This post continues a train of thought from the previous post on “Second Chances” where I reflect on a series of health scares in my family. As a healthcare worker, the idea of losing a loved one is undeniably vivid due to a job that provides a ring-side seat at death’s door…
Fortunately, everyone thus far has managed to thrive. The lessons from these “second chances” have been largely positive. However, the occasional growing pain is inevitable and I’ve occasionally struggled in coming to terms with things. In the recent aftermath of my sister’s breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve floundered my way through the process of forgiveness. In my mother’s last email to me on this subject matter, I was most struck by these comments:
…those who are outside the fence do not have the SAME PERSPECTIVE and may not fully understand the gravity of the situation. You will have to forgive us (Dorene and Me) for our shortcomings in this regard. …There are always two sides to a coin, one coin whose two sides inextricably bound so the need to co-exist…
I do wish to let go and move forward. I do want a better relationship. However, forgiveness is a slow and steady path like watching a pot of water boil. I honestly struggle at times more than I like to admit. The pain and hurt are still vivid at times. I’ve come to the slow realization that healing and forgiveness are choices that occur from moment-to-moment Here are a few lesson’s I’ve learned from experience…
While generally regarded as a show of strength, forgiveness makes you feel emotionally vulnerable as you lower your defenses & face unresolved hurts. It entails the release of resentment from past transgressions that are still vivdly painful, in order to move forward. This can feel anything but empowering, especially when you consider that common synonyms of forgiveness include condoning, pardoning, and excusing. However it is worth noting that: “This conflation of forgiveness with condoning in such lay definitions…may be central to the controversy about [its] adaptiveness (Thompson, 2005, p. 316).”
In this post I’d like to examine the concept of forgiveness. In no particular order, here are some random personal insights…
Forgiveness is essential for healing…
I firmly believe that that in order to make room for the “good stuff”, it is essential to let go of the “bad stuff”. In fact, had I not let go of the traumas from my relationship with “IT”, my current relationship would not have sustained itself so successfully. Today, I can honestly say I have forgiven “IT” for all that had transpired (read link above) and hold no ill-will. In fact, when I reflect on this part of my life, I feel a sense of serenity & acceptance. While I’m certainly not condoning what he did, I harbor no rsentment. Instead, I realize these experiences were a much needed wake-up call. This kick-in-the-pants experience became the building blocks upon which I my current relationship rests. As a result, if given a chance to change this part of life, I don’t think I would. I know this sounds crazy, but the video above expresses this better than I ever could.
Forgiveness is about you & not them…
Sometimes your emotions can really fuck with you big time. The reality is, forgiveness requires us to do things that don’t often feel very good. Letting go old hurts is difficult when the pain can linger like a silent-but-deadly fart. You try to ignore it, but the stench fills your sinuses and the reaction is immediate. Acting in contradiction to these emotive dictates is hard when faced with painful reminders of a traumatic event from your past. All you want to do is lash out in anger. All you want is to let them know how much you are hurting.
…From within this mindset, seeing further is hard. However, indulging in this unabated bitterness can cause old hurts to become a fucked-up pollutant. In time you wonder why you’re a walking shit magnet, when in reality the answer is so close you’re blind to it. Forgiving is essential if you want to avoid all this and allow healing to happen. The effort is worth it, and requires a daily commitment to make healing your priority. In this respect, forgiveness has nothing to do with”them”. It’s about you. You’re not letting “them” off the hook, you’re kicking bitterness to the curb in order to begin healing.
Forgiveness & the serenity prayer….
I love the simple yet profound insight from the serenity prayer. While often associated with the twelve-steps, it is an excellent approach to the majority of life’s problems. What things are within our power to change? Focusing on life’s changeable components is critical to empowerment and generally entails some level of self-responsibility. What things are not changeable? Usually pertaining to some factor external to ourselves, radical acceptance and forgiveness are our only alternatives. Wishing to change something that you can’t change is a crazy-making exercise in complete futility.
“Forgiveness is giving up hope that the past could have been any different” – Oprah
Forgiveness is a Dialectical Narrative Reframing
“Forgiveness is a dialectical process through which people synthesize their prior assumptions of a transgression into a new understanding ….this reframing process [is] the construction of a ‘new narrative’ (Thompson, et al, 2005, p. 318)”. When viewing forgiveness in this way, the “transgression” becomes a source of growth. A Hegelian dialectical approach can become the impetus for change as seemingly contradictory perspectives are combined into holistic understanding. It is in this respect that my mother’s words are very enlightening. If my sister and I exist as opposite sides of the coin, there is much we can stand to learn from one another.
When allowing unresolved hurt to assume functional control of your brain, all thoughts, feelings, actions become one-sided. They are motivational byproducts of old hurt, and in time, they exist to support this one-sided reality. For example, until I let go of the hurt from those “IT years” all I could see were his “wrongs”. It wasn’t until I considered the unthinkable question: (why did you stay?) that I could gain clarity and move forward.
Forgiveness vs. “Unforgiveness” – (Konstam, et al, 2003).
An interesting resource I found describes the consequences of forgiving and not forgiving a specific transgression or traumatic event. Forgiveness is a daily alternative we choose for the sake of personal growth and development. It occurs internally through conscious choice and interpersonally in our relationships with others. In contrast, Kostam, et al (2003) describe the concept of “unforgiveness” (p. 48), as an attitude of bitterness, resentment, and hatred that can yield revenge seeking behavior over time. I would like to conclude this post with a convenient table that compare forgiveness with “unforgiveness” (Kostam, et al, 2003)….
Defined as– an intrapsychic & interpersonal healing process that allows us to move forward for the sake of personal growth.
Defined as– an unwillingness to let go of old transgressions & remain consumed by them through endless rumination.
Forgiveness brings about peace as we begin moving forward based on an enlightened perspective.
Unforgiveness is a stressful state of stagnation that causes us to remain in a past so our mind can be consumed by unhealed traumas.
Synonyms include – Absolution, reconciliation, excuse, pardon, acquit, & exonerate
Problem-Focused Coping– A pragmatic approach that targets the cause of a negative event directly (i.e. people or situations).
