Becoming a Traitor to Yourself

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

So begins Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But these words apply to more of us than the black protagonist of his novel. A careful reader will recognize how many psychotherapy bloggers are quick to condemn themselves. They define themselves as terrible human beings, inconsiderate and selfish. They believe their resentments should neither be felt nor displayed. A “better” person would be kinder, forgiving, more generous. Their unhappiness is taken as a commentary on their value, a failing grade in the class of life.

You will see them marching voluntarily to the world’s slag heap of unnecessary and misshapen things, beyond repair or redemption. They say, in effect, “If you wish to find me you must dig deep in a landfill, where I belong.” I asked one, in light of her self-assignment to the discard pile of life, how then she might describe herself if she were a spouse abuser or terrorist. These are far worse human behaviors than she’d reported and, it seemed to me, her self-condemnation went too far.

Here was a lady who sprinted to the local lumber yard, bought some wood, constructed a cross, and nailed herself to her destiny. To my mind, the bowels of hell (if such exist) are occupied by a group to which she doesn’t belong. They’d laugh if she requested admission.

I might have said, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

We can, in just this type of self-punishment, turn traitor to ourselves. I’m not suggesting anyone is perfect. But few of us are so unworthy that we must become our own dartboard. We bleed enough at the hands of fate without offering ourselves as a pin cushion. Some of us have been assigned a shape not our own. Life seems inauthentic. We must reform ourselves, shed the shape assigned, and work to improve it.

First, however, we must buy a new flashlight, stand in a new place, and look with new eyes.

Ellison’s fictional young man sought answers about a path forward. He wished to know who he was. The earnest fellow thought it best to ask others wiser and older. No flashlights for him.

Asked or not, those others give us our first sense of self by what they say and do. Their kindness suggests we are worthy. If they blame us we might think we are not. If they offer false gods, we get a counterfeit sense of what life is or “should” be. We are in the dark.

Ellison’s protagonist tells us he was indoctrinated for 20 years and needed another 20 to achieve self-awareness: to throw-off the self-destructive beliefs he had about himself and the nature of the world. Where can you go to find out whether you are as awful as you think, assuming you don’t like yourself?

Some begin by questioning the most basic assumptions they have. These include whether authority figures are usually right. Which authority figures?

All of them: your parents, government officials, best friends, clergy, and spouse are not exempt. The ones in power and the ones who want it. The pretenders and their defenders. The crowd and the solitary man. The critics and the critics’ critics, the know-nothings and the do-nothings, the show horses and the work horses. Include your therapist, too.

Even your God.

What do I mean? If you have been shamed and demeaned or neglected, especially in your early life, such treatment came from those on this list. If you accept their judgment then you internalize the guilty verdict on your character and talent. You will judge yourself as they have, carrying their voice, now your own, inside you. Indeed, if even a house of God is the source of repeated reminders of the indelible blackness in your heart, a religious book can become a cudgel to beat you with.

Worse still, believing them, you will continue to seek their “wisdom” and approval; desiring a possible reconsideration of your character since their magnetic attraction remains powerful. Or, you may search for others like them, those who claim they are only doing this (injury to you) “for your own good;” in effect, redefining harm as “caring.”

Here is the first bit of “fake news” we receive in life, making us vulnerable to those who offer us — their sheep — a caring hand that will instead shear us of the goods we own and the belief in our own goodness. These “wrong choices” of association with “wrong” people depend on the magnetism they share with those who began our “wrong” indoctrination.

Their magic only disappears when you recognize who they really are; and, who you really are.

Some authority figures deserve to pass the test. Others do not, nor should you return to them. You may be scared to be without their shoddy shelter. The security you believe they offer, however, is an illusion. You can only get out and get away.

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

The first painting is George Hooker’s The Subway (1950). The second is the work of Tetsya Ishida: The Servitude and Deforming of the Salary Man.

How Do You Know When a Relationship Can Be Saved?

