Negotiating with an Emotional Terrorist
B.B. (identifying details changed) sat at the kitchen table pushing her phone around like a piece on a game board. Waiting to find out whether or not she had to go visit her biological father for Father’s Day, she sighed, grimaced, texted, and picked at food in which she had no interest.
I asked her why she didn’t just stay home to celebrate with the man who helped raise her, whom she adored. Her face twisted in guilt, she said, “It’s not that simple. He’s going to do or say something that’s going to make me feel horrible or he’s gonna get insane. I think I may just ask him to pick me up. He hates to do that and maybe I’ll get to stay.”
B.B. is a young woman with an old soul. She is sensitive, artistic, and compassionate. She became this way despite being raised for a portion of her life by a deranged and sometimes violent narcissist who took his umbrage at the world out on her mother. They survived and prospered, but it has left her with an emotional Achilles heel: She is terribly worried about being nice, especially when that niceness promises an escape from confrontation or further abuse. She has been trained by an emotional terrorist.
I’ve known an inordinate number of people who have learned to seek refuge in being careful, who see being nice to people who are incapable of returning the kindness as a way of protecting themselves. They hope against hope for the impossible: That if they just say the right things, tilt their heads the right way, defer at the right time—all will be well. They will be reprieved and the abuser will be redeemed.
But the rules that apply to political terrorists are the same ones that apply to emotional madmen: there is no negotiating.
What I’ve called emotional terrorism has also been called emotional blackmail by psychotherapist Susan Forward and refers to a form of psychological manipulation that uses implied or overt threats and/or punishments in order to control another person’s behavior. Often it can be so subtle that observers can’t see it when looking casually. When it works the one who is manipulated becomes (in varying degrees) the hostage of the terrorist. It is a horrific position to be in.
The price for being a hostage is not obvious at first. Initially, it seems like a relief. Ah, I got it. I found the button that will make him leave me alone.
But it doesn’t last. And as time rolls on and the manipulations up the ante, the hostage finds himself constantly on edge, disappointed, persecuted and confused, and—the worst irony of all—enabling the very behavior(s) they wanted to avoid in the first place. The negotiations turn out to be a psychological gym in which the terrorist gets to work out and build up. The hostage finds himself in an increasingly hyper-vigilant and outgunned position precisely because they are often the sorts of individuals who are conscious of what others feel. An emotional terrorist is not hampered by empathy.
According to Forward(*1), one of the things these emotional terrorists will do is utilize the most intimate knowledge of the hostage to lock them into a psychic neck hold so they will do what the terrorist wants or needs them to do. This is especially easy with more sensitive people like B.B., and others I’ve known, who long for love, approval and harmony and will go to great—even self-sacrificing—lengths to obtain it.
I knew one young man who was caught in the middle of a fire-fight at the dinner table. His father and younger sister were yelling at each other about a broken fixture in the house. He said she did it, but she denied it and became indignant, even though it was clear she had done it. In order to stop the fighting, the young man admitted to breaking it and had to pay for it out of his savings. The harmony was worth the price for him. It never occurred to him that the fact that his sister didn’t step up to the plate to save him by telling the truth was selfish and uncaring. He saw himself as saving her and his family from unnecessary conflict.
Fascinating. There are no straight lines in the human brain.
And in situations like these, the truth is permuted to such a degree as to be nearly invisible. In fact, the avoidance of the truth is the one immutable common denominator in all psychological terrorism. The terrorist doesn’t want to face the truth about himself, his life, or his relationships (if there are any).
And in order to maintain short-term survival or safety, neither does the hostage.
Thus, they both lose. Because the terrorist is an easy subject to blame (rightly), it is easy to forget or downplay the unconscious complicity of his or her victims. Most victims are people who in one way or another have been primed to accept and deal with that sort of behavior. They are highly vigilant, supremely sensitive to the needs and expectations of others, and highly motivated to seek approval.
Is there something intrinsically wrong with wanting to please others? No. Or with empathy? Hardly. There was nothing to blame in B.B.’s desire for harmony, for peace. Her heart was righteous. She wanted people to be happy. The problem was not in her longing, but in her approach. Satisfying the unreasonable demands of a psychological saboteur only leads down a rabbit hole of endless capitulations and anxiety. She may have been raised to do that, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. She is grown and free to see—and take—other options. For B.B., as for all of us, it starts with recognizing what it is we do that facilitates being victimized so we can stop it and, in so doing, stop them.
Many people feel that psychology has gone off rail in the insistence on limit-setting, that it is a handy excuse for heartlessness. They say that becoming so rigidly “boundaried” is simply another form of hypervigilance and that the unfortunate result is an equal, if not more loathsome lack of empathy, generosity, and kindness on the part of the victim, who now becomes another sort of perpetrator.
