The Catch-22 of a Stucky Brain
Last installment * I wrote about what it's
like to have a heat- seeking psyche drawn to the edges where life is intense. Then I
discussed some of the twists and turns such a drive can take, from literal mountain
climbing to exploring the conceptual peaks inside our own heads.
No matter which way it manifests, the Catch-22 for all for edge-
seekers, as I noted last time with a grin and a sigh, is that everything new becomes old
eventually, which may make it hard to sustain engagement long term. Yet it's another part
of our paradox that people like us tend to keep seeking only until we do not.
Some of the things we find at those edges turn out to feel so
good, we are more than happy to keep on repeating them. But that can be another
double-edged sword all its own, since overattachment can be just as big a problem as the
One bouncing-brained doctor friend sums up this facet of things as
an "addiction to intensity." Another physician pal of mine, Phil Kavenaugh, a
stimulus- driven psychiatrist, suggests that all attention difficulties involve what he
calls "ADDictive energy," getting overly stuck on whatever works to fuel our
engagement, whether that stimulus source happens to be pleasure or pain.
The notion that people can get over-attached to either pleasure or
pain may also seem paradoxical if you're accustomed to thinking "addictions" are
always about attachments that feel good. But that's not exactly the case.
Addictions are fueled by a search for relief, not a quest for
pleasure per se.
How do you spell relief? To seek relief from boredom, a kid might get "addicted" to video
games or an adult might develop a literal addiction to gambling. To seek release from
feelings of low self- esteem, someone might get "addicted" to quarreling to
compensate for feeling invalidated. Or to seek relief from feeling unlikable, someone
might obsess on the nuances of every relationship, "addicted" to replaying each
scene in his or her mind and "perserverating" as my psychiatrist pal might call
There is a growing body of medical evidence suggesting the
"fix" people get from repetitive contact with certain kinds of stimuli has a
"self-medicating" effect, a neurochemical lift the brain seeks to compensate for
low spots in its own chemistry. It is thought this same dynamic might also be behind a
large proportion of alcoholism and drug abuse, especially when there appears to be a
genetic propensity within a family.
Whatever the cause, the consequence seems to be a
"stucky" brain, to paraphrase a favorite term of another clinician I know.
The irony is that if overly stuck on an approved activity -- such
as work -- critics fall back, even applaud, depending on what you achieve. There might be
jokes like "get a life," but those jokes mix with envy at the tenacity which
permits the accomplishments. It is only when we get stuck on counterproductive thoughts or
activities that it's perceived as a problem to overcome.
So how to permit one kind of "addiction" while
preventing the other? That is the ultimate Catch-22 for bouncing brains who fuel their
brains with intensity.
Constructive obsession & stimulus
substitution: Ideally, all bouncing brains would
learn how to channel their heat- seeking energies into healthy outlets that help us grow
and avoid getting attached to habits that hold us back. We'd allow constructive
"addictions" that permit us to hyperfocus on writing books, creating paintings,
unraveling the tangles in computer systems, or training to the point of mastery in a
sport, but we'd also know how to turn it off when it's time to plug in to things less
But that's certainly easier said than done.
One of the tricks that sometimes works is "stimulus
substitution," swapping one attachment for another. To take one rather amusing case,
I know a kid who has hopped from being overattached to macaroni, to having Spaghetti-O's
every day, to having nothing but Ramen soup for lunch, to eating only burgers and hot dogs
for months. Rather than fight what's unlikely to change, his Machiavellian mother
facilitates attachment-switching by periodically planting other temptations in his path.
Bit by bit, she's broadened his palette and rotated his diet, even if he hasn't been cured
of being overly stuck on one food group at a time.
So the good news is it's possible to redirect one's focus into
healthier channels; the bad news is it often takes patient persistence, and a protracted
process like this may lack the immediate feedback the heat-seeking psyche desires.
That latter problem can be attacked by building your own feedback
Finding the feedback: If you don't have a Machiavellian parent around to plant healthy
attachments in your path, or to deliver the "attagirl!" or "attaboy!"
you need to hear when you're losing steam, then it's time to find your own reinforcements,
not in penance for your "weakness," but as a vote for your wellbeing.
The simplest way, as most of us know but sometimes forget to do,
is to pair benchmarks with benefits. Set small, reasonable goals and reward yourself when
they're done. A benchmark could be as simple as "clean this corner today" and a
benefit could be as modest as carry-out Chinese for a night off from cooking.
What about more complex problems that may not be so easily chunked
into a "step a day" plan of attack? Those sorts of goals may take more elaborate
forms of feedback.
One of the more effective reinforcement schemes I've seen is an
online "Accountability Group" in which a circle of email pals swaps daily notes
about their goals and plans, then met online in live chat once a week to discuss what has
worked or not and cheer each other on.
A simpler path to a similar end might only take enlisting one
trusted friend. The important part is to have a supportive exchange with someone
other than that little voice in the back of your brain which may be as likely to beat you
up as to cheer you on.
So if the going gets tough, don't go it alone. Enroll your mate, a
friend, a relative, enlist a support group, coach, or therapist, and form your own team of
coaches and cheerleaders.
Which costs are worth bearing? Benchmarks and coaches might be fine for tackling day to day tasks, but
what about the larger life issues you ask? How is someone who needs to be obsessively
intense in order to do his best supposed to earn a living? How much do I need to reshape
myself, and how much should the world make space?
It all depends on where and how you want to fit in, doesn't it?
To some bouncing brains, nirvana looks like "normalcy."
They don't like feeling different; they'd love nothing more than to be told how to round
off their bumps as they yearn for more consistent acceptance.
Others enjoy their bumpier parts. They like being the nails who
stand out a bit and take some pride in their differences, but struggle to find a way to
thrive in a world where conforming is prized and different may only mean "less
than" in too many employer's eyes.
The bottom line? Each of us has to decide for ourselves which
costs are worth which benefits. That takes diving deep enough into your gut to figure out
what moves you most, after which you can more easily see which trade-offs are
worth which benefits.
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