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Scott A.

The Overseer Regime

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[This description of a student is not necessarily pertinent to the individual being discussed. Some details have been added that obscure their identity. This case is provided for the purpose of discussion.]

A student of mine recently asked to meet and discuss her poor grade in my class (Introduction to Psychology). I knew her slightly from a brief conversation we had one day early in the semester while waiting for the class ahead of ours to finish. She struck me as a nice young lady and a somewhat typical 19-year-old college freshman who wasn’t sure what she wanted to major in or do with her life. However, unlike many freshman, she indicated that she had to pick a career immediately and go forward unwaveringly. Although I suggested that she had time to think about what she wanted to do and could change her mind if she got on an unfulfilling path, she didn’t seem convinced. The next time I heard from her was when she asked to meet.

We began our meeting by talking about her study methods and habits. In brief, she wasn’t studying enough or effectively. She would wait until a day or two before a quiz or exam to study, somewhat passively memorize concepts, and otherwise didn’t do much else. She said that high school had been extremely easy for her. She was able to earn As with little effort. But college was turning out to be a huge “reality check.” She had mixed grades her first semester and has not been doing well this semester either. Additionally, she reported experiencing diminished ability to focus while studying and in class.

I asked if there were other things that were interfering with her ability to concentrate on her school work. Oh yes, she emphatically told me, “everything.” She indicated that in addition to her 13 credit hours (which is basically full time), she also works 25 hours per week as a manager at a fast food restaurant. She works long shifts, which doesn’t leave much time or energy for studying afterward. School days are also long, leading to the same predicament. So, between work and school she was probably putting in about 50 hours a week.

Additionally, she grew up for the first nine years of her life in Bosnia, and then moved to America. She has no trace of an accent and speaks English fluently. However, her parents do not. As a result, she has been responsible for helping her parents in virtually all of their affairs since she was a young girl, which continues today. An older brother who also lives at home reportedly doesn’t help the parents; it is all her responsibility and a significant additional burden on top of work and school.

She indicated having no social life. She had a boyfriend, but had broken up with him to be in another relationship that ultimately ended. She reported feeling extreme guilt about it all. She said the only expense she has is the monthly insurance on her car, and the rest of the money she makes is hers to do with what she wishes. As it turns out, she spends her money on clothes, but doesn’t feel any satisfaction with her wardrobe. She also reported having occasional panic attacks (but I didn't explore them).

When I indicated to her that she has a huge workload and amount of responsibility, she responded sincerely that she isn’t doing enough. I was incredulous. I listed all the things she does, the amount of time she spends doing them, her overall responsibilities, and then asked if she truly thinks that isn’t enough. While she acknowledged that it was a lot, she was genuinely steadfast that she can and should do more. Additionally, she admitted that when she has even a little time for relaxation, she can’t relax, as she will ruminate and admonish herself for being unproductive.

It was becoming clear to me what is happening with her, but I probed this last issue a bit more. As I expected, she indicated that this internal critic is a constant companion, that she is always driving herself to do more, and that the critic’s voice is telling her that it’s too little, not good enough, or otherwise imperfect.

She said that this insistent internal criticism interferes with her studying, as she tries to focus on one subject but her mind moves to what she has to do next for another class or at work. It also likely made her hesitate to reduce her hours at work, as that would go against the critic’s standards of constant productiveness. It undoubtedly relates to her guilt over the failed romantic relationships, as well. In other words, her internal critic has permeated every aspect of her life. At the age of 19, she is exhausted, depressed, and panicked, yet cannot allow herself any rest or fully see the strain she is putting herself under. She thinks she should do more.

This young woman suffers from what Dr. Ray Bergner has described as an "Overseer Regime," which is a particular form of pathological self-criticism. The Overseer Regime has a number of aspects, many of which are indicated in the situation described above. The next post will summarize the main issues in the Oversee Regime, which I hope will be interesting and/or helpful.

Having observed this phenomenon many times, I believe it is extremely important to discuss, particularly because it affects intelligent, productive, and otherwise good people. It’s one thing to be unproductive due to a psychological problem, but quite another to be extremely productive but never feel like it for psychological reasons. The Overseer Regime blocks the pride that should result from one’s productivity.

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As I mentioned at the end of the opening post of this thread, the Overseer Regime was formulated by Dr. Ray Bergner, a professor of psychology at Illinois State University. Dr. Bergner bases his formulations in a relatively unknown theoretical perspective called Descriptive Psychology (DP), which was developed by Dr. Peter Ossorio. Despite being relatively unknown and having a mix of good and bad philosophical premises, the DP approach to clinical formulation is the best I have come across. Dr. Bergner is particularly outstanding at formulating core issues and features of particular disorders or other pathological syndromes, such as the Overseer Regime.

I have Dr. Bergner's permission to provide a synopsis of the Overseer Regime, which is what follows. This is a very essentialized version of a much longer article. The two primary headings, "Self-Self Relationship" and "Self-Other Relationships" are mine, but the subsection headings are in the original. I have significantly paraphrased the article, but the core ideas are unchanged. The last three paragraphs take one idea in the article and briefly expand on it. Formatting such as italics, bold, and underlying are typically mine.

