Everything I Needed to Know I Learned While Buying a Car

buying-a-carYou probably don’t enjoy buying a car, assuming you’ve experienced this convoluted trauma. Yet running the auto dealership gauntlet is informative: about yourself, whether you understand how relationships work, and your mastery of tough stuff like negotiation.

The schooling offered in the auto showroom begins with “curb appeal:” how the vehicle looks. All material goods offer the same criterion by which to judge them. We value houses, watches, and phones this way. First impressions don’t stop there, but continue with the physical appearance of everyone you meet, the sound of a new voice, the scent as you stand close.

You then peer under the hood of the car. Applying this to people, you get to know them, check for substance beneath the surface; evaluate the individual’s humanity, strength, and kindness or self-interest. At least I hope you do and thereby move beyond the dazzle of a stunning exterior. A pity if instead your head is stupefied by a gorgeous facade and you ignore a person of common appearance bearing treasures within.

The vehicle sales rep hopes you will be captured by his kindness and prone to an impulsive decision. He highlights the techno whistles and bells. Will you be lured by his siren song and dance? We all need resistance to a sales pitch, whether the seller is trying to unload a TV or promote himself.

Given an auto’s cost one can benefit from homework. Do you have the patience to perform the needed research or will you do what “feels” right? We face the war between emotions and intellect daily: between due diligence and slipshod judgment.

How dependent are you? Do you rely on others to make decisions? Friends and relatives have lots of opinions about cars and, if they are experienced and smart, such knowledge is worth considering. Best, however, to learn what can be discovered on your own as well as from expert advice: “own” the process by which you come to own the product.

The act of car buying shakes up some of us. We plead for a spouse or friend by our side. A successful transaction demands the ability to say “no” and stick to it — a test for many.

Decades ago my wife and I lived in New Jersey. Soon after our arrival our car was destroyed in an accident. We hoped to purchase a new 1972 Dodge Duster, expecting that we’d get a better price than on the just released 1973 model.

The first salesman we met counted on our being callow customers, novices in the veiled combat of car buying. The man told us he had the only remaining new 1972 Duster in New Jersey. Aleta and I understood there would be many more ’73 models than the 1972 Dodge we wanted, but we didn’t trust his report. He offered us a price, but we said no and began to walk out. The sales rep trailed us. As our closeness to the door increased the price of the vehicle decreased. We soon discovered dozens of available 1972 Dusters, the cars he said were as rare as a dodo, the extinct flightless bird.

There is power in letting people see your back. Wanting a thing less than the next guy usually gives you the upper hand in a transaction with him. So, too, in romance. Rhett Butler’s last words in Gone with the Wind offer an example of the attitude I’m writing about. Such a stance often elicits concessions by the counterparty in his effort to get what he wants from you. Generally, the longer you remain silent the more favorable the terms offered become. In effect, you can set most of the conditions.

When desiring a thing desperately we risk giving away the best of ourselves in the act of acquisition. Money is the least of it. Honor and basic human decency may be forfeited, as well. Among ancient philosophers, the Stoics gave particular emphasis to the dangers of becoming too “attached,” whether to objects, honors, power, or people. Buddhists make the same argument.

Self-possession, they would argue, is far more valuable than anything you can buy.

Some things in life are not worth the price you pay for them. As many young people have discovered, cars can be among those things. Sadly, the list of overvalued commodities, jobs, titles, high income lifestyles, and relationships is beyond reckoning. Beware defining your hoped-for future by a list of “must haves.”

As the knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would remind us, “choose wisely.”

He Who Hesitates is NOT Always Lost

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I learned a valuable lesson from a bunch of inner-city kids as their 20-year-old summer camp counselor: when to take action and when to do nothing and wait.

Like lots of things in life, the instruction came by accident.

My unintending tutors were all kids who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, enrolled in the MIT Science Camp during the summer of 1967. My friend Rich Adelstein, an MIT undergrad, had helped to create the enterprise and got me the job to oversee six of them.

