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).

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Vol #1, Col #18: Call it a Case of the “Blues”

Col18_QuarterLifeCrisisOriginally ‘symptomatically’-noted by good old Siggy Freud, but not formally defined until 1965 in a groundbreaking article by Elliot Jaques, the term “mid-life” crisis has become so ubiquitous within society that the image of a 60 year-old greying man, dressed to the nines, driving a hot red convertible and accompanied by a twenty-something blonde bimbo undoubtedly brings to mind an attempt to “recapture” one’s youth driven by a “fear of impending death”(…that or Charlie Sheen, but he’s a whole ‘nother discussion in himself).

Less familiar and only introduced in the earlier half of the 2000s, the concept of the “quarter-life” crisis is said to affect those just ending their adolescent years up until their mid-thirties. Whereas “death” is hypothesized to act as the impetus behind a “mid-life” crisis, “life” (as in you’re no longer a child, but now an adult with adult responsibilities and obligations) has the same effect on those of us facing the second “quarter” of our journeys.

Despite the gap in age when these two phenomena are said to strike, there are clear similarities between them. As explained in Psychology Today, both crises are brought on by an “assessment” of one’s life in terms of where one currently is VS where one wants to be or believes he/she should be.

Now, it’s perfectly healthy from a psychological perspective to have major life goals and expectations when it comes to your relationships, career aspirations, important personal possessions (ie: house and car) and even your physical appearance. Moreover, it’s perfectly healthy (and in fact ENCOURAGED) to regularly do “self check-ins” in terms of the aforementioned items to ensure you’re happy with your choices and leading the kind of life you truly desire. Where these practises become pathological in nature is when they lead to deviant, unhealthy and uncharacteristic “reality avoiding” and/or “reality deluding” behaviour(s) such as: drug or alcohol abuse, appearance obsession, the acquisition of unusual or unaffordable items, participation in dangerous or illicit activities, excessive socializing or premature emotional intimacy with strangers to the detriment of one’s safety, projection of one’s feelings of failure onto others by setting unreasonable expectations, or engagement in extramarital or abusive affairs.    

As many studies on the subject have demonstrated, crises of this nature are typically brought on by some or all of the following types of feelings:
  • a deep sense of remorse for goals not accomplished within set timeframes (which often leads to depression)
  • a fear of humiliation among perceived more “successful” colleagues or peers
  • a desire to achieve feelings of youthfulness or attractiveness
  • an inadequate work-life balance
  • a desire to search for an undefined dream or goal (usually brought on by the feeling that one is “lost”, “alone” or has been on the “wrong” path all along)
There is no question that all of us, at some juncture, will find ourselves paralyzed by important life-altering conundrums. Often these decisions not only result in external life situation changes, but also internal psychological transformations.

Undergoing change is something our species has never dealt with very effectively. However, experiencing a “crisis” does not have to exclusively be a bad thing. In fact, many a spiritual/religious, relationship and career rebirth have been born from such conflicts, leading to happier and healthier overall individuals. It’s simply a matter of developing mature and rational coping methods; here the practise of positive psychology proves invaluable.

Let us return for a moment to my friend we talked about last week, who texted me in a panic because of her recent participation in a series of questionable behaviours… The more we got to talking, the more it became clear to me that she was/is struggling with her identity (call it a case of the “quarter-life” blues) because of a recent artistic transition, coupled with ongoing dissatisfaction at her formal place of employment.

Instead of practising introspection and taking proactive steps to rectify both situations, like those who’ve equally been afflicted by one of the above two “crises”, she allowed her self-esteem to plummet convincing herself that her whole world as she knew it was over and in turn, attempted to distract herself from this reality via cheap thrills (ie: acting out of character). The guilt response she exhibited toward me was naturally a result of the “cognitive dissonance” she experienced when she analyzed her recent actions against her self-concept.

As Humanist psychologist Rogers explains, one’s self-concept is comprised of three components: 1) one’s self-image (ie: how you see yourself), 2) one’s self-esteem (ie: how much value you place on yourself) and 3) one’s ideal self (ie: the best version of yourself: who you strive to be). While we cannot control external events that affect any of these three components, we CAN control our reactions to these events as well as our overall psychological thinking scheme.

In a nutshell, positive psychology is the new “psychoanalysis”, but instead of asking patients to delve deep into their unconscious realms in order to exercise all of the demons that lie below in an effort to reach psychological peace, it prescribes just the opposite. Positive psychology, as its namesake would suggest, asks those who are struggling psychologically to place their focus on all of the good things within their lives and to acknowledge the multidimensional nature of their existences.

