Doing the Right Thing- the Bystander Effect and Personal Responsibility

The older I get, the more bothered I have become by the realization that there are many people who would rather look the other way, than do the right thing.
The revelations in 2011 about Sandusky and Penn State are prime example of this.
It is alarming to me how many people are afraid to make waves, who don’t want to get involved, or do not want to be the one to call attention to a problem in part because the problem happens to involve a well respected member of the community.
I have encountered many examples of this in my practice; stories of people being harmed and/or injustices being allowed to continue, because no one was brave enough to call a spade a spade and let the chips fall where they may.

In social psychology there is a concept called the Bystander Effect, in which the likelihood of someone responding to a situation decreases as the number of people witnessing the situation increases.

This diffusion of responsibility that happens when more than one person witnesses the same injustice on the one hand is somewhat understandable (people seem to think someone else will deal with the problem, or if others are not reacting they shouldn’t either) but at the same time baffling and disturbing.  It seems counterintuitive to think the more people are available to help another human being when they need it, the less likely that person is to actually be helped.  How sad for all of us who may need help.

I like to think there are many people who do not respond this way.  But I have been shocked at how often I have been wrong about this, even when people are in positions of authority, even when people are acting in a professional capacity and are charged with the task of helping.  Sometimes these situations are complex and the solutions are not clear or easy.

My hope is that situations like Penn State act as a wake up call to all of us to ensure that the right thing is done or that we continue to try to find the right thing to do, rather than look away and say to ourselves it is not our responsibility.  I’d like to live in a world where we all believe it is everyone’s responsibility to protect each other, particularly those who cannot as easily protect themselves.

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Why I do what I do (And how does therapy help?)

People sometimes ask me, “How can you listen to people’s problems all day long? That sounds like it would be really depressing.”  I guess if I looked at it that way, it would be kind of a downer!  But thankfully, I don’t see what I do that way at all.  (A psychologist or psychotherapists job is far more complex than just listening, many sympathetic people can do that!)

I don’t see what I do as listening to people’s problems, I see it as listening for the solutions (and then the fun and rewarding part: helping people to find a solution or a different way of seeing and doing things).

The listening part of my job is a very complex task.  I am listening to “the problem,” I am looking for connections, patterns and threads. I am listening for the roots of the problem. I am listening for negative beliefs and maladaptive meanings that support the problems, and I am thinking of possible solutions. Phew. No wonder my brain is tired by the end of a full day!

I recently watched a TED talk called, “How to inspire anyone to do anything”.  I found it very inspiring indeed!  Simon Sinek’s point is that people are inspired to act by why we do what we do, not by what we do.  I think that is exactly why I find my job inspiring and rewarding, not depressing.  It is not the listening part (part of what I do), it’s why I do it, that inspires me, keeps me doing it, and hopefully is giving my patients what they need to improve their lives.

No one’s life is perfect.  We all have things that have happened to us that color the way we see things or that get in the way of our living to our potential.  I do what I do because I find it very rewarding to help people identify the source of the things that are getting in their way, so they can live a more full, productive, healthy and happy life.  I enjoy helping couples to deepen and improve their relationships, and their communication so they can continue the hard work of being in a relationship.

Sometimes people think having to get therapy is bit of a punishment or a sign of weakness.  I think it is an amazing opportunity and a sign of strength. Successful therapy requires at least two active and engaged people (the therapist and the person or people seeking therapy).  The transformation and meaningful change that ultimately results from”listening to people’s problems,” is why I do what I do!

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Upsetting Experiences and Trauma: The importance of meaning

Obviously upsetting experiences come up a lot in my work.

Sometimes people worry that their trauma is not big enough to need treatment, that the incident is silly or insignificant and that they should just get over it on their own.

I have found that the need for treatment sometimes depends less on the severity of the trauma and more on the meaning that is attached to it. Sometimes the meaning is initially negative and then as people process the upsetting event over time, they begin to find a more adaptive meaning. Treatment seems to be needed when for whatever reason, the meaning remains maladaptive.

This may explain in part, why some people are more traumatized by the same event than others, why some seemingly benign events upset us more than other more objectively traumatic events, and how people who grew up in the same families can have very different views of what the experience was like.

