Trauma and the ingratiate melancholic

The past few days have brought up several instances that bring to mind a phenomenon I will call the ingratiate melancholic.

As mentioned in a previous post, the melancholic has a tendency to act towards others according to ideals of human behaviour that do not necessarily match how he actually feels, what he really wants or values.

The ideal spouse, friend, child, parent, guest or host, all of these impose an expectation or a role that the melancholic might feel more comfortable, more self-assured if he adheres to.  But at the same time, in adhering to the role, the melancholic is not truly being himself. He is not being true to himself and is not developing the virtue of sincerity.  His motives may be good, but he is actually giving people less of himself than if he were able to express the thoughts and feelings that do not fit into that ideal.

There is, however, another way to interpret this phenomenon: through the lens of the human response to trauma and stress.

An excellent book on Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by Pete Walker introduces the concept of PTSD developed not through single traumatic events but through consistent patterns of traumatic abuse and neglect, such that the individual develops survival-mechanisms or maladaptive responses to trauma that are in turn subject to the abusive environment. The individual is left with a personality riven through by maladaptive responses; he may not even know which parts of himself are ‘original’ and which are maladaptive response, because both have developed together and are interdependent.  So while sufferers of PTSD may be conscious of distinct personality differences before and after the trauma, for complex PTSD sufferers, no such distinction can be made.

Walker describes maladaptive responses in terms of four instinctive responses to trauma. To the well-known triad of fight, flight, and freeze, he adds the ingratiating response of ‘fawn’.  For people in long-term abuse or neglect scenarios, the most successful maladaptive strategy can become an ingrained part of the personality, whether it be fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning.  Of particular interest in the context of the melancholic temperament is Walker’s depiction of the ‘fawn’ response type:

Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries. They often begin life like the precocious children described in Alice Miler’s The Drama Of The Gifted Child, who learn that a modicum of safety and attachment can be gained by becoming the helpful and compliant servants of their parents. They are usually the children of at least one narcissistic parent who uses contempt to press them into service, scaring and shaming them out of developing a healthy sense of self: an egoic locus of self-protection, self-care and self-compassion.

Walker does not utilise a temperament theory, but what interests me is the possibility that the melancholic temperament may be predisposed to developing the ingratiating ‘fawn’ strategy in response to environments that may or may not be dysfunctional in and of themselves, but are experienced as such by the melancholic child in the absence of positive role models or intelligible social and cultural messages and cues.

While a melancholic child could develop any one of the trauma responses, or multiple trauma responses, the fawn response is in many ways most appropriate to the melancholic child’s circumstances.  Firstly, like phlegmatics, melancholics are not well-attuned to the external environment to begin with, but unlike phlegmatics they also struggle to recover from traumatic experiences and incidents. An extreme melancholic child will struggle to recognise the same cues or mirror the behaviours of other children, yet will be acutely aware of this disparity and may well suffer for it. Persistent disorientation, confusion, and implicit ostracism can exacerbate actual dysfunctions in family and environment, such that the melancholic child is more severely traumatised than a child of a different temperament would be.

Yet at the same time, the causes of these trauma are systemic and normalised: imagine a melancholic child sitting confused and disoriented in a classroom where all the other children show no signs of confusion or disorientation.  If the child expresses his confusion and disorientation he will be the subject of negative attention from the teacher and other students. Of the available responses to this negative attention, fight and flight will only exacerbate it. That leaves freeze and fawn, though even freezing will bring about greater negative attention than the meekness and compliance of the fawn response.

Extrapolate this dynamic across nearly every aspect of life: the growing melancholic child fears hurt and humiliation, has a long memory for it, yet is predisposed to experience it afresh because of his relatively slow and sedate response to external stimuli. Surely such children will learn soon enough that the best way to avoid humiliation, trauma, and negative attention is to ingratiate oneself with others (especially authority figures) where possible – learning to play a compliant, amenable, obedient and good-natured role.

For adult melancholics, the pressure to maintain this long-practiced response to stress and trauma can be both reasonable and deeply emotive. On the one hand, it is reasonable to take care in how you express yourself verbally to others, so as not to unwittingly offend people with careless statements. On the other hand, it is certainly a maladaptive strategy to maintain a deeply guarded approach to social interactions, and to filter one’s statements compulsively so as to avoid any possible negative interpretations.

The danger identified through the complex PTSD concept is that melancholics may mistake this maladaptive strategy for their own personality.  They may think that they are ‘nice’ people or ‘considerate’ people rather than simply fearful and ingratiating people, who may even lack the capacity to exercise consideration or ‘niceness’ when their behaviour is already so tightly determined by stress-oriented strategies.

