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Book Review-The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

Humans have gathered since our first dawn as a species.  We did so to share our resources and to protect one another.  We’re better together than we are alone, and it’s this togetherness that has allowed us to become successful.  However, because we’re so used to being together, we hardly give gathering a thought.  Occasionally, when we think about gathering a few more people than normal or people who don’t know each other, we’ll ponder it a bit, but it’s more accidental than intentional.  In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker explains that if we want to have successful gatherings, we need to put a bit of thought into it.

Go Further

There’s an old African proverb (the specific source of which can’t be traced) that says, “If you want to go faster, go alone.  If you want to go further, go together.”  It’s at the heart of why we gather.  It’s not faster.  It allows us to reach further heights.  Of course, there are a number of enabling conditions that must be just right for this to take place – but without the initial “together,” we can’t get there.

Conditions might include those that Kantor proposes in Reading the Room, those from William Isaacs’ work Dialogue, or the psychological safety proposed by Amy Edmondson in The Fearless Organization.  Efficacy may be found best using Scott Page’s approach in The Difference or Richard Hackman’s guidance in Collaborative Intelligence.

One of the most striking ways that people were brought together was in Florence, Italy, when the Medici family gathered people with different skills and interests and allowed them to work and interact with one another.  (See The Medici Effect for more.)  Their efforts to bring people together kicked off the Renaissance period.  We discovered that there were ways of teaming up and sharing that were effective at driving creativity and productivity.  (See Team Genius for more.)

Finding Purpose

Organizations which were once plagued by ineffective meetings and who have now encountered an enlightened leader require that meetings have agendas.  The agenda spells out why people are gathering, what the desired outcome is, and which items will lead to the desired outcome – at least, good agendas do this.  “Wasteful meetings” is a common disdain that comes from both internal and external large corporate surveys.  Too much time is wasted in meetings where there is no objective or agenda.  People meet because they believe they’re supposed to meet rather than to get something specific done – or to coordinate on a specific project.

Simon Sinek in Start with Why encourages us to find the purpose before everything else.  Steven Covey describes it as “first things first” in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The Law of Numbers

The size of the group matters.  Small groups of around six offer intimacy.  Groups of 12 can build trust – and some intimacy.  Groups of 30 start to create buzz and electricity.  Groups of 150 are about the limit to the number of people that can feel like a single group.  These numbers are consistent with Robin Dunbar’s research.  (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving.)

When planning a gathering, planning for the number of people is key to designing for the purpose of the gathering.  While you may want to invite more people, sometimes those additional people can disturb the goal.

Venue Vectors

Venues come with scripts, patterns that tend to play out over and over.  They’re expected, and that expectation drives more of the same.  Sometimes, the patterns are so ingrained that we don’t even see they’re happening.  Meet at a college, and people will expect to be lectured to – rather than engaging in a discussion.  Meet in a library, and people will expect to stay quiet.  (See The Public Library for more on library culture.)  The coffee shop implies a casual meeting rather than one with a drive through an aggressive agenda.

When you pick the venue, you’re necessarily shaping how the interactions will happen.  More than just the traffic flows and the catering options, venues veer us towards or away from our purpose.

Don’t Leave Me Alone

As the host of the gathering, there’s a tension between over-controlling the event and failing to let things spontaneously emerge and under controlling the event and leaving the participants to fend for themselves.  (See On Dialogue for emergence.)  There’s the idea that, if you don’t structure the time, people will be left to themselves.  The truer response is that they’ll be left to the mercy of the other participants – and that can have some embarrassing results.

Parker recounts an event where too much freedom was given to participants, and despite the small talk, they had managed to not get introduced to one another – and, as a result, the conversation was strained.

Social Contracts

All gatherings are social contracts.  People give up something – most notably, their precious time – and they want to know what they’ll get for it.  Sometimes, it’s the opportunity to meet someone new, hold interesting discussions, or have a new experience.  However, there’s always some implicit contract about what they’re giving and what they’ll be getting – or, at least, what they might get.  After all, in most situations when we attend a gathering, we don’t know for sure what we will get.  We get a raffle ticket and hope that our number is picked for a prize.

Failure to articulate the value proposition – or potential value proposition – for the group is a surefire way to have people fail to accept the invitation and fail to show.  With group dynamics being what they are, there’s no telling what not having the right – or enough – people may do to your gathering.

Strange Confessions

Sometimes, the groups that come together can share honestly because they don’t know each other – not despite their lack of relationship.  Sometimes, the things that people must share are too heavy to be borne inside of a long-term, caring relationship.  They must first be tested in the waters with relative strangers to provide comfort that they may be shared with closer relationships without fear of recrimination.  The strange thing about the group in which these things are shared is that they invariably end up feeling like sacred spaces.  People bond and connect quickly – even if those bonds turn out to be fleeting.

Hot or Cold

For most people, the conflict in a new group is anxiety producing.  Most people are conflict avoidant, and the sometimes candid and direct feedback that evolves between two or more participants in a meeting can make others duck and cover.  Clearly, this doesn’t allow everyone to bring their best selves.  On the other extreme, there’s the problem of groups who are too conflict avoidant, and the conflicts that the group needs to have never happen.  As a result, the group gets stuck being nice and getting nothing done.  Even in gatherings, we need to consider how the group dynamics are playing out, which conflicts need to happen to get out in the open, and which conflicts can be safely avoided because they can’t serve any purpose.  (See Radical Candor for more.)

Turning an End into a Closing

Kahneman explains how the Peak-End rule guides what we think of events.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.)  His research showed that the ending of any experience mattered more than it should.  While endings are often left to chance, they need to be an integral part of your planning.  Parker suggests that you not end with thank yous – those can be second to last.  Instead, end with the thing that you want people to most remember or experience.  If you do it just right, you may find that everyone has a powerful and moving experience in The Art of Gathering.

Book Review-The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

Like most people I know, I’ve not found that “one” thing that my world revolves around.  I’ve found passing interests and desires, but no central theme has emerged.  The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything is a series of stories designed to lead people to the discovery of that one thing.  Of course, this is not the only or even first book to guide readers towards finding their passion.  The ONE Thing is another example.  Unlike it though, The Element’s approach isn’t a systematic decomposition of life and its facets; instead, Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica lead us down the winding path of others who’ve found their calling.  It should be cautioned that all paths are winding – as was made clear in Extreme Productivity – and that not all winding paths lead to the desired destination.

Losing Touch

One of the key observations is that we start life with passions and little skill.  We finger paint and read the responses of the adults in the room.  From this we decide, unconsciously, whether this is something we’re good at or not.  Judith Rich Harris explains the subtle bending process in No Two Alike, where small differences in responses can send us down one road or another.  In Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelley explain how they believe sometimes our creativity is stamped out of us by education and the process of growing up.

The consensus is that we’re often born with an innate sense for the things that we can do, and these are whittled down over time.  This is consistent with the neural pruning that happens within the first few years of life.  We start with more than we need, and then we whittle that down into what we think we’ll use.


Measuring performance is something that can – and often does – lead to improved performance.  The advent of statistical process control and continuous improvement have been a boon to manufacturing over the last half-century.  We’ve learned how to be more efficient – and, occasionally, more effective.  The two are not the same regardless of how similar they appear in the English language.  Efficient is doing things with less waste and more output.  Effective is doing the right things.

Manufacturing principles have been applied to other industries, including healthcare and education, and the results are mixed.  In education, we’ve standardized such that the things we measure – standardized tests – have become all we work for.  When teachers are measured on math and literature, art isn’t as important.  Nor do sports bubble to the top.  (See It’s How We Play the Game for another perspective on the importance of sports.)  The result is what Deming predicted: you get what you measure.

There’s an old Dilbert cartoon where Dilbert and Wally receive news that there will henceforth be a bounty for each defect found.  Five dollars for each one.  In the next frame, Wally comments that he’s off to “Code myself a minivan.”  This, of course, implies he’s going to intentionally create defects he can later find and resolve.  The system would be perverted by a malicious actor.  No such malintent exists when a teacher tries to save their job and their school by finding ways to improve results on standardized tests – irrespective of whether students will learn to live life better or discover their talents.

It’s not that standardized testing is bad or that we shouldn’t do it – it’s that there are negative impacts to be considered.  One of those is that we may be squashing out people’s natural talents to fit the test.  Howard Gardner in Changing Minds explains that not all intelligence works the same way or fits into the narrowly-defined limits of most standardized testing.

In The Years That Matter Most, Paul Tough explains how the SAT and ACT standardized tests for college entrance are hopelessly flawed at predicting success or identifying intelligence beyond the narrow frame of academia.

Prepare to Be Wrong

There are two dimensions of wrongness.  The first is the heart of the learning process itself.  We make mistakes, learn from them, and do something different the next time.  The other level is how the world will respond to originality, how the systems will attempt to reject something that isn’t the familiar status quo.  (See Originals.)  Systems need to protect themselves from entropy, and as a result, they have a tendency to stamp down anything that doesn’t fit the mold.  The problem with this is that, sometimes, the systems aren’t designed in ways that people can learn and grow into their Element.

This all means that the systems are set up to prevent you from finding your Element.  You’ll need to be diligent if you’re going to find what should be truly yours.  In Work Redesign, we learned about Ralph, who, after years of being beaten down by the system, couldn’t be reengaged to take on more work, responsibility, risk, and opportunity.  That happens to us all – unless we can persevere in our being wrong in the world’s eyes.  (See Willpower and Grit for how to do that.)

Seek Encouragement

Some people, as Liz Wiseman points out in Multipliers, can encourage people to do more and better than they can do on their own.  One of the most challenging things about finding your Element may be finding the people who will continue to support and encourage you along the way.  Like Sherpas who know the path, mentors and other encouraging people can help you recognize that you can find yourself.  Much of The Element is about getting parasocial encouragement knowing that many others struggled to find themselves but succeeded.  The book ends with several people who didn’t find their Element until the second half of their life.  The path to find their Element was long and winding yet ultimately rewarding.

“Think Different”

It’s an old Apple slogan, but it’s also a recipe for better results.  Scott Page in The Difference explains how different perspectives make for better teams.  The difference in perspectives, experiences, and upbringings allow the room to see multiple sides of the situation and thereby consider options and approaches that simply wouldn’t be possible with a single person.  It’s the way that we can get to better outcomes – not necessarily quicker outcomes.

If you follow the path of conformity, you’ll never find your Element.  It requires unwavering consistency to search.  It will be in the last place you look for it.  If you’re persistent and perhaps a little bit lucky, you’ll just find The Element.

Book Review-In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness

Trauma is – in more ways than one – that unspoken voice.  In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness is what Gabor Mate describes (in the intro) as Peter Levine’s magnum opus.  Gabor Mate is no stranger to trauma work, having written several books, including The Myth of NormalIn an Unspoken Voice isn’t Levine’s most popular work – that’s Waking the Tiger.  Trauma, Levine writes, is a fact of life.  He continues with, “It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”  Said differently, we are all traumatized by things that happen in our lives, but we don’t need to remain in the trauma.  We can enable our minds to integrate and find meaning from the trauma and allow our bodies to release it.


The idea that our bodies would release trauma is consistent with Bessel van der Kolk’s work in The Body Keeps the Score.  There are ways that our biology reacts to, and in some ways holds on to, trauma.  Robert Sapolsky in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers demonstrates that, in animals, stress does have a physiological response, and this psychological response can activate different genes.

Several decades ago, genetics were all the rage.  The thinking went that the genes were the blueprints of the body, and thereby they dictated who you would become.  It was like a great clock was set in motion.  Great work has been done to develop a map of the human genome – and to interpret the signposts in the form of genes.  However, as we’ve learned more, we’ve realized that the blueprints are subject to modification by the environment.  Epigenetics is the study of how our genes are activated – or not – based on our environment.  In identical twin studies, we still find a striking amount of differences (and spooky similarities).  In The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike, Judith Rich Harris explains how it is possible for twins with identical genetics to end up so different.  Small differences matter.

In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler explains how people do seemingly superhuman feats.  The answer is that they continue to make small, incremental changes over a long period of time.  It’s the same thing that Anders Ericsson explains in Peak – purposeful practice and attempts to improve may only make small changes every day, but over time, these changes matter.  Einstein said that “compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.”  It’s that compounding of skills that pulls people apart.  Someone randomly tries an activity and likes it.  From there, they invest more in growing in that direction.  Add a few decades, and you see radically different people.

With trauma, the arc is bent differently.  But those genetics that are enabled can be disabled.  The weight of trauma can be discharged by the body, and people can move forward – if they’re taught how.

