Continuing with the series I started a couple of days ago; another aspect of mental health that I believe to be very important is the topic of morality. Now, morality gets almost no mention whatsoever in psychology textbooks and again I’m highly suspicious of this. The suggestion here is that morality is somehow outside the purview of psychology, however, I would argue that morality, or its lack, is actually at the heart of a lot of what we call mental illness. Consider how many times you hear about criminals pleading insanity in court to justify their crimes. Psychologists are often brought in as expert witnesses to give weight to such claims. Yet, why the lack of mainstream academic discussion among psychologists about morality and it’s relationship to mental health?
The first issue is of course defining what morality is. In the simplest sense, morality is about doing the right thing based on a set of rules. There are two major competing schools of thought about what rules count as moral: one that is very popular in academic writing and trendy social circles, and the other which is considered by many to be old fashioned, out of date, and ridiculous. The popular definition is that morality is socially defined, it is a set of rules that have no objective basis to them, they are just adhered to by people because of traditional and political authority. This is subjective morality, while the supposedly out dated version of morality is called objective morality and the argument here is that morals are not mere popular whims, but come from reason and are universal.
One of the infuriating things about cracking open most authorised textbooks on psychology is that they are preoccupied with defining abnormal psychology: narcissism, sociopathy, depression, anxiety, borderline, bi-polar, dissociative personality disorder, and so on. An endless litany of things that could be wrong with someone. Curiously they don’t often, if ever, make positive claims as to what mental health is. What is a mentally healthy person? How does a mentally healthy person behave? The reasons for this are fun to speculate: maybe they don’t know, or maybe the mental health profession is full of narcissistic, autistic, and other abnormal people and so they can’t describe mental health themselves, or maybe human nature is so varied there isn’t truly a healthy condition, just lots of shades of mental grey?
So, I’m going to make sure to write about the few things which I’m confident fall in the category of mentally healthy processes and behaviours. Today, I want to write about trust, and hopefully illustrate why being able to trust is an essential component of overall mental health.
Trust is a complex subject because it isn’t only a philosophical concept, it is actually also a feeling mediated by the neurotransmitter oxytocin. Because of this trust is not a simple concept to nail down, but for this article let’s keep it simple: trustworthiness is the quality of a person/animal/thing to display consistently beneficial behaviours, and therefore “to trust” refers the capacity to bond with a trustworthy person/animal/thing. Johnathon is trustworthy when it comes to turning up to work on time, being non-violent, and moderating his alcohol consumption, but don’t leave money lying about in view because Johnathon is notorious for pinching every unattended penny he lays eyes on. Mary is trustworthy when it comes to money, but is almost never at work on time, and should not be trusted when drinking with young men. Johnathon trusts Mary with his wallet and is not disappointed, but when Mary trusts Johnathon with her purse, she’s a few dollars less wealthy than before.
One of the surest ways to start a conflict with someone is to start talking about politics with them. Taxation, state secrecy, police powers, welfare, immigration, traffic laws, healthcare, voting rights, industry regulations, minimum wage, tariffs, separation of Church and state, etc… these are all wonderful topics that can ruin a friendship in just one night. Yet why do political conversations seem to raise the stakes so high that even good friends can become bitter rivals? What is it about politics that makes it only a safe topic to talk about if two people share exactly the same political views as each other?
Well, I could do a well researched piece into this and talk about the neuroscience, but I’m eager to simply finish my blog entry to watch some TV so instead, I’m going to write about something I remember hearing on the History of England Podcast where the people were arguing with the kings repeatedly over the issue of the laws always changing. This struck me as odd because I’ve always lived in an era when the laws seem to be changing all the time. It never occurred to me that there might have been a time, indeed centuries, where the laws hardly changed at all, and that these state of affairs was seen as the ideal.
It’s a new year, and with all these jokes about having 2020 vision I find myself thinking about how I would benefit from working on my own vision for 2020. Not that I need glasses, well, not yet at least, but I mean working on my mental 2020 vision, or more commonly called empathy. Empathy is a complex set of skills and abilities allowing a person to make accurate guesses about what other people know, don’t know, desire, loathe, and how they’re likely to react to specific news. Generally speaking, people are not bad at empathy, however, considering just how mentally taxing empathy can be, it is commonplace that we get things wrong when attempting to understand how other people think.
