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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Spoiling Behavior is All an Act, But a Deadly Serious One


Relationships between people are formed through interactions that are two-way and simultaneous. People learn and become different over time as this occurs, and can push one another away.


I recently received an angry letter from a mother whose child apparently has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). She told me that I must have no idea what it is like to raise a child with the disorder, or I would never say what I do about it. She added that kids with the disorder do not respond to the most positive of upbringings, so don’t blame parents!

Having been the direct recipient of the spoiling behavior of adult patients with the disorder when I started out as a therapist - and did not know then how to deal with their in-session behavior effectively - I can say that I have a really good idea about what that is like. And it ain't no picnic. And I agree that unrestrained positivity does not change it. It can even make it worse!

It is also true that not all families that produce kids with the disorder are overtly abusive either physically, sexually, or verbally, although a large and significant majority of them are in fact abusive in those ways – according to every study ever done. Even DBT therapists believe they come from an “invalidating environment,” even though they seem to scrupulously avoid identifying that specific environment as the family of origin.

I would like to suggest that the reader take a look at what the letter writer said in a different way than would be a typical interpretation. (Of course, I can’t know for sure even if her child has even been correctly diagnosed or exactly how positive the family environment is). In just a couple of sentences, she could be understood to be saying that her parenting has nothing to do with how her child turned out. In a phrase, it is only the child who is (completely) screwed up.
           
If I’m hearing this in a short letter, you can bet that the child has heard it. And guess what? If children hear this point of view a lot, they will begin to act in ways that give the parent an easy justification for making the statement so the parents don’t have to feel bad about blaming everything on the kid. But doing this is all an act to placate and stabilize the parents.

I can predict relatively confidently that if the mother continues to exhibit this same attitude much of the time, the child will continue to give her grief, and will not get better.
           
Likewise, if a parent is constantly invalidating a child, the child will begin to act in ways that practically invite invalidation. One leader of a parents of BPD kids' support group once told me that her daughter said bizarre things, such as that she had grown up poor. The family was in fact quite well off financially. The daughter was not psychotic. Her mother is quite bright, so I would have to assume that the daughter is not actually stupid enough to somehow not know that the family was affluent. If she were my patient, I would ask her specifically what she thought the family was poor in. Validating responses, perhaps? Warmth?
           
When I speak of this stuff being an act, I always have to clarify that it is specifically the spoiling behavior which is the act. The way they generally feel, their sense of a poor identity, the impulsiveness and such are all real – but all adaptive or reactive to the family dynamics that produce BPD.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Are People Really as Stupid as they Often Act?




Einstein reportedly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again but expecting a different result. In psychotherapy, we see a lot of self-destructive and self-defeating people who, by that definition, must be insane. Except they are not psychotic, so they are not acting this way because they are delusional. An alternate explanation: they are just too stupid to see how unproductive their chronic repetitive behavior actually is. If you are looking for evidence of stupid human behavior, it certainly is easy to find.


But are they really that stupid? I mean, if you step on something that causes a 2 X 4 to knock you in the face, you might miss the connection once or twice. But would you be oblivious to that if it happened repeatedly? Of course not! Even if you had an IQ of 70. So this raises the question, why do people persist in dysfunctional behavior if they really are not that stupid?


Readers of this blog will already know how I answer this question. If someone keeps doing the same things and getting the same results, those results are the ones they are aiming to get! A good way to determine what people are really going after in these cases is looking at what I call the net effect or end results of the behavior. Of course, people claim not to know why they persist even though it becomes painfully obvious when looked at in this way. But they are lying to you – as well as often lying to themselves.


In actuality, they are willfully blind to the consequences of their behavior. Or, some might say, they are in denial. But at some level, they have to know what they are doing. They just refuse to think about it. In fact, they are acting out a false self meant to stabilize unstable attachment figures. They are playing a role. They are literally acting. To be a good actor, you have to really believe you are the character you are playing, but at some level you know you are not (the actor’s paradox).


Another way to keep one’s true self from rising to the fore is to continually devalue it with irrational beliefs as described here

Some religions, while they clearly offer much comfort to many people, may also encourage beliefs that feed into people devaluing themselves. They do this in order to enforce group conformity and, when they deem it necessary, sacrificing oneself for the good of the group. For instance, some churches basically teach that in God’s eyes we are all reprehensible sinners, and that the only way to be saved is to do what the church leaders of that particular denomination tell you to do. They preach that you should put God first, your family second, and yourself last.



