Charles Gustafson, MFT

Lic.# 5983

When people look at me they see a sixty-year-old man and that is whom they relate to.   But last year I was a 59-year-old man and that man is still part of me.  And the year before that I was a 58-year-old man and that man is still part of me.  Earlier in my life I was a 30 year old man and before that I was a 20 year old and before that I was an unhappy 15 year old and before that I was 13 and 12 and 11 and 10 and so on.  All of those people are still part of me but one cannot see all those people when one looks at me.  People only see the 60-year-old adult that stands before them.  A person has to get to know me quite well before they could learn about all the people that I’ve been and, in some ways, still am.  This is true of all of us.

In a very real sense of the word, we are all composites of all the actual people that we’ve ever been.  That can be quite confusing to people who only know about the person they have come to know in their time together.  Unless they think to ask about the other person’s past life and past experiences, someone may not know another person as well they think they do.  Sometimes another’s behavior may surprise you because it may not be consistent with the way you see that person.  But the behavior can be quite consistent with an earlier version of that person and current events may have triggered an association that evoked the earlier person.  The easiest parallel I can draw for that is the Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome.

As long as current events continue to relate principally to the current adult person, there may be no surprises.  However, certain situations tend to evoke earlier versions of the person.  These situations can include marriage and parenthood.  Being a spouse and being a parent tend to touch us in the deepest parts of our core.  Therefore, those situations have a greater likelihood of triggering responses from earlier versions of us.

As time goes on and we grow and mature, we add new layers to ourselves.  These new layers are increasingly sophisticated and (hopefully) increasingly loving and kind.  New acquaintances and strangers only scratch the surface of who we are and we generally relate to them from our newest most mature layers of ourselves.  Our children and our loved ones touch us in our core, at our deepest layers and we are more likely to react from a deeper, less mature layer of ourselves.

If you see an acorn on the ground, would you be shocked to later find an oak tree growing there?  We see the seeds of violence and cruelty all around us.  Yet we act shocked and even outraged when the resulting trees cast life threatening shadows.  We currently live in a veritable forest of violence.  This violence and fear are then shamelessly marketed by our media, which we buy.  In one way or another, we are all partially responsible for this debacle.

Although it is painful to be treated as if you are unworthy as a human being, that is how people routinely treat each other.  Some husbands and wives speak to each other with harsh tones and sarcastic words on a routine basis.  I often witness needy impressionable children being yelled at and called demeaning names by their parents and other adults.  It is clear that people in pain tend to become angry.  Many people routinely bury their pain and anger in mood altering drugs or express them through mindless crime or even self inflicted violence.  Suicide is the ultimate expression of a person in pain.  Even though most gun related violence is directed toward ourselves, there is enough other directed violence that police wisely feel obligated to wear bullet-proof vests.  

Scores of children who don’t fit in with their peers are attacked by word or deed.  They are bullied and humiliated on a daily basis, sometimes by other kids and sometimes by unthinking or frustrated teachers and administrators.  Most children witness or experience such behavior before leaving elementary school. 

In misguided attempts at discipline, children are routinely belittled and threatened in their homes by the very people who are supposed to nurture them. In many cases children are taught not to express pain or distress.  When they finally snap and run amok, we are at a loss to explain their behavior.  They have been required to hide their pain for so long, they don’t even know it is there.  Later they express rage instead.  

We live in a world where people who make mistakes or commit crimes born of their pain, despair and suffering are imprisoned in conditions that range from harsh to inhumane.  Mistakes and misbehavior seldom receive scrutiny regarding what led up to that behavior.  Instead blame and harsh condemnation for the actions may be followed by punishment that can border on draconian.  Punishment is supported by many as an attempt to get at the roots of violence, despite studies showing that punishment is rarely an effective deterrent.  

We spend enough money on police and jails and our courts and our armed forces to feed and house millions as well as treat their emotional distress.  We don’t treat their emotional and physical distress as soon as it is discovered.  Instead we wait until they break a law or act out with violence.  Then we spend huge sums of money to isolate them in a community of other violent behavior specialists in the form of both guards and inmates.  We are willing to spend money on housing violent offenders under horrible circumstances where they will receive continuing messages about being unworthy and unacceptable in our world.   Eventually, we release most of them to return to a world where they will be in worse shape than before.  Often they are then closely scrutinized and held to a more difficult standard than the general population.  

