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The psychological significance of your purse, phone, and other seemingly ordinary objects


Life is one big Rorschach test, as far as I am concerned. When out in the world I may look like I am shopping or doing chores, but in fact, what I am doing while I do those things is reading ordinary objects as a way to understand  the unconscious aspects of people that I see in line at Trader Joe’s. Going to Costco for me is more like attending one big Sandplay convention, each person’s cart is a story that is so much for than just jumbo size Cheerios and a 48-pack of toilet paper, it is a container symbolizing the opposites—holding they life they have and, also, the life they want to have. Outfits are much the same, how we dress says a lot about our psyches— our sartorial signifiers reveal more about us than we might like them to and certainly more than we are willing to say out loud. Truly, everywhere you go there are symbols that surrounds us that look like mere ordinary objects and choices—ol;y they are more. If I could be known for a quote I might like it to be, ‘there are no small choices only small awarenesses of those choices.” I know it’s not as catchy as “don’t worry be happy” and even less likely to be made into a song by Bobby McFarren.

The question of “what’s in your bag” was a magazine and blogging phenomenon. It was so big that I actually think a psychological paper ought to be written about the meaning of our interest about “what’s in the bag?”. There is, me thinks, a kind of voyeurism and, to some degree, exhibitionism in it. LeAnn Melat wrote a PhD dissertation on “The mythical and psychological meaning of a woman’s purse”. I haven’t read it yet but I wonder if LeAnn might give is insight into why we are so curious about what goes on inside all those purses.

Melat gives us some clues : “Modern women almost always take their valuables and essentials with them in purses when they leave their homes, but psychologically, what are they actually reenacting with such ritualistic consistency? One theory of this hermeneutical discussion is that earlier historical feminine rituals are unconsciously reflected in today’s purse behavior. Because Western culture has devalued and underrated characteristics of the archetypal feminine, the repressed, but not lost, archaic traits of the feminine just may be symbolically stuffed away in the shadowy recesses of the purse, waiting to be reintegrated into feminine consciousness. Hestia was primarily the contained essence of each Greek home, and perhaps the modern purse as a psychic vessel of the feminine is related to this goddess’s archetypal realm. Through the purse’s Hermetic connection, the Hestian vessel is able to leave the home and be carried into the world, even though mythically, Hestia never wanted to leave the protected interior under any condition. Even when Dionysos wanted to be admitted to the Greek Pantheon, Hestia gladly relinquished her royal position because she simply did not want to be out, known, or exposed. In many ways, this act put the Goddess Hestia in the role of the thirteenth fairy, the uninvited, unacknowledged guest. We must ask ourselves when Hestia retired herself from view, what became unrecognized in the essential feminine nature? Through the patriarchy’s steady devaluation of the feminine, the contemporary woman has lost her quintessential, central core, which should be carried inside of her soul, unseen, like Hestia’s ember. Instead, she carries something representative of her sacred nature on the outside, on her shoulder or in her hand, as she leaves home gripping her purse. The authentic feminine essence of the modern her lost powers, an aberrant behavior, which manifests from the patriarchal culture’s pathology. Because her interior world has been so dishonored, today’s woman has extroverted what’s left of her value by carrying her essence in her symbolic sacred container, her purse, in much the same way as she dresses for success by attempting to measure up to the patriarchal values.”

Pamela Poole, writer and blogger , and cofounder of Cowgirl App!,” the app review site that doesn’t smell like Doritos and armpits”, wanted to know the deep and dark secrets of my iPhone. She kindly invited me to share “What is on my iPhone“. Not surprisingly these questions led to some significant psychological insight, which is not surprising as, to my mind, the phone is the Transitional Object of our time. If Freud was alive today I feel sure he would want to analyze his patients phone use ( you can’t imagine how often iPhones come up in session) and he would say, “Sometimes( actually most of the time) a phone is not just a phone.” An iPhone or a Blackberry is not just a phone, rather it is a container loaded with psychological significance. And, I think, that it serves as a kind of long-distance umbilical cord that allows us to feel connected and not-alone, no matter where we are. All you have to do is look at people’s relationship to their phone, and see how it is serves as an ever-present binkey for some, to see what a powerful symbol it it.

I am not going to give away the insights that I uncovered in the interview…as I do hope that you go over to Pamela’ and check it out.  I do warn you that a good part of the interview reveals a good deal of  my shadowy-silly self, as I even admit my most embarrassing app.  Please check out the interview here.

Also, here is a great post about the psychoanalytic symbolism of ordinary objects.

