Tuesday, July 31, 2018

DESCRIPTIVE PSYCHOLOGY AND THE PERSON CONCEPT: The book

Here's why I've been absent:

For the last 19 months, under contract with Academic Press: Elsevier Science Publishing, I’ve been writing Descriptive Psychology and The Person Concept: Essential Attributes of Persons and Behavior. Currently, in press.

The volume starts with an orientation to Descriptive Psychology and then turns to the fundamental concepts of “Individual Persons”, “Intentional Action”, “Language and Verbal Behavior”, “Community and Culture”, and “Reality and Real Worlds”. It ends with an examination of empathic action as the behaviors that make people humane, and the construction of a person's world.   

From the Preface:

Inauspiciously, I started graduate school skeptical about my field of study—clinical and experimental psychology. As an undergraduate, I was impressed by the reasonably designed experiments described in my psychology classes, but the personality theories taught read like warring theologies. And what made it worse, the more scientific they sounded, the less I recognized anyone I knew. Where was the person in the theory? Not alone, I remember one of my professors saying, “with so much horseshit around, there must be a pony in there somewhere.” 

            Other than refinements in experimentation and the acknowledgment of failures to replicate classic studies, not much has changed—except, too often, rebranding practices with the prefix “neuro.” Clinicians, when they bother with theory at all, still align as partisans of faith. Even today, when my students interview for training sites they’re asked if their orientation is psychodynamic, cognitive–behavioral, or humanistic. To quell their anxiety, I suggest they answer they’ve a psychodynamic and social-learning appreciation of relationships, and a set of cognitive–behavioral tools they empathically apply. Some hear this and relax, intuitively feeling it expresses what they actually try to do. I’d like to offer their intuition explicit coherence.

            What gives a subject matter coherence and integrity? Once a subject matter is identified—in our case, the behavior of persons––what must it account for, and what manners of observing, formulating, theorizing, explaining, etc., are compatible with the subject or violate its integrity? And, crucially, are there concepts so fundamental to the subject that they must be maintained?  Here’s a first reminder: as a psychologist and a behavioral scientist, all of my professional work is the work only a person can do. This, of course, holds for all of us. 

            As a psychologist who practices psychotherapy my interests center on the behavior and characteristics of people, especially how we come to be the way we are and how we can change. This requires having the concept of a person in the first place. Fortunately, we already do, but it’s mostly implicit. This book is about making it systematic and explicit. Being systematic and explicit provides clarity and facilitates negotiation about where we agree, disagree, or don’t have a clue.

            My introduction to the Person Concept came early fall 1972 when I read somewhere NASA had asked, “If green gas on the moon speaks to an astronaut, how do we know if it’s a person?” God knows why it came up, but north of Nederland, high in the Rockies, warm around a campfire, a classmate said one of our professors had an answer.

            I entered doctoral study having read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Stephen Pepper’s World Hypotheses.  Kuhn taught that when a scientific community encounters a sufficient number of empirical anomalies that do not fit the established paradigm, it is eventually replaced by a new paradigm. From Pepper, I learned the troubling idea that most contemporary personality theories stem from incompatible “root metaphors” grounded in ancient metaphysical assumptions that the world is a machine or an organism, and so on. Working my way through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, its end notes especially resonated, “.... For in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion.” From these texts I gathered that psychologists have significant knowledge and useful practices, but their theories aren’t built on a coherent conceptual base. Fundamental concepts in one theory can mean something quite different in others. Nor, for that matter, do their theories start with a similar appreciation of what is real. One theory’s thorny anomaly is another’s starting point; an unquestioned given for one is treated as unreal by another.

            It still seems that concepts of accountability, choice, reason, and intention—ideas at the cornerstone of civilization and my practice of psychotherapy—when taught along with a “scientific” requirement for reductionism and determinism, reside in contradictory intellectual universes. When I read physics, chemistry, and biology, the foundational concepts in one text resemble their use in the others, and when they don’t, that problem is recognized as requiring a shared lexicon; and, if the data requires, an improved paradigm. Psychology is different. Psychology lacks a common lexicon and a comprehensive foundation. And psychology is different in other ways as well.

