Podcast #9 Why is Everyday Unhappiness Necessary?


If you prefer to read rather than listen, here is a transcript of the podcast.
(Also available in PDF format.)
Note: portions of the text may be slightly edited for clarity in written form.
Everyday Unhappiness
Good morning. This is Dr. Gerry at the Psychotherapist Corner, 1490 WGCH. This morning I’m going to talk about something that may sound a little bit strange initially. Namely, why is everyday unhappiness necessary? Freud, as some of you may know, said by the end of a good treatment, the patient should be able to exchange neurotic misery, for everyday unhappiness.

And that sounds particularly strange to our American ears. You know how in America we’re taught that we should always be happy; we should always be up. Unless something’s wrong we should always be calm. But, on the other hand, I think there’s a great deal of wisdom in what Freud said, in terms of living life and enjoying life. To be able to come to terms with what he calls, everyday unhappiness. We all know that there are many people that walk around, and sometimes even ourselves, who are always depressed, or they’re always anxious. Or, they’re always suspicious, or they’re always aggressive. They’re unhappy about something almost all the time, when you speak to them. That’s the kind of behavior that I’m indicating when we talk about neurotic misery.

It’s very difficult to be with someone like that. You may get used to them. They may be your spouse, or your boss. On the other hand you’re aware that there’s something off here. That is, there’s not a kind of sober sense, about life. As you know, and I think this is particularly true of Americans more so than just even Western Europeans…we really do believe in a lot of the books that you see around and sometimes some of the radio shows and TV shows that we see. They give you the impression that we’re always supposed to be happy. We’re supposed to be well contented. We should be psychologically healthy at all times. Now, although that sounds nice, and it does sound nice, I just don’t think it’s reality.

If we don’t have those things the implication is, you know, if we just found the right formula everything will work out for itself. In particular, we Americans are used to working very hard. The implication underneath working very hard is that if we just put our hands to the grindstone, we will be rewarded and we will be successful. All too often, the unspoken message behind that is if we are not successful it’s probably because we didn’t work hard enough. You know, you’re just supposed to work hard enough and then things are going to work out. And if you have the right attitude, things are going to work out. And if you know the right thing to say, things are going to work out. It sounds terrific. In point of fact through my many years of experience, it’s not quite that simple. It sells a lot of books, it even sells a lot of TV shows, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work. Now, it’s no question that a positive attitude will conquer and resolve some internal issues. On the other hand, if we just focus on that exclusively, I actually believe it’s dangerous for us.

It’s dangerous because it can set up a lot of discontent. It’s dangerous because it’s too simple a notion of what it means to be a person. What we’ve been talking about in the psychotherapist corner, what I’ve been trying to get across to my listening audience, is really share my understanding. I come from a psychoanalytic background. I’ve been practicing therapy, as you know, for 38 years. What does it mean to be a person? How do we achieve being a person? I don’t think being a person merely means that we exist. Being a person, for me, as I’ve spoken about many times, is integrating who we are. That is, progressively understanding who we are. Gaining whatever wisdom we can about life and growing throughout our whole life, even into our old age. That’s what it means to be a person.

Why do I think that this kind of popular, you know, if you put your mind to it you can do anything you want is dangerous? Dangerous might be too strong a word, but why I think it’s misleading, let’s say that. The reason for that is because we humans are pulled many different direction; we’re pulled in many different directions all at the same time. That’s all that a therapist means when he talks about we have human conflicts. Human conflicts are not bad, they’re not good, they’re just there. We love and we get angry. We can care for and we can exploit; we can give life and we can kill. We can want to be committed to a person and yet we can feel sexual desires puling us in different directions. And it goes on and on and on.

That’s essential to being human. Part of what we’re going to talk about, coming to terms with everyday unhappiness means, is recognizing that we didn’t create ourselves. We are children of our desires so to speak and we have many conflicting desires…we don’t have to condemn them, we have to know them. I’ve tried to say that many, many times in our sessions, in our talking here. That is, we don’t have to condemn ourselves. We don’t have to think we’re bad because we have conflicting desires. It’s much harder and much more rewarding when we know ourselves. Now, particularly in our country, hard work and success are sometimes unconsciously equated with God’s blessing. Actually those of you who know the history of religion a little bit, will know that was John Calvin’s thought. Calvin, at least originally, really believed that if you were successful, that was a sign of God’s blessing.

