It is 5 AM, and the house is quiet. I sit and type on my computer’s keyboard. I’m subtly aware of another presence in the room. Now, something is brushing my leg. I look down to see my friend, Mercury, the cat. Her jet black fur shines, and her golden eyes stare up at me. She is motionless. Suddenly and silently, she leaps onto my lap and finds a comfortable spot. Soon I’m scratching behind her ears, and she is purring.
I continue to examine the whys of how I relate to others. I’m discovering that some behaviors that I felt were intrinsic to my very core are likely artifacts from past experiences, while others seem to be central to my person. As I learn more about my own behavior, I have discovered that some of my unsuccessful attempts at friendships were the direct result of my own actions.
As I have mentioned in many other posts, I am an introvert. In a simple explanation, I enjoy people, and I like spending time with them. However, prolonged social interactions (especially in large groups) are energy-draining for me, and when I am faced with those situations, I require alone time to regroup and recharge.
I also have behaviors that I have unconsciously learned that can keep me emotionally distant from others. When I was a child, it was not OK for me to ask for help or assistance. My early attempts at this were often met with comments that I was wasting parental time or that my requests were impossible to fulfill and therefore, unacceptable. At the same time, I would be given a conflicting shaming message that I should be able to complete the task myself. Pretty confusing for a kid.
That confusing message fueled me to become a better problem solver. As a child, I would retreat and solve the “impossible” problem on my own in the hopes of getting approval. The approval was still withheld, causing my pride to turn that need into anger, which had the dual effect of stopping me from asking for help while becoming ever better at figuring things out for myself. In the end, I was left with the belief that I could only trust and depend on myself, and that asking anyone for anything would result in me being humiliated and shamed.
As I became more competent and independent, I started to pursue different interests, including science, as I was no longer constrained by outside expectations. Being smart in school garnered me praise and recognition from teachers and other adults. I wanted attention, and now I had a way to get it.
Like most strengths, this skill set had a flip side, I saw my value to others in what I could do, rather than who I was as a person. Also, I inadvertently found friends who viewed me as someone who could do things for them, which further strengthened my belief that my value in life was to produce. Unfortunately, this meant that I tended to form one-sided connections where I was giving, and others were receiving. These lopsided relationships of benefactor and recipient had additional ramifications, which could result in the recipient becoming resentful rather than grateful. If someone wanted my help, I was more than happy to give it to them… but often more than what they wanted.
Dear reader, I recognize this problem, and I have been working on it for decades with success. However, changing a core part of myself has not been easy. I initially started this process back in medical school by setting limits on those who wanted me to be on committees or do other acts of service of which I had no interest. Besides, it was also reasonably easy to set appropriate limits with patients. I have always strived to provide the best possible care, and proper care means ethical boundaries. It is not the job of a patient to make me feel better about myself.
I have always had reciprocal relationships with my sisters. This was easy as we were all raised in the same household, and so we are all helpers rather than individuals who ask for help.
I have worked hard to have a mutual relationship with my children and in my marriage, and I continue to redefine these roles as my wife takes on more of the family breadwinner responsibilities, and my kids transition from teenagers to adults.
After decades of effort, I thought that I had finely tuned my ability to take on extra tasks based on choice rather than obligation. However, a very significant outlier in this part of my life was the psychiatric clinic that I co-founded. In that setting, I found myself taking on more and more responsibilities as I always pushed myself to do things. The examples abound and ranged from teaching myself web design to save the clinic the cost of having a professional create a website, to spending months designing to what amounted to a customized electronic medical record for clinic professionals to use. I initially gained some kudos for my work, which made me want to work harder, but that praise ebbed over time. This reduction in acknowledgment had the paradoxical effect of making me want to work even harder to regain the attention that had waned. It was a vicious circle.
I remember one incident where I had to update everyone’s staff photo for a website revision. By that time, I had enough photography experience that I was capable of doing pro-level work. In other words, I took pretty good pictures.
I recall using my own funds to buy additional (and expensive) equipment for the shoot, as well as spending my evenings organizing and gathering my existing photography gear. Beyond this hunting/gathering, I also studied portrait poses, set up a temporary studio in my home to perfect my lighting, and even did practice photos with my kids.
This photo update was at the request of the professional staff, as their prior photos were becoming dated. Since most of the staff wanted a new picture, the activity became a mandatory clinic expectation.
Weeks before the shoot, the staff was informed that I would be taking their pictures on a designated Saturday, and they were required to sign up for a 15-minute block of time on that day.
On the morning of the shoot, I arrived very early and brought one of my kids along as an assistant. We went through the tasks of hauling equipment and setting up gear that ranged from multiple mono lights (flashes) to backdrops. I even bought a portrait stool for the occasion, as I wanted to be able to pose individuals in the most flattering way possible.
The first staff person was very late, and this was only the start of the issues of the day. Some people scheduled a block of time but then scheduled patients during that same time. Others didn’t show up at all, which forced me to go through the whole setup process for them on a separate weekend. Some staff acted as if they were doing me a favor, instead of the other way around. Some seemed annoyed and put upon.
