Let’s try and exercise. The exercise is: Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. I’ve never found a client who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes associations. Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word elephant is defined relative to its features and context. When a person tries not to think about an elephant, for example, direct and associated experiences with elephants are likely to come to mind. In short, when you suppress a feeling, you evoke that feeling. This can be seen in everyday speech when you say, “Don’t worry, Don’t be late, Don’t blame me.” By saying “don’t” you are encouraging yourself to think and feel what you were trying to avoid. The conscious effort made to avoid concentrating on something can, ironically make our attention focus on something more.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Your mind (if it’s like most minds), spends a lot of time criticizing itself. If the thought comes up I’m so ugly, and you start arguing with it, or resisting it, you are just investing more energy in that thought pattern in your brain. If someone came up to you and said ‘You’re a purple elephant’, you would probably not get insulted, because there is no agreement that you have that goes ‘I believe that I might be a purple elephant and that is a bad thing.’ On the other hand, if someone comes up and says You would look better if you lost 15 lbs and got rid of that double-chin you would might get very upset. In fact, you might after reading that feel a little jab like “they’re right, I do have kind of a double-chin, I should really get rid of that.” That’s because somewhere in your mind you have an agreement that (a) you might have a double-chin and (b) having a double-chin is a very bad thing to have. So when someone points that out, or you see an advertisment with a 120-lb model, your mind comes up with “I’m ugly” and you agree with it. So the key is to stop agreeing with your negative thoughts. This doesn’t mean arguing with them or resisting them though. If someone said “You’re a purple elephant” you wouldn’t argue about how you really aren’t and how even purple elephants have feelings – you would just shrug and say “OK, whatever”. You would have no charge on it. That is the attitude to cultivate with your negative feelings and thoughts – a mental shrug. “Ok, that’s what my mind is doing, whatever.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
Cinderella is someone who wants her own way, but isn’t getting it. Like most young people, she learned to feel very inadequate to obtain her desires through her own internal resources and competencies. Under these circumstances, some “Cinderellas” feel angry, powerless and out of control. Since she has learned not to trust her own strength, she acquires a tendency to depend on the strength and resources of others. For many people, the Cinderella Story is a paradigm of their lives. Some become vengeful and vindictive. They are no longer Cinderellas; they have become the Wicked Witch! Cinderellas are the ones who come to feel helpless, dependent and discouraged and stay that w
The Cinderella understandably comes to believe that she is, somehow, “inferior” to her older stepsisters who enjoy advantages that she doesn’t have. It seems logical to her that she doesn’t “deserve” to be as happy as those to whom she is “inferior.” Since happiness seems to be “precluded,” all she has to look forward to is a life of drudgery and suffering. She has become Allergic to Happiness. That is a prescription for depression.
She may also have learned early in life, that, if she suffers piteously enough, someone will pay attention to her. She may even be able to get strong people to do her bidding. We call this “using weakness as strength.” Many Cinderellas have learned how to find and manipulate a Fairy God-Person through their own dramatically enhanced “suffering” so that they can obtain “advantages” that they could not have obtained on their own. This attitude is called, “Suffering Pays.” These scenarios set Cinderellas up to conclude that it doesn’t pay to draw upon or develop their own inner resources. It’s so much cheaper and easier to give people the “pleasure” of helping them. They have become dependent.
Unfortunately, the “advantages” that a Cinderella is able to extract in this irresponsible way turn out to be short-lived. She has never learned how to enjoy these advantages on a mature basis. She has never learned that she deserves to enjoy them as fully as others do. She does not know how to parlay these short-lived advantages into long-term ones; in fact, she has a tendency to run them into the ground more quickly than a self-respecting non-sufferer would. This unhappy tendency on her part has the effect of exasperating and discouraging those who are trying to “help” her, and they give up on her. They do not understand her paradoxical, self-destructive behavior. The sufferer is obliged to seek out replacement Fairy God-Persons at increasingly frequent intervals.
Actually, this “self-destructive” tendency is not paradoxical at all. It is entirely consistent with the attitudes she has picked up along the way. Cinderella has learned that she doesn’t deserve to enjoy her happiness. She tends to feel “guilty” after she has succeeded in obtaining the advantage that she sought through her suffering. To relieve her guilt, she must find a way to get rid of this “undeserved happiness” before she gets caught and the clock strikes twelve.
Moreover, Cinderella suffers from a childhood lesson that makes it impossible for her to enjoy happiness the way others do. She has learned that, even if she does wangle an invitation to the Ball, her happiness will be temporary and it will end in disaster! This conviction, below the level of conscious awareness, sets up a terribly painful, irresolvable conflict. On the one hand she would like to be as happy as everyone else; on the other hand, she doesn’t “deserve” it and therefore, she “knows” that any happiness of hers will end in disaster sooner or later. She tends to compare herself unfavorably to those whose happiness seems to be more secure and gratifying than her own, and she resents the “unfairness” of the discrepancy between their state and hers. She acquires the attitude that is for her, “Happiness is only temporary and it ends in disaster.” The only power that she seems to have is the power to end the painful suspense (anxiety). Instead of waiting passively for the clock to strike 12, she actively brings about the destruction of her own happiness. She prefers to do it herself rather than waiting for others to do it to her. She prefers to get it over with sooner rather than later. In the meantime, her attitudes predispose her to live in fear of future disaster; this sets her up to suffer anxiety, which also sabotages any happiness in her life.
The Sufferer from this syndrome tends to be depressed, even at the Ball, because of her pessimistic, unconscious expectation of disaster, but even more so because of her pervasive belief in the unfairness of life. And it is unfair. She did nothing to deserve this negativity in her life, but she has it anyway. In counseling, we reveal to these sufferers that the negativity is often a response to their vulnerability to being abused or neglected by their family members. As a pleaser, she is a safe target for her siblings and her parents. She may even take on the Scapegoat role in her family. The Scapegoat or Cinderella may appear to be weak and passive on the surface, but her victimizers sense her strength. They trust her to take their abuse without cracking. And she does. They relieve the pain of their own self doubt by dumping their anger on her and she takes it. She is a safe target for them. As an adult, she will find herself compatible with people who will play negative roles in her scenario, who will give her opportunities to prove her ability to take it. This is how she maintains the continuity of her particular constellation of attitudes and expectations forever.
When these people come in for counseling, we identify their unresolved anger at their childhood tormenters, anger that pleasing Cinderellas aren’t supposed to have. We identify their anger at themselves for “allowing” the abuse to happen, as if they had the power as a child to prevent it. We show them how to replace their self doubt with self-respect on a mature basis. This is how they come replace their unhappy role with an independent identity as a self-respecting human being.
One client I met with who played the part of Cinderella was a 30 year old woman. She was in a relationship with a Prince Charming who takes her to “fun places” but who cannot or will not, offer security in their relationship. After every date with him, she feels as if the Ball is over and that she is never going to see him again. She prophesies an endlessly boring life of drudgery for herself without him. In the meantime, she finds herself unable to relate to mature, responsible men who could and would give her the material and personal happiness that she says she wants out of life. She sees the absurdity of this paradox, which is a good sign that she will respond to treatment. She just can’t change herself without knowing what she must change to.
I began one session by asking Rachel when she felt secure. She replied,”At age six my older sister Grace used to play alone with her dolls. She used to change her dress in the afternoon. I asked my mother, ‘Why can’t I change my dress in the afternoon like Grace does?’ Mother said, ‘Because Grace sits still. She doesn’t climb trees the way you do.’ I said, ‘I can do that!’ And she changed my dress. I was happy.”
The fact that this woman remembered this incident for 25 years tells us that it has some significance for her in the present. It tells us that she is very sensitive to comparing herself with others who seem to be enjoying advantages that she does not have. That it is important for her to find out how to obtain these advantages for herself. She is mindful that there are some behaviors that are acceptable and others that are not. She remembers depending on the resources of others to make her wishes come true.
Many people remember being independent and taking pride in this accomplishment. Cinderellas usually do not. She is concerned with external appearances, (clothing), and the roles that go with them. This recollection tells us that for her, Life is pleasant when she gets her own way, when she is secure when she is able to do what the Big Kids are doing at the Ball. The implied meaning of this conviction is that life is very unpleasant for her when she can’t find a way to get what she wants, when she can’t have the kind of fun that other people are having. When that happens, it confirms her feelings that she is at a disadvantage. That she is “left out,” and she doesn’t belong at the Ball with the “big kids.” She feels like she is worthless.
