Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Complaining and Complainers

All of us have probably met at least one chronic complainer. You know the type. He always has something negative to say. He's never satisfied. He's quick to find something he doesn't like in any given situation. He's not very pleasant to be around; he casts a dark cloud wherever he goes. Even the most compassionate of us has a point at which listening to the woes of others becomes emotionally depleting.  Being around the chronic complainer is draining; he leaves us feeling exhausted.  For this reason, we try to avoid him whenever possible. 

Or maybe you've known someone who seems to complain about the same thing over and over again. She never does anything to change or improve the situation in question.  She is quick to reject suggestions or advice.  She seems completely uninterested in solving the problem yet she constantly complains about how unhappy it makes her. You eventually get sick of hearing about it.  Her negativity and hopelessness are contagious.  You become frustrated when your attempts to help are repeatedly rejected.  Talking to her makes you feel bad.  Understandably, you start avoiding her calls.

This kind of complaining has negative social consequences. Nobody wants to be around someone who complains all the time.

And yet complaining is pervasive, despite the negative social consequences. It stands to reason, then, that we must derive some benefit from it. Why else would we be willing to risk social ostracization?

As it turns out, there are actually a lot of good reasons to complain. On the most basic level, complaining allows us to express frustration and to receive validation from a sympathetic other. It enables us to discharge negative emotions, to "vent," or to "blow off steam." It has a cathartic effect. We feel better after complaining. In fact, research suggests that people who rarely complain have higher levels of depression than people who complain regularly.

Complaining also helps to avoid the consequences associated with holding emotions in. We need an outlet for our negative emotions. We have to have some way to express them. They don't simply go away if we choose not to deal with them. Feelings like frustration, anger, and resentment tend to fester. We ruminate on the object of our frustration, which only makes us angrier. These feelings eventually boil over and we lash out at whoever happens to be nearby.

Complaining is essential to maintaining healthy relationships. It is the means by which each person in the relationship expresses dissatisfaction or brings to light existing problems. Once problems are identified they can be addressed and ultimately resolved. This prevents the build up of resentment and other emotions known to be toxic to relationships.
So while complaining is beneficial and even healthy, in excess it becomes caustic.  The problem is that most people who cross the threshold from healthy to excessive complaining are not aware of having done so.  We rarely tell someone we are put off by his or her constant complaining; instead, we start trying to avoid him.  I suppose one day the chronic complainer wakes up to find himself isolated and alone with no idea why.  Ironically, this gives him something else to complain about...if he can find someone to listen.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Why we're so obsessed with work

I recently read an article by Andrew Sullivan of The Dish called "America and the Protestant Work Ethic"
(  The article touches on a theme that's interested me for some time: the American obsession with work.  My interest stems from an ongoing disagreement with my husband (who is a Jamaican immigrant).  I've repeatedly complained about his obsession with making money.  He insists we're poor, even when I produce evidence that our combined income places us firmly in the top 50% of American families.  This isn't good enough, he tells me.  So in addition to his day job, he does some photography on the side.  He also buys various products, makes some improvements, and sells them for a profit.  Initially he bought and sold photography equipment - cameras, lenses, lights, backdrops, etc.  Lately, he's been buying and selling motorcycles and jet skis.

I have no problem with his extracurricular activities.  I complain only when the number of jet skis and motorcycles residing in our back yard approaches maximum capacity.  I then insist he sell some before buying any more.

My husband believes I too should take on some extracurricular projects for extra income.  I have absolutely no desire to do this.  And so, my husband complains about my lack of drive and ambition.  "You don't care if we're poor," he accuses.

My husband may not be American but he has definitely bought into the "American dream."  He came to the "land of opportunity" in order to prosper; that's exactly what he plans to do.

Which is why I so enjoyed Sullivan's article.  Sullivan recognizes that to understand the American relationship with work one must look to its origins.  Among the first European settlers in what is now the United States were religious minorities who sought a place to practice their faith without persecution.  They were mostly Protestants of various denominations - Puritans, Quakers, Lutherans, Calvinists, Mennonites (Anabaptists), etc. - although there were also some Jewish and Catholic groups.  Many of these religious groups abhorred luxury and extravagance, believing them symbols of sin, greed, and corruption.

For example, the "Rules of Discipline" from an early Quaker settlement in Philadelphia advises all followers to "keep out of the world's corrupt language, manners, vain and needless things and fashions, in apparel, buildings, and furniture of houses, some of which are immodest, indecent, and unbecoming."  It further cautions them to "avoid immoderation in the use of lawful things, which though innocent in themselves, may thereby become hurtful; also such kinds of stuffs, colours and dress, as are calculated more to please a vain and wanton mind, than for real usefulness."

