This week began with me spending three or four hours writing up a summary of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for one of the people I saw two days ago. For those of you who haven’t heard the term, ACT is the “hot” new approach to therapy (although much of it dates back thousands of years to Buddhist practice).
I enjoyed the experience because it allows me to go back to a topic that captivated me when I was growing up: the way that we as humans are capable of making things “real” in our minds that are entirely unrelated to the outside world. In particular, the discussions about the meaning of words and our tendency to assume that if there is a word for it, then that thing exists.
When I was a teenager I ran across a book on the topic which took me to Alfred Korzybski and his theory of General Semantics. Korzybski was fascinated and horrified by people’s willingness to kill and die for abstract ideas. He spent much of his life trying to help people to see that mental constructs (words) were not the same as reality, and just because we can say something in a logical way, does not mean that the statement is meaningful.
One example of the process that allows us to acquire social meanings, is from developmental psychology. If you take very young children and show them a picture of a dime and a nickel and give them a choice, they will naturally choose the nickel. However, at a certain very young age, when children begin to understand how adults and grownups see things and begin to shape their understanding on what they observe, you can show the same two coins to a child and all of a sudden they will prefer the dime. This preference actually proceeds a solid understanding of the concept of money and how it can be used.
What is fascinating, though, is that once that switch takes place, children will often ask for the dime by saying that it is “bigger” even though it’s clear that the dime is smaller than the nickel. In other words, the mental construction of value takes precedence over the physical reality that is in front of the child.
These same processes that are so useful is many ways, can also be a source of great anguish and unhappiness.
Just to cite a few examples from people I saw today: A man who is so intent on achieving something that is of high quality and usefulness, that he insists on making himself unhappy where he is in the situation where it’s really impossible for him to achieve that goal.
Another example is a woman who feels that having enough money is essential for them to feel secure in the world. With this person as with others that I’ve met who have this unshakeable belief, the problem is that there’s no such thing as “enough” when it comes to money. So, she has now saved more than $1M, but she still feels driven to produce more, and this compulsion is actually ruining her relationships and her life.
So, having spent several sessions reviewing the ideas with some of my patients, I was feeling pretty self-satisfied. It’s always nice to see how we can explain ideas to others and, in the process, notice how we’re not vulnerable to the same issues.
Then, I came home last night and the house was a mess. Now, a messy house is something that I can generally put up with, although I tend to be pretty neat. However, we had company coming and a house that’s messy when company is coming is something that I really feel that “I just can’t stand.” So, I was grumpy all evening and chastising the kids and trying to get them all to pick things up. Then, last night, I slept rather poorly.
This morning, as I was getting ready to dictate today’s post, it suddenly occurred to me that this obsession with having a neat house for company is exactly the same kind of social construction of reality as all the other examples that I gave. It is true that, in general, guests prefer a neater house to a less neat one, however, if I drive myself crazy trying to make the house neat, and become grumpy and a bad host, then that effect is not to improve the experience of my guests.
Food for thought.