Hide and seek therapy

woman with bag on her head

           In today’s society, we have learned to not inconvenience others with our emotional or experiential needs, and this may be creating unforeseen consequences for our emotional and social health. In public, we keep to ourselves, we avoid eye contact, we all dread sitting next to that chatty person the plane and find it presumptuous to annoy a stranger with conversation. We haven’t done away with the practice of asking “How are you?”, but we have adopted the unwritten policy of almost never answering this question honestly. Almost invariably the answer is “fine” or “good” but in reality (I hope) most of us experience a variety of feeling states both good and bad throughout the day. We’ve started considering it an imposition to inform strangers, or even loved ones, about our real experiences or wants, choosing convenience over connection. Although these practices seem benign, in the long run they can build into substantial disruptions in a psychological system that relies upon interdependence. Then we wonder why many of us have a behavioral or emotional or relational disturbance of some kind. It is more natural to hide from one another than it is to connect with strangers. To see amusing evidence of this, the next time you ride in an elevator, try turning around to face the riders behind you. How awkward is this? The very fact that we avoid eye contact and “unnecessary” conversation with each other (and most polite conversation can hardly be distinguished as personal) demonstrates the discomfort of connection. Mostly we don’t dare to show genuine feelings, and just in case we continuously block access to our own minds with all the devices of divergence (technology, drugs, alcohol, TV, endless tasking).

            I so often, in therapy, hear my clients tell me they are fearful of what will be revealed in the analytical process. They delay making an appointment, put it off until the problem becomes intolerable, cancel the intake and reschedule, finally land on the couch ready to crawl out of their skin with anxiety. I’ve learned not to take this personally, because I know I am about as intimidating and frightening as a Care Bear with a clip board. I am, nonetheless, intrigued by the extent to which many of us prefer to avoid self-examination and hide ourselves from discovery, both from without and from within. We occupy, distract, divert and repress the content of the psyche, keeping it concealed not only from others but also from ourselves. We invent new ways to achieve this obfuscation, and are now to the point that we almost consider it rude to divulge too much or solicit divulgences of self from one another. What is it about the company and content of our own minds that we find so aversive, so embarrassing, so noxious to drive us away from ourselves and each other so completely? And yet, as we avoid self-understanding and being understood by others, we are interrupting the natural process of mind and thereby weakening its very constitution. The more it is weakened, and darker it becomes, the more we fear it, avoid it and obscure it, leading us to trust others less with our pain, which inspires us to further avoid self-disclosure. When we consider the positive feedback loops, just how many of them are there?

The power of gratitude

Beautiful cave in Bulgaria

We continuously take stock of our lives, our situations and our interactions, engaged in an ongoing process of comparing what we have with what we want. There are two main “zones” that this perceptive process falls into: the zone of gratitude and the zone of aspiration. With gratitude, we see either things we have that we want, “Hey I really love this new dishwasher I just bought” or things we don’t have that we don’t want, “I am so relieved I don’t have a huge zit tonight because I am going to the Prom”. Then we have the aspiration zone, which is populated by things we don’t have that we do want, “I wish I had a Maserati” or things we do have that we don’t want, “I gained 7lb over the holiday!”

I think we don’t spend enough time in the zone of gratitude, but there are reasons for this. Usually the mind looks for things that it wants to change, and if everything is as it should be, we move on to looking toward things that could improve our situation. When you think about it, if we always lingered in the zone of gratitude, our species would still be living in caves, huddled around a fire, wearing the latest in hyena pelt fashion. We’re not built like that–humans have a very unique approach to existence in that we always strive to make things better. This involves spending comparatively less time being grateful and more time being dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction is an impetus for growth, so don’t beat yourself up too much for being unhappy with what you’ve got. It’s in our biology to be that way and it’s one of the reasons why we aren’t all still using rotary phones and sending hand-written letters as our primary mode of communication.

I do, however, believe there is a difference between aspiration and negativity, and this is where I would like to challenge you. When you find yourself thinking about what you don’t have that you do want and what you do have that you don’t want, try to take an agentic orientation. Don’t dwell on things you want others to change, resentments, the past, or blindly longing for betterment. Take an accounting of what you can do to realize the improvement. Make a plan, don’t waste energy on anger and self-pity, turn that energy into a proactive innovation and action. For instance, if you don’t like the way your girlfriend ignores you when you talk, try thinking of two things you can do to help her improve her ability to listen. Ask her when the best time to talk to her would be, make sure there are minimal distractions, emphasize to her how important her listening to you is, and try to make what you talk about more interesting to her. Solicit feedback on what would make it easier for her to hear you out. “Well you always talk to me when I am doing dishes or cleaning and I have kind of a one track mind, so wait until I am finished with everything” or “It would help me if you included me in the dialogue rather than giving me a one-sided speech about your day”.

Despite the fact that we naturally are deficiency-attentive, embracing a grateful perspective is really important too. Gratitude gives us a foundation of positive security upon which we can build our motivation and positive energy, thereby actualizing our aspirations. The trick is to make a concerted effort to first list the most important things you are grateful for, then move on to making plans that are reachable, specific to you, controllable. The worst thing to do is waste energy and attention wallowing in unhappiness, so be sure to redirect yourself when that pathway is activated. Being gratefully aspirational will ultimately lead to the realization of positive change.