November 2012

Holiday Gift-Giving

The season of giving is upon us. In the World According to Retail, the holidays are just hours away, and so—inevitably—is the high wire act of gift-giving.

Gifts are powerful symbols. In every culture, the choice of object and the manner of presentation carries deep significance.

Why are mere things, objects–freighted with such emotional weight?  The answer is rooted in biology as well as psychology. The first object every human loves is the breast–the ultimate comfort object–in fact, one that is essential for an infant’s survival and sense of self. Humans are hard wired to respond emotionally to objects, to see in them all matter of meaning.

During the holiday season, this universal aspect of human culture takes center stage.  That’s why holiday shopping, even during a hectic time, requires careful thought–whether it’s a business gift or, especially, a personal one.

What is the emotional context of the gift?  What is the message you want to convey?

Ideally, a gift says, “I know you, and I value you for who you are.”   It’s especially meaningful, if the gift isn’t a shared interest. A gift that recognizes the other person’s unique qualities is especially meaningful. There’s even an element of self-sacrifice involved, since it has no direct benefit for the giver except seeing pleasure in the eyes of another.

For people who love stuff, gifts have obvious appeal. But for some people stuff comes with mixed feelings. Many people are overly attached to their stuff, and piling on more at the holidays is a double-edged sword.

When thinking about what to give—remember it’s never just about the object, it’s about the meaning. At the holidays and all year round, the best message is this:  I see who you are, and know what will make you happy.

So, as we rush out to embrace holiday shopping, look less at all the merchandise, and more at the person whose heart you want to touch.

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Men and Therapy

A recent blog on the Psychotherapy Networker website makes two claims about men and therapy:  that men avoid it because they are ashamed to seek help, and that therapists have alienated men by focusing predominantly on women’s issues.  The take-away is that men and women want different things out of therapy and therapists should change their approach to accommodate men’s needs.

I treat many men in individual and in couples therapy and I see the issue differently.

When Freud developed the technique of psychoanalysis, his first and only requirement of his patients was this:  say whatever comes to your mind.

What he found:  people couldn’t do it. Women found it as difficult as men to speak freely about their thoughts and feelings.  Shame, guilt and self-censorship cross gender lines.  The inner critic is a doozy for both sexes.

But, more women than men enter therapy because they are less ashamed to acknowledge these emotional conflicts. In the past, masculinity was linked to self-certainty and individualism (remember the man who never asks for directions?).  But, this is changing.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks focused on a study that showed men were more successful in life if they grew up in warm and supportive home environments.  As men got older, they grew to understand the connection between secure relationships and emotional well-being.

Nowadays, men are coming into therapy in increasing numbers to understand and improve their relationships and to gain better understanding of themselves as complex individuals with conflicts that can be resolved. They seek more intimacy and trust in their relationships and to become better fathers, sons, brothers and friends. They seek better ways of balancing work and family life.

The concept of masculinity is expanding and therapy provides a valuable tool in this evolution.

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The problem of perfectionism

Can being too good be bad?

It sounds paradoxical, but needing to be good, can be a problem.  We are raised to be good, to please our parents and do what we are told. But, for some people this may become the royal road to dissatisfaction in adult life.

Why? Because no one is perfect, and the pressure to be perfect may make you a model citizen, but not a happy camper.

Here’s an example:  During the recent hurricane in New York, one of my patients came late to her session. She apologized profusely. She hates being late, always works hard and holds herself to nearly impossible standards of perfection.

I said:  “You expect yourself to be stronger than a hurricane?”

This opened up memories of trying so hard to please a demanding mother. She never felt in charge of her own life and lived in fear that no one would love her unless she was perfect. Life wasn’t fun; it was hard work.

You may have had demanding parents. Or felt that only by being the perfect son or daughter, could you earn your parent’s love.

When you realize how much of life’s pleasure you are sacrificing for perfection, you may be able to give yourself a break.  You may also find that people don’t need you to be perfect, that you are demanding more of yourself than anyone would reasonably expect.

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