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The Empathy Trap
Article excerpt
by Robin Stern, Ph.D., and Diana Divecha, Ph.D.

PUTTING YOURSELF IN SOMEONE ELSE'S SHOES IS GOOD, BUT NOT WHEN IT BECOMES THE DEFAULT MODE OF RELATING TO OTHERS. TOO MUCH EMPATHY CAN BLIND YOU TO YOUR OWN NEEDS.

EMPATHY IS HAVING its moment. The ability to feel what another person is feeling, from that person's perspective, generates lots of press as the [ultimate positive value and the pathway to a kinder, less violent world. Schools across the country are teaching empathy to children, and myriad books explore it from every possible angle: how to get it, why it makes you a better person, now its absence can breed evil.

Empathy is exalted by thinkers from Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhâ't Hanh to British writer Roman Krznaric, who just launched an online Empathy Museum where you can virtually step into someone else's shoes. Established scientists like primatologist Frans de Waal and developmental psychiatrist Daniel Siegel explore the deep roots of empathy in animals and its essential nature in humans. Even the business world exalts empathy as a way to ensure the success of companies and their products, with design firm IDEO leading the charge. We are exhorted to examine our empathic capacity and instructed how to develop it in ourselves and in our children.

It is normal and necessary to be tuned in to someone else's feelings, especially when one is very close to that person. In fact, giving-and getting-empathy is essential in intimate adult relationships. "The empathic understanding of the experience of other human beings is as basic an endowment of man as his vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell," observed noted psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut. The desire to be heard, known, and felt deeply never disappears. But when empathy becomes the default way of relating, psychological well-being is impoverished.

Empathy involves not just feelings but thoughts, and it encompasses two people-the person we are feeling for and our own self. To put ourselves in someone else's shoes, we must strike a balance between emotion and thought and between self and other. Otherwise, empathy becomes a trap, and we can feel as if we're being held hostage by the feelings of others.

The art of empathy requires paying attention to another's needs without sacrificing one's own. It demands the mental dexterity to switch attunement from other to self. What turns empathy into a true high-wire act is that its beneficiaries find the attention deeply rewarding. That puts the onus on us to know when to extract ourselves from someone else's shoes-and how.

Recognizing and sharing someone else's emotional state is a complex inner experience. It calls on self-awareness, the ability to distinguish between your own feelings and those of others, the skill to take another's perspective, the ability to recognize emotions in others as well as oneself, and the know-how to regulate those feelings.

Overly empathic people may even lose the ability to know what they want or need. They may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest, experience physical and psychological exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings, and may lack internal resources to give their best to key people in their life. What's more, unending empathy creates vulnerability to gaslighting, in which another person negates your own reality to assert his or hers. For example, when you express your dismay to your friend about being excluded from her last few get-togethers, and she replies, "Oh, you're just being too sensitive."

Those who regularly prioritize the feelings of others above their own needs often experience generalized anxiety or low-level depression. They may describe a feeling of emptiness or alienation, or dwell incessantly on situations from the perspective of another.

Where sympathy is the act of feeling for someone ("I am so sorry you are hurting"), empathy involves feeling with someone ("I feel your disappointment"). It also differs from compassion, which is a caring concern for another's suffering from a slightly greater distance and often includes a desire to help. …
 
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    The Voice of Reason

    By Pamela Weintraub

    Everyone engages in self-talk. But much depends on the way we do it. Scientists now find that the right words can free us from our fears and make us as wise about ourselves as we often are about others.

    Psychologist Ethan Kross was coasting through the streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in Spring 2010 when he passed a red light. “Ethan, you idiot!” he said to himself, vowing to drive safely the rest of the way home. Then, because he is, after all, a psychologist, he stopped to reflect on his turn of phrase. He didn’t say, “I’m an idiot.” “I called myself by my first name,” he noted to himself. “Why?”

    A few months later, LeBron James, the future Hall of Fame basketball player, was on television discussing his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Fans in Cleveland were burning his jersey in effigy, but James explained his decision had come from a place of calm. “One thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision,” he told the audience. “I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James, and to do what makes LeBron James happy.” Many questioned his sanity, and Kross himself might have chalked such language up to standard celebrity narcissism had he not recalled his own moment of self-reference.

    Then Kross heard Malala Yousafzai, the selfless Pakistani activist for women’s educationand the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize, on The Daily Show, recounting her approach to the Taliban. “‘If the Taliban comes, what would you do, Malala,’” she described herself as having said at the time. “Then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’”

    That spurred Kross the psychologist into action. He knew that people naturally talk to themselves, but he didn’t know whether the chatter amounted to much or whether the words they used even mattered. So he decided to look into things.

    In a series of groundbreaking experiments, Kross has found that how people conduct their inner monologues has an enormous effect on their success in life. Talk to yourself with the pronoun I, for instance, and you’re likely to fluster and perform poorly in stressful circumstances. Address yourself by your name and your chances of acing a host of tasks, from speech making to self-advocacy, suddenly soar.

    Indeed, along with addressing a body of research by others, Kross is forcing a whole new take on what has long been ignored or relegated to pop psychology—the use of self-talk to boost confidence. His work elevates self-talk to something far more significant: a powerful instrument of consciousness itself. When deployed in very specific ways at specific times, it frees the brain to perform its absolute best.

