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“The continent of self”- 18 September 2016.

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Sunday, 25 September 2016 17:11

Whenever we visited our maternal grandparents in the village in Punjab, my Mother would get busy with relatives and the community in the village and would sort of dump us three siblings in the custody of the hosts. We were loved and cared for by Uncles, Aunts and cousins. The enchanting fact was that my Mother would mingle with the village the whole day and we would see her only at bed time! Each member of the large community was loved, respected, valued as almost an integral part of the family. The doors were always open and food was served to all. Everyone knew everything as secrets were generally open. That was rural India fifty years ago! The self was expanded and connected to the larger community in a caring and kind way. People had rights over others- they owned the other in a happy embrace.

A senior woman of a huge housing scheme noticed a young girl of the same society indulging in what she defined as ‘indecent behaviour’. Considering it her duty and her right to caution the young girl, she gave her a piece of unsolicited advice. The young one instantly reacted, ‘I know what I am doing and it is none of your business, please do not tell me what to do next time’. The old woman was aghast and did not know how to control herself. She realized that the world was changing and was actually degenerating. This is the story of an urban area, where community holds no value. It’s the responsibility of the family to take care of their wards and the ‘unrelated’ community could only watch but not act as watch dogs any longer. That was urban centres forty years ago! The self got restricted to the family as it disconnected from the larger community and did not allow any ownership of ‘outsiders’.

Rupa married into a joint family out of her own fantasised choice and regretted it severely soon enough. She could not tolerate the ‘interference’ of the brothers of her husband and their wives- she could not understand why the mother and father-in-law had to be informed about all decisions and why she could not do as she pleased. She complained that she was educated and had a mind of her own and need not be advised about ‘personal’ matters. Her ‘freedom’ was at stake as she felt stifled, suffocated and tormented. She had to get out and take her husband away from the family. It was for his benefit she rationalised.

Anita did not like the closeness her Aunts had with her father. He was an only brother of his three sisters and hence an apple of their eyes. He liked sharing his problems and did not believe in keeping secrets from them. But his wife and his daughter Anita had issues of ‘secrecy’, ‘privacy’ and ‘trust’ with them. They would conflict over such matters frequently which made him lose contact with his siblings for the sake of peace. The nuclear family was taking over, cutting off the bonds with siblings and their families. That was twenty years ago! The self constricted itself further to the immediate family and threw away the extended family. The so called joint-family became dysfunctional and disjointed.

Aryan was a natural citizen of USA as he was born there. He had no long term exposure of life on Indian soil. His Indian parents however continued to love their land and their people. Aryan feels his parents are dominating, conservative and do not allow him certain choices that his peers follow. He fights with them on most daily issues. He has a password on his mobile and ipad. He locks his cupboard and does not like his mother to enter his room without knocking. His sense of privacy is total and he protects his turf like a tiger. He has locked out his parents too as he becomes an island of his own self. He wants a lot of space for himself, accepts his parents as providers but with no rights over him. The devilish law of ‘child rights’ and the police helpline number has circumscribed the self further into a separate continent where no one has rights over you, not even your parents! The isolation is complete!

Western philosophy emphasises autonomy of the individual whereas Eastern philosophies give significance to relations. The ‘Bhagvad Gita’ emphasises the supreme importance of interpersonal relations. The self cannot be seen in isolation from its social connections. But we seem to be gradually losing out to the western philosophy.  Autonomy of an individual is important for psychological growth and self actualization demands personal space, freedom of thought, action, focus on goals and a touch of narcissism. The obsession with this in the West has led to extreme self centred behaviour to the exclusion of social relations. This excessive focus on ‘individualization’ has destroyed the social fabric like never before. The self became paramount- a continent by itself. This process needs to be reversed to bring in mental health and harmony by reconnecting to the larger society by expanding and transcending the narrow self. Some parts of an English poem by John Donne came to mind....

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.......
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee”.


“What is my problem?”- 4 September 2016.

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Thursday, 15 September 2016 19:16

This is the most common question we deal with as a professional psychologist. ‘What is my problem?’ ‘I am not okay- something is wrong with me’. ‘I don’t know what my problem is’.

