Brennan A. Wheeler, BS, MS is a technology consultant and sometimes blogger, writing about his travels and microblogging his every opinion. He also moonlights as a philosopher, economist, and freelance humanitarian. He is currently on sabbatical is Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he is learning Spanish and also that there are people who think, feel, and live differently than he does. As you may have guessed, Brennan is also my brother, younger specifically. I have asked Brennan to contribute a post because he has developed a very raw and interesting approach to life. We have both struggled with perfectionism but have sought very different resolutions. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do. Without further ado, here he is in his own words…
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” And other such phrases. Absolutely they are valuable and make sense. They wouldn’t be sayings if they weren’t worth their salt. They just aren’t for me.
For me, there are two types of activities: things I know I can do well, no matter the amount of preparation, and things I know I can’t do well, no matter the amount of preparation. Regarding the latter, these are things that I know that, no matter how much I think about them, no matter how much brainpower I use, my hands and muscles aren’t trained well enough to do what my brain says. Imagine a surgeon on his first day. So I don’t have patience. I lack it. I know that no matter how much I prepare, I will still mess up whatever I’m doing and have to do it one more time. I don’t want to prepare; I want to get in there and get my hands dirty. I don’t want to wait. I want to do.
This may seem silly, like a waste. Everyone knows you should prepare. It saves a lot of time, effort, frustration, and money. I know this. I know this and despite this, I still want to get in there and mess up. I learn by mistakes when I don’t know better. I’ll do something hastily the first time and learn where all my mistakes would have been anyway, no matter the amount of preparation I had put into something. So I jump in, make my mistakes, and do it right the second time.
I suppose an example would be useful. I am terrible. No, wait, let me underline it. I am terrible at doing work with my hands, things around the house. I mean typically wood work. Like working with putty and bondo. Fixing a hole in a door. Putting down new flooring or quarter round. So if I know I am going to do something that I’m not good at, I hardly prepare. I know it won’t make any difference, I’m still going to mess it up. No matter how careful I am. But by doing it once and messing it up, I get a feel for how to do something.
Once I needed to replace a piece of wood on the threshold of my front door. Termites, you see. Taking it up is not hard, of course. Use a hammer or a crowbar and pull it up. Be careful not to scratch the door, framing, or other parts of the wood floor. You can see the caulk come up with it. A lesson on entropy here. That’s how easy it is to pull up. To put down, you have to find the same type of wood, the same style, get it cut exactly the same length, maybe one or both of the end needs to be a 45° angle. You then need to nail it down with finishing nails. Paint it. Then caulk it. And you’ve needed to buy all this stuff, along with the paintbrush and caulk gun if you didn’t have them already. It’s a lot of more time and effort. So I do it twice. I know I’m going to mess this up somewhere. The cutting of the wood (the length and/or the angles). Of course, if you cut it too short, you need more wood. It may be a good idea to get extra on your run to Home Depot. I would mess up the nails. The painting. The caulk. Something, somewhere. So I do it once, get in some practice, and do it again much better the second time.
That is my whole point. Do it once to learn from your mistakes without the heavy investment of proper preparation.
I do this at work as well. When I’m in a situation I haven’t been in before or don’t know how to handle, I do my best, make my best decision given the information in front of me. I know it’s good but it never feels quite right. But I pay very close attention to what I do, what others do, including their reaction to my actions, and I learn from it. I do it better the next time. What else can I do?
This is my point about perfection. It’s not about getting it right the first time. I play the long game. I get it right the second time, or at least eventually. But you don’t stop until it’s right. And you’ll never get it perfect. Humans aren’t robots. There is something to be said for perfection and I’m not suggesting you stop at pretty good. But you have to adjust your expectations to fit reality. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just humanly perfect.
Welcome back to our series called “Why we stay stuck.” It’s an exploration of the barriers to being mentally healthy. There is a great deal of literature out there/ We’ve covered what our brains do and how we think. Now to talk about the interpersonal level ie how we interact with other and the impact it has on our ability to change.
At the interpersonal level, mental disorders arise because of maladaptive interpersonal behaviors1. In therapy terms, the face we present to the world is called an affect. It reflects our mood, what we think of a situation, and what we think about the other person. When a person is treated poorly or does not have her emotional needs met over a period of time, she will develop the negative affective constellation, namely anger, sadness and shame.
Anger is part of the first affective constellation1. It is a defense, meaning it protects the person from painful feelings and other damages to the sense of self. As part of an affective constellation, anger is tied to sadness and shame. Emotional needs not being met or damage to the send of self produces sadness and anger protects against that hurt. However, shame arises when a person’s sense of self has been damaged so severely, she starts to believe their is something intrinsically wrong with her.Shame is critical to understand because it is a rejection of the self. It is all encompassing and totally pervasive.
The negative affective constellation drives behaviors that may initially serve to protect a person emotionally, but ultimately prove to be counterproductive in interpersonal relationships1. Behaviors driven by anger, sadness and shame tend to be damaging to others or allow for more damage to the sense of self. We’ve all seen it happen. Maybe you’ve stayed in an abusive relationship because you believe you deserve it. He only says those mean things because they are true, right? Or maybe, you’ve gotten in a fight with a friend because you hurt her feelings, even though it wasn’t what you mean to do. Her anger is protecting her but it’s hurting the relationships.
We get trapped in a cycle of unhealthy interpersonal relationships as actions that protect the self actually alienate others. It’s similar to the cycle we saw at the cognitive level. We seem to play out the same things over and over in our thoughts and our relationships, making change that much more difficult and staying stuck seem that much more likely.
1Teyber, E. (2006). Interpersonal process in therapy: An integrative approach (5th Edition). Belmont: Brooks/Cole.