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We all lose friends and lovers. We all hope there is a way — some way, some how — to recapture the companion, erase the slight, stitch up the wound and go back to the “days of wine and roses.” Time is spent thinking, dreaming, wondering, planning, and — very often, trying — to put the Humpty Dumpty relationship back together again.

Here is one possible guide to what might produce the loss and a second list of the signs suggesting you might succeed where “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” failed.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

  1. One or both parties blames the other, taking no responsibility for any part of the rift, and refusing to be enlightened by either the partner or a therapist. I am excluding frank physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, as well as alcohol and drug addiction from the list of causes. Any of these compound the problem of saving the partnership.
  2. A tendency to store things up. Some people are hesitant to express their discontent frankly, even as the years pass. Short of mind-reading, the partner then cannot be assumed to know of the brewing disturbance until the anger blows up.
  3. Lack of self-awareness. Such a person doesn’t understand the negative impact he is having on his lover or friend. He is the counterpart to the person just described who fails to communicate his unhappiness.
  4. The unwillingness to compromise or work on changing yourself if the companion does specify his misery.
  5. The practice of “counting” and weighing the various kindnesses, concessions, and compromises you make on behalf of the other, as well as his, always smaller number (as you perceive it). A rough equity is desirable, but absolute equality is impossible to achieve. As my friend John likes to say, “Buddies don’t count.”
  6. Jealousy of the other’s success or of his closeness to his life partner or additional companions.
  7. The failure to evaluate your own relationship history, including unresolved issues from childhood that might impact your behavior toward the friend.
  8. Excessive self-effacement. Putting the other first to the point he experiences a sense of entitlement and you believe you are taken for granted. The tendency to place another on a pedestal points to likely self-esteem issues  — in you.
  9. The expectation that what you do (perhaps your job, for example), whether in or out of the home, qualifies you for special treatment.
  10. The friend or lover is replaced with someone else, though the betrayal might be a secret.
  11. Faux apologizing. Political style apologies (“I’m sorry if I hurt you”) fail on several levels: the precise nature of the injury isn’t specified, no real responsibility taking occurs unless the “if” is removed, and one needs a concrete plan and desire to prevent more pain, as well as an offer of restitution.
  12. Low priority placed on the relationship. Partners can feel abandoned to the loved one’s dedication to work, substance abuse, favoring a child over the spouse, overcommitment to his family of origin, or hobbies.
  13. Unrealistic expectations of what a good relationship should be.
  14. A tendency to be critical and/or judgmental.
  15. Betrayal. This can take the form of secretly assisting someone who wishes to undermine your buddy; and other, more dramatic acts of infidelity.
  16. A successful grieving process. When estrangement happens, either member of the dyad can begin to mourn the loss of the friend/lover. If he finally comes to be at peace with the rift, his willingness to try again is substantially reduced. He has achieved the much-mentioned state of “moving on.”

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WHAT MIGHT SIGNAL THINGS CAN BE PUT RIGHT?

  1. Both parties want the relationship to resume. Yes, two people start a friendship or romance, and both need to work on putting it together, but only one is needed to end it.
  2. You still possess an abiding love for the other. If memories of the best of times bring a smile and affection, a rekindling of the contact may be possible.
  3. You share a history impossible to replace.
  4. Readiness on both sides to discuss the painful issues face-to-face.
  5. Willingness to accept responsibility. Remember, however, Cheech Marin’s famous line: “Responsibility is a big responsibility, man.”
  6. Self-awareness.
  7. A tendency to appreciate the good qualities in the partner, rather than a blanket vilification of him.
  8. Openness to compromise.
  9. The capacity to review your life and history — the patterns that become apparent — and change them.
  10. Understanding what a sincere and complete apology requires and the desire to deliver it.
  11. An agreement to alter the rules of the relationship, being precise about what the new guidelines require of you, careful not to agree to those conditions you can’t stomach, and putting in place a system that will evaluate the compliance of both people.
  12. Going forward, the assertiveness to communicate future unhappiness before it poisons the relationship.
  13. The capacity to set “counting” aside.
  14. Resolving any jealousies.
  15. Learning to listen and ask questions.
  16. Giving the partner’s well-being increased and abiding priority.
  17. Realism and acceptance of the fact that no relationships in life are ever perfect.
  18. Ultimately, there must be forgiveness, lest the couple take turns in using the past as a weapon. Whether intended or not, the past is as lethal to love as WMD are to nations.

