Using Mental Habits in Healing

Our mental habits account for our automatic thinking patterns when we are faced with crises. If these habits are helpful, our healing proceeds well, but many of us possess harmful habits that inhibit healing. Worse, since our harmful habits occur without our thinking about them, they are difficult to identify.

The guilt response and its companion, shame, are one kind of mental habit that inhibit healing. These habits are primitive responses that we were taught in childhood, and they are reinforced in adulthood by superstitious rituals. Guilt and shame rarely reflect realistic guilt. For example, when a loved one dies, we may sense that we caused the death by something we did or something we didn't do. Even though our reasoning may show us the absurdity of this guilt, our habits persist in tormenting us. Unrealistic guilt is immune from reason, because it wasn't learned by reason in the first place. Chapter 5, "Mastering Guilt," shows how to master such guilt.

The second kind of mental habit consists of those responses we automatically use to cope with psychological pain--anger, sadness, and fear. These mental habits are often termed defense mechanisms or coping skills. Yet, it is clear from the stories of Calvin, Wendy, and Eben that coping skills aren't always helpful. In fact, since many of them neither defend us nor help us cope, the terms "defense mechanisms" and "coping skills" can be misleading. To avoid confusion, this book characterizes them as mental habits, which can be either adaptive or maladaptive. Instead of helping us adapt, for example, maladaptive mental habits undermine us during crises.

Types of Coping Habits

We use our mental habits to manipulate, not mechanical tools, but mental tools--our emotions, perceptions, and memories. Moreover, since we use them consistently, they contribute substantially to our personalities. That's why they are often identified as personality traits. For example, the personalities of the individuals portrayed in this book are characterized by the habits of denial, humor, displacement, altruism, altruistic surrender, anticipation, hypochondriasis, and suppression.

Because some people use maladaptive mental habits consistently, their habits interfere with many aspects of their lives. Though such habit patterns are invisible to the persons using them, they are often obvious to others. Such conditions are termed personality disorders.

Adaptive mental habits help us to cope with life's routine challenges. Like any other skill, we turn them into habits by practicing them. Unlike most of our skills, however, we don't deliberately commit these skills to memory. Instead, we learn them by conditioning: We tend to use a particular maneuver again if it works well in a particular type of situation--for example, a predicament of childhood. By repeating it, we learn the habit without conscious effort.

Mental habits may be adaptive in one situation, but maladaptive in another, a distinction that is more obvious in mechanical skills than in mental skills. For example, to learn our basic driving skills, we practice on smooth streets in good weather. The habits we learn under these conditions are adaptive in routine situations, but they aren't suited to helping us drive when the road is slippery: Slamming on the brakes while driving on an icy road can be catastrophic. In other words, quick braking is adaptive under some conditions, but maladaptive under others. If we want to drive safely under winter conditions, we must add new driving skills to our inventory of habits.

So it is with mental skills. As children, we are like novice drivers. Our childlike mental habits work for us while we roam through the paths of childhood, but they endanger us when we hit the treacherous highways of adult life. If we don't learn new habits to meet these challenges, we solidify maladaptive habits from childhood that can prevent living our lives to the fullest.

The process of maturing allows us to learn new mental habits to keep pace with our changed circumstances. That is, maturing is replacing the old, maladaptive habits of childhood with new habits that help us adapt to the wide variety of crises we encounter in adulthood.

Mature habits are more flexible that those of infancy and childhood. Since situations dictate which habits are adaptive, mature habits allow appropriate responses to given situations. For example, displacing anger in the workplace may help us keep our jobs, but using this habit after the death of a loved one can keep us in misery. Maturity provides us with the flexibility to choose from our repertoire of skills.

The process of learning mature mental habits is usually triggered by an unmanageable crisis--an experience that we can't handle adequately with our accustomed mental habits. That's why our mental habits can work for us both ways in the healing process. On one hand, if we have already learned adaptive habits, they can help us heal. On the other hand, if we recognize our maladaptive habits, we can replace them by learning the skills of healing. In this way, we not only heal from our loss, we gain the new treasures of adaptive mental habits that can help us cope with future crises.

Of the 30 or more mental habits that have been identified as defense mechanisms, only a few are commonly involved in healing. The twelve habits described below represent three levels of maturity: infantile, childlike, and adult. These three categories reflect the levels of challenges presented to most of us during the corresponding age ranges.

Denial, introjection, hypochondriasis, and somatization are infantile; these habits are rarely, if ever, adaptive in adult life. Displacement, dissociation, isolation, and intellectualization are childlike; sometimes they hurt us and sometimes they help us in adulthood. Anticipation, altruism, suppression, and humor are adult; they are among the most valuable mental habits we can possess.

