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Book Review-DBT Explained: An Introduction to Essential Dialectical Behavior Therapy Concepts, Practices, and Skills

It never made sense to me, DBT – dialectical behavior therapy.  Where was the conflict?  That and many other mysteries were solved by DBT Explained: An Introduction to Essential Dialectical Behavior Therapy Concepts, Practices, and Skills.  Marsha Linehan’s discovery in DBT is well validated as a treatment.  But what makes it special?

A Tale of Two Approaches

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been well validated for a while, but its focus on changing the way one thinks sometimes left Linehan’s patients feeling invalidated for who they were at that moment.  The insight was the introduction of an acceptance-based approach with meditation and mindfulness.  In this way, DBT validates where the person is – and provides them with the skills and motivation to change.  This is the essential, two-in-one conflict that is represented by the word “dialectical.”  On the one hand, we accept the person for where they are, and on the other, we hope that they can change to better and healthier approaches.

It’s important to note that Motivational Interviewing solved the same dual nature differently.  It focuses on understanding the person and accepting their current reality before moving on to focusing on the core challenges, evoking a desire to change, and planning for that change.  It solves the acceptance problem by introducing the concept of understanding with acceptance.

Acceptance

Most people know the short version of the serenity prayer by Reinhold Staudinger.  Most don’t know that it continues with, “Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace, Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it…”  Here, the word “accepting” is used in conjunction with hardship, but the concept is included in a broader sense when we consider that we must accept the world the way it is.

Embedded are the concepts of willfulness, when we refuse to accept reality, and willingness, when we’re able to accept “the cards we’re dealt.”  There’s a place for willfulness as we’re seeking to change the world, but in the present moment, denying reality does nothing to change it.

Acceptance of a person and their current reality is the essential first step to coming into alignment with them.  You can’t tell someone how to achieve changes in their life without knowing where they’re starting from.  (See also Richo’s How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Emotional Regulation

Core to DBT is the improvement of emotional regulation.  I struggle here, because “emotional regulation” isn’t quite the right language.  It’s not that we prevent emotions from happening.  It’s that we can learn to let them control us less.

In Daniel Goleman’s immensely popular Emotional Intelligence, he characterizes emotional intelligence along two axes splitting into four quadrants.  On the first axis, we have awareness on one side and management on the other.  The other axis is self and other.  For both, awareness is required before management can begin.  (See also Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and Primal Leadership.)

Beyond awareness comes the management piece, which is as much a negotiating process where emotions are evaluated for their utility by cognitive processes.  This is at the heart of CBT as well.

The awareness step can be difficult for people, because they’ve learned that their emotions are scary and uncontrollable.  Thus, they’ve blocked out all sense of emotions and live without conscious awareness of them – even though they’re silently controlling situations.  (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for Elephant-Rider-Path.)  Often, once people can accept and acknowledge their emotions, the management of the emotions becomes a relatively easy set of skills to be taught.

Follow Your Heart

Many people in many different contexts offer the advice to follow your heart.  Mostly, this means to follow your emotions and intuition towards your goals.  “Following your heart” uncouples you from the realities that tend to hold you back and make it difficult to take big risks.  This has its place and can be a powerful way to realize your dreams.  It’s also dangerous to radically decouple from reality.  It makes you susceptible to your feelings leading you astray.

I trained as a pilot decades ago.  They taught us that when your instruments and your feelings differ, trust your instruments.  Instruments all have backups to verify with, and if they’re telling you the same thing, then that’s what is happening – regardless of how you feel.  It’s okay to fly by feel for a little bit, but you’ve got to remember to periodically check your instruments.  You’ve got to check in with reality and make sure that what you feel is what’s really happening.

It’s like the Stockdale paradox that Jim Collins discusses in Good to Great.  You need to follow your heart – have unwavering confidence – and you need to check things against reality – accept input when the situation dictates it.

In the end, if you want to navigate these sorts of paradoxes, it might be good to start by getting DBT Explained.

Book Review-Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity

It wasn’t what I expected, but it was good.  I picked up Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity to understand the issue from a societal perspective and what could be done to address the challenges that so many people face as they’re stereotyped and stigmatized.  I was expecting a discussion on how to change society to be more accepting, like After the Ball.  I picked it up due to a reference in Suicide Among Gifted Children and Adolescents. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that Stigma was published initially in 1963 and that the author, Erving Goffman, is one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century.  What I found in his work was a personal playbook for managing your identity when you believe you’ve been stigmatized.

The Attribute

When someone is stigmatized, there is some attribute – normally an attribute that has some level of observability by others – upon which that the stigma is based.  The attribute can be physical, as in the color of skin – or it can be something like mental illness.

In A Class Divided, William Peters explains the experiment that Jane Elliott did to teach the impact of stereotyping and stigmatizing to her class after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  She divided her students on the basis of eye color and treated them differently based on the day.  Even though it was just a classroom exercise lasting a few days, her students quickly identified people based on their eye color – even calling her out for being one of the “lesser” eye colors on days when her eye color was treated as lesser.

The profound realizations from this experiment included the fact that these stigmas could be created very quickly and easily – and that they can be based on completely irrelevant attributes.  It doesn’t really matter.

Obtrusiveness

The words to explain the relationship between the degree of stigmatization and the attribute include obtrusiveness – how obvious the attribute is.  The other words that are used to describe the attribute are perceptibility and evidentness.  For someone to be stigmatized, there must be some awareness of the attribute, and that relies on the degree to which it’s observable to others – or the degree to which they’ve been informed.  On the completely, non-evident end of the spectrum, we have the woman who has lost her virginity outside of wedlock.  There is no outward visible change.  On the other end are attributes that can’t be missed.  Consider someone with a facial birthmark.  It’s nearly impossible for another person to miss.

In between are situations where upbringing might be subtly betrayed by choice of word or language.  For instance, saying that something is “so ghetto” might betray having grown up in poverty.  Something as simple as saying that the chili you had growing up had noodles in it also portrays a certain sense of lower income.  For someone to have a stigma for those who grew up in or near poverty, they may not know until something has been said.

Subhuman

One of the greatest tragedies of our experience with others is when we make others subhuman.  Hitler made the Nazis view Jews as subhuman and the genocide that followed is an indelible mark on humanity.  In America, slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person – an inexcusable representation of a human.  In moderate to extreme forms, stigma is the devaluing of other humans.  In their otherness, they are somehow less worthy of the birthright of the rest of humanity.  In this, we disengage our morality as is explained in Moral Disengagement and The Lucifer Effect.  While this external condemnation is unacceptable in any form, too many people experience it inside their own minds, berating themselves as not worthy of the kindness and respect deserved by every human.

The internal view of oneself is driven in ways that we’re not cognizant of.  If we’re attached to one stigma/stereotype, we experience better results; pick another, equally relevant, stigma/stereotype, and we’ll do worse.  We subtly pick up on the environment and how we’re treated by others and start to believe those things about ourselves.  All of a sudden, we don’t need others to tell us that we’re inferior, we’ll do it ourselves in voices that we cannot consciously hear.

