May 22

Adult Sibling Rivalry and Strife

A really critical character to my mind is Esau, who was not favored, and – in fact – was screwed by everybody in the family. He gets over it. He has his own life. He doesn’t allow what happened to him as a child to define him. He says, ‘I have enough’. I think that’s the most critical, profound psychological thing in the Book of Genesis. Having your own life. Getting out of being a victim. Acknowledging the favoritism that you didn’t deserve, if you were the favorite. That’s the way out. Jeanne Safer, Ph.D.

Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret (2012) by therapist Jeanne Safer addresses a too-neglected issue—adult sibling rivalry and strife—despite it being as old as…well, at least Cain and Abel and Esau. (Whether you believe such stories are fact or fiction, they do illustrate some common family dynamics.)

As Elizabeth Bernstein writes in The Wall Street Journal about the importance of this topic:

…(O)ur sibling relationships are often the longest of our lives, lasting 80 years or more. Several research studies indicate that up to 45% of adults have a rivalrous or distant relationship with a sibling.

People questioned later in life often say their biggest regret is being estranged from a sister or brother.

Sigmund Freud himself, according to Safer, was a favored son who couldn’t handle his guilt regarding his sister—which interfered with his ability to effectively formulate theories regarding child development.

Safer, on the other hand, has addressed her own complex sibling issues, enabling her all the more to deal with these types of issues in her therapy practice. One book reviewer, Douglas Mock, believes that “(h)er insights on family social tensions help us to understand the incomprehensible.”

Siblings, says Safer, have their own language of discontent and “grievance collection,” some of which is focused on their parents and some on their own relationship. For example:

  • “You were always Mom’s favorite.”
  • “Mom and Dad are always at your house but they never visit me.”
  • “You never call me.”

Taken directly from the WSJ article, the following are recommended steps to “Putting a Stop to Sibling Rivalry”:

  • The first step is to think. Who is this person outside his or her relationship with you? What do you like about your sibling? Remember the positive memories. Identify why you think the relationship is worth fixing—if it is.
  • Take the initiative to change. It could be a gesture, like an offer to help with a sick child, a conversation or a letter. Be sincere and don’t ignore the obvious. Say: ‘These conversations between us are painful. I would like to see if we can make our relationship better.’
  • Gestures count. Not everyone is comfortable talking about a strained relationship, especially men. But phone calls, invitations to spend time together, attempts to help should be seen as peace offerings.
  • Consider your sibling’s point of view. Try not to be defensive. What did childhood look like through his or her eyes? ‘You have to be willing to see an unflattering portrait of yourself,’ Dr. Safer says.
  • Tell your sibling what you respect. ‘I love your sense of humor.’ ‘I admire what a good parent you are.’
  • And, finally: ‘It won’t kill you to apologize,’ Dr. Safer says.
Feb 11

This Is Crazy: Romantic Love

Hey, I just met you, And this is crazy, But here’s my number, So call me, maybe? Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”

Okay, giving someone your contact info when you don’t really know them—à la this crazily popular song of last year—isn’t exactly so crazy. (Sometimes risky, though.) It’s called attraction. How it all begins.

He or she calls and things may get even more exciting—if it’s the beginning of falling in love, the feeling of which can indeed reach the pinnacle of crazy. Just ask an expert:

One is very crazy when in love.
Sigmund Freud

And another social observer:

Romantic love is mental illness. But it’s a pleasurable one. It’s a drug. It distorts reality, and that’s the point of it. It would be impossible to fall in love with someone that you really saw.
Fran Lebowitz

The late psychologist Dorothy Tennov, in her often-quoted book on love published in 1979, coined this feeling “limerence.” Less clinical terms are also used, of course. Valerie Frankel, on Oprah.com:

Lay terms for limerence: romantic love, crazy love, lovesick, mad love, amour fort. You see a theme in the words crazy, sick, and mad. In this condition, one’s body drugs itself mightily with hormones that create a feeling of joy. The rapture is balanced with the panic and dread that it could end. And it will. Limerence has a shelf life.

Psychiatrist David Sack, The Huffington Post, points out a synonym I hadn’t heard of, “affection deficit disorder,” and elaborates further on the topic of limerence:

Some call limerence infatuation, lovesickness, or romantic love, while others relate it to love addiction. Some have humorously called it affection deficit disorder. Albert Wakin, an expert on limerence and a professor of psychology at Sacred Heart University, defines limerence as a combination of obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction, a state of ‘compulsory longing for another person.’ He estimates that five percent of the population struggles with limerence…

“Struggles” with limerence. As when it hurts not in a good way and goes on seemingly forever instead of the 18 months to two or three years often quoted by the experts. If it does last a really long time, there’s probably something more pathological going on. This kind of fixation may lead, for example, to stalking behavior.

Some people, on the other hand, don’t ever enter the limerent state.

And some people studying this topic don’t see infatuation and limerence as the same thing, with the former being positive and bearable, the latter a more troublesome condition.

So, what causes limerence? Read on if you like details about brain-related stuff. Victoria Fletcher, Daily Mail, explains in clear language:

Studies have shown brain chemical dopamine is at higher levels in those in love. Dopamine is key to our experiences of pleasure and pain, linked to desire, addiction, euphoria, and a surge may cause such acute feelings of reward that it makes love hard to give up.

