The Closet Monster

You are about to embark on a trip to a foreign country. In the weeks ahead of departure, you may be excited in anticipation. Yet the morning of the trip, stress starts creeping in and it quickly builds. Questions pop up in your mind: “What did I forget to pack?” “Will I make it in time to the airport?” “Will the check-in go smoothly?” “Will my plane arrive safely?” And so on and so forth. What is going on? What is the source of this sudden anxiety and stress-generating concerns? Why are all these unfavorable situations being formed in your brain?

The mind is doing what it is designed to do: protect you. The process itself is based on the primal instinct built into all of us: fight or plight. It is designed to ask questions: “Is there danger involved?” “Can I get hurt?” It acts as a chess player, calculating several moves ahead, analyzing options; like an insurance agent, conducting risk assessment.

The problem is that this process tends to run wild. Your imagination paints the worst case scenarios and then starts to believe that these cases will actually happen. The result? Unrealistic and unjustified fear and stress.

What is one to do? The intellectual route, telling the mind there should be no reason for concern, doesn’t often work. Take the child afraid of going to sleep because there is a monster in her bedroom closet. Daddy is called in to explain that there is none. As proof, Dad turns the lights on and opens the closet door. And indeed, no monsters are visible. Yet this does not make the fear go away. What the youngster knows, that the grownup does not, is that whatever is hiding in the closet is very evasive. It knows how to hide itself the moment the door is opened by an adult. But wait until the parent is gone! The child believes the monster is still there only waiting for the right opportunity. Why? Because the closet monster is the fruit of imagination, residing in the mind where no physical or intellectual proof will drive it away.

As adults, we may have stopped believing in the closet monster, but in fact we just replaced that ogre with grownup demons that thrive in the darkest corners of our tireless mind. So the question remains, what is one to do? What happens when you realize that simply telling yourself there is no reason for fear or concern does not work?

Trying to stop your intellectual chatter and mental concern may not easily happen. You might find it impossible to rationally convince yourself that there are no reasons for worry. Attempting to do so may actually make the situation worse, like endeavoring to extinguish fire using gasoline. But what if a different route of action can be taken? A route based on mindfulness.

Try watching and observing these mental tendencies; examine how these behaviors are actually being formed within you. Start noticing how your body physiologically behaves under stress: the pace of your breathing, your heartbeat, knots in your stomach, a sense of tightness over your chest. Then observe your mind and thoughts. Initially this reflection will be difficult. In all likelihood, you will be at quite a high level of anxiety when you begin to recall your task of looking within. Maybe you will think about what to do only after the situation has already passed. This is normal. Allow yourself to shed any expectations that immediate change is going to take place. However, with persistent practice, your mindfulness will grow deeper and these mental activities will give way to a different, more profound and calmer state of being. Like sleep and meditation, watchfulness leading to a calmer mind is something that needs time and repetition to accomplish.

If you find that calm observation is not something attainable in your early stages of practice, an alternative strategy can help: conscious avoidance or — distraction. To explain this strategy lets go back to a child. As discussed, explaining rationally, and even showing physically that there is no closet monster, will not work. But what if, instead of wasting energy on disputing a fearful mind, the parent takes a book, sits by their daughter’s bed and starts reading. The youngster will quickly forget, at least temporarily, about whatever may be frightful and become absorbed in the story. The mind is distracted. Soon, she may fall asleep peacefully.

How does conscious avoidance apply to our concerned traveler? What if, instead of trying to fight the anxieties about “what if,” our voyager imagines himself at his final destination, at a point in time that goes beyond the trip’s immediate challenges? Maybe he is on a beach in Aruba, or looking at art at a museum in Paris, skiing in Aspen, or having a good time at a pub with friends in Ireland? It helps to shift the mind’s focus from the negative to a more positive state. Instead of being in a dark future, one dresses it up in brighter colors. And if refocusing the mind on the positive is difficult to obtain under a specific situation, one may try more simple methods of pure distraction: listening to comforting music, exercising, or even watching TV. This may not make the root causes of stress go away, but it may help reduce the dark grip of the mind to a level where other strategies can be more successfully applied.

