Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Reflections, Ruminations and Rants


I am grateful to Geoff Nunberg (http://people,ischool.berkeley.edu/~nunberg/), the linguist on Terry Gross' "Fresh Air," for pointing out how words can be used in a way contrary to their original meaning.  Most "guarantees," for example, are actually predominantly "limitations of liability."

Words and Reality

I'm calling my telephone service to ask why this month's bill is larger than last month's, when my usage was the same.  The first thing the automated announcement tells me is, "We value your time."  Then it goes on to waste my time with a bunch of advertising and irrelevant announcements, eventually taking me through a series of steps, then putting me on hold again until I can finally speak with an account representative.

What counts more, the words--"We value your time"--or the reality?

"Only One Book"

Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte (http://www.perez-reverte.com), in his novel, "Purity of Blood," (http://www.amazon.com/Purity-Blood-Arturo-Perez-Reverte) tells a story from the perspective of the 13 year old Inigo Balboa, ward of Captian Diego Alatriste.  Following a disastrous attempt, with Alatriste, to resuce a young woman from a convent which is also a prison and cult, Inigo is captured by the Inquisition.  He is beaten and tortured, and witnesses worse done to others, inflicted by those who believe they are obeying the highest authority (sound familiar?).  Commenting on this episode later in his life, Inigo reflects:

Later, with time,, I learned that although all men are capable of good and evil, the worst among them are those who, when they commit evil, do so by shielding themselves in the authority of others, in their subordination, or in the excuse of following orders.  And even worse are those who believe they are justified by their God.  Because in the secret dungeons of Toledo, nearly at the cost of my life, I learned that there is nothing more despicable or more dangerous than the malevolent individual who goes to sleep every night with a clear conscience.  That is true evil.  Especially when paired with ignorance, superstition, stupidity, or power, all of which often travel together.

And worst of all is the person who acts as exegete of The Word--whether it be from the Talmud, the Bible, the Koran, or any other book already written or yet to come.  I am not fond of giving advice--no one can pound opinions into another's head--but here is a piece that costs you nothing:  Never trust a man who reads only one book.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Intention Invention"

I’ve recently been recommending a book entitled “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most,” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, of the Harvard Negotiation Project (http://www.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Discuss-what-Matters). It’s an excellent source of information about how difficult conversations can go bad and how we can approach them to help them turn out more constructively. One of the ideas in “Difficult Conversations” that I find very useful is, “intention invention.” By “intention invention,” the authors mean that we make up reasons why we think someone we’re having a conflict with is doing whatever they’re doing, when we don’t really know why they’re doing it at all.

Here’s an example: Johnny, a fifth grader, isn’t doing his homework and is falling behind in class. His teacher thinks that his parents don’t care about his homework, or how he is doing in school. His parents think that his teacher doesn’t like Johnny and doesn’t understand how to make a relationship with him so he’ll want to do her assignments. In fact, neither the teacher nor the parents know what the others’ intentions are, and they are just making up their ideas about each other.

“Intention invention” is a great phrase, because it combines several complex ideas into one that is readily understandable at an everyday level. In fact, you don’t need to know any more about it than that, to use it. If you are in a conflict discussion with someone who accuses you of bad motivation, you don't have to accept it, but can say that their impression of why you're doing it doesn't fit how you actually feel, and "reframe" the conversation (another key idea in "Difficult Conversations") back to the issue under discussion. And, if you start to impose bad motivation on the other person, you can catch yourself at it, let it go, and get back to the conversation. But I can’t help but be interested in the implications for what "intention invention" means about our mental functioning.

It seems to me that there are at least three rather complicated ideas underlying “intention invention:”

1. The idea of “attribution,” which, in cognitive psychology, means why we think someone is doing something and the relationship between that and how we feel about them. For example, if I’m driving my car and am stopped at a stop sign, waiting for a teenager to cross the street, and he’s walking very slowly while talking on his cellphone, completely oblivious of the drivers who are waiting for him to get across, I might get annoyed if I think he’s a narcissistic, spoiled, entitled brat without an ounce of awareness of what’s going on around him or concern about how his behavior is affecting others. However, if I happen to know that his mother had surgery last week for a brain tumor, and expect that he’s probably numb and in shock from that, I might be grateful that he has people to talk with, for support or just ordinary relationship in the midst of his crisis, and not be annoyed at all. In either case, he’s doing the same thing, but how I react to it depends on why I think he’s doing it. That’s attribution.

