The Therapist Is In

What I know about therapy.

Are Action and Altruism the New Narcissism?

Action and altruism can supplant rehashing problems for trauma recovery.

In the wake of the September 11th terrorism attacks in New York City, my therapy clients, for some months, stopped talking about themselves and their individual problems. Instead they concentrated on what they could do to help in the recovery effort. Public service messages urged those with post-traumatic stress disorder to talk about their feelings about the tragedy. As a psychotherapist, this made sense to me. I had been trained in the twentieth century to identify and help resolve neurotic conflict based on early familial trauma, but the magnitude of this disaster and how personally it involved all New Yorkers, clearly did not dictate a discussion of family history or neurotic conflict. Thus, the deviation from "the old rules." My clients, my family and I all naturally gravitated toward action and altruism as the correct road to recovery, and the narcissistic position of focusing inward and talking about feelings was supplanted by a concern for the greater good.

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Twentieth century psychology focused on a business negotiation type model of conflict resolution. Twenty-first century psychology adds a philosophical or theological orientation. I find in my practice that patients are now very open to spiritual and moral interventions in addition to traditional psychological treatment that focuses on resolving inner conflict. Expressing warmth, generosity, gratitude, and appreciation in the face of conflict is, like most of the tools of twenty-first century psychology, tremendously empowering. Many of us discovered that inborn resilience is itself an effective tool for coping with trauma, a realization which then led to reparative actions and altruistic behaviors.
In his blog "The New Resilience," Douglas LaBier, Ph.D. also writes about the fact that "conventional descriptions of resilience and how to build it don't enable you to handle the challenges and stresses we face in the 21st Century.... Starting with 9-11, and especially since the economic meltdown that began in the fall of 2008, we've been living in a world that's rapidly transforming beneath our feet... The criteria of a new, proactive resiliency - maybe call it "prosilience - may sound con-tradictory because they include letting go of self-interest in your relationships and work...Resiliency grows from putting your energies, your values, emotional attitudes and actions in the service of the common good - something larger than just yourself. That's what supports both success in your outside life and internal well-being. And in today's rapidly transforming world, you need both."

I would add that even in the political arena, a new agenda in American society is emerging as demonstrated by the electoral mandate of President Obama. Higher purpose, cooperation, reaching across party lines, positive action and noble character currently expresses the wishes of the American people. While many people question whether this new agenda has actually been achieved, individuals I see in therapy are highly responsive to positive actions and higher purpose as ways of coping with traumas of all kinds, ranging from marital problems to coping with medical illness and struggles with adult children, teenagers and ageing parents.

In an article on Medscape called "Posttraumatic Success: Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: Resilience" by Fredrike P. Bannink, it's reported that a study (Byrd-Craven, Geary, Rose, & Ponzi, 2008) shows that extensive discussions of problems and encouragement of "problem talk," rehashing the details of problems, speculating about problems, and dwelling on negative affect in particular, lead to a significant increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which predicts increased depression and anxiety over time.

The most long-standing and successful model of action and altruism is the Twelve Step Programs for addiction treatment. The steps of the program dictate that actions that demand narcissism be subsumed to service and actions of reparation, and a personal inventory that mandates a fearless inventory of character flaws that precludes narcissistic gratification and making others responsible for one's actions. If you're feeling traumatized, you need to reclaim your life. In the Twelve Step Programs, it's called building "a bridge back to life." You might want to keep in mind another axiom of which these support groups also make very powerful use: right actions lead to right thinking, rarely the other way around. The right actions you need to take in the wake of trauma will reawaken your capacity for joy - and bring a measure of it back into your life.

 

 

Mark Sichel is a psychotherapist in New York City and the author of Healing from Family Rifts.

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