Smoother Sailing

An English officer is conducting an exam interview with a candidate for the Royal Navy.

Examiner: “Suppose you’re the captain of a tall ship and the wind is blowing you towards the rocks. What would you do?” Sailor: “I’d tack to starboard and ask for more sails.” Examiner: “All right, but what if there’s more wind blowing your ship towards the rocks?” Sailor: “I’d continue to tack to starboard and add another sail.” This went on for a while until the examiner asked impatiently, “Where are you getting all these sails from, son?” Sailor: “The same place you’re getting all that wind from, sir.”

My father was a former enthusiast of balmy weather, marine tranquility, and unruffled yachting. Ironically, he was less than steady-going when it came to operating automotive vehicles. During family trips to the beach in a 1972 Ford station wagon, he would employ his annoying habit of accelerating and slowing down unnecessarily—subsequently “driving” my mother crazy. To be fair, cruise control wasn’t a standard feature in cars until a global oil crisis eventually popularized auto-pilot locomotion, but it fascinated me how psychomotor agitation can manifest itself in unusual ways.

A familiar phrase in recovery-based therapy is “trust the process.” Without asking the obvious question about what exact process we are supposed to be trusting, I would circumvent this platitude and point out that we’re always in process. From circadian rhythms to the planet’s gravitational trajectory that generates oceanic tides, processes are both necessary and unavoidable—regardless of whether you trust them or not. Furthermore, stability is dependent on the consistency of patterns and maintaining temperate velocities within a dynamic range. However, abrupt changes in the weather are sometimes less troublesome than abrupt changes in our emotional barometer. Discovering our optimum range of functioning, both internally and interpersonally, keeps us from treading water in the self-imposed slavery of our insatiable appetites or drowning in conflict.

Pathology is generally determined by the amount of friction you create for yourself or others over time. It’s better to know in advance what you can realistically manage before heading for the tempestuous waves of overcommitment. Mental hygiene is just as important as your dental hygiene, and taking time to concede the limitations of resilience will allow you to prioritize solutions before capsizing in the wake of oncoming stressors. For example, you could blame Poseidon for inundating you with unmanageable tsunamis, but it might be worth acknowledging the physics of plate tectonics, the reality of unpredictable circumstances, and how to prepare for navigating the inlets of future trauma.

If Cthulhu devours your sails while the wind continues to blow you towards the rocks, you may need to man the oars at a steadier pace to keep your vessel away from unceasing winds.


It occurred to me that my speech or my silence, indeed any action of mine, would be a mere futility. — Joseph Conrad

Warning: Reader discretion is advised.

I once composed a contumacious and facetious reggae song entitled “Fuck It All Man”—emphasizing the word man with an unmistakeable Jamaican accent—during the recklessness of my evanescent youth. This creative gesture of nihilistic heroism has since been replaced with more commercially accessible (and successful) counterparts, but I remain amused at my melodic efforts to capture the crux of futility and exasperation at a relatively young age. Nonetheless, I also realize this phenomenon continues to plague me whenever my capacity for distress tolerance reaches its breaking point—albeit more euphemistically. As the proverbial rubric would have us believe, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

I’ve always been fascinated with individuals who can cope with a significant amount of stress from multiple domains while evoking an air of natural insouciance. Perhaps my genetic disposition loiters on the fringes of a Cluster C playground, but the overwhelming desire to “not give a shit anymore” will always be just below the surface whenever my potential for reaching maximum annoyance looms on the interpersonal horizon. I suppose the primary difference between then and now has been my ability to maintain composure in the midst of incredulous irritation. Granted, this hasn’t always been easy, and I remember a time when locating the quickest (and cheapest) escape hatch was more important than focusing on the gravity of obstacles in front of me.

Being a therapist requires observational tactics that demand conformity to the principles of emotional regulation and vigilance. Distress tolerance, by necessity, has to become a two-way street. The therapist must be just as willing to play ball with their client in the department of self-regulation if any therapeutic progress is to be achieved. Knowing what it feels like to be calm makes it easier way to return to that space if the fluctuation of circumstance tweaks the engine of anxiety. Relaxation via visualization or biofeedback can build dividends in the episodic memory bank of relative tranquility. However, if a refractory situation requires us to engage the sympathetic nervous system, it wouldn’t hurt to defuse these unavoidable confrontations with minimal damage. After all, biting your lip is better than grinding your teeth when it comes to enduring the liabilities of stress. There are few, if any, problems worth sustaining an indelible injury to one’s mental health.

