We hear what we expect to hear, we see what we expect to see. Our expectation changes our experience. If we walk into a meeting and expect it to be a long, drawn out process rivaled only by a root canal or preparing your taxes, more than likely it will not disappoint. At that same meeting, another member of the crowd may come with a more open mind and willingness to learn and think it is the most enlightening time they have ever spent. So what’s the difference? This same rule applies to our relationships. Our expectation changes our experience.
So where does our main model for relationships and communication come from? You probably guessed it, our parents; who received their patterns from their parents and so on. How they did and do relationships has an impact upon our own. Like it or not. If you had an affectionate relationship modeled by your parents, you will most likely carry the model forward or go to the other extreme so as to try and break the cycle, either way the influence is there. If your parents were good communicators when it came to the sticky topics; money, discipline/parenting styles, intimacy, then you most likely can handle the tension most people try to avoid when it comes to talking about some of the tough things in life. If this information gets you down, don’t worry. You can change the pattern if you choose. When you understand some of the forces at work in your relationships and life, you attain the possibility of being able to have your past no longer dictate your future.
When you shed some light on this process in your relationships it’s easy to see why our important relationships are so much work. There are two family systems fighting to gain control of this newly formed system. Coupled with the idea that we see what we expect to see and hear what we expect to hear, no wonder there are times of conflict in this relationship. Surprisingly, there are many people I have worked with that are shocked at this fact. Apparently they have held on to the fairy tale version of relationships for too long. Maybe you have too. Movies and TV portray relationships as an alluring time of romance, love, laughter and joy. You know what I mean, “and they all lived…”
If you can complete that sentence, you have had that illusion as well.
Now back to the initial question, what did you expect? The onus rests on our own shoulders to make the most out of this life. If you expect things to be tough today, most likely they will be. If you expect your marriage to be rocky, it will. I am not advocating that you don’t examine reality honestly, but more often than not, what we expect out of things becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. By changing your focus or outlook on things, other aspects of life will begin to change as well. Problems in life are inevitable, struggling is optional. Improve your ability to improvise, adapt and overcome will allow you to take charge of your life and harness more energy for your day. Rather than spending a lot of time trying to change the wind in your life, adjust your sails.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Anger is a force that can move an organization forward to improve, or, it can be a force that destroys the organization’s ability to fulfil it’s purpose on an everyday level. Managers play a critical role in determining which of these results will come about. The way the manager deals with conflict and anger will set the climate for employees.
There are a number of different anger/conflict situations that managers will face at one time or another. Each of these situations is slightly different, and may require different sets of skills.
■one employee angry or in conflict with another
■employee angry or in conflict with manager (you)
■one employee angry at someone in another organization
■two factions that habitually square off
We are going to look at employee angry that is directed towards you as a manager.
The Anger Iceberg
You should be aware that the anger you see is much easier to deal with than the anger that goes unexpressed by employees. You should also know that the large proportion of employee anger is not expressed directly to the “boss”. It is this anger that is destructive to your organization since it will surface covertly through activities such as back-stabbing, un-cooperativeness, rumour spreading, and poor performance.
One important management/leadership task is to be alert to cues that indicate that there is anger sitting below the surface, unexpressed. While it may be frustrating to bear the responsibility of identifying and dealing with the “iceberg under the surface”, it is an important part of building a positive climate where conflict can be resolved. If you wait for an employee to broach the subject, when it is clear there is a problem, you may be sacrificing a great deal.
We are going to focus on how employee anger that is out in the open can be dealt with so that there is a potential for increasing the level of respect and harmony, and by extension, productivity.
1. Conflict/Angry situations become negative and destructive when they are not dealt with promptly and effectively. When the situations are dealt with properly, there is a tendency for a team to get stronger and better.
2. While angry employees may appear to want a specific issue addressed, they are looking for something else that they see as equally or more important. They want to be heard. If you don’t provide a means for them to be heard, they will find other more
subversive ways to be heard (and you won’t like it much).
