Using our survival apparatus to deal with threats and aggression
It rarely pays to take a hostile stance when confronted with aggression, because more often than not the threat of hostility and violence escalates. Nor does it usually pay to remain impassive to one’s own or another’s plight in the face of a threat. Playing dead, as some animals do (termed tonic immobility and is a natural state of paralysis or hypnosis) may be a way of avoiding or deterring predators to get out of a dangerous situation, but as a strategy of deterrence it cannot be maintained long term. So what can we do to help ourselves? There are actions we can take that can influence our responses to other people.
All of us use our moral-emotion apparatus to influence and guide our actions. Some of us use this moral-emotion apparatus more often and to better effect that others. Nevertheless, apart from those who are so extreme and antisocial – the ones with no concern for others (zero empathy) and no conscience, whose traits seem fixed by adulthood – most of us can exercise our moral-emotion apparatus and put it to good use.
Using our moral-emotion apparatus requires utilising our empathic abilities. It also involves the ability to reflect on our own conduct and making use of moral feelings to shape and guide our actions. Empathy is a process that leads to expression of behaviour that is socially beneficial. In essence, empathising is the process by which we engage in prosocial activity.
In his book The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that our greatest hope for building a fairer society is based upon a more generous and accurate view of human nature. Being in tune with others, he notes, are traits linked to empathy that produce the glue that holds communities together. So how is empathy and the process of empathising defined?
Cognitive empathy is knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. This is sometimes called perspective-taking. There can be a dark side to this sort of empathy. In fact, those who fall within the Dark Triad – narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths have this ability, while having no emotional concern whatever for their victims.
Affective or emotional empathy
Affective or emotional empathy is when you feel along with the other person. Emotional empathy enables someone to tune into another person’s inner emotional world. Our own experience of feelings (feeling sad, happy, outraged etc.) helps us to feel along with the other person. If our own range of feelings is limited; for example, a sociopath’s feelings may be restricted to base feelings like anger, envy and self-pity; this may mean they have difficulty recognising feelings in others that they don’t readily access or process in themselves. Conversely, a highly sensitive person may have an expansive emotional range to draw upon to aid them in emotionally empathising with other people.
One downside of emotional empathy is when people lack the ability to manage their own distressing emotions. This can lead to emotional exhaustion and distress. Doctors and healthcare workers often employ purposeful detachment as a way to inoculate themselves against stress and burnout. In such circumstances they use their cognitive empathic skills as opposed to their emotional empathy to aid them in their work with their patients. Of course there is a danger that when one employs emotional detachment this can lead to indifference, rather than to well-regulated caring; so people who work with people, whose business it is to show care and concern for others, need to find ways to maintain a healthy balance in order to provide compassionate care. What this takes is emotional intelligence and the wherewithal to manage emotions in a self-enhancing way.
As we emotionally mature through childhood and into adulthood we learn and take on board moral standards that we absorb from the individuals around us, from society at large and the people who make up the community we live in. All being well, the development of these moral standards passes through several stages through childhood and adolescence, moving from avoidance of punishment, to avoidance of disapproval and rejection and then finally, to avoidance of guilt and self-recrimination. Unfortunately, some people dodge the last step in the process.
All emotions are impulses to act. The emotions of fear, anger, happiness, love, surprise, disgust, and sadness send signals to the brain that release hormones to give strength to the necessary reactions. Though not often viewed this way, we are feeling creatures that think, not the other way around.
Humans are of two minds: the emotional mind and the rational mind. One mind feels and the other thinks. The emotional mind lodges impulsive, powerful, and often illogical feelings, whilst the rational mind affords us the ability to think and reflect. The two minds interact. Being alert to our feelings allows them to inform our conscious thought and can lead to action for coping and surviving. Feelings inform the rational mind, which then moderates the involvement and expression of our emotions. Some of us have greater access to our feelings and a more expansive emotional range than others, so there is considerable individual variation in how we respond to feelings and thought.
The concept of emotional intelligence emerged in psychological research and constitutes three components of the mind: cognition (thought), affect (feeling) and motivation. To make use of one’s emotions in an intelligent way requires us to connect the first two components of the mind: cognition and feeling. The theory of emotional intelligence links cognition and feeling by suggesting that emotions make cognitive processes more intelligent and that one can think intelligently about emotions. Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive accurately, appraise and express emotion; the ability to generate and access feelings when they facilitate thought; the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge; and the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth.
People who are aware of their own and others’ emotions gain a large amount of information about themselves and their environment. For example, a singer who is sensitive to experiencing pre-performance anxiety will know that she needs to find ways to keep calm before she goes on stage. Over time she learns to manage this situation so it does not affect her actual performance. Individuals who do not recognise their own and others’ emotions are cut off from this useful information.
Understanding feelings involves having a language of emotion with which to express our understanding of our felt experiences. People feel sadness, for example, after experiencing some sort of loss, and feel happiness after experiencing a gain. Emotion intelligence and management combine to help us understand how emotions merge together (for instance, that we can experience feelings like anger and disgust at the same time,) and how they change over time in given situations (e.g. bereavement can be a process that can see us experience at different times shock and emotional numbness, anger, and sadness). Management of emotion refers to the ability to regulate one’s own emotions. Some techniques for managing emotions work more effectively than others. For instance, becoming intoxicated all the time to deal with intense feelings of grief is usually not an effective way to deal with grief, because even if it temporary blocks the experience of intense feeling, in the end we have to face and accept our loss. Permitting rather than blocking the full sweep of emotional experience is probably the best way for us to come to terms with loss.
Instincts, intuition and survival
Humans are born with, and also acquire along the way a toolbox full of strategies and social impulses to survive. In terms of how we operate in daily life, humans have two, very different systems in relation to the way we operate. One system is our instinctual, and often subconscious way of operating. The second system is our more analytical way of operating.
“Instincts” derive from the word instinctus or “impulse,” and it is the innate inclination toward a particular behaviour in response to certain stimuli. It is instinctive in us to recognise when to run from a perceived danger. This is known as the flight or fight response.
The word ‘intuition’ dates back to late Middle English and it denoted spiritual insight or immediate spiritual communication. It is derived from the Latin intueri, meaning ‘consider’. It is the automatic thought process that doesn’t require analysis. The intuitive system is more hardwired into the human species than commonly understood. Unfortunately, gut feelings can also be silenced. A childhood hijacked by abusive or neglectful people can make it difficult to filter traumatic past experiences from gut intuition or instinct. And strong emotions, particularly negative ones, can cloud our intuition. When a person is depressed, their intuition may fail. And when an individual is angry or in a heightened emotional state their intuition can also fail them.
The main thing that distinguishes intuitive people is that they listen to, rather than ignore, their intuitions and gut feelings. Most of us, if not everybody is connected to their intuition, but some people don’t pay attention to it. There is growing interest in individuals learning to use intuitive cognition. By way of example, in 2012 the New York Times reported that the United States Navy planned to start a programme to investigate how members of the military can be trained to improve their intuitive ability. The idea came from the testimony of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan who reported an unexplained feeling of danger just before they encountered an enemy attack or ran into an improvised explosive device.
Being instinct intact actively involves listening to your inner wisdom (all the accumulated data that you take in subconsciously each day, over many years) and trusting your intuition about the people and situations you encounter; it’s not being a cynic but rather, a healthy sceptic; it’s questioning the status quo; it’s going after what you want as opposed to running from what you fear. It is having clear, firm boundaries, without being rigid or unreasonable; it’s knowing how to simply say ‘No’ and to disengage from drama.
de Waal, F.,The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (New York: Crown, 2009)
Goleman, D., Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence, omnibus edn (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004).
Excerpt from Coping with Aggressive Behaviour (Sheldon Press, 2017) by Dr. Jane McGregor
In this month’s blog we explore the problem of apathy and what those periodically afflicted with it can do to avoid being impassive to other people, events and situations. Goncharov’s novel Oblomov, from which the above quotation is taken, was written almost a century and a half ago and highlights the perennial nature of the problem. Oblomov was a man so indifferent to life that he gave up his job, found himself in debt, and ended up risking losing the love of his life.
Today we tend to view apathy more often as a problem of youth not of middle-aged or even elderly men and women, but apathy can hold any of us to the spot and stop us acting on our convictions. The key to ridding oneself of apathy is to avoid becoming too practised in self-trickery and more practiced in recognizing your own and others’ feelings. Here I write about recognising emotions in order to express empathy more freely.
Know your own mind
Empathy builds on self-awareness: the more open we are to our own emotions, the more skilled we are in reading and concerning ourselves with our own feelings and the feelings of others. Or put another way, the less we dissociate from our own feelings the less likely we are to dissociate from the feelings and concerns of others.
Some people are fantastically empathetic when it comes to caring but have very little empathy at all when it comes to dealing with someone else’s outrage or anger. It is not uncommon for people to side-step certain feelings and avoid expressing emotions that they are uncomfortable with. Some close down in the face of violence and abuse, and cut off completely from emotions they are frightened of in themselves. Here I explore ways in which you can harness your emotions instead of avoiding them, embrace them instead of being repelled by them, and learn to enhance your abilities to express self-compassion and empathy for your own benefit, and the benefit of others.
Making the most of your emotional intelligence
The psychologist Daniel Goleman suggests all emotions are impulses to act. Needed for coping and surviving, the emotions of fear, anger, happiness, love, surprise, disgust, and sadness send signals to the brain that release hormones to give strength to the necessary reactions. Being alert to our feelings is important to thought and vice versa, and emotional thought leads to action. This situation suggests that humans are of two minds: the emotional mind and the rational mind. One mind feels and the other thinks. In the emotional mind lodge impulsive, powerful, and often illogical feelings whilst the rational mind affords us the ability to think and reflect. Emotion informs the rational mind, which moderates the involvement and expression of our emotions.
Being able to pick up on our own distress helps us recognize another person’s distress and respond in appropriate and supportive ways. Being alert to our own and other’s emotional states requires emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence means we have acquired a good balance between our rational and emotional minds. This is important in the elimination of both apathy and ambivalence where emotional and rational minds are caught in a struggle when passions surge and the emotional mind overwhelms the rational one. Psychologists define emotional intelligence as the ability to reason with emotion. Peter Salovey and John Mayer, both major contributors in this area, divide emotional intelligence into five main areas.
- Knowing your emotions. Recognizing a feeling as it happens gives you greater certainty about your feelings, and helps you to make personal decisions.
- Managing emotions. The ability to handle feelings builds on self-awareness. Those who excel in managing their emotions are more likely to bounce back quickly from setbacks and upsets.
- Motivating yourself. People who can channel their emotions towards a goal can motivate themselves to achieve their goals.
- Recognizing emotions in others. People who demonstrate empathy are more attuned to what others may need or want.
- Handling relationships. The skill of dealing with other people’s emotions is the basis of the art of relationships.
Altogether the above attributes and skills enhance our interpersonal effectiveness. In order to enhance our abilities in this area we need first to establish our own distinctive style for handling our feelings and emotions. John Mayer suggests people tend to have distinctive styles for dealing with their emotions;
- Self-aware. These people are aware of their moods as they have them, are sure of their boundaries, and have a positive outlook on life. They manage their emotions and do not ruminate over bad moods.
- Engulfed. These people are consumed by their emotions, feel helpless to escape them, are not aware of their feelings, and therefore they lose perspective. The result is that they feel they have little control over their emotions.
- Accepting. These people tend to accept their different moods, and don’t necessarily try to change them.
Thinking out loud
We need to become more clued up about what we feel and think by listening to our internal dialogue (our thoughts and feelings). If you have trouble listening to your inner self when you feel overwhelmed or emotionally fatigued, a preliminary step is listening to yourself think out loud.
To do this, find somewhere where you are able to relax and are unlikely to be disturbed away from other members of the family. Then listen to both sides, or as communication expert Elayne Savage puts it “your voice of confidence and your voice of doubt”. If you only listen to one voice, you are, in effect, rejecting the other. If listening in this way seems an unnatural thing to do at first, try writing a ‘What I have to gain’ list and a ‘What I have to lose’ list instead.
You might discover that you have conflicting thoughts that you struggle to reconcile. This is called being ambivalent or in a state of ‘two minds’. Often in such cases allowing yourself time to ponder and weigh up your concerns and choices is really valuable. The process of reflecting on your thoughts and feelings in this way is often all that is needed to unleash you from that stuck state. But if ambivalence immobilizes you and you are gripped of fear; what then? You can help yourself move forward by naming the fear. So ask yourself, what is your fear? Try to describe it. Is it fear of rejection? Fear of failure? Of success? Or do you fear being judged or punished? Naming the fear out loud and writing it down can sometimes help. Try it, see if it allows you to see things differently and recognize the route out of your state of ‘stuckness’. For you see, ambivalence, like apathy, can render us inactive. Although our feelings, thoughts, behaviours, traits, deficits and strengths can’t possibly be fully transparent, at least by being more self-examining we become conscious of how we feel about everyday concerns and issues.
Don’t let fear hem you in
Sometimes we fear moving forward, not because we haven’t made our minds up about our options but because we fear change itself. For most of us, preserving the status quo matters most. We fear change because with change, there is often loss. And with loss, there is often sadness and grief. Sometimes we fear so much what we might lose with change, that the fear immobilises us and keeps us stuck. We find that we don’t know which way to turn or how to act. But with grief and loss, there can be space for creative engagement, participation, care and concern. When it’s time to face your concerns, find somewhere quiet where you can go into contemplative mode and take heed of what’s on your mind:
- Approach any fear or anxiety you have with detachment. Become more aware of your fear or anxiety by noticing what you are afraid or anxious of, when you feel like this and where you feel it in your body.
- In your mind’s eye, really look at this fear or anxiety. How big or small is it? Do you need to confront it? Or is there a way of manoeuvring your way around it?
Once you have got more in touch with your fears and concerns, the next step is to kick the fear into touch. The following statements and questions to ask yourself are intended to help you dislodge your fear.
- Recognise that ambivalence is part of everyday life
- Remember that part of the clarification process is to find out what it is you are struggling with.
So try answering the following questions;
- Do I really want to continue down this path? I could retrace my steps and go down a different path.
- What if choose to carry on this path and I act on the issues facing me, what is likely to happen then?
- What would it mean if I failed to act?
- What are the paybacks to me and others if I take action?
If fear is still getting in the way, it maybe you need to reframe your thinking. Keep these statements handy for times when you really need to conquer that fear.
- Value courage (don’t cling to things just for security)
- Appreciate the difference being fearful and being cautious
- View fear as a call to arms: a signal to take action
- Reframe fear as excitement
Article written by Dr. Jane McGregor
Goleman, D., Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence, omnibus edn (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004).
Goleman, D., Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (London: Arrow, 2007).
Salovey, P., Brackett, M.A., & Mayer, J.D. (eds.) (2004) Emotional intelligence: Key readings on the Mayer and Salovey model. (Port Chester, NY: Dude Press).
