It Was Meant To Be
People often repeat proverbs as explanations as to why certain events have occurred in their lives. One saying I commonly hear is: "it was meant to be." People use this expression to account for both positive and negative events in their lives. For example, "It was meant to be that I met the man of my dreams" or "the promotion at work that I did not get was not meant to be."
This saying implies that what has happened in a person's life occurred because of an external omnipotent force. These expression are stated in past tense, and is never said prior to an event as a premonition.
It Happened For A Reason
The proverb implies a sense of destiny -- the belief one's actions are predetermined and must have happened for a reason. In fact, some people actually say "it must have happened for a reason" rather than "it was meant to be" -- but both expressions have similar connotations.
In a predetermined world, one is no longer responsible for his or her decisions. One might think she is making a choice, but in actuality she is doing what is dictated by destiny. To use an an analogy, in a world where destiny rules, one's experience of having free will is like the child's experience of being the captain of the ship on a carnival ride where the toy steering wheel has no real control of the boat that in reality travels on a fixed circular track. In other words, free will and choice are illusory.
The Abandon Of Free Will
Why would someone want to accept a worldview that undermines their right to self determination? Isn't personal freedom what we all strive for? From an early age are we not taught the goal of life is to achieve as much freedom as possible, be it financially, socially, at work or in one's relationships? Why would a person want their freedom taken away or diminished by some sort of authoritarian force or being? Is it possible that personal freedom is not all that it is cracked up to be?
The Anxiety Of Choice
Some people have a hard time making decisions. Decisions are not always easy, be it what college to go to, who to marry, where to live, how to invest, should I have kids, take this job, divorce or retire? While you often hear personal freedom is a wonderful privilege, when faced with actual choices, individuals often become psychologically paralyzed. Fear of making the wrong decision can lead to overwhelming anxiety and despair. Once the choice has been made, many individuals often doubt their decision and experience the dread associated with regret. This regret sometimes manifests itself in an obsessive like rumination: "should have" -- "could have" --"what if." Other times, it is defended against by denying the the personal responsibility for the decision. It was not my fault, or I could not have choose otherwise because it was beyond by control -- "it was meant to be."
Paradoxically, to some individuals freedom can be experience as a limitation. To choose "A" means you did not choose "B". Decisions can be perceived as an act of eliminating options. Contrary to the popular saying, for these individuals, every time a door opens another door is closed. A closed door symbolizes one's finitude. Alexander Graham Bell said it so nicely: "When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us."
Should Have Could Have
Personal freedom can cause anxiety on many different levels. First, there is the fear of making the wrong decision. This anxiety manifests in obsessive thoughts, thinking over and over again about the pros and cons of each decision. Ironically, while it may feel like not choosing keeps open possibilities, in reality no decision is itself a choice, one that is nonproductive or forward-moving. Second, there is the anxiety associated with regret. This anxiety manifests in ruminative thoughts, the "should have" -- "could have."
Coping Mechanisms and Regret
Both types of anxiety are very painful and can result in despair. Many individuals develop coping mechanisms to avoid these intense negative feelings. For example, some might develop compulsions. -- repetitive rituals as a means of trying to gain a sense of control over fear of the unknown. Others might avoid the decision altogether -- perhaps alcohol or drug abuse as a means of not dealing with the question at hand. Several might deny there is even a choice -- if life is ruled by destiny -- "it was meant to be " you are not responsible for decisions, thus cannot have regrets.
From experience we all know that these coping mechanisms -- be it obsessions, compulsions, avoidance or denial -- have limited abilities to defend against these fears and anxieties associated with the responsibility and pressure of self determination.
Claustrophobia, Panic Attacks And The Fear of Death
There is one more level of anxiety worth mentioning that is intertwined with both the fear to decide and the regret of past decisions. This anxiety is much deeper and more cumbersome than the anxieties discussed above. For the fear of limitation when pushed to its root origin brings one to the fear of one's finitude. Perhaps the claustrophobia or panic associated with a closed door is intrinsically the fear of one's mortality. The existential psychologist refer to this ultimate cause of angst as "death anxiety." But the fairy tale of "happily ever after" is perhaps a topic for another blog.
Dr. Martin Klein is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety. He has offices in Westport and Branford CT.
Copyright November 2016, Martin Klein, Ph.D.
Alcohol is legal and socially acceptable. It plays an important role in our culture and daily lives. To make a toast on a special occasion or engage with your associates at a happy hour is considered to be normal and even proper etiquette. While low dosages of alcohol might reduce social inhibitions or improve cardiac health, it has long been known that excessive drinking is detrimental to most of the organs in your body and in fact can be deadly if done to excess.
Over the long-term, heavy alcohol consumption can cause severe illness such as liver and brain damage and increase risk of cancer. A recent study concluded that drinking as little as 10-14 glasses of wine or beer a week can reduce one's life expectancy by several years. While alcohol may not be seen by society as a deadly drug, in our country over 15 million people are reported to have some sort of alcohol use disorder, and over 88,000 people die from alcoholism on an annual basis. Alcohol is a highly addictive substance. In fact, trying to detox off of alcohol without medical assistant can have dire physiological consequences. It is no wonder that alcoholism is viewed as a chronic and sometimes fatal disease.
However, alcoholism has not always been considered to be a disease. Prior to the twentieth century, a person's inability to "hold their liquor" was seen more as a personal weakness. Alcoholics were identified as "drunks," with flawed character and low morals. It was not until the 1930s that the medical community began to define alcoholism as a disease and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded and embraced the disease model as a core principle. The disease model allowed the medical profession to begin to treat addicts as victims of their illness rather than derelicts who should be punished for their sins.
The disease model has its merits -- it offered alcoholics the opportunity for recovery rather than social scorn. However, it also had an intrinsic flaw -- it did not address the underlying psychological issues that caused the substance abuse in the first place.
Many people who abuse alcohol suffer from some sort of underlying anxiety disorder. In an attempt to self-medicate their underlying psychological issues, the alcoholic develops an addiction. The alcoholic now has dual presenting problems -- 1. anxiety and 2. alcohol dependence. It is my clinical view that to achieve sustained sobriety, the alcohol abuse and the underlying anxiety dysfunctions must be concurrently treated. In fact, between 20 to 50 percent of people do relapse right after the completion of disease model treatment program and nearly 90 percent of people relapse within 4 years of completing an alcohol rehabilitation program.
Being human is not a easy feat. We don't have control over many variables in our lives and we must all face possibilities that tragedies can happen at anytime, including one's own mortality. For most of us, however, we adapt to our existential condition. We learn how to put things out of our heads so we can function in the world and limit our fears. Anxiety is a normal part of life and in many instances it arises for good reason. For example, if a lion is chasing you in the jungle, anxiety and fear are not only appropriate, they are essential to one's survival instinct.
Alcoholics tend to be individuals that did not grow-up in ideal family settings. They did not develop a basic sense of security or trust and thus never felt safe with others or even natural in their own skin.
They tend to be overwhelmed by irrational anxieties and uncontrollable fears even in situations that don't justify these feelings. Their high degree of anxieties can manifest in different ways. Some individuals suffer from general anxiety; constant worrisome thoughts and unnecessary fears about routine events and everyday activities. Others have social anxieties; fear of being scrutinized by others, humiliated or embarrassed in public. Many are plagued by obsessions or compulsions; paralyzed by the "should've could've," find it difficult to make decisions, stop ruminations or unwanted behaviors. Many cannot slow down their thought processes and suffer from an inability to relax or insomnia. Others have phobias; public speaking, going in an elevator or meeting a stranger can result in a feeling of panic, chest pain, tightness in the throat and shortness of breath. A history of trauma or past abusive can result in the avoidance of intimacy, low self-esteem, intrusive thoughts and self-destructive behaviors.
Alcoholics can have have one or more of the types of anxiety disorders described above. To achieve sobriety and avoid relapse, a person has to do more than stop drinking, they have to learn better coping mechanisms to handle their underlining anxieties that are at the root of their substance abuse problem.
AA meetings can play a significant role in helping the alcoholic address their anxieties. More than just focusing on alcohol as a disease, there is a significant psycho-social component to the AA group meetings that address the alcoholic's anxieties head on. AA group meetings can be viewed as a form of exposure therapy; whereby the alcoholic faces its irrational fears and learns more adoptive interpersonal modalities of functioning. AA offers a type of re-parenting experience; a safe environment of unconditional support that promotes basic trust and a sense of social well being. Attending meetings and sharing with others in an open and honest manner is self empowering; it reinforces that one is okay for who they are. By surrendering to a high power, the alcoholic comes to terms with the reality that many existential fears are not in their control. By bonding with a sponsor, honesty and intimacy is achieved perhaps for the first time. By taking one step at a time, the person stops ruminating about future and past decisions. By having to attend groups and speak in front of others, irrational interpersonal and social fears are called into question.
However, for many AA meetings are not the right mileu to address their psychological issues. They need more individualistic and intensive psychotherapy to work though their childhood and family issues and learn more adaptive ways to improve self-esteem communication, interpersonal relationships and abilities to handle existential issues as they arise. Existential psychotherapy can help you learn how to differentiate between appropriate anxieties, the fear one feels when a lion is chasing you in the jungle, and irrational anxieties, the fears of low self-esteem, being around others or being a failure.
Dr. Martin Klein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport CT. He specializes in alcoholism, addictions and anxiety disorders. He is trained in existential psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.
Dr. Martin Klein, Ph.D. psychologist specializes in the treatment of anxiety utilizing a combination of hypnosis, mindfulness techniques and psychotherapy. He practices in Westport, CT.
A psychiatric diagnosis is a cluster of psychological and behavioral conditions as defined by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Over the years, there has been numerous revisions of this manual. With each revision, there tends to be significant changes to the different menus of diagnoses and how each diagnosis is defined. For example, in the most current manual the diagnosis of "Asperger's disorder" has been removed and is now considered as a part of the class of "Autistic Spectrum disorders." In one of the earliest manuals there was diagnoses termed "Neurotic disorder." The term " neurosis" is no longer considered a proper diagnostic disorder and it has been eliminated from the manual.
So what happens to an individual who has a diagnosis that the American Psychiatric Association decides no longer should exist? What happens to the child I work with who has been labelled "Aspergers" for the past several years and now has a new diagnosis? What about poor Woody Allen? If he can no longer be considered a "Neurotic" can he still make movies?
As several of the great existential thinkers have pointed out, psychiatric diagnoses are not objective disorders, but rather are social constructs that change over time (i.e., Szasz, Lang, Foucault).
When I worked in a psychiatric hospital 25 years ago, the most popular diagnosis was "Schizoaffective Disorder." What did that diagnosis mean? Basically the person was having problems with his or her thought process (schizo) and well as his or her mood (affective). I remember doing an inpatient group with 10 individuals, all diagnosed with "Schizoffective Disorder". All of the people in group did have something in common -- they were not thinking clearly and had mood issues. However, the similarities stopped there. Each person was unique. Each had a different reason for being in the hospital as well as different backgrounds and issues. In fact, at the time, I remember thinking to myself, I would not be thinking clearly or be in a very good mood if I was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital against my will either.
Today the new popular diagnosis is "Bipolar." Almost everyone coming out of a psychiatric hospital comes out with a diagnosis of "Bipolar." If you are not thinking clearly or having mood issue you are now identified with this now popular disorder. The other widely popular modern day diagnosis is "Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD)". So many kids these days are being put on speed to improve their attention. Does speed improve one's attention, most definitely. Should all children who have focusing issue be diagnosed with "ADHD" and put on speed? I personally feel it is a significant social problem.
Psychiatric diagnoses are clusters of symptoms. They change over time dependent upon what is popular in the current culture; and more specifically the psychiatric community. Diagnoses are tools people in the field of mental health use to describe a cluster of symptoms and behaviors. There are many theories as to what causes a person to be and act a certain way, but these theories also change over time and are historically dependent on the culture and trends in the psychiatric field.
So what is my point? You should not define yourself by your psychiatric diagnosis. Diagnoses are helpful in understanding psychological symptoms and patterns of behavior. They can be a great tool for the clinician or the psychiatrist in determining the best treatment or medication. A person diagnosed as "Bipolar" is an individual who is possibly struggling with his or thought process or mood. Therapy and medication can help. However, having these cluster of symptoms, thought or behavioral patterns, do not define who you are as an individual with unique personal issues and struggles.
Dr. Klein is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport CT. He specializes in psychiatric assessment and psychological treatment from a humanistic existential orientation.
Copyright April 2016, Martin Klein, Ph.D.
And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself,
well...How did I get here?
From an early age we are taught to follow the rules of society very seriously. We are thrown into a predetermined set of familial, and more broadly, cultural norms that drive and define us. For most of our waken time, we act and do what we are told without question. We follow in our parent's foot steps and when we astray we are redirected back to the norm by modeling and conditioning.
As children we learn about ethics and morals. We learn to internalize what is right and what is wrong and how we should act, think and behave in different situations. Even before we are born, we have a name, a demarcation that already has significance and affects who we will become. We fear making a mistake; be it getting a "D" in school, not getting into the right college, choosing the right spouse, finding the right profession, raising your kids properly or saving enough in your 401k.
We live our lives propelled forward -- looking backwards only to remember where we came from, who we are, and the the ideals that guide us to who we become. Fredrick Nietzsche called it the "Herd," Martin Heidegger called it the "They," Sigmund Freud called it the "Super Ego," and Jacque Lacan called it the "the Symbolic." While these thinkers might not agree on all aspects of their philosophical presuppositions, their basic premise share a similar significance.
We are born into a historical world, with a language, ideology and common sensibility. Like in a familiar game or sport, we learn the rules so well, we are able to play our assigned roles so naturally, without even a moment of hesitation. Be it the language we speak, the activities we do, the popular styles or fashion we follow, how we communicate, feel or related to others. This human "belongingness" to a collective symbolic order is best illustrated in today's obsession with social media. In today's world, the toddler, before she can master walking, knows how to surf the World Wide Web. We live in a society where we communicate by text, are always "connected" and are absorbed in 24/7 media and news. Ask any parent about the panic that occurs when you try to take a child's I Phone away. The 'Internet Of Things" has become the the iconic symbol of our generation's alienation from our own subjectivity -- a constant connectivity to avoid self-reflection. This avoidance to be with one's own self has reached epidemic proportions in our current society; as manifested in the abundance of obsessions, compulsions and addictions to drugs, social media, video games and internet pornography.
For many of us, we are so absorbed living our lives we have no time to think about or question the very nature of our existence. It is only when we are jolted by a specific event or perhaps a developmental crisis, we find ourselves thrown into self reflection and ridden with existential doubt and anxiety. For many this existential crisis manifests in the form of psychological symptoms, be it panic attacks, insomnia, obsessions or compulsions, feelings of helplessness, a sense of directionless, lack of pleasure or molase. For many it is arises in the form of a mid-life crisis" or confronted by an illness or older age.
In my practice, I often here people say: it felt as if one day I awoken out of a deep sleep and found myself entangled into a strange life, surrounded by people I don't know and working a meaningless job I don't like. How did I get here? is a question many people ask when we meet for the first time in my office. Why did we turn out way we did? What were the underlining reasons that caused us to be who we are? How did our lives end up the way it did? How did things turn out so different from one's expectations?
Be it the 75 year old man who does not recognize his own reflection in the mirror. Where did the time go? When he looked in the mirror, the image looked more like his father than he. How about the couple who met in high school and fell in love at first sight. They were soulmates, best friends and always had each other's back. Now they find themselves married twenty years with two kids and they can barely look at each other without a conflict. A man who dreamt of fame an fortunate as a child, now counts the days to retirement and his government pension. How could a man with such promise end up working such a personally meaningless job? How does a child of the sixties, who fought for freedom and equality, find herself working for a hedge fund helping the top one percent become even wealthier? Or, the man faced with illness, question the purpose of his very existence.
How did we get here? is the question that arises when the self takes a step back and reflects upon its own historical relevance. What is the purpose of my life? It is also the question that unhingers the deeper existential questions of self-identity, free will, meaninglessness and personal finitude.
There is such a contradiction to the human condition. We take ourselves very seriously. Who we are, how we want to be perceived, the importance and consequence of our actions, what we look like, what we achieved, our physical health, our relationships, who we want to become. Yet, when we sit back and reflect upon the greater existential questions, our sense of self-importance can shrink to utter confusion and meaninglessness. Are we not all "bipolar" -- faced with one's own finitude, we race to achieve what we were meant to be, yet why bother, if in the grand scheme of thing, what we do does not matter.
This is the human dilemma. Faced with a life crisis, getting older and an awareness of one's finitude, cracks begin to form in the foundation of one's everyday identity, purpose and significance. Panic sets in unleashing powerful waves of existential doubt and anxiety. Reflecting upon one's personal history, like a literary critic analyzing a narrative, the individual begins the process of self discovery and understanding the thematic motives upon which their lives and self identity were constructed.
Personal freedom can be both a blessing and a curse. While you are free to choose your own destiny, this freedom comes with a price, an awareness of the ultimate groundlesssness of your existence. To face death, is both freeing in terms of the anxiety associated with stress of everyday decisions and concerns, yet existentially wounding and anxiety provoking when confronted with one's temporality and ultimate lack of permanency and significance.
Perhaps the question "How did we get here?" naturally leads us to the question "How do we get out of here? I will let Bob Dylan have the final words.
"There must be some way out of here" said the joker to the thief
"There's too much confusion", I can't get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
"No reason to get excited", the thief he kindly spoke
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late".
Copyright, Feb. 2017, Martin Klein, Ph.D
It’s not that easy being green;
Having to spend each day the color of the leaves.
When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold-
or something much more colorful like that.
It's not easy being green.
It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.
And people tend to pass you over 'cause you're not standing out
like flashy sparkles in the water- or stars in the sky.
Life can be hard. We are born into the world so helpless and dependent on others. As we get older we are faced with many challenges and unknowns. Learning to walk is no easy feat. The act of separation is painful. The first day away from your parents is traumatic and anxiety provoking. School is a challenge and requires more and more work as we advance. When school does finally end, we are faced with the anxiety of finding a good job and preparing to grind through the hoops of advancement. While there are many wonderful things about having a family, child rearing is much more difficult than anyone can imagine. Raising a family is beyond a full-time responsibility. The required sacrifice of one's freedom for the good of the family at times can be exhausting and not so personally rewarding.
Yet we continue to tightly grasp onto our dreams. Many of the ideals that motivate us we digested even before we knew how to speak. We learn from our parents, teachers, and the many forms of social media who we should be, think, and become. We are told we can be outstanding. We want to "be all we can be." We believe we can become our idols if we dress or talk like them or buy their products. Even the child believes the commercials that the toy inside the box is the real thing, or that they can become the action figure or build a fighter jet just like perfect representation on the box top. We enter the socialization process and strive to be a good person, be responsible, have a good job, support our families and the community.
When you are young time seems to go so slow. A ten year old dreams of being a teenager, a teenager dream of being a college student, a college student dreams of being an adult. However, as we get older, our sense of temporality seems to change -- time seems to quickly speed up.
With a blink of an eye, you find yourself middle aged. When you look in the mirror you don't recognize yourself. You now look more like your own parent than your internal image of yourself. Your body is beginning to slow down and the wear and tear of aging results in aches and pains. For the first time, you are faced with the limitations of both your aging body and ability to live out your dreams and childhood aspirations.
Like Wile E. Coyote, from the Road Runner cartoon, you realize, perhaps for the first time, you are hanging onto a fragile branch that in time will crack and fall into the abyss.
You start to question the very premise of your existence. The metaphysical questions of the great philosophers no longer seem abstract and irrelevant. Who am I? What is my purpose? Can I ever feel whole or complete? Does my life actually matter? Am I a coherent self or a loose collection of fragment streams of thoughts and ideas? If I am going to die, does anything I try to accomplish count for anything in the larger scheme of things? Shakespeare's quote "to be or not to be that is the question" shakes your existential core.
To face one's own death can be frightening. Much of what we do in our lives is about losing ourselves in the everyday busyness — to avoid, deny and repress our own limitation. One of my clients coined the term "ego cowardice" to describe this failure to face reality and continue living a life based upon false hopes, oneiric ideals and deceptions.”
To face one's finitude takes courage. It might even feel a bit like bungee jumping without the cord. But the truth is that the cord was cut a long time ago.
Perhaps Rose, in the movie Moonstruck, said it best when she finds out her middle aged husband is cheating on her with a younger woman: "I just want you to know Cosmo, no matter what you do, you're gonna die, just like everybody else."
To accept one's existence might only be liberating for a moment. But in life -- a moment in time is all we have. Why not make the most of it.
Dr. Martin Klein is a clinical psychologist who specializes in insight oriented existential psychotherapy and analysis. He works with people dealing with issues related to life transitions, self identity, intimacy, relationships, careers, spirituality, grief, aging, major illness, loneliness and meaningfulness. He has offices in Westport and Branford CT
I often see patients who want to know why they do certain activities that on the surface do not seem to make sense. From a practical perspective, these odd behaviors seem out of character or of a compulsive nature. "I cannot stop doing the action, even though it seems irrational and a waste of time."
In the therapeutic process, the reasons whey we do certain things or act out in a particular fashion is not always transparent and may take awhile to figure out. It is a wonderful part of the psychology process -- an "aha moment" -- when the person and his or her psychologist discovers the meaning of an action.
Many people want a quick fix -- they want the negative behavior or the painful symptom to go away quickly and effortlessly. In some cases this makes sense. But sometimes, it does not. To use an analogy, does it make sense to turn off the fire alarm while there still is a fire burning or a lack of understanding as to the cause of the fire?
I once had a patient with a unique presenting problem. For dinner he would eat the same thing every night -- steak, string beans and creamy mashed potatoes. He would eat the steak first, then the string beans and then finally the creamy mashed potatoes. He would always save the creamy mashed potatoes for last, it was his favorite. However, each night, by the time he finished the steak and string beans, the creamy mashed potatoes were cold. That is right, his presenting problem was cold creamy mashed potatoes. Now if I was a "practical type of psychotherapist", the fix would be easy -- after you finish the steak and string beans, stick the creamy mash potatoes in the microwave and warm them up. But to follow-up with my fire analogy, it is my view that such an action would be like shutting off the fire alarm and not dealing with the real burning issue. For this gentleman, this compulsive pattern was symbolic of a greater issue that in fact affected the very core of how he lived his life. I would call it the "you cannot win syndrome." In his life, he felt like he works very hard, but the reward that he expects for his hard work never comes or when it does finally come, it is cold lumpy and does not taste good. The creamy mash potatoes was symbolic of personal freedom -- the "easy life" -- the effortless melting in your mouth -- an experience this person never seemed to get to.
As many of the great existential thinkers have taught us, human beings are symbolic creatures and think, act and behave with in the realm of the symbolic (Freud, Jung, Eliade, Ricouer). Many of our activities have deep symbolic significance. While these symbolic actions resonates with our sense of well being, their meanings tend to stay hidden.
The most obviously place where the symbolic realm can be most seen is in the world of games. What is the attraction of tennis? Is tennis a working through of some deeper issue? I often talk about tennis when I am doing marital therapy. Isn't tennis a game about relationships -- who is left with the ball in their court --who is at fault? -- are we equally at fault? -- ah then we have "love."
Why do we love to watch football so much -- the great American obsession? What is the symbolic meaning of the game? What is the goal of football, if not to get the ball, which is shaped like a egg -- the symbol of perfection -- to the goal post without it falling and cracking. Why do they pile on the player who is already down with the ball? Why is it so important to make sure the other team does not get back up?
Why are our kids so addicted to video games? Are the themes of these games resonating with our children's needs or desires on a symbolic level? In 1980s, when I was working as a school psychologist, I was fascinated with adolescents' obsession with "Pac-Man." This was before computers, and kids would spend endless hours after school at the arcades. In 1984, I published an article entitled "The Bite of Pac-man" where I explored the symbolic allure of the game. Why did the theme of the "Pac-Man"game resonate so much with adolescents? As I discussed in the article " The themes and strategies of the game perfectly accommodate the adolescent's relation to the world. The Pac-man creature, which the player controls and symbolically becomes, is all mouth and is referred to as "Jaws." "Jaws" spends his time and energy running from the engulfing monsters. There are four different types of monsters, each with its own personality: "Shadow" always follows you; "Bashful" will run away when you turn around; "Ambition" is always willing to attack you; and "Speedy" is fast and will run over you.... If the player engulfs enough monsters before they engulf him, he becomes a winner." While the game of "Pac-Man" might be a safe place to work out issues of separation and individuation, it is still a game -- a feel good fantasy -- not an achievement of personal maturity and a true reflection of one's ability to survive in the world.
What are some of the symbolic things you do or participate in as you live your life? Do you have activities or compulsions that you are addicted to and are not sure why?
Symbolism and everyday actions, it is something to think about.
Dr. Klein is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport CT. He specializes in life transitions, relationship issues, identity, personal growth and self understanding. He is trained in both clinical psychology and existential philosophy.
A man says to his wife:
"Listen honey, whoever dies first,
I want to make sure it is okay that I remarry."
Jerry Seinfield on Choosing a Psychotherapist
Bob Newhart on Brief Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Woody Allen on Long Term Psychoanalysis
Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) on Hypnosis
Ray Ramano on Martial and Family Issues
Robin Williams on Alcohol Dependence
Jackie Mason on Self-Identity and Psychiatry
Stephen Wright on Early Childhood Memories
Jim Parsons (Sheldon) on Facing Your Fears
Bill Murray on Hypochondriasis
Richard Lewis on Psychotherapy and Termination
The most important men in town would come to fawn on me.
They would ask me to advise them, like Solomon the Wise.
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eye!
And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
When you're rich, they think you really know!
Tevye -- Fiddler on the Roof
Money plays a significant role in how we live our lifes. While money is usually considered an asset, how we relate to money has significant psychological consequences.
The utilization of money as a means to trade goods has been around for thousands of years, be it a shell, a coin, a piece of paper or electronic payment. Money is valuable because we know everyone else will accept it as a form of currency. The coin or piece of paper independent of what it represents, however, is worthless. Money only has value as a symbol of what it signifies -- I.e, an elaborate barter system where you exchange services and goods.
Sometimes symbols can become over ridden with personal meanings. Like many symbols, money can detach from its originally intention and take on a totally different meaning with a life on its own. For example, money can be associated with freedom, power, personal identity, self-worth, or even immortality to name a few.
Money with all its symbolism and psycho-social significance can play a major role in people's life. Money can affect one's mental health, marriage, families, friendships, job, and even political viewpoints. It is no wonder that money is one of the top concerns people have when seeking out psychological services.
I see many individuals in my practice where money has become a symbol attached to one's sense of identity and self-worth. I saw one gentleman who was obsessed with how much he lost in the stock market 17 years ago. It still keeps him up at night. While he does well financially and lives a very comfortable life, he still looks back and beats himself up with "should have could haves" about his past investment strategies. No matter how good a person he is, his identity and self worth is dependent upon what he did with his money many years ago. He still owned this one stock that he lost a lot of money in. Each day he watches the stock market to see if this stock went up or down. If it goes up he feels good about himself, if it goes down, he has a bad week. He has a true case, of what I call "Dow Affective Disorder" -- an emotional roller coaster associated with perceived self worth based upon the paper value of an investment. You often hear that you should not be emotionally attached to investments, but to many, investments are the pillar upon which to value one's sense of worth. Is having a lot of money true wealth if you are still unhappy? Perhaps Benjamin Franklin had they right interpretation for this gentleman: "Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it."
I once saw a young man in his early thirties who was so successful in his career that he could retire. He did not seem to have much interest in the possessions that money could buy. However, he had no other interests than working and when he was not working he would become overwhelmed with anxiety. It was this anxiety that brought him to see me. Why did he continue to work so hard at making money and why did he get so anxious when he tried to relax? What was he getting out of the work that was so compelling? What he did for a living was about out-smarting others. Making the good deal and beating out his opponent is what made him feel good about himself -- gave him a sense of self worth. As I got to know him better, the connection to his childhood experience with his younger brother became apparent. He and his brother were always in competition, yet no matter how much he achieved, his parents always viewed his brother as being smarter and more successful. When he was winning the deal he felt good, but the moment he was not engaged in the game, he was once again overwhelmed with fears of being a failure.
I often hear stories of aunts or uncles who were thought to be poor, but died with millions of dollars in the bank. Why would a person live like a pauper, live so frugally to the degree of deprivation, yet die with so much money in the bank? What purpose did the money serve? Did it actually give them a sense of security or safety net from the unknown? Did they believe they could take it with them? Ironically, the distant relative that inherits the money often has a different sense of meaning attached to the money. Rather than deprivation for security, they see the money as something for nothing and freedom to spend. To quote Dire Straits: "Oh that ain't workin' that's the way you do it. Get your money for nothin' get your chicks for free."
Money is one of the top issues that comes up in marital therapy as a presenting stressor. What happens when two individuals, raised with very different financial values, become a family? What if he is a believer in saving and she believes in spending? What if one person comes to the marriage with much more money than the other person or has a significantly higher income? While the concept of two individuals become one under the eyes of God makes sense from a spiritual and emotional perspective, the merging of two bank accounts is far more complex and not so easy to work out. When you get married, should you keep separate accounts, have a joint account or have a little of both? How a couples handles their money can say a lot about a relationship. I often see couples in my practice, where one of the partners insists on having a separate account in his or own name. While under the law all wealth is communal, this separate stash gave this person a symbolic sense of control -- "without a separate bank account, I feel like I am vunerable and lose my sense of independence."
In premartial counseling the question of a prenup often comes up. The idea of a prenup by its very nature calls into the question the sancity of marriage. How can two people make a vow to be together forever if they they have a written contract prepared just in case it does not workout? I often hear, "I just don't find the idea of a prenup to be very romantic." Money can become a symbolic wall that protects individual interests yet keeps a wedge between couples.
Money clearly plays a significant role in how we relate to ourselves and others. At times, our real underlying concerns with money has to do with deeper issues such as identity, self-sufficiency, self-esteem, self-worth, freedom, stability, fear of loss, the battle for control and power and how one relates to mortality.
Perhaps there is more to wealth than money and more to money than wealth. Maybe Henry David Thoreau was right when he said: "Wealth is the ability to fully experience life."
Copyright Nov. 2016, Martin Klein, Ph.D.
From an early age we learn to be silent. Embedded deep in our collective thoughts are proverbial beliefs such as “Children should be seen and not heard” and ‘If you have nothing good to say, then say nothing at all.” This “looking away” attitude of society has resulted in generations of adults who suffer the pain of silence -- the pain associated with being a victim of childhood abuse.
How can a child, who must be dependent upon adults for nurturance and guidance, accept the terrible reality that his or her parental figures are non-trustworthy, out of control and capable of harmful abuse? How can such a child, whose basic trust and sense of self was violated, learn to trust another individual or allow for an intimate and bonding relationship?
As a means of survival, victims of childhood abuse learn, early on in life, coping strategies to defend against thoughts and feelings to painful and frightening to put into words.
While these defense mechanisms serve important functions at the time of the abuse, as the child psychologically develops they tend to hinder adaptation to adulthood. The traits and behaviors that were at one time beneficial in terms of helping the child survive an abusive situation become maladaptive when applied to more appropriate relationships. Healthy relationships rely upon basic trust and intimacy – two characteristics survivors of abuse tend to lack.
The adult survivor relives the past in the present as if the environment they currently occupy is as dangerous, unpredictable and uncontrollable as their childhood realities. As a result, many survivors tend to be non-trusting, guarded, avoidant of intimacy and hyper vigilant.
The three coping mechanisms most widely used by adult survivors to defend against painful and intruding thoughts and feelings are repressions, denial and dissociation.
Many adults who have been abused as children are unaware of their own victimizations. They are unable to remember, at least on a cognitive level, their past history of abuse. By repressing these traumatic memories, the individual tempts to go on with life as if the abuse had never happened. “What I don’t know can’t hurt them” is the faulty premise upon which this defense mechanism rests.
Repression, however, can only go so far. The more the individual attempts to push these negative thoughts and feelings out of mind, the more they can return in the form of flashbacks, nightmares and even psychosomatic symptoms.
For example, repressed anger may result in tension headaches, fear of abandonment can manifest as gastro-intestinal problems, and feelings of guilt can appear as back or should trouble, not to mention the array of sexual, dysfunctions, eating disorders, addictions or characterological traits that can signify some form of unresolved issue related to the abuse.
Victims tend to distort the facts surrounding the abuse. They deny their victimizations. They believe they desired, deserved, or willingly participated in the abuse. Many abusers threatened their victims into secrecy, leaving them to carry these concealed burdens well into adulthood.
Certain victims blame themselves for the abuse as a means of gaining mastery over the abusive situation. “If I am responsible for the abuse, then I am also capable of controlling and possibly preventing the abuse.”
Other victims blame themselves for the abuse because they confuse their age appropriate need for affections with abuse they received. “I am to blame because I wanted my father to come into my bedroom and cuddle.” Victims, who blame themselves for the abuse, tend to suffer from excessive guilt, depression, low self-esteem and self-defeating thoughts and behaviors, including suicidal thoughts and gestures.
Dissociation in another coping strategy abuse victims use to defend against painful thoughts and feelings. When adult survivors are confronted with situations or events that symbolically remind them of the childhood abuse, they defend against these intruding recollections by either temporarily losing touch with reality or numbing their bodies so they don’t experience the pain associated with the abuse.
Like a circuit breaker, dissociation shuts down a person’s cognitive and emotional processes in order to prevent an overload of painful stimuli. Dissociation, however, is only a temporary solution; it does not resolve the underlying issues that are triggering the problem. The moment the individual is confronted with internal or external stimuli that bring forth painful recollections, the maladaptive mechanisms arise and prevent the person once again from performing everyday functions.
It is difficult for an abuse victim to seek professional psychological help. They are caught in a vicious circle of maladaptive defenses. To break the silence, develop trust and intimacy with a therapist, and begin to work through one’s pain is a frightening, but much needed process.
Dr. Klein is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport CT. He specializes in the treatment of trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) and adults survivors of emotional, physical and sexual childhood abuse.
Dr. Martin Klein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport and Branford CT. He works with children, adults and couples.