3. Staff will watch very closely to see how you handle anger directed at you. Even if you have a private discussion with an angry employee, staff will know about it. Your ability to lead will depend on your behaviour, and the interpretation of your behaviour.
4. Most people react to anger directed at them with a fight or flight reaction. That is there is a gut reaction which, unchecked, results in “firing back” with an aggressive manner, defending oneself, OR, avoidance. Only in rare occasions will these gut reactions result in dealing with anger effectively.
Tips & Techniques For Dealing With Overt Angry Behaviour
1. When an employee expresses anger, deal with it as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean in two weeks! By showing a desire to make time to discuss the situation, you are showing that you are concerned, and value the employee and his or her perceptions and feelings. Many performance problems reach crisis proportions as a result of delay in dealing with anger.
2. Certain situations require privacy for discussion since some people will be unwilling to air their feelings at a public staff meeting. However, if anger is expressed in a staff meeting, you can develop a positive climate in the organization by dealing effectively with it in public. One technique is to ask the angry employee whether they would like to discuss it now, or prefer to talk about it privately. Let them call the shot.
3. Always allow the employee to talk. Don’t interrupt. If they are hesitant to talk, encourage them by using a concerned, non-defensive tone and manner, and gently use questions. For example:
“You seem a bit upset. I would like to help even if you are angry at me. What’s up?”
4. If an employee refuses to talk about what’s bothering them, consider adjourning by saying:
“I can understand that you are hesitant to talk about this, but we would probably both be better off if we got it out in the open. Let’s leave it for a few days and come back to it”
Then follow up on the conversation.
5. Respond to the employee’s feelings first, not the issue underlying the feelings. Use empathy first by saying something like:
“It sounds like you are pretty annoyed with me. I would like to hear your opinion”.
6. Before stating “your side” or your perception of the situation, make sure you have heard what the person said. Use active listening.
“George, if I understand you correctly, you are angry because you feel that I have not given you very challenging assignments, and you feel that I don’t have any confidence in your abilities. Is that right?”
7. If the employee’s perceptions do not match your perceptions express your perceptions in a way that tries to put you and the employee on the same side. Your job is not to prove the employee wrong (even if they are). Trying to prove the employee is
incorrect is likely to increase the anger level even if you are right.
“George, I am sorry you feel that way. Let me explain what I think has happened so you can understand my thinking. Then we can work this out together.”
8. A technique used by expert negotiators is to establish agreement about something. Before getting into the issues themselves, lay the groundwork by finding something the two of you agree on. Again, the point here is to convey the message that you are on the same side.
“George, I think we agree that we don’t want this issue to continue to interfere with our enjoyment of our work. Is that accurate?”
9. At the end of a discussion of this sort, check with the employee to see how they are feeling. The general pattern is:
a) Deal with feelings first
b) Move to issues and problem-solving
c) Go back to feelings (check it out)
Ask the employee if they are satisfied with the situation, or simply ask “Do you feel a bit better?” You may not always get a completely honest response, so be alert to tone of voice and non-verbal cues.
If it appears that the employee is still upset or angry, you may want to let it pass for the moment. Allow the person to think about the situation away from you, THEN follow-up in a day or two. This is important because someone who is angry initially may “lose face” by letting the anger go immediately. Or, the employee might just need time to think about your discussion.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Our brains and bodies are naturally designed to express a range of emotions and
to respond to the emotions of others. The emotions of fear, shame, and anger
serve us in the most dangerous situations we may have to face. The fear and
anger not only energize us to run or fight, but also communicate our emotional
state to those close enough to respond. Our anger lets others know we are
energized to attack and they had better respect that. Fear communicates to
others that there is something dangerous nearby, and they might want to get
ready to run, too. Shame also communicates. It communicate surrender so that our
foe will not continue to attack.
