Essays & Articles
Joe Ferguson, PhD | November 18, 2011
Any need or desire can be expressed as a complaint. The transformation of a desire into a complaint requires the assumption that there is a code of conduct which requires some responsible party to satisfy that desire, and which designates the responsible party as socially and morally defective if they do not. Nearly everyone has a secret courtroom-of-the-mind in which a wise and compassionate judge rules consistently in their favor when they come into conflict with their problematic partners or children. Since there is no such fantasy venue, ongoing prosecution turns out to be a poor strategy for resolving interpersonal issues. But people often cling desperately to their complaints for long periods of time, apparently in the misguided belief that their partners, children or parents can be convinced to acknowledge their defects and change their personality. Most people recognize and agree that this is an unfortunate and ineffective approach, except when it applies to themselves and their own problematic other. It is my task as a personal counselor to help shift the focus from the problem to its resolution, which almost never entails a guilty plea or a conviction on charges of character defect. In fact, when people complain about their partners and children they are usually asking for something that is more important to them than they are prepared to admit. Catch 22. This terrible strategy is destined to fail because complaints are generally not taken as a form of communication to be reciprocated, but rather as a form of aggression to be resisted. Needs and desires can be satisfied by loving gifts given freely but complaints can only be satisfied by compliance, which nobody really wants. I can help you sort this out. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | November 11, 2011
People talk for a wide variety of reasons. It is important to recognize the motive behind each episode of talking if you want to understand what you and your partner are actually saying to each other. It is conventional and polite to assume that talking is always part of a rational discussion, intended to explore some situation or idea and to facilitate new insights; but this is rarely the case. On the contrary, most human talking is intended a) to persuade someone about something for practical personal reasons, b) to make claims and assertions about one’s own personality, character, capabilities or identity, c) to assert dominance or acknowledge subordination in personal, social or professional relationships or d) to establish and maintain a sense of immediate human attachment.
The differences among these motives for human talking are dramatic, and every conversation must be interpreted in the appropriate light if it is to be properly understood. When your partner is making identity statements, you will miss the point if you try to debate or interrogate her rather than listening to what she is trying to tell you about herself and her world. When your partner is trying to get something from you without asking for it directly, he will appreciate it if you recognize that and respond without making him grovel. When your partner is simply trying to connect with you it is futile, counterproductive and potentially paranoid to look for any deeper meaning in that when you should just enjoy the attachment! In every case it is important to know why each of you is talking. If you don't recognize why you are talking, or why your partner is talking, you are likely to respond in exactly the wrong way. You probably know this already, so it shouldn’t be so hard to correct. It’s worth the effort. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | October 7, 2011
Do you adore your ugly puppy and, if so, is this in spite of the way he looks or because of it? Do you love your fabulous partner and to what extent does her radiant and obvious public beauty make you uncomfortable? Are supermodels systematically attracted to ugly puppies, do you think? Are you proud of your magnificent show dog and how does your attitude change when he performs badly? Are you still infatuated with your aging, fattening, co-dependent, substance abusing, whining, irritating, shallow, self indulgent, possessive, narrow or otherwise compromised intimate partner and significant other? Really? In each case, what do you mean and why do you mean it? Have you thought this through? The resolution of these questions largely determines how comfortable and happy you are now and how happy you are likely to be in the future. Human beings are social creatures, so these abstract and ambiguous questions really do matter.
The underlying desire and assumption in matters of love and attachment is that it should be unconditional rather than dependent on beauty, age, utility, personal advantage or any other transient superficial quality. This is the kind of love you should expect from your parents, deliver to your kids, and hope for from your business and intimate partners. Relationships are always a delicate balance of practical and psychological utility with pure emotional attachment. That is why the mode of attachment can shift so rapidly to what is apparently its exact opposite. Truly, there is often a thin line between love and hate, pride and jealousy, supportive guidance and stifling control, codependence and dedication, brilliance and craziness. Our perpetual dance with one another on these borders is what motivates us and determines the course of our lives as well as the quality of our experience in the world. The details are well worth examining. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | September 23, 2011
Your mood is largely determined by the events of recent days and by your assessment of how well you handled them. Patterns in your mood over time constitute an important aspect of your personality, which modulates the quality of your whole life and determines whether or not you are loveable. Your mood is like the weather and your personality is like the climate. People often want to change their mood without changing their interpretation or response to the situations that actually determine what their mood is. This can only be accomplished with psychoactive drugs, which operate directly on your mood but carry the risk of catastrophic side effects. So it is usually better to either change your interpretation or your response to specific situations, or else to accept the mood that accompanies the benefits you receive from your current approach.
This presents a dilemma when you are closely attached to the thing you need to change; such as alcohol or drugs, food or sex, money or work, cherished habits of thinking and behavior, or even your identity and values. The calculus of short term sacrifice for long term benefit is private, personal and not entirely rational or conventional. When analysis threatens cherished attitudes and behavior, one common strategy is to avoid or manipulate the analysis itself. This can be accomplished by diverting attention onto some decoy issue, by challenging or distorting the facts of the matter, or by simply refusing to look at it. A better strategy is to examine the whole situation carefully before either making decisive changes or honestly accepting the consequence of your legitimate values and preferences. Like the question of global warming and what, if anything, should be done about it. Either approach will improve your mood and eventually your personality, which will make you happier and more loveable. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | September 11, 2011
Unless you have been in a coma or hiding under a rock you should have noticed the alarming prevalence of irrational conspiracy theories of every stripe; left and right, fiscal and social. Even if you have been seduced by one group of these theories or another, you have probably noticed that the other guy’s conspiracy theories are clearly irrational. In 2009, 41% of Americans and 64% of Republicans didn’t believe or weren’t sure President Obama was born in the US. And 22% of all voters and 37% of Democrats either believed or questioned whether President Bush purposely allowed or arranged the 9/11 attacks in order to provide a pretext for war. Both of these preposterous theories continue to thrive along with many others. A hallmark of this phenomenon is that when confronted with evidence that such theories are wrong, their proponents often become even more committed to them. In this light, of course, it is impossible to discuss the real issues, much less resolve them.
The theory that explains this is Cognitive Dissonance, which is a fundamental concept in social psychology. Cognitive dissonance is a theory of human motivation which asserts that it is uncomfortable to hold contradictory cognitions in mind. When contradictions arise something has to give, and sometimes it is the facts that are discarded in favor of the fear. The value of the conspiracy theory is that it provides something apparently tangible to defend against in a complex environment that feels threatening. Better the devil you think you see than waiting for disaster in the dark.
I see this all the time in personal counseling, especially with couples. People who are afraid that their partner is unfaithful or dishonest will sometimes cling to those suspicions for dear life, often in the face of evidence to the contrary, and these suspicions are impossible to disprove. This is as poisonous for relationships as it is for democracy, and the only antidote is the light of reason in a safe environment. It doesn’t always work but it is the only way out of the dark. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | May 20, 2011
Long ago I consulted with a psychologist to help me work through a personal issue and over the course of several months we got to know each another quite well, as is always the case in effective personal counseling. At the conclusion of our work I asked him to talk about the impression he had formed of me, and to share any insights he thought might be helpful or interesting. In response to this invitation I received a great deal of useful feedback, but he began by saying “You are an interesting guy and all sorts of people are going to be attracted to you, especially at first.”
As with several of the important insights I have received about myself over the years, I was initially offended and eventually enlightened. Since I was only about 40 at the time, I was just beginning to realize that I had grown tired of what I had genuinely experienced as a stimulating and successful career. On reflection, my black Cadillacs with the gold kits no longer thrilled, satisfied or interested me as they once had; nor did the big house, the lavish lifestyle, my half-baked philosophy, my marriage or many other things in which I had invested much importance and attachment. Everyone is familiar with this precursor to the midlife crisis, which reveals a profound insight about human nature. We can get used to anything and everything can get boring, even a complex and deeply engaging thing like a career, a philosophy, an intimate relationship or a personality.
The successful resolution of a midlife crisis, which can occur at any age, requires either the abandonment or reinvigoration of whatever it is that we have become jaded about, as well as the cultivation of new attachments so that our attention and worldview are once again dominated by an exhilarating sense of novelty, surprise and discovery; especially at first. Indefinite satisfaction and enthusiastic engagement are possible only once we accept the fact that we can never nail our lives down. The process of triage, reinvention and renewal must be ongoing. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | February 11, 2011
I have friends and clients who are tormented by one catastrophic state of the world or another. The most fervent and honest of these torments are personal; with financial, relationship, existential and health issues topping the list. It is less clear why so many people torture themselves daily by imagining and re-imagining potential catastrophes that are impersonal, distant, abstract and vague; with politics and the decline of western civilization topping this other list. Fewer of us also agonize about what we see as crucial philosophical or mathematical propositions, or about such things as sports and fine art. On examination these abstractions always stand as proxies for more personal concerns. Obsession with potentially catastrophic states of the world in any of these categories can lead to anxiety or depression, for which the effective treatments are entirely conversational and only mildly philosophical.
Conversational treatment of anxiety and depression consists mainly in pointing out that the feared catastrophe has not yet actually occurred, and that this has always been the case in your actual experience. I am delighted to report that this line of reasoning meets with surprisingly little resistance and that it provides immediate relief from acute anxiety and depression in most cases. On careful examination it is clear that the sorry state of the world as seen through dark glasses and depression is just exactly as valid as the happy state of the same world seen through rose colored lenses and exhilaration. Socio-political depression is rooted in a failure to realize this choice and it is defended by its sufferers as a logical necessity, which it is not. If you are socio-politically depressed and reasonably thoughtful I can probably talk you out of it without challenging your beliefs. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | February 4, 2011
One of my favorite films at Sundance 2011 was Life In A Day, a collaboration of YouTube and Google, in which the global community was invited to submit video of their lives and those around them on July 24th of 2010. Free cameras were distributed in parts of the world where they are still uncommon and over 80,000 amateur video clips were received from 192 countries; an impressive cross-section of life on the global street. The film itself is brilliant, but Ridley Scott and his crew have also accumulated a fascinating social research database in the process of making it. With the benefit of Google resources and technology, each of these 5000 hours of video was reviewed, rated and tagged in every conceivable way. In the Q&A after the Sundance screening, director Kevin Macdonald said that by the time they were done he could query "adolescent romance with animals in the background at sunset" and instantly see the best 100 clips on that theme from around the world. This provides the perfect combination of shameless voyeurism and immaculate scientific research!
In the process of wallowing for months in this metacultural media melting pot, the filmmakers made many unexpected and fascinating observations, only a few of which could be artfully reflected in their 90 minute movie. Among the most fascinating of these was the fact that men overwhelmingly video their women against beautiful landscapes, often backlit by a sunset or using some other flattering cinematic device, while women tend to video their men making asses of themselves in preposterous situations. This tendency was strong enough that the editors dubbed it The Backlight Effect.
At Sundance, the film crew and the guy from Google all declined to interpret the backlight effect but I have some thoughts about it and it is probably relevant to your own personal life. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | January 28, 2011
It is important to recognize and embrace your inner laboratory animal so that you can better influence your own behavior once you decide what you want to do. Rats are particularly good for conditioning experiments because they exhibit fairly complex innate behavior and they are uncontaminated by culture or by thinking. These rat features allowed psychologists to determine the mathematical rules of positive and negative reinforcement half a century before the neural mechanism of conditioning was properly understood. By 1957 the rules of conditioning looked so solid that B.F. Skinner wrote a book entitled Verbal Behavior which claimed that humans learn to speak by babbling randomly and being rewarded for speech-like syllables until they can write timeless poetry. This particular idea is now understood to be quite silly, but conditioning really is what makes us all upper middle-aged white male intellectuals; or whatever. You establish a reinforcement schedule for yourself when you learn to play golf or quit smoking, master Internet poker or cure a video poker addiction, treat PTSD or play Cherokee at a ridiculous tempo. You are reconditioning yourself intentionally all the time; or trying to without exactly knowing the rules. You are trying to embrace your inner rat.
Targets for behavior modification are not so clear when we are talking about intimate relationships, personal aspirations, kids, parents, sexuality, love, money, tenure, retirement, security, attachment or existential angst. Against Skinner, humans have extremely complex language and symbolic instincts that are genetically coded and literally embodied in the wetware of our brains and vocal cords. Speech is one product of this system and thinking is another. Everything we think, say and do is conditioned on this foundation by our culture, language and situation. This is the essential postmodern insight and it is also the key to counseling and psychotherapy. From a sufficient distance many of our strongest beliefs turn out to be quite arbitrary, especially the dysfunctional ones that are causing you grief. Culture and language define who we think we are and what we think is going on, including the problems we think we have and their solutions. This is why certain kinds of thinking and talking can be helpful.
Depression and anxiety reflect your belief that your situation is dangerous and hopeless, that everything is a big deal, and that this is never going to change. None of these things is actually as true as it seems when you are depressed or anxious, and this insight itself provides immediate relief from depression and anxiety. Then this insight needs to be reinforced. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | May 13, 2011
Grief is the price you pay for love when you lose it, because love is the essence of attachment, which is the root of suffering. To pay this price is to honor the one you have lost, but it is much more. It is not only the loss of love but also a fracture of the many practical things that have absorbed so much of you for so long; things that constitute more of your foundation than you had supposed. As it unfolds, your own particular grief reveals its many roots, which are entwined, and you feel as though you are sucked into the vortex. You are sucked into the vortex.
Reverend Don offered a brilliant metaphor for this sort of grief. You are on the luxury liner Poseidon when an undersea earthquake causes a titanic tidal wave, which capsizes the ship. You are shaken and disoriented. Water is pouring into your stateroom. Furniture is careening around, floating among debris you cannot identify in the chaos. You are exhausted and your vision is fading but the water never quite fills the space you are in, so you can always breathe. And you continue to breathe. The ship is eventually righted and the flood abates. A new foundation is eventually built upon the old. The best and sturdiest of the furniture is recovered and reorganized, and some is lost or discarded. Your world is eventually rebuilt in a new configuration that you cannot anticipate.
There is the possibility of a new sort of clarity in grief because everything is suddenly cast in a very different light, and this new light casts different shadows. It is possible to cling to grief too long, in order to insist on the value of the one you have lost and the quality of your love for them. But insistence on love backfires in grief as it does in life, and it changes nothing. The reality of your love and your grief is entirely private. Grief is the bridge to a new world. Not yet perhaps, but in its proper time. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | January 14, 2011
I have recently acquired the ability to type on my iPhone keypad while jogging if I don't break stride, which required two weeks of systematic training. You may be horrified that I undertook such a project in the first place. After all, common wisdom holds that consumer electronics have alienated us from the real world by means of hypnotic seduction. This perspective recommends that we should pay less attention to our electronics and more to other people, to Mother Nature, and especially to our wives. I see the situation somewhat differently.
Personal relationships, attachments, and discourse are my most essential treasures and you will have my full and immediate attention in my consulting room or in conversation. But I speak for closeted multitudes when I brazenly admit that at most other times my sensory field is of little interest to me beyond navigational cues, hazard warnings, and the occasional captivating artwork or visage. But unless I am having equipment problems my attention is not on the device at which I stare, any more than it is on the beautiful Laguna landscape or the cacophony of urban/ocean noises that surround me when I run. On a good run I look past the scenery and the instrument entirely to the object of my actual attention; to some person or idea that is present only in imagination. It might be you or one of your thoughts that I ponder. It is a rich and exciting world in here most of the time, filled with visual and auditory hallucinations that constitute my train of thought; which is the only train I ride!