As you begin implementing these strategies, you may discover unique approaches that work best. Whatever method you adopt is absolutely fine. Yet keep in mind that a spiritual seeker’s goal is ultimately being here now, experiencing the moment for what it is. Some may feel that a strategy such as conscious avoidance is unfavorable as it allows the mind to dwell in the future, versus in the present. Some may say this technique should only be used as a temporary crutch. A spiritual path is very personal. No one should be judging someone else’s way; as the Chinese proverb goes: “There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same.”

Stress will always surround us: health, money, love, travel, violence, etc. It is a fact of life. Even when one obtains, say, wealth, there will readily be reasons for other concerns. How we deal with the residual anxiety is a different matter altogether. Though seemingly without choice, we do have tools at our disposal to make our life of better quality. The two simple strategies outlined in this article are a beginning. Find ways – triggers – to remind yourself to apply the practice. You will discover that over time, your reaction to tough situations will start to change. You will become aware of unreasonable fears and concerns much earlier and eventually disarm the panic before it begins. With regular practice of mindfulness and meditation, the monster will no longer reside in the closet of the mind.

The China Earthquake – Child Adoption

Abstract:

This is the second paper is in response to the work being carried out in China by counsellors in the field. China on May 12th suffered its worse earthquake for 30 years measuring 8 on the Richter scale, causing at this time over 70,000 deaths and millions of people homeless and injured. In the aftermath of the earthquake people from all over China were concerned with the plight of the children left victims of tragic parental loss and death. Good hearted people rushed forward to offer adoption of these children to give them a new home and a new beginning. This paper is to explore the psychology of what to expect from a child who will have severe mental anguish for many months if not years and to make potential adopters aware of the pitfalls of rushing to quickly to adopt what may turn out to be a problem child with severe mental problems in the future.

Introduction:

Research into child adoption is well established particularly in the United States and Europe following disasters in other areas and the long-term study of the effects of psychological harm seen to manifest in children over the short and long term. As far back as 1937 David Levy in the USA began the first study into how children are affected by adoption into a stranger’s family, in a new environment and the absence of the biological mother. Levy saw the distress in these children from an early age and the cumulative effect over the years to mental problems in adulthood. Since this pioneering research many other psychologists have followed suit and confirmed the harm of adoption when the compulsion to help over-rides the needs of the child.

The Effect of Adoption:

Jean MacLeod wrote in Adoptive Families Magazine, “The day to day life with a new child, who is scared and perhaps angry or rejecting, with little sleep can make even the most confident parent lose their composure” This then is the fundamental problem of removing the child from its environment, natural parents and friends to a strangers home (however welcoming) to begin a new life where all they knew and understood has been torn away from them in a moment of horror.

The children of the earthquake will suffer emotional problems brought on my sudden loss of their parents soon after birth, as small children and as middling to teenage years. Each child according to age and experience will deal with the loss in differing ways but often with similar reactions. The youngest will have not have had the chance for a bonding relationship with the biological mother, this often lies at the deep route of a child’s later personality as physical and psychological aspects are merged in the child (Clothier 1943). Child development research by such eminent psychologists such as Bowlby (1960’s) clearly show the affect of sudden loss, separation anxiety and developmental damage to a child’s psyche in the future and how they can easily become dysfunctional adults later in life. Even with the best-substitute mother in the world the subtle effects of interactionism at an early stage of development cannot be made-up for in kindness and patience by an adoptive parent. Older children from two years to ten know they have a personal loss; they cannot however evaluate the process of grief with the reality of the situation. Disbelief as in any grief process is the first reaction and they angrily reject any attempt to re-parent them to another family. In China because of the one-baby-policy this has an even worse affect as no older sibling as available for secondary bonding and sharing of the grief process for them. For the teenagers it can be even worse – they have the cognitive ability to understand the loss, but they are too young to fend for themselves and are treated as younger than they really are by well-meaning helpers. They often feel their needs are ignored and the feeling for self-determination is not taken into account as the authorities determine their fate for the next five to ten years.