We are also hardwired to express joy, distress, and surprise. The expression of joy communicates our relief at being safe among friends, while distress communicates our need for help and comfort.Surprise seems designed to help us assess the situation when something unexpected happens. It focuses our attention and opens our eyes.
We also come equipped with the ability to recognize these basic emotional states in others. Mirroring structures in the brain help us to respond to others actions and emotions automatically. Very young babies understand the difference between a smile and a frown, a lullaby and a scolding and they respond automatically.
Direct uninhibited emotional response between two people is called intimacy, and babies are natural at it, which is why we often find relationships with babies so rewarding. Babies are not ashamed to show their feelings, whether they are distress, frustration, delight, fear, or shame itself. And when we are with them, we are not ashamed to mimic them with goo goos and gah gahs of baby talk that we would be embarassed to see on video, absent the baby context. We are free to be responsive to a baby’s distress or frustration. We are rewarded by the good feelings of intimacy.
So what goes wrong later?
Somewhere along the line, we learn to try to hide our feelings because our own feelings scare us or we are ashamed of them. Expressing our feelings becomes associated with feeling vulnerablebecause others may make fun of us or try to use our feelings against us. So we work very hard to hide our feelings behind a mask of some kind, and in order to do this we work to suppress the emotions. We can get so good at this that we hide the feelings even from ourselves and feel horrified at the possibility that others could know about our distress, shame, or frustration. Some of us drink, binge, purge, or work long hours in order to numb ourselves and make it easier to suppress the emotions rather than express them. And we lose the freedom and delight of intimacy in a habit of hiding behind our mask. We substitute sex for intimacy and busy routines for friendship.
Underneath the masks, the busy routines, and the defensive habits, we are still hardwired to express our emotions and respond to others, still hardwired for intimacy if we can let go of the habits we have developed to protect ourselves. We can escape the trap of these new defensive habits, but we often have to have help to overcome the fear and shame that keep us stuck behind our masks.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Some have noted a pattern of suspicion followed by silence among those who knew something about Sandusky’s behavior with young boys. Those who work with survivors of child sexual abuse know this pattern all too well and are often angered by it. How do we explain the reluctance of people to talk about their suspicions openly so that something might be done to stop these atrocities?
One of the explanations suggested is that the abuser is a person of power or status who could use that power to punish anyone who dared talk about what they suspected or knew. Though there is some truth to this, especially in the minds of the young person who has been manipulated and sometimes threatened into silence, I think there is a more basic explanation that comes clear in an understanding of the nature of shame and our responses to behavior that evokes shame.
Shame is one of the powerful survival emotions with which we are all hardwired. It is the emotion that compels us to surrender and try to hide when we are faced with an overwhelming threat or defeated in competition. It can save our lives in a primitive battle over status, and it has a complex function in forming our consciences and guiding our moral awareness. But although we use the word in a way that has many complex connotations, it is a fundamental and powerful basic emotion, and shares some characteristics with other survival emotions.
1. Shame compels an immediate behavioral response. Fear compels us to freeze first, then run. Anger compels us to attack. And shame compels us to surrender and withdraw, averting our gaze and trying to hide. We want to become invisible, and anything that draws attention to us makes the shame stronger. So when someone tells an inappropriate joke at a party, everyone wants to crawl under the table. And when someone in your group is behaving badly, no one wants to be the first to call attention to the problem. “For some people, the subject is literally unspeakable.”
2. Shame is contagious. Like the panic triggered in a crowded theater when someone shouts fire, or the rage evoked in a mob when it is focused on a target, shame over someone’s exposure evokes an emotional response in all of us. Depending on our relationship to the person shamed, the emotional response can be one of shame or anger, but if the person is a member of your family, tribe, or a group with which you identify, the shame will come first. When Dad is drunk and making a fool of himself, everyone in the family wants to leave the scene. A secondary
reaction of anger may set in soon, but the initial response is shared shame. If our political leader makes a gaffe, we all groan inside before we go into defensive action.
