How to Make Yourself and Those You Love Miserable

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It is easy to find on-line guidance to a better life. But the recommendations contained on those self-help web sites (and in books that aim at the same audience) have become almost too commonplace to make any impact.

The remedy? Something that is just the opposite: a list of suggestions on how to make yourself and others miserable. Of course, I’m not wishing that you follow these directions. Rather, I’m hoping that some of you who might yawn at still another list of “things to do” to improve your life, will be struck by the things you already do that make it much worse.

Here goes:

  • Regularly compare your material and financial circumstances to others, especially to those who are doing better than you are.
  • Make a list of all the people who have wronged you over the years and try to remember exactly how awful they made you feel. Think about those who owe you an apology. Forgive no one. Let no slight be too small to dwell on it.
  • Carry on a vendetta. Stay up late at night planning and plotting how you might get back at people. Stay angry. Let all your hatred out in blistering, profane, and cowardly “flames” behind the mask of the Internet.
  • Give your children gifts rather than your time. Set no limits on them. Then wait until they are teenagers and wonder why they are depressed or rebellious.
  • Curse the darkness, the winter, the cold, the rain, the frailty of the human condition, and all the other things that you can’t change.
  • Get impatient with the people who are walking in front of you at a snail’s pace, the couples whose bodies and shopping carts block the entire grocery aisle, and the slow progress of the check-out line at the store.

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  • Make no contribution to the betterment of humanity. Assume an attitude of entitlement. Figure out how to avoid work. Idle away your time. Ask “what your country can do for you,” not “what you can do for your country” in opposition to JFK’s 1960 inaugural address admonition.
  • Forever rationalize your dishonorable or questionable behavior or deny it altogether, even to yourself.
  • Persuade yourself that you need to wait until you feel better before you do the difficult thing that you have been postponing. Keep waiting, even if the time never comes when you believe that you can take action.
  • Do not let conversation with your spouse or children get in the way of watching TV. Keep the TV on most of the time, most importantly at family dinners. If possible have a television in every room.
  • Ignore the beauty of a spring or summer day, the newly fallen snow, and the cheerful laugh of small child. Stay in-doors as much as possible, year round.

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  • Allow yourself to be upset by overpaid, under-performing athletes who doom the home team to continued failure. Yes, Cubs fans, this means you!
  • Treat emotions of sadness, tenderness, and hurt as your enemy. Push them away and thereby alienate yourself from yourself. Curtail grieving and try to deaden your feelings to the point of numbness.
  • Work up as much hatred as possible toward opposition political parties. Listen to every talking head who wants to whip you into a frenzy.
  • Expect justice and fairness in all things.
  • Drink too much, drug too much, and spend every extra minute on the web or playing computer games instead of having direct human contact with someone who is in the same room with you. Further distract yourself from your problems by watching TV and listening to music. Escape reality.

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  • Keep using failed solutions to your problems even though they haven’t worked in years, if ever.
  • Behave in mid-life the way you did as a young person; or, if you are a young person, behave the way you did as a child. Do not reflect on or learn from experience which might teach you something new.
  • Use others instrumentally. That is, value them only in terms of what they can do for you. Lie, cheat, betray, and steal from them if that serves your interests. Then wonder why people mistrust you.
  • Spend as much time as possible worrying about the future and regretting the past, rather than living in the irreplaceable moment.
  • Aim low. Avoid the disappointment that comes with high expectations. When the going gets tough, quit.
  • Train yourself to be a miser. Practice selfishness. Hold on to your money as if you expect to live forever and will need every last cent. Make Scrooge from A Christmas Carol your hero.

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  • Judge others less fortunate than you are by using the phrases “he should have known better,” “he didn’t try hard enough,” and the like. Assume that all people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Disdain compassion, but remain puzzled when others call you heartless.
  • Indulge in every available excess: unprotected sex, food, spending, smoking, caffeine, etc. Don’t exercise. Ignore medical advice and, even better, avoid going to your doctor. Treat your body badly and then wonder why it betrays you.
  • Be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and indirect whenever you are injured rather than looking someone in the eye and expressing your displeasure in a straight-forward fashion.
  • Avoid facing things. Give in to your fears, anxieties, and phobias.

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  • Don’t let anyone know you well. Believe that your vulnerabilities will always be used against you. Keep social interactions on the surface. Eschew intimacy and maintain your distance, thinking that this is the best way to avoid personal injury. Trust no one!
  • Assume that the normal social rules regarding fidelity to friends and lovers don’t apply to you. Hold on to a double-standard that favors you.
  • Insist on having your way. Don’t compromise. Don’t consider others’ needs or wants. Assume a position of moral superiority, self-righteousness, and arrogance in things religious, political, and personal.
  • Do everything others ask of you. Rarely say “no.”
  • Try to control people and events as much as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Micromanage. Hover over others. Repeat complaints to them incessantly. Remind subordinates, friends, spouses, and children of small errors, even if they are ancient history.
  • Make no significant effort to better your life. Depend on others to take care of you and make all significant decisions for you. Be a burden.
  • Raise all your children exactly the same way even though it is obvious that they are not all the same.
  • Imitate vampires (who have no reflection in the mirror and therefore keep their mirrors shrouded) by never really looking hard at your own reflection in the looking-glass. That is, never take a frank inventory of your strengths and weaknesses or the mistakes you’ve made. Be like the evil queen in Snow White, whose only desire was that the mirror would tell her that she was “the fairest of them all.”
  • Whenever you talk with someone, wonder what they really mean, pondering the possibility that they find you boring, stupid or physically unattractive.
  • Feed yourself on gossip more than food. Delight in talking about others behind their backs.
  • Value beauty, appearance, reputation, and material success over integrity, knowledge, kindness, hard work, and love.
  • Try to change others, but do not try to change yourself. Take no responsibility for your life circumstances, instead blaming those who have stymied you.
  • Stay just as you are regardless of changing life conditions. For example, if wearing warm clothes worked for you when you lived in Alaska, continue to wear them when you move to Arizona in July.

