How Life is Like an MRI

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Compacted into 30-minutes, having an MRI is an analogue for living. It took only one half hour in the machine to get a visual impression of my knee. There were no life threatening conditions. Just possible surgery due to wear and tear. Both words, literally.

I lay myself down on a movable platform. Imagine me as a cigar on my back, electronically slid into and out of a narrow, cylindrical enclosure. The magnets, on at all times, made a metallic, heartbeat-like racket; louder and arrhythmic when the machine got excited attempting to get a proper picture of the crucial body part: the kind of sound to make a person believe he was being fed into a meat grinder. I was given ear plugs which never fully killed the noise. The technician reminded me to be still, lest the exercise become worthless.

In the magnetic resonance imaging machine you enter a world of “booming, buzzing confusion,” as William James said. Is that any different from the world outside the hospital? You are on a very short assembly line. On it. Now you know something new: not what a factory worker knows, but the piece of metal or plastic on which he works before the product moves on to the next employee on the line. I had become a thing, objectified, like people we pass every day, unknown to us except by a few details. Just as we are unknown to them.

The cigar was left to mark the time. Nothing to read or notice. I’d been offered headphones and a choice of music, but experience informed me tunes couldn’t compete with the creature swallowing me. If one is a catastrophizing sort, here is a major opportunity to think the worst: “I won’t be able to be still, I’ll screw up the picture and therefore screw up the surgery and therefore screw up my life!” “I’ll sneeze or need to pee.” “One of the technicians will mess up.”

Or, if you prefer, you can take the 30-minutes and contemplate everything else wrong with your life or capable of going wrong. You are in any case, at the mercy of circumstances beyond controlling. Like life, again.

I did, in fact, have a foot cramp while on my back. The right foot, not the one in need of stasis. A few flexes calmed it down.

My left hand held a “panic button.” MRIs sometimes require the patient to live in the tube head-to-toe. I’ve had that done too and if your claustrophobic (I’m not) you need the panic button. The machine mimics how fate acts upon us. There are some things to which one can only submit. Fortunately, I took the event as an opportunity to meditate. Until, at least, I got the idea for this essay and thought about what to write. Make lemonade out of lemons, another life lesson.

Had I been upset, instead of panicking I could have reminded myself the hospital visit would soon be over. This too shall pass. My first time in the tube I remember thinking it might be an experience from which I’d learn something new and interesting. “This isn’t a misfortune, but a part of life.” If I lived a while back I’d have no remedies such as the knee surgery ahead. Psychologists call this “reframing.” Taking a new perspective on your situation.

In the big picture we are kind of like the cigar. On a conveyor belt that sometimes moves forward, sometimes in reverse, and makes no progress much of the time. We are dependent on the kindness of strangers — people like the two competent and kind ladies who took care of me. We move and are moved, not only as a matter of inches, feet, or miles, but in the emotional sense. The experience in the tube, like all experience, is time-limited.

The key, if you can find it in the “booming, buzzing confusion” of the world inside and outside your brain, is sometimes to relax. Control what you can, give in to the rest. Take the people around you for who they are, not objects, but folks made of the same stuff you are. We laugh, we cry, we struggle, and — if paying attention to what is important — we give some love, get some love, and do a little good.

Two out of three is a passing grade.

Enjoy the ride. However long, it is brief. So you better, in the words of Woody Guthrie, “take it easy, but take it.”

The top image is explained by the man whose brain was imaged, FastFission: “Made from an fMRI scan I had done. Goes from the top of my brain straight through to the bottom. That little dot that appears for a second on the upper-left hand side is a vitamin E pill they taped to the side of my head to make sure they didn’t accidentally swap the L-R orientation.” It comes from Wikimedia Commons.

Taking Yourself too Seriously and the Value of Going “Out of Your Mind”

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Right this second you are doing something worthwhile: you are not thinking about yourself.

There are usually better things to do than self-inspection. If the inward look were producing self-knowledge or healing, I’d encourage you. Too often, however, the rusty mind is just sawing wood for a building that will never be built. This is a ruinous misuse of sawdust.

We need time off from looking into the psychic house of mirrors we are trapped in: the head.

No one is the center of the world despite having been engineered to believe otherwise. Therein resides much unhappiness. Once one grasps this human design flaw, correction doesn’t require a factory recall. With a little tinkering, achieving a share of happiness becomes easier.

