I Have a Desire to Empathize….
I’m reading a book titled “Staying Sober” by Goreski & Miller (2013).
It’s for an upcoming internship at a homeless shelter next quarter. Since I decided to take a quarter off, my three goals have been as follows:
*Improve my overall level of self-care. (This will require me to re-institute my weight loss regimen, find a spiritual community, & solidify friendships).
*Prepare for the NCE exam. (This will involve listening to a bunch of CD’s, reading through “The Encyclopedia of Counseling”, & creating a series of blog posts for review)
*Prepare for my upcoming internship. (This will involve reading information pertaining to a therapy group I co-facilitate while I also consider my own therapeutic approach, for my first meeting with the supervisor)
I just finished the first few chapters of “Staying Sober” & was struck by the following comment: “addiction is distinguished from drug use by a lack of freedom of choice (page, 39).” While the physical effects of addiction explain this lack of freedom to some extent, there’s more to it than that. Addiction affects every area of one’s life and in time becomes their primary coping tool. It is a disease which includes delusional thinking and self-deception. This inability to see things as they are that can eliminate any motivation to change. Immersed in a distorted reality, they are unable to overcome the endless cycle of obsession and compulsion.
Since my addiction history is limited, this information was very thought provoking. I recalled the last three months at my last internship site. The perspective this resource provided was a useful counterpoint to the confrontational style I witnessed there. In order to help, I must first understand my clients and appreciate what it is to walk in their shoes. The following quote from Gorek & Miller, (2013) intrigued me for this reason.
“The middle stage of addiction, is marked by a progressive loss of control…unable to function normally without the dru, family and friends begin to notice problems with the person’s job, health, marriage and legal matters. They are apt to believe, however, that the person is just behaving irresponsibly. They are not aware that the addicted person is not choosing the behavior (Gorski & Miller, 2013, p. 47).”
This quote seems to describe 2 perspectives of addiction…
*On one hand, there are the addict’s loved one’s who want them to simply “Get their Shit Together”. From an outsider’s perspective the answer is quite simple: “Just Quit”….
*On the hand, there is the addict’s first-hand experience: “…The person cannot, through willpower, choose to drink or use responsibly” (Gorski & Miller, 2013, p. 47). The answer isn’t that simple.
Developing Empathy (Connecting the Dots)
How Does This insight Relate to My Own Experiences
These divergent perspectives describe two sides of a bigger picture. Both perspectives are critical to understanding addiction as a biopsychosocial issue. Without this, everyone is left perplexed, while the addict is left feeling shamed and misunderstood. In fact this situational overview of addiction is reminiscent of my own experiences in an abusive relationship over 20+ years ago. For this reason, I think its worth describing these diverge perspectives. In one post, titled “Collateral Damage” I include excerpts of a letter written by my father after I dropped out of school and moved to New York. The second, is an excerpt from a post titled “Stages of Change”, in which I describe my own growth process during this relationship.
An Outsider’s Perspective
“Dear Kathleen: This letter is being written to you the day after you called us to say you were in New York with Eddie and had found an apartment. I have a few things I want to say….Let me tell you a brief story. When I was living in a roaming house in Indianapolis while working on my Phd, there also lived a man named Gill Lopez. Gill was an alcoholic: but Gill was also a very nice man – we were friends of sorts. Due to his drinking he lost his wife and kids and all his possessions. he was working in construction near campus and drinking all his paycheck away. He would sit once in a while with me and would talk and REALLY cry saying he was sorry for doing this and knows he shouldn’t do it – BUT HE STILL DID IT ANYWAY. The point is, a person may be truly sorry for doing what he does at certain times, but he may still not live right and do the right thing. Eddie may be a nice person in your eyes and he may have cried at want you said he was doing to you and said he was sorry – BUT HE IS STILL DOING IT…I want you to realize how much you have hurt Virginia. I do not like this at all…You say that you saw Eddie cry – did you ever see Virginia Cry? Her tears were not from a tear jerker movie, this was the first time I saw Virginia do this….”
A First-Hand Account
“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…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…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”.
Getting the Big Picture – A Dialectical Perspective….
“The word ‘dialectic’ is defined as a perspective that aims to contend with opposing ideas. When I think of dialectic philosophy, Hegel’s work immediately comes to mind. In a nutshell Hegel’s dialectical perspective can be summed up in the fact that the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts. Each component part, of this whole, has pieces missing. Additionally, these component parts, focus only on certain elements of a situation. Attaining wholeness requires us to see what you’re missing. DBT is based on this insight that reality is comprised of interrelated parts that must be seen holistically for the sake of clarity (Lynch, et al, 2006).”