Infantile Habits

In the first few weeks of life, babies are helpless and totally dependent on their parents for everything they need. Their parents provide them with total freedom. Babies don't have to worry about providing for ourselves, and they never face vexing decisions or deadlines. And, with little more than mere wishes, babies command their parents as slaves. The smiles of happy babies tell us that infancy is truly an agreeable time of life.

On the other hand, babies aren't always happy. They can be angry if their parents aren't attentive enough, and they can be terrified if their parents leave them alone. Nature provides these emotions for good reasons. Babies must sometimes cry for their parents to attend to their basic needs, and their rage energizes these cries for help. And since babies are totally helpless, nature gives them the terror of abandonment; their instinct screams, "Abandonment means death!"

Of course, infantile traits are not learned. They are instinctive responses that are built into our brains. Normally, we supplant these traits with more mature habits as our bodies and brains develop, and our wishes for responsible autonomy take over. As a result, people who grow and mature in healthy ways rarely use infantile habits as adults.

At the other extreme are people whose maturing is stymied, typically by serious child abuse. These people don't outgrow their infantile traits. Instead, the traits take root and stay as primitive mental habits. Such people suffer from the most primitive, and the most severe, personality disorders.

Not surprisingly, adults with primitive personality disorders resemble infants in many ways: They are helpless, dependent, greedy, self-centered, irresponsible, and indifferent to the needs of others. Yet, many of them, like babies, can seduce others into caring for them. Sociopaths, for example, often charm their ways into and out of trouble for years. Depending on how careless they are, they may find their ultimate caretakers in the prison system.

Others with infantile mental habits find their satisfactions in achieving power over others; they often find niches in business, entertainment, and politics. They recapture their infancy in being obsequious to their superiors, and overbearing to their subordinates.

As long as they have their way, people with infantile habits are happy. Their moods change rapidly, however, when they are frustrated. When they are thwarted, or even mildly disappointed, their rage can be unrestrained, reaching infantile intensity. Similarly, if they are abandoned, their terror can feel boundless, as though their lives were threatened. Such unrestrained rage or terror often signals an infantile personality disorder.

Because the global use of infantile habits is so primitive, the infantile personality disorders are far beneath the reach of reason. Besides, external crises are among the least of the problems these people face, for they continually create their own internal crises. Therefore, infantile personality disorders are not discussed further in this book. Instead, the section below focusses on isolated infantile mental habits that can complicate healing, but can also yield to healthy, adaptive habits.

Denial is the mental habit that allows looking directly at something, and at the same time, refusing to acknowledge its presence. Infants, of course, can't recognize reality. Their denial is biologic, not habitual. As they grow, their brains develop to the point that they can distinguish the external world from their internal states.

Unlucky children, however, are overwhelmed by what they perceive in the external world: abuse, neglect, or emotional abandonment by their parents. If they conclude that they can't cope with the real world, they are likely to adopt habitual denial to obliterate reality. Indeed, many adults abuse alcohol and other drugs to cloud their view of reality, as though they were infants again.

Many people who use habitual denial live their entire lives as though they have never suffered a crisis. This unrealistic approach to life is a serious problem, and such people usually need professional help to live satisfying lives. Unfortunately, however, their denial often prevents their knowing they need help.

Habitual denial must not be confused with the instinctive denial we experience automatically after a loss. This kind of denial is nature's gift: It gives us enough time to gather our mental resources to begin healing. Unlike habitual denial, however, it is limited in time.

Introjection (injection into oneself) is incorporating a loved one, or qualities of a loved one, into oneself. Infants introject their mothers in the process of bonding; that is, they extend their self-images to include their mother's image. Like infantile denial, this is a normal early, and it usually disappears within the first two years of life. Yet, some children--particularly those who are threatened by abandonment--are slow to recognize the boundaries that separate themselves from the rest of the world.

People who don't develop the ability to recognize interpersonal boundaries by adulthood live in constant terror of abandonment, believing that they can't live on their own. Obviously, they perceive themselves in serious trouble if they lose a loved one to death.

As a rule, these people need professional help to heal after their losses, and many of them learn more mature habits in the process. If they don't change this habit, however, they are at risk for severe exploitation, as sometimes experienced by followers of cults. This malignant form of introjection is discussed in terms of the world-image in Chapter 4, "How We Heal."

