What’s Stopping You from Going to Therapy?

One could almost say people require therapy in order to decide to go to therapy. Many needful of the help don’t make it. What is the way there and why do some go and others stay away?

Here are a few of the obstacles:

  1. Sensitive souls want to be seen, but are terrified of being seen. History tells them disclosure is dangerous.
  2. Psychological defenses were created before the counseling profession existed. Our ancestors needed emotional armor to survive. Those who were defenseless in the face of crushing reversals of fortune (poverty, disease, loss of loved ones) were less likely to endure. We are therefore the descendants of creatures equipped with instinctive fortifications. Many are still useful under the right conditions. Hesitation before a psychotherapeutic project designed by Freud to dismantle you should not be a surprise. A good therapist, however, will be aware of the dangers of tearing these down before providing a better alternative.
  3. Those emotional barriers include over reliance on the following: avoidance, denial, rationalization, distraction, emotional constriction, dissociation, fantasizing, compartmentalization, intellectualization/over-thinking, alcohol, food, drugs, and sex. Once ingrained, the defense tends to choose us more than be chosen by us. Reflection on one’s default tendencies is uncommon. Were we to inventory the mental habits and behaviors working for and against us, psychotherapy might appeal more. Successful defenses established in your formative years are not always the best ones to use as an adult, when your life situation is different.
  4. Many who don’t avail themselves of psychotherapy’s benefits are lost, like “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” (Oscar Wilde). They believe their vision of the world is complete. A need for treatment goes unrecognized. Their sense of relative emotional health is part of their problem.
  5. Most people think they understand themselves. Few therapy virgins, however, try to systematically look for repetitive patterns of behavior in their past. George Santayana famously said,”Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Others remind us that history rarely repeats itself literally, but often rhymes.
  6. Depending on ethnic, religious, economic, or national origins, treatment faces social prohibitions. For example, fundamentalist religions sometimes point to significant depression as evidence of a failure of the suffer’s faith. Reliance on God and a reorientation of one’s relationship to God is believed to be the solution. Psychotherapy is judged a misunderstanding of what the believer identifies as the problem.
  7. The most troubled doubt counseling will help.
  8. A preference for a passive, rapid solution: medication. The individual ignores (or may not know) that some disorders are better treated by talking than a trip to the pharmacy.

Nine more:

  1. Social and economic obstacles to therapy include the stigma of being “weak” or “crazy,” fear that self-disclosure will lead to betrayal (including the sharing of sensitive medical information with their employer), the expense of treatment, guilt at the idea of talking negatively about one’s parents, and the time in session and traveling to sessions. “Real men” comment that one should be able to solve problems without the emotional crutch of expert help. Your mom might even agree. If you fear what she thinks about your decision, you need the fix more than you need her judgement.
  2. More than a few of us persist in trying to change others. Rather than look inside, we try to alter the peopled world. While in vigorous and hopeful pursuit of this goal, the turn inward is hard to come by. Some will never realize the material for change is at hand within themselves, the only being they control. You might recall the mythic figure of Sisyphus, whose punishment for eternity was to roll a ball up an incline, watching the inevitable and dismaying roll back down each time. Those who take on the comparable job of changing another adult will first need a long period of frustration before they recognize they must begin to work on themselves. Here, then, is a hint to the kind of painful experience required to get us into the counselor’s office.
  3. Many people cannot imagine a new way of living — something substantially different from their normal existence. They lack not only the will to transcend themselves, but the imagination of what transcendence might look like. Such people are similar to the residents of Plato’s imaginary cave, who believe their shadowy cavern is the entire world.
  4. Counseling takes many forms. The potential client often has no idea how to choose from the array of options and helping professionals. This difficulty is exacerbated if the treatment candidate lacks even minimal understanding of his own psychology and well-targeted therapeutic goals.
  5. Horror stories of therapy-gone-wrong abound.
  6. The internet allows a virtual life for those who would otherwise live in seclusion. While it can serve as a stepping stone to richer human contact, the brightly lit screen may instead just prevent them from reaching for more satisfaction in the face-to-face world.
  7. Simple alternatives to therapy are appealing: move to California, get a different job, dump your mate, have an affair to remedy a mid-life crisis, etc.
  8. Self-help books can prove a waste of time or a method of avoidance.
  9. The slave in the magic mirror used by the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is unwelcome when she says Snow White is fairer than the Queen. Such a mirror also tells us when bad luck and betrayal are no longer sufficient to explain our unhappiness. Until you are willing to accept the glass’s truth and take responsibility for your life, psychotherapy will not be in your immediate future.