What can new Foster Parents Expect?

The emotional problems will manifest in many ways but some are more common to most age groups, such as, fear of close relationships, low self esteem, and anger, immaturity that produces problems such as, lying, oppositional behaviour, school underachievement, quick temper, frustration and depression. (Katz M.)

Fear of Close Relationships:

You are young, your parents have died in an earthquake, and it was sudden, horrific and unexpected. You are now alone, strangers are feeding you, sheltering you, you can here counsellors talking but do not understand the words. Your personal belongings, the things you cherished are gone. Soon you are told a nice couple are going to look after you? You are confused, who are these strangers what do they want me for? The first thing most children learn is to trust or mistrust adults, in this the child’s reactions to situations can often be the foundation of decisions. In the child’s mind their parents have been taken away, lost forever, no chance for goodbye or a last kiss, hug or smile. This can happen again the child surmises and in this moment decides that getting close to someone hurts terribly, so the only solution is to keep your distance both physically and mentally. The new parents cannot understand why the child hates them, rejects their kindness, and does not communicate with them, soon the new parents feel guilty, they want to give the child back; they feel it is ungrateful for this new chance, this new beginning. The new parents start to reject the child and so the child sees this rejection as confirming its new belief that to be close is dangerous. In the child’s mind safety lies in self-reliance without the need for adult care.

Low Self-Esteem:

All ages of children will feel the sudden loss as somehow a punishment to them for something they did not do or think about prior to the earthquake. To an adult this is irrational thinking but to a child it makes sense. They (the child) must have done something wrong to be punished in such a terrible way. Feelings of worthlessness abound as the child develops. New parents talk of future expectations, how they are going to help the child become something, but to the child this pressure to please the new parents is hard work when they have not even had time to grieve for their own loss. This thinking leads to the “Chosen Child” complex where the child feels they are special to the new parents and so must make every effort to show their gratitude for being adopted. However for the child trying to live up to these expectations can lead to feelings of failure, lack of self-worth and depression. They cannot become the “Perfect Child” for them and become emotionally drained. As the child grows they see the physical differences between them and their adoptive parents, this further highlights their strangeness and feelings of being misplaced in the family and the world.

Anger:

The child in anger is manifesting their frustration with the new situation, they cannot relax, they feel no familiar comfort in the home, the talk of friends and other family are not understood, they feel it is hard to ask for things without feeling awkward. Eventually their emotions boil over and they break. The anger is sudden and violent, often for smaller children breaking objects or destroying new toys as a way of expressing their grief and feelings of being lost in this new world.

Immaturity:

Even the older children will developmentally go backward in some aspects of their behaviour. Lying is very common, some is to please the new parent, saying they are happy (when clearly they are not) saying thank you more that normal (as an appeasement to the new parents) denying breakages or stealing money (to prepare for another loss – money is useful to save). Oppositional behaviour manifest in the need for self-reliance, the rejection of help by the new parent, the lack of a suitable role model that looks, thinks and acts as they do can all lead to emotional problems such as school underachievement and violence to other children.

The New Parents:

For the adoptive parents this time can be particularly difficult, they thought they were doing a noble thing, a good deed for society in taking in this child who had such a tragic start to their young lives. However as time passes and they experience all the emotional turmoil of the child’s problem behaviour they become frustrated, angry, physically violent to the child in some cases and abusive both verbally and emotionally. The little dream child has turned into a nightmare of sleepless nights and constant battles for control. As there is no natural bonding the parents feel that the child in merely a visitor they look after until such time as it no longer needs them. As the child grows it looks like the biological parent and often the adoptive parents feels that the problems over the years are the fault of the dead parents and blame them for not teaching the child proper behaviour when they were alive. Even the most patient new parent will have a test of wills on many occasions with the child causing resentment and rejection.

