What They Say vs. What They Do

In abusive relationships it is not uncommon for the victim to feel that the abuser loves because they say they do.   

Abused children believe their parents love them because they say they do.  And children will believe this even when the parent has a long history of beating the child or profoundly neglecting the child.

This is why it's important to watch what people do, rather than what they say.  The predators and abusers of the world often display "empathy gaps", gaps in their ability to feel compassion or empathy for others.  Their words are very charming and full of "love", yet their actions tells a different story.  



The Healing Power of Animals

A hospital in Kentucky is reviewing their "No Pets" rule for patients after a terminal patient improved when he was allowed to see his dog. 

A Huffington Post article points out that having a pet will cause you to get more exercise (I know mine does) and helps humans realize that love can be unconditional.   I still remember a client who, after decades of drug use, got clean and sober but had no idea how to socialize with other people.  He also had no faith that other people could be trusted in relationships.  Then he rescued a dog from the local animal shelter.  And joined the dog club at his apartment complex.  And everything changed.  As his faith in living creatures was restored by the love of his dog, his faith in the human race was restored as well.  He made friends in the dog club and was welcomed back into the human race - all through the love of a dog.

And an article by NPR, cites medical studies performed 30 years ago which showed that petting your dog could lower your blood pressure.  More recent studies show that interacting with animals releases oxytocin in the brain which promotes healing and the growth of new cells.  Oxytocin also makes us feel happy and trusting.  Another study found that heart attack patients with pets lived longer than patients without pets.

In therapy with traumatized children, animals have a calming effect.  They can center and ground a child who is hypervigilant or anxious.  Grieving clients will take comfort from a therapy dog and clients struggling with a substance abuse issue will often befriend a therapy dog before they are able to re-establish their broken human connections.  

Service animals have been helping patients who were blind or deaf have more active lives for a long time.  But we are only now beginning to realize that our pets can help us with emotional issues as well.






The Advantages of Being the Scapegoat

Why would anyone want to be the scapegoat in their family?  Could being in the scapegoat role be a good thing?  Might the scapegoat of a family benefit from being scapegoated?

If you think about the purpose of scapegoating in the family system, it is the practice of piling the "sins" of the family on one person.  One person is sacrificed for the "good" of all.  And that is not good for anyone, but it can be really damaging for the scapegoat.  However, it may have one benefit.

The scapegoat is typically indoctrinated to believe there is something wrong with them.  If they are a child or teenager they may be dropped off at the therapist to be fixed, the "identified patient".  And this may be what saves them.

The rest of the family denies any wrong doing.  They have no problems, there is nothing wrong with them, they don't need treatment, they don't need to change - they tell themselves.  It's all the scapegoat.  So the scapegoat grows up believing there is something wrong with them and fighting to change it.  The family, by contrast, believes they have no problems and do not need to change.  So they don't.  

People who can't, or won't, change are locked into their behaviors.  Because they cannot change, they cannot heal, they cannot do anything different.  They are doomed to be just as they are.  If they are raging narcissists, they are doomed to die narcissists.  If they are alcoholics, they may die of liver disease.  Since they won't take responsibility for their behavior, they cannot change it, so they are doomed to keep repeating it.  

But the scapegoat can change.  They can heal.  They can move past it and learn a healthier way of being.   For that reason alone, being the scapegoat may make one stronger.  Because the scapegoat is willing, and able, to admit there is a problem - they have the power and the freedom to change it.  


The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us

Robert Bly writes about "The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us" which is filled with all the things we deny in ourselves, our Shadow parts.  If we think it's bad to be angry, we may throw our anger in there.  Some members of my family think humor is a waste of time, so they throw their silliness in there.  Sad, I know.  Some religions may require you to throw your sexuality in the bag.  Men may throw their sensitivity in the bag, women may throw their strength into it.  If, when you were young someone made fun of your artwork, you may have thrown that in the bag.  Many of our "negative" emotions get put in the bag;  jealousy, hatred, vanity or fear.  The seven deadly "sins" go in the bag;  anger, envy, lust, gluttony, sloth, pride or greed.  

Whatever you throw in the bag, you don't have access to it.  And the more you throw in the bag, the heavier the bag you drag behind you.  And the more you put in the bag, the less that is left of you.  Pretty soon there is only a sliver of you left.  And this is the part that you present to society.  