Like many people, Rachel was never encouraged to perceive herself as a worthwhile human being in her own right. She has subtly been encouraged to define herself in terms of her external behavior, some of which is “right” and “good,” the rest of which is “bad” and “wrong,” There was no middle ground for her while she was growing up. Since she has never acquired an identity that is her own, she is forced to play roles. The two main roles that were available to her were the “Good Princess” and the “Bad Cinderella.” The first one was taken by Grace before she got there. Neither of these fictitious roles allows the adult woman to prepare for a real healthy relationship. Both of these women have no choice but to gravitate to a phony Crown Prince Charming, who has no more self-respect than they do. They are compatible, but it is a negative compatibility.
While immersed in her “Bad Cinderella” role, people like Rachel may be inclined to seek relief from their unhappy feelings of inferiority by dreaming of their moment in the sun, which comes when they fantasize about finally getting the brass ring. When they are “high,” they dread the imminent destruction of their happiness. They are not able to live in the present moment and enjoy it freely. The time between these peaks and valleys is filled, not with a gratifying existence in the middle ground, but with anxiety, depression and suppressed anger. As a consequence, real life tends to pass them by and they may end their days wondering why their life never really began.
To replace her unhappy constellation of attitudes and expectations, Rachael has to do her Homework. To break her dependency on others for her happiness, she must choose to behave independently, on her own mature, appropriate terms.
For example, Rachael can catch herself comparing herself unfavorably to other women who seem “luckier” than she is. She can realize that this attitude only perpetuates her feelings of anger at the unfairness of life and her own inferiority and inadequacy. Also, she can catch herself paying the role of the Special Princess at the Ball. She can stop feeling like a bored, resentful scullery maid when the music stops. Instead of playing these unrealistic roles, she can choose to perceive herself as a worthwhile human being in spite of her faults and imperfections. She can choose to live in the real middle ground between these unreal highs and lows.
Life soon provided her an opportunity to do a Homework. Prince Bob called to cancel their date that night. He was going out with the boys instead. Instead of pretending to be understanding, as usual, (she didn’t understand at all, she was hurt and angry) she made a conscious choice in her own behalf. She chose to tell the truth about her unpleasant emotion: “I’m very angry at you. I was looking forward to seeing you and now I’m not going to. That hurts my feelings. Don’t plan on seeing me tomorrow. In going out with the girls. They’re so much more mature.”
Bob heard her talking like an independent person in her own right. He respected her courage in standing up for herself on an appropriate basis. She hadn’t overreacted, she hadn’t suppressed her anger, and she wasn’t controlling him or guilt tripping him. She made a cutting remark which she wouldn’t have had the courage to do before. She was behaving like a mature human being with a legitimate grievance against him. He couldn’t respect her pleasing role, but he could respect someone who spoke to him like an equal member of the human race. As Rachael continued to maintain her independence on her own appropriate terms, she felt stronger each time in her self-respect. She was going to know what it felt like to be a worthwhile human being in her own right. Bob grew up with her without even realizing that he was doing so. Their negatively compatible roles from the past were replaced by an atmosphere in which mutual respect was possible.
On this new, more realistic basis, Rachael is finding that her life is more fun than it ever was before, and that she can enjoy her happiness more than she ever did. When the Ball ends, it doesn’t end in disaster. It just ends. She can go to sleep. She is free to go on to something else tomorrow.
This is an attitude that is often an important facet of the Cinderella Complex. It manifests itself as a reluctance to form a permanent relationship with an “ordinary” member of the opposite sex for fear that it will preclude a more gratifying liaison with a “Prince” later on. Compared to this idealized image, flesh and blood human beings seem mediocre and undesirable.
The sufferer never stops to ask herself, “If a perfect male were to come along, what would he want with me?” She is so busy living in the future that life in the present passes her by.This attitude is understood as the individual’s way of overcompensating for her feelings of inadequacy. It is her imaginary solution to her painful feelings of inferiority and “worthlessness” as a female. In her scenario her Prince’s love for her will vindicate her worth as a person in the eyes of all those who scorn her now; it will prove that she has been a “princess,” i.e., worthwhile, all along. This seldom happens.
In the meantime, this fictitious resolution of her painful self-doubts absolves her of any “guilt” she may have felt regarding her present state of inaction. She is not responsible for her own well-being: “It’s not my fault that I am still feeling inferior; it’s just that no one has come along to realize me yet.”
This fantasy serves to exempt the sufferer from any responsibility for relieving her present distress by finding out about her mistaken attitudes and expectations and replacing them with more realistic ones.
Rachael isn’t making any of these mistakes now. She is doing little Homeworks every day. She is finding that these successes give her happiness in the present, which is so much more enjoyable than happiness a year from Tuesday.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Does your management say things like: “Our employees aren’t angry! We run a happy ship! They get frustrated sometimes, or upset, and we’ve got one guy who is disgruntled, but we never get angry!” This popular anger management technique is called “denial.” If we don’t know how to solve a problem, we just pretend that it isn’t there.
Anger comes in many forms, all of them unpleasant. That is why we are so quick to deny it out of existence. That way, the problem is “solved;” we are off the hook. It’s a good thing that we don’t have to solve it because we don’t know how to solve such problems. We’d only fail if we tried. We didn’t go to school to learn anger management. We feel inadequately prepared to cope with it. We deny the problem in order to prevent the humiliating expose of our inadequate preparation.
In the meantime, our angry employees are walking around with unresolved anger problems in their hearts. They become discouraged and depressed. We wonder, “What happened to the morale around here? Why is production falling off? Why is turnover so high? Why are they taking so much sick leave?” When our employees’ energy is bound up in unresolved anger, there isn’t much left over to do the work that needs to be done. They keep on getting their paychecks just the same.
Anger doesn’t have to erupt into violence to take a chunk out of our bottom line. Suppressed, subterranean anger poisons our corporate atmosphere and does its silent damage day after day, year after year. “Denial”, therefore, is a very costly “solution” to the problem of employee anger. It is a luxury that no business can afford. Why do managers “deny” that their “happy” troops might possibly have unresolved anger in their bosoms?
They deny that there is anger in the ranks because they have attitudes about anger, attitudes that they acquired a long time ago and never outgrew:
“Anger is scary and dangerous. I don’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole.”
“Anger is a problem that might take up too much of my valuable time and attention. Why don’t we just fire him and save ourselves a lot of trouble.”
“Anger isn’t ‘nice,’ and angry people aren’t ‘nice’. I don’t want to talk to people.”
“An angry person is a threat, and I have never learned how to cope with threats in the right way, only the wrong way with counter threats.”
In addition to our attitudes about this nasty emotion, we have attitudes about ourselves as problem solvers:
“Life is very pleasant when I solve problems.”
“Life is very unpleasant when I don’t!”
“I feel out of control when I have a problem that I cannot solve.
“That makes me angry! I don’t want to be angry because anger is painful and scary.”
“If I pretend that the problem doesn’t exist, maybe it will go away.”
That’s no way to manage our lives! We don’t realize that we have these attitudes deep down in our psyche. Neither do we realize that these attitudes are predisposing us to behave in the same counter-productive way time after time. Our behavior doesn’t change because our attitudes have never changed.
Jack is a top salesman. Out on the road he is all charm and smiles. Back at the ranch, he has anger attitudes. For one, he is predisposed to get angry whenever he doesn’t get his way, right now! Jack is angry at Nancy for not typing his sales reports fast enough. He wants them “now!” He doesn’t see why she shouldn’t do what he wants, when he wants it. To him, it’s a perfectly reasonable request.
When Jack is angry, everyone in the unit knows it. He slams drawers, he barks at everyone in sight, he clams up, he sulks and pouts. In other words, he is manifesting his anger just as he did when he was four years old. He hasn’t learned a thing about anger in forty years. We all get angry from time to time. Most of us are able to get through these painful periods without making our co-workers miserable with our inappropriate behavior. Jack never had an anger problem until he became Section Chief. It seems that his promotion gave him a license to abuse his fellow citizens that he did not seem to have before. Jack is displaying several main characteristics of the angry employee:
He is angrier than he needs to be,
He isn’t aware that his anger is out of proportion to the provocation.
He makes no effort to manage his anger like a mature, responsible human being.
He doesn’t see why he should learn how.
