Relieving Relational Poverty

              “It is our nature to nurture and to be nurtured.” -Bruce Perry, MD, PhD

In his book “Born for Love”, Dr. Bruce Perry describes a form of poverty that impacts us all, regardless of race, gender, age, or socioeconomic status: relational poverty.

Perry’s “relational poverty” is just what it sounds like; it is a deep lack of the connectedness with others that we all need to survive and to be well. Perry describes how modern American society, with its technologies, impaired values, financial obsessiveness, broken social structures, and self-centeredness has created a massive, massive problem for people’s ability to relate to each other.  And, according to Perry, relational poverty is “a form of poverty far more destructive than economic poverty.”

Perry writes:  “Simply stated, the human brain is not designed for the modern world–despite the fact that the modern world is a ‘product’ of the human brain’s remarkable capacities for invention, communication, and adaptation.  We are now living in a world that is disconnected from the rhythms of nature (i.e., climate controlled, light-dark manipulated, overstimulating to our auditory and visual senses); we raise and educate our children in social environments at once more complex and demanding on our social neurobiology (e.g., hundreds of day-by-day interactions with acquaintances or strangers) yet oddly impoverished of complex somatosensory-rich, relational interactions (i.e., touch, holding, rocking, conversation, or intergenerational interactions).”

“You might have 100 friends on Facebook, but you might not have one single person to have dinner with.”                                       -Bruce Perry, MD, PhD

This is bad for us, he says, because we humans need relationships to “survive and thrive.”  Relationships with each other are critical not only to our own individual survival and wellbeing, but also to the survival of our species.  Perry also argues that relational poverty is wrecking our ability to empathize with each other, which further alienates us from one another.

So, what can we do about this?  I propose that we, as individuals, we can diminish relational poverty by ramping up our emotional generosity.  

By “emotional generosity” I am referring to a willingness to be kind and giving to others, even when you’re not in the mood.  You are being emotionally generous when you smile at your barista, even if it took a while for her to make your latte.  You’re emotionally generous when you give a surprise compliment to a stranger.  You’re being emotionally generous when you make time to take another person’s perspective, and feel for them.  You’re being emotionally generous when you find a way to calm your tantruming child, or offer help or sympathy to a mother whose child is tantruming.

Our society is flooded with connection-wrecking technologies, many of us live far away from or have damaged relationships with our families-of-origin, and our lives are busy and time is in short supply.  We can’t necessarily change those things, at least not easily.  But what we can do is look each other in the eye, offer a kind word or a smile, hold the door, and be understanding.  Through these small gestures, we can replenish each other.  It’s that simple.

                   “A healthy human being is a related human being.” -Bruce Perry

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.


A Case for Curiosity: 14 Reasons to Know Yourself

Sorting through my mail today, I came across the most recent quarterly reviews of new psychoanalytically-oriented books. A particular review of Lew Aron and Karen Starr’s new book, “A Psychotherapy for the People:  Toward a Progressive Psychoanalysis” stood out (I’m a big fan of Lew Aron).

The book itself sounds great, but what really caught my eye was a line the reviewer, Carlo Strenger, wrote about why psychoanalytic therapy has lost its momentum in our culture.

“…I’m afraid that psychoanalysis is unlikely to turn into a ‘psychotherapy for the people,’ not only because most people have neither the time nor the means for psychoanalytic therapy, whether classical or more open and flexible; but because in a culture that is ever less connected to values of complexity and cultural depth, most potential patients do not have the interest in their own psyche needed for self-exploration.”  (italics added)

I am sad to report that this resonated with me. In my life and in my practice, I often feel shocked by people’s disinterest in self-exploration. It seems like these days, people are more interested in solving a problem than in knowing themselves. I have come up with many theories about why this is, but to list those seems beside the point. Instead, in an effort to revitalize interest in the process, I’d like to make a case for self-knowing.

Here are some reasons why you should get to know yourself:

1. When you know yourself, you make better choices.  You know what you want.

2. When you know yourself, you go easy on you.  You accept who you are, flaws and all.

3. When you know yourself, you treat others better. It’s easier to forgive people when you’re clear that you’re not perfect, either.

4.  When you know yourself, you have fewer psychological symptoms.  Knowing yourself, your feelings, and how you came to be who you are relieves all kinds of pain.  Trust me.  I see it every day.

5. When you know yourself, you are more confident and satisfied.  You have a solid sense of yourself.

6. When you are a parent and you know yourself, you have better relationships with your children. You are more patient.  You can more easily remember that you were once a child, too.

