To Hide or Be Seen: That Is the Question

A therapist claims a special talent in performance of a common, but elusive function: penetration of another’s makeup. For counselor and client both, however, the obstacle to understanding each other is the same: they look at each other through the lens of their own psychology.

Be careful.

Think of the psychologist as a perfected version of yourself at the job life requires of everyone, every day: making sense of the social world. A friend or neighbor, if comparable to you in nature, presents no challenge. The likeness to you makes the task of “getting inside his head” effortless. “He is not so different from me,” so you say.

Should the essence of the acquaintance not match your own, on the other hand, you don’t “get him.” His extraversion collides with your introversion, talkativeness with your thoughtfulness, risk-taking with your risk-aversion. The behavior strikes you as unpredictable, inconsistent with your standard for thought and action. The man might still be attractive to you, perhaps because of his dissimilarity. No matter, misunderstandings and conflicts follow.

In the end, you shake your head, wonder what you are missing, and can’t explain “why he is like that.”

Individual life experience and the basic, inherited stuff in our brain limits us.

“Oh, you’ll have fun. Come on,” one says.

“What is he thinking? Who does he think I am?”

Both parties are at a loss.

A competent mental health professional received the trained-advantage of getting outside himself, to search into and through the eyes of the other; to imagine himself as the other. The doc discards inadequate evaluations as he would blurry glasses. Ego-driven attachment to initial assumptions and impressions cannot be permitted. The counselor must be willing to start over: to trash, revise, or rebuild the faulty conception he created for replacement by a new one.

Here is a crucial truth about true understanding: you will never grasp everything about the other.

Add one more, perhaps more important: your perspective of the other is your invention, neither the other as he is or as he thinks he is. The drawing you made of him is like an  antique map of creation; inexact at best.

My therapeutic peers and I never lived in a patient’s shoes despite his resemblance to predecessors who sat in the same office. We could not claim precise insight even if we traveled through terrain similar to his life’s path.

“You don’t know me,” is always a true statement whether spoken by a friend or client, though we might discern qualities he does not admit to himself.

Each of us wears blinders. We screen off part of life. Emotional survival depends on it. Secrets from our friends and loved ones are dwarfed by our veiled sense of ourselves. Those who live astonishing lives of travel, accomplishment, and courage, still do not fathom the entire world, the world of every other person, nor the world of their truest self; not just revealed under the pressure of every imaginable test, but the self of everyday life.

Do not say, “If I’d been in that situation I would have behaved this way!” Imagined bravery and principle offer comforting self-delusions employed by those who pay nothing for a ticket to a game they never played.

The keeper of a quiet life, alone in a studio apartment next to a floor mate with the identical window view, does not share his neighbor’s every idea and emotion. His sensibilities, intellect, and history create divergence from his counterpart’s meeting with the passing time.

Even when nothing is happening, his internal confrontation with himself is not yours, not knowable to you.

The hurdle to comprehension is high, in part, because most of humanity is not psychologically-minded, a few therapists included. If we are to come close to a workable relationship with our buddy, spouse, parent, or child, — together with our patients — we must work and rework. The job is like that of an eye-glass grinder, refining the shape through which we take on the world of the other. And, if those we meet are rare types, we hope they perceive our dilemma and gamble more self-revelation than ever before; self-exposure coupled with the display of the tender, still hurting places beneath their raised guard and penetrable skin.

The potential reward is to be known as best we can, despite the isolating entrapment by our sausage casing enclosures and inevitable insecurities. Praying, too, the one who said “It will be fun,” recognizes our less than enthusiastic answer is not so peculiar. Out of such mutual effort we might, on occasion, walk through life hand-in-hand; imperfectly fit as we are, knowing with confidence the other is expending — not just money, attention, patience or passion — but the ceaseless labor to improve the lens with which to see us.

And to see himself.

Might this be one definition of a devoted and talented therapist? A friend? An ideal beloved?

Maybe all three.

A Therapist’s Heroes

I met a personal hero in my early 30s. A dim recording of our 40-year-old 40-minutes still exists.