    By toggling the way we address the self—first person or third—we flip a switch in the cerebral cortex, the center of thought, and another in the amygdala, the seat of fear, moving closer to or further from our sense of self and all its emotional intensity. Gaining psychological distance enables self-control, allowing us to think clearly, perform competently. The language switch also minimizes rumination, a handmaiden of anxietyand depression, after we complete a task. Released from negative thoughts, we gain perspective, focus deeply, plan for the future.

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    How to understand power ~ Eric Liu

     
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    Our emotional currents

    Lisa Feldman Barrett

    OUR senses appear to show us the world the way it truly is, but they are easily deceived. For example, if you listen to a recorded symphony through stereo speakers that are placed exactly right, the orchestra will sound like it’s inside your head. Obviously that isn’t the case.

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    The mystery of the female orgasm

    From the existence of the G-spot to the origin of multiple orgasms, female sexuality once mystified scientists. But as Linda Geddes discovers, radical experiments are finally revealing some answers.

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    Is another human living inside you?

    Once upon a time, your origins were easy to understand. Your dad met your mum, they had some fun, and from a tiny fertilised egg you emerged kicking and screaming into the world. You are half your mum, half your dad – and 100% yourself.

    Except, that simple tale has now become a lot more complicated. Besides your genes from parents, you are a mosaic of viruses, bacteria – and potentially, other humans. Indeed, if you are a twin, you are particularly likely to be carrying bits of your sibling within your body and brain. Stranger still, they may be influencing how you act.

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    The lethality of loneliness: John Cacioppo at TEDxDesMoines

     
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    The skill of self confidence | Dr. Ivan Joseph | TEDxRyersonU

     
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    The Surprising Benefits of Sarcasm

    Francesca Gino
    “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence,” wrote that connoisseur of wit, Oscar Wilde. Whether sarcasm is a sign of intelligence or not, communication experts and marriage counselors alike typically advise us to stay away from this particular form of expression. The reason is simple: sarcasm expresses the poisonous sting of contempt, hurting others and harming relationships. As a form of communication, sarcasm takes on the debt of conflict.

    And yet, our research suggests, there may also be some unexpected benefits from sarcasm: greater creativity. The use of sarcasm, in fact, promotes creativity for those on both the giving and receiving end of sarcastic exchanges. Instead of avoiding sarcasm completely in the office, the research suggests sarcasm, used with care and in moderation, can be effectively used and trigger some creative sparks.

    Sarcasm involves constructing or exposing contradictions between intended meanings. The most common form of verbal irony, sarcasm is often used to humorously convey thinly veiled disapproval or scorn. “Pat, don’t work so hard!”, a boss might say upon catching his assistant surfing the Internet. Early research on sarcasm explored how people interpret statements and found that, as expected, sarcasm makes a statement sound more critical. In one laboratory study, participants read scenarios in which, for instance, (1) one person did something that could be viewed negatively, such as smoking, and (2) a second person commented on the behavior to the first person, either literally (“I see you don’t have a healthy concern for your lungs”) or sarcastically (“I see you have a healthy concern for your lungs”). Participants rated sarcasm to be more condemning than literal statements. In a similar study, participants were encouraged to empathize either with a person behaving in a way that could be construed as negative or with a second person commenting on the first person’s behavior. Both perspectives prompted participants to rate sarcastic comments by the second person as more impolite relative to literal comments.

    Other research has shown that sarcasm can be easily misinterpreted, particularly when communicated electronically. In one study, 30 pairs of university students were given a list of statements to communicate, half of which were sarcastic and half of which were serious. Some students communicated their messages via e-mail and others via voice recordings. Participants who received the voice messages accurately gleaned the sarcasm (or lack thereof) 73 percent of the time, but those who received the statements via e-mail did so only 56 percent of the time, hardly better than chance. By comparison, the e-mailers had anticipated that 78 percent of participants would pick up on the sarcasm inherent in their sarcastic statements. That is, they badly overestimated their ability to communicate the tenor of their sarcastic statements via e-mail. What’s more, the recipients of the sarcastic e-mails were also decidedly overconfident. They guessed they would correctly interpret the tone of the e-mails they received about 90 percent of the time. They were considerably less overconfident about their ability to interpret voice messages.

    In recent research, my colleagues and I discovered an upside to this otherwise gloomy picture of sarcasm. In one study, we assigned some participants to engage in either simulated sarcastic, sincere, or neutral dialogues by choosing from pre-written responses on a sheet of paper. Others were recipients of these different types of messages from others. Immediately after participants engaged in these “conversations,” we presented them with tasks testing their creativity. Not surprisingly, the participants exposed to sarcasm reported more interpersonal conflict than those in other groups. More interestingly, those who engaged in a sarcastic conversation fared better on creativity tasks. The processes involved in initiating and delivering a sarcastic comment improved the creativity and cognitive functioning of both the commenter and the recipient. This creativity effect only emerged when recipients picked up on the sarcasm behind the expresser’s message rather than taking mean comments at face value.