The above quote comes from another blog post in which I provide an overview of the theoretical perspective underlying Lineman’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. This therapeutic strategy provides a combination of change, validation, and dialectical strategies. I find this perspective useful, since it represents my very first introduction with therapy as a client, when I first started seeing my current therapist and joint a DBT Skills Group. To this day, my therapist asks the question “What is the AND?” as a dialectical exercise, that requires me to address the side of the matter that I might resist acknowledging. How can this question pertain to my own story?
So What is the AND? – UNDERSTANDING MY DAD
Its been about 20+ years since I left that abusive relationship. Today, I can clearly understand my Dad’s logic. Put simply, nobody was forcing me to stay in the situation. The solution to my misery is to leave him and move on with my life. However, as you might expect, there’s a “BUT” coming. It’s not as easy or simple as that…
From a First-Hand Perspective – “LEAVING IT”
So where’s the “BUT”? Without getting too far “off track”, I’d like to note the importance of “CONTEXT”. The idea of walking in someone’s shoes is vital. You can’t truly understand the problem and it’s solution until you know an individual’s lived experience. While, my parents were puzzled: “We didn’t raise you this way?”…I was angry by their complete ignorance of the inner world of fucked-up-ness. t was a suicidal, bullied, and ostracized as a kid . From the time my best friend Ruby left, my life was worse than death, as an unseen pain that knew no end. I had no friends and supporters. Nobody was in my corner. My parents were too busy with their careers. My sister was self-righteous. My extended family made me feel like the perpetual outsider as the biracial oddball. My classmates labeled me the fruit-nut. The teachers ignored me since I was was so compliant & obedient. This is the backdrop that enabled me to develop such a shitty self-esteem that made “THE IT YEARS” so very attractive. I was desperate to numb the unresolved hurts of my childhood with the most convenient band-aid that fell in my lap. This bandaid: any promise of affection, love and belonging I could find. Like attracts like…
So with this perspective in my mind, I can begin to construct, in a general way those things that stand in the way of progress. Unresolved issues from an individual’s life-history exist as monkey-wrenches forestalling forward movement. However, something still puzzles me. The fact is I was deceiving myself much as a recovering addict was: I knew the problem and could write a novel detailing it from every possible angle. I knew the solution, plain and simple.
What is it in the psyche that allows one to ignore facts?
In his book Vital Lies & Simple Truths, Goleman (1996) notes: “there are…vital parts of our lives which are, in a sense, missing – blanks in experiences hidden by holes in the vocabulary. That we do not experience them is a fact which we know only vaguely, if at all” (p. 15). Sharpio (1996) notes the perplexing nature of self-deception when he asks: “How can the knowing deceiver also be the unknowing deceived? How can one intentionally, knowingly, not know?” (p. 786). Definitely food for thought….
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines self-deception as: “the acquisition and maintenance of a belief (or, at least, the avowal of that belief) in the face of strong evidence to the contrary motivated by desires or emotions favoring the acquisition and retention of that belief, (Self-Deception, 2006).” This process of willful denial reflects a desire to uphold a preferred version of reality by editing out evidence to the contrary. Jean-Paul Sarte characterizes this as a matter of bad faith wherein we intentionally lie to ourselves & choose pretty lies over bitter truths. Whether we do this intentionally or not is a matter of debate. However, based on this description, it appears self-deception functions as complex psychological mechanism that allows us to avoid responsibility of anything that causes us anxiety. Belief systems and personal attitudes can exist as a filtering systems allowing reality to bend according to our preconceived notions, like byproducts of self-fulfilling prophecies.
Our Relationship with Reality…
In my college literature class, many years ago the “suspension-of-disbelief” concept was discussed. It refers to a decision on the part of the readers, to suspend any disbelief in the “un-reality” of a story so we can immerse ourselves in it. In my opinion, self-deception works in very much the same way. Self-deception allows us to understand our reality in a way that dispels fears and anxieties. It allows us to develop a sensible version of external reality based on our life experiences and temperament-based attitudes. For example, the MBTI test makes it clear that we process information & utilize it in ways that are comfortable to us. Our past experiences are a template for making sense of life events. In my own case, unresolved traumas from my childhood created a minefield of anxiety.
When Self-Deception is “twisted”
As stated earlier, attitudes & beliefs function as reality filters, allowing us to create an experience that reflects it. Essentially, self-deception is a process in which our belief systems acts as self-fulfilling prophecies. We edit out all aspects of our experience that contradict these beliefs. In light of this, how do you explain self-deception in situations where you prefer to hold onto undesirable beliefs? Mele, (1999), calls this twisted self-deception, “instances [in which]…people deceive themselves into believing things they do not want to be true” (p. 117). For example, why is it that I preferred to hold onto what my childhood bullies said about me? Why did I then subsequently choose to adopt the unwanted belief in that abusive relationship that I was unworthy of love and belonging?
