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Book Review-Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind

Decades after Shneidman started doing psychological autopsies at the request of the medical examiner, a mother who lost her son implored him to use his technique not to help decide whether the death was a suicide or not.  Arthur left a long suicide note, so there was no doubt that it was suicide.  However, she was a mom who wanted more insights about the death of her son than she could glean from the note on her own.  Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind is the report of the psychological autopsy of Arthur and an opportunity to see the process of discovery that one might follow to do a psychological autopsy.

Insightful Notes

Shneidman’s curiosity with suicide notes started in 1949.  By 1957, his study of suicide notes led to the publication of Clues to Suicide.  The Cry for Help continued his work of understanding suicide through the notes that people left behind – even when he openly recognizes the scarcity of such notes.  Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind was published in 2004, and he acknowledges that the study of suicide notes didn’t expose the profound insights that he had hoped for.  Most notes are individually banal.

Collectively, suicide notes haven’t revealed any one factor that is common to all suicides.  Despite the limitations, Arthur’s note offers a puzzle.

The Long Contradiction

Arthur’s note is unique partly because it’s composed over a long period of time and includes content written before an unsuccessful attempt on a Friday night.  An attempt to use opioids wasn’t enough.  Remarkably, he spent time with a friend and had lunch with his father between this Friday night attempt and his eventual death on Sunday evening.  It’s not the first time that Arthur’s conflict comes into view.

He previously aborted a suicide attempt – despite later insisting that the attempt was genuine.  It seems like Arthur was constantly caught as waves of a desire for death crashed over the rocks of his desire to live.  Eventually, the waves of desire for death would recede – but apparently not soon enough on the Sunday evening of his death.

Highs Before Lows

Apparently, Arthur’s times of greatest challenge – the deepest lows – came after the happiest of times.  It’s as if each moment of happiness needed to be paid for by an equal moment of pain.  I think we’ve all experienced loss as we exit a time of happiness.  We mourn the loss of time with friends when we leave after a long weekend.  We feel the pain of leaving vacation, because we know that we must work for a time before we can be freed to spend our time completely as we wish again.

For Arthur, these pains seemed magnified – and overwhelming.

No Smoking Gun

One of the challenges in Arthur’s case is the lack of a trigger, a smoking gun, that would indicate what final straw pushed him over the edge into the depths of despair.  It seemed, as far as anyone could tell, that his last day was like any other day.  No better, no worse.

That is, perhaps, a part of the problem.  Perhaps Arthur had lost his hope, because every day was filled with pain.  (See The Psychology of Hope for more about hope.)

A Mother’s Sacrifice

Thomas Joiner in Why People Die by Suicide explains that feeling like a burden increases the likelihood of suicide.  Arthur’s mother, for all her concern, felt like she had given up 30 years of her life for Arthur.  He’d been described as a problematic child.  His story had him struggling to adapt, including thumb sucking until 9.  Temper tantrums showcased his inability to control emotions from a very young age.

Without finding fault, one has to wonder how the mother’s belief that she sacrificed for Arthur impacted his feelings of burdensomeness.


Philosophers love to ask questions like, “What’s the meaning of life?”  It’s an interesting pondering when expressed in a neutral or positive form.  However, it takes a dark tone when one asks the question, “What’s the point of it all?”  Arthur is known to have asked such questions, and his friend simply shrugged it off as a philosophical pondering.  The problem for Arthur, it seems, is that it wasn’t a pointless pondering.  He was really grasping to find meaning in life to allow him to hold on despite the self-described psychological pain.

Nietzsche said, “A man who has a why can bear almost any how.”  It seems that Arthur was seeking that why.  He sought it in becoming a physician and an attorney.  He looked for it in marriage and in love but apparently without success.


Perfectionism is an insidious monster that slinks its way into people’s thinking and takes their joy.  The Paradox of Choice introduced me to the idea of maximization – where it has to be the best – and satisfaction – where it just has to be good.  Perfectionism is the concept of maximization applied to oneself.  Instead of allowing for flaws, imperfections, and acceptance of life, the perfectionist focuses on every moment where they’re not perfect and treats it as if it were a fatal flaw.

Arthur needed to be perfect.  He needed to be worthy of other’s love – and, like all humans, he wasn’t.

Holding Back the Darkness

One of the skills that Arthur learned was the ability to compartmentalize his life – keeping his pain and despair away from the eyes of others.  While this is indeed a useful skill, as it allows us to temporarily defer deep processing of events until we have the time and capacity, it can be overused.  Compartmentalization isn’t intended to be a permanent coping strategy.

However, an interesting question arises: how and why did Arthur learn this skill?  Did he learn this skill as a coping mechanism so that he could function in a world where he felt such darkness, or was it something else that allowed him to learn this skill?  While we may not know the source, it’s interesting to ponder how people have learned this skill.

Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem

It’s been said (perhaps quipped), “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem;” but Arthur insisted that life isn’t a temporary problem.  If you’re in constant pain, then life isn’t a temporary problem.  Every moment of pain is an intense torture that seems to last forever – even if it doesn’t last forever in fact.

This sense of pain and the extended time that goes with it cannot be ignored.  It provides a sense of understanding as to why someone would find a permanent solution to what may seem like a temporary problem – to someone on the outside.

Suicidal Belief System

Perhaps one of the most interesting observations was that the people who surrounded Arthur took on his suicidal belief system.  They accepted the “truths” that existed in Arthur’s world without question and became a part of the drama that was playing out in his mind.  It’s good to understand, and understanding suicide may require an Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind.

Stop Suicide This Spring

Each year, for most of us, spring brings light to the world both literally and figuratively.  Those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) begin to feel their spirits lifting.  Flowers start to bloom, and we see the world reemerge from its winter slumber.  However, unfortunately, we also see a rise in suicide rates.

This is our third year of sharing daily posts about suicide prevention books for the start of spring.  It’s a time when we can share how much work has been done to prevent suicide and create a reminder about both how and why we can make a difference.

For the next two weeks, we’ll post a new book review at 8AM Eastern Daylight Time (UTC-4).  This upcoming Monday, we’ll start by laying some groundwork with Shneidman’s Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind, along with several other books that provide different perspectives on suicide research.  The following week, we’ll dive into more nuanced stances, beginning with Humphrey’s controversial Final Exit and ending with Weaver’s A Sadly Troubled History.

Our hope is you’ll be inspired to call one friend to check in on them.

Book Review-On Second Thought: How Ambivalence Shapes Your Life

“Ambivalence is our constant companion.”  It’s my first highlight from On Second Thought: How Ambivalence Shapes Your Life.  This isn’t the first work of William Miller that I’ve read.  He coauthored Motivational Interviewing and Quantum Change.  I’ve learned to trust his insights and recognize that there’s more to the story than we may have thought or been told.  I’ve learned that, sometimes, the power comes from the conflicting thoughts that drive ambivalence.

