Monday, January 31, 2011

Can't Stop Themselves!

What do dictators, spousal abusers and workplace bullies have in common? They all seem to be people with “High-Conflict” Personalities. If so, that means that they have several predictable characteristics. One is that they can’t stop themselves. We are seeing this right now in the Middle East.

They routinely have a lot of all-or-nothing thinking and extreme behaviors. They tend to lack empathy for others and are preoccupied with blaming others - their "Targets of Blame." They tend to think that they are superior and have the right to harm or even kill others (their targets), because they are so special. If organizations and communities count on High Conflict People (HCPs) them to stop themselves, they are usually quite surprised when this doesn’t happen. “Surely, he will see that his behavior is inappropriate and will stop very soon.” “Surely, he sees that he is hurting others and pretty soon he will feel bad about it and do the right thing.”

These are myths based on a rational society of people who want to get along. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, we are now growing more and more people who do not work this way. They think only of themselves and some of them are HCPs, so that they believe that whatever they do to their “Targets of Blame” is okay – whether it is their spouse, a co-worker or the people in a country that have been ruled by a dictator for thirty years.

Once people understand that bullies, abusers and dictators can’t stop themselves, then they can organize to stop the abuse. In a civil society, this is done regularly by rules and laws. Right now, in the United States, we are seeing a strengthening of spousal abuse (domestic violence) laws and enforcement of those laws. But more awareness and community response is needed. We can't just say “Stop” to those with High-Conflict Personalities. We have to stop them with consequences (jail, etc.) and treatment.

Workplace bullying doesn’t have many rules and laws yet, but we are seeing the beginning of this. For too long, companies and organizations have just turned a blind eye and hoped the bully would stop himself (or herself). Some companies and organizations are starting to address this issue, with success if everyone particpates in speaking up and enforcing policies against the bullying.

And, of course, we will see in the very near future what the outcome is in the Middle East for those dictators who can’t stop themselves. People are speaking up - and more. Stay tuned! There's HCPs everywhere!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Second-Hand Shock: Shed the Shame!

Guest Bloggers: 
Vicki Carpel Miller & Ellie Izzo
Authors of new release from HCI Press

Second-Hand Shock:  Surviving & Overcoming Vicarious Trauma

Our heroes and helpers have recently been called to respond to the horrific shootings in Tucson and the bombing in the Moscow airport. In truth, every citizen has been affected by these events simply by watching and hearing about them in the news media. We hear all about the victims and their traumatizing experience, but do we even wonder how the helpers are doing? How are they being affected? How are they coping?

Each and every day, some traumatic event or events occur that require the intervention of our professional helpers. Hard work and dedication take a heavy toll on the helper and while stress management is helpful, Second-Hand Shock goes beyond typical stress. The cost of helping others cannot be assessed by the naked eye; perhaps that is why there is so little being done about it.

Even though helping professionals are well-trained and complete continuing education on a regular basis, we fear that they remain unconscious and uneducated about the signs and symptoms associated with Vicarious Trauma or as we call it, Second-Hand Shock. Intrusive imagery, cynicism, poor memory, isolation, volatile moods, irrational fears, hyper-vigilance, lack of spiritedness and physical problems are noticed but frequently disregarded or attributed to other better known diagnoses.

How many times do helping professionals get asked, “How do you do this all day every day?” If you think about it, it really isn’t strange to anyone that listening to trauma stories every day takes a toll on emotional, physical and spiritual well being. Because of the lack of professional support in this area, many helpers feel ashamed or afraid to assert that they are suffering. They fear repercussions from their licensing boards, their supervisors, their colleagues and their clients. So they suffer in silence, feeling ashamed and incompetent in their work.

We believe that experiencing trauma through helping is now frequently occurring; particularly in a culture that seems to be ever more violent. The welfare of the helping professional needs to be considered with the same level of compassion that is given to the victims of traumatizing events. Professional helpers often get blamed in very shaming and punitive ways for their stress responses rather than being encouraged to see Second-Hand Shock or Vicarious Trauma as a natural response to the difficult work that helping professionals do. We encourage all helpers to join together and create a social movement that acknowledges and empathically addresses this occupational hazard.

