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.

Keep Yourself in Check: How Insecurity is Fueled by Over-apology

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In my essay on Signs of Insecurity, I wrote the following, here paraphrased:

The self-doubting person tends to apologize when no apology is necessary. It is as if she expects to be reproached or is afraid to give offense; so, she prophylactically tries to excuse any possible mistake to avoid such a response.

Equally, answering a question with an upward inflection of the voice betrays uncertainty. The name given to the practice is “upspeak.”

The problem with these behaviors is that they telegraph vulnerability to those who would take advantage of you. Bullies are good at “reading” your actions if you begin waving a white flag. Otherwise they aren’t that smart.

Social interactions can be a kind of test, true enough. Even when not intended, lots of questions about you are being tentatively answered by the ones who care to pay attention, though not everyone does so until we give them reason to.

Among those questions:

  • Is he intelligent?
  • Does she like me?
  • Do we share interests?
  • Am I making a proper impression?
  • Is this individual naïve or street smart — too trusting for his own good?
  • And only sometimes: can I take advantage of him or her?

Note the presence of questions your conversation partner is asking about himself, as well.

The last two of the items listed are the ones offering a narcissist, a bully, or a sociopath the opportunity to bend you to his will. Most of us don’t wish to be thought of as pushovers in any sense. The gaze of someone strong-willed can make the insecure cower — turn the belly to jelly. He is defeated already. Fearing the unproven strength of the other, a fetal position is taken, as if to say, “Please don’t hurt me! I surrender. I won’t resist.” Now he has you. The “kick-me” sign on your bottom is evident, if invisible.

We all set our own price, put a sticker on ourselves that says, “Here is what I am worth.” Everyone is afraid of something, perhaps many things, but advertising the cheapness of your purchase price — in the hope of an unmade promise of safety — is not advisable. Your self-offering as a sacrificial lamb comes without a guarantee except the one you give.

The assumption is that if we apologize in advance — for who we think we are, for less than perfect language, or lack of knowledge — then criticism, being yelled at, or challenged will be avoided. Wrong.

First, you are overestimating the chances of severe reproof. Second, by admitting your flaws unasked, you state, in effect, “Keep on the lookout for my foolishness, ignorance, and weakness.” Without this — trust me — most won’t recognize any such inadequacies, imagined or real.

While we are being evaluated —if we are being evaluated — the judges are looking for big signs, not small ones: the kinds of markers you can’t miss even at a  distance, like the huge letters on Trump Tower in Chicago. Regular people don’t use instant replay. They aren’t equipped with a slow-motion, zoom-in button, at least not yet. The person facing you cannot recognize a bit of perspiration or hear a slight tremulousness. When you identify yourself as insecure, however, he doesn’t need an interpreter with a PhD. in clinical psychology. You have told him straight out. You may as well raise your hand or request a spotlight. You gave away your power for pocket-money. To paraphrase Emerson, instead of saying, “I am,” you are saying, “I am not.”

In the title to this essay I suggested an alternative, a way to avoid quick psychological exposure. It is both simple and difficult. One needn’t possess heroic self-confidence to do what I’m about to advise.

You must be quiet.

Don’t kneel and you won’t need to get off the floor.

Practice (in your head) stuffing the viperous, reflexive, unrequested apology when the serpent tries to escape your throat. The creature can be tamed. The more you do it, the better you get. Before too long people will forget all or much of what you previously revealed to them about your insecurity. Break the routine. Especially among those who don’t know you, more respect will be offered.

Did I hear you say, “I can’t”? Ask yourself whether your strategy of anticipatory self-criticism is working. “Maybe I’d be treated worse if I didn’t apologize.” Ah, but if your method is a good one, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you? The failure of my simple solution might, however, suggest therapy is needed.

Bottom line: don’t invite others to disrespect you by telling them you disrespect yourself.

The photo at the top is a Schademask or Shame Mask. This one comes from Burg Waldburg, Germany. Wearing such masks was a community-instituted punishment once upon a time. The photographer is Andreas Praefeke and the image is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Fidelity and Infidelity in Love and Sports: Is Being a Fan Like Being in Love?

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I’ve known serially unfaithful men who were also among the most loyal and devoted people on the planet. A contradiction? They were untrue to their spouses but lifetime cheerleaders for a different “one and only”: a sports team. Please follow along as I consider this paradox. Perhaps we can learn both a bit about romance and about being a dedicated male fan in the process. I’ll use baseball as my example, but you are free to substitute the competitive team physical activity of your choice.

