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by Mary Jo Barrett
It is the end of innocence--the day we enter the land beyond the rulebook. A client wants to give us diamonds. Another invites us to dinner. Another notices that we've stopped wearing a wedding ring, and we wonder how much to tell her. A client moves forward as if to hug us, and then gives us a open-mouthed kiss. Simple dicta no longer seem sufficient.
One way or another, all therapists face similar questions about therapeutic boundaries: Should we accept the gift? How much do we self-disclose? What do we do when a dual relationship can't be avoided? How do we safely negotiate the currents of sexuality? Moved by our best instincts, our weaknesses or simply by the sheer ambiguity of the situation, we can often find ourselvs striking out on our own and coloring outside the lines.
Once upon a time, when psychoanalysis was king, our ethical guidelines were as strict and sacred as the rituals for entering and leaving the Catholic confessional. We spoke the language of transference and countertransference. Both client and therapist knew what to expect: therapy was sacred work, done in a sacred time and space. Within the artificially private walls of the consulting room, human beings felt safe to tell a (usually male) therapist what they dared tell nobody else--relatively confident that they would not later encounter him at daycare or the grocery store. Back then, the dos and don'ts were unambiguous: take no gifts; don't self-disclose; avoid dual relationships; treat all clients equally; create clear boundaries between office and home; steer clear of sexuality.
Today, "therapy" no longer takes place in a book-lined study separate from secular space and time. The walls are porous. Competing models of the therapeutic relationship abound. Are we scientists, shamanic healers, secular ministers, paid friends, skills coaches or purveyors of psychoeducation? Each model contains its own assumptions and morality, and the old consensus on therapeutic ethics and boundaries has broken down. We can agree only on the most egregious forms of boundary violation: when a therapist makes millions as his client's record producer, or sleeps with him or talks about her at a cocktail party, we all know enough to shake our heads.
But once we leave the outrageous violations behind, new realities collide with abstract standards. Where do the "boundaries" lie when therapy can involve in-home visits or the building of a community support group? How do we avoid dual relationships if we practice in a town of less than 2,000 in the Yukon? When is self-disclosure helpful for clients, and when is it an imposition on them or a danger to ourselves?
All of us in clinical practice face these questions, or our own versions of them, almost daily. Yet, as the following stories of our colleagues' encounters with a handful of "sticky situations" show, it's remarkable how few of us talk to anybody about them. Where is our community of peers--that presumed source of sanity inhabiting the space between the ethics board and our solitary face in the bathroom mirror?
By not consulting one another, we have created a culture of avoidance. We use the word "boundary" without any common agreement on what the word means. As a result, we often wing it on our own, fearful of being labeled a boundary violator. We may decide that the situation is special, the client is special or we are special.
We hope that the following pieces--by therapists at every juncture in their careers--will open up a much needed conversation. Below, are accounts of therapists who found themselves unsure of how to deal with four highly chargedÂ areas of ethical ambiguity: self-disclosure, sexuality, gifts and dual relationships. Some of them took chances beyond the rulebook and were happily surprised. Others were not so fortunate. Few consulted with anyone at the time, but all are now sharing their stories with you.
The purpose of these articles is not to come up with a new rulebook. But perhaps these stories can begin to create a therapeutic culture where we openly discuss the moments that we feel our privacy or dignity violated--or that we risk violating those of our clients. Perhaps we can bring our embarrassment and uncertainty into our consultation and supervision groups. There, we might begin to create a consensus wider than our private morality, vulnerability and good intentions.
--Mary Jo Barrett and Katy Butler
by David Treadway
The sky had gone dark and ominous. The halyards kept banging on the mast as the wind picked up. I was in an exposed anchorage and had to get out of there before the blow hit. Unfortunately, this was my last writing day on my boat, and I had barely started winnowing down my list of most challenging cases. I wondered what criteria I should use to select the best one to write about. Was it the most complex cases, like those in which I have been the marriage, family and individual therapist to many different members of three generations? Or, maybe, the most dangerous, like the time when I was inadvertently locked in with a violently psychotic kid and the staff forgot about me for six hours? Perhaps, I'd talk about the most unusual, like the group I ran for three teenage transvestite male prostitutes.
I had finally narrowed the list to six clients who were culled from 30 years of clinical practice. I wondered what those last six cases had in common? As I shut down the computer, it was suddenly obvious why I had chosen them. The cases I had listed were really different, except for one thing: they all had been emotionally devastating for me. It was then that I knew I had to write about Amy.
I went up on deck and put a double reef in the main before raising the anchor. Better safe than sorry, I thought to myself. I wish I had been so wise when I started working with Amy a long time ago.
1978 --After 22 years, I can still see Amy sitting there, cross-legged, with her arms folded across her chest and her dirty blond hair falling down over her face. She was perched on the hood of my car. It was 9:00 p.m., and I was just leaving my office. Amy glared at me as I approached. Our therapy session had ended five hours earlier.
"Don't you think your Moms will be worried? You better head on home."
She took a long, studied drag on her cigarette and then flicked the butt away. "I'm not going home. I'm headed for the mountains of Montana. I just wanted to say goodbye. Do you have a problem with that? Or do you shrinks only care what happens when your victim's in your office and you're getting paid to be nice."
"Oh shit," I thought to myself, "here we go again." And I was dumb enough to think that we had had a good session earlier. Amy was one of my first private practice patients, and I was too embarrassed by the case to admit to myself what a mess it had become. It hadn't started out that way.
Amy's mother and her same-sex partner had asked me to see 16-year-old Amy in individual therapy because they thought she was depressed and possibly had an eating disorder. They also described her as increasingly combative and hostile. They had heard that I was good with adolescents, and even thought that my being a male might help a little, since she had no relationship with her father.
Since I was primarily a family therapist, I met the whole family at the first interview. Amy wore baggy clothes and looked a little like a war refugee, but she wasn't overtly hostile. She just stared at the ground and spoke in a barely audible whisper. Amy's mom seemed engaged and concerned. The stepmom seemed to understand the importance of not being too parental. Amy hardly spoke, but she did mumble agreement when asked if she wanted to have a few sessions alone.
Our work started off well. Amy was basically a good kid who was terribly lonely and very self-conscious. After a month or so of pretty benign how-to-deal-with-high-school sessions, Amy began to hint at the need to tell things she had never said to anyone. I was as gentle and reassuring as I knew how to be. After several false starts, she whispered haltingly about being little and her dad in the middle of the night; the smell of his breath, the weight of his body. Despite my never having done trauma work with an incest survivor, I felt I could help. I hoped that my bearing witness to her darkness and shame would allow her to risk opening herself back up to the world around her. She soon asked to come for more frequent sessions because she felt they were so helpful. I was pleased. Then she confided in me that she sometimes cut her wrists and often thought of killing herself. "I never thought I would ever be able to tell anyone," she said. I felt like her knight in shining armor. I should have known then that I was headed for trouble.
Amy began calling me at home. When I tried to help her understand that it wasn't okay to call me there, she was devastated. That's when she accused me of just being a rent-a-friend. Then she began making hang-up phone calls, started cutting her wrists again and threatened suicide. I utterly believed her when she promised to kill herself if I told anyone how suicidal she was. She told me that I was the only one who could possibly save her life. I remember her saying to me, "If you quit on me, Treadway, I'll be dead before you get home." And I was arrogant, foolish and scared enough to believe her.
My mother had killed herself seven years earlier, and both my father and older sister had had nervous breakdowns. I had been the de facto head of my family for years and was fairly entrenched in my role as codependent rescuer. Because I had been in my own therapy and believed that I had dealt with my issues, I didn't see how much my work with Amy had become a reprise of my desperate desire to save my mom and protect my sister.
Finally, I got so distraught over the hang-up phone calls, her suicidal threats and her desperate pleas for help that my wife insisted that I get some kind of help. I recognized that my heroic efforts might be doing more harm than good and that it was time to invite her mother to a session. Amy tried to make good on her threat and slashed her wrists, took an overdose of Valium and drank a bottle of wine. She was rushed to the hospital. The staff there concluded that Amy was a Borderline, that she was overly dependent on me and that it would be better for her to stop seeing me. I felt both relieved and terribly guilty. I knew Amy would be deeply hurt by my withdrawing from the case, but I didn't stand up to the clinicians. I was too afraid that they already felt I had bungled the case and was way too enmeshed with Amy.
