Archive for the 'self-protection' Category


August 11, 2014

I was having this conversation last night with someone, about some arrangements we have for a trip which includes a bunch of business and logistical tasks I will help them with.  They told me that maybe the arrangements would be different from what we had planned together.  Some of the differences arise out of circumstances beyond their control, some not.  In neither case was I asked for my views or response to the impact on me of the changes, and they did not even acknowledge that there would be a negative impact in both cases.

So I took issue with the lack of acknowledgment.  I observed that they did not seem to take into account what it was like to be in my shoes.  They did not deny it at all.  They went on about how they do what they want and just “express [themselves] as the spirit moves them.”  I suggested as politely as possible that adults are expected to edit themselves, and especially their behavior.  And they said that they don’t because their mother made them feel like a puppet.

I knew their mother.  She never made me feel like a puppet, but then again I wasn’t her child.

The detail behind “feeling like a puppet” was something about be expected to feel about a thing the way the mother felt about it.

So I actually got interested in the explanation in a way that distracted me from my irritation with the behavior that had sparked the discussion;  I was fascinated by the explanation that not putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is the response to feeling forced to see things and feel things the way another does.

My interlocutor sees cause and effect, and maybe it’s there, but I can see simple repetition of the same pattern:  the “I” does not take others into account as full-fledged human beings.

In some ways, if there is cause and effect, my interlocutor is claiming, in a sense, that their mother turned them into Pinocchio, a wooden puppet.  I find that fascinating, because I had previously thought of that story as showing the need for passing through developmental stages in a positive direction, starting from a difficult spot.  I had not thought about Pinocchio as representing a phase arrived at through regression, which is what my interlocutor seemed to be claiming:  they could take others into account but they did not, in order to demonstrate (I think to themselves) that they had their own feelings.

This may be common knowledge in psychological circles, but it was an eye-opener to me, experiencing the not taking of others into account as a way of making the self more visible, or as even a protest.

As I said, maybe it’s objectively true, that the person got squelched as a child by their mother.  I experienced this person’s mother as much warmer than this person themselves, but I’m not sure what that means.   I also didn’t know this person when they were a child  —  perhaps they really were different back then, before they began to feel like somebody else’s puppet.  I think I am somewhat suspicious of the narrative this person uses to explain how they got to be the way they are.  But I would very much regret claiming it wasn’t so, since for all I know it could actually be an accurate description of what happened.

When I feel as though my voice is not being heard and I am not being taken into account, I don’t feel the urge to not take others into account and not to listen to them  —  I think, rather, when it comes up, “Let me listen, because I know how it feels not to be heard, let me think about how things are for the other person, it’s so painful to be treated as if one were of no account.”

Why do some people seem to turn to wood and some people seem to have a different reaction?

I think about Apollo and Daphne and I think about people feeling they have lost their voice and become immured, turned to wood.  I have wondered what all that represents.  I have wondered about the different survival mechanisms different people develop when they intuit in situations that trying to insist on being heard is not safe.  I know I have my own.  I guess where I come out on all this is that recognizing a survival skill for what it is may help us move beyond that behavioral response in new situations in which our survival is not at stake.



Shame and humiliation, embarrassment, guilt, and hurt

June 22, 2014

This is a just a brief addendum to my previous post, before I head out to take on digging out invasive flowering plants from one of my gardens.

It’s about what I think is correlated with people falling prey to addiction, or not falling prey to addiction.

I am wondering whether people who are prone to addiction feel shame where other people might feel embarrassment or guilt, and feel humiliation where other people might feel hurt.  My sense is that a primary emotion is transformed into another sort of emotion because a tint of a negative view of the self is added.  So instead of, “I messed up, I am so embarrassed and want to put things right,” we get “I screwed up, I am so ashamed, I think I’ll just deny and/or hide.”  Or, “That experience was really painful and I feel hurt and I am not sure how to make myself feel better” turns into “I feel humiliated and it confirms my worst thoughts about myself.”

Because I suspect that a key difference in the two outlooks is how the person views themselves — lovable but flawed, or unworthy and in need of perfection.  The problem, as I see it, that people who view themselves too harshly actually “mess up” more than people who find a way to manage their flaws and deal with their secondary consequences more constructively.  Harshness I think digs a hole where a more gentle approach encourages improvement.

I am not advocating that people not take responsibility for their mistakes and misdeeds, but that we use a framework that actually leads to constructive action instead of to paralysis and corrosion.

