When a Therapist Changes His Mind

Some people consider changing their minds as a sign of weakness. It provokes the fear of being criticized, looking stupid, and needing to apologize or ask forgiveness.

Yet every therapist and non-therapist needs modification of himself and his outlook. We must try to learn what we don’t know of the human world and reform our previous beliefs. Bullet-proof ideas, unchangeable in every detail, lead to unchanging actions. As the old saying goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.*

More than a few times during my career, I realized my patient and I were stuck. My part included a failed treatment plan and a misunderstanding of my client’s essential qualities, how he thought or felt, and the universe of his suffering.

I established a way of approaching this situation. Of course, researching and discussing the dilemma with experienced and wise clinicians was the first step.

If that failed, however, the fix required more.

I tried for a new conceptualization of my patient.

Imagine a blackboard full of every word or picture available to describe you. Now visualize your counselor. He is responsible for all you see before you, everything he chalked on the white-on-black wall.

He included the way you dress, move, and express yourself. Your history is recorded in the way he heard it. Your own self-reflections and self-knowledge are present, too, as you described them in the office.

The hard surface before you hides the contribution of an invisible sense, as well. The words and pictures sprang from the lens of the healer.

The counselor’s professional and personal life colored his attempt to recognize you for who you are. Add any psychological test results or elements from your medical history. The representation in front of you, no matter how close to capturing the whole of you, is imperfect and incomplete.

I have been this imaginary clinical psychologist. Looking at the blackboard, I thought about the product of my work and erased everything so I might begin the therapeutic project again.

This approach didn’t help everyone, but the piece I missed revealed itself in many cases where I tried to reimagine what I’d overlooked.

Abraham Lincoln said it better during the Civil War when he applied similar thoughts to the job of saving the broken union of individual states:

The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

This way of approaching the world extends elsewhere on a much-reduced scale.

Take reading. Assume you are poring over the pages casually. Instead, engage in a conversation in your head with the book’s author.

Most of us reflexively respond to the characters or ideas we like and the ones we don’t. This manner of proceeding demands little thought. We judge the people, their behavior, and views from the perspective of beliefs we held before we began.

Here is an alternative, the one that grew from my professional frustrations. Begin by wiping your mind free of ingrained opinions and trying to figure out what the author wishes to express. No, you needn’t read his biography to discover this. Understand his message through his words without a leap to judgment.

When done regularly, the practice becomes automatic. Moreover, you will become less prone to immediate acceptance or rejection emerging from the deep freeze of your prior convictions. Perhaps reading will come to enlighten you through a growing capacity to read “closely,” with active searching and questioning as you dig into the material.

Little of this is easy, nor is it the work of a few days. None of us can make himself a whitewashed blank slate or scrape the blackboard of our every thought and feeling. Yet, to my way of thinking, we must try to be open, not constrained by comforting ourselves with unwarranted certainty.

We travel a road to stagnation when we insist our rightness is godlike and beyond reconsideration. To the extent we accept assertions based on questionable evidence handed down from a single person or group of like-minded people, we walk into invisible imprisonment by the false gods of our choosing. The more we convince ourselves of our rationality, closing our minds along the way, the farther we throw off our intellectual apparatus.

Doing so may make us feel wise or justify our anger but at the price of misunderstanding the world as it is.

As Ludwig Wittgenstein said in the preface to his Philosophical Investigations:

I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.

A few of the most delightful and provocative books I’ve encountered so fascinate me, I return to rereadings. The new thoughts they spur sometimes modify my conceptions over time. This approach continues to transform me. I am humbled by recognizing I must change my ideas, redefine the unstable world, and modify what is in my control. That includes changing myself while recognizing what is unchangeable about me.

I know there will never be enough time to learn all that is worth remembering, do all that is worth doing, and repair more than a few bits of our planetary life together.

Still, I must try to hold my arms wide and embrace as much of the world as I can — with love.

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All of the photographs come from History Daily. The first University of Pennsylvania Football Player Frank Yablonski Wearing a New Style Helmet in 1932. Next is an image of Bedouin Tents in Morocco. The card game following includes Billy the Kid  (the Young Man in the Top Hat) with His Accomplices in 1877. Finally, Broadway and 53rd Street in New York City in 1928.

Searching for Closure: the Challenge of Loose Ends

Closure is a “sometimes thing,” to use an expression from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Most of us want our uncomfortable emotions gathered and tied, but knots on the human package tend to loosen. Feelings leak out because they are squirmy, slippery parts of every life. Endings find a way not to end whenever they discover a quiet, tender crack through which to wiggle.

Breakups and losses happen to everyone. Usually, one party wants the book to close more than the other.

The latter experiences greater relief than grief. The other carries the heavier burden of pain and seeks an escape or another chance.

Perhaps he enlists distraction, alcohol, drugs, and medication, to no avail. Sometimes therapy, rebound romance, and faith also fail to heal wounds. What then?

Some wait and hope. They want to unend the end, begin the friendship or love anew, hoping the guy or girl realizes the loss. The seeker — the one with more anguish — searches for renewal, not dissolution.

Maybe he hopes his distant dad will finally say, “I love you, and I’m proud of you.For years he pretended the old man’s opinion didn’t matter.

Then the father dies, and the not-so-sunny boy learns the ache didn’t get buried with the man. He relives the pain over conversations remembered or never achieved.

At least, this survivor can grieve to the level of acceptance. Papa shall not come back, so all the solutions belong to the younger man. His situation can be both harder and more straightforward when his late father resides in “a world elsewhere.”

If a friend or lover is a call or email away, the possibility of a reunion may continue no matter the odds.

The long-standing therapeutic approach to bereavement involves expressing feelings — love, hate, sadness, emptiness — all of it. Over time, these should quiet themselves.

Standard techniques to advance the process include writing farewell letters one never sends, “speaking” to the deceased at an actual or ad hoc gravesite, role-playing a conversation with the one you cared about, or burying a note as a symbolic departure.

