Monthly Archives: April 2009

Crazy Like a Fox


Remember the post called Hayfever? Let’s say you wanted to avoid the common symptoms of that “dreadful lurgy,” so you invested in the latest over-the-counter nostrum for it. I know this will sound like one of Stephen Colbert’s sotto voce adverse-side-effects-warnings for a bogus health product, but I’m quoting from the PDR: “Somnolence [needing a nap RIGHT NOW], fatigue, dry mouth, pharyngitis [sore throat], dizziness, headache, GI upset/pain, cough, diarrhea, epistaxis [nosebleed], brochospasm, irritability, insomnia.” Sort of like Mexican Swine Flu in a bottle, no?

Psychodynamic theory [the kid brother to Freudian psychoanalysis] posits that whenever an individual faces a choice between two courses of action, s/he is ambivalent [“on the one hand…on the other hand”], but ultimately, s/he chooses the one that seems like “the lesser of two evils.” It is, however, a matter of personal opinion, as to which would be worse–sniffles & sneezing, or the daunting list of side-effects listed above.

Same with the Four Horsemen of What Gets Up Your Nose & Makes You Angry. We humans, as well as Lili the dog, “do the math” in our heads, calculating which of two irritants will cause us less misery, and choose accordingly. Let’s put some meat on the bones of this theory. A young woman dreads the humiliation of being judged “less than Vogue model thin,” so she opts for the pain & suffering of an Eating Disorder. A teenager cannot abide the intrusion of parental limits, so s/he runs away, opting for the fear of “being on your own, with no direction home…like a rolling stone” and having to make a deal with the skeevy dude in the song, who’s “not offering any alibis.” In either case, the casual observer might say, “You’re crazy to ruin your health, just to be a Size 2,” or “to risk your life, just to play by your own rules.” The individual who has made the choice thinks, “Yeah, crazy like a fox.”

Back in the day, I treated a young woman in Detroit who kept losing high-powered jobs because she was chronically late for work; and once there, stole money from her boss. How could this possibly be the lesser of two evils? [Even in the 90s, good jobs in Detroit did not grow on trees.] What could be worse? Well, submission to The Man was worse, in her book. She was willing to risk the financial pain & suffering of job loss, and the fear of her husband’s disapproval [that she had “screwed up again…what are you, crazy?”], rather than endure the humiliation of having to play by the same rules as everybody else. Once she grasped this, she was able to find less self-defeating ways to rebel [such as wearing a Che T-shirt under her corporate suit].

So, look at Lili and guess what trade-out of irritants she is making. Is some predator after her [causing fear]? Is there an intruder up the hill, whom she feels she must challenge? Was she told [by my husband, who took this picture] to stay put [“Zen-zen!”], and she cannot abide the humiliation of obeying his command? Actually, I am hiding behind a tree at the top of the hill, and she is rushing to join me, to avoid the pain & suffering of abandonment. [As if!]

Next time you’re faced with a Hobson’s choice of potentially risky actions, you do the math.

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Filed under aggression happens, ambivalence, lesser of two evils, understanding shenanigans

Backgammon (Bear Off)


While both backgammon and chess are war-games, the former is way older [3000 B.C. vs. 600 A.D.] and–in Geneva Conventions terms–way more soldier-friendly. In chess you can sacrifice all your troops, except the King, in the name of victory; whereas in backgammon you cannot win until you rescue all your troops from their captivity [on the Bar], and bear off every last one of them to safety.

