On Becoming a Person, Chapter 3 – Thriving in a Healthy Helping Relationship

In the third chapter of his book, On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers talks about some of the qualities of a healthy helping relationship. Although his focus is on therapists and patients, he also notes how these qualities could apply to other relationships, such as parent-child or teacher-student. Here are some:

1) A sincere desire to understand the other person. This doesn’t mean saying “I understand what’s wrong with you and now I’ll fix you” or “I understand what’s wrong with you because I had a similar experience and this is how I felt about it” or “I understand all right, but your concerns aren’t serious.” It’s important to try to see an issue as the other person sees it, not how you see it. Even if you don’t always succeed in understanding, people at least pick up on the sincere effort.

2) Genuineness. This isn’t license to be rude and insulting (for instance, there are ways of expressing anger that don’t involve humiliating another person; and I’m making this point from the start because I know people who are brutally hurtful, then claim it’s ok because they’re just being themselves).

With genuineness, you aren’t constantly giving off conflicting messages – ‘nicey nice’ words with anger in your eyes, a compliment spoken in indifference, contempt or resentment – as these generate mistrust. You’re aware of your thoughts and feelings, and aren’t always compelled to put on a show in front of everyone. To be more genuine requires self-acceptance; you’re willing to take the risk of being more exposed. You do not need to appear ‘perfect’ and express the ‘perfect’ sentiment at all times. Self-acceptance also means that you have less fear of others and what kinds of reactions they might provoke in you; you’re more accepting of their presence as well, and less defensive about what they say or do.

3) Allowing yourself to feel warmth and caring. You can care about the other person, while knowing full well that there’s always the possibility that they’ll flake out on you, try to take advantage of your good will, make terrible mistakes, stab you in the back, or disappoint you. The alternative is to remain cold or completely impersonal, which usually closes off communication in these kinds of relationships (though it does give you the sense that you’re protecting yourself).

4) Reminding yourself that you’re distinct from the other person. Do you fear losing yourself in their emotions? On the flip side, are you trying to control them, needing them to slavishly follow what you say or be dependent on you? You really have to respect that the other person is distinct and separate from you, and you from them.

5) Unconditional acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you’re automatically condoning everything the other person does. It means that you keep regarding them as they are, instead of completely spurning them or twisting their words and behaviors to be more palatable to you. Or can you really only see the other person when they show you the kinds of things that are easiest and least disturbing for you to see?

6) The ability to create an unthreatening environment. Are you subjecting the other person to the threat of constant evaluation and judgment? Do they always feel as if they’re trying to prove themselves and are falling short? Or are you helping them establish their own standards of behavior, their own sense of what’s acceptable or not, and helping them take responsibility for themselves without the constant need of a punishment or harsh judgment hanging over their heads?

7) Perceiving the other person as constantly developing. Instead of seeing them purely bound to their past and what they’ve always been to you (often in unforgiving terms: an ignorant student, an immature child, a neurotic mess, etc.) you see them in the process of becoming, of daily changes and development.

Most of the time what blocks us from developing these qualities to any extent is fear – of being hurt and exposed, of being wrong. Another pitfall is all-or-nothing thinking: “I fail to be genuine all of the time, so I won’t bother.” Then there’s mental laziness, which can lead us to taking shortcuts in understanding and helping another person. The take home point is that to be in a position to consistently help others, you need to work on your own psychological maturity – so as not to use other people and their problems for your own purposes, and obscure them in a dense cloud of your own thoughts and feelings.

Researching the Long-Term Damage of Romanian Orphanages

Read this excellent article that looks into the ethics of researching cognitive and neural development in Romanian children who live in orphanages. Even when adequate food, shelter, and medical care are provided, the children suffer from neglect; from a young age, they don’t interact much with caretakers, which stunts their development.

What practical benefit will this research have for the kids? Will the research itself be enough to change state policies? What is the research telling us that’s new? We already understand that growing up in these orphanages increase the chances of hurting cognition, emotional development, and other aspects of psychological health. What benefit will it bring to science, and to the kids, to investigate the effects on their brain, which includes decreased white matter?

The rot in athletic culture

Participating in sports can help young kids and teenagers strengthen self-discipline, strategic ability, and the skill of working well with others, not to mention giving them more opportunities to be physically active.

