Existential Aloneness

During a recent session, my client Ellen was talking about how poorly she had done over our two-week Christmas break, in terms of looking after herself and using what she’d learned in treatment.  It worried her and she didn’t  understand why it should be so since she’d recently been taking much better care of herself.  Coming back to her first session after the holidays seemed immediately to make her feel better, less distracted by the fantasies and obsessive thoughts that had troubled her during the break. I had some ideas about why this should be so but didn’t at first mention them; I waited to see where this train of thought would take her.

Later in the session, Ellen mentioned that she’d had a “scare” earlier in the week.  She works as personal assistant to the boss of a medium-sized company; her boss had been away during the holidays and in his absence, some of his oversight duties had fallen onto her shoulders.  She took off a few days herself during that period but because her boss was away, she felt it would be irresponsible to take as many days as she would have liked; this made her feel resentful, to have to deprive herself in order to fulfill her duties.

On the first day after her boss returned from his vacation, it occurred to Ellen that she should probably consult the firm’s calendar (which she had failed to do for a week or so), to see whether there might be an upcoming due-date for one of the firm’s projects.  Sure enough, there was a project due that very day; she alerted the appropriate personnel and in the nick of time, they managed to complete the assignment for delivery.  It troubled her that she had “forgotten” all about the calendar and wondered why she should have remembered on that very day.

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The Art of the Apology

Over the holidays, I said something hurtful to someone I care about.  It got me thinking about how to make a genuine apology, and the emotional obstacles that stand in the way of saying “I’m sorry.”

Nobody likes to admit he or she is wrong, for starters.  Most of us want to believe we’re sensitive and that it’s other people who are the problem.  Also, the guilty feelings that come with recognizing you’ve hurt someone else, along with the blow to your self-esteem when you see yourself behaving badly, are not easy to tolerate.  Typically we’ll try to defend against those painful feelings by justifying ourselves.

In my own case, I noticed I kept telling myself that the hurtful thing I’d said was actually true.  I would focus on the other person’s irritating behavior; although I never told myself so in these exact words, the implication was that he deserved to be told.  Repeated self-justification in the form of mental “arguments” in which you keep trying to convince yourself or somebody else that you’re in the right usually mean just the opposite.  Eventually I recognized my fault.

So how to apologize?  Here is my cardinal rule for how to frame an apology:  genuine apologies never contain the words “if” or “but”.  For example, never say, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” or “I apologize for being insensitive, but such-and-such happened earlier …”  Those words have the effect of watering down the apology by either calling the injury into doubt or assigning true responsibility elsewhere.  I’ve often heard people tell me, “I’m sorry if I came across too strong in what I said to you,” or something similar; those apologies always felt half-hearted.  I notice that once I decide I’ve done something wrong and begin to frame an apology, “if” or “but” always appears in the first draft.

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Further Thoughts on the Lost Art of Conversation

In my last post, and in my post on narcissistic behavior, I was complaining about conversations that too often involve other people dumping their problems, or new acquaintances who want only to talk about themselves.  I had an experience earlier this week that helped me appreciate a different kind of social interaction.  Nothing compares with a truly intimate and reciprocal exchange between close friends, but here on Christmas Eve, I want to write about some very satisfying interactions I’ve had with strangers.

For the first time, we’re here in Colorado for the holidays; in our local town, there’s a big sledding hill, and earlier this week, we took our new sleds for an inaugural run.  There were other families on the hill, people we’d never met before; I was struck with how easily we fell into conversation.  We talked about the merits of the different sleds we all owned and laughed as the children went over bumps and tumbled onto the snow.  One family offered to let us try their Flexible Flyer, an aged piece of equipment the father had owned since he was a little boy.  Other than this last personal bit of information, nobody talked about themselves or trotted out a favorite story; nobody asked us any questions.  It was a completely satisfying social experience and, in its way, intimate.

It made me think about the conversations we often have with other hikers, met by chance on the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The “camaraderie of the trail,” I call it.

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Grief and the Attitude of Gratitude

With one of my very long-term patients, I’ve set a termination date; it’s still a year off but has already brought up a lot of new feelings and issues regarding the end of her treatment, grief and gratitude foremost among them.  With Thanksgiving upon us, I thought now might be a good time to discuss those feelings.

I began seeing this woman (I’ll call her Diane) many years ago when she was in her late teens. She sought treatment because of a recurrent auditory hallucination (buzzing in her ears), visual hallucinations of spiders and other small objects in her peripheral vision, extreme insomnia,  symptoms of depression that verged on immobility, drug abuse, and a compulsion to cut herself with razor blades.  In short, she was in enormous pain and constantly on the verge of psychological chaos.  In our early sessions together, she was very difficult to reach.  She often came in and did headstands on my couch.  She would put on accents and pretend to be different characters; she was very good at it, quite funny, and used her humor to keep both of us at a distance from her pain.

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Psychological Damage and Emotional Transformation

A recent comment by ‘TB’ on my post about my inner brat, along with this piece on resentment forwarded to me by Marla Estes, got me thinking about authentic change and how to describe it.  As I discussed in my earlier post about change, most people want to believe that insight and understanding produce a transformation that can make you
into a different person. The language current in the self-help field uses words such as “triumphing” over this problem, or “conquering” that issue.  As the author of the linked article makes clear, however, self-knowledge really means you have a choice about whether to express or inhibit certain tendencies that will always be with you.

It’s difficult to describe what this choice involves, but I’ve come up with two examples that demonstrate the real, in-the-moment process of putting self-knowledge to work in a way that transforms emotional experience.  One comes from my own internal world, an everyday process for me; the other from one of my clients.

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