Thursday, August 27, 2009

It Ain't Over 'til It's Over

In my experience, people these days are in too much of a hurry to "move on" and "let go." It seems that most of us have a natural tendency to minimize the importance of experiences that have been emotionally difficult. We want to stop hurting quickly, and we don't want to feel embarrassed or stigmatized by difficult aspects of our past or present. What happens when we think we've reached closure, and we really haven't?

Not too long ago, I asked a woman who was having some marital problems about the most significant events she could tell me from her life story. She mentioned several things, including a teenage car accident; but for the most part, she was at a loss. Everything had been quite normal, she told me; her family was intact and there was nothing unusual to report.
When we spoke the next week, she told me with considerable surprise that when she told her husband about the session, he asked her if she had remembered to discuss the sudden, premature death of her younger brother when she was in her teens. How, she wondered, could she have left something so significant completely out of the story?

She and I have come to understand that her parents' mute, unbearable grief was so intense that after her brother's funeral, no one in the family tended to say much about it – almost as though they were ashamed. Everyone tried to go on about their business, and dropped the subject. Did her subsequent heavy drinking in high school, and the car accident that followed, perhaps have something to do with how quickly everyone in her family had tried to "move on" and "let go?" And her marital problems now, the distance she feels from her husband - could it have anything to do with her old habit of pushing feelings down, avoiding thinking or talking about what's painful?

"What's the use of getting into all that now?," I'm often asked. "That was 30 years ago. What good will it do to bring up all those feelings?" For the people who ask these kind of questions, "those feelings" too often never had a chance to be known, articulated, expressed – and thereby processed, digested, made bearable. Buried feelings about painful experiences reverberate in people's lives, and when unprocessed, come back to haunt in ways that are not always obvious. Rushing by the painful times, pushing the painful feelings away, doesn't really work out in the long run. As one of my favorite sages – Yogi Berra - once said, "it ain't over 'til it's over."

Wise advice can also be found in the words of Ecclesiastes: "There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." These different times that the Prophet speaks of are the times of our lives. Moving on and letting go doesn't have to mean pushing feelings away, keeping things on the surface. Moving on happens when we are living fully, awake and filled with feeling, through all the different times, up or down, that the unfolding of our lives will bring.

© Daniel Shaw 2007

The Joy of Imperfection

It's summertime – is the living easy yet? Stress all gone? Not yet? Not surprising. As the Buddhists say (pardon my paraphrase): if you're born a human, then you've got stress – no exceptions. Luckily, many folks manage life's normal level of stressful ups and downs with some measure of acceptance.

There is a particular kind of stress, though, which many people experience, that can be subtle and which often goes unidentified: the stress of having to be Perfect. That's Perfect with a capital P.We can all be a bit perfectionistic at times, but "capital P" Perfectionists are more extreme. It's not just that they are unduly frustrated by flaws, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and - heaven forbid - mistakes. It's that good isn't good enough, great isn't good enough, and even excellent isn't good enough. Nothing is good enough, and someone always has to be blamed for that.

Perfectionists have a rigid expectation of their own Perfection, and a tendency to devalue their own achievements, no matter how considerable. They alternate between being judgmental of others, and of themselves. For the Perfectionist, being "good enough" is a cop-out, a lazy person's excuse for not trying hard enough. The result of this attitude is not greater productivity: it's exhaustion. Like Sisyphus, they feel like they're always pushing a boulder up a hill – or they make the people around them feel that way.

Perfectionists can't stop judging, and it is always the same verdict: "Guilty of not being good enough." In my view, unless you're being paid to be a judge, or unless you're a criminal, then you should not be living in a courtroom, where someone is always being accused, put on trial, condemned, sentenced and punished. Contrary to the Perfectionist's beliefs, conscious or unconscious, imperfection is not a crime, and neither is it a sin.

For some who drink or drug too much, their substance abuse can be a way of shutting up the accusatory voice of their inner slave driver - the inner task master that never stops judging. Their drug of choice provides some relief, but only temporarily, of course, and at much too great a cost.

I once worked with a gifted and intelligent man, whose life seemed charmed to those who knew him socially, but who was grinding himself down with his relentless self-criticism. I asked him, even though I knew what his answer would be, "What if you won the Nobel Prize? Then would you be good enough?" We both agreed that, Nobel in hand, he'd still find a way to trash himself. I am pretty convinced that, in spite of our imperfections, we all have the right to feel that we are basically good enough – to live, to love and be loved. I hope he came to feel that way, too.

