Psychology of the Trump Supporter…

I have to be honest, listening to Donald Trump’s speeches doesn’t exactly leave me with a warm fuzzy feeling inside.  However, since I live in the Midwest and come from a very conservative family, ignoring his rhetoric is impossible.  As the political minority, I find myself doing a lot of tongue biting.  On occasion, when I feel the need to speak my mind, I struggle.  It’s as if a I’m trying to bridge a divisive cultural gap.  The experience is much like traveling to another country where you don’t speak the language well.  Culture shock sets in as you realize much of what you’re intending to say gets lost in the translation.  For this reason, I’m hoping to better understand the psychology of the Trump supporter.  What do they see that I’m not???

To answer this question, I decided to do some random googling one late sleepless night.  What follows is a synopsis of what I’ve learned:

FIRST, a few introductory comments…

When comparing my own opinions to the rhetoric of the typical Trump supporter, I find differences in temperament-based preferences and moral perspectives.   Since I was raised in a very diverse environment, (culturally, socioeconomically, politically and racially), differences such as these are “normal”.  They are not a source of disharmony or strife by any means.  I have learned three lessons from this:

  1. FIRSTLY, the advice of John Malkovich on acting rings true here.  You can’t truly understand a someone until you suspend all judgment.  As it applies life, this means engaging in an empathetic listening that involves suspending my own view of life for another one.  What is it truly like to walk in those shoes???
  2. SECONDLY, an essential counterpoint to empathetic listening is remaining true to my own personal values. This has meant accepting that reality is ultimately a subjective creation relevant to my own life experiences.  I acknowledge that others’ may not validate or accept my perspective.  I am at peace with this and have come to realize serenity comes through being secure with who I am and what I stand for.
  3. THIRDLY, A Hegelian dialectic is always useful to resolve these competing perspectives.  According to Hegel’s dialectical theory, when one perspective (i.e. thesis) meets with a competing viewpoint (i.e. antithesis), and when they are merged together, you have a higher level of understanding (i.e. synthesis).  

In moving forward in the creation of this post, these life lessons exist as a guide.  I am willing to entertain perspectives other than my own but still hold onto my own system of beliefs.  Social reality is complex multifaceted and ever-changing.   The personal benefit of this exercise, is in that it can help me understand a facet, very different from my own lived perspective.

A “Cult of Personality”

It is important to note that Trump’s views on matters have been far from one-sided. His political beliefs and actions, over the years, fall all over the ideological map.  As many diehard conservatives have noted: “he’s like all the others, riding somewhere in the middle”.  With this in mind, I’ve asked what is the nature of his appeal is then?  Many Trump fans I’ve talked with explain his appeal simply in the following statements: “he tells it like he is”, or “he doesn’t take shit from anyone”.   As I interpret it, comments like this reflect a “cult of personality” mindset (Ben-Ghiat, 2016; Tracinski, 2015).  A cult of personality, might be conveniently defined as: “a system in which a leader is able to control a group of people through the sheer force of his or her personality and is often portrayed as a god-like figure” (rationalwiki.org, n.d.).  There are two critical psychological components underlying this insight one pertains to the trump supporter, and the other to Donald himself.  As it pertains to a cult-of-personality figure, Ben-Ghiat (2016) notes the following as essential characteristics:

“the leader has to embody the people but also stand above them. He must appear ordinary, to allow people to relate to him. And yet he must also be seen as extraordinary, so that people will grant him permission to be the arbiter of their individual and national destiny” (Ben-Ghiat, 2016).

Throughout Donald Trump’s own unique rhetoric, several unique traits can be observed: a complete disregard for the standards of political correctness and narcissistic ego.  I find it fascinating how politically divisive the responses are to these traits.  While I find him to be a disrespectful bully, Trump supports find him “refreshing”.  I’m perplexed by this.  In an attempt to understand how someone might find Trump’s rhetoric “refreshing”, I found the following commentary on Trump’s perplexing Cult-of-Personality appeal:

“People are projecting onto Trump what they want to see. They are pouring into him their fantasies about what could be accomplished by a strong leader who doesn’t care about making people angry. But that’s a dangerous fantasy to indulge” (Tracinski, 2015).

These observations about Trump and his supporters, provide me a bit more clarity on the nature of his perplexing appeal. Still, I’m left with more questions.  What specific characteristics about Trump standout in the minds of his fans, as most appealing, as source of projective fantasy?  What temperament based-characteristics in the Trump Supporter do I not yet understand as an explanation for their response?  What follows are more interesting insights to shed more light on matters:

Trump’s Extreme Narcissism

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual describes narcissistic personality disorder as follows

“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy…as indicated by…the following: …sense of self-importance…sense of entitlement…fantasies of unlimited success…[and requiring] excessive admiration” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

While a formal diagnosis cannot every be made without seeking the help of a mental health professional, many of Trump’s display’s reflect extreme narcissistic personality traits.  As the video above notes, narcissists see the world in terms of winners and losers.  As a result of this black and white thinking, a compulsive need to win exists over “the losers”.  This compulsive need is a way of reflecting one’s own personal insecurities.  Joseph Burgo, Phd, (psychotherapist and author of the book: (THE NARCISSIST YOU KNOW: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age), notes Donald’s extreme narcissism, is a large part of his appeal to populist voters (Burgo, 2015). In particular, Donald Trump’s appeal pertains to a key defense mechanism which he displays as an extreme narcissist. Underlying a need to avoid one’s personal insecurities, is a compulsive desire to win in order defend his inflated sense of self through: “righteous indignation, blame, and contempt” (Burgo, 2015).  Trump’s rhetoric models “a simplistic way to vanquish self-doubt and defend oneself against existential anxiety” (Burgo, 2015).  This insight is helpful in shedding light on the personality traits underlying Trump’s cult-of-personality appeal.  Still there is much more to be said about the Trump supporter to better understand this perspective.

An Anti-P.C. Mentality

Fear of The Unknown….

An interesting three-part series of articles on the psychology of trump supports can be found at Scientific American’s website titled “Decoding Trump Mania the Psychological Allure of hating Political Correctness”  – by Melanie Tannenbaum.  As Tannenbaum (2015), notes, there is no U.S. president in recent history who is more anti-P.C. as a”blatant racist…[and] sexist”.  Still, its surprising to note the divisiveness of reactions to his inflammatory remarks.  There are those like me who find them very distasteful and off-putting (to say the least). His fans, on the other hand appreciate, his rhetoric as “honest”.  What is meant by this?  Tannenbaum (2015), first theorizes that trump supporters display a low temperament-based preference for ambiguity and uncertainty:

“Did you have one friend who embraced that sense of uncertainty, viewing it with a sense of enthusiasm and thrill, excited about the prospect of embarking on an unknown adventure? Did you have another friend who hated every moment of not knowing what would come next, feeling anxious and uneasy until the minute that every single detail of his/her plan had fallen into a definite, guaranteed place?” (Tannenbaum, 2015)

Uncertainty is associated with the unknown.  For those with low tolerance to such things, a greater degree of anxiety is produced.   Knowing where he stands provides a bit of relief for those with a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality, common amongst ultra-conservaties (Tannenbaum, 2015).  Still, the perplexing perception that Trump is a “straight shooter” is perplexing, given his “winning at all costs” mentality?  What else can be said about this???….

Misperception of Non-Normative Statements….

In part two of her article series, Tannenbaum, (2015) cites research on the misperception of non-normative statements:

“When people say things that are non-normative, unexpected, or non-self-serving, those things are seen as more likely to be true, and outside observers are more likely to think they have a good chance of really knowing the authentic, deep-down, true personality of the person saying them. (Tannenbaum, 2015)”

In other words, if somebody is speaking off-the-cuff in an unedited fashion and saying what is on his mind without thinking, he is at least perceived as honest.  This is despite the fact that his statements are off-putting, and that he is a flip-flopper on many issues…

Pluralistic Ignorance

Tannenbaum, (2015) completes her three part series by commenting on the distaste of political correctness common amongst Trump supporters.  A quick online search for a definition of this “Political Correctness” yields the following:

“agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people…conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated…” (Politically Correct, n.d.)

What I find most interesting about Tannenbaum’s (2015) article, are her observations on this concept and the varied responses to it.  In particular she states:  “If you’re conservative, you may believe that the PC movement is a harmful push to censor free speech and limit the expression of free ideas: (Tannenbaum, 2013).    Indeed our culture is very “pro-P.C”.  It is useful to consider the two sides of the coin on this issue of political correctness.  For example, I value the ideals of equality, empathy and inclusiveness.  I believe it is important to show respect of others and avoid utilizing rhetoric that can be perceived as disrespectful.  Consequently, I find Trump’s rhetoric distasteful.  In contrast to this vantage point, my husband might bring up the idea of pluralistic ignorance.  This concept is best summarized in the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and can be defined conveniently as “the bullshit of the many”.  It is a dangerous byproduct of a culture which is too politically correct.  My husband is more open to hearing rhetoric like Trump’s because failing to question conventional thinking is dangerous.  In conclusion, underlying an anti-p.c. mentality in the Trump fan, is a distaste for pluralistic ignorance, ambiguity, and misinterpretation of non-normative statements.  

Moral Taste Receptors

One final article worth mention comes from vox.com, titled: “Donald Trump supporters think about morality differently than other voters. Here’s how.” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  In this article, the authors apply insights from Moral Foundations Theory to better understand the unique perspective of Trump Supporters.  Moral Foundations Theory states the following:

“our moral judgments verbalize unconscious and automatic intuitions that are only justified post hoc vis-a`-vis others…these “intuitions” reflect biologically prewired sensitivities regarding certain events in human social life” (Musschenga, 2013, p331).

Additionally, Moral Foundations Theory also describes six moral preferences or “moral taste receptors” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016), including:  (1) Care/Harm – (i.e compassion for others); (2) Fairness/Cheating (i.e. monitoring equity & balance); (3) Liberty/Oppression – (i.e restrictions of choice); (4) Authority – (i.e. hierarcy & order); (5) Loyalty – (i.e. us vs. them mentality); (6) Sanctity/Degradation – (i.e. elevate the “good” from harm of daily profanities).  In a public opinion poll including 2000 participants, the authors of this article found firstly, that Trump indeed rank as a moderate on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being very liberal and 5 being very conservative, (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  While I won’t delve into these results in detail, I found the following very interesting….

Preference for Care/Harm

A preference for Care/Harm can be defined as a “compassion for those who are vulnerable or suffering” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  It’s not surprising to note that in this poll, the democratic candidates ranked high in a preference for care and harm.  In contrast, republican candidates – and Trump in particular all had negative scores, indicating that this consideration was a low priority.  This is very much in sync with what I notice as a key difference between my own political values and those of my conservative family members.  The idea of the “bleeding-heart liberal” is often thrown around when I discuss beliefs pertaining to this value of care and empathy.  In contrast, I don’t understand why Trump Supporters aren’t offended by his comments.

Loyalty, Authority, & Sanctity

A preference for Authority can be defined a “value order and hierarchy; we dislike those who undermine legitimate authority and sow chaos” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  In contrast, a preference for loyalty is associated with an “us vs. them” mentality.  Finally, a preference for sanctity pertains to “a sense that some things are elevated and pure and must be kept protected from the degradation and profanity of everyday life”(Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  So how do my beliefs on these issues compare to the typical Trump Supporter?  I found the answer to this question quite intriguing….

Democrats scored low on all three factors.  This reflects my own political values as well.  A low desire for authority indicates an openness to change and a progressive belief system.  A low preference for loyalty indicates inclusivity and multiculturalism as personal ideals.  Finally, the notion of sanctity reminds me of a religious ideal that divides the world into the pure vs. profane.  As a “spiritual but not religious” agnostic, I have a strong distaste for this notion.

In contrast, Donald Trump scores high on Authority, Loyalty, & Sanctity.  A preference for order and status quo reflects a dislike for ambiguity as discussed earlier (Tannenbaum, 2015).  This “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it mentality”, is often associated with an idyllic perception of “the way things were”(Tannenbaum, 2015).  The slogan “Make America Great Again”, summarizes this preference ideally. The idea of loyalty, can be linked to feelings of patriotism and a heightened fear of terrorism.  Finally, the idea of sanctity, can be linked to values such as an anti-abortion stance and view favoring “traditional marriage”, (both of which I happen to disagree with).

Preference for Fairness:

A preference for fairness can be defined as a desire to “constantly monitor whether people are getting what they deserve, whether things are balanced. We shun or punish cheaters” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  The authors also note that those who prefer fairness believe: “people who produce more should be rewarded more than those who just tried hard” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  This ideal is helpful in explaining the perplexing fact that lower-income conservatives support the “trickle-down” notion of welfare for the rich.  When discussing this idea with Trump Supporters, I hear an espousal of “working class” values.  The idea of not working for what you get is distasteful.  This ideal presupposes any other thought process that might allow one to consider the complex ramifications of a “trickle-down” economic plan…

Conclusions…

One of my first jobs out of college was working for a law firm as a “jack-of-all-trades”.  I answered the phones, prepared documents, and even did billing.  Several of the lawyers in this firm had practices focusing specifically on family law.  As a result, I found myself in the middle of many contentious divorces.   Interestingly, much of the political rhetoric today mirrors the arguments of two bitter exes fighting for custody of the house or division of assets.  The idea of “winning at all costs” (Burgo, 2015), takes presidence over any other considerations.  As I observed, during custody cases, the children were left in the middle as the ones with the greatest losses to bear.  The parents are busy trying to “get one over” on the other while the child is left in the middle, to lose no matter what the outcome.  Its in this respect that Trump is providing us a public service:

“How could a crass, bigoted bully with a narcissistic-personality disorder and policy views bordering on gibberish ‘defy political gravity,’ dominate the national stage…In the short time since Trump declared his candidacy, he has performed a public service by exposing…the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness…of…the political culture they share” (Frank, 2015)

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Ben-Ghiat, Ruth (2016, January, 15).  Donald Trump’s cult of personality.  Retrieved from:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ruth-benghiat/donald-trumps-cult-of-per_b_8992650.html
Burgo J., Phd. (2015, August, 14) The populist appeal of Trump’s narcissism. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shame/201508/the-populist-appeal-trumps-narcissism
Elkins, E & Haidt, J (2016, February, 5). Donald Trump supporters think about morality differently than other voters. Here’s how. Retrieved from: http://www.vox.com/2016/2/5/10918164/donald-trump-morality
Frank, R. (2015, September, 20).  The Importance of Donald Trump.  Retrieved from:  http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/09/frank-rich-in-praise-of-donald-trump.html#
Manheim, F.T. (2016). Trump cards II: Significancr of the Donsld’s rise, his audacious two-layered campaign, and his Achilles’s heels.  Retrieved from:  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2729989
Musschenga, B. (2013). The promises of moral foundations theory. Journal of Moral Education, 42(3), 330-345.
Politically correct. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/politically correct
Rationalwiki.org (n.d.) Personality Cult. Retrieved from:  http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Personality_cult
Rich, F. (2015, September 20) Donald Trump is saving our democracy.  Retrieved from:  http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/09/frank-rich-in-praise-of-donald-trump.html
Tanenbaum (2015, August, 15). Decoding Trump-Mania: The psychological allure of hating political correctness, Part 1-3. Retrieved from: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/decoding-trump-mania-the-psychological-allure-of-hating-political-correctness-part-1/
Tracinski, P. (2015, August, 15). Donald Trump’s paradoxical cult of personality.  Retrieved from:  http://thefederalist.com/2015/08/11/donald-trumps-paradoxical-cult-of-personality/

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The Intelligence of Emotions, (contd…)

A Nagging Question

This article is part two of a series. It is an attempt on my part, to address some nagging questions after some late-night studying:  what part do emotions play in logic & moral reasoning?   Prevailing opinions in the field of philosophy appear to define feelings as antithetical to reason and logic (Bennett, 2015; Damasio, 2006; Nussbaum, 2003).  Consequently, emotions are thought to play no meaningful role.   The fields of neuroscience and psychiatry examine emotions from a clinical diagnostic stance.   As someone who holds a social science persepctive, I wonder instead, how individual and cultural interpretations play a role. If the body and mind are connected, how can we separate these two experiential components apart in moral judgments?  In the living of daily life, when discerning amongst viable alternatives how does one differentiate truth from bullshit?

Personally, I believe feelings reflect our reactions to life events in terms of our own needs and desires. They are an experiential connecting points between the body’s interaction with the environment and our minds interpretative mechanisms.  In this respect, they warrant closer examination…

(((BTW))), if I’m being honest, this question is more than purely intellectual in nature.

In my family of origin I was a minority (of sorts). As a Myers-Briggs INFP living in an “SJ” world, the only individual who even remotely understood me was my INTP dad, and he was little help. A neuroscientist by trade, his research endeavors occupied the majority of his mental energy.  My depression and anxiety was too much for him to handle.  I was a sensitive and imaginative child who felt like the oddball out.  My sister and mother, both SJ’s, could not make sense of me. My way of being was constantly “corrected” in favor of a familial ideal that stressed reasoning, logic, and pragmatism.  You know that fable by Hand Christensen Andersen titled “the Emperor’s New Clothes”?  I’m the kid who points out the king is naked and gets in trouble….

….This intellectual endeavor reflects an attempt to seek the value in my own”way of being”.  What if anything can be gained by acknowledging and making sense of my emotional world, (despite familial protestations?)…

Review Part One

In part one of this series, I try to make sense of an article titled, “The Multi-System of Moral Psychology”, by Cushman, et al, (2010).  The authors of this article review brain research as evidence of a dual-system of moral reasoning.  Essentially, they assert the following based on this evidence:

“These lesion studies lend strong support to the theory that characteristically deontological judgments are – in many people, at least – driven by intuitive emotional responses that depend on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex while characteristically consequentialist judgments are supported by controlled cognitive processes based in the dorsilateral prefrontal cortex” (Cushman, et al, 2010, p5).

Deontological moral judgments, characterized as pragmatic and absolutist, are associated with alarm bell emotions and are essentially intuitive reactions (Cushman, et al, 2010).  In contrast, consequentialist moral judgments, characterized as sentimental, are cognitive processes in which currency style emotions attribute varied degrees of motivational weight to our options (Cushman, et al, 2010).  Alternatives are considered against a welfare-maximizing standard in a cost-benefit fashion.  The rest of this post explores insights from other resources that shed further light on the intelligence of emotions.

The value of emotions

“Emotions are ‘non-reasoning movements’, unthinking energies that simply push the person around, without being hooked to the ways in [one] perceives or thinks…like gusts of wind…they move…obtusely, without vision of an object or beliefs about it.” (Nussbaum, 2003).

This quote comes from Nussbaum’s (2003) book, “Upheavals of Thought”, and comprises a common criticism of emotions.  In some respects this viewpoint is correct. After all, emotions hippocampal memories of past experiences and the amygdala’s assessment of what is essential for survival (Nussbaum, 2003).  They are subjective in nature and reflect our deepest desires.  They are a reflection of a reality which is uniquely our own – relevant to what we perceive as valuable.  With this in mind, dismissing them so quickly as “non-reasoning movements” (Nussbaum, 2003)  is short-sighted.  By thinking through them rather than with them, there is much we can stand to learn about ourselves…

The fallacy of the “disembodied mind”…

“Human reason depends on several brain systems working in concert across many levels of neuronal organization…both ‘high level’ and ‘low level’ brain regions, from the prefrontal cortices to the hypothalamus and brain stem cooperate in the making of reason” (Damasio, 2006, p. xiii)

The problem with discounting emotions is that it dismisses much of what makes us human. In order to make reasoned judgments based on pure empiricism, you would need to gain access to a reality that is absolute, objective, and external.  The truth is, “while there is an external reality, we [can] never know how faithful our knowledge is [of it]” (Damasio, 2006, p235).   Human experience is based on a bodily self as the mind’s only reference point. We are held captive to the subjectivity of our life experience.   No one else can understand what it is to walk in our shoes. Likewise, we can never truly “know” another’s experience.  The mind rises out of a holistic organism, since the brain & body function interdependently.  Underlying this inherent subjectivity, is a way of perceiving that begins as the body interacts with a stimulus and ends when the brain interprets this sensory information and determines the appropriate response. Emotions become an essential connecting point “between rational and nonrational processes” (Damasio, 2006, p. 133) and reflect both bodily sensations and internal cognitions.  It is safe to say, on the basis of all this that feelings play a critical role in moral judgment.

the neural self

So if emotions play a critical role in our reasoning processes, what does this say about our lived experiences? How might one begin to understand subjectivity, as a moment-to-moment awareness of live experience?  In a book titled “Decartes’ Error”, Damasio, (2006), describes our subjectivity as a “consistent perspective…rooted in a relatively stable, endlessly repeated biological state” (p. 238). We define this experientially as “the self”.  Damasio, (2006) asserts that the “self” is a neural construction and says the following about our subjective experiences:

“subjectivity emerges…when the brain is producing not just images object, not just images of [an] organism’s responses…but…of an organism in the act of perceiving and responding to an object” (Damasio, 2005, p. 242).

Concluding remarks in favor of “self-ishness”

At the outset of this two-part series, I sought to address the following questions:  “are emotions matters of self-deception as byproducts of limbic activity – and nothing more?…is there more to be said about the role of emotions in our judgments and decisions?” The short answer, in my honest opinion, is best summarized in the following with quote.

“A lot is at stake if we view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, they cannot…be easily sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment” (Nussbaum, 2003, p1).

