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Shifting Gears / That wasn't my intention … or was it?

Published 4:10 pm, Thursday, September 26, 2013
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What's going on here? How is it that sometimes some people say to themselves and to others things like: "I'm going to get into an Ivy League college," "I'm going to lose 30 pounds and start working out at the gym four times a week," "I'm going to conquer my fear of public speaking," "I'm going to run my own company"-- and they do it.

Other times, they say similar things with just as much commitment but never succeed. They may not actually try. In fact, someone looking on might say they are sabotaging themselves, getting in their own way.

In the rest of the animal kingdom, creatures (except, perhaps, pets influenced by their neurotic owners or previous encounters with cruel humans) don't act foolishly against their best interests or desires.

They spy prey and stealthily go about obtaining it. If they don't succeed, it's more because of fate or some genetic incompetence. It's not an inner psychic conflict (at least, that's what I assume).

But the human psyche is so incredibly complex, holding in its comparatively huge cerebral cortex desires, imaginings, projections, expectations, self-concepts, which increase and solidify, incrementally, year after year of our development. Layer upon layer of hidden beliefs about ourselves and other people mingle with our conscious and expressed wishes. Sometimes, often, in fact, what we say and believe we want consciously is in direct contradiction to a much more unconscious belief and desire. Thus, a conflict acted out upon the stage of our lives.

I'm reading a biography of Lyndon Johnson (you may or may not remember him). If you're interested in how our intentions work, his life is a great example, not just of one overriding intention, but two conflicting and equally powerful intentions. With him, life played out on a Shakespearean stage of tragedy and pathos.

He had been driven since childhood to be president. An unlikely goal for a poor, hardscrabble kid from the boondocks of Texas in the 1920's. It was his clear and conscious intention. Everything he did was directed toward that goal. He, also, had another, equally strong though, perhaps, less conscious, intention. That was to avoid, at all costs, humiliation. Of course, in order to avoid something, it is necessary to believe in its existence. Johnson deeply believed in his vulnerability to humiliation.

So when the time finally came that he should reasonably pursue the nomination for president in 1960, he could not bring himself to announce for and seek the nomination. His fear of being humiliated if people knew he wanted something and he failed to attain it held him back. He did not get the nomination. As vice president, he was repeatedly humiliated. He became president upon the inconceivable (at that time) assassination of President John Kennedy. He ultimately left office by choice, not seeking a second elected term, because he knew that there was a strong probability that he would lose that election. And be humiliated. Thus, both of Johnson's intentions were actualized.

History shows us something inexplicable. How is it that events conspired with individual intention to bring into fruition both of Johnson's contradictory and conflicting intentions. He was president, and he was repeatedly humiliated. It happened as if the whole thing were an exquisite piece of fiction.

Does something similar happen with our own, less grandiose, lives? Do our intentions become actualized -- even the ones we think we do not want? How powerful are our intentions? I would say they are pretty powerful. And they are most powerful when they are unconscious. When we know what we are up against, we are much better prepared to deal with it.

That, of course, when you come right down to it, is the purpose of therapy.

Carol Swenson is a counseling psychologist with a practice in Westport. Her "Shifting Gears" appears monthly, and she may be reached at shiftinggears.swenson@gmail.com.