The Genes Question:

There is no doubt that genes play a part in the physical aspects of a child’s looks and growth. However this should not be confused with social development, that takes place within first the family, later peers and significant others. As the child grows they can see they are not like the other members of the family in looks and physical attraction. This may cause two psychological consequences, first a feeling of not belonging, the idea of the outsider and second the feeling of being mentally different. This is not strictly true but merely a need for self-recognition. This often leads to the older child asking questions about where they come from, who were their real parents, what happened to them, why did they leave me with you, am I bad person then, how can I find them? This is a time of great difficulty for the new parents as they have to face the prospect of a late rejection after maybe years if coping with their problem child.

The Second Rejection:

Many new parents will not be able to cope with the problem child and come to the decision to give the child back to the adoption agencies to re-assign to other parents. This is particularly true of child-less couples who take the opportunity to have a child from the earthquake as a substitute to not having one of their own. Others cannot cope with the loss of face. They told the neighbours they are going to adopt a child from the earthquake as a badge of honour. Later they have to hide the problem child from those same neighbours who now witness much of the behaviour described above. Those who do cope for a few years can still send the child away to boarding school as a way of some respite for themselves but the child sees this as yet another loss of trust. Some that develop severe mental problems can be hidden away or sent to psychiatric hospitals, many never to return. To the growing child this maybe the last straw, in a long line of rejections and painful experiences, often leading to long-term psychiatric care and attempted suicides or drug dependency.

In Summery:

The Chinese earthquake like many other terrible disasters led to thousands of children parentless, homeless and grieving. Many kind-hearted people will rush forth to help, nurture and adopt these tragic children. However not all the new parents are fit for this task even with the best will in the world can many of them cope with an emotionally scared child who has psychological damage that will follow it for its lifetime? For many of the children they would be better to stay in the area they grew up in and make a new start surrounded by the familiar. Children of loss bond to each other much more solidly than to strange adults. Questions of trust, security and routine are far more important right now than well-meaning people who think, with money, care and comfort them can take the place of the biological parent in the short term or the long term. No solutions are perfect – but new parents should be aware of the responsibility they take on with that child of tragedy! In this paper I have looked at the negative aspects of adoption for a good reason and that is to warn, stop and get new potential adoptive parents to think first and act with compassion second. Of course many children of adoptive parents grow to appreciate their new home and loving, caring parents. However no new parent starts with the ideal child who rushes in and says mummy I love you five minutes after they arrive. Realism is called for in this tragedy to protect the interests of the child and its future as part of China’s harmonious society.

End…..

References:

David M. Levy, (1937) American Journal of Psychiatry – 94, Primary Affect Hunger.
F. Clothier MD, (1943) Psychology of the Adopted Child
N. N. Verrier (1993) Primal Wound
Bowlby J (1965) Loss / Separation Anxiety

The Wounded Artist

The only people I would care to be with now are artists and people who have suffered: those who know what beauty is, and those who know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me. – Oscar Wilde (De Profundis )

In the recent past I faced disillusionment as a playwright and creator of therapeutic theater. This experience has been instrumental in understanding the abuse artists are frequently subjected to, the traumatic wounds awakened, and the process of recovery. Essentially when the naivete and idealism of my artist collided with avarice and duplicity, I was challenged to grapple with and move through metabolic stress and bitter cynicism. This process catalyzed critical shifts creatively and emotionally, which consequently infiltrated the therapy sessions I facilitate with a multitude of diverse artists in NYC. Hence, my experience compels me to share about the painful hurdles the artist encounters, and the psychic toll and resultant wounds incurred. Likewise, I also want to identify ways to champion the artist, so that these struggles and wounds can ultimately morph into wisdom, power, and success.

Author of “The Artist’s Way” Julia Cameron, said to create is to surrender and align with a higher will. Cameron expounds that art is a mystical transaction, which unearths within the artist his purest essence. To risk bringing to life ideas of personal beauty and meaning and to bravely share one’s artistic work is to reveal vulnerable aspects of what humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to as the real self.

