Reality TV: From “Queen for a Day” to “Dating Naked”

How much of others’ misery can you stand? How much of their success? How much of their sexuality?

Television has an answer for us, but more about that a little later. First, let’s look at our private responses to the fluctuating fortunes of ourselves and others.

Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable, recommend your life should stay within the “Acceptable Failure Range.” Exceeding the limits in either direction — repeated success or endless unhappiness — will alienate some people, so the authors tell us, tongue in cheek?

I’m comfortable with this idea. Few wish to fall into the shadow of a friend who glories in his achievements. You know the type — towering SAT scores, career victories, and trendy restaurant visits are not just reported but repeated.

If the old saying, “Misery loves company” is true, one should limit being too full of yourself and your good fortune around friends.

Others in a fraught personal moment hesitate to describe their raw misfortune for fear of stressing out their social network. They anticipate compassion fatigue and expect to be shunned — the “Debbie Downer” of their group. USA society encourages an upbeat, “can do” attitude and expects us to “move on.”

We have an ambivalent relationship to fortune’s two-faced coin. First we separate the people we know well from everyone else. A different set of rules applies to each of these groups.

A celebrity’s high-flown lifestyle might intrigue us rather than generate jealousy, but headlined heartache is addictive so long as harm doesn’t happen to someone for whom we care.

A calamity in Uzbekistan is one thing. Distance is built-in. The disaster is both out there, thousands of miles away; and “in there” — inside the TV set. Moreover, when the media inundate us with tragedy stacked liked chipped dishes one upon another, the individual damage of each one makes little impression.

The lives of others — their “reality” — no longer seems quite real once we have become habituated to it. Our unconscious defenses protect us from recognizing that, we too, are subject to the sword of a savage Fate, both random and indifferent. In effect, the broadcast disaster is like a stage play, entertaining but soon forgotten.

That is, unless your brother-in-law calls with a message so painful even the smartphone is stupefied.

The 1950s first revealed our fascination with the sad lives of strangers, unrecognized until a national network TV program called “Queen for a Day” became a hit. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, public sorrow was thought unseemly except at funerals. QFAD turned forbidden self-disclosure into entertainment. A forerunner of the ubiquitous reality TV of today, the show featured “real people” (women who were not celebrities) telling the emcee the unfortunate circumstances of their lives and sometimes breaking down while doing so.

This was preceded by an unconscionably upbeat welcome from the host, Jack Bailey, a pencil-mustached man with glistening black hair and the attitude of Harold Hill in The Music Man: a fast talker far too cheerful and insincere for the occasion, whose pores oozed Hill’s flim-flam slipperiness. Four “contestants” sat behind him, all looking as if they awaited crucifixion, chests heaving, scarcely in emotional control. Each was about to bare her tragedy to a theater/restaurant audience of ladies having lunch with a side-order of Schadenfreude, the German word that describes our amused, but guilty reaction to watching someone else slip on a banana peel.

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This was pre-civil rights television. White women desperate enough to endure this humiliation were asked what they would like if crowned; usually medical equipment or household appliances.

Once all the tragedies had been recited Jack Bailey requested applause for the opponents in the order in which he’d interviewed them. A meter registered the audience’s measure of their pain’s sufficiency. Sort of like a latter-day Roman Colosseum, the spectators determined who among the lady “gladiators” got a “thumbs up.” The program was some form of “See if you can top this,” with each contestant hoping to surpass her competitors in terms of desperation and heartbreak, diseased children and poverty.

Once coronated, the “Queen” was robed and seated on a makeshift throne to the tune of “Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March #1, better known as high school graduation processional music. Her majesty then received not just the requested item, but a carload of other things, often including a vacation.

I can only imagine how the losers felt, having once again been consigned to the anonymous trash heap of human misery. Perhaps they wondered, “Wasn’t my life bad enough?” Defeat added to their already long list of disappointments, despite a few consolation prizes.

The TV writer Mark Evanier called this program “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced,” further finding it “tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit.” A confession here: I viewed it as a kid.

