Sunday, July 10, 2016

The 10 StEPs for Double-Bound Coping Defenses Gone Bad

"Trouble typically occurs when the child faces some ongoing, relentless, and repeated threat: a hostile, controlling, abusive or abandoning parent. The child comes to expect trouble and dares not let down his guard. He comes more and more to rely on a favored defense, an habitual mode of controlling his feelings and protecting himself from a threatening, uncontrollable world. What once may have been an effective, appropriate maneuver in his mental economy expands to vanquish an entire range of experiences. In this way, a handy coping tactic becomes a neurotic defense.

"The popular belief is that defenses and neuroses arise as the result of a single, powerful trauma. Clinical observation, however, sees that a defensive style is gradually learned. It is the result of repeated and protracted encounters over the course of months or years. The attentional patterns learned in childhood become self-perpetuating: once a certain expectation of threat is adequately rehearsed, the child becomes predisposed to look for and find it -- or look away and avoid it.

"When routine strategies for handling difficult circumstances fail a child, he will resort to increasingly more distorting and denying maneuvers. The rule of thumb in coping is that when the child cannot do anything to change the situation, the remaining recourse may be to change how he perceives it. The defensive twist of attention is the job of a diversionary train of thoughts called a schema. If this works as a temporary tactic for the child, well and good; a balance is restored and he can resume an even keel. But if the threat is too persistent, too unremitting, too severe, the child dares not let his guard down.

"In such cases, when exposure to threat and frustration is continual, the child learns to meet life with the (schematic) expectation that danger is nigh. The attentional armor he adopted for the moment becomes part of his coping strategy... even when no objective threat or discomfort actually exists. He simply must keep up his defenses to ward off a danger that might come. It's a requirement.

"As a result, his cognitive world becomes threatening, paranoid and inflexible (possibly even autistic or schizophreniform), his defense prominent and dominant, and his self-deceptions permanently fixed."

Preceding closely quoted or paraphrased from Goleman, who cited Millon, and Stern, in the lead-up to these graphs in Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, 1985.

As an adult, I have observed that such children may even see and/or "know" what they are doing, but by then the neural wiring is so dense -- and the behavior so conditioned, habituated and normalized -- that their brains operate in a neurobiological state of addiction to the defense (see Bozarth, Khantzian, Koob, and Mellody).

They are trapped in a maddening, anxiety- or depression-inducing double-bind of paradoxical injunctions (a.k.a. mutually conflicting instructions and requirements; see Block, as well as Bateson, Bowen, Jackson, Watts, and Watslawick) derived from their childhood adaptations to the relentless threat to their emotional equilibrium that was once caused by external sources, but is now thoroughly internalized. "You must do this, but if you do, you will be wrong because you did not do that. And you must do that, but if you do, you will be wrong because you did not do this."

They are typically trapped in an overbearing degree of common cultural, moral conditioning (see Kohlberg), resulting in guilt, shame, regret, remorse and morbid reflection. ("Too much of a good thing may not be.") This particular double-bind is very common in alcoholics, substance abusers, foodies of all sorts, gamblers, workaholics, over-exercisers, co-dependents, and others with obsessive-compulsive behaviors. 

Such adult children usually believe (mostly unconsciously) that they should stop doing something that causes them or others grief, but that if they do, they will lose a vital means of defending themselves against threat they see so often in the world around them. It seems to them that they are damned if they continue to use their defenses, and damned if they give them up, for interpersonal as well as intrapsychic reasons. (The old "have you stopped beating your wife?" dilemma often applies. Followed immediately by the double-bind of, "I must understand why I do what I do, but will they?")

Crucial for recovery is that one learn to observe to notice to recognize to acknowledge to accept to own to appreciate to understand the conditioning as well as the ostensibly ego-protective / defensive nature and function (or purpose) of the defense in a manner that distances his observing self from slavish adherence to trying to satisfy the conflicting demands battering his conflicted, tortured and defensively committed ego. If one can do that, he or she stands a better chance of being able to digest, metabolize and process the neurochemical upshots and drivers of the cyclic defense.

Digestion / metabolization of this sort must occur to reduce the allostatic load on the sympathetic ("fight, flight or freeze") branch of the autonomic nervous system that is the physiological hallmark of chronic re-traumatization (see Koob, Levine, Lupien, McEwen, Sapolsky and Van der Kolk).

Self-soothing meditations along the lines of those suggested by Hayes, Kabat-Zinn, Linehan, and Williams in their (respectively) acceptance and commitment, mindfulness-based stress reduction, dialectical behavior and mindfulness-based cognitive psychotherapies appear to be functional in reducing allostatic load. But it looks at this point like they have to be done in the conscious context of mindful awareness and conceptual understanding of the etiology of the defensive system causing the allostatic load.

The purpose of such conceptual understanding is cognitive and affective detachment from ego-abusing, unrealistic, hyper-perfectionistic, over-demanding moral requirements (as per Block) to reduce the shame, guilt, worry, remorse and regret that both fuel and result from continuation of the addictive cycle, more or less as described by Bradshaw (and in excruciating detail by Tangney). The patient needs to comprehend why he innocently and unconsciously developed his ego-defending schema... and why he continues to utilize it even though it "drives him nuts" outside the paradigms of his socialization to the double-binding, absolutistic moral imperatives that keep him locked in the cycle.

Without that understanding -- and the relief it affords his ego -- it seems unlikely that one would be able to free oneself from the re-cycling of his unobserved, unnoticed, unrecognized, unacknowledged, unaccepted, unowned, unappreciated and still double-binding moral imperatives.

Many of the renown, Asian spiritual masters have chorused for centuries that the solution is in clear, experiential understanding of the problem. I cannot say for sure that that is always the case, but I am seeing ("observing to ultimately understand," as in the 10 StEPs) more and more that such ancient wisdom stands up most of the time.

Resources & References  

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Block, S.; Block, C.: Mind-Body Workbook for Anxiety, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2015.

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Sapolsky, R.: Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping, 3rd Ed., New York: Holt, 2004.

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Tangney, J. P.; Dearing, R.: Shame and Guilt, New York: Guilford Press, 2002.

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Van der Kolk, B: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, New York: Viking Press, 2014.

Van der Kolk, B.: Commentary: The devastating effects of ignoring child maltreatment in psychiatry – a commentary on Teicher and Samson 2016, in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 57, No. 3, March 2016.

Watts, A.: Psychotherapy East and West, New York: Random House / Pantheon, 1961.

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© 2016 by Rodger Garrett; all rights reserved. Links are permitted. Please contact with comments or questions. Thank you.

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