7. When you know yourself, you know your limits.  You’re less likely to be walked on, taken advantage of, or led astray.

8. When you know yourself, you’re less likely to repeat negative patterns from your past with others.

9. When you know yourself, you restore your own power. You get to make conscious choices about how you want to be…and how you don’t want to be.

10. When you know yourself, you don’t need to lie or to blame others. You can own your shit with humor and humility.

11. When you know yourself, you are less judgmental and more accepting of individual differences.  It’s easier to see the commonalities among us when we realize that we are equally capable of all types of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

12.  When you know yourself, you often discover and unlock new talents.

13. When you know yourself, you love better.

14. Self-aware people make a better society.

If you haven’t gone through the process of self-exploration, you should give it a try.  Find an analyst and learn who you are.  Getting to know yourself is a rewarding process that benefits everyone.  For, as Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.


The Relationship Cure

Yesterday, I was listening to NPR podcasts while driving to and from supervision with my mentor, psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams.

In typical NPR style, the interviews focused on problems in society and how to change them. The interviewer, Marty Moss-Coane, boiled the solution to each social problem down to one word: relationship. Relationships shape us, she repeatedly implied.

Judith Levine’s research tells us that a commonality among impoverished women, who have been consistently failed and lied to, is a global distrust of others. Prison researcher James Gilligan reports that nearly all prisoners have an early history of experiencing shame and humiliation. Psychology knows a deep and intuitive truth: how a person is treated by others predicts his global view of himself and how he expects to be viewed by others. And a person’s self-view and self-esteem is linked to all kinds of outcomes, both positive and negative.

We talk about relationship a lot in the psychoanalytic world. In my supervision group with Nancy, we all agree that therapeutic change depends on the relationship between therapist and patient. It’s the one and only necessary ingredient. In fact, if you look at the extensive literature on therapy success, you will see that the one single variable that always predicts a good therapy outcome is the therapeutic alliance (aka, the relationship).

It’s widely accepted in psychoanalytic circles that our earliest relationships give us a roadmap for our relational lives. The ways that we are related to in our early years teach us what we can expect from others. As developmental psychologist Erik Erickson observed, if you have the experience that you can rely on others to meet your most basic needs, you have a greater likelihood of experiencing trust in others. On the other hand, if you are neglected or abused, your relational default is likely to be a mistrust of others.

The Harvard Center on the Developing Child has scads of data demonstrating the impact of early relational trauma on the developing brain. There is more and more evidence, too, from epigenetic research about how social experiences shape gene expression.

So, if this is all true, then how is change possible? I strongly believe that we all have the capacity to be healed by new relational experiences, no matter what our history. (There is emerging data that a good therapy transforms and rebuilds brain structures.) What makes my work meaningful to me is this very truth: good relationships repair the damage caused by broken ones.

Of course, this is not news. This is not rocket science. But I am afraid that this basic truth of our humanity is getting lost. Which is why I love interviews on NPR that help us all to remember that relationships matter. In fact, they matter the most of all.

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.


iRelief? …or iDistraction?

How many parents do you know who readily admit that they have a problem controlling their smartphone use around their children?  I hear about it often.  Parents tell me about their efforts to curb their Facebook addictions and their struggles to text less when they’re with their kids.  They want to be more present with their children, who typically object to their parents’  phone use.  But it is hard, hard, hard for parents to separate from their phones.

It’s surprising to me that no one talks about the reason why we quickly become addicted to our iDevices, especially when the phenomenon is easily explained by psychology’s behavioral theory.  In the late 1940’s, behaviorist B.F. Skinner described a process called “operant conditioning.”  The aim of operant conditioning was to bring about a desired behavior by reinforcing it on a particular “schedule.”  He trained hungry pigeons, for example, to perform complex tasks by offering them food pellets when they demonstrated the desired behavior.  He found, from his research, that of the various reinforcement schedules he used, the one called a “Variable Ratio” was the most effective.  (Check out the cool video of BF Skinner on this website if you want to see more.)

As he explains in the video, the variable ratio schedule of reinforcement offers a desired reinforcer (e.g., food) at random, unpredictable times.  The pigeons in his experiments were trained to peck a button in order to get food.  The pigeons who were given food at random times demonstrated the most persistent pecking; they did not know how often or after how many pecks food would come.  So they pecked a lot.  They pecked constantly.  They did not stop pecking.  And it became hard for them not to peck.

Our smartphones and iDevices operate on the same schedule.  They are variably reinforcing.  We do not know after how many taps we will get a “reward,” such as an email, a Facebook message, a phone call, or a text.