Indifference, Ignorance, and Ambiguity

It’s important to recognize that ambivalence is a conflicted, contradictory, and vacillating feeling between two, mutually exclusive alternatives.  It’s not indifference, ignorance, or ambiguity.  There’s a real reason to be concerned and an understanding of the situation.  Indifference is not caring.  Ignorance is not knowing – and ambiguity is not knowing enough.  These aren’t the forces that are in operation when ambivalence is present.

When listening to someone, the way that you can detect ambivalence is the word “but.”  It signals the contradiction.  It says that there’s more than one side to consider.

It’s Good

I picked up On Second Thought to support a writing effort for a journal article with a friend.  In that article, we make a key point that, while ambivalence is seen as a bad thing, it’s not.  In the lean manufacturing approach, delaying decisions until the last possible moment is seen as a positive and prevents unnecessary waste.  There’s so much that we know in decision making about the value of rational reviews – and the awareness that we don’t do it enough.  (See Decision Making and Sources of Power.)  Miller states that those with greater emotional ambivalence have been found in research to:

  • Be better informed
  • Read other people’s emotions more accurately
  • Be more creative, perceiving unusual associations and possibilities
  • Offer fair and balanced evaluations
  • Make more accurate judgments
  • Be open to new information and alternative perspectives
  • Experience greater sexual arousal and desire
  • Be less inclined to make impulsive decisions and purchases

The Inner Committee

While we tend to think about our consciousness as one thing, many scholars have a fragmented view.  Daniel Kahneman sees that we have a quick System 1, and a slower, systematic, System 2.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.)  Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, explains that we have a rational mind and an emotional mind.  Jonathan Haidt expands this to explain the relationship in his Elephant-Rider-Path model.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.)

However, the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, as described in No Bad Parts, explains that we have different parts of our consciousness.  It’s not that we have multiple personalities, but rather we have multiple aspects of our personalities that have been fragmented.  Sometimes, we encounter the parts of ourselves that were exiled, and sometimes we encounter their protectors.  They likely have different perspectives than the rest of our consciousness.

Another perspective is that of Steven Reiss in Who Am I?, where he explains that there are 16 basic motivators, and those motivators can come in conflict with one another.  The idea that we shouldn’t be in conflict with ourselves or that we shouldn’t ever come into conflict is fiction.

Kinds of Ambivalence

An interesting aspect of ambivalence that isn’t often discussed is how it is shaped by the positives and negatives of the situation.  Some situations are choices between two mutually-exclusive, positive options.  Others are choosing the lesser of two evils seeking to minimize the pain.  The more complicated kind are those with both positives and negatives.  A depiction of this follows:

When we’re thinking about ambivalence, we’re more frequently thinking of those in the middle.  Consider a job change that requires a move to a new city that you’d like to live in.  Here is a table of positives and negatives of the move (which are opposite for keeping the current job).

Positives Negatives
Better pay, reportedly better hours, an opportunity for career advancement.  Greater challenge. Loss of work friends.  Loss of stability and predictability.  Will be harder.
Get to buy a new house without the existing problems and one that better fits my lifestyle today. Loss of my favorite features of the existing house, like the garden, the proximity to the market, and safety.
Get to live in a city I’ve always wanted to live in.  New adventures. Loss of the community spaces and festivals that I love so much.  Need to find new dentist, physician, hair stylist, etc.


Obviously, the above table is simplified and intentionally devoid of specifics.  However, it illustrates that for every positive, there is often some kind of a negative.  To gain something, you must give something else up.  This is at the heart of ambivalence.  The moment the decision is made, the alternative is removed either literally or figuratively.  Jack Canfield in The Success Principles says, “99% is a bitch, 100% is a breeze.”  That is once the decision is truly made, the alternatives disappear from consciousness.

The Internal-External Conflict

Sometimes, the expectations of society conflict with your expectations of yourself.  People with a “stable core” are aware of their beliefs and values and have the courage to stick to them – for the most part. (See Braving the Wilderness for more on the concept of a stable core and Find Your Courage for more on the courage to stick to your convictions.)  This may be a requirement to report something incorrect or a requirement to take advantage of other people (in your view).  We may be tempted to betray our morals through the temptation of going with what others want – but it often comes with great struggle.  (See How Good People Make Tough Choices for moral temptations and Moral Disengagement for how we rationalize it.)

We can see this kind of conflict working both positively – and negatively – in suicide prevention.  In the case of bullying and torment, a person’s self-worth (self-esteem) is under attack.  Ultimately, this changes the weighting for positives and negatives.  Instead of staying alive being associated with happiness and creating good in the world, it’s filled with torment and struggle.  If the person’s self-esteem collapses under this weight, suicide seems like a good idea.

Conversely, another person concerned about you can mean that there is hope that the current circumstances are temporary.  There’s the chance for things to get better based on your work and the support of others.  Instead of the world being an inherently hostile place with no use for you, one can discover the helpful, compassionate responses that are woven into the fabric of humanity.  (See Does Altruism Exist?)

In both cases, external forces “put their finger” on the scales of ambivalence and change the chance that a final decision will be made – to leave suicide behind, or, tragically, to take that exit.

The Ambivalence of Authority

Most people don’t like being told what to do.  It’s similar to Compelled to Control’s revelation that everyone wants to control but no one wants to be controlled.  While not literally and absolutely true, it’s certainly a majority.  Occasionally, you find those, like the story of Ralph as told in Work Redesign, who no longer desire autonomy.  Their spirit has been broken, and now they’ve resigned themselves to a life that exists beyond their control.

Either Or

One of the limitations of our human minds is that we have a propensity towards binary thinking.  That is, we believe that it’s black or it’s white.  We ignore the multitude of variations between the two polarities.  We see it in cognitive constriction that occurs when we’re under stress.  (See Capture.)  We see it in the studies of creative thinking under stress.  (See Drive.)

One of the best things that we can do to improve decision making is to disrupt this binary, dualistic thinking by introducing a third option.  The introduction of the third option opens the possibility to more and reduces the force of direct conflict between the two original options.

Ideal and Actual Self

It was the gap that Carl Rogers was most concerned with.  (See A Way of Being for some of his work.)  It’s the gap between the internal vision of oneself and the actual self that exists in the world.  It’s the same sort of contradiction that Immunity to Change is focused on.  How are there discrepancies between intentions and actions?  Some of that can be ascribed to the tension between the rider and the elephant in Jonathan Haidt’s model of decision-making.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for more.)  For some, the gap may be the difference between their status orientation and their current status.  (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality.)

When we’re looking at the unmade decisions in our life, we must ask whether they remain undecided because we’re ambivalent about them.  We must also consider whether these decisions should remain unmade in their ambivalence – or whether it’s time to make the call.  The truth is that, for most situations, there is no space left for the concept of On Second Thought.

Book Review-Gun Country: Gun Capitalism, Culture, and Control in Cold War America

It’s not a Norman Rockwell picture.  There’s no wholesome family sitting in a well-furnished home.  It’s the picture of capitalism that created a market for weapons of destruction.  Gun Country: Gun Capitalism, Culture, and Control in Cold War America explains the engine that’s driven America to own more guns per capita than any other country on the planet – by a wide margin.

