Rob and Helen Titchener: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree...but the ground can shift.


Apparently, many Archers listeners are uneasy about the forensic, anatomical, portrayal of narcissistic abuse in the picturesque village of Ambridge, illustrated all the more effectively by the constant shifting of perspectives between being inside and outside of the relationship. The Archers isn't usually this raw, and rawness did seem to be the problem - the detail, the subtle, covert, nuanced abuse, was unbelievably realistic for a soap. Those of us who know what narcissistic abuse sounds and feels like were cheering the writers for getting it so close to the bone. So, Rob was almost brutally murdered as a one-off gift to those who had bitten their nails to the quick and badly needed something, anything, to relieve the tension. But that one indulgence aside, no one is saying the rest of the story was over dramatic, or that it hasn't happened almost exactly like this to them or to their loved ones. On the contrary.

Psychological literacy is going up alarmingly! And I'm all for it - because communicating well about each other's minds is the way to mental health. But there's baggage - rooms full of it.

mental illness stands in the same relation to mental health as communicable disease did to public health in the C19th. The solutions when they came were at the level of environmental and public health - prevention was the key, not cure. A similar paradigm shift is gradually taking place in mental health, away from the anguish and shame of insane family members, and the scandal of psychiatry's brutal past, and towards psychologically healthy environments in families, schools, workplaces, and even popular culture (has there EVER been a film like Inside Out before?).

There's also increasing recognition that mental "illness" is only a small part of the story of how f**ked up we really are; never mind the safely incarcerated criminally insane, there are an awful lot of us (we are the nightmare leaders, experts, colleagues, spouses, siblings, parents, and children) who are senseless about the toxic effects we have on the minds of others, and often proud of it. Disordered personalities are the Typhoid Marys of the psychological world, leaving trails of emotionally maimed, dead, and dying without turning so much as a hair.

the generation gap between the psychologically illiterate and the psychologically educated is huge, especially within long-lived families. Even for parents in the 60s, my formative decade, the disordered personalities that made family life hell behind closed doors could hide the problem from public view behind the visible trappings of successful middle class lifestyles (or in case of my family, an unsuccessful middle class lifestyle). And what could be hidden in plain sight from friends, colleagues. teachers, and doctors, could effectively be denied within the family itself. People might have seen the writing on the walls around unhappy families but they didn't read it, or they didn't read it out loud.

Mine was the young generation that broke over the psychotherapy scene like waves on a beach, in the process (a broad cultural one, generally stated) learning a language that challenged and largely befuddled our parents ("But darling, I don't understand why you feel this way - no one ever INTENDED to cause you any distress...and if you were so upset at the time why didn't you SAY?"). Now days, the psychologically-themed dialogues between grandparents and adult grandchildren (if they happen at all) can be comical in a ET-alien-encounter type of way.

My description so far is very much of the sunnier side of the street, the side with the Archer family on it There is no doubt that little if any inter-generational psychological learning takes place on the dark side, where Rob and his parents are.

the fundamental attribution error - the world is divided in to those who have mental health concerns, and those who think others have them. The latter, much the majority, make the fundamental error; other peoples' problems are their own fault, mine are just circumstances beyond my control (and someone else's fault). This is the wall that imprisons most dysfunctional relationships. It's the difference between the self-righteous and the self-aware. Cognitive psychology has been the game changer here, IMO.

Sweeping generalisation alert: The cognitive model unifies what has been, within for instance psychodynamic models, a moral divide between head and heart, rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious and many other agonised psychic dualisms. The cognitive view is more holistic, emphasising the complexity of evolved modular systems, emergent behaviour (such as language), neuro-biological constraints (such as visual illusions), and the broader environmental contexts within which the individual mind functions. It has also kick-started a redefinition of the categories of mental illness used by the medical profession to differentiate the sane from the insane - we are transitioning to a more useful dimensional approach that is much more condusive to prevention rather than cure.

Our minds NORMALLY distort our perceptions and delude us about what is real - they evolved for survival not truth - and the learning process that leads towards psychological literacy and mental well-being starts with this realisation about oneself. Those who remain overly convinced by themselves aren't learning anything.

the question of the heritability of psychological characteristics has major implications for the way in which we understand our own minds. It is said that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, but the last hundred years have seen major shifts in the way this obvious reproductive pattern is understood. Psychoanalysis has it that the young mind operates reflexive internal psychic defences against the shameful, the painful, and the perverse that bury the experiences in the unconscious where they become unthinkable but retain a powerful influence over our emotions and our behaviour - behaviour which then, as a parent, can cause our child to feel shame, pain, and disgust in relation to the same kinds of experience.

Behaviourists have it that our minds develop a set of learnt behavioural habits in response to the pleasures and pains, gains and losses, that we experience in trying to meet our needs. Unmet needs are the problem, and a vicious problem at that, because unmet primary needs continue to override the motivaion to meet secondary needs, the needs of others and, particularly, as parents, the needs of our young children.

Neuro-biologists look at the genetics behind the physical systems in an individual's body that both stimulate and respond to cognition. The science is deep and fascinating and some of the conclusions stark. The rate of reduction of synaptic seratonin following a stressful experience, for instance, have been shown to vary between people according to which version of the seratonin transporter gene (SLC6A4...no idea!) they happen to have inherited. It is the people whose seratonin dives in response to uncontrollable stress that the drug Prozac is designed to help. The release of stress hormones is triggered by a set of neural signals along an axis that links the hypothalmus (part of the limbic system, a neuroendocrinal junction, but closely linked to rest of the brain's activity) with the hormone-releasing pituitary and adrenal glands. The HPA-axis is a feedback system, and it is thought that it can "learn" to become hyper-reactive very early in a child's life and may, as such, be a kind of genetic determinant of personality.

And so on and so forth...More recently the trend in self-psychology is away from linear narratives about the development and malformation of mental structures, and towards building meta-cognitive capacities such as mindfulness, mental flexibility, adaptability, resilience, grit, and flow, as ways of deploying one's mental faculties in a healthy and productive way, whoever one turns out to be.

One could go on. But the most exciting thing for me about the prospect of greater psychological literacy throughout the world is that it represents a shift in power away from the dominance of might, of wealth, of custom, of institutionalised belief, of expertise, and of almost all forms of self-appointed superiority, towards a a politics based on respect for the psychological openness of individuals and the insight we bring to each other's psychological well-being.

I say all this within sight of the prospect that Donald Trump may become leader of the free world. If that happens, I take it all back - every word of it.


Featured Posts
Posts are coming soon
Stay tuned...
Recent Posts
Archive
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square