Fight, Flight or Freeze: Can you overcome the tendency to freeze?

Across the country this year, according to media reports, at least eight shootings have taken place on high school or college campuses. They have occurred inside gyms and classrooms, in parking lots and school hallways. Together, four people have been killed and another 17 wounded so far in 2019, according to law enforcement authorities and news media reports.

This week two heroes are celebrated for their bravery, although they died in their attempt to thwart open gunmen. Riley Howell was fatally shot when he hurled himself at a gunman in a classroom at University of North Carolina at Charlotte on April 30. A week later Kendrick Castillo charged a shooter near Denver, Colorado, giving his classmates time to take cover or run.

The new mantra for surviving an active shooter situation is “run, hide, fight.” You’re either going to run, hide and shield, or going to take the fight to the assailant. If you perceive that you have the power to defeat the threat, you go into fight mode. If you perceive the threat as too powerful to overcome, your impulse is to outrun it. But if you’ve concluded, in a matter of milliseconds, that you cannot defeat the threat or safely run from it, freezing may be just as adaptive as fighting or fleeing.

When it comes to fight, flight, or freeze, I freeze. I’ve been in enough threatening incidents to know this about myself. I’m reading that freezing is a primal attempt to stop the predator from spotting you. Ellen Hoggard wrote, in, “People who freeze in trauma do not choose to, and often beat themselves up afterwards for being passive when in reality they have no more control than a deer caught in headlights. It’s the same with our fight-or-flight reactions. People very rarely have control and are therefore not to blame for their instinctive responses.”

Perhaps you are defenseless because you don’t have the strength or speed to avert the threat and there’s no one else to rescue you. Imagine being attacked by an animal who may lose interest in you if you play dead. Or, imagine that you are the abused child of a narcissistic parent. Your only hope of survival might be to become fawning, compliant and helpful.

Learned helplessness is a psychological concept in which people have learned that they have no control over what happens, and they tend to simply give up and accept their fate. Martin Seligman and Steven Maier observed this behavior in dogs that were conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone. It was also found that learned helplessness does not always generalize across all settings and situations. You may feel helpless in some situations but not all.

So, can you overcome the tendency to freeze? Most people don’t have a choice about their immediate reaction in a crisis situation. It happens in an instant. But if you are chronically fearful when there is no immediate threat, or if you feel helpless more often than not, the following may help:

• Recognize the difference between real and imagined threats.
• Calm yourself. To help the stress response pass, breathe deeply, meditate, sing, write, or talk.
• Seek help. Therapists can help you deal with past traumas that trigger ongoing fear and learned helplessness.

A Couple Calls It Quits After 115 Years Together

Can you imagine being paired with the same partner for over 100 years? A pair of giant tortoises at an Austrian zoo called it quits after 115 years of living together. Bibi and Poldi were born around 1897, met shortly after, and became a couple. They were presumably happily paired but their relationship soured in 2012. Instead of drifting apart, Bibi became violent, biting a chunk out of Poldi’s shell. Nothing about their routine changed causing this conflict. Zoo officials made a number of unsuccessful attempts to have them resolve their differences through couples counseling, joint games and fed them “romantic good mood food.” It appears they just can’t stand each other any longer. They now live in separate enclosures next to each other and can still see each other from afar. Distance has not made Bibi’s heart grow fonder. Instead she hisses at Poldi. The zoo staff hopes that someday they will find happiness together again.

Bibi and Poldi’s breakup can serve as a lesson not to take your marriage for granted. Staying together is not necessarily an indicator of marital happiness. There are two significant periods when humans divorce. Half of all divorces occur in the first seven years of marriage. Another wave of divorces occurs after 20 years.

What one might find surprising is the number of divorces of people over the age of 50. Gray divorce is a term that refers to the increasing divorce rate for older “gray-haired” couples following long-lasting marriages. You might think that after 20 years, they have settled into mature love and have “worked the bugs out” so to speak. So why is this trend happening?

