A few years ago Martin Seligman (former President of the American Psychological Association and developer of positive psychology, a significant force in the current mental health environment) and Christopher Peterson came up with this notion of Signature Strengths – those qualities we are naturally drawn to and which are considered to be positive (and have for millennia). There are 24 of these and it is possible to visit a web site and go through a 30 minute test that will give you a sense of your top signature strengths. You can access this test here (scroll down to the VIA Survey of Character Strengths). Seligman describes these different strengths so well in his book Authentic Happiness. In a more detailed discussion, Seligman and Peterson in their book Character Strengths and Virtues (a book I purchased out of an excess of enthusiasm only to decide that the tome was helpful, but did not merit it’s size or price) break the 24 strengths into Six Categories: Wisdom and Knowledge; Courage; Humanity; Justice; Temperance and Transcendence. What I particularly appreciated about this material is similar to the value I find in Myers-Briggs psychological type. Many of us struggle with the belief that there is something about our basic nature that is inadequate. We aren’t smart enough, or clever enough, or spiritual, empathic, mentally tough, athletic or social enough. These products of ”programing” we received from parental figures who, themselves, struggled with their own sense of defect and want, leave us with an inflated sense of what is missing in our character and an altogether limited idea of our own personal assets. The most successful, content people in the world have holes in their character and the most confused have great, though unmined, character strengths. Recognizing, and playing to, those strengths is a key to life satisfaction, as Seligman teaches. He suggests that we seek out work that allows us to exercise these strengths and indulge in recreation that lets us express them. Great advice in my book. I invite you to take the test linked above and explore it’s benefits.
John Gottman is the pre-eminent researcher of intimate couples – both in conflict and getting along. One of Gottman’s insights – and one I find of, perhaps the greatest value – is this: Of all the couples he has studied – with those who separate after a brief time together to those who are together for 60 years (and through all those years others marvel at what a strong, enduring bond they display) – among all of these couples, roughly 69% of their conflicts are perpetual. They will never be resolved. Put another way, if each person is waiting for the other to just compromise (“If they’ll move a little toward me, I’ll move toward them.”) each will be continually disappointed, irritated and estranged. It’s just not going to happen – for either person. The areas of conflict are myriad and examples provided by Gottman include differences in: Approach to finances; Preferred love-making style or frequency; Approach to child-rearing; Sociability; Relationship to extended family or in-laws; Emotional expressiveness; Work before play vs. Play before work; Neatness/Organization; Private time vs. Alone time; Punctuality; Activity level; Religious observance and Approach to conflict.
Think about it. Of these differences (and others) about 69% will be there on the first day of the relationship and remain until the 60th year. “Why, then, don’t all relationships blow apart?” you might ask. Excellent question. The couples who endure and thrive are those who are able understand and appreciate the underlying values that support the other’s approach. Also, it is so important to understand that the other’s persistence in making their way through the world in their way is not a rejection of us or a statement that we are not important (after all they are probably feeling that they are not important to us because if they were, we would not be so upset about them being the way they are). I have seen many people sigh with relief, and lower their shoulders in relaxation at the understanding that this difference is not a toxic and irredeemable flaw in their relationship, but, rather just something that comes with all connections between two different people and which is shared by long, long term relationships.
Many of us are familiar with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, a personality sorter that tells us if we tend toward Introversion or Extroversion as a preference – whether we are likely to make decisions based upon the straightforward and logical Thinking function or the more subjective and personal values-based Feeling function – how we take in the world we experience, as concrete and evidence reliant Sensors or future oriented and inspired Intuitive types – and finally if we prefer to affect our world in an organized, results-oriented Judging fashion or rather let our world affect us in the observant, keep-our-options-open Perceiving way. These eight preferences result in 16 different Personality Types. Scores of journal articles have been written about lawyers and the MBTI. It is a standard part of many law school orientation programs. I have presented this material in a number of law firms – to great effect and enjoyment.