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  • Don’t forgive yourself. Maintain the most perfectionistic and demanding moral and performance standard even if you are not a brain surgeon. Stay up at night castigating yourself over every imperfection, no matter how small.
  • Make a list of all the things that are wrong with your life, all the opportunities lost, every heartbreak, and the physical features and bodily changes that you don’t like. Stew in your own juices. Salt your wounds. Pick at your scabs.
  • Take everything personally.
  • Permit friends, family, and co-workers to walk all over you. Do not stand up to them for fear of causing offense and disapproval.
  • Discount your blessings. Concentrate on the dark side of life.
  • Never even consider going into psychotherapy. Assume that this is something only for those who are weak and that anyone who needs to grapple with emotional issues in counseling demonstrates a failure of will power and logic.

With thanks for the inspiration for this essay to Dan Greenberg and Marcia Jacobs, co-authors of a very funny, but ironic book entitled How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The top image is Grief by Edgar Bertram Mackenna. The video frame that follows is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural speech. The next image is Sommerblumenstrauss by A. Gundelach. The following photo by Andygoodell is A Jack Rose Cocktail. The fifth picture is of two children in Bangladesh by Nafis Kamal, while the sixth is called Chicklet-Currency courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the image from Disney’s Snow White, is a 1911 photo of Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor. All but the Snow White frame are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

September Song

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I was talking to an unmarried friend recently, not a young man, who presented me with a dilemma that was troubling him. It seemed that an attractive and intelligent woman, much younger than he, was showing an interest in him.

Friendship? Romance? Business advantage or advice?

All yet to be determined.

But he wondered whether to pursue the relationship, particularly if it might become romantic, sexual.

Now my friend is extremely bright, a thinker all his life. Indeed, this is how he makes his living — thinking, evaluating, considering, pondering, weighing, judging; and then conveying the result of those calculations to others, who pay him well for his service.

He sees lots of potential problems, although he doesn’t know the woman well at all — yet. Might she be interested in him only for his ability to assist her professionally? Wouldn’t others looks askance at the two of them together, a woman of 30 and a man of 55?

Or could one of the things that now attracts her to him — his capacity as a mentor or guide, someone who has much more experience of some very interesting things — eventually be seen as a problem when she tires of the “student” role and begins to resent the “teacher?” Wouldn’t the generation gap, the memories and formative influences that they don’t have in common, eventually separate them?

Now all these, and more, are not unreasonable thoughts. The problems that he sees could very well occur.

But other men might see it differently. They would welcome the attention of a young and attractive female, the energy, the sexual tension, the admiration, the possibility of what still might be. Indeed, some men of any age could well believe that they’d won some sort of dating lottery in just this situation.

But then, my friend lives in his head a lot, a thinker, as I said. And thinkers think. Not because it always works, not because they have to, but because it is almost as natural and automatic as breathing. Simply because they’ve always done it.

Most of us, past a certain age, just keep doing what we’ve done and getting what we’ve got. Not that what we’ve got has always been that great, but the unknown future seems fraught with danger and only the safety of the well-trod path appears to offer any security. Better the mediocre “known” than the dangerous, but perhaps promising “unknown.”

And so, the man who has always worn only Brooks Brothers suits for fear of others criticizing his wardrobe choices will still wear those suits; and the adult who had little money while growing up will continue to under-tip the waiter and sit in the “cheap seats” in the theater despite the fact that he has a million dollars in the bank and a secure pension on top of it; and the orchestra musician too long beyond his prime will play the violin still, not because he so loves it, but because he doesn’t know what he’d do with his time if he quit the thing to which he has devoted his entire life.

One is trapped by social expectations and insecurity, another held tight by the dead hand of the past, a third lacking the imagination or courage to reinvent himself. All are like sail boats becalmed, in a still-state of living without life.

But the days grow short as you reach September

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame

One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

My advice to my friend? See what happens. You aren’t young any more. Life is short. Who knows what it may yet have in store?

Before long spring will be in the air again. Even if it is not the spring of your youth, the earth’s spring might yet enliven you.

And listen to Walter Huston’s recording of September Song, music by Kurt Weill, words by Maxwell Anderson.

His rendition remains the best ever, even if barely sung, because of a sensibility that knew very well that of which he sang — the September of life and the hope of romance to heal the lonely heart.

The photo above is a Picture of Pin Oak leaves turning color c/o: Rmccrea, Wikimedia Commons.

The quotation is from September Song.

