Archive for March, 2010

Living Down to Expectations? A Life-Lesson from Tutoring

Monday, March 29th, 2010

A lot of my work is with kids identified as learning disabled. Often, these students have been tested, found to have particular difficulties in certain subject areas, and then “accommodated.”

This might mean that they receive extra test-taking time, or they are allowed to type instead of write, or they might be given a reader to read them test questions. I don’t necessarily have any problems with these sorts of testing adjustments, which are intended to level the playing field on an exam.

But often, accommodations are made to a student’s day-to-day school workload. Commonly, the student is excused from certain requirements expected of the rest of the class. It doesn’t appear that the student can handle the level of work, and so expectations are reduced. One of the rationales for this is that giving a kid more than he can succeed at will damage his self-esteem.

A Lesson from the Movie 'Precious': WRITE!

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Have you seen the movie Precious?

Like Lolita, Precious is a horrific tale of sexual, physical and emotional child abuse and enslavement.

But  along the way, Precious, unlike Lolita, does encounter a few adults who reach out to help her.

Two Big Problems With The Blame Game

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

I’ve been talking a lot recently about “not-blaming.” This is an important theme for me.

I see two big problems with The Blame Game:

  • Blaming others makes them defensive and less likely to hear the message or take action.
  • Blaming others dumps all the responsibility on them and deflects it from ourselves; it allows us to feel OK about copping out.

I truly believe that very few people set out to deliberately, purposely do harm. And yet, of course, harm happens all the time. But why does this mean somebody must be blamed?

In a Good Relationship, Partners Enhance Feelings of Control

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Control is one of the most important of all psychological issues. Starting at birth and continuing throughout our lives, we grapple with the question: What do we have control over, and what don’t we?

The dilemmas of consciousness and of Self have control at their center. What is my “Self”? It is this thing that I am in command of, the ship that I steer, the life that I direct.

Feelings of control are critical to psychological health. Locus of control and learned helplessness are central developmental and therapeutic topics. A recent Scientific American article points out that “Feelings of control are essential for our well-being.” Even something as small as giving nursing-home patients control over watering the plants in their rooms (vs. not giving them the means to care for their plants), resulted in patients’ increased physical health and emotional contentment.

In Troubled Relationships, Fantasy Makes Us Feel Less Helpless

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

I found a fascinating article in Scientific American; a study was done showing that when people feel helpless they become more superstitious:

Feelings of control are essential for our well-being — we think clearer and make better decisions when we feel we are in control. Lacking control is highly aversive, so we instinctively seek out patterns to regain control — even if those patterns are illusory.

Apparently, any event which makes us feel helpless, from getting lost to getting fired, will increase our urge to seek patterns and explanations, to regain control by “making sense” of our situation.

And we easily stretch to the point where we’re imagining or inventing “solutions” or “explanations” or “meanings” that aren’t really there.

I immediately thought of relationship dynamics. There’s nothing like a confused, angst-filled, chaotic love relationship to make us feel helpless, our hearts and lives spinning out of control.

It occurred to me that this strong urge to regain control by inventing meaning must surely play out in the ways we process painful relationships:

  • We may turn our pain and loneliness into art (poems, songs, etc.).
  • We may create fantasies about the relationship or imagine we are living out a fairy tale.
  • We may mystify the relationship, imagine there is deep or profound meaning to the pain which makes the suffering worthwhile.
  • We may theorize about the other person in ways that make us appear in-control by comparison. (It’s he who is damaged, lost, confused, etc. — not me!)
  • We may over-simplify our mental image of the other person in an effort to “get a handle on them,” and thereby lose sight of their dimensions and complexities.
  • We may keep tabs (spying, Googling, gossiping, etc.); staying informed makes us feel more in control of what’s going on (even if the relationship is over and “what’s going on” doesn’t matter anymore).
  • We may philosophize our helplessness (“it wasn’t meant to be,” “timing is everything,” etc.).
  • We may do destructive things to them  (stalking, sabotaging, destroying property, or worse!)
  • We may harm ourselves (substance abuse, self-harm, self-neglect, etc.) as a way to attract attention, or as a way to …

Lovers Who Leave Our Psyches Starving

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Yesterday I wrote about one psychological benefit of healthy relationships: empathic mirroring.

I am grateful for Vickie’s reply:

Knowing in general what the theory of “mirroring” means, it never occurred to me before to place it in the category of one of the benefits of a good marriage. It always seems that we are constantly on the lookout for the fore-warnings of where our marriage might take a turn for the worse that we miss these subtle yet vital pieces of a good marriage that make all the difference and which we live for on a daily basis, making it all worthwhile.

Good love relationships are important contributors to psychological health. And painful relationships are, literally, hurtful; they can undermine psychic health and cause real damage.

