How Insecurity Can Be Created and Overcome

The absence of self-confidence is easily misunderstood. A 400-pound bag of feathery old criticisms, easy to brush off one at a time, still weighs 400 pounds. Small additions to the weight seem insignificant. Their accumulation can break a child’s soul.

The psyche is porous. If your guardians show sufficient disrespect for your shoes or judgment or the way you play soccer (football), unless they target one of those categories alone, the words can be channeled into an overall belief in personal inadequacy. Adequate counterbalancing opinions received from people who carry equal weight to the boy or girl are rare.

This is not the lone way insecurity is created, but all therapists are familiar with this one.

Think of internal emotions as a system of waterways. If there are many such comments in multiple channels, the rain becomes rivulets; the rivulets become brooks, then streams, then rivers. Each of these gush into a lake of a person’s being extending from heart to head.

At worst, the fluid sense of self is poisoned in a general way, not sectionalized. The doubts flow out in the individual’s hesitation, avoidance, uncertainty, action, or inaction in the same generalized fashion. Or they are disguised beneath external charm or boldness — a masked man who performs well in public but remains unknown and unhappy in private.

The “objective” viewpoints of outsiders and latecomers to your life carry less importance than those upon whom your existence depends. Their messages trickle in but can be swamped by the major tributaries to your psychological state.

For a while, at least, it is more comforting to view your guardians as knowledgeable and powerful protectors than to believe nothing will win their approval. No swarm of adults offers alternative homes. By agreeing with your label as “the problem,” hope stays alive: the dream you will change something about yourself to persuade the parents of your worth.

Would you dare to conclude your caretakers are cruel or crazy instead? No escape is then conceivable. All other grown-ups are strangers, not benefactors of equal power and wisdom, or so you believe. They don’t know you as well as blood relatives. The love you want is from mom and day, not a counterfeit substitute.

If the growing youth counters parental condemnation by stating, “They like me” — referring to teachers or neighbors or employers — he often hears, “That’s great, but if they spent more time with you, they wouldn’t.”

The child unconsciously persuades himself he still has agency — he can prove himself. Thereby he is not helpless. This continues until many teens realize the parent holds significant responsibility. Yet, the tattooed, imprinted sense of disqualification lives on. Now the not-quite-so-young person has two selves: the one who remains the flawed object his folks described and the one who is something different and better.

The youth’s task is to disentangle the various messages and take the risks necessary to find a less complicated passage to accomplishment and love. Far too many never begin or stop along the way. A great number fail to recognize any therapeutic burden to take on.

Another thought. Almost every story can be topped by tales more desperate. How does one know whether and how to convey ancient personal injuries? Does one make too much of them or too little? Does the troubled soul possess justification to say anything at all?

Holocaust survivors usually didn’t share their calamity until the end of their lives, if at all. After the war, they observed all the pain around them of infinite shapes, sizes, and intensities, whether one was Jewish or not. They carried guilt for having lived when so many others died.

The task of making a life “after” didn’t offer the luxury of emotional space to “process” their experience and affliction. No name had yet been given to the events they endured. The word “holocaust” referred to fire or nuclear war alone. Nor had the concept of Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD) entered the mental health lexicon.

These people didn’t believe they would be believed. Even if they were, no outsider retained the capacity to “understand.” No one had the imagination to conceive of what they’d lived through.

When the victims thought about what happened, it seemed like a visit to a world beyond conjuring or hallucination. Who could fathom a years-long abduction from earth to another planet, followed by a psyche-destroying ransom impossible to repay and a later return to an unpeopled, remembered world in ashes?

Patients in psychotherapy often face something similar but on a scale more modest and not so strange. How can they claim the right to talk about their lives? Others survived comparable misfortune with less damage, they reason.

Feel-good stories in the media emphasize personal triumphs. Happy endings are always needed. Hope must triumph over hopelessness if one is to progress. Moreover, such hopefulness helps us achieve things we might not attempt otherwise.

In some communities, garden variety misfortunes are well-known. The list includes corporal punishment, dads who drink too much, parents who argue too much, ethnic or religious or racial enmities, and financial problems. Men must learn to “be a man ” without complaint.

Why make a big deal about it? The New Testament tells us, “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). A handful of Christians tell a church-goer who is not healed he has failed the implicit test of faith in such biblical passages. Indicting the Deity would be sacrilege, as well.

Since life must go on and making a living and raising a family takes priority, ugly recitation of dead history offers no appeal. The demands of the present and future argue against the idea of a backward turn.

An additional complication exists if there are brothers or sisters. Two factors play into the potential client’s dilemma and reverberate if he chooses to seek psychotherapy.

First, he might have received different levels of attention, affection, and respect from his parents than they did. If so, his history is not theirs, perhaps by a large degree. Second, almost by definition, if he “sees” the family maelstrom for what it is, he may possess a double-edged gift of perception unavailable to anyone else in the household.