John Gottman, a marital researcher, sites a lack of marital friendship as cause for most divorces. Eighty percent of people who divorce, say that they have grown apart. How do you grow apart? Falling in love is magical. However, with time the little idiosyncrasies you loved at the start can grate on you. Sometimes the way your partner eats, breathes, and their bad manners can build irritation gradually. Perhaps your partner hasn’t changed at all, but the way you look at them does. If you met at an early age, you may think they are not the same person anymore. In fact, they aren’t. You have both changed.

Gottman says “the principles that make a marriage work are surprisingly simple. Happily married couples aren’t smarter or more beautiful than others, and they don’t live in castles in the clouds where there’s no conflict or negative feelings. They’ve simply learned to let their positive feelings about each other override their negative ones. They understand, honor, and respect each other. They know each other deeply and enjoy being together. They do little things every day to stay connected and to show each other they care. In short, they are friends.”

As a marriage counselor, I help couples navigate turbulent times. Sometimes they make the difficult decision to divorce. Divorce can be a devastating experience and should not be done impulsively. But there are times when divorce is warranted. There are cases in which a marriage is non-viable and should be terminated such as domestic abuse – emotional, physical or sexual. Abuse warrants divorce. Safety comes first.

I would love to see Bibi and Poldi reunite, but only if their safety is ensured.

Managing Disappointments

Everyone gets disappointed from time to time. We all have ideas of what will make us truly happy. We nurture a wistful longing for a particular skill, experience or acquisition. And as we age, we may suffer the loss of what was never achieved. Maybe you never married, or never had children as you hoped. Or, you had a failed marriage, or lost your dream job. Perhaps you never attained the goals that you worked so hard for. Every child is asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They are programmed to aspire to greatness. We can develop fixed ideas of what will make us happy, and only that will make us happy. We want to believe that if we find “the one,” or have a certain income, or live in a certain location, we’ll live happily ever after. And if our dreams don’t materialize, disappointment sets in.

Disappointment is a form of sadness. It is a loss and a painful gap between expectations and reality. The greater the disparity, the greater the disappointment. And it has physiological consequences. Dopamine, the pleasure chemical, decreases. The stress hormone cortisol seeps into your bloodstream. Your heart rate quickens, muscles tense, and the feeling of defeat can become overwhelming. Depression could set in.

Some people cope with disappointment better than others. Some may withdraw, blame themselves, blame others or turn to substances to numb the pain. Others may accept that life can be deeply satisfying even though they found themselves on a different path than they had intended.

My brother Steve, now deceased, was the apple of my parent’s eyes. He had all the markings of success. He was attractive, athletic, academically gifted, co-owned a business with his talented wife and had achieved financial security. Although children loved him, he and his wife never had their own. I asked Steve if he regretted never having kids. No, he was content with his life experiences. He taught me a lesson when he said “It would have been a different life. Not better or worse, just different.”

Emily Kingsley, a parent of a special needs child, best illustrates this in her 1987 essay “Welcome to Holland.” The following is a reprint of her poem.

“I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this……

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!?” you say. “What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.”

But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around…. and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills….and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy… and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away…because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss. But…if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things … about Holland.”

Don’t let your disappointments turn to resentment or despair. Enjoy the lovely things wherever you find yourself.

Nice to Meet You, Let’s Get Married

We all want to feel loved and be wanted. Who doesn’t love the rush of falling in love?
When we’re falling in love, we have increased levels of endorphin and dopamine. Our brains release oxytocin and cortisol. Oxytocin is a loving, feel-good hormone, and cortisol is the stress hormone. This causes us to feel happy and nervous at once. When the cortisol enters our bloodstream, it causes the blood vessels around our gut to constrict. This constricting sensation causes nausea or “butterflies.” Suddenly the world is a happier place, colors seem more vivid, and problems fade in importance. We feel complete in the presence of our love object. We’re just sure we found our soul mate and partner for life. But, as good as it feels, this chemical rush can be harmful if it causes us to jump too quickly into a legal contract of marriage.

