Monday, January 23, 2017

Should She Quit?

What time is it?

It’s time to glance again at what passes for wisdom in today’s therapy world. For that we turn to New York Magazine’s “Ask Polly” column. You would think that such a fine magazine could find someone who could even pretend to know something about the field, but, alas, such is not the case.

As it happens, with today's case, we are probably dealing with a millennial, a bundle of emotions and questions of indeterminate gender, age, sexual orientation and talent. The letter writer dubs herself: Window on the Void.

I am assuming that WOV is a woman, because I cannot imagine that any male could have written the letter. She writing from the depths of her despair, because she gave up a job she did not like to pursue a graduate degree in an indeterminate subject. Now, the program’s rigors have caused her life to implode. She asks a relevant question: Should she quit?

None of us can answer the question because we do not know how old she is, what her life goals are, where she is, what she is studying in graduate school and whether there are any jobs in her field.

In other words, we know none of the relevant facts of the case. Therefore we do not know whether or not her despair is a function of reality or is a bad habit.

We do not know what to say when WOV asks whether she should continue to pursue her degree. She tells us that she has lost two romantic partners, but that tells us very little. Does she want to marry… with a man or a woman or neither? Does she want children… with or without a partner of indeterminate gender?

More saliently, we do not know whether WOV has any talent to do the work in her field. You cannot know whether to soldier on or whether to try a different career path if you do not know whether you are any good at what you are doing. If she is studying philosophy and stands to become a serious thinker, it’s one thing. If she is studying neurobiology and has no talent for science, it’s a different story.

As it happens WOV does have a therapist. She has been put on medication. She must have read Polly before and knows that Polly always recommends therapy. So, WOV has a therapist and naturally the therapist is not sufficiently competent to help her to decide an important issue. Obviously, this feeds her anxiety and depression.

So, WOV writes in to a newspaper columnist who is not a therapist and who knows less than nothing about the field. Talk about the blind leading the blind. And what does Polly offer: she tells WOV to try having her meds adjusted!  How does Polly, who has no medical training, come off giving anyone advice about medication? 

Besides, doesn't this sound like a therapist and a columnist not taking a woman's question seriously?

Of course, Polly has no more of an idea of what is going on in this case than we do, but she is happy to offer up a mindless pep talk, to the effect that this woman, who is seriously depressed about her life, ought to stop asking questions and should work harder.

As long as you do not know whether WOV is any good at the work she is doing, you cannot say. Polly should know better. Unfortunately, she does not.

WOV has absorbed enough psychobabble to believe that the only relevant question is whether or not she really, really wants to be doing what she is doing.

She writes:

I have been in therapy for a while and started taking meds a few months ago. So far, neither has helped much. How can I keep hanging on to what I have when I feel existentially exhausted? How do I avoid losing everything I’ve worked for before I have a chance to appreciate (and actually want) it?

Polly does not really know what to say, so she tells WOV to stop asking the question. In what surely must count as one of the most lame analogies ever promoted by someone who is supposedly giving advice, Polly describes the human brain as so much Jello, with a few morsels of fruit thrown in, for taste.

No kidding:

Relying on your bad brain to solve this problem, mostly by asking big, important questions like “Should I really finish grad school?” and “Is this career meant for a lazy sack of shit like me?,” is destined to send your brain spinning in circles, buzzing and throwing off sparks until you’re panicked but no closer to an answer than when you started.

It’s time to let your brain off the hook. Let’s imagine it as a Jell-O mold, melon-flavored with little red grapes jiggling and glistening throughout. Let it just sit there and jiggle, looking pretty. Give your sweet melon-flavored brain some credit for doing nothing. “You don’t have to work hard right now,” you can say. “Be gorgeous and empty for once.” Let your brain stop adding and subtracting and just lie like a glistening melon-hued jellyfish in the middle of the beach.

As though that were not enough:

And once your brain is an inert gelatinous blob, listen: You’re going to be fine. You’ve made it this far. You have entered a period of questioning, that’s all. You are plagued by big, looming questions and small, chafing questions and irrational self-doubt and slow, sinking depression. It’s hard to separate these things from each other.

One does not understand how major publications publish such stuff. WOV is suffering because she is trying to ask a life-changing question and no one will even help her to address the issue. Her therapist has her on medication and Polly tells her to imagine that her brain is Jello. Now, that will surely inspire confidence. In effect, WOV needs help asking these relevant and pertinent questions.

But, Polly thinks that she knows the answer because she thinks that WOV’s situation is like hers or her husband’s. In the therapy world, there's a word for people who relate everything to their personal experience. It's narcissism. Again, Polly believes that is all about how much WOV wants or does not want to be doing what she is doing:

You’re just exhausted because you’ve moved a ton, and you’ve been through a lot, and you want a break. You want to know that you’re in the right place. You want to believe. You want to feel good about the big picture. You want to be loved and supported. You want to live somewhere you like. You want close friends who tell you to keep going, you can do it, you’re the best.