2. The idea of “projective identification” in psychoanalytic psychology. This is a very complicated idea, and something of a moving target in that different analytic writers have used it to refer to somewhat different behaviors. My teacher on this subject, psychiatrist Harold Balikov, described it as the way we react to another person because of what we feel they’re thinking about us, when we are, in fact, projecting that onto them in the first place.

Here’s an example from therapy: a client feels that his therapist doesn’t want to hear him talking about his dissatisfaction with his marriage. When he was a child, his mother was unwilling to listen to his feelings or needs. She wanted him to be conventional, successful, and happy, and whenever he wasn’t she responded with ridicule and scolding. Then he’d suppress his dissatisfaction and unhappiness and put on a happy face in order to bond with his mother, who had a strong personality and was the most powerful person in his life for many years. The client doesn’t say, “I feel like I need to project a conventional, successful and happy image to my therapist, even though that doesn’t reflect how I really feel.” Neither does he say, “I’m reluctant to talk about my marital problems with my therapist because of the way my mother treated me when I was growing up.” He says, “I know you don’t want me to talk about how unhappy I am in my marriage.” That’s projective identification.

3. Multiple motivation: The “Difficult Conversation” authors emphasize that most of what we do has multiple motivational sources. In the example of Johnny and his teacher and parents, Johnny may be falling behind in his homework because he’s being picked on by other kids, and because he feels the teacher doesn’t like him, and because he finds the work difficult, and because he'd rather have fun after school than do homework, and because he can get his parents to let him get away with it, and because he feels more special and influential in his family when he does. His teacher and parents have similar multiple motivations contributing to their own perceptions, feelings, and attributions. So it’s generally a mistake to think that someone we’re in a conflict with is doing something for only one reason, and that we know what it is. Equally, we ourselves are not usually motivated by a single value or goal; we are just as subject to multiple motivations as anyone else. In fact, we are almost always operating on the basis of a mixture of motivations.

So, in a difficult conversation, the important issue is not why we think the other person is doing what she’s doing, but what the consequences are. In our example about Johnny, the key issue is that he isn’t doing his homework and is falling behind. If his parents and teachers get into an argument about each other’s motivations (Parent: “Why don’t you care about my son?” Teacher: “Why don’t you care about your son?”), it won’t help solve the problem. They need to face the fact that Johnny isn’t doing his homework and is falling behind, and start finding ways to work together to help him get back on track.

(Note: A longer article about “Difficult Conversations” and other methods of having the necessary difficult conversations of life with less damage and more benefit will be posted shortly on by website, “Psychologist At Large,” www.psychatlarge.com.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Two Questions, One Answer

The two questions discussed below illustrate several important ideas. One is that different questions can reflect similar themes, which become apparent when they are considered side-by-side. Another is that people may come into therapy or consultation wishing to hold onto something that they may have, in fact, already lost. Yet another is that people may come into therapy hoping to change someone else, when their focus really needs to be on themselves.

So, here are a couple of questions that were submitted through my web page, “Psychologist At Large,” (www.psychatlarge.com). The women who sent these questions are suffering, and my heart goes out to them. Yet the main cause of their suffering, from a psychological point of view, seems to me to be that they are unconsciously clinging to narratives about their relationships that have already been disconfirmed by events; specifically, the behavior of their respective boyfriends.

Let’s look at the questions:

Georgia: “How can I make him see...”

Georgia writes:

Hi, I have been with my boyfriend for almost 3 years now and we have known each other for almost 8 years. When we started going out together it was because we realized that we loved each other and want to build a future together and all this time we were looking elsewhere when we are right next to each other.