My life has been lucky, in part, because of unexpected encounters such as this, and for other reasons, too. I grew up in a time when the world of little boys overflowed with heroic TV and movie figures. Most displayed physical bravery, but there was right in what they stood for: as the Superman television series told it, “truth, justice, and the American Way.”

I’m not the only serious kid who took the message seriously. Our fathers fought in World War II and Korea. Duty and sacrifice were expected of us, as well. The boundaries of acceptable behavior were clearer then. Now exhibitionism and self-congratulations — characteristics once frowned upon — squirm and twist themselves into chest-beating greatness. Meaningful apology is absent in much of public life.

We choose our heroes uncritically as kids. Most parents bask for a while in the admiring gaze of their children. Adulthood brings a more nuanced view. Today’s media offer few people with the purity of The Rifleman, Paladin, and The Lone Ranger — the principled Westerners my generation of boys watched in the ’50s and ’60s.

That world, as it enlarged, compromised us all and we compromised ourselves. Some of this is inescapable and doesn’t involve the loss of your soul. Still, there are things I wish I hadn’t done, adult times when I wasn’t my best self. Regarding other actions and inactions, I’ve made a quiet peace; grateful for the knowledge, humility, and experience the shortfalls brought me. Not to excuse moments of cruelty, failing resolve, or license, but as I look around the globe I notice some company. So it is that I try to do better.

I wonder if we are poorer for the missing simplicity of the remarkable characters TV paraded past the mid-twentieth-century optic nerves of my generation, as we search today’s narrow daily world for models in matters of living.

*****

Who was the hero who greeted me on March 18, 1978? A gorgeous man and a great one. Not outsized, as POW John McCain was, because of refusing a chance to free himself from continuing torture. Preferential treatment and desertion of his comrades meant cowardice, and the airman suffered for his steadfast valor.

Carlo Maria Giulini, instead, was a symphony conductor/hero, who also knew what mattered. He exemplified virtue in action and his art. Unlike Giulini, few of us are both good and great, a combination irresistible to his admirers.

Integrity is a always a pricey thing. The Italian musician said no to rather different opportunities than the combat pilot: promotion of his career and financial gain because he convinced himself full readiness to honor men like Bach and Tchaikovsky was more important.

The Maestro believed love for the music was not sufficient, but required understanding of the intention of every note on the page. Only upon fulfillment of both demands did he permit his private search for beauty to become public in performance. Years would go by even if it meant — as it did — never leading compositions he loved. “I’d rather be three years too late, than three minutes too soon,” he said. Here was a gentle man made of steel.

*****

We lost an extraordinary person in John McCain on August 25, 2018, a statesman saluted by sham mourners whose expensive clothing disguises a lack of character, and others who recognize what they lost and attempt to improve themselves because of his example.

Late in life, McCain might have uttered the words Tennyson put in the mouth of the aged Ulysses to his surviving companions of the Trojan War, before they embarked on their final voyage:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

John McCain’s daughter Meghan gave a distinguished eulogy. Such sadness is common enough at funerals, but not by itself a reason to view it. Listen to her devotion and private knowledge of the Senator who was her dad, her eloquence in describing what made him special and necessary. Those qualities compel our attention and respect as a kind of civic duty.

Such men as the congressman lift us by the standard they set. Imperfect, but noble. They reach beyond themselves in service of a greater cause. The best among us do not rate self-interest as the dominating value in their lives.

Here is her speech. I hope you will watch and try to do better, as we all must if our world and that of our children and grandchildren is to be better:

——

The top photo is of Carlo Maria Giulini. The second image is from an Interview with John McCain done on April 24, 1973. Thomas J. O’Halloran was the photographer. It comes from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

“I’m Beautiful and Smart, but I Always Wind Up with the Wrong Person”

P came to therapy with sadness and anger, as though she carried them in her backpack before unloading them on the low table between us. The surface was covered, her combination of feelings familiar to me. I already imagined difficulties. She’d be challenging, but I was not about to give up before I started.

