Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reflections on Life

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Life is confusing. Life is hard sometimes. Life isn't any one thing, but rather is a series of interconnected choices, chances, and events that are woven together to build our experience. You can plan things out all that you want. You can go into situations with the purest of intentions. You may even think to yourself that you have it all figured out, and you understand how life works. But, every so often, life serves up some curveballs, poignant reminders that you have absolutely no idea what you are doing after all. And every so often, those curveballs are game-changers in the sense that the experiences that bring about, good, bad, or both, will irrevocably change you from the person that you were into someone else and that person that you were ceases to be.

Sometimes something happens that makes you reevaluate life and you realize that it's not worth it be serious and you might become more child-like. I've seen this happen with older people and some people who are terminally ill. Other times, something happens that makes you jaded, or it kills off part of your soul so that the world seems less colorful, less beautiful, darker. And still other times things happen that make you less child-like and force you to grow up and face some harsh realities. Sometimes it's more than one of these things.

Much of your life is dictacted by your own choices; do I go right or left, do I take a new job or stay where I am, do I finish school or take a second job, do I wear the blue tie or the black one? Very often though other people's choices intersect with your life in irreversable ways. Maybe someone decided not to have their brakes changed and as a result they crashed into your car and left you disabled. Or maybe someone from your life that you were connected to just up and leaves with little notice and without explanation. Sometimes people decide to quit their job and it creates a new position that you can move into. There are lots of ways that other people's choices interact with our lives. Often times we describe these things as chance, but it's not really chance. Chance would be calculating your odds of being in the right place at the right time for an event to occur, not the actual choices themselves, although the choices do play a role in those calculations.

Decisions that we make on our own are the easiest to deal with, sometimes, because we made those choices; we have control over them. I say sometimes because sometimes the choices that we make aren't the ones that we really want to make and the end result that we get from those choices is actually the furthest thing from what we want in life. Other times, someone else makes those choices for us; someone leaves, a parent decides to move, your work closes its doors, etc. Those choices are especially hard to deal with because its not really your choice. You have no control over those situations. The situations are what they are because other people exercised their power to make decisions and choices.

The real trick to life is figuring out the difference between the choices that you make you and the choices that someone else makes. Understanding this difference will allow you to understand what choices you actually have control over. You can't decide to tell your employer to stay open, you can't decide to tell your parent not to move, and you certainly can't decide to make people that you care about stay in your life. The only decisions that you have control over are how you handle those game-changing occurences. Do you let them break you, grind on you, wear you out until there's nothing left, or do you rise up to meet them and accept that you have no control over them? Once you figure out which things you actually do have control over, you'll be in a much better position to actually change your life for the better because you can decide to change the things that you don't like.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Psychology of Abuse

[Johnathan Clayborn]

As I was cleaning out my emails I came across a conversation that was relevant to the post I made a while back about abuse. Someone once asked me to explain how jealousy, obsession, and control work in the mind of abusers and what makes them so intense in those areas. Since this was relevant to the earlier conversation, and good information to know, I thought that I would edit the conversation and share it.  

First, an understanding of these behaviors helps. All three of those emotions are symbiotic. Abusers are jealous of everyone because they are insecure about themselves and they have a low self-esteem. They might try to deflect this or hide this by exaggerating their exploits or acting with "machismo" in public, but in truth, they are not confident about themselves and/or have many things about themselves that they don't like. They feel inferior internally so they view everyone as a potential threat.  

And that insecurity leads in part to the control. People in that type of situation try to seek out people that they can control easily enough, either through emotion or circumstance, or both. Being able to exert control like that over another person makes them feel powerful and boosts their self-esteem. This is why they like to be in control and often try to act as the leader, or “Alpha Male” (even if the abuser is female, they will try to take on this mantle); to mask their insecurity. 

But that leads to the obsession. Once people have a person that they can successfully control and make compliant to their will, then that makes them feel better about themselves (because they are subjecting another person and thus are proving to themselves that they aren't weak). They like this feeling, so they become obsessed with the person that they control because that person becomes the gateway to this feeling, but in all cases it's almost always temporary.  