With all these obstacles and more, what gets a person beyond the contemplation of treatment to a voluntarily meeting with a counselor? This list of factors is shorter than the previous one:

  • Advice from a trusted friend, relative, cleric, physician, or former patient.
  • Research to discover what therapy entails.
  • Pain is almost always the key. If every other alternative has been tried and the suffering remains great enough, even the hesitant will sometimes take the leap.

Two jokes apply to the question of change through psychotherapy. The first is the better known:

How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

One, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.

The second emphasizes the hesitation of an introvert who is offered group therapy:

How many introverts does it take to change a light bulb?

Why does it have to be a group activity?*

———————–

*Thanks to Life in a Bind for the introvert joke. The top image is a screen capture from the public domain film Carnival of Souls. The second is called Modern Stress by outcast104. Finally, a picture depicting the Shyness of Tamil ANGEL by Sureshbmani. All three are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Much Intensity? How Much Danger is Wise?

Are we too preoccupied with safety? I’m not a man perched on the razor’s edge, but sometimes I wonder about the question.

Truth is, Britain’s playgrounds are being made less safe – intentionally. The aim is to promote resilience in children. They hope to overcome the oversight of “helicopter parents” and grow some hardiness in the little ones.

After all, if we want them to become farmers or auto mechanics, they need contact with dirt; if surgeons, there will be blood.

I understand the educators’ concern about an antiseptic upbringing. The suburban life of children where I live is doubtless more protected than the one I found within Chicago long ago.

Concrete-paved alleys and empty lots were my playground, not nicely mowed and supervised school yards. Broken glass might be present from garage windows exploding upon impact with a hard-hit ball. The flat-roofed garages voiced a siren song enchantment, leading us to shinny up their drain pipes for balls lofted on top by accident. Telephone polls were part of the narrow field of play, stones pleaded to be thrown, and an occasional garage abutment was an immovable obstacle. One such clobbered me as I tried to escape being tagged in a game of touch football. Much earlier I’d lost part of a front tooth when I tripped and kissed the ground mouth-first. Might have been my first kiss, but not my best one.

Risk is unavoidable short of a straight-jacketed life. Homes and virtual friends are more sanitized than the peopled world of sex and struggle. One finds a dispenser of hand cleanser everywhere one travels, it seems. We watch our heroes, real or imaginary, taking chances on screens and in stadiums. Us? Not so much.

The ones Nietzsche characterized as the future Übermenschen (supermen) would be the bold ones, the strivers and tightrope walkers. They would stretch themselves in a search for fulfillment of all they could be. Danger was an invitation to living, transcendence of self, (and suffering, yes). Play requires this. The fenced in “herd” might be safer, with fewer challenges, but no life survived their enclosure – no dreams and little joy – only obligation, restriction, and cringing. Too much self-consciousness, for sure.

Some of us find safety in well-worn ideas, the ideas shared by our peers. Learning too can be dangerous; thinking for yourself, as well. So we cling to religious orthodoxy or the received wisdom of the tribe. For myself, I’ve grown tired of hearing the same thoughts over again, unless they offer some poetry of expression. I’d rather be stretched to see if I can think in a new way about new matters. Or reject the ideas because they are only “different,” not “better.”

I try to be an honest man for lots of reasons, aware of this cost: “The life of the honest man must be an apostasy and a perpetual desertion.” So said Charles Péguy, who thereby warned us that our honesty would often be displeasing. Frankness is dangerous enough for me most of the time.

For many, making a phone call is a challenge, raising your hand is a risk, asking for something a set-up for disappointment. Therapy, too, represents “the undiscovered country.” Perhaps you don’t want to visit. Where is danger absent? True, the wax wings Icarus wore melted when he got close to the sun, but he did have quite a ride. I guess security can found in a suit of armor, unless the metal gets rusty. Doesn’t all of our psychic armor get rusty?

