Friday, October 31, 2014

The Joy of Punctuality

To advance her career and to improve her personal life Diana DeLonzor needed to learn how to be punctual.

DeLonzor was suffering from a problem that apparently afflicts upwards of 17% of the population. She could never get anywhere on time. She was chronically late. It was undermining her business relationships and turning her personal life into constant drama.

MSN Lifestyle offers her description of her problem:

“It didn’t matter what time I got up. I could get up at six and still be late for work at nine,” she recalls. She was reprimanded at work, lost friendships, and her timely husband was always mad at her. She couldn't stand being late, yet she just couldn’t change.

“Most people really hate being late and have tried many times to fix it,” DeLonzor says. “Punctual people misunderstand. They think you’re doing it as a control thing, or that you’re selfish or inconsiderate. But, it really is a much more complex problem than it seems.”

Chronic tardiness is rude. It is insensitive. It is inconsiderate. Someone who consistently fails to be punctual is disrespectful. 

So, rather than tell people to boast about their superior capacity for empathy, our culture should be telling them to make a point of showing up on time. If it’s too difficult to be on time, be early.

In some way it’s a tale of two ideas of human happiness. (See previous post.) In the one personal fulfillment is the meaning of happiness. In the other respect for others and harmonious social relations are the path to happiness.

The first fosters tardiness. The second encourages punctuality.

According to DeLonzor there are different ways to be late chronically.

Some people like to work to deadline. They enjoy the rush of doing the all-nighter to get the assignment in. They might not get it in on time, but they have convinced themselves that they work best under pressure.

Some people are easily distracted. They have it in their minds that they need to leave the house in order to get to the restaurant on time, but something comes up… because something always comes up.

Some people thrill to their own productivity. They are so happy to be getting so much done and so fulfilled getting it done that they lose track of time.

Other forms of chronic lateness are, MSN says:

... the Rationalizer, who never fully admits to her lateness (many late people are at least one part Rationalizer); the Indulger, who generally lacks self-control; the Evader, who tries to control feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem by being late; and the Rebel, who arrives late to assert power (Rebels are usually men).

This leaves us with the largest question. How can someone who is chronically late learn to be punctual?

You might think that he should learn what his symptom means, what message he is trying to send, what trauma he is repeating in being late. Such would be the answer offered by psychoanalytically oriented therapy.

The more effective cognitive approach is simpler and more difficult. The only way to learn to be punctual is to be punctual.


MSN lays down some parameters:

Transforming yourself from chronically late to perfectly punctual is a big task. [Psychologist Pauline] Wallin says it is important to make deadlines non-negotiable, “like a promise to yourself.” Start with something easily attainable, like vowing not to hit snooze tomorrow — not even once. “If you can't commit to a small inconvenience like that," she cautions, "you are not ready to tackle your chronic lateness.” Before jumping in, try an experiment: Get somewhere on time. Just once. Just to see how it feels. Note your reaction. Are you relieved or anxious? Proud or bored as hell? Then work your way up from there.

As for other tips, try these:

Step 1: Relearn to tell time. Every day for two weeks, write down each task you have to do and how long you think it will take. Time yourself as you go through your list — showering and dressing, eating breakfast, driving to work, picking up the dry cleaning, doing the dishes — and write the actual time next to your estimate. Many people have certain time frames cemented in their brains that aren’t realistic. Just because once, five years ago, you made it to work in 12 minutes flat doesn’t mean it takes 12 minutes to get to work.

Step 2: Never plan to be on time. Late people always aim to arrive to the minute, leaving no room for contingency. Say you need to get to work at 9 a.m. You assume it takes exactly 12 minutes to get to work, so you leave at 8:48. If you miss one traffic light or have to run back inside to grab an umbrella, it becomes impossible to make it in on time. Don't chance it. Both DeLonzor and Morgenstern say you should plan to be everywhere 15 minutes early.

Step 3: Welcome the wait. If the thought of getting anywhere ahead of time freaks you out, plan an activity to do in the interim. Bring a magazine, call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, or go over your schedule for the week. Make the activity specific and compelling, so you’ll be motivated get there early and do it.

It takes time and effort to change a habit, but changing this one will do wonders for your life and your mental health.

Happiness Is ...

I’ve made the point often enough, but still, why not make it again. This time with the imprimatur of Scientific American.

The point is that the standard Western concept of happiness differs markedly from the standard Asian or Eastern concept.

We in the West associate happiness with personal fulfillment and especially with the experience of pleasure. In the East, people believe that social harmony is more important than individual fulfillment and thus we maintain a different concept of happiness.

One suspects that what passes for the standard Western mode of happiness-seeking owes much to the therapy culture.

Writing in Scientific American, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Esfahani Smith explain:

Everyone wants to be happy. It's a fundamental human right. It's associated with all sorts of benefits. We, as a society, spend millions trying to figure out what the key to personal happiness is. There are now even apps to help us turn our frowns upside down. So everyone wants to be happy—right?