First, let’s define the dilemma, then address the remedies. Except for the golden few who view life as comic, we all suffer from it. As Thoreau wrote in Walden:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

We are in solitary confinement, able to see only through our eyes, and hear the internal voice alone, save an occasional hallucination.8-)

Our life is all we have, and the one perspective we are born with. No hiding place is offered, nor a different vantage point. Every event is personal in its impact, however indifferent were the fates delivering it.

Without resilience, courage, and a capacity to deflect life’s arrows or ignore the pain, the internal questioning begins. Replaying the dead past endlessly does not generate happiness. The world’s hard knocks require a rebound: a return to the game. Weeks or months of self-preoccupation only exacerbate the wound.

I am not talking about real soul-searching or the best psychotherapy, either of which can untie the ropes binding us. Nor the torment of tragedy. Rather, endless rumination that is like running around a track until the path you’ve worn becomes a deepening trench leading in a circle.

How much do we matter, really? Are we worth the self-preoccupation? Might we not do better to spend time more productively, more joyously, more helpful to ourselves or others?

Our lives come and go. The world rotates without assistance. Will rejection by a potential mate be recorded in any history book? Will winning a promotion or losing a job influence the war in Syria?

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George Elliot wrote in Middlemarch:

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy it: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory (of the world) we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

Approximately 360,000 births occur daily and almost 152,000 deaths. It is a wonder newborns aren’t packed and delivered by the gross on a United Parcel Service truck. We are each too common. Few of us will be remembered, even as a footnote, in 100 years’ time.

The only one who gets marked in a memorable fashion is usually the person who holds the pen and writes on his internal self, a screen to which no one else has access. He marks himself and he mars himself.

Most of us can do better. No, this doesn’t mean we must accomplish wonderful things or produce famous children.

One should recognize that most events are “below the level of tragedy except (in) the passionate egoism of the sufferer,” (again, George Elliot’s words). We are no different from our fellow-man, who might cheer our escape from a too severe view of life, and benefit by a helping hand.

Do not be ashamed if you find yourself stuck on your own internal reflection. Nature made you so. How then to take yourself less seriously?

  • Sitting alone and inactive breeds claustrophobic thoughts the way a cesspool breeds mosquitos. Get out of the house.
  • Consider reading Lucretius, an Epicurean philosopher. Epicureans have gotten a bad rap, thought to be self-indulgent louts. They did prefer pleasure over pain, but applauded honor, as well. The Stoics, including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, are also worth attention. Their words, read as a regular discipline and reminder, may reduce feeling sorry for oneself.
  • Mindfulness meditation, if practiced daily, can put you in the moment and cut the strings to thoughts pulling you inside.
  • The Bible and other old religious texts reflect on the state of being human, even for the unfaithful. Of particular note are the “wisdom books” of the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament): Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.
  • Consider public speaking (Toastmasters) and training in improvisation. The latter develops the ability to listen and react, not stay inside your head and generate what you should say in advance.
  • Generosity with time and money in ways small and large is a method for improving your mood, the well-being of the other, and increase your focus outside yourself.
  • Socialize and laugh.
  • Make a daily list of things you are grateful for.
  • More thinking about yourself will not solve the problem of over thinking about yourself!!! This might seem obvious, but many people stuck in endless ruminations reflexively turn to more internal cud-chewing as a solution to their dilemma.
  • Examine ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) instead. This form of treatment, unlike most types of cognitive behavioral healing, engages you less “in your head,” and more through non-linguistic means including acceptance, meditation, and action.

In the end, we come back to where we started: man is not the center of the universe, he only thinks so. To realize you’re not that important is both a curse and a blessing. The humility thereby produced will allow you to experiment on yourself rather than churn inside or cower in the shadows.

Unless you are capable of making history and enduring the cost of that worthy attempt, the possibility of less self-imposed unhappiness is available. Do your part, do your best — don’t do yourself in. A quiet mind can be enhanced by finding a humble place in the world.

Then, the next time someone says you are “out of your mind,” you will smile and say thank you.

The rabbit photo is called A Bunny Too Serious, by Laura Rantala. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Worry of Waiting and the Pain of Procrastination

Animated-Tourbillon

We wait. When we were small and Christmas was ahead, the calendar was stationary and the clock immobile. Kids “can’t wait” until the day comes, but they do. No choice.

We watch the watch too much for our health, whether the second hand moves fast or slow. The Algebra exam is tomorrow and you aren’t ready. An evening first-date comes on a “bad hair day” that makes you want to enroll your mane in obedience school, better to follow your comb’s commands.

