Archive for August, 2012
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What has been the most comment ailment of the past few decades? Not cancer, AIDS, drug abuse or heart disease, but violence. More people have died violently in the past century than in any other. There is no basis for assuming that the next decade will be any less violent because we are not taking any steps to make it so.
Every year, there are millions of acts of violence. Some are fatal, some result in permanent injury or mental scars. Others end up orphaning their children and widowing their spouses. There are public and private agencies attempting to deal with the plague of violence in our country, but their focus seems to be on the overt act, such as firing handguns or battering spouses. If they can prevent these acts, they feel that they will have prevented violence. But the underlying issues that instigate the individual to seek violent solutions has not been identified or addressed. Another mistake that we make is to treat violence as if it were a natural force, an animal instinct which we have no power to control. Criminals have been using this excuse for years. It exempts them from the consequences of their self-indulgent behavior. We need to stop taking these self-serving alibis at face value if we hope to break the cycle of violence.
The cycle is not transmitted by our genetic inheritance from our less evolved ancestors. It was modeled for us by the significant others we encountered in our young lives. We learn to accept brutality as an efficient problem solving technique. It requires no cerebral exertion at all. Kids who were exposed to violence often raise their kids using violence. They feel justified in doing so, “If it was good enough for me, its good enough for them. That’s fair.” We cannot argue with this childish logic. It is not logic at all. There is no rational think involved. It is the emotional convictions that were formalized in their childhood being replayed on an endless loop. An emotional legacy passed on from one generation to the next.
It should be noted, that the notion of learning by example is not absolute. Some children of non-violent parents become violent on their own. Conversely, many children of violent parents reject this brutal example. Some go to the extreme of crusading against violence. Others find a middle ground, where they can solve interpersonal problems cooperatively as equal members of the human race.
There is no instinct for beating up first-graders. If there were, everyone would be doing it, not just bullies. Civilized human beings take time to learn how to manage their emotions. The problem is that hardly anyone has the time to teach it these days. We should be teaching young people how to express their anger appropriately, finding a middle ground between too much and too little. We should teach them how to identify the underlying problems that lead them to take others’ behavior personally. We all have buttons that can be pushed, such as:
“I want my way and you are not giving it to me.”
“It’s not fair.”
“You are wrong.”
“You betrayed me.”
“You don’t appreciate me”
“You’re a bully.”
These comments first arise in childhood and make us vulnerable to becoming excessively angry. If these patterns of thinking can be identified and put in a more manageable perspective, we would be less vulnerable to over-reacting and the violence statistics would go down. As it is now, we are not well educated in these matters because we are denying that we have an anger problem. We prefer to call our problem violence. As a consequence of our denial, we are a nation with a high rate of aggression.
However, the issue is not violence or aggression, the issue is mismanaged anger. There is no violence without anger. Violence is an emotional response to being hurt or threatened. Our epidemic of gang violence and murder are not senseless crimes, they are crimes of anger. Most perpetrators have been through the medical and legal system, which leaves their anger undiagnosed and untreated. The present system refuses to help. It does not seem to know what to do about anger except to use medication or incarceration. No one is learning anything.
The cycle violence generally follows a pattern. Often the batterer will say that the victim is the one responsible for his rage and that he wouldn’t need to hit, if the victim didn’t “make him” angry. After a violent episode, the batterer may apologize, promise to make it up to the victim, blame his behavior on alcohol, stress at work, etc., and promise that the violence will stop. At those times, he may behave in a loving manner, and the victim wants to trust that he means what he says. The victim may respond by trying to change their behavior to please the batterer, only to find that he becomes enraged about something else. It may always be something else. Over the course of time, the victim might even start to believe that the violence is your fault. The victim’s self-esteem may begin to unravel until they may feel virtually powerless in their relationship with him.
It is important to remind yourself that there is never a circumstance under which you or your children, if you have them, should be subjected to physical abuse. If at any time conversations or interactions become physically threatening, the individuals need to walk away and separate. If physical safety cannot be established, call the police immediately to ensure personal wellbeing
Do not take their anger personally, as if it were a reflection on your self-worth as a person. Self-respecting people who are in control of themselves and are confident in their ability to cope are less likely to be victimized then people who doubt their self-worth. It is also important not to protect violent people from the consequences of their behavior. Do not make excuses for them. That is enabling! They behave violently because there are no consequences and they can get away with it, someone is letting them. By offering consequences to others for their choices, you are letting them know what is unacceptable. It takes courage because anger and violence is scary. But if we give into this fear, the violence will win and everyone loses.
If you have an anger problem in your home, job or family, do not let yourself be drawn into a power struggle over who can hurt whom. Acts of violence are a symptom of anger. Do not deal with symptoms, for they are just smoke and mirrors for the deeper issues. Instead it can help to respond to a false accusation or situation of unfairness with a focusing question, “What happened to make you so angry?” Even if you do not get an answer right away, you have given their behavior a name and offered them permission to talk about it. You have done the unexpected, which disrupts the eye for an eye revenge seeking expectation that is typical with being hurt. Ask another question, “What angered you the most about it?” You can offer them some choices by giving the individual an alternative outlet for their out of control anger. We can ask, “What would you prefer instead?” These questions are like seeds in a garden, you may not get growth immediately, but with time you can have an abundant harvest.
Using these focusing questions helps to gain an understanding, rather then forcing agreement. These questions are a way to get beyond the smoke and mirror of defensiveness and pleading your case. Theses questions helps to peel the onion and that is where the meat of the problems is, but man it stinks and causes tears along the way. After you have focused their anger at those who have caused them to lash out, you can ask, “Who else are you angry at?” In almost every case of violence, the assaulter is angry at themselves for some failure or weakness for which they feels guilty and at fault. This can make some sense if we see their violence as a way to punish themselves and bring about their own pain for the guilt they feel. Simply put when we are angry at ourselves, we act in ways to bring about our own pain as punishment for the choices we have made. This is their self-contempt. The antidote consists of replacing self-contempt with self-respect. Self-respect is the feeling that we are worth-while human beings in spite of our faults and imperfections. At the same time, exaggerated behaviors of anger are replaced with appropriate self expression that uses words to describe how we feel.
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As the years pass, you build up a collection of good and bad memories. Your brain has the ability to recall these memories at the drop of a hat – almost instantly. As an example, read the following questions and watch how fast your brain pulls the recollection: Name some songs by the Beatles. What was the last movie you saw? Where were you on 9/11? Where were you when the OJ verdict was announced? Who is the president of the United States? Who was your first kiss? As you can see, your brain instantly finds a memory when a question is asked.
There are several types of memory, each with different time courses that involve different parts of the brain. One kind of memory that is easy to recognize is that of short-term vs. long-term memory. Short-term memory is fast and takes no more than several minutes to recall. Short-term memory reflects your ability to recall specifics, the particulars of what went on. However, such memories fade quickly. Long-term memory extends beyond those several minutes, to hours, days and years in the past. Another kind of memory is called working memory, which is usually associated with short-term memory. Working memory is the ability to hold facts or details of events in the forefront of your thoughts.
All types of memory are interconnected and pathways in your brain. When you experience a very significant event, the brain records not only the details of the experience (where you were, when, who was there, what happened, etc.) but the emotions you experienced at the time as well. The entire memory of an emotional event (an assault, an automobile accident, a wedding, death of a loved one, a combat experience, etc.) is actually remembered by several systems and stored in separate areas of the brain. That is to say that memory is distributed throughout the brain. No single region of the brain has any one of these types of memory completely embedded in it. Instead, each type of memory involves several areas of the brain acting from different regions, where information is brought together, processed and then re-distributed to where your memories are permanently housed. This happens simultaneously, with all of the regions being activated and processing at the same time, so memories are recalled before you even have it concentrate.
