Interview with a Therapist

Who knows what a therapist might say under the influence of truth serum? Well, upcoming are unguarded words from this writer, a counselor retired, but not retiring from the challenge of interrogation. No drugs were necessary, but some background first.

I recently was named one of the 2017 Top Therapy Bloggers by Online Counseling Programs. How nice, I thought. Yet mingled with my gratitude came a second nagging question: why not the one and only Top Blogger of 2017? And then, why just 2017? Why not the top therapy writer of the decade? Or top blogger in the universe? Ah, well, I’ll have to make do. Life is tough.

Oh yes, the interview. The kind folks at Online Counseling Programs asked me nine questions. If you’d like an overview of my perspective on sexual attraction to patients, the training of psychologists, the challenge of maintaining boundaries, how the therapist (not the client) is changed by therapy, and the specifics of my career, you’ll find a good deal in my interview responses.

Another therapist would give different answers, although those currently in practice are careful not to share much about themselves. My retirement gives me the freedom to say a few things active counselors are wise not to touch. Please don’t assume they’d respond in the same way even if they were retired. What I offer is my perspective only, not unassailable truth.

Here are the questions:

  1. When and why did you originally create your psychotherapy blog?
  2. What do you hope to achieve by maintaining it?
  3. We highlighted your recent post, “The Arc of a Therapist’s Emotional Life,” because you offer such insightful musings on the therapist’s emotional life as it informs and is shaped by his professional work. One of the points you make is the difference in sympathizing versus empathizing with clients’ emotional states. How would you recommend that mental health professionals in training maintain emotional boundaries with their clients?
  4. Can you walk us through what motivated you to become a psychotherapist, as well as the educational journey you took to get there?
  5. How have you seen your blog and profession evolve over the years?
  6. During your nearly three decades as a practicing psychotherapist, what would you say were your most challenging and rewarding experiences, and why?
  7. What advice would you offer to aspiring psychotherapists?
  8. Music plays a major role in your blog. What has been the value and influence of music in your practice of psychotherapy?
  9. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

My answers? Click here.

The top image is a still photo of Harold Lloyd from his 1920 silent movie, High and Dizzy.

What Comes after Grieving? The Challenge of Saying “Yes” to Life

A formal, sarcastic, middle-aged woman, she was not an especially promising therapy candidate. Though very bright, one of her problems was her penchant for closing doors. She needed escape from the confined space of her life, but when possibilities arose, “no” was her usual answer. Even if no joy resided within her narrow neighborhood of known places, the dismissed opportunities existed outside her psychological comfort zone. Instead, she went to work, dutifully visited her adult children, saw her siblings on holidays, and spent lots of time reading and doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku, at which she was adept. Her life was safe, her job secure, her unhappiness guaranteed.

The lady thought she had all the answers, but her sadness suggested otherwise. Widowed for some time, her muted grief could be traced to guilt over failing an abusive husband, not his absent kindness. Until the grieving was completed, however, no manner of persuasion convinced her she was now free. Her fortress against hurt from others – a shelter of  fixed routine, avoided chances, and minimized risk – was self-created.

A luxury room in hell is still in a place you won’t like.

Some therapy clients feel as though the past has stained them indelibly, made them unacceptable. Or that they are tainted, marked “beyond repair” soon after birth. They believe unacceptability pervades everything they are, everything they touch. My patient was such a one.

The therapist faces many challenges here. He must, of course, win the trust of someone untrusting, accept the sarcasm and negativity, understand the part “attitude” plays in defending the individual, and realize the presence of an injured soul under the porcupine spines. A grieving process will take the time it takes, until past losses recede and guilt is shed, the stain less visible. At some point the patient must begin to reenter the world or, perhaps, enter for the first time.

A scary thing.

Life is like a book we write in indelible ink. We can’t erase the past, even though some imagine the ink is still wet and marks everything they touch with words written far back: words like bad, selfish, mean, stupid, and unattractive. Those who think this way believe the pejoratives live inside of them. They attribute superhuman powers to new acquaintances. People will, they are sure, quickly read the words through the transparency of face and body.

The book, however, has many blank pages left. The virgin parchment remains to be filled in, as pristine for you as for another. What will you write? Yes, you possess a history, but how much of it must you endlessly reread and then repeat and recopy on the unfilled paper? How much of the book’s future story must tell the same tale only with different people?