3. Shame is followed by anger. But the anger may be expressed toward almost anyone. After feeling the sting of shame, we may be angry at ourselves, we may be angry at the world, we may be angry at the easiest person to be angry at – which maybe the victim of the abuse – or we may fear the anger of others that we know is likely to emerge if we make a lot of noise about the shameful situation. So family members enable the alcoholic rather than confront, institutions shield and hide the abusers in their midst rather than share the shame of exposure, and people with suspicions of others, particularly leading members of the group with which they identify, keep their mouths shut and their heads down (the classic posture of shame). The fear of angry reprisals can extend to fear of legal action against the institution involved. But underlying this fear is the naive wish that it will all just go away if we can cover it up or keep quiet about it.
Understanding the nature of our powerful survival emotions, how they compel us to freeze, run, attack, or hide, can help us resist the self defeating behavioral responses that can arise in response to emotionally loaded situations and help us solve problems sooner. Wishing the problems and the feelings would just go away only prolongs the damaging situation.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 )
About a month ago, Declan Procaccini’s 10-year-old son woke him early in the morning in a fright.
“He came into my bedroom and said, ‘Dad, I had a horrible, horrible dream!’ ” Procaccini says. “He was really shaken up. I said, ‘Tell me about it,’ and he told me he’d had a dream that a teenager came into his classroom at his school and shot all the kids in front of him.”
Procaccini’s son is a sensitive kid, frequently anxious, so Procaccini did what he often does when his son crawls into his bed with a fear or anxiety: He explained why the fear wasn’t rational by simply laying out the math.
“The chance of that happening here are 1 in a zillion,” Procaccini told his son, and then continued with a lesson about probabilities and possibilities. “You know, it’s possible that Godzilla could right now come through the trees? Yes. But is it probable? No. I think we both know that it’s not probable.”
This discussion seemed to calm his son down a bit. He shook off his dream and returned to life as usual.
“That worked out for a little while,” Procaccini says.
And then Procaccini’s community became the “1″ in “1 in a zillion.”
‘I’m Going To Need Help For A Long Time’
The day Adam Lanza shot his way through Sandy Hook Elementary School, Procaccini’s 8-year-old daughter was in a reading room just down the hall from the principal’s office.
She had walked herself to her class early and was sitting there with two teachers when the three of them heard the sound of gunfire coming from outside.
“They grabbed my daughter by the arm and threw her into the bathroom,” Procaccini says. “There’s a little bathroom off the reading room, I think it’s a single-person … and the three of them just sat in there, quiet, ’cause he came into the room.”
Apparently, Lanza didn’t hear them because he left, and everyone in the tiny bathroom survived.
In the days after the shootings, though, one of the teachers who had been at the school and knew Procaccini well reached out to him and his wife, Lisa. She wanted them to know just how terrifying their daughter’s experience had been.
You need to get your daughter help, she told the family. Procaccini recalls her saying, “I was literally in the same area as your daughter, and I know what she saw and I know what she heard, and I’m going to need help for a long time. You need to get her help.”
But since the shootings, Procaccini’s daughter has barely talked about what happened, barely registered any emotional distress at all.
“I don’t know if she’s just disassociated. I don’t know if it’s her defense mechanism. Or I don’t know if she just doesn’t get it. I truly don’t,” Procaccini says.
His 10-year-old son, however, has been struggling. Procaccini’s son graduated from Sandy Hook Elementary last year and now attends Reed Intermediate School, which went into lockdown during the shooting, so the boy had no idea what was happening until Procaccini picked him up and told him about it. Immediately, Procaccini says, his son started crying. “I mean, he was crying like a little baby. I haven’t seen him cry like that, you know? He was so scared.”
And as soon as they got home, Procaccini says, his son made a decision: no more school for him. “I’m not going!” he insisted over and over again.
But when Procaccini’s family went to see a therapist the next day, one of the things the therapist made clear was that staying away from school was a bad idea. The more school his son missed, she told Procaccini, the harder it would be to get him to go back.
