Malcolm is a Pleasing Child. He has been pleasing since he was 4. He is now 42 going on 5. He has a lifestyle which appears to be dedicated to the pleasing of others. Beneath this facade there lies a darker reality. As a Pleaser, Malcolm doubts his worth as a person. He deems himself unworthy of being pleased. He sacrifices self-pleasing in favor of pleasing others who are worthier than himself. The Pleaser’s Lifestyle is one long good intention for others. He means well, but he doesn’t do well. He does not do what reality requires, he does what he requires in order to overcompensate for his self-contempt.
We say to ourselves, “He’s just doing that to get approval.” We content ourselves with this surface explanation, and we fail to ask the next obvious question: “Why does he need so much approval in the first place? Why isn’t he cured of this need when he gets it?” The answer is that the Pleaser is trying to solve a problem within himself that he doesn’t know how to solve. His solution cannot work. It does not relieve the pain of his self-contempt. Pleasing is the only trick he knows. He has to keep doing it.
As with most good intentions, pleasing behavior seems positive, but it is not. The Pleaser’s true goal is not to make people happy, it is to keep from displeasing them so that they will not beat him up after school. His sense of himself is so thin that a mere look of disdain is enough to unravel his fragile composure. A “dissatisfied customer” constitutes a threat to his existence. To displease is to court annihilation and that is unacceptable. His true purpose, then, is not positive, it is negative; it is the prevention of the bad things that happen to those who fail to be sufficiently pleasing. He doesn’t care about you, he cares about himself!
The Pleaser deceives himself into thinking that he is only being considerate of his fellow human beings by bringing a ray of sunshine into their lives. He has good intentions for others, without realizing that his good intentions are self-indulgent, counter-productive and ultimately self-destructive.
The Pleaser lacks the adult judgment that it takes to discriminate between appropriate pleasing and over-compensatory, inappropriate pleasing. He solves the problem by being pleasing all the time. It is hard work, but for him it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The Pleasing Lifestyle is a carryover of a childhood role into adulthood where it is inappropriate and counter-productive. Pleasers are afraid to give up this role because they do not know what will take its place. To them, this negative, paper thin role is better than no role at all. They do not realize that there is a more gratifying way to go through life than living to please others.
As a consequence of this ungratifying lifestyle, Pleasers are susceptible to feeling impotent, out of control, alienated, insecure, naive, trapped, immature, anxious, and depressed. These are all facets of self-contempt. The harder they try to relieve their distress in counter-productive ways, the worse they feel.
The Pleaser often plays the role of the Clown, the Entertainer. He makes himself the butt of his own jokes to show he “can take it.” People may wonder why he is “on” all the time. They think he’s having a swell time. He doesn’t really have any choice. He feels compelled to behave in accordance with his definition of himself as the Pleaser and his attitudes towards himself, other people and life. He is acting out a role in a script that nobody wrote.
As we have seen, Pleasers are not motivated by a genuine concern for the happiness of others. They have an ulterior motive, a hidden agenda of which they are only dimly aware. Their negative purpose in pleasing is to avoid being hurt by others. They prophesy victimization and disaster, and they feel that they can avert these disasters by placating those who have the power to hurt them. It’s the only hope they have. Unfortunately, these counter-productive attempts at pleasing often result in the fulfillment of their prophesies of abuse, rejection, abandonment and other forms of disaster. In the end, they stop trying. They “melt down,” they “burn out.” They have become discouraged.
Some Pleasers think that they can regain their vitality by going to the other extreme. Their motto becomes, “No More Mister Nice Guy.” The irony is that they weren’t a nice guy to begin with. The second wrong is that this phony role won’t work either.
Pleasing as Self-Indulgent Mischief: The Pleaser is convinced that his activities are other-directed and self-less. He is completely unaware of the self-indulgent, over-compensatory nature of his “pleasing” behavior.
The self-serving nature of the Pleaser’s activities becomes apparent when he is prevented from pleasing people his way. When the intended Pleased expresses a preference of his own, the would-be Pleaser experiences unpleasant, sometimes incapacitating conflicts On the one hand, he wants to please in order to avoid the unacceptable consequences of displeasing. On the other hand, he has his own notions as to how the Pleaser should be pleased; and his way is the right way! Thirdly, he dares not express his reservations openly for fear of displeasing his customer, and ruining the whole effect.
He must suppress his anger for fear of rejection or abandonment, which would invalidate his own worth as a person still further. He “solves” his dilemma by complying with the Pleasee’s request, but under silent protest. He does not perceive himself as “giving,” or as cooperating with his fellow human being. To the self-centered Pleaser, this accommodation is perceived as “submission’ to the “unreasonable” whims of his partner.
Mike is a Pleaser, too. He feels that he “knows” how people should be pleased; in fact, he knows how to please them even better than they know themselves! He knows what’s best for them. Since he does not experience himself as valid in his own right, he cannot appreciate the validity of his wife’s legitimate preferences. He discounts Marge’s preferences as “wrongheaded.” His preferences are right, and they are worthy to prevail.
Mike cannot stand to be wrong. He has to be right, even perfectly right. His agenda has nothing to do with his wife’s preferences in the real world. His agenda is to be right and not wrong. In his experience, wrongness is punished, and he has been avoiding wrongness all his life. When he says, “It’s the principle of the thing” to justify his nonsensical insistence, we say that he is just being stubborn. But why is he stubborn? What difference does it make whether they go to his movie pick or hers? The difference is that her pick is the “wrong” one because it isn’t his. His worth as a person is now at stake. If he is wrong, he will take it very personally, as if it were a reflection on his taste in movies. He would lose his shaky self-respect. His stubbornness is his way of maintaining his hidden agenda, which is preventing the invalidation of his worth as a person.
Antidotes To Pleasingness
A. His wife can try saying to him in a firm tone, “Mike, it would make me so happy to go see a movie. Won’t you do it for me?” This ploy distracts him from the phony issue of comparative film judgment. He may see an advantage to himself in making his wife happy for one evening.
B. Or, Mike’s wife might say, “It makes me angry when we always have to do things your way, whether it makes any sense or not. Now, you can go to your movie and I’ll go to mine and I’ll meet you at Barneys for a hot dog afterward.” This approach uses the wife’s legitimate anger to shock Mike out of his childish striving for superiority at her expense. It dispenses with the issue of which movie is “righter” than the other. Often, when Mike comes out of his shock, he goes to the movie with his wife because that wasn’t the issue anyway.
Gilda is a professional Pleaser. She wants to win both ways. She wants to relieve her own distress, and she wants a pat on the back from us for doing it. But because her misguided efforts are usually inappropriate and unrealistic, she very often fails to receive the recognition and approval that she requires to validate her shaky personhood. Instead, she often finds herself excluded from get-togethers, scorned by the very people she tries so hard to please.
She spends much of her life despising the ungrateful wretches upon whom she has had the misfortune to expend her energies and efforts. She finds her relationships to be a succession of such ungrateful wretches, one after the other. She has contempt for them and for the whole human race. But this contempt does not deter her from starting all over again when a new Pleasee moves into the building.
