Knowing Yourself, Then Showing Yourself

Writers are reminded to “write what you know” and “show, not tell.” The instructions apply to fiction, but also pertain to the fact of who we are.

Therapists take the closed-up, armored patient, hoping to help him remove his metal plate covering.

His end goal?

To man up.

Up straight, chest out, eyes forward. Self-confidence and pride manifest themselves in the unspoken declaration, “Here I am.”

One encounters rejection this way, but our compensation is exploration of the world regardless of fear. What acceptance we obtain is less essential, but more often real; not the approval of those fooled by our costume, blinded by the bronze.

Much discussion exists on the subject of self-revelation to others, but a first step prepares you to lower your guard. It was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi over 2500 years ago:

Know Thyself

A dangerous effort? The book of Ecclesiastes warns:

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

We seem to have a conflict here. Humans use rationalization, compartmentalization and four “D” words to keep their minds off troublesome realities: denial, dissociation, distraction, and drugs.

Socrates, another son of Greece, sided with Delphi over Ecclesiastes. The legendary teacher didn’t write, wore dirty clothes, and was sufficiently disclosing of what he stood for that he was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens.”

He led them to question their own beliefs.

The philosopher chose his end over exile because he could only be himself as he wished to be, with his people.

Counselors are friendlier to Socrates than Ecclesiastes in their pursuit of the Delphian truth. They recognize no one can show himself who doesn’t know himself.  Otherwise he displays but half — the fragment of which he is aware.

The hearing impaired who are clueless to their deficiency resemble those without self-knowledge. Such men live in a world of sound, but perceive only a segment of it. The undiscovered portion leaves no evidence of absence, no apology in the form of a regretful RSVP.

But Ecclesiastes was no fool. Fearless self-insight exacts a fearful price. Once you realize how you hurt another, the recognition bleeds you. You bleed in the knowledge of who you have been, how you harmed. To the good, now you can improve, apologize. Permission for do-overs, however, is a rare, “sometimes thing.” The damaged don’t always stick around.

Nor does self-awareness recover lost time. Those who wait for aged parents to acknowledge their failure, encounter people for whom internal vision would come with an unacceptable redefinition of themselves.

Fifty-years of error cannot be borne except by the hearty in body and mind. Indeed, all of us of whatever age want to turn from the mirror’s truth, claim distortion, and blame the glass.

A splendid blogger, Clara Bridges, tells us, “I read and write poetry for myself, not for others, and in both cases the revelation is primarily of myself, to myself.”

Clara recognizes the power of journaling, not just expressive and therapeutic, but as a tool for piercing the layers of cloaking armor we wear in our everyday version of Halloween.

Bronze plate is an inflexible thing. Clanging hardware is cumbersome and noisy. All grace disappears, the wearer’s voice drowned out by the dissonance.

A Dance of Seven Veils calls to us. The music is seductive if you are open to hearing it and brave enough. Adding to Delphi’s admonition, it sings, “Know thyself, then show thyself,” one dropped veil at a time.

You partner with yourself in the first dance, others are invited later.

Who knew counselors offer dance lessons?

—–

The first image is Constance Talmadge, Head and Shoulders Portrait,1921, Library of Congress. The second is called, Looking in the Mirror, taken in Surmi, Tulgit, (a small village in Ethiopia) by Rod Waddington, 2014. Both are sourced from Wikiimedia Commons.

Will Your Therapist Leave You? On Parting, Hints of Rejection, and the Dread of Abandonment

Koryusai_woodcut_parting

Saying goodbye occupies a different place in our lives than it has for most of history. It is the pain of parting I’m about to ponder, with a focus on counselor vacations and the fear of more permanent departures.

First a little perspective.

The average sixteenth-century man didn’t worry about therapist holidays. No therapists! Parting from others, however, was both a greater and smaller dilemma for a person of his time as compared to our own. This ancestor was probably a farmer. He worked the ground only a few miles from where he was born. Travel consisted of taking his crop to market. Hardly the sort of goodbye from his family we think of. Hardly the kind to break the heart.

