The Ground Shifts
I retired twice, almost 20 years apart. The first time was the hardest. For almost a year, I missed everything and everybody who was part of my professional world, including the cleaning lady and the postman with whom I had daily chats. Because so much of my identity was tied up with my professional role as a psychologist, I felt totally lost when I left my university position as director of the counseling center. The phone seldom rang, no one seemed to need me, and I was left with a huge hole in my self-esteem. Traveling, while fascinating and worthwhile, couldn’t supply what was missing.
I retired twice, almost 20 years apart. The first time was the hardest. Fortunately, after nearly a year of feeling like I was wandering alone in a desert, I got a phone call from the university asking me to serve as acting dean of students for a year while they conducted a national search for a permanent dean. I accepted gladly and without hesitation. And the following year went by quickly with many challenges and accomplishments. I loved the job! It represented a perfect blend of clinical skill in dealing with students, professors, college deans, and academic know-how, that is, how to navigate the academic environment.
But the year ended, and I was plunged into retirement once again. This time, however, I was much better prepared. I decided to expand my very small private practice, seeing individuals and couples and began a twenty-year career working solo in a downtown office in Chicago. Once again, life was fulfilling, but as I began the decade of my 80s, some minor physical difficulties made a second retirement seem wise.
After this second retirement, I began asking myself what I had learned after more than 50 years of clinical practice. After this second retirement, I began asking myself what I had learned after more than 50 years of clinical practice. I have worked with different ages, races, cultures, sexual orientations, socioeconomic levels, and professions. In the mix of clients over the years were a 9-year-old pickpocket with a wide, girlish grin that lit up her face; a slew of lawyers, a number of whom were suicidal; a circuit court judge with family problems; a few physicians trying to resolve their romantic lives; a beautiful, light-skinned, African-American model who was rejected by her family for not having dark enough skin; a 15-year-old boy who accidentally shot and killed his brother; alcoholics of all kinds, and a politician running for statewide office whose wife accused him of domestic abuse. While such differences in descriptive trappings may seem profound, what stood out for me were their common ingredients.
Among the settings I worked in were mental health clinics, psychiatric hospitals, a home for delinquent girls, medical schools, private practice, and universities. In these diverse places, I performed many different functions, such as teaching, administering tests, directing programs, supervising students, and counseling individuals as well as couples. I worked on the East Coast and the Midwest; in small towns, medium-sized ones, and big cities; in small clinics as well as giant hospitals that stretched over many miles. In all these varied worlds, no matter the differences in local culture, skin color, tattoos, and garments, I found that people are more alike than different.
Besides the obvious physical similarities, I, along with many others, have realized that basically all of us have the same kind of needs, fears, defensive strategies, hopes, and dreams. Over the years, this became clear across all the varied roles I played, whether with administrators, students, colleagues, students, or clients. While everyone has a different viewing lens for perceiving the world that is shaped by unique biological, familial, and cultural factors, we are fundamentally the same. We all want to be loved, appreciated, and understood. We want to matter to our friends and family and be special in some way to all those with whom we come in contact. We want to be self-sufficient and competent. We want space and time to be autonomous in pursuit of our own dreams. We want to belong to a group, neighborhood,
church/synagogue/mosque, or community—a place of welcome and acknowledgment. All of us want to feel safe in the neighborhoods in which we live and to be reasonably stress-free. We also want some challenge in our lives, that is, some novelty to reduce the boredom of ordinary days. And we want to feel good about ourselves; we want to walk around with our heads held high and a liveliness in our steps.
People everywhere are afraid of the same kinds of things. People everywhere are afraid of the same kinds of things. We are afraid of being assaulted, either physically or verbally. Because both physical and psychological dangers are threatening (one to our lives and the other to our identity), both kinds of peril create fear, tension, and anxiety. Contrary to the old childhood rhyme we used to chant, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” names, especially the insulting ones, do hurt a lot. So do betrayal, bullying, humiliation, manipulation, and rejection, all of which bruise our fragile sense of self.
We are also afraid of having our inadequacies and our failings brought to light. When we are teased, taunted, or made fun of, our imperfections are made visible for all the world to see. We feel exposed as inadequate in some way and feel vulnerable; we are not as strong, smart, or “in control” as we would like. Because vulnerability is scary and psychological assaults hurt, people develop fears about these threats and build self-protective mechanisms to feel safe.
