Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Perils of Polly

If I had ever imagined creating a fictional character who would typify the mindlessness of therapy these days, I would not need to do so. Even if I knew how to write fiction, I could not do better than New York Magazine’s resident advice columnist, Ask Polly.

Polly gives such bad advice that she sounds like a caricature. To imagine that she learned it all in therapy—she has no other visible qualifications-- tells you need to know about today’s therapy.

Outside of the cognitive-behavioral movement, today’s therapy is an embarrassment. To imagine that someone went to school for years in order to tell her patient what Polly passes along to her letter writer boggles the mind.

What is the sum-total of Polly’s wisdom? You won’t be surprised, it’s: “feel your feelings.” There you have it people, a little folk wisdom, a little piece of philosophical psychobabble masquerading as scientific knowledge.

And you were wondering why the country is a mess.

Anyway, in today’s installment of the Perils of Polly we have a letter writer facing a serious psychosocial problem. The LW calls herself: not-too-hard-to get, aka NTHTG.

She describes her problem clearly:

I come from a super-laid-back lower-class family; my parents were, perhaps, extremely laissez-faire. I’m not saying I was raised without manners, but as I’ve been entering the literary, publishing, and fashion worlds in my career — which is going really well, and of which I am absolutely proud — I can’t shake the feeling that “who I really am” is in direct conflict with getting ahead.

NTHTG’s first problem is that she did not read my post about the error of believing that you are who you are. She errs in thinking that the person who learned to play one game in childhood is who she really is. Now, she is now faced with people who are playing an altogether different game. Truth be told, she is doing well at it, but the transformation is anything but comfortable.

She might not have been raised without manners, but she was probably raised with different manners, with manners that worked well in the world she was brought up in but that do not work at Vogue. (I do not know whether she is working at Vogue, but I choose it makes her predicament clearer.)

It would be good if Polly had told her that adapting to new social customs is part of the job description when you have been brought up in a barn. Sorry to say, but her hippy parents did not prepare her for the real world. They did, however, give her an edge, a special talent that is obviously appreciated over at Vogue. And  yet, if she slurps her soup and spits her food when she talks, then her career prospects will be seriously limited.

One understands that she has been warned about this. If others have warned her they are telling her that she has a great deal of potential but needs to step up her game. They are casting of vote of confidence in her talent.

So, she is facing a choice: either she will learn how to control her mouth or she will find herself relegated to a lesser position at the magazine. She can choose either way. But, to imagine that learning good manners will somehow cause her to become someone she is not betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues at play.

She ought to understand, from the beginning, that adapting to a new culture takes time and effort. It does not feel natural and cannot feel natural. With time however, it will become more second nature. It’s like training to master a task, be it playing the piano or having better table manners. It takes a lot of work to make it feel natural.

And yet, NTHTG ought also to understand that she brings something to her job that others do not bring. And that her quirky upbringing has something to do with it. She can choose to go Hunter Thompson and become a writer. Then she does not need to conform to anyone’s social codes.

If she wants to rise in the ranks of the magazine world, she will need to learn better manners while not losing the valuable aspects of her own upbringing. She need not feel that she has betrayed her family, though, sad to say, if she adapts to the Vogue code she will likely feel somewhat alienated from them. She will be repudiating their lifestyle choices. When your friends and family from the old neighborhood do not recognize you, you have a problem. When you throw away a career opportunity because you cannot stop yourself from blurting out obscenities at the dinner table you are not going to feel very good either.

There is, in short, no quick and easy solution to this problem.

By now, you are no doubt sitting on the edge of your seat wondering what Polly has to say about this. Drawing on her limitless ignorance Polly imagines that NTHTG is whomever her parents brought her up to be.

Brilliant. Some women have trouble in the workplace because they take this kind of advice seriously. It’s a career killer. It’s a variant on the notion of listening to your gut, following your bliss and doing what your heart tells you to do. It makes you a self-absorbed, self-involved, self-indulgent buffoon who does not know how to control herself, no less manage other people.

Compare Polly’s advice to the sensible thoughts written by NTHTG herself:

Of course I have a filter, and I’ve been working on my ability to perceive social cues to learn when I’ve perhaps said too much or come across as too loud/overconfident/opinionated where the fullness of my personality isn’t totally appreciated.

She is absolutely right. She is working on improving her social skills. If she continues to do so she will do well. If she listens to Polly her career will go down the drink.

I would add that she ought to get over this notion that she ought to be putting the fullness of her personality on public display. She would do better to save a few things for someone with whom she becomes intimate.

For now, unfortunately, she is not doing very well on the relationship front. She gives too much of herself, too easily, too often and to the wrong people. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

She explains:

I give my love too easily, I think, even though it’s burned me enough times that by now I should probably know better. But I don’t know how to turn that off. And I fully anticipate your advice being that I should be myself, that there’s nothing wrong with being open and real about who I am when it’s appropriate to be so candid — at least, that’s how I wish you would respond, because that is how I wish the world operated. But my attraction to others is, conversely, so easily turned off by the very sort of too-casual, showing-your-ass kind of behavior I’m struggling with myself that I don’t end up with the guys who would appreciate that candidness about me.

She adds that her latest therapist has told her that she is too self-judgmental—what would we do without therapists—and that she needs to learn how to love herself.

One understands that she has a better understanding than her therapists and a far better understanding than Polly. One is saddened to see someone with talent and promise being undermined.

What is her problem with dating? To put it in terms I have been using throughout, she does not know how to play the game. Believing that it’s all about who she really is she does not understand that you should not expose too much of yourself to someone you do not know. Perhaps she has read too much of the behavioral economists like Dan Ariely who prescribes such behaviors, but obviously it has not been working.

She needs to get over the nonsense about who she really is and learn how to take her time, to get to know someone, to play, as she suggests, hard to get.

One suspects, as she hints, that she has been traumatized by giving too much or herself too soon to too many men. If so, her judgment will have been distorted by the trauma and she will not be able to trust her instincts. When you have been traumatized you will be trying to avoid repeating the past trauma or else you will do the same thing again, hoping that it will work out better this time.

Thus, Polly tells her to trust her instincts. In truth, the one thing she should not be trusting is her instincts.

The letter writer has been doing rather well for herself. She is not entirely comfortable with her career path, but she likes being polished, having a put-together appearance. This suggests that she has been moving away from her upbringing. It is not easy and ought to be praised. Surely, she has further to go, but if she has made great progress on the corporate front she should now work to learn how to play the dating game.

Unfortunately, neither her therapist nor Polly have a clue about it.

If you want a splendid example of absurdly wrong-headed advice, read this from Polly:

The key is to feel your feelings. That means being present, in the moment, treating yourself with compassion, and allowing yourself space to just be in a room with other people without PROVING anything or DOING anything or SAYING anything. That means having no plan or agenda. That means simply taking up space without explaining what your intentions are.

That way madness lies.

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