Personally, I do not see that happening with good limit-setting or a solid, healthy recovery from a life of emotional imprisonment. Saying “no” may be life-saving not only for the victim but for the perpetrator. I have seen many people let go of being victimized (and the perpetrators) and they turn neither into heartless ministers of vengeance nor benumbed agents of apathy. They live well. They learn to love and receive love. They drop the fear and take up faith. They are formidable human beings on so many levels. And most importantly, they learn to see and tell the truth.
Quite a bit back, I was counseling the parents of a very bright and very manipulative little boy. He had them both turning cartwheels to exhaustion with a mix of tantrums, pouting, and splitting. If he couldn’t get what he wanted from one parent, he went to the other. And often he succeeded. The parents fought and eventually he got what he wanted. They wanted to be good parents, loving parents, and thought they were doing the right thing—they gave him what he wanted (“it was such a little thing, really”) and they kept it quiet, at least until the next time he demanded something he did not need. By the time I met them, they were fit to be tied.
This was a more common hostage situation than one might imagine. In any case, we worked on a contract with their son, a plan for building unity in the marriage so they could say “no”, and a prep course in behavior modification so they could anticipate and tolerate the inevitable peak in acting out they could expect when the “no’s” began in earnest. Terrorists do not give in easily. Even though healthy limit-setting often feels like swaddling—it contains them and gives them a sense of safety—even young manipulators will usually put up some kind of a fight. So, what actually occurred surprised everyone.
After two weeks, they came back to tell me that something amazing had happened to them. Their son had come in to them demanding a new game that “everyone” at school had. They followed the plan: They talked to each other first. They came to a single decision. “No,” they said unilaterally.
“I said to him,” the father continued, “No, you cannot have the game. Your mother and I talked and WE decided that it’s not something we want to buy right now.”
“You won’t believe what he did!” the mother exclaimed happily.
“Try me,” I said, sitting forward on my chair.
“He stood there.”
“He stood there?” I was puzzled.
“He was so stunned that we agreed he just stood there. He never argued. There was nothing.”
“It was beautiful,” the father leaned back, sighing into the couch. “It was the most beautiful ‘no’ I ever heard.”
Yes, it was.
This was one of the best welcomes I have ever had, or could hope to have. While I’m still missing New Mexico terribly, this article about Verbal First Aid, The Next Osama, and my general practice as a psychotherapist and homeopath certainly took some of the sting out.
I have more than fifty, maybe even one hundred different so-called “accounts”–linkedin, huffington post, twitter, cable, phone, internet, website administrator, google, yahoo–the list has become a ten-page typewritten list of account names, numbers, passwords, and pin numbers.
I can’t remember any of them.
And each time I call a company for either customer support or account management information, I sound like a thief.
“And may we have your pin number to verify your account?” they ask.
And I stammer over three or four that spring to mind. Sometimes I have to make them wait and go look it up.
But they tell you–very urgently–never, ever to repeat a password. Make each one unique. Make each one impossible to guess. Fill them with numbers, letters and symbols for which most of us don’t even have names, like “ampersands” (&).
I don’t know how much better I’d be at this if I were 25. I can’t imagine it would be all that much easier. But I do know I’m not alone in the sandy-haired set.
One woman at the grocery store had to input a password to get access to the cashier so she could scan our food order. She stood there mesmerized. She was probably a little older than I am. But her face became utterly blank.
Finally, she turned to me, chagrined, “I can’t remember my number,” then locked the system back up and went to get her boss. It became a 15-minute process.
This leaves us with a bit of a problem. Do we carry around lists of passwords? That would make having a password rather foolish since anyone could just grab it out of our pockets or off our computers.
Do we have a separate system under a single password, in which all our other passwords are available? Sounds like an idea, but it still leaves us one password away from identity theft.
My husband had a great idea.
“Why not just have one password for the whole lot of ‘em?”
I thought that was the best idea I’d heard all day.
This is a guest blog by author Vanessa Van Petten, creator of RadicalParenting.com a parenting website written from the teen perspective to help parents understand them. She is also the author of the parenting book, “Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded?” (http://www.radicalparenting.com/books-and-products/book-youre-grounded/)
Was there ever a moment when your teen said something snarky or gave you a dirty look and you thought to yourself, “Who is this person living in my house?” There seems to be a time for many parents where they realize their once loving child has turned into an adolescent, moody, quasi-stranger.
I often hear parents saying things like, “I swear, she woke-up and it was like I didn’t even know her anymore!” or “When did my son turn into a man?” These statements are usually tinged with both regret and nostalgia as parents realize their child is not only growing up, but turning into what seems like a new person.
Even though this can be disconcerting for parents, many adults do not realize that there is a flip-side to this knowledge for your teen as well. Teenagers often tell me that they also have a moment of apprehension when they realize their parents still think they are children—and they no longer feel like children. They say things like, “I liked the Simpsons when I was in 5th grade, my parents don’t realize that I have changed a lot since I was 11!” or “My parents think they know everything about me, but they don’t, I’m not a kid anymore!”