In his book Zero Degrees of Empathy, Simon Baron-Cohen, discusses the notion of empathy erosion, which he says arises when we have corrosive emotions like bitterness or a desire for revenge. In many cases empathy erosion is a temporary affliction. But what if empathy erodes because of more permanent psychological characteristics?
According to Baron-Cohen there are ten regions of the brain that make up what he terms the empathy circuit. Many of these regions are involved in actively coding our experiences and are automatically active when we perceive others behaving in similar ways or having similar experiences. Neuroimaging (brain-scan) studies lend support to the idea that sociopaths/psychopaths have abnormalities in the empathy circuitry of the brain. It is thought that differences in their brain circuitry account for their lack of reaction to other people’s distress. But while scientists have made progress in revealing mechanisms thought to enable a person to feel what another is feeling, the evidence, and our understanding of what helps and hinders empathy, is far from complete. We do not yet have a nuanced understanding of the environmental and biological influences or how they interact.
Can sociopaths/psychopaths turn empathy on and off?
The generally held view is that empathy is a highly flexible phenomenon. Among other things it can be affected by the context of the situation, the relationship between empathizer and the other person and so on. This view is held except in relation to situations where the individual is thought to lack empathy entirely – in other words, those at the extreme end of the empathy spectrum (at point zero). In such cases the traditional orthodoxy has it that these individuals are permanently unable to empathize. But a recent study challenges this viewpoint. In fact, it arguably demonstrates the reverse – that even sociopaths/psychopaths don’t lack empathy and can turn it on when they want to. In 2012 the research neuroscientist Christian Keysers and colleagues from the Netherlands carried out a study that suggests that sociopaths/psychopaths can activate empathy on demand.
The aforementioned study measured the sociopath’s empathy for others. The subjects were then told that the study was designed to measure empathy, after which a surprising thing happened: their empathy ‘normalized’. The research therefore suggests that sociopaths don’t lack empathy, but abnormally suppress it. The suppression mechanism that helps regulate the response in normal people is ‘over active’ in the case of the sociopath, or so Keyser’s findings suggest. When told that they were being studied for empathy, the study participants were apparently able to turn the empathy back on. This study points to reduced vicarious activity in regions involved in performing actions, feeling touch and experiencing emotions that are considered functional markers of empathy, and suggests a possible neural basis for reduced empathy and antisocial behaviour. Some experts have suggested that if this proves true, it raises questions of moral accountability. If certain individuals have a brain chemistry that makes them indifferent to empathic responses and yet they can overcome a lack of empathy when prompted, then the question becomes whether these people are aware of this, and exactly what the mechanism is that turns empathy back on. Further, the fact that sociopathic individuals often display low motivation for change represents an unfortunate challenge in efforts to thwart their antisocial ways.
Abigail Marsh, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, emphasizes that sociopathic individuals are not emotionless. Rather, they lack fear, have reduced fear-related physiological responses, such as skin conductance, and are less responsive to aversive conditioning, in which painful stimuli are associated with unwanted behaviours. Furthermore, many sociopaths are continually in and out of prison, which suggests that imprisonment has no effect on curbing sociopathic behaviours.
When asked to describe a time when they felt fear or anger strongly, the only difference between individuals with sociopathy and the control subjects was their attitude towards fear. Sociopathic individuals had difficulty recognizing fear in faces, posture, and voices and demonstrated a deficit in experiencing fear. These results suggest that dysfunction in the amygdala (including reduced volume), the fear centre of the brain, could be a root cause of sociopathy.
Abigail Marsh and colleagues regard sociopathy as a continuous, rather than discrete, condition that it is on the opposite end of the “continuum of caring”, with extraordinary altruists at the other end. In the studies conducted, extraordinary altruists could be distinguished by the enhanced volume in right amygdala and enhanced responsiveness of this structure to fearful facial expressions, an effect that predicts superior perceptual sensitivity to these expressions. These results are the reverse of findings of sociopaths where there is found reduced amygdala volume and reduced responsiveness to fearful facial expressions. These results suggest that dysfunction in the amygdala, the fear centre of the brain, could be a root cause of sociopathy. Indeed, sociopaths have reduced amygdala volume and, even among individuals with varying levels of sociopathy, amygdala volume is negatively correlated with sociopathy.
Currently there are no known treatments or responses that produce tangible differences in behaviour or levels of empathy in sociopathic personality types, so the advice is to view the sociopathic encounter dispassionately and, whenever contact is necessary, establish firm boundaries of interaction and communication.
- Abigail A. Marsh, Sarah A. Stoycos, Kristin M. Brethel-Haurwitz, Paul Robinson, John W. VanMeter, and Elise M. Cardinale. Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists. PNAS October 21, 2014 ,111, 42
- H. Meffert, V. Gazzola, J. A. den Boer, A. A. J. Bartels, C. Keysers. Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. Brain, 2013; 136 (8): 2550
People targeted by a sociopath often respond with self-deprecating comments like “I was stupid”, “what was I thinking” of “I should’ve listened to my gut instinct”. But being involved with a sociopath is like being brainwashed. The sociopath’s superficial charm is usually the means by which s/he conditions people. On initial contact, a sociopath will often test other people’s empathy, so questions geared towards discovering if you are highly empathic or not should ring alarm bells. People with a highly empathic disposition are often targeted. Those with lower levels of empathy are often passed over, though they can be drawn in and used by sociopaths as part of their cruel entertainment. Sociopaths make up 25% of the prison population, committing over twice as many aggressive acts as other criminals. The reoffending rate of sociopaths is about double that of other offenders, and for violent crimes it is triple. But not all sociopaths are found in prison. There is the less-visible burden of sociopath-induced emotional trauma which, if left unchecked, can lead to anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Chronically traumatised people often exhibit hyper-vigilant, anxious and agitated behaviour, symptoms such as tension headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, abdominal pain, back pain, tremors and nausea. Exposure to and interaction with a sociopath in childhood can leave lifelong scars. Re-exposure as an adult can trigger old emotions and PTSD.
EVERYDAY SOCIOPATHS. Many sociopaths wreak havoc in a covert way, so that their underlying condition remains hidden for years. They can possess a superficial charm, and this diverts attention from disturbing aspects of their nature. The following case history illustrates how people can be systematically targeted until they feel they can barely trust their own sense of reality – what we call “gaslighting”. Sociopathic abuse is targeted abuse. It can wreck lives; victims can become survivors, but at huge cost.
Let’s take a look at one case. At school, ‘James’ took a dislike to a classmate, ‘Sam’, who was sensitive and popular. He would mock him for auditioning for the school plan or for getting upset over failing a test. The situation deteriorated when it became known that Sam’s parents were separating. Sam appeared to be taking it with fortitude, to the admiration of his peers. He also got attention and sympathy from the school staff, especially James’ favourite teacher: i.e., the one he manipulated most easily. James decided on a plan of covert bullying. He started a whispering campaign implying that Sam’s parents were not splitting up, that he had said they were in order to seek attention. Sadly, this was all too successful and over the next few days Sam was met with silence and verbal bullying from his hitherto-supportive classmates. James continued his campaign, targeting Sam’s close friends over the next few days. They found themselves accused of misdemeanours such as sending offensive emails/texts. Then the ‘favourite’ teacher went on “leave with immediate effect” after accusations of assaulting a pupil. Where had the accusations come from? Guess. This case shows how deliberately sociopaths, from a young age, can target others. Taking advantage of people’s credibility and goodwill, James exploited the situation. With a more erceptive head teacher, this sociopath might have been found out, but he knew who to manipulate and how far he could go.
