Hot Potato

open-mind-for-a-new-world-paulo-zerbatoI construct my world. My selective sensory input percolates through my unique brain wiring which has been shaped by my experiential mélange. Even the events I have shared with others are singularly mine. This constructed world appears to me so instantaneously, so automatically that I find it almost unfathomable that billions of worlds are simultaneously appearing to other perspectives. I interact with these other perspectives daily, encounters that hold the potential to transform my constructed world. Most of the time, I resist transformation by clinging tightly to my world and viewing my experience in such a way that my world is validated anew. This is easily accomplished when others corroborate my perspective. Group consensus authenticates the “realness” of my world. Those that fall outside my chosen consensus, my tribe, can be easily stigmatized and perhaps ostracized.

My challenge is conflicting with those in my tribe, those I love and whom I generally agree with. My reflex is to regard them as wrong. While this feels true, it seems to exacerbate the conflict because they seem to have the same reflex. They think that I am wrong when I think that they are wrong. It seems that no one appreciates being told they are wrong or bad. Being wrong challenges the world we have constructed and it has the potential of wreaking havoc to its foundation and maintenance. The coherence of our world is essential to our stability, so our world must be defended. Blame is a weapon, Fortress on a hilland most of us keep it readily accessible. Blaming others removes the stench of wrongness or badness and allows us to feel virtuous, perhaps even superior. Superiority feels safer, like a fortress on a hill which keeps threats below us. It preserves our constructed world, it helps us feel stable. However, no one seems to appreciate being blamed, thus, a hot potato game of blame ensues — escalation in the war of righteousness.

Some part of me understands this conundrum, can observe its carnage and wants to escape the push and pull of blame, criticism, defense and avoidance. While it is easy to see that those who disagree with me live in subjective and very biased worlds, this part understands that my experience in life is equally subjective. It takes a lot of work and practice to act on this understanding. This work feels worthwhile. Since no one wants to hold the hot potato of blame, it is relieving that there is an alternative to tossing it to someone else. This hot potato can be abandoned in most conflicts. I can be upset without the other person having to be wrong, bad or even at fault. The negative impact of another’s actions, does not imply negative intent — correlation does not imply causation. This is a very hard lesson for a mind programmed for debate, though it can learn to dialogue. As I learn to escape the blame-game, conflict is more easily and more successfully resolved, but escaping this game will take significant practice.

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” — Robert J. Hanlon


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.

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.