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The Mystery of the Right and Left Hands

Feb 04

Me again…..notice no G’day for “Bobbo”? I’ve heard that he is unwanted “down under” and hopes (against all hope) to be successful in the running for the “grand poo-bah” of another foreign police service; whose members are referred to by a play on his very own name. Me thinks there’s not much chance as he has even less character than the “chap” being shown the door (for allegedly engaging in some very selfish acts).

Today’s offering is another in the series of posts designed to assist you in making yourself miserable (as some of you seem so bent on doing) through the perception of your past. (Please keep in mind that I offer these musings not as your therapist, but more as the “little voice” that won’t go away). The present misery-making strategy builds upon the “more-of-the same” tactic that I have mentioned previously. I shall introduce the tactic with that comical story of the fellow who is looking for his lost car keys under a bright street light. It’s late at night, and after much searching of the area, a very helpful police woman asks him if he is sure he is looking in the area where he dropped his keys. Our hero readily admitted to her that he was not sure and actually believed that he had dropped them a few metres away where the street lighting was very poor.

Now this is very interesting as this man seems to be searching in an area where he knows damn well his keys are not! The role played by the alcohol in this mini-drama is to render him “NQR”, that is, “not quite right”. He knows something, but is hesitant to admit it; what is it that he knows?

The brilliant American anthropologist Margaret Meade was once asked the difference between an American and a Russian. Her answer was that an American would pretend to have a headache to escape an uncomfortable social engagement whereas a Russian would actually “create” one. She went further to opine that the Russian’s solution was far more elegant; as even though the American could avoid the boring party, he would have to admit at some point that he was lying. The Russian on the other hand, even though uncertain as to how he did it, created a valid excuse. His method lays in the title to this piece; metaphorically he did it by keeping what the right hand was doing from the left. Just like our hero above was able to search for his keys in an area where he knew full well they were not!

It seems we live in a time replete with “masters” of this technique. Many of us have the ability to ignore the fact that we are making ourselves very unhappy and CHOOSE to ignore the fact that we are doing so. Do you recognize this? The judge turns to the accused and asks if he has anything to say for himself prior to sentencing? Typically the (now) guilty individual recites something like, “I’m sorry, I just got sucked into something that I know is wrong”. Paying no attention to the apology, the remark suggests getting caught up in something out of his awareness. The key issue is the use of the phrase, “…..I know is wrong…” in the present tense. This suggests that he is now aware that he did something wrong but at the time of his criminal behaviour this fact did not occur to him.

The statement is not that alarming until we check back through his criminal history. It often seems that our hero has developed a penchant for getting himself in trouble with the law. Do you not think that somewhere along this timeline of criminal behaviour he would have learned that he was misbehaving? How is he able to do this? (Or similarly, how can our previous hero continue to search for his keys in an area where he knows they don’t exist?)

Check this story out! Remember the travelling salesman who incurred the flat tire in the middle of nowhere? He was without a tire iron, but fortunately spotted a farmhouse just off the road where he thought he could make it, without getting too wet in the downpour that had commenced. As he stepped out into the storm he began to catastrophize, “What if the farmer wouldn’t open the door?”, “What if the farmer was not home, untrusting, frightened, unfriendly, or just plain ornery?” The salesman swore that if he was the farmer he would surely loan a stranded traveller the spanner. So why wouldn’t this farmer loan him one? It’s farmers like this one who give the farming community a bad name! The salesman managed to get himself so worked up that when the farmer answered the door with a friendly “how may I help you?”, the salesman barked, “keep your damned wrench!” The consequences of this historical misery-making strategy can be disastrous. Some 2000 years ago the philosopher Ovid provided us with some insight into this mystery of the right and left hands (in his Ars Amandi) when he wrote:

“Convince yourself that you love
where you desire only fleetingly.
Then believe it……… He
loves rightly who succeeded in
talking himself into passion.”

Are you with me? If you are, you should be able to see how we can use this technique to create mounds of delicious unhappiness that we can spend a life time wallowing in, much to the chagrin of those around us, who need us. One of the better and more contemporary examples is when you label yourself with a chronic “psychiatric disorder” (after being exposed to an event outside your usual experience), a disorder for which there is little or no supporting scientific evidence; rather than viewing it as a normal human response to a rare and abnormal event.

