Thirty Things Your Therapist Couldn’t Tell You

Therapists live in a world of ideas and experience that has become their “common sense,” so familiar to them it constitutes the fabric of their being. Yet counselors hesitate to offer such knowledge at treatment’s start.

Were they to do so they’d not get the opportunity to find out who you are; and which of those considerations must be knit into the garment of treatment the two of you will share.

Beginnings are not managed best by giving you a lecture or assigning you a reading. Creation of a relationship and safety come first.

Here then are a few notions perhaps unfamiliar to you. No psychologist’s list but mine:

  1. We all edit ourselves, refine our self-presentation to suit conditions. Once we commence crossing out words, erasing opinions, using white-out on our outline, there may soon be nothing left of us. Whomever is the artificial creature created by hiding the ink-stained unsightliness, public applause for the fiction we’ve fashioned will be less satisfying than if we present truth and receive approval, at least from inside.
  2. The therapist not only discloses little about himself to avoid getting in the way of the transference. He retreats from imparting his own wisdom — an uncontestable opinion on everything. The patient must find his own. Note, I just violated that rule. Doctor/patient obligations don’t apply here. Neither are my opinions all unassailable.
  3. Counseling can make you worse.
  4. Your life won’t be ideal when you say goodbye to the clinician. Disappointment, stress, and death find everyone. Gridlock and rain foil your picnic plans. Your heart will break, desires go unfulfilled, the snow cancels your flight. But comes the day when summer marches in and hope may yet find a runway.
  5. No two will ever establish a perfect bond together, but much is possible between well-matched people who do the winning of their love over and over.
  6. Those among us who build ramparts against danger reduce the chance of growth and dazzling surprise. Injury is inescapable even in a lifetime of hiding. Homo sapiens learn to manage risk or else resemble ostriches: still vulnerable despite burying a part of their essence before they die.*
  7. Most of the planet is covered with average people. If, through natural talent or effort you can make something more of yourself, you will stand higher than your peers.
  8. Accept people whole or reject them whole. The majority change around the edges, inches at a time, if at all. Few (short of a profound course of personality remaking or a transformative life event) will alter more than moderately.
  9. No man or woman can be an expert surgeon who carves out unlikable parts of others and leaves the rest intact. Imitate the architect instead: one who recognizes a column of support, a load bearing beam essential to a building’s integrity. Remove such a part of a person you otherwise admire leaves sawdust and splinters, wreaking what made him admirable.
  10. The most heroic clients begin in pursuit of a wise man’s guidance and end by leading the way, overcoming everything.
  11. Life, not your counselor, demands metamorphosis. Each person develops adaptive styles to fit his early place and time. He comes to therapy older and off balance: like riding upon the tread of once useful tires now worn away, no longer holding the road. Without their replacement he will crash.
  12. Statis is not achievable or desirable. Each of us must adapt to a transforming world, a changing body, a different moment in history; a new set of relationships, situations, and requirements. Contentment requires getting used to not getting used to things.” (Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain ).
  13. People are far more concerned with themselves than with you. Your embarrassing moments pass unnoticed or speed into forgetfulness. Of course, this was more true before everyone bought a camera phone.
  14. Few of us understand each other well. We peer at neighbors as if through sun glasses in the darkened room of our own experience alone. Most don’t take the time to acquire the psychological expertise to do better. In any case, we must start by understanding ourselves. People tend to believe they do — their first mistake.
  15. Therapists search for maladaptive behavior patterns patients are repeating. Repetition of your parents’ mistakes also happens. You might follow in their ill-placed footsteps to reach similar goals and befriend similar people. Beware. Their mission is not yours, no matter your genetic likeness.
  16. With each added excuse you give for your acts or utterances you betray more insecurity. Even if the excuses you give are to yourself.
  17. Silence is necessary. Quiet is the needed background for the words you wish to place in the foreground. Conversation is not a test of rapid response time. Eye contact serves better than talking too much.
  18. The more conventional you are, the more difficult to understand someone who is unconventional. The more unconventional you are the more you will be misunderstood.
  19. Words are limited. Words are also needed. Ludwig Wittgenstein described their limits this way: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” All that most matters in life is beyond verbalization. Thus, analysis of beauty and love take us only so far. Intuition comes nearest to the indescribable.
  20. The more logical you are, the harder to understand someone who is emotional. The more you believe you approximate complete rationality, the more you are wrong. The more you think humans are skin-covered computers, the more you misunderstand humanity. We often reach our decisions instinctively and emotionally. A heartbeat later reasons appear, but we credit the rationalized motives with authorship of the decisions.**
  21. Everyone prefers simple explanations. Conduct sometimes has a single cause, but much of what we do is multi-determined or overdetermined. That is, more than one factor influences our actions and attitudes. For example, you want money to live, but use it to impress. Perhaps it makes you more secure, improves your self-worth, and wins companionship, as well.
  22. Those who realize they (and their fellow-men) are not always rational own an advantage. They question superficial reasoning. This recognition is itself an important piece of knowledge.
  23. Be wary of intimate disclosure too soon — in or out of session. You might frighten someone away. Or be terrified by the naked feelings and thoughts you released . Reinvention involving affective expression is best done gradually.
  24. “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” (Friedrich Nietzche).
  25. On the other hand, ” To see something as a whole one must have two eyes, one of love and one of hate.” (Nietzche again).
  26. Living in the moment is dangerous, not living in the moment is torturous. Outside of the moment you will be lost too often in self-made agony: swallowed by regret, wrapped with trepidation, or worried what others think. Within a joyous instant, by contrast, self-consciousness disappears, clocks dissolve, and everything else falls away. Ego is abandoned to the eternity of an episode transcending time. The concern here, however, is that your alert system is also discarded, leaving you exposed.
  27. Master meditators suggest the solution to life distress is not to judge the circumstances (piling pain on pain), but accepting your condition as it is. Yet they spend lots of time meditating as opposed to existing in the arena, don’t they?
  28. The species to which we belong can rationalize anything. Consider your friends. Eyeball yourself in the mirror. Even if you have been tested and think you passed, remember who scored the exam: you did.
  29. Be an enemy of routine. Give the now everything you have, lest the slicing second-hand of the clock wastes you and your time.
  30. Move toward something, not just away. Be for something, not against everything.