These sorts of questions represent a personal struggle of the proper perspective upon which to take in my own life history.  When I review my life course, the question which always pops up is: “was it real, or all just in my head?”  As a biracial individual, I reflect upon the “inbetween space” I held within the extended family, where hidden meanings of interactions were left unacknowledged by everyone but me.  I remember witnessing the effects of personal and cultural belief systems as self-fulfilling prophecies about one’s place in the world.  Similar threads of hidden truth are found within my expereinces as bullied child, survivor of psychological abuse, and PTSD sufferer.  That childlike complaint teenagers yell to parents: “YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND!!” Echos in my mind as I reminisce.  Nobody noticed these bad things happening to me or stepped in.  When help was offered, pragmatic advice was given on how to best resolve matters.  Falling in line with the “stick’s and stones” idea, nobody noticed my inner struggle with self-blame, as I struggled heal the hurt that overwhelmed me.   Today, with 20-20 hindsight, I live my life according to the following ideal:

Common sense is a highly over-rated majority rules notion that overlooks deeply held values relevant to ones unique life experience, for blind pragmatism.

Our perspectives in life are uniquely our own, and nobody else can understand what it is to walk into our shoes.  For this reason, I firmly believe the key to empowerment is self-responsibility.  I’m a big believer in living life according to a standard of “self-ishness” – not in terms of the conventional definition of the term, but as a matter of orientation towards the self.  Merriam Webster (n.d.), defines selfishness as “having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people”.  This is most definitely not what I’m speaking of here: I’m not a proponent of “assholery” .  Instead, I prefer the following definition:

“What happens if you hyphenate the word selfish?-…How might placing the “-ish” suffix after the root “self” change the whole tenor of the word’s meaning?…Let’s take a look. Among the meanings of “-ish” are: “having the characteristics of,” “belonging to,” or [my favorite] “concerned with.”…is it not fitting that your very orientation toward life ought to have a certain self-interested focus? that your primary “concern” should be, well, you? None of this, to me, implies selfishness as such. It’s just that if you’re going to (1) take complete responsibility for your thoughts and feelings, wants and needs, and (2) strive to reach your full potential…That is, to be self-ish.” (Seltzer, 2011).
While there is much I could say on the subject of self-ishness, I’ll save that for a future post when I begin discussing another favorite topic of mine: Myers-Briggs Typology.

References

Bennett, M. (2015). F*ck feelings our Manifesto [Blog Post] Retrieved from http://fxckfeelings.com/manifesto/
Cushman, F., Young, L., & Greene, J. D. (2010). Our multi-system moral psychology: Towards a consensus view. The Oxford handbook of moral psychology, (1-20).
Damasio, A. R. (2006). Descartes’ error. New York: Random House
Merriam Webster Dictionary (n.d.) Selfish. Retrieved from: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/selfish
Nussbaum, M. C. (2003). Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions. Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press.
Seltzer, L.F. (2011, June, 2). Selfish vs. Self-ish: What’s the Really BIG Difference? Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201107/selfish-vs-self-ish-whats-the-really-big-difference

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“IT’s Unspoken Rules”

In a previous post I shared my story of an bad relationship, titled “Stages of Change”.  It has been over twenty years since I managed to leave.  I often refer to this period as “the IT years” after my mother jokingly one day to “please stop saying that name!!”  It was the most trying time of my life.  In the 20+ years since leaving, I’ve grown by leaps and bounds.  I’m grateful for the lessons learned and the loving marriage I enjoy today.  In this post I share some of my 20/20 hindsight.  What follows is an overview of his “modus operandi”.  If you’re dating a guy who thinks like this – RUN!!!

STEP 1: spotting your victim

imagePsychologically abusive men are masters at spotting the perfect victim.  On reflection, “IT” and I were a perfect match at the outset.  There’s definitely a grain of truth to the notion that “like attracts like”.  I was an insecure and naive girl who desperate for love and acceptance – even if all I found were empty promises.  “IT” had insecurities as well, but a bloated and narcissistic ego that fucked up  his perspective of things.  He could do no wrong and everybody else was the problem.  Others’ thoughts and feelings were only important insofar as this information could be used to get what he wanted through a process of covert manipulation (think wolf in sheep’s clothing). The perfect victim for this type of guy is a naive, trusting, & inexperienced girl who doesn’t know any better. Other key ingredients include: insecurity and desperation.   So what can you do to avoid a relationship like this?

  1. NUMBER ONE: Know your true worth and never attribute it to externalities such as others’ opinions or the quality of your meat-suit.
  2. NUMBER TWO: Take your time to let him show his true colors. People can only pull the wool over your eyes for so long…and please remember when he shows you his true colors – believe him the FIRST time
  3. NUMBER THREE: Have your priorities straight. Make sure you know what love is.  Ask yourself this: “If I let him love me, would it measure up?”  This should be a bottom line.  You  get what you ask for.

STEP 2: the honeymoon

CarrotonaStickThis phase is critical in establishing the “rules of engagement” for an abusive relationship. It provides victims a small taste of what they desperately desire.  Many describe this as a honeymoon phase. I don’t like this term since connotes something loving or sweet is underway.  The reality is, a “relationship addiction” is being established:  (i.e. a strong and harmful need that, despite your best intentions, you can neither control nor explain). Keep in mind, becoming addicted requires the following: (1) an urgent uncontrollable need, (2) an addictive agent and (3) the addict.  Bringing these three ingredients together takes time and carefully choreographed efforts.  In this phase the goal is simply to establish the first ingredient: an urgent need (think carrot on stick).

So did how “IT” do this?

Everything that happened in this stage, was designed to reinforce my insecurities.   “IT” held promises of love & commitment just out of reach while simultaneously making it clear he didn’t need me.  I wanted to be his “girlfriend”, but had to prove myself worthy.  His goal was to reinforce my low self-esteem through a continual barrage of criticism.  He kept testing the limits of what I would put up with in order to establish control.  In time, I put up with his constant cheating and my sole purpose became to do his bidding.  Before I knew it, I was under his complete control and there wasn’t anything I could do without his approval.  Keep in mind, these changes took place over time, like a slippery slope.

What is 20-20 hindsight telling me now???

  1. FIRSTLY: If I had known what love was I would have realized it wasn’t supposed to hurt like that.  I would have seen him for what he was when we met. His limited capacity for love was visible in his actions and words – if I had just paid closer attention.
  2. SECONDLY: If I been secure in my own self-worth, I would have claimed ownership of it as a fact.  I would have realized nobody can have power over me as he did – UNLESS I ALLOWED THEM TO. 
  3. THIRDLY:  This experience in retrospect is like the Wizard of Oz story.  If you recall, Dorothy has everything she needs to get home, (i.e. the ruby slippers on her feet).  The journey through Oz is about learning to believe in herself.  

STEP 3: psychological manipulation

Carrying the addiction metaphor further in this discussion, the two other critical ingredients of an addictive relationship include: the presence of a drug of choice (“IT”) and the addict (“ME”). Creating these two things requires psychological manipulation: influencing someone’s emotional state, cognitions, and perceptions for your own benefit.

“IT” followed a few “rules of thumb” in his ongoing efforts to manipulate my mental state for his benefit:

  1. NEVER SHOW HER LOVE:  This implies need, want and caring.   This is a sign of weakness and something a person can use against you.  Only when she has completely submitted to your complete control, do you even allow her to see that you give shit.   REMEMBER: ALWAYS IN CONTROL
  2. MAKE HER JEALOUS:  The goal is that she lives in constant fear of losing you.  Only when her existence is filled with constant agony and heartache, can you be sure you’re in control.  In this state, she is willing to do whatever it takes to “KEEP YOU”.  Enjoy this, but never let your guard down: SHE MUST ALWAYS LIVE IN FEAR.
  3. VIOLATE HER RULES  – CREATE YOUR OWN:  Learn what her limits are and violate them.  Remember, the goal of emotional manipulation, is to create a state of complete control, whereby the only rules that exist are your own.  She is at your mercy, living and existing to do your bidding.  USE HER DESIRE FOR YOU AGAINST HER.  
  4. ALWAYS KEEP A FEW “SPARE WOMEN” ON THE SIDE:  Make sure she knows, you are not the kind of guy who is able to remain monogamous.  Let her know, that you expect her to remain faithful, and that it isn’t realistic that you be held to the same standard.   This leaves her always uncertain and never able to be comfortable in the relationship.  
  5. YOU ARE EVERYTHING:  Maintain an air of irrational self-confidence that exists without regard to any evidence (or lack thereof).  It doesn’t matter what others think.  The point is, you are “The best thing since sliced bread”. 
  6. SHE IS NOTHING:  Use her insecurities against her at every available opportunity.  The goal is to make sure she comes to accept her insecurities are fact.  In time, against your irrational self-confidence she will feel completely helpless and lost without you.  Only at this point, can you be sure you have complete control.  

As our relationship drew to a close, I came to recognize “IT’s” emotional manipulation for what it was…

Near the end of my relationship with “IT” (just before the london trip),  he complained about how bad I was in bed.  He cheated on me constantly (and without apology) throughout our relationship.  He began describing in detail what he was doing with these “other women”.  I remember listening to his story and recognized a familiar thread of emotional manipulation.  It dawned on me that he was hoping to make me jealous.  I began to think silently of other things that happened throughout the course of the relationship.  His own “hot air” ideas of self-importance were coupled with the assertion that I was completely worthless.  Were these things also manipulative endeavors on his part?

I came to realize his goal was to compensate for his insecurities by treating me this way.  In his mind, if I was desperate to win his affections, then he could feel secure.  I wondered, what sort of insecurities fueled this idea.  Needless to say, since I was in a perpetual state of dissociation and numbness, this tactic wasn’t working.  Sensing this, he switched gears and started getting angry.  This didn’t yield the desired response either, since I was beyond the point of giving a shit.  Instead, I reminded him that he is the only guy I’ve every been with and haven’t had as “much practice”.  I described the consistent message he had driven home over the years that I was ugly and unlovable.  I asked him how I was supposed to feel when he told me this?  I wondered silently why he wanted me if I was so ugly and unlovable?  After a moment of silence he responded with a devilish smile and said “pretty KJ”…

In that moment, a poorly disguised veil of bullshit had been lifted.  Remembering his favorite nickname for me was “ugly KJ”, this response grabbed my attention.  It occurred to me then that he was manipulating me.  He simply wanted to get his way, and didn’t care how as long as I did what he wished. The devilish smile, reflected a “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, in support of this conclusion.  I realized then that he didn’t love me, and if he did he was unable to show it.  This was one of the last times we spoke, before I left for London with my family and broke up with him (from a safe distance)….

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The Intelligence of Emotions…

“If you want to make good decisions or get good advice about them, don’t pay too much attention to your feelings…” (Bennett, 2015).