Defining Trauma

The real challenge with trauma isn’t in the external circumstances that have been foisted upon us.  The real challenge is how we react to those circumstances.  Being traumatized is about the times when the events are happening – but trauma lingers after the event.  In the normative case, trauma results in a healing process.  When the body and mind’s response are effective, it can lead to post-traumatic growth.  (See Transformed by Trauma for more.)  It’s the same as Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in Antifragile.  We need stressors to become stronger – but they need to be of magnitudes and timing that we can leverage to our advantage.

When we can’t integrate the traumatic experience into our experiences and beliefs about the world, we encounter post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  (See Trauma and Recovery for more.)  All trauma involves loss and often disrupts our beliefs.  We have to deal with both.

The Battlefield of the Mind

We tend to conceptualize our minds as a single consciousness that operates as a concerted whole.  However, our brain evolved over time in periods that have led to a conceptualization of a triune brain – three parts.  The most vivid analogy is Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model, which places a small rational (conscious) rider, on top of an emotional elephant, walking down a default (and easy) path.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for more.)  While not completely analogous to our understanding of the brain’s evolution, it highlights the gap between emotions and reason – and helps us to understand that earlier parts of our evolution will win when there’s a battle in our mind.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the truth that we overlook the neurons that exist outside of our brains.  There is much to be learned and understood about how the nerves in our guts are connected to and influence our thoughts.  However, the research and consistency are much weaker here.  (See The Heartmath Solution for a bit of this.)

The challenge, as Levine puts it, is when lower-level parts of our brain are telling us to run, and the higher-order parts are pushing for us to be restrained – or any variation where different aspects of our brain disagree.  The result is a battlefield of conflict that can be as traumatic as the circumstances themselves.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

At the most basic level, the reptilian parts of our brain seek to decide whether a stressor should cause us to fight, run away, or freeze.  We fight when we believe we’re stronger and the injuries we sustain will be minor.  We flee when we believe that we’re weaker or will sustain too many injuries.  Freezing doesn’t seem to make much sense on the surface.  Why would we give up and just “let whatever happen”?  The answer is layered.

At the first layer, our brains and animal brains are wired to detect motion.  (See Incognito and The Tell-Tale Brain for more.)  If we freeze, it’s possible that the stressor – predator – may not even discover we’re here.  Thus, there will be no conflict.

The second layer is that we may believe we’ll ultimately be harmed less if we don’t fight or flee.  Consider the mouse that is being played with by the cat who goes limp as the cat loses interest.  The mouse can run away when the cat is no longer focused.  Clearly this is a risky gambit – but one that may be advantageous at times.

Largely to support the first layer, evolution has supplied a strategy – tonic immobility.  It’s a mechanism whereby motor impulses are suppressed, and the animal becomes motionless.  What’s important, in Levine’s view, is that at the termination of this process, it’s necessary for animals – including humans – to shake off the excess energy that they’ve held back.  He believes that without the discharge of this energy, people will become stuck.  Perhaps at some level, the body never fully releases the tonic immobility and remains, in some ways, frozen.

Fundamentals of Fear

Richard Lazarus explains how we come to fear – and what we can do about it – in Emotion and Adaptation.  He separates the stressor from the stress consistent with our fight, flight, or freeze response.  He suggests that, for every stressor, we evaluate the probability of a negative outcome and its impact, and we dampen this with our perception of our coping capabilities.  This is consistent with and extends the concept, because he recognizes that, between the stressor and the response, we can choose our response.  Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow says that System 1 (lower-level thinking) can choose to engage System 2 (rational thought) or not.  In the best case scenario, our thinking is integrated to the point that our emotional, reptilian, responses trust the neocortex and want to engage these resources for assistance when problems are too novel.

The point here isn’t to criticize historic responses that may not have engaged higher-order thinking.  Rather, the point is that it’s possible – and that possibility exists even in the post-processing of an event.  It is, in fact, one of the key ways that we can learn to process trauma better.  We use our neocortex to downregulate the emotional response.

