Monthly Archives: May 2010

Obama’s Handling Of The Gulf Disaster: The Psychology Behind The Criticisms

Criticism of Pres. Obama’s leadership during the Gulf of Mexico disaster has been mounting in recent weeks.  People are worried and concerned about the huge, unrelenting flow of oil and what it may do to our entire ecology.  The President’s press conference mitigated some of those criticisms, but many view his response as too little, too late.  They ask why didn’t he take command and speak to the nation several weeks ago?

A great deal of the criticism is justified, and it’s coming from both right and left. It includes not only his personal leadership but more broadly, the role and response of the federal government.

But I think there’s another, additional basis for the criticism:  The psychology of people’s fears when they’re confronted with such disasters, and how that shapes what they look for in a leader.

That is, the psychology of the criticism directed at Obama reflects something deeper than questions about BP’s performance and/or untrustworthiness, given the cozy relationship big oil has had with the federal government.  It’s also deeper than debate over what government’s proper role should be in dealing with this or other man-made disasters.

To explain, let’s take a look at some criticisms coming from both the left and the right:  On May 17, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews erupted in anger at the oil disaster. He railed about the profits BP reaps as it fails to fix it, but also criticized the Obama administration for letting BP control the disaster response.  Calling this “disaster capitalism,” (from Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine) he questioned why the President doesn’t just “nationalize that industry and get the job done,” adding that in China, “they execute people for this.”

That’s typical of Matthews’ sometimes over-the-top passion, but he’s been making solid criticism of the President for, in essence, looking like an observer, standing on the sidelines, instead of getting in there and doing something.

Similarly, other critics have openly wondered why Obama hasn’t shown more passion, like pounding the table, showing outrage; perhaps shouting.

Some conservative critics have Continue reading


Hook-Up Sex, Marital Sex, and Making Love

This post is about the differences between “Hook-Up Sex,” “Marital Sex,” and “Making Love.” I’ve found that confusion about those differences play out in many of the conflicts people experience in their sexual-romantic relationships, no matter what their ages or kinds of relationships.

First, some clarification about what I mean by each term. “Hook-Up Sex” refers to just plain f***ing; that is, a purely physical encounter. “Marital Sex” is the kind of sex life that most committed couples tend to have — married or not, straight or gay. And “Making Love” is a different kind of experience that transcends both of the other two kinds.

That is, the three kinds of sexual relationships occur on different planes, different levels of integration between your physical, animal being, and your relational and spiritual beings. The kind of sexual life you have – and its conflicts – are embedded in the overall relationship you learn and how you “practice” it with your partner. I’ve described some of these connections in my previous posts, here and on my Psychology Today blog, on our adolescent model of love, the soul mate, and the positive power of “indifference.” Most relationships limit the capacity for “Making Love.”

Hook-Up Sex

“You know how there’s good sex, great sex, and then really great sex? That’s what it was like with her!” With gleaming eyes, Ken was telling me about his latest sexual encounter. He was a 44 year-old trust fund guy who lived with his mother and had never married. He entered therapy because he wanted to learn why he hadn’t been able to form a lasting relationship.

In Hook-Up Sex you and your partner use each other’s bodies for your own pleasure. It can be extremely intense and arousing, especially when you feel lust towards a new partner. There’s a place for this kind of sex, but it’s also the most primitive, least evolved form of sex. It reflects the purely animal part of being human — our physiological needs and impulses. We share those with other animal species. From a human standpoint, though, it’s mostly void of relationship beyond the physical connection; a form of playing through using each other’s bodies.

Aside from Ken’s deeper emotional issues that he’d never faced or dealt with, another barrier to his forming a relationship was that he had turned sex into a technique-dominated sport. He saw himself as a great lover and, in fact, had become very proficient in Tantric sexual practices. Handsome and charming, he was able to find women eager to participate. Tantric and related practices are, in fact, part of “Making Love,” but they can also be misused. Ken’s mastery of them had become an end in itself, and they were entirely divorced from Continue reading


The Tea Party – Believing Its Own Delusions?

Following his victory over the establishment’s candidate in Kentucky’s Republican primary for the US Senate, Tuesday, Rand Paul repeated the familiar Tea Party mantra that his victory shows the Tea Party movement is sweeping across the country; that we’re going to “take America back!”

