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The "Weakened Identity"

The “Weakened Identity”

(Click here if you missed Part 3.)

Bob is a Vietnam Veteran.  I was his psychiatrist.  We met weekly for a few years at the trauma clinic at the VA Medical Center in Brockton, MA.  Bob is a good family man that anyone would be happy to know.  But, he suffers still with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD).

This post is not about PTSD.  Most of us will never face what Bob had to.  His case illustrates, however, in the extreme the features of a “Weakened Identity” that the rest of us may exprience to a much less intense degree.  The sharp relief of his exprience can inform our own much less intense one.  His growth is also an example of a pathway from unsuccessful to successful suffering and the “Compassionate Identity.”   We’ll use Bob’s case to go over some of the brain science and psychology that define a Weakened Identity and how these relate to the anatomy of both extremism and civility.

Bob had been very idealistic as a teen-ager.  He enlisted in the Marines at 18 to give himself to a cause he felt was worth fightng for: liberty and the defeat of oppression in the world.  He was stationed along the border with North Vietnam in Quang Tri in the  “I Corp” region of South Vietnam.

If your life depended on it, could you read what is in these eyes?

He recalled to me one of several terrible episodes in which, while on patrol, a woman approached his fireteam carrying a bundle that looked like it might be a baby.  But, the men had heard that other units had suffered serious casualties in similar situations when the bundles turned out to be AK-47s or plastic explosives.  Knowing this he and other men in his unit had been forced into an impossible dilemma.   After repeated calls to the woman to back away from the men, they felt they had no choice but to shoot her.  Whether she was carrying a weapon or not, the fact that he was in the position to even have to consider shooting a woman brought home to him that it was not so easy to tell himself he was fighting for liberty and to end oppression in the world.  The world was nowhere near as black and white as he had thought.  There were difficult decisions that had to be made in life.  In his case, a wrong decsion resulted in someone being dead.

Bob is not an evil man.  He is not a weak man.  Far from it.  He is a very decent man that you would be proud to know.  He has been through the most wrenching of human experiences: war.  No one told him that, in the 20th Century, 90% of casualties of war are civilians.  He did not expect to be in the position to have to kill civilians.  This devastated him.

After this horrific event, he wondered if there could be any good in the world.  Could there be a loving God who would allow such a thing to happen?  He wondered if he had been kidding himself all along believing that there could be good in the world.  Or, at the very least, if there was good in the world, he felt he certainly had nothing to do with it.   He felt that he had no right to strive for anything good in his life, if there actually was anything good to strive for.

This caused him to feel alone and uncomfortable around other people.  It was as if he was putting on aires pretending to be interested in what people’s lives were about.  Nothing held any real worth to him.  He felt that the things that he experienced most strongly in his life were overpowering feelings like despair and guilt, not to mention the horror he felt when memories of his experience haunted him at night.

How could he share what was most real to him with another?  He thought he was doomed to being alone in the world as no one would ever want to know of the internal world in which he lived.  How could he share with someone else feelings that were so overwhelming to him and so negative, feelings  for which he often couldn’t find words?

All of this left him emotionally exhausted.  Without anything good he could believe in, he couldn’t develop any meaningful goals for his life.  Without a valued goal, he had no reason to be motivated.  Without motivation, he could not develop new skills to create a sense of competence in life.  His sense of worth as a man was devastated as a result.

Bob felt as if he had no center in his life.  Adrift, he wondered what would become of him.  His life was characterized by despair and isolation.  This is the part of the experience of many who have suffered a severe trauma and developed the symptoms of PTSD.  A lesser version of this is also common to many people without PTSD who feel confused about the suffering in their life.

Bob’s experience is an extreme.  It is something to keep in mind when an opportunity to be a friend to a veteran arises in your life.  But, what Bob experienced in capital letters, many of us experience in smaller measure.

This sense of feeling diminished as a person I call a “Weakened Identity.”  It is characterized by difficulty identifying with a goal in life.  The weight of a previous experience has shaken one’s sense of value in any goal.  Perhaps more importantly, there is a paralyzing doubt in whether you can achieve any worthy goal.  This paralysis of motivation is one of the key features of the Weakened Identity.

Control of our lives should come from our thinking cortex, not our lower brain structures.

An underlying fear and anxiety are two of the other key features of a Weakened Identity.  Fear is the arousal we experience from the survival emotion that is directed at a particular threat.  Anxiety is that same arousal but without a clear threat.

