Category Archives: Psychology

Love Is Like Rice

When it comes time to add a sibling to the family, young children are often concerned if there will be enough love to go around. I have found it helpful to make the answer as concrete as possible.

Concrete thinking is a well-documented characteristic of children. Jean Piaget described how our thinking changes throughout childhood. A child under the age of 6, for example, tends to overlook a transition. They see the beginning and end but not the transition itself. So, if given play dough, and asked to roll it into a ball and then into a sausage, and asked if there is more, less, or the same amount of play dough as a ball or sausage, they will tell you there is more when it is a sausage. They see it as bigger and cannot see that material was not lost or gained in the transition. I understand why children, who have such difficulty with abstract ideas, find this difficult to understand and persist in their worry about whether their parents will love them as much when there is another child.

So, when dealing with a child’s concern of a new baby brother or sister, it is best to respond as concretely as possible. A simple way to do this is to demonstrate the transition from uncooked to cooked rice. I have them hold a cup of uncooked rice in their hands. Then, together, we add it to the pot and add the water. Then we watch it boil and we wait. We keep watching and waiting. Then we uncover the pot and see how much the rice has grown. This is followed by the simple statement: “Love is like that. When we add something, like a new baby brother or sister, it makes the total amount of love grow. Just like the water made the rice grow. There will always be enough love to go around.”

What is even more interesting to me is the idea that, at times, adolescents and adults find this concept difficult too. Middle school and high school students worry that there is not room in the group for everyone; so letting someone in means someone may have to be excluded. First-time parents worry that they will not love each other as much once their child arrives. They worry that a child will take up their time and they will “lose the romance”. Parents worry that they will not love the second child as much as they love the first. These worries reflect a concern that there is only a limited amount of love to go around; that when we have to divide it among more people, each person will get less.

However, that is simply not true. Love is meant to fill the space that is available to it. It fills the spaces and brings us closer to each other. The more people we share our love with, the more love there is to go around.

Love is like the water that makes the rice grow. Be afraid to skimp on your love, not to share it.

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Just Change Your Pants, George

“Just change your pants, George.”

“I’m gonna change my pants, Alice. But if I change my pants, I gotta change my jacket! If I change my jacket, I gotta change my shirt! If I change my shirt, I gotta change my tie! I hafta change my belt! I gotta change my shoes! I gotta change my socks!”

“Just change your pants, George.”

This interchange from the movie Beethoven (1992) takes place because Beethoven, a large St. Bernard dog, drooled on George’s pants and by doing so, “destroyed” George’s morning schedule – which George feels is the start to an overwhelming pile of problems.

These few lines make Beethoven one of my favorite movies of all times. It captures the thinking we all experience on those “bad” days when nothing seems to go our way and when we see problems everywhere we turn. More importantly, it represents the panic we all experience when change is required.

Sometimes, all we can see are the negative effects of change, blinding us from the opportunities for growth and happiness that are in front of us. In George’s case, innumerable problems confront him if he accepts the need to change his pants: he’ll then have to change his jacket, shirt, tie, belt, shoes, and socks. In the moment, George cannot see that changing his pants presents him with the opportunity to, on the most basic level, go to work with pants that are not full of dog saliva, but also with a more important opportunity: the chance to start his day over, look and feel better, and, most importantly, change his attitude about “life”.

This scenario is a humorous depiction of our tendency to “not be able to see the forest for the trees.” He is so caught up in the details that he misses the opening into the clearing. We all have the tendency to do that sometimes. The details overwhelm us and we lose sight of the bigger picture. Like George, we get caught up in the anticipation of change. It is the anticipation that often overwhelms us, not the actual change.

Change is an inherent part of life. We change physically, mentally, and emotionally every day. Most of these changes go unnoticed. It is the larger changes – the ones we anticipate – that cause us to worry.

As I have written before, worry is simply an indicator that some kind of change is necessary. So the key is to minimize the anticipation of the negative “what ifs” and keep our eye on the goal – that change is natural, that it represents an opportunity for our growth.

