One of my responsibilities as a writer is to keep up with the various books that are topping the self-help list. The past few years, they have tended to fall into two categories:
1. Get It Together! or 2. Embrace Your Imperfection!
Both of these messages can be true and important, but they reflect a tension that exists in mainstream culture. We’re supposed to be okay with being exactly where we are, but we also must be constantly moving forward. These messages also focus solely on the individual, missing an important point: to be human is to be in relationship with others.
I once had a client who, like most of us, exemplified the tension between these two competing messages. Cassandra grew up in rural Georgia and was the oldest of four children. She described her parents as blue collar workers who were often anxious about money. Like many oldest children, Cassandra was achievement-focused. She worked hard in school, got good grades, and loved to debate her peers.
As a therapist, I often challenge my clients to think about how their reactivity in a relationship gets in the way of who they want to be as a partner. So often we shut down, complain to friends, or try and control our partner as a response to our anger. While these strategies may feel relieve us in the moment, they are rarely effective in the long-term. Let’s take a look at four simple strategies for managing anger and growing maturity in your relationship.
When I first talk with potential therapy clients, I have two favorite questions that I like to ask:
How would you know that things were getting better?
How would you be functioning differently than you are right now?
Most people can do a pretty good job at listing their complaints, discomforts, and symptoms. Describing a higher level of mature functioning, however, takes some thinking. In a few weeks I’m giving a presentation about how I’ve worked on my overall functioning. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how I have measured my own progress as I work on myself. I’ve asked myself those two questions—how do I see things improving, and how have changes in my functioning contributed to this?
Denise came to counseling after her father had died of a heart attack at the age of 84. She had been on a cruise to Alaska when he died, and she felt guilty for leaving her 76-year-old mother and younger sister to plan the funeral. A few months later, Denise was flying back every other weekend to Denver to clean out her father’s belongings and check in on her mother. She complained that her sister rarely stopped by to help, even though she only lived half an hour from their childhood home.
Denise always thought her mother would be the first to go in the family. She had diabetes and had experienced a heart attack several years before. Her father had been in great shape and was a regular at the gym. He was actively involved in a local church and was president of the local American Legion. He also took on most of the household responsibilities—he loved to cook and paid all the bills. Denise was surprised to learn how little her mother knew about their finances—she couldn’t even tell them where to locate important papers in the house. “She can barely make scrambled eggs. She eats TV dinners and I can’t get her to leave the house more than once a week.”
Pseudo-self is “pretend” self. People pretend to be more or less important than they really are, stronger or weaker than they really are, more or less attractive than they really are. A group can “pump up” an individual’s level of functioning to the point that he can do things he had been unable to do on his own. This higher level of functioning, however, is totally dependent on the group’s continuing support. – Family Evaluation, Dr. Murray Bowen and Dr. Michael Kerr
This week I went to see the movie Eighth Grade. The film follows Kayla, a modern 8th grader who publishes a series of positive, self-help videos on YouTube that display a pretend, opposite version of Kayla’s actual quiet, uncertain, and anxious self. Many reviewers have remarked that the film is an insightful commentary on how social media, the perfect selfie, and the lure of Internet fame have shaped today’s youth.
But as I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think the exact opposite. . .
“Erin” came to counseling with all the signs of depression. She was unhappy with her career, her health and her family. Her mother was distressed, her father was distant and her disabled brother was sick.
Erin spent a lot of energy calming and directing her family, and she complained about how little her family supported her in return. She increasingly relied on sugar to calm herself down, and she struggled to end this dependence.
Erin’s anxiety was high, and as a newbie counselor, I struggled to operate outside of it. She cried through many of our meetings, and she grew increasingly critical of our work together.
Not long ago, a close friend of mine was struggling with a huge life decision: Should she marry her long-term partner, or was it time to part ways? “Be my therapist!” she begged me at one point, when the two of us were hanging out with a group of friends. I tried to deflect, but she kept requesting my advice, like it was a party trick. Over the course of the night, I watched as our other friends offered their own opinions on her partner, only sharing my thoughts when we finally got a moment alone.
Read the rest of my essay from New York magazine here.