Emotion-Focused Coping– Managing one’s reactions to a stressful/negative situation (i.e. medicating, eating, or distraction)
Produces Empathy – the ability to acknowledge someone else’s feelings as if they were your own.
Produces Selfism –“a self-orientation that leads one to view situations [in a] self-serving manner (Konstam, et al, 2003, p. 173).”
Konstam, V., Holmes, W., & Levine, B. (2003). Empathy, Selfism. and Coping as Elements of the Psychology of. Counseling and Values, 47, pp. 173-183.
Thompson, L. Y., Snyder, C. R., Hoffman, L., Michael, S. T., Rasmussen, H. N., Billings, L. S., … & Roberts, D. E. (2005). Dispositional Forgiveness of Self, Others, and Situations. Journal of Personality, 73(2). pp. 313-354
Shakesphere notes astutely that “when sorrows come, they come not as single spies but battalions.”At first, I react to crises like these with a momentary WTF!!! piss-n-moan session. After I’ve regained my “sea legs” I struggle to see beyond my hedonic knee-jerk reaction. Throughout life, holding onto this deeper meaning has been vital for purposes of emotional resiliency. For example, despite how much I can complain about my job, I appreciate knowing I’m positively impacting my patients in some small way. Thus far, I’ve only discussed this coping indirectly as it pertains to daily life. I believe, however, it is best illustrated when facing a life crisis. As I reflect on my life, I realize I’m much like a cat, granted with more than my share of second chances in life.
What follows are personal stories of three “almost” losses including: (1) my sister’s breast cancer diagnosis; (2) my mother’s pancreatic cancer; and (3) my son’s heart surgeries….
Almost is not Actual….
Before I continue, it’s worth mentioning that almost losing someone isn’t the same as the finality of actual death. I can’t speak to this loss in any way and have no desire to try. As a healthcare worker, I’ve seen more than my share of it first-hand. The emotional impact of losing a loved someone is truly “unknowable” until it happens to you…
…the experiences I share here involve the impact of serious illness on your life perspective. During my sister’s recent cancer diagnosis I was assigned to the oncology floor. Watching someone pass away from this diagnosis was impactful in ways which are difficult to verbalize, When my son was first diagnosed with a heart defect, I met a family who had just lost their son due to a similar diagnosis. During his last surgery, I met a mother who was grieving the loss of her son. My mother lived 40 days with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis only to find out it was a “mistake”. These experiences have left me a changed perspective…
A Series Of Wake-up Calls…
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight I see these events as a series of second chances or “wake-up calls”. As an Oprah fan, I recall a comment she once made that summarizes these wake up calls perfectly:
“A lesson will keep repeating itself until it is learned. Life first will send the lesson to you in the size of a pebble; if you ignore the pebble, then life will send you a brick; if you ignore the brick, life will send you a brick wall; if you ignore the brick wall, life will send you a demolition truck.” – Oprah.
“pulmonary atresia with a ventricular septal defect”
My oldest son was born on June 26, 2000, after an uneventful pregnancy and painless delivery. At just under six pounds I called him my little peanut. I will never forget the moment I first laid eyes on him. The love is instantaneous and overwhelming. I couldn’t let him go and refused to let him leave my sight….
Those initial months flew by, and consisted of a blur of sleepless nights. However, one morning everything changed. It was late August and we were celebrating his “2-month birthday”. My husband had left for work in a town about sixty miles way. He was unusually colicky that morning. Since he as normally a contented baby, I was terrified by the way he cried. I called the doctor’s office and brought him in immediately…
…On the way to his office I heard a strange grunting from the back of the car. After pulling over to the side of the road I noticed his skin was mottled in appearance. No blood was visible in his oral mucosa and was a dull skin-colored tone. I started yelling at him and shaking his arm gently to elicit a reaction, but he remained unresponsive. Nobody was home. I would learn later that day he was in cardiogenic shock for an (as yet) undiagnosed congenital defect.
The remainder of that day was a blur, however I managed to make it to the hospital in one piece. I recall being brought up to the neonatal ICU area and being pulled aside by a few nurses who attempted to comfort mew old hospital staff hovered around my son. Since this was early 2000, fancy cell phones were a thing of the future. I stepped aside and started calling family while watching them attempt to revive my son from a distance. I notified my husband first about what was happening. He told me he would get home as quickly as he could. Since he was working in a neighboring town about sixty miles away it would take just over an hour for him to make it there. While waiting on his arrival, I called my parents. Since my mother is a physician, I looked to her for guidance. After speaking for some time with the pediatric cardiologist on call, my mom began explaining the particulars of his diagnosis. They would need to drive him in an ambulance to the children’s hospital nearby since there was no available helicopter at that time. The plan was to stabilize his condition and install a shunt in a vessel called the “ductus arteriosis”. Since he was so small, they hoped this would give him time to grow before doing a complete repair. This full repair involved replacing his pulmonary artery with a tube.
By the time my husband made it to the hospital, the ambulance had arrived and they were ready to take my son to Children’s Hospital. Two nurses and a respiratory therapist would take the drive to Omaha and manually bag him on that hour-long trip. Since there was no room for me in the ambulance, I was told to go home, pack, and meet up with them at the pediatric ICU. My mind was a jumble of nerves and I began crying uncontrollably on that drive home. Unable to know of my son’s condition during this hour-long trip, I prayed I would arrive to find him stable. I tried to console my panicked mind by reminding myself that my mom would call the physician’s assigned to his case for updates…
…When we arrived at the hospital he was hooked up to tons of tubes. They took him into his first heart surgery that evening. Thankfully, all went well and we were home within the week. The next seven blissful months flew by despite mounting medical bills. As his second surgery loomed in our near future, our house we went into foreclosure ans we initiated plans to file for bankruptcy in the weeks following his surgery….
