A Dozen Ways to Avoid Regret (and a Warning about Endless Therapy)

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When we suffer regret we are, by definition, occupied with the past. We lament things we did or didn’t do, time lost, vanished opportunities. Perhaps, however, it would be useful thinking about how to avoid regret going forward. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Recognize life’s limitations, learn from failure, and don’t stop trying. Anyone with imagination can think of several possible lives to lead, places to go, experiences to pursue. If  you are honest you can even envision a different spouse or children, no matter your great good fortune in those you have. Thus, the world is like a candy store in which only so much consumption of sweets is possible, to borrow a metaphor from Haruki Murakami and Forrest Gump. The earlier you recognize this the more you are forced to refine and narrow your choices. Moreover, you must reach for some of those candies without ever having tasted them and before obtaining experience in how to grasp each one artfully, a guarantee of mistakes. We can only learn from disappointments and try again. Live your values as best you can: dive deep into those few candied heaps of life you deem worth the effort in the short time permitted. Don’t end your days saying, “I should have” or  “Why did I waste my time on … ” Or, worst of all, “Why didn’t I?” Michael Jordan, basketball hero, said:

I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games.Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

  • Improve your choices. Moving through life, take stock, reflect. Write down your analysis, perhaps every five or 10 years. Look where you’ve been, where you are, and where you would like to go. I’m talking about what career you might still pursue, what you’d like to learn about, how much of yourself you hope to devote to relationships, what personal characteristics you still wish to alter, where you’d like to live, what you’d like to see, and the legacy you might leave behind. No one can do everything, be everything. Too much candy, too little time, too much indigestion.
  • Since we can’t invent more hours, we are left to determine how best to spend our allotment. If you hope to become World Champion in the art of perusing and responding to tweets, stop reading this now. You are wasting minutes you could devote to your curious focus on 140 characters or less. For myself, I watch TV/video less than an hour a day on most days, except for those in the baseball season! Why? Because I value the time spent in the company of fine novelists, historians, and ancient philosophers more than what is on the tube. Some of this might strike you as elitist, but no. Literature isn’t automatically “superior” to TV, film, or theater. I’ve simply made a choice: my personal preference. You can find superb TV shows if that is what you believe is a good use of your day. I’m suggesting you think through choices. Assuming you are mature, the most satisfying life possible for you will be a life designed by you — not a consequence of habit or the persuasion of advertising, the boss, or friends. Quiet consideration of how you spend your waking hours is essential to the success of your plan, especially if you are not happy.
  • Be active, take risks, always seek to grow. Some of these endeavors will assume the form of self-disclosure and vulnerability, some the shape of honest self-reflection, some the act of trying new things. The courage to know yourself and then be yourself is never easy. The ground is shifting under all of us. Move, don’t sit still. Reinvent yourself, at least a bit. Proceed, don’t rush, but live with intensity. Walter Pater wrote:

To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

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  • Be wary of bucket lists. I’m referring to the postponement of activities until late in life, the things you want to do before you begin residence below ground. Several problems come with delay: a) you might not live long enough. b) if you are forever looking forward you won’t live in the moment and experience joy in the now. c) bucket lists assume excellence at predicting what will bring fulfillment in 10, 20, or 40 years. We are poor at this. Research on “affective forecasting” (being able to predict how life events will influence our emotions) affirms the weakness. Richard Posner, in his book Aging and Old Age, puts the dilemma of anticipating our future self this way. Say we sentence a 20-year-old to life in prison. Are we punishing the same person when he is 65? That is, does a man change over time? Possibly deepen, mature, give up old hobbies and take on new ones, learn more; become enriched and transformed by love or literature or experience, turn grateful or embittered, for or against life? Unless we can predict the manner in which events and people will work on us and how we will work on ourselves, we might realize a long postponed trip to Paris would have been better in life’s springtime; or, in my case, a Chicago Cubs World Series victory would have meant more to me at 20, when I lived and died by the team’s fortunes, than it did in 2016. By the way, I didn’t plan on morphing into a less avid fan. I simply changed.
  • Regret can be a result of idealization. As Janet Landman observes in her book, Regret: The Persistence of the Possible, this emotional state is akin to the aftermath of a decision made at a fork in the road. We reach the divide and must choose. Proceeding down the chosen path, past the time of easily retracing our steps, we think: “I was mistaken. The other way was better.” But really, do we know?  We only understand the lived experience of the choice we made. The other avenue is easy to idealize because it exists in imagination, because we didn’t encounter the imperfections one can only suffer by a different choosing. Do you wish to spend a lifetime lamenting a mirage?
  • Ask whether there is another side to losses, mistakes, and missed opportunities. I am not Pollyanna. Few who read my writing regularly would think so, I suspect. I will say, however, that I have learned far more from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than from any other source. Not every mistake can be rationalized, not every loss offers even close to equal compensation in some other form. But before you devote the rest of your days to regret, take a few moments to seek what can be learned from life’s hard and unequal distribution of pain. Perhaps you can create some good out of your awareness of those things you did or didn’t do, the words you said or didn’t say, the chances missed and the poorly chosen roads endured — if not for yourself, then for someone else.
  • Remember that research says you will be happier if you take newfound money and buy a cup of coffee for a stranger than if you use the gift for yourself. King Midas wasn’t a happy guy, was he? Take a hard look at your desire to gain triumphant, towering status and wealth.

