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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Psychotherapy with BPD: Another Conundrum





For therapists such as myself who also write about borderline personality disorder (BPD) for the general public, there are several ironies that make it a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t proposition. In my post of 2/27 of this year, I discussed the issue of how describing what the parents are doing with their children can make those parents feel even more guilty than they already were, when guilt is what has been driving their problematic behavior in the first place. Therefore, they can get even worse rather than taking any new knowledge they may have gained as a way to reduce their problem behavior.

A similar issue takes place when adult children who have BPD read my discussions of family dynamics. For the role of spoiler that they are playing, part of what drives it is often their parents’ insatiable and unceasing efforts to “fix” what’s wrong with them. Because to all outward appearances their parents seem to want or need to continue to do so, their adult children must remain “broken.” That is, in need of fixing. The people with BPD also think this about their narcissistic romantic partners, who are also constantly trying to fix them - while seeming to feel that they are God’s gift to them. The more the partners try to do the fixing, the more they reinforce their mate’s spoiling behavior.

So guess what happens when an individual with BPD comes to see a therapist? The therapist’s whole purpose for existing is to “fix” what’s wrong with their patients! How can therapists not end up inadvertently enabling their patient’s spoiler role? It’s sort of like coming to see someone whose goal is to “make you independent.” How can someone really be independent if another person is making them do something?

In therapy, the way around this is for the therapist to validate the ample evidence their patients offer (even while sometimes pretending that this is far from the case) that they are smart and capable, and that “their” problem is not a personal defect, but trying to figure out an enigma. They are trying to come up with a way to solve an almost-impossible-to-solve problem: the conflicted, ambivalent dynamics of their family members.

Doing something equivalent to this therapy countermove when writing for the public is a rather devilishly complicated proposition. Even spelling out what I am saying here with disclaimers doesn’t always work because it’s easy for someone coming from a borderline-ogenic family to see that as a ruse to lull them into a false sense of security. 

I had one reader write to me to tell me that something I wrote, rather than being empowering, made her feel so helpless she made a suicide attempt. She didn’t say that what I wrote was wrong, it should be noted, and I would wonder if she already had a history of making suicide attempts. But still, I understand her request that I be more careful about what I write.

Another reason I might make persons with BPD feel helpless is that, if family members were to read my stuff and figure out what they are up to, then the people with BPD might no longer be able to successfully pull off the spoiler role. They would become less powerful because I gave away their "secrets."

Nonetheless, facing the truth is the only thing that can set free everyone involved in family dysfunction. Dysfunctional roles only stabilize families (homeostatsis) over the short run. In the long run, they prevent resolution of ongoing issues.

So there is hope, especially if there are more therapists who understand family dynamics. I continue to hope for potential patients to create a high demand for therapists to start helping them identify interpersonal triggers and find ways to avoid the typical negative consequences of change - rather than just focusing on what is going on inside their patient’s head.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Book is Finally Out



Hot off the presses, my new edited book is now out.



Friday, April 24, 2020

Drug Abuse “Intervention:” Why it Works






In Jonah’s Berger’s excellent new book, The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mindhe discusses effective ways to get people to look at things in new ways. Even die hard ideologues can sometimes be reached using many of his methods. He also talks about why persuasive arguments and presenting new information in an effort by one person to get another person to reconsider entrenched positions usually does not work

In the chapter called “corroborating evidence,” he uses a successful “intervention” with a drug abuser to illustrate how, in influencing others, having multiple people give information is often much more powerful than just one person’s speaking , especially when the multiple sources are all operating at or near the same time. 

In the Intervention technique in substance abuse treatment, the actual intervention is having an outside therapist come in and coach the family members to write out a speech about how much they care about the user and how his or her behavior is hurting everyone. They are instructed to avoid telling him what to do. Nonetheless, the therapist has a rehab facility lined up in hopes that the object of the intervention will agree to do something about his “problem.”

They each say how sad they are because of the problem and how much they miss him and want the drug abuser “back.” They also give the addict the message, “If you want to be an addict, we can’t stop you. But if you want to get high, you aren’t going to do it here.” 

With families, Berger points out, several members have often -  over time and individually – “asked, begged, yelled, screamed, and threatened. All to no avail.” But then he goes on to say things that consist of the usual wisdom about these sorts of things, such as “They (addicts) don’t believe they have a problem.” They are “in denial.” They may not remember wrapping a car around a lamp post” because they “blacked out.” If an addict doesn’t think he has a reason to quit, “is one person really going to change their mind?”


That sounds reasonable, but is it really? Doesn’t the addict find out what happened to the car after he comes to? Isn’t losing a good job and resorting to crime to finance an addiction considered by the drug abuser to be problems? As I often say, he would have to have the IQ of a kumquat – or maybe a rutabaga, I’m not really sure – to not “know” he had a problem. So what’s really going on here?


Berger attributes the relatively high success rates of organized family “interventions” to the number of people giving a similar message. He's partly correct. But he also seems subliminally aware that there is something else going on here. He states, “In order to get addicts to change, their entire ecosystem has to be altered. Without realizing it, friends and family members may be unintentionally enabling the problems. So for change to stick, the whole system has to change…”


Was the particular family the author described enabling the abuser, “Phil”? Why as a matter of fact, quite so. In the author’s description, the family didn’t seem to think of him as an addict for extended periods, especially at first, because he had a job and didn’t steal to support his habit. He did start to steal a bit later. They sent him to rehab 19 different times even though each of them was unsuccessful. They repeatedly let him move back home. They resorted to having him sign a contract promising to turn over a new leaf, but all that did was to “train him to be a better liar.”


Hearing this, it might seem fairly clear why Phil may have thought his family was actually invested in him continuing to be an addict, because they made it so damn easy! Unlike most of us, they know that family members are not that stupid even if they seem to be “in denial.” Of course, I have to put the usual caution here: since I haven’t personally evaluated this family I can’t say what follows with certainty, although IMO what I am about to describe is extremely likely.


Another hint that the above formulation may be on the mark is a statement by the book author that "family was everything to Phil." The author thinks that Phil realizing he was tearing the others to shreds was the motive for quitting. But again, how could Phil possibly think that this hadn't been the case all along? Because he thought the family needed him to be an addict!

In dysfunctional families with shared conflicts over certain behavior, say for example puritanical attitudes towards work and intoxication, several members are usually involved in either enabling or refusing to notice the problems of the addict. The addict is actually taking the cue to deny that he has a problem from the family. When one member occasionally seems to object about addict-like behavior, another family member may give the addict the opposite message. In such a situation, this can become a game without end even more easily than when just two people are stuck in this game. So no wonder the addict ignores the asking, begging, yelling, screaming, and threatening from any one family member.


However, when the whole family comes together to give the same message – that they all will no longer deny that the addiction has become a problem — and all clearly state that all of their enabling behavior in toto is going to cease, their wanting him to stop becomes far more believable. So it isn’t just multiple sources of info as Berger assumes, but the fact that they are all indirectly acknowledging their own contributions to the addict’s continuing addiction.


Of course, the addict may still be skeptical. If Phil leaves yet another rehab program without success, and his parents still let him return home, nothing will stick. In this case, that fortunately did not happen.



Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Family Dynamics and the Brain: Implications for Psychotherapy





IMO, the most important contribution of neurobiology to psychotherapy is our understanding, albeit quite partial and preliminary, of the mechanisms by which we are programmed to respond to attachment figures. This understanding is sort of what is meant by sociobiology, if I may use a politically incorrect term. 

I found early on in treating personality disorders in therapy that I was no match for a patient’s parents in triggering or reinforcing their problematic (or even their positive) behavior patterns in the long term. I could coach them on how to be assertive with difficult family members ‘til the cows came home, and this might even work for a time, but after a while the old patterns of self-defeating behavior almost invariably re-emerged unless something was done about this.


Even so-called “oppositional” behavior follows this path: oppositional children think and later automatically respond to their family as if the family wants or needs them to be a black sheep for various reasons.

Therapy outcome studies seldom follow patients with self-destructive or self-defeating behavior patterns for more than a year after therapy ends, but the few studies I’ve seen that do are consistent with this clinical experience. So I had to figure out a way to help patients to make changes in their long term repetitive dysfunctional interactions with attachment figures.

When mothers and their babies interact, huge numbers of synaptic connections in the brain are made every second (see https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/serve-and-return/). These large numbers are “pruned” significantly during adolescence. We don’t know exactly how or why certain synapses are retained, but I suspect it is those that keep us aligned with the social behavior of our kin group and tribe. There is preliminary evidence that the pruning is dependent, much like the strength of many brain neural connections, on how often a particular neural pathway is stimulated.

Another factor involved is something called the myelination of neurons in existing neural pathways. This is the process of coating the body of each neuron with a fatty coating called myelin, which protects the neuron and helps it conduct signals more efficiently. This process does not become complete until an individual reaches late adolescence.

With these two processes, we lose some flexibility in the brain, but the proficiency of signal transmission improves. Since we are talking in particular about those that form during interactions in infancy, it is reasonable to suspect that these interactions continue to do this. In particular, behaviors that occur in response to social cues may become more automatic in order to preserve higher thinking ability for novel situations.