Vicki & Ellie

Comments by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

“Second hand shock” affects all of us – professionals and often family and friends. When we see and have to deal with trauma – and this seems to be increasing with each day’s news – it affects us in ways we often don’t realize. But problems grow under the surface. I really appreciate the insight and sensitivity expressed in Vicki and Ellie’s book, Second Hand Shock: Surviving and Overcoming Vicarious Trauma.

For the past ten years, I have focused on dealing with high conflict people – the ones who easily get angry, blame a lot, and often increase conflict at work, at home and in the court system. This stresses everyone who deals with them, as high conflict people can’t stop themselves. Yet when professionals deal with them over time, they often get burned out, emotionally hooked and angry at everyone around them – even the other reasonable people and other professionals trying to help. It’s an occupational hazard for those who work with today’s families and the stresses and strains upon them.

Counselors, in particular, try to help victims of trauma work through their pain, memories and anger – day after day, week after week. This exposure to the deep emotions of their clients can cause emotional wear and tear on themselves that they don’t even recognize. After all, therapists are supposed to be the strong ones, helping victims recover. But counselors and all caregivers need attention and healing to stay strong. There may be special victims in today’s world, but to really help them we need to realize we are all in this together. We all absorb each other’s trauma to some extent. Thanks to Ellie and Vicki, this problem is being talked about, can be understood, and can be treated.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Parental Rights? Who cares?

The news hubbub today is that Bristol Palin wants Levi Johnson, the father of their child Tripp, to just give up his parental rights. Just "sign over your rights" to her and be done with it!

I have a lot of empathy for her and many parents who are separated. I have worked as a clinical social worker and family law attorney dealing with divorcing families for over 30 years. It is a big hassle sharing time with an "ex" and a big nuisance having to resolve parenting issues with a co-parent, especially one you are "done with." However, there's another person's interests involved here: Tripp's. We now have a lot of research about children of divorce and children of high-conflict divorce.

Children need and want a relationship with both of their parents. This doesn't mean they have to have equal parenting time, although many separated parents are doing well with that these days. In most cases, children live primarily with one parent and spend some time with the other parent and do just fine. In a minority of separation and divorce cases, there continues to be high conflict between the parents. Yet, even in these cases, many manage with "Parallel Parenting" plans that minimize contact between the parents, while they each have some parenting time with the child.

The temptation when emotions are high is to find "all-or-nothing" solutions, like "just sign him over." However, just look at how important Oprah's new-found sister is to her. Children yearn for a stable family to grow up in and for a positive relationship with both of their parents. While we can't keep all parents happily together, we can still give their children a relationship at some level with both parents. Even if Levi only sees Tripp 3 times a year, it will be an important relationship over his lifetime.
Most separated parents eventually learn to avoid the emotionally satisfying "all-or-nothing" solutions and learn about what children need and want. Otherwise, their children learn that "all-or-nothing thinking" is the way to solve problems. This ruins future love and work relationships, as people learn to throw others away instead of learning to deal with the ups and downs of real life.

Kids aren't toys. Bristol, Levi and Tripp are all still very young. They need parenting education, not quick decisions - and not quick criticism. Let's not throw any of them away.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Are We Not a Nation?

Here’s my suggestion for The President’s Speech tomorrow night on the State of the Union:

My fellow Americans: Are we not a nation? We are at a crossroads we don’t even realize. We are raising citizens with high conflict personalities at an alarming rate and the implications relate to all other issues we face. This is a problem of our modern culture which contributes to individuals shooting each other; bullying each other at school and in the workplace; taking advantage of each other in financial deals; lying and cheating and feeling proud of “putting one over” on others; excusing and rewarding bad behavior.

Are we not a nation? Narcissistic behavior, antisocial behavior, extreme mood swings and violence, histrionic news, and messages of paranoia are promoted every day. These characteristics of our culture are becoming part of children’s personalities. More and more will develop high conflict personalities that our nation will have to deal with. They are a symptom of us not acting like a nation, with a common purpose and future – our children.

Are we not a nation? We value “gotcha” over “helpya;” toys over family; selfishness over compassion. These all contribute to this problem. These are role-models for our children. We are losing our sense of connection and replacing it with a narrow-minded focus on being individuals.

