“Stop lying”, I wrote in the book. Here’s a case which illustrates how to do this and why it’s important to do.
When Jack started with me, he was an extremely successful businessman, not yet 30, utterly unable to enjoy his many successes, on the verge of ruining his marriage. He could participate in a party or dinner with his wife for perhaps 10 minutes before feeling deeply, intensely compelled either to rush off to another social event or to jump up and check e-mails he’d checked scarcely an hour earlier. During our sessions it was difficult for me to get a word in. He spoke rapidly, with a pleading quality, and almost nonstop. He had a beautiful, bright, sensitive, and aware wife – I met her for several sessions as well – on whom he often depended to prevent his anxieties from escalating into panic; she was very helpful to him, for example, as he agonized over how best to cope with a client, colleague, or employee. And yes, their sex life was great. Still, he obsessively thought about other women.
Things became better after some time in therapy. He no longer worked 25 hours a day, he enjoyed his wife and friends, his marriage improved, he became an attentive father who greatly enjoyed his two kids, and when facing or finishing a task or decision he no longer agonized as before. His business thrived and grew, despite his somewhat more relaxed approach to everything.
But dealing with people still triggered his old problems and sometimes he astounded both of us with the degree to which he distorted things. For example, an important CEO client forwarded a copy to Jack of an e-mail this CEO had sent to colleagues praising Jack and encouraging other large companies to use his services; in response, Jack felt only intense anxiety that he was about to be exposed as a worthless fraud. Similarly, Jack described himself almost drowning in uncertainty and rage when one of his employees spoke to him with a rather sarcastic and an entirely inappropriate tone. Despite Jack’s position as the owner/manager of his own company, his years of experience compared with this underling, and the feedback from me and his wife that indeed the employee was quite out of line, he worried that he had no right to object or that he would overreact; he found himself raging, “burning” with frustration that he realized was far beyond a reasonable response to such a minor slight. (When Jack eventually confronted this employee, the latter apologized profusely and subsequently adjusted his behavior to be more respectful and cooperative.)
What was going on with Jack? As with all of us, when the current situation cannot account for his reactions we can be sure Jack was enacting forgotten or barely remembered scenarios from his past. In simpler language he was lying about what he was experiencing. This is where “getting in touch” comes in. First, he has to articulate just what he is feeling, not rehash the particulars of the employee’s behavior, his own options for responding, or the surface reactions such as “I was pissed”. Jack described “burning fear, terrified someone’s got a gun in my face, like I have to run for my life” all triggered by this awkward moment with his underling. Then he must begin to notice from where else he knows such intense feelings.
So with some questioning from me, he began to vividly describe earlier experiences in his life which it turns out account entirely for his episodes of marked indecision, anxiety, and rage. The rejection, humiliation, and baffling inconsistency to which he was subjected as a child and young man are beyond what I can describe in this blog entry; the case examples in the main website go into such histories in more detail. The important point here is that when Jack could focus on and articulate the feelings aroused by whatever event – such as his employee’s sarcasm – triggered the symptoms, he could also then remember and recount earlier and more deeply painful experiences which would always make the intensity of his reactions seem entirely justified! By contrast, when such strong reactions to minor triggering events such as the snide employee do not match up, we label them “symptoms”. That term itself implies symptoms of something – of deeper/older issues, of memories and experiences which have been forgotten, at least on the surface; they emerge with the help of a guide. In his conscious daily life, Jack was reenacting those intense and forgotten experiences in more current and trivial situations. If all this sounds a bit theoretic or speculative, hang on for a few paragraphs.
People do this – this lying about what they are experiencing by displacement of painful experiences onto trivial events – because it is safer and easier. It is easier to obsess about a snide employee, about some curious anxiety or indecision, about handwashing or checking a locked door, about an insult from a friend or lover, or about some minor decision, than it is to face the more frightening and unwieldy causes of one’s unhappiness such as having perhaps married the wrong person, chosen the wrong career, or grown up feeling unwanted or worse. When people begin to face those issues, they do feel better and they function better, but it hurts. Remember, Jack felt not just “pissed” but “burning fear”, terror for his life, panic, all triggered by this awkward moment with his underling. Then once he articulated those feelings, he immediately remembered other times he felt that way – times when such feelings were justified by the circumstances and scary people involved – and he thus felt better. But those memories hurt. We do all we can to avoid them. They are the half buried experiences that people resist “getting in touch” with, events they’ve completely forgotten or which they may remember but claim to have no feeling about.
A quick digression to provide an example of this kind of resistance: Fred is a lawyer who saw me for about three years. One day he began telling me a story from when he was seven years old in which he was publicly humiliated and punished by his father for misbehaving at a large family gathering. Halfway through the telling, to his considerable surprise, Fred began sobbing; he described how painful, humiliating, frightening the experience was. He’d told this story many times to friends and dates, but it always felt like an entertaining and mildly amusing anecdote. It was only in the context of our session that the buried part of the story emerged – the pain of it. And again why is this pain important? Why “get in touch”? Because that buried pain was never really gone. It was something that I and others who know Fred could always see in his tense, overly apologetic, even tortured speech, and in his social demeanor in general; and although he did not know why, Fred did indeed know that he was an unhappy, tense guy.
Now to return to Jack, how do we know anything I said about him is true? Because – and again this point is made more explicitly and with more illustrations in the main website and the book – when he would remember, discuss, and feel the pain of the memories that arose as we spoke, he would end up feeling “calmer, lighter, saner but sadder. And his symptoms diminished. So he both felt and functioned better.
So: Get in touch. Catch and stop the lying. It works.