Traumatic memories and our response to overcoming them

“I don’t think you’ve really coped with what happened with your father”. A statement like this dropped into an argument can feel strategic and completely condescending; pop-psychology used as a distraction from the real problem at hand. It might even seem as if this is another person in a line of those who you thought were close but are turning against you. When someone suggests you haven’t “dealt with” a difficult memory or experience in your life, what does that even mean?

I’d like to help demystify this phenomenon from a psychologist’s point of view. In order to explain psychological processes, I like to use specific examples and in this case, I will be discussing grief, so be weary of your reactions to that type of content. So let’s turn the tables on the example above. Imagine that someone else close to you has been more snappy than usual and the mood has persisted for a long time. You notice that this has only been a problem since their father has passed away. You have tried to show compassion but the tension has become unbearable. You may know that this person had a tense relationship with their father that they strongly wished was otherwise, but unfortunately, he died before they were able to resolve those issues.

The lingering anger this person might feel in response to this situation can sometimes lead to a generalised sense of anger with the world. An ability to control their world and a loved one were both unexpectedly and forever taken away. This will leave them with a limited capacity to cope with stress, and they might be overreactive. In conflict, the questions will buzz for you; is this person tired, is work stressful, or you might ask, either gently or not, whether they have really “dealt with” the loss of their father.

The tenets of pop-psychology are easy to lean on when trying to make sense of unusual behaviours. It’s especially useful when someone is feeling like they are bearing the brunt of anger that is out of proportion to the problem at hand. More often than not, jumping from the issue at hand to a subconscious psychological issue can seem condescending and invalidating to the sufferer. It is likely they will hold onto the idea that their frustration was reasonable, even if they know the amplification of their reaction was not.

In this case, it is a reaction to the reliving of a memory. When you learn to manage those emotions you will be able to think more clearly, able to make sense of, or remember, details previously forgotten during other recollections.

Before I go on to an explanation of emotional processing (“dealing with it”), I’d like to recommend backing off from making these revelations for someone else when anger is heightened. It is very rare to be able to process complicated information when a person is lost in their own anger. Also, if your theory is true, the emotions are like artefacts; familiar but not immediately recognisable.

If you are going to insist on attempting amateur diagnosis, at least try when both of you are reasonably calm. Also, consider planting a seed than digging deep. Let the other person consider your theory and see if it rings true for them rather than launching into a formal debate. Keep in mind there is no magic psychological formula that can prove beyond doubt that one event can lead to a reaction in another. It’s also important to consider that as you are defending yourself from an attack, you might be using the pop-psychology as a defence or distraction mechanism that serves in keeping you safe. Your theory might be more useful for you than it is for them.

Processing a traumatic or difficult memory is simple in regards to the mechanics of psychological therapy and how this interacts with your brain. I’ll give you the basic steps. Firstly, your psychologist would provide techniques that are tailored to you that help reduce your distress more effectively than ever before. You then talk about your memory of the event in specific detail. It follows that with your new techniques you can demonstrate to yourself mastery of the emotions that come up. And finally, your brain begins to habituate to those emotions. Habituation is the gradual reduction of a reaction in response to a specific stimulus. In this case, it is a reaction to the reliving of a memory. When you learn to manage those emotions when reliving a memory you will be able to think more clearly. This means you are more able to make sense of that experience, be more willing to forgive or let go of a transgression, or perhaps remember details that you had previously forgotten during other recollections.

 

n order to provide something practical, I’ll describe one of the basic processes that I have clients use when a difficult emotion or memory rises up. The three steps are: validate, dilute, then commit. Validate your emotional reaction; be able to say to yourself in a genuine way, “It is okay that these emotions came up; I have gone through a hard time.” This process validates your experience and thereby reduces the additional, very stressful complication that you might be going “crazy”.