In Eastern cultures, the emphasis is on attainment of social harmony, where community and belonging are held in high regard. In Western cultures, the emphasis is on attainment of happiness, where the individualistic self tends to be celebrated.

Researchers have also studied the way happiness is defined in different dictionaries from different nations:

These values translate to different weights placed on personal happiness. In one paper, Oishi and his colleagues examined the definition of happiness in dictionaries from 30 nations, and found that internal inner feelings of pleasure defined happiness in Western cultures, more so than East Asian cultures. Instead, East Asians cultures define happiness more in line with social harmony, and it is associated with good luck and fortune. Indeed, when researchers measure feelings of positive affect or pleasure, they go hand in hand with enhanced feelings of happiness by North America individuals but not by East Asian individuals. Instead, social factors - such as adapting to social norms or fulfilling relational obligations – were associated with enhanced feelings of happiness in East Asia.

Aaker and Smith believe, as I do, that we would do well to take a lesson from the Eastern approach. Perhaps we should not see happiness solely in individual terms. Perhaps we should act as though we have a greater awareness of our social being, that is, of other people. Perhaps we should seek out another form of happiness.

In their words:

But prioritizing personal happiness leads to a number of problems, like focusing too much on the self. Perhaps we need a more balanced approach to happiness in American culture. Personal happiness is beneficial in some contexts, a limitation in others—good in moderation, but harmful in excess. In some moments, we may need and benefit from feeling good, but in other moments, we might be better served anchoring on balanced, meaningful life focused on others. Happiness, in this light, is not the proverbial goal to chase, but a (happy) outcome of a life well lived.

Good Character Makes You Better Looking

I’m not sure that this means that everyone should dispense with beauty treatments or proper dress.

Yet, we now learn, from an academic journal, that people will think you are better looking if they think you are a good person.

Good character makes you better looking.

Who knew?

Melissa Dahl reported in New York Magazine on research conducted at a Chinese university.

Researchers showed students a series of pictures of faces and asked the students to rate their relative attractiveness. Two weeks later they showed the students the same pictures, only then they described the people pictured as either decent and honorable or mean and evil.

The result, Dahl writes:

The students who thought they were looking at the faces of kind, decent women ended up rating those faces as more attractive than the students who’d been told they were judging a bunch of jerkfaces.

You might ask yourself whether our culture encourages people to be kind and decent, respectful to others and generally nice. Or you might ask whether the culture encourages people to do whatever they need to do to get ahead, to express their feelings no matter who they offend.

I agree that “nice” is more attractive than “mean,” but how many people today—beyond your grandparents—still encourage you to be nice?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bad Mental Habits

Changing your mind is not like changing your shirt. You can’t just take off your dirty old mind and put on a nice clean new one.

You can’t do it because the mind has its own habitual way of working. If it accustoms itself to seeing and interpreting the world and experience in a certain way it will continue doing so, whether you like it or not.

Getting over a bad mental habit is just as daunting a prospect as getting over any other kind of habit.

The founder of cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck listed a number of what he called cognitive distortions. I would prefer to call them bad mental habits.

In either case Alexandra Levit brought them to our attention in a blog post yesterday.

Among the more salient bad habits:

Thinking in black or white terms. When we see the forces of light arrayed against the forces of darkness we are likely to ignore shades of gray. If we believe in an inevitable conflict between one side that is all right and the other side that is all wrong, we are likely to fail to negotiate a compromise that might be mutually acceptable.

Blame-shifting. You already know this one. It’s the refusal to take responsibility for our own behavior. Instead, we shift the blame… to our friends, our family, our irrational impulses, our primal instincts or global warming.

And then there’s the tendency to be constantly prepared for the worst. Beck called it “catastrophizing.” It means that whenever we see the worst happening to someone else, we assume that it will happen to us. One might say that this is prudent, but clearly it is excessively prudent, to the point of making it impossible to do very much of anything.

Also, Beck identified the tendency to believe that we can change other people and that our happiness depends on our ability to do so. This one infects everyone in the therapy profession, but especially psychoanalysts. It is also the bane of those who believe that their love can cure whoever they love.

Then, Beck offered the control fallacy. Those who suffer from it either feel responsible for everything that happens to anyone who is attached to them or refuse to accept responsibility for anything that they do wrong.

Again, this fallacy shows us making decisions based on a narrative, not on the facts at hand.

We also err when we reason with our gut. Beck identified a tendency in some people to believe that if they feel it, it must be true. You know people who insist that they feel strongly about this or that issue and that their strong feelings are a clear sign that they are right.

Some of us also believe that everything must be fair and just in the world. When things do not turn out as our idea dictates we feel cheated. This suggests that people who want the world to correspond to their ideals have developed a bad mental habit.

People who are depressed tend to see the world in shades of dark gray. When evaluating a day when many good things and one bad thing happen they fixate on the bad thing and conclude that the day was a calamity.