All these try to turn the abstraction of loss into a material or ritualized object, something you can see, hear or enact.

Some people, however, sustain their preoccupation with the other. Without intent, they train their minds to return to her repeatedly. They watch videos of her, listen to recordings of her voice, read her texts and emails, view photos of the loved one.

Friends, too, do this, not just people with romantic attachments. They remain absorbed in thoughts of estranged companions, replaying the events leading to the rift, analyzing and reanalyzing the why of it all.

Wondering whether there is a way to mend the bond continues the one-sided relationship. If these expenditures of time don’t end, the person engaged in them becomes an enemy of his own healing. His hope prevents a final goodbye and a step that might offer something more attainable.

Some romances can be rekindled, others transformed into friendships, and buddies return for various reasons. When those efforts work, here are some contributing factors:

  • Both individuals remember the best times and still yearn for reattachment, though at least one hasn’t said so.
  • One of the former partners hasn’t made an effort because of fear of rejection or anger.
  • Both members of the couple have changed in the ways necessary to create a more lasting bond.
  • One of the pair has reflected on the mistakes he made. He would welcome the chance to apologize if the other would listen. This could permit as much closure as the singleton requires. If the other reciprocates, an avenue to a fresh beginning may open.
  • The two souls feel incomplete without the other half.
  • No other relationships or responsibilities, especially with a spouse, would be compromised by taking up the old connection.
  • Life events or thoughtful changes have not caused one to recognize the need to maintain distance.

Reconnection can be wonderful if the two once again experience joy. When the attempt fails, it may at least remove hope and set dreams of recommitment aside. The “final” unhappiness might be a necessary step toward letting go. From the bottom, one can only rise.

When I continued to practice, patients sometimes asked what they could do to reclaim a failing or terminated relationship. No single answer works for all, and the counselor who dares to offer a confident prognostication walks unsteady ground. Even so, when my clients reported a long period of unanswered calls, texts, and emails, the unstated message was clear.

This time of year — dark days, pandemic, political and media-fueled rage, heightened anxiety, and more — increases our desire to embrace those we’ve loved and still love. Moreover, reaching out in the holidays might reduce the chance of a rude reply.

Still, not everything in life can be put right. More frequently than you might think, neither person in the split is wrong. Instead, their interests no longer coincide. It can even happen that two hearts are together in their breaking.

Before any new attempt to reattach, ask yourself whether the other is essential to you, recognizing most of us are not. Reflect on past losses, recalling your hard-won buoyancy and resilience.

A recent conversation with a close friend illustrates how hard letting go can be. She wondered …

Does “acceptance” require giving up asking “why”?

GS: I need to know a bit more to understand what you are looking for.

Your response gets to the heart of my question. I am questioning going down the rabbit hole of gathering more and more information. Is it intellectually crippling to turn away from that effort?

GS: Knowing why is not always possible. Neither is turning away easy. Life always has loose ends ...

My friend asked her daughter-in-law the same question. Here was her answer:

I don’t think that it’s human to stop asking questions. Acceptance to me is more about being at peace with whatever answers we get. Acceptance is also being OK with not knowing, with not getting answers.

A wise young woman.

Here’s to a New Year full of wisdom and kindness, enough to repair a world of broken hearts.

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The top painting is Mt. Fuji from Kishio by Kawase Hasui, 1937, from History Daily. Next in line is the Narrows, Zion National Park, December 2020 by Laura Hedien. Blaue Kegelberg by Gabriele Munter follows, then Tragedy by Franz Kline, 1961. Finally, just below is Northern Lights at the Arctic Circle by Laura Hedien. As with the first photograph, these come with her kind permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

Plans Before Sunset: A Woman Who Says “Yes” to Life

I once met a famous man who said, “We are all in transit.” Just passing through. Best, then, to talk with someone who willingly provided her perspective on the lengthy journey.

As she approaches her 10th decade, this lovely individual offered more than her share of wise guidance just by describing her plans. They do need revision on occasion, don’t they?

Before you hear her voice, let me give you some background.

Catherine Pearlson (CP) was born to the generational expectation of taking your male spouse’s name when married. These days we might perceive it as an automatic first step toward removing one’s identity. Men in the business world trimmed off some more of her selfhood, despite her degree from one of the finest universities in the world. Remember, she lived in the real-life version of TV’s Mad Men moment.

Her dad died early, but CP benefited from a kind stepfather and a sparkling presence, as well as three qualities in equally short supply: resilience, boldness, and wit. She persisted and persists.

Losing friends and loved ones infiltrates any long life, but Ms. P. continued to say yes to the crazy journey each of us encounters, no matter how much time it took to reclaim herself. Her will and self-affirmation survive, despite more than one serious illness from which she rebounded.

Catherine has known the death of one spouse and divorce from another. Here is what she told me:

On Monday, I was at the Senior Center when I noticed a flyer on the wall:

Therapy for Healthy Seniors

It spoke to me.

My ex-husband passed away a few weeks ago, and it took me back to a dark time in my life. The feelings always lurked inside, ready to emerge. They returned me to the birth of my current name and the beginning of my best identity. The yin and the yang.

A few days later I met with the therapist. She radiated kindness as I recounted the familiar stories. The general outlines. She asked about my goals. Here’s what came up after I went home:

  • I want to make peace with myself before I die.
  • I want to accept the people who populate my life for who they are as they reveal themselves to me.
  • I want to spend my time doing things that reflect my vision of my best self. Pretty lofty targets. But I guess that’s what goals are, right?

This charming woman mentioned inventing her name. I asked her for details.

In the aftermath of my divorce from my second husband, I realized I wanted to choose a last name for myself.

If you had asked me at the time, I would have said the desire came from not wanting to go back to my maiden name and certainly not wanting to keep my married name.

