Illness and Conditions, Uncategorized

Diagnosis Catfish

The face made when you learn who and what is behind the CATFISH!

What began as an MTV reality show documenting the use of fake online profiles to hook people into romantic relationships has become a widely accepted term for a clinically relevant phenomenon. It wasn’t until the second season of its airing that mental health awareness PSA’s started appearing in some of the episodes. Many of the “catfish” and their victims suffered from mental health issues, which made them vulnerable to engaging in the behavior as well as falling prey to it. The emotional impact of revealing the deception also had an adverse effect on mental health. This only served to intensify the drama and pain being witnessed and made it almost irresponsible for the network and viewers to ignore for the sake of entertainment.

Want to know what kinds of mental health issues breed a catfish? Keep reading.

After watching all seven seasons of the show and using criteria from The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) it became clear that a handful of conditions perpetuate and maintain catfish behavior and falling prey to it.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a mental health condition that’s easy to empathize with because fear can be such an overwhelming emotion. It has the ability to paralyze people from interacting with each other in order to avoid the rejection or ridicule they fear will happen if they do. This was the case for the catfish who reported creating fake online personas to have anxiety free social contact. Diagnoses like Social Anxiety and Panic Disorder can close people off from the outside world. Creating a profile where they don’t have to be themselves is a relational strategy to create “safe” connections with people. Unfortunately, this safety behavior can still have negative consequences even if the person’s deception isn’t revealed. The avoidance of authentic connection to manage anxious distress keeps a person trapped in their negative and fear based thought spirals. And when a meaningful love connection occurs through deception, self-esteem takes a hard blow because the person hasn’t really fallen in love with the real YOU. This painful truth reinforces core beliefs of being unlovable and the fear that if people knew the real you they would run the other way. Imagine how that fear is confirmed when the catfish is confronted and “rejected” by their online romantic partner. When you behave in a way that elicits the negative thing you believe in or fear the most it is known as a self fulfilling prophecy. The only way to prevent that from happening is to challenge or reality test the fearful beliefs and change the behaviors that supports them. It’s hard to do that when trapped behind a screen.

Depression

Anxiety and depression go hand in hand. Some symptoms of depression that underlie catfishing are low self-esteem, social isolation, worthlessness, and persistent negative and distorted thinking about self and others. One of the catfish in Season 1 had used his online connection of ten years to a girl he never met as a means of coping with depression and suicidal thoughts. He felt self-conscious and suffered from low self-esteem due to his weight. He assumed what the girl would probably think and feel about him if she saw what he really looked liked. This is a type of cognitive distortion known as mind reading. Finally meeting her in life challenged a lot of the beliefs that were keeping him from video chatting and meeting up with her. Another catfish had adopted an identity that she felt represented all the things she wished she was and got to live that imaginal “perfect” life through the profile to escape her depressive reality. On the flip side, some of those hooked by catfish also suffered from low self-esteem and depressive thinking. When an awesome, exciting, and beautiful person started complimenting them, they wanted to believe it was the real thing. Their mood and self worth became dependent on the external validation provided by the catfish. Revealing the deception triggered a downward spiral of hopelessness, worthlessness, and despair for some of the victims. Sadly, they are likely to fall prey again if they don’t learn how to cultivate validation from within. Sorry, Nev and Max, but those two month follow up video chats where everyone reports how great they’re doing – probably not that accurate.

Personality Disorders

Some of the most dramatic episodes involved people who catfish for revenge, to get a boost of attention, or to manipulate the victim into providing them monetary support. These catfish are in line with the cluster of personality disorders characterized by their “erratic and dramatic” behavior. Now for the disclaimer – in order to properly assess and diagnose someone with a personality disorder a mental health clinician has to take into account a lot of information including developmental history, family dynamics, trauma exposure, and a host of “rule outs” of other disorders that better explain the problem behavior(s). Moving on…

The three most commonly known disorders in this cluster are Borderline, Anti-Social, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder(s). Catfishing as an act of vengeance for being “wronged”(e.g. one catfish created a fake profile for the purposes of emotionally and financially destroying an ex who had cheated) or to test the limits of one’s love without regarding how that will impact the other person could be interpreted as “borderline” behavior. That shift from love to hate and back again speaks to that erratic emotional state experienced by someone with the disorder in response to perceived abandonment or rejection. The resulting behavior could include threatening to commit suicide or self-harm to keep the other person concerned about them, creating an illness or injury (i.e. what Max referred to as the two C’s – cancer or a car crash) as an excuse that will prevent the person from rejecting or abandoning them, or giving ultimatums such as demanding that the person move, travel large distances to meet them, or make grand gestures to show that their love is “real” only to have the catfish stand them up or disappear for a time. This kind of emotional roller-coaster and instability is a disaster for both the catfish and the people they hook. They aren’t capable of stopping cold turkey without truly wanting to get off the roller-coaster. They will also need some intense therapeutic support to learn to manage their emotions and change their behavior.