Off to College and Saying Goodbye

Paintings Reproductions David, Jacques -Louis The Farewell of  Telemachus and Eucharis

It is that time of year. Some kids are going to college for the first time. A difficult moment for all concerned.

If you are a parent, your child may have been spending much of the last year or two pushing you away; being disagreeable; wanting to spend more time alone; confiding in you less.

It could be adolescent rebellion in a fairly moderate form, but, more likely, it is his striving for independence; and his anticipation of the real break — the one that finds him living in a different state; both a state of mind and a State of the Union.

As most of us know, it usually feels better to be the one who ends a relationship first or enacts a change in it — separates, creates a distance — than to be on the receiving end of that action. But, whatever it is, it is tough for sure.

The farewells can be tearful and terrifying, mostly for parents. The kids have their anxieties too, but don’t want to betray them as openly as the elders do. The students’ brave front is as much to persuade themselves that everything will be fine outside the nest as to keep their ambivalence in check, lest they encourage mom and dad to show even more emotion and make the parting harder.

I remember spending a good portion of our drive back home from an off-to-college goodbye with tears in my eyes, having taken our eldest to the Champaign/Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. Within a few days we heard from her though. Sure enough, homesickness.

Letting go of your children is hard, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog. You have to have faith that your offspring have learned something by age 18 and that they will survive, bruised but unbowed. Not much you can do anyway, unless you are prepared to keep them hostage in your basement forever.

They will return of course, but they won’t be the same. That too is a good, if  ambivalent thing, a sword that cuts both ways. As a parent, you’ll remember the cuddly and loving stage, the moment when you were everything to them and they couldn’t get enough of you. In trade, you get to see your children flourish (one hopes) as adults, a wondrous thing when you remember back to how little and helpless they once were.

But, be patient. The “full bloom” just might take some time and some struggle. Keep the faith.

Regardless, you do get more peace, quiet, and privacy as a bonus.

A new relationship, then — something different rather than better or worse.

The “saying goodbye” comes by degrees. At first, they return for summer vacation and holidays. Later, they will live away and see you less often. Such is life.

My wife and I kept a very old car for our daughters to use when they were home, even after both had graduated college and gone on to grad school. Finally, a minor accident rendered it beyond repair and we donated it to charity.

For a few days after the auto had been taken away, my wife and I both felt a little bit low. We talked about it. Of course, it wasn’t hard to figure out. The car was a symbol, something tied to the time they lived with us, and something that said they would be coming back. Now, with the car gone, we both had to face  that there was no coming back with the regularity of the past.

Their lives were elsewhere.

When I gave the toast at my eldest’s wedding, I told the following story:

I remember the day that we took Jorie to Champaign/Urbana to the Illini Towers dorm, to begin her college education at the University of Illinois. We thought we would be clever about it, so we woke up very early that Saturday morning and drove fast so that we would be among the first to get into the building and unloaded. But we were out foxed by several hundred people, who had gotten up earlier and driven faster and were already way ahead of us in line to use the couple of elevators and the small number of carts to get their child moved in.

It was a long, hot, late summer day. And as we stood in line  waiting, I had a feeling of familiarity, as if I had done this before. Of course, I had never moved Jorie into any new place, so I couldn’t easily figure it out.

As the morning changed to afternoon (and we were still in line), I thought back to the day that Jorie was born. At 1:00 AM, that is to say, in the dead of night, Jorie gave the signal and we were off to the hospital. And that too was a long day as we waited for the labor to progress. Finally, at 9:34 PM, over 20 hours later, Jorie arrived in this new world. And I realized that the long day of waiting for her to be born was what the long day of waiting at Illini Towers reminded me of.

The only difference was that on that day at the hospital we were waiting to say hello to her, and on the day at Illini Towers we were waiting to say goodbye.

Shakespeare was right.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

But, life does go on.

The image above is The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis by Jacques-Louis David.

Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence

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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. The ability to maintain eye contact is hard for many individuals who lack confidence. They will turn away or look down, but rarely hold the gaze of the other by looking into his or her eyes.
  • 3. The self-doubting person tends to apologize when no apology is necessary. It is as if she expects to be reproached or is afraid to give offense; so, she prophylactically tries to excuse any possible mistake to avoid such a response.
  • 4. Answering a question with an upward inflection of the voice has been done by everyone. The person being questioned doesn’t have certainty about his answer, so he replies with a tone betraying his insecurity. Since I originally wrote this piece, a name has been given to the practice: upspeak.
  • 5. Men and women who are uncomfortable with sharing personal information for fear of being judged will oft-times turn the conversation to a different topic, away from anything that might make them vulnerable or reveal too much. This is also called “changing the subject.”
  • 6. One way of inoculating yourself against criticism is to joke at your own expense. Do this often and others may conclude you believe you are flawed.
  • 7. Do you have trouble making a decision? The comedy team “Cheech and Chong” (I’m not sure which one) said: “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” If you automatically let others choose the restaurant, movie, and other activity, you are either easy-going and good-natured or don’t want to be held accountable for making the wrong choice.
  • 8. Do you state strong opinions? Those who avoid doing so might maintain the peace — often a good thing — but some fear drawing fire and unwanted attention.

