Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When Your Life Is in Turmoil

Watching last night’s episode of “Miss Advised” I was again shocked to see the spectacle of three women who do not know how to take advice.

Most of the time they know what they should do, but then they don’t do it.

It doesn’t mean anything. It's not a sign of an unprocessed childhood trauma. It’s merely a sign of weak character.

Were Julia, Amy and Emily to learn how to take advice, they would take control of their lives and be much less painful to watch. Wishful thinking, perhaps....

As I said in a previous post, I suspect that they are living their lives according to the nostrums offered by the therapy culture and feminism.

Clearly, they have made a fetish of autonomy and independence, valuing any impulse that wells up from the depths their souls and dismissing sound, sensible, sane advice.

Put into practice, an ethic of autonomy and independence quickly turns into... narcissism gone wild.

For decades now therapists have been maligning the practice of giving advice.

The reason, I suspect, was that they were not very good at it. Nevertheless, they have helped create a culture that tells you that you must be true to your heart and your gut.

Isn’t that the royal road to romance?

The women on “Miss Advised” seem to value spontaneity. This has rendered them self-conscious and histrionic. Without any self-control they fill their lives with indiscretions and follies.

They may think that they are being true to themselves, but they are merely out of control. They allow their actions to be dictated by their desperation and then cannot understand why men do not want to be involved with them.

In truth, they end up looking weak, insecure and insincere.

Incapable of connecting with other human beings they get caught in a dream world where they are trying to will a relationship into existence. In the end they seem headed for a life where their only meaningful relationship is with themselves.

Yesterday, Elizabeth Bernstein posted about some new research that demonstrated the value of “self-distancing.”

For people who are far too full of themselves for their own good, a little self-distancing would surely be a good thing.

When your life is in turmoil, you do best to step back, take a deep breath and look at the situation as though it were happening to someone else.

It is easier said than done, but if you learn how to do it, you will start controlling your emotions and your behavior. And you will be functioning more like an adult and less like an overgrown adolescent.

In Bernstein’s words:

Are you easily provoked? Wish you had a strategy to remain calm, cool and collected when someone makes you angry? New research says you should try this: Pretend you’re viewing the irritating situation from a distance, rather than actively participating in it. 

Of course, it all sounds a bit simpleminded. Serious defenders of traditional therapy will reject it out of hand.

It is not based on insight or on grand ideas. It seems to be based on a mental trick.

Superior minds, especially those that are full of themselves, tend to look down on good advice, especially the kind that is offered up by cognitive therapists and coaches.

For their, and everyone else’s benefit let’s clarify the idea.
Self-distancing comes about at a moment when you are flailing around, lost and perhaps in danger, and you think to yourself that you need to think clearly, to devise a plan of action, and to follow it. 

People who find themselves in turmoil often become desperate. They despair of finding any positive action so they act out their feelings of powerlessness. They panic, lose control, and eventually get overwhelmed by the situation.

Self-distancing takes you out of the drama and into the game. It takes you out of a narrative where you are doomed to follow the script and into a game where your actions can affect the outcome.

It’s the difference between thinking that the world is a stage and thinking that the world is an arena or a chessboard.

Self-distancing is often disparaged because it makes you more calculating and less spontaneous. People who are looking for love—instead of looking for a spouse—assume that they need to advertise their spontaneity and enthusiasm.

As with any piece of good advice, self-distancing is easier said than done.

Once you step back and appraise your situation objectively your first reaction will be one of profound embarrassment. Seeing yourself as others see you is a sobering and painful exercise.

And yet, once you do so, you will instantly find that it is extremely difficult to continue to be histrionic. Maybe it’s only a first step, but it is an essential step to changing your errant ways.