Army Surplus

As World War II wound down, there were suddenly a large number of handguns sitting in boxes on shelves in warehouses.  When every member of the military wasn’t carrying a sidearm, they needed to go somewhere.  It turns out that some enterprising individuals, like Sam Cummings, began importing these weapons to market to the US consumer.  These weapons were cheaper than what could be produced by US firearms manufacturers for two reasons.

First, the surplus weapons were taking up space, and it was a good thing for the foreign governments to find a new home for them.  They were sold as used for prices intended to get them out of the government warehouse.  This led to some cases where the weapons were imported as “scrap” even though the importer knew they would be sold as-is.

Second, when the supply of surplus weapons was exhausted, the foreign labor rates and exchange rates made it less expensive for firearms to be manufactured.  Admittedly, this sometimes meant there was a lower quality of manufacturing; but for many, it was the difference between being able to afford a weapon and not.


With a supply of inexpensive firearms, it was necessary to create demand.  Marketing was rising as a powerful force in American society, and guns were no exception.  Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders explains how psychology became progressively more intertwined with advertising and how people are motivated to buy things to make them feel better about their lives.  Gun Country explains it as “chasing that elusive daydream of remaking the self through consumption.”  If only it were possible to elevate fear with a simple purchase – one of the two strategies marketed by the gun industry.

For firearms, the motivation took two paths.  The first path was the sport of hunting and target shooting.  It was the path of rebuilding the skills of marksmanship that the Army would have loved to have in ready supply before the war.  It was also the thing that we had lost as we moved to a more stable food supply through agriculture.  This was the positive approach.

The negative approach relied on a sense of fear – the same mechanism that is used today.  We know that violent crime peaked in the 1990s.  (See Bowling Alone.)  However, we also know that continued news coverage of violent crimes increased everyone’s perception of the rise of violent crimes.

Critical to the marketing of firearms was not just the increase in violent crimes but also the race relation tension that reached its peak in the 50s and 60s.  This tension increased fear and the belief that you needed a gun to protect yourself.  This fueled the sale of firearms in record numbers (for the time).

During the 1960s, it was common to see mail-order firearms, including the Carcano rifle:

That’s the exact ad that Lee Harvey Oswald responded to when he purchased the weapon that he used to kill President Kennedy.

Closing the Mail Order Loophole

The first firearms legislation was the National Firearms Act in 1934.  Largely, it restricted the sale of automatic weapons.  In 1938, the Federal Firearms Act restricted who firearms could be sold to – for instance, excluding those with a felony conviction.  However, the standard by which one could determine that someone was – or was not – prohibited was quite loose.  In fact, a child could sign a form that they were able to purchase a weapon and send it back, and no verification was done, nor questions asked.  Some enterprising reporters demonstrated that this was the case.

It was the 1968 Gun Control Act that finally closed the door for firearms sales by mail order.  Firearms, when transported, must be transported between Federal firearm licensees.  It wasn’t until the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 that we gained a comprehensive background check system.

Killing Quality

Much has been made of some firearms – particularly the AR-15 – because of its military use.  The problem is the implication that military firearms are somehow more powerful than civilian firearms.  This is largely not the case.  In some cases, the purchasing public has more discerning tastes than the governments that supply soldiers.  Take the case of the Carcano rifle that Oswald used.

It was a cheap, bolt action rifle, which means the operator flips up and back a piece of metal that sits behind the cartridge when fired.  It gains the ability to do multiple shots by a magazine mechanism under the weapon.  It’s a military rifle with a problem.  The weapon could be fired with the bolt being fully secured in place – ejecting it backwards and into the operator.  Even trained military personnel were hurt in these kinds of accidents, so it wasn’t something that was generally safe enough for the public.  The extra attention and higher risk made it something that serious sportsmen didn’t want to touch.

But there’s more.  The ammunition that these weapons used wasn’t in standard use in the United States.  At the start of the imports, there wasn’t a manufacturer of cartridges (bullets) that would fit in the rifles.  The problem wasn’t that the cartridges were larger or packed more firepower (gun powder) but rather that they were smaller than typically used in the US.  The typical lever-action gun strapped to the sides of horses’ front legs in Western movies is a 30-30.  It’s larger and more powerful than the kinds of weapons that were being imported – and, incidentally, the AR-15 that is so sullied today.

In short, the weapons that were being sold to the public were cheaper, but they also had less power and were more likely to kill the operator than US-manufactured weapons of the time.


People look at them like they’re weird.  Militia (sometimes called “paramilitary”) are the result of the work done to control guns.  Gun advocates correctly saw their ability to own a gun coming to a close.  Leaning on the tiniest reading of the Second Amendment, they reckoned that they had to form a militia to keep their guns.  The literal language of the Second Amendment makes gun ownership a condition of a well-armed militia, so enterprising protectors of their rights formed them.

We’ve moved on from this interpretation of the Second Amendment to a broader interpretation that allows private citizens to have firearms with very few restrictions.  However, the militia have remained an artifact of gun control clamping down on gun owners and their natural defense of their perceived rights.

Law Abiding Citizen

Part of the fear being engendered into the American public was the concept of two kinds of citizens: the law-abiding and the non-law-abiding.  Gun owners wanted to be a part of the law-abiding type.  Much like the affinity groups that I explained in The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, they wanted to be connected to protectors of society.  As protectors, they needed to be armed to be able to overcome the force of mobs – should they ever come.

Few people stopped to ask if they really were completely law-abiding or not.  Speed limits were meant to be bent.  Stop signs were sometimes “stoptional” (stop-optional).  They’d bend the rules in a million different ways, justify the bending, and move on.  (See Moral Disengagement.)

Snipers on the Rooftops

It was 1967 in Detroit, Michigan, and it was a long, hot summer.  The primary conflict was between black residents and the police department.  What’s interesting about this event isn’t exclusively that it was one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in the United States.  Also interesting is the media’s role in creating snipers.

Numerous news outlets reported that there were snipers on rooftops.  The problem is that being able to shoot people at a distance is a skill – one that the residents were never trained for.  It’s also problematic that, in at least one of the cases, the “sniper rifle” was a 410-gauge shotgun – something that’s completely incapable of hitting the broad side of a barn at range, much less sniping.  Mostly, the rioters had handguns, and while some were on rooftops, the media’s inflammatory approach to reporting generated more fear and likely played a role in amplifying the situation.

A similar situation occurred in Newark, where there was widespread reporting of snipers that never existed.  That’s good news, since the presence of well trained and equipped snipers would have dramatically changed the police casualties, as they were often in exposed areas with no body armor on.

As a part of a broader understanding of the situation that drove gun purchasing, we need to consider how the media played a part (probably unwittingly) in the increase of fear and therefore the increase in the number of firearms sold.