Without getting too name-droppy about it, I was lucky enough to meet [separately] with two of Freud’s analysands [his patients], who went on to become noted psychoanalysts [both now dead–this was in the 70s]; and one of them [can’t remember which] told me that Freud preferred the metaphor of backgammon to chess, for the Game of Life. As we slog through the vicissitudes [Freud’s oh-so-prissy translator, Lytton Strachey, chose this term, instead of ups & downs, or snakes & ladders, or swings & roundabouts] of life, we get stuck in some boggy patches. [If A.A. Milne had been Freud’s translator, more people would have gotten the benefit of the useful bits.] These have to do with tricky dilemmas discussed in previous posts [such as “To be smothered with attention, or to be left utterly alone?” and “To be a Goody-Two-Shoes, or to be a Black Sheep?”]. In our earliest struggles, grown-ups represent the opposing side [the Giants, Freud said, because these battles took place When We Were Very Young, therefore, small].

In each of these skirmishes, we lose a few soldiers; but we carry on with our remaining troops, to face the next dust-up. For some people, these encounters are not so bad, and only a few soldiers are lost. For others, it’s a hard-knocks life; and the Bar is crowded with their captive troops. Freud thought of troop strength as the Vital Force [or psychic energy] needed to confront life’s challenges. Let us think of it as blood to the hippocampus, shall we? Not enough of it, and the hippocampus shrivels up, leaving us unable to remember important stuff or to problem-solve. We lose traction. We are in danger of being gammoned or even backgammoned [losing the Game of Life very badly].

So we need to make like the Red Cross [Crescent, whatever], and negotiate for the release of these PoWs. In backgammon, it’s a roll of the dice–if a useful number comes up, a soldier can be liberated and head for home. In real life, we need to go back–to revisit the hard-knock event–and see if we can reframe it in such a way that we get the captive soldier back. The most current treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder encourages the individual to recollect the traumatic event: to write about it, or to talk about it into a taperecorder and listen to it repeatedly, until it loses its power to arouse the amygdala. Then the “wolf-work” can begin. “What got up your nose, about the event?” “Are you bummed because you lost a buddy, or do you blame yourself for his/her loss?”

As in all real wars, we may never recover all the fallen or captive soldiers, but it is vitally important that we try. Those who say that we should simply “Move on,” from traumatic events, without any attempt to understand what really happened–what we were thinking, what got up our nose–are ignoring human nature and brain physiology. What we have not acknowledged and understood, we are likely to act out–against ourselves and others. Before we can truly move on, we need to look back.

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Filed under Freud meant..., gets right up my nose, limbic system, post-traumatic stress

"The Wolf Is at the Door"


Although we each have our own, personal associations to this metaphor [possibly involving 3 little pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, a Russian boy named Peter, even Kevin Costner…or Sarah Palin?], the received meaning of the phrase for several centuries has been, that one has fallen on hard financial times. [Everything old is new again.]

Since many of these scenarios end with the scary, intrusive wolf being shot dead, it’s a wonder that more bailiffs and repo men don’t get blown away on the beleaguered householder’s doorstep. One could argue that, by doing the dirty work of the householder’s creditors, these “heartless mercenaries” become de facto Silent Partners, who are prepared to destroy the lives of the debtor and his/her family. In many recent lost-his-job-and-went-on-a-killing-spree-including-himself stories, this Silent Partner dynamic is obvious.

But, even for those fortunate enough [for now] to remain solvent, the wolf-at-the-door is an archetypal symbol of threat. To understand why, let’s go back to Vienna, to the 300-year-old Spanish Riding School, for another animal story [attributed to Freud]. The Lippizaners are the horses that do “ballet” [high-level Dressage moves] to Mozart, whose shows are a notoriously hard ticket; but whose rehearsals are open to the public. I like to think that it was while watching such a rehearsal [perhaps seeing a groom leading two high-spirited stallions around the arena] that Freud asked a friend, “Which would you choose–to be pulled apart by two horses, or to be charged by two horses?” If you’re like most people, you would choose to be charged. The usual logic behind this is, “If they’re coming at me, I can try to jump out of the way.” Freud used this metaphor to illustrate the defense mechanism of projection. Rather than feel “torn apart” by two powerful, opposing impulses [such as the urge to act out antisocially vs. the desire to “be good”], an individual externalizes [projects] the impulse to behave badly onto a scapegoat [or wolf], and then tries to “jump out of the way” of it [saying, “That is so not who I am!”]. The problem with this temporary fix, is that the wolf can circle around behind you [called in psychoanalytic parlance–like a B movie title–“The Return of the Repressed”], and thus overpower your good intentions, causing you to act out antisocially, willy-nilly.