Not only is Gilda angry at the failure of her beneficiaries to recognize and appreciate her “goodness,” she is angry at herself. She is the “stupid” one for doing it over and over. She should “know better” by now. But she doesn’t. Since everything is her responsibility, her unhappiness must be “her fault” in the end. Since her goodness was unappreciated, she feels that it was all for nothing too. She feels worthless, angry at herself, and this anger turns into depression. Instead of relieving the pain of her self-contempt, her counter-productive, self-indulgent pleasing has only made it worse.
Ashley was 19. She had been away at college her freshman and sophomore years when her life unraveled again. In high school, she had struggled for several years with escalating depression, drinking, and marijuana use, and the painful feeling that her mother was ashamed of her. Her parents did not recognize the seriousness of the situation until she began to scratch and then cut her arms with sharp objects, at which point her mom got scared and sought help. During senior year of high school, her mom forced her into treatment, and with intensive individual, family and group therapies she become sober and psychologically stable.
Before leaving for college, Ashley was much better. She felt strong, proud of herself, and grateful to her parents for the ways they changed and learned to support her. Ashley even seemed to rise above her past – becoming an informal spokesperson for treatment and sobriety and seeking out ways to help friends and others in trouble.
At college Ashley initially participated in the support system set up for her, but then her attendance at therapy became sporadic. She became absorbed with campus life and seemed to revel in her independence. Ashley told her parents she felt “fine,” and announced that she no longer needed any anti-depressants and had gone off them.
Towards the end of first semester, Ashley tried to avoid her parents’ calls. When they did speak, she was short with them, refusing to talk about school or therapy. When Ashley came home during winter break, she spent much of her time sleeping and staying in her room on Facebook. Though having agreed and intended to get a job, she became too anxious to follow through the process. When her grades arrived, she could no longer hide that she had failed a course and was on probation. Ashley felt ashamed but promised her parents she would do better next term and go to her therapy appointments.
Unfortunately, the same cycle occurred the following year, culminating in a mounting emotional crisis towards the end of spring semester which she attempted to hide from her parents. When they questioned her over the phone about how she was doing she told them she didn’t not want to talk about it and wanted space. Her parents complied and backed off. When she was home over the summer, however, the signs that she was sinking became harder for her parents to ignore. (The warning signs of her depression included poor grades/failure at school, avoidance, inertia, withdrawal, staying in bed too much, weight gain, lack of motivation, irritability, depressed mood.) Though her words stated otherwise, Ashley had again fallen into the danger zone.
Ashley’s mom, Laura, was a successful surgeon. She struggled with tremendous guilt over her role in her daughter’s emotional problems and failure to heed warning signs that Ashley was in trouble until things were so bad that Ashley started cutting herself.
Laura recognized that, due to her own upbringing, she had been unable to be available emotionally to Ashley and, on top of that, was perpetually disappointed with her. She came to understand that she had tried to mold her daughter into someone more conventional and ambitious, pressuring Ashley to be more like her, thereby giving her the message that she was not good enough.
Ashley’s dad, Tom, was an easygoing guy who generally aimed to please. He loved Ashley very much and gave her whatever she wanted, but did not comprehend what was going on with her psychologically. Tom did not like conflict and feared Ashley’s anger. When she went to college and pulled away, he worried that if they upset her, they could lose her and she might no longer want to come home or no longer want a relationship with them.
Ashley’s mom made remarkable progress in her own therapy during Ashley’s senior year of high school, propelled by motivation and willingness to be honest with herself. This progress was noticeable and quite important to Ashley. By taking explicit responsibility for her own mistakes as a mom, learning to accept and appreciate her daughter as she was, and acting as a supportive presence and guide, Laura played an important role in her daughter’s recovery and helped mend their relationship. Before Ashley went off to college Laura felt good about herself as a mom for the first time, and her relationship with her daughter became more solid than ever.
Once Ashley went off to school, however, Laura began to feel pushed away and their relationship changed. She sacrificed so much to help her and it now seemed to have been wasted effort. As she became aware of Ashley’s failures at school, she wondered whether her daughter was just a slacker, capable of doing better but manipulating the situation to get away with whatever she could. Feeling angry, defeated, and unappreciated, Laura commented that being a mom was a thankless and hopeless job. She wanted to give up and, pulling away in anger, she decided she would stand back and not do anything.
Laura took it personally when she felt her daughter pull away, becoming consumed by an emotional reaction which obstructed perspective on what was really happening. For all of us, executive functions go “off line” when we are triggered into dysregulated emotional states and over-reaction. When this happens, our capacity to respond flexibly, think clearly, and react with good judgment is compromised. When the part of our brain that allows for reflection is deactivated by intense emotion (often originating from unprocessed experiences from our own childhood), instead of being thoughtful about how to respond to children’s needs, we are driven to react automatically and reflexively, as Laura did in her hurt and anger.
When a child’s distress is not taken seriously, and responded to appropriately by the parent, it can fuel an increasingly dangerous situation in which the child feels unconsciously compelled to continue “upping the ante” until the parent shows that they feel something empathically on the child’s behalf. Laura’s failure to recognize Ashley’s state of mind and step in to help led to her daughter’s continued escalation and deterioration, just like in high school when Ashley’s experience of not being “seen” in her pain perpetuated her self-destructiveness. During family therapy in high school, Ashley told her mom that she had felt out of control and driven to cut herself to produce physical evidence of her suffering – desperately hoping her mom would “get it.”
Another problem here was that when Laura was able to step back from her anger, she felt scared and helpless in the face of her daughter’s fragility. She feared that if she took action to set limits, Ashley would be forced to face the truth about her own limitations and might then want to kill herself. The truth was that Ashley was, of course, already aware – at least unconsciously – of her limitations and forced to be alone in it. She needed her parents or someone to step in and take charge.
Attempting to shield children from what they know intuitively to be true usually backfires, impeding the possibility of growth and causing them to feel shame, confusion, and aloneness. Projecting her own anxiety onto Ashley and colluding in a family-wide denial, Laura in effect reinforced Ashley’s sense of shame – and left her feeling unseen again.
Having the courage to face children’s limitations with them and offer help lends courage, builds coping skills, and is reassuring. Despite fears to the contrary, shame is actually decreased when parents are not afraid to face their children (in an non-judgmental way), and do not feel compelled to pretend or hide what is really going on.
What Ashley wished and protested she could do – and even intended to do – did not match her capacities. She demonstrated that she was unable to function in an environment with unlimited freedom and limited structure. She required a setting where help and supervision were built in, where she could not get lost and hide, and fall so hard. And, most of all, she needed her parents to recognize this and not be afraid make hard decisions with her.
Ultimately, Laura phoned her daughter’s therapist who was able to help make explicit what the realistic choices were for Ashley and her family. When presented with limited options for what she could do going forward, Ashley not only seemed relieved but, interestingly, selected the plan with the most structured and contained environment, (a therapeutic residential environment combined with college). This choice was telling and startled her parents – who been too caught up in their own emotions to recognize that, behind Ashley’s protests and demands for independence, was a cry for help and limits. As in this example, setting limits involves using adult judgment to protect children, based on what they can safely handle. Limits and consequences are often confused with punishment, but limits are not “reactive” or delivered out of anger, and differ from punishment in that there is no intent to retaliate and “teach a lesson” or cause the child suffering.