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  • Be careful how much time you spend looking back. I am on thin ice in saying so. A good therapist begins with history. The untying of binding emotional knots is essential, often requiring discovery of how they came to be, where they remain, and more. Danger exists, however, in believing every knot requires attention, every cognitive or behavioral change demands agonizing soul-searching. Some will loosen with the passage of time, others aren’t too important. CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) is able to master many without endless and wrenching historical probing. Meanwhile, weigh the time spent on a backward focus versus possible gains from attention to the now via action. Curtail whatever retrospective view isn’t essential to making a satisfying life. Is this avoidance, cowardice? Only sometimes. Psychotherapy in-depth encourages a seemingly perpetual return to the bottomless gorge of your memory-distressed soul until you dredge up every dark thing at its floor. Sometimes we must put an end to reruns and begin a new season in the installment series of our lives. Your therapist might urge digging deeper. He may be correct. I’m here to say — on reflection — my patients sometimes knew when to stop when I didn’t.
  • Is there room for gratitude? Such a sentiment is hard to summon in the midst of despair, maybe impossible. The practice of routinely reminding yourself what is good can, nonetheless, diminish sadness much of the time.
  • Time is always moving forward and doesn’t permit time-travel for do-overs. Those facts set the stage for regret. Not because you made horrible mistakes, but because you are human and were thrown into a set of unalterable physical laws (as are all of us). The best way we can deal with what nature offers is to make good use of the present and plan for the future, even though the person for whom we are planning (our future self) may not be as thrilled as we hope with the baton we pass him. Regret is inevitable because our genetic inheritance keeps us unsatisfied, always seeking more and better. Those early humans without such ambitions — those who were easily satisfied — didn’t survive, nor did their offspring become our ancestors. Evolution enabled the perpetuation of our forefathers’ genes in the form of their progeny, but offered no guarantee of joy in our status, our mate, or our job. Regret, therefore, is built into who we are: restless creatures still driven by the biological imperative to behave in a way that increases the chances of our genes surviving, even past our reproductive years.
  • Learn to forgive yourself. You cannot do everything, you will never be perfect, you will disappoint and injure others, your imprint on the planet will (unless your last name is Will Shakespeare or Hawking or Beethoven) be small. We are always learning and forever changing course. Do your best, try to do better, and leave it at that. Life is punishing enough for most of us without volunteering for the cross and offering to hammer in the nails, to boot. As a Christian colleague occasionally told her patients, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

You need the wood, too. Take the timber and carve a sculpture or draw a lovely image or build a house; or burn it to keep yourself and another good human warm. Leave the job of summing up your life to history, assuming history cares.

In my book that is enough.

The top painting is Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet. The second photo is Sunset Over the Vercors Mountains, Seen From Grenoble by Guillaume Piolle. Finally, Sunrise with Reeds in Winter is the work of Benjamin Gimmel. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Haunted by Lost Love: Escaping Our Preoccupation with the World Inside Our Head

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We live in two worlds: the real one around us and the one we think about when we are by ourselves. The “inner version” contains past loves, loves unavailable now in the actual world. Within us we can access fantasy and memory, a bygone time of affection and its disappearance. Thus, those lost relationships can “live” inside of us, even if we never see the object of our romantic attachment again. By the end of this essay I hope you and I will share a clear idea of the differences between these two worlds; and a sense of what to do if you are captured by the troubling and stirring inner world of lost love.

I’ll concern myself with two kinds of love and the overlap between them:

  • Romantic love you once had and lost: love lost because someone broke your heart.
  • Romantic love you tried for but didn’t win: love unfulfilled. This category would include everyday unrequited love, as well as erotic transference toward a therapist.

Where does love begin? With reasons or emotions? Most would say the latter. Language is telling. We are “swept away.” We “fall” in love. We become “love sick.” Note the passivity of these descriptions. Love is not caused by logic or careful analysis. Romance “happens.” Once the love blooms, however, reasons follow and justify our feelings and continuing preoccupation.