Put differently, the distribution of psychological defenses among close relatives can offer siblings the metaphorical blinders he lacks. His vision is too bright, too acute for him to ignore what is happening in his home. Moreover, to the degree he exposes heinous parental acts like sexual abuse, the remaining family members frequently deny his truth and disavow him. The clan stands together, declaring him troubled and worthy of contempt.

Fortunately, the therapist’s job doesn’t require sharing the patient’s many-faceted distress. Such a task is impossible in any case. The doctor and patient should be grateful for this because anything different would leave the treater and the treated unable to assist each other, both struggling within the same debilitating emotional space. The counselor can afford to be touched and sympathetic but not afflicted by the identical disabling wound.

Beyond sympathy, he must validate the client’s report and extend a metaphorical comforting hand — to abide with him while he grieves. The healer does his best to stand guard. A kind of psychological resuscitation shall be attempted.

The healer hopes his serious concern for the sufferer will make an impression. His offer of time and thought to the multiple losses, humiliations, and complications all serve to acknowledge the person’s story. The counselor’s words, posture, eye contact, and tone of voice all communicate the value of the subject’s being.

Perhaps for the first time, the client accepts the credibility of an authority who believes he deserves a chance at fulfillment (even if he does not). The therapist lights a torch, held at a distance, a symbolic flame. It represents the possibility the patient will one day lift the lamp by himself and step into a dimly visible path to something better.

The therapist’s respect, arcane knowledge, and kindness can make the psychologist something of a parental substitute. The patient’s growing attachment allows the doctor to become the carrier of a positive message acceptable to the client, offering a less damning interpretation of why he failed to achieve parental love.

Now, at last, is a countervailing, affirming judgment the patient is ready to consider, one he is not impatient to disqualify. The process encourages the client to believe in his own capacity to set aside the burden (not the memory) of the identity his parents imposed on him.

The therapeutic contact also opens the door to validation from the world of other people and events. In the best case, he receives sufficient acceptance and approval to internalize a different vision of himself. The most important applause becomes his own.

—————————

The first portrait is of Constance Talmadge, 1921, taken by Lumiere. The Missing Painting is the work of En-cas-soleil. Finally comes a Self-portrait of Utz Rothe. The author is recorded as W. Helwig. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When a Therapy Patient Dies

She died last year. This lovely woman might be called a survivor, but her story deserves something more personal than slotting her in a category, no matter how fitting.

Call her Cassie. I met her in a psychiatric hospital. Not her first hospitalization, far from her last. A suicide attempt brought us together. The lady already owned a long and troubled history, one as middle-aged as she was. I’m talking about 35 years ago.

Once an amateur gymnast, as a youth she was fit, flexible, and energetic. Early photos captured an innocent Nordic beauty, as well. Just by her presence, Cassie must have been as fair and welcoming as the first birdsong in springtime.

Nothing in the woman I met suggested any of this. Like other sexual abuse victims, pounds became a bubble wrap to discourage those who might otherwise desire or terrorize her in search of chest-beating rapture and savage control. Now gray, her hair lacked its youthful golden hue, and the innocence remembered by the photos had been forgotten by her lined, questioning face.

—–

The hospital stay progressed. Apparent roots of her clinical depression extended to a male-dominated childhood, a bad marriage, and a ne’er do well, alcoholic adult son often in trouble. Cassie’s husband displayed passivity and incomprehension. Divorce followed.

—–

My efforts continued for a year before I received a call from a hysterical woman en route to murder her offspring within the hour.

Cassie didn’t sound like herself. Her voice turned unearthly; her tone transformed into that of an avenger of outsized energy and purpose, not the beaten-down creature I knew. My patient’s memories were disjointed, recent conversations erased. Cassie’s child, who’d been jailed for murder, had been released on a technicality.

Cassie intended personal correction of the law’s failure.

I talked her down, but the episode brought home a diagnosis everyone missed: Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), today called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I’d long recognized this woman to be dissociative, but here was a new facet. From that day, treatment inched its way toward goals she would achieve many years later: integrating her system of alter-personalities and reaching depression’s end.

—–

In homes such as this courageous individual inhabited, families create a loving self-image. Parents cloak themselves in the garb of religiosity.

Cassie’s father died not long after her updated diagnosis. The news came during another hospital stay. A breakthrough followed when Cassie began to have nightmares of never reported sexual abuse. The death of her abuser freed her from enough of the fear of more violence to allow her to remember and speak of it.

—–

The mother denied any mistreatment. In her daughter’s presence, she met with us and declared her upstanding husband incapable of it. Yet Cassie recalled her mother seeing a glimpse of her father’s molestation and watched her turn away and depart instead of intervening.

The trauma ended after her tenth birthday. The family relocated to a new home in another state. Upon moving in, she immediately asked which room was hers and found a key in the door. She grabbed and hid the key. The world changed.

During one of her hospital stays, I walked with Cassie off-unit, on the facility’s ground floor for a reason lost to time. Nor do I recall what distracted me. By then, however, I trusted her enough to sit in the lobby while I talked with someone at the front desk. My back turned, she disappeared within a minute.

