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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.


My theory of everything.

I have a tendency to constantly come up with theories to help me understand behavior. I was thinking the other day I should write a kids book akin to "The way things work" but it would be "The way people work." I kind of think that would be awesome, as I think that psychology is something that kids could get into early - and I think understanding the basic principles of human behavior is something a lot of people just don't know.*

But, back to my theory. I had actually thought I might do my dissertation on this - but really couldn't figure out how to test it, and a friend wisely cautioned me that I would have a hard time writing a lit review that adequately supported this.

My theory is that a sense of deprivation underlies a lot of problems in the U.S. - and maybe in other Western cultures. I've alluded to this elsewhere - on this blog and in comments. But i don't know if I've ever laid this out there fully.

We live in a have and have not society. Those who have, have with abundance. Those who have not, live in the shadow of all that abundance. I think we have come to equate living the "American Dream" with having things, and that having things makes people happy.

Yet, many of us live lives in which we experience some deprivation, relative deprivation, or at least feel deprived. We may feel deprived because we cannot afford an iphone (comme moi!), or feel deprived that we didn't get good-enough parents, we may feel as though we are deprived of time to devote to ourselves, we may feel as though we give everything we have to others (like children) and are thus deprived, we may feel like we have to work harder than others, or that our lives are harder than others' - there are a myriad of ways we may feel like we have things worse, and are thus deprived. We may feel deprived financially, emotionally, relationally, psychologically, materially, etc. The more we compare ourselves to others, the more we are likely to feel as though we are deprived (and this likely increases with increased media consumption).

When we enter into this state in which we feel deprived (it's not important whether or not we actually are deprived, it is the subjective sense of deprivation that I would argue predicts behaviors), we are likely to try to make up for that deprivation with things that we think (likely mistakenly) will fill up those holes.

This is one of the reasons why, I think, there is such a significant relationship between poverty and overweight. People who are poor see abundance all around them, and it just totally sucks. Poor people feel deprived, and yet every day have to see people who have more than them, and who they think are likely happier. There are many ways to resolve this deprivation, but food is one of the cheapest and one of the most accessible - and it is a quick way to fix a hole.

I also think this underlies some forms of child abuse and neglect - or just poor parenting. Many parents feel as though they are the victims of their kids - that they are powerless, and this leads them to believe that they are somehow deprived - that they have things harder than others do, and that they are being held back from being happy because of this. This feeling of being deprived causes them to in turn act out with their kids as a means of trying to assert power and control, and to make themselves feel better. I've seen this a lot with clients - they feel just horribly and out of control, and then their kids need something from them. They feel like they have so little time for themselves, no resources to use for themselves, no one to support them that they see their kids as sucking the life out of them. They feel so deprives - and by proxy their kids as deprivers - and as having abundance (after all, I got them a video game, why doesn't that make them happy?) - thus lash out at the kids, or ignore them.

I also see this in my clients who experience feelings of entitlement. They often have this sense that they have had such a harder life than anyone else, thus believe they are "due." They thus act out accordingly by demanding extensions on papers (if they are students), denigrating others, failing to meet obligations, acting in fairly antisocial ways, having morals that are applied rather imperiously and inconsistently, leaving jobs, avoiding people, etc.

I was riding the bus the other day. The bus driver failed to stop at a stop despite an old woman waiting quite patiently at the stop. She did, however, stop at a stop sign just a few feet away from the bus stop. The old woman walked up to the bus and knocked on the door. The bus driver yelled at her and told her she could only board the bus at the stop, the old woman started to say she *was* waiting there, but the bus driver basically told her off.

Someone then pulled the cord to get off, but the driver failed to stop. Someone yelled at her to stop, and she yelled at everyone on the bus and told them they needed to pull the cord if they wanted off the bus. She then slowed down at every single stop (rather grouchily and jerkily) and yelled to see if anyone needed the stop. In watching the driver, I got the sense that she embodied my theory - she felt as though she was in some sense being deprived because people were not behaving the way she needed them to. She seemed to feel as though she had things so much harder than anyone else. She then started acting out, yelling at customers, not stopping ... and actually was behaving recklessly and dangerously.

And maybe because I have this theory, I interpret all behaviors int his way. But, I've found it to be pretty useful in terms of helping others understand their behaviors and motivations - and it creates some pretty practical ways of addressing some pretty difficult behaviors. I also think it helps people increase their empathy for themselves - and it helps me remain empathic.