Let me provide some examples:

  • The start of the school year brings changes in schedules, routines, and expectations. A parent gets caught up in the chores that are part of the start of school – the need for backpacks filled with supplies, the need to prepare breakfast and lunch, the need to get to the bus on time. They anticipate that if their child is unprepared in some way, that the teacher will get annoyed, the teacher will have a bad opinion of their child, the child will have a bad year (in other words, the pants, jacket, shirt, tie, belt, shoes, socks of school). They forget that the actual goal is to prepare their child to enjoy school, to enjoy learning, and to listen to the best and worst parts of the child’s day. Once that goal is recognized, the chores can become part of the solution. If the chores are done together, as a family community, then chores provide an opportunity for chatting and for listening to each other. The change that occurs is positive and reflects the natural growth in all members of the family.
  • Generally, the rule in elementary school is that everyone in class must be invited to a party. As that rule changes, a child anticipates that not getting invited to a specific party represents the end of their social life. The spiral of catastrophe (they will never have friends, their social life is over, school will be awful – the pants, jacket, shirt, tie, belt, shoes, socks of school social life) is all that is seen. If they focus, instead, on the goal of having friends who share their interests, and values, and who are kind, then the change in rules provides an opportunity to learn how to be more selective in our friendships – a lesson that we learn and re-learn throughout our lifetime.
  • A couple considering their future together is often confronted with a considerable amount of negative statements about commitment. They are bombarded with information that tells them that people are not meant to be monogamous, that long term relationships get boring, that they will get on each other’s nerves (the pants, jacket, shirt, tie, belt, shoes, socks of commitment). They worry that the commitment will lead to a negative change in their relationship. If they focus instead on the goal of making each other happy, they will continually find ways to do that, making their relationship a “living” entity that must be nourished and attended to as it grows (changes) over time. If they want to make each other happy, they will find ways to do that. They may not (in fact will not) be able to do that all the time, but the want provides a path toward happiness.

The next time you feel the anticipation of change, don’t let it impact you in a negative way. Think of the anticipation as a sign that change is necessary. Try to identify the goal – the change that is required – and let the goal help you find a solution to the problem. Recognize that the anticipation is almost always worse than whatever the change will actually be. Remember that change is natural and necessary; change represents an opportunity to start over, to improve, to add to our lives. Remember to just change your pants, George, and it will be okay.

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If/Then

Our English teachers taught us that complex sentences use conjunctions – a “joiner” word – to bring two thoughts into a unified whole. Not only do complex sentences help us sound more intelligent, they also help us shape our lives because how we connect our thoughts can have a profound effect on our happiness.

For example, when a client says, “I want to meet someone but I know I never will” they are unhappy in the moment and see a future filled with unhappiness. If they say, “I want to meet someone and I know I will” they are filled with hope in the present and optimism for the future. If they say, “I want to meet someone so I went out” they are actively doing something that might change their present condition. It is not the connecting word alone that matters – it is the thoughts that are logically connected by the word we choose. It would not make sense, for example, to say, “I want to meet someone so I stayed home alone.” The so demanded an action to accomplish the goal stated in the first sentence.

In other words, being aware of these connections – and choosing to make more effective connections – is a fairly simple way to change our perspective. Let me give you more examples:

 “If I stay in this job I hate, then I will become more and more unhappy.” A more effective connection would be, “If I look for a new job, then I might find one that brings me more satisfaction.” “If I leave this relationship, then I might be alone forever” could be changed to, “If I move on to a new relationship, then I might find greater happiness.” Similarly, if only statements can get us stuck in the past rather than move us toward a more satisfying future: “If only I had not pushed for a commitment, we would still be together” keeps us pining for a relationship that is over.  Saying, “Although he/she was not ready for a commitment, I’m glad I let my goals be known”, however, allows us to take the positive from the past while moving toward a future in which both parties can find greater fulfillment. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you but I’m worried that I don’t make as much money as you so I will be a financial burden” changed to “I want to spend the rest of my life with you so I was wondering how you feel about the differences in our income” allows greater problem solving and less anxiety/worry.  It keeps the focus on the goal and invites multiple options to emerge.

