In the Land of Those Who Dare Not Speak: A New Year’s Parable

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Imagine you stand in a courtyard, four doors equidistant from you. One leads — you hope — to some version of material prosperity: stacks of crisp greenbacks, luxury, titles, accomplishments. Are they more than you need or what you desperately need?

Behind door number two resides jealousy. Here is the personal storehouse of unfulfilled wishes. A worker stands with a brush. He paints everything with the green of envy. No objects inhabit the place, only the ideas with which you fill your head, catalogued for your review: the kind of marriage of this one, the beauty of that one, the genius and happiness of another. To enter you must speak the language of complaint.

A third portal stands in the shadows: the door of the undeserving. Those who step through believe they lack the right to speak of suffering. They’ve been told their life is good. All their externals are properly arranged. They present the world an outward show of seeming to be what is expected. Acquaintances recognize little else, but the soul knows a deeper truth. Here is a library of unexpressed grief, pages beyond counting. The books are sealed and unread. Like all libraries, no sound is permitted. The residents of this prison open their mouths as if to talk, turn around, expect someone to judge them ungrateful for what they have, and leave the pain unspoken. Theirs is the green of nausea, the self-imposed invalidation of a corked bottle filled with tears not meant to stay inside.

Beyond the final door a barren landscape stretches to the horizon. Everything is brown and gray, like a snowless, unformed winter’s day. You spy something new: tinges of green — a few mini-shoots, the color of possibilities. What could grow there? The things you can’t see, not yet, but just might increase if offered a chance — by you and circumstance.

You recognize something shiny among the shoots: the large shard of a broken mirror. The silvered glass looks back at you. And then you realize you are a thing that might grow, enhance. Still, this place is the hardest, least sure.

Four doors. Which will you choose? Or will you wait, decide not, hesitate?

The photo is call 1green doors by psyberartist. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Do You Have a Bad Attitude?

Life is difficult enough without making yourself miserable. Those who begin with a negative, “can’t do” point of view often justify themselves by saying that they don’t want to get their hopes up; that the world is unfair and one should be prepared for it. But in so doing they can create their own misery and bring down the mood of those who are close by.

I’ll discuss below a few variations on this theme — different forms of “bad attitude” along with some potential solutions:

1. Focusing on the past. While I am a firm believer in learning from the past, one must remember that it is yesterday’s news. Short of daydreaming about a happier time in your life or doing the essential work of grieving, it can fuel sadness without compensating benefits. The past holds too many unfulfilled hopes, failures, and broken romances. It is the storehouse of betrayals — about “what might have been.” It is the place where things that went wrong can fill your mind and heart with regret. It is a wasteland of missed opportunities, lost beauty, and a nostalgia that is no more satisfying than trying to fill your stomach with the photo of a past meal. Visit the past, but don’t live there.

2. Living in a frightening future. An exclusive focus on the future can be as deadly as a preoccupation with the past. The twin dangers of living in the future are worry/anxiety and make-believe daydreaming. Most who live in the future usually live a life of dread, overpredicting catastrophe and underestimating their ability to survive misfortune.

The only thing we have in life with any certainty is the present. Any chance of happiness depends upon one’s ability to find a way to live in the moment and find satisfaction there, experiencing it and whatever it brings, accepting life on its terms. Plan for the future but be careful not to live in that future any more than you live in the past.

The goal ahead might be very worthwhile, but try to enjoy the journey to get there. Mindfulness meditation, Stoic philosophy, the Zen tradition, and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) can help reorient you to determining what is important in life; setting aside what is inessential, distracting, or worrisome; and living according to those principles in the present moment.

3. Pessimism or the self-fulfilling prophecy. Pessimism is a close cousin to worry and anxiety over events that may never happen. It smothers spontaneity, joy, and drains energy. It renders defeat in the game of life even before the game has begun. It anticipates a guilty verdict from the jury that causes one not even to show up for the trial. Pessimism destroys motivation and generates avoidance of challenges or half-hearted effort, at best. Depression and pessimism drink from the same poisoned well.

4. Throwing a wet blanket on the happiness of others. Don’t be a buzz-killer, a kill-joy, or a party pooper. Avoid raining on someone else’s parade. Don’t be an emotional suicide bomber, someone who brings down oneself and all those around you. A bad attitude can consist of always seeing the single dark cloud on a glorious sun-lit day, especially if the sun is shining on someone else. It is the “yes, but” response to the other’s good fortune, her excitement, and her dreams. It attempts to make others suffer as much as you are. This attitude masquerades as attempting to “be helpful” or “realistic” or trying to prevent the friend or child “from being hurt.” Perhaps. But it is a cautionary or negative/critical message at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong person.

