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Fair' is a 4-letter word.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

F*ck feelings: our m*nifesto

If you want to make good decisions or get good advice about them, don’t pay too much attention to your feelings.  This may sound like strange advice coming from a psychiatrist who does “therapy,” since most people see a shrink because they’ve got feelings they want to share, “get out,” understand or resolve, much as they see it done on TV, assuming that sharing their feelings is healthy and will prevent them from building up and causing stress and illness.

Sometimes, of course, they’re right and it’s good to share feelings, know what they are, and express them;  maybe, back in the day when people were more embarrassed about their feelings and had few opportunities to express them, there was more to be gained from sharing them with an accepting professional.  I’m happy to concede all that.  But take it from someone whose patients have almost always shared their feelings vigorously and openly long before they came to see me– it usually does much more harm than good.  And it’s not hard to figure out why.

Most things that make you feel bad aren’t within your control, so sharing your feelings won’t make you feel better for long.  If you expect to feel good when you can’t, you’ll feel worse, not just because you’ll be disappointed, but because you’ll feel personally responsible for your pain.  You feel like a failure, a loser, someone who’s lost his groove and can’t get it back.

And focusing on your bad feelings makes them more important, so you’ll forget other important things in your life that might make you feel better in the long run, like doing your best, making a living, being a good friend, and, in a general way, living up to your values.  Then there’s all the research showing that feelings of pain and disappointment cause you to think and act negatively, which causes more pain and disappointment.  So spending too much time with your feelings is dangerous for your health.  My advice is, fuck ‘em.

Instead, consider your goals, which is what you want to do after accepting what you can’t change.  I know, you’ve got lots of feelings about what you can’t change and you’d prefer to ask why rather than accept what you consider as defeat.  But here’s the advice that I think can be most helpful:  fuck that shit.  You’re never defeated if what’s stopping you is reality.  Defeat is wasting your time complaining about what you can’t change or trying to control it when you know you can’t.  Defeat is being an idiot about not giving up on your wishes.  Victory is putting up with the pain and humiliation of reality and trying to make things better anyway.

So goals are not just wishes or feelings– they’re what you want to do after you eat the shit of reality, because the alternative of pretending that it will go away is even worse.  I can’t tell you why you should accept a terrible deal, only that we’re living in a harsh, unfair world and that’s the way it is.  If you want to make the best of it and the messy, sad unfairness of life, I want to help.  Otherwise, you’re whining.  You’ve got good reason to whine, but it’s not helpful, so don’t do it.  That’s what my advice is about.

As you can tell, I think fuck and shit are useful words for responding to life’s problems.  They’re part of a male work language that can help fight superficial empathy, false hope, sentimentality, and the over-valuation of feelings compared to actions.  On the other hand, I think the words “feel” and “fair” are dangerous 4-letter f-words, and urge you to avoid them, together with “should” and “why.”

My qualifications?  Like most physicians, I see tons of chronic illness and problems that, arising from a person’s genes or early experience, are not curable.  The chronic depression or schizophrenia I’ve treated with medication for over 30 years are not that different from hypertension and diabetes.  They’re also not that different from many non-medical or quasi-medical problems, such as having a weakness for alcohol, or a terrible temper, or a tendency to love destructive people.  Being a physician gives you philosophical ideas, if you’re so inclined, about the pain of living and what constitutes help.  Cures are rare.

What helps is finding positive ways for living with what you can’t change.  Early on, I was lucky enough to get a Harvard education and I like to joke with my patients that this gives me the authority to tell them I’m right and they’re wrong (unless, as sometimes happens, they also have a Harvard education).  What really drives my advice is my sense that people are wrong and in danger when they can’t accept reality and right when they start to deal with it, regardless of what they decide to do.

This site exists to give honest, useful advice, not to hold your hand or help you believe that whatever impossible wishes you cherish will eventually come true.  If you’re ready to accept tough realities, I can suggest some good, specific things you can do that you didn’t think of before, because you were too busy holding on to what you couldn’t have. So tell me your problems and tell me your goals.  I love to hear problems and I always have answers.  I can’t grant your wishes but I can usually figure out what your goals should be, if you don’t know already, and get you thinking about some good ways to best enjoy the taste of life’s shit sandwich.

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