One reader writes,
Thirty years I worked in the business my dad left me, building it up for my son. Now I want to retire and my son wants to do something else. What the hell have I been working for? He’s also engaged to a girl I don’t like. Whatever happened to family values?
I don’t know you or your son. But I work with lots of families, and this sort of question comes up often. So I’ll answer from that context and you can decide if my answer is helpful.
I think a healthy family is one in which all members can get their needs met — not always, probably, but most of the time.
I think any family that requires a member to sacrifice himself or herself to the needs of the family is unhealthy.
I also think some families — they’re called narcissistic families — are set up unconsciously to meet the needs of the parents, even at the expense of the children. And if one comes from such a family, that arrangement seems normal. Parents simply expect kids to put aside their feelings and needs for Mom or Dad’s sake. To the parents this seems like love, or respect, or discipline, or “family values.”
Personally and professionally, I see it as something else.
So I suspect you, dad, need to decide if that’s the sort of family you came from and are trying to recreate now.
One question I like to ask parents struggling with this issue is, Do you want to raise a passenger, or a driver? If you want to raise a passenger, keep giving orders. If you want to raise a driver, at some point you have to let him or her take the wheel.
I should add that I think the parent’s job — like that of any good teacher, doctor or therapist — is to put himself out of a job. To raise a kid strong and healthy enough to separate, take care of himself, and not stay indefinitely tied to the parent.
If you stayed tied to your father until he died, you may well see it differently.
But there’s a big difference between staying connected to your parent by choice and staying connected because the parent refuses to release you.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
~ Kahlil Gibran
A guy goes to a doctor.
“Doc, I’m in awful pain. Please help me.”
“Okay,” says the doc, “here’s some medicine. Take the blue pill in the morning, take the red pill at night.”
“I’ll take the blue one,” the guy says, “but not the red one.”
“I’ve always hated red.”
This joke kept floating into my mind last week because of conversations I was having.
They were conversations with
~ an alcoholic who drinks due to loneliness, but won’t leave his isolation to attend AA;
~ a mom who craves a close relationship with her daughter, but won’t stop telling her what to do;
~ a husband who wants his wife to forgive his affair, but walks away when she tries to talk about her feelings of hurt and anger; and
~ a wife and mother exhausted from meeting everyone else’s needs, but who won’t say No to any demand made of her.
Each in considerable pain. Each avoiding some obvious step to relieve it.
Each saying I hate red.
Therapists call this behavior help-seeking/help-rejecting, and it results from a cost/benefit analysis that’s largely unconscious. On some level each of these people has decided that solving their problem would be more uncomfortable than the problem itself. They hate their pain, but they hate red more.
Pretty common, this. We all have red pills. They’re what we make New Year’s resolutions about. Things we should do but just can’t stop avoiding.
Exercise more. Watch less tv. Eat less sugar. Ask for that raise. Write that damned book.
Red-pill behavior illustrates what I call the Third Paradox*:
To get control in one place,
you have to give it up in another.
Want control of your weight? Tolerate your food cravings. Want control of your loneliness? Stop avoiding people. Want your daughter’s company? Stop bossing her. And so on.
Here’s the key:
In practice, what “give it up in another”usually means is stop avoiding some uncomfortable feeling.
Behind all controlling is the wish to control or manage feelings. Notice those examples above. The alcoholic is managing social anxiety. The mom is managing frustration with her daughter’s life choices. The husband is managing guilt over his affair.
But in backing away from those feelings they’ve backed into new problems. So solving those problems will mean learning to tolerate the feelings they avoid.
Again, we all do this. We always will. We’re all control addicts. It’s how we’re wired. No point in beating yourself up over it.
If you have a problem of which you’re really really really sick and tired, you might redefine it by noticing that’s it’s really a solution as well — your way of protecting yourself from some particular emotional experience.
This sort of redefinition is the essential first step towards any solution.
What red pill are you avoiding?
Tuesday morning she had her first panic attack.
