Judgment

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” — (Matthew 7:1-2)

Balance.3040

Judgment: We have judged; we have been judged; we have been warned about judging; we have tried not to judge, yet we go on judging. We continue to judge, because we are unable not to judge. One fundamental aspect of all creatures is that they make evaluations, and this built-in feature is one that we cannot disable or uninstall. We constantly make judgments about the world we encounter, and our lives depend upon these judgments. Being asked to not judge would be akin to asking us not to feel, not to have emotions, not to think … not to feel alive.

Since judgment requires taking a measure, it is intimately related to value. When we judge, we are measuring and assessing value, worthiness, or usefulness. We must make choices to survive; to make choices we need to evaluate, and because these decisions must often be made quickly and efficiently, we depend upon shortcuts. Our feelings are the shortcuts. Feelings provide us with immediate feedback. Individuals, who have lost the connections between their emotional system and their executive functions due to an accident will experience decision paralysis, stress, and grow very agitated when they must make a choice, even a simple one.

If we must judge to live, then why the negative judgment about judgment? The above verse from the book of Matthew seems to hint that the prohibition has something to do with the way you judge. Do we judge others in the way that we want them to judge us? One of the most universal human biases is the attribution bias. This is the tendency when judging others for us to assume their behavior is the result of internal factors, such as their personality, yet assuming our own actions arise because of the necessity of external circumstances. We see others as having character defects and ourselves as victims of circumstance. We are biased, prejudiced, and far from rational beings — we do not judge fairly.

A person’s judgments reflect the essence of their personality and identity, which involves an ongoing dance between their inborn traits and their experiences in life. Because our judgments are so fundamental to us, we often assume that our particular judgments should be just as fundamental to others; but our judgments reflect our unique perspective, and therein lies the problem. Our judgments reflect our valuation, rather than a universal standard. Most of us rarely question the basis of our judgments, though we are quick to question the basis of others’ judgments — when they differ from ours or are directed at us.

When others’ evaluations are similar to our own, they are felt to be right, good, or okay and sometimes universal. However, when others’ evaluations differ from ours, they feel wrong or bad. We enjoy being with others who share our perspective, because the more consensus gathered around a judgment, the truthier it feels to us, and the more justified we feel. This is often the basis for the communities with which we choose to associate. Another person’s evaluation of us can either build us up or tear us down, unite us or divide us. Most of us prefer to be to be with people who build us up, yet in doing so, we often unite through tearing down those who differ from us.

Judgment is here to stay. The challenge will be to own our judgments as a subjective viewpoint. We need more education on how our minds deceive us along with more awareness of our personal biases, prejudices, and values. This will not happen without intentional effort, practice, and feedback from supportive guides. Humanity needs more dialogue, but if we do not understand the subjective nature of our consciousness, then wars, on both the personal and global levels, will continue indefinitely.

“All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”   — John Steinbeck


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Two Worlds

Rodin-The-ThinkerI seem to live in two worlds. One that might be called my “inner world” consists of my private thoughts, emotions, images, and sensations. The other which appears to me as an “outer world” is a shared world that consists of other beings (those who seem to possess an inner world) and objects (things that do not seem to possess an inner world). These two worlds make up my universe; nothing else exists…for me.

The interplay between these two worlds is complex. Much of what could be said to exist in my outer world, exists only in my inner world. For example, I have never been to Africa, so I have never experienced it in my outer world, I have never touched it, seen it, heard it, tasted it, or smelled it. The continent of Africa is an outer world shared by over one billion people that for me, exists only in my inner world through second hand experiences.

neo-wakes-upMy office, where I sit now, exists in my outer and inner world. My inner world, ostensibly fed by the “actual” outer world through my senses, makes my office appear to me as a part of my outer world. It seems real, but how do I know for certain what is real? The philosophical position of solipsism holds that the “outer world” cannot be known. Extreme forms of solipsism deny any outer world, which includes all the other inner worlds. The plot of the science fiction film “The Matrix,” plays with the concept that the outer world is constructed by the mind. The Matrix, a designed outer world, is a complex computer program which humans directly interface with through ports connected to their brains. The humans in the Matrix experience an outer world that does not really exist “out there.”