Throughout the U.S., however, athletes are often worshipped or zealously protected. The fans cheering them on come to identify with them, fighting vicariously through them against ‘the enemy’ (whether it’s another school or town’s team, with tensions rife even in some little league games); this is especially true if the athletes are boys, and if the sport is super-popular, like football or baseball.

Another problem concerns the darker side of the traits cultivated in athleticism – when physical strength and aggression aren’t tempered by moral and mental strength. When aggression and domination are held up as the most worthwhile qualities – and in the case of boys, the qualities that most strongly define them as men. Sports becomes about crushing and humiliating others to show off your own perceived strength.

The Denver Post recently published an article about a 13-year-old boy attacked by upperclassmen at a wrestling meet:

At the state high-school wrestling tournament in Denver last year, three upperclassmen cornered a 13-year-old boy on an empty school bus, bound him with duct tape and sodomized him with a pencil.

In this case, the victim’s father, who was the school’s principal, reported the attack to police. And the community turned on them. The father wound up leaving his job. The boy’s schoolmates harassed and bullied him and openly supported the attackers.

The article goes onto to detail other sexual assaults (often part of so-called ‘hazing rituals’) perpetrated by boys against other boys. In some cases, teachers or coaches know and shrug it off. They expect the victims to take it silently and shrug it off too (‘boys will be boys,’ and all that). And there’s a price – of social ostracism and vicious bullying and harassment – when the victim does speak out or press charges.

I’m reminded of the Steubenville rape case, which concluded with two football players charged with raping a teenaged girl. Many people in their community and school supported them, and those same folks turned on the victim, spreading around photos of the rape and harassing her. They victim-blamed and slut-shamed her – a far too common response to rape victims. But ultimately I think what fueled their rage was that she was proof of a strain of ugliness in the culture of the community, a town known to prize its football players and identify with them. Many in the community felt that by exposing the depravity of these particular players, she was calling into question the decency of the community as a whole; a slur on the players was a slur on them. And rather than examine themselves, and look at a culture that mindlessly celebrates aggression and domination, they defended the players.

Yes, I know this isn’t limited to sports. When people identify with an athlete, a celebrity, a religious figure or organization, and there’s evidence of terrible behavior on the part of any of those figures or entities, they might feel a flicker of doubt about themselves. “I’m a good person, so could I really have identified with something or someone evil?” As a form of protecting themselves, and their beliefs about themselves, many people will then deny the evil and turn on the victims of it. (See my post on the book, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me.) In athletics, this way of thinking, combined with the encouragement athletes receive to dominate others in a humiliating fashion, creates a culture where sexual assault is more likely to occur and then be defended or excused.

Granted, sexual assault isn’t the only way to humiliate or dominate someone, but it’s particularly potent and damaging. There may be some differences in how people perceive the victims; girls will frequently be shamed as ‘promiscuous’ or ‘sexually damaged,’ while boys will have their masculinity fundamentally called into question. But there are many similarities too in what’s expected of the victim: chiefly silent shame and diminished personhood. The expectation is that the victim exists to give others a power trip; it’s never only about sexual release, because in a number of cases, as with the boys’ hazing rituals, the attackers don’t experience sexual release – and the people witnessing and cheering it on don’t either. It’s the heady sensation of being able to use and hurt without regard for the will of another person; other people are yours for the taking, and there’s nothing they can do about it, because you’re stronger (physically, anyway). Notice also how in the rape of boys, the victims are essentially ‘feminized.’ The attackers, by penetrating a male victim, treat him as ‘not male’ and assert their manhood over him; he’s expected to bear this silently and maybe, if he isn’t ‘weak,’ become a man in spite of it and pretend it never happened – maybe even prove how manly he is in the future by doing it to someone else. Until then, he needs to ‘know his place.’ (In this culture, a victim who’s a girl will have to also stay silent, but forever accept that she’s now ‘in her place,’ reduced to a discarded ‘plaything’ – someone who couldn’t possibly be able to hold her head up high as a person.) It’s all part of the same culture of toxic aggression and warped ideas of masculinity. The victims have a role to play in this culture – and when the victims step out of that role and refuse to be silenced, they face a communal backlash.