Others endure all manner of suffering because they believe that the more they suffer the greater will be their eventual and inevitable reward.

Among other bad mental habits are:

Jumping to conclusions. This refers to the tendency to assume that people are going to act in character or according to our expectations. Levit suggests that when we believe that other people and the world should be following a mental script, we are incapable of adapting to reality. We tend to judge ourselves harshly when things do not work out according to script and judge others harshly when they do not follow it.

How do you overcome these bad mental habits? Levit takes a page from Aaron Beck and recommends, first, identifying the bad mental habit, and second, attempting to refute it with a reality test:

The first step is simply to identify when you’re engaging in negative thinking and try to refute the thought in your mind.

For instance, if you wake up in a bad mood, you might arrive at work feeling inadequate and incompetent. But once you recognize that feeling inadequate and incompetent doesn’t mean you are (emotional reasoning), you can coach yourself with positive thoughts like, “I was the only one in the group to get promoted last year,” and “my boss trusted me to draft his report for the general manager.” Your emotions might not change immediately, but you’ll be much better equipped to get on with your day.

Of course, one needs to do this repeatedly. And one needs to accompany it with better mental habits, with judicious judgment and a refusal to see life as a script.

Who's Really Chickenshit?

Only the most obtuse observer would have been shocked to read that the Obama administration considers the Israeli prime minister to be “chickenshit.”

As Jeffrey Goldberg reports in The Atlantic, it’s just one more in a long list of invectives:

Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.” 

Of  course, American Jews have not noticed. Since they happily voted Jeremiah Wright’s protégé into the White House, they have a vested interest in blinding themselves to the obvious.

The obvious, as Caroline Glick has been at pains to point out, is the Obama administration's deep-seated animus against Israel.

In Glick’s words:

Since he assumed office nearly six years ago, US President Barack Obama has been dogged by allegations of managerial incompetence. Obama, his critics allege, had no managerial experience before he was elected. His lack of such experience, they claim, is reflected in what they see as his incompetent handling of the challenges of the presidency.

In everything from dealing with the Congress, to reining in radical ideologues at the IRS, to handling the chaos at the Mexican border, to putting together coordinated strategies for dealing with everything from Ebola to Islamic State (IS), Obama’s critics claim that he is out of his league. That he is incompetent.

But if Israel’s experience with him is any guide, then his critics are the ones who are out to sea. Because at least in his handling of US relations with the Jewish state, Obama has exhibited a mastery of the tools of the executive branch unmatched by most of his predecessors….

At least as far as Israel is concerned, Obama’s mastery of the federal bureaucracy is complete. It is not incompetence that guides his policy. It is malicious intent toward the US’s closest ally in the Middle East. 

The Obama administration has not insulted the leaders of Iran and North Korea, doubtless because it fears Iran and North Korea. It has never spoken ill of the leader of the Palestinian authority or the head of Hamas. The president himself always speaks reverentially about Rev. Farrakhan. Obama and his administration have reserved their opprobrium, insults and invective for one international leader, the prime minister of the Jewish state.

To most sensible observers, it looks like anti-Semitism. The rise of European anti-Semitism during the Obama years and the increasing anti-Semitism on American campuses must have some relationship to the president’s overt disdain for Benjamin Netanyahu.

Of course, calling Netanyahu “chickenshit’ is especially galling.

The man who has spent his presidency dismantling the American military should not call anyone chickenshit.

The man who surrendered Iraq and is in the process of surrendering Afghanistan should not call anyone chickenshit.

The president who cowers in the face of radical Islam should not call anyone chickenshit.

And the president who brags about how he pressured Netanyahu not to attack Iran’s nuclear installations should not call anyone chickenshit.

Fair enough, the words came from an unnamed administration official. We wait to see whether the president apologizes openly for the remarks and whether he fires the official who made them.

If he does not, we may assume that they came from him.

For now the administration’s overarching foreign policy goal in the Middle East has been détente with Iran. Obama wants to achieve relieve Iran of the burden of international sanctions. The fact that Iran violates human rights with impunity does not register with him. Obama seems to care more about ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program can continue unmolested.

As you would expect, the Obama people blame it all on the Jews:

Much of the anger felt by Obama administration officials is rooted in the Netanyahu government’s periodic explosions of anti-American condescension. The Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, in particular, has publicly castigated the Obama administration as naive, or worse, on matters related to U.S. policy in the Middle East. Last week, senior officials including Kerry (who was labeled as “obsessive” and “messianic” by Ya’alon) and Susan Rice, the national security advisor, refused to meet with Ya’alon on his trip to Washington, and it’s hard to blame them.

This is administration spin. Keep in mind that at their first meeting in the White House Obama walked out on Netanyahu and left him alone while he, Obama, sat down to a family dinner—for ninety minutes.

Do you need a clearer sign of contempt?

