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Archive for May, 2010

I was proud to be a part of a special Memorial Day edition of “The Alternative” with Terry LeGrand this week.  Once Terry got me started talking about all the reasons I hate the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy towards its lesbian and gay troops, he couldn’t get me to stop.

It’s a disgraceful, insulting policy – and terrible for the mental health of our fighting women and men.  To hear why, take a listen to the show.  I come on about 11 minutes in.  You’ll probably end up sticking around to listen to the entire show – it’s always worth it.

To find out more about Terry and “The Alternative on LA Talk Radio,” check out Terry’s website and the show’s website.

If you love his show, you can become a Terry LeGrand “fan” on Facebook here.

As always, my thanks to Terry for having me on one of the most entertaining – and informative – shows on the radio.

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Ashley sent in an intriguing question a few weeks ago, which I’ve been pondering…

Here’s her question:

I’ve been thinking about a question for you for awhile, one that might be “deserving” for your blog, but I keep coming back to the same one, so I’ll just go ahead and ask:  how do you know if the relationship you’re in is “right” for you?  Obviously this is going to be different for every person, but it seems like a lot of the conventional wisdom — “wait, you’ll just know” — is kind of asking people to check in with their “guts” (or, I guess I should say, their “lizard brains”?), and maybe that’s not a bad thing…but it certainly makes it difficult to separate the considerations of what kind of partnership might really make you happy from whether or not you are just scared shitless to be alone.  At least it is for me.

And here’s my answer:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

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I received this timely and topical letter a few weeks ago:

Hello,

Now is the time of year when all the 3L’s at every law school are enjoying the time between graduation and starting their bar review (at least for me). Do you have any advice for us on how to keep our sanity during this 10 week adventure and not go crazy or over-stress when the big day finally comes?

Thanks,

JD2010

It got me thinking about my own bar exam experience – and brought back a memory from my law school days.

Close to graduation time, I was having a final meeting with a professor with whom I’d written a journal article. It was a pleasant meeting – the article was in print and he was pleased with it. He even said he was going to use it as part of his syllabus for a seminar. I was feeling as close to a super-star as I ever got in law school.

At some point I confided my concerns about the approaching bar exam. I told him it gave me butterflies in my stomach.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he assured me. “Only the real knuckle-draggers fail the bar exam.”

We shared a laugh, I shook his hand and left his office, but I knew – more than anything in the world – that I needed to pass that exam. I didn’t want to be a “knuckle-dragger.” I’m guessing you don’t want to be one, either.

The bar is a weird exam. It goes on forever, deals mostly with trivia, and no one cares how they do on it – you only have to pass.

In real world terms, the exam is entirely useless. At best, it gives you a smattering of a details from state law. At worst, it’s downright bizarre. I remember blowing a practice question because – it turns out – smoke-damaged – not charred – wood, didn’t count as evidence of arson in NY State. The wood had to be burned by a flame. Or something like that. I stared at the answer, wondering how anything so impossibly obscure could make it onto a statewide, standardized exam. But there were plenty of questions like that.

Anyway – first, here’s my exam-taking advice, handed down from my old roommate at Harvard, who went to Columbia Law School and got his JD a couple years before me. My psychotherapist advice will follow.

The trick to studying for the bar is not to bother with bar review lectures – they are a waste of time. Just take all the study materials and give yourself four hours to study them every weekday morning, from 9 am – 1 pm, for about three or four weeks.

Read the outlines front to back, slowly and carefully, then do all the practice tests, and outline each and every one of the practice essay questions. Check everything, make sure you understand anything you got wrong on the practice tests and – voila! You’ll do fine. In fact, you’ll be over-prepared, which is the idea.

At some point you’ll realize you know everything – even the bar only covers a discrete universe of information. I was so over-prepared that I spent the last few days before the exam hanging out at my cousin’s beach house, relaxing. By that time, I knew what I needed to know and it was getting repetitious.

If you follow this method, you will most likely follow in our paths and do extremely well on the bar exam – better than you have to do.