…ironically, my prayers for a respite from these financial stresses came in ways I would not have expected. While his surgery went well, my son was struggling after his second surgery. Doctors all came in with a look of concern. Fearful of how his lungs responded to removal of the breathing tube, they told me the next few hours should give us an option few of how well he would recover. Since my family had left to eat, I was all alone with my son. I tried my best flto soak in every sensory experience associated with that moment. My was a mind flood of mixed emotions, as I began to beg God for more time For us to be together. Nothing else mattered to me in that moment than the hope of a chance to watch him grow, and shower him with all the love I had to give…
Pancreatic Cancer: A horrific misdiagnosis
On the wall of our living room is a painting my mom did of a butterfly. Whenever I see it, I’m reminded of that time she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This was back in 2007, when my oldest was in second grade and my youngest was a toddler. My sister just had her oldest child, still an infant. As per usual, my parents decided to handle things privately. “Impression management” has always been a concern of theirs, especially when it comes to feelings. They are logical, pragmatic intellectuals who exude an air of stoicism. They avoid any open expression of emotions and utilize intellectual distancing as a defense mechanism….
In this instance, they sought to provide my sister and I with what they would want in a similar situation. They kept us out of it in order to spare us needless worry and useless emotion. We only learned of this diagnosis in the days leading up to a review of that could confirm this diagnosis. It was only some time later that I have slearned, my mother lived with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis for 40 day mistakenly. Additionally, the specifics of my mother’s health scare are limited, since I had only learned about all this “after the fact”. My sister, however, was fortunate enough to learn about it a bit sooner and provide support. In the week leading up to a final confirmation of this diagnosis, they invited my sister and her daughter up to visit. Hoping to spare my oldest son from having to see his grandmother gravely ill, they kept me out of the loop. Meanwhile, my sister and her daughter could keep my father’s mind busy enough to stave off idle worry….
I was formally notified on Saturday, that they would learn something more definitive that Monday. Since I was off those two days, I spent most of that time worrying, with little-to-no sleep. My drifted back and forth between three troubling thoughts. Firstly how would my father fare without our mother. I imagined this lonely “curmudgeon”/hermit with no meaningful social access to the world around him. My mind then fluttered with glee at the impending release of duty at my mother’s insistence that I maintain a civil relationship where they make sister. Finally, when the reality of this impending loss hit me, I fretted that there would be things left unsaid between us…
When life hands you “second chances”, it is best to look at them as gifts. However, making most of these gifts is often easier said than done. Doing so requires you to take in a bitter truth as a much-needed reality check. This reality-check has the potential to alter your life-course for the better for those willing to do the work. That’s where I am now: letting go of the past, accepting radically those things I can’t change and directing my attention toward what I can…
So where am I at now??? I hold onto the gratitude I have for these second chances in the aftermath of an “almost loss”. I’m trying to accept responsibility for all my actions and/or misdeeds as a mother/wife/sister. As I reflect upon it now, here are the lessons I’m struggling to work through….
My son has taught me life is a gift & that I shouldn’t allow the inane details in my day obscure this fact.
It is for this reason, that I hold my role as mother a top priority, before all others. I live each day in awe of how my boys are maturing and am grateful for the opportunity to watch them grow. The idea that life is a precious gift rarely escapes my mind. As a result, I’m aware that all well-laid plans are just minor details against the realization that they can obscure my enjoyment of the journey. As a married mother of two boys in graduate school, I cling to this insight and grateful for the perspective. Almost losing my son taught me that the only things I can give that cab have lasting impact on my boys are: (1) happy memories; (2) unconditional love; (3) a sense of self; and (4) an education. These are my priorities and I don’t stress over the details (or anyone else’s opinions for that matter…)
…And I’ve kept that promise I made in my prayer almost 16 years ago at my then-infant-son’s bedside. I tell him everyday I love him, and everyda I say it, I mean it with all my heart…
My mother has taught me that the truest measure to who I am is in the lasting impact I make upon others….
By upholding a culturally-relevant ideal of duty and obligation as an unwavering force in my life, my mother has always provided me love and support. While familiar to my mother based on her own cultural background, it was unfamiliar to me and remained unacknowledged far to long. I am at fault, for failing to consider mother’s actions and words from the standpoint of intended meaning. By taking time to understand my mother I’ve learned quite a bit bout the all-encompassing influence of culture on how we perceive, communicate, live, think and feel. For this reason I’m actually grateful for the cultural divide that had one separated us. It brought into our lives, several valuable lessons.
This second chance inspired me to enter therapy so I could get “unstuck”. I learned my problems were largely due to “backasswards” thinking. I misperceived consequence as cause. What I got in relationships existed as a byproduct of what put into them. In this respect, the issues weren’t so much a matter of what I was “looking at” but how I chose to “look at it”.
My sister is now teaching me valuable lessons in forgiveness and letting go…
I have to be honest, as the last in a series of “second chances”, I still struggle with the life lessons brought about by this experience. Lately, my interactions with her feel like pouring salt on a wound. I struggle to let go of the past hurts and am truly my best to forgive as we move forward. It is definitely a long and complicated process much like watching an ice cube met or pot of water boil…
….In a future post I will discuss this struggle in more depth and review the concept of Forgiveness and Radical Acceptance. For now, here’s a snapshot of an email I just got from my mother, as she attempts to provide a bit of encouragement…
This weekend, I decided to dig through more idea files for this blog that have been filed away in the hallway closet for the last five years. Research notes on the subject of ostracism caught my eye and produced a flood of memories. In light of recent events, reading through that file, caused me to reflect upon the impact of early childhood experiences….
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been an optimal target for bullies. In fact, as the “girl with the cooties”, bullying has always been a constant issue: from kindergarten at St. Agnes up through high school graduation. Admittedly, the bullies changed from year to year, but they all saw me the same way. I was the perfect target: I am highly sensitive and don’t fight back….
For those who have never been bullied, you’d be surprised to learn that the actual bullying isn’t the worst of it. The collateral damage it sustains upon your social life is devastating. You see, when you get picked on often enough at school people start to notice and a reputation develops. Now a “loser”, you’re essentially walking around with a scarlet letter tattooed to your forehead. Hapless bystanders, silently observe the altercations but do nothing. Instead they pretend not to notice. Fearing for their own well-being and hoping to retain their status within the social hierarchy, you’re now a social leper. A “dork-by-association” rule starts to govern all social interactions with you. Should someone dare say “hi” or strike up a conversation, they’ll hear about it later: “what the hell are you doing hanging out with that wierdo?!?!”
After my best friend moved away in sixth grade, school became a scary place. No one was in my corner. Classmates avoided me and adults were oblivious to my problems. The only attention my existence garnered from this point forward were the bullies at school. As a resulted I started thinking being ignored was better than being made fun of. I choose to make myself as invisible as possible. During lunch I rarely ate and retreated to my favorite hiding spot, (the girls gym lockers in high school). In class I sat in back, far away from everyone. Finally, I learned avoided all eye contact and never spoke to anybody. In time everybody did ignore me. It worked like a charm…
“I’m 40 years old now; it’s been something like 30 years since that sort of thing last happened. Still, the experience has not left me, it sucked so much. I don’t think about it much these days, but I know that having lived through those experiences has shaped me as an adult, and not for the better (Dombeck, 2007).”
I’ve tried my best to overcome the effects of this prolonged isolation, however it hasn’t been easy. There is a piece missing that can’t be refilled. Radical acceptance has been essential in coming to terms with what I can’t change. I will always be an introvert. I might always struggle with social anxiety. However, I can also try and reach out. I am taking chances and opening up to others. Hopefully in time I can begin to establish a few meaningful friendships…
A nice group of ladies at work meets regularly on their days off for lunch. They take turns picking a favorite restaurant and get together to chat. These experiences are rare treats for me. I cherish opportunities for friendship and inclusion, since I never experienced this as a child. Over the course of our conversations they’ve been nice enough to provide some useful feedback that mirrors this distant history. I can be difficult to approach and am often act closed off from others. I have also been slow to trust and open up. Not surprisingly, these research notes on ostracism put things into perspective. Before I discuss the subject of ostracism, it’s important to first consider the long-term effects of bullying. The bullying explains not only why I was ostracized but how I adapted to it through a self-imposed isolation. With this in mind I want to mention briefly an online article by psychologist, Mark Dombeck (2007). It summarizes effectively the long term effects of bullying. Since his article resonates with my own experiences, here are a few relevant points about the long-term effects of bullying:
Shame & Self-Loathing
As a form of emotional abuse, Dombeck (2007), notes that bullying is an attempt to instill shame and self-loathing within the vicious realm of social politics at your typical American school. “The primary wound that bullying victims suffer…is damage to their self-concepts; to their identities” (Dombeck, 2007). The DSM-5 describes identity as an “experience of oneself as unique, with clear boundaries between self and others (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 823)”. In a recent blog post, I discuss the nature of identity and my own “go-it-alone-mentality”. Attempting to understand the mindset of the crowd-follower, I learned about identity motives as: “pressures toward certain identity states and away from others” (Vignoles, et al, 2006, p. 309)”. In other words, our identity is influenced by wanted and unwanted potential identities. We try to magnify positive characteristics and minimize the negatives. While research in this post describes a diversity of identity motives, my own development was centered around a need to belong.
Depressed, angry & bitter…
Over time, victims of prolonged bullying internalize the messsages they receive (Dombeck, 2007). This results in a wounded self-concept where meaning in one’s existence is difficult to find. A deep depression sets in as you realize your situation is inescapable. However, another insidious reaction to bullying can also emerge and eat you alive:
“Inevitably, it is the sensitive kids who get singled out for teasing; the kids who cry easily; the easy targets. Targeted as they are, many sensitive kids learn to think of their sensitivity as a bad thing and to avoid it, and/or channel it into revenge fantasy and anger” (Dombeck, 2007).
Dombeck, (2007) states when forced to repeatedly encounter a lack of control in the midst of a traumatic event, a state of learned helplessness can emerge. It is common as a response to prolonged bullying and ostracism (Dombeck, 2007; Twenge, et al, 2003; Williams, 2007). This was a huge issue for me. Romantic relationships reflect the relationship we have with ourselves: we attract what we are. With this in mind, learned helplessness set me up for that traumatic relationship in college. I also associate these early experiences of bullying and ostracism with the emergence of dissociation as a coping tool. However I’m probably getting ahead of myself….We’ll get to that later…
Dombeck, (2007) states that bully-victims in adulthood cam display an “Anxious avoidance of settings in which bullying may occur”. A childhood filled with painful peer-relations left me with an anxious avoidant attachment style. Currently, these anxieties are limited to situations in which I see potential for new friendships emerging. It is a monkey wrench in my attempts to establish friendships. Overcoming this has taken quite a bit of effort as I’ve learned to let go of those old traumas and open up to others.
Against a backdrop of bullying in elementary school, I grew into a depressed, angry, insecure & bitter teenager filled with self-loathing. Internalizing the shame-laden messages of my bullies, I honestly felt there was something wrong with me. I felt completely helpless. In my small hometown my options were limited to the classmates who loathed me. My sister continually pointed out my ineptness. My parents told me to “ignore them and be myself”. The school counselor verified my worst fears, and told me to just “ride it out”. After all, high school is only four years. Yup. These are the precipitating events which led to the social isolation which followed.
Social ostracism defined…
Ostracism is defined as an act ignoring or excluding an individual without any clear explanation for one’s own social benefit and/or self protection (Williams, 2097). In contrast, rejection is an explicit declaration that you do not wish to keep company of someone. Finally, isolation involves a self-imposed state of aloneness, where you avoid opportunities to socialize with others.
What is uniquely painful about ostracism, is that it’s not of your choosing and you don’t get to know why it’s happening (Leary, 2001). This ambiguity begins with subtle cues such avoiding of eye contact or excluding you from conversations. It culminates in bewilderment due to an absence of explanations. One resource I found describes a unique form of ostracism that pertains to my own experiences:
“role-prescribed ostracism is a socially-sanctioned form of ostracism, occurring when individuals are not expected to acknowledge the presence of others” (Leary, 2001, p. 29).
