|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on June 17, 2016 at 2:50 PM||comments (0)|
Our household went without television for about 12 years and survived quite nicely, thank you. There were a few exceptions. We pulled a 12-inch portable TV out of the closet to watch the 9/11 tragedy after hearing about it on the radio. And we saw TV at airports, friends’ home, etc. How could we not? TV, even now in the age of the Internet, is ubiquitous.
Why would we do such an unorthodox thing? Our answer falls into the category of protecting what we put into our brains, the same way we are careful regarding what we eat. Before you assume that we are members of a cult, let me rush to say that we now own and watch TV regularly protected, at least in our minds, by modern technology such as DVRs that allow us to circumvent extreme violence and commercialism to a large degree.
Such choices are controversial from person to person and family to family. While I avoid a diet of gratuitous violence, I would not avoid literature or serious theater in which violence is woven into the plot. Because of my professional interest in the topic of pain, I have read extensively about torture throughout history that would curl your hair. But this academic interest does not translate into a routine of watching unwarranted violence on any media.
The analogy to food and diet is a good one. A survey of eating habits shows wide and particular expressions and nuances. Similarly, just as there are reasonable recommendations that cut across the wide population regarding food (eat a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats), there are, in my opinion, sensible guidelines regarding what you should allow to enter your brain. A reasonable recommendation is to monitor the type and quantity of information that potentially has a harmful effect upon your mental health.
Protecting yourself from harmful input takes some attention. Choosing to avoid extreme violence may be easy, but there may be other areas where the offending input may be difficult. For example, you may have friends or relatives whose time you may want to limit. Censoring harmful interactions from friends and relatives is every bit as important as limiting unhealthy input from the media. Your response to the following questions might indicate that some censorship may be in order.
Do you have friends or relatives that “make your blood boil” or who send you into a funk? Do these same people negatively linger in your brain after you have spent time with them?
Do you spend time wishing that you had responded differently to their conversation?
Do you spend time thinking about what you are going to say or how you are going to handle them before you encounter them?
Are you somewhat anxious when you know you are going to be speaking to them?
All of us can be annoying at times, but it is the deeply negative that I speak of. You may not be able to eliminate contact with those who are truly unpleasant, but you can certainly limit the time that you share in their toxic environment.
The idea, by the way, falls under another good rule of mental health -- control what you can control. Treat your mind with the care you treat your body. There is a saying that “you are what you eat.” My belief is that you are only as mentally healthy as what and who you allow to enter your brain and in what quantity.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on May 14, 2016 at 2:00 PM||comments (0)|
In David Eagleman’s fanciful book, Sum: Tales of the Afterlife, the reader relives all life experiences reshuffled and grouped together. For example, we might have six months of sex, sleep for 30 years, spend six days cutting our nails, two months driving in front of our house, two and a half years standing in line at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, as well as 15 months looking for things we’ve lost. It’s fun to look at the pleasures, but grouping the frustrations together –- whoa, that’s rough!
Both frustrations and pleasures typically don’t come all at once, but bunches can occur and, when we’ve had a “bad” day or week, frustrations certainly seem to occur unfairly.
Recently I drove my car to the dealership for a simple repair, having been assured that the ordered part was on hand. Upon arrival I learned that there had been a miscommunication between the service and the parts departments and, no, the car couldn’t be repaired that morning. Later that week our car broke down at the beginning of a long road trip, causing delays and alterations in our plans. In the big realm of things, not the end of the world, but imagine living through these inconveniences for months at a time.
Managing frustration is tough. What do we do with bumps in our life? Of course, we can throw a fit or have an outburst about other people’s incompetence. We can stew, allowing ourselves to focus on bad luck.
Some people allow frustration to linger longer than necessary. They blame others, which puts the responsibility for change outside of their control. Take the example of getting stuck in traffic. Of course, traffic jams are irritating and we can’t control how long they last, but ultimately how long we stay frustrated is up to each of us. When we smolder, we are often guilty of thinking that “these things shouldn’t happen” or are “always happening to me” –- tendencies that make the blood boil hotter and longer.
