Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Vol #1, Col #25: Discriminating Taste

gratitude-thoughts-02I think it goes without saying that ALL of us come to the table with various chips on our shoulders. While someone’s situation may appear “picture perfect” on the outside, ultimately you don’t know the trials and tribulations they may have faced/continue to undergo. Likewise, things are often not as bad as they may seem. It’s really all a matter of attitude AND gratitude. Given this, it’s important to reserve judgment toward others.  

On the other side of the equation, it’s equally important not to allow one’s battle wounds to permeate every aspect of one’s life. While one’s past largely informs one’s present and reflecting upon past experiences (both successes and mistakes) can be a fantastic means of learning about oneself and the world at large, you’ll ultimately never get to where you want to go in life if your perspective remains stagnant. The example of Thomas Edison’s perseverant quest into the 1000s to establish a reliable, long-lasting, electric lightbulb speaks for itself. The point I’m trying to make? Don’t allow yourself to be stifled and/or suffocated by your own emotional baggage – no one else wants to!

With that introduction, instead of getting heavy into my regular “psychoanalytics” this week, I’d simply like to relay to you two stories in hopes that you’ll reflect on your own attitude toward yourself, others and life, in general:

A few years ago when I was working at the London Musicians’ Association (LMA), I met a man who had the misfortune of being afflicted with a lifelong disability that affected his motor skills. Despite this, he was passionate about pursuing a career in music. Initial judgment would lead one to believe he was making the best out of a bad situation – that he possessed a rather admirable disposition. But the more I continued to speak with him, the more his positioning of what sociological-dramaturgist Goffman refers to as one’s “front stage self” (ie: the way in which you WANT others to perceive you) broke down.

His reason for contacting me was because he was intent on performing at a variety of local festivals. He claimed he had a massive fanbase, his music had wide appeal and that he was being discriminated against by the organizers of these events due to his physical ailment. At the same time however, he also made it clear that he was not a member of our association and in fact didn’t see much point in becoming one…yet expected our services to be granted to him?

I regretfully explained that unless he was willing to consider membership, there wasn’t much we’d be able to do as our limited resources are reserved for those who maintain regular dues payments. With that said however, as one of the LMA’s services is to investigate “unfair treatment claims” issued by musicians against event organizers, I was happy to look into the case for him.

I simply began by asking him to describe exactly what happened. It didn’t take long for his rather harsh accusations to lose speed.

As he explained to me, he applied to perform at a festival and received a generic rejection letter back, advising him that his music did not fall into the genre categories they were seeking. At this point, I reviewed the letter, the genre categories of the festival and asked him to send me a sample of his music. Wouldn’t you know it? The rejection letter couldn’t be any more to the point.

When I attempted to explain that I, myself along with many other musicians, have faced similar rejections and that I did not see any indication he was being “unfairly” treated, he immediately jumped down my throat and ACCUSED ME TOO of being prejudice against those with disabilities…but it didn’t just end there. When I returned home from work, I found a series of “bitch-out” letters from him in my personal email inbox; he had decided to look up my official website to obtain my contact information to continue this “cyber war.”

While I initially empathized with the fact he obviously underwent many struggles in his life due to his disability and commended him for his musical efforts irrespective of his condition, the revelation of his “backstage self” (ie: who he really is) proved that it was his ATTITUDE NOT his limited physicality that was holding him back in life. Like a spoiled brat, if he didn’t get what he wanted, he’d consistently lash out and label the world as prejudice. Moreover he EXPECTED special treatment – as though the world should revolve around his every wish and command. Sad, but true.

In contrast, a few months ago I came across a “Late Night Show” interview with an amazing teenager named Joanne O’Riordan from Ireland who was born with Total Amelia syndrome: a birth defect that afflicts only SEVEN people in the entire world in which the sufferer has not just limited mobility, but literally NO limbs to speak of. Throughout the broadcast, O’Riordan spoke humbly of the “normal” life she lives and her positive, self-sufficient attitude was more than evident as she drank a beverage without assistance.

She admitted to hating being called an “inspiration” and intends on never allowing her condition to become an “excuse”. Equally however, she explained she is happy to engage others when they ask about her physicality. She aspires to become either a journalist or politician, and with her academic prowess and “can do” attitude, I believe there’s no doubt she will get to where she wants to go. She’s already successfully campaigned against a local MP who was attempting to cut funding toward families who support disabled children.