One more. Look up. At architectural wonders, at the powder blue sky. Down at all the small creatures and growing things. Watch the passing beauties of a world in motion. Do not allow your sophistication to impede perception. Hold fast to childlike wonder. Accept joy where it is given.

The chestnut by the eaves
In magnificent bloom
Passes unnoticed
By men of the world.***

Moral: do not allow the chestnut “in magnificent bloom” to go “unnoticed.”

—–

The top photo (untitled) is the work of the author, 2018.

*Ostriches have gotten a bad rap. They do not bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger or for any other reason. Asphyxiation would be the result. Rather, they dig underground using their head to fashion a nest for their eggs. Beyond this, they also stick their heads into the nest to turn the eggs.

** See Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

*** Haiku from Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Bashō, 1694.

Why We Lose Objectivity about the People We Love

Once drawn to others – in politics, love, or friendship – our ability to evaluate them realistically disappears. I’m guessing you recognize it more clearly in acquaintances than in yourself. One contributing factor is called the “halo effect.” We are susceptible to a tiny number of attractive traits positively transforming our overall opinion of a person.

You and I are not as logical as we think, especially when emotion bumps logic off the road, a regular part of its job. One might still note flaws in the other – and set them aside or rationalize them. This can produce strange contradictions. Here is a personal story as a telling example.

If I were to put the life of Leo Fabian in a few words, I’d be forced to call him a failed, irresponsible, alcoholic man. He caused lots of pain in his life, especially to his children and wife.

The contradiction? I knew all this and I loved him. He was my maternal grandfather.

Grandpa was born in Romania in 1892 and came to this country in 1912. Long before the movie, Titanic, he claimed that he traveled from Eastern Europe to England, and then proceeded to miss that very vessel. The next one, of course, didn’t hit an iceberg and his best days began soon after he read the Statue of Liberty’s welcome. My grandfather started a successful business as a house painter and owned an automobile before most others. A wife and four children later, his care-free days fell off the rails in the worldwide, decade long economic train wreck that began in 1929. Though he lived almost 35 more years, the best part of his life vanished in time.

My mother remembered the terror of bill collectors pounding their door and high school days when she had only enough money to buy a candy bar for lunch. At some point Leo couldn’t take the unhappy apartment anymore, the nagging mate and fighting offspring. He left for Winnipeg, Canada. Grandpa had relatives there, beating a solo path out of town. Solo, I repeat.

My intrepid grandmother Esther packed everyone up and tracked him down. The Fabian children lived and went to school up north for a while, a band of dispossessed refugees: not wanted by their dad, not missed by their country, creating regret only in the empty-handed bill collectors. After a time in the Canadian school system they would return worse for the wear of dislocation. No offense to Canada.

Their father’s incapacity and addiction marked them all. To cite particular scars, Uncle Sam – hardly two digits of age – had the grizzly responsibility of pulling his dad out of bars when drink had the best of him; and taking care of my grandmother when Leo was incapable of providing either food or shelter.

Up close I witnessed ugliness, too, but of a different kind. I worked after school for my uncle’s downtown Chicago business. I beheld 6’4″ Uncle Sam – my favorite relative, almost like a father to me – interact with his dad. Grandpa was by now his son’s full-time employee.

I recognized something askew as soon as I got an underage work permit and started the job: Uncle Sam called his father by his first name in public; never dad, always Leo. I couldn’t imagine myself doing this with my father or any relative other than a cousin. Was Sam trying to hide himself from the embarrassment of being this man’s offspring? But the knowledge was public, I soon discovered. Worse was to come.

Nothing in the office predicted catastrophe. The day was sunny, everyone working, chatting, listening to the White Sox game radio broadcast. But grandpa came to work hung-over a bit, enough to be inadequate to the tasks assigned. When he screwed up, Sam Fabian told off Leo Fabian. In front of all the others he employed, perhaps seven of us. All the rest kept their heads down and went about their work. The radio broadcaster, Bob Elson, paid no attention.