For years now, I’ve shared this advice with friends and clients. To a man, they have rejected it.

One client, last week, said “that’s not going to happen.”

I asked why, and she said “because I could never do that.”

Now I’ll put my psychotherapist hat back on, and talk about the infantilizing effects of legal education.

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I am happy to admit I do not know what lies at the farthest reaches of outer space, I do not know what happens after I die, and I do not know how long my relationship with my partner will last.

No one knows these things.  They are unknowable.

You might feel uncomfortable with these sorts of unknowns.  Uncertainty might make you anxious.  Infinity without end, your own mortality and the prospect of breaking up are scary – they challenge your sense of stability.  The child inside you still craves stability, even if the adult accepts it is only an illusion.

For better or worse, nothing is more common in this world than infinity, decay and entropy.  They are the building blocks of a universe that consists largely of vast stretches of emptiness with, here and there, some dust floating around.

A good parent behaves a bit like a con man, tricking a child into accepting a made-up world unreflective of the universe around him.  A child’s ideal world is a fantasy – small, secure and numbingly repetitious.  He goes to sleep at the same time every day and wakes up at the same time every day.  Meals are always the same, and at the same time, too.  Friendly imaginary characters like muppets and  cuddly purple dinosaurs are provided to reassure him things are okay.

As an adult, that type of environment would feel stifling.  Leaving things unknown – and occasionally surprising – can be more fun.  In part, that means accepting that expectations drawn from the reality of our daily lives might not be generalizable to the world as a whole.

For example, we live out our lives stuck to a round ball of rock by a mysterious force known as gravity.  If we keep traveling in any direction, we end up back where we began.  Just like your childhood neighborhood, that reality might feel safe and normal.  But simply because the Earth is designed that way doesn’t mean the universe is – space may well continue on forever.  Yes – without end.  Forever.

Same thing with death.  As a child, you got used to waking up each day and seeing the same friendly faces.  But as you get older you realize that situation isn’t permanent – people die, and you will too.

You can cling to the familiar childhood notion of waking up and starting a new day each morning by adopting primitive imaginary belief systems like reincarnation, or a heavenly paradise.  You can reproduce the familiar trope of a loving family with a strong parent figure through the invention of a god or goddess or a whole pantheon of imaginary deities.  These comforting, commonplace notions might permit you to evade the concept of a permanent ending for your life.

It’s more satisfying, and more fun, I think, to admit you don’t know what happens next.

One of my fond memories of attending Harvard University was studying with Stephen Jay Gould, the brilliant paleontologist.  Gould’s specialty was blowing his students’ minds by reminding them that their assumptions might not be generalizable to every situation.  He gave a lecture on how things would look if you were only a quarter inch – or 40 feet – tall.  My assumption – like a child’s – was that things would be pretty much the way they are now, except I’d be smaller or I’d be larger – essentially I’d be looking up at stuff or gazing down at it, but that would be that.

Gould explained that at 1/4 inch tall, gravity would no longer be an issue – you could probably jump from a great height and ride the breeze…but you might get your foot trapped in the surface tension of a puddle.

At 40 feet tall, your bones would be unable to support your body weight, which would be measurable in tons, and you would instantly collapse from the effect of gravity upon your mass.  You would be well-advised to take to the seas, like a blue whale, in order to survive.

Things look different, depending on circumstances.  As an adult, they are far more complex – and interesting – than they were when you were very young.

As a child, relationships were supposed to last forever.  Mommy and Daddy – the two relationships that mattered above all else – were necessary for your survival, and you took it as a matter of faith that they had to be there or you would perish.

But as an adult, you begin to understand that the universe might have no end, that all life must draw to a close – and that a partner is only a companion for as long as you – and he – decide to stay together.

An adult’s world needn’t be child-proofed.  It can be a bracing – and liberating – experience to see things as they really are instead of how we expect or wish them to be.