Both parents and teens are going through their own confusing ‘aha’ moments of their own adulthood. I find one of the best ways for teens to feel like their parents are accepting them as adults and for parents to feel like they still know their children is to ask some character defining questions. In my book, “Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded?” I talk about some great questions to get to know your kids. Here are my favorites, feel free to expand this into some great get-to-know-each-other conversations:
Conversation Starters to Get to Know Your Teens
1. What is the hardest thing about your life, what do you worry about most?
2. Is there something that you wish I knew about you?
3. What are three words to describe you?
4. What do you think is the most important quality a person can have?
5. How were you different five years ago from who you are now? What do you think you will be like five years from now?
These questions are meant to not only help you get to know each other, but also help get your teen thinking about their own identity. By discussing these issues with them in an open-minded fashion, they know they can come to you when they are trying to figure themselves out…and when you want to figure them out as well.
Here are some more: 20 Teen and Tween Conversation Starters (http://www.radicalparenting.com/2008/06/02/table-topics/)
Recently I found out that a beloved niece — one with whom I lived until she was about two years old — was pregnant. And suddenly, everything I had learned to let go of as she became a toddler, then again as a school-age child, then a teenager, then a young adult, then a married woman, had flown out the window. I had grabbed hold of that life-long chain of release, release and re-release and pulled it back to me and rolled it into a big knot. Then, I found out that she (in her last trimester) and her husband were going to visit the wild, wonderful world of Mickey Mouse in the height of summer. Every adrenal-driven, hormone-based horror came rushing out like a hot flash. I thought of every ride that could make her sick, every long drive that could give her a blood clot, every soda that would push her blood sugar into a snit. What if X and what if Y? And did you talk to your doctor? And how will you ever be able to stand on line?
I was my own worst nightmare, a caricature of the anxious stunt-mom, the stuff I have warned my sister about far, far too many times for both her and my own liking. And even writing this to you, I am embarrassed. I’m supposed to know better. This is generally the sort of thing I teach to parents — how to generate a sense of authority, safety, and assurance and then transfer that to their children or loved ones. I’m supposed to be the maven of ,Verbal First Aid not the Grand Ol’ Mama of Woe and Oh No.
But as I look back on it — and how I had to retrace my steps, backpedal, and make it right with my niece (first with an apology and then with some true correction), I see it more as a gift. As hard as it is to let go of the people we love, it is that easy to grab them right back. Control is like a tether ball. It may look like you’ve slapped it past the horizon, but then there it comes around and slams you upside the head.
What I’ve learned is that letting go of someone I love so that she may properly live her own life is an ongoing struggle — at least for people like me whose natural tendency is to fret. For others who are more like my husband, it is a grace, a way of walking and breathing in the world. So I went back to basics. As she talked about all the things she was going to do I went through the list I teach but forgot to practice:
1. BREATHE! I honestly forget to breathe more times than I care to admit. It’s a wonder I’m not perpetually cyanotic.
2. CENTER! This word has a multiple meaning for me. In one, obvious sense it means to get centered physically in my own body, which is the only way to manage an unreasonable anxiety, even though everything about anxiety pushes us in the other direction… to leave our bodies. (If it’s going to feel like this, I’m OUTTA here!)
The other thing it represents for me is a spiritual center. I have to remember, or to be more accurate, actively remind myself by reading something, praying, talking to someone who knows better than I do, who I really am, who she really is and what our ultimate destinations are. Even though I love her as if she were my own child, she is far, far more than that and has her own purpose in life. She is God’s child, just as I am. She has never belonged to me (or anyone else for that matter) even though at times it may feel like that.
3. The ABC’s of Verbal First Aid with children and adults. Even though this was not a “crisis” (at least not for anyone but myself), it was a good opportunity for me to remember what makes for truly therapeutic communication–Authority, Believability, Compassion. Usually these qualities are important to cultivate when someone is in shock or had a traumatic or frightening experience so that we can lead them towards health or healing. In our case, it was oddly reversed. I was the one who, with my fear, was creating a traumatic or frightening experience where none did or needed to exist. To reverse it, I had to go back to what was the essence of any good parent or healer relationship: the ability to be a leader (to help her to move forward without the unnecessary baggage of MY anxiety), to be believable in my assertions (not a fear-monger), and to be understanding. She was tired and desperately wanted a vacation. If she wanted to see Donald Duck and be a little girl for a week, who was I to judge? And where did I come off assuming that she didn’t have enough sense to get out of the sun or find a chair in which to rest her weary legs? I had messed up on all counts.