The parts of yourself which you deny become twisted and contorted to where they are unrecognizable.  If you put anger in the bag and you are angered, instead of expressing it directly, openly and honestly, it may come out as barbed sarcasm, sabotage or even retaliation.  

And the parts we put in the bag at 5 years old or 15 years old don't develop or mature.  They are frozen in that primitive, undeveloped state in which we first put them in the bag.  Primitive and immature they erupt from the bag when they can be contained no longer, twisted and contorted into something we no longer recognize as human.  

"Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is."  Carl Jung

The parts we deny have the power to drive us.  A man who denies his sexual desires to himself and in public may spend vast hours watching porn in the secrecy of his home.  A woman who denies her anger may seethe behind a sugary sweet smile.  A child denied his playfulness may retreat into a make believe world in his mind.  







Signs Someone is Passive Aggressive

First let me say there are times when passive aggressiveness (PA) is a coping mechanism.  In an oppressive work environment, smiling and pretending to go along with an unreasonable boss may be the only way to survive.  The same can be true in an abusive relationship with a toxic person.  It may be in your best interest to smile and nod and plan your escape.  But in healthy relationships, passive aggressive behavior is a manipulation.  It is a dishonest way of interacting with people.  As a result it compromises trust and creates a lot of hurt.  How do you know if you are dealing with a passive aggressive person?

1.  They say "Yes" when they really mean "No".

Personally, this is the one I find the most maddening.  Because they said "Yes" you rely on them doing whatever they agreed to do, only to find out they didn't do it and never intended to.  So you have to run around playing catch up.  The feeling of betrayal doesn't foster a trusting environment either as you learn not to trust what they tell you.

2.  They engage in sabotage 

Passive aggressive people will smile in your face and agree to most anything, only to sabotage it when you're not looking.  Their methods of sabotage are limitless.  They are often predictable, but can be very creative.  Some of their more common methods are:


They have a million excuses why they didn't get something done.  They "forgot" or they were "too busy".  This isn't an occasional thing.  We all forget to do things.  We all get busy sometimes.  This is different.  It is a pervasive pattern of always "forgetting" to do the same thing(s),  something they either don't want to do or something they dislike.

Feigned deafness

They consistently didn't hear you ask them to do something.


They are constantly "forgetting" to do things they agreed to do. 


Graceful PAs can become very clumsy and competent PAs can become very inept when asked to do something they don't want to do.  That vase your mother gave which they hate "accidentally" fell and got broken.  There are glaring errors in the report you asked them to write.  


There are glaring errors made in the context of otherwise meticulous work.


I was working on a gardening project with a passive aggressive friend once who "agreed" to every plant I suggested.  So I worked my heart out, in the Texas heat, planting these plants.  A month later, the plants she did not like had met with "accidents".  One hadn't been watered, another had been eaten by the sheep which lived there (but the plant right next to it which she had planted had been carefully fenced off and protected) and one had dug up by the dog.

Accidents happen and they aren't all sabotage.  The difference with passive aggressive people is there is a pattern of this behavior.

 3.  Indecisiveness

PAs can be appear very indecisive, but it is a ploy.  They know what they think and what they want, but they refuse to take a stand or voice an opinion.  This is a powerful strategy, if they never make a decision, they can never be criticized.  So you decide - and they critique you.

You:  "Where would you like to eat dinner?"

Them:  "Oh, I don't care.  Whatever you would like."

You:  "How about the Italian place?"

Them:  "Oh, do you really want to go there?"

You:  "We could go back to the Mexican place."

Them:  "Did you really like that?"

You:  "OK.  What about Chinese?"

Them:  "Chinese doesn't sound good right now."

See how this is going?  Or they will go along to the restaurant sighing all the way.  Or even go to the restaurant and order, but then pick at their food and complain about it.  Now some people really don't care and are happy to go along to your favorite Italian restaurant.  But passive aggressive folks will feign indifference - until you leave for the restaurant.  Then they will often complain or find endless fault with your choice.  Some toxic people have learned that not having an opinion is a position of power - if you don't choose, you can't be criticized for your choice.  So they leave it to you to choose so they can criticize you.  This gives them the upper hand.  But the upper hand should not be the goal.  Healthy, caring, trusting relationships should not be based on who can one up the other and should not be fraught with power struggles.  This is just another manipulation.