And so on Tuesday of last week, when Reed went back into session, Procaccini tried to persuade his son to go.
“I said, ‘Come on, I’ll walk you in, I’ll show you!’ And he just snapped. And it was crying and screaming, ‘I’m not going! I’m not going! You’re not leaving me!’ “
For the rest of the week, Procaccini and his son simply drove to the school and walked together through the halls for hours, Procaccini’s car keys safely tucked into his son’s coat pocket so that Procaccini couldn’t drive away by himself.
This procedure was supposed to convince his son that school really was a safe place, but his son doesn’t seem to be buying it, and Procaccini is worried about what will happen after the holiday break.
“I don’t have a plan, really,” he says.
Since the shootings, Procaccini’s son hasn’t had another dream, but Procaccini is certain that if he does, there will be at least one difference in the way that Procaccini responds. Procaccini won’t talk about probabilities and possibilities again. That argument suddenly doesn’t make any sense.
‘Something Somewhere Will Happen’
Zhihong Yang, another parent of a Sandy Hook student, lives two miles away. Yang tells me to call her Jen, and when I walk in, there’s a small pile of papers spread over the table in her kitchen, handouts for Sandy Hook Elementary parents distributed at a conference the night before.
Yang’s son Jerry is in the third grade and was at Sandy Hook during the shooting. Unlike some of the other kids who were at the school, he genuinely seems to be doing OK. But for her part, Yang finds herself thinking about things she had never considered before.
“Yesterday I went to Costco and I can’t help but think: If there was a shooter here, what do you do? I went to the supermarket: If something happened there, what do you do?” she says.
This makes sense, since death is all around Yang. Take her drive to school. Her usual seven-minute route is now lined with families affected by the tragedy. “At least four families that had victims in that accident,” she says, “and when I drive by I feel the pain and I do cry.”
Yang is from China. She says that in college there, she studied math, and then suddenly — totally without prompting — I find myself in another conversation about possibilities and probabilities. Yang, it turns out, specialized in statistics, and since the shooting has been thinking a lot about possibilities and probabilities, reconsidering her original feelings about them.
Yang tells me that she had always assumed that she was safe because the chance of a shooting happening to her specifically was very small. But since the shooting she’s been focused on this one rule of statistics she learned in college, which she calls the “large number certainty theorem.”
“If the base is big enough,” she explains, “even though the probability is small, things will happen with certainty.”
By Yang’s reckoning, this is how the large number certainty theorem applies.
We know that many people have guns, and we know that a certain number of people have disordered minds or bad intentions, and we also know that this is a huge country. In other words, the base is big.
“So, you know, mathematically, something somewhere will happen with certainty,” she says.
And so though Yang previously depended on the idea that school shootings were so rare they would probably happen to someone else, the shooting has taught her that “we should not wait until it actually happens to us to take action.”
Yang has decided to get more involved with fighting for gun control. This, to her, seems like the logical thing to do.
Still, the logic of many parts of all this are not clear to her at all.
“You can safely predict that this will happen, but why it particularly happened to that class? To that teacher’s room? That particular family?” she says.
This obviously is not a question that math can answer. Math can tell us only that something will happen — not when, not to whom.
And so, Yang reasons, morally she should not distinguish between its happening to someone else and its happening to her. Probabilities just aren’t improbable enough for that.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Human empathy depends on the ability to share the emotions of others—to “feel” what other people feel. It is regarded by many people as the foundation of moral behavior. But to some, the concept seems rather airy-fairy. What does it mean to say “I feel your pain”? Isn’t that just a fanciful flight of the imagination?
Well, not really. For one thing, it turns out nonhuman animals—-even rodents-—show evidence of empathy. For another, it appears that empathy has a neurological basis.
