Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances

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We try so hard to make a good impression, don’t we? No one enjoys a disapproving audience. We dress well, hide our inner turmoil, and smile. We comb our hair, clean our clothes, and wash pretty often. Why do we care so much about the opinion of onlookers?

The simple answer: because it was historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked; dangerous to survival and damaging to our chances of finding a mate. Most importantly, those historical facts continue to influence how we live today. They have major implications for the type of person we seek in a partner; why we compete in business and games; why loneliness feels so terrible and why personal insecurities are widespread. Let me explain.

Evolutionary psychologists think about us in terms of the qualities that enabled our survival through thousands of years. Of course, our long process of descent from prehistoric ancestors required them to complete two missions: staying alive until sexual maturity and making babies who lived beyond them. Whatever innate preoccupations and skills enabled early humans to meet these two criteria were passed down in their genes as part of the never-ending chain of life, like a relay race in which the baton has now been given to us. The inborn talents or defects of those who didn’t survive didn’t get handed off. Those folks aren’t our ancestors.

Now, you may be saying, OK, but I’m pretty smart and I make my own decisions. I don’t need to be like people who lived in caves and wore animal skins.

Not so fast. Think about anger. It helped our forefathers defend against attack by enemies and hungry carnivores. You live with their capacity to defend yourself. And some of us blow-up at those we love, commit murder, and make war.

Or let’s say you are a guy. Remember back to your childhood when girls were yucky? Then one day you had an erection. I doubt this was a well-reasoned and much-desired gift you put on your Christmas list — unless your parents were more liberal than mine, that is. Not everything you do is a matter of thoughtful choice, unmotivated by Mother Nature.

We are wired to survive and to mate with a member of the opposite sex who is capable of producing and supporting a new life. So whom do we choose? A woman at the dawn of human existence had to be especially concerned with finding a man who could defend her and provide for her when she was pregnant and vulnerable. Evolutionary researchers believe several qualities signaled such ability: physical strength, intelligence, stamina, the capacity to work in groups, leadership, etc. Thus, when a woman is in the market for a man rather than a fling, she is influenced by her ancestors’ inherited tendency to find one who can make a living and create a safe residence. Yes, I know women are no longer uniformly dependent on men, but the ladies’ genes didn’t receive the memo.

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What about physical appearance? Women notice handsome men as much as men recognize the beauty of the fair sex. Unlike men, however, who place physical appearance at the top of their wish list, attractiveness is further down her tally of desired attributes in a permanent sexual partner. Why? Again, because of the historic vulnerability of women carrying and bearing their children. A female can only afford to be picky about noble features and hot bodies if she has a choice among men who first can accomplish the things she and her future children will need. Thus, a lady cannot allow the luxury of opting for surface qualities over those more essential to her safety and her child’s well-being.

Men are more likely to be motivated by just one thing: a healthy and fertile appearance (which is correlated with youth and beauty). Nature permits them to indulge themselves because the physical cost of producing a child will be borne by their partner. As the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow said, “There is no such thing as justice — in or out of court.”

Of course, few of us think about these things when we are on the prowl. Remember, too, I am simplifying the story for the sake of brevity.

Now, on to the origins of insecurity. Competition is built into the system. Should you want the most attractive female (the best potential mom in evolutionary terms or the hottest mama in your feverish dreams) you must stand out from the crowd of other men in some way suggestive of your superior ability to be a provider. Thus, men have historically tried to make lots of money (even more than necessary to live), achieve high status, display their excellence in the performance of an activity (business or sports) and impress with their intellect and cleverness. Men size up the competition to get the best of them. Insecurity — the preoccupation with where you stand in the pecking order — necessarily follows.

Females compete for males as well. The cosmetics and fashion industries thrive on the genetically fixed desire to catch the eye of a husband. Again, however, when out shopping you aren’t likely to think, “those jeans will improve my chances of getting my genes into the next generation.” Instead, you say to yourself, “Wow, those jeans look good on me.” Only people like me think of genes, not jeans. And, if you repeat similar questions often enough — what looks good on me, what doesn’t, how do I compare with the others — the insecure background of one’s thought becomes the norm.

Earlier I said it has been historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked. If humans of antique times couldn’t find a sufficiently enterprising and healthy sex partner, that person’s genetic line would end. Those who didn’t make friends found their chances of survival on their own were poor. Thus, whether looking for a mate or a group affiliation to increase their odds (against other tribes, animals, and nature) they needed sensitivity to any word, expression, element of body language, or deed signaling another person’s disinterest, dislike, or disaffection from them; in addition to those indicators communicating they were welcome or pleasing to the crowd. Unfortunately, the ability to determine how they were coming across to others required a preoccupation with other people’s opinions: a recipe for insecurity and self-consciousness. Those who didn’t care how they were being received didn’t hand down their genes successfully.