The last session was harsh. Amy sat curled up in a fetal position, while the psychiatrist, social worker, her mother and I all tried to engage her. She wouldn't look at me or talk to me. I tried to tell her how sorry I was that our work had to stop and that I hadn't been able to help her enough. "Amy, it's not your fault. I just didn't know enough about how to work with you. I am so sorry." "So, Dr. Rat gets to leave the sinking ship," she spat out. "Good for the rat, bad for the fucking ship."
The psychiatrist motioned for me to leave. I closed the door of the office. I felt like ripping my face off.
1996--The phone rang during dinner one summer evening. "Just don't hang up. I'm okay now. Please let me talk to you. Just for a minute. Please."
After 17 years, I still recognized that voice. Through the years, I had assumed that Amy had either continued to struggle in and out of hospitals or had finally killed herself. Instead, she sounded great. She had actually moved to Montana and become a dental hygienist. She also reported that she was happily married and had a 2-year-old baby girl. She said she just wanted to bring me up-to-date on her success and thank me for being there for her during her tough times. I was delighted for her.
A couple of months later, Amy called again. This time, she confided that she had been to many therapists since seeing me and that no one had ever been able to help her as well as I had. She asked if I would please be willing to consider doing a few phone sessions with her about parenting, because she was having a little difficulty with her daughter.
Incredibly, I agreed. I thought I knew what I was doing. I had written a therapy book and many articles, had directed a family therapy training institute for a decade and had traveled the country giving workshops. More important, I had some decent training in treating trauma survivors. Surely I could help Amy appropriately within safe boundaries in a carefully managed short-term contract. I thought that, if I set it up carefully, I might be a bridge for her into a healthy therapeutic alliance in her own community. Part of me worried that once again I was falling into my knight in shining armor role, but I felt like I was being careful and avoiding the obvious pitfalls.
First, I talked with her and her husband together. He had heard all about me and, apparently, I had been placed back on the pedestal in the intervening years. So he thought it was a great idea. I warned her that the work had to be short term, and encouraged her to join a parenting group and find a local family therapist. I also contracted with her for safety, even though she laughingly said that I didn't have anything to worry about on that score, after all, she had her daughter, Heather, to worry about. She and I even talked about transference issues and how difficult it might be for her to work with me again even on a short-term basis. We both seemed to understand the risks.
Unfortunately, within the first month of seemingly benign phone sessions, Amy's secrets began tumbling out again. She had been stealing pain killers from the dentist's office and drinking wine. She confessed that she sometimes raged at Heather, which would made her feel terrible, which led to cutting and suicidal fantasies.
She was caught in the vortex once more and, like a complete fool, so was I. I even wondered if I had caused all this. But at least I knew that I couldn't be her therapist over the phone. Like many trauma survivors, Amy was desperately seeking gentle, loving compassion. But our therapeutic relationship seems to have provided a dollop of caring that invariably stimulated an insatiable hunger in Amy that she couldn't manage. It was almost as if she had a kind of lactose intolerance to nurturing. And I hadn't been able to manage my anxiety and grandiose codependency well enough to maintain the stringent boundaries that might allow Amy to tolerate our relationship and grow through our work together.
When I insisted that Amy find a therapist locally, she went into crisis again, and there were hang-up phone calls, another suicide attempt and an emergency hospitalization. Fortunately, a gifted therapist at the hospital was willing to take her case. On a conference call with her new therapist, I terminated with Amy. Once again, she was furious. Once again, I felt that, somehow, I had let her down. I realized I had gotten caught in my own grandiosity. I tried to reassure myself that as messy as it was, at least Amy had found a good person and maybe it would still turn out alright. I felt sad for her, and for me. And I also felt relieved.
1999--Once again, the sound of Amy's voice on the line was a jolt. "Joe was killed in a car accident. I didn't know who else to call. This time, I'm not going to make it," she said in a flat monotone.
Three years had passed, but it seemed like a day. I can imagine your thoughts, gentle readers, "No, Treadway, you didn't do it again! How arrogant and dumb can you be?"
At least, this time, I knew that I couldn't be her therapist, even temporarily. That was progress. But I couldn't turn my back on Amy when she was in such desperate straits. I'd known her since she was 16, and I couldn't just refer her to her local emergency room. So I told Amy that I would talk with her if she went back to her therapist and the three of us worked out a plan. Although I was essentially using myself as a bribe, at least it got her back to therapy. Amy acknowledged that it wouldn't work for me to be her therapist, but pleaded with me not to just dump her again. Given what she was going through, both her therapist and I thought it was a reasonable request. Even though it was highly unconventional, we agreed that Amy could have a once-a-month, half-hour, check-in call with me, if she was willing to recommit to her therapy out there. I volunteered to be a support person for her as long as she and her therapist thought her contact with me was helpful and that she was making progress. Although I had never done it before with a client, I decided to offer this contact without charging a fee, because I wanted to make my limited role with her absolutely clear.
Many of you may feel this latest arrangement was also highly suspect and that Treadway and his lifetime client were just remixing the same old brew in a different bowl. I hoped, for both Amy's and my sake, that this wasn't true. Despite my best efforts through the years, I may have done Amy more harm than good. Certainly, if I had to do it all over again, I would have insisted on family therapy and groups as the two main treatment modalities as soon as she acknowledged her suicidality. I also should have sought intensive consultation early on. I might have gotten some therapy around my intense countertransference vulnerability to suicidality. I never should have tried to do long-distance phone therapy. Would'ves, could'ves and should'ves. However, although there was nothing I could do to change the past, I wanted to support her through the loss of her husband and help her slowly find a way to rebuild her life.
Was I still playing the knight in shining armor after all these years? Probably. But I had turned my back on Amy twice, and I simply decided that I was going to hang in there and hope for the best. The role we three defined for me felt like a balance between my being overly involved and simply disconnecting from her. I hope it was the right choice.
2000--"Heather looked so cute in her life preserver, holding her paddle. I just wish Joe could see her." Amy said wistfully.
I just listened.
It's been more than a year since Joe died. She has absolutely kept to the rules of our contract and, to the best of my knowledge, is no longer cutting herself and drinking. Although she still thinks about suicide, she also has a part-time job and a good relationship with her daughter. Her therapist has been as steady as a heartbeat and feels that Amy's making slow, but substantive, progress. Our monthly talks are just support calls. She gives me honest and painful updates on her struggles, and I don't offer much advice. I commiserate and bear witness. I don't know that it's making any difference. I hope it is. We both know that, someday, she still might kill herself, but we don't talk about it much anymore. One day, I hope to say goodbye to Amy and see her on her way. But I don't know if we will have a good ending. I am still scared for her. Her life is truly in her hands. I pray for her.
It's been embarrassing to write about Amy's and my story, because it seems clear that I made a lot of mistakes throughout, and maybe I am continuing to make a mistake. This is what makes it my most challenging case. I don't know to this day if it's a success or a failure. If Amy ultimately kills herself, does that mean my involvement in her life was wrong. If she makes it, do I deserve the credit for a job well done? Am I still acting out some ancient rescue fantasies? Probably. But it's unclear whether the impact of my efforts is ultimately positive for her or not. I don't know, nor do I think I ever will. I do know that, in the end, I have to live with my choices, and I'd rather have risked caring too much than too little. I pray for me, too.
David Treadway, Ph.D., is a family therapist in private practice. He is the author of Before It's Too Late: Working With Substance Abuse in the Family and Dead Reckoning: A Therapist Confronts His Own Grief. Address: 228 Boston Post Road, Weston, MA 02193.
by Frank Pittman
I've been in full-time private practice for almost 30 years. I've seen maybe 10,000 families (it certainly feels that way.) In that time, three patients in my practice killed themselves. Strangely enough, the three suicides were eerily similar. Each suicide has left me shell-shocked and questioning my therapeutic attitudes and methods.
I did not expect Adam to be one of my casualties. He reminded me of the guys I grew up with in rural Alabama. He was large, loud and rough, masking his intelligence behind a display of anti-intellectualism and cultural ignorance. I know these guys and I've had success at retraining them, since I'm not afraid of them or contemptuous of their fragile, hypermasculine pride and their awkwardness with emotion. Like so many of the scared, bullying men I see, Adam had been trained to fail at relationships.