To Jack, his request for instant service is reasonable or rational. The rest of us see that his anger is not rational or under conscious control. The more Steve, his Department Head, tries to make Jack “understand the inappropriateness of his behavior,” the angrier Jack gets. Jack doesn’t want to understand, he wants his report and, as far as he can see, Steve is doing nothing to speed up the process. He is angry at Steve for letting Nancy “slack off.”
What Steve didn’t know was that Jack had come to define his worth as a person in terms of getting what he wants. He acquired this attitude toward himself during the formative stages of his personality. Jack has plenty of attitudes:
“It is my right to get my way. If I don’t get it. I am nothing! I cannot allow that to happen It’s too scary. It is unacceptable!”
“I am special. I am entitled to special consideration. It makes me angry when I do not get what I am entitled to.”
“When I have to wait to get what I want, I feel out of control. That feeling is painful. I want to get relief from my pain as fast as I can.”
“When I am kept waiting, it forces me to waste time. Waste is irresponsible. It makes me feel guilty of a crime. That is painful, too.”
“Wasting time and irresponsibility are wrong. Wrongness makes me angry. I must be right and never wrong. I must be perfect.”
Jack never outgrew these attitudes; he carried them into adulthood where they are determining his behavior to this day. Each time we react to Jack on the basis of these immature attitudes, we confirm him in his fictitious role. He is so busy defending his “specialness” that he never has a chance to question the basis of his inappropriate behavior.
Steve is learning that many people have these anger attitudes and that they can not be reasoned out of them. He has also learned that the issue here is not Nancy’s typing speed, or her work schedule. The issue is not even “getting my way.” The real problem to be addressed is Jack’s anger when he doesn’t get what he wants when he wants it. The most important thing that Steve learned was that he had the power of choice: to respond to Jack’s anger the old way, which never worked, or to manage his anger in a way that makes things better instead of worse.
He chose not to defend Nancy, (Nancy isn’t doing anything wrong, she does not require defending).
He chose not to defend himself. He didn’t say, “You can’t talk to me that way,” because ‘manner of speech’ is not the issue. It is a distraction from the real issue. It would have poured kerosene on Jack’s fire.
He chose not to take Jack’s demands as a reflection on his competence as a manager.
He chose not to take Jack’s negative, unpleasant behavior personally, as if it were a reflection on his worth as a person.
He chose to retain his self-respect on an appropriate basis.
He was able to remind himself of the definition of self-respect: it is the feeling that I am a worthwhile human being in spite of my faults and imperfections. Jack cannot take that away from him with his posturings.
He identified Jack’s imperious behavior as mere mischief, which means, “that which does not need to be done.” Steve was able to put this mischief in its proper perspective. “It’s only Jack being Jack again.”
He did not overreact to Jack’s provocation.
He did not try to make Jack “understand.”
He identified his own anger at Jack for causing him and Nancy this grievance, but he had learned how to manage his anger. He put it in perspective. Jack’s anger wasn’t the end of the world, it was only a nuisance.
He did not “solve” the anger problem by firing Jack on the spot.
He did not get personal revenge by depriving the firm of the talents of an imperfect, sometimes unpleasant employee.
He did not give up in discouragement.
He did not stand in moral judgment on Jack for his disruptive behavior. Jack is not “wrong,” he is merely imperfect and his imperfections can be unpleasant.
He did not hang on to his anger. It was in his way. He chose to “let it go.”
He was able to sort it out. He was in control of himself. He didn’t try to “control” Jack.
He was able to make a rational choice in a non-rational, regrettable situation.
Steve was able to take himself through this process in a matter of seconds. He had learned the drill. He knew how to find the meaning of Jack’s mischief by identifying the hidden purpose of the behavior. Jack was making him feel powerless and out of control. That feeling told him that he was in a power struggle with Jack over who could make Nancy do what and how fast. This insight gave Steve a new choice to make: he could pull back in a tug of war, or he could drop the rope and end the power struggle on his terms. He chose to drop the rope. He let it go. It was only mischief on Jack’s part. It didn’t need to be done. What really needed to be done was to resolve Jack’s anger problem in the right way so everyone could go back to work.
Steve had learned to spot employee mischief a block away. He had also learned how to disengage himself emotionally, not from the employee, but from his unacceptable, provocative behavior:
He did not take Jack’s behavior personally, as a wipeout of his self-respect.
He reminded himself that “I am a worthwhile human being in spite of Jack’s negative comments.” This technique is called ‘self talk.’ It keeps him on an even keel.
He did not take Jacks words literally, as if he really meant what he said. Jack is only “firing for Effect,” trying to use Steve’s own vulnerabilities against him.
He disengaged from his own predisposition to make counter mischief:
Steve didn’t make any of these mistakes from the old days. He made a new choice using his adult judgment on an informed basis. He knew that Jack’s anger was painful and out of control. It was his appropriate responsibility to deal effectively with his employee’s psychic pain as he would the physical pain of a cut finger. Just as he was prepared to perform the Heimlich maneuver if someone were choking, so is he prepared to give “emotional first aid” when it became necessary. It was necessary now. Steve made the right choice. He cut to the chase. He chose to address the issue of Jack’s anger.
Steve chose to say, “It makes you angry when Nancy takes so long, doesn’t it.” In making this choice, Steve was using an anger management technique called validate. Steve knew that Jack’s accusation was not a valid one. He knew it wasn’t rational, it was based on self-serving attitudes. He did not make the mistake of correcting Jack’s thinking, which would have made things worse for everyone. He knew that he could not relieve this pain by invalidating it. In calling Jack’s anger by its rightful name, Steve was giving Jack “permission” to have this unpleasant, disruptive emotion. He did not “fight the feeling.” He validated the anger, “I don’t blame you for feeling that way.”
Jack heard his anger being validated, perhaps for the first time in his life. He felt that he had been heard and understood by someone who knew what he was talking about. He felt that he was being validated as a person. The pain of his grievance was relieved. The second validate is for Jack. He heard himself being treated with respect in spite of his unpleasant behavior. He respected Steve for doing that. If he doesn’t respect his superior, he will not cooperate with him. He will make destructive mischief instead.
The third validation is for Steve. He had the courage to address the scary problem of Jack’s anger instead of defending Nancy. He had used good judgment. He replaced his good intentions with real intentions. He had earned the right to respect himself as a worthwhile human being with an identity of his own, not merely a role opposite Jack’s immature role.
There are two sides to this anger coin: Jack is one and Nancy is the other. Nancy needs to know what to do with Jack’s anger when it hits. As part of the Anger Management Process, Steve prepared Nancy to cope with Jack’s anger on a new basis. He broke the problem down into its components so she could see what she was up against.
Do not take it personally. It is not a reflection on you.
Do not defend – you are not guilty of a crime and you require no defense.
Do not become counter-angry. That just prolongs the problem.
Do not try to make Jack “understand” the realities of the situation. He is not interested.
Identify the real issue: the issue is that he is angry
Jack is making mischief. He wants to control so he will get his way sooner, also, he wants
revenge. He wants to hurt Nancy as she “hurt” him. These are negative purposes. They need to be identified so that they can be turned around in the right way.
Jack reminded Nancy that she could choose to keep her self respect in spite of Jack’s anger. She is a worthwhile human being whether she pleases him or not. As a self respecting, independent human being, she, too, can choose to validate Jack’s anger, which is the real issue. She, too, can say, “I’m sorry you are so angry, but I’ll have it done by 4:30 today.”
When Jack came by to voice his complaint about the “service,” Nancy did her anger Homework: She disengaged from the mischief, not from Jack. She was able to “Consider the Source”; she reminded herself that it’s only Jack sounding off again. She didn’t hang on to her protestations of innocence, she chose to let them go. When she made that choice, she felt relief from the pressure, tension and stress that these anger situations had been causing her. In letting go, she didn’t feel out of control, she felt in control. She was making this happen in the present. She was choosing to live on her terms, not reacting to someone else’s. She had her own independent identity.
As Jack went on and on, Nancy rode it out. She didn’t prolong the process with explanations of the situation that Jack didn’t care about anyway. She saved her breath. Nancy noticed that the storm blew over in half the time. Jack walked away talking to himself, but he settled down much sooner than he used to when people got in his way and made his anger worse.
