Dear President-Elect Trump,
The gracious thing to do is to first offer congratulations. So, congratulations. I wish you well. However, sir, there are a few things I would like to invite you to consider or at least give some thought to:
You were elected by virtue of the Electoral College, an k18th Century invention that may have finally outlived its usefulness. Secretary Clinton won the popular vote.
Please keep Item #1 in mind at all times. It means that the majority of the people endorsed Clinton’s platform over yours, yet you will now be compelled to govern all of us, even those who did not vote for you.
Sir, you said that campaigning was the hardest thing you’ve ever done? Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. You will soon learn sir what an arduous, heartrending, bone-breaking, monumental task being POTUS really is. It will not resemble being head of your business “empire.” It will not even remotely look like your time at THE APPRENTICE. You will be required at countless meetings, briefings, discussions with world leaders. You will be called upon to send troops into harms’ way, to allocate funds for natural disasters here and abroad. You will be required to retain tsunamis of information and recall it effortlessly You and your family will need to set an example to all Americans. You will to called upon at times to be Comforter-in-Chief. That, and so much more. You will soon learn why your predecessors age so rapidly despite taking care of themselves.
Mr. President-Elect, along with all the aforementioned things, one of the most difficult jobs you will have, especially you, is to tolerate and metabolize the hatred, the dissent and the opposition you will inevitably face as the President, both from your own people and across the world. You will require a much thicker skin than we have seen you display throughout these 18 months (and frankly all of your public life). You will need to see yourself burned in effigy all over the world as your predecessors have and still show up to work, and not hide behind your Twitter account.
In short, sir YOU WILL HAVE TO SERVE.
This isn’t going to be easy.
We will be watching. Every move you make, every syllable you utter, every appointment to any position in the White House you make, we will hold you accountable like no one has been held accountable before. Not just those who voted for you, but those of us whom you reviled on your way to the Presidency. No, Mr. Trump, this will not be easy.
We will embolden our Democratic leaders in Congress to also be vigilant and do the work of the people. And if they don’t they will be voted out and replaced with those that do.
We will be watchful for any white supremacist that may feel empowered by your (electoral college) victory to perpetrate hate crimes on any citizen of a marginalized group. We will insist that law enforcement bring swift and complete retribution on any person committing a hate crime in this country. And if the law enforcement officials do not do their job, they too will be voted out as soon as possible.
No, Mr. President-Elect, this will not be easy. So, while you’re fantasizing about Air Force One and the new interiors of the Oval Office, don’t get too swept up. You’ve got a lot of work to do. And a lot to learn.
We. Will. Be. Watching.
The clock starts……. now.
“Money makes the world go ‘round,” says the song from CABARET made famous by Liza Minnelli. Liza had an easy time with MONEY, MONEY but for most of us money is a tricky subject.
Money and Family Values
Like so many things we encounter in our daily lives, we develop many of our attitudes about money in relationship to our families of origin. One family may have valued “saving for a rainy day,” while another may have valued experience over financial security and spent money on adventures and vacations. For some, money was tight, but no one went without; for others, money was plentiful, yet there were still restrictions.
When Your Money Values and Your Family Money Values Collide
What happens when we make more money than our parents did? What happens when we make less? Or we view money differently than our parents did when they were younger? Although this may not seem to be a psychological problem, it may cause a good deal of anguish. When the adult children of one kind of family find themselves in different financial situations than their parents, tension may ensue. Often, many of these feelings are out of awareness, but nonetheless can manifest in myriad ways, all of which can threaten the family bond and cause individual emotional suffering.
Bob, a 53-year-old man originally from Georgia, is a CEO of a multi-national company. From the outside, Bob has it all: spouse, six-figure salary, home, freedom to purchase what he pleases–all the external trappings of success. Yet Bob feels restless, anxious and convinced that his very secure position is always on the line. This anxiety became very intense recently when Jim, Bob’s 82-year-old dad, came to visit from Atlanta. It would be the first time that Bob’s father had come north to see his son Bob was losing sleep anticipating the visit, unsure how his dad would react to seeing how much Bob had acquired. “He never was too ambitious himself,” Bob said wistfully, “he was content just getting by. I’ve made so much more of my life than he did.”
