I finally opened my solo practice in Scottsdale. I was intimidated to go out on my own, I admit it, but with daily exposure, I soon grew comfortable practicing alone. Now it’s easy for me to manage the people I see during a workday, from colleagues to office staff to clients. I don’t become overwhelmed from having to be around too many people for too long; I get to sit alone in my office, writing, or I become deeply engaged doing the intensely emotional and cognitively intimate work of psychotherapy. I’m never lonely. My work satisfies my drive to connect with people, and I get to grow along with my clients.
To describe the boundaries between a psychologist and his or her clients is beyond the scope of this book—there are entire courses and books dedicated to the unique and complicated subject of therapeutic boundaries. To simplify it exceedingly in one paragraph: I am trained, experienced, and trustworthy, so my clients allow me to explore with them every level of their Levels of Intimacy, even level 1. They are safe to share with me because of my professionalism and confidentiality laws, which are similar to those protecting conversations with lawyers and clergy. The more and deeper they share with me, the better I am able to help them, because I compare their personal information with that of humans in general. I only share of myself what might be helpful to my clients, so it’s not the reciprocal sharing that we’d expect in a close, nontherapeutic relationship. It’s their therapy, not mine, and they are paying for my time and expertise, not my friendship or anything that will continue outside my office. The therapeutic relationship is unique, and I absolutely love it: it’s safe for my clients because I’m a trustworthy practitioner, and it’s safe for me because I’m extremely discreet regarding what I share of myself. I’ve had a thriving practice for twenty years, which tells me that I’m getting good outcomes. I know from my own experience that I find the intimacy quite satisfying and fulfilling. But this book is not about the therapeutic relationship; it is about every other relationship possible between humans.
I keep my acquaintances and colleagues at level 6 in terms of Levels of Intimacy. These are people who are in my life simply because we overlap in space and time, and we must work together and get along, an example being the office staff. I’m careful about sharing my emotions or being vulnerable with them because it may be professionally inappropriate or even hurtful to me or to my career. I’m friendly and authentic, but I’m not yet a friend. Everybody is safe, and we all earn a living.
My practice grew, I wrote novels in between cases, and I even published a handful of psychological articles and text chapters. I’d mostly realized my dream, except for one nagging detail: I had never actually published a novel. The one I wrote during those early years was entitled Psychodrama. It followed the protagonist from Also-Ran twenty-five years later, so I created a series the way the experts recommended. But as you might anticipate by now, Psychodrama went nowhere. This meant that by the time I turned fifty years old, I had attained a modicum of success as a psychologist, but I had begun to see the ridiculousness of pretending to be a fiction writer for so many decades with no published novel to show for my effort. It dawned on me that my stubborn pursuit had taken on the stench of pathos.
So, I decided that I needed a bit of unconventionality to distinguish myself from the wannabe-novelist slush pile. I ignored an editor’s submissions policy, slipped my Psychodrama query letter past her screeners, and appealed directly to her. I justified my poor submissions etiquette (which I’d never before violated) by convincing myself that if I was rejected again, it should be by someone with real authority and not an imagined youthful screener. It was arrogant of me, of course, but I saw it as similar to making a surge at the end of a marathon, grabbing one last chance to distinguish myself from the crowd of unsolicited query letters. Yes, OK, it smelled desperate to have done that, but please understand this point: failing to publish a novel had always felt like slowly drowning to me, and a drowning man will clutch at a baby’s leg, if necessary.
My behavior wasn’t appropriate, but humans can justify anything to be able to live with themselves. A bullied boy might feel justified going to school armed with steel; a brash young private might feel justified in puffing himself up in front of officers; and an increasingly desperate wannabe novelist might ignore an editor’s online guidelines. I had to be creative to be noticed, like Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. I just didn’t know how else to keep my lifelong dream alive. I had nothing to lose, no “rep” to spoil, as the folks I appealed to were strangers to me.
On level 7 of the Levels of Intimacy is where I keep strangers. Obviously, this is by far the most populated level, currently numbering over seven billion people. I’m authentic and civil, and I don’t share myself deeply. I don’t know if people at this level are safe or not. Over time and with additional contact—and gradual mutual self-disclosure, as this is an interpersonal dynamic—they could move to another level, but before we can know whether they are future spouses or toxic people, we should proceed with reasonable caution. Now, I know I’m supposed to say something warmer here, such as “a stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet” yadda, yadda, yadda. I like that in theory, but in the real world, where I live and do clinical work that needs to be effective—and where I’m responsible for the advice I give—I provide reasonable, workable advice. My goal for my clients, my loved ones, and myself is to be safe, connected to the right people, and grow to be the best human possible. We should move toward most people but away from those who threaten our well-being. I also understand that people have varying degrees of introversion and extroversion—some are cats, and some are dogs—some do not enjoy small talk, and some do. That matters in determining how many select others we choose to connect with and how deeply.