Those of you familiar with the “hypnotic interview” may recall (the father of self-suggestion) Emile Coue’s affirmation. He prescribed that those in need should repeat relentlessly, “Every day in every way things are getting better and better”. These words can have a dramatic effect on the patient’s outlook on life. Dr. Coue’s thrust however runs contrary to our objective; but never fear even a mere trifler can turn his positive affirmation on its’ ear and can create enough misery to fill a lifetime.

At last we have reached the point in our quest (for misery) where we can begin to look at practical applications. Don’t forget that this tactic of keeping from the left hand what the right hand is doing, can be learned. (Wouldn’t you quite happily, like to be able to “look for your keys, where you know they are not”, and in the face of doing little, feel good that you are doing “something”). Here are a series of exercises to assist you in the development of this skill:

Exercise #1

Make yourself comfy; find a chair with arm rests and a back high enough to rest your head. Sink deeply into the seat, close your eyes, lay your head back and imagine you are putting your tongue on the most revolting thing you can think of. Without too much practice you should soon be able to bring on a gag reflex.

Exercise #2

Don’t get up, stay in the chair, try not to move around too much and now direct your attention to your underwear. Almost instantly and maybe even for the first time, you might notice how uncomfortable your underwear really is. It’s not important that previously it never bothered you, as now you will be aware of tight spots, pulling, squeezing, friction, chaffing and other unpleasant sensations. Stay with this exercise until your underwear, previously a non-issue, becomes a constant and uncomfortable problem. (You might even buy some new underwear, but will soon notice it fits no better than the old stuff).

Exercise #3

(When you return from underwear shopping) jump back in your chair and now attend to your heart. What was that? Is it beating irregularly? Is it varying speed…..sometimes slower, sometimes faster? Wait a moment, those of you who are “grandmasters” may have even noticed a skipped beat or an extra-heavy beat? You should probably consider serious heart disease, or even worse an impending heart attack. Get yourself off “poste haste” to a heart specialist and when she tries to convince you that this experience was just a “sinus arrhythmia” (i.e. the normal acceleration and slowing of the heart that occurs with breathing in and out)……….DO NOT BELIEVE HER!!!! Instead assume that she cut class the day the professor talked about hearts, and she is just too kind a person to worry you about how sick you are.

Exercise #4

If you had some difficulty with the last exercise, don’t despair. You can apply the same process with the ringing in your ears, or the little spots you see when you look up at the sky. And when you visit the doctor, don’t buy any of the bullshit he gives you about “tinnitus” or very common and harmless “floaters” in your eyes. Remember to keep the faith and regard these as signs of very serious disease.

Exercise #5

By this juncture you should have developed enough skill to be able to generalize your misery-making abilities to the real world. I know, let’s begin with something simple like luggage? You may have noticed that your bags are always the last ones to appear on the airport carousel. If you have been unable to convince yourself that your bag actually appears among the first as many times as it does among the last, you are closing in on victory. Very soon you will have yourself convinced that you are influenced by mysterious, dark powers not just at home but wherever you travel.

Exercise #6

At this point you should have developed a keen insight into the strange and nefarious connections that to the less skillful might seem mundane and unrelated events. You are now ready to witness some remarkable and ominous links that are the preserve of only the truly gifted. Have you ever been confronted with something that is out of place? An ornament? A tool in the garage? Even better a memento given to you by a departed favourite relative. How did this happen? What could it mean? Who could have done this? Certainly not you; out of your “Zen-like” awareness! Is it a sign? Is it a message? As usual resist the temptation to regard it as nothing, and definitely don’t investigate. Just deal with it by obsessing about its’ strange circumstances, as any attempts to test reality would be inconsistent with the exercise.

Once you’ve really gotten good at this you should be able to see these “spooky” connections everywhere. For example, have you ever been convinced the telephone is going to ring; you occasionally glance up from what you are doing in anticipation? Suddenly your “Spidey-sense” tells you that the telephone is going to ring NOW……and it does! Remarkable isn’t it? And this is only one of the truly clairvoyant abilities that “perks” within you!!

Exercise #7

If you have devoted yourself to your practice you should be thoroughly convinced that something truly remarkable is going on around you. It is time to share this with others! Doing so is the best way to determine which of your circle are also gifted and which are not; or worse which are part of the conspiracy? The latter are easily recognized as those who pooh-pooh your gifts and insist you are making something out of nothing. Hey presto, you got’em!! Now you can be sure that something is going on, and who can and cannot be trusted.

