Attitude of Platitude

Talking with a client the other day, the subject of platitudes came up.  Many of us use them routinely.  Whether opining about inferences made, used polemically, or giving feedback to a friend or loved one, they’re used fairly often in all different kinds of discourse.  These certainly occur in therapy, twelve step programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Co-Da, ACA, Overeaters Anonymous, etc).  We hear them at church/synagogue.  They’re used copiously in political speeches and discussions.

Many years ago, a friend began saying to me when discussing platitudes, “Cliche alert!  Cliche alert!” ala the robot from “Lost in Space”.  It was his way of indicating that the user was often either not really saying anything, and/or wasn’t really aware of the content or context of the cliche being used.

One of my favorite quotes is from Gandhi: “It is because we have at this present moment everybody claiming the right of conscience without going through any discipline whatsoever that there is so much untruth being delivered to a bewildered world.”  What I think he was getting at was pretty fundamental, and horror-producing… we all claim a right to truths and perceptions without really going through any real self or “concept” examination, and impose a subsequent template on the world in its wake.

That’s a fantastic way to create and/or perpetuate problems.  Am bringing it up because it seems that platitudes are a common ways this occurs.  Not that many platitudes or cliches aren’t true, just that we often don’t seem to examine if we’re using them, truly understand them, use them in context and the like.  I often see therapists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use cliches and platitudes simply because they don’t know what else to say.

Going back to twelve step programs, one cliche that is often used is “attitude of gratitude”.  With equal measure, it seems that an “attitude of platitude” is what is often in use.  Ideas like “just do what you’re doing”, “keep it simple”, “I decide for me, you decide for you, we decide for us”, and more are arguably great ideas.  These ideas even have utility for depression, relationships, self esteem, addiction, grief, loss and more.  However, our command of the language doesn’t necessarily indicate a real handle on what they mean or how/when/what context to use them and make them practical.

You can find out more about Petar at: April30th.org

Sheldon Kopp

You may remember being a kid, and having someone suggest you write an essay about the person who influenced you most.  With the exception of a musician or two, the person that is likely that for me is Sheldon Kopp.  I was given his most famous book “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients” by my then “mentor”, when I was 17.  It’s really a book about principles, an organized way to live our lives and deal with Things As They Are.

He’s written something in the way of 18 books, died a while ago not of the brain tumor he had (that required removal 3 times), but of heart failure and pneumonia.  Having heard a rumor about his death, I looked him up on the internet once, and sent an email to a similarly named person, hoping I might find him or learn of his passing.  Essentially my note stated that this was a person who had been extremely influential and helpful in my life, and I wanted to know if it might be him.  I was lucky enough to get a response, that made it clear it was actually him: “Yes Petar, I too have heard rumors of my untimely demise, but I find them unconvincing.”

In “Buddha”, as became customary in many of his books, at the end was included ideas that he considered truths, or principles.  This was the most famous of them, called, “An Eschatological Laundry List: a Partial List of 927 (or was it 928?) Eternal Truths.”  Many of the ideas here have guided me in everything from my own emotional and “spiritual” work, work with my clients.  People that have suffered all of the things here that I’m trying to diminish for as many people as possible- depression, stress, relationship issues, abuse, loss and grief, addiction, self esteem issues and the like.  Hopefully, they will give you as much as they’ve given me, inspire you to read his books, and of the greatest importance: give you a ways and means of passing the ideas on to others.  Would love to hear what you think of them.  And to the “Truths”…

1. This is it!
2. There are no hidden meanings.
3. You can’t get there from here, and besides there’s no place else to go.
4. We are all already dying, and we will be dead for a long time.
5. Nothing lasts.
6. There is no way of getting all you want.
7. You can’t have anything unless you let go of it.
8. You only get to keep what you give away.
9. There is no particular reason why you lost out on some things.
10. The world is not necessarily just. Being good often does not pay off and there is no compensation for misfortune.
11. You have a responsibility to do your best nonetheless.
12. It is a random universe to which we bring meaning.
13. You don’t really control anything.
14. You can’t make anyone love you.
15. No one is any stronger or any weaker than anyone else.
16. Everyone is, in his own way, vulnerable.
17. There are no great men.
18. If you have a hero, look again: you have diminished yourself in some way.
19. Everyone lies, cheats, pretends (yes, you too, and most certainly I myself).
20. All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation.
21. All of you is worth something, if you will only own it.
22. Progress is an illusion.
23. Evil can be displaced but never eradicated, as all solutions breed new problems.
24. Yet it is necessary to keep on struggling toward solution.
25. Childhood is a nightmare.
26. But it is so very hard to be an on-your-own, take-care-of -yourself -cause-there-is-no-one-else-to-do-it-for-you grown-up.
27. Each of us is ultimately alone.
28. The most important things, each man must do for himself.
29. Love is not enough, but it sure helps.
30. We have only ourselves, and one another. That may not be much, but that’s all there is.
31. How strange, that so often, it all seems worth it.
32. We must live within the ambiguity of partial freedom, partial power, and partial knowledge.
33. All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.
34. Yet we are responsible for everything we do.
35. No excuses will be accepted.
36. You can run, but you can’t hide.
37. It is most important to run out of scapegoats.
38. We must learn the power of living with our helplessness.
39. The only victory lies in surrender to oneself.
40. All of the significant battles are waged within the self.
41. You are free to do whatever you like. You need only to face the consequences.
42. What do you know . . . for sure . . . anyway?
43. Learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again and again. . . .