Are we not a nation? Do we not care what our children are exposed to? We value exciting images of death and destruction in our media – a daily diet. We value individuals “fighting back” against imaginary enemies – training our children for paranoia and violence. We are losing our sense of compassion for people we don’t know (who may be in need), and replacing it with a sense of fear for people we don’t know (who may still be in need).

Are we not a nation? We have cut budgets for mental health care and education. Are our children a special interest group to be cut back? Do we only care about ourselves as individuals? Are we not a nation? WE must decide. The time is now…

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Do We Need High-Conflict Judges? (On American Idol, that is!)

There’s a high-level policy discussion going on in America right now: Should the American Idol judges be mean? After all, Simon Cowell had a reputation for mean – and people loved him for it! Can the show survive without the emotional tension of wondering who’s going to get the next surprise blast of biting criticism? Will J. Lo and company be too nice – and boring?

What makes American Idol work is the intense emotions and unpredictability. It’s a spectator sport. These emotions don’t have to include mean sarcasm and direct put-downs. All intense emotions, positive and negative, hook our brains into paying close attention. Someone who’s trying really, really, really hard – or someone who’s really, really sad and tearful – will get our attention.

Brain scientists say that our amygdalas (which grab our attention in an emergency as a kind of “smoke alarm”) are particularly sensitive to facial expressions of fear and anger. Just watch the movie The King’s Speech for a great example of how tense the audience can get when Colin Firth is sweating and stuttering and you’re on the edge of your seat because you don’t know if he’s going to be able to speak at all.

There wasn’t a lot of anger or sarcasm or disrespect in that movie (although a little of each), yet it won Colin a Golden Globe for Best Actor and it’s being considered for best picture. And he was a Brit! So those who think the “mean seat” needs to be filled by a Brit like Simon – because they’re so much "better" at talking mean – don’t know what they’re talking about. America has plenty of high-conflict personalities - and we love watching them (but not living with them, working with them, or having them as neighbors).

Any intense emotion, combined with intense competition, should do the job. J. Lo and company will do fine, so long as they can show lots of intense joy, fear, embarrassment, shame, sadness, jealousy, caring, honesty and even some anger – but it doesn’t have to be mean.

And if the ratings go down - just bring in Colin Firth!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bill and Megan Lead Training Seminar at Intel. A good day was had by all!

Media Questions, Bullying and Violence

“Who’s to blame for this sorry situation?” asks the newspaper headline, which then gives two choices of individuals in the story. “Who do you blame for the recent events?” asks the internet website, and gives you a choice of four high-profile individuals to click on.

These are obvious hooks to engage readers, but they also increase the bullying nature of our national conversation. The question should be “What bad behaviors are part of the problem?” Not “who” is totally at fault and who is totally blame-free. We have created a Culture of Blame over the past ten years, in which leaders and media encourage blaming individuals for complex problems. It’s a game for many of them, but it’s role-modeling for bullying and possible violence for young people and unstable high-conflict adults – and we’re suffering as a nation because of it, as individuals learn to see other individuals as “targets of blame.”

As an example, over the past few years we have seen an increase in bullying – from the playground to the dorm room to the workplace. I train human resource professionals, legal professionals and law enforcement professionals in managing high-conflict people. They report that they have seen a dramatic increase in blaming behavior towards them just in the last year or two, including: people spitting in their faces, ripping up tickets in front of them, filing repeated groundless complaints, lawsuits and so forth.

The national tone is set by our leaders. But our leaders include the media, as well as politicians and celebrities. For the media, encouraging blame helps get attention and build a following.

We are witnessing a media war for survival among newsprint, mainstream television, cable news, the big internet companies and the new upstarts. They like a fight, because it draws attention to their site. They increasingly ask, “Do you know who’s saying what about whom now?” Or: “So-and-so just insulted so-and-so. Who’s side are you on?” They portray issues as bullies and victims – which hurts us all.

Don’t let their war become ours. The next time they ask you “Who do you blame?” tell them that’s the problem, not the solution. There’s too many important problems to solve these days. Tell them to ask the real questions that help us understand complex issues, and what we can do. As research shows, you get more of what you pay attention to!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Political Rhetoric and Mental Illness

Some in the news are excited to say that the shooter of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords may have been mentally ill, in which case the overheated political rhetoric of the past year or two had nothing to do with it. Not so fast! Actually, hostile talk in the news may have even more of an impact on some of those with mental illness than on the average person.

