“I’m Beautiful and Smart, but I Always Wind Up with the Wrong Person”

P came to therapy with sadness and anger, as though she carried them in her backpack before unloading them on the low table between us. The surface was covered, her combination of feelings familiar to me. I already imagined difficulties. She’d be challenging, but I was not about to give up before I started.

P believed the world had been unfair. Boyfriends expected too much. They tired of her or betrayed her. A therapist doesn’t dispute this, but lives in hope the client will grieve to the point of readiness for self-reflection: consideration of his part in the staging, acting, and dialogue of life’s drama.

We try to aid in the process. A counselor asks about patterns of relationships. I wanted to know if P recognized the resemblances among her romantic adventures. “How do you explain it?” I asked.

They all seemed so nice at the beginning and then — and then they turned on me. I never, never thought …

With such people as P — and there are many Ps in any crowd — the “turning on me” takes several forms. The other becomes prone to anger or alcohol abuse or infidelity. That inconstant soul begins to spend more time with friends or starts to work too many hours; or changes into someone who finds his sweetie dull. He transforms.

He was not this way before.

P had done nothing to cause the Jekyll/Hyde malformation, “I swear,” she claimed. To me, her psychologist, it was not so simple. In her view, the lover was now a minor league version of the devil. Her Magic Mirror, a family heirloom, told her every day:

You are pure, you are grand; in this you had no hand.

Six relationships in 10 years, all with the same beginning and the same end.

In fact, P made at least one mistake, maybe two:

  • Either her judgment of human nature (companion variety) was poor and she kept picking similar types of unsatisfactory men or
  • The lady added some sour ingredients to the relationship formula, influencing if not inducing the unhappiness she reported, however little her contribution.

I asked Socratic questions to no avail. “What attracted you to the man?” “What did your friends think of him before you moved in together?” “Was there anything valid in his excuses or complaints about you?”

Nothing.

We are imperfect evaluators of our fellow-man, every one of us. Our unconscious affections and dislikes are drawn from resemblance to other important figures in our life, instinctive attractions or repulsions, interests and aspirations shared or opposed. Everyone makes mistakes in evaluating others. Friendship and love often founder on differences unknown in first moments.

Less frequently character is the issue, but this too takes time to reveal itself. Courage and morality don’t exist until tested by temptation, fear, or conflict. Most new acquaintances offer their best behavior. Routine daily experiences don’t require us to be brave souls or saints in order to display dutiful goodness. Almost all of us are pretty good at that.

Still, we must evaluate potential employers and friends, politicians and lovers without enough data, usually based on first impressions and behavior in periods of unchallenging normalcy. The lonely look for the perfect match for their imperfect selves. Instead they find another struggling human who fits less well than they hoped; or a honey who is ideal for a while, but not always in all ways. The same applies to the aforementioned bosses and friends.

The world of gauging the personal equation is forever in motion, done on the run. We do the best we can.

—–

P would leave treatment having grieved her broken heart, but without learning much or changing much. One’s personal inertia assumes he possesses every answer to life’s secrets. I’ve yet to meet such a one, but know several who tell me life is in the dance, not in stasis.

—–

I anticipated P’s merging with another man like the others, one who would turn her on and then turn on her. A therapist is not like a can opener, capable of piercing the defensive metal container enclosing his patients. He builds relationships, hopes to engender trust, but his tools are subtle, not surgical.

We ask our clients to give up one self-image for another, to murder the one and create a replacement. Counselors offer something better than dissolving the patient’s befogged understanding of himself, but harder. Some prefer their long familiar selves and want the world to change for them.

It never does.

If instruction would have made a difference, I’d have said this to my story’s troubled young heroine:

There is one constant in all the relationships you describe: you.
Do not mistake rage or hurt for infallible righteousness, no matter how they make you feel.

Imperfection and self-knowledge are hard to bear. Nearly all of us think we understand ourselves well, but perfect self-awareness would bring us to our knees. Instead of the full truth, we drew the outlines of our lives a while ago (with help from parents), marking what was acceptable, healthy, or necessary. For some, this meant a large life, for others a narrow one

If we were poor in our original self-creation — too much license here, too little assertiveness there, or avoidance everywhere — Personality Flaws crept into and colored the picture. They persist without effort; as if living, invisible masters of our existence. Time and repetition mean nothing to them, they last and last until the last, internal holes in the sidewalk of our being. Fall into them or repair the hazards as you wish. Waiting for you to wise-up is their comfort zone.

Many shortfalls reside inside, even for those who — like P — believe recurring dilemmas to be outside of themselves and their control.

A shame.

