Saturday, August 26, 2017

How to Be Nicer

Today’s letter writer, “Trying to Be Nicer” asks Lori Gottlieb for help in overcoming a bad habit. Already, it’s a step in the right direction. 

Thinking of mental health problems in terms of habits is far more constructive then thinking of them as expressions of unresolved mental conflicts. Many people have wasted a great deal of time trying to figure out what their bad habits are trying to say. They have forgotten the basic lesson, derived from Aristotle, that habits are not really saying anything. Or better, that knowing what they are trying to express will do nothing to change them. Got that: nothing!

TTBN explains her problem:

I’m a 23-year-old woman with some bad habits that I need to learn how to undo. I am critical, demanding, judgmental, and eager to correct people on technicalities. I have a hard time being proved wrong or considering alternate viewpoints. I’m emotionally withholding, cold, distant, and don’t open up. I’m rigid and have a hard time changing plans. I’m jabby. I was the kid who corrected the teacher and said, “Well, ACTUALLY …” constantly.

Everyone I’ve dated and many of my friends have told me this. I do it the most to people I’m closest with, but I’ve done it to tons of people in my life.

Stuff pops out of her mouth. It’s almost an automatic mechanism. But it is interesting as a reflection on a major philosophical issue: do we think before we speak or does stuff just pop out of our mouths? Does a mental act precede the physical act? If the first is true, then we are going to end up fighting our inner demons and struggling with our speech. If the latter, it is far more difficult to step back and reflect. My own view, following Wittgenstein and TTBN, is that stuff pops out of our mouths.

In her words:

I’ll say something and then immediately realize how awful it sounded. That’s growth, because in the past I wouldn’t have realized how hurtful it was … yet realizing isn’t the same as changing, and I still said it.

It is not surprising that TTBN suffers from social anxiety and has difficulty connecting with other people.

It’s odd because I also have social anxiety and often feel lonely. Going off of that, you’d think I’d be kinder to the people I do have in my life, and yet somehow, I’m not.

I want to be kind and warm with the people I love. And I want it to come from an intuitive, relaxed place. I don’t know how to get there from here.

Gottlieb’s first response is on point and on the money. She explains that insight is basically useless:

As I read through your letter, TTBN, one of my favorite maxims came to mind: “Insight is the booby prize of therapy.” Meaning, you can have all the insight in the world, but if you don’t change out in the world, the insight is worthless. This seems to be the crux of your dilemma, too: I know what I do, but I keep doing it anyway.

One would have been even happier if Gottlieb had not tried to explain why TTBN has the problem. That is, offering up several dollops of insight. We, however, understand that concocting a narrative that explains it in terms of childhood traumas or developmental glitches will not solve the problem.

Like most therapists, Gottlieb offers some insight into the problem. It’s a bad habit that many therapists have. They think that there is some value in asking why this happens. There is not. Actually, it lures patients into thinking that once they understand why they have the problem it will dissipate. When it does not, they become demoralized. Not a good therapeutic result.

To her credit Gottlieb also offers some ideas about how to change habits. They come from Marsha Linehan, a much admired therapist from Washington who developed a highly useful cognitive approach to borderline personality disorders.

Gottlieb explains:

So now that you have the “what” and the “why” — the insight — how do you move forward? You practice. From birth, our brains are making connections, forming circuits that function automatically in response to triggers and are activated by our fears. When your brain gets the signal that somebody might come close to you — even if that person is a virtual stranger — the circuit that gets activated makes you create distance through the various behaviors you describe.

But you can disrupt the circuit, first by noticing the behaviors afterward (as you’ve begun doing), then by noticing as they happen (taking a breath in that pause of recognition will interrupt the circuit). At first, you may still say or do what the circuit has long been programmed for, but every time you interrupt the circuit you start to rewire your brain. It happens gradually, like a painstaking internal renovation. And when the rewiring is complete, you won’t have to consciously go through this process.

The circuit will travel along a different pathway, one that doesn’t signal danger. What feels foreign to you now will eventually feel natural. And you’ll invite people in from, as you say, “an intuitive, relaxed place.”

I have no problem with this. If it works, all the better. Since it aims at changing a bad habit, it is clearly pointing in the right direction.

And yet, as Aristotle pointed out, the only real way to overcome a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. If TTBN wants to be nicer to people, she might consider being nicer to people.

She can follow the recommendations of Jennifer Trew and Lynn Alden, research psychologists in British Columbia, and make a habit doing good deeds, making nice gestures toward other people. This means, getting a cup of coffee for an office mate. Sending a link to an article that might be of interest. Helping someone carry a heavy bag of groceries. Trew and Alden want you to think in terms of small courtesies, the kind that reprogram the brain to think of what you can do that is nice for someone else. It is more effective than tormenting yourself over the rude and obnoxious remarks you made.

