As a young man I grew up watching the men around me to see how to be a man. What I didn’t know along the way was that we all pass along images of how to manage obstacles in living that we may not be aware of. “Image is everything”. Whether we are speaking of child development or global leadership the role of imagery in shaping patterns of relating to each other when working out conflict can’t be overstated. It pays to be mindful of how imagery on the outside and inside of the mind’s eye informs our everyday responses to stressful situations. The men I looked up to were watching the men they looked up to. So, who lingers in the unconscious minds of American men? And how do these images influence our personal and political policies when it comes to solving problems and achieving goals in living? How do they perpetuate patterns of disconnection in our relationships, how might they foster more connection?
While my brother and father are ranked among the most loving men I’ve known, they owe me a bit of an apology when it comes to imagery they passed on to me. In the height of my early adolescence well past the stages of experience dependent brain growth I was enamored with the male heroes that “did it all on their own”. They influenced the internal models of myself and the world around me, supporting some of what I was learning through experience and contradicting other experiences of more collaborative ways of dealing with life. I was downloading imagery that would contradict the nascent neurological wiring I grew up with. That is, the instinct to care which includes a sense of curiosity about why things don’t work out and an impulse to share what is happening as opposed to the instinct to defend when things go wrong. I can sum the contradiction up best with one of my early heroes of the wild west and wild city streets.
Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of the cool and sure arbiter of justice was one of the major influences on my youth in 70’s and 80’s. Whether it was looking back at the “spaghetti westerns” of his early career or “Dirty Harry”, he offered simple solutions to problems in living with others that didn’t require collaboration or consultation. His “eye for an eye” style of responding to danger was enticing and sweetened with tough slogans like, “Go ahead, make my day!” and “Feel lucky punk?”. He didn’t seem to wonder about the life form he was about to fill full of lead with that 44 Magnum nor how taking a life might affect his future development. As a viewer the inner imagery stirred by watching this solo street cleaner do his work sure did feel good. Everything felt under control in the end, taken care of, sorted out. But at what cost? It would be years before I learned just how much the “knight in shining armor” imagery only reinforced shame by placing men in positions where their vulnerability was a liability and authenticity a threat, aka Brene Brown.
Its nice to been seen as the savior who can perceive what needs to be done without reflection or consultation with others and “just do it”, but is that really how solutions to complex problems are found or how steps toward achieving our highest goals are taken? Well, I remember how intriguing this dismissive style of responding to challenges could be. Responding this way to challenges that perturb interpersonal conflict always seemed contrary to what was role modeled at home. It is of course in the resolution of conflict that innovations emerge. My brother and father seemed much more interested in working with me to solve problems and spent time teaching me how to take steps toward reaching my goals. They used force sparingly and allowed me to make mistakes and rise above them. At the same time both men a women in my life have fallen prey to the quick and easy “solutions”.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not picking on Clint Eastwood or American men or standing outside of my own humanity on this. As the great feminist mentor of my young adulthood, Naomi Wolf was keen to say, “Any feminism that pits anyone against anyone else is not operating on feminine principles (paraphrased).” There is perhaps no current public personality more sensitive to the salience of the need for collaboration since George Washington lead the United States out of it’s oppressive relationship with Great Britain! On the other hand plenty of women fall prey to punitive patriarchal models of conflict resolution.
I’ve experienced inverted patriarchy in many ways. None of the least of these was when my mother was taught by my first pediatrician that when I fainted before she spanked me with a wooden spoon (something my brain learned to do to protect me), to “Wait until he comes to and then spank him.” Well, believe me, sometimes I have fantasized about doing my own Dirty Harry routine on that doctor. Not only can such practices teach us to isolate our from our experience of physical and emotional pain but they leave sources of hatred unprocessed and available for manipulative personalities to take advantage of.
In Ron Chernow’s breathtaking biography of George Washington we learn about his experiences of losing a father and growing up with a mother who was emotionally avoidant and had a narcissistic bent on proffering from her son’s success, left him with a tendency to go cold when rendering punishment to get things done in the name of progress. But is it the women who raise the men or the men who role modeled for the women how to raise the men that handed down this punitive style of solving problems and achieving goals with others? Gender is unquestionably an important factor.