Rushing through the doors, I spotted her about a half-block away, running toward the main street ahead. The chase began.

Knee surgery was not yet in my foreseeable future, and Cassie’s vanished prime gave her no help. Calls to her went unheeded, but I caught the laboring woman by the arm. She put up no fight.

I’d never read the word “racing” on a psychologist’s job description. I’ve become a more careful reader since.

—–

Cassie’s troubled life left her without medical insurance on another occasion. By then, she’d had many visits to the hospital where I met her. I spoke with the facility’s administrator upon her admission. He agreed to forgive all charges for her stay, no matter its length. God bless you, Phil.

For a significant period of my patient’s lengthy treatment, I also worked with an insurance company nurse. She became like a visiting angel, helping to craft the therapy to include multiple weekly sessions beyond the company’s normal policy. Her employer gave permission. This enabled Cassie’s life to escape some of the disruptions caused by her hospital stays.

Hat’s off to those good samaritans, as well.

At some point, Cassie raised the question of God’s role. Once a faithful Catholic, she now accused an all-powerful, all-knowing Deity who witnessed her father forcing himself on her and who permitted this outrage to continue.

I suggested she speak with a priest, a wise and sensitive soul of my acquaintance. He offered her tenderness and asked her to consider the possibility her rage at God could also be understood as an act of prayer. My patient solidified her religious connection and held it until the end of her life.

—–

Though he never again murdered anyone, Cassie’s son continued a mischievous, substance abuser’s life. His mom told him she would cease contact until he’d been sober for a year. Much time passed, but he accomplished this, found steady and honorable employment, married, and produced a family. Cassie embraced this change and welcomed them all into her life with much gratitude.

—–

Cassie’s road to health never included interest in finding new love. She did have many dear friends, modest professional success, sustained work, and several outside interests. She once said perhaps the only way she could share her life with a man would be if he were both uninterested in sex and unable to be sexual. Psychotherapy often has its limits.

—–

This woman was the only person in my practice with whom I maintained contact from the end of treatment almost to her life’s completion. She would send me a holiday card once a year, and I would telephone her soon after. We both enjoyed the reconnection. The last time we spoke her memory was failing with speed. She died a few months later.

My heart was full at the news. This woman was a kind and determined person, not without an edge, but with an unexpected tenacity not evident when we met. All the memories I offer here pushed themselves to the top of my consciousness. It was my great good luck to have known this lady and others like her.

Adieux, Cassie. Here’s hoping you reside in a heaven made for the most remarkable among us.

===========================================

The “Please Touch Gently” photo comes from Marduw Quigmire. The Paessaggio sculpture, “A Helping Hand,” was photographed by Safiyyah Scoggins –PVissions1111. Last are “Fungi Located on a Log Near the Forest Floor” by Mfoelk13. All were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Therapeutic Value of Reading

 

If you have been socially-distanced into submission, as many have, you might be reading more than you once did. Have you turned to self-help books, more news articles, history, poetry, novels, or something else?

The decision depends on what your goal is.

Distraction is called for, at least some of the time. Understanding our politics provides another enticement, though “hair on fire” prose of questionable truth won’t find me turning the page. I salute take-home guides to personal problem solving unless they offer you an escape from changing your life by thinking about it alone.

One might categorize writing differently. Sometimes the language of long and short stories is therapeutic in itself. Virginia Woolf’s work comes to mind. Here is a bit from To the Lighthouse:

What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

The author’s reflections and her lovely way of expressing herself make me wish to know more. She takes me outside of my mind and back again to show me the inside. The author transports me. I am caught in the updraft of her sense and spirit.

Books can make one laugh, too, and good-natured humor at almost any moment has value.

For me, however, most of the time, I’m searching for a new idea, a way of thinking from a perspective I passed over. I don’t require a happy ending, just one I find believable.

I want my eyes to widen, an enlargement of my view of the world, my imagination inspired, my humanity extended. Yes, reading offers this help.

Take a quote from the late Christina Crosby, who wrote of her life after a paralyzing accident of endless residual pain:

In order to live on, I must actively forget the person I was. I am no longer what I once was — yet, come to think of it, neither are you. All of us who live on are not what we were, but are becoming, always becoming.

Yes, I want words like these, arranged to communicate insights just beyond my reach until I read them. I want Dr. Crosby’s eloquence and frankness, the greatness of spirit in her fortitude.

In the end, I want to learn more. I seek enlivenment. The way to this destination requires some amount of disquiet. How is discomfort therapeutic, you ask? Remember, psychotherapy creates a tolerable degree of discomfort, as well. We often must strain and extend ourselves to grow.

The literature for which I search might unsettle me. Do you wonder whether we should bring on more distress in the time of COVID-19?

Franz Kafka created my answer over 100 years ago:

I think we ought to read only the kinds of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.

The not yet world-renowned writer was then 20-years-old.