What does this have to do with parenting?  I propose that when you are a parent, especially a parent of a young child, the “reward” offered by these devices is extra-awesome.  It’s extra-awesome because it can take you out out of the moment.  Away from the whining, the crying, and/or the general drain of parenthood.  Devices that are already incredibly addictive are probably even more addictive when they offer an escape from something you may, quite frankly, hate.  (And by “something,” I mean parenting.  It can be exhausting and boring for parents.  If you don’t believe me, read Jennifer Senior’s new book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.” She has the data.)

Unfortunately, a parent’s smartphone addiction is bad news for children.  The very devices that offer escape, relief, and immediate social rewards to parents are increasing the number of injuries to children (click to read about it).  For example, parents cannot simultaneously look at their phones and watch their children.  Last fall, I attended a very impressive panel discussion about the importance of free play in childhood.  One of the panelists, Joan Almon of the Alliance for Childhood, reported that in spite of our attempts to make playgrounds safer, the number of children injured on playgrounds has remained remarkably stable over time (that is, children still get injured on playgrounds at the same rate as they always have).  This holds true, she said, except for the year 2007, when there was a significant spike in playground-related injuries to children.  It is no coincidence that 2007 was the year that the iPhone became available.  Children got hurt more when their parents quit being vigilant.

But, when phones are so addictive, how are parents to stop using them?  BF Skinner said that the best way to extinguish a behaviorally conditioned response is to quit cold turkey.  For moms and dads to abandon their phones, then, they have to either stop using them altogether, or somehow make tapping them less rewarding.  This is incredibly hard to do when the fleeting, momentary rewards of parenting young children cannot compete with the immediate gratification of  smartphones.  

Yet, there is a way to make smartphones a little less rewarding.  A parent who wants to curb phone use can start to focus what their distraction is costing them.  While the escape from the negative aspects of parenting is very rewarding, missing out on the bits of joy parenthood brings is not rewarding at all.  If you are a parent trying to curb your phone use, I suggest you focus on all the good stuff that you are not getting when you are on your phone.  After all, you can’t text and have a dance party with your preschooler at the same time.  But if you still find it hard to put the phone down, I understand.  I just hope that you will grapple with the extent of your phone use…and, please, at least don’t use it at the playground.

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.


Enjoy The Baby! (It’s Not So Simple)

When I was a new mother, I was frequently accosted by older women in check-out lines instructing me to enjoy my baby. “Enjoy it!” they commanded.  I was tired, haggard, and bitter…and enjoyment of motherhood was not on my radar screen in those moments. The well-intended instruction to “enjoy it” did not sit well with me.  Since that time, I understand better what these women were trying to tell me.  But still, I don’t like it.  I get irritated when I see today’s new moms getting similar directions.  I am certain that I am not alone in my aggravation.

I’ve been thinking about why this is. Why is it so frustrating to mothers of young children to be told to enjoy their babies?

Here is the answer I have come to.  Enjoying a child is a parenting goal. It is an achievement for mothers and fathers.  It does not go without saying that a parent can or will enjoy their child.  This feeling is not automatic for everyone.  In fact, the capacity of a parent to enjoy their child is multiply determined.  Here is my preliminary list of five necessary elements:

1.  Time to Reflect.  Enjoyment of children does not always happen in the moment.  Children, in the moment, are often demanding and annoying. However, in moments of separation, like when the child is in bed, parents can reflect on the day…they can remember the funny or cute things their child did with a smile.  But you need time and space to make room for these feelings. And to have them in the moment is a great achievement!

2. Sleep. I can’t enjoy much of anything when I’m dead tired. Can you?

3.  Support and a Reflecting Community.  I find that parents can enjoy their children better when they have other people around who also love them.  Ideally, other people can give parents a break (and, hence, time to rest and reflect). In addition to time, though, parents benefit from being surrounded by others who can appreciate the beauty in their child.  These loving others help the parent to reflect on their child in a different, often meaningful way. Parents can then see their children from a different perspective. It also helps when a parent gets to behold someone else admiring their child. Pride facilitates enjoyment!

4.  Positive Childhood Attachments. Some parents are lucky enough to have been born into good-enough families, and as a result grew into adults with a sense that the world is a safe place. They have positive mental models of parenthood as they become parents themselves. Their secure attachment style  gives them increased freedom to enjoy their child. Other parents are not so lucky.  These parents were born into families where there was trouble, and where things went wrong in their early days.  They did not develop a sense of safety and security in the world, because, for them, they could not necessarily rely on others to meet their needs. Compared to parents with a secure attachment, parents with an insecure attachment have increased difficulty enjoying their children.