Ever wonder why some memories can stay vivid for years while others fade with time? The answer is emotion. Your memory will only hold on to new information (working memory) gained from these events for about five days (this is your short-term memory). Memories that are not significant are usually forgotten or “dumped” and erased after this five-day waiting period (this is the time taken to transfer events from short to long term memory). The brain will learn or memorize all kinds of information with frequent repetition and constant use. However, if a memory containing only facts is not frequently used, the memory slowly fades away. You can store and create memory, as when memorizing spelling words or learning math. For example: 1) Can you calculate square root by hand? 2) Do you remember the names of all your high school teachers or classmates? In the second question, chances are you can remember those who also have emotional memories attached to them. What I mean is that when your emotions are activate, your brain automatically takes note. That is why you remember some events from the past with vivid detail, particularly the ones that were emotionally charged (like a favorite possession, an unjust punishment or first love). For example, I remember when I was able to tie my shoes for the first time. I can still recall how I ran to my mother and proudly showed her my accomplishment. It was an emotion-filled moment, but also provided useful information that I have carried on to this day, which is why it is still so vivid in my memory.
Humans are hardwired to remember things that threaten or are very rewarding to them. You have learned that what is threatening may be painful and what is rewarding may offer pleasure. These pleasures and pains trigger emotions that elevate the status of any would-be memory. This makes a lot of sense in evolutionary terms: emotional events would be biologically significant. Many survival lessons involve emotion, such as fear, anger or joy and your memory is enhanced by hormones that are released when you experience a strong emotion or stress. This explains why emotional arousal has such a powerful influence on how well you remember things.
What is so important about this? Well, in daily living, especially during times of stress, your memory is very important. Your memory is active every second of your life. It can be controlled when you try and memorize something. Yet your memory is primarily unconscious, in that it works automatically beyond your control and awareness. But the key point is that it can change your mood within two minutes. Perhaps, you have injured your knee in an accident and whenever the memory is reactivated in your mind, the knee may begin to throb with pain and discomfort. The strength of the memory is associated with the intensity of the event. This can trigger your body to react as it did at the time of your experience. So whenever you see and or hear about an accident, or even watch one in a movie, your memory triggers painful tension in your knee.
Emotional memories re-create your original emotional response. A sight, a sound, or even a smell can bring back the joy, fear, love, or hate that you have associated with it. You may not remember all of your many trips to the grocery store or gas station. However, you will always remember times which have a good or bad value attached to them, such as the time a store was robbed when you were there, the time an old lady threatened you over a parking spot, or the time you spilled gasoline all over your clothes in one of those self-serve pumps. You don’t remember washing your car unless that spray wand just about gave you a skull fracture. In short, if a daily memory does not have a strong emotional value, it is faded out. The problem is that you can give an ordinary, harmless, experience greater emotional value then it really deserves.
When you get upset, scared, angry, or nervous without any identifiable cause it is a sign that your feelings are being “triggered” by the memory of a past situation. When people feel a strong emotion, the emotional brain (amygdala) remembers it, along with many other details connected with the event. Even things that are indirectly related to the event can trigger the old feeling without our even being aware that this is happening. The emotional brain (amygdala) takes in all kinds of impressions like sights, smells, tastes, and sounds and uses a “fast track circuit” to try to find a match with something that happened before. The mind is constantly looking for patterns, which are stronger and have better developed pathways in the brain. As an example, an adult who has had a bad first marriage may automatically trigger an emotional memory of jealousy any time his wife mentions, “I might be late”. The anxiety in that statement causes his brain to search for a memory and recalls a feeling of jealousy from his first marriage. If the husband dwells on this feeling, he will become insecure, jealous, and suspicious for no reason in the present.
This raises the important point that the brain doesn’t know if an experience is real or imagined! How can this be you may ask? Well, the brain creates memories based on information it is given, usually through your senses but sometimes through your thoughts. If you are in the same room with your sweetheart, it will give you that warm, romantic feeling. However, looking at their picture and thinking about them will do the same thing, even though they are not present. Even better, simply thinking about them will produce the same feelings (triggering the same emotional memory). The brain only reacts to the thought or sense, it doesn’t care how it receives that feeling or information, be it by physical presence, by reminders (pictures), or by “thought”.
When an emotional memory is triggered, you will say the same things, feel the same intensity of emotion, and behave the same way that you did at the time the memory was created. That is to say, you will respond to today as if it was a different time or place in your life. The emotional experiences you have endured resurface and are replayed when you perceive an event in the present as emotionally similar to something for your past. As a result you may become defensive and lash out with anger or withdrawn and avoid confrontation out of sadness or fear. Many of these reactions, however, are not appropriate for the current situation. These reactions are based on past relationships and emotional experiences, causing you erupt or melt down in the form of crying, yelling, panic or violence.
People that are shy and introverted tell therapists that when they enter a restaurant, people look at them, creating anxiety. It’s true, but it applies to everyone, not just those who are shy. When anything enters your visual field, you unconsciously begin scanning it. A person walking into a room is “scanned” by almost everyone else and that automatic scanning procedure takes about two seconds. The unconscious mind is looking for two things 1) to see if you have a memory or point of reference for comparison and 2) to protect you for any signs of danger. If the new individual is odd looking, carrying a weapon, or naked, the brain will start a full-scan and react accordingly (long stare, fright, or “Don’t I know you?). Individuals with physical features that are unusual lead to the common “double take” where you will first unconsciously scan for safety and reference, then look again consciously to examine and analyze. These references are designed to help you, as when remembering an old friend, the location of the store in a mall, or when remembering needed facts/details.
Let’s say you can’t stand the smell of fresh asphalt. This may be because you had a bad crash on your bike on fresh asphalt when you were younger. You may or may not even remember the crash, but your body does, and it links that smell with the crash. A dog bit one of my clients when he was young. The bite hurt, and my client was frightened. The event became stored in his emotional memory. As a teenager, the sight of a dog-even a gentle one-still triggered a feeling of fear and hesitation. When my client sees a dog now, his brain instantaneously compares the image of the dog with his past memories through the fast track circuit. The brain finds a match-with the memory of “dog” and getting bitten-and triggers a feeling of fear. This feeling then affects how his brain perceives the dog. He reacts with a fear of dogs without knowing why. The information about the dog goes to the brain through another pathway-the “slow track circuit.” If the different parts of your brains are working well together, the brain can then tell that everything is OK. It’s a friendly dog, and there is no reason to feel threatened. However, even if this happens, the initial reaction has already sent signals down my client’s nerves causing stress hormones to be released into his body.
Of course, such memories do not happen just with dogs. They happen with all of your past situations, including your relationships with other people-and places and situations that have left deep impressions on you. A person with a certain kind of walk or body type might cause you to feel fear because he reminds you of someone who once bullied you. The smell of a hot dog can make you nauseous because you came down with a stomach flu after eating one once. You may dislike people with red hair because of that one red-headed person who once picked on you. And the list goes on.
Your emotional response to a memory begins 90 to 120 seconds after a memory surfaces. For example, recall when you were told about the death of a loved one. The first two minutes of the conversation may have gone well, but then you become sad. If this memory remains in your attention, the feelings from the funeral and bereavement will surface today. Your mind then recalls other experiences of loss, unfairness, or guilt that is associated with what was felt at the time of your initial grief. In this way what was unconscious become conscious. You are now mindful of a memory, which was dormant and now has sprung to life. And the longer the memory is available in your awareness, the stronger the emotional component becomes, to the point that you may begin to cry. Famous actors and actresses have known this method for years. If they want to cry on stage, they can recall a painful memory from their personal life and within 90 seconds, tears are flowing.
When a memory comes to your awareness, it is as though you have placed a disc in a DVD player. The disc begins playing and you hear the same discussion or feel the same feelings over and over. Husbands and wives refer to this sometimes as “broken record” conversations. You may get the same lectures, the same anger, the same resentment, the same everything – it’s all on the disc. For example, a couple can be discussing whether they have enough money to purchase a new computer. The wife mentions using a particular credit card – that triggers a memory in her husband, hitting the play button on the “credit card” disc. At that point, the husband launches into a long story about credit cards, high interest, harassing letters, and so forth. When that memory is pulled up, a discussion about the computer becomes useless. While you may try to remain business-like and focus on a topic of discussion, you can’t help but think of the past.
You know when an emotional memory is trigged if the emotional reaction is far above what would be expected from the situation. If the listener has the general idea that the conversation doesn’t make sense, you’re probably listening to someone talk about emotions from the past. For example, a husband and wife meet an old boyfriend or girlfriend at the supermarket. Suddenly, there’s a gigantic reaction complete with jealousy, suspiciousness, and anger. Many recollections begin with, “We’ve talked about this before,” “When I was young…” and so on. References to the past are almost always related to an emotional memory. For example, teenagers have difficulty, understanding why a simple request for money leads into a long discussion of dad’s collecting pop bottles for money during his youth. The key is the phrase, “When I was your age…” This kind of memory error is known as persistence. Persistence is not the loss of memory, nor is it the distortion of memory. A person suffering from persistence is doomed to remember events that he or she would prefer to forget and are frequently making references to the past. Persistence is often seen in post-traumatic stress disorder. After a traumatic event, such a violent attack or a rape, people often re-experience their memories of the event. Trauma victims seem to lose control over the retrieval of their trauma-related memories, so that the memories are constantly being pulled into awareness by the slightest trigger. Persistence can occur in non-traumatic situations as well. Depressed individuals are often bothered by negative memories that intrude when they are not wanted.
One of the most common situations in which emotional memory is created is in physical or mental trauma. Many of us have experienced trauma in our life. Traumatic emotional memories can be created by physical assaults, combat experiences, crime, death of a loved one, viewing severe accidents, surgery, or brush-with-death experiences. In trauma, the brain not only memorizes everything about the event – including the emotions – but adds the surroundings as well. If you are assaulted in your home, suddenly your home is no longer comfortable due to the memories it produces. A severe automobile accident may prompt you to quit driving completely or develop panic attacks if you near the site of the accident. Traumatic emotional memories are perhaps the strongest memories and often create long-lasting complications or challenges if not properly handled.
Another common way that emotional memories create patterns is in the case of a panic attack. When you suffer a panic attack, hormones are released in the brain, which creates the muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and trembling associated with a panic attack. After an attack however, your brain remembers the feeling and the physical sensations. Months later, you may be in a crowded store or in an emotionally tense situation when the brain recognizes a physical sensation of tension, which it has seen before during the panic attack. At that point, the brain immediately triggers the “panic attack” memory. If you dwell on the memory of panic, you are quite likely to have another panic attack. Remember: With each emotion or experience, the brain is always searching to see if you have a memory on that topic.
Imagine being stressed-out for six months, almost at the breaking point. You decide to stop by the market to pick up some bread and milk. While in the store, you run into someone you dislike which immediately triggers a memory of how you were threatened and hurt by an argument with that person’s husband. That conflict reminds you of this morning’s argument with your spouse, which now dominates your concentration and your mood becomes worse. At this point, your brain, already overtaxed, kicks in with a panic attack. You feel your heartbeat race, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and you feel as though you are going to have a heart attack. You end up leaving your groceries and running out of the store. You now have compounded the threatening-memory of “this individual” and have created a new panic-memory with a label “market” on it. Therefore, the next time you drive by the market to stop for milk, your brain will pull the panic-memory. You’ll develop a feeling – “I can’t go in there!” This is exactly how people become agoraphobic, where they become fearful of leaving their home. You fear that the same negative outcomes that arose in the past will occur again. The link between the emotions and your memories is like the umbilical cord. You need to cut it so you can access the memory without the strength of your emotions
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Allegory of Change
I walk,down the street
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in
I am lost…….I am helpless
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place,but,
It isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in……….it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
1) PRECONTEMPLATION STAGE
“IT ISN’T THAT WE CAN’T SEE THE SOLUTION. IT IS THAT WE CAN’T SEE THE PROBLEM” Precontemplators usually show up in therapy because of pressures from others… spouses, employers, parents, and courts… Resist change. When their problem comes up, they change the topic of conversation. They place responsibility for their problems on factors such as genetic makeup, family, society, destiny, the police, etc. They feel the situation is HOPELESS .
2) CONTEMPLATION STAGE
“I WANT TO STOP FEELING SO STUCK” Contemplators acknowledge that they have a problem and begin to think about solving it.
Contemplators struggle to understand their problems, to see its causes, and wonder about possible solutions. Many contemplators have indefinite plans to take action within the next few months. “YOU KNOW YOUR DESTINATION, AND EVEN HOW TO GET THERE, BUT YOU ARE NOT READY TO GO YET”
It is not uncommon for contemplators to tell themselves that some day they are going to change. When contemplators transition to the preparation stage of change, their thinking is clearly marked by two changes. First, they begin to think more about the future than the past. The end of contemplation stage is a time of ANTICIPATION, ACTIVITY, ANXIETY, and EXCITEMENT.
3) PREPARATION STAGE
Most people in the preparation stage are planning to take action and are making the final adjustments before they begin to change their behavior. Have not yet resolved their AMBIVALENCE . Still need a little convincing.
4) ACTION STAGE
Stage where people overtly modify their behavior and their surroundings. Make the move for which they have been preparing. Requires the greatest commitment of time and energy. CHANGE IS MORE VISIBLE TO OTHERS.
5) MAINTENANCE STAGE
Change never ends with action. Without a strong commitment to maintenance, there will surely be relapse, usually to precontemplation or contemplation stage.
MOST SUCCESSFUL SELF-CHANGERS GO THROUGH THE STAGES THREE OR FOUR TIMES BEFORE THEY MAKE IT THROUGH THE CYCLE OF CHANGE WITHOUT AT LEAST ONE SLIP. MOST RETURN TO THE CONTEMPLATION STAGE OF CHANGE. SLIPS GIVE US THE OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN
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Just recently, one of my clients, Shelia said, “My mother is driving me crazy. I can’t stand it. I was telling her about the trouble I was having with the baby sitter, Debbie. She would leave dirty dishes in the sink for me to clean up the next morning, and she smoked like a chimney. I was afraid she’d fall asleep and set the house on fire. My mother said, ‘Fire her, but don’t hurt her feelings’.”
