Recently I was being trounced in a game of Call Of Duty 3: Modern Warfare 3. Not only was I having a difficult time understanding the lingo and mechanics of the game, the controls for this first person shooter were bewildering to me. I found myself staring down at the controller more than at the screen. Why couldn’t I remember what the A button did? Over the course of the week, I was also informed that Halo 4, Assassin’s Creed, and Paper Mario: Sticker Star are also here or on the horizon.
I wasn’t sure when I was going to find the time to try all of these. I was already behind. Skyrim had new DLC, Minecraft had different updates for both PC and the XBox 360 versions, and the Secret World and Guild Wars 2 had both been preempted by the latest World of Warcraft : Mists of Pandaria expansion. And what about Salem? I had gotten a beta key for that, didn’t that make me obligated to try a little more? And I won’t even go into the iPad and iPhone games, but Baldur’s Gate was just 3 weeks away…
I write all this because I have found that readers and colleagues often assume that because gaming is an area of clinical practice and focus of mine, that I am up on all of the latest games. If you have been imagining that I always know what every MMO gamer is talking about, or can jive with adolescents about the finer points of COD: MW3 (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3) and how it differs from Max Payne, you are in for a rude awakening.
I can relate to every therapist who has sat with a patient and said no repeatedly to “Do you know about” questions involving video games. I can relate to every colleague with thumbs of lead who plays with (against) their patients on XBox. I too struggle against the countertransference urge to display my “hipness.” And boy am I tempted sometimes to throw up my hands and say I am so over the latest thing.
But I don’t throw up my hands because I recognize that it is a defense against feeling useless. Who wants to feel slow, clumsy, behind the times? Feeling useless coincides with feeling powerless, devoid of meaning or hope, and isolation. For me, that feeling of uselessness is touching the water’s bottom: It’s where I kick off. Uselessness is almost always the feeling that precedes determination for me and the moment when I am closest to getting going again. Here are just a few reasons why feeling useless can be important:
1. Feeling useless reminds me of how my patients often feel. Regardless of age, gender or walk of life, I have sat with people who experience feelings of utter uselessness. Most kids feel useless in school at one point or another. Adults tend to embrace amnesia when it comes to remembering how dumb education can make you feel before you feel smart. They have forgotten what it was like to be called last for the kickball team, or draw and erase and draw until your paper ripped. And the population of Baby Boomers can feel useless as they sense the impatiences of their younger colleagues in the workplace: You talk too slow, drive too slow, and why don’t you just retire? Meanwhile, younger adults send out resume after resume and spend more hours in sweatpants as they feel that they and their education are both useless. Parents send their children off to college and experience the empty nest, or send them off to war and experience a more terrifying version of uselessness. We need to remember how it feels to be useless if we are going to stay empathically attuned to our patients.
2. To recognize that you are feeling useless is to begin to wake up. At least it can be, because the sense of being useless is completely irrational. There is nobody, not one person on the planet who has nothing to give of themselves. There is no such thing as a useless person, it is a cognitive distortion. And the minute we recognize that distortion we can begin to use our observing ego to ask ourselves “who is this who is telling me I am useless?” Whoever it is, the media, a parent, an old tape running in our head, or all of the above, it is just wrong. And that’s ok, because we’ve been wrong before, and now that we know it we can begin to gently guide our thinking back to a more rational place. If this sounds like meditation, that’s probably because it is.
3. To feel useless is only a feeling. Sure feelings are important, and a powerful part of human experience. But they are only one part of human experience. Thinking and behavior are two other parts. We can use feeling useless to motivate ourselves. We can use it as a barometer for our overall mental health. We can also use it as a defense to stay stuck, or to attempt to elicit pity from others. There are all sorts of ways we can use a feeling, and they aren’t all necessarily, well, useful. Or we can just sit still for a bit, because being just a feeling, feeling useless will float by and be replaced by another feeling, and another and another…
So if you are a therapist, and you notice yourself feeling useless, you are one step closer to coming to your senses. You can become more mindful of how unpleasant the feeling is, and mindful of how your patient may feel when they experience it. You can remember it is only a feeling, and become curious about it and why it is coming up. And you can consciously decide how to use it or cope with it, rather than unconsciously act out in response to it.
To return to my video game example, here’s how I used it. I noticed the feeling and said to myself, “That’s how my patients experience themselves sometimes.” From there I went on to think, “That’s how the therapists I consult with about technology experience themselves sometimes.” Interesting information, and it helped me pause a moment more. And when I sat with it more it occurred to me that there was some symbolic content that had come up in a session recently that I’d overlooked. And then it occurred to me to write this blog, and as I wrote the first paragraph I remembered how video games are a form of social media, and how my friend Susan Giurleo often reminds me that we don’t need to be on every single platform of it to be technically savvy. From that stream of consciousness, and more importantly, from my feeling of uselessness, came this post. And I have no doubt that at least a few of my colleagues will find it useful, which totally debunks the useless Mike theory.
What about you? What has elicited a feeling of uselessness for you lately? What is that feeling about, and what are you going to do with it?