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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Misogyny & Dependent Personality Disorder

Treatment Tuesday is brought to you today by Cathy. Always one to stretch my goal of helping writers make their characterizations and plots more meaningful from a psychological perspective, Cathy threw me a question that will broaden the perimeters of my service. So thanks, Cathy!

Cathy is considering writing a book about a male misogynist. She wrote in wanting to know what kind of woman would fall get caught in this cyclical trap of emotional abuse.

Well, to know that, we first have to consider what a misogynist is. For those who were about to type it in your online dictionary program, most people think of a misogynist as a man who hates women. This hate is not always manifested by physical abuse, but almost always involves emotional and psychological abuse.

What might not be as common a definition, but that is completely t
rue, is that misogynists often have an irrational fear of women. And we all know how common it is for someone to automatically hate what he or she fears. Misogyny can be found on a continuum, and some versions can be quite subtle. For example, insisting a woman do all domestic chores. Or a culture that believes women should be seen and not heard. The other end of the extreme is violent treatment. And because a man might hold some misogynist views doesn’t mean he couldn’t have a positive relationship with a woman. The reverse is true, as well, in that having positive relationships with women doesn’t necessarily preclude a man from having misogynistic views.

So, Cathy, the first thing I’d advise you to do is decide where on the continuum you’re going to write this man.

Now, onto the woman. Based on our emails, you’re envisioning a woman who is drawn to a guy even after he treats her terribly. She feels called to be merciful to him, but why does she keep putting herself in a position for him to treat her so badly?

To figure this out, we have to look at HER issues. What’s going onside her that would make her stay? The most obvious (and easiest) answer is that she’s afraid of being abandoned. That fear would suspend your reader’s belief enough that they would understand why she stays, despite the poor treatment. Another possibility is she has extremely low self-esteem, and feels she must take what she is given either a) because she deserves it or b) it’s better being with him than the alternative of being alone (which is really another way of stating she’s scared of abandonment).

So what would this look like played out in every day actions? To answer this, I went to my handy Diagnostic and Statistical M
anual of Mental Disorders (4th edition, text revision) that we use to diagnose mental disorders. My fingers immediately went to Dependent Personality Disorder.

You mentioned you were thinking of having her be the only child of an abusive, alcoholic father and codepe
ndent mom. You wrote that the misogynist reminds the woman of her father, which is very telling of abusive childhoods. Typically, women abused as children will often choose a man who also abuses them. A great angle to play up for this woman is to have her somehow abandoned (or the very real feel of abandonment) by her parents. She might have felt abandoned by her father every time he turned to the bottle and abandoned by her mother every time she turned a blind eye to the abuse. That sort of thing would make for a very believable backstory for your heroine.

[Just an aside here, but I don’t want to confuse anyone. Codependency is NOT the same thing as Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD). I can write another post on the difference later, if you're interested.]

A woman with DPD would have difficulty expressing disagreement with ot
hers because of a fear of losing support or approval. She’s not going to stand up to the man while he’s berating her, for example, which fits perfectly with a wallflower, fade-into-the-background kind of woman. She would have difficulty initiating projects of doing things on her own because of a lack of confidence in her judgment and abilities. She would go to extra lengths to volunteer to do things that are unpleasant simply to obtain nurturance and support from others.

She would have difficulty making every day decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others. This could fit with the analytical personality, as she could absolutely over-analyze things to a point that renders her useless. She’d want others to assume responsibility for most major areas of her life, and this would fit with his tendency to be take-charge and controlling.

The tricky part with working within this type framework would be to include some part of her background that lent itself toward exaggerated fears of being unable to take care of herself. She’s overly cautious, you wrote, so I could see how that might fit. But this type personality would feel uncomfortable or helpless when alone because of these fears. So not so sure that would fit, depending on her history leading up to when she meets this man. She might even be so desperate to have care and support that as soon as one close relationship ends, she would urgently seek another. Perhaps her backstory could h
ave this in it.

Bear in mind that not every characteristic in bold would be required to diagnose someone with Dependent Personality Disorder. Mental illnesses have several diagnostic criteria, and usually only some are required for diagnosis. In this case, of the eight symptoms, five would have to be evident. So you can pick and choose, even.

As always, please email with further questions if this sparks something. And if it’s totally not the direction you want to go, email me back and I can come up with something else!

One thing to check out is Al-Anon, the group of people with relatives who are alcoholics. It doesn’t matter who you are or what their relationship to you, the group is based on the idea that alcoholism affects the entire family. So you might find some good information about how children of alcoholics grow up. (And I know there are several books on the subject, many of which I own but are in storage due to the move!) But that’s another idea to look into.

That’s it for today…hope this helps, Cathy.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Body Image

I'm guessing there isn't a one of us out there who don't know someone who has a body image problem. A friend, relative, coworker...or we might even have one ourselves. So it stands to reason that at some point, some character of ours will have this issue, right?