Well, OK, but take it back from what? And to what?

Well first, I think that many of those drawn to the Tea Party are genuinely concerned about the rising scope and size of government and want lower taxes.  Some have become fired up with rage about that (while also, of course, wanting to keep all the benefits and support that Big Government provides, as Louisiana Gov.Jindel recently discovered).

And some are so fired up that they just want to get rid of everybody on the Hill and the inhabitant of the White House – all those who are taking our country in the “wrong” direction.

But let’s take a look at what the Tea Party’s dominant ideology includes, with respect to what it thinks is the wrong course; what they advocate it it’s place; and, especially, what the Republican party is embracing as it bends over backwards to drink from the Tea Party’s cup (sorry for the mixed metaphors.)

Take Utah Republicans.  There’s a movement afoot to repeal the 17th Amendment.  Having trouble remembering which one that is?  Well, it’s the one that gives people the right to vote for and select their Senators.  That’s right – elect their Senators.  Taking away that right is a favorite of Tea Party supporters, and they’re getting Republicans to join with them.

It gets better.  On the other side of the country, the Republican Party of Maine has adopted some Tea Party proposals of its own. It’s official platform calls for the elimination of the Department of Education and the Federal Reserve; demands an investigation of “collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth;” insists that “healthcare is not a right;” calls for the abrogation of the “UN Treaty on Rights of the Child” and the “Law Of The Sea Treaty;” and says we must resist “efforts to create a one world government.”  There’s more.  If you’re interested, here’s the whole thing.

The Maine Politics blog calls the official platform for the Republican Party of Maine “a mix of right-wing fringe policies, libertarian buzzwords and outright conspiracy theories.” It quotes Dan Billings, who’s served as an attorney for the Maine GOP, describing the new platform as “wack job pablum” and “nutcase stuff.”

In contrast to the claims of Tea Partiers around the country, Washington Post columnist E.J.Dionne has pointed out some actual facts.  He writes:

“…there was evidence on Tuesday that there are limits to the anti-government mood that is supposedly sweeping the country.  In Arizona — nobody’s idea of a liberal state — voters supported a temporary increase in the sales tax from 5.6 to 6.6 cents on the dollar, to raise $1 billion annually. This, coupled with a large tax increase on businesses and high-income earners endorsed by voters in Oregon earlier this year, suggests a pragmatic electorate that is far less reflexively opposed to taxes or government than Tea Party cheerleaders would have us believe.

He also points out that:

The most significant result for the fall was the Democrats’ success in holding the western Pennsylvania House seat left vacant by the death of John Murtha. Democrat Mark Critz won an impressive nine-point victory over Republican Tim Burns by distancing himself from Obama and liberal positions on guns and abortion, but also by running a relentlessly economic populist message on jobs and outsourcing.

Circling back to the rising star Rand Paul, the new candidate has also made it clear that he opposes the Civil Rights Act.  That’s the Act that most of the then-Republicans voted for, back in the days when Republicans were strong supporters of civil rights, back before the party morphed into a bastion of right-wing mostly southern white men.  Paul emphasizes that opposing the Civil Rights Act is not racist.  Go figure.

If you look at some hard data about what is, in fact, transforming our society, in contrast with what the Tea Party sees, it’s hard not to conclude that their appeal is to a small number of people and will remain a fringe movement.

Sometimes we become so convinced of our own convictions, when they are shared by others, that we seduce ourselves into seeing a movement that will transform the world.  There’s a long history to such delusions.

The sad consequence for our two-party system is that the Republican Party is allowing itself to upend it’s own principles and ideals as it tries to capture this “movement,” and thus risks marching into oblivion.


More About Your “Inside-Out” Life

2. Building Your Inner Life

In a previous post, I wrote that your inner life is usually neglected, in contrast to your outer life.  I gave some guidelines for identifying and reducing the gaps between your inner and outer life.  That’s an important step towards building psychological health and resiliency that works in today’s 21st Century world of heightened interconnection and instability.

Here, I’ll describe some specific steps you can take to strengthen your inner life and make it the driver of your decisions, choices, and actions within your outer life.

Think of your inner life as something you develop through practice, similar to building stronger muscles, or developing skill in a sport or play a musical instrument. Below are some inner life practices most anyone can do. The more you do, the better, because they reinforce each other.

