Psychosocial, Qu’est-ce que c’est

Yes, a reference to a Talking Heads song. I’m just that good.

I figured that rather than blather on about the state of my life, I’d try to give more of an update on the kinds of things I’m reading about and learning, both in and out of my academic setting. In my human behavior class, we’ve been in a psychoanalytical set of topics for the past few weeks. We started out with the basics of Freud’s theory, talking about things like the id, ego, and superego, and their effects of the conscious and subconscious mind, and then moved on to ego psychology – a more in-depth theory studying the id/ego/superego division with Freud’s successors, including his daughter. And this past week we were talking about something called object relations theory – how we learn to distinguish other people from ourselves and create our own distinct identities separate from others.

I found the object relations theory interesting – well, I find them all interesting – but this one was basically new to me; I’ve had some minimal learning in the Freudian and ego psychology theories before, so I was familiar with the basics, but this one was new to me. One of the ideas I found most fascinating was the concept of the “good-enough mother”, an idea put forth by Donald Winnicott. Essentially, it is the concept of a mother who is attentive to her child’s needs, but has the occasional lapse – perhaps she doesn’t respond to her baby’s cries, or forgets to feed the child one or twice. The idea here is that these occasional lapses are not just good, but almost necessary for healthy mental development – it teaches, on a very basic level, that the child can trust a mother (or father), but that absolute, total reliance isn’t something they should be working towards – it essentially is a very basic way of teaching a child that however godlike a parents might seem to a baby, they are fallible, and can’t always be there. It’s the very beginning of teaching a child that the child and the parent(s) are distinct entities, that the parents aren’t just extensions of the child.

It goes on to other theorists who developed different parts of the theory, and the parts I found especially cool to think about were the stages of Separation-Individuation – 4 stages that occur between 5 months and 3 years. The first is Differentiation, which occurs from 5 months to around 1 year – during this time an infant learns to move around, first crawling, then walking, and this ability to move teaches the child, on a very instinctual level, that they can be separate from their parent, and go and do and explore things on their own. The parent should still supervise, ideally, but this stage is valuable in helping a child to develop their own identity. Next is Practicing, and this is the stage at which children start doing things beyond movement – and they start being able to acknowledge the praise they get from their parents, feeling like they are the best, the greatest, when every time they do something new they are told how amazing they are. This is apparently the stage at which something like narcissism can develop – the brain somehow doesn’t move past feeling like they are the best, the brightest, the center of the universe, and so continues to think this even after other children start entering their lives in school and other pursuits. The third stage is called Rapprochement (age 2-3), where the child’s mind struggles to deal with opposing needs – they want to be loved but given space, to cling to a parents but also move out and explore, and they fear both being totally engulfed but also being abandoned. This is the stage at which the first inklings of some personality disorders – like Borderline Personality Disorder, for example – can develop, with the brain having difficulty finding a middle ground between extremes, and thus defaulting towards wild swings of mood and thought. Finally, after age 3, we have object constancy, the stage which we hope to develop and constantly work towards in life – this is where we develop and stabilize our sense of self, distinct from others around us, and start to master the idea of self-soothing – being able to calm ourselves instead of relying on others, like parents, for responsibility of calming us.

Outside of class, I’ve been getting back into reading supplemental things, especially since the last month or so has seen not just a new book by Brene Brown, but also one by Jane McGonigal. That’s what I’m working through now, and it’s called Superbetter – not to be confused with the game and/or app of the same name. The book is about the research behind what makes the game an effective tool for assisting in recovery, and helping to form your own paths towards recovery. I’m only a couple chapters in – it’s dense material to digest, especially while also reading through a lot of material for class – but it’s really good stuff. The introduction is basically covered in one of Jane McGonigal’s TED Talks, which I’ll post here:

Not only can Superbetter, the game she developed for her own recovery, be helpful with the recovery from things like depression – I know, because I have found it helpful in my own work towards recovery – but it can also be helpful for just improving general quality of life. And the book goes into a lot of detail about research on other things games can help with – like the idea that games like Tetris or Candy Crush can help to prevent, or at least mitigate, some of the painful symptoms and flashback of PTSD. Apparently, research (covered in the book) proves that when painful or disturbing memories start to resurface, that playing a game like Tetris for as little as 3-5 minutes – something that is visually stimulating and requires near-total attention to the way the game works – can divert the mind from being stuck in a painful flashback or re-living. The study she notes covers only people dealing with the initial response to traumatic memories, so it’s not clear that something like playing Tetris or Candy Crush can be as useful to people who have been dealing with PTSD for years or decades, but just the idea that something as simple as playing a video game can help with something as serious as PTSD is encouraging. And that’s just one of a number of, frankly, amazing things I’ve learned from reading the part of the book I’ve gotten through  – like, did you know that holding your hands out, palms-up, for as little as 15 seconds can help you to be more open-minded, because of how we subconsciously interpret the gesture?