Introjection is not always malignant. It is usually benign when it occurs during grieving, appearing when a grieving person takes on the symptoms or other characteristics of a deceased loved one. If the lost loved one habitually chewed on a pencil while deep in thought, for example, the survivor may unconsciously adopt this habit. Similarly, if the loved one died of a heart attack, the survivor may develop chest pain. This common symptom of acute grieving does not necessarily indicate that the person regularly uses the habit of introjection. Instead, it is merely a harmless, temporary regression to childlike make-believe that magically makes the loved one seem closer.

Hypochondriasis is the habit of complaining of physical illnesses that don't exist. This word, which has the same origin as hypochondriac, is pronounced hy'-po-kon-dry'-a-sis.

As with the other infantile habits, this habit is carried into adulthood from infancy. Because they are helpless, infants are cared for entirely. Their parents tend to their physical needs carefully--particularly when they are sick--and the infants enjoy this nurturing. Adults who use hypochondriasis try to recapture this comfort by manipulating others through their physical complaints.

It's important to remember that hypochondriasis is unconscious. Hypochondriacs don't deliberately fake their symptoms as malingerers do. Rather than making up symptoms intentionally, people who use this habit believe they are actually sick. Of course, this belief is partly true: Their habit is certainly unhealthy.

Hypochondriasis can create friction with others if it is used as a hostile habit to control them. That's usually because the people who are enticed into the care-taking role didn't bargain for that position. As a result, after they discover they are locked into a caretaker role, they often return the hypochondriac's complaints with bitterness, resentment, or withdrawal. Though these relationships may be stable over many years, they are not congenial.

Like those with other infantile mental habits, people who use hypochondriasis usually can't recover from a crisis without help. Since they focus on physical symptoms, they don't ask for psychological help. Instead, if they are lucky, their physicians refer them to mental health professionals. This is how Wendy came to my attention.

Somatization is a mental habit that resembles hypochondriasis, for it consists of developing physical symptoms without physical causes. Unlike hypochondriasis, however, somatization is rarely used as a weapon against others. Instead, focussing on physical symptoms is used to divert attention from difficult psychological issues. This, of course, complicates healing, but with patience and hard work, most people who use somatization can learn to develop more adaptive mental habits.

Childlike Habits

In our society, parents are urged to focus on rearing children. This is unfortunate. As parents, we should concern ourselves with rearing adults. Because we don't routinely do this, however, many of us burden our children with mental habits that limit their abilities to cope with the challenges of adult life.

The childlike mental habits described below are among the most common obstacles to healing after losses. Notably, they are the habits that usually prevent our looking beyond the loss to our new opportunities. That's because they distort our ability to recognize and use our emotions.

On the positive side, we can learn to supersede childlike habits relatively easily with more adaptive habits. This depends on our recognizing them as outdated, maladaptive expressions of our unconscious minds. Many people need help in doing this, but it is worth the trouble and expense, for the blessings of healing include developing new, more useful habits for living.

Dissociation is used by many people to disguise their feelings. This habit automatically segregates pleasant and unpleasant feelings into separate mental compartments: Joy is sent to the conscious, and anger, fear, and sadness go to the unconscious. For example, the "Merry Widow" uses dissociation to avoid feeling her unpleasant emotions. She acknowledges only what is pleasant to her.

Dissociation illustrates how a so-called "defense mechanism" can defend us as children, but work against us when we are adults. To please their parents, many children learn that they can act as though they feel one way--cheerful, for example--when they actually feel another way--angry. As they grow, they turn their acting skills into habits by practicing them. Like chameleons, they can change their colors to match any environment. Their ability to move deftly from one role to another not only defends them against their parents' disapproval, it may help them adapt in many types of careers. Also, because they can be eternally cheerful, they are often popular. In these situations, dissociation is truly a defense.

In crises, however, dissociation can be a devious opponent. In healing after a loss, for example, the habit furnishes false reassurance, and robs these people of their natural emotional warning signs. With their anger, sadness, and fear locked away from their awareness, they can't use their emotions to motivate them or to energize their grief work. Moreover, despite their superficial popularity, people who use dissociation discourage social support in their healing. This occurs because their apparent emotional shallowness indicates to others that all is well.

Of course, their emotions aren't actually shallow. Indeed, by the time these people reach adulthood, their unconscious minds have gathered a lifetime's accumulation of painful emotional responses to losses and rejections. This reservoir of misery typically surfaces as profound conscious feelings of loneliness and isolation. Even then, these people use dissociation to hide their feelings from the view of others. By isolating themselves further, they unwittingly use their so-called "defense mechanism" against themselves.

Healing after a lost treasure offers such people an opportunity to learn mental habits that are more adaptive to adult life. However, most of them need a professional helper to accomplish this, for their own firm, habitual distortions of perception prevents them from seeing the real world as it is.