Overrides

When Al Campanis was the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he punched a bigoted player who insulted Jackie Robinson.  The result ushered in the addition of black players to Major League Baseball.  At a time when racism was firmly entrenched, and there was great personal risk to protect Robinson, Campanis did it anyway.  He did it, because he knew Jackie personally and knew him to be more than what the stigma associated with his race said he should be.  (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more on the story.)

Similarly, we can avoid stigma with people who we’ve known personally prior to their stigmatizing attribute being known.  Consider people whose relative poverty growing up isn’t discovered for years, until after a friendship has formed.  The awareness of their poverty, while being quite impactful for others, will likely not apply to the friend.

There are, however, many limits to this, as Al Campanis’ full story illustrates.  While Campanis was able to override the stigma of Robinson’s skin color for the purposes of playing baseball, he still thought that Robinson wasn’t fit to be a manager.  He was wrong – but in part because the stigma leaked through, past his relationship with Robinson.

The most effective way to work past stigma is to develop meaningful relationships with individuals in the stigmatized groups – and allow them to expose where the stigma may still remain, even with them.

Concealment

There comes a question for those whose attribute can be hidden: should it?  The answer is complicated.  Obviously, exposing it too early may prevent the ability to form the very kind of relationship that can reduce the impact of the stigma personally and potentially unfasten the moorings on which it’s based.  However, it may be that hiding this attribute may come at great personal difficulty – and as such, one must make an informed decision about whether they can “keep up the ruse.”

Ultimately, concealment is a psychically draining situation that should be minimized where possible.  The best advice is always to be yourself.  (See How to Be Yourself.)

Concealing the stigmatizing attribute from others may focus your attention on it and make it more prevalent in your thinking.  Stigma is a hard thing to avoid.

Journalistic Cancer at ProPublica

I didn’t intend to expose anything or pull back any rocks to see what lurked under them.  I simply had a concern about an article.  I wanted to reconcile some reporting that called a valid situation “junk science.”  The topic was parental alienation, and it’s something that I had some firsthand knowledge in.  It was a situation I was forced to walk through – but it has more or less passed for me.

The research is clear, focused, and, relatively speaking, incontrovertible.  Parental alienation exists where one parent causes a child or children to dislike the other parent.  I’d written about the pathway to parental alienation that I saw as I researched it years ago.

Still, my initial note to the author was gentle: a request to speak about the article as written and to better understand the journalist’s perspective.  There was no response.  After waiting over a week, I dropped a note to the editor-in-chief with my concerns attached.  I didn’t hear back from him but instead received a note from the author of the article.

The note was pleasant and had her manager copied.  The problem was that the email message directly contradicted the article.  The words of confirmation that parental alienation was a real issue ran directly against the characterization in the article.  One cannot have a valid phenomenon and at the same time have “junk science” – the term the article uses.

In the short discussion, there was a reaffirmation that neither the World Health Organization (WHO) in its ICD codes nor the American Psychological Association (APA) in their DSM-V recognized it as a syndrome.  This is a space that I’m also too familiar with.

In the case of burnout, WHO acknowledges it as a workplace condition – but the APA fails to recognize it.  There are good reasons to believe that WHO’s inclusion isn’t in the right spot, because it constrains burnout to work-related situations, yet many people experience burnout outside of their occupation.  In fact, in its original expression, it was about avocation instead of vocation.  It was the way that Freudenberger and his colleagues were serving and how they felt inadequate results in that service.  (Our website https://ExtinguishBurnout.com has numerous free resources to understand and respond to burnout in yourself and others.)

It’s not surprising that WHO and APA don’t directly recognize parental alienation, nor is it incontrovertible evidence of its failure to exist.  Nassim Taleb would explain in The Black Swan that the absence of something doesn’t prove that it doesn’t exist.  However, let’s look more closely at the claims that neither APA nor WHO accept it.

Parental alienation doesn’t fit the goal of either WHO’s ICD nor APA’s DSM-V.  Both include criteria that are primarily reserved for individuals.  ICD codes are most frequently used for billing.  The DSM is similarly used for mental health billing.  They’re fundamentally focused on the individual, but parental alienation is a three-party relational problem.  The argument was made that the DSM includes some relational issues – and that’s true.  However, the number of relational codes is limited – and typically requires a primary diagnosis code.

Consider factitious disorder by proxy – what was historically known as Munchhausen by proxy.  The “by proxy” part is a clear indication that it’s not a single party diagnostic code.  However, it’s premised on the harm to an individual.

As I got deeper into the weeds, I found two diagnostic codes for DSM-V that corresponded to parental alienation.  V995.51 is “Child Psychological Abuse” and V61.29 “Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress.”  Neither directly speaks to parental alienation – but both do cover the condition.

The ProPublica article says that WHO denounced parental alienation, but they actually said, “During the development of ICD-11, a decision was made not to include the concept and terminology of ‘parental alienation’ in the classification, because it is not a health care term.”  That isn’t a denouncement.  It’s a statement of scope.

ProPublica also links to a National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges article and paper, “Navigating Custody & Visitation Evaluations in Cases with Domestic Violence: A Judge’s Guide.”  Ultimately, this paper incorrectly states the APA position on the matter, confusing the narrower Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) with the broader category of parental alienation.  In the APA definition for PAS, it states, “Despite the significant controversy surrounding this syndrome, the more generalized concept of parental alienation often is viewed as a legitimate dynamic in many family situations, describing the harm done to a child’s security with one caregiver as a result of exposure to another caregiver’s unfavorable actions toward or criticism of that person.”

There are two important issues here.  First, the scope of the document is domestic violence – something that is outside of the concept of parental alienation.  Quoting it seems like cherry picking.  (See Mastering Logical Fallacies for a deeper explanation.)  Second, admission of parental alienation in court cases is substantially increasing, as Parental Alienation: An Evidence-Based Approach clearly indicates.

The final evidence is a UN report, titled “Custody, violence against women and violence against children.”  Page 3 explains, “There is no commonly accepted clinical or scientific definition of ‘parental alienation’. Broadly speaking, parental alienation is understood to refer to deliberate or unintentional acts that cause unwarranted rejection by the child towards one of the parents, usually the father.”  There are working definitions for parental alienation as explained in the book referenced above.  Admittedly, greater clarity is better.  The UN report continues in the next paragraph to confuse PAS and parental alienation.  It seems the distinction was lost on the UN Human Rights Council as well.

The argument that was made to me during the email exchange with the editorial management at ProPublica that the research for the article included the work of Dr. Paul Fink.  He’d written an article in 2010 claiming PAS wasn’t a thing.  Of course, the way it was presented to me was that the author of the article had spoken with the Dr. Fink – something that would have been impossible given his death nine years before the ProPublica article published.  The response was clarified that they didn’t intend to imply that the author had spoken with him.  I responded with a meta analysis article “Parental Alienation in U.S. Courts, 1985 to 2018.”  For those that don’t follow, an individual article, no matter how impressive the author is, is trumped by a meta analysis of multiple articles in terms of authority.  In short, the editorial views of someone from 13 years prior aren’t that relevant any longer.

