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"...another reason I'm intrigued with the hanged of Salem, especially the women, is that a number of them aroused suspicion in the first place because they were financially independent, or sharp-tongued, or kept to themselves. In other words, they were killed off for the same sort of life I live right now but with longer skirts and fewer cable channels." Sarah Vowell, The partly cloudy patriot.


Moth to a flame relationships

In this, I am going to use the terms "arousal" and "attraction." I want to be clear before I do so that I am using those terms broadly - arousal can be any kind of state in which emotions are heightened (like a negative arousal state in which one feels some sort of highly negative emotions - like being angry, scared, anxious, sad, etc.; or a positive arousal state in which one is excited, happy, or sexual, etc.). Does that make sense? And attraction is not just sexual attraction for the purposes here - it can be being interested or attracted to friends, lovers, intellectual companions, nurturing others, etc. Still make sense?

I remember with one of my clients trying to help her understand these, what we called, "moth to a flame relationships." Over and over she found herself very attracted to people who would earn Luckybuzz's pseudonym for one of her relationships: "bad idea." That is, these people fit a profile of someone with whom it would be a bad idea to be in a relationship. Yet, despite knowing this, she (my client) found herself attracted to exactly this type of person. Even though she knew she'd get burned, she was like a moth to a flame - she felt she had no control over her attraction.

I have those kinds of relationships too - except I don't do this in romantic relationships. I do it in my female relationships with mom-type people. And I just today realized why. It has to do with this theory called "misattribution of arousal." And damn, if it doesn't explain a lot of my moth to a flame relationships.

Misattribution of arousal is what occurs when we are in some aroused state, and we see someone we find attractive. Because we are aroused (this works best - or worst - when we are ambiguously aroused - we have strong feelings, but aren't sure exactly what caused them, or maybe even what those feelings are), we seek some explanation for those feelings, and we assume it is because of that attractive person. Dutton and Aron did a study in 1974 in which participants were to talk over either a shaky bridge or a stable bridge. At the end, they talked to an attractive research assistant. Those who walked over the shaky bridge were far more likely to call up the research assistant later. The idea being that because the shaky bridge participants were more aroused, they were more likely to feel attraction for the research assistants (and this has been replicated in other ways; like people getting off a roller coaster are more likely to judge someone in a photo as attractive than people who who are getting on a roller coaster and shown the same photo). So, if you want to woo someone, do something really scary with them, and then any feelings they have will be attributed to their attraction to you, and not to the scary stimulus.

I think this is key for me. There is one relationship into which I entered that I just had no idea why I became attracted to the person in the first place. This was my first year in my doctoral program, and I was beginning to do intakes for our clinic. I totally messed up on my very first one that I did by myself by not writing up the intake in a timely manner. In my defense, it was the weirdest intake ever and not something they should have had a first-year student do. Not in my defense - I am hugely avoidant when I find something overwhelming.

Anyway, I got in huge trouble for getting behind in writing up the intake. The person supervising the intakes taught our intake class, and she was basically an ex-grad student who worked as a post-doc in the department. I didn't really like her because she was extremely narcissistic, insecure, had a huge need for power and control, and even though she was smart, I didn't appreciate her approach to clinical work.

Enter the misattribution of arousal.

So, I had to go meet with her about how much I sucked because I didn't get the report done on time. I felt horribly about it, was embarrassed, felt like such a loser, etc. She was both nice and understanding about it (I think because she gets warm and fuzzy feelings from getting power by making people feel badly), and also was extremely angry. So, I was extremely negatively aroused in the situation - I remember crying, turning bright red, feeling extremely contrite and embarrassed, and thankful that she was somewhat nice to me. Somehow those aroused feelings got turned into feeling attracted or attached to her. Something about feeling so badly with her, and partly because of her caused me to attribute the arousal to her, and not in a negative way (which is weird). We ended up being in a really intense and difficult supervisory relationship in which this dynamic played out over and over (she felt better about herself when she made me feel badly about myself - and the negative arousal of feeling badly about myself made me think I really liked her - it's messed up!).

The reason I have been thinking about this is that I think it happened again yesterday.

I went to a day long workshop run by a couple of shrinks. You all know that I am feeling pretty bad of late anyway, so I went in experiencing some negative arousal already. Over the course of the day, this increased for several reasons:

1. It was a workshop about violence and abuse, so that in and of itself arouses negative emotions.

2. One of the presenters caused me to feel worry for her as she seemed really insecure and upset, and so I felt a lot of concern.

3. I had hoped to sort of go in and be intellectual in my approach to the subject matter - but they kept asking us to think about certain things, and then we had to either share things with the group, or in dyads - thus it made it hard for me to keep my personal feelings and experiences contained.

