at the psychologist’s
— you were so vulnerable and sad —
I wanted to catch each tear with my tongue
but also to stop the pain
or at least help you feel your way
and beyond it
again (Anonymous to you but known to us)
Hurt is inevitable, predictable and measureable. It is part of what it is to be human. Some hurts are trifling (like being middle-fingered by a fellow highway traveler who dislikes one’s lane-changing creativity is a level 1 hurt) and some are terrible (I think of my friend’s recurring cancer – this is a level 10 hurt).
The other day a mean-spirited and wicked driver (the words are in italics because that is not exactly what I shouted at the time) cut me off, gave me the finger, stamped on his brakes and shocked me and my cute Mini Cooper into less than “British racing green” subservience. This experience hurt my normally sweet nature, but no harm was to be found on my soul.
Until I considered this intentional insult a little bit further and then much harm was discovered just below the surface. I pondered, “Why do people pick on me when I am such a saint?” (I actually don’t think this in my more knowing moments) and “He could have killed me; must have been drunk!” etc.
And then I felt justified sufficiently to be wounded, harmed even.
Of course, talking to my friends didn’t help. “Paddy you are such a great driver,” some said and then I was reassured that the hurt I experienced was definitely intentional and, almost, “spiritual warfare” (this said by my biblical friends who find a devil under every muffler and bumper).
An old lesson I have re-discovered: I judge others by their behaviours (especially the evil ones, e.g. middle fingers) and I judge myself on the basis of my good intent (e.g. being a “saint,” which I don’t really believe as I have said above).
Hurts don’t necessarily lead to harms unless you give them a big, fat promotion. Harms have to do with how you inflate the hurts. Magnify your hurts, treasure them as horribly special and, sure enough, you will have florid harms. Plenty of them in fact.
So what is the help here? It comes from the world-renowned philosopher, Lily Tomlin, (you can see her on this classic You Tube, “One RingyDingy”) who said, “forgiveness is giving up the hope of having a better past.” Even a better driving-the-highway past.
Okay. Healing to me.
I am in the advice-giving business. At least I am when I am worn down from 8 hours of listening and I want to have a five-minute private audience for my thoughts and opinions.
I have discovered that most people are pretty bad at taking advice from me and probably from others as well. My client-friends don’t mind listening to my stories, smile at my jokes, engage some of my ideas, but they mostly glaze over when I get into my advice-giving mode. And I don’t really think that they will do much with the pearls once I have tossed them in their general direction.
Psychologists call this “egocentric bias,” that is, people generally figure that they can operate their lives best with their own hard-learned advice. I get this. I have people offering me advice all the time and mostly I ignore it. (Carole has been advising me for 40 years what vitamins and medicines I should take when I have a cold.) Still I carry on dispensing my treasured wisdom, knowing it will probably not be invested with the kind of thoroughness I think it should.
This egocentric bias happens everywhere: doctor’s offices, weight loss centres, guidance classes in high schools, used car dealerships, Starbucks (“you ought to try the …”). So, when someone turns to you and says, “What do you think I should do?” or “Do you think I should marry Jeff?” they actually don’t care much about your advice. They are probably just structuring the passing of time or looking for confirmation of what they already want to do.
I think I am okay with people, including my client-friends, ignoring my advice (“So, what did you get out of that homework I recommended from our last meeting?”). But sometimes my ideas are really great. So then why don’t I take my own advice more often?
One question works for me in advice-taking. WWJD: “What would _______ (Jesus) do?” (Fill in the blank with whomever you like?)
That question makes me receptive to advice and puts me in a mind space to not quickly resist the wisdom of others. It shifts my reactivity. Sometimes I say in my mind, “What would Mom do?” since I would really love to know (she died much too young). I sometimes put in the names of others that I admire or are mentors to me. Sometimes I put in the names of my kids, as in “What would David do?” or “What would Christine do?” If it has anything to do with computers or technology I ask, “What would Brent do?” He’s my son-in-law and is brilliant in ways I am ignorant. Somehow this “identifying question” makes advice palatable and makes me think outside of my egocentric bias.
This kind of identifying with someone helps me make decisions. I become part of a community of thorough opinions and applicable wisdom. I get to share in collected brilliance rather than thoughtlessly “dis” it. Amazing what an identifying question can do.
The idea of identifying questions is that if we can make a personal connection with someone we admire, then we can take the advice and apply the wisdom. If we are told what is right and good without having that personal identification, then we are more likely to reject it, forget it and not benefit from it.
I grew up in a home where alcohol ingestion was done compulsively. I discovered as a child that the drinking compulsion is an equal opportunity phenomenon – both my Mom and Dad were serious imbibers. I also learned that my parents and their friends formed an alcohol-conscious community where successful parties were granted the status of “great” by the quantity imbibed and the consequent sexualization of intimacies.
My parents were trained in drinking by the Canadian Forces during WW2 when service men and women had their pleasures subsidized by the government. I am reminded of this each and every November 11th and sometimes I stop to tell the “poppy people” why I am not buying their red and black lapel flowers while I stride righteously into the liquor store.
Over the years I have had lots of addicts of various sorts in my practice. I prefer to call them “obsessive fiddlers with states of being” – it sounds less prejudicial than “addicts” though that is what some of them are. These fine folk and friends have been compulsed by all sorts of obsessions: being happy, being right, being perfect, being taken care of, being in love, being admired, and the list goes on. (Perhaps making lists is a compulsion too?) And then they act these ideas out with predictable behaviours: drinking and drugging are common but so is arguing and defending and mean-spirited criticism. I especially dislike it when addicts pretend the moral high ground (e.g. “You are a bad person and I am busy being good or right,” or “I wouldn’t drink if you didn’t criticize me so much.”).
I often hear of sexual addictions as well. These are usually requests for affirmation and attention where the behaviours involve a moving computer image and a few square inches of genital flesh. What these folk want most often is some ordinary passion and some affection directed in their way. At least that is what heals them (mostly men) more than “Just Say No” mouse pads.
Now… I think that there are factors that may increase risk of some kind of addiction. Here are a few for you to consider and I am thinking especially of online compulsions:
♦ Fear of relationships can lead to online compulsions. I mean real relationships not surface social contacts. And a consequential lack of other interests and social isolation – this can lead to compulsive behaviour.
♦ Pre-existing abuse or addiction can easily transfer: for example, online gambling or gaming, cybersex, or online shopping.
♦ Social anxiety or nervousness can make online interactions a very attractive alternative to face-to-face interaction and thus much more compelling.
♦ Low self-esteem, poor body image, or untreated sexual dysfunction can add to obsessions and compulsions.
What fixes this more than anything else is a little reality and a little thoughtfulness. Person-to-person honesty and care, also called empathy, works well. I have found that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is really good in breaking the power of addictions and compulsions. I recommend people buy “Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky. It is best to work this through with a therapist and I have a copy in my office so that if you choose we can work through the harder parts together.