I ultimately escalated to the author’s manager, who included his own manager on the replies.  After several rounds of the data I was providing being ignored, I forwarded the whole mess to the editor-in-chief who affirmed the way that the situation was handled was in line with his expectations.

I sent an email to the board chairman.  I’ve never heard back.  (I waited 3 months.)

What does this mean?

There was a time when the profession of journalism meant something.  It meant integrity.  It meant making hard choices to tell the truth.  It doesn’t seem like the truth matters as much any longer – at least not to ProPublica.

ProPublica’s stated mission is “To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”  I was struck with a question: Who watches those that watch others?

It seems to me, based on the above interaction, that they’ve got their own agendas – which are resistant to the evidence.  Once they’ve formed an incorrect opinion, no amount of research will shake them from it.  So much for the basic principles of journalism.

Book Review-Suicide Among Gifted Children and Adolescents: Understanding the Suicidal Mind

It’s a concerning question for parents of children who are considered “gifted” intellectually.  Suicide Among Gifted Children and Adolescents: Understanding the Suicidal Mind doesn’t answer the question about whether these children are more or less likely to die by suicide.  Citing conflicting research, no conclusion is drawn.  However, there is work to surface the factors that lead to these conflicting results.

Theory of Suicide – Suicide Trajectory Model

One serious limitation to the book is the choice of primary model.  They chose the suicide trajectory model put forth by Stillion and McDowell.  This isn’t a popular model, rarely appearing even in the child development context under which it’s borne.  It has some similarities to Rudd et al.’s fluid vulnerability model (see Brief Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention), and it seems to map out Pathways to Suicide, like Ron Maris’ book.  However, while predisposing, contributing, precipitating, and protective factors are reviewed, they don’t form a pathway as much as they represent a set of factors at the individual, family, peer, school, community, and sociopolitical levels.

The problem is that these aren’t discriminating factors.  While citing articles of M. David Rudd and his colleagues, it seems as if Cross misses the central point that we don’t have discriminating factors, and we need to find them.  More recently, Craig Bryan explains why our capacity to predict suicide is unlikely to get specific.  (See Rethinking Suicide.)  This is consistent with research showing that many attempters (who survived) didn’t think about suicide for more than an hour.  Commonly, around 70% of attempters hadn’t considered it more than an hour or two before the act.  It’s hard to build a prediction framework with these kinds of timeframes.

The Myths

Like many others, Cross falls into the trap of describing “myths” about suicide.  The first “myth” is that “Suicide occurs without warning.”  Clearly, that’s true for some people (≥70%).  “Myth” four is, “If a gifted young person wants to commit [sic] suicide, very little can stop him or her.”  Here, nuance is important.  Certainly, if they are determined to die, they will.  They’ll lie, or they’ll find lethal means that you wouldn’t think to protect them from.  (See Suicide: Inside and Out for more.)  However, the nuance is whether or not they’ll have an honest conversation about their suicidal ideation with you.  Techniques like Motivational Interviewing can help open people up to the idea – as long as the coercive forces aren’t too strong.

The “myths” reflect historical thinking about suicide.  While many continue to believe the myths as stated, we’re beginning to realize that the old ideas aren’t necessarily true.

Perfectionism

The most consistent finding for impact in suicidality is perfectionism.  This occurs among the gifted and the normal.  However, perfectionism flows through the sense of agency or growth mindset that Carol Dweck explains in Mindset.  It’s consistent with Harris’ work in No Two Alike.  In short, a small amount of dispositional difference – even among twins – will result in tendencies towards and away from things, like academic excellence.  (See Perfectionism for more on the topic.)

The Meaning of Gifted

Cross’ work is challenged by the lack of a consistent definition of what “gifted” means.  Is it high IQ or mental aptitude in a certain way?  (See Howard Gardner’s Extraordinary Minds for more.)  Is it performing above the required standard?

One relatively common understanding is the experience of being gifted.  The experience is often described as “feeling different.”  I certainly felt – and feel – that.  To be clear, for most, it’s not necessarily better – it’s different.  It’s a curiosity about what is wrong with me, or why am I different?

Psychache

Cross ends with a call back to Shneidman’s work on psychache and the need to eliminate it if we want to take care of others.  (See The Suicidal Mind for more on psychache.)  The need to increase feelings of a life worth living in the person and eliminate their pain is, however, universal to all humans.  It’s not specific to either gifted or youth.  It can be that if we want to prevent Suicide Among Gifted Children and Adolescents, we’ll need to just prevent it among all children and adolescents.

Book Review-Compassion and Self-Hate: An Alternative to Despair

While compassion is the subject of many books, self-hate is not frequently discussed.  Compassion and Self-Hate: An Alternative to Despair seeks to map the relationship between the two and how compassion can heal self-hate.  I came to the book because of self-hate’s role in suicide.  I came to understand how someone could hate themselves so much that they thought they and the world would be better off without them in it.  (This interest was focused while reading Managing Suicidal Risk, 2e.)

Self-Hate Machinations

Sometimes, the mental machinery of our mind gets stuck.  (See Capture for more.)  It can get stuck replaying a time when we were frightened and vulnerable or when we did something that wasn’t nice.  Stuck in this state, it is easy to see how self-hate can develop.  The problem with this is that self-hate is problematic from both a physical and mental health perspective.

Self-hate can also be borne by external or internal perfectionism.  (See Perfectionism.)  With impossible standards, you’re always falling short, and that falling short leads to condemnation from others or yourself.

Self-Punishment

If you know you did wrong – or didn’t measure up – you can take matters into your own hands and punish yourself by denying yourself grace, compassion, or, more tangibly, the hobbies and activities that you enjoy.  This self-punishment makes you your own enemy and sets up a further fracturing of identity that places parts of yourself into the dangerous category.

The logic of self-punishment is either the desire to motivate ourselves to better behavior or to “balance the scales.”  In other words, if there is enough self-punishment, then I should deserve to succeed.  The scales should be slanted towards good things for us – even if that’s not realistic.

Rejection of Praise

When one’s internal image doesn’t match the image that others are sharing with you, you may reject it.  Because what they’re saying is inconsistent with your internal perspective, the discrepancy must be resolved, and it’s easier to resolve it in a way that points to your negative, internal view being right.  It’s easier, but it’s probably not correct.

Sometimes, we outright dismiss the comment.  “That’s not me.”  Other times, we discount it.  “I only did a good job because it was easy.”  Another way that we discount it is by removing the uniqueness.  “Anyone could have done it.”  These approaches prevent us from letting in the light that other people are trying to shine to us.

If someone else is the arbitrator of good or bad, and they say good, believe them.  (If they say something negative, you should evaluate it more carefully to understand their motivations.)

Secretly Suspicious of Good

Whether it’s someone saying good things or simply feeling good, some people are suspicious.  They don’t believe they deserve to feel good or to have happiness.  When it happens, they feel ashamed, as if they have stolen something that doesn’t belong to them.