4. I had the misfortune of sitting right next to someone who was very very needy, very very, insecure, very socially inappropriate, and very chatty. I really wanted to talk to the other three women at the table (they were my age, whereas the other woman was in her 50s), but they kind of were not very nice. So, I felt hurt by them and resentful that the only person who would talk to me was someone who I felt was sucking me dry (and I totally felt like I had to be her shrink - and I don't want to have to be around people like that right now).

5. At one point, the presenter I was worried about (and whose presentation thus far was less than helpful because her insecurity seemed to really interfere with her ability to present and communicate - so I wasn't really very impressed with her) hurt my feelings, and I almost burst into tears and almost left, but was able to get myself under control. She asked us a question, and I answered her and she said my answer was wrong* (more nicely than that - but still, clearly I was wrong). And again, you all know I am fairly desperate right now for some positive interactions, some positive feedback - so that was devastating.

6. I also was feeling badly because I was in a room of shrinks - a profession I desperately want to get into, but feel hopeless about. This was heightened because as I met people they asked what my profession was, where I worked - and this evoked all of my feelings of being a loser for having been kicked out of grad school, and being pretty much unemployed. We were also asked as a group to think about how the things being presented fit our clients - and were asked at times to talk about our clients - which made me feel so badly.

So, I was not completely liking this presenter - didn't really find her style useful and was not completely happy with the information she was presenting. I felt really badly because I was filled with difficult emotions about the topic, about me (personally and professionally), and was feeling unable to contain all of those feelings. Ergo, I was highly negatively aroused and because there was so much going on inside me, it was pretty ambiguous.

At some point in the afternoon, I started to feel really positively about the insecure presenter - so positively, it's embarrassing. I wish she could be my therapist - I wish I could talk to her about how badly I'm feeling, I want to somehow create a relationship with her. Today, I have been thinking about this - and trying to figure out why. And that's when I realized it is the moth to a flame effect - I felt badly, she also "made" me feel badly about myself, she has some characteristics that I find attractive - and I was so negatively aroused, I have misattributed some of these feelings as being positive feelings about her.

At the end, she came up and formally introduced herself (we have an overlapping person in common - as well as some other commonalities). She was super nice to me, and introduced me to some other people, and said nice things about me to them. It was very very confusing.

And she may well be a really good and decent person to have in my life - or she could be disastrous. There's no way to know. All I know is that she is the flame, and I am a moth trying to figure out how to get closer.

I realize this is really long - but I have two other thoughts on this - two other applications. One thing I was thinking was about this thing that occurs in sexual abuse - kids sometimes become sexually aroused by the abuse - or may have extremely positive feelings about the perpetrator because sometimes in grooming a child for abuse, the perpetrator may make the child feel really special and loved (easier to abuse a kid if they love you). Kids may thus have these aroused feelings, and may misattribute them to feelings of love for the perpetrator, which is really confusing. Perpetrators often exploit this too - they may often tell a kid who demonstrates sexual arousal that it shows that they "wanted" the abuse, when in fact the arousal is just a physiological response - not an emotional one.

I also was thinking that this has implications for violent adult relationships. Victims may become so negatively aroused (anxious, afraid, terrified, etc.) by the abuse, and may be really confused by this (esp. if the perpetrator is well thought of by others - or is intermittently abuse and loving) that they may mistake this arousal as being attraction and love. And again, abusers may exploit this.

* edited to add: this is another way, actually, to get someone to be attracted to you. Oddly, or scarily, enough, if you criticize someone slightly or put them down, and then later compliment them, that is very very likely to make them more attracted to them. And this has clear implications for abusive relationships.



At 9:52 PM, Blogger StyleyGeek said...

I think maybe this theory also helps explain the phenomenon of students getting crushes on their teachers and thinking they are sexual crushes, when actually the student just feels intense new feelings due to the intellectual stimulation of engaging in new ideas (someone posted about this a while ago, but I forget who).

At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Chicago 7 said...

As it happens, that should be "feel(ing) bad," not "feel(ing) badly."

(Just FYI, since you alluded to syntax and grammar a few posts ago.)

Good luck with your theorizing, in any case!

At 11:28 AM, Blogger BrightStar said...

Chicago 7, after a post like that, THAT'S how you comment?

Anyhow, Shrinky, these ideas in your post are intriguing, and I hadn't thought about them in this way before.

I wish I was able to understand my feelings as articulately as you can. I have trouble making sense of the mess of feelings I had around my conference, and I wish I could understand them. So, I think it's cool that you can understand your own feelings.

At 10:47 PM, Blogger StyleyGeek said...

I agree: I totally admire and envy the way shrinky shrinks herself. I wish I could do it.

And Chicago 7: B* is right that you are random and weird to comment on grammar when there are so many interesting points in the content of the post that you could have engaged with. And FYI, using adverbs instead of adjectives with "feeling" (i.e. "feeling badly"), is so common in certain dialects of English that is is given as an alternative in many descriptive grammars.

At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Dharma said...

This was one of those reads where a lot of situations I've not understood suddenly came together.

Wow. Thanks.


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