Adam had grown up poor and fatherless. His mother divorced his violent father when he was 12. Adam never saw him again. He didn't drink, he went to church a lot and he was an active, hands-on father to his own children. He hovered protectively, though controllingly, over Angela, his quiet, compliant wife of almost 20 years, who was a nurse. He had made a great deal of money building houses, and was now building a gigantic dream house for their large family.
Six months before I saw them, Adam had slugged his hulking oldest son for quitting his high school football team. After being advised by a counselor at work, Angela threatened divorce. Adam, baffled that she would consider leaving him after such a (to him) minor incident, suspected her of having an affair and got first paranoid and then violent, breaking furniture and punching holes in the wall with his fist. Angela went for help to a therapist, who advised separate therapy for her and Adam, as the conventional wisdom in those years was to see violent couples separately and try to get them to divorce. Angela's therapist (who never met Adam) communicated both neutrality and pessimism about the marriage, and pushed for divorce.
Adam saw a psychiatrist, who put him on Prozac, which mixed badly with his two-pot-a-day coffee habit. He became toxically irritable and, as Angela pulled further and further away, increasingly violent. For the first time in all their years together, he actually hit her. Angela's therapist advised her to call the police (I would have given the same advice). They had Adam hospitalized for a few weeks in a special program for batterers. He went willingly and was a model patient. On discharge, he went home and found Angela and his kids had moved out. He stalked her, begged her to come back and, when she resisted, beat her up. At that point, Angela called me in. She had heard I was an expert with over-the-top men.
I saw Adam, Angela, the couple and the whole family in alternating combinations. She had a court order, which, while a good idea, offered no protection. I got Adam to promise us all there would be no more violence. And there wasn't, for the remaining few months of his life. Off caffeine and Prozac, he went into a clinging, dependent depression, but was stabilized on Stelazine for paranoia, Tegretol for explosiveness and Zoloft for depression.
Angela set up a separate home for herself and the children, and put Adam on notice that she was serious about getting a divorce. I did not question her intention or try to slow her down (a failure that continues to haunt me). Instead, I used the pressure of impending divorce to spur Adam on, as I tried to teach him some manners, some sensitivity to someone else's feelings besides his own. I hoped the changes in him would bring about a reversal of Angela's resolve to get away from him permanently. I saw him often by himself, developing what I thought was a great level of intimacy, full of personal revelations, shared experiences of the rural South and humor about the changing world around us. We talked about fishing and revivals. We talked about rattlesnakes, baseball, Hank Williams and the search for an exit from the swamps we grew up in. We talked most about the loss of his grandfather to bad homemade whiskey and his father to divorce. Then we talked about the difference between the father figures he had, the ones he imagined and the one he wanted to be. Once he was calmed and connected, I also put him in a group of non-batterers. I tried to be the gentle daddy he never had.
Adam felt in better control of himself, and redoubled his efforts to get his family back. He completed the dream house, begged Angela to move into it with him, was rebuffed and moved in alone. They had talked a lot, in my office and outside, about the terms of the separation. He was generous, sweet and apologetic with her, without control or bombast. Angela, aware of the drastic change in him, feared her longstanding tendency to pity and protect him. She held firm about divorce, but he (and I) saw her softening. I couldn't imagine him doing better than he was doing; I couldn't imagine that she would want anything better than the reprogrammed Adam. I thought I was doing a great job with Adam and that it was just a matter of time before Angela gave him another chance.
Throughout his adult life, Adam hadn't been connected to anyone else except Angela and the kids. So I thought it was imperative that he heal the longstanding rift between him and his mother. I sent him over to South Carolina for a weekend with her. While there, he also dropped by to apologize and make peace with Angela's family. On his return, I called him to postpone our next appointment for a day, as I had to go the funeral of an old childhood buddy. Adam and I talked for a long time on the phone. He told me how good he felt on his visit with his mother, especially learning the story behind the breakup of his family. He was proud of his new skill of apologizing. He had called Angela and was optimistic he could get her back. He sounded eager to see me a couple of days later.
Adam didn't show up for his next appointment and didn't answer his telephone. I called his secretary and he had not made it in to work, either. She and I both somehow knew what had happened, though suicide had never been mentioned before. She went out to the new house, where she found Adam in a chair with a shotgun in his mouth and his brains all over the living room wall. The divorce papers, which Angela unexpectedly had served on him, were on his lap.
I was stunned. It was not just a personal loss (I wanted to save this guy); it was not just a blow to my grandiosity (I kept telling myself in my newfound humility, this sort of thing doesn't happen to therapists who work as hard and care as much as I). I was sad over the loss of what Adam could, with time and effort, have become. His suicide was a dumb and preventable waste. His children were devastated. Angela felt many things, among them relief: when the abuse started the year before, a well-intentioned counselor had warned her that violent men never change. She had been fearful that she could not get herself and the kids out of the marriage alive.
I had been trying so hard to respect Angela's need to empower herself and feel in control of her life and the marriage, I had been non-directive and neutral with her, so much so that she didn't fathom that I had hopes not only for Adam, but for the marriage. I certainly foresaw a different outcome than this.
I met often with Angela and the kids during the next year or so, and occasionally still do, as they and I try to recover and understand. Adam didn't leave a note. We know he spent the day before his death shopping with a friend for kitchen appliances--not the actions of a man planning suicide. No matter how much he and I had talked about the possibility of divorce, Angela and I think the divorce papers came as a bewildering shock, snapping him out of his, and my, optimistic fantasy that a change in his behavior would get him his life back. To him, the divorce papers meant that there was no hope, no future. He wasn't ready yet for divorce; he didn't yet have a life apart and he was not a patient man.
As I played the case over and over in my mind, I saw clearly that I could have asked Angela to slow it down. And she would have. She was in no hurry and would have proceeded at whatever pace seemed safest for herself, her children and for Adam, whom she still loved. She had no way of knowing what I knew: that, in time, as long as his behavior was different, she would very likely feel safe with Adam. Those who have been abused cannot trust the ups and downs of their own feelings. Even as they track the abuser's behavior and react to the changes they see in the way they are being treated, they can't trust their sense of their own power in the relationship. And even though I had experience, expertise and wisdom about such matters, I didn't use it.
I don't know why I didn't know that those papers would be served that day. Clearly, I knew they were coming soon, but I was actively trying not to direct Angela's divorce process, or anything else she found empowering. I was optimistic in my ability to turn Adam around and, more important, in his ability to turn himself around if he had a different model of manhood. Beyond that, I was optimistic, after so many hundreds of cases in which it has happened, that Angela would take him back and the violence would not recur. So I acted neutral. I realize from this tragedy that it is as idiotic for me to be neutral about matters of marriage and divorce as about matters of life and death.
At the time I saw Adam, I had been so influenced by the feminist critique of family therapy that I'd gotten into the pattern of treating men as amateur human beings and coaching them on just what to do--of supervising them in relationships. It worked great. But at the same time, I'd become increasingly careful to validate women's feelings and avoid telling them what to do. The result, of course, was that many men changed their behavior quickly and many women were left nursing their hurts, feeling like victims and not noticing or responding to the changes in the men or the increases in their own levels of empowerment.
My pragmatically mechanistic approach toward relationships (i.e., ignore your feelings, do what will get the desired response from your partner and let the new interaction change the emotions) has a certain limitation. There are some offenses against marriage that feel unforgivable--at the moment and for a little while after. And no change in behavior can provide the necessary reassurance--at the moment and for a little while after. We all have grounds for divorce (or suicide), but we know that tomorrow is another day. I get so carried away with my belief that any change can be made and any offense can be overcome that I may leave behind some traumatized casualties of life's cruelties. Adam and I got ahead of Angela. After the offenses stopped, we needed to slow down long enough for the healing to take place.
I often think about my three suicides. All three of them were men who had done the unforgivable and couldn't get their families back quickly enough. I beat myself up about them and sift through them to find what I can do to keep it from happening again. People can make such a mess of their lives that they see no hope, but suicide is too hard on the survivors--including me. It threatens to make me cautious, pessimistic and risk-averse. To be truly helpful, I need my jaunty optimism about what can be survived in life and in marriage. Without it, I can't keep people afloat long enough for them to get their lives back. Did I give Adam too much hope? Did I give Angela too little? Did I fail to coordinate the trajectories of the changes the therapy was bringing about by being two different kinds of therapists--feminist for her, behaviorist for him? Did I go to the wrong funeral on that last day? If I'd known the papers were being served that day, I would have been with him, even if only by telephone. If he had just called me when the papers came--
Clearly, it will never be over for any of us.