Of course, the misfortune itself was not demeaning. But, the fact that these women had to plead for and parade their need in front of a national audience and strangers nearby — all in the hope of some material reward (however, necessary) — was lamentable. The discomfort of the contestants was not disguised. To add to the irony, they were surrounded by beautiful models in skimpy outfits, all wearing their own crowns. Every one of them looked ready for the Miss Universe bathing suit competition. Compared to these youthful and comely human stage props, the rest resembled victims of a recent mugging. The objectification of all the featured females, from the leggy sexuality of Bailey’s nameless assistants to the throw-away dismissal of the three losers, was appalling.

Many of today’s reality TV “stars” require no such financial incentives to lay bare (sometimes literally) whatever is most personal in this more shameless moment in history. TV channel VH1 debuted a new series called “Dating Naked” on July 17th. Three couples quickly go on nude dates in this cut-rate version of the Bachelor/Bachelorette enterprise. Surely this is the final defeat of mystery in romance. To their credit, the producers blurred the naughty parts and included contestants who look like real people, not models.

Think about it. We are scandalized if someone finds a way to watch women in the shower room without their knowledge. We find it outrageous, and welcome the legal prosecution of the “Peeping Toms” who do this. Yet, when the TV reality participants agree to national emotional or physical nakedness, many of us salivate in anticipation. Yes, there is a difference between the “Toms” and the rest of us, but not in terms of our curiosity and prurient interest in behavior once thought of as private. Are we better off today than before “Queen for a Day” led the way to “Dating Naked?”

In fairness, “Queen for a Day” wasn’t the real starting point. One could go back to the gory glory of the Roman Colosseum, whose inaugural games in the first century A.D. are said to have involved the slaughter of 9000 animals in hunts staged before tens of thousands. We know about the gladiatorial contests of the time, while boxing matches and bull fights continue in the present day.

People can and should learn from the lives of others — what to do and what not to do. What seems a shame — but oh, so human — is our penchant for paying attention to things from which we can learn little. A more charitable stance, however, is to recognize we need the distraction. “Gapers’ blocks” produced by “rubbernecking” happen despite knowing we are contributing to a traffic jam. By comparison to “Dating Naked,” actions worth emulating are usually quiet, private, and boring. The class clown gets us to laugh, while the valedictorian goes home and reads.

Having said all that, should you dare, you can witness various episodes of the show that picked up and transformed the voyeurism of the Colosseum and adapted it for television. The YouTube link at the top of the essay includes a complete 1956 QFAD show. When it is over, you might think a second about today’s reality entertainment and the Roman audience 2000 years ago. For me, there is one conclusion: Darwin was wrong!

The publicity photo of Jack Bailey and his “Queen For A Day” assistants was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by We hope.

Man’s Humanity to Man

This will be short, but important to those sensitive to the human condition. It is about our basic humanity and responsibility to respect our fellow-man.

I came upon the brief video below while reading a blog written by a thirty-something New York City area English teacher who is struggling with infertility. Her blog, The Empress and the Fool, is very much worth your attention, especially her recent post, Resolve to Know the Capacity of the Human Heart.

It is the video, however, that is my focus today. I’ve written before about the problem of the street people we see every day in any big city like Chicago. How do we look at these nameless people? What do we do when they importune us for money? How much respect or conversation or eye contact do we have with them? What do we think about them? You can read or reread that post here: On Giving to Street People.

What follows in the video is the answer to all those questions from the perspective of one homeless man who tries to survive in the area of Chicago’s downtown Metra station, the railroad that brings suburbanites like me into the city at the Union Station stop west of the Loop. I will say no more about it, because the dignified man who is interviewed says it all. If you’ve enjoyed anything I’ve written before today, I have a favor to ask of you:

Watch and listen to Ronald Davis:

 

 

Experience and Memory

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d6/Gates-Buckles.jpg/500px-Gates-Buckles.jpg

The last Canadian World War I veteran, John Babcock, is dead. He passed away at age 109 in Spokane, Washington on February 18, 2009. Frank Buckles, also 109, remains the sole surviving American veteran of the “War to End All Wars,” according to The New York Times.

With Mr. Buckles inevitable departure, we will all lose contact with what happened in Europe between 1914 and 1918 within what is called “living memory;” the contact that can only come from the direct experience of the world-changing event that shaped the lives of many of our grandparents or great grandparents. Our only available sources of information will then be in the form of books, stories that the survivors told to those still alive, old silent movie film of some of the battle action, recorded reminiscences, journals a few of the combatants kept, accounts from war correspondents, and the like.