———-

The first painting is A Beauty Reading by Utagawa Kunisada. Next comes The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden from the National Gallery, London. The photograph was done by luxfon.com/painting. Third in line is a photo of an Old Man Reading a Newspaper Early in the Morning at Bansantapur, Nepal by Bijay Chaurasia. All of these come from Wikimedia Commons.

The Solitary Task of the Therapy Client

If life is like reading a book, many of us come to therapy when the next page stops us. The white paper rises up and forbids progress.

For the moment, his will triumphs over ours. Forward motion feels beyond our strength.

We set the text aside, but it finds us and opens to the unchanged page, always to this page.

Our nemesis, for so we think of the volume in this way, shows up close by our fear of intimacy or self-assertion. The adversary lurks around the corner whenever we run from a challenge. In the bedroom, the tormentor waits for gloom to inhabit sleep.

The strange companion watches as we make our usual mistakes.

He is the silent manuscript resting on the empty barstool as we try to drink away our woes. You find him sitting beside the distraction of sex with someone we met ten minutes ago.

Infinite patience and stubbornness rank high in his list of qualities. He hangs around, offering us the subtle summons to advance the story.

He knows all the written words that came before. Nor does he tire of watching us repeat them in forms always a bit different, always the same.

It is the tale of our life, the journey so far.

Until we recognize the book as our past path, he will offer us his reminders. Perhaps, if the reader confronts whatever a new chapter might hold, the Monster shall begin to smile.

Wisdom tells him this part of the notebook remains unwritten.

Will the reader acknowledge this? Will he face the creature and perceive that the behemoth is a friend?

Only then might one look back at the title and see “The Autobiography of ___________.” The blank spot awaits a name. The virgin space of parchment offers itself to us.

Shall we take ownership of the only life we have? I mean the unwritten parts.

How many empty pages await, filled with possibility?

Pick up the pen.

Make haste.

————

The top image is a 1915 self-portrait of Helene Schjerfbeck from the Finnish National Gallery. The second self-portrait is Egon Schiele’s work taken from the Leopold Museum of Vienna, thanks to Professor Mortel. Both were sourced from Wikimedia.org/

Ten Lessons I Learned in 2020

I don’t have resolutions for the New Year, except to savor the tender moments and the beauties of the earth. Let me bathe in the snow and the rain, with the sun, the children, the grandkids, and woman in the moon. I want to take the people for whom I care and hold them close.

I’d put the sunny days and the loved ones in the fridge to preserve them as they are, but their warmth is what I seek.

Our loved ones are precious because they are temporary, as are we all.

Lessons:

1. To succeed in the job of appreciation, I must forget the thought of appreciation and embrace feelings alone.

The past year reminded us of the role of fate, fortune’s game of daily roulette.

2. “Normality” before the pandemic turned out to have been a piece of extraordinary luck. We showed our faces without thought. Kisses and hugs were commonplace. Custom required handshakes, congratulations, a pat on the back. Shoulders to cry on came without risk.

Now the delivery trucks throw heartbreak on our doorstep along with Amazon merchandise. The latter needs to be ordered; the former comes free of charge. The unwanted product cannot be refused, nor the unhappiness returned.

We will survive as our brave forebears did. Each of us is the beneficiary of their courage, wisdom, and ingenuity. No wonder the Chinese venerate ancestors, those survivors of war, famine, poverty, and discrimination.

3. Applaud them. Add the grocery personnel and the ballot counters, the grape pickers, and every person who works in a medical office or hospital, laboring past the time their eyes water and PTSD steals their joy.

4. Attend to the lonely. Do not mistake their quiet for well-being. As a bereaved woman says in Italo Svevo’s As a Man Grows Older, “The dead are dead, and comfort can only come from the living. We may wish it otherwise, but so it is. It is the living who have need of us.”

And we of them.

We’ve made mistakes. So long as we live, we can reach out, be kinder, and recognize our shared destiny as part of humanity’s brotherhood. And while showing forgiveness, don’t forget to forgive yourself.

The Bible, among other sacred books, speaks to our times:

I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so people are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 and 12.

Yet, nets are like the rest of the world: imperfect. Escapes occur. Our parents and those before them found a way. The ingenuity and effort of medical science worked its miracle this year. Hope still has a place.

What else did I learn from 2020?

5. Irrationality is both inevitable and evident in the mirror if I do not turn away. No matter, too many maintain the righteousness of their scrambled power to reason.

6. Recognizing a past decision as “the big mistake of my life” is an easy game to play, an impossible one to win. Yes, there are missed opportunities, words unspoken or misspoken, and lost friendships. But…

7. Remember this: when we look back, we do so from a changed perspective, toward a bygone moment and place in our lives. Wisdom teaches us no one is gifted with visionary prophecy. Forgiveness also extends to the self.

8. The decisions you made before today were those of a younger soul, fitting well or ill for the time and all the conditions preceding them. Learn from the past but don’t obsess over it.