Value as an Economic Engine

From a chemical composition perspective, the human body is worth less than $100 in chemicals.  Of course, that’s not the standard by which we measure a life, much less a human life.  The value of human body parts has a much higher value – and a much higher moral rejection factor.  (See Moral Disengagement and How Good People Make Tough Choices.)  More commonly, people see themselves as economic engines that generate value through their work.  It’s not surprising, then, that the stock market crash and the Great Depression, with so many out of work, led to a surge in suicides.  Without money or a job, they saw themselves as without value and were willing to throw away their lives.

Most people believe, intuitively, that human life is intrinsically valuable, but too frequently, that value is dismissed.

Early Warning Signals

One of the keys to ongoing maintenance of an attitude of self-esteem rather than self-hate is identifying the earliest signs that our internal talk track is moving towards self-hate.  Learning to identify these early warning signs may prevent the downward spiral before it begins.  The problem isn’t in the idea that we should be looking for early warning signs.  The problem is identifying them.

Early warning signs aren’t universal.  There’s not a cookbook or checklist.  Everyone will have to learn their own unique, personal early warning signs – and choose to react to them.  However, this can be one of the most powerful ways to bring more joy to life.

Learning to Live with Rejection

One of the hardest things for our ego to accept is the reality that we will be rejected.  There will be times when the other person isn’t capable of the thing that we’re asking for.  It may have something to do with us or what we’re offering them – but it may not.  In either case, we will still experience the rejection, and it will still sting.

People who have the most robust mental health have developed a resilience in the face of rejection.  They know that one rejection isn’t the only path between success and failure and that the rejection will not be the last.  They’ve divorced the rejection from their worth and value.  However, those that struggle with self-hate can’t do that.

Instead, each rejection is seen as a fatal failure.  They think that every rejection is a statement about their value and worth.  They become convinced that they’re fundamentally flawed and unworthy of acceptance when this is not the case.

Compassion is the Antidote

In the broadest view, compassion – and particularly self-compassion – is the antidote to self-hate.  Another way of stating compassion is loving-kindness.  If we can learn to be kind to ourselves, we can realize that self-hate isn’t right.  Compassion itself is built upon empathy – “I understand this about you.”  Compassion directly is about understanding the suffering of another and desiring to do something to make it better.  (See Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism for more on empathy and compassion.)  Self-compassion, then, is understanding ourselves and our suffering and making a decision to make it better.

When we start to treat ourselves with compassion, we can see both the help and the helper in ourselves, and self-hate is incompatible with that.  We know that we’re fundamentally wired for cooperation and compassion.  Being compassionate is built-in, we just need to accept it.  (See SuperCooperators and Does Altruism Exist? for more.)

Moods Are Not Permanent

One of the challenges of self-hate is the moods that we arrive in that fuel it.  We find ourselves in depressed moods that seem as if they’ll last forever.  While emotions may be brief, it feels that a mood will be permanent.  Logically, we know that to not be truth, but that doesn’t help our emotions.  Our emotions drive our thinking – and are frequently in control.  (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for more.)

Constant self-reassurance is required to overcome the powerful force of emotions and the perception that negative moods are permanent.  Recalling when you had negative moods before that have passed and good moods that have persisted for a while is a good way to break free of the perception of permanence.

The Surrendering Skill

There are two kinds of surrender – surrender accept and surrender defeat.  (See Conflict: Surrender Accept vs. Surrender Defeat.)  Too frequently, we confuse the two.  We get stuck in the belief that things should be different – that we should never feel bad (or good) – and we find that reality lets us down when it doesn’t conform to our expectations.  If we are willing to let go of our preconceived notions and insistence on our perfect or ideal, we can find more compassion and less frustration.  In fact, if we’re willing to openly surrender and accept reality, we may find that we can see the difference between Compassion and Self-Hate.

Book Review-Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love

It’s spooky stuff.  Rewind the clock to a time before you have conscious memories and watch your interactions with your mom and dad.  Mary Ainsworth did this and refined the work of John Bowlby on attachment.  They collectively discovered that the way we form relationships as an infant is relatively stable over time and can shape how we’ll behave in intimate relationships decades later.  Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love is the exposition of their work and the work of others that seeks to help us understand why we act the way we do – and how we can change it.

Evolution

To understand the genius of Bowlby’s work – and Mary Ainsworth’s extension – we must recognize the evolutionary advantage of attachments.  If we take a step back, we can acknowledge that humans aren’t the fastest or the fiercest animals on the planet.  However, our capacity to be social and select strategies of cooperation are an essential part of our ability to be the dominant biomass on the planet.  (See SuperCooperators, Does Altruism Exist?, The Evolution of Cooperation, and The Righteous Mind.)

From there, we can see there can be special relationships we make – primary bonds – with those who are the most important to us and the most likely to support us.  In childhood, these are often our parents; in adulthood, our spouse.  Bowlby theorized, based on Harlow’s work on rhesus monkeys, that social comforting and perceived protection can be more important than food.  In Harlow’s experiments, he fashioned two mother monkey replicas in wireframe.  In one, he fashioned a place to hold a bottle for food, and the other he covered with terrycloth (to simulate the mother’s fur).  The monkeys would get food when they were hungry but would routinely spend time with the terrycloth replica, who offered nothing else tangible.

Mary Ainsworth, who worked with Bowlby, would go on to develop a protocol for the “strange situation” that could clarify Bowlby’s hypothesis.  She discovered, first in Uganda and then back in the US, that there were three basic ways that most babies would become attached.  They are secure, avoidant, and anxious.  She recorded several other variants that can be lumped together as “anxious-avoidant,” which is a mixture of the two non-safe attachment styles.  Today, it is more commonly called “disordered attachment” because of the unpredictability.

Robin Dunbar later postulated the number of stable social relationships as a function of the size of the primate brain.  Most frequently, this is quoted as 150 people for humans, but Dunbar’s work is much more nuanced.  First, the overall number is a range that might be up to 250 people; more importantly, Dunbar proposed that there are rings of intensity of relationships that allow for the primary relationships Bowlby earlier believed in.

The Styles

What Ainsworth saw in her test exposed a paradox.  Those babies who were attached in a way that Ainsworth would call “stable” were more likely to explore and experience the “strange situation.”  Like the rat pups who received more licking and grooming who explored their environment, children explored more when they believed that they had a safe person to return to.  (See How Children Succeed for more on rat licking and grooming.)

A summary of the styles is:

  • Secure – They are aware that they have a safe person to return to and thus are less fearful and more open to experiences.
  • Anxious – When their safe person isn’t available, they experience anxiety with the apparent concern they’ll never return. This is believed to be associated with neglect (intentional or unintentional).
  • Avoidant – When their safe person is available, they often push the safe person away or ignore them. This is believed to be associated with perceived (but not necessarily real) abuse.
  • Disordered – Alternating styles of avoidance and anxiety believed to be related to unpredictable experiences. Children of alcoholics can fall into this category or the anxious category depending on the predictability of their needs failing to be met.

Attachment in Plastic

The continued research into attachment has led to the awareness that, while attachment styles are generally stable over a lifetime, they can be changed.  It’s described as the styles being plastic.  They can be flexed and changed, but not without some degree of effort.

