Every day I see people who are doing what I was supposed to do: write poetry, play music, practice law, design buildings, write books, sell books, run libraries (or at least work in them), do research, make art, perform songs. I am doing none of these; in the past I did some, but never got very good at any of them.

I would like to be good at something. I would like to do some of the things I used to do and some that I’ve never done. Basically I want to do whatever I see someone else doing. Envy: it’s the one thing we vulnerable narcissists are really good at.

Ha!

It turns out that (contrary to the protestations of my therapist) I am indeed a narcissist, because there are two kinds. The flavor that most people are familiar with is the “grandiose” kind, but I’m of the “vulnerable” or “covert” variety. In other words, I’m shy, sensitive, envious, and morose, and apparently I don’t mind letting the whole world know. Now the question is how (or perhaps whether) to get over it.

Toward the end of yesterday’s session, after we had agreed that I was a lousy parent to the me-child who constantly fears abandonment, K mentioned the enneagram. She suggested that it might be useful for me to read about it; she said that she was pretty sure that I’m a Four.

I dutifully went home and did some reading, even taking a couple of tests designed to help you determine which of the nine profiles fits you best. Now I’m both confused and skeptical, because depending on which test I take or description I read, I have about one-third of the territory covered. Yes, I feel envious and abandoned like a 4, but I’m also contrary and a procrastinator, like a 6. And one test told me that I’m an optimistic, energetic, scattered 7. All of which confirms my belief that I’m not a distinct person at all.

Granted, I don’t know enough yet about the whole enneagram racket, I mean system, but I’m deeply suspicious of all such attempts to give people permanent labels. My inability to choose just one could mean that I used to be a 7, evolved into a 6, and now think of myself as a 4. Or it could mean that it’s a flawed system.

Also yesterday, I noticed a meaningless connection between my fear of things “running out” and my parents’ habit of “running out” on me. I’m beginning to think that too much of therapy is about meaningless connections that we try to endow with meaning, because that’s what we try to do with everything.

Titles are a pain

Life’s too damn short to have to think of a clever title for every journal entry. I’m done with that, just like I’m done with tying shoes (my favorites now are a pair of comfy, ugly Skechers with elastic pseudo-laces).

It’s also too damn short to sit here racking my brain trying to remember the oh-so-clever journal entry that was in my head just before I fell asleep last night. But I’m doing it anyway. Let’s see… I think my late-night thoughts were inspired by the book I had started reading about the self-help culture, called Promise Land. Ah yes, I think I was going to write about perseverance, one of the recurring mantras of self-helpsters.

How appropriate: I persevered and remembered! And how unlike me, a confirmed quitter.

Yesterday I also heard part of an interview with self-help/motivational writer Robert Greene in which he and the interviewer discussed Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that you have to practice something for 20,000 hours to get good at it. The first problem with this discussion was the fact that anyone would take Gladwell’s notions as the gospel truth. The second problem is that Gladwell’s rule of thumb requires 10,000, not 20,000, hours. (A lot of people translate this into 10 years, which would seem to argue against the 8-year term limits imposed by many state laws.)

The third, and most troubling, issue arose when Greene said something like “If you’re in your 40s, obviously you’re not going to have 20,000 hours.” Even with this erroneously doubled figure, I still calculate that someone who applied herself assiduously would need less than 10 years to achieve mastery. She could certainly do this in her 40s or even her 60s.

That assiduous someone would never be me, of course, because I run from anything that looks like it will take a lot of time to get good at it. Why? Historically, as with my quitting law school, it’s been because I was skeptical about the permanence of life, the universe, etc. I didn’t want to spend my hours in drudgery if there was no guarantee of any time left at the end of it all in which to reap the rewards.

This skepticism about the future explains why one case that we studied, a wrongful death suit after a plane crash, made such a lasting impression on me. It wasn’t an unusual case, nor was it (I think) my first exposure to the idea of quantifying a victim’s future earnings as a component of damages. But it struck very close to home, because the victim was a law student. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fictional, futuristic notion that this woman would finish law school and then earn a certain salary for a certain number of years. (The one part of the calculation I remember clearly is that she was expected to spend $1,000 per year on clothing; as someone who spent at most $50 per year on a wardrobe mainly from thrift shops, I couldn’t relate to this at all.)

I understood that most law students do graduate, and that most go on to earn decent incomes, and that most lawyers are required to wear nice clothes (which probably influenced my decision to drop out), but I was extremely troubled by the idea of saddling a defendant with an obligation based on an imaginary outcome. Maybe the victim would have indeed finished school and gotten a highly paid job, but there’s a good chance that she wouldn’t have stayed married to her husband, the plaintiff.

