Thursday, May 24, 2012
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Black Swan, Perfection and Broken Symmetry
I have a confession to make, I love to watch movies. Not that big of a secret, many people love to watch movies. I have fallen asleep listening to homilies, speeches, at the symphony, at meetings and even have gotten a bit drowsy at times when working with clients. But when it comes to a movie, I can be so very tired and something in me gets more alert when the movie starts. All the visual stimulation must hit the “wake up” centers of my brain.
This has been a great year for Oscar nominated films. I have seen five of the ten nominated films and have enjoyed every one of them. The last nominated film I watched was the most haunted and complex film of all of them, The Black Swan staring Natalie Portman. She plays the role of Nina, a ballerina who auditions for and gets the starring role in Swan Lake. In this version not only must she dance the role of the White Swan, she must also dance the Black Swan. This is where the tension begins.
As the movie progresses Nina struggles with conveying the emotions and spirit of the black swan. She also wants to be perfect, and her quest for perfection takes her down a pathway of psychological decomposition. There is interplay between reality, fantasy and delusion that sometimes made me wonder if I had wandered into a Stephen King thriller. The viewer can be disturbed and confronted with distinguishing between what is real and what isn’t. On some levels this movie is disturbing and on other levels it is a great psycho drama. Of course, the acting, directing and the score are superb.
What struck me the most in this movie was Nina’s quest for perfection that led her to a neurotic need to be in control. There is a tension between achieving our ideals and falling short of them. It is in the resolution of that tension that we discover more of our real self. Of course, the crisis that we all face is that of failure and disintegration, of things falling apart when we suffer failure, defeat and the loss of our dreams.
I think too of the notion of broken symmetry, a concept from cosmology and physics that is used to describe the creation of matter. This theory holds that before the universe began things existed in a super symmetrical state. Can we call it a perfect state? It was only when the symmetry was broken that matter leapt into existence and our universe was born. We humans are built on symmetry; we have mostly two of everything in our bodies which exist in symmetrical relationship. We have two eyes, two feet, two hands, even two halves of one brain. Yet at the same time it is not a perfect symmetry. You can see this when you look at experiments that put together a mirror opposite of someone’s left or right side of the face. When one looks at pictures like that the human person actually looks a bit more weird or sinister. Our symmetry, while mostly perfect, is still broken a bit.
Think of a car, look at its rear and you will find that the lock for the trunk is often put off center a bit. Nearly perfect symmetry, yet broken a bit. Most things of true beauty, like a great piece of art, participate in some way in this concept of broken symmetry. The smile of Mona Lisa is another example of that, just a bit off in a way that gives the work some creative tension.
In the Black Swan Nina strives for perfect symmetry, yet at a great cost to her own sense of self. It seems that embracing our own broken symmetry in our quest to be better is an important part of being human. Karl Jung called it embracing our shadow; Dr. Karen Horney (a contemporary of Freud) called it resolving the tension between the real and the ideal. It’s in the tension that we come to realize more fully who we really are, and it may be that collapsing the tension between the real and the ideal will make us either a first class cynic or a delusional idealist.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Qualities that Affect How Couples Bond with Each Other
Understanding how couples bond together can help pastors and counselors assist couples who experience difficulties in their relationship. Sometimes conflict, affairs, toxic communication and the like weaken the quality of bonding. Here are some factors that help with bonding. Much of the following material is taken from an article in Scientific American Mind, January/February 2010 edition.
- Arousal. We bond emotionally to another when we do things that arouse our senses. Things like exercise, adventures, even adventures that require some risk. Perhaps couples sometimes get themselves into trouble by settling too much into a routine.
- Proximity and Familiarity. Just being around someone a lot tends to create bonds. This might explain why long distance courtships often run into trouble, a couple might simply not have enough time to get to know each other.
- Similarity. Research indicates that we like to pair with people who are similar to ourselves in terms of values, intelligence, cultural background and attractiveness. As a marriage couple I look for a 80/20 split of similarity vs. differences. There is a saying in the counseling business that we meet and fall in love on what we hold in common and we grow – or split, on our differences.
- Humor. Happy relationships are ones where couples help each other laugh. Humor is an important quality with one caveat: sarcasm and teasing are a two edged sword, they may be funny but both can cut deeply into the feelings of another.
- Novelty. Newness creates bonds, people are attracted to new things and to each other when they do new things together. This is why couples need to sometimes shake up the Friday night routine, the “same old, same old”, but taking a risk to do something new.
- Lowering Inhibitions. Being inhibited blocks feelings and puts up shutters into the deeper self. Sharing more of your feelings, even vulnerabilities helps with bonding. Some couples use alcohol and other substances to lower inhibitions, perhaps solving one problem while creating another, substance abuse.
- Kindness and Forgiveness. Being kind and forgiving actually makes a person more attractive and enhances bonding. Letting go of resentment, choosing to change a behavior out of love for others, forgiving someone of hurt are all relationship building and bonding behaviors.
- Touch and sexuality. Touching another can result in feelings of closeness. But sometimes we misinterpret another’s signals and instead of creating closeness we invade their boundary. That is why touch and sexuality are at their best when they are grounded in clear communication that checks out what another likes and wants.
- Self Disclosure. Sharing of secrets is one way we bond with another, keeping the trust of another’s information. A couple can create their own secrete circle by defining for themselves what information is shared and what is held back concerning their own relationship.
- Commitment. People whose own commitments to another are more tentative tend to be viewed more negatively by their partner. Threats of “I’m out of here” and the like tend to undermine the bond.
- Respectful Communication. Respectful communication bonds us to another because the other person makes a commitment to avoid the use of criticism, defensiveness, sarcasm and contempt and walking away (stonewalling) when there is conflict. These toxic communication patterns undermine the bond of a relationship.
- The Five to One Rule. Gottman maintains that a healthy relationship maintains a ratio of five positive comments and behaviors to every negative comment and behavior between a couple. This is hard to maintain. It is also, by the way, the same ratio that contributes to healthy ego development in children.
- Using Soothing Words and Gestures when the other is upset or stressed out. We all know how good it feels to have another join with us when we are upset; the way we join with another is by using the language of soothing, soothing words and gestures. This shows the other person that we are having empathy and care.
- Use of “We” Instead of “My” and “I” when there is conflict. Successful couples make an attempt to use inclusive language when they fight. They might talk about “our” children instead of “my” children. Using the inclusive pronoun signals to the other that despite the conflict there is a the underlying belief that “we” will work it out.
Monday, December 21, 2009
I have referred many couples to numerous self help books for relationships and marriages. But just recently I have been asking my couples and even individual clients if they have a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, and if they do, to take it out and give it a reading.
The book centers on a youngster named Max, who is sent to his bedroom for playing mischief when he shouldn't have. In his room a forest grows and Max descends from his bed into the land of the monsters; and while they threaten to eat him all they want to be is tamed by him. He obliges, tames the monsters, and they make him king. In the end he returns to his bed because he misses the comforts of a good home cooked meal.
My question to my clients when talking about Max and his monsters is this: “what monsters lie beneath your bed, that threaten to devour you, but really want to be tamed and befriended?” All of us have monsters of some sort that lurk in the hidden recesses of our lives, and they seek to have their voice heard. Some might have the monster of anxiety, others depression and still others a fear of being seen as a fraud. Or perhaps it is the monster of addiction that threatens a person.For every personality you meet you can imagine that there are some monsters lurking under that person's bed, waiting for their proper expression, and most likely causing fear and trembling.
One reason the book works is that Max doesn't destroy the monsters, he tames them, perhaps transforms them. Ask someone who attends a twelve step group and that person will say that he/she is recovering, not cured. This means that the monster of addiction has been confronted and tamed, but it still remains to some extent a force in the person's life. Our tendency is to try to uproot, conquer, stamp out and basically destroy those parts of our personality that cause us grief, shame and embarrassment. When we do that we usually only feed the monster and it grows. Only by naming our shame and embarrassment and those patterns in our lives that cause us the most distress, can we seek to transform them into something that works with us, not against us.
I used to smoke cigarettes and that addiction to nicotine exercised a powerful hold on me. I can't say with certainty that I will never smoke again and that this addiction is conquered. But I can identify the underlying forces that led me to smoke in the first place (acceptance and belonging, stress, to name a few) and know that I am doing better with those forces. In a sense, like Max, I have looked them in the eye and made peace with them.
So we all have some underdeveloped parts of our personality that cry out for greater development and integration, and when we deny these parts they do take on the guise of monsters who seek to destroy us. A person with an eating disorder often is more controlled by the disorder than in control. A person with an anger issue often tries to suppress the anger, only to have it blow at some point like Vesuvius. Maybe we can learn from Max and take a risk to descend into the land of our own personal monsters, not to vanquish them and destroy them, but to befriend them and tame them, and in their taming transform and integrate our own personalities on a deeper level.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
It is easy to know when the sexual boundary is crossed. A spouse is either reveals or is discovered having sex with another person. This is a clear case of infidelity. But what about hugging, even kissing? These both are physical and not sexual in the sense of sexual intercourse. When is a peck on the cheek crossing the line? And then, of course, there is the emotional boundary. When is emotional closeness with another person crossing the line, how much confiding can someone do with another person before it violates the rules of the relationship? And what about texting another person or writing on their Facebook, MySpace or other social networking site’s “walls” or “whiteboards”. Is it o-k, for instance, for a married person to write on another’s wall, “You look hot?”
Recent research has indicated that the more time one spends on social networking sites the more jealousy is engendered in partners where there is a committed relationship, whether that be a committed relationship of engagement and marriage, living together or just going together. Part of the reason for this is that there is a certain anonymity to writing on someone’s social network site. This is largely a private affair where one communicates to another individually on a computer. There is often not a crowd or others checking out your behavior. The same is true for texting. Texting is often a private thing and can create a sense of bonding by linking two people together in an extended conversation. Sometimes the rules of flirting are suspended because there is only one form of communication, the written word. Missing are the voice tonality, the body postures, and the community of others that notice what is going on.
You can imagine, then, the surprise of a spouse to discover words written by the other spouse to a third party. These can be texts, words written on someone’s “wall” and even e-mails sent to a third party. Often, the spouse who is doing the writing protests that everything was innocent, but the other spouse usually feels left out and excluded, that there was a secrete bond that got created in these private messages.
And since technology is omni present in our lives, even omni intrusive, these types of issues are popping up more and more in the therapy office. So here are some rules of the road to offer a couple whenever texting, jealousy and social network pages are linked together.
Transparency. If you are going to text another person is the text something that you are willing to show to your spouse? If you find yourself hiding a text message from your spouse you might be crossing an emotional boundary.
Honesty. If you were in the same room with the person you are texting or writing to, with your spouse and others around you, like at a party, would you engage in the same behaviors? If you answer no, you might be drifting toward trouble.
When your spouse questions you on who you’re texting, or your internet usage can you calmly, without anger and defensiveness, tell your spouse about your usage? If not perhaps you have a guilty conscience and are responding in a defensive manner.
If there is jealousy on the part of your spouse over your texting or internet usage consider talking to a therapist who can help you sort out these issues. Don’t let something like this build for too long, the hurt and anger created can and will do real damage.
Monday, January 5, 2009
I was working with a couple recently on their marriage. Both had hurts that could be traced back to their respective families of origin, and both had a fear that the other would be the first to leave. Fear of being abandoned comes in different flavors and the way this fear manifested itself in the relationship is that each would engage in dramatic threats or statements. These were usually made in a state of argument and high tension. “Just get out” or “I knew I shouldn’t have married you”. There were other serious and hurtful statements that were said, and remembered.
Upon examination both admitted that they engaged in these behaviors because of fear: fear of the other leaving, fear that they would be made to look the fool, fear that they might wake up one day and the other would be gone. At one point I stopped them and said, “In fact one of you will leave the other and you won’t be able to do anything about that. That will happen, somewhere along the line, when one of you dies and leaves the other behind.” I pointed out to them that they couldn’t prevent death from happening, but that they could work to love each other deeply, respectfully, and to build each other up every day.
These words came back to me forcefully when my wife and I learned that a good friend had died suddenly, unexpectedly, leaving his wife of forty years behind, bereft. He had the flu, it went away, he caught a cold, fought it off. The night before he died he told his wife he was going to stay up and watch a video. The next day she found him, he had died sometime during the night.
Our friend was grief stricken and still is. We traveled to the services to be with our friend. I was struck by the love and support present in the room the day of the farewell service. There were stories told, tears shed, laughter and a lot of sadness and concern for our friend who now needed to cope and move forward. At the end of the service the newly bereft widow rose and thanked everyone for coming. She said, “it’s all about love” and encouraged us to continue to love and be present to our relationships.
Being present to the present, mindful of the state of our relationships, and keeping our love current is the legacy of our friend who died. Are we afraid to live the love that is given us for fear that we will be hurt, abandoned or that things won’t work out? I wonder. Our two friends lived respectfully, lovingly for forty years and because of their energy and commitment they empowered many other people to achieve their own potential.Buddhists talk about "being mindful", Western Christian Spirituality talks about "being present to the present". Whatever your metaphor, the task it seems, is to be as current as possible, loving, living your life without regret, being present to the other as best you can. Our friends did this for one another, they lived an authentic relationship. It is worth remembering, celebrating and emulating.