 Even if can also be problematic. I have heard clients say, “Even if I meet someone now, I’ll be too old to have children.” Here the focus is on unfulfilled dreams and, in essence, provides no path to new dreams or fulfillment. Changing the statement to “Whether I meet someone or not, I will find a way to make some children happier” leads to finding a way to fulfill the original dream in some form (work in a hospital with babies born to mothers on drugs, volunteer to coach or spend time with children who have single parents or are in foster care, spend time with nieces/nephews/children of friends, etc.).

Words are important; they matter. So, choose your words carefully and use them as a pathway to greater contentment. If you seek greater happiness, then you will find it. It will “pop out” at you because your new perspective will allow it present itself.

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Another Look at Hate and Fear

I am certain that human nature is based on empathy, love, and compassion. The kind of violence that erupted in Charlottesville this week seems to provide substantial disconfirmation of that assumption. If humans are essentially “built” for love, how can we treat each other with such cruelty?  The answer is simple. We must be taught to hate and fear.  I have written on this before and I hope you will read my post on this topic.  http://real-matters.com/?p=56

We can choose to allow our natural empathy to flourish. We can choose to teach love and acceptance. 

I Cut, You Choose

Growing up, whenever my sister and I had to split dessert, my very, very wise father had a wonderful rule that ensured we’d be fair to each other. He would say, “I cut, you choose.” Such a simple statement made sure that, whoever cut into the cake, cut it as evenly as possible. Otherwise, the other person would clearly choose the larger slice. The point was always to remember that when we choose to divide something, we need to keep the needs/wants of the other person in mind. Over the years, as I enjoyed my fairly distributed slices of cake, I realized that sharing is an interesting concept.

According to Dictionary.com it can be a noun, an adjective, or a verb. For example, when used as a noun it might refer to the part allotted to or belonging to someone, such as a share of stock. When used as an adjective it might refer to sharing data online; as an idiom it might refer to sharing the losses or profits of a company. As a verb, it is used to indicate a division or distribution of something, such as sharing food. What is most interesting is that the definition does not indicate or require that the division/distribution of the item must be done equally like my father suggested. We just like to think that it means everyone gets an equal amount. Well, we like to think that most of the time.

Sharing, to some extent, is natural. It is based on empathy. A child will offer a favorite object to a parent, sibling, or another child if that other person seems distraught. Sharing is also taught. We share food with our children and they learn to share with us. We do not always want their soggy, half eaten offering, but it is important to demonstrate the reciprocity of sharing. Sharing can only happen between or among people; it is not a solitary action. As children grow, we encourage sharing. We tell them to share their toys with others, to take turns, to give a cookie to everyone at the table, to invite everyone in the class to their party.

We not only encourage our children to share, sometimes we demand it of them. If there is a toy they do not want to share, we take it away from them saying, “If you won’t share then no one can have it!” What we fail to realize is that we do not always model that behavior. There are many things we ourselves will not share with everyone. We do not share our cars with every friend; they must be a very particular “status” of friend. We do not share our favorite piece of jewelry with every friend; we must really trust them to return it. Most of us do not share our significant other allowing them to have an intimate, sexual relationship outside of what they have with us. So, a child who does not want to share a special toy feels the same way. If they will not share anything, well, that is a problem. But, it seems to me that to really help them understand sharing, we have to help them understand why they are willing to share some things and not others.

It is important for all of us to examine what makes some “things” – including our feelings, vulnerabilities, secrets – sharable while others are not. The answer is not easy because what we are willing to share varies for all of us. For example, some families purchase duplicate toys so that siblings won’t fight because the need to share has been eliminated. We have multiple televisions, computers, mobile devices of all kinds, so we don’t have to share what we are watching or what music we are listening to – we can all have what we want. I am often concerned that this need to make everyone happy at once will impact our thinking about the power of sharing: it increases our connection to our fellow human beings, allowing us to influence the life of someone else.

