Here’s one of the letters I got in response to the Are you muggable article:
Hmm — Dr. Alex, isn’t this just another version of “blame the victim”? How about if instead of warning nice people not to be “too” nice, we point out the true nastiness (and therefore unattractiveness) of people who prey on them, and tell nice people how to spot those predators?
Surely intelligent women would find that approach more appealing. At least, I would. I’m not a victim — I’m just an idiot. In this regard, at least.
Gabriella from Bay Area
Gawrsh, this opens up so many cans of worms.
First off, for the ladies there’s the Bad Boys article on spotting what’s potentially bad for you.
Next, let’s talk about the ‘blame the victim’ thing. This is not about blame at all. Blaming is a useless exercise. Even if you’re justified in being righteously indignant, blame doesn’t accomplish anything. What’s useful is to observe what happened, notice the structure of reality, and use it to live better on an ongoing basis. That’s responsibility — the ability to respond — not blame.
For example, let’s say you leave your handbag open on the subway. A few minutes later, you’re in a coffee shop trying to pay for your drink when you notice — oh crap! My purse is gone!
Now does it really help to stew in your own juices and say, “Omigosh, aren’t people awful?” Sure, the person who swope (past tense of ‘swipe’, of course) your purse was a bastard. But that doesn’t bring your purse back. Next time, don’t be a pansy and zip up your handbag.
If they slit the purse open with a switchblade and take the purse anyway, you can at least rest easy that you’ve done your part. But an open, unattended handbag with wads of $100 bills sticking out from it is an invitation for bad stuff to happen.
And that, my friend, is often what’s happening. People are unconsciously sticking the ‘kick me’ sign on their butt, and then wondering why so many people gratuitously take shots at their rear like it’s a soccer ball.
I once dated a girl who was super sweet. She cooked, she came over, she insisted on taking the bus even when I offered a ride, she bought me stuff even when she couldn’t afford it. She went out of her way to make my life easy and keep from inconveniencing me.
Now, I’m generally a 50-50 kind of guy when it comes to relationships: I do my part and you do yours. Perhaps I’ve even erred on the side of doing too much at times. However, this girl awakened an instinct in me that I didn’t know I had: “Y’know, I can totally get away with slacking off in this relationship. Heck, I could probably even use her.”
The super-niceness also felt really more of a ‘please don’t leave me’ strategy, which most guys don’t find all that attractive. It smacks of neediness and a little bit of manipulation. (The relationship didn’t last long.)
But there’s also a darker side to all of this. A lot of people out there unconsciously want someone to take advantage of them — treat them poorly, or even outright abuse them. Heck, there are even places where people pay for that kind of treatment. They’re called dungeons, and the PVC- and latex-clad mistresses (a strange choice of outfit, if you really think about it) enact BDSM fantasies for a pretty penny.
And get this — battered wives go back to the abusing husband on average 7 times, even when social services has already intervened and set everything up for her to leave for good.
SEVEN times. A battered wife. Does that make any sense?
Here’s a general rubric I have for making sense of seemingly bizarre human behavior. If you see it pop up over and over again — say, millions of people over the course of decades — chances are that the people doing it aren’t totally nuts or stupid. There’s some deep biological phenomenon at work here.
In this case, the biological phenomenon is simple: pain and negative emotions activate the reward centers of the brain causing unconscious addiction to those negative emotions.
Let me say that again, because it was really, really important:
Pain and negative emotions activate the reward centers of the brain causing unconscious addiction to those negative emotions.
Ladies and gentlemen — this is a whopper. People think of the reward centers of the brain as the ‘pleasure centers’, so it makes sense to them when someone gets addicted to cocaine, or crack, or sex. Because cocaine makes you high, makes your brain light up, and then you want more. Duh.
That’s the addiction that people know. But you don’t need cocaine or meth or crack to create a self-reinforcing addictive circuit in the brain. Anything that activates the beta-endorphin or dopamine pathways will do.
It turns out that pain and negative emotions (e.g. self-pity, anger, guilt) also activate the beta-endorphin and dopamine pathways. Chronic jaw pain or painful thoughts light up those pathways just like the infamous addictive drugs do.
As a result, we can get addicted to those emotions. Now there aren’t any thuggish-looking dealers, pieces of foil covered in white dust, or telltale tracks on the arm, so people can say, “Look, I’m okay! Really!”
My friends — the deadliest drug pusher of them all is the one that lives inside your head that no one can see, not even yourself.
The dopamine pathway activates in drive states. Drive states are necessary for survival: getting away from a threat, moving towards food, mating. Cortisol, the chief stress hormone, also mediates dopamine release.
So it makes sense that when you’re stressed or in a flight-or-fight situation, your brain releases dopamine.
But why would it release beta-endorphins? Aren’t those the feelgood chemicals you get when, say, you have a runner’s high?
Turns out that beta-endorphins are also powerful analgesics. If you’ve ever had that runner’s high, kept running for another five miles and came back home sore as hell, you know what I’m talking about.
So let’s say you’re in a flight-or-fight situation on the savannah, and you get injured. Then there is real survival value to postpone the distraction from the pain of the injury so you can win the fight or flee to safety. Now it makes a lot of sense that an analgesic would be released during a flight-or-fight stress response.
What’s happening with negative emotions is that they tap into these same ancient survival circuits to get us a little bit of that reward drug. Make sense?
This is why the battered wife goes back to the abusive husband. This is why you pick the same abusive girlfriend over and over again. This is why cutters cut themselves. This is why people pay to go to BDSM dungeons. This is why people smoke. In sum:
People engage in physically or emotionally self-destructive behaviors to get an unconscious drug payoff.
So that’s part of how we are complicit in our own suffering. We’re actually engineering it.
To snap out of it, here’s the three-step protocol I’ve proposed before:
1) Get help. You can’t do it alone — lord knows you’ve tried. That’s why the 12-step programs say you need to appeal to a higher power. As the Course in Miracles say, “Your best thinking got you here.” So get help — friends, family, professionals. Reach out — physically, literally. Say, “I need help. Will you please help me?” Sure, it’s humbling. But would you rather be dead? Because your addiction can and will kill you.
2) Get away. You need a detox period for your neurology to return to normal. There are receptors, neurotransmitters, vesicles, and reuptake mechanisms involved — actual physical things that need to be rearranged in your brain. Takes 7-21 days for this rearrangement to occur. In the meantime, you must get yourself away completely from the noxious behavior and its triggers. Two weeks of detox is a good rule of thumb.
3) Continue healing. The goal of this exercise is to get your mind back to a homeostatic state. Meditation and yoga are good for this. So is associating with friends who bring out and celebrate the best in you. So is hypnosis that unravels some of the self-destructive circuitry. So is hanging out with a partner who values and nurtures you.
I went to a very interesting talk a couple of weeks ago which covered all of this and a whole lot more — I’ll be writing about that soon. In the meantime, hope this helps.