I've recently read two books in which the heroine was a woman with a fuller figure than "average." Kaye Dacus wrote The Stand-In Groom, which featured a size 18 wedding planner and Laura Jensen Walker wrote Miss Invisible, which centered around a "big girl" (not plus-sized) professional baker. Also, Tamara Leigh wrote Perfecting Kate, which was about a woman who undergoes some dental work, mole removal, hair highlights and gets contacts only to realize her biggest makeover needed to happen on the inside. All three are excellent examples of how this is such an issue facing people today...especially women.

These authors did such a great job of making realistic pictures of how it is for some women (okay, a lot of women). I want to explain to you the Three Ds to a Body Image Disturbance, and how these authors combated this in their books (whether they knew this, or not...there is a psychological rhyme to the reason).

First, there is DISSATISFACTION. A dislike of all or parts of our body. This is the easy D to write. We've all compared ourselves to others and found ourselves lacking in some physical way. Most of us have looked in the mirror in despair that we'll never have the smokin' hot body of the latest Hollywood starlet or even of our own self...10 years ago. So this is real to us and everyone else. Our readers will be right on the same page with us.

Second, there is DISTORTION, where there is a discrepancy between the self-perception of the body and others' perception. Every single girl with an eating disorder (either Anorexia nervosa or Bulimia nervosa) has this idea that they look way different than what other people tell them they look. They will see fat where there is no fat. They will see imperfections that simply aren't there. This quality is further along the mental health continuum than dissatisfaction.

The third D is even further along the continuum toward an unhealthy body image. DISCONNECTION is the inability to feel bodily sensations or to even be aware of your body in space (in the present). It's to separate your mind from your body almost as a way to deny that you even have a body. Not many readers will get this (and I suggest that unless you're writing a book about a person with an eating disorder, don't go here), but I still wanted to include the final D.

I liked Tamara Leigh's book in particular because it dealt with something other than weight. Physical image is huge to Americans. Yes, we've probably all obsessed over our weight at some time or another. Yes, we've probably all gone on some sort of diet. But what about how we look?

Little dissatisfactions with ourselves have a way of popping up in how we treat and take care of our bodies (or not). We can be overly sensitive of our acne, and therefore a bit obsessive about our makeup and concealer and in the long run, even cause more acne. (I've known a guy who carried concealer with him in his car. No this isn't just women.) We can cause teeth sensitivity from overusing whitening products. But on the flip side, we can schedule our teeth appointments at regular 6-month intervals for cleaning to make sure we have good dental hygiene, regardless of how white our teeth are. We can make sure to get our hair cut every 3 months without fail because we know that's our best feature and want to keep it looking nice, or we can shell out thousands in a given year getting highlights and color treatments because we don't want to admit (or reveal to the world) that we're going gray. And speaking of money, what about BOTOX, plastic surgery, cosmetic reconstruction?

This isn't something that other cultures and people in other time periods didn't face. Siri Mitchell's debut historical novel, A Constant Heart, is a wonderful example of the crazy things women did to be considered "beautiful" in the court of Queen Elizabeth. They used lead-based "paints" (makeup) to paint their faces white and they basically burned their hair off and used chemical dyes to make their hair orange, like the queen.

Romans had vomitoriums built into their houses. The 1890s was the birth of "hysterical fainting," as Freud called it. The reason? Women were wearing super-tight corsets! The 1920s brought about the look of the flapper, which was a bare-chested woman with short boy-cut hair. The reason? That was the time of suffrage. Women didn't want to draw attention to their womanly assests during that time. By the 1950s, the pendulum swung the other way to Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. The 60s brought is back to Twiggy and the sexual revolution...thin was back in. My point is that this is neverending.

When writing in a hero or heroine who falls on the continuum for a body image problem, whether a full-out eating disorder or just someone who wants to lose a few pounds or moles or whatever, look for ways to incorporate their dissatisfactions and comparisons with others in the book. Laura Jensen Walker gave her heroine a super-skinny boss who gives her a hard time. Leigh gave her heroine a flawlessly beautiful roommate, which made for instant conflict for the heroine's internal journey. Dacus' heroine compares herself to Hollywood starlets on the arm of the boy who called off their engagement or to the brides she helps to make their dreams come true. Talk about internal angst! These authors had it dialed in.

Hope this gives you some things to think about for your own writing. Thanks for stopping by!

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Maverick Syndrome

UPDATE: Evelyn has responded!
Check it out here: A Character Speaks Out.

Thought that title might capture your attention. Read on for my therapeutic assessment, which comes today courtesy of Chas. His books are about angels/former demons-turned-angels who came to Earth 3 years ago and have relationships with humans. As a result, each has faced very human emotions and situations. So the Holy Spirit decides that an angel who has a lot of experience in ministering to humans in times of need will be sent to Earth to administer therapy to these angels living as humans, or “angel psychology,” if you will.

Here’s a character sketch of Evelyn.*

She was once a warrior angel who gets sent to Earth as a human so she can learn about redemption. She was knowledgeable about many things, but not about being human, so she got caught up in a bad relationship with a playboy who has a history of using women. Evelyn suspects foul play, but finds out the hard way that he was using her all along.