P believed the world had been unfair. Boyfriends expected too much. They tired of her or betrayed her. A therapist doesn’t dispute this, but lives in hope the client will grieve to the point of readiness for self-reflection: consideration of his part in the staging, acting, and dialogue of life’s drama.

We try to aid in the process. A counselor asks about patterns of relationships. I wanted to know if P recognized the resemblances among her romantic adventures. “How do you explain it?” I asked.

They all seemed so nice at the beginning and then — and then they turned on me. I never, never thought …

With such people as P — and there are many Ps in any crowd — the “turning on me” takes several forms. The other becomes prone to anger or alcohol abuse or infidelity. That inconstant soul begins to spend more time with friends or starts to work too many hours; or changes into someone who finds his sweetie dull. He transforms.

He was not this way before.

P had done nothing to cause the Jekyll/Hyde malformation, “I swear,” she claimed. To me, her psychologist, it was not so simple. In her view, the lover was now a minor league version of the devil. Her Magic Mirror, a family heirloom, told her every day:

You are pure, you are grand; in this you had no hand.

Six relationships in 10 years, all with the same beginning and the same end.

In fact, P made at least one mistake, maybe two:

  • Either her judgment of human nature (companion variety) was poor and she kept picking similar types of unsatisfactory men or
  • The lady added some sour ingredients to the relationship formula, influencing if not inducing the unhappiness she reported, however little her contribution.

I asked Socratic questions to no avail. “What attracted you to the man?” “What did your friends think of him before you moved in together?” “Was there anything valid in his excuses or complaints about you?”

Nothing.

We are imperfect evaluators of our fellow-man, every one of us. Our unconscious affections and dislikes are drawn from resemblance to other important figures in our life, instinctive attractions or repulsions, interests and aspirations shared or opposed. Everyone makes mistakes in evaluating others. Friendship and love often founder on differences unknown in first moments.

Less frequently character is the issue, but this too takes time to reveal itself. Courage and morality don’t exist until tested by temptation, fear, or conflict. Most new acquaintances offer their best behavior. Routine daily experiences don’t require us to be brave souls or saints in order to display dutiful goodness. Almost all of us are pretty good at that.

Still, we must evaluate potential employers and friends, politicians and lovers without enough data, usually based on first impressions and behavior in periods of unchallenging normalcy. The lonely look for the perfect match for their imperfect selves. Instead they find another struggling human who fits less well than they hoped; or a honey who is ideal for a while, but not always in all ways. The same applies to the aforementioned bosses and friends.

The world of gauging the personal equation is forever in motion, done on the run. We do the best we can.

—–

P would leave treatment having grieved her broken heart, but without learning much or changing much. One’s personal inertia assumes he possesses every answer to life’s secrets. I’ve yet to meet such a one, but know several who tell me life is in the dance, not in stasis.

—–

I anticipated P’s merging with another man like the others, one who would turn her on and then turn on her. A therapist is not like a can opener, capable of piercing the defensive metal container enclosing his patients. He builds relationships, hopes to engender trust, but his tools are subtle, not surgical.

We ask our clients to give up one self-image for another, to murder the one and create a replacement. Counselors offer something better than dissolving the patient’s befogged understanding of himself, but harder. Some prefer their long familiar selves and want the world to change for them.

It never does.

If instruction would have made a difference, I’d have said this to my story’s troubled young heroine:

There is one constant in all the relationships you describe: you.
Do not mistake rage or hurt for infallible righteousness, no matter how they make you feel.

Imperfection and self-knowledge are hard to bear. Nearly all of us think we understand ourselves well, but perfect self-awareness would bring us to our knees. Instead of the full truth, we drew the outlines of our lives a while ago (with help from parents), marking what was acceptable, healthy, or necessary. For some, this meant a large life, for others a narrow one

If we were poor in our original self-creation — too much license here, too little assertiveness there, or avoidance everywhere — Personality Flaws crept into and colored the picture. They persist without effort; as if living, invisible masters of our existence. Time and repetition mean nothing to them, they last and last until the last, internal holes in the sidewalk of our being. Fall into them or repair the hazards as you wish. Waiting for you to wise-up is their comfort zone.