What to Do?

From P.16 of the PDF “Statutes and Regulations” from the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (the regulatory agency that oversees MFTs, Social Workers, and etc):

“§4980. NECESSITY OF LICENSE (a) Many California families and many individual Californians are experiencing difficulty and distress, and are in need of wise, competent, caring, compassionate, and effective counseling in order to enable them to improve and maintain healthy family relationships.”

Clients as above, come to us for wise counsel.  Among other things of course.  This idea has far-reaching implications, not just for our clients, but for us.  Wisdom is hard to come by!  Oversimplifying, “wisdom” in this case is often a euphemism for answers.

Claiming (or believing) one has wisdom or answers is of course a Bad Idea, yet it seems we have a responsibility to work toward them.  There’s some great ideas and techniques supporting the principle of not giving “answers” (suggestions, direction, etc) outright to clients (or loved ones, certainly) from the therapist’s chair.  My basic mode of operation is to try to lead someone to those answers, typically only giving direct suggestions when my efforts to lead a client to their own answers have been exhausted.

We do treat several diagnoses and/or issues that have “community standards”, fundamental practices or “conventions” most therapists agree on how to treat.  Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other more severe illnesses for instance almost always direct the client to: not “self-medicate”, takes the best supportive medication regime as directed, and is getting :talk therapy” and/or peer/familial support with their illness.  There are few that argue with the utility of these interventions.  There are other examples for addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.

Two things are of interest to me though.  The first is that during the therapeutic process, I often see clients get a suggestion, and dismiss the suggestion out of hand.  What I think is happening is that rarely do I suggest an idea that in a vacuum will ever be sufficient.  What I mean is, most any suggestions I have will never be singular.  It seems that the depth of our sadness or anxiety or pain or whatever often keeps us from “getting” what is offered, unable to accept the responsibility of taking several suggestions.  Summarizing: rarely is one idea sufficient to change anything in the therapeutic process.

The second thing that prompts me to mull this over is the “active” therapists versus the “passive” therapists.  In my view there is room (and each therapist I think, ought use) both styles, often with the same client.  There are times that we should be directive, and not just in terms of extreme examples like when a client is being abused.  Discouraging self-medicating, engaging a support group, ruling out medical concerns with a physician, ways to stop a behavior etc are all examples where there is little controversy over giving someone “direction” about an issue.

People come to us for answers.  We are paid to have a toolset, methods, principles of operating that in many cases should help diminish depression, stress, relationship conflicts, behavioral concerns and the like.  On the subject of not holding these ideas close to one’s chest: there is a great (and occasionally controversial) martial arts instructor who critiques traditional means of training, idealizing the “teacher” and etc.  He also critiques traditional martial arts training as being “cultish”- keeping secrets, claiming answers from some (out of touch and unknowable) “higher source”.  His “instructors” are all referred to as “coaches” or by their first names, and their focus is very simple: performance improvement.  That last idea is part of what I’m getting at here- the “answers” we give as therapists should improve “performance”, which I would argue is diminished if we are too passive.  It is very significant of course, that what is being improved, is clearly defined.  If we think something might be helpful though- there are certainly compelling reasons we should disclose it.

When it comes to performance, we should be helping people get more in touch with their emotional condition, have those feelings gracefully, diminish (but not eliminate) the intensity of negative emotions.  Our interventions should help decrease or stop unwanted behaviors.  The direction we give should help increase intimacy.  Of course this is not an exhaustive list, it may take a long time for these things to happen, and some cannot happen without the others.

My experience has been that many (arguably most) of my clients have come into my office, suffering enough, and out of enough answers, that they are willing to do most things we come up with together.  Had they been in possession of this material on their own to begin with, there would be no (or little) need for my education and experience with the issues they struggle with.

My effort is to put me out of a job and it does people a disservice I think, to have an insight that I wait for them to come to on their own… which they’ve already arguably been trying to do.  Sometimes I ask my clients if they have spent a great deal of time in their lives, saying something like this to themselves: “I just wish someone would tell me what to do about this.”  There are many things, that most(not necessarily all) people can do, directly, to diminish feelings of low self worth, sadness, struggles in relationships and most of the problems they come to a therapist.  If I didn’t go to school to learn to help people know and do these things, then what exactly did I go for?

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