From Intellectualization to Depersonalization: A Spectrum

[As I was about to publish this post, it occurred to me that its intellectual subject matter was a way to escape from the intensely emotional focus and interactions with readers from my last post — a defense mechanism at work!]

As I’m thinking ahead to the the participatory research project I have planned for early next year, I feel more and more enthusiastic about the central premise: that what defense mechanisms essentially do is divert attention away from sources of pain so that we no longer notice them. We’ll be focusing on methods of distraction, particularly the use of verbal thought, as they arise; the goal will be to sensitize ourselves to the moment when a defense mechanism kicks in.

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From Heartbreak to Redemption

On the occasion of my new book’s launch, I’d like to tell you a story about something that happened to me nearly 13 years ago; it will help to explain why today means so much to me and why I’m experiencing the publication of this book as a kind of “corrective emotional experience” for an old trauma.

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Projecting and the Law of False Attribution

I’ve been meaning to write this post for more than a year now; from the beginning, I’ve had this particular title in mind although I’m not 100% sure that it’s the right one. If anyone has a better suggestion for how to name this particular mental process, feel free to submit a comment.

I call the phenomenon I want to describe a “law” because it seems to be a fundamental principle of human mental functioning, an in-built assumption that if I am feeling bad, then someone or something is causing me to feel that way. In other words, we attribute a cause-and-effect relationship between the way we are feeling and the actions of people around us. Sometimes this attribution may be accurate — Your continual criticisms are causing me to feel terrible — but on other occasions, it may be false: The way you chew your food is driving me crazy! In the latter case, I am probably feeling irritable, tired and grouchy; rather than recognizing that I feel the way I do because I didn’t get enough sleep last night or because work today was highly stressly, I falsely account for those feelings by attributing them to you and your irksome way of chewing.

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Empathy for the Psychopath

The New York Times magazine ran a chilling article yesterday about psychopathic children, and how the features that lead to anti-social personality disorder and sociopathy may be identified as early as age five. If you haven’t already seen it, I suggest you give it read.

Researchers uniformly focus on lack of empathy as the best predictor for future psychopathic behavior. They emphasize the need to teach these children how to empathize “before it’s too late,” but they seem to have no idea how to do that. Efforts to teach these children ways to read and recognize emotional responses in other people only made them more effective manipulators. Instilling a system of rewards and punishments only made them more careful and secretive. According to the researchers, these children “lack humanity” because they seem unable to feel and connect with other human beings. So how to teach them empathy and help them to become “human” like the rest of us?

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Vacation Breaks in Psychotherapy and Defenses Against Need

In my last post, I discussed how clients need to become emotionally dependent upon their therapists for psycho-dynamic treatment to be effective. How difficult the client finds it to tolerate his or her own needs obviously plays a major role in the development of that dependency. As I’ve said before, neediness is often one of the first issues we confront when we begin therapy: early experiences of untrustworthy or unreliable caregivers may have taught us that it’s unsafe to become too dependent, making us reluctant to “commit” to the psychotherapy relationship. These are ongoing issues that repeatedly come to the surface during treatment, especially around the therapist’s vacations, which often stir up abandonment issues or cause the old doubts as to the safety of the psychotherapy relationship to reemerge.

I recently returned to work from a 10-day vacation, and many of my clients had strong reactions to the break, none of them the same and each reflecting the person’s particular defenses. During my early years as a therapist, I found that I often lost clients immediately before and after my vacations; nobody decided to quit this time (with the possible exception of the client I described in my last post, discussed in more detail below), but there has been more “instability” in my schedule than usual — one session time “forgotten” by a client, some re-scheduling, emails expressing confusion about the appointment time, etc. This type of behavior usually (but not always) has a psychological meaning that you might uncover in the next session if you listen carefully.

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