This obsession with uncertainty has pretty much paralyzed me. The only skills I’ve ever mastered were those that were thrust upon me, e.g., speaking French while living in France, or those that were just too much fun to stop, e.g., playing ping-pong or working cryptoquote puzzles (or riding a bike, or walking for that matter). I think the experts I heard on the radio yesterday agreed that you shouldn’t force yourself to spend 20,000 (i.e., 10,000) hours in drudgery. You should try to master only the things that you enjoy doing anyway. Obviously I didn’t enjoy law school enough to keep it up for its own sake, but maybe I can think of something, before I turn 60, that would hold my fickle interest for the next 10 years.

Who am I kidding?*

*Sometimes grammaticality just looks wrong.

Last night I realized how utterly oblivious I’ve been. Do I seriously think that an employer who doesn’t already have a relationship with me is going to choose me over someone half my age? Sure, there are plenty of elderly folks who continue to work (see, e.g., Hillary Clinton and the Dalai Lama); sometimes people even go back to work in their 70s or 80s after retiring. But those people are known quantities with exemplary employment records. They don’t have checkered pasts, iffy references, and unpleasant personalities.

Really, whom am I trying to kid? Myself obviously, but I’m not falling for it anymore. Of course I make that same vow every time I try unsuccessfully to get hired, and then a few weeks later I get right back up on that horse and ride into the fray. This time I mean it though. I’m putting the horse back in the barn (which, a horseman told me recently, is a terrible place to keep a horse, which just shows what an unpleasant person I am).

It’s a jungle in here

For the first time, a therapist has mentioned, before I did, the possibility that I could be somewhere “on the spectrum.” We were discussing my apparent lack of empathy. Of course it’s more complicated than that, because in fact I’m obsessed with trying to figure out what people are thinking and feeling. Here’s what I’m actually guilty of (though K would object to the word “guilty” and then would chastise me for thinking that I know what she’s thinking and then would object to the word “chastise”):

  1. Sometimes I’m in such a hurry to set the record straight on whatever topic is being discussed that I speak or write without thinking about how what I say or write will be received.
  2. Sometimes I consciously want to make people feel bad.

In both cases I end up feeling bad myself, even if I don’t really know how someone else feels.

I would think that all this feeling—and thinking about feeling—would disqualify me from membership in the Aspie club. Maybe it just means that I don’t have a clue about how people really think and feel, so I have to make stuff up.

Or maybe people on the autism spectrum do have empathy. The Intense World Theory suggests that they withdraw into their own safe worlds precisely because they are getting way too much input and stimulation. “Autistic people may, therefore, neither at all be mind-blind nor lack empathy for others, but be hyper-aware of selected fragments of the mind, which may be so intense that they avoid eye contact, withdraw from social interactions and stop communicating.” Bad writing, but a pretty good theory.

Choose your poison

Each hour with my new therapist will cost me about $100. I can remember when $100 would buy me and a friend several hours of fun with recreational drugs. It would certainly, even now, buy me several weeks’ worth of alcohol; if I got seriously into drinking, it would still probably last me a week. So I wonder if it wouldn’t be more cost-effective to ditch the shrink and self-medicate with a  perfectly legal substance that will reliably relax, entertain, and inspire me. Or maybe I could try both simultaneously, downing a few shots of gin before each session. The cost of therapy would go up, but so might the efficacy.

I’m from your body and I’m here to help

It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious about upcoming events, so maybe these unpleasant physical sensations, mixed with feelings of confusion, inadequacy, and impending doom, are merely symptoms of pre-interview performance anxiety. But what if, in fact, I’m feeling this way because of a mostly subconscious understanding that it would be idiotic to take that job?

Every day I get these somatic and cognitive messages that I’m hopelessly unfit to interpret. Do the pangs of regret, compassion, anger, or indigestion have any real meaning, or should I continue to ignore them, just as I do my randomly generated dreams? How do people ever know what they really feel, as opposed to what they’ve been manipulated or hoodwinked into feeling?

I think that I strongly feel the need for feline company in my home, but maybe I’m just missing my late, lamented cat, or maybe I’m just jealous of people who still have theirs.

I think that I really want to have a car again, but maybe what I really miss is other aspects of my life and self that I lost around the same time I gave up my car.

I think that I want to have a (semi)regular job, but maybe I really just want to feel that I belong somewhere.

Trust your intuition and your instincts, people say. But how do these self-described intuitive folks discern the signal from the noise?

We are not impressed

Years ago I worked with someone who was always impeccably dressed, meticulously made up, poised, and confident. One day she hired me to wash her dishes at home, because she knew I needed extra money and because, she said, she was all out of clean dishes. I was sure she had exaggerated the extent of the problem until I arrived at her apartment and saw the food-encrusted plates and lipstick-smeared glasses covering every surface. As if that weren’t disgusting enough, the pile of dishes in the sink harbored a large, colorful colony of some species of fungus (getting it out of sight and mind ASAP took priority over identifying it). My first impression of Diane—that she was a clean, sane, well-organized woman—was immediately displaced by a new view of her as someone who was messy, lazy, possibly deranged, and probably sadistic (how else to explain her exposing an innocent coworker to that nightmarish kitchen?).