5. Rejecting the encouragement or helpfulness of others. Most people want to ease your suffering, to offer you some encouragement or hope or solace. But if you have a bad attitude, you will reject all of this. You will say “I’ve thought of that already” when you are offered a suggestion or “I’ve already tried that” or “That won’t work because…” Instead, your bad attitude may isolate you from those who only wish to offer their presence and show their affection for you; their simple desire to hold your hand in a difficult moment. In the worst case you will drive such people away, thereby increasing your sense of separation from the world and guaranteeing a solitary misfortune.

6. Perfectionism or the belief that things can always be better. Some of us can’t accept a grade of 99% on the test, simply because we could have done better. Short of performing brain surgery, it is useful to be able to accept the imperfect nature of life and ourselves. Do your best, prepare for the race, study hard; but realize that perfection (if it is to be found at all) resides only in the works of Mozart, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and a few others. If you punish yourself for falling short of that ideal, you have misunderstood the nature of life on earth and guaranteed that you will be joyless.

7. Whining and complaining. Worse than those who see only the dark side of life are those who not only see it, but won’t let you get away from them before they tell you about it in malcontented detail. They tend not to focus on abstractions. Rather, their concern is not the unfairness of life, but the unfairness of their life. There is no surer way of driving people away than to adopt this particular version of a bad attitude.

8. Fighting every battle. Some people seem perpetually aggrieved and angry. They live with a chip on each shoulder, daring life to knock the wood off. Life will knock it off, but not in the way that they expect. Their anger will breed anger in others. And in fighting perpetually, they will miss any sense of contentment or joy.

No one can take on all the battles worth joining, let alone those that will produce nothing of value. As an antidote to rage, gratitude for the things in life too easily taken for granted can be coupled with acceptance of the things that you can’t change. Ideally, these two abilities will usually counterbalance the frustrations and resentments of life without robbing you of the capacity to fight the good fight when necessary. Telling the difference between those skirmishes that need you and those you should pass is crucial. If you are too angry too often, seek counseling.

9. Refusing to take life seriously. If you’ve been paying attention, there is a relatively new popular expression among teens and a few others. It is called YOLO or “you only live once.” It justifies mindless foolishness; not just ill-considered behavior, but action that is not considered at all. It can be an excuse for doing whatever you want or refusing to do whatever someone else might advise. YOLO suggests that you are not living in the future, not living in the past, and not living in any really mindful present. If you were, the thought of driving 60 miles an hour down a side street in a school zone would never be translated into actually doing it. We seem to make enough mistakes in life without adopting a philosophy of life that virtually guarantees it.

10. Too much realism. While it helps to see the world as it is, there is the risk of it being too much of a good thing. The world as it is today (or most any day) includes poverty, genocide, and betrayal; infirmity, disease, and heartbreak; stress, cruelty, and the big one: death. Everyone you know will die and that also includes you. Focus on all of this just enough to make the most of your precious and too short life. Focus on it just a little more and you will be so depressed that you won’t want to get out of bed.

If you have any of the bad attitudes I’ve described, your first response will usually be to justify it; perhaps even to see it as a strength. But I would ask you if you are satisfied with your life as it is? If not, then you may need to investigate that same attitude, especially those aspects that actually could be making the problem worse. Ask friends and family what they see in you that needs to change — if they have enough courage and love of you to tell you the truth (and you have the guts to take it). Looking in the mirror — seeing yourself as others see you — is brutally hard, but can be a first step to enlightenment and a better life.

Read Czikszentmihalyi about “flow” and those wonderous moments when one is so involved in a productive/creative action that one loses all sense of time and self. Read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, Martin Seligman, Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and other “positive” (hedonic) psychologists about what makes for happiness and how to get there.

It can be helpful to make a list of those things for which you are grateful. Indeed, it may be of assistance to look back at the day to find what it can teach you or what was good (even on a bad day). Yes, I know that plenty that is bad does happen and has happened and will happen. But we humans must not live in these moments of misery for too long without grieving our losses and moving on, learning to accept the nature of life, and learning that the very best times are unreflecting, unself-conscious, utterly spontaneous experiences that we don’t think about, we simply are living them.

In part, our job is to pull our head out of its backward look, out of its forward glance, and play the game that is exactly where we are — right here, right now. That ultimately means more action, more experiment, more risk and less thought — swimming in the pool of life without regard to getting wet. It matters not if you start in the shallow end of the pool because most of us do — just don’t stay there.

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Harper knew more than a little about the water and about the voyage. She put the idea of living your life with a good (rather than a bad) attitude very well:

A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.

The top image is Emotions X by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) downloaded by access. The second is Messerschmidt’s The Constipated, dowloaded by Sailko. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Are You Too Emotional?

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You’ve heard it before — “You are too emotional!” Surely you heard it as a child, at least once. But, what does it mean? How do you know if it is true? What is the proper place of emotions in any life? And, if you are “too emotional,” what should you do about it?