I welcome you to check you the interview here for yourself: http://www.viduba.com/video:QVFbXRleO5mUxoURVtmUo1UMZdXW31TP

Like all of you, I’ve had many experiences in life where I thought I was beaten down on the ground for good, but somehow I mustered the strength to get back up for another round. The saying is true: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” BUT there’s an important caveat missing from that expression: “it’ll only make you stronger IF you let it.”

It’s okay to grieve, it’s okay to get upset, it’s even okay to scream at the tops of your lungs if you need to get negativity out of your system. It’s not okay (nor mature) however to allow yourself to be victimized or to become an “excuse” king or queen simply because you don’t always get your way.

To quote a rock musician who upon occasion has something insightful to say, “you don’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might just find you’ll get what you need.”

In conclusion, have an “attitude of gratitude” my friends – you do after all live in one of the most privileged parts of the world.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Vol #1, Col #24: The Best Laid Plans

Col24_BestLaidPlansWhen it comes to developing (and maintaining) psychological maturity, a key ingredient to success is cultivating a sunny disposition. As the words to the theme of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian so smartly prescribe, one should always strive to “look on the bright side of life.” With that said however, equally important is establishing a realistic perception: both of the external world, AND when it comes to yourself and your own capabilities. In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew and know your limitations.

While this sounds like commonsense advice that wouldn’t require much brain power to follow, if you start to take a tally of your own experiences, you may be surprised by just how many times you’ve succumbed to what social psychologists term, “the planning fallacy.”

As Kahneman and Tversky explain in their 1979 journal article, Intuitive Predictions: Biases and Corrective Procedures, “the planning fallacy is the tendency of individuals to underestimate the duration that is needed to complete most tasks.” Its root causes?
  • The OVERestimation of one’s abilities

  • Focalism: the belief that one’s current task is unique; something that results in a failure to reflect upon past experiences of a similar nature in which there were negative outcomes

  • The failure to consider plausible complications and obstacles
And finally…The conceptualization of the task as one complete activity, rather than acknowledging finalization requires the completion of a series of necessary milestones

As I believe is fairly self-evident, all of the above factors can be attributed to egoism. Humans, because of our natural desire to confirm POSITIVE beliefs about ourselves and therefore maintain a positive self-image, are EXTREMELY biased when it comes to personal evaluation. When a new responsibility is attributed to us, the average mentally healthy individual will accept said task with the belief they will accomplish it easily and quickly, without facing any “jams in the machine”. If the task is associated with a sense of power and/or prestige, our perceptual bias will be even more pronounced because we all want to be able to see ourselves as possessing both characteristics as they make us more “valuable” from an “evolutionary fitness” stance.

On the same token then, it’s no surprise that also due to evolutionary impulses
(specifically to avoid danger), we judge the actions and abilities of others SEVERELY and have a tendency to focus on things that would confirm NEGATIVE beliefs about them. This is particularly true if we perceive an individual(s) as a threat to our security, romantic life or cultural belief system…ergo racism!

Like all things in life, the trick is finding balance. Being confident and holding positive beliefs about oneself and one’s abilities is a GOOD thing. Being cocky and unwilling to own up to your deficits however is NOT (ironically, cockiness is typically rooted in insecurity but that’s a whole nother can of worms). Assessing situations positively too is something we should strive for, but NOT to the extent that you become an eternal optimist/idealist who is unable to evaluate things realistically in terms of the “what if” scenarios.

If life has taught me anything, it’s that you can ultimately NEVER plan enough…or plan for the unexpected. In two words, shit happens.
While we cannot always control that which occurs around us, ongoing personal disappointment can be at least minimized if one is willing to practise introspection. Here, an example from my personal life yet again proves illustrative:

For the past couple of years, I’ve juggled multiple part-time employment schedules in order to earn enough
to both get by and be able to save up for the future. While this may sound like a nightmare scenario to many, believe it or not doing so has actually afforded me more free time to be able to devote to things I’m truly passionate about such as: fulfilling my creative impulses and “keeping house”.

I was recently offered and accepted (foolishly and regrettably) a full-time 9-to-5 type position. Within moments of doing so, I took ill and became overwhelmed not because of the difficulty of the job, but rather because getting up at 6 am meant I had to go to bed by 8:30 pm (at the latest) and going to bed at 8:30 pm meant I no longer had the time nor energy to exercise, cook nice dinners for myself and my spouse, or even clean my house. It didn’t help of course that I was devoting 35 hours a week to something that was sold to me as a “dream job/career opportunity” but turned out to be nothing more than monkey work…but we’ll leave that as a sidebar. Suffice it to say that while the position paid well, I was utterly miserable and felt as though any semblance of a life I previously had had gone by the wayside.