This is not a complete list, but a starting point in your analysis of what went wrong and whether companionship can be put right. The union of two good people doesn’t guarantee a joyous and congenial match. Compatibility isn’t always present.

Redeeming a broken relationship is rarely an easy thing. Be prepared to work hard and hope your partner is equally prepared. If a resumption of your friendship is what you want, do what you can lest you live in regret for not having tried.

I’ll leave you with two quotes about friendship that apply equally to romantic love:

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
― Bob Marley

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
― Linda Grayson

The top image is Bromance at its finest, as sourced from Wikimedia Commons and created by smellyavocado. The second photo, called Strawberry Banana Smoothie, is the work of Courtney Carmody and comes from the same source.

Are You Being Used? When Your Social Life is Like Social Work

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The world is divided into “givers and takers” or so we are told. Conventional wisdom advises that being a “giver” is the preferred choice, the moral high ground. Most of us don’t want to be thought of as selfish and non-reciprocal — self-involved. A giver is labeled “good,” an adjective we enjoy applying to ourselves.

Can you be too good? Can you be too giving — to the point of self-harm, to the point of allowing others to “use” you routinely? Is too much emotional generosity the equivalent of effacing your needs? Might it be like standing in a lunch line, affording deference and preference for latecomers to go first, and reaching the front too late for a meal?

If the answer is yes, how might you know whether you are giving too much?

Here are some signs your social life amounts to social work without salary, caring for others to the point of encouraging their misuse of you:

  1. Are you the “one” who listens to problems, the first person your acquaintances contact when upset? By itself, this might simply indicate you are kind and empathic. But disappointment follows when others don’t offer time or compassion for your worries.
  2. Do friends and acquaintances impose on you unreasonably? Do they regularly ask you to drop what you are doing to help them? Do they call late at night over small upsets without regard for your need to get up early the next morning?
  3. Beyond words of thanks, do your friends express gratitude in concrete ways, like sending you a greeting card, flowers, candy, or picking up the check at dinner?
  4. Do you recognize that reciprocity depends on respect? Those who become another’s servant do not command honor. Were fulfilling a master’s requests a guarantee of good treatment, slaves would be the best cared for class in the world.
  5. Do you find yourself disappointed too often when “friends” contact you only in need, not with social invitations once they bounce back from their troubles?
  6. Do you believe your singular value is what you can do for others? Do you doubt your worth beyond the ability to aid or console?
  7. Do too many relationships begin with the other’s effusive gratitude for your kindness, but move to a point where your generosity is taken for granted almost as an entitlement?
  8. Are you exhausted by the demands and requests of those closest to you?
  9. Can you say no when a favor is asked, be it your time, money, or a ready ear?
  10. Do you fear being dumped should you become less available when needed?
  11. Do you find yourself worrying about hurting people when you imagine what might happen if you say no?
  12. Do you hesitate to express strong opinions to your buddies? Are you afraid of rejection or criticism if you disagree?
  13. Are too many of your friends “troubled souls?” Do you associate with an unstable crowd, making it easy to take on the counselor, helper, or social work role?
  14. Do you believe saying no is selfish? Were you told you were selfish growing up?
  15. When feeling unappreciated, do you think perhaps you didn’t do enough to please your friend?
  16. Do you make excuses for the other when you are dismissed or taken for granted? Do you live in the hope he will change?

If you answer yes to a number of these questions, you might lack self-confidence and self-assertion. Another term often used in these types of relationships is dependency. Sometimes “co-dependent” is used instead.