Many shortfalls reside inside, even for those who — like P — believe recurring dilemmas to be outside of themselves and their control.

A shame.

Remember what Cassius said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?

Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Those words are harsh medicine. While Cassius’s judgement does not account for the external, invasive tragedies we suffer, they are an accurate understanding of the cause of many frustrations. His truth can be denied, but we cannot avoid the consequences except by work on the single aspect of life most in our control: what is inside us.

Then comes a better life.

The top photo is of the Spiral Staircase in City Hall, London, by Colin. Next comes Citadel of Qaitbay by Ahmed Younis Sit Saad. Chicago’s Rookery Building’s interior is represented in the third photo and the final one. The first shot is its Central Staircase, by Ken Lund. The other is another Staircase view, this one by Velvet. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. In between the Rookery shots, I’ve placed an Inside-outside Innovation picture, taken from Innovation Management.

First Date Dilemma: Revealing “the Crazy”

Alain de Button suggests a novel dating strategy. Instead of trying to impress the new acquaintance, consider asking this question early in the “getting to know you” period: “How are you crazy?”

We all are, don’t you think?

While Monsieur Button assumes too much courage and honesty from most new couples, the answer could enlighten us both by what is disclosed and what is not. Even then, however, we are dealing with someone who doesn’t know himself any better than we understand ourselves. As he wrote in the New York Times:

Perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us or can relax only when we are working; perhaps we’re tricky about intimacy after sex or clam up in response to humiliation. Nobody’s perfect. The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities. Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal our flaws, we blame our partners and call it a day. As for our friends, they don’t care enough to do the hard work of enlightening us. One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with.

Our partners are no more self-aware. Naturally, we make a stab at trying to understand them. We visit their families. We look at their photos, we meet their college friends. All this contributes to a sense that we’ve done our homework. We haven’t. Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.

Too often we search for something we didn’t get in childhood: stability, affection, or protection. Moreover, we make our choice of a permanent relationship while over-the-moon, in the middle of the most impermanent of things: a cocooned, gravity-defying, hormone-driven new romance.

Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, in his 1930 poem Square Dance*, suggests that relationships often work this way:

John loved Teresa who love Raimundo

who loved Maria who loved John who loved Lili

who didn’t love anyone.

John went to the United States, Teresa to the convent,

Raimundo died of disaster, Maria stayed for her aunt,

John committed suicide and Lili married J. Pinto Fernandes

who hadn’t been part of the story.

Make sense of your own wierdness if you can.

De Button’s imperfect solution to our feelings-dominated dating style is to choose someone who is realistic enough to recognize the misaligned aspects of every intimate pairing. Nonetheless, the couple must value what binds them and strive for its enhancement. Every relationship is forever a “work in progress.”

No stasis here, it always moves ahead or slips back. The lovers are like tandem metal sculptors who try to make art of an elusive object on an assembly line. In the best case, despite frustration, they never give up for long. The partners refine, hammer, shape, and reconsider. Overhead are separate mirrors of each worker and their work: the object of aspiration they have created together.

The companions strive to sustain good will in the midst of despair — searching for an enlarged devotion to making themselves — individually — better partners. Until then, as Percy Shelley wrote:

To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates …

The job requires a mate with equal dedication, resilience, and patience. One who gives some allowance to the other’s tardiness in catching on and catching up, at least for a little while. We want a spouse who will cry with us, hold our hands, bind our wounds; one who will listen without instinctive defensiveness to the injuries he produced, and survive the desolation of the worst of times in return for delight in the best of times.

Neither one is a mind reader, but both must begin to penetrate the facial expressions, movements, and language we offer. Remember, though, you cannot disassemble the whole person, exchanging those parts that have become less than pleasing for something better. Love is all or nothing, take it or leave it.