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This week’s question was a bit long, but it raised interesting issues, so I’ll print it in full:

My boyfriend and I have decided to have a wedding. We’re not getting married in the legal sense, and in fact I share many of your views on civil marriage and lifelong commitment, but we like the idea of a party with our friends to celebrate our union with one another as it is right now and will remain for the foreseeable future, and we’ve been together long enough that we don’t think people will take issue. I spent part of this morning working on some words I could say that, for me, define my commitment.

When I was six years old, my dad left my mom. I asked each of them, at different points, why that happened, and their answers have always resonated with me. My mom said that my dad had told her that he decided at one point early in their relationship that he wasn’t going to bring up a problem unless it ranked a 9 or a 10, and then one day he looked around and there were piles of 7’s and 8’s. He told me that my mom had all kinds of expectations that she never communicated, but would then get disappointed and upset when they weren’t fulfilled. When I was brainstorming my vows this morning, here’s what I came up with:

I promise to be with you as long as we both so choose.

I promise to talk to you when there is a problem, even a little one, but to do so with love.

I promise to be honest with you about my expectations.

I promise to learn how to be a better partner to you every day.

I only got that far before I looked at it and realized what I had done. What a slap in the face. Right there in the middle, my parents voices were still telling me what not to do in a relationship. In my mind, these are the two reasons relationships fail, so I have to do the opposite. My question is whether this is really a bad thing. It’s not like the promises I’m making, to communicate clearly with a partner, are so strange or egregious, and I’ve known for a long time that some of my habits in relationships were governed by those words I heard as a child. Still, it makes me want to reconsider what it is that makes a meaningful commitment between two people, and define it as what it is, rather than what it’s not. How worried should I be?

Maggie

And here’s my answer:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

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It’s frustrating, trying to teach lawyers the fundamentals of doing business. Several of them arrive in my office each month, wanting advice on changing careers. But they haven’t got a clue.

That’s because they still think success is making your parents happy. Lawyers start out as the kids who do everything right. They behave. They obey. They get good grades. Typically they aren’t especially talented at anything – just good at everything. The formal education system is designed to reward that sort of bland “goodness.” It isn’t about getting an A in any one subject – it’s about getting “all A’s.”

That doesn’t make any sense in the real world. You don’t need all-A’s, you need to discover the work that you love to do.

A friend of mine at Harvard failed or nearly failed half his courses every year. His grade-point average was dismal. Why? He was in a laboratory day and night, doing PhD level, cutting-edge bio research. He used to laugh at the academic advisors who lectured him about his grades. Now, after a successful career as a scientific researcher and inventor, he’s become a millionaire venture capitalist.

He knew what he wanted to do, and knew that his GPA wasn’t going to hold him back.

A lawyer would never take that path – in fact, he couldn’t. Legal education is all about exams, exams and more exams, and being the very best on every one, even if only by a tiny percentage. From that one extra point on the LSAT to that one extra point on the bar exam, it’s about everyone doing the same thing, but beating the next guy by a hair.

With that training, you end up utterly unequipped for the world of business, which is why the transition to business is so difficult for a lawyer.

Legal education, and law firm work, is infantilizing. It regresses you into the child who instinctively desires to delight a parent. You try to please an authority figure by doing what they say. You do the work, and make them happy.

That strategy is doom for an entrepreneur. To succeed in business you must separate from the parent, and begin to parent yourself. That means letting go of pleasing others, and becoming the authority figure in your own world. You’re the boss. You follow your own instincts. You make yourself happy.

Here are some rules for stamping out the lawyer in you and embracing the business person:

Develop people skills. A young lawyer asked me to help him get out of law the other day, and I suggested group therapy, so he could work on his interpersonal communication. He nixed that idea, saying it wouldn’t be a good idea for him, since he “tends to shut down in groups.”

If you are trying to do business, you can’t “shut down in groups” – you have to “light up” in groups. Business isn’t about disappearing into your office and working all night. It’s about networking, working contacts and getting people excited about you and what you’re selling. Which brings me to another rule…

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My patient looked me in the eye.  Tears poured down her cheeks.