Cage the Elephant

Many well-intended people suggest that trauma be directly confronted.  Effectively, they’re picking a fight with an elephant.  If you’re in a sailboat, and you need to go to a point that’s directly into the wind, you can’t point your boat in that direction and hope that things work out.  Sailboats tack into the wind, moving closer and closer – but never directly challenging the wind.  Similarly, when we’re trying to help others address trauma, it’s almost never effective to try to address the traumatic experience and tell them to just “accept it,” “suck it up,” or “it wasn’t that bad.”

Rather than enter into a direct confrontation with our feelings, a different tack is to listen to them.  To seek to understand them.  To be curious about their origins.  Once we’ve made peace with what we feel – and the reasons why we feel it – we can slowly shift our thinking from confrontation to cooperation.  The reasons driving the emotion don’t have to be right.  They just must be acknowledged for their perception.

While our emotions are subject to influence from the neocortex, the degree to which we can influence them is complicated.

Medial Prefrontal Cortex Dampening

The amygdala is the core of our immediate, reptilian, responses.  It’s the driver of emotions, including fear.  It’s subject to the influence of the medial prefrontal cortex.  In short, we can talk ourselves out of being so afraid, but only if the medial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala have a functioning relationship.

The tricky part of this relationship is that a fear response necessarily focuses resources.  As Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains, digestion, immune response, and reproduction are all substantially turned down to save energy for fighting or fleeing in the face of stress.  The same can be said of the brain.  Fear can change which portions of the brain are given the oxygen and glucose they need to do their job.  In short, a spike of fear can shut down the medial prefrontal cortex before it can respond.

Luckily, this can be trained.  There’s enough oxygen and glucose available ambiently for the medial prefrontal cortex to down-regulate the amygdala – if it reacts quick enough.  Some of the frequently documented outcomes of low-blood sugar is irritability and a reduction in willpower.  (See The Power of Habit and Willpower for more.)  In the context of the medial prefrontal cortex having enough resources to do its job quickly enough to not get shut down, this makes perfect sense.  Low blood sugar means there’s less ambient energy for the medial prefrontal cortex to draw upon to wrest control before it’s shut down.

Trauma Feedback Loop

The problem that can lead to persistent trauma comes down to a negative cycle of overwhelming emotions and avoidance.  Because the traumatic event isn’t able to be processed – it’s overwhelming – people avoid reactivating memories of the trauma to prevent being overwhelmed.  This avoidance indirectly makes the trauma worse and makes it harder to deal with.

The trauma is wrapped in another layer of overwhelming emotions when it’s pushed away.  Like a candle gaining wax when dipped, it gets larger and larger, bit by bit.  The process increases in frequency: the more we push it away, the more potential triggers appear.  It’s like White Bears and Unwanted Thoughts explains: we can’t block out a thought, because to do so requires that we consider the thought first.

The heart of helping people with trauma is to separate the overwhelming aspect of the trauma – including the emotion of being overwhelmed.  That means slowly re-exposing people to the traumatic memory at levels they can accept – and learn from.  The longer the process of reinforcement happens, the harder it is to maintain safety and unwind the trauma feedback loop.


A natural tool that humans use for traumatic events is dissociation. (It was previously known as disassociation.)  This cognitive process has us remembering the events as if they happened to other people.  Many people claim to be experiencing events from outside of their body.  This is an adaptive solution to an impossible traumatic event in many cases.  However, the problem is that dissociation can become maladaptive if it continues after the event has stopped.

When we’re trying to help others through trauma, we want to be on the lookout for situations where the person starts the dissociation process.  While it’s often internally experienced as seeing things from a third perspective, in the room it appears like the person is shutting down and beginning to stare off into space or at a distant, fixed object.


What Levine calls containment, others might call “holding space.”  (See Alone Together.)  Richo would call it “allowing.”  (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships.)  Containment provides a safe space to recall and process traumatic events.  It’s the heart of therapeutic relationships – and good friendships.  Trauma, as defined in this context, is a response to an overwhelming situation.  Containment creates a larger capacity so that the traumatic events no longer have the capacity to overwhelm.

The process of creating the space includes the traditional aspects of what The Heart and Soul of Change calls therapeutic alliance but also psychological safety.  (See The Fearless Organization and The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety.)  It’s creating relational trust and belief that, no matter what happens, the person will remain safe.  (For more on trust, see Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited.)