4. Rapport. In this case, because I was such a worry wart, I had to re-establish what I once had but rapidly lost because my fear had begun to affect her. The more fear I had, the more I lost the rapport we had cultivated over so many years. Obviously it was not “lost” in the sense of “gone forever” but it was tenuous in the moment. With every “what if” she had to defend not only her status as an adult or her decisions, but her sense of well-being. The more afraid I was, the more she really had to resist me. I remember quite a while ago when I was undergoing these quick twists and turns with my parents and how their fear had more than annoyed me, it had angered me. As the years passed, I realized why: it resonated with me. If they were afraid (and if secretly I was, too), then there must have been something to be afraid of. I didn’t want to be afraid. It made me feel helpless rather than empowered and alive. And being pervasively (as opposed to realistically) fearful never gave me a single useful tool in my life.
So, this time, I was lucky. Not too much water or wasted emotional energy had flowed under the bridge before I caught it. I was able to recapitulate in short order and she, gracefully, laughed at her aunt once again. When, inevitably, I imagine her walking across miles of parking lots and waiting on long lines in sweltering heat to get through the Pearly Gates of Disney, I will instead take a breath, sit back, remind myself of the basics and think of her as a brave and happy young woman with a baby on the way, running up to Cinderella and smiling from ear to ear.
Yesterday I sat watching a storm tumble in as they can do only in this region of the country — catapulting, cranky and fast. There were spiny shards of lightning, whipping sheets of rain you could see approach from a distance of 30-40 miles, and a thunder roll that had three large dogs shaking behind my legs.
I was mesmerized. I gathered up the dogs and went inside to watch. It was not a small storm. It brought hail, the noise of nightmares, darkness and ferocity.
And I had this unbidden, strange, delicious thought: I am created. I am a creation.
It seemed more like a letter addressed to me than a self-generated idea and what it appeared to be telling me was this simple and magnificent thing: I am not my own. I no more created myself than the thunderhead before me or the mountain with which it collided.
Now, to me — as much as to you — that is a very strange idea. It is almost a cultural betrayal. Like everyone else, I have told myself many times that I am very much my own. I have not only told myself, I have repeatedly taught that idea to others. I was told to believe in myself, so I cultivated that belief. I was told I am my thoughts, so I have aimed to think well. I was particularly told to think well of myself and have developed what is generally considered to be a healthy sense of self esteem. I own my home. I have a career. I build friendships. I am ME. I am MINE.
But then the storm said, “Well, not exactly…”
It went on to say that I was not my own, certainly not in the way I had thought. It said I was God’s. That, like the thunder, the lightning, the birds taking refuge in the trees, I was His creation and that it was all constantly unfolded, rolled into motion and kept in existence by an act of Will that was not by any means mine.
Given how I was raised, trained and educated, I would have more than expected that thought to be anathema to me. What do you mean I’m not my own??? It was an odd moment overall. But when I think back to other moments of great understanding or fragments of Grace, I think much of what has been shown to me has been odd. Some were real head tilters. I imagine they made me look like my dogs do when I start talking to them. And in some ways, those experiences weren’t much different. It was as though I was hearing a language I’d never heard before except that I could understand it — just not with my ears or my conscious mind. And this was no different. It was very strange and very big. Much bigger than my body, my mind, or anything else I considered proprietary.
Looking back I would’ve normally expected myself to be either a bit frightened or annoyed; it surprised me to find out that I was actually relieved. If I was created, my existence not only had meaning, it was personal.
I finally began to understand what “self-esteem” alluded to but never gave me: a sense of belonging. In that storm, a new truth was revealed; none of us — not me, not the dogs, not the mountains or the rain — stood solely for ourselves. All of us in unison pointed to Something Else, a Magic that was deeper than magic, a single Breath that filled the lungs of all life. And all of it inhaled, hoping for more. Self-esteem had never been enough.
Not for a moment in that reverie did I feel as though belonging to Another had stripped me of the ability to choose. The moment came with an invitation, not an ultimatum or a compulsion. I could continue to rely on myself — or not. I felt perfectly free to choose what I did next: ignore the message, dismiss it as unscientific, laugh at it, write about it, sit with it. The possibilities presented themselves and later that evening I chose (as you can see). And as I wrote, trying to sift through the sensation (because it was quite physical) of being actively, consciously and purposefully created, I found that it made me more than I was, rather than less.
A bit of history might help you understand why this is such a great relief for me and why I chose to write to you instead of to ignore the experience.
Most of my life has been spent in fear, fighting fear or treating fear. Of what? Of everything. Of death, of life, of loving, of losing, of being well, of being sick. The why’s are too numerous to go into here (maybe another essay), but suffice it to say that it was exhausting, at times incapacitating. It’s been many years since then, but the body memory can be recalled with ease.
