Monday, March 20, 2017

The Curse of Optimism: Cognitive Bias Coping Bubbles Part I

Just a reminder that the purpose of this discussion aims at stimulating thought and self awareness as tools to help those in recovery from trauma learn how to make safer choices. To make the discussion more jocular, we've defined Cognitive Biases as “CranioRectal Inversions” (CRI).

As the previous post postulated, in an unbalanced relationship, objectification on each side of that relationship can serve as a means of coping. One person becomes obligated to give if the other party always feels entitled to take from the other without reciprocating support. 

The less powerful party might trade their personal losses for the benefits that remaining entrenched in dysfunction yields for them. This 'secondary gain' essentially rewards a person for maintaining an unhealthy status quo. The illusions created by the party in pain help to preserve the dynamic which finds a stable point amidst its imbalance. By lessening the pain, by making secondary gain the focus of the relationship, motivation to change or exit the relationship drops and makes life more livable.
A play on this image inspired by RJ Lifton
Consider a woman with young children to raise but married someone who fails to value her or perhaps abuses her. Without resources to break free to provide well for her family, that mother may choose to remain married for the sake of the benefits that her husband provides for the family. When the children have grown, breaking away from the marriage may also fail to offer her much practical benefit. Such a person makes a bargain and accepts their fate, finding ways to cope as best they can with the sad truth. They create a bubble in which they can find and build a reasonably happy life inside of its limiting margins. It is the making of lemonade from the lemons that life hands them. Making that trade doesn't seem very logical until the sweet and tangy taste of secondary gain enters the equation.

Waiting Patiently to be Heard

I suppose that hearing of the release of a new, non-animated version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast explains why I found myself humming a variety of musical ballads this past week. In thinking about my own shortcomings (my own CRIs) and the questions about how too much optimism becomes a harmful, how could a part of me not recall that set of powerful songs?

When I started this personal journey of exploring how I might make wiser choices about who to trust and to what extent, I insisted that the cues and markers of danger or threat did not exist. I see now that, just like those songs in my mind echo, they pierced me far more deeply than I'd like to admit. Some part of myself soaked them up, even while I couldn't fathom their existence.

Suddenly after a quarter of a century, I hear their truths which etched themselves on my soul. My heart was not yet open enough to hear what sings to me from everywhere and through everything now, and I can even trace those messages back to the beginning of all that I can remember. At first blush, my deafness seems like a sad thing, but the only truly sad thing would be the choice to continue to remain deaf. Instead, I tell myself that this realization from a place of strength and safety speaks to my progress and my desire to love truth more than comfortable lies. Truth walked with me until I became ready to hear its song when I was strong enough to live without my bubble of illusion.

Some People

My husband and I moved late in 1991 when he took his first job after finishing up his post-graduate work, only about a year and a half after we married. I contemplated what direction I wanted my life to take before looking for a job, and Disney's Beauty and the Beast's music expressed a bit of what I hoped for my part in our new life. I'd heard it just that once, but Little Town's delightful melody stayed with me as did Belle's lament that “there must be more than this provincial life.” My heart knew it well – as it was also my means of creating hope to keep me moving forward in optimism in the face of failure or the fear of it. Where would this square peg find her place in the universe?

A few months thereafter, another musical would etch itself so deeply on my heart that my age would double before I realized it. When we rented
Gypsy, I marveled at just how many great songs I recognized, for so many were woven into the fabric of my childhood. I'd heard musical artists sing them on vinyl record albums and the ubiquitous TV variety shows of the era, as well as the butchered versions that played in elevators and waiting rooms. I heard many things in Sondheim's artfully apt language set to Styne's amazing tune in the song, Some People. Gypsy Rose Lee's Mama Rose not only sang Belle's lament, but she added to it her definitive plan to seize the life that she once planned to live herself. She would provide that life for her daughters and through her daughters by pushing them through to success. Her determination would force the world to let her realize her dream.

Looking back into my memory as I started streaming the film again last week, I vaguely recalled the happy smile that Gypsy's humor used to cover the sad reality of the family dysfunction. During my first viewing years earlier, I'd focused on the music and the amazing way those songs found me while I hid within my own bubble of optimism. Living a work-a-day life was “okay for some people who don't know they're alive,” but I yearned to be just as free in the context of my own life. (And as Bernadette Peters explains well, I longed to perform it one day.) Twenty-five years ago, however, I was not yet prepared to see myself in the mirror that Rose Louise Hovick painted for me through the creative telling of her story. I struggled always to keep my mother in the most becoming color of spotlights in my life by playing the fool for her more often than I liked. It seemed like the only expression of love that she could accept, especially as I grew older and grew up.

Mama's Little Circus Freak

Twenty-five years of life experience and healing work prepared me to recognize just how much I shared with Gypsy Rose Lee and the complicated relationship that she shared with her Mama Rose. Somehow, my heart understood it, for more than a dozen years after watching the rental video, much of the same language emerged while I saw my trauma therapist. I suppose that I never would have realized the connection if my therapist had drawn my attention to how often I used certain phrases. I'd not only borrowed the songs from that film, but a part of me borrowed a striking amount of the dialogue through only that single viewing of Gypsy.

For me, the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing technique (EMDR) for unhealed trauma brought old memory and buried pain to the surface of my consciousness in striking detail. More than once, I blurted out “Mama's little circus freak” in such a way that my therapist stopped the process to ask me poignant questions about where the phrase came from and whether my mother had specifically called me such. I did remember my mom's accusations that I would turn my wedding into a three ring circus. For reasons that I couldn't fathom, she feared my wedding so much that she offered me money to elope. I could never understand the intense shame that she expressed whenever I received a public reward for some deserved accomplishment, and it seemed that having a small wedding became the pinnacle of shame for her.

I told my therapist that I'd used that expression in my own mind to epitomize the confusing love and anger that I felt. I always felt betrayed by my mom's mixed messages of love mingled with shame and blame, while gaining parental approval felt like a constantly moving target that I could never hit. My father explained to me years later that my mom felt that I repudiated her at every turn. Both parents held me accountable for what they saw as willful acts of progressive defiance which I apparently masterminded from the days that spent in my cradle. Perhaps not consciously, they believed that I created the dynamic of competition which became more like war than a circus as my no-frills wedding day approached. For years, I reflected on it all by sarcastically labeling myself as “Mama's little circus freak.”

Girl in a Bubble

Believing that I could find some way to hit that ever-moving target became the structure of the bubble of optimism that I created. I paid the price of believing the illusion that I would eventually find the magic that would allow me to please them. In exchange, I enjoyed the secondary gain of remaining connected to them. There was no role of desirable daughter that I could find to play in their script. I was recast in a dual role of some hybrid of desirable daughter and insufferable scapegoat.  I chose the circus freak moniker as my secret act of autonomy. To keep the play going, I had to stick to the script. If I didn't, my bubble would burst.

Until Part II, please note the irony that I lifted the concept of a 'bubble' of coping with less than ideal situations from a book entitled Willful Blindness. I'd read it more than a year ago, but when I revisited it last week, I realized that I owe the analogy of the bubble concept to its author, Margaret Heffernan.

For Further Reading until the next post: