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August  2014
Vol. 24  No. 1

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Empathy Anyone? A Psychotherapists' Take on "Tough Love"


Ben-ElfantToday, I came across a news bite that is sticking in my craw. It was about Nick Crew, a British submarine captain and father who became so fed up with his three children's poor choices in life that he wrote them a letter. In the letter, he said in no uncertain terms that he was ashamed of them and that unless they chose to make better choices (and seek his advice on what choices they should make instead), he was not interested in having them in his life. He writes, "[Your mom and I] have had enough of being forced to live through the never-ending bad dream of our children's underachievement and domestic ineptitudes." Keep in mind that the choices he is referring to boil down to getting divorces and not being financially stable.

 What bugged me about this was not the letter itself. Lord knows--it is not the first of its kind. At issue is that this became news. It became news because it generated so much debate both for and against Mr. Crew’s letter. I guess the fact that anyone would support disowning one's own children because they are not what is deemed good enough leaves me a bit agitated.

I am also affected because the people in favor of this father’s actions seem to reflect a general sentiment held by many in this country. Viewed by some, Nick Crew is right on. It is "tough love" that this country and its citizens need. There is a sense that many are entitled, lazy, stupid, and selfish (47% of us?). It is the same view that says those who are addicted to drugs, depressed, anorexic, anxious, or even unemployed need to pull their heads out of their collective arses and stop complaining. I can hear someone saying, "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, dammit!" Each of these afflictions has a simple solution. For the addict: Stop using drugs; for the depressed: Grin-and-bare-it; for the people who have anorexia: Eat; for the anxious: Relax; and for the unemployed: Get off the couch and get a job. That is all you need to do, and to do otherwise is further evidence of your selfish nature.

I know this sentiment exists, because my clients feel it. Very few of the people I work with admit to even the closest people in their lives that they are in psychotherapy. To this day, there is a remarkable level of stigma attached to even the most common of mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and addiction.

Please don't get me wrong: I fully recognize the need for limits and boundaries, both with our children and with the citizens in this country. I am not interested in someone getting a free-ride or a round of applause for their less-than-optimal functioning. Ask any one of my clients and they would tell you that I help them to hold themselves accountable for their actions. But before anyone can ever be expected to push themselves to grow, they must first feel there is opportunity, understanding, and unconditional positive regard before they can hope to do so.

In response to those in favor of Mr. Crew's letter, I want to point to an experiment done in the 50's (to see the experiment, go to YouTube and type in Jane Elliott Brown Eyes and Blue Eyes). In this experiment, Jane Elliott, a teacher, separated a class of third graders into one half with blue eyes and one half with brown eyes. On Tuesday, she told the children that those with blue eyes were smarter and more deserving than those with brown eyes. She gave them special privileges. Likewise, she said that the children with brown eyes were stupid and useless.

Then she let the children go about their day. Within 15 minutes the children with blue eyes walked taller, performed better on tasks, and acted more confidently. They also began to treat those with brown eyes badly. On the other hand, those with brown eyes began acting out, making poor behavior choices, and failing on tasks given to them. This only got worse through the day as the children solidified into the roles expected of them. Of course on Wednesday, when the roles were reversed, so were the behaviors.

If a child can be this remarkably influenced by one teacher over the course of two afternoons, imagine what happens to a child that is told he is shameful and a disappointment repeatedly by a caretaker, peer, and/or society over a period of years? Might that result in someone consistently making poor choices, not because they are a bad, lazy, ignorant, etc. person, but because it is expected of them? And when this shame is internalized (the "brown eyes” didn't want to be brown eyed, after all), is it possible this would result in someone becoming depressed and anxious. Wouldn't it then make sense that they used drugs or starved themselves as a way to self-harm or dissociate? Of course, in our society, these behaviors are then criticized which furthers the shame spiral and maladaptive behaviors.

We as psychotherapists work with this issue on some level with every client we see. It is almost always a combination of bad luck (trauma), unconscious beliefs (scripting), and genetic predisposition that result in people's emotional problems. With that said, the idea that a father would write a letter to his children saying that they are a disappointment and expect that to be what gets them to turn their lives around is frankly absurd. Just as it is absurd to sneer at a depressed, homeless addict and tell him to get off the sidewalk and get a job. To do so points to a woeful lack of understanding on how emotions and the psyche work.
It is only with empathy, compassion, understanding, and warmth in relationships that someone can find the safety and courage to make real and permanent changes to their personality and perspective on the world. And it is up to ALL of us to recognize that looking down our noses at those who are struggling simply perpetuates the problem. In short, it is only when we as humans recognize that any one of us could be that homeless man on the street given his history, scripting, and genetics, that real empathy and healing can begin.

As for Mr. Crew, I can only hope that someone can provide him with the compassion he needs to improve on his own poor behavior choices.

Ben Elfant-Rea has been a psychotherapist for 10 years. He specializes in addiction, anxiety, and relationship issues, including couples therapy. His office is located in downtown San Luis Obispo.