Fork U: Choice, cheesecake, adulthood and the importance of anxiety

Fork-in-the-RoadThe day I enrolled in Fork U was a bad day. I was in a bad mood, a really bad mood. I might, to you, seem like a nice-enough person who is incapable of channeling Beelzebub or any other lower-level deities that might or might not inhabit Dante’s Inferno, however, on this day that I speak of I was a flat out bitch. Why, you ask?  Well, it was a combination of PMS, Christmas stress, exhaustion, disappointment about having to cancel a trip to Hawaii and infertility grief that all came together and made me an irritable and unhappy person who should have had a sign around her neck, “Stay 500-feet away from this woman unless you want to get your head bit off.” Sadly, I didn’t have such a sign on and my good friend made the mistake of going to lunch with me. As I picked at my Cheesecake Factory salmon, I tried to smile and hide my acrimonious attitude and ornery and somewhat hormonal inner-life from my friend, only I couldn’t. I was, you see, a two-year old trapped in the body of a 40-something. And the two-year old me was in the midst of the kind of tantrum that would draw a crowd, that is if I actually threw myself to the ground and started kicking and screaming the way I wanted to do.

Even as I tried to maintain the persona of an adult, all I could think of was how pissed off I was and  how unfair life was. And when I wasn’t thinking that then an intrusive thought would enter my mind, it was the subtitle of a book that kept interfering with my inner-tantrum. The unwanted and unwelcome thought was, “How to finally, really grow up.” “Grrrrr…”, Beelzebub growled at that line. Once we paid the check and I tipped the waitress inspire of how annoyingly chipper and chirpy she was ( remember, I was in quite the state), I asked my friend if she minded if we stopped at Barnes and Noble.

I was sure they wouldn’t have the book, after all who would want to read a book about  how to grow up? I certainly didn’t. And yet there I was in the self-help section looking for a book that I didn’t want to read. On that day especially, the last thing I wanted to do was to grow up and be responsible for my life. I wanted to throw myself on the ground and have a temper tantrum and for someone else to be the adult for me for a while. I was tired of being an adult. I was tired of responsibility. I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else, and certainly NOT for myself.  And yet, with mixed emotions, I picked up the book and walked to the cashier.

Strangely, I was embarrassed to buy the book, Finding the Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally Really Grow Up. You see, I knew that I looked like an adult. I even, on that day, likely looked like a professional adult who knew how to dress themselves and present like they knew what they were doing. Yet, on that day, it all felt like an enormous ruse. Only I didn’t want the cashier to know that I was in fact faking it. I would have only been a little more embarrassed if I had been buying a book about sex. I distracted the cashier from looking at the title by engaging her in chit-chat, and happily it worked. I don’t think she had any idea that I was buying a book on how to grow up. And, if she did, I would have told her that I was buying it for my brother (and there is no way for her to know that I don’t actually have a brother).

Let me explain something here, I didn’t at the time know why I was buying the book. I wasn’t feeling especially immature, I was feeling bitchy. And under the  surface of the bitchy I was feeling like collapsing and even, strangely, feeling like I might want to collapse into a depression. I know that sounds strange, but there is a familiar comfort zone to depression for me. When I am in a depression I don’t feel that I have to be responsible or have a persona or do anything I don’t want to do. I could climb into bed and surrender to the feelings and not have to do anything about them. And, on that day, that is exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to go home and I didn’t know where home was, it certainly wasn’t where I lived and it more certainly was not the house that my mother lives in as that is not my home.

When I got home from the bookstore I crawled into bed with James Hollis. I attempted to surrender to my sadness as I read his wise words, “When the desire to “go home” prevails, we will choose not to choose, rest easy in the saddle, remain amid the familiar and comfortable, even when its stultifying and soul-denying. Each morning the twin gremlins of fear and lethargy sit at the foot of our bed and smirk. Fear of further departure, fear of the unknown, fear of the challenge of largeness intimidates us back into our conventional rituals, conventional thinking, and familiar surroundings. To be recurrently intimidated by the task of life is a form of spiritual annihilation. On the other front, lethargy seduces us with sibilant whispers: kick back, chill out, numb out, take it easy for a while…sometimes for a long while, sometimes for a lifetime, sometimes a spiritual oblivion. Yet the way forward threatens death—at the very least, the death of what has been familiar, the death of whomever we have been.” All that was well and good but as I read it I found that I didn’t want to read it and my thoughts began to wonder back to the Cheesecake Factory and wonder why I didn’t get dessert. But something in me required me to read on:

“The daily confrontation with these gremlins of fear and lethargy oblige us to choose between anxiety and depression, for each is aroused by the dilemma of daily choice. Anxiety will be our companion if we risk.., and depression our companion if we do not.” Okay, this was starting to make sense. I was not wanting to make choices, I was surrendering to what was and seeing myself as a victim of circumstances. There had been such much change and choice in the last two-years that I was wanting to crawl back into what had been even though there was absolutely nothing good about feeling dependent and helpless. However, something about the longing to be dependent and helpless was familiar and comfortable and sort of childlike, like I was wanting to regress.

