Monday, December 21, 2009

Good People, Bad Behavior

A few days ago, I just got back from a great 5-day conference called the Evolution of Psychotherapy. It’s held once every five years. Over 7500 mental health professionals were there! They had several of the best training sessions I have ever attended. But what struck me the most was the first and last speakers.

The first speaker, Robert Sapolsky, spoke about stress and his studies of the social behavior of baboons in Africa. Apparently, when some baboons are highly stressed by higher-ranking baboons, they beat up their mates. This sounds a lot like human domestic violence – and we know that this is increasing with the stress of the economy. Maybe these urges are biological. In modern society, we learn to manage these urges. After all, most humans don’t beat up their mates under stress. They restrain themselves. But some people need help learning those skills.

The last speaker, Philip Zimbardo, spoke about the conditions under which good people act badly. A prime example was with the torturing of Abu Graib prisoners in Iraq in 2004, which was photographed by the small group of soldiers involved – private photos which became public. There was an absence of the normal authority on the night shift at the prison (actually, the authorities up to Rumsfeld and Cheney officially encouraged this behavior), there was an anonymity to the prisoners (hoods on their heads, naked bodies, etc.), and anonymity to those who participated in the torture (face paint, etc.). These are the conditions that Dr. Zimbardo described in many situations where human beings have brutally treated other human beings. His book “The Lucifer Effect” has been a New York Times Best Seller.

So with these thoughts in mind, I caught up on the news this week:

Dec. 10: Maribel Arteaga, age 28, was stabbed to death in front of her children, ages 4 and 6, by her Husband. They were in the midst of a divorce.

Dec. 14: Elizabeth Fontaine, age 38, her mother and her two daughters, ages 2 and 4, were found dead as an apparent murder-suicide. Elizabeth alleged her ex-husband had sexually abused the children, but after an investigation found no evidence of this, the judge ordered a change of custody. Apparently, Elizabeth or her mother pulled the trigger, rather than appear in court for the change of custody.

Dec. 17: Marie D’Aoust, age 16 pleaded guilty to second-degree murder of her mother with a hammer when she was 14. Apparently, Marie was adopted and her biological parents each had mental disorders. She is reportedly doing much better now with treatment while in juvenile hall.

Dec. 17: Chris Henry, Cincinnati Bengals football star, age 26, died during an apparent domestic dispute with his fiancé. They were raising three children together. Reports suggest that it was a suicide, threatened by Henry when he jumped into the back of a pickup truck while his fiancé was driving away.

And of course, the media is still full of news about Tiger Woods and his many affairs, which just came to light after a domestic dispute at his home on Nov. 27, which apparently led to a late-night single car crash.

All of which leads me to think more about stress and good people. Tiger Woods is perhaps the wealthiest athlete in history, because of his golf and business acumen – he has a reputation for being extremely controlled and well-focused in everything he does. Maybe being so focused is stressful, and his affairs were his release. No one can be perfect anyhow. In fact, maybe that’s part of the problem. In today’s society, we’re seeking a level of perfection – at work and at home – that doesn’t exist.

Maybe it’s time we accepted that we’re human beings and have lots of urges that we need to manage. We’re just good people with bad behavior sometimes, and we need to get help to restrain the bad behavior.

If you’re out-of-control with domestic violence or some other bad behavior, get some help. There’s lots of it out there. And if you’re the victim of domestic violence or some other bad behavior, get some help. It’s not about being a superior or inferior person. It’s about being human in a world of stress. Let’s not take it out on each other.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Connecting with Disrespectful People: The Gates/Crowley Incident

The incident with Professor Gates and Policeman Crowley (about which the President said the police handled the arrest of a Harvard professor “stupidly”) raised a lot of good discussion about racism and respect. But I thought one particular piece was missing from the discussion: the importance of Connecting with Empathy, Attention and Respect when someone is treating you disrespectfully – no matter who you are.

The newspapers carried stories about how various police officers would have handled the situation. Some experienced officers said that if a citizen becomes disrespectful to a police officer, it is appropriate for the officer to arrest them. Others said that if a citizen becomes disrespectful, but are not committing any other offense, then the officer should just walk away from the situation. Some refined the situation, and said that if other people are present, then the officer has to maintain control of the situation and arrest the citizen who is being disrespectful or “disorderly” in their speech.

On the other hand, there are those who say that the professor was within his rights to be disrespectful to a police officer, because the incident took place inside the professor’s home. After all, a man’s home is his “castle.” Also, African-Americans have been singled out for years in the past by police in inappropriate stops when they are walking, driving (“driving while black”), and engaged in other routine activities for which whites are rarely stopped. Professor Gates had just returned from a trip and was probably tired. But he also was an African-American who teaches about racism and apparently felt disrespected by a white police officer.

I can certainly understand and empathize with the concerns of each person in this situation. But, as former General Colin Powell said, you have to “suck it up.” The key point is one that “It’s not about you when you’re personally attacked.” It’s about whatever’s going on for the other person – whether they have a high conflict personality or just had a bad day.

