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A Psychologist's Thoughts on Clinical Practice, Behavior, and Life

The Benefit and Danger of Tunnel Vision

While focused concentration is prized, too great focus can be dangerous. Like when, obsessed by a personal concern, one incautiously crosses a busy street or, depressed by a recent job loss or romantic breakup, the person suicides. In these cases perspective is lost as tunnel vision predominates.
Yet tunnel vision, exaggerated narrow focus, can save lives too as when traversing a crime-laden neighborhood or on the battlefield. Unhelpful tunnel vision happens when the presenting situation is misperceived: as a permanent rather than temporary setback, and being perilous not innocuous.

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The Benefit and Danger of Holding An Inaccurate Self-Image

While it is often believed that holding an incorrect concept of who one is (what psychologists term a "sense of self") is harmful, this is not always true. Being common with emotional disorders, these sufferers do benefit for it grants them hope and protection from deep suicidal despair. Moreover, the fantasy may indicate an embryonic talent which could lead to significant achievement after their healing through treatment. Yet while comforting, holding an unrealistic fantasy with no hope of success can lead to greater despair.

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The Murderers Among Us

The Killer Across The Table, by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker describes the interviews of noted serial killers during which childhood and psychological similarities were found.
All had a troubled childhood, having experienced a far from "good-enough" parenting with much cruelty and/or sexual abuse and, often, a particularly damaging relatioinship with their mother. Which is not surprising since the mother-infant interaction is paramount when the basic ego capacities governing impulse control and thinking are formed.
These killers had a remarkable ability for psychological "splitting," separating and walling-off one aspect of their thinking and emotional life from another. Thus they could murder and bury a young child but later volunteer to join a search party while being concerned that their child get to school.
Rage and power were the domineering factors even in killings with a sexual element. The killer of a young girl from a neighboring home, who came to the killer's house to deliver Girl Scout cookies, knew from the moment he opened the door that he would kill her. This man, a high school teacher who lived with his mother, was told that she would refuse to see him and cut him from her will if he married. This caused him to break his engagement and added to his two types of rage. One that he could control, as when a driver cut him off. But the second he could not, as when the unlucky girl came to his house.
Another killer repeated his crime after being paroled following his rape and murder of a young woman. That these killers are not insane (which is a legal term) is evidenced by the care they took during the murders and in disposing of the bodies to avoid being caught.
This book evidences: the crucial need for more accurate assessment of those who are arrested; to consider even such unlikely suspects as family friends and loving relatives as the potential culprit; and to take reported suspicions seriously since many killing sprees would have been ended earlier had this been done, particularly those in hospitals by medical staff.
According to the authors: all serial killers have psychological conflicts between grandiosity and inadequacy; a sense of personal entitlement causing them to feel that they need not follow society's laws; and the ability to choose, making them deserving of capital punishment.

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When a Child Complains to Their Parent

Communication isn't always straightforward. About the only thing that a parent can be sure of is if their child complains of feeling ill, this being evidenced by fever or another serious symptom. Otherwise, a child's complaint may be valid or indirect, which is similar to the behavior of adults.


Consider the man who is asked to purchase something by his wife and "forgets." This may be accurate if he has pressing issues on his mind or indicate his indirect expression of anger by behaving passive-aggressively. Similarly, a youth may behave in a puzzling way or make a puzzling statement to express a concern about the parent or another which they fear to express openly. Perhaps wanting greater independence than the parent allows or to react against what they interpret as the parent's deprecating comment.


As I never tire of repeating, the unconscious is very powerful and one must respect its power.

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The Unacknowledged Benefits of Delusional Thinking

A middle-aged woman told her physician, "I've never had a chronic illness and don't think I can develop one." "That's a good delusion. Keep it," the doctor replied. Yet delusions have a bad history, being associated in many minds with horrific scenes from countless horror movies. But delusional thinking can have benefits too.

A person whose life has been a succession of personal disasters from psychiatric hospitalizations to painful injury to poverty develops the delusion that the FBI is watching them. Similarly, a soldier on the battlefield, close by comrades who are being killed, tells themself they will survive. In the first example, the delusion may protect the person from suicide, since if the FBI is watching them, they must be of great importance and is thus worthy of respect. A soldier's delusion of certain longevity keeps them fighting and increases their and their comrades' probability of survival.

Yet delusional thinking is, of course, generally destructive since only through reality-based thinking can the problems of living be resolved. The anxious depression that accompanies delusional thinking is proper since this type of thinking reduces situational adaptability and thus increases personal peril.

