Two legends in psychology — and popular culture — presented at this year’s American Psychological Association Convention. Synonymous with concepts pervasive within education, psychotherapy, and integrative approaches (combining aspects of yoga, medical research, and psychotherapy) Sir Michael Rutter, MD and Steven Hayes, Ph.D. each gave powerful and illuminating presentations.
Sir Michael Rutter was introduced by past-APA President Richard Suinn. Sir Michael (Sir/Dr. Rutter?) not only has a voluminous body of writing about resilience, but is considered “the father of modern child psychiatry”.
Sir Rutter described the development of his interest, from his family origins to his work studying genetics and coping mechanisms (e.g., Gamezy & Rutter, 1983) to his interest in longitudinal studies which suggest “protective factors” at play. As a medical practitioner he was long aware of the ongoing relationship between genetic and environmental factors. Throughout his presentation he referred to this interaction, and how there is a process, distinct from single static traits which inoculate against the devastation of stress. In a way reminiscent of HS Sullivan’s Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, he described how, in fortuitous circumstances, some people can leapfrog over a state of dysfunction and regain normal life, for reasons beyond one factor alone (genetics or environment).
“Resilience = Relative resistance to environmental risk experiences, OR the overcoming of stress or adversity, OR a relatively good outcome despite risk experiences.”
Resilience is NOT, Rutter said, “just social competence or positive mental health.” He has some reservations about some of the efforts to “teach resilience,” for example as part of a standardized school curriculum. Schools who try to teach resilience in the same manner as teaching ABC’s, he said, “are bound to fail.”
Sir Rutter has observed that there are various coping mechanisms which may inoculate against damage, including what he terms “steeling effects”. One example might be parachute jumping, where “parachute jumping leads to physiological adaptation” and a habitual steeling against fear or physiological survival responses. Generally, “if you want to be resistant to infection the worst possible thing you could do is avoid ALL exposure.” Similarly, to participate in the normal activities of life, one needs to develop some resistance/coping mechanisms. Add to the paradigm psychological defenses in addition to physiological ones, and notions such as Bandura’s concept of “self-efficacy” (as well as that of “mindfulness”) take on additional importance.
Moving now from one hugely popular topic to another….
APA attendees were also treated to an unforgettable, immersive experience in the form of a powerful and unique presentation by another legend in psychology, Dr. Steven Hayes. Hayes is widely known for his ACT philosophy and therapeutic strategy. That’s Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Celebrated as an empirically-supported (read: “evidence-based”) cognitive/behavior approach, it draws additionally from “relational frame theory” and differs from most other approaches with its core focus on “mindfulness.” Rather than trying to squash unwanted thoughts, one becomes mindful and acceptant and able to transcend one’s own self-defeating responses.
The technique and philosophical underpinnings are far too complex to summarize here — with Dr. Hayes himself commenting that he was mindful of time and place and would not address the minutia of his approach. But what he presented can never be forgotten by those who watched and listened, as he shared a powerful combination of his own life narrative along with examples of factors which shape our daily lives.
Dr. Hayes began a multi-media presentation with a “slide” depicting a black & white television, in the 1950’s. This was to begin some personal reflections, only a few of which can be shared here, but which were powerful and made it easy to see where some of Hayes’ ideas may have originated — such as the toxicity of “objectification” in our language and popular culture, feeding the polarization and hatred which pervade societies. A sample:
1956. A little boy watching his mother.
He didn’t understand at the time. But he knew something powerful had happened, between what was shown on the television and the reaction of his mother (who spit at the TV and turned it off). Thirty five years later he gave his mother’s assumed name (taken to escape certain death in the Holocaust) to his own daughter.
Objectification. Judgment. Lack of Acceptance: “Guess what? If you can apply it to others you can apply it to yourself. And if it’s not you, then it’s the person sitting on either side of you.”
Therapists need to be mindful, too
1984. “Watching my African-American daughter come into a room.” And seeing the reaction.
History and society’s responses were sampled. Hayes noted the characteristics and power of rhetoric: “We are swimming in a sea of language,” objectifying and disabling our humanity.
And the goal? “Psychological flexibility: We want people to be open, active, and centered. The Buddhists are right.”