Before I give you nine more signs of insecurity, I’ll say what might cause the condition. Many possibilities. Critical or neglectful parents, poor academic skills, frequent moves making you “the new kid” (especially if you are introverted by nature), learning disabilities and ADHD, being “different” in some fashion (size, shape, color, religion), thinking of yourself as the “poor” kid in a community of the affluent, sensing you are the average child in a school filled with bright youngsters, feeling ashamed of your parents or residence, frequent rejections, getting fired (whether deserved or not), clumsiness, a history of abuse or bullying; physical unattractiveness, deformity, or injury, etc. For a more thorough discussion of these causes, click here: The Causes of Insecurity. Now back to the list of signs of insecurity:

  • 9. Do you laugh nervously in social situations? It is another behavior betraying self-consciousness.
  • 10. People will appraise you harshly if they see you bite your nails or they appear bitten.
  • 11. Are you self-effacing, placing yourself at a disadvantage — letting others go first, speak first — reluctant to raise your hand? Do you hesitate to take your turn? Do you sacrifice your interests as a matter of course? Insecurity can make you wait until the opportunity before you is lost. Excessive deference displays little regard for yourself, even if some amount can be a sign of good breeding and consideration.
  • 12. Are you nervous eating in front of others? Do you fear dropping something, displaying poor table manners, or making a mess? You probably won’t, at least not more than the rest of us.
  • 13. Can you make phone calls without trepidation; especially those in which you need to introduce yourself, correct a problem, or speak to an authority? Too much discomfort in anticipation of these actions can reveal your sense of uncertainty.
  • 14. Might you make too many excuses? Those who are unsure give explanations where none are required. Imagine you order an entrée at an elegant restaurant and the waiter asks whether you want an appetizer to start. You explain why you don’t. Some folks offer multiple excuses for what they do, anticipating criticism. If you must give a reason, limit yourself to one. The more you give, the more uncertain (or dishonest) you sound. For  example, “I can’t come to the party because I have a stomach ache and my car broke and I need to study.” One reason will be more convincing. You needn’t explain yourself as often as you think.
  • 15. Insecurity can be suggested by hesitation to ask for a favor or an inability to say “no.” Anticipation of rejection or disapproval is the motivator for both of these problems with self-assertion. By contrast, a self-assured person will not believe the relationship (or his own value) is dependent upon going along with someone else’s wishes or fulfilling the desires of others as a matter of routine.
  • 16. Do you make frequent requests for reassurance? A few examples: “Does that make sense?” “What do you think?” “What would you do?” “Do you think that is a good idea?” “Do I look OK?” Must you have sex to prove your partner remains interested in you? If you are self-assured, you won’t implore your lover to calm your doubts and remind you, over and over, in words and deeds, of your desirability or intelligence.
  • 17. Last one. Here insecurity takes a different form. This person wants the spotlight at all times, the better to be told “You are the fairest of them all!” She or he pushes for recognition, strutting about the stage we call life; checking to see where he stands and what others think of him. Bragging and display become a full-time job. Perhaps he was the class clown in grade school, but now he drops names to prove his importance and get your attention. His inner emptiness must be filled and refilled, like a bucket with a hole in it. Such people are plagued by narcissism as well as insecurity, a troublesome combination. There is hell to pay for those who expose the pretender’s flaws: lacerating attacks against any critics. If you are this variety of insecure person, I doubt you will admit it even to yourself. If you meet such an individual, run!

I suspect you get the idea. Please add an item if you like. You can use the list in one of two ways: to consider whether you are insecure or evaluate the confidence of those around you. Of course, you are the only one whose self-confidence you can change.

You may find the following related post of interest: Signs of Self Consciousness: When the Mirror Isn’t Your Friend. Also, you might want to read  The Upside of Insecurity or, this very recent post: Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances/

The image above is Insecurity by Lacey Lewis: http://www.lacey-lewis.com/ With permission.

The African Dip: Thoughts on Passive-Aggressiveness, Powerlessness, and Acceptance

The  Flying Turns

My dad occasionally took me to a legendary Chicago amusement park called Riverview when I was a little boy. I was dazzled by the roller coasters, the “Waterbug” ride, and something called the “Rotor.” The latter required you to enter a circular room which spun on a central axis until the velocity and centrifugal force were sufficient to pin you against the wall, just as the floor dropped away.

But, as small as I was, it is a sideshow called The Dip that I remember most vividly. Today I’d like to use this politically incorrect carnival attraction as a spring-board to a few thoughts on the expression of indirect anger that sometimes is called “passive-aggressive,” as well as a therapeutic approach to setting aside the temporary upsets that are a part of any life.

Black men in cages. That is what “The Dip” involved.

Unbelievable, perhaps, as we think about it in 2010. Each man sat on a stool inside the cage. In front of the cage, off to the side a bit,  stood a small circular metal target that was attached in some fashion to the stool, perhaps electronically, but more likely mechanically.

For less than a dollar, you could purchase three balls to throw at the target, one at a time. If you struck the target solidly, the stool on which the man sat collapsed, and he dropped into a pool of water underneath the cage. You might have seen similar “dunk tanks” at various fund-raising events, often giving students the chance to dunk their teachers.

Harmless fun? Not so in the case of a black man doing the sitting and a white man trying to knock him off his seat.