In this form of ostracism, the act is reflective of implicit social rules that individuals were required to respect. In my school there was a very clique-defined social order. The social politics were very nasty and terrifying. With no one to back me up, the ostracism was painful, simply as an ongoing reinforcement of my role as the “girl with cooties”…
Ostracism significantly threatens our fundamental need to belong (Williams, 2007). As it pertains to identity development, belonging can be thought of as a drive to feel accepted and validated by others, (Vignoles, et al, 2006). In the event that belonging is threatened we are “motivated to attend more carefully to social cues” (Williams, 2007, p. 431). Social anxiety takes over and self-esteem becomes a a “gauge for relational valuation” (Williams, 2007 p. 431). The mind becomes adept at noting signs of a potential threat. However, over time the anxiety builds. Your ability to accurately interpret others’ motives becomes impaired:
Initial physiological responses to ostracism include elevated blood pressure, increased cortisol levels, indicitive of a fight-or-flight response (Williams, 2007). Additionally, research participants report heightened distress after experiencing social ostracism (Williams, 2007). I liken this insight to the notion of a deer in headlights, or rabbits sitting motionless in the grass. As a bullied child, ostracism was a painful reminder of my social leper status. However, in my case it was the lesser of two evils: a painful price to pay for avoiding the potential attacks on my lousy self-image. Williams, (2007) notes that ostracized individuals can respond in a variety of ways. They can adapt and learn to conform, fight back, or give up. An individual’s level of rejection sensitivity determines how they choose to respond (Williams, 2007):
“Individuals who score high on rejection sensitivity tend to chronically expect rejection…lonely people may take longer to recover from ostracism and may [display] helplessness more” (Williams, 2007, p. 439).
When ostracism becomes chronic…
My bedroom was a private retreat where I could finally remove myself from the constant anxiety-filled bullshit at school. The emotional aftermath of that day’s events could slowly melt away. I was able to reflect upon what went down. The inevitable conclusion I always came to was that I was helpless. All I could do was “take it like a man”. In time my own favorite method of coping was the freeze response:
“Another reaction to stress is to freeze, as we commonly think a deer does when facing a headlight… a concussed or affectively numb response” (Williams, 2007, p. 431)
Several resources I’ve found mention a “freeze-response” (Williams, 2007) to prolonged ostracism. Twenge, et al, (2003), describe this freeze response as a “defensive state of cognitive deconstruction that avoids meaningful thought, emotion, and self-awareness, and is characterized by lethargy and altered time flow” (p. 409). When no solution is available, emotional numbness becomes the only alternative. Holding one’s feelings out of awareness is the only way to survive prolonged distress of this nature. Leary, (2001) adds that “with repeated long-term exposure to ostracism…a prolonged lack of belonging-ness may lead to a feeling that one does not belong anywhere” (p. 31). Williams, (2007) describes this state as similar to the flattened affect and detached state preceding a suicide attempt. Finally, it is worth noting that these descriptions reflect the DSM’s description of dissociative PTSD symptoms succinctly….
“Chronically excluded individuals will be hypersensitive to signals of social threat rather than attempting to fortify thwarted needs, they appear more likely to exhibit learned helplessness and alienation…rather than seeking belonging, they accepted alienation and isolation; rather than seeking self-enhancement, they accepted low self-worth; rather than seeking control, they expressed helplessness; and rather than provoking recognition by others of their existence, they became depressed and avoided further painful rejection….Ostracized individuals report a feeling of invisibility, that their existence is not even recognized” (Twenge, 2004, p. 421).
Now What??? (((A look forward)))
This post reflects an exercise in putting current issues I’m struggling with into a historical context. By applying insights from research to early childhood experiences, the blame is no longer placed squarely upon my shoulders. I can stop asking myself “what the hell is wrong with you Kathleen”. Instead constructive insight is available as a reminder that these social anxieties reflect old issues and not present realities….
American Psychiatric Association, (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Washington, DC: Author.
Leary, M. R. (2001). Interpersonal rejection. New York: Oxford University Press (US).
Sommer, K. L., Williams, K. D., Ciarocco, N. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2001). When silence speaks louder than words: Explorations into the intrapsychic and interpersonal consequences of social ostracism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 23(4), 225-243.
Twenge, J. M., Catanese, K. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Social exclusion and the deconstructed state: time perception, meaninglessness, lethargy, lack of emotion, and self-awareness. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(3), 409-423.
Vignoles, V. L., Regalia, C., Manzi, C., Golledge, J., & Scabini, E. (2006). Beyond self-esteem: influence of multiple motives on identity construction. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90(2), 308-333.
Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Psychology, 58(1), 425-252.
“In my own defense”, I was really a deer in headlights.
A consistent diet of ostracism & bullying left me with a skewed perception of myself. I left home with this emotional hot potato…
Recently, I came across an article online titled “The Psychological Cost of Being a Maverick”, Essentially, this article cites research which debunks a common American myth of individuality as the key to personal freedom and control. Since I was curious, I decided to download the research paper this article referred to (Greenway, et al, 2015). After reading it, I felt is was worthy of a blog post on two unique fronts. Firstly, in a older post I discuss the notion of personal identity as a hot-air notion. In this post, I question the notion of identity as an abstract construct that exists as a self-fulfilling prophecy:
“From a symbolic interactionist perspective, the self’s Achilles’ heel is the constant possibility of losing trust and self-confidence. We are blown-up balloons and it is always possible for the air to come out….It’s [an] emperor-has-no-clothes problem. Culture in general, selves in particular, are based on ‘hot air’ – shared belief.” (Wiley, 2003, p507).”
After re-reading this post, I feel there is much more to say on the subject if identity. Where are the grains of truth? What role does identity play in our lives? By doing this I hope to achieve a second goal and expound upon a comment I made about my sister in the last post, the nature of belief systems:
“ISFJs are usually stable, certain, reliable…But if unbalanced, they are likely to treat any point of view other than their own with a kind of cold dismay, and if pressed hard will tend to shut out the existence of problems caused by others differing attitudes…(personalitypage.com, n.d.a.).”
…and the pot calls the kettle black
As an INFP personality type, I have found it useful to use extroverted intuition independently. I call this the “devils advocate stance”. Seeing the world from a perspective that is uncomfortable & unfamiliar is much like the build-up of anticipation before someone rips off a band aid. As the initial sting subsides and the shock wears off, a renewed sense of calm takes over.
After completing the last post, I decided to go back to personalitypage.com and read the description of INFP areas of growth. I couldn’t help but notice the parallels in the description when compared to my sister’s. So what things do I do that annoy others????
COMPLAINT #1: I am stubborn….