So, sometimes, the Big Bad Wolf at the door is not a sinister stranger. It’s an unacknowledged part of ourselves.

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Filed under Freud meant..., lesser of two evils, semiotics, silent partner theory

"Be good. But if you can’t be good…"


“…be careful!” [Traditional Mancunian maternal admonition to young people, heading out for a good time] In 1960, I was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor of one of the longest-running, universally beloved [the Queen watches] telly shows in the UK, Coronation Street [Corrie, to its fans]. Filmed in Manchester [yeah, yeah, our family has visited the set at Granada Studios], it has portrayed the “rich tapestry” of multi-generational community life in a working-class neighborhood, written and acted with such “kitchen-sink,” warts-and-all authenticity, that the characters become a part of one’s own extended family. All the humor is character-or-plot-driven; and, of course, there is no laugh track. Whether they were so regarded before 1960, all Northerners are now assumed to be witty and wise–the source of such useful aphorisms as, “When in doubt, say nowt [tr. ‘nothing’].”

Profundities come on little cat feet. [See opening Corrie shot.] A child from The Street was feeling poorly and the doctor came round to see what was wrong with her. [Until very recently, GPs made housecalls]. A local shopkeeper asks the Mum what the matter turned out to be, and she replies, “Oh, it were summat and nowt [tr.’something and nothing’].” Don’t you wish that diagnosis were in the ICD-9? It describes so many fleeting ailments, for which Big Pharma wants to sell you an expensive cure. Alas, Summat & Nowt is only available on the National Health, innit?

Consider the societal benefits, if every young person were admonished, “Be good. But if you can’t be good, be careful.” [Sanctimonious hypocrites may need to go lie down for a bit in a darkened room.] [Who am I kidding? They aren’t reading this blog.] [Incidentally, a bit of a lie-down is what GPs prescribe, for a bout of Summat & Nowt.] It acknowledges the wolf. It avoids might-as-well-be-hung-for-a-sheep-as-a-lamb reasoning. [That is, that once a person has strayed from the straight & narrow path of their code of conduct, they rationalize that the day–or their soul–is going to hell, anyway, so they might as well be really self-destructive.]

Although she hailed from Tennessee rather than Manchester, a college friend of mine had the perfect antidote for the sheep-for-a-lamb slippery slope: “Well, the day is long, and I can redeem it.”

In cognitive psychology, sheep-for-a-lamb reasoning is called black & white thinking. Either you adhere perfectly to the code of conduct you were raised with, or you deserve bad outcome. Not to put too fine a point on it, folks, this logic says, “Either you practice abstinence, or you deserve AIDS and/or an unplanned pregnancy.” [Even to carry condoms on your person amounts to premeditated shenanigans.] Well, here’s what I say. Tech-savvy youth of the world, turn this picture of Lili in her raincoat into a Public Service Ad poster, bearing the motto: “Be good. But if you can’t be good, be careful!” Post it wherever condoms are [or should be] available. Help acknowledge the wolf, and reduce the incidence of preventable, undeserved human misery in the world, eh?

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Filed under black and white thinking, understanding shenanigans

"If a thing’s worth doing…"


“…it’s worth doing badly,” is a quotation attributed to the late Lord Louis Mountbatten, which I heard on holiday in the UK in the 1990s, and which changed my life. Initially, it gave me the courage to pursue the exacting sport of Dressage (imperfectly), despite having ridden horses since the age of 7. It allowed me to endure the humiliation of scathing criticism from riding instructors decades my junior, without feeling like such a loser that I gave up on the enterprise. (I even won the Reserve Championship during the year I showed.)