With the improvement of transportation, the beginning of a time apart created more drama, as in an ocean voyage or a tour of duty at war. These emotional separations were not regular occurrences. At some point, however, long distance transportation — at first by rail, then automobile and plane — became commonplace. Thus, in 1927 the statesman and author, George Kennan, wrote “our arrivals and departures are no longer a matter of emotional debauches — they are too common.”

The world of relationship endings — dissolutions — is different.  Human reactions to them overlap with, but are not identical to temporary separations. For example, the aforementioned sixteenth-century farmer might never have heard of a friend’s divorce. Yet losing a wife to childbirth was well-known to him. Indeed, he could have lost children this way or in their early years. Familiarity with the death of adults was just as common. Those who died of illness usually expired at home. In effect, our predecessor of 500 years ago had less knowledge of temporary partings and far too much of permanent ones.

Consistent with this difference in present and past experience, being jilted by one admirer for another was rare in the short period of the farmer’s pre-marital life. Back then, cohabitation meant marriage, most likely at an early age.  In rural areas few competed for affection. The community enforced standards of faithfulness by its ability to shame an adulterer, thereby further reducing infidelity. The lovers of our day live together or marry with less assurance of relationship permanence than their ancestors. Much more fleshly opportunity and anonymity exist in the big city, easing the way to change partners. Nor do we experience the pressure to conform socially once imposed by religious institutions.

When this kind of particularized goodbye occurs in a romance, it includes the element of rejection not present in a long trip or a death. Placement on the discard pile is about you. You not measuring up. And if a few of these disappointments are strung together, they contribute to self-doubt. Should such a person then enter psychotherapy, he is sensitized to anything hinting of a perpetual break from the therapist, at least once a good connection with the counselor exists. The pattern of previous relationship disappointments, including those from childhood, can prime the expectation of more hurt to come.

Will he come back? Is he actually taking a vacation or just a break from me? What if he dies?

The fears pile up and lead to more.

He’ll decide to live somewhere else or give up doing therapy. What if he gets seriously ill? Might he retire? I seem to be too much for people, even strong people, even people who promise never to leave. I don’t care if he denies that, I know he will flee!

Therapists approach this by providing reassurance. Some permit email access during vacations, but, to me, no respite for the therapist is to be found in doing so. Nonetheless, the therapist’s holiday provides the potential for a learning experience: for the patient, over time, to obtain the answers to all those questions:

  • Yes, he’s always come back.
  • No, he didn’t take the vacation from me alone. (Choose your own way of making certain).
  • No, he didn’t die.
  • No, he is still doing therapy right here, in the same old place.
  • No, he hasn’t gotten sick so far and seems to be in good health (I hope).
  • No retirement yet (although he will, at some point).
  • No, I’m not “too much” for him.

And an answer to an unstated question also follows:

  • No, he isn’t like the others. He hasn’t abandoned me.

512px-The_Parting,_Roland_W._Reed

Then, if the rest of the treatment is working, the client gradually revisits other ingrained beliefs about himself:

  • I thought I was unlovable. Well, since he returns repeatedly and hasn’t referred me to someone else, perhaps I possess some value.
  • Maybe I’m not as worthless as the others made me think. They were wrong.
  • It’s possible I can survive my therapist’s absences. In fact, I’ve been surviving particularized rejections all my life.
  • I’m stronger and better than I thought!

The above outline of a hypothetical course of treatment ignores the possibility that the patient contributes to his rejection history by his actions or words. That issue might also require therapeutic focus. Once any necessary attention has been paid, however, there is still the matter of the shrink’s vacation to survive. Some time ago I offered direction in dealing with a therapist’s temporary absence here: Managing the Dread of a Therapist’s Vacation.

I’ll add one more method to calm and comfort you while the time seems to stand still — while you cross off dates on a calendar as if you were serving a prison term.

