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Archive for January 16th, 2010

By all accounts, anyone who knew John Lennon learned to expect the unexpected – and sometimes the unpleasant.  That’s just how John was.

One minute soft and tender.  In a blink, harsh and cruel – with a legendary acid wit that didn’t seem quite as witty when it was turned on you.

The man who wrote “Imagine” could also write a song called “How Do You Sleep” and address it to his oldest friend.

Lennon was an example of the borderline pattern – a very common pattern of behavior that shows up, to some degree, in most people.  A therapist I used to work with defined borderline as “he loves you…he hates you…he loves you…he hates you,”  and that might still be the best definition I’ve heard so far.

The borderline pattern is simply an emotional gyration between vulnerability and rage.  One minute you’re opening up and seeking love – the next you’ve clamped down the defenses and launched deadly missiles.

In Lennon’s case, it isn’t difficult to see the basis for the pattern.  All Lennon fans know the familiar facts:

The father, Freddie, deserted the family when John was an infant.  The mother, Julia, warm and loving, if emotionally immature and a bit unstable, raised the boy for a few short years.  When John was barely kindergarten age, Julia, unable to balance her own life with the responsibilities of parenting, left John with her stuffy, emotionally distant sister, Aunt Mimi.  Julia re-emerged as a larger presence in John’s life when he started his early teens, playing the role of an adored, playful older sister more than a mother…only to be killed suddenly when John was 18, struck down by a drunk driver.

The pattern is hard to miss:  abandonment to nurturing to abandonment – back and forth and back and forth.  Lennon lost his father, but had his mother.  Then lost his mother.  Then had his mother again.  Then lost her again.  She adored him, but couldn’t keep him – so back he went to Aunt Mimi.  Then she adored him again, but died suddenly, leaving him utterly bereft and as afraid to trust love in any form as he longed for the love he’d once cherished.

All this set up a gyration from seeking love, and opening up emotionally – to closing down, spitting sharp put-downs, and even violent, often drunken, outbursts.

The borderline pattern is usually handed from parent to child.  The parent exhibits this switch from one extreme to the other, and the child, attempting to adapt in response, begins to gyrate, too.  In Lennon’s case, the events of his childhood were extreme, involving actual abandonment and the sudden death of a parent – so his pattern was particularly severe.  By all accounts, John could be a very difficult person to deal with.  His son Julian makes that clear in describing his few memories of his father, and even Sean, who barely knew his father, described him as having a strong temper and behaving unpredictably – affectionate sometimes, cruel and angry at others.  The man who wrote “All You Need is Love” was indeed warm and loving and sincere and idealistic.  He could also be vicious.  That was the fearful child in John, fighting, unconsciously, to survive in a world fraught with the peril of abandonment and betrayal.

The best approach to the borderline pattern in psychotherapy is to model stability.  The therapist becomes a stable object.  Every week, the same thing – safe and predictable, and utterly unlike the patient’s childhood world.

If I worked with John Lennon, I would seek meticulously to be the same stable object each and every time he saw me.  I would let him know I welcomed his anger just as I welcomed all his emotions, so long as he put everything into words instead of going into action on unexplored feeling.  I would make certain he never received a response from me other than acceptance and support.  The goal at all times would be to flatten out the gyrations – to offer a Middle Path, the path of the Buddha, the path of moderation.

Just like Pavlov’s dogs, you tend to make predictions based upon your past experiences with the people in your life.  That’s all John Lennon was doing.  He knew the world was not to be trusted because it had betrayed him, cruelly, when he was a child.

But, as they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future return.

I would make sure Lennon knew I wasn’t like the people in his childhood.  I would be there, the same old People’s Therapist, each and every time – offering support and understanding.

Perhaps that’s what Yoko, his second wife, was able to bring.  She did appear to offer a measure of serenity in his final years.

Of course we’ll never know the man John Lennon might have become.  Or how learning to moderate the gyrations that unconsciously governed his behavior for so long might have affected his genius as a songwriter.

We are all poorer for that loss.

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The best self-help book in the world would be titled “Feel Better – Right Now!”

Here’s what it would say.

First, exercise.

Second, get a pet.

And here’s why the People’s Therapist is always beating these two drums, and will keep beating them for all eternity.

Exercise, especially cardio exercise, releases natural anti-depressants into your body:  endorphins.

Endorphins are terrific.  Best drugs ever.  If you are feeling down, blue, under the weather and terrible – hit the stairmaster for 30 minutes and build up a good sweat.

I defy you to say you don’t feel better.

With endorphins, you always get the right dose, it always works, and there are no side effects.  If you get addicted to endorphins, well, so you might end up hitting the gym a lot.  Not a major downside.

(I won’t bother mentioning that exercise with make you look better and live longer, too.  Or that you should eat right as a part of an exercise program – and consult your doctor before doing strenuous exercise.  Too obvious.)

The People’s Therapist works out like crazy and he loves it.  The trick is to think of a regular fitness regiment as required maintenance – like flossing your teeth.  You just do it, because not doing it would be gross.  So do it.