The visit itself went without incident, but a week later Bob was wracked with more anxiety. “The last thing he said to me, “’I really love your new house and I’m really proud of you,’ that made feel so weird.” “Weird how?” I asked. “I don’t know…. guilty, I think. Guilty that I had it and he never did.”
It’s not that Bob feels that his dad begrudges him his success; in fact, Bob admitted he would have had an easier time if Jim had belittled him or become dismissive. In a real way, Bob not only left Atlanta behind, but found a new identity through his wealth and ambition that distances him from his father. The pain of that separation causes Bob to feel unsure about his career and his professional choices.
By contrast, Lily, 32, and her husband Matt , 30, moved from a Philadelphia suburb to an inexpensive apartment on the outskirts of the Bronx to pursue a “creative career path.” Both gave up more lucrative full time jobs that were, in Lily’s words, “soulless” in order to have the freedom to create music projects, visual art pieces and interactive theatre. They transformed their living room into a recording and video studio as well as an atelier. Lily says she is only happy when she is creating art, and she and Matt are committed to their joint pursuit. They have made it clear to their parents and siblings that they have no interest in “saving for some damn house” or having children or pursuing the kind of conventional lives that are satisfying to their families. Despite this declaration, Lily’s parents, well-off home owners and management executives, continue to ask when she and Mat will be finding “real jobs.”
Lily struggles most just after she succeeds in creating art that gets noticed. At first she is elated, then becomes defensive, angry, sad and withdrawn. Recently, Lily and Matt produced a music video that got favorable reviews. Initially Lily was excited, but shortly after she became distracted while telling me about it. When I inquired about her change of demeanor, she responded, ” I don’t feel like I can own my successes. I don’t feel legitimate.” Lily feels like such a stranger in her family because she is the only member who has chosen to forego material security for artistic fulfillment. “I know they’re happy for me, but….I can’t always trust it.”
What To Do
Economic success has a lot of meaning for many families. When we deviate from our family’s values and/or expectations, it can be painful and distressing. If this distress is significantly interfering with your life, it may be time to seek out a therapist to help you come to terms with these feelings.
Kyle sits across from me and glares. “I’ve been here for months and I’m still FAT!!!” He derisively pats, or rather smacks, his belly, pulls up his Mickey Mouse T-shirt and shows me the way the waistband on his jeans rolls down. “I’m sick of this,” he moans. “What are we going to do?” What indeed, Kyle? He is absolutely right: he has been here for months and, yes, he is still….fat. What’s next?
Obesity rates in America are the second highest in the world, second to Mexico, according to the most recent statistics from World Health Organization. Kyle, based upon his Body Mass Index, weight and size would be considered morbidly obese. And it’s not as though he hasn’t tried to lose weight He has lost and gained back more weight than he can calculate. He has entered at least two different hospital-based weight management programs but to no avail. Kyle is still fat.
There are myriad reasons why people struggle to lose weight. Those who do not have this particular challenge find it tough to understand. They tend to generalize the reasons why people gain weight and cannot lose it, even when there are health risks involved. Overweight and obese people are written off as lazy, or under motivated or self-indulgent. But everyone with this challenge has a unique story that led them to this place.
Throughout our months together I have explored Kyle’s eating habits, his attitudes toward food, his feelings about his body and body image, what role food played in his family, when did he begin to gain weight and what his history has been with weight loss. The one question I hadn’t asked was the toughest one: Do you really want to lose this weight?
You see, Kyle, like many individuals these days, is a “foodie.” Food for Kyle and his husband Jorge is not merely nourishment. It is sport; it is art; it is entertainment; it is comfort, it is love. The couple enjoy a vast array of gourmet restaurants regularly. They have an impressive wine cellar. They own an enviable collection of kitchen tools. They are both excellent chefs. They share a deep appreciation of haute cuisine. What they don’t share is Kyle’s weight problem.
Food is celebrated in a way that makes it impossible to ignore its many charms aside from its being our nutrient source. So how can a person who is deeply invested in this food culture now turn away from this, begin restricting portions, keeping a food journal and retool his whole diet? It’s not so simple for someone who associates food with so much more than sustenance to change his relationship with it so easily. It means on some level, possibly a loss of identity and the loss of an important bonding experience with his husband.