And then, during the Gaza war, the administration (see Caroline Glick’s article, linked above) used a bureaucratic maneuver to block weapons shipments to Israel. And let’s not forget that the FAA stopped all flights into Tel Aviv.

And, of course, the administration has always insisted that the one true obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the Israeli settlement policy.

While Obama and Kerry were tormenting themselves over the Netanyahu government’s housing policy we lost Iraq, war raged in Syria, ISIS was rising, the Arab Spring was failing and Iran was proceeding to acquire the bomb.

Jews who voted for Obama should be ashamed. And they should send a message to the administration by voting against Democrats in Tuesday’s election.

While many American Jews believe that the Republican Party, with its evangelical Christian wing, is their true enemy, the only group that has wholeheartedly supported Israel of late has been the evangelical wing of the Republican Party.

Go figure.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Conscientious Spouse

Had you been following the latest psycho literature you would have come away with the sense that empathy is the supreme moral sentiment. Having a capacity for empathy makes you a fine, upstanding moral being. Lacking it makes you a psychopath, a sociopath or a bigot.

While empathy, per se, does not show up on what is called the Big Five personality test, it is lurking in the shadows.

The test measures what it calls personality traits, among them: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. In the study the researchers wanted to see the correlation between one or another of these traits and career success.

Jena McGregor defines them in the Washington Post:

The research examined the careers and personalities of more than 4,500 married people, using a common personality test known as the Big Five. The test measures people on five different traits: extraversion (how outgoing and sociable a person is), agreeableness (how honest and sympathetic someone is, versus suspicious and unfriendly), conscientiousness (how well someone can plan and be productive, rather than be disorganized and impulsive), neuroticism (how anxiety-prone someone is) and openness (how naturally curious and open to change a person is).

Before going any further, let’s note that extraversion (and its cousin, introversion), agreeableness (and its component quality of empathy), neuroticism (a nervous and febrile life style) and openness are personality traits.

Conscientiousness, however, is a character trait. The ability to make a plan and to implement it is not a personality trait. Surely, other parts of conscientiousness involve being responsible and reliable.

So far, so good.

When the researchers examined which personality and character traits translated into greater career success they discovered that:

… those with higher levels of extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness were more likely to have higher levels of future job satisfaction. Meanwhile, higher conscientiousness was also tied to better salaries, and greater extraversion was linked with more promotions on the job.

Nothing about this should come as a surprise. People who are more outgoing and more sociable, who get along well with others and who practice those qualities conscientiously, with good manners, are more likely to do well on the job.

Interestingly, people who are more conscientious are more likely to make more money while the extraverts are more likely to get more promotions.

McGregor continues:

On the negative side, individuals who were particularly agreeable often had lower income and fewer job promotions. And unsurprisingly, those who scored high on the neuroticism traits were also less satisfied with their jobs.

No one is surprised that people who are nervous and suspicious and untrusting are not going to do very well in their careers. And yet, it is somewhat surprising that people who value agreeableness above all else, who share feelings freely and openly are less successful at work.

But, this is not the more interesting part of the study.

That lies in the fact that those who succeed in the business world are more often married to spouses who exhibit one “personality” trait in particular: conscientiousness.

If a man’s wife is conscientious, he will do better on the job. It is, the research suggests, the only wifely trait that really matters for his career success.

If his wife is not conscientious, she might be empathic and agreeable, to say nothing of extraverted and open and even sexy, but her husband will not do as well.

Admittedly, the Washington Post story uses the gender neutral term of spouse. It does make some sense. In a world that is awash in househusbands and female breadwinners, it seems quaint to talk about husbands and wives.

And yet, to avoid confusion, I will use the more traditional terms.

The conclusion, again: a conscientious wife will be an integral part of her husband’s career success. (Until, that is, she faces a judge in divorce court and is told that she should not expect very much alimony. See previous post.)

Why should this be so?

The researchers speculate:

Yet when it came to the effect of a spouse's personality traits on a person's career, only high scores on conscientiousness had any impact, whether positive or negative. Jackson suggests two main reasons for this: One, he says, is that people often emulate their spouses' behavior, meaning a husband's or wife's industriousness and organizational skills might rub off on the other.

The second reason is that when a person's spouse is organized, efficient and hard working, they're probably tackling the bulk of the household chores, freeing their husband or wife up to focus more on his or her job. "You're not as stressed about certain chores or duties that need to be done while you're at work," Jackson says.

The second reason feels far more cogent than the first. As for the question of what does or does not rub off on one’s spouse, it is equally possible that a conscientious individual would choose a conscientious spouse.

Surely, it follows that if a woman has exalted career ambitions, like Sheryl Sandberg, she would do well either to have a conscientious househusband or an extensive household staff.

Unfortunately, McGregor wants to promote chore-sharing, so she misses the second of Jackson’s points. She follows Sandberg blindly when she says that both members of a couple should be sharing household chores equally.

