Olga Khazan: Do you call this approach something? This idea that you’re going to not obsess about closure, or the roots of your problems, and focus more on solutions—is that a certain branch of psychology?
Michael Bennett: The important thing is not what therapy you follow but that you stay grounded in common sense, and whatever therapy or therapies you're pursuing, you ask yourself repeatedly, have I reached my limit? Has this taken me as far as I’m going to go? So that you don't get stuck in the “if I did it better” or “if I did it longer” or “if I found a better therapist.” And it’s more, “Has this taken me as far as I’m going to go, and what am I going to do now?” Once you've done that, there are some therapies and, maybe more appropriately some therapists, that are good at picking things up from that point and being good coaches. Sometimes the “feeling” part of it is sort of valuing who you are and what you’re trying to do with yourself. And some therapists are really good coaches and others aren’t.
We certainly share a lot with DBT, a kind of CBT for people who have intensely destructive feelings—dialectic behavioral therapy. Particularly because it started out with the idea that it was directly for people who were suffering terribly. This treatment won’t make you feel better, but it will prevent you from feeling worse by helping you control your behavior.
The idea that there's so much life you don't control, and to accept that and still be a person, is still very hard. I think there's a core of that in Judaism and Christ parables, and in Buddhism. So there's nothing new about this. Sometimes it sounds very 19th century when we’re saying [that] sometimes when you feel strongly and you need to communicate, you're still going to do better to shut the fuck up.
Khazan: How would you sum up your approach to life’s problems, whether it’s love or childhood issues, or work?
Sarah Bennett: The first step is accepting what you can't control. So many people who come to my father—they want something they can't have. They want a happy relationship that’s never going to be happy, or they want opportunities that are not easy to come by.
So it's going into accepting what you can't control, the factors that are out of your hands, and seeing what you can do with what you can control. And learning to be proud of yourself not just for accomplishing what you can, and not beating yourself up for what you can't. Not seeing yourself as a failure, when you haven’t really failed because it’s not something that you could have controlled in the first place. And admiring your ability to withstand a feeling of rejection, and the frustration and the pain, and keep going on towards a more reasonable goal while being a good person. That’s also what’s emphasized so heavily. Figuring out your own values and sticking to them.
Michael: A big part of this—and it’s so hard to capture—is being able to laugh at how much life sucks. If you can laugh at it, you don’t take it as personally. That moment when you can laugh at how much life sucks and open your mind to the idea that, there you are. What are you gonna do?
Khazan: How would you say that this differs from other advice that you see out there? What’s the main difference between you and a lot of the other “how to be more content” books?
Sarah: Well, from what we know—and we are two people that have never read a self-help book—they seem to put the onus for happiness on the reader. I've had too many friends who made Secret collages. And that makes it seem like, if you made your collage as prescribed by [the pseudoscientific self-help book] The Secret, and you’re not happy, you screwed up. When that’s not really fair to you. You could wake up that morning determined to be happy, and the first step you take out of your building is into dog shit, and now you’re unhappy, but you didn’t put the dog shit there. It's not your fault. You really can't control your happiness, no matter what a book says.
Michael: I think there ought to be a law that you spend a certain amount of time right up front looking for the limit and preparing yourself for it. ... You go in the hospital and right away you start to think about what the limits are—what does it mean if things don't go right? Where is the point where you’ve had enough? People are ready to think like that, and they’re starting to think like that about medical problems. We should think like that about psychiatric problems.
Khazan: It sounds like setting your own personal standards and values is key to your philosophy, and it also sounds like those can vary pretty widely from individual to individual. So maybe you don’t become the happiest person you know, but you just become a functional, occasional curmudgeon.
Michael: It comes from my experience—certainly in my life but also with my patients I knew in the mental hospital, many of whom had to live life with severe deficits. But some of them became such good people. They helped one another. They dealt with pain and disability. They were heroes. Sometimes I’d be reminded of what Viktor Frankl wrote about concentration-camp survivors: that life achieves meaning not by what happens to you, or whether you live or die or get over a disability, but in what you do with it. And some of those people were just inspirational to be around.
Khazan: I know that the title is a little bit glib, but do you think there’s any downside in walling off your emotions or not necessarily exploring the roots of your emotions too deeply?
Sarah: We always try and make sure that people know that we don’t hate feelings in general. That we aren’t total Vulcans. But this is more of a book about solving problems. It’s to not make feelings the most important factor in how you would approach a problem. In terms of getting to the source of problems, the issue with that is a lot of people think about it like, “If I can remember where I last saw my keys, then I can get them and everything will be okay.” If you can get to where you last or where you first saw this issue, that doesn’t make the issue go away.
Sometimes the search for the source of a problem can be a distraction, and it can also be a disappointment. A lot of the time, knowing why, for example, you pathologically cheat on partners, and you can say, “Aha, it’s because my dad was a jerk and he cheated on my mom.” That isn’t immediately going to flip a switch in your brain and make you monogamous.
What’s the real result? Will it just be rumination on all these bad things that have happened to me? Or, what is a more active action I can pursue that can have a more possible positive and constructive outcome?
Michael: We know … getting at what you really feel can be liberating, and important. There’s nothing against having that emotional catharsis two or three times and seeing where it gets you, but there’s some point where you’re still often left with some really severe limitations and have to deal with them. And if you don't get past the emotions, if you don’t stop seeking emotional resolution or improvement, you really get stuck.
Sarah: One of my favorite jokes in the book—and it is not mine, it’s something my father said—is in the context of couples' therapy. Which is that saying what you really feel is like letting go of intestinal gas: It leads to a moment of catharsis but it poisons the air for everyone around you.