Monday, December 30, 2019

Mental and Interpersonal Mechanisms of Groupthink Maintenance


                                                                                          PatientSafe Network


This post is a shortened version of one of my chapters in the upcoming multi-author book, Groupthink in Science.


One of the defining characteristics of groupthink is something called “willful blindness.” People often know things but choose to pretend that they do not, in order to fit in with larger social groups. They lie to everyone including themselves They refuse to look at any sources of information that might call into question any beliefs that help them to “convey and conform to” the needs of the various groups to which they belong. The paradox of such willful ignorance is that in cases in which you are motivated to avoid looking at something, you have to know where not to look! In other words, you had to have seen it.

The reason that we all do this has to do with a significant characteristic of natural selection during biological evolution. Conforming to the values and requirements of our kin group or tribe has high adaptive value. Genes that contribute to the survival of the tribe or clan to which we belong, as opposed to those that only benefit individuals, are highly likely to be passed on. This process is known as kin selection.

While sacrificing oneself for a group – such as the widespread willingness to die for one’s country in a war – is not beneficial for individual survival, it does contribute significantly to group survival. Nonetheless, it can sometimes actually harm a group’s interests in the long run. The term pathological altruism has been used to describe situations in which this tendency to self-sacrifice backfires and harms not only the individual making the sacrifice but his or her group as well.

Many mental mechanisms and tricks have evolved to help us lie to ourselves to achieve these purposes. Interestingly, we also tend to assist our fellow group members in using these tricks on themselves. Groups as a whole also have a variety of mechanisms for keeping certain information censored. The mechanisms are the subject of this post.

They appear at the level of the individual, where they include the defense mechanisms described by psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapists, and the irrational beliefs enumerated by cognitive behavioral psychotherapists. They also appear at the level of the family or kin group, where they are called family myths. They also exist at the level of cultural groups, where they are called mythology.

Defense mechanisms were originally defined as mental processes, typically subconscious, employed by individuals to avoid ideas or impulses that are unacceptable to their own personal value system, and to avoid the anxiety that those ideas or impulses therefore created. Notice, however, that these mechanisms do not just serve an internal purpose within our mind, but an interpersonal one as well. We may, for example, compulsively try to act in the opposite way that an impulse that is unacceptable to our group would dictate (reaction formation), or displace our anger at one person within our kin group onto another outside, safer person to avoid tension within our group.

Irrational Beliefs are often automatic in that they come to us without any conscious effort in response to an environmental event, and they quickly lead to specific behavior patterns. They are often said to be subliminal, which is a similar concept to subconscious. If you, for example, catastrophize (imagining every single thing that could possible go wrong if you did something, no matter how unlikely) about your engaging in a course of action not condoned by your group, you will indeed scare yourself away from engaging in it. Group norms are often internally policed by unquestioned thoughts that start with “I should or must” do or think this or that. If you had contrary thoughts in the past that turned out to be wrong, you might overgeneralize by thinking that all the thoughts related to the earlier ones are always going to be wrong as well.

Logical fallacies can also be used to either explain away or justify ideas that might contradict group norms or beliefs. For instance, post hoc reasoning assumes wrongly that if event A is quickly followed by event B, then it is probably true that A caused B. Therefore, you opt to avoid A in order to avoid B. An example: "Looking at pornography will lead to sex addiction." This is fallacious because the pairing is often due to another variable common to both A and B - in this case the internal conflict over one's sexuality - or because the pairing is just a coincidence.

Group Mythology. In order to operate as an integrated unit, groups with a common purpose also have mechanisms that they use to enforce conformity of thought within their numbers. Members employ various strategies to invalidate any competing ideas with which they might be challenged. Once again, group cohesion has its advantages; it often maximizes the group’s chances of success, but these mechanisms can also backfire severely and lead to failure.

Family therapists have studied groupthink phenomena within families, but similar ones are used by other groups as well. An individual's family often acts as if they all share a set of beliefs, and they all seem to live by them almost compulsively. While some of these beliefs are applied only to certain individuals, others apply to the whole group. The latter ideas are referred to as family myths. They justify and support a set of rules which dictate how each family member should behave and why, and what family roles each must fully and habitually play. This allows the family to function in a predictable way (family homeostasis).  

