Tag Archives: counseling

Band-Aids for Valentine’s Day?

For many people, Valentine’s Day is the most dreaded of all holidays.

If you are single, you may long for that perfect relationship that you fear will never come.

If you are in a couple, you may long for that perfect relationship that you fear will never come!

To be fair, Valentine’s Day has a meaningful purpose, if we think of it as a day set aside for us to more intentionally convey our love to our loved ones.  It’s a little bit sad that we need a day hallowed for that purpose, because it means that we human beings have trouble expressing our love to one another on any, ordinary day.  But we all know that tends to be true.  Expressions of love, tenderness, affection, and devotion are essential in feeding any love relationship–and sometimes we need a little incentive to spark the fire in our romantic relationships, too!

But the practice of Valentine’s Day seems to have morphed into a pursuit of an ideal love which we all long for, at some deep level.  The baby at the core of each of our psyches longs to be utterly adored—to feel that we are the most beautiful creature ever to grace the planet!  And that same baby in each of us also longs to be understood in a very magical way—to have someone know us so intimately that our needs and wants can be met even if we never express them.  I think this is the reason why Valentine’s Day gift-giving is so maddening.  And, I have to admit, that we women tend to be the culprits in this particular dynamic.  We want our man to pick out the perfect gift for us without any direction—as if such an achievement would prove that he really loves us!  And the man suffers a complementary magical baby-level expectation that is the source of his great resentment—he doesn’t want to have to PROVE his love in order to be loved; he wants to be loved unconditionally, just as he is.

So we might say that Valentine’s Day has become a celebration of infantile love—which is why it is so disappointing for most of us.  Because infantile love is fantasy love, its celebration is doomed to failure.  Mature love is quite a different thing.

Mature love accepts and expects the flaws that are inevitable in any real love relationship.  It even celebrates them.

None of us is perfect.  We do well to recognize that in ourselves and to honor it in our loved ones.   In a way, that is what makes love so meaningful—that we receive love as imperfect creatures and that the imperfect love that we give is received and even treasured.  It feels great when we are admired for being beautiful, smart, or clever—but doesn’t love really sink in when we are loved in our worst moments, when we are cranky, awkward, or screwed up?   It’s so pleasant when we are all getting along swimmingly, but don’t we feel more secure in our relationships when we find that we can weather difficult storms together?  I am coming to understand, more and more, that love is built in the gaps, through the troubles, and with the flaws.

There are stories in many cultures about the importance of keeping in mind the inevitable reality of imperfections.  Deliberate mistakes are said to be woven into rugs (the “Persian Flaw”) or blankets (the “Navajo Nick”) or quilts (the Amish “Humility Block”).  These are said to be reminders of our imperfection as human beings, designed to keep our spirits humble and our feet firmly planted in the real world.  Some experts dismiss these stories as myths rather than actual practices, saying that one does not need to deliberately make mistakes in such works of art, as they are inevitable.  In either case, you get the point.

The truth about real, human, mature love is this:  flaws are built-in aspects of any love relationship.  What makes it love is when we have the commitment to accept this reality in ourselves and in one another–and to work with patience, kindness, and grace to try to make repair when the hearts get broken.

Next year, I would like to put together a gift basket for my husband for Valentine’s Day.  It would include a quality bar of 72% dark chocolate, a nice bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, and a box of band-aids.  We could both use them.

We’re All Babies At Heart

https://i2.wp.com/www.sawdustcityllc.com/signimg/t5176.jpgBecause our minds are so complex, psychoanalysts often use metaphors and analogies to try to describe them.  Freud described the mind as being layered like the topography of the earth—the conscious tip of the glacier is above the water’s surface, and there is a deep unconscious beneath.  He also likened the psyche to a horse being bridled by a rider—the id (horse) needing to be mastered by the superego (bridle) in the hands of an effective ego (rider).  Indeed, it feels that way sometimes.  I sure know what it’s like to try to rein my impulses in!

For me, the analogy that has helped me best make sense of the life of the mind is Melanie Klein’s picture of the psychological world being like an internal family with a baby at the center of the action.  Having worked with both young children and adults, Klein observed that we human beings tend to carry the impulses, feelings, and fantasies of our babyhoods with us into later life.   She believed that, as adults, we all are under a lot of pressure from an internal baby part of ourselves that is frightened, confused, and in great need of help to figure out how to make it in this big, scary world of ours—a baby who longs for consolation, comfort, protection, safety, and ultimately love.  The internal baby needs us to develop more mature parts of the mind—an internal mom and dad, if you will—so that there is a more grown-up someone inside to help the baby deal with life.