These are perhaps the most positive questions that are asked to us about which we feel hopeful about. When a person is seeking an answer to some presenting symptoms there is scope for therapy and solution. But if a person who actually has a problem denies the problem by saying ‘no problem’ it is like a closed door which cannot be entered. One type of mental illness manifests itself quite starkly with this state of mind ‘I am okay, the world is mad’. Hence asking the question ‘what is my problem’ is a good sign. A person with complaints of several symptoms which are manifested either physically or mentally which have been persisting for several weeks or months, creates disequilibrium in his/her life. Many such people are searching for ‘the core problem’ which they are unable to identify.

A young girl was constantly unhappy and grumpy with the world and felt that there was nobody who understood her problem. She also felt at one point of time that nobody will ever be able to help her out and she will continue to live a life of misery. Into several long sessions the realisation began to dawn on her that she had two major problems –one was her childhood disability which she was trying hard to hide from the world as her parents had advised her to and the second was her total sense of isolation because of her introverted nature, coupled with her disability and her commitment to secrecy. Once the problem was identified she experienced a huge sense of relief and a hope that she could work towards a solution and hence find some happiness somewhere.

A highly educated and competent professional realised a decline in his functioning at work as well as a decline in his social connections and friendship. It happened very slowly over months and years until he decided that ‘he had a problem’ but what was the cause he had no clue. The ‘talking therapy’ helped him gradually acknowledge many truths and fallacies in thought. The emotions were all messed up and distorted. There were multiple emotions buried in the depths of his mind which he never shared with anyone and had almost forgotten. As the emotions poured out in a vengeance the catharsis took place which brought relief and peace of mind.

Identifying the problem is a huge task and a major exercise at that. The problem lies hidden behind layers and layers of past experiences and memories, half forgotten, half distorted and many of them repressed. If the repressed experiences go back to childhood the problem becomes complex and more difficult to unravel. The process of therapy, the unravelling the mind, is similar to unpeeling the layers like that of a large sized onion whose centre is invisible. Since the process is dynamic in nature and not mechanical the obvious difficulties are there. Emotional obstacles, resistance to explore and expose, painful memories, forgotten experiences, distortions in perceptions, inability to articulate the problem clearly are part of the difficulty. Most people come with several symptoms with no clarity of the core problem. Identifying the problem is in fact half the solution.

A bigger problem is with people who say ‘no problem’, or an alternative theme is ‘I have no problem’ have indeed a big problem on hand. Again there are two different things which need to be seen in a context. When a person says ‘I have no problem’ whereas the family sees it as one, indicates a bigger problem at a deeper level of their psyche and acts as a severe obstacle to solving the problem. It could indicate a state of mind that is ‘sicker’ than it believes it is. Since the sickness is not visible to the concerned person it indicates a high order blind spot in the mind. On the contrary a person who seeks help by accepting that ‘I have a problem but don’t know what’ is less ‘sicker’ in mind than the other. In an interpersonal situation, let’s say a marital one, if one spouse has a problem it actually belongs to both of them. If one spouse denies the problem and says, ‘it is not my problem or I don’t have a problem’ the problem gets compounded. Denial means refusal to cooperate, or refusal to make common cause and stay aloof instead which damages the relation further.

If one person in a relation or in the family has a problem the entire family atmosphere is vitiated and normal life is disrupted. Accepting that there is a problem that needs to be addressed is a necessary exercise that families should engage in. Solutions may not seem to be visible and may not be easy but the effort must go on. It should not be considered a waste of time and effort. The tendency to brush the problem under the carpet, to deny the problem, pass it on to the other, blame the other or minimise the problem may lead to compounding the issue. Many problems do not vanish with time as most might think but might grow into a monster difficult to handle.


“Touch me not”- 21 August 2016.