One thing I used to get wrong was that I used to assume everyone valued honesty as much I do. It seemed rather ridiculous to me that anyone would lie. Certainly, lie to teachers and bullies if you must, but why on Earth to anyone you work with, want to be friends with, or live with? I mean, it just never made good sense to me. If you want to get along with people, to live and work co-operatively together, then you should just tell the truth to each other. That way you can both plan your days, and indeed even your lives, to be as productive and stress free as possible. But as soon as someone starts lying or withholding information it becomes difficult, nigh impossible to plan even your day, much less your life with other people. With the wrong information, you will inevitably make the wrong decisions no matter how well organised you are.
But was it their failure to be honest or my failure to understand why they preferred to lie? Was I not standing in their proverbial shoes for sufficient mileage to appreciate where they were coming from?
When it comes to the topic of narcissism, you might be surprised to learn that psychologists still hotly debate what narcissism actually is. Some say they have very high self-esteem, others that they have very low self-esteem. Others that they are self-aware and clever, others that they’re cognitively deficient and barely aware of themselves as active participants in their lives at all. Object relations theory suggests something is fundamentally wrong in their perception of objects both internal and external. Some say they don’t have any empathy, others that they have empathy, but they just don’t care. More importantly for a therapist; some say they can be treated successfully, but others that they are completely beyond rehabilitation. Then there are countless others who take up various positions between those ranges, and some additional views that I haven’t even mentioned. The only things that psychologists seem to agree on regarding narcissism is that they’re very difficult people to get along with; they tend to avoid therapy, they’re very easily offended, they are horrible parents, they’re almost never happy, and they’re controlling and destructive.
So when I talk about narcissism it is important that I am clear about what I am talking about, but also I often think with all the debate and disagreement among experts in the field maybe I should use a new term altogether in referring to them. I tend to use the term “tyranni” to refer to narcissists because for me the most distinctive aspect about a narcissist is not their supposed “self-love”, which is hotly debated, but their pervasive desire to dominate and subvert all their relationships: to act as little tyrants so to speak, hence I call them tyranni meaning “the little tyrants”. For this article I will use the term narcissism, but rest assured if I ever write a book about them I will probably call them tyranni instead.
The topic of narcissism is intensely interesting to me, I could really write a book about narcissists, I even have my own private word for describing them, “tyranni” which I think is clearer in describing them and their perfidious nature. However, in the interests of keeping my blog updated I thought I would share a few thoughts I’ve been having recently regarding the topic of bonding and how it concerns the nature of narcissists.
Bonding is a complicated subject, and one that is often brought to my attention by people asking me about women who have had multiple sexual partners and how compromised their ability to bond is. I am familiar with the research being referenced here, and statistically it is true, women who have had multiple sexual partners before marriage are a very high risk of divorce… However, statistics are not as straight forward to interpret at they may appear. For instance, how many of those women had lost (or lacked) the ability to bond before they had any sexual partners? I mean, is multiple sexual partners the cause of the lack of ability to bond or was their lack of ability to bond the cause of them having so many sexual partners?
Consider it this way, these women had to have a first time with someone, so why didn’t they just bond with him?
One of the surest ways to get yourself in an awkward or aggravating situation these days is to bring up the topic of gender. Gender, once exclusively the domain of grammar, not biology, has become a political issue of the most taboo kind, especially if you are in university. In fact, the gender debate played a large role in my decision to withdraw from my PhD candidature and leave the academic environment. It wasn’t because I wasn’t interested in the ideas surrounding gender, but even though I was fascinated in the topic, and wanted to explore it, I did want to explore the topic in directions completely different to what is currently considered acceptable on university campuses.
The traditional view of gender, if there is indeed such a thing, is a difficult concept to pin down. I often muse to myself that maybe grammatical conventions started it all because words with a pretty ending were generally called “feminine” while words with a strong ending were called “masculine” and if people couldn’t agree if an ending was sufficiently pretty or strong to be either then it was “neuter”. I bet those early grammarians had no idea the chaos that would be unleashed on future generations thanks to their colourful scheme used to classify nouns. But I digress, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that there is a traditional view of gender and that femininity is emotional, empathic, relationship focused, and receptive. Conversely, masculine nature is rational, assertive, systematic, and mathematical. Yes, many people, myself included, would dispute these definitions as being too narrow, but this is just for illustrative purposes.
