Matters to mind (while you wait for Justice to toll the knell)

Friday, 7 December 2018 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 PARADIGM SHIFTS: A range of interpretations can be invoked to explain presidential expressions of late… Which have spanned the gamut from inane to insane – but if a more charitable perspective may be entertained for a moment (refer article below), these may suspend the personal or political in favour of the purely psychological – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

Some people can handle pressure. They positively blossom under the spotlight. From celebrities to sports stars, many if not most Sri Lankans in the spotlight have panache and pizzazz. This, it seems sadly, does not include certain leading lights among our island-nation’s political leaders.

First there was that litany of faux-savvy utterances which indicated that a certain (shall we say) ‘personality disorder’ was troubling the high and mighty – so much so that some stoned observers wondered what our beloved leader was smoking, and wanted some of it too. These ranged from hideous medieval punishments being prescribed for ladies voluntarily detached from their upper underwear at pop concerts, to the high sugar content in malted drinks deserving severe taxation and the unsavoury state of nutty snacks on our national carrier.

Then our pseudo-savant went and demonstrated that his grasp on matters constitutional left something to be desired. To paraphrase his shenanigans since that fateful Friday over forty days and nights ago: he perversely sacked a sitting prime minister, arbitrarily appointed another premier, waspishly prorogued parliament, unilaterally appointed new ministers, wickedly dissolved parliament, unpredictably called an election, unexpectedly reconvened parliament, inexplicably refused to accept the results of two floor tests in the august assembly named after a fall month, watched with trembling as his new appointee’s hooligans trashed the House, wantonly seized portfolios and ministries, ad nauseam ad infinitum. And since we’re doing Latin again, let me add this once more… ‘Non Compos Mentis’ (NCM). Look it up; it’s telling: a new NCM to trump No-Confidence Motions?

And now, in a fit of pique more in line with the madness of those who are monarchs of all they survey but hardly master of their own emotions, our one-man governor has expressed a sublime desire for the splendour of parochial isolation. “If I am pushed too far against the wall,” he has said in translation, “I shall go back to my paddy fields in Polonnaruwa.”

Which, as you can well imagine, has let loose a merry hell of social media commentary. “Quick, someone find that wall!” urged a wag on Facebook. “So, what’s the delay?” quipped a wit on Twitter. “Go! Back to the farms! You have sat up there too long… The heady wind has filled your straw head with sawdust, #MS” – this on a WhatsApp status.

All of this would be quite funny, if it wasn’t rather tragic. And if – as Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka MP has intimated in his suggestion that presidents and parliamentarians, et al. be compelled to undergo psychological evaluation prior to assuming office – our prez is indeed NCM, then the laugh is on us. So it’s worth analysing what’s most likely going on in the executive cranium.

Psych major

1. First, on level one – what psychologists call ‘psychotic’ if and when these are dominant – are the ‘severely pathological’ mechanisms. These six defences, in conjunction, permit one effectively to rearrange external experiences to eliminate the need to cope with reality. Pathological users of these mechanisms frequently appear irrational or insane to others, and include:

Delusional projection: Delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature. (Anyone recall that alleged assassination attempt?)

Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it doesn’t exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality. (Start out a one-term president. Solicit Supreme Court approval to arbitrarily extend one’s term. Sulk when met with a stout ‘no’.)

Distortion: A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs. (They would kill me if they won. No, he would. And now, y’all would.)

2. At a second level (mental healthcare calls it ‘immature’): there are those mechanisms that help to lessen distress and anxiety produced by people threatening you or some uncomfortable reality. Excessive use of such defences is seen as socially undesirable – in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. Overuse almost always leads to serious problems in a person’s ability to cope effectively. These defences are often seen in major depression and personality disorders, and include:

Acting out: A direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse in action, without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives the expressive behaviour. (The wish to whip bra-throwing lady concert-goers, perhaps?)

Hypochondriasis: An excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness. (Some might call it ‘executive presidentialitis’.)