“It hurts so bad.  Why does it have to hurt so bad?”

I often sit in a room with another person in emotional agony.  It’s part of my job.  I sit.  I listen.  I don’t interrupt.  I tolerate the feelings, and do my best to understand.

“Why won’t he call me?  Why doesn’t he love me?”

I told her what I knew to be true.

“This guy isn’t worth your time.  He isn’t worth these tears.  This isn’t about him.  It’s about you.  And these are old tears – the tears of a heartbroken child.  Your heart was broken long before you met this guy.”

A child’s first love affair is with a parent – and a little girl’s is typically with her father.  She instinctively adores this powerful man who controls the world.  She would do anything to win his attention, his delight, his love.

Sometimes things go wrong.

The father might be distracted by other things – his career, his marriage, something.  His baby daughter adores him.  But his attention turns elsewhere.

For that child, his rejection is akin to abandonment – which is akin, for her, to death.  The resulting pain is cellular, and unendurable.  It is a child’s heartbreak.  She thinks she is going to die.

That’s what my patient was feeling now.

We talked about how it felt, attempting to physicalize the symptoms to make them more conscious.

A cold steel ball in the gut.  A choke in the throat – like a cry rising up and getting stuck.  An ache at her core.  She cried all the time, and couldn’t sleep.

This was heartbreak.

We returned to her childhood, to see where this hurt began.

Her father sounded awful – a swaggering bully, who verbally and physically abused his wife.

Still, when my patient was little, he became the positive focus of her life.  She recalled afternoons spent sitting on his lap, being fussed over.

That ended abruptly when she was 10.  Her father left with a mistress, then moved back in a year later – with the mistress in tow.  After that, her childhood was a blur of drunken rages.  Her father fought endlessly with both wife and mistress.  The little girl got lost amid the drama.  She spent most of her time alone, wounded by his rejection.

Now she was repeating the pattern.  She’d found a guy like her father – a swaggering, charismatic bully who paid attention to her for a few weeks, then lost interest.

An adult doesn’t waste time on someone who doesn’t return her care.  But a child loves differently – without question.  The child seeks to please.  If the child’s love is rejected, she locates the fault within.  She must be to blame for refusing to please.

This is the formula for heartbreak – the pain of a rejected child.

My patient was pining for a someone who never existed, any more than the father who made gestures at parenting before he disappeared into his own self-fascination.  Both men constituted a promise, not a reality  Both appeared when they felt like it, then left.  Neither deserved her love.

The first step in recovery from heartbreak is to recognize that this is a child’s pain – and address it as such.  This is a cry of need that you have to answer yourself, by bringing your child the parenting she craves.

Instead of assigning importance to someone for whom you are unimportant, start treating your child as important.  If you are there for yourself, you will not experience solitude as a child experiences it – as abandonment.  You will feel secure in your own care.

The message for your child goes something like this:

You are good and unique and important.  I love you.  You deserve my love.   I’m never going to put anyone else’s needs before yours, because you are mine – you belong to me – of me, and with me, and rely on me for care. You are my special love, always first in my heart.

Those are words a parent should tell a child, each and every day.

No one should ever break a child’s heart.  Or let a child’s heart stay broken.

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This week’s Ask The People’s Therapist question comes from Stephanie, who’s having problems dealing with her best friend:

I don’t know what to do and I am pretty angry and annoyed with myself lately.  I have basically enabled a close friend of mine by consistently giving in to her wants/desires and not setting up proper boundaries over the 22 years of our friendship, saying yes to activities and outings even when I would rather not have.

In the beginning, I thought her behavior was funny and was flattered that she insisted on including me in every area of her life.  Even at times that I didn’t feel quite up to it, her strong personality won and her persuasiveness and persistence was easier to give into than fight.

Truthfully, most of her friends don’t have the balls to say no to her.  In recent years, she has become bitter that she never married and seems to expect me to be there for her even more.   It’s gotten to the point where I’ve put myself in a bad position.  I am angry at myself for not knowing how to say no.  That if I said how I really feel now, it would shock her and hurt her feelings and probably create permanent weirdness in our friendship.