However, these riots did create a unique situation.  In Detroit, gun owners were required to register their firearms.  Many were concerned with the problems seen in New York, where a registration was turned into a list of people to approach when the same weapons were later banned.  (See America’s Gun Wars.)  However, an astounding 75% of the weapons that were seized or recovered during the riots were not registered.  It means that when gun control advocates suggest that registering weapons is an effective way to get a handle on gun ownership, they’ve not paid any attention to history.

It’s data like this that makes the observation that if you restrict firearms at this point, the only people who won’t have them are the law-abiding citizens.

Controlling Emotions

A real challenge with gun control advocacy is the tendency to focus on the sensational, emotional component of the problem rather than what really matters.  Gun control proponents are fixated on the AR-15 platform.  That’s like being focused on the cars with ground effect lighting.  They’re regular cars in every meaningful way.  They just happen to look a bit different cosmetically.  (See Bullet Basics, and What is an Assault Rifle?)

Mass shootings are tragic.  There’s no minimizing the tragedy experienced by those injured and killed by mass murderers.  The impact on the families is unimaginable by most.  The problem is that, statistically, they’re an extremely small number of the deaths in the United States – and even those deaths by firearm.  You’re far more likely to kill yourself with a firearm than you are to kill another person.

Preventing suicides isn’t sexy.  It doesn’t make the news most of the time.  It’s where the results can appear when it comes to preventing firearm harm, but for most people, it’s barely an afterthought.  It’s much more engaging to talk about improving mental health screening for those who purchase firearms to prevent the tragedy of mass shootings – ignoring our complete inability to predict who will create the most harm to themselves or others.

The real problem isn’t that guns create violence.  They don’t fabricate arguments from thin air.  The real problem is that arguments can quickly become deadly in a Gun Country.

Book Review-DBT Explained: An Introduction to Essential Dialectical Behavior Therapy Concepts, Practices, and Skills

It never made sense to me, DBT – dialectical behavior therapy.  Where was the conflict?  That and many other mysteries were solved by DBT Explained: An Introduction to Essential Dialectical Behavior Therapy Concepts, Practices, and Skills.  Marsha Linehan’s discovery in DBT is well validated as a treatment.  But what makes it special?

A Tale of Two Approaches

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been well validated for a while, but its focus on changing the way one thinks sometimes left Linehan’s patients feeling invalidated for who they were at that moment.  The insight was the introduction of an acceptance-based approach with meditation and mindfulness.  In this way, DBT validates where the person is – and provides them with the skills and motivation to change.  This is the essential, two-in-one conflict that is represented by the word “dialectical.”  On the one hand, we accept the person for where they are, and on the other, we hope that they can change to better and healthier approaches.

It’s important to note that Motivational Interviewing solved the same dual nature differently.  It focuses on understanding the person and accepting their current reality before moving on to focusing on the core challenges, evoking a desire to change, and planning for that change.  It solves the acceptance problem by introducing the concept of understanding with acceptance.


Most people know the short version of the serenity prayer by Reinhold Staudinger.  Most don’t know that it continues with, “Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace, Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it…”  Here, the word “accepting” is used in conjunction with hardship, but the concept is included in a broader sense when we consider that we must accept the world the way it is.

Embedded are the concepts of willfulness, when we refuse to accept reality, and willingness, when we’re able to accept “the cards we’re dealt.”  There’s a place for willfulness as we’re seeking to change the world, but in the present moment, denying reality does nothing to change it.

Acceptance of a person and their current reality is the essential first step to coming into alignment with them.  You can’t tell someone how to achieve changes in their life without knowing where they’re starting from.  (See also Richo’s How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Emotional Regulation

Core to DBT is the improvement of emotional regulation.  I struggle here, because “emotional regulation” isn’t quite the right language.  It’s not that we prevent emotions from happening.  It’s that we can learn to let them control us less.

In Daniel Goleman’s immensely popular Emotional Intelligence, he characterizes emotional intelligence along two axes splitting into four quadrants.  On the first axis, we have awareness on one side and management on the other.  The other axis is self and other.  For both, awareness is required before management can begin.  (See also Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and Primal Leadership.)

Beyond awareness comes the management piece, which is as much a negotiating process where emotions are evaluated for their utility by cognitive processes.  This is at the heart of CBT as well.

The awareness step can be difficult for people, because they’ve learned that their emotions are scary and uncontrollable.  Thus, they’ve blocked out all sense of emotions and live without conscious awareness of them – even though they’re silently controlling situations.  (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for Elephant-Rider-Path.)  Often, once people can accept and acknowledge their emotions, the management of the emotions becomes a relatively easy set of skills to be taught.

Follow Your Heart

Many people in many different contexts offer the advice to follow your heart.  Mostly, this means to follow your emotions and intuition towards your goals.  “Following your heart” uncouples you from the realities that tend to hold you back and make it difficult to take big risks.  This has its place and can be a powerful way to realize your dreams.  It’s also dangerous to radically decouple from reality.  It makes you susceptible to your feelings leading you astray.

I trained as a pilot decades ago.  They taught us that when your instruments and your feelings differ, trust your instruments.  Instruments all have backups to verify with, and if they’re telling you the same thing, then that’s what is happening – regardless of how you feel.  It’s okay to fly by feel for a little bit, but you’ve got to remember to periodically check your instruments.  You’ve got to check in with reality and make sure that what you feel is what’s really happening.

It’s like the Stockdale paradox that Jim Collins discusses in Good to Great.  You need to follow your heart – have unwavering confidence – and you need to check things against reality – accept input when the situation dictates it.

In the end, if you want to navigate these sorts of paradoxes, it might be good to start by getting DBT Explained.

Book Review-Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity

It wasn’t what I expected, but it was good.  I picked up Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity to understand the issue from a societal perspective and what could be done to address the challenges that so many people face as they’re stereotyped and stigmatized.  I was expecting a discussion on how to change society to be more accepting, like After the Ball.  I picked it up due to a reference in Suicide Among Gifted Children and Adolescents. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that Stigma was published initially in 1963 and that the author, Erving Goffman, is one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century.  What I found in his work was a personal playbook for managing your identity when you believe you’ve been stigmatized.

The Attribute

When someone is stigmatized, there is some attribute – normally an attribute that has some level of observability by others – upon which that the stigma is based.  The attribute can be physical, as in the color of skin – or it can be something like mental illness.

In A Class Divided, William Peters explains the experiment that Jane Elliott did to teach the impact of stereotyping and stigmatizing to her class after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  She divided her students on the basis of eye color and treated them differently based on the day.  Even though it was just a classroom exercise lasting a few days, her students quickly identified people based on their eye color – even calling her out for being one of the “lesser” eye colors on days when her eye color was treated as lesser.

The profound realizations from this experiment included the fact that these stigmas could be created very quickly and easily – and that they can be based on completely irrelevant attributes.  It doesn’t really matter.


The words to explain the relationship between the degree of stigmatization and the attribute include obtrusiveness – how obvious the attribute is.  The other words that are used to describe the attribute are perceptibility and evidentness.  For someone to be stigmatized, there must be some awareness of the attribute, and that relies on the degree to which it’s observable to others – or the degree to which they’ve been informed.  On the completely, non-evident end of the spectrum, we have the woman who has lost her virginity outside of wedlock.  There is no outward visible change.  On the other end are attributes that can’t be missed.  Consider someone with a facial birthmark.  It’s nearly impossible for another person to miss.