All of which leads me to think about memory and experience. And why understanding them is important.

Experience takes a number of forms and, when the experience is past, it becomes a memory. Simple enough on the surface, but not simple at all.

First, there is the “living” of the thing, actually participating in an event. In the case of Frank Buckles, that meant driving an American Army ambulance in France during the conflict itself, witnessing the carnage, hearing wounded men cry for their mothers, making and losing friends, feeling the “pee-in-your-pants” terror of it, getting shot at, carrying a gas mask or perhaps being exposed to poison gas, ministering to the wounded, jumping into fox holes—eating, drinking, and sleeping it all. But once Mr. Buckles returned home from the front, his time there had become a memory and was now different from the actual, in-the-moment intensity of the lived-experience, an intensity that nothing in his long life after the war could match.

At another level, more removed, there are the spectators to events. We all achieve the status of “watchers” when we attend a sporting competition. We see and hear a good deal of what is happening, even if we don’t ourselves play in the game.

At even more distance from the event are those who watch at home. They will miss some of the “atmosphere” of “being there” unlike those of us independent of TV cameras, who will see the event naturally, in the way it unfolds in real-life (without the mediation of a cameraman or the interruption of commercials). And the “at-home” audience will not experience the same roar of the crowd, the heat of sun on skin, the faces of the beer vendors, and the thousands of movements and sounds of the athletes and spectators that the cameras and microphones do not record.

More distant still from the actual experience is a radio broadcast, where one’s imagination and memory of events like the one being reported tend to fill in the blanks where no visual representation of the event is present. At a further remove might be a newspaper account of the game or a friend’s description of what happened from his memory of being there himself.

Experience is one thing, memory another. Memory can only approximate the event itself and can alter or fade with the passage of time. Remember your first kiss—all the thousands of sensations happening all at once—the rush of being alive, the smell of perfume or aftershave or the person’s natural scent, the touch and texture of skin, the moistness and softness of lips, your own heartbeat, body against body—firmness, roundness—the moment before and after, the placement of your hands, the color of your partner’s eyes and their expression in those same moments? Now, as you think about it, however good your memory, I think you will admit that remembering is not the same as living it.

At least in the case of memories of things like your first kiss, you have an advantage over others’ understanding of that experience because it was yours and not theirs. It becomes a good deal harder to relate to the experience of others, especially if they have lived through something wholly unlike what has happened in your own life. The most dramatic examples I can think of come from those who have experienced severe trauma. Take the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, Magda F., from the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies quoted by Lawrence Langer in Holocaust Testimonies: the Ruins of Memory, as relatives implored her to talk about her experience:

And I looked at them and I said: “I’m gonna tell you something. I’m gonna tell you something now. If somebody would tell me this story, I would say ‘She’s lying, or he’s lying.’ Because this can’t be true. And maybe you’re gonna feel the same way. That your sister’s lying here, because this could not happen. Because to understand us, somebody has to go through with it. Because nobody, but nobody fully understands us. You can’t. No (matter) how much sympathy you give me when I’m talking here, or you understand…you’re trying to understand me, I know, but I don’t think you could, I don’t think so.”

And I said this to them. Hoping (they) should never be able to understand, because to understand, you have to go through with it, and I hope nobody in the world comes to this again, (so) they should understand us. And this was the honest truth, because nobody, nobody, nobody…

Those of us who are the children of Americans who survived the Great Depression got a little bit of this kind of understanding, I think, in late 2008, when the economy fell off a cliff and looked like it was going to continue falling and possibly repeat the Great Depression. We’d heard the stories our parents or grandparents told, we’d read the history books describing the period between the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the beginning of World War II, but we hadn’t lived in a period anything like that. Now, we were getting a taste of it, even if, for most of us, it was only a taste and not the whole meal. Now we know more, and better, what it was like for our elders (and what it is like for our fellow Americans who are losing their homes along with their livelihoods right now).

Sergiu Celibidache, the Roumanian symphony conductor, put very well the difference between direct experience and some form of pale attempt to duplicate that experience in a different time and place. Celibidache believed that it was impossible to accurately render the transcendant impact of musical performance except in a concert hall. He thought that recordings were a fraud, because they attenuated this experience and altered it, didn’t duplicate the physical and aural sensations present sitting in the hall, listening to the full dynamic range of sound as that sound was being made in the same acoustical environment as the musicians themselves. Therefore, Celibidache refused to make recordings for most of his career. And, in the days before anyone ever considered the possibility of experiments in virtual reality, he said that “listening to a recording is like making love to a picture of Bridget Bardot,” the gorgeous French model and actress of the 1950s and 1960s.

