Life of Ryan IV: Work

(This is the fourth in a series of blogs by “Ryan,” a person in my clientele who has MS.)

I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. Now that might sound a bit strange because I am grown up, at least by age, since I’m 72. But somehow “I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up” still seems true for me. I think it has always been true for me. I have never had some passionate purpose in the world of work.

Now don’t get me wrong. Until my becoming disabled with MS I always worked diligently, consistently, and honestly. I never was out of work and sometimes worked a second job to make ends meet. I was the sole bread-winner in the family and was rather proud of the fact that I provided my wife with the opportunity to do what she did best, and wanted to do: raise our children. She did a fine job at that endeavor. In my working career, I did a variety of things, usually people-related, starting with stocking as a grocery boy, then landscaping, then after my brief stint in college and longer stint in the Navy, I worked in some kind of sales. I did a sales route for some time and ended my working career at an inside sales job. I think I can honestly say that my work ethic has always been good. For me, “on time” meant “early”, not late that it is for many people. I don’t know if I worked harder than anyone else did but I always worked faithfully. So work was never a problem. Vocation was, however.

I never had what I could consider to be a vocation. My psychologist and amanuensis (remember that word; it means ghost writer), Ron, and I have talked about this several times, and I always end up saying, “I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.” I still don’t. If I were able-bodied (Gosh, I wish I were), I have no idea what I would do or could do as far as a profession. If I were out and about, I might have another sales job or work part-time for some landscaping outfit, but these would be jobs, not professions. Ron talks about a “profession” as something much more than a job. He told me about a trash collector that he knows who has a profession out of trash. That sounds a bit weird because I think of professionals as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. But the idea that a profession can be anything is an interesting idea. A profession is built on some kind of inner drive or purpose that leads to some kind of excitement and ultimately to some kind of purpose.

I never have had that kind of passion and purpose. My purpose of working was to put bread on the table and clothes on my family. So I worked to do that, and would probably dig ditches (Gosh, I wish I could) or anything if I could do such things. But the idea of doing something that I feel compelled to do is a real challenge. I’m not sure what that feeling of purpose is like. I don’t think I’ve ever really had that kind of feeling, like some people have for hang-gliding, doctoring, or starting some kind of business. If I were to start a business, I have no idea what I might do. I’m not sure I have that entrepreneurial spirit that some people seem to have, but more importantly, I don’t have that thing people call passion to do something great. I wish I did. I wonder how I missed that passion thing that seems to drive people, maybe to college, the military, some special business, or politics.

I doubt that I am alone in this dilemma. Ron tells me that many people are in the same position, i.e. not knowing what they want to do when they grow up. School was pretty easy for me, at least elementary and high school. The Navy was not so bad. You needed to be busy or look busy. You know what they say about the military: if it moved, salute it; if it doesn’t move, pick it up; if you can’t pick it up, paint it. That I could do. I did my jobs in the navy without complaint and rather enjoyed it, but I was never a lifer, and I doubt I could have really committed myself to 20 or 30 years in the navy. Likewise, I never found “it”, whatever “it” was in college. I was there about a semester and a half, but I wasn’t interested in the slightest. After my brief stint in college and longer stint in the navy, I was pretty soon in the work force, got married, and was off on a life of work, family, and bowling. By the way, I actually considered doing bowling for a profession but quickly learned that the time, effort, and money involved was not something I was willing to do. I did make 297 once, however, darn those last three bowling pins.

So here I am sitting like a bump on a log, quite literally by the way, me being the bump and the log being my bed or wheelchair. I sit here wondering what I could have done, should have done, or…(could it be?)…yet could do. Ron tells me that people should “discover” what they want to be or do in life, not “deciding” on what they want to be. I have never been particularly good at either discovering or deciding. I have been much better at responding. I respond to job possibilities; I respond to requirements of a job; I respond to everything. But if I were to initiate, discover, or decide on what I should do for a living, I have no idea as to how to do that.

Another thing Ron tells me to do when trying to find this elusive profession is to see what my “strengths and abilities” are. Here again, I am at a loss. I never have really paid much attention to what I was good at or maybe potentially even great at. I just did what was in front of me and I did it faithfully, whether stocking groceries, laying landscape logs, or selling something. Just did it. Didn’t really think about it for the most part. So I continue to muse about what these so-called strengths and abilities are. What a time to be thinking of such things, when I have, dare I say, a lot less strengths than I did when I was, like 0, or even 10. I am yet searching. Maybe you know how to do this thing of finding passions, purpose, and strengths. I’m certainly not good at it.

Further Reading

Life of Ryan I, II, III

Mind over Matter IV: Addictions

This is the fourth blog in the Mind over Matter series. Initially we discussed the theory of mind and brain, noting that the “mind” is a real entity but undefinable, along with the different functions of the mind and the brain. In Mind over Matter II we discussed how the brain creates anger, anxiety, and depression to provide safety for the person. In the last sessions, Mind over Matter III, we discussed means of practically using the mind to manage emotions. Now, in this discussion we want to briefly note how addictions are the result of the mind/brain interaction, and make some theoretical suggestions for people plague by addictions and people who try to help these folks.

A few words about addictions

  1. Addictions have a tremendous cost: loss of health and life, loss of relationships, loss of jobs, loss of money, and loss of productivity. Ultimately, all these losses cause immense damage not only to the individual but to our culture and the world.
  2. There are great disputes in psychology about the definition of addictions, the course of the addictive process, and the treatment of addictions.
  3. We are not addiction specialists, much less addictionologists (specialists in addictions). We do encounter many people with the full range of addictions in our office, and deal daily with the ramifications that addictions have on life.

The mind and the brain in review

  1. The mind, while undefined, uses the “machinery” of the brain to do various activities, from walking to talking and many other activities.
  2. The brain knows only safety (or the lack thereof) and pleasure (or the lack thereof)
  3. The mind knows everything else.
  4. Much of what the mind “knows” and what the brain does remains in what we must call the “unconscious.”
  5. A central feature of human existence is another undefined word: feelings. We discussed this largely in Mind over Matter III

Kinds of addictions

There has been great debate about what constitutes an “addiction” because the word was originally used largely with the abuse of alcohol and to some degree other chemicals, like opiates. Over the recent years in particular the term addiction has been given a wider view including what are generally called behavioral addictions. While the American Psychiatric Association has yet to accept behavioral addictions as a formal diagnosis, the International Diagnostic community has.

Roughly, we now have:

  • Chemical addictions: alcohol, opiates, stimulants, and hallucinogens
  • Behavioral addictions: something that one does “to a fault”, which ultimately adversely affects his or her life.

Behavioral addictions have become of much greater interest in the psychological community and include:

  • Gambling
  • Property acquisition (hoarding)
  • Eating (too much, too little, too restricted and limited)
  • Working
  • Sexual activities and expression
  • Video gaming and other electronic engagements, even texting.
  • Many others, all of which might be seen as some activity “to a fault,” and might even include playing, exercising, talking, refusing to talk, sleeping, or even joking

Definition of an addiction

Again, there is much dispute over the definition of an addiction, and hence whether something should even be considered to be an addiction. Just because someone drinks quite a bit does not make him/her necessarily addicted to alcohol. On the other hand, if someone doesn’t drink at all but craves alcohol to such an extent that s/he thinks about it 24/7, that might be a thought or cognitive addiction

The traditional definition of an addiction includes the following:

  • Excessive use of some chemical or behavior
  • Increased use of the chemical or behavior over time to give the same amount of pleasure or satisfaction
  • Many failed attempts to reduce the excessive use
  • Encroachment on other elements of life because of the use: relationships, work, money. Certainly on self-esteem.
  • Attempts to hide the addictive behavior

The course of an addiction is something like this:

  • Some behavior is found to be pleasurable or provides safety
  • This behavior becomes a habit. In other words, the person begins to do this pleasurable or safety-enhancing thing without thinking about it
  • This behavior subtly encroaches on other elements of life and becomes the “go to” thing when life seems unhappy or unsafe
  • Attempts to hide the addictive behavior

Mind over brain in overcoming addictions

We remind our readers that we are not addictionologists, who know a whole lot more than we do on this subject. Our approach to addictions is almost wholly psychological, meaning that we look first to understand the behavior that has become addictive more than “diagnosing” it as addictive. This places us in a fairly different position than most people who work with addicts, like alcoholics, to change their lies. We deeply respect the hard-working and committed individuals who do this addiction recovery work. We don’t do it.

Our focus being on causes and understanding leads us to see an addiction as a “brain over mind” matter, and we seek to help people restore the “mind over brain” operation in life. Recall that the brain (not the mind) knows only safety and pleasure, and hence is constantly looking out for our welfare by providing safety and seeking things that are pleasurable. Unfortunately, the brain “doesn’t know when to stop.” We might say something like, the brain sort of thinks “there can’t be too much of a good thing.” So when, for instance, a young man I saw not long ago spent 70 hours a week playing video games, his brain was simply calling him to do something that had been fun…even though his fun was less and less. So much so, in fact, that he said he “hated” playing games but “somehow” continued to do so. Why? Because his brain had been wired to previously find pleasure in gaming. This is the approach we take to all addictions and it can be seen as a progression from simple pleasure to habit to addiction without the mind knowing what the brain is doing. The brain is, as we said, thinking that there can’t be too much of a good thing. Remember that the brain doesn’t know time, money, relationships, work or anything else: it just knows safety and pleasure. In an addiction the brain is ruling the roost of the person, not the mind.

To get the mind back in control, you have to keep in mind what I have repeated in this blog series, that your brain is a wonderful machine that you can’t live without. Even so, your brain is not your mind, it is a part of you but it is not the whole of you. Your brain is the machine that keeps the whole of you going.  I often say that I can’t live without my computer and books. But my computer and books are not me; they are a reflection of me. You can teach your brain what to reflect of you. Getting the mind back in the driver’s seat is simple but extremely hard, and the only way to do it is to realize that you will be fighting your brain that will be screaming at you. You will notice that you don’t want to continue in this addictive behavior but you feel compelled to do so. The wanting to stop is the mind; the compulsion to continue is the brain. We recommend you read our blog on Wanting and Liking for more on this. So, first, recognize that your brain is in control. Don’t be mad at your brain; rather, simply appreciate that your brain is trying to protect you and find pleasure for you because that is what it does. That is all it does.

Now, take it a step further. Let your mind see the benefits of changing your addictive behavior. Let your mind see all the dangers and losses of the addiction. Don’t feel guilty or ashamed; that will do no good whatsoever. Just see what you would like to do and what you have lost for not having done it. Doing this, you will notice that you will feel sad. Why are your sad? Because you have lost something that you have loved. Now you’re on the right track. You are on the love track in your mind and life rather than the pleasure/safety track of your brain. You have to be honest about this sadness with addictions. You can’t make justifications or promises. Justifications will keep you mad and defensive. Promises will just fall though and bring you shame. You have to do the sad.

The third step beyond recognizing that your brain is in control and seeing all the things you love is to notice that every time you fall into addictive behavior, you feel sad. You feel sad because you have lost something. Now you are on the road to getting your mind in control of your brain.

Further Reading

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The positive power of sadness. Praeger Press.

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2018). “Mind Over Matter I, II, and III” blogs

Loving and Liking II: The Importance of Not Liking your Spouse

In our first blog on the loving/not liking phenomenon we discussed how important it is to distinguish liking and loving. Both of these phenomena are of central importance in having successful relationships as well as have an emotionally satisfying life. Simply stated:

  • Loving is natural and often immediate. Loving is most immediate and natural with family members.
  • Liking is the result of something shared: this can be an idea or belief, an experience, or something else that is held in common.
  • Liking comes more slowly and is most common among friends.
  • It is possible to like someone whom you may not love.
  • It is possible to love someone whom you really don’t like. This is the real challenge in relationships, particularly when the person you love but don’t necessarily like is a family member.

A few more things about this business of liking:

  • “Not liking” is not the same as disliking. You can actively dislike someone for various reasons, usually having to do with someone’s character. Disliking someone tends to be complete: you really don’t like the person. This tends to be fairly rare.
  • More often, there are elements of the person you don’t like. You may actually like the person as a whole but not certain aspects of her life. These could be minor things like her table manners, the grammatical errors she routinely makes. Or the dislike could be her political position or how she behaves in a group.
  • Both liking and loving are feelings. We discussed the centrality of feelings in the Feelings I, II, III, and IV blogs. Feelings are a murky combination of emotions, thought, and intuition. They are central to life. They are close to our souls.

One of the things we do with our clients/patients is to help them distinguish the liking and loving phenomena and how they often overlap. Understanding the similarities, differences, and overlap of liking and loving is particularly helpful in spousal and other partner relationships. We have often said to couples, “You got married for the wrong reason: you loved each other.” We make this statement somewhat tongue-in-cheek knowing that it wonderful to love one’s partner and that most people do, indeed, get married because they are in love, at least in America. Yet, getting married primarily, often singularly, because you love someone, does not necessarily make for a satisfying marriage. Very often, sometimes within days after a marriage, people begin to feel a “not like” or even the “dislike” for the person they just married. Then you have a huge dilemma. But why do people discover that they don’t like each other even though they may deeply love each other? The reason, as sages throughout time have told us: “love is blind”.

Yes, love is blind, and it is wonderful in its blindness. When you come to love someone, you are not necessarily interested in everything about this person. You don’t care what s/he does for a living, whether they like baseball, or know how to cook. You certainly don’t think about whether they have ever done the dishes. You just love the person. Wonderful. But also, blind. Love is certainly blind when you immediately love your child when s/he is born. The blindness of loving such a wonderful creation of God is nothing but beautiful, soulful, and perfectly honest. You don’t think about changing diapers for three years or being awakened at 4 AM for the fourth time in the night. You just love your child. Wonderful. But also, blind.

Love can be “blind” when we don’t attend to the whole picture, or better stated, the eventual picture. Blind love is more about a soul-filled moment of perfection. You can really love those Grizzly cubs before they grow up and threaten your life, or love puppies and kittens before they poop on your new carpet. When we love things, especially young living things, we are loving the purity of what is in the moment. We can easily love the stars on a clear night, spring flowers in a mountain meadow, or the call of a loon on a quiet lake because they are representations of some level of perfection. Loving your newborn child is a kind of “perfect love” that is pure and immediate and does not take into account for any potential danger or disappointment. Falling in love with another person can equally be “perfect love” but fail to take into account inevitable disappointments.

We all have things, experiences, and people we “just love” without rational reason. My wife and I “love” the moment we hear Pacobel’s cannon. It is a representation of our “perfect love” experienced on our wedding day. We all “just love” experiences, memories, and people in different ways and times, but all love “blindly,” as we should.  We would never want to give up this glorious experience of such random loving. But when it comes to spousal like relationships, this grand experience of loving can get us in deep trouble.

Here’s what happens. In the blindness of love we see the immediate physical, sexual or otherwise ethereal qualities of another person. And in that immediate attraction we automatically disregard the plethora of differences that might otherwise be caution signs. This blindness does not help us see the things that might be substantially different between us, some of them quite profound, some less significant. The blindness of love convinces us that nothing else matters and whatever “else” there might be, it will be as easy to dismiss as it is easy to love. Most of the things we don’t like or dislike in someone else have to do with honest differences, not flaws. And in the initial embrace of blind love, these differences seem inconsequential.

When we see couples in our office for a marital assessment we always do what we call a “friendly diagnosis”. Our friendly diagnosis identifies each individual’s positive characteristics. This includes gender, personality, cultural, spiritual and intellectual strengths. Once we have identified each person’s strengths, we frame them as “preferences.” In this framework we can then compare these preferences between the partners. What have felt like “problems” to the couple can then be seen as differences. These problems when viewed through the lens of preferences help each partner to see how despite how much they love one another, there are things that they dislike about each other. Then we can talk about the “not liking” phenomenon because we have some content to the discussion rather than a wholesale not liking or disliking.

When couples learn that they actually dislike their partners for some reason, the dislike becomes more palatable, and even useful in how they see each other, hear each other, and love each other. Furthermore, when they accept that there are aspects of their partners that they don’t like, this dislike diminishes in content and in fury, sometimes to the place where they can tease one another about something not liked without hostility or resentment. They also come to realize that some of the things they don’t like not only are foundational to their partners, but that they are good things…that they just happen to not like.

A few suggestions:

  • Note that you love your partner.
  • Note immediately that you want to say things you don’t like about him or her.
  • Identify something very specific that you don’t like. This will usually be something they say, don’t say, do, or don’t do.
  • Don’t tell your partner this thing that you don’t like. Just sit on it for a day or two.
  • Notice how you “don’t like” diminishes over time…but you still don’t like when they…
  • You might find yourself identifying things you like about your partner. Make note of them.
  • You might notice that some of the things you don’t like seem to be intrinsically related to what you do like about your partner.
  • Then it might be time to talk to your partner: about loving him/her, about liking some things, and about not liking some things.

Further Reading

Our book, The Positive Power of Sadness

Previous blogs on Feelings and Loving and Liking I: Not the Same

Forthcoming Loving and Liking on Children and The Spectrum of liking/Not liking