How do shrinks think?

I’m curious about why people sometimes behave the way they do. Combine a psychologist and an MD and you’ve got a good start at figuring out people’s behaviors. But what insights into the human condition do shrinks have? And what enables them to help people who’re suffering from different forms of mental anguish? Do they know something most of us non-mental health folks aren’t tuned into?

Dereck Sivers jotted down some observations of psychiatrist G. Livingston as Sivers read Livingston’s book. These observations were gleaned over his life as a therapist. I’ve paraphrased and listed some of his ideas but in no special order.

I don’t have a clear idea of what people need to do to make themselves better. I am, however, able to sit with them while they figure it out. My job is to hold them to the task, point out connections I think I see between past and present, wonder about underlying motives.

The vast majority of your life’s results come from small behaviors, repeated thousands of times over the decades. Sure, habits are notoriously hard to change and some of us are compulsively self-destructive. But knowing is much more powerful than not knowing.

A staggering proportion of human activity is motivated by the desire to feel safe and secure.

Nothing outside your own mind can properly be described as negative or positive at all. What actually causes suffering are the beliefs you hold about those things. If your map doesn’t agree with the terrain, then the map is wrong, but It’s difficult to remove an idea with logic that wasn’t put there by logic.

There’re few solutions to life’s problems, only trade-offs.

The three components of happiness are: something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to. Get plenty of psychological sunshine. Circulate in new groups. Discover new and stimulating things to do.

Most people know what is good for them and what will make them feel better: exercise, hobbies, time with those they care about. They don’t avoid these things because of ignorance of their value, but because they’re no longer “motivated” to do them. They’re waiting until they feel better. Frequently, it’s a long wait.

Only bad things happen quickly. All the happiness-producing processes in our lives take time, usually a long time: learning new things, changing old behaviors, building satisfying relationships, raising children. This is why patience and determination are among life’s primary virtues.

We are responsible for most of what happens to us.

In judging other people, pay attention to how they behave – not to what they promise. Past behavior is the most reliable predictor of future behavior.

The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas. Memory is not an accurate transcription of past experience. Rather it’s a story we tell ourselves about the past, full of distortions, wishful thinking, and unfulfilled dreams.

My favorite therapeutic question is “What’s next?” which bypasses the self-pity implied in clinging to past traumas.

Any relationship is under the control of the person who cares the least.

Life’s two most important questions are “Why?” and “Why not?” The trick is knowing which one to ask.

When confronted with a suicidal person I seldom try to talk them out of it. Instead I ask them to examine what it is that has so far dissuaded them from killing themselves. People in despair are intensely self-absorbed. Suicide is the ultimate expression of this preoccupation with self.

When people fall in love, no justification for their attachment is necessary. When people fall out of love, the demands for an explanation are insistent: What happened? Who’s at fault? Why couldn’t you work it out? “We didn’t love each other anymore” is not, in most cases, a sufficient response.

Nobody likes to be told what to do.

It’s possible to live without criticizing and directing everyone around us. I ask people in conflict to withhold that criticism to see if this changes the atmosphere. It’s amazing how radical this suggestion seems.

Awfulizing is the idea that any relaxation in standards or vigilance is the first step toward failure, degradation, and the collapse of civilization as we know it.

The ability to laugh is the most therapeutic.

Our feelings (anger, shame, delight) appear almost instantly, and, left alone, they don’t last very long. But inventing a narrative around an event or a person keeps the feeling going for a very long time.” If you’re not happy with the feeling, try dropping the narrative. It’s your narrative, the story you have to keep telling yourself again and again, that’s causing the feeling to return.

Parents have a limited ability to shape their children’s behavior, except for the worse. Our primary task as parents is to convey to our kids a sense of the world as an imperfect place in which it is possible, nevertheless, to be happy. Do this by example. Demonstrate qualities of commitment, determination, and optimism.

Parents can try to teach the values and behaviors that they’ve found to be important, but it’s the way we live as adults that conveys the real message to our kids about what we believe in. Whether they choose to integrate these values into their own lives is up to them. Kids have a keen nose for hypocrisy.

Behavior that’s reinforced will continue; behavior that’s not will extinguish.

Children raised in homes where parental control is severe turn out to have a poor set of internalized limits because they have experienced only rigid external rules. Conversely, in families where there are few constraints children do not have a way to learn those guidelines necessary to live comfortably with others.

“What can I do to make sure this kid turns out well?” Not much, but maybe cutting down on the fights and not trying to control your child’s every decision might help.

Enjoy life even as we are surrounded by evidence of its brevity and potential for disaster. Mental health is a function of choice. The more choices we are able to exercise, the happier we are likely to be.

Forgiveness is not something we do for others; it is a gift to ourselves.

If every misfortune can be blamed on someone else, we’re relieved of the difficult task of examining our own contributory behavior or just accepting the reality that life is full of adversity. Most of all, by placing responsibility outside ourselves we miss out on the healing knowledge that what happens to us is not nearly as important as the attitude we adopt in response.