Find your own comfort level and be comfortable in it; you do not need to be like everybody else—just be you. I understand that sounds cliché, but people who actually are consistently authentic are not cliché.
Publishing this book makes me vulnerable to people at every level, but I’m sufficiently insulated and self-confident these days to withstand attacks. There will be critics, trolls, and haters. People will behave like people; I accept that. Self-disclosure is always risky. To me, it’s worth it. I’m unhappy living an emotionally shallow life; I just can’t do it. I get sad, and then I start running those loops about the meaning of life and eternity.
The editor called. Instead of praise, she berated me for not submitting according to her guidelines. Oh, I didn’t blame her, and I was quite apologetic. I’d been manipulative, and I deserved the tongue-lashing. After she had vented, she explained that she hadn’t called to upbraid me for my poor submission etiquette but rather to express interest in the Strider character from Psychodrama. Although the novel itself was far from something she’d publish, she said with a sniff, she wanted to read more about Strider to see how his story played out.
I wondered that, as well. Strider Rhodes was one of my chameleon alter egos. He was the Steve Prefontaineesque track star I’d pretended to be when I was a competitive runner. He was charming and inflammatory, talented and arrogant. He succeeded spectacularly and failed in flames. As irritating as that kind of behavior can be, I respected it; bloodied and defeated in the arena, at least he fought. What I didn’t tell the editor was that Strider wasn’t the protagonist. I hadn’t made that clear enough in my query letter, so that one’s on me. The story she wanted, I hadn’t written, and it was nowhere inside of me. Still, the editor invited me to submit to her when I had anything in the future, and she gave me her personal e-mail address.
So, the rascal still got to eat the cookie. I finally had the connection with an editor that’d lead to my big break into publishing fiction.
But I wouldn’t write the book the editor wanted to see. You see, over the decades, I’d shifted away from the overly idealized, impoverished artist with whom I was enamored as a youth, and I now wrote for reasons other than the hope that writing would release me from unsavory jobs. Because I’d been forced to build a career that was not dependent on writing, I found myself in an exceedingly satisfying nonwriting career, not needing to write for money. I realized then why I wrote: out of passionate self-expression and love. I realized that at some unknown point, I had divorced my art from business. I concluded that if I wrote what the editor wanted to see, I would be a hack. I couldn’t bring myself to do it; I just couldn’t. I’d already tried becoming what I thought fiction-publishing professionals wanted me to be—to no avail or satisfaction. Now I didn’t need to compromise; they were free to continue not publishing me if my vision wasn’t a good fit. Perhaps I was still rebellious—or merely petulant. Was it artistic integrity? Had I grown in a way that I was only then becoming aware of? Regardless, I took my own counsel and did not heed the editor’s.
I spent the next six months writing like a madman. I wrote something altogether different than I’d ever written before, a novel that expressed the wilder part of me when I was young, including the unfiltered voice that occasionally got me ostracized. At the time, I’d mistakenly concluded that my snarky and sarcastic writing voice was authentically me as a writer, and using it was coming full circle and would bring closure. (To clarify, snarky and sarcastic language is notauthentic. It is sideways anger, indirect communication, and an attempt to control—rather than to accept—another person.)
I entitled the novel The Most Livable City. It was set in Scottsdale with a psychologist protagonist. His caseload included the local area’s most recognizable celebrities. (None was ever my client in real life.) They had horrific issues and poor boundaries.
The novel was about the superficiality of materialism, money, and celebrity and how lack of authenticity led to low emotional intimacy and disappointment. These were good topics for me to write about, having lived in Scottsdale for over a decade by then, and having worked with many distressed clients who, on the surface, appeared to have enviable lives, but underneath, where I thrived, were lonely, sad, and anxious chameleons. That novel was much closer to my real life than anything else I’d written, but to be clear, it was still fiction and still an inauthentic voice. I crafted another query letter and sent it to the editor, using the e-mail address she’d given me.