Far from hypnotic distraction, most of this internal rumination pertains directly to the people that I love, caper, and work with in the other real world. My systematic hallucinations in their absence enrich our interaction when I am in their presence. The fulfillment of human relationships requires communication to be spontaneous, fluid, and transparent; like a well designed user interface. It is exhilarating when an interesting thought finds its clear expression! When this happens on a run I must capture it immediately, before it evaporates. In order to do that I prefer to embody the thought in text, which requires typing skills I didn't have a couple of months ago.
Typing on a virtual keypad while jogging is like adjusting to progressive lenses, and you are going to be uncomfortable doing it for a couple of weeks until it habituates and becomes transparent. You would only do something like this in the service of a higher purpose, when you realize you can't get from here to there without doing it. Most of my clients have a higher purpose in mind, but they are blocked by the lack of relatively mundane behavior or communication skills which may be no more difficult to acquire than texting while jogging. The trick is to identify the necessary habits and to acquire them systematically by means of simple behavioral techniques like those I use to facilitate my distracted jogging. Deep psychoanalysis, while interesting, is usually not relevant. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | January 7, 2011
Especially since Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman made that movie a couple of years ago, people have been making lists of things they want to do before they die. Sometimes these lists are long and extravagant. The creation of a bucket list can be a constructive and important gesture of freedom and self determination for those who are feeling stifled and unfulfilled, and it may even result in the accomplishment of one or two of its entries. But my clients routinely demonstrate that bucket lists have a way of morphing into to-do lists over time, at which point they are likely to generate anxiety and frustration rather than exhilaration and fulfillment. In these cases the question becomes "How can I ever hope (or afford) to accomplish all the things I have defined as essential to my fulfillment as a human being?"
At this point it is time to scrap the bucket list in favor of a more sophisticated metaphor; one that celebrates the inexhaustible range of possibilities in the world as well as the fluid nature of our own preferences and taste. When I sit down to write a new ad I sometimes start in my Potential folder, which currently has 117 mostly excellent titles languishing within it; unwritten. A few moments of wallowing in this intimidating collection of unrealized masterpieces usually results in a sudden inspiration that is based on my actual current life rather than on my Cliff Notes from some former life, which is what my Potential folder really is. My objective is not to overcome my list of prior commitments, but to write something that is pertinent to me and to my people at this unique new moment. If I thought I had to write all of those potential essays I would be a frustrated author and a less effective counselor.
As a metaphor for this crucial life process (the identification of new projects and adventures) I propose to replace the Bucket List with the Funnel of Life, for which you should imagine the sort of contraption that dispenses food pellets to your pet hamster when he chooses to dine. Harry the Hamster assumes that there is an inexhaustible supply of pellets in his food funnel, and he takes it for granted that the pellets sitting in the dispenser will be just as tasty and satisfying as any of those buried in the storage hopper above. He does not ask for any particular pellet and he does not worry about getting through them all; he simply asks "what next?" Harry is serene and happy.
Since you are more sophisticated than Harry your selection of new projects and adventures will involve more subtle criteria than his, but Harry's Zen-like elasticity is to be admired and emulated. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | September 17, 2010
Recently, at a birthday roast, I slightly and briefly wounded a good friend of mine. I felt bad for a couple of seconds when I saw him flinch but I had to do it, as he will certainly do for me when the time comes; because he loves me too. The particulars are not important because you know the drill for a roast, the object of which is apparently the unrestrained degradation of an adult male. Note that the most vigorous and penetrating roasters at these events are usually the best male friends of the victim. My understanding is that this phenomenon is universal across cultures. Why on Earth should such an apparently barbaric tradition be so universal?
I must admit that one possible explanation is that men are uncivilized idiots, as many women suspect, and that this is one of Mother Nature's many ways of ensuring that we don't live long enough beyond our biologically and financially productive years to bother them excessively. I am not sure that The Roast is a primary factor in this, but it is hard to argue with the results if you take a census at any of the senior living facilities in Leisure World. There are many Little Old Ladies and few Little Old Men in residence there. Maybe some of the men are camping out in the woods to perfect their philosophy in preparation for their transmigration, but I doubt it. I think they are dead.
The real reason for The Roast is to cement our masculine solidarity by demonstrating that we trust each other with our very lives. Seriously. Remember that our priority assignments are hunting, defense of our women, children, and encampment; and proliferation of the homo sapiens gene pool (but let's save that for another time). We are engineered to undertake these assignments in solidarity with our home boys. We have to know that we can trust each other under any circumstances, which is why we must wrestle and insult one another constantly when we are not in the field. Although this may be confusing to women, and to ourselves at times, The Roast is essential to male solidarity. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | September 10, 2010
When multiple growth opportunities present themselves simultaneously it is wise to do as close to one thing at a time as possible until the onslaught has passed. It is well known that when it rains it pours, trouble never comes alone, and that a perfect storm can always hit the fan. This is not the tragic hand of fate, it is a statistical inevitability that is sometimes abetted by a morbid turn of mood. The statistical part is obvious. When our mood turns sour at some psychological tipping point, then our selective attention suddenly recognizes only catastrophes, potential catastrophes, and the general fear of impending catastrophe. You know the feeling.
This is when some people panic even though panic is known to be unhelpful. Panic is a sort of multiprocessing overload and it calls for corrective measures as soon as it is suspected or detected. Everyone knows that the first thing to do with a hysterical person is to calm them down before dealing with any of the twelve emergencies that they see arrayed before them. Then you deal with those things calmly and systematically, one impending catastrophe at a time. This is obvious when you are dealing with someone else who is wrapped around multiple axles, but it is harder to bear in mind when it is you and when the overload is marginal; especially if you are accustomed to thinking of yourself as an effective multiprocessing executive type. In fact, serial myopia is an executive technique that is especially important in chaotic or crisis situations with the potential for overload.
It is not intuitive that the most effective thing to do first in overwhelming circumstances is nothing, but if you think of it as a pause for breath and orientation then it sounds much more responsible. At any rate each of us has a different tipping point at which our multiprocessor is throwing off more heat than light, and when we reach it we need to shift into crisis management mode, which usually involves a system reset and a period of single-threaded operations. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | September 3, 2010
Extraverts employ various social devices to keep them in the company of others, and introverts have ways of protecting their own privacy. As with most personality factors, everyone harbors both tendencies, but you can effortlessly classify anyone you know as predominantly one or the other. Think of the three introverts you know best. Like beavers, introverts construct their personal fortress from the materials they find at hand. Solitary commitments sequester personal time just as the sticks and stones of the dam sequester its pond, so that secrets and treasures may be safely stashed and privately savored. Email and voicemail insulate personal space just as mud insulates the lodge. Calendar and location ambiguity camouflage the introvert like branches and leaves. Access to the inner chamber is mediated by a labyrinth of literal and metaphorical tunnels, passages, obstacles, challenges and checkpoints.
Now, it is important to note that many introverts are also outgoing and socially adept. We cherish and nurture our human relationships and our social engagements every bit as tenderly as our extraverted cousins do. Our fortress of solitude is not about excluding you and we hope you don't take it personally, because we love you. It is simply that we recharge our batteries and commune with our muse offline rather than on the public grid, as you may prefer. Regard the pleasure that we take in your company when we are in it rather than our habitual protective devices when we are not. Note the depth of our connection when we are with you rather than the comfort we take in our isolation. Consider the quality and creativity of the gifts that we craft for you in our retreat.
In special relationships like intimate friendship, good marriage, or personal counseling, we can assume an introverted posture together. In this way we can reap the benefits of private and unbridled reflection, unconstrained for the moment by any social or cultural agenda. In retreat we can speculate and explore any terrain in our own way, then decide what part of it we choose to bring out into the world. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | August 20, 2010
At the age of 24, plus or minus 8 years, most young men are ready for what I have come to think of as executive activation. If you are related to an adolescent human male in any way, or if you have ever known or heard about one, you will have noticed that they sometimes appear to operate on a sort of primitive autopilot, without the obvious involvement of their higher cognitive faculties. By the time these young men are eligible for a driver's license or military service you may find yourself growing impatient with them or despairing of their chances for survival and happiness. It is time for them to fly into the world but they are watching television on your couch. Although they appear to understand you perfectly when you speak, they are impervious to your reasoning, your encouragement, your bribes, and your threats. You may begin to wonder what you have done wrong and whether you can still fix it.
In fact, the indolence, aimlessness, inconsistency, and resistance that characterize male adolescence are all essential to the healthy development of his social independence, personal identity, and adult creativity. Seriously. These perplexing and irritating features of the adolescent male protect him from following the herd too closely while he is finding his own path. This can be a scary time and disaster is certainly one of the possibilities, but if not for this uncomfortable process you would never get him out of your house; which is the goal, after all.
Then suddenly, according to plan, the light goes on and you have a mature young man going about his business in the world. The executive activation that marks the end of adolescence consists of three important elements:
- A genuine recognition that you will not continue to take care of him forever
- A genuine recognition that his own choices and actions actually influence the future
- The discovery and adoption of a systematic personal process
Although you cannot spark this post-adolescent activation before he is ready, you can facilitate it by helping him to a clear and explicit understanding of these things as far in advance as possible. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | August 6, 2010
"When you achieve enlightenment, you will see the stone Buddha dance!" Unlike many Zen koans, I take this one quite literally. Zen aims at a sudden intuitive enlightenment that consists entirely, I think, in raw immediate awareness; in being fully and exclusively present in the moment. In the present moment things are very different than they appear in ordinary awareness, which consists of memories bound to expectations by abstractions. Consider your own conception of life and death, identity and worth, success and failure, love, hate, fear, complex derivatives and all your drama. In the present moment every personal and social construct evaporates because these things only exist over time and not at any point in time, where we actually live. Enlightenment penetrates all illusion, and it happens only in the present moment.
In the present moment the stone Buddha does not dance alone. Actually everything dances in our visual field simply because our head is shaking and turning all over the place, and because our eyeballs are constantly quivering at the rate of about 70 saccades per second in order to distribute the incoming light evenly over the retinal surface. Were our eyes ever to stop quivering we would go blind in a few seconds. The incoming image of the stone Buddha is indeed dancing all over your visual field, as you will notice if you pay close attention to what you are actually seeing as you read this. You may find this sort of raw awareness to be disconcerting, as I find my occasional awareness of "eyeball floaters" in my intra-ocular fluid. We have a lot of sophisticated cognitive equipment upstream from the eyeball that gives us the filters and the steady field of vision we normally experience. We accept this hallucination as a direct view of the external world, but it is nothing of the sort.
The visual hallucination we take for eyesight shields us from a fragmented and jittery reality so that we can identify predators and mating partners in time to take appropriate action. Most of the time it is convenient not to see the stone Buddha dance. Similar cognitive machinery also summarizes everything else that we care about in the world. Call it consciousness if you like, or virtual reality. In every domain we construct a useful hallucination about the world and take it for reality. We wouldn't be able to function if we didn't do this. All truly is illusion, which is why there is no knot in your life that cannot be untied. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | July 30, 2010
Is there any such thing as an over-educated 58-year-old affluent white heterosexual male groupie? Turns out yes, there is. I have recently discovered and enlisted in that category. As a matter of principle I regard most degrees, honors, job titles, wealth and other status symbols as suspect of puffery. My close friendship with the two professional sports figures I know has overcome their celebrity only by virtue of their overwhelming personal appeal. I am studiously ignorant not only of sports, but of art, wine, and local politics as well. Call me an enlightened narcissist snob if you like.
But about 6 months ago my lifetime best friend and personal guru, Richard, took me to see Jimmy Vivino on a Wednesday night at a funky little bar in the valley called Cozy's. Jimmy V is famous partly because he is Conan O'Brien's music guy, but Conan is usually on after my bedtime and music is not really part of that show anyhow. Jimmy V and his fluctuating posse was so compelling that I drove from Laguna to Sherman Oaks most Wednesday nights for several months to see what they might do next. Something went wrong between Jimmy V and Cozy's, and then Conan took the band on the road during his temporary exile from television. There was a void in my life.
This week my lifetime best friend and personal guru, Richard, took me to see Jerry Vivino play jazz on the sax and other reed instruments like you would not believe! Jerry V is at least as good as his brother. This was the first time I had heard Jerry, but now I just want to hear these boys play and I will drive the 405 late on weeknights to do that. So far, I could claim to be an aficionado, or at least a music enthusiast. What reduces me to the status of a little-girl groupie is my sudden desire for the Vivino brothers to recognize my existence. I never communicated with Jimmy V at Cozy's but when Richard introduced me to Jerry I couldn't resist a seductive question and a provocative observation: "Can you ever perfect a song that you really love?" and "The other three guys in your quartet grin like little boys when they do something clever, but you don't." During the following set Jerry did grin like a little boy after a particularly hot lick, and then he grinned about the grin. I split my sides laughing!
There are lots of effective ways to interact with people, depending upon the circumstances. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | July 23, 2010
Discipline can be very hard, especially if it requires you to do something painful, difficult, or distasteful like sleeping on nails, dieting, or preparing for a colonoscopy. It is an open scientific and philosophical question whether or not survival is possible without any discipline at all. Of course it depends upon the situation. Under my present circumstances I reckon that I could dissipate completely for a couple of decades before my family would let me starve. But this is not my plan because I still have lots of stuff I want to do and I feel the need to somehow ensure that I will do it without relying on my own long-term discipline. Call me an enlightened narcissist if you like.
Experimentally, I have found that I cannot always rely on discipline to get things done because it is sometimes so hard and because the consequences of dissipation in my environment have always been so mild. Fortunately there is an alternative to discipline, which is self-manipulative cleverness. This type of manipulation is perfectly OK. It is often possible to arrange things so that some social or behavioral prosthetic will take the place of discipline. I mean this in the sense of either a physical prosthetic (leg, glasses, hearing aid, artificial heart, Iron Man suit) or a cognitive prosthetic (clock, calculator, book, iPad, Google). You can often set things up so that the situation in which you voluntarily place yourself will take you where you want to go without further discipline; like a bobsled.
When you enroll in a degree program, join the military, get married, post your photo on eHarmony.com, or show up at your first 12-step meeting you are engaging an institutional prosthetic to carry you toward some goal by means of its own independent power. When you make a definite plan of any kind and declare or record it in a public and authoritative way, to some extent you can rely on that authoritative public declaration or record to guide and even compel you going forward. If you come to my office to talk about your life, your circumstances, and your priorities in a serious way then the discourse and reflection you thereby set in motion will take on a life of its own and carry you in some direction. You may prefer to set things up so as to change your life along lines of your own choosing. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | July 16, 2010
Jeff spent a high-school semester in Madrid when he was 16 and I stayed with him there for his first week. Jeff had the supreme confidence of his age and he was eager to see me off at the airport on 9/11. I saw the video of the World Trade Towers crashing to the ground in the arrival area at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, where I had intended to connect to a flight home. The world had changed and Jeff and I were both stranded far from home. Technically we didn't even have a home at that time, having sold the one and declined the other transaction in Laguna. Jeff was going to be in Madrid for 4 months and I was spending that time with Mary in Denver. I took my 50th birthday self-portrait with my cell phone camera in the Amsterdam Hilton and Jeff kept a stiff upper lip in Madrid for a while. He had a hard time later. Jeff was depressed and that was hard for me too. You are only as happy as your least happy child.
We ran up a monumental phone bill and considered the possibility of bringing Jeff home early. I left it up to him but I recommended that he stick it out. If he came home early, that would be engraved in his brain as a failure and he was at a critical stage in his development as the confident, competent, and reliable young man that he is today. He said he was going to stay and make it work, and he did that. Jeff got straight A's in his college-level courses and his Spanish is fluent today. In this case it was important for Jeff to do what he said he was going to do because it was an important thing he said he was going to do, and because he was serious when he said he was going to do it.