In 1809 Ludwig van Beethoven wrote a 15-minute sonata for piano, a solo piece in three short movements. Apart from its sheer loveliness and musical logic, he could have written it for you and about you. Here is how Beethoven biographer, Maynard Solomon, described this composition in his book, Beethoven:

The beautiful Piano Sonata in E-flat (Lebewohl or Farewell), Op. 81a, was composed for Archduke Rudolph following his departure from Vienna during the French bombardment of 1809, and its expressive movement titles — Farewell, Absence, The Return — may tell us something about the depth of Beethoven’s feeling for his young student … On the sketches Beethoven wrote, “The Farewell — on May 4th — dedicated to, and written from the heart for, His Imperial Highness.” A decade later, on the autograph score of the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven wrote a similar dedicatory message to Rudolph, for whom the Mass was composed: “From the heart — may it return to the heart!”

Beethoven knew separation. His attempt to achieve a permanent romance was a lifelong, futile struggle. When, finally, the progression of deafness closed access to the world outside, his music remained to give solace to himself and all of us.

Accept his gift and listen to his heart rejoice at the moment of “The Return” (10’21”). Perhaps yours will too.

 

I shortly will write an essay on those conditions that can cause a therapist to refer you to someone else.

The first image above is an 18th century woodcut by Isoda Koryusai, photographed by Helena Roslavets. The next photo is by Roland Reed. Each one is called, The Parting, and are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to End Relationships: A Practical Guide to Rejecting Others

Rejection

The title doesn’t sound good, does it? It rings of cruel efficiency and steely cold-heartedness. Yet even the best of us have rejected others. And because we don’t usually think about it much until it needs to be done, most of us don’t do it very well. Indeed, sometimes we hurt people because we have been too casual or too clumsy with those we cast off.

Cast off. Cast away. Discarded. Nothing pretty here, is there? All the more reason to be as kindly as possible, if possible. Why do I say “if possible?” Because if there is too much delicacy, the person on the receiving end of the message can mistake the process for the product; that is, think that our gentleness and consideration signal that the rejection isn’t quite real; that perhaps we can be persuaded to rescind their removal from our life. Thus, a stern delivery sometimes is necessary to show that we are serious — that the relationship really is over with no reprieve, no second chances, no way out. And sometimes a swift and decisive blow is actually less painful because it does not extend the agony of the victim — doesn’t cause him to be hopeful when we know that he should really be hopeless.

I’ve been rejected and I’ve done some rejecting. Just about everyone has. I’ve been dumped by lovers, potential lovers, acquaintances, friends, employers, and potential employers. I’ve done the same when the situations were reversed. It is in the nature of life and therefore not at all remarkable. Still, I have some remarks on the subject.

Here are nine questions to think about before you next dismiss someone — give him or her the brush-off:

  1. Do you want to euthanize the person or perform an execution? The high road or the low road?
  2. Do you want to do it quickly or slowly?
  3. Should there be hints along the way or do you want it to come as a surprise?
  4. Do you intend to be respectful or disrespectful?
  5. Are you angry at the anticipated target?
  6. Are you certain that you wish to be finished with this woman or man?
  7. Will the message be understood if it is done with some subtlety and care or must it be performed with a mallet?
  8. When do you want to do it?
  9. Are you more concerned with sensitivity to the rejected one’s feelings or your own discomfort?

Now let us think about how it is usually done in a few of the areas of rejection we encounter once we are out of school.