I used to work as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with people with schizophrenia in a psychiatric hospital and many were extremely sensitive to the news and other programs – especially those that displayed hostility and violence. While most people with schizophrenia are not violent and many lead fairly normal lives with modern medications, some of those with “paranoid type” schizophrenia truly believe that the television sends electronic messages directly to their brains and controls their thoughts. Some develop delusions that certain individuals are out to get them, so that they became preoccupied with the person as a real threat and, in very rare situations, take violent action against them.

People with schizophrenia start out life as normally as everyone else. Then, generally between about 20 – 25 they have a “psychotic break” and quickly or slowly start having bizarre thoughts and strange behavior. We still don’t know exactly why schizophrenia develops, and studies show that even in identical twins one may get it and the other doesn’t. They may hear voices (auditory hallucinations) and develop delusions about people that simply could not be true. These can range from mild to severe. Most high-conflict people do not have this mental illness and are in touch with reality, even though they are difficult and blame others a lot.

But for some with paranoid type schizophrenia, reality blends with their hallucinations and delusions -and that’s where violent and extreme political rhetoric can have an impact. For someone with extreme paranoid type schizophrenia, it can be dangerous and suggestive to hear and see others point the finger at an individual as a target of blame who deserves to be eliminated. People in positions of authority or public figures appear to have incredible power, so they are vulnerable to becoming targets for those with these delusions - or making others a target. They should be cautious about their rhetoric and become role models of civil discourse - for their own sake as well as ours.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Perfect Storm of Violence

I just heard today that the Arizona legislature is considering a bill to allow students and faculty to carry concealed weapons on campus - ironically just two days after the shooting in Arizona of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. While I can emphathize with the desire to have "personal protection," I believe this would be a mistake in today's current Culture of Blame. I believe that we are facing a perfect storm of violence, which faces college campuses as much or more so than other parts of our society. Here are the three intersecting forces which constitute this perfect storm:

1)  People have changed in society over the last 40 years or so. There are more people with high-conflict personalities who are preoccupied with blaming others, have a lot of all-or-nothing thinking and have a lot of unmanaged emotions. In short, there are more people with personality disorders than ever before, according to recent research by the National Institutes of Health. (For more about this, see my books It's All Your Fault! and Don't Alienate the Kids! where I analyze the impact of some of this research.) People are particularly narcissistic, believing that they alone can decide who is "all-good" and who is "all-bad," and in some situations, who should live and who should die. In particular, this research shows that young adults have the highest percentage of personality disorders and narcissism. Of course, the majority of young adults are responsible and caring citizens. But the minority is growing of those who have the emotional problems and impulse control problems associated with personality disorders and other mental illness. We live in a society where people are less able to restrain themselves, so that we need to have more restraining orders today in relationships than ever before. (I know about this increase from my own personal experience of 15 years representing clients in family courts.)

2)  Our news and entertainment media are promoting more images of violence, unmanaged emotions, selfish behavior and arrogance than ever before. Recent brain research shows that we have "mirror neurons" which copy the exact behaviors of those around us, even when we don't realize it. We add all of these behaviors to our mind's repertoire of possible future behaviors, if we are ever in a similar conflict situation. While these dramatic images are designed to be entertaining for adults, then can actually be training for young adults, whose brains are not fully developed until their late 20's. Never before have we had the level of violence in our daily diet - and I'm talking about our 24-hour news and internet images, as much as dramas and movies.

3) We live in a political age where we have a tug of war between the desire for more regulation of others and less for ourselves. The crash of Wall Street appears clearly the result of deregulation over the past 20 years, which allowed many likely narcissistic and antisocial manipulators (as Bernie Madoff has been described) to take advantage of many unwary investors, large and small. Yet efforts to impose more regulation have been resisted by many (including Wall Street). While urban police departments have sought more gun control to protect citizens from violent individuals, the U. S. Supreme Court has moved in the opposite direction by reducing their ability to control guns.