While we all have unfortunate experiences we have to deal with, without those events, we wouldn’t be who we are and who we are is made up of several different personae we exhibit each day. I, for example, am a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend, a best friend, a mother to my felines, an employee, a cook, an artist, a writer and so forth! Because my friend limited her focus to her artistic and employment situation, she failed to acknowledge all of the wonderful things she is and all of the wonderful things she has going for her.

With this said, I’d like to propose that the “feelings” associated with the onslaught of these sorts of “crises” typically originate not purely from catastrophic life events, as such events are RARE. Rather, I believe our psychological functioning has become too deeply intertwined with the North American consumerist model resulting in tunnel vision, short sightedness and increasingly limited attention spans:
we’ve been “taught” that happiness can be bought (and sold) and that nothing except “diamonds” (apparently) last forever. In sum, we’ve learned to focus on EVERYTHING BUT our psychological selves when it comes to solving problems (maybe it’s our thinking, what a concept)! To add insult to injury, even when we do focus on ourselves, we apply this same contorted model which results in us thinking it’s the absolute end of our existences when a relationship falls apart or a job is lost. Loss of any kind sucks yes, BUT you’re still alive so get to living.

As the old saying goes, “you can’t put all your eggs in one basket”…as you’ll be utterly screwed if and when that basket breaks (okay, so I added that last part in there but you know it’s true!). The point is this: self “check-ins” are a good thing; so too is acknowledging your true feelings. The psychologically mature, though, do NOT just stop there. If you’re unhappy with a situation, analyze what needs to be changed and make the necessary adjustments. If you’re unhappy with yourself? FOLLOW THE SAME STEPS JUST OUTLINED!!!

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Vol #1, Col #17: Guilty as Charged!

Col17_GuiltThe other day a girlfriend of mine texted me in a panic. Though her initial message merely read, “Hey what’s up?”, I knew immediately (call it a hunch, must’ve been a consequence of our recent discussion on gut feelings) her interest in contacting me went far beyond a casual check-in.

It didn’t take long after my prompt reply for her to proceed in sending me an uncensored description of all of the wrongdoings she had committed recently, followed by profuse apologies and a request for forgiveness (out of fear she’d lose me as a friend) as though I were some divine entity.

I explained to her while I did not in any way, shape or form condone her actions, I was in no position to judge another person as we all (including me!) make mistakes. Moreover despite her unfortunate choices as of late, I relayed to her, as ironic as it may sound, that the horrible feelings she was currently battling with were actually a good thing. After all, if she could commit atrocious acts on a regular basis without inspiring extreme feelings of remorse shortly thereafter, she’d fit one of the psychological profile characteristics of a serial killer (ie: lack of a conscience) and accordingly, I’m not so certain I’d feel safe enough to be her pal!

That of course is the irony of guilt: it makes you feel absolutely wretched, but you know what? That wretchedness is valuable as it acts as an instigator for growth, learning and yep, you guessed it, psychological maturity.

According to Martin Hoffman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at New York University, “the guilt response” is composed of both an emotional and cognitive element and is activated upon the acknowledgement that one has participated in an action that clashes with his/her self-concept in a detrimental capacity. Important in this definition is the understanding of how one’s emotions (ie: feelings and sensations) interact with one’s cognition (ie: logical thought processes).

As cognitive psychologist Piaget theorized, the ability to think about one’s actions abstractly and hypothetically is a capacity that does not typically develop until late childhood. As a consequence, the internalization of a sense of personal “morality” (ie: the capacity for forming judgments about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad, in terms of how said actions will affect others) cannot begin to form until around the same time period, at the very earliest.

The teaching of morality and responsibility then (at least in the initial stages) relies upon the behaviourist’s “primitive” model of reward/punishment. Essentially, if we are rewarded for “good” deeds even if we do not have the psychological capacity to understand that they are “morally” good, we will continue to commit them purely for the reward. On the other side of the equation, if we are punished for negative outbursts, equally it is presumed we will no longer be compelled to act in said fashion. Alas, if only it were that easy when we become grown-ups!

As we age, it seems the grey area between the black side of “wrong” and the white side of “good” expands, often leaving us in situations fraught with moral ambiguity. Throw the media’s influence, legislative and religious hypocrisy along with various cultural factors into the mix, and you’re left with more confusion that clarity. This however is NOT a piece about morality – that’s something you’ll need to figure out on your own (ie: what’s right for you) as you encounter various decisions and dilemmas throughout your life. Often times, situations, particularly of the heart, are powerful enough to act as the catalyst for an entirely new moral compass.