Not long after Ashley was accepted and decided to go to this program, she returned home to get ready. Three days prior to her planned departure, however, Ashley began desperately pleading with her mother that she changed her mind and really did not think this was the right plan for her. She no longer wanted to go. Laura could feel tension from her anger building inside her and a voice in her head saying, “Oh my God, not again – I want to run away.” However, having worked on understanding what happened between her and Ashley leading up to then, Laura was able to step back from this reaction. She was prepared and determined not to make the same mistake this time. However tempting it was, she knew it would be a bad idea to insist or close in on any decision with Ashley in this conversation – as she would have in the past out of anger and her own need for reassurance.
Laura calmed herself by reminding herself that things would be better if she could truly listen and not retreat, be reactive, punitive, or authoritarian. With this approach, Laura learned that her daughter was scared about the road ahead, and worried that she would lose all her friends. Laura was able to be empathic, while holding a calm, confident, but unspoken resolve about what her daughter needed, in effect, creating a sense of security for her Ashley.
At the end of the conversation, Laura matter-of-factly asked Ashley if she wanted to do some packing for the program together and Ashley nodded in agreement. She thought to herself, “Hmm – clearly she still actually intends to go”. To Laura’s surprise, even though she had not given in to Ashley’s begging, her daughter experienced her as supportive and protective, and eventually calmed and settled down.
Afterwards, Laura invited Ashley to go out for a walk. Ashley complained that she was still in her sweats and was “too fat and ugly” to go out. Laura responded by putting on her sweats too and showing up unobtrusively at the entranceway to Ashley’s room. Ashley looked up at her mom and the two of them headed towards the front door for their walk, quietly in step with one another.
Tips for Parents
• Respond thoughtfully and collaboratively with your teen to signs of trouble including: behavior changes, withdrawal, unhappiness, inertia, self-harm, repetitive cycles of academic or other failure, drug/alcohol abuse, shame/hiding. Seek consultation.
• Listen to teen’s behavior, not just their words. Understand behavior as a communication to you – and think about what the message might be. Try the following: If your teen’s behavior told a story, what would the title be? In this case, for example, the title of Ashley’s story might be, “I’m too ashamed to admit it but I’m out of control. Help!”
• Recognize that often through no fault of their own, teens’ best intentions may not carry over into their actions.
• Notice your own state of mind. Be honest with yourself and your teen about whether you are reacting out of your own needs, fears, anger, helplessness.
• Recognize that anxiety and worry about teens’ reactions (for example, whether they will be mad at you),should not be the primary determinant of what to do, or the gauge of whether you are doing the right thing,
• Differentiate between letting your teen have autonomy and reacting (in kind ) to their pulling away.
• Recognize when your teen is unable to make good decisions – and step in.
• Remember the power you have to affect your teen, even if privately you feel powerless or not needed.
• Recognize that, though they will say otherwise (and that’s ok), teens feel protected by limits. No one likes feeling out of control without anyone strong enough to help them.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Over the past 30 years, I’ve spent nearly 25,000 hours counseling angry men, and until about two years ago, my enthusiasm was beginning to wane. If you’ve worked with angry male clients, you can understand why. These men are generally highly reluctant clients, who are often in your office only because they’ve gotten “the ultimatum” from their wives or girlfriends or bosses or sometimes court judges: “Get therapy for your anger or get out / you’re fired / you’ll go to jail.” Many, considered by everyone who knows them to have an “anger problem,” arrive in your office convinced that they don’t have an anger problem: the real problem is their stupid coworkers, annoying girlfriends, demanding spouses, spoiled kids, or unfair probation officers. However, they arrive at your office with a shotgun at their backs, so to speak, and know they have no choice. They hate the entire situation because it makes them feel powerless.
No wonder they feel powerless: they’re being coerced to lay down their anger, the only weapon they’ve ever had against feelings of powerlessness. They often trace their reliance upon anger to a childhood history of danger, trauma, shaming, and pain. Anger is the emotion they can trust, the one that might keep danger at bay. As they grew up, they continued to use anger to make people they regard as dangerous back away. By the time you see them, they regard just about every person in their lives as “dangerous,” including loved ones. These men have become habitually angry. I liken their condition to the default option on a computer: their anger goes on automatically unless they consciously turn it off.
Of course, it isn’t easy to turn off the default option when the way to do so is hidden deep within the machine’s (our brain’s) control panel. Furthermore, men for whom anger is a default emotional response to life’s vicissitudes are often relatively untrained in experiencing and communicating other emotions. For example, one of my clients “went off”–screaming and threatening bodily harm against his father’s doctors–when his father died, to the point the police had to be summoned, because he couldn’t handle his grief. Anger was the only emotion he could call upon in time of need. Not surprisingly, when these men come to therapy, whether as individuals or in couples or groups, they’re frequently defensive, argumentative, passive-aggressive, protective of their right to be angry, and doubtful about my competence to understand or help them in any way.
It’d be misleading to say that my most difficult clients are unmotivated. More accurately, they’re antimotivated, committed to undermining any behavioral programs or specific anger management tactics I offer. Meaningful change takes many repetitions: “Practice, practice, practice” is a hallmark of anger-management training. For example, taking the time to put a problem into perspective (“On a 1-10 point scale, Joe, how important is it for your teenage daughter to get home every night by 8 p.m.?”) works well, but only if the client is motivated enough to practice putting things into proper perspective perhaps as often as several times a day. It stands to reason that trying to argue such men out of their commitment to anger is pointless. I long ago realized I couldn’t beat them in face-to-face combat; they’re better at in-your-face challenges and making contemptuous remarks than I’ll ever be. I needed a tool that allowed me to sidestep their oppositionality and create a therapeutic alliance.
At a deeper level, chronically angry people have become lifelong victims of what’s sometimes called negative neuroplasticity. They’ve unintentionally trained their brains so well, through countless repetitions of undesired behavior (at least, undesired by the rest of the world), that they’re primed to think, feel, and say things that increase their own anger. For example, Joe may well think that if his daughter gets home after 8 p.m. it means she’s probably having sex with some male punk. That kind of thought pattern is automatic.
So now we have two major concerns. First, some of my clients enter treatment antimotivated. Second, their brains have been programmed to react automatically with anger and hostility to a wide variety of situations. What kind of therapeutic intervention can address these issues?
Focusing on the Brain to Increase Motivation
About six years ago, I stumbled across the answer when I attended a session about the brain at the Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C. The controversial brain researcher Daniel Amen was just beginning his lecture when he mentioned in passing that he’d been browsing through the books on anger in the sales area. “None of them said anything about the brain,” he noted somewhat dismissively. Now many of those anger books he was trashing were my books, so at first I was defensive. But by the end of the talk, I realized he was right, at least about the books I’d authored. I hadn’t mentioned anything about brain processes for a simple reason: I didn’t know anything about them. That led me to immerse myself in the subject of the brain, and as I did so, my enthusiasm for working with angry clients increased exponentially.