SEE THE EMPEROR NUDE, NOT IN CLOTHES. To deal with sociopaths effectively, you first need to open your eyes. In The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson, two weavers promise the emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are stupid and unfit for their positions. When the emperor parades before his subjects, all the adults, not wishing to be seen in a negative light, pretend they can see the clothes. The only truthful person is a child who cries “But he isn’t wearing any clothes!”. You, too, need to see sociopaths as they really are. We are conditioned to keep quiet, which often means turning a blind eye to or putting up with abuse. The boy in the tale represents those who see the problem behaviour for what it is and find the courage of their convictions to make a stand. Sight becomes insight, which turns into action. Awareness is the first step in limiting the negative effects of contact with a sociopath.
INTERACTIONS OF THE SOCIOPATH. Let’s look at what we term the Socio-Empath-Apath Triad, or Seat. Unremitting abuse of other people is an activity of the sociopath that stands out. To win their games, sociopaths enlist the help of hangers-on: apaths.
The apath. We call those who collude in the sport of the sociopath apathetic, or apaths. In this situation, it means a lack of concern or being indifferent to the targeted person. We have highlighted the importance of seeing the problem for what it is via the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, which represents the collective denial and double standards which are often a feature of social life. The apath in this context is someone who is willing to be blind: i.e., not to see that the emperor/empress is naked. Apaths are an integral part of the sociopath’s arsenal and contribute to sociopathic abuse. Sociopaths have an uncanny knack of knowing who will assist them in bringing down the person they are targeting. It is not necessarily easy to identify an apath; in other circumstances, an apath can show ample empathy and concern for others – just not in this case.
The one attribute an apath must have is a connection to the target. How apaths who might otherwise be fair-minded people, become involved in such destructive business is not hard to understand, but it can be hard to accept. The main qualifying attribute is poor judgment resulting from lack of insight. They might be jealous of or angry at the target, and thus have something to gain from the evolving situation. At other times, the apath might not want to see the ‘bad’ in someone, particularly if the sociopath is useful. Or they might choose not to see because they have enough on their plate and do not possess the wherewithal or moral courage to help the targeted person at that time. Usually, be it active or passive involvement, the apath’s conscience appears to fall asleep. It is this scenario that causes people blindly to follow leaders motivated only by self-interest. Readers might know of Yale University professor Stanley Milgram’s experiments to test the human propensity to obey orders, as participants gave increasingly large electric shocks to subjects. Afterwards, he wrote an article, The Perils of Obedience: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process”. Apaths are often fearful people. They are the ones most likely to go with the flow, to agree that the emperor/empress is wearing new clothes. They might also fail to perceive the threat: a danger is of no importance if you deny its existence. An apath’s response to a sociopath’s call to arms can then result from a state of ‘learned helplessness’. Apaths behave defencelessly because they want to avoid unpleasant or harmful circumstances [including the sociopath turning on them]. Apathy is an avoidance strategy.
The empath. Often, the person targeted by the sociopath is an empath. Empaths are ordinary people who are highly perceptive and insightful and belong to those who sense when something’s not right, and respond to their gut instinct. In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the empath is the boy who mentions the unmentionable: that there are no clothes. In the 1990s, researchers suggested that there was a positive relationship between empathy and emotional intelligence. Since then, that term has been used interchangeably with emotional literacy. What this means in practice is that empaths have the ability to understand their own emotions, to listen to other people and empathise with their emotions, to express emotions productively and to handle their emotions in such a way as to improve their personal power. People are often attracted to empaths because of their compassionate nature. A particular attribute is that they are sensitive to the emotional distress of others. Conversely, they have trouble comprehending a closed mind and lack of compassion in others. Very highly empathic people can find themselves helping others at the expense of their own needs, which can lead them to withdraw from the world at times.
It is odd. Most of us enjoy watching films and reading books about heroes who refuse to go along with the crowd, which suggests there is something admirable about people who make a bold stand. But in real life, watching someone raise their head above the parapet often makes the rest of us feel queasy. Most people – the 65-90% (the range of those oft repeated obedience studies) – prefer the easy life. It is strange how often people see empaths in problematical terms. Empaths use their ability to emphasise and to boost theirs and others’ wellbeing and safety. Problems arise for empaths, however, when there are apaths in the vicinity. Empaths can be brought down, distressed and forced into the position of the lone fighter by the inaction of more apathetic types round them.
THE SOCIOPATHIC TRANSACTION. Often empaths are targeted by sociopaths because they pose the greatest threat. The empath is usually the first to detect that something is not right and express what s/he senses. As a consequence, the empath is both the sociopath’s number one foe and a source of attraction; the empath’s responses and actions provide excellent entertainment for sociopaths, who use and abuse people for sport. The world of the empath is not for the faint-hearted. In the context we are discussing, empaths often find themselves up against not only the sociopath but often a flock of apaths as well. Apaths are afforded pole position in the sociopath’s intrigues. But this prime spot comes at a price for, in what we call the “sociopathic transaction”, the apath makes an unspoken Faustian pact with the sociopath, then passively or otherwise participates in the cruel sport.
SOCIOPATH-EMPATH-APATH TRIAD. The usual set-up goes like this: the empath is forced to make a stand on seeing the sociopath say or do something underhand. The empath challenges the sociopath, who straight away throws others off the scent and shifts the blame on to the empath. The empath becomes an object of abuse when the apath corroborates the sociopath’s perspective. The situation usually ends badly for the empath and sometimes also for the apath, if their conscience returns to haunt them or they later become an object of abuse themselves. But, frustratingly, the sociopath often goes scot free. Sociopaths rarely vary this tried-and-tested formula because it virtually guarantees them success.
Sociopaths draw in apaths by various means: flattery, bribery, disorienting them with lies. A sociopath will go to any lengths to win her game. The best way to illustrate the interplay, and the ease with which apaths are pulled in, is by another short story.
‘Steve and Robin’ were microbiologists at a prestigious university, collaborating on an important vaccine trial. The department head, Ben, hoped to gain substantially; success could see his status in his field rise and prove the catalyst for a glittering career. His colleagues worked relentlessly collecting data, then Ben drafted a paper for submission to a respected journal. He decided that the outcome didn’t look tantalising, so falsified key results in order to present findings in the best light. On completing the draft, he sent the paper for comment to his colleagues. Steve replied by email that he was happy with the manuscript; he used the opportunity to suck up to his boss. But Robin was aghast, noting colossal errors. With great urgency, he rattled off an email to Ben. Receiving no response to this or a phone call, Robin went to find Ben in person, discovering him in the cafeteria with Steve. But he was too late. Ben had poisoned Steve’s mind, saying that Robin had challenged him over the accuracy of the results, due to a longstanding grudge. Ben said he had to pull Robin up about his own work several months back. Steve was different, Ben implied. He intimated Steve would be on course for promotion “especially if we get this paper out and secure funding for the next-stage trials”. By the time Ben joined them, Steve, though initially shocked, had been won over by Ben’s swift flattery and insinuations. Robin crossed the cafeteria to them. “Hi, you two got a moment?” Briefly there was an awkward silence. Steve exchanged a look with Ben, who gave a slight conspiratorial smile, now that the transaction was done and the sport under way. “Yes, we were just talking about the paper. By the way, I did see your email, but if you look at the paper thoroughly, I think you’ll find that everything is correct.” Steve replied with a smug look that “I’m with Ben on this one”. Robin was floored. “You can’t be serious? You’re happy for it to go off to be reviewed with all these serious errors? Our reputations will be left in ruins.” He decided to make a stand. He asked for his name to be removed as a co-author but was exasperated to learn that it was sent off to the journal anyway. More frustratingly, it was published.