Then move onto dilution. This refers to reduction in the severity of the reaction and its causes. This is achieved either by introducing an alternative thought that is less catastrophic or with some deep breathing techniques – whichever is more appropriate considering the severity of your reaction. The more severe the reaction the less able you will be to engage with a different perspective and as such, using some deep breathing techniques can be useful. Let’s visit our previous example to illustrate the introduction of an alternative thought: While your relationship with your father was tense at the time of his passing, what other evidence suggests that your whole relationship could not be defined by that tough period? When you remember those better times, can you let in the feelings of warmth toward him?

Finally, shift into commitment. This refers to the act of distracting yourself with another task, another conversation or pattern of thought, or even taking responsibility for whoever may have copped your angry outburst about something unrelated. It is wonderful to have an emotionally supportive partner, colleague or friend that understands your outbursts, but it is also useful to be able to manage those emotions on your own.

When I look over this article my own mind fills with the questions you might ask about your own personal experience and how it may not fit with these recommendations. Unfortunately such is the nature of psychological therapy. It is a very individual experience that is best navigated with a professional to best suit you. If you take away anything from this article, I hope it is the idea that avoidance of your own emotional state will only work for a short time. Eventually, when you find yourself self-medicating or distancing yourself from friends, you may have discovered just how your brain will decide for you when you’ve had enough.

How do I achieve work life balance?

After reading far too much sociology theory in my early twenties and having an atrocious first experience with full-time work, I quickly privileged how I wanted my life to look over pretty much every other expectation. It has been a strange experience. I’v never needed Centrelink payments, but work was always peripheral. Part-time hours on a low-skill, hourly rate. I played in bands, hosted karaoke nights, wore tight shirts for promotional gigs and wrote for street press. All of these afforded me a rich social life and access to free alcohol. When you have a busy life burrowing into every corner of your city, scavenging in corners for new things, the pursuit of career seems unimportant. It also meant I did not have a strong enough drive to scrimp and save so I could head overseas for an extended period in my twenties (which still lives as my one regret).

This thirst for the experiential, which I considered the ultimate in self-care, began with my first degree, a double major in Creative Writing and Literature which I chose knowing full well it would not deliver me to a stable income. Unfortunately, when operating outside of the status quo I found that to succeed in that which you love you need to show an internal discipline and a reliance on self-belief that is very difficult to summon without a culture around you that encourages that path. You can only write so many haphazard punk songs that receive a luke-warm reception before you start to question the value of living as a half-assed poly-math. Please don’t immediately jump to my defence with cries of “follow your dreams” or “the journey is more important than the destination”. I certainly do not regret the way I got to where I am today. Nevertheless, I was 31 years old when I realised that there was something out there for me that I could slowly build and be proud of. A pursuit both my loved ones and I could fully comprehend together.

That need should not be underestimated.

I understand that I am part of a society that celebrates the single-minded. With the Olympics recently drawing to a close I was reminded by all forms of media of how testing the edges of such a drive is celebrated. I assume that I cannot escape that influence. However, when I turned 27 that influence began to speak to me. I wished to support myself as a creative but my desires shot off in too many directions for them to be of much use to anyone else aside from myself. I even began to recognise how the multiple directions within a particular pursuit were sabotaging my progress. Not a lot of call for a poet/lyricist/journalist in Australia. Even worse chance if none of those facets had been worked at long enough to be mastered on their own. I was surrounded by social workers and other helping professionals due to my first degree and thought a psychology degree would be the deep end into which I would properly dive.

 

As it turned out that there are a bunch of 18-year-olds smarter than I and more driven. I did well at University on the second try but my concentration was still as tangential as ever. I achieved good marks but not great marks and eventually took what is now considered the back door into the psychology profession. Fortunately for any client of mine reading this or any potential psych student, what one of the greatest skills a psychologist needs, which is both research-proven and felt clinically, is a capacity to build rapport. This capacity is not taught in University and for a number of reasons it is an entirely natural talent for me. This means I am now in private practice, letting my desire for varied pursuits live out in the marketing, article writing, presentations, report writing and face to face counselling activities that keep me more than financially comfortable.