This quote comes from a blog by a psychistrist, and in my opinion, reflects a fairly prevalent viewpoint regarding the usefulness of emotions.  In fact, I find this attitude quite surprising, especially from someone in the mental health field.   As a student therapist, I’m wary of how attitudes like this exist as mental filters, defining our understanding of matters.  Throughout my studies, I have discovered interesting threads of belief woven throughout research seeking to define the nature of emotions.   For example, a neurological perspective of emotions provides universal insights on the biological components in our brain responsible for the production and experience of feelings. In contrast, a social sciences perspective can help us understand unique variants in emotional expression and experience within individuals and across cultures.  My question is, how accurate are these divergent theories about emotions and the belief systems that underlie them? Are emotions matters of self-deception as byproducts of limbic activity – and nothing more? If this is the case, they play no role in moral judgment.  On the other hand, is there more to be said about the role of emotions in our judgments and decisions? What is – if anything – is being missed?

“If one’s sole avenue for assessing whether something is relevant and worthy of consideration is empiricism…literalism is the only kind of truth…the motto here [would then be] ‘either it’s a fact or it’s meaningless'”(Gross, 2012, p76-77).

What follows is my personal attempt to make sense of what I’ve been reading lately about the role of emotion in moral judgment.  Mind you, this blog post is me “talking out loud” as I sort through my personal interpretation of information I’ve been ingesting lately.  In this respect it is a “mental bookmark” highlighting a subject I might like to delve into further, at some point.

Debunking Conventional Wisdom…

image

In the introduction to her book “Upheavals of Thought”, Nussbaum, (2003), makes the following comment:

“A lot is at stake if we view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, they cannot…be easily sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment” (Nussbaum, 2003, p1).

The problem with including emotions in discussions of moral judgment, is that the subject matter is instantaneously muddied ten-fold.  You’re left to wonder what emotions play a role in motivations and attributions of value.  How do feelings reflect perceptions of need in determining our desire for an object?   In what way do our emotions exist as an experiential connecting point between the body’s interaction with the environment and our minds belief-systems, dictating the next “appropriate action”?  Two interesting resources I’ve uncovered address these issues from a neurological perspective.   In an article titled, “The Multi-System of Moral Psychology”, Cushman, et al, (2010) state that evidence exists indicating a cognitive and affective moral judgment system in the brain, however this claim “has been met with skepticism” (p2).  Damasio (2006), addressees a similar skepticism in his book “Decartes Error”, stating the following in the introduction:

“I began writing this book to propose that reason may not be as pure as most of us think it is or wish it were, that emotions and feelings may not be intruders or bastion of reason at all, they may be enmeshed in networks for worse and for better” (Damasio, 2006, xii).

So if moral reasoning is not a purely cognitive endeavor, what role do emotions play in our own moral reasoning?  I spend the remainder of this article answering this question.

The Brain’s Dual System of Moral Judgment…

Cushman, et al (2010), in an article titled “The Multi-System of Moral Psychology”, utilize the analogy of a camera with both automatic & manual settings to describe the brain’s moral judgment system.  A camera’s automatic settings, might be useful for portraits or landscapes.  Likewise, the brain’s automatic settings, are useful for the millions of little decisions a person has to make in a day.  The manual settings of a camera are essential when adjustments must be made in a unique instances.  Similarly, the brain has manual settings, that allow it to make more reasoned judgments for complex situations.  Citing brain imaging research on survivors of  brain injury, Cushman, et al, (2010), describe two divergent brain system responses to moral dilemmas based – much like the camera scenario.  These studies compare the responses of healthy individuals to moral dilemmas with those who have suffered a brain injury.  In one study, individuals are asked to respond two to hypothetical scenarios, described below:

Scenario one – “The Switch Dilemma”

File_000SCENARIO ONE – (SWITCH DILEMMA) “a runaway trolley threatens to run over and kill five people. Is it morally permissible to flip a switch that will redirect the trolley away from five people and onto one person instead? (Cushman, et al, 2010, page 3).”

In this study, no differences were seen in the responses between healthy individuals and those with a brain injury.  Responses reflected a consequentialist moral judgment that focused on the idea of saving the greatest number of lives.  Participants displayed greater activity in brain regions responsible for controlled cognitive activity.

Scenario two – “The Footbridge  Dilemma”

File_000SCENARIO TWO – (FOOTBRIDGE DILEMMA)  Here, one person is standing next to a larger person on a footbridge spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five. In this case, the only way to save the five is to push the large person off of the footbridge and into the trolley’s path, killing him. (Cushman, et al, 2010, p3)”

In this study, participants with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, were more likely to utilize the “greatest benefit” standard. The idea of having to push someone off a bridge didn’t factor into their assessment of the situation.  In contrast, healthy participants responded strongly to the idea of pushing someone off a bridge.  Their response reflected a moral absolute.  Greater activity was seen in brain regions associated with emotion for healthy individuals. In contrast those with brain injury displayed an absence of function in the same area.  Cushman, et al, (2010), end this research review with the following summative comment:

“These lesion studies lend strong support to the theory that characteristically deontological judgments are – in many people, at least – driven by intuitive emotional responses that depend on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex while characteristically consequentialist judgments are supported by controlled cognitive processes based in the dorsilateral prefrontal cortex” (Cushman, et al, 2010, p5). 

Essentially, Cushman, et al, (2010) propose a dual-process theory of moral judgment, on the basis of studies such as these, as most reflective of brain function. This perspective runs counter to traditional philosophy which characterizes consequentialist perspectives as sentimental and the deontological perspective as rational. When reading the quote above, my old mind searches through mental files pertaining to the subject of ethics and moral philosophy. Since my recent academic focus has been the social sciences, it’s honestly been a while. In my intro to ethics course as an undergrad I recall reviewing key moral philosophies throughout history. The instructor organized the subject matter in a spectrum-oriented fashion, starting with absolutist stances and ending in nihilism. As I recall, this placed Decartes’ deontology at the start of the course and consequentialist perspectives such as Mill’s utilitarianism somewhere in the middle. A review of these moral perspectives is necessary to appreciate the claim that deontological judgments are conducted by the emotionally-driven brain and the fact that the abstract logical components engage in consequentialist judgment.

Consequentialist Judgment

image“Consequentialism is the view that morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences” (Haines, n.d.).  This welfare-maximizing principle involves increasing pleasure and minimizing pain.  From this perspective, our main focus is the “overall consequence” (Haines, n.d.) of one’s actions and the sum total of their effect.  Did our action create more harm than good?  Or did was it a beneficial decision for the majority of those involved? A criticism of this moral stance is that it relies on sentiment at the expense of duty and imageprincipled standards.  The consequences of this cost-benefit analysis  is that an “ends justify the means” standard is reflected in our actions.

According to the work of Cushman, et al, (2010), brain research provides evidence of a neurological system that acts on the basis of this consequentialist welfare-maximizing standard.  The affective component acts at a subconscious level and creates a motivational push while our cognition creates value-based thinking.  This moral reasoning occurs in a manner similar to a camera’s manual settings as we weigh alternatives in complex situations such as in the switch scenario. The brain’s affective component is characterized by Cushman as “currency-style” emotions:

“A set of meso-limbic brain regions…represent expected monetary value in a more graded fashion…These regions, in a rather transparent way, support currency-like representations… Currency-like emotions function by adding a limited measure of motivational weight to a behavioral alternative, where this weighting is designed to be integrated with other weightings in order to produce a response. Such emotional weightings, rather than issuing resolute commands, say, “Add a few points to option A” or “Subtract a few points from Option B.” (Cushman, et al, 2010, p.12-13).

Deontological Judgment

image“In contemporary moral philosophy, deontology is one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted “(Alexander & Moore, 2012).  This absolutist perspective rejects the consequentialist notion that actions could be assessed in terms of their consequences.  Instead, right and wrong are concrete and absolute normative constructs.   From a deontological perspective we are expected to uphold duties and obligations.

What I find interesting about deontology, is that it reflects a “cause-I said-so mindset” of my son’s concrete-operational Piaget-like thinking.  When pushing further and asking “why” his absolutist standards exist, it is discovered they have no underlying well-reasoned basis.  “It is as it is because I said so.”  Cushman, et al, (2010) uses the term “moral dumbfounding”, (p, 11), to describe this sort of difficult-to-justify, moral standard.   Brain research indicates this deontological judgment system lies in unconscious mental processes and is supported by affective bcomponents (Cushman, et al, 2010). To understand these mental processes in the brain, it might be useful to revisit the footbridge scenario once more…

So what is it about the footbridge scenario that sets off this deontological reasoning system?  This scenario forces one to imagine engaging in an action that causes grave harm to somebody.  This immediately elicits a well of negative emotions.  I, for example, can’t help but react to this scenario with the thought, “so you want me to push this dude off the bridge and kill him, are you kidding me!?!” Associated with this response are the “fight-or-flight” emotions created by the amygdala.  This limbic structure is capable of producing what Cushman, et al, (2010) describes as “alarm bell” emotions (p. 12).“The core idea is that alarm-bell emotions are designed to circumvent reasoning, providing absolute demands and constraints on behavior” (Cushman, et al, 2010, p 12).

Concluding Remarks…

“Historically, consequentialism is more closely allied with the ‘sentimentalist’ tradition….while deontology is more closely associated with Kantian rationalism. According to the dual-process theory, this historical stereotype gets things mostly backwards” (Cushman, et al, 2010, p.6).

As expected, this post is longer than I had originally intended it to be.  I would like to stop here by  reviewing key insights from the article, “Our Multi-System Moral Psychology” by Cushman, et al, (2010).

**Emotions play a critical role in our moral judgments. These affective processes occur subconsciously, outside our awareness. They affect our information processing, thought processes, and behaviors.
**Two systems of moral reasoning exist.  A deliberate process utilizes cost-benefit analysis to maximize one’s overall, well-being.  The other is an evolutionary adaptation in the brain promoting survival.  It is rapid, automatic and guided by limbic-based moral absolutes.
**Two unique emotional responses exist in response to moral dilemmas.  Everyday “switched dilemmas” are interpreted as impersonal situations and produce currency emotions that yield a consequentialist response.  In contrast “footbridge dilemmas” are interpreted as highly “personal ”  and produce strong alarm bell emotions that yield absolute deontological reactions.

References…

Alexander, L., & Moore, M. (2012). Deontological Ethics. Retrieved from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/
Bennett, M. (2015). F*ck feelings our Manifesto [Blog Post] Retrieved from http://fxckfeelings.com/manifesto/
Cushman, F., Young, L., & Greene, J. D. (2010). Our multi-system moral psychology: Towards a consensus view. The Oxford handbook of moral psychology, (1-20).
Damasio, A. R. (2006). Descartes’ error. New York: Random House
Gross, R. M. (2012, Summer.) The truth about truth. Tricycle Magazine, 76-80.
Haines, W. (n.d.) “Consequentialism”. Retrieved from: http://www.iep.utm.edu/conseque/
Nussbaum, M. C. (2003). Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions. Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press.