Yet often we are stymied by our simultaneous quest to actualize ourselves, and the pull towards safety. Our formative experiences influence where we find ourselves on this spectrum of safety and actualization, as do myriad extraneous factors that can discourage the expression of innate creative gifts and obstruct artistic expression. We see this conflict personified in the archetypal reality of the wounded struggling artist.

In NYC artists are often lacking resources to create their work. The cost of real estate, labor and materials, make it exceedingly challenging for artists to thrive. Variable forms of treachery encountered in the dark underbelly of the art world injure the artist’s soul. The rigors of public humiliation, copyright infringement, transitory acclaim, theft of intellectual property, and corporate theft of one’s work where higher ups regularly usurp and take credit for the work of the peon artist are common occurrences. Hence, high-minded goals and creative ambitions are typically dwarfed by these difficult challenges. To survive, working artists may cobble together sundry art related jobs or take on a day job in a completely different sector. Balancing work with familial responsibilities may require relocating and/or giving up on artistic pursuits that require touring or long hours in a studio.

Artistic agency and idealism may need to be subordinated to accommodate those who finance artistic expression. This may take the form of private collectors, angel investors, producers, directors or corporate organizations. Endeavors to exercise entrepreneurial aims may reveal unethical narcissistic motives infiltrating these collaborations. Successfully navigating this complex social and political terrain requires savvy, healthy pride and formidable humility.

However, many artists are not equipped to withstand these challenges. A foundation of healthy narcissism is needed in order to develop the capacity for valuing one’s unique creative gifts and to withstand the onslaught of public scrutiny, duplicity and rejection. If throughout one’s life one is inadequately cared for, rejected and inconsistently supported, it is likely there are narcissistic wounds that hinder one from successfully navigating these difficulties and fully owning and manifesting aspirations. Under these conditions, the injuries incurred by showing or merchandising one’s art can catalyze creative stagnation, blocks, and traumatic enactments rooted in one’s history. Moreover, vulnerable to having revealed personal truths through one’s artistic work, the artist can be swept up by primal needs for admiration and approval. Deep-seated longings to be ‘special’, perhaps to compensate for and master unresolved betrayal and rejection, can set the artist up for a proverbial fall.

Artists who are victims of disordered parents may carry an insidious inescapable shame, which enforces the edict that one’s gifts are a threat, responsible for instigating feelings of resentment, inadequacy and envy. Envied and perceived as a threat the artistic child may be forbidden by the disordered parent to play music, draw, perform, or express his creative gifts in any capacity. Parental prohibitions and shaming of children sends an implicit message about actualizing potentials. Having learned that any indication of happiness, accomplishment or admiration results in contempt and myriad forms of emotional violence, these latent artists may hide in the shadows, having lost sight of their innate endowments or simply too fearful to expose those essential parts of themselves.

Alternatively, unable to tolerate human flaws and thus driven by perfection, the wounded artist may identify with the aggressor and perpetrate the cycle of abuse they endured by deriding and diminishing others. Like their parental abusers they may abide by self-defeating perfectionistic ideals as a defense against perceived inadequacy. While personality disordered parents are notorious for perpetrating continuous sabotage and deprecation, their egomaniacal fixation on status and personae may result in maligning the artistic child for his gifts while concomitantly vicariously exploiting him for narcissistic supply, so as to aggrandize the disordered parent’s stature and self-importance. Henceforth, when these artists have their creative work usurped, repackaged, and exploited with no recognition or accreditation memories of dehumanizing parental abuse are triggered. For the artist who acquires fame, being a narcissistic extension for industry moguls in the guise of caring and admiration and contending with the parasitical demands of a fan base, may replicate the trauma of being objectified and used by narcissistic parents.

