I was at my therapist yesterday for another session. We did not do EMDR. Instead we spoke more about the protective emotions. Just like on Sesame Street, the word of the day was DISGUST. What does disgust look like in the world to me? Well, as soon as my therapist said the word an image was in my mind to match it. It was clear and present. There was no getting away from it. It wasn’t neutral. It was simply there. My therapist asked if I saw anything. “Yes. I see my mother having a threesome.”
I never knew that I had applied a descriptive term to that memory, but I had. I felt disgusted by what I had seen all those years ago. It was brief. She was drunk. She had forgotten to close the door. I was no older than 9 years-old. I saw it. I then went into my bedroom and closed the door. That’s all I remember. As soon as that image passed another memory replaced it. I was helping my mother change the sheets on her bed. Her boyfriend had spent the weekend with her. They had spent their time having sex and stained the sheets with their fluids. My mother commented on the stains with some flippant remark. I felt sick and disgusted to be helping her. I didn’t want to know about my mother’s sex life. She then went on to ask me if I masturbated. I was in college. I recall not wanting to participate in this conversation. I pretended not to understand her questions. She went even further and discussed her boyfriend’s penis size and sexual preferences. I was very disgusted at this point and made a hasty exist.
My therapist asked all the pertinent questions: Did I believe in any way that I deserved that treatment? No. Was I convinced in my heart that I did not deserve it? Yes. Did I truly understand that my mother was out of line? Yes. What fascinated me more was that I have unknowingly transferred some of my disgust to dimensions of my own sexuality and sexuality in general. In those moments, I viewed my mother as an object of disgust, and I vowed that I would never be like her.
disgust=my mother=sex ergo disgust=sex
It’s a logical fallacy, but humans aren’t necessarily rational. We see this sort of logical fallacy all the time particularly in conservative, religious circles and in political ideology.
For example, some movies are violent. Some movies have sexual content. Therefore, all movies are sexual and violent. How many people have I met who don’t watch movies in general because they are “bad”?
Premarital sex is sinful. Premarital sex is still sex. Therefore, sex is sinful. This is a big one. Combine this fallacy with this one: Eve was a temptress. Eve was a woman. Women are temptresses. It’s the logical fallacy of applying the quality of one to the whole. Primates are mammals. Primates have opposable thumbs. All mammals have opposable thumbs.
This line of thinking is easy to see in politics with statements like, “All Republicans are bigots.” and “All Democrats are gay.” It comes from a person’s experience of their world. Perhaps they had an unpleasant experience with a few people. “The few Democrats I’ve met have been aggressive with their political ideology. They have also been gay. All Democrats must be like this.” Obviously, this is a ridiculous leap of logic, but how often do we engage in this line of thinking? I grew up in Texas. A high school friend once declared to me that all gay people should be caught and put on an island, and that island should be bombed with a nuclear warhead. I was shocked. I asked her why she held that opinion. Her response? “All Republicans think this way.” She, too, had applied a logical fallacy to her own premise. “If I am this way, then everyone I identify with must be the same.” It was very difficult for me, at the time, not to respond by thinking, “Are all conservatives hateful bigots?” We are all guilty of applying this premise at one time or another.
What does a logical fallacy have to do with therapy? Well, we make connections oftentimes without knowing it, and those associations don’t often serve us. Those associations often look a lot like a logical fallacy. Let me give you some examples.
- A girl is abused by her family. She ends up dating a guy who abuses her, too. She doesn’t leave the relationship. Why? “My family hated me. My boyfriend hated me. I must be a hateful thing. I must deserve what I’m getting.”
- A boy watches his alcoholic father beat his mother repeatedly. The boy tries to defend his mother but fails. His father eventually kills his mother. The boy develops clinical depression and a personality disorder. “I wasn’t capable of defending my own mother. I am good for nothing. I am worthless.”
- A girl is date-raped. She had too much to drink and was taken advantage of. She also wore a short skirt. “I made him think I wanted it. I was drunk and wore a short skirt. I looked like a slut, therefore, I am a slut. If you go out looking like a whore you’ll be treated like one.”
- A woman is neglected by her husband. He is emotionally unavailable. He works a lot. When he’s home, he ignores her. She has tried everything to get his attention, but he’s just not interested in her. She is very lonely and profoundly sad. Her father also ignored her as a child and abandoned his family, leaving for another woman. “My own father didn’t love me enough to stay. What makes me think my husband will pay attention to me? I’m sure it’s my fault. I’m sure it’s me. I’m just defective. I’m sure I deserve it.”
None of the aforementioned statements are true, but how often do we think along these lines? How often do we blame ourselves or agree with self-hatred when we’re faced with painful life events? How often do we make illogical leaps in our thinking? People abuse others because they have a problem, not because the victim deserves it. It is not up to a child to defend a parent from another adult in the grips of an alcoholic rage. It is the adult’s job to protect the child. Anything less than that is parentification. No one deserves to be raped. There is no place in this world for slut-shaming. A woman could be naked and walking down the street, and that is not an invitation for rape. Lastly, no one deserves abuse or neglect. Ever. And yet, the logical fallacies stalk us. They seem to make sense to us.
How do we find these untruths in our lives and overturn them?
One of the signs that you’re living with these sorts of fallacies is what I call Two Sets of Rules. Generally speaking, if other people are allowed to live a certain way or are allowed to a better level of treatment than you, then you are probably living with a fallacy. For example, if you believe that your friends are allowed to be happy and fulfilled with the exception of yourself, then you are believing a lie somewhere in your life. If you believe that your friends should pursue excellence in their jobs never tolerating second best with the exception of yourself, then you are adhering to a logical fallacy. Why are others allowed good things in life, but you are not? This means that there are Two Sets of Rules being applied; one set for you and another set for others. This is not an integrous way to live. We are to treat others the way we want to be treated. If our friends and family get to be happy, then so do we. We are not in any way special or different in that way. You will see this kind of thinking present when depression is at work. Others are allowed to be happy, but the depressive is not.
Due to The Two Sets of Rules, there is often confusion and feelings of helplessness present when people believe their own logical fallacies. They fear doing something wrong so they do nothing instead. It’s a kind of paralysis. This is extremely common in Christian circles. The overly religious nature of some Christian denominations teaches that God is angry and judgmental, always focusing on our sin so people are terrified of risk-taking. When they do attempt to take a risk and then fail, they automatically blame themselves asserting this premise: “God hates sin. I am a sinner. God hates me.” In their eyes, their failure was equal to sin. God hates sin, therefore, God hates them. What does God do to sinners? “God hates sin. Sin is wicked. God punishes the wicked. I am sinful and wicked. God will punish me.” They interpret their failure not as a natural consequence and an opportunity to learn but as punishment from an angry and punitive God. They deserved it. This view will either be internalized or externalized and applied as judgment to other people as well. And the vicious cycle continues. It is almost entirely fear-based.
The human brain is many things; instinctively rational it is not. It takes time and training to truly see how and why we think the way that we do. I had no idea that I was viewing certain sexual issues through the “disgust” filter. Even if I did figure that out on my own, would I have understood so quickly the logical leaps my brain had taken to put that filter in place? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s vital that we spend time paying attention to how we think, the assertions that we are making, and the images that flash before our eyes when words are spoken. Most of us won’t relish paying attention to those fleeting emotions. We’ve turned denial into an art form, but it’s so important that we come alive again in those areas that have grown cold.
This is how we make new and better connections. This is how we begin to learn what is true, and that is what we want, isn’t it? We want to know the truth because the truth does indeed set us free.