Remember what Cassius said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?

Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Those words are harsh medicine. While Cassius’s judgement does not account for the external, invasive tragedies we suffer, they are an accurate understanding of the cause of many frustrations. His truth can be denied, but we cannot avoid the consequences except by work on the single aspect of life most in our control: what is inside us.

Then comes a better life.

The top photo is of the Spiral Staircase in City Hall, London, by Colin. Next comes Citadel of Qaitbay by Ahmed Younis Sit Saad. Chicago’s Rookery Building’s interior is represented in the third photo and the final one. The first shot is its Central Staircase, by Ken Lund. The other is another Staircase view, this one by Velvet. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. In between the Rookery shots, I’ve placed an Inside-outside Innovation picture, taken from Innovation Management.

What I Have Learned so Far: Life Lessons, Part II

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Here is a second round of ideas about the process of living accumulated in a lifetime of observation and action — success, error, and reflection. My profession allowed me access to the thoughts and stumbles, ascensions and tumbles of thousands of folks. Some of my learning is crafted into the bits below. I published an essay on January 8 with the same title, labeled Part I. Perhaps there will be a third set after a while. Here goes the second one:

  • “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” Einstein most often gets credit for saying so, but the real author is William Bruce Cameron. So much for justice.
  • “Buddies don’t count,” as my friend John Kain says. He meant we should not keep score or expect perfect equity in any relationship. Close attention to a balance sheet will make us (and our soon-to-be former friend) miserable.
  • Know thyself” is inscribed at the Temple of Apollo. I never met anyone who understood himself completely, myself included. Self-awareness is a “more or less” commodity. We consume too much time preoccupied with what others think of us, analyzing why they did what they did, said what they said. One might more profitably endeavor to know oneself and do good in the world.
  • The ability to start over is essential. I counseled people who made dramatic career changes (from powerhouse attorney to clergyman, for example). I had to evaluate patients afresh to see if I was missing something or misunderstanding their makeup. We must occasionally wipe clean the mirror of our thinking and let ourselves be shocked or enlightened by our unphotoshopped image. As Max Weber suggested, whether we wish to or not, our lives will be influenced by how much truth about ourselves and the world we can bear.
  • To understand yourself you need to know your roots. Our ancestors survived, chose mates, and produced children. We inherited their genes and therefore possess the same urges. These forebears also had to detect who was like them and might be friendly, and who was different and might be dangerous. Fruit enabled survival, so we were handed their love of sweets. The creation of tools further enhanced the chance of staying alive. The ability to form cooperative groups helped, as well. Since they didn’t live long, the genes they delivered to us gave us instincts that worked for what we now think of as the first half of life.
  • A troubling aspect of evolution is that it enabled survival, not happiness. Happiness became the bi-product of human actions only if the emotion helped make sure the kids were born, survived, and thrived. The joy produced by love, for instance, bonded families and increased the likelihood the children would come to generate offspring of their own in time.

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  • We tend to think in terms of before and after: before and after school, before and after you left home; a first job, the death of someone you loved, a first sexual encounter, etc.
  • We don’t need permission from very many people. Asking “to be allowed” means you will hear “no” more than the guy who doesn’t. Such requests make you the hostage of waiters, your children, and people you will never meet again. Often it is OK to just do what you want. No one will stop or question you. The world, within limits, tends to adjust. A wonderful sense of liberation awaits.
  • We need to evaluate our default (automatic) tendencies. Some of us take action, others wait. Some routinely approach, others reflexively avoid. Our strengths can also be our weaknesses when applied to the wrong situations. Best to apply as needed, rather than by default.
  • Personality disorders cause us to rerun mistakes, like an old episode of a poor TV show. One is well-advised to recognize flawed life strategies — recurring behavior patterns contributing to our disappointments. We otherwise risk familiar and fruitless searches for the wrong people; too many or too few chances taken and, either ignoring tomorrow for pleasure today or focusing so much on tomorrow we miss the glory and opportunity offered by the new sunrise.
  • “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” Within a group of unremarkable people, you can stand out without being extraordinary. Becoming a big fish in a small pond is easy because the pond is tiny, with little competition, and the other fish are not so fine as you are.
  • There are fewer small ponds these days. Over our history, especially when villages and small towns predominated, we could achieve high status without difficulty. Now we must compete with people all over the globe.
  • The only thing you control is what you do, what you think. The attempt to change other adults is a fool’s errand unless they want to be altered, like an article of clothing needing to be resized. Remember the old psychotherapy joke:

Question: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: One, but the light bulb must want to be changed.

