Institutionalization is a well studied and known phenomenon afflicting the incarcerated. Those who have succumbed to the institution have the belief that they cannot function or survive outside of the organization they are beholden to. The character, Brooks, in the movie The Shawshank Redemption illustrates this phenomenon. After spending many of his adult years in prison, Brooks is released and given a job as a grocery bagger. Sadly, Brooks is not able to function in a free society and ends up committing suicide. He could only function in the horrid, dysfunctional conditions of prison. Have you ever wondered how the institution you work in affects you? While the prison metaphor is somewhat strident, I have seen over the years how many corporate employees begin to believe they cannot function outside of their company. Consequently, the employee will stay in a dead end job, tolerate a bully boss, and endure a dysfunctional work environment. Once a corporate employee establishes some tenure in the organization they begin to believe in golden handcuffs; their salary is too high to leave. In essence, the employee has lost his or her freedom becoming a prisoner of one’s own beliefs.
Finding Your Freedom
I really enjoyed The Shawshank Redemption because of the rich psychological metaphors pertaining to one’s own freedom. Those who could maintain a semblance of sanity in the prison were those who could keep a dream alive; life outside of prison. Those who survived the Holocaust have been characterized as not yielding their belief systems to the Nazis despite their imprisonment and torture. In the Shawshank Prison, Red (Morgan Freeman) kept his dream alive to live in a small beach town in Mexico. Andy (Tim Robbins), who was wrongly convicted of a two life sentences, kept his dream alive of escaping and joining Red in Mexico. They played the game with the prison dysfunction to survive and kept planning for their freedom. You could say, in corporate speak, they engaged in goal setting.
How to be Free at Work
Here are some ways you can approach your job to maintain your sense of freedom. Keep your resume current and ready to present. Your resume should be updated the first day of your new job. Set a goal to update your resume quarterly. Keep yourself relevant in your career by expanding your skill sets. Keep current with technology and constantly improve your people skills. If you think you cannot be paid as well in another job or that another company would not offer a more functional environment, examine and correct your underlying irrational thinking that keeps you trapped. Engage networking with people in your organization and colleagues in other organizations consistently. Be a lifelong learner and expand your mind by studying topics of interest outside of your career (enjoy the liberal arts). If you have difficulty applying these ideas, talk with someone who can help.
To a Good Life,
Mark Hansen, PhD
Follow me on Twitter for blog updates, news, and commentary from the world of psychology & psychotherapy @DrMarkHansen
Fear is an everyday part of life that has evolutionary roots. Fear evolved for our survival. If our ancestral primates did not experience fear, they were subject to predation and not able to reproduce. Those who had a more developed fear response lived longer and reproduced more. And that is the brief history of why we have anxiety and fear in our modern lives. Fear can still be a signal to inform one of danger but often we experience exaggerated fear. If you feel fear or anxiety often, ask yourself, where is the threat? For most of us in modern western society we do not have obvious threats to our physical lives. Modern people, however, react to psychological distress with a fear response that is stronger than the situation warrants. Fear and anxiety can become an impairing psychological disorder If the fear response is frequent, intense, and of long duration.
Lessons on fear from a mountain bike
Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a conference at a ski resort near Lake Tahoe. It was early October and there was no snow; just sunny warm days with refreshing cool nights. One of my colleagues, Mark, brought his mountain bike up from Los Angeles. He was an accomplished mountain biker and persuaded two of us to spend an afternoon riding the mountain. Ok, it didn’t take much persuasion. It was a beautiful day and ride up the mountain on two chair lifts. Once we reached the top of the mountain, we rode around the forest to a lake and on a road that followed a stream. We stopped for a brief rest and a long cool drink of water when Mark announced it was time for us to go down the mountain. Cool, until we came to the edge viewing our trek down. There was a path slightly wider than the bike tires and the vertical drop was that of a double black diamond ski run. My heart jumped into my throat. There were gullies, boulders, logs, and fallen trees everywhere. Things you don’t see when there is snow.