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Sunday, 21 August 2016 19:14

As kids we were amused with a plant named ‘touch me not’. We discovered it one fine day through a visiting ‘uncle’ who introduced the shy plant to us. It was part of our huge garden and lay in one corner which became our favourite spot for some time at least! We would touch it one by one, in fact, we three siblings took turns to touch it and watch the amazing effect. The moment your finger touched it, it would shrivel up, curl up its leaves and close itself. We loved the ‘game’- we also discovered the Hindi name for it- ‘Lajwanti’! Very appropriate indeed! The botanical name is ‘mimosa pudica’.

The dilemma arises when humans behave like ‘touch me not’s’. There is no fun and no game to be played there –there is only shock, frustration, sadness and strange feeling of being invalidated. A ‘touch me not’ person creates problems for self and the other as well. One personal incident that happened in my youth still stands out in my memory. I accompanied my parents for a lunch invitation to a relative’s home. Considering the table manners that were taught to us, I was passing the servings around to others and out of sheer innocence made a comment at their teenage daughter ‘you are so thin and you have not eaten anything so far...’. We were all rudely shaken as the teen threw a tantrum, shouted at nobody in particular, stood up and walked out! Her embarrassed parents tried to lighten the situation to cover it up and continued with their hospitality. Ironically I was the guest and she was the host actually! Her mother explained that she was sensitive about her weight and her diet and many people made comments in a natural way. How many of you have experienced that an innocuous remark made by you was blown out of proportion that shook you up! You will meet such people at workplaces and at social gatherings and you will soon become wary of them!

Sometimes people could be sensitive to a specific condition but for some it could be a generic condition and a part of their overall personality. If we look at specific conditions, let’s say a war widow could be sensitive to war stories and would avoid listening to them; or a parent with a divorced daughter could be sensitive to talks of marriage or a trauma victim could be hypersensitive to narrations of others trauma. This sensitivity is due to a high level stressful experience that brings up the suppressed emotions that have been lying beneath. This also indicates that healing has not taken place and the wounds are still raw. People who heal their traumatic experiences do not show such hypersensitive reactions.

The group of ‘touch me not’s’ are a different category altogether and display more generic hypersensitivity to social situations and social interactions and are especially reactive to comments related to criticism and rejection. This leads to a state of emotional fragility and consequently leads to a behaviour known as ‘avoidant behaviour’. The set of coping skills in the social area for such people is small and inadequate to handle simple transactions of the unsavoury variety. The subsequent affects of such long standing behaviours only culminates in a pathological state of personality known as ‘avoidant personality disorder’. Such people avoid situations and people whom they perceive as ‘rejecting, critical, hostile and adverse’ to them. Their sense of self is very poor, suffer low self esteem and remain in fear and anxiety of being ‘attacked by others’. They can also become slightly ‘paranoid’ of people who are actually harmless but are perceived as a ‘threat’.

Such touch me not’s are more or less unfit for marriage and for living in families especially joint families. It might be a wonder if such people can manage even a nuclear setup.

The deficiency is too high to allow them to bridge the gap with another person and to communicate freely and make a bond. The deficiencies are many, such as, heightened sense of anxiety, fear of ridicule and criticism, low self confidence, social inhibition, failure to communicate freely, poor conflict resolution, feel lonely and unwanted. The causative factors besides the genetic component of temperament, can be caused by faulty patterns of training and nurturing by parents and traumatic experiences. Although the signs are visible from teens they are likely to get highlighted after marriage. If the female spouse is a ‘touch me not’ the entire family may be disrupted and thrown out of gear. Not only the spouse but the children suffer along with the in laws who are at a total loss.

Personality disorders can create havoc with marital life and are not understood by people at large as it does not show up as a stark illness which needs treatment but remains in the grey areas of interpersonal relations. Since interpersonal relations always remain a two-way process, it can be interpreted in a very subjective way by both the people involved who make allegations and accusations against each other without the truth being revealed. Only a trained eye of a psychologist can read behind the behaviour and see through the veil of misinterpretations and misrepresentations to make a diagnosis. Long term therapy can help cure such disorders.

Strangely, the mind has many shades and the truth is covered under the layers of subjectivity, deception and illusion.


“Stonewalling: the method of silence”- 7 August 2016.