I had my own battles with waiting and managed to create personal solutions, effective at least a portion of the time. In so doing, I realized some of our problems of waiting and procrastination are self-imposed. Time itself creates the others. I’ll begin with the former, but I hope you have the time to stick around for the latter.

I remember calling a high school beauty for a date. This wasn’t my first date, but among the earliest. I sat near the telephone. I looked at it. The phone peered back at me. The event became a staring contest. Who would break first? Would the phone disintegrate and vanish or could I muster courage and call. Minutes seemed like hours in agony. The longer I waited, the longer the suffering continued. I finally called. The bright and pretty blond said, “Yes.”

The solution to reduce my anxiety was already clear, but inexperience blinded me. The more I put off action, the more time I spent in a state of nervousness. I eventually recognized that, for myself at least, procrastination held no benefit. By taking challenges on with minimal postponement, I gained confidence and so reduced the disquiet associated with hesitation. The pool of cold water doesn’t get any warmer by looking at it and so it’s best to jump in.

The dread of waiting usually involves some catastrophization. At 16, getting rejected is an epic calamity. In my example, the urge to have a girlfriend was greater than willingness to accept a life without female contact. Unfortunately, for some, loneliness is the preferred choice. Put differently, anxiety is paralyzing and action seems impossible. Therapy can help with this, but watching the telephone will not.

A bit of courage is also required to take on the world’s #1 personal terror, giving a public speech. Not only is steadfastness needed to show-up for the presentation, but in managing the passage of time as you deliver the talk. Let me explain.

Imagine having been introduced. Restlessness among the listeners is apparent, perhaps even a few people are talking. Do you begin to speak over them or do you wait?

Experienced speakers allow time to look at the audience and to let the throng settle down. The inexperienced or fearful among us are prone to talk before everyone focuses on the podium. By waiting for them, they will understand the unsaid request for quiet, even in an auditorium filled with teenagers.

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Anxious orators often rush their words, believing they must fill the air with the alphabet lest people get bored. I take a different approach.

First, I memorize the speech. This takes a while, but allows for a security in knowing exactly what I want to say. I practice giving the presentation out loud. This is a performance, not a recitation of words dryly read from a text. The keynotes are drama and eye contact.

Some words should be louder, some softer. Portions of the speech are best when fast, others slow. Nervous orators are like long-distance runners who race as if competing in a sprint. They have nothing left for the final lap. Begin at an up-tempo and you can’t get faster. If, however, you start at a moderate pace, you can speed up or slow down as needed. Moreover, you won’t become breathless.

The speaker is wise to allow a few moments to pass without any words. Think of a landscape painting, one with foreground and background. Public presentation is like that, only the background is silence, so that the foreground (your words) stand out. This effect is created by a second or two of stillness, but takes some guts. The quiet might seem (to you alone) like eternity.

All of the above — whether waiting for Christmas or scared to make a phone call — have to do with time. While we can’t control time, we can control ourselves in relating to time.

Time can use us and mistreat us, or so we think. When we wish the hand on the clock to hurry up or slow down, time has the upper hand. For example, he punishes us when we want to be younger or older, when we are waiting in a long line, or when some important news is expected to arrive, whether not fast enough or too soon.

The alternative is to learn how to manage time, as I’ve tried to illustrate. We live “within” the passage of time. Each of us is a time traveler, like commuters on a train whose schedule we did not create.

Lacking control of this relentless force, we must come to accept him in the way of the Zen masters or the ancient Stoic philosophers. Fighting with time is like battling the whirlwind: he is an invisible enemy who evades the sting of our puny weapons. Life is, in part, a never-ending attempt to negotiate a truce in the war with time. The more we struggle by being impatient or terrorized, the more we waste him, or, he wastes us.

As an Indian friend once said to me, “Those of you in the West believe time is your enemy. In India, we think of time as our friend.”

What do you believe?

You might also find the following post interesting: The Frustration of Waiting in Line.

The top image is an Animated Flying Tourbillion by Freewilly. The second picture is Moiré Uhr by Benedikt.Seidl. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence

Here is a post many people have found useful. This version has been updated since its publication in 2010:

Dr. Gerald Stein

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Insecure people often reveal their self-doubt without being aware of it. Indeed, a wise observer can “read” another individual. For example, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have told me they can tell whether a new conductor is competent and talented within 10 minutes of the beginning of their first rehearsal with him.