Obviously, this was a pretty major disappointment for me in all regards. It meant that I had given up one of my part-time roles that I truly enjoyed for nothing and it surely didn’t help that I got reamed out by the Head of HR for quitting. On a positive note however, this experience reaffirmed something important about myself: where my priorities truly lay and the kind of lifestyle that works best for me as a result.

Had I practise introspection and honestly evaluated everything prior to taking on the role, this whole song and dance could have been avoided, but my dears there’s no use in crying over spilled milk. The moral of the story? Even perfectionists, such as myself, have to be willing to admit defeat upon occasion.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Vol #1, Col #23: Lost in Translation

Col23_HypocrisyMeterAh, the art of conversation. If only it were as easy to navigate as it’s defined: simply, two or more individuals engaged in dialogue. The problem is that people don’t always express what they’re truly feeling; worse (and what seems to be an ongoing occurrence in my life), some seemingly deliberately attempt to mislead you. Allow me to explain:

A number of months ago, I found myself in a very unfortunate conflict with an individual that is significant in my partner’s life. I dislike being in arguments with anyone, but it adds a whole nother realm of complication to the mix when your partner feels like they’re being torn between two people they really care for.

For obvious reasons, I’d rather refrain from getting into the nitty gritty of our falling out. What I’d like to focus on instead is everything that unfolded after our initial disagreement which only proved to escalate the situation to ridiculous proportions.

To reiterate, I sincerely dislike fighting in ALL capacities. However, I am a very confrontational person by nature. That may sound like a contradiction to you, but what I mean is that I don’t like pussyfooting around situations. I believe in being honest, upfront and trying to solve things as soon as possible, as I know from experience that the longer you leave things unattended, the more they simmer and have the potential to lead to clouded resentment-filled bitchfests.

With all of that said, as soon as the proverbial shit hit the fan between me and this individual, I immediately tried to diffuse things. I explained my side of the story as I felt my intentions had been misinterpreted and I tried to display empathy toward the other person’s case. Despite being told directly by the party in question that everything would be resolved if I’d just “be myself” and “be honest”, I was accused of using “psychobabble”, being condescending as well as disrespectful.

The first thought that crossed my mind of course, was well I do have a Hons. degree in psychology so I kinda have a natural inclination to analyze situations and people’s motives in order to gain a better understanding of this crazy mixed up world we live in… but I digress. Beyond that, I couldn’t help but feel both offended and extremely confused. I mean in my mind, I gave this individual EXACTLY what they asked for, AND YET somehow doing so made the situation worse?!

Now this is classic passive aggressive behaviour: seemingly playing nice only to pull out the claws when you least expect it, and honest people who take others at face value, such as myself, fall for it EVERY single time. Passive aggressiveness commonly develops in childhood in reaction to overbearing/controlling parenting and is ultimately rooted in feelings of EXTREME insecurity.

Three key behavioural characteristics displayed by those who have taken on this form of maladaptive coping are:

1) Victimization (ie: the belief that one is constantly being unfairly attacked by others and is always innocent in the equation)

2) Blaming (ie: the inability to acknowledge responsibility for one’s own actions/consider the perspective of others) and

3) Hypocrisy (ie: inconsistency between one’s expressed thoughts/views/attitudes and one’s actions). It is the latter of these qualities that is of our interest today.

According to Dr. Michael J. Hurd, psychotherapist and personal life coach, “hypocrisy is a symptom of intellectual dishonesty.” In other words, hypocrisy is rooted (surprise, surprise!) in the inability and/or unwillingness to practise introspection. Hurd goes on to elaborate, “an intellectually honest person, confronted with a gap between what he thinks/preaches and practices, will immediately hold a meeting with himself: ‘What's wrong here? Is there some mistake in my idea? Or am I simply not walking the talk, even though I can?’” Given this interpretation of hypocrisy, it’s not surprising that pathological lying (both to others and oneself) is frequently another symptom of passive aggressiveness.

Moral psychologist, Dr. Robert Kurzban, in his article, “A Mind Designed for Hypocrisy” takes the argument one step further. In his view “our minds are designed to identify and even point out other people's moral failings while, at the same time, pursuing our own interests even if doing so means violating the very same rules we want to punish others for violating.” Hypocrisy therefore is “just one way that we [as humans] try to gain strategic advantage in the social world; pursuing our own interests while at the same time trying to stop others from pursuing theirs.”

