“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.

Obligation to Parents and Other Traps Built of Guilt, Kindness, and Hope

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I can begin this no other way than by quoting from Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

This stanza will strike you as funny, dark, or both. Not to mention, profane. Today’s question is, what is an adult to do about it? The parents, not the profanity.

Therapists are not in the habit of telling you to “dump” the folks. Yet, sometimes the work of therapy leads there. I will not recount all the bad things done by parents. You are aware of them, including their extraordinary range and frank ingenuity, as if mom and dad stayed up late refining their torture kit.

Most adult offspring hang in, maintain contact, show respect, and (for a while at least) hope for love. Yes, some of the now-matured children echo Larkin’s profanity and never look back, but not as many as you think.

What keeps us in such relationships long after we’ve left the home? Here are a few of the reasons in random order:

  • “They are old. The events happened ages ago. They did the best they could. I don’t wish to hurt them.” If the caretakers reformed themselves these statements are adaptive and considerate, even without receiving an apology for past mistakes. Instead, let’s focus on only those parents who persist with criticism, setting sibling against sibling, praising one to down the other, and more creative forms of mistreatment.
  • “They are my parents. I can’t just walk away. They did lots of good for me, too. I’m obligated.” In addition to those things they did to you, they did many for you: food, clothing, and even moments of affection. The inconsistency of an abusive elder ties us in knots. Were they harsh in every action, dismissing them would be easier. I can’t tell you how to weigh the good and bad in the abstract, balancing one against another on the scales of justice, but examination often reveals you came out on the losing end. Perhaps more important, you are still losing. Indeed, you may yet spend a good part of your life’s psychic energy blaming yourself, having been taught to take fault, thus compounding your injury.
  • “Shouldn’t I forgive them? My religion says so.” Forgiveness for an aggressor who removed your spleen yesterday is not the same as forgiving someone while he is slicing out your heart today. Mercy is a generous act, to oneself and to the one who harmed you. Don’t, however, make a foolish decision by giving anyone the tacit permission to repeat the crime.
  • “The parents of my friends were just like them. Some were worse.” Perhaps, but irrelevant. Were everyone to poison their child, the violence would not be acceptable. Were everyone else to beat their children for 20 minutes a day, 10 minutes would not be a kindness.
  • “They had such a terrible life themselves. They didn’t know better.” Your mom and dad still can learn.
  • “I’m not that sort of person. I can’t be mean to them.” Ending the relationship with parents or limiting contact might be thought of as heartless. My guess is, however, if an animal bites your hand whenever you offer food, your generosity might change over time. Moreover, few of the really awful parents are “hurt” by a child’s late rejection. Anger and further indictments of the adult child are more typical. Corrupt parents have been known to deny the crime. Much wrong doing gets lost in the night and fog of passing time.
  • “I’d feel guilty.” Something for you and your counselor to work on.
  • “I should be over them already.” Maybe, but is this approach working for you?
  • “I don’t want to be a whiner. I should be tougher, not so sensitive.” Those who utter these words are justifying their mistreatment and running from the past. The notion of “getting tough” suggests those who don’t are cowardly. On the contrary, facing reality displays real courage.
  • “What’s the point of talking to them about it now?” We are assuming the mistreatment takes a different shape these days than when you were a kid, but it hasn’t stopped. The point is to get it to stop now, by conversation or removal of yourself.

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  • “Talking about them is a betrayal.” Discussion with your therapist isn’t the same as a national broadcast. You do them no harm in this way.
  • “Isn’t there nobility in suffering? Don’t we all have our cross to bear?” Not all suffering is noble. As an old colleague used to say, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”
  • “I’d be ashamed to raise the issue in the family. I’d be blamed. What would my friends think? They always remind me how special my parents are.” Only those who make themselves strong risk being tossed from the arena. Therapy can help with this, especially if you have never said anything to them about how much they hurt you. Recognize that giving them a chance to repent and reform is an act of love and generosity. Similarly, exiting the home takes the bull’s eye off your chest and moves your body from the rifle range. You are not required to aid their target practice as long as they live. By giving in to the terror of family wide disapproval you accept the role of a victim.
  • “Maybe they will change — praise me, show me love, be good to me.” Ah! Here at last is the big reason, the one most often unacknowledged. This motive drives the willingness to continue to serve as cannon fodder in the hope of being recognized for your devotion. But misplaced hope is soul-killing, making you complicit in your own destruction. Should affection never come, you are dealing with what economists call a “sunk cost;” like throwing more money into an investment that has already cost you a fortune. More suffering is all you get in return.

The Marilyn Monroes of the world remain unhappy despite “having everything.” The solution requires them to challenge the long-standing internalized negative self-attributions, their critical thoughts or beliefs about themselves. If the long reach of a damaging childhood is at the core, confronting parents is not essential, but you must face the history written on your skin. You cannot recover if you continue to blame yourself and remain the victim. In childhood you had no choice. In adulthood you usually do, though the choice is not free of charge.

If your parents installed a permanent line in your vein from which to suck out your life’s blood, no good comes from sitting and watching, as you do when a phlebotomist takes a blood sample. When childhood harm is indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, there is no healthy alternative but to examine the source of the injury, grieve your losses, and reevaluate your guardians: what they did or didn’t do. Even more, when you are still being bled, the line must be removed.

Nothing about stopping or reducing the misery is easy. The treatment of such old but continuing wounds takes much time. My patients often tried everything they could to repair or improve the relationship before setting any limits on their parents. In doing so, they attempted to inoculate themselves against experiencing guilt subsequent to their decision to remove the bull’s-eye from their chest.