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Too many of the earth’s inhabitants see fellow humans as objects, like a wrench or hammer: helpful when needed, but requiring no gratitude or careful treatment when the job is done. The error is allowing yourself to be used as if you were picked from a tool chest, submitting to the role of instrumental object, imagining you must do whatever friends require, twisted or tossed aside as they wish. You have discounted your worth and given them control along with the discretion to grade you by how much you satisfy their wants. Worse yet, you accept the grade assigned. The thought of standing up and setting limits collapses for fear of abandonment.

Nor are you advised to think of yourself as an altruist or akin to a religious martyr in your pursuit of the good. Religious martyrs are put to death against their will by their enemies — on one occasion only, of course. Those who offer themselves up as a less drastic sacrifice for their faux “friends” do so voluntarily and far too often. Sainthood should not be expected to follow.

This habit of relating to people doesn’t vanish by itself. You make a mistake hoping those you love will change instead of realizing you are the one who must do so. If you see yourself here, consider going into psychotherapy. Life is more fulfilling when relationships work both ways. The sooner you address this problem, the more likely your satisfaction will increase. Moreover, you will discover a truth of great import: those who leave (and some do exit when you change) aren’t worthy of your goodness. The cliché is true: you are better off without them.

The top image is called Twilight by Karin Bar. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom image is a t-shirt available at http://www.philosophersguild.com/

What Money Can Do to You and for You

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Is a preoccupation with money like a religion? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines religion in three ways:

1. The belief in a god or in a group of gods.

2. An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.

3. An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.

The last of these competes for our attention with the organized and historic religions. Some people even state that those of us in the West worship the dollar. Lots of sayings display the long shadow that money throws over human existence:

    • “Money makes the world go round.” (Others say it is love that makes the world go round).
    • “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life: now that I’m old I know that it is.” (Oscar Wilde)
    • “The lack of money is the root of all evil.” (Mark Twain)
    • “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (Timothy 6:10)
    • “The only thing money gives you is the freedom of not worrying about money.” (Johnny Carson)

Of these, I think perhaps Johnny Carson (the long time host of the Tonight Show before Jay Leno) is the most intriguing. Carson enjoyed being a wealthy man, but recognized that it didn’t guarantee a happy life. All the problems with relationships, alcohol, broken marriages, infidelity, an even an ever-present bit of anxiety before every comedy monologue he ever gave — all these were well-known to him. He appears to have enjoyed being a rich man, but equally seems not to have been a very happy one.

Carson’s comment only deals with the problem of having lots of money. No, his worry was not the same as the person who wonders if he has enough for a room and a good meal or how to put his daughter through college. In his short story, Under New Management, Joseph Epstein expresses a different perspective in the voice of his character Artie Abrams, Marty Abrams’ son. Marty was a father who became wealthy in middle-age or, as his son put it:

I had to wait until my twenties to acquire a father like everyone else’s: a man distracted, concentrated on moneymaking, with less and less sense of the everyday adventurousness of life.

Artie blamed his father’s second wife for this. Artie’s mom had died of cancer some years before the new Mrs. Abrams transformed her husband into a money machine. And what did Marty himself think of the “magnificence” of his own wealth? He told his son exactly what he thought:

Some magnificence. It’s just about money, and money isn’t always magnificent. Sometimes it isn’t even a lot of fun. You always have to be watching over the goddamn stuff, making sure it’s producing on its own, that someone isn’t making a tenth of  a percentage point more than you, which leaves you feeling like a schmuck. This is not a problem I expected to have.

Most people would call it a happy problem, Dad.

But for Marty and Artie there was a bigger problem. Marty had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As Johnny Carson said, “The only thing money gives you is the freedom of not worrying about money.”

Beyond the necessity of money in order to purchase life’s necessities, it is almost like a projective psychological test that all of us take without giving our permission. A dollar bill is the same in anyone’s hands: it looks the same, it feels the same, it smells the same, but from one person to another it doesn’t mean the same thing.