Chaplin.mirrorDebates about the nature of the outer world are not only happening in philosophy and science fiction, but increasingly in the scientific community. Thinking about the “realness” of my outer world can twist my mind in a Gordian Knot if I am not careful. Yet, I must also take heed of the other extreme, namely over-belief in the outer world. Questioning the outer worlds’ existence generally comes from an intellectual position, not an experiential one. Experientially, the outer world feels certain. Much of my inner world does too. I tend to believe my thoughts and interpretations. Certainty feels good, and these feelings are often necessary for survival — doubting the realness of the world is not a trait that will likely contribute to many descendants.

We crave certainty in both of our worlds; so much that we fight for it when someone challenges our sense of it. While we like suspense, surprise, and mystery, we do not like to sit with these feelings indefinitely. We ultimately want resolution; we want certainty. This can drive us in positive ways to understand our experience, and to use that understanding to improve our existence. But, this craving for certainty has the potential to destroy us. We see evidence of this in political, religious and other interpersonal clashes. What happens when two sides both feel certain of incompatible positions? Certainty can block mutual understanding, empathy, giving others the benefit of the doubt, or meeting in the middle. These are essential diplomatic and interpersonal relationship skills.

I am trying to learn how to question my own certainty, and to live a life that can embrace uncertainty. The scientific method, an approach based on confirming or disconfirming hypotheses based on empirical evidence, may be the closest that we can get to certainty in a subjective world. It provides a structured way to dialogue and find consensus about our shared outer world. Yet, consensus is still lacking, even science is subject to biases and current paradigms. Humans are naturally stubborn and resistant to evidence that works against their beliefs, even when it might provide a better explanation.

population-2014There are over seven billion people in our consensual outer world, each possessing a different inner world; each providing a unique perspective on the outer world; each potentially at odds with many of the others; each feels their “truth” deeply, craves understanding, and desires some sense of connection. The interplay of these many worlds might not be survivable, but if we are going to make it, then we must learn how to live together between the inner and outer worlds. Science alone is not enough, we must also find ways to understand, abide, and share our bewildering inner worlds.

“I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”

Walt Whitman


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Politics And Religion

Over the holidays I made a decision to loosen my tongue in reaction to a comment that ran counter to my political sensibilities. This conversation went awry, as these types of conversations often do, and I later regretted engaging the topic. I had a number of negative internal reactions including feeling judgmental, angry, misunderstood, defensive, hurt, and sad. I am fairly sure that the person I was speaking with had a similar set of reactions. Most of us have heard the adage that reminds us to avoid such topics as they can lead to conflict; however, people handle conflict in different ways and have different comfort levels with it. Some have ongoing outward and/or buried conflict, some avoid or withdraw from conflict, while others successfully work through conflict. Core differences between people easily lead to conflict, and how they are handled can have a strong impact on how close people feel to one another. Neither the conflict, nor the avoidance and disconnection feel good. I have often wished it was easier to engage with and communicate about these heartfelt issues in a way that did not feel bad. I believe that understanding subjectivity and engaging in dialogue diminish conflict and lead to greater empathy, though it is not easy. I, like most people, continue to be fooled by my perceptions that I am right and others are wrong.

After my initial feelings about my failed dialogue started to fade, and I was able to reflect with a “cooler head,” I recalled a summary of Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. This helped shift my thinking away from what we were arguing “about” towards what we were arguing “for” — a subtle shift that had a big impact. I was motivated to read Haidt’s book in order to better understand why it is so difficult for people to appreciate the viewpoints of their rivals.

Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.
— Robert A. Heinlein

cart_before_the_horse1Haidt argues that our rational explanations do not drive our moral judgments. Rather, they are post hoc fictions which make sense of our intuitions and help persuade others to join our “team.” (See also Pretty Good Stories and “Dark” Awareness). These “intuitive ethics” are built upon several innate psychological systems.

One of the most basic and oldest (from an evolutionary perspective) of these psychological systems stems from the revulsion reaction of disgust. (See also Contempt). While this emotion initially served to protect us from disease and contamination, over time it was elicited by others’ behavior — an early inkling of moral judgment. As mammals, we form tight bonds with our children, an instinct which has expanded beyond the family unit allowing for a capacity to feel empathy for all living things. The ability to form bonds allowed us to be social, and we developed the ability to form groups and coalitions. These coalitions usually involved some form of hierarchical organization where some group members would use their influence to take on leadership and others would defer to this leadership and/or power. Groups would develop rules and customs built around reciprocal altruism to maintain order and fairness. However to maintain stability they needed to deal with threats to their group’s integrity. One threat is from “freeloaders” who take advantage of the benefits of the group without contributing themselves. Another type of threat is from dominating or oppressive leaders. The process of natural selection has hardwired all of these systems into our subconscious minds which subsequently drive our emotions and our intuitive ethics.

