Sunday, January 29, 2017

Feel Your Feelings, You Junkyard Robot

If you want to know what I really, really feel, I feel sorry for letter writer: Wanting to Feel Worthy. In a letter she wrote to New York Magazine’s advice column, Ask Polly, she shared her whiny self-torment.

In the most pertinent sense, her letter answers her question. Given how self-absorbed she is, it is no surprise that her relationships are so faulty and that men are not lining up to invite her on dates. In truth, they are running the other way.

I feel especially sorry for WFW because, after all, her letter contains a veiled reproach. If she is—perish the thought—a regular reader of Ask Polly, she has undoubtedly heard the drumbeat: Get thee to a therapist.

Polly is a living breathing marketing campaign for therapy, perhaps because it got her a gig at New York Magazine. Yet, she cannot offer any cogent advice, so we should consider her a casualty of therapy. As I said, for real advice, hie thee to Miss Manners. Or to the New York Times's, The Ethicist and Social Qs.

For Polly’s sake I hope she learns from letter writers like this one and stops seducing gullible young people into getting involved in a process that is obviously not helping.

What else can you conclude by reading the plaintive wails of WFW:

I’m writing you from a far-off land known as a personal journey. I started going to therapy about a year and a half ago as a way to really work on myself, and for the most part it’s helping. I am definitely more self-aware of my emotions and I’m coming to understand a lot about who I am. 

Lo and behold, WFW has gotten in touch with her feelings. She thinks it has been helping her, because what else can she say. She has blindly followed Polly’s advice and cannot admit openly that it has produced a calamity. All that supposed self-awareness is worth precisely nothing.

She seems to understand that getting in touch with one’s feelings makes one markedly self-absorbed and self-involved. She skips effortlessly from real world events to her feelings. She never asks how she comes across to other people. Do they see her as a self-absorbed narcissist or as a loving and caring friend?

WFW continues:

I’ve always operated from a place of self-loathing. Sometimes it’s dull, just simmering there waiting to come out at a party or during a work meeting. Other times, like when a guy cancels a date or ghosts me, it bubbles over like lava and consumes every part of me. I sob because I feel so unlovable or incompetent. I tell myself that it makes sense that I didn’t get that promotion or that third date — because why on earth would I get it over someone else?

She sobs. Note the mid-Victorian vocabulary. Who today still sobs?

Apparently, WFW lacks self-confidence and self-respect. This should not surprise us. Her Polly-recommended therapist has rendered her dysfunctional. Her therapist has taught her to retreat from the world into her mind. The therapist has also taught her to be depressed. Clearly, this therapist has no idea of how to deal with depression. Why would she? She is hard at work producing it.

WFW writes:

When will I actually start feeling worthy of love and validation from men, from my career, from my friends, and, most importantly, from myself? I know that I am worthy of it — I just don’t believe it. I don’t feel it. It doesn’t sit with me comfortably. And it’s starting to feel like this journey I’ve embarked on is more of a failed mission.

Thank God, here she is correct. It is a failed mission. She ought to get out of her mind and into her life. Still, she has no sense of how her behavior affects her career or romantic prospects. She is off on a spiritual journey, one that, if I may, used to be the province of medieval mystics. The difference is that when the mystics got into their mind, they were seeking God, not self-absorption.

What does Polly offer a woman who mistakenly took Polly’s advice? She tells her to feel her feelings. Wow! It takes your breath away.

Think about it this way. This is being called a paramedical treatment. Our insurance companies are paying for it. Our representatives are voting for more of it. Why are they paying for something that does not improve anyone’s life?

Polly also notes that the woman has learned through therapy to blame herself for everything that happens to her. She is wallowing in guilt. She does not care about how she looks to others. Thus, she does not care about her behavior. I have warned about this on numerous occasions for many years, so I do not feel personally derelict.

Anyway, Polly says this:

In order to feel worthy, you have to feel, period. Feel what you feel first, without interpretation. Right now, your interpretations are taking over the whole picture. For example: (1) A guy ghosts you. (2) You feel disappointed. (3) You think, This proves that I am unlovable and incompetent. (4) You sob and feel terrible over how unlovable and incompetent you are. Whenever you feel sad or disappointed or angry, your brain steps in and tells you that it’s your fault. Emotions are bad. Emotions mean that you’re messing up.

If you are going to feel your feelings, why shouldn’t you feel the bad ones with the good ones? What does it mean to feel your feelings if you only do so selectively. This point notwithstanding, Polly is showing us the way many therapy patients learn to feel and to think.

As you know, Polly will eventually get into personal confession mode and regale us with her own experiences. Thereby, she will be showing that she does not care about WFW unless she can see the problem as a function of her own therapy. Before that, allow her to offer some insights.

Polly writes:

You feel bad, you hate yourself for feeling bad, and you tell yourself that you’re destined to feel bad forever because you’re unworthy and weak and doomed to be rejected over and over again. Likewise with your friends: You need to step out of the way and let them enjoy their time together. You’ll only make things bad for them. Instead of thinking, Jesus, I’m valued enough that these two people want to spend time with me, you think, They’re just doing me a favor because I’m a loser. They should just cut me out. That’s the only rational thing to do, since I’m unlovable.