It was the following line that caused me to fully enroll and invest in Fork-in-the-road University, ” Not to consciously chose a path guarantees that our psyche will choose for us, and depression or illness of one form or another will result. Yet to move into unfamiliar territory activates anxiety as our constant comrade. Clearly, psychological or spiritual development always requires a greater capacity in is for the toleration of anxiety and ambiguity. The capacity to accept this troubled state, abide it, and commit to life, is the moral measure of our maturity.”

That last paragraph is why I needed the book. When I came to a fork in the road I didn’t always take it. Old territory, and even depression, were more comfortable than the unknown and the ambiguity that came with choosing uncertainty. Only not really. Hollis continues, “In every decisive moment of personal life, faced with such a choices, choose anxiety and ambiguity, for they are developmental, always, while depression is regressive. Anxiety is an elixir, and depression is a sedative. The former keeps us on edge of our life, and the latter in the sleep of childhood.” Reading that last line I couldn’t’ stay in bed another minute; I felt a bolt of energy that usually only comes after drinking a triple espresso. I felt like I had been given an emotional GPS, when choosing if there is fear then I need to move forward, and not backwards, and experience the fear as a challenge. Something about Hollis’ emphatic instruction allowed me to embrace the anxiety as a normal sign of development.

It is normal, Hollis’ words, assured me that at  crossroad moments to feel a regressive pull to home, depression, helplessness and despair. Yet, he advises me and you and anyone who struggles with facing the fork in the road to take the action that makes us anxious. Let me repeat Hollis again:  ”In every decisive moment of personal life, faced with such a choices, choose anxiety and ambiguity, for they are developmental, always, while depression is regressive. Anxiety is an elixir, and depression is a sedative. The former keeps us on edge of our life, and the latter in the sleep of childhood.”

Once a friend was trying to teach me to drive a stick shift car and I was terrified. I was almost hyperventilating as she instructed me on the feel of the clutch. I panicked. I breathlessly told her, “I CANNOT DO THIS!!!”. My friend looked at me totally puzzled and she said to me calmly, “Your mother never taught you that bad things pass and that scary feelings don’t last.” She didn’t pose it as a question, she saw it in my behavior—-and she was right. My mother did not teach me that. I learned that anxiety was something to avoid and that if I felt something now that I would always feel it and that I should avoid any action that might activate anxiety.

My friend, a gifted psychotherapist, gave me in that moment a huge gift, even though she didn’t manage to teach me to drive a stick. I learned from her that I had missed an important life lesson, anxiety passes. You may have learned that from your mother or your therapist, but I didn’t know it until my friend taught me that. And until I read Hollis I didn’t learn to expect anxiety at any fork in the road that I might face. Now, thanks to Hollis, I have learned to expect it and thanks to my friend, I can remind myself that  even if it doesn’t feel like it now— and even if I am totally scared as I make the choice that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” 

Shopping for Change: Transformational Objects

ImageOne of the first essays I ever published was a piece called “The Search for Sacred Accessories”. The editors at Mode Magazine sadly did not get how clever the title was and they changed the name of the piece to “Practical Magic”, which was a pretty lame title if you ask me. My essay was about an experience in which I found of pair of feathered gloves that I felt convinced would transform me into the person I had always wanted to be. I would, I believed,  with the purchase of these Holly-Go-Lightly gloves become my ideal self. Alas, I did not. What in fact happened is that I wore the gloves to a party and when I reached for an appetizer the ostrich feathers caught on fire and they went up in smoke as did my dreams of their being the vehicle to a more perfect manifestation of myself.

Even though the feathered gloves did not allow me to live up to my full potential, I have continued to seek ordinary items that promised to transform me. There have been shoes, dresses, and handbags that all, in their pre-purchase state, promised a new and improved me. However once I purchased the said item, I found that I had a sort of anti-Midsas touch and turned the numinous object into an ordinary one that left me exactly as I was before and turned the object into something much more ordinary than I imagined it to be.