I once met a couple who met on a Friday, and married on Saturday. They were happily married six children and seventeen years later. A hasty decision to marry is not always a predictor of divorce, but it certainly comes with risk. Fifty percent of first marriages in the US end in divorce. Sixty-seven percent of second marriages fail and 73% of third marriages end in divorce.

Helen Fisher, anthropologist of love, suggests that lovers should wait between a year and a year and a half for these chemicals to subside. There is not an unending supply of these chemicals. They always subside with time. Imagine marrying Mr. or Ms. Right before the rose-colored glasses are taken off. You risk feeling terribly disappointed when you see their quirks and short comings. This is the point when people declare “you’ve changed” or “I’m not in love any more.”

Generally speaking, falling in love too quickly says more about the person who is falling than it does about the object of their love. They are likely feeling incomplete in themselves. The allure of being loved can temporarily override a poor self image or inner emptiness. Intimacy can eradicate a sense of loneliness and social isolation. These are natural and healthy drives, but taken to extremes can result in poor choices. And if the object of your love struggles with the same issues, you’ll find two needy people trying to drink from the same empty well.

Men are quicker than women to remarry after a spouse dies or after a divorce. It is said that women mourn and men replace. However, it is more accurate to say that men and women differ in how they manage their grief. Interestingly, men spend more time around grave sites, tending them as a sign of their grief rather than talking or crying. Therapist Emily Gordon says that men tend to have fewer therapeutic resources and less emotional support to weather the storm of separation or loss. Therefore, they may seek out dating partners sooner than women.

Statistics show that women are often a lot happier after divorce. One third of men remarry and just a quarter of women do. For men whose marriage ends because of death there is often a desire to repeat the happiness they knew. But, women are not as happy in marriage as men.

My advice is to allow the feel good chemicals to abate over time in order to make a sound decision based on long term knowledge of a person. Take time to work on yourself so that you come to a marriage without excess baggage. Consider premarital counseling. It can help ensure that you and your partner have a strong, healthy relationship, giving you a better chance for a stable and satisfying marriage. It can also help you identify weaknesses that could become problems during marriage.

I Didn’t Ask to Be Born!

Did you hear about the 27-year-old man in India who plans to sue his parents for giving birth to him without his consent? He thinks it is wrong to bring children into the world because they will then live with suffering until they die. He is acting on the principle of anti-natalism which proposes that people should stop procreating and gradually phase out humanity. He believes the planet would be better off without humans in it. Since he didn’t ask to be born, he is suing his parents to pay him for the rest of his life.
Two years ago I read of a young woman in New Jersey who took her parents to court in order to require them to pay her college tuition. She left home to live with her paternal grandparents after refusing to do chores, repeatedly engaging in under-aged drinking, and failure to follow a curfew. She was legally emancipated prior to filing her law suit. She won the case based upon a 1982 ruling that states that divorced parents are legally obligated to pay for their child’s tuition. Upon an appeal, an appellate court ruled that her parents are not legally required to pay for their daughter’s education.
Both of these young adults proclaim “You owe me.” They believe they are entitled to certain privileges at the expense of their parents. A sense of entitlement is defined as “an unrealistic, unmerited or inappropriate expectation of favorable living conditions and favorable treatment at the hands of others.”
A “gimme, gimme” attitude is more childish than mature. The parent-child relationship normally evolves over time to one of fellow adults. Most Americans believe that it is the parent’s job to prepare their children to be independent and productive adults, not to carry them financially forever. Where do you draw the line? Are you able and willing to pay for your child’s education? Or, give them a down payment on a house? And bail them out of credit card debt? Do you plan to leave them an inheritance or enjoy your own earnings in retirement? 86 percent of Americans surveyed believe they have a strong or absolute responsibility to accumulate enough money for retirement to avoid turning to family members for financial support as they age. They don’t feel entitled to burden their offspring.
Having a heightened sense of entitlement often harms relationships. Writer, Aletheia Luna addresses symptoms of entitlement complex in her article 16 Signs You Have a Sense of Entitlement Complex at Rather than duplicate all 16 signs here, a sampling of symptoms include:
• You impose unrealistic demands on your family, children, friends, acquaintances, lovers, employees, and/or employers.
• You tend to feel sorry for yourself if things don’t work out the way you wanted.
• You believe that you deserve happiness and go to great, sometimes extreme lengths to ensure that happens, often at the expense of others.
• You tend to take, more than give, in relationships.
Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. As we feel more entitled, our gratitude shrinks in proportion. When we feel entitled to something, there’s little need for gratitude. Rather than demand justice for what you think is rightfully yours, gratitude is more likely to bring satisfaction. Take a moment to take stock of the opportunities you’ve been given in life. As you express your gratitude you might find that people are more likely to want to give.