Fill Your “Inner Reservoir”

  • Sit quietly, without distraction. Observe your breaths as you breathe slowly, in and out. Count each breath as you exhale, from one to 10; then repeat. Twenty minutes daily is ideal, but if you do only five, that’s a good start.

An “entry-level” meditation-breathing practice, this one builds an emotional shock absorber.  It helps maintain centeredness and focus when dealing with your outer life demands and conflicts.

Some forms of meditation are rooted in Eastern and Western religious-philosophical traditions; others in current medical and scientific knowledge about effective stress-reduction. All provide a range of physical and emotional benefits that strengthen your inner life. Ongoing research supported jointly by the Dalai Lama and the U.S.-based Mind And Life Institute shows that meditation produces changes within specific regions of the brain associated with greater internal calm, resilience to stress, and focused concentration.

Amazingly, one study found that the sound Continue reading


Climate Disasters And Your Mental Health

It’s long overdue:  paying attention to the mental health impact of climate change and other human-made disasters, like the oil spill that’s begun long-term destruction of the gulf coast.  We’ve been neglecting the fact that humans are part of this vast, interconnected eco-system of Earth; that our mental and emotional lives can be damaged by the human actions upon our environment.

But gradually, we’re paying attention. I’m not  referring to us in the mental health professions here — In fact, we’ve been asleep at the wheel  in that respect, and are now, finally, coming around to recognize that climate change and other disasters are more than interesting academic subjects for discussion and research; that we have a responsibility for direct action.

Ironically, awareness of such mental health consequences has been addressed by broader groups of scientists; non-psychologists or psychiatrists  Here’s a good, very recent example:  Joe Romm, whose blog Climate Progress is consistently the best source of information and clarity about climate issues, has just put up a guest blog post on the human dimensions of oil spills, written by Drs. Thomas Webler, Seth Tuler, and Kirstin Dow.  They write:

In the past two years, we have studied how oil spills have impacted every aspect of human society—from individuals’ psychological and physical health to the practices and beliefs of cultures and everything in between.

Among the areas they focus on in their guest blog post are the mental health impacts and the social, cultural and social justice impacts of previous oil spills.  Regarding the mental health impacts:

Oil spills and spill responses can cause high levels of stress and psychological trauma, including post-traumatic stress. The economic impacts on livelihood and family aspirations, anxieties associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, the stress of engaging in a large scale court battle, and the loss of valued landscape and ecological systems all contribute to stress on coastal residents and clean up workers.


In Prince William Sound, people talked about feeling that a part of them died when the Exxon Valdez oil inundated the area.  Dangerous levels of post-traumatic stress were reported among cleanup workers and residents in Alaska.  The news talk shows today are already replete with people expressing sadness and anger about this event.

Their entire piece is well-worth reading – it’s sobering and informative, as is another substantive report by The Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health.  It presented findings regarding a wide range of health effects of climate change, including mental health and stress-related disorders:

Climate change may result in geographic displacement of populations, damage to property, loss of loved ones, and chronic stress, all of which can negatively affect mental health….

The most common mental health conditions associated with extreme events range from acute traumatic stress to more chronic stress-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated grief, depression, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, poor concentration, sleep difficulties, sexual dysfunction, social avoidance, irritability, and drug or alcohol abuse.  The chronic stress-related conditions and disorders resulting from severe weather or other climate change-related events may lead to additional negative health effects.

It’s a hopeful sign that some professional, advocacy organizations have begun addressing this issue.  For example, both Physicians for Social Responsibility and  Psychologists for Social Responsibility have described mental health risks from climate change to including increase in violent behavior, panic, group hysteria, depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, hopelessness and other symptoms.

Of course, the deniers will continue to disparage and, well…deny.  Actually, when they are compelled to do that it may be a good indicator that public awareness of the mental health effects of climate disasters is growing.  For example, Fox’s Sean Hannity’s recent ridicule of the mental health issues described in the Interagency Working Group’s report  For a slightly humorous take on psychology of climate change deniers and the consequences, see this piece that I wrote with Ev Ehrlich for the Huffington Post.

Needless to say, denying reality is never a good coping strategy, for the present or the future.  And yes, that’s a mental illness symptom.