So perhaps it all comes down thinly-veiled insecurity in the form of “power plays” and bullying yet again? In support of this hypothesis is the fact that it has been noted by many that there is a distinct parallel between holding feelings of superiority/authority and displays of hypocrisy, in that the higher up you are/you perceived yourself to be on the feeding chain, the higher likelihood there is you will engage in hypocritical behaviour.

Kinda makes you wonder whether honesty is truly valued as an admirable quality or rather we just “say” it is? Maybe this calls for a social experiment. The next time you find yourself in one of those daily, “hello, how are you?” interchanges, answer the question unabashedly. You’ll know by the other person’s reaction whether said query was purely propositioned out of obligation to honour what society prescribes as “polite conduct” OR worse if they only asked you so they could be asked in return and have the opportunity to proceed in bragging/ranting about their own current affairs.

In other words, this week’s lesson: psychological maturity is neither selfish nor self-serving. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. And don’t initiate a dialogue if you’re really only interested in listening to the sound of your own voice.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Vol #1, Col #22: Power Tripping

Col22_PowerTripMy whole life I’ve been told, upon first impression, I’m rather intimidating. My whole life, I’ve found this phenomenon rather curious. No, I’m not looking for a good ego-stroking here. Rather, I guess you could say I just find it difficult to come to grips with the notion of being intimidated by another person, in general. We all are after all “the same underneath our skin.”

Given this view, I’m sure you can appreciate I’ve found myself in conflict with authority figures on more than one occasion. But again don’t get me wrong, my feelings do not derive even slightly from a lack of respect toward others. Call me crazy (or perhaps a communist), but I simply feel everyone, irrespective of their station in life, should be treated as you would want to be treated yourself. Further, it is of my humble opinion that a person’s character is not defined simply by the work they do or the position(s) they hold, but instead the kind of life they choose to lead.

This preface brings me to today’s topic at hand: that of power, its uses and abuses, and the psychology behind it. But first I’d like to share with you yet another wonderful anecdote of this melodrama I call my life:

A few months ago, I was doing some subcontracted work for a web/graphic design firm. Despite being computer savvy and having a strong background in both domains, I was relegated to solely handling their administrative paperwork and minor site updates, such as: blog writing (perhaps because I was the only female on the team). I didn’t complain however as I was relatively happy within the work environment and appreciated the supplementary income.

Right from the get-go though, my boss, who was considerably less qualified/educated than me, younger than me and quite evidently the coddled child of a well-off family, took every opportunity to attempt to shoot me down. Initially, I wasn’t sure if he was just kidding around, but I guess you could say I got my answer when I was relieved of my position for merely sticking up for myself.

In front of my fellow coworkers, my boss exclaimed outright that if I were to design a particular item, “no offense, but it would look like shit.” When I corrected him by stating “actually I’m trained in that software and regularly use it for other clients”, I was immediately pulled out into the hallway and told that this was my “final warning” for “having an arrogant attitude.”

I pointed out first and foremost that I had not been given any prior warnings so I found his statement rather confusing (which for certain only pissed him off more!). Secondly, I made it clear I didn’t feel defending myself when I’ve been called out and embarrassed in front of the rest of the staff constituted an “attitude problem.” His response and I quote was, “I said, ‘no offense’.”

Now in this particular instance, it’s difficult to conclude whether my boss had it in for me because
a) he was sexist
b) he was a spoiled brat who believed the world should revolve around him
c) he felt threatened by me or
d) perhaps a combination of all of the above.

Irrespective of this, one thing is for certain: his conduct toward me was unquestionably motivated by feelings of insecurity, inferiority and threat; something that is evident by the fact I was fired for failing to “buy into”/challenging his conception of himself as an authority/powerful figure (and what that power entailed).

In his defense however, perhaps his persuasion of what constitutes appropriate leadership was/is derived from modern society’s countless examples of corporate and political leaders who rely heavily on intimidation tactics/fear/bullying to win support from the general population and who constantly abuse their power, yet seem to face little to no consequences. Ironically, many studies on the subject have noted that “relatability” and “likeability” are key factors to gaining the initial support required to rise to power. Once that power is obtained however, as noted by The Economist, “corruption, a hypocritical tendency to hold others to higher standards of conduct than oneself and a sense of entitlement to abuse the systems in which one lives or works,” tend to reign supreme.