9. I can reflect upon those errors that still, at a considerable distance, appear as errors. If mending is possible I will try.

10. For now, here is what I can do: make the best decisions befitting the time, my loved ones, and the circumstances of the present.

The day is short. I must seize the day before the day ceases. Fate waits for no one. Good or bad, he must be embraced, either to display my appreciation or to wrestle. This much is within my power.

————-

The record cover needs no introduction. I chose it for the title. The photos following it are of uncertain origin. As suggested by the calendar in the first of these, they appear to date from the middle of the twentieth century. The final piece of art comes with this explanation on Wikimedia Commons: “This image represents self-love in diversity. Its purpose is not just to help oneself but others. In order to accept and appreciate others, first we must love and accept ourselves.” The creator is Elawaltmarie.

The Things Unsaid

Wise words come from many places. Whether the pictured quote is Arabic, Chinese, or Mongolian in origin, Ted Chiang rephrased it this way:

Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.*

Since I’m not an archer or a time-traveler, I’ll take a crack at the first of these, the words we say or leave unsaid. Some prove necessary or useful when uttered. Others fall flat, pass unnoticed, or enlarge misunderstandings. Still more cause injury.

In contrast, thoughts upspoken might best remain inside oneself, the better to fade like a penciled note long exposed to the light.

Should at least a few of your unexpressed expressions be released from their internal exile? Could they build you into a person who must be taken into account instead of one whose desires remain unknown or dismissed?

What to do? I offer some less than perfect guidance. Anyone who says he always knows when to speak and when to keep silent is a wiser soul than I.

Become assertive enough to say what is essential.

If you endure persistent fear of harming another, you will converse little or turn expert in conversational trivialities alone. Many who dread causing injury doubt the worth of their opinions and their way with words, expecting rejection of the message or themselves.

Most of us have our own default settings, a baked-in tendency either to say things or keep silent on delicate subjects. Developing the capacity for direct speech shouldn’t be sidestepped in a world of voices ready to cut you off and talk over you. The courage to speak when others hesitate offers the opportunity to develop a commanding presence.

Unless you wish to invite anonymity, you must say to some segment of the world, “Here I am, deal with me.” By doing so, you claim a sense of yourself.

The ability to convey sensitive words face-to-face will, at least, give you a choice of whether and when to verbalize, rather than leaving you capable of silence alone.

Expect to fail.

No one engages in successful communication at every opportunity. Conversations falter more often than we’d like.

Within the past year, a friend told me I was the single person in his life who expressed difficult truths he needed to hear. When I asked his permission to comment on sensitive matters, he encouraged me. A complaint about himself from his work supervisor caused him to ask for my opinion.

The gentle fellow didn’t believe anyone in his group of family, friends, or parishioners would provide a frank answer to the workplace accusation involving his personal hygiene. He wanted to know whether I detected the problem. No one else could be trusted, he said.

“No,” was my response, “I notice nothing offensive.”

I do not doubt either his decency or the gratitude he offered on multiple occasions. Months later, however, I expressed an unrequested piece of advice, mild, I believed, concerning Coronavirus precautions. He became angry, not because of political differences. The relationship fractured though I did not trade barbs, no matter his earlier thanks.

I’m not suggesting on which side right or wrong fell in this formula for unhappiness. My point is these are complex matters, the results of which aren’t always predictable or desirable. Yet humans still must speak.

The danger of holding things in.

The weight of unexpressed emotion grows as our anger, sadness, and injury accumulate, piling up and piercing us like broken slabs of sidewalk. For those who continue to bear this distress, psychological collapse becomes a risk. Costly methods of coping take the pained individual in a destructive direction. These include substance abuse, endless self-distraction, and flight from much potential social contact.

In the worst cases, the silent suffering spills into depression or momentary but outsized rage. Small things tip the balance. Witnesses won’t know about the unmentioned insults leading to explosive dyscontrol.

Ironically, the one who quietly bore the painful injuries gets labeled as “the one with the problem.” When asked why they didn’t speak earlier, such patients told me they “couldn’t find the words” to convince the offending party of his error and injustice. Too many described them as too sensitive.


There are no guarantees with words. No alchemist or sorcerer provides aromatic potions of syllables capable of filling the air with just the right inflection, volume, rhythm, and order of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Nor can we buy the perfect facial expression with which to deliver those sounds, the ideal amount of eye contact, an untrembling voice, and steadfast self-assurance. Stores sell no commodities to ease our most important and intimate communications, not even mask and costume shops.

One of the finest spontaneous public speakers I ever knew never mastered the art of saying the difficult things I’m describing. Occasional private verbal explosions resulted. Then his words lost the measure and eloquence his formal audiences heard.

Though none of us are at our best when internal passions bubble over, the need to recognize and reduce inappropriate anger is essential.

Self-expression can be more important than achieving understanding.

