Monthly Archives: January 2015

Beauty and marriage

Many women are worried about their looks. I don’t really have to explain much about it. Sufficient to quote someone from endless forums around: “I’ve never seen a woman who would be truly beautiful without make up.” Personally, I think it’s ridiculous. Many people wouldn’t, though. This is where being endlessly bombarded by photoshopped pictures brought us.

However, there is something that I’ve noticed observing people in life and in my therapeutic practice: while beautiful women might receive more attention, it’s often the average (and sometimes below-average) looking women whose marriages are usually much happier and long lasting.

Cynics might say it’s because such women demand less of men because they want to keep them around. There might be some truth in it, but in my experience, it’s certainly not the detrimental part of the truth. It would seem that men who choose such women as life partners generally have good quality values: they appreciate the essence rather than the surface, the woman’s personality rather than her looks.

In such a situation, both partners are probably more realistic and less concerned about status and appearance. This makes for a good start! Quite a few not-so-good looking women told me about their partners’ kindness, consideration and patience. Often those are the marriages that are truly “till death us do part”. The surviving partner usually cherishes the memory of the departed one.

So, ladies, if you think yourself not beautiful enough, this might give you more hope for your present or future relationships. Consider going out without make up sometimes – perhaps that would be a good filter for potential partners! Not many men might be attracted to you – but those who are, might be worth it.

Reasons for victim blaming

If you read about people in trouble, or victims of violence or political circumstances… do you find reasons why such things wouldn’t happen to you? “I would have done differently in such a situation”, “If I was her, I would’ve tried to escape”, “It’s their mentality, why don’t they fight against oppression?”, or, in a New Age way, “He probably attracted this by his negative attitude!”

Victim blaming is a common, automatic defense mechanism – an attempt to conquer our fears and achieve a feeling that we are not at the mercy of chance. Feeling out of control of our lives is very frightening and it’s natural to try to defend against it, even if it means employing a very subjective logic.

Unfortunately, this often results in subtle or less subtle blaming of victims of violence, while the responsibility of victimizers can be ignored or diminished. In our need to avoid fear, we don’t want to give much power or attention to a victimizer; we don’t want to feel that we would become just another victim in similar circumstances. We want to feel that we would have been stronger, more special, and so we search for explanations how a victim could have avoided the trouble, but failed because of some mistake (s)he made.

However, even if a victim did make a mistake, who of us doesn’t sometimes? Can you think of situations in which you could have been hurt if people you trusted turned out to be dishonest, or if just a little detail was different? How many times did you take risks knowing that you were taking risks? Can you really live life without ever taking any chance? Even if we consider avoidable violence such as domestic violence, there are often circumstances that are easy to ignore, such as upbringing and family brainwashing. How many of us did really get rid of our own family traditions and old beliefs? For a person who grew up in abusive circumstances, abuse can feel normal and unavoidable.

So, out of a need to avoid our own fears, we can inflict pain on people who already hurt enough, or even indirectly allow violence. We can look down at and be arrogant to people who experienced betrayal, injustice or pain. “Weren’t there any warning signals?” Of course there were, but do you respond to every potential warning signal you feel? If that was so, most people would just avoid each other. Even suspicion has to be treated with suspicion sometimes.

We cannot avoid using this defense mechanism, but we can recognize it and remind ourselves of what it is. We can consciously employ parts of ourselves that are compassionate and responsible. Perhaps we can not only avoid saying such things aloud, but do something that would make unfortunate people hurt less. Victim blaming is easy. Compassion takes maturity.

Are you critical to others?

Criticism can have different causes, but one often overlooked is fear.

Is it difficult for you to set boundaries? Do you have trouble saying “No”, or do you avoid conflicts? If you doubt your ability to defend yourself, you might expect people to know in advance where your boundaries are, and respect them without you needing to remind them. That is very unlikely to happen.

Even if people didn’t have toxic role models (and most do),  our genetic diversity includes different levels of emotional sensitivity or empathy, and different temperaments. What is hurtful to one person might be normal to another. Think about sensitivity to noise: a noise that might be distracting and stress-inducing for one person, might be stimulating or barely even noticeable to another. Emotional sensitivity is similarly different amongst people.

Some people come from families in which raising voices, disagreeing and arguing was normal – most of the time perhaps even friendly. People from quieter families might be totally unprepared for such communication style.

