Michael Hurd

Is It More Blessed To Give Than To Receive?

Is It More Blessed To Give Than To Receive?

At Christmastime, there are people who say, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Think about this for a moment.

Giving certainly can be a joyful experience. However, giving does not bring pleasure when it renounces the self. Giving brings joy only when it upholds something about yourself, your desires, your wishes and your values.

Think about the pleasure of putting joy on a loved one’s face. You experience the joy precisely because it’s a loved one – your beloved spouse, child, friend or anyone else you personally treasure.

Think about giving to a charity you believe in. Or donating used but still good clothes or other items to a charity. You feel good about doing it, because it upholds something or someone important to you.

Giving worthy of the name always has a self-interested component of some kind, in that it upholds your personal values or beliefs. Not only is that OK; it’s the way it should be.

Imagine for a moment that you were forced to give your Christmas gifts to people you don’t know. Aside from being resentful, would you still feel the same way when giving the gift? Wouldn’t you feel cheated?

You’d say something like, “I don’t want to give this gift to some stranger. I want to put a smile on my loved one’s face. I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.”

Beware of the profiteers of guilt. These are the mentalities who push the issue. They’re the ones who claim there should be no selfish, personal component to giving. They’re the ones who will try to “make” you feel guilty by claiming such things as, “The true spirit of Christmas is sacrifice. The only kind of gift-giving that matters is the kind that hurts.”

All of us have heard such toxic ideas somewhere, at some time. Such ideas play out in the form of “tapes” or little memes inside our subconscious minds, emerging as an emotional experience of guilt. It’s important to understand that such guilt is unearned.

Think about yourself as the recipient of a gift. Do you want the other person to experience joy and pleasure at giving you something? Or do you want it done only in a spirit of dreary, selfless duty?

We’ve all heard the expression, “It’s the thought that counts.” The truth in this saying is your connection to the person giving you the gift. “Wow, this person was thinking of me, what I like, what I might enjoy.” The experience of receiving the gift under the tree, or whatever the occasion, has as much to do with this as the gift itself.

Years ago, I heard of someone who gave all his friends, as Christmas presents, donations to a charity. He told his friends, “We all have enough things. It’s time to give to others.”

This was not done by agreement, ahead of time. In fact, his friends had put time and thought into selecting gifts for this friend for Christmas. They were resentful, and also felt somewhat guilty for feeling resentful.

The problem with what this man did? He cheated his friends out of the gift giving experience. Gift giving is mutual. You love to delight the other person, and you love to see the other person delight in delighting you.

It’s not more blessed to give than to receive; nor is it more blessed to receive than to give. This sets up a false alternative.

The amount of joy and pleasure you gain from receiving a gift in no way takes away from the equal (and sometimes greater) joy you might receive from giving. It’s possible to relish both.

It all comes down to mutuality. When you love someone, you wish to express it – sometimes lavishly. Holidays like Christmas provide an opportunity for doing so.

At the same time, when you love certain people, you want to know you’re visible to them. You want to know they’re thinking of you.

Love comes from thinking; it’s an emotional expression of the fact that someone considers you worthwhile and important. Of course you want to receive from such a person, because it helps illustrate how much you matter to this person you love.

Giving and generosity are not about suffering, sacrifice and pain. They’re about cherishing and experiencing joy.

That’s one of the reasons I like the spirit of Christmas. It’s one of the few times people appear to recognize and embrace this truth.

A Refreshing Alternative to the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

Women for Sobriety has a remarkable series of “13 Steps” to serve as an alternative to the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I have a life-threatening problem that once had me. I now take charge of my life and my disease. I accept the responsibility.

Negative thoughts destroy only myself. My first conscious sober act must be to remove negativity from my life.

Happiness is a habit I will develop. Happiness is created, not waited for.

Problems bother me only to the degree I permit them to. I now better understand my problems and do not permit problems to overwhelm me.

I am what I think. I am a capable, competent, caring, compassionate woman.

Life can be ordinary or it can be great. Greatness is mine by a conscious effort.

Love can change the course of my world. Caring becomes all important.

The fundamental object of life is emotional and spiritual growth. Daily I put my life into a proper order, knowing which are the priorities.

The past is gone forever. No longer will I be victimized by the past, I am a new person.

All love given returns. I will learn to know that others love me.

Enthusiasm is my daily exercise. I treasure all moments of my new life.

I am a competent woman and have much to give life. This is what I am and I shall know it always.

I find these a refreshing alternative to the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. As I wrote in my book, Bad Therapy Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference), the 12 Steps send a mixed message.