What do I mean by this? I’m talking about why it might be important to you beyond the essential things like purchasing food. Think of some of the possible meanings money has for people:

  • a sense of financial security
  • public status
  • making a living
  • helping out your kids
  • a way to improve the lives of others by giving it away
  • a way to make yourself feel good by giving it away
  • the necessary ingredient to obtain the permanent sexual partner of your dreams, who might otherwise not give you the time of day
  • a way of measuring how you are doing in life in comparison to your business competitors or friends
  • a method of exerting influence over the political direction of the country (think of the Koch Brothers or George Soros)
  • a way of boosting your private level of self-esteem
  • the ability to see a ballgame or concert of your choice from a good seat
  • what you are willing to do in order to get more of it (get a good education, work hard, cheat, put in long hours away from your family, etc.)

For those who hope to alter their self-esteem by making lots of money, I’ve got some news for you: there are limits here, too. In my therapy practice, I saw a great many people who had made lots of money. Many of them suffered from low self-esteem, nonetheless. Some felt that they were frauds. The looked good on the outside — fancy clothes, nice home — but the money hadn’t changed what they felt on the inside.

Too many had believed that lots of money would solve all their problems and discovered what Johnny Carson knew, even if they’d never read the quote I mentioned. For most of us, the purchase of a new, fancy, expensive car feels good for only a while. As the “new car smell” fades, so does the emotional boost it gives us.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has some important things to say about money. First he defines two kinds of happiness. There is the happiness that comes from thinking about (evaluating) your life. This is called “life satisfaction.” Then there is the happiness or well-being that you experience from moment-to-moment. He cites a Gallup world poll to draw some lessons about money:

  • “The conclusion (of the Gallup research) is that being poor makes one miserable and that being rich may enhance one’s life satisfaction, but does not (on average) improve experienced well-being (the second definition above).”
  • “The satiation level beyond which experienced well-being no longer increases was a household income of about $75,000 in high-cost areas (it could be less in areas where the cost of living was lower). The average increase of experienced well-being associated with incomes beyond that level was precisely zero.”
  • “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”*

Put all this together and one comes to realize that the American Dream to which so many aspire, is something quite imperfect. If you are looking for happiness in making tons of money, you may be searching in the wrong place. The legend of King Midas, whose every touch made objects into gold, was a cautionary tale.

It is a fine and necessary thing to have money. It is not so fine for the money to have you.

The money bag pictured above is the work of Barbara Lock and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Joseph Epstein’s short story, Under New Management, can be found in The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories published in 2010.

*The quotations from Daniel Kahneman come from his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

“Hurt-People” Hurt People*

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People who are in pain, can cause others to have pain.

They don’t wish to; it is not intentional.

Rather, it’s sometimes hard for them to do otherwise.

This will sound insensitive, I know, but beware of starting a new serious relationship with someone who is hurting.

Bear with me here, and perhaps you will think better of me and this advice once you read on.

Let us start with the image of a drowning man. If you swim out to save him, you are likely to find that, in his flailing, panicked, and desperate attempt to stay above water, he grabs on to you and pulls you under.

Life guards know this. Since it is their job to save the drowning, they approach them with caution. They have been well-trained to constrain the movements of the struggling swimmer so that he can be saved and his threat to the rescuer is minimized.

Moving back to dry land in our discussion, how might someone who is hurting do harm to a new best friend or lover?

For one thing, the neediness of the suffering individual can establish an unhealthy basis for the relationship from the start. In effect, the unwritten “contract” between the two parties will require that one does the helping and the other receives the comfort, with little reciprocal responsibility. This inequity risks eventual “burn out” in the caretaker and possible frustration that the damaged friend is not improving fast enough.

Some who are in the role of a “friend/helper” find that their own needs are perpetually postponed and that their efforts to provide solace will be seen as an entitlement and therefore unappreciated. Indeed, even if the altruistic partner receives gratitude early in the relationship, such appreciation often fades.

Sometimes, in fact, the connection between the two people morphs into a “hostile dependency,” where the person receiving the assistance resents the fact that he cannot function without his comrade.