            Psychology is special. It has, at least for me, a more interesting problem than sorting out the meat and potatoes of the natural sciences. Psychology must have a place within its domain for the creation and practice of science itself. The physicist, chemist, and geologist do not have to account for their personal interests as part of their subject matter, but the psychologist must. Inescapably, every scientific theory and experiment is someone’s theory and experiment. Behavioral science has to account for scientific behavior—the sort of behavior only persons can do. Fundamentally, behavioral science has to provide an explicit and comprehensive account for the behavior of persons as persons––and not as if we are something else.

            So, I entered graduate school ambivalent about the discipline, expecting contradictory and barely relevant theory, but with faith I would learn reasonable methods for establishing facts. Sticking close to the empirical seemed a smart way to go. But being no fan of theology, what was I supposed to do with all those theories?  No surprise, I ended up in my chairman’s office worried I’d made a bad choice.  Not smiling, he responded, “I suspect you might like Pete’s stuff,” and with that I went off to meet the guy pondering the green gas problem. This book is mostly about what I learned from him and the people that formed a community around his work.

            Peter Garcia Ossorio introduced me to the job of making explicit and systematic the knowledge and competence of living as a person in a world of people. He called this discipline Descriptive Psychology. By 1972 he was well into working on the Person Concept, the central concern of Descriptive Psychology. He told me to start with what I already know about people; to start with what is required to live as a person in the community of others. The work of Descriptive Psychology, he said, was to carefully and explicitly formulate concepts and rules that can systematically interconnect everything we know about people without leaving anything out. He also reminded me, “things that aren’t intellectually satisfying tend to be unsatisfactory in other ways as well.” Sharing this aesthetic, I began.

            What I will present here is not the usual fare for the practice of behavioral science. Descriptive Psychology is not psychology in the conventional sense of a comprehensive personality theory. It is not a theory, but instead a preempirical conceptualization, a formulation of the essential attributes of persons and behavior that any adequate theory must encompass. The function of Descriptive Psychology’s Person Concept is to provide an explicit, extensive, and systematic analysis and connection of all the “moving parts” of what we implicitly mean by persons and behavior. To accomplish this requires a shared lexicon and set of rules, clearly articulated and suitable for coordinating all possible facts regarding people and behavior. As such, one use of this project is a framework for comparing theories and judging their scope and adequacy. The goal is a map with a place for what is already known with room for what is yet to be found. 

            Why not call this a theory? Unlike a theory, a conceptualization of a subject matter attempts to establish its full possible range by identifying what it is about rather than the empirical or historically particular form it takes. The focus is the range of possibility. Finding out what really happens, on the other hand, is the empirical task. But before attempting systematic observation, it is usually wise to have some idea what you are looking for. Descriptive Psychology’s mission is this sort of preempirical formulation. The job of theory is postempirical to explain why out of the possibilities only certain patterns occur. Good theory can then be vindicated by predicting new observations that are found and fit. We then face the dilemma of how to fit our theories together. Under current conditions, attempting integration can be a fool’s errand. 

            The continued absence of a shared framework for investigation and practice has resulted in the fragmented state of current psychology and the neurosciences. As an aesthetic judgment, some find this more disturbing than others. Descriptive Psychology was invented in response to those who share this discomfort.  To the extent the Person Concept is well-formed, its explicit conceptualization should sharpen observation and refine our ability to share and integrate what is found.  I believe it has for me. 

            What follows is a work in progress. The essential nature of Descriptive Psychology requires room for significant distinctions yet to be recognized. Nonetheless, what is already built is nuanced, systematic, and entirely interconnected. The Person Concept has complex interdependent component concepts: Individual Persons, Behavior as Intentional Action, Language and Verbal Behavior, Community and Culture, and World and Reality. Tying these together are the transition rules of The State of Affairs System for unpacking and connecting everything. 