Cults sometimes intentionally try to pull people to a disordered attachment style, so they are more easily controlled and manipulated.  (See Terror, Love, and Brainwashing for more.)  Without intentionality, trauma can move people from more secure attachment styles to less secure attachment styles.  This is often disorienting for both the person and those around them.

However, with work, the opposite is true.  Even those who grew up in chaotic environments can develop secure attachments and approach close relationships in healthier ways.

Unmet Needs Continue

Sometimes the dynamics of the situation have one person calling the other “needy” or “clingy.”  This pejorative assessment unfairly characterizes the gap between one person’s capacity to give and the other person’s need.  The person with the need is characterized as excessively needy rather than the giver being seen as insufficiently capable of giving.  No matter what you call it, the gap exists – and it may grow over time.

Consider a family that earns $50,000 per year but for whom their expenses are $55,000 per year.  Are they needy?  Certainly, their needs exceed their earnings, but needy may – or may not – be a fair characterization.  In financial terms, we increase our debts to cover the difference, which further increases the gap between income and expenses.  In emotional terms, we may choose to defer our needs temporarily with the expectation that the deficit will be addressed later.

The issue is the fundamental gap between need and capacity, and it stays the same even if our tolerance of the issue doesn’t stay the same.

Intimacy Anorexia

Over a decade ago, in a previous marriage, I encountered the work of Douglas Weiss and Intimacy Anorexia.  While I’d seen the work of Bowlby and Ainsworth when I encountered Weiss’ work, I hadn’t quite put the pieces together.  “Intimacy anorexia,” as Weiss defines it, is a caricature of the avoidant attachment style.  They use a variety of strategies to avoid the person whom they’re married to or in a committed relationship with.  With every pursuit of intimacy that the secure or anxiously attached person makes, the anorexic is putting up walls.  John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains how important these bids for attention (and intimacy) are.

The net result is that the person bidding for intimacy questions whether they’re normal or needy, as their partner claims.

The Anxious-Avoidant Pairing

The unfortunate outcome of attachment styles and the dating process is that people with anxious attachment styles quite frequently end up with people who have an avoidant attachment style.  This set of attachment styles is often dysfunctional, with one partner constantly pursuing and the other partner constantly fleeing the threat of intimacy.  The best bet for these parings is for both partners to work towards changing their attachment styles to be more stable – which is substantially harder than it sounds when your partner is human and fallible.

The Stable Connection

One might assume, rightly, that a couple consisting of two adults with stable attachment would offer the best chances for intimacy.  Both partners would allow for the appropriate space for the other.  They’d accept their partner as an independent person with their own needs – and recognize that they’ll be there to support their needs.  An unexpected finding in the research is that having one stable person in the relationship is nearly as effective as having two.  It seems that someone with a stable attachment style can calm the fears of the other partner.

It’s as if they’re able to provide the degree of closeness that the other person needs – even if that degree of intimacy needs changes.  From a personal perspective, I can remember counseling sessions where I shared that I didn’t have the right to a bad day, because if I did have a bad day, my now ex-wife couldn’t rise to the occasion to meet me in the middle.  In a plane, there’s a flight attitude you can get that requires the engine to run at 100% capacity.  It’s called “hanging on the prop,” and it’s risky when close to the ground.  When you’re operating with one securely attached person in a relationship, there may or may not be much room for weakness.

Protest Behaviors

In fact, some “protest” behaviors can drive even the securely attached partner beyond their coping capacity.  Levine and Heller’s list includes:

  • Withdrawing
  • Keeping score
  • Acting hostile
  • Threating to leave
  • Manipulations
  • Making them feel jealous

I take issue with the last one, since you can’t make anyone else feel something – but you can encourage it.  That being said, the list shows similarities to the ones from Intimacy Anorexia.

Elevated Attachment Isn’t Love

One of the traps people sometimes stumble into is that they mistake an activated attachment system for love.  In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett explains how she might have mistaken illness for interest in a date.  Luckily, she sorted it out.  Others aren’t so lucky.  They err on the side of interest when there’s something triggered in their attachment system trying to warn them, inadvertently bringing them like a moth to a flame.

The opposite is also true, where people fail to feel a “spark” with someone else and they assume that it’s because they’re not interested.  Romance novels lead some to believe that there has to be this spark instead of creating space for a relationship first.

Conflict Resolution Leads to Intimacy

Even relationships between secure attachment types include fighting.  Sure, they fight differently, but they still fight.  When one of the partners is avoidant, they may seek to keep the conflict operating, because resolving the conflict creates too much intimacy.  I can remember this experience.  I’d try to eliminate the disagreement only to find a new one or a new dimension emerges.  If you’re using your best conflict resolution skills, and the conflict seems to constantly rekindle, you may be working with someone who needs to keep the fight alive.

Responding to Effective Communication

Another clue to a person’s attachment style is how they respond to effective communication.  The securely attached respond very positively; other attachment styles reveal their nature by changing the subject or creating a distraction.  Securely attached people don’t have any interest in or any time for games.  They expect effective communication – and they give it.

Growing Up

At some level, we grow up, but we don’t always learn How to Be an Adult in Relationships.  We carry around the attachment styles we learned as a child, and we don’t even know that we should adjust it for a happier life.  In the end, to find the best happiness in life, we need to learn how to be securely Attached.

Book Review-New Models of Bereavement Theory and Treatment: New Mourning

People are funny about death, grief, and bereavement.  We continue to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that death doesn’t exist – or at least that it won’t happen to us.  New Models of Bereavement Theory and Treatment: New Mourning seeks to share what we’ve learned – and how what we’ve learned doesn’t match what we’re doing.  Grief, mourning, and bereavement aren’t new topics.  I’ve read the classic On Death and Dying as well as The Grief Recovery Handbook, which provide perspectives into death, dying, and grief.  I’ve also read Top Five Regrets of the Dying to understand what people regret most before they die and The Denial of Death to learn how we avoid the thought of death in general.  However, New Models of Bereavement Theory and Treatment does offer a perspective that the other resources do not: a new way of thinking about the process.

Definitions

Before getting into the meat of the work, it’s important to frame the perspective with some definitions.  We start that all death is loss.  That loss means something we had – like our relationship with the deceased – is gone.  The internal response to loss is grief.  It’s the way that we feel the loss.  The outward expression of that grief is mourning.  Suffering is the process of grief.  This is particularly true when the grief is unnecessarily extended, as in cases where people aren’t given the proper support.

These aren’t necessarily the definitions used by the book.  I use these definitions here, because they are most likely aligned to the definitions that others have and are more consistent with other literature.

It’s also important to recognize that the grieving process will differ by person and by situation.  We cannot force the process towards a natural end; however, we can support people in the process and reduce the suffering.

Detachment and Reattachment

Traditional models of grief are focused around Freud’s work and the need for the individual to detach from the loved one they’ve lost.  While this is a part of the process, it neglects an often critical aspect of grieving, which is preserving the other person as well.  Instead of completely severing connections with the deceased, the goal is to redefine the relationship with them.  In grief, we’re disconnecting the old relationship and replacing it with a new relationship.