Ultimately, in a subconscious effort to master psychological and emotional injuries traumatic patterns will be enacted with those who either embody the traits of one’s parental abusers and/or the scorned victimized child. To break free of these enactments the wounded artist will need to undertake an emotionally and psychologically taxing exploration of a painful history, so as to bring into consciousness destructive patterns and potent projections ignited by comparable dynamics encountered in the art industry. Only then can he mourn his losses and establish a grounded realistic commitment to his efforts to flourish creatively and financially as a professional artist.

Freud contended in his paper ‘On Narcissism’ that primary narcissism is an essential part in normal development and is critical to one’s survival. In order to engender healthy narcissism one needs to be fully seen and understood, be taken seriously, have feelings and needs respected. Self-promotion and actualizing ambitions and mature goals requires healthy narcissism. Likewise healthy narcissism forms a constant, realistic self-interest, principles, and an ability to form deep relationships. By healing core wounds and reclaiming a foundation of healthy narcissism, the artist equipped with a more formidable ego and perspective can more ably contend with the logistics of navigating the vicissitudes of the market and popular culture.

In order for ongoing life affirming choices and changes to prevail the wounded artist will need to modify logistical circumstances. Client centered psychologist Carl Rogers said we should create two conditions for people so that the creative process in therapy can unfold. Rogers conveyed that psychological safety and psychological freedom make room for acceptance, empathy and the room to think, feel and contribute fully. When one is free from judgment and criticism, the energy of inspiration and possibility becomes accessible. Ergo, by breaking free of toxic bonds and harmful collaborations that stifle creative energy the artist can empower himself and prioritize his wellbeing by rebuilding a network of trustworthy colleagues who inspire and encourage ingenuity and partnership so that healthy self esteem and self regard can ensue.

Dr. Robert Firestone wrote, “Personal power is based on strength, confidence, and competence that individuals gradually acquire in the course of their development. It is self-assertion and a natural, healthy striving for love, satisfaction and meaning in one’s interpersonal world.” The professional artist, aligned with his power and hence his birthright for love and fulfillment, will be prompted to protect his work and shield himself from unscrupulous dealings. He will recognize the need to acquire a basic understanding of legal rights and the necessity of procuring legal representation sensitive to the plights of artists when negotiating contracts and selling one’s work. He may come to realize that restoring one’s artistic integrity and authority may require taking legal action with those who exploit ideas and labor.

While protecting one’s work is an act of self-respect and a critical part of upholding one’s artistic integrity and aesthetic, it is also integral to strategic marketing. With renewed vigor the creatively driven energized artist will be galvanized to embrace visibility through sundry channels. Knowing who one is as an artist and how one’s artistic identity coincides with cultural and economic trends will influence the promotion of one’s art.

Branding and developing a viable customer base will require an on line presence through a personal website, social media, diverse online galleries and web publications. This will require crafting a meaningful artist’s statement so as to introduce one’s unique aesthetic and the inspiration and meaning supporting one’s work. Depending on the artist’s medium, garnering commissions, auditions, and assignments may involve artist representation such as agents, publicists, and curators. Additional outlets for merchandising one’s art may include online galleries and promotional sites for musicians and actors. To finance one’s art fiscal sponsorship can assist with fundraising capabilities and grant applications. Artist fellowships, residencies, advanced training/internships, and consistent networking with industry professionals, are also integral to achieving success.

To sum up, surviving the dark descent into historical betrayals, traumas and defeats and the parallel battlefield of promoting one’s art lends itself to cultivating a greater capacity for discernment and discrimination so as to create the space to boldly and fearlessly return to one’s artistic process, and wash away from the soul the dust of every day life (Picasso). A tenacious, dedicated and disciplined commitment to hard work and long hours is an indisputable reality for the artist, but for the artist who has plumbed the depths and sustains the necessary stamina and guts needed to create and promote his art, the rewards are substantial. The emboldened healed artist, able to face core injuries and attain a sensible and balanced outlook, can safely traverse a daunting art industry and fully engage with his gifts from that mystical place of surrender where his creative spirit resides.