What follows is a short list of behaviors that suggest insecurity:

  • 1. Are you able to give a compliment? Even more important, can you graciously accept one? The latter behavior tends to be difficult for someone who is unsure of himself. He might blush or become flustered. Alternatively, he is prone to dismiss the validity of the praise, instead telling you why it isn’t true. What should one do if complimented? Smile and say “Thank you.” Nothing more.
  • 2. An inability to maintain eye contact is hard for many individuals who lack confidence. They will turn away…

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Why Do We Collect Things?

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A nineteenth-century man tried to collect every book ever written. No joke.

He came closer than you might think. His name was Sir Thomas Phillipps and I’ll tell you about his quest in a bit.

Possible reasons behind his mission are interesting. Evolutionary psychology suggests early humans — “hunter-gatherers” — “collected” food and eventually those substances required to make and use fire. This increased their chance of survival and the opportunity to create the next generation. Primitive weapons* to fight off animal or human attacks also improved the odds of passing on one’s genes, whether those implements were found or fashioned.

Tools became less crude as some men learned more sophisticated uses of fire, beyond its ability to keep the small community warm at night. It would have been important to safeguard any useful object from loss, theft, or breakage. Those who invented or possessed these items might even have benefited by a boost to status, making them more desirable mates.

Yes, today is very different, but perhaps some of us are still left with the “collecting bug” inherited from distant ancestors.

Our long-deceased relatives were doubtless uncomfortable or anxious without storing food or weapons, nervous about a bare cupboard or the next attack. Thus, perhaps they passed on an unconscious desire to “collect oneself” — to deal with the anxiety over life’s uncertainties by hunting for things to be saved for the inevitable “rainy day.”

Life comes with no guarantees of its length or quality. You and I, therefore, develop ways of dealing with our fears about its impermanence and unpredictability. Often this is the job of instinct, the unconscious, and maybe a genetic predisposition developed long ago — not a careful review of a menu of possible maneuvers to quell our disquiet.

Stashing stockpiles of money might be thought of as a kind of substitute for early human activities aimed at ensuring future survival and relieving worry. Belief in an afterlife serves the purpose, too, whether the result of faith or the psychological need I’ve just described. Creating a book or painting for the ages has a transcendent quality, as well, to the extent that it looks past our lives to something more lasting. So does producing children.

For some, however, the act of collecting objects of no survival benefit appears to be only a pleasant and innocent distraction from routine. Unless, that is, you read a book by the late Dr. Werner Muensterberger.

The author, a psychiatrist, aptly titled his tome, Collecting: An Unruly Passion.

The type of collecting he is talking about is akin to a child’s use of a security blanket — holding a “transitional object” to sooth oneself.

In the course of writing the book, Muensterberger investigated some major collectors. Take the previously mentioned bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) who set himself the goal of obtaining “one copy of every book in the world.”

Phillipps fell short, but did amass about 40,000 books and 60,000 manuscripts (as many as 40 or 50 per week), requiring over 100 years to disperse after his death.

Of course, this obsession took lots of money.

Left a fortune by his father, he managed to reduce himself to a debtor in order to keep buying. Sir Thomas even cut a portion of his mother’s living stipend to pursue additional purchases. Phillipps’ craze drove his wife and daughters crazy, and put some of his creditors out of business, as well.

When his wife died he sought a wealthy replacement — any wealthy replacement — the better to fund his book hunts. He asked an acquaintance, “Do you know of any Lady with 50,000£ (British currency) who wants a husband? I am for sale at that price.”

Sir Thomas went off the rails, but are there advantages to a less consuming hobby of acquisition?

Sure.

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Collectors functioned to safeguard precious objects, especially before the widespread existence of museums and public libraries, ensuring the survival of masterpieces of the visual and literary arts. Moreover, those collectors who enjoy a work of art or a beautiful book for its own sake (not just its rarity), take pleasure in admiring it. For the collector of recorded music, there is the delight obtained in listening.

One can achieve a pleasant sense of “living in the moment” while pursuing the desired objects — quite “alive” and focused. Collectors and non-collectors alike appreciate the fun of a “treasure hunt,” even if rare baseball cards might not be your idea of treasure. Since men are more often hunters due to the historical differentiation of sex roles, they seem more likely than women to take part.