This is what we call a double bind. When we try to carry out our mother’s (or anyone’s) contradictory good intentions, it tears us apart. We cannot solve the problem. Some of us stop trying to do anything and we sink to the bottom. We have stopped struggling. We cannot even move. We become very angry at our well-intended parent. What is worse, we become very angry at ourselves for our failure to resolve the problem. We need not be so angry at ourselves. It is not our fault that we cannot sort out such double messages. No one has ever helped us to identify the problem properly, let alone solve it. When we become angry at ourselves, we are putting ourselves in a triple bind. No wonder we feel paralyzed and out of control. These double binds constitute an insoluble problem for us. Every time we fail to solve such a problem, we feel that our inadequacy to cope with life has been confirmed. We feel “stupid,” we feel worthless. Thirty years of such frustration and discouragement is enough to drive us up the wall, over the edge and down the other side.
When Shelia came to her mother with her tale of woe, her mother feels compelled to relieve her distress. Unfortunately, in most cases our parent is not qualified to diagnose nor treat problems. Our parent has no facts, no competence in these areas. He or she feels inadequate to cope with us, to solve our problem. To relieve this painful feeling of inadequacy, the individual dreams up a good intention when we need a real intention. As soon as he or she delivers this nonsensical “solution,” he or she feels better: “I have done something. At least I didn’t stand there like a dummy. I have once again prevented the humiliating exposure of my inadequacy to cope by giving free advice.”
A mother’s good intentions are designed to prevent bad things from happening. She means well – she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to us:
1. She wants us to get rid of this source of unhappiness in our lives in order to prevent future unhappiness.
2. She wants us to avoid displeasing the baby sitter in order to prevent her from becoming angry and possibly doing something vengeful.
To us, our mother’s suggestion seems to be inconsistent on the face of it. She is not inconsistent at all.
1. She consistently says and does as she pleases. She wants it both ways, and she doesn’t see why she shouldn’t get it coming and going.
2. She consistently wants to exercise control over her life, and that includes her adult daughter. Unfortunately, she defines control as preventing bad things from happening to her in terms of preventing bad things from happening to her loved ones! If our baby sitter got angry and beat us up, mom would be terribly hurt. This is the bad thing she is trying to prevent: not our hurt, hers! Her dual good intentions are consistently self-indulgent, counter productive and self-destructive. They drive us crazy, and we, in turn, drive her crazy when we fail to appreciate her “goodness” in our behalf. She punishes us for our lack of gratitude for her efforts in our behalf.
As soon as we realize that this double-bind proposition is just mischief, we are free to disengage from it. We no longer have any responsibility for solving this problem. The problem is phony; it does not exist. It does not have to be solved. We have two choices now. We can choose to live on our parents’ terms and go crazy in the attempt, or we can consciously and deliberately choose to begin living our lives on our terms.
1. We do not have to follow our parent’s suggestions. We can use our own judgment.
2. We do not have to please our parent, nor are we afraid of displeasing. We can say, “I know you want the best for me; but I’m sure things will work out.” We do not make the mistake of trying to show our parent the error of her ways. She is not our student or our patient. We can acknowledge the “goodness” of her dual intentions, and let it go at that. That is all she wants, anyway. To be validated by us, to be appreciated, to be important in our lives. It costs us nothing to let her feel that way.
3. We can call this paradox to her attention and let her decide what she wants to do about it. “I can do one or the other, mom, but I can’t do both. What do you think I should do about that?”
4. We can let her know that her behavior makes us angry so that she can make her future plans for intervening in our lives accordingly. “It makes me angry when you treat me like a child, mom.” If we express our anger in a mature, appropriate way, our parent may just stop treating us as if we were still nine years old.
5. When there is a conflict between our controller’s recommendation (we hear it as if it were an order) and the demands of reality, we can choose to go with reality every time.
Sheila, the lady with the baby sitter, came back to report her progress. Her mother had come over the next day, and started talking about getting rid of Debbie, the babysitter. Sheila reminded her mother of their previous conversation: “I was thinking about what you said, mother. You know, there is no way I can fire Debbie without hurting her feelings.” Mother stopped talking. Still silent, she went into the kitchen. When she came out, she started talking about something else. She hasn’t talked about Debbie since.
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Therapist: “We live in the richest country in the world. Why are so many of us so unhappy? One reason we are unhappy is that we see a causal connection between property and happiness. Our millionaire movie stars and rock singers have more money than they will ever spend, but they take drugs to relieve the pain of their existence.”
Client: “That doesn’t make sense.”
Therapist: “Not if you equate money with happiness.”
Client: “Money can’t buy happiness, can it?”
Therapist: “No, but it can anaesthetize the pain of their unhappiness. Their possessions only serve to heighten the contrast between the way that rich people are ‘supposed’ to feel and the way they really feel when they wake up in the morning.”
Client: “They feel miserable, but why?”
Therapist: “Because the pain of their underlying childhood self-contempt has never been identified or relieved.”
Client: “Doesn’t their success relieve it?”
Therapist: “No. Success in the present does not erase the painful lessons that they learned about themselves in second grade, or the negative conclusions that they come to about themselves.”
Client: “For instance.”
Therapist: “Most children, sooner or later, experience an event that calls into question their belonging.”
Client: “Belonging to what?”
Therapist: “Belonging to their family, to their friends at school, even their belonging to themselves. As a child, there is not much self to belong to. It can be taken away very quickly.”
Client: “Is that why we have so many computer dating services?”
Therapist: “Yes, that is why we have so many people who have tried all these techniques and given up, people who cannot affiliate at work or at the bowling alley, all they can do is drown out the pain of their ‘not-belonging’ with narcotics or exertions of one kind or another. When that does not work, they become discouraged, even mentally ill. We see them in asylums, prisons, and homeless shelters, fulfilling to an extreme degree their lifelong conviction that they do not and cannot belong. Most of us are not that extreme. The events of our childhood were not drastic or devastating. But, to a sensitive child, a little bit of “unbelonging” can go a long way.
Gary(age 6): “I remember we moved from the old neighborhood when I was six. The first day after we moved, I remember going to the park across from our house there was a jungle gym. The other kids wouldn’t let me play on it. I made friends with them later, but I never forgot that first day.”
This is the early recollection of a person who, as an adult, complains that he feels “ill at ease” at parties, feels “left out” at work and “excluded” from the family circle at home. He has been diagnosed as feeling “alienated,” which he has tried to relieve by joining clubs and taking night courses. A better name for his condition is, “I don’t belong” or “unbelonging.”
Many people feel that they ‘don’t belong.’ Where don’t they belong? Wherever they happen to be, that’s where they ‘don’t belong. Non-belongers take their non-belonging with them wherever they go. They have felt this way since childhood. It’s an insoluble problem. It is a part of them.
Client: “What causes this feeling of non-belonging? Does the early recollection ’cause’ the feeling?”
Therapist: “No. Every child has such experiences growing-up in the company of imperfect human beings. Some kids bounce right back. Gary did not, he remembered this minor set back for thirty years. He was not the passive “victim” of this disappointment, he brought something of his own to the experience and he actively participated in the event. He brought his pre-existing vulnerability to feeling like the “left out” child in his family to the playground, where these strange kids confirmed his expectation that he would be excluded. He never forgot this confirmation of his feeling that he didn’t belong anywhere, not at home, or outside the home, either.”
Client: “So, he was a lonely kid before that time. He played the same role in his family.”
