Happy Birthday, Reilly!

ReillyRiver1Reilly, the dog who was my muse for “Pack Leader Psychology,” celebrates her 10th birthday today. I have been so very, very fortunate to have this wise, old soul in my life.

However, I have some sad news to share. Reilly was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few weeks ago. Fortunately, she does not appear to be in pain and is doing fairly well. Anyone who has met her knows she is a force of nature and has tremendous strength of will. I’m hoping that will serve her now.

In honor of an authentic, emotionally balanced pack leader, I thought I’d share a bit from the introduction to “Pack Leader Psychology” about a few things Reilly taught me. (Of course, the entire book would not even be possible without her guidance.)

Reilly Tree JumpA growl instantly moved me from pack member to pack leader with my dog. Unfortunately, it was a bit more complicated for me to learn how to be a pack leader to the humans in my life. But without the lessons I learned from my dog, Reilly, I might never have transformed myself from a submissive, insecure, physically abused woman into the assertive “alpha” personality I am today.

How did I learn to claim my place in the human pack and stand up to those who wanted to dominate and control me? While I might have come to these insights on my own, it’s extremely unlikely. At the time that my second marriage was coming undone, I had the fabulous good fortune to adopt a smart, balanced dog by the name of Reilly. While it seems improbable, the spark for my life-changing insights was a German Shorthaired Pointer with a good Irish name.

My experiences living with and training Reilly taught me not just about dog behavior, but also about human behavior in ways that no self-help or psychology book ever had. What I would learn from her and because of her would rip blinders off my eyes that had blocked awareness of my behavior for more than 40 years. Reilly provided the code that unlocked my insight into why I had two failed marriages to alcoholic men, one an abuser; a meandering and unfulfilling career path; and distant relationships with family and friends.

Quite simply, Reilly’s lessons taught me how to assert myself and become a stronger person. Then I discovered that in the same way I had become a pack leader to my dog, I needed to become a pack leader with people. Once I learned that lesson, I also realized Reilly’s lessons gave me the keys to understanding the behavior of other people as well.

 Please keep Reilly in your hearts. I am so happy to have known her for more than 9 years. My life would not have been the same without her in it. Reilly laying portrait

Anger vs Indignation

Pardon a former writer’s semantic debate about two words: anger and indignation. As a psychologist now, I certainly deal with anger as an emotion in the therapy room. But I say we need to revive use of the word “indignation.” It has a depth of meaning that “anger” does not have.

Indignation is defined as “anger or annoyance at what is perceived to be unfair treatment.” Anger is defined as “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure or hostility.” Notice that the sense of injustice or unfairness is part of the definition of “indignation.” Anger can be just “hostility,” which communicates primary aggression, while “indignation” communicates a responsive defense to aggression.

I hear many Submissives state: “I get angry too easily,” or “He just triggers me.” But instead of automatically blaming oneself for poorly controlled anger, perhaps one should flip the lens.

I prefer to look at emotions as self-protective warning signs about the behavior of others. If we feel indignant about someone else’s actions, maybe that is a big red flag from our intuition that we are being disrespected or treated unjustly.

Sure, some people flash to anger far too easily and over insignificant issues. These can be Dominators who attack or use the “fight” response when they are fearful of criticism or shame. Their anger is effective at warning others to back down. Some Submissives can also eventually attack when they are backed into a corner and feel they have no others options. When one is overly pleasing and appeasing most of the time, it leads to others being disrespectful, which eventually leads to a feeling of indignation.

So next time you blame yourself for getting angry too easily, take another look and consider whether you should instead respect and heed that feeling of indignation.

Connecting Shame, the Fear Response and ADHD

In my last blog I wrote about shame being the true underlying emotion behind most angry outbursts and behaviors. People feel embarrassed so they lash out with anger, rather than admitting or expressing their real emotion of shame.

This connection is very clear in children labeled with “ADHD” and “Oppositional Defiant Disorder.” These children are considered to lack the ability to focus, pay attention and concentrate. They are impulsive, easily distracted and often hyperactive. Yet if you listen to what they say and understand the neuroscience of the fear response, you can easily see the emotional roots of shame to their reactions. As I’ve written before, these “disorders” are not mental illnesses, just the normal “fear response.”

Just yesterday in therapy one young man described the reasons he often leaves school or is truant. He reported that when he gets frustrated or fears failure on schoolwork, he doesn’t like that feeling. So to manage the shame (he didn’t label it as that) he daydreams, plays with his phone, or zones out. (This is the “avoidance” fear response.) Then if pushed by the teacher or under time pressure of a test, he bolts from the classroom or just doesn’t show up to school on that day (the “flight” fear response.)

His shame and embarrassment at potentially failing lead him to unthinkingly react with fear. Many kids with this “fear hijack” quickly react with the “fight” response by getting angry and being “oppositional.”

Of course, this young man has a mother who has been depressed and anxious all his life, he witnessed domestic violence, and has had other family instabilities. Childhood traumas slow or stunt the development of the cognitive areas of the brain, leaving the emotional or reactive parts of the brain in charge. He’s also had this fear response modeled by parents who became violent with each other. No surprise that when he feels threatened emotionally he is more likely to react with unthinking responses or impulsivity, rather than thoughtful problem-solving with an eye to the consequences.

