Dear Uncle Dysfunctional

The late A.A. Gill was, among many other things, advice columnist for Esquire magazine. Gill’s answers are simultaneously outrageous, hilarious and insightful. I’m convinced that he wrote both the questions and the answers. Surely no-one would send in questions like this:

*Am I normal?
*Why can’t everyone just be happy?
*My otherwise level-headed girlfriend adamantly believes in fairies. How can I convince her the goblins have eaten them all? My future depends on it.

‘Tim, South Yorkshire’ wrote in about his girlfriend’s constant demands for sex.

“It’s not sexy,” he complains. “It’s boring. It’s like constantly being told to take out the rubbish or go and fill the car with petrol – it’s become a chore. I’ve just told her I’ve got a headache. It’s so humiliating.”

For people who struggle to lose and keep off weight there’s something weirdly familiar about this dynamic, it seems to me. Except, instead, of the tension being being between two people, the conflict is inside one person.

One part of the self is trying hard to encourage the other, but it’s efforts are counter-productive. The more enticing or provoking or nagging it becomes, the more recalcitrant becomes the other part. And of course the more recalcitrant, the more the ‘encourager’ redoubles it’s efforts.

The dictionary definition of recalcitrant perfectly captures the inner opposition I mean, and also points to the source of ‘Tim’s’ problem and that of the person struggling to lose weight as well as a solution:

Recalcitrance = an obstinately uncooperative attitude to authority or discipline.

The key bit here is attitude to authority or discipline. Tim’s problem, and the problem of the weight-loss struggler, is that they’ve taken on the position of ones who are subordinate to another’s wishes and discipline. No wonder they rebel and “don’t feel like it”!

Here’s part of Gill’s response to ‘Tim’ – I think there is something useful for us in it too.

It’s not her demands of you that’s the problem, it’s your low expectations of yourself. It’s not having too much sex, it’s having too much mediocre sex. Mediocre, grudging sex.

The way you get good at sex is the way you get good at everything: practice. Doing more, not less. But only doing the stuff that you really, really like. And tell your girlfriend to do the same.

There’s a key here. Only when we embrace the thing we say we’re determined to do, only when we love it and get enjoyment out of it will we have inner harmony. and unity of purpose. Then the head and the heart work together as a formidable couple rather than a dysfunctional one.


A slowdown in posting

My posting is going to be a bit slower/haphazard for a while. Real life, wouldn’t you know.

I don’t want to lose my wonderful reader-commentators, but I do understand the vastness of the web-world – there’s a lot of good stuff out there.

If you register via RSS feed you’ll be notified when something new appears.

Be well!

What is it to be empathic?

Empathy is a primal level of interpersonal interaction whereby signals from one person are picked up by another. These may (or may not) become actualised as feelings, and/or thoughts, and/or behaviours.

As readers point out, features of this basic interpersonal signal-detection are authenticity, unthought/unfelt, somatic.

Empathy, then, is but the raw material for being empathic.

What is it to be empathic?
The word ’empathy’ is often often used in common parlance as a shorthand for one of two types of things:

1. Feelings and/or thoughts which (it is assumed) are similar to those of another person (e.g. “I feel sad, perhaps it’s because he feels sad”).

2. Behaviours intended to help the other through correct identification of how things are for the other (e.g. because I believe that he is sad I offer a kind word).

As cumbersome and potentially confusing as it may be, I want to keep these distinct:

empathy as apperception
empathic internal awareness
empathic act

(The former I have been dealing with for a while now and attempt to capture in the metaphor of the internal ham operator.)

Empathic internal awareness
When a signal from the other is detected it can be elaborated into a sensation and then a feeling, or into an awareness and then a thought. One can ping (to use swivelchair’s word) between these to build a complex emotional conception. And one might act upon it.

While this internal response can become increasingly sophisticated, I think that a rather minimal internal awareness can lead to an empathic act.

Empathic act
An empathic behaviour has the following elements:
1. a signal from the other is detected
2. a response is proffered to demonstrate shared experience
3. the response is experienced by the other as right.

I will argue that if any of these is missing it is pseudo-empathy which might well be experienced as unempathic.

Why is this nitpicking necessary?
I trust that it is clear how the collapsing of meanings makes it impossible to follow a statement like this: The psychopath felt no emapthy as he used his empathic detection of another’s signals to behave unempathically in order to hurt the other.

Photo: Briton Riviere: Sympathy, originally uploaded by freeparking

Quickpost – An interesting set of posts

Evan Hadkins is taking an interesting direction on his blog Wellbeing and health. Over the last week or so he has written a set of three posts in the form of a brief autobiography. Now this part is not exactly unusual in the blogging world – indeed writing about the minuiae of life is the stereotype many non-bloggers have.

The purpose of Evan’s narrative has a point, though, and that is to demonstrate the development of what has become a coherent spiritual/physical/psychological worldview. Rather than state (or imply) “This is the way I see things”, he shows how his blend of western and eastern (christian [lowercase], Taoist) spiritual and treatment (Gestalt, acupuncture) traditions came into being and coheres.

