On Being an Extraordinary Machine

Getting Back to Basics and Finding Your Balance

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"Be kind to me or treat me mean.                                         
               I’ll make the most of it,                                               
                  I’m an extraordinary machine!”
                       - Fiona Apple

     As I do counseling these days, I can’t help but notice an elemental truth. It just keeps ringing in my ears as my therapeutic gears turn each session. And it is this: we are, all of us, just sophisticated emotion regulation machines! We never truly outgrow this basic fact. Even as our sense of our identities and our relationships gets more and more nuanced and complex over time (more rich and interesting if you ask me!), the basic mechanisms and melody remains the same (Stern, 2009). We are all of us, just looking for the optimal balance in our infinite selves alongside an optimal balance of infinite others that seem to fit some particular equilibrium for the moment. Many times, in fact, we aren’t fully conscious of what it is we are seeking and why it is of such value, and that’s why with the help of a therapeutic ‘technician’(who is also proficient in poetry!), we can begin to make sense of it all.

     Why, might you ask, is this technician also a poet? Well, it turns out the regulating features of this sophisticated machine are grounded in the poetic and dreamlike world of the right brain together with the analytical, logical, and language based operating system of the left-brain. In other words, we are all divided and disconnected at the same time that there exists a creative space for integration and connection. Our greatness flows from a binary code from which we can flexibly create and build new possibilities. Psychologists are trained in understanding this funny code—right/left, inner/outer, implicit/explicit, self/other—and help people decipher, express, and synthesize this amazing system into new potential. It is that simple and that sophisticated!

     It is a bit surprising and maybe even a little humbling to think of ourselves this way, and yet, I like to think of it as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. We are contained both within the circle—the Dionysian freewheeling, dream-like parameters of the right-brain—and the square-the Appolonian ordered, geometric algorithms of the left-brain. With this square peg in a round hole miraculously fitting together, we can rock out like Stratocastrian man (and woman)! That’s when the fun begins!

     As I’ve been watching my newborn little guy teach us about how to satisfy his emotion regulation in every way imaginable-feeding, burping, calming,etc.— it is easy to see how early and how important this system is not only to our well-being but to the sense of loving others and the world, of making meaning out of what otherwise might feel like absolute chaos.

    So, as you go along each day, notice the way this operates, and keep Fiona Apple’s chorus in mind. No matter what you or anybody else shows you—kindness or meanness as Rumi’s great poem ‘The Guest House’ teaches- try to make the most of this, you’re an extraordinary machine!

Michael Alcee, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, Ted-X speaker, and writer from Tarrytown, NY specializing in bringing together the best of both worlds to create extraordinary new possibilities!

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