How can learning about the brain–particularly the angry brain and how it got that way–possibly influence clients who have a hard time taking in therapy or sticking with anger-management techniques? Aren’t concepts drawn from brain research simply too abstruse, too abstract, and apparently unrelated to daily life to make much difference to them? In fact, what I’ve found is just the reverse: these men are fascinated by information about how anger develops in the brain and why it’s so hard to control, and they consider it far more relevant to their lives than many standard therapy concepts. Getting to understand a bit of what happens “inside their heads” when they get angry resonates deeply with them. In one way, they can cling to their defensiveness and denial systems, since they certainly can’t be accused of deliberately messing up their minds. Sidestepping their defensiveness and emphasizing their opportunity to do something right that will retrain their brains gives them a positive direction and a possible source for well-earned personal pride. Furthermore, hearing me explain how, by regular, committed behavioral practice of various anger-management techniques, they can literally change their own brain circuits, stimulates both hope that they can change and desire to begin. For the first time in their lives, they feel they might be capable of literally using their own brains tochange their brains. It is a real revelation to many angry men.
My own enthusiasm for brain science and my belief in angry men’s inherent capacity to reorganize their own neural circuitry are probably another key to revving up their motivation to try. My “brain talk” to them isn’t just a lecture about applied neurophysiology, but in truth a kind of triggering mechanism arousing their own curiosity and interest. Clearly, my enthusiasm evokes–in their brains–a mirroring enthusiasm for this process. It may well be that my sheer enthusiasm for this endeavor, my joy and excitement about the brain, triggers left-hemisphere mirror neuronal activity that bypasses right-hemisphere negativity and cynicism.
Devron Johnson is a 40-year-old male who’s been divorced for 10 years, partly because of his anger problems. An intelligent but not highly educated man, he works as a heating and cooling technician. He has two adolescent sons, with whom he barely converses and seldom visits. He’s now in a new relationship with Sheila, a 36-year-old mother of three younger children who live with them. Although Devron has never been physically violent with the children, he often frightens them with his angry outbursts.
This man grew up in a tough part of Detroit, where survival was the name of the game. His parents separated and reconnected several times during his childhood. The family atmosphere was markedly hostile–full of negativity, accusations, and occasional violence. Devron said he hated his father because he was never there for him, not even when he became a star athlete on his high school’s baseball team.
Devron sought therapy because Sheila had threatened to end their relationship unless he became much nicer to her kids. He added that he was also in trouble at work because “I gave the finger to my boss once too often.”
Here’s how Devron described his anger: “Man, I had a bad attitude in school. I beat people up if they looked at me wrong. But I gave that up. I don’t hit nobody anymore. But Sheila says I still have a bad attitude. She says I look for problems with her kids. Then I blow because I have a really short fuse. And I have a hard time letting go of my anger, too. Once I get pissed at someone, they stay my enemy forever.” Still, Devron does want to change. He loves Sheila and even grudgingly admits he likes her children. He doesn’t want to lose them. However, he doubts whether I, or anybody else, can help him. A few years ago, he attended an anger-management program for about 10 weeks, but says, “I didn’t get nothing useful from it.”
Like many angry clients, Devron came to counseling under duress–the “get help, or get out” final call. This isn’t a formula for success, since such clients often arrive for counseling thinking that they’ll more or less passively go through the motions to get the wife/boss/law off their backs, and then they’ll be free to revert to previous behavior. By contrast, Devron was directly skeptical and dismissive–derisive, in fact. Instead of pretending to buy the package, he openly challenged me to prove I had something new to offer. It’s uncomfortable to be sneered at by your client, but I’ve learned to recognize an open challenge as a positive indicator for success. Devron’s disdain was a sign of energy that might be used in counseling, if I could develop an alliance with him.
“Actually, Devron, I do have something to offer you that you probably haven’t run into before,” I told him, “I can help you change your brain.” I proceeded to explain with the enthusiasm and energy I usually feel when talking about the brain that he was actually capable of making fundamental, long-term changes in the way he thinks. “Devron, all it takes is commitment and persistence. I know you’re capable of both of those things because you’ve told me how much you love Sheila and the kids–that’s commitment–and how you’ve stuck it out with them when it would have been easier to walk away–that’s persistence.” I emphasized to him that he’d developed lifelong habits of anger that had become deeply rooted in his brain. But I assured him that he and he alone could make changes in those habits if he so desired. However, I cautioned him that real brain change doesn’t come easy. I said he’d need to make a strong commitment to practice new behavior for at least several months, so he could build, improve, and expand new circuitry inside his brain while reducing the power of his negative brain circuits. I briefly mentioned such concepts as neuroplasticity and myleinization, but only as a tactical move, to assure him that I did, in fact, know what I was talking about. I told him I didn’t just believe this brain stuff might work, I was absolutely convinced because I’ve seen many other angry people change their brains in just this way, and because I myself had changed my brain to become much more optimistic and generous.
As I spoke, I watched Devron’s “show me” expression change to hope and wonder. “You mean I can really change the way I think?” he asked. It turned out that Devron’s oppositionality obscured a deep sense of pessimism and hopelessness. He’d believed that change was impossible, in effect dooming him to a lifelong anger career. But now, maybe because of my own sense of conviction, he began to see possibilities. We talked a little more before the hour ended, and I asked him to think about how much he wanted to change his brain and in which ways. I also asked him what positive goals he wanted to pursue–for example, what other emotions he might be willing to experience if his brain wasn’t dominated by anger. A positive goal is important with all clients, of course, but especially with angry clients, who often mistakenly set only the negative goal of being less angry. I explained to Devron that only setting a negative goal like quitting being angry was like deciding that a car that currently could only go in reverse would be just fine if you could get it to stay in neutral. The idea is to move forward in life, to get that car moving ahead. Of course this same idea applies to only quitting drinking (instead of leading a sober lifestyle) or stopping being critical (instead of giving praise).
Finally, I cautioned Devron again that real brain change doesn’t come easy. I told him he’d need to make a strong commitment to practice new behavior for at least several months so he could build, improve, and expand new circuitry inside his brain while reducing the power of his negative brain circuits. I then sent him home with two pages of examples of possible brain change plans he could implement. One example was converting criticism and pessimism to praise and optimism. Another was to convert resentment into forgiveness. A third was to look for the good in people (and himself) instead of the bad.
When Devron returned a week later, he said he’d thought a lot about changing his brain and his life. He’d discussed it with Sheila, who’d told him she’d stick around for a while if she saw him really working to change his behavior. Now he was eager to make a six-month commitment to brain change. I then gave him some handouts I’ve created to help him name his brain-change plan. A person with a good brain plan has given it a name that means something at an emotional level, includes specific initial behaviors to maximize the opportunity for immediate success, and at least speculates about longer-term improvements and additions, and how achieving these changes might affect him or her. I also gave Devron the chapter on neuroplastic change from my book to reinforce the idea that changing his brain was realistic, if and only if he’d make a strong commitment to it.