She finds redemption, and eventually forgives the rogue, but three years later, she finds that the pornographic images she saw in the playboy’s apartment still fill her mind. All the very sensual ex
periences (sex outside of marriage) she had haunt her still, and even now she feels very guilty about it.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

I emailed Chas to ask how having been a warrior angel fighting on behalf of humans would effect her as a human. Evelyn is a take-charge type person, fiercely defend her friends, but also harshly judge others (at least at first). She tends to impulsively act first, and think later (which cost her virginity and virtue). She also has a lot of motivation to get into trouble because the humdrum day-to-day existence proves dull for a former warrior angel whose life was one adrenaline rush after another.

As a therapist (granted, not an angelic one ☺), if Evelyn came in to see me, I would probably focus on the following, and in this order:

1) The residual guilt that she’s carrying like a millstone around her neck
2) Impulsivity in her thoughts and actions
3) “Adrenaline junkie” patterns

In reality, Evelyn’s impulsivity actually led her to the feelings of guilt she has. If she hadn’t been so impulsive in her decision to date the rogue in the first place, then she wouldn’t have found herself in the situation she did, seeing pornographic films at his apartment. But you don’t want to put the cart before the horse and freak a client out by going for their jugular. Focus on the presenting symptoms first—i.e., her guilt—and then work your way into the underlying reasons that are more deep-seated in their personality.

These images that fill her mind and haunt her need to be looked at through the light of redemption, which I understand plays a big part in your books. God’s redemption covers all sins. Yes, she indulged in some self-gratification when she focused longer on these images than necessary. Yes, her curiosity and intrigue cost her dearly. But that’s not unforgivable. And since I’m not sure what all type of sex education angels-turned-humans have, some of her fascination might have been warranted (the whole forbidden fruit—no pun intended—thing). Children, ‘tweens and teens have the same type of curiosity about sex and other things, which comes from parents unwilling or unable to explain certain matters to their satisfaction.

So the therapist should normalize her curiosity about these things, as everyone everywhere has been in the same place (perhaps not about porn, but you get the idea). Where Evelyn went astray was when she let her fascination root her to the spot as she continued to watch in her repulsed interest. Now, Satan is playing the tape over and over in her head, rewinding it as needed.

I often encounter this type of thing in counseling others. One sinful act, one unpardonable thought, impulsive decision…and lifelong punishment. God wouldn’t want us to focus on one such sin so narrow-minded a fashion. He wants us to have joyful life, not oppressed "scraping by." Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross canceled our litany of sins…God doesn’t even see them anymore when he look on us. He sees the perfection of his Son. So why should Evelyn bear the burden of a sin God no longer even sees in her state of sanctification as a believer in Christ?

Depending on just how impulsive you have characterized her, you could go different ways. Some of the things you have written about her fall into a personality disorder known as Histrionic Personality Disorder. But she doesn’t have enough to qualify for a diagnosis of this, so I won’t go into detail for this assessment. Her playing on her hunches and adopting convictions quickly is indicative of this disorder, as is often considering relationships more intimate than they actually are (but I wasn’t sure how she viewed the relationship with the rogue, but she definitely showed naïveté regardless). But she would need to meet five of the eight criteria found here to meet this diagnosis.

The best way I've found to address impulsivity is to do some rational emotive behavior therapy with her (Google that). Evelyn would need to come to an understanding that her impulse is largely an emotional response to an antecedent. Before she has the impulse to do something, she’s already had a mental thought about it. Usually, that’s followed by an emotional reaction and then the behavior. (Sound familiar? It should…this is the best way to write character reactions: Event, Thought, Emotion, Physical Reaction - which is my souped up version of MRUs.)

Chart courtesy of

You could have the therapist start her on what is typically called an ABC chart. These are used to track emotions and thoughts to events. A = Activating Event; B = Belief about A; C = Consequence (feelings/actions). So every time she does something impulsive that lands her with a bad consequence, she could chart it. This might be too technical to include in a novel, though. You can read more here about ABC charts. They are incredibly helpful for seeing the forest in spite of the trees.

As for her seeming addiction to adrenaline rushes, it would be of service to her as a client to facilitate a brainstorming session where ideas are generated to supply healthy activities that might illicit this powerful “high.” These hobbies or pastimes should be 1) scheduled on a weekly or maybe even daily basis…to take the edge of her “withdrawal,” 2) take the place of the morally evil diversions she is drawn to (whether pornography or whatever), 3) geared toward recreational pursuits, since I imagine she was in great shape as a warrior angel (I’m thinking Xena with wings). But these are just my initial thoughts.

The idea is to recognize her Maverick Syndrome (this isn’t an actual clinical term, but one I made up. It’s from Top Gun… “I feel the need for speed.”) and help it work for her instead of hinder her. Once she’s able to anticipate her restlessness and ill at ease, then she’s on her way to a healthier place.

As always, feel free to email with any additional questions. Hope this helps your angelic therapist minister to his human clients! ☺

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Got Character Questions?

