Can You Be Too Good? Therapy as Self-Creation

“Being good” is a much misunderstood thing. The question for today is whether goodness requires the acceptance of a place near the end of any line worth standing in … and perhaps too much reflexive obedience to authority.

Leaders often equate morality with rule following: accepting the limitations offered by those who “know better.” Such guidance comes couched in terms of superior external direction designed “for your own good.”

Beware.

The words “for your own good” have been delivered both as loving concern and an excuse to keep powerless others, especially children, in their place. Then the recipe for “goodness” creates and reinforces insecurity, hesitation, and self-doubt. Praise is cold comfort for those broken under the weight of their obligation to comply.

The counseling profession would be much smaller but for the many survivors of parental indifference, neglect, or mistreatment. The cadre of crushed lives is on high alert for signs of disapproval. Soldiers in this “battalion of the lost” ask for little. Their hopes reside in the belief their superiors will properly weigh their talents and give them what they’ve earned. They stand at attention and wait. Perhaps some think raising a hand is unnecessary in order to achieve quietly coveted recognition. Others are afraid their uplifted arm will be deemed insubordinate.

The multitudes indeed sometimes receive the desired reward. Fairness is served. But random events can disrupt their plan, as can attention paid to the more assertive. Do the meek rely too much on Jesus’s confident assertion, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”? Even though his promise was a heavenly reward, one must ask how much deference and disappointment is required in this life.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the often misunderstood 19th century German philosopher, warned that conventional morality was an inducement to timidity. He recognized it as a method of control in the hands of both church and state, a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. Nietszche believed such a morality stifled creative powers in the best of men. Instead, obedience, guilt, and servility were encouraged. Other byproducts might include loss of ambition, confidence, and pride. The “herd” humans (Nietzsche’s term) would thus hesitate to assert themselves, be vulnerable to judgement from outside and inside, and abandon their dreams and desires as too self-centered; if they even recognized they had any.

Simone de Beavoir, author of The Second Sex, put the need for self-realization this way:

Every individual concerned with justifying his existence experiences his existence as an infinite need to transcend himself. This means that in focusing on the individual’s possibilities, we will define these possibilities not in terms of happiness but in terms of freedom.

We are left to ask how much docility is necessary within a competitive society? How much vulnerability to shame is too much? How much deference to your fellow-man is required to be good? Must you routinely ask permission when no one blocks you from opportunities? Must we always give reasons for what we do? Who says the world expects them? Apology is a virtuous and necessary step toward righting wrong, but what of those occasions when no one is injured and you automatically beg forgiveness anyway?

“Wanting,” and “taking” are qualities in need of some limits, lest our lives become a free-for-all. Nietzsche would admonish you, however, not to “throw out the baby” of a fully realized life “with the bath water” of a march-step set to an alien rhythm, ignoring the drummer inside you. The human race survived because it wanted many things, including mates and the ability to defend itself. And, the philosopher would argue, to manifest a “will to power” in the most talented among us.

Thus, the question is transformed from “How much acceptance, obedience, and subordination are required?” to “What will I make of myself?”

Will you grasp the world in your hands, not hope it will come to you ready made? Therapy, within such a model, is not only injury repair, but an invitation to self-creation.

Society clearly requires rules, enforcement of the law, and punishment of those who flaunt it. How then are we to reconcile our moral and civil responsibility to “be good” with our urge to fulfill ambition and desire? Surely virtue does not demand insecurity, and a damning up of that which strains for accomplishment, recognition, and joy.

Perhaps ancient ethical guidance offers us something after all. Rabbi Hillel, the Babylonian Jewish religious leader of the pre-Christian era (a teacher who would have been admired by Jesus) is famous for two lines of thought. The first, according to Wikipedia, is authorship of The Golden Rule:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.

But Hillel also said something else:

If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?

No good person wants to cause suffering. Should he not be encouraged to avoid the unhappiness of a self-diminished, inauthentic life?

Can you walk the tightrope connecting Hillel’s ideas? To find yourself and reach your potential while fulfilling The Golden Rule?

To be an advocate for yourself, secure in your right to do so, and at the same honor and defend the rights of others — your responsibility to the community of man?

To avoid choosing self-martyrdom and passivity, passed over and passed by in the hurly-burly of each day?

To seek joy as a decent, responsive, concerned citizen of the world?

Life challenges us to do no less.

The Angel Emoji was created as part of the Noto Project and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Good and Evil Angels is the work of William Blake, sourced from Wikiarts.org

A Remarkable Recovery From Unspeakable Grief and PTSD

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Some stories stick with you. The word “heartbreaking” is not enough to describe them; nor do “resilience,” “survival,” and “overcoming misery” say enough.” Yet all those words apply.

The therapist in the tale who helped enable a positive conclusion was Donald Meichenbaum, Ph.D. He related this account in a video focused on finding meaning in the aftermath of trauma: PTSD & Complex PTSD: Ways to Bolster Resilience. 