Devron returned the next week in a quandary. He told me that he and Sheila had had a big disagreement about what his brain-change plan should include. She wanted him to be nicer to her children. Devron told me that he wanted to be nicer to them, but that his first concern was quitting thinking so pessimistically about the world. “If I can’t quit thinking that everyone is out to screw me over, I don’t think my changes will last,” he said. I thought Devron had hit upon a clear understanding of how he needed to change at an existential level. Brain-change plans aren’t simple behavioral alterations: they really change your brain, and in doing so, ultimately affect your connections with yourself, those you love, and the universe. So I affirmed Devron’s insight. However, I did point out that his goal and Sheila’s weren’t contradictory. Being nicer to the kids could well become one way that he altered his mindset of hostility and suspiciousness. After all, deeply held beliefs don’t change completely on their own. Devron needed to try out new behavior and receive positive rewards for doing so in order to give his brain the opportunity to be transformed.
I’d like to offer a side comment here. We often expect our angry clients to act as if they were living in a safe world, a world in which people are pleasant, trustworthy, loving, and consistent. This false belief on our part sets clients up to fail. Devron’s siblings, for instance, regularly engaged in felonious behaviors, such as drug dealing and robbery, and expected him to join them as he often had in the past. He told me during therapy that he’d begun declining these invitations. When I asked him if he’d practiced being assertive with them, he laughed. “I guess if telling my brother to go to hell when he attacked me for not going along with some scam he was into, then yes, I was very assertive.” The result of his new “good” behavior was that his family ostracized him for several months. Fortunately though, Sheila and her children were dependably in his corner, so that Devron could practice new, prosocial behavior around them without being criticized or ridiculed.
Devron named his plan “Learning to Trust.” I was tempted to add “and take in love,” but Devron would have labeled that phrase unmanly. When I asked him how he planned to begin this plan, he suggested he could go to his father to see if he could learn to trust the man he most distrusted in the world. Needless to say, this was a palpably rotten idea: in all likelihood, his father would once again have demonstrated his complete untrustworthiness, potentially undermining everything Devron was trying to do. I talked him out of it with some difficulty by pointing out that he was betting his whole stake on one roll of the dice. “Besides, it’s a bad bet,” I said. “You’d be better off investing in a smaller stake, like letting yourself trust Sheila more.” That reminded him of his real priorities.
He decided to open up emotionally a little more to both his family and a few trusted coworkers. For example, he told some of his history to two of his coworkers, the ones he felt most comfortable with, and they responded positively with their own self-disclosures. Then he took a bigger chance by admitting to Sheila that he had cheated on his first wife. Much to his shock, she told him she’d known about it for a long time–his ex-wife had thoughtfully given Sheila that information when she’d begun dating Devron–but she’d chosen not to mention it and trust that he’d be faithful to her.
Shiela’s disclosure and assertion of trust brought him to tears. At that very moment, his brain-change plan spontaneously expanded to include being trustworthy to others. Since Devron had a long history of lying by omission (“Oh, I must have forgotten to tell you that”) this expansion was quite significant. It had proved harder for him than the initial goal because he’d had to retrain himself not to leave out some of the truth “so nobody could pin me down.” He kept expanding from his core commitment to develop trust. He realized along the way that he’d been mean to Sheila’s children because he didn’t want to get close to them and then lose them. But Sheila came through by rewarding his obvious changes with reassurance that she’d stay with him.
I regularly review a client’s brain-change plan with him or her, rather than just assume it’s working fine. It’s important to challenge clients quickly if they’re letting their plan drift.
The final addition to Devron’s plan was learning how to be more empathetic. Devron acknowledged that empathy was strange territory for him: “Frankly, I never gave a damn what anybody else felt.” But now that he felt safer, he could do what safe people do: care about and take a real interest in others. Like many angry people, he has some difficulty being empathic. Empathy partly depends on automatic attunement processes usually learned in infancy through parent–infant synchronic movement. He experienced few such experiences as a child. We talked together about this deficit, a deficit he was determined to challenge. He immediately made a real effort to put himself in the shoes of others. It’s just that he had trouble first taking off his own shoes. For instance, he told his 12-year-old daughter, Amy, who was being teased by classmates, that he knew exactly how she felt, even though he’d been the bully, not the victim, when he’d been in school. But here again, the principles of neuroplasticity apply. Devron realized he’d misunderstood the situation when his daughter got mad at his reply. He then consciously took the time to listen better. Gradually, this behavior was becoming faster, smoother, and more automatic.
Devron’s plan, then, began with developing some basic trust in the world, which led to being trustworthy himself, which morphed into increased empathy and actually caring about others. He quit working with me after approximately nine months. Our last session included Sheila, who affirmed that Devron had become much less angry, more caring, and far more present in their lives. She’d previously doubted his changes would endure, “But he’s only becoming nicer,” she admitted. “I don’t doubt him any longer.” Devron added that he now felt deep inside his soul that he could trust Sheila. He felt safe in a relationship for the first time in his life. “So now I have no reason to be mad all the time.” Of course, he and Sheila still argue from time to time, as do almost all couples. But Devron controls his initial burst of anger far better than before, calms down quicker, and lets go of his anger sooner.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Taking life as it comes allows us to appreciate the vibrant swimming pool blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds of cotton and the air washed in unseen waves of fragrant garden blossoms, enjoying the experience of whatever happens to come along at the time, no planning or purpose to our actions, turning off our sense of self and finding a peace like that found in prayer, no expectations or goals to be accomplished, so we pick up the closest wildflower, looking at its color, studying its bright yellow petals, gently plucking a leaf and looking with intrigue at the golden pollen dust that speckle our fingers, puffing at a dandelion and watching the fluffy seeds dance through the air, flying lightly with the breeze and floating to the ground, no hurry in this motion. The unexpected can hold important lessons, part of our learning process, some walk to reach a destination others set off on a journey of discover, the destination is not as meaningful as the process of simply enjoying the experience along the way.
We think this kind of daydreaming is romantic, but it is just the opposite. If you really want to know how to love, you will want to give your beloved your full attention — which means gaining some control over your mind, teaching it to listen to you. And that means you have to train it. After all, you have been teaching it just the opposite all your life, letting it do whatever it likes. Now you have to teach your mind some new habits. In that meeting, for example, you can start paying attention to what your manager wants to say about efficiency instead of daydreaming about what you’re going to do that evening. If the mind starts to wander, you bring it back to the speaker. You can see how difficult this is. But if you can do it, when you and your beloved finally get together that evening, you will know you can give your complete attention, without the slightest flicker. And the next day, instead of replaying the highlights of the evening, you give all your attention to what’s on your desk. That too sounds unromantic — and no fun at all. But it is the secret of a free mind.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Swings are like life, they have their ups and downs, their backs and forth’s, some times they twist out of balance, they may not always be smooth as we hope, there is not always stable foot when we touch the ground, there are many factors that are beyond our control, like the length of the ropes, the strength of the breeze, or the pressure applied by the pusher, the more we swing, the better we become and easier it is to manage, but swings have a habit of settling down, losing their upward motion and centering themselves even if we do nothing at all.