Most of us fall in love for the first time with a ball team. One of our parents, usually the dad, leads the way. We bond with him, try to please him, want to become him. He takes us out to the home field and we are dazzled by the immensity of the stadium/stage for the physical theater about to unfold. Our innocent devotion to the parent leaches into an attachment to the team he also loves. Virtually every die-hard fan can remember the first time he went to the ball yard and with whom. The experience, like meeting a first-love romantic partner, is unforgettable.

Before long we join our playmates in some version of the same game, all the more to identify with our fathers, older brothers, and the players on TV. We bond to friends through shared love for the sport and being on the same team, pulling together, praying to the same baseball god. Sports is like a civic religion, as many have written: something bigger than yourself, outside yourself.

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The crowd’s roar is intoxicating. Goose bumps. When we play the game, the full-bodied effort of running, stretching, leaping, diving, sliding, and swinging is as “in the moment” as life gets, as love gets. The day is warm, the wind is cool. The physicality of the in-person experience, whether on the field or in the stands, is not sex, but consumes the body and enlivens us, as sex does. They both involve a sweaty intensity.

Fandom and romantic love put us in jeopardy, as well. We give our heart to someone or something else. In a sense, we have no control, certainly none in the case of our team’s performance. Well, at least if you are in love with a person you can sometimes influence the destiny of your affair or marriage. Ecstasy and agony are part of the standard rations of fans and lovers.

Remember those early dates with your heart-throb — the anticipation and the preparation, the clock-watching as the time came closer? Not so different from a fan’s mental state before a big game. The urgency of seeing the hero, being next to the young gods, hoping to get an autograph or a photo proves the preoccupation.

Unlike love, however, the worshiped participants on the playing field are forever young. Even when fan favorites age and retire we transfer our loyalty to a replacement, but still a member of the same squad. Our spouses, however, are not ageless. Nor are we, of course, yet we delude ourselves into thinking so. Listen to the out-of-shape, middle-aged fan saying, “Oh, I could have made that play!” somewhat indignantly.

You take your children to the park and bond with them, as you did with your father. We display pride in carrying the multi-generational torch, either to repeated visits to the Promised Land of World Championship or, for the long-suffering fans of forever losing teams, toward a first time experience of becoming vicarious champions.

Material objects take the place of a genuine fiery beacon. I once had a baseball caught by my grandfather in the Wrigley Field stands, just as I own a scorecard dad got signed by the legendary Rogers Hornsby. There is more shared energy and positive emotion and identification among the united Chicago Cubs Nation than the fraught relations within the United States or the United Nations.

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How interesting that we never betray the multi-generational pact we have with our relatives, friends, and fans by quitting the “team,” but some do cheat on a spouse. Where else in the world can you be #1 except by identifying with a team of élite magic-makers? Not at home, where our foibles are on display and beg forgiveness. The world of a sports fan, by contrast, means never having to say you are sorry.

Perhaps part of the reason some flee the spouse is that we can do all the complaining we want about the men on the field, quite unlike an actual mate. Criticizing a beloved human is more costly. The partner tends to push back, the players don’t. You can berate the young men, they don’t berate you. The only cost is the price of a ticket.

Where else can you tell someone he isn’t trying hard enough? Maybe at home with your kids, but you will easily alienate and injure them. Rarely is the boss or the spouse fair game unless you want to corrode the relationship, lose your job, or sleep elsewhere.

Another difference: baseball, whether playing or watching, is recreation: the “Great American Pastime.” Marriage is not. Marriage takes work if there is to be ongoing reward.

A relationship, of course, offers many benefits not provided by fandom. Requited love, sex, offspring, consolation, trust, understanding, and shared intimacy. A sports team will not reject you (unless it moves to another city), but it provides no meaningful looks, tender embraces, quiet confidences and shoulders on which to cry. Most fans would not give up on the idea of ever having a partner, despite the complications. A sports team, by comparison, is like making love to a blow-up, plastic woman. Put differently, sports — in this fan’s opinion — should be taken for what they are, not the dearest thing on earth: a good and loving woman.