Today, I performed the role of Pack Leader for Lili badly. A women and her dog, whom we have encountered several times before [always with Lili bristling at the sight of her dog], appeared from over-the-hill, out-of-nowhere, at the beginning of our walk through the school playing fields to get to the woods; and before I could stop her, Lili transgressed again. The owner (correctly) rebuked me for my poor dog handling, and declared, “Your dog is vicious! ‘He’ should never be off the leash!” The good news in this anecdote is that I managed to avoid acting out my own humiliation (that I had failed to control my animal), fear (that the angry woman would take legal action against me or my dog), and intrusion: (Where did they materialized from? The field was absolutely clear when I unleashed Lili.) But the failure was that I assumed that we would be alone, and therefore free to do our own thing in the field. Needless to say, the rest of the trek was on-leash.

Since Lili clearly needs a reassertion of the message, “I’m in charge here” from me, it will be leashed walks for quite some time to come. Since I continue to believe that what gets up Lili’s nose is more intrusion than fear (of this smaller dog), I will vary the venue of our walks, so that she does not come to regard any one of them as “her” property, from which she feels entitled to exclude other dogs.

Like Freud, the prospect of being deprived of my beloved dog’s companionship [because of her misconduct or my mismanagement] causes me such pain & suffering, that I am prepared to do whatever it takes, to keep her–and others–safe from her amygdalar arousal. At least, for once, I had my own limbic system under control.

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Filed under aggression happens, leading a pack, limbic system

"Hashi" (Say what?)


The title above demonstrates the Metalingual speech function [first discussed in the Funny Bone post]. I say the Japanese word for “bridge” [not necessarily on the River Kwai], and you ask for clarification [unless you are Lili, in which case you obediently procede to the nearest bridge]. After mastering all our dog trainer’s Japanese commands [many of which Lili also mastered], I came to believe that I could train Lili to do anything, as long as I could find the word for it in a Japanese dictionary. I have created a monster. We decided that it would be cool [in summer, and warm in winter] if we could get Lili to shut the front & side doors behind her, since she had already figured out how to let herself into the house from the outside, but would leave the door ajar. Ten minutes of successive approximation, using the command “Shimaru,” a clicker, and high-value treats [dried lamb lung, I regret to say], and she has become Carlton, Your Doorman, biffing away at an open door as many times as it takes to slam it shut. This skill loses its charm when one is ferrying in several loads of groceries from the garage, and finds the door slammed firmly in one’s face. There are other commands to avoid this…but I digress.

When I am doing psychotherapy, or even hearing/reading people co-opt clinical terms to signify something entirely different from their original meaning, I get all Metalingual about it. My first bete noire is “schizophrenic.” No, it does not mean “in two minds” about something, or acting in two mutually inconsistent ways. That would be to feel ambivalent about something, or to experience cognitive dissonance. DSM-IV criteria for schizophrenia require delusions and/or hallucinations. If one means to signify a Jekyll & Hyde switcheroo between two radically different behavior patterns, that would be a Dissociative Disorder. See, now you can stop a conversation cold in its tracks, by asking a speaker who throws around the term “schizophrenic” just what they think they mean by it.

Another co-opted word is depressed. Do you mean, like, “bummed out about something that just happened,” or that you blame yourself and think you deserve whatever bad thing just happened? [That was Freud’s original distinction in Mourning & Melancholia.] Like, are you sad that the Cubbies lost, or do you think you made them lose and everyone should hate your guts? It makes all sorts of difference to a clinician, what you mean by “depressed.” [Notice how Phatic I am, when trying to understand what the other person means to say? It helps keep the lines of communication open.] Since another early definition for depression was “anger, turned inward,” it is useful to play our old parlor game, “What gets up your nose [about the thing that is ‘depressing’ you]?” Did you brag to your out-of-town friends that the Cubs were going to win, and now you feel humiliated? Did you put your money where your mouth is, so now you are feeling the pain & suffering of a financial loss? Was it a large wager, and now you fear that the bookie is coming to have his pound of flesh, if you can’t pony up? Until you do the wolf-work of figuring out what is eating you [“What’s up your nose?”], you are stuck in that bad place, where amygdalar overload robs your hippocampus of the ability to come up with any good coping strategies, and your pre-frontal cortex can’t stop you from “doing something stupid.”