I am scared to bring it up verbally.  I’d rather create space and boundaries through my actions.   What would you suggest I do to take some of the pressure off of myself?

And here’s my answer:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

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You pass through a stage when you’re about two years old – the famous “terrible twos.” It’s marked by stubborn refusals to obey orders, and sometimes downright tantrums.  The infant is growing into a person. For the first time, he wants control over his own life.

It’s called personal autonomy. You go where you want to go, do what you want to do, and refuse to do what you don’t want to do.  A crucial phase of human psychological development, it marks the inception of an independent identity, a sense of purpose – and a sense of self.

This week I worked with a young second year from a big firm. She related a hellish story of law firm life.

This past Saturday morning she was at the airport in line with a boarding pass, heading to her best friend’s wedding, when her cellphone rang. It was a partner. He needed her in right away.

She explained that she was about to step on a plane.

He asked, “Well, are you actually in the wedding?”

She said no.

“Then you don’t have to be there.”

You’ve heard stories like this. One of my clients admitted to a partner that it was actually his step-grandmother’s funeral he was leaving the office to attend. This old woman had been married to his grandfather for 30 years and was the only grandmother he’d ever known, but he lost on a technicality. He couldn’t be at that funeral because she wasn’t family. Some court filing was more important.

Young attorneys at big firms don’t have personal autonomy.

Even for a two-year old, it is degrading to be treated like an infant.  But at least a two year old can throw a tantrum.  You don’t have that option. You have to contain all that anger, and often it gets turned inward, triggering low self-esteem and depression.

You know this problem exists – we all do. The question becomes what to do about it.

I have two suggestions:

First, lawyers can treat one another like adults instead of infants.

Virtually nothing that has to be done by Monday really has to be done by Monday. That is a law firm myth.

I remember, in the business world, my boss demanding that a contract be re-drafted by our outside counsel for Monday morning. It was Friday afternoon.  I interrupted the call to say I wanted to take a look at the current draft before then, and that I’d get it to the outside counsel by Monday morning so she could sign off on my changes.

I was lying. But I could almost hear her body collapse in relief. I knew the outside counsel. She was 27 years old and had been planning to go skiing that weekend with her boyfriend.  I’d worked as a lawyer at a big law firm. I knew she would be devastated if we trashed her weekend. I also knew it wasn’t that important – so I did what I had to.

I approached my boss, a Vice President of Marketing, a few days later, and talked to him about it.

“Don’t you realize how much they bill us an hour for her time?” He said. “She should work on weekends.”

When money is made more important than people, someone always suffers.  I didn’t care what they billed us for her hours. I was worried about her. She was a person.

I’m making a plea here for lawyers who have had their weekends ruined to do whatever it takes to make sure someone else’s weekend isn’t ruined, too.

That means partners can try to make things more transparent, so associates have a heads-up sooner.

That means instead of pulling in some poor junior who’s going to his grandmother’s funeral, call in a paralegal, who’d probably love the over-time and can do most of the same work anyway.

That means realizing that other people are people, too, and they deserve to have some control over their lives.

My second suggestion is to you lawyers out there whose autonomy is being taken from you.

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A young woman I worked with last week told me three thoughts that kept playing in her head like a tape:

I’m not special.

I’m not good at anything.

It would be better if I were just dead.

Listening to those voices took her down a familiar path to depression and self-destructive behavior.  She admitted the suicidal thoughts were mostly directed at attracting the attention of a guy she’d been dating who now ignored her.  Maybe if she didn’t exist, he’d finally notice.  And that would somehow mean she’d gotten him back – so she could feel like she was worth something again.

I proposed another path.

I asked if she could formulate counter-voices to answer those tapes.

She said it was hard.

The best she could come up with was:

I’m a nice person.

and

I’m a good friend.

It didn’t seem like much.  But it was a start.

In fact, those two observations represent some sort of universal human bedrock.  The beginning of everything else.