Self psychology (one of the most widely applied of modern theories) describes three poles of experience necessary to the formation and maintenance of a healthy Self. We all need regular feedback in each of these categories in order for our identities to stay in healthy repair:

  • Mirroring. We need to be recognized, understood, accepted, valued for who we are, feel similarity and common ground with someone.
  • Grandiosity. We need to feel effective, powerful, in control, respected, admired.
  • Ideal Imago. We need guidance and protection, and we need someone to look up to and to inspire us.

In healthy love relationships, both partners answer many of these needs for each other on a regular, reliable basis.

In addition, people in good relationships reach out to other enriching sources (friends, family, work, etc.) to get their Self needs met.

(And single people, of course, can and do construct vital social networks that meet the same needs.)

A good love relationship is like good nutrition for the psyche, a regular diet of the kinds of feedback and support the Self needs to stay healthy and function well.

And a painful relationship can leave the psyche starving.

Like a diet of nothing but cookies and candy, a troubled relationship may be oh so irresistible and addictive. And, yet, over time it depletes us, weakens us to the point where our very sense of Self, …

In A Good Relationship, Partners Provide Mirroring

Monday, March 8th, 2010

I’m taking a break from talking about mental illness, but I’ll be back to it soon!

I’ve been in a good, committed love relationship for a while now, and though I’ve also been happy during my single periods, being half of a couple makes me feel especially good in so many ways.

This weekend, I recalled the following reply from a happily married man when he was asked what was great about being married (though I can’t recall what book it came from):

The best thing about having a partner is that I don’t have to reinvent myself every morning.

A Better Name for Personality Disorder?

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

Delving deeply into the confusion surrounding “personality disorders,” I wonder: Aren’t they really self-perception disorders? Or could we say identity disorders?

Personality is the set of behaviors we show to others. Those behaviors come from the interaction between our self-perception (our experience of who we are), the coping strategies we’ve developed, and the situation we’re in.

For example, if I perceive myself as competent and likable, and I’ve learned that approaching others with a confident smile and an open manner has worked well in the past, then I’m likely to stride into the next job interview or date exhibiting a warm, friendly, direct personality.

Deep, Sensitive…Or Mentally Ill?

Friday, March 5th, 2010

I’ve become very interested in the difference between ego-syntonic and ego-dystonic disorders.

A person with an ego-syntonic disorder does not believe he is ill; he experiences his disorder as an inherent part of his identity.

In contrast, an individual with an ego-dystonic disorder feels afflicted, feels that something is wrong. These individuals are far more likely to seek and accept help and to do well in treatment.

Some disorders seem to fall clearly into one category or another. Many of the personality disorders are ego-syntonic, making them especially difficult to deal with. But some PDs are less so than others.

And depression seems to go either way.

Clarifying "Personality Disorder"

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

I’ve been writing a lot lately about personality disorders.

Linda F had an excellent comment, part of which I’ve reprinted below (the rest will be shared in a later post). She correctly notes that not all the personality disorders as listed in the DSM-IV share the characteristics I’ve been describing.

I appreciate that you have written on the “pain” one suffers, as well as friends and family, when they have a Personality Disorder (PD), however, the way you have written your article lumps “all” Personality Disorders into one all-identifying group; Personality Disorders cannot be so clearly delineated.

While I agree that “some” PD’s do comprise your definition, “People with PD have twisted, maladapted experiences of who they are,” I ardently disagree that ALL PD’s exhibit such traits.

Then, Laura L. Smith,  fellow PsychCentral blogger, wrote about the changes proposed for the DSM-V, coming out in 2013, including dramatic changes in the categories and diagnostic descriptions for personality disorders. Dependent, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders, among others, will be reconceptualized.

And to throw a bit of history into the mix, personality disorders used to be called “character disorders.” Ouch! I sure am glad they abandoned that name. But, clearly, the whole concept of personality disorder has always been problematic and continues to be poorly understood.

Linda F’s comment made me realize that, in an attempt to get a handle on the slippery concept of “personality disorder,” I’ve been spotlighting the ego-syntonic personality disorders. They’re the ones that have grabbed my attention throughout my personal and professional experience.

These are the PDs  where people are unaware and/or in heavy denial of having them. Individuals with ego-syntonic personality disorders have distorted experiences of themselves and the world around them, but they don’t seem able to realize this. They experience their disorder as consistent with their identities, as part of who they are.

There are other disorders, such as anorexia, which are also ego-syntonic. The emaciated anorexic looks in the mirror and sees a fat person.

Asperger’s, as well as certain people’s depression, may also be experienced as ego-syntonic, as inherent parts of the individual’s Self. They …



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