Archives: Brain

The Gratitude State of Mind: Confronting the “Comparison Trap”

thankful

The Gratitude State of Mind: Confronting the “Comparison Trap”

We hear “have an attitude of gratitude” a lot nowadays. Thinking about what we are grateful for is associated with a multitude of positive emotional and physical effects. I have some further thoughts about gratitude using my integrated approach. Why might gratitude be good for us?

In my opinion, we humans are meaning making beings. In order for us to act in a world so filled with ambiguous sensory and emotional information, our minds constantly organize our experience into packets of meaning. One very salient and well-worn meaning meme is comparison. From the time we are children, we learn to organize through comparison– that ball is bigger than this ball, that dog is younger than that other dog, etc.  Soon these comparisons include us– that girl is older than me, that boy is taller than me, I have more toys than that kid. At some point the comparisons are not only factually meaningful, but emotionally meaningful and self-contextual as well: My thighs are bigger than that other woman’s thighs, he makes more money than me, I have a better house than she does, he has a better job than me, he is in better shape than me, my kids are doing so much better than theirs are.  Even when we don’t articulate ourselves in the idiom of comparison, comparisons are often implicit in our thoughts about people and situations: Her child is out of control! (My child is much better behaved than hers). She looks really great for her age (Why don’t I look that good? Maybe I should get botox!).  What a great house they have (Their house is so much nicer than ours).  Following from all this meaning making comes a set of assumptions we make about ourselves based on our comparisons. “Look at her great career” becomes equated with “What did I do wrong?  I’m a failure! I’ll never amount to anything”. Even comparisons where we appear in a positive light don’t seem to serve a developmental purpose: “Wow, look at that poor guy begging for money” can lead to feelings of contempt, guilt and unworthiness, as well as a sense of foreboding. When we rely so much on comparison to feel good about ourselves, we live in fear of losing it and without a deep sense of our own worth separate from our comparisons. We fall apart and lose a good sense of ourselves when we are stung by what Shakespeare terms the  “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. The comparison trap that many of us live in is not healthy and satisfying since placing ourselves in a hierarchy, no matter how high in we are in it, can never lead to long-term feelings of self-confidence and happiness. We are driven to move up the ladder or to desperately maintain our place toward the top, always terrified of falling. We don’t develop a sense of who we are and what our values are, separate from our comparisons to other people.

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Hungry Ghosts on the Couch: Longing, Yearning and Craving

shadows and their reflections

Hungry Ghosts on the Couch: Longing, Yearning and Craving

Do you ever feel hunger, craving or yearning gnawing at your soul?  I do and I know many others who do as well. The “condition” may noiselessly exist, only subtly tinting our lens of experience. Oftentimes though this hunger is the loud and demanding engine that drives our lives so that we are always craving, reaching and suffering. Buddhism even has a whole realm of existence dedicated to this concept: the realm of the hungry ghost. Hungry ghosts are depicted as having large stomachs and extremely constricted throats, disabling their abilities to take in nourishment, and eternally sentencing them to unsatisfied and insatiable craving and longing. Psychoanalysts W. Ronald D. Fairbairn and Harry Guntrip also addressed the dialectical relationship between longing and fear, and our tendencies to adhesively attach ourselves to unsatisfying relationships and actions, making it impossible to trust and take in true nourishment. We are born with a powerful and healthy life force that drives us toward human connection. Through early disappointment and trauma, this healthy force becomes twisted into insatiable desire and craving and we replace healthy connections (with both ourselves and others) with activities and relationships that quickly soothe the pain, but do not transform it. If you feel this way, you are not alone. According to Lama Surya Das, when a student asked Thich Nhat Hanh, “What is life like in the realm of the hungry ghosts?”, he replied, “America”.  Turn on your television, open a magazine or start-up your computer and you will see all the shiny remedies to your pain and loneliness.

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Armchair Psychoanalysis: Anthony Weiner and the Tweets of Doom

thwarted

Armchair Psychoanalysis: Anthony Weiner and the Tweets of Doom

To preface, I am not Anthony Weiner’s psychotherapist, psychologist, psychoanalyst, or hypnotist, but I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the facets of this mega faux pas and use this event as a “teachable moment”, a way of exploring psychological ideas.

Now, I do not know Congressman Weiner, so I don’t profess to know AT ALL, what was and is going through his mind. Even if I did know him, I’m sure there is such a panoply of potential explanations and rationalizations for his behavior that we could theorize for days and weeks and months, and still not know. Any understanding of his psyche will only occur within the private and secure bounds of his own therapy, painstakingly discovered through a dedicated and authentic process. We will never know. Hopefully he will articulate, for himself,  a narrative that will help him express and rework these longings, fears and compulsions. I don’t know him, and I am not trying to figure him out– my friends and patients will tell you that I tend to believe it is a futile exercise to make any attempt to decode the meaning of a another man’s behavior. Let’s just use our imaginations and play and try to learn about how the mind works.

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