In between are situations where upbringing might be subtly betrayed by choice of word or language.  For instance, saying that something is “so ghetto” might betray having grown up in poverty.  Something as simple as saying that the chili you had growing up had noodles in it also portrays a certain sense of lower income.  For someone to have a stigma for those who grew up in or near poverty, they may not know until something has been said.


One of the greatest tragedies of our experience with others is when we make others subhuman.  Hitler made the Nazis view Jews as subhuman and the genocide that followed is an indelible mark on humanity.  In America, slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person – an inexcusable representation of a human.  In moderate to extreme forms, stigma is the devaluing of other humans.  In their otherness, they are somehow less worthy of the birthright of the rest of humanity.  In this, we disengage our morality as is explained in Moral Disengagement and The Lucifer Effect.  While this external condemnation is unacceptable in any form, too many people experience it inside their own minds, berating themselves as not worthy of the kindness and respect deserved by every human.

The internal view of oneself is driven in ways that we’re not cognizant of.  If we’re attached to one stigma/stereotype, we experience better results; pick another, equally relevant, stigma/stereotype, and we’ll do worse.  We subtly pick up on the environment and how we’re treated by others and start to believe those things about ourselves.  All of a sudden, we don’t need others to tell us that we’re inferior, we’ll do it ourselves in voices that we cannot consciously hear.


When Al Campanis was the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he punched a bigoted player who insulted Jackie Robinson.  The result ushered in the addition of black players to Major League Baseball.  At a time when racism was firmly entrenched, and there was great personal risk to protect Robinson, Campanis did it anyway.  He did it, because he knew Jackie personally and knew him to be more than what the stigma associated with his race said he should be.  (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more on the story.)

Similarly, we can avoid stigma with people who we’ve known personally prior to their stigmatizing attribute being known.  Consider people whose relative poverty growing up isn’t discovered for years, until after a friendship has formed.  The awareness of their poverty, while being quite impactful for others, will likely not apply to the friend.

There are, however, many limits to this, as Al Campanis’ full story illustrates.  While Campanis was able to override the stigma of Robinson’s skin color for the purposes of playing baseball, he still thought that Robinson wasn’t fit to be a manager.  He was wrong – but in part because the stigma leaked through, past his relationship with Robinson.

The most effective way to work past stigma is to develop meaningful relationships with individuals in the stigmatized groups – and allow them to expose where the stigma may still remain, even with them.


There comes a question for those whose attribute can be hidden: should it?  The answer is complicated.  Obviously, exposing it too early may prevent the ability to form the very kind of relationship that can reduce the impact of the stigma personally and potentially unfasten the moorings on which it’s based.  However, it may be that hiding this attribute may come at great personal difficulty – and as such, one must make an informed decision about whether they can “keep up the ruse.”

Ultimately, concealment is a psychically draining situation that should be minimized where possible.  The best advice is always to be yourself.  (See How to Be Yourself.)

Concealing the stigmatizing attribute from others may focus your attention on it and make it more prevalent in your thinking.  Stigma is a hard thing to avoid.

Journalistic Cancer at ProPublica

I didn’t intend to expose anything or pull back any rocks to see what lurked under them.  I simply had a concern about an article.  I wanted to reconcile some reporting that called a valid situation “junk science.”  The topic was parental alienation, and it’s something that I had some firsthand knowledge in.  It was a situation I was forced to walk through – but it has more or less passed for me.

The research is clear, focused, and, relatively speaking, incontrovertible.  Parental alienation exists where one parent causes a child or children to dislike the other parent.  I’d written about the pathway to parental alienation that I saw as I researched it years ago.

Still, my initial note to the author was gentle: a request to speak about the article as written and to better understand the journalist’s perspective.  There was no response.  After waiting over a week, I dropped a note to the editor-in-chief with my concerns attached.  I didn’t hear back from him but instead received a note from the author of the article.

The note was pleasant and had her manager copied.  The problem was that the email message directly contradicted the article.  The words of confirmation that parental alienation was a real issue ran directly against the characterization in the article.  One cannot have a valid phenomenon and at the same time have “junk science” – the term the article uses.

In the short discussion, there was a reaffirmation that neither the World Health Organization (WHO) in its ICD codes nor the American Psychological Association (APA) in their DSM-V recognized it as a syndrome.  This is a space that I’m also too familiar with.

In the case of burnout, WHO acknowledges it as a workplace condition – but the APA fails to recognize it.  There are good reasons to believe that WHO’s inclusion isn’t in the right spot, because it constrains burnout to work-related situations, yet many people experience burnout outside of their occupation.  In fact, in its original expression, it was about avocation instead of vocation.  It was the way that Freudenberger and his colleagues were serving and how they felt inadequate results in that service.  (Our website has numerous free resources to understand and respond to burnout in yourself and others.)

It’s not surprising that WHO and APA don’t directly recognize parental alienation, nor is it incontrovertible evidence of its failure to exist.  Nassim Taleb would explain in The Black Swan that the absence of something doesn’t prove that it doesn’t exist.  However, let’s look more closely at the claims that neither APA nor WHO accept it.

Parental alienation doesn’t fit the goal of either WHO’s ICD nor APA’s DSM-V.  Both include criteria that are primarily reserved for individuals.  ICD codes are most frequently used for billing.  The DSM is similarly used for mental health billing.  They’re fundamentally focused on the individual, but parental alienation is a three-party relational problem.  The argument was made that the DSM includes some relational issues – and that’s true.  However, the number of relational codes is limited – and typically requires a primary diagnosis code.

Consider factitious disorder by proxy – what was historically known as Munchhausen by proxy.  The “by proxy” part is a clear indication that it’s not a single party diagnostic code.  However, it’s premised on the harm to an individual.

As I got deeper into the weeds, I found two diagnostic codes for DSM-V that corresponded to parental alienation.  V995.51 is “Child Psychological Abuse” and V61.29 “Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress.”  Neither directly speaks to parental alienation – but both do cover the condition.

The ProPublica article says that WHO denounced parental alienation, but they actually said, “During the development of ICD-11, a decision was made not to include the concept and terminology of ‘parental alienation’ in the classification, because it is not a health care term.”  That isn’t a denouncement.  It’s a statement of scope.

ProPublica also links to a National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges article and paper, “Navigating Custody & Visitation Evaluations in Cases with Domestic Violence: A Judge’s Guide.”  Ultimately, this paper incorrectly states the APA position on the matter, confusing the narrower Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) with the broader category of parental alienation.  In the APA definition for PAS, it states, “Despite the significant controversy surrounding this syndrome, the more generalized concept of parental alienation often is viewed as a legitimate dynamic in many family situations, describing the harm done to a child’s security with one caregiver as a result of exposure to another caregiver’s unfavorable actions toward or criticism of that person.”