So does Kyle really want to lose weight? He does, but not at the risk of losing something very precious to his self-concept. It is imperative that Kyle feel confident that while amending his relationship with food he will not be rendered bereft of something he loves with nothing to fill the void. In those times when Kyle had gotten down to his goal weight, he said he had not felt completely satisfied. He sensed something was missing or alluding him. Maybe, he posits, because he knew would never look like an underwear model no matter what he did, he felt Losing weight was supposed to make him feel good about himself. But instead he felt empty, almost betrayed. So food served to fill that emptiness and soothe that sense of betrayal until all the weight he lost returned.
How do we help Kyle retain his love of this wondrous thing and still take the necessary steps to begin losing weight? I believe our first step (of many first steps in this journey) is to address what Kyle will gain, emotionally, when he makes these changes. Once identified, Kyle, and only Kyle can decide if the trade-off is worth it and he can really answer that tough question and follow through to make it happen.
While Donald Trump racks up yet more ratings points for the news media outlets, some folks are wringing their hands and scratching their heads as to why the guy is so popular. It’s simple: we all know a Donald Trump.
No, not the billionaire real estate mogul Trump, but the other Trump, Donnie from Jamaica. Take away Trump’s alleged $10 billion and what do you have left? You have a guy that everyone knows.
He’s your Uncle Charlie, the one who posted 57 pictures of his new Cadillac Escalade on Facebook. He’s your neighbor down the street, Bill who has a wealth of opinions and a dearth of evidence to back any of them up. He’s your brother-in-law, Carl who doesn’t miss an opportunity to remind you that he “once nearly almost dated” Heidi Klum in the 90’s. He’s your co-worker Steve, who calls the IT guys in your office “losers.” He’s your sister’s boyfriend, Tony, who says he’s no racist, but doesn’t get what the big deal is about the confederate flag still flying over a Statehouse building. He’s your dad’s fishing buddy, Jack, who says all doctors think Obamacare sucks because his doctor says it sucks.
All these guys….they’re not bad guys. They’re just you know, a little uncomfortable with, you know, the gays, the blacks, the transgenders, the Jews, the Muslims, the immigrants, the women—not all women–just the pushy manly ones. You know anyone who is not…… like them.
These guys love Trump because he is just like them, only with lots more money. And power. To these guys, Trump included, money means power. Donnie Trump represents all those guys who grew up assuming that being white, male, Christian and straight meant that they would forever enjoy their centuries-old grip on power and privilege.
But that America no longer exists and the Trumps of the world, with or without the billions are incensed. And they will do a great deal to keep what power they still have. Like enacting legislation to deny people basic rights. Or to block legislation that grants basic rights.
Yep, we all know that guy. He wouldn’t intentionally do something to hurt someone. He’d tell you that himself. Loudly. It’s just that his ideas are, at best, outdated and at worst, the kind of thinking that, if used to inform legislation could bar several groups of people from their civil rights.
The significant difference here, though, is that Trump has the billions and the microphone….and the attention of a news media who love bright shiny objects avoid gravitas. And that could make his continued candidacy a dangerous distraction. Because while Uncle Charlie and Bill and Carl and Steve are just as bellicose and annoying as Donald, eventually people stop listening to them. Until we all turn a deaf ear to the seemingly endless Trump-a-thon, the real issues facing us as a nation will be drowned out by all this noise.
Eventually, Uncle Charlie goes home. When Donald is going home is anyone’s guess. From all current indicators, it won’t be any time soon.
Call it bitching, call it kvetching, call it whining, but whatever you label it, it’s still complaining and we all do it. And we have plenty to complain about: taxes, Congress, the neighbor’s dog, the traffic, and social media. You name we can complain about it. But what is all this complaining doing to our relationships and our states of mind? The short answer is that it depends on the complaint…and the complainer.
