Making the nation your fall guy

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not often that I get requests for posts, but I actually got one from my daughter the other day. She wants me to write about psychological projection and Donald Trump.

Well, I sort of have been, just not explicitly. I’m sure that it won’t be news to any psychologists reading my blog that Donald Trump has a bad case of psychological projection. But first, let me define it. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.

I have discussed this before, principally in the context of whom we choose to marry. None of us come into life cast from a perfect mold. We stumble and fall repeatedly through life as we try to find what works in the relational chaos around us. We tend to marry people that force us to confront our own inadequacies, who ironically appear under the guise of our soul mate. When it works in addressing our imperfections, it’s good but not much fun. It helps us grow as human beings in ways we otherwise likely would not grow.

The best way to get through these issues is to live an engaged life, where situations periodically force you to tackle your less than admirable spots. What happens though when you grow up in an insular world? Suppose life is presented in a predominantly false way so you never have to learn to deal with people as they actually are? For perhaps the most egregious case possibly ever, I give you Donald J. Trump.

When one of these people is given a lot of power, this warped perspective can be very damaging. Years ago, I opined that this was the problem with our last president, George W. Bush as he was insulated by Poppy from taking the fall for most of his mistakes growing up. George W. though at least had a father somewhat grounded in the real world. Donald J. Trump’s case is much more extreme.

Trump was a child of privilege from birth. His father told him to not feel ashamed of his family wealth. He was told he was naturally better than other people because of his race, ethnicity and family status. He was told he could clear all obstacles in his path to success because that’s what Trumps do. Trump never had to endure a public school. He never had to scrape for a living or know a day of poverty. He got a generous endowment from his father to start out in business. At least once as an adult his father bailed him out when his financial mistakes caught up with him. He grew up believing that more wealth could be acquired through brand, and that came from image. So he projected the image of the person he wanted to be: rich, confident, successful and glamorous even while his behavior made him a wreck of a man to most of us paying attention and many who encountered him.

Obviously many people bought into his projection. Some of them who partnered with him or bought his overpriced products found out that he was happy to screw them out of their money for the illusion that he offered them something special. Others, principally a lot of white people, see something in Trump they admire. They like that he speaks his mind. They see his bullheadedness as a virtue. I call these Powerball people because I see them all the time at the local convenience stores buying reams of lottery tickets. (I saw one working class Joe drop $80 on lottery tickets at a local Pride store just the other day.) They see themselves as temporarily inconvenienced future millionaires and Trump as a model of what is possible, forgetting that he was born into privilege. While waiting for life to reward their talent they hope for unlikely riches by winning at Powerball. They believe that the right uber-male with the golden touch can change a system they feel is rigged against them and favoring the others. Trump is their spokesman and change agent.

In reality Trump has failed many times in life but at least was smart enough to cushion those failures by foisting it on others, including taxpayers like us. When he acquired enough wealth he was also able to throw lawyers at people who gave him grief, like his creditors. This let him develop a reputation of someone not to mess with, so a lot of people didn’t even though he shafted them. He seems to have tacitly conceded that he is not a successful businessman anymore, but he does see himself as a successful brander. He now sells illusion that he has the Midas touch. This part of his career, as well as his ceaseless self-promotion and stomping on those who question it has been successful, at least until now.

Trump’s enormous ego means he believes that he can succeed at anything he puts his mind to, so the presidency became his irresistible lure. The only problem is that he is spectacularly unqualified to actually be president. He never held political office, which requires learning the language of diplomacy, creating coalitions and true leadership. He doesn’t understand how winning campaigns are run and publicly flouted the rules. A wonkish president is good but he simply does not have the ability to absorb information, analyze it and reach logical decisions. He operates on impulse, gut instinct and the unquestioning belief in his own greatness. It’s not surprising then that his campaign never really caught on except for those who shared his perspective, which turned out to be a plurality of Republican primary voters. He doesn’t know how to seal the deal with the rest of us because he has no experience relating to us.

Losing the presidency will be an epic failure for him, but one he cannot acknowledge. It would be to admit his brand is worthless which means he is worthless. But worse, it would mean he would have to confront his own shame. And what is this shame? It’s not that he’s a bully or ran perhaps the most inept campaign ever. It’s the shame that he cannot succeed in selling himself to a majority of American voters.

So it has to be someone else’s fault because if he confronts the awful truth about himself, his house of psychic cards collapses. It would mean that instead of being an uber-male he’s a human being like the rest of us, and not a particularly likable one. It would mean that in spite of his fortune he is a failure because he could not meet his own impossibly high mark.

To keep himself from confronting this awful truth, he will apparently do anything. This is exactly what people with bad cases of psychological projection do simply to mentally survive. And if that means encouraging his followers to harass voters he doesn’t like from voting or by claiming our electoral system is rigged when it isn’t, so be it. If that means breaking our democracy in a fundamental way and causing widespread civil insurrection, he’s good with that. That’s because it means he doesn’t have to confront himself. He never has and this won’t be an exception.

Perhaps by rejecting Trump the country can at least acknowledge its mistake in picking a similar but less-flawed piece of hubris: George W. Bush. Perhaps we are maturing at last. Don’t expect Donald Trump to do so.

Perchance to dream, part two

The Thinker by Rodin

Now that I’m dreaming again, I am noticing some recurring themes. Apparently, I stopped dreaming for many years, probably for decades, due to moderate sleep apnea. Sigmund Freud would probably have a field day analyzing these dreams. Most dreams tend to be ephemeral, thus hard to remember, but some keep recurring enough or have enough emotional impact that you remember them when you are awake. Here are four for your amusement. Loss of control or rather, fear of loss of control seems to be a recurring theme in my dreams, which suggests I project an aura of certainty, which would not surprise frequent readers of this blog.

Is there a bathroom in the house?

I bet this is a very common dream. Maybe it is a condition of middle age, when your bladder is more problematic and you want some assurance that a toilet is not too far away. The dream does not vary much but the thrust is always the same: I need to go really bad, but no matter which restroom I try, I cannot get relief. Curiously, I always need to go #1, not #2 in these dreams. And so I spend inordinate amounts of dream time searching desperately for a working toilet or urinal. But they are always full. There’s either a line of guys out the door waiting to use the urinals, or the toilets are cracked, broken, or so completely filthy that even a desperate human could not possibly use them. So I go in quest of another bathroom while the problem gets continuously more acute, and each subsequent restroom has the same issues, and is often worse.

Sometimes in desperation I look for a discreet spot outside to go, but just when I think I have found such a spot and am about to expose my privates, I find that someone is observing, so no relief is possible.

Eventually my conscious mind stumbles to wakefulness and I realize that I really do have to go, and this is my body’s imperfect way of telling me this. So I stumble into the bathroom, which us middle aged men do a couple of times a night anyhow, do my business and hope the dream will not recur.

The very high cliff

Here is another dream which I believe is very common. Some say it goes back to being “weightless” in utero. Basically it involves an oops moment. Somehow I stumble off a very high cliff and fall toward the ground. I am, of course, scared out of my mind and convinced I am moments from death. The curious thing is that in real life you probably would fall to your death and be dead a few seconds later. But in the dream you never actually make it to impact, you are just incredibly scared by this total loss of control and impending total destruction. The scariness builds on top of the scariness and just goes on and on until the rational part of my brain finally kicks in, wherein I groggily awake and then do what I often do when I awake in the middle of the night: shuffle off to the bathroom because my bladder wants me to go anyhow.

The seductress

This is my favorite dream. Its downside is it never lasts long enough. It involves intimate carnal knowledge of a woman, usually much younger, who is totally hot and totally wants my body for some unexplained and irrational reason because, trust me, I’m not anyone any hot and young babe is going to pursue, even if I didn’t have the wedding ring. Like most great seductions, it seems that the most enjoyable part comes before actual carnal knowledge, i.e. the anticipation of the carnal knowledge and some sort of magic charisma I don’t actually possess. Anyhow, usually she is not only totally hot, but she is exotic, typically Asian. I find Asian women in general attractive, so I’m not surprised they often appear in my erotic dreams. Suffice to say they are not pursing me in real life. Sometimes I actually proceed to sex acts with these women, but usually it ends about the time penetration or oral sex begins, darn it.

I wish I could stay in these dreams, but unlike others like the bathroom dream where I can’t seem to get out of them, my consciousness usually quickly wakes me up with an “Oh, get real!” It’s either my consciousness or I’m tuning into my wife’s gentle snoring. In short, there is no way to actually achieve satiety in this dream. The perfect sexual experience, impossible in real life, is impossible for me in dreamland as well.

The reluctant protector

This one happened last night around four a.m. It sure was strange, so strange that I actually remembered it. I have a lot of dreams on similar themes: I am in situations I don’t particularly want to be in, and I struggle to get free but can’t quite make it free. The more I struggle, the worse it gets. This one involved kids and youth, which was weird. They were drawn to be because (a) I’m an adult (b) they see me as something like a knight in armor, i.e. a good man in a bad world. Meanwhile, all around them all sorts of bad things are happening which put them, but not me, in jeopardy. I’m not sure what these bad things are exactly, but they are pretty nasty and they need protection. So they huddle around me, latching on tightly with hands, legs, fingers, anything they can desperately, because they think I will save them. They cry out to me and drill me with their desperate and panicky eyes. And it becomes too much from me. I must get free from them so I push them off me as fast as I can, to their wailing, consternation and my feelings of guilt. Yet for everyone I manage to push off, two more latch on, so eventually there are kids five or six layers deep surrounding me, needing me, and expecting me to protect them. I simply cannot because I don’t have a free hand. All I really want is to be free of the burden and go rest somewhere, alone, in the quiet.

If there are any armchair psychologists, real or wannabees out there, feel free to tell me what these dreams mean. They must mean something as they generally recur frequently. I wish I could dream of something more entertaining for a change.

