One of the ways that I gauge a really good therapy session is when I laugh really hard with my clients. Of course laughter in itself is not necessarily remedial, but healing is ultimately a joyful process and that is evidenced in the ability to experience hilarity. Often, the most gut-wrenchingly funny metaphors are that way precisely because they are so poignantly true. I recently experienced this when a metaphor for relationships occurred to me while working with a young fella who was having problems with his girlfriend. He was describing this deep sense of ambivalence about the relationship, exhausted by the ongoing search for resolution. Although “Jeremy” was repelled by his girlfriend’s rigid approach to the world, her tendency to lack understanding in pursuit of being “right” and, what can only be described as a rather immature approach to conflict, he nevertheless desperately longed for connection with her. This is a situation that characterizes many of life’s relationships–we want the other person to change certain negative characteristics, they seem unwilling and unable to adjust, but we can’t very well throw the baby out with the bath water and give up on the other person completely. If we did that we would soon find ourselves alone and without any source of nurturing or support whatsoever. A big part of our ability to bond interpersonally has less to do with the good fortune of finding perfect people to hang out with, and more to do with developing a strong “emotional immune system”, a term that describes a person’s ability to remain engaged with others but be minimally harmed by the flaws, mistakes, inconsideration and interfaces that happen within that dyad. Just like your body has a means of protecting itself from an imperfect environment (we fight off germs and heal when injured) so your mind and social interactions must also possess certain immunities, insulations and self-healing abilities. Without this, we would either need to be completely isolated, like the boy in the bubble, or we would be consumed by illness and pathology, like someone afflicted with AIDS. The emotional immune system is the set of skills I teach my clients so they can achieve the healthy middle ground of “connected but protected.”
I used a novel metaphor to help him take a different orientation toward his plight. I find the most useful lenses are also those that bring a lightening and comical spin to the dire problem:
“Say you are really hungry and there is no other food in the house but a hot dog. You heat it up in the microwave, put ketchup on it and just as you are about to take a bite, it falls off the plate and rolls onto the floor. It comes to rest in the corner of the kitchen where all the cat hair, crumbs and dirt accumulate. Even though you would like to get another one, that lone hot dog is all you have to eat. So, you have a choice: you can throw it away and go hungry, or you can brush it off the best you can and eat it anyway, trusting your body to fight off whatever germs may cause infection. What do you do?” I ask.
“Uuuhhh…I guess I would eat it if I were really hungry, but I wouldn’t like it too much,” he replies.
“Yeah, OK you would eat it, because you recognize that you have an immune system that was built for just this kind of thing, and your body will keep you safe, but if you don’t eat the hot dog you certainly will starve. Well, your girlfriend is kind of like the dirty hot dog.”
He looks at me like I’m out of my mind and we both burst out laughing.
“Go with me on this!” I say. “You need your her to nurture your needs. You don’t have any other girlfriends hanging around, at least ones that you have a good connection and history with. Yeah she has some character defects, she has some flaws, she’s kind of a stinker sometimes, but she’s your girlfriend and if you go without her in your life, as much as you hate to admit it, a lot of your emotional needs will go unmet and we all know depression is caused by unmet needs. So maybe you take a risk. We’ve been working in therapy for the past how many sessions building up your emotional immune system. You know how to have internal boundaries, how to give less energy to the strain between you guys and assertively ask for what you want in that relationship. You have to start trusting your emotional immune system and be proactive in making use of it, because she (and probably most other people in your life) are like dirty hot dogs. They nurture you but they also have “germs”, (personality flaws and bad habits) that can hurt you. Only you can make the choice whether to eat the hot dog or not, but my opinion is it exactly is our capacity to eat dirty hot dogs that determines whether we will (emotionally) “starve” or not. Pat Benetar said it best, “love is a battlefield” because people are imperfect and expecting that you will never have to protect yourself from someone’s crappy behavior is kind of like expecting that all the food you eat will be completely sterile and you will never have to use your immune system. It is our capacity to embrace reality and use our skills to protect ourselves while connecting with those who meet our needs that in a big way separates the psychologically well from the ill.”
“Who is Pat Benetar?” he asks.
Once again we erupt in laughter, and I tactfully reply, “you suck.”