Will: Break on through
Copyright 2014 David J. Bookbinder
There are many ways psychotherapists can help people. We can provide validation, emotional support, help formulate goals, encourage, motivate, identify dysfunctional patterns, devise strategies for overcoming them, and sometimes even inspire. But often, to fully surmount difficulties, there is a decisive moment when will comes into play.
Will is what enables us to get up and do it again, raises the apparently defeated fighter from the mat, enables the runner to move out from behind when at the brink of total exhaustion. Will is what keeps us going when everything in us says we can’t. Will is the difference between the triumphant and the failed hero, not only in myth also in our own personal struggles.
Will is the key to breaking through what one of my mentors called the "Spell ceiling." Our collections of past injuries, and the mistaken beliefs and patterns we have created to protect ourselves from them, can be regarded as a trance-like Spell. This Spell subconsciously controls much of what we think, feel, and do. Until we awaken from it, it commands us to repeat our patterns. When we increase awareness and act in ways that defy our Spells, they weaken and we get stronger.
The Spell ceiling occurs just as the Spell is about to yield. At that point, the Spell – which doesn’t know we don’t need its protection anymore – puffs itself up and, like the Wizard at the end of The Wizard of Oz, tries to persuade us that there’s yet another job for us to undertake. Though we have killed our Wicked Witches, the Wizard tries to scare us into going on another mission anyway because that’s all he knows how to do.
But by then we have changed. Just as the characters in the movie have worked through their illusions – the "heartless" Tin Man has shown compassion, the "brainless" Scarecrow has demonstrated his intelligence, the "cowardly" Lion has led the charge, and "homeless" Dorothy now wants nothing more than to return to Auntie Em and Kansas – we have reached the threshold of our true selves without realizing it.
It’s not difficult to spot the Spell ceiling if you know it’s there. Old patterns reemerge. In therapy sessions, I hear clients suddenly using words like "overwhelmed," "lazy," and "just": "I just couldn’t make myself do it. I was overwhelmed. Maybe I’m just lazy." People who rarely have problems focusing space out in sessions. Those who have been on time for months forget their appointments. "It feels like I’m going backwards," some of them say.
At this critical moment, will must come into play. If we succumb to the Spell now, we lose ground and it resumes its role of puppeteer. If, instead, we muster up our will to resist returning to old patterns, the curtain is soon pulled aside and the Wizard revealed to be merely an old man shouting desperately into a megaphone to bolster the illusion that he still has power. When the hold of the Spell is broken, we are free to redirect the energy we have been supplying to it, fueling our own growth.
We have broken through the Spell ceiling, but unlike the Wizard in the film, the Spell has not thrown in the towel. To continue to stay ahead of it, we need to continue to do what got us to the other side. Will is again the tool we need, coupled with awareness.
In 12-step recovery programs, the phrase "fake it till you make it" expresses the idea of using will to assume new, more self-actualizing behaviors and attitudes. By willing ourselves to act as if we are already living a sober life, we live the sober life, and its benefits become clear. Similarly, the socially anxious person who acts as if he or she is not anxious often becomes calmer and more outgoing in social situations; the depressed person who acts as if he or she is not depressed behaves in ways that can dispel depression; and so on. Faking it till you make it applies even on the bodily level. Willing ourselves to smile even when it seems as if everything inside wants to frown creates the same physiological response as spontaneous smiling, and that physiological response can improve our mood and our outlook. (Try it now!)
A tool I use with therapy clients to counteract the Spell is the Personal Craziness Index (PCI). Borrowed from the book A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps, by Patrick J. Carnes, the PCI provides a way to catalog, in each of ten major life areas, three indicators that remind us how we act when we are Spell-free. Then we track the most significant seven every day. If we are seven-out-of-seven, all is well. If we notice we are slipping back into Spell-influenced behaviors, chances are good our Spell is setting us up for another assault.
The preventive is built into the PCI. For instance, suppose that in the "Health" category we wrote that when we are doing well, we go to the gym three times a week, cook our own meals, and sleep at least seven hours per night. When we notice we are skipping the gym, or picking up junk food, or skimping on sleep, we become aware we are drifting out of the behaviors that helped us break our Spells. At this point, we’ve given up only a little ground, and getting back on track is easy: we will ourselves to go back to the gym, cook our meals, make sure we get enough sleep, and the downward slide reverses. By themselves, each of these neglectful acts may mean very little, but as early warning signs, they invaluable.
Catching the Spell before gathers enough strength to pull us under is much easier than breaking through again once we have dipped below the Spell ceiling. The Personal Craziness Index lets us "fake it till we make it" at a fine level of granularity, where the amount of will needed to get back on track is minimal, and the results are evident, often within minutes.
As the old saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Use your will. Take the way.
