Tuesday, August 24, 2010

When Human Behavior is Not Flexible

In my post of August 7, 2010, Is It Live or Is It Memorex? The Actor’s Paradox, I wrote that patients with personality disorders are very adept at acting in certain ways that may often be a mask or cover-up of what they are really thinking, feeling or doing. They have a false self.  I also mentioned that they "often give themselves away to therapists, however, precisely because their behavior is so polarized – they act as if they absolutely must act a certain way all the time even when external circumstances would seem to require a bit more flexibility."

In this post, I will elaborate on that a bit.  Looking for polarized behavior is one among several of the ways that therapists can uncover a patient's true self when the patient is strongly inclined to hide it.  Like the Germans say in World War II movies, "Ve haff vays of making zem talk!"

That sounds ominous, of course, but the process is really quite benign.  Good therapists are quite empathic with patients' need to hide parts of themselves.  When we think the patient is ready to hear it, we very gently point out to them when something they are doing or saying, or their body language, contradicts something else that they are saying, or something they have said repetitively in therapy previously.

A good therapist does not accuse a patient of keeping secrets, but expresses puzzlement over the contradiction and asks the patient to explain it.

So what are some other examples of polarized behavior?  The types of behaviors that are most frequently affected can be thought of and listed as extreme opposites.  When people always behave at either one or the other of the extremes, or if they behave at one extreme for awhile and then suddenly switch to the opposite extreme, the therapist suspects that a false self is being covered up through rigid adherence to the opposite of the underlying impulse (a reaction formation).

The following is a list of some of the more commonly seen polarizations.  Many of them overlap or are subcategories of one another.  I make no pretense that the list is anywhere near complete.

1. Spontaneous versus planned activity.

2. Giving versus taking.

3. Career versus family life.

4. Work versus play.

5. Emotionality versus stoicism.

6. Activity versus passivity.

7. Dependence versus independence.

8. Dominance versus submission.

9. Sexual expression versus sexual inhibition.

10. Caretaking versus caregiving.

11. Saving for the future versus spending for the moment.

12. Attention seeking versus remaining inconspicuous.

13. Taking all the blame versus blaming others.

14. Responsibility versus irresponsibility.

15. Competence versus incompetence.

16. Geographical and social mobility versus staying put.

17. Changing unhappy circumstances versus learning to accept them.

18. Change for the sake of change versus constancy and continuity.

19. Togetherness versus allowing "space" in relationships.

20. Ambition versus lack of ambition.

21. Loyalty versus disloyalty.

22. Respect for authority versus freethinking or rebelliousness.

23. Curiosity versus lack of curiosity.

24. Sociability versus preferring one's own company.

25. Priority for children versus priority for parents’ needs

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