Friday, November 24, 2017

Feeling Your Feelings

This will not make your day. It didn’t make my day. And yet, I do feel a duty to report on the latest from the therapy culture. We all want to know what the therapy culture is trafficking these days. Consider this a way of introducing the latest piece of silliness offered by New York Magazine’s Ask Polly column.

If you have read previous commentaries on this highly challenged advice columnist you will recall that I have often mocked her mindless tendency to tell people to feel their feelings. The term keeps coming up, as though it were a mantra. One might respond by asking this salient question: If you want to feel your feelings or if you want to get in touch with your feelings, where should you put your hands?

But I digress.

In Polly’s most recent letter she does her best to validate my caricature. For that, on this day after Thanksgiving, I am grateful.

Polly opens her response with this:

You’re afraid to feel your feelings in the moment and to attach them directly to what’s happening in the moment. You save up all of your bad feelings instead, to keep things clean, to avoid sounding whiny, to avoid making a mess. 

Get it? If not, try this:

But you have to start feeling your feelings and standing up for yourself or this passive, unhappy state you’re in isn’t going to improve.

Or this:

But now you have no idea how to live in reality, how to feel the current moment. I want you to know this one thing, even if you ignore everything else: Nothing will bring you more real satisfaction than learning how to live in reality and feel what you feel, good and bad, ugly and beautiful, without guilt and shame.

Of course, feeling your feelings and living in reality are not the same thing. If you really want to feel your feelings you need to withdraw from reality and get into yourself. Unfortunately, this kind of mental drool passes for wisdom in today’s therapy culture.

While we are at it, let’s not overlook Polly’s enhanced empathy. She labels the letter writer thusly:

You’re a classic self-blaming overachieving perfectionist.

Perhaps that diagnosis will make its way into the next version of the DSM, but clearly Polly is blaming this woman for a state of affairs that, I have reason to suspect, was produced by the kind of therapy that Polly keeps telling people to undertake. Who else would teach you that level of self-blaming than a therapist. Because if you do not blame yourself you will have to blame your therapist.

True enough, the letter write does not say how much therapy she has undergone, but how can anyone make this much of a mess of her life without having suffered the ministrations of a licensed, credentialed professional?

Anyway, even though Polly says the same thing no matter what the problem is—in that she is probably just like many therapists—we should glance at the letter that incited her:

I am a 35-year-old woman with an ostensibly good life. I am conventionally attractive, well educated, from a racial background that does not get excessively discriminated against in my country, and from enough money that I have never known true deprivation. I have a well-paying job with benefits in a glamorous, creative industry that I worked my ass off to get after suddenly pivoting away from a more stable and lucrative career path in my mid-20s. I live with my boyfriend, a wickedly smart and enormously kind man who shares the same twisted sense of humor as mine and thinks the world of me.

I’ve found the courage and strength to break off toxic relationships that were not improving despite all my best efforts; chiefly, those with my mother and my ex-husband. I have done so, so much work to understand myself better and break unhealthy mind-sets and habits. I am finally at a place in my life where I can do almost anything I want to do, and yet …

I am unhappy. I do not feel the sense of grace and gratitude I want to. Instead, I am a dissatisfied ball of longing and anger, and then when the anger curdles, great sadness. I am creatively unfulfilled with the glamorous job and have had enough similar jobs to know that a job change may not really solve anything but simply be a trade of one set of problems for another set that is equally bad or worse. I think I want to have my own business but don’t know what kind of business, and after watching a lot of entrepreneurs around me, I worry that having a business will just make my life harder in a way I will come to regret. As I type this, my boyfriend is passed out on the couch after going to lunch with a friend who often encourages him to drink to inebriation and, despite promising me he would not, drank himself silly, drove home under the influence, and will likely not be in any condition to go with me to the concert I’ve been looking forward to all week later tonight. We almost never have sex, and he once told me that he doesn’t think I know how to love. When he is not drinking, which is the majority of the time, he is everything I want in a future partner. I badly want this relationship to work out, but feel like I am somehow fucking it up without knowing how. Most of my friends are marrying and having children and don’t have space for me in their lives much anymore. This makes me sad, but I feel like all I can do is accept it as an inevitability. And even though I know ending communication with my mother was the right thing for me, I grieve the deep family ties I will never have.

When the letter writer talks about how much work she has done to achieve the misery she is now feeling, she must be talking about therapy. When she says that she can do whatever she wants, she is echoing another of the great mantras of therapy. In truth, therapy has made a mess of her life. Therapy has helped her to get out of a marriage and to cease contact with her mother. This latter, even Polly agrees, is a bad idea. It is not a sign of courage, but a sign of cowardice. And when the letter writer blames herself for everything that is going wrong, that too is a sign that she has overdosed on therapy.

We do not know how bad the husband was and how abusive the relationships was, but we do know that her current boyfriend is a loser... who does not seem to work. Since she never mentions what he does for a living, the chances are good that he drinks all the time and spends his days passed out on the couch. Not what you would call perfect husband material.

Beyond the fact that she has chosen a drunk for a boyfriend and never has sex with him, the questions that loom over this letter--and that Polly never addresses-- concern marriage and family. It’s nice to know that her friends are all settling down and starting their families. But, beyond the fact that said boyfriend is not someone that anyone would want to marry, why are the marriage/family questions not being addressed?

In truth, this letter writer feels her own feelings so deeply that she does not see what is happening in her life. She does not even address the questions that would, for a normal 35 year old, be front and center. Worse yet, advice columnist Polly does not either.


JP said...

"True enough, the letter write does not say how much therapy she has undergone, but how can anyone make this much of a mess of her life without having suffered the ministrations of a licensed, credentialed professional?"

I think that you are underestimating the ability of people to make messes out of their lives.
Some people are extremely good at making bad decisions. She might be one of those people.

That being said, I would not be surprised if she overdosed on therapy to get where she is now.

Ares Olympus said...

Yes, "feel your feelings" does seem to be bad or confused advice, although I guess its supposed to be the opposite of "denying your feelings".

The simplest interpretation I've heard is to say our 5 physical senses are our connection to the outer world, and our feelings or emotions are our connection to our inner world, including the unconscious, and possibly the soul, however hard either may be to define or understand.

Not "feeling your feelings" is like when you tell someone "You don't have to shout." and he or she says back even louder "I'm not shouting!" Feelings are affecting your behavior and abilities, whether you acknowledge them or not. Acknowledging them may reduce their ability to affect us unaware, although certainly the opposite might also be true, and we may prefer to be a slave to them, like our passions, and believe we have no influence to change them for the better.

A confusing fact is that feelings distort our thinking, while its hard to see that while its happening. You can only see this by remembering how you see the same facts differently based on what feelings are present at each given moment. Another confusing fact is feelings can be contagious, overriding our otherwise good sense, and so talking of "your feelings" may be a flawed ownership, we are still responsible for our actions even if someone else provoked us. If you feel you didn't have a choice, you're probably lying to yourself.

whitney said...

I'm guessing that Polly wouldn't agree with what you said about the leaf blowing gardener in the last post

"Think before you abandon impulse control. Spontaneity is overrated."