How Do You Want to be Told of Your Imminent Death?

A 78-year-old man at a California medical center was told that he was going to die within a few days. This was unusual in that he was informed of this news by a doctor utilizing a robot and a video screen. A robot came to the door, outfitted with a video screen in which the doctor appeared to be sitting in a chair in a room somewhere else. The patient was told that he has no lungs left and the only option was comfort care. They would remove the mask that helped him breathe and put him on a morphine drip until he died. A social media post said that this was “not the way to show value and compassion to a patient.” The hospital expressed regret for falling short of the family’s expectations.

Being informed by a robot lacks sensitivity. But there was a time when patients would not be told at all. As late as the 1970’s many physicians in North America would avoid telling patients they had a potentially lethal disease. Ninety percent of doctors in Chicago opted against divulging a cancer diagnosis in a 1961 survey. The tide has changed in favor of patient autonomy. Patients now have a right to be fully informed and make healthcare decisions free of undue influence from medical professionals. Most doctors walk a fine line between upholding hope and being realistic.

Telling someone they are likely to die soon is one of the hardest parts of being a doctor. My niece, a physician assistant, was recently in a quandary of whether to call a patient with the news that lab results indicate they have cancer. Should she wait to call on a Monday, and let the patient enjoy a pleasant weekend, or call immediately? Should she tell the patient over the phone, or ask them to come to the office for a follow-up consultation? In fact, she did wait a few days until she had more information, then told the patient the news over the phone. The patient’s wife objected to the insensitivity of a phone conversation. Other patients have complained that they would’ve wanted to be told via the phone rather than take a day off work. She feels that she can’t get it right.

Hearing the bad news is not easy either. Some patients say they don’t want to know anything, when asked. Forcing others to know what they don’t want to know can be harmful. Others want all the information the doctor has. Typical reactions to the news of imminent death may be shock, denial, anger, depression, bargaining, or acceptance. These reactions may cycle from one to the other.

Personally, I will want the truth of my medical condition and its progression when the time comes for my death. I will not likely face death bravely, but will appreciate relief from uncertainty and the possibility of time for reflection and discussion of the course of events with those close to me. I will want the opportunity to take stock, mend bridges, make farewells, rehome my pets, and get my affairs in order. And I prefer to be told sooner than later, particularly if I am expected to have a short time to live. For the record, I prefer to be immediately informed by a robot, or over the phone, if the alternative is to wait for an available appointment with the doctor.

Here’s what I don’t want. I don’t want my end of life process to be determined by the comfort level of my physician. If they can’t have awkward conversations, they may rob me of my choices. Instead, I hope for a trusting relationship with my physician in which I will know what she knows, when she knows it.

So, what is the proper way to tell someone they may die soon? Palliative care specialists have expertise when it comes to these difficult conversations. The first step is asking the patient their understanding of their health status. Ask “What do you know?” And “What do you want to know?” If they do want to know the prognosis of their condition, include a spouse, friend or relative for support. The conversation may shift from finding a cure to managing illness. Janet Abrahm, a Harvard Medical School professor who trains physicians, says doctors should avoid phrases like “nothing more can be done”. Instead, convey the message that there are no more options for cures. And then you have to shut up. Abrahm coaches people to count to 20 before speaking again. This may be a very uncomfortable silence. Then ask, “How are you doing?” And, “What can I do for you?” Then say, “We have work to do. There are many effective treatments to prevent pain and suffering.” Then, realize that this is not a once and done conversation, but the beginning of ongoing communication.

