Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Fanning Phenomenon

The images of surfer Mick Fanning being attacked by a shark late last year were a stark reminder that, despite our dubious skill of dominating other species, there are some environments in which we are potentially very fragile. You may remember that Fanning was competing in a surfing competition and was waiting for a wave, when out of the blue (pun intended) a shark appeared and clearly wanted to see how tasty a morsel it had found floating about in its domain. It’s not quite clear why Mick Fanning didn’t end up on the lunch menu but such is the luck of the drawer.

I’m a surfer, not a very good one and, these days, not that frequently either as age interferes with agility, the chances that I would survive if my leg rope broke and increasing risk aversion. But I do like to get out in a nice, slow wave every now again and feel the better for it. I spoke to a few surfers and friends about the Fanning incident to see whether or not they had had the same reaction to me and found a fairly universal response. From a psychological point of view it is quite interesting and may have broader implications. I’ve called it the Fanning Phenomenon.

Surfers will freely talk about the risk of sharks and tend to do so in a matter of fact sort of way. They’re there all the time, it’s their domain, the odds are low and you can always get out of the water if you see one. This doesn’t seem to change much even if one has been sighted and people still surf even if there has been a recent attack. Mind you, it is worth noting that many surfers are male and under the age of 30 and, therefore, have a mal-functioning ‘Executive Centre’ in their frontal lobe that effectively evaluates risk and make sound judgements about their behaviour. Hence, car insurance is much more expensive for the under 25-year old male than it is for anyone else. And also results in young ‘celebrity’ males becoming fodder for the media when they get up to their anti-social antics.

Many women I speak to reckon that men of any age never get this part of their brain to function and lack sound social judgement most of their lives. I suspect this is a bit harsh but I digress.

What the Mick Fanning attack did was to bring to life what was hitherto conjecture, belief, an idea. It took what was knowledge and turned it into understanding. As a friend of mine said, it was like instantly making the link between theory and practice. Some surfers apparently gave up surfing and many told me that they are much more aware. I certainly have been.

The Fanning Phenomenon reminds us that there is nothing greater than real understanding if we are to get our heads around a problem, an idea, an innovation, something new, or any alien situation for that matter. I was a therapist for many years in my role as a psychologist. Having personally experienced intense grief and then anxiety first-hand early in my life, I think I was better equipped to help people with similar problems. Being married meant I understood some of the nuances of this type of relationship. I never felt I could fully help women who had been sexually abused, apart from the fact there is an interesting transference that can interfere with therapy in any case. Recently, I experienced a significant dysphoria for a while. I wouldn’t call it depression but it was close. My understanding of this problem is now enhanced.

I’m not saying that we can’t help people if we haven’t experience what they have experienced and that empathy is impossible. I have helped many people whose experience was alien to me. But my experiences have certainly enhanced my understanding of others. When I meet people whose experience is outside my own I take special care to dig deeper. I read and talk to others. I suspend premature conclusions and ideas of what to do. I am much more contemplative.

The Fanning Phenomenon can be applied to all sorts of situations. Politics, for example. Before politicians pass legislation on something like disability services, aging, or any other area of under privilege, and they come from wealthy backgrounds (as many do) then they need to take deeper soundings of the implications of what they propose.

I’m sure you can think of many ways in which the Fanning Phenomenon can be applied, so I won’t labour the point.

Just keep an eye on the surf when you are on your board next time but don’t let sharks keep you out of the water.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Men Behaving Appallingly

There is a belief in the minds of too many men that it is somehow appropriate for males to force themselves sexually on women. It is borne from a sense of entitlement that men feel they have of women: that somehow she does not have the right to resist and that her vagina is his right.

We have had a disgusting reminder of this aspect of the minds of men in the recent episode (for those not living in Australia or asleep) where a minister of the government recently sexually harassed a staff member while they were both on a business trip to Hong Kong. There have been at least two brilliant expose’s of this event from Kate Galloway
and Jennifer Wilson, for those interested in reading the women’s view.

However, I am a bloke and I want to give my blokey point of view on this. One of the most shameful of the various dimensions to this saga is that at least one of the above mentioned female correspondents received a large number of abusive and extremely violent responses because she criticized the behavior of this minister, Jamie Briggs. The sense of entitlement over the bodies of women in the minds of some men is so strong that they think it essential to defend those who have been caught. You don’t need to be a shrink to realize that what they are doing is guiltily defending their own predilections in a phenomenon that psychologists call projection.

