That’s Confabulous!

That’s Confabulous!

Your favorite uncle entertains every family gathering with the same stories.
His listeners realize they are not the same stories. The tales shift…small flourishes are added, details are lost and later denied (“Uncle, what about the cow? You mentioned the cow in the marsh last time.” “No, no – there wasn’t a cow. It was a goat. It’s always been a goat. Why would there be a cow in the marsh?”) Emotions intensify, diminish, and intensify again; the who, when and even the where are wobbly.
Is your uncle a pathological liar?
Well, he might be.
More likely, he’s a normal human being.
Memory is not a video recorder from an omniscient position. Our memories are constructed. Because it’s imperfect – and our brains want things to make sense – we fill in the blanks. There’s a little of filling-in-the-blanks in almost every memory, and in extreme cases, it is called confabulation.
Karl Bonhoeffer, German psychiatrist and father of martyred pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, coined the term. Confabulation, properly used, is the unconscious attempt to fill in the blanks in memory with made-up details, identified most with alcohol-related forms of dementia. The speaker believes it’s all true – but it’s not. Brain damage causes inevitable errors in processing and storing memories, and the brain valiantly attempts to weave a story out of scraps.
Related to confabulation is the tendency to “fill in the blanks” where there is no dementia and no logical reason to do so. People make up stories about other people, ruminate on them, discuss them with their companions. Later, when the subject comes up, the remembered imaginings are woven into whatever sparse facts were originally available. Electronic media has speeded up a process that used to require substantially more time and effort. The possibility of interrupting the downward spiral is much diminished.
A nearly harmless example: last year I moved my office from the high rise where I’d been for 19 years to two parish-based offices. My old office furniture was not needed in either location, so I gave it away to my parish, where it is apparently very popular with the youth group at their Sunday night meetings. Imagine my surprise when I heard from various sources that I had closed my practice, semi-retired, stopped working…you see the drift. People took one fact (she gave away her old couches and tables) and built a story around it (she retired). I have no idea how many referrals have not come my way due to someone’s – or several someones’ – confabulous storytelling regarding my work.
Less benign are the tendencies of unhappy people to ruminate and stir in speculations, scraps of other unhappy memories, fears and grudges, creating a new and often sinister narrative about a situation or people. This seems to be most effective when done in dyads or slightly larger groups. My observation, at least, is that the more shared memories, the more believable the confabulous concoction of “truth” that emerges from the co-rumination. Motivations are attributed with no evidence; “facts” are mutually invented and, since someone else believes or remembers the same exact thing – why, clearly, it must be true.
If this has ever happened to you, often in the context of perpetually unhappy coworkers, family members or friends, you know how useless it is to fight against the creative power of two or more brains that have mind-melded a mutual mural about…you. The only useful thing one can extract from the misery is a warning against being part of that type of dismal discussion.
Even with honorable intentions, memories shape-shift over time.
Emotion tints memories. Next time you are in a generally happy mood, pull up an old memory, perhaps a time shared with a loved one who has passed. In contentment, reflect on the events of the day and the joy you felt with that loved one. Really sink into the memory. Next time you evoke that memory, it will have shifted a bit to emphasize the joyful aspects – the smile, the warmth of heart – whereas if the same memory came up when you were sad, somehow it would be tinted. You might notice that other memories that feel the same way easily come to the surface: that’s another aspect of memory. Our memories are linked by emotional flavor, not just content. That’s why someone who is angry at you seems to have a boundless recall for every stupid and disappointing thing you have ever done.
Words also shape how memories are shaped and stored. A car comes up from behind, passes you, enters your lane and, a half-mile later, ends up in the ditch. You pull over to call 911 and see if you can be of assistance. Later you are questioned about your observations. How much did the car swerve? If asked, how much did the car fishtail…your memory will subtly adjust. The next time you recall it, the film may contain a touch more veering about.
Personal beliefs and biases enter the picture, too, and help form “memories” that are less than precise. It might be as subtle as “assuming” that someone meant something and then sliding into believing that they implied it, and subsequently taking offense by something that was unsaid as if it had been a slap. It could take the form of filling in the blank in someone’s appearance or comportment based on biases. Alternately, beliefs or entire cosmologies are attributed to someone based on scraps of “evidence” and then merrily embraced as “truth.”
It’s an interesting dilemma, encompassing the Commandments (Thou shalt not bear false witness) and Pilate’s coyly avoidant, “What is truth?” False witness, after all, is not just perjury. It comprises gossip and unnecessary tale-telling, both inevitably not the whole truth, as any elementary school teacher can attest. It’s all the ways in which we might fill in the blanks, perhaps consciously but, I suspect, as often reflexively, justifying our own emotional wallow with imagined and projected details.
Isn’t that confabulous?