Building An “Inside-Out” Life

1.  Why “Work-Life” Balance Is A Myth

Meet Linda and Jim, who consulted me for psychotherapy.  Linda is a lawyer with a large firm; Jim heads a major trade association.  They told me they’re totally committed to their marriage and to being good parents.  But they also said it’s pretty hectic juggling all their responsibilities at work and at home They have two children of their own plus a child from her former marriage. Dealing with the logistics of daily life, to say nothing of the emotional challenges, makes it “hard just to come up for air,” Linda said.  Sound familiar?

Or listen to Bill, a 43-year-old who initially consulted me for help with some career challenges.  Before long, he acknowledged that he’s worried about the “other side” of life. He’s raising two teenage daughters and a younger son by himself – one of the rising numbers of single fathers.  He’s constantly worried about things like whether a late meeting might keep him at work. He tries to have some time for himself, but “it’s hard enough just staying in good physical health, let alone being able to have more of a ‘life,’ ” he said. Recently, he learned he has hypertension.

It’s no surprise that these people, like many I see both in my psychotherapy practice and my workplace consulting, feel pummeled by stresses in their work and home lives. Most are aware, at least dimly, that this is unhealthy – that stress damages the body, mind and spirit. Ten years ago, a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that 70 percent of all illness, physical and mental, is linked to stress of some kind.  And that number has probably increased over the last decade.  Much of this stress comes from struggling with the pressures of work and home – and trying to “balance” both. The problem seems nearly universal, whether in two-worker, single-parent or childless households.

I think these conflicts are so common because people have learned to frame the problem incorrectly to begin with. That is, there’s no way to balance work life and home life, because both exist on the same side of the scale – what I call your “outer” life. On the other side of the scale is your personal, private life – your “inner” life. Instead of thinking about how to balance work life and home life, try, instead, to balance your outer life and inner life.

The Other Balancing Act

Let me explain. On the outer side of the scale you have the complex logistics and daily stresses of life at both work and home – the e-mails to respond to, the errands, family obligations, phone calls, to-do lists and responsibilities that fill your days. Your outer life is the realm of the external, material world. It’s where you use your energies to deal with tangible, often essential things. Paying your bills, building a career, dealing with people, raising kids, doing household chores, and so on. Your outer life is on your iPhone, BlackBerry, or your e-calender.

On the other side of the scale is your internal self.  It’s the realm of your private thoughts and values.  Your emotions, fantasies, spiritual or religious practices.  Your capacity to love, your secret desires, and your deeper sense of purpose.  In short, it embodies who you are, on the inside.  A “successful” inner life is defined by how well you deal with your emotions, your degree of self-awareness , and your sense of clarity about your values and life purpose.  It includes your level of mental repose:  your capacity for calm, focused action and resiliency that you need in the face of  your frenetic, multitasking outer life.

If the realm of the inner life sounds unfamiliar or uncomfortable to you, this only emphasizes how much you – like most peple – have lost touch with your inner self.  You can become so depleted and stretched by dealing with your outer life that there’s little time to tend to your mind, spirit or body. Then, you identify your “self” mostly with who you are in that outer realm. And when there’s little on the inner side of the scale, the outer part weighs you down. You are unbalanced, unhappy and often sick.

When your inner life is out of balance with your outer, you become more vulnerable to stress, and that’s related to a wide range of physical damage.  Research shows that heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, a weakened immune system, skin disorders, asthma, migraine, musculoskeletal problems – all are linked to stress.

More broadly, when your inner and outer lives become unbalanced, your daily functioning is affected in a range of ways, both subtle and overt. When operating in the outer world – at work, for example, or in dealings with your spouse or partner – you may struggle with unjustified feelings of insecurity and fear. You may find yourself at the mercy of anger or greed whose source you don’t understand. You may be plagued with indecisiveness or revert to emotional “default” positions forged during childhood, such as submissiveness, rebellion or self-undermining behavior.

Even when you’re successful in parts of your outer life, neglecting the inner remains hazardous to your psychological and physical health. Without a developed inner life, you lose the capacity to regulate, channel and focus your energies with awareness, self-direction and judgment.  Personal relationships can suffer, your health may deteriorate and you become vulnerable to looking for new stimulation from the outer-world sources you know best – maybe a new “win,” a new lover, drugs or alcohol.

And that pulls you even more off-balance, possibly to the point of no return. The extreme examples are Continue reading