If we are given the option to detach ourselves at an early age, it can affect our ability to share as an adult. It is interesting that for many people, it is easier to share (or over-share) what we are doing on social media, rather than to share one’s feelings or to share what we perceive as our weaknesses with those closest to us. Sometimes we fear that what we share will put us at some kind of disadvantage. It will mean we have less – less food, less time, less information that gives us status. It seems that this is a powerful concern in our world today. If I share my wealth, I won’t have enough for me and mine. If I share my knowledge at work, someone younger who can be paid less than I am being paid will replace me. If I share my vulnerabilities, someone will use that against me.

Such thinking is present in our personal relationships and in the larger societal picture. The healthcare debate has become one where we segregate the ill into a separate pool so that the healthy can pay lower premiums. We will let the ill, who have less resources than the healthy, pay more than the healthy do. We will call that fair because we do not want to share the benefits that our health has given us nor do we want to share the burden of the cost of healthcare. I am guessing, however, that when poor health hits “home”, our perspective about sharing will change just a bit.

I say that because it is actually common that when we have the largest amount of something, we don’t really want to share equally. We want to keep the largest portion for ourselves. It seems to me that when we have the largest amount of anything, those very wise words “I cut, you choose” encourage us to consider the reason for our hesitancy to share, allow us to amend our decision based on the facts of the situation rather than on our fears, and, most importantly, guide us to a decision that allows us to embrace our humanity.

“I cut, you choose.” ~ Jerry Chiappise

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The Joy of Parenting

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are often billed as days for children to “pay back” parents for all they do for them all year. Parents forgo personal desires for them, devote themselves to them, and struggle for them. Some parents see Mother’s and Father’s Day as a reimbursement for all the sacrifices and struggles. While mothers and fathers certainly deserve love and attention, the term “payback” makes parenting sound like a chore rather than a joy. I like to think of it differently.

For me, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are opportunities to sit back for a moment and reflect on the wonders of family. Instead of rushing around, we have the opportunity to observe the love that surrounds us. On such days, we indulge in the luxury of watching our family. We watch our toddler share their blanket, or their cookie, or their toy; in other words, we watch them share their heart. We watch our teen struggle to say, “I love you” with a card. Whether that card is funny, near silent with so few words, or two pages of heart-felt words that are not said on any other day, we watch them learn to share their heart and expose their vulnerability to others. We watch our adult children navigate the world of including their significant other into their family while they also navigate how to become a part of someone else’s family.

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are opportunities to celebrate our successes – the times we parented with poise and grace, the times we said and did just the “right” thing, the times we were able to provide just the right amount of support. It is also a time to celebrate our less successful days – the times we yelled, the times we hurt their feelings, the times we said all the wrong things, the times we provided the wrong support (too much, too little, the wrong kind). These are, after all, the times they had to learn that they could stand on their own and figure out the world on their own, and survive the curveballs that life would throw at them. These are the times we taught them the power of forgiveness and the continuity of love. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are days to celebrate our strengths and weaknesses as people, as sons and daughters, moms and dads, as siblings, and as members of our family.

They are days to express our gratitude to those who have shared their love with us. I am grateful to my mom for showing me how to be strong on the outside when inside I may want to cry. That is something that has been so helpful to me professionally and personally. I am grateful to my dad for showing me that I deserve to be treated like a princess – like a person who is confident, respected, loved, listened to, admired, and fun to be around. I am grateful to my husband for helping to create a family bound together by love, respect, fun, and mutual support. I am grateful to my “mom friends” who shared growing up with me (our children’s growth and our own). I am grateful to my children for helping me see that parenting is not a chore; it is a joy.

I wish you all a day of reflection. Happy parenting!

  • ~”Parenting is a journey that takes us from total responsibility for another person to the development of a responsible person” Diane Urban, PhD ~

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the sign-up box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

 

Feeling Safe in an Unsafe World

 

There is anxiety about the safety of pesticides on food, lead in our water, road rage, terrorist attacks, school shootings. And the list goes on. Feeling safe in the world today is not easy. We are confronted with so many situations that make us anxious. The situations and the anxiety they provoke are on a continuum, but it seems that the uncertainty of our safety has resulted in an almost constant state of anxiety. Sometimes we are well aware of our anxiety; at other times, it is below the surface, but can be easily pulled to the top. So, how can we help ourselves and the young people in our lives cope with this world of uncertainty?