4.  Backstabbing/Splitting/Triangulating

People with passive aggressive behavior like to address things indirectly.  Instead of telling you something to your face, they will often stab you in the back.  They may even work to turn other people against you by engaging in "splitting" or "triangulating" behavior, inserting themselves as a wedge between you and another person and either turning the third person against you, or turning you against each other.  Passive aggressive people may portray themselves as a victim and you as the aggressor to bring someone to their side of the dispute.  And this will all take place behind your back.  

5.  Manipulation

Passive aggressive people have trouble asking for what they want outright, so they engage in manipulation to get their needs met.  Instead of asking you to help them with something, they may employ guilt, "If I tear up my back lifting this it will be all your fault" or play the victim, "I just don't know how I'm going to be able to lift something so heavy" instead of being straightforward.  They don't mind being seen as weak or having people pity them, as long as they get what they want. 

6.  They Mask Their Resentment With a Smile

Underneath that phony smile is a lot of aggression.  But they will not express it directly.  Sugary, sweet comments will accompanied by a dash of sarcasm or a cloaked barb.  

7.  They Retaliate

Instead of telling you they are angry or upset with you, they will plot revenge.  Nasty rumors, anonymous emails, turning the boss against you or exposing your secrets are some of the methods employed by PA people.  They may give you the silent treatment, withhold praise or intimacy, be hyper critical of you or your work or engage in sabotage.  But they will get back at you on the sly, not daring to confront you outright.

Dealing with Passive Aggressive People

So how do you deal with passive aggressive people?  I'm not sure that you can.  It's like playing cards with someone who cheats.  You are trying to be honest with someone who is not.   What can you hope to gain from that?

You may try to bring their behavior into the light, to confront then directly or discuss the situation openly, but they will dodge and parry, lying and hiding and perhaps resorting to retaliation on the sly.  They abhor open confrontation and cannot tolerate dealing with things directly.  If you are in a personal relationship with a passive aggressive person, you may have to reconsider it.  If it is a work relationship you may have to force their hand and hope your colleagues see what they are up to, or bite your tongue and wait for everyone else to see what they are dealing with.  Either way, remember not to be swayed by their sweetness and light.  They may be this way to your face, but if you've become aware of them sabotaging you behind your back, remember this and don't fall for their smiles.   


When someone shows you who they are...

"When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.”

Maya Angelou

How many of us have looked back to the beginning of an unhealthy or toxic relationship and facepalmed when we realized we had seen the problem all along?  I know I have seen the warning signs early in a relationship only to talk myself out of them or provide some rationalization for why they weren't as bad as I thought.  Only later did I recognize what I had seen from the start and felt so stupid.


Longing for the "Good Old Days" in Mental Health

Stanton Peele has written an amazing article, "Nervous Breakdown: Remember When People Used to Overcome Mental Illness?"  His point?  Our treatment of mental illness may have been better in the past, before modern psychiatry and Big Pharma.  

Granted, our treatment of mental illness in the past included lobotomies and Thorazine.  Still, Peele makes an interesting point - that people do have some ability to recoup from a "nervous breakdown" if given the time and support.  Putting people on medications for the rest of their lives may be a benefit for the pharmaceutical companies and the psychiatrists paid to administer and monitor these medications, but are they the panacea they promise?  And what is the cost?  The antipsychotics, in particular, are heavy duty tranquilizers which numb a person's emotions and dull their thoughts.  The chances of a person returning to a fully functioning life on these medications is slim.  What if clients were provided more support and therapy instead of making medication the first line of treatment?

It's an interesting read.




Human Connection vs. Addiction

I recently watched an interesting Ted talk, Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong by Johann Hari.  Great stuff.  Hari makes some interesting points.  Among them:

Simply giving someone opiates can't turn them into a drug addict.  