My niece made the decision to ask her patients how they would like to be informed of bad news. She will then act accordingly. My question to you is, how do you want to be informed of bad news?

Would You Lie for Your Children?

Lying to the Nazis to hide Jews, absolutely. Lying to an abusive husband to protect a child, yes. Lying to protect your child from the consequences of their actions? No. Most people wouldn’t think twice about lying to protect their child from real harm. Would you lie, cheat and steal to get your child into a top Ivy League university?

You’ve probably read of the college admissions scandal in which 33 parents received federal indictments for paying off schools and falsifying information in exchange for their child’s admission. The parents are wealthy CEOs, lawyers, industry leaders and Hollywood stars. In some cases, their children did not know they had a hand up from their parent’s actions. The parents want the best for their children, and are prepared to pay for it through unscrupulous means. They were not concerned with ethics or morality. These parents paid great sums of money, or had test scores altered, or lied about sports achievements in order receive athletic recruitments. Why? Power, status and earning potential. It is thought that graduates of elite schools have more earning power after graduation.

This is not just a United States problem. For example, Chinese parents also go to extreme lengths to boost their children’s academic success. Around 2,000 parents protested in 2013 to demonstrate against measures imposed to stop their children from cheating. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Apparently cheating is so common in Chinese society that not cheating would put children at a disadvantage.

Dan Ariely, author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, says that very few people lie a lot, but almost everyone lies a little. Ariely wrote “We want to view ourselves as honest, wonderful people and when we cheat . . . as long as we cheat just a little bit, we can still view ourselves as good people, but once we start cheating too much . . . we can’t view ourselves as good people and therefore we stop. So this model of trying to balance the ability to view ourselves as good people on one hand and the ability to cheat on the other hand predicts that people will cheat a little bit and they will still feel good about themselves . . . That’s what we see across many, many experiments.”

It turns out that rich people are more likely to lie, cheat and steal than people of lesser means. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley studied wealth, power and privilege. The rich are more likely to cheat on their taxes, cheat on their romantic partners, and are more likely to shoplift. They are often less empathic. In studies of charitable giving, it is often the lower-income households that donate higher proportions of their income than middle and upper income people. Studies suggest that wealth and power decrease inhibitions, increase risk taking and increase feelings of entitlement and invulnerability. Power makes people less able to see others’ perspectives.

The great lengths that celebrities and CEOs go through to advance their children’s education may actually be a waste of money. In 2014, economists Dale and Krueger published an analysis of the benefits of attending a highly selective college. Students who are poised to succeed tend to do so even if they don’t get into the Ivy League. But there was a crucial exception. There are strong benefits for the subset of black and Hispanic students, and for those whose parents had few educational credentials. It turns out that students who come from less privileged backgrounds benefit greatly from selective colleges. Elite higher education gives them social capital they didn’t already have.

Are the prestige and status granted to students of elite schools worth the price of arrest? Not for most of us.

Do you ever lie for your children? Under what circumstances?

Do You Have a Conspiracy Theory?

A conspiracy theory is a belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people. Don’t most of us subscribe to a conspiracy theory from time to time? We’re just sure that the US government is hiding evidence of extraterrestrial life on earth. Or, we’re confident that multiple gunmen shot John F Kennedy. And some of us believe that the Illuminati is secretly promoting a New World Order. According to anthropologists Todd Sanders and Harry G. West, evidence suggests that a broad cross-section of Americans today give credence to at least some conspiracy theories. A person who believes in one conspiracy theory tends to believe in others, even when one theory contradicts the other. Once we form a belief, the tendency to look for information that confirms our beliefs and disregard information that challenges them (confirmation bias), can cement them.