How To Tell of You DO Complain Too Much
Chances ate if you do complain too much; someone has already said something to you about it. Either as a passing remark or a counter-complaint, some people are not shy about letting you know just how annoying you are. But let’s say you are fortunate enough to surround yourself with a slightly more discreet crowd and you need to ask this uncomfortable question of yourself. Here are a few road markers:
- Nothing seems good enough.
- You expect the worst, or if not the worst, you expect disappointment
- You’re usually a little perplexed at those who seems so cheery most of the time.
If this sounds like you, you are not alone. Many people engage in passive, non-effective, chronic complaining. A patient of mine, I’ll call her Emma, complains about how much she complains (!). Emma says that in some way she feels that complaining about what’s happening is akin to a bonding experience of a sort, rather like “misery loves company.” It is entirely possible that Emma is on to something here: feeling as though we’re all in this together about a situation that is aversive but not changeable dispels feelings of isolation.
Perhaps people who engage in a good deal of this passive form of complaining do so to fend off a feeling of disappointment that could potentially be greater than the one they expect.
Not All Complaints Are Created Equal
Essentially, one can break down complaints into three categories: active, effective complaints passive, chronic, ineffective complaints and venting. The categories are self-explanatory. An active complaint is directed at a specific event, situation, product, result or service that does not meet expectations and the dissatisfied person makes a statement to whoever is responsible to see if amends can be made. These sorts of complaints are associated with someone who possesses a level of assertiveness, self-esteem and a modicum of confidence that he or she can effectively ask for and obtain what he/she wants.
The passive, chronic complaint is a different situation altogether. As the designation suggests the complaint is less about a specific discrete situation and more, frankly speaking, about the person doing the complaining. The subject of the complaint is generally a condition over which the complainer has little control. However, by complaining about it, the individual gets the sense of gaining some control over it and—erroneously—feels a kind of mastery over something that cannot be mastered. A sort of satisfaction develops, albeit a negative one, when we complain; it’s as though we have ferreted out everything that’s wrong about a situation and made it public. And by doing so, we have somehow conquered the unconquerable.
Then there’s the “in between” category” that is, venting. Venting has its positive aspects as its negative aspects. Sometimes, when one person finds a situation unacceptable and vents about it to a group of like-minded individuals, the possibility exists that the venting could evolve into a brain-storming session to take some action. Additionally, being able to get something off your chest help lessen the grip of angry or frustrated feelings in the face of an untenable situation. Of course, like everything, venting should be done in moderation; too much venting can label you a “whiner.”
Can A Chronic Complainer Lodge an Effective Complaint?
One might assume that a chronic complainer may have the skills at hand to lodge an effective active complaint. Paradoxically, the passive chronic complainer, when trying to assert a specific complain does so in a way that will nearly guarantee that she will not get her needs met. Because the chronic complainer has a belief that she cannot get her needs met she will use tactics that put the target of the complaint on the defensive, refuse to consider any responsibility for the unsatisfactory situation and generally make all involved uncomfortable and unwilling to compromise. But, they say that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, you say? Not always. Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets replaced with one that doesn’t squeak much at all. Being placated just so you will shut up is not the goal of an effective complaint. Having your needs met is.
What Chronic Complaining Can Do To Us
Imagine that each situation that you encounter becomes an opportunity to find fault. This is one potential outcome to being a chronic complainer.. One can become quite vulnerable to imperfections and eventually feel as though little or nothing can bring any pleasure. The effect that complaining has on one’s mood is also aversive in nature. Exposing oneself to negativity regularly produces a negative mood state in which little or nothing could bring pleasure. Thus the chronic complainer falls into a perpetual cycle of finding fault, complaining about it, feeling negative and unable to face the next situation with an open mind. Eventually, the capacity for feeling simple joy is worn away and the ability to feel great joy is compromised.
What To Do About All This Complaining
Here is what to ask yourself to help stem the tide of the complaint cascade:
- Is what I’m complaining about specific and contained or general and vague? Vague, general complaints usually refer to problems that have no solution, like the weather or Congress.
- Are your complaints the same ones over and over? It is possible that repeating complaints is a way of gaining empathy that you do not feel you have or an oblique way to ask for help.