The person preoccupied with vanished affection is also occupied by it: occupied in the military sense. An emotional army invades and takes control of our head and heart. These are the soldiers of the cruel King of Hearts, the man who now governs our internal life. The monarch makes sure the idea of the beloved — the image of the beloved, the fragrance and touch and voice of the beloved — cannot be escaped. The heartless King of Hearts insists we review our life of heartbreak. Review and review and review, enacting a repeated agony.

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The one we love now has two lives. She is “out there,” living a life on planet earth; and she is “in there,” living an existence unknown to her, experienced only by us. The manufactured being does not think and act identically to the being in the world. We only think so.

We spend time wondering about her. What is she doing now? Who is she with? Does she think about me? What does she think about me?

We are neither voyeurs nor mind readers. Her real identity is a mystery, while her created identity is made up of the language with which we form her life inside of us. The more enchanted our inner life of unreality (and the more distant we are in time from the relationship’s termination),  the greater the disparity between this person as she is now (outside of us) and who we imagine her to be. Ironically, the creature we most want to know we unwittingly make unknowable in the act of obsession. “Make,” however, may be too strong a word. Obsession is, perhaps, not a choice, but a thing that just happens to us, like the love by which we were captured.

In either case the lady leads a double-life, one-half of which is a false representation enhanced and enlarged by our emotional and mental process. We trap ourselves by creating a divinity, a goddess requiring worship, with an internal shrine of our own making. Meanwhile, our regular-sized existence is diminished by the outsized, manufactured mirage. How can we then fail to think we would be happier if only we were with this person, this entity who is more magnificent than humanly possible? Better, indeed, than she was when she was with us, in most cases. Did we filter out some unpleasantness from our memory?

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We are tortured in the process of obsession, including the endless review of small events. Things said casually, unimportant comments and facial expressions that meant nothing we make into something: something fraught with meaning, something important, full of sharp edges.

We run through imagined scenarios. What if I’d done X? What if I’d not done X? We kick ourselves over actions and omissions that, in reality, probably made no difference. Our preoccupation with this past keeps our love alive.

Our love is placed on life-support. So long as the ritual homage we pay to her continues she will not die as a love object. We exercise the terrifying curse of regret-filled imagination to create a posthumous life for the love we feel and the one we love. Thus, like a person traveling to see a sick relative (someone who remains barely alive), we journey to make internal “hospital visits” and drain our days of the energy and time needed to do anything else.

Once the love is history — when the act of chasing and wooing and trying to impress is over — the memory and fantasy stay behind as a cruel, unchanging mockery. Objects of memory don’t age. The longed-for beloved doesn’t get a cold or brush her teeth. She isn’t inconveniently tired. The target of our obsession can’t lose concentration or temper, fail to laugh at our jokes, acquire friends we don’t like, show-up late, or look washed-out before she puts on her lipstick. She is an ageless dream and daydream.

I would not recommend searching for the reasons we maintain the “romance” of a dead romance, to the extent it is a choice. We are not logical creatures, especially when in love. Perhaps we find sustenance in the possibility, however small, of a realization of the love we hope for. “She still might come around” (one says to oneself), acknowledge the error of her ways, plead for a second go. Perchance the lovely Frankenstein someday will turn gentle and reciprocate our affection.

We wait for the phone call, the email, the tweet opening romance’s door. Perhaps we keep love alive because we think this supersized version of yesterday’s love far surpasses what any real, mortal, new person could offer us today. No satisfaction can be found, unfortunately, either in regret or the hopeless hope of a happy ending.

Might we simply not have enough going on in our lives? Is the daily, dull, dreadfulness we think of as real life relieved by a remembered, glorious preoccupation? The fantasy never fails. The ghost is dependable, always there, ever ready to stir us. Pain, after all, can create its own ecstasy.

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And so we travel places where our lost love might still be observed or perhaps even met face-to-face. We seek those people with whom she has contact, friends of hers who might know what she is doing, share something she said about us, advise how to win back what we lost. The truth is, however, that every relationship in our life — business, family, friendship — pales in comparison to “the creature.” We suffer a preoccupied inner life at the additional cost of a diminished outer life, a life in the world of touch and taste, of face-to-face interactions and smiles and bruises and sweet perfume you can smell, not just imagine smelling.

What then? Say you’ve had enough pain and want to wrench yourself from all the tendrils holding you back. You go to a therapist. He will, almost certainly, recognize your need to grieve: encourage an emotional processing of the events revolving carousel-like inside of you. The goal is to end the spinning in your head, get you off the torturous wheel. The grief-work allows you to take the memories a step-further than you have until now: to give up hope; to shed tears with a compassionate human, not in isolation; to become angry with the ghost and finally to bury her. Only those we first reduce to human size can fit into a normal grave.

You might ask, doesn’t this “solution” just keep you in your head? Yes, and for that reason therapy is not yet complete. You still must seize the life outside. Treatment isn’t over until you return to the world of possibility and lived experience. The cure must diminish your use of fantasy and memory going forward. The process of burying your late love affair also requires the exhumation of a different person from another grave — a real person who can live in the world and act on the world.

Who might that be?

You.

Yes, you.

You must make history, not regurgitate it, and thereby escape the long reach of your past and present fantasy. You must tear yourself from the metaphorical hand holding you back.

You can do this.

You must accept the knowledge that some of what is in your brain lives only there; that some of what is in your skull could never and can never come to be. Fantasies are like that, otherwise we would call them by a different name.

In this awful truth is encouragement to get past your preoccupations and move on to your occupation with life, accomplishment, friendship, joy, learning, and growth: that which is still possible within the breathing world. And possible only in the lived experience, only in movement, only when you lift your eyes from the darkness to the sun.

Even, perhaps, to find new love.

The top image is called Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse (ca. 1897). Buddah Head Carved into Living Rock is a photo taken by Photo Dharma in Sadao, Thailand. Finally, Please Touch Gently is the work of Marcus Quigmire. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Words Fail

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There are times, whether in therapy or in life, when words are inadequate. Listening to a story of heartbreak, sometimes my heart broke a little, too. If my patient watched me carefully (no failure on his part if he didn’t), he saw the tears in my eyes. Words would have intruded on what was happening between us. In a sense, the air, the touching contact of our eyes — the silence — did that which could be done.

This moment in US history cries — and cries out — for a response, but too many words have already been written and spoken. I am reminded of the composer John Cage, a wry and brilliant man. His most famous piece is entitled 4’33.” The composition consists entirely of silence. Quiet is appropriate for mourning, is it not?

Whether in words or in silence, compassion only goes so far. Expressed opinion only goes so far. But the emotional shards need removal, thus grieving comes first for most of us.

The work of therapy begins with the processing of pain. Sadness often robs us of motivation. Fear can paralyze. There are more catastrophes predicted than realized. Unrestrained anger turns you into the thing you hate. Rage is a motivator, but not easily prolonged or healthily maintained. No psychologist would urge you to try.

What then? Prior to counseling’s end you must change yourself if your goal is to change the world, whether one’s small personal globe or the bigger one.

Marcus Aurelius wrote,

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s … it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.

Like the wrestler we take a breath, search our ingenuity, and get up when we have been thrown to the mat.

A return to the fight is essential whether in therapy or life. Action — exerting control of what you can control — defeats the sense of helplessness.

In therapy and in life we are called to heroism. Courage is required to take on uncomfortable truths, beginning with those about ourselves. Difficult actions must follow. No heroism is needed to pour gasoline on your heart and light a match. Reason is your friend; emotion, not always.

Take responsibility and act responsibly.

Nor does one profit by the simple wish for a result, a passive hope for a change, or a patient wait for others to lift you. Freedom from your demons, in therapy and in life, must be won.

Our demons teach us who we are and what we are made of. Are they perhaps, in this way, our friends? Do we owe a peculiar debt to our challenges? You cannot think otherwise when you watch your 14-month-old child learn to master his universe, but you can when you have been decked. Regardless, whatever we want we must make it so.

Therapy is not an endeavor of a few weeks or months if the goal desired is substantial. Whether in therapy or in life you will succeed only if you persevere. Expect setbacks. Whether in therapy or in life, many make a fast start out of the gate, but fade before the stretch run. The finish line is not achieved and the problems then persist. Lasting dedication of your entire spirit triumphs over both temporary grievances and passing enthusiasms. No distractions are permitted for the true of heart.

Cato said:

When Cicero spoke, people marveled. When Caesar spoke, people marched. … Good judgment without action is worthless.

Whether in therapy or in life the voice is yours, the choice is yours, and the action must be yours.

The painting above is The Silence by Johann Heinrich Füssli. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Therapy is Long Does Your Therapist’s Patience Grow Short?

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Some phrases never grow old, never become routine. “I love you” is one.” So is “I don’t want you anymore.” It is not that we’ve never heard the words before, but that they are so powerful and fraught with significance (or so hard to say or mean so much) either to the one who utters them or the one to whom they are delivered. In therapy the dread-laden expression is different: “I can’t do more. I need to refer you. Treatment has been long. The lack of progress means we must stop.”