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Meet Them Where They Are

Three times each year, our parish runs Alpha, an eleven week program for people who are open to exploring the basics of Christianity, starting with elemental questions such as, Is there more to life than this?, or Why should I believe in God? The chair of the committee running this, and our other evangelization programs, was accosted by a fellow parishioner after Mass one morning. The parishioner had a list of grievances, particularly that the program wasn’t “Catholic,” citing various deficits, in the complainant’s mind, such as a lack of Marian theology. Besides her apparently unchristian behavior, she had missed the point of meeting people where they are. Many people are skeptical about the existence of God because they have been sold a bill of goods about faith and science being incompatible; it is hardly useful to wrestle them into a dialogue about the Blessed Mother and the Virgin Birth, or Transubstantiation. We must meet them where they are. They are wondering if there is a reason to believe in anything or any One, and rushing somewhere else won’t help; it simply truncates the conversation before it begins.
Just so, in our daily lives, we must meet people where they are…
It may well be that the child you permitted to walk all over you is now grown, or nearly so, and the rudeness and demanding behaviors that you thought were funny at age 2, and tolerable at age 4, are grinding you down now that the child is 18 or 21 or 30. It does little good to beat yourself up because you were not willing to foresee this problem; you need to deal with the situation as it exists, or choose not to (and continue to be ground down by caustic, toxic offspring). Attempting to have what you think is a perfectly reasonable conversation about your expectations and anticipating you will receive thoughtful, considerate responses is, well, sad and silly. You will have to meet them where they are: as a very large toddler who needs clear rules and near-immediate consequences. You will also have to have a plan as to how you will cope with an adult having a temper tantrum. There will be displeasure about any limits you set:
“We are no longer going to pay for your cell phone. You can come with me to [provider’s storefront] after work on [specify date] to switch the number to a new account in your name, or I will simply close that number.” You will hear how unfair this is, how unreasonable – you know how much their student loan payments are, right? – and how ridiculous and selfish it is for you to bring up their prodigious spending on entertainment and other technology.
“You are an adult, and this is our home. No more overnight guests.” Well, this is unfair, too; how are they supposed to, well, whatever? Other people’s parents are reasonable. Besides, it’s the 21st century; what’s next, bundling?
…and so it goes. You will get pushback and you will either stay firm – something apparently quite difficult, because if it came naturally, you would have put a stop to this behavior, oh, say, 20 or 25 years ago.
Many people are unhappy about the state of their marriages, and there, too, is a problem that is best met where it is. The typical couple puts their relationship almost entirely aside when children come along, neglecting it sorely, and then are surprised, dismayed and resentful at the state of things. They barely speak; they have nothing in common; each wonders, how could I have chosen such a miserable person? The relationship is anemic, neglected, and easily startled; like a once-beloved pet banished to the back yard pen for months or years, it hardly knows how to behave in the house. Treat it with gentleness, patience, and consistency. The friendship must be rebuilt; meet that process with good will rather than sarcasm and cynicism. Use Gottman’s research and books; use Chapman’s 5 Love Languages; use a good therapist: do something, be consistent, and begin at the beginning, with careful nurturing of the abandoned friendship. Perpetual complaints about what it “should” be like are worse than useless; just meet the marriage where it is.
You may need to meet yourself where you are, too.
You might like the idea of being physically fit, self-disciplined: the sort who enjoys vegetables and exercise. That’s all very nice…and, if it is not true, you will have to meet yourself where you are and begin teaching the actual you – not the imaginary, idealized version of you in your head – how to be self-disciplined, how to gradually become physically fit, and how to appreciate the subtle flavors of vegetables after assaulting your senses with however many years of packaged and fast foods.
Perhaps your vision for yourself is more spiritual. You might like the idea of yourself as a truly good person, the kind of person who enjoys engaging in loving service, doing without for others, and understands what it is people are talking about when they discuss having a “prayer life.” Meanwhile, you are stuck with a few rote prayers and still think Job and Jonah are supposed to be historical reports. Well, you must meet yourself where you are. If your spiritual training ended at 7, or after your Confirmation, Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah, your stunted spiritual age is where you begin.
Meeting ourselves, and others, where they are doesn’t mean “settling” unless you are content to stay there. It can mean having a real conversation, and a real chance for positive change. Flashes of insight are not change; they are the precedent of change. Change happens only where we are.