What’s more, collectors learn a good deal while enjoying their hobby: about the time and manner of creation of objects (like stamps or coins) or the history surrounding them. In other words, a collector can satisfy his curiosity and become better educated.

For some of these individuals, the material articles (properly arranged) display a kind of personal style or taste — a distinctiveness achieved for most of the rest of humanity by the cut of their hair or the decoration of their residence, the cars they drive or the clothes they wear.

Then there are investors who only resemble collectors. Unlike Sir Thomas Phillipps, they sell or trade their acquisitions for profit.

Of course, there can be a downside to collecting without limits, as Phillipps’ mother, wife, kids, and creditors could report, if only they were around to do so.

The potentially addictive quality of acquisition should be apparent, with the desired object being like a drug, providing a temporary elation which subsides rather quickly after the “loot” is obtained. The chronic restlessness of a Phillipps-like personality needs to speed back to the hunt.

The covetousness of this sort of person — for whom too much is never enough — cannot be calmed for long. The objects are not valued as works of art to be enjoyed (even if you call the beer can in the hobbyist’s beer can trove a thing of beauty); rather, they are pursued in order to “have them.”

Psychologically, Muensterberger might say, the “thing” functions like a cell phone carried by an anxious person for the purpose of providing reassurance or control in case of an acute anxiety attack; or like an amulet or rabbit’s foot thought to guarantee magical protection from injury.

Often, he believes, the collection becomes a substitute for relationships, at least the potentially intimate kind. For Muensterberger, the pathological collector finds relationships too unreliable, unpredictable, and precarious.

In stark contrast, material items are more controllable and permanent. They will never let him down, move away, reject him, or die. In an uncertain world, the collector achieves a sense of mastery by his success in accumulating objects, even if the domain of his mastery may be trivial (as in match books or bottle caps).

I’m reminded of an old acquaintance, a fellow phonograph record collector who focused on a limited number of classical instrumental artists. But unlike the other hobbyists I have known, this man continued to buy LPs (long-playing records) in spite of staggering family medical bills, his wife’s distress over the expense of his avocation, and their mounting debt.

She rationalized this by saying, “Well, I suppose it is better than if he had a mistress or was alcoholic.” The spouse did not know, however, that her husband craftily arranged new purchases to be mailed to the homes of some of his friends, and paid in cash or untraceable money orders to prevent his wife from finding out. Later the discs were smuggled into their abode when his mate was away.

Those of you who are fans of Harrison Ford might remember the beautiful German archeologist pursuing the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The wooden cup of Christ falls into a crevasse during an earthquake, triggering the damsel’s attempt to retrieve it. Indiana Jones warns her that she is about to lose her life by reaching for the cup, frustrating his ability to hold on to her.

Sometimes, I suppose, the saying, “I can’t live without it,” is true. And live she did not. The gorgeous blond stretched for the Holy Grail until she slipped from the hero’s grasp.

The next time you find yourself at a garage sale, an estate sale, or an antique shop, stop for a moment. Where did these things come from? The same thought might occur to you as you visit the vanishing world of used book and CD stores, or their virtual replacements on Amazon and eBay. There are only two answers:

  1. People bought them and the same people have decided they want to sell them. Some might be collectors whose interests have changed, others simply in the business of making a living or clearing space.
  2. The children or heirs of the collectors are doing their best to get rid of the burden of “stuff” left to them.

With regard to the second answer, unless we are talking about fine art, those objects probably aren’t the inheritance the kids were hoping for.

*If you are old enough, you might remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Parents of my folk’s generation encouraged their children to say this in response to name calling.

The top image is a photo of vinyl phonograph records by Burn the Asylum.

The second image is the Vanitas painting by Franciscus Gysbrechts (1672-1676). Such paintings were particularly common among artists doing “still life” in the Netherlands and Flanders in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were symbolic, in that the items depicted generally were reminders of the brevity of life. Musical instruments, for example, signaled that the sound was made and quickly left “not a trace behind.” The globe was also a reminder of the human condition and the skull of one’s mortality. Watches, smoke, hour glasses, and the like served the same symbolic purpose, suggesting the passage of time. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Causes of Insecurity

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Insecurity is in the nature of being human. It is a commonplace, even if most people make a serious effort to disguise it. Too many things to know, too many to learn, too many rejections — most everyone has had significant experience of the things that undermine confidence. But, what makes for more than the usual amount of insecurity? What contributes to some people becoming “insecure?” Here are a few of its causes:

  • Temperament: Little human personalities can be different from the moment of birth. Just as not all children have the same color eyes or hair, neither do they have the same temperament. Pre-school kids have distinctive and lasting characteristics on such dimensions as being reactive vs. calm, tending to approach or avoid new situations, and being introverted or extroverted. While not guaranteeing fractured confidence as an adult, inborn qualities can make a contribution to it.
  • Overly Critical Parenting: Security can be undermined by parents who are too critical, neglectful, or frankly abusive. Sometimes neglect is unavoidable, as it tends to be in families where there are lots of children or the parents are working long hours outside of the home to put food on the table. But sometimes the insecurity develops because of something more subtle. If you are born to extroverted parents and you are introverted (while your siblings are more like your folks), you may feel like an odd-duck, not quite fitting in. If your dad was hoping for an athlete and you are an artist, the same sense of parental disappointment might be hard to miss.
  • Bullying: Kids can be targeted by the classmates for all sorts of reasons including the way they look, where they live, how they dress; and racial, religious, or ethnic differences. Gender matters too, especially if you are the sole female in a physics class with a wise-guy classmate who makes fun of you and a teacher who hasn’t the capability to stop it, as I witnessed back in high school.
  • Body Image: In a society filled with spectacularly beautiful advertising images, it is difficult to be plain; and worse yet, unattractive in any way. Too tall, too skinny, too fat — God help you. Too much acne, bad hair, a lack of finely-tuned motor coordination, same problem. Some of us continue to see ourselves in terms of that early self and struggle with the sense of insecurity produced back then.
  • Learning Problems: This can take the form of a learning disability, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or even being average in a school filled with high achievers.
  • Multiple Changes of Residence: Being the new kid is not usually fun, especially for introverted young people who struggle with fitting in and finding friends. Insecurity can follow.
  • Parental Overprotection: When parents prevent their children from doing things that are simply a part of growing up, they can communicate to the child that he isn’t up to the task. Moreover, they rob the young one of the chance to grow from experience, learn what he needs to know in the social sphere, and become more confident. He may also be at risk of being seen as “different” by his peers, because he is the kid who “isn’t allowed” to do things most other parents freely permit.

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  • Parental Expectations: For some parents, life won’t be complete until their children go to Harvard, become famous, and have a building named after them. Even an objectively accomplished person can be insecure if he feels he has failed to reach that standard, unless he throws off this requirement by dint of self-examination or therapy. In today’s civilized world, we compete with the best brains and ideas on an international scale, quite a change from most of human history, when you could easily feel great being a big fish in a small pond; that is, standing out for athletic or scholarly excellence in your tiny community.
  • Money: If your classmates and their parents have more money, nicer homes, or better clothes than you do, this can cause you to be noticed in an uncomfortable way and make you feel less worthy than the others.
  • Guilt: Do you have a secret? Do you feel guilty about something others don’t know about? Are you adopted or is your father alcoholic or your mother depressed? Such things can make you feel vulnerable, in the belief others would disapprove “if only they knew.” And if they do, the talk behind your back is predictable.
  • Being in Someone’s Shadow: While there are a great many good things about being the child or sibling of a person who is extraordinary, it can create a high bar to any kind of recognition or acceptance of you for your own sake, someone who has his own identity and is worth knowing even if he isn’t an Olympic champion or a captain of industry.
  • Blushing and Sweating: We all get nervous, but some of us do stand out in a visible way. President Richard Nixon was famous for the amount of perspiration he generated during the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates in 1960, so much that most people who saw him on TV thought he lost, but the majority of those who only heard him over the radio thought he won. Whatever insecurity you are prone to can be amplified by knowing your discomfort will sometimes shine like a lighthouse beacon.

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  • Isolation: Children whose living conditions offer little opportunity to socialize with same-aged kids are at a disadvantage. The talented and extroverted among them are more likely to have confidence when they enter the social arena, while the introverted may have more difficulty. Living at a distance from other kids your own age or being home-schooled can fuel this problem. The distance also doesn’t afford the opportunities of living in challenging social situations that contribute to a growing sense of competence and mastery. Once behind the curve, whether through the peculiar circumstances of childhood or your own avoidance of challenges as an adult, you might come to feel you are now too lacking in practice and even further behind others in any number of work, social, or sexual situations.
  • Life Failures: The frustrations of life can take their toll. Confidence might be undermined by too many jobs lost, goals unfulfilled, rejections, and relationship failures.
  • The Depredations of Aging: If your self-image depends largely on just one thing, a loss of that thing can make a big difference in your sense of security. Athletic prowess fades, as does beauty. Worse yet, the former prom king and queen can discover their bodies no longer demand positive attention (or perhaps now get the wrong kind of attention). Some feel mocked by the photos of their youth.
  • Instinctive Biological Insecurities: Evolution contributed to our tendency to pick up on the signs revealing disapproval or anger in others. Those pre-historic humans who didn’t notice their compatriots were unhappy with them risked being thrown out of a protective group. Worse still, they failed to detect hostility in their enemies. Only individuals who were sensitive enough to notice passed their genes to us. For more on this, read Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances/

