I once had a therapist who told me, “You don’t need me to help you learn how to feel, you need me to help you learn how to think.”
It was a revelatory proclamation, and it brings a renewed sense of revelation every time I remember it—and this was some 30 years ago. That’s the way truth is.
My family was always criticizing me for being “too sensitive.” (I would now ask, “Too sensitive for what?”). I was made to feel ashamed of my frequently expressed emotions, and, like most children, I stifled them as much as I could. But even with the stifling, I was/am more emotionally open than the average person. A few years ago I read The Highly Sensitive Person, a book that went a long way towards explaining me to myself. I made my mother and my sister read it—which, of course, only resulted in more teasing. They don’t really bug me so much anymore, though: having lived through the therapy era when I got kudos for emotional depth, I’ve learned to appreciate the quality. Even now, I’m far more comfortable talking about my emotional IQ rather than my thinking capabilities–and it’s the latter I’d intended to address here.
Just because a light bulb is lit doesn’t mean we suddenly see clearly. When my therapist pulled that particular switch, she illuminated something about me, but the bulb was only around 40 watts. At this point I’ve worked it up to maybe 70 – still not high enough. This isn’t easy to admit, but the screwups in my life have come about precisely because I don’t know how to think. Oh, sure, I can connect the dots of sociological influences, or put theoretical ideas into comprehensive sentences, and do a lot of other fancy tricks. My deficiency is in the area of common sense, street smarts, knowing how to maneuver my way through this world so as to get what I want. My therapist saw, and so did I in that moment, that faulty thinking, or perhaps no thinking at all, repeatedly led me into circumstances that put my life out of control. Since then, even though I’ve been aware of it and tried to change, I’ve continued to make decisions that get me into deep shit. Occasionally I’ve managed to think things through and “do the right thing,” but not nearly enough of the time, certainly not enough to make my life come out closer to what I want.
Social forces are part of the story. If there’s one thing I can point to as having affected the way all this operated for me, it’s the Sixties, with its emphasis on feelings and rejection of logic. I was at the age when most people lay a foundation for the rest of their lives, in terms of work, finances, geography, relationships—you name it. The atmosphere of the times encouraged an emphasis on the heart over the head, so I was frequently applauded for what I now see as emotional indulgence. At an orientation session for Re-evaluation Counseling, a man came up to me afterwards to express his admiration for my great skill at crying. And where did all that crying get me? I spent far too much time “exploring my feelings” at the expense of building a decent life for me and my kids.
Emotional expression isn’t a skill. Thinking, on the other hand, though it seems to come naturally to some, takes a little work. And the ability to think logically is so much more useful than a propensity for spontaneous emotional combustion.
Take today, for instance. My brand new 32” flat screen television is sitting in its box, having arrived via UPS yesterday. I’ve been hitting myself over the head ever since I bought it online rather than at the store–they would’ve hooked it up for me, but UPS was cheaper. See what I mean? Shoddy thinking.
Gingerly I opened the box and took out the first thing I saw on top, a plastic bag full of wires. I immediately put them aside and walked away. I suppose I’ll eventually attempt to hook this thing up to my cable and DVD – but I’m dreading it, and am mentally preparing myself to pay Best Buy’s Geek Squad to come over anyway.
That’s what started me on this whole train of thought. Now, I could go into a therapy session and talk for hours about the reasons that I as a woman approach this task with terror. I know the issues backwards and forwards, know precisely at which points I will cry and at which points I’ll get mad. In the end, I still won’t be able to do the damn job. How do I know this? Because I’ve been doing it for over 40 years. It’s gettin’ old.
Now that I’ve thoroughly humiliated myself with this public confession, maybe I’ll do better this time. Hah! Who am I kidding? I should probably just skip the whole boring drama and call the Geek Squad.