The perpetual dawn we want is asking the impossible, but searching for it beats a lifetime in a cave. A part of us wants to breathe the air of another place, another planet.

What to do? First know yourself. How much intensity can you take? If you suffer from anxiety, distress will not disappear except by stretching of the rubber band of your soul; albeit little by little.

Some live for the dance, lose themselves in the music of life, and allow tomorrow to come when it comes. Yes, grief is a possibility, but, as Nick Romano (John Derek) says in the movie Knock On Any Door, you then “live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.” Sounds reckless, but we do need something to enliven us, avoid the slow-death of routine and saying a perpetual “no” to opportunity and adventure. In my estimation, many of us, much of the time, live in an emotional safe zone than permits personal and societal growth. Still, don’t be Nick Romano. Perhaps a recommendation from the stoic philosopher Seneca will appeal more than Nick’s words:

It is truly said … by Curius Dentatus, that he would rather be a dead man than a live one dead; it is the worst of evils to depart from the world of the living before you die.

Intensity can be too much. It doesn’t take long to ruin your life (or your sleep) and good judgement is a precious quality not found at the store. But don’t assume maturity always means being careful. There is wisdom, too, in finding out what you are missing before you miss it.

Can You Be Too Good? Therapy as Self-Creation

“Being good” is a much misunderstood thing. The question for today is whether goodness requires the acceptance of a place near the end of any line worth standing in … and perhaps too much reflexive obedience to authority.

Leaders often equate morality with rule following: accepting the limitations offered by those who “know better.” Such guidance comes couched in terms of superior external direction designed “for your own good.”

Beware.

The words “for your own good” have been delivered both as loving concern and an excuse to keep powerless others, especially children, in their place. Then the recipe for “goodness” creates and reinforces insecurity, hesitation, and self-doubt. Praise is cold comfort for those broken under the weight of their obligation to comply.

The counseling profession would be much smaller but for the many survivors of parental indifference, neglect, or mistreatment. The cadre of crushed lives is on high alert for signs of disapproval. Soldiers in this “battalion of the lost” ask for little. Their hopes reside in the belief their superiors will properly weigh their talents and give them what they’ve earned. They stand at attention and wait. Perhaps some think raising a hand is unnecessary in order to achieve quietly coveted recognition. Others are afraid their uplifted arm will be deemed insubordinate.

The multitudes indeed sometimes receive the desired reward. Fairness is served. But random events can disrupt their plan, as can attention paid to the more assertive. Do the meek rely too much on Jesus’s confident assertion, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”? Even though his promise was a heavenly reward, one must ask how much deference and disappointment is required in this life.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the often misunderstood 19th century German philosopher, warned that conventional morality was an inducement to timidity. He recognized it as a method of control in the hands of both church and state, a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. Nietszche believed such a morality stifled creative powers in the best of men. Instead, obedience, guilt, and servility were encouraged. Other byproducts might include loss of ambition, confidence, and pride. The “herd” humans (Nietzsche’s term) would thus hesitate to assert themselves, be vulnerable to judgement from outside and inside, and abandon their dreams and desires as too self-centered; if they even recognized they had any.

Simone de Beavoir, author of The Second Sex, put the need for self-realization this way:

Every individual concerned with justifying his existence experiences his existence as an infinite need to transcend himself. This means that in focusing on the individual’s possibilities, we will define these possibilities not in terms of happiness but in terms of freedom.

We are left to ask how much docility is necessary within a competitive society? How much vulnerability to shame is too much? How much deference to your fellow-man is required to be good? Must you routinely ask permission when no one blocks you from opportunities? Must we always give reasons for what we do? Who says the world expects them? Apology is a virtuous and necessary step toward righting wrong, but what of those occasions when no one is injured and you automatically beg forgiveness anyway?

“Wanting,” and “taking” are qualities in need of some limits, lest our lives become a free-for-all. Nietzsche would admonish you, however, not to “throw out the baby” of a fully realized life “with the bath water” of a march-step set to an alien rhythm, ignoring the drummer inside you. The human race survived because it wanted many things, including mates and the ability to defend itself. And, the philosopher would argue, to manifest a “will to power” in the most talented among us.