Still, this is not for everyone. Such a solution doesn’t fit the majority of us who had decent parents or wonderful elders. Nor, regrettably, do all of us possess the strength to protect ourselves.

Confrontation is not required, although many benefit by standing up, looking their aggressor in the eye, and saying, “Never again.” This is rather like finally getting the best of the playground bully.

You must also evaluate your own part in the sour relationship. An old injury does not give you permission to complicate your intimate contact today or become the thing you hate, however understandable.

Much of psychotherapy deals with the past, but treatment does so in the service of making your life better today. The world is a tough place, a kind place, a contradictory place: a place we are “just visiting,” as we are reminded by the game Monopoly. Time is short to put your life together.

You might have lost the game yesterday. Losing again today is not required.

Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The treatment is not intended to harm your parents, but to heal you. The firing line is no place to live out your days.

The first photo is Agaricus Silvicola, Father and Son by Frank Gardiner. The second comes from the 1963 NBC TV series, The Eleventh Hour. From left to right, Keenan Wynne, Linda Evans, and Jack Ging. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Simple Guide to Making Fewer Mistakes in Life

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Everyone asks the question, “How did this happen to me?” Pondering the past is a crucial step in finessing the future. That is, unless the explanation of a mistake is mistaken. Too often the way we understand the past sets us up for unending repetitions of the same poor judgment and ill-advised behavior.

The problem is not making the errors. You are human, so you will make plenty. The difficulty is how we interpret them to ourselves. Better to make “new” mistakes than repeat the old ones.

I’m going to list six ways we explain minor and major blunders. I’ve tried several of these myself, so consider them “test-driven!” Perhaps you will recognize yourself and retrain your brain for the better.

  1. No explanation. Fooled you, didn’t I! Sometimes we find a problem too painful to think about. We then use methods of self-distraction: drugs, drinking, food, entertainment, sex, work; even self-mutilation can take one’s mind off one dilemma by substituting a new one. Others find no value in “crying over spilled milk.” They fear the fate of Lot’s wife in Genesis. Told not to look back at God’s destruction of Sodom, she took a backward glance and turned to a pillar of salt. You will learn more that is new if you sometimes reflect on the old. Trust me, you won’t be transformed into a salt shaker for doing so. A box of saltines? That’s another story.
  2. Someone else did this to me, dammit! Anything is possible and when disaster descends there might be a bad guy. He dumped you, he cut you off in traffic, he fired you, he said something mean, he stole, he cheated, he lied, etc. You rage or seek retribution. Usually, however, identifying the malefactor and trying to punish him won’t enlighten you. A cycle of self-consuming anger is more likely. The old Italian expression tells us, “If you want revenge you should dig two graves.”
  3. I am worthless and deserve what happened. Self-flagellation is not self-reflection. Rage turned inward leads to depression. Such explanations might be accompanied by a statement like, “Bad things are always happening to me, so I must be doing something bad.” Moreover, since most of us blunder, it is pretty easy to feel the proper target of divine retribution.
  4. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. This is a Latin phrase and Latin is a dead language, but the logical error lives. Wikipedia defines it as believing, “Since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.” If you think the crowing of a rooster makes the sun rise you are making this mistake. Listen to the daily stock market report and you will hear a pundit describe the “cause” of the market’s movement by pointing to a reason in the day’s news cycle. A real expert would bet every nickle on the movements of stocks in advance and retire in a week. In your case, you might think you just got dumped because you came on too strong, didn’t come on strong enough, called too often, didn’t call often enough, texted too much or too little, responded to texts too fast or too slow, etc. Perhaps you are right, but the explanation might not be as directly tied to an immediately prior cause as you imagine.
  5. There are lots of reasons and I can’t know them all for certain. Here is the problem: we tend to think of events in a discrete fashion. Similarly, we think of our actions as having a particular beginning and a specific end. Life is not lived that way. Our time on the planet is not a matter of jumping from rock to rock, but rather of swimming in a river along with everyone else. If you were leaping from one stone to another, it might be easy to figure out where you fell off. Instead, your history is impacted by the actions of everyone you have met, who influenced you in ways you comprehend and ways you don’t. Indeed, we might extend this to generations who preceded you and the decisions they made — say, to leave their home country, marry a particular person, take one vocation over another, or even things as seemingly trivial as turning right instead of left. Turn right and this ancestor meets the love of his life, turn left and he is run down by a truck. Understood this way, your existence has been fashioned by waves beyond measurement, not just your personal choices, but all the histories of all the people in your life story. This includes your ancestors since time began, and the social, environmental, and political events of world history.
  6. The search for patterns. OK, one could spend the rest of a lifetime trying to figure out all the influences described in #5. What is more, little good would spring from the effort. However, if #5 gets you to look at repeated difficulties in your life, you might learn something: identifiable behavioral patterns describing your time on the planet. Maybe problems with authority, perhaps choosing partners who are self-involved, possibly being a “people-pleaser,” or persistently tending toward confrontation or avoiding it. Looking back, you might realize how long you’ve traced the same figure on the existential ice and some of the reasons why. This is one of the things therapists help with as outside observers who can sometimes recognize the forest as well as the trees.

In the end, it is not always necessary to understand exactly how repeated mistakes developed, so long as you:

  • Face the extent to which the mistakes are harming you and the amount of control you can exert over them.
  • Make better choices and behave differently. That is, change your patterns.

The first three ways of explaining errors usually won’t help much because they don’t lead to responsibility-taking. The fourth is an error in logic, while the fifth overwhelms people with more data than needed. Number six, however, might allow you to recognize a set of missteps you can productively address. That said, the process is not an easy one and self-recognition is humbling.

Don’t rely on me. Rather, consider the words of Isaac Asimov in I, Robot:

“It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?”