Situational Indifference

When you’re writing fiction or poetry … it really comes down to this: indifference to everything except what you’re doing. — Raymond Carver

The word indifference is often used as a derogatory description for human behavior and generally indicates some measure of psychopathology when noted during clinical assessments. To be indifferent suggests an unsettling lack of passion, an incapacity for feeling joy, the absence of empathy, or being without concern. However, I would like to show how making use of situational indifference can be an effective method for avoiding compulsive quagmires. Nonetheless, this is not to suggest that we should no longer care about those things or those people that matter most to us. To be sure, life would be essentially meaningless without emotional attachments and the ethical convictions that accompany them. What I want to explore is how to best prevent emotional devastation by the careful selection and application of attentiveness. A significant amount of psychological energy is wasted on transitory stressors that are typically resolved retrospectively—given enough distance and time. For example, impulsive behavior may be mitigated most effectively by temporary distraction, and distraction can be achieved by engaging in substitute rituals while practicing applied insouciance in the face of temptation. Knowing what to avoid is just as important as knowing what to pursue.

The concept of a Ulysses Contract, in terms of behavior management, represents a preemptive decision to avoid responding to potentially consequential stimuli. For example, if you want to relinquish a problematic habit, being unresponsive to environments that trigger your habit can diminish temptations and associated behavior while deterring the development of craving responses. Likewise, avoiding situations that escalate impulsivity can be programmed once the aversive memories of former consequences are established and sufficient effort is dedicated to practicing learned indifference. After all, no matter how justified a person feels for being agitated or aroused, the most important variable is how to maintain composure—which sometimes means not responding. Likewise, for achieving optimum equanimity, learning to subdue a reactive mind in the grip of disruptive variables (i.e., Vipassana) will allow more energy and focus for what you really value.

The English poet William Blake once remarked, “If the sun and moon should ever doubt, they’d immediately go out.” Indeed, the sun and moon are incapable of doubt and will forever remain operationally indifferent on the outer edge of a galaxy that is equally indifferent. In a similar but more acerbic tone, the poet W. H. Auden tells us, “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well that, for all they care, I can go to hell.” To put it less poetically, we would do ourselves an existential favor by recognizing the aloofness of cosmological elements. It can sometimes be a refreshing perspective to realize that someone, somewhere, doesn’t care.

From addiction to anger management, focusing on something else becomes easier when situational indifference is devoted to the bêtes noires of compulsion. 

Five Uneasy Pieces

You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict. William S. Burroughs

During assessments of co-occurring clients, I’ve discovered five common factors underlying the psychological motivation for substance-related disorders. At least one of these components has solicited subjective agreement from clients regarding the causation and perpetuation of chemical dependence. However, none of the following “rationalizations” are exclusive, and many people suffering from addiction have identified with all five. This list is meant to be a supplemental heuristic for investigating the etiology of alcohol and drug addiction while examining how destructive behavior becomes psychologically embedded through memory, association, and dynamic psychosocial patterns.

  1. A perceived lack of control. Whether it’s a belief or an experience, the feeling of not being in control of oneself, others, or circumstances is a predominant theme when assuaging the anxiety of helplessness via substance use. Intoxication can provide a sensation of safety and ascendancy.

  2. Escapism. The desire to be someone else, or to be somewhere else, is alluring if one’s current predicament is less than peaches and herbs. Escaping a traumatic past, or fantasizing about a euphoric future, is often accompanied by excessive drug use. Likewise, anesthetizing the agony of chronic pain, stress, or grief often leads to equal-opportunity escapism by any means necessary.

  3. Compensatory Adaptation. Although prolonged substance use is maladaptive, the initial stages can feel like an effective substitute for intimacy, or a confirmation of loneliness. Ongoing interpersonal problems, a lack of secure attachments, resentment, and other deficits are temporarily placated by the illusory comfort of substance use. Likewise, ongoing fears are suppressed with synthetic anodynes to subdue emotional vulnerability.

  1. Hedonism. Sometimes self-indulgence becomes a chronic inclination. For example, everyone’s familiar with the party aficionado who remains in a state of arrested development, or the “weekend warrior” who’s missing in action on the battleground of endless gratification. This category is generally reserved for those who want to sustain a champagne-drenched lifestyle that no longer wants to sustain them. Apologists for hedonism desperately believe that nothing says success like excess.

  2. Situational Insecurity. Certain people and situations can cause one to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. Anxiety is a complicated state of mind, and insecurity is often triggered by interpersonal interactions. Until the identifying factors of anxiety and self-doubt are closely examined, the tendency to “self-medicate” only requires an intimidating backdrop with access to an open bar.