Despite the name, academics had no part in the daily doings. The kids came from troubled homes and tough neighborhoods. Most of them were aged 12 to 15-years. Some were shy, a few petty criminals, and one or two learning disabled. We had an angry handful and several who seemed rather dazed by the demands of living. Still, the adults hoped all of youngsters might benefit from the experience.

Each counselor, almost all MIT students, had charge of a few of the boys. No girls allowed back then. Many of the activities of my group of six happened in cooperation with another counselor, Geoff Smith. Geoff, a swell fellow, was smart and easy to get along with. We worked well together.

Geoff and I took our charges on day-trips to Martha’s Vineyard and New York City. We played some baseball and put on a play under the direction of a Boston College undergraduate theater major, Betty Rose. We had just enough bodies to recreate “Twelve Angry Men.” The seven weeks made for a fun and productive summer.

One day Geoff had a dentist appointment, so I led both of our groups: perhaps a total of 10 kids on the morning he was away.

We walked through MIT’s Building Seven when one of the older boys signaled the others to run in different directions. The group had come to a four-way intersection, offering multiple flight paths for escape. In a flash they disappeared. I stood at the crossroads and looked down each hallway. Nothing. Nobody.

The safety of these boys was on my mind, but what was I to do? I froze. Any path I chose would, at best, avail me only a few of them. I did nothing, not because I reasoned out a clever idea, but because I couldn’t think of a good solution.

Perhaps you’ve guessed that I stumbled upon the right course: waiting. Had I started down any one of the corridors I’d probably still be running. Since I didn’t, the “chase” didn’t materialize and they got bored. In 10-minutes time all returned on their own. We proceeded to our appointed destination without comment.

Sometimes problems work themselves out if you don’t interfere. If you stop chasing someone, he stops running from you. You can drive people away in pursuing them, whether by your ardor or anger.

Slow down. Be patient. Try to live with uncertainty. Don’t act impulsively. Master your temper and anxiety. Wait, wait, and take a breath. Action for the sake of action doesn’t make sense. You can worsen an already bad situation. Assertiveness is not always the answer. Patience might be better — much better — than misguided energy.

People can be similar to boomerangs. Like these kids, with enough time and a bit of luck they come back to you.

The top photo is Peter P. Gudo, the Great Thinker by Mr. Thinker. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This post is a revised version of one I wrote five years ago.

Too Many Balls in the Air: The Frustrated and Frustrating Life of ADHD

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He was dynamic, outgoing, and enormously entertaining.

He was creative, full of ideas, and energetic.

And he was one of the most frustrating people you would ever care to be around.

About whom do I speak? A bright, charming man with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

ADHD is more complicated than you might think. Although there is much written about it, I want to cover a few of the things that can be missed about the condition. But first, let me explain the name and define it.

There are three types of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder):

  • 1. ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type. This used to be called ADD, but technically speaking, sufficient inattentiveness is considered a category of ADHD, even though little hyperactivity may be present. These are the folks who seem to be listening, but are lost in space; easily taken away by a tune, a sound, or an idea; the people who miss the details and forget the assignments.
  • 2. ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-impulsive Type. This is what most people think of when they hear or read the four letter acronym ADHD. People with this diagnosis are characteristically talkative, active, intrusive; a bundle of unmanaged, impulsive activity.
  • 3. ADHD, Combined Type (meaning it includes the symptoms typical of the first two categories); too many balls in the air, for sure.

What about the man I mentioned at the top; a person who had the “combined type” of ADHD?

He had lots of energy and ideas, so people found him engaging. But it wasn’t a very productive sort of energy. He would begin things, but not complete them. He was disorganized — losing keys and papers, and forgetting appointments. He promised to do things, but couldn’t be relied upon to do them as quickly or as well as expected, if at all.

This man (let’s call him A.T.) went nowhere fast; very fast. A.T. looked liked the “Energizer Bunny,” but mostly traveled in circles.