The Pulitzer Prize winning Chernow clearly portrays Washington as a man who achieved impossible goals as a farmer, businessman, professional soldier, and eventually head of state. At the same time we learn that his inner sources of disconnection contributed to a style of leadership that allowed his him to treat others harshly and at times dismiss the enslavement of human life forms by portraying it as “how we do business around here”. These unseemly aspects of his personality were a constant source of tension as they did not fit Washington’s highest values or intuitions about how to make his life at Mount Vernon or world outside of it safe and secure. The men in power of his day were British aristocrats that fostered an atmosphere of acceptance for derision toward colonial military men who were seen as less than their British counterparts. Washington’s mistakes were seen as evidence of this and used to legitimize punitive styles of relating to him and the use of both aggressive and passive aggressive forces to prevent Washington from exercising autonomy on the farm, in commerce with other nations, and in his military service during the French and Indian War.
In other words, those in power were not supporting him to figure out how to be successful and embody his highest values. When his internal life disrupted his ability to perform his critics were keen to use this against him. We can only speculate that his own sources of pain and suffering were avoided more so in light of being discriminated against in such a way. Chernow depicts moments where George the man becomes confused, distracted, and unsure about what to do. This particularly emerges when unbeknownst to him he is tangling with someone actively betraying his confidence. His lack of composure at these times became a point of focus for his opponents and is an example of their “gas lighting” techniques as they used these experiences they helped to generate to create a public image of him as an incompetent and indecisive leader. The resulting shame and panic he must have encountered might have fueled self sabotage and thwarted his role in delivering the colonists from the evil clutches of the privileged and corrupt Washington haters, but thankfully, that didn’t happen!
Despite Washington’s inner challenges he remained able to connect with the help of the Fairfax family (beloved benefactors of his youth) and later Martha Dandridge Custiss. He was able to endure repeated betrayals at the hands of his British colleagues and later continental colleagues. He learned to not draw his weapon capriciously and in fact was lauded for response flexibility as a statesman. Lucky for us Americans, he also learned how to draw the line in the sand when needed and perhaps gave us the world’s most profound example of interpersonal boundary setting by leading the Revolutionary War with clarity and a sense of justice. Like Gandalf and the Balrog he declared, “You shall not pass!” as the British continued to trespass into the life of hard working colonists by discouraging participation by all and allowing them to hide their practice of privileging some humans over others. It’s men like Washington that can embody the more feminine principle of collaboration over dominance as the road to security that lead me to wonder what things will be like when we have a generation of children growing up with more men in psychotherapy and more women in power.
Until then, I have learned to integrate images of my professional heroes and heroines to counteract the effects of living in a punitive culture. The perpetuation of punitive v.s. reparative problem solving and goal achievement is how I think of it. I like to start with the something both men and women have in common, brains.
Despite gender-specific differences, we all have a shared basic biology of our nervous system that informs how we move about in the world. Donald Hebb was a pioneering neuropsychologist who may be most known for the phrase, “neurons that wire together fire together”. In other words, as we are stimulated by the outside world individual neurons engage in patterns of firing that strengthen in their associations with each other.
Like a call and answer system we interact with the outside world and this leaves an impression within the very cells of our nervous system. As we accumulate images from the outside we can also self stimulate those same neurons and engrain patterns of firing that will go on to shape our responses to the outside world. Enter another hero of mine, the nobel prize winning neuroscientist and professor of biochemistry, Eric Kandel. Eric’s work set the stage for identifying the biological substrate for memory.
Eric’s perceptive observation of what happens at the microbiological scale revealed a remarkable world of communication of a call and answer type that offers a way to understand how neurons that wire together store memory to make efficient use of past experience and free up space in our minds for creative and innovative adaptations to life problems.
Eric paired up with the “Aplysia“. A cool sea slug that has very large neurons and a comparatively small number of them which make them excellent subjects for observation. In the picture to the right you can see a probe moving in to touch the siphon of the Aplysia which will lead the gill to the right to retract in response. What Eric and his students noticed was that after a few rounds of probing the siphon and subsequent retractions of the gill, the Aplysia will respond to less stimulation by retracting the gills even more than before. A process they would come to call sensitization and use as a model for short term memory. Later they noticed with repeated sensitization the response could last for extended periods of time. And so habituation, and its corollary dishabituation was articulated to describe long term memory and the loss of long term memory respectively.