Tuesday afternoon she came into session and we had this conversation:
It was awful. I felt like I was going crazy.
If you feel like you’re crazy, does that mean you are? Or does it mean you’re not?
Depends on how you define “crazy.” Some kinds of crazy have denial built into them. Delusional people don’t know they’re delusional, for example. And addicts are famous for not realizing they’re addicted. But milder forms of crazy are different. Neurotics often know they’re neurotic.
Which kind of crazy am I?
Neurotic. Which means normal.
Neurotic is normal?
Yep. Given how we’re socialized, neurotic is the healthiest anyone ever gets.
I don’t understand.
We’re trained to hide our feelings from each other, even from ourselves. This splits us into two parts, public and private. Therapists call this splitting “neurosis.”
Neurosis caused my panic attack?
Right. That was the private part exploding.
I hated that. I don’t want to be neurotic.
What can I do about it?
Work your ass off in therapy.
What kind of work?
The uncomfortable kind.
It has to be uncomfortable?
Well, neurosis comes from avoiding discomfort. So recovery means facing what you’re avoiding.
The stuff that scares you. Coming out of hiding with other people. Telling the truth. Expressing feelings. That sort of thing.
Like giving up control.
Exactly. All the alternatives to control involve tolerating some new discomfort.
Yeah, I’d rather skip that.
Sure. Most people do. Look around you. Met many healthy people lately?
Not many. Does the work get easier?
It does. I’m not sure it ever gets easy.
But people do it because…
It’s better than the alternative.
And when does it end?
If you’re doing it right, never. You just keep becoming more yourself until you die.
Never? There’s no graduation, no Emerald City you reach?
Nope. Just the yellow brick road.
Monkey A wanders into the clearing and spots the jar under the tree. His nose wrinkles: banana. He scampers to the jar where the smell is overpowering. He sees yellow skin through the jar’s narrow neck. He reaches in, grabs and pulls, but the fruit is too big. Puzzled, he pulls harder. The banana stays stuck. He chirps in frustration, pulls with all his might. The banana stays stuck. His chirps becomes angry screeches. His little body whips around the bottle like a flag in a windstorm. He really really wants this banana. He is still wanting and pulling and screeching when the trapper’s net drops over him.
Monkey B wanders into the same clearing and smells the same banana. He reaches in, grabs, pulls. The banana stays stuck. He pulls harder. The banana stays stuck. Oh well, he shrugs. Can’t be helped. And goes his way, free.
(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.
For this post, Steve interviewed Bert.)
Steve: So I’ve been writing about peace of mind and how control addiction makes it impossible, and how practicing alternatives to control make it easier to find. And I wanted to ask you about surrender.
Bert: What about surrender?
Steve: How you practice it, mainly.
Bert: Oh. Sure this is a good idea?
Steve: Why not?
Bert: People will know how lousy I am at it.
Steve: That’s okay. They know it isn’t easy.
Bert: I never use that word, by the way.
Bert: No, that’s one of your writer’s words.
Steve: You don’t like it.
Bert: Not really. Sounds too much like helplessness.
Steve: That’s not what it means. It….
Bert: I know, I know. Surrender means winning, not losing. Letting go of what you can’t control represents the victory of awareness over denial, growth over habit, and faith over fear. Right?
Steve: Something like that. What word do you prefer?
Bert: Depends. Sometimes I think of surrender as detaching.
Bert: Taking a step back emotionally. Like when that client cursed at us in session yesterday.
Steve: And I told you to not take it personally.
Bert: Right. That it was just transference. And then other times I think of surrender as accepting.
Steve: “It is what it is.”
Bert: Yes. Though I hate that expression.
Bert: It’s like Have a nice day. Everyone says it, then go right back to being raging control freaks.
Steve: Any other words for surrender?
Bert: Let’s see. Sometimes I do it by consciously reframing a situation instead of trying to control it. Remember how mad I used to get at little old lady drivers?
Steve: Anyone driving at the speed limit, you mean.
