I’m a huge In Treatment fan.  That’s the HBO TV series that dramatizes the experience of psychotherapy.  The show follows a therapist with his various patients, one session per patient per week.

 

I’m a therapist who thinks the show gets therapy right.  I consider the main character, therapist Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne), an excellent practitioner, and I even think I’ve learned as much about therapy by rewatching episodes as I learned in much of grad school.

 

If you want to own some tapes full of drama and wisdom, go ahead and buy the DVD set, here.

 

This week, one patient on the show displayed a personality tic that a lot of us can probably relate to.  Frances (Debra Winger) is an aging actress who gets much of her self-esteem from external sources.  She loves the praise of an audience; she’s competitive with people close to her (needs a victory to prove her value); and she’s highly invested in her physical beauty.  Her ego is fed by others, and she has a harder time feeling self-worth in solitude.

 

In last week’s episode, she did something that’s common, I think, for people who are especially dependent on external voices for self-esteem.  She insulted herself frequently when she spoke—started sentences with little performances of self-battery: “You must think I’m an idiot, but yesterday, I…” or “You must think I’m vain, but I….” 

 

Part of the reason for the linguistic tic was that she was fishing for praise; she was also fending off unexpected judgments.  Her tendency here got me thinking about the various ways in which many of us do this.  I’m thinking of bigger statements of self-abuse, too: “I failed as a painter” (before showing someone your painting) or “I’m a horrible friend, don’t you think?”  I’m wondering why some of us insult ourselves in performative ways, in public.

 

So: For Today: A List of Possible Reasons Why We Overstate Our Failings in a Public Way:

  1. Sometimes some of us overstate our failings in front of others because we’re attuned to context.  I’m thinking of art: If you put a pale image in front of a white background, it looks pale, but if you put it in front of a black background, it looks bright.  I can say “I suck at writing” before showing someone a short story I wrote.  Expecting something bad, the reader might counterbalance my self-criticism with my fantasized response: “That’s not bad – that’s pretty good, really!”
  2. Sometimes we overstate our failings in order to control the timing and focus of someone’s opinion.  It takes a confident person to be open to criticism from any one at any time on any aspect of life.  But for fragile people who still want feedback, it’s possible to tightly circumscribe the timing and focus of praise by asking for it when you’re ready: “You think I complain too much, right?”  That person is preparing for attack by setting a fence around what can be judged, and when.
  3. Saying you suck at something is also a well-planned piece of a two way interaction that in usual conversation will trigger a compliment.  When you say, “I suck,” and if both parties are obeying the rules of common discourse (for examples, see Geoffrey Leech’s Politeness Maxims here and the fabulous Paul Grice here), then the common response to the insult is a comforting compliment.
  4. Sometimes we overstate our failings because self-pity is a sweet self-examination.  Think of the analogy of stubbing your toe but then enjoying the chance to sit and hold your ankle and rock a bit while busy people hustle to work on either side of you.  You provide yourself with a tenderness you rarely manage.  You’ve insulted yourself, but you partly did it to carve out the time and space to sit and rock and lick the wounds.  That’s what we call the “pity party,” and it can be sweet.

Those are some of the reasons we people who love praise insult ourselves.  Can you extend or edit the list?  Anyone out there also love In Treatment?

 

 

Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.


Comments
by on ‎11-07-2010 02:30 PM

Do I admit to these deliberate self-demeaning poses, or do I object to taking the opportunity to put myself in those positions?  I’ve been known to go either way.

 

 

As an artist, early on, I did go through some of those doubts about my work.  I said what most artist’s say, “are you sure it’s good [okay]? It only took one person in each medium, to tell me I was good at whatever I did, but it had to come from someone I respected as an artist.  I never questioned, after that.  That is, until I started writing about those doubts, and the art of writing, itself.

 

 

Those doubts came onto this board!  Sure, it’s always nice to hear good things about your work; we wouldn’t be in the business of making art, if that weren’t true… That’s why we surround ourselves with our peers.  We all need an ego boost, from time to time. 