So there’s a lot going through my head that isn’t my own personal stuff, and I’m hopeful that it will be useful in both my personal life and in my academic endeavors.

So, what’s on your mind? Let me know if there’s some fun research (for certain values of fun) that you think I might find interesting to read through or discuss.I’m always looking to expand my knowledge base.

Social Contract(ion)

Lately, my social world has felt like it’s been contracting, and becoming much smaller than it used to be. I know there are reasons, and good ones, and they aren’t, for the most part, things that are my fault or over which I have any control. But it feels like my world has become much smaller and lonelier than it used to be, and I’m not really sure how to go about changing that. I should note now that I’m really just writing to get some things off my chest here, and out of my head; while I feel kinda low, I don’t think that it’s to such a degree that it should be concerning.

For those of you who don’t know me personally, I am not the most socially adventurous of people. I’m quiet, and shy, and it takes me a while (sometimes a long while) before I feel ready to have whole conversations with people. I’m also introverted, which means that I don’t really have any interest in the empty pleasantries that fill up a lot of conversational space, so talking with me can be kind of weird. I have areas where I feel comfortable and knowledgeable, but outside of those, I will typically just shut up and listen until I feel like I have something substantive to say – which, on some topics, can take quite a while. I’m also very aware of the generally liberal views I hold, and the polarization bringing those into a discussion can cause, so I feel very cautious advancing my views on anything that might start a fight.

I also don’t go out a whole lot. While travel is nice, and can be fun, and I know that it can broaden your horizons and open up your mind to new things, I don’t generally feel the need to go out and do things alone. I feel awkward going to movies, or out to eat, by myself, and I feel travel – like a lot of activities, is best enjoyed (for me) when with other people whose company I enjoy. When I’m alone, most of the places I prefer to go can be easily reached in my own mind, whether just daydreaming, reading, watching TV, or playing video games. While I like playing games that can be social, like MMORPGs, after a while even that can be awkward for me, because unless I get to know people, or even feel that I can get to know people, I lose interest.

And over the last year or so, a lot of people have left my life. Last June, Alice died (if you want to know how that affected me, feel free to go into my older posts and check – around June 19 of last year). Over the next several month, my relationship with someone I had felt extremely close to, who I’ve noted before here as Calla, deteriorated to the point that this past April, she decided that being my friend was not in her best interests – a state of being that I certainly had a hand in, so please don’t assume I am claiming blamelessness. Around the same time, another close friend who had been here in Houston left the state for greener pastures, and while we still keep in touch, our friendship is far more long-distance than it was.

Also, while I had been a member of two separate gaming groups – one that I was running a game for, and one in which I was a player – both of those now seem to be, for most purposes, defunct. Neither has met for several months, and my efforts to try and cobble together a third from the people in both that still speak to me have not been very successful. I’m looking into finding another right now, but given my difficulties getting to know new people, that is likely a process that could take a while.

I still talk to several people from work, so there is hope there, but trying to arrange some way to interact outside of work is – for want of a better term – generally super awkward for me. Also, given our retail schedules, a lot of things that resemble plans for getting together have a high probability of falling through, which can leave whoever does show up sitting around just wondering what on earth is going on, which makes things awkward for everyone. Again, not a blaming situation – I know my schedule and situation has changed a number of times, leading me to have to cancel at the last minute, and I assume that’s happened with other people from work, as well. But given my general state of mind regarding social situations, when things like that happen my default assumption is that somehow I did something wrong to alienate others or cause them to not want to be around me. Yep, the shame monster rears its ugly head in those situations.

And some of this is undoubtedly just the kind of down-in-the-dumps feeling I get after another birthday (I turned 36 yesterday). Historically, birthdays have not been great times for me; some part of my head gets all hyped up and excited about any potential birthday activities, and no matter what I do or how much fun I have, somehow that part of my brain is always left feeling disappointed and let down the day after. There’s probably a specific term for that kind of feeling, but I haven’t gotten far enough in my MSW program to know what it is.

What this all means is that I need to figure out how to expand my social circle again, and I’m not really sure how to go about doing that. I did pretty well with the people I got to know at Menninger, and then again at the aftercare program I Was a part of; I made some good friends there. And somehow I managed to become a part of not one, but two separate gaming groups. For a minute or two there, I even thought I had real hope at a romantic relationship. So now that things have contracted, I need to figure out how to push that circle out again. If you live in the Houston area and have some ideas for how I might be able, as the uber-geek I am, to branch out somehow, then by all means let me know. Or if you just feel like chatting about how crappy feeling lonely can feel at times, drop me a line. But don’t freak out; things aren’t that bad. I just had some stuff in my head I wanted to get out.