Think of a support beam in your residence. If you remove that unsightly metal or wood, the house will collapse. Acceptance (within limits) is no small part of what you need to learn.

Out of such pessimistic realism and tenacity, beginning with the willingness to admit one’s own “crazy,” something worth maintaining is a possibility. When two people in unpoetic moods can search and struggle for poetry, they may get an occasional glimpse of the beyond; and the satisfaction of knowing they have given the best of themselves to someone worth loving.

—–

Thanks to Rosaliene Bacchus for introducing me to the work of Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The top image is Kiss, by Richard Lindner. The next two are photographs by Man Ray. The first is called Black and White (1926), while the second is The Kiss (1935). All three are sourced from Wikart.org.

How Much Do You Think About Your Future?

“What dreams may come?” wondered Hamlet as he considered whether “to be, or not to be.” The potential of an afterlife of nightmares stopped him short of self-murder. For the rest of us, the time beyond today is either ignored, dreaded, colored in unending rainbows; or maybe even calmly planned.

Experience suggests that whatever comes will include both good and bad; and depend, in part, on how we approach it.

One’s individual weather forecast depends, to a degree, on his history and inborn, genetic disposition. Yes, there are born optimists or born pessimists. Guess who has more fun?

Cognitive behavior therapists help the latter group’s struggle with catastrophization. The counselor trains his patient to recognize the error within the terror of anticipated disaster when little realistic likelihood exists. The worst of life is best encountered in the moment. Don’t pour worry over yourself, like a sticky syrup mucking-up every day. “Borrowing trouble” comes at much expense, killing our ambitions before they begin.

When we do think past the horizon, some of us mistakenly focus on only half of what must be done to raise our prospects. It is not enough to quit an awful marriage or job, despite the immediate relief of departure. What comes after? Ask how you deposited yourself in a swamp? Envision a destination and a plan of attack. None of this is easy.

I know people who need a permanent set of attached binoculars to check out next steps. Some take bodily risks. Think prodigious drinking, eating, or drugging. Nor do I speak of the ones who simply deny their self-abuse. Too many possess the “talent” (or curse) of shutting off their brains when offered a drink or walking into a restaurant: an unconscious, dissociative process like a selective amnesia. A hour earlier they intended to pass by the cocktail or the quarter-pounder with cheese. Faced with the devilish dilemma, the brain takes a vacation — temporarily closes-off a sliver of awareness. One might think of it as the sky on a clear day, but for one cloudy portion.

The future is a trickster. His opening act makes us believe we own an unused bank vault full of years. For those who do survive, unlived time is most often neither so wonderful or terrible as we imagine. Humans hedonically adapt. After a period of euphoria we tend to move back to our “set point:” our usual level of emotional equanimity or distress. Time’s passage also elevates our spirits from the first awfulness of many seeming disasters. Review your history. You might find lots of misfortune from which you bounced back.

Truth is, we are poor affective forecasters — weak at predicting the emotional residue of our adventures. Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Tim Wilson tells us this leads to “miswanting.” We guess we will like some choices more than we do when they happen, in addition to “mispredicting” how long strong feelings will last afterward.

You think a $10,000 raise offers sustained joy? Most likely not for long. Simply put, after a year or two, most of us feel about the same as we did before the wonderful or terrible thing happened.

If you dislike the fallible weatherman, examine your prognostic success. In 10-years-time you could be surprised by how much you change and how those alterations complicate your ability to make predictions about what you will enjoy:

While I’m giving crystal ball warnings, beware of “bucket lists.” Other than people like my old buddy Ron Ableman, I knew many who kicked the bucket before they reached the list inside. Another group believed their long-awaited trip to Paris, for example, would have held more enchantment in the springtime of their life.

If you peg your well-being to winning an Olympic gold metal or some similar recognition, reconsider. Someone will win the distinction, but far more won’t. The impossible dream is the graveyard of life satisfaction. Instead, enjoy the process and more probable rewards along the way. A spot on the highest podium while your national anthem plays then will be the cherry on top.