Try yoga, or jogging, or swimming, or weight-lifting or martial arts or tai-chi or whatever floats your boat.  But get active.

Hey…you wanted to feel better RIGHT NOW, right?

NUMBER TWO:  get a pet.

Here’s why:

People have children for some strange reasons.  They don’t say as much – most people will look at you funny if you even ask them why they have children.

But in reality, for the most part, they have children to satisfy their own unconscious needs.

Maybe they want to mold a young person’s beliefs and values.

Maybe they want to bring someone into the world  who will love them completely.

Maybe they want to bring someone into the world whom they can love completely.

Maybe they want someone who will always be there for them.

Maybe they want someone they can always be there for.

Unfortunately, real, human children don’t work so well for these purposes.  They are not moldable, at least not after the first few years. Real, human children grow up into adolescents and adults, who can decide what they think, and who they will love, and whose love they chose to accept and whether it feels suffocating or controlling to them.  They are often very different from their parents – they might want to vote Republican, or be lesbian – and that can result in friction.  Real, human children can be a challenge.

But with a kitty or a puppy or a little bunny rabbit – NO PROBLEM!

Pets are fantasy children.  It’s no wonder we call them “baby” and “boo-boo” and talk to them in high squeaky voices.  They accept our love without complaint, and they return it in a flood of adoration.  They are moldable, and utterly helpless – but at the same time, much lower maintenance than real children.

Arguable, animal pets are a lot less interesting than real children, but that’s the point.  Animal pets let us regress into children ourselves in a harmless, healthy manner.  We can play at being their mommies and daddies, but it’s only play – the way children play with their dolls.

Pets let us pretend the world is a lot simpler than it really is, because an animal’s world is pretty simple, and they share that simplicity with us.

Every study ever done on the subject produces the same results:  pets make us happy.

IN CONCLUSION…I’m not saying working out or playing with your puppy is going to replace the long-term benefits of psychotherapy.

But a half hour on the treadmill – or staring contentedly at your gold fish – might just make you FEEL BETTER RIGHT NOW!!!

It couldn’t hurt.

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The first thing the People’s Therapist notices about the Tea Party people is that they come to everything from a sense of deprivation.  They are always – always always always – talking about their money, and how they don’t want anyone to get their hands on it.  It’s theirs.  They need it.

There isn’t enough of it.

If we spend their money on other people – say, on healthcare or schools or feeding the poor – then they’ll starve.  This is a famine.  It is every man for himself.

If the Tea Party people are willing to spend money on anything, it’s guns.  Their own guns, and a seemingly endless supply of guns for the military, which can never have enough guns, because there are ENEMIES everywhere.  We are in danger.  We need to entrench, hunker down in a defensive posture, and wait out the storm, gripping our guns tightly and hoarding our money just like we hoard our food.

To many people, the fact that other developed countries offer free healthcare – as well as free schools, free fire departments and lots of other basic necessities and still somehow manage to eat and breathe and go about their daily lives, argues strongly that the Tea Partiers are over-reacting.  In fact, to many Americans, those Tea Party people seem a little…well…nuts.

What’s going on  here?

As a starting place, it is a basic principle in psychotherapy that money is a surrogate for security in love.

Young children love security – they flourish in an environment that most adults would find stifling.  The safer the better is a good general rule for raising a happy child.  You’ve probably noticed that when you finish reading a picture book to a small child he doesn’t want you to read another book to him.  He wants you to read THE SAME BOOK to him, again.  And then THE SAME BOOK again.  And then again.  It feels safer that way.

Young children like dinner to be at the same time every night.  And breakfast at the same time every morning.  And yep, they like lunch at the same time – in fact, they like to eat the same thing every single time, if possible (preferably something safe, like pizza or chicken nuggets.)

Most of all, children crave security in love.  They need you to love them ABSOLUTELY, unconditionally and totally.  In fact, they are literally of you – they came from your bodies – so you must love them as you love yourself.  You must delight in them, utterly, or they will sense that something is wrong, and blame themselves, and start to worry.

That’s where the problems start.

What if a parent doesn’t love herself?  Not all parents are certain that they like who they are.  Nor are they all capable of providing an environment of absolute stability or safety.  Life can feel like a storm-tossed sea sometimes, and even good parents often feel overwhelmed and filled with doubt about themselves and their future.

A child raised in a house that doesn’t feel safe will start to compensate by trying to create safety on his own.  This can lead to a host of symptoms that follow him into adulthood.

Children in an insecure environment can employ magical thinking, imagining themselves having impossible powers and responsibilities, such as the power and responsibility to keep parents from fighting or abuse from recurring.  Roles get reversed, and the child believes it has the responsibilities of the parent.  The child can learn to distrust authority and feel he has to do everything for himself.  Sometimes this ties into obsessive compulsive behaviors, eating disorders, sexual compulsiveness – a whole gamut of issues.

These children can also adapt hoarding behaviors, trying to create safety by collecting possessions.  It could start with matchboxes or comic books and develop into a full-blown hoarding compulsion, or an obsession with money instead of the things that really matter in the world – other people, love, caring, relationships and connection with our fellow beings.