First let us establish some ground rules. Emotion is necessary. Imagine a life without it. No  love, no families based on that love, no compassion, no empathy, no righteous anger. What would be left? A life of relating to others as objects, like chairs or tables, their only value in utility — the function that they perform; only reason would be left — cold computation of what to do and how to do it. No laughter, no tears, no gratitude, no passion.

If you agree with what I’ve just said, then it is clear that emotion has a place. It binds us to others, plays a part in letting us know when we have been injured, allows for the possibility of good relationships and a joy in living. It also creates an energy that is necessary for self-defense and for the pursuit of causes. Emotion motivates us and permits the creation of communities.

But, when you are called “too emotional,” the accuser usually isn’t referring to love or happiness or even anger. No, usually he means that you are too easily hurt. And, when you are young, especially if you are male, you are encouraged to “be a man” and live by the “athlete’s creed;” if you are hurt, in other words, rub some dirt on the injury and get back into the game. Don’t complain; that is for whiners and wimps and little kids.

Well, if you are an athlete, that is what you have to do. Think too much about the injury and you won’t be able  to perform. Moreover, if you even think too much about your past failure in the game, you won’t have the confidence and focus to be able to succeed in the remainder of the contest. So, under those circumstances, being “emotional” does, indeed, get in the way. Similarly, emotion interferes with necessary behavior in war-time or in other crises that require focus, indifference to pain, and steadfast action.

But how about situations that are less demanding and fraught with danger or competition?

For me at least, emotion has become, for the most part, a friend. I can be moved by the sadness of my patients and those in my life who I love. I do not consider it a weakness. It is simply a part of being the responsive, sensitive person I aspire to be. And I can be moved by music or drama, again to the point of a tear. Life seems richer, warmer, more eventful and worthwhile that way. I don’t feel the need to keep up a brave front, an appearance of having tamed my emotions.

No, I’m not often whipsawed by my feelings, but, in part, that is because I give them their place in things and don’t keep them all bottled-up, looking for a way to burst out of the container that I would otherwise have put them in. And, when it is required, I am prepared to seek solace from a few of those closest to me, just as I give solace to my patients and those I love.

True, being emotionally vulnerable means that you can be injured. But, don’t fool yourself, life will have its way with you whether you are deadened to feelings or not. By killing your emotions, you are probably only succeeding in limiting the fullness of your life while attempting to create an illusion of strength.

Put another way, it is only human to have emotions and best if you are comfortable with that fact almost all the time.

But, beware when the emotions have you!

At the extreme is a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, states that “the essential feature of BPD is a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects (emotions), and marked impulsivity that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.” These folks are, unfortunately prone to “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment,” instability, recklessness, suicidal behavior, rapid and intense mood changes, emptiness, and anger. They are the flesh-and-blood definition of what it means to be “too emotional.” And, not surprisingly, they are difficult to treat, although Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a treatment specifically designed to do so, and has demonstrated great promise with this patient group.

For those who are not categorized with this diagnostic label, how do you know if you are too emotional? Here are a few questions you might ask yourself:

1. Do people, not only family members, often tell you that you are too emotional?

2. In an over-heated moment do you tend to make impulsive decisions that you later regret?

3. Do you have many arguments and blow up easily?

4. Do friends and relatives have to handle you with kid gloves?

5. Do your emotions suck the life out of you, change easily and quickly, and generally whip you around?

6. Do you weep easily and often in the absence of major set-backs or great losses (I’m not talking about having a tear come to your eye here, but something more gut-wrenching)?

7. If you are in mid-life, are you no less emotional than you were in your teens? (Most of us become less volatile, more in-balance, over time).

If you’ve answered too many of these in the affirmative, you may want to seek counseling.

A last word or two. Life is challenging. We need to permit ourselves feelings and we need to express them, within limits, and to have a sympathetic soul there to bear witness and listen to us. Balance is the key most of the time. It may help to remember a portion of the “serenity prayer:”

God grant me the serenity

to accept things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

If you do not “know the difference,” often enough and go to emotional extremes over the routine ups and downs of life, if even the small things seem too big, then it might be time to seek professional help. Not to kill your feelings, but to make sure that they don’t destroy your ability to have a good life.

You may find the following post of related interest: Vampires and Buried Feelings: The Therapy of Getting Over Your Hurt.

The above scene, Frenchman Weeps 1940, was used in the 1943 US Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra. The photo shows “French people staring and waving at remaining troops of the French Army leaving metropolitan France at Toulon Harbour, 1940, to reach the French colonies in Africa where they will be organized as Free French Forces fighting on the Allied side, while France is taken over by the Nazis and the Petain regime collaborating with them.”

Wikimedia Source: Records of the Office of War Information, NARA. *Date: June 14, 1940 *L.

Surely, under the circumstances, this man’s emotions were quite appropriate.

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.