We all know people who profess to want something, but who indicate by their behavior that that thing, whatever it is, is not what they want, at least, not so much that they are willing to go to the trouble of reaching out to attain that thing. Some examples:
A woman has always said that she wants to visit the Taj Mahal. She has enough money to make the trip, but traveling for that length of time never seems convenient. Instead, she attends the birthday parties and other celebrations of her extended family.
An elderly man says from time to time that he intends to read War and Peace, but he never gets around to it.
Someone else has in mind the desire to write a book about her family, but never collects her notes so that she can begin.
A young couple wants to take dancing lessons; but they do not. They do spend a lot of time antiquing.
A young woman who claims to be ambitious wants to design clothes, but she neither goes for training in that profession or to work in any other capacity in that industry even though she has an uncle who owns a garment factory.
What is going on here? Why should someone state a desire to do something, yet not do it? Are we not entitled to think the lady mentioned above prefers being with her family to visiting the Taj Mahal? And that the young couple prefers antiquing to taking dancing lessons? Or that the man who would like to read War and Peace does not, in fact, wish to do so? And so on.
There are different reasons, I think. Someone may like to present himself to the world as if he were the sort of person who reads War and Peace, but does not wish to put out the effort actually to do so. Other people may like to entertain romantic fantasies about wonderful things they will accomplish someday; but they are afraid to risk failure so they never attempt to achieve them. A more familiar example is those very many men and women who plan to lose weight but do not. We think we understand them. They really want to lose weight, but not as much as they want to eat. They are not trying to fool others (usually) so much as they are fooling themselves.
There are different reasons why some of these individuals may come to therapy. Of course, they can present with one psychological symptom or another, but, for the most part, if they find themselves in a therapist’s office, it is simply because they are unhappy. The therapist is charged with trying to help them achieve their purposes so that they will no longer feel that way. But suppose their purposes are not what they say they are? Should the therapist propose ways that a fat person can lose weight, for example, or should he/she try to help those overweight people accept the fact that they are, and will be, fat? It is unhealthy to be overweight, but not so much—not nearly so much as smoking, for instance. And, for that matter, isn’t someone entitled to smoke if she wishes—even though she says that she wishes to stop?
It is not always clear to me, as a therapist, whether I should be trying to influence a patient one way or the other. Take, for example, trichotillomania. This is a condition in which an individual, often a woman, pulls out her eyelashes or her hair. These women come to me saying that they want to stop, but after a while I come to believe they do not. I tell them, if you want to stop, wear gloves whenever you are home and feel inclined to pull out your hair; and they do not take that advice. The truth is, the feeling they get when they pull out their hair is satisfying in an indescribable way and outweighs whatever cosmetic problem they have developed. And sometimes the hair-pulling is not to such an extent that there is a cosmetic problem. I tell them they could reasonably choose not to give up this symptom; but they neither stop doing it nor stop telling me they want to stop doing it. It is as if they wish to maintain the fiction that they will stop. The truth is, they think they should want to stop, but they do not.
Similarly, there are very many men and women who tell me that they want to have more friends, or find a lover, but plainly indicate by their behavior that they do not. They do not do the obvious things they need to do to make those things happen. Of course, they are entitled to live as they choose. They do not have to pretend to want to have active social lives, or to marry. Yet they do. And, still, they hide. And some of them have developed elaborate ways of hiding.
In case, you are one of those people who prefer to be alone, I suggest these devices which have been developed by the men and women I describe below:
One woman whom I thought was very attractive wore her hair in front of her face. When she walked by men at work, she looked away and to one side. She never said hello to anyone or made small talk in front of the elevator. Although she was very attractive, she was able to forestall any man approaching her. She aspired to be invisible.
Another woman wore only pastel colors. She tried not to move or speak at business meetings, as if she wanted to blend in with the wallpaper.
I see a man (actually many men) who speaks about meeting someone and settling down but manages to preserve his independence by never going anywhere where he might find single women.
I know a middle-aged woman who keeps the number of her friends down to a manageable few by putting off answering their messages or by becoming offended by some unintended slight and refusing to be treated in that way.
A young woman who thinks she has had a number of bad experiences with arrogant men keeps the next man at arm’s length by snarling when she meets him.
Another young man finds all kinds of reasons for not calling a woman after a first date which was threatening to evolve into something more serious. He chooses instead to go out drinking with his friends or watching a ball game, or even doing homework, which he finds unpleasant.
I knew a Muslim woman who refused to date anyone who was not in the particular splinter sect to which she belonged. In fact, when she narrowed down the religious requirements of a potential mate, the only suitable men were from her own congregation. Similarly, there are a number of Jewish men and women who will not date anyone from other faiths; and some orthodox Jewish men and women will not date secular or reform Jews. Some of these restrictions narrow the possible number of suitable dates to a handful. I know of a Catholic gentleman who is of Irish extraction who chooses not to date someone who is suitable more or less except for being Italian.
Some men and women have high standards which, they note, have not been attained by anyone they have known.
Then, of course, some men and women refuse to go to parties where they do not know anyone and will not date anyone they have not met previously. They will not go to public discussions on any subject with which they are not familiar. They will not go to dances if they do not dance well. They will not go anywhere unless they look their very best.
Most of these men and women pretend to want to have more active social lives, but they feel more comfortable in their apartments watching television by themselves.
It occurs to me though that some of these people might really like to meet someone to marry or to be friends with but are put off by some fear or other. Maybe they are just afraid of doing those things they need to do to achieve those goals. If you are one of them, you would probably do well to stay away from the strategies I describe above.
(c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr.-neuman-advice-column/