Nancy was angry at Jack’s abusive behavior. We relieve pent up anger by giving people choices that they didn’t know they had. Steve has learned what some of those choices are. Instead of ignoring Nancy’s painful resentment, he validated it; “You must be very angry at Jack for dumping on you like that. If you keep it in, it will make you sick. One way to drain it out of your system is to write him an anger letter. It’s not for him, it’s for you.”
Nancy wrote her anger out in a letter to Jack and then tore it up. Steve asked her how she felt afterward. Nancy said that she felt “good.” In debriefing Nancy, he helped her to break this “good feeling” into its many components: feelings of relief, the power of choice, trust in her judgment, control, accomplishment, success, confidence and independence. These good feelings are all components of self respect.
Nancy had done an anger homework in her own behalf. She had earned the right to respect herself. Self respecting employees are more motivated, more productive and more free to be creative than employees who are filled with self doubts, anxieties and feelings of inadequacy to cope. Nancy was able to use an unpleasant anger situation as an opportunity to improve the way she felt about herself as a person in the world.
Even Jack benefitted from Nancy’s new way of managing her anger. He expected to be met with scorn, invalidation, criticism, excuses, denials and all the other counter-productive defenses that people use when they don’t know how to manage anger. Instead, he felt that Nancy had listened to his complaint without demeaning him as a person. She had not compounded his anger as people usually did. He didn’t feel “good” about the conversation, but he was aware that he felt “less worse.” He felt relief from the pressure, tension and stress that he had been causing himself with his unrealistic attitudes. To him, that was progress. Steve had taken the sting out of a potentially inflammatory situation. There were no cuts or bruises, no one got fired. Under this new regimen, Jack’s anger attacks came farther and farther apart, and they ended sooner each time. He remained a productive, valued employee of the firm.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
On a humid evening last September, Susan and James burst into my office looking like two high schoolers in the grip of a classroom giggle fit. Usually serious and reserved, James, 36, explained between chuckles that he had been telling Susan a story about his boss’s gaffe at a meeting earlier that day. Still giggling as she landed on the office sofa, 27-year-old Susan ran her fingers through her cropped, blond hair and tried to compose herself, then eyed her gleeful husband and began hooting all over again. After a bit more banter, I steered the conversation to the main order of business– the state of their six-year marriage. Susan began to recount an incident that had occurred a few days before, when James had volunteered Susan to drive his daughter to a birthday party so that his ex-wife wouldn’t be inconvenienced. “I felt used,” Susan said bluntly. So far, so good, I thought — she is simply stating her feelings. Then looking directly at her husband, she continued: “But what upset me even more was your reaction when you saw that I was unhappy. You started defending her!”
With these words, Susan’s voice began to shake and she ducked her head, starting at the flowered pattern of the Kleenex in her fist. When she looked up her eyes were narrowed and her face flushed a deep, mottled crimson. “You are so full of crap!” she spit out. “You’re too weak to stand up to her then you look at me as if I’m the one with the problem. God, what a sucker I am to stay with you!” James rolled his eyes and let out an exaggerated sigh. “You see what I have to deal with here?” he asked beseechingly. It was as though he had lit a match and was flicking it at his wife who was holding on to a gas can. “Oh, that’s good James!” sneered Susan. “Blame me again! This is classic. You’re such a fucking wimp!” James didn’t respond. In fact, I wasn’t even sure he had heard her. His whole body seemed to tense as he turned toward the window and stared with his mouth clenched. Though he sat very still, I could hear the strained sounds of his breathing. The relaxed, affable husband who had entered my office 10 minutes earlier had simply vanished.
I have often been struck by how swiftly and dramatically the moods of intimate partners can change in the midst of an interaction, as though some internal switch gets flipped that compels each partner to react in a particular, almost automatic way. In a previous session, James had jokingly called Susan “Sibyl,” noting that whenever she became deeply emotional, she “changed.” Like the incredible hulk she would transform from a loving and thoughtful woman to a raging beast, reacting with white-hot wrath. At times, that rage turned physical: during one particularly savage fight, she pushed James down causing him to hit his head on the coffee table.
In the past, they had gone to therapy and were taught new habits of thinking and behaving that they could call into play whenever conflict arose. They were coached to listen to each other attentively and give each other the benefit of the doubt. But over the years, their progress, like many couples, tended to be disturbingly short lived. Most couples therapy today concentrates on teaching partners to consciously think and act differently toward each other. This assumes that telling others how to make changes in their thinking and behavioral would short-circuit their emotions, promoting renewed intimacy and trust. But this assumes that your thinking, conscious brain is in charge of your emotions.
After all you may have been taught that what distinguishes homo sapiens from so-called “lower” animals, is the capacity to consciously reason before reacting. But what if the human brain isn’t actually wired that way? What if your neural circuitry programs are so fast and strong that you rage, cower and collapse in grief in a nanosecond, before you ever get a chance to fashion an “I” statement or otherwise think things through? With the help of modern technology, brain-imaging techniques can generate precise portraits of the brain in action. As a result, scientists have found that your brain actually favors intense emotions, not sweet reason. Thinking still counts, but not nearly as much as you’ve always assumed. So dogma shattering is this mounting evidence for the supremacy of the “emotion brain,” or more formally, the limbic brain, that some have called it a genuine “neuroscience revolution.” Your good at thinking, you learned logical cause and effect reasoning when you took math and science. But like Susan and James you have come are less skilled in emotional matters.
You, like most humans values rational thinking, cause and effect principles and logical conclusions to understand the events in your life. For centuries emotion has been looked down on as primitive and reason has been held as superior. Plato said, “We are prisoners of our feelings and that we should therefore hold fast to the sacred cord of reason lest we be lost.” Euripides declared, “Folly occurs only when desire conflicts with reason.” Aristotle argued, “Emotions have a logic of their own and must be understood on their own terms.” He asserted, “Emotions are not simply animal passions unleashed, but they are a complex part of our thinking.” Yet, research maintains the counter-intuitive position that feelings are crucial for rational decisions. Emotions point you in the proper direction, shining a spotlight on where logic can then be of best use. And in recent years, there has been an explosion of research, which indicates that, rational and emotional processes, rather than being natural adversaries function together.
One reason why reason is placed above emotions that is scientists have divided in to three layers. The bottom layer is called the reptilian or instinct brain, the middle layer is limbic or feeling brain, and the top layer is the neocortex or thinking brain. The bottom layer, the reptilian or instinctual brain, is in charge of your most basic functions such as digestion, breathing, and blood circulation. This area of the brain is source of the “fight or flight” responses to stress, and it is highly concerned with the survival instinct. The second layer, the limbic system or feeling brain, is the primary place for your emotions. This part of the brain also involves your appetite, sex, and senses. The neocortex is the top layer and is known as the thinking brain. This is where your logical thought occurs. Logic is what makes language and writing possible. This top layer allows you to see ahead and plan the future, which is something that no other animal can do.
The conventional view of how the brain processes information is highly appealing. People love to fantasize that the ability to plan gives them control over the world around them. America was founded on self-reliance, manifest destiny, personal freedom, and independence. These values reinforce the comforting theory that you are in charge of your decisions. This misguided approaches assumes information about the world is transmitted via your eyes, ears and other sensory organs to the thalamus, the brain’s central relay station. In turn, the information is shiped directly to the neocortex (thinking brain). There, the incoming signals are efficiently recognized, sorted and assigned meaning. Finally the information is ferried downstream to the limbic system (emotional brain) and triggers the appropriate visceral response. In this tidy, reassuring scenario, emotion is the dutiful servant of the rational brain. Thought proposes, emotion disposes. Thinking comes first and emotion goes last.
This 3 layer model was enormously helpful in showing that tissue below the thinking brain was not just filler to be neglected. However, most people came away from this model of a 3 layered brain with a hierarchal notion, which made the thinking brain the boss. It had been thought that each layer of the brain operates independently, one at a time. This outdated model implied that the feeling (limbic) brain, being the second layer, man purpose was to connect the thinking brain (neocortex) to the instinct (reptilian) brain. It is this hierarchical view, with the thinking brain on top, that explains why we emphasize the role of of reason and analysis. However, researchers have found that whether a brain structure is on the top or bottom, is visible on the surface or tucked out of sight, has no bearing on how the brain functions. The long held belief that the large cotrex of the human brain is what distinguished humans from other species, implies that your thinking brain (neocortex) is more evolved and the emotional brain, (limibic system) is equal to a lower, more animal instinct (reptilian). This is wrong. Researchers have found that the emotional and logical brain co-evolved and developed together. This is important because by developing together, the neocortex (thinking brain) and limibic systems (emotional brain) are connected, so one system has influenced the other.