The empty spaces ahead are untainted, pure. If you keep looking back, you will keep getting the wet ink on your fingers, your forearms, your future. The new leaves will be smudged. Thus, the lady with whom I began this story anticipated an unsatisfying, injurious path, closed the gate to it, and only accomplished a reliving of her past in places offering no novel possibilities.

She needed a change of clothes, a shower, even a fresh start at work or new friends; maybe without her siblings or with a changed attitude toward them.

If you are like this patient, too quick to say “that won’t work or “I can’t do that,” well, as the wry aphorism tells us, “If you do what you’ve done, you’ll get what you’ve gotten.”

The art of therapy is, in part, the art of managing the client’s transition from shedding the past to his trying out a new version of himself: a kind of gradual debut of a person partially transformed. Some of the transformation happens in the working through of past injuries, but much develops, too, in taking on the world again. There is danger if you ignore your history, but an equal amount if you don’t venture out.

Each of us carries some version of the book of our life’s saga. For those least fortunate, the incomplete autobiography is heavy, filled with the weight of tragedy. Others own a lighter volume, but not free of disappointments, mistakes, and the harm nature or fate or other people have inflicted.

The past is a place for reluctant therapeutic visits or fond memories. In the middle of life, however, many blank pages still need filling.

The patient I mentioned eventually ventured out of those phases – those pages – already read and reread, lived and relived. She entered the world of the living again, where history is made. She noticed anew a man she’d known for a few years, someone who admired her from a distance. My client took the risk of taking him seriously, instead of treating him with her standard defense: a witty, but sarcastic distancing.

If any of us are to find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we must first leave the house in search of it. We remake ourselves, in part, by taking tentative steps, not by waiting until we are fully changed. Change is in the action. Change is never finished, always moving, forever incomplete.

Perhaps it is too much to say my client found her innocence again, but in a way she did, and the joy of a second first love. She and her admirer married.

Life does not always permit a happy ending, nor do we get to write our whole story free of fate jostling our hand as we move the stylus.

Still, the blank pages beckon.

The top photo is called, Afraid of Water, by Jaka Ostrovršnik

The Arc of a Therapist’s Emotional Life

I am not the man I was when I became a man. Nor am I the therapist I was on the first day I treated a patient. My question, then, is how did I get from letter A to whatever letter of the alphabet I’m now standing on?

More importantly:

  1. Is there a pattern to the emotional life of a therapist?
  2. Must he change himself in order to do the work?
  3. Is he changed by the work?
  4. Does he change again after the work?

In the absence of clarifying research on these questions, I’ll offer my own anecdotal observations, both of other therapists and my own journey through therapy’s emotional thicket.

I’ll begin by suggesting that counselors choose the field for one of two reasons:

  • They are touched by the torturous path of humanity and wish to ameliorate suffering.
  • They are fascinated by the human condition, the myriad forms of personality, and want to learn more.

Many of us chose our occupation for both of these reasons and, of course, to make a living.

Let us assume, then, that the future mental health professional comes to his work sensitive to the pain of others. Perhaps he is attuned to some portion of this by his own nature or experience. I was.

Although I do not pretend to be like all therapists, I was a bright youngster with questions about life. One of my earliest questions was, “Why am I me?” I wondered why my particular consciousness was not in someone else’s body! I also displayed awareness of racism before wide-spread marches, sit-ins, protests; before the 1955 national emergence of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

My parents survived the Great Depression, my mom the victim of malnutrition and tuberculosis. She was further marked by a chaotic childhood home, a stewpot for mental disorders, including an alcoholic father and a paranoid mother. Dad survived a heart attack in late 1958. He, too, lived with the indelible tattoo of the 1930s worldwide economic drama and worked multiple jobs simultaneously into his seventh decade, both to define himself and arrest those youthful financial insecurities.

Beyond the particularities of the family, I came to an early awareness of the murder of the European Jews, though I experienced only occasional and mild anti-Semitism. I believe this consciousness preceded and heightened my recognition of racism and other forms of unfairness and mistreatment. Here was a youthful lesson that bad things can happen to good people. Thus, the stories I heard as a therapist, however harrowing, did not surprise me.