We’ve been reviewing the basic literature surrounding why people “stay stuck.” There is more information than ever out there now, but we’re organizing it into several different levels. Having explored the biology that affects our ability to change, we’ll now move on to the cognitive level.
The cognitive level of a person is the way a person interprets inputs, sensory information, interpersonal interactions, and how that influences outputs, emotional states and interpersonal interactions. At this level, mental disorders arise because the person engages in faulty thinking and makes incorrect inferences on inadequate or incorrect information1. Faulty thinking arises because of depressogenic assumptions and a triad of negative thoughts. Depressogenic assumptions are the unarticulated rules by which the individual attempts to integrate and assign value to the raw data of experience. Maladaptive assumptions differ from adaptive ones in that they tend to be rigid, excessive, and inappropriate.
The cognitive triad is the individual’s view of self, the outside world, and the future1. Those with mental disorders see themselves as defective, inadequate, diseased or deprived. They attribute negative experiences to psychological, moral, or physical defect in themselves and believe that because of these defects they are undesirable and worthless. In the second part of the triad, they tend to view the world in a negative way, interpreting ongoing experiences in a negative way even when more plausible, alternative explanations are available. In the third part of the triad, they assume that current difficulties will continue indefinitely. They tend to feel helpless and hopeless.
In other, what keeps a person from healing from a mental disorder is, at least at the cognitive level, is either the faulty assumptions serving a purpose or interpreting the raw data of experience through a dirty filter, so to speak. The negative interpretations create the filter, and the filter creates the negative interpretations. It’s a vicious cycle, really.
Next up is the interpersonal level, where we will again see a cycle. Patterns are developing….
1 Beck, A.T., Rush, J.T., Shaw, B.F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: Gilford Press.
The question in this series of post is why we stay stuck. Why is changing or feeling better or whatever sooooooo very difficult. As I previously wrote, there are many, many reasons why. One way to organize those reasons in into different levels, starting with the biological level.
The biological level of a person, as it relates to mental health, is the functional and anatomical nature of the brain and the consequent somatic effects. It is the genetic propensity towards or resistance too any given mental illness. In many instances, like depression or eating disorders, there are actual functional and anatomical brain changes that occur over the onset, course, and remission of a mental disorder 1. These changes appear to impact how a person views the self, the world, and her place in it 2.
Let me add the caveat that the timing of the onset of brain changes and the onset of any given disorder are difficult to tease out. We do not know who will develop an eating disorder, so scientists are unable to scan a person’s brain BEFORE it happens. They can only look at what differences between those who do and those who do not meet diagnostic criteria. Once identified, study participants can be followed during recovery or relapse; That said, when there are brain differences between people who do and do not have a given disorder, recovering brains start to look like the brains of those who never had the disorder in the first place. Powerful, powerful stuff!
So, I am not going to go into details of all the changes of that happen in people with eating disorders or any other type of mental health issues. The changes are just too varied but I will bring us back around to the point that the brain contributes to why people stay stuck.
It’s like trying to walk on a broken leg. You will be able heal, to walk again. However, you will have a period where you cannot walk and there are things you will have to do in order to heal, like go to the emergency room. You cannot just “decide” to walk; nor can you expect to walk instantly. There are very real, biologically based events that have happened and they must be addressed.
Because the brain takes time to heal, people may continue to engage in behaviors that are not good for them or they might be only able to make small changes at a time. Healing may have started but it might not be immediately obvious.
**Stay tuned for the next post, as we move up to the cognitive level of “staying stuck.”
1 Adams, H.E., & Sutker, P.B. (Eds.) (2004). Comprehensive handbook of psychopathology 3rd Edition. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, L.L.C.
2 Drevets, W.C. (2003). Neuroimaging abnormalities in the amygdala in mood disorders. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 985, 420-444.
The primary purpose of therapy is to relieve psychological distress. In therapy, we often
spend time figuring out how our belief systems and thoughts came into being. However,
such information may not explain why or how a person keep behaviors and feelings that
are painful. Knowing you ran over a nail does not necessarily explain why your tire stays
flat. Knowing why we originally felt a certian way, does not necessarily explain why we keep
feeling that way.So, what does the research on the subject tell us? Why is it so hard to change?We can look at relatively simple phenomenon like the perseverance effect. Ross, Lepper &
Hubbard (1975)1 demonstrated that people have a tendency to hold onto belief systems
even in the face of opposing information. It is a defense mechanism and can have positive
effects because it maintains the all-important consistent view of the world and ourselves.
Unfortunately, that causes a pretty big problem when we are trying to change.
Fortunately (or unfortunatley, depending on your disposition), the whole story is much,
much bigger than that. In an effort to break down the research in to digestible bits, the
next few posts will explore the human mind as an interconnected set of levels. The first
is the biological level, where problems are maintained because of brain changes. The
second level is the cognitive level, where problems arise because we see present events
through the lenses of past events. The third level is interpersonal where problems arise
because of negative behavior patterns are reinforced by others or we lack the interpersonal
skills to make the changes. The final level has many names across many diciplines but
here will be called the spiritual level. At this level, problems stay problems because we
are generally too stressed out, have not found a purpose in life, or have not yet become
fully part of something larger than ourselves.All of the levels interact and are reciprocal. What happens at the spiritual level affects the biological
level and vice versa. It’s complicated to say the least. The next few posts will explore each one more
fully and hopefully offer some understanding of the strange and beutiful nature of our own minds.
And maybe, just maybe such an exploration will offer ways to change ourselves, and our worlds
for the better. Maybe, understanding that we do not have a jack or a spare will start us down
the road of changing a flat tire.
1Ross, L., Lepper M.R., & Hubbard, M. (1975). Perseverance in self-perception and social
perception: Biased attributional processes in the debriefing paradigm. Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology, 32, 880-92.