I alone watched it all, heard it all. Watched Sam enlarge and lengthen and tower over 6′ tall Grandpa. Watched my uncle holler and Leo shrink. Watched one man flogged by ropes of words alone, lashed-together letters all but peeling his skin. I never again looked at either one the same way. Though the repeat performances were few, even a few were too many. Sam had cause, but not license to tap his lifetime storage tank of anger to humiliate his dad.

My love for my grandfather predated this crap. He would be funny, charming, full of life and bigger than life; cutting a lean, wicked-smiling, still-handsome figure. Leo Fabian could charm the socks off anyone if you didn’t know all the rest. He spoke at least a little of multiple languages and must have been the life of every party. Grandpa was proud of me, kind to me, affectionate with me, and never said a bad word to anyone.

I remember a full-day spent with him in 1956, the nine-year-old version of myself, from the elevated train ride downtown to the movie Trapeze; starring Burt Lancaster, Gina Lollobrigida, and Tony Curtis. Complete with my grandfather’s warning that he might fall asleep on the way back (he did) and his reminder to wake him so we could get off at the Kedzie Avenue stop on the Ravenswood line.

My final memory came a few years later. He was now in his early 70s dying of stomach cancer. I visited his hospital bed with mom. He perked up as soon as I entered. He couldn’t hug me hard enough and, like him, I knew the moment was a goodbye.

Most of us automatically rationalize our beliefs and inconsistencies. Take politics and religion. Research says we come to conclusions too fast to arrive at such opinions through careful analysis. Instinct and emotion drive the decision and we then generate a rationale soon after. Even so, we believe the reasons came first.

Humans desperately want to view people as completely integrated, whole and predictable: all virtuous or all bad. I’ve met a few who came close to the former category, to the good. I’m blessed in that way.

Still, blind certainty like “My dad can beat up your dad” and “My mom is smarter than your mom” is black and white and commonplace. We usually see what we want to. Oskar Schindler, the famous savior of Jews during the Holocaust, was also a philandering husband who abandoned his wife; admirable and iniquitous both. Many are more like he, perhaps with less drama, less extremity at either end, living on a smaller scale.

Life is simpler, I think, if we do not absorb the complexity of human nature and instead draw the peopled world in broad strokes lacking troublesome detail. We need trust and comradeship, love and security, more than we need truth.

We form our opinion of ourselves with no greater insight. The Stoics say no one knows himself until he is tested, yet many think they would be heroic in the absence of the test. Even a failed moral trial can be given a pass by a subdued conscience. We are almost all conscience-tamers some of the time, without the whip and chair used by lion tamers at the circus. Unlike the beasts, the conscience tends to submit so quietly we don’t hear a thing. Fortunately, most of us don’t do it often.

I’ve never tried to rationalize my love for Grandpa. Yet I saw plenty of daily evidence of the wreckage my grandparents wrought on mom; and on Uncle Sam when I worked for him.

So, there you have it. My granddad was an irresponsible, alcoholic man who abandoned his family and (with an assist from an economic calamity) did enormous harm to his children. That’s on the one side, my love for him on the other.

They are both true.

Go figure.

The top photo is called Taking Care of the Heart by Enver Rahmanov

 

What Does It Mean to be “Psychologically Minded?”

A good observer of the human condition notices some fellow creatures who don’t get it. Several are obtuse. Many can be described as too logical. Others naïve or unworldly. More than a few don’t think through what they do and why, dismissing opinions different from their own. Their certainty of everything betrays their awareness of nothing. Large numbers can’t recognize the obvious ingredients in their complicated emotional stew.

They don’t even hear the stewpot boiling over.

I’d characterize such folks as lacking a certain “psychological mindedness.” This is my own term of art, not a phrase with a definition understood and accepted in the field of mental health. Still, I’ll try to describe what constitutes such a state of mind and why it might be useful to us. If you are psychologically minded, several of these qualities will be characteristic of you:

  • All your decisions are not understood by you. Mystery resides in everyone. We are each some combination of genetic programming, the formative influence of our parents, education, experience, and choice. Emotion and reason both play their part. Should you be so unwise as to claim understanding of all your motives, you are mistaken.
  • Illogic troubles your thought process and you know you aren’t alone. You don’t insist your every idea is structured like an architectural work of art, nor hold others to this standard. Were logic alone in charge, you’d be a robot. We arrive at some of our most vehement opinions intuitively and only then find justifying reasons with blinding speed, a process invisible to the internal eye.
  • You are aware mom and dad were imperfect and don’t dismiss their effect on you, for good or ill, probably both.
  • You don’t believe your achievements are the singular product of your special genius and effort. We are interdependent, all of us: impacted by the color of our skin, the economic and social circumstances of our birth, the presence or absence of societal and political unrest, the power of love and loneliness; and by a helping or dismissive hand, not to mention the accident of our appearance. You are on board with John Donne’s poetic truth, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” As my friend, Life in a Bind, suggests, “you think about yourself in the world from a slightly more distanced stance than others do, and with a longer lens stretching back into the past.”
  • You know grieving takes its own time and is best done with one or more faithful witnesses, not by the toughness required for bullet-biting; or burying sadness in perpetuity. Others are not advised by you to “get over it.”
  • Unfairness, you think to yourself, can be subjective and therefore a matter of perspective.
  • To a degree you know the danger of being hostage to the opinion of others.
  • You don’t “blame the victim” by asserting you’d have been smarter in a difficult situation: made a better choice, demonstrated more resilience, or maintained a higher moral standard. Without experience in the same circumstance, in truth, you cannot predict what you’d have done.