Haidt and his colleagues focused their study on six moral foundations which, like moral taste receptors, flavor our judgments. Having a language for these foundations helps to clarify many of the cross-cultural, religious, and political differences that so often confuse us. Cultures implicitly construct their values, their representative stories, and their institutions upon these foundations. The six foundations, along with their targeted threat and basic value, are:

  1. Care/harm — cherishing and protecting others
  2. Fairness/cheating — justice according to shared rules
  3. Liberty/oppression — fighting tyranny
  4. Loyalty/betrayal — being true to your in-group
  5. Authority/subversion — respect for legitimate authority
  6. Sanctity/degradation — purity or abhorrence for disgusting things

Just as different foods draw upon different flavor combinations, different cultures have their unique “recipes.” This can easily be seen in political or religious cultures. Often two opposing cultures rely on the same foundation but with a different emphasis (e.g. pro-life individuals emphasize the sanctity of human life, while environmentalist emphasize the sanctity of the earth; different populist groups fight the tyranny of corporations or the tyranny of the government). Or they might emphasize a different foundation for different issues (e.g., conservatives might draw upon the sanctity foundation when fighting for the life of the unborn but draw upon the authority foundation or fairness foundation when fighting for enforcement of the death penalty). The in-group for each “culture” can also range widely — from the universal to much closer to home. Different in-groups and different foundations can lead to very different attitudes and sometimes very confusing and seemingly inconsistent behavior.

As in my “discussion,” much of the time we speak past one another because we see the other person’s position as wrong or immoral, and we feel compelled to convince them that ours is the best or more moral perspective. This is dangerous territory for a relationship — a slippery slope that leads to contempt. I still disagree with many positions that differ from my own; I still feel my perspective is better, but I understand, that like everyone else, I am hard-wired to have a “righteous mind.” I feel my beliefs and do not intuitively share my opponent’s beliefs — the feelings that back up their views are outside of my awareness. My rational mind can sometimes let me know when my “righteous mind” is acting up. The language of moral foundations is a great tool in this regard; it has helped to shift my perspective so I see more clearly what each of us is fighting for. This opens the door for empathy in a similar way that seeing the need behind an action can. As a species cursed to confuse our subjective perspective as objective, we need all the help we can get.

Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. New York: Pantheon. See the book’s website: RighteousMind.com


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Black Boxes

black-boxI can only dwell in my personal experience. As the protagonist of my story, I am the subject and everyone and everything else is an object to me. Likewise, I am an object to everyone else who encounters me. Not only can I not enter another’s subjective experience, but I am unable to experience myself as an object. I live inside the “black box” that I am to others, a box that prevents me from experiencing the outside of the box. From inside my black box, I interact with other black boxes. I can never experience others’ subjectivity, and they cannot experience mine. This is an existential predicament — a predicament replete with peril and opportunity.

The peril stems from our instinctive feel that we are the experts of ourselves. We do indeed have access to exclusive information about ourselves which makes us experts of a sort, but this expertise is both biased and limited. The insufficiency of our expertise tends to be neglected like a blind spot. Like the eye’s blind spot, we fill in the missing information — never realizing it was missing in the first place.

Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind. — Katha Upanishad

Communication with others often leads to the blind debating the blind and arguing about what they cannot see. We feel so sure of what we know that what we do not know is ignored. What we do not know is in part what others know, and here lies the opportunity.

Accepting our ignorance, opens the door to knowledge and intimacy. If, in my blindness, I can accept rather than reject the perspective of another, then my world is expanded.

The road to self-insight runs through other people.
— David Dunning

Successfully negotiating this existential predicament requires skill and eloquence. Feedback can be given in many ways, only some of which are effective. Effectiveness is increased when both parties acknowledge their “blindness.” This leads to dialogue, a type of mindful communication that is collaborative and open-minded rather than oppositional and close-minded. Dialogue does not come natural to most of us, but it is vital to learn if we ever hope to be the experts of ourselves.