People who manage frustrations well think differently. They’re more likely to think; It’s not going on your permanent record, Tomorrow is another day, It’s not a problem, it’s an inconvenience, It is what it is -- thoughts that put daily frustrations into perspective. Perspective lessens the impact of frustration and encourages movement to other distractions and healthy behaviors.
So does balance. While frustrations are annoying, reminders of the positive experiences in life offset frustration’s power to bring us down. Most of us are incredibly fortunate to live the lives we do with all of the relationships and amenities we enjoy. To allow inconveniences to dominate those advantages for more than a short time is a personal failing that we can rectify. Reminding ourselves of the good things in our lives on a regular basis helps to do just that.
Those who handle frustrations well also tend not to generalize or exaggerate. They stay factual. Traffic jams happen. Cars break down. Technology fails. Frustrating problems are difficult enough. No need to magnify the challenge beyond the issue at hand.
It’s true that lousy things happen and sometimes even in bunches. Although it may feel differently at times, there is no exterior force that has picked us out to create havoc in our life. To believe otherwise is to give in to superstition and paranoia. If we learn to handle the everyday annoyances of life, we are well on our way to a greater degree of happiness. And I suspect we’re unlikely to feel like we’re spending one and one-half years standing in line at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on April 14, 2016 at 4:30 PM||comments (0)|
It’s been my experience that people are a bit schizophrenic when it comes to taking care of themselves. On the one hand, we work to avoid pain and to maximize happiness in the moment. Yet, on the other hand, in the big picture of life, many fail to take care of themselves.
Many years ago I had an office across from a family therapist. Among the various things he preached one stood out -- to take care of yourself first. His argument was that you are the only person who is guaranteed to be there for the rest of your life. And secondly, when you take care of yourself, you are in a stronger position to take care of those around you.
This seemingly logical position often met with vigorous resistance. “Do you mean to say that I should put myself before my children, my spouse and my parents?” My friend would answer with a resounding “Yes”. He advocated having priorities. Take care of yourself first, your spouse or partner second and your children third. At which point, you might hear some parent howl that they could never put their children’s welfare behind their own.
Parental resistance is particularly understandable since children are dependent upon others. Their vulnerability definitely requires attention and support. But this therapist was not speaking of neglecting those needs or the needs of vulnerable older parents, but focusing on doing what is best for yourself and others in the long term.
His argument is analogous to building a strong foundation for a home. Marriages and parenting are both most successful when there is a strong underpinning. When you are happy and confident, those around you are more likely to be happy and confident. Think, for a second, how many children are hindered when raised in a dysfunctional household. By contrast a strong, loving home is perhaps the greatest gift a mother and father can give to their children.
The resistance to my therapist friend’s point of view also comes from those who hear his message as not providing love. That is not the message. The message is to take care of yourself as the top priority and then sufficiently and lovingly care for others.
In my clinical work, I have most often come across individuals who go to the extreme of putting others excessively before their own well-being. Let me give you an example. Many years ago, while working in a pain clinic, a “little old lady” with serious back pain came to be treated. What was unusual was that her adult children carried her favorite chair as she walked down the hall and everywhere she went. Whenever she stopped, the chair was ready and she sat.
Her medical diagnosis was clear: severe muscular pain aggravated by inactivity and excessive time in this chair. Her treatment recommendations were clear as well: extensive graduated physical therapy including the removal of the chair so lovingly ministered by her children.
To these last recommendations the family revolted. “After all the years of love and attention provided by our devoted mother, you are telling us that we should stop caring for her?” they angrily responded. Our attempts to assuage their anger failed. They abruptly left the clinic.
This reaction was common in the family therapy classes that I facilitated for many years -- caretakers who excessively helped a family member to the point of personal burnout, some reaching a point of outright resentment. They, too, resisted taking care of themselves first, mistakenly believing we wished them to forsaken the care given to their loved one.