By the next morning, she’d responded. But the prompt reply wasn’t a desperate plea for the full manuscript or even the first three chapters. Rather, it was an eager rejection. Again, I received venom from the old pro. This time, she was furious that I went around the website-stated submission process yet again. Worse, I’d e-mailed her directly. (Why had she given me her e-mail address if not to use it?)
Her latest rebuke removed my delusion. I realized in that moment—almost as profoundly as a peak experience, except in the opposite, hopelessness direction—that I still didn’t write well enough. I wasn’t just playing crazy all those years; I was downright delusional to have tried for so long despite getting the same poor outcome. I was indeed a sandwich quarter, a poser who pretended he was someone purer and more valuable than he ever was. I was the silly artist who would be better off if he put as much time into selling boxes as he did writing fiction. And everyone except him knew it. Didn’t the world already have enough starving artists? Did we really need another cliché? I was still the chameleon pretending I was a novelist. There was still a part of me, the part I put out to the public via creative writing, that I didn’t get quite right.
I admit that this sounds like every unsuccessful dancer, musician, actor, painter, and writer you’ve never heard of. I’d be so embarrassed, but…
Was that me? Had I become the nebbish Rupert Pupkin?
Suddenly sane, I realized that pretending had only protected me from the sting of failure. Here I was, a licensed clinical psychologist with an independent practice in Scottsdale, who prided myself on my decades of hard work to grow more authentic and appropriate on the job and at home, yet I still had the vestiges of a chameleon when I wrote fiction. I still had a writing color—white and black with a big, red nose that honked. I’d envisioned my potential rather than accepting my actual talent. I’d acted as the unrealized Pulitzer Prize winner but had in fact only played the buffoon. It was hubris. Again. I’d never get past the gatekeepers. I should turn away from the high dive. My voice would forever be smothered by my dearth of talent and the surfeit of right-tail writers chosen ahead of me.
I suppose I felt like a victim, even if it was to my own limitations. I didn’t submit The Most Livable City to that editor’s publishing house or anywhere else, and I deleted the editor’s contact information.
In Levels of Intimacy, the level furthest away from our core self is level 8. These people are toxic and are thus unsafe. People are toxic when they insist on seeing you as not good enough or flawed; when they drag up your past and won’t let you be different (in their minds); when they judge you, find you guilty, and try to make you feel ashamed; when they are critical, controlling, violate your boundaries, don’t respect “no,” enjoy your suffering, poison others against you, or make it all about them. They don’t own their transgressions or apologize, and they don’t care, support, or take an interest in what’s important to you or how you feel.
Was I toxic to the editor? It felt as though she was toxic to me. It was at least an unhealthy interpersonal dynamic. I think it was disrespectful in both directions. I didn’t purposefully disrespect her, though I admit that I purposefully pushed against her boundary. I thought I was being an admirable risk taker. But again, I got slapped down.
Here’s how I deal with toxic people, even when it’s my own fault: I share almost nothing with the few people at this level other than my outward appearance. Although I’m authentic and minimally sociable, it’s self-loving to protect myself from truly dangerous people (“dangerous” could mean physically, financially, emotionally, verbally, socially, sexually, and so on). I suppose it appears coldly professional, but I can’t seem to bring myself to fake more than lukewarmness with toxic people, because then I feel inauthentic. I’ll make eye contact and smile somewhat cordially; I just don’t let them close to my heart. That doesn’t make me a chameleon; it makes me civil and wise and not one to spread or tolerate toxicity. I try to be my best self even when everything in my gut wants to counterattack. I might even take a breath as Marsden did.
As a chameleon, I kept too many people at this level. I’d learned that the social world was dangerous and that I needed to protect my core self with chameleon behavior. It was too all-or-none. Now I use the Levels of Intimacy model to manage each relationship, gracefully sliding each person into an appropriate level, depending on how safe he or she is and how close I’d like to be to him or her (and vice versa, of course). I keep this information safe and secret in my own head (but I will share it with people in the first five levels if they can be trusted to keep my confidence). I remain authentic in every relationship and in every environment, regardless of which level we have placed each other in.
There is the danger of getting so wounded or irritated with so many people—or with people in general when they are too selfish or showing their beast-like predispositions—that we place too many boundaries on too many people and end up alone in a self-imposed box. But remember, I also strongly advocate lovingly allowing safe people closer to your level 1, loosening your boundaries for increased emotional intimacy; the Levels of Intimacy hierarchy has a bidirectional function. I had provoked the editor, but I’d rather remain unpublished than work with someone who showed such eagerness to diminish me.