(The following is Ben’s response to our Why We Didn’t Work series. Listen to his episode here, find more about the project here, and read Jacqueline’s response here.)
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates
Yeah, those ancient Greeks knew some shit.
I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve been in therapy for a long time. Quite to the contrary, I’m proud to admit it. Self-examination and personal growth are not only fun, fascinating, and freeing; they also form the core of my personal values, so my experience with therapist Vienna Pharaon, exploring “What Went Wrong” in my past relationships live on the radio, while vulnerable, was not altogether unfamiliar. Together, we probed some of my known demons from her unique perspective and illuminated others in light of new information found in the answers given by my exes to questions about our history. Many noteworthy insights were explored:
We inspected the role my parents’ divorce plays in my ability to commit and to create a space for safe communication.
We debunked the narrative I’ve created for myself surrounding the inevitability of disappointing my partner.
We tackled the detriment of my subconscious need to view my partner as better than me.
We explored, even before going on the air, the nature of fantasy and the adverse effect it has on my relationships.
We addressed my perception of my most significant relationship and how it’s not wholly accurate.
Most interestingly to me, we dissected the way events from our past show up in unconscious ways to sabotage our present and talked about how often people can want one thing and secretly wish for the opposite at the same time, without realizing it.
We considered a lot for a thirty minute radio show. It was thought-provoking, emotionally stimulating and quite rewarding. An extravagant feast for my hyper-curious, analytical mind.
None of those keen observations make for my greatest takeaway. In fact, in spite of having covered so much depth, I continue to be struck by one resounding thought:
We barely scratched the surface.
There is a difference between knowing something intellectually and having had an emotionally corrective experience that can facilitate a change in behavior, and though Ms. Pharaon is an exceptionally gifted mental health professional (whose practice is booming and has a waiting list a mile long), one day in a room with a stranger isn’t enough.
It can take months, years or even longer just to make a tiny dent. Human change is glacial in pace. Slower, even. When we’re young, and our brains are still basically the consistency of a bowl of jelly, we are capable of great change and flexibility, but scientifically, we know that by age 25 the brain have started to solidify. At this point our repeated use of the same neural pathways makes them so deeply embedded that it’s incredibly hard to break free of them. “In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again” goes the famous quote by groundbreaking Harvard Psychologist, William James.
Yet somehow, most of us think we’re changing all the time. Making bold new decisions. Exercising our free will, consciously and rationally with each new choice that’s presented us, without having even begun to do any of the work necessary to come into awareness of the patterns we’re engaged in.
Sorry, but no. Not even close.
Evolutionary Psychology suggests that our emotions come before reason. Each new stimuli we encounter is first processed emotionally before reason is able to set in, however instantaneous it may feel. This is why no one has ever changed another’s mind by posting a political diatribe on Facebook, regardless of how well-reasoned it is (I could spend another whole blog post talking about how reading these diatribes make me want to claw my eyes out, but that’s for another day). Quite frankly, no matter how badly one “Feels the Bern!” or wants to “Make America Great Again,” using rationale will get him or her nowhere. Our outlooks are dependent primarily upon our unconscious habitual patterns of behaving and thinking, the result of that which lies underneath: A sleeping volcano of traumas, wounds, hurts, fears, losses and other emotional experiences that carved our brains when they were more malleable.
The same phenomenon was at work when I sat across from Vienna, who began to pull the lid off of my volcano. Naturally, I found my defenses rise at every suggestion she offered, with a point of logic jumping immediately to the ready, poised to explain her insights away. Defense mechanisms aren’t doing their jobs if you can see right through them, and I couldn’t, though I find I can recognize them more easily now, after years of therapy, and have learned to leave the windows cracked a little, instead of dismissing feedback entirely after one 30 minute session.
A longer relationship with a good therapist eventually gives way to an establishment of trust, both in the expertise of the professional and his or her ability to hear the patient free of judgment. It also allows therapist to skillfully and repeatedly point out the same patterns, as they manifest in different areas of the patient’s life, in ways that soften the walls that block the patient from seeing them, creating a space for healing and growth.
It’s important to note that engaging in patterns – something that all people do, whether they are aware of it or not – doesn’t mean something is wrong with us. It’s just what is. The way our conscious relates to our unconscious is for both the better and the worse. It is the foundation for our strengths and weaknesses. I’m even aware of the odd contradiction, that my fervor for this type of work and my immersion in it, an aspect of my personality I love, presents its own drawbacks and pitfalls. I could, perhaps, be… oh, a bit more moderate. (And yet, the question of where this almost compulsive search for deeper truth comes from could warrant further investigation, ha! You can see why the presence of a pro can help from falling down the rabbit hole).
Still, I believe that the unpacking of our defenses, along with the long, hard excavation of one’s own behavioral patterns and the conscious retraining of one’s brain habits is the most important (and perhaps most difficult) work a person can do. The more we can make the unconscious conscious, the more control we have of the wheel, the more choice we have, the more agency we have in our own lives, the more truly ourselves we really are.
Many people focus on changing the world, but one mustn’t try to have an effect on the world. One simply does, by small degrees, by living in it. The only way to ensure a positive impact, is by changing oneself.
Some may call the type of introspection, that I propose necessary to create such change, self-indulgent navel-gazing. Personally, however, if forced to choose, I’d much rather live in a world filled with thoughtful, contemplative truth-seekers than one filled with so many people acting blindly, thinking they already know.
Questions about the mysterious nature of humanity – not answers – fuel my passions, my lust for knowledge, my life’s work as an artist and, most importantly, my ability to grow and change instead of living a slave to habit. One can keep asking “why,” continue digging deeper and deeper, coming into greater awareness and actualization forever, and I intend to.
As it pertains to love and relationships, the same is true. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It might take years. It might take a decade. More likely?
It will take a lifetime.
I look forward to finding someone equally committed to that work – and as endlessly fascinated by it – with whom I can share that lifetime.