            Some words of caution. The foundational concepts are interdependent—resembling aspects of a map—so grasping them will be easier after they have all been filled in. The reward for effort will require patience. I have a promise for the practitioner. Descriptive Psychology is a pragmatic enterprise, its success rests on enhancing effective action. I earn most of my keep in the practice of psychotherapy. Any adequate understanding of persons and behavior necessarily involves an appreciation of how people change. If this is your interest, this book should hold some value for you. That’s my intent. 

            A few more words before we begin. I am writing in first person. This book is my understanding, shaped by my interests. As a member of the community that developed these ideas, I believe they accurately represent Descriptive Psychology and the Person Concept. Still, this is my understanding, and the idiosyncrasies, examples, and digressions reflect my values, practices, and fascinations as an academic clinical psychologist. 




            
  

            
                                 Table of Contents



Chapter One. What is Descriptive Psychology and The Person Concept?
            Let’s start with people make sense.
            A few remarks on science and what a science of persons should respect.
            The Descriptive Maxims: Behavioral logic and some reminders for well-formed descriptions.   


Chapter Two. Individual Persons, Personhood, and the Problem of Definition.
            Paradigm Case Formulations. 
            Three Definitions and a Paradigm Case Formulation of Persons.
            Deliberate Actions and Intrinsic Motivation.
            What about language and verbal behavior?
            Individual Differences and Person Characteristics.
                        Powers 
                        Abilities, Competence, and Skill
                        Knowledge
                        Values
            Dispositions
                        Traits
                        Attitude
                        Interest
                        Style
            Additional Individual Difference and Personal Characteristic Categories.
                        States
                        Capacities
                        Embodiment
            Some Embodiment Theory.
            Through-lines and the Dramaturgical Pattern.
                        Examples of Through-Lines
                        Non-human Through-lines
            Through-Lines and Dogs. Significance in Dog Psychology.
            Some Limitations to a Dog's Through-Lines. 
                        Some implications
            What about other animals?
            The ethics of uncertainty about personhood.


Chapter Three. Behavior as Intentional Action.
            Some Quibbling about Conceptualization and Theory.
            Some Action Vocabulary. 
            Intentionality, Back Where It Belongs.
            What About Robots? 
            Observed meanings, movements, and significance, and some preliminary connections to verbal behavior. 
            We need a common Lexicon.
            At last! The Parametric Analysis.
            The Formulation of Intentional Action (IA).
            The Parametric Analysis of Intentional Action.
                        Identity (I)
                        Wants (W)
                        Some thoughts on empirically identifying or interpreting wants and motivations. 
                        Knows (K)
                        Knows How (KH)
                        Some issues that attend KH deficits.
                        Performance (P) and Achievement (A)
                        Significance (S)
            Significance, Implementation of Significance (Performance), and Some Thoughts about Psychotherapy.                                
            Some Examples and Dilemmas of Significance to the Actor and the Observer.
                        Personal Characteristics (PC)
            A Brief Summary and some Practical Questions for Structured Interviews.
            Some Notational Devices: The Intentional Action Diamond, Agency Descriptions, and Self-Regulation.
            The Actor-Observer-Critic (AOC) Model of Self-Regulation and the Dramaturgical Pattern.
            The Actor and the Drama (All the world’s a stage)                                      
                        Authenticity and the Actor
                        The Observer-Describer
                        The Critic
            Appraisals, Final-Order Appraisals (FOAs), and Altered States of Consciousness  
                        Hypnosis as a Test Case.
            Back to the AOC Feedback Loop.

Chapter Four. The Judgment Diagram, Some Categories of Cognizance, and the Unconscious.
            A Distressing Example and Some Grouping of Reasons.
            The Judgment Diagram Modified for Problems in Social and Self-Regulation.
            A Theory-Neutral ‘Psychodynamic’ Judgment Diagram.
                        Implications and Stray Thoughts.
            The case of Tommy.
            About Ambivalence and Conflict.
            Some Content and Behavioral Logic of the Three Domains 
            Domain One: The world of easy awareness.
            Back to the Three Domain JD and Features of Domains Two and Three.
            Domain Two and Three are ‘Triggered’. 
                        Empirically speaking, what do people tend to avoid and disown?
            Domain Two: Reluctance, bad faith and self-deception.
            Domain Three: Impossible and intolerable circumstances.
            The Logical Structure of Defensive Distortion
                         The Unthinkability Model
            Transference and Resistance can be features of both the Unthinkability and the Insistence Model.
            An example and some clinical implications.
                        Demystifying Projective Identification
            On the Interpretation of Unconscious Action and Self-Deception.