Recently, I was introduced to an instrument which is similar to the MBTI, but is quicker to take, simpler to explain and enjoys almost all of the valuable insights to be gained by the lengthier instrument. Its simplicity and brevity lends itself to a 2 hour lunchtime presentation. The break-downs are quite simple. We are sorted into Four basic preferences – each having its own way to prioritize information; communicate and make decisions. We will usually have one style – or perhaps two - which dominate our approach to life and business tasks. One of the great values of this material is that we can begin to understand that (1) there are other approaches which, (2) while different are valuable and which (3) exist in all environments, to one degree or another and (4) which, without some instruction and reflection will be impermeable to our efforts to connect and persuade. These styles are characterized by colors, for ease. Certainly the quick thinking, results oriented Directives will have some difficulty working with, and getting through to, the more easy-going, “take it as it comes, but make it entertaining Adaptives. These latter folks may have some difficulty understanding the need of the Analyticals to get it right and find their difficulty in reaching conclusion frustrating. That doesn’t even begin with the care these people take with their communication which can dismay the Supportive style, who finds the over-concern with precision to be antithetical to the higher value of empathic and interpersonally harmonious exchanges. Different environments will find certain styles dominating. Likely any law firm will see an abundance of Analyticals and Directives. In fact, there may be such a predominance of these two styles, that the livelier Adaptives and more empathic Supportives may have difficulty understanding and expressing the value they provide. It is the choice and challenge of every working system to find a way to harvest the kernels of skill and natural talents of every part. The first, obvious, step is to be able to identify these difference and then to knit the fabric of our collective powers to make the overall organization energetic, effective, resilient and a place of belonging for all involved.
We just returned from a 10-day stay in beautiful Ireland. I had been there years ago during the waning days of a failing marriage and didn’t like the place at all. Just goes to show how important state of mind is! This time, my wife and I joined our 21 year old daughter and traipsed around Dublin and the Southwest and I fell in love with the land and its people. Being away to another culture allows a wonderful insight into our own and America shines brightly through the Irish lens. So many came from the island to the U.S. – particularly during the catastrophic potato famine of the late 1840′s (which wiped out about 1/3 of the 8 million population through starvation or emigration. In fact, Ireland has never reached its pre-famine population!). Hardly a person we spoke to failed to have relatives in this country. Gracious, full of humor, delightful poetry in their expression and extremely friendly – a visit is like immersion into a warm human bath. Yet, there is a vein of pain which runs through the Irish heart and history. The oppression of the huge power (England) just to the east, that imposed laws which prohibited, upon pain of death, the open worship of their faith and allowed Protestants to move to the island and confiscate the land and property of the rural farmers under the policy of “plantation” - the depredations of Oliver Cromwell hundreds of years ago – the multiple uprisings seeking freedom and autonomy which were brutally put down – this was the same oppressive power that the American colonists rebelled against successfully. Looking at the U.S. from Ireland, you see an extremely optimistic people and a wealthy, wealthy land. You can make it in Ireland, but if you make it in the U.S., well, you have made it! I have spoken with immigrants from places like Russia and they repeat the vision of this country as having a basically optimistic spirit. Visions which will remain include the Irish field, with plots defined by chest-high rock walls; the greenest of green grass grazed over by large flocks of sheep; occasional ruins of 400 year old (or older) castles or monasteries as you drive from one rural town to the next; pubs, like Dick Macks in Dingle, where I walked in on a bachelor party of about 30 guys crammed into this tiny space raising their Guinness’, standing on tables and benches and singing at the top of their lungs or the traditional music jam in a Doolin pub with a fiddle, guitar, two flutes and a guy who played accordion like a god and was better as the night wore on and he got increasingly smashed; the Book of Kells which is adorned with the most beautiful inscriptions and monastic art (with scores of ways to depict in art different letters – like the letter “d” for example). We are so young – they are so old. Perhaps most importantly, it was revitalizing to go away for just a couple of weeks and return refocused and refreshed. It’s good to be back with our memories and the fun and interesting work ahead.
The seventh basic emotion circuit that was found by Jaak Panksepp (see prior posts) is what he, unfortunately, calls the “panic” circuit. He calls it that because of the panicked reaction of young animals who are separated from their mothers. I prefer to call it by its more appropriate and descriptive name, the Attachment Circuit. Panksepp describes the distressed cries of animals – identical to the distressed cries of separated young, which are evoked by the stimulation of a particular neuronal circuit in the brain. The distress is caused by separation. The resolution of the distress is caused by reunification. Panksepp’s work confirms what has been argued by attachment therapists like Dr. Sue Johnson – the co-developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy. We have a deep and biologically determined need for connection. When that connection is threatened, we become distressed and anxious. When we become distressed and anxious, we are inclined to react automatically. This is the painful dance that we see in the distressing cycle we almost always observe with couples who are in conflict. Brent Atkinson, a marital therapist and author, has created an entire approach to couples therapy based on Panksepp’s work. Atkinson repeats that individuals are overtaken by the intensity of their emotional reactivity. This is precisely the same kind of description that Sue Johnson uses to describe how a couple is overtaken by the force of their cycle. Imagine, when both people’s brain circuits are firing so fast and strong that they are swept up into the maelstrom, seemingly without any control – at least not until they are helped to s….l….o…..w it down and realize when they, themselves, are being overtaken by these strong, automatic, emotional discharges in the brain. The belief of emotionally focused therapists is that once we are able to slow it down and gain awareness of our process, we can create safety for ourselves and our partner. That’s at least what goes on in my office, anyway.