Excessive caretaking is just one example of not taking care of yourself, of not looking at the whole picture. Making sure you take care of your physical and mental health, as a top priority, is critical throughout life. I think my therapist friend, standing on his soapbox, was providing a valuable life lesson.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on March 18, 2016 at 1:55 PM||comments (0)|
Obviously we are all interested in managing our lives well. We would like our good habits to be constructive and our bad habits, few. It was this knowledge that inspired me many years ago to teach a class entitled Self-Directed Behavior Modification.
The course began with a straightforward assignment intended to demonstrate that rewards, what psychologist call reinforcers, presented systematically can alter behavior. The reinforcer, in this case, was a compliment about a specific color of clothing worn by a close friend. One-third of the class complimented brown clothes, another third blue and the last third red, every day for a week. Guess what? Each group found that the reinforced color of clothing was worn more frequently in the second week. Attention and compliments are very strong reinforcers and, when given frequently and specifically, are very likely to change a behavior.
The purpose of the class, however, was to learn behavioral techniques to modify one’s own behavior, not others. So I had the students turn the techniques on themselves. The results were impressive. One student, who subsequently published his outcome in a psychology journal, was able to reduce his frequency of daytime bruxism (i.e., teeth grinding), another to act more assertively and still another to study more consistently. Virtually every student changed or improved some behavior.
Sometimes the arrangement to modify one’s own behavior is simple. A colleague claimed he got through college with this straightforward method. Each evening he laid out books for the next day’s classes on his bed. He removed each book from the bed only after he completed the class assignment and only after all the books were removed did he get to sleep. He structured his environment to achieve a long-term goal -- success in college.
Analyzing your own patterns and clearly recognizing your reinforcers can be invaluable in structuring your life. When I first began university teaching I realized that one of the favorite parts of my job was academic counseling. In doing so I found that students were coming to me for personal counseling as well. It soon became obvious that I was interested in doing clinical work, a field different from my education as a Developmental Psychologist where I taught and did research. In order to do clinical work, however, I needed to pass state requirements. At the time the task of educating myself in this specialty seemed formidable. I decided to attack this challenge using the very techniques I was teaching others.
I began with the simple arrangement of using what behavioral psychologists call The Premack Principle, more commonly known as “eat your peas before you get dessert.” The idea is to make a pleasurable behavior (enjoying dessert) dependent upon performing an unpleasant behavior first (eating peas). In my University setting I had the habit of disrupting my day by frequently checking my mail (my pleasurable behavior). I then structured my actions to make studying for my state examination (the unpleasant behavior) a requirement before I could check my mail. I initially required myself to study for five minutes but over time increased that requirement to twenty minutes. Within a year I was ready to take my examination.
In truth we already arrange our lives to control our behavior -- setting an alarm to wake up in the morning, laying out our clothes for an important event, keeping reminders on our calendar. The list goes on and on. The challenge is to address goals that are unmet and devise a plan to achieve those as well. One method is to systematically use a small discrete reinforcer that works for you and arrange it so that it consistently follows a small desired behavior that eventually leads to success in a big goal. Not easy but worth the effort.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on March 7, 2016 at 12:55 AM||comments (0)|
There are many theories as to why we shake hands. A sign of friendship, sportsmanship, and trust are among the most common explanations. But, from an evolutionary standpoint, I like the idea that primitive man displayed that he had no weapon in his hand, allowing himself to be vulnerable. It’s that vulnerability that intrigues me.
Being vulnerable is risky and can be frightening. Who wants that? But, then again, never being vulnerable carries many problems as well, especially in personal relationships and living life to the fullest. One of my early career choices relates to stepping forward into vulnerability. I was terrified of speaking before groups but also aware that every occupation I considered suitable meant presenting myself in the public sphere. I chose to teach.
Now, many years later, I receive praise for my teaching. But when someone says, “You make it seem so effortless,” I have to laugh to myself. They don’t know the absolute terror I felt prior to walking into each and every class during my early years. They didn’t see the sweat that poured down my back as I stood in front of the class reading my notes, eyes cemented to the paper. Or the agony I felt at the end of summer with the approach of the first day of class. I worked hard but my story is not unique. Most everyone has his or her own version of high anxiety in the early stages of an endeavor. Those who faced their fear and worked through it, however, often have a wonderful payoff.
