Advice for Life: Dr. S’s Savvy Suggestions for Survival

Swiss_army_knife_open_20050612

When I was 16 I thought that life would be peachy once I knew how to drive and had a girlfriend. Unfortunately, achieving those two goals did not produce a permanent state of bliss. The first didn’t seem very important once it was accomplished; and the second — well, I regret to say that even love becomes something that one takes a bit too much for granted, except when it is absent.

If I could have given that kid I was some guidance, the list of advice wouldn’t have included those items because he (I) already knew I needed to learn to drive and find love. Nor would I have instructed him to work hard; or about the importance of the almighty dollar, values osmotically communicated within my childhood home. But here is a list of the things I might have offered, even if that 16-year-old version of myself couldn’t have fully understood them all:

1. When your mother told you that “Your eyes are bigger than your mouth” as you looked at a glorious piece of pie, she was on to something: the illusion of appearances. Some things and some people who look good, aren’t good. Or, have no lasting value, only a temporary pleasure that, like the food your mother was talking about, might not be as wonderful as you think.

2. Be quick to recognize patterns of mistakes and stop repeating them. As Bill Clinton said, “When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

3. Perpetual regret is some version of hell. The first half of your life gives you lots of chances to recover from wrong turns and thereby avoid sentences that start with “I should have” or “I shouldn’t have.” You have the time to start most things over.

4. Hiding, hesitating, and hoping don’t work very well. To get ahead in life you can’t just read about it, imagine it, or worry about it. You actually have to do it. It’s a little like jumping into a cold pool. Once you’re in the water, you get used to the cold temperature and discover you can swim.

5. Don’t fool yourself by rationalizing your misdeeds or denying the real reasons you do what you do. But do learn to forgive yourself for most things. You are human, after all, and mistakes come with the package.

6. Perfectionism will kill you. So will slovenliness. Goldilocks was right about a lot of things: don’t aim for “too hot” or “too cold,” but for “just right.” In philosophical terms it is “the golden mean” — that place between excess and deficiency, between too much and too little of a quality. Some people call it balance.

7. No one cares about you except your mother, and even she has other things on her mind. OK, the first part of the last sentence is an exaggeration, but most of the people you know are too busy thinking about themselves to think much about you. Get over your self-consciousness.

8. You will pay for wisdom. Pain teaches, pleasure not so much. The body gives way in any case. Take care of your body; enjoy it and all the many pleasures of being young. Indeed, don’t take life so seriously that you miss the joy in living.

9. You too will die. Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor, actually hired someone to remind him of this fact every day. The cemetery is full of irreplaceable people. As Gregory Maguire has written, “Happy endings are still endings.” That tends to put things in perspective, so note the truth of it without constantly dwelling on it.

10. There is always someone better (and better off) than you are. There is always someone worse (and worse off) than you are.

11. You can’t have it all. Choose wisely, but remember Einstein’s words: “Try not to be a person of success, but rather a person of value.”

12. Accumulate experiences moment to moment, not possessions. Money and “stuff” are overrated unless you don’t have enough to get by.

"Follow_the_Oldtimers_Advice."_-_NARA_-_514272

13. Make friends. People are the problem, but they are also the solution. Grudges will eat you alive, so try to let go and enjoy people for who they are, not who you want them to be, unless they are real scoundrels who should then be avoided. Spend more time trying to change yourself and less trying to change others.

14. Be nice. Or, to quote from American Opinion Magazine: “My boy,” said a father to his son, “treat everyone with politeness, even those who may be rude to you. For remember that you show courtesy to others not because they are gentlemen, but because you are a gentleman.”

15. Religion isn’t essential to morality. Some of the kindest and most decent people you will encounter don’t believe in God. But some really wonderful people do.

16. You must change yourself perpetually because of the changing circumstances in any life, not the least of which is aging. Think of life as a moving target, not one that is stationary. It follows that you should always seek to learn more from both study and experience. By the way, the most interesting people you meet will be the ones from whom you learn, by their words or their example.

17. You have to take chances, otherwise you can’t grow. Make the transition from seeing challenges as a crisis to seeing them as an opportunity.

18. Acceptance of the things that can’t be changed and appreciation of the good things you have are both life long tasks. Work at them.

19. Think about how you relate to money, food, time, and sex. Know where your potential spouse stands on each of these before your wedding day.

20. Reproduce. That’s why you are here, but don’t do so to save your marriage, and recognize that raising a child is a tremendous amount of work. Only have a baby if you want to be involved in all aspects of your little one’s life.

21. Overcome the things of which you are afraid. If you don’t they will diminish your life and continue to haunt you until you die.