Frank Pittman, M.D., is a contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker and is in private practice. Address: 960 Johnson Ferry Road, N.E., Suite 543, Atlanta, GA 30342.
by Mary Pipher
I will never forget the Correys, who were referred to me by their family doctor in western Nebraska. As is not unusual in our vast, rural state, they flew to our sessions by private plane. Frank was a wealthy businessman and realtor. Donna was a housewife. They had a 16-year-old daughter. Every other week for a year, I saw them, during which time I tried pretty much every trick in my therapeutic arsenal. I spent hours discussing their case with trusted colleagues and read up on their particular problems. I don't know how many nights' sleep I lost worrying about how to get these folks on the right track. And in spite of all my efforts, the Correys were one of my most spectacular failures.
From the moment I met the Correys in my waiting room, I was baffled about why they were together. Frank was tall, good looking and suave; Donna dowdy and sullen. They were both in their mid-forties, although Frank looked younger than that and Donna older. She barely bothered to greet me, and stared resentfully at Frank. As soon as we were seated, Frank jumped in to complain about Donna's spending. He was clearly used to being in charge, confident and eager to explain their situation. And Donna was used to being passive and angry.
Frank explained that even though they lived in a town with only a grocery store and gas station, a town one hundred miles from the nearest mall, Donna used catalogs and the shopping channel to spend nearly $8,000 a month. I couldn't believe I heard him right, and actually asked him to repeat the figure. I tried to keep my expression mild and non-judgmental, but inside I was appalled. I can go months without buying anything but groceries, and have not spent $8,000 on consumer goods for myself in my entire life.
According to Frank, Donna tried to keep her spending secret. He only discovered the extent of her extravagance when he found credit card bills or his secretary noticed that his business accounts had been cleaned out. Ironically, even though Donna "owed" Frank more than $50,000 for unauthorized spending, she had little to show for it--no boats, fur coats or new cars, just boxes of shoes, clothes and household gadgets. Of all the questions and reactions I had to this case, my big question was--how could anyone stay married to such a loser wife?
I generally divide an intake into thirds: one-third for the presenting problem, one-third for some contextual information and one-third for a discussion of therapy. And I give each person a chance to explain the situation. Frank blamed Donna's spending on her depression and low self-esteem. He said he would be happy if only Donna would cook, clean and limit her spending to $1,000 a month. I thought to myself, "Climb a low mountain, Frank."
When her turn finally came, Donna pointed out that Frank was a millionaire and the sums she spent were insignificant. She complained that Frank was almost never home, and when he was home, he stayed in the basement managing his stock portfolio on his computer. She said, "Frank's moody and he takes no interest in us unless there is a crisis." She agreed she was depressed. She had once been active in her community, but in the last few years she had withdrawn from everyone but her daughter.
Ah-ha, I thought, now I get it. Her spending was functional. It kept Frank's attention. Frank worked all the time to keep Donna in dough, which she then spent rapidly to punish him for working. He worked to avoid a dull, depressed wife, while she spent to deal with her loneliness and sense of inadequacy, brought on partially by Frank's neglect. Still, even though I had a crisp intellectual formulation of the case, I suspected from the first that I wasn't quite on target. I couldn't get over Donna's spending and I was impatient with her stolid, stubborn demeanor. I felt sorry for Frank that he was stuck with such a lump.
At the end of that first session, I made a few recommendations to the Correys --that they tear up their credit cards, that Frank come home for dinner a couple nights a week and that they have a date as a couple. I suspected Donna was clinically depressed, so I encouraged her to exercise and to buy a copy of David Burns's Feeling Good. Neither one of them was happy with my suggestions. Frank insisted time demands made it impossible to spend more time with Donna. Meanwhile, Donna refused to cut up her credit cards. But they let me bully them into agreeing to try these assignments and we rescheduled for two weeks later. I sighed as they left.
Right after our first session, the cast of characters expanded. Donna scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressants and wrote me a letter saying that she thought the real problem was Frank, who was invested in his wife's being labeled sick and was a mean son of a bitch, although she said this in medical jargon. The psychiatrist didn't see Donna's spending as any big deal, and what's more, she actually liked Donna, whom she described as having a keen sense of humor and good insight.
I was baffled by the psychiatrist's take on this case. I didn't see any meanness in Frank. How could the psychiatrist have missed his charm? And where was Donna's sense of humor when she was with me and Frank? I explained the discrepancies in views by recalling that the psychiatrist was recently divorced and perhaps angry at men. I knew she was a major consumer herself.
The Correys did have a few dates, mostly dinner at the nearest restaurant, a Pizza Hut 30 miles from their home. But the dates didn't generate any romance. Donna didn't exercise and hated Feeling Good . I found myself resenting the failure of bibliotherapy. After all, books always helped me. Donna eventually agreed to cut up her credit cards and to attend Debtor's Anonymous, which meant Frank flew her in for a group meeting once a week. They actually liked these meetings, although Donna didn't really reduce her spending. Somehow, no matter how carefully Frank and I tried to control her, Donna found ways to charge stuff or order junk over the Internet, Although she said the medication helped, Donna was still mildly depressed and still not cooking or going out in her community. Frank stayed mad about Donna's spending, although not that mad. Meanwhile, no matter how therapeutically neutral I tried to be, I remained appalled by her extravagance.
By now our sessions had lost any therapeutic momentum. Increasingly, I felt as if I were dragging a barge across the desert. The couple would fly in, report little change in Donna's symptoms, Frank's work habits or their relationship, and fly out. Both said they were dissatisfied with the relationship, but after 22 years of marriage, neither was considering divorce.
The less progress I saw in our sessions, the harder I tried. I utilized every technique I could think of. I tried paradoxical techniques and prescribing the symptom. Thud. I saw them alone and encouraged Frank to draw a line in the sand. Thud. I saw Donna alone and encouraged her to find women friends, go back to school, get a job, take walks or find a volunteer commitment she could enjoy. Thud. I recommended a vacation, which they half-heartedly tried and both hated. Thud. I encouraged them toÂ communicate their needs, set up a budget and work on their emotional relationship. Thud. Thud. Thud.
My exasperation and confusion peaked during one session in which, as Frank itemized her wasteful spending, Donna actually fell asleep. After I woke her, I asked Frank how he felt about Donna's sleeping. He insisted that he didn't mind that much. After all, Donna was tired. At that point, I almost jumped out my own office window.
How could I work with someone who was about as different from me as a woman could be? Donna was passive, preoccupied with consumer goods and she actively disliked exercise. She was bored by trees and prairies and had no interest in education. That boggled my mind. How could anyone not be interested in education? I knew I was being judgmental, but I was convinced that I knew how to be happy and she didn't. There was no question in my mind that my way of being in the universe was better than hers.
I felt more sympathy with Frank, who was at least a hard worker. Also he was a high-powered salesman and could sell me on his excuses, his interest in making things better. But I didn't really understand Frank either. He wasn't much more cooperative in therapy than Donna, especially with my insistence that he tell his wife what he would and wouldn't put up with and then hold that line. In fact, as I worked harder and harder to fix this couple, they seemed to become more locked into their original problem behaviors.
Finally, I had it with the Correys. When Frank found that Donna had opened a new line of credit and charged another $10,000 of purchases, I fired them. I can still see the three of us in our last session, me earnest and serious, trying to hide my anger and wishing them well with a different therapist, "who would offer them a fresh approach." There was Frank, not as unhappy at being fired as I would have hoped. In fact, he was a little rude to me, as if I were an employee who no longer mattered. And Donna, smiling for the first time since we had met. As they left my office, she said almost kindly, "Don't be too hard on yourself, we are nutty and we're hard nuts to crack." There, for the first time, was the sense of humor the psychiatrist saw.
I thought a lot about the Correys in the months after our termination. I'd ignored the wisdom that people only change when they feel deeply accepted for who they are. Instead, I'd let my own values about spending prejudice me against Donna. And I had other values conflicts as well--over reading, education, gardening and the importance of taking action.
A wise therapist once told me that our first task in any therapeutic encounter is to find something to respect in our clients. Without respect it's impossible to really help anyone. I realize I flunked Therapy 101. I didn't respect Donna and I let that important fact slide. I suspect Donna sensed my lack of respect and that's why she fell asleep in our sessions. She had no connection to lose with me. The big lesson from the Correys was that I need to find something I can truly and authentically respect or I need to get out. I can't pretend respect. And without it, there is nothing on which to build a therapeutic alliance.