    Why might sarcasm enhance creativity? Because the brain must think creatively to understand or convey a sarcastic comment, sarcasm may lead to clearer and more creative thinking. To either create or understand sarcasm, tone must overcome the contradiction between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions. This is a process that activates, and is facilitated by, abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking.Consider the following example, which comes from a conversation one of my co-authors on the research (Adam Galinsky, of Columbia) had a few weeks before getting married. His fiancée woke him up as he was soundly asleep at night to tell him about some new ideas she has for their upcoming wedding next month –many of which were quite expensive. Adam responded with some ideas of his own: “Why don’t we get Paul McCartney to sing, Barack Obama to give a benediction and Amy Schumer to entertain people.” His comment required his fiancée to recognize that there is a distinction between the surface level meaning of the sentence (actually signing up these people to perform) and the meaning that was intended.

    This is not the first set of studies showing that creativity can be boosted by things that would commonly be considered creativity killers. In one series of studies, for example, researchers found that moderate noise can be an untapped source of creativity, providing a welcome distraction that helps the brain make disparate associations. In addition, alcohol is believed to aid creativity, up to a point, by reducing focus and relaxing the mind.

    Sarcasm can be interpreted negatively, and thus cause relationship costs. So, how do we harness its creative benefits without creating the type of conflict that can damage a relationship? It comes down to trust. Our studies show that, given the same content and tone, sarcasm expressed toward or received from someone we trust is less conflict provoking than sarcasm expressed toward or received from someone we distrust. Of course, if we were to vary the tone and content, it would make a difference too – given an extremely harsh tone and critical content, even trust might not be enough.

    Given the risks and benefits of sarcasm, your best bet is to keep salty remarks limited to conversations with those you know well, lest you offend others—even as you potentially help them think more creatively.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
    Francesca Gino is a behavioral scientist and professor at Harvard Business School. She is the author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). Twitter:@francescagino


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    A Preliminary Inquiry into the Psychological Function
    of Secrets in the Apparitions of Mary

    Gregory Scott Sparrow, Ed.D.
    University of Texas-Pan American
    Javier Cavazos, Jr., M.Ed.
    University of Texas-Pan American​


    Abstract

    In the most publicized European apparitions of Mary, the seers have reported receiving personal or prophetic secrets from the apparition. In contrast to these famous accounts, contemporary private visions of Mary reveal an absence of secrets, supporting the hypothesis that secrets are associated with encounters that are revealed to others, and which come under public scrutiny. Analyzing the phenomenon of secrets from a psychological standpoint, the authors hypothesize that apparitional secrets function 1) psychodynamically as a way of preserving a separate sense of identity, and 2) systemically as a natural consequence of the seer's mediating position between the vision and the public. The authors then examine the acceptance the phenomenon of the apparitional secret by the Church and the laity, and observe that Mary’s alleged bestowal of secrets upon the seers mirrors the story of God’s dependence upon the biblical Mary.

    Keywords: Marian apparitions, secrecy, systems theory, psychodynamic theory


    A Preliminary Inquiry into the Psychological Function of Secrets in the Apparitions of Mary

    The modern era of Marian apparitions commenced in Europe during the middle 1800s, but anecdotal reports of encountering the mother of Jesus are by no means a recent development. Since the first century, there have been over 21,000 documented cases (Ashton & Ashton, 1989).

    Many well-known religious figures reported private visions of the mother of Jesus prior to the era of the major European apparitions. According to Gregory of Nyssa, Mary appeared to Gregory the Wonderworker in the third century. Accompanied by the apostle John, she reportedly appeared in the night, more than life-size, surrounded by light "as if a brilliant torch had been lit. In the vision, Mary told John to make the mystery of the true faith known to Gregory. John was heard to consent because "such was her wish" (O’Carroll, 1982, p. 124).

    Centuries later, on returning to England from the Crusades in 1241, St. Simon Stock––the leader of the Carmelite Order––experienced a vision of Mary now well-known to Roman Catholics. He had been praying to the Virgin for relief from the oppression the Carmelites were facing from the more established religious orders in England. In his vision, Mary apparently told Simon that anyone wearing the brown Carmelite habit at death would gain immunity from eternal fire. Simon’s vision, once publicized, greatly enhanced the status of his order and aroused public interest in wearing the protective garment. Since then, countless people have worn a small piece of brown wool––known as the brown scapular––as a visible sign of their devotion to Mary and her protection.

    In spite of Mary's reported appearances to such individuals over the centuries, the apparitions and visions seen by early saints "were incidental features in the lives whose legends they embellished: It was the saint who was the object of the cult” (Blackbourn, 1993, p. 9). Because the church treated the encounter as secondary to the saint’s religious life, neither the visions nor the miracles frequently associated with them became the focus of widespread devotion.

    It is commonly believed that Mary’s appearances to ordinary people began in the early 1800s. However, apparitions of Mary occurred in earlier times among the laity, as well. Christian (1996) investigated the incidence of apparitions in Spain during the 15th century and found that numerous well-documented apparitions had been reported by ordinary people. Not surprisingly, the Church became concerned about the independent authority implicitly conferred by apparitional phenomena. While Church authorities did not dispute the fact of private revelation, it vigorously suppressed the public disclosure of such revelation because of the social power conferred by the meditating role, and the potential conflict of the alleged dispensation with Church doctrines.