So why then do so many of us lust after it?

Evolutionary psychology would suggest that our desire for power stems from our natural instinct to protect and prolong our own kin. By seeking out and maintaining positions of power, we are in a better position to provide for our loved ones and therefore continue the “survival” of our “species”. As German philosopher Nietzsche explains, all life forms are constantly in battle to inflict their wills upon others, as doing so allows for growth, self-preservation, domination and upward mobility.

Power, in psychological terms, is defined as “the ability to enact your will or influence onto others.” According to Dr. Christopher Heffner, there are five types of power one can possess:
  • Coercive: the power to punish
  • Reward: the power to acknowledge/ recompense
  • Legitimate: power granted by some external authority
  • Expert: power that results from experience or education
  • Referent: power derived from respect or admiration; power attributed through idolization
While power was assigned to our primitive ancestors based on tangible attributes that would clearly benefit the group against external threats (ie: physical strength, size, speed, agility and aggression), in today’s world, power is oftentimes acquired through much more superficial demonstrations of charisma or attractiveness. For example, the US’ current President has proven that being a “good talker” can go a long way… which brings me to my next and final point: the power in words.

French social theorist Foucault alleged that power in society originates through discourse (ie: the discussion of knowledge) as words allow us to conceptualize ideas, which then become beliefs, and in turn lead to actions based on those beliefs. Therefore, power resides with those who ultimately control the public discourse (ie: the media, the educational system, politicians, stakeholders etc).  

The debate about power: who has it, who should have it, what it constitutes and more, could go on indefinitely. I’d like to leave it for today with two final comments:
  • Psychological maturity is knowing when to pick your battles and setting standards in terms of what you will and will not tolerate from others. Yes, I could’ve kept my mouth shut when my boss made that final dig at me, but is my integrity worth sacrificing for an hourly wage? I think not.
  • On the other side of the equation, psychological maturity is also acknowledging that ALL people (and ALL living things for that matter) deserve to be treated respectfully. Believing that you’re superior to others because you happen to be from a certain tax bracket or because you possess certain traits is extremely egocentric. Psychologically mature individuals recognize that each and every one of us has something unique to offer this world. Difference should never been defined in oppositional terms.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Vol #1, Col #21: Sexual Sabotage

Col21_SexualSabotageAs a personal fitness trainer, my mom meets many “interesting” characters on a regular basis and every single one of them, inevitably, has a “story to tell”. Beyond seeking her guidance to shed unwanted pounds, her clients also frequently position her within the “therapist” role, given that body image, weight maintenance and lifestyle choice are deeply intertwined with one’s psychological state; credence to said notion can be found in the case of those afflicted with serious eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Allow me to elaborate:

Despite the physical changes that their bodies undergo, sufferers of the aforementioned psychoses commonly report being continually plagued by distorted “body image”. In some cases, psychologists have noted that the extreme weight loss associated with these two disorders goes far beyond having mere self-esteem issues. Instead, highly regulating one’s sustenance intake can be seen as attempt to regain mastery over a minor “controllable” aspect of one’s life, typically brought on by an overall feeling of “loss of control” (Psychology Today).

Our topic for today, however, spans beyond individual attempts to “dominate” oneself. Rather, I’d like to discuss something I refer to as “sexual sabotage”: a phenomenon that occurs within romantic relations when one partner is threatened by the success of the other and accordingly attempts to botch that success, typically in a passive aggressive fashion.

For those of you unfamiliar with passive aggressive behaviour (you’re lucky, first and foremost!), in a nutshell, it can be summated as: a form of “indirect” manipulation wherein “aggression” or attempts to “control” are thinly veiled under what is presented, on the surface, as “care” or “concern”. As explained in The Angry Smile, “passive aggression involves a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person, without the other recognizing the underlying anger.” Now, the reason I opened this piece with a focus on my mom and her profession is because a story she once relayed to me, on this very subject, has always stuck with me.

A few years ago, a well-off married woman in her early forties hired my mom to help her get back to her ideal weight. It’s important to note that the woman’s motivation for doing so stemmed purely from personal reasons and her relationship with her husband appeared both stable and healthy.

