Negative Reinforcement Has Its Limits

Well. This can’t go on.

First of all, it’s both good and bad that right now the PTSD has nothing to work on. It’s good in that I can work on the neuroses that my father induced in me, which are somewhat independent of the PTSD—they can certainly make the PTSD worse, but they can be worked upon separately. It’s bad in that the denial track in my mind has obliterated almost all material that could have been worked upon from the… holiday weeks. What I can remember from that time tends to be the neutral or good events, which my mind pretends didn’t happen during those weeks. In fact, my mind pretends those weeks don’t exist, unless I think really hard about them and roll life’s d20s really well.

This kind of nearly total, almost unavoidable, pretty much automatic denial must be how I managed to remain functional for so long in such a terrible mental environment, but I’m getting old and it works less and less. Oh well….

So, the neuroses.

They’re pretty much centered on one of the many bad things about my father, which is that he relied on purely negative reinforcement to get me to perform well. ((Or to use as an excuse to work out his stress and anger on a target. Probably both.)) For instance, if I didn’t study constantly and do well in school, he would beat me and verbally abuse me and threaten to kill my mother if I didn’t do better ((I sometimes refer to horrific events in my life in a most blase way, which makes some people think that I’m not affected by them. Hello, coping mechanisms? They still affect me subconsciously.)), etc. Whereas if I did study constantly and did do well in school, he would merely verbally abuse me at about the same level as before. I could get straight A’s, even A+’s, and he still called me a retard, a whore, worthless, useless, and told me that I should never have been born, should be dead, cause tornadoes and untold suffering upon innocents by my simple existence ((To be fair, he believed all women did that sort of thing.)), etc. But at least he didn’t physically torture me.

(This all applies also to not straying from home and staying away from wild, rebel teenage behavior. Some people believe that my father would only beat me, etc., because I was a wanton thing really and deserved it. Some people are stupid. Unfortunately… well, see later on.)

Thus when I perform well in life, and I do feel like I should perform stunningly all of the time, thanks to his influence, I don’t really enjoy it as much as I should. Often I don’t enjoy it at all. And by “don’t enjoy” I mean “every mark of praise, internally or externally, is a lie or an agenda or just someone taking pity on me or something even worse or I’m misinterpreting it into a positive thing.” And on the other hand, every mark of disapproval is, by default, true.

Someone at this point will tell me that I’m stupid for not realizing this isn’t true, but the problem is, I do know it’s not true. But unfortunately, exactly the opposite is what’s emotionally valid to me, what “feels right.” This can lead to a meta-conflict in my head on top of everything else.

My father also trained me, on pain of pain and pain of death, to not contradict others. This is problematic in day to day life; even if someone said that the sky was red-orange when it was blue, I would eventually agree with them that it was red-orange, despite at the same time knowing that it’s really blue. ((Yes, I know, sky color’s an illusion caused by dust particles or sommat in the air.)) I can’t actually bring myself to say they’re lying or wrong or misguided, at least not for long. Despite the fact that I can feel very strongly about things, and even fight for my own views, I capitulate easily. It’s not necessarily a fear of being punished, it’s just… a feeling that that’s how things work. Even though I know this is not so. ((More than anything else, this is why I nuke the more clueless comments on this blog. Without third-party prompting I will eventually believe I’m at fault for the most trollish of things. As I told my bartender, the border between pretending to believe something, and actually believing it, is far thinner and more easily breached than people would like to think about.))

I continue to be allergic to Good. Praise will sometimes make me cry and always pain me in some manner; friendship or, gods forbid, love, will make my heart flutter and hurt, especially if I’m physically in the presence of people I have a good relationship with. On the other hand, I seem fairly well-prepared for negative attention, inasmuch as it’s possible to be so; I still feel bad, but at least it doesn’t cause me almost physical, soul-rending pain.

Man, if I do get a cat, it’s going to hurt for I-don’t-know-how-long.

Blend this all up with bipolar I and PTSD, and it gets really ugly.

I need a plan to deal with all this. I mean, an over-arching plan. And I mean, one that works. “Walk it off,” “think your way out logically,” “ignore it,” “work more,” “you’re not that important,” “find God,” “meditate daily,” and so on are pretty much out.

ETA: This is not an invitation to start suggesting things in the comments. This shit is really complicated and personal.

Though I guess, the way my neuroses work, it could be the case that eventually I will believe praise if it’s repeated enough times, but my father’s actions definitely made sure that starting to believe such things is like sticking my hand into a barrel of rusty nails and thus much less likely to take when compared to disapproval. Reversing the polarity doesn’t quite work; my neuroses don’t end up being balanced equations.

Fortunately, unlike in fiction, there are therapists in real life.

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10 thoughts on “Negative Reinforcement Has Its Limits

  1. I wonder if aversion therapy would work? It might not make you BELIEVE in the praise, but it would probably keep praise from making you hurt, at least.

    • o.O!

      Isn’t the problem already stemming from years of aversion therapy? I don’t understand what you’re suggesting, and I’d be surprised if Arachne gets it.

    • My father’s “treatment” of… whatever… involved both negative reinforcement of good behavior and aversion therapy applied to praise.

      Aversion therapy is a form of psychological treatment in which the patient is exposed to a stimulus while simultaneously being subjected to some form of discomfort. This conditioning is intended to cause the patient to associate the stimulus with unpleasant sensations in order to stop the specific behavior. — Wikipedia

      I think I don’t want this and it’ll probably make things worse. Combatting two decades of (inexpert but impeccably, constantly, and effectively applied) aversion therapy with more aversion therapy of the opposite would probably spiral me into insanity.

      Right now I feel the effects of it when replying to your comment, and I probably would have said, “Well, you must be right,” were it not for Trinker (thank you, Trinker, by the way).

      Apologies for this reply.

      • ack, sorry! i was totally thinking of the wrong thing: i meant systematic desensitization. not a helper. sorry.

        • Ah, that makes more sense. No worries.

          It would take a lot of systematic desensitization. My bartender recommends a cat or some other fuzzy pet that demonstrates love for this purpose.

          Technically, if it were possible for me to be desensitized to the pain of praise, it would have been done long ago. It’s more like my father desensitized me to praise itself, and then piled aversion on top of that.

          It are a thorny problem.

          • You so need a cat.

            It seems to me that he desensitized you to all the happy, feeling-good things that make up normality, exchanging it for a twisted, sick version of his reality instead, attempting to train you to respond to pain instead of pleasure. Sick fuck.

            Kinda makes me wonder if those cheezmo affirmations that some people do in front of a mirror would be at all beneficial. They always seem so weird and fake to me.. but then again, the line between belief and saying you believe is so very thin…

      • You’re welcome.

        I can’t remember whether you and your bartender have ever discussed EMDR for you, but that’s the only PTSD therapy that I can envision suggesting to you. But I’m not your bartender, and I’m loath to meddle.

        I am glad you made it out of the holidays as well as you did. I will continue to hold your hope for you, so that you need not do so yourself.

        • We mentioned it in passing once a while ago. Sadly, EMDR isn’t a magic wand that fixes all cases of PTSD in less than 10 sessions, which for some reason is how it seems to get sold. Most cases of PTSD aren’t the result of accumulating constant horrific trauma ever since infancy for two decades. Not only are there a lot of target memories to try to take down session by session, but some of them may not actually be accessible anymore, even though they still affect me. “Still waters.”

          Plus there’s the way that childhood trauma physically fucks up the amygdala, which EMDR doesn’t magically heal.

          And, of course, there’s my bipolar.

          (Suddenly I have a feeling that as EMDR gets more popular, I’m going to be taken to task by various people for not doing it.)

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