This analogy explains a lot for me.  If I think about my difficulty getting out of bed when the alarm clock goes off in the morning as being like my inner baby’s wish to avoid the painful challenges of the day, I actually feel a little bit more compassionate toward myself—and am capable of having a bit more discipline, too.  I can see how I need an internal mother or father who firmly but kindly says, “Come on, time to get up.  It won’t be so bad.  You’ll feel better once you wipe the sleepy dust from your eyes.  It’ll be okay.”  And so the baby-me reluctantly gets up and gets going, and soon feels more awake and capable thanks to the inner parent’s nudging.

In my last post, I wrote about how challenging it is to accept reality as it is—and also how helpful it can be.  This week, I hope to get you thinking about this idea through the lens of the internal baby-internal mother analogy.  That picture helps me when I think about having to face a lot of things in reality that I don’t want to face—things far more difficult than getting up in the morning.  Things like dealing with conflict, standing up for what I think is right, tolerating unfairness, being patient in the face of hardship, leaning into emotionally painful experiences, weathering periods of helplessness, taking my medicine when I need it, biting my tongue, or swallowing humble pie.

We all need an internal mom or dad who can help us face difficulties in life.  For me, that is a picture of maturity—not the absence of childlike feelings and fantasies, but the ability to cope with them effectively.  Maturity comes when the internal mom can say to the internal baby, “It is what it is.  It’s not perfect but it’s not so bad.  And even when it is bad, you can face it.  I’ll help you.  We’ll do it together.”   For me, that’s a pretty good picture of maturity—compassionate discipline towards oneself.

We hope for this kind of dynamic between parents and children in external life.  Parents help children develop, teachers help students learn, psychoanalysts help patients grow.  The work is to take these helpful outside experiences with others and set them up inside as a relationship with ourselves.  Part of the wisdom of psychoanalysis is that, just as external experiences help shape our inner worlds, so internal experiences help shape our outer worlds.  If we can develop a good relationship between our baby-selves and adult-selves in our inner worlds, we carry that to our outer lives as we are more able to learn through experience, become stronger, reach further, and develop our potential.

Put simply, a well-functioning internal family means more success in life, as the inner parent turns to the inner child and says—with a smile but in all seriousness–“Put on your big girl panties, and deal with it!”

What Really Counts

I think Albert Einstein would have made a great psychoanalyst.  He just seems to have all the best quotes.  In my last post, I explored his idea that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”  Now I want to delve into another saying attributed to Einstein, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Being new to the blogging world, I started off by doing a little research.  I googled “best psychology blogs.”  Turns out, there are a lot of them—and a lot of good ones.   I found it interesting, though, that the psychology blogs at the top of the list have a lot to do with research psychology.  It made sense to me because there is a clear trend in my field toward a more scientifically-based psychology.  For example, there is a fascination these days with the function of the brain and how it affects our emotions and behavior.  Likewise, we seem to be enamored with scientific research; we believe things really matter if they can be measured in a laboratory.   Even within my own field of applied psychology, there is a strong movement toward “evidence-based treatments.”  A particular set of psychotherapeutic techniques is applied to a person with a particular symptom, and we measure whether or not the treatment “works” by whether or not the symptom is alleviated—and how much so and for how long.

Surely there is a place for such psychological science, but I fear that it is taking up nearly all of the space these days.   We overvalue measuring, counting, proving, and guaranteeing.  And so much that makes for a meaningful life cannot be quantified in such ways.

So I am heartened that one of the greatest scientists of all time said that counting is not everything.  Einstein understood that there are mysteries, that there is beauty, that there is meaning that transcends correlation and calculation.  This is true for so many aspects of life and especially for a depth psychology such as psychoanalysis.   While there is a growing body of research that demonstrates the effectiveness of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, its effect and value cannot be captured within the confines of the scientific method.

I turn to a poet to help me convey what I mean—to Rainer Maria Rilke who wrote, “Ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone; and many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another.”