So to conclude, there’s the method. Those of you who have dedicated yourselves to your practice should now be aware that this skill (i.e. keeping from the left hand what the right hand is doing) is not only limited to our hero looking for his keys, the Russian with the headache, the salesman looking for a wrench, or Ovid’s lover. I am pleased to be able to tell you that you can create for yourself a miserable situation (emotional “disorder”?) and remain completely oblivious to having done so(for a variety of motivations, from welcome recompense to needed recognition). You can, while powerless to exert any control (so you think), suffer on to your heart’s content. Wait a minute, did you hear that? Was that your spouse, desiring your company? Was that your child looking for her hero? Was that your faithful companion wanting to take you out for a walk?


Dr. Mike Webster
Registered Psychologist

  1. Anonymous permalink

    Dr. Webster, thank you for being that little voice that won’t go away. This was brilliant and so helpful.

    p.s. I shared this in my group of peeps who will definitely appreciate it!

  2. I was wondering if you could write something about PTSD (stuck in the past) & how a Bad Conscience (did something seriously wrong) can effect a person when they choose instead of life to kill themselves verses confess that they were wrong and took a life. I think there is a difference and helping to turn the light on, on the difference, might help someone find their keys (path in recovery) and save someone’s life.

  3. “Anonymous”, I can do this but first you must tell me, are we speaking of your “Bad Conscience”?

    Mike W.

    • It looks like my last comment should be addressed to “Former Cop”. Sorry about that if I have caused confusion; I’m not very adept on these “google-machines”.

      Mike W.

  4. I was making reference to the Toronto City Cop who just killed himself.
    He was trying to get some help for his PTSD and I guess he was struggling……

    Since they did not seem to think his case had merit I was wondering if he just lost all hope and his conscience got the best of him and he decided to turn the lights off.

    Thanks for asking for clarification. I for one certainly do not want anyone, like it has been in the past, to get what I say wrong as it’s virtually impossible to get anything changed at a later date even when it comes with evidence.

  5. Hello “Unsolved Major Crimes”,

    Sorry for being so obtuse but I’m not sure who I am talking to? The confusion is likely mine, but are you “Former Cop”, “Unsolved Major Crimes”, or both? I only ask as I should clearly identify who I am addressing. Be gentle with me as I am not very good on these machines. I’m about to “hit the road” and visit with patients in a couple of remote communities, so it may take me a few days to get back to you. Thanks for your patience.

    Mike W.

  6. If you click on both the name in blue (the links)
    this should answer your question

  7. Another member struggling with mental health permalink

    Hi Dr. Webster,

    I don’t wish to add a comment but I did want to write and say thank you for writing these articles and putting them out there for the benefit of others. I have just over 19 years of service and recently came very close to the abyss after sinking into a very unhealthy place mentally and physically over the past several months. I wont bore you with the details as I am sure you have heard it all many times before. What probably saved me was the slow realization that I am a human being first and should not define myself by what I do for a living. To that end, I also realized that I have reached my limit with respect to human suffering and misery of others. Some people obviously deal with this better that others and while I thought I knew how to deal with things fairly well over the years, it can slowly creep up on you when you least expect it. I am now receiving what I realize is much needed medical help after attempting to quit the force. Instead of accepting my resignation, I was told to take a month off and get myself in to see a doctor. I am totally committed to moving forward and getting better but I still feel that getting out of police work and changing careers is my best hope for getting my mental health back on track and leaving the demons behind me. I am fortunate that I will have my 20 years in this year and can at least retire from the force with a modest pension. I am also fortunate to have other skills outside of police work that will provide an income to supplement my pension when I do retire. My psychologist told me not to think about leaving the organization just yet until I get some help and she may be right as I recognize that I am perhaps not in the best place to be making serious decisions at this stage. She also told me to be prepared for the fact that I might not be ready to go back to work after only a month off. While I am not thrilled about the prospect of going back to work, not to mention the embarrassment of having to take a month off for mental health reasons, I don’t know that staying home from work is healthy either. Anyway, I do find your articles very inspirational and I fully intend to get back to a place where I can have fun and enjoy life again. Thank you for your continued work and dedication to helping members get healthy again.


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