I need to stress that feeling safe is different from being safe. We cannot always control the reality of the world. Parents cannot eliminate pollutants, lead in water, road rage, and so on. They can, however, help children develop a sense of trust in the world. We do that from the moment we hold our newborns in our arms; we make them feel safe. When we hold them and feed them, we let them know that their needs will be met. When we respond to their cries, we let them know that their communication has meaning and they can trust that communicating will have a positive consequence. When we reassure them by going in their room when they are calling us, we let them know that we will do what we can to keep them safe. As they get older, we let them know that we trust that they can take care of themselves, meet their own needs, and make good decisions about their own health and safety. This process is ongoing; even as adults, we know we need to trust our safety to others sometimes (our physicians, our lawyers, our significant other, our own children).

This development of trust, therefore, is a critical factor in feeling safe in an unsafe world. It can be enhanced by various strategies:

  • Recognize the impact of the availability and representativeness heuristics. Heuristics are “rules of thumb” that we use to make our “everyday” decisions. They allow us to make decisions quickly and efficiently. For example, the availability heuristic is based on the “rule of thumb” that if something is easily recalled, it must be important. For example, when we search for a gift for our significant other, our search is not random. We start with the things we “know” they like; that is, we start with the things we easily recall about their preferences (he/she likes movies, theater, sports, gardening and so on). The representativeness heuristic is based on the “rule of thumb” that if something is easily available, it must represent the bigger picture. If we stick with the “problem” of getting a gift for our significant other, then a gift we selected in the past (which is easily recalled/available to us) becomes representative of their preference for future gifts. (If they liked the flowers last time, flowers come to symbolize or represent the category of “appropriate/good gift”). Thus, the easier it is for us to think of something (the more available it is to us) and the more we think that it is the “rule” (representative of the total situation), the greater impact it will have on our thinking. In essence, these heuristics combine to form the basis of a stereotype. Based on the example that comes to mind, we generalize to the larger group. So, if we watch the news and see stories about bullying, illness, murder, and terrorism, then we will think of these things often and come to believe it is the way the world is. If we hear stories of helpfulness, kindness, and compassion, then we will believe that the world is full of such attributes.
  • What we are exposed to via all forms of media, influences what is available and representative. We need to make a conscious effort to seek the balance – that is – to seek out the stories that remind us of the safer parts of our world. When we are talking to children and teens, we need to make it a point to mention the daily kindnesses we experience. Sometimes that is difficult for adults to recognize, but such things happen every day. Someone picks up something we have dropped, someone offers us candy while at a meeting, someone offers a seat on the bus or train, a baby offers their blanket to a parent, someone offers condolences, and so on. These “simple” acts are as much a part of human nature as any horror we hear about on a daily basis; in fact, they are the norm while the horrors we hear are the deviance from the norm.
  • While it is important to teach our children about stranger danger, it is also important to let them know why we, as adults, can talk to other adults we do not know. The same way they make friends with other children in school or at the library or in the park, we can make friends with other adults in the supermarket, or at the park. Let them know that when they are grown-ups, they will be able to make friends with other grown-ups. After all, this is the basis of all future intimate relationships. Relationships without trust are fragile at best.
  • Once we hear something that makes us feel unsafe, and the anxiety begins, then we must control the anxiety. The first thing we need to do is calm our body down. This is best accomplished by taking a few deep breaths and concentrating on breathing (rather than on the event that caused the anxiety). The second thing to do is “think good thoughts.” We need to have a “go to” list of happy, good thoughts that are easily available to us (this can be those pictures of kittens and puppies or the list of kindnesses discussed above). Third, we need to have a “what if” plan – a plan of what we will do if the thing we are worried about really happens: if that bully at school is trying to get you alone, you will ask the teacher if you can stay after class to talk or offer to buy a snack for a friend so you are walking with someone else; if there is a terrorist event that once again eliminates cell service and electricity, we will have a specific meeting place set up and we will get there as soon as possible, etc. Finally, as an adult, you will model feeling safe. You will breathe, say good things about the world, talk about how you will handle things if they do not go as we would hope. You will not be afraid.