  • Interviewing for a job. These days it is all too common to interview for a job and never hear back from your hoped-for employer. Sometimes you do get feedback, but only in a form letter or email; or after your patience fails and you make a call, discovering that the job has been filled. To my mind all of this is unfortunate, giving no regard to the applicant’s feelings. A phone call or a letter sent by U.S. mail with a real signature costs more time and money, but displays courtesy and respect. If there has been an interview, there should always be some follow-up personal contact.
  • Ending love relationships. Letters are history. There was a certain dignity in writing a “Dear John” letter when no other means of communication was readily available, but unless your lover is incommunicado in a faraway land, there are more considerate means at hand. Texting and emailing are often cowardly, as are breaking-dates and failing to return phone calls, hoping that your soon-to-be ex will get the message that is left unsaid. If you aren’t dealing with a stalker or someone who is violent, a face-to-face meeting is required. It shows respect, even if it is uncomfortable for you. Disappearing acts are for magicians and hit-and-run drivers, not someone who wishes to leave the dismissed person with a bit of dignity. Think of how you would feel if the roles were reversed.
  • Declining invitations. Written invitations which request an RSVP no longer seem to routinely generate any sense of responsibility on the part of the person who was requested to say yes or no. But courtesy demands that you do respond and do so promptly. The matter is more ticklish if someone asks you on a date — someone who you don’t want to be with (whether potential friend or lover). The age-old standard response is to say, “Gee, I’m washing my hair that night, so I can’t go.” Something more original is also possible: “Oh, I think that’s the day I’m having brain surgery. Let me check my calendar and I’ll call you back.” On the other hand, one could say, “Not if you were the last person on earth.” I am without clear recommendations here, other than to communicate directly enough to discourage further contact, while at the same time trying to avoid humiliating the other person.

As I mentioned earlier, timing is important. The very worst moment to “pink slip” an employee turns out to be the best time for the supervisor or employer: Friday afternoon. That way, the boss can have a nice weekend and needn’t worry about the uncomfortable situation any longer. But he or she has plunged the dagger at just the wrong moment for his ex-subordinate. The newly jobless person now has the whole weekend to dwell on his misfortune with nothing else to do; or, if he does have plans, those activities have been spoiled. The same holds true if we are talking about the timing of a break-up.

A lot depends on your feelings toward your counterpart in any anticipated rejection, and your own courage and self-respect. If you don’t like or care about the girl or guy you are brushing off, that probably means you won’t give her feelings much thought. If you are very self-involved the answer is the same. If you have the strength to look someone in the eye and deliver bad news knowing that it may pain you to see tears or sustain his or her anger, that is another story. But if you are avoidant, you probably won’t. In other words, how you approach your rejection of someone else says a good deal about you.

The topic reminds me of an old routine performed by Chicago’s famous improv group, Second City. A father and mother are talking to their little girl, who is perhaps three or four years old. She is playing on the floor:

How are you, Janie? Oh, it’s great to see you playing with your dolls so nicely. Well, your mom and I need to talk with you. You see, just now the economy is terrible and we are really having trouble making ends meet here at home. So, we really wish we didn’t have to do this, but… but… we’re going to have to let you go.”

As comedians like to say, comedy is “tragedy plus time” (or distance from the tragic event). And rejection often feels like tragedy, even if most people tend to bounce back. But, it is never fun, for which I have another quote:

A boo is a lot louder than a cheer.

Rejection is definitely a boo, no matter how delicately it is voiced.  Lance Armstrong made the comment. He ought to know.

More on the curious contemporary understanding of RSVPs can be found here: The RSVP Puzzle.

More on causing pain to others can be found here: Delivering Bad News and Causing Pain: Ending Therapy and Romance.

The top image is called Rejection, by Mjt16, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Have a Little Faith in People:” Therapy and Love in the New Year

manhattan

The beginning of the New Year is one of those moments when love-past and love-future stand back-to-back. I suppose they always do, but rarely do we so literally turn the page, see the annual number change, and acknowledge our movement across time. The advancing calendar makes our heart’s progress (or lack of progress) harder to ignore than usual.

If you had a relationship-past that is better than your present, there is a chance that the New Year will remind you of those times when there was love and enchantment in your life; when bygone people who meant everything to you also believed that you meant everything to them. The New Year in that case offers another chance, hoping to recapture what was lost or trying to achieve the thing that has been so elusive.

The subject of love — the lost and found quality of it — is at the heart of Woody Allen’s 1979 movie Manhattan; much more a romance than a comedy, for all its good humor. You may not think of Woody Allen as someone who specializes in tenderness, but Manhattan certainly does.

Mariel Hemingway plays “Tracy,” a young woman in a May-December romance. She is soon to find that her openness to love leaves her as vulnerable as if she were in surgery. Perhaps she is also too young to know that the operating theater of romance always involves the potential for heartbreak as well as the hope that finally — finally — someone will see all the good inside of us and cherish it without conditions. That their eyes will brighten on our arrival, and that even our scent on a just-worn garment will warm the frozen sea within. Love is compensation for the lacerations of living, but also the cause of those same cumulative cuts.

If the New Year’s dawn is spent in the company of someone who is constant and caring, it is easy to feel intoxicated even without champagne. But if we are alone on New Year’s Eve, the back-to-back character of the old year turning new forces us to look both ways. In one direction is the receding memory of ended romance and present loneliness, while the tightrope of hope beckons in the other direction — the hope that relationships yet unknown are just up ahead; if only we can keep our balance and brave the journey from here to there.

That dream confronts the darker aspect of our memory. All of us have been betrayed or rejected by lovers. The surgical scars bear witness. As Sartre said in No Exit, “Hell is other people,” but so is heaven, at least as we imagine it. Still, it is easy to give up.

The line I love the best in Manhattan comes in its closing moments: “You have to have a little faith in people.” For those who have been repeatedly hurt, this is asking terribly much. Yet the first job of the lovelorn is to keep alive the faltering flame of future possibilities. A therapist can be of help in this.

It is faith in what another person might be able to do that ultimately brings the lonely to therapy and keeps them in the game of love, doing the hard work that treatment involves; dreaming finally to come out whole; and trying once more to find a lasting romance.

With or without therapy our job is the same, this New Year and every year: To have enough faith in people to keep searching; and, once the right one is found, to hold tight.

Parenting: When Love is Not Enough

madame roulin with her baby marcelle by vincent van gogh

Well meaning parents don’t always do well.

Or, to put it more bluntly, you can mess up your children without really trying.

Take the following example: two caring, well-educated, good people. They were in love with each other and loving toward their children.

One child was handsome, outgoing, and had a sunny disposition. Other children and adults were drawn to him. He awoke every morning with a smile on his face and brought cheer to those around him. Although not a great student, this boy was certainly bright enough; he made his way more than adequately in the world of friendship, study, and eventually, work.

His brother, however, did not have it so easy. To start, his body was ungainly. Even as a kid, he lumbered and lurched in locomotion. His cumbersome, block-like (not overweight) form caused him to stand out. Because of  a lack of refined adroitness in matters of balance and dexterity, he was always the last boy picked in the choosing of teams on the playground and in the gym class.

To the good, he was astonishingly bright and intellectually curious, but this only fueled the separateness he felt, to which his graceless body also contributed. Outgoing though he was, peers tended to shun and ridicule him. Social skills did not come instinctively and this young boy’s efforts at outreach neglected the usual questions that facilitate social contact: queries like “How are you?” or “What did you do over the weekend?”

Monologues rather than conversations were the result, further emphasizing this kid’s peculiarity and securing his status as an outsider.

His parents were at a loss. Certainly, they treated their dear son with kindness and affection, and applauded his prodigious intellect and curiosity about the world. But, when they saw his unhappiness and discovered that peers marginalized and ridiculed him, each of the parents tried to put a good face on things. While they defended him when they actually witnessed the cruelty he received, the boy’s hurt was not discussed very much at home. The parents minimized or ignored his pain, believing it best to encourage him to believe that things would soon get better and telling him not to let the ill-treatment of the other children bother him.

Soon enough, this child tended to his wounds by himself, confiding little in his parents, as if he instinctively realized that they would not or could not offer him any response that would feel good. Those times late at night, often just before bed, when a child is most vulnerable and open to spill his pain, passed without the flow of consolation. Thus, like many children (especially boys) who find themselves feeling empty and alone, deadening his emotions was preferable to exposing his heart to further injury.

