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.

Why Endless Sadness Usually Has An End

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When you are heartbroken, as most of us have been, it feels as though you will never recover. The loss of a parent or friend or lover can feel irreplaceable; indeed, is irreplaceable. The end of a job can be humiliating and frightening. The emotional pain feels that it will go on into infinity. It is hard to remember ever feeling better, and hard to imagine that the pain will ever stop.

But usually it does. Not in a moment and certainly, not soon enough. But things change and one’s mood usually lifts. Life goes on. Other events and people come to occupy the empty space inside of us. Not always, but for most of us, most of the time.

Sadness is especially hard in the dark months and sometimes the result of them for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The world breathes the gleeful air of the holidays while we reach for the last oxygen tank in the store only to see someone else get there first. It is hard to sustain hope when we seem invisible to the world around us. And yet, hope is still there if we have enough time and courage.

I am no Pollyanna in saying this. I have had my own sadness and loss. I have lost both parents and good friends, two of the latter in the last year. I have been betrayed by someone who stole $80,000 from me and my business partners. A college romance once left me bereft. I have treated many people devastated by needless cruelty, black depression, and the blunt force of ill-fate.

Mostly we recover. After all, we are the offspring of a genetic line of our predecessors who survived their own set of calamities, overcame hardship, and produced offspring who eventually led to our own emergence from the womb. We are not, or at least most of us are not, the children of people with little resilience. We come by our survival and recovery quite naturally, even if it remains hard-won.

Still don’t believe me? Then I have an exercise for you. Make a list of all the bad things that have ever happened to you. Try to remember how you felt when you experienced financial loss, betrayal, cruelty, severe accident or injury, the death of someone close to you, and getting dumped by a person you loved. Do not include any event that happened as recently as the last year or so.

Now, as you think back, did these things finish you off? Do you feel as terrible as you did in the first throes of your calamity? Did you kill yourself (obviously not)? Aren’t things at least a little better and, just possibly, much better? Perhaps you even learned something from the experience. Perhaps you even became more understanding, wiser, found a better job, or met someone else to salve your wounded heart. Maybe you discovered that you had more strength and resilience than you imagined.

I am not making light of your suffering. Nor am I suggesting that everyone recovers as I’ve described. And yet, most of us do, most of the time, even without therapy.

Yes, there are scars. But most scars slowly fade with time.

On the girl’s brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because, take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived. (Chris Cleave, from Little Bee)

As Lord Byron wrote in Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates…

Perhaps you know the Sufi tale of a great king who asked his wisest advisors to fashion a ring that would make him happier when he was sad and, simultaneously remind him that even good fortune is only temporary. After much consideration these wise men asked an artisan to forge a ring for the regent. What was inscribed on it was very simple:

This too shall pass.

The above image is called Rings in Blue by Giulia Ciappa and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Difficulty of Facing Reality: When Hope is the Problem and Not the Solution

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We are in the season of hope, but in the midst of despair.

“Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!”

The holidays tend to make one almost embarrassed to be hopeless; and hopelessness is described as something to be avoided in any season.

But sometimes, having hope is a problem — the problem — and giving up hope, facing reality, leads to possibilities.

All of us have had the experience of hoping for a positive outcome or event that wasn’t realized. We hoped to win the game, the job, or the romantic partner only to come up short. “Wait until next year” is the rallying cry of Cubs fans and human beings everywhere in the face of disappointment.

As the saying goes, “hope springs eternal.”

But sometimes hope is destructive. If you are in a terrible job with a sadistic boss, hoping for him to change is likely to keep you paralyzed, rather than triggering action to find a new place of employment or a new career.

If you are married to an alcoholic, abusive spouse, believing his apologies and promises to do better will keep you in the center of his bulls-eye, a target within easy reach.

Has your parent spent your whole life ignoring what you do well and trashing you over what you do not? Trying to win his praise might be a waste of your time, as hopeless as booking a trip to Mars for your next vacation.

In a rocky relationship? Some people hold on to the fantasy that if they can find just the right words and behave in just the right way, they will succeed in pleasing their spouse into being more loving. Others think having a child will make the marriage better, and live in that hope.

And then there are those who have been rejected by a lover, but continue to carry the torch of love into the dark night of the soul long after the loved-one has moved on.

I cannot say that hope is futile in each and every example I’ve given.

But it is often something of a fool’s paradise; nothing more than a castle in the air.

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What I’m talking about here is a passive, inactive, timid hope that waits too long by the phone for the suitor to call. Not an active but reasonable hope that searches and schemes; defiantly claws its way forward and claims what it wants.

Beyond a certain point, passive hope anesthetizes you when you need the pain to motivate action; and need it to force yourself into the risks required to get what you want. As such, hope in these situations serves as an excuse for inaction.

All the while, life passes you by.

Thus, hope can keep you in a dead-end spot — the pipe-dream of an imagined future, while enduring a terrible present. I wouldn’t say that an imagined future would be a bad place to be if there were no ways to change the present. But, if you are ignoring things you can do to make your life better, than a servile hope is little more than a fairy tale.

Are you hostage to hope or perhaps, do you hope for the wrong things?

Such as?

A short list:

  • A life without problems.
  • Winning the lottery.
  • A new luxury car or great wealth.

Why not hope for these and similar things? Because there are no lives without some problems, lottery winners often report a less wonderful life than they expected; and treasurable objects beyond the basic necessities don’t seem to generate much lasting satisfaction. They are like the rapidly dissipating “new car smell” that most find so attractive and so temporary.

The overriding point here is that hope not only battles with despair, but also with acceptance of reality — acceptance of the terms life allows, followed by a commitment to change what it is in your power to control, instead of simply “hoping for the best.”

Such acceptance does not come easily. Admitting defeat is almost always difficult and painful. Grieving is thought by some to be unmanly and by others unnecessary or a hindrance to progress. But it has a cleansing function, one that allows most wounds to heal.

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How do you know whether you are holding on to too much hope? One way is to look at how you deal with defeat and whether you can bounce back and embrace change. If too many situations find you stuck, waiting and wishing for something outside of yourself to intervene — a kind of deus ex machina — then you are vulnerable to the immobilizing influence that hope can have. If you’ve been at that dead-end job for years or in an equally dead relationship for an equally long time, it might be worth considering what you are waiting for and why you have not acted.

Do you fear that change could bring something worse?

Sometimes it can, but not all gambles are foolhardy.

Do you live in a future your friends think to be unimaginable while the present slips away?

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, we are told that the entrance to hell is inscribed with these words:

ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE

Ironically, it is just that directive that might be the way to a new and better life.

Heaven can wait.

Stop hoping for its quick arrival unless you have explored everything else that is possible.

Try — try hard — to create a heaven on earth.

In that possibility there just might be something worth hoping for.

The sculpture at the top is called Allegory of Hope, a 1776 work housed in the Catholic parish church St. Nikolaus in Oberndorf am Lech in Bavaria, Germany, photograph by GFreihalter. The second image is Job’s Despair by William Blake, from 1805. Finally, a 19th century painting by Taiso Yoshitoshi after the poem One Hundred Aspects of the Moon by Lady Ariko-no-Naishi. All are 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.