Reasons Why Trump is Polling So Well - Part I

Donald Trump is a narcissist – diagnostically so. Narcissists tend to exude a sense of self-importance, show a lack of empathy, and have a profound need for admiration. (Trump cannot build anything without putting his name on it!)  A narcissist also typically believes they are special and unique and they tend to exude a sense of entitlement - the individual believes they deserve special treatment. They also frequently exhibit arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes. Another little known fact about narcissists is their capacity to show contempt. If someone disagrees with them (in other words, doesn’t show them the admiration they feel they deserve), they’ll show contempt by eviscerating the other person. People witnessed this during the Fox News debate when Trump criticized the female moderator after she asked a challenging question. Narcissists cannot help themselves and, even on national television, Trump could not either. Ironically, narcissists are popular at first. It’s only later that they get into difficulty interpersonally. And because of a narcissist’s high levels of grandiosity and superiority to others, they eventually have trouble with any type of long-term relationship. Individuals who are in relationship to a narcissist eventually feel exploited. (How many times has Trump been married?)

If Donald Trump were a certified narcissist, why would he be polling so well as a potential President of the United States? Why aren’t more people actually disturbed by his interpersonal dynamics? I’d like to address that question with a two-fold answer. I’ll provide a superficial answer first. Then, in Part 2, I’ll try and address the question from a deeper, analytic point of view.

A recent study done by Back et. al (2010) provides a possible answer as to why Trump is polling so well at the moment. In the study, 73 college freshmen that had never met each other took turns standing up in front of the room and introducing themselves. They were then asked how likable each speaker was and how much they’d like to get to know the speaker better. Interestingly enough, it was the most narcissistic students (they were tested and scored high on a questionnaire) that were better liked. And not only that but the type of narcissism that scored the highest on likeability was the most malignant kind, meaning the type of narcissist that actually enjoyed manipulating and exploiting people. It was the manipulators and exploiters who were the most popular when they introduced themselves!

Interesting right? But I bet you're still wondering how in the world can this be? It’s actually quite simple. The malignant narcissistic tend to exude four attractive characteristics when you first meet them. They have charming facial expressions, they dress well, they can be verbally witty and find unforgettable ways to introduce themselves, and their body language tends to be self-assured. They are also often very successful. Unconsciously, we humans feel naturally drawn to these characteristics when we first meet someone. When someone exudes an air of self confidence, is interesting to talk to, or seems successful, we naturally TEND to like them and feel drawn to them.

(To be Continued)

Metaphor, Empathy, and Intimacy - Will Technology Circumvent?

One of the things that make us uniquely human, Summers (2013) states, is our ability to use metaphor. Within the context of psychotherapy, particularly because of the deep exploration of self it provides, the use of metaphor is a frequent consequence. If this opening up of creativity and the use of metaphor is uniquely human, how might constant interfacing with technology and mobile devices disparage this process?

Summers states that psychotherapy is a process between two people who engage each other for the express purpose of transforming and expanding the subjectivity of one party. The patient begins to understand herself more deeply. Subsequently, one of the hopes we have as therapists is that the transformative power of this very dynamic generalizes to other relationships and situations for our patients. The insights one gains in psychotherapy can begin to change relationships OUTSIDE of therapy. But if our patients live in a world of tethered technology, of potential disconnected-ness, doesn’t this circumvent the very changes we’re hoping to effect?

When considering the developmental arc of growth in the human being, the child is helped to master negative feelings by parental responses to the pain and the offering of a different viewpoint. Simply put, when a child is comforted and soothed, rather than dismissed, a child is left feeling valued and healthy self worth grows. As a result, the optimal conditions for the child are both mutual and self-regulation. The child learns to regulate his own emotional responses to life challenges. Children need the responses of primary caregivers to learn how to master their own feelings in order to learn how to self regulate. But what happens when mobile devices become so embedded in and between human interactions? Will our absence with each other serve to circumvent our learning to self regulate, to feel comforted by another’s response?

Summers makes the statement that concentrating on the patient in psychotherapy, with all his/her complexities, is a mode of engaging human experience that makes psychotherapy inquiry unique and powerful. This singular focus on the experience of the other person, might it be thwarted by constant interaction with “others” that are only experienced through email, text, or Facebook?  Doesn’t communication, when it primarily occurs through technological means, inherently create a wall of intimacy whereby the participants cannot intimately engage with one another?

