Why “get in touch” – 3

In recent entries I wrote about Alice, Jack, and Fred as I tried to answer the question “why get in touch?”  The subject warrants limitless discussion, because it is related to resistance.  And as we know from other blog entries and the main website, resistance is at the heart of psychotherapy, our symptoms, and even our personalities.  It is ultimately how you get over anxiety, depression, obsession, and all the other symptoms.

But just how does one “get in touch”?  How do you do that?

First, you have to notice that you’re not doing it.  Many people think they are, but aren’t.  One patient said to me “I can’t leave Evan because I’d be same dissatisfied grump with any man”, but when I asked how she knew this she revealed that she’d been with this same man since college (11 years earlier) – that she’d had no other relationships or even dates all those years and thus couldn’t possibly know how she’d be with another man!  How could this smart, Ivy League college graduate jump to such a grossly unwarranted conclusion?  How could she not notice that she had absolutely no data on which to base such a statement?

Worse, the more important the subject, the more people skitter away from actually answering the question “and what happened to you then? how did that feel?”  Jim was a very bright, articulate filmmaker on the verge of moving into the big time when he came to see me.  His work with actors involved getting them to relax their defenses, their intellectual processes, their inhibitions, so that they could give convincing and spontaneous performances; he certainly understood intellectualizing, thinking your way out of your feelings.  But in our interactions, he did it all the time.  He could not answer such simple questions as “so when you got up that morning and knew there would be text messages from that woman you no longer wanted to see, how did you feel?  What happened to you?”  In response, he would say things like:  “there’s no reason for her to keep texting me” (not what I asked), “it made no sense but she sent messages every morning” (not what I asked), I can’t believe she wrote again” (not…), or at best “it was annoying”.  The latter may appear to you to be a response, however it is very superficial.  It was only when I asked him to simply remember the moment and tell me how his body felt that Jim was able to say he felt “dread” and even “terror in my gut”.

Again, why is this important?  Not because we shrinks believe you should “get in touch with your feelings”, but because it’s the cure!  At the end of our session, Jim felt more relaxed, focused, clear, and optimistic; he felt freer to concentrate on his work and other projects in his life, less anxious about everything he had to face that day, and less preoccupied with the woman.  Moreover, as he described the “terror”, he found himself remembering similar moments of terror when he was much younger – moments in which such terror would be completely justified, unlike his extreme reaction to the pestering of a soon to be ex-girlfriend.  And our continued exploration of both the terror he felt in the present – which was always an overreaction – and in the past resulted in a steady and rapid decrease of the anxiety that brought him into treatment.

Jim’s problems with answering that annoying therapist question “and how did you feel?” are very common.  People resist it in different ways.  Some avoid it by becoming intellectual, as Jim did.  Some do it by becoming hostile – you can see a good demonstration of that from the Tommy Lee Jones character in the recent movie “Hope Springs”, which has some realistic scenes of marital counseling.

Others do it by becoming indecisive or “confused”; they may begin restating, qualifying, and otherwise backpedaling on what they say.  (One teenaged patient described this kind of resistance as “hairsplitting the irrelevant”.) Jessica was particularly expert at this.  She came to see me complaining of virtual paralysis in her life dating back 12 years to her college days.  She was a bright, articulate, energetic woman who was clearly interested in continuing her studies in physical therapy or veterinary work, but she could not make a decision about career, domicile, her boyfriend, anything.   As we spoke, it initially seemed there was no reason why she should be so immobilized.  But as she talked more personally in our first session, her speech disintegrated.   She’d start to say something about her boyfriend, for example, and halfway through the sentence change topics, change her opinion of what she was describing in him, laugh off whatever she started to say, and then dismiss the whole subject as “silly”.  She described episodes of great tearfulness which would lead her friends to suggest that she consult a therapist or physician, that she consider medication, or that she in some way attend to the problem.  At that point in the discussions, Jessica said, she always expressed surprise and immediately dismissed her previous bad mood.  Similarly, in our sessions, as soon as she became at all interested in the topic – her boyfriend, her family, her feelings about an internship during college, anything that mattered to her – she would first clog the discussion as described above and then quickly dismiss it all as “trivial”.

Jim and Jessica, like so many others, are not really aware that they are avoiding.  Moreover, friends and others often go along with this kind of resistance, may even encourage it.  Picture being in a bar with a friend who talks this way.  It keeps the conversation cheerful, entertaining, and flowing.  Furthermore, it’s comforting when someone begins talking about something painful and then finds a quick way out, a dismissal, a bromide.  Our tendency is to agree, to nod “yeah, I go back and forth about my boyfriend too”, and order the next round.  But this is precisely how people get lost.  Yes, distraction and changing the subject have their place in life, but if they worked I wouldn’t have a job.