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Stages of Change

That Nike commercial that tells us “Just Do It!”, irks the hell out of me.  While intended as an inspirational message of empowerment, it misses the mark on how to create and sustain lasting change.  As I’ve come to realize (both professionally and personally) change is a process that takes time.  When I reflect on my own steady progression of growth thru life, two resources seem to describe this journey well.  The first is the transtheoretical stages of change model which addresses feelings of ambivalence toward change:

“People who successfully make changes in their lives progress along a continuum of predictable stages: 1) precontemplation – not aware of, or minimizing the problem; 2) contemplation – acknowledging the problem and considering possible changes; 3) preparation – making plans; 4) action – following through with plans and 5) maintenance – keeping the new actions as a part of daily activity” (Frasier, et al, 2001).

The second resource which inspires this post is a book by Carl Rogers (2012) titled “On Becoming A Person”.  While the stages of change model provides a witnesses acount of the change process, Roger’s description is a first-hand perspective.  In one interesting segment of this book, he describes a continuum of openness to change.  In an attempt to describe this continuum he makes the following observation:

“[this] Process involves a loosening of feelings. At lower end remote and unowned…At the upper end process of experiencing a continually changing flow of feelings becomes characteristic of the individual.” (Rogers, 2012, p. 157)

It is worth noting that while Rogers, (2012) description of change is similar in many respects to the Prochaska’s Transtheoretical model, it is comprised of 7 stages. Additionally, Rogers theory describes an abstract growth process as we move from ridgidity toward openness to change.  What I like about Rogers theory is it describes this process of change as a gradual transformation in how we relate to our feelings.

In this post I intend to discuss the process of change from two unique standpoints. One perspective will provide a theoretical overview of the stages of change from those in the helping professions. Another perspective will be a first-hand accounting of my experiences in a past relationship.  In this emotionally abusive situation, I underwent the very stages of change described here.   With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I am grateful for where I am today.  That experience is a stark contrast to my current marriage to a wonderful and loving man, almost 17 years.  I’ve honestly had to step back and debate whether or not I wish to share this experience in such an open forum. My decision is that openness & honesty will be 2 essential guiding standards in the creation of this blog.  After all, hiding experiences like these implies shame – which is unwarranted.  It just also happens to be the “badass” alternative, 🙂 🙂 🙂 …

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Pre-Contemplation

22033“Precontemplation is the stage in which there is no intention to change behavior in the foreseeable future” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p. 144).

Second Hand Observation

According to Prochaska’s Transtheoretical model of change, individuals here are unaware of their problem and are reluctant to discuss matters in detail.  Rogers, (2012), notes an “unwillingness to communicate [about] oneself…communication is [instead] about externals…feelings are neither recognized or owned.  Personal constructs…are extremely rigid” (p. 133).  Feelings are managed with a goal of repression, in order to maintain a sense of security thru avoidance.  Unwilling to seek help independently, clients often enter counseling at the insistence of someone else.

First Hand Experience: “The ‘IT’ years…”

First Year of College…

“There is no need to talk about it: it won’t change a thing,” (Fraser, et al, 2001, 214).  This was my attitude in the first year of our relationship.  I felt a sense of complete hopelessness and lived in denial of the problem.  It was my first serious relationship and introduction to the dating world.  I was in my second year of college when we met, although not your “typical young adult”.   He was my first serious relationship:  prior to him I hadn’t even so much as even kissed a boy before.   I had just left high school that previous year, with a huge chip on my shoulder.  I was a bullied child with a well of unresolved hurt.  Since my best friend, Ruby Stricker moved in sixth grade, I hadn’t experienced a feeling of acceptance or belonging amongst peers.  I was the girl with the cooties that got picked last in P.E., and sat alone at the lunch table.  By the time I reached high school, I would go weeks without speaking more than a few words to people.  These exchanges included “pass the salt” (at home), or “can I use the bathroom” (at school).  This left me with six full years of stagnation in the area of social development.  While I was eighteen chronologically, an insecure sixth grader still lurked within.  As a result, I had huge expectations for my freshman year.  I hoped to make friends & wanted nothing more than to be accepted.  As you might expect, reality didn’t live up to expectations.

While I did experience some companionship with fellow dorm residents, a cavernous divide separated us.  They were your typical college freshmen, and I was  “different”.   Conversations with fellow dorm mates provide a unique window into this divide and my “burgeoning issues”.  Concerned for my level of naivety, the developmental divide between us made it difficult for me to be regarded as an equal.  I recall being very frustrated by this: their parental concern angered me.  Today, I realize I had misperceived it as a demeaning insult.  I wanted nothing more than to be like them, but had no idea of how to make up for “lost time”.  I finished that first year with very few friends and still had yet to go on my first date.

As I entered my sophomore year, I was still completely ignorant of my “issues”.  The consequences of my own chosen methods of adaptation to bullying continued to play out.  The self-imposed isolation throughout teens, now made it difficult to relate to those my own age.   Desperate to solve the problem, I was eager to to take the first “zero-to-sixty” route to maturity I could find.  Little did I know, I was to meet a guy who would deliver just that “and more”.

Meeting “IT”

(((FYI – in conversations with my family about this time of my life, my mother has requested we not mention “that name” .   In time we’ve adopted the nickname “IT” to refer to him.  I use this in reference to this individual throughout the post))) 

…From the moment we met, we were like moths to a flame, drawn to each other for all the wrong reasons.  We were the other’s “quick fix” solution to unresolved hurt.  His involved a complicated relationship with a “domineering” mother.  Mine involved a chip-on-your-shoulder mentality in the aftermath of prolonged bullying and emotional neglect.    We never did have that “honeymoon period” common in most “unhealthy relationships” (Burman, 2003; Fraser, et al, 2001).  Instead, I would describe our relationship from the start as a “boot camp” in which IT made the development of a traumatic bond, his priority.  I lost my virginity very early.   It happened so fast, I remember it in retrospect as an unreal “out-of-body” experience.  It was only when he crawled on top, that it dawned on me what was happening .  My head spun: it was over almost as suddenly as it began.

He immediately set a plan in motion, to turn my insecurities into a certain self-perceived fact that I was totally worthless and helpless without him.  Reading me like an open book, he berated me for my inability to fit in.  I was ugly and stupid.  He told me there was no way any other guy would want me.  I believed him, (based on past experience, it appeared a logical conclusion at the time).  This resulted in the gradual reinforcement of learned helplessness (Burman, 2003; Fraser et al, 2001).  He would push the boundaries of what I would put up with, by using my naivety to his advantage.  He dangled “girlfriend” status in front of me like a carrot on a stick.  Achieving this status meant doing what he said, no matter how crazy, willingly and without complaint.  If not, I was to receive anger and rejection.  This was an unthinkable horror I intended to avoid at all cost.  I “NEEDED” him.  Before long, I was his personal slave –  the sole reason for my existence was to do his bidding.

Now under his “complete control”, the next phase of his plan was set into motion.  He started to isolate me from others, insisting I move to another dorm and take a single room.  Away from my friends, I was alone again, just like high school.  Old insecurities re-emerged and with it, crippling depression.   I only wanted love and acceptance. He utilized these urgent needs to his favor.  He was very possessive and insisted I never leave his sight without his say.  However, he cheated on me constantly – openly and without apology.  In fact, he would share intimate details of his “trysts”.  He insisted I listen attentively without complaint so he could drive home the idea that I was lucky to have him.  Fearful of rejection, I complied as instructed.  At first, it was difficult to conceal my feelings.  I would sob uncontrollably while he laughed and called me pathetic.  In time I learned to separate myself from my experiences, as if I were floating outside my body and witnessing the events like an observer.  He could do as he pleased – I felt nothing.

In time, he was my “sole source” of acceptance and love.  Desperate to have somebody in my corner, “losing him” was now a source of fear and panic.  I was “lucky” to have him and fell for his plan; hook, line and sinker…

Contemplation

image“Contemplation is the stage in which patients are aware that a problem exists and are seriously thinking about overcoming it but have not yet made a commitment to take action.” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144).

Second Hand Observation

In the contemplation stage, a growing ambivalence begins to emerge as individuals begin to struggle with their own self-evaluations of dysfunctional behavior, (Norcross, et al, 2010).  Aware that a problem exists, individuals often describe feeling “stuck”.  Concerned about the energy and risk involved in change, resistance prevents further action.  Stages two and three in Roger’s description of growth/change provide additional insight on the nature of this resistance.  In stage two, problems are acknowledged but externalized (Rogers, 2012).  Feelings start to ‘bubble up’ and are unacknowledged.  Emotions are used to assess what is of value to us.  In phase three, an emerging understanding develops of how emotions exist in reaction to events while also defining their nature.  With this realization, we begin to re-examination our perceptions and beliefs of the situation. “Is all as we perceived it to be?” Questions such as these produce a growing awareness of our problems.

First Hand Experience

The move to New York…

The burgeoning depression I felt as a result of his imposed isolation was now intermingled with a constant state anxiety and feelings of hoplessness.  My body was a jumble of nerves, I couldn’t keep food in me, my heart was pounding out of my chest.   This state of “near panic” was due to the unthinkable:  losing what I perceived was my only real chance at love and belonging.    The very idea of this terrified me.  While I didn’t have the courage to “hurt myself”,  the emotions were overwhelming enough, that this option was starting to become quite attractive.

As the semester came to a close, he began planning our next move.  By this time, I had managed to alienate myself from all the friends I made first year.  We were spending every minute together.  He refused to let me out of his sight.  During finals week he made an executive decision that we were to hop the next Greyhound to New York City – his hometown.  Plopping down two duffle bags in my room one day, he told me to fill them up and “leave the rest of your shit here”.  I did as I was told, and only informed my parents of our move after arriving in Staten Island, where his mother dropped us off at an apartment she found.  With only $1000.00 in our pocket, it was my job to figure out how to support both of us.  I got a job at a restaurant, and begged my parents to help and they relented.  However, I received an angry letter from my father shortly thereafter, demanding “how could I do this”.  He told me I made my mom cry in attempt to induce guilt.  In short: I was “disappointing them”.  My sister, then only 12, was incredulous at how stupid I was.  “I would never hurt mom and dad like that”, she exclaimed, and set forth a path toward “being perfect”, that involves always following the rules as the “good girl”.  I was angry, for their failure to be there when I needed.  Couldn’t they see how this was an end result of years of many years of bullying and torment?

It was when we arrived in New York, that a new phase of our relationship began –  10x worse than what I had experienced previously.  Every second of my day was lived in a “pins and needles” like environment.  Trying desperately to “hold my head above water” emotionally, my only concern was to please him.   This meant stressing over every little thing.  The food was too “salty”.  I forgot to “lay out his clothes”.  Every little misstep was intermingled with negative commentary about my ineptness.  He called me “pea-brain” because I was so stupid.