Displacement is the habit of shifting attention away from the source of anger, focussing instead on another person or thing. Anger is frequently displaced during healing to avoid guilt or other mental discomfort.

Many children in our society develop the habit of displacement to avoid criticism, guilt feelings, or punishment. Their parents teach them that anger is a destructive weapon that can be aimed, and that they must not be angry. In fact, anger can't be aimed because it has no direction, and it is no more destructive than it is constructive. Nevertheless, since children have no choice but to believe their parents, they learn to displace their anger.

Displacement interferes with healing because it wastes the energy of anger. Because displacement indicates a false problem, it prevents using anger to help solve the real problem. Eben, for example, used displacement to his disadvantage--as did his father before him.

Knowing two facts about anger can help to eliminate displacement as a habit: First, we feel anger every time we have a problem; and second, anger has an intensity, but not a direction. How to apply these facts to assure that you don't misuse your anger is discussed in Chapter 3, "Using Your Anger to Heal."

Isolation is storing all emotions in a locked mental compartment where they can't be reached. Unlike people who use dissociation or displacement, people who use this habit isolate, not only their painful emotions, but their joy as well.

People who use isolation not only waste the potentials of their anger, fear, and sadness, they can't imagine the rewards of joy. As a result, they have no reason to heal; they don't feel a stick behind to push them, nor do the sense a carrot ahead to pull them. Obviously, they are seriously handicapped by their mental habit.

Such people may live well in some ways--through their work, for example--but their accumulated losses keep them from living their lives fully. They don't notice their own emotional dullness, but others in their lives do. Their loved ones, spouses, and children may feel cheated out of knowing them. Often, these feelings lead to estrangement and alienation.

A major loss can be a blessing for these people, for it brings them the opportunity to become acquainted with their feelings, and therefore with themselves. In the bargain, they may also become newly acquainted with those they love the most. That's why, in healing after their losses, people who use isolation have much more to gain than most people.

Intellectualization is thinking about our emotions rather than feeling them. This habit hinders grieving because we can't heal until we have connected our memories of our loss with the emotions the loss originally evoked. We can't do this if we transform our emotions into thoughts. That is, if we think about anger instead of feeling it, we block our healing.

The habit of intellectualization is typically found with isolation, and it often accompanies displacement and dissociation. In other words, people who hide their emotions from their awareness usually substitute thinking for feeling. Typically, they do this to gain a sense of control: They can't control their emotions, so they try to control their thoughts instead. Of course, this is self-defeating. Instead of using their emotions to drive them ahead, these people endlessly spin their mental wheels, thinking in circles.

To discover whether you use the maladaptive habit of intellectualization, ask yourself, "What do I feel right now?" If your answer begins, "I think . . . ," you are intellectualizing. If so, practice saying, "I feel anger" (or fear, sadness, or joy). See what happens. It won't hurt.

Adult Habits

Happiness is knowing we can cope. Adult mental habits bring happiness because they create the confidence that we can adapt to our most difficult challenges. These skills are learned from experiences with real challenges, including major crises. The crises in our lives provide many opportunities to learn adaptive mental habits.

Not only do adult habits help us adapt to our current situations, they prepare us to cope with future crises. That's why maturing is the most far-reaching reward of healing.

Anticipation is the mental habit that helps us prepare for the future realistically. In healing, anticipating a future loss allows preparing for it. Frank and Melody healed in anticipation of Melody's death, and both of them benefitted from it.

Altruism is appreciating the sensibilities of another person as you appreciate your own. It is adaptive because, by recognizing another person's thinking and feeling, we can avoid self-absorption, which produces loneliness, despondency, and despair.

It is essential to know that altruism is not giving up our own interests. Instead, altruism adds the interests of others to our own. In contrast, giving up our own interest is a common childlike maladaptive habit that is called "altruistic surrender." As a little girl, Wendy developed this habit, which led her into her other difficulties.

Suppression is consciously setting temporary limits on certain feelings or thoughts. Suppressing sadness can be helpful when it is done temporarily to avoid discomfort. Quietly walking away from a person who doesn't want to hear about your anger or sadness is an example of suppression.

Suppression is adaptive because it allows us to budget our energy and time. Repression, in contrast to suppression, is habitually pushing unacceptable thoughts and feelings into the unconscious. The childlike habits of isolation and dissociation develop from repression.

Humor is a comforting habit, not only for ourselves, but for those around us. Humor can be used for several purposes, such as finding temporary relief during our healing. In the television series, M.A.S.H., for example, Hawkeye Pierce explained that he told jokes so he wouldn't always be screaming. Humor also helps us to recognize the big picture, and this helps us by changing our perspective on our loss.