An effective psychotherapy treatment is a mysterious and sacred set of experiences between two human beings, dedicated to understanding the unique life of a single person in all of its complexities.  It is both science and art, aimed not only at reduction of symptoms but at lifting unconscious resistances so that we can face life on life’s terms and become our best selves.  The process of psychotherapy is difficult to measure because the things that matter most in life are difficult to measure.  Yes, we want to be free of the worst of our anxiety, depression, addiction, and dysfunction.  Yes, we wish to be more successful by having lasting marriages, good salaries and grade point averages, and high self-esteem as measured on a scale of 1 to 10.  But what of love?  Or joy?  Or gratitude?  Self-respect, self-control, generosity, hope, or, dare I say, peace of mind?   These are the things that we value most, deep in our heart of hearts.   These are the things that make life worth living.

I remember a particular moment during my psychoanalytic training when one of our instructors asked us what psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s theory was essentially about.  We young candidates were flustered, trying to find the center of such a complex model of the mind.  “The unconscious?” one of us asked.  “Projective identification?” asked another.  Or the big kahuna, “Envy?”  Our instructor shook his head.  Gently, he said, “It’s about love.”  That was it for me.  That was my moment, when the deep and often confusing models of psychoanalysis began to make real sense.  It’s about love.  Love of self, love of other, love of life.  While it is nearly impossible to measure, it is ultimately what counts the most.

INSIGHT: Understanding what makes us tick…

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  By that definition, we all are sometimes, if not often, insane.  How can it be that perfectly intelligent people do such obviously counterproductive things so much of the time?  Why do we do the things we know we shouldn’t do, and why do we fail to do the things we know we should do?

So much of ordinary life is a mystery to us.  Why do children tend to repeat the mistakes of their parents?  Why do second marriages often wind up just like the first?  Why are self-help books so rarely helpful?  In short, why do we make the same mistakes, over and over again, seeming never to learn?

The simple answer to these questions is that our unconscious mind greatly influences all that we do.  Understanding the features of the unconscious mind is a key to making changes that last.  We cannot work to improve something we do not understand, and this is the basis for the psychoanalytic idea that insight leads to change.  We first need to understand what makes us tick.

One of the basic principles of psychoanalysis is that the mind is like a glacier.  So much of what motivates us and concerns us–holds us back and pushes us forward–lies beneath the surface.  We do our best to work with what we know–the tip of the glacier, the conscious mind.  But powerful forces lie beneath the surface, the unconscious mind.  Psychoanalysis is one of the most developed ways to gain access and understanding to the unconscious mind, and thus to have an opportunity to influence it for the better.  Meditation, deep love connections, spiritual experiences, dream work, and other practices also are avenues to working with unconscious life.

Melanie Klein, a psychoanalyst who developed the ideas of Sigmund Freud in London, believed that the unconscious affects us from the beginning of life.  Each of us comes into the world pre-programmed to experience life in certain ways.  Some of us are more sensitive than others.  Some are shy, others outgoing.  Some are more prone to aggression, others withdraw in the face of conflict and anxiety.  Some lean more on the intellect, others on emotion.  This hard-wiring that is commonly known as temperament is the nature side of the nature-nurture balance that shapes how a personality develops.  If you have any experience with babies, you know exactly what I’m talking about!

Each of us comes into the world with expectations of how the world will treat us and how we will respond, and then our early experiences confirm or challenge these conceptions.  A particularly warm family experience can soften the sharp edges of a prickly porcupine temperament.  A hostile and perfectionistic family experience can intensify that same predisposition.  An abusive environment can weaken the resolve and resilience of even the most optimistic little personality, and a supportive, challenging environment can foster her great success in life.  We are a blend of our hard-wiring and the software operating system of our early environment.

The power of the unconscious is in its tendency to repeat these patterns that get laid down in the earliest months of our lives.  We live out these inner and outer experiences over and over again, and often we don’t know it and can’t see it.  Psychoanalysis seeks to help us understand how we operate unconsciously–why we do the things we do–so that we can know more and more about these unique strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, and vulnerabilities.  By understanding what makes us tick, the unconscious is brought into the world of consciousness.  Only then can we begin to make different choices and to make changes that last.

One of Freud’s famous phrases is where id was, there ego shall be.  The modern version of this idea is that where the unconscious was, the conscious shall be.   There are secrets that we keep, even from ourselves.  The wisdom of psychoanalysis can bring these secrets out of hiding, into the light of day.   Understanding ourselves is the beginning to changing ourselves.  By itself, insight is not enough; but it is the essential first step in changing our ways.