This borders on intentional cultivation of violence.  A research experiment with these parameters would be banned by any university ethics committee as inhumane.  

We recreate our violent culture every day.  For the most part, we are unable to even envision a world without violence.  We sanction violence in many forms.  Our media has learned that we will pay for reports on violence.  Our newspapers and television news feature reports on violence on an almost hourly basis.  Verbal and physical violence permeates our movies.  Our world won’t change until we change our attitude and our response to people who have been taught to hate themselves and others.  Until then it would be folly to expect any significant reduction in crime and general mayhem.  People who are in pain will act that pain out.  If no help comes, they act it out in larger ways until someone responds.  If they have to hurt someone in order to be acknowledged, then that is what they will do.  As a nation we are actively and passively planting, cultivating and nurturing violence.   Then we loudly deny our part in it, blaming and condemning the violent crop we have planted, fertilized and nurtured to maturity in our well-intentioned ignorance. 

Pain can take many forms from mild to intense but it is uncomfortable in all of its forms.  Human beings tend to become angry when they are uncomfortable. In fact, expressing anger is one way of verbalizing discomfort.  It is important to remember that anger is not a primary emotion.  Just as a scab is nature’s way of protecting a physical wound, anger is nature’s way of protecting an emotional wound.  Once the wound has healed, the scab or the anger drops away.  It is no longer needed. 

In the case of emotional wounding, sometimes the trauma is too much for an individual to tolerate.  This is especially true when the person involved is too young to acknowledge and constructively address the issues causing the trauma.  In such cases the person may wait until they are an adult and have become psychologically stronger before examining and treating childhood trauma.  In the meantime, they are apt to practice avoidance techniques such as denial or addictive behaviors.  Unfortunately, when feeling pain and anger, we often forget to use logical problem solving skills.   Humans seem capable of intense feelings and intense concentration, but usually not both at the same time.  Generally speaking, people in pain become angry.  Most angry people don’t utilize higher levels of reasoning.  Therefore, people are most apt to make mistakes when they are in pain.

The path of intimacy is littered with emotional potholes and stones. Whenever we find ourselves expressing pain or distress in the context of a relationship it may be a sign that we’ve stumbled into a pothole of feelings or tripped on an emotional stone.  The next time you feel anger, take time to notice the pain beneath it.  See what you can do to heal the pain, and the anger will evaporate on its own.

Ego is another word for how you see yourself.  Syntonic means harmonious.  Something that is ego syntonic is consistent with the way you see yourself.  Dystonic means disharmonious.  Something that is dystonic is inconsistent with the way you see yourself.

A few years ago, the winner of the Miss America contes told a reporter that she had matured late physically and had really never dated through out her high school years.  Although she had begun to develope in her senior year, she was focused on graduation and didn’t take time to respond to the enquiries of any interested boys.  After she graduated she got a job.  Her new employer sent a picture of her and filled out an application for her to be in a beauty pageant.  She was accepted and won the pageant.  The winner of that pageant went on to the next pageant and so on.  Not too long after that she found herself being crowned Miss America.  Having never been seen as particularly attractive in high school, this was a very ego dystonic experience for her.  She reported that when someone commented on how attractive she was, she still had an impulse to turn and look behind her to see whom the person was talking about.  Being sought out for her beauty was ego dystonic for her at the time of her crowning.

Even though an attribute may be positive, it still clashes with our self-image when others see us in a way that is at odds with the way we see ourselves. Ego dystonic experiences are usually rather uncomfortable. People who lose significant amounts of weight routinely report this.  Even though the new attention may be positive and desirable, it can take time before the new attention stops being jarring.  Thus, people in pursuit of desired changes must be prepared to deal with the stress of the discomfort of ego dystonicity. This can require consciously overruling our unconscious desire to avoid discomfort of any kind.  Cutting out or drawing a picture of our new ego state and posting it on our bathroom mirror is one way to begin the transition process.  Over time, the new changes become integrated into our new self-image and they become ego Syntonic.

Dr. Kate Brizendine, a noted change manager, says that in the cocoon, there is no caterpillar and no butterfly; there is only cosmic mush.  This would be ego dystonic for the caterpillar.  But the process is underway and the butterfly will emerge to fight its way out one wet wing at a time. By then it’s new self will be ego syntonic.

About Charles Gustafson

Charles L. Gustafson has been a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist since 1973. He offers a combination of interactive psychotherapy and educational information in his approach to counseling.