As the months rolled on and the woman increasingly became fitter, more confident, happier and more energized, her husband started to act very odd. Irrespective of the fact that the woman was clearly very proud of the strides she had made, his initial proclamations of support started to mutate into “I’ve always loved you just the way you are” sorts of statements. Taken on their own, these words seem nothing but romantic, sincere and very thoughtful. However, they were shortly followed by comments about how the woman should skip exercise class this or that week, as according to the husband, they just don’t seem to have enough recreational time together anymore. The final nail in the coffin came when in order to apparently “congratulate” the woman on her weight loss success, the husband went out and bought her PRE-exercise/healthy regime favourite high calorie, full fat, sugar-heavy dessert item so they could both gorge out! I mean REALLY?!

Like so many other displays of psychological immaturity we’ve covered thus far, “sexual sabotage”, too, stems from feelings of insecurity. In this particular case, given that the husband had a “beer belly” of his own that certainly wouldn’t be missed, it’s easy to deduce that his passive aggressive behaviours were rooted in an unconscious fear that he may lose his spouse to another mate with more desirable “physical fitness.” But, instead of going down the mature introspective path wherein he acknowledged both his own weight issues and fear of the potential consequences of his wife outshining him physically, he attempted to bring her “back down to his level”.

For many people (and I’m sure you’ve seen this even among your own group of friends), when they become attached, they begin to put less and less effort into their everyday appearance. As the popular expression states, “they” in effect, “let themselves go.”

From an evolutionary psychological perspective, this phenomenon actually makes perfect sense. At their most basic primal level, relationships are sought out for the purposes of reproduction (ie: to carry on one’s genes). Once a desirable mate that can fulfill this role has been secured, there truly is NO need to attempt to attract others; ergo, out goes the makeup and hair coiffing and in comes the muffin top!  

But of course modern day society with its impossible ideals of beauty and social standards (particularly for woman) adds complication to the mix. As the above story demonstrated, a desire to keep up one’s appearance may not have anything to do with pleasing one’s mate at all. And that, my friends, IS JUST FINE! It is YOUR life after all.

What I’m trying to get at is this: in psychologically healthy and mature adult relationships, there is room for BOTH “us” activities and “his” or “her” activities; neither of which come at the expense of the other. A truly mature and well-adjusted partner is supportive, understanding and accommodating to their spouse’s needs. Above all, each partner ALWAYS maintains the “best interests” of the other in mind.

With that said, if you should find yourself in a similar situation as the husband in the above tale, perhaps having read this piece, instead of attempting to sabotage the efforts of your spouse to protect your own ego, you’ll celebrate her triumphs. An even better case scenario? Your spouse’s desire for self-improvement ignites a spark within YOU to assess YOUR own situation and determine how YOU TOO can become the “best” possible you! Now that’s a goal worth striving for ;)

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Vol #1, Col #20: Kicking Addiction

Col20_AddictionBack in my former punk band days of glory, I used to jam with this drummer. Though I’ve always placed “the music” at the forefront, unfortunately it’d seem that far too many players allow the “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” lifestyle to reign supreme. So was true of this particular individual.

Irrespective of the fact he signed a contract with our label agreeing to professional (and reasonable) terms of employment, which outlined that intoxication of any kind before, during or after practises or performances was grounds for immediate dismissal, he continually tried to not-so-cleverly earn his honours into the “Dead at 27” Club.

Push finally came to shove when we were on tour in the States and his driving shift came up. In an effort to “remedy” his hangover from the night prior (and importantly, believing I was asleep in the backseat), he cracked open a cold one while at the wheel on the freeway, and began to openly chug it back. I believe you are all bright enough to use your imaginations to deduce what transpired between us shortly thereafter.

As we discussed last week, having some sort of outlet for “escapism” isn’t just a nicety, but rather a necessity for overall healthy psychological functioning. Though some choices are clearly more “mature” than others (in that their benefits are longer-lasting and they require positive self-examination), everyone ultimately needs to follow their own road in order to discover what does and does not work for them.

To return for a moment to my opening tale… The point of my story was/is NOT to rain down on musicians in general nor those who like to occasionally smoke the ganga, instead what I’m trying to get at is this: drinking some brew to relax one’s nerves before a big gig or to figuratively take the “load off” after a long hard day at work is one thing, BUT if you have somehow convinced yourself the negative effects of alcohol (or any drug for that matter) can be counteracted by MORE of that same substance, you’ve got a SERIOUS problem and that problem is called ADDICTION.