  • You recognize your lack of “all the answers.” You are humble in the face of the things you don’t understand and accept the need to learn more. You grasp at least a bit of the human necessity for continual transformation as you age and face unexpected situations requiring new solutions.
  • You don’t reflexively condemn others when something goes wrong, instead demonstrating occasional willingness to look into the mirror. Nor do you make automatic assignment of blame to yourself, realizing, at least, the cost of doing so, even if you cannot yet stop.
  • Once in a while you ask, “Why did I do that” or “Why did I say that?”
  • To paraphrase Life in a Bind again, psychological mindedness permits insight into mind traps: the alteration of perception when gripped by defenses like projection. What feels real emotionally may not be true.
  • To your dismay, you are cognizant of the human capacity to rationalize almost anything, murder included. Perhaps it has dawned on you that you too rationalize. You regret another painful truth: even wonderful and wonderfully talented people possess a dark side.
  • While some challenges are uncomfortable to face, you believe avoidance of a direct glance or assertive action might be a costly life strategy.
  • You are a part-time observer of yourself, not obsessed with yourself. You are neither totally inward-focused, unable to get out of your own head; or totally outward-focused – mindlessly “in the moment” – never reckoning with who you are. You agree with Socrates (“The unexamined life is not worth living”), but not so far as to spend all your time in examination, avoiding action and risk. If you cannot yet venture forth, your realize you must find a way.
  • You either play or wish to learn how to play.
  • Self-righteousness is something you avoid.
  • You understand that openness is double-edged: the pursuit of intimacy means guaranteed risk in search of potential reward. You opt for openness, at least in theory.
  • From time to time you think about your default tendencies. Perhaps you are inclined to approach or avoid, argue or make peace, court danger or play it safe, etc. On occasion you even think your strengths (and the penchant to overplay them) are your weaknesses.

If you recognize several of these qualities in yourself, you are a good psychotherapy candidate, assuming you muster the courage to gamble something great for something good. Your psychological mindedness is now and again misunderstood by friends who do not view the world with the nuance you do.

Keep going and growing. The world then becomes a bit more explicable and your understanding of yourself enlarged. The planet will take on colors never noticed on the black-and-white globe you used to inhabit. Your perspective may also attract new acquaintances.

Some will think you unnecessarily troubled, others conclude you are wise.

No free lunch.

Choose.

The image of The Human Mind comes from Wikimedia Commons via Flicker. No author is identified. The second Wikimedia photo is a Psychic Apparition. It comes from the collection of Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, from a series called Psychic Photography From a New Angle.

Halloween and the Road to Temptation

Seen Around Lincoln Center - Day 2 - Spring 2012 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

I was recently asked about the craziest thing I ever did. My answer? “Therapists aren’t known for being crazy.” Truth is, I couldn’t come up with much, but will acknowledge near-craziness a few times.

You might not think Halloween would provide the opportunity. Perhaps, then, you never went “trick-or-treating” for UNICEF. I did with my buddy Steve Henikoff in seventh grade, age 12.

The adventure began with an earnest and philanthropic gesture. Or only an excuse to go out on Halloween without the embarrassment of being too old for costumes. We heard about the possibility of a higher Halloween calling than accumulating piles of candy and looking like original sin.

UNICEF is the United Nations Children’s Fund, originally created as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund in 1946 to offer urgently needed healthcare and food to kids in countries turned inside out in World War II. An estimable enterprise still today.

Well, we wanted to do something fun. Noble, too? As noble as lower middle-class 12-year-old boys were capable of at the time. We sent away for the proper identifying materials and began a house-to-house pilgrimage as civilians. Never having done this before, we didn’t predict what kind of response might come from the adults who answered the door with candy in their hands. Well, except for “Get off my lawn!” old guys.

The UNICEF Halloween campaign started quietly in 1950, and was unknown to lots of the folks we met. Some people didn’t believe our explanation and challenged our honesty, despite our fresh-faced innocence. Others gave us coins. So it went, for as many hours as we stayed out. I remember the weather being a bit damp, but we didn’t quit because of rain or cold. My dad worked for the U.S. Post Office, so I knew what it meant to make the appointed rounds regardless of conditions.

Our charitable haul for the evening came to about $12. By today’s valuation we had 100 greenbacks. Think of giving two 12-year-olds with empty pockets $100. My younger brothers Ed and Jack were getting 10-cents for putting a just-ejected tooth under the pillow at night in those days. Thanks to the decades old ravages of the Great Depression on my folks, money remained a hard, heavy matter for them, much like the change we carried.