Trying to be safe, we may hide in our rooms or in our heads, lie to ourselves or others, counterattack in person the assaulters or assail their carbon copies, keep others at a distance by obnoxious behavior, or pretend we are very talented, wise, good-looking, or famous. The hiding can be literal, as when a teenager spends all her free time in her room, or symbolic, as when a doctor, lawyer, or engineer keeps his personal self out of sight and remains ensconced in his professional role. Rather than acknowledge hopes, dreams, failings, and inadequacies to close friends and family, the professional recluse relies primarily on his work-related skills to navigate erratically the world of intimacy and relationships. In this manner, he hides from his vulnerability and winds up feeling safe and in control.
Hiding in our heads is a way of viewing the world from a vantage point above the fray. We can think all kinds of negative thoughts there, and nobody is the wiser. In this space in our heads, we are safe from counterattacks and free to be ourselves. Intellectuals, writers, academicians, and other creative souls are often in this group because thinking feels a lot safer to them than feeling. Emotions are often intense, chaotic, and unpredictable, whereas thoughts tend to be logical and manageable.
Other ways of hiding include addiction to computer games. There, ensconced in technology, we avoid the unpredictable world of people by focusing on dragon-slaying and war games. In that way, we maintain a pseudo-connection to others through computer identities that do not risk much vulnerability and yet satisfy our desires to be winning and in control. Addictions of all kinds are reliable hiding places, which often last until physical dysfunction appears on the scene.
Other protective strategies include power-hungry maneuvers such as boasting, bellicose rants, and dictatorial strategies. Braggarts fill the conversational air with their accomplishments in the hope that no one will notice how empty they feel. Similarly, the bully and the dictator try to convince their worlds that they are powerful when, underneath it all, they feel helpless and insignificant. Angry, belligerent people who are adept at keeping people away are more comfortable with solitude because closeness to others is fraught with emotional danger. Being betrayed, criticized, disappointed, insulted, and/or rejected are just a few of the perils they try to avoid.
Several new insights have emerged from my experience, some of which are counter-intuitive. While all the preceding observations have been underscored many times in my clinical and personal worlds and written about elsewhere, several new insights have emerged from my experience, some of which are counter-intuitive. Some are different from those in the psychological literature, and others run counter to the prevailing culture in the US. Since I love to write, I decided to write a book of essays that focused on my clinical experiences and the new understandings gleaned thereof.
One of these new insights contradicts the American culture’s focus on the power of positive thinking. In contrast to this popular notion, I think it is safe to say that positive thinking is not always helpful. Platitudes (trite remarks used too often to be interesting or thoughtful) and happy talk do not prepare us for disasters lying just ahead. Every cloud does not have a silver lining, nor is there a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow!
Because the world is filled with all sorts of unhappy events, from disappointments and failures to losses, thinking only positive thoughts is delusional. Trying to maintain a happy face while tragedy engulfs us is unnatural, akin to trying to laugh when our hearts are breaking. Like Pagliacci, the clown who was intent on making others laugh while tears streamed down his cheeks, we shortchange ourselves when we fail to deal with negative events and emotions. For many patients who do not process their negative feelings at the time of a disturbing event, the failure to deal with these emotions may, and often does, lead to symptoms such as anxiety and/or depression. In addition, when positive thinking bypasses the processing of negative events, it can limit problem-solving and result in impaired judgment about courses of action.
I have found that whenever there is heartbreak, no matter where it is coming from, the best way of getting through it for most of us is by acknowledging the sadness, disappointment, humiliation, or anger, and then working through it. In a healthy person, the processing of negative feelings goes through phases, much like the waves of emotion that accompany grief, until there is a personal resolution that uniquely fits the person. The problem arises when people get stuck in negativity and can’t move beyond it, which is where positive thinking and therapeutic strategies may prove useful.
Direct Expression of Anger
Another psychological reality that is infrequently articulated in the psychological and popular literature was dramatically conveyed in a few words by a patient. It jarred me when I first heard it. After weeks of catatonic behavior followed by a psychiatric hospitalization, a 40-year-old man intoned, “Madness is better than sadness” as his first words upon recovering. When he was asked what he meant, he responded, “When you’re mad, you can do something, but when you’re sad, you can’t do anything at all.”
A 40-year-old man intoned, “Madness is better than sadness” as his first words upon recovering. At this time in our culture when violence permeates the American scene in so many ways—there is video violence, domestic violence, street violence, school violence, and workplace violence—it is difficult to see how madness can be better than sadness. However, what the patient was communicating clearly was that anger is energizing and leads to action, while sadness is immobilizing and induces helplessness. Most of us would prefer to feel alive, in charge of our lives, and full of options, rather than depleted, stuck, and without possibilities. Discerning when and where the direct expression of anger is adaptive and when it is destructive would be beneficial to all of us.