This sideshow was once reportedly called, “Dunk the N****r,” later “The African Dip,” and finally “The Dip.” It was eventually shut down by a combination of Negro outrage and the increasing disgust of white people to the offensiveness of its implicit racism.

The black men were in a relatively powerless situation — almost literally, “sitting ducks.” But, they did what the situation allowed them to do so as to unsettle, tease, and otherwise disrupt the white pitcher’s aim. The Negroes were careful not to say anything too frankly insulting, lest they stir up the racism (and potential for less veiled violence) that was at the heart of the event.

But they would and could get away with belittling their adversaries athletic skill or throwing ability in a way that was amusing. If their comments distracted the opposition at all — got them to laugh (or the crowd to laugh at them) — or caused a break in the hurler’s concentration, the chance of staying on the seat improved a bit.

According to Chuck Wlodarczyk in his book Riverview: Gone But Not Forgotten, the caged men’s banter could include comments about one’s appearance: “If you were heavy, they’d call you ‘meatball.’ If you were thin, they might have called you ‘toothpick.’ If you were with a girl, they might have said ‘Hey fella, that ain’t the same girl you were with yesterday!'”

You don’t have to be a black man in a cage to have some experience of expressing anger indirectly. We’ve all done it. It takes many forms: talking behind someone’s back and mocking that person, being sarcastic, complaining to a co-worker’s superior rather than to the offender’s face, neglecting tasks you have been assigned unfairly, and procrastinating. These passive-aggressive words or acts are rarely very satisfying. The anger doesn’t dissipate; the grudging discontent usually continues; nothing positive happens.

The sense of powerlessness and lack of control that the passive-aggressive individual experiences can come to dominate that person’s emotional life, rather than allowing him to put effort into changing the power dynamic or to remove himself from a position of weakness.

Unfortunately, for some of those who feel powerless and injured, even a passive-aggressive action seems impossible. Consequently, they take a more uniformly passive role. They defer to others, try to avoid giving offense, act meekly, and position themselves under the radar. All that does, however, is give them second class status, just as it informs bullies that they are easy targets.

Someone in this situation, who repeatedly feels mistreated but isn’t able to take on those who inflict the injuries directly, needs to ask himself a few questions. Why do I put up with it? What am I afraid of? Am I really as powerless as I feel? Am I perhaps overreacting? What would happen if I were more direct? Is there any way to get out of the situation I am in?

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which aims to quell and counter irrational thoughts, is often helpful in dealing with a lack of self-assertion and the fear that is usually associated with it. Equally, it gives you practice (sometimes using role-playing within the therapy session) in a gradually ascending hierarchy of challenging situations that require an assertive response.

Some CBT therapists, much like ancient Stoic philosophers, employ an “acceptance-based” psychotherapy and integrate this Zen-like element into their treatment. Why, they might ask you, do you so value the minor indignities of daily life and of opinions and behavior of boorish persons? Is it really a good idea to spend the limited time of your life being upset over rudeness from a tardy repairman or a fender-bender accident you didn’t cause — things that will be of no significance in a week, a month, a year?

Put differently, there will always be injustice, and some of it must simply be accepted as the nature of life and of living. Not every fight is worth fighting about, not every slight is intended. If your skin is so thin that you are regularly being upset by people, perhaps you are valuing the approval and opinions of others too much.

For those who ask “Why me?” those same therapists might say, “Why not you — you are alive, aren’t you, so you are subject to all the same things that can affect any other person.” And, as the Stoic philosophers and Zen practitioners would tell us, if we can accept this vulnerability as part and parcel of living, thereby assigning it less meaning and taking it less personally, our lives will be more satisfying — less fraught with anguish, anger, and hurt.

This is not to say society should have tolerated the indignity and racism of “The Dip.” There are times when the indirect, but pointed wit of the caged men is the best course of action; and, many occasions when the force of your personality must be brought to bear by confronting injustice. But some combination of directness in taking on unfairness and forbearance in accepting things — in allowing oneself not to sweat the small stuff — tends to produce as good a result as life will allow.

Of course, you have to figure out what the small stuff is and what other things really do matter to you.

Meditation is usually a part of the treatment enabling you to stay in the moment, and let go of your attachment to passing feelings and thoughts, worries and regrets, and anticipations and fears. To be preoccupied with just such temporary upsets causes you not to be able to fully experience what is going on in the present and determine what is really of importance in your life.

By encouraging and training you in meditation, the counselor  is attempting to give you a method to achieve a state of psychological enlightenment that (without using words) helps you to distinguish the transitory aggravations, disappointments, worries and anxieties of life from whatever matters the most to you, so you can put your effort into the things of greatest value in your life.

Some final questions:

  1. Do you often find yourself fighting over things others consider to be small?
  2. Do you frequently feel put-upon but are capable only of a passive-aggressive response?
  3. Do you (too easily and too often) assume a fetal position with others (metaphorically speaking), who come to think of you as an easy target and treat you badly (in part) because they know you will not stand up for yourself?

If you have answered any of these questions in the affirmative, you might benefit from asking a couple of other questions:

  1. What does this mode of living cost me?
  2. Am I willing to do the work necessary to change?

If the cost is substantial and you are eager to change, then a therapist can be of assistance. Only then will you be ready to get out of the cage, real or not, in which you find yourself.

