Truth is a multilayered thing. Consider this quote attributed to Rumi: “Truth was a mirror in the hands of G0d. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.” What appears true may have other facets that add substance and richness to the original information. Recollect the tale of blind men touching different parts of an elephant, each one imagining that his experience is the accurate one. It is, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t take into account the totality of the elephant.
In the classic movie The Fallen Idol, Philippe, a lonely little boy whose parents are away or busy with their affairs, develops an attachment to the butler, Baines. Recognizing the child’s need to idealize him (and perhaps to cast himself in a heroic light), Baines fabricates a story of killing someone in Africa in self-defense, which the child often asks him to repeat. Later in the film, through the investigation of a death where Baines may be implicated, Philippe learns that Baines had never done this deed, had never been in Africa. So, even though the story Baines had told Philippe wasn’t factually true, it served both their needs and furthered their relationship. Emotional truth often trumps factual truth.
Psychoanalysis concerns itself with emotional truth, yet we know that the whole truth often requires deep exploration to get to the heart of the matter.
Mark Epstein, M.D., a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City who writes about the interface between Buddhism and psychotherapy, said: “The effort that goes into protecting ourselves from uncomfortable feelings can have untoward consequences. Shutting down one kind of feeling inevitably shuts down all of them. In protecting ourselves from the unbearable affect of trauma, we also close ourselves off from love, joy, and empathy.”
The recent movie Inside Out artfully and movingly demonstrates this idea. In it, the main character, a young girl named Riley, is uprooted from her life and friends when her father gets a new job and the family moves to California from the Midwest. Feeling forced to be happy about the move, Riley’s feelings of loss and sadness go underground and populate her dreams and subsequent behavior. In the film, the character of Joy is a cheerleader for happiness (witness the proliferation of this sentiment in our culture: songs about happiness or the admonition to be or get happy and the preponderance of smiley faces in our communications), while the character of Sadness is the kind of person who wouldn’t be popular and might be shunned. What emerges is that when all one’s emotions are allowed to exist and work together, a fuller and richer human experience is the result.
Loneliness is a feeling state we all contend with at some time or another during our lives. Whether it arises because of a loss, a persistent feeling of not fitting in, or some other cause, the pain of loneliness can be acutely destabilizing, so much so that people resort to strategies to keep from feeling it.
Some researchers have theorized that people overeat when they’re feeling lonely, as sharing meals is usually a social activity involving others. Others have linked various forms of addiction to an absence of nourishing emotional connection earlier in people’s lives, as drugs and alcohol–unlike reliable nurturing connections with others–are readily available whenever the user desires. Some people use their electronic devices as a modern umbilical cord, keeping them connected to others virtually (although this also has the downside of eliciting other uncomfortable feelings like envy and jealousy). Absent of closeness with others, some people spend too much time working, in a fruitless search to gain what’s missing from their relationships with the people in their lives.
Allowing oneself to feel the pain of loneliness can often lead one to take steps to investigate the root causes, thus providing hope for change. Deeper connections with the self and others as well as the conversion of loneliness into solitude are some of the rewards to be gained.
The Art of Listening is the title of a professional conference I recently attended. Since listening is a big part of what we psychoanalysts/therapists do, the topic is of great interest and relevance to me. However, I believe that all of us–laypeople as well as therapists–could improve our listening skills, which would greatly enrich our relationships with others.
One of the presenters, Frank Summers, described the difference between normal empathy and the empathy psychoanalysts utilize. As he pointed out, normal empathy is putting oneself in another’s place and experiencing what he/she feels in order to join with the other. However, psychoanalysts must also go beneath the emotion to determine underlying issues that require further exploration and unpacking. Since our ultimate aim is to help our patients feel more empowered in their lives, normal empathy would just perpetuate their current issue without helping them discover how they got stuck at that point in the first place.
What would relationships be like if we all utilized this deeper type of empathy? Is it possible?
I’ve been thinking about integrity, which, to me, means doing what you say and being honest about your presentation. Many people utter social niceties like “I’ll be in touch,” “Let’s get together again soon,” and the like, and then fail to follow up. I’m sure we’ve all been on the receiving end of such sentiments, and we may even have uttered them ourselves, knowing full well that we have no intention of doing what we said.
What is the effect of such experiences? I think it dulls and flattens interpersonal relations, which could instead be alive and vivid. Many of these situations arise because people don’t want to hurt another’s feelings and fear that being honest will do just that. On the contrary, I believe most people would rather know where they stand instead of hoping for a response that never comes.
That being said, there are direct and indirect ways to let someone know you aren’t interested in continuing the contact that are honest and not cruel–I’ve both experienced them myself and given them–and the benefit is that the aliveness between the persons involved is preserved. Insincere talk is cheap and it weakens the vitality of human connection, the juice of all our lives.
The process of change in psychotherapy isn’t quick. Why is this so? Because we humans are relational beings and deep change comes from being in relationship with another human being for an extended period of time.
From our earliest days, we are connected to others. If you watch an infant, you will see how acutely responsive she is to the parent caring for her. And it works the other way too: when an infant cries (the only language available to him at this point in his development), the parent becomes attuned to the meaning the infant is trying to communicate.
Adults have many more resources than infants, but they also have a history and defenses built up over time. Because of these factors, it takes longer to develop the kind of relationship that can lead to deep change. Consequently, those who are wary of this kind of relationship, which may involve disagreement, conflict, and a myriad of other feelings, may want to truncate the process. Some who leave too soon view therapy (and the therapeutic relationship) as a crisis management system, only to be used during times of duress, and they are sure to return when the next crisis strikes. However, these short bursts–Band-Aids, really–don’t allow the time needed to build a relationship that can yield the type of change whereby one can rely on one’s own inner resources after therapy is completed, secure in the knowledge that one has internalized the work one has done with the therapist and, in a sense, has the therapist and the therapy process inside. When this becomes a reality, life becomes more manageable as one has the tools to look at oneself honestly and lovingly, and then work out the issues that life inevitably brings us.
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged Band-Aids, change, conflict, crisis management, defenses, disagreement, emotions, feelings, infants, language, psychotherapy, relationship
It’s a new year, a time most people think about change in the form of resolutions that usually don’t stick. A harm reduction center suggests setting lower, more achievable goals: instead of saying you’re going to go to the gym several times a week, set a goal that you can manage–say, going once a week. When you see that you can do this, you will then feel encouraged to up the ante rather than feeling discouraged that you’ve been unable to meet an unrealistic goal. Another suggestion is to be gentler with yourself by setting intentions instead of resolutions.
I’ve been thinking about change for the last month as it’s an important piece of the work I do, helping people change. Many factors may hinder change but fear (“What is there if I give up my ____?” one person asked, exhibiting a failure of the imagination and a stuckness in habitual–and comforting–but not growth-promoting behaviors) seems to be primary. Many of us become comfortable with our familiar habits and the idea of changing them can seem as arduous as Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill. When President Obama announced he was lifting the embargo on Cuba, he paraphrased and softened Albert Einstein’s quip: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” When something stops working, then it’s time to make a change. Often that is what propels change, even in individuals.
This might be a good year to begin to change how you think about change. Many people think change can happen fast, but incremental change is usually more lasting. As with other things, slow and steady wins the day.
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged Albert Einstein, change, Cuba, fear, goals, harm reduction, insanity, intention, President Obama, resolution, Sisyphus