“The main driver to the INFP personality is Introverted Feeling, whose purpose is to maintain and honor an intensely personal system of values and morals. If an INFP’s personal value system is threatened by external influences, the INFP shuts out the threatening data in order to preserve and honor their value system. This is totally natural, and works well to protect the individual psyche from getting hurt. (personalitypage.com, n.d.b.).”
COMPLAINT #2: I am a freaky oddball…
“However, the INFP who exercises this type of self-protection regularly will become more and more unaware of other people’s perspectives, and thus more and more isolated from a real understanding of the world that they live in. They will always find justification for their own inappropriate behaviors (personalitypage.com, n.d.b.).”
COMPLAINT #3: I am selfish…
“If the INFP uses Extraverted iNtuition only to serve the purposes of Introverted Feeling, then the INFP is not using Extraversion effectively at all. As a result, the INFP does not take in enough information about the external world to have a good sense of what’s going on. They see nothing but their own perspective, and deal with the world only so far as they need to in order to support their perspective. These individuals usually come across as selfish and unrealistic, (personalitypage.com, n.d.b.).”
My sister is a pragmatist, who prefers to think along the lines of conventiality. In contrast I have always been an individualist with a natural aversion to conformity. Underlying these differences are surface which mask a deeper truth. We appear to be engaging in very different forms of identity formation. This insight is best summarized in the following quote:
The benefits of being a “crowd-follower”
With this long-winded preamble out of the way, I’d like to touch upon some insights from an article online titled “The Psychological Cost of Being a Maverick”, Essentially, this article reviews research which shows that following the crowd can increase one’s perception of control. The research paper it refers to is titled: “From “We” to “Me”: Group Identification Enhances Perceived Personal Control With Consequences for Health and Well-Being.” This research shows that group identification and social identity increase an individual’s level of happiness and well-being. Additionally, a perceived increase in “control” is associated with greater well being due to group identification.
Underlying theory: “a looking glass self”
According to various theories on social identity, when we identify with a group, part of our self-perception becomes interwoven in group affiliation. Our social identity becomes a shared construct as we “shift from thinking in terms of ‘me’ to ‘we'” (Greenway, et al, 2015, p. 1). In this sense, the self is a byproduct of how understand ourselves. through identification with others, (Greenway, et al, 2015).
….and the question which naturally arises in my mind is, why would anyone hand this power over to others? Greenway, et al, (2015) indicate that group affiliation provides a sense of “meaning, security, comfort purpose (p. 2)”, and self-efficacy. As a result we feel more in control of our lives. As this article describes the concept of social identity, I’m reminded of Cooley’s notion of the looking-glass-self:
“social reference takes the form of a somewhat definite imagination of how one’s self…appears in [others] mind[s]….A social self of this sort might be called the reflected or looking glass self (Cooley, 1902).”
“a perception of personal control”
As a result of a series of studies Greenway, et al, (2015) state: “The findings reveal that the personal benefits of social groups come not only from their ability to make people feel good, but also from their ability to make people feel capable and in control of their lives. (p. 1)”With these findings in mind, it is worth noting how they define control:
“We define control as the perceived ability to alter events and achieve desired outcomes” (Greenway, et al, 2015).”
In other words, the control they speak of is a personal perception of control: subjective feeling. Whether they actually have more control, as a matter of objective fact, is another story. The point is they feel empowered….
“Groups are a potent source of agency and control. Where an individual may have no hope of accomplishing a goal alone, interdependent action by a group of individuals can overcome obstacles and achieve otherwise impossible ends (Greenway, et al, 2015, p. 3).”
In this respect, social identity is the glue which binds us together. It seems what this study suggests is a symbiotic relationship. Societies and groups benefit through the commitment and participation of its members. Individuals are able to meet their needs through group identification in a social world…
My Sister’s Successes Are My Greatest Personal Failings…
When I read this insight I was immediately reminded of our childhood. My sister was the popular girl in high school. She had lots of friends. Elements of her temperament were naturally conducive to this sort of success. It is in this sense that the above description of social identity is clearly beneficial. I didn’t experience social identity in this normative fashion. For an array of reasons to long to list here, I was literally the girl with the cooties. I had no friends after my best friend Ruby Stricker moved away in sixth grade. From this point on, social identity was like a horrific hall of mirrors. Consistently distorted messages of a person I didn’t recognized filled all my interactions. Ironically, in time I embodied them. In this respect, my emotions betrayed me: the hurt was overwhelming….
These early experiences have had a profound impact on every element of my life – often more than I’m willing to admit. To this day, I struggle with insecurity when it comes to opening up to others. Maintaining and establishing friendships, are not areas I’ve experienced great success in. My skepticism of the benefits of social identity can be explained by this personal history. If the complete ostracism I experienced was a social death, how does one factor this into things? Is there a way of understanding my experiences and my sister’s from a bigger picture perspective???
Getting the bigger picture…
The American Peychiatric Association (2013) defines identity as an “experience of oneself as unique, with clear boundaries between self and others (p. 823)”. Additionally, while it reflects ideas external to ourselves, we experience it as an internal subjective impression of who we are (Greenway, et al, 2015; Vignoles, et al, 2006; Vignoles, et al, 2008). In other words, while identity is a created as social construct, (in a “looking-glass-self” sense), it is experienced as a psychological construct. Identity is the tie which binds us to the social world. The symbiotic relationship created by society and its members appear to start at identity construction, (at least to some degree).
What I want to understand now is the structure and function of identity in a general sense. How does it drive our existence in life? Admittedly, the specific content can vary according to individual experience, temperament, and even sociocultural background (Vignoles, et al, 2006; Vignoles, et al, 2008). How do these messages gravitate from our social world into a “sense of self”???
As a graduate student, I have tons of research articles downloaded on my computer. When I searched them for the term “identity”, two interesting articles popped up. The first one I’d like to discuss is titled: “Beyond Self-Esteem: influence of multiple motives on identity construction.” It describes identity motives as key components in the formation of our identity:
Identity motives are, “pressures toward certain identity states and away from others, which guide processed of identity construction (Vignoles, et al, 2006, p. 309)”.