They may find themselves acting in ways that deny their actual thoughts, feelings, and values due to the ingrained influence of their maladaptive responses. Ultimately, they risk being unable to express themselves honestly and sincerely with friends and loved ones, living instead through the filter of an unwarranted survival mechanism that has outlived its usefulness.

 

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The moral betrayal of corporate dysfunction

The previous post on careerism sparked some thoughts about my past employment.

My own recent employment was as a researcher within a corporation that did not understand research, but wanted at least to feel like it was doing research, or failing that, wanted to be seen to be doing research.  By the time my employers decided to make their entire research staff redundant, they had, by my estimation, achieved merely the even lesser goal of being seen to want to be involved in someone else’s research.

In the previous post I quoted Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme, suggesting that careerism takes hold when an employer cannot tell the difference between work that is good enough and work that is better.  In my experience this problem was magnified a hundred fold as what was considered ‘good enough research’ from a business perspective would not have been considered ‘good enough’ in a genuine research context.  To be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t even have been considered ‘research’, and I joked with my colleagues that at best it could merely be described as ‘search‘.

It reminds me of an excerpt I read from a book about PTSD: ‘Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character‘ by Dr Jonathan Shay.  In it he explains that the roots of trauma lie in the subversion of the soldier’s moral world, as when in the Illiad “Agamemnon, Achilles’ commander, wrongfully seizes the prize of honor voted to Achilles by the troops.” Shay illustrates his point through the story of a patrol team during the Vietnam War that opened fire on three boats that were suspected of unloading weapons.  When morning came, they found that the boats were merely fishing vessels, and in one veteran’s words: “we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids.”

What got us thoroughly fucking confused is, at that time you turn to the team and you say to the team, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fucking fine.” Because that’s what you’re getting from upstairs. The fucking colonel says, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” Y’know, uh, “We got body count!” “We have body count!” So it starts working on your head.

[…] So you know in your heart it’s wrong, but at the time, here’s your superiors telling you that it was okay. So, I mean, that’s okay then, right? This is part of war. Y’know?

[…] They wanted to give us a fucking Unit Citation – them fucking maggots. A lot of medals came down from it. The lieutenants got medals, and I know the colonel got his fucking medal. And they would have award ceremonies, y’know, I’d be standing like a fucking jerk and they’d be handing out fucking medals for killing civilians.

The circumstances could not be more different, but the underlying psycho-social dynamics are remarkably similar.  In my case, I and my fellow researchers were given tasks that turned out to be dismally below standard in research terms, but we were told by our manager and senior colleagues “this is part of business”, “we’re kicking goals”, “we’re putting runs on the board”.

Despite knowing on a deeper level that this was not the way to do serious research, it is true that such talk from one’s superiors starts working on one’s head.  Maybe they have different standards? Maybe this is good enough on a business level?  Maybe we really are doing a good job from their point of view?  And in the end, you find yourself standing there like an idiot while the CEO or some other senior executive offers a glowing endorsement of all the ‘ground-breaking research’ our team had been involved in.

By that stage, I think it’s quite reasonable to feel – as I did at the time – that an organisation which rewards such incompetence is beyond help.  In particular it is beyond, and would most likely be antagonistic to, correction by a junior member of staff who just happens to bear the misfortune of knowing what real research looks like.  Like the veteran in Shay’s book, these experiences of moral dysfunction within an organisational hierarchy leave many subordinates bitter, cynical and disenfranchised, while less scrupulous employees choose to cling to the facade of success and achievement for their own ends.

The more I learn of others’ experiences, the more I am inclined to appreciate the peculiarities of my corporate experience: being a specialist in an organisation incapable and perhaps even unwilling to make use of my specialist skills.  It’s like a person who signs up for an expensive gym membership, uses it once or twice ineffectually, and then lets it lapse.

No doubt it’s bad enough being a corporate stooge in a dysfunctional corporate world, but being a philosopher and researcher – a veritable fish out of water – made the dysfunctional corporate experience all the more painful.  While my colleagues and I have each lamented the lost opportunity and squandered potential of our prior employment, I’m increasingly sure that in terms of corporate culture and dysfunction our experience was, to borrow from World War II military slang, SNAFU: situation normal, all fucked up.

Stress and the melancholic temperament

 

Last week I was talking to a friend and fellow melancholic, stressed out in the middle of her Med exams, overwhelmed and fearing the worst.  Why do melancholics get so stressed and what can we do to alleviate stress?

Melancholics are always fearing the worst.  We’re haunted by thoughts of what could go wrong, as if by anticipating it we can avoid it.  But in practice we just end up plagued by worries, anxieties and an overriding pessimism.

