Early Memories

Given that the limbic system (responsible for encoding memory) hasn’t fully matured until after the first two years of life, it suggests that any memories we might have from that time period are actually reconstructions based on later experience, or “implants” built upon stories other people have told us. I have two early memories, one of each type, I believe.

My earliest memory is simple: it’s the kitchen in the house where we lived at that time, as seen from my perspective. Based on the vantage point, I would have been in some kind of infant seat set upon the counter and I’m looking upward. I am alone; there’s no one else in the room. The walls are a muted green, somewhere between celery and avocado. Across the room, there’s a bulky refrigerator with a horizontal handle. Near to it, light comes through a window, just above the kitchen sink. That’s all I remember.

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How Feelings of Helplessness May Give Rise to Destructive Violence

Reading about Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, in today’s New York Times brought to mind Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who set off bombs and murdered at least 76 people back in 2011. These two men have several features in common, including social isolation, a fascination with Call of Duty (a war-oriented video game) and a history of having been bullied.

In this earlier post about Breivik, I highlighted the role of basic shame in psychopathic behavior. Adama Lanza appears to have suffered from some kind of autism spectrum disorder, which suggests early and pervasive psychological damage — the kind that might leave a person with a core sense of defect or shame. On the other hand, Lanza’s mother and father didn’t divorce until he was 17 years old and, according to court records, appeared to be caring, involved parents who divorced without much animosity. Perhaps as we learn more, we might uncover a history of family discord and evidence of early trauma. We do know that Adam had broken off relations when his father began dating and eventually married another woman, suggesting that the divorce had troubled Adam deeply. Then there’s the mother who let her son amass his own private arsenal of lethal weaponry. Surely we’re not dealing with your average American family here.

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Diary of a Shame Attack

On Saturday, I made a short new video, making use of what I’d learned in media training. I felt very good about that video because I’d confronted some underlying shame and the related wish to remain invisible — that is, relying on a blank facial expression and little modulation in my voice in order to reveal as little as possible. I uploaded it to my YouTube channel and wrote a short post about it here on After Psychotherapy. Not long after the post went up, I received a supercilious, mean-spirited critique from one of my readers. Even after 2-1/2 years writing this blog, I still find it difficult to bear when site visitors say hurtful things to me. I have not developed a thick skin. In posting the video, stating explicitly that I felt good about it, I had made myself vulnerable; receiving that comment hurt. I felt humiliated.

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The Controlling Client

Early in my personal therapy, my analyst used to tell me I was trying to control him. He’d talk about the way I left pointed openings for him to speak. He identified a pattern — how I’d relate events in order to elicit a particular response from him, the one that I wanted. He showed me how I would bring in material that repeated themes from prior sessions, hoping I could “predict” what he would have to say.

This kind of interpretation focuses on the role of unbearable need and dependency in the psychotherapy relationship. When we can’t tolerate needing someone else and having to wait for him to give us what we need, we feel helpless. One response to such a feeling of helplessness is attempting to control the person you need. This view holds that control is a defense mechanism developed during infancy, where the helpless baby strives to control the object of need — i.e., the mother. It assumes that, as an adult, he or she will have similar issues with dependency and control in other relationships. Clients who want to feel in control of their therapists would likely strive for control in any relationship that stirs up feelings of need, dependency or helplessness.

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How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

It’s no secret that most people make and then break their New Year’s resolutions, and there’s plenty of Internet advice available on how to avoid such a disappointment: start small, make a detailed step-by-step plan, surround yourself with positive re-enforcement, etc. These are worthy suggestions, though they ignore the unconscious reasons why we often fail to fulfill our New Year’s resolutions. Most people don’t understand the psychological value and meaning of those “bad habits” they want to shed, to begin with, nor do they appreciate the additional stress occasioned by these healthier new habits they want to develop.

Let’s begin with one of the most common New Year’s resolutions — to lose weight. When most people decide to go on a diet, they rarely consider how over-eating may serve to fulfill unmet emotional needs. In marriages without affection, or where sex has died, we often eat as a substitute for the physical contact we crave. Consuming food may also anesthetize emotions such as grief or anger that we can’t bear to feel. Although loss of appetite is one of the primary signs of depression, depressed men and women may also seek relief from their painful symptions by eating. In other words, turning to food is often a defensive maneuver to avoid unbearable pain.

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