Now, in hindsight, I know it primarily came out of a yearning for my own identity, no longer attaching myself only to the role of a wife or mother or my determination to do something creative in the world.

I chose Catherine Pearlson because it sounded like a writer’s name.

Here’s one unexpected thing I learned from doing this: when I told my children, my family, and my friends about my new name, not one of them questioned the decision.

They accepted the alteration straight away. My inner conviction came through to them. This was a significant boost to feeling right about the first step in my new identity.

Upon severance of the marriage, the judge said I could change my name for free as part of the divorce decree. I refused. I counted up my pennies and paid for the name change as an independent action.

My friendship with CP popped up in the last few years. She is a glowing delight, still learning, still finding a way forward even during a pandemic, and still writing, too. I hope her words speak to you as they did to me.

How many people do we meet who are beautiful inside and out, with a dash of wisdom, too?

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I have changed the name of “Catherine” to protect her identity. The first image is the Umm al-Fahm Skyline at Sunset by Moataz Egbaria. Next comes Crepuscular Ray Sunset – Telstra Tower, Canberra by Fir0002. Finally, Preparations for the Open-air Concert of the Dülmen Summer at Wiesmann Sports Cars, Dülmen North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany (2018), by Dietmar Rabich. They were all sourced from Wikimedia Commons.org/

A Question of Values: Matching Our Words and Our Deeds

When I think of the relationship between what we say and what we do, I’m led to creating three lists.

The first includes what you value. Many would include the following:

  • The people you love, including children and grandchildren.
  • Good friends.
  • The country in which one resides.
  • The survival of the planet.
  • A republican form of democracy such as the one described in the Constitution of the United States.
  • God, the highest value if your faith is strong.
  • Kindness to your fellow man.

The above list doesn’t detail every worthwhile principle. I’m assuming you’d create a different set of precepts. I might, too.

The second tabulation should enumerate the actions proving what you just stated as the guidance you use in your life. For example, if you claim to treasure your kids, draw up the best evidence of your behavior in raising them.

This catalog will be longer than the first one because of the descriptions required.

Spend more time creating the third tally than the first two. Take the role of a prosecuting attorney.

Such legal practitioners would attempt to point out the shortcomings in your view of your life. The patterns counter to the doctrines you professed in List #1 will be judged.

All the rationalizations and denials — all the forgotten misdeeds — challenge how you describe yourself by displaying a more objective reality.

If my life were subjected to such a trial, I’d say one thing alone: “Oh, no!”

Imagine someone who declared the importance of love for their kids and grandkids and preserving the world against climate change.

The prosecution might ask:

  • Why don’t you donate to not-for-profit organizations defending against floods, fires, melting glaciers, and global warming?
  • Have you volunteered to work for them?
  • How much of your money is spent on non-essential purchases better used elsewhere?
  • Why don’t you reduce your fossil-fuel footprint by using public transportation or buy an electric or hybrid vehicle instead of the full-gasoline-powered tank you drive?
  • Why do you take frequent vacations in jet airplanes, adding more carbon to the air?
  • Have you given any thought to how the next generations, the ones you love, will fare due to your inaction or action?

OK, enough. You get the idea.

None of us are pure, including me. No one is free of hypocrisy. Who among us matches every deed with his words?

All I’m saying is this: look in the mirror occasionally. Evaluate the difference between the person you believe you are and the one you really are.

I’m not suggesting you are bad, I’m not insisting you should give away all your clothes or begin a starvation diet, but we all need to do better.

You might even feel happier about yourself if you do.

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The top painting is Woman at the Mirror by Georges Braque. It is sourced from WikiArt.org/

A Checklist For Change

Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens)

If you meet someone not seen in 20 years, only to discover he is unchanged, you might ask

Why not? Shouldn’t he have been altered by time and experience?

Unless your old friend has been “on ice” — freeze-dried, flash-frozen, cryogenically preserved — isn’t change a reasonable expectation?

The writer Mark Twain thought so. He saw the long-gone youthful version of himself in need of lots of revision:

Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckleheadedness — and an almost pathetic unconsciousness of it all, that is what I was at 19 and 20.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as self-observing and motivated to reshape himself as was Twain. According to Edward Young in Love of Fame:

At 30 man suspects himself a fool;
knows it at 40, and reforms his plan;
At 50 chides his infamous delay,
Pushes his prudent purpose to resolve;
In all his magnanimity of thought
Resolves; and re-resolves; then dies the same.

The 19th-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson was less amusing and more scornful on the same subject:

To hold the same views at 40 as we held at 20 is to have been stupefied for a score of years, and take rank, not as a prophet, but as an unteachable brat, well birched (spanked) but none the wiser.

It is as if a ship’s captain should sail to India from the Port of London; and having brought a chart (map) of the Thames (River) on deck at his first setting out, should obstinately use no other for the whole voyage.”

What follows is a short (and incomplete) checklist of areas of personality or behavior that might be expected to alter during adult life.

The Thing You Cannot Do. Let’s start with something different for each person.

Late in her long life, Eleanor Roosevelt was asked what guidance she might give to the people listening to her on the radio. She said,

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Indeed there is no better or more crucial potential area of change than whatever the “thing” is for you. What is it that is too hard, too scary?

Only you know the answer.

Physical Activity. “Use it or lose it.” T.S Elliot put it in a few more words —

The years between 50 and 70 are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.

Don’t let your bodily capacities go without a fight. Concede only what age requires, not more.

Interests. Do you read only the same types of books, listen only to the same music, engage in the identical hobbies of your youth? Some people keep learning, exploring, and investigating new things. They say that it keeps them young.

Beware of retirement without friendships and other interests to fill your former workday. Those who lack such things are often miserable. One is well advised to diversify one’s investments in activities and people, not just a financial portfolio.

Appearances. Ecclesiastes tells us “all is vanity.” That portion of the Bible reminds us that much of what we value has no real meaning or purpose. Thus, perhaps your attitude toward the “appearance” of things, whether it be a dress or your residence, might be subject to modification as you age.