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We need only to do something once to know we are capable of doing it, the more we do it the better we get, each time we do it, we gain confidence and are more capable, less fearful. The doubts we possess prevent us from trying and push our comfort zone, to step beyond what we are capable of achieving. What is familiar is comfortable, and we like to stick with what provides us comfort, but what is familiar is not always what’s better. Anything worth having in life takes some degree of effort, change is inevitable and what was once novel soon becomes familiar. We adapt to just about anything and are able to endure. We grow accustomed to what is familiar and in it we find security. We cannot necessarily control what is happening but we can adjust to the world around us, we are great at dealing with change we change our clothes, our hair, as you read this the hand on the clock are moving, the lights grow dimmer the sun sets, we cannot control the wind but we can adjust our sails. Yet we feel as powerless as a car without an engine to alter our environment, but we can be a role model to others to be an example of how we would like to be treated. If what I’m doing isn’t working, I need to change direction and find what I can alter, that being yourself, rather then fight what I cannot control.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Do you bite your nails? For 30 years, I did. We nail biters can be “pathological groomers” — people for whom normal grooming behaviors, like skin picking or hair pulling, have become virtually uncontrollable.
But psychiatry is changing the way it thinks about pathological grooming, and these changes will be reflected in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM, short for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A new version is coming out early next year, and it puts pathological grooming in the same category as another disorder you’ve probably heard of: obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD.
This rethinking gives pathological groomers some new ways to think about those behaviors.
I can tell you the exact moment I became a nail biter. I was 6 years old, watching my mom get dressed for work. She paused to mull something over, chewing on a nail. My reaction: “How cool! How grown-up! I think I’ll try it.”
I never stopped. It was embarrassing — like wearing your neuroses on your sleeve. At parties, I learned to wrap my fingers all the way around my wine glass, so that my nails faced my chest. I hated filling out forms in public places.
Recently, something happened that made me finally quit biting my nails. I’ll get to that in a bit. But I was feeling quite pleased with myself when I showed them to Carol Mathews, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco. “Your cuticles are pushed back. It’s not bad. Looks like you’re a recovered nail biter is what I’d say,” she pointed out.
“They are behaviors that stem from normal grooming — the kind of thing that most animals do and is evolutionarily adaptive, right?” says Mathews.
But in pathological groomers, those behaviors go haywire. Instead of being triggered by, say, a hangnail, the pathological nail biter is triggered by driving, reading or feeling stressed out. “After a while, the behavior becomes untriggered,” says Mathews. “It becomes just an automatic behavior that has no relationship to external stimuli at all.”
Until recently, the DSM treated pathological grooming a bit like an afterthought and put it in a catch-all category called “not otherwise classified.” But the new DSM proposes to lump together pathological groomers and those with mental disorders like OCD. That includes people who wash their hands compulsively or have to line up their shoes a certain way.
These behaviors have a lot in common. In both cases, it’s taking a behavior that’s normal and healthy and putting it into overdrive, doing it to the point of being excessive. But in at least one way, OCD and pathological grooming are also very different.
“In OCD, the compulsion is really unwanted,” says Mathews. People with OCD don’t want to be washing their hands or checking the stove over and over again. There is no fun in it. There’s fear — fear that if they don’t do something, something else that’s very bad will happen to them.
But from her pathological grooming patients, Mathews hears a very different story: They enjoy it. “It’s rewarding. It feels good. When you get the right nail, it feels good. It’s kind of a funny sense of reward, but it’s a reward,” she says.
I can relate to that. And in my household, I’m not the only one. My daughter Cora is 3, and she’s why I decided to quit. I didn’t want Cora to learn to bite from me, the same way I learned from my mom. So for three months, I wore acrylic fingernails and spent many long hours at the manicurist maintaining them.
And it worked. I lost the urge. But apparently, it was too late.
“I don’t want to put my fingers in my mouth. I just [do] it even though I don’t want to,” Cora explained to me. But was she just mimicking me, or was there something else going on — something deep and strong enough to make nail biters out of at least four generations of women in my family, including my grandmother?
That’s where Francis Lee, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, comes in. A few years ago, a colleague came to Lee with a mystery: A mouse — bred with a specific gene mutation — was behaving very oddly. “I was dumbstruck,” recalls Lee. “It was just repetitively moving its front paws over its eyes and ears,” — a behavior he instantly recognized from studying people.
Mice bred with this mutation groom so much, they give themselves bald spots. “They’ve removed the hair around their eyes, they actually look like they have little white rings around their eyes,” says Lee.
In these mice, the genome is destiny. Every mouse that has this particular mutation — even if it’s separated from its mother early on — eventually will become a pathological groomer. And the grooming isn’t all. Lee says these are some of the most anxious mice he’s ever seen. He even said to his colleague at the time, “That is one crazy mouse.”
People, of course, are a lot more complicated. There are some genetic mutations that seem to crop up in people with OCD and in people who groom pathologically. But just because you have the mutation doesn’t mean you get the behavior.
In fact, with OCD, it’s more likely you won’t, says Mathews. “As genetically determined as OCD is, the risk to a family member for someone who has OCD is only 20 percent. So it’s 80 percent chance of not getting it,” she says.
Which brings me back to my own crazy mouse.
As a parent, there are ways I could lower the chances that Cora will grow into a biter. When Mathews works with young kids, she does things like put Band-Aids on their fingers to help them notice when they’re biting or pulling. Then she sets up reward systems to try to steer them away from the behavior.
I’d already started to do a clumsier version of this, gently batting Cora’s hand away from her mouth whenever she started to bite. But it had come at a price, one I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. I had to decide what was worse: making Cora feel bad about herself for something she couldn’t help, or just letting her grow into a nail biter, which, while certainly not the worst thing in the world, had given me some grief.
Tracy Foose, a psychiatrist in San Francisco who specializes in anxiety disorders, seemed to offer a third option. She bites her nails, and, like me, she has a 3-year-old daughter. Foose has a whole different take on it — probably a much better one. Nail biting is just part of who she is. She’s even proud of it. “You know, my mom bites her nails. She was an artist. So, I think I associate it with being cool and being older and working on something important,” she says.
During her residency, Foose met a patient at the ER one night. “A lovely, middle-aged mother of several kids who came in and looked scared out of her wits,” she recalls. This woman had become fixated on a perceived blemish on her face. “She had picked at her cheek to a level where she was bleeding profusely,” says Foose.
It was dermatillomania, to be specific.
“She truly could not control herself, despite the pain that it was causing, despite the disfigurement. And nail biting sort of forever fell off my radar,” says Foose.
Nail biting is not life threatening. On the scale of human failings, it barely lifts the needle. It’s not to say Cora wouldn’t be better off not biting her nails. But, says Foose, there may be a better way to talk about it. Just as Foose had removed the stigma and guilt for herself, maybe I could do that for my daughter.
“You can go to the place of giving kids information. Like, ‘Oh, I see you biting your nails. Mommy bites her nails, too. You know why we shouldn’t bite our nails? Because there are germs that live under our nails,’ ” explains Foose.
A way that frames it, in other words, as a choice. One that’s hers to make — even if it takes having her own kids one day to make it.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
When we think about morality, many of us think about religion or what our parents taught us when we were young. Those influences are powerful, but many scientists now think of the brain as a more basic source for our moral instincts.