I could make far more money than I do. I choose not to, and while I often broadcast my fear during fluctuations in my business, I stay the course. This is because this job has allowed the self-care that I treasure. That self-care means going to see a great band play mid-week, every week if I can. It means I’ll sleep in some days and work into the evening on others. I’ll surf regularly and post gorgeous photos of Tamarama Beach on Thursday mid-morning. I do it partly because teasing is fun and partly because I want people to come out and play. I recently tempted my 9-5er brother to come and meet me for a couple of hours during the day. He was sold, and now brings his board to work. Now I understand that my position comes from privilege. I may have been poor, but I could get help from my parents, and I had been taught the value of work and was well-educated.

I was able to sacrifice a secure future and use the talents I had in small quantities to trade for amazing experiences.

This letter is not a dismissal of those who are stranded due to social disadvantages that I will probably never feel or really understand. This is a letter from a friend who is in a place who knows that you have to sometimes ask for something different. That request, when living in a system that is hostile to you, is that you still trust that a friend will want to look after your child so they can see you as a single parent have two hours in a coffee shop reading your book. It is trusting that you can give up a weekly alcohol binge so you can go back and study for a new career. The current system, in this country at least, relies partly on our actual necessity, but also on learned or perceived necessities and fears. Sacrificing those things is always hard, but it is always worth it. I want you to risk relying on the community around you rather than feeling isolated and cut off from looking after yourself.

Remember that the need for self-care is like thirst. By the time you feel thirsty, you’re already painfully dehydrated.

Business Leaders and Psychopathy.

First published on THE BIG SMOKE here.

Who’s that guy, behind the closed door labelled “Manager”? Who’s that guy you never see, save for a quick journey to your desk to point out your failings? Do you suspect he has a soft spot for Huey Lewis and the News? Maybe you’ve not heard of American Psycho.

You may also have heard that there is a tendency among leaders in business to have higher ratings on the scale of psychopathy. This does not mean your boss is going to get you drunk and “show off their new raincoat…”

Rather, it means they are less challenged by making decisions that will negatively impact the well-being of a number of people in order to best benefit business. I’ve recently been challenged with the consideration of what it takes to not only make brave decisions, but to make them regularly and against the tide. I started with the consideration of what is often observed by the nine-to-five worker: executive management making decisions that just seem without regard for their fellow man.

In the grand culture of the Australian Tall Poppy Syndrome, it would be easy to demonise them as unfeeling monsters. Leaders of business, strip mining the economy only to throw the remainders of us the remainders, as if to reinforce an idea numerous Liberal Party members have suggested: that if you want a better life, get a better job. This is an impressively distorted reductionism that looks at a business hierarchy flow chart and considers that utopia will somehow follow if everybody were to stop being lazy and work hard. We could all be white collar professionals and poverty would be abolished. Concordantly, if we “choose” to work a low-skilled job, we should be prepared to deal with the gnawed financial bones.

The central problem here is that the only way business can turn a profit for its shareholders is by cutting back on the pay of their staff. It has been proven time and again that trickle-down economics does not exist. More money being made by the upper classes does not equate to the improved standard of living of the working classes.

So, why am I ranting about the failings of capitalism when I began discussing psychopathy?

Admirable leaders make decisions to push ahead the success of a business, based on a system that relies on the idea that this business model is necessary for social successes: how will you afford that private school, that new smartphone?

“This is life though, right? This is what we have to deal with so you might as well accept that and move on.” If that is the defensive rationale that immediately came to mind, then you have further illustrated the problem; consider: how can a tight budget afford for you to eat if you don’t rely on the price of sweatshop-produced clothing or goods? We are surrounded by daily decisions that reinforce themselves but are far removed from some inherent concept of personality type.

I would argue that the increasing pressure to wring the workforce dry for profit will increase the need for psychopaths making more emotionless decisions, but that equation seems almost as clear cut as math.