You need emotions. You cannot simply turn off your emotions and live as a logical cyborg-like being. You could not exist solely with your rational mind. You would not know how to make decisions about food or music or movies, you would know what events are dangerous or even what to say without emotions. The brain centers involved in emotions are directly connected to the learning system. When they are activated, they automatically start the teaching circuits (chains of nerve cells). This happens when you gain knowledge of something seen as valuable because it carries some emotional weight that is personally relevant. This is why emotional events—your first day of school, the birth of child, a parent’s death—become so engraved in your memories. The brain’s ability to determine value and relevance creates a more flexible and intelligent human, whose behavior is unpredictable and creative.
Neurologists no longer accept that brain functions are isolated and operate individually, where one area is only responsible for one function. The idea of separating thinking and feeling into discrete work stations in the brain, which moves information along a conveyor belt, piecing it together one aspect at a time, has given way to the concept of simultaneous systems. To say the brain has simultaneous systems means that it can process information and emotions from many locations, all at once. Researchers have begun to understand that mental connections are distributed over several areas in the brain. The brain’s use of common structures for different functions is not an accident.
For example, think about how vision works. As soon as you look at any given object, your brain shatters it and simultaneously processes that neat image on your eye, to pick apart the different aspects of what is being seen. This visual information is interpreted in a variety of ways, using a diverse array of mental activity, all working at lightening speed to provide analysis. Each area examines a different facet of your visual experience. The job of analyzing color goes in one direction. The angles and parts that constitute shape go to another area of the brain. The space and distance of the object are processed in a third area. And so on.
So while the neocortex will remember what your ex-partner looks like, the jerk that dumped you for a new lover, the amygdala is responsible for the surge of fury that floods your body when you see someone who looks even vaguely like your former mate. And “vaguely” is the operative word here. For when the amygdala tries to judge whether a current situation is hazardous, it compares that situation with your collection of past emotionally charged events. If any key elements are even vaguely similar–the sound of a voice, the expression on a face–your emotional brain instantaneously lets loose its warning sirens and an accompanying emotional explosion.
The discovery of interconnected brain functions means you think and feel all at once. It had been assumed that thoughts and feelings were processed one at a time, all moving in one direction, like car moving in the same direction, going down a one way street. Yet it is now known that your emotion and logic are inter-connected, operating simultaneously. Like traffic going down a two way street, these messengers are being sent in two directions at the same time. In addition, it was once thought that the speed at which these messengers traveled was always constant. Yet, it is now known that you thoughts and feelings can move at different speeds, from very fast to very slow. Again like cars on the expressway, they travel in 2 directions and depending on the amount of traffic traveling, they can move quickly or slowly.
Neuroscientists have discovered that there is a supersonic express route to the brain’s emotional centers. This back alley in your mind appears to be reserved for emotional emergencies and bypasses the neocortex (thinking brain) entirely. This mean that information is routed from the thalamus or the ‘relay station’ directly to the amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped structure in the limbic system that has recently been identified as the brain’s emotional alarm center. The amygdala scans the information for potential danger: Is this bad? Could it hurt me? If the information registers as dangerous, the amygdala (emotional brain) broadcasts a distress signal to the entire brain, which in turn, triggers a cascade of physiological responses–from a rapid heart rate to jacked-up blood pressure to tense muscles to the release of the “fight or flight” hormones, like adrenaline. Within milliseconds, you explode with rage or freeze in fear, well before your thinking brain can even grasp what is happening, much less persuade you to take a few deep breaths and maintain your cool.
The impact of your emotional brain’s hair-trigger response is that during a highly toxic argument the body can become flooded by a virtual tidal wave of hormones. These hormones create physical changes, including a quickened heart rate stepped-up sweat production, and tensed-up muscles. The split-second nature of these changes indicates a cranial coup d-etat originating in the emotional brain (amygdala). And like most coups, this one can wreak ugly consequences. For researchers found that these classic bodily signs of intense emotions were highly correlated with specific kinds of behaviors (antagonism, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stone-walling).
This cranial takeover can occur because your neocortex (thinking brain) is simply out-matched by the competition from your amygdala (emotional brain). This race is not even close because emotion-laden paths are faster the logical signals. So your amygdala causes impulses to zoom down your neurological express route, what has been called the “fast track”, at the same time as the same data is being transported via the customary, well-trodden “local roads”, stopping at the neocortex (thinking brain) and limbic system (emotional brain). But because the shorter emotional pathway in your brain transmits signals twice as fast as the more roundabout route involving the neocortex, the thinking brain simply can’t intervene in time. So, by the time you are analyzing a situation, the damage has been done, you have already called your belated dinner partner an inconsiderate jerk, shrieked at your smart-mouthed child, snapped at your critical coworker or you simply shut down and are left shaking inside. To make matters worse, the emotional information will flood the neocortex (thinking brain), overwhelming your logic and judgment. As a result, your emotion-filled thoughts about the situation feel entirely accurate and justifiable. Whaddya mean, I’m overreacting?
What is going on? Well when emotions are involved in your decision making process there is such a great deal of certainty the brain automatically triggers your fight or flight response. This false alarm happens because the instinctual and feeling brains cannot distinguish what is real from what is imagined. And since the goal is to survive, there is an advantage to react first and think later. That is to say emotions are fast and efficient and logic is slower. Emotions provide you with a mechanism to work around the limitation of reasoning. The conclusion you come up with may not be the best, but they are often better than no conclusion. However since your emotions are often derived from your experiences, they tend to be often more accurate than not.
When a situation is perceived as an emotional emergency, the emotional brain (amygdala) lights up the entire body and the neocortex is suddenly seized. Many clinicians, including myself, have spent countless sessions trying to get fuming couples to engage in some kind of well-established communication techniques, such as “active listening,” only to watch the whole thing fly apart. For example, one partner says something seemingly reasonable like, “I feel that the kids don’t get enough of your attention”, which is perceived by the other as a poison arrow to the heart. “Screw that!” the listener shrieks, whereupon the partner flings back with “This is just so typical, isn’t it, you’re too narcissistic to even listen to me, always have been, what’s the damn use?” And in those moments, when the room is vibrating with fury and I feel more like a rookie referee at a mud-wrestling match than an insightful, educated professional, because my techniques are useless.
Perhaps counselors have hesitated to seriously confront the core tenets of this new, affective neuroscience because if they did, they might find out that they are heading down a hazardous road. For if your very brain circuits are primed to favor your most volatile emotions over reason, counselors may need to call into question the tilt toward models that rely on rational thought to engender change. As economic pressures spur clients to move increasingly toward ever briefer, more cognitive-oriented models, counselors may unwittingly be investing enormous energy in approaches that are, to a large extent, at odds with the brain’s most fundamental functions.
So where does the bad-news tale of emotional mayhem leave you? The trajectory of divorce originates with frequent, nasty arguments that eventually cause both partners to develop a hypersensitivity to each other. In this state, you react to your spouse automatically, like an animal conditioned to fear a shock whenever it sees the color red. This helps to explain those moments in my office, like when Susan and James were honestly struggling to think and behave differently, but simply can’t make the shift. I watched James trying to listen empathetically to his wife, but when Susan let him know that she is sick and tired of his behavior, bam! Before you can say “reframe that thought,” the emotional brain (amygdala) is sounding its sirens and suddenly he’s yelling that she’s the slob, not him, in fact, she’s let herself go big-time and is goddam fat! And as he’s shouting all this, his face is turning the color of boiled lobster, his heart is practically leaping out of his chest and he is sweating gallons.
In my experience, a sense of safety is the linchpin of change. For only when an individual no longer feels threatened by his or her partner, subjected to the terrifying prospect of abandonment–will the emotional brain (amygdala) shut off it internal alarm system. So, unlike therapeutic models that zero in immediately on changing thinking or behavior I don’t ask clients to change how they think about, or behave until they feel safe enough to interact in an honest way.
This is not to suggest that cognitive and behavioral strategies are insignificant in effective therapy. In my clinical work, the thinking brain (cortex) is an absolutely central player. The key difference between my approach and other models is that rather than using the thinking brain to try to dominate the emotional brain, I put it to work, helping the ancient amygdala to gradually relax its defense. To do anything less is to paddle against the instinctive stream.