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Contempt

“Nothing living should ever be treated with contempt. Whatever it is that lives, a man, a tree, or a bird, should be touched gently, because the time is short. Civilization is another word for respect for life.” — Elizabeth Goudge

Four horsemen

Relationship researcher, John Gottman, has identified four maladaptive emotional reactions that are so toxic for relationships that he has used an end times metaphor from the Book of Revelation to describe them. Gottman’s four horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling) often occur in a negative cascade between partners and represent increasingly severe complementary adverse behavior. While each of these behaviors is destructive, Gottman’s research has identified contempt as the single greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt often becomes mutual and this generally foretells the end times of the relationship, or at a minimum, years of misery.

Robert Solomon, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas, distinguished the three emotions, resentment, anger and contempt from one another based on whether the object of the emotion was deemed to be of higher, equal or lower status. When you have contempt toward another, you are judging the other as beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn, which simultaneously places you in the superior position of a judge. Interestingly, judges preside “over” and sit “above” the courtroom, and violation or disrespect of the court proceedings can lead to a charge of contempt.

The emotion of contempt combines the primary emotions of anger and disgust; thus, one might say that the person feeling contempt, likely feels threatened by someone for whom they feel revulsion. One can see the insidious, damaging impact this emotion has on a relationship; contempt is a cold, condemnation of being an object of disgust, which communicates to the condemned that they should remove themselves from the presence of their superior. This is precisely what happens.

When contempt transpires within couples and families the impact is particularly devastating. To be judged as disgusting by those from whom you most crave acceptance cuts the deepest wounds where we are most vulnerable.  Tragically, children will inevitably align with their parents’ opinion and feel self-contempt, which can lead to a lifetime of highly critical internal dialogue. The devaluing impact of contempt is so painful that many will try to fight off its sting through defensiveness, withdrawal or by developing an impenetrable emotional barrier.

The emotion of disgust, which is part of the contempt formula, evolved to protect us from disease and became part of our behavioral immune system. As it started being applied to people, usually those who carried disease, it became a more established part of our emotional repertoire and was applied to foreigners or nonconformists. In today’s interconnected world we find ourselves drowning in a sea of contempt. Contempt is modeled daily by our leaders, leaders-to-be and the pundits who analyze them. Society’s disadvantaged feel it the most.

We fall into contempt far too easily, and it seems that we have lost sight of its calamitous repercussions. If only we could maintain a sense of shared humanity and keep the playing field level; then we might be able to experience our anger and upset without having to degrade the other person’s dignity. This takes humility, a natural antidote to contempt. Humility is aided through recognition of our subjectivity and drawing upon compassion, both of which will require some reprogramming of our natural tendencies. Our eyes point outwards and we mistake our perceptions for objective truth. Perhaps, we could come off our high horse and remember that there is always more to the other than what we experience.

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying looking at the surface of the ocean itself, except that when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent.”
― Dave Barry


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

 

Reality

Virtual Reaility“Reality” is a term frequently used, yet it may be poorly understood and unhelpful. As a concept, it represents that which exists independent of mind. In using the term I think we are trying to make a distinction between that which is objective, observable and measurable from that which is subjective, hidden and unmeasurable. Common sense suggests that we can easily make this distinction. The “real” is valued, seen as superior and is equated with truth. Our language suggests that something which is not real is subordinate, counterfeit or fictitious. If someone is out of touch with reality, then they are considered insane.

It is quite difficult to communicate or carry on a relationship with someone who does not see reality as we do. Communication depends upon finding some common ground. Relationships and societies are built around shared perspectives. The concept of reality is explicitly or implicitly at the center of almost all interpersonal conflict whether at the micro or macro level. From marital conflict to disputes between global powers, disagreement about “truth” and “reality” are at the core. As individuals, we crave understanding and empathy from others in part because we want our view of reality validated. When others do not see life as we do, we start to feel isolated, alone and somewhat crazy. This activates our innate stress responses of “fight or flight.” Globally this can lead to terrorism, war and a host of other crises. Interpersonally, it can lead to ongoing conflict, fighting, divorce and alienation.

If reality is “really” out there and it feels so real, why do we have such a difficult time seeing it the same way? That it actually exists can be disputed, and because it can be called into question, it makes me think that reality is not a very helpful concept. Physicists and other scientists strive to identify the fundamentals of matter, which for most of us are at the heart of what is real. Unfortunately, the closer they look, the more bizarre it appears to be. Social scientists increasingly understand the impact of gender, culture, language and personal experience on our worldview.