To be fair, mom and dad figured that their boy would come to them if he needed or wanted to talk, and read his attempts to kill his emotions as a lack of need for the solace that can be achieved by having a shoulder to cry on. Indeed, they thought that he would be angered by any attempt to invade his privacy and bring up uncomfortable topics.

Nor did the elders provide guidance in how to be more reciprocal with people or give him direction in how to create conversations rather than monologues. They never pointed out that it was important to show interest in what others were doing or saying, despite the fact that both of them routinely displayed this with their children and in their own social lives. Instead, the parents reasoned that their son was already feeling hurt and rejected; and they feared that they might injure him further by telling him that his conversational style could be improved.

By the time of his adulthood, our subject had become what one might expect based on his early life. Surpassingly bright, he went to an elite college and had a coterie of those who admired his intellect and creativity, but no real friends. The pain of rejection had long since been pushed down deep inside, to the point that he might not have recognized the need or value of “closeness.” He was as out of touch with the emotional side of his own life as he was with the feelings of his conversational partners. Our young man seemed to have little need to find out about what was going on “inside.” Nor did he understand that his failure to ask questions to peers could be seen as arrogance, indifference, or peculiarity.

Still, our youthful gentleman led an interesting life because he sought out intellectual stimulation and threw himself into numerous activities within the world of the sciences and the arts. But, it remained a solitary existence, even if it was no longer clear to what extent he felt marginalized, so cut-off did he seem from the matters that connect head and heart.

His parents still tried to put a good face on their son’s way of living, as much as they knew about it, since they continued to be hesitant to ask him sensitive questions. But deep down they wondered whether he could possibly have any close friends (not to mention lovers) given his way of talking to people. Even now they felt that it was too late to bring up things that might cause him pain or trigger his anger at them for prying into his life.

Instead, the parents would occasionally comment to friends about their unusual son, make good-natured jokes about him, and simultaneously take enormous pride in his considerable intellectual and vocational success in the very stimulating, if strangely disconnected life he had fashioned for himself.

In defense of the elders, it should first be said that they could have done much worse. Their son didn’t do drugs, steal cars, embezzle money, or trip old people crossing the street. They parented him instinctively, as most of us do with our children. They certainly did not want to hurt him but, in their tiptoeing around his emotional pain, they failed to recognize opportunities to provide needed consolation and guidance concerning the social skill he lacked.

One can imagine that things could have been different. Had the parents been comforting and validating of his early humiliations rather than choosing to minimize them, perhaps he would have felt less isolated and not cordoned off his feelings even from himself. Had mom and dad gently guided him in how to converse, he might have had more social success and seemed less odd because of his penchant to prattle on about himself. If the parents encouraged their child to salve his own and others’ unhappiness by first providing that soothing themselves, maybe intimate relationships would have flourished.

It is impossible to know for sure. Child-rearing isn’t like a laboratory experiment, with an experimental and a control group. The “what if” questions are never answered with certainty. Sometimes nature has its way, no matter a guardian’s best and most understanding efforts at nurture.

Raising children isn’t easy. If you are lucky, you have a child like these parents’ first born, who responded well to the instinctive default parenting style of mom and dad.

But, for those of you who have more than one child, it quickly should become clear that they do not come out of the womb as identical sprouts, each needing just the same amount of sun, temperature, water, and nutrition. No horticulturist would treat a tropical plant in the same way that we would care for one that can only flourish in a more temperate climate.

And yet, even today, parents too often believe that “one size parenting” fits all children, and that it is the child’s job to adapt to the parents’ approach to upbringing rather than the other way around.

Put another way, you can be a good parent to one child and a less-than-good parent for another, simply by taking the identical approach to each of them.

The rule is simple: be the parent your child needs you to be.

Search yourself. Ask what your offspring requires. What will work best for this particular little human being?