This was my emotional inheritance, the legacy shared with my brothers Eddie and Jack.

More generally, all children (including tiny therapists-to-be) need to master their emotions. We cannot cry at every setback. We discover this necessity in school, if not earlier. Those men born at the leading-edge of the post World War II “baby boom,” as I was, were raised to suppress their feelings, lest they be thought unmanly. The prohibition against male hyper-sensitivity or “softness” still is alive today, if somewhat muted.

What constitutes a “sensitive” person, however, is complicated. One can be easily hurt, moved by the pain of others, or both. If he is the former, the potential counselor must immunize himself against his own vulnerability before he can help anyone else. To do otherwise sets him up to become as needy as his client within session.

Even if the therapist is not “too sensitive,” he typically begins his therapy career with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to “cure” his patients – extend himself to the point of riding their emotional roller coaster with them – and risk burning out. Moreover, the new counselor, by definition lacking a track record of success, uses the improvement of his patients as the scorecard of his self-worth. To desire your client’s well-being is much more fraught if your equanimity and self-concept are too closely tied to the trajectory of the patient’s treatment.

Good therapists finally do acquire a sense of competence and confidence. They achieve this, in part, by finding the proper “therapeutic distance” from the person sitting across from them. You become sympathetic, not empathetic. In other words, you offer sympathy (compassion) rather than empathy (feeling as if the other’s pain has jumped inside you and taken you over).

The counselor is privileged and enriched by witnessing the fragility and strength of his clients. He listens to their stories: all the pain and challenge of life’s stage played out in a small room. I am certain I became more humane, a better person, because of the good luck of serving others. They served me, too – made me more comfortable with my own emotional expression, to the point of throwing-off some of the strictures required to “be a man.”

Nonetheless, I now wonder whether the distancing I mentioned might come at a cost. Does the therapist’s role above the roiling turmoil of his client persist when he is with friends or relatives? Can he set aside the now automatic tendency to “ice” his feelings at work and thaw himself elsewhere? Is the therapist’s responsiveness to those in his personal life limited by the practiced program of his profession? I’m not sure.

Now retired, I find myself (and a few other ex-therapists) experiencing a wider emotional range than before. At one end, I accept personal losses more easily (the recent death of a wonderful friend, Joe Pribyl, for example). The other extreme finds me more distressed by the fraught state of the world. Is this because I am no longer in the business of creating therapeutic distance? Might it be due to emotional changes that come with aging? Is the ratcheting-up of worldwide intolerance the cause? Maybe those reasons and more.

What then is the arc of a therapist’s emotional life? Here is one possible four-staged outline:

  • The child’s natural high sensitivity (amplified by the particular circumstances of his nature and experience).
  • A gradual mastery, to a degree, of his emotions, at least in public.
  • The essential development of therapeutic distance from the client, without losing sympathy.
  • A possible thaw, after retirement, in this automatic distancing. That is, an increased tendency toward empathy rather than sympathy in leading a life beyond the shuttered office. Paradoxically, an enlarged ability to accept most losses: to roll with the punches of life.

In the end, regardless of our personal trajectory, we hope our clients will be happy – “reasonably happy,” as the pianist, Rudolph Serkin wished for his student, Richard Goode.

The counselor’s universe of experience – vicarious exposure to the lives of his patients, as well as his own private emotional journey – is a sometimes dissonant, raw, thick, lumpy, unprocessed necessity for his work. He manipulates it and sings the words his effort evokes, searching for melody in the discord. He churns it – and it churns him. Only by refining this material can the healer transmute pain into the remediation of pain.

Perhaps, like the dream of suffering that Schubert wrote about in 1822, “to sing of sorrow, it turn(s) into love.”

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The top two images come from the collection of Christopher B. Steiner and date from 1915/20 and the 1920s, respectively. The final photo is called Self-portrait, by W. Helwig and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Assert Yourself: A Guide to Dealing with Unfulfilled Promises

The knob fell off my hotel room door. The room had the wrong number of beds, the mattress sagged, the shower would have made an Eskimo’s teeth chatter, and the restaurant included pieces of glass and wire in the food. A nearby hospital demanded payment for an expensive test they improperly submitted to my insurance company.