Now Eric had been a passionate student of psychoanalysis who was convinced that the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and those that followed in that tradition could be supported by biology. In particular was the problem of memory. What lead the way to Nobel fame for Eric was his tracking of molecular changes in neurons that allowed for short term memory as well as the long term potentiation of memory. How were changes at the molecular level supporting the storage of memory that shapes the inner unconscious as well as conscious imagery of the mind?
In short term memory various molecules including neurotransmitters, amines, and others become active when receiving stimulation from the outside world. Repeated and/or strong stimulation of neurons keep the cells active and receptive to coordinating motor movements that were recently relevant in the life of the organism (short term memory). When the stimulation persists the nucleus (commander in chief) of the cells becomes involved and more molecular communications lead to the synthesis of proteins (long term memory) that will alter the physical structure of the cell via the growth of additional dendritic spines. The nucleus is like the brain of the cell in charge of organizing the maintenance of cell life and responses to interactions within and without the cell membrane.
Like a president or executive of any kind, the nucleus is dependent on the communication of reliable information about what is happening. As with the Aplysia, if there is a threat to the organism as evidenced by stimulation to the siphon then withdrawing the gills is life preserving. But what if that stimulation is just one of Eric’s students studying the neurological basis of memory? Is that really such a threat? Well the Aplysia doesn’t know the difference does it? It’s physical response is what psychologist Endel Tulving calls anoetic. Non knowing consciousness. It just does, it doesn’t know it does. So if we want to be a bit smarter than a sea slug this means we ought to “just do it” sparingly!
Well good thing our nervous systems are not as simple as sea slugs. We are not anoetic creatures. We are autonoetic, or self-knowing. We not only know, but we know that we know. We have sophisticated autobiographical memory that allows us to simulate the past in our self conscious minds to inform present responses. Donald and Eric have made major strides in helping us understand ourselves by studying simple organisms and imagining how the non-physical mind is supported by the intra-cellular communications of neurons.
Other researchers are noticing how the fact that we “know and remember what we do” shapes our responses. Just like the process of sensitization and habituation we can develop conscious self states and interpersonal patterns of communication that promote thoughtful connection and sharing or impulsive, defensive withdrawal from the life preserving process of communicating.
In fact, Eric was lead to the simple and microscopic world by his awareness of the relevance of childhood memories to the human condition and development (psychoanalysis). Sure enough the storage of autobiographical memories is what generates the neural imagery that we experience as “self”. While the details of how the mind and self arise from biology remains a mystery we know enough to confirm that we experience imagery colored by the past that informs how open or closed our mind becomes to what is outside of the mind’s eye.
Not unlike the Aplysia’s simple learning to withdraw or retract life preserving structures (gills) in favor of engaging in defensive maneuvers the imagery in our mind’s eye can be organized around the same preference for defense over extended life preserving structures to the environment. At the level of the self and relationships structures that form biopsychosocial channels of communication that allow for social engagement involve orienting toward others, listening, and ultimately speaking about what is going on is what is going on. Cultural artifacts that lend themselves toward social engagement rather than isolation support these life preserving efforts (like extending the gills to breathe!).
Like a flight simulator unconscious self processes simulate what is happening oand influence our interpretations and selection of motor movements (including what we say) via the activation of autobiographical memory. In large part we are rehearsing what to do and say in regard to social relationships. Our survival and success depends on whether or not these simulations support collaborating with others. The painting to the right depicts the inner imagery of a client of mine. This client was in their 40’s when they came to see me. This person learned to fear reaching out to connect authentically with others for many years following childhood abuse and neglect. Rather than collaborate when confronted with conflicts they responded to perceived threats by withdrawing, striking out, and/or attacking their self. For decades this went on before becoming aware that the danger was no longer a realistic threat and these misinterpretations were contributing to more disconnection and deprivation. This client was a highly functional and productive professional and well respected in their field. They adapted to the inner pain and progressively moved into more loving relationships. For many years however, they had described their situation as “surviving” while “thriving” was always just beyond their reach.
