When was the last time you did something you regret? Like drive by that old boyfriend’s house just “because.”
It starts out innocently enough. There’s that old yearning and a little curiosity, and you hope by God you see him. He’ll have gained weight, have an enormous beer belly, and his hair will be filthy and matted. His new girlfriend will be grotesque, and the house, even more grotesque. Empty beer bottles will scatter the landscape. You’ll leave the scene satisfied. You’ll find closure. You’ll be able to move on.
“DON’T drive by your old boyfriend’s house,” says a voice in your head. It belongs to your therapist. She’s a lover of behavioral psychotherapy, where the point is to promote well-being by modifying unhealthy and potentially harmful behaviors, whatever that means. “You know what I’m trying to say,” she says. “Think of the potential outcome of your actions. How do you feel now?”
“Fine,” you say.
“Now think of how doing what you’re planning to do will make you feel.”
But you go for the ride anyway. You need closure, and you know a final drive-by will make a difference.
In place of filth and squalor, you see a tidy row of houses with no beer bottles in sight. In fact, the place is awash with pansies, and there’s a rainbow leaning down to touch a house… his house. As you drift closer, you see the fairies and unicorns and little, white dragons all frolicking about your ex’s front door.
And then you see her, a stunning creature, her face a symbol of dignity, her lips a vivid red, her legs long and powerful, her feet… well, her feet are awesome. She wears a black cape, one of those hooded, flowing capes that reminds you of magic and power and somersaults in the air (when necessary), somersaults that always land with grace.
A bird alights on the creature’s arm, and she tickles its neck thoughtfully. You’d swear that’s a halo around her head.
Of course it happens. Your ex must make an entrance. It’s inevitable. He has a soft, manly voice, the kind of voice that’s so powerful he need not speak beyond a whisper. “My wife, my darling, I need to kiss you…”
He steps out of the house, and he’s as stunning as the red-lipped, awesome-footed, bird-petting woman who stands beside him. They kiss. It’s a lingering kiss, lips against lips, eyes closed as they share an important moment, until he opens an eye and sees YOU.
What follows is a morbid, embarrassing affair. You say something about being lost. He points out they live in a cul-du-sac. You say you must leave. He introduces you to Ms. Perfection. The unicorns drift closer to listen. The fairies and dragons frolic nearby.
Your ex is so taken up by his new love’s presence that he doesn’t hear what you have to say. You talk louder. You’re not proud of what you say next. “I miss you. I want you back. Please forgive me. I’ll be a great girlfriend, I promise, please please please come back.” Your plea isn’t working. Your strategy shifts. “I never wanted you anyway. Jerk. Now stop following me around and leave me alone.”
With that you climb back into the car, turn the ignition over, and and in a huff try to accelerate off into the sunset. The problem is the car won’t accelerate. It gives you a preliminary putt-putt, a puff of smoke, a jerking movement, then decides it’s not going anywhere.
What do you do when somebody else’s dream is your nightmare? That’s what you’re thinking, anyway. You spend three hours watching your ex’s pretty-footed, black-caped goddess wave her magic wand left and right, bringing on an early spring. Of course it has to be spring. But a wand? Do wands even exist these days? Didn’t they go out of fashion two centuries ago? But you watch grass grow. You see flowers bloom. Fruit trees produce enormous fruit. She paints smiles on the pansies ‘faces then pulls out a paint brush and, singing the loveliest of melodies, colors the distant sky. She’s drawing the sunset. Not a copy. The real thing. The girl has splashed paint across the sky and drawn the damned sunset.
Eventually the tow truck pulls up. It clicks and clacks a screeching noise as it connects with your car. The driver takes a quick look at the car. “Ran out of gas,” he says. “Climb in. I’ll take you to the gas station.”
As the tow truck pulls away from the curb, you throw a final glance behind you. Neither your ex nor his lovely bride have noticed your departure. They’re too busy looking into one another’s eyes. Or cuddling birds.
Now it’s 8 hours later. There are no unicorns, fairies, white dragons, or excessively pretty girls nearby. You sit at home. You’ve been alone with your feelings a while now. Head clearer than before, you look at today’s load of dirty dishes and unopened mail and think… “Holy crap, now I’m miserable.”
So the behavioral therapist was right. This is a sordid outcome. Oh, such misery, such suffering!
What triggered it? It doesn’t take long to figure it all out. That is, since this post is about behaviors, chances are it’s something you did. You don’t have to look far to see the cause. The very act of driving by that man’s house ruined your day.
Your mind’s therapist nods, an empathetic shine in her eyes. “By God I think you’ve got it.” She’s good at empathetic eye shines. That’s what you like about her. “But you still look miserable.”
“I am miserable.”
“You didn’t feel that way this morning.”
You shrug. No, you didn’t.
Ms. Behavioral Therapy leans forward, her voice a whisper. “Do you see now?”
“I think so.” You pull a Kleenex from the box and pat your nose. “I’m miserable because I chose to go see him again, the bastard.”
“Next time you’re faced with a need to see him, faced with that curiosity, what can you do differently? What other action can you take?”
She speaks like a good behavioral therapist. Sometimes you’re glad you have her. “Next time I WON’T go to his house?”
“Bingo. It’s a start.”
The next day rolls into your life with a red-green sunrise, tweeting birds, and a unicorn at the window. “Nope,” you think. “Never going to go back to that bastard’s house ever again.” You twist and turn until a good position overtakes you, and you drift off to sleep.
“You really want to sleep late?” says a familiar voice. “A healthier behavior is rise early and go jogging.”
You open an eye and consider her offer. Never mind. This is your life. You drift back to your dream, where your ex has an enormous beer belly, his hair is filthy and matted, and everything seems right with the world.
Post-reading quiz (just for the fun of it)
What is behavioral therapy?
(a) Put in simple terms: if you behave, everyone will like you.
(b) It’s based on the understanding that unhealthy habits cause unhappiness.
(c) Behavioral therapy is a woman’s voice in your head that keeps telling you what to do. She’s not judgmental or forceful but can get on your nerves.
(d) It has something to do with driving by your ex’s house and talking to his unicorns.
How does behavioral therapy work?
(a) The behavioral therapist is an intrusive voice that thinks it knows more than you.
(b) If you replace unhealthy habits with healthy ones, unhappiness becomes happy.
(c) If you don’t go by your ex’s house, you’ll feel good for the rest of your life.
(d) How would we know? Dr. Rosenthal hasn’t explained it yet.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we take on behavioral therapy in real this time and explore different approaches. Consider checking out cognitive therapy (the other wrung of the infamous cognitive behavioral school of thought).