Full disclosure: he is a regular commentator on this site. The biographical pieces ‘health and me’ can be read here, here, and here.

In the final episode Evan mentions three projects for 2008.

1. A course dealing with the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual will be run via the site.
2. Also a long article to be available as a free report (an ebook?).
3. A series of blog reviews. Contact him with suggestions.

‘Daily Con’ launch (please give generously)

Lies, bull, confidence trickery, verbal jujitsu, paramoralisms, being jesuitical, mendacity, twisting the truth, false apologies, truthity, evasiveness, telling porkies, phoniness, quibbling…these are just some of the ways people have of interacting in bad faith.

I have started a spin-off blog Daily Con where exemplars of mendacity can be exhibited. In order to become anything the contents of this site need to be provided by readers.

It could be thought of as a kind of community art project something like the wonderful secret postcards project. Has someone tried (succeeded in) duping/manipulating you? Perhaps you’ve perpetrated it yourself? Have you come across examples in the media, literature, etc. Overheard something? Submit it to Daily Con.

The point? We learn about people’s trickiness. We can be chastened and improve our own behaviour. We can have a laugh or shake our heads.

All identifying details – unless figures are in the public eye – will be omitted. See here for submission guidelines.

Here is a list of the entries I have made to get things rolling (notice that the ‘daily’ promise has already been broken). Be more creative than I have been!

Dec, 24 Who did what, now?
Here is Governer Eliot Spitzer’s non-apology, ‘An Apology From Albany’:

Dec, 26 What do you expect, he said?
In ‘Brideshead revisited’ Julia Flight is engaged to Rex Mottram, MP. Brenda Champion is his old flame. Julia learns that Rex had been staying the week-end with a stockbroker in Sunningdale, when he said he was at his constituency, and that Mrs Champion had been there too:

Dec, 27 We wish you a Merry Xmas
Overheard in a queue:

Dec, 28 Duper’s delight
Dr X writes about duper’s delight – Paul Eckman’s term for the micro expression revealing the experience of pleasure betrayed by the smile of a lying psychopath:

Dec, 29 Gibberish
William George Heirens was convicted in 1948 of the murder of three women. He remains in prison:

Dec, 30 Two’s company
Homer Simpson is caught out lying:

Dec, 31 Copping a Vick
I quote from Michael Vick’s letter to Judge Henry E. Hudson asking for clemency before his sentencing for dog fighting (let’s not omit dog torture and dog slaughter by his own hand):

Jan, 1 Are paramoralisms catching?
A primary purpose of a paramoralism is to corrode the moral thinking of the other. In the Vick case one strategy would be to distract attention away from Vick’s acts and onto a more culpable (imaginary)person. (Another way would be to pooh-pooh the offence: Oh, everyone does it where he comes from, according to Whoopi Goldberg.) Consider the tack taken by Deion Sanders, former star football and baseball player and current commentator for CBS Sports:

Jan, 2 Don’t de-spam this
My spam-catcher asks me whether I want to delete the following message or de-spam it:

Photo: mouth expressions., originally uploaded by Pσrcelαΐηgΐrl°

Quickpost: Jobs for psychopaths?

My correspondents ‘DuMuarier-Smith’ and Evan Hadkins have been worrying away at the question of whether certain jobs attract/require psychopathy.

DM-T: I’ve been reading Robert Hare’s depiction of the psychopath. Does anyone else think the depiction fits politicians to a T?

EH: I guess the big question is: are there some situations where psychopathology is useful (or, a bigger stretch, good). I’m a bit of an Agatha Christie devotee. She wrote a novel where the murderer was someone who had been very useful during the war but who didn’t really fit civilian society. Would this be an example? Part of me wants to say, “No! Never!” another part wonders with this part is just being unrealistic and sentimental.

(See this.) The latest issue of Nature has an article, Scanning psychopaths:

[Hare] has used [PCL-SV] to esti-
mate that maybe 1% are psychopathic, even if
they have never committed a crime, according
to research presented recently at a meeting on
psychopathy research. “Some psychopathic fea-
tures are not necessarily a bad thing for society
— in some professions they may even help,”
says Hare. “Too much empathy, for example,
on the part of a police officer or a politician
would interfere with the job.”

I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying.

The silences of psychotherapy

If therapy is a talking cure, why is there so much silence in it?

The professional therapist and patient can answer this no problem. Sometimes, however, it’s forgotton that not every patient is up with the play. It’s a bit like infantile amnesia where adults forget what it’s like to be a child.

What happens in the therapy room is weird* and the non-knowledgeable client is right to be mystified, frustrated, even frightened by an inscrutable one-who-is-presumed-to-know.

Given that client reports aren’t, shall we say, 100% accurate, violentacres does provide food for thought in a recent post ‘When to see a therapist‘. Continue reading