Therapist: “Joe, on the other hand, had a different dynamic operating. He felt secure at home, he was all right until he got to school. He was waiting with the other kids for the bell to ring on his first day in first grade. The bell rang, all the other kids went to their assigned classrooms, he didn’t know what his room number was, his mother had forgotten to tell him. He stood there all alone in the corridor crying until a teacher heard him and directed him to the right room. But it was too late, the damage had been done. Joe came to feel that his previous feeling of belonging was a sham, he really didn’t belong after all. The other kids knew things that he didn’t know. They were superior and he was inferior. He, too, has carried these mistaken conclusions with him into adulthood. He still feels out of control, abandoned and angry at himself for not knowing more than he knows. He feels `stupid’. He is smart enough to know that ‘stupid’ people do not belong.”
Client: “So it has to do with attitudes from childhood.”
Many treat the non-belong feeling as if it were a distinct pathological entity that could be diagnosed and treated separately from all the other aspects of the human condition like hiccups or warts. They seek to ascribe the feeling of not belonging to some external agency or cause which, once identified, can be easily rectified. Lately, these “causes” have included: socio-economic deprivation, peer rejection and depersonalization by forces beyond one’s control such as Big Business, Big Labor, the breakdown of the family, violence on television, the absence of prayer in the schools, racial discrimination, age discrimination, height discrimination, religious discrimination and gender discrimination. These “theories” of negative behavior fail to consider the pre-existing vulnerabilities that people bring to these external events. They do not consider the context in which the non-belonging feeling exists.
It is a fundamental mistake to define the feeling of non-belonging in terms of external considerations. For instance, Joe saved up money to buy a membership at the local Country Club. He went every week for months, but he still felt that he did not belong. The other club members sensed his uneasiness and desperation, and they treated him accordingly. This confirmed his original conviction that he does not belong, and he is out the two thousand dollar membership fee on top of it.
Belonging is not a function of such external considerations; it is a feeling that we have about ourselves. Internal feelings can only be changed on an internal, subjective basis. The feeling of non-belonging has many facets:
1. “I don’t belong because I am not good enough. Others belong because they are good enough, but not me. How do I know? My parents, teachers, friends and relatives told me so and they wouldn’t lie.”
2. “I don’t belong because I am not smart enough. As smart as I am, it is never enough.”
3. “I don’t belong because I am not pretty enough. Only cheerleaders belong, not me.”
4. “I don’t belong because I don’t have money to throw around. Gee, I wish I were rich.”
5. “I don’t belong because all they want me for is my money. If I didn’t have money, maybe they would want me for myself. I’ll never know. I wish I could live a real life like the people on welfare. They suffer. That’s living.”
Here are some of the over compensatory, counter-productive ways in which non-self-respecting people try to relieve the pain of their non-belonging:
The Sour Grapes Syndrome Or “Who Needs People?”
A) THE CRIMINAL - “If I can’t join them, I’ll lick ‘em. I’ll become an outcast, an outlaw. I’ll get revenge on them for rejecting me. After all, I’m entitled. I have suffered. I am exempt from their laws. I’ll make up my own and I’ll hang around with other non-belongers like myself.”
B) THE CROWN PRINCE - “As the first born, my mother’s favorite, I don’t belong down there with those miserable peasants. I am superior and special. Who needs them anyway? I am more interested in gaining power over them than in belonging with them.”
C) THE REBEL – “All right, if I can’t be a conservative conformist like my big brother, Will, I’ll become a nonconformist; the worst one you ever saw. If I can’t be first best, I’ll be first worst. I’ll get my revenge by rebelling against their conformity. I’ll put down their oppressive fascist society. That way everyone will be free to be a nonconformist just like me…or else!”
D) THE VICTIMIZER - “I used to be a victim, but not anymore. I prevent victimization by victimizing others first. I don’t want to belong with inferior victims, I belong with my good-buddy fellow victimizers.”
E) THE ABUSER – “I don’t belong to my wife, but she belongs to me, like a steer belongs to a rancher. I have all the rights, she has all the responsibilities. If she doesn’t measure up to my high standards, I have a grievance against her. It makes me angry. It’s her fault, not mine.”
F) THE SHY CHILD – “If they won’t let me belong, I’ll get power over them by being shy. I’ll make them come to me. If they don’t come to me, it will be their loss, not mine.”
Since non-belonging is an aspect of self-contempt, the generic antidote to this feeling is self-respect, “I am a worthwhile human being in spite of my faults and imperfections.” On this basis, these people can feel that they belong to themselves; a feeling they did not have as vulnerable, dependent children. From that base, they can go on to the next higher level, the feeling that they belong to the human race, no more and no less than anyone else. Where do they belong? Anywhere they happen to be. After that, the secondary “belongings” take care of themselves. They can then “belong” in a relationship with another self-respecting “belonger.”
The feeling of alienation from one’s fellow human beings can be very painful. It cannot be relieved by intellectual understanding alone. We must relieve this feeling by replacing it with another one in the moment that it is happening. This means that we must do our homework. The next time we are at a party, in church or at a meeting, we can catch ourselves feeling out of place and unworthy to be in the company of “real” people. We can consciously choose to replace that negative feeling with the experience of ourselves as worthwhile human beings in our own right in spite of our faults and imperfections. We can remind ourselves that we deserve to be in this place, no more and no less than anyone else. We do not have to justify our presence. We are members of the human race in good standing. No one can give that to us and no one can take it away.
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People who feel inadequate to cope with the adult demands of life usually feel discouraged and pessimistic. They predict failure for themselves, and their dominant attitude becomes, “Why bother doing anything. I’ll only screw it up.” Since they cannot “Do it all,” that is, perfectly, they don’t do anything! As a consequence of this negative attitude, and many others just like it, they come to feel overwhelmed by circumstances, trapped, powerless and out of control. They may give it a try, which to them means, “I intend to make an unsuccessful attempt!” After a while, they stop trying. They do nothing.
Tim is such a person. He may think about doing something, he may have intentions of doing, or fantasies of doing, but he doesn’t do. If he were to do something in the real world, it might be “wrong,” he might make a mistake. Everyone would know how “inadequate” he really is. This exposure could be humiliating. He prevents this disaster from happening by doing nothing. This is his definition of control. He is “controlling” in a way that makes no sense in the real world. He is not in control at all, his life is out of control.
When life requires Tim to do something, to take a stand, he experiences anxiety. He anticipates failure. He often “solves” the problem of preventing “disaster” by saying, “I can’t.” We make the mistake of trying to “encourage” him by saying, “Yes, you can. Just try!” We do not realize that his definition of “try” is not the same as ours. We are not on the same wavelength. This intervention is a “good intention” on our part. We haven’t heard what Tim has been saying. We have invalidated him with our self serving good intentions. It will turn out to be counter productive. Tim will defeat us and himself by “trying” and then failing, just as he had predicted. But it will not be his fault this time, the fault is on us because we had “unrealistic” expectations for him. He has punished us for our mistake. He is training us not to make that mistake again in the future. His discouragement is contagious. He has succeeded in discouraging us. We stop trying.
To Tim, life is just one unsuccessful attempt after another. He has little or no hope of succeeding. When Tim says, “I can’t,” he often means “I won’t.” We get into a power struggle over “who can make whom do what!” We mistakenly think that the issue is will power. It is not. The issue is Tim’s discouraged withdrawal from the tasks of life. Instead of overriding Tim with our good intentions, we can choose to use this “I can’t” occasion as an opportunity to reveal Tim’s behavior to himself. He doesn’t remember how, when or why he became discouraged, or when he acquired his negative attitudes towards his competence to perform successfully. We can ask a focusing question:
Counselor: “Tim, what are you afraid would happen if you were to try?”
