Powerful and profound life lessons from a psychiatrist who's been listening to people's problems for decades.
If the map doesn’t agree with the ground, the map is wrong.
We are what we do. We are not what we think, or what we say, or how we feel. We are what we do.
In judging other people, we need to pay attention not to what they promise but to how they behave.
Past behavior is the most reliable predictor of future behavior.
The three components of happiness are:
* something to do
* someone to love
* something to look forward to
We love someone when the importance of his or her needs and desires rises to the level of our own.
It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place.
We operate in the world mostly on autopilot, doing the same things today that didn’t work yesterday.
Our children owe us nothing.
Well-functioning families are good at letting their children go. Poorly functioning families tend to hold on to them.
The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas.
My favorite therapeutic question is “What’s next?” It bypasses the self-pity implied in clinging to past traumas.
I don’t have a clear idea of what people need to do to make themselves better. I am, however, able to sit with them while they figure it out. My job is to hold them to the task, point out connections I think I see between past and present, wonder about underlying motives.
We are responsible for most of what happens to us.
Any relationship is under the control of the person who cares the least.
Feelings follow behavior.
Most people know what is good for them, know what will make them feel better: exercise, hobbies, time with those they care about. They do not avoid these things because of ignorance of their value, but because they are no longer “motivated” to do them. They are waiting until they feel better. Frequently, it’s a long wait.
Life’s two most important questions are “Why?” and “Why not?” The trick is knowing which one to ask.
Happiness is the ultimate risk. There might be advantages to their being depressed. It is a safe position. Asking someone to relinquish depression is often met with resistance. To be happy is to take the risk of losing that happiness.
When confronted with a suicidal person I seldom try to talk them out of it. Instead I ask them to examine what it is that has so far dissuaded them from killing themselves.
People in despair are, naturally, intensely self-absorbed. Suicide is the ultimate expression of this preoccupation with self.
When people fall in love, no justification for their attachment is necessary.
When people fall out of love, the demands for an explanation are insistent: What happened? Who’s at fault? Why couldn’t you work it out? “We didn’t love each other anymore” is not, in most cases, a sufficient response.
Only bad things happen quickly. All the happiness-producing processes in our lives take time, usually a long time: learning new things, changing old behaviors, building satisfying relationships, raising children. This is why patience and determination are among life’s primary virtues.
Nearly every human action is in some way an expression of how we think about ourselves.
Nothing is so beautiful as a promise, right after it is given.
Lying to ourselves disables us entirely from making needed changes.
A conviction that there exists somewhere the person who will save us with his or her love. Much of the infidelity that is the hallmark of unhappy marriages rests on this illusion.
The word “closure,” with its comforting implications that grief is a time-limited process from which we all recover.
Some part of my heart had been cut out and buried. What was left? Now there was a question worth contemplating.
It is our task to transfer that love to those who still need us.
Nobody likes to be told what to do.
Much of what passes for intimate communication involves admonitions and instructions.
I ask people in conflict to withhold criticism of those around them to see if this changes the atmosphere. It is amazing how radical this suggestion seems.
Awfulizing: the idea that any relaxation in standards or vigilance is the first step toward failure, degradation, and the collapse of civilization as we know it.
The conflicts that arise between parents and children are skirmishes in a long-term power struggle based on the faulty assumption that the primary task of parenthood is to shape the behavior of children through incessant instruction.
Rules and punishments produce oppositional children who grow into oppositional adults.
Since judgmental people were generally raised in judgmental families, they find it hard to envision another way of interacting with those they live with.
It is always easier to keep doing what we’re used to, even if it’s evidently not working for us.
It is possible to live without criticizing and directing everyone around us.
The primary goal of parenting, beyond keeping our children safe and loved, is to convey to them a sense that it is possible to be happy in an uncertain world, to give them hope.
Do this by example. Demonstrate qualities of commitment, determination, and optimism.
The major advantage of illness is that it provides relief from responsibility.
Behavior that is reinforced will continue; behavior that is not will extinguish.
It is just hard sometimes to discern what that reinforcement might be.
We are, when sick, told to “take it easy.” The longer someone is disabled, the greater the chance that the illness will become a part of a person’s identity.