The world we live in bombards us with realities that are frightening.   As adults, we feel it on a daily basis. We need to remember that the children and teens in our lives have an even more difficult time dealing with these realities. We need to let them talk about what they are feeling when the see the children in Syria living in the rubble, when they see the children of undocumented immigrants crying as their parents are arrested for minor infractions, when they see parents crying because their child was born ill because they were bitten by a mosquito when pregnant, or crying because their child was a victim of a school or random shooting. We need to help them process these thoughts cognitively and emotionally. We need to provide them comfort and reassurance while we also model how doing even a small act of kindness can make a difference in the world. We need to let them know that these events, while easily available to us, are not representative of the human race. Humans are born with the capacity for empathy and retain that capacity throughout their lifetime. We need to make it clear that the instances of empathy, kindness, and compassion are representative of who we, as humans, really are.

~“Looking down, you’ll see just shadows. Looking up, you will see the sun” – Jon Gilbert ~

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

The Immigration Dilemma – Part 2

As the conversation about immigrants continues in the news, I would like to add the humanist view to continue our conversation. A psychologist in the humanist tradition is concerned with the discrepancy between our ideal and real selves. As an ideal American, we embrace the downtrodden, we allow anyone and everyone to pursue the American dream, and we are a melting pot of cultures. Our real selves – the Americans we are – might have some reservations about these statements. We may have fears that if we allow these things to happen, there will be “less” for “us” – fewer jobs, fewer chances to achieve the dream, and an end to whatever American culture really is. We fear that sharing what we have will result in our own destitution.

A humanist would examine these issues via the “shoulds” we say. We should help; we should look out for ourselves; we should help only the children. For a humanist, the dilemma is resolved, in large part, by changing the word “should” to “need” or “want”. We should help becomes either we need to help or we want to help. We should look out for only ourselves might become we need to consider our own situation as well as that of others.  The idea is for all of you to play with the spoken and implied “should” statements you hear and say. This will help to reconcile the ideal and real selves that make up the American you are.

In that spirit, I am connecting with a guest writer for my blog. He is an adjunct professor earning his PhD in sociology and he is my son. I hope his words will inspire you to think critically and humanely. I hope it will facilitate your exploration of the question of our real and ideal selves and help you to decide the kind of American you want to be and the kind of country America needs to be.

Thoughts on the Immigration Ban: A Challenge to the American Conscience

By Nicholas Urban, PhD Student – New School for Social Research

I very rarely speak out in a public sense because I know that the words we say to each other in public are often “empty”, and that the “verbal jousting” of political rhetoric that occurs at dinner tables, restaurants, and social media, are just a “game” that we like to play with our friends and families. But we have to stop playing this game and put down the ideological masks we use to play it in this moment.

These walls that are being constructed are not rhetoric. They are real.

As a American, a sociologist, a catholic, and countless other identities I could list out, I have been taught that empathy and compassion are requirements of membership in the human race. Empathy and compassion are at the core. Furthermore, they are the very essence of the notion of “human rights” in a democracy. In the United States, the phrase in our constitution “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not a suggestion. They are inalienable rights.

I have read and studied for the effects that fear (both justified and unjustified) and instilling hatred can have on populations. I have read how, as a result of this fear and hatred, neighbors can – willingly – murder their neighbors in the name of an ideology, ethnicity, or culture. I have met holocaust survivors and Rwandan Genocide survivors. I have listened to them talk about their experiences. I have cried countless times as I struggle to comprehend how we as human beings can justify standing by and doing nothing as men, women and children are slaughtered in the tens and hundreds of thousands. I have grown disheartened as I have seen a growing sense of fear of the “others” around the world translate into walls and bombs.

I implore you to watch videos of “barrel bombs” being dropped on Syrian cities – bombs that are unguided and indiscriminate, and thus kill indiscriminately. I implore you to think what the conditions must be like for a person to risk their lives and safety to cross the southern border of the United States in search of a better life. I implore you to imagine your life as one of these people. I implore you to think of what it must be like for a person your age and gender, of what it must be like for a family, or what it must be like for a small child. Just for a moment.

And then I want you to think of why someone would want to become an American.