Our culture has taught us that giving someone opiates will cause them to become an addict.  I've known doctors who worry about prescribing adequate pain medication because they don't want to "make" the patient an addict.  As a result, doctors typically under-medicate pain.  I personally think the under-prescribing of pain medications may contribute to addictive thinking and behavior, but I've never known it to cause addiction.  What's the difference?  Under-medicating patients tends to make them more anxious about being treated adequately for pain, so they may begin to hoard medications or skip doses so they can double up later, etc. because they don't trust the doctor to adequately control their pain.  Addiction, on the other hand, is not about controlling pain, but about feeling the high.  Drug addicts skip doses and hoard their medications so they can take large doses all at one time to get the high.  However, the under-prescribing of pain medications now has a healthy person thinking and behaving like a drug addict - out of fear.

Think of someone you have known who has had a lot of surgery - and the heavy duty pain medications that go with it.  Hari gives the example of grandma having hip replacement surgery.  Grandma completes the surgery, recovers and is not an addict.  

So what is the difference between someone who is exposed to opiates and becomes an addict - and someone who does not?  Hari maintains it is the quality of their lives.

Rats can't be made into heroin addicts - if given other options

Hari cites a study of rats in cages who had a choice between water laced with heroin or regular water.  Rats living in barren, empty cages always chose the heroin water.  However, researchers found if they housed the rats in cages equipped with all the things rats love, toys, other rats to play with, comfortable beds to sleep in, etc. (a kind of "rat park" as Hari calls it), the rats don't choose the heroin laced water.  Point?  Rats with full and happy lives don't choose heroin.

Why is this important? 

We are finding that human connection and a healthy "rat park" is what keeps humans from becoming addicted.  People with full and healthy lives don't want to be intoxicated or numbed.  They want to be aware so they can enjoy their lives.  

What does this mean for our treatment of the addicted?

The criminalization of drugs prevents people from re-entering society.  A person convicted of drug charges has a criminal record.  This labels them as criminals, shames and humiliates them, associates them with a criminal element in society, prevents them from obtaining employment and housing and impairs their healthy relationships.  It effectively hampers them from re-entering human society as effectively.  They are shamed and stigmatized and left with little to get out of bed for.  Being imprisoned severs their connections with family and friends.  

Perhaps we should treat the addiction rather than punishing the addict -  keeping them in society instead of removing them from it, requiring them to participate in drug treatment instead of locking them away with criminals, requiring them to work instead of hampering their employment, teaching them to parent instead of removing them from their children - this might be a better solution.

Psychopaths, Autism, Empathy and Mirror Neurons

V. S. Ramachandran is a neurologist and an author.  If you're interested in the mysteries of the human brain I highly recommend you read any of his books.  In a lecture from 2006* he talks about "mirror neurons".  Scientists have found motor neurons fire in a monkey's brain when the monkey reaches for a peanut.  Interestingly, a subset of these neurons, called mirror neurons, fire when the monkey watches another monkey reach for a peanut.  Mirror neurons in humans work the same way.  The motor neurons fire when we poke a person with a needle, but a subset of these neurons, the mirror neurons, fire when we witness someone else being poked with a needle.  These mirror neurons appear to be our way of empathizing with another.  They are the mechanism by which we put ourselves in someone else's shoes and are the basis of our empathy.  As such, they may be the basis for human ethics.  

Ramachandran notes that autistic children appear to suffer from mirror neuron dysfunction, resulting in a lack of empathy and an inability to relate to others.  A separate article about mirror neurons notes that psychopaths and sociopaths have impaired functioning of the mirror neurons.  Psychologists have known for some time that people with antisocial personality disorder (the clinical term for sociopaths and psychopaths) feel no empathy and have no regard for the rights of others.  Narcissists too share these traits.  Though they both see themselves as human, they fail to see the humanity in other people.  They regard people in their lives as objects to be manipulated to get what they want, not as human beings.   People with antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders are unable to relate to other people as being like themselves.  People with these personality disorders feel no empathy for other people, they cannot identify with other people and they feel no remorse when they cause harm to others.  

We knew that a horribly neglectful or abusive childhood could result in antisocial or narcissistic personality disorder, but we didn't know the mechanism.  It is now believed that such a childhood can result in these neurons not being used, so they fail to develop normally.  This failure to develop in childhood results in an adult with dysfunctional mirror neurons and the resulting antisocial or narcissistic traits.  If these neurons can be rendered dysfunctional by lack of use, perhaps we can develop interventions which use them, restoring their functionality and healing people with these personality disorders.

It's an interesting theory.

* Ramachandran's part of the lecture begins about 39 minutes into the presentation.