New Jersey psychotherapist, Andrew Nargolwala knows the power of story.
Before he founded his private practice in Bergen County, Nargolwala taught writing and literature for fourteen years at schools including New York’s Queens College. There, the son of a Time magazine department head originally from Bombay, and a medical writer and editor who immigrated with her family from the Black Forest region of Germany, Nargolwala clocked in countless office hours guiding students as they sought to sketch out the central stories of their lives.
Now, after working with adult and adolescent clients for over a decade, the New Jersey therapist says he has gained a deep appreciation for not just the vastness of the human imagination, but the hunger we all share to infuse our lives with purpose and passion.
And yet despite all the complexities going on inside our hearts and heads, Nargolwala says far too many of us are living only partially-realized lives. Stories only half written, where plot and motivation are sketchily laid out at best.
The problem, says Nargolwala, lies in our failure to imagine ourselves and each other beyond the limited stereotypes we’ve been given ~ by society at large, and sometimes even by family and friends.
“Many people carry around these false images of how they think others are or they themselves should be,” says Nargolwala. And this happens in every arena, from the workplace to the bedroom.
“We’re taught that our identity is all about pursuing an ideal, and that acquiring and perfecting this will bring us success. We tell ourselves that if we get into this or that profession, marry this kind of person, have this sort of house, drive that car, then we will be happy.”
Yet what many eventually discover, says the therapist, is that such single-minded pursuits of these incomplete or fictitious ideals, especially when it comes at the expense of developing who we are on a deeper level or wider plane, is ultimately unsatisfying. Frequently, says Nargolwala, he sees in his practice men and women who may have achieved high status in their professional life yet confess to being tormented by deep feelings of inadequacy in their personal relationships. Rather than seeing their lives as a success, such individuals often rate themselves as lacking, even ineffective, as parents and partners.
Nargolwala says that even in our intimate interactions, many of us lug around with us distorted ideas of how we think we and our loved ones ought to be. And we are profoundly disappointed when we feel that one or the other has not measured up.
Even within the arena of love-making, couples are often quite rigid, he says, in how they adhere to prescribed roles and attitudes about such things as what’s gender appropriate.
Nargolwala gives as example the myths that being forceful, assertive, or forward are strictly male traits, and being sensitive, affectionate, and vulnerable, female. He also sees most sexual issues between couples as being about the core relationship: “Many couples don’t understand why their intimacy, including sexuality, is so impaired, until they look at their own individual issues and the issues between them as a couple.”
A far more satisfying experience occurs when men and women allow themselves to explore their full “duality and multiplicity,” unique ways of being that can change and be adapted depending upon whom they are with and how each is feeling at any given moment.
He adds, “Every relationship is an interaction. And a healthy relationship is an act of constant creation. That’s why I always say that no one can ever know what he or she desires sexually until that individual explores the possibilities with their unique partner.”
But then if everyone is busy going about their lives doing their own thing, expressing their individuality, where does connection come in? Affiliation?
That’s a common misconception people have, says Nargolwala, thinking that a choice must be made between being true to ourselves versus being accepted by others. That to be a part of a group means giving up your right to be who you truly are.
“You can be both an individual and a part of things,” Nargolwala insists. “You should never have to be a certain way for a group to accept you. If those are the rules, that’s not a group you ought to ever be a part of.”
Conversely, the therapist says it’s just as limiting and even dangerous to be so all-consumed with one’s own goals that we neglect those around us. Nargolwala gives as example Herman Melville‘s classic story of Moby Dick, where Captain Ahab becomes so focused and isolated with his quest of hunting down and killing the great white whale that everything else around him becomes sacrificed.
It’s the sailors, says Nargolwala, whom Melville offers to his readers as examples of how a healthy balance can be achieved: individuals who are strong in their own identity yet working together to achieve a common goal. “If you go off too much on your own to the point where you become your own island, then you’re eventually going to burn up and destroy yourself.”
The key, he says, is to be true to yourself ~ to search and strive for what is meaningful to you, to “dive deeply” into what you feel passion for ~ but to do so in connection to community, to find others who share your same goal. “Building a support system of like-minded individuals in so important,” says Nargolwala. “It’s a fallacy to believe that any of us can do this on our own.”
Andrew Nargolwala was a practicing psychotherapist in Bergen County, New Jersey. He also authored a creativity and relationships column special to Combustus. Mr. Nargolwala passed last month after a long illness. He will be dearly missed by many.
Fotini Hamidieli paints and teaches art in Veria, Imathia, Greece. Enjoy my personal interview with her here or by entering through the special Combustus piece, “Why Create Art? Wrestling the Muse.” We invite you to also connect with her here.