There is no escape from heartbreak as a fan or a spouse, however. Indeed, athletics, particularly if you are on a Little League losing team or simply the youthful fan of the Major League variety, is a preparation for life. Yet we seem to mate for eternity with a uniformed bunch of men, not necessarily with a spouse. An able-bodied squad, significantly, is a sometimes thing, an observed entity, not a person you live with in-season and out. Ballplayers go home for the winter. Fans, in a sense, do too. Partners don’t.

I met only one faithless sports fan, ever. Or, perhaps I should say, he was the wisest man on the planet. Many of you know that the Cubs have reached the World Series for the first time since 1945, when they lost in seven games. Lost, I might add, the World Championship that has eluded them since 1908. My friend was rooting for the Cubbies and was more than disappointed at the result. Soon after he made a major decision: he would never cheer for the Cubs again, never ever.

As a consequence, the gentleman in question enjoyed the ensuing 70-years far more than the rest of the Wrigley loyalists.

Talk about good timing and superb judgment!

He was eight-years-old in 1945.

The top photo displays Maurie and Flaurie (named after the original owners, husband and wife) of Superdawg, a Chicago drive-in and landmark. The W Flag is similar to the one that hangs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard after a Cubs victory. It is a practice going back many years, before the time we could consult our phones to discover the outcome of the game. Two different elevated train lines passed within visual distance of the flag, thus alerting fans of the day’s happy or sad tidings. The third image was taken by Arturo Pardavila III on October 22, 2016 before the sixth game of the National League Championship Series. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo requires no explanation.

The Danger of Objectification and the Surprising Pleasure of Talking to Strangers

We live in a country where most of us decry the objectification of females — a vision of them as body parts. Playthings, not people. Yet, I suspect some of us are also guilty — to a limited degree — of a different variety of objectification. Less damaging, but still injurious. Moreover, in the act of divesting another of her humanity we lose one of the joys of routine human contact.

We go into a store and pass before a checker on the way out. The person scans your purchases, gives you a total, bags the products, and takes payment. How often do we enjoy a verbal exchange that goes beyond a greeting, a question related to price, and the ubiquitous “Paper or plastic?” and “Have a nice day”? This man or woman has become a series of tasks to be done with speed and without error, defined by our attitude as something like a robot. We are facing another human we can’t escape fast enough, who has the knowledge of our desire for a quick-get-away, and who experiences hundreds of such mini-rejections every workday. We have added one more.

I asked a liquor store associate named Christian how frequently people address him by the name on his name tag. “Oh, I guess about one in 10.” Granted, not a scientific survey, but I can’t imagine the percentage reaching anywhere near 50% in a metropolis.

And so, we dehumanize a person by ignoring his name: making him anonymous and thing-like or simply invisible. Moreover, we rob ourselves of a pleasant way to pass the time — a chance to watch some of those sales associates brighten because we have recognized them as something other than a machine.

In a large grocery I was in the line of a 30ish woman whose ID said Beata. It is pronounced Bee-ott-uh. The name derives from the Latin, beatus, meaning “blessed.” She looked anything but. Her face seemed vacuumed clean of any emotion and life-force. Not unpleasant, but beaten down. I said, “Hello, Beata.”

“Oh my God, you pronounced my name right! You can’t believe how many people get it wrong. Most don’t call me anything at all.”

“I just got lucky,” I answered. “By the way, you have a lovely name.”

“Thank you,” she replied, with a big smile. For those few words and few seconds we both felt a little better.

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During my teens I worked briefly in a small market, so I know a bit about the dehumanization of being a faceless drone, not to mention the mind-deadening repetition of taking care of one customer after another. Back in yesteryear name tags weren’t commonly used. Now they are. Why, then, do we ignore them?

Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske and her colleagues may offer us a clue. They evaluated how the image of the “other” impacts us. Research participants reacted to a variety of photos while their brain activity was recorded. She and Lasana Harris predicted the experimental subjects would respond by dehumanizing extreme outgroups like the homeless. Pictures of those individuals produced the brain activation characteristic of viewing furniture, not people. Perhaps some of us protect our emotions by responding to fellow humans as things. Though the folks processing our purchases are not (usually) homeless, I wonder whether keeping a distance is now habitual.

Do we lose our humanity in the process? Do we also deprive ourselves, as social creatures, of one of life’s simple pleasures?