There are two important issues here.  First, the scope of the document is domestic violence – something that is outside of the concept of parental alienation.  Quoting it seems like cherry picking.  (See Mastering Logical Fallacies for a deeper explanation.)  Second, admission of parental alienation in court cases is substantially increasing, as Parental Alienation: An Evidence-Based Approach clearly indicates.

The final evidence is a UN report, titled “Custody, violence against women and violence against children.”  Page 3 explains, “There is no commonly accepted clinical or scientific definition of ‘parental alienation’. Broadly speaking, parental alienation is understood to refer to deliberate or unintentional acts that cause unwarranted rejection by the child towards one of the parents, usually the father.”  There are working definitions for parental alienation as explained in the book referenced above.  Admittedly, greater clarity is better.  The UN report continues in the next paragraph to confuse PAS and parental alienation.  It seems the distinction was lost on the UN Human Rights Council as well.

The argument that was made to me during the email exchange with the editorial management at ProPublica that the research for the article included the work of Dr. Paul Fink.  He’d written an article in 2010 claiming PAS wasn’t a thing.  Of course, the way it was presented to me was that the author of the article had spoken with the Dr. Fink – something that would have been impossible given his death nine years before the ProPublica article published.  The response was clarified that they didn’t intend to imply that the author had spoken with him.  I responded with a meta analysis article “Parental Alienation in U.S. Courts, 1985 to 2018.”  For those that don’t follow, an individual article, no matter how impressive the author is, is trumped by a meta analysis of multiple articles in terms of authority.  In short, the editorial views of someone from 13 years prior aren’t that relevant any longer.

I ultimately escalated to the author’s manager, who included his own manager on the replies.  After several rounds of the data I was providing being ignored, I forwarded the whole mess to the editor-in-chief who affirmed the way that the situation was handled was in line with his expectations.

I sent an email to the board chairman.  I’ve never heard back.  (I waited 3 months.)

What does this mean?

There was a time when the profession of journalism meant something.  It meant integrity.  It meant making hard choices to tell the truth.  It doesn’t seem like the truth matters as much any longer – at least not to ProPublica.

ProPublica’s stated mission is “To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”  I was struck with a question: Who watches those that watch others?

It seems to me, based on the above interaction, that they’ve got their own agendas – which are resistant to the evidence.  Once they’ve formed an incorrect opinion, no amount of research will shake them from it.  So much for the basic principles of journalism.

Book Review-Suicide Among Gifted Children and Adolescents: Understanding the Suicidal Mind

It’s a concerning question for parents of children who are considered “gifted” intellectually.  Suicide Among Gifted Children and Adolescents: Understanding the Suicidal Mind doesn’t answer the question about whether these children are more or less likely to die by suicide.  Citing conflicting research, no conclusion is drawn.  However, there is work to surface the factors that lead to these conflicting results.

Theory of Suicide – Suicide Trajectory Model

One serious limitation to the book is the choice of primary model.  They chose the suicide trajectory model put forth by Stillion and McDowell.  This isn’t a popular model, rarely appearing even in the child development context under which it’s borne.  It has some similarities to Rudd et al.’s fluid vulnerability model (see Brief Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention), and it seems to map out Pathways to Suicide, like Ron Maris’ book.  However, while predisposing, contributing, precipitating, and protective factors are reviewed, they don’t form a pathway as much as they represent a set of factors at the individual, family, peer, school, community, and sociopolitical levels.

The problem is that these aren’t discriminating factors.  While citing articles of M. David Rudd and his colleagues, it seems as if Cross misses the central point that we don’t have discriminating factors, and we need to find them.  More recently, Craig Bryan explains why our capacity to predict suicide is unlikely to get specific.  (See Rethinking Suicide.)  This is consistent with research showing that many attempters (who survived) didn’t think about suicide for more than an hour.  Commonly, around 70% of attempters hadn’t considered it more than an hour or two before the act.  It’s hard to build a prediction framework with these kinds of timeframes.

The Myths

Like many others, Cross falls into the trap of describing “myths” about suicide.  The first “myth” is that “Suicide occurs without warning.”  Clearly, that’s true for some people (≥70%).  “Myth” four is, “If a gifted young person wants to commit [sic] suicide, very little can stop him or her.”  Here, nuance is important.  Certainly, if they are determined to die, they will.  They’ll lie, or they’ll find lethal means that you wouldn’t think to protect them from.  (See Suicide: Inside and Out for more.)  However, the nuance is whether or not they’ll have an honest conversation about their suicidal ideation with you.  Techniques like Motivational Interviewing can help open people up to the idea – as long as the coercive forces aren’t too strong.

The “myths” reflect historical thinking about suicide.  While many continue to believe the myths as stated, we’re beginning to realize that the old ideas aren’t necessarily true.


The most consistent finding for impact in suicidality is perfectionism.  This occurs among the gifted and the normal.  However, perfectionism flows through the sense of agency or growth mindset that Carol Dweck explains in Mindset.  It’s consistent with Harris’ work in No Two Alike.  In short, a small amount of dispositional difference – even among twins – will result in tendencies towards and away from things, like academic excellence.  (See Perfectionism for more on the topic.)

The Meaning of Gifted

Cross’ work is challenged by the lack of a consistent definition of what “gifted” means.  Is it high IQ or mental aptitude in a certain way?  (See Howard Gardner’s Extraordinary Minds for more.)  Is it performing above the required standard?

One relatively common understanding is the experience of being gifted.  The experience is often described as “feeling different.”  I certainly felt – and feel – that.  To be clear, for most, it’s not necessarily better – it’s different.  It’s a curiosity about what is wrong with me, or why am I different?


Cross ends with a call back to Shneidman’s work on psychache and the need to eliminate it if we want to take care of others.  (See The Suicidal Mind for more on psychache.)  The need to increase feelings of a life worth living in the person and eliminate their pain is, however, universal to all humans.  It’s not specific to either gifted or youth.  It can be that if we want to prevent Suicide Among Gifted Children and Adolescents, we’ll need to just prevent it among all children and adolescents.

Book Review-Compassion and Self-Hate: An Alternative to Despair

While compassion is the subject of many books, self-hate is not frequently discussed.  Compassion and Self-Hate: An Alternative to Despair seeks to map the relationship between the two and how compassion can heal self-hate.  I came to the book because of self-hate’s role in suicide.  I came to understand how someone could hate themselves so much that they thought they and the world would be better off without them in it.  (This interest was focused while reading Managing Suicidal Risk, 2e.)

Self-Hate Machinations

Sometimes, the mental machinery of our mind gets stuck.  (See Capture for more.)  It can get stuck replaying a time when we were frightened and vulnerable or when we did something that wasn’t nice.  Stuck in this state, it is easy to see how self-hate can develop.  The problem with this is that self-hate is problematic from both a physical and mental health perspective.

Self-hate can also be borne by external or internal perfectionism.  (See Perfectionism.)  With impossible standards, you’re always falling short, and that falling short leads to condemnation from others or yourself.


