Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Why, hello there.  I know its been a while since I’ve posted…  I caught myself “waiting” to have something “wise” to say.  But really, ambiguity has come to live with me lately and I’ve been… uncomfortable?  Annoyed?  Impatient?  In denial…!

I NEED to face the uninvited ambiguity that has come to stay. 

I have written much about the gifts of learning to sit with ambiguity, the freedom that can come if you just accept the unknown.  I see now that I’ve been running away from the ambiguity that has begun to roost in my life.  I refused to see it until now.  It’s almost like I refused to admit I was not using my skills for sitting with what is unknown.  Instead I fought tooth and nail to make the unknown known.  I have caused myself suffering because of this, yes, but I also have been humbled by the experience of ambiguousness choosing me rather than me choosing it, as I have had the luxury of doing in the past.

Ambiguity has been seeping into my life for months:  my partner’s job search starts and stops, the unknown way we still try to get bills paid, month after month (on one salary instead of two), the threats and hopes that have peeked through the clouds of my career–all of this has not made for a very stable existence.  I find it interesting that there has been all of this rich ambiguity and it’s only now occurred to me to post about it.  On my blog about sitting with ambiguity(!).   

Perhaps, in order to survive–just get through it– I’ve been white-knuckling it, keeping my head down and complaining a lot about why I can’t know how it will all turn out.

It’s been indescribably difficult to not know what is going on in my life.  I’m sorry, but it has.  If it were one thing I was unsure of, I could handle it.  Maybe two things; piece of cake.  But with ALL the things being so very up in the air?  A silent panic slipped around my heart and apparently I’m just now noticing. 

Of course, I also have the luxury of writing today from a place of greater certainty.  And I have to admit, it is an immense RELIEF!  My partner found a job! (Hallelujah.)  At my agency job, things have turned out to be amazingly more hopeful and empowering than threatening. 

It honestly feels like I have been bracing for getting hit with the unknown for months and I finally know its safe to come out of the bomb shelter.  What is now known is:  it is safe.  So, I suppose I realize it was NOT safe for all those months.  Maybe deep down I couldn’t risk realizing just how scary all this uncertainty was (or felt)?  Uncertainty that comes to stay is freaking hard.  It seems normal to want at least some “knowns” you feel you can count on. 

You know, it’s great to face the unknown with courage and hope.  But if you run like hell, just know that you are human!

I have to wonder if I was running so hard from actual danger or merely the pain of not-knowing. 

current music faves:  lana del ray, dirty projectors

current show faves:  bunheads (hate the name, love the show), great food truck race, totally biased with kamau bell

breakfast today:  steak ‘n shake pancakes, sausage, eggs

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Recently, I attended a training on trauma and I heard the same old/ same old stuff.  I was practically yawning.  Then I noticed a new idea that really felt crucial to my understanding of trauma.  Essentially, a common definition of trauma was presented:  Trauma occurs when an event overwhelms a person’s ability to cope.  The greater the level of trauma experienced the more coping, or control, that is needed.  I sat up straighter and listened harder when I heard the word “control”.  I had never thought to link coping to a need for control.  When trauma happens often control has been taken away from the survivor.  It makes sense she or he would seek greater empowerment or control following a traumatic event, especially one in which they were helpless in the moment.

Many survivors of trauma cope—during and after the trauma itself—by finding ways to be in control again.  Please note that I’m talking about being in control of Self here, not controlling others.  They often control either by dissociating (pretending they are somewhere else in their heads when abuse is happening, for example) or by insisting on getting their way in the non-trauma part of their lives.  Maybe it’s no surprise that many anorexics are trauma survivors clinging to being able to control the one thing that is truly theirs to control—their bodies (it’s truly an effort to feel in control about their lives, though, ironically it’s destructive to their safety).  The correlation between “coping” and “control” was immediately intriguing for me since it married two ideas that come up a lot in trauma counseling work.

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Being self-controlling is potentially a strategy to stave off being hurt, disappointed, re-traumatized.  Trauma survivors who live their lives with a controlled grip on everything are doing it to possibly keep the anticipated new trauma out.  Psychology has a term for this; “proactive coping” – coping with the aim of heading off a future stressor.  Makes sense. 

But, when does this way of coping using control go too far? 

I have worked with trauma survivors who describe, usually in a light-bulb moment , the realization that their over-control of the world around them is actually robbing them of the ability to build relationships, trust others, let others in emotionally or allow themselves to take calculated risks of vulnerability (being willing to fall in love has to involve the flip-side of being willing to be potentially hurt).  The control was needed in the then-and-there but is now backfiring in the here-and-now of the person’s life.  Sigh.  Thank you coping strategy, you were very helpful.  Now I need you to stop.

