Tag Archives: mental health

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!”

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.