There are structures deep in our brain that are the engines of these unthinking survival emotions.  One of them is called the “amygdala.”  Among other things, the amygdala is like a switchboard relay station for survival emotions like fear and anger.  When the amygdala is activated, it completely takes over control of the the way the brain processes information.  It colors our experience with strong survival emotions like fear and anger.

Remember that song, “When you’re similing?” My Mom used to sing it to me.  The song tells us that when you smile, the whole world smiles with you.  When your laughing, the sun come shining through.  But, when you’re crying, you bring on the rain.  Neurologically, when you experience a strong emotion, that emotion becomes the filter for all of your thinking.  So, if you are sad, everything you experience is processed as proof of why you should be sad.  If you are angry, whatever the person you’re speaking to says is processed as proof of how evil they are.  Ever been on a laughing jag?  Every stupid thing is hilarious.  The more stupid, the funnier.  Every strong emotion becomes a filter for all of our experience.  So, we stop experiencing the world for what it is, and instead, see the world through the filter of our emotions, which reinforce themselves by making all of our thoughts justify them.

Louis Armstrong did a great version of "When you're smiling!"

Emotions also act like the topics in a file cabinet for our memory.  When you are sad, everything you experience is filed as a memory for “sad.” We remember something much more clearly if it is associated with an emotion.  It’s a positive feedback loop.  You feel an emotion.  The emotion colors all your experience to justify that emotion.  Your memories are then laid down in the brain with that emotion attached as a kind of memory jogger.  If you feel that emotion again, the memories associated with it return.  If you remember something, the emotion it is filed under comes back, too.  Again, emotions reinforce themselves.   Sadness will produce more sadness; fear, more fear; anger, more anger; love, more love, etc.

This neurological wiring of our brain makes sense if you are running from or trying to fight a lion that wants to eat you.  In order to stay alive, you need to remain very motivated and focused on how everything might be a potential threat.  Your strong emotions of fear or anger keep your motivation up and focused on the threat.  But, if you are trying to make a marriage work and raise kids, keep a job and have friends, this mechanism is destructive.  We need another mechanism.  If we are not aware that we need to turn off our survival mechanisms, we may be perpetually surprised as to why our life is not working.  It’s a matter of over-active and unchecked survival emotions getting in the way.

When we are able to make a choice to calm our emotions, the cortex begins to exert a braking influence on the amygdala.  We can choose to calm down, to quiet our fear and extinguish our anger.  This choice is the key.  The survival mechanisms of the brain, fear and anger, are in their full glory and ready to go right from birth.

A choice is like a push-up. The more you exercise a particular choice, the more the neural circuits that support that choice are strengthened.

But, our higher cortical reasoning requires exercise.  These higher cortical functions are not fully developed at birth. The pieces are there at birth, but they are not in working order at birth.  They require the exercise of choice to bring them into play.  The more we use them, the more they become our ‘default” way of operating.  Each choice reinforces the neural networks that support that choice.

If we choose one way of being, the neural networks associated with that choice are strengthened.  The neural networks of those choices we don’t make become weakened.  In the same way a muscle gets bigger and better coordinated with exercise, neural circuits that we choose to use become more robust with each choice.   So, our “natural” fear and anger come spontaneously.  If we let them reign, they only get stronger.  Our civilized feelings, on the other hand, like calm, reciprocity, compassion and empathy are there, but they require the exercise of choice.  If we don’t exercise them with choice, they do not develop.  In fact, they may feel unnatural and foreign.  These higher cortical functions, our civilized self, are like gems in a mine.  We may be sitting on the mine, but decide that making the effort to dig for these gems is unnatural and too much trouble.  We are poorer as a result.

You can think of bias as neural patterns in the brain for thinking, feeling and behaving that are reinforced by continual use.  These become our default neural patterns.  We think they are the “truth” because they seem so very natural and obvious to us.  But, they are really only our habitual ways to think, feel and act.  Anger and fear come naturally, for instance.  But, they persist in our character because we refuse to choose to change them.  The Compassionate Identity, which embodies the sum of all the gems we possess of higher cortical civilizing functions, is only possible with choice, repeated choice in spite of natural feelings of fear or anger.

