Psychotherapists are often people who prefer to deal with feelings in their workings with people. Feelings are important, and being empathically attuned to how patients are feeling is equally important. We are taught to explore the patient’s feelings, imagine ourselves into their lived experience, and validate that experience.
This is often where we become disconnected from other professionals we collaborate with, such as educators. Be it Pre-K or graduate school, educators are charged with working with students to learn and grow as a whole person. It’s not that they aren’t concerned with feelings, they just can’t get hung up on them to the exclusion of everything else.
To be fair, psychotherapy has a long history of taking a broader view on the individual as well. A famous psychoanalyst, Winnicott, once responded to a patient of his who was expressing feelings of hopelessness by saying something to the effect of “sometimes when I am sitting with you I feel hopeless too, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of continuing to work with you.”
But often in the past decade or two, feelings have held sway over everything. Students don’t complete their assignments because they felt overwhelmed and still expect to pass the course. Adults feel emotionally exhausted and miss work or are late to it. Children feel angry at the injustice of chores and don’t do them but still want their allowance.
A criticism I often hear toward video games is that they encourage people to believe that they can always just reset, do over and have another shot. But implicit in this criticism is the fact of something I feel video games actually do better than many of us sometimes: They acknowledge the reality of failure.
When we play video games, we are failing 80% of the time. Failing in the sense of Merriam Webster’s definitions including:
- to not succeed : to end without success
- to not do (something that you should do or are expected to do)
- to fall short <failed in his duty>
- to be or become absent or inadequate
- to be unsuccessful
In video games the reality of this is driven home to us by a screenshot:
You can feel any way you’d like about it, angry, sad, annoyed, blase, frustrated with a touch of determination. But no matter how you feel you still failed.
In life outside games, many of us have a hard time accepting the reality principle when it comes to failing at something. We think we can talk, think, or feel our way out of failing to meet expectations. My own predilection is that of a thinker, which is probably why I became a psychodynamic psychotherapist and educator. I often waste a lot of time trying to think (or argue) myself into a new reality, which just boils down to not accepting the reality principle. I notice the same with patients, colleagues and students, who miss deadlines, avoid work, come late to class and then try their best to think or feel their way out of it.
The first class each semester I tell my students, who are studying to be social workers and psychotherapists, that the most frequent complaint I get as an instructor is “I feel put on the spot by him.” I assure them that this is a valid feeling and actually reflects the reality that I will put each and every one of them on the spot. I will ask them tough questions, I will point out that they are coming late to class, I will disagree with ideas that seem erroneous to me. Because if they think it is ok to be late or avoid thinking through a problem or confrontation in class, how in the world will they ever be a decent psychotherapist or social worker? If the single mother you are working with wants to know how to apply for WIC, and you say you feel put on the spot by her question, that is a valid feeling AND you are useless to her. If your therapist was 15 minutes late every week I hope you’d fire him. And when you are conducting a family session and someone discloses abuse it is unprofessional to say “I’m feeling overwhelmed and sad right now, can you ask somebody else to go next?”
These sort of disconnects doesn’t happen overnight. It comes from years of being enabled by well-intentioned parents and yes, mental health providers who focus on feelings to the exclusion of cognition and behavior, and worse, try to ensure that their children grow to adulthood feeling a constant sense of success. When I hear self psychology-oriented folks talk it is almost always about mirroring and idealizing, and never about optimal frustration. And I suspect that this is because we have become so focused on feelings and success that we are preventing people from experiencing optimal frustration at all.
The novelist John Hersey has said “Learning starts with failure; the first failure is the beginning of education.” We commence to learn because reality has shown us that we lack knowledge or understanding. That’s the good news. We’ve woken up! In this light I regard video games as one of the most consistent learning tools available to us. When that fail happens and that screen goes up you can try to persuade it to cut you some slack, flatter or bully it, weep pleadingly for it to change to a win, but no matter how you feel, you still failed. And because that reality is so starkly there, and because the XBox or PS3/4 doesn’t get engaged in your drama, that feeling will eventually dissipate and you will either try again, or give up.
Because that is in a lot of ways the conflict we’re trying to avoid isn’t it? We want to avoid looking reality square in the face and taking responsibility for what comes next. We want to keep the feelings flowing, the drama going, and we are willing to take entire groups of people and systems with us. If we are lucky they put their feet down, but more often then not they want to avoid conflict too, and the problem just continues.
So here’s a confession: I have failed at things. I have ended a task without success. I have not done things I was expected to do. I have fallen short, been inadequate and been unsuccessful at stuff. And nobody took away my birthday. I’m still around doing other things, often iterations of the previous failures, quite successfully.
If you are a parent or educator please take a lesson from video games. Start saying “Game Over” to those in your care sometimes. If they can try again great. If they want to read up on some strategy guides or videos to learn how to do it better, awesome. But please stop capitulating to their desire to escape reality on the illusory lifeboats of emotional expression, rationalization or verbal arguments. As Mrs. Smeal says in “Benny and Joon,” “when a boat runs ashore, the sea has spoken.” Reality testing is probably the most important ego function you can help someone develop, please don’t avoid opportunities to do so.
Nobody likes to experience failure, I know it feels awful. But to move through it to new realizations can be very liberating, and in time become more easily bearable. And I truly believe that success without past failures feels pretty hollow. When I play through a video game from start to finish without a fail I don’t feel like a winner. I feel cheated.