Smoother Sailing

An English officer is conducting an exam interview with a candidate for the Royal Navy.

Examiner: “Suppose you’re the captain of a tall ship and the wind is blowing you towards the rocks. What would you do?” Sailor: “I’d tack to starboard and ask for more sails.” Examiner: “All right, but what if there’s more wind blowing your ship towards the rocks?” Sailor: “I’d continue to tack to starboard and add another sail.” This went on for a while until the examiner asked impatiently, “Where are you getting all these sails from, son?” Sailor: “The same place you’re getting all that wind from, sir.”

My father was a former enthusiast of balmy weather, marine tranquility, and unruffled yachting. Ironically, he was less than steady-going when it came to operating automotive vehicles. During family trips to the beach in a 1972 Ford station wagon, he would employ his annoying habit of accelerating and slowing down unnecessarily—subsequently “driving” my mother crazy. To be fair, cruise control wasn’t a standard feature in cars until a global oil crisis eventually popularized auto-pilot locomotion, but it fascinated me how psychomotor agitation can manifest itself in unusual ways.

A familiar phrase in recovery-based therapy is “trust the process.” Without asking the obvious question about what exact process we are supposed to be trusting, I would circumvent this platitude and point out that we’re always in process. From circadian rhythms to the planet’s gravitational trajectory that generates oceanic tides, processes are both necessary and unavoidable—regardless of whether you trust them or not. Furthermore, stability is dependent on the consistency of patterns and maintaining temperate velocities within a dynamic range. However, abrupt changes in the weather are sometimes less troublesome than abrupt changes in our emotional barometer. Discovering our optimum range of functioning, both internally and interpersonally, keeps us from treading water in the self-imposed slavery of our insatiable appetites or drowning in conflict.

Pathology is generally determined by the amount of friction you create for yourself or others over time. It’s better to know in advance what you can realistically manage before heading for the tempestuous waves of overcommitment. Mental hygiene is just as important as your dental hygiene, and taking time to concede the limitations of resilience will allow you to prioritize solutions before capsizing in the wake of oncoming stressors. For example, you could blame Poseidon for inundating you with unmanageable tsunamis, but it might be worth acknowledging the physics of plate tectonics, the reality of unpredictable circumstances, and how to prepare for navigating the inlets of future trauma.

If Cthulhu devours your sails while the wind continues to blow you towards the rocks, you may need to man the oars at a steadier pace to keep your vessel away from unceasing winds.

Psychic Space

Do you know what you call love without evidence? Stalking. — Tim Minchin

The therapeutic buzzword “boundaries” remains tediously touted, but woefully unexplained and invariably misunderstood. Besides being a term affiliated with accredited land surveyors and foreign policy experts, the psychosocial concept of boundaries should represent the line of interpersonal demarcation that protects your psychological autonomy while guarding your standards of personal proximity. For some of us, our sphere of well-being has to be diligently maintained or the devious vultures of dominance will encroach with impunity. Unfortunately, there are no limits to the varieties of boundary-breaking experience.*

The Colonization of Psychic Space is a book by philosopher Kelly Oliver that has become my neologism du jour when describing the phenomenon of allowing others to claim territory in the sacred recesses of your mind. Inoculating oneself from mind control, non-consenting influence, physical violation, or emotional sabotage depends on developing reasonable perimeters. Explicit differentiation prevents one from helplessly tumbling into the “undesirable column” of Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development while uprooting patterns of co-dependency and enmeshment. Constructing a malleable firewall to prevent coercive manipulation is not always sufficient, but it’s always necessary.

I often translate a diagram known as “the endogenous cycle of abuse” for former victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or psychological manipulation. Standard cycles of abuse follow a pattern where the abuser creates anxiety for the victim that is temporarily placated by forgiving or believing the abuser—thereby empowering the abuser and perpetuating the cycle. With the endogenous cycle of abuse, the original abuser is absent but subconsciously replaced by the victim who inadvertently abuses themselves (often many years after experiencing trauma). As a result, the victim’s internalized oppression is sustained by a belief or action that could also be described as “vicarious suppression.” For example, the victim of abuse no longer relies on outside reinforcement for self-abnegation as the memory of abuse—combined with the belief of being a “deserving” recipient—reactivates the pattern of abuse via self-flagellation. Even worse, victims of abuse can become an apologist or advocate for the abuser (e.g., Stockholm Syndrome). In other words, it’s masochism offered to you by sadists. As we should all know by now, masochism comes in endless forms most hideous and terrifying (i.e., suicidal gestures, substance abuse, self-loathing, and self-destructive impulsivity).

In a counter-intuitive twist of faulty reasoning, the abuser often believes that they really do love their victim, although they are curiously blind to their all-encompassing desire for control. Fueled by fear, the abuser feels connected to others through Machiavellian domination, and abuse becomes a symbolic gesture of intimacy. In the mind of an abuser, psychological manipulation is conflated with love, and a fear of abandonment exacerbates their salient lack of boundaries (i.e., Ian McEwan’s harrowing depiction of erotomania in the novel Enduring Love). Subordination to their relentless voracity is the abuser’s ultimate ambition, but the ending is never favorable for the participant.

* Individuals with personality disorders tend to exhibit significant difficulty respecting interpersonal boundaries, but family members, friends, significant others, care providers, and strangers can be just as culpable when it comes to being psychologically invasive.