Afterward he can state the consequences to his behaviors, as is usually the case with these impulsive kids. Yet in that survival mode of the fear hijack his cognitive abilities are narrowed and not in control.

Of course, his early traumas also make learning and memory development more difficult for his brain, leading to a label as “learning disabled.” So his family life has primed him for a life of misbehavior and academic failure that others will label as dysfunctional or maybe even criminal. All because his brain never had the chance to develop and to learn a thinking approach rather than an emotional response.

When you understand this connection, it becomes extremely obvious that what we need is not therapy and drugs (absolutely not!) for these children, but parenting classes and therapy for their parents years prior. It was their parents’ inability to manage shame in emotionally mature ways that started this whole mess.

The Connection Between Anger and Shame

shame artAnger and shame are strong emotions that we have all experienced, but there is actually a connection.  Because of my experience in an abusive relationship, I saw this connection play out firsthand. I also see it in therapy patients every day.

It’s clear that physically and emotionally abusive people lash out in anger, but many experts on domestic violence do not understand why these abusers do so. Treatment focuses on “anger management,” which is rarely successful. That is because treatment does not address the underlying emotion: shame.

To me, the connection between anger and shame is clearest in abusive people. Abusers lash out when they feel ashamed or perceive they are at risk of being criticized, rejected, excluded or humiliated. They are Dominator personalities that I describe in “Pack Leader Psychology,” and use anger as a way to intimidate others and manipulate relationships. They do this to defend against criticism, which to them feels especially shaming because they have low self-esteem.

Anger is an essential survival emotion and can be helpful if it is used as a self-protective response to legitimate boundary violations in relationships. If someone does something morally wrong, you should get angry. It is actually healthy for you, the other person, and the relationship.

However, anger is often used as a defensive response to feelings of shame. When people who have low self-worth feel emotionally threatened by perceived criticism, they have three primal responses:

1. lash out at others in anger (fight response),

2. lash in at themselves (flight response), or

3. avoid conflict (avoidance or freeze response).

These are three classic fear responses of all social animals, including humans. The root cause of the shame/fear connection is an intrinsic sense of low self-worth combined with a natural fear of exclusion or rejection by the social group. I discuss this three-way link extensively in “Pack Leader Psychology,” because I believe it is essential to understanding human behavior.

If you are getting angry, ask yourself honestly if you have a legitimate reason to get angry, such as someone has behaved in a morally inappropriate manner. Or are you getting angry because you are ashamed of your own behavior and just don’t like getting called out on it? Are you using anger to “fight” or “lash out” at others to get them to back down, so you can feel protected from feeling shame? For Submissives and Avoiders, anger may be a last-ditch effort to protect themselves when they have been pushed too far by someone else, often a Dominator. But they need to ask:  Did my lack of assertiveness give the other person the green light to take advantage of me until I felt backed into a corner?

Pack Leader Wisdom: Anger may be the visible behavior, but shame is often the hidden emotion. 

Karma of the Crowd

The February 2014 issue of National Geographic has an interesting article on the “Karma of the Crowd.” Laura Spinney reports on research by psychologist Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews. He looked at the psychological and social effects on Indian Hindus who went on a pilgrimage to Allahabad for the Maha Kumbh Mela festival. Depending on the year, 30 to 70 million Hindus come to bathe and pray at the convergence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The thought of those crowds in a space the size of half of Manhattan (with third-world toilet facilities) makes me want to run the other way. But many pilgrims actually came home healthier and happier than when they left for the Kumbh, despite bathing in heavily polluted water and enduring stress and misery on their travels.

What was going on? Reicher pre-tested and post-tested pilgrims and non-pilgrims on their mental and physical health. The pilgrims showed a 10 percent improvement in such things as pain, breathlessness, anxiety and energy levels. Before you poo-pooh this improvement, realize that many drug companies would be thrilled with this level of success for their pharmaceuticals.

What brings these benefits? Likely the effect of shared identity. “Belonging to a crowd… might thus benefit the individual in the same ways more personal social connections do,” the article says.

Rather than crowds being harmful (think mobs and looting), crowds are critical to society, Reicher is quoted as saying. “They help form our sense of who we are, they help form our relations to others, they even help determine our physical well-being.”

The trick, though, is it can’t be just any crowded subway car. The pilgrims felt tied together in the same purpose and felt a sense of belonging.

In “Pack Leader Psychology,” I proposed a similar concept — that we social humans absolutely need a sense of acceptance and belonging to feel emotional fulfilled. I proposed that modern Western society has so many social and emotional problems because of a lack of sense of belonging to a larger group and cause — a “pack.” This article confirms that theory, even linking the life expectancy in the United States to our lack of social connections and increased isolation.

So it may be time to reconsider. Maybe that sports game is more than just about cheering the home team. And sitting in church is not just about seeking salvation. We all need “a tribe” for a sense of belonging, and with that comes wonderful benefits to our health and wellbeing.