I've got answers!

Character Therapy is up and running...just over at my other blog for the time being.

So come over and check out what I do at Where Romance Meets Therapy.

See you there!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Disorganized Attachment Style

Alright. Our last week on attachment styles! Either you are eagerly awaiting this last installment or you're rolling your eyes and saying, "Thank the Lord she's getting on to something else next week." :)

We've already covered Secure, Ambivalent, and Avoidant attachment styles here, here, and here. Next on the list, and LAST, is the Disorganized Attachment style.

Picture by Leo Reynolds

Unfortunately, this style seems to be a catch-all for the infants who didn't clearly fall into one of the other styles. In Ainsworth's Strange Situation, these were the children who show a lack of attachment behavior altogether. When reunited with their caregivers after being left alone with a stranger, the children displayed dazed behavior, sometimes seeming confused or apprehensive in the presence of their parent. They were avoidant, resistant, or a mix of other behaviors.

Main and Solomon (1986) proposed one factor that might contribute to this attachment style is that of inconsistent behavior on the part of the child's parent. A parent who alternatively comforts the child but also frightens the child could result in this type of attachment confusion where the child isn't sure whether to seek shelter from the parent or seek reassurance from them.

Here's another one of these great breakdowns from

Clinton and Sibcy describe these persons as having a "shattered self." Here's a great quote that sums up a person living with disorganized attachment style (which isn't a "disorder," folks).

"These sudden shifts from one attachment strategy to another often leave those closest to them confused and frustrated while the 'disorganized' persons themselves feel trapped in a chaotic world, one of rapidly shifting emotions, impulsive behaviors, and muddled relationships" (Attachments, p. 95).

Pople with this attachment style have both a negative self dimension and a negative other dimension. They do not believe they are worthy of love or that they are capable of getting the love they need without being angry or clingy and they do not believe that others are trustworhty, reliable or able to meet their needs. In addition, Clinton and Sibcy add an internal belief in the other dimension that these people believe others are abusive and that they deserve the abuse.
Inevitably, many children who show disorganized attachment come from abusive homes. Abuse comes in many forms, and while not to capitalize on the plights of others, exposing these types of abuse in our characters' backstories might actually help shed some light on it. There is psychological abuse with sarcastic put-downs, harshness, rejection or inconsistency; emotional neglect where the child gets nothing - no physical touch, warmth or connection; physical abuse that can run the gamut from beating and punching to burning and poisoning; sexual abuse/incest - from fondling to full intercourse; exposure to severe marital conflict where the child's sense of security is threatened because a fight between their parents escalates into a scream fest or violence; addictive behavior with drugs or alcohol that usually acconpany other types of abuse (i.e. alcoholic single mom with low self-esteem dragging a child with her into an abusive relationship because it's all she thinks she can get).

So, some characteristics of the disorganized attachment style, or "shattered self," are as follows:
  • may commit to a goal during the fervor of an emotional high only to drop the commitment when the high fades
  • no internal sense of self-value
  • have trouble learning from past experiences and inability to consider future consequences
  • lack of self-reflection
  • has trouble self-soothing and regulating emotions
  • can have chronic feelings of depression (known as dysthymia) and are prone to slipping into deep depression
  • feels emotions that might be totally out of proportion to the triggering event (can happen during a flashback)
  • when faced with new stressors, can experience extreme helplessness rather than focusing on problem solving
  • can have self-blame and guilt and "learned helplessness," in which they believe nothing can be done about their situation
  • can be overcontrolling as they react to a persistent sense of powerlessness
  • relationship distress - 2 extremes: either they are a control freak or a doormat
  • compelled to repeat their trauma and turmoil by three ways:
  1. faulty selection - selecting partners who treat them as their original abusers did
  2. distortion - fitting present situations to their past (looking at things through a lens colored by the past)
  3. provacation - they behave in such a way as to provoke others to abandon them or behave aggressively toward them
Wow. Lots going on with this style. Consequently, this style can be one of the hardest to treat in counseling. Internal views with such an overarching global reach can be hard to reorganize. Hard, but not impossible...with Christ on our sides, anything is possible.

Now that we've conlcuded our attachment study, I hope that you've gotten some great information to apply to your characters. Bookmark these pages if you need to to come back to. Or go and buy the book by Drs. Tim Clinton and Gary Sibcy. Attachments: Why You Love, Feel and Act the Way You Do. (Click on the title for a link to Amazon.) It's an excellent read and a goldmind of information for yourself and for your characters.

Hopefully you've enjoyed this in-depth exploration of attachment styles and it hasn't been too boring or technical. Sorry...sometimes I just get carried away with this stuff!