Adlai Stevenson II, as I’ve quoted elsewhere, captured the impossibility of fully communicating an experience he’d had to those who had not yet had that experience in a 1954 speech (made when he was 54) to the senior class of his alma mater, Princeton University:

“…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws—all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages—are as well known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions—a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love—the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men…”

So, put another way, for example, no one who hasn’t been in love can know what love is; no one who hasn’t experienced discrimination or fought against it can really understand it fully; no one who has only watched a travelogue about the countryside really knows what it is like to be in the country; just as those who observe from the sidelines and never have played the game cannot completely grasp the clichéd expression about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

No, life is about the living of it, not the reading about it or the watching  of it. And, so too, it is about knowing that you don’t know fully about the experiences you haven’t had. It is about knowing that you can only approximate a real and complete appreciation of another’s life; knowing that some of those things the other has witnessed or lived through are frankly unknowable without their experience; knowing that the depths of human personality, emotion, and incident are infinitely great and that one can only approach the deepest point in knowledge and understanding even as we reflect on our own live’s through the lens of memory; and knowing that the death of the last veteran of World War I robs us all of some element of connection to history and, therefore, to the forces that shaped us, our parents, and their parents.

Life is infinitely humbling, fascinating, terrifying, and touching. I imagine one could live a dozen lives, some in one gender, some another; some straight, some gay; some black, some white, some yellow; some married, some single; some in this time, some in the future and the past; some here, some there; and still not achieve the richness that is possible.

But, of course, we only get one, so far as anyone knows. That means we must get on with things.

The day is short and there is much to do.

The photo above is of Frank Buckles with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on March 6, 2008 by Cherie A. Thurlby of soldiersmediacenter, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Grieve, How to Live

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You might think that grieving is not an uplifting topic. But there are ways in which that is precisely what it is.

We start with the pain of loss, specifically a loss of something of value. If you lose a penny, you won’t much care. But if the loss is of something of great importance to you, you will care greatly. The pain of loss points to the value of the thing that you have lost; and the value you place on a thing points, at least potentially, to the pain to which you are vulnerable.

What are the things we value? A job, a relationship, friends and family, a promotion; our physical-self, which can be defaced or damaged… many things: money, status, a good name, a pet, and power, too. Take your pick. You decide what is important and whatever is inside the basket in which you put your emotional pain or your vulnerability to such pain — that item has value.

Grieving involves opening yourself to the pain. Now, you might think, “It must be only a recent loss that causes the hurt.” But the heart has no clock attached to it, no timer reading off the digits of distance between you and the loss; so, if you had a difficult childhood, you might still be holding the pain inside even though it is decades old.

Not only must you open yourself to the pain, but you must do it with a witness, a listener, someone who cares and who is present, who is “there for you.” This is necessary to reattach you to human contact — to life, to intimacy — rather than closing off and pulling away from people. And in this sharing — this openness, this talk and tears and gnashing of teeth — the pain eventually subsides. It’s a little bit like kneading dough — you continue to work it until it changes. The story of your feelings will be repeated by you, if necessary, dozens of times in different ways, until the emotions are changed and the excruciating intensity of the loss passes.

How long does this process take? Six months to a year would not be unusual, although it can be longer. The first anniversary of the loss is often especially hard; so are birthdays and holidays in the first year and sometimes beyond. But if you do not do the grieving “work,” the process can be extended and a sense of melancholy or a lack of vitality can follow you relentlessly.

To grieve doesn’t mean you will forget what you have lost. And, indeed, if it is a loved one, certainly you will never forget and you will never be untouched by the memory. There is a dignity in this. We honor the loved ones who are lost in this way and perhaps they live, metaphorically speaking, inside of us. As the Danes say, “to live in the hearts that you leave behind is not to die.”

