Think about the Dowager Countess of Grantham, marvelous Maggie Smith. When she doesn’t like something, she gets a face like a cat that’s smelled something bad. And you get the message.
If you read authors like Edith Wharton and Jane Austin, you know there’s not a lot of bellowing and stomping around. Hearts are broken, fortunes lost, people became ill, or bereaved, despondent or angry, and through everything, they all use their inside voices.
Compare that to, say, the last week on this blog, in which the volume on everything was turned up to 11 (although the comments remained civil and I thank you all for that). Daughter had to rant in public to make her point, Dad had to shoot a computer to make his point, I had to “hate” Dad to make my point. And I’m not generally a hater. But I got swept into what seems a trend of our time: anger that becomes superheated, superfast.
It’s not necessarily just that America is getting less civil. For some reason these days, it seems we need the volume on all our emotions cranked way up. Even negative emotions. Maybe especially negative emotions. We need to watch screen violence that is increasingly extreme, we need to fight our battles publicly and with insults and vehemence, and we need to grieve extravagantly, where everyone can see us.
A friend was recently robbed at gunpoint on a dark street. She’s a little bruised from being pushed around, but she’s generally OK. However, she says, she can’t stop thinking about it and wishes she could.
Not unusual. In the psychological literature, that’s called repetitive thought, and it can be a bad thing except when it’s a good thing.
As you probably already know, trying to suppress a thought is pointless—that old “don’t think about a white bear” parlor game. In fact, studies indicate that the more you try to suppress a thought, the more you will have it.
So if you can’t stop a repetitive thought, what do you do with it?
I found a fascinating article titled “Constructive and Unconstructive Repetitive Thought”, and it’s a 2008 literature review of different sorts of repetitive thoughts. I never thought about how many types there are. The article discusses…
But when a friend compared my attitude about therapy to a fundamentalist’s attitude towards religion—implying that it is unyielding and intolerant of questioning—my feelings were hurt.
Eventually, though, I had to concede that she had a point.
My belief in therapy, as long as the therapist is worth a damn, has always been absolute. Even when therapy and its attendant revelations have made my life hell in the short term—and they have–they did good in the long term. I credit talented therapists with saving my life. I’ve never for a moment questioned therapy’s efficacy, even after I’ve quit therapists who felt like a bad fit. And I’ve seen therapy (does it sound less threatening if I call it counseling?) help other people, too.
Along with everyone else, I have been watching with horror and heartbreak the news from Japan. The images grow increasingly startling: cars, trucks and buildings swept away by the powerful wave, people on roofs watching, stunned, as the water rises, an elderly woman being rescued after days trapped in a car.
But I am stopped by a photograph on the CNN website of a young woman wrapped in a pink blanket and standing amid rubble. (You can find it here, but will have to click around.)
The look on her face haunts me. I mean no disrespect, but her expression is profound, deeply felt, and existential WTF-ness. It is a face of someone surveying the end of life as she knew it, who faced death and finds herself alive but doesn’t know what to do next. Someone who has images, sounds, emotions churning around in her head, the likes of which most of us cannot even imagine.
What does this young woman need to recover from the trauma? How can psychologists help her heal and ensure that she doesn’t wake screaming in the night for the rest of her life? After food and shelter, what is the first thing this woman needs?
It seems nobody really knows.