Bert: Right. Well, now when I find myself behind one I just tell myself This is God reminding you to slow the fuck down. And I slow down, and I’m okay with it.
Steve: Very spiritual of you.
Bert: I think so. I use slogans too.
Steve: Which slogans?
Bert: Well, there’s the one you wrote on a Post-it and taped to your PC monitor:
99% of what we worry about never happens.
That got us through some rough times.
Steve: It did.
Bert: And the one you kept in the little plastic frame in your office. The one that made clients think you’re a little nuts:
Steve: I can’t count the times I tried to explain that.
Bert: Anyone ever buy it?
Steve: No. Easier to sell Everything happens for a reason.
But back to you. It sounds like you do a lot of surrendering, in one way or another. Why do you say you’re lousy at it?
Bert: Because of all the times I can’t.
Bert: You know how we live. Rushing from chore to chore, worry to worry. Working down the To Do list with no end in sight. Feeling like everything is urgent. Lying in bed at night and trying to decide if you got enough stuff done to feel okay about yourself.
Then there’s the problem of people. All the times I just can’t be myself.
Steve: Can’t tell the truth, you mean?
Bert: Yes, but more than that. All the times I can’t just relax and stop worrying about how someone’s going to react to me.
But it’s more than that, too.
It’s all the times I can’t just relax. Can’t take, even, a really deep breath.
Steve: I know. Can’t relax if you can’t surrender. It’s a stubborn addiction.
Bert: Sometimes I’m sorry you told me I’m addicted.
Steve: Do you mean that?
Bert: No. No, I guess not.
Steve: What’s good about knowing?
Bert: Well, it does clarify things. When I feel angry or frustrated or crazy it’s usually because I’m trying to control something I shouldn’t. Calms me down, just seeing that.
Steve: Another surrender?
Bert: I suppose it is. And then, remembering I’m addicted gives me more choices than I used to have.
Steve: More choices?
Bert: Sure. Before I knew, I never even thought of surrender as an option. Now I know, even when I can’t do it. It’s something to work towards. Something to practice and get better at. And that gives me hope.
Steve: Hope’s good.
Bert: It is. It even lets you breathe a little bit deeper.
* * *
Collections 1 & 2
Thirteen more here: Collected cartoons and posters
If I’ve learned anything here
it’s that the minute I say You
to my wife, it’s Game Over.
Craig belonged to one of my therapy groups, where I spend lots of time encouraging members to avoid You-statements.
You know what a You-statement is. You just read one. (Two, actually.)
It’s a statement someone makes to you about you.
They’re very popular.
We use them all the time. Especially in the heat of battle. As in “You’re wrong” or “You suck.”
But whenever we use them, they tend to be destructive.
They destroy honesty, trust and connection.
In an interpersonal relationship, reliance on You statements – or Yousage, for short – creates a subtle wall between us.
One reason is that, to the listener, You feels like an intrusion or an attack. At yet at the same time it’s so common we barely notice it, even when it’s making us uncomfortable.
The biggest problem with Yousage, though, is that it’s inherently defensive.
That’s because when I talk about You I’m not talking about me. I’m directing our conversational attention away from my thoughts, my feelings, what I want. Yousage allows me to stay hidden. And hidden feels safer.
That’s why it’s so much easier to say “You jerk” than “I’m angry at you.” Or “You look terrific” instead of “I’m attracted to you.” Or “You gave an interesting talk” instead of “I had no idea what you were talking about.”
Less vulnerable. Less honest.
So. Say you decide you’d like to grow beyond Yousage. What’s the alternative?
Well, in group I teach one called feedback. It’s a form of communication that relies on I-statements — I think, I feel, I want. The most complete feedback follows the ABC format: When you (A), I feel (B), because (C). That covers all bases. But the one essential is the I-statement at its heart.
Which means it takes courage.
But the results can be startling.