Being a therapist is intellectually taxing, emotionally draining work, and respect is what fuels the process; it's what gives us a reason to care. Without it, the work is mechanical, for us and our clients. With no respect, there can be no connection, and without connection, therapy loses its meaning.
Mary Pipher, Ph.D., is author of the bestselling books Reviving Ophelia and Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lincoln, Nebraska. Address: c/o Family Therapy Networker, 7705 13th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20012.
by Richard Handler
If Thomas Jefferson were a psychology graduate student today, he'd probably think of himself as a positive psychologist. It was Jefferson, after all, who began the Declaration of Independence with the statement that human beings aren't only created equal but "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Happiness was the word he chose, not pursuit of power or economic gain.
Jefferson didn't formally study happiness. He wanted each man to find his own. Judging by his writings, he wasn't always happy himself, especially if you define happiness as a smiley-faced succession of positive feelings. Nor was he a particularly religious man. He didn't think that a happy human life was a reward for obeying a Supreme Being or a set of rules laid down in a holy book. He was a lover of the Greek classics, a believer in progress, a deist, and a man of the Enlightenment. His faith lay in the notion that philosophic inquiry, reason, and study of the natural world could lead one to what Aristotle called "the good life." That was the bedrock of Jefferson's secular faith--a view that many positive psychologists share today.
That faith led Jefferson to a full and productive life, replete with the factors that today's positive psychologists say are crucial to the whole-grained, solid, muscular happiness they promote. Jefferson had many friends (recent demographic research finds that the happiest people have huge social networks). He didn't agonize about his faults, but rather exercised his creative talents as a writer, politician, and thinker (positive psychologists urge people to maximize strengths rather than correct weaknesses, and to turn their work into a moral calling). He was a man of complex identities: not only a lawyer and slaveowner, but a farmer, Southerner, architect of Monticello, letter-writer, father, gracious host, bon vivant, and lover of women and wine, of oysters and sonatas. Such complex identities, positive psychologists say, are a crucial ingredient in that elusive, nebulous, eternally-sought-after state we call happiness
Today, Positive Psychology, as popularized by former American Psychological Association president and bestselling author Martin Seligman, is taking folk wisdom and Greek philosophy, mixing them with solid contemporary research on joy, optimism, satisfaction, contentment, forgiveness, and gratitude, and popularizing the result as scientifically validated fact. The result, they hope, will be a new take on psychology, at once Victorian and scientific.
They're doing so in a country Jefferson wouldn't recognize. Even as Americans spend $76 billion a year on antidepressants and additional millions on talk therapy for depression; even as they overwork relentlessly in pursuit of the "good life" defined in material terms; even as they grope their way through crises in divorced and blended families stripped of the aunties and grandmothers who once stabilized extended families, positive psychologists are administering happiness questionnaires, writing happiness books, and giving radio interviews on how to be happy.
Much of what they say is as old-fashioned as Jefferson's viewpoint and cuts hard against the modern grain: their studies, for instance, suggest that within certain constraints, money doesn't buy happiness (Brazilians, according to demographic data, are almost as satisfied with their lives as Americans, despite having only 23 percent of the purchasing power). Positive psychologists say that most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be. Like Victorian moralists, they argue that almost Stoic moral and emotional practices--lowering your expectations, looking on the bright side, counting your blessings, volunteering, forgiving others, expressing gratitude--can make you much happier than going shopping or excavating childhood hurts in therapy.
This list may make some therapists cringe (and make positive psychologists sound like nuns), but its proponents include many of the most creative and influential psychological researchers alive in America today. Seligman, for instance, is the original elucidator of "learned helplessness." He's Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and attracts grant money the way a magnet attracts iron filings. George Vaillant of Harvard Medical School is the chief architect of a respected, 60-year longitudinal study of the lives of Harvard graduates and blue-collar Boston men. Social scientist Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi is a noted business professor at Claremont College and author of the bestseller Flow, the famous study of work satisfaction.
In the seven short years since Seligman convened Positive Psychology's first organizational summit in a resort in Mexico, the surge to popularize this new discipline--and challenge clinical psychology's 60-year preoccupation with mental pain and illness--has spilled far beyond academic backwaters. Positive psychologists have set up courses in at least 20 universities in North America, leavening syllabuses previously heavy on abnormal psychology and DSM criteria with courses discussing "signature strengths," learned optimism, faith, and contentment. While the National Institute of Mental Health gives millions of dollars each year to study schizophrenia, panic, depression, and other mental illnesses, the Templeton, Mellon, Annenberg, and Pew foundations are now funding research into the happiness-producing potential of civic engagement, gratitude lists, forgiveness, hope, and altruism.
Last January, Time magazine devoted 40 pages to "The Science of Happiness," and similar cover stories have appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine, Psychology Today, Scientific American, and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Books on the subject range from Seligman's 2002 bestseller Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment to British economist Sir Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons From a New Science to Richard Nettle's Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile and the Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness. Google "science of happiness" and you'll get close to 70,000 hits.
Seligman and his colleagues are trying to forge a new cultural role for psychology. This isn't psychology as practiced for the past half-century plus--as a diagnostic system for the many ways human beings go horribly wrong, dedicated to changing pathological misery into ordinary unhappiness, one damaged client at a time. Nor is it psychology as a research profession so focused on administering shocks to rats or measuring eye-blink rates that it forgets about overarching questions of life satisfaction, social contribution, effectiveness, and connection. And despite their emphasis on nebulous concepts like joy, compassion, virtue, character, and what goes right in life, positive psychologists vigorously differentiate themselves from their forerunners like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow in the Human Potential Movement, dismissing that earlier work as short on hard-boiled research and long on therapeutic intuition and quests for radical, almost effortless, personal transformation. Theirs is a new vision of psychology as a muscular, morally prescriptive, socially influential, positively focused, and thoroughly researched discipline. It's psychology as a way of life.
The Positive Psychology movement is a sunny place for people whose lives have been lived at least partly in shadow. And it's impossible to fully understand it without understanding the less-than-rosy early life of its leading popularizer, Martin Seligman.
Seligman has called himself "a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist." His five home-schooled children have called him a grouch. His parents were civil servants who wanted to see him get into a good college, and so they saved from their modest salaries and, when he was 13, took him out of the local public school and enrolled him in a private military academy full of rich kids. There Seligman felt isolated and rejected. He calls the experience the "first crisis of my life," and adapted by becoming something of an amateur psychiatrist, like Luci, for pretty girls who wouldn't otherwise have looked at him.
One morning while he was still in military school and spending the night at a friend's house, he felt something was terribly wrong and ran home in a panic. There he watched his father, who'd recently been acting strangely and prone to weeping, being carried out in a stretcher, immobile. Three more strokes followed. His father, once a vital man who hoped to run for public office, was left permanently paralyzed, alternating between bouts of euphoria and sadness, as Seligman writes in his 1990 book, Learned Optimism. "This was my introduction to the suffering that helplessness engenders. Seeing my father in this state, as I did again and again until his death years later, set the direction of my quest. His desperation fueled my vigor."
For the next two decades, Seligman committed himself to the study of helplessness, while making double-sure that he wasn't helpless himself. A high achiever, he graduated from Princeton and went on to graduate studies in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1964, when he was 21, he watched a group of lab dogs in their electrified wire cages there, acting as despairing as his own dad. They were slumped with their heads on their paws, whimpering, and doing nothing to avoid the shocks being administered to them. In a previous experiment, they'd been unable to escape being shocked. Now, even though the experimental parameters had changed and they could leap to safety on the other side of the cage, they didn't. They simply endured.
Seligman concluded that the dogs were no longer learning sets of discrete behaviors through reward and punishment, as the Skinnerian behaviorism of the time maintained they would. They'd come to an overarching conclusion: that "nothing they did mattered," which perpetuated its own reality even when circumstances changed. Seligman's observation was heretical--animals weren't supposed to adopt abstract, generalized attitudes like helplessness.