- Are you afraid that if you don’t’ focus on the negative in any given situation, you will be unprepared for a big disappointment? Many people struggle with avoiding disappointment and taking the negative approach is one attempt to resolve this. Unfortunately, this strategy prevents the person from fully experiencing any positive aspect that a situation could offer.
Important relationships can suffer when one person cannot find a way to let go of this negativistic approach to life and the other is striving for a more positive outlook. Slowly by uncovering what it may be that leads you to feeling less optimistic about your life, or what sorts of rejections you feel you risk by showing how happy you can be, you can lessen the need to find fault and learn how to enjoy what’s there and roll with the punches.
Whenever an attack on those who claim to exercise their right of free speech occurs, no matter how tragic or horrific, as in the case of the recent shootings at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, questions about the limits of free speech emerge, or rather re-emerge. The problem of how far free speech should be allowed to go is a question fraught with complications, especially when that free speech is initiated to poke fun at or satirize religion.
What really are the limits on free speech? Should religion be exempt from any sort of ridicule, criticism or parody? Should we consider religion differently than any other identifier of human experience? Leaders like Pope Francis think so. His comments, taken out of context initially, were clarified by Vatican officials. But the message was clear: keep your satirical mitts off my faith, buster, or I can’t be held responsible for my actions. Why does religion provoke such strong feelings in people, even the Pontiff? I suggest that religion is part of identity and that identity begins forming very early in life for most of us. And over time that identity becomes rock solid and immovable.
Religion, God and Our Parents
Most people are born into their religious persuasions. (I can only speak confidently about my own religious experience-Catholicism- so I will draw chiefly from that.) Many religions have rituals in place that performed mainly to indoctrinate and propagate the faith by including the younger congregants. For example in 2nd grade Catholic children make their “First Holy Communion.” It is a special day, with special clothing, big parties and lots of gifts. It is thought that age 7 is the so-called “age of reason” so this sacrament is appropriate. The deeply complex theological concept behind this is millions of miles away from the possible comprehension of the 7 year old participants, and most likely their families, but the sacrament goes on.
We as children incorporate an experience like this as part of our personal history, our family history and our congregational history, our extended spiritual family, at the head of which is God. God becomes family. Our experience of God as children is deeply influenced by our experience of our parents, whether loving and nurturing, harsh and punitive, critical or demanding. We may look to God and by extension the method of worshipping God as either a reinforcement of our family values or a refuge from a traumatic and bruising family. Thus an insult to our religion’s belief system, its iconography or its place in the world can feel like a direct insult on our extended spiritual family. Even Pope Francis invoked his mother in his remarks: “They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he says a curse word against my mother (italics added) There is a limit.”
Personal Identity and Group Affiliation
Even as the major religions of the world filter through the many cultures of the countries where the religion is practiced, there are imbedded cultural constructs that arise from the shared experience of being a member of the religion.: the stereotype of the “good Catholic girl” or the “nice Jewish boy” (I regret I don’t know enough about American Muslims to have a corresponding phrase, but I imagine there must be one). These characteristics whether fully or partially adopted by us, help shape our identity. And how important that is to us depends upon how important our religious affiliations and cultural connections have become to us we grow up.
Tolerating the (Nearly) Intolerable
One of the inconvenient tenets of free speech involves allowing someone who utters the most outrageous, offensive and reprehensible ideas and opinions (to your way of thinking) to do so without censorship. Thus we protect our right to utter the same outrageous, offensive and reprehensible (in another’s mind) ideas and opinions when it is our turn to express ourselves. As I stated, this is inconvenient and borders on intolerable for some. It includes a learned skill, that of being open to the concept that we are not all alike, yet we all deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity. This is not merely a social construct; it stems from early development. The capacity to tolerate that another is substantially different from us and not fall apart, become overwhelmed even to the point of retaliation, develops in early childhood.
When we are infants, we experience the outside world as an extension of our internal world—in other words “I’m me and that over there is me and the other thing in my view is me, too. It’s all me.” In a normative, good enough environment, the other objects (that term includes people) are experienced as other, but still under our influence (“That thing that comes to bring me nourishment when I’m hungry does it because I want it to”). Eventually, barring any severe traumas or disruptions in development the nascent human begins to understand that those other objects are people like her, meaning they are not merely extensions of her internal world. This is an essential step in emotional maturation, learning that the world is populated with many others with whom we need to interact. The optimal kind of interaction necessitates recognition and acceptance of the differences between us. And at times those differences feel so alien to us, that they hinge on being an intolerable affront to our sense of what is “right.”