This new relationship acknowledges that the person is no longer with us in a physical sense, but rather they remain with us in our memories and in our imaginations.  We can maintain a relationship with them by recalling previous memories and by simulating conversations with them.

It’s the critical process of redefining the relationship and creating a new attachment based on that new relationship that seems to have a healing and protective effect for people.

Radically Reorienting World Views

A common, but not universal, experience with people who experience a loss is the radical reorientation of world views.  We all use world views to define how we see the world.  We consider the world a generally helpful or generally harmful place.  We have a belief that the Sun will rise in the East and set in the West.  It would be incredibly disorienting if the opposite were suddenly true.  This is, in essence, what happens when someone whom you expected to be with for the rest of your life – or at least longer than the time you’ve had with them – dies.  This is particularly true when the loss is that of a child.

Children are supposed to bury their parents – not the other way around.  When a parent is forced to confront the loss of a child, they must also realize that the grand clockwork of the universe isn’t exactly the way they saw it.  When a parent buries a child, there is something profoundly wrong with the order of things.

It’s these world views – the things that are so woven into the fabric of life that we cannot directly see them – that must change when confronting the reality of death and that can be its own pain.

Frozen Feelings

One of the traps that people can fall into is the complete lack of feelings.  Because of conditioning while growing up, societal expectations, or our own sense of perfectionism, we can find that we don’t allow ourselves the inward expression of grief or the outward expression of mourning.  Instead, we bottle up the feelings.  We contain them so they don’t get expressed, and we don’t have to fear what others will think of us – or fear that we’ll never stop crying.

Unfortunately, this approach leads to two problems.  The first is that you can’t block out the bad feelings – the sorrow, the grief, and the fear – without also blocking out the good feelings like joy, love, and happiness.  While freezing our feelings off into their own space may be appropriate for a time, eventually the ice must thaw, and we must experience our emotions – bad and good.

The other challenge is worse.  If these feelings do remain bottled up for too long, the pressure will build, and eventually they’ll come out.  It may be as anger or resentment.  It might be an explosive outburst.  More tragically, it may be a psychotic break that leaves someone disconnected from reality and the love of the world.

The Story

In Trauma and Memory, Peter Levine explains how our implicit memories of an event – including being notified of the death of a loved one – exists outside of time.  It’s the process of converting these memories into explicit memories that places them into a time context.  Without that, we’re subject to flashbacks and other intrusive thoughts.  More broadly, we need to make sense of the trauma.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains how prediction is a core part of consciousness.  Inside Jokes explains that we’ve got mechanisms in our brain that detect errors in our predictions, and the reward cycle for detecting them is what kicks off laughter.  For the prediction engine of our consciousness to continue to run, it needs a new model of prediction, and that means integrating the events into a cohesive story that can make sense.  Without this, we’ll be stuck, unable to trust our ability to predict the future, and the world will necessarily become a much scarier, unstable place.

It was James Pennebaker’s work in Opening Up that made me aware of the healing power of writing down a trauma.  Writing down the narrative of trauma allows us to weave it into a story that makes sense as well as an opportunity to take a step back and see the potential benefits that can come from a tragedy.

Expectations

We’ve got these expectations about death and loss that aren’t grounded in reality.  Ideas like we’re going to completely resolve any bereavement that we have and move on aren’t real.  Certainly, it gets better, different, and less painful at times, but anyone who says that it will end isn’t being truthful.

Similarly, we can’t prescribe a flow that all bereavement must go through.  There’s no amount of gnashing of teeth or wailing that is mandated for a given type of loss.  Instead, we must recognize that everyone will grieve in their own way.  A failure to express outward morning or acknowledge inward grief doesn’t mean that the person isn’t going through the bereavement process “correctly.”

It’s similarly not necessary that someone experience a great deal of pain in the loss.  It’s quite possible that the loss represents the other person being freed of their burdens in a way that brings them peace.  That isn’t to minimize the loss or indicate a lack of attachment but rather is an acceptance of things and how the world really is.

Who Cares for Whom?

Option B shares a model of circles of proximity to the deceased.  You provide support for those closer and seek support from those further out.  As a general model, it’s fine.  However, it breaks down inside of the nuclear family, like Newtonian physics breaks down at a subatomic level.  When a parent is lost, both the spouse and the children occupy the closest circle, and both need support from the outside.  However, inside the circle, things are not even.

Parents are expected to provide support to their children and not vice versa.  The hierarchy of the family unit suggests that this should be the order of things.  However, often, the spouse is unable to function at a level that allows them to support the children.  Instead of having reserves that allow them to get support for their needs and invest in the children, more frequently, the children must fend for themselves – and sometimes take care of the parent.  This causes long-term harm to the children as they’re forced into a parental, caregiving role before they’re supposed to.

Secrets and Security

You’re only as sick as your secrets.  Yet, in some families, it seems that secrets are all that there are.  Siblings who die at an early age are never spoken of.  Grandparents are just “away” with no expectation of return.  Even tragic illnesses that everyone knows about are just not discussed.

The problem is that, from a stability and predictability standpoint, children and adults learn that there’s always another shoe that can drop at any time.  We can’t feel safe and secure enough to share our feelings, because we can’t see what tragedy is coming around the next bend.  We can’t trust that the people we love and those that we depend on to care for us will tell us the truth so that we can predict some sense of stability in our lives.

The New Models of Bereavement Theory and Treatment accepts our need for safety, sense-making, and reconnection.

Book Review-The Road to Character

It’s a sort of challenge to the values of today.  The Road to Character proposes that, historically, we were more concerned about our character than our appearance.  We were more concerned with community than individual wealth and happiness.  We knew, the book supposes, that serving others was the path to joy and happiness.  It also proposes that we’ve lost our way.

Others agree.  Tom Brokaw wrote The Greatest Generation to acknowledge the work, sacrifices, and character of the generation that fought great wars and tamed nature.  While Chuck Underwood was looking at the differences in America’s Generations, he couldn’t help but acknowledge that things are different now.  They’re somehow more “me” focused.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt express a similar sentiment in The Coddling of the American Mind.  What happened, they wonder, that we must have trigger warnings on everything, that people can be cancelled from university appearances because we disagree, and everything has been turned into a microaggression?  Instead of intelligent, thoughtful, and passioned debates about the issue, we’ve fallen into isolation and attacks.

Delayed Gratification

It seems like we lost our willingness to delay gratification.  If we were all preschoolers in Michel’s Marshmallow Test, we might eat the one in front of us before the researcher had left the room.  While there’s some question about the replicability of Michel’s tests, the concept of delayed gratification is important.  Albert Einstein called compound interest the 8th Wonder of the World.  The more you can save and delay gratification, the more interest works in your favor instead of against you.

What Other People Think About Me Is None of My Business

We’ve also become obsessed with our image – what other people think about us.  Image consultants work on everything.  Hairstyles and clothing are set to match the image to project.  Public relations firms shape what we say so as not to offend, and when we do, “fixers” help us to clean up the mess.  This process has been happening for some time now.  As I mentioned in The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, we’ve started putting on brands so that we could feel differently.