As I sat with James and Susan in my office, I well knew that “helping the emotional brain to relax” was the last thing they had in mind. What was clear, however, was that each partner was far too stuck in his or her respective emotional path, Susan in rage, James in fear. Before any change could occur, each partner would need to honestly explore the feelings that had so violently seized them. Therefore, I responded, as I customarily do when couples encounter extremely “hot” emotional states, by calling a temporary time out. This allowed me to conduct some one-on-one emotional exploration.
Leaving Susan, I asked James to join me in a room down the hall. There, I suggested that if he was willing to explore his emotional experience a bit, he might be able to learn to respond to Susan in a way that helped her to treat him with understanding and support in return. He agreed to try, warning me, however, that emotions aren’t his “thing.” Like many men I work with, James had done a good job of numbing his body to the telltale, physiological signs of an emotional hijacking–the knotted muscles, the racing heart, the queasy stomach–and consequently, during his fights with Susan, he often had trouble knowing what he felt at all. His lifelong stance, he admitted, was to keep a “stiff upper lip” in the face of trouble. He saw no other options.
“Who taught you that?” I inquired. After a few moments of silence, he began to talk of his junior high football coach, whom he remembered as single-minded on forcing him and his teammates to perform endless calisthenics until their bodies screamed for relief. The coach would then march up to the player with the most tortured expression and get right in his face and shout: “What do you feel?” On cue, the player would yell back: “Nothing, sir!” to the loud cheers of his teammates. On one broiling afternoon on the football field, James heard those rousing cheers for himself, and he recalled how curiously proud he felt of his stoic denial for his own body’s inner turmoil. Shaking his head, he admitted: “I guess I learned the lesson well.” I assured him that it would be possible and necessary, to recognize his feelings.
I explained that the body was the voice of emotions, eloquently communicating critical information about your current emotional state. Tightened muscles and a sick sensation in the gut, for example, typically accompany fear, while rage is characterized by an increased heartbeat and body temperature. Learning to readily identify the “emergency” signals sent by the emotional brain via your bodily state is the first, crucial step. Studies suggest that the moment you become aware of your internal state, you activate the thinking brain (neocortex), which in turn, can begin to restrain your emotional response. I suggested to James that the next time he and Susan begin arguing, he simply try to notice any changes happening in his body.
At the next session, Susan and James came or rather sulked into my office. Susan was furious at James for forgetting to buy her flowers for their anniversary. James, already withdrawn, slumped sullenly into the corner of the sofa. As soon as I got the gist of their current conflict, James and I took off again for a private one on one. Before I had even closed the door, James reported that he was feeling an uncomfortable tightness both in his stomach and lower jaw, sensations he had noticed several times over the past week whenever Susan had become angry with him. At my suggestion, he checked his pulse rate and was stunned to find it had soared to 85 beats per minute, in contrast to his usual, resting rate of 68 beats per minute. In fact, this is to be expected. The dramatic jump in your heart rate during an intense emotion, closely mirrors that of animals in the “freeze” state after they sense danger from a predator in the wild and their fear systems have been stimulated.
James clenched-jaw, stone-walling response to Susan’s fury, had a distinctly frozen quality, which was not unlike a full-fledged fear response to an animal being hunted. I encouraged him to notice how his reactions seemed to kick in automatically, all at once, as if a part of him just took over. He replied that he had already noticed this happening a few days earlier, when Susan was ragging at him about the state of their finances. “I actually tried to respond to her, you know, say something sympathetic about the bad day I knew she’d had”. “But somewhere inside, I’d just gone cold.” I left James for the time being and walked two doors down the hall, to begin helping Susan to understand her rage response, with a particular throbbing sensation behind her temples, like as a desperate, love-hungry little kid who was frantically trying to get attention. The next step would be to help them with these inner experiences and consult about the possibility of letting down their respective guards.
At this point, those familiar with therapy may well be raising their collective eyebrows, thinking: This is couples work? My response is that while I do a lot of individual work with intimate partners, I am definitely doing couples therapy. In my experience, the hijacking of the emotional brain is so powered that for many couples, learning to regulate brain states is all but impossible in each other’s presence. Some are simply unable to calm down long enough to do the kind of quiet, deeply focused work that is necessary to allow an emotion to pass. Particularly early in therapy, each partner is far more likely to chronically trigger the other’s hyper aroused emotional brain than help to soothe it. This pattern may lead many couples to prematurely quit therapy, convinced that theirs is a “hopeless case.” Consequently, my customary modus operandi is to do a lot of individual work during the first several sessions, until each partner develops enough skill in managing their emotions to rejoin his or her partner. At that point, couples begin to practice making these shifts in “real time,” in the midst of authentic interactions.
Over the next several sessions, I continued helping Susan and James learn to become mindful of their unconscious automatic emotional reactions. The catch, of course, is that nobody wants to go first. By being more aware of the conditions that allow the brain to sufficiently relax its defenses, I hope to support my clients in making this leap out of defense and into understanding. To that end, I spent several sessions coaching James through conversations with his stonewalling “defender,” in an effort to help him feel safe enough to let down his guard. Progress was gradual and awkward. Then, toward the end of one particularly slow-moving session, I brought up how James’s typical response of sullen stonewalling to Susan had not managed to blunt her fury. He nodded, admitting that, in fact, his icy withdrawal seemed to aggravate his wife even more. I asked James: “what have you got to lose by trying something new, like reaching out to Susan?” This was a delicate moment, I was asking James to engage his thinking brain (neocortex) to entertain a new thought. With his hand on his stomach, James closed his eyes and focused his attention within. Perhaps 15 seconds passed before he opened his eyes and looked at me. “It’s okay,” he softly said. “You’re sure it’s okay?” I asked, pointing in the direction of his stomach. “Yeah, he’s okay,” nodded James. He looked relaxed and younger, somehow less defeated. He told me that in that moment he had acknowledged that shutting down had only gotten him a amplify dose of Susan’s rage, the terrifying experience of all out attack that had activated his defense system in the first place. If there were a better way to stave off these assaults, his guts told him, it would stand aside and open up to change. “I’m ready,” James said quietly.
Susan and I had been making steady progress in feeling safe enough to let her guard down and expose her intense yearning for love that hid behind her fury. Then one evening, Susan and James walked into my office in utter silence. They had had a vicious argument two days before and had barely spoken to each other since. The issue at hand was James’ relationship with his younger brother, Sam, and his sister-in-law, Claire, who lived only a few streets away from them. Susan had long felt resentful toward Sam, whom she felt took advantage of James’s helpful nature, but even more hostile toward Claire, a stunningly beautiful local fashion model. James denied feeling attracted to Claire. Susan did not believe him because one night she had seen James flipping through the pages of Claire’s modeling portfolio, which included some nude pictures. Susan was now furious because, on the first day of a recent, heavy snow-storm, James had called to say he was stopping to help Sam and Claire dig out their driveway before coming home to help Susan shovel so she could then go out to an evening yoga class. An hour later, when Susan walked the half-mile to her in-laws’ house to drag her husband home, she was infuriated to find James and Claire working in the driveway and laughing together, with Sam nowhere in sight. That evening Susan never made it to her yoga class, instead, she fumed hard and long at James, accusing him of caring more about his brother’s long legged, exotic-looking wife than about her.
As the session began, Susan warned that this was a horribly painful issue for her. As she began to recount the incident, she was breathing so hard and fast that I thought she might start hyperventilating. “James,” she managed between jagged breaths, “do you have any clue what you’re like when you get within sniffing distance of Claire?” I quickly looked at James, who had turned his gaze downward and was sitting frozen. I feared he was shifting into a full-scale shutdown. But after a long moment he looked up again at his wife. “Susan,” he began softly, “I don’t give a damn about Claire.” When Susan hooted bitterly at this, James shook his head in frustration. But he didn’t fold. “When Sam called me to help out, I just didn’t think,” he went on. “I should have.” When Susan turned away in disgust, James looked suddenly desperate. “Look, Susan,” he said pleadingly, “when you get mad at me like this, it’s awful.” She looked back at him, clearly surprised. “It makes me feel sick inside,” he admitted to her. “I feel kind of lost.” As Susan continued gazing at him, he touched her arm. “But whatever I did, I’m sorry I hurt you.”
