In order that I might, from time to time, offer my thoughts on issues that arise in therapy sessions as well as generic issues shared by many of my patients —without any personal reference, of course—I have shared a few reflections on this page. I hope that they may be of some benefit to you.
Lessons from George
These reflections are based on a dialogue I had many years ago with an Inuk friend, George. We would discuss many things, including issues of mental health, but even discussions on other subjects would inevitably be applicable to my work with patients.
My friend lives approximately 2000 miles north of Ottawa in the Canadian Arctic, and we haven’t been in touch for many years now, but I still hold very dear the “jewels” in his many stories about life in the Arctic. I could share many of George’s stories, and I might do so over the coming years; but for now, I’ve included only a few below:
George explained to me that grandparents have a significant role as teachers for Inuk children as parents are often busy attending to necessary day-to-day activities to sustain their family. Grandparents often teach through storytelling and help children experience their environment through an intense focus on sensation and perception. Children are taught to learn with all their senses. For example, if someone were to present an Inuk person with something that was very new to them, they would very quickly name five things the new object feels like, smells like, looks like, tastes like, etc. Another example would be that people of the North have many different words for snow, each referring to differences in texture, weight, and density, for instance.
George explained that there is no word in Inuktitut specifically for depression. The word which comes closest to describing depression, however, is the Inuktitut word for homesickness, but not how we might understand it. For the Inuk, George explained, homesickness is not longing for a specific place or person: it means longing for the time when one learned with all their senses, a time when grandparents opened up a world of novel experiences for children through new, exquisitely discrete perceptions. It was a time when children were willing to learn.
Openness to learning, curiosity, and a childlike sense of humility are all critical to well-being. Very often, someone who is depressed will experience a sense of futility. “I’ve seen it all,” “I’ve tried everything.” Hopelessness makes a depressed person disinclined to believe they could learn anything new and helpful. For the Inuk, homesickness (or depression) could be solved by returning to a state of mind in which we are open to learning.
Once, George and I were discussing the terrible affliction that many people in the North are faced with: addiction. George appeared uninterested by suggestions that constitutional predisposition or other physical or genetic factors were responsible. His focus was on the intense feelings of shame and humiliation experienced by Inuk who use any substance whatsoever, even the first time. He explained that experiencing such feelings is overwhelmingly devastating for an Inuk person because of the way their community would react toward them.
George described Inuk communities as being very communitarian. Whatever any member of the community might need would be provided by another member of the community who was in a position to do so. For example, skilled hunters would provide for those who were not so successful. The quality of this support depended a great deal on paying attention to one another. Understanding this relationship is essential to understanding the devastating consequences of mood-altering substances, at least from George’s point of view.
As George explained it, before the white fathers from the south came up north to teach them what to feel guilty about, there was no word in Inuktitut that meant guilt. He further explained that the Inuktitut word that comes closest to describing guilt is a word that means “not paying attention.” So someone who is self-absorbed as a result of being intoxicated or inebriated will feel a strong sense of shame and humiliation for not paying attention to their community.
This is something which I believe is well understood in the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step program, for example. I also find it quite beneficial for patients to explore the substance-abuse-related feeling of shame for withdrawing from community and not paying attention to others.
Knowing how to help someone who’s in distress is not always easy. Often, their distress causes us distress, and then it can become quite confusing as to whom we’re trying to help: us or them.
George tells the story of a hunt. You might recall in an earlier note how important grandparents are with respect to teaching children. George revered his grandfather and would often judge his own behaviour according to what his grandfather might have advised him. On this particular occasion, George was 14 years old and his cousin, 12. The two of them set off on a caribou hunt alone. They took with them only a Ski-Doo, a rifle, and the teachings of George’s grandfather. They were maybe 15 kilometres from the settlement when, suddenly, they were met with a blinding snow storm.
One shouldn’t travel across the tundra during a whiteout because there are crevasses that become completely invisible into which you could plummet to your death. Their grandfather had explained that if ever they were caught in a blizzard, they should use the caribou’s carcass as a lean-to of sorts against the wind. They should also drink as much of the caribou’s blood and eat as much of its meat as possible to sustain themselves against the cold. George and his cousin did exactly that.
Their grandfather had also explained that when they woke up, they should immediately test their fingers and toes to determine whether or not they were freezing. I have no idea whether this is true, but their grandfather insisted that it was impossible to freeze before waking, if only for that one critical moment. Their grandfather had explained that if George were to go back to sleep, he would most likely freeze to death.
George woke up before his cousin, and sure enough, he could feel neither his fingers nor his toes, nor could he wiggle them. So he did as his grandfather had instructed and rolled onto his belly, got to his knees, and gradually moved his limbs to stimulate blood flow in his extremities. If you have ever sustained frostbite to any body part you would know how painful it can be. George said he had never felt such pain. Yet while he was frightened, he never lost faith in the belief that his grandfather’s instructions were the only way to survive and that he would indeed survive.