Christopher Bollas, the psychoanalyst and author, would describe what I was doing as an attempt to create a “transformational object”. A “transformational object” gived us the potential for a “transformational experience”. According to Bollas the mother creates for their babies a “transformational process”.  Mothers change the internal and external environment to meet the infant’s needs, but babies do not know that a separate person is performing these functions and so they experience the transformation as a process and not coming from a person. Bollas explains: “We see how hope invested in various objects ( a new job, a move to another country, a vacation, a change of relationship) may both represent a request for a transformational experience and at the same time, continue the ‘relationship’ to an object that signifies the experience of transformation. We know that the advertising world makes its living on the trace of this object.: the advertised product usually promises to alter the subject’s external environment and hence change internal mood. The search for such an experience may generate hope, even a sense of confidence and vision, but although it seems to be grounded in the future tense, in finding something in the future to transform the present.”

Very often, when we want something we are actually wanting the transformational experience. We want the shoes or the trip or the  house to give us a different experience of ourselves. Or at least that is something I experienced. I have imagined that when I had the new car, new furniture or that Ferragamo bag that I would be transformed in some permanent way. Only, it has been my experience that objects rarely, if ever, give us the imagined character qualities that we believed they would.

Here is the equation of the transformational object prior to the purchase :

Me+Desired Object=Me as more.

Here is the equation of me after the purchase:

Me+Possessed Object= Me as the same as before,  with some initial and temporary excitement and, perhaps, some grief and depression that said object did not make me more than I was before.

That said, there are some shoes in my closet that do have a “Ruby Slipper” quality, in that they remind me in someway of my essence. But, like Dorothy, I had the essence all along and the shoes just reminded me of who I am—they didn’t turn me into something I wasn’t.

Thanks to Bollas, and YEARS of therapy, I now deconstruct my desire. Each time a desire is born I ask myself, “What qualities do I believe that these Black Jimmy Choo Verdict Cutout Sandal’s will give me?” If I am clear that I will be the same once I acquire them then I am feel free to go on longing them, which is not necessarily a good thing as they are ridiculously expensive and, perhaps more importantly, they don’t have them in my size.

This is the Christopher Bollas article that inspired this post.

Intentions 2013, the Spice Girl Edition

Last night Keith and I were going to dinner and I was driving there, only I didn’t know where there was. I asked him where we were going. “I don’t know,” he answered. “Well,” I said somewhat seriously, “then I will just keep driving until we figure it out.” Keith tried to be helpful by telling me all the places that we could go. He named all the places that we usually go to. As he listed the options I was dissatisfied with all of them. I didn’t want to go to Glendale or Pasadena. And I certainly I didn’t want to go to Zen Sushi for the ten-millionth time. “You knew last night what you wanted. It was easy when you knew what you wanted.It was easy.” The other night I knew I wanted a baked potato and a salad for dinner. It was easy. I wanted it and we went and got it.

This little experience of ‘destination unknown’ got me thinking about the bigger experience of knowing where I’m going and how it is a whole lot easier to get there if I know what I want. I know that sounds extraordinarily obvious and I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to leave my post and going off to see what Justin Bieber is Tweeting. But before you do, let me try to make my case in more than 140 characters that even if you don’t think you know what you want that you actually really do. I know that knowing what we want isn’t always so easy. There are a plethora of reasons we don’t let ourselves know what we want. Wanting can be uncomfortable. If we feel the want then we feel the lack.  That lack can create uncomfortable feelings( grief, depression and despair) and so we deny the wanting.  Also, if we feel like we can’t have it because we are “too” something ( too old or too lazy or whatever too-too you turn to) or that someone will stop us from having it, then again, we press down the desire into our unconscious. And, there are somethings that no matter how hard we try we can’t have them( in my story that would be baby)….but there is a value to looking at that we can’t have and discover if there is a deeper want that can actually be met.

I am a big advocate of asking my patients what they want, or for that matter asking friends, family and people I get in conversations with in the nail salon, as knowing what we want most tells us so much about us.  As -Arsène Houssaye. said,”Dites moi qui vous aimez et je vous dirai qui vows etes.”( ”Tell me who you love and I will tell you who you are.”). Our desires inform us of so very much about us, they reveal our wounds, insecurities, and our deepest soul desires that we might not dare to say. Even the seemingly most insignificant desires can be loaded with meaning. My desire for shoes, skincare and lipsticks are NOT just about those things. There is a story that goes with the desire. I have a narrative about who I will be with each and every object I desire. As does everyone, a cigar is never a cigar and a desire for a new handbag is never JUST about the handbag.

