~~~cave framed

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. 

Guess what? 

It worked.

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.

14 responses to “Cave

  • Lisa

    Best one yet Steve! This one gets added to my office bulletin board! You have such a great way of putting into words what I’ve always suspected, but needed someone to validate. Thanks for being a flashlight in my cave!

  • John

    Great post today, I am a grateful alcoholic and I thank Steve and Bert who have changed my life. Thanks to both of you for being you.

  • Mike

    Brought a tear to my eye. … is it possible to cry while your H is up your A?

  • Ali

    Touched my heart Steve.
    Along with your Explaining Shit post, this one is powerful to me.
    I relate to all of what you said.
    Sad that I’ve done that too….the in dwelling.
    Angry that I took so long to realise.
    Glad that I too am venturing out more and more, thanks to your encouragement.
    Scared as I venture out and feel my vulnerability. And hope, that I don’t go back inside.

  • Amanda

    Thank you.
    Tearing up.
    Powerful. Inspirational.
    Helped me today.
    Thanks for coming out of your shell, and reaching out to another emerging turtle.

  • Kathleen

    Most therapists and self help authors preach from a place of perfection. More like an image of perfection. Their theories seem academic and unattainable. Certainly not road tested.

    Your blog and book read more like field notes from the jungle. Down to earth. Experiential not theoretical. Thank you for having the honesty and courage to share your struggles with the rest of us monkeys.

    Inspiring and encouraging to see that even after six decades of living and two decades of therapy, growth and change are still possible. Scary and uncomfortable at times, but worth the struggle.

    Thanks for giving hope to the rest of us monkeys. I hope that one day we can all let go of our bananas, creep out of our caves and climb to the tree tops.

  • Donna

    I’m a woman, and I have a cave, too. I don’t manage my stress in the manner that you describe most women handling it. But I am an introvert. Perhaps that has more to do with it than gender? I am aware of my cave, and do peek my head out often, but never in managing my stress.

  • Steve Hauptman

    Yes, sorry if I overgeneralized. I meant only to suggest that most women are a bit less retarded in this area than most men. But I know plenty of cavedwelling women, and they’re not necessarily the silent ones. Many of them talk all the time — out loud, on the phone or online. They just have trouble talking about anything real. And that usually has less to do with gender or introversion than the amount of interpersonal safety they’ve experienced in their lives.

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