Fascinated, Seligman (in loose concert with Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive psychology, the rationalist Albert Ellis, and others) began studying the effect of helplessness. Such thinking styles, they hypothesized, generated depressed moods. They then dissected the thinking styles of pessimists and noted that they globalized their failures like the dogs had ("I'm no good with people" or "Nothing I do makes any difference") and minimized their successes ("I was just lucky"). Not surprisingly, the pessimists' moods measured consistently low. In the face of adversity, they often gave up. Optimists, by contrast, were consistently cheerier and more effective. They drew global conclusions about their successes ("I'm an excellent athlete") and considered their failures and disappointments to be momentary flukes that weren't their responsibility ("She must have been in a bad mood"). The optimists had huge advantages. They got depressed at half the rate of pessimistic people. Even though they were less realistic, their thoughts helped them create their own sunnier universes: their good moods helped them get along better with others, and they performed better on tests of creativity, efficacy, and intelligence.
Seligman figured that if depressed people had somehow learned to be helpless, they could also unlearn it, but as he moved from animal research into clinical psychology, he didn't just want to undo negative thinking, he wanted to foster good feelings. He had a hunch that people who consistently celebrated and exercised their strengths would be buffered against inevitable bad times when they struck. This had worked for Seligman himself: he'd learned to focus on his strengths, becoming a prolific researcher and a popular writer. He also successfully used cognitive therapy techniques on himself, learning to dispute "negative self-talk" and to marshal reality-based data that supported looking on the bright side. People, he contended, could argue themselves out of their black moods if they took action. They just had to stick to it, dispute their knee-jerk negative globalizations and catastrophizing, engage in "positive self-talk," and do their homework in journals and exercise books.
Seligman's career progressed and his grants and awards piled up throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but he was after bigger fish. He didn't want to simply bump unhappy people a few steps up the misery scale. He wanted to expand human happiness, and he wanted to do it in a much larger theater. Having morphed from researcher to clinical psychologist, he now morphed again--to social scientist and small-pond politician.
Seligman didn't like the direction his own profession was taking. For more than two decades (as private insurance reimbursements for treating DSM -defined disorders and NIMH grants for the study of mental illnesses mushroomed) he'd watched clinical psychologists who weren't interested in research-based psychology come to dominate the American Psychological Association (APA). Many of these clinicians, Seligman thought, accentuated the negative and used treatments that weren't proving effective. He liked active, evidence-based, cognitive and behavioral therapies, not those that encouraged clients to talk about their pain. He believed that many therapists were promoting a therapeutic ethos preoccupied with childhood woundedness, consumeristic entitlement, passivity, and self-centeredness. That approach, he thought, unrealistically raised expectations and set people up for disappointment and social isolation, which, in turn, contributed to the skyrocketing rates of depression.
In 1997, after campaigning vigorously, he was voted president of the APA by the widest margin in the association's history. As a researcher in an association now numerically dominated by clinicians, he was an unusual choice. His theme for his three-year term was an equally unusual choice: he'd push for a change in the focus of psychology, he announced, away from the study of some of the worst things in life to the study of what makes life worth living.
For years, Seligman had been assembling contacts and shaping his vision. On New Year's Day 1998, at a resort in Akumal, Mexico, he got together with fellow researcher Czikszentmihalyi and Ray Fowler, then the Executive Director of the APA, to brainstorm a taxonomy for a new field of Positive Psychology. They decided their new field would have three main pillars: the study of positive emotion, positive character, and positive institutions. They'd also recruit psychology's best and brightest to do longitudinal, demographic, and outcome studies--all unimpeachably rigorous and scientific--of everything from civic engagement to forgiveness.
Within a year, the Templeton Foundation (which specializes in the interface of science and religion) had approached Seligman to fund more research. In 1999, Seligman began to teach a Positive Psychology class at the University of Pennsylvania, assigning homework that included performing altruistic acts, writing autobiographies that showcased strengths, and making gratitude lists. The movement was on its way.
Growth of a Movement
In the seven years since the founding of Positive Psychology in Akumal, its adherents have done their best to lay claim to a large, sprawling, and only partially mapped field of inquiry, which they've framed as the study of happiness. The twists and turns of Seligman's exploration have been distilled into a simple and elegant theory of the three features that constitute happiness: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life.
He defines the "pleasant life" as characterized by fleeting positive moods and immediate experiences of comfort and pleasure. At its best, the pleasant life can be defined as the Epicureans did: the simple satisfaction of a mind and body at peace. It can be amplified by learning to savor good moments and to lighten up habitual patterns of thought. But in Seligman's scheme, the "pleasant life" is the least important aspect of happiness, because it depends heavily on an inherited positive temperament and on good fortune: luck and genes. Simply enjoying the pleasant life doesn't build character or resilience. It's perilously close to shallow hedonism, and when pursued too hard, it leads to a grasping "hedonic treadmill."
Seligman, who loves to work himself, is much more enthusiastic about the next tier of the pyramid: "the good life"--what Thomas Jefferson meant by happiness. This part of happiness is anchored in building a full life that goes well. It comes from exercising our talents and virtues--what Seligman calls our "signature strengths"--and it depends heavily on the ability to lose oneself in the earned pleasures of sustained effort, absorbing work, conversation, accomplishment, contemplation, or what Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow." To many people's surprise, studies in which people record their mood states in daily diaries have revealed that most people feel happy far more often at work than at home.
The third aspect of Seligman's happiness is the "meaningful life," defined as the dedication of one's life to something larger than yourself--something beyond family and personal or intellectual achievement. Although Seligman rarely uses these words, the meaningful life includes altruism and love. His definition harkens back to the Victorian moralists and to Enlightenment figures like Jefferson, who once said "Happiness is the aim of life, but virtue is the foundation of happiness." Meaningfulness is encouraged, Seligman says, by "positive institutions" that support the virtues--thriving schools, churches, community groups, and democracies--and is weakened by the splintered, consumeristic society that surrounds us. In a secular society barraged by advertising celebrating the individualistic and consumer-driven life, this approach to happiness is a tough sell.
Positive Psychology's massive public relations successes may have encouraged millions to take a fresh look at their attitudes and to think, at least fleetingly, about what really brings them satisfaction. But what happens when the movement moves from the realm of ideas to the realm of experience, and people try to carry out the snappy exhortations they read in a Time magazine article? Can descriptive research be made prescriptive? Can Positive Psychology materially change the lives of ordinary people?
Practicing Positive Psychology
In the fall of 2004, I had a chance to find out when I joined a Telecourse called "Authentic Happiness Coaching," presided over by Seligman from his office in Philadelphia. Every Thursday at 1:00 p.m. for 20 weeks, I sat at the telephone in my home in Toronto, Canada, linked not only to Seligman in Philadelphia, but to 190 fellow students. We came together to listen to lectures by Positive Psychology's leading lights, and to absorb research. We were also expected to try out practices distilled from grandma's wisdom and the sayings of the ancient Greeks and 19th-century moralists, all scientifically researched and packaged for a new secular century.
Some might consider me a hard case for this kind of stuff. For starters, there's my occupation: I'm neither a coach nor a therapist, but a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting System. As a journalist, I've tried through the years to hone my natural skills in critical thinking, which makes me wary. On top of that, my disposition is reflective, rueful, at times downright melancholy. I'm a former New Yorker descended from Jewish immigrants and refugees who fled Europe and the Holocaust. I grew up, like Woody Allen and many other Jews, with thoughts of historic catastrophe and personal discontent, each feeding the other. My family is a case study in how to live with a long list of cognitive distortions, from assuming the worst will happen to thinking it should, because either they deserved it or other people thought they did. Personally, when it came to rah-rah notions like "thinking positive," I remained decidedly ambivalent; I'd try them, and then curse myself for failing.
Four years ago, my doctors discovered a large, dangerous, benign brain tumor in my cerebellum. I survived three difficult brain surgeries (the last one should have killed me, said one doctor). I still work part-time, walk with a cane, and suffer from physical imbalance and fatigue. At times, it was hard to put a positive spin on all that, although knowing others who'd succumbed, I felt downright lucky. So I bucked myself up through four months in the hospital and a long recuperation. I'm rightly proud of my staying power and my sheer doggedness, which helped me during the many low points and reversals. Perhaps my pride in triumphing over odds--including my own temperament--explains why I'm a secret fan of self-help literature.