Michael: I’ve also seen cases where people had their sorrow and they had expressed it, and they knew where they were at, and still they needed to move on. They had to just acknowledge that the pain wasn't going to go away. It was always going to tear at them negatively and they were going to have to fight it in a more cognitive way—they were going to have to determine that according to their values, it was still worth moving ahead. That there were things in their life that had value, even if the pain wouldn’t go away.
Khazan: At same time, while you guys aren’t pro-letting your emotions drive you, you do say that you’re pro-profanity. Do you want to explain that?
Sarah: It's not profanity said out of rage—it's profanity said, for example, like my father says it to patients at the beginning of the process, it’s to make them laugh. A lot of people who go to a shrink for the first time … they think Freud is going to be in the room. And then there's a goofy Canadian in a mustache who uses dirty words.
Our support of profanity isn’t that we think people should get up and scream horrible things at other people, but it's about helping people to get a sense of humor about what bothers them. As my father said, to take things less personally.
Khazan: When you talk about acceptance, accepting things you don’t have control over, what are some techniques? I feel like I try that sometimes—this is crappy, and I can’t do anything about this, but it still kind of bothers me. Do you have any tips on how people can do that better?
Sarah: He has more constructive ones, but earlier we were talking about values. That’s where this comes in a lot. Because if it’s a problem, it’s still a fucking problem, and every day I deal with it, but I still meet up to my standards of a good person. I’m still good to my friends or good to my kids, I get my job done. I’m not horrible to strangers. I'm good to my parents. All the little things that you think are important in your day-to-day life. And that's the consolation.
It's hard to continue to do what you think is important when you're faced with something shitty on a daily basis. Some people deal with that, and they become shitty to their kids, they become mean to people around them, they get fired from their job because they stop showing up. You deserve to give yourself a pat on the back for living a normal life in adverse circumstances.
Michael: It’s sort of an axiom of cognitive therapy that when you're unhappy, your thoughts are going to be negative and self-critical. You're going to wonder what you did wrong, what you could have done and should have done.
Part of it is going through a cognitive exercise and really trying to determine, “Did I do a good enough job?” Because if I did, I'm going to shut this investigation down. I know I will never be fully satisfied with how I behaved, but if I go through an investigation and try to look at it rationally, and with friends and be open about it, and I think I’ve done a good enough job, I'm going to try to take a stand on that. Much as I would have if I just went through either a legal or workplace investigation of something that didn’t go right.
You assume that your feelings are going to tell you, since you’re unhappy, that you did something wrong. But that if you can do an inventory based on your own values, you're really doing a good job. And you’re doing a good job in spite of the fact that you’re miserable. That deserves higher praise. I think that’s sort of a basic paradox—that to live with pain and still be a decent person and make a living is a much higher achievement. It’s what you do when you’re not happy that’s so telling.
Sarah: The other litmus test, too, that’s extremely helpful for me—I can be very self-critical—is when I think things like “I could have done that better” [or] “that was so stupid,” would I say that to a friend if they came to me? No! I would be encouraging, I would point out the positives. It’s always good to take yourself out of the situation and ask yourself, would I judge someone else I care about in this way?
Khazan: One thing that’s interesting in the love chapter, it seems like sex is not necessarily seen as the highest priority in a relationship. I wonder how you reached that conclusion and whether you think that’s controversial at all in your field? A lot of the messages we get about relationships are that once you get everything figured out sexually, the whole ship rights itself.
Michael: I think that expectation is really dangerous. A partnership with all that life throws at you, and even more stuff that gets thrown at you when you have a kid. It's really hard, and you're tired and angry, and if in addition to that you expect the feelings to be positive and loving and warm, you just feel like a horrible loser.
Whereas if you've gone into with more common sense, and a sense that this is really somebody you want to be with, but you’ve also checked them out, and they’re solid, and they’re not using substances, and they want to go the same way you do, and if you want to have kids, that that’s what they want too, and that they're good in a pinch and good in an emergency—in other words, you've thought a bit about the job description, and the values somebody has to really be a good partner in life. Then you're much more likely 10 or 20 years later to really love them.
I've seen people through a lot of divorces. Divorces never seem to be because “I fell out of love with you.” Divorces are much more partnership issues: “I love you but I can't stand the way you've spent us into the poorhouse, or the way you never do your job, or you’re always out at night drinking, or a certain way you never accept me and you never did, I thought you would someday.” It all has to do with partnership issues.
Sarah: People also, over the course of long relationships—their interests change, and their interest in sex changes. If you are with someone that you have vetted in this way, that you know is reliable, that you know you can trust in certain ways, that you have a more substantial connection with, [then] if the sex fades you have less to worry about. Sex and attraction are two more things you really can’t control. Especially when you get older. It's part of your physiology that really isn’t in your hands.
Holding yourself responsible and your relationship responsible for having the same chemistry you once had when you first met in your 20s, and you’re now in your 50s, is really not fair.
Khazan: One thing that surprised me—at one point you say, if you have an asshole parent, that as an adult you shouldn’t worry so much about forgiving them if you were traumatized by your childhood. Could you explain the thinking behind that?
Michael: If you find that your parent is one of those people who is really just a jerk, it's sort of like forgiving a cockroach for being a cockroach, or a snake for being a snake. Forgiveness tends to assume that people had a choice and made a bad choice. Whereas, what I think you run into more often is somebody who didn't really have a choice, they're just bad.
The one you want to forgive is God, for having to live in a world where jerks have as many kids as anyone else. It’s less personal. I think in some ways it frees you up more to realize that [your parent] did what they did because they’re built that way.
Sarah: What people seem to conflate forgiveness with is getting someone to admit what they did, and to beg for forgiveness. When you’re dealing with someone who’s an asshole, that’s never going to happen. Let it go in a way that you don't feel compelled to [wait] for them to have that revelation. Because waiting for that is probably going to be painful or disappointing.