    Starting with the apparition in La Salette, France in 1846, the emphasis began to shift onto the messages conveyed by the apparitions, and to the miraculous events that took place around the apparitions. This shift may have occurred because the messages included statements about the world as a whole, and because the church and the public were hesitant to erect a cult around the recipients of these new apparitions, who were mostly women and uneducated children. Indeed, the modern practice of focusing on the content of the vision rather than the recipient served to diminish somewhat the importance of the visionaries themselves in the most acclaimed modern apparitions of Mary.

    Many of the books concerning the Marian apparitions reflect an uncritical appraisal of the apparitional phenomena, the messages conveyed, and the healings or “prodigies” associated with the apparition sites (Ashton and Ashton, 1989; Delany, 1960; Varghese, 2000). In commenting on Varghese’s book as an example of this genre, Britt (2002) notes that it lacks a consideration of “even the most minimal cultural and historical context.” However, a few scholarly works (Blackbourn, 1993; Christian, 1996; Zimdars-Swartz, 1991) have analyzed the social and political contexts in which Marian apparitions have arisen, and explored the complex relationships between the visionaries, the apparition, the local populace, political authorities, and the Church. Looking at an apparition in the context in which it occurs, while maintaining a neutral stance regarding its alleged supernatural origins, provides an altogether different level of analysis than the one taken by authors of popular works who are largely motivated to spread the good news: It reveals how apparitional phenomena may emerge, in part, to satisfy the complex needs of the seers, the Church, and the public, and how such phenomena can change over time under the pressures of competing interests. Along these lines, we believe that a focus on the psychological factors––a dimension heretofore overlooked by previous researchers –– can provide a fuller understanding of various apparitional features. In this paper, we specifically analyze the phenomenon of the apparitional secret, and hypothesize from the perspective of psychodynamic theory that this phenomenon has arisen, at least in part, as a way for the seers to preserve a sense of independent identity and power in a context that minimizes their importance and personal needs. We also hypothesize from the standpoint of systems theory that the perception or fact of secrecy arises naturally in any triangular relationship in which a seeker can only communicate with, or gain access to higher power through a mediating agent.

    The Phenomenon of Secrets

    In the most publicized Marian apparitions of the last 150 years, the embodiment of higher power has reportedly conveyed secrets to the visionaries. These secrets have been comprised of confidential personal messages, or prophecies that have to be withheld until some later time, or a combination of both. In La Salette, France in 1846, cowherds Melanie Calvat and Maximim Giraud claimed to have received both personal and prophetic information that the lady in their vision asked them not to reveal. A decade later in 1858, Bernadette of Lourdes reported having received confidential messages over the course of 18 separate encounters, but in spite of the pressure to reveal them, she insisted that the messages were for her alone and never disclosed them. Then in 1917, the Fatima apparitions produced three famous prophetic secrets that were turned over to the papacy. Two of the secrets were revealed in 1942, and the third secret was finally revealed by the Vatican in 2000. The apparitions at Garabandal, Spain (1961-63) and Medjugorje, Yugoslavia (1981-present) have both laid out a sequence of warnings and chastisements, but the exact time frame for these events remains unrevealed. In the case of Medjugorje, the apparition has also communicated a series of 10 secrets to each of the six young visionaries according to a different time schedule.

    The First Apparitional Secrets

    Cowherds Melanie Calvat and Maximim Guiraud of La Salette were the first visionaries in the era of modern apparitions who allegedly received during their single encounter. While tending their cattle, the children reportedly witnessed the presence of a beautiful woman who spoke with them about God’s displeasure with his people. The woman cited recent crop failures as an example of his punishment, and warned of famine and further hardships unless the world repented.

    At first, the public accepted the children’s account at face value. But in time, some people seized upon the idea that the woman––whom they identified as the Blessed Mother without the children's help––must have said more. When the children were asked if she had told them more, they initially refused to comment, but eventually admitted that the woman had given them messages that they were told not to reveal.

    The La Sallette seers claimed that the woman had spoken privately to each of them; thus neither child was able to confirm nor deny what the lady had revealed to the other. Some of what she told them was personal and some of it pertained to future events of general interest. Historians now find it difficult to assess how much importance the children themselves originally attributed to these private messages. Further, there is some speculation that the secrets grew more elaborate as the public's interest in them increased. Regardless, one should keep in mind that the La Salette secrets established a precedent that carried over to subsequent apparitions.

    Obviously, whatever takes place in a visionary experience becomes privileged information, if for no other reason because one can know of it only through the visionary's willing disclosure. Given the private nature of such experiences, suspicions may naturally arise about the possibility of withheld information. This is how the speculation about Mary's secrets rose to such a fever pitch at La Salette: The public's desire to know more and the Church's authority collided with the visionaries' loyalty to their private experiences. A predictable escalation of tensions naturally ensued.

    It is easy to understand why the public might suspect that there could be more to the story. For, the purported messages communicated by the apparitions have never ventured very far from familiar biblical passages. As Pelletier (1971) says about Mary's messages, "the spoken message in its essential parts is never more than a reminder of the gospel, of things that we already know or should know (p. 89)." Consequently, an understandable escalation of mistrust naturally ensues between the seers––who alone experience the manifestation––and the public, who may not believe that Mary would manifest only to reiterate familiar spiritual truths.