On the one hand, they tell people to take charge of their minds and their lives; to develop an attitude of serenity based on the rational principle that you can control some things, and you cannot control others; and to take a moral and psychological inventory of your life.

On the other hand, and in total contradiction, AA tends to treat alcoholism as a disease which you neither control nor contribute to, which has a life of its own, and that some sort of higher, external Power (supernatural or otherwise) generates against your will.

I won’t deny that AA helps a lot of people, and when it does I give credit to the rational, positive aspects of AA. However, I find a lot of people sincerely looking for alternatives to the 12 Steps, and this Women for Sobriety program offers an excellent alternative.

I like these steps as an alternative for men every bit as much as for women.

Are these steps really just for women?

In an article entitled, “What’s Gender Got to Do With It?”, Regina Walker says,

Women who suffer from alcoholism face bigger challenges, not just physically, but psychologically as well. All alcoholics suffer from the social stigma of the disease but women are especially judged as morally weak when they deviate from their expected roles as caretakers of others including children and partners. In the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a chapter entitled, “To The Wives.” The goal of the article is to assist the wives of alcoholics in dealing most effectively with their alcoholic husbands. But what of the female alcoholic in AA? Women alcoholics are often portrayed (in books and movies) as sexually promiscuous and lacking self-control.

It is estimated that between 30% and 80% of alcoholic women were victims of sexual abuse in childhood. Although there is no definitive connection between early sexual abuse and alcoholism, the implications for the treatment of alcoholic women are significant. Many women who have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and use alcohol to self-medicate the symptoms of this disorder.

Often, the shame and guilt experienced by women prevent them from seeking treatment. They may be more reluctant to acknowledge that a problem exists for fear they will be punished or humiliated. If the woman is the primary caregiver of young children, she will need support in terms of child-care to access treatment. In addition, these women may fear the loss of the children through the legal system if they request help and acknowledge their alcoholism.

This may all be true. And I’m certainly not against women forming a support group for alcohol / substance abuse which specifically reaches out to women.

But in my view, both men and women could benefit from a refreshing alternative of this kind.

I love the emphasis on personal responsibility for one’s alcoholism. In my experience as a therapist, I find that most alcohol and drug abusers do not really buy the idea that they are helpless recipients of a disease. The ones who do think this way are usually the ones rationalizing their continued use and abuse of a substance.

By the time a person — man or woman — wakes up and realizes, “I have a problem and I have to quit,” he or she is generally way past the disease model of addiction and ready to do the kinds of things embodied by these 13 Steps.

“I have a life-threatening problem that once had me.” I find this an uplifting and yet realistic idea. The point is: your abusive habits do not have to rule you. It may be a struggle, but you can ultimately emerge triumphant. Men and women need to develop this attitude, not just about overcoming an addiction, but just about any life struggle or challenge.

One theory of substance abuse is that people are self-medicating their anxiety or depression. I find this is usually, if not always, true. The 13 ideas listed above, for the most part, serve as a good program for managing and overcoming anxiety or depression (the most common mental-emotional problems), including for men and women who don’t abuse a substance.

“The past is gone forever.” Wonderfully true. It’s not that it’s taboo to think or talk about the past. But the context must always be held in mind: The past is over. Whatever you don’t like about the past need not be true now; not if you’ve learned. As for childhood, you were largely helpless and powerless as a child. You had no choice about the fact you were born, and to whom you were born; and most of the choices that affected you were made by adults around you. As an adult, you have the power to live your own life on totally different terms, if you want to, and you definitely ought to do so if your childhood experiences were bad. Maybe you were a victim back then; but you don’t have to be a victim now. If you feel like a perpetual victim now, it’s no wonder you want to drink or drug.

I am in charge of my mind, my thoughts, and my life. Absolutely and profoundly true. If your mind drifts, you can bring it back into focus. You can learn how to better do this, and competent professionals, or even peers or loved ones, might help you. If your mind leads you to do self-defeating or self-destructive things, you — and only you — can direct it back to a life-advancing, life-fulfilling purpose. Your life ought to have a central purpose; you, and you alone, get to choose what that is. You can get all the help you want — and help is good; but in the end, it’s yourself, and only yourself, who will fix your life.

Do women need to hear this more than men? I don’t think so. Our culture is, for the most part, anti-reason and anti-rational. America, in particular, was built on rationality, productivity, rational self-interest and individualism. Those values and ideas are under assault everywhere today; absolutely everywhere, from public schools to universities to the media to politics to the culture at large.