Things were doing great until about 2 years ago, when he started being distant, I had then found out that he was spending time with another girl, and we fought about it until he gave up on that girl. When we talked about it, he told me that he did that because she would listen to him and not stress him out. So I acknowledged my mistakes and tried to be better for him.

About 6 months ago, I don't know why, he makes me feel like a yo-yo, always rethinking us. I don't know if it's because he his seeing that he will become successful (music) or because he has vengeance towards me, all I have been doing lately is run after him and try to show him that I changed.

What I have noticed about him is that he is always stressed around me, but when he is with others he is always happy. Even when I am calm and relaxed he will turn things around to get me heated up. He doesn't want to talk to me because he says I will do something that will stress him. How can I show him that I just want to spend some good time with him when he closes the door before even seeing who's there or at least what they're trying to do.

I know that he also had a tough childhood, his mother left his father for his best friend and his father is always backtalking them, while the mom is imposing his stepdad on him. She even told me she thinks that all the hatred he has towards her, he channels it towards me, and I noticed recently that he became very close to his sister, but at that same time he gives me affection less and less as if he takes it from me and gives it to his sister instead.

How can I make him see that he is seeing me negatively even when I'm being positive and how to help him stop please?

Catherine: “Oh no, not again!”

Catherine writes:

I am 50 yrs. old; my boyfriend is 53. We have both been in long relationships, including marriage. We have been together for seven years and only see each other weekends due to the distance (appr. 1 hour) and work schedule. He is the most wonderful, giving, handsome man I had ever been with. We always tell each other that "you are the One". Sometimes he goes into a deep depression in which he has to be alone for about one week. I don't call him or bother him. I accept this. This past week I had gone away with a friend for about four days. I called him at home and said how much I missed him and loved him. I also said that I wish we could walk this beautiful beach together, etc. He called that night to tell me that I really have to NOT miss him and NOT call him so much. Of course, I was hurt. Bill is a private man who likes to do things by himself, which I understand. I like to be around people and have lots of fun. He goes to bed at 7:30 p.m. and does not like to go anywhere except to a cottage once a year with myself and my dog. That is okay. He encourages me to go with my friends.

I had just come back from a four-day weekend with a friend, as I noted above. He called and told me that he wanted to end the relationship. I was so stunned that I could not speak. He said that I call him too much and that I should have never called his father to see if he was there to talk to him. Believe me, I am NOT a clingy person - just someone who likes to give her boyfriend a nice message saying that I missed him. I said that I thought he loved me, and he said that he did love me very much but that he really liked to be alone. After much crying on my part, he agreed to see how things would go and still see me.

I called his older sister hysterically crying, and she said, "Oh no, not again". Apparently, he has done this with other women - it is a pattern. He dates for a number of years, then breaks up with them claiming he wants to be by himself. We concluded that he may be bipolar. She said she had so many hopes for us and thought that would be the end of this pattern. She was happy that we were making long-term plans together and that our relationship is the best one he had ever had. I told her that he does not like to go away with me but that he encourages me to go with my friends. She claimed that that is the start of his pulling away, slowly. I had never put two and two together.

He is on Paxil and has been for a long time. He gets in his "funks" where he is not "right" for about one week - usually in the winter. I am used to that, but he tells me that it has nothing to do with me, and he eventually gets over it

He just now called me to ask how I was doing with my cold. (I've had a bad cough for about one week) I said okay and asked him about his earlier call, but he would not talk about it. I have no idea what to do. I am scared because I am sure this will happen again, but maybe the next time it will be for good. It also seems that while I will be hurting, he will not be. I can't understand it. He loves me, I am "the one", making plans to move south and retire with me, etc. He is a wonderful man all around, but this is so shocking. I don't want to start over and want to stay with him, but does that mean I cannot express any feelings I have or be afraid to, in fear that it will be too much for him?

I am thinking about seeing a therapist to better understand him, but is that the right step?

Dr. Einhorn replies:

Looked at from a distance, and simplified, these questions have similar structures, something like this:

“I had a relationship and believed that it was great. Then it turned out that my partner was not who I thought he was, and our relationship was not what I thought it was. I understand I have to make some changes. What can I do to keep my relationship the way I want to believe it is?”