Temptation, friends, on a day devoted to child’s play, had paid me and Steve a visit.

These two young boys, cloistered in a safe neighborhood, watched over by decent parents, found themselves at a crossroads of sorts.

No one would know if we kept the money or held-back a high percentage and gave a small amount to UNICEF. In a certain sense, no one cared. The only consequence would be internal. What might we think of ourselves?

No one lives a temptation-free life. Money is an ever-present lure for some people, even those who have plenty. Lying comes in handy, as TV dramas demonstrate along with the shameless, fallen state of professional and governmental ethics. Sex? What can I say? The more illicit, the more inviting. But Steve and I didn’t grasp our adult future. Life was real, not abstract, we weren’t old enough to get sexy with anyone, and the coins were speaking to us.

The two buddies conversed briefly. Very briefly. It wasn’t in our DNA to do anything but what we did. In a certain sense, there was no choice. We were just being ourselves.

The dimes and quarters and nickels – every cent – went to UNICEF and those needy kids.

In another life what might have happened? What if I had 100 lives? I can’t say I wouldn’t visit so-called iniquity more often in at least one of them, just for the joy ride, the pitch-black thrill. We don’t get the chance, do we, unless reincarnation is real? Then, we are told, the wages of becoming your evil twin aren’t pleasant.

We usually keep our dark side in the shade, not acknowledging how much we’ve already lived there, making our self-image more virtuous than we deserve.

You say you don’t?

Then you are tormented.

But, imagine a slightly older version of yours truly on that ancient Halloween night and a same-aged Heidi Klum as my trick-or-treat date, encouraging me to keep the money and holding me tight. Ah, the flesh is weak.

Would Heidi then, like Socrates, have been accused of “corrupting the youth” of Talman Avenue, West Rogers Park, Chicago? Socrates faced a jury of a few hundred Athenian citizens, all men. Acquittal before such an audience would have been the only possible verdict for the “trick or treat” hottie. As for me, so long as Heidi was nearby, I’d have been – shall we say – preoccupied; categorizing the theft as an anomaly, rationalizing as needed. We do it all the time, the better to live with ourselves.

Hey, I was a young teenage male. Give me a break. Remember, it didn’t happen.

Temptation can often be avoided – at the risk of overregulating your life. Think USA VP Mike Pence, who won’t go to dinner with a woman unless his wife is beside him with a gun trained on his privates, thus simultaneously guaranteeing his fidelity and supporting the National Rifle Association.

Others resist if they can. Resisting temptation is a bit like trying to stand straight-up and recite the Boy Scout Oath at the top of a perfect toboggan run on a cold winter’s day with the wind at your back. You are – whether you realize it or not – about to slide a long, slippery, perhaps injurious distance.

Life is probably more fun and more fraught if you don’t avoid or resist all the time and don’t think too much about who you are. When is creative risk-taking the road to a bad end? When is the straight-and-narrow the slow lane to a muted life?

If one evaluates one’s choices, much depends on when we take the measure: at the point the gambler wins his pot of gold or after he loses big-time? In youth, middle-age, or the end-of-the-line?

Still, when the tolling bell reminds us to change our lives, I don’t think it is encouraging a future in bank robbery.

I guess I was lucky never to meet Heidi Klum as a teen, who was born after Steve and I labored our single night for UNICEF.

Or, maybe, the luck would have been in meeting her.

There is always someone or something, in the domain where you are most vulnerable, that can make you want to do something crazy and enticing: becoming other than your usual self. A kind of moral Achilles heel or an invitation to freedom, depending on how you imagine it and the elasticity of your virtue.

Wanting and doing, however, are different things.

If imagination were action, we’d all be in jail.

The top two images come from UNICEF. Heidi Klum, pictured in the first one, was the 2011 Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF Ambassador.

“It All Just Amounts to What You Tell Yourself”

512px-dust_bowl_oklahoma

Great literature transports you into the lives of others to inform you about your own. Take The Grapes of Wrath. I’ll offer you a single scene to illustrate how we rationalize our actions. Tom Joad, the story’s hero, reframes cowardice into practicality, moves from fight to flight, and converts hesitation into wisdom; all with the help of a man who has already rationalized his own diminished life. We rationalize because we must — in order to live comfortably with our motives and our choices.

John Steinbeck’s novel is set in the Dust Bowl era of 1930s Oklahoma. Newly available machines allowed rapid and widespread plowing and cultivation of the native grass: an act of misguided surgery. The grass was essential to bind the earth to the land. When drought came, not only were conditions insufferable, but crops died for lack of moisture. The ground became unmoored and simply blew away. In some areas this “worst hard time” persisted for eight years. Dust storms blackened the sky. The fine dark particles invaded farm houses, killed animals, and impaired breathing. Visibility might be reduced to a few feet on a given day. The dust-occluded air produced occasional darkness as far away as New York City.