Now, let’s ask ourselves: how many men and women actually have genders that match these descriptions? Continue reading
A friend of mine has been urging me to take up blogging again to share my thoughts so more people can benefit from them. It’s a nice idea, but what should I write about? Fortunately, providence stepped in for me as I was walking home from the chemist this evening. There in a shop window was a large sign saying, “Every child deserves a happy life.” After reading such a fascinating sign I realised that I would have to write about this as soon as I got home.
In context, this sign was asking for people to donate to a charity that provides Christmas presents to children from poor families. Clearly, they were engaged in some form of flattery to suggest that giving such an unfortunate child a gift from a random stranger would somehow also give that child a happy life. While such subtle flattery is a sound strategy to get money from people, it is with sadness that I suggest that whatever the root cause of the hypothetical child’s sorrowful condition will far outweigh the impact of one random gift.
That said, I commend the spirit of such a charity. It might not be capable of giving an unfortunate child a happy life, but it could nonetheless shine a beam of hope and gratitude into their heart which could help them find happiness for themselves later on.
Have you heard people complain about dating websites lately? Sometimes it comes from the men saying that the women are rude, snarky, and just not women anymore. Sometimes it is the women saying that the men are crude, desperate, and verbally abusive. After having read a few messages to and from people on dating websites I can see a lot of problems with people’s approach to dating. Namely, it appears to me that neither men nor women have a clue what qualities to look for in each other and what qualities in themselves they should be working on. The women are typically making dating profiles that look like auditions for porn movies, while the men are crafting unbelievable tales of their wealth, fitness, and charisma. In other words; they have become skilful at creating attractive profiles, but not skilful in recognising what elements are needed to build and sustain a successful romantic relationship. There is a lot of conflict on dating website because of this both sexes are reporting harassment by the opposite sex through verbally abusive messages demanding to know what the other person’s true intentions are.
Yes, men are attracted to physical beauty in a woman, and yes women are attracted to a variety of specific qualities in men. However, attraction stops being important the moment you decide to message someone (and they decide to message you back). After this, attraction is no longer important to the relationship. Stage one of dating is finished and one should stop focussing solely on how attractive the other person is and/or how attractive you appear to them. Telling people how attractive they are at this point is merely trying to play on their vanity. In stage two, since both parties have established they have mutual attraction, the goal is now to collect information about the integrity of the other person. Integrity is the most important quality in a relationship. It doesn’t matter how smart he/she is, how good looking he/she is, or how good at conversation he/she is, all these things are gifts. Gifts are qualities a person has that are a bonus to their character, but they aren’t important in making a relationship work. How smart, funny, interesting, skilful, etc… a person is might influence how attractive a relationship will be, but it won’t ever play a decisive role in the viability of that relationship.
There is an experience that almost every man can relate to. Imagine that there’s an attractive girl that you would like to flirt with at the office. Some guy called Rufus walks up to her and casually says, “Hey Gloria, you’re looking sexy today.” Gloria responds by giggling and bashfully telling him to stop, even though she doesn’t really mean it. You decide to go up to try this on a different girl. Because it worked so well for Rufus, why not try it yourself? So you walk up to Meredith and say, “Hey Meredith, you’re looking sexy today.” However, Meredith doesn’t giggle. Instead she looks at you with the expression you might have from watching a dog eat horse poop and starts calling HR to report you. While you’re waiting for someone in HR to come humiliate you, you’re standing there wondering, “But I did exactly what Rufus did, so how come it’s having the opposite effect for me?”
The confusion stems from the failure to be sufficiently aware about how attraction works for women. In this case, Rufus is tall, well groomed, and wearing a $2,000 suit. Meanwhile you forgot to shower this morning, your hair is a tangle, and you’ve taken advantage of casual Friday and are in flip flops and wearing a t-shirt. In short, Rufus is the kind of man a woman would like to get attention from, while you are not a man a woman wants anywhere near her. It has nothing to do with what you said, but everything to do with who you are and the choices you have made so far in your life. It might seem really unfair how Meredith reacted to you, and you might be tempted to get angry with her for being “creeped out” but consider this: Just say you were at a party and a fat hairy-faced woman covered in acne started rubbing herself up against you. This is what it feels like to a woman when an unattractive man flirts with her. Continue reading