This does not suggest that all business leaders are psychopaths. They might be courageous, not fearless. Fearlessness is the capacity to take large risks without any capacity to feel the consequences, whereas courageousness is the capacity to understand the impact of a large risk but to be able to assign meaning to the bigger picture (which may be believed as the best decision in the long term regardless of short-term emotional impact).

It is a potential realised so very rarely and actioned so very selectively, but the capitalist system does have an incredible potential to provide a system of philanthropy to adjust the inequalities in society. Social entrepreneurs will most likely be the most important figures of social change in the coming decades. So all that is left to ask is: if you are in a position of power, what are you doing to influence a change to rules, rather than considering what can change within you?

I am not calling for a revolution. I am far too much of a coward. But here is my personal, small step that illustrates what I’m suggesting:

As a psychologist, I offer bulk-billing services to those who are in financial need, and often provide a sliding scale of my private fee to those on low incomes. This may mean that I have less time to see people who would be able to provide me a more lavish lifestyle, but I accept that small sacrifice so that the people who most need support have access to it. It’s a safe step. I am no socialist. However, I do believe it’s time that we all start thinking beyond personal agency and bring into focus the incessant pressure to follow the many arbitrarily assigned rules by which we are surrounded by every day, and use that awareness to have some empathy for those who are less fortunate.

I don’t see much personal agency in people who are stranded within mortgages and the desire for nice shoes. I am lost in that fog. Where do I see power in the psychological investigation of personality? The possibility for continued action outside the currents of the status quo – a power I readily admit that I have lost.

Activism is often left to people who may well have the same drives as those with personality disorders. Consider Fritz Haber, driven to both incredible heights and shocking lows by the same basic self interest. You can fall down the Wikipedia Hole with him if you need more information; in short: he both saved millions and deliberately maimed almost as many.

So. To worry about your boss? To not worry about your boss? Up to you. But consider exactly what kind of person we need to save us. I’m starting to believe it might be important to keep them on a short leash.

As for me…I’m going to my room to unironically listen to Rage Against the Machine and scowl.

Mindfulness and the path less dawdled

First published on THE BIG SMOKE here

As a psychologist, every now and then I get to ask something of a client that I know will cause them white-knuckled frustration. It is one of the perks of the job. Comedic sadism aside, the reason I enjoy this moment is because I am wading into the most challenging part of my job. To have built trust to a point where I can ask someone to confront the most solid of their psychological obstructions. I might smirk to lighten the mood but at this point, I could see it being interpreted as acute schadenfreude.

A great example of this moment is dealing with work related stress and the increasingly red-faced reports of being surrounded by incompetence. You know the colleague I’m talking about: that person who snaps at seemingly benign obstacles or requests. That person for whom you’d like engineer a transfer to the Ulaanbaatar office, tout de suite, to make disappear because there just seems no way of getting through to them.

One particular homework task I ask these clients is to help them confront the uncontrollable. Sometimes, I’ll get them to walk behind the most meandering tourists in the QVB without looking like a creeper. On other occasions, it will be to follow one of the more cautious drivers on their commute home and remain at ten kilometres per hour under the speed limit. At a recent presentation, this example drew out a visceral groan from the audience. It was a corporate crowd, busy people. The point of this exercise is based on the idea that we generalise our sense of urgency to so many parts of our lives that we lose those moments where we can slow down and give our minds a break. I could go on about the research that supports the benefits of mindfulness, but I’m sure you’ve all been swamped by that colouring-in book trend that helps yoga practitioners maintain zen smugness.

Mindfulness is the practice of bringing your attention to your immediate environment and becoming very simply observant; colours of the trees, breeze on your face, that kind of thing.

If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then surely this applies to the act of thinking itself.

The other thing that my homework task brings to the table is reframing. If you choose to go slow, all of a sudden you’ll find your brain looking for reasons to justify this new behaviour. You’ll check in with the irrationality of your anger, you’ll fall into the perspective of the poor tourist that is lost in a new city and is walking in zig zags. Your mind will try and help you become more emotionally comfortable with this new behaviour purely because you’ve given yourself no choice. Once these new justifications have calmed the nerves and shifted your perspective, then new ways of thinking can generalise to other obstacles that are outside of your control.