To those that say “what of the risks to our safety and security”, I reply that there are risks associated with every action and non-action we take in our personal lives and as a society. There are no guarantees that an immigrant will not become radicalized or a criminal, just like there are no guarantees that those of us who are already American citizens will not become radicalized or a criminal. Stating otherwise just creates a false dichotomy and inspires fear and hatred of the 134,000,000 people from the seven countries affected by the immigration ban, the 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants residing in the United States, and the 122,000,000 Mexicans that share our southern border.

There are real problems that we have with border security, immigration, and terrorism. But there are compassionate solutions to illegal immigration and the refugee crisis in Syria. We can achieve our safety and our security and simultaneously maintain our American values of compassion and empathy. Simply creating walls where there should be none because of fear and hatred of the “others” goes against every value and ideal that we have and hold dear not only as Americans, but also as human beings. It is just not the right thing to do.

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the sign-up box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

The Immigration Dilemma

The issue of illegal immigration has clearly become a contentious issue in our society. I hear people discuss the issue from a political point of view, an economic point of view, and a personal point of view. I see the arguments getting more heated as the stakes continue to get higher for all of us. When I listen to these arguments, I see that the arguments stem from two very different psychological theories and believe viewing the issue through this lens can help us resolve it.

On the one hand is a point of view that says those who break the law need to be punished; the immigrants need to be sent back to where they came from. On the other hand, is a point of view that says such an action will break up families, send hard-working people back to unsafe homelands, and wreck our economy. The first perspective is rooted in a behaviorist philosophy, the second in a cognitive one.

Behaviorist’s focus is on behavior and its consequences: a behavior that is rewarded is repeated; one that is ignored is reduced to the point of elimination. The most scientific of all the psychological perspectives, behaviorists consider only what can be observed and measured. That simple principle leads them to focus on behavior and eliminate thought and emotion as factors that must be considered. They demonstrate that a rat or a dog will greet us at the door, sit by our feet, walk by our side, because we train them to do so by feeding them. In other words, behavior is the consequence of rewards. There are no shades of gray.

What does this have to do with illegal immigration? Well, for a behaviorist, we must provide consequences for an action or the action will continue to occur. A behaviorist’s view would go something like this: If America allows the illegal immigrants to stay, then we reward them for breaking the rules of entry into our country. Behaviorists contend that they will simply continue to do what we’ve trained them to do. In other words, this “law breaking” behavior, once rewarded, would be generalized, resulting in other laws being broken. In order to prevent this, all who have come illegally must have a consequence so that they (and others) learn to obey the law.

On the other hand, the cognitive perspective believes that a person’s thoughts about the future determine current behavior. For example, if a person believes s/he will succeed in college (a future goal), s/he’ll enroll (a current behavior). If a person believes s/he will not succeed, s/he will not enroll. For cognitive psychologists, everyone is a scientist collecting evidence to confirm or disconfirm their beliefs. The world, consequently, is always a shade of gray.

From this perspective, illegal immigration can be considered a series of thoughts. Americans holding this view think that we do not have to punish those who came illegally; we can instead control current illegal immigration by giving a reasonable goal for future entry. That is, if people know that the process will be streamlined and fair (if we give out enough work visas, for example), they will stop coming illegally. Cognitive theorists would consider the emotions involved in separating families. They would consider the thoughts that were involved in choosing to come illegally – the decision to leave their families behind, to risk all the danger in getting across several borders, the thought that their only chance for a better life was to come to America. These thoughts lead to the idea that illegal immigrants are a part of our heritage; we draw in those who are in search of a better life.

While I have a theoretical preference, I respect the other side. Both have valid points and both have arguments that are worth addressing. It is not until we develop a cognitive-behavioral perspective that the issue can be resolved.

It is time for us to solve this issue – to decide if we believe that humans are the sum total of repeatedly rewarded behaviors or if humans are the sum total of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It is time for us to stop the name-calling and finger pointing and move, instead, towards working to find a solution that addresses the very real problem of violence so severe that humans would go to such extremes to escape it. It is time to come up with a humane plan.

 

 

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The Answer

We all crave “the answer”.