Tim: “I’d screw it up.”
Counselor: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
Tim: “Everyone would laugh at me, they always do.”
Counselor: “When else have you felt that way?”
Tim: “I remember my teacher in first grade handing me back my spelling test. She said, ‘That’s pretty good, Tim, for you!’ Everyone laughed.”
Counselor: “You never forgot that humiliating exposure. That teacher discouraged you. You took her sarcastic remark personally, as if it were a reflection on your worth as a person.”
Tim: “Wasn’t it?”
Counselor: “No. It was just thoughtless mischief on her part. She was building herself up at the expense of a six year old child. Her discouragement rubbed off on you. She sensed your vulnerability to being discouraged and she was right, it worked, to your detriment and hers. But you are a grown up now, not a helpless six year old. Would you like to break the cycle of discouragement leading to discouragement?”
Tim: “Yes. I’m tired of it. But how?”
Counselor: “You feel like you can’t get there from here. But you can. You can choose to do a Homework in your own behalf, on your own adult terms. You can sort it out. ‘If I can’t do this or that, what can I do instead? What are my choices?’ Then you can use your adult judgment to solve the problem. You will be willing to take the risk of not succeeding. The stakes will not be as high now as they were in childhood. You will be a worthwhile human being whether you succeed or not. It won’t be a reflection on your worth at all.”
Tim’s girl friend, Nancy, is discouraged, too. These two people cooperate negatively in perpetuating each others discouragement. Both partners had discouraging, over-critical parents who succeeded in breaking the self respect that their children were born with. Nancy doesn’t contribute anything positive to the relationship, either. She is always making demands on Tim, which set him up to be criticized and insulted, just like home. Tim stopped doing anything in order to avoid being criticized. He was criticized for that, too. He couldn’t win. It was “lose, lose.” Once again, in gravitating to discouraging Nancy as his partner, he has “arranged” to perpetuate his role as the discouraged loser. When Tim would become tired of Nancy’s scolding on the phone, he’d say, “I’m hanging up now.” She would threaten him with dire consequences if he did. He would give in. He would submit to her control as usual for another forty minutes of useless blather.
One evening, after some weeks of counseling, Tim chose consciously and deliberately to do something to break out of his trap. He made a choice on his own behalf, on his own terms. He used his adult judgment instead of merely reacting to Nancy’s manipulation. He chose to say, “I have to get up early tomorrow. I’m going to sleep now, Good Night,” and he hung up. This was his homework. It was a break with the past. He was willing to take the risk of displeasing Nancy, of being “punished” even of being abandoned for doing the “wrong” thing. He saw that his choice wasn’t “right or wrong,” it was appropriate under the circumstances. He wasn’t “stupid,” he was smart enough, he had assumed appropriate responsibility for his own well being. He did not feel selfish or guilty, he felt liberated, not so much from Nancy as from himself. There were many things that Tim couldn’t do in that situation. He couldn’t yell at Nancy because she could yell louder than he could. He couldn’t slam the phone down because there would be consequences in the morning too painful to bear. He had lacked the courage to tell her to shut up. This tangle of fears and guilt was tying him in knots. He did what he could do, he set limits on her inappropriate behavior. He wasn’t cruel or vindictive, he was appropriately firm.
In trusting his judgment, he liberated himself from living on her terms. He gave himself permission to do what he could do:
He could tell the truth, he could set appropriate limits on the conversation.
He could make something happen in the present instead of living in the future.
He could treat her with respect in spite of her sometimes unpleasant behavior.
He could express himself firmly.
He could stop “trying” and start succeeding.
These were choices that he could make in his own behalf, not against Nancy, but for him. He wasn’t selfish and he wasn’t guilty. It wasn’t done to please or displease her, it was done to please himself which he had never “deserved” to do before. He took the risk of “offending” and ended the conversation. He was living in the middle ground between the extremes of too much and too little. There were no repercussions the next morning. It was like nothing happened. Life went on, and it went on better than it had gone on before.
A prescription for the “I can’t” disorder is, “do what you can do.” In other words, the sufferer doesn’t have to do it all, he doesn’t have to do it perfectly, in fact, there are no such “have to’s” at all. Just do what you can do, and as much as you can do today, that is enough. If you do even more tomorrow, that is all right too, but the beauty of this intervention is that you are a worthwhile human being in the meantime. It was a mistake for Tim to define his worth in terms of how much he did and how well he did it. This old attitude implies that if he did not perform the task well enough or fast enough, he was worthless – there is no provision for a middle ground. However, if we can bring ourselves to “do what we can do,” we can break out of this prison of all or nothing absolutes and find the middle ground between these impossible, paralyzing extremes.
The operative word, therefore, is, do. We talk too much, we think too much, we worry too much, we blame too much, we intend too much, we predict too much. The antidote to all of this excessive, useless mental mischief is to do something – in the real world. If it is something that pleases us, so much the better. It is a good place to start. For example, after months of hard work, it may please us to take the day off and “do nothing.” However, we may be predisposed to ruin our happiness by feeling “guilty,” “irresponsible” and “unproductive.” We may feel “unworthy” to enjoy our well earned respite. These feelings are mistaken. They are not “feelings” so much as attitudes that we have toward leisure, towards happiness, towards ourselves as people in the world. When we take time out to go bowling, we are not “doing nothing,” we are doing something, we are healing, we are recuperating from the strain of our super-responsible, overdriven existence. Healing ourselves is not useless, self-indulgent mischief, it needs to be done. We can choose to shift our gears and perceive a weekend off in this new light instead of resenting it as “enforced idleness.” And if it pleases us to heal ourselves in this way, that is not a crime and we are not guilty. We deserve it, no more and no less than anyone else.
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Want great marriage advice? Ask a divorced person.
People who lose the most important relationship of their life tend to spend some time thinking about what went wrong. If they are at all self-reflective, this means they will acknowledge their own mistakes, not just their ex’s blunders. And if they want to be lucky in love next time, they’ll try to learn from these mistakes.
Research shows that most divorced people identify the same top five regrets—behaviors they believe contributed to their marriage’s demise and that they resolve to change next time. “Divorced individuals who step back and say, ‘This is what I’ve done wrong and this is what I will change,’ have something powerful to teach others,” says Terri Orbuch, a psychologist, research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and author of the new book “Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship.” “This is marriage advice learned the hard way,” she says
Dr. Orbuch has been conducting a longitudinal study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, collecting data periodically from 373 same-race couples who were between the ages of 25 and 37 and in their first year of marriage in 1986, the year the study began. Over the continuing study’s 25 years so far, 46% of the couples divorced—a rate in line with the Census and other national data. Dr. Orbuch followed many of the divorced individuals into new relationships and asked 210 of them what they had learned from their mistakes. (Of these 210, 71% found new partners, including 44% who remarried.) This is their hard-earned advice.
Of the divorced people, 15% said they would give their spouse more of what Dr. Orbuch calls “affective affirmation,” including compliments, cuddling and kissing, hand-holding, saying “I love you,” and emotional support. “By expressing love and caring you build trust,” Dr. Orbuch says.
She says there are four components of displays of affection that divorced people said were important: How often the spouse showed love; how often the spouse made them feel good about the kind of person they are; how often the spouse made them feel good about having their own ideas and ways of doing things; and how often the spouse made life interesting or exciting.