The control was also amped up by this point, since we lived together.  There wasn’t a single move throughout the day that I could make without his say so.  He controlled the money, so I couldn’t do anything without his permission.  I was only allowed to eat small amounts of food, including oatmeal and ramen noodles 1-2 times daily.  My weight plummeted to around 90, (at 5’8″).  I was anorexic looking.  Meanwhile he ate like a king and started gaining lots of weight.  I remember watching him consume food longingly while crying inside because the hunger was beyond bearable.  He did this intentionally because it drove me crazy.

The demeaning and controlling behaviors steadily increased as his demands became more and more insane.  I was to sleep on the floor next to his bed like a dog because this enforced my status in the relationship.  I only entered it when he wanted “to get him some”.  I spoke only when spoken to.  I was to refer to him as “Sir”.  I had to ask permission to take a “piss”.  I was allowed to bathe only once every week or two for minutes at a time or he would pour a bucket of ice water on me.   After months of this, I was dirty and smelly since I rarely bathed.  My hair was greasy and tangled since I rarely had an opportunity to groom.   My clothing was usually disheveled since I only had minutes to dress.  I now looked like a starving, homeless, crazy drug-addict.   People walking down the street would stare at me visibly in horror.

The return home…

After a year of this, he decided a move was in order.  He felt moving to my hometown was a good idea since it was more affordable.  He also discovered he could manipulate my parents into giving me money, due to their concern for my well being.  By this time, I felt stuck and totally helpless.  I was certainly sick and tired of his treatment, but felt there was no other option.   I did recognize by this time that our relationship was a repeat of my childhood.  I knew it wasn’t a coincidence, that old traumas and fears from then were  re-emerging.  He was my “band-aid”: used to conceal issues I hoped to avoid. Like an addict in need of a “fix”, he had me where he wanted.  There was nowhere I could go.   By admitting this to myself, I was able to examine how the past explained the present.   However, I was still not strong enough to process those old memories.   I preferred, instead, to box them up in the attic of my mind with all the other baggage.

Preparation

22039“Preparation is the stage in which individuals are intending to take action in the next month and are reporting some small behavioral changes” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144)

Second Hand Observation

In the preparation stage, clients begin making “baby steps” towards lasting change (Norcross, et al, 2011, p. 144).  With a full awareness of one’s problems, clients in this stage are ready to begin taking action in the upcoming months.  In this stage our goal is to begin understanding our situation more fully as we prepare to institute some big life changes.  Emotions are expressed with greater intensity regarding current experiences and past events.  The client begins to understand the importance of accepting and claiming ownership of all emotional experiences (both good and bad).  However, especially hurtful and traumatic experiences are still met with resistance.  Underlying a desire for change “is a realization of concern about contradictions and incongruences between experience and self….Example: I’m not living up to what I am” (Roger, 2012, p. 138). 

First Hand Experience

Fast-forwarding a few years, we now live in my home town and are working on completing a bachelor’s degree.   The relationship – as described above –  is otherwise unchanged.  I learn to acclimatize through a state of (almost perpetual) dissociation and numbing.  I am much like a marathon runner, emotionally conditioned to the situation.  Gradually, I gain awareness of the patterns in our relationship.  I come to understand that the unresolved insecurities from childhood bullying are a core component.  A sense of incongruency develops when I recognize this emerging clarity isn’t reflected in my dysfunctional life choices.   I desperately desire to leave, but feel incapable and stuck.  There is no pond to jump to where acceptance and love lie.  The only other option is aloneness – which frightens me.  A series critical incidences occur during this time which force me to examine our relationship further…

The first incident occurs just before Christmas break….

We had just finished our first semester back at school after a move from New York City.   We were living in the dorms at that time and planned to move in my parent’s apartment house once a vacancy opened up.  As Christmas neared, my mother insisted I come home to spend time with the family.  Her parents had just moved into the house after immigrating from the Philippines and she wanted me to spend time with them.  I was happy to see my grandfather, and desired to see him more.  Our last visit was when I was nine and he spent the summer at our house.  I remember growing close to him and being sad when he left.  When my mom stopped by the dorms to pick me up, IT forbade me to go.  A shouting match occurred between them and before long they are each holding me by an arm, pulling me in opposite directions.  After what seemed like an eternity, my level-headed father tells us to get in the car so we could discuss this.  Once we climbed in the car I noticed IT was crying(!).  I was shocked in that moment to discover IT’s “iron clad” armor was actually just show.  In reality, he was a scared and insecure child inside.   The only compromise we could come to, was for IT to accompany me to their house during the day and sleep at his place at night.  Mind you, the dorms were closed and he had nowhere to stay.  The only spot he could find was a van with and extended cab, in the driveway of a university maintenance worker’s house.  It was cold, dirty, and smelled of gasoline.   I hated him for ruining my Christmas and returning all the presents so he could spend the money.  I hated him for the time he took away from my family.  I hated him for making me sleep in that disgusting van.  Still, I felt completely helpless….

The second series of incidents involves encounters between IT and my former classmates.

On one such occasion, he informs me of two new friends he’s made: former bullies of mine.  IT talks about the time they enjoyed hanging out and describes their conversation.  He makes sure to tell me they thought I was a loser and I should be dumped.  On another occasion, I discover he was cheating on me with the most popular girl in school.  Again his storytelling involved a detailed accounting of their times together.  After years of this same treatment, I began questioning these stories as part of his plan to brainwash me.  However, when this girl started following me around in her car whenever I went out, I thought maybe there was a grain of truth to his story.

With every incident like this, the chinks in his armor start to appear.

I come to realize in time that he is completely full of hot air.  Underlying a thin veneer of confidence and good showmanship, is a well of insecurity and ineptness.   Underlying his assertion that I’m a helpless idiot is the reality that I’m pulling all the weight.  I work hard to support the two of us, (he is unemployed and only receives tuition money from his parents).  I work hard to help him get good grades (while holding down a full schedule myself).  I wait on him hand and foot, (he does nothing).  My hopes for love and belonging are now shattered.  I am now completely numb to any and all emotions – like a robot.  He is an asshole and I despise him but feel stuck.

Inside my mind, an emotional equation functions much like a “scale of justice”.   On one side, are the emotional burdens associated with being in this relationship.  On the other side are insecurities, feelings of worthlessness, and traumas I hope to avoid.   As each day passes, a few pieces fall from one side of the equation to the other.  The options of staying and leaving play out in this manner as I weigh this decision.  It is only a matter of time before the scale finally falls in the opposite direction….

Action

 image“Action is the stage in which individuals modify their behavior to overcome their problems” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144).

Second Hand Observation

The action stage is observed through changes in a client’s behavior with the commitment of time and resources to sustain such a change (Norcross, et al, 2011, p. 144).  Rogers, (2012), provides commentary regarding Stage Five of his own theoretical model in the following statement: “There is an increasing quality of acceptance of self-responsibility for the problems being faced, and a concern as to how he has contributed” (p. 142).  Client’s in this stage display a heightened emotional awareness expressed as a desire to gain clarity.  As a result, feelings are experienced in the present.  This is accompanied with a “desire to be the ‘real me’” (Rogers, 2012, p. 142).  This need for change is goaded by a desire for honesty and self-responsibility (Rogers, 2012).

First Hand Experience

My Grandfather’s Passing….

In my junior year, my grandparents decide to move in with my aunt who lives in Texas.  As Filipinos accustomed to a tropical climate, they disliked the South Dakota winters.  Sad to see them leave, I promised to myself that “someday” I wouldmake time for them.  However, later that summer, my grandfather is hit by a drunk driver while out enjoying a bike ride.  I packed quickly and traveled to Texas with my family for the funeral.  I was numb and quiet throughout the visit.  I got my first taste of “freedom” in four years at this time. I could eat whatever I wanted, I didn’t have to ask permission to piss, and took leisurely showers every morning.  After relaxing into these experiences, nagging thoughts began to enter my brain.  My grandfather would never get to see me “well”.  His last memories of me woud be in this state of “fuckedupness”.  Of all my grandparents, I felt closest to him.  Our only time meeting was during the summer before I turned nine.  I began reminiscing about that time and was saddened by the fact that I lost our final opportunity to spend time together.  The real “kick in the gut”:  I chose instead to focus on appeasing “that bastard” waiting at home.  I knew there was something I had to do.

The London Trip.

On the way home from our trip to Texas, my mother expressed her concern.  I was quieter than usual, and she didn’t understand “what was wrong”.  An overwhelming sense of dread washed over me as I admitted to her that I wasn’t looking forward to getting home.  I didn’t elaborate but she knew implicitly what I had meant.  “Serendipitously”, just weeks after that exchange, my mother arranged a two week family vacation to England.  She then called IT’s family back home in New York and encouraged them to fly him home, since IT would be alone during this period.  They do, and somehow, (despite “his” protestations), I have a two week vacation to look forward to.  While over there, I’m treated to another two weeks of complete freedom.   On our third night there, I confess to my mother I needed to leave and felt now was my only real “safe chance”.  She gave me a hug and promised to be there for “moral support” during this call.   Our conversation was very brief and I’m not sure what I said.  I only know my heart was exploding out of my chest and my hands shook uncontrollably.  After a quick “I can’t do this any more”, he says “okay whatever” and drops the phone.  IT’s father then gets on the line and says he has to retrieve his son, who is outside in the snow without shoes or a shirt on.  I’m bawling at this time, but grateful for the courage I’ve mustered.  My mother gets on the phone and exchanges pleasantries with his dad.   I’m shocked – it’s over as quickly as it started.

The rest of the vacation is a blur.  My mind is muddled and my emotions are up and down like a roller coaster.  No longer numbed and in a state of robotic dissociation, my thoughts and emotions run wild.  While grateful to be out of the relationship, years of emotional brainwashing still remain.  I am still that addict in need of her “drug of choice”.  The emotional withdrawal of going cold turkey is unbearable.  “White-knuckling” it inside, I do my best to give “good face”.  I am strangely fearful and anxious without him nearby, (knowing we will probably never see each other again).  While I was able to contextualize these fears as based on his “emotional conditiong”, they remained unabated.  Unable to enjoy the vacation, I tried my best for my mother’s sake.  From an observer’s perspective, this decision might seem courageous.  From my own, this decision amounted to me “yelling uncle”.   Emotionally, I just had the living crap beat out of me.  I left the relationship that day, an empty shell with nothing left to give, a shadow of my former self…

((In the video below, Gabriela Andersen-Schiess crosses the finish line completely exhausted, after running a marathon during the 1984 Olympics.  It visually depicts my emotional state during this time:))

Maintenance

24816“Maintenance is the stage in which people work to prevent relapse and consolidate the gains attained during action” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144).