What I do hope you take away from this piece however is as follows: MATURITY IS the ability to admit you’ve made mistakes, the willingness to accept responsibility for any consequences that may result from your actions AND the desire to make amends NOT hold juvenile grudges.

In life, sometimes there are lessons that necessitate multiple “courses” before we fully digest the message. Often times, people continue to “reoffend” despite being cognisant of the Pandora’s box they know they’re going to open. As is the case with many, this apparent lack of foresight is typically accounted to one of two things: a) “tunnel vision” (ie: focussing too much on one’s immediate often superficial self-serving desire for thrills as opposed to long-term meaningful gratification) OR as was the case with my girlfriend b) a lack of a concrete and positive self-concept; something we’ll delve into more next week!

Monday, 29 February 2016

Vol #1, Col #16: Out of Your Head and Into Your Heart…And/or Gut

Col16_TwoBrainsA couple of years ago I underwent a series of events that can only be accurately equated to how Neo must have felt in The Matrix upon taking the red pill. Essentially, I had to come to grips with the fact that EVERYTHING I thought was my reality was in actuality a fa├žade. Just how deep the proverbial rabbit hole went, I will never know. But what I did discover about love, hate and everything in between left me forever changed.

Because I knew how detrimental it would be to my own sanity to keep all of the conflicting emotions I was experiencing bottled up, I did what I felt was the only viable option: I put pen to paper and wrote an autobiographical manuscript.

Seeking comfort and validation, I shared my tale with select close friends and a couple of my professors whom I greatly admired. Though my intention for doing so did NOT at all stem from a desire for praise, I couldn’t help but feel confused and disappointed when one of said individuals responded back with a list of criticisms that entirely focussed around my “literary license”, rather than my act of catharsis. To put it plainly, he missed the point.

As my head and heart were equally a mess, the manuscript took on a “stream of consciousness” vibe and admittedly, syntax was not at the forefront in terms of the force driving me to delve into the details. Though this individual remains an intellectual I respect, this whole circumstance got me contemplating about different facets of intelligence (IQ, EQ, commonsense, instinctual, survivalist etc.) and how a key to interpersonal success along with psychological maturity is knowing when it’s appropriate to apply each type.

What I’m trying to get at is this: because humans consider themselves the species holding the privileged place at the top of the food chain, we tend to almost exclusively encourage thinking with one’s brain, rather than feeling with one’s heart and/or listening to one’s primitive instincts. In business and school, obviously this strategy makes sense and proves effective. HOWEVER, when it comes to one’s personal life, platonic or romantic, there couldn’t possibly be worse advice!

In fact, groundbreaking findings based on five decades of study recently reported in the consumer periodical, Psychology Today, indicated that there’s really something to be said about that premonition-like sinking feeling we often get in the pits of our stomachs before assimilating bad news or engaging in activities we know we’ll ultimately regret. And no, it isn’t simply indigestion!

Michael Gershon, professor and chair of pathology and cell biology at Columbia, has found support for his theory that the stomach has a second “brain” of its own, known technically as the enteric nervous system (ENS, for short), capable of sending signals that affect “feelings of sadness or stress [and] influence memory, learning, and decision making,” independent of the controls in our cerebral cortex.

Considering that creatures “low on the evolutionary totem pole”, such as worms, are exclusively equipped with a single nervous system, similar in structure to our ENS, for all thinking, communicative and sensory activities, it isn’t that much of a stretch to buy into the notion that the complexity of the human brain “actually started out in the gut” (Emeran Mayer, director of the UCLA Center for Neurovisceral Sciences and Women’s Health as well as of the UCLA Center for Neurobiology of Stress). Even more fascinating is the discovery that experimenting with our naturally occurring “gut flora” can aid in alleviating major mood
disorders including depression!

With all of this said however, there remains an important caveat: that is, knowing WHEN to use WHICH brain(s) and/or form(s) of intelligence; something I’ve already alluded to. Despite his impressive dedication to the subject, Gershon is firm in the conviction that electing to “listen” to one brain over the other is not a cut/dry choice. While the stomach “brain” may add “exclamation points” to assist you in your decision making, it does not have the capability of “reasoning” independently. In his own words, “Better to use that gut feeling to review the situation with the first brain.”