Don’t read further if you wish to avert your eyes from tragedy, but understand this: you cannot know of the treatment that allowed for a redemptive, healing story unless you face it.

The woman: a young, bright, intelligent mother. A good mother. Her husband was away on a business trip. Home held only her daughter and herself. An intruder could be heard downstairs. Mom entered Vicky’s room and they hid in her closet. The burglars left without going upstairs. The event upset both Vicky and the mother, worried such an episode might happen when the husband/father traveled once more to make his living. The adults installed a security system and alerted the police. They lived in a safe neighborhood. No reason to expect another forced entry. Still, the man insisted his wife get a gun, just in case. She did not like firearms, but relented. The night stand next to her bed harbored the weapon.

Time passed. The man traveled again. Late and stormy darkness. Noises downstairs. Was the mother dreaming, reliving an imaginary or remembered version of the home invasion?

No. No. No. Not again.

Yes, again.

The mother urgently reached for the gun and moved toward her bedroom door to go to Vicky’s room, just as she had the first time. Vicky came running and pushed the mom’s door open. It struck the mother’s hand and the firearm discharged. Vicky died immediately. The mother sat with her dead daughter for 24-hours until the husband returned.

No words are possible. The parents’ lives were forever changed. Guilt, horror, marital separation, grief, depression. Even loving friends became unavailable, unable to bear the story. Alienation and isolation. As the mother saw it, a life not worth living. She deserved to die.

What is a therapist to do? He can never undo the tragedy, but perhaps he can help the survivor to find a reason to live, a meaning for the rest of her life. Here is what Meichenbaum did:

The psychologist knew his job was first to establish a therapeutic alliance, to show compassion, and accept, not judge. He needed to allow the patient to tell her story as she was able, permit its unfolding, not push. A plan to prevent the woman’s self-harm was created. The therapist allowed his emotions to be touched. His own tears came as he listened.

The psychologist asked a question to understand more about the loss. The client had said that Vicky was “special.”

In what way?

She was wise beyond her years.

The first session ended and the doctor arranged a second appointment in two days’ time. Meichenbaum made a request. He said he would be “honored and privileged” if mom brought in a photo album of Vicky, but only if she wanted to: no pressure. He wished to get a further sense of who the child was.

Reviewing the pictures together was painful in the extreme. Yet this marked the beginning of the doctor’s effort to embed the only moment the mother focused on (the accident and death) within a broader narrative of Vicky’s life and her own life: to pull his client out of the single instant of horror into the stream of her ongoing existence — perhaps to create a potential redemptive story projected into the future.

This is not to suggest any kind of treatment would ever erase the pain or guilt completely. Yet, it might still be possible to help the mother give Vicky’s memory meaning. And perhaps to transform the patient’s life in the process.

The therapist asked his client another question. Two, actually. He wanted to know what this child (who was “wise beyond her years”) might say to the parent’s wish for oblivion:

What advice would Vicky give and what would happen to the memory of her if you kill yourself?

The mother affirmed the obvious answers which had escaped her: Vicky would not want her to die. Moreover, the memory of Vicky would also die with the death of the one who knew her best. Meichenbaum’s questions led her to realize she might do some good in the world, something to perpetuate Vicky’s memory and give meaning to the child’s short life. Treatment continued. Mom became a public advocate for gun locks and gun safety, thus transforming her loss and honoring Vicky.

In part, Donald Meichenbaum assisted the patient to fashion a new story of her own life different from one ending with two deaths. She became aware her time on earth was not yet completed. And that Vicky’s impact on the world offered a potential future, if only the parent gave her daughter a metaphorical life — gave voice to what her daughter’s death could still achieve.

This is not at all to suggest the mother wouldn’t have traded anything — anything — to get Vicky back. Yet, the mom might yet continue her existence with a constructive narrative of redeeming value in spite of complicity in the child’s loss.

Meichenbaum is famous for asking questions — for creating a Socratic Dialogue with his patients. He did not give his patient advice, but led the conversation so she might grasp the next rung on the ladder of recovery, not simply be handed it. Therapists should know “directions” from the counselor don’t produce as much “ownership” of the treatment process, nor as much motivation to change, as occurs when he helps the client uncover her own way, not just follow advice.

Might you also find your own way? Might the rest of your story be one of value?

What do YOU say?