Some things need disclosure despite unlikely comprehension by the listener. You must stand up for yourself. The most dramatic examples from my practice came when newly decisive and brave abuse survivors confronted their abusers. Their triumph was in overcoming their fear. Whatever the words, their essence was this:

You won’t admit what you did, but you will never do that to me again. I won’t let you.

Conclusion.

Those of us who have forgiving friends or lovers are lucky. We receive acceptance and affection despite our less than stellar moments — the rash “spoken words” that “will not come back” among them. The survival of our relationships depends on our display of the consideration these kind hearts offer, recreating ourselves to become as forgiving as they are.

We live in a season of unusual sadness. Disease statistics tell us future opportunities to communicate with dear ones are not ensured. Endearments must not be postponed. The moment commends us to reach out to the estranged, including some of those we have injured or who have injured us.

Our intimacy and contentment depend on it.

—————

The last two images are the work of Laura Hedien, with her generous permission: https://twitter.com/lhedien

The first is of the Narrows at Zion National Park in December 2020. The second 2020 photo displays a Sunset in New Mexico.

* From The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang. Thanks to Phil Zawa for his introduction to this dazzling short story.

“The Best Meal I Had All Day” and Other Words of Wisdom

Emmanuel Terry, my Uncle Manny, is remembered by my brothers for something we heard from him whenever he came to dinner.

No matter the food he ate earlier, our gathering lacked completion until he said, “This was the best meal I had all day!” He smiled and we grinned at what became a necessary secular benediction at the evening’s conclusion.

Though we took his words as a joke, we might have better understood them as a true expression of appreciation, a thanksgiving for the feast and comradery of the moment.

Well before such festivities, Mr. Terry endured the Great Depression of the 1930s, psychiatric hospitalization, electroshock treatment, and service overseas in wartime. Late in life, he suffered the death of his wife, my Aunt Nettie. He knew loved ones and joyous reunions should not be taken for granted.

Uncle M. smiled a lot when we were together, drinking in the companionship and enjoying the laughter we all shared. And, yet, I am the inheritor of a few philosophy texts he read. Too bad I never thought to ask him what in those yellowed pages mattered to him.

Did they contribute to his gratitude?

This brings me to a friend (I’ll call him K), who is entering his 75th year on the planet, a bit longer than Manny achieved. On his birthday, the pandemic doing its worst, he wondered what he might wish for beyond the loving expressions of his children and friends.

While talking to his son-in-law a solution evolved. He planned to bestow some small benevolence on someone he didn’t know. But who, how? Close contact with people would risk lives, both his and the other.

K wasn’t deterred.

My buddy realized an acquaintance in another country might be useful in the endeavor. One owns an eatery in a city where bars and restaurants are open. He chose an establishment over 4000 miles away.

This longtime friend placed a call and asked the proprietor to serve a drink to every person in the place. His confidant would charge the tab to K.

The barkeep honored the anonymity desired by the benefactor of all the strangers. Thus the task was done.

My comrade suggested I take some similar action myself. I told him I would and, also write about his random act of kindness.

Perhaps you enjoyed a beer on my friend, but probably not. I’m guessing if he could have fed the world he would have. None of us can.

We can only do our small part.

Like Uncle Manny, K is a wise man and a grateful one.

It is no accident that these characteristics go together.

Such people make us better than we are.

———-

The adults flanking the young man at his bar mitzvah celebration are his Uncle Manny and Aunt Nettie. The gentleman seated at the right is George Fields. Yes, I am the boy in the middle. It was the best meal we had all day.

Which Therapies Work? A Guide to Finding Them

Many people seeking psychotherapy are in crisis. The urgency of their need causes them to rely on recommendations.

They wonder who they should see. Under pressure, a deep dive into a complex field can be too much.

This essay intends to assist those in distress to match themselves with the best help.

The prospective patient may not know his condition’s precise name. Without this, the task of finding a practitioner who will fit his needs is harder. Generic descriptions like depression or anxiety offer a starting point only. Even if an individual consulted someone before, there is no guarantee he was correctly diagnosed.

No, I won’t give you a magic bullet or the name of someone to call.

This will be a different approach to the search for satisfactory psychotherapeutic care.

Allow me to establish a few premises:

  • No clinician, however gifted, is an expert in every form of therapy.
  • Not every remedy is appropriate for every ailment.
  • The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5 is over 900 pages long. If you encounter anyone foolish enough to claim mastery of all the human problems within it, run.
  • Not every therapist is a talented diagnostician. Some are not well-trained in this area nor have an extensive range of experience with clients from the book’s numerous categories.

To the good, the number of empirically validated forms of counseling continues to grow.

How, then, do you find the kind of specialized intervention you need?

Division 12 of the American Psychological Association maintains a long list of treatments, including those “evaluated to determine the strength of their evidence base.”

The website links to the therapies, describes them, and indicates the degree to which research supports their use.

Each description also includes a link to enable you to find a therapist who practices the outlined remedy. Of course, there are many other ways to locate a practitioner: recommendations, professional organizations of those who allege expertise in delivering those services, and sites such as Psychology Today.