The difficulty of depending on tomorrow for all your pleasure is well-described by Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs. Their funny and all-too-true book is called How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The authors believe we manage the dreariness of our regular duties by looking toward to THE WEEKEND.

Unfortunately …

By Saturday morning you may be vaguely aware that Friday night wasn’t as great as you hoped it would be, but you don’t have much time to think about it because … you are still looking forward to the climax of THE WEEKEND — Saturday night. By Sunday afternoon, however, it is all over. Hope is dead. There is nothing further for you to look forward to, except the gloomy prospect of Monday morning and another whole week of drudgery at a job or school you detest. The weekend — like your life — can at last be viewed in its correct perspective: one colossal letdown, one gigantic anticlimax. On Sunday afternoon you are free to ponder all the great times you felt sure lay ahead, but never quite materialized.

We do need to suppose something better is in the offing — somewhere, somehow — and energize the resolve to get there. All those who trod a long educational road toward a career valued the lofty goal. The fathers of our antique religions realized the worth of a heavenly reward — a world without gravity — for the grave circumstances we ofttimes endure on earth. But, as Greenburg and Jacobs recognized, laughing at ourselves helps too, and sooner.

Just as a predictable joke is never funny, the most remarkable opportunities and joys take you by surprise.

In my own temporary stay on the planet, for example, I never contemplated that I might become a consultant to more than one major sports team. The unsought path just revealed itself.

Sure, I passed through down times and understand more will come, but I find little profit in attempting to improve the distance-vision of the nearsighted man I am. Indeed, if I live long enough, I’ll hesitate before buying unripe bananas. Most senior citizens are wise not to take a mental leap forward. They do well to make every day count.

Nothing is static. Expect sunny days and stormy weather and many partly cloudy skies. The ability to adjust to conditions is a skill necessary for you and me, both.

The largest portion of our contentment comes not beyond our noses, but by grabbing the beauty near at hand.

Of course, I have a surgically reconstructed left knee, so she may elude me.

—–

More on affective forecasting.

The first image, What Lies Ahead, was sourced from Eurotimes.org. The art work that follows is The Future of Statues, by Rene Magritte. It was sourced from Wikiart.org.

 

 

Is a Breakup Ever Harder Than a Death? Reflections on the Complexity of Grieving

“You need to grieve,” is easy to say, hard to do. Some equate it with “feeling sorry for yourself” or insufficient religious faith. Others tell you the endeavor is not “manly.” A few give it a time limit and cut off the process too soon.

What else might block this dark passage to recovery?

The short answer? It sometimes takes longer to recover from the end of relationships with the living than those who are dead. Their continuing life holds out the possibility of a long shot, perfected resumption: a second chance at the prize.

As terrible as it is to survive the demise of one you love, the psychological remedy is relatively direct. Death means losing not only the departed, but the disappearance of whatever future you desired. Was there an apology you never got, but awaited forever? Would he have said, “I love you,” the words you never heard? “I’m proud of you” perhaps? Were there plans in the offing for a continuation of your bond with a being like no other?

All hopes are shattered by Death, a bigger than Life opponent with an undefeated record. Grieving becomes the only way to reconcile yourself to what you missed.

But what about a person who yet lives, but not within the relationship you desire?

Let’s say you reside with your parents or an unloving spouse, are financially dependent, and the object of unrelenting emotional neglect or abuse. Your dependency evokes grudging gratitude, but also fear of losing financial support.

Were you to open the full extent of your heartbreak and anger, it might be more difficult to contend with the ones who continue to heap misery on you. The wall built to endure mistreatment could crumble. A darker depression and rage against them or yourself will not now improve your life. Postponement of this therapeutic exploration (beyond awareness that you need to get out) is often the wisest course until your living circumstances are favorable.

A faith community that believes in instant “forgiveness” (or reflexive honor to parents and spouse) is also challenging. If you lack congregational support for the therapeutic process, you are likely to experience the very kind of invalidation, guilt, and misunderstanding you want to escape. Beware, too, an internal and external pressure to “be good,” win the approval of your coreligionists and friends, and don a smiling mask disguising private unhappiness.