Even before this traumatic episode, I had been skeptical of the notion that first impressions are the ones that really count. Obviously when you have only an hour to convince someone that you’re right for the job, or that you would make a good romantic partner, the impression given at that first meeting is pretty important. I’ll even grant that, as studies have shown, the decision makers in those situations tend to make up their minds in the first few minutes. Where I part ways with the received wisdom is on the long-term consequences of those short-term impressions.

It’s easy to pretend, for a few minutes, to have qualities you don’t actually possess. Someone who shows up nicely dressed and smiling for a date or a job interview could easily be a depressed slob who manages to clean up and pull herself together when absolutely necessary. Too often I’ve seen relationships that started out all rosy and productive turn acrimonious and harmful when the first impressions that each person had of the other were supplemented by more in-depth information. On the other hand, people who start out despising each other can become wildly successful business partners.

To paraphrase Gwendolen Fairfax, my first impressions of people are invariably wrong. So I should give my therapist a few more sessions before deciding that she’s doing me more harm (financial) than good (psychological). Meanwhile I have an interview on Tuesday for a part-time, sometime job a thousand miles away; I’m not sure I want the job, but I definitely will try to make a good impression.

Oh no, not again

What better time to start a new journal than when starting on a new psychotherapeutic ordeal regime adventure. Being an exhibitionist, naturally I want to publish the journal online; being a lazy cheapskate, I’m not about to get my own domain name; being a neo-Luddite, I want to steer clear of Tumblr, Medium, et al. So yesterday I checked to see if any desirable, relevant, and (most important) free WordPress URLs were available. The short answer: no.

The long answer: I found many decent names that weren’t currently in use. Some had been obtained impulsively and then abandoned almost immediately by their negligent owners; others had been deleted for reasons mysterious or not. Once you’ve set up a WordPress blog, even if you delete the contents, no one else can ever, ever use it again. Never, ever—unless, that is, you transfer the blog to someone else. So I tried to contact the owner of one long-dormant blog to ask if he would transfer it to me, but got no response. I was going to contact some other folks, but then I thought, “Life is too damn short to scrounge and beg for blog names.”

And then I found, to my utter amazement, that the name “Too Damn Short” was available. What a perfect way to express not just how little time we all have but also how little, literally, some of us are (thanks a lot, Dad-genes).

One thing that life is too damn short for is spending endless hours in self-examination. That’s why I was very excited a couple of years ago to learn  about a treatment called intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy. The name led me to expect a short series of frequent, grueling sessions, but it turns out that the usual course of therapy consists of 90-minute sessions every week or two for up to a year. Only the first session, which is called the “trial therapy,” lasts longer; it can be anywhere from 2 to 6 hours.

For more than a year, off and on, I tried to find an ISTDP practitioner who would take my insurance. Funny thing: Most competent psychotherapists don’t accept the laughably low insurance reimbursement rates, because they don’t have to. (Some of them claim, on their websites, to shun insurance out of concern for patient privacy or fear of bureaucratic interference, but I think their main concern is less lofty.) A few weeks ago I finally bit the (magic?) bullet and made appointments with two out-of-network providers. One of them charges 25 percent more than the other, plus she said that our first session would be limited to 80 minutes (instead of the recommended 120), because she needed to move her car every two hours. I ended up canceling that appointment.

I’ve now had two sessions with K, my chosen therapist, for a total of 3.5 hours. I don’t claim to understand how this newfangled therapy is supposed to work, and far be it from me to tell a professional how to do her work, but my initial impressions have not been favorable. K seems inordinately concerned with my body—where I’m feeling anxiety or why I’m sitting in a a particular posture. While I’ve found it somewhat helpful to notice when I’m getting tense in certain regions, most of this bodily stuff seems irrelevant to the goal of getting my head on straight. Also, K seems  to have reduced what ails me to a pretty trite condition of having internalized my mother’s judgmental voice. The thing is that I don’t remember my mother being all that judgmental; more often she just wasn’t paying attention. I do admit to having an incessant inner critic, but I didn’t need a credentialed professional to point it out to me.

K also has given me some mixed signals, first accusing me of unwillingness to do things that are hard and a few minutes later chastising me for saying that something that’s easy isn’t worth doing. Oh well, maybe things will get clarified as we continue. Eventually I suppose I will tell her that I think she’s ineffectual and annoying, and she’ll turn that into a reflection of how I relate to other people, and I’ll argue with her, and she’ll say, “See? You’re doing it again.” And maybe then I’ll decide that life is too damn short even for this last-ditch, short-term effort at becoming a person.

K is the seventh therapist I’ve seen in the last five years. (The fourth one was actually pretty good, but she refused to honor her agreement with my insurer.) During that time I’ve had plenty of grief, stress, and garden-variety neurosis, but the one thing I haven’t had is a career, or even a paying job. Steady work is no guarantee that one won’t need psychotherapy, but at least it reduces the amount of time available for rumination. If only our leaders could see the connection between unemployment and poor mental health, maybe they would make more serious efforts to get people back to work.