    Visions that Never Become Public

    It is perhaps significant that the public became aware of the La Salette secrets only after pressuring the children for more information. Similarly, Bernadette of Lourdes began receiving secrets during the third apparition, after the public and the Church had been made aware of the phenomenon. Bernadette did not even hear the woman speak during the first two appearances, nor did she make any effort to indentify the young woman. This tolerance of ambiguity among La Salette and Lourdes visionaries stands in stark contrast to the public’s demand for specific and thorough information.

    There is anecdotal evidence that supports the hypothesis that secrets become part of an apparition's message only once the fact of the encounter has been shared with others. In a study conducted of modern visions and dreams of Mary (Sparrow, 1997; 2002), the respondents––all of whom were of adult age when they shared their visions with the researcher even though many of the experiences occurred during childhood––were interviewed by letter, phone, or in-person about their experiences with the understanding that their identities would remain confidential. Many of the accounts bear striking similarities to the famous historic encounters.

    In one, a little girl experienced a plastic statue of Mary coming to life as she danced in front of it.
    One day my father gave me a wooden apple crate he had gotten from the local grocer. I was delighted with the crate and placed it on a small table in our backyard. There I decided to build a shrine or grotto to Mary. Each afternoon after school I joyously "played" by creating my shrine. Turning the "shrine" or crate on its side, I placed inside an old plastic statue of Mary––about eight inches in height that was white and had features painted in black. Each day I searched for old containers that would serve as vases surrounding the statue, such as jar lids and cans . . . At last, all seemed ready one day. I gathered a few flowers from my mother's gardens and even some small wild flowers, added water to my "vases," and placed this in the shrine around and about the statue. Then I began singing some songs to Mary, and about Mary, that I had learned in school. I recall even dancing to the songs––which I had not learned in school.

    While I danced, I glanced at the shrine and became transfixed. The statue had taken on colors! I dropped into a sitting position and continued staring at the shrine. The face had real skin tones as did the hands; her dress was white, but now a crystalline white, and her mantle on her head was blue –– quite soft in color. She held a crystal rosary that reflected soft rainbow-like colors. She was "real" and very human–like. She looked very calm, serene and peaceful. And although she first looked down toward her bare feet, she lifted her eyes slowly without moving her head and smiled sweetly at me. There were no words, but I knew without being told that she liked the shrine.

    I don't know how long we gazed at one another, but I then received a strong compulsion to get pencil and paper. I dashed into the house and retrieved them, and returned to sit cross–legged in front of the shrine. I drew the Lady as I saw her. She remained perfectly still as I did so. I could only draw stick figures, yet I drew her likeness as easily as if I were an artist. I was using a pencil on a scrap piece of paper, but the picture appeared colored -- flesh tones, white, blue -- in exactly the same hues as she appeared. The drawing of her was about 2 1/2" to 3" tall. She, by the way, was appearing about the same size as the shrine statue with cloud–like gauze or a film around her. It never occurred to me during this entire time that this was odd or strange. I felt no fear nor questioned any of it. After I finished the drawing, we looked at one another for a while and then she "melted" away. I was left staring at the plastic statue. I looked at the drawing and I saw it in colors.

    Days passed -- I continued to "play" at the shrine although not every day as before. I never saw her again, but strangely I felt no urge to want to -- as if one visit was sufficient. I had hidden the picture and told no one about it or the "visit." This was not from fear, nor lack of sharing. I simply never thought about telling anyone––as if it was a highly personal thing . . . (Sparrow, 2002, p. 34-37)

    The little girl kept the experience private in order to preserve its special place in her private world. Her impulse to keep the experience to herself provides some indication of what seers might initially experience before the phenomenon becomes a matter of public record. It is as if the intimacy created by the vision suffices to offset the need to know more.

    In another vision, a school teacher reported a vision that resembled the first appearance of Mary at Fatima, where the three children saw her in the midst of an orb of light hovering over an evergreen tree.

    I was on the edge of a cornfield just at the entrance to a forest . . . I felt a presence just above me, so I raised my eyes . . . There was an incredible buzzing sound, and I was intensely aware of the rapid vibrations of absolutely everything. It was as if everything was vibrating at a very high speed.

    On a tree branch just above me, I saw a circle of light begin to form. The light concentrated more and more while at the same time radiating outward. Then in the center of that light I saw Mary. She was small and she moved along the branch towards me. The power and intensity of the apparition were phenomenal, so much so that my mind and being could not contain the experience. Mary hovered on or just above the branch for a few seconds and then either she disappeared or my mind snapped out of a level of being able to attune to her . . .

    A few months later my mother was diagnosed with very advanced stages of cancer, and my family was plunged into the agony of her suffering and of having to shift our entire world view. It was then I knew why Mary had come to me. She had come to protect me, to be a comfort and reassuring essence, to pour love into me as I went through a terribly, terribly shattering phase of my life. (Sparrow, 2002, p. 115-117)

    While many of the encounters included in the study (Sparrow,1997; 2002) evidence much of the evocative power and life-changing impact of the historic apparitions, none of the respondents reported receiving secrets during the encounter, or being told not to tell other people about what they had experienced. Significantly, the visions included in this study had never been previously shared with more than one or two close relations, and had never become a matter of public record.