22. Get to know your parents and, if possible, their early history. Whether by their good or bad example, they have something to teach you. There is also probably at least one person in your family who is so nuts that you want to reach for a giant nutcracker. Try to stay out of his or her way.

23. If you are an anxious or worried person, know that most of the things you anticipate either won’t happen or are survivable.

24. Always treat the wait-staff well.

25. Learn to be assertive. The world can be a merciless place if you don’t. Don’t explain your reasons or make excuses when no one asked. Don’t ask for permission when none has been requested. Someone might just say “no.”

26. Dr. S’s Bonus Item: Almost all the things you think will be the permanent solution to your problems provide only temporary relief. Once you solve one difficulty you are on to the next one, which probably requires a different remedy. Life is about learning that you can take on new challenges, not about finding permanent solutions to a fixed and unchanging set of problems.

27. Dr. S’s Second Bonus: If you want to get ahead, do what President Woodrow Wilson said: “Do not follow people who stand still.”

The top photo by Jonas Bergsten is of a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife, Mountaineer Model. The poster is called Follow the Old-timer’s Advice and comes from the Office of Emergency Management, Office of War Information, 1941-1945. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Make Yourself and Those You Love Miserable

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/ae/Bertram_Mackennal_-_Grief.jpg/500px-Bertram_Mackennal_-_Grief.jpg

It is easy to find on-line guidance to a better life. But the recommendations contained on those self-help web sites (and in books that aim at the same audience) have become almost too commonplace to make any impact.

The remedy? Something that is just the opposite: a list of suggestions on how to make yourself and others miserable. Of course, I’m not wishing that you follow these directions. Rather, I’m hoping that some of you who might yawn at still another list of “things to do” to improve your life, will be struck by the things you already do that make it much worse.

Here goes:

  • Regularly compare your material and financial circumstances to others, especially to those who are doing better than you are.
  • Make a list of all the people who have wronged you over the years and try to remember exactly how awful they made you feel. Think about those who owe you an apology. Forgive no one. Let no slight be too small to dwell on it.
  • Carry on a vendetta. Stay up late at night planning and plotting how you might get back at people. Stay angry. Let all your hatred out in blistering, profane, and cowardly “flames” behind the mask of the Internet.
  • Give your children gifts rather than your time. Set no limits on them. Then wait until they are teenagers and wonder why they are depressed or rebellious.
  • Curse the darkness, the winter, the cold, the rain, the frailty of the human condition, and all the other things that you can’t change.
  • Get impatient with the people who are walking in front of you at a snail’s pace, the couples whose bodies and shopping carts block the entire grocery aisle, and the slow progress of the check-out line at the store.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/74/John_F._Kennedy_Inauguration_Speech.ogv/mid-John_F._Kennedy_Inauguration_Speech.ogv.jpg

  • Make no contribution to the betterment of humanity. Assume an attitude of entitlement. Figure out how to avoid work. Idle away your time. Ask “what your country can do for you,” not “what you can do for your country” in opposition to JFK’s 1960 inaugural address admonition.
  • Forever rationalize your dishonorable or questionable behavior or deny it altogether, even to yourself.
  • Persuade yourself that you need to wait until you feel better before you do the difficult thing that you have been postponing. Keep waiting, even if the time never comes when you believe that you can take action.
  • Do not let conversation with your spouse or children get in the way of watching TV. Keep the TV on most of the time, most importantly at family dinners. If possible have a television in every room.
  • Ignore the beauty of a spring or summer day, the newly fallen snow, and the cheerful laugh of small child. Stay in-doors as much as possible, year round.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d8/Sommerblumen01.JPG/240px-Sommerblumen01.JPG

  • Allow yourself to be upset by overpaid, under-performing athletes who doom the home team to continued failure. Yes, Cubs fans, this means you!
  • Treat emotions of sadness, tenderness, and hurt as your enemy. Push them away and thereby alienate yourself from yourself. Curtail grieving and try to deaden your feelings to the point of numbness.
  • Work up as much hatred as possible toward opposition political parties. Listen to every talking head who wants to whip you into a frenzy.
  • Expect justice and fairness in all things.
  • Drink too much, drug too much, and spend every extra minute on the web or playing computer games instead of having direct human contact with someone who is in the same room with you. Further distract yourself from your problems by watching TV and listening to music. Escape reality.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4b/Jack_rose.jpg/120px-Jack_rose.jpg

  • Keep using failed solutions to your problems even though they haven’t worked in years, if ever.
  • Behave in mid-life the way you did as a young person; or, if you are a young person, behave the way you did as a child. Do not reflect on or learn from experience which might teach you something new.
  • Use others instrumentally. That is, value them only in terms of what they can do for you. Lie, cheat, betray, and steal from them if that serves your interests. Then wonder why people mistrust you.
  • Spend as much time as possible worrying about the future and regretting the past, rather than living in the irreplaceable moment.
  • Aim low. Avoid the disappointment that comes with high expectations. When the going gets tough, quit.
  • Train yourself to be a miser. Practice selfishness. Hold on to your money as if you expect to live forever and will need every last cent. Make Scrooge from A Christmas Carol your hero.