Of course, we can't be expected to do everything that we speculate about doing in conversation, or even everything that we express a casual intention to do. That standard would be too severe and it would inhibit speculation and brainstorming. But when we make a serious commitment we should have a way of highlighting that fact and then following through as though our integrity and effectiveness depended on it, which they do. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | February 20, 2009
Success is often mistaken for a condition that can be sustained indefinitely. But success is an event rather than a condition; more like a good party than a good marriage. The thrill of accomplishment is always transitory. New interests, aspirations, and projects must constantly replace those that have been fulfilled or else a certain nonspecific despair can develop. Ironically, this is most likely at the peak of a successful career, where the growth curve starts to level off.
This is half the despair that underlies the standard midlife crisis. The other half is a sudden awareness of the ticking clock. Now you have terror and despair at the height of adult achievement, neither of which has any apparent external cause. The roots of midlife crisis are therefore invisible and your public often cannot empathize with you because nothing appears to have changed. Even you may have a hard time accounting for the crisis. Everyone is therefore likely to come up with their own explanation for what your problem really is; especially you. Such explanations are almost always inadequate or mistaken.
Long after its shelf life has expired, success often continues to provide material and other rewards that make it difficult to try anything else. In order to get the thrill back, however, it is necessary to try something new; something really substantial and something at which you must probably start off relatively incompetent. Otherwise you are likely to find yourself with an expensive sports car and a woman far too young for you, still in despair. This will not do. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | July 2, 2010
Christopher is building a tree house for Mason, who has just mastered walking and is now cramming for language. Mason's tree house will be his sovereign domain, his sanctuary, and his command center. When he is there, Mason's writ will run from rail to rail and he will be free to pursue his imagination, his philosophy, and his projects in his own way. I will respectfully request permission to come aboard.
I have my office. I can climb up to its entrance and lock myself in. Flipping the In Session slider outside my door is like pushing down a ladder or raising a drawbridge. If I have a client in my office we are in private there and, if not, I am in private by myself. The rules of the tree house are understood by those who need to understand them, and they are not the rules of the ordinary world. In the tree house there is the freedom of conspiracy and of the outlaw dialect, which permits what might be unacceptable if it were overheard anywhere else. In the tree house there is no overhearing by those who have not been invited. In the tree house we can tell it like it is.
Mason will refine his perspective on the world in his tree house. There he will reflect on his experiences and interpret them for himself in private discourse with his mates, who love him and who will tell him their truth without reservation. It is like this in my office. You should come talk to me there. The password is "hello" or any other word like that. I promise not to tell. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | June 25, 2010
According to historian David McCullough, Thomas Jefferson said something to his grandson along the lines of "It is amazing what you can do if you are always doing." It is amazing what he and some of the other founding fathers accomplished every year of their lifetimes. Even allowing for the literary license of best-selling historical literature, many of these men and women were incredibly productive. If we are lucky we may know someone like this or at least believe that they exist, as they certainly do.
This is both commonsense folklore and solid operations management. How much downtime do you want in your operation? You do want some actually, like company picnics that optimize group performance and indulge the vanity of executive management. Most people want weekends off but Thomas Edison never took one or slept more than 4 hours a day. Edison, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Franklin all had stuff to do and they did it all the time. It is amazing what you can do if you are always doing.
So there you are with 24 hours to kill every day. What do you do with them? I tell my sons and some of my clients that 20 minutes of serious planning every month will change your life. Most of our waking energy is properly devoted to the execution of routine and most of the rest is properly devoted to our favorite lassitude or to the execution of intentions that we have established at some time in the past.
Suppose you were meeting with your fantasy board of directors or the National Security Council for 20 minutes and you were able to sway them in some significant way. That might have an enormous impact on the world extending well beyond the 20 minute meeting. Twenty minutes of serious executive planning per month can establish the routine and intentions mentioned approvingly above; with unlimited consequences. We can do some of that in my office if you like. It doesn't have to be psychotherapy. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | June 18, 2010
Some people will jump into the deep end of the pool without considering whether or not they can swim, apparently with confidence that they will be able to work it out once they are in the water. Some people will jump in only if they believe they already know how to swim. Some people start at the shallow end and work their way down the steps. Some people never get wet. In fact, most of us exhibit all of these tendencies in different situations. The technical term for this phenomenon is self-efficacy, and it is one of the most important personality factors that there is. Self-efficacy is simply the tendency to take action in a particular type of situation. Self-efficacy doesn't say anything about the reasons for this. It doesn't say anything about self-confidence, for example, or about any other personal trait. It doesn't even say anything about competence or effectiveness. Although self-confidence does tend to encourage action, it is also possible to take a flying leap without having a clue whether or not it will work. The flying leap makes a lot of sense in many situations where there is little risk or a great deal to be gained, or where there is ample opportunity to try again. Flying leaps are the source of most innovation and discovery. Let's call it exploration and experimentation. Self-efficacy can be cultivated. The cultivation of self-efficacy in various domains is at the heart of executive training and development, military command and operations, sports and yoga, and personal counseling. Apparently intractable personal dilemmas and situations can generally be resolved through exploration and action, but the tendency to explore and to act must often be cultivated. Self-efficacy in the psychological and interpersonal domains is the essence of personal counseling and psychotherapy, and the consulting room provides a field on which to exercise it. Self-efficacy in the consulting room can leak into other domains as well, where it can determine the quality of your life. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | June 11, 2010
Suzi looks at things very carefully because she is an artist, or maybe she is an artist because she looks at things very carefully. At any rate, Suzi remarked to me from the glass observation pod of her Cayucos beach house that it was so beautiful to look at the bumpy ocean horizon on a clear day! I was facing the kitchen at the time and as I turned around to look at Suzi's horizon I reckoned that from the altitude of the observation pod the horizon was about 10 miles. At that distance the apparent height of 10 foot waves would be on the order of 600 microns at a range of one foot (about 6 seconds of arc), which is less than ¼ the smallest scale that human vision can resolve. The profile of the ocean horizon from an altitude of 50 feet is perfectly smooth. Actually I just made these calculations as I write, but by the time I had turned to face the horizon I had already concluded that Suzi could see no such beautiful thing as a bumpy horizon, and I probably said so before I even looked at it. I couldn't see it.
Of course, Suzi was right. If we had been overlooking a water ocean on the moon I would have been right, but then Suzi would not have seen the bumps because they would not have been there. Suzi looks at things very carefully. On Earth, 10 miles of turbulent atmosphere refract the light from the perfectly smooth horizon in a chaotic pattern to yield an ocean horizon that is indeed bumpy. It is shimmering actually, if you take a stream of images rather than a snapshot. Now I can see Suzi's beautiful bumpy horizon and I can show her my turbulent atmosphere!
Human relations are always like that. The other humans that you interact with may see the same scene in a completely different way. You can learn from each other without disputing the facts. It depends on your frame of reference. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | June 4, 2010
Life is truly exquisite! Reality is always more subtle than it appears and it endlessly reveals new levels of hidden beauty as it is examined ever more closely! Growth and development are inherent in all things! Evolution is the most fundamental process in nature! Even the simplest things can be interpreted from an endless variety of viewpoints! We progress forever from one extraordinary experience to the next! How can we ever hope to comprehend the limitless range of possibilities that lies before us?
Consider our health and vitality, our security and comfort, our companionship and our love! They are at the heart of everyone and everything! These things continue to be true even while we are deluded into thinking momentarily that they are not!
Reflection leads eventually to understanding and hope! Experiment leads always to opportunity! An infinite variety of possibilities exist! Labor leads always to fulfillment! All things continuously flower and advance! Everything is plainly a part of something larger, more comprehensive and more permanent than itself, without limit!
On the other hand...
Everything disintegrates eventually. Creation leads always to decay. The best that labor and wealth can achieve is survival. There is really no such thing as freedom. Anticipation leads always to disappointment. Reflection leads eventually to confusion and despair.
These things continue to be true even while we are able to delude ourselves into thinking momentarily that they are not. They are at the heart of everyone and everything. Consider our disease and pain, our greed and poverty, our violence and our hatred.
Why do we even bother? We suffer without relief and then we die. No lasting meaning is really even conceivable. Decay is the most fundamental process in nature. Death and oblivion are inevitable. Things are never what they seem and they usually turn out to be much worse than they appear to be on the surface. Life is truly miserable. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | June 4, 2010
Life is truly miserable. Things are never what they seem and they usually turn out to be much worse than they appear to be on the surface. Death and oblivion are inevitable. Decay is the most fundamental process in nature. No lasting meaning is really even conceivable. We suffer without relief and then we die. Why do we even bother?
Consider our disease and pain, our greed and poverty, our violence and our hatred. They are at the heart of everyone and everything. These things continue to be true even while we are able to delude ourselves into thinking momentarily that they are not.
Reflection leads eventually to confusion and despair. Anticipation leads always to disappointment. There is really no such thing as freedom. The best that labor and wealth can achieve is survival. Creation leads always to decay. Everything disintegrates eventually.
On the other hand...
Everything is plainly a part of something larger, more comprehensive and more permenant than itself, without limit! All things continuously flower and advance! Labor leads always to fulfillment! An infinite variety of possibilities exist! Experiment leads always to opportunity! Reflection leads eventually to understanding and hope!
These things continue to be true even while we are deluded into thinking momentarily that they are not! They are at the heart of everyone and everything! Consider our health and vitality, our security and comfort, our companionship and our love!
How can we ever hope to comprehend the limitless range of possibilities that lays before us? We progress forever from one extraordinary experience to the next! Even the simplest things can be interpreted from an endless variety of viewpoints! Evolution is the most fundamental process in nature! Growth and development are inherent in all things! Reality is always more subtle than it appears and it endlessly reveals new levels of hidden beauty as it is examined ever more closely! Life is truly exquisite! Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | May 28, 2010
This too shall pass. Why is that? If you are pessimistic and depressed, you will probably get over it. If you are optimistic and joyful, you will probably get over that too. If you are trying to decide whether to marry or divorce, retire or find a new line of work, have the salad or the burger, go to Brazil to become a bongo drum player or endure what you have come to regard as a meaningless bourgeois existence; you will probably flip back and forth repeatedly before making a decision. You may even flip back and forth indefinitely without ever making a decision. The facts in the world that we are considering are generally not flipping back and forth like this (not counting the equity and capital markets), so it must be something about us and the way we think.
In fact, flip-flopping is apparently built into the neural structure of our brains at a fundamental level, as illustrated by the visual phenomenon of binocular rivalry. Normally the images presented to each of our eyes are almost identical and our brain integrates them to give us a single image with depth. However, if you are fitted with goggles that present entirely different images to each eye, say a house on the left and a face on the right, then you don't see a face superimposed on a house as you might expect, but rather you see first one image and then the other; alternating back and forth every few seconds. This involuntary alternation in vision is nature's way of making sure that we consider the various possible interpretations of our situation. If we didn't do this, our ancestors would have been eaten and some other species would be living on our lots in Laguna.
While the binocular rivalry mechanism is restricted to vision, it is certainly true that the consideration of ambiguous decisions of all kinds has this involuntary flip-flopping quality. This is often experienced as frustration or confusion but it can also be embraced as the effective decision-making technique that Mother Nature intended it to be. This insight is instructive for the resolution of personal dilemmas of all types, the reduction of anxiety and depression, and the enhancement of serenity. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | May 21, 2010
There are a broad range of personal counseling and psychotherapy encounters that we could have, ranging from a single session yielding clarity and resolution of some immediate issue, through the resolution of a significant crisis, or even a more extended engagement of some kind to address broader objectives. If your situation requires us to address deep seated or complicated issues, then the first step in our encounter will be to elicit your autobiography, which forms the basis for my working biography of you and for my assessment of your situation. In this case I also sometimes administer and interpret a psychological test or two. We will then negotiate about your nature and your situation to decide what should be done. The fruits of this full assessment process are clarity and direction, which are beneficial and therapeutic in their own right. This process may satisfy your objective in counseling entirely, or you may choose to work with me further in order to address specific issues or goals.
If it appears that we are dealing with significant issues, my full assessment and planning process will take about 12 hours over 7 sessions, at 5 of which you will be present and 2 of which I will conduct by myself, as follows. At our first meeting, for about 70 minutes we will broadly explore your circumstances, thoughts, feelings, habits, frustrations, hopes, opportunities, and identified issues. This is where we start, although our understanding of these things may change substantially in the course of the following couple of weeks. Our next 2 meetings will take place within a few days of each other and will constitute a 3 or 4 hour conversation about your life story, which I will videotape. No one but me, and possibly you, will ever see this video. The fact that this is a conversation makes it easy and entertaining for you, and it allows me to keep us on track while exploring areas that are of particular interest to me. I conduct the next 2 sessions alone by replaying and listening, as a third party, to our conversation about your life story. This review and reflection is always illuminating. It permits me to bring together everything I know about you into a biography and to formulate my own theories about you, your circumstances, your issues, and your opportunities.
After about a week of reflection we will meet for about 90 minutes to discuss all of this and to negotiate about your nature, your circumstances, and your ongoing strategy for life. We will meet one more time in the full assessment process, about a week later, to review and consolidate all of this. At this point our assessment will be complete and we will decide what, if anything, you should do to improve your situation or your life, and how I might be of help in that. This entertaining, invigorating, and illuminating process has unpredictable consequences. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | May 14, 2010
Forgetting, denial, suppression, and neglect are all essential to effective cognitive function in general, and to concentration in particular. This may sound like a bad thing because of all the negative press about denial that has been so popular in the last century, but denial is really a good thing and you should continue to refine your proficiency in suppressing unwanted thoughts and information throughout your lifetime. The world has way too much information in it and discrimination is the essence of elegance, which is both adaptive and comfortable. People who have or learn these skills do better than people who don't. People who suppress unwanted thoughts and information skillfully, intentionally, and on reflection do better still.
These questions have recently fallen within the scope of cognitive neurobiology, where they have been examined experimentally. Contrary to intuition and to popular wisdom, an honest effort to forget something actually works in a wide variety of situations! A great many unwary subjects have now been instructed to intentionally refuse to recall information that they have previously learned. They are generally not told how to do this but it is clear that an honest effort renders the suppressed information far less accessible, even much later and under completely different circumstances. Active denial and thought suppression really work and some people are much better at it than others. But you already knew this.
You also know that distraction doesn't work and elegant new research from the Cambridge brain lab has confirmed this. The thing you are trying to avoid will inevitably come back to bite you, undiminished in its ferocity. Distraction is often mistaken for denial, but the difference is night and day. In order to recognize the positive therapeutic benefit of active denial it is only necessary to acknowledge that some of your current thoughts and beliefs are dysfunctional and possibly wrong. You will probably not find this to be much of a stretch, otherwise we should talk. Your identified dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs are the ideal targets of your intentional and energetic neglect, which you should cultivate and refine. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | May 7, 2010
Clients never sit in my chair. I am not possessive about my chair and I always stand in a neutral location while my clients choose their seat in my office for the first time. There are 4 other places to sit around my coffee table, which vary in distance and intimacy relative to my chair. At one end of the couch there is nothing between us and we sit very close together. The middle and the other end of the couch put the coffee table between us and are farther away from me. The big comfy chair is a fortress at the far end of the therapeutic rectangle, and I try to be particularly gentle with anyone who sits there. In subsequent sessions most big comfy chair clients work their way down the couch in my direction unless they have arthritis. Friends who are not clients are likely to sit in my chair when they visit my office, or even at my desk. For them it is just a room with lots of chairs.