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He tended to over commit himself, taking on more tasks than he could handle effectively, chronically underestimating what he could accomplish in the time available. A.T. was routinely late for appointments, and made decisions quickly, without fully considering the longer term consequences of his actions. Bored easily, distracted more easily, and prone to procrastination, he knew that he wasn’t what others hoped for and expected. Although he was full of promise, his reputation was that of someone who was a thoughtless, irresponsible underachiever — an individual who needed minding.

Employers were disappointed, co-workers were frustrated by A.T., and his spouse was driven just a little crazy, feeling that she couldn’t depend on her partner. She’d married someone who was exciting, only to find that the excitement he produced was more of the “Oh, no!” kind that made her sweat when she discovered he was late to pay a bill or pick up the kids. Not surprisingly, she started to see him as just another one of the kids, as their partnership turned into more of a “disapproving mother/resentful child” relationship than either of them wanted.

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Before I tell you about A.T.’s treatment, let me say a few things that might not automatically come to mind about the condition and its consequences:

1. Hyperactive/impulsive ADHD individuals can sometimes look like they are world beaters, but mostly beat themselves; indeed, they are often chronic underachievers. If you are planning on forming a working group or partnership with such a person, don’t be fooled by a positive first impression of excitement and energy. You will almost certainly be disappointed down the road.

2. ADHD, even today, is sometimes not detected in schools. There are several reasons:

  • The inattentive form of this condition may well produce school failure, but not misbehavior. Inattentive children are often quiet and relatively well-behaved, unlike their hyperactive-impulsive counterparts.
  • School personnel may incorrectly attribute ADHD-like behavior to laziness or oppositionality. Moreover, school systems, even when they do formal evaluations, are frequently reluctant to identify problems that require additional resources and personnel, which they are hard-pressed to provide given their limited funds.
  • An ADHD child who is bright can compensate (to some extent) for his attentional problems by relying on his excellent intellectual abilities, at least for a while. Eventually, however, many of these children (as they age and school begins to demand more of them) find out that advanced intelligence is no longer sufficient to permit success.
  • There is no single standard measure that reliably identifies ADHD. Evaluators commonly use some combination of paper and pencil tests, clinical judgment, and attentional measurements. Intelligence (IQ) and neuropsychological tests can easily miss some of the most clinically obvious cases of this condition.

3. The fact that ADHD children are able to become “hyperfocused” on things like computer games or other tasks that they find especially interesting, does not invalidate the diagnosis of ADHD. Indeed, this sort of selective attention is seen fairly often.

Some researchers believe that those games provide rewarding stimulation in the form of frequently changing images, sounds, and challenges; as well as the success of achieving points or increasing levels of success, thus “capturing” the attention and imagination of the ADHD youngster. By comparison, the real world school room seems boring. Recommendation? Limit your child’s screen time, even in front of regular TV shows.

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4. Although many people are hesitant to take medication, ADHD is a diagnostic category that is especially responsive to psychotropic medication. Hundreds of studies support the effectiveness of such treatment for about 85% of children with this condition according to Russell Barkley’s authoritative 2006 book Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In a 2007 paper by Elliot and Kelly — “ADHD medications: an overview” published in the journal Attention — the authors state that “No medicine available to psychiatrists produces a more rapid and dramatic effect more safely than the proper dose of a stimulant to a patient with ADHD.”

5. If medication does work, it will likely be needed on a continuing basis, not as a temporary fix. The irony is that stimulant medication, which will cause internal agitation in those who are not suffering from ADHD, actually permits the person with the condition to focus more and become less prone to the hyperactivity/impulsivity that had been a problem.

6. ADHD is correlated with a greater risk of developing a Conduct Disorder, typically characterized by antisocial misbehavior and defiance of authority. Not surprisingly, such individuals often abuse alcohol or drugs (not only as an act of rebellion, but also as a self-medication designed to calm their hyperactive state). Adolescents and adults who have ADHD are thought to make up at least 25% of the population of prisons according to Barkley.

