Values clarification

In order to rationally address the subject of values, I need to first examine the notion of absolute values. When I was a boy, I believed in certain absolute values; but as  a young man,  I began to question the concept of moral absolutes. Raised a Christian, I’d been told that the truth is always simple and, early-on, I liked that idea. But moral absolutes reduce the range of human choices to black or white, eliminating any shades of gray. That’s not the world I live in. Moral choices are more complicated than some people would have you believe.

The Ten Commandments are a classic example of moral absolutes. “Thou shalt not kill” is a moral absolute, and yet many people who profess the Ten Commandments as the basis of their moral code think that killing by soldiers in wartime is acceptable. Some “pro-life” people who believe that abortion is murder believe in capital punishment.

As an idealistic teenager, I got involved in the Sing Out America/Up With People organization, organizing local Sing Out casts in Georgia and South Carolina. Sing Out America was a promotional effort for the Moral  Re-Armament (MRA) movement. MRA  claimed to have a Western ideology to counter Communism, and promoted the idea of “absolute” honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. While this appealed to me at the time, I gradually became disillusioned with the MRA philosophy and the whole concept of absolute values. I  got comfortable with relativity and ambiguity in the determination of moral values.

I believe that values are bound to culture and circumstance. In primitive “subsistence economies,” where everyone has to carry their own weight in order for the tribe to survive, it’s understandable why an elderly or disabled person might  be expected to leave the tribe and die of exposure in the wilderness. In an economy of wealth, where more is produced than is needed for tribal survival, this practice is unnecessary, and would understandably be seen as cruel or inhuman.

So, I’m a believer in moral relativity. I believe that circumstances often determine what is “right” and what  is “wrong.” This moral philosophy has been called situation ethics – a concept attacked by religious zealots as a Satanic war on morality. The Republican Party has presented itself as the “party of values,” as if its values were absolute. In fact, everybody has values, from the Pope to gangsters like Tony Soprano. They just value different things.

Values clarification rises above the notion of absolute values and simplifies the moral equation with its specificity. Every moral stand involves a choice – it involves this over that. You either value your vow of fidelity to your spouse, or you value having sex with somebody else. You either treat people the way you want to be treated, or you sometimes steal from other people. You either value staying high on your favorite drug all the time, or you value a life of moderation and responsibility to the people who depend on you.

There are professed values and lived values, and we’ve all known  hypocrites who don’t live by the rules they say they believe in. The Bible says pretty clearly that rich people don’t go to Heaven, and yet there are many rich Christian fundamentalists who apparently believe that a camel can  go through the eye of a needle. Jesus didn’t say it would be easy to love your enemy, and your neighbor as yourself; but  I’ve known a lot of Christians who  don’t even try, although they give lip service to Jesus’ prescriptions. Organized religion is a breeding ground for hypocrisy, and I feel sure that there are plenty of Muslim, Jewish and Hindu (etc.) hypocrites.

Religious or not, many people lay claim to have the “right” values; but only moral absolutists can do this. Some of them just don’t think or care about the gap between their professed and lived values; others rationalize and equivocate, as with the Christian belief that we’re all Sinners, but that our belief in and love of God will save us from paying for our sins.

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Voltaire said that doubt is a disagreeable state, but that certainty is a ridiculous one. Since I can’t make myself believe in the tenets of any particular religion – although most of my lived values are Judeo-Christian in origin – I remain a moral relativist. An existentialist at heart, I can live with ambiguity, uncertainty, shades of gray. Values clarification is a tool I can use to examine moral choices. My first marriage was polyamorous; but although I’ve been happily and monogamously married for thirty years to my wife Maria, I don’t necessarily view monogamy as morally superior to polyamory. The choice between the two is a matter of situational, lived values.