Is there a connection between conspiracy theories and mental illness? We have a non pathological need to search for meaning. In fact, one study by scientists discovered a link between conspiracy belief and the tendency of the mind to see order where none exists, called “illusory pattern perception.” But gone too far, conspiracy theories could be the product of a thought disorder, such as paranoid ideation. Human behavior is placed on a spectrum from psychologically healthy to a diagnosable mental illness. The strongest correlation between a diagnosable mental illness and conspiracy theorists, is found in DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), Schizotypal Personality Disorder. This set of traits includes a tendency to mistrust others, eccentricity, odd or deviant ideas, a need for uniqueness, and strange ways of viewing things.

Some people, in some circumstances are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. If people have little or no control over their current situation, they are more likely to see patterns in random images and believe in the supernatural. We are subconsciously reaching for a method of ordering this chaos, even if the connections are totally random. Humans have a tendency to give importance to negative emotions, thoughts and situations because it increases survival. Horrible things aren’t always conspiracies. They can be real. You may draw attention to an important concern that if not checked, could become a danger.

What’s the harm? One’s personal beliefs are not always benign. Consider witch hunts which were based on the belief that young women gathered in the woods to conspire with the devil. Personal beliefs that become collective action, can cause irreversible harm.

If you want to judge whether you have a tendency toward conspiracy theorizing, ask yourself the following questions:
How dangerous do I think the world is?
Am I comfortable with ambiguity or do I need certainty?
Do I feel powerless and insecure?
Do I have a need for uniqueness?
What sources do I reference for information and do they have a bias?
Do I have enough social support to feel valuable and maintain positive self regard?

Once you have reflected on these questions, I urge you to fact check your theories and look for alternative explanations. If nothing else, you’ll have a stronger position for debate.

A Scarcity Mind Set Pits Us Against Each Other

The fear of not getting enough is deeply ingrained in our society. Signs of fear are a belief that there is not enough for everyone. Since there is not enough for everyone, you need to fight for resources. You have to protect what is yours from others getting it. When we are focused on scarcity, we become more anxious and negative in our reactions.

The above meme  “If Methadone is free to addicts because they have a disease, Why is chemo not free for cancer patients?” went viral. This particular meme regarding Methadone is an example of a scarcity mind set. It is assumed that there are not enough resources, financial or otherwise, available to assist both cancer treatment and addiction treatment.

The meme may also imply that cancer patients are more valuable than people who are dependent upon opioids. This stigma is based upon the idea that drug abuse is amoral, antisocial behavior based upon a choice to become addicted. Is the same stigma applied to the person with lung cancer who made a conscious decision to pick up their first cigarette? One is not more worthy of treatment than the other. It’s a race to the bottom deciding who is worthy to live. Besides, the person dependent on opioids could be the next person to discover a cure for cancer.

I saw a post of the same meme with a comment, “At least cancer patients want to live and addicts don’t” or something to that effect. Although there are exceptions, opioid dependent persons do not have a death wish. Their lives are consumed with finding the substance they need to avoid withdrawal symptoms. They are doing everything they can to live pain free hour by hour, day by day.

Let’s clear up the facts. First, the opioid epidemic is a public health issue and the use of methadone maintenance is a harm-reduction strategy. Rates of drug related deaths are skyrocketing and medication assisted treatment has cut death rates by 50% or more. Methadone and Suboxone treatments are the gold standard of treatment.

Second, Methadone is not free. Why do some patients pay for their treatment and others pay nothing? It depends on the patient’s income and insurance status, the state’s funding programs, private or public grants, and whether the treatment clinic is profit or not-for-profit. All medical treatment, including cancer, varies across these lines.

Every time you see a meme that belittles addiction treatment, think twice before sharing it. No good comes from shaming people, and in fact, may prevent someone from entering treatment.

Those with a scarcity mind set believe that there are not enough resources to go around, leading to over-competitiveness. We don’t need to elbow our way to get the front-row seat. We could all join forces, not pitting against each other, to highlight the growing cost of medical care. Let’s unify to fight the same battle for all.