Research neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, has been studying the anatomical basis of emotions for many years. It has been a challenging task for many reasons. For one, the scientific community has not been in agreement as to what comprises an “emotion” – whether they exist at all and, if so, how to describe them. Another question is raised by those who claim (passionately I might add) that emotions are environmental and not inherently physiological. This is not what Panksepp has found. In fact, he has been able to identify 7 different brain circuits which correspond with discrete emotional responses. Further, he provides us with extremely reasonable ideas about the evolutionary basis for the development of each of these emotional circuits. While he freely concedes that there may be more to be discovered in the future, those which he identifies at this stage are:
- Seeking: This is the drive to explore the world – to gain stimulation and sustenance from the environment. Interestingly the nerves’ receptors for the neurotransmitter which is most associated with this behavior (dopamine) are severely compromised or destroyed by the use of drugs such as cocaine, which explains the incredible lethargy after prolonged use and the need to keep snorting or smoking in order to maintain a baseline of alertness.
- Rage: Panksepp found that anger is a primary emotional experience, as it is put into service when the animal is being constrained. It is a natural reaction to the experience of being cornered and, indeed, his representative picture is of the hissing cat backed into a corner. This is different from the anger we often describe as our reaction when a lover hurts our feelings or betrays us. The difference is interesting and worth further thought and discussion.
- Fear: This is a basic self-protective mechanism. Our brain is programmed to protect us and get us the heck outta there when we are faced with threats to our existence. It’s the old “our ancestors split when they saw a saber-tooth tiger roaming close-by.” What Panksepp also observed, interestingly, was that when this circuit was chronically and continually activated, the organism lapsed into a state of anxiety – which, then can be defined as the low level, continuous expression of the fear circuit.
- Nurturance: This is the classic maternal care circuit. When it is stimulated, the body produces a load of oxytocin, which has been called “the cuddle hormone.” It is also true that this circuit is activated, and we are bathed in oxytocin, when we are feeling close and loving to a partner. The evolutionary basis for survival of the species is pretty self evident, here.
- Rough and Tumble Play: Panksepp observed the animals in his lab spontaneously engaging in such play. It is the expression of a physiological need to experience joy. He associates human laughter to the activation of this circuit. The evolutionary value of the play circuit is more speculative, but Panksepp suggests that it may facilitate basic socialization.
- Lust: The drive to seek out and find a mate is perhaps the most fundamental evolutionary imperative. Panksepp describes many, many courting rituals and other behaviors which are reflective of the stimulation of this circuit.
Panksepp has been able to generate these emotional responses, from rage to fear to sexuality, by stimulating discrete parts of the brain with mini-electrodes. This would seem to add proof to his theories. The seventh and final hardwired emotion really forms the basis of the couples therapy I do and I will leave that discussion to the next post.
Listen to psychologists talk and you will often hear about how some behavior or attitude is “hardwired.” It’s a pretty descriptive term – particularly since the brain is an organ characterized by electrical circuits. For another example, just consider the most popular adage among neuroscientists over the past dozen years or so, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” It suggests a certain immutable permanence in ways we think or act. Consider all the incredible identical twin studies in which they are separated at birth and meet decades later to find that they are wearing the same color, are married to women with the same name, pursue the same career and have named their children identically. One great example involves two brothers reunited after 39 years. Each was incredibly fastidious and detailed – compulsively neat and orderly in every respect. They were both completely convinced that their character was a function of nurture rather than nature. The first was asked why he was like that and he replied, “My mother is the reason! She was exactly the same way and I was raised to be compulsively neat.” The other replied, “My mother is the reason! She was so disorganized and such a slob that I had to be this way just to survive.”
Among the researchers who have been studying the brain’s inherent (“hardwired”) character is a man named Jaak Panksepp. His work with animals is incredible. One fascinating observation he shares in his book Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions involves the problem they had with rats who were very distressed and active after their cages were cleaned by a certain lab tech. After some investigation, they found that the tech had housecats and some of the dander was carried with him to the lab. What is fascinating is that these rats were born and bred in the lab. They had never seen a cat in their lives….nor had their parents or grandparents. They had been separated from actual exposure to a natural predator by many generations. Still, they reacted strongly to the scent of the cat. That’s one great example of being “hardwired.” What is even more important for us, is that Panksepp has found that certain emotions are hardwired into our brains. This will be the subject of a later post.
Recently, Huffington Post put a slideshow on their “Divorce” page that was very enlightening. They asked readers to respond with “the moment I knew my marriage was over.” There are over 150 responses in that slide show and, boy, do they range far and wide! Yet they do tend to fall into a discrete number of set categories.
