The Psychology of Blaming: Learning to See the Fear Behind the Anger
When things go wrong it is normal to want to know why. Seeking understanding is an important way to learn and prevent future problems. Unfortunately, instead of seeking real answers which are often complicated, it is easier to find someone to blame.
Psychologically, the tactic of blaming is known as externalizing responsibility. It is important to understand that blaming is a defensive, secondary response. Blaming is a reaction which follows the primary experience of self-blame and panic. Ironically, behind the unpleasant facade of the blamer is a person who feels out of control. It is important to appreciate this sense of powerlessness when dealing with someone who is engaged in blaming.
Feeling ineffectual and as though s/he has no influence on his/her environment warps his/her perception into an irrational perspective. Since feeling powerless is an intolerable experience it quickly morphs into the defensive/attacking posture of anger which often takes the shape of blaming.
The first step in achieving a constructive conversation with someone who is blaming is to calm their panic and to restore a reasonable perspective. Calm and empathic listening is the best way to quiet upset feelings and reestablish a reasonable dialog. Being empathic simply means that one listens without judgment or criticism and conveys to the person that one understands and cares about their experience.
It is truly amazing to witness how powerful a little empathy is in changing an unpleasant confrontation in to a productive dialog.
For example, let’s imagine that Jim becomes upset with Sally when he sees the latest credit card statement and blames her for blowing the family budget. His first reaction may be shock and fear: How can I pay for all of this ? This initial reaction may be followed by a rapid flood of negative thoughts about how he is a financial failure or a loser. To combat this painful moment, he shifts to criticizing his wife for putting him in such a bad way.
Because he is reacting emotionally, he is not able to think rationally. He may block out important facts such as the unexpected expenses were unavoidable or that he had more money in his checking account than he thought he did. Even if there is a serious problem, Jim’s panic response keeps him from being understanding and kind to his wife. Instead of asking her to explain what happened, blaming responses short circuit a thoughtful examination of the problem.
If Sally is able to withstand the initial attack and remember that she loves Jim, she may be able to hear the fear beneath the bluster and respond with empathy and compassion. If she does, Jim will calm down and the two can work together to analyze and solve the problem.
Relationships are hard and require work. Learning to decode encrypted behaviors like blaming is a valuable skill to transform difficult situations into moments of growth and closeness in a relationship.
Rev. Michael Heath LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. 7 20 2016
Psychological Manipulation: What it is and How to deal with it
Those who are disturbed by the level of incivility demonstrated in the recent presidential campaign have reason for concern. One of the important lessons emerging from new research is the finding that many people are simply unable to have reasonable conversations with those with whom they disagree.
Specifically, irrational conversational patterns which employ psychological manipulation occur more frequently than was previously believed. Unfortunately, emotional manipulation is not limited to politicians. Whether in the work place, with friends or at home, the use of psychological tactics to gain the upper hand and control disputed outcomes is widespread and is not only frustrating but can be even abusive.
While most of us have encountered someone who is “manipulative”, it is sometimes difficult to understand why things don’t feel right or know just what exactly is going on. Here are some tips to help you recognize, understand and deal with these frustrating situations.
To begin, at the heart of psychological manipulation is a collection of verbal and physical techniques designed to impose one person’s view or behavior on another when a conflict is encountered. Instead of respecting or accepting the other person’s position, a manipulator seeks to change and control it by resorting to emotional ploys.
Physical threats are an example of manipulation at its crudest and most abusive level but there are many less obvious emotional ploys which can be used to get the other person to change his/her mind and agree with the manipulator’s position. Typically, manipulative tactics exploit the other person’s irrational fears and self-doubts.
To get an idea of how more subtle manipulation feels, think of how Charles Boyer manipulated Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. In the classic film, the evil husband (Boyer) drives his wife to the brink of madness by saying that things his wife saw actually happened - didn't.
The goal of the more subtle forms of manipulation is to discredit the validity of the person’s view by attacking their self-confidence or intelligence. Denial and misrepresentation of the facts are also used in addition to name calling, blaming and refusing to respond to critical flaws in the manipulator’s arguments are but a few of the ways manipulators attempt impose their will on the others.
People who are good at manipulation play upon emotional vulnerabilities and succeed in changing the subject from the issue at hand to the unreliability of the other person’s perception, knowledge or judgment.