If we make the choice to calm our survival emotions, the amygdala will let go of our thinking and allow us to think creatively without reverting to biases in our thinking, feeling and behavior.  The vast potential of our cortext is then opened through this exercise of will.   The neural networks we liberate, if exercised over and over by repeated choices to calm fear and anger, will result in a personality style like that of  Dr. Ruhe‘s mentioned in the previous post.  The discipline of his repeated choices led to a character that eventually found the pull of fear and anger virtually extinguished.  His mental capacities, as a result, flourished in a lifetime of productive creativity that was directed towards service to others.

If we neglect this choice, the neural circuits of our survival emotions only strengten their grip on our thinking and problem solving.  We become the prisoners of the grip of our own amygdala.  But now, instead of it enhancing our survival, it is the cause of our estrangement from others and the undermining of our integrity.

The confidence to exercise will is exactly what the person struggling with a Weakened Identity lacks.  A general tone of anxiety can predominate this person’s thoughts, feelings and actions.  Preoccupations with real and imagined threats grip the mind.  A general feeling of worry and fear of bad consequences plague the assessment of every situation and paralyize decision making.   Planning becomes difficult.   One’s actions might be ineffective as an over-aroused brain pushes us into poorly thought through desperate activity that misses the mark that was intended.   A form of some or all of these dilemmas are present in a Weakened Identity.

Rekindling the resolve to make different choices is the way out of this dilemma.  The final posts of this series deal with how that can be done.  The Unity Project is a methodology to do this with kids.

Spinning wheels.

Our thinking can turn this ineffective emotional and mental spinning of wheels into a false virtue and cause us to devalue anyone who acts with certainty.  We can consider them to be dangerous unthinking zealots.  The very idea of certainty itself becomes entirely suspect.  We see this on the Left politcally, when there is an accusation of extremism levied against anyone with a conviction.  There is an important distinction between a moral conviction and blind zealotry.  This distinction is sometimes lost to the person with a Weakened Identity.  Just as the desire to carefully consider options and question what appears to be certain can wrongly be seen as moral weakness by a person with a Rigid Identity.

There is real wisdom in the hesitation in the Weakened Identity.  Questioning certainty is fundamental to reciprocal relationships and innovation.  In the Weakened Identity, however, we see this questioning in its paralyzing extreme.  In excess, these important strengths lead to a paralysis of motivation and a lack of clarity about noble goals in life.  With nothing to hold as a worthy goal and no sense of capacity to reach for anything noble, nihilism and self indulgence become two extreme back-waters of the Weakened Identity.

These points became the themes of my work with Bob.  Helping him restore a capacity to choose.  They were small choices at first, exercising new neural circuits and dealing with the awkwardness of developing new habits.  We dealt with coping with the anxiety caused by the attempt to make new kinds of decisions; how to tolerate anxiety and ambuity without falling into fear and despair.  We explored new ways of seeing himself that did not stem from highly charged impressions taken on during the worst part of his life.  We worked toward a balance between assertion and tact, resolve and reflection.  He still deals with symptoms of PTSD.  But, he has a roadmap out of his paralysis, a map he uses daily to exercise his will to grow in humility and wisdom.  On balance, Bob is successfully meeting the challenges of his suffering.

I should say that the constructs of a Weakened Identity and a Rigid Identity are my own abbreviations for complex styles of personality with many features.  It is hard to find a person who is exclusively one or the other.  In fact, the two tend to reinforce each other.  More on that in my upcoming book.  I also must point out that a Weakened Identity is not a pathology.  It is an abbreviation for a style of approach to one’s struggles in life.  It is helpful also in that it provides a way to think about how fear influences our social life, especially in contrast to a Rigid Identity.

Next, we’ll take a look at the Rigid Identity, how it is constructed and operates.  It’s destructive elements and the seeds of strength it contains that can be helpful in a Compassionate Identity.

In Part 5: Extremism to Civility: “The Rigid Identity” we’ll get at the roots of extremism that come from a Rigid Identity.  Then, we can move into what liberates our greatest potential: our “Compassionate Identity.”  We’ll cover that in the 7 subsequent posts.

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All Rights Reserved, John Woodall, MD, Copyright, 2011.

Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne

Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne

With the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we have all had a chance to reflect on the meaning of that terrible day in our lives.  Many of these posts are about the choices we face as individuals as the challenges of these trying times weigh more and more heavily on us.   Ultimately, this choice either will lead us down a road of fear and anger, or we will find a higher way, a path of mature restraint, reflection and compassion.  For each of us as individuals and as a nation, this anniversary puts this choice into sharp relief.

