Archives for May, 2011
Many years ago, my husband got a whopping case of poison ivy. It covered his entire body. Yes, all of it. And it lasted for months. In the summer. In sweaty Texas. It was horrible. He lost 15 pounds he couldn’t spare, lost sleep, and no lotions or shots helped. Finally (and scientists will roll their eyes but what can I say?) homeopathic pills* knocked it out. Ever since then, when life is difficult or just seems generally crappy, Tom says to himself, “At least I don’t have poison ivy.” Maybe that's setting the bar low, but the thought nonetheless helps him through tough times.
Comments on my last post about therapy revealed some really lousy therapy experiences. Shocking even. And sad. For all my blind faith in therapy, I’m not blind to the fact that there are crappy therapists out there—some merely ineffectual, some downright dangerous. Thinking about this brought me back to the the 1990s, when bad therapy was a big topic of discussion surrounding recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Recovered memories are previously repressed memories of trauma that come to light, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes under the guidance of a therapist. This was an enormous controversy for several years. First it was a witch hunt for people accused of sexual abuse due to recovered memories, then a witch hunt for therapists accused of planting memories in their clients’ minds.
In the course of looking for research to back up my blind faith in psychotherapy, I came across all sorts of interesting this and that, not all of which put the field of psychotherapy in the best light. For example, an article titled Negative Effects from Psychological Treatment: A Perspective addresses the fact that while positive effects of therapy have been thoroughly studied: The study of negative effects—whether due to techniques, client variables, therapist variables, or some combination of these—has not been accorded the same degree of attention. Indeed, methodologies suitable for ascertaining positive effects often obscure negative effects in the absence of specific strategies for explicating these outcomes. Hm. So, except for really glaring horrors, like children being smothered in “rebirthing” techniques and problematic techniques related to uncovering past sexual abuse, the field hasn’t really been paying attention to ways therapy can be harmful.
I put myself into psychotherapy for the first time when I was a teenager, and have returned at various times over the years when I’ve been overwhelmed by whatever. But when a friend compared my attitude about therapy to a fundamentalist’s attitude towards religion—implying that it is unyielding and intolerant of questioning—my feelings were hurt. Eventually, though, I had to concede that she had a point. My belief in therapy, as long as the therapist is worth a damn, has always been absolute. Even when therapy and its attendant revelations have made my life hell in the short term—and they have--they did good in the long term. I credit talented therapists with saving my life. I’ve never for a moment questioned therapy's efficacy, even after I’ve quit therapists who felt like a bad fit. And I've seen therapy (does it sound less threatening if I call it counseling?) help other people, too.
Sociologist Robert Crosnoe has written a book called Fitting In, Standing Out: Navigating the Social Challenges of High School to Get an Education. The book looks at kids who don’t fit in in high school and the effect that has on their later success. His research found that kids who feel they don't fit in are less likely to go to college. I heard Crosnoe on a local radio show recently (look for the podcast here). The whole interview is interesting, but what struck me in particular was that Crosnoe, who got his information through interviews and written surveys, said, “A small but significant minority of kids who really feel like they don’t fit in have lots of friends and are actually engaged in lots of social activities.” He goes on to say that their perception is more salient than reality in this matter, and that kids who feel like outsiders or harassed, even if they're not, have the same outcomes. Wow...don’t you wish you could give kids magical glasses that could show them reality?
I’m not starved for praise. I do a few things pretty well, and enough people have told me so to keep my ego reasonably healthy. Why is it, then, that ten instances of praise can be completely canceled out (in my head) by one good criticism? And by good, I mean on the mark and not stupid. Because, of course, the criticism that hurts the most is the criticism that we know, deep down, is accurate. Praise is nice but mostly rolls off my back while one solid criticism—even sensitively expressed--can put me in the fetal position.
When a friend let the air out of the tires of a boyfriend's car in revenge for his latest transgression, I was both impressed and shocked. I’d never done anything like that before--or since, for that matter. Revenge is not something that occurs to me. It seems kind of pointless, but maybe it helps healing. I'm not sure. Recent events have me thinking. I am glad and relieved Osama bin Laden no longer walks the earth. He didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as the rest of us. I don’t believe in Hell, but if there were one, I’m sure he’d be frying like bacon. But is this revenge? And does it makes us feel better? In a quick scan of literature on revenge, I found a paper from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that asks “What makes revenge sweet: Seeing the offender suffer or delivering a message?” And the answer these researchers came up with is that revenge does its job for us when the offender knows exactly what he or she is being punished for. For full vengeful satisfaction, it’s not enough to see a random bad thing happen to the person, and it’s not enough to exact revenge if the offender doesn’t know that it’s revenge or why it’s happened. We want to know that we got our point across.
Dilbert lives. The socially awkward engineer is turning up in research labs—and not only as the guy in the lab coat. Research out of Cornell University and published in the journal of the International Society for Autism Research found that in male university students, systemizing (the skills of math and science) and empathizing (including such social skills as reading nonverbal signals) are on one scale: if they’re good at systemizing they’re not so good at empathizing. (Standard disclaimer: This does not apply to all engineer/science-type men.) Women, on the other hand, could be good at both systematizing and empathizing; the two are on separate scales. Actually, the researchers also checked digit (finger) ratios, a way of measuring the amount of androgens, such as testosterone, people were exposed to in utero. They found that women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) were likely to have a masculine digit ratio. So Dilberta lives, too. (Dilbertina?)