Robert F. Mullen, PhD
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Utilizing Psychobiography to Moderate Symptoms of SAD
Abstract: Putting practical application to theory, this paper illustrates how the research techniques of psychobiography are incorporated into a comprehensive recovery program for social anxiety disorder.
Keywords: character-motivation, childhood disturbance, emotional disorders, Maslow, recovery, self-esteem, social anxiety
Psychobiography can be a most helpful treatment method in moderating the impact of social anxiety disorder (SAD), which is one of the most common mental disorders, negatively impacting the emotional and mental well-being of millions of U.S. adults and adolescents who find themselves caught up in a densely interconnected network of fear and avoidance of social situations. SAD is culturally identifiable by the persistent fear of social and performance situations in which we claim to be misunderstood, judged, criticized, and ridiculed. The irony is that we have far more to fear from our distorted perceptions than the opinions of others. Our imagination takes us to dark and lonely places.
SAD makes us feel helpless and hopeless, trapped in a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety, and restricted from living a “normal” life. We feel alienated and disconnected—loners full of uncertainty, hesitation, and trepidation. Our fear of disapproval and rejection is so severe that we avoid the life experiences that interconnect us with others and the world. Fearing the unknown and unexplored, we obsess about upcoming situations and how we will reveal our shortcomings, experiencing anticipatory anxiety for weeks before an event and expecting the worst. We feel like we are living under a microscope, and everyone is judging us negatively, making us worry about what we say, how we look, and how we express ourselves. We are obsessed with how others perceive us; we feel undesirable and worthless.
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As a SAD survivor, researcher, and workshop facilitator, I have found that the investigative methods utilized in psychobiography offer a unique understanding of how our motivation to succeed is seriously impaired by the symptoms of SAD. Until my psychology graduate study, I was convinced my emotional dysfunctions were the consequence of poor behavior rather than SAD-symptomatic. It was then I realized the immeasurable value of the in-depth case study that forms the crux of psychobiography. Recovery can be encapsulated by the phrase: “We are not defined by our social anxiety; we are defined by our character strengths, virtues, and achievements.”
SAD is a product of our negative core and intermediate beliefs induced by childhood disturbance. Cumulative evidence that a toxic childhood is a primary causal factor in lifetime emotional instability has been well-established. Emotional disorders sense the child’s vulnerability and onset during adolescence. (In the later-life onset of narcissistic personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], the susceptibility originates in childhood.) The disruption of emotional development subverts the child’s natural physiological and emotional evolution, denying the satisfaction of self-esteem. This does not signify a deficit, but both latency and dormancy are expressed by our undervaluation or regression of our positive self-qualities.
In a recent article, I stated the case that the psychobiographic emphasis on the eminent extraordinary limits its potential to understand the character motivations of the “ordinary” extraordinary who has achieved a significant personal milestone. To the average individual living with SAD, a noteworthy milestone is recovery-remission from emotional dysfunction. Putting practical application to theory, I have incorporated research methods of psychobiography into our comprehensive recovery programs.
The role of psychobiography is to generate a more in-depth understanding of the qualities and characteristics that motivate us to achieve and overcome adversity. A primary function of recovery is to galvanize the SAD person to reclaim mindfulness of their character strengths, virtues, and achievements. Recognizing and accepting our inherent and developed personal values encourages us to embrace the extraordinariness of our lives, confirming we are consequential and valuable.
The lifetime-consistent influx of negative self-beliefs and images generated by SAD negatively impacts the natural development of self-esteem, defined as the realization of one’s significance to self and community. Self-esteem is the complex interrelationship between how we think about ourselves, how we think others perceive us, and how we process and express that information.
The roots of this lacuna are illustrated by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of developmental needs. Childhood physical, emotional, or sexual disturbance disrupts our emotional and physiological development. Our sense of safety and security as well as feelings of belongingness and being loved are subverted, denying the satisfaction of self-esteem. While access to Maslow’s hierarchal levels is nonlinear, when coupled with our negative core and intermediate beliefs, the impact on our self-esteem becomes a certainty.
Maslow and Psychobiography: Realizing Our Potential
The collaboration of psychobiography and positive psychology traces its origins to themes addressed by Maslow that stress the importance of focusing on our positive qualities to realize our potential—to become the most that we can be. A function of psychobiography is to generate an understanding of the individual to learn what motivates our thoughts and behaviors. SAD functions by compelling irrational and self-destructive thoughts and behaviors due to its life-consistent negative self-beliefs and images. Psychobiography lays the groundwork for rational response.