In truth, Jackson’s second point suggested a traditional division of household labor. It is fair to note that if career success depends on being freed of any worry about the home front, the need to share household chores bespeaks one’s spouse’s lack of conscientiousness.

Believing that one’s spouse can be counted on to do only half the chores does not free the working spouse from being distracted by what might or might not be going on at home.

Feminists Against Alimony

The courts are evolving. They are developing a new, enlightened attitude toward alimony.

Take the case of the stay-at-home wife. She has been out of the workforce for twenty years. She has made a home for her husband and children. She has done most of the work of bringing up her children.

If it should happen that she lands in divorce court, seeking alimony, the courts are increasingly unsympathetic to her situation.

Emma Johnson reports in Forbes:

Getting divorced but you haven’t worked for 20 years?

Your skills are outdated and your kids still need you at home?  

Devoted yourself to supporting your husband’s career?     

Judges could care less.

Get a job, honey.           

Increasingly, this is what what’s happening in divorce courts across the country. Nearly every state is revisiting its laws on alimony — or “maintenance” — in divorce cases, and the trend is universal: more limits on length of support, and standardization on sums doled out. And in many cases, maintenance is denied all together, even for women who have not worked for decades.

Yes, doled. More and more, that is how courts see it, according to my friend Morghan  Richardson, a New York City family attorney.

“Judges increasingly look with suspicion at post-judgment alimony requests,” Richardson says. “They see that women have just as much opportunity to earn as men do, and they should — even stay-at-home-moms who haven’t worked for decades.”

I have been hearing similar stories for years now. How prevalent they are is subject to debate, but certainly it happens.

Why the change in attitude?

It’s because feminism has won. It’s because women have more opportunity than ever before to be self-supporting and self-sufficient. These superior creatures do not need to depend on any man.


At first glance, the new attitude looks like a backlash against feminism, engineered by oppressive patriarchal judges.

In truth, it’s just the opposite. Often, it’s feminist judges who deprive women of alimony. 

Why should that be? 

These judges are contemptuous of any woman who did not do what feminism told her to do, but who chose to depend on her husband for financial support.

Johnson quotes the view of her friend and divorce lawyer, Richardson:

“I’ve been in court where a judge would outright admonish my clients for not working or looking for work, telling them that ‘care-taking for a child does not absolve you from supporting yourself.’ This is a harsh reality check for some stay-at-home moms, who sometimes have a real sense of entitlement about the decision to stay home. On one hand, that was a marital decision, but on the other hand, the marriage is over,” Richardson says. “There is little sympathy for women who quit their jobs to stay home from the courts, particularly when the magistrate is a woman who has worked her way up as a lawyer — most likely having to put her own children in daycare to earn a seat on the bench.”

Richardson recently had a client who was stunned to learn she was expected to return to work after having been home with her now-teenage sons for 15 years. The woman — now in her late 40s — eventually took a job stocking shelves at her cousin’s store to make ends meet, even though her husband earned more than $200,000 per year.

Let’s see. Women are free to choose. They are free to choose the way they want to live their lives.

Except that they are not.

Apparently, the feminist party line has it that a woman who does not conduct her life the way feminism wants her to conduct it, who takes on the role of housewife, should, if the opportunity arises, be punished.

Feminist judges look down on housewives with contempt and punish them for not doing what feminism told them to do.

Since feminists believe that a marriage based on traditional roles is destined to fail they feel a special kind of Schadenfreude when it happens. If they are judges and hold the power over these women’s lives they take the opportunity to teach them a lesson.

If this is true—and I hope that it is very, very rare—it means that some feminists consider that the work entailed in making a home and raising children is worth, precisely, nothing.

Say it ain’t so….

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Only Acceptable Bigotry

In today’s America the only acceptable bigotry is political. Far more than in the past people judge others by political affiliation. They have no problem excluding someone from their social circle or even refusing him or her a job for holding the wrong political views.

Cass Sunstein labelled the problem partyism. He defined its prevalence in a Bloomberg column:

If you are a Democrat, would you marry a Republican? Would you be upset if your sister did?

Researchers have long asked such questions about race, and have found that along important dimensions, racial prejudice is decreasing. At the same time, party prejudice in the U.S. has jumped, infecting not only politics but also decisions about dating, marriage and hiring. By some measures, "partyism" now exceeds racial prejudice -- which helps explain the intensity of some midterm election campaigns.

In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said that they would feel “displeased” if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had reached 49 percent and 33 percent. Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.

David Brooks has offered his own analysis:

The broad social phenomenon is that as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being hyper-moralized. People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.

The features of the hyper-moralized mind-set are all around. More people are building their communal and social identities around political labels. Your political label becomes the prerequisite for membership in your social set.

Politics becomes a marker for basic decency. Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion, or basic loyalty to country.

Finally, political issues are no longer just about themselves; they are symbols of worth and dignity. When many rural people defend gun rights, they’re defending the dignity and respect of rural values against urban snobbery.

Brooks’ point is important and, in my view, correct.

When people do not practice good behavior; when they believe that they are called upon to excuse all forms of bad behavior; when they do not believe that they have the right to judge anyone’s character… they end up judging people by their beliefs.

Brooks is arguing, as I would, that good character-- the ability to follow the basic principles of decorum, propriety, humility, modesty, respect and responsibility – produces social harmony.

But this requires that everyone follow the same rules. In a multicultural world there are no rules that apply to everyone, so we can only form groups by finding others who hold to the same beliefs.

People think of this as enlightened, but it resembles religious fanaticism. If a religion insists that everyone hold to the same beliefs it will quickly figure out that it is impossible to know precisely what anyone really believes.

Thus, it will feel the need to test believers to see if they are harboring heretical beliefs. It will run inquisitions and witch hunts to rid the populace of people who might be unbelievers.

And it fears any association with individuals who might be heretics or who might not be sufficiently fervent in their convictions.

How did our nation arrive at this impasse? How did it arrive at the point where we no longer consider that honorable people can hold different opinions, but insist that any difference of opinion is a sign of moral depravity?

Surely, the failure to practice the classical virtue of patriotism must play a part. If we are all Americans, all wanting what is best for the nation, all feeling pride in the nation… then our differences of opinion are about the means, not the goal.

As Brooks explains it:

Most of the time, politics is a battle between competing interests or an attempt to balance partial truths. But in this fervent state, it turns into a Manichaean struggle of light and darkness. To compromise is to betray your very identity. When schools, community groups and workplaces get defined by political membership, when speakers get disinvited from campus because they are beyond the pale, then every community gets dumber because they can’t reap the benefits of diverging viewpoints and competing thought.

Keep in mind, many serious thinkers believe in the positive value of the “Manichean struggle of light and darkness.” Only, they call it a dialectical conflict between opposites.

If we do not believe that we have a monopoly on the truth, we will be willing to interact with those who offer different ideas. After all, we might be able to craft a negotiated compromise that satisfies both parties.

Why is this no longer possible? One reason must be an educational system that insists on emphasizing America’s fault, failings, crimes and derelictions.

If you teach children to criticize their country, you will be demoralizing them and making it impossible for them to identify first as Americans and second as Republicans or Democrats.
Brooks also believes that the nation is suffering from a lack of serious discussion of morality by public intellectuals. This is also true. There is no  real discussion of the importance of classical ethical virtues and the need to develop good character.

The therapy culture would never allow it.

What passes for moral discussion in America today involves defaming and slandering people who do not hold correct beliefs. Citizens are routinely denounced for being racist, sexist, homophobic and whatever.

In such a context your moral being derives from your beliefs… and from any behavior that would betray a bigoted belief. Those who launch these accusations feel comfortable in their self-righteous moral superiority. The accused are immediately labeled as unfit for human community.

When Psychiatry Fails

After Adam Lanza gunned down twenty children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the governor of Connecticut charged the Office of the Child Advocate to try to find out what went wrong.

How did it happen that no one had seen it coming? How did it happen that no one had found a way to treat Lanza?

According to Reuters, the report will conclude:

The extent of Newtown school shooter Adam Lanza's growing rage, isolation and delusions when he was a teenager were apparently overlooked by his mother, psychiatrists and counselors, according to a report expected to be issued next month.

The report found that Lanza, who gunned down 20 children and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly two years ago, did not have to become a violent adult, Scott Jackson, chairman of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, said on Friday.

It says better screening and evaluation might have helped detect earlier the 20-year-old's potential for violence. Lanza also killed his mother and then himself in the Dec. 14, 2012 violence.

Of course, when faced with a horror like what Lanza did at Sandy Hook, it is normal to ask what went wrong. And yet, Lanza’s problems were not ignored by his mother or his father. Unfortunately for them and for the people of Sandy Hook, they were doing what the psychiatrists told them.

The failure ought not to be laid at the foot of the parents, but of the psychiatrists who had examined and evaluated Lanza.

For those who prefer not to wait for the Connecticut report Andrew Solomon wrote his own extensive analysis of the situation for The New Yorker several months ago. See also, my previous post.

Solomon discovered that Lanza’s parents had taken him to see many psychiatrists. Surely, we cannot fault the parents for trusting the opinions of major psychiatrists in New York and New Haven. It may not seem possible that they were all wrong, but clearly they were.

They were wrong when they placed Adam on the autism spectrum, diagnosing Asperger’s syndrome.

Solomon reports:

When Adam was thirteen, Peter and Nancy took him to Paul J. Fox, a psychiatrist, who gave a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome (a category that the American Psychiatric Association has since subsumed into the broader diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder). Peter and Nancy finally knew what they were up against. “It was communicated as ‘Adam, this is good news. This is why you feel this way, and now we can do something about it,’ ” Peter recalled.