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Once the injured person recovers, the helper might also discover that he is no longer needed. Healed from his injury, the formerly damaged partner now might be less interested in spending time together. Just as a bird with an injured wing will fly away when he becomes healthy, so too might your friend take off to do other things with other people. Rebound romances are notorious for this sort of thing.

Unfortunately, the caretaker group of this world is overpopulated with people who believe that they have substantial personal inadequacies: that they aren’t bright enough, handsome enough, interesting enough, confident enough, pretty enough, or successful enough to win the interest of another person who is emotionally stable and successful.

Insecure people tend to believe that no psychologically healthy human would want to go near them. They seek those damaged and hurting souls who might, they reason, find someone with limitations tolerable simply because of the quasi-therapeutic assistance he provides.

To the dismay of the self-doubting persons I’ve just described, I’m here to report that this “solution” to reducing the chance of rejection is potentially disastrous.

Choosing a partner who is damaged because you believe that he will display perpetual gratitude is a recipe for being used and disappointed. Indeed, the accumulation of rejections from those to whom one shows devotion only reduces one’s sense of self and cements the tendency to choose others who are damaged, in the belief that one cannot successfully appeal to anybody else.

Better to “get better” and become more confident, than to select a lover or a group of friends in various stages of dysfunction because you think no one else will have you. Just because someone you know is unhappy or needy, however genuine his need is, doesn’t necessarily make him a good person or someone who is right for you.

In considering whether what I’ve written has any application to your own life, you might ask yourself whether you know very many relatively well-adjusted folks and whether your relationships commonly involve large amounts of hand-holding and quasi-therapeutic devotion. If most of your close social contacts take a good deal more than they give, you just might be choosing the wrong close friends and lovers.

Are you able to predict who will be a reciprocal friend, returning to you close to as much as you give to him? Don’t assume that everyone in the world is badly damaged in psychological terms. It may simply be that everyone you know is functioning with difficulty and that you are forever putting yourself out for the wrong people, effacing your own needs.

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Yes, there will be many times in a relationship when generosity and a helping hand are healthy, considerate, and essential. Indeed, that kind of concern and responsiveness to our fellow-man is part of what is best in the human species and is valued by almost every professional therapist at a personal level.

Charity is a good thing, but surrounding yourself with friends who regularly require your charity is a different thing.

Most relationships should not demand perpetual self-sacrifice, especially at the beginning. Remember that therapists are paid for their services even if this is not the only or most important reason that they choose a helping profession.

Even counselors recognize that they cannot assist everyone and that they have emotional limitations to their capacity to provide help to others.

At night, after the work day is done, the therapist goes home (we hope) to family and friends who do not consistently suck the life out of him. Nor does he allow his patients to do this because, if he does, he will not be able to do good work or do it for very long.

Bottom line: leave therapy to the professionals.

If your social life is social work, you have a problem.

Hurt-people, hurt people.

One of the latter could be you.*

*For those who find this essay too harsh, please read the first comment below and my response to it.

The top image above is Oakie Family by Dorothea Lange.

The second image is described as Mediterranean Sea (Sept. 14, 2010): “Lt. j.g. Daniel Cooper and search and rescue (SAR) swimmer Seaman Apprentice Ryan Owens take turns rescuing an injured swimmer during SAR training aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce (LPD 15)… (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller/Released).” The picture was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The final image, Migrant Mother, (also by Dorothea Lange) is of Florence Thompson with some of her children. The Library of Congress caption reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California”

The Wikimedia website states that “in the 1930s, the FSA employed several photographers to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Many of the photographs can also be seen as propaganda images to support the U.S. government’s policy of distributing support to the worst affected, poorer areas of the country…”

Social Anxiety Disorder and Its Treatment

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Social anxiety isn’t unusual. Since you are reading this, you might well be wondering whether your own experience of anxiety (or that of someone you love) constitutes a Social Anxiety Disorder.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), such a condition exists when someone experiences a “marked and persistent fear of one or more social and performances situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or possible scrutiny by others. The person fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.”

The essence of this condition is a preoccupation with what others might think of you.