This might sound a bit simplistic. The longer I’ve been a psychologist, the more I feel like the main goal of psychotherapy is not only assisting clients in gaining insight about themselves, but helping them learn to tolerate their God-given feelings, and thereby growing in their ability for intimacy and vulnerability. This seems to occur the most powerfully in-between people and WITH each other. While technology is not inherently evil, my fear is that our world of tethered technology provides a ready made defensive and avoidance of the very conditions that help us feel like humans. Instead of conversation over dinner together, we feel tempted to check our mobile devices. Instead of noticing each other’s facial expressions, and thereby allowing for connectedness, we gradually become more and more distracted from each other. Instead of starting conversations with others in parks, coffee shops, gyms, or the grocery checkout line, we play games on our phones, listen to music with earphones, or check our Facebook page. In essence, we lose our ability for human relatedness.

The Beauty of Death

I’ve been reflecting much on death and dying recently. I seem to have encountered the concept frequently via personal and professional contacts. A couple of months ago, I was given the opportunity to say goodbye to a beloved professor from my doctorate program. After fighting metastasized cancer for 14 years, this woman was officially given two to three weeks to live. Along with approximately 40 other students from my program, I was given the honor of sitting in her presence for two hours, expressing to her my deep gratitude for her life and love. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Despite the fact that this woman has been “dying” for 14 years, she’s one of the most “alive” human beings I’ve ever known. Rich in psychological depth and spiritual understanding, this lady has changed the lives of many. I’ve pondered the lessons this woman’s life and death may have for me.

I don’t believe there’s any topic more anxiety ridden than the idea of death or loss. In fact, the basic premise of Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality. One need only turn on the television for a few minutes before encountering various topics promising some form of elongated life. Multivitamins, face cream that stops aging, and plastic surgery, to just name a few. We humans seem to struggle mightily with the idea of death, of loss, of terminations, or of endings. We balk at them and cry at them. We avoid them, but then we dream about them. Depending on the type of death (or loss), we may become depressed, overwhelmed, avoidant, or fearful. We also might fight bitterness, anger, and loathing, as a result of the loss we’ve been dealt.

In the days since meeting with this beloved professor, I’ve found myself reflecting on several thoughts. First, she was unafraid and showed no bitterness. Confident of her spiritual standing and grateful for the years she lived, this lady exhibited a peaceful acceptance. It was remarkable. Simultaneously, she was also refreshingly honest, stating that saying goodbye to her two children and her husband was going to be “the most difficult things [she] has ever done.” She paused, and then added, “but the pain and hurt is worth it…because it means I became attached. I only hurt this deeply because I have loved deeply.” 

I don’t think that it’s ever too soon to think about the meaning of one’s life. Sitting with death, deeply and honestly, has a way of focusing our energies and cleaning our senses. It invites us to think about our relationships, how we spend our time, and how we treat others. Each of you is doing something with your life. Whether it’s buying groceries, sipping coffee, or spending time with those whom you love, I urge you to do it wholeheartedly and with great kindness, knowing that you’re engaging in life, encouraging others to live more fully, and changing the world in the process.

What Happy People do Differently, Part IV

Happy people don’t hide from emotions but instead tend to acknowledge that life is full of disappointments and are willing to address them. Feelings of anger can be effectively utilized to stand up for oneself or in becoming more assertive. Feelings of guilt can be used to motivate oneself toward behavioral change. This mental flexibility between pleasure and pain, the ability to shift one’s behavior to match a situation, is known as psychological flexibility and results in greater wellbeing! Columbia University psychologist George Bonnano found that in the aftermath of 9/11, the most psychologically flexible people living in New York City during the attacks bounced back more quickly than their less adaptable counterparts. Specifically, Dr. Bonnano found that those individuals who were angry at times but could also conceal their emotions when necessary enjoyed greater psychological and physical health in the months and years after 9/11. Opportunities for flexible responding are frequent. Perhaps a colleague appeared rude and demeaning. Instead of letting your hurt and anger simmer quietly, accept your feelings as a signal, which allows you to employ other strategies for reacting. These include compassion. Perhaps the colleague is experiencing an emotionally difficult time. Another strategy includes mindful listening – being curious about what might be occurring in the life of this colleague that has nothing to do with you. Similar to training for a marathon, learning the skill of emotional discomfort is a task that’s learned over time. So instead of pouring yourself a glass of wine next time you get into an argument with your spouse or family member, try simply tolerating the emotion for a few minutes. Before you know it, your ability to tolerate daily negative emotions will expand.