OK, not all events were on the same day or in the same place, but these unpleasantries happened over a period of years at a variety of locations.

They were opportunities to become assertive and I became pretty good at taking on poor service and unfulfilled promises.

I had not always been adept, however.

I did not deal with such matters from strength as a young man, but I learned by doing. We don’t become confident waiting for the emergence of the ability to assert ourselves, we become confident by asserting ourselves. We get better gradually. That said, this particular kind of “training” isn’t fun.

In all the cases described – and more – I received compensation, usually enough to satisfy me.

I’ll share some thoughts on the potential trepidation of this type of challenge, as well as what I learned about the best way to succeed in dealing with these difficulties.

ATTITUDE (YOURS):

  • You are paying for a service. You are entitled to the service for which you are paying. The company is not doing you a favor by providing it. Indeed, you have been inconvenienced by needing to prompt the vendor to fulfill his obligation to you.
  • Think of your relationship with the provider (the merchant or hotel or restaurant) as if it were a written contract: they do something for you and you pay them for what they do.
  • You are providing the owner or CEO with valuable information: what is wrong with his business. Consultants earn high fees telling ailing companies about their mistakes. Some of the organizations to whom you complain will, indeed, be grateful for the information provided. Example: a restaurant that is over salting the food needs to know its patrons don’t like it or will soon have empty tables .
  • Self-assertion doesn’t make you a bad person. Requiring things be put right shows self-respect. You can be a good man or woman and also stand up for yourself.
  • Be direct, but civil. Don’t lose your temper, but speak unequivocally. Your tone should convey seriousness. Phrases like “I think” and “I’m pretty sure” undercut your complaint.
  • The person who you are talking to is not always the one who failed to provide adequate service. Be direct and strong in dealing with him, nonetheless. Consider saying, “I realize this is not your doing, but I am unhappy with your company’s failure to _____.”
  • If you admit error when the failure is not yours, your argument will not succeed.

BE PREPARED:

  • Read any signed contract with care. Even if the document suggests the service was not unconditionally guaranteed, websites and sales staff often convey the sense that the service will be provided, thereby implying an assurance or promise. Read the website and come prepared to quote from it, if necessary.
  • Try to manage the issue face-to-face, if possible. It is easier to be told “no” if you use email or phone.
  • Write down what you want to say. You can even read from your notes or script, though it is best to look at the representative most of the time.
  • Your written material should include the dates and times when events went wrong, the names of those with whom you spoke, whatever they said, etc. These details convey veracity (truthfulness) even if one cannot prove what happened.

MEETING WITH A CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE OR MANAGER:

  • Make and keep eye contact. My adult children call this, “the Stein Stare.” You needn’t display the controlled ferocity and x-ray vision my kids seem to imply in this “tribute” (a sort of family joke, both exaggerated and true), but people do take me seriously when I want them to.
  • Introduce yourself by name and, if possible, shake the agent’s hand firmly. You are attempting to establish a relationship, convey civility, and demonstrate the importance of the matter. Looking down most of the time will not help your case.
  • Since you may be speaking to a person with little authority, ask him to follow through on reaching a “decider” and request follow-up concerning the company’s intentions with regard to your complaint. Ask when you should expect to hear back and whether notice will come in writing or by phone.
  • If you don’t get satisfaction, request the attention of someone still-higher in the chain of command. A Vice President of Customer Satisfaction or similar individual stands on the top rung. You can find his name on the company website.
  • At some point you may need to ask for what you want. For example, a poorly cooked dish should be sent back to the kitchen and prepared to your liking or removed from the bill. A hotel problem might require you to request a room change, a reduced rate, or both. In hotels I’ve received a free day, a free meal, free parking, etc. Sometimes you will be offered a form of compensation without asking, but be prepared whether to accept the proposition or ask for more. Don’t say, “that’s OK,” unless you mean it.
  • Be persistent. Multiple contacts are often required. It took me six-months to get a hospital to submit a corrected insurance claim. I spoke with a nurse, a doctor, obtained the proper procedure code for the test that had been performed, wrote emails, and made regular telephone follow-ups with the hospital’s billing department.

