Jul 26

“You Hurt My Feelings”: Lesson in Truth and Support

In the new indie film You Hurt My Feelings by Nicole Holofcener, one of the main characters is Don  (Tobias Menzies), a therapist who offers his various clients listening and support but not enough honest feedback and/or advice. He’s married to Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a writer and teacher who regularly provides well-meaning—but not necessarily earned—support to her adult students and loved ones. As a couple they’re seemingly close; they’re also enmeshed.

Think, if you will, about how Don’s and Beth’s styles might have affected each other as well as their son over the years. Actually, just see the film.

Jake Coyle, Associated Press: “Do any of us really want straightforward feedback or do we just want emotional support? That’s the rich vein that Holofcener, a master of nagging neuroses, mines so expertly in You Hurt My Feelings — a film that I very much adored. I swear.”

Have you ever felt that your therapist is giving you space to talk but little else? Does your spouse or friend or anyone else you care about boost your ego when you’re feeling insecure—without ever telling you some of the hard truths?

It is possible, by the way, to be both honest and supportive at the same time—even if you won’t want to practice this 100 percent of the time. After all, little white lies exist for a reason. “Deciding what is an ‘okay’ lie and what is a ‘dangerous lie’ requires consideration of your motivation and the potential fall-out if the truth were found out,” states Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, Psychology Today.

Generally speaking, honesty is truly the best policy. And, as Dr. Jonice Webb advises on her website, “Truth with compassion is a way to express your truth while reducing its hurtfulness as much as possible.” The following are three steps she recommends in order to achieve this:

1. Clarify your message within yourself before saying anything to the other person

2. Think about the personality and nature of your recipient. How emotionally fragile is he? How will he best hear this message?

3. Identify the best time, place, and words to communicate your message

Interestingly, Webb is the author of Running On Empty, about childhood emotional neglect. One of the long-term effects of such neglect, as with abuse, can be a damaged ability to establish healthy emotional intimacy. Beth, for instance, in You Hurt My Feelings was the victim of verbal abuse by her father. Her mother gives her backhanded compliments that sting.

Although we are not similarly aware of Don’s background, in his foreground we know he has chosen a profession in which it’s important to have a strong understanding of healthy intimacy. This film shows us that—like all therapists—he has some continued learning to do.

Jul 19

“Why Me?” (Why Not?)

It’s a question that’s commonly asked—especially when confronting crisis, loss, or tragedy: “Why me?”

As Fran Simone, PhD, Psychology Today, states, though, “the question is self-defeating. This way of thinking fuels resentment, envy, and self-pity. Toxic emotions demean and diminish us.”

The individuals referenced below neither wax maudlin nor shy away from humor regarding the question:

Charlie Brown (from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts) sometimes asks it while lying awake at night. “…(A) voice answers ‘Nothing personal, your name just happened to come up.'”

Stephen King“When his life was ruined, his family killed, his farm destroyed, Job knelt down on the ground and yelled up to the heavens, ‘Why god? Why me?’ and the thundering voice of God answered, ‘There’s just something about you that pisses me off.'”

Christopher Hitchens‘s posthumously published book Mortality chronicles his “year of living dyingly”; he succumbed to cancer in 2011. “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?”

Humorist David Rakoff (1964-2012) received a cancer diagnosis while writing a book of essays called Half Emptywhich came out in 2010. In an interview with NPR around that time, he’d also spoken of this issue:

Writer Melissa Bank said it best: ‘The only proper answer to ‘Why me?’ is ‘Why not you?’ The universe is anarchic and doesn’t care about us and unfortunately, there’s no greater rhyme or reason as to why it would be me. And since there is no answer as to why me, it’s not a question I feel really entitled to ask. And in so many other ways, I’m so far ahead of the game. I have access to great medical care. My general baseline health, aside from the general unpleasantness of the cancer, is great. And it’s great because I’m privileged to have great health. And I live in a country where I’m not making sneakers for a living and I don’t live near a toxic waste dump. You can’t win all the contests and then lose at one contest and say ‘Why am I not winning this contest as well?’ It’s random. So truthfully, again, do I wish it weren’t me? Absolutely. I still can’t make that logistic jump to thinking there’s a reason why it shouldn’t be me.

Liam Gallagher‘s 2019 song “Why Me? Why Not?” contains apt lyrics. A sampling from the chorus:

When you get so down you could cry
Count the love you got
Fill your heart with why me? Why not?

Jul 12

Midlife Crisis Onward: Older Stages of Life

What really happens in our aging process? Is there a “midlife crisis” for everyone? How about when we get even older? Below are two books that address such issues.

I. Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty (2016)

Hagerty had suspected she was entering a “midlife crisis“—and she wanted to know how to navigate such an imposing hurdle.

What Hagerty learned from interviewing “an astonishing number of middle-aged men and women and the psychologists, sociologists, physicians, geneticists, and neuroscientists who study them,” was positive and hopeful, notes Kirkus Reviews: “The experience of middle age, she has discovered, ‘is more mountaintop than valley,’ characterized not by depression but by optimism and renewal, happiness and growth.”

Selected Quotes from Life Reimagined

The men and women who scored highest on conscientiousness—that is, who control their impulses, who were dependable and goal-oriented—had 89 percent lower risk of developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s than the least conscientious people.

Choose where to invest your energy, and do so intentionally, because the clearest path to a robust midlife is purposeful engagement.

In fact, people with little purpose were two and a half times more likely to develop dementia than those with a mission.

II. Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson (2019)

A physician specializing in the care of those of us over 60, Louise Aronson explores the various facets of this developmental stage most hope to reach.