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Living in Someone's Shadow

Photo by Penny LamKK

This week’s character assessment comes courtesy of Sharon. She’s writing a cozy mystery set in the present day. Here’s her sketch (which was really great, by the way):

Jess,* private investigator, finds her gram murdered and vows to join in the investigation to find the killer. However, her biggest fear is that she’ll never live up to her deceased mama’s reputation as one of the most respected homicide detectives in the southeast. Jess quit the police force because she lived under the shadow of her mama’s fame. Feelings of hurt and anger collide with her faith/confidence in herself and fear of being unsuccessful in bringing the murderer to justice.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

I had a little extra time and was able to email Sharon to get a little more detail about her character, more specifically some history about her mom and family life. I wanted to know how Jess’s mom died (gang members ambushed and wounded her mom, who later died) and what made her mother so “famous.” Apparently, Jess’s mom was a born leader, fearless, dedicated and respected by all levels of the police force in the southeast area. She’d put her life in jeopardy in order to save a fellow officer or civilian in a moment’s notice.

Jess’s father is the retired mayor and a real estate investor. She has one brother who owns a marshal arts academy. Jess opened a private investigator business once she got out of the police force so that she’d still be connected with the justice system, but she is living in her mom’s shadow. Also important for Jess’s assessment is that she wounded her partner at a burglary in progress and lost faith in herself and her ability to be the best police officer she could be. Jess is a Christian.

Photo by bbaltimore

My main focus was on Jess’s mom as this larger-than-life woman. Think She-Ra, Xena, Wonder Woman…you get the idea. She died in the line of duty after gang members ambushed and wounded her. This would make Jess’s mom a martyr of sorts. A woman who quite literally gave everything she had to the police force in protection of her community.

One thing I should have asked Sharon was how old Jess was when her mother died, as that could change the emotional impact of her death on her. But the main thing to consider here is what Sharon wrote initially: Jess fears she will never live up to her deceased mother’s reputation. And let’s face it. WHO COULD?

What you’ve got here is an unrealistic expectation on Jess’s part. Unless she gives her life in the line of duty, in Jess’s opinion, she couldn’t measure up to what her mom did. And that puts her in a catch 22 anyway, because of course she wants to live. Add to that her bumbling up the burglary in progress and hurting her partner…Jess probably believes she is the worse police office ever. So she quits.

This is some major baggage for her to carry around. Not living up to this super-high standard, feeling like a constant failure (and seeing evidence of that in your wounded partner) for not meeting that standard…this would cause depression, anxiety, and harm to her self-esteem and worth. Depending on how long Jess has lived with this baggage, her reaction could vary from a general despondency about her specific crime-stopping abilities (meaning she feels capable in other areas in her life) to a severe, global reaction that nothing she does is good enough.

You should include in your story several instances of Jess second-guessing herself. Her actions, decisions, words…anything could be game. I would include some powerful deep POV thoughts of Jess wondering what her mother would have done in such-and-such a situation. This would be very true-to-life, as which of your readers wouldn’t have done the same thing at some point in their life? They could really relate to that. And since Jess’s mother is deceased and unable to respond to what she would have done, Jess will live with a perpetual confusion and doubt about whether she actually picked the right thing to do.

And what kind of way is that to live? No one would be able to withstand that for very long. And since Jess is faced with trying to solve the murder of her grandmother, I think it will be important for you to give Jess some tiny successes during the investigation to really build her up….and then WAM! Hit her with a false lead that she runs to the ground or a red herring that she follows fruitlessly…something that will really make her doubt herself. (A black moment, if you will.)

And while you’re doing that for Jess’s external goal (solving grandmother’s murder), you need to make sure you’re working hard on her internal goal (living up to mother’s reputation). The two can go hand-in-hand. Ultimately, Jess will not live up to her perceived notion of her mother’s grand reputation. This is real life. But she has to come to the conclusion that this is NOT necessary. It’s not a very healthy way to live her life…constantly in her mother’s shadow.

Possibly one thing to consider is having Jess find out something about her mother that really shatters the illusion she has about her. This would be easy to do…just add a scene with her mother’s old partner or with her dad…anyone who could shed some light into something her mother might have done that was less-than-perfect. Then Jess would be faced with incorporating this new information into her schema about her mom…and would be a very powerful way to have her realize her mother wasn’t a saint. (No one is!)

However you decide to bring her turning about, Jess would need to understand that her self-worth as a police officer/private investigator/granddaughter/daughter/woman has to come from somewhere inside her…intrinsic. Not extrinsic – based on others expectations. When people constantly measure themselves up to other people, usually they will fixate on the areas where they don’t add up (in their estimation) and will lose sight of how good (or even better) they might be at other things.

Photo by imbecila

It will be important, Sharon, for you to make sure Jess has an internal/spiritual awakening by the end of the book where she comes to this conclusion. You'll want to wrap it up in much the same way you'll eventually wrap up the murder case. Put the two hand-in-hand, as they are equally important. God doesn’t compare us to anyone else. We each have our own relationship with him. He wants us only to be as much like Christ as we can. Even when we fail, however, God only sees the perfection of His Son when he looks at us. And this is something to rejoice have joy and to have it abundantly. Jess will be set free in this truth...and that's the true happy ending.

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Avoidant Attachment Style

We've covered Secure and Ambivalent attachment styles here and here. So now we're on week three, and the attachment style up for today's Thought is Avoidant Attachment.