File:Chicklet-currency.jpg

  • Judge others less fortunate than you are by using the phrases “he should have known better,” “he didn’t try hard enough,” and the like. Assume that all people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Disdain compassion, but remain puzzled when others call you heartless.
  • Indulge in every available excess: unprotected sex, food, spending, smoking, caffeine, etc. Don’t exercise. Ignore medical advice and, even better, avoid going to your doctor. Treat your body badly and then wonder why it betrays you.
  • Be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and indirect whenever you are injured rather than looking someone in the eye and expressing your displeasure in a straight-forward fashion.
  • Avoid facing things. Give in to your fears, anxieties, and phobias.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5b/Children_in_Sonargaon.jpg/240px-Children_in_Sonargaon.jpg

  • Don’t let anyone know you well. Believe that your vulnerabilities will always be used against you. Keep social interactions on the surface. Eschew intimacy and maintain your distance, thinking that this is the best way to avoid personal injury. Trust no one!
  • Assume that the normal social rules regarding fidelity to friends and lovers don’t apply to you. Hold on to a double-standard that favors you.
  • Insist on having your way. Don’t compromise. Don’t consider others’ needs or wants. Assume a position of moral superiority, self-righteousness, and arrogance in things religious, political, and personal.
  • Do everything others ask of you. Rarely say “no.”
  • Try to control people and events as much as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Micromanage. Hover over others. Repeat complaints to them incessantly. Remind subordinates, friends, spouses, and children of small errors, even if they are ancient history.
  • Make no significant effort to better your life. Depend on others to take care of you and make all significant decisions for you. Be a burden.
  • Raise all your children exactly the same way even though it is obvious that they are not all the same.
  • Imitate vampires (who have no reflection in the mirror and therefore keep their mirrors shrouded) by never really looking hard at your own reflection in the looking-glass. That is, never take a frank inventory of your strengths and weaknesses or the mistakes you’ve made. Be like the evil queen in Snow White, whose only desire was that the mirror would tell her that she was “the fairest of them all.”
  • Whenever you talk with someone, wonder what they really mean, pondering the possibility that they find you boring, stupid or physically unattractive.
  • Feed yourself on gossip more than food. Delight in talking about others behind their backs.
  • Value beauty, appearance, reputation, and material success over integrity, knowledge, kindness, hard work, and love.
  • Try to change others, but do not try to change yourself. Take no responsibility for your life circumstances, instead blaming those who have stymied you.
  • Stay just as you are regardless of changing life conditions. For example, if wearing warm clothes worked for you when you lived in Alaska, continue to wear them when you move to Arizona in July.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/37/Enrico_Caruso_VI.png/240px-Enrico_Caruso_VI.png

  • Don’t forgive yourself. Maintain the most perfectionistic and demanding moral and performance standard even if you are not a brain surgeon. Stay up at night castigating yourself over every imperfection, no matter how small.
  • Make a list of all the things that are wrong with your life, all the opportunities lost, every heartbreak, and the physical features and bodily changes that you don’t like. Stew in your own juices. Salt your wounds. Pick at your scabs.
  • Take everything personally.
  • Permit friends, family, and co-workers to walk all over you. Do not stand up to them for fear of causing offense and disapproval.
  • Discount your blessings. Concentrate on the dark side of life.
  • Never even consider going into psychotherapy. Assume that this is something only for those who are weak and that anyone who needs to grapple with emotional issues in counseling demonstrates a failure of will power and logic.

With thanks for the inspiration for this essay to Dan Greenberg and Marcia Jacobs, co-authors of a very funny, but ironic book entitled How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The top image is Grief by Edgar Bertram Mackenna. The video frame that follows is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural speech. The next image is Sommerblumenstrauss by A. Gundelach. The following photo by Andygoodell is A Jack Rose Cocktail. The fifth picture is of two children in Bangladesh by Nafis Kamal, while the sixth is called Chicklet-Currency courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the image from Disney’s Snow White, is a 1911 photo of Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor. All but the Snow White frame are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

The Things We All Need to Learn

The things we need to learn wait for us. They are very patient.