Credit: https://www.talkspace.com/blog/borderline-personality-disorder-impacts-relationships/

And now for the scariest of catfish…

Both Anti-Social and Narcissistic Personality disorders have some level of what is known as schadenfreude or deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. Criminal behaviors like assuming someone’s identity to commit fraud (e.g. one catfish manipulated multiple victims to pay her bills and buy the things she wanted, then glibly blamed them for falling for it) or to slander a person’s reputation for “fun” (e.g. one catfish was arrested when she orchestrated a sexual encounter between a well-known athlete and a woman she didn’t know was a minor resulting in him being labeled a pedophile and almost destroying his career) display a lack of empathy and manipulation of people’s emotions to inflate a fragile sense of self. In one of the episodes, a victim whose identity was being used by a number of catfish expressed how a stranger grabbed her on the street and demanded to know why she had stopped talking to him. The woman became so guarded that she barely socialized or went out alone. While one of her catfish was confronted and the fake profile dismantled within a few days, this woman’s hypervigilance and the blow to her sense of identity will probably take a much longer time to undo.

The Catfish relationship take away…

The show identifies a number of “red flags” (see above) to look for when talking to someone online, whether you’re interested in dating or friendship. It also provides a few helpful investigative strategies to use if you suspect that the person might be a catfish. That being said, I think it’s important to also set what I call safe expectations before trying to date anyone on an online platform or app.

Your safe expectations should keep in mind the following three statements:

  • If it’s too much and too soon, it’s misattuned!

Don’t question your judgment with this. It takes time to get to know someone and that offer of all your hopes and dreams in a “perfect” package right from the beginning is just not realistic. If it’s the real deal, this person will not become upset if you slow the pace down. They will also not react with anger or ghost you when you set a limit. Using the phrase, “I’m really enjoying the process of getting to know you” followed by the limit you want to set shows a healthy boundary and sets the pace by which you want to open yourself up to this person. Don’t fall prey to statements that push back at that limit with “loving” manipulation such as “but you’re the perfect woman and everything I’ve been looking for…why are we waiting?” or “we’re adults and don’t have to play games.” Some version of these two repeat themselves in a variety of online dating courtships. If they get mad or ghost you, ’twas your gain in the end.

  • Your time is precious and your own to give.

This is the opposite of “too much, too soon.” If you find that you’re spending a lot of time trying to make something as basic as a phone call happen, you need to take back your most precious commodity. It’s wasteful and emotionally exhausting. Use that time to engage in self-care and to meet someone who’s more present and available…and real.

  • If it doesn’t feel good in your mind and body, it isn’t.

Powerful is the mind and body (gut) connection. Our bodies sometime react before our minds have a chance to process the “warning.” If you find that you’re experiencing some kind of somatic reaction when interacting with someone, check in with yourself. I’ll share my own experience with this one.

A few years ago, I had been talking to someone for about a month and feeling what I thought was a deep connection starting to develop between us. As we were trying to lock down a date to meet up with much excitement coming from both ends of the phone, I ignored some clear physical reactions that only made sense after this person did the slow fade to ghosting. Mixed with his compliments and flirts were little passive aggressive statements. I wasn’t picking up on them consciously, but my body was reacting to them with what looked like a rash on my chest and neck. This rash had occurred in the past in response to a loved one splitting on me (i.e. shifting from loving to rejecting without understanding what I had done.) My body knew this person was going to split before my brain processed the evidence for it.

Trust in the wisdom of your gut – it’s primal and straightforward unlike the stories we weave and tell ourselves to rationalize or deny shit experiences. Leave the stories and the drama for reality tv.

 

Additional sources of information on the mental health issues discussed in this post:

https://www.mentalhealth.gov/

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml

Uncategorized

Raising that EQ – Evaluating your emotional intelligence

The Oxford English dictionary defines emotional intelligence (EQ) as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”

The above also sounds a lot like a goal of therapy – being able to put our feelings into words and communicate them to people in our lives in a direct, fair, and caring way, so that we can feel better about ourselves and our relationships. EQ treatment plans for everyone!

Dawson, you need some therapy in your life.

Inc.com’s Justin Bariso published an article in 2018 describing what qualities make up emotional intelligence based on research for his book, “EQ Applied.” Unlike our IQ, emotional intelligence is not fixed or stable throughout our lives. We all have the ability to raise our EQ through cultivating the qualities Bariso describes in his article. What I found interesting after reading his list was that even the most self-aware of us do not have all 13 qualities in spades. In fact, if all we had were the first three we would still be pretty decent humans.

These first three qualities of emotional intelligence from Bariso’s list are the following:

  1. You think about feelings
  2. You pause
  3. You strive to control your thoughts

All three are also objectives of Cognitive Restructuring, a cognitive behavioral skill that helps us manage our emotions by monitoring the automatic thoughts that come into our minds in a given situation or context where they are triggered. The “pause” aspect would be where the therapeutic work takes place. You take the time to examine the thoughts that come up and their associated emotions in order to understand the where, what, how, and why. They are the building blocks of self-awareness. And now for the breakdown.