We'll return to our Strange Situation in which an infant is left alone in a room with a stranger after the parent leaves. When the parent returns, the infant tends to avoid them altogether. If it's been a long period of absence, the avoidance becomes especially pronounced. They might not outright reject attention from a parent, but they don't seek it out (as most children would immediately seek comfort or contact from their parent after being left alone with a stranger). Children with this attachment amazingly show no preference between their parent and a complete stranger.

As adults, these children tend to have difficulty with intimacy and close relationships. They don't necessarily invest much emotion into relationships and experience little distress when a relationship comes to a conclusion. There has been a lot of research done on all the attachment styles, and it seems this style has the least to recommend it. Adults with this style are more accepting and likely to engage in casual sex (Feeney, Noller and Patty, 1993). They also fail to support partners during stressful times and have an inability to share feelings, thoughts and emotions with their partners (which in turn leads to relationships ending, as you can imagine).

Here's another breakdown, courtesy of

So now we'll move on to the self and other dimensions. People with Avoidant Attachment style have a positive self and negative other dimensions. In other words, they believe that they are worthy of love and are capable of getting the love and support they need, but that other people are either unwilling or incapable of loving them, untrustworthy, and unreliable when it comes to meeting their needs. They struggle with emotional connection, disclosure of private thoughts and feelings and nonsexual touch. They'd rather rely on themselves to meet their needs because they can't trust others to do so.

Contrary to the other attachment styles so far, this one is separated into three different types, and I'll list characteristics of each in bullets under each one. (All the following information was gleaned from the Attachments book by Clinton and Sibcy.)

1) Narcissist or Inflated Self (p. 68)
  • seeks excessive praise from others
  • tends to be arrogant or condescending and portrays inflated sense of self-worth
  • fantasizes about fame, fortune and power
  • very sensitive to criticism and can respond with intense anger
  • takes an "I'm-first-and-everyone-else-comes-later" attitude
  • manipulates others to achieve his or her own ends
  • envies others' success
  • associated with "special" people and engages in a lot of name-dropping
  • shows poor empathy for others
  • is externally focused, with a "you-are-what-you-have" attitude
2) Exiled or Disconnected Self (pp. 69-70)
  • extremely introverted and cut off from other people
  • looks inward to a world of fantasy to find pleasure and comfort
  • appears cold, distant and aloof to others
  • robed in self-sufficiency; any dependence on others for emotional support provokes anxiety, which leads to profound feelings of vulnerability
  • prefers inwardness and fantasy over emotional connection
  • little drive for external pleasures and derives little, if any, enjoyment from interacting with people
  • experience few intense emotions about anything, an emotional desert (but they like it this way, calm, cool and mellow)
  • doesn't seek acceptance and doesn't mind criticism
  • has little empathy for others
  • can't identify and label own emotional experience
  • under the surface is an inner longing for connectedness
3) The Compulsive Perfectionist (p. 71)
  • pays excessive attention to detail, order and organization
  • controls others, frequently using guilt
  • demands that self and others submit to rigid, moralistic rules with lots of dos and don'ts
  • has difficulty sharing; viewed as stingy with time, money and resources
  • is uncomfortable with emotions, very constricted
  • is uncomfortable with physical touch
  • has difficulty displaying affection toward others
  • tends to procrastinate because of such high standards for performance
  • is reluctant to delegate tasks because others are viewed as incompetent
Really, this attachment style is a goldmind for character development. Many of the characters we probably already love fit into one of the three types mentioned above. The flaws make for easy internal struggles, as well. None of the characteristics Clinton and Sibcy are insurmountable. Each attachment style has hope for change. So emply that in your novels!

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Plot Helps

This week’s character assessment comes from Kacey. She’s writing a YA novel about two friends, Eric and Lane.*

Eric is a 17-year-old who lives with his aunt’s family because seven years ago, he and his mother were attacked by a meth-addicted intruder in their L.A. apartment. His mother didn’t survive the attack.

Eric’s story begins with him and his friends driving at night when his friend hits a man on a bicycle. They stop to see if the man is okay but flee the scene when he starts to regain consciousness. This triggers Eric to remember how he felt after his attack, lying alone, injured, waiting for someone to find him.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Kasey wants to know several things:
  1. Would it make sense for Eric to blame himself for not being able to help his mother in some way and prevent her death? Or would he be more inclined to blame her for the attack somehow (i.e., she should have kept the windows locked so the intruder couldn't get in)?
  2. Would the attack affect how he feels about women in general?
  3. Would it make sense for him to blame his friend Lane for leaving the man in the street even though Eric was there, too? Would he be more likely to blame himself?
  4. After years of therapy, after everything seemed to be going okay, would it make sense for his PTSD to be triggered?
  5. Eventually, after Eric and Lane go their separate ways, Eric chooses to turn in Lane to the police. If Eric is experiencing PTSD, would this require too much cognitive functioning to do? Or would someone else need to prompt him to do this?