 

 

I found it interesting, as recently someone on these boards was putting me and another participant down, soundly, for something we said.  I wanted to rebut those statements, until I realized it would be futile.  It did upset me, and I couldn’t let it go, so I replied, twisting the situation back on to that person.  The one thing I don’t like is someone telling me who I am, and how I should present myself.  [This L&L board is one board I feel comfortable on, to give my points of view, without being demeaned.]

 

 

When someone enjoys that position of demeaning, putdowns of others, I have to wonder what kind of self-esteem exists in that person.  To make you feel better about yourself, by making another person feel less. That’s serious… Yes, I did say what I probably shouldn’t have said back to this person.  I’m not exempt from saying what comes into my mind, sometimes.  I wanted to say, see what it feels like?

 

 

I’ve had my share of pity parties. I know this. For me it’s only comforting for just so long, then I get very tired of it, and want to move on. I can get mad, angry with myself, when I realize it’s futile. I try to learn from this. I have shared on these boards some physical and mental challenges, and there are other people who have done the same.  It’s living our lives, day to day.

 

 

Back to writing – Last month, I went to my first in face meeting with other writers. Last week was my second meeting.  The one thing I would never do, and that is to put my work down, before I read it out loud to these people.  I’m learning!  I know, from experience, never, ever make negative remarks about your work.  It puts an adverse, preconceived picture in the audience’s mind.  It definitely doesn’t build confidence in your listeners, or yourself!

 

 

Last Wednesday, I read my piece to this group of writers.  Yes, I was frightened, but I wanted, expected, and experienced their criticisms. I told them I wanted everything they had to give me, whether it was good news, or bad news. I want what I write to be as good as it can be, but at the same time, I won’t change what I think shouldn’t be changed.  I challenged one guy, when he asked me the sex of a character.  I asked him, what difference would it make if I tell you?  What difference would it make if I wrote that sex out on the page?  The women writers agreed with me.  They made eye contact with me, and rolled their eyes.  Men can have a totally different view of how stories should be written, I’m finding out.  I want each and every individual to experience what he or she wants from what I write.  I don’t want to feel the need to spell it all out, like I do here on this board.

 

 

I lived with a mother who constantly wanted approval, daily, and I’m not exaggerating on this.  From her looks, to what she cooked, to her crafts, hobbies, and house.  Every part of her, and her life, had to be validated.  I would have loved to call her an artist, but for me, being an artist has to give heart into whatever you do, doubting yourself can’t be an option. I tried and tried to talk to her about this, but she just couldn’t allow herself to understand. She didn’t know how.  My father was her ego booster, and she tore his down in the process.  They were the most dysfunctional parents, but they loved each other, because they got what they wanted, needed, from each other.  It was a sad situation, but I’m not looking for a pity party, because I’ve learned a lot from what I’ve witnessed over the years, good or bad.

 

 

I don’t get HBO, but I will certainly look into the DVD’s.  I do love to watch this life changing situations play out, if they are deemed well written.  Thanks for this blog, Ilana.


Kathy

 

 

 

by on ‎11-10-2010 11:38 AM

Reading over what I wrote:  I have good days, and I have bad days.  And days inbetween.  I may work hard at not putting myself down, fishing for compliments, or validation, but it never the less is ingrained, and sits beneath the surface, where I have to make a conscious effort to avoid setting myself up to these controlling/controlled situations. It's obvious, from what I've said, that it hurts to loose it.  But, it also hurts to have it, knowing it can't last.

 

I can handle just so much praise.  I can handle just so many needy people around me.  I have limits, because I need limits.  In my art, I've tried to break those limits.  It does help in breaking the tension.  Now I must go, I've reach my limit.

by on ‎11-11-2010 05:56 PM

I received a 25% OFF coupon from B&N, today...So I decided to see if it worked in purchasing the In Testament DVD series, season one. 

I got the discount! 

I'm happy.

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎11-17-2010 12:32 PM

KathyS: I bet you will love that series. It's one of my faves. Byrnes's portrait of the flawed caregiver, the therapist, is masterful.

by on ‎11-17-2010 05:32 PM

I'm looking forward  to it, Ellen.  I like Byrnes very much, as an actor.  I should be receiving it soon. 

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