The photo is titled Pedra do Baú — Compos do Jordáo. The author is Izabel Tartari and it was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Normalizing the Abnormal: Making Excuses for Toxic People

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Why do we associate with people who aren’t good for us? Why do we stick with them? Here are a few of the reasons:

  • FAMILIARITY: If you were raised in a dysfunctional family, you are used to acquaintances who injure others. Their behavior is routine. To some degree you become habituated to it.
  • THE DIFFICULTY OF LEAVING: The end of relationships can be complicated and painful. Should you wish to avoid conflict or are afraid the toxic individual will lash out, all the more reason to endure the situation.
  • INSECURITY AND FEAR OF LOSS: A person with low self-esteem and few friends might accept a poor relationship despite its limitations. He does not believe he will be better off without it or capable of finding a new buddy.
  • OPPORTUNISM: Alliances can be a simple matter of taking advantage of a situation and serving your own interest. Senator Marco Rubio is being encouraged to run again for the Senate by senior Republican Party (GOP) members. Thus, he has decided to make friends with an enemy, Donald Trump, the presumed Republican nominee for President. A former supporter of Rubio, Cecilia Durgin in the conservative National Review, states: “Rubio hadn’t just disagreed with Trump on policy but had labeled him a ‘con artist’ who threatened the GOP and was too dangerous to be entrusted with the nuclear codes. Now Rubio has gone from reluctantly upholding his pledge to support the nominee, to saying he’d attend the (Republican National) convention and would be ‘honored’ to help Trump.” Durgin finds Rubio’s shift opportunistic.
  • FEAR OF THOSE UPON WHOM YOU DEPEND: A child who perceives the potential for repetitive angry and hurtful responses from a parent can learn to bury his feelings and blame himself for generating the parental danger. He has little choice. Retaliation will only bring on more injury. Unfortunately, he may accept the parent’s verdict as just. By diminishing himself, he unconsciously attempts to make his situation more acceptable. Moreover, his life then becomes less hopeless: he comes to believe that if only he can change himself, the parent will show him love. Without eventual escape from the elder and processing his own misfortune, he is liable to accept mistreatment throughout his life.
  • RATIONALIZATION: The process of growing up is disillusioning. We discover mom and dad aren’t perfect and no one is morally pure. That includes ourselves, at least if we are honest (a contradiction in terms, I know). Many of us are not and excuse the gradual erosion and transformation of our sense of right and wrong. Thus, we might note no problem in those whose misbehavior isn’t much different from our own. People salve their conscience by thinking they will be heroic and principled when faced with a major moral crisis, no matter their small indiscretions in more routine situations. Without being tested, however, you don’t know. In my experience, morality is lost by inches. Those who are not careful gradually become something they would have rejected at an earlier time of life. When the big moral test arrives, they have long since given up whatever idealism they once had.
  • BECOMING POLLYANNA: By nature or experience, it is possible to be optimistic about individuals and look at the bright side of life. This can be a good strategy for a routine sense of happiness, despite the mistakes of judgment it leads to. If you see only the best in people then it doesn’t matter too much with whom you spend your time or, within limits, how they treat you.
  • HISTORY AND INERTIA: Relationships of long-standing are hard to give up. You share a history and a body of memories with someone special. A recent friend doesn’t replace that shared experience. A new person who appears toxic will be avoided much sooner than an old buddy or family member.
  • GUILT: Society reinforces loyalty. You risk not only admonishment if you end a relationship, but violating your own internalized sense of what is proper.
  • MISGUIDED HOPE OF GETTING THE LOVE YOU WANT: When your beloved or best friend reminds you of a parent who did not love you enough, you may endure his mistreatment in the hope he will change. You are still chasing the dream of getting the kind of affection you hoped for from the parent. This is a case of unconscious mistaken identity or — as therapists call it when they are taken for someone else (metaphorically speaking) — transference. One can almost never persuade a parent or parent’s doppelgänger to be who you want. We can only work through the transference, grieve our failure to obtain the desired love, and find healthier affections.
  • NECESSITY: In a down economy one stays in jobs with abusive bosses far longer than one otherwise would. Financial dependence on a spouse (or the inability to work) creates the same constraints. Escape becomes difficult; though, over time and with preparation, effort, and courage, a toxin-free situation is possible.
  • HOPELESSNESS: Some of us are so bruised by human contact as to assume we might as well stay put, since no one better is thought to exist. It is a false, but powerful belief and likely to be associated with depression. Treat the mood disorder. Hope (and a more objective view of the future) may then return.

One key to a good life is adapting, learning from experience, and knowing how to start over. There are millions of new people you might get to know who would enrich you. Unhappy relationships need not be maintained. We are often freer than we think.

The top Caltrans Sign is the work of Mliu92 and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Confession and Psychotherapy

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An old Woody Allen joke goes something like this. The comedian is talking about problems in deducting the cost of therapy on his income tax return. He wanted to make it a business expense, but the government insisted it was “entertainment.”

They compromised by making it a religious contribution.

Therapy is a little like that, no joke.

Carl Gustav Jung, one of Freud’s disciples, wrote about the likeness between therapy’s confessional function and Sacrament of Penance in the Catholic Church. For those who aren’t Catholic, the faithful individual is expected to enter a small partitioned booth, where a priest will hear his confession of sins without being able to see who is speaking to him. If the penitent is thought to have fully disclosed his wrong doing, shown sincere remorse for the transgression, and if he performs whatever acts of penance are required by the priest to make amends, he is absolved of his sins.