These are some great questions, and very specific, which helps me narrow my psychological focus.

Since Eric lost his mother in such a traumatic accident, it is not at all unrealistic to think that he had post-traumatic reactions to the attack. Your suggestion of putting him through a few years of therapy would also be realistic, as 10-year-olds who are victim to an attack should get counseling, even more so if they lose a parent.

As far as your first question, a young child almost always would blame him or herself for the death. But since Eric is 17, almost of age to be counted as an adult, this rule isn’t as hard and fast. Your decision would need to factor in Eric’s personality. Does he usually blame others, even for his own mistakes? Or does he typically shoulder all responsibility, even when it’s not his due?

Because an adolescent doesn’t have the problem solving and interpretive skills that an adult has, that leads me to think the twist about blaming his mom might make for a more gripping plot rather than the old tried-but-true self-blame. Ultimately your call, of course.

As for your second question, I tried to see how the connection would be made between women in general and his mother, who was the victim of the meth addict’s attack. Maybe you are asking if he would assume all women are helpless or weak? All women would eventually endanger him in some way? Feel free to email me with additional info, as I’m afraid I don’t really have an answer for this one.

Your third question can piggyback off the first. If Eric is going to blame his mother for the attack, then it makes sense that he might blame Lane for leaving the hit-and-run scene, as well. However, a lot would ride on how the scene played out. Did Lane make Eric leave the scene? Had Eric wanted to stay and try to offer help, as he remembered his own attack situation? Had Eric felt a familiar sense of dread at the helplessness of his previous situation and wanted to get out of dodge? How you write that particular scene will play a large role in how his guilt or anger comes to the fore later.

And for the last question, it would absolutely be feasible for PTSD symptoms to return after a period of latency where everything seemed fine. Trauma is a funny thing, and people react differently to it. I’m actually just finishing a book about a woman with PTSD who goes symptom-free for over a year and thinks its okay to get back into her former job. But, of course, she encounters a situation that provokes a panic attack associated with a flashback. Totally within reason.

You mentioned that Lane is going to experiment with meth, which you want to feel like a gigantic betrayal, since Eric’s mother’s murderer was a meth-addict. Then you mentioned, “especially coupled with the fact that Lane left a man [run over on his bicycle] in the street at the beginning of the story.” I’m not seeing how the second factor is a betrayal in the traditional sense. Granted, the meth experimentation is understandable. Lane would surely know how this would really tear Eric up. But I just didn’t see the connection with leaving the man in the streets…UNLESS you have written that scene in such a way that Lane forces Eric to leave the man against Eric’s will (see earlier comment above about this crucial scene) or you have some plot twist about the guy on the bike being the meth addict and if they had stopped, they might could have seen the intruder and Eric’s mom’s murdered brought to justice. Hmm…just a thought, though. ☺

Hopefully this has helped with some of these questions. As with any of my assessments, please feel free to email with further questions.

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Ambivalent Attachment

[Feel free to wish me a HAPPY ANNIVERSARY today! 4 years. I know I'll be enjoying myself with a night out on the town, now that I've got the grands close by to babysit!]

So, now that we've covered Secure Attachment in my last Thursday Therapeutic Thought post here, we move on to the second type of attachment style, which is Ambivalent Attachment style.

We discussed the "Strange Situation" in last Thursday's post. An ambivalently attached infant goes beyond usual stranger anxiety to be extremely suspicious of strangers. They display considerably distress when separated from from their parent or caregiver but aren't really comforted by the return of their parent into the room where they were with the stranger. In some cases, the children might passively reject the parent and refuse the comfort offered, or they may display open aggression toward the parent.

Cassidy and Berlin (1994) indicate that only about 7-15% of infants in the USA display this type of attachment style. It's usually linked to lack of maternal availability in the life of the child, and teachers often describe this type of child as clingy and over-dependent.

As adults, these infants might be reluctant to become close to others and develop insecurity about their partner returning their feelings. You can imagine that this leads to multiple breakups due to lack of trust and the maybe-erroneous conclusion that the partner is cold and distant.

Here's the breakdown, thanks to

To recap from last week about the self and other dimensions, here's an excerpt:

"Our core beliefs revolve around two concepts: our thoughts about ourselves (self dimension) and our thoughts about others (other dimension). Each dimension centers around two questions.

For the self dimension, the questions are:

1) Am I worthy of being loved?
2) Am I competent to get the love I need?

For the other dimension, the questions are:

1) Are others reliable and trustworthy?
2) Are others accessible and willing to respond to me when I need them to be?"

Ambivalently attached people have a negative self dimension (they feel unworthy of love and unable to get the love they need without being angry and clingy) and a skewed positive other dimension (they feel others are capable of meeting their needs but might not do so b/c of their flaws and that others are trustworthy and reliable but might abandon them because of my worthlessness).