The myths function as a belief system which the family uses, often defensively, to explain or justify its behavior and beliefs. They are sometimes verbalized explicitly, but can also be expressed implicitly. Sometimes they take the form of oft-verbalized adages or slogans. One good example of this was seen in a family that strongly believed in fatalism—the idea that people are powerless to change their world so one should make the best of that which already exists. They all spouted three different proverbs on numerous occasions that expressed and reinforced within the group a warning about what happens to anyone who tries to take charge of their lives: "The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill;" "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know;" and "You've made your bed so now you have to lie in it." 

Within-group Mechanisms for Enforcing Groupthink: Disqualification and Invalidation.
Individuals can, when necessary, use two related mechanisms to obfuscate their own real beliefs to themselves or others. This is done so that if later said beliefs are rejected, the persons can deny they had meant what they had in fact said. These tactics are called disqualification and invalidation. Disqualification is a strategy used to make one’s own position on an issue ambiguous. When someone does this, other members of the group cannot say for certain what it is that the person actually believes. When other people ask for clarification, they are basically told that they are misperceiving in some way the person they are asking. Doing this to them is an example of invalidation. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Is Self-Determination Selfish?





“The more we plug in to what turns us on, the more of our light we can shine on those we love.” ~ Regena Thomashauer

Recently I gave a promotional talk at a local bookstore about my self-help book for adult children with problem parents. Its subject is how to get invalidating, demanding, and critical parents to stop that behavior, which in turn feeds into the adult child's own behavior. I discussed how getting their parents to stop allows people to then feel freer to follow their own muse, so to speak. The therapy-speak word for such self-determination is self-actualization

Self actualized people can focus on what they enjoy doing, choosing their own way in love, work and recreating, and having well thought out opinions about everything. They tend to be much more likely to realize their own potential, without sacrificing themselves completely in order to fulfill the desires of their families.

During the Q & A, someone from the audience asked me if self-actualizing in this way isn’t a selfish thing to do. Having heard a lot of objections to my views, and having written about how altruism can backfire and cause harm not only to the persons making certain types of sacrifices but also to the people they are trying to help (pathological altruism), I was still a bit taken aback by the question. Living life the way you want to might be considered selfish by some people?

Well, I suppose it is, but what’s wrong with that? The word selfish has a negative connotation. For every quality that human beings can possess, there is a word for that quality with a positive connotation and one with a negative connotation. Are you loyal or are you a bootlicker?  In this case: Are you selfish, or are you free-spirited?

Self actualizing hardly means that you won’t ever be willing to make some sacrifices to help or please other people, or compromise with others. Surely, like when someone gets married, they can’t just do whatever the hell they want to whenever they want to. They have to take into considerations the needs and desires of their spouse. The paradox is that, if you are self actualized, you do that because making your spouse happy is something that makes you happy. You aren’t doing it out of guilt or because you are intimidated, but purely out of love.

Having said that, making sacrifices for loved ones by trying to be something you are not is actually bad for relationships, not good. If a potential mate desperately needs something from you that does not under any circumstances feel at all right ever to you, that is a big red flag. It is a strong signal that you need to find another relationship; it should be a deal breaker. Otherwise, should you proceed and tie the knot, both of you will be utterly miserable in the long run.

Further complicating matters is that in most cases when your parents and the rest of the family seem to want you to be someone you are not, the messages they give you to do so are not at all clear-cut. Often the other family member needs you to do this in order to temporarily solve a conflict or ambivalent feeling towards some issue they have within themselves. This causes them to give out not a consistent or coherent message, but a double message. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Not only that, but your acting out in this situation will usually prevent constructive conversations which might actually solve a chronic problem. This is pathological altruism at its worst.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Why are Some Psychiatrists Such Wimps?





“Most psychiatrists are working in toxic practice environments that were designed by business administrators and politicians. As a result, psychiatrists are expected to see large numbers of patients for limited periods of time and spend additional hours performing tasks that are basically designed by business administration politicians and have no clinical value.” ~ George Dawson, MD


With the exception of those who are in “concierge” practices who do not take insurance and treat only those who can pay significant fees, very few psychiatrists—even in private practice—are doing any psychotherapy at all—other than being supportive with their patients. As mentioned in Dr. Dawson’s quote, some don’t do it because, simply put, they aren’t given the necessary time. They have to see several patients per hour, and are also too busy filling out completely useless symptom checklists on electronic medical records. 

Others are not interested in psychosocial issues and see everything in the DSM, the profession’s diagnostic manual, as a brain disease in need of medication – even “adjustment disorders,” which by their very definition have strictly psychological and social etiologies and do not require medication. Still others won’t do therapy because it doesn’t pay well. (Even psychologists are doing less and less long-term psychotherapy because insurance companies will not authorize it and keep ratcheting down fees, and they have been advocating for prescribing privileges. However, that is not the subject of this particular post).