Are all athletes like this? Of course not. But there are too many of these incidences – sexual assaults, along with various forms of extreme bullying and humiliation. And while the perpetrators are relatively few in number, they’re championed by crowds of enablers. If the perpetrators were shamed instead of the victims, they would be far less likely to do these reprehensible things. But ultimately, it’s not enough to just use shame against people. We need to look at the behaviors that parents, teachers, and coaches are modeling for athletes. What are these young people really learning about strength and what it means? What are they learning about power, status, and the sense of entitlement towards other people’s bodies – their use of other people’s bodies for personal amusement, power trips, and gratification? Enough with the excuses and the callousness from bystanders, the unthinking identification with people. Enough with saying ‘boys will be boys’ (which, when you think about it, is such an insult to boys – many of whom are kind and decent people). Participation in athletics could be, and often is, a positive part of people’s lives. It doesn’t have to be enmeshed in this warped culture.

Synaptic Sunday #14: Military and Neuroscience

For Memorial Day weekend, three pieces of neuroscience research relevant to the military (and with applications beyond it):

1) Navy seeks to map the mind

On brain-computer interface technology -

The true goal is to make a vehicle or a robot arm just another extension of the human body and brain.

2) PTSD Combat Veterans’ ‘Fear Circuitry’ In Brains Always On High Alert

Even when an individual with PTSD isn’t confronted by a threat or a relatively taxing mental activity, there’s still PTSD-related activity in certain areas of the brain. What does this mean?

3) Professor finds neuroscience provides insights into brains of complex and adaptive leaders

What do the brains of great leaders look like? Is there really a way to increase leadership strength via neuro-feedback?

Attitudes that enhance vs. limit broad creative thinking

What motivates you as you go about your life? Is your attitude more of approach or avoidance, the willingness to go for a reward or the desire to avoid harm?

I know it isn’t strictly either/or for anyone, but it’s helpful to think of your motivations in different situations and how they affect your thought processes, including your creativity and memory.

I came across an interesting study from 2001, The Effects of Promotion and Prevention Cues on Creativity. It centers on an experimental set-up where you have to get a cartoon mouse out of a maze by finding a route through the maze to the exit.

In one condition, there was a piece of cheese drawn outside of the maze, suggesting that if you successfully found the correct route out, the mouse would get the cheese. This condition was meant to evoke a style of thinking focused more on promotion: you complete a task in order to attain something new and nurturing.

In another condition, there wasn’t any cheese; instead, an owl hovered above the maze, making you think that if the mouse didn’t get out, the owl would eat it. The style of thinking evoked here was based on prevention: more about risk aversion and vigilance, avoiding bad outcomes.

So what happened in the experiment? The participants did well on solving the mazes (one would hope, given they were college students), but the interesting difference between participants who were in the promotion vs. prevention condition emerged later, when they were all given another task to complete. In one version of the experiment, they got a task that required them to detect images of simple objects embedded in a noisy visual. In another version, they had to come up with a list of ways that they could use a brick. In yet another, they had to complete word fragments by coming up with whole words that matched.

Independently of how much they enjoyed any given task, it seemed that overall, the participants in the promotion group were able to think more broadly and more creatively during the follow-up tasks. In contrast, an attitude of avoidance/prevention tended to make their thinking narrower. (And this wasn’t even tied to anything personal – the participants themselves weren’t going to enjoy the cheese or avoid a monster owl about to attack them, though they may have identified with the mouse; basically they were just cued into thinking within a certain framework, promotion vs. prevention).

You always have to be cautious when applying the results of one study to day-to-day life, but this does get me thinking about the implications. I’m more in the habit of avoidance than approach, which I don’t think always serves me well; while I don’t want to change this orientation completely, I don’t want to skew too much towards it either. Having risk-avoidance as a dominant approach may not be good in the long-run, in terms of thinking big and developing ideas creatively over time; it might limit you more to narrower, tried-and-tested paths.

Review of “Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become”

In her book Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, Susan Engel raises three main points:

1) Parents can’t redesign their children’s basic personality and intelligence.

2) A number of behaviors that parents are quick to label as ‘red flags’ in young kids are usually normal; instead of ‘red flags’ they’re ‘red herrings,’ leading parents to make incorrect predictions about their child’s future or worry about minor or nonexistent problems.

