Baby It’s Cold Inside: When A Big Personality Consumes The Family System

8 min readJan 17, 2024

By Marlis Jansen with Gabrielle Sills

Image from The New Yorker’s review on “Maestro”

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Bradley Cooper play Leanord Bernstein (“Lenny”) in the film Maestro. As a former violinist, I was reminded of so many of my own musical experiences. Like the intimacy between musician and conductor. Each musician in an orchestra is playing his or her own part and also integrally connected to the whole mainly through eye contact with the conductor. The conductor’s entire body holds the music and moves with it. I was lucky enough to play in orchestras in Europe and the United States. I cherish these memories.

But Maestro is not a movie about music. It is about the rise of a music legend whose fame consumed his person. It is about someone whose public persona and self orientation destroys his family relationships. It is about someone whose ambition is so great that he can never accomplish enough. It is about someone who can only see himself.

This post is not meant to be a psychological assessment of Leonard Bernstein. Rather it is an exploration of what happens to families when they orient primarily around one of their members and also the relational consequences of one family member primarily focusing on and committing his or her time to life outside the family.

Lenny v. Maestro

In Maestro, we see the extent to which Lenny struggles to reconcile his public, famous self with his at-home, family self.

Outside of the home, he is of course a gifted conductor and composer, who attracts attention just as much for his vivacious, charismatic personality as he does for his self-evident musical gifts. He becomes so alive on the stage that he becomes just as much a part of the show as the music itself. He is so connected to each of his musicians that it makes the audience feel that connection themselves.

Despite this brilliance, however, and arguably because of it, Lenny finds trouble at home. For starters, he’s simply not there a lot. And rather than giving his wife Felicia the attention she desires, she’s left to man the household herself, despite her own promising career that ultimately takes the back seat to Lenny’s. Complicating things, Lenny’s sexuality is an ever-present thread as he tries to bring home at least one of the men with whom he has a relationship, hopelessly trying to integrate the two lives together. At one point, Lenny’s young daughter even has to say to him, “Daddy, please don’t talk to me about this.”

Sexual orientation aside, Lenny is never able to integrate his public and private selves and thus inflicts a lot of pain on his family. His pull towards music and performing and fame is so great that transitioning to the quiet environment of home and family proves too big a comedown. At home, you need enough attention to hear and engage with and support each family member. Until his wife is on her deathbed, Lenny saves his for everyone else.

Dueling Selves

Lenny is a preeminent example of tension between one’s private and public selves, but this phenomenon is not unusual. Especially among those who have found inordinate professional success or inherited money from previously earned fortunes.

Many of our clients come to us because they have achieved financial independence but are simultaneously struggling in their family lives. They have been foused on finding ways to be creative and impactful. Shared their fortunes through philanthropic pursuits. Supported political campaigns. Each and every one of these activities has an element of personal passion and creativity in it. And reward. The rewards are as much psychological as they are monetary.

Passion is like a drug. In Maestro, you can almost feel the dopamine flooding Lenny’s brain as he conducts. Over time, his family becomes peripheral to his life.

How does that happen? Presence as a family member is different from the kind of presence we must have in our careers or out in the world. In the family, we are helping others to grow and be seen. We are sounding boards. We must listen. We sometimes get feedback and reflections that help us understand ourselves better as humans.

Out in the world, we can be more focused on ourselves. We can manage impressions, choose our audience, change plans. We project the image we want people to see. And we have a great deal of control in the process.

Self Focus and Human Development

There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing on ourselves — the key is in striking a balance. Too much self-focus and you’re a narcissist; too little and you’re neglecting your own self for the sake of others.

Developmentally, there are certain life stages where we’re biologically programmed to focus on ourselves. As a baby and toddler, you’re almost incapable of seeing the needs of others; the same self-centeredness rears its head during the teenage years. As we proceed into adulthood, the natural progression is to gain greater capacity for the consideration of others: our families of origin as well as spouses, children, and friends. We do this not just because it’s good for our loved ones but good for ourselves as well, to build foundational relationships of mutual care and attention.

In Maestro, you get the sense that Lenny never quite matures along this continuum of self focus and care for others. He consistently prioritizes his needs, desires, and career over his wife and kids, expecting the same attention and revolving of life around him at home as he expects on stage.

Energy in Family Systems

Newton’s third law states that every action has an opposite and equal reaction. While this is a concept from physics, we find that it’s also helpful when considering family dynamics.