A year later, they took Adam to see another psychiatrist:

When Adam was fourteen, shortly after Ryan had left for college, Peter and Nancy took him to Yale’s Child Study Center for further diagnosis. The psychiatrist who assessed Adam, Robert King, recorded that he was a “pale, gaunt, awkward young adolescent standing rigidly with downcast gaze and declining to shake hands.” He also noted that Adam “had relatively little spontaneous speech but responded in a flat tone with little inflection and almost mechanical prosody.” Many people with autism speak in a flat tone, and avoiding eye contact is common, too, because trying to interpret sounds and faces at the same time is overwhelming. Open-ended questions can also be intolerable to people with autism, and, when King asked Adam to make three wishes, he wished “that whatever was granting the wishes would not exist.”

Dr. King added a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder:

King noted evidence of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which often accompanies autism. Adam refused to touch metal objects such as doorknobs and didn’t like his mother to touch them, either, because he feared contamination. “Adam imposes many strictures, which are increasingly onerous for mother,” King wrote. “He disapproves if mother leans on anything in the house because it is ‘improper.’ . . . He is also intolerant if mother brushes by his chair and objected to her new high heel boots, because they were ‘too loud.’ . . . If mother walks in front of him in the kitchen, he would insist she redo it.” King was concerned that Adam’s parents seemed to worry primarily about his schooling, and said that it was more urgent to address “how to accommodate Adam’s severe social disabilities in a way that would permit him to be around peers.” King saw “significant risk to Adam in creating, even with the best of intentions, a prosthetic environment which spares him having to encounter other students or to work to overcome his social difficulties.” And he concluded that Nancy was “almost becoming a prisoner in her own house.”

Lanza was also being treated at Yale by nurse Kathleen Koenig. His psychiatrist had put him on Lexapro, an anti-depressant, but he reacted badly to it.

Solomon writes:

Adam stopped taking Lexapro and never took psychotropics again, which worried Koenig. She wrote, “While Adam likes to believe that he’s completely logical, in fact, he’s not at all, and I’ve called him on it.” She said he had a biological disorder and needed medication. “I told him he’s living in a box right now, and the box will only get smaller over time if he doesn’t get some treatment.”

Perhaps this tells us that depression was not the problem. It also makes us ask why no one had noticed the signs of psychosis or had tried an anti-psychotic medication.

As for Adam’s refusal to take any other medication, this is yet another reason to loosen the laws about involuntary commitment.

In any event, the Lanza parents accepted the Asperger’s diagnosis. To their and the community’s regret. Later, Adam’s father, Peter Lanza had a better sense of the problem:

Peter gets annoyed when people speculate that Asperger’s was the cause of Adam’s rampage. “Asperger’s makes people unusual, but it doesn’t make people like this,” he said, and expressed the view that the condition “veiled a contaminant” that was not Asperger’s: “I was thinking it could mask schizophrenia.” Violence by autistic people is more commonly reactive than planned—triggered, for example, by an invasion of personal space. Studies of people with autism who have committed crimes suggest that at least half also suffer from an additional condition—from psychosis, in about twenty-five per cent of cases. Some researchers believe that a marked increase in the intensity of an autistic person’s preoccupations can be a warning sign, especially if those preoccupations have a sinister aspect. Forensic records of Adam’s online activity show that, in his late teens, he developed a preoccupation with mass murder. But there was never a warning sign; his obsession was discussed only pseudonymously with others online.

True enough, no one can predict what now appears to have been a psychosis will manifest itself. Certainly, it need not produce mass murder.

And yet, the question remains: why?

Solomon asked it:

But, important as those issues are, our impulse to grasp for reasons comes, arguably, from a more basic need—to make sense of what seems senseless. When the Connecticut state’s attorney issued a report, in December, CNN announced, “Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza took motive to his grave.” ATimes headline ran “CHILLING LOOK AT NEWTOWN KILLER, BUT NO ‘WHY.’ ” Yet no “motive” can mitigate the horror of a bloodbath involving children. Had we found out—which we did not—that Adam had schizophrenia, or had been a pedophile or a victim of childhood abuse, we still wouldn’t know why he acted as he did.

In the most obvious sense, knowing why Adam Lanza did what he did is far less important than stopping him from doing it. That would have entailed a correct diagnosis and treatment, probably in an inpatient facility. Knowing how troubled he was is not the same as knowing why did what he did.

If we still want to know why he did it, we might also consider the possibility that the intense media attention to mass murderers like the Aurora shooter James Holmes and Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold showed Adam Lanza a way to become infamous.

Monday, October 27, 2014

How To Deal with Toxic Individuals

Hell, Sartre said, is other people.

As much as I admire Sartre-- a great, but now often overlooked philosopher-- his statement leaves much to be desired.

True enough, some people are hell to deal with, but if Sartre believed that all other people were hellish then he should have chosen his friends better.