Where did these thoughts and messages originally come from? I call automatic thoughts “the tape recorder” because oftentimes these thoughts are messages we recorded about ourselves in childhood based on our parents’ and/or important people’s feedback. These messages were shaped in the context of early experiences and saved in our emotional archives. The “play” button goes off when present day experiences trigger those long recorded messages.

What are these thoughts saying about yourself and others? What are the emotions attached to these messages? Identifying the core beliefs underlying the thoughts and the emotions that come up pave the way for understanding how they developed and why they were useful in a particular time in your life. The belief that you’re only valuable if you take care of others may have been a way for a child to survive a neglectful upbringing, but in adulthood, that belief with all its associated thoughts and emotions could lead to codependent relationships, depression, and low self-esteem. One of the hardest aspects of cognitive restructuring is challenging these thoughts and messages. The fact that we call them “automatic” thoughts says it all – they are deeply rooted and habitual patterns of thinking that, like any habit, need time and work to break. The amazing thing is that our brains are capable of doing this with enough repetition and practice.

With a good base of self-awareness, we can learn how to communicate both positive and negative feelings in a healthy and constructive way to other people. This skill also takes time and work to develop because much like our automatic thoughts and emotional triggers, our patterns of relating to others are also habitual. It’s on a whole other level when the people we are relating to remind us of our parents in some way. For this reason, these patterns are sometimes referred to as “repetitions” because they repeat dysfunctional communications formed in early life with our caregivers. A good portion of Bariso’s list (numbers 4-9 are listed below) encompass the above, but with some clarifications:

  1. You benefit from criticism – Bariso refers to this as taking in the negative feedback and asking yourself how you can improve, but I feel there is a difference between constructive criticism and straight up criticism. When it’s the former, taking it in for the purpose of improving yourself makes sense. However, when it’s the latter, I think it’s more about what you can learn from the experience about yourself and the other person giving that feedback. I worked with a client whose character was very warm, generous, and considerate. When her sister in law flipped out on her for not attending her baby shower (the client had a work obligation that was mandatory) she began to call herself inconsiderate. We took the time to examine the “evidence” for her sister-in-law’s criticism and came to realize that we needed to work on her ability to maintain healthy boundaries when dealing with her super enmeshed family; not to make her more considerate.
  2. You show authenticity – what Bariso noted as “say what you mean, mean what you say.” Stand by your values.
  3. You demonstrate empathy
  4. You praise others
  5. You give helpful feedback – the feedback that you give to other people to help them be their “best” self. The ability to give and receive criticism has its opposite – the ability to give and receive praise. For many of us, it is hard to accept praise and/or complimentary statements. That’s also something worth unpacking in therapy because it feeds into our self-esteem and self-concept.
  6. You apologize – Bariso notes that apologizing doesn’t always mean you’re wrong. When you KNOW this, you can tackle conflict resolution like an EQ-ed boss. It’s a tough one to master and one that I struggle with at times depending on the conflict and the person involved. It requires overriding your ego and considering someone else’s feelings in addition to your own. The more emotionally invested I am, the harder it is to form the words of the apology without sounding defensive or blaming. One of the best forms of apology in situations where you may be in the right is saying, “I am sorry if what I said/did made you feel…” followed up with reflecting whatever it is they respond with such as, “you felt like I rejected you” or “you felt that it was fucked up.” As the situation de-escalates (although sometimes it may not, which makes the apology and resolution process super challenging), you can introduce resolution in a collaborative way such as “how can we prevent this from happening again,” “what can we do to work through this,” or “how can I help us overcome this.”

Being able to apologize is tied to the ability to forgive and move on (#10 on Bariso’s list noted as “forgive and forget”) which is another difficult thing to master. This is part of the therapeutic process of rupture and repair. The rupture is in the conflict – actions and/or words that caused pain and a rift between two people. The repair is in how you resolve and move on from what happened. An important thing to ask yourself in this process is what holding on to all that emotion is actually doing for you. What is useful about not forgiving or not forgetting? What’s holding you back from moving on?

Bariso’s 11th and 12th examples are also humanistic core values – honoring your commitments to self and other (i.e. keeping your word) and helping other people. His 13th trait is the ability to protect yourself from “emotional sabotage” which he expands upon in another article. Essentially this last trait is made possible by cultivating all the other ones on the list. The higher your emotional intelligence, the less likely others will be able to derail you even if they are master manipulators. Raising your EQ not only benefits your sense of self and your relationships, but also can have a ripple effect on the environment around you. Imagine if everyone was working to raise their EQ on a daily basis. Imagine if we evaluated EQ as an important, even non-negotiable characteristic for potential partnerships and friendships. Imagine what a whole bunch of self-aware people could accomplish if they all came together.

Gasp!

Sit with that and let your mind be blown a little too.

 

 

 

SOURCES:

https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/emotional_intelligence

https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/13-things-emotionally-intelligent-people-do.html