No foolin’

The Thinker by Rodin

Today is April Fools’ Day. It is a tradition that is so old that according to Wikipedia (which hopefully is not fooling us) its origins are lost in antiquity. Its origins may be so old that no one remembers how it began, but I wish we would kill it.

We have all been victims of April Fools’ Day at one time or another. Because it only happens once a year many of us, unless we are mindful of the approaching holiday, find it easy to succumb. At least today, most of them are easy to spot. Even I wasn’t fooled by Google’s Gmail Custom Time joke today. But hey, if anyone can invent an email Wayback machine, it is those wizards at Google.

So why do I loathe April Fools’ Day? I think I hate it because I hate being humiliated, thus I simply cannot find it within myself to debase others by humiliating them. That we are all gullible at times is hardly news. It is part of the human condition. Heck, even our president, who strikes me as a genuinely foolish man, once actually said, “Fool me once, shame on you. You can’t get fooled again.” I am more tolerant of self-humiliating fools. (I also know that we all have times when we are a bit incoherent. I think this is a condition of middle age.) The instigator of an April Fools joke though is really its unintended recipient. It says a lot about someone’s lack of character that he considers it fun to humiliate other people. It tells me that this is someone to avoid.

People who have been serially humiliated, and there are millions of them, suffer quite severe psychological damage. The primary damage is to their self-esteem. It builds a feeling of inadequacy and breeds a sense of paranoia that can last a lifetime and be truly disabling. Through events like April Fools’ Day, it is possible to reinforce opinions about someone they generally dislike anyhow. This can often be done in very cruel ways, such as by doing it in front of large groups of people. Anyone who laughs along in this humiliation is also slimed, because they are tacitly condoning such events.

Perhaps that is why most of us grown adults do not stoop to direct humiliation, but can find other less obvious ways of achieving the same goals. There are many ways to humiliate someone but they can all have a similar wounding effect. The accumulation of such events can result in lifelong problems, problems that never need to have happened.

Why do we do this? We do it to cover up our own inadequacies. By proving someone else as a fool, it is harder for others to see us as foolish. Some people instead may see the joker as clever, or popular, or a risk taker, or a practical jokester. I don’t. I know too many people, including tangentially myself, who have been the victims of such meanness. It is never funny to be the butt of a joke.

When I see someone using a joke to humiliate someone else, my dander is raised. I am not the type easily roused toward direct confrontation, but such events generally have me confronting the utterer. I will say things like, “Perhaps you meant to be funny, but I don’t think what you did is funny. I think it is hurtful.” I am probably one of a very few out there willing to say things like this. April Fools Day often gives me the opportunity. What I usually hear is, “Oh, I didn’t mean anything but it. It’s just a joke.” Yes, perhaps this is true, if humiliation is humorous. I do not believe that it is, but if it is then we can do without this kind of humor.

I do not know how we end something like April Fools’ Day. It is not an official national holiday so there is no law Congress can pass to make it go away. However, our leaders could show a little leadership on this issue. Perhaps it is nothing in the great confluence of world events with which they allegedly wrestle. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be something if President Obama were to use the occasion of April Fools’ Day in 2009 to hold a press conference to simply proclaim the truth that there is nothing funny about making people look foolish. Perhaps as a token gesture, he could issue an executive order banning the exercise of any April Fools’ Jokes by federal civil servants. Perhaps he could include in his press conference some psychologists, who can testify to the damage that organized humiliation inflicts on human psyches.

I am probably something of a fool to think that my little blog entry will do anything to change this despicable holiday. Perhaps if I along with a thousand other bloggers use the occasion of this day to raise the visibility of this issue, it will be taken with the sobriety it deserves, even on this most dubious of days.

It may be April Fools’ Day, but no fooling; it is time to end this sick tradition.

The Illusion of a FWB

The Thinker by Rodin

So, do you have a FWB? If you are like me (i.e. married), you may not know what a FWB is. I had seen the acronym around though. A simple Wikipedia Search quickly satisfied my curiosity.

A FWB is a “Friend with Benefits”. He or she is a person of the gender you are attracted to whom, in addition to being a “friend” (a rather amorphous term) also puts out for you. I have to admit, at first blush having my own FWB sounded great to this old married dude. Providing my wife went along with it (“It’s just sex dear, it’s not like I am in love with her. We are just good friends.”), it could be very convenient. If my wife is having another one of her interminable migraines and I am feeling a bit randy, I could just call up Judy, or Ashley or Kim, and, good friends that they are, would say, “Sure come on over for a quick roll in the hay.” Afterwards (since I do not smoke) we could play cards or talk about Lindsay Lohan’s latest adventures in rehab. Oh, by the way, shall we pencil in going to the art show a week from Saturday?