An experiment with the deregulation of guns on campus in an age of lack of impulse control and constant images of violence is very bad timing. Colleges and Universities seem to have done quite well over the last few hundred years. The message of the recent shootings by young people at schools, shopping centers and political gatherings, should be that the problem will not be resolved by an individual student or faculty member who is allowed to carry a concealed gun. It it much more likely to be increased by someone carrying a gun, whether a student, faculty member, or someone from off campus. This is the worst time to try this. We already know that with this perfect storm the trend is there for more shootings this year.

Lets reduce these gathering storms by decreasing media promotion of violence, addressing the unstable people on campus, and reducing the presence of guns in our most vulnerable communities - just like we do at airports. Let's stop these gathering storms, not feed them.


Thoughts on the Tucson Tragedy

The shooting today of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others by a 22-year-old gunman and possible associates, is a trajedy that should be a wakeup call to all of us. 

We need to tone down our political rhetoric that turns differences of opinion into extreme, war-like language. We need to avoid treating opponents as “targets of blame” and realize that the steady diet of today’s news and entertainment is teaching our impressionable young people (some of whom may have high conflict personalities with a preoccupation for blaming others) that violence is the way to get attention, solve problems and find meaning in life. 

It’s time to shift priorities and media messages to the positive, rather than the negative.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Who Do You Blame?

By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

We live in a Culture of Blame, where individuals are blamed and attacked for complex social and political problems. This has been growing for years, but it perhaps reached a peak in 2010 with negative election ads and the blatant targeting of individuals by political leaders with “all-or-nothing” attitudes and war-like rhetoric. But our culture is the responsibility of all of us. We must reject this behavior of our political leaders, without blaming them as all-bad individuals.

The night before the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, I was out at the movies with my wife to see a fluffy drama and we both commented on how extremely violent ALL of the previews were – with attractive young people blowing up buildings and shooting dozens of “enemies” in fast-action shots with their guns. Who would watch these movies? Apparently tens of millions of people, especially our young people, who are searching for meaning in our culture of blame. But this culture of blame and violence is the responsibility of all of us. We must reject this behavior by our entertainment executives, without blaming them as all-bad individuals.

Today, our news programs glorify blame and violence with histrionic voices, police sirens, and repetition of images: images of violence, but also images of the individuals who commit the violence. I remember when the Today Show chose to show the video made by the shooter at Virginia Tech several years ago. His rant against vague individuals received the attention that we give important people in our society. Then just a couple weeks ago, TV news repeated the video of a man confronting a government panel while waving a gun around and eventually shooting at them – until he was shot to death by security. You get more of what you pay attention to. Yet our news programs are becoming more and more focused on extremely bad behavior in histrionic voices saying: “Don’t do this. But now we’ll show you how to do it!” We must reject this histrionic culture of blame and violence, which actually increases with each event, because histrionic emotions are contagious. And our brains mirror the images of bad behavior we see – such news should be presented in text form later in the program, not colorful, exciting images that lead the news.

For the past ten years, I have been teaching and writing about the increase of high-conflict people in our society, including the impact of our culture in the development of their high conflict personalities. Based on recent research, I estimate that approximately 15% of our general population has high-conflict personalities and that this percentage is increasing. High conflict people are preoccupied with blaming others for problems in their own lives, tend to have a lot of “all-or-nothing” thinking, unmanaged emotions, and extreme behaviors. I give seminars to legal professionals, healthcare professionals, college administrators, law enforcement and others, and they all report a dramatic increase in high-conflict behavior in the past few years – especially the past year.

Neuroscience tells us that emotions and behavior are contagious. The mirror neurons in our brains are especially vulnerable to copying the behavior we see around us, especially when it is repeated by those in positions of authority. What we are witnessing is the increase in people who have difficulty regulating their own behavior and often have mental health problems, in a political culture that is decreasing its regulations of individual behavior from Wall Street to gun deregulation, and a news and entertainment culture that teaches violence and revenge. There are too many people who can’t handle this Culture of Blame. It’s up to all of us to change it – without blaming individuals. As Pogo said: “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

Bill Eddy is the author of “It’s All YOUR Fault! 12 Tips for Blaming Others for Everything.” He is a therapist and lawyer, and the President of the High Conflict Institute.