Nelson Coates gave me the term narrative design, which I immediately recruited to the purposes of personal counseling and psychotherapy. Nelson creates movie settings that embody important elements of the storyline, and even segments of the narrative arc. Setting implies history and establishes expectations. Consider a classroom, an emergency room, and a card room. Consider a prison cell and a monastic cell. Consider the waiting rooms of your dentist and of your masseuse. Consider the arrangement of furniture in my office and the diplomas hanging on the wall by the Consumer Protection Notice, which informs my clients how to file their complaints with the state board of psychology. All of this speaks of your history and mine and it establishes the expectation that we will speak confidentially and openly with one another in this room, that we will influence each other's view of things, that I will have your best interest in mind, that some persistent dilemma or unhappiness will be resolved or illuminated, and that our lives will both be enhanced by this. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | April 30, 2010
Some of us regularly stand accused of a diffuse sort of negligence because we don't seem to be paying as much attention to certain aspects of our environment as other reference groups might wish. Men have this reputation among women generally. Sometimes we are improperly accused of memory impairment or idiocy. I stand now in defense of a certain class of thoughtful but somewhat absent-minded guys. You know who you are, although others may well find you confusing. Mister Magoo is the public mascot of our brotherhood and our secret hero. We revere Magoo for his immaculate concentration on the inner life and for his invulnerability to distraction by the environment!
Are we really just out to lunch or is something significant going on while we are apparently oblivious? As we have been telling you all along, we are thinking! Part of our public relations problem is that we are so often unable to report what we are thinking about when we are interrogated. I claim that this is because we are not thinking consciously at all. We are practicing cognitive jujitsu, summoning a great insight from the depths of our unconscious! We are like Minnesota fishermen huddled around an ice hole drinking shots of Jägermeister, awaiting enlightenment from the deep! Recent brain imaging studies have demonstrated that, although we may occasionally appear to be distracted or even comatose, our brain metabolism continues unabated around the clock at 97% of its peak level during our most strenuous mental efforts. So we figure, why knock ourselves out for 3%? No, I'm just kidding!
Seriously, we are conserving our limited attention in order to guide the great unruly mass of our unconscious thought in some direction we have chosen, or which we are thinking about choosing. This type of thinking is like herding cats and our attention necessarily flitters hither and yon; redirecting a deviant stream of unconsciousness here, encouraging a promising conscious thought there, and suppressing what we judge to be wrong or irrelevant everywhere. This is our way in the world and it causes us to miss some things that others find surprising, but always remember that we love you! Judge us, on the average, by our irregular products rather than by our attentional deficits. Thank you for your patience! Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | April 23, 2010
Anxiety is very different from fear. The purpose of anxiety is to find something to fear in an ambiguous environment. The purpose of anger and fear are to deal appropriately with that thing by means of fight or flight. Anxiety reflects an intuition that something is wrong without knowing what it is. Fear and anger always have definite objects. Anxiety is rigid and thoughtful. Fear and anger are dynamic and automatic. Anxiety is incompatible with fear and anger, which therefore constitute a cure for anxiety. Having served their brief but important purpose, anger and fear can then be put to rest themselves and you can relax.
Think about an anxious squirrel named Rocky. There he sits at the edge of the clearing, up on his hind legs with a nut in his paws; paralyzed and trembling except for his head, which jerks from side to side like a lawn sprinkler, scanning the horizon. Rocky heard something but he doesn't know what or where. He continues his sprinkler imitation for a long time, until Boomer the dog crashes through the brush on the opposite side of the clearing, headed straight at him! Rocky's bloodstream is flooded with adrenalin and he briefly considers taking Boomer on, but then flees in terror instead. Assuming that Rocky is not eaten but escapes or trounces Boomer, either flight or fight resolves his anxiety. If Rocky had not identified a concrete outlet for his anxiety he might still sit paralyzed and trembling at the edge of the clearing with the uneaten nut in his paws. That's no way to live!
Take some time to examine your anxiety while you are feeling it in order to identify your fears as specifically as you can. Don't be taken in by your standard conversational sound-bites about why you are anxious; look again. If you identify and confront your actual fears you may or may not continue to be afraid, but you will no longer be anxious and you will have the option to take decisive action if you choose to do so. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | April 16, 2010
If you are prepared to conform to any contour that you encounter and to persevere within the scope of your actual capacities and environment, you will find that you are irresistible in your approach to your clear purpose; however vague that purpose might originally be. The magnitude of your capacities does not matter in this. You can be like water under the influence of gravity and the rocks in a streambed, flowing to the sea. You get to pick the sea so long as it is downhill. This is a reasonable condition and it doesn't get any better than that.
I do not understand this entirely from Lao Tzu, although he has been extremely helpful. I do not understand this in a mystical way either. Fluidity is a concrete principle that goes far beyond the hydrodynamics of water to encompass all of the physical sciences and human psychology. Water finds its own canal, so be like water. If at first you don't succeed try, try again. Don't give up, but be prepared to change your objectives regularly and entirely. I mean this quite seriously and it is not a trick or any sort of surrender. Persistence pays off, but don't cling to any rigid formula or there will be no lucrative IPO or successful therapeutic outcome in the end. Be a leaf on the shoulders of a mighty stream, but make sure you know, generally, where the stream is flowing.
"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be." This ancient wisdom is embedded at the mystical heart of most religion and some philosophy. It is also the method of science and evolution. It defines personal development and it constitutes the heart of all effective counseling. What you let go of being is no more arbitrary than what you become. They are both partially voluntary and you should select each intentionally, to the extent that you can, after appropriate reflection. Then flow like water and be enthusiastically diverted by each of your experiences as though they were blessed rocks on the streambed of your life; saving you from stagnation, boredom, and rot. Ironically, such surrender is at the heart of mastery. Seriously. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | April 9, 2010
People sometimes personalize a familiar and painful mood or perspective as "it" and dread its return when it is absent. This dread may reveal their assumption that it is an inherent and permanent condition of the world, and that during transitory periods of relief it is always lurking somewhere, waiting to return. It is as though it is there even when it is not. When it comes back it is therefore back to stay, which is depressing and sometimes terrifying. In fact, depression is due to the assumption of permanence rather than the dreaded condition itself. The dreaded condition may be quite real and painful but, fortunately, the notion of permanence is practically, philosophically, and scientifically insupportable. It is therefore possible to talk most people out of at least their dread if not their distaste for whatever their it happens to be. This benefit derives from the insight that it's not back, it's just present sometimes. The difference is depression.
Nobody regards a hangover, a case of flu, or an ingrown toenail as permanent and these unpleasant events are therefore not depressing. This is because we understand the origin and normal course of these conditions, whereas the true nature of our own moods and perspectives often escapes us. On examination, our moods and perspectives are usually more elementary and always more transitory than we intuitively assume. The fact that we can dread an emotional or cognitive condition demonstrates that it is absent while the dreading is going on, and that it is therefore not permanent when it is present. In the comforting light of impermanence a bad day is just a bad day and not an ongoing catastrophe. This apparently philosophical insight has a major therapeutic effect when I can induce it, which I usually can. Of course, this necessary insight also leads to existential angst, which must be accepted, sublimated, or suppressed. And then there is the dreaded emotional or cognitive condition itself, which must be dismantled and undermined. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | April 2, 2010
There is a world of magnificent mountains, created by a madman. As each child is born a splendid temple is constructed for Him high among the cliffs, in perfect isolation. Above and below, the sheer face of the mountains disappear in distant cloaks of emerald mist. Other temples can be sighted far off along the endless canyon walls.
No commerce among these island monuments is possible but each is attended by wonderful machines, institutions, and organizations of various design; which serve their master's every need. The sensibilities of a thousand civilizations are revealed to Him by subtle education, richly embroidered with visions of distant worlds. His body and mind are honed to perfection. He is stimulated by ecstatic entertainments which speak to His every impulse.
Yet the infinitesimal germ of decay is present from the beginning, overshadowed at first by the magnificent flowering of His enlightenment. Gradually it comes to balance His delight against the crumbling facade of His temple and the endless repetition of His experience. He must choose the time to cast Himself from the temple walls to the depths beyond the mist. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | March 26, 2010
People you would like to love should generally not be held accountable for what they say if they decide to take it back. This is especially true of things said in anger, when an attack is often represented as a rational argument. If I make a statement and you tell me I am fat, bald, and stupid you may be right, but this is probably not a relevant argument about my statement. Even though an attack does not convince me, it may throw me off track or shut me up, which could give the appearance that you have won something. Attack is a very effective debating tactic, which is why people use it in arguments all the time. Unfortunately, debating tactics like attack or distraction prevent the resolution of actual issues, and they can lead to an endless repetition of the same pointless exchange, which becomes more and more frustrating over time. Couples can poison their relationships with these pointless loops.
In order to untangle such a deadly embrace it is first necessary to separate the legitimate issues from the forensic weapons, and then to disarm the weapons so that the issues can be resolved. Disarming the weapons often turns out to be the main event, after which the actual issues may be easily resolved. There are two broad categories of weapon that couples can employ: attacks that are essentially serious and those that are fabricated simply for their debating effect. It is the fabricated attack that people should not be held accountable for if they decide to take it back, which they are far more likely to do in my office than thay are at home or on the battlefield. Serious attacks are usually awkward attempts to approach legitimate issues that may be too explosive to address directly. The more intimate the relationship the more deadly the weapons that can be fielded, because you know each other so well. These are the issues that really need to be dealt with. Really. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | March 19, 2010
I have brazenly stolen my title directly from the cover of the March issue of Scientific American. This is fair because the author of that article, Marcus Raichle, admittedly stole it from the field of physical cosmology. It has become clear in the last decade that the universe is expanding, at an accelerating rate, and that it will probably continue to expand forever. Dark energy refers to whatever unknown and invisible force is driving the acceleration. Whatever dark energy is, it is everywhere in space and it is always pushing.
The brain's dark energy is like that, except that it is always thinking rather than pushing. In modern neuroscience the physical process of thinking is measured as metabolic activity in various regions of the brain, as observed by fMRI brain scanners. You have undoubtedly seen the colorful illustrations of one part of your brain or another lighting up like a Christmas tree when you listen to Chopin, think of the word "pencil", ponder philosophy, wiggle your toes, or watch a pornographic film for science. The way they get those colorful highlights is to subtract the base rate metabolism in that region of the brain from the rate that they observe while you are thinking "pencil". Brain researchers have been happily stuffing people's heads into confined spaces for a couple of decades now, exposing them to stimuli and scanning their brains. And all the while they have been subtracting, subtracting, subtracting.
When this recently dawned on a bunch of them while drinking beer, they finally turned their collective attention to the object of their habitual subtraction, which is now known as the default mode of the brain. The unconscious is finally getting some serious scientific attention! The default mode is always on, whether you are sound asleep, daydreaming, or doing vigorous philosophy, and it turns out that this constitutes about 97% of the metabolic activity (thinking) that goes on in the brain. This is where pretty much everything that you actually are happens, out of sight and out of mind.
What are all those default thoughts thinking about and how do they decide about that? I suspect that they take their cue from us, from our conscious intentions, in proportion to the clarity and determination with which we hold them. In the absence of clear and determined intentions the dark energy dissipates like foam upon the sea. What are your intentions and what is the strength of your determination to realize them? How thoughtful, constructive, and exhilarating are they? How seriously do you take these questions? Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | March 12, 2010
Thinking and feeling usually appear together, except in children and psychopaths. But thinking and feeling are really quite distinct, although they are often mistaken for one another because they are both conscious and extrasensory. For simplicity let's say that feeling is in the body and thinking is in the mind, although that boundary is notoriously fuzzy. Fear, anxiety, exhilaration, depression, anger, and lust each produce a signature physical sensation that corresponds to a particular cocktail of endocrinal drugs, with which your glands infuse your bloodstream in order to express their view of your situation. Different parts of your body respond to each endocrinal cocktail in characteristic ways. You know these feelings well if you have been paying attention to your life.
It is obvious and certainly true that we sometimes have feelings for reasons, which is to say that we feel the way we do in reaction to events in the world. I am angry because you insulted me, I am anxious about my financial prospects, or I am exhilarated because I have just jumped out of an airplane or had a particularly interesting thought. It is less obvious but certainly true that it also works the other way around. When we recognize a feeling we then try to figure out why we are having it, and we don't always get this right.
Depression and anger illustrate this point clearly. Regardless of the reason that you become depressed on any particular occasion, you will certainly then go on to notice an unlimited variety of other hopeless and gloomy things in your world, each of which will constitute a further valid reason for your increasingly justifiable depression. Regardless of the reason that you become angry on any particular occasion, you will certainly then notice an unlimited variety of other irritating things about your beloved, each of which will constitute a further valid reason for your increasingly justifiable hostility. There is no limit to the cognitive fuel that can be thrown onto an emotional fire and it is sometimes tempting to pile it on.
This is one way either individuals or relationships can spin out of control. Critical examination of the actual root of problematic thoughts or feelings invariably has a constructive and stabilizing effect. I think you will feel better if you think differently about your feelings and their reasons. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | March 5, 2010
Mason is learning to walk. His current method is to advance the foot that is already closest to wherever it is that he wants to go. This strategy is apparently based on the theory that this part of himself is already closest to his goal, and that when his foremost part reaches his objective then he will, in some sense, have arrived. Of course, Mason falls right over when he implements this strategy. He will soon realize that he needs to bring up his rear so that all of his parts can eventually arrive at his destination together. Then Mason will be able to walk.
It is remarkable how some very intelligent adults can persist for long periods of time, even decades, pursuing strategies that clearly do not work in their attempt to achieve objectives that are extremely important to them. Some common bad strategies are demanding love, complaining about another's behavior, hoping for success, timing the markets, looking for love in all the wrong places, tapping his or her phone, interrogating him or her in a prosecutorial way, trying to control anyone, actively pursuing happiness, demanding gifts or respect from anyone, visualizing anything without acting, drinking to relieve depression, Mountain Dew in general, cocaine and other ultimately ineffective drugs, inappropriate doubt, inappropriate belief, blinding pessimism, blinding optimism, seeking respect by submission, hoping to retrain him or her in any significant way, flattering and patronizing anyone, bouncing on your heels naked over 50 in front of the bathroom mirror in the unlikely hope of discovering something reminiscent and flattering about yourself, New Year's resolutions in general, waiting patiently for anything, charging headlong into anything, insincerity in general, duplicity in general, and many other bad strategies that you are undoubtedly thinking of and implementing at this very moment. You probably know a great deal about your own bad strategies if you think about it. All of them can be isolated and dismantled in the light of vigorous reflection, in favor of far more effective approaches to your actual objectives. Call me.
My lifelong best friend Richard has suggested that I run a more accessible ad and he has offered the following copy. Richard is benevolent, brilliant, and wise and I always digest his insights, advice, and commentary:
Everyone gets stuck. We find ourselves unable to change a way of thinking or a way of behaving, and it makes us sad. Or we find ourselves frustrated and unable to connect with what we would really enjoy. Sometimes we might not be the person we would like to be, or we might not be able to take the steps we need to take every day to change our behavior, make a relationship work, help our child do better in school or life, leave a marriage, find the right partner, or improve our current relationship. We might feel we are going through the motions in our life without hope, when what we would really prefer is to live and enjoy every single day.
Help is available to you. I specialize in equipping people with what they need to get unstuck, to change their behavior, to connect with their joys and feelings and emotions. I can assist you or your loved ones to get unstuck and move forward in your school, your career, your relationship, and your life.
Call me. I am here to help.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | January 29, 2010
You've heard of Freud. There is not another psychologist I could name that every one of you would be sure to have heard of, so we must deal with him. Freud presents all serious psychologists with a variety of important conundrums. The most obvious is his emphasis on the complicated, inappropriate, and unconscious relationships that he claims all children have with their parents. Pursuing this popular thread leads down the psychoanalytic rabbit hole into unconscious darkness so deep you are soon as blind as a groundhog. Similarly for Freud's view of cigars and pyramids. You can find whatever you want in psychoanalysis because it is entirely hypothetical.