At this, Susan’s face began to bend. “You did hurt me, James,” she cried out. Tears spilling down her cheeks, she jumped up and fled the room. For a moment, James looked stunned and disoriented, a tearful Susan was not what he had expected. Then he, too, abruptly rushed out into the hallway, where his wife was weeping. “God, Susan, I really didn’t know what a big deal this was to you,” I could hear him say. “Will you help me understand?” As she continued to sob, I stepped out into the hall in time to witness James enveloping his wife in a bear hug and whispering into her hair, “It’s you I want.”
It was a moment of great tenderness, an honest exchange of vulnerability and open-hearted understanding. Yet ultimately, the melting moment of bonding that I had just witnessed was not what made me feel optimistic about James’ and Susan’s future. For I knew that such jolting shots of connectedness, however real and deep, would inevitable fade and stinging misunderstandings would arise again. What encouraged me most was that in the midst of this highly charged interaction, James had demonstrated the ability to shift from a reaction of fearful withdrawal to a warmly empathetic state that, in turn, allowed Susan to shift from her own state of fury to one of sorrowful hurt. I knew that if they were to construct an intimate bond that could truly endure, they would need to continue the difficult and delicate work they had begun. Little by little, they were changing their brains and teaching themselves to trust.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
This seems to be Self-Righteous Indignation Month. Apparently I did not receive the memo. I’m seeing so many clients this month who are filled with self-righteous indignation about the behavior of other people. They really get themselves worked up over it and come in totally frustrated and angry. What is this all about?
The term “self-righteous” is defined by yourdictionary.com as “filled with or showing a conviction of being morally superior, or more righteous than others; smugly virtuous”
Beautiful. That’s exactly it. Not virtuous, but smugly virtuous. It is about feeling superior to someone else. Most of us are most easily tempted into self-righteous indignation when driving. The driver ahead of us is driving too slow, too fast, cuts us off or makes some other terribly heinous error. And we are filled with outrage. We lay on the horn and yell and make sure everyone around knows that driver is not driving “correctly” (or at least how we define correct driving). The nerve of that guy! What a loser.
When listening to someone smoldering with self-righteous indignation I often hear the words, “right”, “fair” or “should”. “They should do it this way.” “They are not doing it the right way.” “It’s not fair.” Why shouldn’t we distinguish when people aren’t doing things “correctly”, or the way they “should” be done, or the “fair” way? For two reasons:
1. Because it’s not real. They aren’t doing it that way. They are doing it “wrong” or in a way they “shouldn’t” or “unfairly”. That is the reality. That is what’s happening. Expecting them to do something else just sets you up to be frustrated and angry.
2. Because it makes us unhappy. I always ask people, “how much time and energy have you invested in being upset about this? What could you have done with that time and energy instead? Most have invested a lot of both. And for what? Is this issue really that important?
If self-righteous indignation isn’t real and it makes us frustrated and angry, why do so many of us do it? Because it feels good. It feels “right”. We feel superior to that idiot over there doing things “wrong”. We feel better than that loser over there being “unfair”.
By pointing out the errors of someone else we are attempting to position ourselves as better than them. People with low self esteem, people who are unhappy in their lives, people who are frustrated with where they are in life are most susceptible to self-righteous indignation. By finding someone we believe to be less than or worse than ourselves and condemning them, we manage to feel some sort of superiority.
We can also use this to sabotage ourselves or make ourselves a target. Being intolerant of the mistakes of other people, and pointing them out loudly, will not make you popular. And it can totally destroy a career. I frequently see people living out the Scapegoat role utilizing this technique to alienate themselves.
A client came into my office fuming about her boss at work and how he was mishandling an account by giving a client preferential treatment. The client made a point of telling him that he was mishandling the account and did not except his explanation as being valid. She then went over his head and complained to his boss. When I asked how the mishandling of this account affected her she could not readily answer. She had no interactions with the client, it didn’t affect her clients, and she would not be held responsible for the account. She then continued to rail against the unfairness of the preferential treatment and her need to expose it. She denied ulterior motives or her long and conflictual relationship with the boss. She denied her wish to see him punished and stated she was unaware of any possible fallout from this action. She reported telling the boss’ superior that she did not mean to be a “tattletale”, but that she needed to know if this was “right” or not. When I asked her what her gut told her about whether it was right or not, she admitted that she already knew it was wrong and her boss’ explanation flimsy. But she continued to insist that she had to go over his head to find out “for sure” whether she was right or not. She was completed surprised when, a few weeks later, the boss attempted to have her transferred to another office. She had completed sabotaged herself with her boss in her need to be self-righteous. This is a pattern she has replicated in many offices prior to this. Her self-righteous intolerance of the foibles of other people and her need to confront superiors about them makes her a target, or a scapegoat. She eventually is let go or fired. Yet she continues to maintain this behavior. She had rather be “right” than employed.
If you are guilty of this pattern, how do you stop it?
1. Instead of deciding what people should be doing, look at what they are doing and then decide how to react to it.
2. If you find yourself condemning people, examine your motives. Is the issue itself really that important? Is it really worth your time and energy? Is this really a battle you want to take on? Or are you doing it for some other reason?
3. Feel your feelings. How do you feel when you are complaining about or reporting this behavior? Superior? Powerful? Is that the true motivation for it, rather than righting a wrong?
4. Examine the effects. What effects is this behavior having on your life? Has it damaged your career? Cost you friends? Caused conflict within your family?
5. Repeat after me: “I cannot change other people’s behavior, only my own.” You have no power over other people. Whatever they are doing is what they are going to do. The only person you can change is yourself. And most of us have more than enough work to do developing ourselves without taking on other people’s issues.
Self-righteous indignation is a heady, powerful emotion that can be quite exhilarating. But it comes at a high cost. If you can only bring yourself up by putting other people down perhaps you need to look at that. Perhaps your time and energy would be better spent developing your own character rather than shooting down other people’s.
Popular musician Billy Joel sings a song titled Angry Young Man that tells the story of a young man who’s “never been able to learn from his mistakes, so he can’t understand why his heart always breaks,” and is thus destined to “go to the grave as an angry old man.“
A recent study at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine suggests that Mr. Joel—although obviously not a doctor—was close to the truth about heart woes when he penned Angry Young Man. The study, which tracked 1,337 male medical students for 36 years following medical school, found that students who became angry quickly under stress were three times more likely to develop premature heart disease and five times more likely to have an early heart attack. Angry young men, it appears, turn into angry old men with heart problems.
So why does this happen? Is there a correlation between anger and heart disease?
“I see the role of anger in a variety of physical symptoms and disease processes, including heart disease,” says Jerry Kiffer, M.A., psychology assistant in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology and manager of the Psychological Testing Center at The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
Patients are referred to Kiffer and his colleagues when their anger levels are observed by other people (a doctor or spouse), or the patients themselves recognizes that their anger or stress level is high. Kiffer says that men are more likely to act out their anger when they’re stressed. This may be due to cultural factors (i.e., “boys will be boys”) and their tendency to want to fix or change circumstances. Unfortunately, many men don’t recognize this connection between stress and anger until they have a wakeup call—such as a heart attack.
But how can anger lead to a heart attack? “When you’re angry, your body reacts as though it is under attack,” says Kiffer. “It’s all systems go as you get a rush of adrenaline and your body revs up preparing to defend itself.
“But in today’s world, you can’t go out and attack someone every time you get angry, so your body has all of this pent-up energy and stress. It’s equivalent to sitting at a red light with your foot on the brake and the gas pedal floored. Your tires start spinning and your car is all revved up with no place to go. The same thing happens in your body when you get angry and don’t have an outlet for your anger, only the problem is what’s spinning and burning is inside your nervous system.”
Kiffer further notes that when you get angry, your body releases cholesterol and an array of chemicals called catecholamines into your blood stream. People who are hostile or angry have advanced levels of catecholamines in their systems, and research has shown that these chemicals actually speed the development of fatty deposits in the heart and carotid arteries.
“If you’re mad at the world and you have a family history of heart disease, you’re loading the bullets in the gun and pulling the trigger at an early age without realizing it,” says Kiffer. “People with a strong family history need to recognize that anger can be a strong risk factor. In fact, some research has shown that anger can be just as much of a risk factor for heart disease as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise.”