Chapter Five. Relationships, The Relationship Formula, and Emotional Competence
            What are relationships?
            The Relationship Formula.
            The Relationship Change Formula
            Emotional Behavior
            Shared and Observable Relations are Required for Naming Emotions. (Sensations Won't Do).                              
            Fear in Action.
            What about love? 
            Steps Toward a Theory of Emotional Competence.
            How is Emotional Competence Facilitated? 
            Anxiety, Depression and Overwhelming Sensation.

Chapter Six.Verbal Behavior, Language, and Linguistic Self-Regulation.
            Ossorio’s Formulation. 
            Verbal Behavior is our Defining Social Practice and How I Earn My Keep.
            What is the function of language and the status of the speaker?
            Formal Aspects of the Place of Language and Verbal Behavior in the Person Concept.
            The Descriptive Account of Verbal Behavior is Pre-Empirical.
            Forms of Life, Social Practices, and some more Wittgenstein.

Chapter Seven. Community and Culture
            Community and Culture.
            A Fifth Major Piece of the Person Concept.
            The Concepts of Community and Culture.
                        Members.
                        Social Practices.
                        Statuses.
                        Concepts.
                        Locutions.
                        Choice Principles.
                        World.
            Culture as a Special Sort of Community.
                        World.
                        Members.
                        Statuses.
                        Language.
                        Institutional Social Practices.
            Choice Principles, Policies, and Values.
            Some Behavioral Logic and Some Dilemmas: More Maxims.
            Degradation, Accreditation, and Rites of Passage: Gains and Loss of Standing.
            Some Effects of Degradation.
            The Degraded Have Reason to React Against the Community.
            The Ceremony Can Be Accepted as the Natural Order of Things (Or as Already Happened). 
            Indoctrination and Degradation.
            Microaggressions.
            General Considerations for Undoing Degradation.
            Accreditation Ceremonies, Psychotherapy, and Values.

Chapter Eight. Reality and the Worlds
            Persons and the Elements of the World.
            What are the Elements of the World? Objects, Processes, Events, and States of Affairs. 
            State of Affairs System Transition Rules. 
            World Construction: The World Found is the One Created.
            A Person's Place in the World Provides Behavior Potential.
            Consciousness, Final Order Appraisals (FOAs), and World Maintenance.
            Consciousness, Imagination, and The Opportunity of the Dream World.
            Worlds Change: Reconstruction of Worlds and Cultures.
                        Loss, mourning, and reconstruction.
                        Cultural and world transformation and reconstruction.
                        Trauma, Resilience and World Reconstruction.
            Monday April 15th, 2013, Marathon Day.
                        Restoration is participation.

Chapter Nine. Empathy in Practice: A Demonstration of Some Person Concepts
            What do people mean by empathy?
            Theory of Mind.
            Mirror Neurons.
            How is empathy described in the work of major psychotherapy theorists?
            A very brief history of the concept of empathy.
            An example from psychotherapy.
                        Tommy Revisited.
            Empathy and Empathic Action.
            Empathy, Paradigm Case Formulation (PCF), Paradigmatic Social Practices Formulation (PSPF), and Parametric Analysis (PA).
            A PSPF of Empathic Action.
                        An Example and a PA.
            A Practical Checklist of Empathy Reminders.
            The IA Parameters and Some Reminders for Psychotherapy.
                        Identity.
                        Wants and Values.
                        Knowledge and Knowing.
                        Know-How and Toleration.
                        Significance, Through-lines, and the Development of Character.
                        Personal Characteristics.

Afterword and Summary: Satisfaction and the Construction of Worlds or, At the End of the Day, How Does It Feel?

Appendix One: Ossorio's Status Dynamic Maxims, Behavioral Logic, and Reminders for Proper Description. 

Appendix Two. A Glossary of Descriptive Psychology Concepts Compiled by Clarke Stone.

References.














  




























                        










  






                        

            




                        





            














            

             
                 
              
                        

                                                                                                                                                                            
                        

                        
            
                                                                                                                                                                                   

                        

  















Thursday, December 28, 2017

What Do Competent People (Psychologists Included) Know?

An abstract of "What Do Competent People (Psychologists Included) Know?" to be presented at the Mid Winter Meeting of The Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology,
Division 24 of the American Psychological Association.
March 2, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona.


I hope it will serve as a useful introduction to one of the core concepts in Descriptive Psychology: Intentional Action.

They allow 200 words for the abstract, so I wrote this:

"Competent action in the world of people entails having the concept of a person and knowing how people behave. Much of this is implicit. The psychologist's job is to make this knowledge explicit, coherent, and systematic. But what knowledge is required to manage social life? (A corresponding question: what must an adequate psychology account for?) Descriptive Psychology's Person Concept approaches this question by pre-empirically starting with: 1) People make sense. 2) People are what they are and not something else instead. And, 3) Don't count on people being simpler than they have to be. Implicit is the base-line expectation that people are intentional and cognizant actors able to deliberate about theirs and others behavior. This understanding, compatible with ordinary meanings of action and responsibility, is made explicit through a systematic unpacking of the Person Concept's formulation of behavior as Intentional Action. This is accomplished through a Parametric Analysis of intentional action consisting of 1) an Actor, 2) what the actor Wants to accomplish, 3) what the actor Knows or distinguishes in the circumstance relevant to what the actor Wants, 4) what the actor Knows-How to do, 5) the real time Performance of the action, 6) the action's Achievement, 7) the action's Significance and, 8) the Personal Characteristics expressed by the action. These eight parameters are expandable and locate how any behavior is alike or different from any other.  This analysis provides the teacher and clinician both a checklist of behavioral constituents, and, when relevant content is absent, where to look."


Here's Peter Ossorio's conceptualization of behavior as Intentional Action:


 Behavior = Intentional Action = < I, W, K, KH, P, A, S, PC > 

I: The Identity of the actor.
W:  What the actor Wants to accomplish.
K:  What the actor Knows, distinguishes, or recognizes in the circumstance that is relevant to what the actor Wants. (In Deliberate Action the actor recognizes different options, in Cognizant Action the actor is self-aware of the ongoing behavior).
KH:  What the actor Knows-How to do given what the actor Wants and Knows about the relevant circumstance.
P:  The procedural manner or Performance of the action in real time.
A:  The Achievement of the action.
S:  The Significance of the action for the actor.  What the actor is up to by performing the act in question.
PC:  The Personal Characteristics of the actor expressed by the action. 

I use this as a checklist to formulate questions about where to look when I am trying to understand someone's behavior  or when I am asking someone what they know about someone else. For regaining empathy, I might, for example, wonder:


1. Given their understanding of the overall circumstance, what does this person want and value? (And do we share an understanding of what the overall circumstance call for?) (The "W" parameter)


2.  What exactly do they recognize in their circumstance that is relevant to what they want and value? (And do we share a common appreciation of the situation?) (The "K" parameter)

3. What do they know how to do given what they see as their current opportunity or dilemma? (And do they have the skill or competence that is needed to successfully manage the circumstance?) (The "KH" parameter)

4. What is the significance to them of how they behave in these circumstances? (The "S" parameter)

5. What personal characteristics are they employing and what is the significance of these characteristics to them? (The "PC" and "S" parameters)

6. Can they tolerate the way I express what I understand about them?


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Wandering, the Directed, and the Coerced Mind: A note on satisfaction, optimal learning, and oppressive strain.


I've been thinking about wandering attention, when it's a gift, not a diagnosis. This led to some thoughts about three states of choice and some of their implications. 