I don’t pretend to have a practical solution for this problem, only to generate some thinking about it. If speech is “free” except for religion, what will be the next sensitive thing that cannot be touched? Where does the censorship end? Or are we willing to set boundaries on our satirists and social commentators in order to protect ourselves from feeling raw, emotional insults having them turn into violent retaliation? Respect, empathy and the capacity to make room in our experience for “otherness” seem to me to be key in unraveling this complicate question.
We all have engaged in competition in our lives. Any application to an academic program, any job interview process, even vying for a taxi at rush hour can be considered a competition of sorts. The idea of competing is exhilarating to some, frightening to others. Still others have a curious way of transforming every interpersonal interaction into a contest, where there is a clear winner and a clear loser—no in between.
We learn how to compete at a very early age. As infants we see ourselves as the center of the universe and, in a good enough nurturing environment, we are. But then as development continues we learn the inconvenient fact that we are not the center of the universe and there are rivals for a parent’s love and attention: our parent’s spouse or partner, a sibling, even a pet. We employ strategies, behavioral and emotional, to recapture Mommy’s attention away from the rival and back to us. If development continues in a normative trajectory, we make internal and interpersonal provisions for the others in our lives; we learn to tolerate and make room for others.
But, sometimes, we can get stuck feeling as though we have not had enough attention, affection or affirmation from important others. If we reach adulthood feeling as though we missed out on a parent’s love and approval, a specific teacher’s validation, we could potentially attempt to recapture some of that lost love by setting up each relationship as a contest, a battle, a test. We find that the achievement of others is intolerable to us, making us feel depleted and defeated. There are winners and there are losers, period. If another wins, we lose.
This is not to say that there aren’t winners and losers in life. If you miss out on the last pair of tickets to the Springsteen concert because some other guy got to the box office before you, then he’s won and you’ve lost. That is a zero sum game. However, when we employ a “zero sum game” mentality as an interpersonal style, life can become a painful vacillation between hollow victories and devastating defeats. In a zero sum game mentality, there can be only one winner and one loser. Each relationship falls under the sway of a battle, a contest–and winner takes all. The art of compromise is not even considered; even to compromise in this model of relating is tantamount to losing.
A former patient of mine struggled with this very problem. She came from a family that valued debate as the chief method of communication. And she, being the youngest of four siblings, felt that she was rarely ever able to “win” any argument posed by her highly intelligent and verbal parents and older sisters. And the discussions ranged from politics and social justice to where to go on vacation or what to have for dinner. Often she felt ignored by both her parents, shadowed by her accomplished older sisters. Her school life became a battleground where she took on far too much to prove herself worthy. Every friendship and romantic encounter was reduced to a battle of wills and wits. If she “won” the person was not worthy of her; if she “lost” she was devastated and reduced to lowest rung of the self-esteem ladder.
Shortly before leaving treatment for a new job out of state, she began dating a man who neither fit the usual mold or would participate in her contests. When she would declare “I win!” during a conversation, he would look at her quizzically and say “who’s fighting?” She was bewildered by this behavior and soon she found ways to vilify him and reduce his worth in her eyes. Sadly, she was quite successful at this and the potential for a mutually satisfying relationship with no battle lines drawn withered away. She left town convinced of two opposing beliefs: either that she was unlovable or that no one was, as she chillingly put it, a “worthy opponent.”
Relating in this way is painful and frustrating to both members of the pair, I’ll call them the “combatant” (the person who initiates the contest) and the “target” (the person on the receiving end). The combatant is constantly vigilant, working to prevent the other from taking advantage. Such hypersensitivity can transform even the most casual remark into an attack. The target grows both weary and wary of the partner’s aggressive style and eventually needs to draw his own battle lines or wave the white flag of surrender or just leave the relationship.
