The Negative of 1

Negative of 1 - (c) 2014 William Kannberg


What’s so wrong about being by myself?  

Some clients speak of being alone as an earned reward.  The freedom of being on their own allows them power to direct their time without the encumbrance of compromise.  I nod and agree.  Being alone brings freedom and self-direction.

I also know that being alone can be a choice that is a not about freedom, but about enclosure and self-destruction.  For those who embrace and support the splendor of being alone, but find themselves looking for answers in therapy, the rest of their story is not so nice.

The real part of their story is the reason for our meeting.  It is the negative of 1.

There is nothing wrong with being alone.  There is a freedom to self-direction without the compromise of others.  But if the state of being alone is the majority of someone’s time it can be detriment and destruction, not freedom.

Often in life we point to the negative and try to repaint it in better light, to embrace it, to encourage others to accept our choice as willing and positive.  But this is a cover, a form of fantasy lock.  We are not designed to thrive as 1, alone.  This state of aloneness, when it represents the majority of our time, is psychologically detrimental and physically destructive.

It is not easy to admit the absence of close friends and confidants in our lives.  When asked to list best friends, allies trusted with secrets, or people in our lives who would come to aid us in crisis, clients who celebrate the power of alone attest they don’t need these relationships, they are better off alone.  This is untrue.

It seems that through some mechanism we do not yet know, our mental and physical health are correlated to the fabric strength of our social interactions.  Remove the social interactions and the health of an individual deteriorates in many circumstances.

Long-term studies of populations demonstrate that those with strong interactions and attachments within communities identify themselves as happier and healthier.  Further, in a study of persons with cancer, those with strong support from social structures, family members, or communities of like-affliction, lived longer and healthier lives.

For clients in a consistent state of aloneness the corrective action is demonstrating that there are others like them, sharing the same displeasure of being alone, and not knowing what to do.  The solution is to find attachment in a community of similar others, whether that be a club, organization, hobby, or activity group.  For clients with addictions, this aloneness is correctable with participation in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, where attachments are formed with others who previously found themselves alone and suffering.

Being alone is a choice, not an inevitable state.  There is a community and social structure for every person.  Find the one that is right for you.  Make a choice not to be alone.


Know No Time

No Know Time
It was his head.

He spoke about an explosion, how it had gone off just a few feet away, forward of his colleague walking in front of him.  He told me how his colleague was thrown to the side, how he scrambled to pull him back into the pathway where it was safe.  He looked down and described how he could not recognize the face of the man whose head he held in his hands.  He looked up and announced he was dead.  He spoke with a freshness of detail, a vibrancy of emotional devastation.

He was in a state of post-trauma stress, unable to work, find his way through his house, or sleep without startling awake with vivid dreams.  He talked about ending his life, unable to continue.  As he talked about witnessing the murder of his colleague I wondered how many weeks, months, had passed since the event.  He looked up and said “It happened fifteen years ago.  I’ll never forget it.”

Emotions know no time.  An affecting emotion from twenty years past is as powerful to our psychological state as an emotion felt fifteen minutes prior.  Time stops for emotions.   Their power can remain in full strength through an entire lifetime.

Understanding that emotions know no time is a powerful tool for dealing with the fallout from experiences that psychologically alter us.  People affected by past emotional trauma often hear from others who tell them to “move on” or “get over it.”  Their criticisms and admonishments are often more about their discomfort with someone in this emotion state, and not about helping to solve the issue.  People in this state need the relief of talking about their past trauma in the immediate real time of now, no matter how long ago it occurred.

In the safety of a therapeutic session people can recount every detail of the emotional event, as often as necessary, to pull the event apart, break it into pieces, and remove its power over them.  Once the power of the event is understood it can be disconnected from the affected emotional states, and the hold over the conscious and unconscious can be dismantled.

With work, patience and the understanding of those closest to them, most manage to find their way back to a life that is not lived in a state of fear, or within an uncontrolled circle of repeating emotional trauma.  This work is long and difficult.   It involves reliving past trauma in real-time, as often as necessary, in the safety of the therapeutic process.  With each retelling and reliving of the event its emotional power is decreased.   Over time the trauma becomes manageable, ultimately redefined as a dramatic and moving piece of personal history, not a controlling feature of daily life.

Emotions know no time.   Understanding the power they can have over us, years after a traumatic event, can help move us forward and escape the time trap they hold us within.

Fantasy Lock

Lock Why can’t they just admit it?  How difficult could that be?

Sometimes a specific question or issue drives a client to seek help.  Other times a client’s reaction to the choices of others bothers them most.  Many times these two issues come from the same source of trouble.

Working with these issues is daunting and emotional.  The process involves a re-examining of a life lived, and a questioning of who and what defines someone.  This is often what frightens people most about therapy, the idea that doubts they hold about themselves will surface and cause a re-examination of their lives.  They fear that when the process finishes some of the core beliefs about their lives will be invalid, a fantasy created, too painful to release.

When the cost of reality is too painful, the price of fantasy will always be cheaper.  But why?

People who seek therapy are aware, at some level, that detrimental forces bring negative changes to their lives.  Yet, with this awareness in hand, they cannot stop or change course.  They are locked into their behaviors, forced to explain outcomes in illogical and fantastical means, fighting to keep their methods vital.  They lock themselves in a fantasy-based view of who they are, their actions, and their environment.  They cannot escape.