This was not always so. As a boy in the ’50s, the days before shopping malls, you walked to the local grocery and recognized the same employees and neighbors. You had no phone in your hands, increasing the chance of noticing a familiar face. Smiles, brief conversations, and names were more common then, or at least I’d like to think so. Have we become similar to Robinson Crusoe before Friday turned up, despite the risk-free opportunities for innocent contact? Have we created a class of women and men within reach of our touch, without being in-touch; whom we face, but treat as faceless? Or, we do take a look and see another human — only to become uncomfortable without our electronic intermediary, be it the iPad or iPhone, the real thing we place between ourselves and the other?

I suppose I should blame air-conditioning too, the 20th-century wonder that still keeps us cool, but at the loss of evenings sitting on the front stoop talking with the person next door or sleeping in public parks. Both practices were common before A/C contributed to our seclusion. I repeat, we are creatures who need the society of others to fulfill ourselves, create a community — indeed, to create a nation. We need eye contact and conversation to be reminded there is a fragile creature before or beside us, one with the same desire for love, respect, and encouragement; a fellow-mortal on life’s complicated path; like the grass, a living entity in need of sunshine.

Shylock says in the The Merchant of Venice:

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Ah, but I hear you saying you won’t enjoy speaking even briefly with a stranger; that you’d be happier if you didn’t. Research suggests otherwise. We are often poor “affective forecasters:” making wrong predictions about our future emotions. The research link is specific to the question of whether you’d be happier talking to strangers — even if you are an introvert.

I’ll admit, however, that for people with social anxiety a word to the checker or some one next to you in line can be difficult. But since the world is too often perceived as a zero-sum contest — one winner and one loser — here is a game where all are winners: the one who smiles and the other who smiles back.

Therapy needn’t only be about an epiphany, a once-in-a-lightning-bolt moment after years of treatment. Happiness doesn’t always require the purchase of a counselor’s time.

There is worse we can do than “drop” names as a way of boasting about our prominent friends: it is to drop names from our vocabulary. Don’t drop names, say them.

Sprinkle them, like magic fairy dust, wherever you can.

The No Name Road street sign can be found in Yazoo County, Mississippi. The photo is the work of NatalieMaynor and is sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

On the Blindness of Love

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I witnessed something remarkable every day of my early life. At the time I wasn’t even aware of anything special. Indeed, the miracle only registered after the death of my parents in 2000 and 2001.

My father was “in love” with my mother for the entire time they knew each other. Over 60 years. Every day.

What do I mean by “in love?”

Being in love is like the Christmas morning race down the stairs of young children bursting to burst open their gifts. A smile starting from your heart and warming you down to your toes. The electric thrill of hitting the game winning home run. The embrace  of a departed, estranged old friend who takes the initiative to start over. The first time you taste ice cream. Waking reluctantly from the happiest dream you ever had — and then realizing you are living the dream.

Being in love is not the same thing as loving another. Rather, I’m thinking of a never-ending honeymoon love experience. You construct a mental representation of your darling better than she is: smarter, more beautiful, flawless; high-minded even in the absence of philosophical gifts and principled ideas about morality. You crave her scent, her touch, her gaze. Any wrong she does is reinterpreted, made good, scrubbed clean, or forgotten. You cannot bear to be away from her. Her voice is a balm. She seems to have created another world, one unknown until you met her — brighter, deeper, better, kinder because she is yours.

Your friends do not always understand this, even if they have themselves been in love. In Proust’s Swann’s Way, the title character falls for a faithless woman of dubious history and little intellect, the kind of individual who Woody Allen might say belongs “underneath a pedestal,” not the one Swann erects for her. A friend of Swann remarks:

“I do find it absurd that a man of his intelligence should suffer over a person of that sort, who isn’t even very interesting  — because they say she (Odette) is an idiot,” she added with the wisdom of people who believe a man of sense should be unhappy only over a person who is worth it; which is rather like being surprised that anyone should condescend to suffer from cholera because of so small a creature as the comma bacillus.