So it's summer. Time to bask in the joy of imperfection. If you're having a summer vacation this year, see if you can make it a break from the constant stress of Perfectionism. Appreciating and enjoying what is good enough, in one's self and in others, while knowing that nothing is ever Perfect, is actually a vacation from stress that you can take any time, any place.

© Daniel Shaw 2007


April Showers Bring May Flowers

“Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers that bloom in May…”

So goes the ‘20s Al Jolson tune that became a theme song of the Depression era. My mother, who grew up during the Depression, would sing it to herself in our Bronx apartment kitchen at times when she was down. Mom sounded a lot like her favorite singer, Mildred Bailey. In our house, singing tended to lift the spirits.

April showers bring May flowers: so corny, and so true. We don’t know joy in life without also knowing sorrow. Joy and sorrow go hand in hand, like night and day, shadow and sun, showers and flowers. Yet I’ve noticed that some people persist in thinking that there is something wrong with them because they aren’t constantly happy. The truth is that no one’s life - rich, poor or in between - is without some measure of painful disappointment.

I’ve had a beef for a long time with all those different large group seminars that promise so much success and fulfillment as long as you keep coming back and paying for more and more seminars. Yes, we can all use more support, more motivation, more encouragement. But we can’t live in a state of hyper positivity all the time. At least I can’t – can you? Post-Jolson, the Rolling Stones put it well: you can’t always get what you want – no matter how positive your thinking.

It seems to me that part of leading a healthy life is developing the capacity to bear disappointment – in life, in ourselves and in others. To bear – it’s the opposite of collapsing under the weight of something. To bear disappointment, sorrow, guilt, means to be able to go on living productively and creatively – to affirm life, even while bearing the knowledge that life is hard, nothing is perfect, and our time is short.

If we accept that life will always bring disappointments, sorrows and regrets, then it really makes sense to invest in developing the habits of appreciation and perseverance. As the pre-Jolson poet so wisely put it, “gather ye rose buds while ye may.”

It was uplifting to read recently of the 96 year old writer, Harry Bernstein, whose first novel was recently published to tremendous critical acclain. The book was rejected dozens of times, and then lay on a publisher’s desk for a year before someone picked it up and decided to give it a shot. Talk about never giving up!

We probably all know how hard it is to experience a crushing disappointment, at a personal level, or even at the global level – the world can sometimes seem, especially these days, awfully rotten. It’s not always easy to resist the temptation to crawl into bed and pull up the covers. Maybe sometimes, at our darkest times, crawling into bed is the best we can do.
But then come those spring flowers – first there’s crocus and daffodil, then forsythia , then the lilacs, magnolia, apple, cherry - the annual succession more and more fragrant as the summer draws closer. It’s worth getting out of bed for, every time. Winter will always come back - but faithfully, undeniably, thankfully - so will spring.

Spring Cleaning

Well, we made it through January and February, and for many of us, the hope of spring does at last begin to stir the heart. For others, though, hope barely flutters, because the winter months have been painfully SAD - which stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. For some, this time of year is excruciating. Rather than bringing hope, the end of winter is marked by shutdown, numbness, irritability, a sense of disconnection, apathy, and worst, despair.

Depression, seasonal, situational, or chronic, is a grim illness, because it convinces you that you are not ill, but rather that you are simply weak, lazy, and unworthy. If that's the cruel way that you've been thinking of yourself, then that is the depressed part of you talking. Depression is not a moral failure - though it does lead one to feel self-loathing. Most of us can get somewhat depressed from time to time, but chrnic depression is a powerful disease that eats at the soul and sucks the joy out of life.

The late writer William Styron used the phrase "darkness visible" to refer to his lifelong episodes of depression (it was also the title of his extraordinary memoir on the subject of depression). Styron, and many other highly accomplished, productive people who have spoken publicly of their struggles with depression, have shown exceptional courage to do so. Even in this confessional age of Oprah, many people consider their depression, or the depression of a loved one, as something to be hidden, a secret shame they hope will go away if it is ignored.

More recently, people go to their family doctor and ask for Prozac, or the latest anti-depressant they've heard of. Sometimes with medication, they experience enough relief from the worst of their depressive symptoms so that they carry on. But to attempt to get rid of depression solely in this way is an error, in my view. Yes, depression can be biological, but rarely is it purely a matter of genes. In all my years of practicing psychotherapy, I have never met a depressed person who didn't have significant cause for depression - usually, unrecognized, untreated trauma of one kind or another. Trauma can ensue from a discrete episode, such as an assault, a rape, the witnessing of a horror. But trauma can also be cumulative - examples might be growing up feeling unseen and unloved; or feeling that one never lives up to others' expectations, no matter how unreasonable those expectations may be; or being systematically dominated, controlled or belittled in a relationship. Untreated trauma, discrete or cumulative, is at the heart of depressive illness, and there is still no better way of treating it than through talk therapy, or therapy combined with medication prescribed by a qualified mental health professional.