Although I am not Catholic, I’ve long thought the Catholic Church was on to something therapeutically important here. That is, the human need to admit to another human being, out loud, something of which one is ashamed, in order to cleanse the metaphorical stain this person carries inside. Other religions handle this differently, often permitting and encouraging confession in the form of prayer directly to a supreme being.

But for therapists, the human interaction is essential — the telling and the listening and the seeing eye to eye — even if your ultimate, otherworldly reward according to religious doctrine doesn’t require it.

Why?

In part because, while heaven can wait, the guilt-ridden mortal is troubled right now — here on earth — in his relationships with other people; troubled by the secret that stands between him and a need for acceptance by someone who knows, really knows him. An intimacy he does not think he can risk.

Even if he believes the gods will forgive him, his problem is lower on the food chain: he fears the disapproval of the creatures made of flesh and blood.

We learn the lesson “not to tell” early.

We make mistakes, lots of them. And especially when you are young, there is the potential for an enormous amount of painful judgment being rendered concerning those “mistakes,” some justified, some not.

Kids are prone to feeling guilty. When we are small, we are entirely dependent upon the good will of our parents. Without them, we are at the world’s mercy, unable to fend for ourselves. Equally important, they inform us of our value to them — by their words to us, physical expressions of affection or violence, the time they spend (or don’t spend) in play or attention to our needs, in angry outbursts or self-sacrifice; and in looks that display tenderness, disappointment, rage, understanding, or indifference.

Some amount of parental disapproval is inevitable and necessary. Indeed, it is required to civilize us. But since there is no competing panel of experts to counter any misplaced verdict rendered by the parent (who is the child’s judge, jury, and headsman) even enormous miscarriages of justice by a cruel and abusive elder tend to stand without refutation.

You are guilty!

You are bad!

Off with your head!

Case closed.

Most children do not have anywhere to go with this. There is not only no court of appeals, but since they have been made to feel ashamed, kids are unlikely to turn to anyone else to recount their alleged misdeeds and risk the possibility of further painful disapproval, not to mention the sense of having betrayed the parent by reporting out what has happened. Moreover, the child continues to need the parent’s good will. Carrying a grudge against the parent, expressing it directly to that parent (at least when one is very young) is dangerous — likely to produce more disapproval still.

Better to accept the parent’s condemnation. At least that way, the little one may still hold on to the hope that by changing for the better he can achieve the love and approval that has been wanting.

Even for rebellious youth, there tends to be a portion of the parent’s negative opinion that is indelible. Sort of like a tattoo, it is written on the personality, the sense of self. This metaphorical image of the tattoo overlays and alters the self-image. And like the tattoo, it is the product of a painful engraving; not easily removed, but still present long after the moment of imprint, reminding you of your iniquity.

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Whether the child does his best to “behave” or knowingly misbehaves, he will disappoint a parent who cannot be satisfied even by perfection, who undermines self-esteem; the kind of parent who tells you to “run fast, get ahead,” and then finds ways to trip you up or tie you in knots that make any forward movement difficult.

Almost certainly, the young one will do some things that are less than admirable: perhaps raging, stealing, lying to avoid more disapproval, or violating curfew; as well as forgetting something the parent wanted him to remember, day dreaming, performing poorly in school, withdrawing from contact with the family, and acts of alleged ingratitude; or visits to a sexual or drug-involved dark-side in a search for acceptance and love or a simple self-distracting escape from inner misery. There is no end to the list of things that can be considered offensive, real or imagined. Perhaps just as troubling, the youth will think contaminating, “bad” thoughts.

I wish he (she) were dead.

I wish I had a different father (mother).

I wish I were dead.

Some few will grow out of this desperate experience and achieve a gift of self-cleansing and self-soothing that requires neither confessor nor therapist; others will be able to rationalize their early life misbehavior into benign disappearance. But for too many, by hook or by crook, by word or by deed or by thought or by feeling, there will be guilt under the surface, however bright and shiny the surface may seem.

That is where psychotherapy and the psychotherapist’s role as a confessor comes in.

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The “confession” usually doesn’t happen at the beginning of therapy. Trust in the therapist must be earned by the counselor.

But come it does, often in the middle of a course of therapy, but sometimes very late.

It goes something like this:

There is something I haven’t told you. (Eyes now looking down). I haven’t told anyone. Ever.

No small amount of courage is required to tell the things that cannot be told. Until this point the patient has carried his secrets inside — these awful, disqualifying, contaminating things that make him unworthy — the history of thought and action he believes would cause everyone and anyone to reject him, “if only they knew.”

Unlike the priest in the confessional, it is important the patient knows the therapist and the therapist knows the patient’s identity. Otherwise, any absolution is too generic, too cheaply won, not specific enough in its application to the “sinner.”