The wise man or woman recognizes what is worth esteem and dismisses many contrary opinions of others.

Material Things. To continue the point just made, no one gets out alive. In the end, you leave life with as little as you had when you arrived. Nonetheless, some become more covetous, continuing to shop and buy in an apparent effort to outlast their possessions.

In contrast, others care less for “things” and disencumbered themselves, including giving their money away.

Self-Assertion/Anger. One might hope to learn diplomacy, be more direct, enlarge the capacity to stand up for oneself, and reduce sarcasm, not to mention outbursts and a desire for vengeance.

Food. Do you eat only what your mother made for you? Other things might be delicious. Do you dine the same way you did growing up or moderate your appetite and control salt intake?

Time. Most people become more mindful of time’s passage as they age, sensing its increased velocity with less of the race track of time ahead. Robert Southey wrote,

Live as long as you may; the first twenty years are the longest half of your life!.

If this notion doesn’t alter how you use the fleeting moment — cause you to employ it wisely — you are not paying attention to a basic fact of human existence. For example, famous musicians (Artur Schnabel, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Bruno Walter) narrowed their repertoire as they aged. They wished to concentrate on the music most meaningful to them, knowing the day was short.

Sex. Biology and age dictate some changes in this department.

Plato applauded the reduction of passion in older men. He believed they were not as much the plaything of emotions as those in the burst of early manhood. Rationality was thereby increased in his view.

An old joke about intercourse and marriage goes something like this. If you put a penny in a jar for every time you have sex in the first year of a permanent relationship and take one out for every time after that, you will never empty the container!

Money. If you know someone who lived through the “Great Depression,” you may realize traumatic events can generate long-lasting effects. Many of those who survived a decade of 25% unemployment remained very careful about spending.

On the other side are those who spend without regard to the possibility they might need it for a rainy day or their child’s education.

Ambition. Most of what is excellent in the world, and too much of what isn’t, is due to ambition. I’m speaking of blind and belligerent ambition in the latter case.

This quality tends to swallow younger selves, but some of the power-hungry are only chronologically mature, to humanity’s misfortune. Here are thoughts from Colin Davis, a 38-year-old symphony conductor when he offered them:

I think that to so many what happens (as we age) is the death of ambition in the conventional sense. The great driving motor that prods you and exasperates you and brings out the worst qualities in you for about 20 years is beginning to be a bit moth-eaten and tired.

I find that I’m altogether much quieter, I think; I don’t love music any less; but there’s not the excess of energy that I used to spend in enthusiasm and in intoxication (with it). I feel much freer than I’ve ever been in my life.

Friendship. Besides freedom from physical pain and financial instability, little produces mature life satisfaction as much as friendship. Many realize this as they age and come to value fraternity and intimacy more.

Appreciation. Some of us see the downside of life, others the upside. The unlucky may have good reason to be unhappy.

Unhappiness can also be found in how an individual perceives the world. His lived reality may not be much worse than the norm. As the losses pile up later in life, we do well to nourish our sense of gratitude.

Being Like Your Parents. Just about everyone tries to make sure they imitate only their parents’ good characteristics, leaving the rest behind. The act of disencumbering ourselves of this unwanted baggage is the job of a lifetime if one is honest.

Robert Lowell described its difficulty in “Middle Age” from For the Union Dead:

At forty-five,
what next, what next?
At every corner,
I meet my Father,
my age, still alive.

A sobering thought. But then, much depends on cherry-picking the best of your parents.

No time to lose. Or, perhaps you needn’t make haste.

I guess it all hinges on what you think about the need to change.

But trust me, you do need to.

So do we all.

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The top photo is of Mark Twain.

The Benefit of Feeling Gratitude toward People You Never Knew

Here is a question for you:What inventions have most impacted your everyday life?

The thought of this reminded me of the emotional boost received by displaying gratitude. Usually, however, we don’t think of the debt we owe to strangers — those inventors who became historical figures.

The truth is, all of us profit beyond the possibility of knowing or listing every benefactor.

For myself, I’d give a shout-out to Thomas Edison, the fellow who created the “talking machine.Without it, I might not have fallen in love with classical music from listening to recordings at a friend’s house at 16.

There were no musicians in my family, no suggestion of taking up an instrument. My folks owned one small radio for listening to news or sporting events. Yet, because of Edison and my buddy, I lucked out.

Another impactful invention was the practical typewriter and its successor, the word processor. Thus, I must type the names of Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Rob Barnaby, respectively.

Why the machines they created?

The only educational advice I received from my parents, beyond their wish I attend college, came from my dad.

Take typing in high school,” he said, a skill now called keyboarding.

Though I didn’t become a high-speed typist, I used the device to compose published research in psychology, well over two thousand psychological reports, and newspaper articles on music and baseball.
 
As you know, blogs too.
 
 
If you think of who you owe appreciation to and you’re my age, perhaps you shall come up with Jonas Salk, the inventor of the first polio vaccine, and Albert Bruce Sabin, who gave us its replacement, an oral version. I knew people felled by the affliction, an ever-present terror in every community when I was a boy.

We ride highways uncelebrated others built, and unsung legislators voted to fund. The list of things and people who deserve our thanks, some of them living, is an endless one.

Suppose you had strep throat as a child. In that case, you might not recognize that without the 20th century’s arrival of antibiotics, you may have died, along with your children and grandchildren’s possibility of existence. 

We are all, in some fashion, statistical lives at best. Does anyone know Salk or Sabine saved him? Many without the vaccine didn’t get sick. It is hard to be grateful for the avoidance of disaster when millions of others also escaped it.
 
We, too, are just as nameless to our many beneficiaries as those distant or departed benefactors are to us. Nor do most of us know the names of our brave family members of several generations back who worked to enable better lives for those who would succeed them.

