Category Archives: Readings

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

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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.

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

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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.

Are job interviews useless?

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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

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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.

Defending even our worst ideas

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La la la, this chimp can't hear you

I’m reading Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, where they try to account for why people justify errors and evil acts, deflect blame, and dismiss any evidence suggesting that they’re wrong.

The general idea is that we’re constantly trying to resolve cognitive dissonance: the presence of two conflicting ideas or concepts in our minds. The urgency with which we need to resolve cognitive dissonance increases to the extent that one of our core beliefs about ourselves is threatened.

For example, most people have the following belief about themselves: “I’m sane, decent, and competent.” (For some it could be, “I’m a peerless brilliant hero who shines an unquenchable light upon the mere mortals of this world.”)

But let’s say someone who has a good self-concept does something bad, believes in something idiotic, or identifies with something (or someone) evil or foolish. Suddenly the mind begins to question itself: “I’m a good person… but I just cheated on this test” or “I’m a smart person… but I just got suckered into spending $100 on a fad diet pill that made me gain weight” or “I worked for years and years promoting my pet scientific hypothesis… but now there’s a bunch of evidence debunking it” or “I strongly identify with and even love this awesome star football player… but now people are saying he beats his wife?”

So what does the brain do?

Many times, even without us being consciously aware of it, it minimizes the threat. We come up with justifications for cheating or lying, we double-down and defend an outworn idea, we rationalize why wasting our money or being duped was actually the smart thing, and we defend abusers, rapists and murderers even after their guilt has been proven. (People also find justification for abuse, rape, or murder that they themselves have perpetrated or turned a blind eye to as it was happening… this is the power of self-justification and our need to protect our psyche.) Our faulty memory can also swoop in and save the day, helping us gloss over details that detract from the rosy picture we have about ourselves while emphasizing the details (or inventing details) that support us.

So far the examples I’ve given are for people who have a basically good self-concept. What about people who think poorly of themselves?

Apparently the same thing happens, only in that case they’re protecting a negative self-image. If you think poorly of your intelligence, you might write off a good test score as a fluke. If you think you’re unattractive, then you dismiss someone’s flirtations by misinterpreting them or by thinking to yourself, “They like me now, but wait until they see the real me.” It’s amazing how hard the brain will work to protect core beliefs, even when they’re toxic.

The more we’re invested in something, for better or worse, the more we want to defend it and preserving our identities and what we believe is most important to our sense of self. I’ll be interested in what insights the book shares on catching yourself at these self-justifications and changing core beliefs.

On Becoming a Person, Chapter 2 – How do therapists foster personal growth?

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What’s the best way to help someone develop intellectually and emotionally?

In Chapter 2 of On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers writes that it’s a mistake for a psychotherapist to relate to a client as a “case” or a set of problems to fix. Instead therapists should see each client as a whole person, and beyond that form a relationship with them in which they can free themselves of lies and psychological defense mechanisms and grow as people.

What kind of relationship is this?

Rogers characterizes it as one in which: 1) he’s genuine about his own thoughts and feelings; 2) develops an “acceptance and liking” towards the other person; 3) tries to understand the other person.

But he also writes:

I am by no means always able to achieve this kind of relationship with another, and sometimes, even when I feel I have achieved it in myself, he may be too frightened to perceive what is being offered to him.

What happens if a therapist genuinely dislikes a client? Cultivating an attitude of acceptance (discussed more in this earlier post and comment thread) can help override your initial impulse to try to fix the other person or shut him/her out for not being exactly like you. But beyond that? Under what circumstances – even with an attitude of openness, understanding, and genuineness – does a relationship just not work out between therapist and client?

And what about those clients who are “too frightened to perceive what is being offered”? Is the fear something they can work past in time with the therapist, or something that’s a precondition for therapy that they need to work through on their own? Also, fear isn’t the only obstacle standing in the way of a good therapeutic relationship; for instance I’m picturing someone malicious and manipulative, ordered to undergo therapy by a court. (Maybe fear of some kind can also lie at the root of malice and conscious dishonesty.)

Rogers also compares the kind of ‘helping relationship’ between a therapist and client to similar relationships that facilitate growth in people: parent-child, teacher-student, etc. Any relationship in which there’s growth needs to have genuineness, acceptance, and understanding. I’m inclined to agree with him, though each kind of relationship also has qualities that set it apart from others. Returning to the therapist-client relationship more specifically, how does a therapist become a “companion” to the client (as Rogers puts it) without over-stepping certain bounds? The therapist isn’t exactly a friend, or a parent, or a teacher really – or is the therapist something of each of these?

On Becoming a Person, Chapter 1 – What does acceptance mean?

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Skeletons embracing

When hearing people argue for ‘acceptance’ and ‘accepting others’ I’ve usually gotten the sense that they’re supporting a lazy relativism – all viewpoints are equally valid, all opinions have merit, all practices and beliefs are beyond reproach. I’ve rejected this idea of acceptance because it falls flat in the face of reality. In some situations you can disagree with people while seeing the merits in their argument, or accept that they have their own tastes and way of life. Other times this kind of ‘acceptance’ stems from laziness, dishonesty and indifference, and can lead to terrible problems if people use it to excuse or ignore destructive practices.

I’ve started reading On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers, an influential psychotherapist who broke away from both Freudian psychoanalysis and behaviorist approaches to psychotherapy. In Chapter 1 of this book, which was published in the early 1960s, he brings up acceptance:

I believe that it is an increasingly common pattern in our culture for each one of us to believe, “Every other person must feel and think and believe the same as I do.”

And a few sentences later he writes…

Each person is an island unto himself, in a very real sense; and he can only build bridges to other islands if he is first of all willing to be himself and permitted to be himself. So I find that when I can accept another person, which means specifically accepting the feelings and attitudes and beliefs that he has as a real and vital part of him, then I am assisting him to become a person: and there seems to me great value in this.

Shifting away from the lazy relativism discussed earlier, the acceptance described here seems to focus on acknowledging that people’s beliefs/feelings/etc. are a real and valid part of them. It matters to them in some way. Maybe we completely disagree with what it is they’re expressing or we find it abhorrent, but we accept that it’s real to them.

We have a strong tendency to invalidate other people by pretending that what they think or feel isn’t real (“You can’t be serious,” we say, or “no one thinks that way” or “you’re lying”); we can even make up explanations to override them (“you don’t really feel like that, you’re just tired” or “you’re hysterical/emotional/unstable…”). Rogers writes that when he’s more “open to the realities in me and in the other person” he’s much more likely to listen and try to understand, instead of immediately leaping in to “fix things” or bend people to his own way of viewing the world.

I think this kind of acceptance is generally a good approach; it reduces the chances that we’ll steamroll someone with our own thoughts, manipulate them and tell them exactly what it is they’re thinking/feeling. It also resonates with some of my readings on mindfulness training and accepting the present moment as it is, with all of its positive and negative qualities (instead of avoiding reality or warping it with our own thoughts of what it should be like).

Then again, what do we do when we want to change ourselves or when other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors are destructive to themselves and to others? We can accept that what they’re doing is real and serves some important psychological need… but if they want to change and ask for help, how can we help them? Does the kind of acceptance described by Rogers in this chapter easily slide into the lazy relativism mentioned earlier in the post? I’ll keep reading more of this book (and more about mindfulness) to better understand (hopefully) how these ideas of acceptance interact with personal development and change. At least for now, Rogers writes that it’s a paradox:

Yet the paradoxical aspect of my experience is that the more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up.