The Hidden Persuaders and Unsafe at Any Speed both explain that marketing stopped being about features and utility and started being about selling emotions and a life that you didn’t have.  Instead of working to be happy, serve others, or whatever it took to really get what you wanted, the suggestion was made that you could just buy a product and have it immediately.

Large Organizations Are Dinosaurs

There was a very old commercial where a man is at a party, and someone asks him what he does.  He explains that he’s a filmmaker, and the girl he is talking to swoons.  He adds that it’s for cable and she visibly deflates.  Finally, he explains that he makes films for HBO, and she regains her amorous attention.

It used to be that working for a large organization was an honor that not everyone could have.  However, since Enron, MCI/WorldCom, and countless other disasters of ethics or environments, we’ve come to believe that large organizations aren’t as good as they once were.

Instead, the darling place to work is the venture capital-based startup.  If you can work for a small company that makes it, then you can cash out and retire early.  Not only do we question the ethics of a large organization, but we’re not interested in working hard for decades for someone else.

Neither, by the way, are most up for the entrepreneurial struggle that many of our great-grandparents faced in working for themselves.

Forging Morals from Weaknesses

It used to be that your teachers, mentors, and friends would encourage you to work on your weakness.  You’d be encouraged to build your weaknesses until they were no longer weaknesses.  Today, we encourage people to focus exclusively on their strengths.  The problem with this approach is that the weaknesses – sometimes critical weaknesses – remain.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of weaknesses that are easily solved, like getting glasses or contacts to improve vision,.  I’m talking about the kind of weaknesses that can’t be worked around and will continue to negatively impact you year after year.

It used to be that folks like Josh Waitzkin would learn chess and then go work in martial arts – and he’d celebrate the work it takes to push through the losses.  (See The Art of Learning.)  Positive psychology, for all its benefits, can create challenges.  It’s fundamental to positive psychology to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses.  (See Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual.)  The challenge is that once people have recovered from their challenges and have achieved a baseline normal, they rarely go back and work on their weaknesses.

Focusing on strengths, so that people recognize they have value and that things can get better, has its place.  It’s important to redevelop a sense of self-efficacy, but at some point, it’s necessary to return to the things that are holding you back.  Raise Your Line makes the point that hard work is necessary.  If we want to change our outcomes, we’ve got to work on the weaknesses that are holding us back.

Performance (Merit-Based) Love

Too many children are told that they’re a good child and that they’re loved with the implication that they’re loved because they’re good.  Too many children begin to associate love with their performance.  Instead of recognizing their intrinsic value, they believe that they’re only valuable when they’re doing something good for others.  This sets children up to become adults that don’t recognize their own worth and seek ways to find their worth externally.

It works from a deficit model instead of a model that builds on a foundation of strength.

Emotional Morals

Without a solid foundation, it’s hard to be a moral person.  Knowing what you believe and accepting the consequences for what you believe is hard.  It’s even harder when your perspective is warped with the belief that your only value is what you can do for others.

Distortion becomes accepted.  Instead of making hard decisions, people begin to make decisions that feel right.  In fact, they endorse utilitarian ethics with the sense that the only real value is how it makes them feel.  Feelings, while necessary for our survival, are also not reliable.

Inner Cohesion

I describe it as stable core.  I last wrote about it in my review of Resilient.  It’s this sense that you know who you are and what you stand for.  It’s a foundation for the development of character, and it’s too often overlooked.

What Am I Being Called to Do

May people believe that you don’t choose what you are to do in life.  Life, God, or the universe decided what you are called to do, and it’s up to you to answer the call – or not.  For most of my life, I’ve not known exactly what it is that I’m supposed to do, what my calling is.  I’m not entirely certain I understand it today.

However, I can say that the path including work on trauma and suicide wasn’t on my list.  The events surrounding me pushed me in that direction, and I moved along with them.  Even writing these posts was a set of circumstances that led me to believe that, if I wanted to continue to grow, I’d need to read voraciously and work to integrate the learning into my life.  For me, that meant writing a book review every single week.

Late Bloomers: A Life of Preparation

An important point to remember if you’re on the long path to character is that many of the greatest leaders of all time experienced their success very late in life.  We venerate Abraham Lincoln but fail to see the losses in his career.  Walt Disney’s bankruptcy is washed away by history.  (See The Wisdom of Walt.)  Nothing much was expected from the great military leaders that we revere.

In the end, what we realize is that the end may be some sense of success and perhaps fame, but the path to get there is The Road to Character.

Book Review-Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways That Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself

It’s a fair question to ask why I’d read Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways That Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself given the mixed review of the authors’ prior work, Compassionomics.  The short answer is that someone in a position to be helpful suggested it.  The longer answer is that, despite Compassionomics’ limitations, there were still good points being made.  Unsurprisingly, the “Wonder Drug” title is hyperbole.  It’s also no surprise that this work is an extension of Compassionomics in that they’re proposing you actually do something about the compassion you’re feeling.

Live to Give

Though I’d argue that altruism is a level of compassion that involves personal cost or risk, many don’t draw that distinction.  The concept of living to give – or live to give – is that you’ll be the happiest if you worry about other people more and yourself less.  It’s no surprise that the Dalai Lama would agree.  (See The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.)  Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson concur in Altered Traits, basing their perspective on neurologically verifiable details about firing patterns.  Neurological and psychological research is practically paved with studies verifying that the more concerned we are with others, the happier we’ll be.

The authors cite Adam Grant’s Give and Take.  On Grant’s suggestion, I read SuperCooperators and Does Altruism Exist?, which further the argument for concern for others.  Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation even provides computer models for how cooperation might have evolved – and what strategies are best.

Clearly, there’s no question about what the best approach is.  However, the important question is how to make the transition.  Even the Dalai Lama and Paul Eckman pondered whether we’re fundamentally compassionate or selfish people.  (See Destructive Emotions.)  They wrestled with the challenge of flipping the switch from selfish to serving.  They didn’t reach an answer.  Of course, the Dalai Lama could point to Buddhist monks, who meditate on compassion (loving kindness), but then one could argue that they were already on the side of compassion.

While the authors leave the question largely unanswered, I believe that before we can have compassion for others, our needs need to be satiated.  We need to believe that we have enough and that we are enough.  (See Brene Brown’s work in I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) and Daring Greatly for more about enough.)

Passion, Purpose, and Wisdom

Sometimes, we confuse the idea that we’re passionate about something for our purpose.  Consider a professional athlete.  They’re clearly passionate about their sport.  However, eventually, they’ll have to give it up.  Many athletes identify passion projects during their career or after their careers are over.  Scholarships, sports equipment, and programming for underserved youth are just the tip of the iceberg.  The difference between their passion for the game and their purpose is in how it serves others.  Purpose is why we’re here.  (See Start with Why for more.)

The problem is, whether you’re talking to college graduates at a commencement or whether you’re in your second decade of working, the purpose may not have revealed itself yet.  Finding the thing that is your purpose isn’t easy or straightforward.  As Extreme Productivity points out, life has twists and turns that are not predictable.  Many people find that their purpose isn’t discovered until late in life.  While they’re waiting, they’re trying out lots of causes to see one might be the one that moves them.