All told, I was delighted to take the Telecourse, thinking it might do me some good; but, yes, I did drag the rest of my character into the enterprise, too. Seligman--he had us call him "Marty"--has the silky baritone of an accomplished lecturer and was a delight to behold by telephone. Early on, he told us a story that he's told and retold in many interviews, about the experience that led him to come up with his version of Positive Psychology. In 1998, he was in the garden with his daughter Nikki, who was throwing weeds into the air and fooling around while Seligman was toiling away. Getting exasperated, he yelled at her for not taking her gardening more seriously. Nikki, who was only 5 at the time, looked straight at him and told him that, on her fifth birthday, she'd decided not be a whiner. She said it was the hardest thing that she'd ever done. "If I can stop whining, Daddy, you can stop being a grouch." This encounter, Seligman told us, forced him to further examine questions like: Why, after 30 years of inner work, was he still a grouch? Why have psychologists ignored positive emotion and well-being? How can we flourish as human beings?
The meat of the Telecourse was the weekly lecture, which deftly packaged Seligman's findings, collected from 30 years of research (by him and others). He ended the lectures with a homework assignment, which we'd discuss in our weekly "pods" or telephone tutorials, comprised of about 15 students. Our pod leaders assigned us different partners with whom to talk about our experiences of doing the exercises. A couple of weeks into the course, Marty gave us an exercise he called the Three Blessings. At the end of every day, we were to write down three good things that had happened to us, and why we found them beneficial. It seemed like a feel-good cliche--like "Count your blessings," the advice of grandmas everywhere.
I did the assignment like a good little student. And I was a bit dumfounded by what happened. For years, I'd kept diaries filled with ruminations--to blow off steam and to practice writing. They bored me when I wrote them, and only succeeded in tying me in knots. They read something like a transcript of the obsessions of Woody Allen's unfunny younger brother, stripped of any redeeming humor. Over the years, writing these morbid documents only made me feel worse.
Then, some years ago, I was assigned to criss-cross Canada producing documentaries on the environment. Before I left, I thought, if I were killed in a plane crash, I didn't want anybody to find my journals --they weren't what I wanted to be remember by. So I gathered them up, piles and piles of them, and tossed them out in the garbage. Even now, I imagine my notebooks depressing the trash that surrounds them in some landfill north of Toronto.
But Marty's assignment of diligently writing down three daily blessings asked me to pay attention to the good stuff, not the sores. As the Buddhists say, scratch the good dog, not the bad one. In years of writing drivel, I'd never done that before. It'd never even occurred to me to write out of a sense of pleasure.
I loved it.
I soon found that I had far more than three blessings to write about: conversations with friends and good, simple things, like walks and yoga sessions and exercise. By eleven or noon, I'd find myself stopping to check for what had gone well already. And lots of little things had! I began to mark little events in my mind, so I could include them in my notebook later that night. Reviewing my notebook, I discovered I often wrote about what I ate and drank (though I often experience great difficulty eating and drinking because of my surgeries). I relished small victories. It was simple stuff, but it worked in making me feel good.
Positive Psychology research, meanwhile, reassured me that writing my gratitude list wouldn't turn me into a softie, incapable of dealing with life's glancing blows. Strange as it seemed, being grateful might even better equip me. In a 2003 two-month experimental comparison conducted by psychologists Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, volunteer subjects who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week than subjects who recorded neutral life events or hassles, as I'd done for years.
Over time, cultivating gratitude helped me experience everyday events as gifts--part of the basic bounty of life. "For the grateful man," a Turkish proverb says. "the gnats make music." I kept the assignment up long past the due date, but eventually I stopped. Why, I don't know. Was I addicted to negativity? Lazy? Didn't know what was good for me?
The second most important exercise for me was the one that followed: we had to express gratitude to another human being. We were to pick a person important to us whom we'd never thanked, and then write him or her a letter describing what we valued in the relationship, and how it affected our lives. Marty told us that this was one of the most powerful exercises. It would make us happier, and make those who got the letters happier, too.
I picked a dear friend of mine, an 82-year-old Anglican priest I'd known for more than 25 years, who now lives in a retirement home. I love this man. When I was in my mid-thirties, I used to visit him in the country, where he had a rural parish. We had serious talks about God and philosophy. He loved to cook and garden, and had a grand appreciation for the natural world. I loved his eye for the wonders of creation, a gift from his God. But he isn't an overly pious man. He also shares my absurdist sense of humor. I'm his Jewish media friend, very different from the old ladies who used to lavish attention on him and bring him pot roast dinners. He isn't a father figure to me because he's hardly stern and has never given me personal advice. Jung has a better term for what he is to me: a warm, embracing "male mother."
So I sat down and wrote a letter detailing what he means to me. Then, following Marty's instruction, I called him up and told him I wanted to read him something . I arrived at his retirement home, cane in hand. Entering his small apartment, I embraced him, sat down in his new La-Z-Boy chair, and read him my gratitude letter. He smiled, looking a little puzzled. Then he folded the letter up and told me, "I'm not the sort who gets depressed, but if I ever do, I'll take this out and read it."
Struggling for Happiness
During our telephone lecture a few days later, Marty called on some students to describe their gratitude visits. All their stories seemed much better than mine. Their visits were life affirming, full of positive emotion. One fellow had given a letter to his wife as a birthday present. Another had taken the train to another city to read a letter to an old friend, who welcomed it as if it were a gift from God. I felt a little cheated. My visit was so matter of fact, so incidental--a hiccup in a long friendship, followed by a spot of tea.
Another exercise Marty had us do was to "design a good day." Since I wasn't working much at the time, I seemed always to be designing a nice day (as my wife kept telling me). So I began writing out lists of what I was going to do to have a good day, only to discover that I was just writing the simple chores that I'd do anyway. My messages to myself (about exercise and yoga and reading this book or that) created much amusement in my house. Lists are supposed to be for what you think you'll forget. My life was already an endless self-improvement exercise, without the benefit of great good health. But this assignment gave my leisure the dignity of a homework assignment.
There was much more, of course, to our curriculum in happiness. We took pen-and-pencil tests to identify our "signature strengths" (like perseverance, critical thinking, love of learning, social intelligence, spirituality, bravery, and zest). We were encouraged to try using them to turn a mundane task into one with "flow." We were sent out to savor routine events, like a meals or a walk in the park. We were even taught how to lower our expectations when we went shopping. Guest lecturer Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College, the author of The Paradox of Choice, talked to us about the research showing that all the choice in our wealthy, consumer-driven world, could make you dither yourself into a state of unhappiness. For the first time in human history, huge numbers of people may become mental from all the choice in front of them. (Have you seen how many colors of beige there are?) All the choice can make people anxious about making mistakes--not getting the perfect "one." Schwartz sent us out shopping with this simple message: lower your expectations, and settle on something "good enough." This he calls "satisfysing," shorthand for not driving yourself crazy.
I went searching for a pair of winter boots way too late in the season. There was choice, but not many boots left. After trying different footware, I settled on a pair in a size that usually doesn't fit (it was shorter but wider), but that's all there was. When I got home, I completely panicked thinking I'd made a mistake. I worried that, because I bought the boots at a small store, I couldn't get my money back. So I went to other stores and tried on other pairs, just to see if I'd made the right choice. All in all, I spent more time looking for these $150 boots than I did buying the biggest investment in my life, my house. Schwartz was right: choice can make you plain neurotic, especially if you're neurotic to begin with.
I never told people this story: everybody in my pod was just too sane or on their best Positive Psychology behavior. Or perhaps they were more accomplished shoppers than I was, and didn't have my traces of OCD. This was more the stuff of Seinfeld than Authentic Happiness. I don't think that George was somebody Marty would approve of.
Listening to the Inner Cynic
But Seinfeld may have a point that Positive Psychology should consider. This show--famously devoted to "nothing"--is so popular precisely because it speaks to something elemental in ourselves. However much we may aspire to be solid citizens and publicly embody the classic virtues, the makers of Seinfeld captured our secret: we're filled with internal quirks, psychic peccadilloes, and unaccountable likes and dislikes, including many "negative" traits and predilections. Altogether, they're what make us distinctive, identifiable to ourselves as ourselves. Imagine Jerry Seinfeld without his characteristic sense of irony, or George or Elaine without their whining, which certainly wouldn't rank high on the Positive Psychology Scale of Approval.
At my worst moments in the course, I feared that positive psychologists were in danger of sandblasting the rough edges of individual personality and character to produce a shiny idealization of virtue. I wasn't at all sure that they appreciate how much the search for the "positive" can interfere with the natural rhythms of life; how necessary it is to include all the ups and downs, all the bumps and fissures that make us complete human beings.