Thus, the question is transformed from “How much acceptance, obedience, and subordination are required?” to “What will I make of myself?”

Will you grasp the world in your hands, not hope it will come to you ready made? Therapy, within such a model, is not only injury repair, but an invitation to self-creation.

Society clearly requires rules, enforcement of the law, and punishment of those who flaunt it. How then are we to reconcile our moral and civil responsibility to “be good” with our urge to fulfill ambition and desire? Surely virtue does not demand insecurity, and a damning up of that which strains for accomplishment, recognition, and joy.

Perhaps ancient ethical guidance offers us something after all. Rabbi Hillel, the Babylonian Jewish religious leader of the pre-Christian era (a teacher who would have been admired by Jesus) is famous for two lines of thought. The first, according to Wikipedia, is authorship of The Golden Rule:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.

But Hillel also said something else:

If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?

No good person wants to cause suffering. Should he not be encouraged to avoid the unhappiness of a self-diminished, inauthentic life?

Can you walk the tightrope connecting Hillel’s ideas? To find yourself and reach your potential while fulfilling The Golden Rule?

To be an advocate for yourself, secure in your right to do so, and at the same honor and defend the rights of others — your responsibility to the community of man?

To avoid choosing self-martyrdom and passivity, passed over and passed by in the hurly-burly of each day?

To seek joy as a decent, responsive, concerned citizen of the world?

Life challenges us to do no less.

The Angel Emoji was created as part of the Noto Project and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Good and Evil Angels is the work of William Blake, sourced from Wikiarts.org

Why Therapists (and Others) Don’t Always Understand

How often we hear someone say, “I understand.” How often we think, “I only wish it were so.” Beyond the imprecision of language, I want to consider 10 reasons why true comprehension – recognizing the other person as he is and in depth – is difficult.

  • The fog of appearances: We instantly react to the individual in front of us, even before he makes a sound. Beauty (including a lovely voice) or its absence rose with the dawn of man. Sometimes revealing, sometimes obscuring; sometimes enhancing, sometimes diminishing. Sometimes all of the above.
  • Stereotypes: Beyond what we take from the person’s facial symmetry, shape, and size, other factors can cloud deeper comprehension. Gender, age, race, religion, and nationality interfere with vision beneath the surface.
  • Secrets and history: Polite conversation sets boundaries around self-revelation. Many of us believe we have been misunderstood – judged to the point of harm – and hesitate to reveal much. Even in therapy this is an issue, though with time and growing trust, significant secrets are often divulged. Without exposure, the job of comprehending you is far harder.
  • Our limited access to important data: Think about what information you might need to understand someone else. No one can access to all three sources below:
  1. The individual is the only person who perceives his life from the inside. He does not, however, see himself from the outside and will be shocked the first time he hears a recording of his voice. His grasp of his own motivations cannot be assumed accurate and may not reflect the work of the unconscious. Similarly, he interprets his life without the benefit of external perspective; except whatever is received, understood, and accepted of the other’s body language, tone of voice, praise or criticism. Most of us would be unsettled to know what others say about us in private.
  2. Friends and acquaintances hear what the same individual says about himself, what he reports of life apart from the observer, as well as experiencing his behavior in real time. Even his intimates must contend with the fact that “a mask of him roams in his place through the hearts and heads of his friends.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).
  3. Finally, the therapist has the most limited exposure to the client in real life. Ideally, however, the patient is more open to the therapist than perhaps he has even been to himself. The counselor has the training to “figure out” who is facing him, and the opportunity to ask the most essential questions with some expectation of penetrating to answers not offered in the public world. He sees not from the inside and not only from the outside, but,  from closeup, below, and through.