Over time our Aplysia-like responses coordinate with self imagery generated by historical patterns of defensiveness and we can come to respond to opportunities to collaboratively problem solve and achieve goals with hostility. We come to be seen as offensive when we are really defensively protecting ourselves from our own inner imagery. One of my all time favorite examples of this is displayed by the Daleks in the now revived episodes of “Doctor Who”. These infamous villains move about the universe motivated by hate. They offer a singular solution to obstacles that get in their way, “EXTERMINATE!” It’s a great word. Fun to say. In the end there is even some logic to just exterminating the opposition to our goals.
Forcefully removing obstacles to goals we have does work in the short term. Being looked down on as a colonialist soldier not worthy of the esteem of the real British officers would have contributed to a tendency to hide away feelings that got in the way of “just getting things done!” While less noble, Dirty Harry’s vigilante justice was his way as a talented, non-conforming, investigator who wasn’t allowed to fit in, to fit in. These strategies allow us to clean up the outside world and impress others, while neglecting what is going on on the inside. I was shocked to find that inside the Dalek, what I thought was just the mobilization of mechanized murder, was a soft, tender,organic bit of flesh. I’ve seen in less fantastic but no less dramatic ways how even the most outwardly kind of my clients find themselves at the mercy of rigid defenses when overly stressed or when stress is placed in just the right spot to evoke historically old patterns of disconnection that create an outer image of a Dalek-like person.
The Daleks were made to be war machines by having their mutated post-nuclear bodies modified to remove all emotion with the exception of hate. Like the Daleks we can come to isolate memories and the negative emotions they generate in subtle everyday ways. To stay in control of what would be disturbing inner sensations and feelings that we have little practice handling we develop self states that take on more of a historically informed persona that avoids social engagement. They leave little room for the ahistorical ongoing awareness of what our 5 senses and 6th (gut feelings) sense tells us about the present. It’s like a loss of what I call the “Experiencing Self”. What I call self abandonment. Our experiencing self is subdued by these historical self states that are so focused on signs of danger they prevent the perception of opportunities to safely communicate about our inner more authentic, present moment experience. The loss of connection to our in the moment private emotional life contributes to misinterpreting the intentions of others as internal imagery takes precedence over feedback from the actual outside world and recreates circumstances that are more likely to mirror the past defensive responses.
With successful psychotherapy that focuses on learning to use our feelings as a guide, safely bond with others, and develop self compassion, we can process the memories that maintain the inner apocalyptic scenes and orient ourselves to the present moment. When this happens, like my client depicted in the second painting on the right (after a major piece of therapetic work was completed), even intense feelings of hate may be present, but so are other feelings, and so is an awareness of our self in the present (depicted by the “observing” face in the left hand corner). The once unbridled emotions are shown here contained by the two hands. The self states that are associated with the abuse pictured above and the self states associated with unprocessed grief (father died when client was a teen before the abuse could be processed) below are more organized. The inner history becomes organized and made available to inform the present, not replace it. In this way inner imagery that once made the mind/body a scary place to reside becomes inner wisdom on how to extend life preserving channels of communication.
So while the Daleks go around “cleaning up the universe” by taking out all the “unlucky punks” they leave their feelings of hate unintegrated with the story of their pain and therefore, contribute to more disconnection in the universe. Their mechanical exterior reflects the rigidity of a mind organized around the protection of a tender inside world resistant to feedback from the outside. Ironically, psychotherapy may seem like a “soft” approach where the attuned relationship of client and therapist allows for the sharing of information between rigid and vulnerable parts of the self, however, the ability to accurately perceive safety supports more strategic defensive functioning. Like Gandalf drawing the line with the Balrog.
When we seek to alleviate pain and suffering in the world and reserve the use of our defenses as back up for the infrequent occasion that we are tangling with someone who is bent on manipulation, then we are establishing safety by making the instinct to care our primary guide. I believe the instinct to care is the biological substrate that motivates biopsychosocial resources to process what is happening in the world. We discern as best we can with our limited human perception by constantly updating our images and in so doing minimize the kind of collateral damage that a single minded focus on danger has a way of maximizing. In so doing we make the world a place where we can all collectively go about meeting our needs through hard work that doesn’t make us vulnerable to pursuing short cuts. It’s a tough job but acting like a hater makes it tougher and leaves us pretty lonely in the universe…at least in our mind!