At our High Conflict Institute seminars we teach “Connecting with Empathy, Attention and Respect,” as a method of responding to personal attacks. We have exercises that professionals practice to respond to increasingly personal verbal attacks by clients with high conflict personalities. Perhaps this should be required for everyone.
“Wow, I can see you’re really upset. Sounds like you’re having a hard day. Let’s see what WE can do to solve this problem.” It takes practice to respond to someone who is treating you disrespectfully this way, but it is possible. As high conflict personalities increase in our society (and there is evidence this is happening), we will all be better off if professionals – such as professors and police officers – can practice calming people down, not just responding to disrespect with more disrespect or an arrest. Calming people down should be our goal. We need to practice connecting with people more and criticizing them less.

In this regard, I must commend the President, Professor, and the Policeman on how calmly they have addressed this issue after the fact. As President Obama said, it was a poor choice of words on his part. The ability to reflect and learn from mistakes – and make changes – will help us all.

[Connecting with Empathy, Attention and Respect is Tip #8 in Bill Eddy’s book “It’s All YOUR Fault!” 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything (2008), available from High Conflict]

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What (Not Who) Killed Michael Jackson

In the media frenzy about finding who to blame for Michael Jackson’s death, I got to thinking about personality development (you know me: “can’t stop till I get enough”) and the influence of our culture on who he became. I remember him as a young child as the lead singer for the Jackson Five in the 1970’s. Seeing those early TV clips now brings back memories of his total enthusiasm for singing and dancing. Hearing his Thriller album again brought back the optimism of the early 1980’s. I was the Director of the Seattle University Child Care Center at the time, and when the kids hesitated to eat their vegetables we used to joyfully sing with them “Eat it, Eat it!” to his song Beat It.

What went wrong for Michael? I think he absorbed some cultural traits that seeped into his personality development and contributed to his death. He was driven. There are many reports of him being an abused child. As with many abused kids, he wanted to be someone else. He created an image of himself and tried to live it in a way that few people can even try. It seemed that he wanted to be what counted in our culture: being white, forever young and forever a star. He fought reality in a way that only a star with millions of dollars can indulge. Instead of learning to live with life’s limits, he went over the top challenging them.

He’s a handsome man on the cover of his Thriller album – reportedly the largest selling album of all time. Soon after that his appearance started to change. His nose. His skin color. It seemed that he was becoming white, although he always denied it and said that his skin suffered from a rare condition.

MTV before Jackson was quite white. Ironically, he is credited with opening it up for black performers. Too bad he couldn’t continue with his success as a handsome African-American man. But if you were in his shoes and had gazillion bucks in this culture, what would you try to do? Especially if you were an abused kid with an image of yourself in the mainstream culture you were trying to fulfill?
Michael never had a childhood. His father pushed him and his siblings to perform, starting out poor in Indiana and ending up with huge wealth in Los Angeles. He was the lead singer of the Jackson Five from at least 6 or 7 years old, if not before. He didn’t seem to have normal playmates of his age, to just hang out with and fool around with. His brothers were older and he was always working and traveling. In a recent interview with Quincy Jones, he was described as a studious performer – always studying what others were doing and trying out new moves. He invented the Moonwalk. (I still have no idea how he did that – going backwards while he appears to be walking forward!) He put dance troupes into rock videos. He seemed to be a perfectionist.

But he also was a man-child. He often dressed in clothes like a character out of a children’s movie, with a fake-military jacket, etc. He spoke in a child’s voice. He created the Neverland Ranch (like Peter Pan) and invited young children to share it with him. He invited them to share his bed too, and went on national TV saying that this was just fine to do. I can imagine him, still a “child” himself, thinking that this was totally innocent. He ran away to Europe and Japan, where he was still a star. For the last decade or so, he was viewed skeptically as a possible child abuser and very eccentric (“Wacko Jacko”) in the U.S.

Jackson died at 50, while working very hard at making a comeback. He created his own title in the 1980’s: The King of Pop. He was going to show the world: This is It! (the title of his tour). He was apparently heavily in debt, from living beyond even his means. He had a reputation as a spender. He seemed to be still driven - trying to fulfill an image of being someone who looked wealthier and more successful than even he was. Now he was going to prove to the world (and himself?) that he was still a star. Apparently, he was so driven and stressed that he couldn’t sleep. He did what only a superstar can apparently do – paid for a sleep treatment that would not have been available to anyone else. If news reports are true, the primary cause of his death may have been an anesthetic which is not a sleep aid and only to be used in hospitals, where its high risks can be carefully managed.
He died trying too hard to get enough – in a culture that seems to always demand more.

[Bill Eddy is an attorney, psychotherapist, and the author of “It’s All YOUR Fault!” 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything (2008), available from High Conflict]

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Time to Calm the Alienation Debate

I just got back after a 7-day speaking trip ranging from New Orleans (state bar family law section), to Indianapolis (federal hearings officers for employment disputes), and Calgary, Canada (police conference for handling community complaints). High conflict people (HCPs) are popping up more and more in the workplace, community and family disputes – around the world!

After ten years of studying and speaking about this subject, it is gratifying to know that more and more people are recognizing high conflict dynamics and starting to realize that it is a personality matter, rather than something unique to the “issues” in their field of work. It is gratifying to meet so many professionals who “get it” and are really trying to calm and contain HCPs, rather than just criticizing them and allowing them to escalate their high-conflict behavior.