If I asked you for a list of what you wanted most, could you tell me? Do you know what you want most? I believe, whether you can name it or not, that you do. I believe that you know exactly what you want. Forgive my inflation, but I feel sure that if we were sitting across from each other and I asked you the right questions that I could get you to tell me what you really-really-really wanted( that is, if you trusted me and KNEW that I would not malign you for your wants, which I assure you I wouldn’t). Maybe you wouldn’t admit them right away, but just having the conversation about what you want most would likely make you aware of your top two unspoken desires.

If you did tell me, perhaps you’d write off what you really want as silly or ridiculous and implausible, as a sort of disclaimer of  your deepest dreams,  and  tell me that you know that what you want is unattainable, but I bet you know it.  Knowing what you want is a really good first step. Truly, it is easier to know I want a potato for dinner than it is to drive around saying no to every suggestion I am given. And, yeah, it is easier to know that I want a potato than it is to admit I want something that is going to take hard work, determination and risk in order to achieve.

In January, after reading, Dorothea’s post, “Ready or not—Intentions 2013“, that I had a bit of break through about what I wanted. Yes, I have a long and, to my mind,  an impressive list of accomplishments that I achieved in 2012.I almost always know what I want to do, be an have, even if I ignore that wanting. However I wasn’t focused on what I really-really-want. After reading Dorothea’s post and her previous post Intentions check in 2012 I was a bit unsettled, I took a new list of my goals for 2013 and I found them too broad and too unfocused. In wanting all of those things I felt sure that I was diluting my focus. I wanted a list like Dorothea’s. I wanted 2013 to be used in a way that felt meaningful and significant and as nice of a goal as redecorating the kitchen is it is not what I really, really want—that is not a goal that enlivens me or gives me purpose. So after reading Dorothea’s inspiring post I wrote a new list.

My post-Dorothea-post list was very different. It was mean and lean and clean, only 25 objectives versus the 250 item list I had pre-Dorothea. One thing significantly different about the new list was that all the items on the list feel hard to claim. They feel scary and too much and, I think, that is exactly how I know they are right for me. What we want most almost always feels ‘too much’, we dare not dream it. I had a good friend who was incredible at doing makeup. One day she whispered to me her greatest hope, “I wish I could be a makeup artist.” “Are you kidding?,” I replied. My friend  immediately inferred from my gobsmacked reaction that I was saying that there was no way that she could make that dream a reality, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. She wore her dream on her face and all she had to do was to march herself down to the MAC counter and she would be one big step closer to making her dream a reality. But for her it felt impossible. She didn’t see how close she was to making her dream happen. I assured her that she could and that she would be amazing at it. Sadly my assurances weren’t enough. She was too scared to risk having her dream not come true and so she chose not to try.  Today she is an office manager. I see this over and over again in my work and in my life, people’s dreams are so close they can touch them and yet they dare not make the call, take the step, or ask their friend in “the business” about “how to break in”.  Just that one question could open the doorway to their dreams and they don’t dare. And it isn’t just about “them”, I do it too.

Part of my anxiety about naming one of my intentions is that I feel like I have had this goal so many times before, in different forms, and that something in me has stopped me each and every year. Even as reminders of previous failures to produce paraded through my mind, I knew I wanted it just the same. I wanted it more clearly and strongly than I did that stupid baked potato that I was willing to drive cross town for. The intention was, ” I will complete the book proposal for  my self-help/memoir ,”What happens when dreams don’t come true and how to live happily ever after anyway” and submit it to agents.” Even to write that here on the blog, where I know I am among friends, makes my heart race a little as I wonder if you will judge me for daring to write it down.  And even as I type that I know I am projecting my self-judgement onto you. What do  you care? You, lovely you, likely want to see me succeed. Your not judging me, are you? If you are, could you not tell me. I think I ‘d rather not know.

The other scary thing about really getting clear about what you want and where you want to go is that you have to do stuff in order to make it happen. That wasn’t always obvious to me. There was a time that I thought that writing it on a list and saying a few affirmations was enough, happily that was a long time ago. Now, happily, I understand that it takes work to actualize intentions. Everyday I ask myself, “what small action can I take towards this goal, no matter how small.” And when I have gone two days without taking an action I think of what I tough-love writing teacher I had taught her students about goal setting, “Write all of your goals on an index cards, a goal for each card.  Go through the cards everyday and write down one action you took towards the goal. If at the end of the week you have not taken an action on a goal then say out loud: “I don’t want to achieve this goal” and then tear up the card.” Okay, her advice is a bit tough. I haven’t actually written any of my intentions on index cards. But everyday when I review my intentions and I find myself procrastinating on sitting down and working on my proposal, I do think of the index cards and I ask myself if,with my lack of action, I am actually telling myself that I don’t want to achieve this goal. This thought, especially if it happens two-days in a row, almost always gets me moving.