Then, if you discover that the required approach to child-rearing doesn’t come easily to you, learn and stretch yourself.

You are responsible for a human life.

No job in the world is as important.

The above image is Vincent van Gogh’s Mother Roulin With Her Baby.

Fear of Change: the Therapeutic Implications of Japanese Holdouts

Onoda-young.jpg

Things change. The question is, do we change with them? Or, do we instead, continue to operate by the same outdated rules of conduct.

I often said to my patients that they seemed to be behaving as if the conditions of their early life still existed. They had long since fashioned solutions to problems that they faced many years ago, and continued to use the same solutions, even though those methods of living didn’t fit with their current life situation. It is as if one were born in Alaska, learned to wear multiple layers of heavy clothing and then moved to the tropics without a change of attire. The warm clothes were helpful up North, but are a disaster down South.

What does this have to do with the “Japanese Holdouts of World War II? The answer is that these men lived by an outdated set of rules with heartbreaking consequences.

If you recall your history lessons, you will remember that the Japanese soldiers of that period were trained according to the principles of Bushido, a feudal fighting code that derived from the period of Samurai warriors. Above all else, weakness was condemned and surrender was disgraceful. Death by one’s own hand was seen as preferable to permitting oneself to be captured, so as to avoid both personal disgrace and family shame.

The Allied approach to the war against these very soldiers in the Pacific was one that involved “island hopping.” The strategy passed over certain islands, both to save men and ensure that the Allies would be able  to capture those islands that were of the greatest strategic value. When the Japanese surrender came in 1945, numerous Japanese troops found themselves stranded on out-of-the-way Pacific islands, cut-off from their command, and without the capacity for communicating back home. These men neither knew the war was over nor could imagine that any honorable soldier, let alone their entire nation, would surrender. Some were in small groups who gradually died from disease or starvation; others were, at least eventually, alone.

While many never surrendered and died still waiting for reinforcements that never came, it was not uncommon in the late 1940s and 1950s to read news accounts of isolated Japanese combatants giving themselves up. The photo at the top of this page is of Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onada, who finally surrendered in 1974, and would not do so until his former commanding officer, by then a bookseller, personally ordered him to lay down his arms.  At that point, World War II had been over for nearly 30 years.

Thirty years. Yes, 30 years dedicated to a war that was over and a life of desperation that was no longer required.

But how many years, if any, have you given up to a thread-bare, bankrupt strategy of living that has long since outlived its usefulness?. And, more to the point, how many more will you endure? When will you realize that your “solution” has now become the problem?

In my psychotherapy practice I saw numerous variations on this theme. People who were abused or neglected  or criticized as children and who continued to live in terror of disappointing others. Those who found substance abuse the only available way of treating the depression or anxiety they experienced when they were young, and who continued to do so. People who avoided challenges because they were scared of failure, having failed many times in the past. Individuals who wore a chip on their shoulder, forever sensitive to insults and injuries that reminded them of long ago attacks, but now were only injurious in their imagination. And those poor souls who expected rejection because of past rejection. Like the Japanese holdouts, the years pass but the fear doesn’t, and the possibility of satisfying relationships and happiness slips away.

If you still are responding to the present as if it were the past, with solutions that solve little (even if they were once necessary), then it is time to change your life. The barricade of your life’s defenses might be protecting you only from the phantom of an enemy who lives within you, not on the other side of the fortification.

A good therapist is likely to be able to help you develop a new way of living, one more appropriate to the world as it is, not the world as it was; to set aside and heal old wounds.

Is it time?

What is the continuation of your old way of living costing you?

The war, your personal war, might just be over and you don’t know it.

Self-Defeating Behavior and the Path to Loneliness

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0b/Africa_lonely_kids.jpg/240px-Africa_lonely_kids.jpg

What price would you be willing to pay to feel that you are special? I will tell you a story of one young woman who has paid that price and then some. She is an example of how we sometimes defend our self-image at the cost of our happiness.