Second Hand Observation

The maintenance stage can be observed as the sustained maintenance of behaviors incompatible with one’s problems for a sustained period of time (Norcross, et al, 2011).  Rogers, (2012), describes stage six of his model of change by stating: “Once an experience is fully in awareness, fully accepted, then it can be coped with effectively” (p. 145).  Where there was once stuckness there is now allowing.  Where there was once resistance there is now acceptance.  As a result, the client is able to handle the problem effectively.  Problems are not externalized as “somebody else’s fault” so we can play victim.  They are not taken inward with a sense of shame while we “beat ourselves up”.  Instead, “he is simply living some portion of it knowingly & acceptingly [one step at a time]” (Rogers, 2012, p.150).

First Hand Experience

The aftermath…

With IT out of my life, I was able to move forward.   I began to relax into the simplicity of daily life.  I redecorated my apartment, and removed anything that reminded me of him.  I enjoyed  the pleasures of complete freedom.  My grades and overall health improved and I got my emotional “sea-legs” back.  After graduation, I moved to be closer to my sister and found a job.  Still not “over” the effects of all these experiences, I tried my best to manage them.   In those early years, I began to focus upon healing and addressed the most raw wounds of that period.  The support groups I attended were a vital lifeline.

20-20 hindsight…

It is now over 20 years since I broke up with this guy.   I don’t know where to begin discussing this last stage of change.  It just might need to be the subject of another post, since this one is already much longer than I had intended.   I can, however, reassure you that in time even the deepest wounds heal.  It’s taken a long time to work through the effects of this experience and put it into perspective.  In fact the last reminants of baggage from that relationship have finally been put to rest in the last few years as I’ve worked in repairing the relationships in my family.  In case you are wondering, I’m happily married now to a loving man and enjoy a relationship that once seemed impossible.  Today, memories of this experience rarely come up. I can honestly say I hold no ill-will towards IT. Healing began as I examined those reasons for entering and staying in such a relation.  I took a DBT therapy skills group and started procrssing old traumas.

In time, I discovered that in order to move forward, I would need to forgive and begin healing.  Doing so has been essential to make room for the “good stuff” that has since followed.  In fact, this experience provided me a chance to grow.  Strangely, the relationship I enjoy now, stands on the shoulders of lessons learned during this time…

Over the years I’ve learned that guys like this follow their own fucked-up rule book.  Click here for insights on how to spot a guy like this…

References

Burman, S. (2003). Battered Women: Stages of Change and Other Treatment Models That Instigate and Sustain Leaving. Brief Treatment & Crisis Intervention. 3(1).
Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong. Random House: New York
Frasier, P. Y., Slatt, L., Kowlowitz, V., & Glowa, P. T. (2001). Using the stages of change model to counsel victims of intimate partner violence. Patient education and counseling, 43(2), 211-217.
Norcross, J. C., Krebs, P. M., & Prochaska, J. O. (2011). Stages of change. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67(2), 143-154. doi:10.1002/jclp.20758
Rogers, C. (2012). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Ego vs. Shadow

I found this strange table in an old journal titled “ego vs. shadow”. It described the consequences of denying certain parts of myself while presenting other parts to the world.  I’m sure its a byproduct of the Jungian and Transactional Analysis stuff I’ve been reviewing.  Since I thought you might find it entertaining, I’ve reproduced it here.  This divisiveness of self starts out with a description of my hidden self and lived self.  Keep in mind,  I wouldn’t describe it as an iteration of theory but instead application of insights.  

EGO – lived self
SHADOW – denied self.

Area of active thought and conscious awareness
Subconscious blind spot, area of repressed memory.

Conscious memories and thoughts created within the prefrontal cortex.
Emotion, imagination and bodily responses from limbic system.

A perceptive object of my own conscious self – it is what I present to the world
What I deny and fear about myself out of shame – a concealed truth I try to avoid.

My Ego-based presentation to world perpetuates lies, illusion and bullshit.
Reflects back consequences of this denial while insisting on wholeness of self. 

EGO – defines who I am being and acting in life.  
SHADOW – presents the hidden reality of my “concealed-self”.

So what are the consequences for my lived daily experience?  If there are certain elements of myself I deny, what happens to those avoided components?  “Emotions tend to be present on two levels. They are ‘out there’ in relation to our goals, the environment and others. They are also ‘in here’ in response to the inner life of the self” (Wiley, 2003, p510)

My emotions are outward responses to people, and events in life.
My emotions are limbic responses to thought content and belief systems.

The outer world causes me to feel as I do – emotions are reactionary.
My brain provides limbic memory whereby  – emotions define experience.

My emotions are adaptive responses to goal-seeking behavior.
My emotions are self-fulfilling prophecies reflecting unresolved hurt.

If emotions are indeed bilevel how can we be certain about them as a guidepost for what we desire and want most in life? How can I know if what I want is really what I want?

Outwardly, the object of my desire is sought for enjoyment through attainment.
Inwardly this desire is understood as a product of affective forecasting (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005).

When I see my value as extrinsic, I create a “missing piece”.  Desire is about me.
My shadow recognizes this faulty thinking & reflects this thru disappointment upon attainment.

If I see my value as intrinsic, I want from a place of wholeness, desire is about the object itself – nothing more.
When my shadow recognizes this wanting from place of wholeness I can relax into the fulfillment of desire by giving into it – fully.

 References

Wiley, N. (2003). The Self as Self‐Fulfilling Prophecy. Symbolic Interaction26(4), 501-513.
Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 131-134.

 

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The Art of Failure

In my career counseling course, I had an assignment which required me to review my career path.  While I’m glad to have finally “landed in the right direction”, finding my way to here has taken some time.  I end up with a bachelors in the social sciences after making a decision on this major, midway through my third year.  I graduated, with no marketable skill or career experience, and landed in a slew of dead-end clerical jobs.  With marriage and kids came the need to find a job that worked around my husband’s schedule.  We were financially strapped in these early years after a series of hospitalizations due to my son’s illnesses.  To make a long story short, due to financial need and others pragmatic considerations, I landed a weekend night shift job at a hospital.  In retrospect, my career path has been random and directionless in nature.  I’m like a feather in the winding following the wind’s direction to wherever it leads me…

Running From Failure

352202In reality, my lack of direction as a “feather in the wind” appears to be a function of my own inability to understand the unseen motivational forces in life.  It seems my desire for success, was more of a fear of failure.  In other words, as a moved forward in life, I was motivated by a desire to avoid a repeat of painful experiences which scared me.  In this respect, I wasn’t looking to my future and acting on present concerns as much as I was running away from the past.   In these journal snippets I’ve included, I’m following through on a 453002journaling exercise from a DBT skills class I took about 5 years ago.  Here, I am journaling on a “what if” premise where I act strictly based on insecurities.  I then imagine the opposite of this scenario, where I acted on a “blind faith”.   It seems the price of seeking approval and validation from others, in my life has been an overriding concern.  The act of throwing this shit up here (from my journals) and starting a journal is a big step in the opposite direction.  It means putting myself out there and risking judgment of the two or three readers who might actually look at this.

It is for this reason I seek an alternative path

Examining These Unseen Motivational Forces…

When I started this blog, I was in the process of working on those things on my list I never got around to like: (1) going back to school, (2) repairing my relationship with my sister, and (3) getting into better shape.  While I began to see real progress towards most of these goals, I noticed I still hadn’t gotten around to starting this blog.  I dug out the old plastic bins from a hallway closet containing some of my writing and well-outlined content for a blog.  I decided I would simply work my way through these stacks of material and create blog posts from them.  What I hadn’t expected, is that this endeavor would cause me to reflect upon the course of my life.  When reflecting on journal entries like the one above, I see two key driving forces that guided my happenstance path toward today.   Firstly, I’m running on hope for something “more”.  While this isn’t a bad thing, something more is needed to create forward motion.  Radical acceptance – best reflected in the serenity prayer – is that missing puzzle piece.  I review these insights below…

Running on Hope….

In these old plastic bins sitting in the hallway closet, I found a copy of a book titled “So Far From Home” (Wheatley, 2012).  While I actually haven’t read this book cover-to-cover yet, it contains a description of hope that is worth mentioning.  Firstly, the author begins by noting what’s good about hope: “Hope is not a feeling of certainty that everything ends well.  Hope is just a feeling that life and work have meaning” (Wheatley, 2012, p6)

As I understand this definition of hope, it is an appreciation for what gives our life meaning.  The problem with hope – when no other motivational forces are present – is that it leads to ineffective future forecasting.  Wheatley, (2012) makes the following comment in her book about hope’s double-edged sword:

“Hope is such a dangerous source of motivation. It’s an ambush because what lays in wait is hope’s ever present companion, fear: the fear of failing, the despair of disappointment , the bitterness of exhaustion that can overtake us when our best, most promising efforts at rebuked, undone, ignored, destroyed. As someone commented, ‘Expectation is premeditated disappointment'”(Wheatley, 2012, p6).

Radical Acceptance

imageUnderlying my failure to create headway towards these life goals (until recently) is a refusal to deal with reality on reality’s terms. In dialectical behavioral therapy, a concept is taught to clients who are coming to terms with the a painful truth: “Radical acceptance means that you accept something completely without judging it” (McKay, et al, 2007, p6).   The serenity prayer summarizes this concept succinctly…

Willingness vs. Willfulness…

The problem with “radical acceptance” is in learning to apply it “in real time”.  While sitting here and engaging in an armchair discussion of this concept is easy, upholding this stance with life coming at me is difficult.  It is for this reason, I find it useful to compare two approaches to life in the table below.  One approach is a willful resistance, the other is a willing acceptance….

Willfulness is a resistance and conscious denial of critical components of life.
Willingness is an acknowledgement of the realities of my life today – without judgment.
Willfulness is a desire to engage in life only on my terms with an attitude of “needing to be right”.
Willingness can be seen in a desire to respond to a situation as it requires with a desire for effectiveness.
Willfulness causes us to remain stuck as we sit on our hands and refuse to make necessary changes
Willingness provides us clarity as we engage fully in the situation, with an understanding our role in things.
A willful mind fails to understand that acceptance does not equate to endorsement of what happened or that “they are off the hook”.
A willing mind understands that forgiveness and acceptance are essential to letting go of hurt and begin healing.

…”failing with style”

References

McKay, M., Wood, J., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.
Wheatley, M. J. (2012) So far from home: Lost and found in our brave new world. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Retrieved from: http://www.bkconnection.com/static/So_Far_From_Home_EXCERPT.pdf

 

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Good Enough Parenting

This post touches upon the same subject matter from the last post, in which I share a triggery shame-laden parenting story of how my son repeats my own life history and this fact is then thrown in my face.  Mind you it is at a point when I was already very vulnerable and trying to reach out to a friend. Instead she states the following:

“Your Fucked Up & You’re Fucking Up Your Kids”

While I’m sure not everybody has shame-based parenting stories this extreme, the efforts we put forth to raise our children on a daily basis, are laden with opinions from others that can produce this problematic emotion.  In fact, everybody seems to have an opinion that there is a “right way”.  There are those who feel stay-at-home mothers are best.  There are those who feel working mothers are best.  I’ve heard it all:  We eat out to much, we have too many electronic devices, we stay up too late, they’re too rambunctious and “free thinking”.  The list is endless.  In fact, everyone has an opinion. Despite the fact that nobody has a window into my heart and soul and understands my struggles, it still hurts when I receive this criticism.  Despite the fact that nobody knows my two boys like I do, I still question myself when people list the pragmatics of “good parenting” vs. “bad parenting”.  For all these reasons, a concept from my course textbook: “Good Enough Parenting” (Ingram, 2012, p317), is worth examining closely here. It provides a useful and much-needed counterpoint.