The image above is the Flying Turns, a toboggan-style ride that was one of the many attractions that made Riverview Park famous.

Denial, BP, and You

Denial isn’t a river in Egypt. It apparently is, however, related to a river of oil in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico

But there is more to denial than British Petroleum’s failure to consider the possibility that a disaster might happen.

No. Denial is something we all do, at least some of the time.

Still, let us start with BP. Major environmental accidents involving oil have not caused this company and others like it to spend significant money on safety considerations and the prevention of ecological calamity. Clean-up technology remains much the same as it was 40 years ago.

What were the oil executives thinking? Perhaps, that such things wouldn’t happen to them or on their watch. And if it wasn’t going to happen, why reduce profits to take “unnecessary” safety measures. This, despite repeated oil spills over the years.

An example, might illustrate how “denial” such as this is possible, starting at a tender age.

Back when I was a very little boy, I did something similar. I remember walking to Jamieson School on a very foggy day. Indeed, the fog was so thick that one couldn’t see more than perhaps a half-block ahead. Somehow I got it into my head that if I couldn’t see my school, perhaps it no longer existed!

Jamieson School, an enormous building, occupied most of a square city block on Chicago’s North Side.

But maybe, just maybe, it had disappeared!

I didn’t think about the details of how such a thing might have happened overnight. I didn’t imagine what effort it would have taken to disassemble the structure brick-by-brick or consider that I would have heard any explosion that razed it. No, for me, the disappearance of the building would have been a result of magic. Here one minute, gone the next.

Unfortunately, or so I thought, it finally came into view. And with it, another day of school; not the day of fun I had fantasized about on my journey from home. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven at the time.

The point being, that if grown men act like seven-year-olds, we have a problem. And problem is called denial — a failure to reckon with reality — at least at the extreme.

I’m sure you can think of lots of examples. The cigarette-smoker who never thinks about heart disease, emphysema, or lung cancer happening to him; the person texting and driving, who can’t imagine the possibility of an auto accident; the 350 pound man who has two-quarter pounders with cheese, fries, and a diet-cola, and somehow persuades himself that he is being careful about what he is eating because his meal includes a low-calorie soft drink.

More examples: the man who fancies a partner with a history of infidelity, but doesn’t grasp that he could be victim to the same fate as his predecessors in dating her; the morally upright and self-righteous citizen who cheats on his taxes; the parent who persuades himself that his lack of time for his children will be no problem for them; or the family that normalizes and minimizes the drinking of the household’s head, rather than facing his alcoholism.

Not to mention the biggest denial of all — that we are all mortal, all going to die, and that it could happen at any time — not just to the other guy, but to me! Instead, we treat it as unusual and remarkable when someone expires before, say, 70, when it is actually a fairly commonplace event (however, sad it might be). Indeed, I’ve known more than one therapist who avoided thinking about the topic. See Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death for more on this subject.

In fact, it is our mortality, the very jeopardy of living and the tenuousness of life, that makes denial necessary and healthy for us to do some of the time, even if a number of folks use it altogether too often. Without some amount of denial (coupled with a little courage) it would be hard to get up in the morning and walk out of the house, fearful as we would be of accident or injury on the streets or highways. How could my parents have permitted me to walk to Jamieson School as a little boy unless they put aside the possibility that I might be abducted or harmed? Would you be able to fly to New York City unless you “strapped-on” intellectual blinders to the danger of your plane crashing or another terrorist attack?

At another level, denial simplifies our lives, removing potentially uncomfortable inconsistencies between who we are and who we think we are. It allows us to engage in life and take action without the burden of too much troublesome data that might interfere with pursuing often necessary self-interest.

As I hope you can see, we need some amount of denial just to get through the day. So, while you rage against BP (and they certainly have earned your enmity), do realize that they were simply doing something we all do frequently, but they were using that psychological defense on a much more grand and dangerous scale than most anyone else.

The truth is, no one can look life squarely in the face all the time, lest he be perpetually distressed by his vulnerability to misfortune on the one hand, and an overbearing conscience on the other. Denial is almost as necessary as the air we breathe and the water we drink. Of course, if we deny the dangers of pollution as did BP, we just might foul up that needed air and water, quite literally.

Life is complicated, isn’t it?

The image above is of the author, at a time before he had any thoughts about disappearing schools.

Fear of Change: the Therapeutic Implications of Japanese Holdouts

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Things change. The question is, do we change with them? Or, do we instead, continue to operate by the same outdated rules of conduct.

I often said to my patients that they seemed to be behaving as if the conditions of their early life still existed. They had long since fashioned solutions to problems that they faced many years ago, and continued to use the same solutions, even though those methods of living didn’t fit with their current life situation. It is as if one were born in Alaska, learned to wear multiple layers of heavy clothing and then moved to the tropics without a change of attire. The warm clothes were helpful up North, but are a disaster down South.

What does this have to do with the “Japanese Holdouts of World War II? The answer is that these men lived by an outdated set of rules with heartbreaking consequences.