Tom Joad is a young man just released on parole after four years in McAlester prison. He killed a neighbor who attacked him in a bar fight. Tom and two acquaintances are on the land once occupied by his family. The Joads were evicted in a bank foreclosure. The men notice a police car coming to investigate.

Muley, one of the acquaintances, is an older man who experienced the merciless attitude of the bankers, their agents, and the law enforcement officers in evicting most everyone in the area while Tom was in prison. He and Tom talk about the vehicle heading in their direction:

TOM: We ain’t doin’ no harm. We’ll jus’ set here. We ain’t doin, nothin’.

MULEY: We’re doin’ somepin jus’ bein’ here. We’re tresspassin’. We can’t stay. They been tryin’ to catch me for two months. Now you look. If that’s a car comin’ we go out in the cotton an’ lay down.

TOM: What’s come over you, Muley. You was’nt never no run-an’-hide fella. You was mean.

Muley agrees with Tom that he is not the same man he was. Changing conditions changed him. He knows Tom’s nature is to fight, especially on the land Tom grew up on. Muley also reminds Tom of his parole. Any “trouble” and he will be sent back to prison.

TOM: You’re talkin’ sense. Ever’ word you say is sense. But, Jesus, I hate to get pushed around! I lots rather take a sock at Willy.

MULEY: He got a gun. … He’ll use it cause he’s a deputy. Then he either got to kill you or you got to get his gun away an’ kill him. Come on Tommy. You can easy tell yourself you’re foolin’ them lyin’ out (in the cotton) like that. An’ it all just amounts to what you tell yourself.”

Landscape

Indeed. Tom follows Muley’s advice to hide from the police rather than confront anyone.

As with other (mostly unconscious) life strategies, the way we explain our behavior to ourselves can help or harm. Some of us automatically rationalize so many choices we lose touch with who we are and how we hurt ourselves and our fellow man. Others reflexively come to unnecessary and unflattering conclusions about their deeds. They blame themselves and interpret events in a self-deprecating fashion. In effect, each of us has our own internal “make-up” artist. He is the part of us who tries to put a “good face” on the reasons we do what we do, the better to look at ourselves in a friendly mirror: one not too revealing of uncomfortable defects.

Think of a situation in which you fail to achieve your goal. Many explanations are available:

  • I’m a loser. (Here you’ve taken a single disappointment and indicted your entire being and character).
  • It was his fault. He was unfair. (In this example, right or not, someone else is blamed).
  • This is a temporary set-back.
  • Perhaps I need to approach situations like this in a different way. (Possible adaptation and learning enters the picture with this explanation).
  • I did the best I could. (Defeat is acknowledged, but there is also a self-comforting understanding of the event).
  • “Every knock is a boost.” (This was one of my dad’s expressions. He re-interpreted his defeats as exercises in strengthening his character).

Many other examples might be offered. Cognitive-behavior therapists try to help patients reframe their beliefs and assumptions about themselves and the world. They hope to free clients from self-damaging “self-talk.” CBT counselors encourage a reality-based, but adaptive way of approaching the task of thinking about and explaining our behavior to ourselves.

You and I are left with the question implied by Muley in his conversation with Tom: what do we tell ourselves?

I hope you give it some thought.

The top photo is called, Dust Bowl, Oklahoma. It shows a “father and sons walking in the face of a Dust Bowl storm in Cimarron County, OK,” April 1936. The picture was taken by Arthur Rothstein. The second image is Dust Storm Near Beaver, Oklahoma; July, 14, 1935. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. If the Dust Bowl is of interest, you might want to watch The Grapes of Wrath, the 1940 movie adaptation of the Steinbeck novel. Henry Fonda stars as Tom Joad. The film is widely considered one of the 100 greatest American films. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl is a terrific oral history of the period written by Timothy Egan. Finally, don’t miss Ken Burns’s documentary, The Dust Bowl.

Are You a Good Judge of Character?

512px-are_you_playing_square-_-_nara_-_513626

Just as most people with cars will tell you they are better than average drivers, I suspect most of us believe we are pretty good at knowing others: estimating their worth, determining their reliability, pegging their level of integrity.

Not so fast. Some of those confident in their capacity to size-up friends and strangers are poor at it, in my estimation. Here are a few of their (and our) possible errors:

  • Believing people are motivated in the identical way we are. This amounts to the expectation that you can judge another’s intentions and actions by asking the question, “What would I do in his shoes?”
  • The tendency to discard important evidence about personality. I wish I had a million dollars for every time a female patient uttered, “Oh, he wouldn’t do that to ME.” The action they referred to was a betrayal, almost always sexual. The man, of course, had already revealed a history of infidelity. Call this willful blindness by the unlucky lady.
  • Sticking with a wrong opinion. Some of us are slow to revise a long-standing error. Even if our original measure of an individual is right, we are in danger of failing to register subtle changes morphing him into something less honorable. One might also miss the ripening of a condemned personality into someone sweeter. It is as if, once done labeling, we are free to put our brains asleep. Richard Posner, a public intellectual and judge, rightly asks the question, “If we sentence a 21-year-old man to life in prison, are we still punishing the same man when he is 71?”
  • The difficulty of thinking psychologically, Part I. Most of us base our understanding on surface impressions. A plausible explanation of a person’s behavior “makes sense.” Freud knew better. Actions can be determined by multiple motivations. Many of those are unconscious. A quick acceptance of a single reason to explain the world risks simplifying the complex.
  • The difficulty of thinking psychologically, Part II. In observing others we tend to assume a personality is something objective, like pulse or blood pressure or height. Might it be more accurate to think of mental makeup as a creation of our perception, a combination of what we encounter in the other and how we interpret what we encounter? To a significant extent we translate our experience of a man, his words and actions, filling in the many blanks with our history of similar persons and a few educated guesses. Much is lost in translation. This is usually done without careful study, no training, by instinct. How else might you account for the neighbor of an ax-murderer telling the TV reporter he appeared to be a good guy?
  • We tend to believe the best of members of our in-group and those we are attracted to.
  • We tend to believe the worst of those we dislike, members of an out-group, and people against whom we compete. They become stereotypes.
  • The influence of the opinions communicated by friends, relatives, and co-workers. Research demonstrates we are influenced by group opinions even if asked to estimate which of several straight lines is the longest, discounting what our senses tell us if the rest of those present offer different answers. We do not form judgments in a vacuum. Millions of advertising dollars are spent on attempts to modify thought and action — yours and mine.

512px-w-_wisdom

  • We believe people will behave in the same way regardless of the situation. Few of us observe even our best friends in a variety of circumstances. We don’t watch them preparing their tax forms, at work, or facing a moral dilemma.  Courage is in short supply. Not everyone can resist taking a surreptitious unfair advantage. Self-interest is a powerful motivator and easily rationalized. Evidence for this opinion is to be found in the large number of political candidates who throw in their lot with a yahoo-like scoundrel and justify it by loyalty to their party.
  • Expecting others to be consistent and whole, all good or all bad. Again, public office-seekers provide the example. They are flawed, as are we. Yet there is the tendency to understand people globally, as undifferentiated and organically whole: honest or dishonest, virtuous or criminal, black or white. The best person on earth has secrets, has made mistakes, and will make more. No man deserves a halo, but many benefit from a halo effect or are harmed by its opposite.
  • Our limited perspective. We experience everyone from a unique view point: through our eyes and our buzzing brains. The reason pollsters sample large groups is because any one person doesn’t reflect everyone’s opinion. We bring to our understanding of life a very particular set of experiences and beliefs that shade and transform all we think and observe.
  • A tendency to judge others more harshly than ourselves. “I wouldn’t have done what he did” is easy enough to say (and thus condemn) because we are not in the identical situation as the one being judged. “He should have known she was no good” is an opinion lacking knowledge of all the history, emotion, and experience which might explain a failure to “know.” Meanwhile, automatic psychological defenses blind us to our own foibles.
  • The shifting perspective created by aging. How can a 20-year-old fully understand a 40-year-old? How can a sixty-year-old understand a 20-year-old? Not only do these people have the advantage or disadvantage of years, but of times. Life today is not what it was in the ’50s or ’60s or ’90s. Time machines cannot take you forward and back with appropriate adjustments of your age.
  • Transference. Transference is not limited to the counselor’s consulting room. It is like a mistaken identity. While we might have feelings for the therapist derived from our relationship to a parent, we can also react this way to a stranger or friend, a lover or a boss. They too may remind us unconsciously of some other past human contact and reproduce many of the sensations and emotions evoked by the original person.
  • The intentionally misleading quality of public faces. Humans try to make themselves “presentable,” just as a gift, an award, or an object of art is better looking when dusted off, retouched, and nicely framed — now suitable for viewing. X-ray vision through and beyond the public face is unavailable, Superman excepted.
  • The influence of our off-kilter emotions. Here is an example of how feelings can distort our estimation of another. An insecure person prone to injury by a word or a look is more likely to believe the other harbors a negative attitude toward him, thus overestimating his neighbor’s dark side.

Though subject to the foibles just described, I nonetheless possess considerable experience (personal and professional) in trying to understand others. If I am better than most in making those judgments, I am far from perfect. To whatever extent I can demonstrate success, it is because I benefited from large data sets for thousands of patients with whom I spent many hours. They offered information often not provided to those closest to them. I received instruction in the manner of asking questions, analyzing the answers, administering and interpreting psychological tests, formal education, and supervision. And still I am not perfect.

We do our best, therapists or not, to hone the observational knife to the point of precise dissection of another personality. Or we do it casually — all too confident — and don’t look back. No one, however, gets a complete grasp of the social world. To do that we would have to be both inside the other and outside of him, combining the perspectives of those who know him best and those who are more distant — like a baseball game viewed from different angles by multiple cameras.

A 24/7 off-the-field videographer might help too, making his visual record during all the hours before and after the contest, even when our subject is asleep. We would also need to speak with our subject’s lover, children, business partners, garbage man, and valet, if he has one. Not to mention the person who does his laundry.

And there is the rub, my friend. Not even your therapist wishes to know everything about you.