But “how” to do this grieving — that is the problem. If you have lived your life trying to be tough, you will find that the toughness might prevent you from doing the emotional work that will allow the grief to end. If you maintain that “toughness,” you might find yourself living as if you are numb, or displaying a sunny disposition totally at odds with what is felt deep inside, in the place where you have buried your hurt. And if you have deadened yourself enough, you will have a hard time “living,” since you will be closed-off to feelings. Joy, abandon, and spontaneity will be harder to achieve. Instead, the time ahead of you would be better called “existence” than “life.”

But perhaps you are afraid that if you allow all the pain to come out, you will be overwhelmed to the point of being unable to function. And, indeed, this can happen, at least temporarily. Or perhaps you are afraid of what others might think of you if they see you without your typical emotional control, and you are afraid of their negative judgments.

And so, grieving involves having the emotions without the emotions having you; accepting them and not struggling with them; metaphorically speaking, it is like driving a car with the radio on, but not so loudly that you are overcome by it. In other words, you will have the emotions but still be able to drive — still be able to lead your life.

To do this you must open the pain in a place that is safe and in a way that it is neither deadened or perpetually out-of-control. You must hold the hurt not too tightly and not too loosely, but gently, since it is precious; not walling the emotions off or letting them carry you away from active life for days at a time. Part of this is simply allowing yourself to be human, to honor the injury, not judging or trying to change what you feel (the change will happen by itself if you allow it), but permitting yourself to do what our mammal relatives do — to lick your wounds (metaphorically speaking) and accept the support of others, whether they are friends, lovers, relatives, or therapists.

And, in the end, if you have grieved and have the courage, good luck, and time to continue the human project that we all have been given, you are likely to heal enough to venture forth into the world, again putting yourself into the things and people you hold dear, risking injury once more, not hiding from the dangers that life brings, but also experiencing what is good in life — all the things you still value.

You will be alive again, and the grieving process will have led you there.

The above image is The Grieving Parents, Kathe Kollwitz’s 1932 memorial to her son Peter, who died in World War I.

What To Expect From Your Partner When Your Baby Arrives

Sometimes the idea of a baby is a little different from the reality of a baby. Ask a parent. But the reality doesn’t comprise only the feeding and care of the little one. It also involves changes in the relationship to the spouse–the person who contributed half of the genes that make up your tiny new person.

Mostly I’m talking about a first child here, since the newness of the event and a number of other parts of it are things for which one cannot  prepare.

Let’s start with the sheer exhaustion you will feel. Babies are demanding creatures and will disrupt your sleep and test your stamina. Whatever schedule you had now must be altered to fit your child’s needs. How will you and your partner divide the new responsibilities?

Everything must now be planned out, so if you were a spontaneous, in-the-moment sort of person before, you will be thrown off your game. Do you want to go to the movies? Who will watch the baby? Are you breast-feeding? Will you leave some milk behind while you are out? Do you feel good about the person who is watching the infant? Is he/she conscientious and responsible?

The job of going out with the baby is not less demanding. Packing all his/her stuff, bundling him up, carrying or pushing him around, and trying to concentrate on driving or shopping or friends or your spouse at the same time.

Then there is the question of your parents and your in-laws. Do they want to be very involved with your new-born? How will you and your spouse feel if they are around more often? Will they be supportive or critical of you as new parents?

Of course, in order to go out, you must have a few dollars in your pocket. Most new parents have only a few–the mother (yes, its still usually the mother) has, at least temporarily taken time off from work. And now there is baby furniture and clothing and food to buy and baby sitters to pay for. Fewer dollars tends to mean more tension in the marriage and more decisions to be made about how to use those dollars.

New parents also face an increased sense of responsibility. After all, you have a little one who is entirely dependent upon you for everything–his life, safety, financial well-being, his clothes, food, and not least, his emotional health. Are you doing it right? Are you harming him/her? These concerns are enough to make nearly anyone insecure.

And, with the demands and responsibilities of this new life, you will necessarily have less time for each other and less time for yourself and your friends. Not surprisingly, especially among insecure men, jealousy can come into play. In an unexpected turn of events, the adoring sex-bomb he married just might have eyes for someone else–his own child! And, the needs of that kiddie will tend to come first. Moreover, if you have parents staying with you, your sexual spontaneity can be further diminished by their proximity. Later, you might also hear the phrase, “Not now–wait until the baby is asleep,” or later still “Not now, the kids might hear.” And one or both of you might occasionally find yourself thinking, to your surprise, that a nap sounds a lot better than sex.