You can’t achieve anything in life – anything meaningful – unless you like yourself.  That means believing in yourself, and considering yourself someone worth being.

It begins with sitting down with yourself – just as you would with anyone else – and deciding you’re someone worth having as a friend.

A person worth having as a friend is someone who tells you the truth, and holds a connection with you.  Someone who is real.

This young woman told me she is a nice person, and a good friend.  And she likes people who are nice people, and good friends.  We all do.  That’s the basic bedrock – when everything else, all the clutter, is cleared away – it’s why you like another person.

Where do you go from there?  Anywhere.

This young woman’s favorite performer happens to be Lady Gaga.

If you look at Lady Gaga’s biography, one prominent fact jumps out at you:  it didn’t have to happen.

There was never any guarantee that Stefani Germanotta was going to become a humongous pop sensation.  Actually, it seemed next-to-impossible.  Somehow or other she found the strength to ignore all the nay-sayers – and the odds – to drop out of college, and work night and day at her song-writing and performing.  She also followed her heart to create an outrageous persona, locate the wildest conceivable costumes and pull off something new.

Obviously, we can’t all become Lady Gaga.  She’s a talented musician, dancer and performer, and most of us are not.

But you can take a page from her playbook – and believe in yourself.

My young patient reminds me a bit of her hero.  She is delightfully unconventional, with pink hair and tattoos and a stunning eye for outre fashion.

If she can learn to take another path, away from self-attack and towards self-acceptance, there’s no knowing where she’ll end up and what she’ll accomplish – the possibilities are endless.

You can’t create talents and aptitudes – you’re born with those.

But you can learn to believe in yourself, and nurture and support the talents and aptitudes you have.

Like every single person on this Earth, you are an original work of art.

Your life can be a work of art, too.

It starts with giving yourself a chance.

So go ahead – stop beating yourself up.

If it worked for Stefani Germanotta, it might work for you.

Get in touch with your inner Gaga.

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This week’s question comes from “S”.  Here’s a lightly edited version:

Is it reasonable for a Father to ask his 3 year old son to call him every day?

Due to his Father having an affair that he wishes to explore and pursue, we’re separated.

The Father says that he misses his son and then asks that his son call him every day. I feel like I’ve made the point to the Father repeatedly and he either can’t hear or understand.

If you miss your son, then you need to call your son. He needs to have you call him so that he knows that you miss him. He will associate the action of you calling him with you missing and caring about him.

I get a lot of excuses for why he can’t call but my all time favorite is, “There is a time difference.” Amazing he can figure out the time difference between the West Coast and Asia to talk to his Mistress. But between the West Coast and the 50th State, just can’t do it. In every instance of my son asking to talk to his Dad, which has been all of once, I have called.

What’s your best advice here? Do I dig my heels in? Do I just make the call? Or do I wait for my son to ask to call his Dad? How do you communicate with a person like this?

And here’s my answer:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

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When I summered at Shearman & Sterling back in the late ’90s, the partners had just voted on whether to install a gym in the building or create a formal dining room.

Needless to say, they went with the dining room.

It was strictly lawyers-only. At the center stood a buffet fit for a cruise ship, replete with heaping chafing dishes. On certain days, they even had a “prime rib station,” manned by a guy wearing a toque.

This was the golden trough. We fed with complete abandon – at least on days when we weren’t being whisked off to The Four Seasons by a partner pretending to remember our names.

The joke was that all summer associates at Shearman gained 15 pounds.

It wasn’t a joke. We did.

Almost overnight a relatively in-shape pack of law students morphed into a fresh, pudgy litter of big firm attorneys.

It’s no secret law firms ply you with food to address the fact that they’re denying you everything else.

You’re giving up a social life and working around the clock – but there’s a smorgasbord only steps away, and free cookies in the conference rooms! If it gets really late (which happens a lot), you can order anything you want – anything! – from the 75 take-out menus stuffed in your secretary’s desk drawer.