The truth, of course, seems to be that neither woman has the relationship that she once believed she did. Even when their relationships seemed so great, both Georgia and Catherine’s relationships contained the seeds of later conflicts, challenges, and disillusionments. Both Georgia’s and Catherine’s boyfriends gave them cues that things were not entirely what they seemed. If Georgia and Catherine acknowledge that they didn’t recognize what was happening then, they will be able to look at what’s really happening now. Such acknowledgment leads to psychological freedom; the freedom to be their real selves, in their real lives, today. But there is a cost: they’ll have to revise their impressions about their relationships. They’ll have to take another look at who their boyfriends are, what they are offering of themselves in relationship, and whether that's really what Georgia and Catherine want after all. In the process, they’ll have to take another look at who they themselves were, how they chose to conduct themselves, how they tried to protect themselves, what they chose to notice and ignore, what they chose to believe, as their relationships formed and evolved.

The brain is a maker of stories, a weaver of narratives that give form to events and explanation to experience. And no story is more powerful than that of the meeting of two soul-mates. But the brain is a better maker of stories than it is an adapter of them. We cling, often largely unconsciously, to the stories that tell us who we are and orient us in our lives. It is in our lack of readiness to adapt our stories based on the facts of events and experience that so many of our mistaken decisions and judgments, and the suffering they lead to, are rooted.

If I were in a therapeutic or consultative relationship with Georgia and Catherine, I would proceed from three fundamental perspectives. The first is that the human brain is capable of the “top-down reorganization of life,” as Roger Sperry said (www.rogersperry.info). That means that, even though we learn as we go forward through experience, like any animal that learns, the human brain is unique, as far as we know, in it’s ability look in, look back, and reorganize; to detach, review experience, and make sense out of it in a new way. I would want to help them review these relationships so that they could understand them more realistically. The second fundamental perspective is that of unconscious process. And there are two parts of that. The first part is the stories they told themselves about what was happening early in their relationships, and later. The second part is the cues that they received which told them that their stories were not accurate enough, and in need of revision; cues which they more or less disregarded.

It gets more complicated, there are more levels. Their stories themselves come from different sources. Some of those sources might be stories they’ve absorbed from their culture, with internal themes that are too simplistic to be real. Their stories could have been influenced by patterns of relationship in their families of origin and other situations whose structure they absorbed while growing up. There might be aspects of their formative situations in which a kind of unconscious but deliberate intention not to recognize something that was happening was absorbed.

“The brain is a creature of habit,” as I often say, and the problems that bring people into therapy or consultation are often repeating earlier patterns.

The third fundamental perspective is that work on oneself, of the right kind, in the right way, brings about changes in the brain and mind of the person doing it. The process of self-observation, and of putting words and images to thoughts, feelings and attitudes that haven’t yet been expressed, creates a change in the brain that is doing that work. What psychiatrist Arthur Deikman calls the observing self (http://www.deikman.com/observingself.html) becomes more consciously a part of the mental life of the person. And with greater self-awareness comes the possibility of being more honest with oneself; honest about what one is really giving and getting, and what one needs. Which, in turn, leads to more awareness of what our real choices in a situation are.

It may be that either Georgia or Catherine, or both, can do something to save their relationships. If they can, it will be at the cost of seeing their boyfriends, and themselves, more realistically. If they can’t, they can still learn the lessons and avoid repeating their mistakes. But it will take some self-searching. It’s possible that, after awhile, couples therapy might help either or both couple(s), but it seems unlikely that it’s the best place to start, since neither man seems ready to work on himself to try to preserve and enhance his relationship. Neither seems ready to detach and look at his own narratives. And, in a way, neither do Georgia and Catherine really seem ready to look at themselves; they’re both asking me to advise them about how to keep their relationships as they’d like to think about them. But Georgia and Catherine seem to care more--after all, they took the trouble to write--and perhaps that will bring either or both of them into a place where they are ready to look at themselves, as part of the process of trying to understand and save their relationships.