American Psycho! The Neurotic Personality of the Modern World

Something has to be wrong for good drama to work. Conflict is the core of engaging stories, good movies, heartfelt songs, and great Reality TV (or is it bad Reality TV?). But should we live in a constant state of drama? How often are we anxious for the sake of being anxious, or annoyed for the drama that’s in it? In a culture that is surrounded by conflict-driven media, have we become characters in our own shows, nursing our own wounds for dramatic effect? It’s no fun to come home from work and talk about my great day. Darn-it, it’s just more fun to enter the house with a loud huff and puff, plop down on the sofa, and go off on a rant about all the ways my students are out to get me. You know, George Constanza-style. It’s more interesting. More dramatic. We have more fun reading the cruel comments on the Huffington Post than reading the actual article. I think we, as a society, have gotten a little addicted to the drama. We need to go back to embracing the boredom.

High schools are drama hotbeds. I’ve seen a gaggle of girls turn something as small as a sideways glance into a major world war. Guys do it, too. They just end it sooner, usually with a punch.

Adults are not much better. How bad would it be to leave the rude clerk at the store? But we bring her home with us by retelling the story fifteen times and then posting it on Facebook. “You won’t believe what happened to me today…”

Of course, in many ways, it is good fun. Without drama we would not have Shakespeare, the blues, nor the show Survivor. Do we really want to see who survives? No. It’s the dramatic, inter-personal conflict that’s interesting. She back-stabbed him? Oh my God! Good stories come from conflict. But we have to remember it is a choice. And sometimes, it is healthy to not choose to carry conflict with us. If we have a bad hour at work, we can carry it with us for the rest of the day, and let it ruin the other 23 hours that are not bad, or we can drop it and move on.

It has become part of our American personality to be slightly annoyed, anxious, and neurotic. We’ve all watched too many episodes of Friends and Seinfeld. I know I have. We’ve taken on Chandler and Jerry as a kind of national identity.

The problem is that the problems are more interesting. At supper with my kids, it’s just better drama to tell them about the fight at work than the success I had in teaching the Pythagorean Theorem.

The antidote is, first, awareness. We need to watch ourselves to make sure we haven’t become a character in our own drama. If we imagine our life as a reality TV show, we’re in trouble. Of course, a good rant at a party can be quite fun and therapeutic, but if you’ve started to see your life as a series of never-ending dramas worth recounting to your family, friends, and Facebook fans, you might be a little addicted to your neuroses.

Second, shift the spotlight. My wife does this thing at dinner where we all recount our best, worst, and funniest moments of the day. Yes, it celebrates the drama, but it also celebrates the achievements and the laughter. Another way to shift the spotlight is to watch you and your kids’ media habits. TV and movie drama have gotten more bloody, more violent, more suspenseful–basically, more dramatic–in recent years. A constant diet of high-stakes drama viewing can skew your reality. My son loves these tween Disney shows, but after a few Jesse‘s, he starts to turn into a character in the show, complete with sass and sarcasm. My students believe the number of murders on TV is equivalent to real life. This is just not true. The overall crime rate has gone down in the US while our perception of the amount of crime has gone up, mostly due to media. Take time for a drama reality check. Conduct a gratitude experiment or use The Stoic practice of negative visualization to be thankful for what you have.

And leave space for real-life inspirational drama, movies like Pressure Cooker, a wonderful documentary about inner-city kids struggling to win a cooking scholarship. It’s great drama, no machine guns necessary.

Finally, get out of yourself. By creating and dwelling on drama, we reinforce our ego–the character of ourselves. Going out alone into nature has the great benefit of leaving the ego behind. The birds don’t care about how many Facebook likes you have. Alone in the wilderness, we can set aside the drama of our lives. Commune with nature and stop being yourself (for a little bit).

As always, if you do it, your kids will, too…though maybe not in front of you, or right away.


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