We are the ones who didn’t get a disease prevented by the genius and dedication of others. We are the ones who drive cars we weren’t the first to imagine, use recipes of ingenious chefs, and drink clean water — if we are lucky and because we are lucky. 
 
Nor did the videos we enjoy emerge out of the air or the superb images created by the finest photographers and other visual artists. Did you invent the first computer?
 
We are not self-made. Instead, we are the people who too often take for granted all the things done for us even before we arrived on the planet. I mean you no disrespect. I do this, too, and it comes to us without thinking.

The average man in the industrialized world of 1900 lived about 50 years. You will probably live longer because of some of those in the history books.

In a world of too many harms, I hope you find a moment to remind yourself of the other side of the equation — those who helped you without awareness of your presence.

They can do you one more favor now:  think of them and speak to their memory a quiet, “Thank you.
 
———–
 
The two images offered above are courtesy of Laura Hedien, a magnificent and generous artist/photographer: Laura Hedien Official Website.
 
The first is an Arizona Sunset, South of Tucson, in Late July 2020. The second is an Alaska Road Sign, 2021.

The Ups and Downs of Thinking Like a Therapist

Therapists possess a “hidden” talent, but one with a downside. Their peculiar way of looking at the world creates an occupational hazard: the “gift” widens our difference from those whose approach to life is more matter of fact.

This strange flair enabled me to do my work well. My profession included providing written opinions to colleagues who wished to better understand their patient’s psychological status and diagnosis. Others requested my services as an expert witness in civil lawsuits, which developed into a small portion of my practice.

A district court also chose me to help evaluate the State of Illinois Department of Mental Health. Of course, the capability of which I’m speaking served my clients too. Otherwise, I could not have fathomed who they were, why they lived in the manner they did, and how to calm their distress.

The “secret” is in the act of questioning — how a counselor thinks and ponders his excellences, limitations, and mistakes, not just those of others. Now, though retired, I ask myself even more about the information I encounter daily, the people I speak with, and the books I read. Though I no longer search for habitual patterns in the affairs of my clients, the phrase continues to describe my approach to analyzing conduct.

The authors who capture me do more than tell a story. They attempt to leave clues to their timeless vision of mortal creatures individually and in groups.

Like them, this tendency to search for such markers was part of the reason I became a clinical psychologist. We are something like archaeologists of the soul.

Perhaps the first question I wondered about as a boy was, “Why am I me?” That is, why did my sense of self, my emotions, and my internal identity reside within a particular body and not that of, say, my next-door neighbor?

Other than genetic and evolutionary reasons, I never came up with an answer. Nonetheless, this was the first “thoughtful” question of my life.

I hoped to explain the peopled planet to myself. I remain curious. All of you who read me are of interest to me as well.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, from the Bible’s Old Testament, the following line speaks to what I’m addressing, including the act of thinking like a therapist.

“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”

This takes the reader to some dark places. When you ask lots of questions, you see things about creation you might not be happy to face.

Even so, if you don’t figure out how to see in the darkness, you will block understanding yourself and quite a few of those you meet.

Psychological night vision enables other skills: finding opportunities in troublesome times, spotting pitfalls before you fall into them, admitting weaknesses you ought to master, and discovering a way to assist others and help make the world a better place.

Thus, it is necessary to interrogate yourself since you are the only chap you control.

We all are prone to tendencies quite different from the kind of scrutiny I’m describing. Most of us prefer simple answers and wear metaphorical sunglasses to shield ourselves from mankind’s darkness as much as we can. The way we try to determine if someone — let’s call him Person A — is good or bad provides an example.

Your solution to the dilemma of classifying Person A depends on how you define the sinful/saintly divide and, significantly, under what conditions you think the individual is good or bad. Say, in the cafeteria, in the bedroom, at work, or raising his children.

Since we lack access to much more than what A tells us, what others tell us about him, and receive no 24-hour video surveillance of the poor guy, we usually take the incomplete data we have and assume the bloke displays consistency in every circumstance.

Psychologists recognize this isn’t so.

Few folks want to see the shady side of those about whom they care. And we tend to dismiss kindnesses in those we dislike. Thus, we form simple, unitary opinions: A or B, good or bad. Questioning, for me, attempts to take a deeper look. We are more complicated than any superficial examination reveals.

It is easier to come to judgments about others than reflect upon why they are the way they are and in which situations they are different from their usual manner of self-presentation. As suggested, no one is constant — just one thing — always the same no matter the circumstances.

Still, we mostly get a glimpse of what is obvious.

The Stoic philosophers knew better than the simplifiers. They emphasized that no one achieves awareness of himself until he has been tested, if then. The trials they referred to include various temptations, dangers, moments demanding moral or physical courage, and how we respond to calamity. What you do then, not what you think you would do, defines your character.

In case you wonder, I got a passing grade on a number of these tests and failed others. So I’d like to believe. Ha! But — and I emphasize this — a better judge always must be a lady or gentleman at the head of the courtroom, not the one on trial. We forgive our lapses with disturbing frequency.

Much of the human world lives in a rationalized daydream of moral innocence. People believe they would survive unstained in situations they’ve never encountered and praise their purity without supporting evidence.

On the other hand, determining and criticizing someone else’s compromised or imperfect nature comes easily. Moreover, we do need societal judging, without which there would be full-time chaos.

However much judging is required in the world, one should take care since those who cover the mirrors in their own home almost make a profession of pointing fingers.

The kind of questioning I usually engage in nearly 75 years in the making. I imagine the process will continue to develop. It involves less categorical judgment than previous versions in my three-quarters of a century among all of you and those I knew who came before and left before me.

In describing a life of questions, I’m not recommending the practice as necessary or wise for all. The tendency to do so has chosen me in the God-given nature with which I was thrown into the world and the early life unique to me. I have merely decided to exercise and refine the process.

The skill is also the property of most therapists to an uncommon degree compared to those who make a living in other work. Nor would I recommend it to anyone much younger.