In all these examples, the impulsive, ill-considered behavior that is typical of ADHD takes a fearful toll. Such individuals are easily bored, requiring intense and novel reinforcement (rewards) to motivate them, and are prone to “sensation-seeking” — looking for extreme excitement that their condition seems to make them crave. Indeed, one patient of mine reported driving at speeds approaching 100 MPH on city streets simply for the feeling it produced in him. Nor did he think he was at much risk (or putting others at much risk) in doing so, thus demonstrating the poor judgment characteristic of those with the hyperactive-impulsive form of ADHD, as well as their tendency to disregard rules and authority figures.

7. While many general medical practitioners (GPs) can prescribe medication for ADHD quite well, some are hesitant to do so, sometimes due to lack of training or inexperience with this particular diagnosis. Cautious GPs will prescribe psychotropic medication, but are prone to giving doses that are too small. It is generally best to see a psychiatrist in such cases; that is, someone who specializes in the prescription of medication for psychiatric disorders.

8. The frustration that ADHD produces in school children can make them give up (and eventually drop out), believing that nothing they can do will make any difference in their performance. Some of them will become avoidant of academic or other work tasks because they believe that they will fail, thus producing a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many will get angry at the teachers, bosses, and parents who so often are reminding them of their inadequacies. Thus, ADHD fuels other behaviors that make a good life difficult.

What happened to our friend A.T?

You’d think it was simply a matter of telling him of the benefits of medication, wouldn’t you?

Not so fast.

He was one of those folks who was uncomfortable with the “idea” of having to be reliant on medicine. He told me that he didn’t “believe” in medication, as if it was a matter of religious faith.

A.T. was also quite narcissistic; in denial concerning his own responsibility for the things that went wrong in his life. Similarly, he had no trouble blaming others including bosses and wives. Not to mention that he drank too much and didn’t acknowledge that it was a problem. Indeed, he had only come into treatment at his spouse’s insistence.

One of the challenges of psychotherapy is the fact that few people fit “pure” diagnostic types. Instead, one must be aware of all the complicating factors that can make effective therapy difficult. This man’s narcissism, denial, and alcohol abuse certainly created just such complications.

Had A.T. been more motivated and self-aware, less prone to denying the misery he was creating around him, a cognitive-behavioral (CBT) approach to his ADHD could well have helped, even if he chose not to take medication.

CBT programs include formal guidance in planning and organizational skills, assistance in problem solving and decision-making, help in reducing the number of distractions in the environment, practice in new thinking skills, training in ways to reduce procrastination, and advice to help you cope with failure. Homework is required between sessions.

The program described by Steven Safren and his associates in the work book Mastering Your Adult ADHD, developed by psychologists at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, was able to produce significant improvement in about 50% of those patients who continued to have clear problems even after being treated with medication.

So, if you have ADHD, medication and CBT provide reasons for optimism that things can get better.

Just don’t drop the ball!

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The top image is the Carbon Cycle created by the U.S. Government Department of the Interior. The one that follows is the Tux Crystal Linus Award by Nevit Dilmen. The next photo was created by Thomas Pusch and is called Scolded By Mama. The fourth picture is of Two Men Playing a Computer Game by Love Krittaya. Finally, a picture of a Geode  by Whitsoft Development. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Violence and Intimacy

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Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, but one can do the most violence to another when one is close to that person. Physically close. Pinching, punching, pushing, plucking, picking, pulverizing — actions that can only be done at close quarters, the victim is pilloried and punished. Perhaps then, it is no wonder that human kind can be uncomfortable with and afraid of intimacy.

When physical vulnerability is compounded with the psychological, we tend to be even more careful. Those who are close to us know just where to strike, where the soft and breakable parts are; and they are just in reach.

I watched a History Channel feature the other night on The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The point was made that while the Thompson submachine gun was a useful weapon for killing at a distance, many of the most important gangland assassinations were done with a pistol, while holding or grabbing the victim, or pulling him close to make certain that he couldn’t reach for his own weapon. Intimacy again — the closeness that made injury possible, more certain, more lethal.