I suspect the number of married people with FWBs is tiny. It seems to be the single folks out there, usually recovering from the complications of a failed relationship that are drawn to finding a FWB. After all, a FWB relationship has many of the positive sides of a relationship without any of its downsides, like the emotional wreckage. Just as having sex with a condom (hopefully) protects you from sexually transmitted diseases, having sex with a friend protects you from all those nasty relationship issues. At least that is how the FWB theory goes. It is not like having sex with a bunch of strangers at an orgy. You are having sex with your friend, and since he or she is your friend, well, they would not lie to you about anything like having herpes or AIDS would they? In addition, since they are your friend, and they care for you, well, they will be circumspect and avoid becoming intertwined into a deeper emotional relationship with you.

Meanwhile, while you recover from your latest failed relationship, you are not left high and dry. There is no need to resort to your vibrator, or your right hand or the love doll in the closet to respond to Mother Nature’s urgings. While your emotional wounds heal, you can get the sex you need with your FWB. Since you are just friends, when you do not need him or her anymore and find that next special someone then everything is cool. Their feelings will not be hurt when you drop them as your sexual partner. Moreover, in the event your next relationship implodes, your FWB will be there. Well, maybe.

That, as best I can decipher it, is the lure and logic of a FWB. A casual search of Washington Craiglist personals today shows that women in particularly are looking for FWBs. (Men often say they want a FWB, but from their postings it appears they just want a woman who will act like their whore.) Oddly enough though, they do not have one already, so they have to advertise for one. Just some guy or gal to “chill” with. This seems to involve have a few beers in a sports bar, maybe seeing a movie together and then going back to your pad for some harmless conjugal sex.

Even though I am married, one of the reasons a FWB appeals to me is because I think it would be great to have someone into casual sex who liked me as a person and who (here’s the amazing part) is not struggling with their own personal issues. I do not know about you but here I am, age 50, and I struggle with personal issues every day. So does my wife. So does every person I know beyond a surface level, i.e. my friends. We are all embroiled in a certain amount of toxic crap. But not my FWB. She would be special. She would have her head together. That is why, if I need a FWB, I expect that she will be a psychologist or social worker. In my mind, only psychologists and social workers truly have their stuff together. So I am thinking if I need a FWB I will go around town and leave my card at the office of each female social worker and psychologists in my area between, say, age 40 and 50. Do you want a FWB? Call Mark at 703-555-1212. Let’s meet for drinks at the local sports bar. According to my wife, I give great back scratches. Also, I like blogging, classical music and politics. We can have great sex when we both feel like it and no commitment! And we can keep meeting at a sports bar occasionally just to chat. That should intrigue them!

It is just that the more I think about it the more I suspect that psychologists and social workers are in some crucial aspect of their lives also messed up. In fact, the only human beings who (allegedly) were not messed up were messengers from God. Unfortunately, both Jesus and Mohammad are long dead. Moreover, I seem to be attracted to women. Finding my FWB is going to be tough.

I have not had much casual sex. It is probably just me, but I am not very successful divorcing sex from having human feelings for the person I am making love to. The couple of times I tried casual sex left me feeling empty and a bit dehumanized. For me it was like drinking soda that had gone flat. I was left to conclude that those people who tried casual sex had not gotten the real thing: sex within a caring relationship, which if you can get it is amazing. However, if you are having sex with your friend, isn’t that a caring relationship? Well, maybe. When I think of myself having sex with some of my female friends what I suspect would happen is: (a) even if I were single, there is no way I could convince them to have sex with me in the first place; (b) if we did have sex then our relationship would change fundamentally, and probably not for the better; (c) it would be significantly inferior compared with having sex with someone I love; and (d) both of us would likely end up more screwed up than we were before we became FWBs.

If you are in a FWB relationship feel free to leave me a comment telling me that I am all wet. I would particularly like to hear, not about the FWB you coupled with last week, but the one that you coupled with five years ago. Are you still friends? Or has your friendship been reduced to sending Christmas cards once a year? Do you still feel the same about your friend as you did before you made love with him or her? Overall, was your FWB relationship healthy or hurtful?

I will leap to a conclusion and suggest that for the vast majority of you the answers will be no, no and yes. And I will also bet that for about 10% of you, one of your “friends” left a calling card that, if it can be cured, required a trip to a doctor or health clinic. If they did not, I will bet that another 20% of you are or have worked through this issue with a therapist, or wish you had the money to do so.

I believe that sex and the relationship between two people cannot be divorced, as much as at times we might want to be. If they were, perhaps we could better deal with the wacky stuff life throws at us. We might be able to fool ourselves for a while, just as we can pretend that there are no dusty bunnies in our house even though we have not dusted in a year. I suspect if you have a FWB then you have merely sold yourself on its illusion, rather than acknowledge its less than perfect reality.

Perhaps rather than posting that ad on Craigslist for your FWB, maybe you should be finding a therapist instead and discover why you want a FWB in the first place.

It’s a Shame

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s a shame so many of us have their lives defined by feelings of toxic shame.