The divorced individuals didn’t specifically identify sex as something they would have approached differently, although Dr. Orbuch says it is certainly one aspect of demonstrating love and affection.
Men seem to need nonsexual affirmation even more than women do, Dr. Orbuch says. In her study, when the husband reported that his wife didn’t show love and affection, the couple was almost twice as likely to divorce as when the man said he felt cared for and appreciated. The reverse didn’t hold true, though. Couples where women felt a lack of affection weren’t more likely to divorce.
Do something to demonstrate that your partner is noticed and appreciated every single day, Dr. Orbuch says. It can be as small as saying, “I love you,” or “You’re a great parent.” It can be an action rather than words: Turn on the coffee pot in the morning. Bring in the paper. Warm up the car. Make a favorite dessert. Give a hug.
Money was the No. 1 point of conflict in the majority of marriages, good or bad, that Dr. Orbuch studied. And 49% of divorced people from her study said they fought so much over money with their spouse—whether it was different spending styles, lies about spending, one person making more money and trying to control the other—that they anticipate money will be a problem in their next relationship, too.
There isn’t a single financial fix for all couples. Dr. Orbuch says each person needs to examine his or her own approach to money. What did money mean when you were growing up? How do you approach spending and saving now? What are your financial goals?
Partners need to discuss their individual money styles and devise a plan they both can live with. They might decide to pool their money, or keep separate accounts. They might want a joint account for family expenses. In the study, six out of 10 divorced individuals who began a new relationship chose not to combine finances.
“Talk money more often—not just when it’s tax time, when you have high debt, when bills come along,” Dr. Orbuch says. Set ground rules and expectations and stick to them.
To engage in a healthy way with your partner, you need to let go of the past, Dr. Orbuch says.
This includes getting over jealousy of your partner’s past relationships, irritation at how your mother-in-law treats you, something from your own childhood that makes it hard for you to trust, a spat you had with your spouse six months ago.
It isn’t good advice just for those with broken hearts, she adds.
In Dr. Orbuch’s study, divorced individuals who held on to strong emotions for their ex-spouse—whether love or hate—were less healthy than those people who had moved on emotionally.
Having trouble letting go of anger, longing, sadness or grief about the past? Keep a journal. Exercise. Talk to a friend (but not endlessly) about it.
Or try writing to the person who has upset you to explain your feelings: “Dear Mother-in-Law. It’s about time you treated me like a full-fledged member of this family and stopped second-guessing my parenting decisions.”
Then take the excellent advice Abraham Lincoln is said to have given his secretary of war, who had written an emotional missive to one of his generals.
“Put it in the stove,” Lincoln said. “That’s what I do when I’ve written a letter when I am angry.”
“This is an exercise for you, to get all the emotions out on paper so you can release them,” Dr. Orbuch says.
The divorced individuals in the study who blamed ex-spouses, or even themselves, had more anxiety, depression and sleep disorders than individuals who blamed the way that they and their partners interacted. Those who held on to anger were less likely to move on, build a strong new relationship and address future problems in a positive, proactive manner.
It’s hard not to blame. In the study, 65% of divorced individuals blamed their ex-spouses, with more women blaming an ex-husband (80%) than men blaming an ex-wife (47%). And 16% of men blamed themselves, compared with only 4% of women. Dr. Orbuch says the men may simply accept their ex’s view of the breakup. More men than women admitted to an extramarital affair.
How do you blame in a healthy way? Say “we,” not “you” or “I.” Say, “We are both so tired lately,” not “You are so crabby.” When you remove blame, it’s easier to come up with a solution.
Ask your partner for his or her view of a problem. Say, “Why do you think we aren’t getting along?”
“There are multiple ways of seeing a problem,” Dr. Orbuch says. “By getting your partner’s perspective, and marrying it with your perspective, you get the relationship perspective.”
Communication style is the No. 1 thing the study’s divorced individuals said they would change in the next relationship (41% said they would communicate differently).
Spouses need to speak in a calm and caring voice. They should learn to argue in a way that produces a solution, not just more anger.
They have to practice “active listening,” where they try to hear what the other person is saying, repeating back what they just heard and asking if they understood correctly.
To communicate well, partners need to reveal more about themselves, not just do “maintenance communication.”
“It doesn’t have to be emotional,” Dr. Orbuch says. “But it should be about issues where you learn about what makes each other tick.” Such topics help your partner understand you better.
Dr. Orbuch suggests a 10-minute rule: Every day, for 10 minutes, the couple should talk alone about something other than work, the family and children, the household, the relationship. No problems. No scheduling. No logistics.
“You need to tell each other about your lives and see what makes you each tick,” Dr. Orbuch says.
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Marketers, managers and panhandlers all have something in common: They regularly want to make you do things they want. Marketers want you to buy stuff, managers want you to finish projects on time, and panhandlers want you to spare a buck, or three.
Over the years, psychologists have studied the techniques of manipulation and found several that seem to work. (Read on only if you agree to use these techniques for good and not for evil!)
One is called the door-in-the-face technique. You start by asking for something outrageous; when that’s turned down, you then ask for something reasonable. A boss may ask an employee to work weekends for a whole year, for example, and when that request gets turned down, the manager might ask for a report to be turned in by Friday. The outrageous request reframes the real request to make it sound reasonable.
Another technique is known as fear-then-relief. Here, you tell someone he narrowly dodged a bullet and take advantage of his relief to make your real request.
The best-studied technique of all is the foot in the door. The panhandler who stops to ask you the time before asking you to spare a buck is employing the technique. In contrast to the door in the face, the foot in the door starts by making a very small, easy-to-accomplish request, and then follows up with the real request.
In a series of new experiments, researcher Dariusz Dolinski of the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland found that when the initial request was highly unusual, people were more likely to comply with the demand that followed it.
Dolinski had a confederate stop people en route to a supermarket and say to them, “Excuse me, but I suffer from terrible back pain and I cannot bend down. My shoelaces are undone. Could you please be so kind as to tie them for me?”
That was the unusual request. Other passersby were given a routine marketing survey.
A little later, the passersby were stopped by a woman standing outside the supermarket.
Dolinski wrote: “The second request was posed at the entrance to the supermarket by a woman who asked the participants to ‘keep an eye’ on her shopping cart full of goods ‘for a moment.’ She explained that her husband had her car keys and he had disappeared somewhere in the supermarket, and as the cart had a broken wheel, it was very hard to push. She would like to look for her husband without having to push the cart.”
Dolinski found that people were more likely to mind the woman’s grocery cart when they had been previously asked to fulfill an unusual request — to tie someone else’s shoelaces.
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Do you have any idea how much I want you, Ana?”, “What have you done to me, Ana?” …
The man/woman of your dreams has now pinned you against a wall, snarling in your ear. You resist, to no avail! She or he takes you.
In the 1970s in the pages of Psychology Today, Barbara Hariton offered the possibility that, instead of reflecting masochism, such fantasies accentuate self-feelings of desirability. That is, in our fantasies, we think of ourselves as more desirable than we actually are. So desirable in fact that a suitor (not just any suitor, mind you) must take you… passionately.
If Hariton were to be correct, then she has made forceful submission fantasies… well… normal. Or worse: healthy. This possibility did not gain traction in the halls of academia at that time, or apparently since. Our examination of the literature suggests she was largely ignored.
Until now. Exit discourse, enter empiricism.