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The friends may, indeed, evaluate the beloved more accurately than you do. No matter, you cannot talk anybody out of love once “infected.” I do not mean to diminish the experience by borrowing Proust’s characterization, but only to say the condition does resemble a disease in at least the respects described. The incubation period can be short or long, depending on whether the sweetheart never loves you back or falls out of love first and finds another. And, no matter one’s awareness that such things happen, your pain is not less for the knowledge. Proust again:

At that time, he (Swann) was satisfying a sensual curiosity by experiencing the pleasures of people who live for love. He had believed he could stop there, that he would not be obliged to learn their sorrows: how a small thing Odette’s charm was for him now compared with the astounding terror that extended out from it like a murky halo, the immense anguish of not knowing at every moment what she had been doing, of not possessing her everywhere and always!

We are prone to believing we can imprison and safeguard our heart at the beginning of relationships, our brain keeping the key, until the heart bursts free and puts the brain in the box. Ironic to be taken hostage by a part of yourself even more than by another.

There are, believe it or not, downsides to being in love your whole life. I observed those clearly growing up. My dad could not imagine mom as a less than perfect mother, although she was not up to the job. Even the efforts of my brothers and me to enlighten him found him incredulous. When she inevitably came to dislike his friends or the couples they shared in common, he accepted her right and wisdom in the necessity of ending those relationships. The increasing number of barbs she tossed at him were also dismissed.

My siblings and I did benefit, however, from my father’s delusion. We witnessed a man smitten and devoted. True, he worked outside the home too much for her happiness and ours, still keeping the terror of another “Great Depression” at bay by so doing, but when he was present there was not a second of doubt about dad’s affection and fidelity. Read his Love Letters if you don’t believe me. The idea of a lifelong marriage — of being true to the one you loved — was firmly impressed on the three boys who saw my parents up close.

On balance, the bliss dad received from being in love was greater than any injury he suffered. Even as time transformed my mother into someone less kind and, of course, less physically beautiful, he unconsciously hung the memory of their early days over the reality of her present state. The image sustained him. He was (and considered himself) a lucky man.

We can do worse.

Are You a Good Judge of Character?

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Just as most people with cars will tell you they are better than average drivers, I suspect most of us believe we are pretty good at knowing others: estimating their worth, determining their reliability, pegging their level of integrity.

Not so fast. Some of those confident in their capacity to size-up friends and strangers are poor at it, in my estimation. Here are a few of their (and our) possible errors:

  • Believing people are motivated in the identical way we are. This amounts to the expectation that you can judge another’s intentions and actions by asking the question, “What would I do in his shoes?”
  • The tendency to discard important evidence about personality. I wish I had a million dollars for every time a female patient uttered, “Oh, he wouldn’t do that to ME.” The action they referred to was a betrayal, almost always sexual. The man, of course, had already revealed a history of infidelity. Call this willful blindness by the unlucky lady.
  • Sticking with a wrong opinion. Some of us are slow to revise a long-standing error. Even if our original measure of an individual is right, we are in danger of failing to register subtle changes morphing him into something less honorable. One might also miss the ripening of a condemned personality into someone sweeter. It is as if, once done labeling, we are free to put our brains asleep. Richard Posner, a public intellectual and judge, rightly asks the question, “If we sentence a 21-year-old man to life in prison, are we still punishing the same man when he is 71?”
  • The difficulty of thinking psychologically, Part I. Most of us base our understanding on surface impressions. A plausible explanation of a person’s behavior “makes sense.” Freud knew better. Actions can be determined by multiple motivations. Many of those are unconscious. A quick acceptance of a single reason to explain the world risks simplifying the complex.
  • The difficulty of thinking psychologically, Part II. In observing others we tend to assume a personality is something objective, like pulse or blood pressure or height. Might it be more accurate to think of mental makeup as a creation of our perception, a combination of what we encounter in the other and how we interpret what we encounter? To a significant extent we translate our experience of a man, his words and actions, filling in the many blanks with our history of similar persons and a few educated guesses. Much is lost in translation. This is usually done without careful study, no training, by instinct. How else might you account for the neighbor of an ax-murderer telling the TV reporter he appeared to be a good guy?
  • We tend to believe the best of members of our in-group and those we are attracted to.
  • We tend to believe the worst of those we dislike, members of an out-group, and people against whom we compete. They become stereotypes.
  • The influence of the opinions communicated by friends, relatives, and co-workers. Research demonstrates we are influenced by group opinions even if asked to estimate which of several straight lines is the longest, discounting what our senses tell us if the rest of those present offer different answers. We do not form judgments in a vacuum. Millions of advertising dollars are spent on attempts to modify thought and action — yours and mine.

