Much of my free time I spend with my geniuses. Quiet and ready they weigh down my bookshelves. Borges, Nietzsche, de Saint Exupery, scores of geniuses, all are there, all are mine. Above them all, always towering in my supplicant mind stands delicate and tall my ultimate advisor: Franz Kafka. In a letter to Oskar Pollak, on November 8, 1903, he wrote:
“We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours. And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell”.
I cannot think of a more disheartening statement for a psychiatrist. I read his words when I forged my first hesitant steps into this formidable field. I literally agonized over the thought: what if Kafka is right? What if I set myself for a futile chase of the eternally inaccessible? As a physician, I am totally prepared to stand before the other reverently and lovingly. I understand the hellish nature of emotional pain. But will you never be able to explain to me your inner world?
Years into my practice, I have understood the lesson of my great genius teacher: we are inherently incapable of expressing to the other what takes place in our inner world. As a psychiatrist, I cannot expect you, my patient, to explain to me your inner world, much like you cannot describe what is going on in your spleen or thyroid. You can explain to me your symptoms, but as Kafka said, all I know is that hell is hot and scary. That is not enough to be profoundly effective. In order to understand your inner world I have to visit there. I have to imagine your life and experiences as they appear to you. In other words, instead of “putting myself in your shoes,” I have to become the other even if for a split second – and suddenly everything is so clear.
It took me a long time to learn how to lose my judgment at each psychiatric encounter. Like Yoga or any other spiritual discipline, it is a long learning curve and one never masters the technique to full perfection. I certainly am often reminded of my limitations. And, as opposed to Yoga, no “muscle memory” is permitted. We may be predictable in the outside world, among our fellow humans, but inside our most intimate sphere, our experience is unlike others’. And so, despite the years of experience, I often need to exert myself intellectually and spiritually with every person as if they were my first. But once the moment of clarity occurs, when the glow of understanding illuminates another’s inner world, it is forever revealed in all its intricacies.
I have been thinking about communication this week as I was scheduled to give one of my Men(ual) seminars. I created the workshop some years ago, responding to my work with couples. Typically, a focus of a couple’s work is improvement of communication between the two. And yet, at times I realized that even with “simultaneous translation” the man and woman sitting with me are unable to understand each other. They want to listen to each other. They are attentive to each other. They love each other, and want their relationship to work. But they do not “get” what the other is trying to explain.
This is the juncture where I reach for “my Kafka”. Is there a way for someone to express their deep emotional needs, even when their words betray them?
I have developed my Kafka method to find alternatives to dialogue, alternatives to verbal communication, if you may.
Together with your partner, identify an issue that is very important to you even if it seems insignificant to your partner. We all have those “hang-ups” – pet peeves that can drive us mad even if we ourselves can recognize that “it is not a big deal”.
True, it is not a big deal in the outside world, but it is a big deal in our intimate, deeply veiled, inner world. Why? There are as many possibilities as there are people and hang-ups. And, when working on your relationship with your partner, you need to focus on the dynamic and understanding between the two of you. Disagreement on “small things” is in fact one of the most destructive and erosive force in marriage. People can torture themselves and their partners over the most inane issues. And often it takes the form of a “ritualistic dance” where the couple acts like well-rehearsed actors in a play. I assume you must have experienced it. I certainly have.
Now think of Kafka’s words. It is important to be reminded that sometimes we cannot explain the why in our heart. It is just there. And, while difficult to explain, it is important to you nonetheless. And yes, you can ask your partner (especially your partner) to accept that importance without you having to explain. (And perhaps if both of you stop bickering about it you would be able to become more flexible yourself.)
Some behaviors, or feelings, or needs, might be impossible to explain. But they are there, and very powerful. My Kafka method can help us accept the fact that we may never get an answer why. Once we overcome this hurdle, suddenly the road to a loving partnership becomes clearer. Simple? Perhaps. But it is not too simple to be effective.
Truth is not necessarily a virtue when it comes to your relationship with yourself. Universal concepts such as Truth, Morals, Ethics, Rules etc, are really meant for your relationship with the others. It is very hard to apply them to your inner world. Are you allowed to lie to yourself? Can you keep a secret from yourself? Can you punish yourself for punishing yourself?
Think about it: most rules and regulations – whether written or unwritten, culturally sanctioned, or ordained from heaven – take on a very different meaning when applied to your inner world. In your relationship with your own self, most do not make sense at all.