“Let’s go”, Mark yelled. I summoned up the courage, and down I went. And down I went into a crash in less than a minute with the other friend. Mark then offered some mountain bike coaching. “Don’t look at what you’re trying to avoid crashing into. Keep your eyes on the trail ahead of you where you want to go.” This seemed like a better idea than what I tried on my first attempt. It was a profound lesson in trust. I suddenly gained confidence and speed. The bike began to feel like part of my body, responding to every nuance as I leaned to steer. It took an hour or so to reach the bottom of the mountain. I was so exhilarated, confident, and in the flow. It was one of those peak life experiences that happen too infrequently.
A metaphor for life
Often we fear we are going to be hurt by something. Manifestations of fear are frequently relational. We have anxiety about being hurt by a loved one, judged by peers, speaking in public, performance feedback at work, and so forth. This fear draws our attention to the objects (psychological or physical) that could hurt us. We think the fear will protect us from being hurt. While it is important to be mindful of the potential to be hurt, the over focus on what you are afraid of can result in creating what is feared, emotional pain.
If you are experiencing impairing anxiety and fear in your life, take a lesson from mountain biking. Keep your focus on where you want to go and the experience you want to have. If you don’t know where you want to go and what you want to experience, talk to someone who can help.
To a Good Life,
Mark Hansen, Ph.D.
Follow me on Twitter for blog updates, news, and commentary from the world of psychology & psychotherapy. @DrMarkHansen
Have you ever noticed all the medication commercials? The big pharmaceutical companies encourage you to talk with your “doctor” about getting help for your most intimate concerns using their product. There is a pill for almost every human malady. There’s help for erectile dysfunction, incontinence, and also at the other end of our bodies; dry eyes and depression. Does anyone blush anymore? Do the actors really portray the suffering of depression? Do you wonder why pharma is advertising so much? I do.
Why Big Pharma Advertises
In short, big pharma advertises because it works. I don’t necessarily mean the drug works but that advertising increases the sales of their product by influencing consumers who then influence how and what the physician prescribes. What may be best for the patient and the risks to the patient are left to the fine print. Moreover, what the research indicates about benefits vs. risks is often withheld from the consumer and our governmental regulatory agency, the FDA. Case in point, this April the pharmaceutical company, Johnson & Johnson, was fined $1.1 billion for downplaying and hiding information on the harmful effects of the antipsychotic drug Risperdal.
Antipsychotic with Antidepressants Advertising
Advertising for the many antidepressant medications is ubiquitous. Recently there has been a surge of advertising suggesting you talk with your physician about trying antipsychotic medication “when your antidepressant is not working.” Near the end of these compelling and pleasing ads the announcer hurriedly states potential negative side effects. These side effects can cause permanent movement disorders, weight gain, increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, and even death. These risks beg many questions. Why isn’t the antidepressant working? Are there safer alternatives to addressing depression?
Safely Treating Depression
Big pharma does not tell you about safe alternative treatments for depression simply because they make money selling their drugs. Psychology and other counseling professions don’t advertise much about safer treatments for depression because they don’t have the money to run big advertising campaigns. What a conundrum.
What big pharma doesn’t tell you is that antidepressants do not work well for mild to moderate depression. The research indicates that they do work for severe depression but may be most effective with short term use. Research has shown that daily exercise is at least as effective, if not more, in treating depression as medication. Furthermore, psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is very effective in treating depression. The effects of exercise and psychotherapy are feeling more energy, improved health, increased strength, improved appearance, and improved relationships. In short, you may end up with an improved life. In all fairness, there are some potential negative side effects with exercise and therapy. You may develop sore muscles or minor injuries if you exercise too often or too intensely. You will be out of some money and time if the therapy does not work. And yes, therapy is not a guarantee that you will be free from depression. However, these “side effects” seem much safer than the side effects of medication.
How to Decide To Use Medication
If you are on or thinking about talking with your physician about antidepressant medication consider the following; Try psychotherapy and adding at least a good walk to each day. If you are having trouble with motivation or making time to exercise, your therapist can help you find a way to resolve your personal blocks to physical activity. If you must be on medication, and it does help some people, talk with your physician about the research on effectiveness, using the lowest dose possible, how long you can expect to be on the medication, and the risks with long term use. And I stress, if you are on medication, it is in your best interest to be in therapy working toward an improved life free from medication and depression.
To a Good Life,
Mark Hansen, Ph.D.
What is love?