It’s a lot like watching my toddler son in a new environment. I take it for granted that I have to watch him constantly. I literally cannot take my eyes off him for a moment. At the same time I’m hyper-vigilant for anything within reach that he might damage or that might damage him.

My wife is the opposite.  She finds herself easily distracted, and is often taken by surprise when our son reaches some precarious object or takes a tumble over an obstacle.

It’s not that she’s any less caring, in fact she’s much more caring than I am, but she doesn’t have the same lifelong practice of expecting things to go horribly wrong.

I’ve found I can’t really help it, but my mind is almost always preoccupied with thoughts of how things could go wrong, have gone wrong, or will go wrong. It’s partly a side-effect of trying to understand how things work: if you know how something works you’re immediately much more conscious of how it might cease to work.

But it’s also because melancholics are a little slower at forming impressions and reaching conclusions compared to some of the other temperaments. In practice it might mean that a conversation with a choleric, a sanguine or phlegmatic unfolds with the melancholic experiencing a definite but incomplete sense of something wrong with the other person’s logic or intentions.  It might take days or weeks for the melancholic to unravel the errors and clearly define the problems in the other person’s proposal.

This increasingly wary attitude to human interaction seeps into everyday life. Whether I’m driving, working, going to the shops, not going to the shops, talking to people, cooking, exercising, reading, or just sitting still – I can’t help but be acutely aware of the possibility of error, an awareness of all the possible threats, dangers or pitfalls in what I am doing, not doing, or planning to do.  The resulting hyper-vigilance is a little like having PTSD but without the flashbacks.

I’ve found it is possible to ‘switch off’ this wariness, but it requires a concerted effort. Doing nothing is hard work.

In times of acute stress it’s not the fear per se that makes life unbearable, it’s the effort to avoid the feared outcome within a condition of uncertainty.  What stresses us is the effort to, for example, avoid failing an exam when the precise requirements for avoiding such an outcome are unclear.  ‘Study hard’ is the obvious answer, but how hard is hard enough?  For a melancholic these situations become a terrible trap because we tend to err on the side of excess, downplaying the costs of stress, and demanding of ourselves an impossible effort as though feeling stressed and exhausted is itself the only valid evidence that we have worked ‘hard enough’.

Unfortunately this extreme and idealistic approach actually blinds us to more creative, considered, and efficient methods.  It doesn’t allow us the space to reflect on how best to prepare, and is especially difficult for young melancholics who are as yet unaware that their most efficient methods of studying might differ markedly from the mainstream approach.  It takes a great deal of experience before we learn to rely on our own idiosyncratic ways of learning.

The best way to make space for reflection is to embrace the underlying fear of failure: to identify the worst, most humiliating outcome, and embrace it as a possible reality.  If you fail your exams you will indeed be humiliated and set back a year, but as undesirable as such an outcome would be, it would at least bring certainty and with certainty an end to the stress.

Taking time to really face such fears soon shows that they are not as dire as they seem.  Remember: it’s not so much the feared outcome that causes stress, it’s the self-imposed effort to avoid the outcome without really knowing whether one’s efforts are efficacious.

Another way to diminish the uncertainty is to build a sense of context, or a set of parameters which might give at least an approximate sense of certainty.  For example, you may not know if you’ve studied hard enough to avoid failure because you expect that studying ‘enough’ should bring with it some magical sense of competence and sufficiency.  But you can start to build a context by asking yourself whether you have consciously chosen or allowed yourself to not study as much as you usually would, ie. are you slacking off according to your own usual standards?

Alternatively, you can imagine what it would be like if you were trying to fail.  How different would that be from your current level of work?  It’s often reassuring to realise that you would find it hard to do nothing; you would struggle to really give up and let yourself fail.

There’s a measure of self-honesty required here, but I think for melancholics self-honesty is not a problem, rather the problem is knowing what questions to ask ourselves, or the broader context we need in order to put our problems in perspective.

The ultimate perspective for a melancholic is the idea that we are all going to die one day, and that nearly every stress we face in life pales in comparison to our final destination.  As morbid as it might seem to other temperaments, the thought of death can help a melancholic regain a healthy perspective on otherwise stressful situations.  The fear of failing an exam is ultimately misguided once we realise that no exam result, medical or other career, nor most of the things that cause us daily anxiety and stress will matter at all when we are gone.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.

And:

Consider thyself to be dead, and to have completed thy life up to the present time; and live according to nature the remainder which is allowed thee.

As idealists and perfectionists, life for a melancholic is never straightforward or easy.  We need these creative and eccentric approaches to help us navigate a complex world replete with sources of anxiety and stress, a world increasingly dominated by the worst tendencies of other temperaments.