Meanwhile, the workplace became a source of stress for Robin as he struggled to cope with the backlash from colleagues who saw his intervention as an attempt to sabotage their work. People avoided him and, when they did talk to him, the conversation was stilted. Eventually Robin arranged a meeting with Ben to have it out once and for all. But Ben took control of the agenda. “Robin, I have to be honest with you, many of your colleagues are unhappy about the way you handled things and some have made complaints. They don’t trust you to conduct yourself professionally after you attempted to sabotage their hard work.
Mercifully the reviewers saw what a find trial we’d conducted and didn’t get wind of your attempted slur. “We can’t afford to have a saboteur on the team. So I’ve discussed this with the dean and he agrees there is no future for you here, and there’s no other way to deal with this. You’ve got to go.” Any phase of this story sound familiar?
THE GASLIGHTING EFFECT. In the story above, the actions of Ben and Steve have a ‘gaslighting’ effect on Robin. Gaslighting is a systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality. The syndrome gets its name from the play and films of the same name in which a murderer strives to make his wife doubt her sanity and others to disbelieve her. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented in such a way as to make the target doubt his/her memory and perception. Psychologists call this “the sociopath’s dance”. It could involve denial or staging of strange events. This is Machiavellian behaviour of the worst kind. Anyone can become a victim of the sociopath’s gaslighting moves: parent and child, in-laws, friends, groups of people including work colleagues. Psychotherapist Christine Louise de Canonville describes different phases that the abuser leads the relationship through: the idealisation stage, where the sociopath shows herself in the best possible light – but this phase is an illusion, to draw her target in the devaluation stage begins gradually so the target is not alert to the sociopath’s transformation to being cold and unfeeling, but will begin to feel devalued at every turn; the more distressed the target becomes, the more the sociopath enjoys her power, and her abuse can become more extreme the discarding stage – the target is reduced to an object to which the sociopath is indifferent, seeing the game as won; the sociopath rejects any connection, moving on to the next target. Gaslighting does not happen all at once so, if you suspect in the early stages of a relationship that you are being gaslighted, you can protect yourself by walking away.
Extract from The Empathy Trap: Understanding antisocial personalities by Dr J. and T. McGregor (Sheldon Press). Published under the different title of The Sociopath at the Breakfast Table in the U.S. (Hunter House).
Covert aggression is frequently seen in online communication. It can be veiled as humour. People who engage in it often use sarcasm to put down or belittle the other person. It is not a self-enhancing way of communicating. People who use it tend to avoid emotional situations, have low self-esteem and generally want to keep people at bay. It is used to confirm to the individual that engaging in communication with other people is a waste of time and energy.
There is a shortage of research concerning the issue of online trolling. According to a leading researcher on the language of aggression, Dr Claire Hardaker of Lancaster University, ‘trolling’ is a term used to describe online antagonism that dates back to the 1980s. It is deliberate antagonism undertaken for amusement’s sake. At their most extreme, trolls are everyday sadists or people with personality disorders, such as Antisocial Personality Disorder. The techniques can cause manifold problems for the targeted person, not least high anxiety, fear and distress.
‘Cyberbullying’, a term commonly used, but perhaps not best encapsulating its varied nature and in some ways infantilising it , has been defined as repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers and other electronic devices. This behaviour may involve the sending of harassing messages, the making of derogatory comments on a website, or intimidating or threatening someone in various online settings of public forums, video games, blogs, or social networking sites. Cyberbullying does not necessarily imply a personal relationship where the target of abuse and instigator know each other, as would be assumed in bullying in the real world.
In recent years an increasing number of cases of cyberbullicide, which describes suicide indirectly or directly influenced by experiences of online aggression, have been reported in the mass media. Most of these involve teenagers, who take their own lives as a result of being harassed and mistreated over the internet. Findings of online aggression by researcher Adam Zimmerman suggest that although anonymity may increase the likelihood that individuals will act aggressively, social modelling influences aggressive outcomes. Zimmerman suggests online aggression is an outcome of dehumanization, where certain social conditions reduce an individual’s self-awareness and concern about what other people feel or even think about them. This process weakens the restraints against the expression of undesirable behaviour. He cites a 1970s study by Philip G. Zimbardo, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University – the infamous Stanford prison experiment. In the study individuals who were dressed in guard uniforms and glasses to hide their faces and identity engaged in cruel behaviours towards prisoners that presumably would not have occurred had they not been anonymous. Zimbardo, in a New York Times interview in 2007, suggested that ‘when someone is anonymous it opens the door to all kinds of antisocial behaviour’.
Claire Hardaker of Lancaster University has studied the language of aggression and describes some common strategies used by online aggressors, which are outlined below.
● Digression involves straying from the purpose of the discussion or forum. It includes malicious spamming, or introducing entirely irrelevant topics.
● (Hypo)criticism involves criticizing others, usually excessively, for an offence of which the critic is also guilty. The word is derived from hypocrite, hypocritical.
● Antipathy involves proactively and usually covertly exploiting a sensitive discussion by being deliberately controversial or provocative.
● Endangering involves masquerading as help or advice giver while actually causing harm.
● Shock involves being insensitive or explicit about a sensitive or taboo topic such as religion, death, politics, human rights, animal welfare – a classic strategy.
● Aggress involves openly and deliberately aggressing another person, without any clear justification and with the aim of antagonizing him or her into retaliating.
The general advice is to ignore rather than engage with online aggressors. It is not uncommon to use the phrase, ‘Please do not feed the trolls’, along with accompanying signs. This advice has, for several years, been suggested as the way to curb trolls online, but not everyone agrees ignoring them is the right thing to do. Some people argue that if ‘feeding the trolls’ provokes or encourages them in the short term, in the long term, sustained resistance and a confident attitude of intolerance to harassment is the only way to create the impression that something has to and can change.
Extract from Coping with Aggressive Behaviour by Dr. Jane McGregor published by Sheldon Press, 2017.
Behaving in a passive-aggressive way does not mean you are a bad person. Often it’s a strategy used by people who are afraid to be honest and open. Whether we ourselves are passive aggressive, or we are dealing with other people’s passive aggression, the resulting behaviour can be very challenging and can test and strain relationships.
Passive-aggression was first defined during World War II to describe soldiers who were not openly defiant but expressed a lack of compliance through passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, and passive obstruction. These behaviours were thought of as immaturity and a reaction to the stress and discipline of military life.
Passive-aggressive behaviour is the indirect expression of hostility. It often manifests as procrastination, sullenness, or as failure to accomplish requested tasks. Passive-aggression is a learned way of responding to other people. It can arise and be a consequence of growing up in an environment with strict social rules and little opportunity to express one’s individuality. If it continues past adolescence and into adulthood, passive aggression becomes a form of resistance and a reaction to being unable to express one’s feelings and thoughts freely.
Ways to avoid passive aggression ourselves
- Accept anger is not a bad thing to feel or express.
Anger is a normal and natural feeling and it is acceptable to express it. The biggest obstacle to assertive communication is the belief that anger is bad and expressing it is inappropriate.
2. Be assertive
Instead of requesting help and support in a roundabout way as those who are passive aggressive tend to do, find ways to make assertive requests in a straightforward fashion.
Where a passive-aggressive request might go like this (loaded with sarcasm and put downs):
“I’ve got such a busy day ahead full of important meetings. After doing whatever it is you do all day, would you mind taking this parcel to the post office for me? If you’re not too busy, of course.”
An assertive request is a straightforward one such as:
“If you have time today, would you mind taking this parcel to the post office for me?”