One late night at S&C, we decided to push the envelope. We all ordered take-out “surf-and-turf” platters. It was absurd – bleary-eyed associates tearing into steak and lobster tails with plastic forks and knives, sitting around a table cluttered with closing documents.

That was, admittedly, taking things to extremes. But eating at law firms is always something of a parody of a true dining experience. It amounts to exacting revenge for the fact of your presence there when you’d rather be somewhere else.

In my day, at least, the financial printers was the ultimate example of what we used to call “punitive billing.” They knew you resented spending your night in that place proofing offering documents, and the client was paying the bill. So they outfitted their proofing rooms like suites on a yacht, with menus elegantly bound between leather covers.

If you nodded in the direction of a printer employee at 1 am when he asked if he could get you anything, you’d probably end up with a $300 plate of sushi from the best joint in TriBeCa.

I know – it happened to me.

I stuffed myself until I felt ridiculous, then simply gave up. I hope somebody ate it.

Ultimately, lawyers eat their anger. They pig out at the client’s expense – or the law firm’s – because they hate the way they’re treated.

Ironically – and I know this because in the business world I dealt with outside counsel – clients resent how much their lawyers charge, and punish them by demanding insane deadlines and making them work nights and weekends.

The wheel of bad karma just keeps turning.

(more…)

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This week on The Alternative, with Terry LeGrand, I chatted with Terry about whether a gay person necessarily needs to choose a gay therapist.  We got a good discussion going.  Terry, like many gay men, said off the top of his head that he’d prefer a gay man to be his therapist (if he ever sees a therapist) – but I made a pretty good case that times are changing, and if I, and other gay therapists, are going to continue to see straight patients, maybe gay people should give straight – gay-supportive – therapists a try.  It might make the world a better place – who knows?

Here’s the link to hear the show.  My segment starts about 2 minutes in.

Here’s the link to Terry’s website.

As usual, you’d be crazy not to stick around and hear the whole show.  Terry interviews author Christopher Rice, followed by the legendary and very wacky comedians, Bruce Vilanch and Rip Taylor.  The confetti flies! 

Here’s the link if you’d like to hear more shows from Terry’s archive.

I look forward to our Memorial Day show, when I’ll be discussing the Armed Services’ despicable “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy – not from a political or civil rights perspective, but as a cruel and potentially damaging attack on the psychological well-being of American servicemembers.

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Maynard Solomon’s biography of Mozart quotes a delightful letter of 1778 from Mozart to his friend Gottfried von Jacquin:

We all invented names for ourselves on the journey [to Prague].  Here they are.  I am Punkitititi.  My wife is Schable Pumfa. Hofer is Rozka-Pumpa.  Stadler is Natchibinitschibi.  My servant Joseph is Sagadarata.  My dog Gauckerl is Schamanuzky.  Madam Quallenberg is Runzifunzi.  Mlle Crux is Ramlo Schurimuri.  Freistaedtler is Gaulimauli.

This is Mozart at his most relaxed, giggling with old chums in a stage coach and reinforcing bonds of friendship by inventing silly nicknames for one another while playing with a little dog named Gauckerl, whom Punkitititi liked to call Schamanuzky.

It got me thinking about names – the names you assign yourself, and the names others assign to you.

Naming yourself can be empowering.  With this act, you claim a right to define your own identity, whether you choose to be referred to as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Gottlieb (Mozart’s official name) – or just plain Punkitititi.   Naming takes on a special significance when a group of people select names for themselves.  It is a sign of respect – and good manners – to call someone by the name they’ve chosen.  That’s why a person who asks to be called “African-American” or “Latina” or “Cantonese” – or just “Randolph” instead of “Randy” – should be called the name he has selected for himself.  It’s a sign of respect – and simple manners.

Assigning names to other people is where things get tricky, and potentially hazardous – especially in the field of mental health.

The DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is a book containing names for every possible sort of mental disorder the mental health powers-that-be have managed to devise.  A psychiatrist or other mental health professional uses the DSM to guide him when he diagnoses you.