Young people are better off taking life as it comes, enjoying and learning from their initiation into adulthood. To make questions useful, the art of examination must be based on sufficient experience and knowledge of humanity.

We require the many encounters we endure along the way. Surprises and disappointments that only come with “living it” provide essential information and awareness.

Studying from the mountain top or staying on guard, away from the numerous challenges of proceeding through time, leaves one with enormous blind spots. The only way anyone should take on a mountain ought to be on an expedition, if then.

Youth also is a time of passion built into the hormonal flood. While the biological flow can be trouble, it is the source of much joy if you are lucky enough. We discover so much without knowing it as we proceed through the thicket of all the rapid changes in a youthful body.

The “first times” shower and dazzle we poor souls, or should. They come with new schools, new friends, new environments, new loves, and alterations to the world around us.

It is not a time for standing from an objective place outside of and distant from experience, a marginalizing choice. I realize this from having taken such stances early, though fortunately, I decided to enter the fray of existence because I realized I needed to reshape myself.

In his poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “You must change your life.” You, meaning each of us, in our never-ending response to the internal and external torrent in addition to the river of time’s usually gentler flow.

From the now distanced standpoint of recognizing there is more time behind than ahead, I also increasingly put my ego aside. When trying to investigate something, beginning with the unconscious intention of defending your ideas, you reduce the chance of rearranging beliefs and learning new lessons.

This position requires humility, a stance from which you realize, “I do not know everything, and I’ve not had every sort of life experience.”

I am enlarged by conversations in which I listen to the answers I am getting to my questions and what others ask or tell me. From this perspective, in the best cases, I learn more and am enriched by human contact and knowledge.

When the encounter works, as I hope it does some of the time (whether reading a great novel or speaking with someone who will engage me with fresh notions and reflections), I consider myself lucky and sometimes become a better person. That is, I intend to.

Another way I’ve grown is the result of looking at those occasions when I was unkind.

For a therapist, there is some overlap between performing your vocation and the position you take as a private conversation partner, at least for me. One needs to remember who this person is, their sensitivities, what might prompt their discomfort, etc.

The individual’s reactions also raise the prospect of questioning him (and yourself) about the state of play between the two of you and whether he desires something different from you. The word “play” needs to be taken in two ways. First, as the playing field of life and second, as a space offering the freedom to enjoy the other — with a watchful eye for the emergence of friction or animosity.

For those personal and therapeutic relationships not going well, it is appropriate to consider whether the conceptualization you’ve created of this individual is erroneous.

Did you miss something? What? And how does this insight revise or complete your picture of him? Importantly, does this knowledge lead to changes in your words and actions in the future? You are always doing this in performing your job, less often with friends and acquaintances.

Since retiring, the questions I repeatedly focus on include the larger human dilemma and the pattern of history leading everyone to this moment. I wish to find out what those I’m close to, and the great minds of history think about this remarkable thing on loan to us, which we call life. Also, how they, the living souls I love, understand themselves.

I reflect on my life, look back at a few regrets, and try to adjust to a world and a physical self in flux, moving in the challenging direction we all come to do with age.

An old friend once emphasized the importance of asking “the second question.” Here is another way of describing the process in which I engage. Most people don’t do this. The common spontaneous expression “That makes sense” too often stops the evaluation without considering alternatives. As the old saying tells us, “Common sense isn’t so common.” You might be surprised by what happens if you ask “the second question” or even a few more.

Some people are made uncomfortable by the questioning. Even those more open should not feel like you are putting them on a witness stand of confrontation, indifferent to the tender spots they try to hide. I’d venture very many members of the human race set aside the task of self-reflection, confident they already understand themselves.

An acquaintance of many years recently told me he was free of regret about his life and was at a loss to remember any significant injuries he did to others. I suppose I’d say he hasn’t reflected enough, but he is a happy man.

Perhaps wisdom lies in his approach if the goal of life is happiness instead of self-awareness and becoming the best self one can be. Certainly, we all want the joy.

As to where to discover the wisdom, that’s a question for you, too.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Above are four examples of Mark Rothko’s work in an art form called Abstract Expressionism. All are untitled, except for names that refer to the colors employed. The top 1963 painting derives from the Smithsonian Institute. Next comes Purple, White, and Red  (1953), then works from 1967 and 1969. The last three can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

Can You Hear the Loss of Silence?

It was a day in the summer-like early autumn. The morning sun of the backyard sent me an invitation to step outside. Sometimes I meditate there instead of reading. But a “nothing” that was “something” arrested my attention.

Silence.

The once commonplace ambiance startled me. Daytime silence has become a strange occurrence.

Living in Chicago as a child of the ’50s, silence created the background for the first daylight hours. My family lived on a side street in the West Rogers Park area. Talman Avenue led nowhere in particular, nowhere of importance.  Cars parked on either side of the single lane, one-way thoroughfare. Little traffic passed through.

Their movement wasn’t rapid, and horns remained muted most of the time. Bicycles traveled on the sidewalk only, but we didn’t need them to walk to school. Most kids came home from Jamieson elementary school for lunch. Nor did the small shops in the area require automobiles to get to work or visit. Buses did the job your feet didn’t, along with their connections to more distant elevated trains if needed.

Libraries were still, too. We respected the librarian’s unstated role as a pseudo police officer. Conversation didn’t occur unless you needed help to find a book. The dear lady in charge enforced the atmosphere by her presence and the readers’ ingrained discipline. The woman ruled but not as a ruler.

Jet aircraft rarely flew overhead. A plane flight was unusual. I didn’t take one until college, by then on a jet.

Propeller planes moved in discrete slow motion and one at a time, so it seemed. Only skywriters, a dying method of advertising, claimed exceptional attention.

The neighborhood offered modest two-flat residences and newer single-family homes, though not many of these.