I am frequently asked by therapy clients about love. I would estimate that 75% of the trouble people have in their lives, that is a catalyst for going to therapy, is about love. That is, trouble in relationships where one wants to feel loved or be able to love another. I hear complaints like, “I’m not in love with him anymore.”, “I love her but I’m not in love.”, “How do you know when you’re in love?” and so on. I’m sure you have heard the same complaints and questions from friends. By the way, what does “in love” mean? I’ll get to that later.
Love has been a preoccupation of ours since antiquity. All you have to do is turn on the radio and you will hear songs about love from rap to rock n’ roll. We also find this preoccupation in literature, periodicals, movies, and television. While we kind of know what they are singing or saying about love, we are still left with the mystery of the feeling. I, like many young people of the day, looked to rock ’n’ roll to resonate our emotional experience. Sammy Hagar in the band Van Halen tried to provide clarity about love. Here is what Hagar had to offer in When It’s Love:
How do you know when it’s love?
I can’t tell you but it lasts forever
Oh, how does it feel when it’s love?
It’s just something you feel together when it’s love
What? I feel what they’re saying but I don’t know what they’re saying.
Self help and love
Similarly, the self help book industry has tried to help America clear the love fog that apparently plagues us all. People have spent a lot of money reading about love languages, stages of love, the seven types of love, etc. Even with all this self help and pop psychology we seem to be confused and still struggle with what love means to us. How could this be?
There are many different kinds of love such as love for one’s children, love for thy neighbor, family love, agape (love for fellow humans), mature love, and the idealized infatuation (in love?). I’m going to comment on romantic love and mature love. What I mean by romantic love is the kind of feeling and behavior that couples experience while courting, dating, mating, partnering, and marrying. It is being madly in love where madness and love look alike. You can’t sleep, eat, or think straight. It’s very hot and sexual. It‘s also known as infatuation. Romantic love seems to give people immense joy and trouble. While romantic love provides good momentum to relationships, it starts to fade about a year into a new union. Is this what it is to be “in love”? Can we endure being “in love”?
Mature love (kindness, respect, sensitivity, and affectionate treatment) is a sustaining goal for long term relationships. In their book Fear of Intimacy, psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett have defined love as behaviors that “enhance the emotional well-being, sense of self, and autonomy of both partners. “Love has an “overall positive, ameliorative effect” on both partners. Mature love is an appreciation and respect for “the true nature” of each person in the relationship and their freedom to pursue personal life goals. It is beyond one’s self interest in the other and perceives one’s partner as a separate entity with full rights to an independent existence. Mutuality and shared life experience are a choice and not an obligation.
Sex and love
Many people “fall in love” based on sexual attraction and sexual pleasure. Often when the heat cools in a relationship the couple discovers they have little in common other than the strong physical attraction that ignited the union. However, erotic feelings and sexual response in long-term relations can be an extension of affection felt by each partner. Firestone offers, “a combination of sexuality and close personal communication represents an ideal in couple relationships.”
Why is love difficult to find?
It is difficult to find people who are emotionally mature enough to show love on a consistent basis. It is even more difficult to accept love when one does receive it. I think these are the two main reasons why love is difficult to find. Both of these love problems are rooted in our early and ongoing experience of being loved. When we are hurt in past associations we develop an anxious response to being close to another. In order to manage the anxiety we develop defensive ways of interacting that thwart our efforts to love and be loved.
What to do about love
Here’s how I think about the nature of love. If you are fortunate enough to fall “in love”, enjoy that first 9 to 12 months of infatuation. However, know that at first, romantic love is not truly loving the other. We are not in love with the other but in love with how we feel while we are with the other. Yes, it is narcissistic. As the idealization wears off, the couple begins to experience conflict. This is where many relationships end. Yet, if you can begin to work out the conflicts of dealing with who each other really is, then you are on the road to what could develop into a lasting loving relationship. Of course, one can have a fulfilling life without a long term relationship. Serial monogamy for the “loveoholic” can be a viable lifestyle if you can endure the ups and downs. It is also not necessary to be in a committed relationship to be happy in life. This is one of those irrational beliefs about relationships. Furthermore, getting into a relationship to compensate for one’s own shortcomings can cause disappointment and disillusionment which then can lead to a troubled experience.