1. My favorite state and I'd wager yours, too: Being free to follow the whims of the moment. A period of flexible, easily revisable interests and choices without dire consequence. A state free of desperation.

2. Here's what I think for most of us is our usual state along with a strategy I find optimal for learning.  Most of time there is something we've been assigned or taken on to do. There's always something on the agenda. When time is limited, and it's always limited, my advice is first attend to what is most interesting.  This is my favored learning strategy. My second strategy, should the task, at the time, be too daunting, and you can get away with it: Find another mission with a greater expectation of satisfaction. 

3.  This one I hate.  It’s a potentially pathological state: Finding or creating circumstances that distort, constrain, or coerce the capacity to attend to much else. Practically speaking, this is when we feel we have no choice where to attend.  We are compelled –– held in place. This is especially the case when there is a sense of jeopardy. This can come from inescapable circumstances and/or unyielding personal values and priorities. Here the weights we give the reasons are high enough, we need attend them as first priority. If we fail, we expect trouble. If we succeed we feel relief with or without satisfaction, we’ve dodged the bullet

My clinical work is frequently with people who find themselves in this third condition, people feeling strained and unhappy by needing to constantly think about things they'd rather not. Often what they feel is at stake is the integrity of honoring what they take to be vital commitments.  It becomes a matter of character for them.  They are never on vacation.

Realistically, most of what we do is neither freely chosen nor coerced. The choices we have are bounded by the available options and our priorities. We find, choose, and accept one mission after another. Think of being in school, months before summer break.

A reminder. The satisfaction of following one's whims is a luxury, similar to Maslow's recognition that creative growth is more likely after survival needs are met. Another way to put this: Desperation and adversity rarely brings the best out of us. Mostly, it makes us mean, anxious, and depressed. It's hard to learn, create, and prosper under the gun.


Here's some examples of states one and two:

At the moment, happily, I'm on vacation.

Vacation involves the time and place to follow one's whims free of desperation and coercion. The missions are chosen for their potential to satisfy. Time to play and have fun, at times, just to be. 


Early this week, anticipating a break from my usual highly structured schedule, I told myself I'd spend Saturday focused on my half-finished chapter, Language and Verbal Behavior.  I've a book due and a clock ticking. But when the day came, not finding the energy to work on my self-assigned chapter, I reassured myself I'd find the time, later.  Even remembering the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, I chose to hop about. My slogan of the week: "Sometimes be the grasshopper, sometimes be the ant. But don't count on the ant bailing you out".


So, I woke up Saturday knowing Verbal Behavior would have to wait. After all, it was Saturday, so rather than move to my study, I went for a walk and enjoyed the first of fall's sunlight.  Finally, near sunset, I was in the mood to summarize what I'd been mulling over. During the walk, I had been remembering a conversation with a friend concerning Csíkszentmihályi's concept of "flow", and about the interesting things that might get captured in the current.

The conversation had started with concerns about my teaching. My students are assigned far more than they can possibly read, and end up reading far less than they should. With that in mind, I advise them to first read whatever interests them most. They should at least get that done. I suggest they prioritize what they authentically value. This is a variation of telling them to play their strengths. It's probably good time management advice. They're not going to read all they are assigned, they never do by half, so they should start with what might help them assimilate additional knowledge. I'll explain why below. (And since they've paid a pretty penny for school and are required to take the course, I suggest they start with what fits who they already are, with what they already enjoy. I give them a choice within the constraints of the lesson I am contracted to teach.)

If they have the requisite competence, what they find most interesting will stick with them better than if they struggle with their lack of interest. I tell them that the knowledge and skills they actually value will naturally assimilate additional knowledge and competence. I'm sure I'm often right about this. I'm vindicated when they end up surprised by the unexpected themes that became intriguing owing to its relation to their initial interest. 

I offer them the image of a seed crystal that enlarges as it attracts kindred content, and a complex rock's fused assimilation of component minerals. 