Surgery & drugs have contributed to the sense that healing is something that happens to us rather than something in which we are active participants, inducing a kind of passivity in those afflicted.
One of the things that define us is what we worry about.
A “misfortune fund” that could be used to compensate people facing extraordinary expenses that were no one’s fault (e.g., parents of children born with disabling abnormalities, victims of crime or natural disasters). Surely this would be fairer and more compassionate than enriching a few winners in the litigation lottery. Such a system would reinforce the belief that we all share in the inevitable uncertainties and risks that are a part of life.
Threats must be identified realistically in our personal lives as well.
Much of what we do is driven by fear of failure.
The pursuit of material wealth distracts us from activities and people that provide more lasting pleasure and satisfaction.
There are no more powerful desires than the pursuit of happiness and the struggle for self-respect.
If means can be found that move people in these directions: better jobs, education, the chance to improve one’s life, and a sense of fairness and opportunity, the seductive and short-lived bliss provided by drugs will lose its appeal.
Parents have a limited ability to shape children’s behavior, except for the worse.
To imagine that we are solely, or even primarily, responsible for the successes and failures of our children is a narcissistic myth. You seldom see a bumper sticker that reads, MY KID IS IN REHAB.
Parents can try to teach the values and behaviors that they have found to be important, but it is the way we live as adults that conveys the real message to our children about what we believe in. Whether they choose to integrate these values into their own lives is up to them. Kids have a keen nose for hypocrisy.
Anxiety is contagious. Children sense it in their parents and are affected by it.
Given love and support, most children grow into happy, productive adults independent of whatever theory of parenting they were raised with.
Set reasonable limits on children’s behavior. Provoke less confrontation and resentment.
Most of the debilitating struggles within families that drain the happiness of all concerned and lead to destructive power struggles flow from an obsessive need for control on the parents’ part and an anxious sense that their direction is all that stands between their children and a life of crime.
When parents are preoccupied with unimportant issues like food consumption and room cleanliness, these will be arenas for endless conflict.
Children raised in homes where parental control is severe turn out to have a poor set of internalized limits because they have experienced only rigid external rules. Conversely, in families where there are few constraints children do not have a way to learn those guidelines necessary to live comfortably with others.
Our primary task as parents is to convey to them a sense of the world as an imperfect place in which it is possible, nevertheless, to be happy.
“What can I do to make sure this kid turns out well?” Not much, but maybe cutting down on the fights and not trying to control your child’s every decision might help to make everyone happier right now.
Enjoy life even as we are surrounded by evidence of its brevity and potential for disaster.
Focus our awareness and energy on those things and people that bring us pleasure.
Memory is not an accurate transcription of past experience. Rather it is a story we tell ourselves about the past, full of distortions, wishful thinking, and unfulfilled dreams.
The problem with longing for paradises is that it distracts us from our efforts to extract pleasure and meaning from the present.
When we visit our childhood homes, we are commonly amazed at how much smaller they seem.
When Russell Baker first submitted the memoir of his youth, Growing Up, it was rejected by a publisher as uninteresting. He then told his wife, “I am going upstairs to invent the story of my life.” The result was a best seller - and no less true than the original version.
Of all the forms of courage, the ability to laugh is the most profoundly therapeutic.
Mental health is a function of choice. The more choices we are able to exercise, the happier we are likely to be.
The primary variable in this regard is tolerance of risk. If we take counsel of our fears, particularly our fear of change, it is hard to choose a life that makes us happy. Is it anxiety or lack of imagination that restricts us?
Life can be seen as a series of relinquishments, rehearsals for the final act of letting go of our earthly selves.
Forgiveness is not something we do for others; it is a gift to ourselves.
If every misfortune can be blamed on someone else, we are relieved of the difficult task of examining our own contributory behavior or just accepting the reality that life is and has always been full of adversity. Most of all, by placing responsibility outside ourselves we miss out on the healing knowledge that what happens to us is not nearly as important as the attitude we adopt in response.
Write your own epitaph. This exercise should be incorporated into every written will: “And for my epitaph I would like the following:”