There is a reason that Alcoholics Anonymous open their meetings with “My name is ____ and I am an alcoholic.” It sets the stage for everyone in the room to show their vulnerability, to lessen a hierarchy that might otherwise inhibit discussion and growth. It’s well known in psychology circles that, if you want someone to open up regarding their personal life, a good approach is to share part of your own.
Virtually everyone knows that, when they share news of an illness, tragedy, or death in their family, what follows is a short sympathetic acknowledgement of the loss and then a story about the listener’s own challenges in a similar area. You never know how many broken limbs, heart attacks and loss of relatives there are until you share your story. Then your sense that you are alone in your particular difficulty is replaced by the ubiquity of it. The door to another people’s personal life is often opened when we open our own. You allowed others to know you’re subject to life’s tragedies, and they, in turn, shared their experience. Vulnerability promotes vulnerability.
In the stereotypic picture of therapy the patient talks and the therapist listens. The patient has the problem and the therapist is the model of sanity, without depression or anxiety. In such a view the therapist has all the answers to life’s difficulties. Reality is very different. Therapists struggle and work through life’s trials, tribulations and tragedies every bit as much as others. Therapists have their personal demons too. My experience with clients is to frequently remind them that they need to work and practice good life management habits, just as I need to do the same. When I am open, honest and vulnerable, the client is as well. We make progress.
I’m not recommending that you share your personal life in a thoughtless fashion. It can be risky and off-putting. Doing so casually can be offensive. On the other hand, vulnerability is important in encouraging deep relationships, more prescribed for our inner circle and special circumstances. There it is crucial that we move past the banal exchanges of daily life and into deeper knowledge of each other. Risky perhaps, but the step necessary to gain close relationships.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on January 15, 2016 at 5:00 PM||comments (0)|
No matter how intimate our relationships with others, we ultimately reside in a cocoon shared by no one else. Inside that vessel we think continuously and thereby create our moods, attitudes and expectations. So it is not a stretch to say that if we want to gain greater control of our well being, we need turn no further than our internal chatter.
In everyday life, our interpretations of reality make us vulnerable to unhappiness. In our self-talk we overgeneralize, blame others for our problems, focus on the negative and berate ourselves with “shoulds” and “musts” — to mention a few of the most common unhealthy mental habits. Let me expand on each of these.
Overgeneralizing simply means that we take one event and expand it beyond reasonable assumptions. It is a common pattern of those who are anxious, worried, or depressed. “I’ve lost my job. I’m a failure.” “I’m divorced, nobody will ever love me” may seem obvious misperceptions to others but not to the person thinking them. An event happens and we overgeneralize. We create an inappropriate label, a worry or fear. Recall some of your deepest anxieties and you’ll likely remember distortions that you believed at the time. The deeper the fear, the more likely the overgeneralization. However, as Mark Twain remarked, “Ninety-eight percent of what I worried about never happened.”
Blaming others may seem an obvious fault when observed but not so easily recognized when we are guilty of it. Blaming others for our distress means that we inadvertently give up power. If that incorrigible relative gets under our skin and ruins our day, it is he or she who has the power over our emotions, not ourselves. While it may be true that the relative’s behavior is uncouth, despicable, and inconsiderate, your anger is unlikely to alter the behavior and may even facilitate it. Attending to what you can control in the circumstance is virtually always the best strategy.
“I’m a lazy sloth,” may be an overgeneralization but it is also an example of focusing on the negative. My common response to such statements is, “OK, prove it. Keep a diary of your activity, hour by hour, and let’s see whether you really are a sloth.” The most common outcome is that, although the individual may be less productive than he would like, he is hardly a sloth. He has focused on the negative, not seeing the positive. When a more evenhanded perception is established, the problem-solving process can begin. Perceiving oneself as a sloth gets you nowhere. When you find yourself focusing exclusively on the negative, it’s time to seek a more balanced view.