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  • Most selfish people don’t experience much guilt. Those who fear their own selfishness tend to overstate the danger. Even then a self-sacrificing person must care for his own needs. Please recall the airline safety instructions:

If the oxygen mask comes down and you are traveling with someone who is dependent on you, put the mask on yourself first. (Otherwise you’d be of little help to your companion or child).

  • Many folks don’t buy into the belief their choices are as genetically determined as they are. Example:

Maybe you say, “I dress the way I do to look nice.” Well, an evolutionary scholar would tell you ancestors who made a good appearance were more likely to have their choice of healthy, faithful mates and thereby ensure they would create fit offspring. That tendency is “built-in,” so we incline toward concern about appearances well after our biological clocks stop.

  • The average 16th-century man had less information to process in his short lifetime than can be found in a single, daily edition of The New York Times. We must narrow our focus or drown in a sea of real news, fake news, and drivel. Too many of us attend to things of no lasting value.
  • Change can be unsettling. The effort to keep our world exactly as it is, however, can lead us to reduce the size of our lives, resist unfamiliar experiences, and fail to incorporate new people in our circle. Flexibility is a key to life satisfaction. Change is an opportunity to reinvent oneself.
  • Don’t expect sincere apologies any time soon. In 1942 West Coast Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps by the federal government, which alleged potential disloyalty during the ongoing war. World War II ended in 1945. Not until 1988 did the USA formally apologize, citing the real reasons for this disgraceful act against a group which included 62% U.S. citizens:

Race prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.

  • Inaction, stillness, and patience are powerful tools. Passive-resistance has been a major and successful method of changing the world, one practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Here is a modest illustration of how passivity can work for you:

When my wife and I bought our current home, we dealt directly with the owner. He proposed a price. I was silent. As the seconds passed he lowered the number a few times. The man assumed my failure to respond meant he’d not reached a figure acceptable to us. The truth was, however, he went below what we were prepared to pay.

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  • If you chase people they are inclined to flee. Stop chasing and they may turn toward you or even walk in your direction. Consider this with respect to your romantic life.
  • I had the pleasure of a friendship with a Japanese businessman residing in the USA. His favorite teacher advised him to choose a career that was his second love, not the thing he loved best. Why?

If you do what you love best as your vocation you will discover it becomes a thing you must do, not an activity you choose to do. You may kill the thing you love.

  • Luck is most often defined by happy accidents and near misses: finding a dollar on the street, winning the lottery, that sort of thing. A bigger scale exists. My wife’s maternal grandmother was an indentured servant in Poland. She served on a farm before indoor plumbing was common. When using the outhouse in wintertime she jumped from one cow patty to another to keep her bare feet warm.

In my mother-in-law’s childhood, she and her young friends picked up lumps of coal that fell off passing freight trains to help heat their homes. I can remember washboards and clothes lines in my youth, a day of few washing machines and dryers. In graduate school we used mechanical calculators to compute research results until giant computers became available. The point?

Be grateful for what you have.

  • Think about random events for a moment. The most unlikely event in your life is that you exist at all. Had my grandparents not left Europe at the beginning of the 20th-century, I could have been murdered by the Nazis some time later. Moreover, for each of us to exist as the unique person we are, every ancestor had to meet and procreate with just the mate with whom they did. Had only one made a different choice or perhaps had intercourse on another day, we wouldn’t be here. Others would.
  • I worked for a quirky psychiatrist at a now defunct psychiatric institution. MJ was enormously bright and also quite full of himself. One day he asked me to sub for him at a meeting. I reported back the criticism I heard aimed at him. He was unperturbed. MJ’s only comment was, “A big tree casts a long shadow.” In other words, MJ viewed himself as a big, imposing tree and therefore believed some people were going to take shots at him, be jealous, etc. I thought to myself, “You really are full of yourself.” A second later I realized he was right:

If you are going to do anything significant in life and hold opinions not universally agreed upon, you need to let the bullets bounce off. There will be bullets.

  • In his Politics, Aristotle writes about those who “proceed on the supposition that they should either preserve or increase without limit their holdings of money. The cause of this condition is that they are serious about living, but not about living well.”
  • Aristotle was born over 2400 years ago. Lucky for us, some of the best advice has been around for a while.

The first image is called Study for Inner Improvement by Helen Almeida, dating from 1977. The next one is Even if Happiness Forgets You Occasionally, Never Forget It Completely, a year 2000 work of Hasson Massoudy, followed by an Untitled 1993 painting of Albert Oehlen. Finally comes Evening Magic created in 2000 by Eyvind Earle. All are sourced from Wikiart.org.