Monday, May 20, 2013

The Dissatisfied Child, Or, Tropes In Ordinary Unhappiness

I've learned more useful things about life from Lynda Barry than from any psychologist, advice giver, or self-helper.

Sometimes I'm unhappy, and sometimes I'm unhappy even though things are going well.  Hoping to waste a little time and avoid my actual work for a few minutes, I googled the obvious questions and discovered the concept of "dysthemia" -- which is being a little depressed over a long period of time. 

I'm not really interested in finding out whether I have dysthemia, because who cares?  Many of the treatments seem to be things I already do, like exercise, and I'm pretty happy with my other existing self-medication routines.

But I was curious enough about dysthemia to read about it, and some people recommended a book called Self-Coaching.  This book is based on a cognitive-behavioral approach, that diagnoses anxiety and depression in insecurity, and treats insecurity through positive self-talk.   

I like the idea of cognitive behavior therapy, which proposes an active response to anxiety and depression through habit formation and retraining the mind.  As ideas go for feeling better, it's got promise.

But reading this book I realized:  whatever cognitive behavioral therapy is for, it's not for me.  I mean, I don't have the kind of thoughts and feelings described in this book.  I don't worry and fret about things that might go wrong, I'm not frightened by the possibility that things won't go as planned, I'm not jealous or suspicious of people, and I don't think I'm too weak to handle life. 

The closest this book got to me was "perfectionism" -- yes, I do believe "details are a very important part of life.  But it wasn't all that close.  Sure, I fuss about things, but it doesn't get in my way.

I have a more elemental problem:  I'm just dissatisfied, because I don't like how things are right now.  I'm frustrated that things can't be better and more fun, that satisfying accomplishments take so much effort, that so much of life involves crap like driving to the airport, cooking, and forcing yourself not to eat too many sweets. 

I'm not worried about the future or regretting the past.  I'm dissatisfied with the present.

So I'm not any of the tropes of this book:  The Panicked Child, who believes the sky is always falling, the Frightened Child who is fearful and always worrying, the Bully Child, who is controlling and manipulative.

Tropes more relevant to me would be The Bored Child, for whom too much is never enough, The
Frustrated Child, who is maddened by failing to do what they've set out to do, and the Reality-Based Child, who sees correctly that things suck.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy seems to me to leave out all of these, but to have particular problems with the Reality-Based Child.  Some of the advice in this book contains things like if you're worried that you're not going to have fun at a party because the people there won't like you, you should tell yourself, "It will be fun."  But we all know that's often false:  the Reality-Based Child knows:  often it isn't fun, and people there don't like you.

The significance of all of this seem to me to go way beyond certain points about the limitations of cognitive-behavioral therapy, because implicit in the discussion are several pernicious false but commonly held myths about well-being. 

Myth:  unhappiness comes from worrying about the future and fretting about the past.  I actually saw this written on a motivational poster at my gym, so I know it's a bona fide out there thing people believe.  But it's not true.

Myth:  that if you're unhappy, it's you, not the world, that has the problem. 

Myth:  that normal unhappiness comes from traumatic events, instead of just the tough but normal situation of being a flawed human being with boundless needs for love, security, excitement. 

The idea that "misery is normal" is one I've written about before, on that occasion prompted by the fact that the rerelease of the DVD for the first season of Sesame Street had a warning saying it was not appropriate for today's preschoolers.  Right:  because as Virginia Heffernan said in the Times, it taught us that life was full of problems, and that things like taking baths, eating cookies, and reading, would "take the edge off" and allow us to be nicer to everybody. 

How quickly this idea went from obvious truth to children to sacrilege worthy of a DVD warning.

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