Impending Doom

RiverThe game begins when we are tossed into the river of life. Unable to swim on our own, we begin totally reliant on others. These guardians provide the raft, and help structure our experience. The rafts vary in their capability to match the demands of the river. Some can move to smoother waters, while others never stray far from peril. Every alternative shapes our experience, pleasure and pain directing our path as we seek more of one and less of the other. Pain echoes the roar of what inextricably draws the river’s current. Is it perilous or is it benign? That roar, which reminds us that life on the river is fragile, is an existential given in our lives, and in all the life that has gone before us — impending doom.

The word impending has its origin in the Latin word “impendēre” which means to hang over, to be imminent. Doom has several contemporary meanings, including unavoidable bad fortune, ruin or death, an unfavorable judgment, decision or sentence. AlfredTheGreatYet, the etymology of doom is from an Anglo-Saxon word, “dom,” that means judgment or law. As an aside, it turns out, my 35th great-grandfather, King Alfred The Great (848-901 C.E.), compiled a dom-boc (doom book or law code) which attempted to blend the Mosaic code with Christian principles and three pre-existing Saxon codes. Winston Churchill credited the Laws of Alfred, which were continually amplified by his successors, as the basis for what grew into that body of common law, which has guided and constrained much of the world.

Games are built around rules, and the game of life is no exception. Rules of all sorts hang over us in life. Human laws, natural laws, and a myriad of rules connected to our personal and commercial interactions in the world, foremost are those we feel from within. Like King Alfred, we each create a personal dom-boc. This “creation” is an implicit process, generally happening outside our awareness, and built upon a foundation developed in our earliest years of childhood. Emotional interaction with our dom-boc is a fundamental activity of our minds. We live in fear of breaking the rules, being found out, judged, sentenced…doomed, whether by God, nature, or our fellow human — no wonder fear, anxiety, and worry play such a central role in living. While commonalities abound, we each have a unique dom-boc. We each construe the rules of the game and feel something slightly different hanging over us. While we tend to judge others based on our personal rules, since no one plays the same game or has the same rule book, we should consider caution in these evaluations.

There are many ways to play this game, so each of us faces our own version of impending doom. Each mind, to one degree or another, scans for what is deemed a meaningful threat, danger, or judgment — our flavor of impending doom. Impending doom is an inner experience, its meaning and consequences are constructed by the mind, and this perception frames our experience and sets limits on our actions and even our thoughts. We cannot cheat the game, but not all the rules are as rigid as we might suppose. Sometimes it makes sense to question authority, especially when that authority commands from our subconscious. Paying attention to the rules that guide our lives can be very revealing. When we shift our rules, the game changes. We each have to play our own game, which involves determining our purpose, our set of rules, and managing our experience of impending doom. How that balance is achieved, is the essence of the game.

“I am willing to take life as a game of chess in which the first rules are not open to discussion. No one asks why the knight is allowed his eccentric hop, why the castle may only go straight and the bishop obliquely. These things are to be accepted, and with these rules the game must be played: it is foolish to complain of them.”

W. Somerset Maugham


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

Beyond the campfire

Beyond the campfireThere is a boundary within which we feel safe and which beyond lurk the threats to our sense of security. Like a dog with an invisible fence, we are notified of this boundary by our emotions such as anxiety, fear and perhaps anger, but also feelings of excitement, interest and curiosity. The “comfort zone” varies tremendously from person to person. Some individuals feel comfortable wandering or even leaving the globe engaging in activities that would make the faint-hearted shudder. Others find it threatening to leave their bedroom — panic-bound with almost every move they make. How we manage this boundary is a crucial determinant of our lives.

This boundary is like the space between the warmth and safety of the campfire and the menacing dangers beyond its glow. We may prefer to cling closely to the intoxicating comfort and security the fire provides, but this draws the boundary even closer. If we never leave the campfire, we may find a life crowded with anxiety. Fear is a hardwired emotion that is activated to help us escape threat. We may find it extremely difficult to leave what feels secure when we feel afraid.  But fear will not just go away if we try to wait it out, there is no way for it to be permanently exiled — threat, danger and risk will always be “out there” somewhere.  The question is how close is the boundary? We can minimize fear’s influence over us, but this only happens “beyond the campfire.” We must be willing to leave the place where we feel safe in order to expand the territory where we will feel safe. To “move beyond” requires motivation, and to find this we will need to switch emotional states.

Wolf-Eyes04Anger is one possible option. Like fear, anger is a hardwired emotion, however unlike fear, which motivates us to escape threat, anger activates us to engage threat. It is also elicited when we feel our freedom has become too restrained, when we feel our safety zone has become claustrophobic or endangered. Even a rabbit will fight a predator when backed into a corner.  Anger motivates us to move out of safety and into risk. Anger enables us to drive the lurking danger farther away from the campfire.

There are also positive reasons to move beyond the campfire and into the riskiness of the boundary. Safety and security may be desirable, but there are some pleasurable feelings that cannot be found near the campfire. Many forms of entertainment involve some element of risk. Increased feelings of aliveness, novelty and excitement often arise only when the stakes are raised.

Leaving our comfort zone feels risky but pushing into the unknown is the only way to stretch our boundary and expand the territory where we can freely roam. It may also be the only way to connect to the full complement of human emotions and feel truly alive.


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.

 

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.