Partial Presentation and the Hook

Have you ever met someone who seemed a little too together? I acknowledge that some people really do have their shit together—they have both a sense of accomplishment and a sense of purpose and direction. But there is perhaps no one that does not simultaneously harbor some self-doubt as well. In fact, I have found that people’s uncertainty is a big part of what makes them relatable to me.

I recently met a guy online and had some rather enjoyable chats with him. However, when we met in person for lunch he presented himself as having solved all of his problems and as being very certain about himself and his life. He relayed a situation with his boyfriend in which he had recently addressed and successfully resolved a problem. There was no regret or doubt in his telling of the story—no un-sureness that the resolution would be successful. He presented his life as on track and betrayed no fear of challenges or obstacles or dissatisfaction.

Online he had been quirky and we had shared our respective senses of not fully understanding ourselves. It was as if online he was able to be more vulnerable, but face to face he needed to present well. The self-doubt, the willingness to be not quite “normal” which appeared in the online conversations disappeared in person. Unfortunately, this persona was very distancing for me. I do not know to what degree he presented this composure because he realized I was a psychologist, but it caused me to experience him as false or at best “partial,” as if I were only getting the shiny part of the whole picture.

In counseling and psychotherapy we talk about clients’ “hooks.” The hook is the aspect of the client from which our empathy for the client grows. Typically it has to do with the internal struggle. People who appear to be trying to do life right are appealing. People who are not struggling are difficult for anyone to relate to—few (if any) of us have a sense of what it is like to not have an internal struggle of some kind. Some people’s struggles do not make sense to us personally as struggles. That they are struggling internally is what makes them relatable—not necessarily the struggle itself. Sure, the person has to be likable or someone we can care about in the first place in order for their struggle to matter, but someone who is simply likable usually feels incomplete, or false. This guy seemed likable—not offensive in any way—just not fully present (or fully presenting).

I enjoy confident people. I have frequently said that confidence is the most attractive cologne. I like people who have a sense of accomplishment and a sense of purpose and direction. However, someone who is accomplished and simultaneously is uncertain is someone I experience as a real person. I don’t think anyone wants to be friends with just a façade of a person. We may even admire a person without apparent problems, but their friendship would not actually be rewarding.

Ideally, one would present as confident, but perhaps not certain. We like to know that others are also vulnerable. Similarly, I think it is comforting to present as recognizing that you are flawed—accepting of the flawed state, but also maybe wishing not to be. Though I would caution that (especially upon initial and early contact) it is also important to exhibit that you are grounded and not just a mass of uncertainty—that can be just as partial, absent a center. In the absence of substance there is also no personality in which to hook into. Someone who seems to have it all figured out does not seem like someone who is going to grow much.

“Alcoholic”

As a therapist the word “alcoholic” is bothersome. It is not that I have a problem with alcoholics particularly, but rather I have a problem with how the term—and its associations—interfere with treating alcohol-related problems. The common use of the term, and especially the commonly held definitions or expectations of the label, create an either/or designation for alcohol problems—either one is an alcoholic or one is not, there is no in-between ground . If someone is using alcohol to his or her detriment, but does not drink to messy intoxication regularly (or always), we tend not to label that person an alcoholic and consequently there is (frequently) no attempt to address the problems that are associated with the alcohol use.

“Alcoholic” and “Alcoholism” are not clinical terms and therefore they sometimes have poor operational definitions. If someone drinks every day, but not to the point of apparent (or clinically significant—in psychologist speak) dysfunction, we do not classify that person as an alcoholic—even if his or her drinking is negatively affecting the overall quality of his/her personal life (e.g., relationships, sex life, hobbies). If the drinking causes problems, but does not appear to be an “addiction” (another term that is not clinically defined), then we tend not to label it as something to be treated. We may even talk to the person about how his/her drinking is affecting him, but we do not typically address it in terms of maybe the person should seek help—that would mean he/she was an alcoholic after all, and we do not want to give that stigmatized label to anyone inaccurately.

Furthermore, someone who is experiencing alcohol-related problems but does not experience the symptoms associated with “addiction” is not likely to benefit from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Maybe he/she is drinking more frequently, but not substantially more at any one time, or has cravings, but not actually withdrawal. These could, however, qualify someone for a diagnosis of Alcohol Dependence or Alcohol Abuse. But a person is not likely to see himself/herself as an “alcoholic.” “Alcoholism” and “addiction” are the common terms used to describe someone who we perceive as having as having a drinking problem, not “dependence” or “abuse,” which allow for more flexibility in identifying problematic drinking.

Another aspect that is missed with traditional thinking on alcoholism is that someone over 50 may not be drinking more, but is most likely getting more drunk on the same amount of alcohol. Around the age of 50 our bodies become less able to detoxify alcohol, so smaller amounts can actually have more major impacts. But we see a person having two to three drinks a night still—without needing a greater quantity of alcohol, yet his/her body is processing the same amount as if it was in fact more. This can disguise the tolerance a person might be developing.

If we were willing to think of drinking problems in terms other than “alcoholism” or “not alcoholism” we could better address the negative impacts that some people’s alcohol use causes.