Pursuing New Interests are Damn Good Therapy

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“Are you in Therapy?” asked the client on the couch.

 

I went through the usual mental-scan of meanings answering could have. He was one of the first clients I’d ever worked with, and has continued periodically.  15 years ago any question would’ve felt like a turn in Russian Roulette. The irony now I simply pull the trigger, “Not technically.”

 

He threw his hands up, mocking frustration, “I know you can’t reveal personal information to patients.” I’d never realized until then he related me like a  meme.

I hadn’t realized this bothered me until this latest round of therapy. I always knew not being seen drove me bat shit. But I’d just categorized it as my stuff, and left it at that. Ignoring what I was told in graduate school.

 

So, I said, “I’ve told you I’ve started learning to play drums. Well, I consider that  therapy.”

“Because it relieves stress,” he answered like it was a given.

“Actually, no. Because it does what therapy is supposed to. Provide new insight. Any time we learn something new there’s a risk.”

Learning in a nutshell

Learning is essentially taking a calculated risk. We’re drawn by what appeals to us and thus motivated to obtain, or achieve it. An experiential state, a skill, or just a shiny object. But getting even a small amount of it, rewards our motivation. This, in turn, validates our ability, which increases our confidence to obtain or achieve what we set out to.

Why’d the chicken cross the road?

Novelty. Why? It stimulates dopamine, the neuro-go-to-chemical responsible for motivation, reward and, not surprising, addiction. However, even dumb as chickens are, the novelty across the road has to justify what crossing entails.

Because we’re either smarter, or more complicated than chickens, crossing the road, we’re liable to multitask. I dare say, killing two birds with one stone.

For me, crossing the road isn’t just playing drums better. While it’s a big motivator, it’s just one of many motivating facets. If novelty initiates wanting, the dopamine release from playing reinforces not only the desire to play, but the actual wanting to that is core to motivation. Without that sense of wanting, it’s difficult to increase motivation. Yet even our ability to identify wants, separate from whether we pursue them, wouldn’t be likely, if wanting hadn’t been previously rewarded.

You’re probably thinking, there had to be a “first want.” True. But what’s a want? We have many wants on a daily basis that go unfulfilled, which we don’t go back to. Unless we get a taste, or recognize some possibility to fulfill it, the want isn’t reinforced. Even though an infant can’t feed themself, the problem of hunger remains.

How do they maintain having a want when they can’t reinforce it? Until they can feed themselves, parents do so, at the same time, reinforcing that their child’s want for food, until it too is maintained.

Wanting itself, would be problematic, if there were no contingencies with fulfilling it.  Like learning, fulfilling a want involves weighing the risks against the likelihood of succeeding, based on our past experiences. However, the accuracy of past experiences depends not only on the way we responded to them, but what the influence of our response reinforced.

 

One person might weigh risks against the likelihood of succeeding, while another, the likelihood of not totally fucking up.  For a long time I was the latter. Until by sheer accident, I had a moment of clarity shortly after starting the drums: I wasn’t going to be a drummer, I was just going to play the drums. I didn’t need base my identity, or my value as a person on how well I played. Being a therapist fulfilled these.  

I won’t say I was playing simply for enjoyment–that was so apparent it was a given, because much of my drive to play was to be better. But, my intention was toward mastery, not needing to justify myself or a permission to play I had to earn, which, unfortunately, was involved in my becoming a therapist.

The psychologist, Albert Ellis, warned against becoming: a human doing verses a human being. I would, however, add to the distinction that, by improving our doing we improve our being. Striving to play drums is challenge of doing, but like other, previous challenges of doing I’ve faced, there are similarities, if not parallels, which have influenced and reinforced how I’ve responded and will likely respond in the future. It’s not so much whether I necessarily achieve what I set out to, but how my engagement reflects my abilities to achieve and influences how I see myself being.

 

As difficult a challenge drums have been, the benefits from the challenges of being have far exceeded those of doing.  The challenge of learning something new, and the subsequent challenges of relearning where previous challenges had left off, has expanded my overall sense of self and confidence.

Before, I believed to do something better, I had to just do it a lot. While having this singularity of purpose works in Rocky movies, in real life the risk is working harder, rather than smarter.  When were beginners of anything, we obviously have limits, and while this may be fine, it’s finer to accept it. Limits are only a problem if they aren’t recognized. By ignoring, while continuing from limits, we can fail to recognize that because the source we’re drawing from is limited, our progress will be too. We may find we can’t tell whether we’re improving what we set out to do, or our limitations.  This potentially doubles our work, developing bad habits we’ll only have to re-learn later? Practice, is nothing but repeated exposure to doing something. You can have the best intentions, and purpose to improve, but without an understanding of what actual improvement looks like, you can wind up chasing your tail.

We can’t avoid failures and mistakes, and that it sucks. Yet  avoiding them, they suck no less, only continue, and for longer. Failures aren’t just opportunities to be learned from, they are the baseline from which to gauge where we are.  I may still suck at drums, but the suck is indisputably less than when I started, first playing to click track, iPod, friends, a band, and finally playing shows. Even though the suck can be at times demoralizing, I do know that if I continue to practice, paying attention purpose of the aspects of practicing, the suck lessen will lessen, I’ll improve, as will other abilities, and their influence on my sense of myself.

 

And, if nothing else, the brain has plasticity–the ability to modify its connections or rewire itself. So, learning is fluid, and lucky for us, provides do-overs, either increasing mastery or resolving aspects of past challenges.

 

Let’s say learning and playing drums was an an actual, recognized therapy. It wouldn’t be far fetched as a goal to explore one’s self defeating behaviors which prevent achieving what they want. Or to re-learn more productive behaviors. And in fact, most therapies essentially help us become more familiar with our learned, or existing, processes. Why? To re-learn a better, or additional ways, of doing them. Learning is not just a means of change, but  self expansiveness. Seeking reward, achieves reward, whereby affirming competency, motivating our continuing to expand, further building on the process of learning.

 

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