In the time following the birth, the wife often feels less attractive, especially if her weight doesn’t come down to her pre-pregnancy number and the bags under her eyes reflect the sleeplessness of her new duties. Will the husband be understanding about this?

Heard enough? I haven’t even mentioned the differences in child-rearing styles that you will likely discover when your baby gets older.

Now that I’ve made the case against springing for a new off-spring, I will say something else: it can be one of the most wonderful times of your life. A time when you and your spouse pull together, find out new things about each other and about life, and glow with the love that only a child can evoke from you. If you are not dazzled by this new life, a life that you and your partner created out of nothing, a life that is different from any other one that exists now or ever existed, then you are missing one of the most wonderful experiences possible; it is a kind of falling in love, just as overwhelming as the romantic kind, but different.

Sure its a challenge, but what worthwhile tasks are not? It can be intense, delightful, joyous, worrying, demanding, and frustrating all at once.

But if you do it close to right and have a little luck, you will look back on your time on the planet knowing that it was the most important and rewarding thing you ever experienced.

Hope For the New Year: Old Words After a Tough Twelve Months

Its been a tough year, but not the first in human history. These old words from the great nineteenth-century Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson seem just right:

“Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare us to our friends and soften us to our enemies. Give us strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death loyal and loving to one another.”

Unloading Your Therapist: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Ending a relationship is difficult. Most of us have been on the receiving end of a relationship “break up” of some kind. We know that it doesn’t feel good. Indeed, we know that it can be taken as a rejection (and often that is exactly what it is). Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop some of the same people who decry the insensitivity of those who unceremoniously “dumped them” from doing the very same thing, in the very same way, when they wish to be free of seeing someone else ever again.

With that in mind, here are a few guidelines for thought and action, and some examples of what people do, when and if it comes time to end a relationship with a therapist. Today, I won’t be talking about the sense of loss or sadness that sometimes accompanies therapy’s end. I’ll leave that weighty topic to another time.

1. The “I’ll call you” strategy. Usually, this is delivered by phone message. The patient probably has an appointment with the therapist and cancels it, adding that he will call to reschedule. Experienced therapists know that many people will attempt to end the therapeutic relationship in this way. It avoids a face-to-face conversation which the patient might imagine as uncomfortable, and it avoids actually giving any reason for terminating therapy. It leaves the therapist a bit in the dark, not knowing whether the predicted call will ever come, and probably not knowing what the reason is for the decision to end treatment.

2. The “end of session” termination. Patients often wait until the end of the therapy session to say something of importance, in part because it is uncomfortable or they don’t want to discuss it in any detail, at least not yet. This method of termination has the advantage of being done face-to-face; what it doesn’t do is to allow the two parties to process the reasons for that decision and discuss any concerns. Without some time to talk, the therapist cannot be helpful to the soon-to-be-departed patient, or find out much about the client’s reasons for his decision. Without knowing what those reasons are, its hard for the therapist to learn from any mistakes he might have made, anything he did (or didn’t do) that made the patient uncomfortable, etc.

3. The “no-show” departure. Some individuals who are receiving counseling decide to end therapy by simply being absent from their next scheduled appointment. This is rude, of course, and also risks that the therapist will charge you for the time even though you didn’t come to his office (most therapists expect 24-48 hours notice of cancellation in order to relieve you of the obligation of payment).

4. The “nasty phone call” ending. While this is a rare event, sometimes people want to hurt the therapist because they believe that they have been hurt or neglected by him. They leave an angry phone message and avoid any chance for the therapist to find out why they are hurting, just as they make it impossible to come to a more amicable resolution of the issues at hand.

5. The “I need a break” message. It is, indeed, sometimes appropriate for patients to take a break from treatment. It can get too intense for some, who realize that taking a breather might be helpful. On other occasions, the complications of life outside of the counselor’s office make continued therapy difficult for the moment. However, when giving the message that you “need a break” is simply a way of leaving therapy, with no intention of return, it doesn’t allow for any closure to the relationship, or any of the benefits that such closure provides (which are described below).

