Ron came to see me complaining of indecision, obsessing ("thinking too much"), fear of losing his job, a troubled relationship, and generally high anxiety. He described many months of unhappiness with his girlfrend, yet felt unable to make a decision about it or even to keep a consistent point of view. He worked at a high level in the corporate world and was quite successful and respected in his field. He saw, however, that his work was being hampered by indecision, obsession over decisions he was more than competent and experienced enough to make quickly, and a mounting feeling of inadequacy which he feared was always on the verge of being discovered.
As we talked a striking phenomenon emerged. Despite his high intelligence, education, and verbal skills, it often seemed that as soon we were getting somewhere, we would both become confused. As we discussed this, he came upon the image of "the one-way fog", from which he could see out but no-one could see in. (It certainly was working on me.) In graduate school, he said, his classmates had commented on his method of staying safely distant from them while being at the same time a charming and fun guy to have around. He went on to describe loneliness in intimate relationships, lack of close friends, and a very strong sense of isolation -- again, all of this in spite of his great popularity and the respect he commanded.
How do we understand these symptoms, even in this brief sketch? By finding out their function in his life. Although Ronís feelings, worries, and behavior seem irrational from the outside, they are serving some inner -- psychological -- agenda. When we understand that agenda, his symptoms will make sense; when Ron understands it (emotionally, in the gut), his misery and symptoms will ease.
It turned out that Ronís father was an extremely abusive man, taking almost sadistic pleasure in wielding power. Ron described the look of glib satisfaction on his fatherís face when he told Ron to "Go get the paddle" with which heíd beat Ron. Whatís more, his father was always unpredictable -- Ron never felt he could anticipate his fatherís reactions or navigate his moods. In addition to this kind of abuse, Ron told me horrendous stories of abandonment. His parents would take him shopping in a huge mall, and then as punishment for some slight misbehavior they would drive off without him, leaving him alone and scared in the huge parking lot. This at age five!
So what did Ron do to survive? Until about age six, Ron was hyperactive and a bully. He was doing what was done to him. He was also fleeing home as much as possible, exploring the neighborhood and generally getting himself into trouble. At the same time, these latter behaviors were his way of being a chip off the old block -- aggressive, loud, domineering, active.
Then there was a change. Ron vividly recalls being in the middle of a fight,winning as usual, and suddenly realizing he wasnít even angry at his opponent. He stopped the fight and never went back to such behavior. He became quite the academic achiever, winning state spelling competitions, receiving honors in all his classes, and attending a prestigious college. He even learned to keep out of his fatherís way, although with only partial success. He did not, however, feel much at peace with himself, nor did he have satisfying relationships. He always found he was staying safely behind the "one-way fog" and couldnít loosen up and join in the fun (although from the outside, others often thought he was).
In this change, Ron moved from an early and rather obvious defensive style, to a more intellectually driven one -- a kind of stop-and-think. Although a much more successful defense, it held the seeds of the symptoms that eventually brought him to see me: He was overly cautious, slow to make simple decisions, obsessive and driven in his academic work. Still, these qualities were under control; they did not interfere with his life to a great degree. In fact, they contributed to his successes in academic work and in avoiding his fatherís displeasure. They were what he learned to do in order to survive.
But by the time Ron came to see me this defensive style had failed him. He was relying on it in a rigid, unproductive, even destructive, way. He was so obsessing over whether and how to break up with his current girlfriend that he was immobile. The relationship had been unsatisfying and quite frankly a mess for over six months, but he would find himself mentally rehashing the same pros and cons, the same scenarios, the same memories, over and over while taking no action. The same phenomenon was interfering with his job performance. In general, he complained, he was "wired and uptight all the time and I donít see why". The same defenses that had originally saved him from a life of bullying and troublemaking had run amok and were making him miserable.
And why did he cling to these counterproductive, uncomfortable, and highly stressful defenses? Because they were not defenses based in the present! Ron had no real reason to fear anything about his job; remember he was competent, successful, and respected, and he loved his work. His girlfriend was, as he later put it, a "nondecision". That relationship was over half a year before he sought help; they just hadnít broken up. He was more than sick of her and never had trouble meeting and wooing women.
So what was all the fuss about? If there is nothing in the present circumstances to account for it, then the answer lies somewhere else. In Ronís case it was an old fuss. He was redoubling his intellectual defenses as his anxiety and discomfort grew, not to avoid displeasing his girlfriend or being fired at work but to avoid displeasing his father. It was the same defensive operation --stop and think -- that originally enabled him to partially avoid his fatherís wrath and which saved him from a life of bullying, from doing what was done to him. Obviously this is an unconscious operation, this reenactment of the past, but nothing else explains his symptoms.
The "one-way fog", too, becomes a logical behavior when viewed as a reaction to father. Ron had had nothing to fear from other people for most of his adult life -- again, he was competent, charming, popular. But much earlier in his life this not being seen was necessary. It kept him out of his fatherís way, safe from violence or abandonment for being "bad". It also was the position from which he could carefully watch and read his fatherís moods, a necessary survival skill in his house. This pattern of retreating to a safe observation point emerged everywhere in his life -- at work, with friends, in session with me, at social gatherings. The more he liked someone and the more he desired real contact with them, the more he withdrew into the fog.
to emphasize again that psychotherapy is a logical, accessible
process. I donít assert that Ron was suffering from past angst
because thatís what Freud or someone else said; I say it because
all the data point that way.
1) Ronís anxiety symptoms were not limited to one or two areas of his life. If he had a worry about his girlfriendís instability or about any other aspect of his life, why would his symptoms be so pervasive? Why would he be immobile, indecisive, and miserable in so many areas of his life if his problem was one specific and current thing?
2) There are no data even suggesting a basis in present day reality for his anxiety and helplessness. In fact, everything he and I knew about his life showed that his feelings were completely nonsensical as reactions to anything in his current, "real" life.
3) In trying to account for his unhappiness and anxiety, the only thing that begins to explain the intensity of the feelings is his experience with his father.
4) When Ron and I began to explore how his current discomfort may be tied to experiences heíd buried and forgotten from his childhood with his father, his symptoms cleared up, his mood improved drastically, and he experienced a kind of flood of new insight about himself and his life. Continue to Ron II