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”

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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?

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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.

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  • 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

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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.

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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.

Normalizing the Abnormal: Making Excuses for Toxic People

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

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

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

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

Passive or Active? Choosing Your Life

512px-GuidoReni_MichaelDefeatsSatan

Simple words are not so simple. Rather, we forget their meaning. We forget how much they should provoke a reevaluation of our lives. Consider the words “take” and “make.” I’ll try to “make” something of their importance in describing the lives we choose.

Here is a common sentence: “I must make a decision.” It sounds more passive than it is. I have heard the same phrase from non-native English-speakers, slightly altered: “I must take a decision.” As in grab or capture. Even in “making” a decision, at least in its most active form, we “build” or “construct.”

Take stock. Take over. Take responsibility. Make a choice. Make something of yourself.

Do you see where I’m taking you? What kind of life do you want? One you take or one left over because you did not capture a place in line?

We all know not choosing is a choice. If you don’t make a decision someone else will; or, perhaps the opportunity to intervene on your own behalf will pass. Many times an active decision is right even when wrong. You grab hold of the wheel of your life and try to steer. Value resides in ownership of yourself: self possession.

Many of the newer therapeutic models are not as contemplative, reflective, and retrospective as Freudian therapy, but add conceptual, emotional, and behavioral change — action — in the present. True, Freud warned about making personal decisions early in the treatment process, when still burdened by unresolved issues. There is recklessness in acting without thought, but finally one must roll the dice of life or stay on the sidelines, part of the audience. Indeed, one persuasive therapy model goes by the name of ACT (the word, not the initials): Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT leads you to a point of decision about what is important to you, commitment to those revealed values, and an eventual behavioral enactment of your commitment.

You have doubtless noticed women whose companions are men of action, whether thespians, builders, or “makers and shakers.” Indeed, a man pursuing a woman is described as “being on the make.” Some of those “gentlemen” are less than uniformly admirable, but their grasp of initiative is. Many other males (and females) lead lives of “quiet desperation.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. You needn’t be a leader to take charge of your life. Each of us has problems. Our inner life can be like a room filled with shelves of challenges we avoid. One must clear the shelves. We either sweep them clean or avert our eyes and lock the room wherein they reside. We then avoid any part of life reminding us of the courage we lack. Our failure might even be rationalized as good judgment — as an avoidance of danger.

How many people can’t eat out alone, try to make a new friend, or phone a stranger (choosing email instead)? How many of us can’t speak in a group or attend a class out of fear? How many adults can’t say no, ask for things, or look someone in the eye while uttering a necessary truth? If you are 16 and you don’t tackle such challenges, OK. At 56, if you still can’t, what then?

A graduating high school senior tells a younger, awe-struck young man why she couldn’t be with him:

“Charlie, I told you not to think of me that way nine months ago because of what I’m saying now. Not because of Craig (her then boyfriend). Not because I didn’t think you were great. It’s just that I didn’t want to be somebody’s crush. If somebody likes me, I want them to like the real me, not what they think I am. And I don’t want them to carry it around inside. I want them to show me, so I can feel it, too. I want them to be able to do whatever they want around me. And if they do something I don’t like, I’ll tell them.”*

Life in a fetal position is not a life in full. Trying always to please others is a life given away to people who won’t value you because you set your price tag too low. Such an existence is the opposite of “being a man,” a phrase that applies to any mature, confident adult, regardless of gender. Some of us persuade ourselves that the things we don’t do (because we don’t try) aren’t important. A kind of self-delusion. Others live in regret, consumed by “what might have been,” shadowed by the effort they did not “make.”

Regret is the only six-letter word equivalent of a four-letter swear. Unless you do an irreparable injury to another, perpetual regret is like a judge you have assigned the job of looking down on you, pointing an accusing finger eternally.

We all must stretch ourselves to our limit, especially in the first half of life, and learn to hold our head high always. Ironically, in the act of lengthening the spine by standing upright we feel better, and tend to overcome whatever sense of shame lives inside. Few of us, after all, wish to appear spineless.

Passivity isn’t the opposite of activity as much as it is the adversary of “living.”

Make the best of your life. You will die whether you do or not, so you might as well die trying.

*Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, 1999: 201.

The painting of The Archangel Michael Tramples Satan by Guido Reni is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.