The patient of another psychologist, I knew this woman for about 20 years, filling-in for her therapist when he was on vacation. Gloria (not her real name) had a tragic early life. She was victimized by her parents’ verbal and physical abuse and neglect, and became an easy target for schoolmates. Gloria was unlucky, too, in that she was born with slightly less than average intelligence. Making things even worse, her body was naturally graceless and her facial features were less than attractive. But, Gloria could be sweet and socially engaging, willing and able to approach strangers and make conversation despite a long history of rejection.

Even with all her disadvantages and misfortunes, Gloria, now a middle-aged woman, might still be able to have a good and pleasing social life except for one thing: she believes that she is the world’s unluckiest person, the record-setter for having received the greatest misfortune in the history of the planet. Moreover, she feels compelled to report her tale of woe to those people she begins to get to know, very early in her relationship to them. This has the predictable result — they shy away from her, leaving her feeling rejected once more, and adding to her claim that she has been the most ill-treated human in recorded history.

I am not being facetious here; I once asked her to compare herself to various victims of misfortune including those who had been tortured, suffered in natural disasters, lived in concentration camps, or been plagued with disfiguring and painful illnesses. She assured me that her lot in life was far worse than any of them; and, that it was only fair and reasonable to expect people to be sympathetic to her and give her some of the understanding, sympathy, and support she had always been lacking.

Thus, Gloria pursues with a vengeance the comfort and affection that she believes she has coming to her. Her sense of entitlement to this, her insistence that her fellow-man should and must provide this, drives people away from her in her striving for the love she has never had. Of course, her therapist points out to her the self-defeating nature of this strategy, the need first to establish relationships based on something other than the other person’s willingness to listen to her sadness and anger. Gloria doesn’t accept this, unfortunately. The world and the rest of the human race owe her this hearing (so it seems to her), the sooner the better, and it is only fair and just to expect them to deliver what she wants.

Gloria is smart enough to understand that people she hardly knows might not have much patience or interest in accepting her premature self-disclosure. And so, you might well ask, why does she continue to do the same thing over and over with the same bad result? Why doesn’t she try something different?

After much consideration of that question, here is the best answer I can provide. First, Gloria is so desperate and needy, so starved for affection, that it is difficult for her to restrain herself from lunging at the thing she desires whenever she first sights it. But, more importantly, I think the one thing that Gloria values above everything in her life is her self-appointed status as The Most Unfortunate Person in World History.

Now, you might say that you wouldn’t want to hold that particular title. But, think about it. I suspect that this designation gives Gloria the only form of distinction she could every expect to achieve in life. Without it, she is simply a sad, angry, lonely, unattractive, unaccomplished, anonymous person; but with it, she is something special, someone who stands out from the crowd, a noteworthy individual, one in six billion, the leader in her class. And the self-nourishment she receives from licking the wounds attendant to this awful position in life almost certainly provides her with some amount of solace.

I’m sure Gloria would deny the psychological explanation I’ve just provided for her self-defeating behavior and I cannot promise you that it is accurate. But I would ask you this. Do you know people who persist in self-defeating behavior despite all the advice, therapy, or wise counsel offered by friends, relatives, and therapists? Have you sometimes wondered why they do so?

Often the answer isn’t “logical” in that it doesn’t “make sense” intellectually. But, it just might make sense emotionally, as I believe it does for Gloria. If, somewhere deep inside, she doesn’t really believe that she can achieve the life she wants, her behavior suggests that she has found a method, however self-defeating it is, to give herself some of the sense of status and recognition that life hasn’t and probably won’t provide to her.

Gloria was dealt a bad hand in life. Her response to that deal of the cards is instructive. She seems to have chosen a sort of fantasy, a story about herself that compensates her for her misfortune, just as it simultaneously fuels her continued loneliness. But be careful should you wish to dismiss her behavior as “crazy” too quickly. We all do self-defeating things in life.

Before you condemn her, check yourself out in the mirror.

The drawing above is called Africa Lonely Kids by Myfacebook. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.