A FEW OTHER CONSIDERATIONS:

  • You needn’t always make an issue of things. Pick your fights. The world is imperfect and you can drive yourself batty demanding justice at every turn. Some problems are best allowed to pass unchallenged.
  • Be aware of what your “default” tendency is when it comes to the kind of assertion described here. Some of us demand perfection as customers and enjoy fighting. Some are meek, prone to cowering in the face of anyone in authority. Others are easy-going and accept life’s occasional disappointments with a good-nature and plenty of tolerance.
  • If you are prone to fighting you might need to ask why. If you are avoidant of anything portending conflict, confrontation, or disappointment, you risk transforming yourself into the world’s doormat. Think about who you wish to be and how much emotion you are willing to spend in obtaining the service you expected or compensation for a failure or delay.
  • Most service providers hope to satisfy you, want your return business, and look forward to word-of-mouth advertising from you.
  • The vendor dislikes negative publicity. It is sometimes necessary to let the company know of your intention to tweet or blog your story to others if you aren’t satisfied.
  • If you do make such a threat, recognize this is the only “arrow” in your quiver. Once you have used it and tweeted your unhappiness to the world, your leverage with the vendor is gone. If at all possible, keep any such actions in reserve unless negotiations reach a dead-end

FINAL THOUGHTS: 

  • Consider all that I’ve said as free advice, with the usual warning: no guarantees and you get what you paid for it.
  • You will feel better about yourself if you challenge some of the personal injustices life offers and stand up to those who might take advantage of you, whether intentionally or due to incompetence or negligence.
  • What you prove to yourself is more important than proving anything to others. Knowing you can face difficult situations is worth the unpleasantness required to obtain such knowledge. You won’t always get what you want, but you will build an internal psychic muscle. Like the proverbial 99-pound weakling who enlarges his body by lifting weights, your newly found internal strength will be worth the hours spent in the gym of life.

The top image is A Snowball Fight in China by 大雄鹰. The second photo is a Giant Snowball, Oxford by Kamyar Adl. The final painting is Three Lawyers in Conference by Honoré Daumier. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Dealing with Daily Indignities

One does well not to dwell on the routine indignities of life. That said, I shall relate a minor one, freshly issued last week from the Indignity Assembly Line, Chicago Division.

It is a man vs. woman story. I play the man.

Typecasting.

I walked into the Adams Street entrance to Symphony Center in downtown Chicago at about 1:15. Lovely, sunny day, temperature about 80-degrees Fahrenheit. The concert would begin at 1:30. I wanted to go to the men’s room before the music began.

A long line slithered its way down the narrow hallway. The ladies’ room queue, of course. A few feet before its entrance was a male facility with no line. I turned left to enter the anteroom to my gender-appropriate W/C.

A short, trim woman, perhaps 70-years-old, stood in front of the door to the men’s room proper. I imagined she was waiting for her husband, though most partners do this by standing outside the anteroom, not within it. As I stepped in, she planted her feet and stretched out her arms as far as possible to block my way. An American football linebacker would have been impressed by a stance signaling her determination to stop me. Moreover, she was not wearing a helmet. In other words, no push-over.

“You can’t go in.”

“Excuse me?”

“There is a woman inside.”

“Oh.”

Not being an idiot, I gathered the reason had to do with the daisy chain of ladies a few steps away. I wasn’t in a rush, so I waited. The thought occurred to me, however, that the guardian might have directed her friend to another one of the many washroom facilities in the building. Or, if the trespassing lady were in urgent need, she (without assistance) could have gone to the door of her restroom, reported her distress to those nearby, and received the consideration my wife tells me is commonplace under such circumstances. These were among the many thoughts I had as I waited, coming and going in an instant.

A frail, white-haired man, bent forward with the weight of perhaps nine decades, walked slowly around me, his mission the same as mine. He probably didn’t recognize I was waiting to enter myself. The female guardian stopped him with a somewhat less aggressive stance than she took with me. I imagined the woman figured she could impede his forward progress with less effort, kicking him to the ground if necessary, or blowing him down like a big, bad, she-wolf.

He was given the same directive. He, too, would have to wait. Or else.

The assumption, of course, was that we were not in immediate need. Maybe the doorkeeper heard no grinding teeth, saw no crossing of legs, perceived no agonized distress in either of us, overheard no barking bladders. Neither did she ask.