If you find yourself in a conversation where you encounter any of these tactics, realize that you are not having a reasonable conversation but are being manipulated. The key to dealing with someone who is being manipulative is to recognize it and refuse to play along. If a person you are talking cannot be rational and accept the facts or respect your opinion , it is critical that you understand that reason will not hold sway in the conversation and that coming to an agreement or a rational compromise is not possible.
It is also important to remember that someone who is trying to manipulate does not care about the facts or your point of view. His/her only goal is to control the outcome to the situation. When manipulative conversations are detected, the only effective response to be made is to end the conversation immediately.
Thus, a good rule of thumb is don’t even try to talk with someone who is unable to be reasonable. While we can’t stop a person from being manipulative, we can decide not to engage or participate in a useless conversation. Doing so can greatly reduce the needless frustration and grief you will experience.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. 7/7/2016 _____________________________
Coping with the Absurd and the Horrifying Stories in the News
The tragedy of the Orlando massacre has shaken America's soul and left many wondering why such atrocities continue to happen . Many people who are otherwise mentally healthy report experiencing increased anxiety and fear for no particular or obvious reason. If you are one of those folks or just someone doesn't know how to respond or cope when disaster strikes, here are some helpful tips for navigating distressed emotions in the wake of a calamity:
1) Understand that feeling stress in the aftermath of a disaster is normal. Our minds are not designed to cope with such outrageous events and we all are vulnerable to exaggerated fears and panic. Feeling temporarily out of control or being overwhelmed with sadness or anger is not unusual.
2) There is no normal or correct way to feel. People react in a variety of ways. Some get angry. Some get depressed. Some become numb. Some people withdraw. The way a person reacts is, to a large extent, determined by previous life experiences and his or her particular genetic makeup and vulnerability to shock.
3) If you are experiencing symptoms such as increased anxiety or irritability or feel detached from your surroundings, or have trouble sleeping, don't ignore the changes. Write down what you can observe in a private journal or talk about it with a friend. If writing or talking doesn't seem to help and your distress is really interfering with your daily life, call your doctor.
4) Although news coverage is ubiquitous, it is important to limit your exposure to the media and its coverage of such horrible events. Watching reports can increase your discomfort while avoiding the programing can help reduce the intensity of your distress.
5) Ask yourself what is most upsetting about any news report that causes your distress. Be specific and ask yourself if you have ever felt that way before in the past. Many times contemporaneous issues can connect with unhealed wounds from the past and generate intensely dysphoric experiences which are exaggerated and out of proportion to the actual stimulus. Being able to identify the antecedents can help you to factor out and focus on the present issue which can greatly reduce your sense of being overwhelmed.
6) Take an emotional helicopter ride. A powerful way to lessen the aftershock of tragic news is to change perspective and to get "above" it all. For example an airline crash is a terrible occurrence but when one realizes that crashes are very rare, this change of view point can help quiet our fears and calm our anxiety. Looking at events from a different point of view allows you to place yourself at a distance from the immediacy of the event and thus reduce its impact. Even though gun violence is a growing and serious threat which needs to be addressed, it doesn't happen every day and most of the time most of us are safe in our environment. Asking how a given tragedy immediately affects you personally is a good way to calm exaggerated fears.
Even though tragic events are out of our control, these simple steps can help us to cope and regain a reasonable perspective more quickly as you get through the ordeal. As always, if problems persist, seek professional help.
The Rev. Michael Heath 6 21 2016
(with acknowledgement to Getty photo)
Do you have to be "crazy" to see a therapist ?
(With thanks to Dilbert creator Scott Adams)
What comes to mind when you hear the word crazy ? It’s a term we hear or use every day. For some, it’s just another word for being illogical or irrational. For others it is a scary pronouncement about a severe and unchangeable mental condition. For some others it is an outdated and offensive way to reference psychological problems. This confusion reveals that it is time to update our assumptions about mental health and illness.
Although the word crazy originally meant something which was full of cracks, it has come to mean someone with a mental disorder. And here is the problem: While it was a major step forward to see psychological problems as an illness rather than a curse or state of demonic possession , we now recognize that the medical model of the time (i.e. which understood illness in black and white terms: either one was healthy or sick.) was grossly misleading and inaccurate.