If you recall your history lessons, you will remember that the Japanese soldiers of that period were trained according to the principles of Bushido, a feudal fighting code that derived from the period of Samurai warriors. Above all else, weakness was condemned and surrender was disgraceful. Death by one’s own hand was seen as preferable to permitting oneself to be captured, so as to avoid both personal disgrace and family shame.

The Allied approach to the war against these very soldiers in the Pacific was one that involved “island hopping.” The strategy passed over certain islands, both to save men and ensure that the Allies would be able  to capture those islands that were of the greatest strategic value. When the Japanese surrender came in 1945, numerous Japanese troops found themselves stranded on out-of-the-way Pacific islands, cut-off from their command, and without the capacity for communicating back home. These men neither knew the war was over nor could imagine that any honorable soldier, let alone their entire nation, would surrender. Some were in small groups who gradually died from disease or starvation; others were, at least eventually, alone.

While many never surrendered and died still waiting for reinforcements that never came, it was not uncommon in the late 1940s and 1950s to read news accounts of isolated Japanese combatants giving themselves up. The photo at the top of this page is of Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onada, who finally surrendered in 1974, and would not do so until his former commanding officer, by then a bookseller, personally ordered him to lay down his arms.  At that point, World War II had been over for nearly 30 years.

Thirty years. Yes, 30 years dedicated to a war that was over and a life of desperation that was no longer required.

But how many years, if any, have you given up to a thread-bare, bankrupt strategy of living that has long since outlived its usefulness?. And, more to the point, how many more will you endure? When will you realize that your “solution” has now become the problem?

In my psychotherapy practice I saw numerous variations on this theme. People who were abused or neglected  or criticized as children and who continued to live in terror of disappointing others. Those who found substance abuse the only available way of treating the depression or anxiety they experienced when they were young, and who continued to do so. People who avoided challenges because they were scared of failure, having failed many times in the past. Individuals who wore a chip on their shoulder, forever sensitive to insults and injuries that reminded them of long ago attacks, but now were only injurious in their imagination. And those poor souls who expected rejection because of past rejection. Like the Japanese holdouts, the years pass but the fear doesn’t, and the possibility of satisfying relationships and happiness slips away.

If you still are responding to the present as if it were the past, with solutions that solve little (even if they were once necessary), then it is time to change your life. The barricade of your life’s defenses might be protecting you only from the phantom of an enemy who lives within you, not on the other side of the fortification.

A good therapist is likely to be able to help you develop a new way of living, one more appropriate to the world as it is, not the world as it was; to set aside and heal old wounds.

Is it time?

What is the continuation of your old way of living costing you?

The war, your personal war, might just be over and you don’t know it.

Sex and (S)ex-pectations

Sexual performance.

There, I said it. Of all the things men hate to talk about in any realistic detail, this is it, with the possible exception of colonoscopies. Oh, young men in the cloistered confines of a locker room will talk about their prodigious sexual performance; occasionally, those self-proclaimed exploits even bear some resemblance to the truth. But, too often, the male of the species wants his male acquaintances to believe that he is some sort of super-hero, capable of great feats of stamina, if not strength, that are well-beyond his actual capacity.

In reality, the fact that the sexual organ of the man can be observed by his partner contributes to the performance anxiety of many men. Even those males who are relatively secure might wonder how they compare to other men.

My purpose here is to provide a bit of grounding, just a little bit of the truth, so that you or your lover do not need to feel inadequate. To wit:

1. It is infrequent for any couple to be able to sustain intercourse for more than 12 to 15 minutes.

2. More typically, the intercourse lasts from two to seven minutes.

3. The entire sexual encounter typically takes from 15 to 45 minutes.

4. Even among sexually content and well-matched couples, less than 50% of the sexual encounters are optimal.

5. There is a great deal of variability here, and things like timing, affection for one another, alcohol or drug abuse, age, time of day, stress, and physical problems all play their part and influence what happens.

There. I hope you don’t feel so bad.

If you’d like to know more, you might want to consult various of the publications of Metz and McCarthy including Coping with Premature Ejaculation and Coping with Erectile Dysfunction.

The image comes from the Dancehouse Theatre’s “Kiss Bike Kiss” at the Manchester Bike Culture Festival of 2008.The author is Echomrg and it is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Stress of Everyday Life

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Much ink and electronically generated language have been expended commenting on the oppressive and stressful nature of everyday life. We are expected to move too fast, produce instant answers to complex problems, and respond with a fax or an e-mail or a text on the spot.

Many of us travel long distances just to get to work. We hardly know our neighbors and, even if we do, don’t have the time to talk to them. Each of us has his own individualized shipping container (called a car), further separating us from each other. We relate to gadgets more than to people — voice mail and snail mail need answering, internet sites demand surfing, our phones are always on and in our pockets — even vacations don’t place us out of reach of urgent demands and obligations.

Teacher conferences require our attendance, our children plead for our time and homework help. The house needs minding, the lawn needs mowing — there is never any rest.

Witness this commentary:

I cannot help but regret that I did not live fifty or a hundred years sooner. Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them, and our arrivals and departures are no longer matters for emotional debauches — they are too common. Similarly, we have too many friends to have any friendships, too many books to know any of them well; and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception — gone before we have time to consider them.

I should like to have lived in the days when a visit was a matter of months, when political and social problems were regarded from simple standpoints called “liberal” and “conservative,” when foreign countries were still foreign, when a vast part of the world always bore the glamour of the great unknown, when there were still wars worth fighting and gods worth worshipping.