Remember Delilah of the famous bible story that featured Samson? Again, intimacy, this time of a sexual nature, allowed her to rob Samson of his strength by having his enemies cut his long hair while he slept.

When you were a kid, do you remember an aunt or uncle or grandparent who would hold you close and then pinch (and shake) your cheek between thumb and forefinger? It was alleged to be an act of affection, but whenever it was done to me, I couldn’t quite understand how something that hurt that much was supposed to show love.

I’m sure you know the origin of the handshake — an ancient custom designed to display the fact that you do not have a weapon in your hand with which to do injury at close range.

And, in the “you always hurt the one you love” department, we should not forget that “crimes of passion” account for many of the violent deaths in this country. That is, we are harming those we know, not strangers, in fits of intense emotion and impulsivity.

How does this relate to therapy? In part, because the therapeutic relationship is a somewhat one-sided intimacy. The patient makes himself vulnerable to the doctor, displays his wounds and expresses his emotions, trusting that his secrets and feelings will be safeguarded, treated with kindness and respect, and definitely not used against him. Therapists need to keep this in mind, lest they re-traumatize the person, injuring him in a way that is similar to the very torment that he came to therapy to heal.

Although a counselor’s power can hardly be considered “great,” it is considerable when it comes to his patients. Psychologists would do well to remember the quote from the movie Spider-man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The moral of the story? Allowing one self to become close and vulnerable to another person opens the door to the best and worst that life can offer. It is therefore of great import to choose a friend, a lover, or a therapist with care.

As the Knight Templar told Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when the explorer had to pick out the Holy Grail from an assortment of old cups, “choose wisely.”

The above image is William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1850 painting Dante and Virgil in Hell sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Limits of Reason: How to Think about Your Date, Your Boss, Your Mom, etc.

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As a therapist, I hear a lot of concerns from my patients about parents, bosses, romantic partners, and so forth. The thoughts often take the form of “Why did he do that?” or “What was he thinking?”

Some of this is worth questioning. In life it is useful to take the role of the other person, to look at things from his or her perspective, to try to “understand” that individual’s motivations and reasoning process.

But, there are limits. Here are just a few that make understanding difficult:

1. People don’t always carefully weigh their decisions before making them. We humans frequently think and act impulsively or emotionally. It can be a bit harder to fathom an ill-considered act than one that is carefully reasoned.

2. The person whose mind you wish to enter may not know himself well at all. When you recall what he says are the reasons for his actions, you need to be aware that he may be fooling himself. Alternatively, he might be dishonest with you, giving you less than a full set of data, trying to prevent himself from looking bad in your eyes, or attempting to protect you from being hurt by the truth.

3. We all act in self-serving ways much of the time. The same person who says that he hates it when someone ends a relationship without explaining why — not even making contact or returning phone calls — might well avoid the discomfort of a final farewell or confrontation himself when he decides that a relationship should end, thereby doing the very thing that has been done to him.

4. Most people, in or out of therapy, are often indirect in expressing their unhappiness with you or their disappointments about your behavior. (Marital conflicts and parents talking to children can be noteworthy exceptions to this general rule). But, in the absence of direct communication, it is difficult to be a good mind reader. Indeed, crystal balls are in short supply whenever I go shopping.

5. When trying to understand others, we look for some form of logic. To seek something that is often missing within the person is a pretty big misunderstanding of how people think and act.

6. You may not have enough history and background information to make an accurate analysis of what drives this individual to do what he does.

7. Do you really know the person well “under the skin?” There is often a mismatch between what is happening on the inside and what is occurring on the outside. Put differently, the contradiction between surface appearances and internal truth often affirms the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Too much time trying to figure out another person is unproductive. For this reason and those cited above, I encourage my patients to set some limits on the amount of time they spend attempting to get into someone else’s head. At bottom, I think, what most of us are looking for is the understanding that will allow us to return to the relationship and put it right, now that we have found the “answer” to what transpired. Or, something that will console us or produce the closure that we are hoping for at the relationship’s end. By attempting to “understand,” we are frequently seeking a sense of intellectual control, partially to acquire information that will prevent future disappointments, but also to compensate us for our loss and to silence the nagging internal voice that asks “What happened?” and “Did I do something wrong?”