Another cultural misdirection is our obsession with romantic love. Via scores of dating sites flourishing on the Internet, we run blindly toward the Promised Land of Eternal Love. We buy romantic novels, read manuals devoted to orgasmic ecstasy, and watch sophomoric movies filled with hormone-saturated teenagers groping their way to fulfillment. And yet, all this cultural energy devoted to its arousal and maintenance does not alter the reality that romantic love (sexual feelings and emotional closeness) is ephemeral. Because it is fueled primarily by fantasy, novelty, and emotional arousal at the time it develops, romantic love is almost impossible to sustain. Unless it is replaced by a quieter respect, admiration, affection, or commitment (or has some of those ingredients to start with), romantic love quickly dies, fading away in the light of reality.
Another idea that has emerged for me over the years is that vulnerable people are easier to relate to than assertive, self-confident ones. Vulnerability is an openness about feelings, successes, failures, strengths, inadequacies, and hopes and dreams. While our society imbues self-confidence with high status and desirability, and the trait is invaluable, vulnerability is more appealing and more likely to foster intimacy. Vulnerable people are more readily trusted (we know where they’re coming from), nonthreatening, and likable, whereas super-confident individuals earn our respect and admiration. We look up to confident people (they are our role models), but we are less likely to regard them as good friends.
Other new counter-cultural understandings gained over the years include the following: One can’t control reasonably healthy people against their will without their feeling resentful. While punishment and torture work to some degree, they tend to create long-term resentment that manifests itself in sabotage and/or other passive-aggressive tactics. In addition, all of us possess a degree of autonomy that can’t be manipulated under any circumstance.
This powerful realization came from a testing case where I was to administer a battery of tests to a 15-year-old who had accidentally shot and killed his brother. As soon as the young man walked into the testing room, it was obvious that he was in no mood to be evaluated. He sat on the floor with his arms folded across his chest and refused to answer any of my questions. I tried everything I knew to reduce his defensiveness, but nothing worked. So after about 45 minutes, I gave up and started to pack up my testing paraphernalia, saying, “It is clear that I can’t make you talk to me,” as I stood up to leave. At this point, he asked, “What do you want to know?” and became fully cooperative with the evaluation. What changed his mind? Apparently, it was his realization that he was in control of cooperating and that I couldn’t make him do anything.
Luck or Chance
Luck or chance have been badly underrated. And yet much of life (genes, parents, family, schoolmates, friends, teachers, roommates, romantic partners, jobs) is a function of timing and chance. Hard work and talent play significant roles in our achievements, but luck or chance is at least as important, if not more so at times. Whether or not we get accepted into our preferred college, get the dream job we always wanted, or win a particular sports event is dramatically affected by the other competitors and the biases of the decision-makers in that situation. Unless we accept that reality, we are likely to take too much credit for our accomplishments and too much blame for our failures, leading either to false pride or undeserved self-depreciation.
Other insights I have had over the years include the idea that healthy narcissism is quite different from the pathological variety. Healthy narcissism embellishes personal achievements with delight and enhances lovability with charm. It provides the joie de vivre—the joy of living—that adds just the right amount of zest to ordinary life. And finally, empathy, the most important of the relationship skills, enables us to relate to others with care and compassion, providing self-esteem enhancement that is deep and durable. It helps us develop friendships and maintain romantic relationships over the long haul.
I am far wiser than I was when I began this journey of enlightenment, although it didn’t begin as such.
This article was adapted from the Introduction to Beyond Pipe Dreams and Platitudes: Insights on Love, Luck, and Narcissism from a Longtime Psychologist. Outskirts Press, 2021.
Geraldine K. Piorkowski, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychologist who received her doctorate from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Since then, she has worked in a variety of academic and clinical settings for over fifty years. Besides holding the position of Chair of the Psychology Department at Roosevelt University, Chicago, she was also on the faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey at Newark and the Northwestern Medical School in Chicago. In addition, she was director of two university counseling centers in Chicago. She is the author of many psychological articles and three books: Too Close for Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy (1994), Adult Children of Divorce: Confused Love Seekers (2008), and most recently, Beyond Pipe Dreams and Platitudes: Insights on Love, Luck, and Narcissism from a Longtime Psychologist (2021). She lives in Chicago with her husband of 61 years. They have two adult children (Paul & Julie) and also had a son, Michael, who died in 1995.