What I do for a living often involves asking dumb questions. For example, we all know our moods are usually affected by events. In fact, if we happen to notice we’re in a bad mood, the first thing we start to do, often unconsciously, is try to figure out what caused that bad mood.
It’s not that it’s a bad thing to do, but if you want to learn how to be your own therapist, consider asking yourself the opposite question: What events are my moods causing?
In other words, while it’s true that events shape moods, it is equally true that moods shape what happens to us, and that aspect of mood is the one that’s hard to see.
I was talking yesterday with a delightful, older man who is a very well-respected architect in the Bay Area. Two years ago, his wife passed away. Since then, he’s re-entered the world of dating. He also has bipolar mood swings.
The subject of our conversation was dating, and I was reflecting on how he has had some very different experiences of dating. For example, for the first year after his wife passed away, he had no interest whatsoever in relationships with women. During that time, he found himself feeling that there were no women in the world who could possibly compare with his wife. That is a very normal feeling, of course, but it also reflected how his sadness and grief shaped his perception of the world.
This past fall, he switched into more of an energized, or hypomanic state, and found himself suddenly caught up in a romance with an artist. It seemed clear to me from early on that this was a pretty high-risk relationship, in the sense that she was a woman of about 55 who had never had a stable relationship with a man for more than a year. However, he was completely entranced with her, and their relationship quickly progressed.
After the breakup of that relationship, he shifted into more of a depressed mood, which is a typical pattern for him in the spring. For a long time, he was again thinking that there were no women who would be interested in him, or he would find interesting enough to date.
This summer, he switched into a more normal, or midline mood, and resumed dating, but without the intensity, and the excitement of last year.
Of course, his view of this was that it was the relationship that drove his moods. He concluded that this somewhat unlikely relationship with the artist represented the perfect one that got away, and the reason he had been so excited all of last fall was because of this relationship, which he now thought he would never experience again.
I, on the other hand, thought the reason he had such an intense and remarkable relationship with this woman had more to do with the mood he was in when he entered the relationship than anything unique about her.
We had an interesting conversation … I was not trying to convince him I was “right”, but rather, trying to get him to consider the alternative hypothesis, which is one we often benefit from considering.