We created a hot and heavy vignette, where you, the reader (both men and women), are asked to imagine yourself in the scenario. You are followed into a room, the door is closed, and an undescribed member of the opposite sex forcefully takes you. You offer little resistance.
You are then asked how appealing you find the fantasy scenario, what characteristics you project onto the fantasy object when you have such thoughts, and what meaning does the fantasy have for you. We also measured sex guilt (guilty feelings at the thought of sex), an alternate hypothesis.
Indeed, our analyses showed that, and here is some statistical jargon, sex guilt did not predict the appeal of the fantasy for men or women. That means, we cannot conclude that women have these fantasies out of anxiety or guilt. Instead, we found support for Hariton’s view: Fantasies like these make us feel desirable. And, as mentioned, men found it more appealing than did women.
Think about it. If a partner meekly asks if s/he can touch you here or touch you there, he or she lacks the ardent passion of someone who instead growls, “I’m taking what I’ve wanted all night”. The growler makes us feel sexy and pursued. Here, the sexual power is all ours; how astounding am I to provoke this response? And why would only women want to feel this way?
Whether our fantasy object is a pirate, vampire, Celtic prince, sexy librarian, captain of industry, or whatever, seems hardly relevant. It just makes for different cover art, which is, after all, half the fun. They don’t call them bodice rippers for nothing! Bonus if two are fighting over you. We put up our token resistance and since the interaction happens only in our mind, we have complete control.
As does Anastasia Steele, by the way. And the reader is reminded of this over and over and over. No one is touching anyone until the contract is discussed. Additionally, the reader is assured that certain ‘icky things’ will not happen because a list has been agreed upon between our protagonists in advance. So, no, dear reader, you will not suddenly encounter medical instruments or other tools of hardcore BDSMers (no link for you, Google it yourself!). Moreover, the reader is also assured from the outset that Christian adores Anastasia and her alone. He’s already introduced her to his mother by chapter 10 for Pete’s sake. Now that’s commitment.
And in that sense, 50 Shades speaks exquisitely to women’s mating mind by following a formula that wins billions of dollars a year on the consumer market.
- Young innocent encounters experienced, older, wealthy powerful man (check, check, check and check)
- …who is uncommonly handsome (how can he not be with a name like Christian Grey?).
- He sexually awakens her (surprise, she’s a virgin!) and his manhood has ‘considerable length’, even in repose. (“That was inside me? It doesn’t seem possible!”).
- Despite her inexperience, she is inhumanly orgasmic (Through nipple stimulation? He’s just that awesome!)
- Even he is surprised by how much he wants her, and only her. “What have you done to me, Ana?” What indeed? With virtually no character development, the reader too is left to wonder. But it is made clear that he is magically oblivious to the other hot women who surround him.
In essence, we have what is known as a man with ‘high mate value’; fine genes, rich, handsome, gentle, smart, dominant, monogamous, committed, generous, and….
… devoted to only you.
This is not to say that women are one-minded about what makes the ideal mate. That’s too simple. Individual differences in women are evident from the wide array of responses ranging from Barbara Walters’ clutch-the-pearls shock over rear entry to the book’s obvious commercial success. We have demonstrated that different female readers see different things in the protagonist of such submission fantasies: Dominant women see the ‘warrior lover’ and subordinate women envision a profile consistent with the ‘courtly knight’. Interestingly, like most successful romance writers, E.L. James has given us the raw material for both.
Christian the ‘warrior lover’: He is athletic, uncommonly sexually skilled, driven and in control of those around him, arrogant, aggressive, autonomous, unpredictable and cold. He will take on other men, is successful at business, is forcefully passionate and well endowed. He ties her up.
Christian the courtly knight: He is gentle and concerned for her wellbeing, he dries her hair, flies her home, buys her clothes, saves her when she is imperiled, has impeccable public manner, respects her intellect, all of their sexual activities will be completely consensual. He makes her tea.
The book adds two additional elements we have shown empirically that are important to women: He is very clear minded in his pursuit of Ana (he is not wishy washy or otherwise impaired) and his focus is exclusively on her. When we add these elements to our own submission fantasies, we have assured ourselves of our own sexual allure and power. Indeed, Christian confesses outright that the power is predominantly Anastasia’s, in case the reader should somehow doubt it. He won’t sleep in his bed with just anyone, you know.
Finally, let’s not forget Ana’s power to tame the beast within him. Cliché complet!
Romance writers have long understood the feminine sexual psyche. Nothing speaks to raw human motivation like where we spend our dollars. Curiously, feminist writers have long ignored the ‘self enhancement hypothesis’ of Hariton.
Sometimes the truth doesn’t have to hurt. Even with a little snap of a riding crop.
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This just in: Ben Wah balls are flying off the shelves in an internet storm. Katie Roiphe scores the cover of Newsweek. Bloggy articles abound on the web deconstructing the bondage of Ana.
What’s wrong with women that they want to read this stuff?
Indeed, this very question has been posed for over a century. Namely, women’s forceful submission fantasies (being sexually over powered by a dominant other) have been pathologized in one way or another. Freud famously opined that they reflect women’s natural masochism. Decades later, masochism morphed into sex guilt and anxiety. Second wave feminists worried that women were ‘slaves to the patriarchy’; men eroticize domination of women and women eroticize submission to men.
And in light of the media flurry, this is exactly the point one would come to if the focus was on the spanking and the riding crop, which is what Roiphe did in her infamous Newsweek cover story.
Social commentary, however, is not behavioral science. A thorough perusal of the literature would show that the same explanation Ms. Roiphe dredges up to account for women’s predilections for being dominated (modern women are so tired from all of our responsibilities) is exactly the vaguely psychodynamic explanation applied in the mid-80’s to account for men’s fantasies of the same kind.
In fueling the hand wringing overwomen’s submission fantasies, most have committed a very common error: They have forgotten that men dig them too. Really dig them.
“Dear Penthouse Letters, I was in the parking garage elevator when a set twins got on. They wouldn’t take no for an answer!…” But the fact that both genders entertain such thoughts is so much less interesting than worrying about the modern woman. How do you, in Roiphe’s words, “enrage, irritate, and appall” feminists in the blogosphere over an issue that may be essentially non-gendered? How can you “cause the whole internet to flip out”?
Sex researchers too have emphasized women’s submission fantasy predilections over men’s. The prevailing narrative is this: Women fantasize about submission and men fantasize about dominance. On closer inspection, what one can correctly conclude from scrutinizing the actual data drawn from the normative population (non-criminals) is this: Women fantasize about submission more than they fantasize about dominance, and men fantasize about dominance more so than women.
What can we say about women’s submission fantasies relative to men’s? Nothing, unless they are directly compared.
In fact, our studies on forceful submission fantasy have shown that men responded more positively to our written material than women did, even though the material was drawn directly from women’s erotica (replete with ‘eyes sensual and disarming’ verbiage). That is, men’s preference ratings for material nibbling around the edges of sexual coercion and BDSM were higher than women’s. See for yourself: Google ‘man with riding crop’. The first image is a very unsexy 19th century print of an equestrian. Google ‘woman with riding crop’ and you will get something different completely. (Don’t do this at work!) Our simple and somewhat obvious finding is either edited out of the conversation or brushed aside by sex researchers as ‘something different’. Talking about why contemporary women are so naughty is really much more entertaining.
What do fantasies of forceful submission mean? This is the question lurking behind all the anxiety. But alas, dear reader, you — like Anastasia — must wait in anguished anticipation for Part 2.
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