The Game of Life

Have you ever had a really nasty encounter with a person? One of those encounters where you get so upset that you become a nasty person yourself. Where both people seem to be climbing a mountain of frustration with no way of turning back to calmer ground. The type of frustrating interaction that leaves you emotionally and physically drained afterwards. Our difficulty with these charged events is that they don’t happen very often. Their irregularity leaves us vulnerable to repeating the same mistakes over and over-never really learning the correct coping mechanisms. Some of us blow up while others of us shut down-both are not helpful. I do not write this as a saint or someone who is always in a zen state immune to the winds of confrontation. I do however know from experience that we are the masters of how we react to all incoming stimulus. Dr. Stephen Covey said “Our ultimate freedom is the right and power to decide how anybody or anything outside ourselves will affect us.” This means that the only thing we can control is our reaction to whatever stimulus comes our way. We can’t control what other people say or do-we can only control how we react to those things.

My wife and I like to play tennis. Do you know the best skill a tennis player can have? Power? Control? Finesse? Determination? These are all helpful but the very best skill is one most people don’t think of-patience. Patience in waiting until the very last millisecond to hit the ball. Serena Williams is so good because she takes in every last detail of the balls trajectory, speed, spin, and behavior before administering her swing. Because of her patience and extra time to compute the stimulus she can return the best possible volley. This skill directly translates to the tennis match of conversation. The ball is the stimulus that is being rocketed your way and you need to decide how to react. Are you a pro like Serena with the patience to analyze the ball?

-Honey I had an awful day at work and the patients were so mean to me?
-…I’m so sorry about that, tell me about what happened?

Or are you like a flabby amateur who hits the ball without the slightest delay and care for detail?

Honey I had an awful day at work and the patients were so mean to me?
-You should be use to those types of patients and have a tougher skin.

We volley a hundred conversations a day without batting an eye. These are the matches that allow us to function and bring us together in a healthy manner. Those interactions are not the problem, the ones we need to prepare for are the irregular matches against the indomitable opponents. The opponents that want to hit the tennis ball right in our face. The opponents that would love to see us defeated on the other side of the net. These rare matches require pro skills and that is why you must practice how you react to stimulus on a daily basis. Think about the other person’s feelings, motives, perspectives,  background, and intentions. Let all those words and actions float in front of you-dissect their meaning-and then volley back a reply. This skill is extremely difficult because we are quick to react and many times want to hit the other person in the nuts with our rackets. We need to remember that scoring one good hit may score a point but it doesn’t mean we won the match. Play the long game in life and hone the skill of reaction to become a professional in every day interactions. Be the person that always seems to know the right thing to say at the right time. Be the person who is a role model for the amateur players. Be the person who can dominate the game of life.

 

The Psychopath Next Door

“Psychopaths kill more people in North America every year than the number killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” This fact is quite scary and comes from the book The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience by Kent A. Kiehl, PhD. Are you a psychopath? Is your neighbor a psychopath? Is your mother-in-law a psychopath? I think that we have all at one point in time used the “psychopath” word to describe someone we have encountered. There is a definitive way of assessing this disorder and it is called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. This assessment is performed by a trained interviewer and rates a person on categories known to be present among psychopaths: Glibness/Superficial Charm, Grandiose Sense of Self-Worth, Need for Stimulation/Proneness to Boredom, Pathological Lying, Conning/Manipulation, Lack of Remorse or Guilt, Shallow Affect, Callous/Lack of Empathy, Parasitic Lifestyle, Poor Behavioral Controls, Promiscuous Sexual Behavior, Early Behavioral Problems, Lack of Realistic Long-Term Goals, Impulsivity, Irresponsibility, Failure to Accept Responsibility for own Actions, Many Short-Term Marital Relationships, Juvenile Delinquency, Revocation of Conditional Release, and Criminal Versatility. Holy Cow! Don’t worry if you identify with some of these categories because you need a fairly high score on the overall assessment to be considered a psychopath. In addition to this identification process, new research is showing that the brains of psychopaths are actually abnormal compared to the general population. More specifically, the paralimbic system, which is responsible for processing emotional stimuli, is atrophied and less active in psychopaths compared to non-psychopaths. Functional MRI scans of the brain can accurately assess the activity of the paralimbic system and if a person scores high on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist it is almost always the case that their paralimbic system is compromised.

Psychopaths are normally very smart individuals but what they lack is emotional intelligence. Since their paralimbic system is less functional they are unable to sufficiently process emotions; this is like reading the lyrics to a song but never hearing the music. They are extremely literal and have great difficulty with abstract thinking. Their limited emotional capabilities are why many psychopaths commit unthinkable crimes and seem to have no remorse or care for subsequent punishment. This is why psychopaths are repeat offenders and usually have a very long list of committed crimes. Punishment in general does not work with psychopaths and going to prison for them is no different than going to a condo in the Florida Keys. What is really scary is that researchers believe the paralimbic system may be atrophied in psychopaths since birth. There are many parents that have children that do not respond to punishment, abuse animals, enjoy arson, and have several other traits on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. So is a child who exhibits psychopathic tendencies destined to be the next John Wayne Gacy? Yes and no. The chances are higher but with the correct atmosphere and positive behavioral reinforcement a callous and unemotional child can become a functioning member of society. In the future, hopefully we can prevent the next Ted Bundy by identifying high risk children and putting them through research-proven treatment. Sadly, we currently are reactive when it comes to mental illness (remember all the public shootings last year) and need to be more proactive in helping individuals who are struggling. In the end, psychopaths make up a small percentage of the population but they are a real threat and more awareness of treating mental illness is needed to prevent heinous crimes from occurring. What is your take on mental illness? How can we improve the treatment process? Do you suspect a psychopath lives next door?