These words were written by George Kennan, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, diplomat, and scholar.

Yesterday, you ask?

No.

They were written 83 years ago in his journal, on December 20, 1927 when he was 23.

They can be found in his book, Sketches From a Life, published by Pantheon.

The above image is Tension Belt by LeonWeber, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Upside of Depression and the Downside of Medication

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Are there advantages to being depressed? Something good about something we think of as so bad? A recent New York Times Magazine article by Jonah Lehrer makes just that case: Depression’s Upside.

The essence of the argument is that some episodes of depression allow for and encourage a kind of analytic rumination that is productive. Put another way, the tendency in depression to focus on a problem, mulling it over to the exclusion of other thoughts, permits the sad person to find a solution to his difficulty and change his life in a positive way.

The counter-argument, however, is that the ruminative process is both painful and unproductive — that it often creates a kind of self-flagellating preoccupation with one’s trouble rather than a process that leads to something good; that unhappiness and focusing on pain and its concomitants simply feed on themselves to no helpful end.

In my clinical experience, therapy with people who are depressed over loss or injury often breaks down into two phases. The first of these is a grieving process, where the person expresses and processes (or sometimes purges) the feelings of anger, sadness, emptiness, desolation, and hopelessness that come with the loss of something of value — a love, a job, high social status, a capability, a fortune, etc.

The second phase involves learning from one’s painful experience about how to live differently, make different decisions, associate with different people, become more assertive, overcome fear; value things differently in life such as money, material things, status, accomplishment, friendship, and love.

Naturally, neither of these two phases is absolutely discrete — they blend into each other and overlap each other. As a practical example, someone who has had a series of bad relationships will typically need to grieve the unhappy end of the most recent one and, in the process, learn how he happened to choose a person or persons who made him so miserable; then changing whatever needs to be changed internally and externally so that different and more satisfying choices occur in the future.

People who are like the hypothetical individual just cited usually come into therapy in emotional pain and seek relief of that pain as promptly as possible. This desire is entirely reasonable — who wouldn’t want this? Some of them request medication, which is often the fastest way to “feel better.”

But many are leery of psychotropic drugs and see them as artificial, hoping that therapy will produce a more lasting fix without dependency upon a foreign substance. Indeed, while a good therapist will strongly encourage the use of medication for someone who is seriously depressed, i.e. suicidal, unable to work, sleeping away the day away (or almost unable to sleep); that same therapist will also know that medication sometimes serves to “de-motivate” the patient, giving him or her a relatively quick solution that allows that person to tolerate an intolerable situation. In the New York Times Magazine article mentioned above, Dr. Andy Thomson describes this problem eloquently:

I remember one patient who came in and said she needed to reduce her dosage. I asked her if the antidepressants were working, and she said something I’ll never forget. ‘Yes, they’re working great. I feel so much better. But I’m still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitch. It’s just now he’s tolerable.’

Clearly, this woman was aware that she needed to be in some amount of discomfort in her relationship with her husband in order to be motivated to get out of it. The drug made her feel better, but, it also reduced her incentive to change herself and her life. It was, in effect, a kind of band-aid, rather than a real cure. It anesthetized her and, in so doing, robbed her of something that was essential for new learning and behavior change to occur.

Unfortunately, most people who come to therapy are neither as courageous or insightful as the woman just described. Once they feel significantly better, whether due to therapy or medication, it is common for them to be less interested in continuing treatment. They have recovered from the event that precipitated their entry into therapy, but they might not yet have learned enough to avoid making the same mistakes that contributed to the problem in the first place.

Such a person can reason that the cost of therapy (both financially and in terms of time, effort, and the difficulty that comes with changing one self) is now greater than emotional pain from which they might still be suffering. Put another way, at this point, doing therapy “causes” more difficulty and pain than not doing therapy, just the reverse of what seemed true when they started the treatment process.

At this stage, those who continue in therapy have something that an old mentor of mine, Truman Esau, used to call “therapeutic integrity.” What he saw in some of his patients was an almost heroic desire to make themselves better regardless of how much the actual process of doing so was difficult, uncomfortable, or painful.

These patients didn’t shy away from problematic truths about themselves or others. They worked hard to stretch and challenge themselves, knowing that it was crucial to improve. They didn’t simply want a quick fix. Like the woman in Dr. Thomson’s example, they recognized that some pain was essential to being motivated. They knew that there was no such thing as “a free lunch,” and were willing to do whatever it took to repair and better their lives.

If you are in therapy now, it will be important for you to be sensitive to this shift from the often intense distress that brought you into therapy, to the point when the therapy itself might seem distressful. This can mean that the therapist is not skillful or that he is pushing you too much, but it just might also signal that some of the most difficult life changes you need to make are still ahead of you, even if the cost of making those changes seems greater than when you started treatment.

If you leave therapy because it is hard and unpleasant work, the problems you have won’t care. They will simply continue to reside in you, work on you, and trip you up. It is not enough to get over your last disappointment or unhappiness, but to change yourself enough to avoid future problems.

Few things that are worthwhile come to us for free.

The above image titled Depression is the work of Hendrike, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.