Not only has this abuse occurred on an industrial scale but yesterday one of the most senior members of the current government, Peter Dutton (I refuse to call him ‘The Honourable’) sent a text of support to Jamie Briggs telling him that a certain newspaper reporter, who had publicly chastised him, was a ‘..mad f*&^@ng witch’. So, there’s a wonderful role model for our citizens about how to treat women who 'bell the cat' from someone who should be calling for the head of Jamie Briggs and distancing himself as a matter of moral and ethical course.

Curiously enough, Dutton was part of a committee that sacked Briggs from the ministry when the event was publicized. So, in public Dutton is appalled by the sexual harassment of Briggs but in private he is supporting his gender buddy. Duplicity knows no bounds it seems and the message is clear that sexual harassment is just fine. The reason Dutton’s message was revealed was because he sent it to the newspaper reporter by mistake (his incompetence knows no bounds either). He then apologized publicly. Of course, if he had not made this mistake then he would have got away with revealing what he really thinks.

And, of course, there has been the usual round of victim blaming and excuses. He was drunk was the first and she shouldn’t have been there was a second. So, it is fine to sexually harass someone if you are drunk. ‘Your honour, the alcohol made me do it’. And worse, that she was somehow responsible for his behavior. It’s the old, ‘she asked for it’ routine. This is the Western equivalent of women wearing a a burka and chador so that they won’t cause men to become aroused. ‘She made my penis get out of control, your honour’. There was also the usual barrage of misinformation that one sees in these sorts of cases that attempted to obfuscate and blur the true story and focus on the victim not the perpetrator. The truth is lost in the fog of misdirection.

Let’s remember that this staff person is an employee of a government minister who is in an extremely powerful position. Briggs knew this and would have known too that his victim would have been more likely to succumb to his advances because of his power. Clearly he suffers from the delusions reinforced by too many movies and TV series about the ‘rights of men’. His victim knew it too and has been extremely brave to have reported the incident, which, incidentally, she attempted to deal with, in the first instance, without publicity by talking to a senior staff immediately.

The mechanisms behind this almost exclusively male belief about their rights to the bodies (and minds presumably) of women are not hard to find. The fact that he is a naughty boy for behaving badly and she is a slut for letting him are powerful messages reinforced by families, in the first instance, and by society in general. I travel a lot and I am astounded at how pervasive misogyny is among ‘normal’ men in every country and town that I have visited.

I’m a bloke. I understand impulses and sexual desire. As a psychologist I am aware of the biological drivers for these impulses and desires. I also understand being drunk. Been there and done that in spades. So, trust me my fellow men, when I say that there are many men out there who can control their impulses, who can challenge this belief about entitlement, and their potential power. And that latter issue is the raw meaning behind all this. The need for power.

So, what’s so different about those who know where the boundaries are, who know what is right and what is wrong? Its not all about education because perpetrators come from both the educated and uneducated. Its not about race.

It has to do with self-awareness, respect for fellow travelers on this planet, about self-confidence and a healthy belief in self, and knowing how to use power well rather for self-interest. It is about being civilized and raising ourselves up from the primal swamp where impulse and narcissistic behavior was a matter of survival.

Blokes, we are better than that. It’s time for all of us, including our leaders, to stand up and be counted. It is time to really take a stand against this scourge. We need to behave well and recognize when we have not done our best and be accountable. We need to support and listen to women who tell us about how they want to be treated rather than abuse and attempt to disempower them. Guys, we don’t need to be bullies to have fulfilling relationships. In fact the former will prevent the latter.

Repeat after me blokes. ‘ One: I need unambiguous permission to make sexual advances to a woman and if she makes it clear that advances are not welcome then I need to back off. And this means I need to raise my emotional intelligence beyond the age of three years of age and really listen to what women are telling me so that I can read them appropriately. Two: I should never make sexual advances towards women (or men for that matter) who are my staff. Three: I should not be getting drunk with my staff if I am their manager. Four: No means no. Five: I need to make it clear in words they understand to any male know that their behavior is or was inappropriate if they have been guilty of sexual harassment (or bullying).’

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New Year Resolutions change, habits and addictions

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 Meola in Sydney (look him up if you are interested in weight loss and lifestyle change), 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.