Tests show that taking opioid drugs such as cocaine have a similar effect on dopamine as love.

A side effect of rising dopamine levels is a reduction in another chemical, serotonin, a key hormone in our moods and appetite.

Serotonin levels may fall in a similar way to those seen in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, explaining why love can make us feel anxious and jittery.

The love chemical we are most familiar with is adrenaline. This hormone is why our heart races, palms sweat and mouth goes dry when we see the person we like.

The same hormone is also released when we are frightened. This means that two people only vaguely attracted to one another can fall madly in love if they go through an exciting or scary experience together. It may also explain the lure of forbidden love.

Despite the “craziness” of it all, and despite efforts on the part of some limerence researchers, the upcoming DSM-5 does not appear to be including it as a diagnostic category. More studies are needed.

You’d be crazy not to sign up…or to sign up?

May 30

Another Freudian Film: “Mahler on the Couch”

You may have never heard of the German film Mahler on the Couch (2010), a story about Austrian composer Gustav Mahler seeking professional help from Sigmund Freud. It hasn’t been widely released, it appears.

Eric Hynes of the Village Voice offers a more detailed description of the film:

During the late summer of 1910, a distraught Gustav Mahler journeyed to Holland to spend a single afternoon with a vacationing Sigmund Freud, and their onetime encounter serves as the departure point for this eccentric and expressionistic reverie on love, loss, and the birth of modern marriage. With Freud (Karl Markovics) as his interrogator, the distraught composer (Johannes Silberschneider) tells of an affair between his wife, Alma (Barbara Romaner), and the young architect Walter Gropius (Friedrich Mücke), before more intense analysis uncovers the domestic breakdown that preceded it. Much as David Cronenberg did with A Dangerous Method, another art-house psych-out matching a stogie-plugged Freud with a great man in meltdown mode, German filmmakers Percy and Felix Adlon use the boys as bait but hook us with their heroine.

Is it a true story? No. In an interview available on the film’s site, co-writer Percy Adlon: “That Mahler and Freud met in Leiden, Holland, for one afternoon in August 1910, is fact… Alma’s affair is fact. But what they spoke, and how the whole drama played out is fiction.”

The comments of David DeWitt, New York Times, indicate that he likes the therapy part more than other elements of the film:

For all its drama (and creative filmmaking), the crisis that Mahler describes plays out airy and rote. Mr. Silberschneider and Ms. Romaner are clearly strong actors, but a core spontaneity seems missing, and their emoting veers toward melodrama. The Freud scenes, conversely, have mystery, movement, anticipation and wit. No question, I preferred Mahler on that couch.

But John Anderson, Variety, doesn’t seem to like the movie at all:

Histrionic bordering on hysterical, ‘Mahler on the Couch’ reduces one of 20th-century music’s greatest figures to a dithering cuckold, his marriage to a feeble feminist allegory, and Sigmund Freud to a Viennese sitdown comic…(A) well-cast but emotionally cacophonous calamity that can’t decide if it wants to be comedy, tragedy or absurdist farce.

The trailer:

For more info, see mahleronthecouch.com.

Jan 18

“A Dangerous Method”: The Psychoanalysts

In a previous post about scary boundary-breaking by therapists, I described the based-on-a-true-story film A Dangerous Method (2011), which wasn’t yet in theaters. Now it is, and in a couple months or so it will be released on DVD.

Today’s post will use excerpts from film reviews/articles to focus on the characterizations in the movie of the three depicted analysts: Freud, Jung, and Spielrein.

Rex Reed, New York Observer

…a psychological tug of war between the father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson), and his disciple Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) over the mind and sex of an overwrought mental patient named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a mad Russian with a craving for spanking. Whacking her on her naked bottom must have worked. She ended up, years later, analyzing patients of her own. Too bad she didn’t also analyze this movie. It would have saved so much wasted time.

(Ouch, Spielrein herself might have said.)

Lisa Kennedy, The Denver Post:

David Cronenberg’s elegant historical drama ‘A Dangerous Method’ begins and ends in a way that recalls one of Sigmund Freud’s better-known quotes.

‘Much has been gained,’ he told a patient, ‘if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.’

(In modern psychiatry there is no longer a diagnosis of “hysterical neurosis.” The current DSM uses “conversion disorder,” basically defined as the conversion of emotional issues into physical symptoms. For the upcoming revised edition of the DSM, “functional neurological disorder” is being considered as the next replacement term.)

J. Hoberman, Village Voice:

…The protean Fassbender plays a proper Jung, steely yet agonized; Mortensen’s self-amused, paranoid Freud is a more unusual piece of work. Mind ablaze, he sees repression everywhere. The mystical Jung believes that nothing happens by accident; for Freud, all accidents have meaning.

(And for Spielrein, her therapy is an accident waiting to happen.)

Dr. Sandra Fenster, Ph.D., psychoanalyst (from a post on Psychology Today):

…Jung lost his objectivity–something an analyst cannot afford to do. With his patient, Sabina Spielrein, Jung’s own insatiable needs got the best of him; he confused them for hers. That is what analysis is not. And, that is the danger in the method.

(And this is the voice of reason.)