When people stop saying You and start saying I in the group room, the atmosphere changes noticeably. The energy level jumps. Suddenly everyone’s there, emotionally speaking, in a way people rarely are with each other. And then real therapy can happen.
But you don’t need a group to practice this. Just a desire to improve your communication with people to whom you’d like to feel closer.
First, try noticing how often you say You.
Then, try saying it less.
Try I instead.
Each is alone, having been separated from his tribe. Both are tired from trudging for days through the rocks.
Both are lonely.
But monkeys are wary beasts. So for a long time they stand motionless, eyeing each other suspiciously.
Finally the tireder of the pair gets tired of this too.
“Oh, screw it,” he says.
He sits down in the dirt.
The other watches him for a moment, then sits down as well.
They look around at the dirt, the rocks, the huge sky, the sinking sun. Finally their eyes meet.
“What’s your name?” asks the first monkey.
The second monkey scowls.
“What’s yours?” he replies.
They fall silent.
The sun’s lower edge touches the horizon. The air chills.
The first monkey reaches into his knapsack and pulls out a cigarette lighter. He scratches together a tiny pile of twigs and pushes the lighter into the center of it. The twigs catch. A small flame appears.
“Got anything to burn?” he asks.
The second money is leaning towards the flame, but the question stops him.
“Do you?” he answers. He places a protective paw on his knapsack.
The first monkey sighs.
The sun sinks below the horizon.
Now it is dark. Dark in the mountains is especially dark.
“Oh, screw it again,” says the first monkey. He reaches into his knapsack and brings out a small lump wrapped in dirty cloth.
“This is a secret,” he tells the other. “I never show it to anyone. It’s pretty embarrassing. But I guess it’s better than freezing to death.”
He unwraps a stinky old fish head.
A rotten smell fills the clearing. First Monkey swallows hard, then lays the fish head carefully atop the pile of twigs like an offering.
It catches fire. Flames leap up.
The smell disappears.
Now Second Monkey looks embarrassed.
“That’s not so bad,” he says finally. “I can beat that.”
He reaches into his knapsack and comes out with a medium-sized lump, also wrapped in dirty cloth.
“Really?” First Monkey smiles.
Second Monkey nods, unwraps his fish head, swallows hard and lays it on the fire.
Again a bad smell fills the clearing. The second head catches fire. Again the smell goes away.
The monkeys inch closer to the flames. They reach out and warm their paws. Overhead the moon starts its climb across the sky.
“You’ve got more of those, I hope,” Second Monkey says.
First Monkey smiles.
“I do if you do,” he replies.
And so the night passes, hour after hour, fish head after fish head, each one larger and more fragrant than the last, until both knapsacks are empty and the fire burns on without feeding and the sun peeks up over the mountains in the east.
“I’m Joe,” mutters Second Monkey suddenly.
“I’m Jack,” replies First Monkey. “Pleased to meet you.”
There’s no one on this bus but us monkeys.
Contra rotullus means “against the roll.”
This I learned from the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, who implies the term originally referred to fighting gravity. “Control is agency, yes, but of a restrictive kind,” Hillman writes in his book Kinds of Power. “The word comes from contra rotullus, against the roll. Since the free flow of inertia follows the path of least resistance, the easy path downhill is controlled by restraints.”
Against the roll. I found myself imagining the first “control” as some sort of ancient wheel block, a lump of wood or stone used to stop ox carts or chariots from rolling downhill.
I really liked this idea.
I liked seeing control as rooted in the idea of prevention. It confirmed my sense of how controlling functions in me and the people I know: as an attempt to avoid surprise and prevent misfortune.
Control, I realized, is defensive. We control not to make things happen, but to stop them from happening.
When we look closely at what we want when we want to be in control, we find mainly preventive desires. We want not to be bugged, not to be demeaned, not to be blocked and criticized. We want obstacles removed that compete, like other divisions in the company and other gangs in the ‘hood. Control means preventing interference. It has a conservative effect.