So how do you get un-lost?  How do you get in touch?  Start by realizing – if you’re a thinker type – that all that thought may be the opposite of being in touch.  Simon was a very intelligent computer programmer, games designer, athlete, and recent Ivy League graduate.  He was socially adept, had some close friends, dated with ease, and gracefully handled some difficult colleagues and superiors even though he was so new to the job world.  But in private he struggled with obsessive thinking, considerable anxiety, even panic; these sometimes interfered with his sleep.  As with Jim, Simon made a lot of progress simply by focusing on my question “and what happened to you next”, that is “what did you feel, in your body”.  Like Jim, he only answered those questions with a lot of guidance; otherwise, in a very slippery way his answers always drifted quickly back to what he was thinking.  But with help he did start answering my questions and in the process he realized that his endlessly racing thoughts – the worry, the “what if”s, etc. that occurred one day on an outing with two friends – was triggered by the simpler anxiety over “what will this person think of me” and “I’ll have no friends, I’ll be alone”.

Simon had such trouble seeing – i.e. feeling – this simple anxiety in part because in our culture we are taught not to notice such perceptions, such feelings, especially if we are men.  Simon could not see the hand in front of his face – that all of his anxiety during the outing described above was so simple – because he simply could not believe that he would be prey to such “stupid worries”.  (And they are stupid, because in fact the people involved are long-standing good friends, and from his description not at all the type to be judgmental or dismissive of him.)  But it is only by becoming aware of such anxieties that Simon could really see how silly they were.  Once he did, he was much more relaxed – both during the session and subsequently with his friends.  And that, once again, is why psychologists are always asking you what you feel and trying to help you “get in touch”.

Simon’s case illustrates an important first step in starting to notice what happens to you:  Drop all the preconceptions.  You can’t notice what happens to you if you have already decided what is or is not acceptable or sensible to feel.  By any casual observation of Simon, he is the last person we – or he – would imagine could be so fragile in such a safe social encounter.  He was very independent on the surface, making career and college decisions on his own, traveling alone to foreign countries where he does not speak the language, etc.  But as I have said elsewhere in these pages, you cannot argue with data.  And the data are that once he stopped racing his thoughts and words, once he simply answered my question about what he experienced as he stood with his friends in the market, he remembered feeling a strong and clear anxiety that he was not being “entertaining enough” to keep their friendship and would be left alone.  It may sound silly to him or to us, but that’s what he felt.

One good way to break away from any preconceptions that are hampering your awareness is to take note of things that happen at the edge of your awareness, things that happen to you when you are not really thinking about anything.  A former supervisor of mine calls these “marginal experiences”.   If you are in Starbucks and find yourself oddly furious or timid or anything else, that’s a good time to stop and see what happened.  It is very important not to make the mistake of asking yourself “why do I feel this way?”  That question is for me to answer in our sessions.  If you ask it, you are already looking for a sensible, logical answer, and you may therefore blind yourself to what actually happened to you.  Instead ask yourself “when did this feeling start?”, “did I feel this way 2 minutes ago?  5 minutes ago?  30 seconds ago?”  You may realize that the feeling started – for no clear reason – when you saw a shelf of coffee mugs for sale.  Try to suspend any concern with explaining how coffee mugs might make you feel whatever you’re feeling.  Don’t be like Simon who couldn’t notice what was happening to him because “that’s stupid”.  Instead try to just notice or remember what the mugs brought to mind.  Try to notice what you felt in your body, as much as what may have passed through your mind.  You never know what might emerge.  Maybe the mugs reminded you of the furniture you have yet to decide on, of the decorating you’ve not done that people who are better than you surely did and what a loser you are to be indecisive about wallpaper….  Maybe the mugs reminded you of a similarly well-appointed hutch in your boss’ office and you resent being an underling and why doesn’t anyone appreciate your own taste and it must be because you don’t have any and you’ll never get a promotion and you’ll be stuck in the job forever and die miserable and who’d want to marry such a loser…. Maybe the mugs remind you of spilling soda in school and the teacher who humiliated you over it and you never got even and boy! it would be nice to punch her face in now….  Believe it or not, I haven’t invented these scenarios (although I’ve altered them slightly for this blog to protect patient confidentiality).