But Freud was an intellectual giant and a pioneer in the field of professional psychology, and he harvested much of the low-hanging fruit. Freud articulated the profound idea of the unconscious mind in a way that was accessible to clinicians, academics, and also to the public. Freud identified and labeled a set of psychological operations that have become a part of all modern languages. Denial, repression, projection, regression, neurosis, sublimation, and transference are all from Freud. Freud did not identify lying as a psychodynamic conversion because lying is always conscious, but we also have to take that possibility into account in our dealings with others. It is impossible to understand people in a realistic way without resort to Freud's transformations, and lying. You recognize and interpret them in the people you interact with every day. You couldn't get by without these ideas.
Sublimation is Freud's term for the conversion of one form of psychic energy into another. For Freud this is always sexual energy, of course, but I prefer pointing to the remarkable fact that when your body and mind are stimulated by adrenalin you can experience this as either anxiety or exhilaration, which have very different consequences for your experience and behavior. I prefer to focus less on your childhood relationship with your parents and more on your present opportunity to channel your time and energy effectively into your painting, your business, your writing, your relationship, or your capers. Freud thought of each emotion as a sort of fluid that somehow builds up pressure in your brain until it is finally released, which is ridiculous. Your brain is a real-time generator of feeling, thought, and action; not a plumbing system. Even memory is not as substantial as it seems. Sublimation is the redirection of your energy, whatever its source, toward objectives that you can choose because they are healthy and appealing to you. Or not. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | January 22, 2010
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only transformed. Since Einstein matter is energy and so is every other thing in this universe; including your car, your computer, and your thoughts. Thoughts are not yet understood well enough to derive their energy content, but they are certainly implemented in neural chemistry that is very well understood, and that can be described completely as an electrical process powered by granola, Haagen-Dazs, salt, water, and oxygen. Although we cannot yet calculate it, every thought has a specific wattage. When some incipient Nobel laureate finally discovers the meaning of the word gist we will be close to the formula for that calculation.
For the moment we can rely upon our universal agreement that there are a limited number of thoughts that can be thunk in a given period of time. That is why you need more time to think about this, and why your kids need more time to study. I have read the opinion that people think about 30,000 thoughts a day, which is ridiculous but probably about right, and that 20,000 of them are repeats. Now that is a really interesting thought whether it is literally true or not! The technical term for this phenomenon is obsession, and it constitutes a great waste of intellectual energy that could be applied far more fruitfully. You know what I am talking about. Yes, you.
The good news is that obsession and other pointless repetitive thinking is voluntary, at least to a certain extent. To the extent that it really is involuntary it can be reconditioned. What could you accomplish if you spent more of your time thinking systematically and effectively about your projects and the ongoing development of your life? Would you be more comfortable? Would you be more powerful? Would you be more admirable? Would your life be better? Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | January 8, 2010
Capers are essential to the well-being of human males at every stage of their development. At 8 months, a satisfactory caper can consist of crawling out of bounds or landing on the most satisfying notes of the electronic musical pad beneath our Johnny-Jump-Up. Over the course of the male lifecycle our capers may evolve to encompass skateboarding, paintball, football, girls, cars driven with reckless abandon, forbidden women, forbidden men, business and power pursued with reckless abandon, money pursued with reckless abandon, espionage, war, philosophy or technology pursued with reckless abandon, fishing, golf and unconventional essays.
The male caper can be satisfied within the law and within the commitments of any reasonable relationship if it is recognized for what it is and addressed in a healthy and straightforward manner, although it need not stay within these bounds. Sneaking out to a movie in the afternoon, going to the Sundance film festival alone for a couple of days, or disappearing into the desert for an esoteric academic conference are like crawling out of bounds for me now. In male caper deprivation a dreadful malaise may set in, especially at middle age, and this can be difficult to diagnose and to cure. Midlife male malaise can result in unexplained weight loss, sudden motorcycles, and the appearance of sweet young things where there should be none. Capers are essential to the well-being of human males at every stage of development. They should be cultivated and nurtured carefully rather than allowed to grow wild. Call me or have him call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | January 1, 2010
Around 5 years old each of my boys went through a stage where they called me a liar when I made any statement that did not turn out to be strictly accurate. When they would ask how much longer until we got home, if it took longer than my estimate I was a liar. If I said I thought that Santa might be at the mall and he wasn't, I was a liar. If I said I thought we could probably go to the water park over the weekend and we didn't, I was a dirty rotten liar! You can't let them go to kindergarten like this so I explained that, following Aristotle, lying is a matter of intention and commitment rather than of accuracy, and they got this right away. Kids dig Aristotle.
Of course the boys were really just expressing their disappointment with outcomes they didn't like rather than making ethical judgments about my integrity. Their rationale for calling me a liar was based on their assertion that I had seriously committed to forecasts I had actually made quite casually in the course of ordinary conversation. Such forecasts are obviously quite different than explicit commitments, solemn promises, and contracts. We couldn't have a decent conversation, bull session, or charrette if we constrained ourselves only to assertions that commanded our solemn commitment. I would barely be able to communicate at all and, whoa, you should have seen my father-in-law smoking and holding forth with the other old coots at the Gaslight Cafe! Little that Carl said at the Gaslight was accurate but Carl was from Vermont and he was as good as his word on those rare occasions when he gave it seriously.
Integrity and reliability are at the heart of all commerce and civilization. If you break your word you will be regarded as an unreliable liar and you will be ostracized. The question is how serious you are when you express your intentions. It is fine and productive to spout off freely most of the time, without being held to account, so long as you have a way to highlight when you are serious. When you are serious it is very important to do what you say you are going to do, or else you lose the power to direct your own life.
New Year's resolutions are often expressed with great solemnity and commitment and then disregarded. Other resolutions and declarations also. I can think of little that is more damaging to personal self-efficacy than a habitual stream of meaningless resolutions. Being unreliable and disappointing others is bad enough, but if you can't rely on yourself you are rudderless. Did you make any New Year's resolutions? Were you serious? Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | December 25, 2009
Where do your buttons come from; the ones that can be pushed? Over the holidays many of you will return to the bosom of complicated families, to the factories where your most pressable buttons were manufactured and installed. I got this pithy metaphor from Joy Dorrell, from whom I also learned the surprising new meaning of the word cougar. Of course there are button factories everywhere, not only in the nuclear family, and new buttons can be manufactured and installed throughout the lifecycle. A button is just a trigger for some latent response, as a lingering kiss gets the romantic ball rolling or as the proverbial nuclear button initiates an elaborate process of global annihilation. There is no question about the reality of personal buttons, and they do provide a convenient explanation for all manner of irrational behavior, but they reduce the status of those who rely upon such explanations to that of laboratory rats and pigeons.
The theoretical foundation of personal buttons is behaviorism and operant conditioning, which dominated academic psychology during the middle half of the last century, until the "cognitive revolution" rediscovered thinking as an important component of human behavior. Behaviorism and operant conditioning describe you as a machine that is programmed by reward and punishment, which are the tools used to manufacture your buttons. I have no doubt that this is quite literally true, but it misses the important reality of rational thinking and decision making, which are conditioned behaviors themselves but which are open-ended, and which incorporate rational, empirical, scientific judgment and decision in themselves. In addition to your personal buttons, along the road of life you have probably learned to think for yourself to some extent, and to make at least some decisions on the basis of that thinking. This is an extremely valuable capacity and it opens the possibility of disabling or overriding your buttons, whether they are original equipment or not. You should develop that capacity further.
Happy Holidays! Call me after.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | December 11, 2009
It has been an uphill battle for me to get this phrase into print. When I originally proposed to include it in my professional tagline as "Relief, Recovery, Resolution, and Self-Actualization" my hardened executive marketing team and their attorney skewered it like a cockroach on their collective spike heels. They pointed out that the phrase now smacks of the new-age kookiness that bedevils the field of personal counseling and they wanted me to distinguish myself as a serious professional. They are right and therefore self-actualization does not appear on my business card, but there is really no other phrase that properly represents this important idea. Once relief, recovery and resolution have been accomplished and the crisis du jour has been overcome, then self-actualization is what remains to be done.
The term was coined long ago by a friend and colleague of my father's, AbrahamMaslow, and it is one that I grew up with. Self-actualization is not the fuzzy mystical fulfillment of our destiny or anything cosmic and mysterious like that. It is simply the actualization of the projects that we can choose to shape our lives if we elect to influence that process rather than leave it to chance, circumstance, and inertia. Self-actualization is the expression of goals that reflect our own distinctive personality rather than goals that we pursue because we have to or because they are dictated by our culture, our company, or our community. That is why Maslow put self-actualization at the top of his hierarchy of needs. Self-actualization can and should be reflective, intentional, and systematic. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | December 4, 2009
A new friend has introduced me to a wonderful new word, which is charrette. A charrette is an encounter of design professionals in which they intentionally stimulate one another's creativity. I am hereby appropriating the term for personal counseling and psychotherapy. I imagine that in the ideal charrette there is absolute trust and therefore no threat or any holds barred, as when boys and cats wrestle to refine each other as warriors, or as when the members of an effective executive team challenge one another's plans in order to perfect them to their mutual benefit. Or as when close friends kick one another upside the head in order to highlight some important danger or opportunity. Or as when your adolescent son turns up unexpectedly to brainstorm with you about how he can explode into the world in a manner that is at once effective and responsible. Dream on. But charrette can sneak up on you.
There is an aspect of charrette that requires some shared expertise, of course, but it can be surprising how stimulating a benevolent, clever, and provocative outsider can sometimes be. This is the approach that I will take toward you and your life when you come to see me. I can be a special sort of outsider in your life by virtue of our isolation together within the walls of my consulting room and within the soundproof iron curtain of professional confidentiality. Inside this cocoon we can wrestle safely with the substance of your life, without exposure, as though our discourse were taking place entirely inside your own head. To the extent that I win your confidence I can be as provocative as seems helpful as you develop your vision of yourself in the world. Let's have a charrette about you and your life. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | November 20, 2009
It is impossible to tell whether another person is being creative or not. It is difficult enough to tell whether we are being creative ourselves. This is because the essence of creativity is surprise, delight, and the invisibility of origins. What is taken for creativity is often merely the repetition of what was creative at some point in the past, or what was learned elsewhere. Think of the aging pop star singing his only hit for the 10,000th time, or the 30,000th image of the lifeguard tower on main beach. Even the most original works can morph into platitudes over time. As a florid narcissist I hope that you experience this ad copy as creative. As an enlightened narcissist I understand that if I were to run it every week for a year you would cease to find it so, and if you discovered that someone else had written it you would never credit me with creativity again. As an honest narcissist I realize that I stand on the shoulders of giants, teachers, family, friends and colleagues. I know that this text is not as creative as I hope you think it is.
Now this is not to disparage creativity but rather to exalt it by setting it apart from its imposters. In addition to its many practical and aesthetic benefits, creativity is a thrill. Beneath the surface of consciousness lies an enormous bubbling stew of neural and glandular activity; a mob of impressions, thoughts and impulses, all high on endocrinal drugs. Some of these subconscious sirens sing in distinctive voices. There are among them geniuses and idiots, devils and saints, muses and gorillas; all clamoring for our attention. To dwell there is insanity, but it is from this babbling chaos that creativity emerges. We can watch this cacophony from above and impose some unexpected order on it, as though our unconscious were a Rorschach inkblot that we can interpret and render according to our own craft and disposition. If the result surprises and delights, then we experience it as creative and we get the rush of exhilaration that we seek. Creativity can be intentionally cultivated and harvested. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | November 20, 2009
When you fire a starting gun, click a desktop icon, get married, make a business decision, have a baby, file for a divorce or declare a war, you are activating a process which then takes on a life of its own. There must be 50 ways to leave your lover once you decide to do that, although people routinely suffer years or decades of agonizing ambiguity before activating any of them. Showing up at your first 12-step meeting, enrolling in a graduate program, or calling me for consultation each activate a consequential process which then takes on a life of its own. When you call me, you will activate a process that is aimed at the activation of further processes intended to accomplish goals that you may or may not yet have identified. I have a bag of tools and tricks to address specific purposes once we reach a shared understanding of what we are doing together. My counseling process consists entirely in discussion and I rarely take any concrete action outside the consulting room, which is where I will try to get you to take it. Here's how it works.
First we get acquainted by negotiating about your autobiography, your circumstances, and your issues. These are surprisingly slippery subjects that are open to a wide range of interpretations and I rarely get clear instructions from my clients about what they would like to accomplish. As I absorb what you tell me about yourself and your life I reflect what I hear, but I also reformulate and challenge it in order to reach a common understanding about what is important. I will try to be as provocative as our relationship comfortably permits at each stage. Our common understanding of what we are doing together may be considerably different after a few sessions than it was at the start of our encounter. Sometimes it is difficult to establish what the issues really are and sometimes it is easy. The first part of the process aims at clarification, interpretation and insight.
But insight does not automatically result either in effective action or a productive shift in perspective, one or the other of which is the whole point of the counseling process. Carrying insight into action or achieving a shift in perspective usually involves wrestling with the same obstacles or contradictions that created the problem in the first place. This can be arbitrarily complicated and difficult. Effective counseling and psychotherapy can therefore be either rapid and straightforward or lengthy and difficult; depending upon you, your history and your circumstances. Call me and activate our collaborative process.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | November 13, 2009
Mary booked us for 3 nights at the Chateau, near majestic Yosemite, on the basis of their association with Relais & Châteaux. We anticipated a long weekend of elegant comfort, exquisite cuisine and natural beauty. In the course of our scenic drive to this sanctuary we passed through a number of small towns, each consisting of a linear aluminum strip mall and gas station, replete with plastic siding and neon. The Chateau is 9000 square feet of understated elegance nestled on several acres of immaculate landscaping, located smack in the middle of the longest most obnoxious strip mall town of them all. This context was fixed in my mind as we drove slowly up our groomed gravel approach to the reception area. Mary was delighted with the place but on the way to our room I caught a glimpse, through a tiny hallway window, of a gigantic illuminated Burger King sign atop an enormous roadside pole. Although I saw nothing further beyond the elegant interior of the Chateau and its magnificent grounds, I was aware of the rural industrial monstrosity in which it was embedded and my experience was contaminated by this awareness.
When I recognized this contamination I tried to shake it off by going for a run in the woods near the Chateau, perpendicular to the highway and strip mall. A mile or so into the woods on a dirt road my sense of context shifted toward beautiful nature, until I ran straight onto the local trash dump and sewage treatment area. Every town has to have one and I had flushed the toilet at the Chateau myself, but my weekend in nature had been poisoned by my pathological sense of context. Mary did not drag Burger King into the Chateau with her and she thoroughly enjoyed our actual environment.
Your sense of context can dominate your experience of any actual environment. If you are to be hanged in the morning it will be difficult to have fun tonight, even with a limo, and you know your morning will come. Many people have trouble enjoying themselves when their intimate relationships or their careers are going badly. I have a friend who suffers from political depression and financial anxiety is epidemic. Context can be as local and transitory as a back rub or a bee sting, and as global and permanent as a good marriage or death. Your sense of context is critical to the quality of your experience. It is possible and important to manage your own sense of context, reflectively and intentionally, once you realize that this is important and possible. Mary was not in strip mall denial at the Chateau. Mary is healthy and happy. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | October 23, 2009
My current infatuation is with video editing. You can now get software for $129 that makes the special effects in the original Star Wars look like Charlie Chaplin, and it is great fun! If your original video quality is deficient, you can improve it with effects that might alter every pixel of each one of those 30 frames per second. When you decide that your video should look 20% brighter, or that your subject should dissolve in the pattern of a flushing toilet, the software works through the billions or trillions of pixels that might be affected by your decisions. This takes time, even on a serious computer like mine, and it is called "rendering." Rendering makes it happen, in the background, by playing out the consequences of your decisions while you are moving on to the next scene.