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How does loneliness fit in? A soul contented in his isolation didn’t mate. Women and men satisfied just with the company of their sexual partner reduced their chances of survival compared to couples who had alliances with others. Individuals who were happy when alone, therefore, didn’t pitch their genes forward into the next generation. Men and women discontented when by themselves, however, would have wanted to join up with other creatures. Since group participation increased the chance of surviving, procreating, and raising a child, their unhappiness when separated from humans is a quality we now have: it motivated them to take an action useful to staying alive.

There are other factors beyond evolution influencing you today. Your upbringing, your own life experiences, and the individual set of incidental personality traits nature handed to you. But, back there somewhere is the long reach of the instincts that survived the evolutionary relay race. The ways in which we react, think, and act are more determined by the successful tendencies of our ancestors than (I suspect) most of us consider or believe.

In short, having a mind drawn to thoughts of both friends and strangers comes naturally. Our preoccupation with status and money, even though it can create misery, is a quality that long ago began to improve the chance of survival and is still in us. We operate according to a program written by nature on the men and women who lived here an eternity before we jumped out of mom’s womb.

The aim of evolution was never to make us happy. We can only challenge ourselves to deal with the insecurities and preoccupations it deposited in our genes. Those instincts don’t always work well in a world that, for the most part, is much different and safer than the natural state of man’s life, described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

In our search for satisfaction we must grapple with a biology that often makes us discontented and wary, replicating what our ancestors did to live. Understanding this gives us a better chance of remaking ourselves the best we can to suit not their time — but ours.

The top image is Toilette der Venus by Peter Paul Rubens. The second painting is The Persistent Suitor by Frederico Andreotti. The cartoon was created by Welleman and is called Lonely Guy, Shadow as Friend. All come from Wikimedia Commons.

On Being Pursued for Affection

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I suppose every young man, at least in his dreams, imagines being chased by a throng of attractive admirers. Like most, however, I live in relative anonymity. If there were ever any mobs in hot pursuit of me, they must have been invisible and remarkably quiet.

Until recently, that is.

No, I haven’t become a rock star. Indeed, if crowds were to gather around me, I might have expected the attention in the heady days of my early life — back when I was a “stud-muffin.” Since you will not necessarily take the latter description on faith, you can see the proof in this detailed, antique photo. The young woman has asked that I not reveal her name:

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In any case, the pursuit I shall describe began in August. A little background is required. Stick with me.

I live in the 10th Congressional District of the State of Illinois. My representative is Republican Robert Dold. In the last Congressional election he defeated incumbent Democrat Brad Schneider. Congressman Schneider wants to take another crack at the seat he lost. The contest will be close, probably less than 5000 votes separating the winner and loser. The candidates are battling for every one of them.

That’s where I come in.

Several weeks back I wrote Mr. Schneider about a policy position on which he and I disagreed. I mentioned my past support of him and present doubts. Within a day or two, I was surprised to get a response from one of his staffers. Not the boilerplate, “form letter” email one usually gets from elected representatives, but one crafted only for me. He wrote to tell me Mr. Schneider wanted to talk to me.

Within days my wife and I had a phone conversation with the former congressman about the issue in question. “Brad,” as he asked me to call him, was a good listener, very bright, and made his case. No one changed positions, but I appreciated the 20-minutes of his time. I thought it would be a “one-off” — something not to be repeated.

Wrong.

This past week, Twitter sent an email informing me of a new “follower” (see below). No, not Mr. Schneider, but his opponent, Congressman Dold. Since I never use Twitter except to announce a new blog post, his “following” can mean only one of two things:

  1. My representative wants to read future blogs or
  2. One of his staffers is making an effort to flatter me and, I suspect, every blogger in the 10th Illinois Congressional District expected to vote.

I am not so full of myself to think Mr. Dold wishes to read my blog or even knows of its existence. I do believe, however, his staff is doing everything to garner votes, as one would expect, even to the point of dressing their candidate in the uniform of the Chicago Cubs (again, see below), a baseball team that last won a World Series in 1908, but with a large fan base in our district.

I now feel foolish for never having thought to wear a Cubs uniform in order to increase the size of my therapy practice.

Earlier I failed to mention a third player in the race. Mr. Schneider is opposed in the Democratic Party primary election by Ms. Nancy Rotering, the Mayor of Highland Park, IL. I must say, however, I’m a bit disappointed not to have been contacted by her. Doesn’t she value my vote just as much as Schneider and Dold? Who does she think she is?

What’s more, she is the only female candidate. While my wife and I are happily married, my fantasy didn’t involve being pursued by men. Moreover, I never hoped to be wanted for my vote, but for something more tangible.

The proverb tells us “everything comes to him who waits.”

Well, almost everything.