I am reading Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw (1988). I am trying to figure out if shame may be at the root of some of my (hopefully modest) issues. I don’t think so. I certainly got a huge heaping of Catholic guilt as a child. (Catholics are born guilty. They have the stain of original sin. They are not inherently worthy of salvation and only through baptism is there the hope of salvation.) But guilt and shame are not the same thing. Toxic shame is dysfunctional guilt. Pretty much all of life’s experiences are filtered through these extremely powerful feelings of unworthiness.

I don’t think I am a dysfunctional adult. I love myself just fine. I know I am not a perfect person. None of us are. Yet my life is clearly defined by people I know and love that seem wrapped up in toxic shame. So something is going on. I need to figure it out why I am bound to love so many people with feelings of extreme shame. Perhaps it is normal because there are so many shame-based people in the world. Perhaps the same way I might stop to help a homeless person my heart goes out to those who I see as having worth and dignity but cannot find it within themselves. (I like that one; a sure sign I think that I do not have toxic shame.) Or weirder still, perhaps some part of me seeks them out to work through my own issues.

I am struck by the simple truths in the book that seem to be born out from so much experience:

Neurotic shame is the root and fuel of all compulsive/addictive behaviors. The drivenness in any addiction is about the ruptured self, the belief that one is flawed as a person. The content of the addiction, whether it be an ingestive addiction or an activity addiction (like work, buying or gambling) is an attempt at an intimate relationship. Each one mood alters to avoid the feeling of loneliness and hurt in the underbelly of shame. Each addictive acting out created life-damaging consequences that create more shame. The new shame fuels the cycle of addiction.

Shame begets shame. The cycle begins with the false belief system that all addicts have, that no one could want them or love them as they are. In fact, addicts can’t love themselves. This deep internalized shame gives rise to distorted thinking. The distorted thinking can be reduced to the belief that I’ll be okay if I drink, eat, have sex, get more money, work harder, etc. The shame turns on in what Kellogg has termed a “human doing”, rather than a human being.

Worth is measured on the outside, never on the inside. The mental obsession about the specific addictive relationship is the first mood alteration, since thinking takes us out of our emotions. After obsessing for a while, the second mood alteration occurs. This is the “acting out” or ritual stage of addiction. The ritual may involve drinking with the boys, secretly eating in one’s favorite hiding place or cruising for sex. The ritual ends in drunkenness, satiation, orgasm, spending all the money, or whatever.

“I am no good; there’s something wrong with me,” plays like a broken record. The more it plays, the more one solidifies one’s false believe system. The toxic shame fuels the addiction and regenerates itself.

It is all manifested in words and behavior that say, “I am not worthy”. Among the people I see with toxic shame is my mother. She is about to turn 85, but I believe she has been caught in this shame cycle all of her life. I can only speculate where it came from, but being one of 12 children living in poverty in the Depression, and a girl in the shadow of energetic brothers must have been at least contributing factors. Bradshaw seems to have his own theory that its roots are in early childhood:

As shaming experiences accrues and are defended against, the images created by those experiences are recorded in a person’s memory bank. Because the victim has no time or support to grieve the pain of the broken mutuality, his emotions are repressed and the grief is unresolved. The verbal (auditory) imprints remain in the memory as do the visual images of the shaming scenes. As each new shaming experience takes place, a new verbal imprint and visual image attach to the already existing ones forming collages of shaming memories. Over time an accumulation of shame scenes are attached together. Each new scene potentiates the old, sort of like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting larger and larger as it picks up snow.

When I see someone I love whose life is defined by toxic shame I find it hard not to get irate, but not at them. I have heard many stories about people who were raped. Some, despite years of therapy, never really quite emerge from its shadow. But toxic shame strikes me as something like being raped as a three-year-old child. Whatever potential the child had to grow up to have respect for themselves is gone. What remains is a person who can never truly know their authentic self. Not only are they separated from their authentic self, the ideal conditions are in place to make sure they never become in touch with their authentic self. It seems they are denied their right to wholeness as a human being.

The point of Bradshaw’s book though is to offer hope that those suffering from toxic shame can be rehabilitated. But from my perspective the hardest problem of all is to get those who live their lives in toxic shame to admit that this is their root problem. To most of the world they will deny they have these feelings. But people who love them can pierce through the layers sometime. And out from their ego comes the anguished cry: I am not worthy. I am not loveable. In their minds there seems to be no solution to toxic shame, only the ritual of addiction that acts like a Band-Aid for a while but only exacerbates the feelings of shame.

I think I grasped some of this as a father and decided it wouldn’t happen to my daughter. Raising Rosie I had an almost myopic need to be a loving and supportive father to her. I tried very hard not to make her feel worthless. But I know I wasn’t perfect. I know I have a sarcastic streak, and she has definitely picked up this side of me. It is only recently that I have come to realize that this dominant part of my personality was affecting her, and probably not in a good way. It may well be a sign of passive aggressive behavior in me. I may be passing on some of my own issues to another generation. I find the mere thought appalling.

I strongly suspect that even with perfect parents a child is going to grow up with issues that they will have to tackle as adults. But now that I am tuned into toxic shame I am aware of the scope of the problem. In our mental health landscape this is the equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. And much of it can likely be traced to early childhood issues wrapped around insufficient or inappropriate nurturing from parents and caregivers.

