Push!


eitheory.com

Let’s take a journey.

I have often wondered how I would begin a discussion of human psychology and emotional intelligence from scratch – to leave nothing to chance – to build fresh; to have a tabula rasa, rather than sifting through all that sticky gray matter that makes a jumble of everything.

We can only imagine.

I was meeting with an intern last week and the realization crawled over me, like a smudge, that our learning adventure hadn’t really amounted to much more than the time we had spent together.  I had filled his mind with intellectual insight, but I forgotten to pack the practical skills.

Essentially, he could pass a test.

As much as I tried to fight it, I couldn’t deny the distinct quality of criticism I heard in his voice when he said, “I’m almost ready to go on my own.  Just a few more weeks.  I just don’t feel prepared.”

Energy swirled around me like a protective force field. My eyes popped from my head and burrowed into their opposite sockets; my tongue rolled from my mouth like a carpet; my head pulsed with every beat of my heart; red, swirling lights erupted from my ears and, like a desperate man on a window ledge, I made a swan dive of assumption, concluding that every intern I had ever trained was flawed!

I went from confidently good to marvelously bad, in seconds.

“How could this be?” I cried.

“I can’t tell you.”

“What can we do now?”

“I don’t know.  I’m sure I can pass the licensure test.”

“Great! But can you help an actual person?”

“I don’t know.”

I had been providing my intern with an abundance of qualified opinion for nearly two years. I had not, apparently, been providing a great deal in the way of technique.  My intern was a walking textbook with little or no clinical skill!

“Let’s start over.” I said, confidently.

“We don’t have that much time left.”

“Let’s try.  Erase your mind!”

“I can’t do that.”

Try! Hurry! Push!”

“I’m hurrying.”

“Push harder!”

My intern and I were suddenly strangers who had, together, missed the same bus.

The fact is, I make a lot of assumption, particularly about how much or how little people know about human behavior, human emotion and, well, everything in between that and the moon. I can be discussing cognitive psychology, emotional intelligence or kitty litter and I nearly always begin at some point further up or down the road from my listener. Unfortunately, I usually find out later that I had been, essentially, talking to myself.  At the same time I learn that I had been perceived as quite patronizing or far too confusing, too complicated – possibly even drunk.

So let’s just start fresh and lay a new foundation for learning.  I promise not to be confusing, obtuse or mystifying.  It’s all straight shooting from here on, partner. In the event you believe you already have a foundation, a framework for understanding emotional intelligence, bio-psychosocial adjustment and the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy, buy the vacant lot next door and lay a new foundation there.

We’re starting from scratch.

Logically, we should begin our discussion with the movie Cowboys and Aliens (2011), a story set in the Arizona Territory in 1873.  I can think of no better place to start the construction of our more reliable foundation for learning. Over all, this movie doesn’t offer a lot in the way of improving emotional intelligence except for the last few minutes; but you will see what I mean.  First you will need a quick rundown to understand my point – once I make it.

Imagine alien spacecraft sporadically attacking the small town of Absolution, Arizona and abducting its citizens.  The aliens, who look a lot like termites, fly their ships close enough to the ground to lasso people and drag them into their open hatchways and whisk them away to who-knows-where. Toward the end of the movie, the heroes discover the aliens’ intended use for the abducted townsfolk. Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, suffice it to say that the abducted are discovered aboard the mother-ship and have had their memories erased, or sucked out or somehow wiped away. I wasn’t paying enough attention to know exactly why the termites were doing that to the kindly townsfolk. When they were freed, however, I was more interested and paid closer attention.  With the exception of recognizing their own names and the faces of their loved ones, very little of the abductees’ memories remained intact.

The part of the movie that captured my attention most was the final scene involving a boy who, at the start of the movie, was portrayed as an unrepentant spoiled brat. He turned out to be one of the abductees. Free of the aliens to resume his life with his memories erased, the boy was suddenly quite manageable, sociable – pleasing to know.  Everything was new to him – every experience, every question, every answer, every demand and every request.  He had no preconceived notion of how people should behave or how they could be expected to treat him.  If someone had walked up, kicked him in the throat and then helped him to his feet, he would have come to know that as an accepted social custom. His mind was a tabula rasa – an empty slate – making his former personality a thing of the past – something that didn’t need to be sifted through, dissected, understood or interpreted in order to help him improve his emotional health. He just needed new training, new memories of social experiences – only this second time we can only hope would be better than the first go round.

Mental health for the masses would be an easier thing to achieve if it weren’t for the storehouse of emotional memories we carry around inside our heads.  If we had some way of erasing all the stored experiences, events and encounters we use to make assumptions about ourselves and others and how we choose to respond to emotional stimuli, help would be much easier to provide (and my intern would be fully prepared).  Our emotional memories, however, often get in the way of our rational, more level-headed reasoning and impede the progress of therapy.  We can spend hours, days and years just going through all of our memories, as if doing so would someone bring us to some better understanding of our lives today.

From birth we are exposed to continued and constant social and emotional training.  Like the boy in the movie, our brains absorb social custom, behavioral tradition and a system of belief in ourselves and others that takes priority over how we interact with others. Everyone has h/er own emotional training and, therefore, h/er own expression of emotion. Mental health is a matter of confronting those established beliefs and creating a more manageable, more flexible and less damaging frame of reference for the expression of emotion.

The fact that no event, happening or occurrence has intrinsic meaning is essential to achieving better emotional health. For example, the act of criticism has no inherent meaning without THE MEANING WE BRING TO THE EVENT. That being said, there is no natural reaction to criticism, only a practiced, familiar and memorable response from our past. We learn to respond to nearly every event that occurs within our awareness and we just keep repeating our response over and over again until it becomes something of a reflex.

It’s a tough slog, this mental health business.  If you can arrange to have yourself abducted by flying alien termites who will suck your memories out of your head and replace them with a nice, clean slate you will be making marvelous progress. Push!

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One response

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