It is not a surprise then, that an effective way to lessen the impact of an upsetting or traumatic experience, is to explore and ultimately redefine its meaning.

Let’s take a relatively benign example.  Let’s say as a young child, you put a lot of effort into making a painting for one of your parents.  When it was finally done, you took it to your mother and showed it to her, expecting great admiration and praise.  Unfortunately at that moment, your mother was busy on the phone.  She wasn’t able to give you the attention that you needed.  If you then thought to yourself, “Hmmm, I must not be important” then the event will likely be upsetting and continue to disturb you and you may end up carrying it with you for a long time, allowing other subsequent experiences to reinforce it.  You may begin feeling like you are not important in general. When you feel this way, you notice more experiences that confirm that belief and the belief that you are not important continues to strengthen.  Although the original event was not hugely traumatic, you can see how the meaning associated with this event can turn it into the beginning of a life long obstacle to your happiness.

If instead you had attributed a different meaning to your mother’s unavailability (“she would pay attention to me if she could because I am important, but something else important is taking her attention right now, and it has no relevance to my importance”) the experience would not be upsetting or leave a traumatic imprint on your life.

Accidents remind us of our vulnerability and of the fragility of life.  If we hold onto the idea that we are vulnerable, we tend to become more and more fearful.  Some bad experiences seem to say to us, that we are unlucky.  If we hold onto this meaning we will find many experiences to confirm that we are unlucky.  If instead we say to ourselves we just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time today and we are no more vulnerable or unlucky than we were before or than the next person, then we can more easily move on from the experience.

When people treat us badly, we sometimes look for something we can control to explain it…we blame ourselves (I did something to deserve that).  In other words, sometimes we are embarrassed because of the meaning we attach to the embarrassing event (e.g. “I am an idiot, people must think I am stupid”).  If someone behaves badly towards us in public and we are embarrassed, we may be embarrassed because we think people will judge us.   If we hold onto these meanings it begins to affect our outlooks, the decisions we make and we may begin to feel stuck.

So it is useful to explore and redefine the meanings associated with the upsetting things that happen to us, and continue to get in the way of our living our lives as we wish to.

The next time something upsetting happens to you, think about what meaning you might have attached to it, and see if you can find a more adaptive meaning.  The sooner you can do this, the faster you will heal.

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Self Esteem “hooks”

  • Self Esteem Hooks

People often refer to self-esteem as if it is one thing.  I see it as much more complex than that.  First, I think there is likely to be a genetic component to self-esteem.  How often have we seen people who have every reason to have good self-esteem and yet do not?  The opposite can also be true but is a bit more complicated (some people who appear to have good self-esteem actually don’t, but that is a whole different topic for another post).  If you think about it, people who are shy (and although this is clearly a trait that can be influenced by the environment, I also think there is a genetic component to shyness and certainly anxiety) are often timid as young children.  When you are a child you get your self esteem from going down the slide by yourself or pouring your own juice—things that give you that “I did it myself” feeling.  Shy or anxious children have fewer of these experiences and thus the foundation for their self-esteem tends to be weaker.

I like to think of self-esteem as a series of hooks.  You have a self-esteem hook about how well you do at work or at school, one or more about how well you do athletically or with other hobbies you might do, one or more about how you are in social settings, one or more about your personal life and so on.  If one area of your life is not going well, you might hang your self-esteem hat on one of the other hooks.  If none of the hooks are solid your hat is on the floor.  It is therefore important to make sure you have a lot of solid self-esteem hooks.

The building blocks of self-esteem are a sense of competence, contribution and belonging.  The more things that you (or your children) do that give you a sense of contribution, competence and belonging the more hooks you will have, the more you do them the stronger those hooks will be.

So pay attention to strengthening your hooks (and helping your children to do the same) and making sure you have several of them so that your self-esteem hat doesn’t end up on the floor!

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Not taking things personally…

I have found that many people take things personally, that are not personal. This is natural. We all do this much more than we realize. Sometimes it takes a long time to learn that when people hurt us it often isn’t about us, it is about the person hurting us. If someone says something unkind or thoughtless it is hard not to be hurt. But if you really think about it, it often says more about the person who made the comment than it does about you.
This is hardest to do with the people we love, but it is often equally true.

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