Unfortunately, although our modern understanding of physical illness has progressed and we now understand health and illness as being on a continuum, our thoughts about psychiatric disorders lags behind. Continuing to understand mental disorders as separate from normal experience not only distorts their reality but creates unnecessary fear and stigma.
Again, for many folks, mental illness raises grim 19th century images of insane asylums where untreatable patients were locked away from society in facilities which were much like prisons. The notion of being crazy or insane meant that one was permanently deranged and radically different from a normal person. Likewise, a stigma arose that anyone who saw a therapist meant that s/he must be crazy.
It is important to understand that the distinction between being mentally healthy and disordered are relative and not absolute . And here is the thing which is vitally important to understand: No one is completely rational or logical, i.e. sane. We all have distortions in our perceptions of our self and the world. Likewise, no one is completely healthy in the way they respond to the challenges of life. We all have our irrational quirks, i.e . we all are a little bit crazy.
The critical distinction between being healthy and disordered has to do with the relative impairment or disruption a person’s distortion creates in his or her life. Thus, to answer the original question, ( Do you have to be crazy to see a therapist?) it depends on what you mean by crazy. If crazy means having an emotional problem, then, yes. People see counselors for specific reasons. But, since we’re all a little bit crazy, seeing a therapist should be no different than going to the dentist. It is a judgment call. Each person decides if the irrational aspect of his/her life is intrusive/disabling enough to seek help.
On the other hand, if what it meant by the word crazy is having a severe psychological problem, the answer is no. Sometimes, I’m asked if it’s okay to use the word crazy and I think that it is. I think we need to use it to mean those chunks of irrational behavior that we all have. (e.g. When I saw the sale, I went crazy and bought three pairs of shoes.) Even regarding more serious issues like becoming angry and “losing it” we need to understand that most mental problems are intermittent and treatable and are not a permanent or untreatable condition which requires hospitalization.
If we can update our understanding of psychological disorders, we can take away the fear and stigma of them. Mental health is not fundamentally different from physical health nor should attitudes regarding seeking help be any different than going to any other kind of doctor.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. 6 5 2016
Sex in Marriage : Are You having Enough ?
I'm not clear how many people are worried that they are not having enough sex but I do know from clinical experience that many tend become discouraged in their relationships and give up on sex .
-- Research shows that folks who have sex at least once a week are happier than folks who don't. That is a correlative statistic, not a causal connection however. It is not clear if having sex makes you happier or if happier people have more sex.
-- My concern is not with how much sex couples have but that sex is respected as an essential part of their relationship. Like noted sex educator and Syracuse University professor Sol Gordon used to say, “Sex isn’t the most important thing in marriage but it’s in the top ten!”
-- If couple has gone months without physical intimacy for no obvious reason (e.g. health problems or physical separation), this absence is a clinically important
symptom and could signal significant problems of either medical, psychological or relational nature.
-- It is unfortunate that because immature attitudes, many partners are embarrassed to talk about medical issues which involve sex. Ironically, there are effective treatments for most sexual dysfunction issues for both men and women. Although publicity concerning Viagra like medications has helped many to get over the aversion to seeking medical help there are those who still avoid getting help and suffer unnecessarily.
-- In addition to physical disorders, anxiety and depression can also rob a person of passion and sexual interest. Likewise , normal emotions like anger and resentment can create obstacles in a relationship which can suppress libido and kill desire. Rather than simply accepting the passionless situation, it is important for couples to know that professional help can provide dramatic results and restore lost intimacy and joy.
-- How often folks have sex varies a lot depending on many variables such as health, busy schedules, stress, etc. And … the amount of sex does not necessarily indicate the overall level of satisfaction in a marriage or in the sex itself.
-- That said, I think it is important for couples to acknowledge the importance of sex and make sure that sex does not get pushed aside because of overloaded schedules, stress or fatigue.
-- Although spontaneous encounters are great, the demands of work and family can make opportunities few and far between. Thus, couples need to become intentional about sex by blocking out time on their calendar and protecting those commitments. Planning romantic rendezvous is a good way to make sure that that the fire in your marriage will not dim or go out.
-- Some couples react to the idea of scheduling sex with skepticism, i.e. that isn't romantic. However those who are willing to try it report that not only is it very romantic but that the "dates" are something to look forward to with excitement and eager anticipation.
Rev. Michael Heath LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. 5 18 2016