Many survivors of trauma have experienced violations of safety, betrayals of trust, feelings of helplessness/ absence of control, often at the hands of an abusive parent or partner who abused their power over them.  It makes sense that  allowing someone else to be “in control” or letting go of being “so controlling” would be difficult given a history of being hurt by those close enough to do such damage.  Years after a trauma, many survivors often feel completely terrified to let go of controlling things and really trust another human being or even a higher power such as god.  It can feel impossible to put faith in someone else that their needs will get met—it can feel like taking a huge risk of getting hurt again.  It’s scary to risk the possibility that needs could go unmet after finally trusting.  And I guess the point is not that it’s silly to not trust when it’s totally safe out there—no—there is likely some amount of risk or “danger” that you could get hurt on some level (even emotionally).  The point is not to convince the Self it is safe when it isn’t.  What counts is to get to the point where it’s ok for things to not be 100% safe, to learn to take a risk, to trust when conditions are optimal, to trust yourself that you could handle it even if it isn’t safe. 

Trauma survivors I’ve worked with in counseling have told me that they get exhausted of doing it all, controlling it all, all by themselves.  And that it gets lonely in that artificial “ivory tower” of control, looking down at others insisting “it really is better this way”; to be independent and separate and safe.  The thing is, this idea that things can be completely controlled is a false.  No matter how controlled someone is, a new trauma could still occur.  There are no guarantees.  Not everything can be controlled, no matter how hard you try.  Thus, “being in control” is an illusion but one that people cling to in order to survive.

I see learning to let go of controlling-coping ways as utilizing the skill we discuss so much here on this site, the skill of tolerating ambiguity.  It is indeed rational on many levels for survivors of trauma to be active in staving off future trauma by being rigid and controlled when it comes to possibly trusting others (this smacks of risk-aversion we’ve talked about before here).  Yet it can rob survivors of a vibrant, lush, in-the-moment experience of life.  This reminds me of the dialectic between Change versus Acceptance that’s discussed so much in DBT.  Without acceptance (letting go) you cannot have change (peace, growth, freedom from trauma).  It’s ironic:  by holding so tightly to control, many men and women continue to be controlled by trauma from the past.  It holds them back in the present.  For those who want to risk coming down from the ivory tower of complete safety, learning to sit with the ambiguity of what could happen—learning to befriend the unknown—could be a door to taking a few risks and possibly leading to greater personal freedom and growth. 

There’s a lot more we could talk about relating to this topic in regards to spirituality, faith, abundant-thinking versus scarcity-thinking.  Maybe we will go exploring these ideas a little deeper real soon.

I ran across this idea this week.  Let’s end on this bit of food for thought:

The Unknown + Trust = Exhileration

The Unknown + Doubt = Dread

current music faves:  katy perry, sufjan stevens, abba

current show faves:  the killing, mad men, happy endings

breakfast today:  toast with nutella and sliced bananas, chocolate milk

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Would it surprise you to hear that in 1977 the head of safety and pilot for KLM airlines, a Capt. Van Zanten, became so concerned with mandatory rest periods for himself and other pilots even when finding his plane stranded at Tenerife airfield (after being diverted to the airport due to a terrorist bomb explosion) went against his own safety protocols because he was determined to save time?

When the stranded plane got word that they had clearance to proceed to their destination they were already in the middle of a “time-saving” refueling and could not interrupt the 35 minute process, further frustrating Van Zanten.  While the refueling completed, a thick blanket of fog began descending on the runway with a worsening visibility of 300 meters.  Fog descending, Van Zanten was ready to take off before an overnight stay on the island became unavoidable which would serve to further delay the aircraft.  Van Zanten revved up the engines while his copilot nervously noted they did not have clearance from the tower to take off.  Taking off anyway, Van Zanten sped down the runway, the plane’s fuselage ripping through the top of PanAm plane parked on the runway that was hidden by fog.  Van Zanten, his entire crew and all his passengers were killed in the crash.  584 people lost their lives that day.

Afterward, investigators at the airfield realized that the fog contributed to the tragedy but they also concluded that Captain Van Zanten was irrationally frustrated and rushed to irresponsible action.  The Captain seemed to have experienced an irrational overreaction to a perceived loss of time.  This example illustrates how our aversion to loss plays out in our own decision making.

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Think about when you rent a car, they push extra insurance coverage called “loss damage waiver”.  Who doesn’t want a waiver for potential loss?!  Many people are quick to want to shell out money that will cover something bad that might possibly happen.  We often opt for the coverage, you know, “just in case”.  This coverage is typically actually redundant in nature (!) since our own car insurance would automatically cover us should anything go wrong during the rental of the vehicle.  But we will take out an extra policy at an astronomical rate just to be doubly safe… paying for this helps us feel we are better avoiding loss.

The losses Van Zanten was trying to avoid were all downsides of the mandated rest period:  the cost of housing customers in nearby hotels, the chain reaction of delayed flights and, of course, the black mark on his shiny reputation for being on time.  Ori and Rom Brafman, authors of Sway:  The Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behavior, studied the Tenerife airfield case and cite that Van Zanten’s desire to avoid a delay started out innocently enough.  “At first he simply wanted to keep passengers on board to save time.   But as the delay grew longer, the potential loss loomed larger.  By the time an overnight delay seemed almost inevitable, Van Zanten was so focused on avoiding it that he tuned out all other considerations and, for that matter, his common sense and years of training.” 