If you know you did wrong – or didn’t measure up – you can take matters into your own hands and punish yourself by denying yourself grace, compassion, or, more tangibly, the hobbies and activities that you enjoy.  This self-punishment makes you your own enemy and sets up a further fracturing of identity that places parts of yourself into the dangerous category.

The logic of self-punishment is either the desire to motivate ourselves to better behavior or to “balance the scales.”  In other words, if there is enough self-punishment, then I should deserve to succeed.  The scales should be slanted towards good things for us – even if that’s not realistic.

Rejection of Praise

When one’s internal image doesn’t match the image that others are sharing with you, you may reject it.  Because what they’re saying is inconsistent with your internal perspective, the discrepancy must be resolved, and it’s easier to resolve it in a way that points to your negative, internal view being right.  It’s easier, but it’s probably not correct.

Sometimes, we outright dismiss the comment.  “That’s not me.”  Other times, we discount it.  “I only did a good job because it was easy.”  Another way that we discount it is by removing the uniqueness.  “Anyone could have done it.”  These approaches prevent us from letting in the light that other people are trying to shine to us.

If someone else is the arbitrator of good or bad, and they say good, believe them.  (If they say something negative, you should evaluate it more carefully to understand their motivations.)

Secretly Suspicious of Good

Whether it’s someone saying good things or simply feeling good, some people are suspicious.  They don’t believe they deserve to feel good or to have happiness.  When it happens, they feel ashamed, as if they have stolen something that doesn’t belong to them.

Value as an Economic Engine

From a chemical composition perspective, the human body is worth less than $100 in chemicals.  Of course, that’s not the standard by which we measure a life, much less a human life.  The value of human body parts has a much higher value – and a much higher moral rejection factor.  (See Moral Disengagement and How Good People Make Tough Choices.)  More commonly, people see themselves as economic engines that generate value through their work.  It’s not surprising, then, that the stock market crash and the Great Depression, with so many out of work, led to a surge in suicides.  Without money or a job, they saw themselves as without value and were willing to throw away their lives.

Most people believe, intuitively, that human life is intrinsically valuable, but too frequently, that value is dismissed.

Early Warning Signals

One of the keys to ongoing maintenance of an attitude of self-esteem rather than self-hate is identifying the earliest signs that our internal talk track is moving towards self-hate.  Learning to identify these early warning signs may prevent the downward spiral before it begins.  The problem isn’t in the idea that we should be looking for early warning signs.  The problem is identifying them.

Early warning signs aren’t universal.  There’s not a cookbook or checklist.  Everyone will have to learn their own unique, personal early warning signs – and choose to react to them.  However, this can be one of the most powerful ways to bring more joy to life.

Learning to Live with Rejection

One of the hardest things for our ego to accept is the reality that we will be rejected.  There will be times when the other person isn’t capable of the thing that we’re asking for.  It may have something to do with us or what we’re offering them – but it may not.  In either case, we will still experience the rejection, and it will still sting.

People who have the most robust mental health have developed a resilience in the face of rejection.  They know that one rejection isn’t the only path between success and failure and that the rejection will not be the last.  They’ve divorced the rejection from their worth and value.  However, those that struggle with self-hate can’t do that.

Instead, each rejection is seen as a fatal failure.  They think that every rejection is a statement about their value and worth.  They become convinced that they’re fundamentally flawed and unworthy of acceptance when this is not the case.

Compassion is the Antidote

In the broadest view, compassion – and particularly self-compassion – is the antidote to self-hate.  Another way of stating compassion is loving-kindness.  If we can learn to be kind to ourselves, we can realize that self-hate isn’t right.  Compassion itself is built upon empathy – “I understand this about you.”  Compassion directly is about understanding the suffering of another and desiring to do something to make it better.  (See Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism for more on empathy and compassion.)  Self-compassion, then, is understanding ourselves and our suffering and making a decision to make it better.

When we start to treat ourselves with compassion, we can see both the help and the helper in ourselves, and self-hate is incompatible with that.  We know that we’re fundamentally wired for cooperation and compassion.  Being compassionate is built-in, we just need to accept it.  (See SuperCooperators and Does Altruism Exist? for more.)

Moods Are Not Permanent

One of the challenges of self-hate is the moods that we arrive in that fuel it.  We find ourselves in depressed moods that seem as if they’ll last forever.  While emotions may be brief, it feels that a mood will be permanent.  Logically, we know that to not be truth, but that doesn’t help our emotions.  Our emotions drive our thinking – and are frequently in control.  (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for more.)

Constant self-reassurance is required to overcome the powerful force of emotions and the perception that negative moods are permanent.  Recalling when you had negative moods before that have passed and good moods that have persisted for a while is a good way to break free of the perception of permanence.

The Surrendering Skill

There are two kinds of surrender – surrender accept and surrender defeat.  (See Conflict: Surrender Accept vs. Surrender Defeat.)  Too frequently, we confuse the two.  We get stuck in the belief that things should be different – that we should never feel bad (or good) – and we find that reality lets us down when it doesn’t conform to our expectations.  If we are willing to let go of our preconceived notions and insistence on our perfect or ideal, we can find more compassion and less frustration.  In fact, if we’re willing to openly surrender and accept reality, we may find that we can see the difference between Compassion and Self-Hate.

Book Review-Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love

It’s spooky stuff.  Rewind the clock to a time before you have conscious memories and watch your interactions with your mom and dad.  Mary Ainsworth did this and refined the work of John Bowlby on attachment.  They collectively discovered that the way we form relationships as an infant is relatively stable over time and can shape how we’ll behave in intimate relationships decades later.  Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love is the exposition of their work and the work of others that seeks to help us understand why we act the way we do – and how we can change it.


To understand the genius of Bowlby’s work – and Mary Ainsworth’s extension – we must recognize the evolutionary advantage of attachments.  If we take a step back, we can acknowledge that humans aren’t the fastest or the fiercest animals on the planet.  However, our capacity to be social and select strategies of cooperation are an essential part of our ability to be the dominant biomass on the planet.  (See SuperCooperators, Does Altruism Exist?, The Evolution of Cooperation, and The Righteous Mind.)

From there, we can see there can be special relationships we make – primary bonds – with those who are the most important to us and the most likely to support us.  In childhood, these are often our parents; in adulthood, our spouse.  Bowlby theorized, based on Harlow’s work on rhesus monkeys, that social comforting and perceived protection can be more important than food.  In Harlow’s experiments, he fashioned two mother monkey replicas in wireframe.  In one, he fashioned a place to hold a bottle for food, and the other he covered with terrycloth (to simulate the mother’s fur).  The monkeys would get food when they were hungry but would routinely spend time with the terrycloth replica, who offered nothing else tangible.

Mary Ainsworth, who worked with Bowlby, would go on to develop a protocol for the “strange situation” that could clarify Bowlby’s hypothesis.  She discovered, first in Uganda and then back in the US, that there were three basic ways that most babies would become attached.  They are secure, avoidant, and anxious.  She recorded several other variants that can be lumped together as “anxious-avoidant,” which is a mixture of the two non-safe attachment styles.  Today, it is more commonly called “disordered attachment” because of the unpredictability.