According to Clinton and Sibcy in Attachments: Why You Love, Feel and Act The Way You Do, a person with ambivalent attachment has some strong core beliefs of being/feeling incompetent, struggling to handle things on their own, needing a strong protector to care/do things for them (. 83). As a result of these internal beliefs, there are some pretty desctructive behaviors and feelings associated with Ambivalent Attachment:

  • low self confidence
  • fear of making decisions/looking to others to make major ones for them
  • rarely expressing diagreemtn with others
  • frequently seeking assurance, nurturance and support
  • obsessed with the fear of being left alone
  • feelings helpless when left alone
  • desperately seeking new relationships when others end
  • frequently subordinating themselves to others
  • perpetually seeking advice
  • often working below their ability
  • accepting unpleasant tasks to please others
  • having tendency to express distress through medically unexplainable physical symptoms rather than emotional pain
But people with Ambivalent attachment also have a powerful way of making others feel good about themselves. They feel and experience life with intense emotion, love and laughter. They should be cautious about not developing a dependent relationship with their children, but work to foster independence in their children.

Are any of your characters suffering from this type of attachment style? In counseling, it often manifests as dependent personality disorder, which is pervasive dependence on other people. But the roots are usually found in childhood.

Stay tuned for next week when we discuss the Avoidant Attachment style. Till then!

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Dissociative Amnesia

This week’s assessment is courtesy of Debra, the winner of the Seekerville give-away from May 5th (obviously I’m running behind a bit b/c of my move cross-country).

Debra’s heroine, Gretchen*, lives in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1837. She was involved in a violent incident as a child in which she defended and saved her grandmother by killing a man with a pitchfork. She is taken away from her grandmother and put in an institution. Later she is raised as a companion to a young, wealthy woman. Gretchen is intelligent, feisty, bold, and very untrusting. She doesn’t want to remember her past.

The book starts with her acting like a madwoman. She has been in another attack and had to fight for her life to get away (although the reader isn’t privy to this). Local police find her running in the streets out of her head, so they bring her to an asylum, unconscious. When she stirs, she lashes out at p
eople before passing out again. After a rough dream, she wakes up in the morning with no memory whatsoever.

Debra is concerned about portraying Gretchen realistically. Even while she has no memory of her past, is it possible for her to have the presence of mind to find the hero attractive? To have her personality still come through?

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Great questions, Debra! Hopefully I can shed some light for you.

You mentioned that you had done some online research into post-traumatic stress disorder, which I did a post on here. However, the type of amnesia you have described above is unlikely to be the result of PTSD, as usually that type is more pin-pointed toward the traumatic event (which does fit your scenario), but not towards her entire life (which doesn’t fit).

Photo by Jill Greenseth

The best diagnosis for Gretchen is Dissociative Amnesia. The main feature of this amnesia is an “inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by normal forgetfulness” (DSM IV-TR, p. 520). This is reversible, which is important, because Gretchen will remember her past by the end of the book. Dissociative amnesia is most likely reported as a gap or series of gaps in recall for aspects of an individual’s life history.

Less commonly, an individual has a florid episode with sudden onset (which is what Gretchen has). Of the five types of amnesia associated with dissociation, the type of amnesia she has is generalized, which is a failure to recall a person’s entire life. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) therapists use actually says that people with this “rare disorder usually present to the police, emergency rooms, or to general hospital consultation-liaison services” (DSM IV-TR, p. 520). So kudos for you, since you already have this happening in your book.

So, about whether her personality would still shine through…the DSM didn’t have a lot to say about that, which can be a good thing, as it leaves the door open to however you want to portray it. I look at it as more compartmentalized. She’s lost her past, not everything that makes her who she is. You mentioned in the sample chapters I read (due to Debra’s winning the Seekerville contest) that Gretchen wanted prayer when she was feeling anxious. This remembering of an aspect of her life is possible. Her personality could still shine through, too, as long as you are conscious to give her some new aspects to it (i.e., she’s bound to be anxious about not remembering, depressed, even, and may even regress in her maturity level due to this).

A few other common symptoms people reported who have this disorder are trance states, providing approximate inaccurate answers to questions (like 2 + 2 = 5), aggressive impulses (which you’ve already shown), self-mutilation, and suicidal impulses/acts (perhaps from desperation? being overwhelmed? Anything could go here.).

Two other symptoms require a bit more explanation, which I’ll do so in case you want to include these in your manuscript. The first is analgesia, which is the ability to feel pain while still conscious. The second is depersonalization, which is a feeling of detachment or estrangement from one’s self, like the person is living in a dream or movie (i.e., being an outside observer of their own mental process, body or body parts).

One thing that might be of help for Gretchen’s backstory is that people who have already had one episode of amnesia are predisposed to having amnesia for subsequent traumatic circumstances. So, if after killing the guy with a pitchfork she disclose that she had amnesia following that event, it makes the case that much stronger for her having the dissociative amnesia after the second attack. Also, keep the recall of her dissociated memories gradual, as that’s more realistic than WHAM! “Oh, now I remember everything!” (Although that can happen.)

So here's a bit more for you to work with as you're revising what promises to be a great novel! I enjoyed reading what you sent so much.

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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