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  • We believe people will behave in the same way regardless of the situation. Few of us observe even our best friends in a variety of circumstances. We don’t watch them preparing their tax forms, at work, or facing a moral dilemma.  Courage is in short supply. Not everyone can resist taking a surreptitious unfair advantage. Self-interest is a powerful motivator and easily rationalized. Evidence for this opinion is to be found in the large number of political candidates who throw in their lot with a yahoo-like scoundrel and justify it by loyalty to their party.
  • Expecting others to be consistent and whole, all good or all bad. Again, public office-seekers provide the example. They are flawed, as are we. Yet there is the tendency to understand people globally, as undifferentiated and organically whole: honest or dishonest, virtuous or criminal, black or white. The best person on earth has secrets, has made mistakes, and will make more. No man deserves a halo, but many benefit from a halo effect or are harmed by its opposite.
  • Our limited perspective. We experience everyone from a unique view point: through our eyes and our buzzing brains. The reason pollsters sample large groups is because any one person doesn’t reflect everyone’s opinion. We bring to our understanding of life a very particular set of experiences and beliefs that shade and transform all we think and observe.
  • A tendency to judge others more harshly than ourselves. “I wouldn’t have done what he did” is easy enough to say (and thus condemn) because we are not in the identical situation as the one being judged. “He should have known she was no good” is an opinion lacking knowledge of all the history, emotion, and experience which might explain a failure to “know.” Meanwhile, automatic psychological defenses blind us to our own foibles.
  • The shifting perspective created by aging. How can a 20-year-old fully understand a 40-year-old? How can a sixty-year-old understand a 20-year-old? Not only do these people have the advantage or disadvantage of years, but of times. Life today is not what it was in the ’50s or ’60s or ’90s. Time machines cannot take you forward and back with appropriate adjustments of your age.
  • Transference. Transference is not limited to the counselor’s consulting room. It is like a mistaken identity. While we might have feelings for the therapist derived from our relationship to a parent, we can also react this way to a stranger or friend, a lover or a boss. They too may remind us unconsciously of some other past human contact and reproduce many of the sensations and emotions evoked by the original person.
  • The intentionally misleading quality of public faces. Humans try to make themselves “presentable,” just as a gift, an award, or an object of art is better looking when dusted off, retouched, and nicely framed — now suitable for viewing. X-ray vision through and beyond the public face is unavailable, Superman excepted.
  • The influence of our off-kilter emotions. Here is an example of how feelings can distort our estimation of another. An insecure person prone to injury by a word or a look is more likely to believe the other harbors a negative attitude toward him, thus overestimating his neighbor’s dark side.

Though subject to the foibles just described, I nonetheless possess considerable experience (personal and professional) in trying to understand others. If I am better than most in making those judgments, I am far from perfect. To whatever extent I can demonstrate success, it is because I benefited from large data sets for thousands of patients with whom I spent many hours. They offered information often not provided to those closest to them. I received instruction in the manner of asking questions, analyzing the answers, administering and interpreting psychological tests, formal education, and supervision. And still I am not perfect.

We do our best, therapists or not, to hone the observational knife to the point of precise dissection of another personality. Or we do it casually — all too confident — and don’t look back. No one, however, gets a complete grasp of the social world. To do that we would have to be both inside the other and outside of him, combining the perspectives of those who know him best and those who are more distant — like a baseball game viewed from different angles by multiple cameras.

A 24/7 off-the-field videographer might help too, making his visual record during all the hours before and after the contest, even when our subject is asleep. We would also need to speak with our subject’s lover, children, business partners, garbage man, and valet, if he has one. Not to mention the person who does his laundry.

And there is the rub, my friend. Not even your therapist wishes to know everything about you.

Are YOU Playing Square? is a World War II poster of the Office for Emergency Management (Office of War Information). It requires a bit of explanation. During World War II the US government created rationing  and price controls on certain commodities. This was done to ensure that the people at home faced no shortages, while the armed forces were themselves well-supplied. Nonetheless, a black market existed in which one could get more than one’s proper share of a rationed commodity by paying an inflated price. Thus, “playing (fair) and square” meant respecting the rules, not participating in the black market. The poster is meant to suggest that cheating undermined the war effort and thereby endangered the soldier pictured. The second image of Wisdom is the work of Matt Lawler. Both of these pictures were 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.