In addition to this, fear tracks formed early in life in particular are not as plastic as are other tracks in the brain. They never really go away, although they can be overridden by newly formed neural pathways. (Lott, D. A. [2003]. Unlearning fear: calcium channel blockers and the process of extinction. Psychiatric Times, May, 9-12).

According to Neuroscientist David Eagleman on his PBS show, The Brain, about 80% of our behavior is done automatically in response to environmental cues (especially social cues, I might add) without any conscious deliberation. In a sense they are subconscious.

This does not mean that we lack the capacity to decide to think about and break the social rules we are usually bound by. We certainly can – this is where the family systems theorists have been wrong. But when we do, we are often faced with massive invalidation by our families, which is extremely powerful in delivering the message, “You’re wrong, change back.” When we distance ourselves from our social alliances, our level of the attachment hormone oxytocin dips and we start to feel unsafe.

The negative feelings generated by this invalidation is probably the biological price we pay if we don’t: the highly disturbing feeling of groundlessness described so eloquently by Irvin Yalom. This is nature’s way of telling us to behave ourselves for the good of our kin group. This has survival value for the group.

The implications for therapy are clear. In order to prevent problematic automatic behavior patterns that have been and that are continually reinforced through this powerful process, neither insight into which behaviors are performed automatically, nor which automatic belief systems keep us on the straight and narrow for our kin group, is usually enough. These patterns need to be interrupted at their source in order to help patients extinguish bad habits of thinking (or, more often, not thinking) and behavior. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

P.C. Feminism and the Misinterpretation of Attachment Theory





Some feminists hate attachment theory. Their influence may be part of the reason so many psychotherapists ignore its important implications. Attachment theory is a set of ideas based on the theories of psychoanalyst John Bowlby and strong experimental evidence created by Canadian psychologist Mary Ainworth. Ainsworth was of course herself a working woman, although she was divorced and never had children of her own.

Ainsworth sat behind a two-way mirror for years and watched one-year-olds playing with their mothers. She noted what happened when the mother left the room for a few minutes and how the child responded when she returned. She then took the study a stage further and studied what happened when, instead of the mother, a stranger entered the room and tried to engage with the child. Ainsworth's "Strange Situation" study, together with Bowlby's theory, showed that how a child developed their social response patterns was the direct result of the way the child's main carer responded to and engaged with them. 

A neglectful, stressed or inconsistent parent tended to create an anxious, insecure or avoidant children. These patterns were later found to accurately predict how those children behaved between the ages of five and eight.

Feminists argued: watching babies - what kind of proof is that? How can anyone know what a baby is thinking and feeling? Isn't it all just woolly liberal conjecture? Gee, actually observing what is going on and seeing the same patterns over and over again. Why, isn’t that anecdotal? Unlike, I suppose asking research subjects to tell you what they are thinking. Now that’s objective data!

They accused attachment theorists of being against working women and wanting to shackle women to the home. I guess that they thought the implications of the theory were that women needed to be home 24/7 or they would destroy their children. Shades of evolutionary psychologists attacking anyone who dared study or even talk about kin selection, the tendency of human individuals to sacrifice themselves if their kin group or tribe seemed to require it, because it might be used to justify social Darwinism. Well, I guess it could be used that way, but it certainly does not have to be.

Even if the attachment science actually did prove that it is far better for children to have stay-at-home mothers, that would not mean inconvenient realities should be ignored. But luckily, it doesn’t that at all! Unfortunately, even the purveyors of attachment theory often misinterpret the data from Ainsworth’s experiments, due to a logical error and a phony assumption. Ainsworth herself was skeptical about the viability of working motherhood, but, unlike Bowlby, admitted the possibility that supplemental mothering could be arranged without harm to the child.

The logical error is equating quality with quantity. Just because a little of something is a good thing, this hardly means that a whole lot of it is even better. Sometimes a lot is worse! The dose makes the difference between a nutrient a poison. It is not how often the mothers in the experiments interact with their babies, it’s the type of interactions. Maybe the kids also need to start having time by themselves as well as time with other children learning how to deal with them.

The false assumption is that the data that shows that the early patterns predicted the later patterns must mean than any “damage” done to the child’s brain must be permanent. That would of course mean that human beings could never adapt to new social contingencies, something that is clearly nonsense. Our species would not have survived if adaptation were not possible after the age of two!

This interpretation of the experimental findings ignores the fact that the five to eight year olds are continuing to be exposed to the exact same problematic parenting behavior which had triggered and reinforced the earlier behavior. Shades of the bullshit about cognitive development I posted about in my review of the book The Myth of the First Three Years.

What about the “strange situation” phenomenon? Well, the limits of the data are clearly implied in its name. This is what happens when a complete stranger enters the picture, not a familiar adult from, say, a day care center or a Kibbutz in Israel.