Go and Do, for Me and You

Verbs, like “go” and “do”
In a recent on-air segment, Jamie and I (he’s the afternoon radio talent for Spirit FM, the local Catholic radio station/Christian pop music station where I’ve been volunteering since 2009) were discussing various social protests. He had asked me how to handle the flood of social media, with people posting/re-posting/re-re-posting, and the pressure to have some sort of opinion/assert some stand on perpetually protesting celebrity.
I try, but don’t always succeed, in preferring action verbs. Like, “go” and “do.” I don’t much care for meetings. I don’t like sitting around talking about how we can help the homeless and severely mentally ill. I went and did (full time work, almost 5 years). Jesus didn’t say, sit around and have lots of committee meetings. He said, pretty much, Go… (He also had something to say about babbling on and on, so I will move along.) I would rather teach than talk about teaching, do art than sit around talking about art…you get the idea.
So my thoughts are, go and do. It would be far more helpful – if, for example, we are talking about the real and obvious pain in poor neighborhoods – to go and do. Mentor a kid. Be a Big Brother/Big Sister. Organize a community watch organization. Do pro bono work in your field. Provide free tutoring. Be a Guardian ad Litem. Etc., etc. Go and do. Standing around getting attention for taking a public position that costs nothing seems a little self-serving.
It reminds me of the time a woman I knew criticized me for failing to wear red on some arbitrary date publicly announced to be the day to wear red to support women’s heart health. The only woman whose heart I have much influence over is my own. I had already exercised, gone to church, had good conversation with my husband, eaten a healthy breakfast – in other words, it was 8 AM and I had done all I could for THIS woman’s heart health. Nothing I was going to do, besides pray and try to set a half-decent example, would help anyone else.
It also brings to mind the big test for reports of visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Such a report requires much evidence, but a primary benchmark requires that Mary points towards Jesus. There is no credibility if the reported vision does not direct people towards Jesus. Such an experience is not something from the Good side. It might be a well-intentioned, innocent delusion, but it is not Mary. Mary doesn’t showboat.
So…if terrible injustice moves you, go and do something concrete, specific and clearly helpful for one particular person. Keep the meme to yourself.
…and more on “Go” and “Do”
Teen and young adult mental health took a drastic, terrifying turn for the worse beginning in 2007 – and the stats keep worsening, especially since 2012. This, according to a lot of research, can be traced back to the smart phone, according to San Diego State University professor, researcher and author Jean Twenge. Her recent book, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What that Means for the Rest of Us,” provides the results of not just her original research but meta-analysis of generations of data on the pattern of mental health and activity for youth.
It seems like constant connectivity has led to less “go” and “do” and more detachment and isolation. It’s a double-dose of negative: the ineluctable distance created by screen-based communication and a deficit of direct experiences. We were not designed to sit and click; we are made to go and do.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

Posts are for entertainment and not meant to be construed as treatment or professional recommendations. If you need mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Duck, Duck, Goose

Muscovy ducks are ugly.