Phone call

April 10, 2014

I wrote a post here a few weeks ago about how someone had not listened to me and I eventually expressed my dissatisfaction and we had a falling out.

Well, they called me yesterday.  Their proposed solution is they will be less insistent on having their way in the future.

I told them I appreciated the call.

And that’s probably where I see any improvement in the matter, that they reached out.

Because it does me no great respect to just have me have my way next time (which is their proposal);  I like a collaborative effort, but I want that effort to take me and my wishes into account as much as the other person’s.  Saying we’ll just do it my way doesn’t address that.  It just suggests to me they want something else from me, my business.

Yesterday I had something similar with a family member’s lawyer.

The document the lawyer prepared contained a material mistake, I called it to their attention, they told me I was free to edit the document.  I wanted them to do the editing.

I didn’t find their position respectful, either.  They yelled at me for being persistent, gave me the “I’m wonderful and have done everything right” speech, and threatened to no longer provide service at all.  This is a law firm this family member has used for over 50 years, they’ve been there less than a year.  The net result is that the family member will have a sizable delay before they can receive their sizable refund from the IRS.  We said we would revisit the issue in about two weeks, when the lawyer will be back and I will be back, but there’s an accountant involved (because someone else in the law firm mistakenly told me to have an accountant prepare the tax form at issue, which is not the tax form with the refund, but the accountant is holding everything up until all the returns are finished), so who knows when this will get done.

What do I take from all this?  That people find new and clever ways to protect themselves and make themselves comfortable at other people’s expense, that the very thing you want from them is the very thing they don’t want to do — collaborate respectfully and with consideration.


Taking something back, or sharing?

March 19, 2014

There’s this spiritual story about an adolescent who really feels strongly that a grown man has stolen from her her jewels.  He feels equally convinced she has robbed him of something equally valuable, namely, something required to maintain his stature and status in the community.

So how to restore equilibrium?

There’s an attempt, which doesn’t succeed, in which he returns something and she returns something, but they both accuse the other of returning a false approximation of what was stolen.

There are attempts at partial returns, there are empty promises, there are claims nothing was stolen — lots of adversarial attempts to restore without actually completely participating.

In the meantime, they are each using some “ill-gotten gain” from the other to try to maintain themselves.  They each end up in situations in which they are ill-equipped in some way, and this does not serve the greater good, either.

A lot of the trouble reconciling was probably a trust issue — “If I give to you, will you really give to me or will it just be throwing good money after bad, as they say?”

So here’s how it got resolved:  they both were agreeable with sharing with a disinterested third party, and through something like the mathematical transitive principle or something like a concept of mixing cooking ingredients, eventually they both ended up with a portion of what they felt they were missing.  What they shared with the intermediary included the “stolen good,” and through sharing with the intermediary, they had access again to what they considered the good stolen by the other.

Footnote:  disinterested third party did not have an easy time of it, as they were often treated as if they were actually the other person in the dispute.

When opposites are the same thing

October 9, 2013

I was thinking about how being overly criticized, unjustly and frequently criticized, or treated worse than one’s behavior warrants can lead to walling up the self, refusing even reasonable feedback, and coming across as overly self-confident, or it can lead to a loss of confidence and too great a willingness to acquiesce.  I am sure it can lead to other states of mind and behavior, too, but what struck me is that these two extremes are in a way the same thing, namely, damage to an accurate sense of self manifested in an inappropriate relationship to feedback.  Deriving a core sense of self from some healthier source is needed as something against which to measure criticism:  is the criticism reasonable?

There are plenty of social and business, private and public contexts in which the feedback we get about ourselves is unreasonable and needs to be acknowledged, even responded to, but ultimately seen as not really being about us.  Being treated by a customer service representative or a boss rudely or as if we are stupid, being ridiculed by a teacher in front of the class, being punished for something we didn’t do, receiving more negative feedback for a behavior than others receive, not receiving the reward after successfully completing something for which a reward is given —  we need to have a way of processing these experiences without ending up with a distorted self-image and without ending up dismissing all feedback as a result.

So, I think, the overly self-confident person and the insufficiently self-confident person are probably really the same in the sense of having a damaged barometer of self.