Secrets, Lies and Double Lives

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” (Sir Walter Scott, 1808).

Perhaps you read the best-selling book The Woman in the Window by author Dan Mallory, writing under the pseudonym AJ Finn. Apparently Mallory got caught up in a tangled web after creating a false persona in the editing field. He lied about his professional skills and experiences, falsely stating that he had earned a PhD from Oxford. He fabricated lies about having brain cancer on a university application and told the same to publishing colleagues. He wore an eyepatch claiming to lose sight in one eye after an operation on a brain tumor. His cancer provided an explanation for long work absences. His brain tumor “sort of cleared up,” baffling co-workers. Although his family was alive and well, he claimed that they were all dead as an explanation for his grades while completing his master’s degree.

When Mallory’s lies were discovered, he admitted that he never had cancer, and had used the illness to cover up for a mental illness. He was ashamed of his bipolar disorder and kept it a secret. He stated that depression, delusional thoughts, morbid obsessions, and memory problems forced him into periods of absence from work. Assuming that he is finally telling the truth, this doesn’t explain his unnecessary lies about his family and accomplishments.

Did you watch the movie Catch Me If You Can? It is based on the life of Frank W. Abagnale, alias Frank Williams, Robert Conrad, Frank Adams, and Robert Monjo. He was one of the most famous con men, forgers, imposters, and escape artists in history. Among his many personas, Abagnale co-piloted a Pan Am jet, masqueraded as a supervising resident of a hospital, practiced law without a license, passed himself off as a college sociology professor, and cashed more than $2.5 million in forged checks, all before he was twenty-one.

Why did he do it? In an interview he said the following, “It begins with my parents’ divorce and its dramatic effect on me. I ran away and suddenly found myself a teenager alone in the world. I had to grow up very quickly and become very creative in order to survive. But what started out as survival became more and more of a game. I was an opportunist, so when I saw an opening I asked myself, Could I get away with that? Then there was the satisfaction of actually getting away with it. The more I got away with, the more of a game it became a game I knew I would ultimately lose, but a game I was going to have fun playing until I did.”

It turns out that many people will lead a double life based upon secrets and lies. Lots of people have fantasies of being wealthier, more accomplished, or more admired than they currently are. False personas bolster the ego. But when deception is taken to the level of a dual life it can damage relationships, careers, and lead to criminal consequences. This behavior can spiral out of control, creating high-risk situations that are dangerous to themselves and others.

Are these signs of mental illness? Not necessarily. You don’t have to have a mental disorder to lead a double life. Consider people who make a living out of having a secret life such as spies, undercover police, and certain military personnel. They mean no harm.

If not mental illness, why do people create a life of deception? Both Abagnale and Mallory give clues as to reasons people might live a double life: shame, a need to survive, opportunity, and the enjoyment of playing a game and the satisfaction of playing it well. Some people are just greedy hedonists who believe they feel entitled. Personal pleasure is their primary life objective. They may not intend to hurt other people, but don’t get in their way. They may feel that rules don’t apply to them and that morals are more fluid than set.

My heart goes out to the innocent partners or family members who find that they have been betrayed. They may be entirely surprised to learn of this double life after years together in what they thought was a stable, honest and open relationship based upon trust. Perhaps they didn’t know that their partner gambled, was a substance abuser, was sexually unfaithful, committed fraud, or was hiding money in multiple accounts. The betrayed partner will never trust the same way again.

The truth is that some people are so good at secrets, lies and deception that there is little you can do to protect yourself. You may find yourself the victim in a tangled web. Deception is fostered by secrets. I recommend that you seek social support and voice your suspicions rather than be bound by secrets. You don’t need solid proof of wrongdoing. Close relationships should be based upon full disclosure. If you suspect that your partner is hiding something, talk it out rather than be silenced.

Do you suspect someone is leading a double life? Protect yourself if possible.