‘Avatar’, Toxic Shame and Avoidance of Authentic Relationships

At the opening of the movie Avatar, Jake Sully has suffered a severe spinal chord injury that leaves him a paraplegic.  No longer able to perform as a combat marine, and because the military won’t pay for an operation to restore the use of his legs — that is, to return him to his former self — Jake volunteers for a specialized military mission to the planet Pandora.  Through the miracle of medical technology, he learns to psychically link with and inhabit an “avatar” or alternative physical self on that planet.  In contrast to his paraplegic self, this avatar is healthy, fit and stands ten feet tall, with enormous physical prowess and sensory capabilities beyond those of humans. Embodying this avatar allows Jake not only to regain the functions he lost but also to surpass his human potential.  His experience on Pandora ultimately proves to be more real, more meaningful to him than his actual life; at the movie’s end, he finds a way to transcend his human physical damage and move permanently to the realm of his superior Na’vi self.

This story perfectly embodies a dynamic I’ve seen with many clients, where they feel themselves to be so damaged, so filled with basic shame (or toxic shame) that they long to escape into the world of fantasy and become another person entirely.

It’s a particular instance of the dynamic I discussed in my post about hopeless problems, perfect answers. In these cases, avoidance of authentic, realistic relationships is strong; instead, they wish for a perfect relationship with an idealized partner. The Internet has enabled many people to pursue and act out this fantasy — in virtual form, of course, and for a limited time only.

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Narcissistic Behavior and the Lost Art of Conversation

[NOTE:  Narcissism and narcissistic behavior are a primary focus of this website; all posts on that subject can be found under the heading Shame/Narcissism in the category menu to the right.  If you’d rather read a more clinical discussion of narcissistic behavior, you might prefer this post on narcissistic personality disorder, or this one on the relationship between narcissism and self-esteem.  If you want to learn more about the basic signs and symptoms of NPD and how to recognize them, click here.  More recently, I’ve also written about aspects of normal or everyday narcissism that apply to most of us.]

 

Most people are narcissistic.

I’m not using that word in the clinical diagnostic way, or in the everyday sense of vain or conceited.  What I mean is that most people are almost exclusively focused upon themselves, their personal interests and their own emotional needs for attention. A certain amount of preoccupation with oneself is normal and healthy; it becomes a problem when you’re not truly interested in other people or ideas and only want to talk about yourself.

Here’s a fairly common experience for me:  I’m at a party or social gathering, speaking to someone I’ve just met, or an acquaintance I haven’t seen in a long while.  I’m asking questions, inquiring about the person’s background or catching up since we last met. Fifteen, twenty minutes pass … we’re still talking about the other person.  I get the feeling that I could be anyone; I’m just a receptacle, a mirror or an audience.  I provide needed attention to the other person; he or she has no interest in getting to know the man who’s listening.

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Love Junkies and Other Addicts

Next month, there’s a new movie coming out with Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal called “Love and Other Drugs,” so I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss the ways that romantic love can function as an intoxicant and how serial romance relates to other forms of addiction.

In an earlier post about different forms of love, I described one version where loving a person springs from the way he or she makes you feel and involves little concern for the other. What the “lover” wants is the heady feeling of intoxication, that blissful state where you feel as if life has become a sort of heaven on earth and all your troubles have disappeared.  Falling in love means living happily ever after.  Hollywood, that relentless pusher, pedals this drug in one romantic comedy after another.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to stay high forever.  As we come down, we begin to realize that the person we love isn’t so perfect after all.  Even worse, we find that we still hate our job, we still don’t make enough money, and nothing about reality and its frustrations has changed.  Obviously, we made a mistake in our choice of love object … time to move on. Lather, rinse and repeat.

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Celebrities — Why We Love and Hate Them

Whenever I’m in line at the grocery store, like everyone else I scan the tabloid headlines.  It always amazes me that so many people are fascinated by the soap opera lives of celebrities. Why, after all, does the wedding of someone we don’t even know hold such interest?  Why do we care about Brad and Angelina’s latest tiff when we’ve never met them?

I’ve noticed there’s a cycle to the stories.  First, you have the article about how Celebrity A has been spotted on dates with Celebrity B.  Then there’s the one confirming they’re an item, followed in due course by the big splashy cover story about their wedding.  Next you have rumors that there are signs of trouble in the relationship.  “Close personal friends” begin to hint at insensitivity and heartache at home, followed by reports that the couple has separated.  To complete the cycle, the tabloids run a story that details their messy divorce, full of bitterness and recriminations, with angst-ridden faces on the cover.  Of course there are many different versions of the cycle; if you’re Brangelina, you can spin out variations for years.  But in general, the cycle runs from idealizing someone’s life, followed by doubts about its goodness and concluding with its demise.

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Hatred in Politics

In an earlier post on love and hatred, I briefly discussed how religion and politics often provide us with sanctioned outlets for our hatred, reflecting the processes of splitting and projection.  The current election cycle is a perfect example.  While Fox News and the Tea Party movement dominate televised discourse with their hateful attacks, in private liberals are often just as hateful.  I’ve had friends shout me down for saying I could empathize with parents of underage daughters who felt they had a right to know if she were having an abortion.  Within certain circles, to suggest that there might be reasonable limits to abortion-on-demand is to question the Faith and to arouse hatred.  I’ve known Democrats who wouldn’t even consider dating a Republican.

Given the enormous challenges we face, the political arena is a place where we ought to be having reasoned discourse about what’s best for our country; doing so depends upon the ability to think in the presence of intense emotion, a very difficult thing to do.  Intense emotion is the enemy of thought, whether it’s a sentimental glow that blinds us to harsh reality, or hatred that makes us unable to see the other side of an issue.  Many of the conservative voices in our country today are fanning the flames of hatred in order to squelch any realistic debate about the direction of our country and the sacrifices we’ll all have to make.  For many of them, their sole aim is to win.

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