When those values of reason, self-determination and individualism were more dominant, the false idea was that they applied more to men than to women. One of the tragic errors of feminism was that it largely rebelled against reason and individualism, removing those things as a value for women or men, and replacing them with emotionalism, subjectivism and (in politics) socialism.

If it were 1950, I’d say that women need to embrace these values of self-responsibility and rational mindfulness for themselves, just like men had been trained to do. They can still be women, but they need reason, self-responsibility and individualism just as much as men do, in order to survive, cope and flourish in life.

Today, in 2015, I’m finding (more than ever) that both men and women need help and support in becoming independent, self-governing individualists. Alcohol abuse and substance addiction certainly get in the way of that; but so do depression, anxiety and the various other maladies people tend to suffer from in their daily psychological lives.

In the end, there are no magical 12 Steps or exhaustive 13 Steps that will, in isolation, somehow fix all that ails you. At the core of any recovery program, psychotherapy or “spiritual exercise” worth the name is a deep sense of commitment to loving life and valuing self. Without those two things, any therapy or treatment program is meaningless, and any potential value it has to offer you is wiped out.

At the end of the day, you either love life and yourself, or you don’t. If you do, then you will develop the strategies and actions required to lead a rewarding and purposeful life. If you do not love life and/or yourself, you are free to start doing so … any time you choose.

When seeking help, find people who help you do so.

Age Differences? Love and Joy Trump Everything

Age Differences? Love and Joy Trump Everything

A visitor to my website writes that he has fallen in love with a woman who is fourteen years his senior. He tells me that he generally goes for people his own age, but that he’s never felt so good about any relationship. He asks if this is wrong.

First of all, congratulations! Second, my primary definition of a “wrong” relationship is one that leads to unhappiness for either or both parties. Tolerating or inflicting physical or mental abuse is wrong. Staying with someone only out of nostalgia or pity is also wrong. According to my ethical perspective, genuine happiness is never wrong. It sounds like you’re happy, and I trust your partner is as well. What could be wrong with that?

A relationship with an age difference (within legal boundaries, of course) ought to be approached like any other. Is there compatibility? Are there common values? Are there enough differences to make it interesting but not so many as to make sustained companionship impossible? Of course, there are unique aspects as well. For example, the younger person has less life experience, and the wider the age difference, the greater that challenge can be.

As in any relationship, there has to be intellectual compatibility. But mental abilities and life experience are not the same. An older person may respect how bright the younger person is, in spite of the lack of experience. People who are happy in such relationships don’t see the age difference as a challenge. The younger partner likes being with someone who has experience and wisdom; the older partner enjoys the younger partner’s youth and vigor. Issues related to age are not nearly as significant as a real connection and the ability to sustain it over time.

The late actor Tony Randall married a younger woman after his wife of many years died. He had children with the younger woman, something he and his first wife never did. I’m sure it was hard on his younger wife and kids to lose him. But would it have been better if he had never remarried, spending his final years lonely and sad? Would his widow be better off never having loved him? I say no, because I always vote for happiness above knee-jerk responses based on emotion and bias.

The most important factor is to be honest, not only with the other person but also with yourself. Can you honestly say that you would rather be with him or her than anyone else? At the end of the day, do you look forward to being with your partner? If so, then something is working, and you’re fortunate, no matter what the age difference.

Wikipedia points out that, “In some societies, age-disparate relationships are seen as aberrant or even perverse. Historically, the ‘gold digger’ mentality has been frowned upon as being akin to prostitution.” One of the easiest things to do is to be judgmental, because making a snap judgment based only on bias requires no thought. “Gold digger” does not apply where two people truly love each other. Financial circumstances can vary, but love tells the tale, and only the people involved know for sure if it’s the real thing.

Of course there are relationships that fail because of age issues. Needs and basic values can sometimes change between one’s early years and later in life. Yet, my experience has shown that it’s more the presence of extreme youth that creates the problem, rather than the age difference. The same thing applies when two young people marry, only to realize that one or both of them chose to marry too soon.

If you’re pursuing a relationship with an age disparity, and it bothers you, then try to figure out why. Are you happy with your partner, but dislike the idea of the age difference? Do you worry about what others think, even though you’re happy? Those are wrong reasons to hesitate.

If the age difference is bothering you because you genuinely feel frustration over a lack of compatibility, then that’s a valid reason for pause. But, above all, don’t let bias or baseless prejudice stand in the way of your happiness. Love and joy trump everything.

 

Is Bruce Jenner Happy?

