Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Demon of Reactive Formation

Reactive formation - defending against an impulse by actively expressing the opposite impulse.

Yeah. That thing. The thing that makes us do stupid things in an effort to avoid doing something that we feel is undesirable. Also referred as over-compensation - not to be confused with normal compensation, where we focus on our strengths to make up for our weaknesses.

An example of normal compensation - when I took my studio art classes in college, I took longer to make individual artwork because I have impaired short-term motor memory. I can achieve techniques, but it takes longer for me to do them than my much younger and more dexterous classmates, or my more experienced friends.  I was able to compensate for this by my ability to visualize and come up with ideas faster.  So while my classmates were still trying to decide what they were going to create, I had already chosen from several roughly sketched concept drawings what I was going to do.  And by the time they had decided what they were going to make, I was already hard at work on my project.  My design teacher mentioned that he sort of had to teach me in reverse of his other students, because I had the ideas and understood the concepts of design, but I didn't have the manual expertise of the rest of his students.

Of course there are less healthy examples of compensation.  Like when someone uses their success in their career to excuse their lack of social skills. Or makes pronouncements of fact when they lack of knowledge in an area outside of their expertise.  Such are the things that "appeal to authority" logical fallacies are made of.

But back to reactive formation.  This can be used in a healthy way - like when you are dealing with someone difficult, who can't help it (or even if they can), and you respond by being extremely sweet and helpful to them, when you would love nothing more than to slap them upside the head and tell them to stop being an idiot.  Many people owe their lack of injuries and possibly their very lives to the fact that several of their fellow humans use this psychological defense mechanism.

Now to the point of this little blog post.  I just realized this week that I have pretty much done something rather ignorant and foolish because a personal reactive formation pattern.  It's not impossible to correct, just difficult and requiring some planning and vacation time.  You see, I am a daughter of a hypochondriac.  In fairness to my mother, she did has several legitimate health issues, but she prefer her own diagnoses to the doctors'.  My mother constantly poured over medical books to find illnesses she could claim to have.  When I was 12 years old, it was discovered that I had a curved spine.  My mother decided that I had sclerosis and made an appointment with our family physician, an osteopath named Dr. Bishon.  Good so far.  Then Mom decided that in the days before the appointment, we needed to go to the mall and look for clothes that would work with a back brace. We went to like six different clothes stores and two or three fabric stores over the course of two days.  At first I was very nonchalant about the whole thing.  I knew my mother's flair for the over-dramatic and just accepted my ordeal with all of the reluctant grace a preteen could manage.  However, I had a friend at school who did wear a back brace.  Her name was Victoria and I think that even without the back brace, she would have had an air of gentle formality to her.  While we were browsing the racks (we didn't buy any clothes or patterns during those two days), I had to occasionally point out that some of the clothes Mom was thinking of putting me in would not work if I had a brace like Victoria's. After all those hours of listening to my mother's dire predictions of my future, my calm because eroded.  Even though I had no problem with the idea of the brace - I had great respect for Victoria, after all - I succumbed to my mother's paranoia.

I was terrified when we went to that appointment that Monday morning.  After doing the normal vital signs checking stuff, Dr. Bishon's nurse had my back x-rayed.  Then we sat in the examination room, while my mother continued her narrative on how all of this was going to rule my life, up to and including having a family of my own.  After what felt like an eternity to me (though it was maybe 20 minutes), Dr. Bishon came in, talked to me a little about how I sat when I read books, and then had me lie on my left side.  He then pushed my shoulder forward and pulled my hip back.  There was a cracking noise and when he had me stand in front of a mirror, I could see that I was standing straight again.  He explained that I wasn't suffering from sclerosis; I was suffering from reading books, while sitting in bad posture in our sofa chair for long periods of time.  He made me promise to use better posture when I got into a really good book, and then sent me on my way with a huge smile on his face.

Back in our car, I was absolutely furious with my mother and told her to never, ever do that to me again.  It might be worth noting that she had completely forgotten the incident by her 60's, but then maybe not.  For me, however, the event is deeply carved into my psyche as something to be vigilant against experiencing again.  I "compensated" by going through medical books like my mother, but instead of having the intent of proving to myself that I had this or that condition, I approached it from the direction of disproving that I had serious conditions.  I was very much in this mindset when I first started noticing signs of Celiac's disease in my late 20's.  And I very successfully convinced myself that I didn't have enough of the symptoms for long enough periods to have the disease - despite the fact that nowhere in the description I was reading did it say that you had to have these symptoms continually.

So, when my sister brought up the possibility that I may have a problem with gluten, I really didn't believe her.  More precisely, I didn't want to believe her.  However, I do love her and recognized that she was really worried about me, so without bothering to re-research Celiac's disease, I figured it wouldn't hurt me to go gluten-free for a little while to make her feel better.  I didn't have health insurance at the time, but to be honest, even if I had, I probably wouldn't have mentioned it to a doctor because I had spent so many years convincing myself I didn't have the condition.  I did do just enough reading to realize that I would have some bloating and headaches when I did go back to eating gluten, but I was okay with that - it didn't really sound much different to what happens when I re-introduce beans into my diet after a long period of not eating them.  It was a massive shock to me when several hours after I ate that one little piece of garlic bread, I was curled up in the fetal position feeling as if my bowels were trying to tear me apart.

Still, I wasn't quite ready to accept the possibility of Celiac's disease.  But I began to revise my feelings on the matter when friends started to bring studies to my attention about gluten intolerance and Celiac's.  In one of the more publicized studies of gluten intolerance, I read the description of the self-reported symptoms and realized that not one of them included explosive diarrhea or wishing for death because of severe cramps that lasted several hours.  Then this month, a friend of mine was hospitalized multiple time, while the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with her.  I looked up several of the conditions they were trying to rule out on the Mayo Clinic's website, and a little voice told me that I really should look up Celiac's disease again and at least see about getting myself tested for it, so I could get a professional diagnosis as to whether I had it or not.  The first thing that struck me was the fact that in the two decades since I first read the symptoms of Celiac's disease, I had exhibited many more than I had remembered.

The second thing that struck me was that to be successfully tested for it, I need to be eating gluten for about a week before I'm tested - with the warning that you shouldn't go on a gluten-free diet before being tested first.  In short, I've screwed myself with my own denial.  However, it is still possible to be tested.  I will need to discuss it with a doctor before I eat gluten for the test, and I will need to take a week of vacation so I won't have to worry about missing work because I can't leave the bathroom.  So, probably sometime next February I will get myself actually tested.  And if it's negative, I might ask if there's a better way to get used to eating gluten again.  I really miss cake donuts and KFC.