The foundation of positive psychology is a human’s ability, development, and potential. The SAD symptomatic, life-consistent neural input of toxic information subverts our recognition and appreciation of our inherent and developed character strengths, virtues, and achievements—a trajectory initiated by our negative core and intermediate beliefs. It is the role of psychobiography to study the character attributes that generate the motivation to achieve and apply these understandings toward optimal functioning and improved life satisfaction.
The Influence of Core Beliefs in SAD
Core beliefs are determined by our childhood physiology, heredity, environment, information input, experience, learning, and relationships. Negative core beliefs are generated by any childhood disturbance that interferes with our optimal physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development. Perhaps we were subject to dysfunctional parenting, a lack of emotional validation, gender bullying, or a broken home. The disturbance can be intentional or accidental, real, or perceptual. A toddler whose parental quality time is interrupted by a phone call can sense abandonment, which can generate core beliefs of unworthiness or insignificance.
Core beliefs remain our belief system throughout life and govern our perceptions. They are more rigid in SAD persons because we tend to store information consistent with negative self-beliefs, ignoring evidence that contradicts. A recent Japanese study on emotional neuroticism found that core beliefs about the negative self generate cognitive vulnerabilities in achievement, dependency, and self-control. SAD generates cognitive distortions and maladaptive behaviors counterproductive to logical reasoning, negatively impacting the rationality and accuracy of our perspectives and decisions.
Aaron Beck is the undisputed pioneer of cognitive-behavioral therapy for social anxiety and depression. He assigned negative core beliefs to two categories: self-oriented (“I am undesirable”) and other-oriented (“You are undesirable”). Individuals with self-oriented negative core beliefs view themselves in four ways: we feel helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and/or worthless. These beliefs can lead to fears of intimacy and commitment, an inability to trust, debilitating anxiety, codependence, aggression, feelings of insecurity, isolation, a lack of control over life, and resistance to new experiences. People with other-oriented negative core beliefs view people as demeaning, dismissive, malicious, or manipulative. By blaming others, we avoid personal accountability for our behaviors.
Intermediate Beliefs: Establishing Attitudes, Rules, and Assumptions
The accumulated negative core beliefs due to childhood disturbance and other early-life experiences heavily influence our intermediate beliefs that develop our adolescence. As with core beliefs, they support our natural negative bias, neurobiologically inputting toxic information that reinforces our negative self-valuations. Intermediate beliefs establish our attitudes, rules, and assumptions. Attitude refers to our emotions, convictions, and behaviors. Rules are the principles or regulations that influence our behaviors. Our assumptions are what we believe to be true or real. A SAD person’s attitude is one of self-denigration, assumptions illogical and cognitively distorted, and rules interacted by destructive behaviors,
A comprehensive recovery workshop must consider the needs of the individual within the group. One-size-fits-all approaches are anathema to recovery. Just as there is no one right way to do or experience recovery and transformation, so also what benefits one individual may not be helpful to another. The insularity of cognitive-behavioral therapy, positive psychologies, and other approaches cannot comprehensively address the complexity of the personality. Our environment, heritage, background, and associations reflect our wants, choices, and aspirations. If they are not given appropriate consideration, then we are not valued.
Devising a targeted recovery approach requires multiple perspectives from different psychological and scientific schools of thought developed through client trust, cultural assimilation, and therapeutic innovation. A collaboration of science and East-West psychologies is essential to capture the diversity of human thought and experience. Science gives us proactive neuroplasticity: cognitive-behavioral modification, positive psychology, and psychobiography are western-oriented; and eastern practices provide the therapeutic benefits of Buddhist psychology, as well as a sense of self that embraces the positive qualities of the individual. The qualitative and quantitative research elements of psychobiography, including the case study, hermeneutics, interpretations and explanations, personal data and evidence, and the narrative are useful tools for understanding the impact of SAD on our self-beliefs and images.
Quantitative and Qualitative Research
Quantitative research involves the empirical investigation of observable and measurable variables. It is used for testing theory, predicting and illustrating outcomes, and considering clinically-supported techniques. Quantitative research generates hypotheses and helps determine research and recovery strategies. It can include data-driven research, scales, personal inventories, and comparative or correlational studies. Although conceived as focusing on data articulated numerically, quantitative analysis is also used to study feared situations and the severity of anxiety.