There’s simply no getting around it. Perhaps some find them in the category of, “So ugly, they’re cute,” the befuddling phrase used to describe certain regrettable-looking breeds of dog with what seems to be a permanent, long drip of slime on their maws. I don’t see it, in either the dog or the duck.

Muscovy are also an invasive species here in west-central Florida, driving out our adorable and good-natured native ducks. Thus, they are unwelcome both in, and by, appearance.

During an Emmaus retreat at the Franciscan Center in Tampa, I was able to observe a female Muscovy along the river last weekend. She was waddling along, looking into the river on her right and then to the ground on her left, seeking food. She was followed closely by one, then two, then four, large, ugly and showy Muscovy males. She seemed oblivious. They were posturing: just short of chest-bumping one another, fluffing up their feathers, strutting in circles and then, realizing she had waddled on further ahead, scuttling up closer to the object of their desire before devolving into posturing observed only by one another, and me.

Ms. Muscovy did not feel obliged to wear shorter feathers in her nether region or walk on her webbed toes to gain their attention, and indeed, it was apparently unnecessary. She had the power of her femininity, and that was sufficient. God knows how large the flock of males out-strutting each other got before she made her selection; the bells rang and I hurried off to join my fellow retreatants for Morning Prayer.

Flash back to the 1980s, when wearing brassieres over one’s clothing, instead of under, was all the rage for a few unfortunate years. During a lunch conversation, a male colleague (middle-aged, recently divorced and apparently adjusting with difficulty) mentioned his amazement at seeing this while out in a nightclub. A few of the females opined we would never do such a thing. If we weren’t married, he said, and had to be out there, competing for male attention…whoa, whoa, WHOA. A man, I said, for whom I was to “compete” by wearing my underwear over my clothes would not be the man for me. My female cohorts agreed. Divorced-dude was amazed.

Alas, times have, apparently, changed. Somehow the power to vote, own property, and be paid the same for the same work (let’s not go to where we compare part-time clerical staff with chemical engineers and whine about salary differences, okay?) seems cast aside for the “power” to wear vagina-hats in public, insist that tights are business trousers, and gain fame by posting indecent pictures of oneself to (anti)social media.

In our little yard, I cannot, from a respectful distance, tell Mrs. Bunny from Mr. Bunny, but apparently they can, and so things work just fine. Mrs. Cardinal is subtle compared to her (to human eyes) flashy husband, but trust me, when the six or seven species of birds – almost all larger – are sharing the seeds I have flung onto the front yard, it’s little, softly hued Mrs. Cardinal who commands attention and sets the rules. Mr. Cardinal does not seem to have any objections about being partnered up with his gently-toned, energetic little mate. Likewise the pair of black snakes, the ever-expanding clan of blue jays, or our resident crows, Poe and Annabelle Lee, and their hapless but fun-to-watch adolescent offspring: all seem content without the females doing strange and torturous things in a craven attempt for male attention.

Why are humans so singularly dysfunctional when it comes to male-female relationships? Can we blame it simply on the Fall and the impact of a long history of bad choices that have turned us slowly away from what we could have, and might still be, towards this strange situation in which much of our culture finds itself?

For almost three decades now, mental health professionals have dealt with body-image and sexuality issues created by a pornographic culture so pervasive that too many young women believe they should engage in sexual activity whether they feel like it or not, and many young males have incurred physical damage on themselves due to excessive masturbation with porn as the stimulant. Conditioned to images on electronic devices, a normal, living female is just not as attractive and too much trouble. We’ve all, no doubt, heard of the teen magazine that explained sodomy in how-to terms. In my work, this isn’t some abstract issue; I listen to young women wrestle with their discomfort and shame over what they feel obliged to do and the fear that their hesitancy to engage in impersonal sexual acts means there is something “wrong” with them. I help couples whose relationship has been torn apart by the husband’s pornography addiction and disengagement from his wife.

