurtful, while it may be subconscious, it frequently is “to shame,” or “to demean,” or “to hurt.” Instead of taking responsibility for the impact they have on others through their words, they deflect responsibility by making the receiver wrong or bad for hearing the intention behind the statement. Communication is always the responsibility of both parties. If someone reacts in a sensitive manner, that is out of whack with the intention, then it is the responsibility of the person communicating to clarify the intention and reframe what they had to say.

    Is it possible to be “overly sensitive?” Sure. When we’re not feeling confident within ourselves, we hear echoes of our self-belief. Our responsibility then is to clarify what we’re hearing while working to not react. So it certainly goes both ways. But few children are able to navigate the challenges of such complexities, which is why adults must be willing to step up and support them in a healthy way. I’m sorry your mom wasn’t able to do that for you. I highly suspect that’s why you’re so good at facilitating the groups at Stanford. Because your experience has forged a visceral understanding of the need to communicate and listen differently.

    • Thank you for this full comment, Kimberly.

      I particularly liked your point about “who is the adult in the room?” but how do we guide children towards learning to feel, own, and understand their feelings and to express them effectively if we are ourselves not able to?

      Understanding my mother’s backstory with the perspective of having children myself and more life experience than she had at the time of our roof-raising arguments, I doubt she had a need for demeaning or shaming me, but she probably had a need for control. And I have been testing her on that since before I could talk.

  2. Excellent story, Charlotte. Thanks for sharing.
    Our first relationships are with out parents so they often set a pattern for good or ill. Also we are genetically composed of at least some of their DNA, so whatever chemical reactions underly behavior may be inherited.

    I do remember people telling me I was “too sensitive” in my teens. Ultimately that very sensitivity fed me in my career.
    But riding the elephant, even today, isn’t easy, and still the odd comment from someone can send me spraling until I let him breatthe and accept the the halter again.

    I loved the Joseph Campbell quote.

    • Thanks for sharing a mirror, Alan. I think we – the human species – have had a crippled relationship with feelings for the longest time, and in the Western world probably even more after Freud mistakenly thought emotions was a woman thing.