Medical and psychiatric newspapers are filled with stories of physician “burnout” - being exhausted or depressed over their unpleasant work situation. Business and insurance companies work hard to convince these cases that the problem resides with their stress tolerance, rather than with their stressful working situation, and that they need to practice more mindfulness.

Meanwhile, hospital beds for the chronically mentally ill – those who do have actual brain diseases and are in desperate need of medication – have started to disappear. Along with that, the Community Mental Health Centers which once treated them with close follow up have been defunded by the states and the federal government. These two developments have resulted in many of these people living on the streets or languishing in jails, which have become de facto mental hospitals.

So who’s to blame for all this? Surely tax phobic politicians and greedy business interests share the lion’s share of the responsibility. Dr. Dawkins in his blog, from which the quote at the start of the post comes, seems to think that psychiatrists have no responsibility here, because they have all been forced to conform to the whims of businessmen with zero knowledge of medicine dictating how they should practice. But don't they really?

I think one of the main problems with the psychiatrists is that many of them are really a bunch of wimps who are too friggin’ chicken to band together and say “no” to their task masters. Of course, a lone doctor who tries to do that by himself or herself can be fired or made an example of. I recall my own experience at the VA when I had the nerve to protest in the patient’s chart that I had to prescribe a drug I knew would not work for a patient with both chronic pain and depression, before I could prescribe the more expensive medication which had been shown to be the most effective for that (while the rheumatologists could use the more expensive drug first line). I was offered an “anger management” seminar to treat me because I was angry that veterans were being screwed!

But can the business interests fire every one of their docs if they all refused to go along? Hell no!

There is a national shortage of psychiatrists. When you are in demand like that, they need you way more than you need them. In fact, as a member of the professional networking site LinkedIn, I have been asked to be part of their network by 22 different recruiters in just the last two months alone! And that was pretty much representative of the numbers of recruiters trying to snag me for a position every two months for the last several years. BTW, my profile clearly states that I am retired.

What a bunch of wimps these doctors are. You’d think it would take a lot of willpower and self esteem to get into and through medical school and residency training, and it does.  But doctors-in-training are also bullied, hazed, and forced to submit to the medical school hierarchy even when they know that their superiors are in the wrong. 

Until it was prohibited a few years ago, medical interns routinely worked 36 hours straight several times per month. (This was justified by the powers that be as being necessary because, they said, if there is an epidemic, doctors have to be able to work until they drop. The only problem with this rationalization was that the last major epidemic in the United States was the flu epidemic of 1918. By the time the next one rolls around, the doctors will be out of practice for 36 hour shifts, not to mention out of shape. No, this practice was hazing, pure and simple).

In other words, doctors are trained to act like sheep, and after they finish training many still act like sheep. Psychiatrists are no exception. How irritating. So my answer is yes, we psychiatrists are indeed part of the problem.






Monday, October 14, 2019

Different Schools of Thought in Psychotherapy




At last count, there were over 200 different "schools" of psychotherapy, each with its own ideas about why people act in self-defeating ways or in ways which bring them emotional or even physical pain, and how to help them to stop. Of course psychotherapy is, despite having been around for a hundred years, a young science, but our field is more difficult to study “empirically” than any other. 

The problems we have are enormous because we cannot read minds, and people can choose to some extent how they react to any therapy intervention. Patients withhold information about their situations from therapists all the time due to protecting their families from negative judgments, guilt, shame, or a concern the therapist might not be interested in it.

In psychotherapy outcome studies, seemingly minor variations in therapist techniques that are in fact vitally important (such as body language and tone of voice) aren’t even measured. There are no good active control treatments, and, when two therapies are compared,  the therapy method favored by the first author of the study comes out ahead 85% of the time due to the authors’ biases (allegiance effects). 

We cannot do double blinding because that would mean the therapists wouldn’t know what they were doing, which would not be a good test of the treatment. And of course once again there can be a major lack of complete candor by subjects. Much of the study results are based on patient self report, a notoriously unreliable method of data collection. And there is no way to distinguish an act patients may be playing for their family of origin (a false self or personafrom their real beliefs and feelings, or performance from ability.

The ecological fallacy – thinking all patients with a particular disorder react exactly like an average patient - is rampant in the literature. If 20 % of clients with a particular problem respond to one intervention and 40% respond to a second one, this does not mean that the second one is better for everyone than the first. The 20% who responded to the first one could actually get worse with the second one.