It is better, beyond a certain point, to consider several things about oneself:

a. Why did I choose that person to be with? (Obviously this doesn’t apply to your parents; nor does it always apply to bosses or co-workers).

b. How did it happen that I missed the early warning signs of trouble? Oh, I know that you might think that such signs didn’t exist, but it could be that you ignored them, minimized them, or had a blind-spot for them.

c. Why didn’t I set some limits on the relationship in order to prevent the other person from injuring me? And, if I tried, why did my efforts fail?

d. Why didn’t I leave the relationship earlier?

e. What, if anything, did I contribute to the problems that occurred between my friend/partner/lover/boss and myself?

f. Have I grieved the loss or disappointment fully (including attention to both my sadness and my anger)?

g. What do I have to do differently in order to minimize or avoid problems like this in the future?

Instead of addressing the situation in these ways, with these questions, most of us spend no small amount of time ruminating, and then looking for something we can say to the other person to get them to behave as we wish. With some individuals that is possible, but not with everyone.

Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the baseball color-line is instructive in this regard. As you might know, Robinson and his boss, Branch Rickey, agreed that he would not respond to the abuse from fans, players, and coaches that both expected he would receive when he became the first black man in the 20th century to play in the Major Leagues. But, despite two years of taking every racially demeaning insult known to mid-century white males, he succeeded in playing well. Moreover, by this time there were other blacks in the Major Leagues and a great experiment in civil rights had succeeded.

If the story I’ve heard is true, Robinson and Branch Rickey had a conversation at the beginning of Spring Training at the start of Robinson’s third year with the Brooklyn Dodgers. They agreed that Robinson could now be himself, and fight back with words or fists, if necessary. Soon after, the Dodgers played the Philadelphia Phillies, who did not know that Robinson was no longer on a leash. The middle-aged man from the deep south who coached third base therefore once again began the verbal onslaught that he had performed with impunity for the two previous seasons. Robinson called time and walked over to the third base coaching box.

Remember that Robinson had lettered in four sports at UCLA, including football (as a running back). More than most, he radiated intensity, strength, courage, and intelligence. So it was that Robinson moved within inches of the bigot, looked straight into his eyes, and said: “If you ever say anything to me like that again, I’ll kill you.”

Now, I bring this up not to recommend death threats, but rather to point out that Robinson knew exactly who he was dealing with. He knew this man was not going to be persuaded to behave himself by high-flown verbal eloquence; he knew that spending much time thinking about this man’s character was a waste. What Robinson knew for certain was that there was only one thing he needed to understand about his nemesis (his intolerance) and only one approach that would work:

  • I’m bigger and stronger than you are, so if you don’t stop, I will beat the crap out of you.

Everything changed that day as others quickly realized that Jackie Robinson was not a man who could be insulted any more.

Of course, we all need to spend some time thinking about others and why they do what they do. But, endless rumination on the subject rarely is enlightening or successful in making us feel better.

Some people are like boulders. They are big, hard, insensate, obdurate, and potentially damaging objects. It is essential to see their potential to injure and realize that when you are downhill from such a human bolder, you are in danger.

If you understand how gravity works and get out-of-the-way, that is all you need to know and do — all you can do.

A shame, but true.

The image above is The Thinker by Auguste Rodin.

Teenagers, Chicago Parking Meters, and Left Fielders

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The “Windy City” — the “City of Big Shoulders” — has a way of making some big mistakes.

Recently, they’ve come in the form of some fiscal short-sightedness affecting both baseball and government. Just over four years ago, the Chicago Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano to an eight year contract, all for the measly sum of $136 million dollars. Alfonso was 31 before he ever played for the team. They will “own” his contract (although the words “owe” and “ouch” come to mind) for three more seasons beyond this one.