Psychotherapy in movies

In this post I’ll write about realistic depictions of psychotherapy in movies. Not many get it right. Barbra Streisand’s portrayal of a psychiatrist  in The Prince of Tides comes to mind. Her approach to therapy relies on the inaccurate cliché that when the client recovers the repressed memory of his trauma, he will be cured. More often than not movies about psychotherapy (i.e. Analyze This and Anger Management) treat it as a joke  – probably because the idea of being in therapy makes a lot of people nervous. Therapists routinely hear nervous jokes about their profession when they’re introduced to people as a psychotherapist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard comments along the lines of, “I’d better watch what I say around you.” or “My wife really needs to talk to you.”

One of the most realistic depictions of psychotherapy I’ve ever seen in a movie was Ordinary People (1980), the first movie directed by Robert Redford. It depicts the dissolution of a family after the elder son of a loving couple dies in a boating accident. Timothy Hutton won an Oscar for his portrayal of the younger son, who feels guilty for surviving, when his brother died. Mary Tyler Moore distinguished herself as a dramatic actor in her role as the devastated mother, Donald Sutherland was totally convincing as the grieving father, and Judd Hirsch was perfect as a skilled and caring therapist who has to win the trust of his grieving, suicidal client. It’s a sad, beautiful movie, for which Robert Redford won an Oscar.

Good Will Hunting (1997) is another movie that portrays psychotherapy realistically. Matt Damon plays Will, an alienated, self-taught mathematical genius, orphaned and raised in foster homes. He’s grown a hard shell, to keep people out, and trusts nobody other than – to some degree – his best friend, played by Ben Affleck. Robin Williams portrays the therapist, who is willing to try to connect with this tormented genius. Will has to go to therapy in order to stay out of jail, but that’s his only motivation. He does everything he can to provoke and alienate his therapist, and to sabotage therapy. Robin Williams convincingly portrays a therapist who immediately sets boundaries when Will disparages his deceased wife. He’s briefly unprofessional, physically accosting and threatening Will; but this scene reveals that psychotherapists are also flawed human beings.

He clearly sees the sarcasm and hostility that he encounters as weapons that Will uses to push people away. He knows not to take the attacks personally, and works with patience and good humor to win Will’s trust, and to “disarm” him. I’ve dealt with well-defended clients like Will, working to get to the place where they were ready to hear something like this: “Look, we both know that your armor works. It makes you feel safe. The thing is, the only way you can learn that it’s safe – at least sometimes – to go out into the world without your armor is to take it off and venture out into the world.” The final therapy session in Good Will Hunting is riveting, and rings true to me as a therapeutic breakthrough.

Although it takes place in a “mental institution,” there’s not much psychotherapy in Girl, Interrupted (1999). Winona Ryder plays a young woman diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and Angelina Jolie plays an antisocial manipulator. Parts of the movie are melodramatic and implausible, but the acting is good. One thing that the primary therapist in the movie – played by Vanessa Redgrave – says has stayed in my memory, because it’s point I’ve made in therapy about the meaning of the word ambivalence. Ambivalence doesn’t just mean, “Oh, I really don’t know if I want to do this or do that.” or “I don’t care if it goes this way or that way,” serving to deflect or minimize an issue. It can also mean being deeply conflicted regarding two opposing courses of action. An addict can both really want to quit using, but also really want to get high. Suicidal people can be ambivalent about living. Part of them wants to live, but another part wants to die.

The most realistic portrayal I’ve seen of therapy on TV was HBO’s series, In Treatment, with Gabriel Byrne as a therapist with, let us say, an extremely challenging caseload. He’s an excellent therapist, but his own life is something of a mess. One thing I liked about the series was that it not only depicted therapy sessions with a variety of clients and issues realistically, but it also showed us the therapist’s weekly sessions with his own therapist and clinical supervisor, played by Diane Wiest. Healers often need healing, themselves.

 

Making good decisions

Decisions, decisions! We all have to make them. Some are trivial and some are life-altering. Sometimes we’re pleased with the results, other times we regret them. Here are some thoughts on the kinds of decisions we have to make, and things we can do to help us make decisions we can live with.