3) The means to distinguish between red flags and red herrings can be derived from research. We’ve accumulated a body of research to-date that can help us distinguish between normal or less damaging circumstances and patterns of behavior, and those that are actually worrisome.

Regarding points 1 and 2, Engel presents some convincing arguments throughout the book. For instance, intelligence is a fairly stable trait; a child of average intelligence isn’t going to become a genius. However, this doesn’t mean that environmental influence doesn’t have an impact. A child’s intelligence can be enhanced or dampened. For instance, parents who give their children opportunities to learn, give them books, talk to them, help them discover things they love doing, and show their kids the importance of perseverance increase the chances of the kid succeeding later in life, more than if they fuss over IQ numbers and whether their kid is the most gifted one in the class. They give their kids the opportunity to behave intelligently, expand their knowledge and skills, and live to their fullest potential. This is in contrast to kids who, regardless of what their intellectual potential is, don’t get very many opportunities to grow and may start to behave unintelligently, suppressing their natural potential.

In regards to the third point, the books is less convincing. Engel covers a lot of research, much of it interesting, showing how what we consider ‘red flags’ may not necessarily hobble a child for life; for instance, children who grow up in unstable homes but have certain protective factors in their life may still become well-functioning adults. The tricky part comes in when Engel tries to show how you can make predictions about an individual child’s life based on the research. What are the problems with how she lays out her approach?

a. There are individual differences, and noise in the data, when it comes to any study, especially when you’re looking at complex traits such as shyness and intelligence, or studying various factors that influence development. Granted, I don’t think Engel ever says that you can predict 100% how your child will turn out, but I think the case is overstated in the book.

b. She doesn’t devote enough time to discuss the research methodology or study limitations, including possible flaws in study design. In a couple of places she does point out the issue of individual differences, but I think that for a book that is so heavily based on research, she should have spent more time discussing and explaining the research. Readers who don’t have familiarity with research methodology in this area are particularly in need of understanding the limitations of the work to help them make sense of the data and understand what it can and can’t tell us.

c. In each chapter, Engel mixes research results with individual ‘case studies’ of kids who seemed to have red flags but turned out ok (or children whose red flags went undetected). Though she talks a lot about how you can use the existing research to help you decipher the clues in your child’s life, her case studies rely on hindsight; she knows how the kid turns out, so it’s simpler for her to trace the course of his or her life to see what might have gone right or wrong, and what were possible influences. Even then, with the benefit of hindsight, she doesn’t always make the developmental trajectory clear; I didn’t always understand why it was a given that a particular child would turn out ok, while another child wouldn’t. For people who don’t have the benefit of hindsight, it’s not easy to “decipher the clues,” given that a kid’s developmental trajectory is influenced by a complex combination of factors; I don’t know how you can always tell, in the present moment, whether something is a red flag or a red herring.

The bottom line is, I wish she’d gone more into explaining the research, which is interesting, and developing her discussions of it; her chapters were sometimes a hodgepodge of research examples and personal examples that didn’t mesh well or develop into a clear argument (the chapter on adult romantic relationships comes to mind).

But ultimately, the message that parents can’t completely remake their kids’ personalities, but instead can help enhance strengths and give their kids tools to cope with potential weaknesses, is a reasonable one, as it encourages parents to see their kids as they are, and not constantly measure them against other kids or against some parental ideal that may be narcissistic at heart.

7 ways to build self-worth and confidence in kids

1) See them as their own people

Much as you might want them to live out your own unfulfilled dreams or become a smaller, more agreeable version of yourself, kids are going to have their own personalities, interests, and abilities. You could try to bend them to your will in every little way, but they’ll either distance themselves from you entirely or break inside.

If you’re in the habit of comparing them to other kids, please stop. There will always be some other kid who has better grades, goes to better schools, can hit a ball farther, plays the piano better, looks more conventionally attractive, and seems well-behaved at all times. That shouldn’t matter (and besides, those other seemingly perfect children are human and have their own faults and problems, which you aren’t privy to). Help your kids develop into their strongest, most decent selves, rather than wish for them to be someone else. Accept that they’re human and will never meet some ridiculous standard of perfection. Love them as they are. If you keep comparing them to others, they’ll pick up on that, on how they seem to always fall short in your eyes, never good enough in their own right.

And please, please, don’t use them as a surrogate for someone else. They aren’t your therapist. They aren’t the best friend you never had. They aren’t meant to step into the shoes of a spouse. They’re your kids.

2) Talk to them as if they’re people

We get into the habit of cooing at children when they’re very young and brushing off their observations, triumphs, tears and fits of anger as so much lovable nonsense or irritating noise. The thing is, even very young children have serious concerns about the world. It’s easy to dismiss them or talk over them – especially when we don’t have good answers to their questions – but if you keep doing this, you’re basically telling them that their thoughts aren’t worth listening to and that they’re better off keeping quiet about what’s most important to them.

Hear them out, with sincere interest. Try to understand how they’re communicating. A two-year-old, for instance, doesn’t have the same verbal and cognitive ability as an older kid, but in many cases may still be trying to tell you something important – something they discovered or are delighted in, or something that annoys or frightens them.

Even if what they say sounds silly, remember that they’re new to the world and can’t possibly know everything that you know. Not that you know everything. Make a habit of exploring things together and not being afraid of questions that can’t easily be answered. Don’t be afraid of silliness either. And just as you wouldn’t want to be regularly shouted down, interrupted, or belittled, please extend them the same decent treatment.

3) Help them develop competency

You’re there to give your kid support. What that means changes as they develop and grow older. Basically, if you do everything for them, they’ll doubt whether they can ever stand on their own two feet. If you need to be heavily involved in every decision, great or small, you don’t give them a chance to breathe and try things out. You’re basically telling them that you don’t think they can manage on their own. This could result in a lack of confidence across different areas of life, or maybe one particular area (e.g. schoolwork).

4) Be dependably loving

One day you’re warm and loving. The next day you’re cold and distant. On a given day, your kid’s laughter might make you smile. An hour later, you tell them their laughter is grating on your nerves. On some occasions, you give them thoughtful advice and comfort them if they’ve failed at something; on other occasions, you react with impatience and derision. You make earnest promises to them, which you break half the time. They don’t quite know what to make of you. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, they think. They start regularly second-guessing themselves.

5) Hold them accountable for the right things

Kids need to learn to be responsible for their actions – not to bully other kids, not to steal, not to destroy their siblings’ toys, not to smear the contents of their noses on library books.

However, they’re not to be held responsible for your bad day at work, your rocky marriage, the argument you had with your own parents, the delivery guy showing up an hour late with dinner, or your personal insecurities.

6) Give them room and time to play

Play is pleasure and growth. It’s a time for flights of imagination, for exploration and development. Kids ideally try out different things when they play, build their skills, and have fun. When they play with others, they learn to socialize and work out conflicts. They learn to take risks, in a relatively safe environment. Please don’t hover over them all the time as they play, dictating what they should or shouldn’t do and making a fuss if they don’t spend all their free time exactly the way you want them to. Give them the confidence to chart their own path. Make free play (and free time more generally) an important part of their childhood, instead of something wedged into the twenty minutes between piano lessons/chess club/swim team/computer class/household chores. Participating in scheduled activities can be fun and beneficial, and helping out with housework at an age-appropriate level can be fulfilling for them, but if their schedule is so overbooked that they don’t have time to just play or relax, ask yourself why they need to be so busy. Talk to them about it, too – about what they want and need.

7) Model self-worth and confidence for them

I’m not talking about false bravado here, or the attitude of “suck it up/don’t cry/never show weakness, imperfections or vulnerability because no one will like or respect you.” I’m talking about genuine self-worth and confidence. Basically, you like yourself; at the very least, you’re regularly kind to yourself. You’re pleased when you do well, and you don’t beat yourself up endlessly when you make a mistake and constantly tell yourself that you’ll never get things right. You practice self-compassion and forgiveness, and have a basic faith in yourself as a human being who is capable of leading a worthwhile life and accomplishing things. You enjoy feeling good but also understand that sometimes you’ll feel down in the dumps. You’re human and imperfect, and you’re ok with that. You can still work towards your dreams, cope with mistakes along the way, take risks, love other people, receive love in return, behave decently, and enjoy life.