I wish Caitlyn Jenner (once Bruce Jenner) the best, because happiness is the central purpose of life. To cite an old quote (source unknown), “Take what you want … and pay for it.”

vf-cover-bruce-jenner-july-2015

A friend and reader of mine asks: I’m accepting of people’s sexuality, but Bruce Jenner… There’s something psychologically off with him, right? He revealed his new self today, and it just seems fishy to me. I don’t believe he’s actually happy. Do you?

Is Jenner happy or unhappy? I honestly don’t know. When a person says he’s profoundly and fundamentally unhappy about being a man rather than a woman (or vice-versa), we have no choice but to believe that person. If Jenner is telling the truth, then we’re talking about living six decades in a fundamentally unhappy way. There has to be quite a strong residual effect from that, in that it’s difficult if not impossible to “snap into” happiness overnight. At the same time, if there truly is a sense of liberation at finally being able to function as oneself, it is possible that a shift into happiness could occur.

What I do know is that being a victim is not a healthy way to approach life, or the way to attain serenity, happiness or noncontradictory joy. When you’re psychologically serene, you accept what you cannot control; and you do all you can to attain full mastery over what you can control.

Many of the people speaking up for Jenner focus on his status as a victim, while implying that this victim status is the most important feature of his (or anyone’s existence), if not a virtue.

Here’s an example. A transgendered person by the name of Darya Teesewell, writing for huffingtonpost.com on 5/4/15, talked about the recent Diane Sawyer interview of Jenner:

This [Jenner’s interview with Sawyer] was not about genitalia, but about identity and transformation. I can’t remember the moment, or what Bruce said, but I burst into tears. His story was so close to mine; I felt like he was telling the world my story for me.

My wife clasped my hand, tightly. “We have to take care of you,” she said. She saw the same thing.

In the next few days, my social media feed was loaded with posts and opinions about the broadcast. To our collective amazement, consensus began to grow that it had been, on balance, a good thing for all of us. I began to think that others had seen the same thing that I saw.

There were a few outliers, as always, and one of them from the heartland typified the most common theme: “Jenner is part of the oppressor class.”

There’s something in some of the trans blowback I’ve seen about the Jenner story that reveals something deeply human. Here in the Land of Plenty, there are people who go without on a daily basis; they lack health care, nutrition and shelter. If they are trans, they often go without a kind word or a family to love them. That said, we are all products of our environment; “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” as John Steinbeck once wrote about the way Americans see themselves, when asked why socialism never took root in the U.S.A.

I was with Teesewell in the first line only: It’s not about gender, but identity. My take on this? Wanting the biological parts to match the inner identity. Wishing to make one’s physical status consistent with one’s psychological or inner identity.

If you’ve spent much or most of your life as a man when you really feel like you’re a woman, then the wonders of modern technology allow you to change your biological identity to match your psychological one. Prior to such technology — not that I’m assuming it’s perfect, but it’s credible — no such choice was possible. No matter how much you felt like a woman when you’re really a man, you’d have to accept it. Technology and science enable us to change that, if we wish and if we choose.

After that first line, Teesewell lost me. She got into themes of victimization and, of course, socialism over capitalism — when it’s actually rational technology developed by capitalism that makes the very scientific methodology of gender alteration possible. Transgendered people should get down on their (metaphorical) knees and thank reason, science and the for-profit motive of capitalism for making their desired gender transformation possible.

Another example of the victim mentality and transgenderism is from psychotherapist Mark O’Connell, who writes at psychologytoday.com:

The more we understand our own relationships to gender, the less we scapegoat our marginalized sisters and brothers who are targeted, discriminated against and attacked. By better understanding the fears we harbor about gender nonconformity in our own bodies and souls, the better we can answer the question, What is more frightening, the sight of a gender nonconforming person, or getting beaten to death?

Too many transgender people are regularly stigmatized, discriminated against, assaulted and murdered. They need our advocacy, support and protection. But fear of the unknown too often sways our thoughts toward the known instead, toward the majority of cisgender people — those who feel a match between their assigned sex and the gender they feel they are. Too many of us empathize more with the “normals” who get startled, flummoxed or bothered upon spotting transgender folks in restrooms, rather than the transgender persons themselves. (BTW, when trans people enter bathrooms, like you they most likely just want to pee).

Throughout the article, O’Connell correctly suggests that when you have an emotional reaction about something for which you have little or no facts, it can be enlightening to examine your own thoughts, ideas, assumptions and hidden premises about yourself, particularly in a taboo or often undiscussed area like sex. I don’t agree, as he might be suggesting, that there’s some kind of selfless duty for doing this. One should only do this when it helps you better understand yourself.

However, O’Connell makes more out of the transgendered person’s perceived or actual victim status than about the only question that really matters: Does changing one’s gender add to the happiness of one’s life, or take away from it? In the end, that’s what really matters.