Tensing up

January 7, 2013

Faced with an unknown dog or a bee on the arm, if we remain quiet and relaxed, we don’t escalate the likelihood of harm.  When we want to float in the water, relaxing our muscles and ourselves allows us to.  When we encounter hurt within a human relationship, if we stay with the initial emotion of hurt and don’t transform it into a defensive (tense) posture, we can also remain in an open (here, emotional) posture.  It’s about, I think, being able to tolerate feeling the hurt.  And that, paradoxically, both allows us to pass through the situation (and to let it pass through us) and also not to become more (and more permanently) damaged.

There are times when we cannot tolerate the hurt, and when that happens, I think we use a coping device to attenuate it.  The coping device has its own cost.  Here’s an extreme example:  my boyfriend breaks up with me and I swear off dating altogether.  Maybe for some people this is a stage they have to go through, putting up an impermeable protective wall to assure themselves they won’t be hurt again.  But that impermeable barrier also, obviously, cuts them off from the possibility of a (healthy) new relationship that does work out.

Some people don’t, to use the example above, actually foreswear the dating market, but rather re-enter it using a detached persona, a self separated from their heart.  This looks like a strategy that allows for both relationship and protection, but I think it is actually much worse than withdrawing.  For one thing, without having one’s heart in the game, one is hugely likely to do real damage to other people, because the ability to generalize empathetic feeling I think resides in the heart; if a person is trying to understand other people’s perspective through the intellect and not the heart, I think that understanding will be piecemeal, like particles instead of waves.  It will likely fail to be accurate in a new situation it has not yet encountered, and hence will not be a helpful guide for what to do and will instead be more likely to give rise to behavior that damages.

But walled-off people do conduct relationships that endure, and what about them?  I think they wobble, less so when the other partner knows how to compensate for the missteps taken by the protagonist.  There are some people who are emotionally willing and limber enough to try to compensate in their part of the partner dance for extreme missteps by the protagonist.  Not only are these dances and relationships painful for others to watch, but they often end in the collapse of the compensating partner.  Here’s an example:  primary person doesn’t want partner to have outside secondary relationships (of the platonic sort) and/or makes it difficult for them to have them, and then the primary person complains that the partner has become too emotionally dependent on them.

My main point here, though, is about trying to stay with the initial feeling of hurt and not transform it into something else.  In its original form it can be completely processed, I think, whereas in a transformed state, there will be a residue that clogs up the heart and weighs us down.   If we stay with the original hurt with an open emotional stance, the feeling will pass through us and we through that stage of feeling.  It may take time, but I think it is far preferable to do than to wrap the hurt up in anger and bitterness, for example, and be left with a foreign object within us, or rather, with an outer shell walling us off.

Treasuring up

November 30, 2012

The first time I started to learn ancient Greek was while I was in high school.  This boy I liked wanted to learn and my mother agreed to teach both of us.  I forgot how long we did it for, I want to say a number of months, maybe the length of a school year, I don’t remember.  Anyway, the primer we used started with a line from Matthew’s Gospel, I think, about treasuring things up on this earth.  I think the verb was from an easy conjugation.

Anyway, I’ve been mulling over a spiritual story about a young girl who treasured up food and clothing and wood and other supplies while awaiting the return of an older male who would protect her and take care of her.  She didn’t use the stuff, she just arranged it neatly, almost the way it’s sometimes done in the burial chambers of the very rich.  In not using the supplies she was storing, she actually hastened what she feared — that she could not survive on her own.

What I’ve been wondering about is the relationship of her behavior not only to her fears about her ability to survive on her own (she didn’t know how to create a fire, for example), but to a sense she may have had at some deep level that this man had lied to her that he would come back.  Would an attempt to deny that the promise was empty have resulted in the behavior, maybe as a way of trying to assuage the anxiety about the lie itself, as well as about difficulty of surviving on her own?  The man may have thought he was setting her up with hope and good habits by telling her to make things ready for his return, but such a strategy I’m thinking could end up with both a clinging to the expectation of his return and a deep-down recognition that he wouldn’t, and the behavior resulting from the latter might undermine the effectiveness of his strategy.

Just a thought.  I’m no psychologist.

I do have a sense that the empty promise and the behavior were linked.  I’m wondering if the girl felt safer treasuring things up that she would need, and preferred to actually die feeling more in control, in contrast to using the stuff, and wondering if she could replace it as needed, and actually surviving longer.  I’m not sure how long she would have survived even if she had used her supplies.  As I said, she couldn’t make a fire, so she might have frozen to death if the winters were cold.

I am curious about what function that treasuring up served, how it may have  related to these multiple factors:  how it could have allowed her to keep up the pretense of believing the man would return as he said, been an attempt to keep a promise she might have made him in return (for example, to be a good girl and collect supplies), and also been a way in general of displacing her anxiety about survival.