Another common mental distortion is the over use of the words, “should” and “must” as in “I should never make a mistake” or “I must have a perfectly clean house.” While no one likes to make mistakes and a clean house is an admirable goal, it is the use of these words in the extreme that causes untold mental anguish. Many confuse personal likes with “shoulds” and “musts”. It would be nice if everyone liked me but unreasonable to expect it. And while it is nice to have a clean house, it is destructive to obsess about it. It would be wonderful if our children never encountered problems, but it’s decidedly unlikely. It would be nice if others viewed our opinions as always right, but silly to expect so. To expect otherwise, taking the path of “shoulds” and “musts”, leads to emotional distress.
There is truth in the claim that happiness is an attitude or a state of mind. Likewise there is much to be said that our unhappiness is of our own making –- starting with our internal conversation. However, changing thought patterns is not as easy as it appears. We have well rehearsed reasons for exaggerating our fears, blaming others, focusing on the negative and abiding by our “shoulds” and “musts.” Nevertheless, in seeking greater happiness, awareness of these mental distortions is a good place to start.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on December 19, 2015 at 3:00 PM||comments (0)|
Clients are often anxious the first time they see a therapist. Many have never seen a mental health professional and are nervous. It’s understandable. To open up personal issues to a stranger can be frightening. To share perceived failings is to make oneself vulnerable –- one of the reasons men are less likely than women to engage in therapy.
Anticipation, expectations and fear are the fuel of anxiety. We all live lives in which we are evaluated. From the everyday experience of what to wear to measures of job performance, we are sensitive to what others are thinking. Of course, for the insecure, even more so.
In an ideal world, receiving feedback should be seen as an opportunity to improve. But reality is different from the ideal. In the real world feedback goes through our personal filter and we examine whether the evaluator is trustworthy, fair, and looking out for our interest, as well as a myriad of similar concerns. Such considerations put us on guard.
In establishing new therapeutic relationships I conscientiously attempt to reduce this initial worry over my evaluation. I know that when anxieties are allayed sessions are more comfortable and productive. My typical approach is to give assurances and also to lessen the evaluation component by addressing the anxiety: “It’s not a problem. You’ve already got an A” is a common comment my clients hear.
I once employed this approach at the beginning of a senior level class I taught in college. The circumstances were special, but the results are worth noting. The class on behavior modification techniques was limited to those who already had knowledge of the subject and had passed an entrance exam. So, in effect, they had been evaluated already. But still, each student had natural concerns about their grade. On the first day of class I assured everyone that they would get an A. I also gave them the questions for their final exam. Again assuring them that no matter how they performed on tests they were guaranteed an A. As classes go, the results were marvelous.
Contrary to what many would predict, attendance was perfect. Class participation was high and deeply engaged. Students expanded beyond the class content. They engaged with each other outside of class to share their thoughts. And they all got A’s.
I don’t assume that giving A’s is a panacea to the many challenges of teaching or is appropriate in most college courses. But I do recommend addressing the anxiety many have in new situations by giving assurances. I am convinced that putting someone at ease is a pathway to opening doors. Perhaps not a great insight, you might say, but one that is often forgotten.
Even more important than directing this approach to others is to direct it towards yourself, a very difficult task. Notice for a moment, the many, many stories you’ve heard of great insights emerging in dreams. It is very likely that such creative thoughts occur, in part, because of the removal of a limiting censor, leaving the mind open to problem solve and wander unfettered into new territory. It is the removal of criticism that is crucial to the process. During these moments the mind is at ease.
In relationships it is acceptance that fosters growth. In relationships it is trust that encourages deep bonding. When you give an A to someone you love, you open up marvelous opportunities. When you give it to yourself it’s even better.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on November 28, 2015 at 3:40 PM||comments (0)|
We live many lives. Progressing through stages of childhood, adolescence and chapters of adulthood, we experience changes in our behaviors, attitudes and philosophies. Changes that amaze when reflected upon.