    The Function of Secrets


    It is clear from the historical record that the development of secrets in the best-known apparitions of Mary coincided with increasing pressure on pre-adolescent or adolescent visionaries to reveal whatever they had experienced. When examined from a psychodynamic standpoint, as well as from a relational orientation, the phenomenon of secrets may have arisen as a way to preserve a sense of individuality and power in response to the invasive inquiry of the people around them, as well as to perpetuate the visionary's essential mediating role in the apparition.

    Secrets in the process of individuation.


    The first apparitional secrets at La Sallette occurred in a context that may have prompted the adolescent visionaries to resort to secrecy as a way to preserve their privacy and their influence, independent of whether the apparition also entrusted them with secrets. Margolis (1966, 1974) has addressed the importance of secrecy from a psychodynamic orientation, and concludes that secrecy is necessary for the development of the self. Coppolillo, Horton, and Haller (1981) consider secrecy from a relational perspective by suggesting that managing "the amount that one reveals of his secret inner self to another person is one vehicle for achieving and managing varying degrees of intimacy" (p.81). While Margolis' theoretical work focuses on the psychodynamic dimensions of secrecy, he does describe a "snowballing" effect that can take place whenever a child faces increasing pressure to reveal a secret:
    The result is a kind of self-perpetuating or 'snowballing' so that as one's sense of individuality becomes more firmly established he also becomes aware of the ability, right, and need to keep more secrets, be more of an individual and more self-determining (1966, p. 518).

    This reference to excessive, "self-perpetuating" secrecy illustrates the two prevailing views of secrecy. Frijns, et. al acknowledge that “functional” secrecy, or the ability "to regulate the self strategically in response to relational goals and demands . . ." (p. 146) is considered a necessary part of normal development. But they go on to say that excessive secrecy becomes dysfunctional because "it lacks the flexibility to respond adequately to situational demands" (p. 146). Given the extreme social pressures imposed upon apparitional visionaries, healthy privacy could have feasibly given way to excessive secrecy and embellishment. Blackbourn's examination (1993) of apparitional hoax in Marpingen, Germany reveals how frabrication and embellishment can quickly expand into a full-blown hoax with little or no basis in authentic religious experience.

    Secrets as a function of triangular relationships.

    While secrecy can be seen as a normal outgrowth of a young person's need to secure a nascent sense of self, or as dysfunctional when it becomes excessive, another way to understand the apparitional secret is through the paradigmatic lens of systems theory. That is, secrecy can be seen as a function interpersonal relationship process and structure, rather than merely a consequence of internal, psychodynamic forces. From this standpoint, a secret inevitably implies three parties: the bestower, the confidant, and the excluded party or parties, and thus is always a function of a triangular relationship. A triangle––considered a stable but usually unhealthy structure in human relationships (Bowen, 1978; Guerin, et al., 1996)––arises when one person turns to a third party because of the unwillingness or inability to communicate directly with someone from whom the supplicant is distanced or estranged.. Turning to a surrogate usually leads to the disenfrancisement of the person who is left out of the loop. Under increasing pressure from disenfrancised parties, confidential information may be guarded even more assiduously out of a desire to protect the intimacy of the newfound relationship. Such escalation was evident at La Salette, and again at Fatima––where the seers successfully resisted threats from the local magistrate to have them thrown into a pot of boiling oil if they did not reveal the secrets that Mary had allegedly given them.

    Triangular relationships also occur in the spiritual life whenever an individual serves constructively as a bridge between a seeker and higher power (Sparrow, 2008). Because the division between humanity and the divine is considered an ontological, rather than psychological, fact in post-Augustinian Christianity, Sparrow observes that meditators such as Jesus and Mary tend to become permanent, rather than transitional figures in the spiritual life, and thus tend to be elevated to divine or semi-divine status, thus increasing the perceived gulf between humanity and God. As the division becomes increasingly exaggerated, the psychological and spiritual need of the individual calls for the erection of new mediators with whom the laity can easily relate. Most of European apparitions have arisen in areas of religious and/or political unrest, in which the status of the usual social structure, and the function of traditional sacerdotal agents, have been undermined by war, racial strife, or religious persecution. Consequently, the apparitional messages and secrets seem to offer an alternative avenue to communion with higher power that is outside the sanctioned religious rituals and political prohibitions. The seers thus occupy a fresh mediating role between a deprived laity and a vision that offers a new dispensation that addresses the needs of the populace.

    One might think that an adolescent under pressure to reveal the full details of the apparitional event would gladly unburden himself or herself rather than suffer continual pressure from the Church and community. But the seers have shown remarkable resolve in protecting the secrets from untimely disclosure. As Zimdars-Swartz (1991) says,

    When people become convinced that a seer harbors secrets, speculation about their nature and content becomes inevitable, and the seer is pressed for anything and everything that might be of public relevance. Indeed, the seer's ability to withstand such pressure has often been understood as evidence of the authenticity of an apparition (p. 135).