A woman told of how her life as a child was a wonderful example of love and support in an imperfect environment.  She talked about how her parents had faced adversity, but remained supporting and caring, taking time and energy to raise her and her siblings.  Yet, with this history, she seemed locked in depression, unable to function fully as an adult.  As we talked over several weeks the story of her family’s life unraveled, leaving a core of dysfunction and abuse.  It was only with support and time that she felt comfortable examining the reality of her life, and how her childhood affected her as an adult.

The story she told was not a lie but a fantasy lock.  She locked herself into a fantasy of her history, unable to abandon the story she had created and accept her reality.  The fantasy lock was emotionally cheaper to create, believe, and support than the abuse and dysfunction she experienced.

Fantasy lock begins when we build rationalizations for our less than optimal choices, disturbing histories, or behaviors that have harmed others.  They allow us to suspend our reality, past or current, and live in a world created.  The intent of this behavior is to protect us from psychological injury.  It builds a protective wall between reality and the fiction created to support our lives.  It is a powerful method of emotional survival.  Once created it grows more powerful over time, and exponentially more difficult to face as unreal.  The outcome is a reality too difficult to define with fact, and covered in fantastical stories easier to accept.

What is your reality?


Consider Amnesia

Consider Amnesia - (c) 2014 William KannbergHave you considered amnesia?

If we are affected by our past, then what would happen if we could forget?

The application of experience is a method of predicting future outcome.  If you walk onto frozen ice, and hear a crack, you apply a prediction pattern and race off the ice to preserve your safety.  This learning of patterns is a background process for adults, and a priority process in small children.  We use these patterns to recognize physical danger and preserve our lives, but in some circumstances the recognition of these situations becomes inaccurate and we initiate protections when there is no danger.

What happens when our ability to predict danger fails?

Incorrectly applied patterns of behavior are most often seen with people who have faced unusual experiences resulting in emotional and psychological responses outside of the norm.  For an adult who was beaten as a child by his caregiver, the sound of an aggressor behind them elicits an immediate response of danger, fear and flight, — even if there is no aggressor present.  These incorrect prediction patterns are stored by our unconscious mind, and pushed into action to keep us from danger.  These patterns, like any dangerous experience, can be elevated to hyper-vigilance by an over-protective or over-stimulated brain.  While the intention is to survive, the cost can be emotional and psychological instability.

When a person experiences frequent predicted patterns of danger, every similar situation becomes dangerous, and the presets of fear and flight put into action.  These false alarms can be exhausting, wearing out the emotional state of a person without impunity.  Because these patterns keep us from danger, the mind will go to extreme measures to keep them activated.  Even as fact proves the danger false, our brain’s choice is to react now, determine truth later.  This response keeps us alive in situations where we need vigilance.  When the pattern is incorrect, though, it is a source of never-ending alarm and stress.  For those who cannot escape their heightened state of danger, the toll of stress can be devastating.  Maintaining a state of alarm requires energy from other sources, diminishing everyday mental and physical functions and creating new stresses in the process.

It is difficult to change the prediction pattern for a danger that does not exist.  The key is to short the responsible circuit.  To acquire amnesia.  To do this requires techniques from a branch of therapy called Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).  This form of therapy stops the circuit responsible for the behavior by breaking the chain of command.  We cannot alter the electric circuit of the brain, but we can step in front of the logical path and obstruct its use.  To acquire amnesia is to short the circuit, which works to stop the response, remove the power of the pattern, and put balance back into the process.  This works by a challenging everything, assuming nothing, and demanding fact-based answers to assumptions.  In this process a person experiencing an erroneous prediction pattern would be challenged on their belief.  Here’s how that process might look.

  • Client: I need to get out of here?  Therapist: Why?  Client: I’m in danger?  Therapist: From what?  Client: I’m not going to be hurt again.  Therapist: Who is going to hurt you?  Client: I don’t know.  Therapist: What is it you don’t know?  Client: I don’t know what’s going to hurt me.  Therapist: If you don’t know what’s going to hurt you, then how can it hurt you?  Look around here and tell me what can hurt you.  Client: It’s just how I feel.  Therapist: Why is that?  Client: I don’t know.  Therapist: So you are in fear of something you can’t see, but you think will physically harm you?  How is that possible?  Client: I don’t know.  Therapist: Could it be that what you fear does not exist here?  Client: Possibly.  Therapist: Is it possible that what you fear is the past and not what is here now?  Client: Possibly.  Therapist: Why do you think that is?

In this exchange, the therapist stands in the way of any path responsible for the belief that the person in psychological jeopardy is in actual danger.  By standing in the path, it stops the prediction pattern with indisputable knowledge.  When challenged, the danger loses its power and shorts the circuit that continues the pattern.  Once the pattern is powered off, it is open for dispute, and the therapeutic process continues.

The power of this healing process is that it is a tool kit easily applied outside of therapy.  When a client is feeling in danger, they start a disputing dialog with themselves using a simple question: What if I had amnesia right now?  This question disputes the prediction pattern by labeling it as intangible, a memory, not a fact.   This allows a new path and pattern to form in place of the faulty predictions.  This process takes practice and diligence, but with time the ability to break the circuits becomes easier, the detrimental patterns subside, and the mind lowers it’s sense of alarm.