Since motives represent our reason for doing something, they can be thought of as a precursor to action. They act as a guiding force in the construction of our identity. These pressures function unconsciously as byproducts of our interactions with others (Vignoles, et al, 2006; Vignoles, et al, 2008). In this article is a list of six identity motives (Vignoles, et al, 2006):
THE SELF ESTEEM MOTIVE – We are driven by a desire to feel good about ourselves. (Vignoles, et al, 2006).
THE CONTINUITY MOTIVE – We are driven to create an identity that is consistent with our life history, “across time and situation” (Vignoles, et al, 2006, p. 310).
THE DISTINCTIVENESS MOTIVE – This motive “pushes [us] toward the establishment & maintenance of a sense of differentiation” (Vignoles, et al, 2006, p. 310.
THE MEANING MOTIVE – This existential drive urges us to seek a deeper purpose from our lives. (Vignoles, et al, 2006).
THE BELONGING MOTIVE – We are driven to feel a sense of acceptance and validation from others, (Vignoles, et al, 2096).
THE EFFICACY MOTIVE – Reflecting a desire of perceived control, this motive urges us to experience a sense of competence, (Vignoles, et al, 3006).
As a result of their research, Vignoles, et al, (2006), state that our identity has cognitive, behavioral and affective components. Identity motives play a different role in these domains:
Cognitive Domain of Identity
The cognitive domain of identity describes those characteristics that play a central role in what we think about ourselves (Vignoles, et al, 2006). “Self-esteem, continuity, distinctiveness, and meaning” (Vignoles, et al, 2006, p. 1167), influence the cognitive domain and provide a form of self-verification regarding who we think we are.
Behavioral Domain of Identity
The behavioral domain, pertains to the research earlier on perceived control, (Greenway, et al, 2015). This domain of identity reflects how we are acting, on a moment-to-moment basis. Since it pertains to the external world, feelings of efficacy and belonging exist as central motivating factors (Vignoles, et al, 2006; Vignoles, et al, 2008)
Affective Domain of Identity
The affective domain reflects how we feel about ourselves. In this study, participants reported feeling better about themselves when they satisfied the motives of “self esteem, continuity, efficacy, and meaning” (Vignoles, et al. 2008, p. 1667).
Actual & Possible Selves…
Finally, in another article published just a few years later, Vignoles, et al, (2008), follow up with another concept, “desired and feared possible future selves” (p. 1165), He defines this concept as follows:
POSSIBLE FUTURE SELVES: “[a person’s] concept of who they might become, and who they are afraid of becoming, (Vignoles, et al, 2008, pp. 1165-1166).”
This concept is an estimation of possibility based on interpersonal interactions, cultural perspectives, personal values and temperament. It is a byproduct of interactions in the social world and guided by a desire to maximize the chance we feel good about ourselves, and minimize the possibility we feel like shit.Vignoles, et al, (2008) state: “desired and feared selves…directly reflect motives to maximize self-esteem…meaning and…continuity, (p. 1189).” Belonging, on the other hand only affects our future predicted self indirectly (Vignoles, et al, 2008, p. 1191). The mediating factor underlying these indirect effects, is self esteem…..
So what insight best pertains to my childhood as an explanation for it???
Group identification is beneficial because helps us adapt to the social world (Greenway, et al, 2015). As a result we feel more in control of our lives. Of relevance to my own life story, is the fact that belonging & efficacy greatly influence the behavioral domain. These motivational factors are useful in assessing the utility and effectiveness of our efforts in the social world. On the other hand, belonging only indirectly influence our future predicted selves (Vignoles, et al, 2008; Vignoles, et al, 2006). I find this last fact interesting. While it reflects normative identity development, it doesn’t resonate with my own life. When you’re bullied and socially ostracized as a kid, not belonging is an overarching concern over all other matters.
In my case, belonging was a primary identity motivator throughout my preteens and high school years. My self-esteem acted was an emotional radar that picked up on all these blows to my sense of self. I received a consistently negative message of “who I was” through this experience. I responded by isolating myself. This self-imposed isolation was a form of survival. As it pertains to Eriksons Psycosocial Stages, I was definitely “role confusion”. Unable to find a place for myself, I belonged nowhere. My self-esteem was shattered and all other elements of identity development were at a standstill. I’m definitely an “outlier”, for exactly this reason (((More on this later)))
American Psychiatric Association, (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Washington, DC: Author.
Cooley, C. H. (1902). The looking-glass self. O’brien, 126-128.
Greenaway, K. H., Haslam, S. A., Cruwys, T., Branscombe, N. R., Ysseldyk, R., & Heldreth, C. (2015, May 4). From “We” to “Me”: Group Identification Enhances Perceived Personal Control With Consequences for Health and Well-Being. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000019
Vignoles, V. L., Manzi, C., Regalia, C., Jemmolo, S., & Scabini, E. (2008). Identity Motives Underlying Desired and Feared Possible Future Selves. Journal of Personality, 76(5), 1165-1200. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00518.x
Vignoles, V. L., Regalia, C., Manzi, C., Golledge, J., & Scabini, E. (2006). Beyond self-esteem: influence of multiple motives on identity construction. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90(2), 308-333.
FIRST, some commentary on a few cognitive aversions from an INFP perspective…
After completing a series of posts on the INFP personality type, I’d like to provide some thoughts on the nature of belief systems. It’s a subject matter which illustrates a cognitive aversion I attribute to my temperament-based preferences. As I mentioned in this series, the MBTI is a “mental food log” which describes what the mind is drawn to. It describes how you take in information, and what you do with it. As it applies to my own life, I’m naturally drawn to “outside-the-box thinking”, authenticity, and my imagination. I also have natural cognitive aversions. As an INFP I’m easily bored by the inane details of life and I need “alone time” to recharge after a long day. These preferences are in opposition to my husband’s who is an ESTP. His “puppy temperament” is a stark contrast to my cat-like independence. Right now as I type this on the living room sofa lost in my thoughts, my husband prepares dinner. Its worth noting that these natural cognitive aversions also produce strong feelings of annoyance and aggravation. Understanding this, has been very useful in working through areas of miscommunication in relationships….