Lawnmowers depended on boys and men muscling up to the task of pushing and pulling. Winter in the neighborhood insisted on snow shovels, no plows or blowers.

No one thought these conditions exceptional. It was the way we lived, and nothing about that mode of living changed until after I finished 12th grade, maybe later.

Of course, on the recent day I mentioned, birds engaged in conversations and announcements. No electric or gas-powered mowers did their dirty work of beautification. Trains couldn’t be heard in the distance, though a low-pitched drone of human movement came from a few blocks away and its four-lane street.

Skyscraping jets sped elsewhere, not overhead. I tried not to think about any of this and enjoyed the tranquility while it lasted.

Ah, but the moment disappeared too soon. Employees of multiple lawn services disturbed my reverie, making a simultaneous assault with riding mowers as their weapons. The O’Hare airport flight path altered too, with the up top passenger travel bringing war between the grasscutters and the skywaymen to dominate everyone’s ears.

All this is common in a summertime town 26 miles from Chicago and 18 miles from the airfield. They call it progress.

I left the yard for the quieter inside, an artificial thing but better than the punishment.

I realize more distant places are quieter most of the time. Moving to such spots, of course, brings losses too. Many restaurants, theaters, and museums exist only in imposing cities. The distance from my children, grandchildren, and friends would establish a further cost.

I sometimes think about those much younger than I am, those in a metropolis which never allowed any period of prolonged outdoor quiet except perhaps at night, if they were lucky. Nor did the inhabitants enjoy the once blue and true everyday sky. They don’t know what they missed.

When walking in any heavily trafficked, citified downtown, one notices young people wearing headsets or earbuds. These luxuries keep external noises out by topping them, superimposing voices to outshout twenty-first-century loudness with sounds more pleasing.

I imagine there would be no persuading the youthful ones of what has disappeared, that is, creating my emotional response to a vanished time. One day, however, those kids will make hearing aid manufacturers rich. Then they will know something similar.

For recognition of a change, one must watch and listen for the incremental theft. Like all the things we lose, the loss is informative of the person’s value, environment, opportunity, or freedom one used to have.

Youth and beauty are like that: temporary. What is customary is taken for granted. A shame we must learn this way.

I sometimes wonder if the silence fled with the honeybees, monarch butterflies, and houseflies. Weren’t they supposed to say thank you and shake my hand first? Rudeness, I guess.

Keep your eyes and ears open, then. Life is a precious thing with no guarantee of a second chance. You can think of what I’ve said as a dark perspective, but I hope you focus on what remains in the world, the better to enjoy and save all that is marvelous.

Make the most of all your senses and your possibilities. Keep the world a habitable place, one that offers kindly invitations from the sun, the moon, and the stars; the wind in the trees, and the birds and the bees.

If you decline such invitations, you won’t continue to get invited to their party.

Reclaim the best of the world while disposing of the worst for yourself and others. Maybe that’s the meaning of life.

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All of the photos are those of Laura Hedien, with her generous permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

The first offers Butterflies at the Chicago Botanic Garden in September of 2020. Next comes a photo taken Outside Moab in September 2021. The last picture displays the Slot Canyons Enroute to Lake Powell.

Finding the Balance between Effort and Surrender

Wisdom turns up in unexpected places. Who said, “Life exists somewhere between effort and surrender”?

The legendary and still active 44-year-old quarterback in the National Football League, Tom Brady, might be the most recent.

Many discovered this before him, including Danielle Orner:

Life is a balance between what we can control and what we cannot. I am learning to live between effort and surrender.
I imagine the Buddhists came up with something similar long ago.

How does this apply to therapy?
 


The most distressed of my patients — the joyless ones — inhabited one end or the other. Those who took the effort to an extreme sometimes achieved material or professional success but almost always encountered repeated frustration to obtain it.

Their singular focus also entailed costs for marriage and family.

A number of these, usually men, tackled life as if on the playing field where the domination of the opposition demanded mastery. They viewed problems as a series of obstacles to be overcome to the point of relentlessness. Such individuals were formidable but not easy to live with.

Openness, they believed, revealed weakness.
 
Serenity lay beyond their reach, leading to treatment.
The ones who specialized in surrender gave in to fear out of a lack of confidence and a punishing history. The human beings they encountered fell into the category of potential deliverers of harm, a kind of enemy army. Intimacy and emotional risk lived in the same category.

The safest way of surviving, as they believed, was to trust no one. Pets frequently provided warmth people didn’t.
 
In each of these cases, the counselor’s job is to ask the patient the cost of their favored strategy. If they identify the price, treatment goes forward. A bumpier path lies ahead if the individual has not reflected on the downside.

More than a few continue to defend their preferred choice. They will, perhaps, encounter more emotional pain or disappointment before choosing to make necessary alterations in their style of living. They might require reflection upon why they decided to be the person they are. However, a clear decision might not have occurred since none of us know our motives in every detail.

Many of my clients found their approach to life as children or teens. The solution appeared as the best available choice for the circumstances of the time, place, and people who surrounded them. I’m speaking of parents, relatives, schoolmates, and teachers. Keeping your head down and avoiding attention developed into a necessity for survival.

Time and experience reveal less satisfaction in the course of their lives. To the extent they become aware of the limitations growing out of their existing style, a search begins to remedy their discontent.

The world had changed around them, and the behavioral choices of decades past came to provide less profit and more loss. It was as if the new tires they put on their human vehicle years ago became threadbare.

With enough pain, the motivation to seek a better way ahead emerges.
 
 
But what of the balance between effort and surrender? That idyllic place is a moving target. Always.

I once asked Rick Taft, who managed investments for a living, whether he believed the stock market would rise or fall. “It will fluctuate,” he said.
 
This is true for stocks and most everything else. Just as the weather changes, we retain no promise of health, happiness, wealth, or much else. But if we can stop depending on a smooth life course, we have taken the first step toward emotional balance.
 