Carrie Bradshaw and her friends were trying to deal with what she called New York’s toxic bachelors. Now, consultant Travis Bradberry explains that success in life depends largely on your ability to deal with toxic individuals.

We are all happy to learn that it’s not just New York bachelors who are toxic.

According to Bradberry, if you spend your time interacting with toxic people your stress levels will rise and your health, both mental and physical, will be compromised.

One should note that therapists are in the business of dealing with toxic individuals. Surely, a therapist’s ability to manage toxic emotion, rather than to try to find out how meaningful it is, will not only help his patients but will protect his own sanity.

Bradberry reports on some recent research:

Recent research from the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany found that exposure to stimuli that cause strong negative emotions—the same kind of exposure you get when dealing with toxic people—caused subjects’ brains to have a massive stress response. Whether it’s negativity, cruelty, the victim syndrome, or just plain craziness, toxic people drive your brain into a stressed-out state that should be avoided at all costs.

In the same vein, the Washington Post explained that toxic bosses are likely to make you sick:

Difficult bosses can come in many forms, including hypercritical micromanagers, inept managers, bosses who push blame for problems onto others or hurl obscenities, and those who make unwanted sexual advances. But researchers say that whatever the type, when employees deal with a bad boss day in and day out, negative health effects often begin to pop up.

But, how do you go about managing your relationships with toxic individuals?

While examining some of Bradberry’s recommendations—all of which are useful—ask yourself whether, by these criteria, therapists manage toxic people well or poorly. If therapists cannot manage their patients’ toxic emotions, how will they be able to teach their patients how to deal with toxic people themselves?

It is worth underscoring that these methods for dealing with toxic individuals come to us from the world of business consulting, not therapy.

Bradberry’s first guideline for dealing with toxic individuals is this: set limits to how much complaining you are willing to listen to. He adds that, instead of allowing another individual to expound on problems and issues, it is better to direct the conversation toward solutions.

He writes:

Complainers and negative people are bad news because they wallow in their problems and fail to focus on solutions. They want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. People often feel pressure to listen to complainers because they don’t want to be seen as callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear and getting sucked into their negative emotional spiral….

A great way to set limits is to ask complainers how they intend to fix the problem. They will either quiet down or redirect the conversation in a productive direction.

Working on issues means working out the possible solutions. It does not involve wondering what it all means, pondering why you cannot solve the problem or asking which unresolved childhood is being played out.

In Bradberry’s words:

Where you focus your attention determines your emotional state. When you fixate on the problems you’re facing, you create and prolong negative emotions and stress. When you focus on actions to better yourself and your circumstances, you create a sense of personal efficacy that produces positive emotions and reduces stress.

It is reasonable to ask whether therapists are prone to allow their patients to wallow in their issues or whether they look for practical ways to solve problems. It is also reasonable to ask whether patients, faced with a therapist who wants to hear complaints, believe that more, better complaining constitutes progress.

Bradberry’s second piece of advice is: curb your emotions. Which means, don’t express them.

Toxic people, he  believes, are emotionally overwrought. You are not going to be able to deal with such an individual if you decide to match emotion with emotion.

So much for empathy.

To manage the situation, take a deep breath, step back, control your emotions and try to reason with the individual. That means, Bradberry notes, trying to bring things back to the level of objective facts. With that I obviously concur.

If it all becomes too arduous, you need to step away from the conversation and the individual.

You certainly need to control the space and time of interactions with toxic individuals.

In Bradberry’s terms, you need to set boundaries. Most therapists are very good at this, if only because they schedule sessions. And they do so in a way that applies, in principle to everyone and thus allows everyone to feel that they are submitting to the same set of rules.

If you are outside of a situation where you can set clear limits, you will need to make sure that you do not get involved in difficult conversations until you are ready to do so. Having someone make an appointment to discuss a matter with you will immediately set a boundary.

Finally—for our purposes— you should not see toxic individuals as crazy people, as suffering from an emotional disturbance. Thus, you should not try to address their craziness. Instead, try to figure out how you are going to handle them.

In Bradberry’s words:

When it comes to toxic people, fixating on how crazy and difficult they are gives them power over you. Quit thinking about how troubling your difficult person is, and focus instead on how you’re going to go about handling them. This makes you more effective by putting you in control, and it will reduce the amount of stress you experience when interacting with them.
Unfortunately, the therapy profession tends, for obvious reasons, to see toxic people in psychiatric terms. It sees them as cases, suffering from emotional disturbances, needing medical treatment.

Many psychiatrists have their own way of dealing with toxic individuals. They do not bother to listen to complaints, but whip out their prescription pads and tell their patients to come back in a month.

Of course, this is an extreme way to manage toxic people. It is surely not the same as coddling them, but it goes to the other extreme: it dismisses them. Unfortunately, this technique will not work outside of a psychiatrist’s office. If you try it at home or on the job you might end up telling your toxic friends to ingest the wrong kinds of substances.