TV dramas like “Mad Men,” a period piece of the 1960’s, dramatize some differences within our lifetime: heavy drinking and cigarette smoking, blatant misogynistic behaviors, etc. Of course, not everyone engaged, but such behaviors were common enough to remind us that most of us probably wouldn’t dare live that way today.
I love to listen to people’s life stories, always intrigued by the many turns most of us take. I often rhetorically ask, “Could you ever believe that you would travel such a path?” “Never in a million years,” most say.
I’d have to say the same inquiry applies to happiness. In your youth, what did you think would lead you down the yellow brick road? Here again, the answers reflect astonishment over how life has turned out.
Interestingly, many of the happier lives we lived were not replete with material goods, fame or acknowledgement. Often they were struggling times, periods where goals and purpose were primary. Happiness doesn’t seem to correlate with vast material wealth and power. (Fix your indentation here – it changes.)
A recent newspaper account of Abd Al-Rahman III, an emir and caliph of Cordoba in 10th century Spain, illustrates the latter point. This absolute ruler had virtually everything young people of today often yearn for -- fame, wealth and a variety of sexual partners. As a powerful ruler he could demand any of these things from his dominions and more. And yet, toward the end of his life, he is quoted as saying, “I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity.” However, he goes on to say, “I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to 14.”
One’s man’s observations are seldom universally true, but Abd Al-rahman III’s musings do raise an interesting question. Are the things we seek the real path to happiness?
Conservative New York Times’ columnist David Brooks recently presented a modern day version of this question. Long known for his political observations and societal insights, Mr. Brooks frequently comments on personal introspection. His latest book, The Road to character, is one such example. In spite of lofty accomplishments, he finds his life somewhat wanting and wrestles with personal questions of identity and purpose. He notes, “I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard” and at another point, “I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness.” These self-deprecations are meant to illustrate his uncertainty that his highly lauded achievements are enough to equate with a fulfilled life. Instead, he evokes historical figures who examined their personal weaknesses and sought to compensate by working for others. These are the people Brooks says he would like to emulate.
Mr. Brooks notes that there are two sets of virtues, “resume’ and eulogy virtues.” He notes that while the resume’ virtues list accomplishments touted in the workplace, it is the eulogy virtues like being loving and generous or having integrity and perseverance that are mentioned at your funeral. Something to think about.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on September 19, 2015 at 1:50 PM||comments (0)|
“Nine months of winter and three months of sloppy skating” is a common adage among residents of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I know because I lived there for three years in my twenties. I found that this description is not actually true because, while the brutal winter does seem to last forever, the short summers can be uncomfortably hot, making something to gripe about year round, if you’re so inclined. Let me quickly add that I loved the people and the culture, if not the weather.
In spite of the weather, or perhaps partly because of it, I look back on those years with fondness because I learned a lot about myself. How you survive a difficult time tells you much. I believe there are two aspects -- how you manage the challenge and what lessons you take from the experience.
In my case the time in Winnipeg were a period of learning and growing. I was a new university teacher and, if truth be told, not a very good one yet. But I was steadfast and able to get my bearings. I closely watched those around me who were successful and attempted to model their behavior. For the first time I realized that success was based more on relationships than knowledge, assuming a reasonable baseline. My focus was more on these relationships than the harsh weather. But permanent residents of Winnipeg seemed quite happy in spite of the weather. You may find it interesting to note that those countries with bleak climates actually have happier populations on the whole than counties closer to the equator. It’s not a perfect correlation but it’s generally true. I know, it’s contrary to intuition, but the data is consistent.
Early experiences often become anchors, a term used in psychology to mean a standard by which we compare. Since that time, I have used Winnipeg’s weather as my anchor and in that light most all weather is absolutely wonderful.
Struggling through adversity is an opportunity to raise your level of gratefulness. When I begin to grouse about inclement weather, I recall how much more extreme and uncomfortable it was in Winnipeg. This mental exercise reduces frustration and heightens gratefulness. Both are aids to happiness and well being, and there is a lesson here beyond this simple example of a harsh climate.