But what does that really mean?  The problem with mental illnesses is that they are largely invisible, at least with contemporary technology.  I can’t peer down your throat or listen to your chest and diagnose you with acute depression.  I have to observe your behavior.  So this book, the DSM, is really a catalog of behaviors that our society has decided are indicative of a pathology.

I am not a knee-jerk critic of the DSM.  It has its uses.  For one thing, it standardizes symptoms and assigns names to them, and to groups of symptoms that form syndromes.  That way a therapist discussing a patient with another therapist can rely upon a common vocabulary of clearly defined terms.  This can be especially useful with rare, or very serious diagnoses.  Theoretically, at least, everyone is on the same page.

The biggest problem with the DSM is that the definitions are rarely all that clear.  DSM diagnoses also have a disturbing tendency to become popularized and expand to cover vast swathes of the population.  Right now, ADHD, Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, seems to affect more people each year, and one can’t help but wonder if the pharmaceutical companies, which make enormous profits on the drugs used to treat ADHD, aren’t somewhere behind that trend.  Another syndrome, Bipolar Disorder, has been applied to a growing population, and is now being diagnosed in very young children, which seems disturbing, especially since the pharmaceutical companies have a hot market developing for bipolar drugs, too.  “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and plain old mild depression – in its various DSM guises – also seem to apply to more and more people with each passing year.

Terms for mental illnesses can “drift” over time, as well.  I remember being shocked years ago when I read that the great leader of the Modern Psychoanalytic movement, Hyman Spotnitz, claimed to have successfully treated schizophrenic patients with talk therapy. Later, it was explained to me that the definition of who was “schizophrenic” had changed over the years.  The patients Spotnitz was treating were far less severely ill than the patients I thought of as suffering from schizophrenia as it is defined nowadays.  This issue of “drift” has also cropped up with regard to the little-understood term “autistic,” which has recently been expanded to encompass such a broad spectrum of symptoms and degrees of severity that – even with the DSM – it’s disintegrated into a confusing definitional muddle.

These names in the DSM – mental illness diagnoses – can also be used, even inadvertently, in ways that can be demeaning and dismissive of the complexities of the human soul.  For example, I sometimes refer to a patient as having a “borderline pattern” or displaying a “borderline tendency.”  I simply mean that this person swings rapidly  from extremes of vulnerability to anger.  It is a common pattern, and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think everyone is probably a little bit borderline.  It’s part of human nature.  What I object to is referring to someone as “a borderline” – as though he were no longer a person, but the objectification, the embodiment of this one emotional pattern.  That’s unfair, not least because most of my patients who display a borderline tendency recover – they are able to become conscious of that tendency and effectively address it.  People change – they are capable of enormous change.  They are moving targets.  They are not walking diagnoses.

Mozart and his friends made up silly names for themselves and had a grand time.  But when other people make up silly names and impose them on you, it’s time to speak up and demand the right to self-definition.  A diagnosis from your doctor should help both of you – you and him – to understand something about you.

Never forget that you are unique, and diagnoses are generalizations.  They can never capture the essence of who and what you are inside.

One of the greatest nicknamers of all time – and another musical genius – is George Clinton, of Parliament/Funkadelic fame.  He has appeared in his on-stage funk extravaganzas under various guises and monikers, including Dr. Funkenstein, Mr. Wiggles, The Undisco Kid, Starchild, Sir Nose D’ Voidofsense, Lollipop man and Bumpnoxious Rumpofsteelskin.

I can’t seem to locate the exact quote, but I recall seeing a documentary somewhere in which Clinton discussed his unique status in the music industry.  He said something like “Yeah, now I’m considered a visionary genius…but back when I got started I was just ‘that crazy mother-f-er.'”

Perhaps in naming himself, George Clinton assisted the process of changing perceptions of who he is – and bringing across his unique musical-dramatic vision.

We would all do well to follow Dr. Funkenstein’s – and  Punkitititi’s – examples.

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This week’s question come from Dwyn and Marissa:

And here’s my answer:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

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