This sort of learning works like a love triangle. When I teach Freud, I point out this is how his Oedipus Complex can be understood. It begins within the mother-infant dyad, with a dependent infant enthralled with desire for mother. Eventually, as infants grow, they notice mother's significant interest in father, and in so doing, learn more about about him and what he stands for. It starts with the dyad and then moves to the triangle. (Mothers have their version of this triangle that starts with what Donald Winnicott aptly called "primary maternal preoccupation"). 

Our most vital understandings often start with a focus on someone that fascinates us and then turns to what fascinates that person.  Or we start with something we find compelling, and then turn our attention to other things that connect to that.  I know much of my education happened this way, starting with an idealized teacher and then expanding out to learn what that teacher found worthy.

Peter Ossorio has a set of maxims regarding value and behavioral choice that frame some of this behavioral logic:

If a person values a specific something, e.g., an object, a circumstance, a behavior, or, more generally, a state of affairs, they will thereby also value other specific things of the same kind to the extent that they are relevantly similar to the original.

If a person values a general something they will thereby also value a specific something to the extent that it is a paradigmatic instance or realization of the more general value. (Place, 1998/2012)

None of this is particularly helpful for students when they are taught to read for the test.  And for those who do not intrinsically value any of their academic subjects, my advice falls flat. They might as well follow whatever order the syllabus provides. 

Now to condition three.  Consider another truism: Coercion elicits resistance or resigned compliance.  In my clinical practice this shows up in symptoms of chronic anger and depression.

A couple of examples: 

I work with a devoted mother, who is often distressed and exhausted from spending an epoch relearning algebra and studying the life cycle of snakes and snails. It is important to her to be generally available and assist her children with their homework and idiosyncratic pastimes. She knows this will go on for decades. In an ideal world, she'd be free to think about other things, ideas that intrinsically please her, that challenge and enrich her considerable intellect. But she accepts that her consuming duty to her kids does not allow the time or energy to pursue much else. At least not now.  Her domestic obligations, vital and valued, are performed without fail but are implemented through forced attention to her children's needs that require attending some things she'd rather not entertain. This tragic and noble conflict comes with her vision of motherhood.  A lot of life is like this. The life cycle comes with demands. But she keeps faith that in the future she'll return to the other possibilities that also fit her. I expect she will.

Another person I see struggles with the burden of fulfilling his parents' obligations.  He is in a constant state of demoralization, stressed to exhaustion, unhappy, and painfully depressed.  He sighs, "when can I return to my life".  In my sessions with him, I first didn't understand, and unhelpfully thought, "this is your life until you do something else, and reorder your priorities".  It finally dawned on me what he meant, what he desperately wants me to understand:  "When can I have my own thoughts, the one's the come from me naturally, what I'd turn to if I wasn't so goddamned under the sway of parental ghosts, and my family's unfinished business".  Resentfully obliged to hold the family purse strings, he's become his sisters' keepers, obligated by a trust and a mix of competitive revenge.  Making matters worse, despite his sisters' inept and sleazy ways, they were clear parental favorites. He says he would rather have other priorities, but demonstrating to his dead parents that he is the worthy one keeps him enslaved. This tangled narcissism is a  tough knot to loosen, let alone untie.  Here his character, his sense of integrity, is also his disorder.

Sometimes out of compensation, revenge, competition, or just sheer duty, we value something so much that when the opportunity or dilemma arrives, practically speaking, we can't attend to anything else.  We don't have the time or head space to manage it.  And it comes with a terrible sacrifice of freedom. Like finding a beast in the corner of the room, unless we escape or are eaten, we've no real choice where to focus. 

Unlike that tired and burdened mother who will someday launch her children, some obligations even when fulfilled, are pyrrhic victories at best. Some values are an  occupying force that colonize one's mind. 



The noted scholar of love, Marvin Gaye, had some things to say about preoccupation: Too Busy Thinking About My Baby  

But sometimes, Mose Allison reminds us, your mind is on vacation but your mouth....

Csikszentmihályi, M. (1988) Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 
Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.
Ossorio, P. G. (1998/2012). Place. Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press.
Winnicott DW (1956/1984) Primary maternal preoccupation. in Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis: Collected Papers. London: Karnac, 300–305.