Your potentially purposeful life is like that. You can make important decisions on the basis of your insights, and then you have the opportunity to play out the consequences of those decisions in your actual life while you are moving on to the next scene; or not. The infamous New Year's Resolution is the classic example of not. The persistence of the perfect secret agent in executing her coded instructions behind enemy lines, despite enormous obstacles, is the classic example of inexorable rendering. And then there is your own personal process. Of course, you need to carefully consider the quality of the decisions that you make before you render them, but it is pointless to have excellent insights or to make momentous decisions unless you do.
Some celebrity motivational speakers state or imply that all you really need to do in order to actualize your dreams is to visualize them with sufficient vigor and the universe will somehow bring them into existence to accommodate you. This process may be portrayed as a Secret that has been recently recovered from an ancient South American civilization, or some other such nonsense. This is a great product if you can sell it and it is clear why many people want to buy it, but this is not how it works. Clear vision is necessary but not sufficient for self-actualization. You have to render your visions like my video editing software has to render mine. The systematic and reliable rendering of your personal decisions and aspirations is a capacity that you can cultivate, and I recommend that you do. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | September 4, 2009
The exposure of illusion is sometimes experienced as enlightenment, and it makes a place for new perspectives. This can present either a vulnerability or an opportunity, depending upon the circumstances. Cult leaders, politicians, salesmen and philosophers often create and then exploit this type of vulnerability in order to promote a new perspective that serves their own purposes. Effective personal counselors, psychotherapists and gurus undermine problematic perspectives and then exploit this opportunity in order to promote a new viewpoint that better serves their client's interest.
The exposure of illusion is not difficult to achieve because most of our perceptions and beliefs are actually rooted in much looser soil than we would like to suppose, starting right at the bottom of our cognitive hierarchy. We experience vision as the direct reflection of objects that are "out there in the world" but the picture that you see in your head is actually built up over many stages deep inside your brain. What you see in your head has the same relationship to the images on your retina as the presidential nuclear button has to the reality of World War III. They are related but not at all alike. It is meaningless to say that objects in the world "look like" anything at all, unless you also specify a mechanism like the human visual system or a sonogram to "see" it. On this shaky foundation babies construct a belief in object permanence, in order to play peek-a-boo, and then go on to construct elaborate personal and cultural ideas about family, money, sex, fun, mathematics, video games, careers and philosophy.
Everything that we perceive and believe is built on this tower of Swiss cheese. When you consider the enormous ambiguity of English and all other natural languages it is clear why it is so easy to expose illusion in almost any direction you choose to turn. If you see that this is true, do not despair because this recognition does not actually cast you adrift as it might seem. The human brain is constructed in such a way that we will always believe in our perceptions with what Ed Tronick calls impelling certainty, even when we recognize the tower of Swiss cheese that supports them. It is precisely the holes in the cheese that make it Swiss, and these gaps make constructive renovations possible from the foundation up.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | August 28, 2009
Lacking experience and a frontal cortex, the infant literally looks to his parents to see how he should feel about whatever is going on. He does this by making eye contact and reading the expression on their face, which he can do almost immediately after birth. If he sees that his parents are serene and happy, then he will be happy as well. If he sees that his parents are anxious, then his bloodstream will be saturated with adrenalin and he will experience anxiety as well, even though he has no idea what is going on. His emotion is pure in the sense that he has no theory about why he feels the way he does.
With experience and the development of a frontal cortex we start to think for ourselves, and our emotional system responds to our thoughts just as it used to respond to the expression on our parent's face. It is as though the sum of all our thoughts had an expression on its collective metaphorical face, which it does, and this is what largely determines our emotions. Our thoughts are also effected by our emotions and we sometimes have to guess about why we are feeling a certain way. We often come to the wrong conclusion about this and therefore respond ineffectively. The suspicion that we have made a mistake like this can result in further anxiety, which increases our confusion in turn. It can get complicated and we sometimes get way off track.
The goal of drug therapy is to operate on the emotional system directly, which may or may not have any effect on what you think. Interpreting and managing the relationship between thoughts and emotions is central to personal counseling and psychotherapy. The goal of talk therapy is to improve the expression on the metaphorical face of your collective thoughts by means of insight and reason, knowing that your emotions will respond to this.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | August 21, 2009
Sometimes when we hear ourselves say something new we have no idea what we are talking about. This is how we come up with many of our best and worst ideas. Often we only hear these sound-bites for the first time as they emerge from our lips, and then we have to interpret them right along with our audience. Since we tend to agree with ourselves, we are more likely to accept what we have just said than others might be. If we like what we have just said we are likely to preserve it in our library of things to say again, and with each repetition we take it more and more for granted. In this way it is possible to accumulate a large inventory of habitual statements that have never been seriously considered. You know people whose dialogue consists almost entirely of repetitive and dubious assertions.
This doesn't matter when we are just bullshitting, but habitual sound-bites can pose serious problems for science and for intimate personal relationships. In both cases it is important to recognize habitual statements and to evaluate their truth, consequence, and value. In both cases this is easier to do in discussion than in isolation. This is partly because discussion entails speaking in greater depth about the meaning of some statement, which provides further opportunity for you to hear what you may think. Also you get another point of view and, in relationships, this is the other point of view that counts.
If you understand something you should be able to articulate it at a variety of levels. First there is the humble sound-bite, which might represent a sublime philosophy or which might be gibberish. It is usually just discovered coming out of your mouth or it pops into your head. Then there is the explanation, which is the sentence or paragraph of speech that you get when you say "What do you mean?" Then there is the discussion, exploration, and clear articulation of a whole considered thought. If you really understand something you should be able to give a seminar on it, and some of your sound-bites are important enough to warrant that depth of consideration.
It is productive to examine your own transcript from time to time, scanning for habitual sound-bites that call for closer examination.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | July 31, 2009
At 15, plus or minus 3 years, many adolescent males make a convincing case that they are incapable of any responsible judgment and unable to grasp the concept of a future. They continue to reinforce this impression through creative demonstrations of astounding recklessness and poor judgment until they are 24, plus or minus 8 years. This is when the world switches from predicting how they are going to turn out to judging how they turned out, which is critical because that judgment tends to fulfill itself.
This indisputable reality is sometimes called the self-fulfilling prophecy or, more technically, the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect. Rosenthal famously demonstrated that when teachers are led to expect enhanced performance from their randomly assigned students they get it, and when they are led to expect poor performance they get that. Same for psychologists and probably for physicians as well. Predicting an outcome is very different than creating one, which is what is going on here. Parental judgments and expectations exert a far more profound Pygmalion effect on their kids than those of teachers or psychologists.
The fact of the matter is that we have no idea what our kids are going to make of themselves, or when. Since they often don't even wake up until they are 24, plus or minus 8 years, that is a more reasonable time to start predicting how they are going to turn out than to start judging how they did. Many of them are just starting their adult launch sequence. This is also the point at which you can actually be helpful to them if you have not previously alienated them by trying to be too helpful, too forcefully, too soon. If you aren't careful you can wind up treating your son as though he were defective, which is neither helpful or true. Call me or have your son call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | July 24, 2009
Repetitive thinking is the biggest waste of cognitive bandwidth this side of heroin addiction, and we all do it. The most obvious cases are labeled with a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for which there are a variety of effective treatments. An official diagnosis of OCD may include the specification With Poor Insight, which means the person does not recognize that their obsessive thoughts are excessive or unreasonable. Moving down the spectrum of severity we sometimes say that we are preoccupied or hung up on something.
If we are enjoying our repetitive thoughts we might say that we are engrossed, spellbound, rapt, or absorbed in them. I very much enjoy thinking some of my favorite thoughts and fantasies over and over again. Whether or not repetitive thinking is a problem depends on whether or not it's a problem. When you can't get out of your house because you keep going back to check all the light switches over and over, it's a problem. If you are tortured by resentment about past offences or by worry about things you can't effect, it's a problem. On the other hand, repetitive thinking is often the only route to a breakthrough or insight into a complicated or subtle problem or opportunity. Effective detectives, scientists, philosophers and artists reflect on their respective themes until the pattern they are searching for emerges as a blinding revelation. The trick is to recognize when repetitive thinking is productive and when it's getting in the way of something. When it's a problem and you don't see it then you are eligible for the With Poor Insight diagnosis.
Regardless of whether your repetitive thoughts are problematic, pleasant, or productive they are consuming your cognitive bandwidth, which you could be using for other things. When it's not a problem this is a matter of taste and style, but a systematic examination of your own repetitive thinking might yield some surprising results and give you some choices that you didn't know you had. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | July 17, 2009
For my own purposes, I find the here and now to be overrated and I don't spend a great deal of time concentrating on it. I have studied and practiced several forms of meditation and found them to be difficult and uncomfortable. I do understand the attraction of others to what is often called mindfulness and I recognize its therapeutic value for all manner of emotional and cognitive distress. I often recommend meditation to my clients when they appear to be wrapped around some axle or another and I use it myself when anxiety or depression alerts me to the fact that I have thought my way into a corner that I cannot yet recognize. Mostly though, I prefer to be lost in thought or conversation, where I find no end of exhilaration and reward.
The popular notion of mindfulness involves a voluntary restriction of consciousness in order to exclude thinking in favor of immediate sensory experience, and as little of that as possible without falling asleep. "Concentrate on your breath and let any thoughts that come into your head float gently away." In my view, this is therapeutic because the things that trouble us almost always play out over a long period of time. Anxiety is the fear that something bad will happen in the future and depression is rooted in the belief that life will continue to suck indefinitely. Anxiety and depression both project themselves into the future and therefore neither makes any sense in the immediate present. Standing on the solid foundation of your own real-time respiration, with the feel of the wind in your hair and your butt in the chair, has the potential to help us see that the story each of us constructs about the world is really a special kind of fiction and therefore subject to editorial review. Some call this enlightenment. I call it insight.
Once you have a solid handle on this insight it can be applied directly, within the realm of thought and action, rather than indirectly through a retreat into immediate sensory awareness. Mindfulness is undoubtedly an important instrument for both psychotherapy and for spiritual development, but when it seems appropriate I am likely to refer you to a yoga, martial arts, or meditation master. I prefer to work in the realm of vigorous thought and action.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | July 3, 2009
A theory of happiness called the Hedonic Treadmill proposes that people each have a particular level of happiness to which they quickly return after significant life changes render them briefly more or less happy, just as most of us quickly return to our usual weight after either a diet or a period of gluttony and dissipation. I have verified this repeatedly by personal experiment, out of commitment to the scientific method. Serious research has also demonstrated the homogeneity of happiness across diverse populations living under dramatically different circumstances. One famous study found that quadriplegic accident victims are only slightly less happy than major lottery winners one year after their accident or lottery win, and the lottery winners are indistinguishable from a random control group. On average, the impoverished residents of third world countries are just about as happy as the residents of Laguna Beach.
This is not an argument for the termination of food aid to Sudan or for the abandonment of hope if you are depressed, but rather it is an important psychological insight with practical implications. The indisputable reality of the hedonic treadmill seems to imply that the attainment of things we want does not make us happy, which universal folklore confirms in innumerable maxims like "Money can't buy happiness". But everyone knows that the attainment of things that we want does make us happy, and it is clear that the residents of Laguna Beach have attained far more of those things than the residents of Sudan. The problem is not that things like the acquisition of money don't make us happy, but rather that that they don't keep us happy; simply because we get used to them. This reality is the very essence of nonchalance: "Sure, I have all this stuff that you can never hope to attain, but you can see from my expression that I am really quite bored with it all." Nonchalance and the misery that it conceals can be treated.
The lesson of the hedonic treadmill is not that the attainment of things we want is pointless, but rather that we must attain new things regularly. Our relentless mistake is to presume that the thrill of some particular accomplishment or fortune will be lasting. The solution is to systematically disrupt our own stability with new initiatives, on an ongoing basis, so that our happiness can be temporarily enhanced by something new just as we get used to the last thing that made us temporarily happy. This is like cruising across the crest of the waves in a powerboat instead of bobbing up and down like a cork.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | June 26, 2009
Many people seem to think of personal counseling as though it were a marriage or a prison term, which tend to be lengthy, continuous and costly. This stereotype must be a hangover from the days of Freudian psychoanalysis which, in its classical form, was literally intended to be undertaken daily for years if not decades. In classical psychoanalysis, the distress that people sometimes feel in the normal course of living was assumed to be so obscure and exotic that only highly trained psychoanalysts were capable of interpreting it. The interminable daily sessions were necessary in order for civilians (tellingly referred to as "patients") to finally grasp the exotic nature of what they were really thinking and feeling, which insight was considered to be the intended "cure". Among the many unfortunate consequences of this approach are an unhealthy dependence upon the analyst and the prospect of a permanent new recurring expense.
This misguided stereotype continues to haunt the field of psychotherapy and personal counseling, and it afflicts the occupants of both chairs in the consulting room. Many clients feel apprehensive or guilty about suspending or terminating a regular weekly counseling schedule and many counselors regard this either as a reflection of professional failure or as lost revenue. This is not my perspective. I would like my clients to utilize my professional services as they would those of a lawyer, an accountant, or a physical therapist; whose special expertise you call upon periodically as you need it to meet your personal objectives. My own professional expertise is in the facilitation of insight and action, which is useful not only for the relief of distress but for all manner of accomplishment.
Like my counterparts in law, accounting, and physical therapy I can often deliver some value in a single consultation and our work on the projects we define together should be focused, limited, and conclusive. Now, like a personal trainer rather than a physical therapist, there is also a mode in which we can collaborate indefinitely in an ongoing series of projects that carry you ever further in the directions of your own evolving choice. This sort of project aims at exhilaration and fulfillment rather than at relief, recovery, and resolution. I'll bet I can continue to stimulate and facilitate your personal development indefinitely if that is your desire.
Personal counseling and psychotherapy are consultative services rather than continuous relationships and you should feel free to utilize my expertise in that way without fear of commitment or termination anxiety. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | June 19, 2009
You could drop everything right now and go to Brazil to make your living in the fish markets of Rio and learn to play the bongo drums. You wouldn't have to tell anyone you were leaving or have anything to do with your current life ever again. You can just begin to imagine the range of experiences that you might have over the rest of your life if you did such a thing. It is not likely that you will choose to do this, but you could. I sometimes encourage my clients to consider such possibilities when they mention the idea of suicide, however vaguely, or when they are depressed and hopeless. Pain and distress can be productive of change and it is a good idea to examine the broadest possible range of alternatives before committing to a new path. Crisis is opportunity, but be smart about it. Also remember that you don't have to have a crisis in order to seize the day, although crises are often helpful.
There is a mathematical construct called a light cone which, in physics, represents the range of positions in space that a photon can reach in a given period of time, starting from an arbitrary origin. It represents the range of things that can happen to a photon in the future given where it is right now. Physicists call this a world line, and your life is like that. You always find yourself at the origin and you always have a very broad range of future opportunities, whether you exploit them or not. You also have broad range of possible histories that might have brought you to your current origin and you may well be mistaken about some aspects of your own past.
It sometimes feels like there are no options, but there always are. In fact, there are so many options that it is literally impossible even to imagine them all. If you are stuck, then that is a choice you are making and you can choose otherwise. If you are in distress, then this realization should make you feel better as soon as you see it.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | June 12, 2009
The perfect secret agent goes behind enemy lines with the certainty that she will execute her coded instructions, as broadly or exactly as they are specified, no matter what those instructions might be. She recognizes that this is necessary in order to serve her organization and her society effectively, and this is why she has been invested with their confidence and resources. She can be counted upon, absolutely, to carry out the considered decisions and policies of the state.
