Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New Year Resolutions and all that jazz

Well, here we are again, that time of the year when the jolly fat fella in the red suit squeezes his way down the chimney to our eagerly awaiting stockings. Don’t forget to leave out the glass of milk and carrot for the reindeer!

Its also the time of year when we make all sorts of New Year resolutions to not to this, do that, give up this and to do more of something else. Good intentions. The bad news is that most New Year resolutions turn to custard in about a month, if not less. We are left with regret, thoughts of what might have been and another failed attempt at learning to play the bagpipes at the Edinburgh Tattoo. Or, as my now seemingly adult children say-whatever!

There are some good reasons for this. The first is that change is enormously difficult for people. We are creatures of habit and our brains need to be trained to alter the neuronal pathways that makes a habit so, well……….habitual. When we encounter change, the neuroscientists tell us, we experience a similar physical experience to pain. And most of us, apart from certain strange types, want to avoid personal pain. It takes about 3 months to re-habituate: that is, get rid of one habit and change it for another. It is no easy fix. Trust me, I’ve been helping people change for thirty-five-years now and its hard work. No, not the same people!

I’ve been having a great conversation with a young man, Nathan in Sydney, who is helping people change their lives by losing weight. He’s a personal trainer and doing great work helping people exercise, change their diet and generally fight the flab. We have been sharing the observation and the frustration that the losing weight (or changing whatever habit) is not the real issue. The fat, smoking, excessive drinking, working too hard, is only the symptom, the outcome.

What’s important is to work out why it is the habit occurs in the first place. One key is identifying the drivers that make me eat or smoke, for example. If we understand why we have an addiction, then we target that and then the change of behaviour afterwards. It is important to remember that when you are fighting an addiction, whatever it is, you are fighting some really powerful chemical systems in your brain.

Dopamine (among some other similar chemicals) release in our brain causes us to feel reward, pleasure. In addictions it is released when we undertake our addicted behaviour and makes us feel good: out of our awareness. We then seek this reward quite unconsciously. So, working out why we need this reward is important as part of the behaviour change.

If, for example, I eat to make myself less attractive to the opposite sex, or to give me an excuse to avoid something else, or I smoke to soothe anxiety, then I need to address these issues first. Why do I eat this crappy takeaway food or light up this cigarette?

And, by the way, we are not limiting all this to addictions-it has meaning for all sorts of change. Leaders might want to think about this when trying to get their team members to change their behaviour in their workplace.

It might surprise you but combating the root cause, even if we don’t fully understand it, is not so difficult as it sounds and doesn’t need you to spend endless hours on the couch. I know that sounds odd but there it is. We can combat and change our thinking. There are some quite simple techniques that can be used to help you combat negative ideas, self-esteem issues, self-image problems, and compulsions, for example. No need for psychoanalysis but some thought about what it is that drives me to my habit is useful and fixable.

So, good luck with your New Year resolutions but spontaneous decisions to change may well be ineffective. Some preparation is more useful with high motivation to succeed. Talk to your friendly psychologist for help J.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The terrorist mind

Jung proposed that we all have a ‘shadow’, the dark side of ourselves. It is the hidden self that drives much of human behaviour, out of our conscious attention. He suggested that the more unacceptable our thoughts and feelings to our conscious, the deeper they are hidden. More positive parts of the shadow are more easily accessed. The evil tendencies that we all have are hidden deepest of all. Modern observations of the human brain now point to primitive centres that can drive behaviour if unchecked by parts of our cerebral cortex: the civilised self that is learned. Other psychological research has long exposed the uncomfortable truth that we are all capable of the greatest evil and, indeed, the greatest good. Yes, given the right circumstances, even you.

For relatively unreconstructed Darwinists like me, there is a functionality to the dark side that worked for us when we were still living in the swamp: unconscionable brutality was essential for survival purposes. But, this was not so long ago and the social controls of civilisation are a thin veneer.

Which brings us nicely to the mind of the terrorist. There’s been a lot of commentary about terrorists since the attacks in Paris. Some of it has been informed, such as Walled Ali’s brilliant treatment of the issue. Much has been unfortunate in misunderstanding the motives behind terrorist behaviour and, necessarily, who becomes a terrorist. Research on the terrorist mind has had some difficulty in coming up with a common profile. So, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a diagnosis of terrorism in the manual of psychiatric disorders any time soon. However, one of the common themes has been linking the attacks with religion.

Religion has got nothing to do with the motivation to become a terrorist. It is a rationalisation, yes, but not the motivation. The moral outrage that these terrorists might claim is more a projection of their own insecurity, their own uncertainty about the meaning of life. Rather, the underlying factor underpinning terrorism such as this largely about power: religion is the shroud in which it is wrapped. It was the same in the Crusades in the twelfth-century, the Spanish Inquisition and in any of dozens of religious wars conducted before and since.