With hindsight and eight-hours of sleep, I think that I actually did know what I wanted last night when we were driving around. I was extremely tired when I got home. I don’t think I really wanted to go out. I didn’t know it then. I just knew that when I asked myself where I wanted to go for dinner that “nowhere” is the only answer I got. And, I can see, again with hindsight, that “nowhere” is actually an answer. I didn’t really want to go to dinner. I wanted to put on flannel pajamas and watch Downton Abbey( again). I was actually too tired to eat or to chew or even to get undressed( I may or may not have slept in the sweater that I wore to dinner). Yes, I know I needed nourishment. But I also needed to not sit at a table and look at a menu and talk to a waitress.

So, lovely you, what do you really, really want?

Time Traveling in New York City

Imagine the scene, if you will, an ultra-chic Upper-East side eatery, and it is the hour of the beautiful people. Everyone in the restaurant is impossibly chic and beautiful and glittering in the glow of understated fabulousness. They sit shoulder to shoulder sipping Syrah and dining on Dover Sole and Veal Ragu over a Swiss Alp of spelt pasta, while wearing the easy-confidence and effortless-cache that comes with a closet filled with Hermes and Prada ( the kind of pieces that are only recognized by one with an eye to discern, no labels emblazoned on these ladies who lunch) that they keep in their uber-decorated houses in the Hamptons and Pied de Terrre’s on Park Avenue.

When we walked into this upscale Italian eatery I was feeling fine. I liked myself. I liked my life. I was fine with the way I looked. I was confident and happy.  All was well. That was until I met the eight-foot tall hostess who looked like the  love child of Iman and Eros who met me with an attitude of accusation. Her height and her haughtiness took my breath away. She asked me a seemingly innocuous question, ” Do you have a reservation?” It seems like a fair question. However when she asked it, it seemed instead like a moral failing on my part. I mean, really, how dare I enter this place without a reservation. Who did I think I was? I attempted to surround myself in an aura of extreme self-confidence, which in her presence was not easy to muster. “No, no reservation.” I stood my ground and waited for her to show me the way to our table. She turned away from me, snapping her giraffe-like neck in disbelief, and then turned back to me, “You MAY come this way.” Again, it sounds polite when I write it. Only she didn’t say it that way. She said it like we were playing a brutal game of Red-Light/Green-Light and that she was bestowing upon lowly me the greatest and most extreme of kindnesses ( only in a bitchy way) and that she might change her mind and laugh sadistically at me at any moment.

Sitting at our table, surrounded by those who, in my fantasy life, were all very important and glamorous people who live important and glamorous lives. I was no longer the me that had walked in the door. I was instead a pimple-faced dorky tween who was traumatized once upon a time when shopping at Neiman Marcus with her mother and was met by a couple of mean girls in the elevator who called me a poindexter. The memory of that moment is hermetically sealed in my psyche and when I get activated by any event that seems to offer that kind of narcissistic injury I time travel and forget who I am and I become who I was. I was a dork. I was the girl who was tormented for not fitting in. I was the too-pale girl surrounded by bronzed California girls who tormented me for the lack of melanin in my skin, “You must lay out at night. You get moon-tans. Your white legs are hurting my eyes. I need sunglasses to look at you. You are so bright white it hurts.” I know in retrospect that their critique of me was pretty lame. Their cutting remarks lacked wit and creativity, and yet they hurt just the same.

When we walked into the restaurant I was hungry. But now that I was sitting at the table and looking at the menu and trying to find something to eat, I couldn’t connect to any feelings of hunger.  Nothing. None. Nada. My boyfriend ordered the Suprema Di Pollo Alla Senape Con Patate Dolci E Cavolo Rosso, impervious to the fact that we were no longer in a chic restaurant but instead in my Junior High School lunch room.  I marveled at his ability to want in the midst of my mid-afternoon nightmare. I ordered, only because I felt obligated to, La Zuppa Del Giorni. The waiter disapproved of my order, “That’s it?”, he asked as if I had just given him a penny tip. “Yes, that’s it.” His disapproval of my order amplified my complex, “see,” my psyche told me, “see, you don’t belong here. You aren’t cool enough. You are lame. Tammy and Krista don’t want to be your friends. If only you were tan, then they would like you.” I had no words to argue against the leveling attack.