The natural result of all that fear was — for me — the futile attempt to control my circumstances. If I can “just” drive this way, or I can “just” get him to do it that way, or if I can “just” keep my schedule in “just” the right order, all will be well, I will be safe, I will be loved.
Needless to say — and you all surely know this from your own experience — it didn’t work. I just spent more and more time trying to ward off an army with a toothpick. Controlling didn’t bring love, never guaranteed safety (only the temporary illusion of it) and never made me well. If anything it called forth the opposite: It made me annoying, it put me in situations which I should have hastily avoided, and it weakened me so that I took sick.
As I watched the storm I began to understand that the fear had the power it did for so many years because I had felt utterly alone. Of course, I wasn’t alone — neither in the social sense, the psychological one, nor the spiritual one. But I felt alone, on my own the way a forsaken orphan does, one who mistakenly struggles against the world with the full load of survival on his way too narrow shoulders. And because of that I believed I had to manage everything. If I didn’t, who would? I was convinced that it was up to me.
That is the price of separateness. I was mine. But, then, with that, so was everything else.
I’d like to share with you a wonderful idea. It comes from a book entitled “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton. In one segment, he talks about the Will that beckons us from behind every rock, breeze and berry tree, and how the perceived repetition of nature (the sun that rises again and again, the tides that rush in and out at the same time every year, the exchange of synaptic chemistry in predictable ways) is due not to a series of unimaginative scientific laws or a dull and insensate lifelessness but to a conscious vibrancy, “a rush of life.”
He likens it to the way children kick their legs back and forth, back and forth, enough to drive more sedated adults to distraction, not because of an absence of vitality but because they have so much of it. He recalls also (who hasn’t done this?) the way children will happily hear a story over and over and over, pulling on someone’s shirt sleeve, “Read it again!” The adult may be bored to tears, but the child is enthralled every time.
Because of a child’s unbridled enthusiasm for life, because they are still unfettered in spirit, everything they see bares the stamp of the Great Magician, all of living is an act of mystery, daring and surprise, every day is prefaced by the curtain being pulled up to reveal a new rabbit or an inexplicably empty box.
“It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. May be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy … our Father is younger than we are.”
He goes on to reveal that he has always seen life as a story, and “that if there is a story, there is a story teller.”
I saw at least a bit of that story in the dark clouds and torrents of rain yesterday and finally, finally got a sense of the Great Story Teller Himself as he wet his thumb and turned the page and asked me, “Would you like to see what happens next?”
And my heart leapt and my lips said “Yes!” glad beyond words that finally I did not have to know the ending, that I could be a part of something much grander and beloved than I ever could have if I had tried to do the writing myself.
The other day a client of mine tearfully revealed a childhood filled with fear. Her father was an unpredictable and menacing man who was nearly as big as the front door. She was only a toddler, but she had vivid memories of him hollering as he came into the kitchen, the sweet smell of too much whiskey floating off his skin as he picked up a utensil to beat her mother. Her mother, also a drug user, in rage at her husband, tried to drown her by pouring soap and water down her throat. She was saved with mere seconds to go by a neighbor who had heard the screaming.
She cried for a while and then she asked me: “What did I do wrong?”
At first I heard her as any therapist would. Many, many—too many—children blame themselves for the horror they are born into. Why? Mainly because the people who are hurting them tell them that “it’s all their fault” and because they are children, they simply don’t know any better than to believe them.
But then I heard something else. I heard the recurrent theme of a culture obsessed with success and the exterior trimmings of “wellbeing” as a manifestation of our inner grace, a culture that has rejected the entire idea of luck as the limping hope of the loser and has embraced the personal accountability of the Individual as All. This takes us to many places, not all of them bad, but decidedly not all of them good. This child was one example of what happens when personal accountability is perverted.
I had another client who had difficulties with finding work in a professional field. She went on interview after interview but she kept getting turned down. Finally, I asked her how she went to the interview—what time she showed up, how she dressed, how she spoke. “I go like this,” she said and waved her hands in front of herself proudly. “I go as myself.” She was dressed in flouncy pedal pushers, ankle socks, shoes that seemed way too comfortable (especially for an interview), and a short-sleeved shirt that stuck out of her waist. Her hair was pulled back in a tight pony tail. With every non-judgmental muscle in my mind working in reverse, I could not help but see her as responsible for her difficulty.
But what about luck? What about those people who seem to have all of it? And those others who seem to have none?
Yet another individual comes to mind: a young illegal immigrant who literally crawled here from south of the border. I mean what I said. She crawled on hands and knees through jungle and tunnel for miles, the only female with 40 men. She had been beaten mercilessly as a child. She had been taken by a man to be his wife without her consent and tormented by her husband for years. She had been tortured and thrown around so badly that she lost her eight-month pregnancy and spent a month in coma. She finally left because she was certain he would kill her and reluctantly left her only child with her mother. She grieves every day for that child. Was that her fault? Were her beatings a product of her own negative thinking? Would a couple of aphorisms have changed what she had to deal with? The family she was born into?