His cousin still wasn’t awake, and George recalled what his grandfather had said: his cousin’s body would be able to create enough heat to move blood to his extremities only if he moved on his own. George was not to assist his cousin except by verbal encouragement. George knew that, were he to try and return to the settlement and come back before his cousin froze to death, he would likely be unsuccessful.
His cousin opened his eyes and looked as if he were going to immediately fall back to sleep, at which point George barked at him to stay awake and test his fingers and toes. When George’s cousin felt that they were freezing, he panicked, started to cry, and insisted that George take him back to the settlement immediately. George insisted that he could not take him as it would put his cousin’s life at risk. Instead, he encouraged his cousin to roll over onto his belly and start moving.
Screaming in pain and fear, his cousin complained that it was too difficult, that it hurt too much. Why wasn’t George helping him and taking him back to the settlement? George was sorely tempted to help. He had now become very worried about his cousin’s condition and frightened of this new sense of obligation and responsibility toward his cousin. Fearing for his cousin’s life, he, too, wanted to hurry back to the settlement. But a 15-kilometre ride, even by Ski-Doo, was far too long, and George knew it.
So he remained faithful to his grandfather’s teachings refused to physically rescue his cousin, despite his cousin’s insistence. He encouraged his cousin not to be afraid maintaining his role as coach, letting him know that he would be okay as long as he forced himself to move.
George believed his grandfather, and eventually, his cousin believed George. The story has a happy ending, although George’s cousin lost a toe. They returned to the settlement safely and triumphantly with a partially eaten caribou carcass. Perhaps, we might all benefit from the wisdom of George’s grandfather.
Not Taking Things Personally
There are few concepts which create more consternation for patients than the concept of not taking other people’s behaviour personally. “How can I not take personally my wife’s affair… my boss’s harassment of me… my friend’s betrayal?” To be sure, these behaviours are painful, sometimes devastating, and often blamed on the victim. “I wouldn’t have had an affair if you had just made yourself more appealing… I wouldn’t have to yell at you if you would just do your job properly. And besides, this is normal in the industry, so, suck it up… If you weren’t so sensitive, I would have included you.”
Feelings of rejection, humiliation, and abandonment are understandable in these circumstances. They’re all the more painful when you believe that the other person would not have behaved that way with someone else; someone who was more attractive, more competent, or more independent. This experience often supports persistent feelings of low self-esteem (“I am such a loser”) or anger (“How dare he do that to me”) which, in turn, inevitably lead to self-defeating behaviours.
Sometimes, a patient’s observation may, in fact, be accurate: the perpetrator may well have behaved differently with someone else. But that is beside the point. People behave as they do: they make a choice given the circumstances they perceive, their objectives, and the values by which they evaluate their own actions. The fact that the perpetrator would behave in one way with our victim and differently with others is indicative only of the perpetrator’s character, not the victim’s.
By taking things personally, one takes responsibility in a sense for the other person’s behaviour. “They do that because they don’t care about me. I just don’t matter to them.” In fact, you might, indeed, wish you were more significant in the other persons consideration, when the reality might well be that the other person was not considering you at all. Consider for example, phrases that one might frequently hear… “after all the things I have done for you!”... “If you cared about me you would have remembered” … “Why am I not enough for you?”. In other words, it might be necessary for a victim to grieve the loss of the wished-for partner, boss, or friend.
When people feel angry or sad due to how someone else is treating them, they might feel deprived, betrayed, or that they aren’t getting what they deserve. In contrast, those who are least likely to take another person’s behaviour personally are people who don’t believe the world owes them anything. They may reasonably expect their partner to be faithful, their friend to be loyal, their boss to respect them, and to some extent, they would be legally entitled to these expectations. Should these expectations not be fulfilled, however, their reaction would less likely be controlling (i.e. anger) and more likely be problem-solving even if that means letting go of the expectation and grieving the loss of the wished-for partner or friend.
Often, the best way to stop taking things personally is to determine how one may blame others for one’s own actions. “If it weren’t for the fact that my parents overprotected me, I might’ve been better able to stand up for myself.” Assuming that others are responsible for our behaviour is no more correct than assuming that we are responsible for their behaviour.
How other people behave is a reflection of their own values, choices, and limitations. The same applies to us. We might wish another person were different, but we are not entitled to change them any more than they are entitled to change us. Ultimately, understanding how to not take another person’s behaviour personally requires an understanding of boundaries, responsibility, blame, and entitlement, as well as grieving what the other person is not and may never be. It’s small wonder that not taking things personally presents such a challenge.