The gorgeously written Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit provides a number of quotes to promote the idea of mindfulness and slowing down, particularly in regards to the “stroll without destination”. The most appropriate quote for this piece being “[walking] strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labour that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.” The book describes the history of great thinkers and doers who have relied on walking to access their capacity for greatness. On a smaller scale, if you find you cannot come to an answer that you’ve been struggling for at work, get up and go for a walk around the block. Let your mind relax its grip and it might give you a chance to turn the problem over and look at it from a different perspective. This kind of mindfulness practice has been proven to achieve a greater creativity in problem solving.

If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then surely this applies to the act of thinking itself. Give your feet some of your attention, let the movement of your body break up the weight of your thought. There are many cognitive processes that occur outside of your conscious attention. You have filed at the back of your mind thousands upon thousands of rules that are reliable shortcuts to navigating your world. If you like, call it intuition.

Distract the most complex, conscious attempts to decode your problems and you might unlock some of the simpler, but more powerful answers that you have forgotten.

Illogical, or irrational thoughts are often functional.

This article was first published on the online publication THE BIG SMOKE here.

When you’re sitting in a meeting, or across from a friend, do you ever get the impulse to remove your clothes and thrash out the New Zealand national anthem?

You know, just to shake things up?

Today, I’d like to open up a discourse about the sanity within madness that was partly inspired by an Alain De Botton YouTube clip. It discusses the idea that having a “good mental breakdown” can be a useful response to an overburdened life. The clip, however, is Philosophy Lite and deliberately ignores the very real and permanently scarring experience of an episode of mental illness (though that is not part of the story presented). It does, however, open up a discussion on a phenomenon I still find fascinating even after years of face to face counselling – that thought is often emotionally functional and not strictly logical or usefully applied.

In the clip, De Botton narrates how the necessity of urge control and adherence to responsibility will wear us down. The thought process of losing it completely in the face of an extended set of pressure is entirely legitimate. He does make clear what it looks like to “lose it” in a good way: taking a sabbatical to a distant country that might interrupt the progress of a career, exploring your sexuality, going out dancing every night, or even just giving up the law degree and spending the next year working on a fishing boat.

It’s a radical change in behaviour that looks like self-sabotage.

I’d like to acknowledge that this isn’t just a symptom of affluenza. The poor are just as able to indulge a shedding of responsibility. Unfortunately, they will be far more stigmatised and even punished. Socio-economic factors aside, these episodes sprout from the concept of emotionally functional thought. Your brain is looking for respite and the very act of thinking of something bizarre can provide such relief that our conscious mind decides that acting that thought out is a good idea.

In explanation of emotional functionality, consider the concept of stripping down and vaulting into song. If you’re feeling bored with the conversation, it provides a bit of fun. Endorphins enter your blood stream and you have avoided the aversive state of boredom. To take this to the other end of the spectrum, if nothing seems to be working in your life and you feel trapped in all of your decisions, the fleeting thought of suicide can provide the relief from burden that you may not have experienced in a long time (if these kinds of thoughts have been persistent, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14).

The key lesson from both of these examples is that your way of thinking is able to achieve a sense of relief without actually having to act out those thoughts.

The next step is how we achieve that sense of relief without reinforcing the most destructive ideation like suicide. The most important idea is in thought delay.

Thought delay is that moment where you pause and recognise your desire for relief, rather than get caught up in the shortcut your brain took to arrive there.

Becoming more compassionate with your mind for immediately producing strange answers to your emotional problems can lead to a certain state of acceptance. Imagine that you tell your friend that you just had an odd thought: you want to go to the park and start screaming at dog owners that adopting you over their current animal would be a far smarter choice. Your friend chuckles and leads you down to the beach for a swim to ease your troubles. Once again, on the other side of the spectrum, what if you admit the persistent thoughts of self-harm to a friend and they quite literally take you to the doctor to get a medical certificate for the time off work that you have refused to grant yourself.