Yes, perhaps it is said differently or becomes evident not through language, but impatience or facial expression or indifference. Where once enthusiasm and intensity bloomed, now the counselor seems to be enduring you, too conscious of the time, growing weary of your moments together. Two of my readers, Claire and Rosie, asked me to write about what permits a therapist not to take this dreaded path, the one leading to his desire to dump you — hoping you “never again darken my door” even if he doesn’t say the precise words I just used. Thanks to them I will try. I speak for myself, but know many therapists who would agree with much of what they will find below.

  • I like people. I like stories. I like individuals, not groups. I try to provoke meaningful conversations even with friends, not small talk. The time I spent with my patients was the perfect environment for me to look into a person’s history, history being a favorite subject from my early school years on.
  • I learned to notice small signs of progress. Sometimes we advance in microscopic steps. We reach a plateau on the mountain climb of treatment and then must catch our breath or wait for the storm to pass. The old Chinese saying tells us, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Therapists measure their work in moving toward a goal, not reaching it in quick time.

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  • The work is gratifying. Where else do people come to you, rather than requiring your travel? Watching others grow — helping them grow — generates good feeling on both sides. You receive thanks.
  • The work is an honor. New counselors find the responsibility almost overwhelming: another person places his well-being in your hands. A wiser, more experienced, older doc should know (or remind himself) of the implicit tribute his patients give him by their consultation and expectation of his help.
  • I received payment for my effort. It was easier to be patient with patients in the knowledge some of my compensation came in a material way. That said, in a handful of cases, long-term clients were thousands of dollars in debt to me before the sessions ended and they achieved the life they wanted. Yes, they did then pay me, usually over time. Healers must not be so self-sacrificing that they become resentful of those they treat.
  • The patient’s life was not mine or that of my spouse or children. While clients sometimes wish to be closer to their doctor, the therapeutic distance created by him makes it possible to put treatment still-points in perspective. I am less calm and understanding with my wife and adult children than with those who sought my professional skills. I cared about the people I treated, but (usually) not to the point of a disruption of my equanimity. Thus, I tended to be patient with a lack of movement, thinking of such episodes as a rather commonplace experience not usually requiring a desperate and immediate remedy.
  • I was responsible for making therapy fresh. A therapist’s job is to bring his intense focus to every session. He must also reflect periodically on whether he has missed something important. I reevaluated my patient and my approach, made course corrections as needed. A therapist who is often bored or unable to change perspective and look anew at the client is in the wrong profession. I kept it interesting both for myself and for those who put their trust in me. A patient is not your entertainer. The counselor should be emotionally and intellectually engaged on his own
  • Of course, if you aren’t putting in the effort, you might wear the therapist down. If you are simply paying for a friend, buying his time because you have affection for him (or using him to replace a missing social life) then he should recognize this and talk to you about it. So long as you rededicate yourself to “the work” of therapy, no ouster need be expected.

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  • Progress isn’t linear. I once asked my money manager, a professional analyst of financial markets, what he expected in the near term from the stock market. He answered, “It will fluctuate.” What he said was funny, but his comment acknowledged that no one predicts economic busts or booms, much as many people claim to. Therapy doesn’t move in a straight line of ascent from start to finish, anymore more than the stock market goes straight up or down in perpetuity. There are bursts of change, but more often, periods of little movement. I didn’t expect patients to be elite prodigies of self-analysis and courage, sprinting to psychotherapy’s finish line, so I wasn’t desolated if treatment took its time.
  • The therapist discovers value in challenges. If therapy were always smooth sailing, counselors would become bored with it.  They would learn nothing new because no greater progress could be made by doing so. Since I lacked a magic wand, I had to continue to consult colleagues, read books, and attend classes. Those who posed therapeutic dilemmas generated some of my growth as a counselor and a person. Why would I wish to cast aside people who were, in effect, helping me to do better?
  • Elite athletes are useful models for clinicians. Baseball players grind out a 162-game schedule from April through September, longer if they reach the playoffs. Successful athletes learn to put today’s failure behind them, lest they worry themselves into being unable to perform well tomorrow. I was better than many in my capacity to go home and think about other things, relate to my loved ones, and set the therapist hat on a closet hook. To do otherwise would have burned me out. I was not available 24/7, nor did I guarantee rapid responses to email or phone messages. I made sure I didn’t get used up. A doctor who takes good care of himself is less likely to get tired of you.
  • Buddhists provide yet another excellent example for therapists. You know the frustration of a long static line: a line where there is but one indolent checker or ticketing agent taking care of all those in the queue. You have places to go, people to see. Yet your reaction to just this type of setting — one seemingly out of your control — might determine whether you lead a satisfying life: 1) You can be frustrated and make yourself miserable. 2) You might jump to the line’s front and complain, which will not usually make the line shorter or the ticket agent more efficient. 3) You can reframe the experience. A Buddhist would say, in fact, you should be grateful for the line and the plodding employee because they are giving you the opportunity to learn patience. A lengthy term of treatment where every inch of progress is dearly won offers the same opportunity.
  • My job was a gift. I performed work that was not always “work.” A summer job during my school years in the 100-degree heat of a metal-stamping factory taught me how soul-killing “work” can be. I later came to make a good living in clean, climate-controlled surroundings as a psychologist. My patients helped me become more patient, more thoughtful, more loving — more grateful. I was my own boss and I took meaning from the relationships and the privilege, the stories and the intimacy. I used my brain, one of my favorite body parts! Living this professional life and remaining (mostly) grateful defused many frustrations.

The task of a therapist is not to say, “You’re fired,” but to find a way through or around, under or over; whether running, crawling, pushing, pulling, cajoling, asking questions, waiting, reconfiguring, staying silent, or getting his own help. Much as some of our patients worry about being put into a dumpster, we are working to get them out of one.

Rest easy.

The top photo is called Doraemon by istolethetv from Hong Kong, China. The second is named I’ll Miss You Dad by Cecilio M. Ricardo, Jr., USAP. The final image is a highway Sign at the Truth or Consequences, New Mexico Exit taken as part of an August 24, 2009 road trip by CGP Grey.

The Therapeutic Search for Your Past

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Unless your symptoms can be relieved without an excavation of your ancient history, most counselors will encourage discussion of your past. For some patients this is at their fingertips in fine detail and painful intensity. For others only the emotions are reachable, without being joined to specific memories. A blank slate is found in still another group of clients: they own few recollections, feelings, or interest in bygone days. Yet if the healer believes you were damaged early, he must find a way to assist you in the search for them.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of a particular aroma or flavor evoking a childhood recollection. The most famous literary example comes in Swann’s Way, the first volume in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The narrator unknowingly refers to the therapeutic dilemma of retrieving the past when it does not come easily of itself:

It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.

The narrator tells us how the enormous world of his early memories was opened by the simple act of eating the crumbs of a petite madeleine (a small French sponge cake) mixed with tea, reminding him of this treat offered by his aunt and leading to more and different recollections. Here is the attentive therapist’s key to assisting his patient: a knowledge that the sensory world can help unearth the client’s excavation of his early life. You must dig with your bare hands — get your fingers dirty, literally — if you spent youthful time playing in your backyard in the grass, clay, and soil. There, in the movement, scent, and contact might you find a piece of yourself.

We all recognize our five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Thus, the therapist can suggest his client return to his old neighborhood and walk the path he took to school or the playground, or once again ride the bus along a familiar route. I have even known people who persuaded the new occupant of their old apartment to permit a brief tour. If the patient lives far from this place, an imaginary journey is still possible.

Photos of yesteryear can do some of the work — the heavy lifting of evocation. Songs of the time or those sang by babysitters can spring the release of powerful emotions. Proust’s example leads us to recall what foods we ate when we were small, what sounds were present in our flat and nearby, what games we played and TV or radio programs we watched and listened to, what childhood possessions we treasured. None of this is foolproof, guaranteed to open yesterday’s locked door. Yet such efforts sometimes work like a domino game, one toppled piece striking the next and that piece hitting another in turn, as if each object were a newly triggered memory. Nor should consultation with an old friend or relative be ignored. Their recall may trigger your own.

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A similar occurrence recently happened to me. Since crayons will find their way into my grandson’s hands before long, those coloring sticks became a topic of discussion. In my early school years, Crayola Crayons — the Cadillac brand of coloring hardware — were on the equipment list for the summer’s end march to your new daytime captivity. Mom, ever frugal because of her own impoverished childhood, bought an economy size for me, perhaps only the smallest box of eight or the next step up. To my chagrin, however, all my classmates (or so it seemed to me) had larger boxes, several hugging and lugging the giant 48 (or was the number 64?) cardboard container to Jamieson School. Apart from saving me from a possible hernia, I can now remember a sense of shame and loss of status connected with my small Crayola box. Size, long before I understood anything about sexuality, did matter.

Recollections like these are grist for the treatment mill, capable of revealing the origin of insecurity, depression, anxiety, and more. You can also use them as adjuncts to self-understanding outside of therapy. Distant memories tend to be available for retrieval because of an attached emotional charge, whether joyful or dispiriting. The thrill or disappointment or humiliation of a childhood event seems to bind the occurrence to a place somewhere in our consciousness, even if we must struggle to find it.

As Harvard psychologist Robert Kagan said:

The task of describing most private experiences can be likened to reaching down to a deep well to pick up small, fragile crystal figures while you are wearing thick leather mittens.