Such an idea really caught on in America. And through a good part of our history, given our people, given our great resources, given our resolve, that seemed to be true. That it was God’s blessing and that things would work out. Now, I’m not against upward mobility. I’m not the terrific American optimism that we have. On the other hand, the best way I think of getting upward mobility, is to be aware that things don’t always work out. That we are children of many different desires and that we have to develop what I’m going to speak about in a short while, what I’ve been calling everyday wisdom. Everyday wisdom enables us perhaps, to live with a boss that is driving us crazy. Everyday wisdom may allow us to live with parents who we have to take care of, and who maybe weren’t the most caring parents when we were growing up.

Everyday wisdom means we have to live with ourselves, with some of the odd strange things that we do and we wonder why we did such and such. We’ll return to this but all of that is what I mean by everyday wisdom. Our goal is to learn to live with who we are without denying our need to grow and to try and understand ourselves. Obviously as human being we die. Something we American don’t always talk about death. We frequently get sick, our children may get ill, or sometimes they disappoint us. We obviously grow old. All too frequently our bodies remind us of our age. All of these things are issues that we have to confront, to come to terms with in life, and not deny, or push aside. On the deeper level, one of the most, one of the recurring things we have to face if we want to not live out neurotic misery, but rather live out everyday unhappiness, is a sense of self honesty. Honesty enables us to recognize who we are, who we want to be, with as little distortion as possible. Honesty helps us be emotionally sober, so to speak.

You know, all too frequently we easily projects what we don’t like about ourselves onto those around us. You see this a lot with, I’ve used this example already, I don’t mean to overuse it. You see this a lot with married couples. When married couples come in for treatment, so much of the time, they have projected onto their mate the issues that they don’t really want to face inside themselves. They find fault, they find irritation in their mate. When, in point of fact, that doesn’t mean their mate is not irritating at times. Obviously of course they might be. But, in point of fact, if they were able to just stop and look at themselves and understand where they’re coming from, the other person’s irritating qualities, wouldn’t be so difficult.

The same thing is true at work with your boss and sometimes with your fellow workers. We frequently exaggerate the irritation that people cause us. When, in point of fact, it really has to do with some issues inside of ourselves that we’re finding it hard to think abut. Many of us, obviously, were not born with the same looks or capabilities. We’re born with a different social background, family histories. All of these things account for everyday limitations that we face and that are just part of us. And it’s foolish to think that if a person comes with different backgrounds, that everybody should be equal. We should be equal in opportunity, but we are not equal necessarily in terms of where we came from.

One of the benefits, as I’ve said before, one of the positive benefits of marriage is that each person in the marriage, when it goes right, can help the other person negotiate the everyday issues that come up. Couples should be able, ideally, to grow in their care for each other. When they cannot, it’s usually because one or other of the spouses is not willing to deal with the usual, everyday unhappy aspects of living. Why am I talking about this in reference to marriage? Primarily I think because all too often people rush, towards divorce without considering what it is that’s making them miserable. And it’s very easy to find what’s making one miserable outside of oneself. What I’m saying this morning is that once we can appreciate what it is to be alive, we can accept the normal limitations we have on being alive. The limitations our body gives us, our social background gives us, our intellect gives us, our education gives us. Once we come to terms with that, we’re less likely to be frustrated, with where we are.
What Freud was trying to convey with his remark about everyday unhappiness, is that a certain amount, a certain amount of discontent is just part of being alive. We are not supposed to make believe that difficult things don’t happen to us. We are not supposed to always be up. Such an attitude, I think, makes normal down times much worse. If we think inside our head that we should always be serene, we should always be happy, we should always have a positive attitude, then when the normal depressing things of life come along, it’s going to be much more difficult for us to handle. When we are emotionally sober, so to speak, we are much closer to enjoying life. And that’s what I’m talking about this morning. What does it mean to be emotionally sober? We know what it means to be sober in terms of alcohol or drugs. But we have to equally be emotionally sober. And that is as important, if not more important, than being alcoholic sober, let’s say.

If we’re emotionally sober, we’re not going to excessively indulge in alcohol. When we’re emotionally sober we’re much closer to enjoying life. To valuing the people we live with. To knowing our strengths and our limitations, and therefore we’re on the road to being real. We can be comfortable with our strengths and our limitations without being angry about it. Without blaming someone else. Oh, if only my mother had done this, if only my father had done this. If only my spouse had been more flexible, if only my children had been much easier to raise, I would be in a whole different situation. Now, side A, maybe a little bit of that is true, we can’t just say that’s false. On the other hand, if one spends a great deal of time with “if only, if only” you’re not developing any emotional sobriety. You’re basing your life on resentment or ultimately on false hope. Either side , resentment or false hope, when they take over, don’t really help us be alive.