If you want and are having difficulty establishing a long term loving relationship, consider getting help. Psychotherapy, done well, will slowly expose and desensitize the underlying anxiety that often interferes with the desire to be loved and love another. This experience in psychotherapy, learning to love and be loved, gradually transfers to your daily life.
To a Good Life,
Mark Hansen, Ph.D.
Last winter, I was in New York City to attend a family wedding. It was the height of the Christmas shopping season and rush hour when my wife and I left the hotel room, heading down 42nd street into an unyielding mass of humanity. My stress level increased as we pushed and wiggled every foot of our way to our destination. My competitive nature was engaged. I was in the world’s largest mosh pit. I was touched unintentionally more than I am accustomed to by people I didn’t know nor will ever see again. Then I had a strong pessimistic thought, “There are too many people in this world”. Further I thought, “This amount of people pressure cannot be good for people.” “Look at how we have ruined nature with all this concrete.” Environmentalists and ecologists have recently asserted that humanity has less destructive impact on the Earth if we live in large cities. But what is the impact on people living in population dense urban settings?
Modern Living and Psychological Distress
Did you know there has been an astonishing rise in mental health issues despite improvements in psychology, science, medicine, economics, and education? How could this be? While there are probably many factors involved with increasing rates of psychological distress, one likely factor is the breakdown of connection with others. In our modern society we are taken away from close associations, family and friends, with our work and pursuit of a better economic life. Many people have moved to cities for work opportunities far away from the support they grew up with. They end up just a face in the crowd. Evolutionary psychologists have noted that optimal human functioning occurs in small groups of 40-50 people. These small groups could provide well for everyone and were based on cooperation and helping each other. When the groups grew larger than this optimal number in ancient times, a sub group would split off to maintain the efficiency and effectiveness of the groups. Moreover, we have also evolved to attach to those we are familiar with and avoid contact with people or groups of people we do not know. This avoidance functioned to prevent infectious disease and violence that could harm the group. Frequent contact with people not familiar to us is naturally stressful.
Stress and the Brain
All people have organ vulnerability. When a person is distressed the vulnerable organs start to malfunction. In the case of a person with a brain that is vulnerable to malfunction under stress, symptoms such as anxiety and depression can develop. Managing stress is a powerful way to maintain sound mental health.
What to Do
Stress in our modern society is inevitable. Here are some things you can do to decrease the stress and support optimal mental health and life satisfaction:
Develop close supportive relationships
The key to living a good life full of meaning and satisfaction is the quality of your relationships. This could be with family, partner, and friends. If you grew up with a dysfunctional family try to develop supportive relationships with others. You don’t get to choose your family but you can choose your friends. If you have difficulty with family and developing other supportive relationships consider psychotherapy. This is where psychotherapy, even group psychotherapy, shines; developing your capacity to find and foster supportive connection in a small group of others. Remember, you do not have to be defined by a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional family.
If you find yourself feeling isolated and alone, reach out and help someone. Research has shown that depression symptoms can be reduced by helping others. Helping does not have to be big gestures. It can be as simple as opening a door for someone, or more involved helping such as volunteering to serve the less fortunate on a regular schedule. Try making serving others a part of every day.
Find some solitude
When you are feeling overwhelmed with the hustle and bustle of the rat race, find some quiet time to relax. This can be done with an intimate other or alone. Examples of ways you can rejuvenate are: meditation, yoga, a walk, reading, a run, bike ride, music, gardening, etc. One of my favorites is including some aspect of nature. We have so much wonderful outdoor natural space that can be accessed. You don’t have to drive for hours to find nature. Some quiet time in a nice backyard with a favorite person or activity can be very fine.
To a Good Life,
Mark Hansen, Ph.D.
Jerry West is arguably one of the best professional basketball players to have played the game. His graceful movement is legendary and his likeness became the logo for the National Basketball Association (NBA). He was a childhood hero of mine. My friends and I spent countless hours playing basketball in the driveway trying to emulate Jerry’s moves. Alas, none of us had the physical gifts of West but enjoyed playing the game nonetheless.