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Saturday, 13 August 2016 18:49

It is an age old mechanism in politics when people say ‘no comments’ and maintain a discrete silence. This is with a specific purpose of making no comments on a controversial issue or not to spark off a controversy. With the media practices of sensationalizing issues, public figures can be afraid of their statements being blown out of proportion. This is also practiced in diplomatic circles where it is important not to speak anything which is likely to be misconstrued. Most celebrities might maintain this stoic silence to keep away from baseless talk. So far as the public domain is concerned, the mechanism of silence is a great tool to save oneself from onslaught.

The gravity of the method is felt in the private sphere and especially in intimate relationships and marriages. John Gottman, Ph.D, an eminent researcher on relationships was the first person to apply the term “stonewalling” to couples. Gottman defines stonewalling as “when a listener withdraws from an interaction” by getting quiet or shutting down. “When one person turns into a stone wall, refusing to interact, engage, communicate or participate. Much like what you’d expect from a stone if you were talking to it!” According to him it is a 90% predictor for couples heading for divorce.

The method of stonewalling as a defence is a popular enough method. Psychologists opine that this is employed largely by male members in comparison to females. Since men feel that women ‘nag’, men prefer to switch off and turn deaf. You will hear many wives saying this of their husbands, ‘you could be talking to a wall for all he cares’, ‘he just does not react’, ‘he may hole up without talking to me for days’, or ‘he will not make the effort to break the silence- it has to be me’. The message of the person who stonewalls is like this, ‘Leave me alone’, ‘do what you like’, ‘that is enough’, I have had it’ and so on. Many jokes and humour has been created out of this condition but it is not a joke for an aggrieved person. For when communication stops and a dead silence is maintained it has repercussions for all at home, more for the aggrieved spouse and also for the kids. It helps no one.

Women may also use this technique of avoidance and withdrawal. When a communication begins to overwhelm, psychologically and physically, she may withdraw and fall silent. She may refuse to discuss topics and feelings. If this is done for a short period of an hour or so it can be useful to stop the escalation of conflict. But if it prolongs into several hours and several days it leads to stress and trauma for the spouse and is a negative defence. It is definitely damaging to the relationship.

There could be several reasons for this style of conflict resolution. Firstly it could be learned behaviour in childhood as one of the parents might be deploying this method for keeping away from conflict. Secondly it could be an inability to express one’s emotions in a more positive and assertive way. It could also be due to a lack of awareness of emotions that are brewing in the mind, such as, anger, resentment, fear, anxiety or sorrow. Inadequate skills in conflict handling may be one of the reasons for employing stonewalling instead of confronting it and resolving it. Another important reason could be secrecy and the desire to maintain the secrets and not be vulnerable by exposing them. This increases the communication gap between spouses.

It is a negative method and hurts both. It impacts the one who stonewalls for it bottles up the feelings leaving it unexpressed. It also stops the person from self introspection and hence halts the personal growth. If the method is used for years without learning new healthier ones it is bound to hinder the personal development. The person never matures emotionally or grows psychologically. On the other hand the spouse who lives with the silence feels devastated by feeling that he /she has been thrown out for no fault, feels misunderstood, invalidated, alone and disconnected.

There are ways to overcome this for both the spouses. Much work has been done by psychologists on this issue. For the persons who stonewall, they must learn to recognise the emotions arising within, identify them and learn to speak out the emotions. Another way could be to inform the spouse for some timeout, say for an hour or half a day and state a time for continuation of the dialogue. Informing the spouse of the overwhelming emotions and their inability to continue will help the other to respond positively to the needs of the other. As far as the affected spouses are concerned, they must not take the stonewalling as a personal comment on them but rather as a weakness of the spouse in communication. They must learn to wait and leave the spouse alone to sort out the emotions. They must too withdraw, disengage and try not to continue the talk. They must stop the communication immediately and find other ways to entertain themselves like get out with friends, go for a sport, go away from the spouse. The situation has to be handled by parting ways and leaving the dialogue pending rather than feeling frustrated and angry.


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