Parental death, at whatever age, supplies notice of one’s permanent eviction from childhood. We receive automatic sympathy upon its publication. Widows and widowers are honored in the same fashion.

Not so for the ones who cannot have the other they prefer. No plot of land called a cemetery — respected and visited — is dedicated to their loss; nor the black attire or armband officially signaling their grief.

The graveyard of ended love affairs exists only in the mind of the bereft. Visiting hours are listed in the imagination as “anytime,” the garments of mourning observed from the inside alone.

Many face this grief in the world of divorce and shared child-rearing responsibilities. Continuing friction between the adults can endanger the well-being of the child. Treatment must honor the heartbroken parent, and enable a tightrope walk over a cesspool of emotional turbulence that might swallow you as well as your offspring.

Another roadblock to ending a living grief resides in a simple word called hope. Who can say when it is time to give up hope? How do you know when hope is misplaced? Who among us is certain when a fantasized future is the equivalent of a sunk cost: in effect, throwing good money after bad because you have already invested so much in another human being?

Exit from love’s casino is always a gamble. Memory and desire insist, “‘Tis not too late. …” When friends suggest you move on, however, they are not always wrong.

I recall a young lady in her early teens. Her father’s death years before did not unmake the “relationship’s” continuation. The worshipful veneration at the shrine she erected permitted an idealization that made the stepfather pale in comparison.

The latter was a fine man who wanted to give the teen all possible affection and guidance, but could not leap the barrier with which my patient surrounded herself. Only when she recognized the cost of her preoccupation with the biological father, did she embrace the decent man holding on to his own version of hope.

Loss of love, whatever the cause or consideration it receives, is not well-captured by the clichéd word heartbreak. Rather, the heart cracks, seeps, bleeds; it shudders, submerges, or bursts. The tissue tears and weeps. For most of us, the blessed thing will force itself to repair, reform, and — yes — take heart and try again. The heart, remember, is a muscle.

Patients always need to clean their wounds and suffer the sting such cleansing brings, even if touching them requires delicacy on the counselor’s part. The demands of work, child-rearing, housekeeping, and the daily indignities of life must also be respected for the therapeutic obstacles they can be. These complications function like the huge linemen in American-style football, blocking your progress toward the place you need to go.

Like therapy, American football is played 60-minutes at a time.

The best players find a way to get around and over those giant opponents; not as fast as one would like, of course, and not without bruising. Those who “break through” to victory are talented and relentless.

Courage takes more than a physical form, you know.

I saw it displayed in my office, in the therapeutic integrity of people just a few feet away.

They have long since left that place, but my awe and pride in them have not departed.

———————-

The first image is called, Knock Apparition Cloud by Froshea. The next one is entitled, Sad Woman. Jiri Hodan is the creator. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom photograph is Georgia O’Keeffe, Abiquiu, N.M., 1984 by Bruce Weber.

The Narcissists in Your Life: A Guide to Identifying Them

There are narcissists among us. We love them, go to dinner with them, and tolerate them. They are our bosses, subordinates, and neighbors. I’ll give you three examples and then guidance on how to recognize people so taken with themselves they have little affection left for you.

First, though, the top-line description of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as found in the DSM-5:*

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts … .

Or, as I like to picture it, someone who stands so close to the mirror (the better to admire himself) he can see nothing else of importance in the world.

  • TWENTY-YEAR-OLD GWEN DESIRED not only an easy life, but a delightful one, requiring little effort and guaranteeing an avoidance of unpleasantness. She wanted the center of attention, being unconcerned with the wants and needs of others, including her family. This young lady envisioned a world created especially for her, like a custom-designed outfit, where her stunning beauty and innate wit won every eye and red carpets forever laid at her feet. Work, accomplishment, and service sounded distasteful.