There is also a huge and highly problematic groupthink problem in the psychotherapy field, with purveyors of various schools claiming a monopoly on truth. Often the need for ideological purity, the admiration for an academic leader within a hierarchy, or the profit motive causes science to take a back seat in favor of a group's other interests. 

Fallacious arguments ensue. One of the most common is that entire complex groups of theoretical constructs that characterize a given school are rejected in total by another school, as if, if one theoretical part of a school is wrong, the whole thing must be wrong. Psychoanalysis may have been wrong about penis envy, for example, but dismissing intrapsychic conflict entirely as a construct because of that is - in a word - stupid.

Another is that a phenomena that two schools are looking at but explain differently are just being called different names and are given different explanations, which are then accepted by a given school as gospel without even a thought to investigating other possible explanations. I recently wrote in a post about how both the cognitive-behaviorists' "irrational thoughts" and the psychoanalyst's "defense mechanisms" probably serve the same purpose, but that neither school explains that purpose with reference to group dynamics - IMO the key factor.

There is still hope. IMO we have to look for recurring patterns in our therapy patients (not in research subjects, because contact is minimal) as well as within their social milieu. At times, we have to meet with clients along with their significant others in order to get a more well-rounded picture. We have to do so in long-term psychotherapy, because it takes quite a while for the whole story to unfold. 

We should do this in order to figure out commonalities and in order to figure out what questions to ask. In particular, we should look for evidence of motivated reasoning in what our clients report – logical fallacies, inconsistencies and contradictions (sometimes voiced months apart – the importance of extensive therapy notes cannot be overestimated), and defensive reactions. If handled well, this will help us unearth what clients may be trying to hide from us. 

Doing so also suggests questions we may have not thought to ask, or pay attention to environmental variables we were not even aware of that turn out to be major contributing factors to psychopathology that demand attention.




Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Myth of the First Three Years





Obviously, people of any age can learn new information and change their behavioral responses to a wide variety of environmental contingencies. If that were not true, and people could not adapt to changing environments throughout their lives, it is highly unlikely that homo sapiens would have survived as a species. After all, we are relatively small, not particularly swift runners, have no natural armor or large talons with which to defend ourselves, and can die from extreme temperatures at either end of the thermometer. And yet, here we are.

The entire practice of psychotherapy is in reality predicated on the view that change is possible. If people become immutable at a certain age, then how would therapy ever help them change?

Ironically, however, somehow schools within the field of psychology often like to insist that most of our habits are completely fixed during childhood. According to the early psychoanalysts, for example, our personalities are completely developed by the time we are 5 years old. People with borderline personality disorder were thought to have “fixated” at the age of two! This meant that any psychological development after that completely stopped.

Neuroscience data is frequently cited by people who like to think they have neuroscience expertise but really do not – like many of today’s “biological” psychiatrists. In doing so, they often make assertions based on study results that have limited applicability to the psychological phenomena under discussion, or have no basis in findings from studies whatsoever. A book (recommended by parenting columnist John Rosemond) that came out way back in 1999, The Myth of the First Three Years by John T. Bruer, Ph.D, describes a particular heinous example of pseudo neuroscience that took hold with the participation of several politicians and celebrities. The misinformation is thoroughly dissected by Bruer.

The dumb idea goes something like this: the neurons in the brain develop hundreds or even thousands of synaptic connections per second until we reach the maximum number of such connections at age 3. The connections then start to be pruned. This means that the number of synaptic connections decreases over time. Therefore, kids under three need to be properly stimulated. They must be read to, learn their abc’s as early as possible, attend pre-schools, and listen to a lot of classical music. They need to become “scientifically correct.” If not, a window of opportunity will be closed forever.


This idea has led to a lot of parental guilt and anxiety, which my readers will immediately know that I think is far more damaging to kid’s psychological development than missing too much Mozart. Because of kin selection, we are probably more affected by the emotional state of our attachment figures than pretty much anything else that isn’t crazy severe like being under constant physical threat by one’s government. 

Parents who feel they may have damaged their child by, say, putting them in the wrong day care program (or heaven forbid, not putting them in any day care program at all) often become emotional wrecks who then overindulge their children, trying to prevent them from experiencing any or all emotional stress. When they seem to failing at that, as they must, they may then at times react with fury and even strike out physically with a child.