The more extreme terrorist act that lacks complete concern for human life, the brutal act will be relatively easy for angry thugs and psychopaths. For them, it is all about power and control, even over naïve recruits ands others that join the ‘cause’ as well as their victims. The radicalised are usually the disaffected and marginalised, and deeply angry about their situation, or helpless in their despair. Becoming part of a terrorist group, a cause, gives them a personal power that gives meaning and, of course, the critical human needs of affiliation and recognition.

No doubt there are those who, in Byronesque fashion, see themselves as fighting for a cause, a rebellion or a revolution: freedom fighters. Boredom, naïve idealism, lack of purpose, and the need for adventure drives these to recruit themselves. It is reported that there is a large proportion of people who become ex-terrorists and disassociate themselves. I suspect that these would be people who do not have the psychopathic capacity to carry out atrocities. In any case, these people too are seeking power and the need to influence events.

For only a small minority will joining a terrorist group be about religion. And if it is then given the teachings of most religious texts, apart from some of the Old Testament, it is misguided. Religion is just an excuse for being a terrorist, not the cause. Brutality comes from a deeper part of ourselves.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Power of Reflection for Happiness and Success

The Evil Queen in Snow White asks her mirror, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?’ The mirror replies that the Queen is indeed the fairest of all. The Queen’s mirror always tells the truth. In the original version it is a hand mirror, which has the advantage of portability: the truth is available at every moment.

So, the Evil Queen is the fairest in the land until Snow White grows up and the mirror has to tell her that the blossoming young girl is a ‘thousand times more beautiful than you’. This uncomfortable truth eventually leads to the death of the Evil Queen who tries to become number one again. Such is the price of vanity.

It is difficult to know the extent to which the Grimm brothers meant this story to be a metaphor for life. But fairy stories do make wonderful means for presenting ideas to the unconscious mind in a palatable, non-confronting  way: I used them a great deal in clinical practice. They can work in everyday life as well although you have to pick the moment.

The price of vanity for the Evil Queen is narcissistic anger, which leads her to her demise.  That she would even ask the mirror the question points to her need for affirmation, her lack of self-esteem perhaps, her fragile sense of self.

Of course, when we look in the mirror, we mostly don’t want the truth. Mirrors don’t lie, but we lie to ourselves. The Evil Queen bought the wrong mirror. It should have been one that freely avoids the truth, that would defend her sense of self, as our unconscious mind does.

The unconscious mind is rather underrated. Perhaps it got bad press through Freud and the aparent mystical art of psychoanalysis. But it controls most of our behaviour and emotions that occur completely beyond our consciousness. This unconscious stuff involves complex interactions of chemicals in the brain along with our experience. One good example is the role of dopamine in facilitating addiction and our ability to resist gratification or not, arising from our personality, beliefs, values, self-esteem, and myriad other factors. Another is the extent to which we are anxious depending on our genes, our propensity to secrete adrenaline and other anxiety creating chemicals, and our experience right from when we are born. Some people who are born anxious are able to learn to control their predisposition towards anxiety with which they were born.

Our unconscious mind, apart from doing many other things, also tries to protect us, the conscious, from the unpleasantness of fear or anxiety that comes from being confronted with our faults, failings, and other nasty issues that might threaten our sense of who we think we are. This is a very complex issue but humans spend a lot of time avoiding things that might be unpleasant to confront and do it in all sorts of ways that would be impossible to deal with here.

Some people find it easier to confront their ‘true selves’ than others. People with personality disorders, like narcissism or psychopathy, find it very hard to develop insight into their behaviour because the truth would be really distressing. Bullies often have lack of insight for the same reason and might not even be aware of what they are doing driven by myriad psychological problems.

One example of a simple way in which our unconscious defends and maintains the lie would be the use of rationalisation. This is one of the defence mechanisms that we use to ‘explain’ or excuse a failure to perform. I failed the exam because the teacher was poor or got the sack because the manager didn’t like me from the start. I suspect we have all used this basic mechanism along with denial and projection, two common defences we use to protect ourselves.

There are some clear advantages to knowing more about ourselves that are pretty obvious, particularly for successful relationships and any activity that involves other people. Knowing your addictions, habits, and things that prevent success is also handy.

Reflection, done well, is a mirror that tells the truth. A useful hint to do reflection well is to be aware of your behaviour. What you do, your behaviour, is the mirror to the soul and much more accurate as to who we are than what we say. Behaviour is observable. Mind you, humans have a remarkable ability to rewrite history to make themselves look better but I guess you can’t overcome every frailty that we have. Reflection at least gives us a chance to look at what we are doing and the outcomes of what we do.

I wrote a blog about why coaching is effective some time ago. It is useful when we are finding it hard to identify what we are doing wrong and we need a guide. Friends can help us too, if they are game to be objective.

However, as I found out twice only recently, holding up a mirror to someone can be fraught with danger. It works well in therapy but spontaneously pointing out someone’s negative behaviour can be tricky and not for the faint hearted. Its something that I have found difficult to resist for most of my life.

So, reflection can be a very useful tool for personal improvement and a daily dose is my prescription to learning more effective behaviour in love, relationships, work, and daily life. Give it a try.