Lest the reader think this is a one-dimensional phenomenon, allow me to complicate matters by suggesting that BOTH parties have the capacity at any given time to turn their relationship into a battle royal. All it takes is one person to feel unseen or unacknowledged in a time of personal distress and those early fears can get triggered. Each will go to their respective sides, hunker down and refuse to budge. And we can all be vulnerable to this at different times of our lives. No one is immune.
What can be done to prevent relationship Armageddon? First, we must examine why it is so difficult to tolerate a “loss,” including a loved one being “right” about something in an argument. Secondly, it is imperative to create a space that represents “us,” in which both people’s minds, hearts, desires and needs have equal consideration. This is not easy to establish. But without this “us space” any important relationship is in danger of becoming a series of skirmishes in which both parties greedily and resentfully keep score; a place where “I win” really becomes “we’ve both lost.”
We are all plagued procrastination at times. And the causes are well documented. As humans we are naturally drawn to novelty; new and interesting activities and objects stimulate our pleasure centers, whereas routine and mundane tasks have the opposite effect.
We can also put off tasks that might trigger anxiety, like a mid-term paper or a quarterly report, to the very last minute, claiming that we “work better under pressure.” This is merely a defensive tactic to justify our behavior. In reality, performing tasks in the eleventh hour narrows our choices. They become “do it now or fail.” Thus the anxiety is reduced in a real way when there are no choices left. But what there is another, less obvious reason?
When I think about procrastination, I tend to think about what other emotions or mental states might be keeping one from doing the task at hand. And then I think of Shakespeare’s HAMLET
Anyone who has read or seen a production of HAMLET is struck by just how long it takes Hamlet to avenge his father’s murder. In a series of soliloquies, Hamlet finds myriad excuses, multiple rationalizations and convincing arguments as to why he hasn’t gotten off of his butt and just DONE the thing already. He even had his father’s ghost show up, not once but twice to ask the same thing.
When Hamlet does take his revenge against Claudius, it is a brutal and bloody affair and no one, save for Hamlet’s’ friend Horatio, is left alive. Hamlet himself has perished at the end of a poisoned sword. Everyone is dead. Not exactly the outcome that Hamlet had in mind in Act I when he revealed his ingenious and elaborate plot (pretending to be crazy )to his friends.
What kept Hamlet from taking action? Ignoring for the moment the tomes of scholarly writing on this, we can see several dilemmas for Hamlet: he is very sad about his father’s death, very irritated at his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle, whom he detests, his love life is a non-starter and then he starts seeing his father’s ghost who bids him take revenge. But what if the ghost is just a manifestation of Hamlet’s grief? What if he’s wrong about his uncle? Murdering a king would be very bad, to say the least. And Hamlet is a noble prince; he identifies as a noble prince and scholar, not a vengeful, violent son. So he sets about for proof…
Just like Hamlet, chronic procrastinators may be sad, angry or depressed about aspects of their lives. These mood states interfere with concentration and focus. Additionally, some people may in fact suffer from an attentional problem, like ADHD and find it nearly impossible to start and stay on task.
And some, like Hamlet, may not want to be associated with the task at hand. For Hamlet to kill Claudius without real proof could condemn him to hell; he would forever be remembered as committing regicide (which for Elizabethan society was a grave offense). He does not want to identify as a murderer.
Possibly when we put off certain tasks we also do not wish to be associated with what those tasks might imply: a conventional, routine unexciting life; to be identified as the sort of people who would prioritize such routine matters. We want to experience life as imaginative, creative, spontaneous, cool people, not folks hung up on getting the laundry done.
So perhaps a possible solution to the endless procrastination that we experience would include an examination of just how we identify ourselves. If we feel that our vibrant and spontaneous identity would be ruined by a commitment to begin and finish those tasks that do not excite us, or cause anxiety in us, think of it this. Hamlet would up being a far worse murderer… the thing he resisted becoming …in the end because he delayed the main task at hand. We, too, could be consigning ourselves to a life of playing catch up on all those boring but important tasks and ultimately missing out on life. Just a thought…..