The most controlling people I know are obsessed with conserving, protecting and preventing. They expect bad things to happen. (Usually because bad things have already happened to them. Abuse and trauma victims are famously controlling. So is anyone who grew up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family. Which, aside from Beaver and the other Cleavers, pretty much covers everyone.) So they fear the unpredictable, the unexpected, the unplanned. They rely on control to fend off danger and discomfort. They live, whether they admit it or even realize it, like frightened people.
Control, for all its self-assured position of command, relies on a defensive vision, and [its] traits — enforced loyalty, exactitude, suspicion of the hidden watchfulness — are paranoid traits.
Paranoia, of course, is an extreme form of craziness. Paranoids imagine the world’s out to get them. I’ve worked with paranoids. They were scared all of the time, unable to trust anyone, led lives of confusion, uncertainty and occasionally panic.
But so do control addicts.
They experience the world as dangerous, people as unreliable, relationships as competitive, emotions as scary, honesty as risky, and control as their shield against wounding by all of the above. They hate change, especially change they haven’t asked for. In therapy they’re almost always expressing resistance to something — some unfolding of events, some anticipated consequence, some expression of the innate tendencies of people around them. Often they’re anxious or angry without knowing why.
Alexander Lowen points out, “Because we are afraid of life, we seek to control or master it.” Logical, maybe. Effective? Not so much.
No, worse than that. Self-destructive. Because the War With What Is is actually a problem disguised as a solution.
Why? Three reasons.
First: Fighting reality is hard work. Try swimming against the tide of a stream or a river. Fight the flow, and see how long you last. That’s why control addicts end up stressed, strained and exhausted.
Second: The war is unwinnable. It’s not that control addicts don’t try hard enough. What they’re trying to do simply can’t be done. So they end up feeling frustrated and inadequate and depressed.
Third (and this is a big one): Control addiction is self-perpetuating. Think about it. To be scared of reality is to organize your life around fear. You tense up, go into defense mode and stay there. “As long as we are defensive, we are going to be frightened,” Lowen writes. So fear makes you defensive, which makes you more frightened, which makes you more defensive, and so on. Like any addiction. The more you control, the more you need to.
Control addiction, then, is a sort of garden-variety paranoia.
A form of everyday craziness you don’t notice much.
Because we’re all control addicts.
So everyone you know is just as crazy as you.
Please look down. You’ll find him attached to my ankle.
That’s where he lives, more or less.
Sometimes he draws blood. But mostly he just hangs on, drooling and chewing occasionally, slowing my progress through life from a stroll to a worried limp.
Of course this is a metaphorical dog I’m describing. It represents a part of the human personality we each carry inside us, an internal voice named variously by different psychologies.
Freudians described it as the punitive superego.
Others named it the Inner Critic.
Gestalt therapists call it the Top Dog.
I first read about this guy many years ago, in Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy Verbatim.
The topdog usually is righteous and authoritarian: he knows best. He is sometimes right, but always righteous. The topdog is a bully, and works with “You should” and “You should not.” The topdog manipulates with demands ands threats of catastrophe, such as, “If you don’t, then — you won’t be loved, you won’t get to heaven, you will die,” and so on.
I remember reading that and wondering how Fritz had managed to overhear my darkest thoughts.
As a recovering control addict I’ve spent many hours (years, actually) listening to this voice.
I’ve come to know Dog pretty well.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Dog means well. He really thinks he’s protecting me by pointing out my flaws, reminding me of my failures, and anticipating all the awful judgments others might render. Expect the worst, that’s his motto. But his warnings don’t make me feel safer. What they do is keep me scared shitless.
Dog’s scared to death. That’s why he scares me. Dog himself operates out of pure fear. (Can you imagine scarier words to live by than expect the worst?) So every word out of him comes from that defensive position. Which explains why the more I listen to him, the scareder I get.