They believed a Godly life was one of simplicity: hard work, frequent prayer, good deeds, and modest behavior were key.

As the original settlements expanded and a fledgling nation emerged, these beliefs became embedded in the American psyche.  A lot has changed in three hundred years.  Americans abandoned simplicity as an ideal long ago.  We are no longer a pious nation; our faith in God has been replaced with faith in capitalism, consumerism, and a free market economy.  As a people we have become less communal and more self-centered.  While we have discarded most of the values espoused by those early settlers, the "Protestant work ethic" remains an integral part of American culture today.

The Protestant work ethic was first introduced by Protestant theologian John Calvin.  According to Calvin, everyone must work because hard work is the will of God.  Today, this basic principle is reflected in the widely held beliefs that hard work leads to success and that the harder you work the more successful you will be.  It also lies at the very heart of the American dream: "freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and upward social mobility and can be achieved through hard work" (  This same creed explains America's widespread enmity towards recipients of "welfare" and other public assistance programs.  If hard work begets success then people who are not successful must not be working hard enough.  And those who are least successful must be downright lazy.

Never mind that the wealthiest Americans are not necessarily the hardest working ones.  Never mind that outside economic and social forces can leave destitute people who have worked hard their entire lives. Never mind that the American economy doesn't even have enough jobs to employ every able bodied American adult.  

Americans hold dear the value of hard work.  It is acceptable to neglect all other aspects of life in the name of work.  It is, in fact, a noble sacrifice.  We will never be criticized for devoting ourselves to work;  people will respect us for it.  Of course this has consequences.  Our lives lack balance.  We aren't happy.  We feel lost and unfulfilled.

But Sullivan thinks things may be changing.  He argues that current economic realities are challenging our Protestant work ethic.  I'm not convinced this is the case.  Cultural change is extremely difficult.  But if, as Sullivan asserts, things are changing then I for one say it's long overdue.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The past in the present - memory in the body

Our bodies remember everything we experience, even events for which we have no conscious recollection.  Most of us have no overt memories of our lives prior to age four or five.  Yet abuse, neglect, and other forms of trauma experienced by children younger than five can have a profound negative impact that lasts an entire lifetime.  Over the years, I've worked with a number of adult patients who were abused as young children.  Those whose abuse happened when they were three or four years old typically have no memory of the abuse.  Nevertheless, they report symptoms associated with the abuse, such as difficulty with intimate and/or sexual relationships, low self esteem, emotional instability, anxiety, anger, agression, and depression. 

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was among the first to attribute this phenomenon to body or somatic memory.  He believed that the body stores memory that is implicit but not necessarally unconscious.  Rather, body (or somatic) memory is manifested through things like behavioral patterns, situations a person avoids without noticing, opportunities not seized or perhaps not even recognized ("blind spots"), predispositions, attitudes, tendencies, and personal boundaries.  Somatic memory is sometimes tied to a specific event, particularly a traumatic one.  Most often, however, the "habit structures" of somatic memory result from an accumulation of past experiences. 

Somatic memory is tyipcally beneficial (see my post from last week).  Sometimes, however, the memories stored in the body lead to patterns of behavior that are problematic or even self destructive. 

Traumatic events are not encoded into memory the way other experiences are.  Instead, past trauma remains present as a way of being that is imprinted on the body.  This imprint is experienced as a predisposition to react with fear and anxiety and an oversensitivity to situations that are in some way similar to the trauma.  The trauma "memory" is not "remembered" as an event that took place in the past.  Rather, it is experienced physically and emotionally as if the threat exists now, in the present moment.

Kurt Lewin talks about somatic memory being present in our "life space" or "lived space."  We literally act out the past in the space we inhabit.  This explains why we so often repeat the same destructive patterns of behavior again and again.  We may know these behaviors are damaging and make a conscious effort to change them, yet continue to do them and to suffer the consequences.  Freud called this the "repetition compulsion."  According to Freud, if a person represses, surpresses, or otherwise does not remember past trauma he is likely to repeat it by acting it out, typically without being aware of it.  This is his way of remembering.

My purpose in all of this is to stress that psychotherapy should not ignore the physical and physiological aspects of experience.  The body plays an important role in maintaining symptoms and can thus be an avenue for intervention.  In fact, many people are unable to engage in other treatment modalities until the distress associated with their physical experience of certain symptoms is mediated.  These are usually the "sickest" patients, the ones who don't respond to the most commonly used treatment methods.  In my clinic, we say these patients need "glue" to hold them together; our job is to provide this glue. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Medication, babies, and such

I know I promised to write about somatic memory this week.  I've actually started on that post and I will make sure to put it up next week.  Currently, I'm dealing with some medication issues though and I'm a bit distracted.  So I thought I'd talk about that.  (It's funny, I feel I can share things on the internet that I wouldn't necessarilly share in "real life").