Gwen overestimated her gifts as an untrained singer and suffered a narcissistic injury when an accomplished musician deemed her talent modest. She enjoyed the thrill and diversion of risk and reward, never considering that one person’s gain is often another’s loss. The beauty didn’t dismiss the misfortune of her fellow-men so much as fail to notice it. The world of Gwendolyn consisted of a circular room full of mirrors, each one reflecting her image alone. If your approach made her environment less pleasant or more complicated, she dismissed you by smiling you away. Dazed and alone, you wondered what just happened. No surprise that the young woman had never been in love, except with her dazzling self.

  • CALL OUR SECOND EXAMPLE, MC. Here was a man who, to use a Barry Switzer quote, “was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” He had the right parents and a fat wallet because of them. MC owned an impressive physical bearing and cold command. The esteemed gentleman reluctantly offered the social niceties, but calmly scouted the passing human parade for those advantageous to him. Without such potential, your presence wasn’t required or tolerated. The job of a fellow-creature was that of a chess pawn on the board of his existence, to be moved about as needed; just an instrument or an object, nothing more. The man had no friends.

Actually, MC was rather a bore. He didn’t read, didn’t study, simply arranged the world to his liking. MC enjoyed yachting, for example, because it permitted total control, escape from the world of obligation, and avoidance of bothersome humanity.

If you studied this man’s handsome face, you noticed eyes of unusual length and narrowness. Later you might recognize the reptilian quality.

Unlike members of his class, MC didn’t subscribe to the idea of “noblesse oblige.” He believed in no requirement to serve others, only to be served. Once in his vicinity, you either bent your knee instinctively or he bent you to his will. He’d charm you just long enough to grip your shoulder and push down.

  • MY FINAL EXAMPLE WAS A WOMAN of high middle-age. She rebelled against her father’s wish for her to become a conventional wife and mother in a dutiful, subservient role. Instead, this lady broke free and imposed her own vision on others. I’ll call her Countess. Talented and ambitious, C took the world of musical theater by force and rose to continent-wide acclaim. When she became pregnant she decided she could not love the child: he would be an obstacle to her career. Countess gave him up.

This proud woman knew many men and was loved by even more, but chose those who submitted to her domination, allowing her to set the path of their lives without complaint. Though the Countess recognized the imposing self-love at her core, no motive to be otherwise existed for her. In sculpting her life to exactly the shape desired, this magnificent presence consisted of the hard, dark marble of her own chiseled perfection. Had you seen her in a museum you might look atop her pedestal, but not touch. She owned a dictionary lacking the word apology.

How do these people match up with the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder? In addition to the sentence quoted above, you must meet five of the nine following diagnostic characteristics:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e. unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
  6. Is interpersonally exploitive (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

In general, narcissists seek therapy only when they have suffered an affront to their overblown sense of self-esteem. Responsibility-taking is not their forte. Treatment gives them a place to vent and provides bolstering support. Once reinflated to their out-sized vision of themselves, they most often itch to end counseling. The therapist merely is expected to find sufficient wind to inflate the balloon back to normal.

I don’t advise taking on a narcissistic business partner or mate in the hope of remaking him into a person who is reciprocal: to create something close to a 50/50 relationship. On the other hand, the woman in the first example was one who did begin to recognize her self-involvement after a major trauma. She and the others are, in fact, not real people, but characters in George Eliot’s towering novel Daniel Deronda.

Eliot was a master psychologist long before the profession and its diagnostic categories existed. Read her (yes, her) for knowing sympathy with and optimism about the human condition, as well as beauty of language. The antique notion of a woman’s inability to write well caused her to take the pen name by which we know her.

Her real name was Mary Ann Evans.

*The acronym DSM-V refers to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.

The first image, I Love Me, is the work of Misky.

The second visual is named, Cliché of Narcissistic People, by Nephiliskos. Its German text is translated as:

The mirror speaks to the youth: ‘I love you!’ The youth speaks to the mirror: ‘I love myself too!’

Finally, It’s’ All About Me: Me, Me, Me,  is the work of Gürkan Sengün.

All three are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.