Dog is unpleaseable. No matter how hard I try, he’s never satisfied. In fact trying harder seems to only make him stronger. It took me years to realize that he thrives on attention. So trying to please Dog is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
Dog lies. He sounds reasonable, since there’s usually some truth in what he says. But listening to Dog is like looking at myself in a fun house mirror. By focusing on weakness and failures only he presents a terribly distorted view of me. And if I mistake it for an accurate one, I’m basically sunk.
Dog refuses to die. That’s why I can’t satisfy him. He exists to warn and to worry. It’s his reason for being. Should he ever concede that I’m okay as I am, or that everything will probably work out fine, he’d be killing himself off.
So. What to do with a dog like this?
Well, it helps me to remember what I’ve learned about him. That Dog isn’t me, just the scared worried part. That he’s unappeasable, and that he lies, and that he’ll say or do anything to survive.
All this gives me some distance from his voice. It means when he starts growling I can say “Oh, you again. Shut up,” instead of taking him too seriously.
And you? Why should you care about any of this?
Well, check out your own ankle.
Years ago I had a friend named Richie whose favorite expression was head up your ass.
As in “Boy, that guy has his head up his ass.” Or “Relax, Steve. Get your head out of your ass.”
But I never quite understood what it meant.
(Probably I got hung up on the visual.)
Anyway, Richie came to mind this morning. My wife and I were sitting on the deck with our coffee, and I was thanking her for keeping me afloat, emotionally speaking.
“If not for you,” I said, “I’d have lost my marbles years ago.”
She was pleased. “That’s good to hear,” she said. “Often I feel like I’m failing, because so much of the time you seem distant or worried or unhappy.”
“Oh,” I said, “that’s just me with my head up my ass.”
Apparently at some point over the years I reached my own understanding of what Richie’s trademark phrase meant: Self-preoccupied. Obsessive. Living in my head. Disconnected from other people. Disconnected from reality.
I’m like most other men in this way. Most women I know handle stress by sharing it, bringing it to their relationships; most guys carry it off into isolation. Where a woman gets on the phone, a man retreats into his cave.
I’m a cave-dweller from way back.
In grade school I decided that people were untrustworthy and best kept at a distance. The cave into which I retreated then was my own skull — dark, cramped, but way less scary than the big uncontrollable world.
I furnished my cave with books and movies and tv shows and long convoluted conversations with my own puzzled fascinating self.
I lived there through adolescence and into early adulthood.
Eventually, when I had to leave the cave to make a living, I looked around for some way to do so which would allow me to stay mostly in hiding.
So I became a therapist.
Looking back on that choice now, I see two things that made therapy appealing. The first was knowledge. I loved the idea of becoming a magus, a magician of the mind, possessor of arcane understanding and skills that would enable me to transmute (and so rise above) the common run of human misery.
The second was invulnerability. Doing therapy seemed a terrific way to get really close to people without having to risk criticism or rejection or abandonment. To make contact without making contact, so to speak.
Well, sort of.
I’ve spent decades doing this work. I still enjoy it. I’m reasonably good at it, I think. I know there are lives that I changed, even a couple I saved.
But I’m also coming to see what being a therapist has cost. There are parts of me which, constrained by my professional role, never developed as I’d have liked them to. Spontaneity. Creativity. Emotional honesty. The courage to be vulnerable, take risks, make real contact.
But that’s how it is with defenses. You strap them on, thinking they’re armor, and then one morning wake up feeling like canned tuna.
Defenses are indispensible, of course. Without them we’d go nuts, or at the very least become paralyzed by our own fears and anxieties.
But defenses can also be monkeytraps: attempts to hold on when we really should let go. And six decades of living (not to mention two of doing therapy) have taught me to see cave-dwelling as just another futile grab at the illusion of control, another attempt to escape the wet windy weather of emotional life.
So it sort of worked, and it sort of didn’t. In any case, I find myself tired of living dry and in the dark.
So now occasionally I creep out of the cave. One step at a time. With clients, for example, I let more of myself show than I used to. And with family. And with the book I just published. And with this blog.
It’s scary. I like it anyway. I’m learning to actually enjoy the weather.