Only a chunk more time passed before the men’s room opened to release its cheery occupant. She appeared unconscious of our presence. She began chatting with her buddy as if nothing remarkable had happened; as if she makes a habit of visiting whatever w/c suits her. The newly “relieved” woman did not look ashamed. Just unconscious or entitled or needy of immediate conversation with the she-wolf, to whom she began speaking.

Neither one of them thanked us. You are not thanked if you are invisible.

No other men entered and I quickly joked with the older owner of a Y chromosome that we had just witnessed the fall of the last bastion of male supremacy. He responded that it could be worse. We laughed. Both of us had experienced worse, for sure. I love an entertaining story and here was my daily allotment. More than adequate compensation for the short wait.

Matinee concerts have their own demographic. The audience tends to be old – really old – not within a discus throw of working age. Women outnumber men by a huge margin. Several reasons: many of the women are widowed, some of the more able-bodied men are still working, and other men are either watching sports on TV or yelling at kids to get off their grass. In other words, doing man stuff.

Indoor plumbing stations are of particular importance to us humans, a unique part of our mental space.

Earlier in life, when we were engaged in toilet-training, they’d been a battleground and a place where “accidents” lead to ultimate triumph. Once we are old enough to gauge storage-tank-capacity, we don’t think about them much. A little later, most of the time spent inside has to do with working on our appearance; chisel, sandpaper, and spray paint in hand.

Somewhere around middle age, physical changes cause men to notice the locations of the facilities more, think about ingesting less caffeine (because it is a bladder irritant), and the mental space I mentioned gets larger. We can no longer take for granted that will-power will prevent us from “peeing ourselves.” When the bell rings signaling the symphony players have five minutes before they must be on stage, the stream of male musicians waiting to take care of their nether regions can resemble a conga line.

As the older man in the men’s room said, “It could be worse.” It has been worse, much worse. It will yet be worse and also better, depending on the moment. Such is life.

Someone will cut you off in traffic, jump ahead of you in queue at a store, clobber you with their backpack, perhaps not even knowing anything happened.

Bigger personal indignities exist. You will, for example, get older and become less physically attractive. Your body will demand more maintenance, more stretching, gallons of sunscreen. As my primary care physician told me years ago, when I asked why my left knee meniscus tore, “things wear out.”

Or, you could be like the teen-aged version of my mom, who lived with her parents and three siblings. There were times, she told me, when five of them were awaiting the sixth to exit the smallest room in their apartment, to replace the person on the throne. The frustration built until finally, someone used the nuclear option, yelling:

“Break it off and get out!”

A younger woman with whom I’ve recently become acquainted tells me she can still do the splits, a different kind of evidence things could be worse. More power to her. On the best day of my life, I couldn’t do the splits. The only splits I ever thought about were banana splits.

I am not talking here about war and peace, revolution, obstruction of justice, climate change, flood, hurricane, corruption, tax fraud, marital infidelity, or the like. I’m not talking about financial disaster, homelessness, or malnutrition.

We don’t think much about it, but nearly all of us in the Western World have indoor plumbing. Mozart, whose music I heard at Symphony Center on the day in question, used a chamber pot.

The frail, white-haired, 90-year-old man had it right.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. You won’t get those 30-minutes of grumbling discontent back.

Have a banana split instead and drown your sorrows.

The top image is  of a Pink Bunny-Shaped Roadblock , near Narita, Japan; a 2010 photo by Hopefully Acceptable Username. The second photo is a Replica of the Capitoline She-wolf, Palazzo Senatorio, Rome. It is the work of Jebulon. Finally, a 1942/43 called Men’s Room Marines won’t Win This War  It came from the Office of Emergency Management. War Production Board. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Curse of Being Average and How to Flourish Anyway

FIRST, THE BAD NEWS: you are not permitted to be average. There is a rule. Surely you know this, even if the requirement is not written. It just “is.”

We think of the rule as a “curse,” one of life’s biggest problems, even if not much discussed. We therefore try to disguise our “averageness,” overcome it, hide it under a sofa.