3. Acknowledge other people’s perspective and feelings.
Showing that you can appreciate the other person’s perspective and acknowledge their feelings helps to foster more respectful communication. This doesn’t mean agreeing or approving, rather it is an act of validation. It is the recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Someone with passive aggressive tendencies may be used to being rejected, ignored, or judged. Invalidation is emotionally upsetting for anyone, and disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance.
4. Maintaining respectful communication
Being assertive in your communication also means collaborating to achieve a situation where both people are able to assert their points of view but also compromise, when necessary. Maintaining a respectful attitude, keeping eye contact, managing your own emotions and thoughts will help you maintain the “I am okay. You’re ok” position in our communications with the other person may persuade them to steer more towards that position too.
|I’m okay, You’re okay|
I believe and act as if we both deserve respect. We are equally entitled to have things done our way.
Recognising that your needs matter as much as anyone else’s may involve compromise, but it also means standing up for yourself, and finding ways to express your point clearly and confidently. Being an assertive communicator enhances relationships – other people know where they stand and will help build your self-esteem.
Extract from Coping with Aggressive Behaviour by Dr. Jane McGregor published by Sheldon Press and out this month, April 2017
…. why we seriously mustn’t judge a book by its cover.
“Evil happens when good people do nothing”.
Ok – but how? Last month I had a profoundly moving experience when I visited Auschwitz. I wondered how, threats of violence or murder aside, ordinary and otherwise empathic German people did nothing or not enough to help prevent or shorten the holocaust. An important tool for leaders of the Nazi party – and all sociopaths – was and is propaganda. It was vital they managed perceptions and so they misrepresented and misdirected with ‘newsreels’ and posters etc. They presented their country as victims of their enemies (targets) in order to win compliance, acquiescence, support or participation from broad sectors of the population as well as trick the outside world. Among other things they :-
- Rubbished their targets (‘Jews are lice’).
- Lied, fabricated or exaggerated what their enemies did e.g. SS officers, dressed as Polish soldiers attacked a German medical centre thus justifying ‘retaliatory’ attacks.
- Created fantasy situations to be perceived as ‘nice’. In 1941 they produced a booklet glowingly yet falsely describing how they’d put Jews to work, built clean hospitals, set up soup kitchens, provided newspapers and supplied vocational training.
It’s the same when you’re in a relationship with a sociopath. They’ve got their own propaganda machine chugging along, which is vital for them to get the ‘goodies’ i.e. money, sex, status or whatever their predatory selves are seeking. My ex told me how he gave his ex-wife every penny when they divorced. Such a ‘nice’ guy (he wasn’t and it wasn’t true!) and spookily the exact opposite of my first husband. And the put-downs might be subtle or jokey “You know what he/she’s like.”
Sociopaths are fantastic at reading people, all the while collecting information to fine-tune their secret strategy. They manage the perceptions of their target and those around them so that should they be rumbled, many will doubt any allegations and want to believe the sociopaths story. With online dating, many use ‘props’ – their profile photo may include a child, a cute puppy, an elderly mother – so they must be nice, right?
A paradox too is displaying ‘good’ or heroic behaviour. Dr Harold Shipman, imprisoned for murdering over two-hundred elderly patients, saved the life of his suicidal cell-mate, cutting him down when he tried to hang himself. But we waste precious time and head-space getting caught up in trying to understand this when none of it counts if overall intentions are toxic.
This week in the UK, Ian Stuart was found guilty of murdering his fiancé, successful children’s author Helen Bailey. He hid her body (and that of her pet dog) in the cesspit under their garage after drugging her with his sleeping meds in the preceding weeks, rendering her easier to smother. He stood to inherit almost four million pounds as she’d changed her will in his favour. Both were widowed, she, only eight months previously when they ‘met’ online and police are now looking into his wife’s ‘sudden unexplained death’ in 2010. Helen had started a ‘grief-blog’ and was targeted and groomed by Stuart on there and a ‘bereavement’ facebook site. He intensely love-bombed her into an early commitment, no doubt creating and becoming the persona he’d learnt she wanted in him. Being love-bombed is both mind-altering and intoxicating and soon they had moved in together. After the verdict, Helen’s sister and friends were in shock that ‘such a nice man’ could do this – he’d successfully managed everyone’s perceptions.
Not every sociopath chooses to go on and commit murder but sociopaths or narcissists can be lethal. The chances are their energy and resource-draining involvement with you could bring devastating chaos into your life. And the techniques they use are similar, regardless of their preferred goals, because they work.
So how can we keep safe?
A sociopath leaks out bits of truth when their mask slips so it’s best to try keeping an open mind although it’s difficult when we’re vulnerable, as with the grieving Helen Bailey. But we need to be honest with ourselves. A sociopath elicits and presses for an early commitment partly because it’s hard maintaining the mask but that’s also when they start to get the ‘goodies’, once a person is committed or dependent.
What can you do if you’ve noticed things which don’t sit right?
- Listen to your gut – a great book to read is The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker. It may take practice if we’ve become used to discounting ourselves.
- Try to look at the context rather than the words being said. This can provide clarity as well as a reality check.
- Sharing concerns or what we’ve noticed with others who understand can help – and a question to ask ourselves might be “Is this relationship compatible with my self-care and peace of mind?”
- Sociopaths have no conscience or empathy, even if they sometimes ‘act-as-if’ they do. We need to have empathy, including for ourselves – AND self-respect.
- Research. There’s plenty of research available online as well as support groups – never think you need to deal with this alone.
The thing about perception management is once you accept the nasty truth that some people are like this out there, it’s easier to keep safe.
Amanda Smith, author of Toxic No More is a SoRECS trustee and is on their register of counsellors and therapists for sessions via Skype or telephone. Email email@example.com.
Aggression as a product of an anger system
At the root of aggression is an anger system. Anger is an essential human feeling and emotion. It is likely that we developed an anger system to protect and enforce our own interests against those of other people or creatures, and threats from the environment around us. Ironically, if we did not have an anger system in all likelihood we would not maintain our social networks or improve them. Anger allows us to express our concern about one another. In expressing our anger towards someone, that person may respond by apologizing or changing their behaviour, and this is how relationships get repaired and improved. This happens at individual level, in families and communities, and at national and international level too. Anger may lead to war and conflict but it also leads society to rectify or respond to social injustices.
Anger is activated by triggers and these triggers vary from person to person and by age, gender and culture. In women anger is often triggered by their close relationships. For instance, they may feel let down by family members and friends. A man is more likely to be angered by objects that are not working correctly, encounters with strangers, and societal issues, according to studies conducted into anger and gender by Professor Sandra P. Thomas from the University of Tennessee.1 Children’s anger is most often roused when they are blocked from doing something they have set their minds on doing. We see this when children get worked up into a state of fury if their toys are taken away.
Anger, when it is emoted, encompasses everything from mild irritation to intense rage. When cartoon characters get angry, steams comes out of their ears. We say things like, ‘That makes my blood boil!’ In real life the response varies from individual to individual, but we may grind our teeth, clench our fists, go red and flushed. We may experience numbness, or go pale, have muscle tensions or get hot and clammy.
When we react to feelings of anger, chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenaline surge through the body. In the brain, the amygdala, the part that deals with emotion, goes into overdrive. The time between a trigger event and a response from the amygdala can be a fraction of a second. Blood flow increases to the frontal lobe of the brain. This area controls reasoning and is likely to be what is keeping you from hurling objects across the room and smashing things. So this bodily reaction provides some balance, and more often than not it prevents you from overreacting. But if you are being activated constantly by triggers then this state of response can start to cause damage.