The Overreaches

There are places where Wonder Drug overreaches.  That is, the book makes bold claims that aren’t supported by research.  For instance, “Seventy percent of your ability to give (emotion, time, money) is the result of nurturance.”  The research doesn’t come close to supporting this assertion.  In fact, the more consistent research supports that it’s a combination of disposition and resources.  Those who believe they can spare some resources are substantially more likely to do so.  Of course, we all know people who have plenty who are disinterested in helping others and giving back.  However, that self-centered attitude is much rarer than it may first appear.

Another instance where there’s an overreach is in pain management.  “Just to be clear: if you are compassionate, your brain is more resilient.  It can block out the empathetic pain of witnessing the suffering of others to allow you to give meaningful help to people in need.”  There are two overreaches placed side by side.  First, a resilient brain isn’t necessarily more compassionate.  Though there may be some correlation, that doesn’t mean causation.  You’re resilient if you can weather the storms of life.

Second, there is nothing that says you can block out the pain of witnessing the suffering of others.  “Blocking out” implies hiding it from your consciousness, which would be the opposite of empathy and – because empathy is required before compassion – compassion as well.  Those people who are the most able to give are able to accept and process the emotions and pains of others and convert that into action – they are by no means blocking them out.

Get Started

Wonder Drug weighs that purpose is in being something larger than yourself – I disagreed above.  However, there is a barrier, a discouragement that can happen if you focus on the magnitude of the problem that your purpose puts in front of you.  You can see the scope and scale of the literacy problem for grade school children and do nothing.  However, that accomplishes nothing.  Instead, you can, like Dolly Pardon, set up library and book programs that make the maximum impact possible with the resources that you can spare.  No doubt that Dolly Pardon has more resources than the average person, but her example shows that no matter what you can do, you should do it.

No doubt that if your purpose is of large scale and importance, you’ll not be able to do it alone or in your lifetime.  That’s why it’s important to find others who can share your purpose – and become passionate about ways to address it.  Some projects may not be completed in your lifetime.  It may be that what you start won’t see fruit in your life.  The truth is that the results are nice but the real reason for doing it is the process – knowing that you’ll be making the world just a little bit better.

While compassion and living a life of philanthropy and service may be good for you, it’s not as easy as it may seem.  If we abandon the “me” culture for the culture of “we,” we become interdependent upon one another, and that’s far harder in today’s world than being independent.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be givers.  We should.  We have to recognize that the path isn’t easy.  It is saying that, in the end, there may be no Wonder Drug.

Book Review-The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

I’m concerned.  A lot of people are concerned, really.  It seems like our political system in the United States is spiraling out of control, and it’s not clear what can be done to stop it.  The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels is not completely reassuring, but it does help to put our current state into a broader historical context.

The War of Northern Aggression

As I write this, I’m sitting in a state that seceded from the United States as a part of the Confederacy.  In this border state, one can still find Confederate flags and other reminders of a time long since past.  Here, they wouldn’t speak of the Civil War.  They’d speak of the “War of Northern Aggression.”  If you’ve not heard that term before, you’ve not engaged in enough conversations while in the South.  Like the conversations that we have today, where facts are warped to support feelings, the Southerners convicted by the conflict will insist that the war was one of Northern aggression.

The issue surrounds Fort Sumter, which sits in Charleston, SC’s harbor.  South Carolina seceded from the United States, but the fort wasn’t relinquished from federal control, so the Confederacy attacked it.  While the Confederacy may not have felt the United States was within its rights to hold the fort, the simple fact of the matter is that the first shot was fired by the Confederacy on the United States Fort Sumter.

I start with this story not because it’s contained within the pages of the book but rather because I see it as a real and practical example about how we don’t always listen to facts when we’re choosing our positions.

Discrimination

Certainly, any historian would point to the Civil War and the resulting disruption to slavery as a contentious time in our nation’s history.  Lincoln was clear that freeing the slaves wasn’t his point.  His goal was to maintain the integrity of the Union, and if slaves were freed as a part of that process, that would be fine.  History paints Lincoln in brighter colors, but his motives weren’t as altruistic as we’d like to believe.

It would be decades of Jim Crow laws and discrimination before Harry Truman would push forward a civil rights program that included anti-lynching legislation.  It’s frightening to me that we had to enact such laws.  It was Eisenhower who Invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807, deployed the 101st Airborne division, and federalized the entire Arkansas National Guard to ensure that nine Black students could go to school.

It would be another six years before Martin Luther King Jr. would stand at the Lincoln Memorial and share his “I Have a Dream” speech.  Kennedy’s assassination spurred Johnson toward completing the civil rights work that Kennedy had started.  Johnson stated that he was willing to lose a chance at reelection if he could get the civil rights bill passed.  Of course, this didn’t eliminate discrimination, but it codified that it was illegal and allowed for legal pressure to resolve the issues that were once an accepted part of life for Black Americans.

This is a window into the constant turmoil that we have faced as a nation for over 100 years – if we start at the Emancipation Proclamation.  While we think of the 1960s as an era of civil rights, few realize that the work began with Truman and Eisenhower.

It’s important to state that slavery in general and the length of time it took to get to our current state is a black spot in the history of the United States.  Too few people are aware of just how long the struggle took.

McCarthyism

It starts with fear.  Communism came to be widely feared throughout the United States.  We didn’t fear an invasion or attack from the communists.  We feared that they’d infiltrate us from within and destroy the American ideal.  We feared that our friends and neighbors might silently be sympathetic to communism.  We particularly feared that people in our own government were moles for communism.

Senator McCarthy played on these fears with endless theatrics that claimed to find evidence of people’s involvement only to have these baseless claims evaporate in the light of the day.  Still, few were willing to lock horns with him, because they feared the fallout if he turned his gaze towards them.  While some stood up against McCarthy, it wasn’t as many as those who should have.  While his reign of terror has since ended, it was allowed to continue for far too long.

Trumpism

What’s striking about McCarthyism is that we’re seeing it play out again.  Trump knowingly promulgated false information to the public about COVID-19.  He played on the fears of people losing their jobs to illegal immigrants “pouring” over the United States-Mexican border.  His hyperbole regarding the wall and the misinformation regarding COVID-19 cannot help but be seen in the context of McCarthy and the adeptness that he shifted from one issue to the next to prevent the American public from catching on to his shell game.

No one – including Trump – are all good or all bad.  Both McCarthy and Trump have been adept at reading the politics of a situation and adapting.  However, that’s not the thing that we need most.

Slow, Stumbling Steps

We make and have made many mistakes.  We fail to act quickly enough.  We fall prey to fear and divisiveness, and we always have.  The fact that even today there are divisions around the Civil War (over 150 years ago) is evidence that we don’t always make progress quickly.  Enlightenment exists within our boundaries, but it’s too narrowly dispersed.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  While we cannot expect that today or even tomorrow we’ll be the country we desire to be, the expectation is that, in time, we’ll be better than we are today.  Maybe we’ll even find The Soul of America.

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