Most of us claim we want to be happy—to have meaningful lives, enjoy ourselves, experience fulfillment, and share love and friendship with other people and maybe other species, like dogs, cats, birds, and whatnot. Strangely enough, however, some people act as if they just want to be miserable, and they succeed remarkably at inviting misery into their lives, even though they get little apparent benefit from it, since being miserable doesn’t help them find lovers and friends, get better jobs, make more money, or go on more interesting vacations. Why do they do this? After perusing the output of some of the finest brains in the therapy profession, I’ve come to the conclusion that misery is an art form, and the satisfaction people seem to find in it reflects the creative effort required to cultivate it. In other words, when your living conditions are stable, peaceful, and prosperous—no civil wars raging in your streets, no mass hunger, no epidemic disease, no vexation from poverty—making yourself miserable is a craft all its own, requiring imagination, vision, and ingenuity. It can even give life a distinctive meaning.
Over the past several decades, popular attitudes toward addiction have undergone a radical destigmatization. Many attribute the beginning of this shift to former first lady Betty Ford and her decision to go public about her addiction to alcohol and opiates soon after leaving the White House. She hadn’t been a public nuisance or a barfly. She’d never driven drunk, she said, or stashed bottles so she could drink secretly when she was alone. But by openly addressing her problems and becoming an outspoken advocate for rehabilitation through the Betty Ford Clinic (now the Betty Ford Center), she helped change the face of addiction. Perceptions of addicts as out-of-control gutter drunks and junkies were replaced by images of glamorous celebrities like Liza Minelli, Mary Tyler Moore, and Elizabeth Taylor as they checked in and out of Betty Ford.
In 2014, Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist James Risen made headlines by revealing that the American Psychological Association (APA) had supported and helped legitimize the Bush administration’s use of torture in its post 9/11 war on terror. After first dismissing the claims, the APA commissioned an independent committee to investigate the allegations. That committee’s 542-page report, which appeared in July 2015, documented the truth of everything Risen had reported.
Long before I’d ever heard the word archetype, I discovered a defining myth for my life in the story of the Athenian hero Theseus and his cunning plan to slay the Minotaur. This fearsome monster, half-man and half-bull, was caged in a structure of tangled, dead-end pathways called the Labyrinth. Young men and women were periodically forced inside as sacrifices to feed the beast, never to return. Until Theseus. With help from Princess Ariadne, who instructed him to unwind a ball of thread to trace his pathway in and guide his safe return, Theseus boldly entered the Labyrinth, killed the Minotaur, and lived to tell his triumphant tale.
Most therapists have been taught that if we can help clients understand the emotional triggers of their overeating, they’ll be able to control their behavior and lose weight. Some of us, when working with clients on the continuum from occasional overeating to binge-eating disorder, build strategies around nutrition, portion control, and exercise habits. But more often than not, weight loss—should it occur—is fleeting. In fact, the pursuit of weight loss typically triggers and sustains overeating.
Most people don’t have any problem with seeing compassion as a thoroughly commendable quality. It seems to refer to an amalgam of unquestionably good qualities: kindness, mercy, tenderness, benevolence, understanding, empathy, sympathy, and fellow-feeling, along with an impulse to help other living creatures, human or animal, in distress. But we seem less sure about self-compassion. For many, it carries the whiff of all those other bad “self” terms: self-pity, self-serving, self-indulgent, self-centered, just plain selfish. Even many generations removed from our culture’s Puritan origins, we still seem to believe that if we aren’t blaming and punishing ourselves for something, we risk moral complacency, runaway egotism, and the sin of false pride.
The following piece first appeared on Psychotherapy Networker.
It was a series of upending life events over a period of years — some bad, some good, all unexpected and disorienting — that gradually propelled me into a state of mind-numbing, body-exhausting burnout. First, there was my husband’s cancer, his surgery, and the seven months spent watching him suffer through the spirit-breaking ordeal of chemotherapy. During those months, I’d prayed and cried and white-knuckled my way through an endless, dark valley of alternating fear, anguish, and desperate hope.
Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—And What We Can Do About It
By Harriet Brown
Da Capo Press. 243 pages.
We often imagine the English as reserved stonewallers, even more emotionally constricted than we Americans are. But Susan Johnson, the daughter of two London pubkeepers and the inventor of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT), has devoted her career to breaking that old stereotype and developing an approach that zeroes in on showing couples how to express their deepest feelings for each other. To get there, she had to break what was perhaps the biggest taboo of all.