Can’t or Won’t?

Does each of us always do the very best he or she can?

Over the weekend, my good friend Sue J. and I got into one of our regular “debates”, this one about whether people always do their emotional best — that is, do they always try as hard as they are able, at any given moment, to master their impulses and behave in the most constructive way possible?  Sue insists that “We’re all doing the best we can … and we could always do better.”  I disagree, not only because the statement is logically problematic but because it flies in the face of my personal experience.

Let’s begin with the logic.  If one can always do better, then how can one be making the best possible effort right now?  Unless we entirely dismiss this statement as illogical, we have to assume it implies a process of growth where each step of the way always represents one’s personal best, with expectation for improvement rising exactly as much as one’s growing capacity to meet it.  As a logical proposition, however, it still leaves something to be desired.    From my point of view, it sounds sentimental, like saying that human nature is inherently good (and never mind the atrocities occurring every minute of every day around the world).  If someone were to argue instead that people are usually trying to do their best, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight; but insisting on always makes it impossible to evaluate anyone’s behavior or render judgment about it.  This was your best effort, but that was not.

Judgment, of course, is the problem with the original question.  If I state (which I do) that people aren’t always doing the best they can, it implies that I’m making a judgment about them and their psychological efforts (which I am).   In the course of our debate, Sue accused me of being “judgmental”; I felt, for possibly the thousandth time, that our culture has lost the distinction between exercising judgment and being judgmental.  The very act of “passing judgment” will bring denunciation down upon your head.  People will accuse you of being “holier than thou,” or arrogant for presuming to judge other people.  It seems that for most of us, any kind of judgment is the equivalent of being judgmental.  The problem also seems to be with the word itself:  most of us can’t hear “judgment” without investing it with harshness.  My friend Marla Estes suggests I use a less charged word, such as “discernment”, to describe the process of making distinctions.

In my earlier post on narcissism vs. authentic self-esteem, I mentioned an incident where I felt badly about myself because of poor choices I’d made in a social situation, knowing I could have done better.  I’ve had this experience repeatedly in my life, and in those instances, I don’t necessarily feel harsh or judgmental; I often feel disappointed in myself because I haven’t lived up to my own expectations.  Usually, it’s because I didn’t want to exert the necessary effort.  I took the easier route, by doing what felt better in the moment, instead of restraining myself and earning my self-respect in the long run.  To me, saying that everyone is always doing their best implies a kind of relativism without authentic standards, since it has been decided in advance, by definition, that the standard has been met.  The standard = the behavior.

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The Pleasures of Solitude

In my post on grief and gratitude, I discussed some of the emotions that come to the fore in the termination phase of psychotherapy.  With the client I described in that post, another issue has recently become prominent:   the loneliness of personal responsibility balanced by the pleasures of solitude.

Diane began a recent Monday session by telling me she had the strong urge to fill me in on all the details of her weekend, to spill out her experience in a mindless way very familiar to us.  Throughout her treatment, she would communicate in that fashion because she wanted to feel that I was a part of her experience, as if I were there at her side going through life with her, always available to process that experience and to do her thinking for her.  She knew she felt a little angry and rebellious, as if to spill all those details would be an act of defiance.   In recent months, we’ve focused on the need to communicate in a different mode:   instead of unloading her experience in a mindless way, she needed to digest that experience first and decide which details should be communicated, what she intended to say and what she felt to be the crucial issues.  In other words, as the end of her treatment approaches, the responsibility to think for herself has shifted increasingly onto her own shoulders.

During that Monday session, she went on to discuss an article she’d read, about the rise of binge drinking among middle-aged professionals.  It made her recognize that her alcohol use had been creeping up lately as she faced various stressful situations in her life; she felt the need to get it more under control. This topic reminded her of early struggles with substance abuse when we first started working together. In those days, she used to carry a moralistic and disapproving “Joe” around in her mind; he held her to very harsh standards with no areas of gray, banning drug and alcohol use entirely, and came down hard when she slipped.  She often felt resentful toward this “Joe”, as if she were a teenager and “Joe” the unreasonably strict parent; over time, however, she came to obey his rules.  Now, she said, even though “Joe” still appeared in her thoughts, she didn’t believe in him in the same way.  She’d come to feel that the issues weren’t so black-and-white.

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Narcissism vs. Authentic Self-Esteem

You may have seen or heard about these two new studies on self-esteem in college students.  A recent New York Times article reports that, when given the choice, most college students prefer to receive a boost to their self-esteem in the form of a compliment or good grade over eating a favorite food such as pizza or having sex.  The article begins with the following question:  “Are young people addicted to feeling good about themselves?”

At first, I found this question idiotic.  I am sick and tired of how our culture has adapted the language of addiction to describe everything.  The more I thought about it, however, it did make a (limited) kind of sense to me, especially if you consider addiction to actual drugs as a means to avoid some other experience or to seek an inappropriate remedy for a very real problem.  As I’ve written elsewhere, narcissistic people crave attention and admiration in order to ward off feelings of inferiority and to  bolster a fragile sense of self.  In other words, they have no authentic self-esteem and look to others to provide a substitute for it.  The problem with external sources of self-esteem, as with all drugs, is that they wear off and you have to secure more of it to feed your habit.  As a result, those individuals without genuine self-esteem have an insatiable need for their their egos to be bolstered by the people around them.  In this sense, I suppose it makes sense to talk about them as addicts, even if “addicted to self-esteem” sounds ridiculous.  Besides, receiving a compliment has nothing to do with authentic self-esteem.

In my experience, you can’t obtain real self-esteem from the outside.  Yes, it’s important that our parents praise and encourage us as we grow up.  We internalize that praise, along with their values and standards and those of our teachers, peers and social environment; then, once they’ve become a part of us, we must live up to those standards if we’re to feel good about ourselves.  I’m not referring to perfectionistic and overly harsh standards, impossible to meet.  I mean our own ideas and expectations, evolved from the disparate influences of family, peer group and culture, about what it means to be and behave like a person we would respect.

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Relationship Advice You Won’t Find Elsewhere on the Internet

There’s a great deal of worthy, common-sense relationships advice to be found on the Internet.  Most sites repeat the same familiar truths and give similar relationships advice — about the need for realistic expectations, about how soon to have sex, making room for personal differences once the initial euphoria begins to fade, or about how to recover from an affair, keep the romance alive, etc.  Most of this relationships advice tends to be practical; some of it is silly or manipulative.  Almost none of it suggests that your own psychological issues may lie at the root of persistent and recurrent conflicts in your relationships.

So here, in the form of a post that’s almost entirely about “finding your own way,” are my three personal, idiosyncratic and only slightly tongue-in-cheek bits of relationships advice for how to improve emotional rapport with your significant other.

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Envy and Self-Sabotage

I’d like to offer some reflections on the role of envy in self-sabotage based upon my personal and professional experience.  Bear with me; my conclusions might not seem obvious at first but I’ve seen them borne out again and again in my practice.  Let me start with the incident that triggered these thoughts.

Earlier this week, our friend Diane came over for dinner.  A family member had recently sold her a used Lexus sedan at a remarkably good price, a real “steal”; at the end of the evening, as we were walking her outside, I asked her how the new car was working out.  She immediately became visibly anxious and said, “I don’t have a new car.”  At that point, her significant other said, “Diane doesn’t feel comfortable having such a nice car so now we have to call it mine.”

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