Jews beat themselves up too much, stress expert says

While psychological trauma or physical assault might stress anyone out, Jews have a special reason for anxiety pangs.

They tend to beat themselves up, said Francine Shapiro, a psychologist who specializes in stress disorders.

"There is the stereotype of the Jewish mom who's not happy unless her kids are happy," Shapiro said in a recent interview, "and dads working six or seven days a week to make the kids happy."

Then there are the kids themselves, she added, who grow up feeling that they don't measure up unless their achievements match those of their parents. The pressure to earn top grades in school in school carries over into pressure in the workplace.

Even if they later reject the values of their parents' generation and even though stereotypes dissipate as Jews assimilate, when they get into adult relationships, people often resort to knee-jerk responses, mimicking the behavior of their parents, Shapiro said.

They still assume they should take on the same kind of responsibilities their parents did: working as hard as their fathers, doing as much around the house as their mothers.

A senior research fellow at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto and a resident of Half Moon Bay, Shapiro is the creator and developer of a stress treatment technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR. Her recent book, "EMDR," co-authored with Margo Silk Forrest, details the treatment, which involves working through trauma and stress while practicing therapeutic eye movement.

Although most of her clients are suffering from assaults, accidents and disease, Shapiro said that for Jews, the source of stress is usually internal.

Stress is not exclusively a psychological problem. It can ultimately develop into physical ailments, such as cardiac problems or cancer. A common trait among many people who get cancer is that they cannot express or receive anger.

"Many times with cancer patients, we have to find ways of processing old memories that tell them they don't deserve anything," Shapiro said. They can stand up for other people, she explained, but not themselves. Though many of these people say they feel upset, they cannot identify that feeling as anger.

The good news for Jews, Shapiro said, is that they generally respond well to traditional psychotherapy. The bad news is that talking about things ad infinitum does not necessarily change them.

"It's the Woody Allen Syndrome," said Shapiro, whose EMDR technique does not involve much verbalization.

Shapiro's career might have been different if not for a traumatic experience of her own. In 1979, when she was teaching English at New York University and working on her doctoral dissertation in Victorian literature, she learned she had cancer.

She dropped the English program and began studying a variety of other subjects, eventually enrolling at the Professional School of Psychological Studies in San Diego, where she earned a doctorate in clinical psychology. She has been studying trauma ever since.

Stress usually comes in one of two forms, she said. The first is a feeling of being unsafe, a reaction especially common among victims of trauma. The other is an overly active sense of personal responsibility.

"People are getting stuck on taking excessive personal responsibility for everything in the world," Shapiro said. The classic picture of this is the mother taking care of everybody but never sitting down at her own dinner table.

"How can you fix everything and take care of everything and do everything?" Shapiro asked.