In my work as a psychiatrist, I help others examine and create their inner rules. Often the biggest hurdle is convincing my listener that he or she is entitled to do so. We are so paralyzed by our adherence to the social rules, that we dare not abandon them at the gates to our inner world. And by dragging them inside, we violate one of the only sanctuaries we can depend upon.
Many of us spend a great deal of energy disagreeing with our own thoughts and feelings. When we say: “I should not be thinking or feeling this way”, we assume that we can control our emotions or thoughts. Yet, at most, we can control the active/external expression of our thoughts and feelings (and even that can be very taxing and often impossible).
We cannot control our thoughts and feelings. We have no easily available mechanism to do so. Our brain is so busy with the immeasurable amount of tasks it constantly performs – the vast majority we are not conscious of – that preventing it from thinking or feeling something, is futile. The most we can do is ignore the thought or the feeling and let it slip away. The unfortunate catch is that exactly the thoughts and feelings we do not want to have are the ones that stick longer in our awareness. And as each one of us knows, the harder we want to get rid of them the more stubborn and sticky they become.
And so, working to prevent unwanted thoughts, or shove them away, is not practical. The trick is not to assign value to one’s thoughts or feelings. If we do not exercise an appraisal of a thought, it cannot have a “wanted” or “unwanted” quality. This brings us back to the issue of inner rules.
Our thoughts and feelings have no inherent moral or legal value. So long as we keep them to ourselves, they do not exist in the outside world, and have no impact. Thoughts and feelings that make their way to the outside world, acquire the power to affect the others. This power is checked by our social rules lest we devolve into chaos. But the majority that floats through our mind, some lazily, some frantically, and some almost imperceptibly, those thoughts exist only for us.
Obviously some guiding principles exist for our inner world. Otherwise, it could also devolve into chaos. But they are not the same principles as the social ones. (Nor do they have to be, as you have already realized.) One of the most important principles for our inner world is authenticity. By “authenticity”, I do not mean a factual truth. “Facts” are also meaningless in the inner world. Authenticity is the ability to know when you are lying to yourself and to be able to acknowledge it. You are welcome to lie to yourself as much as you want to, so long as you are able to be authentic about it. Most of us need to learn how to do it. We are so frightened of our thoughts and feelings (and even worse; the interaction between them) that we spend time lying to ourselves about it with the hope that we would “buy the lie” and put it to rest. But we cannot fully lie to ourselves since we also know the truth. And, the bigger the lie, the more emotionally costly its maintenance becomes.
Self lies, or in psychological parlance, denial, often help us cope with unpleasant reality. And since lies, in the inner world, have no qualitative value, i.e., are not “bad” or “good” – their service should be recognized for what it is. They become a problem when we try to convince ourselves that they are not lies. The truth of course, interferes with our ability to believe in the lie. That is where authenticity comes in handy.
I will give an example: One of the most commonly encountered inner lies is that of a spouse trapped in unhappy and distant relationship. I am not talking about abusive relationship. In abusive relationship the abuser “casts a spell” on the abused and is actively promoting the lies. I am talking about the familiar slow grind of parallel lives, growing emotional distance, and low level, chronic mutual resentment. Sadly, this common condition can start quite early in relationship, peek after a decade together and continue unabated until the end of the life together. Eventually, and often later in the game, the spouse that suffers the most from the relationship ‘s poor quality, simply gives up trying. And that is a good thing: the one who gives up, does not need any longer to maintain the lie. Hence, the energy required to maintain the self -lie is freed up for other, hopefully healthier, pursuits.
If we are scared of the truth, we are unlikely to abandon the lie. Hence, we may continue on an increasingly depleting and depressing trajectory. Learning to observe the lie without having to abandon it, makes it much more possible to plunge into a trajectory of change.
1. The rules and morals that we apply in our dealing with the others have no real meaning in our relationship with our own self.
2. In our inner world we cannot truly lie to ourselves since deeper inside we also know the truth.
3. Some self -lies are harder to maintain than others. Some (for example denying the inevitability of our death) are becoming harder to maintain with time. But the more poignant and urgent the truth, the higher levels of energy is needed to stifle it with an inner lie.
4. Our self- lies, much like our fantasies, often serve a purpose in making our life more tolerable, or enabling us to distract ourselves from a painful reality.
5. Authenticity in our inner world, is not giving up the lie or adhering fanatically to what we know is the truth. Rather, authenticity is the ability to acknowledge the fact that we are not truthful to ourselves about something.
For myself, I have always believed in the adage “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Obviously, it is not in my purview to decide the worth of other people’s life. So I offer you a milder version: The authentic inner world makes life easier and lighter. And that is a positive gain in and off itself, isn’t it?