* * *

The Overseer Regime

The Overseer Regime is when one has instituted an ironclad dictatorship over himself. This involves issuing harsh and relentless commands, directives, reminders, warnings, and admonitions (to oneself) regarding not only what is to be done and not to be done, but also what is to be wanted, felt, and thought.

The term “Overseer” is an image meant to capture and describe a role in which one functions in his relationship with himself. Although many people experience the dictatorial commands and admonitions as foreign, i.e., as something unrelated (even external) to the self, they are not. One does not have an Overseer, he is an Overseer.

Self-Self Relationship

The Overseer Role: A person can be both a perpetrator and an object of directives and criticisms. One can be the oppressor and/or the victim. The Overseer refers to the former role, i.e., oppressive dictator, in relation to oneself.

Self-Appraisal: The individual qua Overseer is a critic who adopts a characteristic stance of upholding personal standards that are elevated to a level that is impossible to achieve. The standards are, in a word, superhuman.

The Overseer often demands omniscience and omnipotence of himself. Of course, personal conduct, motives, achievements, and relationships all typically fall short of these standards. These standards are usually implicit or presupposed in the nature of the indictments leveled against oneself. For example, most Overseers would explicitly agree that “nobody’s perfect.” However, such individuals commonly make indictments of self which are intelligible only if the standards upheld are omniscience and omnipotence. That is, while “nobody’s perfect,” the Overseer thinks he should be.

Negative Focus: The possible bases of self-evaluation are extremely wide. Most people evaluate themselves, positively and negatively, based on a broad range of reasonable personal standards. However, the individual qua Overseer consistently chooses to focus on the many varied ways in which he falls short. He is focused on the negative (because his irrationally high standards do not allow him a positive focus).

Harshness and Injustice: In response to his evaluated failings, the Overseer tends to bring indictments against himself that are very harsh and unjust. For him, the punishment characteristically does not fit the crime. By contrast, courts of law consider relevant personal characteristics and the context of some action as relevant to both verdict and sentence. But the Overseer ignores context in the judgments he passes on himself. No matter what else may be happening, in his case circumstances should not matter.

Reasons for Acting: The Overseer requires that all of his behavior must at all cost be “productive,” “constructive,” or “useful” in achieving some end. Additionally, there is an irrational moralism behind his actions, but one that is not fully accepted as his own. Instead, it is more consistent with others’ expectations. He applies near-tyrannically moral “shoulds” to an amazing array of circumstances. For instance, the Overseer finds it very difficult to do things simply because they are fun, enjoyable, or pleasurable. For him, that which is moral and logical is not that which is fun, and he sacrifices enjoyment for the sake of what he sees as moral. As a result, his life feels like he is just “going through the motions.”

Self-Control: Although most people must, at times, push or force themselves to do things, engaging in most activities involves a natural, undriven participation because the activity is pleasurable or meaningful. In this case, asking someone how he “makes himself” do something is like asking someone who just finished a book he couldn’t put down, “How did you make yourself finish the book?”

However, the individual who has adopted the role of Overseer characteristically resorts to coercion in order to impel himself to action. Far more than most people, if he is to do anything, he must make himself do it. This is the overwhelmingly predominant mode of self-control and action he knows. His self-coercion is relentless out of fear that he will become indolent, nonproductive, or even problematically impulsive should he fail to force himself into action.

An important result of this coercion is a continuous sense of pressure to work, to do something “constructive” or “productive,” and to never let down. Relaxing, recreational, or other activities with no apparent utilitarian or ethical value prove futile, due to his relentless sense of pressure. He either returns to more constructive pursuits or has his idleness poisoned by a gnawing self-recrimination.

As a rule, the individual is very far from being aware that he himself is the source of this pressure and experiences the pressure as outside himself and the realm of his personal freedom.

Rebellion: If an individual consistently coerces others, disregards their wants and interests, and enforces coercion in an unjust, punitive fashion, the others are likely to rebel. They may, if they are able, utterly refuse to comply or, short of that, engage in delay tactics, sabotage, inadequate implementation, or (at a minimum) an actively rejecting attitude towards the harshly dictated assignments. Such is the case of a person in response to his own Overseer Regime.

At times, the rebellion may be complete, which manifests as complete paralysis with regard to some self-dictated action. At other times, the rebellion may be partial, resulting in endless procrastination, poor performance, or a refusal to care for the self-imposed activity. It is as if the individual qua victim of his own tyranny is forever saying to the Overseer either “you can’t make me do it at all” or “you can make me do it, but you can’t make me do it well, do it on your time schedule, or like it.”

Characteristically, such persons do report a sense of paralysis—even though they clearly believe they should do something, they just can’t act or make themselves do it. Furthermore, they often report a tremendous inefficiency. They (justifiably) feel that they expend a great deal of time and energy accomplishing what others do with far greater ease and efficiency. Finally, despite such enormous expenditures of energy, they report that the ultimate quality of their performance is far from satisfactory (even by ordinary human standards).

Self-Other Relationships

Differentiation: People who adopt and employ Overseer Regimes often have problems with “differentiation.” Differentiation essentially refers to boundaries between oneself and others on a variety of issues. A person who is “well differentiated” has clarity as to what exactly are his wants, interests, values, responsibilities, limits, and goals, and what are those of others in his life. Problems with differentiation mean that boundaries between self and others in these areas are unclear or permeable, with the result that one has a less stable sense self (and self-concept).

Persons with poor differentiation often come from a relatively undifferentiated family. Specifically, the individual, at an early and formative time, had his attempts at self-assertive and autonomous action substantially stifled. This situation inhibits one’s ability to possess a freely adopted, integrated set of self-definitions or a “solid self.”

Usually there is the presence in the family of a harsh, overly-controlling, tyrannical parental regime which is sometimes like that of the later Overseer (but sometimes not). The later self control described as “Overseer” results from an internalization of the previously external parental mode of control. The crucial element is that the child is substantially denied the fundamental developmental opportunities to define self freely on matters of interest, value, personal limit, and goals, and to act on such definitions.

While the above describes the past subjugation by others of self-definition during formative years, adopting an Overseer Regime guarantees a continued subjugation in the present. Most everything is imposed, little is chosen; one’s self is rarely consulted and so rebels.

Relationships with Others: As might be expected, a person coming from this background who adopts the Overseer role can have difficulty in relationships with others. First, he will be acutely sensitive to possible coercion by others. He may sense a need to be “on guard” and resist anything that smacks of coercion and/or an attempt to subjugate him (and he may think he sees coercion where it doesn’t really exist). He may keep himself distant from and try very hard to resist the influence of others.

All of this requires significant restraint and may engender feelings of anger and inclinations to act on it. However, his concern that others may be out to subjugate and coerce him can frustrate his need of or desire for genuine connections with others. Additionally, he will not necessarily act on his anger, as he may think that it will bring negative consequences.

While the Overseer may be able to keep his anger at possible coercion by others at bay, this won’t necessarily stop him from acting as Overseer in relation to others. Specifically, he may hold others to the same superhuman standards to which he holds himself. He will adopt the status of supreme critic of others real or imagined moral, intellectual, or other failings. He will be on alert—be actively looking for—opportunities to point out others' shortcomings.

Adopting the role of Overseer in relation to others enables one to step “outside” of the oppressor-victim/rebel relationship in which he exists when applying the Overseer Regime to himself. In the self-imposed regime, he experiences himself primarily as the victim. Perpetrating coercive demands brings no “pleasure” or relief, as it is himself that he is oppressing. However, adopting the Overseer role in evaluating others provides a temporary (and false) sense of status-enhancement—the sense that one is not the failure he often views himself to be.

In this role, he can judge himself as “one up” on someone else, which provides a psychological “balance” of sorts to his typically low self-esteem. However, it would be inaccurate to say that a person as Overseer to others takes pleasure in this role or that the “balance” it brings results in improved psychological health. Indeed it’s just the opposite. The person knows, at some level, that his sense of being “one up” is false, that putting others down doesn’t elevate him, and he feels guilty and anxious about it. Just as he doesn’t like criticizing and coercing himself, so he doesn’t actually enjoy or benefit from doing it to others. Unfortunately, without awareness of these issues, such a person will continue to pathologically criticize himself and others. However, on the positive side, there is effective treatment, and awareness of these the underlying issues and dynamics is an excellent first step.

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Scott, are all the following possible within Overseer self-self evaluations?

-The goals are realistic within the context of the person's life but the means of achieving those goals are not.

-The goals are unrealistic within the context of the person's life, and as a result the means appear to fall short of those goals.

-The goals and the means are unrealistic within the context of the person's life.

Are there people who evaluate themselves as Overseers but treat others justly because they recognize different standards apply to other people in their contexts?

Are there temporary Overseers?

By temporary, I mean an example of a temporary coercive propulsion might be a homeowner who refuses to be at the mercy of hurricanes or earthquakes in the 21st century. That person places harsh demands upon himself for many years to create the financial means to own a home that is structurally sound and beautiful. After the self-discipline and injustice he believed he required to achieve the desired goal, the homeowner returns to a life fulfilled with a variety of enjoyable activities, including work, without experiencing guilt for his enjoyment.

I am also interested in your comments on whether perfectionists can be psychologically healthy without becoming Overseers. This is what I see is the thinking difference between an Overseer and a perfectionist:

Overseer:

"What I do is never good enough."

[Average overall results.]

“The exam results show I am not good enough. I have to try harder, even though I don't know how I can. The person sitting next to me didn't even come to most of the classes, and she did better."

Perfectionist:

"I can't do this. I don't think I’m good enough. I better be wrong about that or I would feel really bad. I have to prove to myself I am good enough."

[better than average results.]

"That was good enough considering I just learned how to do it a week ago. Next time I can do it better and faster by…".

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