This past Sunday I attended my High School reunion (I’ll keep the number private, but suffice to say it’s been over 25 years). When I received the invitation I was ambivalent at best about attending; you see, high school for me was overall a painful experience, not entirely related to high school itself, and punctuated here and there with some genuine fond memories, but too few to honor the whole high school experience as part of me. And like many people I set all those memories, painful and otherwise aside, never to be considered as part of me again. Yet, as I weighed the decision whether to attend, it occurred to me that I was doing what many of my patients do with their painful memories; locking them away as though they could ever be forgotten or jettisoned from the person I was. And there was something urgent in the demeanor of the organizers that make me take special notice. I rearranged my schedule and said yes.
Patients will complain in therapy that dredging up the past is not a useful activity. I’ve often heard patients use the “box” image: “I put my past in a box, locked it up and I don’t ever want to open it again.” “You can’t change the past; why keep bringing it up?” It is true that one cannot change the facts of a traumatic event or painful memory, but the mere facts constitute only one dimension of that event or memory. Allowing oneself to take the potentially painful and shaming journey to talk about this material affords one the opportunity to in some real way “change” the past. By exploring how this event (or events) may have impacted the development of current interpersonal patterns, one could gain insight and meaning associated with the trauma that had been previously held out of awareness.
This is not to say that undertaking such an exploration is without some sense of risk. To share the potentially shameful aspects of a painful experience can undoubtedly trigger sad and angry feelings; if not done in an empathic, sensitive and nurturing way, it could even by re-traumatizing. Yet, without taking that initial plunge, those feelings that have been locked away, both consciously and through dissociation continue to hold sway over one’s life. The emotional impact connected to that “locked box” can so overwhelm a person that she cannot think about what is happening. When day to day events occur that summon the contents of the locked box to mind, we can become flooded with early traumatic affect and our responses become automatic and unavailable for self-reflection. By slowly and carefully sharing the details in therapy, those overwhelming emotions shift from a place outside of awareness to a place in mind where we can think about what has happened and how it impacts us still.
As for the reunion: I was deeply moved by how united we all seemed to be. Instead of ghosts from deep in my memories regarded with suspicion, I encountered beautiful and unique real women. I began to wish that I had only just met them that day without the high school memories attached. What I realized was that both phenomena were happening at the same time. I found that I could experience these women in the present and gain meaning from my past relationships with them as past and present came together seamlessly. I considered myself fortunate indeed as I left that reunion reclaiming a past that I could hold in mind as an essential part of me in the present.
We’ve all turned the clocks ahead one hour this past Sunday and with that comes the flurry of articles and commentaries bemoaning the loss of that precious hour and how to retrieve it. Along with those come the protestations that Daylight Saving s Time is an obsolete practice that only works in an agrarian society. Of course, those like myself who love the longer daylight hours tend to scoff at such suggestions. But how does that extra sunlight benefit us in the 21st Century, where we are a global, 24/7. digital society? I have a somewhat radical suggestion.
Think back to January 1st. Recall how many resolutions you may have made. Now think about how well you have kept those resolutions. If you are like many, many people, by March, .those resolutions have long since been forgotten, evaporated, retreated into the land of “Shoulds.” For example, by March, gym managements report that memberships begun in the New Year, (under the pressure of the “New Year, New You” campaigns that flood the airways at the end of the calendar year) drop off drastically. This resolution attrition rate is not restricted to gym memberships either. Just do a search of why New Year’s resolutions don’t stick and you’ll find plenty of reasons, many of them valid and sound.
I have an additional thought. Those resolutions are designed to renew, re-spark, reinvent or regenerate some part of oneself that has been neglected or perhaps even unconsidered in the year past. To me it’s difficult to conceive of any sort of renewal in the dead of Winter, with its cold, bleak and scarce light. Why make these resolutions at the first of the year just because the calendar says it’s the beginning; why not begin to reflect on what you would like to change as the year ends at the new one begins. Sort of an emotional hibernation period, where in a fallow state one can accrue the internal resources to make lasting ( and moreover, realistic, doable) changes and then with the arrival of brighter, lighter and warmer days, implement that which you reflected upon. Like the crocuses that peek up through the last patches of snow in Central Park, our wishes for a better self could get a life-affirming boost from the advent of Spring.
It’s just a thought.