Copyright 2014 David J. Bookbinder
Recently, I had the relatively rare experience of having a movie introduce me to a new way of looking at things. The central idea of Martin Scorcese’s Hugo explicitly emerges midway through the film, but it’s implicit in every frame: Just as, in a machine, there are no "extra" parts, parts without a function, so in the world there are no "extra" people, with no purpose. Each person, like machine component, has a unique place. The trick – because with people it is not as obvious as it is with machines – is to discover it.
In my own life, discovering who I uniquely am has been a long and circumambulating journey. I started out feeling as if I were a misfit, the Ugly Duckling who was different from, and therefore inferior to, those around me. I was the shy and introverted one surrounded by extraverts, the would-be intellectual surrounded by would-be athletes, the Jew among Christians. As a boy I avidly read science fiction, and chief among the stories I sought were the ones about mutants. In these fanciful tales, mutants were always persecuted by those around them, but ultimately they turned out to be the next step in human evolution. I hid out in that world, preoccupying myself with fictional explorations of the universe and private science studies, first of rocks, bugs, magnets, and electricity, then later of chemistry, electronics, and rocketry. By 12, I was doing high science on my own. By high school, I was researching personal projects in the science and engineering library of the University at Buffalo. I knew I was smart in that way, and like the mutants, I vacillated between devastatingly low self-esteem and a fragile grandiosity.
Thankfully, beginning at the end of high school, the humanist in me began to emerge, and my focus shifted to the realms of people, literature, and visual art. My adult life has been a gradual and uneven unfolding of talents that were mostly disregarded during childhood.
During my late 20s, I lived in a house on the edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant, near Pratt Institute, a school for the arts and architecture. Rick, one of my housemates, was a few years older than I was. He’d been self-sufficient since he was 17 and had walked many walks in his 35 years – the Navy, business, construction, short-order cook, and an assortment of other jobs. When we lived together, he was an architecture student at Pratt. One day, as we sat at the kitchen table, I lamented how disconnected my career seemed. I was a kid scientist turned English major. I was writing, taking pictures, teaching kids art and carpentry, and helping to renovate the house we lived in. It all seemed makeshift and fragmented. Rick had been showing me an architectural model of a conference center he had designed. It was a beautifully executed architectural sculpture. He tapped one of the wooden panels into place. "I felt the same way you did until I found architecture," he said. "Then, everything came together." He smiled and clapped me on the shoulder. "You’ll figure it out," he said.
Rick found architecture at 35, and decades later he’s still practicing. It took me an additional 15 years to find my way into psychotherapy, at 50. But in this profession, like Rick, I have found that the meandering threads of my varied careers have come together into a tapestry. Now I see that I’m not the Ugly Duckling, not the mutant, and that my history is not a series of false starts. Instead, I am a late bloomer.
In his New Yorker article "Late Bloomers," Malcolm Gladwell contrasts artists such as Pablo Picasso, whose genius was acknowledged early in his career, with those like Cézanne, who did his best work late in life and only then received widespread recognition. "On the road to great achievement," Gladstone wrote, "the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all." Early bloomers hit the ground running, but late bloomers seem to need support as, through trial and error, they discover how to realize their talent. Gladwell describes assistance Cézanne received from other artists and from his father, without which he could never have succeeded. "Prodigies are easy," he explains. "They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith."
Late blooming is a phenomenon that occurs not only with artists, but with anyone whose nature is to discover their purpose through trial and error. As a therapist I often encounter late bloomers. They are men and women who have the potential to achieve much more in their lives than they have been able to, not because they lack the ability, but because their potential was not seen and encouraged. Societal and familial conditions squeeze many of us into shapes convenient for shipping and packaging, but not for optimal growth. Without support, these late bloomers, too, may never bloom.
Providing support for blooming, late or early, is one of the chief missions of psychotherapy. Because I have also bloomed late, I turn out to have a set of experiences that is well-suited to fostering the uniqueness of others and to finding the right soil and set of conditions for them not only to blossom, but to thrive.
In Scorcese’s film, young Hugo Cabret is the catalyst who helps each of the other main characters find, or re-find, their way. In doing so, he discovers his unique talent. Like Hugo, my lifelong trial-and-error struggle to find the right vocation has equipped me to recognize the uniqueness of others and to help them find their place in the cosmic machine. Although I know little about botany (I resorted to a plant-identification forum in British Columbia to learn the names of the common flowers I made into mandalas), in another sense I have found my vocation as a gardener.
Uncertainty: Negative capability
Copyright 2014 David J. Bookbinder
Perhaps the greatest fear I run across as a therapist is fear of uncertainty.