At nearly 85 I don’t think it is possible for my mother to find her authentic self. She is so physically immobilized she often can’t get out of bed without assistance from my father. Her feelings of being unable to care for herself just feed her feelings of toxic shame. I should be able to care for myself. I cannot care for myself. So it must be my fault. There is something wrong with me. I am not worthy. This is the context of what I hear from her when I talk to her. This is the tone of her emails. We hear it in words like “That costs too much money” and “I don’t deserve that.”

The amazing thing about toxic shame though is that no matter how much time and energy we spend telling people with toxic shame that we love, value and appreciate them that none of it leads to transformation. They don’t really believe us. They need to hear it and they appreciate hearing these wonderful things, but they don’t believe it applies to them. We are talking about someone else. The person we love is never their authentic self. The only balm that momentarily satisfies is to go back and revel in their destructive rituals. Drink too much. Eat too much. Complain that no one loves them. The ritual varies and depends on the person, but the ritual must go forward when the feelings of shame overwhelm them.

Perhaps a start is to pick up books like this and read them. But oh, the travesty to never know hold yourself in any esteem. The body survives but it seems like the spirit was killed in its infancy. It’s a crying shame.

Change others by changing yourself

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s all their fault. I’m as guilty of this predisposition as many people. The government is such a mess because the Republicans are in charge. If only my child would listen to me about schooling. If only my wife would fold the laundry right away instead of letting it accumulate in baskets to be done later. If only my mother would get her daily exercise instead of sleeping so much. If only my father would stop this passive-aggressive thing with my mother.

I bet most of you have thoughts like this every day. I often wonder where these thoughts come from. I do know I have spent perhaps an inordinate amount of time analyzing people around me and saying in essence “If they would only do things my way things would be so much better.” And perhaps they would. All they would need to do it make a copy of my brain, implant it in their skull and throw out the old one. They would then think like me and at least that aspect of their behavior would change. Too bad that whatever unique personality they had that attracted them to me in the first place would be gone.

I have looked at myself. Much to my surprise and chagrin I have discovered that I have a lot of character deficiencies. Even by my own standards, which I hope are pretty high, I probably eat too much and exercise too little. I tend toward procrastination. I know my dress appalls my wife. If there was one thing she could change about me it would probably be to give me some fashion sense. Never wear a dress shirt with your blue jeans. You look stupid when you do that. I strongly suspect though that I will continue to dress like a dork. Even if I could get an appreciation for fashion I’m not sure I could find the motivation to dress fashionably. I seem to be missing that chromosome.

I am starting to figure out though that all this projection of my values and my ways of doing things on other people is unhealthy to both me and them. Step one in this self improvement process was to button my lip. I decided it was okay to think these things just not okay to actually express them. There was only one problem to this approach. These feelings still have a way of manifesting themselves. I might not say anything about my wife for not folding the laundry right away but I was still projecting this bad vibe and she was picking it up. Every time I projected myself onto others, either directly or indirectly, it created a poisoned atmosphere. Rather than helping the situation it seemed to make the situation worse. People I allegedly care about, rather than addressing my perceived problems, put up their defenses instead. This inhibited communications and simply entrenched the very things I would like to change about them.

I’m trying to understand how I broke away from this mindset. I would like to think that some part of it came from paying $130 for 45 minute sessions with psychologists every couple weeks or so. But I don’t recall him ever connecting the dots for me. Rather he went through boring cognitive therapy. He asked questions like “What can you do about this problem?” In most cases I couldn’t do much. But what I could do was turn down my own defenses and find opportunities to talk about issues with, say, my wife when her guard was down too and we were both in a mellow space. Part of the solution for me was not to tell intimates like my wife what I wanted them to change, but simply to express how I was feeling on a particular issue.

And it turned out those simple non-defensive conversations with people I cared about worked very well. (I learned to express things differently. “I feel upset when you do XYZ” not “What you are doing about XYZ annoys me.”) In most cases it didn’t change the underlying behaviors in other people that annoyed me. But the act of expressing them was very therapeutic for me. Over time I found that I cared less and less that the laundry wasn’t getting folded immediately or that my daughter wasn’t bringing home straight A’s. Instead I found other more pleasant things to fill up the time I spent needlessly dwelling on behaviors of other people that I could not really change.

It turns out, at least in my case, that the more I stopped projecting my expectations on the rest of the universe the happier I became. My marriage improved. My relationship with my daughter deepened. Toxic coworkers became less toxic and more like human beings. I found myself enjoying life more. I found that the cloud of doom that seemed to either be above me or close by had receded. Now it’s gone pretty much all the time.

What an irony. It seems that sometimes I can demonstrate caring by appearing not to care at all about people I love the most. Rather than be overbearing I have found it is far better to be supportive, positive and nurturing.