It get’s worse if one’s family was aggressive or manipulative – if a child was controlled through guilt, fear or shame. Anger is a natural, instinctive reaction to guilt, fear and shame. Such people, even as adults, might respond with anger as soon as their guilt, fear or shame threaten to raise their heads. Those emotions might not be realistic – it might just be an automatic reaction to small triggers.

People whose boundaries weren’t respected in their childhoods, will probably have learned to suppress their anger and avoid expressing themselves. Fear and anger in combination may lead to criticism. You might call people irresponsible, rude, selfish or stupid in the privacy of your own mind. You are also likely to resort to passive aggression. Perhaps it is so normal to you that you barely even notice when you do that. Even if you notice, you might feel that there is no other choice.

People cannot read your mind. We are already dealing with so many other influences every single minute of our lives. It’s so easy to be distracted if nothing else. Misunderstandings happen for all kinds of reasons – and if not clarified, can lead to complex, unnecessary consequences.

Also, it seems to be almost an instinct for most people to take whatever they feel they can get. If somebody is pliable, easy to manipulate, insecure or overly generous, few people have the self-awareness and self-discipline to notice when they start exploiting the situation and to stop themselves from doing so. If somebody is more insecure than you, do you feel an urge to dominate? This is an instinct that might be weaker in some people, and stronger in others.

Criticism won’t help. The first step (a sequence of steps, more likely) is to deal with inhibiting emotions from childhood and learn to empower yourself. The second step is to learn new habits – clarity, standing up for yourself, communication skills. This might include choosing new role-models.

The first few times you try a new approach might be frightening. You need to be well prepared for anything that might happen and willing to support and comfort yourself. But you will survive; if you make mistakes you will learn something from them, and each time you will feel stronger and more comfortable, until you feel confident in your ability to cope with people. Perhaps then you will notice that criticism doesn’t feel so necessary anymore, that it doesn’t come so automatically.

The more you feel willing and able to protect your boundaries, the more you can feel relaxed amongst people and even tolerate some of their less pleasant traits. Still, it’s normal to feel some level of discomfort if somebody is behaving in unhealthy or threatening ways. Emotional discomfort is a normal and healthy warning signal. There is a huge difference, though, between adult and childish emotional discomfort. If your emotions are adult, you will be motivated rather than debilitated.

Do you feel taken for granted? Abuse and unconditional love

A common pattern in unhealthy relationships is when (at least) one of the partners takes the other for granted, perhaps being aggressive, manipulative or dismissive – but when the other partner decides to leave, the first suddenly starts acting like an abandoned puppy. The abuser then apologizes, pleads, brings gifts, swears eternal love, promises to change, often brings up horrible stories from his/her childhood to provoke pity and guilt.

The other partner (usually caught up in his/her own childhood needs, hoping to finally resolve with this person what was left unresolved with parents) decides that the relationship is worth giving another chance and stays. Within days, the abuser’s behavior is back to what it was before: perhaps insults, lies, undermining the partner’s self-confidence, or even physical violence. After a while, the victim decides it’s enough and tries to leave again. The abuser is again devastated. And so the cycle can continue for years – sometimes for lives.

Does this sound familiar? Something important to understand if you are in such a relationship, is that if your partner sees you as a parent substitute, as soon as the relationship is safe and back to routine, (s)he will continue to take you for granted. The normal attitude of a child towards parents is to take parents for granted – unless parents threaten to leave (or perhaps get sick or similar). An emotionally childish person will act in the same way towards an intimate partner.

A childish partner might expect you to behave like a perfect, idealized parent – to fulfill and even anticipate anything they might desire, while allowing them to do whatever they want regardless of your own desires and needs. In the same time, they might vent at you all the anger and resentment they felt for their own parents, but didn’t feel safe to express to them. (It’s quite common to express our unresolved emotions from past towards people we feel safest with. Sometimes the target becomes the intimate partner – sometimes one’s own children.)

Such a childish person might defend their attitude with the idea of “unconditional love”, meaning that YOU should love THEM as they are (but they are not willing to give the same in return). This is again a kind of love a parent would give to a child. It’s normal and healthy for parents not to expect their child to share their responsibilities, or to pay back for their gifts and efforts. But this is NOT a healthy partnership of two adult people, especially if they plan to have children.

In such a situation, when a child is born, things get worse, not better. The childish partner becomes resentful of new responsibilities and demands, as well as lack of previously received attention from their spouse, which is now focused to their child. A childish parent might become jealous and resentful of his/her own child, with predictable consequences for the child.