Let’s not be mistaken, I reserve a special affinity for those who know exactly when to say quit. Eternally pushing on a door that says “pull” is tantamount to listening to Zac Efron on auto-repeat. Unable to lie to myself about all things sordid, I periodically espouse a brand of “neo-nihilism” that rivals Arthur Schopenhauer on a bad day. Sometimes the best thing to do requires letting go of preconceived outcomes—regardless of the emotional investment. Cutting losses and learning to consolidate can be skills that are undervalued in our search for unrestrained optimism. However, keeping things on a realistic continuum isn’t a mandate for card-carrying anarchy. Psychologically buffering the impact of losses and gains is more important than stubbornly anticipating either negative or positive results.

When the desire to reflexively say “fuck it” overrides our willingness to “deal with it,” the aftermath allows inertia and entropy to claim full sovereignty—which they will readily claim anyway (don’t give it away so soon). The art of recovering your motivation for living is to think of stressful situations as challenges rather than sources of devastation. Then again, sometimes you just have to say what you really feel.


Reversing Rigidity

Neither separateness nor union is the goal of the therapeutic process, but rather the exhortation of the endless and often painful undulation between them. — Walter Kempler

Many philosophical, political, and ethical topics are conveniently bifurcated, buffered, or dismissed simply because of the psychological implications involved when addressing the fact that most situations in life require a willingness to challenge comforting intuitions, biased assumptions, and developmentally imbedded preconceptions.

Walter Kempler, the American psychiatrist who worked closely with Fritz Perls (founder of Gestalt therapy), noticed an indispensable continuity within experiential and existential modes of ontological awareness that was pivotal to the outcomes of long-term emotional equanimity. Kempler focused on the importance of accepting disappointment, challenging intuitions, confronting obscurity, and developing a capacity for compromise and resilience in the face of uncertainty. From an existentialist viewpoint, an inability to cope with impermanence predominates when a denial of change persists. Likewise, experience sculpts perception and the type of experience often measures an individual’s ability to emotionally process and reflect on life events in a healthy, congruous manner. Ideally, a regulatory flexibility should occur that enables one to adapt to change while realistically assessing and differentiating actual threats to survival from situational inconveniences. “Oriented to an exploration of the resistances to experience” was Kempler’s philosophical position, and realistic compromise is the necessary ingredient to facilitate life transitions.

Similarly, a parallel analogy of this conceptual framework can be demonstrated in modern theoretical physics. For centuries cosmologists adhered to an Aristotelian model in which distinct realms of existence were defined by the idea that the earth was the orbital center for all celestial bodies. In the seventeenth century, this antiquated model of astronomy (otherwise known as the geocentric model) was replaced by a less rigid cosmological system known as the Newtonian model. Eventually, as the scientific community learned about general relativity, the expansion of the universe, and the counterintuitiveness of quantum mechanics, a very open-structured system known as the relational model acquired preeminence. The relational model, simply put, describes how the principle of perpetual fluctuation in the cosmos dictates that no point is any more significant than any other point in a spectrum of physical “relationships.” No longer are we saddled with a static hierarchy of definitive boundaries. The universe is unconstrained by stationary layers and the random particle relationships result in an infinite recombination during the interchangeable dance of mass and energy.

So what does this have to do with psychotherapy? An acknowledgment of the human need for safety, comfort, and security cannot be dismissed; however, in a world where change is inevitable, the ability to acquiesce to shifting parameters in the social landscape becomes a vital coping skill. Life is ephemeral and relationships between family members, friends, lovers, co-workers, and strangers involve complicated forms of exchange that require malleability, openness, and the willingness to reduce unrealistic expectations while relinquishing the desire for control. Humans encounter a plethora of goals, drives, beliefs, and ideas on the platform of daily interaction; more importantly, navigating this myriad of experiential diversity requires a mindset capable of eschewing simplistic black and white thinking. However, this does not mean that all positions or beliefs are relative. Clearly, many inquiries do have right and wrong answers based on objective methodologies that produce reliable and verifiable results, but our approach should include the realization that relationships and communication are based on process rather than destination (for example, field theory strategy in Gestalt therapy recognizes structures and relationships as dynamic rather than fixed).

Being “okay with the gray” is another way to think about reducing the black and white hues of cognition to enhance emotional and behavioral regulation, improve interpersonal effectiveness, and increase our level of distress tolerance when dealing with life’s acute or chronic adjustments. No matter how much impassioned momentum or emotional dividends we have acquired from certainty, reversing rigidity is a developmental process worth experiencing.