I used to pity my male college students, assuming the heterosexuals had their ability to focus on psychology (endlessly interesting to me but, I realize, not to all) cruelly challenged because, for a healthy straight young male, the proximity of female peers would normally be distracting. Now the female peers are often dressed in revealing clothing. I assumed (naively) that this placed an unfair, even uncharitable, if you will, burden on the males. Now I wonder. I wonder if, drowned since childhood in a flood of hypersexualized images, the presence in the next seat of a young woman with her breasts pushed up to her collar bone is…nothing. Now I feel sad about that; they are both missing something about the joy of being human: they have lost the capacity to appreciate one another.

He may be sentenced, until he works to change it, to a life of seeking ever-more extreme forms of sexual stimulation, and she will be reduced to claiming that her power comes from the right to have sex indiscriminately and wear unflattering pink hats in parades.

Meanwhile, Ms. Muscovy is enjoying the riverbank and may eventually pick some posturing, squawking, ugly drake from among her admirers.

The ducks have it figured out. Guess who gets to be the silly, sad goose?

 

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2017

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Practical Psychology

My second book, 31 Ways/31 Days: Practical Psychology for the Frazzled Faithful, has just been published and is available via Amazon and other retailers, in both softcover and eBook. In it, I present information from the field of psychology as clear, simple action items for normal, busy people who want to make positive changes.

I love to turn psychological research into something a non-therapist can use, right now, to make relationships and life better.

Sometimes, research sounds ridiculous by the time it hits your news feed. Gleaning the nuggets that can change your life – today – is challenging. Consider, for example, that a cluttered environment contributes to parental stress to the point where it interferes with consistent parenting styles. Of course work, chores and piles of stuff to do covering every flat surface are stressful…but who knew that the clutter added enough stress to interfere with parenting? It’s easier to reduce stress by cutting a little clutter than figuring out what other source of stress to eliminate (hmmm…change jobs? quit working? send the kids to boarding school in Antarctica?) Implementing a manageable, meaningful change makes psychology, with its seemingly arcane tidbits of scientific research, useful to you. It’s not magic or a complete overhaul, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Another useful application of psychological research: even looking at pictures of nature helps reduce stress for everyone, and can improve cognitive skills in people with dementia. Whether it’s you at work, or your beloved elderly family member at home, some photos of nature to fill the eyes from time to time can help. It’s not going to make a miserable job a happy job, or reverse dementia, but it can ease the burden a bit.

If psychology doesn’t make life better and improve our understanding and relationships, it’s not very practical…and if it’s not practical, what good is it?

 

 

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2017

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

The Big Screen

Therapists spend a lot of time in various trainings, and sometimes the speakers enthusiastically exhort us to try techniques for ourselves. This was one such day. “I can’t do this mindfulness thing,” my colleague said in an aside to me, “I can’t keep my mind empty.”

Unlike assertiveness, this was one area where I have something possibly useful to offer.

The point of mindfulness in mental health is not to be empty-minded. It’s to select, moment by moment, what will (versus what will not) be the center of our attention.

Imagine a giant movie screen. That’s your conscious awareness, overflowing with all sorts of activity. The thoughts that inspire strong negative emotions are, necessarily, quite compelling. We were designed that way. Otherwise, a lion would have devoured our ancestors, who failed to notice the threat as they contemplated a butterfly. This would have led to us, their progeny, not being here to discuss mindfulness or anything else.

Just so, we are prone to direct our attention to whatever thoughts pop up with negative emotions attached: fear, anxiety, anger, sorrow. They feel more urgent than happy thoughts, the way a lion feels more urgent than a butterfly.

Mindfulness practices simply coach us (over and over and over again) in the gentle practice of noticing the negatively charged thought, acknowledging it, and redirecting our attention to our preferred focus.

If you were watching a huge movie screen, for example, you might be tempted to watch the Antarctic explorer dangling in grave danger over a precipice…or, if that were too intense, you could redirect your gaze to the penguins frolicking in another corner of the screen. It’s your choice. It might have to be made over and over and over, but with practice people are able to do it relatively smoothly, having distracting or upsetting thoughts pop up at undesired times and merely refocusing on the matter at hand. If you are like most people, you are adept at doing this at least sometimes. You have merely to strengthen this skill, and learn to generalize it.