But first I’d like to explain the drive-reduction model of behavior, something I learned about when I was studying gestalt psychology. It has to do with motivational priorities. According to this model, we constantly have an emerging drive that needs to be satisfied: thirst, hunger, elimination of body waste, attention, pain reduction/avoidance, sexual gratification, etc. If the emerging need is extreme (i.e. you’re dying of thirst or hunger), your exclusive focus is on meeting that need, and you may  engage in extreme or uncharacteristic behaviors to get what you need. Once a need is met, another drive comes to the fore. As Gilda Radner put it, in her SNL role of Rosanna Rosanadana, “It’s always something!”

Either/or conflicts can be approach/approach or avoidance/avoidance. An example of an approach/approach conflict is when Tom is attracted to both Susan and Joan, who are friends. He can’t court both of them, so he has to decide which one of them he’s most attracted to. He might make a decision and make a move, or might get stuck in ambivalence and not act at all. In an avoidance/avoidance conflict, one has to choose which of two undesirable alternatives is the “lesser of two evils.” If a person’s only available opportunity to make money is a job that is repugnant to her, she has to choose between taking that job or living day-to-day in dire poverty, hoping that another opportunity will eventually become available.

A third kind of conflict involves a single prospect that has both positive and negative aspects. This is called an approach/avoidance conflict. It may be that a prospect seems relatively attractive from a distance, but the closer one approaches it, the less attractive (or more frightening) it becomes. This can be a recipe for protracted ambivalence – going back and forth.

Consider an alcoholic’s conflict regarding sobriety. He may want to stop drinking and may see the benefits of sobriety clearly, but the longer he goes without a drink, the less attractive – or more frightening – the prospect of lifelong sobriety becomes, relative to having a drink right now. Recognizing that sobriety is the best option in the long term, but craving a buzz, he may decide “I’ll quit tomorrow.”  This is an example of a profound, and often persistent, state of ambivalence.

One method I’ve taught as a therapist, to assist clients in resolving ambivalence regarding a major decision, is listing positives and negatives. Let’s say Rhonda is being courted by Jim. She thinks he’s handsome, enjoys his company, and  especially enjoys all the attention he lavishes on her. But when she senses that he’s about to propose, she’s unsure about what to do. So she draws a line down the middle of a sheet of paper, puts a “+” at the top of the left-hand column and a “-” at the top of the right-hand column. Then she “shotguns” her thoughts, jotting down everything (positive or negative) that pops into her mind about her prospects for happiness with Jim as a husband.

On the positive side, Jim (1) has a great job and makes enough that she won’t have to work outside the home if she doesn’t want to, (2)  is sexually attractive and (3) good in bed, (4) is generous, (5) has a great personality and (6) sense of humor, (7) is popular and well-respected, and (8) treats her like a queen, always telling her how much he loves her. Now, in the case of some +/- lists, there may be a nearly-equal number of positives and negatives, giving you a numerical basis for comparison. But in Rhonda’s case, she can only think of two negatives. She doesn’t like Jim’s father – but she could live with that. However, number two outweighs all of the positive qualities she’s listed: she isn’t in love with Jim.

So it’s not always a numerical comparison of positives and negatives. The final step in this method is to assign a weight to each quality listed in each column. One quality in one column might outweigh all of the qualities in the other. Using this method to decide between two attractive job offers, the weighing of qualities might be helpful because a quantitative comparison reveals one job to be slightly more attractive than the other.

The shotgunning of ideas can be very helpful when a group has to arrive at a decision. Any group member in the room can call out a factor or idea relevant to the decision, and someone records it (i.e. on a whiteboard or a large piece of paper taped to the wall) for all to see. Once all relevant factors the group has come up with are on display, the group doesn’t assign weights as with the +/- method, but rather discusses the relative merits of each. In this manner the group can arrive at a well-considered decision that everyone (or almost everyone) can live with, because it was based on group consensus.