This fear is great because it is so vague and encompassing. We are uncertain about how people see us; what will happen next in our relationships, the economy, the climate; how a meeting with our boss will go; how our children will do in school, and in life; what will become of us as we age; and many other things, all of them unknowable until they actually occur. And no matter who we are, how we have been raised, how rich we have become, how healthy we seem to be, how good our genes are, how much we know, or how much power we have, we are all uncertain about our own end – when it will occur, what will cause it, whether we will suffer, what will happen afterward, how we will be remembered.
The only thing we can really be certain of is uncertainty. As Bob Dylan once put it, "There is nothing so stable as change."
Some of us manage uncertainty by replacing it with certainties. We are like Boy Scouts, whose motto is "Be prepared." In the worst case, we are catastrophizing, always on yellow alert, apprehensively anticipating negative outcomes, hoping to avoid being blindsided, should one of them occur, unable to fully enjoy what is happening now.
Often, however, this approach makes good sense. My father, a former Boy Scout leader, lived by this credo. For him, it took the form of having duplicates, and in some cases triplicates, to make sure the devices in our house kept running. We had a sump pump to keep the basement dry in the event of a flood, a backup sump pump in case that one failed, and a backup of the backup … just in case. Stacked beside the workbench were two or three extra motors for the washing machine and the dryer, and shelves overflowed with duplicate faucets, belts, hoses, clamps, fasteners, TV and radio tubes, and a plethora of other spare parts. We could have stocked a small hardware store with the backups and the backups of the backups, few of which ever actually saw any use.
Or maybe we follow the popular proverb, "Hope for the best but expect the worst." We have a positive attitude, but we also try, as best we can, to be ready should disaster strike. We save for a rainy day and for our retirement, tape our windows in anticipation of hurricanes, back up our computers, put our valuable documents in safe deposit boxes, buy batteries and bottled water when the forecast calls for snow, invest for our retirement, get long-term care insurance, keep our spare tires inflated. In the 60s, we built fallout shelters, stocked school basements with C rations, and learned to duck under our desks and cover our heads, when the air raid sirens sounded.
But what do we do about the things we can’t prepare for? Or the "worsts" we could never anticipate?
One approach comes from the Romantic poet John Keats, who described what he called Negative Capability, "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Negative Capability neither assumes nor anticipates the best or the worst, but instead recognizes that most things cannot be known in advance and sees them, as one friend puts it, as "don’t knows."
Since I first ran across the concept as a college sophomore, Negative Capability has played out in many arenas. My most vivid experience of Negative Capability occurred during a near-death experience in 1993. I found myself in a condition of becalmed waiting – to live, to die, or to move on, accepting each possibility with equanimity. This equanimity occurred without any effort on my part; it seems to be how we are programmed, biologically, to deal with the possibility of imminent death.
Getting to Negative Capability on a daily basis, however, has been a more difficult endeavor. What has helped most is taking a different spin on the Boy Scout motto: To be prepared not by attempting to anticipate all possibilities, or by having multiple contingency plans, or by hoping or expecting any particular outcome, but by learning to trust that whatever happens, I can handle it.
In my work as a therapist, Negative Capability is a way to consciously open to, and counteract, the fear that I might be unable to deal with what clients bring into the room. A key, for me, has been to persuade myself that I like surprises.
Liking surprises began when I was a client myself. I had recently returned to the Boston area from Albany, NY, and had started seeing a therapist to sort out the many bewildering changes I’d been through following the near-death experience. My girlfriend, who was still living in Albany, came to visit on a day I was scheduled for therapy. I asked the therapist if I should let him know if she’d be accompanying me to our session. "It doesn’t matter," he said. "I like surprises." In that moment, I realized how much I didn’t like being surprised, how hard I worked, still, to be a good Boy Scout – and how liberating liking surprises must be. "I like surprises" became a new set of clothes I wanted to grow into.
My first counseling internship was at MassArt, a college for artists. I had only one counseling psychology class under my belt when I started, but I had assumed I’d mainly be dealing with familiar problems, such as roommate conflicts, creative blocks, relationship issues, academic troubles, drugs and alcohol. But I quickly discovered that my young artist clients were far more complicated and that it was impossible to predict what they might bring to a session. Although these simpler problems did show up, I also encountered suicidality, psychosis, the aftermath of a murder, personality disorders, and many other serious problems I was not trained to work with. "I like surprises" helped me – and continues to help, today – to remain in "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts" without pushing the panic button, and to confidently assure clients that "we can sort this out," even when how to do so was completely unclear.
Over time, Negative Capability has fostered a sense of competence in dealing with the unknowable, an increasing adaptability that accompanies my fearful self into uncertainty like a wise and trusted friend. I still don’t always like surprises, but I have grown more at ease with the knowledge that everything is a "don’t know" until it happens.
So far, so good.
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