One category is the “I just woke up one morning and knew.” That’s a hard one to work with, as I often liken the decision that the relationship is over to a campfire (appropriate image for the Northwest). At the end of the night, after staring at a brilliant, dancing flame hovering over intense, glowing embers, we turn in – and upon awakening, sometimes the logs are still there, charred, but partly intact. If you lift one up you may see a bit of life that, if blown upon intensely enough, will start to smoke and a flame may emerge. However, other times, it may have rained overnight and in the morning, we emerge from our tent to find a dead fire. No amount of effort will revive anything. The fire is simply……gone. That’s like the woman who responded, “when I took my wedding ring off and couldn’t bring myself to put it back on.”
There’s another category which Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy calls, “relationship traumas.” Infidelity is, of course, a leading (and searing) relationship trauma. It is difficult, but by no means impossible, to heal from this, but that’s another story for another day (post). There are others, however. Some people responded that they were facing a health crisis and their spouse was unresponsive or disappeared. An example is, “The moment I knew was when I went into the hospital for emergency surgery and nearly died. I was in the hospital for 6 days. He didn’t visit once. I got no calls and all of two texts. People I barely knew at least called.” Others describe an incredibly demeaning statement or attitude, like the one respondent who said, “”when I was picked for a prestigious conference in NY – he didn’t congratulate – asked who would watch the kids.” Others relate statements made by their partner that just floor them, like one who replied, “When he said he’d divorce me if I went to console my best friend (who is like a sister) after the passing of her mother.” For sure, these are all blows and there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done if the marriage can overcome the trauma of one spouse’s sense of utter abandonment at a moment of deepest need. Yet, when I read these kinds of posts, I don’t automatically think, “Well that marriage is over!” Actually, that’s the way I found myself responding to many of these posts. Many of the wounds that people describe are sharp and deep and they absolutely need to be talked about. Honest remorse and forgiveness are necessary and entirely possible, but, again, I don’t think people are able to do this on their own – or for that matter in an office of a couples counselor who acts as an umpire and decides who is right and who is wrong. It’s really fascinating and heart-full work. That’s why I love it so.
Many years ago, John Gray, made a mark (and a gazillion dollars) with his hugely popular Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Between its hardcovers (and I recall it being in hardback for a long, long time – well after most personal growth/self help books had gone into paperback) Gray talked about the many fundamental differences between men and women. For years after its release, I listened to experienced marital therapists dismiss him and his book as overly simplistic. While there may be some truth to that, I think it’s hard to ignore the reality that the two sexes do seem to process the world differently……as a general rule. There are always going to be exceptions to these rules, but some things do seem to be gender related. One example is the way women often prefer to talk things out. If something has happened in her life, she wants to be able to talk it through, being pretty confident that she can come up with a solution herself as she airs out the experience. He, on the other hand, likes to drive for solutions. Any problem raised is an invitation to come up with a solution. When one person interacts with the other, the solution-seeker may get frustrated by the continued recounting of the problem, while the problem-discusser is frustrated by the other’s quick-cut to a solution. It feels like she’s being shut down. Well, we are lucky to have this problem described and solved in a two-minute YouTube video. If you have not seen this yet, enjoy.
As the New Year dawns there are those among us who are now facing the deepest question and ultimate personal challenge. Do I stay in my relationship/marriage or do I leave? The uncertainty is hugely destabilizing – but then, how can it not be, with so much on the line and no clear answer? I want to share a conversation I had recently with a man seeking couples counseling to get out of his marriage (to get help breaking the news). He was sure that he wanted out, but when he talked about the reasons he had come to this conclusion, I kept thinking to myself, “Wow! I’ve worked successfully with couples to overcome that issue.” I often tell couples I am counseling, who are in distress, that when people get swept up in their continuous cycle of conflict and frustration, if left to their own devices, they will probably blow apart. I realized in the conversation that I feel pretty confident about helping distressed couples turn a corner to reconnect and deepen their bond. So I asked him, “If I could tell you with complete confidence that if you worked on your marriage with me you could reconnect with your partner and have the kind of relationship you long for….would you want to do that with this person?” I have asked that question before and sometimes I receive an answer along the lines of, “I’m excited about that….though doubtful.” That’s something to work with…even if the person is very doubtful. However, if you sleep on that notion and conclude that you don’t want to have that with this particular person, even if it can be achieved, that seems like a pretty telling answer.
In a way, it’s a “trust your gut” question. I have written an earlier post about the divorce decision and viewing it as an impermeable barrier that, once you cross it, you really can’t return. This is another view of the question from a different angle. Asking yourself the question above may help you know. I hope this is of some small help because I know the limbo of uncertainty is a dreadful place to be.