Since language influences our perception and our thinking, we might look for ways to get away from using terms like reality. If we can achieve this, the need for common ground will be no less important, but the way we think about that common ground will need to change. I suggest this shift will highlight subjectivity and move away from concepts such as reality towards terms such as empirical and intersubjective. The former term already involves the latter. Since the scientific method involves observation and measurement along with peer review it already incorporates and tries to account for the impact of the subjective. With science, observations can be confirmed and validated but an awareness of error remains.

The more our vernacular can incorporate the impact our biology, experience and who knows what else has on our perception, the easier this change can be achieved. While this transformation can happen quickly at the individual level, there is evidence it is gradually transpiring at the global level.

Moving away from reality, in this sense, is not insane. It begins to level the playing field among Earth’s creatures. It moves us away from leaders who claim to know the truth and want to define it for the rest of us. It moves us away from shame and judgment. This moves us towards dialogue. This moves us towards consensus and cooperation. This moves us toward peace.

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.
— Nelson Mandela


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Special Collections

Special CollectionLike a museum, each one of us collects, preserves, studies, exhibits and tries to stimulate appreciation for our life experience “relics.” Many are approved for the general public, others only for specific audiences, however each of us has a “special collection.” This collection stays protected and deeply hidden; it is not placed on public display, except in acts of betrayal by another. A person makes themselves extremely vulnerable when they open this vault to another person which is why it is closely guarded. This is where we store our secrets, deep hurts, trauma and shame. When shared, this buried history must be handled delicately, and only by another person who is deeply trusted — mishandling can incite significant relational stress.

Ironically, in some aspects, our special collections are discernible. These experiences have shaped us in profound ways — not all of which are conscious to us. When accessed we are transported to the emotional encounter that led us to hide it away in the first place. This may take the form of a memory, a flashback or just the associated emotion stripped of any cognitive connection to our personal history. In their concealment, they can have a “sealed in,” preserved quality to them that covertly influence our lives and interactions with others. We see them but may not recognize them in our reactions to triggering stimuli, due to how integrated our protective schemes are in our personality structures.

Activating triggers often occur in our intimate relationships. These individuals with their increased security clearances, unbeknownst to our conscious mind, may accidentally find themselves in our vault behaving like the proverbial “bull in a china shop.” Our self-protective instincts are immediately initiated to either shut the vault or to attack the trespasser. The more frequently this occurs the more trust is damaged and subsequently the need to maintain heightened security is reinforced. The trespasser often does not realize their misstep until the moment they trip the alarm and find themselves under attack or shut off. This reaction will frequently mobilize their own security system, leading to counter-attack or their own escape tactics. This is a common negative feedback loop for a relationship.

These encounters are inevitable; as much as we try to prevent them, they may be the only way to get to know our own special collections. The challenge is to shift out of subconscious self-protection and into conscious self-exploration. Having a compassionate and curious partner willing to co-investigate is important to this process. When we have such a partner, it is possible to carefully unpack and unseal these “artifacts” and expose them to the light of the present day.


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

I need, therefore I am

Our life existsyinYang in death’s shadow. Investment in life is our resistance to the pull of death, but survival has its requisites and so to live is to have needs. Unfulfilled needs have a cost — potentially life itself. To have needs is to feel alive and to be vulnerable. Vulnerability inspires a drive to seek out or to protect; in this way vulnerability is the foundation of emotion. Emotion literally means “to set in motion,” “to stir” or “to disturb.” This is the function of our emotionally organized “executive operating systems” (EOSs)*; they each activate us to manage our vulnerability, our needs and life itself.

Our needs percolate through us to stimulate feelings, thoughts and impulses to action. Needs begin upon life’s arrival and our strategies to meet these needs develop in response to the circumstances confronting us.  This personal disposition we try so actively to define and make sense of reflects the melding of what we have brought into the world with what we face during our life’s journey. Like a river carving a canyon, life shapes our personality.

Personality is a significant determinant of what draws us towards one and repels us from another. The pull of approach or push of avoid is felt in response to the process others engage in to satisfy their needs; we measure how that might facilitate or interfere with our own efforts. Difficulties with others are not because they have needs but in response to the path they take to assuage their needs. We are capable of having empathy for the needs of others because we too understand and experience need. Connecting around this insight might help lead us away from conflict and towards awareness and dialogue.