The tools scientists use to study how the brain makes moral decisions are often stories, said Joshua Greene, a Harvard psychologist,citing one well-known example: “A trolley is headed toward five people, and the only way you can save them is to hit a switch that will turn the trolley away from the five and onto a side track, but if you turn it onto the side track, it will run over one person.”
It’s a moral dilemma. Greene and other researchers have presented this dilemma to research volunteers.
Most people say they would flip the switch and divert the trolley. They say they don’t want to kill someone, but one innocent person dead is better than five innocent people dead.
What this shows is that people resolve the moral dilemma by doing a cost-benefit analysis. Greene says they look at the consequences of each choice, and pick the choice that does the least harm.
In other words, people are what philosophers would call utilitarians. Except, Greene tells me, sometimes they aren’t.
He asked me to visualize another well-known dilemma:
“This time, you’re on a footbridge, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. And next to you is a big person wearing a big backpack. And the only way you can save those five people is to push this big guy off of the footbridge so that he lands on the tracks. And he’ll get squashed by the train; you sort of use him as a trolley stopper. But you can save the five people.”
Would you push the big guy to his death? More important, do you feel this moral dilemma is identical to the earlier one?
“In a certain sense, they’re identical,” Greene said. “Trade one life to save five. But psychologically, they’re very different.”
Pushing someone to their death feels very different from pushing a switch. When Greene gives people this dilemma, most people don’t choose to push the big guy to his death.
In other words, people use utilitarian, cost-benefit calculations — sometimes. But other times, they make an emotional decision.
“There are certain lines that are drawn in the moral sand,” Green said. “Some things are inherently wrong, or some things inherently must be done.”
There’s another dimension here that’s interesting: If you watched yourself during the first dilemma, you may have noticed you had to think about whether you’d push that switch. In the footbridge dilemma, you probably didn’t have to think — you just knew that pushing someone to his death is wrong.
Greene says we really have two completely different moral circuits in our brain.
When you listen to a dilemma, the two circuits literally have a fight inside your brain. Part of your brain says, slow down, think rationally — make a cost-benefit analysis. Another says, no, don’t think about it. This is just wrong!
“These responses compete in a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is a kind of place where different types of values can be weighed against each other to produce an all-things-considered decision,” Greene said.
So what makes the ventromedial prefrontal cortex go with the rational mode sometimes, and the emotional mode other times?
Greene and a colleague, Elinor Amit, thought closely about what was happening to people as they tipped from rational mode to an emotional mode. In new research they’ve just published in the journal Psychological Science, these psychologists say they have the answer.
“Emotional responses don’t just pop out of nowhere,” Greene said. “They have to be triggered by something. And one possibility is that you hear the words describing some event, you picture that event in your mind, and then you respond emotionally to that picture.”
That’s the key: Some dilemmas produce vivid images in our heads. And we’re wired to respond emotionally to pictures. Take away the pictures — the brain goes into rational, calculation mode.
Here’s how they found that out: Greene and Amit set up an experiment. They presented people with moral dilemmas that evoked strong visual images. As expected, the volunteers made emotional moral judgments. Then the psychologists made it difficult for volunteers to visualize the dilemma. They distracted them by making them visualize something else instead.
When that happened, the volunteers stopped making emotional decisions. Not having pictures of the moral dilemma in their head prompted them into rational, cost-benefit mode.
In another experiment, Greene and Amit also found that people who think visually make more emotional moral judgments. Verbal people make more rational calculations.
Amit says people don’t realize how images tip the brain one way or another. And that can create biases we aren’t even aware of.
She laid out a scenario to think about: “Imagine a horrible scenario in which a terrorist takes an ax and starts slaughtering people in a bus,” she said. “I’m coming from Israel, so these are the examples that I have in my mind.”
The story produces a movie in our heads. We can see blood everywhere. We can hear people screaming. We don’t have to think at all. It feels terribly wrong.
Then Amit presented another kind of news event: A drone strike that sends a missile hurtling toward a target. At the center of the cross-hairs, an explosion. There’s dust billowing everywhere.
“So if you learn about these events from television or from pictures in a newspaper, which one [would you] judge as more horrible?” Amit asked. “The person with the ax that killed maybe two people but the scene looks horrible and extremely violent, or the picture of the drone that killed 100 people but looks relatively clean and nice?”
To be sure, the events Amit describes are completely different. One’s a terrorist attack, the other is a military action. But it’s true the ax murderer instantly sends the brain into emotional mode.
The drone strike has less vivid imagery. You can’t see, up close, what the missile does. So most people go into utilitarian mode — they start to think about the costs and benefits.
Amit’s point is not that one mode is better than the other. It’s something much more disturbing. As you listen to the news everyday, hidden circuits in your brain are literally changing the ground rules by which you judge events.
You think you’re making consistent moral choices when, really, the movies playing in your head might be making your choices for you.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The first psychologist to systematically studyhow teacher expectations can affect the performance of the children they teach was a Harvard professor named Robert Rosenthal, who in 1964 did a wonderful experiment at an elementary school south of San Francisco.
The idea was to figure out what would happen if teachers were told that certain kids in their class were destined to succeed, so Rosenthal took a normal IQ test and dressed it up as a different test.
“It was a standardized IQ test, Flanagan’s Test of General Ability,” he says. “But the cover we put on it, we had printed on every test booklet, said ‘Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition.’ “
Rosenthal told the teachers that this very special test from Harvard had the very special ability to predict which kids were about to be very special — that is, which kids were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ.
After the kids took the test, he then chose from every class several children totally at random. There was nothing at all to distinguish these kids from the other kids, but he told their teachers that the test predicted the kids were on the verge of an intense intellectual bloom.
As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids really did affect the students. “If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,” he says.
But just how do expectations influence IQ?
As Rosenthal did more research, he found that expectations affect teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: They consistently touch, nod and smile at those kids more.
“It’s not magic, it’s not mental telepathy,” Rosenthal says. “It’s very likely these thousands of different ways of treating people in small ways every day.”
So since expectations can change the performance of kids, how do we get teachers to have the right expectations? Is it possible to change bad expectations? That was the question that brought me to the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, where I met Robert Pianta.
Pianta, dean of the Curry School, has studied teachers for years, and one of the first things he told me when we sat down together was that it is truly hard for teachers to control their expectations.
“It’s really tough for anybody to police their own beliefs,” he said. “But think about being in a classroom with 25 kids. The demands on their thinking are so great.”
Still, people have tried. The traditional way, Pianta says, has been to sit teachers down and try to change their expectations through talking to them.
“For the most part, we’ve tried to convince them that the beliefs they have are wrong,” he says. “And we’ve done most of that convincing using information.”
But Pianta has a different idea of how to go about changing teachers’ expectations. He says it’s not effective to try to change their thoughts; the key is to train teachers in an entirely new set of behaviors.
For years, Pianta and his colleagues at the Curry School have been collecting videotapes of teachers teaching. By analyzing these videos in minute ways, they’ve developed a good idea of which teaching behaviors are most effective. They can also see, Pianta tells me, how teacher expectations affect both their behaviors and classroom dynamics.
Pianta gives one very specific example: the belief that boys are disruptive and need to be managed.
