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Posts Tagged ‘Stability’

My patient was telling me about his new job.

On the face of things, there was nothing to complain about. He’d hated his old firm — a Biglaw institution that he called “soulless.” The new place, a New York City-based securities boutique, was different. The people were smart – practically cosmopolitan by comparison. And for the first time, he wasn’t being treated like a junior. They respected his judgment – no one was correcting his work.

I offered congratulations.

He looked thoughtful, and I asked what was wrong.

“This is going to sound crazy.”

“Crazy is my business. Try me.”

“I didn’t want to get this job. I was hoping the old place would fire me.”

“Okay. Why?”

“I wanted to be free.”

He’d gone so far in pursuit of his secret fantasy of getting fired that he’d planned a trip to India and investigated moving to Oregon, where an old friend lives. He had money saved up, and was ready to apply for unemployment and sell his apartment. It was all worked out. He was going to escape – to chase a dream of living near the mountains and surrounding himself with laid-back, creative people.

Now – by a stroke of luck – he was sitting in another big city law firm, earning a large salary, continuing with his career.

He had nothing to complain about – but he was crushed.

The problem was simple. He was going nowhere – or, at least, nowhere he wanted to be.

This guy could stick around at this firm for twenty years and end up a senior securities attorney – maybe even a partner. He’d be wealthy. He’d attend bar association thingamabobs and sit on panels. He’d have his own clients and bring in business. That was where he was headed if he stayed on his current track, passively charting the course of least resistance.

But he didn’t want any of that. He didn’t like securities law. He didn’t really like law, period. He just fell into it because he needed something to do and stayed for the money.

Now he sat in my office, crying – talking about what might have been.

“My friend owns a restaurant, in Oregon, on an old wharf. They specialize in organic, locally-grown food. I was going to move to Oregon and manage the place for him. I wouldn’t earn much, but my friend says I have the personality and the talent to run a restaurant. And I love Oregon – living near the forest and the sea.”

I asked him what was stopping him from quitting right now to pursue his dream.

“I’d never have the balls. I couldn’t give up this money.”

“Not even for your dream?”

He shook his head. That was that. It was decided.

Stasis is a trap between anger and fear. Anger that you aren’t living the life you want. Fear that if you let go, you’ll lose everything.

(more…)

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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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A reader wrote recently to ask about the effect of multiple moves on a child.

It got me thinking about the concept of “home.”

There’s no more powerful trope in human society.  “Home” as a concept relates to the child you once were. It triggers a universal longing.

The word resonates so strongly that real estate listings often use “home” instead of “house” to describe a property for sale.  They’d rather market a concept – something we all long for – than the thing itself, a heap of wood and brick, cinder block and glass.

The word “home” is ubiquitous in our common language, as well – embedded in everyday phrases:  welcome home, home base, home run, homing in, heading home, home sweet home, writing home, home-making, come home.

You need a home.  You may search for it all your life.

As a child, you long for stability – a regular schedule, predictable places and events.  A child savors routines that would bore an adult to tears: watching the same dvd over and over again, having the same book read to him over and over again, eating the same meal (chicken nuggets or pizza) over and over again.  A child wants to stay put and feel safe. Familiarity is like food – he gobbles it up.

The effect of multiple moves on a young child is that he will feel destabilized and anxious, and turn for succor to the one place whence he believes all stability derives – his parent.  That usually means mom, literally his first home, where he first found food and warmth, love and care.  Mama equals home.  She is the original safe place.

For an adult, that’s no longer the case.  The illusion of mom as an omnipotent, omnipresent figure fades as you mature.  In its place, a real woman emerges.  She was once a child herself, and she has her own struggles to wage.

So you turn vagabond – and search for a new home, elsewhere.

You might seek it in a big house.  Or maybe a bank account or a heap of possessions represents your vision of stability and safety.

Ultimately, home must be a person, just as it was when you were a child.  Money and things cannot offer you a true home.

But seeking your home in a partner doesn’t work either.  A relationship must be a meeting of equals – two whole people, not two half people.  It cannot be a rescue.

You cannot build a home with someone else until you feel secure in yourself.  No other person can make you feel secure in your life, and partners cannot run to one another for something they both lack.

You have to build your own place of safety.

Home must exist within you.

Luckily, it already does.  Home, for an adult, is nothing more than acceptance of yourself – the person you truly are when you are your best – your most conscious and most authentic – self.

You are already home.

You always have been.  You always will be.

Always there, always ready to offer love, security and safety.  For yourself.

What a house symbolically offers.  What mama used to offer.  What the word “home” promises.

You can provide that for yourself.

Welcome home.

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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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