Self-awareness and “narcissists”

November 10, 2012

It occurred to me after I posted this that maybe I should note that these thoughts were in part precipitated by a comment by David Brooks, on the PBS NewsHour last night, about charismatic leadership, in his analysis of the David Petraeus affair.


I don’t mean “narcissists” in a clinically significant way, although my category overlaps with that one, I think, I mean the group of people who sees the world from only one point of view — (a) from the point of view of themselves, and (b) from that part of themselves, within the point of view of themselves, that is limited by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

In my experience, suggesting to a narcissist to become more self-aware goes over like a lead balloon.  Sometimes worse.   (As in, the person blows up — for example, a person was asking me for advice, many years ago, on how to improve her social life, and I suggested expressing more warmth.  The next morning she was in her temper-tantrumming mode.)  Some of them self-justify, go through intricate rationalizations, or just “yes” you to your face and go on as before.  I think they’re too invested in their (maladaptive) coping strategies, and maybe it’s actually the case that their instinct is right, that they are not ready to drop all their current way of navigating the world so completely and all at once.

Maybe accepting the idea of developing self-awareness exposes the discrepancy between the self-protective false self and the more authentic self, I don’t know.  But I think it’s a paradox with unfortunate consequences that people in a position to have influence over others often have narcissistic qualities that actually result in their not having helpful substance to share once they arrive at their positions to share substance widely and publicly.

It’s that old elephant and the blind men feeling it — this world seems to be set up in such a way that we all need to communicate and work things out with each other.  I try to remain open to that but without letting other people tie up my resources in unhelpful interactions in the meantime.

Small talk

August 20, 2012

Late last night I had another iteration of a pattern that goes back a very long time for me, at least until I was a pre-schooler.  It has to do with warming up to present a need of mine to someone I think can meet it.  It occurs when I don’t bring up the need directly, because I’m pretty sure I’d get a negative reaction, so I start with something akin to small talk, in an effort to start a dialogue, so I can see how to negotiate and modify my request before I present it.

What I’ve found is that it often doesn’t work.  The other person sticks to their own agenda and doesn’t take my responses as a prompt for a discussion, the other person dismisses me enough so that I go away without ever getting anywhere near communicating what I need, etc.  As a pre-schooler, I once ended up with chocolate milk poured over my head.  This time it was just what felt like a dismissive email.

I’ve tried the direct approach in other situations, and that hasn’t worked either.  It usually results in an empty promise, I suspect to make me feel better in the moment and with no regard to how I’ll feel later.

Maybe I tend to zig when I should zag — maybe I use indirection with those with whom a direct approach is needed.  But I suspect the real lesson has something to do with why these people will never meet whatever need it is I think I have, regardless of how I reveal it, and what I am to make of that.

Addressing fear

August 16, 2012

I made a comment to a comment, this morning, to a Gail Collins column about Paul Ryan’s plans for Medicare.  I talked about the fear I perceive lying behind Republican conservatism, and how instead of working on dismantling the fear itself people try to protect against the thing they fear.  I mentioned at the end of my reply how I think liberals don’t address or effectively address conservatives’ fear.

I thought I’d elaborate here on my thoughts about effectively addressing somebody else’s fear.

For example, telling someone to stop feeling fear isn’t particularly effective, I don’t think, and it usually comes across as pretty harsh and not very compassionate, which may exacerbate a fear reaction.  Sometimes helping someone shine a flashlight under the bed helps, or explaining how others have dealt with an analogous fear gives them a needed roadmap.  Sometimes it is merely a matter of exposing the person to the thing feared, of having them taste the green eggs and ham, in effect.  Sometimes it helps for the person to identify an event or image that seems to be at the root of their fear and to re-examine that situation in order to see it differently:  maybe not all large dogs are unfriendly, and maybe even the one who seemed so was just being territorial and reacting with his own anxiety to feeling challenged, while tied up in front of the house he was trying to protect, by someone who didn’t speak “dog.”

I guess, with regard to fear, conservatives, and liberals, I might start with an issue like guns or immigration and try to address people’s fears directly, respectfully, and compassionately without contributing to them or endorsing them.  I think fears can be dismantled or at least reduced, and from that would flow a change in attitude toward the need for such hypervigilant self-protection.  I think that might change the policy debates on these issues more substantially than other approaches.