Thursday, October 11, 2018

She Has It All Wrong

The letter writer calls herself “All Wrong.” To compound her misery she writes to New York Magazine columnist Ask Polly who misses the point. When you are all wrong why not take advice from someone who is almost always wrong.

As often happens, this woman tells us nearly nothing about herself and about her life condition. One point stands out, like the dog that didn’t bark:

I am exhausted, and I feel like everything I do is wrong.

First, the reasons I feel like I shouldn’t even write to you: I have a fantastic husband, a sweet dog, a fulfilling and challenging job, a welcoming and warm faith community, and a small but dedicated circle of friends that keeps me sane. I have hobbies I enjoy, I uphold healthy habits, and I’m privileged enough to be in good physical and financial health.

Everything is wonderful, except that we do not know whether she wants children, whether she can have children, whether her marriage is solid and stable or weak and teetering. In short, she elides the questions that any sensible therapist would ask and gets bogged down in what seems clearly to be clinical depression.

I do not want to make a diagnosis, but the condition that All Wrong describes has classically been the basis for cognitive therapy, especially as it developed to treat depression. Read Aaron Beck or Martin Seligman on this topic.

All Wrong explains:

But I have this undercurrent roiling beneath the surface that critiques, chastises, and abuses me — and that awful voice sounds just like mine. I second guess everything I do, and I mean everything. I’ve written and discarded this draft 16 times.

I feel like I never measure up to this person I should be. I am never a good-enough wife, good-enough dog owner, good-enough job-performer, not healthy enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not enough enough.

And at the same time, I am too much: I’m too sarcastic, too dry, too cold, too analytical, too driven, too independent, too anxious, too serious, too content with being alone.

I know this is something every woman faces, but I feel like I’m drowning underneath it all. I am, again, not strong enough.

Nowadays competent cognitive therapists will treat this condition with homework exercises, written exercises that are designed to balance the good with the bad, the evidence that supports the self-deprecating judgment and the evidence that tends to disprove it.

Unfortunately, All Wrong has found the wrong therapist and now writes to the wrong advice columnist. They have helped to mire her in her depression by pretending that it derives from a past trauma. One notes, if only for emphasis, that the cognitive approach rejects the notion that wallowing in past trauma, even gaining insight into it, can treat depression. It sees depression as a bad habit, not as a meaningful expression of an unprocessed trauma.

So, All Wrong has gotten lost in her mind and in her past:

I grew up moving a lot and always being the new kid. I played sports and succeeded in school and had friends and boyfriends and all of the trappings that come with small-town high schools. My parents weren’t friends, and I don’t think they ever liked each other, but they imploded when I was 15. My dad had a secret affair for six years, a second family, a whole thing. He and I got back from a “dad-and-daughter vacation” and he just left his suitcase in the car and drove away.

I am certain that I was profoundly altered by that, and I think I am so tired because I hold onto things and hold up things so that I will never be caught off guard again. I hate surprises and change, and it seems like I assign blame to my actions so that I have a paper trail. I always need evidence, I need cause.

And yet, she has not been told to start looking at the evidence that might disprove her self-deprecating judgments. Unfortunately,her therapist is one of the mindless touchy-feely types:

I go to therapy, and my lovely therapist talks about how traumatic that event was and how I have shaped myself around it, like you might favor a sprained ankle or sore back. I exercise and practice self-care and do all of the things, all of the time. I’m writing to you in the hope that your candid, searing words will make it through the muck of my headspace and help me realize that I can stop holding everything up. Things can fall, and I won’t. Hopefully.

Her therapist feels her pain. Her therapists wants her to gain further insight into the role her parents’ divorce had on her life. It’s standard operating procedure for bad therapy. It makes the patient believe that the fault for her pain and the responsibility for changing it lies with someone else. We can agree that the event was traumatic. But, we can also see that having a therapist who leads her patient to wallow in grievance produces more depression than it cures.


Sam L. said...

I wondered why you didn't tell us what Polly wrote, so I went there, and she just went on and on and on and on. And on. Not helpful!

Anonymous said...

Polly never has any decent practical advice. This LW might want to read Constructive Living.