CaptainPhillipsIn the movie Captain Phillips, we are introduced to a Somali pirate named Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), who with a small crew hijacks an American cargo ship and takes Captain Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) hostage. In this character’s introduction we see the context in which Muse must try to meet his needs. While we may denounce his actions, we can have empathy for satisfying needs in such difficult circumstances. Empathy also opens us up to see how his actions occur within a larger global framework that makes judgment more complicated. In the midst of violent conflict, seeing needs, accessing empathy and gaining awareness of the complex interrelationships between people and the larger systems in which they are embedded is our only hope of seeking peace in war’s shadow. This is as true at the micro level as it is on the macro level.

Our ability to see through behavior to the needs and vulnerability from which it springs helps to engage our capacity for empathy. Each of us is born vulnerable and in our struggle to live we are drawn to what meets our needs in our particular circumstance. Our unique story is embedded in a larger whole and seeing another’s need, as well as their strategy for meeting the need, allows us to see their story. These are the stories of life’s dance with death.

*see Who’s Driving Now, River Running or Trial By Combat


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Trial By Combat

A trial by combat, deciding a man’s guilt or innocence in the eyes of the gods by having two other men hack each other to pieces. Tells you something about the gods. ― Tyrion Lannister

TrialbyCombat

In the popular book and HBO television series, Game of Thrones, the character Tyrion Lannister, who has been accused of a capital offense, elects to have his fate decided by means of a trial by combat rather than by a council of lords.  Being a dwarf, who has little chance to overpower a much larger and more accomplished opponent, he chooses to be represented by a champion who will fight in his stead. Tyrion is in a vulnerable position and is desperate for a protector who is willing to fight to the death on his behalf.

I have discussed in recent posts the concept of executive operating systems (EOSs) that “drive” our body and brain in different directions, depending on the subconscious perception of the situation we are facing. When any particular EOS is active, our emotions, thoughts and motivations align in service of its evolved function (e.g., protection, nurturing). Since we are wired to survive our systems rapidly respond to any perceived threat. The same systems that orient us towards withdrawal or attack in response to mortal danger are likewise invoked in the face of relatively benign modern-day threats such as being cut off in traffic, being given poor service in a restaurant or in the midst of a family argument over household chores.

Couples counselors regularly witness trial by combat in their offices when romantic partners, who at times have loving feelings towards one another, suddenly bring forth their champions to defend their positions. Feeling emotionally vulnerable or wounded can elicit all manner of protectors to emerge. The defensive strategies employed by individuals in a relationship may vary, but when the partners interact under stress it is inevitably their preferred guardian EOS that is interacting. While not always a fight to the death, these encounters can leave both parties bruised, broken and even more sensitized to the next perceived slight, which triggers another cycle. The renowned relationship researcher, John Gottman, refers to this cycle as “negative affect reciprocity.” The ability to minimize these battles, escape from them once they have begun and repair the resultant damage is often the key to the relationship surviving.

Our instinct to survive is exactly what is triggered by our loved ones. Unfortunately, that instinct leads to an inhibition of empathy and sets us on a self-protective path rather than on a relationship-protective path. Orienting towards the relationship is counter-intuitive to our selected champion, as it involves exposing our vulnerability rather than shielding it. Healing a relationship caught up in negative affect reciprocity requires an environment that reduces the stress and reactivity so that the alternatives beyond fight or flight can emerge.

Relational battles are often heated (or chilled) debates between two individuals who desperately want to be seen, validated and cared for by the other. Feeling diminished, unappreciated or unloved can feel so threatening that any damage being inflicted in one’s own defense is deemed justifiable. One can be deeply wounded from active or passive defensive strategies. The interplay of fight or flight is inextricably tied together. This dance, which we so often find ourselves attending, cannot be won — it is a dance after all, and dancing is difficult when you are suited in armor.


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

 

 

Pick Your Poison

Clam 2

Life is difficult; we are here because we are surviving. All living creatures are vulnerable, and all have ways they protect themselves. Poison, camouflage, sharp teeth, speed, flight, claws, burrowing, strength, climbing, shells, intelligence, kindness, deception, social organization are but a few examples. Vulnerability and defense are yin and yang to one another. Since survival is not certain, our vulnerability becomes one of the elemental organizing principles of our existence. Much of who we are is a core of vulnerability enfolded by our protective strategies. The humble clam is a simple representation of these two aspects of our nature.

Our predicament is that we can only bond and grow close to others when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, yet vulnerability opens us to being wounded. Exposing our vulnerability can be one of the most terrifying moves we make, and our protective systems will sound the warning to terminate this action. Safety versus connection, how we negotiate this internal battle, sets the tone for how our life will be lived.