With good psychotherapy, the root causes of depression can be unearthed. A therapist can be a compassionate witness to your personal history, a history that you may have tried to forget, or get rid of, or render meaningless. Therapy can help you put your history in perspective; learn to live with and bear the losses you need to mourn; and find the courage to make new choices, seek new opportunities. Many people know this, and yet refuse to seek help, believing they can change themselves. Certainly some can, but on the other hand, I've known people who bounced in and out of depression for 50 years before they really got serious and sought help.

Victor Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps, and went on to become a renowned psychoanalyst. He wrote: "When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves." For those who make good use of it, psychotherapy is still one of the most effective ways of changing oneself. If this has been one more depressed winter for you, begin your spring cleaning by getting help from a licensed mental health professional. If someone you know is depressed, tell them to get help. Getting help is a sign of strength, not of weakness; the decision to get help for depression is a sign that you can find the strength to overcome it.Daniel Shaw, LCSW, practices psychotherapy in Nyack, New York, and in New York City. He can be reached at in Nyack at (845) 548-256; and in New York City at (212)© Daniel Shaw, LCSW, 2007

You Say You Want a Resolution

Another New Year is here, and it’s time to make those resolutions. Lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier, be less irritable, spend more time with the kids, get out of debt, have more fun, more sex, more vacation… Self-disclosure: If I actually remember half my resolutions the day after I make them - let alone eventually achieve them - I’m lucky.

It’s been my experience, both personally and with the people I work with in my psychotherapy practice, that making a resolution to achieve something, to change something in yourself, can be quite challenging for many of us. Rather than being resolute, many people disappoint themselves and others because they are chronically irresolute - the condition famously, tragically suffered by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

How can we understand ambivalence, the tendency to obsess, to ruminate endlessly about a decision only to find ourselves repeatedly stuck in the same place? I’ll present two very brief examples:

Ted is 33, smart, handsome, and on the partner track in a good law firm. He dates, meets someone he likes, and gets involved in an exlusive relationship. After two years, the girl makes it clear that if he doesn’t want to marry her, she will break up with him. This is the third relationship he’s had like this - in a row. He thinks he can’t move forward because he can’t decide if he’s settling rather than finding someone he is absolutely sure about. When we get down deeper, he realizes that he fears that in any intimate relationship that he commits to, he will be forced into a submissive role, as he was all through childhood by his intimidating, highly controlling father.

Sally is a successful photographer for a magazine. The young intern assigned to help her is driving her crazy - he does sloppy work, he is defensive, feels inappropriately entitled, and acts like he is doing her a big favor. Sally values being respectful and helpful to subordinates, and can’t bring herself to handle the intern. Instead she agonizes in therapy sessions about what the right thing to do would be, all the while continuing to put up with the Intern from Hell. I eventually hear about Sally’s mom, a child-like woman that Sally was always more like a parent to than a daughter. If Sally ever had a protest or a complaint about her mother, and she had good reason to have many, her mom would burst into tears, feeling so hurt and victimized by Sally. For Sally to assert herself always meant that she would end up feeling profoundly guilty, as though it were selfish of her to consider her own needs rather than everyone else’s.

What’s next for Ted and Sally? They have to use the insights they’ve gained in therapy to act, to force themselves past their fear and their guilt, to stop repeating the same patterns they got stuck with and are stuck in. They need to resolve to be resolute. Encouragement and support in therapy and from others will only go as far as their own openness to growth and change, to making an internal shift, a resolution.

And perhaps what needs to be recognized is that whenever we make any choice, we gain the thing we choose, but we also lose what we did not choose. There is no way around that one - it’s a fact of life. If you’re waiting to know what the perfect choice is, you’ll be waiting indefinitely. We can make good choices, but not perfect ones.

So another New Year is here. There are only so many new years any of us will live to see. My New Year’s resolution is to answer Hamlet’s question. To be or not to be? To Be! Yes! To Be.

Happy New Year!

Daniel Shaw, LCSW practices psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in Nyack, New York and in New York City.
Nyack: (845) 548-2561; New York: (212) 581-6658