What Happy People Do Differently - Part III

It’s easy to assume that when we encounter difficulties, it’s the presence and empathy of a good friend that assists one in journeying through the pain. Whether we get passed up for a promotion, find ourselves in conflict with a family member, or encounter a loss of some sort, it’s the presence of a good friend, or of benevolent social support, during those times that makes all the difference in the world, right? Interestingly enough, recent research from psychologist, Shelly Gable (USC in Santa Barbara), has found that the happiest people are the ones who are present when things go right for others – and whose joys and wins are regularly celebrated by friends, as well. Dr. Gable also found that when romantic partners did not make a big deal out of each other’s successes, the couple is more likely to break up. As it turns out, when couples celebrate each other’s accomplishments, they’re more likely to be satisfied and committed to their relationship. But aside from intimate relationships, why would it be conducive to be genuinely happy for a friend’s success, even in an area in which you yourself may struggle? (For example, your friend gets the promotion after you’ve been turned down numerous times!) The process of discussing positive events with a responsive listener actually changes the memory of the event. So after telling you about it, your friend will recall that night as even more positive that it was. And more importantly, the next time your friend encounters a difficulty, he/she will recall your positive support. So while it may be kind to send a card to your friend when he/she was dumped, you’ll both achieve more satisfaction out of the flowers you send her when she gets that promotion or when he graduates with his medical degree. Happier people are those individuals who actively celebrate others’ successes. 

What Happy People do Differently - Part II

Research appears to suggest that satisfied people are less likely to be analytical and detail-oriented! University of New South Wales psychologist, Joseph Forgas, found that happy people tend to be less skeptical than others, uncritically open toward strangers, and can be vulnerable to lies and deceit.  When negotiating the finer points of a complicated and social world of colleagues, dates, and friends, it certainly seems adaptable, and even advisable, to pay attention to the finer details. Yet, research seems to suggest that too much attention to detail can interfere with basic daily functioning. Psychologist Karen Harkness, from Queen’s University, found that individuals in a depressed mood were more likely to notice minute changes in facial expressions. Meanwhile, happy people tended to overlook these small changes in others’ faces. A flash of annoyance, a sarcastic grin, a rising of the eyebrow – were all fluctuations that happy people seemed to overlook more easily. While in a bad mood, we tend to notice the tiniest shifts and can’t seem to disengage from an argument. The happiest people seem to have a natural protection against getting sucked in by the pull of those little details. For example, a nice analogy might be the effect of water on a duck – it slides right off! Another way to put it, perhaps, is “not sweating the small stuff.” Don’t get me wrong, paying attention to details is helpful, but too much focus on minutiae can be exhausting and debilitating. The happiest people accept that striving for perfection is a loser’s bet and are willing to let small offenses go by the wayside.

What Happy People do Differently - Part I

“Truly happy people seem to have an intuitive grasp of the fact that sustained happiness is not just about doing things that you like. It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone.” (Kashdan & Diener, Psychology Today, Aug 2013) Simply put, happy people are curious. In a 2007 study done by Kashdan and Michael Steger, participants were monitored for 21 days on their daily activities and how they felt. Those who felt curious on any given day also felt the most satisfaction and engaged in happiness-inducing activities. Interestingly enough, curiosity is at its base an anxious state. It’s a state of not knowing and is largely about exploration. Studies seem to suggest that curious people accept the notion that while being uncomfortable and vulnerable is not an easy path, it can also provide a means of becoming stronger and wiser. In fact, the study performed by Kashdan and Steger suggests that curious people invest in activities that cause them discomfort but the result is often a higher psychological peak. So, from time to time, it seems that it’s worth engaging in an experience that is novel, intricate, uncertain, and even upsetting.

What really counts when it comes to effective therapy

I frequently find myself thoughful about what's effective in psychotherapy. Is it particular things I say in response to my patients? Are there specific modalities that are more effective than others? Being the psychodynamic psychotherapist that I am, I possess a natural inclination toward understanding the deeper layers of the human psyche. Somehow, change and understanding the human being takes so much more than just a manualized approach to specific symptoms. For me, it's more about understanding the heart and soul of each person that walks in my door and treating each with as much dignity as I can muster. Each patient is more than just a list of symptoms. Each patient is more than just their pain. When I read the following article on research done in Sweden, I found myself feeling justified in how I've been trained:

Treatment for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

One of the many biological systems that have been identified as being affected by traumatic experiences is the part of the limbic system that is centrally involved in interpreting the emotional significance of experience: the amygdala. The amygdala detects whether incoming sensory information is a threat and forms emotional memories in response to particular sensations such as sounds and images that have become associated with physical threats. These emotional interpretations are thought to be extraordinarily hard to extinguish. Therefore the challenge of psychotherapy is to de-condition the amygdala from interpreting innocuous reminders as a return of the trauma. In other words, certain smells, objects, or relational dynamics have become, for the individual, associated with the actual experience of the trauma, even if the object, smell, or whatever is actually itself benign. Part of what psychotherapy offers as a means of de-conditioning the amygdala is various forms of what psychotherapists call “Exposure Therapy.” Most psychologists can explain what forms “Exposure Therapy” can take.