Another good thing to pay attention to is anything that either sticks in your mind for no clear reason or that stirs up a lot of feeling.  When a scene sticks oddly in our memories, it is because there is unprocessed feeling fueling the memory.  One patient remembered his father’s hat flying off during a road trip when he was about 4; everyone laughed, a seemingly trivial moment.  When he focused on it and let himself notice what feelings, memories, thoughts it stirred, he began to see how much he yearned for such rare moments of family happiness, and he then understood why he was badgering his wife so constantly and unreasonably to create some impossibly perfect family for their children, why he was so agitated if things were spontaneous in their home, and why he was also becoming similarly fussy and unreasonable at work (and he stopped).  So see if you can similarly let yourself muse on the memory – without trying to figure it out, understand its significance, or otherwise diagnose yourself.  Answers may emerge without talking to a therapist.

In contrast with memories that persist for no clear reason, there are feelings that emerge for no clear reason.  Gerry was a very independent, aggressive, masculine fellow who ran his own business, was married, had a very active social and sex life, who came to see me because he was increasingly uncertain about his marriage and because he had skin rashes that his physician said were psychological in cause.  He described a physically abusive father, a childhood that was alternately dreary and dangerous, a history of bar fights and other such aggressiveness, but he denied any connections among all this.  He did, however, express an interest in the fact that Brahms always made him cry.  He did not mind discussing this, did not resist it as he did discussions of more obviously personal matters.  As he talked about it, as he remembered the music and his tearfulness, a whole other side of him emerged.  And again the reason this matters is that as Gerry became more tolerant and aware of his “mushy side” (his term), his symptoms and uncertainties diminished.  Music, smells, sounds can often trigger such initially perplexing reactions.  I know someone who used to choke up when she heard the opening music to the film version of “Little Shop of Horrors”.  Eventually she came to understand such moments as episodes of “good tears”, her term for moments in which she felt finally able to enjoy something that was deeply hers in a way that music can be for some people – in contrast with her rather rigid, stifling, and by her own account “dull” life the rest of the time.  And again why does this matter?  Because in making contact with those “good tears”, she grew stronger, more decisive, less inhibited, and ultimately made some changes in her life that left her much happier and more productive.

Of course, there are those of us who cry with minimal stimulation.  Part of the getting in touch process involves realizing when you’re tears are somewhat skin deep and when they are emanating from more substantial concerns.  That is a tricky process and usually cannot be done without the help of a therapist.  There is a similar distinction to be made between defensive irritation or rage, and the much more revealing and important experience of anger, betrayal, outrage.  Rage – for example road rage – tends to be superficial, yet intense.  It is usually a defense against feeling helpless, uncertain, or otherwise shaky.  But then – and here’s why psychotherapy can be endlessly fascinating to someone like me – underneath that defensive reaction, even as the underlying shakiness emerges, may lurk the more substantial anger.  Archeology of the mind, Freud called it.

Exploring these layers can become part of your whole life, part of what keeps you growing, keeps you interested.  Careers, marriages, hobbies may all have a shelf life.  What keeps them alive is our ever changing relationship to them.  Anything can become stale if you do not continue the process of rediscovering your experience of them; anyone in a successful marriage of more than 20 years will tell you that.  What kept Bruce Lee fascinated with martial arts is something he articulated in an interview late in his life.  He said “I can do something flashy and impressive that will make you say ‘wow’, but the real challenge is to do something honest.”

But again, start small.  To know what you’re feeling, to be “in touch”, to be “honest”, has to start with the smallest experiences, like what really happened to Jim as he turned to his cell phone expecting a text from his demanding girlfriend.  And as we saw in the cases of Jim and Simon, above, you can’t know what you feel if you’ve already decided what feelings make sense, which are acceptable.  Just notice what happens to you, second by second, without assuming you already know.

One final note.  People often can’t do this alone.  Some people’s anxieties, tensions, inhibitions are too great or are too embedded in their way of functioning.  (As Peter Schaffer put it in the play Equus – as spoken by a psychiatrist, actually – “all reined up in old language and old assumptions, straining to jump onto a whole new track of being I only suspect is there.  I can’t see it because my educated average head is being held at the wrong angle.”)  Such people need the help of a guide, a therapist.  Also, some with particularly intense anxiety may need medication.  Such people struggle with racing thoughts, obsessing, worrying, of an intensity that one patient described to me as being a “constant tornado inside, so you can’t stop and notice anything”.  In such a state you can’t do it on your own, and don’t be ashamed or worried if you need medication to relax you enough to start the process; doesn’t mean you’ll be on it forever.

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