Kids pick up on your attitudes. They see what your attitude is towards failure and imperfection, towards embarrassment and shame. If you regularly act as if messing up makes a person unlovable or unworthy, your kids absorb that idea too, and it could batter away at them. So work on yourself. Examine your beliefs. Do you compare yourself to other people all the time? Do you tear yourself down and tear other people down? Are you basically comfortable in your own skin? Do you consider yourself a perpetual failure in life, or – even if you want some things to improve or change – are you basically ok with you who are?

Work on becoming a healthier person, mentally and emotionally. Do it for your own sake, but also know that your kids will be much more likely to develop healthy self-worth and confidence too.

Are job interviews useless?

One of the books I took along with me on a recent vacation was Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman. At one point the authors discuss a body of research showing that interviews are generally poor predictors of a candidate’s future performance on a job.

The problem lies mainly in the types of questions asked in a typical job interview and the interviewer’s over-inflated confidence in their ability to judge people’s merit. Many interview questions are soft and fuzzy (“What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? How would you describe yourself?”). They are rarely going to elicit candid responses. Neither are the kinds of questions that ask candidates to imagine themselves five years in the future or lay out their whole career path. Interviewees will generally prepare stock replies, gloss over their actual faults, and put on a performance.

Interviewers know this, but they still think that they can identify the right candidate based on the kind of performance and on the rapport established during the interview. In actuality, this kind of unstructured interview isn’t a reliable indicator of how well a candidate will do on a job. (Also, managers are often looking for people who are similar to them and to other employees, when in fact it might be more beneficial to have someone who complements others in personality and ability; for instance, if you’ve got a team of energetic and dynamic risk-takers, you might want someone who’s more cautious and low-key to provide balance.)

One suggestion for improvement that’s made in the book is to change the format of the interview. Instead of having it unfold in an unstructured and conversational style, interviewers could include some formal tests measuring abilities relevant to the job. They could also add more questions that are concrete and shed light on an interviewee’s thought processes. For example, an interviewer could ask questions involving “what-if” scenarios (“What if you’re organizing a fund-raiser and the caterer backs out two days before?” “What if your star employee suddenly starts to show up to work late everyday?”).

Deficits in working memory – but not ADHD

The go-to diagnosis for kids who have trouble learning, focusing and following directions in school is ADHD. Even leaving aside official diagnoses, when we look at the way parents and teachers talk about these children, it doesn’t take long for ADHD to pop up as the label of choice regardless of the actual problem.

In The Learning Brain by Torkel Klingberg, the author points out that kids who have deficits in working memory may be misdiagnosed with ADHD. People with ADHD often have problems with working memory, but not everyone with working memory issues has ADHD.

What’s working memory? There’s a colorful description of it here: “your brain’s Post-it note.”

Working memory helps you retain and process incoming information, such as a set of directions with multiple steps, the thread of a conversation, unfolding stories, math problems and other academic exercises. Even if most of this information never makes it to your long-term memory, you need to hold onto it for the present time to carry out different tasks successfully.

Working memory diagram
(Image links to source: usablealgebra.landmark.edu)

You can see why kids with working memory deficits struggle at school. And given that working memory and attention are closely intertwined, the label of ADHD hovers over these kids. It doesn’t help that when kids are struggling with schoolwork and falling behind their classmates, they often get restless, act out, or let their attention wander – which further reinforces the notion in people’s minds that they have ADHD.

And in kids with both ADHD and working memory deficits, the concern is that people will focus on controlling (medicating) any hyperactivity, at the expense of addressing the working memory problems.

Psychology’s checkered past

The experiments mentioned in 10 Psychological Experiments that Went Horribly Wrong are more complex (and darker) than how they’re portrayed in the article, which also doesn’t give a full account of the rationale behind some of them and what conclusions we can draw from them.

But the article is still worth a look, to get a sense of the kinds of unethical cruel decisions made by experimenters and doctors, the poor experimental designs of their studies, and the way that human nature can often turn ugly really fast.

An isolated monkey in one of Harlow's experiments

In their bid to capture, quantify or control some of our most fundamental qualities – love, cruelty, craving for approval, sexual identity, fear, power and submission – these experimenters usually didn’t account for how messy people can be (and how easy it is to let power over others go to your head).

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