The therapist must be non-judgmental. The counselor’s office is not a court of law. The purpose is healing, not retribution. There is no automatic amends to be made, although sometimes it will be therapeutic to do so. If needed, the patient may discover that writing a letter (even an apology that is never sent) can be helpful; sometimes the grave site of a deceased parent can be visited. Atonement can also be found in acts of future kindness or projects dedicated to improving the human condition.

But often, no atonement is required because the patient comes to realize he was the victim, not the victimizer. And that his failure…

  • was being born a boy when the parent wanted a girl
  • or an intellectual when dad wanted an athlete
  • or a tom boy when mom wanted a little lady
  • or an introvert when the parents hoped for an extrovert
  • or simply that one of the elders was threatened by the growing child for reasons defying explanation.

And that with enough poking and prodding, resentment and ridicule, the authority figures triggered and tripped the child into behavior that could be used as further cause, if any was needed, for affixing guilt; as if the guardians were unsatisfied until they could create flaws to justify their history of disapproval.

The therapist will help the patient look at the “guilty” acts or thoughts from many sides. The therapist is a witness of sorts, someone who has to hear you (however horrible your action might have been or seems to have been), meet your gaze and see the guilt in your eyes, and still accept you, even then.

One or more others might need to be told the same story now revealed to the healer, again face-to-face,  so that the patient (in telling it and observing the reaction of the person being told)  comes to know he is acceptable and forgivable, not only in the eyes of the counselor, but also by a select soul whose love and respect outside the consulting room are important. Great care must be taken if others are to be told, however, for some of the potential listeners will only add to the accumulation of negative judgments that already burden the patient, while a few people will be unnecessarily injured by the knowledge and should be spared.

What then might be the result of such therapeutic exposure for the patient who has chosen his therapist well, and made no unfortunate choices of disclosure to family or friends?

In the best cases, the light and air that are allowed into the room holding the dark secret can transform it, making it seem less terrible, less disqualifying. Internal repugnance diminishes. The weight or responsibility attached to the transgression is shifted and reduced. You feel purified.

There is freedom and grace in this, as in the confessional booth. An unburdening.

The simple act of another human being listening to you — still caring for you and about you. Believing in you and your value.

You are no longer alone — alone with a secret that makes you feel like a pariah; disqualifies you — only you, however irrational that thought is — from membership in the human community.

Now, at last, it is possible for you to reevaluate and affirm yourself.

And life — a better life — goes on.

The top image is The Confession by Pietro Longhi, thought to have been painted in the 1750s. The photo that follows is called Blinded by the Lights, authored by Suicide Girls from Los Angeles, CA, USA. The last image is the work of Reytan. It shows a number of confessional booths. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Guilt about Betraying Parents: “They Did the Best They Could”

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Young children are not the only ones who believe that their own mom and dad are the best in the world.

You know the sort of thing I mean: “My dad is stronger than your dad” and the like.

Adults do this too. Or, at least, try very hard not to think the worst of them.

Any therapist with experience has heard many heartbreaking stories about children who have been abused, deceived, lied to, cruelly and unfairly criticized, used, mistreated, and neglected. He has heard from the adult children what their parents did do and didn’t do — about folks who perpetrated the abuse directly and others who looked away or simply told the son or daughter to “try not to upset dad” rather than protecting him or her from dad.

The now-adult children will make up lots of excuses about such things: “They did the best they could” or “They didn’t know any better” or “Lots of parents were that way when I was growing up” or “How can you expect anything better when my folks had even worse childhoods themselves” or “They were having so many of their own problems at the time” or “Other people had it worse than I did” or “They’re old people now and I wouldn’t want to hurt them (by bringing this up)” or “It happened a long time ago; what is the point of talking about it now.”

Or simply, “It feels wrong to talk negatively about them.”

Most of the patients about whom I am speaking come to therapy with some sense of personal inadequacy, low self-esteem, and unhappiness, if not depression. Some have these feelings despite a considerable set of personal achievements. They may be captains of industry, millionaires, doctors, lawyers, college professors, and professional athletes. Many of them have a good and loving spouse and adoring children. But, no matter what has been accomplished or how good their current life is in an objective sense, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Others try to fill themselves up with acquisitions: a new car, a new house, a new spouse, a new watch or appliance or piece of clothing; and, for a brief period — an hour, a day, a month — this might even boost their mood. But then, things return to the steady-state of emptiness as the shopping-therapy fails.

For these people, the ones who seem to “have everything” but remain unhappy, the Marilyn Monroes of the world, the solution usually requires that long-standing internalized negative self-attributions (critical thoughts or beliefs about oneself) be reviewed and challenged. Sometimes cognitive behavior therapy is able to achieve this.

But there are other instances when the negative verdict of a difficult childhood is so indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, that he must look back at the original painful source of his injury, grieve his losses, and reevaluate who his guardians were and what they did, or didn’t do.

In cases such as this, the set of excuses I mentioned earlier becomes a problem. Words like “They did the best they could” stand between the patient and his ability to look frankly at his early life without feeling that he is betraying his parents in so doing.