Releasing yourself from the bounds of societal norms for an extended period can be a wonderful way of rediscovering the part of yourself that you have lost, before your return to normality. Small indulgences before you even get to that state in the first place can be far more rewarding. This may mean that you never lose touch with that vital sense of self in the first place.

 

Sensationalism in the media.

This article was first published on the online publication THE BIG SMOKE here

The question put to me which initially inspired this article was “Why is sensationalism still so effective in our supposed Enlightened Age?”

With full knowledge of the irony, I became irrationally aggravated at the idea that anyone would be confused as to why sensationalism is effective. To really double down on that irony, I became wildly frustrated with the arrogance I perceived in the concept that our comparatively more educated populace would garner the title of Enlightened.

So the sensationalist headline for this article could be: “Angry psychologist condescends to audience.”

Sensationalism in journalism is best defined for my purposes as the amplification of the aspects of a news story that might elicit an emotional response. This is used to both sell the advertising that will be attached to the story and to draw more popular attention to a cause that is considered worthy by its author. Considering the tsunami of information that floods us every day, journalists (or editors) will use sensationalism in an attempt to have their story stand out from the rest.

This leaves us with the second part of the initial question…why does this sensationalism still work?

Understandably, in this information age, we cannot consume in-depth knowledge about every newsworthy item that passes before us. We will not always have the energy or inclination to pick through the nuance of every world event with which we’re presented. From an evolutionary perspective, our brain still considers any energy we expend as precious (regardless of how much is in the fridge), so if we can find a shortcut by which to navigate the world, we will use it. Thereby, if you make a news headline that is a red rag to the inner bull, it means you have engaged with a shortcut that says to the reader’s brain, “Pay attention.”

It is these shortcuts (very necessary psychological phenomenon) that should remind us that enlightenment is a never-ending pursuit. To some, considering ourselves enlightened is to imagine that we will always be aware of the context of every decision we make. What ruins that utopian goal, is that the most important consideration for any animal is that it is safe. One way to be safe is to know your environment well, to be aware of its dangers. For someone to suggest that we are not aware of our environment is to directly challenge our sense of safety. To base our opinion on our own experiences and emotional reactions will help fill the holes that we will regularly find in our knowledge of the world.

This maintains an illusion of safety.

A good example of our desire for safety is manifest in the idea that there is much emotion involved when considering what is more superior: book-smarts or street-smarts. It is a defence against the scary concept that perhaps what you know is not enough. The more emotional you become when presented with a news story, the more strongly you will feel that your answers are the right ones. This confidence makes us feel safe about the world and will inform our decisions about it, especially our voting decisions. Confidence quickly and haphazardly born from an emotional response can often be a sign that you are desperate to defend assumptions as old as you are.

The older the assumption, the more closely it is tied to many of the ways you have grown up to understand the world around you. Pull at that one thread and it usually unties a number of rules you use every day. It is a scary feeling to consider that a number of assumptions you have based your safety on have been inaccurate or even wrong. It unties your sense of reality. Imagine the horror that you might experience when you wake up one day and your casual racism has been freshly coded as the sign of an obsolete thinker. “Oh, when will this political correctness end!?”, you will scream.

As an adjunct to that horror, there was a recent, somewhat strangely self-reflexive, article on the ABC website that complained of the soft liberal rhetoric of comedians we are all exposed to currently. It referenced everyone from Adam Hills to Tim Minchin, to Charlie Pickering, and proposed that their like were assisting everyone with a sense of left-leaning social justice, or faith in the scientific, to snigger at and shame those who didn’t know better…that this was the new sensationalism, appealing to our sense of self-righteousness, without nuanced discussion. The article itself came across as a fear-of-left-leaning social justice article – especially considering the author opened with the consideration that good comedy helps us challenge our views, but then did little to provide a description of why these specific comedians fell short, aside from being too preachy.