Emotionally sober means we are honestly trying to understand who we are. Now the way we resolve the ordinary conflicts and disappointments life gives us, particularly in the marriage, is by achieving what I have called an everyday wisdom. One thing an everyday wisdom means is how we handle the knowledge that we have. How we react to some of the situations I’ve mentioned. That’s what it means living with everyday wisdom. Everyday wisdom has to do with resilience as well. Resilience is a very important concept. Elizabeth Edwards’ latest book, some of you may have seen it in the New York Times…is named Resilience. And resilience means knowing where we are, and knowing where we would like to be; let me repeat that knowing where we are, and knowing where we would like to be. Understanding as well, what happened to us so w can go forward with less difficulty. Not experiencing what happened to us with resentment and anger and spending the rest of our life undoing what happened to us in our heads…in fantasy making believe.

Each thing that happens to us, big or small, creates a new place for us. You know, health means recognizing that. What do I mean by that? Not fantasizing that we should be back where we were before such and such happened to us. Oh, if only I was back before I was married, or before I had this job, or before I got sick, or before I did such and such, such and such a stupid thing that I did. I can’t believe I did such a stupid thing, whatever it is, or, before I got hooked on alcohol or drugs. If we make believe in our heads that we can somehow go back, we’ll never be resilient because we’re not recognizing where we are right now, where we are is essential to who we are. One of the great joys of life is finding out who we are, and that means identifying ourselves..

Being honest in terms of where we are, I’m sure Mrs. Edwards had a great deal to com to terms with. Not only with her husband behavior, but also with the death of her son, and with the cancer that she faced and faces. And if she were to spend her time thinking back, oh my gosh, why can’t I be back healthy again before I got this cancer, she would waste a great deal of energy. That’s what I’m talking about in terms of resilience. The fantasy that we could be someplace else rather than where we are makes for a neurotic misery. Coming to terms with who we are makes for Freud calls Everyday unhappiness. Let me stop for a second, we’ll have a momentary interruption and I’ll be right back with you. This is Dr. Gerry, Psychotherapist Corner, 1490 WGCH. [Commercial Interruption 00:16:55]

Dr. Gerry: You’re back with Dr. Gerry, Psychotherapist room. We were talking before about resilience just before we had the break. The point I was trying to make there is that if we spend too much time, a little bit is understandable. But if we spend too much time with “what if, if only this didn’t happen to me, if only I’d had a different spouse, different parents, different job, different teachers.” The list is endless obviously. If we spend a great deal of our time, “only if” we’re actually trying to escape who we are and where we are at the present moment. And we are indulging in what we call magical thinking. We’re going to go back and we’re going to redo life in our heads. I understand the need to do that, particularly when things are difficult or painful, or if a loved one has died, or is terribly ill.

I understand the propensity to do that. And yet, if we do that, we’re really starting to walk down the road to neurotic misery. Because we’re not facing where we are. OK? I’ve spoken a great deal about the queen and snow white fairytale, in my last broadcasts. The queen, as we know, if we just think about it again, it’s not really a fairytale for kids; it’s a fairytale that can teach us a lot about life. The queen was not interested in who she was, she was only concerned with what the world, that is the mirror, thought of her. That’s worth thinking about. That emphasis on who we are and how we are and how tall we are and how much money we are and how thin we are and how successful we ar can very easily slip over into the same illness that the queen had.

That she thought she was only what the mirror said she was. She didn’t have insides. The only thing she had was outsides. We all have to learn from the queen’s illness because such narcissism distracts us from what it means to be human and to have a hand in creating who we are as persons. Tragic, it’s a fairytale but it makes a very strong point. That she was in such rage at the idea that she wasn’t the most perfect person on the outside that she would murder.

And a lot of times if we don’t come to terms with our limitations, it is going to come up a great deal of rage and aggression inside of us, that we won’t even know what caused it. When I said before we are people who are pulled in many different directions, we can love and we can hate. All of us can love and hate. All of can be very kind. All of us can be very aggressive. We have to know that about ourselves in order to avoid some of the problems that lead us down the road of being particularly unhappy. We all want to be in control of our lives. We all want to think that we know what we’re doing… that we’re not overly influenced by how our fathers or mothers by our fathers talked to us. We all want to think, for example, that if we’re having trouble in our relationships it’s mostly the other person’s fault, rather than ours. We find it easy, all of us, to blame someone else. Even for the ordinary disappointments, that are just part of being alive.