    Even Melanie and Maximim of La Sallette, who reportedly exhibited obvious weaknesses of character, demonstrated uncharacteristic strength of mind whenever they were interviewed about their encounter with Mary. This may seem remarkable given the pressures they faced––but there were benefits in protecting the presumed secrets. First, the vision provided a source of comfort that had been previously lacking in their lives. Most of the seers––including the La Salette visionaries––had been subjected to emotional loss and extreme hardship prior to the Mary’s appearance to them. Blackbourn (1993) notes that “dependent or outsider status, as much as sheer poverty, are the recurrent themes in the lives of the visionaries. To these we should add the experience of emotional vulnerability resulting from bereavement or fractured family circumstances (p.190).” He goes on to point out that the relationship with the apparition was, for most of the major visionaries, the first time they’d experienced such profound comfort and love. Thus, it is easy to understand why the visionaries wished to protect the uniqueness of their relationships with the apparitional being. But regardless of the specific motives, the context of increasing pressure precipitated what, from the standpoint of modern theorizing, represented an escalating resistance, or "snowballing" (Margolis, 1966, p. 518) resolve to keep the apparitional secrets from public scrutiny.

    Another benefit of keeping secrets has to do with the social power that they confer Margolis, 1966, p. 18). If the apparition had only given them a message to deliver, then their importance may have been short-lived. But in keeping secrets, the visionary’s influence is effectively preserved until the secrets are revealed, or the public’s interest subsides.

    Ultimately the La Salette seers recorded their secrets and sent them in sealed envelopes to the Pope Pius IX. Maximim was clearly relieved to be rid of the secrets, saying "One no longer has any need to ask me anything, one can ask the Pope." His relief was echoed by Conchita of Garabandal over a hundred years later when she expressed relief that the apparitions had finally ended, and that her spiritual life was no longer on public display: "I prefer to have the locutions [auditory experiences of divine presence] to the apparitions, because in the locutions I have her within me. Oh, what happiness when I have the Blessed Virgin within me! (Blackbourn, 1993, p. 6)." In reference to the stress that the Fatima seers experienced, Zimdars-Swartz (1991) says, "It is clear that they . . . suffered great physical and emotional strain as great numbers of people intruded on their formerly very private world (p. 88)."

    The relief expressed by the apparitional seers in unburdening themselves of the final secrets corresponds to research findings that indicate that keeping secrets results in very little positive consequence for the secret-bearer over time. While learning to keep secrets seems to be part of normal development (Margolis, 1966, 1974; Peskin, 1992; Pipe and Goodman, 1991), research into the effects of maintaining secrecy from parents over time (Frijns, Finkenauer, Vermulst, and Rutger, 2005) indicates that a persistent, high degree of secrecy contributed to an atmosphere of mistrust between parent and child, leads to the child's isolation, and is correlated with an adolescent's poor sense of well being, increased problem behavior, and decreased self control (p. 146).

    By the time that Melanie and Maximum recorded the La Salette secrets, the secrets may have been altered or embellished. Melanie, in particular, was accused of embellishing the "authentic secret" with popular ideas that occurred to her before she finally wrote down her full account. While she emphatically denied the charge, many people who believed in the authenticity of the La Salette apparition were relieved when church authorities declared that the mission of the seers had ended.

    Believers have understandably been reluctant to address the possibility that the apparitions and the subsequent recounting of them have been distorted by the seers' psychological needs and their exclusive mediating. Regardless, whatever the children witnessed at La Salette––or in the other major apparitions for that matter––one can be virtually assured that the apparitions became "malleable products" (Blackbourn, 1993, p. 23) shaped by the intense pressures placed on the seers from the public and from church authorities.

    The Acceptance of Secrets


    We have seen how the protection of the apparitional secret clearly supports a visionary's sense of self, and preserves his or her power as a mediator between the vision and the public, but it is also important from a religious and cultural standpoint to consider why the Church and the laity have accepted the phenomenon of secrets so uncritically. Indeed, secrets have become an expected part of any apparitional drama.

    When one tells a secret, one confers power upon, and becomes vulnerable to the other person. Unless our judgment is impaired, sharing secrets is only something that we do with our most trusted friends: We give them our secrets––and thus the power to betray us––in exchange for intimacy. If one can believe the visionaries, the apparitional Mary has consistently depended on them to protect her most sensitive communications, much in the way that an ordinary person might depend on a close friend. Why would such an arrangement, which confers so much privilege and power upon ordinary women and children, and creates extraordinarily isolation from those around them, fail to raise more suspicion among the Church and the community of the faithful? Other aspects of the apparitions––most notably, their “supernatural” status as it is defined by Catholic doctrine (Bouflet & Boutry, 1997)––have been rigorously scrutinized by Church authorities and often found wanting. Famous apparitions such as Garabandal and Medjugorje still await the Church's final approval. In contrast, the tacit acceptance of Mary’s bestowal of secrets indicates that this aspect of the apparitional phenomenon somehow conforms to expectations, even if an apparition's status is still in question.