I want to lay out in the next few posts how the psychology of fear and anger moves in society after a tragic loss and how these get expressed as extremism if we don’t use the skills needed to choose to work from the “better angels of our nature.”  We need to understand the mechanism of this choice so we have some tools at our disposal when the next tragic event touches our lives.  We’ll start with a quick discussion about grief.

Often times we hear people talk about “getting over” their grief.  It makes it sound like grief is a cold that we just need to recover from.  But, grief is much more than that.  It winds up defining us for good or bad, depending on the choices we make.  Grief is the rightful expression of the loss of something we love.  To say we are “getting over” our grief almost sounds like we are saying we are “getting over” our love.  It devalues what we love.  No, we don’t “get over” grief.  We allow grief to bring us to a more full understanding of what it is we love, what we value most in life and how we will live our life as a result.  In fact, it is not approaching grief in this way, avoiding or devaluing it, that causes problems.  More on that below.

Any terrible loss will evoke grief in us.   In healthy grief, for instance, we think of the person who has left us and are reminded of their good qualities.  As we grieve, there is a natural and necessary sadness that accompanies the grief.  Grief resolves itself when we find a way to give meaning to the loss, especially when we resolve to somehow keep alive in our own lives the good qualities of those who have passed on.  When we decide to make those qualities that were alive in our loved one alive in our own life, the energy of grief is transformed into moral commitment.   This is the gift of grief.

When my mother passed away, I was asked to give her eulogy.   I saw this as a difficult, but final precious gift I could give her.  Before the funeral, I bought every white rose I could find at all the florists in town and brought them to the church for the service.  I spoke of my mother’s fine qualities, her virtues of courage, her openness to see the delight in every situation, her deep strength and generosity.  We laughed and cried as I told stories we all knew that demonstrated these virtues.

Then, I asked my 8 brothers and sisters to come up and receive the white roses.  I asked them to give these roses to their kids.  I asked my nephews and nieces to accept a rose as a symbol of their grandmother’s best qualities.  It was now their task to keep these virtues alive in their own lives and to add to them with their own “flowers,” their own unique strengths, talents and virtues.  Together, these “flowers” make up our family garden of character.  I invited them to be attentive to that garden.  To be responsible for its health and to not settle for only taking from it, but also to give to it, freely, consciously and generously.

This movement from grief to moral commitment has been a formula for working through grief since at least the times of the Funeral Oration of Pericles in 431 BC up to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  But, this grieving process can go awry.  In the uncertainty and powerlessness we feel after the horror of a deliberately cruel mass-murder like after 9/11 or the senseless killings in Tucson, we become vulnerable to our own worst nature.  It is the role of leaders of point out the higher road to us and lead the way up it.

We are wired, by genetics and neurology, to instinctually react to threats with certain survival mechanisms.  These instinctual survival responses arise from the part of our brain, the brain stem, that doesn’t think, but instead, reacts quickly to get us out of trouble.  This is a good thing, too.  If we had to think about what it means when a car is barreling down on us, we would likely get run over.  Instead, our brain stem reacts and has us jump out of the way reflexively, without a thought.  The thinking comes later.  So, when we face a threat, we are wired to react and not think, in such a way as to get us out of danger.

The sense of powerlessness we feel after a terrible loss acts like a threat to us.  It can stir up the same unthinking survival responses just as surely as a lion chasing us can.  This sense of powerlessness jump starts our survival responses.  To amplify and focus our attention, this survival response is attached to two emotions: fear or anger (or both).  When fear and anger are turned on, our normal grief stops.  We are no longer concerned with completing the work of grief.  We are no longer viewing the world objectively.  We become fixated on survival by fleeing the threat or attacking it.

Fear and Anger stop the process of higher thought: acquiring wisdom and higher moral conviction.  Fear and anger are excellent lenses to focus our attention and resolve in times of threat.  But, they are disaterous in social settings if we want to create community, foster relationships and raise healthy children.  If fear becomes an unexamined habitual pattern of response in our life, it ultimately leads us to alienation and a paralysis of our motivation.  Anger leads us to conflict and the focus of our will on divisiveness.  These two feed extremism, which we will discuss in the next posts.