The same brain regions that process our first-hand experiences of pain are also activated when we observe other people in pain. Moreover, when we observe the emotional signals of others, we recruit brain regions associated with theory of mind, the mechanism that permits us to take the perspective of another person. This theory of mind mechanism-—along with the ability to keep our own emotional reactions under control-—may be of crucial importance for showing empathic concern, or sympathy.
A person who lacked theory of mind or the ability to self-regulate emotions might focus solely on her own emotional reactions to another person’s plight. She might respond aversively to the victim, or–absorbed by her own emotional agitation–she might even become aggressive. Empathy, then, involves a package of abilities. Here’s a quick guide to the biology of empathy, including information about the development of empathy in children.
In one experiment, 15 rhesus monkeys were trained to get food by pulling chains. Monkeys quickly learned that one chain delivered twice as much food than the other. But then the rules changed. If a monkey pulled the chain associated with the bigger reward, another “bystander” monkey received an electric shock. After seeing their conspecific get a shock, 10 of the monkeys switched their preferences to the chain associated with the lesser food reward. Two other monkeys stopped pulling either chain—preferring to starve rather than see another monkey in pain.
Mice, too, respond to the display of pain by their companions. Researchers at McGill University put pairs of mice together and injected one or both of them with a substance that induces mild stomach ache. Mice reacted to the pain by wriggling and stretching their legs. But the intensity of the reaction depended on social cues. Mice wriggled and stretched more when their companions were also in pain. Moreover, mice exposed to the sight of a suffering cage mate were quicker to back away from an unpleasant heat source—suggesting that witnessing their companion’s discomfort made mice more sensitive to their own pain.
So there is nothing particularly human about finding the painful experiences of others unpleasant. But why is “second-hand” pain unpleasant or upsetting?
New research by neuroscientist Jean Decety suggests a fascinating neurological link between our own, first-hand experience of pain and our perception of pain in other people. When typically developing kids (aged 7 to 12 years) were presented with images of people getting hurt, the kids experienced more activity in the same neural circuits that process first-hand experiences of pain. This automatic response–termed “mirroring”—has also been documented in adults. The phenomenon may reflect the activation of mirror neurons, nerve cells that fire both when a person performs an action and he sees that action being performed by others. To date, researchers have identified specific neurons involved in the mirroring of hand movements. No one yet has isolated specific mirror neurons for pain or emotion.
Mirror neurons may explain how we can experience “second-hand” pain or emotion. But to respond with empathic concern, we need other information, too. We need to understand the perspectives of other people. We also need to overcome our own negative reactions to the display of another person’s pain or distress.
Brain-imaging research seems to confirm this link between theory of mind and empathy. For instance, when people have been asked to evaluate the emotional facial expressions of others, they showed activation in the brain regions associated with theory of mind tasks. And theory of mind is probably important in other ways. For instance, Jean Decety and his colleagues have investigated how the brain distinguishes between the victims of accidents and victims of aggression.
To better understand how theory of mind contributes to the perception of “second hand” pain, Decety’s team showed kids two sets of images. One set depicted people experiencing painful accidents. The other set showed people who were being victimized by aggressors. In both scenarios, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that merely looking at images activated brain regions associated with the first-hand experience of pain. But when kids watched images of one person deliberately inflicting pain on another person, additional brain regions (in the orbital medial frontal cortex and the paracingulate cortex) were activated.
Brain imaging research and studies of brain-damaged patients suggest that these regions are associated with social interaction, emotional self-control, and moral reasoning. Were the additional brain regions activated because the kids were engaged in social and moral thinking? It seems very plausible.
The activation wasn’t caused by the mere presence of multiple people in the images, because researchers controlled for that. And, when kids were debriefed at the end of the experiment, most of them commented on the unfairness with which the victims had been treated.
The study mentioned above measured the responses of normally-developing kids. What about kids who show a cruel streak? Decety’s group conducted a similar fMRI study on teenage boys with conduct disorder, or CD.
