There are always red flags.  Little things that tell you to slow down, to say no, to stop.

Take a look at this segment of an application to graduate school written by James Holmes1 - 20 months before he became the Aurora shooter (August, 2012.)  A layperson may recognize that the letter is not well-written or that the author is trying too hard to make a good impression.  But psychologist, Dan Tranel, Ph.D., Director of University of Iowa Neuroscience Graduate Program, saw red flags that prompted him to state, "Do NOT offer admission under any circumstances."

What a psychologist recognizes

Despite his effort to impress, Holmes made his psychopathology evident.  Generally, Holmes' self-important tone is not a sign of confidence.  It is a sign of insecurity and emotional immaturity. Specifically, three sentences make the hairs on the back of any seasoned psychologist's neck stand up:

  • ...researchers come from many different backgrounds and bring part of who they are to their investigations.  I too will bring my past, specifically my strong moral upbringing."  Psychologists read this: I am faking good. 
  • "In addition, I will also exemplify resolution and clairvoyance in problem solving."  Psychologists read this: I engage in magical thinking.  I may be delusional.
  • Referring to "underprivileged kids" that he "mentored" as a camp counselor:  "These kids are heavily medicated, but this did not solve their problems, only create new ones.  The medication changed them from highly energetic creative kids to lax beings who slept through the activities.  I wanted to help them but couldn't."  Psychologists read this: I feel angry and powerless.

How to recognize red flags like a psychologist does

Of course, no one can predict a killing rampage from a grad school application.  And you don't have to be qualified to diagnose mental disorders to recognize red flags. Common red flags include substance abuse/dependence, mental cruelty, battery, inappropriate venting of anger, controlling behavior/ jealousy/paranoia, and under-functioning/under-responsibility. See previous posts:  Great Mistakes: The Big Six Red Flags (Part 1) and Great Mistakes: The Big Six Red Flags (Part 2).

Take decisive action when you see trouble

Absent serious mental illness, the common factor among all red-flag behaviors is emotional immaturity.  Under ordinary circumstances, recognizing trouble when you see it means being able to recognize emotional immaturity - in others and in yourself.   Signs of emotional immaturity include:

  • looking outside oneself for happiness
  • blaming others or difficult circumstances for unhappiness
  • holding unrealistic expectations
  • failing to take command of negative emotions

Recognizing red flags/emotional immaturity is the first step.  In order to improve our relationships and quality of life, we must take decisive action. See previous post: Four Keys to Constructively Not Giving In.  And remember Dr. Tranel's words, "Do NOT offer admission under any circumstances."

1. Read James Holmes' rejected grad school application letter by Dylan Stableford, Yahoo News/ The Lookout - Thu, Aug 30, 2012.

About the Author

Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.

Christine Meinecke, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of Everybody Marries the Wrong Person.

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