The greater thrust of the article is an interesting one though, because ultimately it points to how the status quo can change via the emotional channels of shaming through humour. That often, regardless of our intentions we are not able to sit our enemies down and help change their minds with a thorough PowerPoint presentation. In my opinion, excellent comedy will introduce nuance to a discussion by exposing us all as frauds – making us all feel unsafe. The outrageous laughter they elicit is to soften the blow that we are all implicit in one crime or another.

Perhaps then the best question anyone can ask themselves is, does this new information leave me truly unsafe?

Rage Rooms and the farce of violent catharsis.

First appeared in the online publication THE BIG SMOKE here

Imagine the living room of a very old couple who have only recently vacated the premises. Delicate china perched on specially constructed shelves, an old cathode ray television, perhaps even a supremely outdated computer primarily used for playing solitaire or misunderstanding the internet. Now, if they gave you a sledgehammer and asked you to destroy the room, how happy would you be to act that out? What if we just remove the set-up shall we? This thinly veiled, farce of permission? What would you say if we remove the idea of the encouraging, if somewhat masochistic old people and you just had to pay a couple of hundred to live out this fantasy of destroying things? Would you go the full Durst?

This primal fantasy has currently taken off as a fee-for-service in Russia.

It began as a Performance Arts piece that involved people taking to a room full of knick-knacks and outdated electrical equipment. Considering their audience, and his own gnawing hunger, the artist saw an opportunity. These “Rage Rooms” are advertised as a stress reliever and have become immensely popular. It plays into the idea of violent catharsis; that by channelling your pent up rage into a relatively benign but violent act you purge yourself of the dreaded bile building up in your veins. That’s right, “purge yourself of bile”. I’m using the language of medieval times to really emphasise the relevance of this pseudo-psychological concept.

When you break things in a naughty way (read: sledgehammer) you stimulate adrenalin and a range of neurotransmitters that make you feel excited, and afterward, if you get away with it, a feeling of tiredness mingles with the release of endorphins in the brain that reduce pain and are attributed to the experience of well-being. This leaves you with a sense of peacefulness, not unlike after hard exercise. A feeling that is easily mistaken as catharsis. Violent acts may also provide a sense of control over your environment where you otherwise might have very little. This goes to partially explain everything from listless and destructive teenage rebellion to the violent rebellion attributed to a disadvantaged minority group. The sense of power that comes with this violence might be satisfying in a way that would be hard to explain. People with depression and anxiety often describe a complete loss of personal agency, a limited capacity to stop bad things happening to them. Reducing those feelings through violent acts might not make logical sense but it makes a hell of a lot of emotional sense.

The common myth that violence can help permanently expel feelings of anger was generated by a misread Aristotle (who was very specific on the observation of types of violent theatre that could be considered constructively cathartic) and a disproven Freud (who described human anger as an inherent drive). This takes us on to modern psychological research, which time again has proven that the indulgence in aggressive tendencies only reinforces the use of this behaviour and ensures that it is repeated and even used as a default in order to address the experience of stress. This does not mean that you will start beating down on your manager when he uses “that tone of voice”.

Unfortunately, it does mean that you are more likely to have violent thoughts, and thereby reduce the chances of utilising realistic options for solving the problems around you. On a side note, feeling homicidal is not very good for you. Aggression leads to the production of similar chemicals in your body as anxiety, and we all know the broad sweeping destructive physical impacts of stress and anxiety.

It is really important to be wary of purely psychological answers to life’s problems. Psychological interventions can be like placing a Band-Aid on a broken limb. It might stop the bleeding but the structure is still broken. The popularity of destroying rooms full of useless garbage seems far more indicative of a desire to relieve increasing social pressures, or even a reflection of the glorification of violence through popular culture. In a related way the sudden surge of mindfulness interventions like adult colouring books and meditation, while incredibly useful delivered in the appropriate context, can serve as a distraction from the root cause of the distress. A psychological intervention will often start with increasing your capacity to engage with and change your environment rather than trying to place the blame on your mental fortitude.