So does this mean that the young man (or woman) with the classic “Type A” personality is destined to die of a heart attack. Not necessarily. That’s because the old notion of a “Type A” personality was someone who was angry, outspoken and always on the go. Kiffer notes that it’s okay to be busy and always on the go, but anger, hostility and a cynical attitude aren’t good for your heart health.
Kiffer points out that psychologists now consider “Type A” people to be “hot reactors.” “If you’re a ‘hot reactor,’ that means it doesn’t take much for people to push your buttons, and you react fiercely and quickly.”
But even “hot reactors” can learn to manage their anger. “The popular belief is that if you’re angry you need to get those feelings out and get them off your chest,” points out Kiffer. “But if you express your anger, it can snowball. If you get in a gripe session and other people confirm your anger, your anger level could actually increase because other people confirm your feelings and you feel like you have a right to be angry. Now you are self-riotously angry.”
Yet holding anger in does nothing to relieve stress. In fact, Kiffer likens it to shaking a 2-liter bottle of pop with the cap on. Sooner or later the pop bottle will explode, and so will you—probably in the form of a heart attack or some other ailment.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
If a caller upsets you, do you hurl the phone across the room? Do you curse and blast the horn furiously if the driver in front of you takes three seconds to notice the green light? An angry temperament can hurt more than relationships – anger and heart disease may go hand in hand, according to experts.
“You’re talking about people who seem to experience high levels of anger very frequently,” says Laura Kubzansky, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who has studied the role of stress and emotion on cardiovascular disease.
Moderate anger may not be the problem, she says. In fact, expressing one’s anger in reasonable ways can be healthy. “Being able to tell people that you’re angry can be extremely functional,” she says.
But explosive people who throw things or scream at others may be at greater risk, as well as those who harbor suppressed rage, she says. “Either end of the continuum is problematic.”
Gender doesn’t appear to make much difference, she adds. “Once people are chronically angry, men and women seem to be at equally high risk.”
Scientists don’t all agree that anger plays a role in heart disease, she says. But many studies have suggested a significant link. “I think the case is strong,” Kubzansky says.
For example, one large study published in Circulation in 2000 found that among 12,986 middle-aged African-American and white men and women, those who rated high in traits such as anger — but had normal blood pressure — were more prone to coronary artery disease (CAD) or heart attack. In fact, the angriest people faced roughly twice the risk of CAD and almost three times the risk of heart attack compared to subjects with the lowest levels of anger.
Anger may not be the only culprit in heart disease risk. Kubzansky’s own research suggests that other extreme, negative emotions may contribute, too. “Anger is a problem, but so, too, are high levels of anxiety and depression. They tend to co-occur. People who are angry a lot also tend to have other chronic negative emotions as well.
How might hotheads be hurting their hearts?
Scientists speculate that anger may produce direct biological effects on the heart and arteries. Negative emotions, such as anger, quickly activate the “fight-or-flight response.” They also trigger the “stress axis,” Kubzansky says. “That’s a slightly slower response, but it activates a cascade of neurochemicals that are all geared toward helping you in the short run if you’re facing a crisis.”
While these stress responses mobilize us for emergencies, they might cause harm if repeatedly activated. “When they persist over time, they end up being potentially damaging,” she says.
For example, excessive amounts of stress hormones may speed up the process of atherosclerosis, in which fatty plaques build up in arteries, Kubzansky says.
Anger may also disrupt the electrical impulses of the heart and provoke dangerous heart rhythm disturbances.
Other research suggests that stress hormones may lead to higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a substance linked to atherosclerosis and future heart disease risk. In 2004, Duke University scientists who studied 127 healthy men and women found that those prone to anger, hostility, and depression had two to three times higher CRP levels than their more placid peers.
“CRP levels at this range are associated with inflammation that is likely to eventually increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke,” says researcher Edward Suarez, PhD. The findings were published in Psychosomatic Medicine.
Besides direct biological effects, lifestyle factors also come into play. Angry people may take worse care of themselves. “People who are chronically distressed may not behave in health-promoting ways,” Kubzansky says. “We know that anxious, depressed, angry people are more likely to smoke, less likely to engage in physical activity, have poor nutritional habits and drink to excess.”
Anger — as well as anxiety, depression and other negative emotions — are a part of life, Kubzansky says. They can serve useful purposes. “But if people find that they have them chronically and at high levels and can’t seem to get away from it, I view it like pain. It’s a signal that something needs to change. This is not how it’s supposed to be.”
Anger is intertwined with other problems that may end up harming the heart, says psychologist Wayne Sotile, PhD. “If you mismanage anger, it’s going to compromise your most intimate relationships,” he says. “It’s going to isolate you from others. The likelihood increases that you’ll get depressed, and you’re going to cause problems in your life that increase anxiety and worry.”
Sotile is director of psychological services for the Wake Forest University Healthy Exercise and Lifestyle Programs and a special consultant in behavioral health for the Center for Cardiovascular Health at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C.
Counseling and anger management classes can help the chronically angry to get their deep-seated emotions under control. But you can take more immediate steps, too, experts say.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
Anger is a basic human emotion that is experienced by all people. Typically triggered by an emotional hurt, anger is usually experienced as an unpleasant feeling that occurs when we think we have been injured, mistreated, opposed in our long-held views, or when we are faced with obstacles that keep us from attaining personal goals.
The experience of anger varies widely; how often anger occurs, how intensely it is felt, and how long it lasts are different for each person. People also vary in how easily they get angry (their anger threshold), as well as how comfortable they are with feeling angry. Some people are always getting angry while others seldom feel angry. Some people are very aware of their anger, while others fail to recognize anger when it occurs. Some experts suggest that the average adult gets angry about once a day and annoyed or peeved about three times a day. Other anger management experts suggest that getting angry fifteen times a day is more likely a realistic average. Regardless of how often we actually experience anger, it is a common and unavoidable emotion.
Anger can be constructive or destructive. When well managed, anger or annoyance has very few detrimental health or interpersonal consequences. At its roots, anger is a signal to you that something in your environment isn’t right. It captures your attention and motivates you to take action to correct that wrong thing. How you end up handling the anger signal has very important consequences for your overall health and welfare, however. When you express anger, your actions trigger others to become defensive and angry too. Blood pressures raises and stress hormones flow. Violence can ensue. You may develop a reputation as a dangerous ‘loose cannon’ whom no one wants to be around.
Out of control anger alienates friends, co-workers and family members. It also has a clear relationship with health problems and early mortality. Hostile, aggressive anger not only increases your risk for an early death, but also your risk for social isolation, which itself is a major risk factor for serious illness and death. These are but two of many reasons why learning to properly manage anger is a good idea.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Anger provides a mixture of motivational benefits, some healthy and some short sighted and self-destructive.
On the positive side, anger creates a sense of power and control in a situation where prior to anger these positive, motivating feelings did not exist. The feelings of control and righteousness that come from anger can motivate you to challenge and change difficult interpersonal and social injustices. If handled correctly, your anger can motivate others to help you win your cause. Anger can provide you with a rest from feelings of vulnerability, and a way of venting tensions and frustrations. It can provide the energy and resolve necessary to defend yourself when you’ve been wronged. If you are a long suffering victim of domestic abuse, for example, and your anger finally reaches the boiling point so that it enables you to leave your abusive relationship, anger has been a truly positive force in your life. If you are a dedicated crusader working to further a truly moral cause (such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s drive for civil rights, or Gandhi’s drive for Indian independence), then anger gives you the strength to carry on, and the will to persevere.
There are negative motivational sides to anger too. Anger can create and then reinforce a false sense of entitlement, an illusory feeling of moral superiority that can be used to justify immoral actions. For instance, anger-motivated aggression can be used to justify terrorism, or to coerce and bully people into doing what you want them to do against their will. Angry people are likely to subscribe to the philosophy that “the end justifies the means” and then use unspeakable means of working towards their goals that defeat their purpose. If you are a terrorist like Timothy McVey (who bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995), a bully like television’s Tony Soprano (lead character in the HBO drama “The Sopranos”), or a ‘school shooter’ like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (who murdered fellow high school students in Columbine, Colorado in 1999), anger has led you to the dark side.
It is important to recognize that the effect of anger can be either positive or negative. If years of unresolved anger reach the boiling point and motivate you to leave an abusive relationship, your anger has saved you from additional abuse. On the other hand, if you use your anger to frighten others into doing what you want them to without considering their needs, you are allowing your anger to coerce and control others and you are no better than a bully.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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