I hesitate to say that I am all cured and I will now live happily ever after. I still nitpick about things that shouldn’t matter too much, such as having my daughter do her chores twice a week by 9 PM so I can take the trash out. But I am improving. And so are the people around me. In most cases they are still engaging in the same annoying or potentially self destructive behaviors that irritated me to begin with. But in other cases now that the pressure is off they too are finding ways to improve their behaviors. And sometimes they choose ways that please me. But more often I find that even if they choose ways that don’t please me, it doesn’t bother me.

So I’ll keep my little self improvement project going. Understanding myself should be a big enough challenge for me in one lifetime. Letting go can be healthy, liberating, and best for all involved. And maybe it is the best way of all to change people. From now on I vow to do my best to be supportive and not domineering of my friends and intimates. It’s the best I can do for them and it’s the best I can do for myself.

Engage

The Thinker by Rodin

Right on! That’s what I thought, anyhow, after reading an article in today’s Washington Post about psychiatrist Gordon Livingston. After 33 years of listening to people tell them about their problems he finally decided to talk back in the form of a book, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now“.

Most of the heartbreak of life, he says, comes from ignoring the reality that past behavior is the most reliable predictor of future behavior. Good intentions aren’t a substitute for good acts. Sweet nothings mean nothing. Just do it.

I confess I am losing patience with those who spend their lives whining about the bad things that have happened to them over the years. It’s not that I don’t have some empathy for their problems. I have plenty of it because I went through many of those miserable experiences myself. I do know that dwelling on my problems never solved them. If anything it just made me worse. It was when I stopped dwelling on my problems and figuratively stood up, rolled up my sleeves and engaged the world that things started to improve. I haven’t looked back.

Now clearly this is not something everyone can do overnight. Therapy and antidepressants have their part. But they are only part of the solution to happiness. The other part is to engage the world. It doesn’t matter so much how you engage it as it matters that you just engage it. Life happens through living: through engagement. It withers like a parched garden when you do not engage. This is a truth of life borne out by simple experience, and stated so unambiguously by Gordon Livingston. If we are a garden we make our own rain. This rain though does not come from us directly but through interacting with others. Engagement is essential to our growth and our mental health. It’s really that simple.

I think I can finally say that I’ve cleared my midlife crisis hurdle. It has lasted about ten years, which is about nine years too many. And maybe I was one of these people that needed ten years to get through my stuff. But I know it didn’t happen by staying in my little mental black hole. It happened because I decided the only one I could change was myself so I had better get busy.

Resolution began with graduate school. That consumed three years of my life with no difficulty. And it was a good but very exhausting experience. I discovered that I had the perseverance and smarts I thought I had. It positioned me well in my career. I rode my degree and my work ethic to more interesting and better paying positions. But it was not enough. I was still mired in midlife muck.

It seemed with every couple steps forward there were steps back. I put on weight that I shouldn’t have. Taking it off was yet another difficult and time consuming chore but it focused me. Meanwhile around me members of my family went through mental health crises and physical traumas. Dealing with it drained and depressed me. But I never wholly gave into despair. As best I could I kept fighting it and moving forward.

I discovered that the only one I could change in my life was myself. There was no point in wasting time or energy trying to solve problems that I could never own. My wife has her own issues. I wasn’t helping her any by taking ownership of them. She has to take ownership of them. The same was true with my daughter. She is an A student pulling C’s. I can offer her support but I cannot change her either. She has to feel the impact of her decisions. It’s her life, not mine.

I have learned that you can love someone with all your heart and soul but you cannot change them. You can only choose to be pulled into the gravity of their problems, or you can choose to stay above, weightless and in orbit, yet nearby.

Instead I started to use my time in more meaningful ways. I attended services at my Unitarian church regularly even if I couldn’t get my wife out of bed to come with me. I started teaching in my spare time. I ran the church web site for a couple years. I thumbed my nose at society, which seemed to be saying to me that I should only have friends in the context of my marriage. I found my own friends. If I found someone interesting in the course of life I engaged with him or her. And it turned out I found the hers often more interesting than the hims so be it.

I have chosen to step outside the boundaries of what is expected of me. I’m not sure why I was in bounds in the first place. No one was holding a gun to my head. Perhaps I felt I should do what was proper, whatever that meant. Now I do what brings me some satisfaction. That is not to say that I spend my days in reckless hedonism. Rather I spend my days in ways that give me the most personal satisfaction.

So I no longer watch television. I want to engage with the world, not watch images of it pass by on a phosphorescent tube. I blog because I find it fun. It gives me an excuse to write, which I enjoyed so much growing up. If it engages a few friends and others who arrive serendipitously via search engines so much the better. If I cannot find a friend to see a movie, or if my wife is not interested I go alone. While I wait for that day when my wife decides to exercise again I am off on my bike on 20 or 30 mile trips alone.

Maybe it’s a tad myopic of me. Maybe it is selfish. Maybe, but I don’t care anymore. I am in command of my own life again. Life will continue to have its ups and downs. The downs will doubtless change me but suffering is an inevitable part of life. But suffering doesn’t last forever. If things are good then the day is a blessing: I am free to make the most of the day given to me. Good or bad as long as I engage in the experience of the day at least I will feel fully alive.