None of these factors will undermine every person. Many of them interact with one another, making confidence more difficult. But getting over what is past and challenging yourself to master new and difficult situations tends to be productive. Therapy can be helpful in coming to terms with a history anchoring you to the ocean’s bottom, as well as a present that looks too daunting given your internal shakiness. The important thing is moving forward.

Metaphorically speaking, humans are like the Great White Shark, which must swim in order to breathe: either we keep moving forward or we die.

You might also find this of interest: On Being Insecure and Alone/

The top image is called Shamed Man by Victor Bezrukov, The second photo is called Cutest Girl Ever by Lindsay Stark. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Do You Have a Bad Attitude?

Life is difficult enough without making yourself miserable. Those who begin with a negative, “can’t do” point of view often justify themselves by saying that they don’t want to get their hopes up; that the world is unfair and one should be prepared for it. But in so doing they can create their own misery and bring down the mood of those who are close by.

I’ll discuss below a few variations on this theme — different forms of “bad attitude” along with some potential solutions:

1. Focusing on the past. While I am a firm believer in learning from the past, one must remember that it is yesterday’s news. Short of daydreaming about a happier time in your life or doing the essential work of grieving, it can fuel sadness without compensating benefits. The past holds too many unfulfilled hopes, failures, and broken romances. It is the storehouse of betrayals — about “what might have been.” It is the place where things that went wrong can fill your mind and heart with regret. It is a wasteland of missed opportunities, lost beauty, and a nostalgia that is no more satisfying than trying to fill your stomach with the photo of a past meal. Visit the past, but don’t live there.

2. Living in a frightening future. An exclusive focus on the future can be as deadly as a preoccupation with the past. The twin dangers of living in the future are worry/anxiety and make-believe daydreaming. Most who live in the future usually live a life of dread, overpredicting catastrophe and underestimating their ability to survive misfortune.

The only thing we have in life with any certainty is the present. Any chance of happiness depends upon one’s ability to find a way to live in the moment and find satisfaction there, experiencing it and whatever it brings, accepting life on its terms. Plan for the future but be careful not to live in that future any more than you live in the past.

The goal ahead might be very worthwhile, but try to enjoy the journey to get there. Mindfulness meditation, Stoic philosophy, the Zen tradition, and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) can help reorient you to determining what is important in life; setting aside what is inessential, distracting, or worrisome; and living according to those principles in the present moment.

3. Pessimism or the self-fulfilling prophecy. Pessimism is a close cousin to worry and anxiety over events that may never happen. It smothers spontaneity, joy, and drains energy. It renders defeat in the game of life even before the game has begun. It anticipates a guilty verdict from the jury that causes one not even to show up for the trial. Pessimism destroys motivation and generates avoidance of challenges or half-hearted effort, at best. Depression and pessimism drink from the same poisoned well.

4. Throwing a wet blanket on the happiness of others. Don’t be a buzz-killer, a kill-joy, or a party pooper. Avoid raining on someone else’s parade. Don’t be an emotional suicide bomber, someone who brings down oneself and all those around you. A bad attitude can consist of always seeing the single dark cloud on a glorious sun-lit day, especially if the sun is shining on someone else. It is the “yes, but” response to the other’s good fortune, her excitement, and her dreams. It attempts to make others suffer as much as you are. This attitude masquerades as attempting to “be helpful” or “realistic” or trying to prevent the friend or child “from being hurt.” Perhaps. But it is a cautionary or negative/critical message at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong person.

5. Rejecting the encouragement or helpfulness of others. Most people want to ease your suffering, to offer you some encouragement or hope or solace. But if you have a bad attitude, you will reject all of this. You will say “I’ve thought of that already” when you are offered a suggestion or “I’ve already tried that” or “That won’t work because…” Instead, your bad attitude may isolate you from those who only wish to offer their presence and show their affection for you; their simple desire to hold your hand in a difficult moment. In the worst case you will drive such people away, thereby increasing your sense of separation from the world and guaranteeing a solitary misfortune.