Gerald M. Stein,
You have a new follower on Twitter.
Gerald M. Stein
Rep. Robert J. Dold
@RepDold
Proudly representing the 10th District of Illinois. Follow me on Facebook & Instagram: facebook.com/RepDold | instagram.com/RepDold
Illinois Tenth District · https://dold.house.gov

The “stud muffin” poster is the work of Lauren Eldridge-Murray and can be purchased at http://www.redbubble.com/people/retrocharm/works/6008982-hi-cupcake-hi-stud-muffin?c=109437-funny/ If you mention my name, you will receive no discount. In fact, the poster might cost you a bit more.

On being Insecure and Alone

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We are small creatures trying to be large. Or perhaps we are incomplete beings trying to be whole. Do those words sum up the human condition? How do we deal with our essential loneliness and insecurity? I’ll get to that.

Man begins incomplete, both in the womb and out. Your newborn is unable to tell the difference between himself and you. The trouble starts when he figures out that he can’t live without you. No wonder he cries.

Insecurity is in the nature of life. Indeed, if I met an entirely secure person I’d ponder how he managed to miss so much about the “simple difficulty” of living. A contradiction in terms, I know.

From the infant’s first tear begins a lifetime journey to complete himself, to escape solitary confinement. Most of us don’t want to be alone — a vulnerable and separate existence. The punishments in the Bible begin with being “cast out.” First, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. Then Cain was exiled for the murder of his brother. “You are on your own” is not a friendly statement. In truth, we are all on our own, in our own skin, unique in the vista we observe from the elevated wrapper we call the head.

What to do? Let’s start with what some of us do most of the time and all of us do some of the time. We attempt to incorporate other people into our lives. Intercourse achieves this physically. No wonder sex is bliss.

Next best is to embrace — get physically close, but still outside. Neither an embrace nor copulation last long. The problem of separateness resists a resolution.

Social — not physical — affiliation is a pleasing substitute. Where intimate friendships are absent, group connections take their place. Team membership has its satisfactions and avoids the “left out” experience of children’s games. The “we’re number one” sports fans gravitate to a similar, but vicarious category of connection and solace.

We put up with a lot to be with our fellow humans, part of a group. We try to “play nice,” even when not treated well. It’s better to be in the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, as the crude saying goes.

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In the absence of human contact, some ingest food. Sustenance substitutes for love, lacking only the touch of another. Too much nourishment and the grub “joins” with you — becomes a larger and larger part of your body. The meal is now a permanent addition inside.

Humans make an effort at self-display, all the better to draw others to them. We want to be like magnets so that passers-by will “stick.” Clothes, hair style, makeup, and hair pieces are “attractive,” designed to “pull” the stranger close and prevent a solitary state. Sometimes external charm leads to the physical joining discussed earlier.

The “selfie-stick” generation takes this tack a step further. Not only do their public picture portraits cry out for crowds of onlookers, they offer the photographer, like Narcissus, a fascination and merger with his own creation: the glorified image of himself. Who needs intimacy when you can fall in love with yourself?

The computerized world provides an incomplete union with others, lacking the satisfaction of flesh. The fusion we seek is not electronic. You cannot crawl into the iPhone or laptop. A community of Facebook “friends” or a large blog following has its pleasures. Recognize, though, what social media alone can never be.

Some people acquire external objects, creating a kind of imagined fusion with a thing instead of a person. In effect, the buyer takes the material creation from the outside of himself to change his emotions inside. Goods define some people and become a point of pride, something “incorporated” within the identity.

Status and wealth, similarly, can be internalized to diminish a sense of naked, solo vulnerability. Those of a more academic bent might choose to pour knowledge into the brain, hoping for the same result.

Religion also reduces life’s insecurity — its essential isolation. Here the goal is to lose oneself in a complete identification and contemplation of God, at least in a hoped-for, heavenly afterlife.

In this world, however, none of the solutions I’ve discussed does the job fully. Sex acts are temporary, embraces are momentary, and the emotional benefits of eating and drinking are short-lived. Clothes and other objects make you feel complete for 10 minutes or 10 days. Knowledge acquisition is a treadmill marathon you can never finish. High status only lasts as long as the next TV season or term of office. To frustrate us even more, there are all those celebrities — owners of dazzle and accomplishment — we compare ourselves to. Their presence on earth is a kill-joy. We cannot merge with them. Instead we fantasize about them, creating an amalgamation in our dreams.

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All this points to some common, but flawed notions of how to complete ourselves and have a more satisfying life:

  • The pursuit of stardom is a fool’s errand. No, not because you are unlikely to reach the heavens.  Rather, aiming for glory for its own sake ignores the work it will take. “Look at me!” is the selfie-stick generation’s solution to an existential crisis: like a drowning man who ignores a lifeboat, he instead reaches for a plastic comb floating on the water.
  • All the material “stuff” ballyhooed constantly by advertising will only make you whole temporarily. We are leaky vessels. Commodities plug the holes too briefly.
  • Looking for the true, perfect love — your soul mate — can be sensational if you find her, but still leaves you in your own skin, dealing with your own demons. Relationships are wonderful, but don’t cure you of the human condition. Love is not medication. Not so sure? Go to the pharmacist and request “One soul mate, please. A 30-day supply.”
  • Moving to California is the “I need a change” solution. Yes, we do need to change, but traveling across the country “looking for yourself” reveals only one thing: you are the same guy who began the trip.
  • The more time you spend in front of an electronically lit screen (computer, phone, TV, or movie) the less time you have for satisfying intimacy with someone nearby. Yes, I’m aware of looking at such a screen right now. Introverts do need more time alone!