Like with one client who abused her kids** - we spent a lot of time looking at all the ways she had had a really horrible life. By helping her see that I really understood that she had indeed had a life of deprivation - in many many ways - she was able to see it too. And in doing so, we filled one of her holes - the hole that represented some emotional deprivation because no one had ever understood her before or had any caring for her before - no one took the time to understand her perspective. In increasing her empathy for herself, we were able to tackle the ways she felt deprived in the present, and to gently challenge some of those. We also worked to help her gain some empathy for her kids (we also had to talk a lot about normal kid behaviors - which her kids were exhibiting - but she had no idea since she had been raised in such an abusive household and was constantly too terrified to do anything). We worked hard to help her start to label her feelings - and to take the time (before acting out) to figure out what she was feeling and why. She could then stop herself before hitting her kids, and could try to figure out what was going on in her that she felt a need to do that.

This approach has worked really well with eating issues too. The trick in everything is helping people understand the roots of the behaviors - both in terms of emotional roots, and developmental roots. I honestly think that one of the most powerful things that can happen in therapy is understanding why you do what you do. I think it makes people feel like they have some control - often for the first time ever. Of course, it's painful - and often I am the only one (as the shrink) who thinks it is an awesome stage in therapy (in fact, clients often find me a bit masochistic when we get to this place in therapy because I get damned excited when they can explain to me what the emotional, motivational, and historical underpinnings of their behaviors are, whereas they just want the behaviors to change).

* I think I might actually be serious about this. I took a look at the book "The way things work" today, and think the format would work well. What do you guys think, might there be a market for something like that?

** By the way, when I talk about clients here, I'm super careful to be really vague and I give descriptions that could fit any number of people with whom I've worked - so they are composites. But, if I ever give enough detail that it makes anyone uncomfortable, let me know. Protecting privacy is of utmost concern to me.


At 1:37 AM, Blogger StyleyGeek said...

I think you should write that book. If I had kids, I'd buy a book like that for them. And I've never seen anything like it in the shops. I bet there would be a market.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Anastasia said...

i think your paragraph about parenting is really insightful.

I also think this accounts for the way some people who work in retail seem to feel entitled to a store without customers, where no one ever shops or interrupts them. :)

At 1:20 PM, Blogger Grad007 said...

I think the idea for your book is great!

At 1:25 PM, Blogger Ianqui said...

I certainly agree that people use food as a comfort tool, and that's likely part of the deprivation and food issue that you raise. But I'm not sure I totally agree that poverty and obesity can be reduced to that relationship (although I'm sure you wouldn't say that, either). I have always thought that a large part of the problem is that the food that's affordable (McDonalds vs. grocery store, sprite vs. orange juice, candy vs. dried berries, etc) has a higher calorie content and lower nutritional value. As Michael Pollan says, we should be subsidizing carrots, not high fructose corn syrup.

At 6:14 PM, Blogger Clio Bluestocking said...

I'd read your book, and probably give it or recommend it to other people.

At 8:53 PM, Blogger BrightStar said...

I am intrigued by this idea about the role of deprivation. I have been thinking this summer about my tendency to view my life from a deficit point of view -- what I am not like, what I am missing, what I do not have -- and how this negatively affects me and what it would take to think differently. Your post really connects with how I have been thinking. I appreciate that.

At 9:26 PM, Blogger SJ said...

I agree with brightstar about how viewing oneself from a deficit point of view can make you feel very bad about who you are. But I'm not sure that 'deprived' is quite the right term for your theory. The word 'deprived' conjures up images of powerlessness or loss of control to me. As if you once had these things and someone took them away. In some of the problems you describe above, particularly eating disorders, I think deficit is a better term, as a lot of eating-disordered people would say that they never had worth or usefulness in the first place because they are inherently bad or "fat" or worthless people. Not that someone took these away qualities away from them. But maybe I misunderstood what you mean by 'deprivation'.
The post definitely got me thinking though =o)
how would you work on getting people to "fill the holes" (to use your term) without engendering a sense of entitlement? Just a query, not expecting you to answer, really

At 11:32 PM, Blogger shrinkykitten said...

Thanks for the input about the book. I hope it's not jsut one of my lofty ideas that never comes to pass. Anyone want to be my illustrator?

ianqui: indeed - and I have argued elsewhere on this blog that weight issues are multi-determined - including the issues you raise. I'm just talking about one perspective here.

brightstar: I'm glad it was useful. I would argue that to some extent a helpful way to look at that is how it is that that way of thinking has served you well. It may not be so useful now, but it likely came about as an adaptive means of dealing with something. Most behaviors and thinking patterns have some utility (present or historical).

sj: If I'd meant deficit, I would have said it. My theory is about deprivation. And, I'm not talking about eating disorders - I'm talking about eating issues more broadly. Feel free to take whatever is helpful from this, but know I hardly really think it applies to everything.

At 2:02 AM, Blogger SJ said...


Sorry - I didn't mean to offend you. I was just a little confused about what you meant when you said deprivation. When I read brightstar's comment, I thought - aha! deficit makes sense to me....and then I left a comment without really thinking about your response (more just to get it clearer in my head).

Anyway, I'm still curious about how you work with people to overcome their feelings of deprivation?


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