Fear and anger become filters that color all of our mental processes.  We no longer look at the world objectively.  Everything we perceive is processed through the filter of this strong emotion.  So, if we are afraid, everything we perceive tells us we should stay afraid.  If we are angry, everything we take in is “proof” of why we are justified in being angry.  Objective thinking stops.   This is fine if we are trying to stave off a threat and need to be entirely focused on our survival.   But, if the situation doesn’t call for fear or anger, our mental abilities remain constrained by these emotions nonetheless.  We are less able to deal with the situation we face on its own terms.

In a sense, we become enslaved to our survival emotions if they are operating without being restrained by our higher cortical brain centers.  These cortical brain centers only come into play as a result of the practice of choice: the choice to calm our fear and anger.  We are controlled by our instincts until we choose to be guided by our moral intentions.

Neurologically, we could say that when fear and anger are turned on, the cortex of the brain, where we engage creative thinking, where choice is exercised across a broad spectrum of options, becomes subservient to the brain stem.  The moral reasoning part of the brain is dominated by the survival reflexes driven by the brain-stem.  With anger and fear, control of the brain is coming from the bottom/unthinking structures of the brainstem instead of the most human part that is on top, the cortex.

It was my pleasure and privilege recently to meet and interview a very interesting man for the book I am writing about this topic of our ability to make the best choice in a terrible situation.  His name is Jimmy Dunne.   Jimmy is one of the senior partners of Sandler O’Neill & Partners, a financial firm that suffered the heartbreaking loss of 66 people to the cowardly and cruel attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  The remarkable story of the recovery and growth of Sandler O’Neill has been told many times since 9/11. Jimmy Dunne is the driving force behind that truly great American story of resilience.

One of the things that struck me about Jimmy as we spoke was how freely he showed emotions about his personal and professional loses of that day.  He grieved openly for the loss of dear friends and colleagues.  He called his grief a “genuine emotion.”  It was a proof of his love and care for those he lost.  For him, this was the only manly and honest thing to do, weep for their loss.   He had the courage and heart to not let the weight of his significant grief turn his heart toward hatred or fear.  In fact, in a very moving eulogy he gave at his best friend’s funeral, he emphatically called out, “You do not give in to hate!  You do not let fear run your life!”

It takes tremendous discipline, clarity of vision and moral courage to say this and mean it.  I asked Jimmy about why he said this about fear and hatred. They could have easily been justified as his response to that terrible day.   The talk at that time in the country was very much about anger.  A pervasive fear seemed to grip everyone.  He said these were feelings based on “the smallness of a person.”   There is nothing small about Jimmy Dunne.  With this kind of clarity about the value of what these individuals meant to him and without the distortions of anger or fear, his resolve became galvanized to make his firm successful and to become more than what he was, to become more like those whom he loved and lost.

This kind of response is the best of what it means to be a human being.  Jimmy Dunne has made an important point.  Emotions like anger and hatred are reactive emotions.  They are unthinking reflexes.  In that sense, they do not come from reasoned choice.  Anatomically, the unthinking reflexive brain stem region from which they come is often referred to as the “reptilian brain,”  not the creative and reflective cortex that is unique to humans.

What a man like Jimmy Dunne was able to do in his rejection of hatred and fear, despite heart-wrenching loss, we must all do to one degree or another as we face the uncertainties and dangers of life.  That means being able to grieve honestly, understanding that this is really nothing more than continuing to honor those we love when they are gone.  Being able to do this successfully leads to what I call a “Compassionate Identity” that deals with integrity and honesty with the world around us.  No doubt, Mr. Dunne’s phenomenal financial success, as well as his many deep and longstanding friendships, are a result of his ability to reject the “smallness” we all carry, and exercise instead an habitual choice toward something higher.

If we are unable to make this choice, significant consequences haunt us and ultimately undermine our personal integrity, our happiness and our relationships.  The next posts examine two major expressions of these consequences, the “Weakened Identity” and the “Rigid Identity.”  Both of these identities are at the center of the national discussion going on now in the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson.

We can disagree.  We can compete in the world of ideas.  But, hatred and fear not only tear us apart personally, they undermine the fabric  of civilization and weaken democracy.

Click here for “Suffering Sucessfully”

Related posts:

Read about Jimmy’s wife, Susan Dunne here: “What Sue Remembers

A wonderful story from the Balkans:  “Compassion, Fantastic Coffee and My Shock

Please post this to your own blog or Facebook page!  Follow my posts by clicking the RSS Feed above.  Let me know what you think, comment below!

All Rights Reserved, John Woodall,MD, Copyright,2011