In reality, synaptic pruning probably leads to much higher brain efficiency in reacting to the environment in which the child is raised, but some people got the insane idea that the loss of neural connections after age three means something entirely different. They think that the period between ages 0-3 determines your IQ among other things, and if we want smarter and more resilient kids we must provide the proper stimulating environment or the development of our future abilities will be compromised severely. 

It is true that some aspects of the nonsensical idea may have  limited applicability to some of our psychological abilities - like learning a second language without having an accent. Almost impossible to do after the age of 12-14. But to think that somehow all of our abilities are like that is patent horse crap. Undoubtedly some of the neuroscience described in Bruer's book has become out of date due to increases in our scientific knowledge base in the last decade, but I think his basic premises remain intact.

What may get fixed in the first three years is that children become permanently much more responsive to their attachment figures than to anything else in the environment. The “serve and return” process described in an earlier post is probably related to this. Most neuronal tracks in brain are plastic in that they can form, or become stronger or weaker, over one’s entire lifetime. However, certain nerve tracks in the limbic system that are conditioned by one’s environment to respond with fear are highly resistant to major alterations. Certain faces – faces of kin – may trigger and reinforce a lot of automatic social responses to different people and situations.

The idea that children who are exposed to one environmental event or another develop immutable brain changes - other than those exceptions just listed - has even affected the highly important research in adverse childhood experiences like child abuse. Researchers do brain scans of abuse victims as adults and compare them to control subjects who had more loving childhoods, and differences in the size and activity of certain tracks remain. Hence, these researchers state, these brain changes are now irreversible.

Well they may be, but we still don’t really know. I kind of doubt it. There is some limited evidence that some of the changes can modulate with therapy, as described in a recent review article in the German journal Nervenarzt (November 2018) by  Schmahl, Niedtfeld & Herpertz. Their conclusion:

Although the overall database is still sparse, clinical improvement in psychotherapy appears to be associated with modulation of brain structure and function. Frontolimbic regulation circuits including the amygdala, insula, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and other prefrontal areas appear to be involved in these changes. An important finding is the eduction of initially increased amygdala activity after successful Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

Interestingly the last author, Herpertz, tended in the past to over-emphasize biogenetic factors over interpersonal and other environmental factors when I have spoken with her at meetings.

The folks that do the studies on untreated adults seem to think that, because they are no longer being actually beaten or molested, that the involved brain tracks are no longer being strengthened through environmental reinforcement. That also must mean that continued negative interactions with the attachment figures have come to a complete stop. Nonsense. These children continue to be around them throughout their lives, or in some cases do cut them off, but hear about them through other relatives. The “different” brain structures are thusly maintained. If that reinforcement were to be corrected, maybe those tracks would start to revert back to the size and activity levels seen in the control subjects. 

In order to know, scientists have to take into account whatever happened in childhood plus everything that happened afterwards.



Sunday, August 25, 2019

New Interview on Podcast.

I speak about why so many behavior problems have been redefined as diseases on a new podcast at:

https://unlatchedmind.com/ep-14-brain-disease-and-big-pharma

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Irrational Beliefs vs. Defense Mechanisms





The current predominant school of thought in psychotherapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which replaced the previously dominant school of thought, psychoanalysis (PA). There are of course, other psychotherapy schools - over 200 of them as a matter of fact. Why? Well, as I described in a another post, because of three facts: 

1. The brain is so complicated. 
2. We can’t read minds. 
3. People lie not only to others but themselves. 

Psychology is still a very young science. 

It is in a phase of development that the scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn, in his classic book The Structure ofScientific Revolutions, called the “pre-paradigmatic stage.” This means that in young sciences in which not a lot is known, a lot of theories compete with one another for dominance until the evidence accumulates to the point in which one model starts to predominate. After a while, some problems with that model arise, which then leads to the development of new models. For instance, although Newtonian physics still works for large objects, it falls apart at the subatomic level, where it has been replaced with quantum physics.

Understanding that this is the way science works has not stopped a lot of psychologists and other therapists from loudly claiming that their model is the only correct one. The psychoanalysts used to do it. When anyone dared to question the theory, they were told they needed to get into psychoanalysis to find out why they were resistant to its ideas. Three logical fallacies in a single sentence! (For those readers interested in logic: ad hominem, non-sequitur, and begging the question. If you want more detail, e-mail me back channel).