I think of another immigrant with a very different outcome. With a similar state of abject misery in his early childhood, he scrambled into this country by jumping cargo trains. Finally, starving, he turned himself into a slave laborer on farms across the southwest, drinking and drugging to oblivion. During those intoxicated years he committed a series of crimes for which he is deeply remorseful. But he—as opposed to our young mother—had the good fortune to 1) never get arrested and 2) marry a woman who stayed with him, who raised their daughter kindly, and kept a decent job. Then he had the even better fortune to have a moment of divine grace that got him to put down the drugs and alcohol for good. He cannot explain the moment or the grace. He just says, “In a second, it all changed.”
I mentioned my thoughts on this to my husband. I told him that I thought our culture had gone too far with the idealization of the self, that certain things are and will remain a mystery, that bad things happen and we very often don’t know why, that some idiots get all the girls and gold but some of the finest people on earth suffer in endless silence.
I asked him: Whatever happened to luck? Or Providence? Or mystery? Whatever happened to not having all the answers? Whatever happened to the simple compassion we should have for those who don’t have it as good as we do? When did we start lecturing the poor and sick on their lack of positivity and forgetting that we all stand on the edge of an abyss? When did we come to rely so heavily on the “power of intention” and turn our own cortical functions into a spiritual platform?
Does anyone really believe that Trump deserved all the money he inherited? That somehow his mental state was sufficiently advanced or positive and healthy enough that he “drew” that energy to him? I continued on my soapbox: When did we become masters of the universe, whether by our quantum minds or our technology? When did we start thinking that somehow we could control what was around us that way?
And in his typically Montanan manner, he said, “But life without that idea in some form is hopeless.”
Of course, as usual, he was right.
And as usual, things were never quite as linear or straightforward as I might have liked. Life is a mess. This issue is no exception.
Where it goes wrong is in degree. America is a culture of extremes and control. It is perfectly reasonable to say that one’s choices make a difference or that one’s thoughts have a profound impact on how one feels. It’s an entirely different thing to insist that the self (whether that’s my thoughts, my choices, my ideas) is all that matters in the formation of a life. There are way too many things that are beyond our control for this to be absolutely true. I may be able to manage my thoughts, but I can’t change the global politic.
It also goes wrong in its reductionism. Things must be understood in linear ways. They must make sense, the columns must add up. If they don’t, it’s because we lost control and did something wrong. There must be someone or something to blame.
Two traditions perpetuate this:
1. Calvinism and the doctrine of the elect/predestination;
2. Eastern philosophy and the concept of Karma.
Both interpret our station in life (good or bad) as a function of either our grace or enlightenment. While “karma” is a relatively new ingredient in America’s philosophical soup, Calvinism’s doctrine of the elect permeates the American root system. In both systems, nothing is random or mysterious. Your good fortune is either God’s personal choice for you and you are obviously one of His favored, His elect or it is because of something you did or did not do in a past life. If you are poor and suffering, clearly you deserve it. If you’re not slim and simultaneously pushing a baby stroller while running a board of directors, there’s something awry. And that can mean there’s something wrong with you now (your intentions are weak or not right) or there was something wrong with you a hundred years ago and you’re paying for it now.
Some people interpret this to an extreme.
I remember a woman at an animal training workshop I took some years ago. It involved some psychological techniques that were much like Cesar Milan’s dog whispering. Somehow the conversation got diverted to the spiritual state of animals, particularly dogs. That woman told a story about a dog who was always tied to a tree, who was clearly in pain, and was often neglected or beaten. I piped right up: “And you got him, right?”
She said, “Of course not. How do I know it’s not his destiny, that he’s supposed to be there because of something he needs to learn?”
She smiled, quite satisfied with how spiritual she sounded. I nearly jumped out of my seat. I do not suffer fools gladly and I especially do not easily tolerate the smug, intellectual dismissal of pain and need in others—particularly children and animals.
The power of proper rather than positive thinking
One of the most important pioneers in Mind-Body medicine, oncologist Dr. O. Simonton had a unique perspective on thinking and healing. Quite a while back he was asked which individuals were more likely to survive cancer. It was clear that the author of the question assumed Simonton would say, “but of course, the positive thinkers.” He didn’t. He said that pure (sic: unbelievable) positive thinking (“I am healed,” for instance) actually worked against patients as much as grossly negative thinking (“I’m dying; there’s no hope”). What seemed to make a difference was what he called realistic thinking. When a person could believably say to him- or herself that everything was being done to help and they were doing everything they could to be better and healthier every day, they seemed to cross a threshold—from the fanciful into the possible, which is where real hope exists.