Now, we all are concerned with this some of the time.

Think of hoping to get a job promotion or wanting to impress a potential romantic partner. But consider the language of the diagnostic manual carefully, especially the words “marked and persistent fear.” One hallmark of this disorder is avoidance. When the anxiety is so great that you do your best to get out of doing something (e.g. asking someone on a date, giving a speech, attending a party, returning an item to the store, etc.) then you very well may have a clinically significant condition that can benefit from treatment. In effect, you are trying to avoid both the uncomfortable situation and the feelings that you believe will come with it.

In addition to avoidance, the individual will commonly be aware that his fear is greater than that which would be experienced by most people in a similar set of circumstances, and that the condition is very distressing and/or interferes with his life in significant ways. In fact, one of the ways that Social Anxiety Disorder complicates one’s life is by making it difficult to do the things and have the relationships that would make that life interesting, enjoyable, and fulfilling.

Is it hard to take a compliment, be the center of attention, or talk to a stranger? Do you worry what others will think of how you look and sound? Is it hard to be spontaneous in a conversation and are you too distracted by your own worries to fully concentrate on what the other person is saying? Do you get tongue-tied when trying to make an impression or have the sense that your voice is quivering or that you are perspiring too much?

Do you hesitate to state a strong opinion for fear of sounding stupid or being rejected for your ideas? Do you try to prevent others from getting to know you very well because you believe they will eventually conclude that you are inadequate and reject you? These kinds of preoccupations are typical of Social Anxiety Disorder.

The good news is that with persistence, an accomplished therapist, and the right program of treatment, you have an excellent chance of significant improvement. On the order of 80% of those who receive a systematic cognitive-behavioral (CBT) program will likely experience such change.

A good CBT counselor first makes sure that social anxiety is your major problem. For example, its not unusual for people with a Social Anxiety Disorder to have had one or more panic attacks. If those episodes occur outside of social or performance situations and lead the person to focus on their physical health, they likely indicate that a Panic Disorder is present and that the panic itself should be the focus of treatment.

However, about 50% of people who have clinically significant social anxiety also have had panic attacks. Therefore, if your preoccupation is more about how you look to others and what they think of you than it is about the symptoms of panic, treatment is likely to target your social issues.

CBT assumes that bodily sensations (such as shakiness, blushing, or a lump in your throat), behavior (such as having difficulty making eye contact or avoidance), and thoughts (such as the belief that others will reject you or that you will lose your job) all interact to fuel your social anxiety problems.

Thus, for example, the more your thoughts focus on the belief that you need to be perfect or the likelihood that you will fail, the more you are likely to experience physical manifestations of your anxiety and behave in a way that betrays your insecurity. As a result, CBT attempts to help you change physical symptoms, behavior, and cognitions.

A good cognitive behavior therapy program for social anxiety will help you learn to counter irrational thoughts that tend to be self defeating (this is called cognitive restructuring), and gradually practice with the therapist (this is called role playing) those situations that are difficult for you, beginning only with those that produce a relatively small amount of anxiety, and then try out your new skills in the real world, again beginning with relatively easy kinds of social interactions and working toward the ones that are harder for you.

And, you will discover that if you can tolerate small amounts of anxiety rather than flee them, you will “habituate” to the anxiety in much they way that your nose adapts to a foul odor by adjusting so that after a short amount of time the smell is not nearly so strong; similarly, your anxiety will weaken if you stay in the uncomfortable situation, usually within 45 minutes.

Treatment typically takes somewhere in the neighborhood of three to four months, although it can take longer if other issues also need attention. When it is successful, the patient usually finds himself less troubled by physical symptoms, more assertive, less preoccupied with other people’s opinions, more optimistic, less awkward, able to receive compliments without discomfort, able to look people in the eyes, and less avoidant.

It can feel enormously freeing and lead to much better things in life, including more and better friendships, greater vocational success, and a more satisfying romantic life.

Persistence is essential and the program takes some courage. But if you want to change your life and be less encumbered by social anxiety, CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder has much to offer.

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