By Dr. Jane McGregor, trustee of SoRECS and author of The Empathy Trap: Understanding Antisocial Personalities, Coping with Difficult Families, and Coping with Aggressive Behaviour, all published by Sheldon Press.
1. S. P. Thomas, (2003) “Anger: The Mismanaged Emotion.” Dermatology Nursing, 15, 4, 351-357. See also S.P Thomas, C. Smucker and P. Droppleman (1998). “It hurts most around the heart: a phenomenological exploration of women’s anger.” Journal of Advanced Nursing. 28, 2, 311-322.
Aggression and antisocial personality disorders
Aggression in adults can be the result of many factors working together. However, there are a number of conditions that can lead to the development of aggression in adults. Among them are:
Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD): ASPD is a personality disorder characterised by a long-standing pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, and impulsive and aggressive acts. In the past the terms sociopath and psychopath have been diagnostic terms to describe individuals with this type of personality although neither are official titles of any diagnosis any more.
Personalities with ASPD or related disorders tend to have a pathological level of narcissism. Often their self-esteem is poorly regulated and they have a fragile and unstable sense of self. Emotion regulation is compromised by difﬁculties in experiencing, processing and moderating certain feelings, most especially anger, shame and envy. Relationships with other people are generally dysfunctional because the individual tends to protect and enhance their own self-esteem at the cost of cooperative relationships and intimacy. In consequence their actions are often determined by the dominance of aggression over shame. The disorder may be caused by a decreased sense of morals or conscience.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder in which a person is excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity, mentally unable to see the destructive damage they are causing to themselves and others. NPD was historically called megalomania, and is a form of severe egocentrism. It is a disorder that is characterised by an over-inflated sense of self-importance, as well as dramatic, emotional behaviour that is in the same category and style as antisocial personality disorder. Emotional outbursts and rage are often observed phenomena. Like those with antisocial personality disorder the narcissist lacks empathy. They are unable to relate, understand, and rationalise the feelings of others.
Everyday sadism is a term used to describe individuals who lack empathy and derive pleasure from watching or inflicting physical or psychological harm on others. This type of personality trait is more common than generally supposed for many people have sadistic impulses. The type of personality is, for instance, the colleague who repeatedly humiliates you and smiles whilst doing so, or who seems to reap pleasure from hurting you. Or it could be the person who plants seeds of discord on the Internet (otherwise known as an internet troll) by starting arguments or upsetting people for fun. Sadism is more common than supposed, hence the term “everyday sadism”. Recently researchers from the University of British Columbia conducted two online studies and found evidence that linked internet trolling with sadism. A sadistic disposition is one that craves cruelty. Sadists find the act of hurting innocent people pleasurable and exciting, and they seek out opportunities to satisfy this appetite.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD):
Whilst not in the same league as the other personalities already discussed, and more for reasons of emotionally instability than sadistic bent, people who have borderline personality disorder are prone to lash out at others both verbally and physically during periods of anger and impulsiveness. This could include overwhelming feelings of distress, anxiety, worthlessness or anger; difficulty managing such feelings without self-harming – for example, by abusing drugs and alcohol or taking overdoses; difficulty maintaining stable and close relationships; sometimes having periods of loss of contact with reality, and in some cases, threats of harm to others.
1. E. E. Buckels, D.N. Jones, & D.L. Paulhus (2013). Behavioral confirmation of everyday sadism. Psychological Science, 24, 11: 2201-2209: Furham, S.C. Richards & D.L Paulhus (2013). The dark triad of personality: A 10-year review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 3: 199-216.
November 2016 – This month we look at the issue of anger
What makes people angry in daily life? In all probability, as in times past, it is usually other people that rouse our anger the most. People rage like blast furnaces all the time, seemingly over-reacting to what’s going on around them. Our bodies can’t distinguish between ordinary frustrations in daily life and truly life threatening stress so it gears up to the challenge every single time. Our bodies get busy just in case we need put up a fight or make a fast exit and release cortisol in readiness to do something physical.
Social convention of the day still has it that we should ‘Keep calm and carry on’, even if that means paying no regard to our bodily reactions. The rise in popularity in the past decade of the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ posters originally printed at the start of the Second World War is an interesting phenomenon. Despite 2.5 million of the posters being printed, the poster was never displayed publicly and nearly all of them were pulped. Rediscovered in the aftermath of financial crisis of 2007-8 the words on the poster perhaps reflected something about the British pluck and will to turn economic downturn into recovery.
But subduing our emotional reaction and our anger in a bid to keep calm and not look a fool by over-reacting when there is no real trouble afoot is not without risk. We may be more mindful of a need to calibrate our anger these days, but this has led to many of us feeling confused about our own anger and angry outbursts. On one hand we might view anger as a mobilising force for good (righteous anger or indignation). On the other hand, anger often is regarded as a strategy of manipulation to gain social influence and is viewed with deep suspicion. The end result is that anger is often viewed in problematical terms and as a negative emotion. Hence many people fear losing control, going off the deep end and looking stupid.
This has led to people seeking ways to curb and manage their anger. Men, in particular, are encouraged to find non-violent ways of expressing their anger and anger management classes have become a favoured approach. Self-exploration of the situations that lead to anger is encouraged. Therapists issue advice on stress-reduction techniques and tips to acquire mindfulness (or put another way, a state of conscious awareness). And assertiveness, which doesn’t exactly equate to anger and aggression, but relates to them, is encouraged through training programmes and self-help publications. Being essentially agreeable and pro-social has been promoted as good for health and wellbeing, and yet researchers involved in a new study published in the Journal of Personality discovered something surprising: Those who are described as “agreeable, conscientious personalities” are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while “more contrarian, less agreeable personalities” are more likely to refuse to hurt others.[i]
Without anger it is hard to believe we would be exercised or impassioned about much in life and it seems crucial for creativity. Volcanic rage is behind lots of creative sorts. In a series of experiments published in a research paper in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad demonstrated that anger promoted “unstructured thinking” on a creativity task. A second experiment elicited anger directly in the subjects, before asking them to come up with ways to improve the condition of the natural environment. Once again, people who felt angry generated more ideas. Better still, their ideas were considered more original.[ii]
Although there are many situations where a person may feel uncivilised if they expressed uncontrolled anger, anger does have its purposes. It acts as a mobilising force and can push us on towards accomplishing goals, even overcoming problems and barriers. In fact, when we see something as beneficial, we want it more when we are angry, or so a recent study by Dutch researcher, Henk Aarts and colleagues suggests. [iii] The expression of anger can also benefit and strengthen relationships. Pent up and hidden anger has the reverse effect on relationships. This is because when anger is concealed, the other person cannot know about it, so has less chance of doing things to remedy the situation. Anger also can help us develop insight. If we can notice when we get angry and why, it can motivate self-change. Anger is also a strong social indicator that things are not right and need addressing. In this way it can prevent violence. A good righteous anger can lead to peaceful protest over out-and-out violence. Without the proper amount of anger, without moral indignation, we would lose the desire to protect our friends and our own nation. Anger can also help us negotiate a better deal for ourselves and other people. But negotiating and staying in control of our anger isn’t easy. This has been a persistent problem for humanity; as the Greek philosopher Aristotle stated “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
[i] L. Bègue, J-L, Beauvois, D. Courbet, D. Oberlé, J. Lepage, and A.A. Duke (2015). Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm. Journal of Personality, 83, 3, 299–306.
[ii] M. Baas, C. K.W. De Dreu, and B. A. Nijstad (2011). Creative production by angry people peaks early on, decreases over time, and is relatively unstructured. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 6, 1107–1115.