To bring everything full circle, let us return momentarily to my opening story. What made the individual in question’s response to my uncensored outpouring of emotions so offensive was its analytical, fact-based medical-like diagnosis of “problems”. He was so much “in his head” that he couldn’t see past his own “perception” of how autobiographical pieces “ought” to be written. In other words, he failed to “feel” and allow the story to get “into his heart”…and perhaps his gut! As a consequence, he overlooked the most crucial element of all: real life – mine, in particular.

It goes without saying that said topic is messy, complicated and often doesn’t make sense. Ah, but there in lies the rub: is it nonsensical from a cerebral brain, heart brain or gut brain perspective? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Vol #1, Col #15: “Consider” This

Col15_ConsiderateIt is often pondered how much the outside world influences us: our decisions, our senses of self and that which we elect as ‘worth striving for’. Less often considered is how much each of us, as individuals, influence the outside world; a concept denoted as “interconnectivity.”

Given today’s globalized and technology-driven marketplace, our connection to diverse human groups, from sea-to-sea, is undeniable. However, our imprint as a species does not merely end there. The air we breathe out, the sustenance we consume, the habitats we build and even the energies and moods we emit further influence all other forms of life inhabiting this planet we call home. In other words, no creature or species lives in autonomous isolation (humans are no exception), and as we discussed last week, life on earth is cyclical and deeply intertwined.

Now let me make clear my preface is not meant to serve as an argument for environmentalism nor karma, I’m simply trying to establish that the process of developing a psychologically mature mindset goes beyond simply contemplating “the self”. One must too learn his/her “position” in the natural world and how that “position” influences other forms of life within his/her immediate AND/OR peripheral surroundings. In doing so, one is able to learn how to evaluate and react to situations after a thorough and objective investigation of multiple perspectives. In other words, a key to psychological maturity is mastering the art of “being considerate”.

As psychology was borne from the amalgamation of one part philosophy, it only makes sense that we turn to the concept of Sartre’s existentialism, this week, in order to gain insight into the above outlined concept.

Though Sartre made no qualms about the fact he was an atheist, ironically the crux of his treatise can be summed up by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” (Matthew 7:12, King James Bible). Specifically, because Sartre did not believe a divine being was ultimately predetermining our actions as well as our “essences”, he placed the onus on individuals to act responsibility AND to take responsibility for how they act. More than just that however, he felt that humans determined their own morality through their choices, in that an individual’s participation in an activity symbolized their condonation of that same activity. In simpler terms, if I choose to be rude toward others, I have no right to be offended if I receive the same treatment in return, as my original behaviour determined I considered it morally “a-okay” to act in this manner. To make reference to yet another popular biblical verse: “you reap what you sow,” (Galatians 6:7).

But as developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg points out in his “Moral Stages of Development”, a true sense of personal ethics and responsibility is not merely defined by attempts to ‘play nice’ in order to avoid reprisal. Those who have accomplished the highest stage in Kohlberg’s moral development scheme known as “post-conventionality” believe in adhering to an unwritten social contract that mandates “working toward the benefit of all.” Of course, this high aim is only possible if we all collectively agree on upholding the same values…Judging by our past and ongoing cultural clashes, I don’t see this happening anytime soon. HOWEVER, that does not give you an excuse not to at least practise basic human decency,
which I’d like to point out is transferrable (and appreciated) across human societies.

In her instructional hit, Using Your Values to Raise Your Child to Be an Adult You Admire, Dr. Harriet Heath outlines the following characteristics associated with “being considerate”:

1) having the ability to empathise and put yourself in “another’s shoes”

2) having the ability to predict how one’s actions will impact someone else and accordingly modulate one’s behaviours, if necessary

and 3) understanding what is “kindly” behaviour in your society/culture   

Importantly, Heath points out that one of the most profound ways humans of all ages learn is through “modelling”. I hate to sound like a broken record, but if you want others to be considerate toward you, the first step is learning to partake in this behaviour yourself.

Before any of you start feeling as though I’m instructing you to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, I assure you I nor does anyone else expect you to become the next Gandhi or Mother Teresa.

The lesson here is NOT about trying to solve all of the world’s problems or attempting to spread “goodwill” across the globe (though I definitely applaud anyone with said ambition). Instead, what I’m trying to impart is that beyond understanding yourself, what makes you tick and owning up to all of your strengths as well as faults, it’s essential to recognize how you affect others, moreover learn how you can maximize POSITIVE effects. Look. Listen. Learn. Live.