Sunday’s New York Times ran an interesting article about the end of traditional dating in the so-called millennial generation. It confirmed what I’ve been hearing from my younger clients for some time now — that men and women in their early twenties tend to socialize in groups and engage in a lot of casual sex. In my youth, we used to talk about the “three-date rule”: to wait before having sex in a budding relationship promotes respect and raises the odds that it will lead to something long-term. In the current generation, according to this article, dating itself has become obsolete.
During one recent session with a new client, he wondered aloud if I would respect his fairly conservative religious beliefs or seek to impose my (presumably) more liberal values. A day or so later, one of my long-time readers sent me an email asking how I deal with issues of faith in psychotherapy. It felt to me as if the time had come to address an issue I’d long wanted to write about. When I focused on what I wanted to say, it aligned with some other thoughts I’d been having about my friend Peggy Payne’s 1988 novel Revelation, recently re-issued as an eBook on the Kindle platform.
For the record, I consider myself agnostic, feel no need to persuade people to my point of view and have no quarrel with those who hold strong religious beliefs, as long as they don’t seek to impose them on me. In principle, my approach is to respect my client’s spiritual needs as something largely separate from their psychological and emotional needs.
On the other hand, I find that people’s relation to God, though unique and different from their relations to other people, is a relationship nonetheless and often problematic in ways that can be understood on an emotional and psychological level. For example, whether a Christian’s view of God stems from the Old or New Testaments often says quite a lot about the severity of their superego. A look at the ways someone suffers under the sense that God disapproves of or is angry with him or her can link to underlying self-hatred. That doesn’t mean the person’s relationship with God is fictional or merely an illusion. Rather, just as our projections of internal aspects of ourselves often distort our views of the people we know, it may also color our perceptions of God.
Twice within the last six months, I’ve heard the 18-year-old son of friends use the expression “put to shame.” The first time, he told me that Lea Michele’s rendition (Glee) of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” put Barbra Streisand’s version to shame (I beg to differ). More recently, he told me that a certain designer’s collection during Fashion Week in New York “put to shame” the work of another well-known designer. It got me thinking about the use of the word shame in this expression and what exactly it means.
Most of the online dictionary definitions focus on embarrassment or humiliation. The superior achievement of one person makes another feels humiliated or embarrassed. In other words, the expression involves a comparison between two people, one of whom is above the other. This pairing between a “winner” and a “loser” has been a theme of my writing on this website from the outset. In particular, I’ve focused on the way many people project their own shame into someone else and then triumph over the other person, as if humiliating someone else “proves” that he or she has gotten rid of all shame. Bullying serves the same function.
In middle school, a period when tweens and young teens feel anxious to find their place in the social hierarchy, when cliques form and divisions between popular kids and the outsiders become more defined, one unfortunate girl or boy is often ostracized and forced to carry unwanted shame for a group of persecutors. Most of you will have heard, read about or experienced this kind of scapegoating. The person who finds himself the target of such persecution usually has some level of shame already — a sense of being unlike others, lacking traits or qualities that other “normal” kids possess. The group likely intuits this shame and “projects into reality,” as we say. Two young men currently in my practice fit this description and found themselves teased and bullied as they came of age. The experience has left them cautious and watchful: in social situations, they strive to adopt behaviors that will allow them to fit in, to escape the feeling of being different, and to make sure no one can see their damage.
This morning while on the elliptical trainer at the gym, I noticed a program on the monitor above me featuring several young women with long dark hair, driving a Range Rover around parts of Los Angeles that I happened to recognize. On the crawl, I read the name Kardashian, along with many first names that began with the letter ‘K’. I am not so entirely out of touch with popular culture that I haven’t heard of the Kardashian family, but I’d never actually seen one of them on TV. I’m under the impression that Kim Kardashian is famous for no other reason than that she is famous. At first, I removed my glasses and focused more intently on my iPod music; eventually, I put the glasses back on when I thought I saw Bruce Jenner through my blurred vision; I recalled that he’d won a gold medal for something or other a long time ago, during my 20s. I hadn’t seen him in years.
With the aid of my corrective lenses, I saw right away that Mr. Jenner has had way too much plastic surgery. Frankly, I thought he looked bizarre and somehow pathetic. As the episode unfolded, the girls, all moderately attractive without being truly beautiful, spent a lot of time talking on their iPhones, snapping pictures of one another and emailing them, and driving around in their big expensive car. One of these girls, it turns out, has a fear of spiders; walking through the arid Calabasas hills, Mr. Jenner torments her with a spider he has found. Later in their kitchen, he shows her a jarred spider he has captured, then pretends to throw it at her. She appears to be traumatized and runs away.
Another one of the K girls decides that she needs to have a therapy session. Erica, her therapist, actually comes to their home and conducts the session on camera, making such brilliant remarks as, “It’s okay for you to feel that way.” The K2 girl is talking about her mother, who long ago had an affair (presumably while married to the actual father) and K2, now a mother herself, is processing some anger about it after all these years. “I could, like, never do anything to hurt my own children,” she tells Erica, “the way Mom hurt us.” (The K girls all use the work “like” a lot.) She wipes away her tears and Erica says, “That’s a hard one.” They both agree that the mother-daughter relationship is fraught with difficulty and that often, even if you don’t mean it, there can be some, like, competition going on between you and your mom.
One of my clients tells me that I should have a neon sign on the wall behind me that reads, “It takes time.” She says I could simply flip a switch and turn it on instead of saying those words myself, which I obviously do quite a lot … for example, when someone asks me, “How do I learn to deal with these feelings in a better way, then?” It takes time. Any kind of meaningful growth takes a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever had a client who liked this answer, but most of them come to accept it.
I have a friend, an accomplished tennis pro, who once told me that in order to become a highly skilled tennis player, it might take ten years of lessons. He didn’t see anything unusual or objectionable about that. In order to become highly skilled at anything, you have to work hard at it for a long time. I spent four years as an undergraduate and six years in graduate school. After earning a B.S., a would-be surgeon then spends four years in medical school, followed by a long internship and residency, in order to qualify. You’ve probably heard about the 10,000 hour rule: it takes that many hours of practice to become expert at something.