Are YOU Playing Square? is a World War II poster of the Office for Emergency Management (Office of War Information). It requires a bit of explanation. During World War II the US government created rationing  and price controls on certain commodities. This was done to ensure that the people at home faced no shortages, while the armed forces were themselves well-supplied. Nonetheless, a black market existed in which one could get more than one’s proper share of a rationed commodity by paying an inflated price. Thus, “playing (fair) and square” meant respecting the rules, not participating in the black market. The poster is meant to suggest that cheating undermined the war effort and thereby endangered the soldier pictured. The second image of Wisdom is the work of Matt Lawler. Both of these pictures were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Can Therapists be Fooled? What Therapists Miss

71Ihq8ngHZL._SL1200_

At a recent gathering my wife had an unexpected encounter with a woman who had done us wrong. When my beloved met her eyes and said hello without emotion, the shadowy figure broke eye contact. She looked surprised — taken aback. Ashamed? Shame doesn’t connote self-awareness or guilt, so much as being caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

Who is she? As a teen she’d been a rebellious, angry hell-raiser, the product of a broken home: not divorced parents, but shattered and shattering, sham adults. Time passed and this dark lady appeared to become sociable, energetic, and funny  — an academic failure, but a business success. Failed marriages and friendships revealed that intimacy was a challenge. For all her charm, depression was a life-long battle never surmounted, loneliness her closest companion. A sad story and, I admit, I fell for it. No, that’s unfair. The tale was real enough, but failed to include a description of the shabby baggage she carried.

Madam X is a person for whom truth is only a convenience, like a garment to be discarded when out-of-fashion, not the internal necessity of a more principled life. Honesty is tossed aside like a burned out cigarette. To get what she wants she is unrestrained and unrestrainable.

I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s character Dorian Gray as I think about Madam X. Wilde’s novella describes the protagonist as a beautiful, upper class Englishman whose bloom of youth and stunning features are captured in a commissioned portrait, upon which he makes a wish: to remain forever young while his canvas likeness ages. But the painting becomes a scold, reflecting and reproving his increasing corruption. The art deforms itself to the point that he must place the thing in an attic. Meanwhile, Dorian Gray’s face and stature honor the wish he made by retaining their handsome allure — the internal rot disguised.

Might life be better if we were required to wear a meter displaying a measure of our integrity? Color coded, perhaps. White would signal a godlike character, black its opposite, with all of us somewhere in between, depending. Then we wouldn’t need to study others, play the back and forth game of risking disclosures, judging facial expressions and body language, and taking the small but tentative steps of early intimacy.

Relationships are about what we will risk and with whom. Part of the dance depends on our own security, part on our ability to judge the trustworthiness of others. None of us is either perfectly secure or gifted with x-ray perception and an internal lie detector to evaluate the soul of another. Some just stop trusting altogether.

Acceptance of human frailty is the therapist’s Achilles heel. We must think the best of our patients, be optimistic, free ourselves from judgment. We have seen people change and so believe in “possibility.”

Having never seen or felt the bite of the potential masked viper sitting before us, we sit disarmed. He offers us no rap sheet of past iniquity. In a certain sense we are wise innocents who intentionally obscure our own vision: an occupational risk we take on knowingly.

512px-Reading-jester-q75-760x753

Therapists also have experience (though not so much as criminal law attorneys and police) with those who don’t play fair, to the point of becoming inured to the usual warning signs. We are prone to be a little stupid or very generous and forgiving (take your pick),  unguarded both inside and outside the office. Not fully, but just at the margin. With time, if the evidence pours in on who the individual really is, we adjust our opinion as necessary, just as you do.

A small number of our clients believe in their own innocence regardless of their history of turpitude. They don’t know the truth of things and are so defended and well-rationalized that even their mirror offers a false reflection. No inward inspection is permitted. The woman in question had been in plenty of therapy, but reported no benefit.

The scary thing is, you’d find her charming, funny, and bright. She might even be generous to you until and unless you found yourself in a situation where her self-interest kicked in and revealed a self unchanged for decades. You might say she lost herself. I’d say, however, Madam X never had a self to lose, only one to disguise. A street fighting sixteen-year-old’s identity was hidden, just waiting for an excuse to emerge and mess with people.

Perhaps you are asking, do I carry continuing resentment? No, though I would not again associate with her. She is too dangerous.

As to retribution, Madam X has been punished enough. Her sentence? To live the life she is living:  a person on the outside of true companionship, capable only of sham friendship. Unlike Dorian Gray, she takes the round shape of a human wrecking ball. Wrecking balls possess no lasting friends. They languish in a junk yard of their own creation, surrounded by the things they have broken and the broken thing they made of themselves.

My knowledge of her sadness lingers. I know the heartbreak at her core and do not wish her worse. Indeed, how nice it might be to chance upon information of something better, more hopeful about Madam X than the closeted life she lives, on the outside of love, honoring only a perpetual undercover assignment of her own making. She was a beautiful child and has her moments still. A dear person is somewhere in there, if only she could find her.

The Jester (or Fool) image comes from a turn of the last century book: Bill Nye’s History of England. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.