I also need to know what you really mean, when you say you “feel guilty.” It’s a Rorschach word, signifying quite different things to each “guilty” person–depending on his or her fear of divine and/or karmic retribution, or earthly punishment, or the humiliation of loss of face [for not having lived up to one’s own code of conduct]. Play the parlor game, yourself, and identify the irritants of guilt, for you. I have no doubt that as I write this, in some neuropsych lab, college students’ brains are being scanned with fMRIs, like hi-tech lie-detector tests, to see who experiences what kind of “guilt”–in what area of their brain–upon learning that they have just fulfilled Milgram’s grim prophesy for mankind: that we would all act inhumanely towards another, if given a compelling enough reason to do so.

My final example: disappointed. Everybody would be out cold on the frathouse floor, if the game was to take a drink every time you read/heard that, in the face of egregious behavior [their own, or others’] someone in the news is “disappointed.” What on earth does it mean? Miffed? Perturbed? Crushed? Desolated? Mad as hell? About to act out aggressively and antisocially? Suicidal/homicidal? In every follow-up article about a shooting-spree-ending-in-the-death-of-the-shooter, someone who knew the shooter says that he/she was “disappointed” about something that had recently occurred. So are we all, I dare say; but we don’t all go ballistic about it. Substitute a more descriptive word, the next time you catch yourself using “disappointed”: and you will be well on the way to “knowing, and training, your wolf.”

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Filed under Freud meant..., gets right up my nose, jekyll and hyde, pragmatics, secret code

If you wanted a friend in Vienna…


With the arrival of First Dog “Bo” at the White House this weekend, let’s celebrate the first dog that Sigmund Freud’s family owned: a “not undangerous” German Shepherd named “Wolf.” [This from 3 independent sources, available upon request.] The best anecdote about Wolf’s cleverness has it, that one day the dog got loose in Vienna. [So far, not so clever, since although Wolf was nominally daughter Anna’s dog, “Papa” Sigmund adored him so much, that in 1925 Anna wrote, “I always assert that he transferred his whole interest in me on to Wolf.” The Guardian, 23 March 2002] The family searched all day for Wolf, but in vain. That evening the dog arrived home in a taxi, having jumped in and sat there, until the driver thought to read the address on his ID tag, and drove him back to 19 Bergasse [The German Shepherd Dog, Howell Book House, 1995].

Anna was being only a little bit Poetic, concerning the true object of her father’s affections. Freud’s Vienna apartment was turned into a museum some time ago; and I have made 3 visits to it over the years [yeah, yeah, what a geek], where they just let you wander about the place unattended. I have, naturally, used Freud’s WC, which has little pink flowers painted right in the toilet bowl [a quaint Viennese fin de siecle lavatorial fashion]. On the wall of his office there is a photograph of Freud with his very own, beloved dog [a Chow called Jofi], who was his “inseparable companion” from 1930 until her death in 1937, as Freud was suffering with terminal cancer of the jaw. She sat in on every one of his psychotherapy sessions, letting analyst & analysand know that their time was up “with copious yawning and stretching” [The Guardian].

In the same frame as the photo is Freud’s handwritten letter, in German, posing the question [my approximate translation here], “Why am I able to love my dogs more dearly than I love any person in my family?” His answer recalls the old Washington aphorism: “Because they love me without judgment or conditions.”

Willkommen, Bo!

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Filed under ambivalence, Freud meant..., transitional objects