There's a psychological principle called the Hedonic Treadmill. Basically, what it means is that everyone will have an "average" level of happiness in their life. They might lose a bit of their possessions or money, and that might make them sad and they might become depressed for a while, but that will balance out as they learn to adapt to their situation. Or they might suddenly get a lot of money and have more money than they know what to do with. This would allow them to be temporarily happy, but eventually they would tire of their "toys" as they search for meaning (Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs – self-actualization) and their happiness would average back out again. 

This relates because there's something about themselves that they don't like. Rather than facing these flaws and accepting them as they are or trying to improve them, they’re trying to simply band-aid them by making themselves feel better in the short term; in this case through abuse and control. They might feel better now, but eventually the Hedonic Treadmill will set in and that happiness will fade. Then they'll require more to make themselves happy. This is why serial killers always escalate their kills over time, and why substance abuse addicts always require more and more drugs to feel the high. 

All behavior is made extinct through positive or negative reinforcement (this is not punishment and reward, per se...a punishment can be a "positive reinforcement"). Basically a negative reinforcement is anything, good or bad, that causes the behavior to decrease. 

Many abusers have very high social-emotional intelligence and will often lash out viciously with hateful words. They use this social intelligence to try to manipulate the people they are abusing. They try to goad them into a specific emotional response that they're looking for. Maybe it's pity, or praise, or compliance, or whatever. The point is those lashings out are a tool in their toolbox designed to achieve something specific.

If the person being abused respond correctly the abuser may continue the behavior because it worked. If they responded incorrectly the abuser might try a different tactic; a different emotional or logical argument, or a physical attack. In all cases they're trying to establish their superiority or make their ego and self-esteem feel better. 

If they feel better about themselves they may tire of controlling and just leave (but this is rare because they usually don't ever actually work on fixing what's wrong with them because they're too busy controlling the person they are abusing). Or, if the person they are abusing just stops providing any emotional responses at all of any kind and completely ignore them, their need to feel the control will be minimized and they will move on to someone else that they can control. But, in the process of doing that the victim is likely to make them mad and they're likely to resort to physical violence to appease their low self-esteem and prove to themselves that it's the victim’s fault that they feel bad about themselves. 

Abusers often turn everything around and make it the victim’s fault. This is another way of protecting themselves from their own perceived flaws. It's not their fault that they feel bad about themselves; it's the victim’s fault. It's always the victim’s fault. This is why they lash out. It protects their fragile psyche from further damage. 

Small children actually try the same approach as abusers when they are trying to get something that they want. They ask mom. Mom says no, they ask dad. Dad says no, they cry, they use the puppy dog face, they say please and butter you up, they try to bribe you....all are behaviors designed to elicit their desired response from you. This is exactly the same thing. With adults they'll lash out and blame you, they'll try to physically control you or hit you, and if that fails, they'll try to appeal to your sense of compassion by making you feel sorry for them. 

Some people who abuse are capable of improvement and growth, but in order for that to happen they need a catalyst, not a reactionary agent. Someone that they can control and exploit will never force their behavior to change. Someone who stands up to him and pushes him and makes him look hard at themselves will facilitate that change, as with everyone. We all grow by being around people that push us to be better every day.  

It's a shame that many abusers do not have the propensity to bring about change in their behavior. That's honestly one of the biggest reasons why so many counselors and therapists burn out in their jobs so quickly; they all go into it with a huge heart and a desire to help everyone and to make everyone better. The reality of it is that there are some people that they will not be able to help. Some people cannot accept that very well and they make themselves crazy trying to do it and burn out, which is a travesty because it robs all of the other people that they could have helped from their skills and experiences. Psychology professionals haven't learned to triage clients in the same way that medical professionals have. 

Trying to point out the abusive behavior to an abuser typically does not go over well. They generally hate it. They would hate it especially so because you're trying to point out the one thing that they're trying to hide from themselves.'s akin to asking a bank robber who's taken hostages to calm down.  

Experience always does seem to be better at teaching than does learning from someone else's perspective. Most people learn about some things within themselves, things they recognize, things they want to work on. Those are signs of a healthy psyche and a strong ego; good self-esteem. They're not threatened by perceived weakness because they know that they have the capacity to improve it. 

Our families make a huge impact on our adult development while we are young children. They set deep rooted beliefs and behaviors, perceptions, etc. that can be hard to overcome. Sadly, many abusers are, or were, victims themselves. It certainly doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it should be a lesson to everyone that your actions have lasting ramifications.