A good friend of mine who is a great fellow and an excellent therapist has this adage he likes to share: “When in doubt, do something” – meaning that if you are stuck, doubtful about yourself and feeling blue or down, take some action. Move. Do something. It doesn’t have to be a “big” something. It shouldn’t be a “big” something. Any move is a gift. So I had an interesting experience recently that put the proof to that statement and some may find this a helpful story.
I had been feeling down for a while and was having a hard time kicking it. My website came to the rescue….well it helped me come to my own rescue.
I really like my website. I worked hard on it and get nice complements. A great designer named Stephan Laenan who lives near Portland put it together for me. I gave him content, he designed it…but once in a while there were tweaks I wanted to make and I didn’t know the first thing about how websites are put together. It was aggravating, since I was totally dependent on someone else who rightfully charged me for his time. Last year I bought an Idiot’s book on HTML and CSS (how you create the code to make a website) and after reading it for a few weeks, I was so cross-eyed that I had to put it down – defeated. Then a month ago, a lawyer friend of mine was telling me how he created his own site and I thought, “Well, if he can do it……..” so I checked a bunch of books out of the library and suddenly had this “Ah-ha” moment and figured out how to make all the changes I wanted. I dove in and over the next week updated everything I wanted updated.
I absolutely felt a spring in my step. A big weight was lifted from my shoulders and I found that things that had been aggravating me only the week before weren’t so important. My mood absolutely shifted because….well, I did something. (And really, it’s not a big deal to learn about website coding, even for a tech dweeb like me.)
In 1975, I was a year out of law school and a pal asked if I wanted to drive up from L.A. to Santa Barbara to catch a Bruce Springsteen concert. I hadn’t heard of the guy. I went up on a “what the heck” ride. It remains the most rocking, outrageous concert experience of my life. What I remember now years later is that he had a band that was so tight, had practiced so much, that they acted as one instrument. The other thing I remember was the man’s energy. Jon Stewart once said that Springsteen empties the tank in his concerts and that is an apt description. When he was young, the guy would light up a city when he’d come through. He did 4 consecutive nights in L.A. in the late 70’s and everywhere you went for days afterward, people were in a daze – “Which night did you go?” “Did he play ‘It’s My Life’ (an old 60’s classic) at your concert?” “Can you believe it….3 encores!” Set aside his great melodies and poetic lyrics. The guy found the thing he knew he was 10+ on a scale of 10 and he did it. Every public pronouncement from him is admonition to us to do the same. Embrace the passion of being alive. It’s a hard road for so many of us and the only thing we can ever control is our belief in ourselves. Encouragement of that is one of therapy’s goals. Many of us learned who we were in this world through families that told us we weren’t much (or worse, were burdens and fundamentally bad). Perhaps more common was the encouragement of aspects of self that didn’t reflect what we somehow knew to be our essence. This would go hand-in-hand with discouragement or disregard for parts of our character that we knew were truly an expression of our true and best selves. One reason I think that Bruce Springsteen galvanized so many people to loyalty bordering on idolatry is that his work provided the constant message: “Life can be hard. You’ll be challenged – but you’re up to the task.” Seligman would add, “Learn and embrace your signature strengths (see my earlier post). They’re yours. Their expression in your life is where you’ll find meaning and happiness.” Right on, Marty! Right on, Bruce!
A few years ago Martin Seligman (former President of the American Psychological Association and developer of positive psychology, a significant force in the current mental health environment) and Christopher Peterson came up with this notion of Signature Strengths – those qualities we are naturally drawn to and which are considered to be positive (and have for millennia). There are 24 of these and it is possible to visit a web site and go through a 30 minute test that will give you a sense of your top signature strengths. You can access this test here (scroll down to the VIA Survey of Character Strengths). Seligman describes these different strengths so well in his book Authentic Happiness. In a more detailed discussion, Seligman and Peterson in their book Character Strengths and Virtues (a book I purchased out of an excess of enthusiasm only to decide that the tome was helpful, but did not merit it’s size or price) break the 24 strengths into Six Categories: Wisdom and Knowledge; Courage; Humanity; Justice; Temperance and Transcendence. What I particularly appreciated about this material is similar to the value I find in Myers-Briggs psychological type. Many of us struggle with the belief that there is something about our basic nature that is inadequate. We aren’t smart enough, or clever enough, or spiritual, empathic, mentally tough, athletic or social enough. These products of “programing” we received from parental figures who, themselves, struggled with their own sense of defect and want, leave us with an inflated sense of what is missing in our character and an altogether limited idea of our own personal assets. The most successful, content people in the world have holes in their character and the most confused have great, though unmined, character strengths. Recognizing, and playing to, those strengths is a key to life satisfaction, as Seligman teaches. He suggests that we seek out work that allows us to exercise these strengths and indulge in recreation that lets us express them. Great advice in my book. I invite you to take the test linked above and explore it’s benefits.