Robin Dunbar later postulated the number of stable social relationships as a function of the size of the primate brain.  Most frequently, this is quoted as 150 people for humans, but Dunbar’s work is much more nuanced.  First, the overall number is a range that might be up to 250 people; more importantly, Dunbar proposed that there are rings of intensity of relationships that allow for the primary relationships Bowlby earlier believed in.

The Styles

What Ainsworth saw in her test exposed a paradox.  Those babies who were attached in a way that Ainsworth would call “stable” were more likely to explore and experience the “strange situation.”  Like the rat pups who received more licking and grooming who explored their environment, children explored more when they believed that they had a safe person to return to.  (See How Children Succeed for more on rat licking and grooming.)

A summary of the styles is:

  • Secure – They are aware that they have a safe person to return to and thus are less fearful and more open to experiences.
  • Anxious – When their safe person isn’t available, they experience anxiety with the apparent concern they’ll never return. This is believed to be associated with neglect (intentional or unintentional).
  • Avoidant – When their safe person is available, they often push the safe person away or ignore them. This is believed to be associated with perceived (but not necessarily real) abuse.
  • Disordered – Alternating styles of avoidance and anxiety believed to be related to unpredictable experiences. Children of alcoholics can fall into this category or the anxious category depending on the predictability of their needs failing to be met.

Attachment in Plastic

The continued research into attachment has led to the awareness that, while attachment styles are generally stable over a lifetime, they can be changed.  It’s described as the styles being plastic.  They can be flexed and changed, but not without some degree of effort.

Cults sometimes intentionally try to pull people to a disordered attachment style, so they are more easily controlled and manipulated.  (See Terror, Love, and Brainwashing for more.)  Without intentionality, trauma can move people from more secure attachment styles to less secure attachment styles.  This is often disorienting for both the person and those around them.

However, with work, the opposite is true.  Even those who grew up in chaotic environments can develop secure attachments and approach close relationships in healthier ways.

Unmet Needs Continue

Sometimes the dynamics of the situation have one person calling the other “needy” or “clingy.”  This pejorative assessment unfairly characterizes the gap between one person’s capacity to give and the other person’s need.  The person with the need is characterized as excessively needy rather than the giver being seen as insufficiently capable of giving.  No matter what you call it, the gap exists – and it may grow over time.

Consider a family that earns $50,000 per year but for whom their expenses are $55,000 per year.  Are they needy?  Certainly, their needs exceed their earnings, but needy may – or may not – be a fair characterization.  In financial terms, we increase our debts to cover the difference, which further increases the gap between income and expenses.  In emotional terms, we may choose to defer our needs temporarily with the expectation that the deficit will be addressed later.

The issue is the fundamental gap between need and capacity, and it stays the same even if our tolerance of the issue doesn’t stay the same.

Intimacy Anorexia

Over a decade ago, in a previous marriage, I encountered the work of Douglas Weiss and Intimacy Anorexia.  While I’d seen the work of Bowlby and Ainsworth when I encountered Weiss’ work, I hadn’t quite put the pieces together.  “Intimacy anorexia,” as Weiss defines it, is a caricature of the avoidant attachment style.  They use a variety of strategies to avoid the person whom they’re married to or in a committed relationship with.  With every pursuit of intimacy that the secure or anxiously attached person makes, the anorexic is putting up walls.  John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains how important these bids for attention (and intimacy) are.

The net result is that the person bidding for intimacy questions whether they’re normal or needy, as their partner claims.

The Anxious-Avoidant Pairing

The unfortunate outcome of attachment styles and the dating process is that people with anxious attachment styles quite frequently end up with people who have an avoidant attachment style.  This set of attachment styles is often dysfunctional, with one partner constantly pursuing and the other partner constantly fleeing the threat of intimacy.  The best bet for these parings is for both partners to work towards changing their attachment styles to be more stable – which is substantially harder than it sounds when your partner is human and fallible.

The Stable Connection

One might assume, rightly, that a couple consisting of two adults with stable attachment would offer the best chances for intimacy.  Both partners would allow for the appropriate space for the other.  They’d accept their partner as an independent person with their own needs – and recognize that they’ll be there to support their needs.  An unexpected finding in the research is that having one stable person in the relationship is nearly as effective as having two.  It seems that someone with a stable attachment style can calm the fears of the other partner.

It’s as if they’re able to provide the degree of closeness that the other person needs – even if that degree of intimacy needs changes.  From a personal perspective, I can remember counseling sessions where I shared that I didn’t have the right to a bad day, because if I did have a bad day, my now ex-wife couldn’t rise to the occasion to meet me in the middle.  In a plane, there’s a flight attitude you can get that requires the engine to run at 100% capacity.  It’s called “hanging on the prop,” and it’s risky when close to the ground.  When you’re operating with one securely attached person in a relationship, there may or may not be much room for weakness.

Protest Behaviors

In fact, some “protest” behaviors can drive even the securely attached partner beyond their coping capacity.  Levine and Heller’s list includes:

  • Withdrawing
  • Keeping score
  • Acting hostile
  • Threating to leave
  • Manipulations
  • Making them feel jealous

I take issue with the last one, since you can’t make anyone else feel something – but you can encourage it.  That being said, the list shows similarities to the ones from Intimacy Anorexia.

Elevated Attachment Isn’t Love

One of the traps people sometimes stumble into is that they mistake an activated attachment system for love.  In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett explains how she might have mistaken illness for interest in a date.  Luckily, she sorted it out.  Others aren’t so lucky.  They err on the side of interest when there’s something triggered in their attachment system trying to warn them, inadvertently bringing them like a moth to a flame.

The opposite is also true, where people fail to feel a “spark” with someone else and they assume that it’s because they’re not interested.  Romance novels lead some to believe that there has to be this spark instead of creating space for a relationship first.

Conflict Resolution Leads to Intimacy

Even relationships between secure attachment types include fighting.  Sure, they fight differently, but they still fight.  When one of the partners is avoidant, they may seek to keep the conflict operating, because resolving the conflict creates too much intimacy.  I can remember this experience.  I’d try to eliminate the disagreement only to find a new one or a new dimension emerges.  If you’re using your best conflict resolution skills, and the conflict seems to constantly rekindle, you may be working with someone who needs to keep the fight alive.

Responding to Effective Communication

Another clue to a person’s attachment style is how they respond to effective communication.  The securely attached respond very positively; other attachment styles reveal their nature by changing the subject or creating a distraction.  Securely attached people don’t have any interest in or any time for games.  They expect effective communication – and they give it.

Growing Up

At some level, we grow up, but we don’t always learn How to Be an Adult in Relationships.  We carry around the attachment styles we learned as a child, and we don’t even know that we should adjust it for a happier life.  In the end, to find the best happiness in life, we need to learn how to be securely Attached.

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