Of course, there is so much more to mindfulness than this: it is a science as well as an art, and grounded in psychology and other health sciences in more than two decades of research that includes brain imaging and not just subjective and scientifically flimsy self-reports. For a lot of people, though, it sounds impossible, implausible and suspiciously more like religion than science.

The best place to seek more information would be to look up the sizable work and research of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, and from there the many practical applications and helpful resources.

 

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2017

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

“Speak up! (Easier said than done)”

“The same thing happens again and again,” complained my friend. “I can’t get a word in edgewise at meetings and when I try, I just get talked over – like I’m not even there.” We commiserated about being talked over in meetings, and I offered all the usual well-intentioned platitudes about being assertive. The conversation nagged at me. How many clients, students, colleagues and friends have I urged to “be more assertive,” as if speaking up were ineluctably both a) easy and b) unfailingly effective. Obviously, neither is the case; I ought to know.

Some relevant personal disclosures: I am radically introverted. I detest unnecessary conflict. Many experiences have shown me the wisdom of saying very little when I feel attacked and while this is, at times, incredibly useful, at other times it just makes things worse. The “worse” that results from speaking up tends to come right away: schoolyard bullies, for example, delight in prey that “fight back,” like cats playing with still-living mice. The “worse” that grows from silence usually comes later, which makes it hard to know when to retreat into silence and wait it out, and when it is worth taking something to the mats.

Some months ago, at a meeting with colleagues, I attempted several times (in vain) to make a point about a problem in the plans for a mutual project. The particulars aren’t relevant here; what matters is that I was trying to point out that if A, B, C are to be combined into D, and the current volume of A, B and C are 2D…well, we need to plan for 2D and not just D. The person in charge of the meeting plowed cheerfully over my objections. Alas, I continued to have concerns about the arithmetic and this was treated as some sort of mutiny and personal betrayal (it wasn’t). No explanation that it was merely a math problem was helpful. I spoke up, I tried again to speak up, and it was, clearly, not effective. Despite efforts to move forward as if all were fine, the relationship appears to be irretrievably damaged. (We did turn out to need 2D – and I did not reference the disagreement; it seemed inappropriate.)

A few months later, my unassertiveness floundered in the personal realm. Details are not necessary; suffice it to say that one person (call this person ‘Bob’) misrepresented a conversation to another (call this person ‘Sam’). Sam approached me with great distress as if I were somehow behind a plan that would involve many people descending upon Sam’s home (there was no plan and had there been, I would have been against it). Fortunately, there was at least some history here of the same type of thing happening in the past with Bob…Bob known to be of the temperament to leap to unexamined conclusions.

A few weeks later, my reluctance to engage in repeated attempts at being assertive ending up costing me two friendships. Back to word problems we go. Friend A said something interpreted to mean something entirely different than A intended by friends B and C. I was (as is regrettably often the case) lost in thought and didn’t hear precisely how the point was (mis)made, or mistaken. B and C elected not to confront A at the time. I, having heard A make this particular point very clearly many times, knew it was not meant as interpreted. When B and C were angry, I felt blindsided. It smacked of the recent colleague problem and social near miss. It is a poor excuse, but it seemed as if, after one attempt, it was useless to be more “assertive.” I felt, as it was with my colleague, that there was apparently no making things clear. I gave up – I dropped my end of the rope – have lost friends B and C, have a strained relationship with a valued colleague, and must face the fact I am the common denominator.

I don’t believe I am the only one at fault. Dismissing legitimate concerns, running off with rumors, closing off explanations: there are plenty of missteps to go around…but there, in the middle of it, am I, retreating into watchful silence when speech seems futile. Determining what is and is not futile obviously takes wisdom, which I lack.

I will still encourage clients to be assertive when it is the appropriate thing to do…we’ll just have to explore whether, and when, it is the appropriate choice.

 

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2017

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.