  • How remarkable are you? Though I evaluated and/or treated well over 3000 people, I encountered only a handful who were unique. Such individuals represent an enormous challenge to one’s understanding.
  • Countertransference: We can have reactions to our patients that grow out of our own unfinished issues with persons of consequence who they resemble in appearance or personality. This is called countertransference. Objectivity and unbiased analysis flees the evaluator under those conditions.
  • The limits of our experience. One who hopes to grasp the essence of another will not have encountered the whole of humanity. If, for example, most of his contact is with like-minded people (let’s say small town residents of one religion) he will be at a disadvantage with those whose backgrounds are different. On the other hand, therapist and non-therapist alike can meet an individual with whom he is “in sync.” In that event, both might find friendship and sympathetic intuition effortless and uncanny.
  • The listener who wants to be right. Insecure counselors can be troubled, sometimes unconsciously, by their own uncertainty. They tend to find it more comforting to put people in a box than to recognize when someone doesn’t fit. The job of evaluator (not a judge) calls for two qualities not often mentioned. First, enough confidence to say to yourself, “I don’t understand yet.” Secondly, “I can do better and I’ll work until I get this right.” Therein they offer an odd combination of humility and security. From time to time the therapist must clean the slate and start over.
  • The observer’s own emotional wounds and defenses: Our personal wounds (we all have them) place a limit on the ability to absorb, accept, and seek the truth of all humanity. Indeed, who is to say there are not many truths. The best of us never fathom all we encounter.
  • The listener’s capacity and willingness to endure the other’s pain: Hearing personal stories, even with the therapeutic distance healers work hard to achieve, still creates vulnerability to the most poignant encounters. Too many such episodes close in time risk either overwhelming the counselor or making him callous. To understand the human condition one must recognize his limits.

Final thoughts. Treatment by someone who opened-wide your self-understanding can make you believe no one on the planet will ever know you so well. I’ve long believed that if you then allow yourself to take more real-life personal risks, other satisfying and close relationships are achievable. Nonetheless, the special nature of a therapy relationship may include a hard-to-duplicate quality of perception and acceptance “as you really are.” You then will want a friend or lover who is psychologically-minded, a patient and dedicated listener, and one who makes the effort to approximate what an expert analyst can manage. This might be a tall order.

Do remember this: you and the therapist might not have much in common beyond his comprehension and kindness. Interests, compatible temperaments, and world view count for a lot. He exists, as well, in a fantasy world of your creation: literally, too good to be true. Were the light-reflecting cellophane of illusion to come off the package, you’d find his unshaven, distracted, and ill-tempered alter-ego – occasionally.

Another thought. A psychologically profound understanding of your inner workings isn’t always essential for a happy relationship outside of the office. Love and acceptance, even without full knowledge of all your moving parts, can go a long way. Not even your counselor has a total grasp of himself or anyone else. That said, his success at his work doesn’t require perfection.

Anyone close is “out of this world.”

The first image is called Rorschach-like Inkblot by Irion. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The painting that follows is Vassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI, 1913. Finally, just above, is Honore Daumier’s Couples Singers, as sourced from Wikiart.org/

How Would You Like to be Remembered?

Some people try for financial success, some for fame, others for happiness. But what about after? Thus arises a question. What might you want to be remembered for? I asked 58 of my friends. Forty-three put their words together for me. My response is also included.

Here is a selection of the answers I received. Each prefaced by a word or two from me (in bold), with a few other comments along with way. I’m going to begin with the response of the only stranger, the actor John Malkovitch. His recently published interview prompted this essay.*

  • Malkovitch: By my friends as hopefully someone who was a good friend, or at least amusing, but I don’t need to be remembered by people I don’t know.
  • A fierce protector of his family: As crafty and cunning – like a fox. Nobody messes with a fox.
  • A woman of conscience: As having been a person whose children were her highest priority, and whose husband and friends joined her children as her dearest treasures, for whom learning and growing were essential parts of her life, who tried to do the right thing in both ordinary and difficult situations, who tried to understand and be kind and compassionate, who made mistakes and tried to learn from them and make amends for them, who tried to be mindful of and was often grateful for both the obvious and the less visible blessings in her life, and who loved as well and as deeply as she could.
  • An ecumenical reply: As someone who cared deeply about people, and who tried in his own way to make the world a better place for as many people as possible. As the expression goes, “God Bless The Whole World. No Exceptions.”
  • Fathers: After my wonderful father died, my younger brother said he could feel my father’s love moving through him, as he felt so much love for his own children. I would like to be remembered for honoring my father’s legacy with the same hope, that he lingers on as we pass his name to our children and grandchildren and love all of them in the way we were loved by our father.
  • A man’s man: Honest, fair, loving, successful, a survivor.

This is not a scientific survey. It is, however, a pretty good sample of what my friends think. Who are my friends? A well-educated, mostly liberal crowd who are more than usually successful as it is defined in America. This is not a particularly diverse group. The age range begins with a few people in their 30s and many more who are seniors. Just a few more women responded than men, and this selection reflects the same proportion. I’m grateful to all who answered.

  • A quiet man of depth: As a man of integrity, respected – with few acquaintances, but for those close friends a deep and lasting friendship.
  • An answer which nobody can deny: a fun guy to be around.
  • The importance of trying: I always thought I’d like “A for Effort” on my gravestone. I guess I’d like to be remembered as warm, caring, funny, and smart. A good woman and a good (doctor) and a good wife.
  • Two strong women:
    • As a woman who questioned authority and conventional wisdom and who saw people as individuals beyond established categories.
    • As a person of integrity who was prepared to pay the price for standing up for her values and principles. (Both of these women paid the price).
  • Getting to the essentials: A nice guy. If they can’t say that about me, nothing else really matters. And, if they can say that about me, then nothing else really matters.
  • The value of joy: He enjoyed life and helped others do the same.
  • A quotation: “Changing the world is good for those who want their names in books. But being happy, that is for those who write their names in the lives of others, and hold the hearts of others as the treasure most dear.” From Orson Scott Card’s Children of the Mind (1996), the fourth book in his Ender’s Game series.
  • A gentle soul: I want to be remembered in a kind, soft, and compassionate way.
  • Beauty: I’d like to be remembered as an honest guy who did his best. A lover of music and all things beautiful.

You might wonder why the answers are short and why the response rate was high. Here is how I posed the email to which my sample responded:

I’m preparing a blog post on the question, “How would you like to be remembered?” I’d be grateful for a very quick answer. One or two sentences only. Not a word more. Your first impression. If it takes you more than three minutes, it won’t be a first impression. Your identity will be masked in both the blog post and any private conversation I have about the essay. No problem if you’d rather not reply. But, as I say, do it straight away if you’d like to do it.

  • Someone sweet: Every once in a while, I would like my family and close friends to hear a song, see a painting, smell a perfume, or remember a phrase and say to themselves: ”What a great memory. You know, she really made me feel loved.”
  • Living in the present: I don’t care whether I’m remembered.
  • A man who knows what he wants: He always insisted on finding the real problem.
  • From a wise counselor. Lawyer or therapist? You might be surprised: As one providing an ear more than a mouth.
  • A lover: I’d like to be remembered as a kind person who truly loved people and who always loved to learn – no matter the subject.
  • Let’s be frank: As a decent enough person who didn’t f **k up my kids too badly! And hopefully, I’ll have done some things to make the world a little better.

The most commonly used words were honesty, integrity, family, friends, love, and some version of the phrase “making the world a better place.” Many of those who offered such words were not included in this selection of comments in order avoid repetition. No one mentioned the word money. No one cared about their name in history books or hoped for lasting fame. If you can hear it, my friends, I am applauding you all.

  • A man with lots of awards who knows their real value: As a good person, good dad, good friend. With now a moment’s reflection, you should be able to evaluate your own professional life. The doodads you put on the wall or the desk don’t mean much.
  • The salt of the earth: Family, friend, honest, funny, Chicago, California, Texas, 2016 Cubs!
  • Someone who lives by these words, though born in 1947: As a funny, cultured pre-World War One gentleman.
  • The Hippocratic Oath from a non-physician: I’d like to be remembered as someone who cared about the well-being of others and was concerned to do no harm.
  • A survivor and more: Wonder woman-like. I’d like to be remembered for not only triumphing over traumatic adversity, but also utilizing that information to help others in some meaningful way.
  • Saving the planet: As someone who listened and tried to understand and as someone who made a very small difference to improve the lives of humans and animals. And as someone who respected nature.
  • A mom: As the creator of my family: what I brought together.
  • Last words: How would I like to be remembered? With love by those I loved.