When it doesn’t fit we get cosmetic surgery, tutoring, and take courses to improve our college entrance exam scores. Or lift weights, get tattoos, use makeup, wear fine clothing, comb-over a receding hairline, and rent the right apartment in the tony neighborhood. We even cheat on tests.

Have you ever met a person who prefers mediocrity? Who shoots for a pedestrian education at a run-of-the-mill school; or wishes he’d come from lackluster parents? “My dad is more average than your dad!” is not heard on the playground. We don’t want an undistinguished job at an average salary in an unremarkable town.

Why do so many worry about this? A few reasons:

  • There are no more small ponds. That is, you can’t easily be a “big fish in a small pond,” a standout in a village. TV, the internet, and the global economy make comparisons with the best people worldwide inescapable.
  • Many others are trying to “pretend” they are not forgettable. We often compare ourselves – knowing our personal deficits all too well – to the surfaces and self-reported glory of those who aren’t always honest in portraying themselves.
  • Life isn’t fair. The Theory of General Relativity had already been invented when you were born. Doing it a second time gets you no points on your score sheet. Nor can you split the atom or invent the steam engine.
  • We tend to compare “up.” We might remind ourselves that we aren’t at the bottom of the scale, but are more inclined to make comparisons with those we believe are “better off” and more worthy.
  • Much of the First World encourages the lie “you can be anything you want with enough effort.” Tell that to the guy who can’t tie his shoes but expects to compete in professional basketball or the lady who fails high school algebra and still wants to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. The media singles out the one person who triumphed over astonishing odds as an example of what is possible, not the tens of thousands who did not. We believe the media.
  • All of us have been transformed by evolution. Our ancestors succeeded in producing offspring who survived. Being above average tended to help in finding healthy mates and outmaneuvering bad guys. We instinctively aim for the same goals.
  • There is no escaping the bell-shaped curve. Think about intelligence. Assume all people fit into the bell-shape below. As one moves to the right of the tall vertical line marked 100, you find those higher in IQ (intelligence quotient). Moving from 100 to the left, the IQ scores get lower. Fifty-percent of all people fall below the arithmetic average of 100. Yikes!

THE GOOD NEWS: Being average doesn’t consign you to life’s landfill. If you don’t believe me, read The Invoice.

You have not only the inherent worth of your humanity, but whatever contributions you can make to society, friends, and family, even if those acts are not recorded in the history books. By the way, my contributions won’t be there either.

Be the best you can be, which in some areas may be above average, in others not. Giving maximum effort is within your power, even if sometimes you will only get a mediocre result. Such is life, no matter what you are told.

Be defiant in the face not just of worldly injustice, but nature’s random assignment of physical and intellectual gifts. Rip your life from Mother Nature’s hands and remake the internal qualities still in your control.

I have watched some of those gifted in the unequal genetic lottery – people of towering intellectual firepower – sink under the weight of a self-imposed desire to be “great” in the judgment of the world. They are like the mythological Icarus, who thought he could (and should) fly close to the sun, not remembering his wings were made of wax and would melt. Icarus fell to earth.

Some journeys are just too dangerous and difficult for all but a tiny few. Some journeys are not necessary unless your make them so. You can enjoy most other trips as long as a rarely achieved destination is not one of your requirements.

Near the end of our days most of us keep our own score – or no score at all. “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” as William Bruce Cameron wrote.

If you are preoccupied by the placement of your face on the totem pole of life, the higher the better, you may be missing some things: the appreciation of experiences good and bad, what you can learn from failure and the different lessons taught by success; the value of friendship and love, the taste of food you prepared even if you followed a recipe, the wind in the trees, the smile between you and a stranger, a good novel, laughter …

You cannot make yourself grow six more inches, but you can change your character, make yourself proud of yourself because of your virtue and acts of kindness or fairness, emotional generosity or courage. We must accept some of our limitations. Socrates, still discussed over 2400 years since he died, was said to be a homely, penniless man. He was not concerned. He also married a woman who wouldn’t stop criticizing him. He wasn’t much concerned about this either. Be like Socrates but marry better.

If you stop condemning yourself for “not measuring up,” then you will have more time to enrich your humanity. The loftiness of your character is in your power. If you become an honorable person who demands basic decency of himself, not just others, you will have accomplished something beyond price or rating.