Your insurance company might propose a list of “preferred providers,” as well. The latter group agrees to accept their HMO or PPO’s fee limits.*

If you can identify your diagnosis, you can begin your investigation with its name. Division 12 also provides an inventory of these conditions, along with this disclaimer: “the absence of a treatment for a particular diagnosis or treatment target does not necessarily suggest the treatment does not have sufficient evidence. Rather, it may indicate the treatment has not been thoroughly evaluated by our team according to empirically-supported treatment criteria.”

I hope you will not be afraid of the diagnostic process or “classification” with a name for your suffering. Without a thorough understanding of your problem, no provider can address your condition in the way best for you.

Good luck!

————

*The acronym HMO refers to Health Maintenance Organization, a form of managed care. PPO refers to Preferred Provider Network.

The photo is described as Sunrise at North Point Park, Milwaukee, WI. It was taken on February 1, 2009 and is the work of Dori. The image was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Reaching for Happiness

Phil Brickman could be a funny guy, but he was not a happy one. Let’s start with the first words he said when I defended my Master’s thesis. Phil was one of the examiners, a member of the small panel passing judgment on whether I met the degree’s requirements.

All the committee members had signed off on my research proposal. Once finished and written up, they’d read the account I gave them of my efforts.

The group of three talked for a few minutes before asking me to enter the room. The 23-year-old version of GS inhabited a state of controlled anxiety typical of graduate students in such situations.

The questioning began. Phil spoke first:

There is a very serious problem with this thesis.

Those were not the words I’d wished for. Fortunately, I carried no sharp objects with me. I waited as my brain began to dissolve. While my imagined dead-end future passed before me, the same gentleman said more.

Philip is spelled with one (lower case) L.

Philip was calling attention to how his name appeared in the Acknowledgments section of my long paper.

It read, “Phillip.

Oops.

I don’t recall what happened next. My guess would be laughs, my apology, and relief. Or maybe my leaping across the desk (I can see it now) and throttling the man. No, I’ve never been one for rashness or battery.

Young Assistant Professor Phil wasn’t a popular guy, as you might have guessed. He didn’t fit well with people, including those of us who called him a teammate on our Northwestern Psychology Department softball team.

Everyone recognized Phil’s intellect, however. Indeed, Doctor B become famous in his field, and his research continues to be cited and discussed.

One of Brickman’s major contributions to our profession is an idea called “the hedonic treadmill.Simply put, the notion consists of this: we adapt to events in our lives, and our elation or dismay tends to fade. As time passes, we return to where we started in terms of mood.

Here is an example of the idea (co-created with Donald Campbell in 1971).

Imagine you get a happiness boost by achieving some goal you’ve long been shooting for. You feel great, but the pleasurable dose of enhancement diminishes with time. The set-point — your usual level of high spirits or unhappiness — returns.

Don’t despair; welcome news is coming. Your set-point doesn’t control everything about your emotional state. One can still reach a condition of well-being: a satisfying life with an often positive and seldom negative mood.

In 2005, long after Philip died, other social scientists took his idea further. A study involving over 2000 twins, Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade estimated that 50% of your life satisfaction derives from inborn temperament — your genetic inheritance. Another 10% comes from life circumstances, with 40% determined by personal outlook and life-altering thoughts and actions.

The encouraging development is that various empirically validated forms of psychotherapy emerged since Phil’s work ended, concentrating on the 40% of our well-being we can enhance and the 10% of life conditions we can sometimes change. Although our genes can’t be altered, we can find ways to move through life at a higher altitude.

Therefore, the patient and therapist’s job aims to boost the things over which we possess some influence.

The irony of Phil Brickman’s life, one he took at age 38, was that his research led to improvements in many other lives, though he never achieved this for himself.

A story by Jennifer Senior from The New York Times (NYT) of November 24, 2020,  focuses on the tragedy, but I prefer to remember this man in a brighter light.

Think of someone who throws a stone into the ocean and then walks away. The ripples continue long after his departure. Many others, years after the missile touched the water, watch the surge catch the sunlight. The beauty of the reflection benefits all of them and those around them.

The cause of the tiny waves is a mystery to many whose lives thereby were enriched. Even you, dear reader, might be one who Dr. B’s distant hand helped to lift.

Now you’ll remember his name and the proper spelling of it, too:

Philip Brickman.

One L.

The top image is Pedra do Baú — Compos do Jordáo. The author is Izabel Tartari. The second photo shows Anna Stoehr, AUS, competing in the Boulder Worldcup 2012. It is the work of Henning Schlottmann. After the University of Michigan picture of Dr. Brickman, comes a 3D Graph That Shows a Rippling Pattern, the creation of Mr. Noble.xyz. All but the photo of Phil come from Wikimedia Commons.

Have Men Changed? Curing the Culture of Complaint

We live in a culture of complaint, as Robert Hughes first called it in 1993. Maybe a malicious physician transfused the once belittled stereotype of the angry old white men into the national bloodstream. Some younger men now glorify their righteous anger.