—–

*This essay was inspired by a question Rosanna Greenstreet asked John Malkovich, as published in The Guardian on March 10, 2018. His answer is above and the full article is here: Rosanna Greenstreet/

Why We Lose Objectivity about the People We Love

Once drawn to others – in politics, love, or friendship – our ability to evaluate them realistically disappears. I’m guessing you recognize it more clearly in acquaintances than in yourself. One contributing factor is called the “halo effect.” We are susceptible to a tiny number of attractive traits positively transforming our overall opinion of a person.

You and I are not as logical as we think, especially when emotion bumps logic off the road, a regular part of its job. One might still note flaws in the other – and set them aside or rationalize them. This can produce strange contradictions. Here is a personal story as a telling example.

If I were to put the life of Leo Fabian in a few words, I’d be forced to call him a failed, irresponsible, alcoholic man. He caused lots of pain in his life, especially to his children and wife.

The contradiction? I knew all this and I loved him. He was my maternal grandfather.

Grandpa was born in Romania in 1892 and came to this country in 1912. Long before the movie, Titanic, he claimed that he traveled from Eastern Europe to England, and then proceeded to miss that very vessel. The next one, of course, didn’t hit an iceberg and his best days began soon after he read the Statue of Liberty’s welcome. My grandfather started a successful business as a house painter and owned an automobile before most others. A wife and four children later, his care-free days fell off the rails in the worldwide, decade long economic train wreck that began in 1929. Though he lived almost 35 more years, the best part of his life vanished in time.

My mother remembered the terror of bill collectors pounding their door and high school days when she had only enough money to buy a candy bar for lunch. At some point Leo couldn’t take the unhappy apartment anymore, the nagging mate and fighting offspring. He left for Winnipeg, Canada. Grandpa had relatives there, beating a solo path out of town. Solo, I repeat.

My intrepid grandmother Esther packed everyone up and tracked him down. The Fabian children lived and went to school up north for a while, a band of dispossessed refugees: not wanted by their dad, not missed by their country, creating regret only in the empty-handed bill collectors. After a time in the Canadian school system they would return worse for the wear of dislocation. No offense to Canada.

Their father’s incapacity and addiction marked them all. To cite particular scars, Uncle Sam – hardly two digits of age – had the grizzly responsibility of pulling his dad out of bars when drink had the best of him; and taking care of my grandmother when Leo was incapable of providing either food or shelter.

Up close I witnessed ugliness, too, but of a different kind. I worked after school for my uncle’s downtown Chicago business. I beheld 6’4″ Uncle Sam – my favorite relative, almost like a father to me – interact with his dad. Grandpa was by now his son’s full-time employee.

I recognized something askew as soon as I got an underage work permit and started the job: Uncle Sam called his father by his first name in public; never dad, always Leo. I couldn’t imagine myself doing this with my father or any relative other than a cousin. Was Sam trying to hide himself from the embarrassment of being this man’s offspring? But the knowledge was public, I soon discovered. Worse was to come.

Nothing in the office predicted catastrophe. The day was sunny, everyone working, chatting, listening to the White Sox game radio broadcast. But grandpa came to work hung-over a bit, enough to be inadequate to the tasks assigned. When he screwed up, Sam Fabian told off Leo Fabian. In front of all the others he employed, perhaps seven of us. All the rest kept their heads down and went about their work. The radio broadcaster, Bob Elson, paid no attention.

I alone watched it all, heard it all. Watched Sam enlarge and lengthen and tower over 6′ tall Grandpa. Watched my uncle holler and Leo shrink. Watched one man flogged by ropes of words alone, lashed-together letters all but peeling his skin. I never again looked at either one the same way. Though the repeat performances were few, even a few were too many. Sam had cause, but not license to tap his lifetime storage tank of anger to humiliate his dad.