It’s wet and sloppy and sometimes chilly out here, but it’s dark, dead and lonely in there.
There’s a place in your life that’s neither light nor dark, warm nor cold, where things don’t quite work but where you stay because it’s familiar.
You stay because you know this place like the back of your hand, every dark corner, every lump in the carpet, every draft.
You stay because you can find your away around it with your eyes closed. Which, in fact, is just what you do.
There’s pain here, but it’s the dull, tolerable kind. The kind you know well. The kind you’ve known forever. The kind you cling to rather than risk something worse.
There’s the signpost up ahead.
Your next stop:
The Comfort Zone.
Albert, 58, has been married three times. His first two marriages ended in acrimonious divorce. His third marriage is two years old, and his wife recently ended their couples counseling in tearful frustration. Albert continues in therapy without her. He reports their life has deteriorated into a series of hurtful arguments alternating with long silences. Last week she told him she’d leave him if she only had someplace to go. I ask how he thinks our work together is going. “Really well,” he says. “It’s very interesting. I feel like I’m learning a lot.”
Barry, 38, sits on my sofa with his wife Beth. They are new clients. I ask why they’ve come. Beth tells me Barry’s individual therapist thinks couples work is necessary. “What led you to individual therapy?” I ask Barry. He frowns. “I have issues,” he says. “You drink, you play video games, and that’s all you do,” the wife says. Barry frowns harder. “Do you have a problem with alcohol?” I ask Barry. “I have issues,” he repeats. The wall appears impenetrable. After twenty minutes I suggest Barry wait outside while I talk to Beth alone. He brightens, stands and walks quickly to the door. Then he turns back to his wife. “Can I borrow your iPad?” he asks.
Carly, 43 and a social worker, is more depressed this week than last. Last week she was more depressed than the week before. This slide began last year, with her transfer out of the counseling job she loved into an administrative job she hates, under a supervisor she considers an idiot. Now she visits her doctor monthly to request tweaks of her medication. Asked what’s depressing her, she shrugs: “No idea.” I tell her that I think what she needs is work — real, meaningful work she enjoys, that brings out the best in her and makes her feel valuable. I suggest she network, go on interviews, or consider private practice. I also suggest she pursue the hobbies — cooking, dancing, yoga — she once used to feed and express herself. She shakes her head. “I’m too tired for any of that now,” she sighs. “I need to save my energy for the stupid job.”
Debbie, 23, is crying. “You don’t love me,” she tells her boyfriend David, who’s sitting beside her on my sofa looking miserable. After three months of Debbie complaining of his silence and begging him to be more open with her, David has finally risked telling her about something he dislikes in their relationship. “I’m not good with words,” he said. “We never talked in my family. So when I try I get nervous. I’m scared to hurt your feelings. And the more you push me to talk, the more scared I get.” “Good for you,” I say. “David, I know how hard that was.” Debbie wipes her nose with a tissue. “So you don’t really love me,” she repeats.
Eddie, 42, is angry at his son Evan. “He’s scared of everything,” he tells me. “Scared to go to school. Scared he’ll fail Math. Scared to try out for teams. Scared to ask a girl out. What the fuck?” He shakes his head. I ask what happens when he tries to talk to Evan, who’s 15. “What do you think?” Eddie snorts. “He acts scared of me.” I ask what Evan’s fear looks like. “He sort of shrinks into himself. Gets quiet. Avoids eye contact. I can tell he just wants me to shut up and leave him alone.” “How’s that make you feel?” I ask. “Furious,” Eddie says. “I’m his father. I’m trying to help him.” “And what do you say?” I ask. “I say, I’m your father. I’m trying to help you. What the fuck?‘”
* * *
We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us.
~ Rabindrath Tagore
I’ve heard someone say that our problems aren’t the problem; it’s our solutions that are the problem.
~ Anne Lamott
When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
~ Abraham Maslow
Only a concerted effort to sort out the specific nature of our personal programming can offer hope of change, of new choices.
~ James Hollis