What follows are some thoughts to better understand twisted self-deception & why we would prefer to believe in negative falsehoods over positive realities
1st: unwelcome false beliefs are desired as true even if they are unwanted (Mele, 1999).
For example, we might not want to believe the burner is on after we leave the house. However, the idea that the house burns down scares us. Therefore, for the sake of vigilance we choose to believe we left it on. This allows us to avoid losing our home. When, applying this insight to that abusive relationship, an f’d up logic begins to unfold:
(((FYI – it is worth noting that the example below, constitutes my mindset 20+ years ago after I graduated high school & not how I feel today….))
*RELATIONSHIP GOALS “THEN”: to gain acceptance, love, and belong from others.
*RELATIONSHIP FEARS “THEN: To re-experience rejection, shame, & invalidation.
*THE UNWELCOME BELIEF: I believe I won’t measure up to others expectations and that somehow all my bullies and tormentors “were right about me”.
*MOTIVATION TO BELIEVE: Unresolved anxiety & trauma d/t undiagnosed-PTSD and a desire to avoid any “triggers”…
*”PERCEIVED” FUNCTION OF UNWELCOME BELIEF: Worrying about others’ opinions is a byproduct of unresolved hurt, and reflects a state of perpetual hyper-vigilance, in which I actively avoid anything that might trigger old traumas.
*THE REALITY: The reality is, we perpetuate what we deny. My life situation was a reflection of my mindset at the time…like a walking shit-magnet.
2nd: Unwanted false beliefs are associated with a misinterpretation of evidence….
The interesting thing about belief-systems is that we experience them as logical conclusions from life experience. “What [we]…end up believing is determined by…the strength of the evidence for and against [a] proposition (Mele, 1999, p. 125).” When conceiving beliefs as byproducts of experiences, we fail to see that they also define our life experiences, as well. Failing to get this fact causes life experiences to be misinterpreted as “FACTS”:
We believe something…
We act on belief…
Life reflects these beliefs
We forget that beliefs define experiences…
We use experiences as evidences of beliefs.
Most – if not all – therapeutic approaches include insight pertaining to the notion that beliefs also exist as cause. They are not just logical conclusion of life experience. They also define our experience, by acting as self-fulfilling prophecies when unexamined.
3rd: Twisted self-deception reflects a desire to avoid psychological discomfort (Mele, 1999).
It is only logical that those things which occupy the greatest share of our mental energy have the biggest effect on how we perceive things. In my own case, a blind fear of rejection overwhelmed my thinking at this point in life. I conducted myself in all relationships according to one implicit goal: avoid rejection. I still had not resolved the traumas of childhood. My perpetual hypervigilance, wouldn’t allow me to. In my own twisted mind, any evidence of rejection or disapproval was a source of great worry and stress. I would respond by ruminating endlessly over the matter. By attempting to avoid psychological discomfort of these triggers, I allowed my insecurities to direct the course of my life throughout my 20’s.
4th: The selectivity paradox associated with twisted self-deception reflects underlying motivational biases (Mele, 1999).
I selected unwanted false beliefs over truth due to a blinding motivation to avoid trauma triggers. I was well-aware of the problem and its solution. However, overwhelming panic would result from the mere suggestion that I accept rejection willingly. This was simply an unthinkable price to trigger pay. Likewise, Goriski &. Miller, (2013), note that a knowledge of the problem and its solution isn’t enough to “cure addiction”. Many addicts are brutally aware of this fact, yet feel powerless to stop given addictions powerful biopsychosocial nature.
“Addiction is a condition in which a person develops a biopsychosocial dependence…[it] is accompanied by obsession, compulsion, and loss of control. When not using the person…things about, plans and looks forward to using again…despite long-term painful consequences (Gorski & Miller, 2013, p. 39).”
Twisted Self-Deception & Coercion.
Some parallels can clearly be seen in the twisted self-deception that is prevalent in abusive relationships and addiction. However, there are also some key differences that are worth noting. Firstly, addiction has a biological component that explains the self-deceptive nature of one’s thinking. Secondly, abusive relationships include an interpersonal component tha makes the self-deception much more complex. In an article titled “On The Psychology of Self-Deception” David Shaprio defines coercion as follows:
“a type of self-deception that is enforced by external threat. This occurs not as a matter of internal submission [or internal anxiety] but as a matter of suspended critical judgment or inability to engage in rational thinking (Shaprio, 1996, p. 794).”