My love for my grandfather predated this crap. He would be funny, charming, full of life and bigger than life; cutting a lean, wicked-smiling, still-handsome figure. Leo Fabian could charm the socks off anyone if you didn’t know all the rest. He spoke at least a little of multiple languages and must have been the life of every party. Grandpa was proud of me, kind to me, affectionate with me, and never said a bad word to anyone.

I remember a full-day spent with him in 1956, the nine-year-old version of myself, from the elevated train ride downtown to the movie Trapeze; starring Burt Lancaster, Gina Lollobrigida, and Tony Curtis. Complete with my grandfather’s warning that he might fall asleep on the way back (he did) and his reminder to wake him so we could get off at the Kedzie Avenue stop on the Ravenswood line.

My final memory came a few years later. He was now in his early 70s dying of stomach cancer. I visited his hospital bed with mom. He perked up as soon as I entered. He couldn’t hug me hard enough and, like him, I knew the moment was a goodbye.

Most of us automatically rationalize our beliefs and inconsistencies. Take politics and religion. Research says we come to conclusions too fast to arrive at such opinions through careful analysis. Instinct and emotion drive the decision and we then generate a rationale soon after. Even so, we believe the reasons came first.

Humans desperately want to view people as completely integrated, whole and predictable: all virtuous or all bad. I’ve met a few who came close to the former category, to the good. I’m blessed in that way.

Still, blind certainty like “My dad can beat up your dad” and “My mom is smarter than your mom” is black and white and commonplace. We usually see what we want to. Oskar Schindler, the famous savior of Jews during the Holocaust, was also a philandering husband who abandoned his wife; admirable and iniquitous both. Many are more like he, perhaps with less drama, less extremity at either end, living on a smaller scale.

Life is simpler, I think, if we do not absorb the complexity of human nature and instead draw the peopled world in broad strokes lacking troublesome detail. We need trust and comradeship, love and security, more than we need truth.

We form our opinion of ourselves with no greater insight. The Stoics say no one knows himself until he is tested, yet many think they would be heroic in the absence of the test. Even a failed moral trial can be given a pass by a subdued conscience. We are almost all conscience-tamers some of the time, without the whip and chair used by lion tamers at the circus. Unlike the beasts, the conscience tends to submit so quietly we don’t hear a thing. Fortunately, most of us don’t do it often.

I’ve never tried to rationalize my love for Grandpa. Yet I saw plenty of daily evidence of the wreckage my grandparents wrought on mom; and on Uncle Sam when I worked for him.

So, there you have it. My granddad was an irresponsible, alcoholic man who abandoned his family and (with an assist from an economic calamity) did enormous harm to his children. That’s on the one side, my love for him on the other.

They are both true.

Go figure.

The top photo is called Taking Care of the Heart by Enver Rahmanov

 

Mother’s Day Runaway

Days of compulsory celebration can produce a paradoxical effect. Some people are encouraged, once again, to confront feelings of discomfort about parents who invalidated, neglected, or abused them. The demands for holiday observance now take over the job your family and relatives expected of you early on.

The experience is rather like being caught in a vise: May 13, 2018 on one side, June 17, 2018 on the other, pushing together to squeeze the life out of you – you, who are in the middle.

Of course, you might be the lucky soul who had good, or at least adequate parenting, from those whose love and care did the job imperfectly, (it is always imperfect), but did it on balance. Or, you might be a person who was abandoned, a step-parent who never receives full acknowledgment, or simply a child who lost a parent who did the job and had the beloved mom or dad snatched away by events or illness.

How do you feel? Here is an answer from someone who has made her personal experience universal. She has done so with unsurpassed eloquence.

Life in a Bind - BPD and me

Mother’s Day can be difficult, in so many different ways, but it still feels as though only some of those ways are publicly acknowledged, or socially acceptable. It hit me again this morning, when I was listening to the radio and the presenter played a song for those who find the day painful – it was a song about a son’s grief at the loss of his mother. There are no songs that I know of, about a child’s grief at the presence of a parent; or at not having a different one. There is nowhere to hide from Mother’s Day and nowhere to run to, for those who find it difficult because they have, to use Dr Terri Apter’s phrase, ‘difficult mothers’. If this is you, I hope my post for the therapy website welldoing.org is helpful, or at least is a reminder, during the many triggering moments that…

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