Tag Archives: couseling

The Challenge To Accept Reality

It is what it is

In October every year, I begin receiving a plethora of catalogues in the mail.  Christmas is approaching and the gift purchasing season has arrived!  Because I once ordered a throw pillow embroidered with some cute saying, now I receive twenty different gift catalogues every week.  These are the catalogues with funny t-shirts, coffee mugs, front door mats, candles, jewelry, and the like.

These catalogues drive me a little crazy, but I do like to look through them.   This year, I discovered something interesting.  I discovered that there is a saying that seems to catch hold of the market—a different saying every year.   There are funny sayings like, I love cooking with wine; sometimes I even put it in the food or Jesus loves you but I’m his favorite or I’m so busy I don’t know if I found a rope or lost a horse!  They do make me chuckle.  There was one by Einstein this year, If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called Research. Now that one made me smile!

And then there are the sayings that tend more toward the sentimental and the profound.  We may not have it all together; but together we have it all or Never, never, never give up or Sisters are forever friends.  This past year, I noticed a new saying popping up in all the catalogues, available on a plaque, bracelet, throw pillow, or, as you can see, a coffee mug!  It really caught my attention because I had been thinking a lot about the wisdom that it captures so succinctly.

It is what it is. This saying reflects one of the central tasks of life:  to accept reality as it is.  In getting to know the intricate inner workings of the minds of many people, I have observed that this task is much harder than it may seem at first blush.  We human beings have tremendous resistance toward facing life on life’s terms.  It’s like psychic gravity pulls us toward dreaming about what life could be or holding grudges because we believe that life is not as it should be.  We don’t want to take it as it comes.  We tend to envy other people and compare ourselves to them.  But the comparison is usually a false one.  The grass is always greener in someone else’s yard because we compare the worst of what we have with the best of what our neighbors have.

I think this mindset is very seductive and proves to be a fundamental obstacle in our efforts to change and grow ourselves.  This is true for two reasons, one practical and the other deeply emotional.

The practical challenge for every one of us is to look at our lives and say to ourselves, “It is what it is.  This is my personality.  This is my raw material.  This is the life I’ve been given—the intellect, the body, the particular sensitivities, the strengths and weaknesses, the parents, the siblings, the children, the culture, the upbringing.  This is my history—what I have been given and what I have done with it.  I can wish for a different life, but I cannot have it.  This is it.”  I call this practical because if we can accept our lives as they are, we can work with what we’ve got.  If we can’t, then we have nothing to work with at all.   We’re just chasing the wind.

The deeply emotional challenge for every one of us is to love the lives we’ve been given.   This is difficult for us to do, too, but it is of the utmost importance.  When we do not accept the reality of our lives, we are motivated by hatred.  That is a strong way to put it, I know, but think about it.  If we look at our lives and say, “I don’t want it.  It’s no good.  It’s not enough.” then we are rejecting it in hatred.  Life is a gift and we say, “Take it back.  I want something better.”  Self-hatred and rejection are utterly toxic to mental health and peace of mind.  This is why I think of acceptance as a loving act toward ourselves and toward life itself.  We say, “I embrace it.  I will love it.  I will tend to it.  I will build on it.”  This state of mind leads to inner harmony, which is of value beyond measure.

We often resist this process because, at some level, accepting reality feels a lot like giving up.  There is some truth to that feeling.  Acceptance is a kind of resignation.  A kind of surrender.  But it is the good kind, the kind that can lead to change and growth.  What we give up is the ideal.  We give up a fantasy.  We let go of resentment.  We let go of grievances.  Perhaps you can see that it is not only loss; it is also gain.  In exchange, we get reality.  We get ourselves.

If we can do the hard emotional work of taking the good with the bad in life, we get to receive the gift that we have been given.  We might even get to enjoy it.

Relax… It’s just analysis.

Over the years, I have noticed that the mere mention of the word “psychoanalysis” strikes fear in the hearts of many.  It is equivalent to Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort–it is the profession whose name shall not be spoken!

I am reminded of this idea whenever I attend a dinner party with new people.  Inevitably, the dreaded question is asked of me…”so what do you do for a living?”  I gulp.  I look for an escape route.  I wish I were a teacher, or a television editor, or a software engineer, or even an IRS agent.  Because I know how intimidated people feel about psychotherapists–and psychoanalysts in particular.  They have fantasies that we have x-ray vision and can see the deepest, darkest secrets of their minds.  They expect harsh judgment and a kind of detached superiority from us.  They wonder if we are always psychoanalyzing everyone in the room.

So, in the face of the question, I try to smile and come across as casually as possible.  “I’m a head-shrinker,” I say.  It’s the least intimidating way I know how to describe it.  They usually laugh.  A good sign.  They usually give me a chance.  Another good sign.  And then after awhile, as they get to know me, they get a chance to see that while, yes, I may have special powers, I’m just an ordinary human being, too!

While these anxieties are dispelled a bit through experiences such as these, it is important to admit there is some basis in reality for them.  Intuitively, we know that psychoanalysis is a model for thinking about people that is deep and insightful.  We feel kind of vulnerable in the presence of someone who is listening so intently, thinking so carefully, and wholly dedicated to understanding our inner world.  When we feel vulnerable like that, we try to protect ourselves.  We become suspicious.  Maybe even defensive.  It’s natural.  We worry that we are going to be harmed in some way–that the powerful insights of psychoanalysis and the skills of its agents will be used against us.   Because of its presumed power, we assume that psychoanalysis is a dark art.  Better to keep it at a distance.  Better safe than sorry.

If things go reasonably well by the end of such dinner parties, my new-found friends often express their farewells by saying, “It was so nice to meet you.  You’re so easy to talk to.”  I might respond with a wink and a smile and say, “See, I told you that I try to use my powers for good and not evil!”  I hope that experiences like these are corrective for people, giving them a chance to challenge their stereotypes and have a positive experience with a real, live, decent psychoanalyst.  My profession sometimes has a bad reputation, and I hope to help restore its good name.

This is the way that I approach my work with patients in my private practice, as well.  I hope that they, too, will find in me a person who is interested in using whatever talents, education, and training I have for their good.   That is the motive from which psychoanalysis emerged, even as far back as Freud’s day when he was trying to treat patients who were not responding well to other treatments available at the time.  He wanted to reach the unreachable, to grasp the deeper meaning of their symptoms in order to give them relief.  Psychoanalysis is a theory of how the mind works, yes; but it is fundamentally a clinical technique designed to help people change for the better.

In my experience on both sides of the couch–as patient and analyst–I have discovered that psychoanalysis is not dark magic, as even I had once feared.    In fact, it is not magic at all.  What analysts “shrink” are these very illusions–the illusions that there is some magical, powerful way to be in the world that allows us to transcend ordinary human struggles and life.  Analysis fundamentally embraces the idea that life is hard work.  Good work but hard work.  Psychoanalysis can feel magical, in the sense that it taps into the unconscious which can seem so mysterious.  But the unconscious is just one part of being human–the part that is hardest to reach and most difficult to understand, but still just an ordinary part of who we all are.  As I hope to show in future posts, psychoanalysis is indeed  one of the most penetrating, insightful, and useful models for understanding the psyche and making meaningful and lasting changes in life.  But it isn’t magic.  And it doesn’t bite.  It’s just psychoanalysis!