[iii] H. Aarts, K. I. Ruys, H. Veling, R. A. Renes, J. H.B. de Groot, A. M. van Nunen and S. Geertjes (2010). The Art of Anger: Reward Context Turns Avoidance Responses to Anger-Related Objects into Approach. Psychological Science. 21, 10, 1406-1410.
October 2016 – This month we look at the issue of bystander apathy.
Aggressors rely on bystander passivity
At times in life we may find ourselves lacking interest in or concern for other people, or even ourselves. Some of us reach a point where we are emotionally unable to connect with ourselves and others. This is sometimes referred to as emotional numbing. This can happen as a way and means of dealing with anxiety by preventing certain situations that trigger it (psychologists sometimes call this dissociation or depersonalization). It can also be a decision to avoid engaging emotionally; typically for personal, social, or other reasons.
A lack of responsiveness to our own or other people’s safety can also occur because some individuals have difficulty identifying and describing emotions in themselves. They may experience difficulty identifying feelings, as well as distinguishing between feelings. Furthermore, they may have difficulty describing feelings to other people, and/or have constricted ability to use their imagination or they may be externally oriented. This may be as a result of being unaware of what’s going on inside themselves (lack of inner self-talk, an inability to reflect on their feelings and conduct, which in turn hinder self-awareness). Typically, individuals like this have a cognitive style of thought process and reasoning.
This lack of interest in others seems to go hand in hand with selfishism in culture. Being self-absorbed means we can become blind, indifferent and apathetic to other people around us. The word apathy is derived from the word apathīa (Latin: freedom from passion or feeling) and apátheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; from a- “without” and pathos “suffering” or “passion”). Often it is a temporary affliction; say as a first reaction to danger. Apathy can be an avoidance strategy engaged in in the hope that the problem will go away. Or it can be the case that we ignore other people who are suffering because at that moment we don’t view them as our equals. We view them instead as “others”, objects and ”its”.
Some argue that we live in an increasingly self-focused and narcissistic culture. Ours is a culture of “me, myself and I” with less room for “us and we”. The Internet is ‘I-centric’ and gadgets and “apps” reflect the rise of the ‘I’ culture and narcissism of our times – “I” Tunes, “I” Pod, “I” Phone and “I” Pad.
All of us can be selfish at times, but some people are so self- preoccupied that they’re unable to form healthy relationships. Being self-preoccupied is very common in adolescents, but most grow out of this over time. Interestingly, and perhaps indicating how much behaviour is socially learned and influenced, a recent study by researcher Emily Bianchi of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, found that those children who enter adulthood during recessions ‘less self-obsessed’. The study found that growing up during bad times ‘dampens narcissism and entitlement’[i]
[i] E. C. Bianchi (2014). Entering Adulthood in a Recession Tempers Later Narcissism. Psychological Science, 1-9
Sept 2016 – Sociopathic abuse is targeted abuse. It is frequently covert in nature. So often the individual or individuals targeted are left to deal with the sociopath unaided as other people turn a blind eye to the abuse or wittingly or unwittingly collude in it. Here’s an article about why we don’t help people out in such situations. http://welldoing.org/article/wont-help
Aug 2016 – SoRECS is to offer training for therapists and counsellors with regard to helping clients overcome sociopathic abuse. Register now for September course. See http://sorecs.org/training or for more information contact Dr. Jane McGregor via email – firstname.lastname@example.org
July 2016 – SoRECS training for therapists and counsellors. Register now for September course. See http://sorecs.org/training
May 2016 – Our report on the lived experiences of individuals subjected to psychological/emotional abuse is now available to read on this web site. You can find it under ‘Further reading’ from the main menu.
Other news: see the ‘Training’ section for dates for the SoRECS training programme for therapists and counsellors ‘Helping clients deal with and overcome sociopathic abuse.’
April 2016 – An announcement.
The closing date for participation and inclusion in the SoRECS study on the effects of psychological abuse is Monday 18th April 2016. Anyone still hoping to take part, please contact Dr Jane McGregor on the email address provided at the bottom of the page (see February blog entry).
The study we are undertaking into the effects of psychological abuse is still open for people to engage with (see February announcement below). We are still able to receive data. The study is open to new participants for a further 3 weeks. Thereafter the data will be analysed. We will write a preliminary report and publish it on the SoRECS web site in a few months’ time. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have taken time and trouble to participate in this study.
This is the first monthly blog. In recent months the trustees of SoRECS have set up the charity’s web site. We hope to disseminate information on the topics of empathy, apathy in culture, how to recover from abuse, how to deal with aggression, callousness and other forms of cruelty apparent in everyday life.
We also hope to engage the public in action research on the aforementioned topics. Our first investigation is about the effects of psychological abuse and trauma. We plan to gather information to help deepen professional and public understanding of the health burden of psychological abuse. To that end we seek volunteers with first-hand experience of overt and covert forms of abuse to participate in our research project about people’s personal experiences of psychological abuse.
The health burden of psychological abuse
Psychological abuse, sometimes termed emotional or mental abuse is characterised as a person subjecting or exposing another to behaviour that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Such abuse is often associated with situations of power imbalance, such as abusive relationships, bullying, and abuse and harassment in the workplace. It is often covert in nature and therefore an invisible problem to those not directly affected.
Psychological abuse can involve gaslighting, which is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented in such a way as to make the target doubt his or her own memory and perception. The term originates from the 1938 play “Gas Light”(later adapted as films in 1940 and 1944), wherein a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy using a variety of tricks causing her to question her own perceptions and sanity. It is a deliberate ploy that occurs between one individual (the covert aggressor) and another (the targeted individual). The endgame is the person who is gaslighted no longer trusts their own perception of the situation. The process of gaslighting distorts an individual’s sense of reality and makes them disbelieve what they see.
The scars and injuries that result from psychological abuse can affect a person’s mental state and affect their health and wellbeing. The emotional trauma of psychological abuse, if left unchecked can lead to anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has been documented for instance that chronically traumatised people, such as children who have endured abuse by a parent, sibling or other abusive family member often exhibit hyper-vigilant, anxious and agitated behaviour. They may also experience insomnia and assorted somatic symptoms such as tension headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, abdominal pain, back pain, tremors and nausea. Moreover, exposure to and interaction with an abuser in childhood can leave lifelong scars, including a deep mistrust of other people and anxiety in social situations. The culture we live in exacerbates the problem for often a ‘blame the victim’ mentality is adopted, which means those targeted by abusers must also contend with feelings of shame about the abuse.
SoRECS invites individuals who have been affected by psychological abuse to tell us about their experiences and the traumas they experienced as a result of the abuse. We hope, with your help, to use the information to shed more light on the extent and nature of the problem of psychological abuse and the public health burden attached to it.
If you think you can help, by sending us a personal account of your experiences of trauma after psychological abuse, information on the symptoms you exhibited, information about any treatment you received (what helped and what hindered), and your personal journey to recovery please contact Dr Jane McGregor at SoRECS
Please provide a contact email address so we can contact you back. All correspondence will be treated in strict confidence.
SoRECS is not an advice and counselling service . We strongly advise those who have been affected by abuse to seek professional help. However, SoRECS does provide a list of useful addresses and contacts under Recovery Resources section of the web site and a list of reading material under Further reading as an aid to those affected by harassment and abuse.
SoRECS is a not-for-profit organisation. No monetary payments or gifts are paid to volunteers providing information of a personal nature to the charity. All information will be treated in strict confidence. Any data or information used by SoRECS will be anonymised if it is included in any of its publications. SoRECS publications, including its articles and discussion papers, are intended for educational purposes only.