Here is what I frequently say to those of my patients in this predicament:

First, you will do no harm to them in talking to a therapist. There is no rule that says they must be told what you are relaying to a counselor. Indeed, if your parents are dead (as is sometimes the case), then they cannot be told and are safe from any injury that you believe you might do to them.

You need not concentrate only on what they did that might have hurt you. It is equally important to look at what they did that might have helped, and at the complications in their own lives that made good parenting a challenge.

But, even if they showed you some consideration and kindness from time to time, if it really wasn’t so bad, why are you careful to raise your child differently than you were brought up?

Realize that good child rearing is not simply the sum total of all the positives and negatives of your parents’ approach to you, such that the former will always balance out the latter. Imagine that your parent gave you a million dollars and put it in your right hand; and then said, “Now in return, you must allow me to disable your left hand.” Would this be an example of good parenting? Would the provision of a million dollars compensate you for the lost use of your left hand? Not to just anyone, but due to the behavior of your parent?

Yes, it is likely true that some others had it worse than you did. But does that mean you are free of injury? Imagine that you are walking down the street. You pass a man in a wheel chair. He is moving the vehicle by use of his two arms and you think to yourself, “Poor man.” But, a few blocks down, you now encounter another wheel chair-bound individual. Unlike the former person, this man’s arms are incapacitated.

If you are to measure the physical state of these two men against one another, you are likely to evaluate the second man as worse off than the first. But, just because the first person is better off, one must admit that he still is unable to walk.

As I said, there is almost always someone worse. But that doesn’t mean that your injury counts for little or nothing.

Finally, the look back is intended not to keep you focused there, but to liberate you so that you can live more fully in the present; it isn’t to be angry with your parents or to harm them (although anger might be involved in the grieving process). Rather it is to free you from the weight of a childhood that you still carry, the sense of your own falling-short that you can’t otherwise shake, to leave you lighter and less burdened by the long reach of your youth.

Wouldn’t loving parents want this — for their child to be happy and free from any hurt they might have caused? What would you want for your child?

You see, the heart has no clock built into it. Even though you may think very little about the time elapsed, the heart still keeps a living record of the damage, as fresh as the day it was inflicted. You’ve tried ignoring it; you may have tried other types of therapy. Perhaps it is time.

You needn’t feel guilty. You needn’t feel disloyal. Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The therapy is not intended to place blame or to harm your parents, but to heal you.

Looking back may be able to help with that.

The image above is Parent with Child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava by Kelovy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Can You Sleep At Night? Being Ashamed and Feeling Guilty

There is an important distinction between being ashamed and feeling guilty. Both are connected to wrong doing, errors, mistakes, or failures. Both involve emotions. Feeling guilty, however, unlike being ashamed, doesn’t require an audience.

A person typically feels guilty almost automatically when he believes that he has done wrong. It matters not whether anyone else knows or finds out. Often, it doesn’t even matter that others might forgive the transgression. Thus, a sense of guilt is an internal state connected directly to an act thought to be wrong.

Shame, on the other hand, requires an audience, or at least, others’ knowledge of the inappropriate behavior or failure, even if they did not directly witness it.

By these definitions it is possible to feel guilty without being ashamed. One need only believe that one has done wrong. But someone who has been shamed (in other words, found out and condemned) might only come to feel bad if his behavior is widely known.

You might think that this always happens, but it doesn’t. Take the recently removed Governor of Illinois, Rod Blogojevich, who has yet to admit any guilt and who certainly doesn’t act ashamed; indeed, who appears quite shameless. Shamelessness is never a compliment, but rather a statement about someone who has no “shadow,” no sense of ever doing anything inappropriate.

To cite a couple of other examples, one a therapist and one a minister, neither felt guilty even after having their iniquity publicly exposed. In both cases the misbehavior was of a sexual nature that involved infidelity, as well as a violation of the code of ethics of their professions.

In the former case, the therapist had sex with ex-patients; in the latter example, the clergyman had sex with parishioners. Both were married (not to each other) at the time of these acts. The public exposure of their actions and ensuing humiliation mortified each of them and, indeed, each one contemplated suicide. But neither really believed what had happened was terribly wrong, and rationalized the transgressions in defense of his own self-image. In both cases the rationale involved holding the sexual partners largely responsible for the romantic encounters.

The connection between shame and suicidal depression is interesting and can be found even in the epics of Greek mythology. When Achilles died in battle, the Greeks held a vote to decide who among them should be awarded the splendid armor of Achilles, which had been fashioned by the god Hephaistos. Ajax (Aias) the Greater, the best warrior after Achilles, lost this competition to the cleverest of the Greeks, Odysseus, who had designed the Trojan Horse strategy that won the war. In his humiliation, Ajax went mad and eventually killed himself. Such is the devastating effect of a “loss of face.”