During the course, I learned some truly valuable lessons about appreciation, gratitude, optimism, and the often underestimated role of conscious will and perseverance in the pursuit of happiness. And yet, as the weeks went by, I became gradually more aware that something about this experience just wasn't going deep enough; no new, positive roots were being planted. Was it simply the curmudgeon within me, my long-standing "bah-humbug" that kept me from getting with the program? Perhaps. But as our class continued marching relentlessly toward positiveness, I became aware of my own growing sense of difference. In short, I felt lonely.
I felt it when others raved about their epiphanies following the gratitude exercise. By contrast, all I could come up with was a pleasant, but low-key, anticlimax. I couldn't even bring myself to tell my boot-buying story! And I felt this same sense of loneliness during an exercise called "One Door Closes and Another Opens." Here, people talked about seemingly dreadful things that'd worked out well. One person didn't get the job he wanted, but got a better job instead. Another was fired, which prompted her to go into business for herself, forcing her to finally do what she always wanted to do, while making more money. I dared not say what I wanted to say: that even to the present day, behind some of the doors I've closed lay the lingering stench of regret.
So, instead of revelling in a connection with 200 souls in exploring the true meaning of life, I often found myself retreating into my own solitary consciousness. I knew what was required of me as a good student: that I be upbeat and cooperative in our discussion groups between classes--our pods. But it seemed that the conversations lacked openness and candor, and had little spontaneity. Our happiness lessons and tasks dominated the agenda; ordinary human vulnerability and undue attention to tragedy, failure, disappointment, and loss weren't permitted, except as asides. Once I talked about "the inevitability of suffering," and ended up feeling like a jerk. Nice, positive people don't think, much less talk, about such things. Or if they do, they have to "move on" quickly. Negative emotion is only acceptable if it's in the past.
After the stilted atmosphere of the discussion groups, however, I was always a little surprised to discover that whenever a homework assignment gave me an opportunity to talk one-on-one with my fellow pod members, they were bright, alive, and interesting, and I felt a real, authentic connection. But however simpatico I might feel, even with the most sympathetic partner, there was one topic I never brought up: how much shame I found myself feeling as the course dragged on.
What was I ashamed of? How could a course on Positive Psychology shame a smart, cynical person like me? I was ashamed of my loneliness, sure (though I knew the course wasn't therapy). But I was also ashamed that I didn't seem to "get it." As the course, and the brutal Canadian winter unfolded, I often felt in the pods that I was a small, nasty person who knew he'd best keep all of his doubts and inadequacies well hidden. I simply couldn't be as positive as Seligman or his instructors wanted me to be. And like the George character on Seinfeld, I felt ridiculous. But, unfortunately, I didn't have Jerry and the gang to kvetch to over lunch.
To be sure, Seligman wisely includes community--and the devotion to a cause larger than the lonely, isolated self--as one of the keys to a "meaningful life." Yet the actual experience of the course seemed to ignore the deep human hunger for real community. If our culture's infatuation with the "maximal self," as Seligman describes our inbred individualism, is one of the major causes of unhappiness in our time, then surely a course in Positive Psychology ought to make genuine human connection a central element, at least in the small community of the pods. But the structure of the course and its implicit pressure to "be positive," whatever the cost, undermined the experience of this critical source of human satisfaction. True, we only had 20 weeks. And true, our last homework assignment was to go out and join an organization. But it was as if we were being told, "Okay, folks, commit to something larger than ourselves. But you're on your own, from here on in." I know Seligman was trying to condense a lifetime's work into a few short weeks, but just because you're a great lecturer doesn't mean the message gets embedded in people's lives: that's what the real work of human culture is about.
Oddly enough, while we were never supposed to give in to negativity and depression, they both shadowed the whole course; they were the unacknowledged elephants lurking in the corner. It sometimes felt that the strategies of Positive Psychology--shopping trips, savoring tips, play days, counting blessings, and gratitude exercises--were being used as amulets to ward off life's inevitable miseries. If you suffered from these miseries, Seligman eventually advised that you see a REAL therapist, quickly. But if you weren't "clinically depressed," the full range of human mood seemed to be something to be engineered out of your soul. He told us to dispute our bad moods in the theater of our minds, like the lawyerly cognitive therapists we should all learn to be--as if negativity were just a kind of superstitious taboo. In the end, I thought, Positive Psychology shares with that very unscientific cousin, positive thinking, this one thing: if you don't have the right optimistic temperament, you need to regularly apply heavy doses of intentionality and embrace the positive with an iron will. In this, there's an odd parallel between Freud and the positive psychologists: repression, said Freud, is at the heart of civilization. And it's at the heart of Positive Psychology.
Seligman himself spoke about depression during almost every session, and admitted freely to being temperamentally pessimistic, though he never called himself a depressive, recovering or not. But when he did point out his negative quirks, it was as if to remind us (and himself, perhaps) that they'd been resolutely banished to his past life. My pod leader admitted to being a reformed hysteric--a catastrophist who'd learned to soothe herself when little details of her life went awry. It had required work for her to get past these feelings, but it wasn't that hard to do: you just had to use a few cue words and internal exercises. As with Seligman's depressive tendencies, it felt as though she was telling us to throw our negative feelings into the dirty laundry basket.
The point of these admissions by Seligman and others was to renounce "the dark side" as castoffs from an old personality--primitive throwbacks to an earlier, less evolved self we in the class should learning to transcend. To improve ourselves in this way, we should all be vigorously programming ourselves by doing the exercises and tests, "disputing ourselves" out of our negativity when it showed its atavistic head.
Seligman says he's interested in restoring old-time character to its rightful place--a worthy goal for our self-indulgent time. But does that mean that we must return to the rigid Victorian rule that you keep all your darkness under wraps; let the world see your Dr. Jeykll and keep your Mr. Hyde to yourself? One of the great advances made by the much maligned therapeutic culture is that it actually allows people to look compassionately at their own pain and gives them the vocabulary to describe it. Therapy helps them eliminate the necessity of suffering in silent shame. For all the powerful insights of Positive Psychology, it won't advance the cause of human happiness if it too enthusiastically endorses the antiquated ethic of the stiff upper lip.
Certainly Seligman and his colleagues can claim credit for turning the fuzzy, mushy concept of happiness--always before the exclusive purview of poets and philosophers--into a truly objective, empirically backed science. They've systemically defined particular habits of thought, will, intention, and feeling that are correlated with the good life. And these pioneers have even gone further; for that we should be thankful. They're constructing from this new science a set of principles, a practical discipline, a program of concrete procedures and exercises whereby those of us not naturally blessed with the gift of happiness can learn how to acquire it. Is this the culmination of America's revolutionary promise--the pursuit of happiness--or what?
But a basic question still nags at me. Whatever science might discover about the constitution of happiness and optimism, is it possible for science to teach us how to get them? Can you teach human beings the proper principles of living by displaying your evidence and drawing from it a series of rules that people can learn in 20 weeks? Is it really possible to devise a system, a curriculum of happiness that we can really weave into the fabric of our daily lives? Can this system become as much a part of our neural makeup as, say, the ability to read or ride a bicycle? No doubt we can all learn better habits of mind that'll relieve suffering and reduce our tendency to fly toward misery rather than away from it--after all, that's the basis of cognitive therapy. But learning how to be happy, wise, and virtuous still seems far too difficult and elusive a quest to be fulfilled by taking a didactic course, no matter how scientific its pedigree.
Seligman has undoubtedly done the field of psychology an enormous service by demonstrating that, for any science purporting to understand human nature, the study of what makes people happy, optimistic, and wise is just as important as the study of what makes them anxious, depressed, and crazy. If this work did no more than remind a therapy-soaked population that grandma's old values--gratitude, forgiveness, generosity, selflessness, dedication to something larger than oneself--have never been surpassed as the map to a life well lived, it would be worthwhile. Reminding us what's valuable in our lost traditions is no small thing. And yet, I still am left wondering if the spark that fires the flame of happiness, the will to try for the optimistic life, must come from something deeper, more mysterious, less definable than anything science can devise. After all, the question of what makes for a happy, meaningful, worthwhile life has preoccupied philosophers, mystics, and masters of ancient wisdom traditions since the beginning of human history. Will we finally be able to resolve this primeval riddle with a neat, scientifically based set of cognitive procedures and prescriptions? Allow me this last bit of negativity--I have my doubts.
Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada. Contact: email@example.com. Letters to the Editor about this department may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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