Not everyone has the resources or capacity to change their life and reduce their stress, and as this group grow, instead of smashing small porcelain ducks they might smash the state. If you’re reading this article, however, you probably have far more capacity to smash your preconceptions as to what someone else told you to do with your life.

Proofing your mental wall against self-sabotage

FIRST PUBLISHED IN "THE BIG SMOKE" February 3, 2016. Find it HERE.

“We are all descended from cowards.” A quote, paraphrased via a lecturer in first-year psychology. It is a perfect place to start an explanation of what is meant by self-sabotage.

You might immediately discard the idea of self-sabotage as pop psychology. You’ll be happy to know, however, that the basis of this concept veers away from the self-help section of the bookstore. Self-sabotage is not entirely explained by your sense of self-esteem.

The truth of the matter is that we’re all trying to avoid feeling anxious, in which we battle our acute human ability to drag every possible fear of the future to the present. It is an adaptive trait. We will be confronted with less danger and expend less energy escaping if we just get to the bad things that can happen. Unfortunately, we are still using almost the same outdated tech in our heads as we were when we were running from bears.

This means we still utilise anxiety to assist in navigating important decisions in our lives. With limited direct experiences to give us perspective on the actual physical danger in those decisions, our anxiety can really get away from us.

For example, when confronted with the job interview you covet, it slowly begins to feel like your new boss is probably the raincoated Christian Bale from American Psycho. So, what better way to keep calm than to have a half a bottle of vodka and put off the research until the next day when you have a pounding headache and you’re trying to read the wrong companies’ website on a bus that’s bouncing and braking in a rhythm that is perfect for inducing vomit. (That is if the person inhaling your booze sweats next to you doesn’t beat you to it.) This is what is meant by self-sabotage. Basically, “I don’t want to feel this anxious, how do I immediately remove it?”

The short answer or solution is that you don’t remove it. We’ll get to that later.

The more psychology takes up empirical methodology, the further away we get from pure Freudian explanations. At least, away from the Freud that you all might imagine – taking lots of cocaine and somehow leading you back to an explanation of your chosen career path as having something to do with the unfulfilled sex you wanted to have with your parents. Empiricism means that we can have a more simple explanation, based in evolutionary concepts, that still involves some of the developmental processes that Freud first threw his twisted imagination toward.

When I am speaking with clients who are stuck in the process of self-sabotage, I usually ask them about their upbringing, so we can identify what skill sets they may not have been taught. If how to self-sooth during an anxious moment was never taught, it is possible that could lead to a susceptibility for self-sabotage. For my approach with clients, practicing these skills replaces the long term goal of “healing the inner child” and instead focuses on strengthening the adult in front of me.

This helps give a broader perspective than that of motivational speakers that suggest that you’re not a millionaire because you don’t really believe in yourself. The function of this approach might actually work for some, but this immediately places a potentially dysfunctionally high load of anxiety on your sense of self. That is, “if I ever procrastinate, or if I am ever fearful and shy away from something, it is because I don’t believe in myself enough.” If self-sabotage is an attempt to avoid anxiety, then it follows that we are attempting to avoid the anxiety of confronting something important to us, the future effort that may come from investing in something difficult and avoiding the potential pain of failure.

There are many reasons why we fear, not all of them are about your character. Positive reinforcement has been experimentally proven as the most effective method of overcoming performance anxiety. This is true regardless of how many times you’ve seen the sport-movie-trope of the hard arsed coach.

Talk yourself through how you’re going to kill the interview the next day. Remind yourself of your successes in any area of your life so far. Don’t just remind yourself of these things, feel them. Swim around in the pride that you have in how far you have come so far. Now carry that anxiety with you as you start to research that new company and prepare for the job interview.

Leave the vodka though, I’ll look after that.