So here is what was happening to me at the Upscale East-side eatery, something about the way the hostess reacted to me took me out of the present and transported me back to Junior High and feeling all those “I don’t fit in” feelings. And at first I didn’t feel like there was anything I could do about those feelings. I was overtaken by them and felt that they were absolutely and objectively true. However in noticing that this feeling felt like an event from the past allowed me to integrate the memory, and differentiate it from what was happening now. The hostess wasn’t Tammy and the waiter wasn’t Krista and, most importantly, I wasn’t the seventh grade version of myself. Noticing the differences started to help. Feeling my body in the room helped further. “I am here now,” I told myself. “I deserve to be here,” a kind voice in my head assured me. ‘It’s the hostesses job to be a gatekeeper. It isn’t about you. You can afford to be here. You deserve to be here. No one is looking at you. You are fine. You can have the onion soup if you want it. You are fine.”

I don’t exactly relish sharing with you that I had to do all of this self-soothing just to get through lunch. It is not something I usually have to do, but there was something about his setting that took me out of the now and into the past and the only way out of it was to have that kinder and gentler adult in my head bringing me into the now. The voice is a kind of Glenda the Good Witch voice that is a combination of Igor and other therapists I have had over the years. The voice took me out of the past and brought me into the now, it allowed me to take a deep breath and feel safer and calmer and less fragmented—and it even allowed me to enjoy some of Keith’s delicious Suprema Di Pollo Alla Senape Con Patate Dolci E Cavolo Rosso. And after a few bites of the delicious chicken I felt even better still. I ordered from our  somewhat surly waiter a double espresso, which was a further sign that my seventh-grader self was gone as she doesn’t like coffee and I do. To further prove to myself that she was gone, I didn’t add any sugar to my espresso—undeniable proof that the adult me was back in charge. The adult me paid the bill and left all the mean-girl feelings behind as I confidently walked out onto Madison Avenue.

Is the unlived life worth examining?

Nothing I know matters more
Than what never happened.
— John Burnside, ‘Hearsay

9780374281113_p0_v1_s260x420I once had a psychoanalyst ask me to write out in detailed form the way I wish my life had gone. I am not sure why he asked me to do that, and at the time I was even less sure.  I do know that I was at once both resistant and energized by his invitation which I ultimately did not accept.  When I think back to my work with this well-meaning analyst,I suppose many of my hours with him had sounded a lot like the following: “If we had only stayed in Seattle and not moved to Los Angeles.”; “If only I had been able to stay near Mirjam and Paul( my Nanny and her husband) and not move two states away from them.”; “If only I had been allowed to stay at Montessori and not been forced to attend Parochial school.” It’s funny to think back to that time and see the point my analyst was trying to make. He was, I suppose, trying to get me to see the impact of my unlived life and discover who it was that I longed for and what I imagined those roads not taken would have lead to. I imagine that he thought that I was marred by regrets which is strange as I don’t really experience myself as a person who regrets much. But was my analyst onto something? Was my unlived life worth examining?

Adam Phillips’, author, psychoanalyst and my latest intellectual crush, has an answer for that. “It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for,are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad.”

In his latest book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, Phillips explores the unlived life and how it impacts our lived life. The book jacket offers the following description of Phillips’ exploration:

All of us lead two parallel lives: the life we actually live and the one that we wish for and fantasise about. And this life unlived (the one that never actually happens, the one we might be living but for some reason are not) can occupy an extraordinary part of our mental life. We share our lives, in a sense, with the people we have failed to be – and this can become itself the story of our lives: an elegy to needs unmet, desires sacrificed and roads untaken….Adam Phillips demonstrates that there might in fact be much to be said for the unlived life. …he suggests that in missing out on one experience we always open ourselves to the potential of another, and that in depriving ourselves of the frustration of not getting what we think we want, we would be depriving ourselves of the possibilities of satisfaction.

This is, I imagine, and I imagine my old analyst would agree, is something I know a little about.