Searching your past is not for the faint of heart: you do not know what you might find. Yet among the detritus uncovered in your archeological dig, there may be sharp-edged treasures, perhaps even a key to release you from invisible tethers restricting your enjoyment of life’s fullness.

The old joke tells us that if you find yourself in a hole you should stop digging.

Funny how psychotherapy advice is sometimes just the opposite.

The top picture of the Madeleines de Commercy is the work of Bernard Leprêtre. The photo of the very First Version of the Crayola No. 64 Box comes from Kurt Baty. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Secret Role of Hope in Psychotherapy

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I am always amused when a TV pitchman offers to sell a secret “they won’t tell you about,” promising to make you a million dollars. Well, the “secret” I’m about to disclose is something rarely discussed, but not intentionally hidden: a form of hope. This type of optimism, however, is not what most imagine when they think of such words.

The standard well-acknowledged place of hope in therapy is for the therapist to communicate that the future can be better. His authority and experience are implied and therefore increase the chance of belief in him. They tell the patient, in effect, “I’ve seen others recover. People can overcome depression and anxiety. This is also possible for you.”

For some of his clients, however, his cradling of hope takes an additional form. Too many of us live in a psychological concrete canyon, like ones found in the narrow avenues bordered by tall buildings in major cities. We cannot witness what is behind these skyscrapers, nor a sunrise that is the gift of the horizon. Less metaphorically, we cannot recognize what role we might occupy in the world, beyond filling an unsatisfying, modest or disadvantaged place similar to those in our past. Dr. Seuss gave this encouragement:

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…

Oh the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all.”

This is not meant to be fanciful. As one of the founders of the Zeolite Scholarship Fund at an inner-city public high school in Chicago, my friends and I met too many youngsters who, by age 16, couldn’t imagine themselves achieving a life past what was available in a dead-end community. For some, a hopeful future died aborning. Imagination died, as well.

A therapist faces this, too, in the blinkered vision — the crumpled expectation — of the person sitting opposite him. His patient might not be able to conceive of a different, more adventurous life of high level skill, romantic abandon, achievement, and abundance. He is, in a sense, like a child who hears early she can be President of the United States, but discovers this has never happened — not yet anyway —  in the USA’s 240-year history and therefore crosses off the goal. Yes, some individuals periscope beyond the concrete canyon, their parents’ bleak lives, and their country’s prejudice without a counselor’s help. Yet others need their therapist’s belief to develop an x-ray vision piercing invisible barriers, the walls so taken-for-granted one might not even be aware of them.

Hope of this kind is not simply founded in the counselor’s confidence you can overcome symptoms. Rather, it is aspirational — the hope beyond hope to a world of possibility your peers laugh at if you are one of the 16-year-olds I mentioned.  For those who never beamed at a respected person’s consistent belief in them before, the words come as a revelation.

Therapy is an enterprise driven by heartbreak in the direction of hope. “I’ll try anything,” you say to yourself, “even this.” Usually, however, the wish is to remove the negatives, not obtain a sense of fulfillment in life. Make no mistake. The two may not be mutually exclusive. Envisioning a future worth living is more than encouragement to wellness, but a step toward it.

What Robert Kennedy said on several occasions applies no less to changing the world than changing ourselves:

Some men see things as they are and say why.

I dream things that never were and say why not.

 The top photo by Jessie Eastland is described as 72 Seconds Before Actual Sunrise, Southern California, USA. It comes from Wikimedia Commons.

How Well Do You Fit in? The Therapeutic Dilemma of the Introvert in an Extroverted World

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In my therapy practice I encountered many people who didn’t quite fit into the world. Sometimes it was because the world valued beauty and they were not beautiful, sometimes because they had no interest in sports where others cheered for a team, and sometimes because their skin color and religion were out of place. More often they believed their internal life didn’t match up with those around them: too sensitive or unlikeable or too serious; peculiar, different, odd. Quiet in a loud world, thoughtful in an impulsive world, gun shy in a world where many shoot first and don’t even ask questions later. Most importantly, they lacked a niche, a social group, a family or family substitute in which they felt safe and cared for — a place of solidarity and belonging — or an institution (like a small community church) offering something bigger than the commonplace mission of “getting and spending” and personal success at any cost.

To provide therapy for such people one must acknowledge that, indeed, some of us fit better into a different time and place. I’d like to look at the therapeutic model from which the counseling field grew and ask the question: does it still offer the best possible assistance to a person who is isolated, perhaps by his nature and temperament, perhaps by a society prone to discounting his human qualities, perhaps by a world transformed from being too closed to too open; perhaps by all of these.

