Friday, January 11, 2019

Another Casualty of Therapy

Another week, another chance for New York Magazine advice columnist Ask Polly to make a fool of herself. And, another chance for Polly to tell a suffering letter writer how she too can act the perfect fool. Apparently, in Polly’s view, and it is not just hers, the way to overcome shame is to act shamelessly.

From another angle, the letter writer is a casualty of therapy. She has been to therapy, she has taken medication, she has done everything that the therapy culture recommends and she is, naturally, enough drowning in her feelings. She is detached and unmoored; she is barely in her own life; and she wants to blame it on her husband. One suspects that one of her therapists planted the seed of doubt in her mind.

Evidently, her marriage is not working for her. She was a mess when she got married. She is still a mess. Her husband was a mess when he married her, but he has managed to put his life in order. (If you believe that working as a lawyer means putting your life in order.) So, he has a great job as a lawyer. We do not know where he is working, but young lawyers have notoriously busy schedules. They work very long hours. Could it be that she feels abandoned and alone and isolated?

For her part, she does nothing. If you judge women’s lives in terms of career, she is not doing very well. We note in her letter that her husband’s great job has not allowed them to save any money. This is strange, but I do not know what it implies.

Anyway, as you read this, a very obvious question will pop into your mind. That’s because you are a normally sentient human. The thought never crosses Polly’s mind, of course.

Here is the letter:

I love my husband, and I think he’s the best person by far I’ve ever been involved with. I certainly never liked anyone enough to want to marry them before. He’s smart and kind and funny and handsome and he laughs at soooooo many of my jokes and we have great chemistry. He puts up with my obnoxious dogs and gets along with my friends. He has a good and admirable job. He tells me I’m smart and beautiful, and it seems like he means it.

But the entire time I’ve been with him, I’ve stayed a mess. I met him at a time when my life was fraying, and he was doing very badly as well (he was living with his mom), and I’ve just kept going down. I had a not-so-good but admirable job at the time I met him, which I later lost. Since then, I’ve drifted. I barely do anything these days. I take jobs and do them halfheartedly and then quit. In the time we’ve been together, I’ve tried antidepressants and therapy, but nothing has changed. In the time we’ve been together, he’s gone from being unemployed, living at his mom’s house, and doing way too many drugs to graduating from law school, staying off hard drugs, and landing his impressive job. He’s not a dick — he tries to suggest that I go back on antidepressants, look for work, whatever, but lately I’ve been feeling like maybe the thing that’s keeping my life fucked up is being in a relationship with him.

I love him so much and I believe he loves me and that feels good, but I was better off in nearly every way when I was in unsatisfying relationships or single, even though my life was by no means perfect or even happy a lot of the time. I know if we divorced it would throw my life into serious chaos. We don’t have any savings. I’m not working, like I mentioned. My credit sucks. I have those bad dogs, which would make finding a place of my own even harder. I’m not getting any younger, and I’m definitely not getting any more dateable (I’m 38).

But I have to wonder if chaos is what I need, because nothing else — going to therapy, taking prescribed medication, writing in a goddamn journal, MICRODOSING lol — seems to be knocking me out of this sad, ghostlike existence. Writing it out sounds so bitchy, like I’m blaming him for my unhappiness, which I’m not. I just feel like, how can this relationship possibly be good for me when I feel so bad and function so little all the time? People always compare mental illness to cancer and other physical ailments, and when I think of it like that, I know he’s not necessarily causing my problems, but he’s also okay being married to someone who’s slowly dying and doesn’t seem capable of getting the medical attention necessary to treat it.

I don’t know why I’m like this. I don’t know why it feels safer to do less and less than to keep trying to get better, but I know I’ve created this situation where I can be with someone who will put up with that and make sure we have food and shelter. I have a lot of good friends who care about me and I know they know I’m struggling and I know I make it extremely difficult for anyone to help me because I just shut them out if they try to bring up things that make me uncomfortable. Maybe the reason I’ve behaved this way for so long is that the only friend who could ever tell me anything moved away shortly before my husband and I started dating.


The obvious point is: do they want to have children? Why is this question not brought up, front and center. Are they trying to have children? To think that 38 is getting a little old to start dating again begs the question: 38 is not too old to get pregnant.

And yet, in our woke world, the possibility of her being a wife and mother never seems to cross anyone’s mind. Thus, her relationship and her role is undefined. So, she does not know what to do or what not to do.

And, why doesn’t her husband bring up the issue? Is it for financial reasons? Or, is it because he would be just as happy if she leaves. A child would tie him to her, and perhaps he fears that. No one seems to have considered the possibility that her complaint about him keeping her down masks the fact that she is keeping him down. Is she constantly moping and complaining because she resents his success? How does she relate to his colleagues and their spouses? We don’t know. Can he take her out in public without feeling embarrassed? If so, their marriage is on life support.

No word about this from Polly, because Polly, like most of the therapy world, believes that the woman’s shame is merely a state of mind, that it is all in her mind. This must count as one of the most consequential errors a therapist can make. 

Shame involves how you look to other people. It is not something that you can deal with by practicing some mental gymnastics. If you have created a bad impression in the eyes of others, it takes a considerable amount of time and effort to change that impression. You cannot do so by retreating into your emotional cocoon and feeling your feelings of shame. If it’s just you and your shame; if it’s just you and your psycho therapist and your shame…  you will lose. I promise.

If Stuck is confused and depressed, the reason might be that she does not believe that she has a role in life. She does not have a career; she does not have children; she does not function as a wife. The solution is for her to become a functioning adult, in one or even all of the above ways.

Here Polly makes an interesting point. Stuck wants to get rid of her husband because he is the last witness to her failures. It is one tried and true way to deal with shame. If you have exposed too much of yourself to another person, you can shut that person out of your life… and then pretend that it did not happen.

You think you’re going to feel better, once you walk away from everything that’s currently propping you up. The oxygen is different across town. The weather is different across the country. But mostly what you’ll lose is this witness, who sees how sick you are, who knows how broken you are, who makes things uncomfortable day after day after day. You want to shut out this last witness, who embodies your failure. You want to crumble all by yourself. He’s doing too well. He triggers your shame.

Since shame involves how you look to other people, eliminating the one witness who makes you feel shame will not cure the shame. Because in most cases there are other witnesses out there… friends, family, husband’s work colleagues. So, Polly goes off the rails and suggests that the shame is coming from inside, thus, that it's a state of mind.

You think that if there aren’t any witnesses, there won’t be any shame, either. You’re wrong about that. The shame is coming from inside the house. The shame is coming from inside of you.

If Stuck has failed, the shame is not coming from inside. It is coming from the way other people see her, the way they interact with her. She can reduce her interactions with other people, but that will merely aggravate the shame… by making her feel like a pariah.

So, Polly suggests that Stuck let it all hang out. She wants Stuck to tell her husband how bad she feels, to become a whiny, pathetic complainer. Astonishingly—though, by now, we should not feel astonished at anything that Polly says—Polly assumes that the husband does not know what is going on, that he does not see his wife as she is. If, in addition to her generally down mood, she chooses to advertise her depression in detail to her husband, to burden him with it...  he might just decide that she’s too much trouble. The Polly approach might well push him out the door. If he has a burgeoning career as a lawyer, why would he want to become therapist for his wife who cannot figure out her role in his new life? It would certainly cut into his billable hours.

Right now, you’ve convinced your husband to live inside your lies, to pretend with you, to let you avoid uncomfortable conversations, to let you fall apart without recrimination. You need to tell him the whole truth instead.

Truth-telling is a trap. Polly wants Stuck to make herself look weak and pathetic, to become more of a burden to her husband. If he believes that she is sabotaging his career, he might look for the nearest exit.

Being vulnerable and admitting how confused and sick and angry and ashamed you are is like stripping out the mold and the rotted boards from your house. And when you dare to let someone else into that kind of deep sadness, when you dare to tell someone else, out loud, in words, “I am against you, I am against myself, I hate myself every minute of every day,” you’re daring to try on a different kind of love that no one sings about. You’re daring to align yourself with someone in a real way, maybe for the first time. You’re showing them everything. You’re taking the biggest leap, for yourself and for them, because you know, in your heart, that they love you enough to try it.

Polly worships at the altar of the truth. She does not recognize that Stuck’s husband knows better than anyone that his wife has a problem. And it is certainly not about feeling her feelings… a Pollyannaish cure-all that can only make things worse:

You are incredibly afraid of feeling your emotions. But once you embrace your feelings instead of hiding from them (and low-level, overcast-skies depression can be a manifestation of hiding from stronger, less acceptable emotions like shame and anger), you’ll finally see that being broken and scared is beautiful. Hiding and shutting people out is what’s ugly. Letting your friend move away and never thanking her for telling you the truth is ugly. Confusing real love with quicksand is ugly.

Not as ugly as a steaming pile of bad advice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The letter writer would do better to get the advice of a random person on the street.