Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Plastic Surgery of Identity

The original working title:

Rethinking: You can do anything and You go girl.

This is coming up quite a bit in therapy lately. Maybe it's the positive thinking movement in psychology catching on. Or maybe the books that Oprah talks about are having the desired hypnotic effect, books like The Secret and A New Earth: Awakening Your Life's Purpose.

Maybe I don't know what it is that's going on because I haven't read the pop psychology books, the best sellers. So blee neder, (no promises) I'll try.

I watch movies. I'm glued to the TV. I read books. I do it for you.

And then we have ToBeMe quoting Franz Kafka, telling us to write our own story. This is a therapeutic intervention,* no doubt, writing one's future, skeptically assessing one's strengths and weaknesses, challenging perceptions of who we are and what we can become to rewrite our story.

I call it the plastic surgery of identity.

Even Franz says that that the only way to approach some problems is to try going at them by another, perhaps paradoxical path.
"There are some things one can only achieve by a deliberate leap in the opposite direction." Franz Kafka
If you think you can't dance, DANCE, says ToBeMe.

The Rambam, a 12th century commentator on the Talmud (and a doctor) advised that we exaggerate the opposite of the personality trait we don't like in ourselves. If we're shy, rather than try to be assertive, shoot for loud. Exaggerate that which you think impossible.

They're all right, Kafka, Rambam, ToBeMe. But John, one of my supervisors at the Center for Family Studies/Family Institute of Chicago a hundred years ago, says differently. And he's right, too.

John used to supervise students at CFS/FIC, which was and still is a hip place, now a master's degree program at Northwestern University in Evanston. I don't know where he is, but he said a few things to me that still stick.

The first day of class he introduced the concept of a Family World View. He told us that this is integral to how a family sees life and affects our behavior as adults in subtle, unconscious ways. Since it's so embedded in our upbringing, we're barely conscious of it. I don't know if he said it exactly this way, he probably didn't, but it's how I took it home.

We were a small group of trainees, probably five, and we had to tell over our family of origin world views, at least some of what we could remember.

And I said, thinking I was bragging about my old man, "Well, my father used to tell me, 'There's nothing you can't do.' I wasn't allowed to say, I can't. Ever."

This astounded John. "Poor you."

Excuse me?

"Yeah. What a set up."

"I don't understand," I objected. "I think it gave me confidence. I approach most problems with a go-to-it attitude. If I fail I don't care. It's the challenge that matters. I'm a loser at Trivial Pursuits,** but I don't care!"

He told me that this worked, MAYBE, for me, (seeing through my every possible insecurity) because of natural talents and aptitudes and all sorts of strengths, mainly the family on my team, the big net to catch me.

So I was lucky. If I had come from a different family, however, and if I kept failing, and falling, I'd have been criticized and even emotionally, certainly verbally abused. In a different family, this kind of world view is dangerous.

In the wrong kind of family, if I had failed and kept failing, then for sure the flaw wouldn't be in the system. The flaw would be in me.

Low self-esteem. Self-loathing. Sex, drugs, rock and roll.

I guess I'm lucky I survived.

The whole experience really shook me up. Here you think that your parents raised you right, only to find that indeed, you're lucky that you made it past seventeen. Different genetics, different family, same world view, kabang!

Sure, I'm exaggerating. But what DO we do with this positivist, no can lose, be what you wanna' be, you-go-girl movement that's rocking the culture? Are our children going to raise children who are destined for disappointment? Johnny has to take antidepressants because he's too tall to be an astronaut? Becky can't lift five hundred pound weights so she's smoking crack?

I didn't tell John (too afraid to breathe at 27) that the corollary to what my parents told me is, Go ahead, try. And if you fail, if you fall, brush yourself off, pick yourself up, and pick a new major.

Which is why I'm not an artist today.


*A cognitive strategy, revisualizing a traumatic event in a different way can lesson the impact of the trauma, especially with repetition. There are other visualization techniques like this, and literally rewriting one's desired future is one of them, combining the behavior (writing) with the thought/wish.

The therapist is there, of course, to temper rewrites doomed to failure. Everyone needs a good editor.

**Depends upon the edition, sure, but usually I'll lose.


Rachel C Miller said...

I read where u said on tobeme.wordpress.com that it sets you up for failure to rewrite your life.There is only one failure in life and that is those who fail to take a chance to risk what is most comfortable. I regret nothing as life is an accumulative learning experience and the stagnisty that comes with out risk is death and many people walk around in a form comparative to death. Existing is not living and there is no failure in an attempt to create a new tomorrow.
Just my thoughts on it.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting post! You hit the nail on the head with the point that the trickle-down effects are subtle - There's the rub. 'You go girl' gives one the feeling of being unbalanced.

I do have some hope that 'Becky' may not wind up feeling the need to smoke crack. The 'you go girl' movement is something of an extension of one of the underlying myths of American culture: individualist, bootstrap ideology. It's fitted to a new media, certainly but it has the same flavour.

But I'm made wary by the fact that it's no longer even couched within messages that imply the sense of personal and cultural fragility around which notions like these actually developed - as in, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Much as his message was one of optimism, implicit in his New Deal liberalism was the recognition of the fragility of the individual.

There are those who do remind us of that part of the message though, so still I hope. Eg. Senator Obama - who gave a speech denouncing the 'old individualistic bootstrap myth'.

therapydoc said...

Rachel, thanks so much for the thoughts. I agree and go with No pain, no gain. As long as a person expects a little pain.

And Catatonic, I ALMOST considered bringing the pols into the post, I mean, what is Yes We Can if not postive?

But I've been advised to steer clear. Still, as long as we're talking,

What Barack has captured is the community, a whole other topic that does hinge upon the idea that

What we can do as a group, wow, the possibilities are endless.

Deb said...

The subtle seeping of ideals etc IS an important thing to highlight.

Estee said...

It's kind of interesting how a post about the family world view morphed into a discussion of community.... maybe because families are embedded in communities. and no matter how much we think of each family as distinct, families are part of a larger whole (or they are alienated and "weird").

What struck me about your post is the relational piece of it... what works for one kid, doesn't necessarily work for another, even when they are in the same family/community. That usually becomes even clearer as kids grow into adults and siblings show dramatic (or not-so-dramatic) differences in the ways that they deal with those childhood messages -- about money, sex, food, religion, etc. etc. It's hard for parents to tailor the message to the kid, yet make sure that they are all getting the message the parent wants to send. And then there is always the kid who just goes off and interprets the messsage -- I can't count the times my kid has proudly repeated (in public, no less) something that I said, except that it wasn't *quite* exactly what I said...

And not to pick on you, doc, but it's kind of interesting how you exposed yourself with this very personal story from grad school days.. and then quickly covered with that extra piece of info that you "didn't tell John". That small "critique" of your parents clearly left an indelible impression...

therapydoc said...

You wanna' talk indelible. Just WAIT til I tell the story about my sense of humor and what he said about that.

And you make a great point about parenting and how the family world view itself has to adapt to the family in process. I think healthy families change.

Mark said...

As a point of clarification, you used the example if you think you can't dance, then get up and dance. If our story is we can't dance, then we every time we tell our story we make this thought more concrete and we beleive we cannot dance. We do have the ability to re-write our story by learning how to dance. This does not mean that simply by changing our thought that we will magically become a great dancer. What is does mean is that by changing our thoughts, i.e. our story, we can open up the door to learn how to dance.
If our story is that we always fall for the wrong type of person, each time we have this thought we reinforce our behaviour which makes us fall for the wrong type of person for us. By rewriting our story to say that we have learned some great lessons about what type of person is wrong for us and that we now have a better understanding of the type of person we want to attract, sets one up for a better chance of attracting the right type of person for us and rejecting the wrong type of person.
The "go girl" mentality is positive, and must be tempered with a realistic understanding that we may and most likley will fail along the way, however that by trying we may achieve our desires or find a more appropiate path as a lesson of trying and failing or desiring to do something which we cannot do because of limitations beyond our control.
This is a good discussion and I do appreciate your point of view and for giving your attention to this. Thank-you!

therapydoc said...

You said it better than I ever could. Thanks, Mark.

Jack said...

IMO one of the most important things I can teach my children is how to fail.

That is, what to do when your best isn't good enough. How do you respond when you just can't get it done.

Hmm, think I'll write about it tonight.

ima2a2 said...

'Failure to rewrite my life' - my therapist said once that I've been trying to do this.

re: So I was lucky. If I had come from a different family, however, and if I kept failing, and falling, I'd have been criticized and even emotionally, certainly verbally abused. In a different family, this kind of world view is dangerous.

In the wrong kind of family, if I had failed and kept failing, then for sure the flaw wouldn't be in the system. The flaw would be in me.

Low self-esteem. Self-loathing. Sex, drugs, rock and roll.

I guess I'm lucky I survived.

Whoa. Thanks for giving me something important to think about.

(I guess I'm 'lucky' it was only eating and mental health issues I escaped to college with)

therapydoc said...

Well, we are lucky. Just being able to talk about these things like this, very lucky. Most Jewish kids have some kind of issue with eating, probably because we drink less.

And you know. Everyone has mental health issues, if not their own, then someone else's.

Chag sameach (for those of you who don't know what that means, it's Have a Happy Holiday. We're zeroing in on one at the end of the week.)