After West’s playing days were over, he became a successful general manager and helped develop the Los Angeles Lakers into a dynasty. In the fall of 2011 West’s autobiography, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, was released. In his book, West gives a poignant account of his lifelong depression. He writes, “It’s something that’s been a problem in my life and still will be until the day I die. Most people will look at that and wonder how someone like that can be depressed.” He discloses about his struggles with self esteem, “… self-esteem is very difficult for me”, and love, “I’m not comfortable with the word ‘love’ because I never saw it as a kid.” He describes the severe physical abuse he endured at the hand of his father. Childhood abuse undermines a person’s ability to form loving relationships and is a cancer to one’s self esteem. In West’s touching interview with Bryant Gumbel on HBO Real Sports, West’s wife talks about how difficult it has been for her husband to show and accept love in the marriage and in their family of five boys. West goes on in the interview to reveal he has been taking antidepressant medication and tried psychotherapy but did not find the therapy helpful, “It just wasn’t for me.” Given the nature of the abuse he endured it is not surprising to hear that therapy was difficult because therapy is all about developing a relationship.
Success and Compensation
West also disclosed how he coped with his lifelong psychological problems. He threw himself totally into his work as a basketball player and general manager. It is very common that very successful people can be driven to succeed by compensating for psychological trauma in their early life. They throw themselves into their work. This coping is often rewarded with success, money, status, and sometimes fame. Yet, too frequently, something is missing, the richness of loving relationships. This can be a costly price of success if left unresolved.
Psychotherapy and Love
Psychotherapy does help. There is over 50 years of research showing that psychotherapy is a robust and the most effective treatment for mental health problems; much more effective than medication without the often troubling side effects of psychopharmacology. I am saddened that such an accomplished man as West has never been able to fully experience the love and connection that makes life so worth living. I can’t help but think the ability to accept love would cure him from his lifelong affliction of depression. And that is precisely what psychotherapy can do for you, help you accept the love others give and increase your capacity to love others as well. If you have been hurt early in your life, the therapy takes time and a lot of work. The reward, however, is timeless. Thank you, Jerry West, for telling your story. You are still my hero.
To a Good Life,
Mark Hansen, PhD
Hi there. I’ve thought long and hard about blogging over the last several years. Ok, it really was longer than hard, but it finally dawned on me that I want to write about my passion; helping people alleviate their suffering and learn how to thrive in their lives. This statement begs the question, however, how does one help alleviate suffering and promote thriving?
The main way I have been helping people for the past 25 years is with psychotherapy in my role as a psychologist. I keep current with and utilize the science of psychology, also known as evidence based practice and evidence informed practice, in the application of the art of psychotherapy. Yes, psychotherapy is a combination of science and art. However, I have always been a little frustrated at helping one person at a time. I wondered if there were other ways to reach more people. By blogging, I want to provide information that might help others decrease their suffering and increase their satisfaction and meaning. Here are some topics that I’ll be covering in future posts.
Three Ways to Evaluate How You Are Doing in Your Life:
It is always important to have a method of evaluating how you are doing in your life. Likewise, it is also important to have some measure to know if psychotherapy or counseling is helping. We can tell a lot about how someone is doing by looking at the quality of their:
1) LOVE - relationships such as marriage, partnership, family, friendships, colleagues, and parenting;
2) WORK - areas such as satisfaction, performance, and the meaning one experiences in their work; and
3) PLAY – satisfaction and meaning that one attains with recreation time away from the responsibilities of family and work.
When a person is not doing well with love, work or play for extended periods of time, they can develop anxiety and/or depression symptoms that can also wreak havoc on the body. Conversely, if a person is experiencing significant anxiety and/or depression symptoms, their relationships, work, and ability to experience joy and to rejuvenate can be compromised. If you spend more than two weeks troubled with your love, work, or play, it is time to consult with a psychologist to restore your life to the level of thriving.
The Science of Psychology
I will also be writing about current findings in the science of psychology that can be applied to people’s daily life. This information, when applied, can help you live a life full of good love, good work and good play. This information is not a substitute or replacement for counseling or psychotherapy, but is offered to augment any mental health treatment that is occurring. Of course, this information is also applicable to those who are not undergoing mental health treatment.
Finally, I will also be writing about observations of current events and their psychological implications. To this end, I aim to help people develop a psychological mindset that deepens their connection to others and life.
To a Good Life,
Mark Hansen, PhD