What made a relationship with a friend end? What made a relationship with a significant other end? Why did (someone we know but don’t particularly like) end up with such a great partner? Why is school so hard? Why am I always the one who gets in trouble? Why don’t you ever yell at (insert sibling name here)? Why did I – or someone I care about – wind up with a chronic or terminal illness? Why am I alone? Why can’t people leave me alone? Why am I unhappy? Why don’t people believe in climate change?

So, what is the issue we need to consider? It is that there is no the; there is no one factor that could account for the event in question. The answer really rests in accepting that we must seek out answers.

Let’s start with a fun one.   Why am I always the one who gets in trouble? We have all either said that as a child or heard a child say it. From the child’s point of view, it is a fact that he is the only one who gets in trouble. The reason he will give for that fact is that the parent favors the other sibling. Of course, parents see it very differently. Parents will say, “Yes, I do reprimand ________ more often because he/she is older, knows or should know better, is the one who takes it to an extreme, is the instigator…” In other words, the parent is considering multiple reasons. Why? Again, one might be tempted to give one reason, but I can think of a multitude of reasons: the parent has a broader view of the situation, the parent is older/wiser/more experienced, the parent is trying to justify their unfair practice. Yes, that last one is a bit of a game changer. It opens up an entirely different path of possible reasons for why something is happening.

Let’s consider another. What made a relationship with a significant other end? Over the years, I have had countless clients grapple with this question. Again, the search begins with a quest for the thing that went wrong. I was too pushy. They were selfish. They cheated. I was young. Drugs/alcohol. I wasn’t ready. The timing was off. Finances. He didn’t give me flowers. She gained a lot of weight. The sex wasn’t the same. I lost interest. We had kids. Monogamy isn’t natural.

Each one, at first glance, seems like a reasonable explanation. Once we consider the reason as reasonable, our search for understanding comes to a close. However, when we decide to examine the answer in greater depth, we quickly see that, once again, many paths emerge. For example, “I was pushy” leads to another question: Why were you pushy? The answer to that one can be: my needs were not being met; I felt like I was not a priority; our energy levels were very different; we enjoyed different things; we had different goals; I thought he/she was unmotivated. Each of these answers lead to further questions such as: Why would you want to be with someone who did not meet your needs? Or did it make you happy to be with someone who had a different energy level? What does it mean that they were unmotivated? Each question represents different problems and different categories of issues that would have had to be addressed in order to keep the relationship alive or justify its end. The questions represent the futility of looking for the reason.

I will add a little psychological science here too: correlations are a common tool used in the social sciences. A correlation represents an association between two variables/events. For example, there is a relationship between number of hours one studies and success on an exam. However, that is all we can say. We cannot say that number of hours studying causes success on an exam. It is tempting, but it is not what a correlation allows us to do. After all, a person can spend hours studying the wrong material and therefore do poorly. Or someone can spend hours studying, then become so anxious that one’s memory is negatively impacted and therefore performs poorly. Or a person can have an eidetic memory, not have to study at all, and do very well. It is far more productive to search for the multiple factors associated with success on an exam because causation is more likely to rest in the grouping of factors.

Why am I going on about this? Well, in part, because it demonstrates our desire for simplicity over complexity and for causation rather than association. To bring it back to our earlier examples, a child associates getting in trouble with a parent favoring a sibling and then comes to see that as the cause because the child is unable to understand that is a combination of factors – none of which have to do with favoritism. A person hurt by the end of a relationship associates “I was pushy” with the breakup, attributing causation to that single factor of pushiness, rather than looking at the whole picture.

So, when we are tempted to find the answer, let’s remember that real life is not based on multiple choice and the identification of a single correct answer. Let’s remember that even sophisticated multiple choice tests give us options – you know those answer options we so dislike such as “all of the above”, “only B and D”, or “none of the above”. The fact is: life is more like that. Even more so, it is like an essay question where we choose the facts to consider and present and with those choices, we select a path for our response, a path for our future. So, embrace the question, generate even more questions, and have fun finding the answers that will bring you satisfaction, acceptance, and, hopefully, a joy-filled future.

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.