Many (but hardly all) children from abusive homes who are adopted out to loving families do indeed continue to show the effects of the earlier trauma, but that does not mean that earlier physiological changes are irreversible. The fact that some children do in fact get much better while others continue to have problems is most likely due to the behavior of the adoptive parents. 

They may not know how to deal well with the obviously difficult behavior of these children and so may inadvertently continue to feed into these children’s problematic behavior. It is not at all obvious how to respond to disturbed kids, and even if you know how, doing so consistently in the face of frequent child misbehavior (which is key) is tremendously challenging. Others may have learned what to do about it and stuck with it – maybe just from watching the TV show Supernanny – and voila, the kids become well adjusted.

In fact, children benefit tremendously from having a happy, fulfilled mother who isn’t feeling guilty. I’ve written extensively about my contrary-to-the-popular-wisdom understanding about how children learn to read their parents' behavior. (Speaking of Supernanny, there was a recent episode in which a father wondered why his son said he thought his Dad liked to clean the toilets at home. The son answered, “Because you do it all the time.” That’s what I’m talking about!).

Human babies are born wired for survival. We are wired to learn how to survive through interacting with other people. Throughout life.


Thursday, February 27, 2020

Parental Guilt: a Double Edged Sword Inside a Conundrum





When I write about dysfunctional family dynamics on my blogs, in response I often get parents and adult children reacting in completely opposite ways to the very same post: the parents think I am putting the blame all on them, and the adult children likewise feel I’m singling them out. Of course, the parents had the issues that are creating difficulties before the kids ever came into existence, so this makes them somewhat more responsible, but they are reacting to binds that they themselves were put into by their own  parents. In turn, their parents were reacting to their parents, and so on.

Of course, when people feel blamed for something they don’t really like, but sort of know they had something to do with, they tend to feel guilty, which tends to make them defensive. Defensiveness, in turn, causes them to tune out discussions of what they might be able to do differently in order to fix the family problem. That would be bad enough, but there is something else that amplifies this problem even more. The fact that they felt guilty even before reading my stuff is often the main problem that caused them to give off destructive double messages to their kids in the first place.

The women’s movement was great in terms of opening up fulfilling opportunities for women for which they are more than qualified. However, it is also a big factor in creating a lot of parental guilt as when both parents are working, this has made many of them feel like they are neglecting their kids. As I have written, the Phyllis Schlaflys of the world pile on the guilt. This cultural argument has two effects on the parents: anger at their kids for complicating their lives, and attempts to make up for their frequent absences by overindulging their kids and trying to be friends with them.

The latter behavior creates all the issues that parenting columnist John Rosemond has been writing about for years: it makes the kids feel inadequate. My view on this is slightly different than his: I think the kids start to believe that the parent’s constant need to cater to them is evidence that the parents need to be caretakers to remain mentally stable, so the children start to act as if they are inadequate so the parents can continue to feel needed.

If the parents’ anger predominates, this can lead to acting out by the child to provide the parent with a feeling of justification for being angry and therefore not as guilt-ridden.

If the parents go back and forth between compulsive caretaking and anger, the child develops one of the major characteristics of borderline personality disorder: spoiling behavior. When the parent gets too angry the child tries (and usually succeeds at) making the parent feel guilty, but then when the parent feels too guilty, the child finds ways to make them angrier.

Because the issue of parental guilt is so central, this creates a conundrum for anyone trying to get the family to discuss what is really going on so that it can be stopped or at least minimized – including any family member attempting to do this, a therapist trying to help the family, or a writer of blogs trying to get people to focus on real issues rather than looking for scapegoats or facile explanations for the self -defeating behavior of family members. When any of these folks bring up what the parents are doing “wrong,” this tends to make the parents feel even guiltier, which is the source of the problem in the first place. The problem then gets even worse rather than better.

When I had such a parent in therapy, I was able to find a way to finesse this, by discussing how their child may be mis-reading them, which tends to be a less guilt-inducing way to put it. Also, I can empathize with the bind that the parents are themselves feeling, having formed a preliminary hypothesis about why their own parents acted as they did.

This is much more difficult to accomplish when writing for the public, because readers tend to quickly focus more on anything that seems at first glance to be less than empathic with their own plight. I do talk about how the problems have been passed down from prior generations, so if we have to blame anyone, let’s blame Adam and Eve and be done with it. I also make use of a great quote from John Rosemond: "Taking responsibility for something and self-blame are horses of two entirely different colors. The former is empowering; the latter is paralyzing." However, I can’t discuss these ideas in detail in every single post or they would all be twice as long as this one. And anyway, disclaimers like that are often ignored in the heat of the moment.

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.