So, what is the answer? Well, if I had a perfect one, I’d be famous. That said, I do have ideas:

  • Recognize that real people are better (even if more dangerous) than virtual friends. Even so, they are not enough. You still need a life of purposeful action.
  • Try to get outside of yourself. Things can’t be incorporated inside you and humans tend to resist ties that bind too much.
  • You can’t bring the world within, so meet the globe halfway. Break out of the prison — the solitary confinement — of a repetitive, obsessive look in the mirror.
  • Avoidance is a dead end. No satisfied or satisfying people live there. A life of adventure won’t invade your home and drag you out.
  • Find captivating employment, generous and interesting people, and stimulating things to learn. Not to build your image and draw others to you, but because they are worthwhile in themselves.
  • Recognize that you can’t have everything in life, but life can be delightful if you are lucky and wise. Stop multi-tasking and focus on the small number of things you believe have real value. Get off the treadmill of routine.
  • Don’t run yourself ragged. Don’t be a human doing, always in a frenzy. You are a human being.
  • The path to a portion of happiness might include meditation, intensely noticing the everyday world around you, and being sufficiently active to lose yourself in it. Think less and live more in the joyful instant. A baseball player trying to catch a long drive is not wondering about his acne.
  • Accept the planet for what it is, which is a pretty messy place, but the only one we’ve got. Change the world if you have the energy and talent. If you don’t, accept what can’t be altered, at least by you.
  • Know yourself. Everyone thinks he knows himself, but few approximate full self-knowledge. Figure out what you can do: those activities you might excel at with some practice, guidance, and effort. And recognize the tasks you should never even try. If you are a 5′ 4” male, don’t pin your hopes on playing professional basketball. If you are introverted, don’t become a political candidate. Value yourself for the best in you and make better what is amenable to alteration.
  • Learning, however essential, will not always be fun and will often be painful. Sorry, I didn’t make the rule.
  • Think for yourself. Received wisdom is frequently a worthless commodity. Live by a moral code you take a hand in fashioning, not something handed to you. This will require you to think and study. Most people will not or cannot make the effort, they just assume they are good.
  • We create history, but mustn’t ignore the history we’ve already lived. Some amount of knowing where you’ve been is required, lest you revisit pitfalls and repeat mistakes.
  • Having a personal mantra of “life is unfair to me” will not get you far. Better to adopt this paraphrase of the motto of the fine blogger, What It Takes To Be Me: life wasn’t meant to be easy; it was meant to be worth it. It will only be thus if you make it so despite the obstacles.
  • Even if you accomplish all this, your life still won’t be perfect. You will continue to be in your own skin. Insecurity won’t have completely vanished. Yeah, a bummer. Get over it.
  • Once you figure out who you are, wipe the blackboard clean. As my friend, Phil, likes to say, “I try to reinvent myself every day.”

Phil, by the way, is a smart guy. Listen to him.

The top photo is called Meall Ghaordaidh Behind Bars, sourced from Richard Webb’s transfer to Wikimedia Commons. The University of Chicago t-shirt comes from http://www.zazzle.com/

Levels of Infidelity

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Joe and Laura Hawkins are having marital issues. Laura just left the house without explanation. Joe wonders if she has a lover. He is alone with Anita, the family robot: a “synth” or “synthetic” (pictured above). After a couple of drinks, Joe “turns on” the robot’s sex program and makes use of it. This scene comes from the AMC TV series, “Humans.” The fictional possibility will soon be a present reality.

Question: was Joe unfaithful to Laura? She certainly thought so and kicked him out. The fact that Anita wasn’t “human” was a defense Joe offered — one dismissed by Laura. Where is the line? When do our thoughts, conversations, or physical interactions constitute infidelity?

The easy answer: unfaithfulness consists of sexual intercourse outside of a relationship based on monogamy. But let’s think about other possibilities. You be the judge whether these fit your understanding of “cheating:”

  • Oral sex. Bill Clinton’s statement, “I did not have sex with that woman,” was not especially persuasive.
  • Intercourse with a non-human, including not only an artificial life form, but any living thing. I once treated a lonely woman who copulated with a large dog. She was not being unfaithful (there was no human lover to betray), but her example offers an unusual extra-marital option for those with a partner who is drawn from Homo sapiens.
  • Mutual masturbation.
  • Naked kissing and fondling short of either oral sex or intercourse.
  • Making out and fondling while clothed.