I say a prayer (often) that I’m sure most of you know: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
To me this is truly hopeful. This puts an appropriate percentage of responsibility in my hands. This says I can do something, but not everything. I can do what I can do and I will. I can use imagery to help myself heal (yes, that works). I can use proper medicine (I choose classical homeopathy). I can pray. I can eat right. I can sleep, play and work in balance. I can choose to forgive and stay in gratitude. I can use the tools I am given with all my heart and all my strength.
What I can’t do is lie to myself. I can’t use my thoughts to manipulate others, create opportunities that don’t exist, or generate mounds of cash in a toppling economy because “I’m worth it.” I can’t pretend that everything makes sense or that all suffering is self-generated. I can’t make the columns add up when this universe doesn’t add up. I can’t believe that a child who was nearly killed by her own parents somehow merited that because of something she did.
I can believe that the young woman who crawled here from South America did nothing to “deserve” her pain but that, with help and patience, she can find ways through it and possibly even to correct it. When I last heard from her, a fund was being taken up by people she had met in this country to help her get her child and mother to safety. It was a spontaneous and unexpected act of love and kindness just when she had nearly lost all hope.
I believe that good things happen in the same way as bad things—mysteriously and surprisingly. I believe with all my heart that everything does have a purpose, that I can have a personal relationship with God, and that eventually what is wrong will be made right. But I don’t know how or when. In the meantime, I ride the waves of good and bad as they come without pronouncing judgment about them or using them as philosophical weapons of self-justification.
In the documentary film, “What the Bleep Do We Know?” one of the doctors interviewed said he had a hard time with aphorisms and, to paraphrase him, he found them vapid and unbelievable. What he could say to himself and what allowed him to be hopeful, sometimes courageous, and hard working, was this simple idea: “I can always be surprised by how good it gets.”
Just as I’d predicted, as soon as Osama bin Laden was dead, it didn’t take a millisecond for the question to show up on every news wire and blog:
Who’s the next one? Where is he? This is how our culture works. As soon as one terror is wiped up, another one is splattered across the screens.
There’s actually word that he’s an American, possibly from New Mexico, that’s he’s smart, a savvy recruit with an intimate knowledge of the American psyche. Which then begs a more important question: If he’s American (or Western) born and as clever as we’re hearing, what does he know about us? What is the American psyche at this point? How are we motivated?
Well, I can tell you this much: He knows that he can reach us with fear and with not much effort. There is a slow, steady drip of terrorism in the United States. I am using it in the strictest sense of the word: the inducement of fear or terror via threats or intimations of violence, destruction, or disease. But it is not just where we think it is, ensconced somewhere in the Mideast. It is all around us, all the time. Perhaps, as my friend said, it doesn’t make a difference what the precise fear is. Perhaps what is important for our purposes is the way fear manipulates and motivates us not only without our conscious consent, but without our knowledge. Once again, to illuminate the point I raise the specter of advertising. What do we see and hear? What chord are they plucking?
“You’ve got just a few hours left, gentlemen. It’s panic time. But you can get the gift you want at….”
“It’s beginning a lot to look like weight gain…get PRODUCT X and head those pounds off at the pass…”
“What’s happening with those allergies? Stay tuned to see where the pollen’s been, where it’s going, and if you and your loved ones are at risk. Also….we’ll have DR. X from PHARMACY X to help you prepare your medicine closet for those more dangerous symptoms like asthma.”
“If you don’t have high-definition, you don’t have what it takes…” “We deal with the serious diseases. Together we can prevail…”
Advertising has become even more intrusive and quietly manipulative in that it is now embedded into entertainment programming. No longer do we hear, “Buy our new, improved…” No longer are commercials announced for what they are, sales pitches. Products are introduced into the fabric of television shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. They are shown in Sex & the City in ways that weave into our psyches without our knowing so that we unconsciously associate Absolute Vodka with incredible sex appeal, and who doesn’t want or need that? The medium is more sophisticated, but if we’re smart and aware we can see the same old messages over and over.
We are told we are too fat, so we better resolve to lose weight. We are told we need a makeover, so we resolve to get new clothes and change our style. We are told we are unattractive to the opposite sex if we’re over 25, so we better get a credit card with a low APR for that face lift we have to have. It’s all about “buy me!” “No, buy me!” “Hey you! I’m over here! Buy me!” The snake oil has been repackaged, but it’s still snake oil.
And for a country as sophisticated and slick as we are, we can be terribly gullible. Is it gilding the lily or out-and-out lying when Johnson and Jonson markets an insect-killing product as green because it uses a pesticide that is made from African flowers? The ad is delightful…beautiful flowers, bees, children, a productive little village that is being given a chance because of J & J’s beneficence. But the ingredient is pyrethrin, which is a known toxin acting on the respiratory system of bugs and humans alike. It doesn’t mention that.