When you’re inventing such extreme interpretations, when you give yourself shit just for existing, when you tell yourself that you’re a blight on the face of the earth and everyone would be better off without you, it’s natural that you’d grow to hate your feelings. Eventually, it’s not just the feelings you have to fear, it’s the miserable interpretation and the self-hatred that accompany them.

It’s not just that WFW is feeling her feelings. She is doing what therapy taught her to do. She is getting in touch with all of her feelings, good and bad. As long as WFW is lost in her mind, off on her own journey of supposed self-discovery she will be prey to her feelings, or to what she takes to be her feelings.

As often happens in these columns, we know next to nothing about the letter writer. We do not know how she functions in the world or how she relates to other people. We know how she feels and we know how she interprets those feelings, but we do not know what provoked those feelings. We do not know what those feelings are telling her about her about the way she behaves toward other people.

Without knowing any of those things, we really know nothing. That is, we only know that her therapist is not helping her. And that Polly, offering a spoonful of drool about feeling her feelings is not very much better.

Polly writes as though she is addressing a child:

Feelings are scary, but if you stay vulnerable to them, if you refuse to apply the same old nonsensical stories to them (I feel feelings, therefore I am unlovable, therefore no one wants me around), if you reject those stories outright (which includes rejecting people who tell you those stories), if you tell new, powerful, brilliant, exciting stories about what it means to feel and what you can build from feelings, then … well, then you get to be a formidable motherfucking junk robot who roams the earth, busting heads and singing loud robot songs and kicking bitchy junkyard robot ass in general.

Surely, becoming a junkyard robot will improve your relationships. It humanizes you. Everyone wants to be friends with a junkyard robot. Everyone wants to date one too. What's wrong with being a junkyard dog?

Also, Polly recommends a class in storytelling. Now, today’s quiz question: Who was it who said that therapy is overpriced storytelling? You guessed it: I did.

As long as WFW is not in the game, as long as she does not have real relationships with real people, as long as she is lost in her mind, storytelling will only alienate her further. It will make her relationships into material and will cause her to ignore what works in reality in favor of what works in a fictional narrative.

Don’t these people know that the truth value of a fiction does not depend on any reference to reality? It doesn’t depend on whether the conclusions you draw are useful or useless. Stories have their own internal logic and coherence. They have their own consistency, a consistency that has nothing to do with your life. They will alienate you from your friends, get you lost in your mind and turn you into a junkyard robot?

Tell me, again, why insurance companies are paying for this.


Boggs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Boggs said...

"Tell me, again, why insurance companies are paying for this."

"On October 3, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 to bail out financial institutions as a step toward addressing the nation's financial crisis. As a provision of this legislation, the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity (MHPAE) Act (P.L. 110-343) was passed into law."
--- A Political History of Federal Mental Health and Addiction Insurance Parity, Barry, Haiden and Howard, 2010

Clever. All part of saving the world.

Ares Olympus said...

The topic of feeling is clearly muddled.

The oldest step in clarity I found was from a Men's group I joined some 18 years ago now. They had process they called "The Awareness cycle", and the steps were (1) Observation (2) Evaluation (3) Feeling (4) Action.

So the whole idea was to see that feelings are not grounded in observable facts, but instead come out of our evaluations of those facts. So if we can delay or put our evaluations in provisional boxes that are neither necessarily true nor false, then we can slow them down enough to not let them control us or our emotions.

And I suppose this is where Norman Vincent Peale's positive thinking (or positive feeling?) approach came from, and quotes like "Any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude towards it; that determines our success or failure." So that "attitude" is our evaluation process that defines up our feeling response, whether we see the cloud or the silver lining.

Interestingly, I see Donald Trump was influenced by Peale:
"Any fact facing us, however difficult, even seemingly hopeless, is not so important as our attitude toward that fact," Peale wrote. "A confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether."

So that suggests one trouble with "positive thinking" is that you may be tempted not only to be selective on which "facts" that makes you feel confident, but you can make up facts wholesale that create the right mood for what you want to believe. So this makes me more wary of Peale's appeal to positive thinking when that may help blind you to objective reality that will bite you later.

Certainly America was built on positive thinking, and the myth of "progress" depends on it. If you believe your actions will improve your future circumstances, you'll work harder to make things happen. But that process can fail us when progress is an illusion, like were we get into debt trying to get ahead, and not knowing if that debt will be worth it, so its an unknown risk, one that can work for the vast majority in good times, and almost no one in bad times.

Another approach I know is from the now late Marshall Rosenberg, and his nonviolent communication that tries to aid conflict resolution by helping people clarify what they want or what they need. Like he says we all have needs, and strategies to meet those needs, while its not necessarily up to any specific individual to help us with that needs, unless we're children I suppose. Rosenberg also suggest we "never hear insults" but instead imagine everything someone says to you is either a "Please" or "Thank you" and that there are just better and worse ways of expressing those words.

Rosenberg has a highly critical view of "punishment", while I'm more open-minded. In the very least I can see some punishment as the same as "consequences", and at least in the sense that bailing people out (or too quickly) of their negative consequences risks helping them avoid lessons that they could have learned.

Finally Byron Katie has her approach called "The Work" which asks basic questions that help us question what is true, and avoid letting our imagination lead us astray, and disempower us through unnecessary negative thinking.

I imagine good therapist need many approaches to help people, and perhaps most don't help without proper observational skill and experience.