6. The “best” way. Whether you have been seeing the therapist for a long time or a short one, the issue of termination is an important one. It is appropriate for you, even from the start of treatment, to ask how long it is expected to last. If you are finding counseling unsettling or unproductive at any point, it is best if you discuss your concerns with the therapist as they happen. Since many people who enter therapy have a hard time with being assertive and direct, it might well be tempting not to talk much about anything that you believe the therapist doesn’t want to hear, and simply to end the relationship unilaterally. Unfortunately, you and the therapist are short-changed if you do this.

Ideally, your concerns should be expressed early in a session, when there is sufficient time to talk about them. Be prepared for your therapist to ask you why you are thinking of ending treatment. You might be surprised that the therapist agrees with you. Alternatively, you might be persuaded if he makes a good case to continue for a while. But if you are certain that it is time to end things, be sure to hold your ground. A good counselor should accept this without trying to make you feel bad about your decision.

Once an understanding is reached about ending treatment, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it must end at precisely that moment. You and the therapist might decide to taper-off sessions or to have at least one additional session to sum up the history of your work together and to say “goodbye.”

There are several reasons for having just such a final session. First, it should allow the two of you to review what you have accomplished, how your life has changed, and what you have learned. Equally, if nothing or little of value has occurred, it can give you the chance to inform the therapist where treatment went wrong. Therapists should be grateful for this information since it allows them to learn, adapt, and improve so that they can help those patients who will follow you into their offices. And, a last session gives the therapist time to point out treatment alternatives or refer you to other available therapists who you might wish to consult.

Finally, a good therapist who has known you for a bit of time usually has some very nice things to say about you, about your courage, wit, grace, intelligence, and the guts it took to look your problems in the face and try to change your life. The last session also gives you a chance to say “thank you,” if that is something that you believe appropriate. The counselor will usually let you know that he would be grateful to hear from you again, just to know how you are doing. And, the door is almost always open if a return to therapy is required.

So, therapy, even when it wasn’t as helpful as you had hoped, can and should end with an expression of respect and good wishes for your future well-being. You will usually feel good about being direct in doing what you believe is in your interest, and having the self-confidence and respect to tell it to the therapist face-to-face. Your therapist will be grateful too, in almost all cases.

No losers here. Only winners.

Self-Defeating Behavior and the Path to Loneliness

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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.

“Not Invited,” “Picked Last,” and Other Small Tragedies of Childhood

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Unless you were an unusually charismatic or talented child, you know what it feels like to hear about a party to which virtually all the other kids were invited, and realize that you weren’t; or to be the last person chosen for a team of your peers, and chosen only after even the marginally talented athletes were picked. And then, if worse than that is possible, to be assigned to play right field, the spot on the baseball diamond where you were expected to inflict the least damage to your team.

Or, if you are female, you might remember trying to join a group of girls engaged in conversation, only to find them falling silent upon your approach, and then being told that the conversation is private.

Humiliation, embarrassment, sadness, and chagrin, call it what you may, that feeling lingers. And it lingers long enough, dear reader, that you are just now probably thinking of an example of it from your own life.

Bummer.

Most kids don’t want to stand out from the group, but want to be a part of the group. And to be the last one chosen, or not to be invited at all, makes you stand out in the worst possible way. Your secret is out.

Until the moment of your “unchoosing,” you probably only suspected that you were a lousy athlete or an unpopular person. Now, not only do you know it for certain, but so does everyone else.

It can even happen to adults. I’ll give you one rather singular example. The event occurred at a staff meeting of a psychiatric hospital. The psychology section was having an election for the offices of President and Secretary. Two people were running for the former office and only one for the latter. It was the custom to ask all the candidates to leave the room when the vote was about to be taken, since the election was done by a show of hands.

The Presidential election was quickly completed. Now came the vote for Secretary, presumably a formality, since the only person who wanted the job was unopposed on the ballot.

But things were not so simple as they seemed. The candidate for Secretary wasn’t well-thought-of by his peers. And so, someone nominated the just-defeated candidate for President to run against the solo petitioner for the unfilled office. Sure enough, the previously unopposed gentleman was defeated.

It was the only time in my experience that I ever heard about or witnessed someone lose an election in which he had been running as the sole office-seeker moments before. And you can imagine how this turn of events must have struck the man who had left the room thinking that his ascension to the office of Secretary was just a formality. Playing right field would have felt good by comparison.

