Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lesson #17: To A Hammer The World Is Filled With Nails

One of my favorite jobs early in my career was working at a county mental health crisis/assessment center in Southern California.   Individuals coping with psychiatric issues could come in, have their risk factors assessed, and often see a psychiatrist if needed.  It amazed me how the same patient, presenting with the same exact symptoms, could see two doctors in the same day, and get two completely different diagnoses.  When I asked about this, a wise co-worker said to me, "Well you know Damon, to a hammer the world is filled with nails."

It took me years to understand what the heck that meant.  But as I continued to work in more clinical settings with more therapists and doctors, I noticed that they would diagnose disorders based on their perception of what they problem was.  Because mental health is an inexact science, and because the descriptive criteria in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) is so general and unreliable, it leaves room for a clinician to impose their own set of predetermined perceptions and projections of what the "problem" is.  If I have experience and expertise in Depression, then I will see a client more often than not suffering with Major Depression.  If I went to a great workshop all about Aspergers, then I will see my clients as experiencing symptoms of Aspergers.  If I love the new best seller all about Attention Deficit Disorder, then I will see those symptoms consistently in my clients.  Hence, a hammer will see a world filled with nails, since that is a hammer's function, and a hammer would cease to have meaning without nails. 

The search for fault in others goes far beyond the confines of the psychiatric community.  As a culture, Americans are consistently looking for ways to see problems and lacking in the people and situations around us.  And why wouldn't we? Consumerism is fundamentally based in seeing something "wrong" in ourselves and others so that we will buy things to feel "right."  There is a valid experience of insecurity and fear that drives people to automatically criticize and condemn others (you could go to Facebook and Twitter and see the evidence right now).  If you're living your life as a hammer, your search for nails will be never ending.

I have used this metaphor to challenge myself in my personal and professional relationships.  In what ways do I automatically search for fault? How have I expressed my judgments and disapproval of others? How do I think I'm benefiting when I perceive lacking in a situation? And do I ever justify my professional value by seeing others as "nails"?

I have learned in my forty years that acting as a hammer in this world brings me nothing but frustration, anger, and self-loathing.  I have no power to change others' behavior, and even if I did, changing others won't alter what I don't like in myself.  What I can do is focus on improving my own life, and use my personal and professional practice to demonstrate how much happier life can be when we release our heavy hammers.  How about you?

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City. He specializes in issues related to addiction, ageism, bullying, caretaking fatigue, grief and loss, gay/lesbian issues, stress management, depression, as well as couples in non-traditional arrangements. He is the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To have him speak with your group, or to schedule a counseling visit, call 347-227-7707, or email at

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