A psychotherapist thinks out loud about Being Human, and stuff…

Archive for June, 2012

Improving On Perfection

I recently blogged about some thoughts stirred by my friend and colleague, Sylvia Brallier, who said that she believes “in the potential of the human spirit to rise above where it’s been”. This generated an interesting comment from a reader (I have “readers”; imagine!), who feels, if I interpret his note correctly, that such an affirmation comes uncomfortably close to a belief in Original Sin. He goes on to say that Sylvia’s statement fails to “give credit for not needing to rise because we have lived some moments of exemplary quality (sic)”. He further offers his observation that health professionals too often look at what is wrong, instead of focusing on what is right.

There are some good points raised here, and I thank the reader for taking the time to respond. Let me take the latter issue first, since it is, by far, the easier. For Original Sin, you’ve got to be warmed up.

One of the accusations frequently leveled at people in my profession is that we (perhaps for cynical, commercial reasons) “keep people wallowing in their childhood issues forever”. I would love to say that this never happens, but I suspect there are therapists who work this way, either because they believe that a meta-focus on their client’s childhood will yield good results or because they just don’t know what to do next. Personally, I try to focus on what is happening in the room in the moment, but unless I have some idea of my client’s earlier experiences, I’m trying to fly with one wing. Knowing the terrain, we can form some ideas about what helped form the client’s behaviors. Sometimes these behaviors are problematic. Sometimes we act badly because we got bent, back there somewhere. My job is to point out the distinction between my client’s actions and her person, an idea that may have never have occurred to her. Unless we are politicians or corporate CEO’s, very few of us are “bad people” (cheap shot, I know, but who could resist?). We are, simply, people trying to get through this life thing as best we can with what tools we have gathered along the way. Sometimes we screw up. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we hurt people, acting out of fear and ignorance. I have. So have you. The question is, because you’ve made mistakes, are you a mistake? I don’t think so, and I don’t think you quite believe it either, or you wouldn’t be on my couch.

If my job consisted merely of catalouging your irreversable faults (and what a melancholy business that would be), and then trying to get you to be “better” by scolding, nagging and threats….. well, that’s closer to Hell than to anything I would want to do, even if it produced exemplary citizens. Which, by the way, it will not. Doesn’t stop far too many parents from treating their children in exactly that way, but that’s another subject, tempting as it is.

No, my job is to do exactly the opposite of what my reader suggests I’m doing: If I had to boil successful psychotherapy (as I do it, anyway) down to one, specific moment, it would be the “Aha” instant in which the client grocks that she has been acting out of a set of mistaken beliefs, and doesn’t need to do that anymore. Understanding the reasons for her previous behaviors, she can make new choices because, while she’ll never be perfect (and we’ll get back to this), she’s not defined by her mistakes. In other words, her mistakes- past, present and future Do Not Make Her A Bad Person! We’re all bozos on this bus. Welcome to the human race.

Which leads me, finally, to the suggestion that, by saying that we could be better, I am somehow supporting the concept of Original Sin. If I follow the writer’s line of reasoning correctly, he is saying that we are perfect, and to deny it is to espouse some version of The Fall. Well, yes. Cosmically speaking, we are perfect. How can there be imperfection, when everything in the Universe has evolved in perfect harmony? The catch in this, (from our petty, human point of view), is that perfection encompasses some perfectly awful experiences. Harmony there certainly is, but that doesn’t mean we will necessarily like the tune; it’s not about us. We have worked out some belief systems that give us hope that we are not quite as unimportant as all that, but they tend to run aground on the observation that, as the saying goes, bad things happen to good people. One way to explain this is the suggestion that we are not, in fact, good people; that we once were, but we screwed up. Our bad. Rejecting this useful and interesting story as too contrived, drops us back into the dilemma: if we don’t deserve it, why is this crap happening to us?

If you were expecting an answer, that is, a workable answer, to this question, I’m going to have to leave you disappointed. I don’t have one, but I don’t think it’s because we’re bad to the bone, or even that we screw up a lot. Stuff happens to us. We petition or shake our fists at the Gods. Doesn’t seem to help much, either way. All we can do – ALL we can do, I believe- is to be kind to each other; to learn to love each other, as much and as well as we can.

And this, finally, is my response, my bottom line: we can be better, if we try. That’s what I take “the human spirit rising above where it’s been” to mean. Yes, we’re perfect, in the way that a planet is perfect, but such a cold perfection! I try to help my fellow, imperfect, human beings learn to love themselves, escaping the trap of self-condemnation. I call that right livelihood.

Thanks for your comments. Keep those cards and letters coming, and Happy Trails to you.