As Queen Elizabeth II said, “the upward course of a nation’s history is due in the long run to the soundness of heart of its average men and women.”

The top image is called Daruma by Soen Kogaku. It is sourced from Wikiart.org/ The Bell-Shaped Curve comes from IQ Test Labs.

A Therapist Attends a Party. Does He Analyze Everyone He Meets?

Yes.

Not satisfied with my answer? Alright, I’ll say a bit more …

First, can you imagine a counselor going to a party? OK, I know it’s a stretch, but we do have lives.

Some of us, I’d say the best functioning souls in our profession, lead lives and need lives outside of the job. Still, if we are well-integrated, we’ve been changed by the work we do, by our experience and training, and we don’t (entirely) turn off our penetrating, “x-ray eyes and brains” when we meet someone new.

What do we notice? First, the usual things: how you look, dress, the sound of your voice, jewelry or its absence, any significant aromas (including too much aftershave or perfume), the “intelligence” in your face, height, weight, and – yes — sex appeal, at least if the diagnostician still lives by the pace of a beating heart. Crucially, too, your emotional state.

But there is a difference. We’ve seen, perhaps, thousands of patients and draw hypotheses about new acquaintances. We are the kind of people who – by nature – are more than usually fascinated by the process of understanding our fellow creatures.

Thus, to some degree, you (the creature) are slotted and categorized, pigeon-holed and measured against the silhouettes of innumerable people we’ve come to know in-depth. Nothing certain, but a formulation of ideas and character type that will, automatically, even without trying, be revised and refined if we get to know you better. Kind of like orchestra musicians who say – and I believe them – their experience allows them to size up a new conductor within minutes of the beginning of a first rehearsal.

Staying with music for a second, imagine a professional musician attending a concert. Would all his musical culture – his trained ears – vanish because he sits in the audience? Of course not.

The effortless, incomplete analysis of our party-goer is spontaneous because of who we’ve become. Ours is not the studious effort we make in the consulting room and we aren’t so rude as to ask the “personal,” penetrating, and imperative questions out-of-place at a party. Tentative assumptions just happen.

Another difference from a professional setting: we are now free to dislike the new person. We are not required to work hard to see the best in him. One can react to political differences, take issue with ideas, even walk away, as you cannot in your own office. Thus, there is a combination of automatic “evaluation” of the acquaintance as a function of the information we absorb and the reflexive processing we perform without intention, as well as freedom to act on all the human responses common to non-therapists and counselors alike.

Whatever “analysis” occurs is not methodical and therefore not as “expert” or expertly done as the “on-the-job” version. The impromptu assessment takes the form of informed opinion, not rigorous and thought-through. We are also dealing with first impressions, another reason for imperfect judgment.

Mental health professionals often get predictable responses in non-professional settings once a person finds out how we make a living:

“Ohhhh – I’d better be careful what I say to you,”

or

“Ahhh – does that mean you are analyzing me?”

One learns to take it in stride.

If you were at the imaginary social event, however, we might or might not meet your expectations. No boundaries exist when the doc is on the street or at the party; at least not doctor/patient relationship boundaries. You might be surprised to discover, too, how energetic or withdrawn the counselor is, outgoing or quiet. Remember, your therapist commands his domain, the little space called “his office,” but isn’t conferred the role of master of ceremonies anywhere else. Nor is he laser-focused on anyone he is talking to unless he wants to be. Again, unlike the consulting room, his attention can go anywhere he wants it to or it wants to. Under these circumstances, you might find him less “sensitive” than you expect. Remember, he is “off-the-clock.”

He could be “the most interesting man in the world” or more common than you expect.

The counselor is permitted to be bored. He is allowed to become a bit “under the influence” of the local brew. He might even bore you, too.

Bored, he won’t be at his best in forming an impression of you. Intoxicated, he will be useless in that and other departments.

Could be he is just another guy, in this case, one too full of suds and his own bad jokes.

I’m reminded of the old Woody Allen story about how his first marriage collapsed. The problem was that he put his “wife underneath a pedestal.”

Some therapists, in some situations, belong there too.

The top plate is called Ubu, a 1974 work of Enrico Baj. The second image is Laughting, an 1898 painting by Filipp Malyavin. Both are sourced from Wikiart.org.