This is especially critical knowledge, when counseling individuals who are in various stages of extricating themselves from an abusive relationship. What follows are a few key points worth noting on the coercive nature of abusive relationships:
“The objective relation to external reality is suspended (Shaprio, 1996, p 794).”
Abusive relationships impair your ability to thinking logically. Knowing the nature of past insecurities, my “ex” utilized them as a coercive tool. He dangled promises of love in front of me like carrot on a stick, (while never fully delivering). He utilized fear of rejection as a powerful motivator that would allow me to put up with whatever he dished out.
“…the bullied and intimidated wife does not dare even to look at her angry husband. Much less can she consider what she is saying and, perhaps more to the point, what he is doing clearly. From her standpoint, merely to consider him, to look at him objectively is an act of brazen defiance (Shaprio, 1996, p. 795).”
Diminished Personal Autonomy (Sharpio, 1996)
“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 above quote comes from a recent post titled “Stages of Change”, in which I describe my own experiences leaving an abusive relationship. In this particular instance, every single action I took throughout the day was coercively controlled by my ex. I was constantly on edge and lived in fear of disappointing him. A loss of objective interest in reality occurred through his verbal dominance, requirements of secrecy and a gradual process of isolation & imprisonment (Shaprio, 1996). My ability to engage in a healthy discernment of the situation was inhibited, by a constant state of hyperarousal. This perpetual state of fear-based complicance existed due to his adept knowledge of my trauma triggers. Over time, he was able to associate “his leaving” with the realization of my “worst fears”. My only available response in this situation was a dissociative compliance.
I couldn’t see beyond my desire to avoid rejection.
Rejection was a powerful trauma trigger.
I was well-aware of the problem: He treated me like crap.
I also knew the solution: I should leave.
Knowledge alone wasn’t enough.
My moment-to-moment awareness was focused only on emotional survival.
Self-Deceptions are shared constructs in an Abusive Situation.
“the objective relation to external reality, the normal attitude of judgment, is suspended or disabled, at least within the relevant area, in some cases consciously so…the subject of coercion never does come to believe in the ordinary sense that he did what he did not do. But he can be brought to the point where he is unable to sustain disbelief. To be more exact, he cannot sustain the capacity to consider the matter, to believe or disbelief…a passive, uncritical state of mind is a familiar anxiety-forestalling defense reaction (Shapiro, 1996, p. 797).”
What this quote convey’s is simply the idea that twisted self-deception is a shared by both the abuser and abused. Both individuals are partaking in a relationship that requires them to create a reality based on self-deceptive untruths. Additionally, the abuse victim is in an emotional state that makes rational judgment difficult – if not impossible at times. This brings me to a final point worth noting about the twisted self-deception which occurs in an abusive relationship.
….An UnWritten Relationship Contract
Goleman (1996) suggests even health relationships are based on some degree of agreed-upon self-deception. In his book, Goleman (1996) refers to the work of family therapists Lilly Pincus & Christopher Dare who note that an unwritten marriage agreement often exists between married partners:
“This agreement…is between the unconscious of each, and has to do with the partners’ mutual obligations to fulfill certain unspoken longings and soothe unmentioned fears. In its most general form it goes something like this: ‘I will attempt to be some of the many important things you want of me, even though they are some of them impossible, contradictory and crazy, if you will be for me some of the important, impossible, contradictory, and crazy things I want of you. We won’t have to let each other know what these things are, but we will be cross, sulk become depressed or difficulty, if we do not keep to the bargain” (Goleman, 1996, p. 157).
I entered into this sort of unspoken agreement slowly.
In the beginning there were promises of love and acceptance.
He became the solution to all my worst fears and insecurities.
Then a “boot camp” period occurred where I was transformed into his willing participant
He assessed my insecurities, and feelings of low self-worth.
He utilized them against me, turning insecurity into certainty.
In this way, he presented me with the embodiment of your worst fears: “I am worthless & unlovable”.
In a state of constant hyper-vigilance I developed learned helplessness.
Only then, was I able to fully agree to this unwritten contract that “He puts up with me & I comply fully”.
Unable to see beyond my own feelings of hopelessness, I felt stuck, with no solution but to survive moment-to-moment.
In this academic & personal exercise, I’m “thinking out loud”. I’m attempting to utilize personal experience as a basis for understanding the twisted self-deception that exists as an element of an addictive mindset. I think I’m several steps closer towards empathy, for my future clients in the recovery classes for the upcoming internship. However, more study and experiential reflection is required to fully connect the dots. As time progresses and new insights pop up, I will take up this train of thought up again as it pertains to issue of addiction…
THANKS FOR READING…