After only the first three, he demonstrated that his sunny personality, million dollar smile, and ability to hit home runs when no one is on base don’t make up for declining offensive production and an attitude toward playing left field that suggests, according to Baseball Prospectus 2010, that Soriano believes the outfield wall at Wrigley is actually covered with poison ivy.

Not to be outdone, the local city fathers decided to lease every last parking meter in the city for a term of 75 years to an independent company that agreed to pay 1.15 billion in up-front dollars for the privilege. They doubtless wished to out-do the Cubs in boondoggles, since it is reported that the money is already spent. It has also been said that the city could have negotiated a better deal, and certainly one that didn’t so offend the parking populace by the inflation of parking fees to multiples of their previous size.

In both instances, there is more to come — more parking fee increases and further productivity decline from the Cubs left-fielder. And, long before the end of either contracted term, we will be saddled, metaphorically speaking, with the back-end of an animal that didn’t even look too great from the front-end.

When I think about this sort of short-sightedness in clinical terms, the behavior of teenagers inevitably comes to mind. Teenagers are stereotyped for taking risks, acting on impulse, and using poor judgment. Some of them tend to allow tomorrow to take care of itself, not fully grasping that tomorrow will indeed arrive soon enough and claim payment for the errors of today.

Now, I’m not talking about all teenagers, but rather those prone to vices like smoking, drinking and drugging to excess, blowing off academics, etc. And, it is not as if adults are free from this “live for today” approach, even adults not employed in management by the City of Chicago and the Cubs.

In a just world, all such folks would pay for their indiscretions somewhere down the line.

But, of course, the world isn’t just. And sometimes this works out quite well for the impulsive and heedless joy-seekers in our midst.

I recall one woman who ate and smoked and drank and had unprotected sex as if there would be no tomorrow. When I reminded her that tomorrow would likely come, she assured me that she would be dead by then, and so it didn’t matter. Even as she entered middle-age, she ignored the pain in her joints and her diabetes, continuing to indulge herself well beyond the bounds of medical advice and good sense. This lady believed in the motto uttered by John Derek in the old Humphrey Bogart film, Knock On Any Door:  “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

I doubted the wisdom of this, but she turned out to be right, dying of a cancer unrelated to her excesses in her late-40s. I guess if you know with certainty that your time is relatively short, then indulgence might become the preferred path, although it can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, most of us don’t know the appointed day of our departure with the prescience that characterized my acquaintance. Many decisions depend upon just such an estimate of the future: whether to go to college, how much to save for retirement, the care and feeding of your body, the need to exercise, and so forth. In a way, we all are gamblers, those of us who imbibe and those who abstain, those who are profligate and those who save for a rainy day.

We place our bets on what “feels” right now, how we expect to feel in the future, and how long that future might last, if there is one.

Let’s just hope that our bets are wiser than those practiced by the City of Chicago and the Cubs.

The photo above taken by Scott Ableman at RFK Stadium on May 5, 2006 is of Alfonso Soriano in his days as a Washington National. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Are You Too Emotional?

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You’ve heard it before — “You are too emotional!” Surely you heard it as a child, at least once. But, what does it mean? How do you know if it is true? What is the proper place of emotions in any life? And, if you are “too emotional,” what should you do about it?

First let us establish some ground rules. Emotion is necessary. Imagine a life without it. No  love, no families based on that love, no compassion, no empathy, no righteous anger. What would be left? A life of relating to others as objects, like chairs or tables, their only value in utility — the function that they perform; only reason would be left — cold computation of what to do and how to do it. No laughter, no tears, no gratitude, no passion.

If you agree with what I’ve just said, then it is clear that emotion has a place. It binds us to others, plays a part in letting us know when we have been injured, allows for the possibility of good relationships and a joy in living. It also creates an energy that is necessary for self-defense and for the pursuit of causes. Emotion motivates us and permits the creation of communities.

But, when you are called “too emotional,” the accuser usually isn’t referring to love or happiness or even anger. No, usually he means that you are too easily hurt. And, when you are young, especially if you are male, you are encouraged to “be a man” and live by the “athlete’s creed;” if you are hurt, in other words, rub some dirt on the injury and get back into the game. Don’t complain; that is for whiners and wimps and little kids.

