Monthly Archives: March 2016
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
The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.
~ Albert Einstein
Last week I had three separate sessions with three members of the same extended family. Two were cousins; the third was one cousin’s spouse.
Each session felt just like the other two.
I could barely get a word in edgewise in any of them.
All three clients were anxious and talked fast, as if expecting to get cut off.
All three had trouble focusing on questions — instead they pinballed from topic to topic to topic.
And all three seemed determined to get me to see things as they see them, and annoyed when I did not.
All of which reminded me of pinkeye.
You know, conjunctivitis. That eye disease you catch from towels.
I found myself thinking how — like pinkeye — habits and symptoms are contagious in families. How hard it is not to end up thinking and feeling and reacting like each other.
Particularly where control is concerned.
Think about it. Think how hard it is to not feel pulled into copying your family members when they
~ withhold or disguise what they’re feeling,
~ act out feelings instead of using words,
~ obsess or catastrophize about problems,
~ criticize or pass judgment,
~ blame others,
~ worry about how others see them or the family, or
~ focus on externals (people, places, things) instead of their own perceptions and prejudices.
All are controlling behaviors we can catch from each other. As are symptoms like anxiety, depression, addiction, anger, impatience and abuse.
We’re mostly unconscious of this, though. We tend to miss even obvious connections between our emotional habits and the family relationships that shaped us.
Because like conjunctivitis, family dynamics distort our vision.
It can be impossible to see clearly through pink eyes.
2. I am afraid that if I ask for help I will be rejected.
3. I decide to offer help to others, in hopes it will be reciprocated.
4. Others see me as a helpful person instead of one who needs help.
5. I come to see myself in the same way.
6. So I never ask for help, and nobody ever offers it.
7. I resent the people I am helping.
2. I have been taught to see help-seeking as a sign of weakness.
3. This view makes me too embarrassed to seek help.
4. I decide not to risk embarrassment.
5. I have problems I cannot solve.
2. People around me have been unhelpful in the past.
3. This makes me expect to be disappointed if I seek help again.
4. I decide not to risk disappointment.
5. I have problems I cannot solve.
2. My discomfort makes me hope for a solution to this problem.
3. Unfortunately the problem is unsolvable.
4. Unfortunately I cannot distinguish realistic hope from false hope.
5. My hope blinds me to the problem’s unsolvability.
6. I continue to hope.
7. I remain uncomfortable.
In the absence of being able to explain something — especially something painful– we feel confused and helpless. Anxious. Out of control.
It’s like without an explanation we can’t absorb, or process, or digest this particular fact or experience.
Like there’s a hole we need to fill, but cannot.
It’s uncomfortable, this hole.
So uncomfortable we may seek any explanation with which to fill it.
And in our effort to escape the discomfort we often choose explanations that hurt us.
Like the abused child, unable to understand why he or she is being beaten, who fills the explanatory void with “I must deserve it.”
Or the loved one of a suicide victim, unable to explain the suicide, who fills the void with “I should have done something to stop it.”
Or the gay person, rejected by a homophobic parent, who decides “My gayness makes me unloveable.”
Such explanations are not just inaccurate or unrealistic or unfair.
They create a burden some of us carry our whole lives.
They distort our perception of ourselves, other people, of relationships in general.
They distort our perception of life in general, too.
“Life,” said Joseph Campbell, “is this wonderful, wonderful opera. It just hurts.”
Beware of your need to — forgive my vulgarity — explain shit.
Because sometimes shit just happens.
And sometimes life just feels shitty.
And it’s beyond our control.
And it’s nobody’s fault.
And yet for many parents it does:
You can’t be a healthier parent than you are a person.
~ anxious people are anxious parents,
~ depressed people are depressed parents,
~ alcoholic people are alcoholic parents,
~ angry people are angry parents,
~ ignorant people are ignorant parents,
~ narcissistic people are narcissistic parents,
~ dishonest people are dishonest parents,
and so on.
Not so much.
Because many of us kid ourselves.
We imagine that — because we love our children so fiercely, or value our families, or know how devastating bad parenting can be, or work harder at parenting than anything else in our lives — we can somehow park our pathology at the front door.
That by sheer awareness or determination we can excise our pathology from these most vulnerable relationships, stop it from tainting our parenting and trickling down into our children’s lives.
It would be pretty to think so.
But it’s not so.
What is so? This:
(a) all parents are human;
(b) to be human is to be pathological — inadequate, frightened, angry, conflicted, confused, neurotic, blind;
(c) which means there are only two kinds of parents: those who own their pathology, and those who deny it.
1. I experience chronic, debilitating shame — the belief that there is something deeply and permanently wrong with me.
2. My shame makes me afraid that other people will judge, reject or abandon me.
3. My fear makes me hide both my shame and my true self from others.
4. Unaware of my shame, others have no opportunity to challenge it or to reassure me that it is unwarranted.
5. I experience chronic, debilitating shame.
1. I have done something I know will make you angry.
2. I fear your anger, so I keep what I have done a secret.
3. Keeping secrets makes me feel dishonest and guilty.
4. Over time I forget the real reason for the secret — that I’m scared — and go around feeling guilty instead.
A psychological boundary is an imaginary line that separates you and your stuff — thoughts, feelings, needs, preferences, problems, responsibilities — from other people and their stuff.
Boundaries are essential to peace of mind and good mental hygiene.
That’s because, without boundaries, you can’t tell where your stuff ends and the other guy’s begins.
Which makes you entirely too vulnerable to live among other people. Sort of like a nudist living among cacti.
Most people understand this, if only on the intuitive level.
What they don’t understand is how to set boundaries.
So here’s a quick guide:
1. Boundary-setting starts in your head.
2. It does not signify lack of love or compassion, that you’ve stopped caring for or about people.
3. It does signify a decision to take better care of yourself, to treat yourself with the same love and respect you show others.
4. It also requires facing your fear that, if you show who you really are, the people in your life will judge or reject you.
5. Boundary-setting starts with reclassifying stimuli — taking triggers from the MUST FIX THIS box and moving them to boxes labeled BEYOND MY CONTROL or NOT MY BUSINESS. This redraws your personal boundary as a smaller circle that contains less for you to struggle with.
6. One way to do this is by using the three questions I write about in chapter 65 of Monkeytraps:
~ What am I trying to control here?
~ Have I had any luck controlling this in the past?
~ If not, what can I do instead? (Surrender? Practice responsibility? Risk intimacy?)
7. The next step is to practice redefining your boundaries out in the world. Usually this begins with saying No to something you’ve said Yes to previously.
8. Boundary-setting takes courage. (Reread #4 above.) This is especially true if you’ve trained the people around you to see your boundaries as blurred or nonexistent. They’ll be used to your trying to help, rescue or fix them, and may feel hurt or bewildered if you stop. So it’s a good idea to explain beforehand what you’re trying to do and why you’re trying to do it.
9. Boundary-setting requires support. Try to find at least one person who understand what you’re doing and able to provide permission and encouragement.
10. You may find that some important people in your life — like family members — refuse to acknowledge or respect your new boundaries. This is not uncommon. The most common reason for it is that they themselves lack healthy boundaries, and so are unable to tolerate yours. If it happens, you may feel hurt and surprised. You may even feel discouraged about setting boundaries in general. Don’t lose heart. Set new boundaries where you can, with the people healthy enough to let you do it. Each new boundary you set is like making a deposit in your emotional bank account. Over time the deposits accrue, and you find yourself feeling stronger and more confident with everyone.