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

Preaching Prudence but Practicing Evasion

Just by virtue of having eyes and ears, we have emotional responses to everything. When we have experiences that create loss, damage, violate our sense of self or ethics (prompt an experience of feeling “less than” or being broken, also known as “shame”), frighten us or etc, we have to do something with how that feels. Just like falling off a bike and skinning our knee, we hurt in part because that’s the healing process in action. Many therapists and others refer to these unresolved hurts as “issues”.

If we don’t have a means of healing/dealing with these, there are lots of unintended consequences. Not healing “hurts” (shame, fear, sadness, etc) causes “neurotic” behavior. “Acting out”, drug use, manipulation, self-ful-ness, isolation, “codependent” behavior, “anxiety”, avoidant behaviors, etc. Long term and in the wake of continued losses/traumas, these can turn into more serious problems- depression, relationship issues, “mental illnesses”, addictions and etc.

Sometimes these other problems and behaviors are simply ways of surviving or “coping” with our feelings about things, sometimes they become problems in and of themselves. Exercise, church (etc), self-help books, “will”, diet and nutrition, hobbies etc are all efforts that can be helpful in varying degrees, but for reasons too long for a blog post, they’re insufficient and/or incomplete for this task. Some of these things sometimes turn into means of avoiding our feelings as well.

If we don’t have a fairly organized (and effective) means of transforming or eradicating our experience in this way, as above, we create or perpetuate problems in our lives. Different therapists have different “tools” suggested to help resolve or diminish the intensity of these issues. My sense of this process though, goes something like this:

List the behaviors we use that put distance between us and how we feel. Some of these are external- but some are internal. Some examples are food, alcohol, work, spending, sex, focus on others, perfectionism (whether imposed on ourselves or others), TV, turning our feelings into anger, etc.

Diminish (or preferably, maybe necessarily) or stop those behaviors. There’s many, many ways of making this happen- see my blog “Wanting to Stop” for some suggestions. As has been said in other blogs, “letting go” means little for something we are not fully letting ourselves “have” in the first place.

Give the feelings we’re experiencing/left with as simple, and common a name as possible. I encourage mad, sad, glad (happy), afraid, ashamed, and/or hurt. And/or because we can certainly feel more than one at a time. Simple, because we often use euphemistic or complicated language as just another means to dissociate (separate) us from our feelings.

Share those feelings, as much as possible with the person we’re having the feelings about, as close to the time we experience them. It’s also really important that we’re actually allowing ourselves to have the feelings as we’re expressing them. Of course this isn’t always appropriate because of time or circumstance. Sometimes, it’s not appropriate because of the person we’re with. Be careful though not to “preach prudence when practicing evasion”.

As has been said by many, “you can’t heal what you can’t feel”. This process is assisted by doing it with a professional who has has both education and experience in doing so not just as a therapist, but hopefully as a person as well. We are trained in various means that facilitate some really important parts of this process that are sometimes not intuitive to our friends, families, loved ones. Am getting at a fairly simple list of ideas here- stop doing what we do to not feel, have an organized way of naming and letting go of or diminishing their intensity.

Therapy is Not the Answer

This is sort of a PSA for clients and therapists alike.  Therapy is not the answer to our problems of relationships, depression, grief/loss, addiction, taking food from others, communication, our sense of broken-ness/low self worth/shame, loneliness, etc.  Therapy isn’t just a way of being either.  It’s probably a way of being that solves these problems, and can prevent many in the future as a result.  The only exception, if seen in a particular light, might be around issues of safety that require immediate intervention.

Therapy should be a space where we work through the feelings we’re carrying with us that prevent us from coming to these answers on our own.  It’s an activity that should prompt us to be without our defenses and distractions as much as is possible, with a guide that has done enough of their own work that we can be taught how to live gracefully with these feelings, let go of them/transform them, and provide us principles and ideas that will help us not make some of these mistakes in the future.

We certainly should be giving direction about how to handle some circumstances, communicate more effectively, learning parenting and relationship skills, symptom management, relapse prevention and etc.  There should be an organized body of material to assist with these things.  They will all be rendered useless though, in absence of a principled way of operating, and or in the presence of enough emotional intensity that the tools cannot be used or we cannot see “answers” clearly or the simple consequences of not having these feelings gracefully end up exacerbating problems.

So, a suggestion.  Learn some survival skills that lend themselves to our ability to get some new ways of operating.  Have enough support from family, friends, and professionals that will enable surviving the process.  Deal with the feelings that come up, then set about “solving” things.

Space.

So many of us are looking for self esteem, happiness, “God” (if one believes in such), good relationships and etc.  These ideas come up a lot in my work, from all kinds of people, all different kinds of age groups and backgrounds.  They’re understandable, and common efforts, much of what make our lives worth living.

We do a lot of… interesting… things to get these. We “socially engineer”, we try to bolster our sense of self with our egos, we do all the prescribed things that religions or spiritual traditions or philosophies (or therapists) encourage us to do to get a sense of “spirit” or “God”, we buy things, try to get him or her to be interested in us.  We use drugs, alcohol, money, property, prestige.  We even use a lot of methods we’ve gotten from other therapists or self-help books (or programs) to get these things as well.

More and more, I think that these things, if we’re to have them at all, are far less about “getting” them than they are about making space for them.  If we’ve been told all our lives that we’ll never amount to anything or have had things happen to us that have made us feel “less than” or broken or defective, no amount of the above ideas (and more) will be sufficient to bring us self esteem or happiness.  The ideas I’m suggesting about “God” or relationships etc are much the same- we have to make space for these things, that are usually occupied by some loss, hurt, anxieties and etc.

The how and why of this is beyond the scope of a blog, but it’s certainly an idea worth pondering.  Overstating, learning how to let go of hurts, losses, shame, ego- these will go much further in bringing us healthy relationships, a healthy relationship with ourselves, a sense of connectedness to “God” or others or the “universe”, than any amount of money or anything else will ever provide.

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