Well, if you are an athlete, that is what you have to do. Think too much about the injury and you won’t be able  to perform. Moreover, if you even think too much about your past failure in the game, you won’t have the confidence and focus to be able to succeed in the remainder of the contest. So, under those circumstances, being “emotional” does, indeed, get in the way. Similarly, emotion interferes with necessary behavior in war-time or in other crises that require focus, indifference to pain, and steadfast action.

But how about situations that are less demanding and fraught with danger or competition?

For me at least, emotion has become, for the most part, a friend. I can be moved by the sadness of my patients and those in my life who I love. I do not consider it a weakness. It is simply a part of being the responsive, sensitive person I aspire to be. And I can be moved by music or drama, again to the point of a tear. Life seems richer, warmer, more eventful and worthwhile that way. I don’t feel the need to keep up a brave front, an appearance of having tamed my emotions.

No, I’m not often whipsawed by my feelings, but, in part, that is because I give them their place in things and don’t keep them all bottled-up, looking for a way to burst out of the container that I would otherwise have put them in. And, when it is required, I am prepared to seek solace from a few of those closest to me, just as I give solace to my patients and those I love.

True, being emotionally vulnerable means that you can be injured. But, don’t fool yourself, life will have its way with you whether you are deadened to feelings or not. By killing your emotions, you are probably only succeeding in limiting the fullness of your life while attempting to create an illusion of strength.

Put another way, it is only human to have emotions and best if you are comfortable with that fact almost all the time.

But, beware when the emotions have you!

At the extreme is a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, states that “the essential feature of BPD is a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects (emotions), and marked impulsivity that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.” These folks are, unfortunately prone to “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment,” instability, recklessness, suicidal behavior, rapid and intense mood changes, emptiness, and anger. They are the flesh-and-blood definition of what it means to be “too emotional.” And, not surprisingly, they are difficult to treat, although Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a treatment specifically designed to do so, and has demonstrated great promise with this patient group.

For those who are not categorized with this diagnostic label, how do you know if you are too emotional? Here are a few questions you might ask yourself:

1. Do people, not only family members, often tell you that you are too emotional?

2. In an over-heated moment do you tend to make impulsive decisions that you later regret?

3. Do you have many arguments and blow up easily?

4. Do friends and relatives have to handle you with kid gloves?

5. Do your emotions suck the life out of you, change easily and quickly, and generally whip you around?

6. Do you weep easily and often in the absence of major set-backs or great losses (I’m not talking about having a tear come to your eye here, but something more gut-wrenching)?

7. If you are in mid-life, are you no less emotional than you were in your teens? (Most of us become less volatile, more in-balance, over time).

If you’ve answered too many of these in the affirmative, you may want to seek counseling.

A last word or two. Life is challenging. We need to permit ourselves feelings and we need to express them, within limits, and to have a sympathetic soul there to bear witness and listen to us. Balance is the key most of the time. It may help to remember a portion of the “serenity prayer:”

God grant me the serenity

to accept things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

If you do not “know the difference,” often enough and go to emotional extremes over the routine ups and downs of life, if even the small things seem too big, then it might be time to seek professional help. Not to kill your feelings, but to make sure that they don’t destroy your ability to have a good life.

You may find the following post of related interest: Vampires and Buried Feelings: The Therapy of Getting Over Your Hurt.

The above scene, Frenchman Weeps 1940, was used in the 1943 US Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra. The photo shows “French people staring and waving at remaining troops of the French Army leaving metropolitan France at Toulon Harbour, 1940, to reach the French colonies in Africa where they will be organized as Free French Forces fighting on the Allied side, while France is taken over by the Nazis and the Petain regime collaborating with them.”

Wikimedia Source: Records of the Office of War Information, NARA. *Date: June 14, 1940 *L.

Surely, under the circumstances, this man’s emotions were quite appropriate.