It should be said that the therapist and the minister I have referred to were quite narcissistic people who saw themselves through a very forgiving lens. Both terminated contact with old friends following their public embarrassment, in order to avoid facing them. In a sense, the self-love and lack of a well-developed conscience of the two people in question set the stage for their wrong doing — they believed that they were without moral flaws and therefore that anything they thought to do would automatically be a morally acceptable behavior.

Beware of those who say that they can sleep easily at night and use this standard as their primary method of judging or evaluating their own behavior. I doubt that the worst of the totalitarian rulers and despots of history would have failed this test of moral correctness, despite the murder, unhappiness, and genocide they created.

In the USA, on the political front, we have seen lots of people who don’t admit wrong, who rationalize what they do, and who serve themselves while claiming to be acting “on behalf of the American People.” I’m sure some of them come to believe their own story, their own rationale — shameless, as I said before; indeed, almost a kind of self-delusion.

In my experience, people who come to psychotherapy because they feel ashamed (but not particularly guilty) don’t usually take responsibility for their actions in the course of treatment. Rather, if the process follows the typical course, they will recover from the injury to their ego and be able to go on with life, still guarded against significant self-awareness. Moral self-reflection doesn’t seem to come easily or naturally to them.

By contrast, individuals who experience guilt that causes them to enter counseling often can learn to forgive themselves and recover from the depression that usually accompanies their guilt. For them, however, the risk is in taking too much responsibility and being too severe in their self-judgment, exactly the opposite of the person who is only ashamed.

It is useful to be capable of feeling guilt, to admit wrong doing, and to feel ashamed; that is, if one is to lead a moral life. On the other hand, it might be argued that those who are shameless and who rarely feel guilt probably have more fun in life and are less troubled — the mirror reflects their image back to them in the way that they want to see it, and not in the way it actually looks. They live in a state of ethical blindness. Whether that permits a satisfying life is another story.

You be the judge.

The above image is Shame by Libertinus Yomango, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Infidelity and Its Treatment

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/11/Lana_Turner_in_The_Postman_Always_Rings_Twice_trailer_2.jpg

The names don’t really matter. Today they are Tiger Woods; Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina; and John Ensign, U.S. Senator from Nevada. Tomorrow they will be someone else. Every day, there are other names, little known, but causing no less pain.

How does it happen? How does it happen that people who claim to live by well established moral norms, who have taken a public oath to remain faithful to their spouse, violate that promise? There are several reasons:

1. Power and celebrity = opportunity. People in positions of power and celebrity have more opportunity than most to be unfaithful. They are surrounded, sometimes literally, with admiring and attractive younger people. As Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist anything, except temptation!” The famous and powerful have plenty of that.

2. Contiguity. You might think that the separation of sexes in some religious fundamentalist societies is unfortunate or wrong, but it does keep opportunity at a minimum. In modern Western secular civilization, men and women work together, eat together, and travel together on business. Repeated contact with a sympathetic business associate, pulling together with that person as a team on a business project, creates not just the opportunity for sexual contact, but the chance to get to know and like one another. Perfectly moral and decent folk can find themselves stirred by the presence of a person to whom they are not married, even though they weren’t looking for anything outside of the marriage.

3. Disinhibition. Alcohol and drugs. If you are around sexually attractive people in a party atmosphere or when you are “under the influence,” your judgment and hesitation are more likely to be set aside.

4. The “Great Man” rationale. More than once, I’ve heard men justifying the concept of infidelity in the case of those who are accomplished and powerful. Often, the rationale includes reference to the role that “the great man” plays in benefiting society. According to this line of reasoning, the “heroic” figure is thought to have earned the right to live by a different set of rules than the common man, and should be given the chance to be compensated for his contribution to society by being allowed multiple sexual partners.

5. The “It won’t hurt anyone” rationale. The faithless sometimes persuade themselves that there is nothing wrong with their behavior so long as anyone who might be injured (spouse/children) never knows about it. This is akin to the old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is present to hear it, does it really make a sound?” What the argument ignores is that the transgressor is changed by his act of betrayal, that he must tell a continuing set of lies in order to maintain the fiction of his character, that he risks his partner’s physical health in the event that he has become a carrier of a sexually transmitted disease, and that it is impossible to guarantee that the secret will never be revealed.

6. Mid-life crisis. Poor humanity. Poor man. We age, we lose our youthful good looks, sometimes our hair, our virility, our energy, our strength, our stamina. The antidote? A youthful or new sexual partner who, for a time, can help us shut out the dreaded and self diminishing passage of time.

7. Solace. The ups and downs of life are inevitable, even in the luckiest of lives. The best marriages are not immune to the daily stress that  takes a toll on a spouse’s ability to be compassionate, encouraging, and supportive. Financial worries, business reverses, family illness, house keeping, and child rearing soon diminish the “date night” and honeymoon atmosphere of the early days of the relationship. A fresh and sympathetic set of ears, all understanding and acceptance, often develops into something more, and something sexual.