“Good Enough Parenting suggests that parents need to be competent in necessary conditions, but they do not have to be perfect.  In fact, to be perfect would result in more harm than benefits” (Ingram, 2012, p317) .

Its about who you’re “being” & not “what you’re doing”

In order to expound upon the whole this notion of good parenting, my textbook states that“It is not so much what the parents do that will influence the character of the child’s self, but who the parents are” (Ingram, 2012, p317).  So how can we begin to examine “who we are being” with our children, and in what ways are we “falling short” of Toni Morrison’s ideal?  In an effort to examine our relational capacities, my textbook describes two extreme relational patterns.  In the “I-it relationship” (Ingram, 2012, p316), individuals fail to acknowledge the “personhood” of another. Instead people are possessions to own and control.  The fulfillment of your own ego-based needs is always THE priority over all other things.  My textbook provides a convenient example of this by citing a pivotal moment in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause”.  When James Dean tells his parents of the death of his friend “Plato”, his mom’s first response is: “how could you do this to me?” (Ingram, 2012, p316). In contrast to this, the “I-thou relationship” (Ingram, 2012, p316), requires a relational maturity that includes growth beyond narcissism.  An ability to acknowledge another person’s freedom and empathize with their perspective are requirements for this relationship.  What follows are a few quick rules-of-thumb pertaining the Good-Enough-Parenting standard:

*Can you appreciate the uniqueness of your child’s experiences, acknowledge their thoughts and empathize with their feelings? Can you love them as they are without trying to change or fix a single thing? (Ingram, 2012)

*Can you appreciate the fact that parenting young children does not involve reciprocation? A parent’s gift is instead found in what is invested.  The lasting impact this leaves upon our child’s soul, stands as a living testament of “who we have been”.

*Are you able to provide a child’s fluctuating needs for both autonomy and dependency? (Ingram, 2012).  This delicate balance of support and letting go requires that we pay attention to a child’s needs while setting aside any ego-based insecurities.

*Can you provide “optimal frustration” (Ingram, 2012, p316) so a child can develop a sense of self-efficacy and emotional regulatory ability? Children need opportunities to succeed and fail based on their own effort, with us as a foundation to fall back upon.

When reading through this description of “good enough parenting”, it is becomes clear that the particulars of day-to-day experience, play a relatively minor role.  Instead, an appreciation of what makes our children unique is critical.  Utilizing this knowledge as a guide, we need to examine what is required from us.  In other words, within each mother’s and child’s story is a unique set of concerns.  I’ve learned over the years, to focus on my child’s developmental needs and inward toward my current psychological tool set and connect the dots.  What are my concluding thoughts regarding others opinions?

To hell with what anyone else thinks!!  What follows are two parenting stories to illustrate this point since nobody else walks in these shoes. One of these stories is mine and the other is about my mom.

Congenital Heart Disease – Developmental Considerations….

My son was born with a congenital heart defect and has had five surgeries thus far.  While he is basically your typical well-adjusted teenage boy, he has been through quite a bit in his life.  However, his entrance into our lives was marked by drama.  At two months of age, he was diagnosed with a heart defect called “pulmonary atresia”, after going into “cardiogenic shock” at home.  What follows is a quote from a research article, that describes succinctly my reactions to this news:

Usually mothers do not grasp what they are told and they tend to react with denial and disbelief at the diagnosis. They may also experience high levels of distress and guilt feelings about their responsibility for the disease. These reactions may be aggravated in severe forms of CHD, in which mothers face the gloomy possibility that the infant may die or may not survive medical procedures” (Berant, et al, 2001, p. 210).

Not surprisingly, research consistently shows that parents of children with heart defects display higher degrees of stress and anxiety, (Gronning, et al, 2013). Associated with this anxiety and parental stress is a deterioration in overall well-being as well as higher rates of psychological problems and psychiatric diagnoses, (Gronning, et al, 2013).  It is also worth noting that parents of children with secure attachments display greater comfort with closeness and are more effective in soothing their infants. This attachment style is a key resource in parents with CHD (congenital heart defect) children, and is inversely correlated with psychological distress (Berant, et al, 2001). Interestingly, the main coping method used in such cases is a distancing strategy that helps to set aside painful thoughts of uncontrollable threats (Berant, et al, 2001). This strategy is useful since it allows parents to develop a positive appraisal of their daily experiences raising a CHD child (Berant, et al, 2001).

In a study I found, 29 individuals ranging in age from 26-56 years with congenital heart defects were interviewed (Horner, et al, 2000).   This article provided an interesting developmental life-summary and also showed that denial existed as a key coping strategy for CHD kids (Horner, et al, 2000).   This isn’t surprising given previously cited research that also highlights denial as a key coping strategy for securely attached parents (Berant, et al, 2001).  During early years, this denial strategy serves as a useful normalizing function, and coping tool for stressed parents.  Nonetheless, as individuals progress from adolescence into adulthood the utility of this coping strategy begins to run its course. Unresolved losses and uncertain feelings about a future are often dealt with quietly (Horner, et al, 2000).   Feelings of isolation and being ill prepared are found to be common complaints of CHD adult survivors (Horner, et al, 2000). What follows are bullet points which summarize key developmental considerations for CHD kids:

***CHD kids are unable to attend school on a regular basis and frequently excluded from many school activities due to health concerns.  This results in delays in a child’s ability to develop key social skills, especially for boys who cannot participate in sports (Horner, et al, 2000)
***Parents of CHD kids, encouraged them to focus on areas they could excel at (Horner, et al, 2000, p34). Avoiding sports, CHD kids tend to be more academically focused and report greater difficulties in the area of dating (Horner, et al, 2000)
***Overwhelmingly, study participants with especially severe heart defects were found to be grateful for having survived into adulthood (Horner, et al, 2000, p34).  In young adulthood, individuals with severe CHD’s often experience a deteriorating health and uncertain future  that healthy young adults cannot conceive of or understand.
***Denial [as a coping strategy] obscures serious emotional distress as indicated by high rates of undiagnosed and untreated mood and anxiety disorders found in our patients…..The appearance of being happy deniers often covered underlying fears of decline and premature death, as well as loneliness, isolation, anxiety and depression. These feelings were particularly disabling if the individual was single, unemployed and isolated.” (Horner, et al, 2000, p37)

In light of all these developmental considerations, raising my son, has required me to address unique concerns that other healthy kids can’t understand.  All in all, I would have to say the emotionality around this parenting experience might be like getting the emotions of parents in response to raising healthy kids and multiplying these feelings by a power of ten.   Initially, news that your son has a defect and might not survive is devastating in ways I cannot describe.  Hearing that your kid probably will never develop to experience “A” or “B” is is truly heartbreaking.   In my case, memory of these experiences stands in stark contrast to what I’m witnessing.   Watching him grow and flourish is an experience that produces gratitude that I cannot describe.  The “over the moon feeling” of witnessing your child become that which was once conceived as impossible, produces a feeling of gratitude for life itself.  I cherish my two boys for this reason, and tell them every single day that I love them.  Check out this link written by a father:  “To My Daughter With Down’s Syndrome On Her Wedding Day”.  

Traversing the Cultural Gap in Parenting…

Now, before concluding this post, I’d like to share a brief snipped from a paper I wrote that touched upon my relationship with my own mother:  “The singular most beneficial lesson throughout this course is the realization of how culture exists as an unseen paradigmatic influence in our lives. Definitive of our worldview, it represents a learned perspective that consists of instilled values, beliefs, and norms. Beyond these obvious influences, are less visible factors such as identity, emotion, and metacognition. This paper will provide a sociocultural perspective of empathy.   Defined as an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, empathy is a culturally relevant concept. Traditional perspectives of empathy are self-limiting, based on a perspective that is empirical and individualistic in orientation. In contrast, culturally inclusive empathy, (Pederson, et al, 2008), is a dynamic perspective that requires a merging of diverging viewpoints whereby we hold our own while acknowledging someone else’s and then bridge the gap through effective communication.  In fact, this insight has been personally valuable in bridging a cultural gap between my mother and I, as described in the following quote:”

“To the Filipino, actions always speak louder than words, so instead of conveying love and fondness with words, parents will endure extended periods of separation and/or hold down two jobs so that they can send their children to the best schools, pay for lessons and activities, and provide material support and other opportunities. This is the way they express their affection, and children are expected to recognize and value it. If they do not express or show appreciation, parents might perceive them as lacking utang na loob –serious infraction of social mores.” (Fortune, 2012, p12).

“This quote manages to summarize a huge misunderstanding that existed between my mother and I throughout much of my childhood. As an American child, I failed to understand my Filipino mother’s expressions of love through action, (Fortune, 2012). Preferring to hear and witness outwardly visible affective indicators of her love, it was instead an unseen dedication to her duty as my mother. As I only am able to contextualize now, it seems the underlying the cultural gap between us, was the byproduct of a failure to acknowledge key differences among us. At the core of these differences were varied views of what it means to be a person in the world, and what perspective we are to take it in from.”

References

Berant, E., Mikulincer, M., & Victor, F. (2001). The association of mothers’ attachment style and their psychological reactions to the diagnosis of infant’s congenital heart disease. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 20(2), 208-232.
Fortune, B. V. (2012). Acculturation, intergenerational conflict, distress and stress in Filipino-American families. (Order No. 3535626, Regent University). and Theses. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.bellevue.edu:80/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1283231958?accountid=28125. (1283231958).
Grønning Dale, M.,T., Solberg, Ø., Holmstrøm, H., Landolt, M. A., Eskedal, L. T., & Vollrath I. E. (2013). Well-being in mothers of children with congenital heart defects: A 3-year follow-up. Quality of Life Research, 22(8), 2063-72.
Horner, T., Liberthson, R., & Jellinek, M. S. (2000). Psychosocial profile of adults with complexcongenital heart disease. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 75(1), 31-6.
Ingram, B.L. (2012). Clinical Case Formulations: Matching the Integrative Treatment Plan to the client. (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. ISBN: 978-1-118-03822-2
Pedersen, P. B., Crethar, H. C., & Carlson, J. (2008). Inclusive cultural empathy: Making relationships central in counseling and psychotherapy . American Psychological Association.

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