In other words, we all want the mirror of life to smile back at us. Just like the queen, and to tell us how wonderful and correct and how on target we are. It was an illusion for the queen, and in a sense. it’s an illusion for us. If a person is frequently depressed or overly anxious, if a person has no quiet inside space so to speak, if they frequently feel criticized or on the other hand always assuming that what they do is right. I mean we’ve met people that seem to give that impression. No matter what you talk about with them they manage to do everything perfectly and right and then you feel somewhat inadequate inside, speaking with them. These are the signs that something is off in the integrating of their life situation. No spouse is always right, nor is any parent always right. No one needs constant attention. No one should demand constant attention. Nor is frequent depression or anxiety a way to live.

Any of these emotional possibilities are signs that we have to be re-calibrated. That is that neurotic misery is beginning to replace everyday unhappiness. We start to recalibrate ourselves when we can quietly and honestly learn to talk in a safe situation. And that learning to talk can be to a minister, to a close sensible friend, or to a therapist. If neurotic misery starts to take over and a person doesn’t find a friend, personal, or professional, then it’s not uncommon that addictions are one way of trying to solve such problems. I’ll just erase my inner feeling of depression, or anxiety or conflict. A hasty divorce is another way. Denial is another way. The only problem with such maneuvers is that they don’t work.

Neurotic misery locks us inside ourselves. That’s what we’re trying to walk around this issue with you here this morning. Neurotic actions lock us inside ourselves. We live out in practice or in fantasy what we should be talking about. If we lock ourselves, inside ourselves, we are all the less able to feel our common humanity. That is what I’ve spoken about when talking about cross identification. We’re all in the same boat. We’re all just human beings. We all have the same pain; we have the comparable pain, excuse me. We’re all pulled in many different directions and human beings can heal each other and help each other, except when they lock themselves inside themselves. That’s certainly I think, what scripture means when it says “man is not meant to be alone.” No one is meant to be alone. And only when we strive to have what I call everyday wisdom.

Only when we emotionally come to terms with who we are, only when we have truly put the past to rest, by understanding how it influences the present, can we meet another person and enjoy our common humanity. The goal of any therapy is not to make everything in life wonderful all the time. That’s frankly, ridiculous. But it’s to enable us to meet our fellow human beings on a new level where we truly feel connected and cared for.

Mental health, I dislike that term but I’m stuck with it…mental health is not some dark secret…some hidden special reality. It has to do with loving life. With caring for, and being able to identify with those with whom we live. That’s the basis of really justice in society. Psychological health shows itself in our ability to be generous without noticing it, I repeat, to be generous to other people and to ourselves without noticing it and to be fair and honest in our dealings with others. When we encounter roadblocks, and we always encounter roadblocks, that’s what we’re talking about this morning. That is when we have to re-travel the highways of our lives so to speak, in order to rekindle the fire of life. That’s when we should think about as I’ve mentioned, talking to a friend. Finding our soul so to speak. So that one way or another chimney cleaning, professional or personal, gets done. It’s when we don’t clean the chimney, that when we let too much of this stuff pile up inside of ourselves, that everyday unhappiness starts building itself up into neurotic misery. So really, what therapy is, it’s not some special hidden mysterious process. Therapy is learning to talk so that we can hear ourselves.

When a therapist understands us, and I’ve said this frequently to my patients, they’ve said to me “Dr. Gerry, how does therapy work? I don’t get it. Are you going to tell me what to do?” And I say no I’m not going to tell you what to do. If I do tell you what to do, please don’t listen to me. What I’m going to do is, if you, if I can understand you slowly, overtime, you will understand you. Once you understand yourself then you’ll be able to make decisions and you’ll be able to take responsibility for those decisions. Taking responsibility is what I mean by everyday unhappiness. I know it’s a kind of dramatic term. Everyday Unhappiness. But what it means is I know who I am, and if I made a bad decision I’m going to have to live with it. That’s what Elizabeth Edwards mentions. Resilience means I’m going to have to live with it, let me live with it. Let me not spend my time making believe something didn’t happen.

On the other hand, when we know who we are, we’re much more in contact with our flow as human beings; we’re less likely to do self-destructive things. So then, if we can avoid to the extent that we can avoid neurotic misery, we do it by kind of cleaning out the chimney periodically. By talking, as I said, to a minster, to a friend, to a spouse, or to a professional person. Have a great day today. This is Dr.Gerry, the Psychotherapist Corner.

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