8. “It’s not natural.” Some people, mostly men, justify infidelity with the notion that man was not meant to be a monogamous creature and the flowers of the field (i.e. the opposite sex) were meant to be enjoyed.

9. Longevity. At the turn of the last century in America, that is, about 1900, the average life expectancy was about 50 years. By that standard it was usual for marriages to be relatively short, 25 to 35 years at the most, many much shorter. No longer. Many now last 50 years and more. What happens in that time? People get older, their bodies change, and their personalities alter as well. When I do marital therapy, I usually ask couples what initially drew them together. The most frequent answer I get is something like, “He was hot and we had a lot of fun.” Thirty years on, it goes without saying, he isn’t so “hot” and they sure aren’t having fun.

In order for marriages to thrive into mid-life and beyond, the couple has to work very hard at the relationship, to keep the sexual spark alive despite physical changes and familiarity, and to see to it that personality alterations are compatible or synchronous. Too often one partner wants the marriage to be exactly as it was at the beginning and believes that both the personality and physical changes in the other person amount to a breach of contract. Meanwhile, the other might feel held to a contract that is no longer appropriate to the current state of the couple’s life together and to their age, personality, and experience. One or the other very well may see infidelity as tempting under such circumstances.

10. The scoundrel factor. Although an injured spouse sometimes believes that “evil”  is the most likely explanation for her spouse’s betrayal, in most cases it really isn’t. Most people don’t set out to behave badly and many feel guilty when they do. That said, there are certainly more than a few cads among us, and they do with impunity what others only do with hesitation, a troubled conscience, or not at all.

11. Boredom. Boredom doesn’t cause anyone to stray, but it does set the stage for the temptation. Routine can kill even the things that we love. The pattern is well-known: wake up, go to work, come home, play with the kids, do the bills, and collapse from exhaustion. Or, the stay-at-home parent’s version: wake up, make food, shop, make food, take care of the kids, do the housekeeping, make food, clean, and collapse from exhaustion. Either way, the routine is deadening and there is little room for excitement.

12. A lack of sex. Again, this doesn’t cause infidelity, but can set the stage for it. A warning here: cease sexual contact at your own risk and at the risk of your marriage. But, this is not to suggest that you should have sex only because your partner wants to.

13. Cruelty, sarcasm, and a lack of appreciation. If the marriage has turned into a battle ground, with gratitude replaced by indifference or hostility, infidelity is more likely on either side.

When the infidelity is exposed, the result is devastating to the victimized spouse. Rage, sadness, a loss of self-regard, and feelings of inadequacy are common. What did I do? What didn’t I do? Why did he do that? If he felt that way, why didn’t he leave first before he took on another partner? The devastation occurs whether the infidelity is fresh, or the betrayed person discovers it years after it occurred. The emotional clock of devastation only begins to run from the point that one becomes aware of what happened.

If a couple comes to therapy in the wake of such news, several factors go into the therapist’s evaluation of the situation. First, is the infidelity over or is it still going on? If the marriage is to have any chance, the “other” relationship has to end. Moreover, it has to end because the spouse having the affair wants it to end and believes that the marriage is worth saving, not because his marital partner is threatening to leave or because of the fear of financial devastation in the course of a divorce.

The therapist will try to gauge what still binds the marital couple together, if anything. Do they still have positive memories of their courtship? Do they have children and are they concerned about the effects of a divorce on their offspring? Are they still in love? If there is no love on the part of even one partner, therapy is almost certain to fail to recreate it.

If the both parties want to save the marriage, have positive memories of the start of their relationship, and if loving feelings still exist between them, treatment often can help to repair things. One of the first items in need of attention will be allowing the injured spouse to grieve. This will require both tears and anger, but will need to be time limited. That is, however great the injury, the victimized spouse must understand that he cannot forever bring up the infidelity to be used as a weapon when he feels unhappy or aggrieved in the future. As the old farm expression goes, “Don’t burn down the barn to kill the rats.”

Of course, apology by the roving partner will be necessary and it will take time to rebuild trust. Once the immediate crisis is over, the couple needs to look at what contributed to their estrangement and what changes need to be made in their relationship. They have to reaffirm a set of values by which to live and goals for their relationship and for the family. Changes in patterns of communication will likely be necessary, as will time and attention to each other. Serious self-reflection and responsibility-taking will be particularly important for the unfaithful member of the relationship, but the partner too must be willing to look at the possibility that he contributed to his spouse’s feelings of disaffection.

Such situations aren’t easy, but they can come out well. Good will, sincere contrition on the part of the person who strayed, and emotional generosity on the part of the victim are all key. The betrayal is never forgotten, of course. But time does its work on the scar of infidelity, just as bodily scars tend to soften and fade over time, even if they never fully disappear. Happiness and love may yet flourish.

The image above is a cropped screenshot of Lana Turner from the film The Postman Always Rings Twice, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.