Passive-aggressive behaviour: The indirect expression of hostility. (Those references to butterflies…)

Projection: That primitive form of paranoia in which anxiety is reduced by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one’s own unacknowledged, unacceptable, or unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; severe prejudice and jealousy; hyper-vigilance to external danger; and ‘injustice collecting’ – all with the aim of shifting one’s unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations are perceived as being possessed by the other. (“My prime minister hates me! He ruined me to some extent!”)

Schizoid fantasy: A tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts. (“I will give up the presidency after one term! I would like to serve a second tenure? I will go home if pushed too far against the wall…”)

3. At the third so-called ‘neurotic’ level there are mechanisms which are considered as indicating neurosis, but are fairly common in adults. Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and enjoying life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in a once-blessed island republic when used as one’s primary style of coping with the world. These include: 

Displacement: A defence mechanism that shifts aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the same intense emotion toward someone or something that is less offensive or threatening, in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening. (For example, a president may yell at their coalition partners because they are angry with their kitchen cabinet.) These often manifest as:

Dissociation: A temporary yet drastic modification of one’s personal identity or character to avoid emotional distress; separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought. (The first move – become a democrat overnight. Then – plot and plan how and when to show again the leopard’s spots to all and sundry.)

Intellectualisation: A form of isolation; concentrating on the intellectual components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions; separation of emotion from ideas; thinking about wishes in formal, affectively bland terms, and not acting on them; avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects (isolation, rationalisation, ritual, undoing, compensation, and ‘magical thinking’). Hmm, well, maybe we can let the prez off the hook on this one? There is such a thing as going too far with all this armchair psychoanalysis!

Reaction formation: A conversion of unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous or unacceptable into their opposites; behaviour that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels; taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety. (Did we mention the paradigm shift from mandarin in a cruel brutal corrupt oppressive regime once upon a time to democratic-republicanism at the drop of a hopper, I mean hat?)

Repression: A process of attempting to repel desires towards pleasurable instincts, caused by a threat of suffering if the desire is satisfied; the desire is moved to the unconscious in the attempt to prevent it from entering consciousness; seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse, or lack of awareness of one’s own situation and condition (i.e. the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent). Women without their bras come to mind… Or is it bars without women I’m thinking about? 

Some hope of salvation

4. Thankfully, though, there is a fourth – or ‘mature’ level – at which there is great potential for redemption. These ‘defence mechanisms’ (which hardly seem psychological syndromes of any sort) are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered ‘mature’, even though many have their origins in an immature stage of development. They have been adapted through the years in order to optimise success in human society and relationships. The use of these defences enhances pleasure and feelings of control, and help to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, whilst still remaining effective. Those who use these mechanisms are usually considered virtuous. Mature defences that our presently manic leaders may consider on the way forward in the best possible national interest include: 

Altruism: A constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.

Anticipation: The realistic planning for future discomfort.

Humour: Overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about directly) that gives pleasure to others. The thoughts retain a portion of their innate distress, but they are deflected by witticism (e.g. self-deprecation).

Sublimation: That healthy transformation of unhelpful emotions or instincts into healthy actions, behaviours, or emotions (e.g. playing a heavy contact sport such as football or rugby can transform inner aggression into a game…)

Suppression: The conscious decision to delay paying attention to a thought, emotion, or need in order to cope with the present reality – making it possible later to access uncomfortable or distressing emotions whilst accepting them.

Well, yes. To ‘anticipate’ any ‘altruism’ might be a defence mechanism in itself. But humour is sublime. And if the president can suppress his delusions about going back to his paddy in peace, perhaps we could all heave a collective sigh of relief. If and when he willingly suspends inner reality, admits to an iota of paranoia and a modicum of persecution complex, and bows gracefully before the Supreme Court. If he can persuade his cronies and sycophants and succouring usurpers to do the same, we as a people with a hugely strained psyche these days need no longer live in denial or despair.

(Journalist | Editor-at-large of LMD | Writer #SpeakingTruthToPower)