Formally, “any activity, substance, object or behavior that has become the major focus of a person's life to the exclusion of other activities, or that has begun to harm the individual or others physically, mentally or socially is considered an addictive behaviour,” (Alcohol and Other Drugs: Self Responsibility). Importantly, addiction and escapism are deeply intertwined in that they BOTH rely upon the concept of “pleasure” (ie: that’s why individuals partake in both activities to start); therefore if one chooses to recreationally ingest various substances as a means to “de-stress”, they are in effect walking a VERY fine line. At the risk of sounding like your mother, please BE CAREFUL if this is your chosen method of achieving Zen!

More in line with our purposes for today’s discussion however is the above authors’ use of the phrase, “ANY activity, substance, object or behavior” in their definition of addiction. While traditionally when we think of addicts, we envision skinny-as-a-rail strung-out junkies, addictions do NOT just have to be to substances or even the tangible! One can be “addicted” to something as seemingly “harmless” as a certain psychological mindset, such as feelings of low self-worth.

In this case, the mindset becomes the impetus (or the “drug” if you will) for behaving in self-detrimental capacities (ie: only dating abusive partners because of a belief that you do not deserve better). The pleasure derived from doing so? Ironically, the ability to “self-fulfill” your own “prophecies”.

To run with our example in more elaborate terms, if you have feelings of low self-worth, you will project that energy outward, both consciously and subconsciously. That energy projection in turn will attract a very specific type of potential mate (most commonly, a user, abuser or someone looking to prey on a weaker individual in order to make themselves feel superior or needed). The awful treatment you receive from this type of partner REAFFIRMS your notions of unworthiness (ie: you’re getting what you deserve). Consequently, you become “addicted” to this type of abusive relationship.

I’m sure all of you (unfortunately) can think of a friend who bounces from one “bad romance” to the next and can’t seem to understand why he/she is treated so poorly consistently? Though your friend likely wouldn’t be willing to admit it (as denial is a key characteristic of addiction), he/she may be suffering from self-esteem issues and subconsciously attracting less than desirable partners as a result.

While substance-related addictions are said to primarily be rooted in genetic factors (ie: certain individuals are more susceptible given their personality type and/or attraction to risk-taking behaviours), psychological addictions, such as the one I described above, generally are associated with feelings bordering depression, anxiety or general dissatisfaction with life. These feelings contribute to an overall pessimistic worldview, which in turn produces self-esteem issues (ie: self-blame as a method of rationalization).

Importantly, one must realize that addiction is NOT purely an indication of psychological weakness or immaturity however, when you become addicted to something, your brain chemistry actually changes.

As explained by Addictions Specialist, Dr. Adi Jaffe:
With repeated drug administrations, the body adjusts its internal processes in an attempt to return to its initial level of functioning. Drug use normally causes greater quantities of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, the opioids, and adrenaline to be present in the drug user’s synapses. The body counters this by reducing its own release of these chemicals, reducing the numbers of receptors that can be activated by the neurotransmitters, and increasing functions known as “opponent processes” that are meant to counter their activity.
The interesting thing about tolerance is that by reducing the level of these important neurotransmitters, addicts are left with another, possibly more important effect, which is the loss of the addicted brain’s ability to respond to any reward, including natural ones like food, sex, enjoying a good football game, or anything else. Essentially, this sort of cross-tolerance leaves the addict less able to respond to rewards in general.
The reduced response to drugs, and the corresponding changes in the body and brain’s own functioning, have long been thought to be a major cause of addiction. The withdrawal that results once drug taking stops is closely linked to the development of tolerance.
Accordingly, there’s good reason then as to why the number one step to any rehab program is “admitting you have a problem.” Given that there may not always be clear physical changes associated with a purely psychological addiction to both bystanders and the affected individual him/herself, this may prove to be a more formidable task than say if we were dealing with an alcohol abuse problem.

In either case, after one’s “admittance”, assessment of why the addiction developed in the first place is CRUCIAL for rehabilitative success; psychological maturity then, in the form of introspection, is obviously a key component here.

To bring everything we’ve been discussing the last few weeks full circle, let me reiterate that there’s nothing wrong with having fun and letting loose. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with having feelings of self-doubt or failure time and again. As I said previously, life is STRESSFUL and it takes serious moxie to persevere entirely on one’s own through the thick and thin.