There is the me that was an only child who moved from Seattle at three and moved to Los Angeles and whose parents were career focused and not child focused. There is the me who had traumas and dramas mar her childhood. And that me that went on to marry and not have children and become who I am today. But what, I suppose, makes all of the pain of that biographical narrative so much more painful is that I hold in my mind the story of “what should have been” and  ” the unlived life that I should have had”. That, truth be told, is much the pain of infertility and the resulting grief that lingers today…it is the feeling of missing out and having in my head the alternate life I would be living if I had only had the baby.  I share my life with the Tracey that I have failed to be. There is the me that exists and then there is the me that went to Sarah Lawrence and who is a mother and who has a huge and loving family ( the me that doesnt’ exist).

In answering the question of why do we spend so much time imagining another ( or unlived life) Phillip argues that we are by nature frustrated creatures and that is because our expectations and fantasies are more than can possibly be met by the world. He goes onto explain that one of the ways we cope with that frustration is to fantasize about what we need and what is missing. It is Phillips’ assertion that fantasizing about what we don’t have is not merely an act of compensation but that it gives us insight into what we want to do with our lives. The fantasy gives us information about what we want to do and how to give our selves some sense of satisfaction. Phillips’ encourages us to use our fantasy life to seek what is truly available in the world. He goes onto say that by really knowing our frustration that comes at the intersection of lived life and not lived life that gives us a better sense of what we really want, so  it is important to look at that wished for life for clues

A very interesting point that he makes and one that I need to pay special attention to is that the fantasy of the unlived life can make the lived life seem disappointing as there are no boundaries in the fantasy life and there are always boundaries, rules and limitations in the lived life. “reality isn’t disappointing, it is just reality.”In my unlived life I had that baby and I live in Lake Bluff and I write in my free time when I am not being the best mother I can be. Yes, giving space for that unlived life makes me sad. When I really walk around that life it is both lovely and horrible in the pain that it constilates, but when I really move into that fantasy there is something I wanted psychologically and symbolically, as well as literally,and some of those things can happen and some of those things can’t. In the fantasy I am the perfect mother and I have the perfect baby and I am perfectly happy. I know the reality would have been very different and I am perfectly okay with that.

Phillips argues that Capitalistic culture promises to endlessly supply things we want, that if we have a need that Capitalistm promises to produce something that will fill that need( interestingly that in the height of my trying to conceive I used to dream of going to Land of  Nod or Pottery Barn Baby and buying my own perfect baby as well as all the nursery furniture). Phillips makes the case that “the effect of this forced feeding( by Capitalism) is that we never can think about what we might want.”

The surprising point that Phillips makes is that frustration is more enlivening than happiness. “I think that our frustration is one of the best things about us….at its best our frustration, for example, can lead us into the knowledge  and the acknowledgment that we need other people, say, and that there is a limit to what other people can give us and we don’t have to, as it were, murder them because they are so frustrating….And if frustration were more culturally acceptable…it would be more talked about.” We are capable of more satisfaction in our life and that can  looking at our frustration and seeing what is act
ually possible.

As much as I love Phillips, and I do, I find him to be a bit of a frustrating read ( and for Phillips that would likely be a compliment) he writes in a free-associative style that leaves one feeling completely unsure of what they just read( and I KNOW that Phillips would love that critique). Let me be absolutely clear,  I am not in this post recommending that you rush out and buy his book ( but you might well enjoy it). What I do hope is that you might feel inclined, after reading this post and some of the scaffolding bones that make up the body of Phillips argument, to examine your unlived life and see what exactly frustrates you about it? What in the frustration offers for potential REAL fulfillment in your REAL life?

I WANTED a baby. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to create a life for myself and for the longed for baby that I didn’t have created for me. While I can’t create that baby, I can, if I chose, create a life in which I have more opportunities for love and connection and nurturing, which I imagine is at the crux of the desire for a family.  I don’t have all the answers about the meaning of my “unlived life” but I do think it is definitely worth exploring further. And I can see already that just in posing the question that there is an opportunity to be somewhat less frustrated, which is strangely a bit frustrating.

“Missing Out” reviewed in the New York Times

Excerpt from “Missing Out”

Radio Interview with Adam Phillips

 L.A. Review of Books on “Missing Out”


About Me

My name is Tracey, aka La Belette Rouge. I am a psychotherapist and the author of Freudian Sip @ Psychology Today. I blog about psychology, my therapy, dreams, writing, meaning making, home, longing, loss, infertility and other things that delight or inspire me. I try to make deep and elusive psychodynamic concepts accessible and funny. For more information, click here .
These blog posts are informational only and not meant to replace individual psychotherapy, counseling or medical advice. If you are in need of help, reaching out to a professional may help you decide how to proceed or how to find the care you need. For a referral, contact

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