I had staff members asked me to make prints for their personal use after they saw their initial images. I did this for them at my own expense. Besides, I spent many hours retouching photos. Pimples vanished, bloodshot eyes became clear, and old wrinkled skin was smoothed out. The headshots looked great (not just my opinion). In the end, not a single person thanked me for my efforts, including those individuals who wanted me to print up personal photos. Apparently, they had gotten so used to me tackling projects that my efforts had become expected.
I write the above as an example; it was not an isolated incident as I was always doing elaborate projects for the clinic that ranged from writing the clinic’s policy and procedure manual to creating/hosting/producing a weekly audio podcast that showcased the professional staff while also providing clinical information to listeners.
Dear reader, the fact is that I was equally to blame for this lack of praise and recognition. A dynamic was established similar to other scenarios in my life.
I am grateful that I can learn complex skills, but it still takes work. Superficially, it looks like most things are easy for me. Give me a job, and it will get done. However, what people don’t see is all of the background efforts, which is why I wrote the above example in such detail. A staff member’s exposure to the photoshoot was only 15 minutes, and no one was aware of all the pre and post work that was involved. Besides, I now believe that most felt that this was something that I really wanted to do, which likely led some of them to think that they were doing me a favor. Who was the person who established that dynamic? Me!
The requests to do additional tasks never really ebbed, and the stress of working so hard as a business partner and full-time physician started to cause health consequences with me. Because of my health issues, I decided to leave my partnership and gave my colleagues over 2 years of notice of my intentions. During that process, I slowed down my frenetic activity and had time to explore why I was working as hard as I was. It became clear to me that I was once again trying to prove my worth, this time to my partners. The clinic had become a metaphorical family for me, and my partners represented my two brothers who I was never able to achieve a close relationship with. Without realizing it, I was hoping that if I worked hard enough, they would accept and value me. Leaving my partnership was the only reasonable option at that time, and I was grateful that I dared to do it, and I was thankful that I had the understanding to learn from it.
Dear reader, that process happened when I was in my late fifties. Growth and change is a lifelong process.
At sixty-six, I am now knee-deep in the most challenging part of this personal change; the core issue. I have always been cautious of close male friendships, the reasons in total for this are beyond the scope of this post, but some of the significant factors have been already discussed above. My past unsatisfactory strategy was to keep male friendships at arm’s length. If I kept a male friend at a safe emotional distance, I felt that they couldn’t hurt me or shame me. However, a number of years ago this changed with my connection with my friend, Tom. I like helping Tom, but Tom also likes helping me. When we started our friendship, I made a personal decision to be completely honest and transparent to him, and that I wouldn’t turn into a chameleon. Instead, I would simply be myself in total. I would do things for him because I wanted to, not because I felt that I had to. I would show him not only my strengths, but also my many weaknesses, fears, and imperfections. The result? We typically connect with each other on a daily basis, and I believe that we both would agree that we are the best of friends.
Part of my growth journey involves admitting who I really am in a public way, as it forces me to be honest with myself about my flaws. I also know that some of my kids read these writings, and I want them to know me as a person who strives to improve. Lastly, I write this for all of those who feel that they can’t change the trajectory of their lives. I have been working on this one aspect of my personality for 50 years and have made good progress. However, I still have work to do in this area. I did not fail in my past efforts in this regard. Instead, those efforts have served as a foundation to build my current changes. We live in an instant world, but those rules don’t apply to changing a complex behavior.
Some of you may think that a medical doctor with three board certifications and professional life of helping people should have perfect control of his own emotions. I would challenge such an idea as naive. I’m not a one-dimensional cartoon character, I’m a real person who will continue to improve myself as long as I am cognitively able to do so.
For those of you who feel that you are too old to change your life, I’m here to tell you that your belief is rubbish. For those of you who think that intricate behavior patterns can be replaced with one magical step, a single self-help book, or a potent pill, I am here to tell you that is bullshit. Those things can start a process of change, but if your goal is to make a significant behavioral change you need to accept that it is a continual process that involves effort and honesty.
Improving your life is like peeling an onion. You get through one layer, only to face another one. Having to deal with the next layer of behavior does not mean that your first efforts were in vain.
When I tackled the above issues, I started with the most comfortable situations first, setting limits with individuals who I didn’t have an emotional investment with. I then extended it to patients, who I was invested in, but whom I knew that it was in their best therapeutic interest for me to retain my connection with them in as professional way as possible. I then moved to progressively more challenging situations over the last 30 years. This last decade of change has had me deal with situations that were at the core of this issue. Understanding my actions at my clinic helped me find some peace with the lack of connection that I had with my brothers, which then helped me form a genuine friendship with Tom. Investing in my friendship with Tom crushed my false beliefs that I am unworthy of such a connection.
Sitting at my computer, typing, and petting Mercury, the cat. Her warm softness makes me happy. She seems to be equally delighted with me. I’m not doing anything productive for her, she isn’t doing anything productive for me. Yet, we are content with each other, our bond established in our mutual desire to be together, and nothing more. However, it is more than enough.