The above five categories all include physical contact with a person who is not your spouse. Might interaction without touching the other be a betrayal of the monogamous promise? Consider the following:

  • Phone sex or other electronic forms of sex play.
  • Fantasizing about someone else while having sex with your significant other.
  • Masturbation to an image of another. Not just pornography — perhaps only a face or a person clothed.
  • Masturbation to the idea (memory) of another without using a visual stimulus.
  • Intimacy without physical contact, e.g. shared personal revelations, and mutual psychological support.
  • Emotional preoccupation with a former lover without any present communication with the person. Indeed, he needn’t be alive any longer.
  • Closeness between a parent and child where the offspring is pressured to be a kind of surrogate spouse, but without sex. The adult shares his troubles with the child. The latter is relied upon to help solve the elder’s problems. Roles are reversed.

As you ponder the question, consider the following true story. An old friend wrote a freshman college essay. The required topic was, “Something to Make the World a Better Place in Which to Live.” My buddy proceeded to describe a masturbation machine. He reasoned that our civilization is full of lonely people without a sexual outlet. Moreover, he believed his invention would cut prostitution and sexual assaults. Such devices now exist, but didn’t then.

What was his reward for an idea before its time? A mandated visit with the school psychiatrist!

Would use of a masturbation machine constitute adultery?

Let’s look at the issue differently. Should infidelity be permissible if

  • your spouse refuses sex? You have not copulated in years.
  • your partner is or was unfaithful, the latter in the recent past?
  • the loved one can’t engage in conjugal relations with you because of a permanent infirmity?
  • the spouse is abusive?
  • you are stranded on a desert island with only one other person. Is it OK if, after a period of years with no hope of rescue, the two of you become Adam and Eve?
  • the husband or wife back home (in the desert island example) at last gives up and begins to date after the same long wait?

In these six conditions, do the special circumstances make the behavior acceptable? In effect, we now have two queries before us:

  1. What is the definition of infidelity?
  2. Are there any conditions which remove the moral stain? Put differently, do you believe fidelity is a moral absolute or dependent on the situation? A moral relativist would refrain from a uniform ethical condemnation without considering the details. The Ten Commandments and similar religious prohibitions, however, exemplify an absolute rule: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

If you believe in any mitigating circumstance — an instance in which adultery is OK — remind yourself that infidelity usually involves hiding the truth or frank lying. The ingredients in an extra-marital potion are a combination of breaking with promised monogamy and deceit.

I’d be delighted to read your comments, short or long, on these questions. I hope you will indulge me.

Remember one other thing: where there are already robotic cars, there will soon be synthetic humans with artificial intelligence (AI) superior to mortals. Not to mention bodies impervious to aging (or replaceable with ones as good or better). Human flaws will have been programmed out, but the creation will possess emotions.

The concerns I’ve raised about extra-marital contact will only get more difficult.

Sooner than you think.

Why We Choose to Look the Way We Do

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We are perceived, objects beheld, lab specimens under a microscope. A human being is akin to a car in a showroom window. While you can drive yourself batty worrying about the opinions of those who are watching you, ignoring them completely is usually a recipe for loneliness. Equally, your own evaluations have consequences for those you observe. Sometimes you can tell a whole book by its cover, sometimes a few pages, and every so often you mistake a Donald Duck comic strip for Anna Karenina. 

When a person enters our field of vision we receive a rush of incoming data: clothing, jewelry, hair style, hair color, and portable objects (phones, purses, brief cases). We might notice what is in the mouth (gum, food, tobacco), head coverings, and exposure of skin. Aids to movement (walking sticks, bikes, wheel chairs) and facial hair are hard to miss.

Even what people are looking at is sometimes obvious. Gait, posture, and facial expressions are clear. Passersby text and talk. The physique itself is part of the visual array. Let’s not neglect eye contact, body punctures, tattoos, glasses, headphones, and backpacks.

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Individually or in combination, intentionally or not, all these create an impression. What conclusions might others draw from what they see of us? What might we surmise from what we notice of them?

  • His tribe. In other words, group affiliations such as nationality, school, sports team, and religion.
  • Whether he is a friend or a foe. 
  • Attitudes toward sexual allure and modesty. Advertising sexual availability is as simple as a bare ring finger or as obvious as a leer.
  • The transmission of fear from the terrifying one being inspected to the watcher.
  • Signs of wealth or power.
  • An attempted disguise (for example, makeup, wearing a beard to cover a weak chin or a combover).
  • Physical fitness. Attitudes toward food and diet are inferred from this. Conclusions about self-control or its absence might also occur.
  • Information about values, as reflected by religious symbols or clothing identified with a particular culture. For example, a green wrist bracelet with the words “Save Darfur” declares support of a cause. The surveyor may further conclude something about the wearer’s politics.
  • Adherence to social convention is demonstrated by unremarkable, mainstream attire. Conversely, unconventional appearance rejects those same standards.
  • The importance of clothing itself is implied if the person dresses in finery.
  • A wish for attention or for anonymity, the latter by blending into the crowd. Equally, an attempt to generate attention by those who have become “invisible” due to advancing age: a war with time fought in retreat. Past a certain age, it is harder to draw the eye of the audience. Instead, we fade into it.