The following is an excerpt from Elderhood about aging beyond midlife:

For most people, early, middle, and advanced old age are significantly different. In our current conceptualization of old, physical degradations and lost options are its sine qua non. That’s why, until those things become overwhelming, many people don’t think of themselves as old, even when most younger people would swiftly and definitively put them in that category. When people arrive at the stereotypical version of old, they sometimes no longer feel like themselves, although for most of us the transition to old happens gradually over decades beginning at age twenty. The changes are both positive and negative, though we tend to focus on the latter. Those losses and diminutions are imperceptible at first, then easy to disregard, then possible to work around, and, finally, blatant.

Many in the medical field overly focus on the negative changes as well. Harvey Freedenberg, Bookpage.com, regarding the “stubborn insistence on treating organs and diseases rather than whole human beings, often prizing science and technology over simple, compassionate care”:

These efforts typically trigger costly late-life interventions that may be successful in the narrowest sense, prolonging life for a time but often inflicting physical and psychological pain on their recipients that severely compromises their quality of life. Aronson advocates for a new care paradigm, focused on the ‘optimization of health and well-being,’ even when an earlier death may be the consequence.

Selected quotes from Elderhood and/or the author’s interviews:

..(O)lder adults surpass younger adults on all measures, showing less stress, depression, worry, and anger, and more enjoyment, happiness, and satisfaction. 

In reality, aging and living are essentially the same process, socially and biologically, and elderhood is a highly varied life phase that lasts twenty to forty years. (mariashriver.com)

People look at geriatrics and old age as the thing that happens before you die. No. It lasts decades and has all these stages and substages and most of them are quite wonderful for most people. A big message of the book is that so much of what’s horrible about old age isn’t about aging nearly as much as it is about our dysfunctional approach to it. (AARP)

Jul 05

Adversity as a “Gift”: And Two Other Books

Regardless of how much money you have, your race, where you live, what religion you follow, you are going through something. Or you already have or you will. As momma always said, ‘Everybody’s got something.’ Robin Roberts, Everybody’s Got Something, regarding adversity

Several other books in addition to the above describe ways to overcome adversity.

I. The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections by Norman E. Rosenthal (2013)

Like anyone else, this author, a psychiatrist, has not been immune to adversity. But he’s dealt with it. He quotes an old Eastern proverb: “The fox has many tricks, but the porcupine has one big trick.”

Interestingly, it’s helpful to have to face hardship in life, states Rosenthal. Not tons of it, just some. Some is more likely than none to help us develop needed resilience, which in turn serves as a foundation for more optimal mental health.

II. Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant (2017)   

“We are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. It is a muscle that everyone can build,” states the publisher. “…Two weeks after losing her husband, Sheryl was preparing for a particular parental activity. ‘I want Dave,’ she cried. Her friend replied, ‘Option A is not available,’ and then promised to help her make the most of Option B.”

A pertinent quote: “Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us. It comes from gratitude for what’s good in our lives and from leaning in to the suck. It comes from analyzing how we process grief and from simply accepting that grief. Sometimes we have less control than we think. Other times we have more. I learned that when life pulls you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.”

III. The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma and Adversity by Nadine Burke Harris, MD (2018)

Kirkus Reviews: ““Twenty years of medical research has shown that childhood adversity literally gets under our skin, changing people in ways that can endure in their bodies for decades.’ Indeed, adversity ‘can dramatically increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes—even Alzheimer’s’.”

How can we heal? “Sleep, mental health, healthy relationships, exercise, nutrition, and mindfulness—we saw in our patients that these six things were critical for healing. As important, the literature provided evidence of why these things were effective. Fundamentally, they all targeted the underlying biological mechanism—a dysregulated stress-response system and the neurologic, endocrine, and immune disruptions that ensued.”

Jun 28

“Mental Illness” As a Flawed Term

Most people think they know what the term “mental illness” is and what it evokes—but in fact it’s an oft-misunderstood and misused term unacceptable to many, depending on how it’s used. Health Partners:

Mental illness is a broad term. It doesn’t reflect what a person is actually dealing with. For example, if you say that someone has “cardiac issues,” that doesn’t really provide much information about what they’re going through. There are many different types of heart problems, and not all patients with cardiac problems have had a heart attack.

Similarly, not everyone with a mental health issue has been suicidal or depressed. There are many different mental health issues. And two people with the same clinical diagnosis can present very differently, too. So, to be respectful of people’s individual experiences, it’s important to use language that also acknowledges that mental illnesses are not all the same.

Many replacement words also may not work, depending on context. In addition to “nuts” and “crazy” (or “going crazy”) and “insane” several other slangy synonyms, among many others too numerous to mention, are “losing one’s mind,” “nervous breakdown,” and “going mad.” Although such terms are often used loosely, usually not intending harm, it’s important to recognize how and when we use them, as these words can feel stigmatizing and/or offensive.

Below are some pertinent quotes from well-known folks that involve “psycholanguage” (meaning “words about the psyche”):

Jane Wagner (The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and partner of Lily Tomlin): “See, the human mind is kind of like…a piñata. When it breaks open, there’s a lot of surprises inside. Once you get the piñata perspective, you see that losing your mind can be a peak experience.”

Bertrand Russell: “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky: “Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad.”

Rodney Dangerfield: “My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too.”

Margot Kidder: “When I was crazy, I didn’t think of anything but being crazy.”

Albert Einstein: “A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?”

Mark Twain: “When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”

Sam Harris: “It is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.”

Robert Anton Wilson: “Of course I’m crazy, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”