In Emotionally Focused Therapy, we speak of a cycle which captures the couple in distress. Often there will be a partner caught in the cycle who will experience deep, visceral anxiety over being left alone. That feeling of utter isolation has brought to my mind an iconic scene from Kubrick’s classic 2001 – A Space Odyssey. Frank, one of the two astronauts on the craft which is run by the malevolent computer, HAL, is performing repairs outside. HAL manages to cut Frank’s life-line and we see this desperate figure floating out into nothingness. The spot we see on the right is Frank, struggling for air….unmoored……lost. This is the image that strikes me when I hear of the desperation of the partner who feels emotionally abandoned in the relationship. She (not always, but often she) will struggle against this panic. It is Frank’s panic as he disappears into a vacuum.
So often, when one partner experiences the panic of isolation in the void the response will be heightened protest – a very intense effort to achieve some connection….some oxygen. This may be experienced by the other partner as attack. His (not always, but often his) experience brings to mind the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan. The thousands of landing craft approaching the beach. Reinforced steel doors shield the soldiers from any assaults. Then, with a spin of a locking-wheel, the door swings down to create a ramp for the the soldiers to disembark. However, many of these men are decimated by machine gun fire before they can move a muscle. It is a violent assault and you want to swing those doors back up to protect the men. People who experience themselves to be the target of the anger and desperation of their partners, tend to (emotionally) curl up in a self-protective ball. Often, withdrawal to “safety” is the only conceivable step.
Thus, begins the cycle of pursuit/protest and withdrawal/protection that so many couples bring with them to couples therapy. The task we face is to slow down this rapdily spinning cycle. Over time, if we can slow it down, we can begin to create some safety in the couple’s interaction. One will feel less dismissed/abandoned/despised and the other will feel less attacked/demeaned/despised. Slowly we begin to incorporate a positive momentum in couples interactions. We create a positive cycle. I imagine a propellor on the Titanic. The scene from the movie can be accessed on the web. In a panic, the watchmen phone down to the engine room. These people have no time to reverse the course of the great ship. We watch the propellers slow to a stop and then reverse themselves.
The hope of the work we do, is to support couples in their passage from propellers spinning in their cycle at full speed – slowing to a stop – then picking back up at full speed, supporting a positive cycle.
Thank you James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick – marital theorists all!
This from a message to an old friend:
Neil, you’re in my thoughts this morning for two reasons. First, I am listening to my Telemann Pandora station and I will forever appreciate your turning me on to him those many years ago. Second – we saw Life of Pi yesterday.
Years ago you went on and on about how much you loved that book and I tried to read it but could not get too far. It wasn’t grabbing me. So last week, thinking I wanted to see the movie, I picked up the book again and loved it. I didn’t quite get the part about making you believe in God until the night after I finished it, I was putting together a dinner for some friends the next night and Mark l was over helping out (he was visiting from So. Cal. for a week) and he had just seen the movie. We compared one to the other and suddenly I got what Martel was trying to say. I started talking about how I was so swept up in the story until he became blind and then came across the other guy on a boat that the tiger ate and I thought, “Whoa…wait a minute. That is pretty incredible. (It was left out of the movie.) The whole part before that was very detailed and you could absolutely get how it could all actually occur. But another boat in the middle of the ocean? And then, of course, the meerkat island. Suddenly I began to feel differently about the story – I lost interest because I didn’t find it credible any longer. Then at the end he tells this very troubling story and he lays it all out for you (and of course there are those little bones on the boat) . Which story do you want to believe – neither is provable.
I think it is also relevant to therapy work. People come in with such worries and hopelessness about their future. But just as with Pi’s story, the future is unknowable and unprovable. Clearly, when people come in and talk about a future of loneliness or loss or failure their present is wracked with anxiety and they are preoccupied with their distress. If a person has some faith in the future, trust that they can be content and satisfied, their present distress abates considerably. So, just as with Pi, which story do they want to believe?
The movie was a bit of a let down from the book, insofar as the basic theme above is concerned, I thought. The book format allowed Martel to create a very credible story of how Pi was able to survive – and the whole early parts about animal behavior was essential to that task. So, with the exception of the island, you could believe that story…well I could believe that story. Ang Lee didn’t have the time or space to make the survival story as credible, I think. But my oh my was that a beautiful movie. I think it is the most enchanting cinema experience I have ever had. It is watching an absolute master at his craft and an impeccable use of 3-D.
Anyway, just thinking of you on this chill, foggy, still and beautiful Northwest morning.