I know of no one who hasn’t suffered adversities -- death of a loved one, a bad relationship, divorce, loneliness, addiction, poverty, severe illness or disability. Virtually all of us have experienced at least one of these hardships. The question is what did we learn from these trials. Instead of merely hiding them in a box, I believe it is wise to reframe them to our advantage. The fact that you survived is itself worth noting. It’s also likely that you dug down to inner strengths that you may not have been aware of at the time. Recall what those strengths were: perseverance, creativity, hard work, methodical planning.
Think about how you grew from the experience. Remember the doubts and fears you experienced. Notice that they may have been much worse than your current ones, yet you got through them. In remembering difficulties in your past, take inspiration from the strengths you found within yourself, put the annoyances of life in perspective against the serious obstacles you’ve overcome. Use your past to meet the challenges of today. When you have an anchor to recall, like the weather in Winnipeg, things can look quite sunny.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on August 25, 2015 at 11:20 AM||comments (0)|
As a young man studying psychology, I abhorred Carl Jung, an early icon of psychological thinking. Psychology was taught to me as a science and Jung was more active in the area of armchair analysis than the rigors of systematic empirical research.
Age has its benefits and, hopefully, includes a bit of wisdom. Youth, more prone to black and white thinking, too often “throws out the baby with the bathwater”, missing what is most important. Take Jung’s observations on happiness: “There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Toss out the man and his writings and miss the wisdom.
Science, of course, begins with careful observations and those made by a man I now perceive as a clinical genius deserve scrutiny. Jung was an expression of his day and his work is filled with biases of the Victorian age. But filtering out the astute from the silly is worth the effort.
Far from the academic arena of Jung and science is the recent Disney movie, “Inside Out.” The plot, simple enough: an 11-year-old girl deals with the stresses of her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco. What makes the movie interesting is that most of the story takes place inside the girl’s head. In familiar aspects of consciousness Joy, Disgust, Anger, Sadness and Fear, all animated characters, play their roles. Faced with the stresses of new peers, uncertainty, isolation and new landscapes, the emotions battle for dominance in a fashion known to us all. Joy attempts to be the guiding force since the girl has always been a happy person, but her frustrations are fueled by Anger and Fear, even a bit of Disgust. But most importantly, as we all know in facing loss, Sadness plays a major role. This development turns especially relevant when Sadness turns out not to be Joy’s rival but rather her partner and ultimately the most notable and poignant emotion.
Sadness, as a hero, is not often seen in Disney movies or for that matter in many films. But sadness is indeed a real emotion that needs to be recognized as crucial for our humanity and well being. As Jung notes, sadness is necessary if the word happiness is to have any meaning.
Sadness is a vector: that is, it facilitates a multitude of admirable feelings and behaviors such as honor, empathy and kindness. Most importantly, it is by acknowledging sadness that we connect with others and connect with them at a meaningful level.
The sadness we feel over the death of a friend is likely to be accompanied by reminisces of happy times together. In all probability we will take some action that honors our lost friend and share our feelings with others –- behaviors that bring communities together. It may even cause us to contemplate our own mortality and take action to feed our legacy.
Seeing others less fortunate than ourselves we express our sadness with empathy and, in the best of circumstances, take action. Kindness, volunteer work and general charity often have sadness as their starting point.
In Inside Out, the character Sadness ultimately causes the little girl to reveal her innermost thoughts and worries to her parents. When they, too, share their sadness over what they have lost in their move from Minnesota, a core family experience transpires. The character Joy could never have brought the family together the way an honest expression of sadness did.
We need sadness. It’s a fundamental human experience. It makes happiness and joy possible. Embrace it. Reveal it. Share your feelings with close friends and loved ones. It is a major failing to hide our sadness from loved ones.
Sadness has its problems, of course. When allowed to linger without action it can grow into depression. When hopelessness and despair enter the picture, we can get into trouble. But given these cautions, sadness is not to be avoided. Experiencing sadness for a limited time is to be human and, in its own way, is to be treasured.
Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. –