    Perhaps the bestowal of secrets is so readily accepted because it resonates with a familiar theme. Specifically, the role of secret bearer in modern apparitions parallels, if not reenacts Mary’s biblical role in the "secret" conception of Jesus. Indeed, Mary’s dependence on the visionary clearly mirrors God’s unprecedented dependence on her in the incarnational process. As Catherine Halkes says,
    If people want to talk about dependence, they should recognize that here God made himself dependent on a human being, and the human being was responsive to God (Shillebeeckx and Halkes, 1993).
    Shillebeeckx and Halkes go on to assert that Mary––in accepting God’s invitation––was the “first of the believers of the new covenant” and the first in the Christian tradition to enter so completely into a co-creative relationship with the divine. In receiving Mary’s secrets, the apparitional seer enters into a similar kind of relationship in which he or she receives the "seed" of a new dispensation. From thereafter, the seer must bear alone the consequences of having received the vision, and remaining true to it.

    Discussion and Limitations

    Popular works concerning apparitional phenomena have focused uncritically on the content of the visions, while several scholarly works have analyzed them from sociological and historical standpoint. We have, in contrast, conducted a preliminary analysis of the apparitions from a psychodynamic and systemic orientation, hypothesizing that the phenomena of apparitional secrets can be understood as the outgrowth of 1) a psychological need to secure and preserve a sense of self apart from others; and 2) as an inevitable consequence of occupying an exclusive, mediating role in a triangular relationship. These hypotheses, while preliminary and tentative, serve to support a constructionistic orientation to religious experience which takes into consideration a wider array of factors than previously considered without necessarily challenging the contribution of other influences, nor even questioning the supernatural validity of the experience in question. While such hypothetical analyses of historic apparitions cannot be tested against emergent data, and thus offer limited value, it is nonetheless likely––given the established historical pattern––that apparitions will continue to be a perennial phenomenon. Because of this, the fuller development of a psychological perspective may not only assure a more sophisticated analysis of the ongoing exchange between the seers and the public, but may also guide those who are in a position to intervene to protect the seers from undue pressure that could distort their reporting and unnecessarily complicate their roles.

    It is, of course, impossible to determine whether the apparitional secret has a supernatural or spiritual origin, or arises solely in the psychosocial crucible comprised of family, society, culture, and the Church––or some combination thereof. While it is difficult to separate subjective from objective when it comes to such phenomena, the human drama that unfolds once secrets enter into the equation is a familiar one. While protecting a sense of personal identity and power, and securing a relationship that is distinct and personal, the secret isolates the seers from the surrounding community, and erects a relationship triangle through which seekers may gain access to higher power only through the mediating agency of the visionaries. It is also a drama that, in many ways, mirrors the biblical account of the annunciation and subsequent trials of the mother of Jesus.


    References

    ASHTON, J. & ASHTON, J. (1989). Mother of all nations. New York: HarperCollins.
    BEEVERS, J. (1954). The sun her mantle. Westminster, MD: Newman.
    BLACKBOURN, D. (1993). Marpingen––Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in nineteenth-century Germany . New York: Knopf.
    BOUFLET, J. & BOUTRY, P. (1997) Un signe dans le ciel. Paris: Grasset.
    BOWEN, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Jason Aronson.
    BRITT, B. (2002). Crosscurrents, Vol. 52, Fall.
    COPPOLILLO, H.P., HORTON, P.C., HALLER, L. (1981). Secrets and the secretive mode. American Academy of Child Psychiatry, XXX, 71-83.
    CHRISTIAN, W. (1996). Apparitions in late medieval and Renaissance Spain. Princeton: Princeton University.
    DELANY, J. J. (1990). A woman clothed with the sun. New York: Doubleday.
    FRIJNS, T., FINKENAUER, C., VERMULST, A. A., RUTGER, C. M.E. (2005). Keeping secrets from parents: Longitudinal Associations of Secrecy in Adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34, 2, 137-148.
    GUERIN, P. J., FOGARTY, T. F., FAY, L. F., KAUTTO, J. G. (1996) Working with relationship triangles. New York: Guilford.
    MARGOLIS, G. J. (1966). Secrecy and identity. International Review of Psychoanalysis, 47, 517-522.
    MARGOLIS, G. J. (1974). The psychology of keeping secrets. International Review of Psychoanalysis, 1, 291-296.
    O’CARROLL, M. (1982). Theotokos––A theological encyclopedia of the blessed Virgin Mary. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier.
    PELLETIER, J. I. (1971). Our Lady comes to Garabandal. Worcester, MA: Assumption.
    PESKIN, J. (1992). Ruse and representations: On children's ability to conceal information. Developmental Psychology, 28, 84-89.
    PIPE, M. E., GOODMAN, G. S. (1991). Elements of secrecy: Implication for children's testimony. Behavioral Science Law, 9, 33-41.
    SHILLEBEECKX, E. & HALKES, C. (1993). Mary––Yesterday, today, tomorrow . New York: Crossroads.
    SPARROW, G. S. (1997). Blessed among women: Encounters with Mary and her message. New York: Three Rivers.
    SPARROW, G. S. (2002). Sacred encounters with Mary. Dallas: Thomas More.
    SPARROW, G. S. (2008) Progressive triangulation in psychotherapy and the spiritual journey. Mental Health, Religion, and Culture, 11, 8, 783-793.
    VARGHESE, R. A. (2000). God-sent: A history of the accredited apparitions of Mary. New York: Crossroad.
    ZIMDARS-SWARTZ, S. (1991). Encountering Mary. Princeton: Princeton University.
     
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