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Healing Childhood Psychological Damage Through Creativity

The stress of creativity has long been known. Dedicated artists struggle all their lives, seeking financial success which is rarely achieved, motivated by what one might call their "creative addiction." But creativity, though not healing, can also grant meaning to an artist's life, rescuing them from life-long despair as they seek perfection in their work. These include such survivors of dreadful childhoods as Edvard Munch and Thomas Wolfe. Thereafter, Munch led a nomadic life and Wolfe's relationships were notoriously troubled as both unconsciously sought, through their creations, the good-enough parenting which they lacked as children.

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When the Mind Ignores What the Body Knows

Thirty-years ago I was asked to treat an eight-year-old child who, stricken with leukemia, had been discharged from the hospital to die at home. Though fearing the emotional turmoil, I felt unable to refuse the request, feeling that he needed someone.

 

The boy looked terrible at our first meeting, holding a white enamel tray lest he vomit. I introduced him to "our friends," the stuffed animals in my office (Bertram Bear and Darrell Dog and Barry Bird and Gregory Gorilla) while we played a board game. He looked healthy at the following sessions, not bringing a tray, and playing and interacting with our friends comparably to my other young patients. He seemed so normal that I embraced the frequent delusion that his doctors were wrong and he wasn't dying. Then one day, when he became too ill to travel, I went to his home and spoke with his parents in the kitchen while he lay in bed.

 

Despite my heavy work schedule and preoccupation with him since we met, I felt nothing when he died but my body reacted differently. Though continually healthy, I immediately developed an unpredictable explosive diarrhea which made me unable to perform my duty as expert witness in court. Medical tests found nothing wrong and when the diarrhea ended two months later, I sensed it was gone forever and it never returned. Had my body tried to expel the poisoning stress through diarrhea? I wondered. A primitive reaction explained by psychosomatic medicine which holds that what cannot be spoken will be expressed through the body.

 

Twenty-six-years later I was referred for treatment an adult who, after extensive surgery, was being heavily medicated by his doctor for pain and self-medicating himself with forbidden alcohol and cigarettes. Having become a troublesome hanger-out in her office, she referred him to me "for therapy." A first glance told me he was dying. He had no interest in therapy, I didn't see him for long, and my increased blood pressure lasted as briefly. A week later, without conscious intent, I spontaneously spoke of the boy who departed life too soon, leaving his parents and me and our friends to grieve. Then I did cry.

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The (Confused) Rooster That Crowed - A True Story

In a semi-rural Community Mental Health Center where I once worked, a social worker, without telling anyone, brought in a caged rooster to give to another worker at the end of the working day, parking it in a closet in the women's bathroom. When one entered the bathroom and turned on the light, the rooster crowed, mistakenly believing that it was dawn. Women leaving the bathroom and reporting having heard a rooster crow were considered crazy by the staff ("probably their time of the month").

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Murder, Mayhem, and Evil

During my first job as a psychologist at a psychiatric hospital, I told my psychoanalyst/supervisor my adolescent patient's statement. "That's psychotic," the doctor replied. Though able to define "psychotic," until that moment I hadn't grasped the power of this condition.

Similarly, when mass murder horrors become public, the perpetrators are often viewed with surprise for these men had seemed so normal. They lacked the twisted features of horror film characters and spoke coherently though of bogus beliefs. Columnists asked the usual question of "why," and provide their usual answer that "no one knows." But this is not true!

 

While predicting violence cannot be certain, it correlates highly with several factors: failure in life; substance abuse; the ego capacities governing thinking and behavior being inadequately developed; and having a fragmented "sense of self," sense of who they are. The killer's frequent decision, to suicide in "glory," is considered preferable to their continued painful existence.

 

Though their act was horrendous, these individuals are not often considered "insane." The legal definition of insanity is determined by state statute, most usually whether a person can distinguish "right" from "wrong," and rarely succeeds as a defense. But to describe them as sane does not imply that they possessed "normal" control over their behavior though, except for those with extreme limitations, this should not influence their punishment. There is evil in the world and some succumb to its temptation. Yet even for the rest of us, the unconscious is very powerful and one must respect its power.

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Swamped by the Worried Well in the Emergency Room

Emergency Room workers are being swamped by medically healthy people who are frantically seeking testing for coronavirus. Though the present national period time is exceptional, their behavior is no different from anytime when anxiety escalates and panic overwhelms.


Anxiety is the normal, healthy experience when the mind senses danger. It can produce symptoms that mimic virtually any medical disorder: pain in the head or back; nausea or dry mouth; scarily heightened blood pressure; skin eruption; lack of appetite. All instantly vanishing when the fear that aroused them disappears. During normal times, forty to sixty percent of the people arriving at an Emergency Room who fear that they're having a heart attack are really suffering a Panic Disorder. This is the condition when the normal symptoms of anxiety are misinterpreted as a deadly medical event.


More public education about the human mind is sorely needed.

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