Psychoanalysis, Freud’s method, developed in a Victorian Era, tailored to the values, customs, and morals of the time: a repressive society in which a woman who showed her ankle in public could cause a small scandal. Polite social gatherings didn’t permit discussions of sex. Revelation of personal problems betrayed weakness and breached decorum. One suffered silently. Not surprisingly, Freud offered a treatment designed to open those topics not disclosed elsewhere, fashioning the counseling apparatus to lift the gurney of a disapproving society off patients who had been crushed by it. In other words, psychoanalysis was a therapeutic approach tailored to a different social world than we live in today, at least for those of us in the West.

There was, however, a positive side to the era. Values identified in bold letters were supported by strong institutions. The family and church might crush you, but they also provided decisive direction and unconditional, although superficial, acceptance, at least if you followed the rules. You  weren’t on your own, adrift, and uncertain about how to lead your life. The restricted set of permitted choices made the day less complicated and overwhelming. The life map presented by family and social institutions, government and military, offered easy-to-follow steps.

If Freud were alive today would he have used a different model for treatment after his world vanished?

I suspect so. He could not fail to notice how the closed, restrictive, prescriptive social order has been replaced by one more permissive and open. A society requiring unquestioning acceptance of your parents’ religion, vocational advice, and veto power over a potential spouse has been set aside.

Now, for example, you are considered free to determine not just your faith, but whether you want a religion at all. Yes, parental direction and disapproval are still present, but they have lost a good part of their grip. A federal government that once ordered you to perform military service, today leaves the defense of the country to volunteers. Sex is everywhere (as are exposed ankles and more). There is no place to hide. Loud voices predominate. Extroversion trumps introversion. Freedom to make personal choices comes with the expectation you will make good ones instead of being overwhelmed by the array of possibilities. Few behavioral menu options are forbidden and most are public.

We live in a garden of delights or a world of confusion that would have seemed dreamlike, disorienting, and scandalous in the time of Freud’s early work. We cannot escape a Kardashianized existence of energetic, fast-talking, self-promoting performers who are role models no introvert recognizes in himself. Meanwhile, he has the vague sense of missing someone he has never met.

What components should therefore be added to the traditional “talking cure” in the second decade of the 21st century?

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I’d begin with recognition that the social world of today is tipped to the advantage of extroverts. At least one-third of us, however, are not so classified. Methods of self-enhancement and personal validation for introverted clients must go beyond an effort to make them into fake extroverts. Temperament is more or less fixed by biological inheritance and very early experience. An introverted and insecure patient can become more self-confident with the help of therapy, but his preferences for privacy, quiet time alone to recharge his energy, and one-to-one contact over an affinity for large groups are likely to persist.

The introvert is not true to himself if he tries to become a chattering machine: the “Bigger Than Life” of the party. Treatment must value his qualities as an introvert and support him in his effort to find a useful niche within the work and social worlds that makes the best of his unique skills. His temperamental strengths include an ability to listen, reflective thought as opposed to impulsive action, seriousness of purpose, persistence, and a good eye for risks. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking offers a place to start.

A second component consists of helping clients find or create socially supportive, cohesive institutions and groups where they can attach to something less isolative, more fulfilling, and bigger than hollow self-interest. As noted by Sebastian Junger in his short, but powerful new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, our ancestors in prehistory lived in small groups (50 or fewer) whose survival depended upon pulling together. The tiny society was largely “classless and egalitarian.” Sharing was essential and little personal property existed. Loyalty was prized. Status, to the extent it was present, came from providing for the group and defending it in war. It was a place where quietly doing your part was enough for acceptance and approval, membership and the availability of a mate. Everyone fit.

Contrast such a living situation to the endless, senseless, heart-deadening contemporary competition to be as good or better than your peers and survive on your own or, if you are lucky, in a family including only a spouse and children. Our ancestors were bound together by a mutual necessity and support now replaced simply by sharing an address: living in apartment buildings and neighborhoods of nameless strangers. Isolation is the inevitable result of having little intimacy, as well as sham closeness dependent only upon the accident of sharing a cubicle or the ties of occasional after-hours good times that do not bind.

The therapeutic project of the urban, anonymous 21st century must recognize the present historical moment as especially challenging for the introvert. More than most others, he wants relationships of depth. The therapist’s transfigured and transfiguring task is to creatively enable his client to locate some way to connect, belong, and find meaning instead of settling for alienation — the extent of which few are permitted to know.

Treatment is a serious job for this serious person, it is true. What could be more fitting?

The first image is called Alone by PiConsti. Look closely for the tiny creature in the picture. The photo beneath it is Isolation Lake (5) in Chelan County, WA by Bala. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.