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  • Encouragement of social contact from others or simple openness to such contact. (As easy to convey as a smile, a wink, or a frown).
  • A uniform (literal in the case of soldiers or those required to wear work attire; figurative, in the case of a business suit or the tuxedos sported by symphony conductors).
  • Subtle intimidation. The “power” tie of a litigator, perhaps. Or outfits chosen to minimize intimidation and reduce anxiety in the other. (Therapists are motivated to make themselves approachable. Some select casual, unostentatious clothing to accomplish this).
  • Confidence or its absence. The insecure risk transforming themselves into targets without even wearing a “kick me” sign. Their combined characteristics create a kind of metaphorical bullseye sensed by potential tormenters.
  • Other values. Perchance, a preference for comfortable clothes over expensive or impressive ones.
  • Habit (particularly true of older people who wear their hair in styles long out of fashion, or clothes unbecoming to someone past his body’s “use by” date). In effect, these people are also informing us they either don’t see themselves as they are or don’t care what the onlooker thinks.
  • Incidental information. On occasion you witness such things as whether a person is aware of his literal impact on neighbors, as when he clobbers another with his backpack or purse. Perhaps you will note how tied he is to his cell phone while at dinner with a companion, etc.

When a fellow human passes in review we instinctively size him up. We control many (but not all) of the characteristics of appearance leading to the impression we are trying to project.

It is worth knowing how people read you. Indeed, this is just as important as recognizing what self you’d like onlookers to see. Introverts often believe their shyness is obvious, when in fact they are frequently misidentified as arrogant. The failure to “join in” is interpreted as being “stuck up.”

Unless a good friend delivers difficult feedback or you have heard unflattering commentary in a therapy group or from your boss, you might not recognize your impact on others. Not even your counselor will be frank with you unless he believes it is in your interest and that you can take the pain of such a message without dissolving on his office carpet. Messy, by the way.

Not everyone works hard to manage his impression, but you leave clues whether you are making the effort or not, aware of what the impression is or not. You are a kind of walking, talking advertisement.

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Regrettably, many spend more time (and money) putting a brand on their “package” than improving what is inside it. Frequently, the person conveying characteristics required to get a job or spouse anticipates disaster when time exposes his true self. In the end, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, no matter how velvety and enticing the dish looks.

On the other hand, some qualities are only on the surface. Attempts at finding their depth is the equivalent of fishing for tuna in a desert: they are not there to be found. If, for example, “I am beautiful” is the intended message of the one drawing your eye, there is nothing but the outside — nothing more below the surface with respect to that characteristic. And qualities like intimidation also depend on the exterior of things, at least in part. Competence, intellect, morality, and companionability are less likely to be correctly and completely inferred from how we look.

All of us, at one time or another, try to sell the product named “me.” Best, of course, if the underlying goods are worthy of the value suggested by externalities. Making it so can be a lifetime project. Do remember, however, that the object inside the gift-wrapped box needn’t be perfect to do the job.

The shine on everything wears away. The ideal is to possess something underneath more worthwhile and lasting than an alluring glow. Time is going to alter the package. Few grow up wanting to look like a 60-year-old as fast as possible.

Some of you doubt that you have much extraordinary under the surface — or any idea how to obtain such qualities as you wish were present. Yet they may already be there, in which case all you lack is confidence in what you offer.

A pleasant surprise is in store if only you can recognize what is in the package. The bubble wrap might safeguard the tender contents, but can also obscure what is protected.

Here’s hoping the container, like a box of Cracker Jack, holds a prize you want and tastes as sweet.

The gift box icon is the work of Zeus Box (kuswanto) and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Erotic Transference: When You Hunger for Your Therapist’s Touch

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Is erotic transference merely a sexual fantasy about your therapist? Is it a desire for steamy, big screen sex with him? Might something else be happening?

Erotic transference is about more than these brief descriptions suggest. First, let’s deal with what simple “transference” is. Here is Wikipedia’s take:

One definition of transference is “the inappropriate repetition in the present (moment) of a relationship that was important in a person’s childhood.” Another definition is “the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object.”

I prefer to broaden the definition a bit. Let’s assume you meet a new person who reminds you of someone else — someone you knew well at an earlier point in life. The resemblance might not even register. Instinct leads you to make certain assumptions about him and to impute qualities to him similar to those of the man in your past. In effect, you are reaching back into your history and transferring feelings and beliefs to your present understanding of the new individual. Moreover, it is likely you will react to this acquaintance as you responded to the previous one, including whatever hopes or desires you unload from man #1 and redirect to man #2.