When Lenny and each of us takes an action, it triggers a responding action within our family systems. As Lenny spends more time on his music, Felicia correspondingly needs to spend more time on her household duties; as he turns outward for more public love and affection, she turns inwards.

These chain reactions happen because there are inherent tradeoffs when you focus your time and attention in one area versus another. Time that you’re giving to your loved ones is time you’re taking away from your work, and vice versa. So when people like Lenny focus their energies wholly on pursuits out of the home, they are unable to bestow enough energy upon their loved ones at home.

Ideally, one would be able to dial up their focus for their family vs their work or other personal pursuits at different times but support both overall. When people struggle to stay attentive to both, however, and constantly prioritize their work and public selves, energy is hemorrhaged from the family to bankroll these external pursuits. The other family members are left out in the cold. What’s worse is that the damage compounds: not only do the individuals suffer but their neglect weakens the family unit as a whole.

Family Culture and the Big Personality

Big personalities (“BPs”) are not something anyone can or needs to “fix;” indeed, these personalities are often what has driven enormous success for the individuals and their families.

So how can families with BPs maintain positive, productive family cultures?

One of the most important ingredients we’ve seen in positive family cultures is the recognition that every individual exists in their own right and everyone’s pursuits are equally important.

This is really hard to do. It takes a-ttention and in-tention.

It’s especially challenging in a family with a BP because it’s easy to fall into the trap of individual family members defining themselves, or having others define them, relative to that BP. For example, a spouse of a BP may be introduced only under the context of what their husband/wife has accomplished. Or curiosity may grow around whether a BP’s child will have the same strengths that the BP has. In Lenny’s case, as his stardom grows, Felicia’s pales and she becomes more known as the wife of Leonard Bernstein than as the talented actor she is in her own right.

The Importance of Integration

Managing one identity is hard enough. As we’ve discussed, when we cultivate different versions of ourselves with different people, our attention is split and it becomes very difficult to give adequate attention to anything.

The key in this situation is awareness, first and foremost, and then: integration. Integration is how we bring the various parts of us together both within us and with others.

Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, has done a lot of work on integration, working across many perspectives including neuroscience, psychology, systems theory, and relationship studies. Rather than existing as “solo, isolated selves,” as our culture may sometimes have us believe, we are part of broader systems with others that are crucial for our development. This integration, as he describes it, is the balancing of the “me” and the “we” — otherwise known as “mwe.” (Check out his book “Intraconnected” for more on this topic.) Interestingly, Siegel uses the metaphor of a symphony orchestra to illustrate this point.

Like most things in life, such integration with others requires a commitment to a regular practice of small things, rather than any silver bullet. Talking about work when we’re at home, and our home life when we’re at work, to start. Being able to step away — truly — from work, for a meal or a walk or a conversation. Generating warmth with others, both physically and emotionally, through proximity and presence. Purposefully doing these things regularly will accumulate over the years into powerful bonds and cultivate integration between your public and private selves.

Boundaries and Intentional Balance

To the extent that you’re someone who desires that balance and wants to prioritize your family system, friends or community alongside your external pursuits, boundaries are essential. You can pursue ambitious goals and achievements — you just need to cordon off enough time and attention to sustain your family, helping them find their passion and interests like you were able to find yours.

One public person that comes to mind when I think about who does this well is Barack Obama. As President, he always talked about his commitment to family and appeared publicly with Michelle and his daughters. Through these appearances, he communicated that the presidency was a family affair. He even had his mother-in-law living with them in the White House for a time! We never know what any family is like behind closed doors, but I get the strong sense that Obama brings the same sort of presence to his daughters and wife that he did to national security matters. While there were inevitably times where one sphere required his attention more than the other, I would bet he found that balance overall.

Take a moment for reflection

A bit of introspection goes a long way! As Dennis Jaffe says, families that thrive allocate as much or more time and energy to the business of being a family as they do to any family business. Here are some questions to spark your exploration:

  • How are you doing balancing your public and private lives?
  • Are there any big personalities (BPs) in your family (now or growing up)?
  • Do any of your family members define themselves relative to another family member?
  • Can you think of any BPs that seem to get it right, and if so how do they do it?

We all have more than one version of ourselves. There’s the “you” at home and the “you” with your friends; there’s the “boardroom you” and the “family trip you.” Maybe you have a public and private you and maybe you have several different versions of each. Whatever your scenario, we hope that in 2024 you can bring the same purposeful reflection and action to your home life as you do to any of your public roles. Happy new year.




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