No, no one wants to stand out in that way. You don’t want to be the kid who brings the worst gift to your friend’s birthday party. You don’t want to wear clothes that are different from those of your friends, or outdated, or too big, or too small, or too worn. You don’t want to be the kid whose mother cuts his hair. And, if you are female, you don’t want to be the only one who “isn’t allowed” to wear makeup or lipstick, or have one’s hair done in the latest style.

Clearly, all the psychic injuries inflicted during childhood don’t happen at home. It’s a wonder that there isn’t a medic on the playground to deal with the walking-wounded. The resilience of little children indeed must be impressive to permit us to survive and flourish despite the hard experience of our youthful innocence.

So, the next time your son or daughter comes home looking a bit sad, perhaps you will find a way to encourage him or her to recount just such a fresh defeat on the playground that is sometimes also a battleground or a forge in which a young personality is shaped. And, if they do, remember your own hard time when you were your child’s age. It just might make the moment a bit more poignant and allow you to “be there” for your precious offspring in the best possible way.

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

Therapy, Responsibility, and the Nuremberg Defense

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Therapy, like life, requires taking responsibility for what becomes of you. But, as the comedy team Cheech & Chong famously noted, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” What does that have to do with “the Nuremberg Defense?” Read on.

If you are old enough (or a good student of history) the word Nuremberg has a certain resonance for you. It is a German town that was a center of the Holy Roman Empire and the Renaissance; later becoming the host of Nazi Party rallies between 1927 and 1938, the site of the passage of the Nuremberg Laws stripping German Jews of their citizenship, and equally well-known for the war crimes trials that were held after WWII, in an attempt to hold Nazi villains to account. Such Nazi higher-ups as Hans Frank, Rudolph Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Albert Speer, and Julius Streicher were brought to justice there (see above photo); Hermann Goering escaped hanging only by committing suicide.

A common refrain during the testimony of the accused was the statement “I was only following orders.” This line of explanation was used so often that it became known as “the Nuremberg Defense.” It was found insufficient by the judges, who reasoned that the accused had the moral responsibility to refuse orders to commit “crimes against humanity,” even assuming that it could be demonstrated that such orders were given.

Since I don’t treat war criminals, you might be asking yourself how the failure of some of these long-dead Nazis to take responsibility applies to treating people with less dramatic problems of depression or anxiety or relationship disappointment? In the course of talking with my patients, I often discover that they have suffered from some sort of misfortune; be it inadequate, negligent, or abusive parents; accident or injury; or unfair treatment at school, at work, or in love. Sometimes the stories are heartbreaking. It is perfectly proper for patients to blame at least part of their unhappiness on these events and these people. Moreover, it is often essential that they grieve those losses, give voice to their anger and sadness, and rail against the unfairness of life. And it is important for a therapist to help them as they process their grief.

But therapy cannot end there.

The patient, if he is to improve his life, cannot simply assign responsibility to some other person as a release from the need to take charge of what becomes of himself in the future, any more than a Nuremberg defendant might hope that assignment of responsibility to the commanding officer would take him off the hook for the unspeakable acts he committed.

Put more simply, neither the war crimes defendant nor the common therapy patient can point to someone else, say “He is the one who caused this,” and leave things at that. Just as the SS criminals were asked, “And then what did you do?” so must we all, regardless of what misfortune has happened to us, ask ourselves, “Now what? Do I simply accept the injustice, forever blame others, and stay defeated and aggrieved in-perpetuity, or do I grieve my loss, take responsibility for my life, and try to get beyond the injuries I’ve suffered?”

We all know people who, however small or large the disappointment that they have experienced, never get beyond criticizing, blaming, whining, and feeling sorry for themselves. While some of this is often necessary to get past the hurt, a lifetime of it is simply a waste, a personal failure to take control and to admit and accept that if life is to have meaning and value, we all have to do something positive with that life, regardless of bad breaks. Even if fairness demands that others compensate us for our losses, if such compensation cannot be obtained, life still calls us to repair ourselves. As a therapist colleague of mine, at the risk of sacrilege, used to tell those patients who seemed to forever bemoan their fate, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

Shakespeare commented on responsibility-taking in Julius Caesar when he gave Cassius the words:

“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.”

This is not always literally true. But there is no better way to live than to try to make our circumstances the best we can, however unlucky our lot. A good therapist will help you get there.