5.  Psychological Strength.  Parents who suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental disorders tend to have a hard time bonding with their baby.  I, personally, believe that these feelings are associated with a parent’s own upbringing.  (Although this is not always the case.)  When a parent is suffering, whatever the cause, enjoyment capacity also suffers.  In fact, the absence of the capacity to enjoy (i.e., anhedonia) is a diagnostic criterion for depression. Parents who are emotionally depleted cannot enjoy their children to the same degree as their non-depressed, non-anxious counterparts.

There was a great opinion piece in the NY Times last October by David Bornstein on protecting children from toxic stress.  One thing that stood out in this article was a quote by the clinical director of a program that works to repair broken attachments in parents, for the sake of their children.  She says of the parents’ responses to their children, “We want delight! Delight is protective.”

Yes.  Exactly.  We want delight!  We want parents to enjoy their children! Let’s work, as a society, to help this be possible for every parent.  And let’s keep in mind that these feelings don’t happen on demand, in check-out lines.

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

Porcupines and Intimacy

One of my favorite psychology books, Shopenhauer’s Porcupines (by Deborah Luepnitz) begins with a parable about…you guessed it…porcupines.

The parable tells of a troupe of porcupines in the winter. The prickly little animals face a dilemma at night, when they must huddle together for warmth to keep from freezing to death. As you can imagine, problems arise when they get so close that they begin to prick each other with their quills. However, if they move too far apart, they lose the body warmth that keeps them from freezing. There is no optimal spacing to prevent both harming each other and freezing. So, the porcupine troupe has to develop a rhythm of moving together and apart, together and apart, in order neither to prick each other too deeply nor to freeze.

What I love about this parable (and this is the point of Dr. Luepnitz’s book) is that it correlates to ways that we humans struggle with intimacy. We long for togetherness. We yearn to feel less alone in the world. And yet, when we find relationships which can fill our longing for closeness, we begin to prick each other. However, if we move too far away, we have to face our loneliness.

Like porcupines in winter, we have to find ways within our relationships to move together and apart. We come together until it begins to hurt, and then we pull away to heal and restore ourselves. And this together-apart, together-apart rhythm is, in my view, as good as it gets in relationships. It is what relationships are all about.

We all vary in the degrees of closeness we want and can bear in relationships. So, for each of us, individually and in pairs, we must develop our own rhythm, our own timing. And the extent to which we can know what our own individual rhythm is, the better we can tend to our own needs, and the needs of our relationships (prickly as they may sometimes be).

©2013 Stephanie Heck, Ph.D.


Ten Ways to Curb Your Narcissism

As I’ve written before, we live in a narcissistic society. And, of course, this means that we ourselves are all at least a little narcissistic.

A little narcissism is not necessarily a bad thing–we need it in order to keep ourselves in mind and to get our own needs met. However, our narcissism can, when it gets the better of us, hinder or damage our relationships. So, I thought I’d take a minute to give you a few tips about how to keep your narcissism in check.

My mentor, Nancy McWilliams, wrote a paper called “Narcissistic Pathology of Everyday Life” which has become somewhat of a cult classic in the psychology world. She describes the small ways that people with a primarily narcissistic character subtly demean and devalue others in order to protect their underlying fragile self-esteem. Although my character is not primarily narcissistic, I find that the paper is a good reminder of how to treat people better. So, I thought I’d rework it a little here…and use her work as inspiration for a list of small things that we could all do to be less “all about me” and more involved and emotionally generous with each other.

1. Apologize. When you hurt or wrong someone, say you’re sorry. Preferably with feeling.

2. Compliment. Give gratuitous compliments, freely and often. People will love you.

3. Empathize. Take the time to see a perspective other than your own.

4. Help. Pitch in whenever you can. Any small effort to aid another person goes a long way.

5. Thank. Express gratitude when someone shows you kindness.

6. Accept. Acceptance starts with yourself: the more you know and accept yourself, the easier it is to tolerate others.

7. Communicate. Openly talking about your thoughts creates a dialogue, which by definition allows room for more than just your own perspective.
Don’t ruminate. Communicate.

8. Praise. When you see someone doing a great job, let them know!
Everyone needs a good “high five” every now and then.

9. Relax. Stress and pressure can wreck interactions with others. Try relaxing a little before you engage.

10. Replenish. Take care of yourself instead of expecting others to do it for you.
(Unless you’re under the age of 18–then you still have a right to having your basic needs met by others!)

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.


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