An experimental or behavioral psychologist would call this “stimulus generalization.” You are acting and reacting to person #2 in a style somewhat like your behavior toward person #1 because of your perception of similarity between them. They needn’t look alike or act identically. Rather, something about them or the situation triggers unconscious feelings and behaviors.

Think back to Pavlov’s dogs. If a dog learns to salivate to the sound of a bell (because the noise precedes the delivery of food), he will also begin to get his juices flowing when a different bell-like sound is heard. The canine, of course, doesn’t say to himself, “Oh, food is coming!” He simply reacts. Transference is like that.

This type of transference or stimulus generalization needn’t be sexual. That is, it need not generate erotic sensations and preoccupations. You can simply enjoy being around the freshly contacted person because of the underlying unconscious affinity toward him derived from the earlier relationship. Similarly, you can automatically dislike, distrust, or detest him, any of which would constitute “negative” transference.

Still with me? Now let’s apply this to your therapist. Add other sentiments (I’ll talk about only positive ones) to those already mentioned. These might include tremendous respect (even reverence) for your healer, confidence, or gratitude; as well as putting him on a pedestal because he is an authority in a position of power relative to you.

Can you now imagine how affection might enter the equation? This man listens to you, comforts you, and works toward your well-being. The therapist is calm and benign. Your relationship is not (I trust) fraught with lack of consideration, conflicts of interest, and the disregard present in all our lives outside the doctor’s office. The consulting room becomes a place of refuge, hope, and possible growth. Your counselor morphs into a magician of the soul, a person who is hard not to idealize. Should he possess a fine physicality, then the slide is further greased to generate sexual attraction; if he is not handsome, the absence of surface beauty may make no difference at all. Even shrinks unpleasing to the eye can carry the same kind of transferential aura.

Last, add one more ingredient to this witches’ brew: the sexual nature of the human race. Spend enough time with a particular member of whichever gender you prefer and, assuming there is even a small amount of appeal, you might discover the affinity grows. Were it otherwise you and I wouldn’t be here. We were built to mate and create offspring who do the same thing. Those ancient humans who didn’t are not the ancestors of the seven billion of us on the planet today. Nature imbedded this prescription in our DNA.

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Positive transference toward the doc is rather like a trance. Indeed, the first syllables of transference and trance are similar. Think of the honeymoon period of a romantic relationship or the youthful idealization of a parent or professor. Elements of awe are present. Rationality is not the driver.

Transference can also be triggered by unresolved issues with a parent, as the Wikipedia definitions quoted above suggest. A client might perceive the counselor as a love object in all senses. The doctor’s presence in the patient’s life may silently signal the opportunity to win (at last) the perfect love of a parent substitute. Ironically, the shrink is (or should be) as unobtainable as a time machine designed to give you a better childhood than the one you lived.

Rather than altering the past, transference provides the chance to “work through” old feelings about parents or previous lovers within the consulting room. The counselor helps to grieve the original loss and disappointment of the client’s life in the hope of resolving both the unfinished business of the patient’s emotional past and letting the air out of his irrational attachment to the therapist.

What other meanings can a sexual preoccupation with a therapist indicate? I treated patients who tested me — wanted to find out if I would take the amorous and sensual “bait,” in order to discover whether I was really trustworthy. A patient’s attempt to persuade the therapist to violate his professional ethics can also be, in part, a way to avoid underlying treatment issues. Clients will sometimes use their sexuality in the pursuit of power within a relationship which would otherwise leave the doc “in charge.” Still others confuse love and sex, wanting to be held by the doctor as much or more than penetrated by him.

How do you know whether you are experiencing an erotic transference? Dreaming about your therapist from time to time isn’t remarkable, even if sexualized. I’d say there are two practical markers of a strong erotic transference:

  • You are so preoccupied with your therapist as a potential sexual object that you can’t focus on the important treatment issues.
  • You become repeatedly aroused in the session to the point of becoming lubricated (if female) or erect (if male).

Your shrink is unlikely to address the issue unless you take the initiative to do so first. Why? Suggesting you are sexually motivated can be profoundly embarrassing to the patient. It might be taken as a rebuke. Moreover, the therapist isn’t always right. Trust and safety are big issues in treatment. Good counselors avoid fueling the discomfort of what is already a risky business of self-disclosure and “naked” examination of the psyche. Pointing to possible sexual arousal in the patient is often interpreted as erotic interest from the doc.

Should you experience an erotic transference that interferes with your psychotherapy, the question of mentioning it to your therapist arises. If the healer is well-practiced, ethical, and wise, he has heard and accepted such revelations before. He will try his best to treat you with gentleness while, at the same time, informing you that such relationship (if acted upon) would injure both you and himself. Questions of your attraction to him are irrelevant (except as grist for the therapeutic mill) if he is good at his work and maintains the barrier to sexual intimacy that is for your benefit.

Your feelings are not good or bad. The garment of lust misplaced on your therapist’s shoulders, however understandable its arrival there, must be unraveled.

The best counselors might be thought of as guides through a maze. Life is full of mazes. Each of us has our own and all of us feel confused or lost at times. Erotic transference is just another part of the puzzle, another challenge along the path. Not abnormal or bizarre, but the material of life subjected to the alchemy of therapy; from which, we hope, to create sustenance for the journey home.*

*Thanks to Tina at her blog, xrsize12, for suggesting I write about this topic. The images both come from the 1963 movie, Charade, with Carey Grant and Audrey Hepburn. The first of these was downloaded to Wikipedia by BlueStar.

The Slippery Slope: How “Mr. Right Now” Becomes “Mr. Permanent”

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The brain and the heart converse, but don’t always listen. They are like the angel and the devil (or vice versa) each whispering into a different ear. This is a problem when it comes to romance — especially on the lonely rebound — especially for women.

The stereotype tells us women are less able to separate sex and love. Enter the interim boyfriend — the one you are intuitively drawn to despite his deficits: “Mr. Right Now.” Intuition, loneliness, or boredom start the process and reasons are created to justify the inclination. So instructed, the head says some version of the following:

Well, he’s not perfect, but he is a good companion for the time being. I know he does (or doesn’t do)  ____________ (fill in the blank with whatever disqualifies him from becoming a first class companion). I know he’s got some defects. I’ll keep myself in check. I’ll be in control. I’ll be safe. He’ll fill the gap until “Mr. Right” turns up. I won’t be so lonely in the meantime, because “Mr. Right Now” will be fun.

The heart is still. Unengaged. Untroubled. Quiet. Deaf. The intuition-led brain is in charge and says all the right things. The man’s deficits — perhaps overuse of alcohol or free spending or immaturity or selfishness — are noticed but not troublesome. He is, after all, temporary. The couple talk about the “no strings” nature of their interaction, their “sexpectations.” There is a promise not to get too involved. They might describe their connection as “friends with benefits,” as if words collar feelings — leash the heart against leaping.

As the old saying goes, if you want to hear laughter, tell God your plans!

Time passes. Familiarity brings comfort. Sex adds excitement and closeness.

The heart begins to flutter. That is why the heart exists. The brain had been in charge and made promises the unhearing heart did not keep. Love conquers. The head still recognizes all the defects of “Mr. Right Now” — the things that disqualified him from the lead role. He auditioned for the understudy position, the guy who fills in when Mr. Right isn’t available.

The heart is now in charge. The shortcomings of the short-term fellow no longer matter. He is the leading man. The brain, if it ever was in charge, is either silenced or ignored.

The heart has the whip hand. Reasons are manufactured to justify feelings:

Well, he’s not perfect, but who is? I’ll talk to him about the things he needs to change, what I need from him. He’ll listen. He’ll change. Besides, he has so many good qualities. He’s a wonderful person, he just needs to (pick one or more):

  1. grow up a little
  2. be honest
  3. spend less time with his friends
  4. put me ahead of his family
  5. be more (or less) concerned with money
  6. be more ambitious
  7. be more (or less) preoccupied with work
  8. become more sensitive, especially to me
  9. listen better
  10. be neater
  11. drink (or use drugs) less
  12. _________________ (Fill in the blank)

Unfortunately, before long you are a prisoner in a trap you set yourself. You recognize the impossibility of your magical plans for the lover’s transformation, but you are hip deep in love. The chains of affection are heavy and take you under. You are straightjacketed like Houdini, but don’t have his gift for escape. Too late, you realize you fooled yourself. You are sinking. You mistook the straightjacket for a life jacket.

The inoculation against the love bug failed. Your heart is now infected. The new BF (boyfriend), lover, companion, stud puppet (whatever you want to call him) is in your blood.

Like any infection, some time is needed to recover. The task is easier if no children are involved, no marriages planned, and you have the courage to look hard at reality. Sooner is better than later. “The heart is a lonely hunter”* and, once that vital organ snuggles up to someone, detachment isn’t easy.

At best, you learned some painful lessons:

  • First, all important lessons are painful.
  • Second, you aren’t as smart as you thought.
  • Third, there are worse things than loneliness.
  • Fourth, temptation is easier to avoid than resist.
  • Fifth, your reasons followed your intuition, your biology, your neediness, or all three. You wanted to go out with someone who wasn’t right. No wonder your reasons weren’t reasonable or ultimately effective in protecting you.

Most people, including more men than will admit it, make some version of the same mistake. You are human, so you make mistakes.

You might know someone about to step on the slippery slope I’ve described. You are welcome to share my post, but don’t bet big money on persuading your friend of the dangers. Spilled milk, spilled tears — without them we learn very little. “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” as Alexander Pope wrote three centuries ago. There are times when we are all fools. Get the tissues ready.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a 1940 novel by Carson McCullers, adapted into a 1968 movie of the same name and a 2005 play.