Some people in troublesome relationships are not quite sure whether they should trust themselves of their partner’s words. This requires a quick course in knowing your own emotions and distinguishing between adult and immature emotions. Perhaps, while growing up, you were discouraged from trusting your instincts and giving importance to your feelings and needs. Your body will warn you if your fears, doubts and guilt are not realistic – but you need to learn to recognize such signals.

You are probably taken for granted if:

– your partner dismisses your emotions and needs, and refuses to communicate about them (or communicates through insults and refuses to consider your point of view)

– your partner is not willing to forgive or tolerate small mistakes

– your partner does not invest similar effort into your relationship as (s)he demands of you

– he or she refuses to compromise – but expects you to give up your desires and values

– he or she repeatedly disregards your previous agreements

– he or she expects you to take over most of the adult responsibilities (housework and/or finances)

– you don’t like your partner’s behavior, but you stay in hope that (s)he would change.

Of course, each of these ideas can be misinterpreted and twisted in many creative ways, so approach them carefully. Almost everybody has some moments of taking their partner for granted. This is to be expected – after all, whatever and whoever becomes a normal part of our lives, our brains try to fill them under “routine” and forget about them – so that we could focus on learning new things. In partnerships, we have to keep reminding ourselves not to take others for granted. A lapse here and there is understandable. But if somebody behaves in these ways more or less all the time, it’s time to seriously consider if this is what you want your foreseeable future.

If you allow somebody to treat you as described above, you were probably raised not to trust yourself too much. Perhaps you were a child of an irresponsible person, so it became normal for you to take more responsibility than would normally belong to you. Or you had so little experience with unreasonable people that you cannot imagine somebody who would behave in such selfish ways without a good reason.

Check what do you hope for if your partner would change. If you hope for recognition, approval, acknowledgment… perhaps this is something you always wanted to receive from your parents, but never did? Consider that perhaps you are trying to finish something with your partner that was left unfinished with your parents.

Such emotions from childhood need to be resolved first. After that, you might need to practice trusting your feelings and expressing them in mature ways. If that doesn’t give results, you might need to end the relationship, except if you prefer to suffer. Fortunately, once you clarify your childhood emotions, you won’t feel anymore that your current partner is the only one for you and that your life would feel empty if you separate. You can go on and find a true adult relationship.

5 reasons to hate manipulation

Quite often, when discussing or reading discussions about manipulative marketing and other ways in which individuals cheat other people out of their hard-earned money (or time, or energy, or anything), I see people admiring skillful manipulators. Many will describe successful manipulators as “smart”, “brilliant strategists”, basically as people to follow and model. Some people are convinced that manipulation is “just a business strategy” and therefore justified.

I wish I could grab those people and shake them. I’m not so surprised at the blatant, open lies that manipulators are happy to present to their fellow humans. I’m much more surprised and frustrated seeing the praise and support such attitude often receives.

Some months ago I was reading a book about recognizing manipulative strategies. While the author was advising his readers how to be prepared and avoid being cheated and damaged, his admiration for “social engineering” (the sugar-coated term for manipulating others for personal profit) was screaming from every page. Between the lines, that book was much less about how to protect yourself, and much more about the thrill of deception.

I find manipulation despicable for several different reasons. While I cannot hope that my opinion would make any significant dent in global marketing strategies, I can at least vent my frustration in a socially acceptable and hopefully useful form here. I’ve already shared some of my thoughts about manipulation in this article, but now I have some more to write here:

1. Manipulation preys on what is good in people. Manipulators focus on people’s hopes, dreams, desire to be kind, or simply basic trust in others, and think of all kinds of ways to exploit these traits. (Of course, they also prey on people’s fears and greed, but this doesn’t diminish the truth of the previous statement.)

As a consequence, people become less and less friendly, less and less trusting, and more and more cynical and closed towards each other. I’ve read articles about experiments in which people were offered money in the streets, out of the blue, no strings attached, and most refused to take it. The authors of those experiments would write about how surprised they were with such a mistrustful attitude, and would lament “human nature”.

But can we really blame anybody for being suspicious, when we live surrounded by lies and deception, more and more elaborate each day and ignored by laws and governments? If that “free money” was just a scam, if people decided to trust and were cheated as a consequence, they would have probably been blamed as greedy or stupid. So it comes to “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. People become cold to each other, and manipulators are to blame.