Without a single, permanent, satisfying spot between effort and surrender, what then? Here are ten suggestions:
  • Take opportunities where and when they arise. Doors open, but not always more than once.
  • Recognize the only unchanging experience in life is change. You cannot freeze the planet or our bodies in place, as the climate reminds us. Learn to become a tightrope walker on a windy day.
  • You do not have to take every opportunity, but take more than are comfortable if your nature is hesitant. Pull back instead if those instincts tend to push you to jump without looking.
  • Life will unsettle you, as it does to all of us. Resolve to reach for joy in small things, lest the inevitable unfairness of some days wrecks your disposition.
  • No one thinks about you as much as you believe. Others spend too much time with a miniature version of themselves buzzing around their brains. The focus outside of themselves emerges less often, except in moments of outsized feelings like love, hate, and fear. Therefore, don’t worry endlessly about looking foolish and making mistakes, lest you recall embarrassment long after the crowd has moved on.
  • You’ll grow more if you do more and find some exhilaration in daunting moments, balanced or not.
  • Learn to meditate, beginning in a calm and quiet circumstance when possible. Daily practice centered on your breath (as the top video suggests) reduces your chance of being swept away by a stiff breeze or worse.
  • No one figures out their life. Few of us fully display our pain and confusion. Do not be fooled by appearances.
  • If you can find a tender and consoling hand, reach for it. If you see a needy soul, extend your own to them.
  • Smile and laugh. Most of our worries don’t become a reality, and among those that turn out as we feared, a remedy might be found with time and effort.

We live in transit — in a perpetual transition, no matter its static appearance. A man in a train moving at a steady pace has no sense of forward motion except when he looks out the window. An observer outside the train, however, wouldn’t be in doubt about the fellow’s progress.

With the above in mind, think of life as a series of alternatives. The midpoint between them should not always be your target:

    • Sleeping — waking.
    • Seriousness — laughter.
    • Learning — teaching.
    • Following — leading.
    • Being for yourself — being for others.
    • Head — heart.
    • Action — contemplation.
    • With people — alone.
    • Reading — writing.
    • Contemplation — spontaneity.
    • Being in the moment — being conscious of yourself.
    • Looking back — looking forward.
    • Listening — speaking.
    • Getting — spending.
    • Indoors — outdoors.
    • Accumulation of material things — reaching for experiences.
    • Assertion — passivity.
    • Diving in — waiting.

Are you disappointed I have not offered you a simple answer to this puzzle?

Sorry, I am too busy working it out for myself, searching for each day’s new balance!

———-

Beneath the top video are the following images, in order:

  1. An 1891 poster from Wikimedia Commons of Félicia Mallet by Jules Chéret.
  2. Tears of Blood  by Oswaldo Guayasami.
  3. An incredible view of Lake Misurina, Italy, from History Daily.
  4. The Example of One Choice Question, a screenshot simulation from the TV show Are You Smarter Than the Primary School Students? Taiwanese version. The picture’s author is 竹筍弟弟 (talk) from Wikimedia Commons.

    Prolonged Grief Disorder

    The permanent absence of a loved one can seem endless. The mornings are full of mourning and emptiness no amount of OJ or coffee or alcohol can fill.

    If the sadness appears to extend to infinity, therapists have a less poetic task. They must determine whether your extreme unhappiness fits the criteria for Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD). This diagnostic category is new, but the ailment is as old as human history.

    To start, here are some of the symptoms of PGD in the American Psychiatric Association’s September 23, 2021 press release describing the soon-to-be-published complete formulation. A prior draft indicated that at least three of the eight must be present for the diagnosis to apply:

    • Identity disruption (e.g., feeling as though part of oneself has died).
    • Marked sense of disbelief about the death.
    • Avoidance of reminders that the person is dead.
    • Intense emotional pain (e.g., anger, bitterness, sorrow) related to the death.
    • Difficulty moving on with life (e.g., problems engaging with friends, pursuing interests, planning for the future).
    • Emotional numbness.
    • Feeling that life is meaningless.
    • Intense loneliness (i.e., feeling alone or detached from others).

    They also state the following:

    The bereaved individual may experience intense longings for the deceased or preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased, or in children and adolescents, with the circumstances around the death.

    These grief reactions occur most of the day, nearly every day for at least a month. The individual experiences clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

    Moreover, the length of the condition goes beyond cultural norms.

    Experienced therapists know people are not so easy to categorize as labels suggest. Many times counselors encounter individuals with more than one psychological concern. For example, depression might be coupled with substance abuse or PTSD.

    In the case of forms of bereavement, many have questioned the appropriateness of putting an identifying sticker on an almost inevitable experience in life. Our time by itself has created nearly five million deaths from COVID-19 and a much larger number of their loving survivors.

    However, the APA emphasizes that Prolonged Grief Disorder goes farther than the normal grieving observed within one’s community. To the good, the health care field will help you take on your heartache and impairment, whatever name is given to it.

    The APA’s announcement and a publicly available 2020 draft do not mention causes of extended lamentation other than death. A few come to mind.

    We might include those who become caretakers to their radically changed lifelong partners, parents, or children. Transforming accidents, dementia, or lasting vegetative afflictions often create a world of joylessness in those who take on a job for which they did not apply.

    Calamity takes too many faces. Mortals needn’t die to cause dear ones the realization they are no longer interacting with the “same person.”

    While discussions about lengthy sorrows have been ongoing, the APA’s decision to recognize and define PGD can be expected to produce more words and productive research.

    Even now, if you find yourself among those suffering from unrelenting adversity of the kind suggested here, professional consultation is recommended to discover if you fall into the new category.

    Finding the best treatment options for PGD — something distinct from conditions like Major Depressive Disorder or Dysthymia — is a first step in the direction of recovery.

    Click here for an infographic on Prolonged Grief Disorder

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    The first of two works by the Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin is called Spring. The second is Project for a Poster. Both of these date from 1956.