Trew and Alden showed that this habit countered social anxiety, perhaps because it made other people less threatening and perhaps because they were more likely to reciprocate. Also, you find yourself thinking and planning before you act... when you have the luxury of doing so.

Besides, even if this method is not a panacea for social anxiety, what harm could you do to start thinking of ways you can reach out and be nice to someone?


James said...

My mother always said "If you don't have anything good to say, then don't say anything."
All of this stuff has been addressed for thousands of years, it's called having "good manners". Now I realize some people are just effed up, but still on a general basis having good manners resolves a great deal. Also people need to get the fact that they are not divinely appointed in some way to Lord it over others, verbally or physically.

Ares Olympus said...

Part of the problem is that there are two important things - facts and feelings. We can say if you follow facts, you're being mean and if you follow feelings, you're being nice.

And this goes back to the "external self-awareness" from Tasha Eurich, quoted here a few months ago, good feedback doesn't come from unloving critics or uncritical lovers, but someone who has your best interest at heart.

So I think the "why" of a given behavior is very important, knowing something of your own motives in a given case. You can be aware of your desire to raise your own status and your desire to help people raise their external self-awareness.

Perhaps skillful "good manners" allow you to do both?

James said...

"Perhaps skillful "good manners" allow you to do both?" I don't know. I know that manners can be carried to the point of hypocrisy, but there are just times to realize that it is better to just shut up and be nice (it must be true, I'm told that constantly). Yes there are a lot of people who think that it is a good thing to help others "raise their external self-awareness" by the way I'm not really thinking of you when I say that, but where do they get the commission to do that? It presupposes that you are better than they are, this may be true, but again where does one get the divine piece of paper that states "you are authorized to go forth and save these wretches"? sometimes whether they like it or not.
I do not say, don't help those in need of help, but I do say be careful of what "you" think is good for someone else.

Cheryl said...

Well, it might make her feel better (ha!) to know that Paul had the same problem: "I do the thing I don't want to do, and the thing that I want to do I cannot."

The idea of replacing a bad habit with a good one is excellent, and it works. My husband started several years ago asking me, "What can I do for you today?" He is a very busy man, but for him to stop and ask me this as he was on his way out the door was so kind and loving. Even though my answer is usually "Nothing, but thanks!" I start my day feeling very cared for. I started doing it with our kids, and it just sets the tone for kindness and service in our home. I wish the writer of that letter the best of luck. It is hard to realize something so disagreeable about yourself, and even harder to change.

Ares Olympus said...

James said: Yes there are a lot of people who think that it is a good thing to help others "raise their external self-awareness" ... where do they get the commission to do that? It presupposes that you are better than they are, this may be true, but again where does one get the divine piece of paper that states "you are authorized to go forth and save these wretches"?

Mostly I'd agree with Tasha Eurich and say we all have blind-spots, and we all expose ourselves to criticism or correction when we share our perspective or opinions, and this is good if we accept we can't see everything alone.

But sure, even on correcting impersonal facts, I think C.S. Lewis expresses this danger well with a bit of hyperbole:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” ("The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment" (1949), p. 292)

I accept most of us, including me, are not open to improvement most of the time, or not instantly. Even if someone asks directly for feedback you can verify first "Do you really want to know what I think?" Of course, if someone has a hypercritical superego, they may be relieved that others are judging them a lot less severely than they imagine by projection.

Or in reverse, I recall one conversation, a woman I liked wanted me to agree with her than someone else was a bad person, and I wanted more information before making a judgment, and but more I was just trying to avoid taking sides, and she got angry and said my questions were irrelevant, which perhaps they were, but at least they were serving my purpose in avoiding judgement. I don't easily validate opinions that I don't understand or trust as the whole truth to my satisfaction. I've yet to find slowing down conclusions as a bad thing, although it may be cowardly and dangerous when there is actual imminent danger to contend with, including losing a friend.

JPL17 said...

Stuart -- Thank you for mentioning Marsha Linehan. I'd never heard of her before, but your mention and a visit to her Wikipedia page ( make me realize she's someone worth paying attention to. I happen to agree 100% with your focus on changing a person's bad habits instead of analyzing the childhood conflict from which those habits came. That said, I understand some individuals are resistant to cognitive therapy and to any effort to change a bad habit. Linehan's approach seems able to reach at least some of those resistant individuals. (I'm also fascinated by her personal story and the self-described transformation she experienced while praying in a small Catholic chapel in 1967.)

Anonymous said...

This is good stuff. Driving on the freeway is my downfall. Now I just have to remember to do this, which is always the tricky part when you have formed a very bad habit, but my plan is to tell each person who comes close to doing something very stupid that I am very proud of him for not killing me, that I hope he has a wonderful drive home, etc., etc.

We shall see.