I've been taking an antidepressant since I was 18.  It's not really a big deal.  I hardly ever think about it.  I go to the doctor every few months for a refill, take a pill in the morning with my other medication, and that's it.  I had to try a few different medications initially before I found one that worked.  That period of trial and error was difficult.  It was so long ago, however, that I remember it only vaguely.  I eventually landed on something that helped and that was that.  End of story.

I've always been of the opinion that if something works you should leave it alone.   Why mess with a good thing?  Thus, I have never thought to stop taking the antidepressant.  For the most part I've felt fine and my mood has been stable (with the normal ups and downs, of course).  Why change anything?

Until now.  I'm currently "trying" to get pregnant (with my husband's cooperation of course).  My doctor told me that the antidepressant I've been taking should not be taken while pregnant or trying to get pregnant.  Not to worry though, she tells me.  I should be able to replace it with a safer medication without any problem.  I just stop taking the one and start taking the other.  No big deal.

Except it didn't work out that way.  The first couple of days were fine.  I stopped one medication and started the other.  On the morning of day three I felt nauseous.  By the time I got to work I was having tremors.  My brain felt confused and agitated.  About a year ago, I ran out of medication for a couple of days because the pharmacy had to order it.  I started having withdrawals.  It felt exactly like I was feeling now.  Ugh.

I would go back to the doctor but unfortunately, she relocated.  She gave me several refills so I thought I'd have a few months to find a new doctor.  Now I'm scrambling to find one.  And I don't feel good.

I was recently asked if my husband and I are actively trying for a baby or if we're just not not trying.  "Aren't they the same thing?" I replied, apparently revealing my ignorance.  At the time we weren't in any rush.  I've had several friends who stressed and obsessed about getting pregnant and I didn't want to do that.   I am now rethinking my position.  Maybe we need to try harder.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Somatic Memory

Memory is a funny thing.  We rely on memory to provide us with an accurate recollection of past events.  Memory gives us quick access to critical information.  It enables learning and facilitataes mastery of certain tasks and processes.  Any perceived decline in one's memory elicits worry and fear.  I cannot tell you how many patients have come to me distressed about impaired memory.  People tend to assume that increasing forgetfulness is a precursor to overall cognitive decline, ultimately resulting in Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia. 

I suspect that on some level, the fear of losing one's memory triggers a fear of losing one's very self.  After all, memory is essential to maintaining identity.  When I awaken each morning it is memory that gives me the sense of being the same person that went to sleep the night before (Shusterman, 2011).  It is memory that gives me a past, a history of experiences that have shaped who I am.  I cannot know who I am if I don't know who I was.  Without memory, I would be forced to reinvent myself from one moment to the next.  Imagine the energy and resources this would require!  There would be little left over for anything else!

Most people associate memory with mind.  We see memory as a cognitive or mental phenomenon that is regulated by the brain.  It is true that the mechanisms governing memory are physically located in the brain.  The brain, however, does not exist in a vacuum.  There are networks in the brain that extend throughout the entire body.  This means that most of what happens in the brain does not stay confined there.  Rather, mental processes affect and influence the entire organism.  Memory is no exception.

Memories of past events often consist of mental images and accompanying narratives.  When we recall a particular experience we remember what happened first, what took place next, and what happened last.  We simultaneously visualize the event in our mind's eye. 

Memory, however, is not just a mental phenomenon; it is also a physical one.  The body has its own way of remembering that may or may not be linked to recollection of a specific event.  Physical or somatic memories are stored in the body's cells and molecules..  Memory traces can even reside in our body's tissues and organs. 

Somatic memories are mostly implicit; they occur outside of conscious awareness and have no verbal component.  They emerge as acquired skills, behavioral habits, emotional responses, instinctual reactions, and intuition. That "bad feeling" I get about my new coworker -- that's somatic memory.  It's somatic memory that enables me to drive home on "autopilot" and remember nothing about the trip.  I use somatic memory when I play my favorite tune on the piano; I know it so well the notes glide off my fingertips without any effort.  Somatic memory is in play when a person or place "feels" familiar to me.  Somatic memory is also one of several vital components of personal identity; it's the part that "feels" like me from one day to the next. 

Somatic memory is an ever-present force acting behind the scenes in virtually all aspects of life.  Because it is implicit, we are not aware of its central role in our day to day experiences.  Sometimes, however, disruptions in somatic memory create problems that are difficult to ignore.

I've decided to stop here to prevent this post from becoming too lengthy. I'll continue where I left off in my next post.

My Favorites