Every couple of years, I notice that a new life-altering book or program appears on the pop-culture scene promising to solve all our problems effortlessly and magically. I’m reminded of those late night infomercials promising astounding wealth with no personal investment, except the purchase of an expensive program that promises to teach you how to convert pennies to gold bricks over the weekend.
These notions come packaged with catchy names and promise instantaneous results if only we buy the book or sign up for a series of expensive classes. So, despite some doubt, we buy the book and rush home to read it, hoping to learn the newest biggest secret of all. Okay, maybe this will work. Hoping to be impressed, our enthusiasm dips when we read that all we have to do is envision the object we desire, and we can magically will it into existence. Hmmm…I think I’ve read that before. Feeling stupid, we try it out anyway, because, after all, we’ve just spent $25.00 on the book.
What we’ve bought is a repackaged version of the same quick fix we bought a few years back. We’ve bought the pop-psychology version of the cabbage diet that seems to circle the globe year after year. Again. Maybe we take the classes and for a while we feel excited and energized, but hope quickly fades when we consider what we’ve really done. Again. Something seems to be missing as we begin to realize, “Hey, it’s that damn cabbage diet again. Honey, it’s the cabbage diet…” We’ve succumbed once again to the snake oil salesman. The product has changed, but the lure is the same.
Perhaps we assume all the responsibility, convinced we’ve failed. Again. Maybe I didn’t do it right. Maybe I didn’t visualize hard enough. Or, maybe we start looking around for another quick fix. Or, perhaps, like my patients, we take time to examine our concerns more deeply and find more realistic, though less glamorous and instantaneous solutions.
As self-awareness expands and solutions gently accrue, we find we have amassed the ingredients for lasting transformation, and wasn’t that what we were really after in the first place? We wanted to feel and behave differently, somehow more creative and less stuck.
Let me share a secret with you. These wishes for magical solutions are the lingering echoes of infancy and childhood and the archaic way our minds operated then. Our attentive mothers met our hungry needs so quickly, we thought we had magically produced food for ourselves just by willing it so. For a time, we felt magically powerful. We all pass through this very normative developmental phase of omnipotence in infancy and early childhood.
Eventually, we learned that we didn’t magically produce food. Mom fed us when we spoke to her with our cries telling her we were hungry and helpless. We began to learn about relationships and reciprocity. We learned that we had to do something. When we were hungry, we had to communicate this to mom. We acquired language.
These quick fix solutions are always seductive because they reawaken dormant but not dead longings from childhood, the magical wish that we really can simply visualize things into being.
When feeling particularly stressed or faced with one of life’s many difficulties, we sometimes begin to yearn for the safety of childhood, for the great universe-mother to once again provide perfect gratification. When the new car doesn’t materialize in the driveway, what we’re really mourning is the magical and protective environment of infancy and childhood that is long past.
We long for the time when we were the center of the world, mommy’s world. We cannot return except in memory.
There are answers, though they’re not mysterious or magical, and visualization can be a very powerful tool, when used in conjunction with other problem-solving techniques.
Let’s say a few years have passed, and mom occasionally makes us go to the kitchen to prepare our own food and then clean up our mess. Imagery helps us identify what we desire. It helps us clarify what we want. We must formulate the image of something before we can obtain it. If we can’t visualize the sandwich, we can’t prepare it. However, simply visualizing a grilled cheese sandwich doesn’t make it appear on the plate. We need creative action; we have to combine various ingredients with a bit of heat.
As adults, we must first identify our desires and then find ways to bring them to fruition. If we want a new car, most of us have to budget and work for it. If we don’t follow our own lights, we’ll follow the guy who follows his, and that often leads straight to his bank.
What’s not a secret is that it’s an illusion to believe we’ve created an available parking space simply because we’ve visualized one. What’s not a secret is that it’s often painful to reflect upon ourselves deeply, so we distract ourselves from the difficult task of authentic transformation by confusing it with magical parlor tricks, no more transformative or insightful than the Ouija board. Do you really want to levitate, or do you want to experience intimacy and joy with your spouse?
As a psychoanalyst and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I recognize that real change occurs more slowly over time. Our lives change when we reconstruct our interior architecture. Psychoanalysis or psychotherapy is the equivalent of eating healthy food for life. While it’s not a magical quick fix, you won’t need the cabbage diet again. A safe and productive relationship with a licensed therapist who deeply understands you will help you shift from the inside out. You’ll create your own solutions, so you’ll never need to buy anyone else’s again.
This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.