This disorder is a serious psychiatric condition linked with behaviors like physical aggression, manipulative lying, sexual assault, cruelty to animals, vandalism, and bullying. It’s also a precursor to antisocial personality disorder in adulthood (Lahey et al 2005). Researchers screened boys (aged 16-18) for CD, and showed them the same types of images of accidents and assaults mentioned above.
The results were very interesting. I feel your pain…and it makes me lash out
In some respects, the boys with CD responded like boys in the control group. In particular, the mirror neuron system for pain was activated in both groups.
But there were dramatic differences.
First, the boys with conduct disorder experienced less activation in brain regions associated with self-regulation, theory of mind, and moral reasoning.
Second, the boys with CD actually exhibited a stronger “mirror” response to accidentally-caused pain.
And, unlike controls, the boys with conduct disorder experienced strong, bilateral activation in the amygdala and striatum.
What does this mean? It’s not clear. The amygdala processes emotion. And the striatum is activated by strong stimuli—both pleasurable and aversive. So there are at least two possibilities.
The aggressive boys might have gotten a pleasurable “kick” out of viewing the pain of others.
But given that their own pain centers were strongly activated, it’s also possible that observing second-hand pain triggered negative emotions—emotions that make the boys behave more aggressively. As Decety and his colleagues point out, negative emotions—particularly in people with poor emotional control—can cause agitation and outbursts of aggression (Berkowitz 2003). This effect may be magnified in kids who have trouble distinguishing their own first-hand pain from the pain of others.
Decety and colleagues speculate that boys with conduct disorder may experience high levels of agitation or distress when they experience second-hand pain. When this distress is combined with poor self-regulation of emotion, they lash out. But whether second-hand pain makes aggressive kids feel good or irritable, one thing seems pretty certain:
The brains of boys with conduct disorder responded more intensely to images of other people experiencing pain. And this intensity was linked with the boys’ aggressive tendencies. The more strongly a boy’s brain responded to second-hand pain, the more highly he scored on measures of daring and sadism.
Animal studies and brain scan research might make us wonder if feeling empathy is a purely automatic process. But, as noted above, empathy is really a package of abilities, and there is evidence that empathy and empathic concern can be shaped by experience.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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I like to say that the heart is where emotions come from. Yet, the heart has no judgment at all. We are all born as emotional beings, which we use to help us survive. Our brains are not fully developed, so our logic is not always logical or rationally based on facts. We seek to avoid pain and cry out for pleasure. When an infant hears his parent’s arguing and yelling he will cry. Infants are emotional being that use their emotional radar to pick up on the feelings of those around them to survive. Historically, teenagers have always seemed to make illogical and irrational decisions. This is partly due to the limitations in their logic and reliance upon their emotions. Adolescents seek out pleasure, are unable to delay gratification, and pursue impulsive actions. As we age our brain fully develops and our logic takes over. Yet our emotional memories are strong and trump our rational decisions. Can we logically explain all the things we do for love? The time and money we invest in caring for others, beyond evolutionary theories, there is no logical explanation other then it feels good to love. Emotional memories become emotional reflexes as we age. We no longer even think of these motivations, we just react. Yet, below the surface our fears of pain lead us to defend ourselves to avoid the misery we once were exposed to. This pain may be from our own direct experience or it may be vicariously through witnessing another’s pain. Still these emotional memories were so strong and even traumatic that we have spent a great deal of our lives acting in ways to avoid reliving them. The longer we act to avoid these experiences the more these emotional memories turn into strong emotional reflexes. Eventually reaching the point where we no longer question where they come from but feel obliged to act in accordance with them out of internal discomfort. Emotions cause us physical discomfort in the form of headaches, muscle tension, nausea, sweating, shortness of breath, or an increased heartbeat just to name a few. These are ways our body communicates with us and lets us know that we are neglecting ourselves. So we seek to release this pain by lashing out with exaggerated emotional reactions and dump our pain onto someone else. Typically these are safe targets, who are people that love us because we know that they will forgive us and tolerant our outbursts.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 )
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