I think you know what I mean. At least, you have seen it in others. The person who is angry, who never learns how to control his anger, or perhaps isn’t even aware of the need to control it.

Then there is the passive person, the one who cannot stand up for himself easily, who defers to others, who gets taken advantage of pretty routinely. And, despite this, doesn’t change over the years.

Some of us choose the wrong friends or wrong lovers or the wrong business associates, making the same mistakes again and again. Others continue to use failed methods in raising children. Some of us never face our fears fully (see Albert Brook’s film Defending Your Life for a funny take on this problem). And then there are the people who are impulsive, act without thinking, over and over; or the ones who are sloppy at tasks, not careful enough; or those that are too compulsive, too detail-oriented, trapped by their obsessive attention to small things.

I could go on, but instead, its time to ask you a question. What are the challenges in your life that you have yet to master, the ways of thinking or behaving that don’t work for you, but which you repeat? Most of us have a pretty easy time spotting the errors in others, but how about your own?

There is an old joke about how we learn:

A man walks down a road and falls into a hole. He didn’t see it and, because it is a deep hole, it takes some time to get out.

The next day the man walks down the same road and falls into the same hole. He still didn’t see it, but might just get out of it more rapidly this time.

The day after, the man walks down the same road, sees the hole, but falls into it anyway.

The following morning the man walks down the same road, sees the hole, and this time walks around it.

And what does our hero do after the next sun rise? He walks down a different road.

Holes, like problems unsolved, have all the time in the world. They wait for us, first to recognize them, to see the danger they pose, and then to change our behavior so as to avoid the danger. As the saying goes, “if you do what you’ve done, you’ll get what you’ve got.” Others have said that one definition of insanity is to continue to use the same failed strategy, all the while expecting different and better results.

How long will you wait to change? Your problems can last a life time. They have no train to catch, no meetings to attend; they take their time, not troubled by waiting. Or, should I say, they take your time. All of your time.

Do you really want to wait that long?

Making the Same Mistakes Over and Over: How to Learn From Childhood

There are few perfect childhoods out there. Indeed, it’s the nature of childhood to have some tough times. You are small, you don’t know anything, everything has to be learned for the first time. No wonder its a challenge! The adults tower over you and the big kids can belittle you, push you around, and trip you up. Literally.

So what do we do to survive childhood? Well, we figure out some strategies to deal with the problems that we face. For example, if you have an angry parent, you might learn to be sensitive to signs of upset in someone else, know when to keep your head down, try not to ruffle feathers. On the other hand, if you had a parent who only gave you attention when you were helpful and solicitous, doing things like looking after your younger siblings, you could have learned how to take care of others and seen that quality as, perhaps, one of your only virtues.

Often, the solutions that were necessary early in your life don’t work very well in the “older” (which is to say “current”) version of you. Being sensitive to possible anger in friends, lovers, and coworkers could well find you cowering unnecessarily, accepting half-a-loaf because your are afraid that if you speak up, you will get none. Being a care-taker as an adult might get you some initial approval, but it can prove unsatisfying when the person you are with expects that you will do all the caring and give all the help in the relationship, but doesn’t think to give much back to you.

It’s a little bit like this: Imagine that you were born in Alaska, learned to wear heavy clothes and multiple layers. It was a solution that was necessary and one that worked. If you continue to live in Alaska, you will find success if you use the same solution forever. But, should you move to South Florida and operate by the same set of internalized rules, now you will have quite a problem!

Childhood solutions only are useful to adults if you continue to live in circumstances similar to your childhood. But, by definition, most of us live in different circumstances. We are not any longer so small and defenseless, so unworldly and innocent. We now have much more capability to change the world around us. Unfortunately, some of us don’t know it.

Are you doing the same things that you did as a kid, using solutions that haven’t solved anything for a while? Are you suppressing emotions because that  was a good strategy in an uncaring childhood home? Are you still afraid of situations that resemble your early life challenges? Do you still avoid difficulties, never having figured out how to face them?

It’s worth taking an inventory of your early life and, even more importantly, your current life.  Look frankly at what did or didn’t work as a kid (and what does or doesn’t work now), asking yourself whether youthful difficulties produced a way of being that isn’t helpful. If you keep using failed solutions, you will likely continue to experience failure. Most of our problems are patient. They wait for us to recognize them and then to solve them. They can wait a lifetime.

Is that how you want to spend the rest of your life, making the same mistakes, accepting less than what might be possible and good for you? If you are willing to wait in that way, don’t call a therapist; you are too patient and not sufficiently motivated to change. But if you are beginning to be aware of how unsatisfying your way of living is and have the courage to face that fact, do call. That’s what therapists are there for.