2. Manipulation is a form of violence. Centuries ago, it was common and quite normal for people who had big swords to hurt or kill anybody who was weaker. You didn’t need excuses to send people to war. You often didn’t need excuses to kill somebody just for looking at you in a wrong way. People who had swords and skill to use them, were proud of their physical power and considered themselves above others because they possessed such power.

Many people nowadays have the same attitude towards manipulation. Instead of physical power, they consider it a proof of mental, intellectual power over others. Feeling of power is very seductive. It can encourage us to make excuses for abusing other people. Just like physical bullies, “intellectual” bullies feel that their skill gives them right to hurt others.

In reality, it’s less about skill and more about willingness to act out of integrity, willingness to damage other people for one’s personal profit. Just like many physically strong people don’t become bullies just because they can, many intelligent people choose not to manipulate even if they could do it very well. For me, this is what proves mental strength, not being skilled in cheating others.

3. Manipulators blame their victims. It’s not just an excuse, it’s a whole strategy. I read about a court in America that declared certain lying marketers “not guilty” because “no sane person would believe such marketing” (or something like that, I’m quoting from memory). Unfortunately, I can’t find the link anymore, but even if that story was false, the reality shows that this exact approach is in use all the time, by individuals and organizations.

Many times I’ve heard or read people comment, “Well, if people are so stupid to fall for this, it’s their own fault!”

I want to make something clear here (I wish I didn’t have to, but it seems ignored most of the time). It’s not a crime to be stupid. It’s not a crime to be naive. Close to half of all people have below average intelligence, that’s pure math. It’s the matter of genes and upbringing, which nobody has the chance to choose for themselves. Some people are officially stupid. It’s not their fault. Some people are insane. It’s not their fault either. They didn’t choose their disabilities. The crime is in intentional, elaborate deception, not in mental (dis)ability.

Besides, many times it’s less about stupidity and more about lack of information, lack of experience and perhaps about basic trust in people. But of course, it’s easier to call people stupid because this is a better excuse. People who cheat and manipulate others will also cheat and manipulate themselves (for their own benefit, of course).

4. Manipulation dehumanizes people. Manipulators think themselves special, better than others. They treat other people like machines, trying to figure out how they work and how to exploit brain mechanisms. They reduce people to blobs of primitive instincts and treat them that way, often quite openly. They have to do it, in their own minds, to justify their own lack of integrity (except if they are psychopaths, but I refuse to believe that psychopathy is so common).

When people try to manipulate me, they basically declare that they see me as an inhuman object, there to be exploited and not worthy of a straight approach. When I see other people admiring deception and hoping to “jump that train” themselves, I can expect that there will soon be even more of that attitude going around. I cannot change it. But I reserve the right to be irritated.

Lately I almost feel like there is a sort of informal “cult” of deceptive marketing; so many young, ambitious people get almost religious in their enthusiasm for the benefits of such strategies. They choose to ignore all the consequences and their own inner warnings, just like cult members. Just like in cults, they feel themselves better, almost somehow “chosen” over others.

5. It bloody works. It works way better than I would like to admit. People like magic and big promises. Many people like to be sold hope, even if they suspect that they are being cheated. We all like to believe that magic is possible. Quite a few people continue paying for same products or services even when they obviously don’t help. They basically pay for hope, not for reality. This gives wings and motivation to anybody who values money more than integrity – and it’s so easy to find excuses to do so.

I wish I could say it isn’t so. I wish I could claim that the benefits of manipulation are temporary and long term consequences overshadow the advantages. But it would be like telling faery-tales. I could probably say that manipulative people are not likely to have successful intimate relationships. On the other hand, most such people don’t seem to care so much about relationships anyway – and, just like people with big swords centuries ago, they are often surrounded by flatterers.

I don’t see that things would change any time soon. I can only hope that this is a stage we have to go through to learn something from it. Perhaps in a few centuries, the society will grow up enough to start rejecting and punishing manipulative behavior, just as in modern times it (more or less) rejects and punishes physical violence. This is a tricky task, but if that happens, the world will become a happier place.

 

Religion and tribal instincts

Some time last autumn, I was chatting with an acquaintance about toxic beliefs from childhood. He said he was surprised that many people avoid changing such beliefs, sometimes finding excuses, sometimes even reacting with hostility if they disagree with others’ opinions. I said (approximately): “It’s because we bond to our families with such beliefs, and on some level we feel that it helps our survival – it’s almost like religion sometimes.”

