Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Unbearable Reality

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 23, 2015

Unbearable reality, that sensation of trauma, when an experience, or a relationship, or a part of the self is defeated or not attended to, then mental distortions often occur, particularly in young children, and particularly in adults who struggle to cope with challenging situations. Janet, thirty, comes to mind. She has just discovered that her husband of five years was having an affair with his co-worker. Her immediate attention is drawn to her weight. She is convinced that if she had just lost those ten pounds that she has struggled to lose since her last child was born two years ago, then her life would have been just fine. She is seeking a clear target, a reductionistic point of view, in order to cope with, what she perceives, as devastating news. She is not ready or able to think about the complexities of her marriage, her developmental issues, or the impact of having children on her marriage. She is driven to stop eating, see a nutritionist and begin an exercise program. In her mind, this will solve her problems. Psychoanalysts would term Janet’s thinking and behavior as resistance. She is avoiding seeing the multiplicity of factors which impinge on this potentially catastrophic moment in her marriage. It is not that there is anything wrong with her desire to gain control of her health, including a good diet and exercise program, but her limited thinking that all of her emotional struggles stem from poor eating is upside down. Her poor eating stems from emotional troubles. With time, Janet will likely come to see the factors which have brought her into this threat with despair, but for now, as she tries to maintain her ability to maintain her job and take care of her kids, she feels certain that diet and exercise will put her marriage back on course. This certainty is how she is coping. Threatening that certainty could cause her anxiety to skyrocket, and so she avoids any threat to that certainty. The time is not right for her to examine her situation, like a novel, with thoughts, ideas and formulations, but with no certainty.

2 Responses to “Unbearable Reality”

  1. Shelly said

    How very like a woman Janet’s thinking is. We are taught at a very young age to take all the blame for a failed marriage. If we look good enough, make “our man happy” enough, try hard enough, pay enough attention to our husbands, then our marriages will be successful. But in the short run of things, I can see how Janet looks for the quick fix for herself to try and make things work. None of the factors that led her husband to stray are his fault, are they? The fact that he broke his wedding vows and had an affair–all of that was her fault, right? Sigh. I understand what you are saying, that at this point in her life, she needs to do what makes her feel good, and diet and exercise will help her make sense of her world.

    • Thanks, Shelly. You bring up the important cultural determinants of gender behavior where girls are socialized to blame their external appearance for issues that center around emotional intimacy.The point is both that she blames herself (and hence if she changes, she can save her marriage) and that she only blames one aspect of herself, rather than seeing the wide scope of issues which grow in a marriage. Brains often handle complexity by avoidance, by creating a simpler narrative, and hence psychotherapy and friendships are necessary to remind the individual that what they tell themselves about what happened may not be completely true. As social beings, we need the external world to re-boot us so that we can return to higher and more complicated levels of thinking, which are not avaiable to us in times of stress. The difficulty is that it can be hard to have patience with Janet because she is so “certain, and hence closed-minded. Ice-picking away at this certainty is the first step and this takes time and patience. Thanks again.

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