With that said, as I hope I’ve made abundantly clear at this point, the secret to achieving a fulfilling mature life then, as the popular expression goes, is experiencing “everything in moderation.” When your life starts to get thrown out of balance, you put yourself and those you care about at risk. If you, as a consequence, find yourself becoming RELIANT on something to cope, have fun or affirm your perceptions, you NEED to reach out for help. Addiction is no laughing matter, nor is trying to kick one once you’ve succumbed to it.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Col #1, Vol #19: Under Pressure

Col19_StressHuman life (especially in fast-paced North American society), in a word, is: STRESSFUL! Whether you’re physically exerting yourself at work, dealing with emotional family squabbles, prepping for that important “dream job” interview or trying to arrange what you thought would be a ‘simple’ social gathering, even if you don’t “feel” stressed, that doesn’t necessarily mean your body (or psyche) isn’t taking a toll!

Because we live in a society which promotes the notion of meritocracy (ie: the greatest rewards in life go to those who exert the highest and most consistent levels of effort), many of us feel we need to constantly be “on” or we’ll miss our chance at success. This coupled with our currently dismal economy and the phenomenon of “overcredentialization” has lead to a situation wherein many of us no longer recall how to relax and even go so far as to “invent” reasons to get stressed out. For example, while on so-called “vacations”, we often nitpick at the minutia failing to take pleasure in the simple details or worse contemplate all of the things we “should” be doing instead. The result? Yet MORE unnecessary stress. In other words, there’s a reason why sleep aids are among the top pharmaceutical sellers!

Evolutionarily-speaking, the “stress reaction” served to be productive. Allowing your heart to pound faster, muscles to tighten, blood pressure to rise, breath to quicken and senses to sharpen, it’s pretty easy to see how the aforementioned physiological changes would assist you if you were, let’s say, battling for territory against a Sabre-toothed tiger.

Wired in what experts call the “primitive” region of our brains, as Melinda Smith, Robert Segal, and Jeanne Segal explain in Understanding Stress: Symptoms, Signs, Causes, and Effects, the “stress reaction” was initially intended to be exclusively reserved for “life-threatening” (aka “fight-or-flight”) situations.

Now, it’s one thing to feel stressed if you’re quite literally facing uncertain death everyday as our cave-dwelling ancestors were, it’s a whole nother to “cry over spilled milk” or give yourself ulcers because traffic’s in a jam.

While we all have different levels of sensitization (influenced by both genetics and life events), prolonged exposure to stress can and often does “initiate a ‘biochemical onslaught’ [that] chip[s] away [not only] at our immune system[s], opening the way to cancer, infection and disease”, but further can lead to the development of neurosis such as depression or PTSD (Psychology Today).

Modern day stress is said to primarily originate from frustration, conflict, change or the perception of being “under pressure”. BUT it’s not ALL necessarily negative. Psychological examination on the subject has shown that a certain amount of “everyday” stress is actually a good thing: it serves to motivate, sharpen your memory, and improve focus, productivity and performance. Moreover, studies conducted by Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar, director of research for Stanford University’s Center on Stress and Health have indicated that “short-term” stress can improve your immune system: “trigger[ing] the production of protective chemicals and increas[ing] activity in immune cells that boost the body’s defenses.” The keys are obviously finding “balance” AND avoiding burnout! How do YOU personally cope?

Though yoga seems to be the latest fad as far as “stress management techniques” go, MAKING time to do something – anything – that allows you to refocus your energies inward and healthily “escape” the toils of the day is not just beneficial, but a NECESSITY for optimal psychological functioning! Delving into a good novel, cooking your favourite meal, jamming out tunes with a friend, going for a walk or putting pen to paper: all acceptable, all necessary AND all good for you. Here, the male population can further take a few hints from us of the fairer sex: there’s nothing like a good bath…or bitchfest!

Now, it’s important to realize that like stress, while essential and helpful in small dosages, too much emphasis on “escapism” is equally deleterious and may be a warning sign of maladaptive “addictive” habits forming (more on this next week).

I believe it goes without saying that the “work-life balance” is quite possibly one of, if not the MOST difficult ideal to achieve. On the one hand, work is necessary: it earns you an income (hopefully while providing you with some sense of fulfillment) so that you’re able to “invest” in other aspects of your life including: relationships and recreation. On the other hand, if you need to be chained to your desk 24/7 because you don’t bring in enough net, you miss out on many moments of great importance…not to mention your life will inevitably be consumed by stress.

As I said last week in our discussion of the “quarter life crisis”, while we cannot control all external events (though obtaining a strong educational background and learning to money manage will certainly help you in the career department! Go Fanshawe!), we CAN control our reactions to them, along with our overall psychological “thinking scheme”. In other words, don’t “stress” the small stuff…it may just be a matter of life or death (physiologically and/or psychologically speaking).