Therapy for Everybody!

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been seeing a shrink about a year now to work through a few issues. In my family we’re no longer ashamed to be seen associating with mental health therapists. “Licensed clinical social worker”, “psychologist”, “psychiatrist”, even “psychotherapist” are words that now easily roll off our tongues.

It never occurred to me I would ever need or even want to see a shrink of my own. It seemed sort of unmanly somehow. Real men, women and children from normal and healthy families (and I assumed I fit in those categories) didn’t need mental health specialists. This is what passed for my reasoning. I figured I was supposed to struggle through my own stuff alone. That was an intrinsic part of the human experience.

And I guess I could have kept struggling alone. But at some point the suggestion came for me to see my own shrink. I found in a strange sort of way I was looking forward to it. For a while I sat through sessions wondering just why I was there. I pictured myself as the one in the family fully grounded in reality. The only therapy I needed was fuzz therapy: my cuddly cat Sprite all curled up on my lap looking up at me with his adorable Bambi-like eyes.

I thought therapy was reserved for people with real issues. For example, I figured if I had compulsive hand washing problem I needed to consult a shrink. I seemed to navigate fine through life. It was true there were aspects of my marriage and family situation that seemed pretty topsy-turvy at times. Yes, occasionally the stress level got pretty high, but nothing more than I could handle. I was an immovable rock. The high seas could crash against me as much as they like but I was (I thought) fundamentally unchanged. I could handle it.

Still when the wife told me to go see a therapist I figured she must see something in me that I did not quite see. So off I went. And now every couple weeks I sit in a room with a guy about my age and a diploma with a PhD in Psychology on his wall. We talk about my life and the answers to life’s persistent questions.

I still don’t understand what this therapy business is doing. I am not usually aware of any real changes in my thinking or behavior from one session to the other. Basically I just sit there in the cushy chair and talk. And mostly he listens. Occasionally he throws in a suggestion, or repeats back to me what he is hearing. This often means I have to restate my words several times. And then we move on to the next topic. Sometimes this is in a structured way, but often in an ad-hoc sort of way. All this for $130 for forty five minutes. I’m glad I’m not earning my living as a Wal-Mart greeter.

But anyhow this therapy stuff seems to be working for me. Maybe it is just coincidence, but I seem to be getting better at managing my problems and my own life. Things that used to annoy me don’t seem to annoy me as much. I seem to be a pleasanter person than I remember being. My wife and daughter seem happier to see me, and I am happier to be with them. And I keep going back and talking to my shrink. I sometimes I wonder why I am still there shelling out money.

It seems like everyone I know beyond a superficial level is doing therapy these days. Those who aren’t getting it I bet often secretly wish they were, or would if they understood its value. I’m starting to believe that in our complex world pretty much anyone — no matter how well ordered and happy they consider their life to be — would be better off in therapy.

I’m trying to figure out what is really happening in therapy. Am I really getting better because I spend my time talking to a guy with a PhD in Psychology? Is this better than, say, talking to my minister? I don’t think it hurts that my shrink has all these lovely professional qualifications. But I’m also starting to suspect that with a little training we could all be pretty competent therapists.

For me the value of therapy is simply that I can unload the stuff running around my mind. It has to get spoken, heard, repeated back and probed. It doesn’t mean as much (for me apparently) to analyze it in my mind. It’s only when these feelings are articulated, expressed and heard that the feelings derive meaning. Then they appear in a place that I can grab on to them and actually tackle them. In other words the simple act of sharing them with another safe human being is in itself therapeutic.

In less complex times I think our friends, family and neighbors were our therapists. Many of us still do this of course. But increasingly intimate family connections fray upon adulthood. In my family we are all geographically separated. I have one sister about an hour away. Everyone else I will probably only visit by buying plane tickets. Yes, we do have email to keep in touch but unloading on family is inherently risky. Family members more than anyone else really know you. They know what buttons to push to trigger devastating emotional damage. I’m sure my birth family wouldn’t do it deliberately, but might they might do it inadvertently. So I’m not anxious to unload too much on my family. As for neighbors, they live too close to warrant the exchange of intimate information. I can’t risk the whole block knowing my private life. As for friends I can’t think of any friend I have who I’d really want to exchange my most intimate stuff. Even with my wife I find I have certain thoughts and feelings I don’t want to share with her. But with a therapist I have a safety valve. I have that necessary but missing mental health link. And that by itself makes the difference.

So I say therapy for everyone. If it were up to me we’d all have individual therapists we would see on a regular basis. I realize there are cranks out there in the mental health world. It’s important to spend some time checking a number of therapists out before settling on one you are comfortable with. Even if it is just a trusted friend you can confide in, I think it is in the nature of human beings to need to confide and unload your thoughts with someone. Those of us who try to deny this need probably do so at our peril.