Now the CBT people are playing this same “We are right and you are wrong; we are superior to everyone else” game. Historically, the game went down this way: Psychoanalysis attributed “neurotic” behavior (showing signs of mental disturbance but is not psychotic) to conflicts in individuals between their biological urges – their id – with their values that were internalized from their upbringing – the superego or conscience. CBT people said this was all a buncy of nonsense, and went on to cherry pick certain parts of PA theory that were obviously incorrect to throw hot water on all of the PA ideas – which is another one of the tricks that indicate “groupthink” is operating instead of “facts and logic.”

Which brings us to what is postulated to be the cause of neurotic behavior which cognitive therapists champion (behaviorism – rewards and punishments - seeming to have almost disappeared from the therapy arsenal of a lot of CBT therapists). Starting with Albert Ellis and latter with Aaron Beck, they attributed it to “irrational thoughts.” Someone thinking, for example, that they simply must be this or that, or torturing themselves by imagining unlikely worst-case scenario outcomes which would then prevent them from even trying something new that they might just excel at.

So who’s right? Well, both of them. But don’t tell that to any of them on either side. I once mentioned what I am about to say to Albert Ellis at a psychotherapy conference, and he practically laughed in my face in front of a whole audience. Anyway, the key is something that authors Jonathan Haidt and Gregg Henriques have discovered: Logic in human beings did not evolve to arrive at truths. It evolved to justify group norms. 

Groups have to stick together to survive; they can’t be constantly arguing about everyone’s individual ideas about what to do when they are, say, attacked by another tribe. So group cohesion has survival value – at least it used to. It still does to a significant extent, but with the advent of technology and other modern developments, not nearly as much as it once did.

Before I understood this, I was bothered by something I called the “problem of stupidity.” Why were people torturing themselves with these thoughts which are obviously and transparently stupid or illogical.  Even seemingly highly intelligent people do this all the time. Are we all really that dull-witted? I didn’t think so, so I asked myself why these people are seemingly acting as if they are that dumb.

See if you can spot the irrational idea in a recent letter (8/14/19) to advice columnist Dear Abby:

8/14/19. DEAR ABBY: I've been with my boyfriend, "Rocko," for two years, but in the late months of last year… He would disappear for days at a time, block my phone number and ignore me. I was sure he was seeing another woman or taking drugs because he is an ex-addict. Two months ago, he was arrested. I was right -- Rocko was on drugs and had been hanging out with another woman… I hate myself, and I can't stop wondering why I wasn't enough.

See it? Her boyfriend is an addict and a cheater, yet this woman wonders why SHE wasn’t enough for him! It wasn’t his glaring and obvious faults and limitations: his problems were all due to her and her being inadequate to meet all of his needs. How nice of her to blame his irresponsible behavior on herself rather than hold him accountable!

If we assume that she is not stupid enough to think this is a logical conclusion, then we have to ask ourselves why on earth she doesn’t just dump the S.O.B. and find someone who will treat her right. I answered this by looking at the end result – what I call the net effect  - of her continuing to think this way. It’s obvious. She ends up staying with a man who cheats and uses drugs. So this would have to be her intent.

(But why on earth should she want to do that? The answer to that question in my opinion lies in her playing some sort of dysfunctional role in her family of origin which requires her to do this in order to stabilize her unstable parents. Explaining that part is beyond the scope of this post, but various roles are discussed in detail in previous ones).

So the irrational belief generates anxiety which then prevents her from acting in her own best interests. This allows her to continue to sacrifice herself for her kin group – a process known in evolutionary biology as kin selection. Guess what? The defense mechanisms of PA accomplish the very same thing. Analysts think that defense mechanisms are meant to control anxiety, but as a fellow blogger known as The Last Psychiatrist once said, if that were true, they sure do a lousy job of doing that. No; in fact, they too are meant to either create anxiety or do other things which lead people to avoid doing something that might conflict with their role in their family.

If for example your role in your family is to be a scapegoat so that your frustrated father can blame you for all of his problems and not have to feel bad about himself, his behavior is bound to make you angry. Your anger makes it hard for you to maintain the scapegoat role. You may eat (or repress) a certain amount of it, but some of it must be discharged somehow. So you come home and kick the dog (the defense mechanism of displacement).

Defense mechanisms or irrational thoughts? You say tow-may-tow, and I say tow-mah-tow. They are the same damn thing!

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Book Review: Leaving the Witness by Amber Scorah




One of the review quotes on the cover of this amazingly written, disturbing, enthralling, absolutely brilliant work (I could barely put it down) was “part Orwellian groupthink expose.” Although it is also a tragedy and a suspenseful account of preaching in a Communist country that forbid foreigners from doing just that, for purposes of this blog, I will focus on the groupthink part. I am currently in the midst of editing a book on groupthink in science, and clearly my model of self destructive behavior sees it as a sacrifice to one’s kin group rather than as a selfish act (Selfish self-destructiveness? Only if all such people had the IQ of a kumquat).

The book tells the story of growing up in a cult, in which people were strongly discouraged from talking to anyone or looking at any source of information that might call into question its belief system. Going to college was forbidden. People went to meetings several times a week where the idea that Armageddon was about to happen at any minute was constantly presented, along with the idea that only the true believers would be saved. 

People who broke the rules or questioned orthodoxy were “disfellowshipped.” This meant that they were completely shunned by all family and friends, although they were allowed to sit in the back of the meeting halls, unacknowledged, to be further indoctrinated with the propaganda in hope that eventually they would be accepted back into the fold— after a couple of years of this treatment.

Scorah recounts going to China to surreptitiously preach the cult’s gospel. Once there, she found that there were many fewer group members around than she had been used to, and she credits that fact with how she came to be exposed to other ways of understanding the universe. This in turn led her to start questioning the group’s theology and its claim to have a monopoly on the one true religion. She had to have an above-ground job, and took one working on a podcast about China. One listener began writing to her and helped her to see how badly she had been indoctrinated.

As she started to engage in critical thinking, her entire family then acted as if she did not exist (with one major exception — her sister. Might the sister now be serving in the role of switchboard?). There has been no contact with them.

But was this the whole story? I think not. One has to ask the question: why would the author be the one person who was able to start questioning the groupthink—even with the realistic fear of being exiled hanging over her head— when the vast majority of her fellow preachers in China did not fall into this trap? Although it’s impossible to prove on the basis of what is written about a family in a book, the author’s description of her family certainly leads one to suspect the usual culprit in such scenarios: family dynamics and shared intrapsychic conflict with ambivalence.

In fact, her family was not monolithic in its beliefs in the cult, although they professed to be. Neither of her parents went to meetings more than yearly, and would not explain to the maternal grandmother— who was not born into the cult—why that was. Scorah’s father was an alcoholic and her parents eventually divorced, both huge no-no’s in the cult.  The grandmother also seemed to take great joy in providing the “benefits” of the cult to the author when Scorah was growing up. 

Together this all sounds like there was strong ambivalence about the cult’s beliefs within the family, with her parents acting it out. They may have given up their daughter—who received very little attention from them according to her own descriptions—to the grandmother as a gift, in order so that she could make up for grandma's failure to properly indoctrinate the mother.

Furthermore, grandma’s favorite child, the mother’s brother – I repeat, grandma’s favorite child—left the fold and then proved the folly in doing so by getting into drugs. The family predicted that he would eventually end up in jail, and of course this is exactly what came to pass! This sound exactly like the dynamics I write about in describing the role of the black sheep.

So perhaps (and I really think it’s nearly certain) the author had picked up on the family ambivalence over the cult and its rules. This may have been why she had been attracted to preaching in a far away, forbidding place all along, where she would no long be subject to constant drumming in her ear about the group’s orthodoxy.

Another interesting aspect of groupthink that the author writes about - with the most elegant descriptions of it that I’ve ever read -  is existential groundlessness. This is the tremendously aversive feeling one gets when one breaks the rules or questions the mythology of one’s kin group or social group:

“But if I didn’t believe, my life would be over. I was paralyzed, because there was no answer to this problem. The stakes are too high to do anything.” (p. 171).

“This world was the only one I had ever been a part of, and I didn’t know who I was without it.” (p. 200).

“Nothing was as I had thought it was. And there was nowhere to go back to; I couldn’t, because it was a dream, it was all a story, all of my life was made up, and I had awoken to this concrete.”

That last quote illustrates yet something else about groupthink in the modern world: willful blindness. Throughout the book Scorah strongly implies that until her awakening she truly believed, without question or doubt, every nonsensical myth that was taught to her by her cult. But later in the book she implies that this was not really the complete truth. For example, on p. 231, she lets on that a part of her knew the gig: “We policed ourselves to sustain our nirvana. We shared a willful blindness disguised as innocence and purity…but it takes a great deal of mental effort to hide from what one sees, whether that effort is subconscious or purposeful…That once I decided to believe, I believed, no matter what doubts came…I had been in ‘the truth’ because I was afraid of the truth.”