“Say I’m a teacher and I ask a question in class, and a boy jumps up, sort of vociferously … ‘I know the answer! I know the answer! I know the answer!’ ” Pianta says.
“If I believe boys are disruptive and my job is control the classroom, then I’m going to respond with, ‘Johnny! You’re out of line here! We need you to sit down right now.’ “
This, Pianta says, will likely make the boy frustrated and emotionally disengaged. He will then be likely to escalate his behavior, which will simply confirm the teacher’s beliefs about him, and the teacher and kid are stuck in an unproductive loop.
But if the teacher doesn’t carry those beliefs into the classroom, then the teacher is unlikely to see that behavior as threatening.
Instead it’s: ” ‘Johnny, tell me more about what you think is going on … But also, I want you to sit down quietly now as you tell that to me,’ ” Pianta says.
“Those two responses,” he says, “are dictated almost entirely by two different interpretations of the same behavior that are driven by two different sets of beliefs.”
To see if teachers’ beliefs would be changed by giving them a new set of teaching behaviors, Pianta and his colleagues recently did a study.
They took a group of teachers, assessed their beliefs about children, then gave a portion of them a standard pedagogy course, which included information about appropriate beliefs and expectations. Another portion got intense behavioral training, which taught them a whole new set of skills based on those appropriate beliefs and expectations.
For this training, the teachers videotaped their classes over a period of months and worked with personal coaches who watched those videos, then gave them recommendations about different behaviors to try.
After that intensive training, Pianta and his colleagues analyzed the beliefs of the teachers again. What he found was that the beliefs of the trained teachers had shifted way more than the beliefs of teachers given a standard informational course.
This is why Pianta thinks that to change beliefs, the best thing to do is change behaviors.
“It’s far more powerful to work from the outside in than the inside out if you want to change expectations,” he says.
In other words, if you want to change a mind, simply talking to it might not be enough.
7 Ways Teachers Can Change Their Expectations
Researcher Robert Pianta offered these suggestions for teachers who want to change their behavior toward problem students:
- Watch how each student interacts. How do they prefer to engage? What do they seem to like to do? Observe so you can understand all they are capable of.
- Listen. Try to understand what motivates them, what their goals are and how they view you, their classmates and the activities you assign them.
- Engage. Talk with students about their individual interests. Don’t offer advice or opinions – just listen.
- Experiment: Change how you react to challenging behaviors. Rather than responding quickly in the moment, take a breath. Realize that their behavior might just be a way of reaching out to you.
- Meet: Each week, spend time with students outside of your role as “teacher.” Let the students choose a game or other nonacademic activity they’d like to do with you. Your job is to NOT teach but watch, listen and narrate what you see, focusing on students’ interests and what they do well. This type of activity is really important for students with whom you often feel in conflict or who you avoid.
- Reach out: Know what your students like to do outside of school. Make it a project for them to tell you about it using some medium in which they feel comfortable: music, video, writing, etc. Find both individual and group time for them to share this with you. Watch and listen to how skilled, motivated and interested they can be. Now think about school through their eyes.
- Reflect: Think back on your own best and worst teachers, bosses or supervisors. List five words for each that describe how you felt in your interactions with them. How did the best and the worst make you feel? What specifically did they do or say that made you feel that way? Now think about how your students would describe you. Jot down how they might describe you and why. How do your expectations or beliefs shape how they look at you? Are there parallels in your beliefs and their responses to you?
I have some bad news for young people entering the workforce: You’re all a bunch of weenies, and we don’t like you.
LOL! JUST KIDDING!
No, seriously, millennials are great, but we do need to have a talk. So sit down with Old Man Huppke and let me address a generational problem that’s rearing its head — big time — in workplaces across the country.
First off, I’m talking about those of you born between 1982 and 1999. It’s the group that followed Generation X, which is the group that followed the baby boomers.
Every generation has its unique characteristics, of course. Gen Xers are largely the product of two-income households and tend to be independent and self-sufficient. Boomers prefer to work collaboratively and are known to enjoy dreadful folk music.
But the millennials, along with entering the workforce with unrealistic confidence and expectations, seem to have a problem with personal interaction and conflict resolution.
“One of the primary reasons in this past year or two that I’ve been called in to coach executives or companies around generational differences is to help them leverage the skills and talents of millennials,” said Linda Gravett, a psychologist and senior partner with the Cincinnati-based human resources consulting firm Gravett & Associates. “Many of them have trouble handling conflicts and don’t have confrontational skills or seem able to deal with conflicts in a straightforward way.”
Gravett said that in a recent focus group with 10 millennials, the subjects said they prefer to text someone they’re having a problem with rather than speak by phone or face to face.
“I asked them why they won’t just talk to someone over coffee or something,” she said. “And they said, ‘Oh, that’s too personal.’”
Another millennial told Gravett that the boss had yelled at him. She asked whether the boss raised his voice. The millennial said, “No.”
She asked whether the boss used profanity. The millennial said, “No.”
“So I said, ‘Explain to me what yelling at you means,’ and the young man said, ‘Well, he was really firm and he disagreed with me.’ He took that as being yelled at.”
Oh boy. If having someone disagree with you is akin to yelling, your work life is going to be deafening.
Cynthia Sims, associate professor of workforce education and development at Southern Illinois University, believes companies can best help millennials — and all staffers, for that matter — by treating generational issues as a matter of workplace diversity.
“What we’re describing are dimensions of diversity,” she said. “Folks don’t see generations as a diversity issue. They look at race and gender, but there’s more to it than that. There’s age, education, communication style. These are all dimensions of diversity, and we need to have training that talks about them that way.”
Companies often ignore generational differences, assuming people will just blend into a nice, smooth batter of productivity. But experts such as Sims and Gravett say it’s critical that companies acknowledge that every age group brings its own quirks and advantages to the table.
“I’m not sure the millennials are problematic; I just think there are communication and expectation differences that groups need to talk about,” Sims said. “We don’t have a forum in the workplace to talk about those differences. There may be some skills that millennials don’t have because they’re so used to technology; they may not have the social skills that some of us have. But that’s where boomers and Gen Xers can come in and help.”
Gravett said millennials tend to relate well to baby boomers because they view them more as grandparents, whereas Gen Xers could be seen as hovering, lecturing parents. Companies would be wise to pair millennials with older employees for symbiotic mentoring.
“Boomers can learn how to text, and the millennials can learn to walk down the hall and sit next to someone and look them in the face,” Gravett said. “If they start there, there doesn’t seem to be so much of a gap between them.”
So talk openly about the fact that your workforce is generationally diverse.
“The commonality would be, ‘What’s the mission of our company? What’s the mission of our department? What are our customer needs?’” Gravett said. “Let’s move toward that similar objective. But let’s acknowledge that maybe we have to communicate around those objectives in different ways.”
As with other workplace issues, we tend to clam up about generational issues. The key here is putting the fact that differences exist on the table and fostering some cross-generational understanding.
If millennials are struggling with overconfidence or an inability to handle confrontation, that’s not a sweeping indictment of any individual or the group. It’s just something that needs to be addressed.
And if we learn to address these things now, we’ll be better prepared for the next generation, whatever it may be called and whatever weird issues it has.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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