We do not know why WOV is exhausted. Polly doesn’t either. But, she pretends to offer advice. Not knowing any of the relevant details, addressing only a muddle of emotion, Polly steps forth:

I would not decide to quit school right now if I were you. In fact, I wouldn’t make any big decisions while you’re feeling discouraged and depressed. I would adjust your meds, work out more if that tends to help, turn off your brain, and do your fucking work without questioning it. If you ask me, this is not your big moment to redefine everything you want and need in your life. This is your big moment to get ’er done.

I don’t know the answer here. Polly doesn’t know the answer. No one knows why WOV is depressed and anxious. The only thing we do know is that neither her therapist nor Polly is willing to help her to make a decision. In itself, that is depressing.


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Anyone who complains of being "existentially exhausted" has spent too much time in the academy, methinks. Time to take up carpentry or some other kind of physical diversion, even as a hobby. No more books, no more brooding.

Trigger Warning said...

"Polly's" column is an arena for attention-seeking and cheap voyeurism. Her "advice" is free psychobabble, available by the pallet-load from Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

I just did a search for self-help psychology on Amazon and they report 138,000 titles. A search for a different - also highly complex - task, designing wireless networks, got 1500.

Which is more reliable; your "therapist", or your wireless service provider?

Some people know how to do things, other people gabble endlessly.

By the way, a great book to peruse if you're interested in 21st Century angst is Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need by Walker Percy.

Sam L. said...

"You would think that such a fine magazine could find someone who could even pretend to know something about the field, but, alas, such is not the case." Well, I wouldn't, as I do not read that magazine, but why do YOU think it's "such a fine magazine"?

Ares Olympus said...

I agree it has to be a woman writing, and I've perhaps known a few women like this, or at least my experience says this woman isn't looking for advice for what to do. Rather she is looking for validation to keep going.

It seems such women would like to talk and feel heard, and then they have the energy for the next day. And that's also the problem with advice giving from a distance, you can be encouraging, validating, but its also easy to throw in your own issues stupidly. Its easier in person to just be agreeable and sympathetic without actual advice.

From a distance it is easy enough to offer genetic encouragement: "You've committed to this choice, and you'll feel worse if you quit now, so find the will to keep going each day, prioritize what has to be done, and pay attention to what activities keep you going, and which ones are self-destructive, like not getting enough sleep or isolating yourself, etc. Also if you pay attention to your moods, you'll find how you see things is continually changing, and its easy in the darkest times to imagine you always feel that way, while that is simply not true. Sometimes the dark moods will help you, like seeing where you have an unnecessary perfectionism, and where some things you expect of yourself can be let go, and energy can be refocused to the most important things needed right now."

I'm glad I'm not an advice columnist or life coach, but that's the sort of thing a person wants to hear - stay the course, and its not as bad as it seems right now, carry on.

The part that I hate is the future. I certainly can't promise grad school will provide a "fulfilling" new career.

I also recall one woman I knew from college who got her PhD, and said she felt like she aged 10 years in the 5 years it took her to finish. She was still glad she did it, and got her dream job. But she also divorced during that period, and in part because she never want kids, while her husband apparently did even if he didn't know it, since he later remarried and did have kids.

It does often seem like women have to choose between children and career, so if She's set on one or the other, its probably better than hoping she can get both, and not deciding which one is most important.

It does seem like there are plenty of kids in the world, and so no "moral imperative" to have kids, even if she still has her biological imperative to face.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Trigger Warning @January 23, 2017 at 9:09 AM:


We're kindred spirits, you and I. "Lost in the Cosmos" is one of my very favorite and most meaningful reads in my life. Percy is phenomenal. He was an important Christian existentialist, and wrote in the spirit of Kierkegaard. He is missed.

The man was a true genius, in the sense that he was at the forefront of recognizing where Modernism left man: dizzy, confused, hopeless. A great line from that book:

“Why is it that the look of another person looking at you is different from everything else in the Cosmos? That is to say, looking at lions or tigers or Saturn or the Ring Nebula or at an owl or at another person from the side is one thing, but finding yourself looking in the eyes of another person looking at you is something else. And why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone's finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?”

I don't know if you've read his self-interview, but it is fantastic. Here is my favorite excerpt:

Trigger Warning said...

IAC: I was introduced to Percy by a Kreeft lecture on YouTube.

One of his delicious quotes is

"[T]he lay Freudian, that is, the avid reader and disciple of Freud who does, to some degree, share in the excitement of Freud's insights but whose excitement all too often derives not from a shared discovery but from the sense of election to an elite from which vantage point one can play a one-upmanship game with ordinary folk..."

Its a disease rampant in the Progessive arts and language academy and is the very wellspring for the Vision of the Anointed.

I just bought and downloaded The Moviegoer. I'm looking forward to it. Right now, I'm in the midst of a Cadfael.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ah, Peter Kreeft... another true genius! He was just in town for an apologetics lecture.

A couple of favorites from Kreeft:

"The Church is a field hospital for sinners, not a five-star hotel for saints."

- and -

"Everything Jesus says is surprising."

Read "The Moviegoer." One of the great tales of Christian existentialism. A true turning point for me.