Bureaucratic agents in the catacombs of bureaucracy are not so reliable. Such agents are likely to accept their instructions and then do as they please unless they are under close supervision, and their supervisors are likely to do the same. The considered decisions and policies of the state are not decisive in the bureaucratic catacombs. The state is likely to be hamstrung in this arena no matter how smart it is or how effective its decisions might be. Just read, watch, or listen to the news.
It is also like this for each of us personally. People routinely report their surprise at finding that they do not follow up on important decisions that they have made themselves. It is as if they are reporting on someone else, on some bureaucrat in a catacomb, but they are talking about themselves. Even the most disciplined among us can relate to this if we are honest, but there is a huge variance among individuals in their ability to follow the consequences of their own insights and decisions. It is as though we were each a society of diverse personalities rather than a unitary individual which, of course, is the actual case.
Some of our own personalities are more perfect agents than others, but until we recognize this it is not possible to systematically promote these over the internal bureaucrats that lurk in the neural catacombs of our own brain. It is pointless to have insights unless we can count upon ourselves to act on them, so this is a discipline that must be constantly developed and reinforced.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | June 5, 2009
It may seem like cheating to revise your autobiography since it is presumed to be a factual narrative of your life, but even honest autobiography is historical fiction. Everyone has a large portfolio of autobiographical clips that we regularly insert into our conversational stream; and into our own stream of consciousness as well. These clips range from sound bites that highlight one of our characteristics or experiences, to epic tales that purport to tell our life story and its meaning. Everyone can spontaneously tell a version of their life story in either 20 minutes or 2 hours, whether they think they are prepared to do this or not. I know this because I get both versions back to back at the start of each new counseling relationship.
Without asking, I usually get a 20 minute version sometime during the first half of our first session. Most people who consult with a psychologist feel the need to explain why they are doing that. Outside the barbed wire fences of managed care, which I am careful to avoid, this is unnecessary because the explanation emerges organically from the conversation. What I usually hear is a spontaneous 20 minute autobiography blended with a prepared explanation for coming to see me.
I am not a passive counselor, but during the initial session I try to provide as little feedback or direction as possible. I use the initial session to establish rapport and then I ask for a 2 hour autobiography. Some people say they can't provide this, but everyone can and easily does. It is useful to compare the 20 minute version with the 2 hour version because they can be substantially different in both substance and tone, especially as it relates to the issues that are really disturbing them. Recognition of these differences makes it clear that there is fiction in the autobiography somewhere. In a sense, the counseling process consists of rooting out problematic autobiographical fictions and editing the whole into something more shapely, effective, and true.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | June 5, 2009
"Use it or lose it" is the slogan of the current mental calisthenics fad, which is intended to overcome age-related decline in cognitive functions. These declines actually begin about age 25 but most people don't notice for a couple of decades, when short and recent term memory losses become impossible to ignore. Why did I come to the kitchen? Like the decline in vision that requires reading glasses around this time, memory deterioration is a minor irritant that either effortful attention or a notepad can remedy. Memory functions decline steadily and continuously over the lifespan, although there is a great deal of variation among individuals. Since memory is vital to every cognitive function it gets the lion's share of popular attention, but processing speed and stamina for effortful thinking and sustained attention also decline. These realities disturb some people, which accounts for the appeal of the many products and programs that claim to arrest or reverse them. Most such programs are based on the false premise that mental exercises for memory and cognition are equivalent to physical calisthenics for muscular strength and agility.
I think this approach is barking up the wrong tree entirely. Just as I have to ski more gracefully these days in lieu of the speed, power, and orthopedic resilience of my youth, I have found it necessary and possible to think more gracefully as well. I am exploring many cognitive adaptations. Most generally, I try to reflect on my chosen objects of interest with less intensity over a longer period of time. Most specifically, I now maintain effortful concentration on new insights that I wish to retain for 20 seconds beyond the point at which I fully grasp them, which gets them into long term memory whence they otherwise do not necessarily penetrate. Hopefully, by now I have also acquired some wisdom so that I don't have to reevaluate everything all the time. I am at least as happy with my own cognitive function at 57 as I was at 25, although I think quite differently now. It is my intention to continue this trend indefinitely and I think that is realistic.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | May 29, 2009
Many people claim to have only a single personality, which is ridiculous. Multiple personalities are readily apparent in others, although we sometimes regard this as pathological if we don't like them. The problem is in the common habit of thinking about personality as tangible and definite, which it certainly is not. Personality is simply a set of inclinations toward a list of emotions or behaviors during a particular period of time. The list is defined by the observer and so is the period of time over which it is considered. Psychologists usually take the term of a personality to be an entire lifetime, and they tend to characterize personality in terms of the factors associated with their own dissertation. Laymen do likewise, but without the dissertation. Fluctuations and alternations in personality are therefore commonly regarded as mental illness, which they are generally not.
The official DSM-IV definition of what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder includes the following criteria:
- The presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states, each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self.
- At least two of these identities or personality states recurrently take control of the person's behavior.
- Inability to recall important personal information that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.
Although I do not yet exhibit criterion C, I clearly do have multiple personalities. I have even claimed criterion C when called on the carpet for something particularly knuckleheaded. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it! Some of my personalities are optimistic, enthusiastic and vigorous while others are pessimistic, despondent and sluggish. Some are thoughtful and considerate while others are rash and insensitive. Some are rational and some are emotional. Some have good judgment and others do not, and they recurrently take control of my behavior.
Like the various personalities in any organization, the ones in our heads require management. Several of my own personalities are no longer permitted to send email, although I rely upon some of these for my creative process. It is not possible to establish effective policies until you recognize your staff as a group of diverse individuals and get to know their strengths and weaknesses. You should designate one of your personalities to be CEO, and you should choose that one carefully.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | May 22, 2009
I think I understand most of the emotions and what they are good for. I am in favor of them all. Fear, anger and anxiety activate in order to keep you from being eaten and they get you out of bed in the morning. Lust, love, hunger and greed provide direction and lay the foundation for satisfaction. Jealousy, guilt and shame reinforce love in cementing loyalty to the family, the pod, and other institutions. The list of useful emotions goes on and on.
All emotions have both physiological and cognitive elements. You literally feel a certain way in your body, but you also think something about it. Because of this interpretative element, most emotions can be experienced as some form of exhilaration, the realization of which is exhilarating in its own right! This is the foundation of my practice.
And then there is depression, which really sucks. Depression replaces motivation and activity with pain and paralysis. Depression reduces communication to the expression of suffering. Depression is simply debilitating. In evolutionary terms, emotions are enormously complicated and expensive so each of them must be very important. Or must have been important at one time. I cannot understand the utility of depression in our modern context so I must defer to the best historical theory I know about it, which is that it takes us down so that the alpha male in our group doesn't have to beat us to death. Specifically, when we come to the conclusion that we are completely inadequate to our aspirations, depression encourages us to abandon the struggle that might get us killed. Depression convinces us to lie down. We may be miserable but we can still propagate. This makes perfect sense in the brutally competitive primate environment of our forbears, but it is not desirable in Laguna Beach.
Depression is one of the most serious obstacles to progress in counseling and psychotherapy and it must be gotten out of the way. Fortunately, we actually do live in Laguna Beach rather than in the primate jungle and cognitive therapy works for depression in this town, sometimes in combination with a course of medication. There are too many exhilarating possibilities in life to spend much time in depression.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | May 15, 2009
Buddha famously proclaimed that attachment is the root of all suffering, but I didn't really get this until a western meditation master, Shinzen Young, translated Siddhartha's insight into the title of this essay. This psychological formula should be taken quite literally as an algebraic expression, with pain being an independent variable and resistance being a voluntary action that can either amplify or eliminate suffering. If this is the case then suffering must be regarded as voluntary, which certainly fits my own experience.
The dramatic leverage that resistance can apply to a given pain is apparent in the anxiety, whimpering and screaming of the toddler who fears the inoculation he cannot avoid. In fact, the pain that the needle actually inflicts is insignificant compared to the pain involved in the continuous stream of collisions, falls, and abrasions that he happily absorbs at play. It is the toddler's extreme resistance to the idea of the needle that causes his suffering in one situation, and his total surrender to the flow of play that precludes it in the other.
There is a certain gesture of resignation that everyone recognizes, perhaps a shrugging of shoulders or a throwing of hands in the air, which signifies that no further effort will be expended on the object of frustration. "To hell with it!" or, more gracefully, "Oh, well!" or even "Oh!" In all cases further resistance has been foresworn and suffering has been extinguished, though pain might well remain. The difference among these tones of resignation will determine how you may proceed. It may be that you continue to engage the object of your frustration, especially if it is your spouse or child, but without resistance. If so, you will find that you can be far more effective when you are not suffering, and that suffering is voluntary.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | May 8, 2009
In our society, hedonism is an insult and austerity is vastly over-reported. Hedonism asserts that the only ultimate motives are pleasure and pain, and that everything humans do is intended to seek pleasure or to avoid pain; despite the fact that our intentions often backfire. It might appear that hedonism would exclude the higher motives to which we aspire, but this is not the case. It is also commonly supposed that hedonism leads to excess, but this is not true either. In fact, I think hedonism has been set up by sanctimonious moralists to take the rap for gluttony, which is the real culprit.
Enlightened ancient Greek and modern American hedonists agree that moderation is essential to all types of sensual and aesthetic pleasure, and that moderate deprivation enhances the pleasure of moderate consumption even further. There is no spice like hunger! Although bingeing and gluttony also yield a crass momentary satisfaction, nobody will seriously defend this approach except in order to justify some oppressive compulsion or addiction.
In order to understand our more elevated motives in terms of the pleasure principle it is important to recognize that pleasure actually occurs in the mind and not in the body; which is to say that it is a matter of interpretation. This is why anesthetics, distraction, placebo, and philosophy can all effectively mitigate pain. In fact, pleasure is at least as likely to be stimulated by social feedback and other abstract cognitive processes as it is by direct sensory experience. Chocolate and a glass of wine are nice, especially when you are hungry and sober, but election to the Presidency of France may be even more pleasant; especially at first.
Elevated motives are prerequisite to admiration, which is extremely pleasurable to anyone who has cultivated a taste for it; which is everyone. Enlightened hedonists understand that pretentious motives are easily detected and they therefore tend to be genuine, consistent, and reliable. Enlightened hedonism is the foundation of all altruistic and philanthropic behavior, despite nearly universal claims to the contrary. There is no need for you to feel guilty about your hedonism and, in fact, guilt will certainly get in your way. Embrace and harness your natural hedonism!
Joe Ferguson, PhD | May 1, 2009
Suppose that when you die you are neither obliterated nor transported to an afterlife, but rather are informed that you will continue your experience eternally within the confines of the life that you have just finished living. Like a ping-pong ball that is trapped between two opposing paddles or the proverbial drunk who is trapped between two trees, you will live out eternity in the moments of your life exactly as those moments existed the first time around. You will be able to travel at will between your birth and your death as though this territory was your own temporal real estate, and you can spend as much time as you choose anywhere within it. Like I said though, this is forever so get used to it.
You are informed that this eternal fate will be made bearable or blissful by your ability to reinterpret any of your moments an unlimited number of times as you pass repeatedly through them; and also by your ability to forget whatever you choose. In the long run, your first kiss may be eminently forgettable and your prison might turn out to be your ashram. Whatever you choose, except that you have to work with each moment as it actually occurred.
This may or may not be what is actually going on here, but it is productive to suppose so because it recognizes the extraordinary value of each future moment that your life has remaining to run. You do not need a diagnosis or even a complaint to justify calling me about upgrading your remaining temporal real estate, or in order to improve it in any number of independent ways. If you knew that you were in your life forever you might take better care of it!
Joe Ferguson, PhD | April 24, 2009
The Iron Chef is handed a bag of ingredients and challenged to create a culinary masterpiece. You are handed a bag of faculties and circumstances and challenged to create an autobiography. Calcified recipes don't work well in either case and prizes are awarded on the basis of the creation rather than the materials. This concept is particularly important during adolescence, midlife transition, and old age; which sometimes overlap.
During development, a personal and professional identity is forged from stereotypes that are floating around in the family and the society, combined with the actual resources that each kid happens to have received in his bag. Hopefully he is not pressed to follow a recipe for which he does not have the ingredients, but is allowed to utilize what he does have in something like his own way.
Around midlife the contents of the bag start to change, but the established recipe often does not. Short term memory degradation and back pain are among the most notorious midlife losses but, for men, fluid depletion and the loss of immortality and omnipotence are actually more troublesome. On the other hand, experience and the possibility of wisdom have been added and these can be potent resources that enable new autobiographical possibilities. Hopefully the midlife transition goes well and there is no red sports car or 26-year-old hottie.
And then eventually we should expect to lose everything and die. It may sound strange to say that this does not have to be regarded as any loss at all. It depends upon who you think you are and what you think you are doing. If you have prepared yourself with an appropriate philosophy, then you may regard these losses as new ingredients for your evolving creation. You may be the sort of person who can do this naturally or you may have to work on it. In the last few of my mother's 92 years she released each faculty without apparent resistance or regret and she was happy throughout, so I know it can be done.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | March 27, 2009
For every hour I spend in the diagnosis of psychopathology I spend fifty hours talking my clients out of the diagnoses that they already have. Don't get me wrong, I am a dedicated scientist and I recognize the research, communication, and treatment value of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), which is the official catalog of mental disorders. The very serious problem is that the abstractions of the DSM are often mistaken for the legitimate description of individual human beings, as though they were medical diagnoses. This is a particular problem when those individual human beings accept their diagnosis as an absolute and permanent description of themselves, which is where I must intervene.
Medical diagnosis is essential to the treatment of medical problems. Beyond umbilical clamping and circumcision, any pediatrician who proposes to perform surgery on my infant grandchildren had better have a really solid diagnosis. There are undoubtedly a number of legitimate medical (psychiatric) conditions in the DSM, like schizophrenia and Alzheimer's dementia, which require medical treatment not available from clinical psychologists, but there are also a large number of social stereotypes and personal insults like Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which describes jerks, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which describes uncooperative kids. DSM-III included homosexuality as an official psychopathology until 1974, when it was finally removed from the official list of mental disorders. No further comment is required here, I hope.
Between schizophrenia and homosexuality lies a whole range of diagnostic terms that have been more or less abused in their translation to folk-English; including ADHD, Bipolar, Asperger's, Dependent Personality, Borderline Personality, and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality disorders. This is not to say that these things don't actually exist, but the terms are vastly overused and they often pose the first and most formidable obstacle to progress when they are adopted by the people who are accused of them by their family, by their friends, and by licensed professionals. Even ordinary mood and chemical dependency diagnoses have their complications as well as their uses. You are not your diagnosis and I probably won't give you one unless you need it for insurance purposes, in which case I am sure you will meet the criteria for something.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | April 3, 2009
Skeptics love truth and fear error. We are sometimes mistaken for cynics, who do not love and who seek to justify that. Skepticism is the foundation of science which, as a matter of principle, knows nothing for certain. Skepticism is also an essential adaptation to the competition for resources in a social species like ours, because lying and cheating can be profitable and fun. Consider Lehman Brothers, Bernie Madoff, the predatory dining strategy of the sea anemone, and poker. We must stay alert.