Any of this sound like those Tea Party people?

My work with the Tea Partiers (if they were to file, en masse, into my office) would be to symbolically re-parent them, to take them back to the scared children they once were, in a world that felt insecure, and to have them address themselves as the parents they needed, and still need, in order to feel safe and secure.  They need to learn to self-soothe, to address messages to themselves intended to calm those scared children.

Then maybe they can accept that President Obama isn’t Adolf Hitler, providing healthcare to all Americans isn’t going to result in the apocalypse, the military isn’t the only route to a feeling of safety in the world – and putting money before people is the surest route to a wasted life.

On the other hand, helping others – offering care from a place of abundance – is the surest path to joy.

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It seems like Tiger Woods could use a visit, doesn’t it?

Everyone agrees he’s had a rough month.

So let’s go there.  What if Tiger showed up in my office?  What could the People’s Therapist do to help?

Patients often show up at my door when they’re in crisis.  Many people feel – wrongly – that they have to hit bottom before they call a therapist.  I’m guessing Tiger is feeling pretty shattered at the moment.  It would have been better if he’d shown up a few months or years ago, when he was in better shape, before all this bad publicity came down on his head. But you take ’em how you get ’em, and right now Tiger needs help.

My goal would be to create a safe space, and employ specific techniques designed to get Tiger talking, honestly and openly, as much to himself as to me.  We’re there to explain, not to blame.  He’s had enough of that to last a lifetime.

What I notice first about Tiger is that so many people hate him.  Mud is being slung from all sides, including the front covers of the supermarket tabloids, and even stuffy, anonymous Accenture, the management consulting firm, has dropped him as their representative. He can’t seem to do anything right lately.  It all blows up in his face.

This situation seems especially odd since Tiger is someone who’s spent his entire life trying to please.

That’s the root of the problem.

Tiger Woods grew up learning that good things would come to him if he pleased everyone.  As the greatest golfer in history, he had that lesson amplified by an apparently endless positive feedback loop.  He was able to consistently wow us, and we, in return, showered good things on him – money, celebrity, houses, boats, cars.

The problem was that Tiger never made the separation into adulthood.  That’s when you stop functioning as a child and start functioning like an adult.

If we’re operating unconsciously, we will all relate to the world around us as a child does:  the way we operated within our families – mostly the way we related to our parents.  For Tiger, that meant seeking to please, at all costs.

When you function as a child, you function as a parent-pleasing machine.  A child has to please the parent.  Like a baby bird in a nest, a child must scrupulously attend to pleasing its parents because it depends upon their care for survival.

An adult is different because he is self-sufficient.  He can feed and clothe himself.  He can decide for himself who his best self will be.  He can, like Nietzsche’s uber-mensch, decide on his own morality and ethics.

Let’s get back to Tiger.

Following the standard, societally-acceptable pattern, he married a beautiful woman and stayed faithful and utterly content in that relationship.  To all outside appearances, he was a paragon of virtue, a model citizen – exactly what we like to see.

Behind the scenes (at least, according to widespread allegations) we now know that wasn’t the case.  In reality, Tiger was cheating on his wife and acting out sexually – with multiple other women, including prostitutes.

Why would he do such a thing?

Because he wanted to.

The real problem is that Tiger was ignoring his own needs in order to please symbolic parents who had blown up into the entire world.

It is perfectly legal and acceptable for a man to sleep with just about any willing partner he chooses.  It’s called being single.  The only problem, for Tiger, was that he was doing all that and pretending to be happily married at the same time.  That meant he was lying to people, living inauthentically and damaging his relationship.  That was cruel and inconsiderate to all concerned and that’s why everyone seems to hate Tiger right now.

All Tiger needed to do was stop pleasing everyone else – acting like a child – and ask himself what he really wanted.

If he wanted to be married, which means being faithful to his wife, he could choose that.

If he wanted to be single, which means free to experiment sexually to his heart’s content, he could choose that.

But he had to make up his mind.

Monogamy is always a trade-off, but it’s not something that should be imposed on anyone.  Successful monogamy is really a form of mutual fascination.  Two people grow so fascinated with one another that they lose interest in sex with other people.  They come to see that an investment in one another will pay a richer dividend.

Tiger, on the other hand, created a seemingly “perfect” marriage to please the outside world.  Inside, he wasn’t ready.  I’m guessing he was angry, at some level, that he had to be what everyone else wanted him to be, all the while forced to sneak around behind everyone’s backs to get what he felt he truly needed and desired.  In the end, that situation ended up hurting everyone and making no one happy.

My work with Tiger would concentrate on making him conscious of his right to be an adult, and take care of his own needs first.  If he wants to be single and date many women and experiment with freedom, that’s okay.  The key is that he live openly as his authentic, best self.

My guess is that Tiger will take some time to explore his sexuality with a number of women, but that it will be open and honest this time round.  Eventually, he’s likely to find someone special, and monogamy will be a natural expression of that fascination with a special partner.

Tiger doesn’t have to change who he is.  He has to be more who he is – to trust his best, most authentic self, and simply be, as an adult, with no more pleasing others, and no more lies.

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