Object constancy is what separates good sports from sore losers

Object constancy is one of the more awkward terms in psychology, but its meaning is so relevant, that it’s worth understanding and worth developing when it’s lacking.

Object constancy is the ability to hold onto a positive regard towards a person, a company, a project, yourself and even a country in the face of being upset, frustrated, angered and disappointed by any of them.

Object constancy develops early in your life, even back to infancy, when you develop a trust, belief and confidence that your parents (especially your mother) will return after they have gone away. That is thought to be due to the fact that you are highly dependent on that person and if they are gone and you feel hungry, need to have your diaper changed, feel cold and need to be held, feel just plain scared and need to be held and they are away too long, the fear and anxiety can become intolerable and you lose your object constancy.

Alternatively, if your parents do come back relatively quickly, but become angry at you and even yell at you to “Shut up” when you’re feeling scared, that can also mess up your ability to maintain a positive connection to them.

When you don’t have object constancy, and you’re feeling intolerable anxiety, you become vulnerable to addictions, fanatical obsessions and compulsions.  When those three have in common is the capacity to make that anxiety go away temporarily.  The fact that anxiety comes back so quickly is what deepens your addictions, obsessions and compulsions.

Someone I know who has had a long standing cocaine addiction has told me that he no longer needs cocaine to get high, he needs it just to get by. As he told me, “The only thing more powerful than a cocaine rush, is the utter agony during a cocaine crash.” Lacking object constancy to deal with upset, disappointment and anxiety had caused or at least contributed to this person self-medicating himself with cocaine.

Albert Einstein said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” When he said that, I think he was referring to object constancy.  If we decide the universe is friendly, i.e. safe, we look at the world with optimism and hope.  If we decide the universe is hostile, i.e. dangerous, we look at the world with pessimism and hopelessness.

After election day, the side whose candidate loses will have their object constancy sorely tested.  The reason for a palpable fear of violence by that side is because there is so little belief in people’s ability to maintain a positive connection to the future of America in the face of their candidate losing. Their becoming angry and possibly violent is an attempt to take back control through revenge and retaliation rather than enduring the pain associated with their candidate having lost, dealing with it and then moving past it. Object constancy is what allows people to tolerate that pain and move beyond it (again harkening back to the infant’s tolerating parents being away by believing they will return).

What can you do if you are lacking object constancy?

Here are a some suggestions taken from Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life (Amacom Books, $24.95):

  1. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. I first heard about this directive as a medical student when my most compassionate oncology attending physicians would try not to be fatalistic, but would still offer cancer patients and their families this guidance, should their disease not respond.  One of my early mentors, Dr. Edwin Shneidman, a suicide and death and dying expert, would often summarize this to his patients and their families by saying, “There is always treatment and sometimes cure.” By that he meant that we would never abandon our patients and their families and if their condition became terminal the treatment would be palliation. 
  2. Instead of BATNA, try BATDO. BATNA was developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project and stands for Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. That means having a back up/contingency plan before you go into a negotiation. If you do that, you won’t be so desperate to have to get your way. BATDO stands for Best Alternative To a Desired Outcome and it’s also having a back up/contingency plan if your candidate doesn’t win.
  3. You can’t be grateful and disappointed at the same moment in time. Whenever I have had a setback or disappointment either in others or more often in myself, I summon what I call the “Dead mentors society.”  All of my mentors have died, but they live on in my mind and especially in my heart and when either of those are in pain I conjure up the faces and caring words (some with deep accents) that those beloved people would say to me.  I then cross over into feeling so grateful that they were in my life and smile and miss them.  When I immerse myself in those feelings of gratitude it’s tough for me to feel my bad attitude.
  4. Put yourself on a 72-hour hold. When I was a practicing psychiatrist, especially early in my career, I was often in the position of placing a patient on a 72 hour hold called a 5150, where a patient could be hospitalized against their will if they were a danger to others, to themselves or gravely disabled. The reason for this was that the acuteness of a situation would often change within 72 hours and some treatment could be instituted and if we were fortunate, those patients would begin to cooperate with treatment.
  5. Most breakthroughs are preceded by breakdowns. Related to the 72 hour hold is the frequent realization by many people that their breakthroughs in their lives were often preceded by breakdowns that were uninvited, painful and sometimes, horrendous.  The secret.  Don’t do anything to make it worse after the breakdown, because if you do that, you’ll be too focused on your guilt or shame about what you did to cope, that you’ll miss the breakthrough.
  6. Going from “Oh F—- to OK.” When things don’t go you’re way, it’s natural to want to verbalize some expletive to express your upset. Saying or thinking as loudly in you mind using your inner voice, “Oh F—-,” taking a breath then saying, “Oh sh-t,” taking a breath and then saying, “Oh geez,” taking a breath and then saying, “Oh well,” and taking a final breath and then saying, “Okay,” may help you talk yourself down from Defcon 1 to Defcon 5, after which you’re less likely to do something destructive.

I’d welcome any of your thoughts about whether American society has lost its object constancy and if you agree, what suggestions you might have for getting it back.

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