Qualitative research provides a close-up look at the human side of SAD relative to behaviors, beliefs, emotions, and relationships, supported by such intangible factors as social norms, ethnicity, socio-economic status, philosophy, and religion. A comprehensive study of the status and motivations of a SAD person is partially compiled through interviews, open-ended questions, and opinion research to gain insight into perceptions and belief systems.
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The psychobiographic in-depth case study is a reconstructive clinical and systematic analysis of the life and productivity of an individual. The key is the availability of evidence. Accessing therapeutic notes and conclusions is legally impermissible; the workshop facilitator must lean heavily on experience and innovative methods of discovery. A case study of a recovering SAD person relies heavily on personal interviews—testimony that is conditional and truthful to the extent that the individual believes it or needs the facilitator to believe it. Clinically-supported scales and inventories are useful, and statistical research and studies are abundant. Comparative and correlational evidence supports conclusions.
Psychobiography: Interpretations and Explanations
Psychobiography is an interpretation of the life of individuals, extraordinary or otherwise. Interpretations and explanations compensate for the physiological and psychological resistance to personal revelation. Recollections are highly subject to inaccuracies. We must ask ourselves, to what extent are memories of subjective experiences and events accurate portrayals of what happened, wistful recollections, or biased reconstructions? Whether correctly recalled or not, memories and recollections must be valued as authentic perceptions of the reality of the individual. In the case of Michael Z., his recollections of childhood physical and emotional abuse helped him understand and moderate his avoidance of trust and intimacy.
Interpretation permeates all investigations from data to statistics, the case study, and hermeneutics. Psychobiography is an intuitive, interpretive method of comprehension based upon the synthesis of evidence culled from all available, relevant sources. Therapists must partially base their diagnosis on the interpretation of observable behaviors.
A facilitator must consider the multiplicities of truth, which means different things to different people and is contingent upon the validity of the information provided by the subject. We must be willing to risk and value our interpretations, instincts, and even speculations while remaining cognizant that we are susceptible to incorporating personal sensibilities and subject to imperfect conclusions, due to the vagaries and ambiguities of the subject.
Hermeneutics: An Essential Step in Recovery
Hermeneutics is essential to recovery due to the core beliefs of the child impacted by a dysfunction-provoking disturbance. The disruption in emotional development coupled with unjustifiable shame and guilt generates negative and often hostile perspectives in early learning which leans heavily on morality and religion. The unjustifiable shame and guilt expressed by Matty S. was a reliable indicator of his sense of undesirability and worthlessness. Recognizing his non-accountability for onset allowed him to realize the irrationality of his adverse moral emotions. The negative belief system of the susceptible child cognitively distorts their understanding of self and their relationship with others and the world. A major function of recovery is moderating these irrational beliefs. This entails identifying and examining our disruptive thoughts and behaviors and generating rational responses, while proactively repatterning our neural network.
Narrative: The Ordinary Extraordinary
The narrative aspect of psychobiography favors the “ordinary” extraordinary because of their ability to access experiences. While the narrative of the average individual may lack spectacularism it does not impede creativity. Every SAD individual’s life is distinctive, consisting of unique experiences, beliefs, and sensibilities. How we express that information is subject to our self-beliefs and images. Through the interview and narrative process, Liz D. was able to rationally comprehend and moderate her intense situational fear of constructive confrontation. Its complex origins stemmed from her adolescent intermediate self-beliefs. The role of the personal narrative in moderating negative-self perceptions is significant.
This article illustrates the value of psychobiography in constructing an individually targeted approach to recovery from social anxiety disorder. A psychobiography generates hypotheses and helps determine recovery strategies while offering a close-up look at the human side of SAD relative to behaviors, beliefs, emotions, and relationships. It provides support in evaluating and treating the individual within the workshop gestalt. The investigative methods utilized in psychobiography, including the case study, hermeneutics, interview, narrative, and the relevant social sciences, are valuable to understanding the trajectory of and methods to moderate life-consistent negative self-beliefs and images. Less reliable is the availability of an informed case study and personal data and evidence. This lacuna is compensated by the experienced facilitator’s interpretation of common threads in SAD recovery, supported by statistical research and comparative and correlational evidence.
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Clio’s Psyche is a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal, founded in 1994, and published by the Psychohistory Forum, holding regular scholarly meetings in Manhattan and at international conventions. Clio’s Psyche is unique in that it prefers experiential testimony over extensive citation.
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