It shouldn’t have been surprising to find the written word “unfairness” used 36% more often in 2018 than in 1961.

Raucous whining was not always tolerated when I grew up. Loud expressions of self-pity and bellyaching served as the stock material of situation comedies. Fulminating males like Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden and Carroll O’Conner’s Archie Bunker depicted the stuff of laughter and futility.

A “real” man projected quiet, decisiveness, and courage, enduring disappointment in silence. Pushed far enough, he settled matters with his fists or on the playing field. After a loss, he got up, shook hands, congratulated his opponent, and returned to do better the next day.

This male accepted the rules. Dads of his kind lived next door to everyone in the 1950s and ’60s. They weren’t an easy bunch, however. A few pushed the family around or worse. Some drank to excess but had comrades and friends who believed in shared sacrifice. Shouldering responsibility was taken for granted.

A dark side lived inside them: crushing, unspoken privacy. One had the sense they kept secrets, things about which they harbored shame.

The “real man” role demanded they carry too much weight, but not the kind measured in numbers on a scale. It came from the psychological armor covering their tender parts. The burden of maintaining a livelihood also added poundage. The home was for the spouse to care for in a time of unmentioned gender discrimination.

Their battlefield, they’d been told, was downtown.

These gents did not kick down or suck up, but the toll of all they were and what they weren’t stalked them. Such fellows put their hearts into fulfilling the standard image of manhood. The ticker continued to beat but also beat them down, failing at an alarming rate in a time before statin medication and a healthy diet.

Much has changed. I’ve described a myth, of course, but one that featured select qualities worth admiring. Its white and black quality matched the lack of color in the movies and on TV. Black men, too, aspired to the white man’s model. They understood endurance.

These fathers were solid. Hard at times, yes, but when a broad hand rested on your shoulder, it encouraged and melted you. You wanted to embody it, to create yourself in the mold out of which it emerged.

The best of men still aspire to a modified version of the old fiction. A new gentleman’s design encourages him to show love to his offspring, listen more, and recite fewer solutions. The spouse is a partner saluted in her desire for fulfillment beyond her mother’s old and conventional slot.

Kids today still want certainty and security from their parents, who, if they allow themselves to remember, recall their own place as children once: young people needful of adults to rely upon.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) acknowledged the challenge: how to persuade your family you will protect them from everything when you aren’t sure you can ensure your own survival.

Bacon believed achieving this required hocus pocus, a magic act of sorts. Guardians hide something, a least for a while:

The joys of parents are secret; and so are their griefs and fears. They cannot utter the one; nor they will not utter the other.

For most, this entails self-deception, burying enough self-doubts to accomplish the charade, both in the competitive workplace and at home.

Perhaps the irate men of today are finding the masquerade more difficult. They return from work without a living wage of the kind their poppas achieved — if they have employment. Many seek a reason for this outside themselves and, it must be admitted, there is no shortage of unfairness to point to.

Our triple troubles of unemployment, inequality, and pandemic enable the defensive closing of too many minds. Certitude takes the place of thoughtful examination. Belief in demigods squeezes out the supreme beings who are neglected once the sabbath is over.

Simplified answers drip from those who would misuse the widespread terror of failing at the basic job of meeting family expenses and caring for one’s kids. Their demagogic rants offer an example their followers imitate.

Francis Bacon recognized this dilemma, too, offering the remedy of mindful inquiry, not unsupported jumps to judgment:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

Despite the distracting and desperate circus performance sometimes masquerading as leadership, the modest, neighborly man and woman deserve respect. The world would do well to toast their everyday labor to make an honorable living and a home.

These decent souls put their families ahead of their own needs. They form the ranks of our best public servants, the people who do their jobs with integrity. This group of adults continues to give us reliance on the democratic republic we live in. Their oath of office binds them to serve the Constitution and not loyalty to any person.

Hope and the possibility of trust survive, partly due to the faceless and nameless citizens who do not place their advancement on the auction block.

Most of us recognize the same values and work to instill them in our children: enough fortitude to overcome hardship, enough effort to meet challenges, and enough humanity to comfort our fellowmen.

In the face of disease and want, the words of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) add to Bacon’s 400 hundred-year-old guidance. Roosevelt was a daughter of privilege who lost both her parents by age 10. A timid and frightened child by her own report, she became a voice against racism and disadvantage. Her life was a triumph over anxiety and the second-place status of women:

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

———————————————————

The painting Freedom from Fear, reproduced above, comes from the Four Freedoms, a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

As noted on the United Nations website, “First lady of the United States of America from 1933 to 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt (photographed above) was appointed, in 1946, as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by United States President Harry S. Truman. She served as the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and played an instrumental role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At a time of increasing East-West tensions, Eleanor Roosevelt used her enormous prestige and credibility with both superpowers to steer the drafting process toward its successful completion. In 1968, she was posthumously awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize.”

As further noted on the UN website, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages.