Porcupines and Intimacy

One of my favorite psychology books, Shopenhauer’s Porcupines (by Deborah Luepnitz) begins with a parable about…you guessed it…porcupines.

The parable tells of a troupe of porcupines in the winter. The prickly little animals face a dilemma at night, when they must huddle together for warmth to keep from freezing to death. As you can imagine, problems arise when they get so close that they begin to prick each other with their quills. However, if they move too far apart, they lose the body warmth that keeps them from freezing. There is no optimal spacing to prevent both harming each other and freezing. So, the porcupine troupe has to develop a rhythm of moving together and apart, together and apart, in order neither to prick each other too deeply nor to freeze.

What I love about this parable (and this is the point of Dr. Luepnitz’s book) is that it correlates to ways that we humans struggle with intimacy. We long for togetherness. We yearn to feel less alone in the world. And yet, when we find relationships which can fill our longing for closeness, we begin to prick each other. However, if we move too far away, we have to face our loneliness.

Like porcupines in winter, we have to find ways within our relationships to move together and apart. We come together until it begins to hurt, and then we pull away to heal and restore ourselves. And this together-apart, together-apart rhythm is, in my view, as good as it gets in relationships. It is what relationships are all about.

We all vary in the degrees of closeness we want and can bear in relationships. So, for each of us, individually and in pairs, we must develop our own rhythm, our own timing. And the extent to which we can know what our own individual rhythm is, the better we can tend to our own needs, and the needs of our relationships (prickly as they may sometimes be).

©2013 Stephanie Heck, Ph.D.

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Man For Others

A few of my patients have recently discovered a key component to mental health: giving to others. This probably sounds trite, but, trust me, giving to others has a BIG, RESOUNDING impact for us all. Yet, it is not always as simple to do as it sounds.

Many people struggle to find some way out of depression and anxiety. It can be automatic, if you are depressed or anxious or worried or paranoid, to become consumed with yourself and your perspective. There is an element of narcissistic self-focus in each of these states. Ironically, though, this kind of self-focus drives us deeper into our depression or anxiety or worry or paranoia. It does not help us to get out of it.

A patient said to me lately that he wants to start thinking about other people’s needs instead of his own. He has been realizing, through our work, that his psychology keeps him so preoccupied with himself that he isn’t available to connect with others. He spontaneously suggested that he might benefit from finding ways to help other people instead of spending his time ruminating. We talked about the multifaceted benefits of this plan. He would get some relief from his self-preoccupied thoughts. The other person would feel cared for. He would have moments of connection. He might build a meaningful relationship. Or, if not, the other person would feel better and would hopefully treat others better in return. All of this sounded like a good antidepressant to him. How can I do this, he asked? It sounded great, and yet he anticipated many internal road blocks. This is not his usual way of being, after all.

There are many blogs and articles out there that tell us we should be grateful for the lives we have; we should stop being so self-absorbed and greedy. They usually contain lists that highlight ways we ought to change our thoughts and behaviors to live in a state of acceptance and gratitude. I agree that these are good ideas. The problem, though, is that it is not so simple for people to just change. It’s not so simple to just decide that you want to be different, and then immediately to make it so. It’s not so easy to one day become a man for others, without doing some preliminary work.

It’s my opinion that we are freer to help others when we feel better about who we are. When our own emotional needs are met (from deep within ourselves), we have a lot to give. When we can accept ourselves more fully, and when we feel more comfortable in our own skin, we are more genuinely available to those around us. When we’re emotionally full, we’re able to fill others. And we’re less sensitive, less easily hurt, better able to roll with things, and more genuine. The goal is, ultimately, to get to this state.

But you gotta start somewhere. And giving to others can, in itself, be the start of a positive cycle. Good interactions help us all. So, give it a try…get out there and make someone’s day. They’ll feel better, you’ll feel better, and there will be a good ripple effect from all of that. The more you give and connect, the better you feel. The better you feel, the more you give and connect. And the less preoccupied you are with yourself. And if you find it too hard, then spend some quiet time working on yourself for a while. Then give it another shot.

See if it works.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

 

 

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After the Credits Roll

When I leave a movie, I can’t help but compare it to my own life. Whatever moods or themes resonate with me remain stuck in my mind. I think about the similarities between my life and the movie. Sometimes these thoughts leave me feeling like my own life doesn’t measure up. I’m not happy enough or fit enough or fulfilled enough. It’s a frustrating feeling based on some illusion that these life-goals are attainable and sustainable. After all, Hollywood shows us that it’s possible.

One problem we have in our society is that we tend to think that, like in the movies, we are going to have the perfect ending. You know what I mean, I’m sure… At the end of the movie, the protagonist of the film drives off into the sunset, or reunites with a loved one, or gets the girl, or accomplishes a mission, or grieves a loss, or overcomes a big hurdle. Often, he or she winds up in a better spot. There is a sense of resolution and relief, of profound and lasting positive change. The end.

This is what we want for ourselves, too. Resolution. An ending that is better than the beginning. Eventually feeling better than where we started. And the movies appeal to us because they give us the idea that we can wind up there, too. And, what is more, that we can remain there, permanently. And seeking this ending can become our lifetime goal. We imagine that it is attainable and that it will endure.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this feeling. But it is a fantasy. Because none of us gets to stay in a good spot forever. That’s just not life. It’s not reality. In reality, we may get to the climaxes we see in the movies. The difference is that we won’t stay there. We’ll reach a goal, a personal apex. But we will inevitably backslide. And then the journey will begin again.

Life is a series of perpetual highs, lows, and in-betweens. And coping with this reality is what it’s about. I think some of us become more depressed and anxious when we think that there is some positive end-goal, some delightfully happy ending. And that once we find it, we’ll stay right there basking in the sweet goodness forever. Like in the movies. But it’s simply not going to happen. And, really, we can live with that truth. We can cope. We can evolve even as we struggle through life’s muck.

A challenge we all face is to know what comes after the happy ending, should we ever reach it. Because, trust me, life isn’t over after that. And it’s impossible to stay in one place for too long. And that, my friends, is the stuff of real life. It’s where fiction ends and reality begins.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

More Simply Human

In 1947, psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan wrote:

“In most general terms, we are all much more simply human than otherwise, be we happy and successful, contented and detached, miserable and mentally disordered, or whatever.”

Sullivan believed that human struggles can be linked to the delusion that we are alone in our suffering and are alienated from others in our problems.  He wrote that we mistakenly assume that no one has the troubles that we face, and that we suffer in isolation, apart from everyone else.  He called this construct “the delusion of uniqueness.”  (I call it “poor me.”)

Over 65 years later, I believe that Sullivan is still correct.  Many of us are caught up in the notion that we are alone, that we suffer alone, and that no one understands the pains and pressures of our lives.  For me, mental health stems from the awareness that, in fact, we are not at all isolated, but instead we are vastly interconnected.  We are not unique in our problems.  We do not struggle alone.  And the belief that we do makes us miss countless opportunities for connection, and the healing that connection offers.

Sullivan’s theories also focused on the social and cultural aspects of human psychology.  He sought to understand and to teach the interaction between the person and society.  We know ourselves, he said, through our interactions with others.  And we shape and are shaped by our social influences.  We do not exist in isolation at all.  Instead, we come to be how we are through ongoing interactions with our social world.

In this blog, I hope to address the ways that we humans are  more interconnected than we are disconnected.  I hope to highlight the ways that connection teaches us about ourselves, each other, and promotes health.  I also hope to discuss the impact of larger societal structures on the ways that we understand ourselves, and, ultimately, how we can find fulfillment through knowledge, connection, and openness to each other.

For, after all, we are all more simply human than otherwise.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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