The premise of the transgendered person is: “I’m really of the opposite sex. If I can change my biological make-up, then my psychological states and physical status will be in unison.” The proof will be in whether or not that ultimately happens. You can only ask the transgendered person who makes the transition, and you’ll have to take his or her word for it.

Many people are thinking and writing that Jenner just wants attention. Decades ago he was a world famous Olympic athlete. He’s tired of being out of the limelight, so now he has manufactured an issue to get back into it, some say. While it’s possible Jenner might miss being in the limelight, I doubt very much he would go to the trouble of changing his gender merely to do so. Most of us would not take that kind of a step in order to attain any goal. It seems unlikely if not preposterous that Jenner would become a woman solely to get attention, fame and money. Also, there are other people who feel a need to change their gender, and it has nothing to do with being in the limelight, since they never were (on the scale of Jenner, at least) in the limelight in the first place. There’s got to be more to it than that.

Then there’s morality. According to most conventional or traditional approaches to morality, you must accept yourself as God or Nature made you. On this premise, it’s wrong to even consider something like a gender change, even if it were even easier to attain than it currently is.

I reject this premise, as must anyone who benefits from tampering with nature as we know it. Human beings alter their bodies and their environments in ways to achieve better results for themselves all the time. That’s the whole point of both science and capitalism: to enable personal growth and human advancement, for the sake of human beings and the things that they value. We utilize fossil fuels, despite the disadvantages, because on the whole it makes life immensely safer, longer and more comfortable than the alternative of going without fossil fuels. We fly on airplanes despite the risks because, on the whole, it makes life far more efficient, enjoyable and comfortable than would otherwise be the case. More personally, some of us engage in plastic surgery (rationally and responsibly), wear makeup, get hair transplants and do other things to alter our body and/or bodily processes in order to attain more personal happiness. If you do such things out of anxiety or mindless compulsion, they won’t bring you happiness, and the same applies to something more dramatic such as gender change. But I see no reason to rule out gender change on principle, any more than to rule out any of these other things, which I have seen, many times, can and do contribute to a person’s sense of well-being and happiness.

Also, we have to make a psychological distinction here. Sexuality (in the sense of sexual orientation) and sexual identity are two different things. If you talk to a gay or lesbian man or woman, you’ll generally find someone comfortable with his or her gender identity. The gay man does not wish to become a woman; and the lesbian woman does not wish to become a man. A gay man wants to be a man, and wishes to be sexually with other men because they are men. (Ditto for lesbians.) The specifics will vary from individual to individual, but that’s the basic psychological essence of it.

A transgendered person, on the other hand, does not wish to retain the gender he or she has. We’re not talking about someone who’s a man and who is sexually and romantically attracted to the same gender; we’re talking about a man attracted to other men because he feels he’s actually a woman (and vice-versa).

Could this be based on erroneous thinking? Possibly. Maybe the woman struggling to become a man should simply accept that she’s a lesbian, work with it, and strive to establish sexually fulfilling romantic relationships with other women. Maybe the man who thinks he’s really a woman has unnecessarily rigid ideas about what constitutes masculinity or femininity, and is trying to force himself into that box. However, in the few cases I have met or worked with transgendered individuals, this is not what they say. In fact, they will sometimes say they try this approach, of simply accepting oneself as is, but there’s something hollow and wrong about it to them, not because they have any objection to being gay or lesbian, but rather because they’re a “woman trapped in a man’s body,” or vice-versa.

Is Jenner happy or unhappy? I honestly don’t know. I don’t believe all the media attention is a net positive for Jenner. Whenever someone becomes a celebrity in some context (regardless of the scale), there is a lot of phoniness surrounding the person. People attain a sense of self-worth and self-esteem merely from being around someone who is of celebrity status. A lot of people likewise gain a sense of faux self-esteem from being seen as liberal, compassionate, open-minded and so forth. In these two contexts, people fawning over Jenner and talking about what a victim she is, and how evil (capitalist, American, materialistic) forces have prevented her from being her real self, are really doing this just to be acceptable in the eyes of their like-minded friends, because those are the socially acceptable and “cool” attitudes to be seen as having. I expect that a lot of this celebrity upheaval could be a very lonely experience for Jenner, rivaling anything he/she might have gone through in the years of loneliness and unhappiness over being the wrong gender.

Time will tell. I wish Caitlyn Jenner (once Bruce Jenner) the best, because happiness is the central purpose of life. To cite an old quote (source unknown), “Take what you want … and pay for it.”

— Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of “Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)” and “Grow Up America!” Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.