What we can learn here is, “the more meaningful a potential loss is, the more loss averse we become.  In other words, the more there is on the line, the easier it is to get swept into an irrational decision.”  Just like Captain Van Zanten did on that runway back in ’77.  Adding to his irrational decision was the force of commitment to his plan to take off that night no matter what.  The authors of Sway emphasize that—when loss aversion is combined with commitment to an idea or course of action—the force becomes an even more powerful influence in shaping our thinking and decision making.  They point out that “our natural tendency to avoid the pain of loss is most likely to distort our thinking when we place too much importance on short-term goals.  When we adopt the long view, on the other hand, immediate potential losses don’t seem as menacing.”

We can see these irrational pulls in our thinking present in more every day matters as well.  Take eggs.  Yes, eggs.  Studies show that when the price of eggs goes up at the grocery store, even just a little bit, people react by buying 2 ½ times fewer eggs!  That’s quite a reaction to slight price increase.  Rom and Ori Brafman would argue a distinctly irrational reaction.  Another compelling example comes from a Harvard Business School Negotiations course.  Shared in Sway, Professor Bazerman introduces his “twenty-dollar auction” on the first day of class.  It begins with Bazerman holding a twenty-dollar bill in the air and offering it up for auction.  Anyone is free to bid in $1 increments and an understanding that the runner-up still honor his or her bid.  The bidding starts out fast and furious until reaching the $12-$16 range.  It’s at that point that people realize everyone has the same idea and suddenly it’s down to the 2 highest bidders.  Typically the highest bids are $17 and $16.  The $16 bidder realizes she (or he) must bid $18 or suffer a loss.

Now here it is again, the loss aversion irrational thinking…

Back to the twenty dollar auction, at the $18 mark, suddenly the goal shifted from looking to make a quick buck to not wanting to be the sucker who paid good money for nothing.  Now each bidder is merely playing not to lose.  Bazerman shares that at this point bidding becomes like a runaway train, with bidding going up past $21, the rest of the class going crazy with laughter at the audacity of the situation.  The Brafmans note that

“From a rational perspective, the obvious decision would be for the bidders to accept their losses and stop the auction before it spins even further out of control.  But that’s easier said than done.  Students are pulled by both the momentum of the auction and the looming loss if they back down—a loss that is growing greater by the bid.  The two forces, in turn, feed off each other:  commitment to a chosen path inspires additional bids, driving the price up, making the potential loss loom even larger.  So students continue bidding:  $21, $22, $23, $50, $100, up to a record $204”…!

Professor Bazerman reports that over the years that he has conducted the auction experiment he has never lost a penny and always donates the proceeds to charity.  The deeper the participants in the auction dig themselves into a hole, the more they continue to dig.

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Clearly, the sway of irrational thinking—namely loss aversion paired with commitment—affects most of us at some point and can be quite damaging.

The Brafmans, authors of Sway , have this to share regarding a kind of antidote to irrational thinking:

“Having a long-term plan–and not casting it aside–is the key to dealing with our fear of loss… Our natural tendency to avoid the pain of loss is most likely to distort our thinking when we place too much importance on short-term goals.  If looking far into the future is the way to avoid the faulty decision making that can result from loss aversion, the antidote to getting swept up in commitment—the force that keeps us from giving up on a project even though it’s clearly failing—is to don Zen Buddhist glasses and learn to let go of the past.”

I would add that it’s not just about future or past-orientation in our thinking but about being willing to let go of our perceptions in the moment, our expectations that are driving behavior in negative directions when not examined.  Practicing letting go of being in control would also help break the cycle of irrationality.

Being afraid of loss—and acting to avoid it—is normal, yes.  But is it actually more damaging sometimes?  I see an aversion to loss as a Big Bad Wolf to sitting with ambiguity.  Sometimes we are letting fear, rather than hope, drive the bus in our lives.  There are times when risking loss should be given another look, another try because the gains could out-way the losses.  In the case of Van Zanten if he’d risked losing time he would have gained being alive.

Being averse to loss is also often a way of being averse to uncertainty and ambiguity.  When we are less defensive about the possibility of loss and little more open to making room to risk a gain I think it tends to be a healthier, more well-rounded decision.  It reminds me of the discussion we had a few months ago about the counter-intuitive magic of Failure Club.

There’s a LOT of research out there about loss aversion and risk aversion biases out there, here’s a link to read more.  Keep in mind that loss aversion is a type of cognitive bias, many of which are unhealthy and need our attention and modification in order for us to be our healthiest selves.

current music faves:  the national, madonna, pixies

current show faves:  walking dead, the river, snl

breakfast today: home-made soy chorizo scramble skillets

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