I blurted that last part out without too much thinking, but then it struck me – it is very much like religion. Religion serves the same purpose – group cohesion, mutual support, encouraging each other’s survival – on a wider scale than biological family. Family bonds are created naturally, automatically; weaker tribal bonds require something more in order to motivate people to invest extra effort into activities that benefit the tribe.

I’m quite aware that many anthropologists must have come to the same conclusion long before me, but it was still quite a revelation to me because of all the psychological conclusions that follow.
It makes sense, then, that most religions require suspension of disbelief and upholding certain traditions that don’t make much sense in modern times; it’s a way of testing people: “Are you with us, are you willing to follow our leaders – or are you unlikely to contribute to our tribe and therefore a liability?”

It makes sense that people often respond with such hostility when those beliefs are challenged – in some instinctive part of our minds, it’s not just a belief that is challenged – it’s our survival and sense of belonging.

Exclusion

A woman I worked with some years back, told me that when she was a child, her family wasn’t religious and wouldn’t join religious rituals – so their neighbors avoided and excluded them. This doesn’t make sense if you consider that most religions teach compassion and unselfishness – but it makes perfect sense if you consider tribal instincts. This is why most religions in the past fueled ethnic conflicts – and some extremist factions still use it for the same purpose.

On the level of tribal instinct, the idea is not, “Be kind to everyone”, the meta-message is more like, “Love and help thy neighbor – but other tribes are a competition and need to be fought or assimilated.” If there wasn’t for that kind of background, a meeting of different faiths would look more like “That’s what you believe? Cool! My folks believe that a giant fish came out of the ocean and grew legs and gave birth to first people! Let’s get together and share stories!” instead of “Is that what you believe? DIE!!!”

Realistically, if different strains of Christianity truly followed the New Testament, they would be more liberal than any liberal media; but because their essential purpose is group cohesion, they are usually focused on defining and enforcing rather rigid norms of behavior, while punishing those who differ from those norms. Tribal instincts are often stronger than reason or compassion.

Prosperity and religion

I also find it significant that in rich countries of Western Europe and Australia (perhaps Canada too, but I’m not so familiar with the situation in Canada yet, in terms of religion), people are much less likely to take religion seriously than anywhere else. In fact, you can observe the significance of religion increasing as standard of living decreases from country to country (often even from region to region within a country). It’s not just about better education – it’s more about the feeling that in a rich country, you don’t need a tribe anymore to ensure your survival. If a social security network works well, you might not need your family or neighbors’ help even when you are sick or old. In such circumstances, it makes sense to question authority and old beliefs.

You might say, “What about USA? Religion is still very important there!” I see several explanations for that.
First, USA is not as homogeneous as many countries in Europe (even with increased immigration into EU within last few decades). In USA, practically everybody is a minority in some way. There is so much diversity that the need to belong to a group and confirm a group identity grows stronger.

Second, social security system in America is much less supportive of an individual than in EU – especially in case of medical problems. There are many more homeless people in USA than Europe – and many more possibilities for an individual to become homeless on a very short notice. This might make people feel less safe and more likely to seek extra security by joining established communities.

Third, while European tribal territories were more or less established centuries ago (in spite of many local skirmishes and both world wars), American frontier wars only ended about 1890 or even later, according to Wikipedia. America, the way I see it, is still quite a military culture, with the military being glorified way more than in EU or Australia. To motivate people to go to war, with everything war implies, you need strong beliefs and strong sense of group identity – and religion is one of the things that fulfill that purpose.

Some religions are now global and include way more members than an individual can feel close to. I see that as a reason (or at least part of the reason) why there are so many factions (often hostile to each other) within those religions. Our brains just cannot handle too large of a tribe. If a tribe becomes so large that the relationships become too impersonal, can you really count on those people’s help? Best to make it smaller. It’s not a conscious decision, but an instinctive urge.

I’m aware that questioning religious beliefs often makes people feel angry and offended. While trying to be as objective as possible, I have to take that risk. I hope that most readers will understand this as an invitation to think, rather than “whose worldview is better” contest. I also hope that, if some people become aware of these underlying currents in our human psyche, it might motivate them to abandon “kill the unbeliever” way to be religious in favor of “love and compassion” way to be religious. All the religions in the world include some great and uplifting ideas, as well as some that are toxic or pointless. Let’s finally put the emphasize at the former.