But we have a long way to go, as most professionals and ordinary people still react to HCPs in ways that often make things worse. For example, while I was in Canada, “parental alienation” was front-page news. There have been several high-profile Canadian divorce cases in the past two months in which the courts have changed custody from an “alienating” parent to the other parent in order to stop a “campaign of vengefulness” toward the “target” of the alienation. In some cases, when custody was changed the children were ordered to attend family therapy in the United States in what some called a “deprogramming” center.

Professionals and parents were strongly split over these decisions. Those who see parental alienation as a large problem lauded the judges for taking a brave position and upholding the importance of children having two parents. The “Parental Alienation Syndrome” theory goes back 20 years and was put forth by Richard Gardner, who said that it was intentional behavior by a custodial parent to win an advantage in court. In fact, about 200 lawyers, parents and psychologists attended Canada’s first international conference last month on parental alienation. They say the problem is growing and needs strong action.

On the other hand, many professionals and parents blasted these decisions. Some professionals and parents believe the theory that a rejected parent may be abusing the children, so that the courts were turning over a traumatized child to the source of the trauma. They have termed “parental alienation syndrome” as “junk science” or “voodoo science,” and claim that changing custody to the rejected parent is “torture,” “kidnapping,” or “Orwellian interference.” In a sense, they see a child’s resistance to spending time with one parent as realistic estrangement, and the parent must accept it because of their own bad behavior.

I have trouble with both theories. As a family law attorney for 16 years, I have had many cases in which children resisted contact with a parent – sometimes it’s dad, but sometimes it’s mom; sometimes they resist the non-custodial parent, but sometimes they intensely dislike their custodial parent. In other words, I see alienation - but not as a predictable syndrome. Most parents I have seen engage in “alienating” behavior are unaware of it or driven by an irrational sense of desperation – not a family court strategy. On the other hand, as a clinical social worker for 12 years, I have seen many abuse cases. But I don’t see resisting an abusive parent as very common. More common is loving the parent, but not the abuse. Abused children don’t usually feel empowered to “hate” an abusive parent and to display anger toward them – as “alienated” children often do. Battling over which theory is correct is part of the problem, as I see it.

I believe in a family systems and high conflict personality-based theory of alienation: HCPs lack self-awareness. HCPs lack the skills to stop themselves, and lack the skills to change their dysfunctional behavior. They lack emotional boundaries. So when family members and professionals argue heatedly over who is at “fault,” their emotions are highly contagious. They spill over onto the children, who have learned how to cope with a high conflict parent(s). An all-or-nothing solution is often the way their calm down their parent(s). Alienation is an all-or-nothing solution, which fits right into the family dynamics. Even when it is only one parent who engages in high conflict behavior, the other parent has often learned to cope by giving in to the HCP’s all-or-nothing solutions to calm down the HCP. In other words, the blaming and all-or-nothing thinking that typically characterizes these cases – by family members and professionals – are part of the problem, not part of the solution. These parent need to develop the abilities that they can, and research is showing that some HCPs can change their behavior by teaching them small skills in small steps with lots of validation.

For example, in a case in British Columbia, the court stated that the mother had been “resourceful, highly manipulative, and untruthful.” In another case, in Ontario, the judge gave standing to the 18-year-old son to seek custody of his younger brothers, stating he was trying to “shame the parents” into seeing the effects of their own behavior. The trouble with this is: if these parents are HCPs, emotional criticism doesn’t give them insight, it increases their bad behavior, transfers directly to their children, and escalates the bad behavior of other HCP parents hearing these statements.

The best way to deal with potential or existing alienation or abuse is to teach potentially high conflict parents protective skills at the front end of a court case: flexible thinking, managed emotions, and moderate behaviors. At High Conflict Institute we are developing an approach to do exactly this called “New Ways for Families.” It focuses on teaching these skills to both parents in a context of validation for both parents from the start of the case, rather than shame and blame for one or both. (For more on this method, see the article this month in our eNewsletter.)

Interestingly, the day I left Calgary, a front-page article on the newspaper told the end (perhaps) of the case involving the 18-year-old son. Apparently in December, his younger brothers had refused to go to the family counseling center in the U.S. and had been temporarily put into a psychiatric hospital, then into a foster home. Then, in the past two weeks, the 18-year-old helped his parents negotiate a settlement. He blamed the professionals for making the situation worse. So did many of the bloggers.

It’s time to recognize that HCPs need skills and not blame. They also needs lots of structure and consequences. But small consequences designed to keep them focused on their own skills, rather than the other’s bad behavior. Yes, in some cases larger consequences may be necessary for bad behavior – abuse and/or alienation. But let’s be clear first on whether we are doing more harm than good. In most cases we should first exhaust efforts to teach both parents these basic skills, before dramatically excluding either parent from their children’s lives. It’s time that professionals learned how to calm down and contain these disputes – as early as possible – so that we’re part of the solution, not part of the problem.

*News information for this article was gathered from March and April issues of the Canadian “Globe and Mail,” and the “National Post.”