6. Perfectionism or the belief that things can always be better. Some of us can’t accept a grade of 99% on the test, simply because we could have done better. Short of performing brain surgery, it is useful to be able to accept the imperfect nature of life and ourselves. Do your best, prepare for the race, study hard; but realize that perfection (if it is to be found at all) resides only in the works of Mozart, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and a few others. If you punish yourself for falling short of that ideal, you have misunderstood the nature of life on earth and guaranteed that you will be joyless.

7. Whining and complaining. Worse than those who see only the dark side of life are those who not only see it, but won’t let you get away from them before they tell you about it in malcontented detail. They tend not to focus on abstractions. Rather, their concern is not the unfairness of life, but the unfairness of their life. There is no surer way of driving people away than to adopt this particular version of a bad attitude.

8. Fighting every battle. Some people seem perpetually aggrieved and angry. They live with a chip on each shoulder, daring life to knock the wood off. Life will knock it off, but not in the way that they expect. Their anger will breed anger in others. And in fighting perpetually, they will miss any sense of contentment or joy.

No one can take on all the battles worth joining, let alone those that will produce nothing of value. As an antidote to rage, gratitude for the things in life too easily taken for granted can be coupled with acceptance of the things that you can’t change. Ideally, these two abilities will usually counterbalance the frustrations and resentments of life without robbing you of the capacity to fight the good fight when necessary. Telling the difference between those skirmishes that need you and those you should pass is crucial. If you are too angry too often, seek counseling.

9. Refusing to take life seriously. If you’ve been paying attention, there is a relatively new popular expression among teens and a few others. It is called YOLO or “you only live once.” It justifies mindless foolishness; not just ill-considered behavior, but action that is not considered at all. It can be an excuse for doing whatever you want or refusing to do whatever someone else might advise. YOLO suggests that you are not living in the future, not living in the past, and not living in any really mindful present. If you were, the thought of driving 60 miles an hour down a side street in a school zone would never be translated into actually doing it. We seem to make enough mistakes in life without adopting a philosophy of life that virtually guarantees it.

10. Too much realism. While it helps to see the world as it is, there is the risk of it being too much of a good thing. The world as it is today (or most any day) includes poverty, genocide, and betrayal; infirmity, disease, and heartbreak; stress, cruelty, and the big one: death. Everyone you know will die and that also includes you. Focus on all of this just enough to make the most of your precious and too short life. Focus on it just a little more and you will be so depressed that you won’t want to get out of bed.

If you have any of the bad attitudes I’ve described, your first response will usually be to justify it; perhaps even to see it as a strength. But I would ask you if you are satisfied with your life as it is? If not, then you may need to investigate that same attitude, especially those aspects that actually could be making the problem worse. Ask friends and family what they see in you that needs to change — if they have enough courage and love of you to tell you the truth (and you have the guts to take it). Looking in the mirror — seeing yourself as others see you — is brutally hard, but can be a first step to enlightenment and a better life.

Read Czikszentmihalyi about “flow” and those wonderous moments when one is so involved in a productive/creative action that one loses all sense of time and self. Read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, Martin Seligman, Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and other “positive” (hedonic) psychologists about what makes for happiness and how to get there.

It can be helpful to make a list of those things for which you are grateful. Indeed, it may be of assistance to look back at the day to find what it can teach you or what was good (even on a bad day). Yes, I know that plenty that is bad does happen and has happened and will happen. But we humans must not live in these moments of misery for too long without grieving our losses and moving on, learning to accept the nature of life, and learning that the very best times are unreflecting, unself-conscious, utterly spontaneous experiences that we don’t think about, we simply are living them.

In part, our job is to pull our head out of its backward look, out of its forward glance, and play the game that is exactly where we are — right here, right now. That ultimately means more action, more experiment, more risk and less thought — swimming in the pool of life without regard to getting wet. It matters not if you start in the shallow end of the pool because most of us do — just don’t stay there.

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Harper knew more than a little about the water and about the voyage. She put the idea of living your life with a good (rather than a bad) attitude very well:

A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.

The top image is Emotions X by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) downloaded by access. The second is Messerschmidt’s The Constipated, dowloaded by Sailko. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.