Naïve or predatory deception is central to courtship and to most social choreography, in which we hope to be loved unconditionally but still strive to be seen in the most attractive possible light, or better. Who would deny that they might spin their autobiography a bit in the course of an interview, an audit, or a confirmation hearing? Even honest autobiography is historical fiction. This is not a problem as long as our story does not get too crossed up with the world and its population. When it does, we may need to challenge some of our most cherished assumptions, beliefs, and delusions. Productive self examination requires a courageous skepticism about who we think we are and what we think we know.
But skepticism must be balanced with acceptance or it degrades to paranoia. That everything is susceptible to challenge does not mean that everything must be challenged. Enlightened skeptics exercise aesthetic judgment and submit themselves selectively to the beautiful and the good. Enlightened skeptics lean intentionally away from the dark side. There is nothing wrong with a sojourn in Strawberry Fields as long as you don't get lost in the weeds.
Skeptics love other skeptics and they fear cynics, who do not love and who seek to justify that. Healthy skepticism is essential to personal satisfaction, to effective counseling, and to psychotherapy.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | March 27, 2009
In our society, narcissism is an insult and humility is vastly over-reported. The most ambitious politicians and celebrities routinely proclaim their humility on national television, while narcissism is the title of a personality disorder. We are encouraged to disguise our natural narcissism and to pretend humility, which can render us inauthentic, guilty, and depressed.
The hallmarks of Narcissistic Personality Disorder are a grandiose sense of self-importance and a powerful need for admiration. These are also hallmarks of the most admirable and accomplished individuals in our society. The difference between saints and jerks lies primarily in their level of social sophistication. Jerks apparently do not realize that they actually need to be admirable in order to be admired. Saints recognize this and often sacrifice their physical, financial, and emotional well-being in order to do extremely admirable things. Enlightened narcissists in other fields prefer to be slightly less admirable without deprivation, as I do. The official psychiatric diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is reserved for jerks and it is a diagnosis that I don't use.
Grandiose plans are prerequisite to major accomplishments. Admirable personal ethics are prerequisite to admiration. Enlightened narcissists understand that ethical pretensions are easily detected and they are therefore genuine, consistent, and reliable. Enlightened narcissism is the foundation of ethical behavior, despite nearly universal claims to the contrary. Embrace and harness your natural narcissism!
Joe Ferguson, PhD | March 20, 2009
The rocket does not care much about the gantry or what stands behind it. It is poised to explode into space on the back of its powerful thrusters with transition to warp speed shortly thereafter, no doubt. The universe waits to be discovered and an appreciation for the history and support structure that makes this possible will have to wait a while. For the avoidance of doubt, you are the gantry and your son is the rocket. If you are in this for the credit you might need a backup plan.
Let's assume that you are not preoccupied with parental recognition and that you are not trying to live vicariously through your son. Let's assume that you are not trying to mould him to a particular image that you have in mind, but rather that your pure and steadfast goal is to facilitate the success of his own personal mission in life; whatever that might turn out to be. No parent ever meets these aspirations fully, but I am gratified to observe that so many come so close!
As the gantry falls away, Mission Control is suddenly reduced to radio communication. Until that moment the launch sequence could be interrupted at any time while all manner of tools and equipment could be applied directly to the rocket. That luxury has now expired. If there is a problem now, the best that Mission Control can do is to provide its advice on how to jury-rig an air purification system from the parts of a zero-gravity toilet. The isolated crew is going to have to do it himself. He needs Houston to calculate a re-entry that doesn't involve incineration, but he may not realize this until he has been in orbit for a while.
Planning, training and ground operations are all vital to the success of the mission, but after launch you can't use your own tools anymore. You should start shifting to radio support as soon as possible.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | March 13, 2009
As I was being conceived, my young father wrote to his mentor, Carl Rogers, at the University of Chicago: "The aspect of the therapeutic puzzle that currently most occupies my attention centers around those clients who seem to achieve intellectual insight but little significant modification of behavior." I have come to think of this as the problem of Insight without Change, and it is arguably the most important issue in psychotherapy as well as in all personal motivation. Why you might have a genuine insight and not act on it is really quite a conundrum, but after considerable reflection I think I understand it.
You know many people who describe the nature of their own counterproductive behavior or thinking quite clearly, as well as the obvious remedies, but who fail to follow their own advice. Perhaps you have done this yourself. Addictive behavior, at least in its later stages, is the classic demonstration of behavior operating contrary to insight. I have no memory so vivid as of walking into a convenience store twenty-some years ago, telling myself please not to buy any more cigarettes, and watching myself buy that next pack and smoke it. I regard this as unacceptable, as I regard acquiescence to any oppressive regime. In order to escape such circumstances it is necessary to achieve insight by means of careful analysis and serious reflection, and then to act decisively on that insight.
I have found that in any intimate discourse, like that in effective personal counseling or psychotherapy, there comes a series of insights that are not, at first, able to command the actions that they clearly recommend. Taking insights into action is the bridge from intellectual insight to change. It is only necessary to honor the behavioral requirements of insight in order to realize its benefits. Thanks, Pop!
Joe Ferguson, PhD | March 6, 2009
I hope that our portfolios make a full recovery, but if they don't we will have an opportunity to show our friends and family what we are made of. This may sound like happy talk, but you will be more comfortable waiting for the end of the world if you take some time to seriously consider the opportunities that would follow. The paper value of your portfolio has no effect on the beauty of the sunset over Catalina and it does not define the range of your options. Financial catastrophe is not fatal, which is a big plus, and most of the other catastrophes we anticipate aren't fatal either. If you survive, you will adapt to your new circumstances and move on as you always must and do. In fact, you will probably be about as happy as you were before. Your past experience should bear this out and this should cheer you up.
The current economic crisis is a perfect example of the general catastrophic sensation because it is so widespread and so frightening, but many of us experience something like it on a regular basis. The sense of impending catastrophe can be associated with anything from intimate relationships to sports. I dread the possibility of discovering a nasty computer virus that I cannot eradicate from my hard disc. Mother Nature has equipped us with the capacity to feel this way in order to motivate us, but note that the sense of impending catastrophe can result in either anxiety or exhilaration, depending on your perspective and your habits of thought. Many effective executives and all cage fighters are exhilarated in proportion to the magnitude of the catastrophes they contend with. By these lights it's not really Kung Fu if you aren't involved in a brawl with bad guys on every side.
We are not simply at the mercy of distant bankers and the inscrutable global economy, even though we cannot control or anticipate them. We have the freedom and responsibility to choose our own response to threatening circumstances. When the sense of impending catastrophe grips too tightly it is worth taking some time to systematically undermine it. This may not improve your balance sheet but it will certainly improve your balance.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | February 27, 2009
Anxiety and exhilaration are practically identical. The only difference is in how we feel about the object of our attention and how we think things are likely to turn out for us. What we actually feel in both cases is the activation of our sympathetic nervous system, more commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. In both cases we are attentive, energetic, and creative but in anxiety we usually haven't committed ourselves to action where in exhilaration we have. In anxiety we are afraid things might turn out badly but we are not sure. If we were sure we would be depressed, which is a very different condition. Anxiety is much easier to harness than depression.
Think of how you felt staring down that black diamond ski run you didn't really mean to take. Was that anxiety or exhilaration? How about the moment right before attempting your first kiss and the moment right after? How about before and after you accepted or quit that job, married or divorced that spouse, or took the leap that changed your life? The transition from anxiety to exhilaration can be like flipping a switch. This is one of my favorite sensations and I pursue it vigorously, although I try not to be reckless. I love to watch it in my clients, too!
The fact that there is so short a distance between anxiety and exhilaration can present some surprising opportunities, not only for the relief of suffering but for constructive personal development. Since the difference is only a matter of perspective, insight can transform anxiety into exhilaration, which should be called something better than "therapy". I am convinced that every normal human brain manufactures a quota of anxiety that is determined by temperament and circumstance. Harness your personal anxiety as a source of energy, motivation, and exhilaration.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | July 9, 2010
Over the last several decades I have been fond of asking people "How's your life on a scale of 1 to 10?" Everyone is prepared to answer this question either immediately or within 5 seconds, and nobody ever says 1 or 4. Perhaps this is because once you go negative (below the median) you have to make some sort of statement, and 4 doesn't really cut it whereas 1 is overly dramatic. In any case I have found a normal distribution of ratings => 5 for those who portray themselves as positive, even including 10. It is surprising and illuminating that people are so ready to provide a numerical rating of their life at such a summary level, even while they are equally ready to describe their own personal Livin' la Vida Loca rollercoaster!
If the determination of the temperature of the universe were made a national priority for some reason, then a violent debate would ensue among physicists, chemists, astronomers, mathematicians, and philosophers about what that number might mean. The astronomers and mathematicians might protest that simultaneous measurement of anything over cosmic distance is meaningless due to relativity effects; and then offer a variety of theoretical temperatures anyhow. The physicists and chemists would emphasize that you should be more specific. The philosophers would support and contradict everyone.
I would agree with them all, as I emphasize to my clients regularly. Your summary of how your life is going is important because it elevates your perspective and it influences your mood, but you actually live your life along many parallel tracks that timeshare your 24 hour day. It is instructive to see how one of these tracks can dominate people's summary rating of their lives, even when that track only accounts for a tiny percentage of their time. It is instructive to isolate the most significant tracks in your life and to evaluate them independently. In this way it is possible to take an executive perspective on the quality of your life and to manipulate it. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | February 13, 2009
When your son was a toddler it was clearly your responsibility to ensure his survival and his socialization. You had complete authority and you would have been negligent if you didn't exercise it. By the time your son is 50 you should probably have let go the reins. You should have given up the feeling that you are responsible for your son's life in favor of the benevolent interest that you offer to your best friends in your healthiest adult relationships. You want the best for them and you want to help, but you are not judgmental about their performance and you don't feel that the consequences of their actions are your responsibility. You love them and they listen to you.
It is difficult to move from an attitude of authoritative responsibility to one of benevolent interest toward your adolescent, but this is the most important transition that you must negotiate in your relationship with him. During adolescence your relationship is in the twilight zone of responsibility and independence. You are still responsible, sort of, but your authority is slipping. He is still dependent, sort of, but he is trying to distance himself from that reality without jumping out of the safety net entirely.
Adolescents and their parents routinely disagree along the borderline of responsibility, authority, and autonomy. You will have noticed that he has his ways of insisting upon his independence. He will have noticed that you have your ways of insisting upon your responsibility and authority. If you want to retain your influence you must renegotiate.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | February 18, 2011
The Greeks were properly suspicious of Sophists in the public square, as our society clearly is not. Sophistry is the art of pure persuasion so it is as effective for marketing, propaganda and fraud as it is for education, constructive debate and personal counseling. The more persuasive the speaker and the greater the weight of her authority, the greater the risk of being misled. The burden of constructive skepticism and judgment is always on the listener. Skeptics love truth and fear error.
Responsible persuasion should always be accompanied by some warning equivalent to the Zen saying "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." You must kill the Buddha because he is so charismatic, persuasive and authoritative that you cannot trust yourself to judge the validity of what he says; no matter how wise, benevolent or true. I have always tried to encourage independent critical thinking in my sons and yet still persuade them to do things my way. The fruit of my parental efforts came back to me a few years ago from my youngest son, who told me as he was launching his graduate career in Internet poker that "I have taken your excellent lifelong advice, dear father, in always attending carefully to your advice but thoughtfully declining to take it in this case!" I was ambivalent about this parental victory at the time, but Jeff has shown himself to be a disciplined and profitable poker player over several years in a difficult economy. He is currently building a new career in alternative energy and he is persuasive about his innovative approach to that project, which he encourages me to challenge as continually as he aspires to challenge it himself. Yes!!!
Persuasion of various sorts is an important aspect of personal counseling and I will certainly try to persuade you of something or other as a part of our work together. The effects of such persuasion may be direct, indirect or nonexistent but you must be the judge of everything and the results are your responsibility, not mine. If you meet the Buddha on the road, listen to him carefully and then kill him. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | January 21, 2011
So far life just keeps getting better, although I am apprehensive about the decades that follow the one I am about to enter. I used to be apprehensive about my sixties, but now I expect to be physically intact and at the peak of my net cognitive capacity throughout. I say net in order to acknowledge my share of normal deterioration in memory function and raw horsepower. I do miss the youthful extravagance a bit, as I miss double black diamonds, but I have found that careful consideration in the light of vast experience often trumps testosterone and Red Bull.
The forties and fifties are usually taken to be the most productive years of life, when a field has been mastered and resources of all kinds have been accumulated. This stereotype is probably right but there are those children on shaky launch trajectories, the difficult colleagues, the irritating investors, creditors, and customers, and also the emerging question of whether this is really all there is. Productivity is hard to appreciate during a mid-life crisis.
By comparison, the sixties are a stream of cool clear water! The pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of despair both require that we adapt to circumstances and generally shake things up at an optimal but continuous pace. At 60, I have probably read enough books and it is time for me to write a few. I have less interest in exploring the world and more in evaluating what I have learned about it so far. In my sixties I want to be less persuasive and more stimulating, more articulate and less voluminous, more passionate and less attached.
If I get to my seventies I think I will become a connoisseur and a teacher. What are your plans for fluid adaptation going forward from where you are now? Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | February 11, 2011
Developing young minds should or should not be exposed to various types of material because they are impressionable. They can be swayed in many directions because they have not yet come to any firm conclusions. Kids are free to choose and to be persuaded, which is what terrifies their parents. Adults are less impressionable because they have come to so many conclusions they are fairly certain about; whether by faith, social conditioning or skeptical analysis. This is useful when the things we are certain about are right in the sense that a mathematical result, a financial statement or a sports call can be right. If you really understand anything thoroughly it will be hard to make an impression on you while you are engaged with it, and you will not often experience the thrill and freedom of being impressed, which is to be changed and enlightened in some unexpected way. I think this experience is essential to happiness and that it should be cultivated.
This does not require giving up your established certainties or expertise in order to become intentionally naïve, although this can be a fruitful approach. No matter how sophisticated or constrained you are, there are unlimited new experiences and projects available to you in the world, in the context of which you are already exquisitely naïve! For good reasons, people tend to stick with what is familiar; with what is known to work or to be comfortable. But if too much of your time and attention is engaged with familiar material you will begin to feel a bit stale. This feeling of staleness can only be reversed by something new enough that it can impress, delight and change you in some unexpected way. The new thing doesn't have to be dramatic or exotic and there are many possibilities within your current reach, regardless of your circumstances. Trust me. Call me.
Joe Ferguson, PhD | March 7, 2011
Perhaps you are in the habit of thinking about the possibility of winding up broke on the streets in your old age, which probably elicits an unpleasant feeling. This common habit is largely unrelated to age, income or wealth and it can have a significant impact on the quality of your life. Perhaps you fear that your partner will leave you, that your kids will not, or that you will be eaten by a shark. If you are not distressed by such future possible catastrophes then there may be some regret or resentment from the past about which you are in the habit of suffering. Missed opportunities, bad decisions and personal betrayals are popular in this category. Physical violence, accidents, abuse and war can all result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in which the traumatic event is experienced repeatedly in all its original horror. The treatment for all of these very different conditions is exposure therapy.
The goal of exposure therapy is to recondition the emotional experience associated with a problematic thought or memory. This is accomplished by inducing and maintaining a pleasant state of mind for as long as possible while the problematic thought or memory is recalled. The pleasant state of mind can be maintained by means of bio-feedback, breathing or eye-movement exercises, spa music, hypnosis, nitrous oxide or a soothing conversation in my office. In any case, with repeated exposure to the stimulus this pleasant sensation gradually neutralizes the original association of horror and anxiety so that you can move on to more productive thoughts. This simple technique is a sort of cognitive weed abatement project, clearing a space in your mind for finer things. Trust me. Call me.