If the next Osama knows this about us, he surely knows the shortest route to the American heart. The American Club We may not be conscious of it, but there is a “club” in America. We are very socially motivated. We need to be thin, to be hip, to be up on the latest “thang.” We need to be perfect mothers, perfect friends, perfect bosses and perfect employees. We need to wear the right clothes, have the right date, watch the right shows so we can join in on the water cooler gossip. We are very easily shamed by exclusion and as a result, very motivated by the current of popular opinion.
This last one is evident in children as young as 5 or 6 years old. In yet another life, I worked as a clinical social worker in a small school system along the Hudson River in NY. I can recall clearly this small boy with red hair playing with wood blocks and babbling about a cartoon character. I think it was one of the Ninja Turtles. Three other children were playing with him, building something that looked like the beginning of a castle. One of them, a little girl who was clearly Hispanic, looked at him sideways and said in a thick accent, “Who’s that?” He turned to her and, with a tone he could have only learned from an adult, said, “You don’t know? You’re stupid.” She hung her head and walked away, tears filling her eyes, shame filling her heart.
Over the last thirty years shame has been berated as “toxic” and banned from a parent’s tool chest of consequences. Psychology shamans have even tried to get us to ban it from our emotional repertoire, to lead “shameless” lives. But, in my opinion, it is not possible for three reasons:
1) It is one of the oldest human emotions;
2) shame is thoroughly necessary if we are to live with one another in any form of structured society; and
3) shame is hugely motivational because it is so closely related to fear. Belonging, conformism is partially built on this need to avoid shame, to be included, to be an integral part of the pack. Its foundation is a practically limbic fear that if we do the wrong thing we will be excluded. I believe this is traceable to the limbic system primarily because exclusion in our earliest history would have been tantamount to a death sentence. No one could survive alone. And in many ways psychologically and emotionally we still can’t. We are pack animals. Like dogs, horses, primates, meerkats and beavers (among many others) we work, love, play and thrive in groups. Loners either become ready prey to the elements or the local predators.
A Collective Whatever and Later…
Resolutions are a perfect example of this phenomenon. We traditionally put off for later what we can or should do right now. This is a vital piece of information about us as a culture. We tend to procrastinate. While fear motivates, it also paralyzes. It has three sides, rather than the commonly cited two: fight, flight, and freeze. When there really is something to do (e.g., run, jump, etc…), we don’t do it. We stay still. We hear about “disasters” all the time. And people panic. But most are woefully unprepared when the real problem is upon them.
Part of the reason we make resolutions is because other people make resolutions. Who wants to be left out of the biggest conversation of the brand new year? And in a culture where self-improvement is the shrine at which we bend our knee and power gurus now reign via fiber optic cables, who at the lunch table would dare to say he had nothing he needed to do differently, nothing he needed to improve, nothing she wanted to learn from Tony Robbins? What colossal nerve that would seem like and what a price the poor soul would have to pay in the currency of corporate politique. But it is also because we are creatures of comfort and sometimes doing things differently takes too much effort.
A woman I know used to have a roommate who had a colorful little compulsion. She was addicted to M&M’s and she would pop them one at a time into her mouth while no one was looking. She also would only go grocery shopping late at night when no one was there because she believed (inaccurately so) that she was “fat” and didn’t want other people at the checkout line looking at her and judging her purchases in the context of her obesity (as she perceived it). Every year she would make a resolution to break free from those little chocolate beasties and to lose the weight she didn’t really need to lose. And every year she would white knuckle her way through a week or two or a month and then cave in.
Who was she making that resolution for? Was it for herself? Or was it because she so feared the opinion of others? I know someone who resolves every year to lose fifty pounds. And it would be good if she did. She would be healthier and have more energy. But it’s not critical and she never makes it past the five pound mark. Ever. Because the truth is she doesn’t really want to lose weight or change her diet. But she wants everyone to think she does because that’s what she’s told to do. Maybe she should resolve to not care what other people thought one way or the other. That would at least have a chance of making her truly happy.
Actually, I just re-read this book, which I first read in 2005 for job-related purposes. Re-reading it for practical, daily purposes enriched it for me. I love this book.
I have this childhood story that I carry around about my sister getting her finger caught in the blender. Out of 3 family members watching, one started screaming, one started running up and down the stairs and my other sister unplugged the machine. Yes, we were all young, but our initial responses to an event say a lot about our reactions to situations and carry forward in life. Have you felt you heart rate go up, or flushed in the face, or that you are holding your breath in reaction to someone’s verbal aggressiveness? All of these reactions are embodied and affect our health on all levels. That is the basic premise of this book. While it systematically addresses situations of first aid, caregiving and even dying and how our choice of words directly influences the situation, it is excellent for use in our daily lives. So, the next time I am panicking about a situation, I’m going to recite to myself that the worst is already over.