INFP rebellion vs. ISFJ conformity – when cognitive aversions conflict…
As an ISFJ, my sister naturally gravitates toward conventionality. She desires to follow the rules and was always the “good girl”. In retrospect, this reflects a set of natural temperament-based preferences in her ISFJ personality. Until I understood this, we had trouble seeing eye-to-eye. What follows are quotes from a resource that summarizes key aspects of my sister’s temperament that can rub me the wrong way at times:
Growing up, I found these characteristics infuriating. We’re doing much better today, and I consider our relationship healed. However, in our youth, I was often greatly hurt by our her refusal to listen to my perspective on matters. This was especially painful in a familial culture that made me a “definitive minority”. With my mother’s temperament in opposition to my own as an ESTJ, I consistently displayed a natural inclination toward rebellion. This wasn’t intentional. In fact, I constantly doubted myself and what was eager to please her. “Why couldn’t I just fall into line? What was wrong with me?”…
…Against this personal backdrop, I have many thoughts on the shortcomings of belief systems, that I feel are worth discussion here….
Characteristics of Belief Systems
Belief systems are socially constructed
Societies and cultures are a byproduct of belief systems, which provide a means of constructing the “stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of reality” (Usó, 2015, p. 1). In this sense, they are meaning paradigms that define the nature of our lived experience. Societies benefit because belief systems create a mutually agreed-upon reference point for all its members. When everybody complies, belief systems carry social consequences that allow it to develop a surface appearance which mirrors “objective truth”. In this respect, their existence is not dependent upon a believer, but society as a whole. It remains an integral component of our culture, woven throughout our history until we as a society begin to question it. Only then can systems of belief loosen their definitive hold upon our daily lives.
Belief systems are comprised of mutually supportive tenants…
Belief systems require personal commitment & blind faith from its followers….
Belief systems require personal commitment from believers in order to provide “strong social consequences” (Usó, 2015). Without these social consequences, belief systems would not be able to provide followers with a perception that they hold “truth or understanding”. This is due to the fact that belief systems are constructed out of a set of complex components that together become internally consistent and “logical” (((as long as you stay within system))).
Belief systems provide a means of explanation & evaluation for followers….
Human beings are meaning makers. Our experiences become what they are, in part, due to how we choose to define them. In this respect, systems of belief are woven throughout our thought processes, perceptions, and experiences. “Reason cannot prove the beliefs [they] are based upon. Beliefs arise through experience. Experiences needs previous beliefs and reason to be assimilated, and reason needs experience to be formed, as beliefs need reason as well” (Usó, 2015, p. 1). If you think about it, this explains why people vigorously defend systems of belief. Once removed, it can feel as if the rug has been pulled out from under you.
Nonconsensual, ever-changing, & varying in certitude…
Finally, regarding the specific nature of belief systems, there are a few more characteristics worth mentioning. Uso, (2015), notes that they are “nonconsensual” (p. 1), in the sense that not all followers agree 100% with all aspects of it. For example, while my mother is devoutly Catholic, she disagree’s with the church’s view on abortion and birth control. My sister, who considers herself a “bible-banging” evangelical, often butts heads with my mother’s Catholicism on assorted religious matters. As the agnostic, my perspective holds “no value whatsoever”, since I’m going to hell. Religious debates in my family often result in hurt feelings.
On the basis of these observations, it is worth noting that followers are aware of the presence of alternatives. They have heard the rhetoric of detractors. They respond with a passionate commitment in varying “degree of certitude” (Usó, 2015, p. 1). These variances in commitment, present with a passionate assertion of faith. It is in this respect that knowledge appears very different from belief. As it pertains to knowledge, we simply state facts. “One would not say that one knew facts strongly” (Ableson, 1979, 366). Beliefs are presented as matters of trust and faith that some fact or idea can be accepted or held in confidence. Implicit in this commitment are varying degree of emotion and feeling from believers (Usó, 2015).
Consequences for Believers
So with these characteristics in mind, what are the consequences of committing to a belief system? What follows is a list of personal observations, as an “outsider looking in”…..
A Perceptual Bubble
A series of interesting videos on belief can be found an www.closertotruth.org. In one of their videos, it is noted that belief systems create a perceptual bubble around which we create our reality (closertotruth.org, 2016). This pertains to an insight from another resource I quoted earlier which notes that beliefs are essential components of the stories we tell about our lives (Uso, 2015). By fully committing to a belief system on faith, you’re adopting a Perceptual Bubble of sorts. This can create an internally consistent experience of life. When a group of people all hold a belief system on faith, it carries a series of social consequences for members. This shared experience of “understanding” and “truth” can create systemic distortion, coloring everyone’s experiences holistically. “Seeing outside” is difficult, if not impossible.
Disabled Critical Thinking
Closertotruth.org, (2016) also notes that it is easy to fall into a trap of assuming a rationality in our thought processes, when in fact, they reflect beliefs, (at least to some extent). Technically, it is impossible to step outside ourselves and see how we see. We are all inevitably bound by the subjectivity of our day-to-day experiences. However, taking time to practice critical thinking is essential in order to: (1) understand reality based on factual evidence, (2) observe it in manner not colored by emotions, and (3) make decisions in a manner that includes elements of logic and reason. Mind you, I’m certainly no “guru” on the matter of thinking critically 🙂 . However, my attempts have provided me much to reflect upon. As I’ve stated before, life’s problems are often simply d/t how we’re look at a situation. The solution, often involves considering an alternate perspective we may have previously ignored. The problem with systems of belief, is that they “short-circuit” thought processes. Becoming a believer is an “all or nothing” deal. Acceptance requires an act of faith, wherein you unquestioningly adopt a set of propositions without examining the facts. This logical jump requires adopting the entire system, since it is built to maintain an internally consistent life perspective in favor of “greater truth”.For some, this is convenient, since it allows us to create an experience of “objective truth” without the effort of thinking for ourselves. In reality this “objective truth” is a mutually shared self-deception.
Commitment-Based “Objective” Truth
Finally, many things we accept as “objective truth” are actually matters of faith. From within the system, contradictory evidence is concealed and often goes by unnoticed. Until something anomalous comes along to rock one’s boat all seems “okay”. For many, letting go of a system of belief is scary, because it means letting go “everything you know” for something else – as yet undetermined…..
Ableson, R.P. (1979). Differences between belief and knowledge systems. Cognitive science, 3(4) 355-366).