The battle is not so straightforward; connection reduces vulnerability and social isolation is one of the surest ways to undermine our health. Humans are a sophisticated pack animal with complicated social nuances to negotiate. Many of us get spurned, deemed unacceptable, a shocking impact which leads to a greater sense of vulnerability, which in turn leads to heightened protective measures. Ironically, these defenses often lead those most in need of connection to more social rejection or self-imposed isolation — an unfortunate self-reinforcing cycle.

However, the cycle rotates both ways. Risking can also lead to acceptance and communion, which allows the burdens of life to be distributed. Each companion can get reprieve to carry the load another day. This process strengthens the social bonds and reduces vulnerability. Defenses are softened leading to increased social accessibility.

So, pick your poison; you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Seek safety to avoid vulnerability and risk isolation, increasing your vulnerability. Seek connection to avoid vulnerability and risk rejection, increasing your vulnerability. Or, negotiate the space between the rock and hard place to find the solace of interdependence. Succeeding in this negotiation and developing protective strategies that allow you to love and be loved may be the single most difficult but most important of your life’s endeavors. 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Unconscious Leakage

water_leak

Making sense of the unconscious has been an intriguing and challenging endeavor for centuries. As I discussed in The New Arrival, the capacities for self-consciousness and self-management seem to be facilitated by the “latest and greatest” of the many modules that constitute our brains. These newer modules are found in a number of species at varying levels, including some birds and mammals. They seem to be the most sophisticated in the more complex social species due to the need for social creatures to navigate a challenging interpersonal environment involving both competition and cooperation. The human version allows for reflection on personal mental states, as well as the ability to infer the meaning of other’s mental states.

The television show Lie To Me was inspired by the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, who served as a scientific adviser to the series. Paul Ekman studied non-verbal expressions of emotions and along with Wallace Friesen, E. A. Haggard and K.S. Isaacs discovered what came to be known as “microexpressions.” By filming subjects and slowing things down, they could see these momentary involuntary expressions of emotion (as fast as 1/15th to 1/30th of a second), often highlighted by the subject’s conscious effort to conceal emotion or to present a more “acceptable” emotion. These microexpressions can reveal any of the seven emotions universally expressed by the face, including disgust, anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise and contempt.

Microexpressions are part of our nonverbal communication repertoire and are an excellent example of how our unconscious “leaks.” This leakage spoils our ability to fully control our communication and self-presentation. Nonverbal communication has been the only form of communication through most of evolutionary history and is our unconscious mind’s mother tongue. Verbal communication and language, which is facilitated by the newest modules, should actually be considered our second language. All of our communication incorporates nonverbal expression and interpretation, most of which is outside of our conscious control; as a result, our conscious “executive suite” has a very limited ability to fully manage the process. Ekman’s research required technology to see these extremely fast microexpressions, but our built in unconscious technology does it automatically. As you attend to these two languages in your own life, you will likely notice that whenever they seem to be in conflict you will “feel” the truth of what is communicated nonverbally and doubt the verbal content. Our conscious self makes a valiant effort to control these unconscious leaks, but it has limited access to the plumbing.

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Every Man Is An Island

…existentially speaking, that is. We are trapped in our own subjectivity and can’t fully escape. This is the “unbridgeable gulf between oneself and any other being,” (1) which Irvin Yalom refers to as existential isolation. This unbridgeable gulf can vary in size but it is always there.

The reality which our minds generate is infused with our experience, emotion and judgment; but this is generally invisible to us, and we are regularly fooled into believing that what we experience is THE TRUTH. We believe the gulf created by our subjectivity can be bridged by TRUTH, and we are lulled into debate as we try to convince others of THE TRUTH. This is chasing after the wind, a fools errand. All we can do is share from our observation point, our experience, our personal truth and hope that the other is willing to try and build a partial bridge towards us.

This partial bridge is built with empathy, a genuine willingness to attempt to enter into the experience of another. Empathy requires awareness that we are trapped in our own subjectivity, because only then do we understand that we actually have to wade through our own subjectivity and notice its interference in the bridge building process. Empathy is a process that inspires dialogue just as belief in TRUTH inspires debate. Empathy is imperfect bridge building that never completes the full span of the gulf. Nevertheless, a partial bridge creates the opportunity for connection, understanding and healing, something which most of us crave: a healing from the wounds of our isolation, disconnection and feeling unknown.

 

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? — Henry David Thoreau

 

(1) Yalom, I. A., 1980. Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.