Moments and Moods

Emotions can be intensely painful.  What is difficult to see in those moments is that emotions, by their very nature, will fade.  Just because someone is acutely feeling a loss doesn’t mean they’ll feel it the same way forever.  In fact, you cannot feel the same way forever.  When processing trauma, it’s peaceful to know whatever the current feeling, it will change.

Moods are something a bit different in that they last longer than emotions.  They are, however, still not the degree of permanence they’re often assigned.  As a part of our burnout work, we encourage people to do an exercise that’s titled “Hindsight 20-20.”  The short of the exercise is to look back at a traumatic event that’s more than five years old and recall what you felt then vs. what you feel now.  They’re almost always radically different.  The point of the exercise is to help people realize how their emotions, moods, and perspectives will change over time.  Most people who do the exercise say that they knew things were different, but they didn’t think it applied to their circumstances today.  Others have commented on how intellectually they were aware, but they didn’t realize how wrapped up in the current emotions they had become.

Reality Is Not What You Think

Our perceptions are our subjective reality, but that doesn’t make them objective reality.  Each person has their perspective of the world, what they see of it.  The problem is that this doesn’t make everyone’s reality match our own.  One of the key points in conflict resolution is to address the differences in perspectives among the parties.  Incognito, The Tell-Tale Brain, and The Hidden Brain all argue that what we experience as reality is a fiction that our minds create.  It’s what we form our beliefs about the world from and why, when our experience of the world differs from our expectations, it’s often painful to readjust.

Humans are, at their core, prediction-generating machines.  (See Mindreading.)  Many believe that consciousness is the solution to the need to be better at prediction and therefore survival.  However, because reality is self-generated, it sometimes becomes so misaligned with objective reality that a correction is needed.  Evolution provided for several mechanisms for this.  Our reaction to humor is the most positive reward we get to our brains detecting an error – and correcting for it.  The short is that when we laugh, we’re responding to the detection of the misunderstanding of what the comic said.  Intentional misdirection or not, we get a dopamine reward for detecting and correcting the error.  (See Inside Jokes for more.)

Other forms of error detection don’t leave us feeling better.  Consider the glass funhouse at carnivals.  You can proceed through the maze with a hand in front of you safely detecting the presence of a glass pane in front of you – or you can boldly go and accept the invariable nose bumps in the process.

Feelings Are Only Feelings

Feelings feel real.  They feel like they’re reality.  Here, I’m using feelings as an encompassing term for both emotions and perceptions.  Collectively, we give them too much weight.  In How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett shares a story where she went on a date before getting physically ill, and how, at the time, she had misinterpreted the feelings that she was having for attraction.  In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash develops a technique – after struggling with imaginary people for much of his life – for asking someone he knows is real if the other person with them is real to ensure that the people he’s speaking with are real.

No matter how real our feelings appear to be – whether emotion or perception – that doesn’t make them real.  Nor does it stop us from treating them as real.

Self-Medicating Placebo

The placebo effect is well known in medical research.  The control group, by nature of their having some hope, often improve.  (See The Psychology of Hope, The End of Hope, and Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more.)  However, Levine reveals that the placebo effect may be triggering our brain to manufacture natural pain killers.  To understand how this works, you need to know that opioids bind to specific receptors in our brain – the same receptors that natural endorphins bind to.  Science discovered a drug, Naloxone, that competitively binds with the same receptors – without the feelings of pleasure.  Competitive binding really means that it’s more effective at binding to the receptors than the naturally occurring compounds – and the synthetic opioids that we’ve developed.  Today, it’s used to help prevent overdose.

Here’s the tricky part: Levine’s brother, Jon, while studying pain patients, treated half with morphine and the other half with saline (placebo).  Both reported pain reduction.  Then he gave both the naloxone, and both reported that their pain was higher.  Jon’s study was replicated by others.  The implication is that, with the idea that there was a resolution in sight, the brain naturally started producing the neurotransmitters that it associated with happiness and less pain.  The naloxone took that away, just like it took away the artificial high of the morphine.

That further lends credence to the idea that we have much more control over our responses than we generally believe.  It turns out that our minds and bodies can speak In an Unspoken Voice.

Book Review-Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story

I was born with a genetic defect.  It’s never been officially diagnosed, but I know it’s a limitation.  I’ve been born without the “fan” gene.  That is, fan in its real meaning of “fanatic.”  I knew Jewel’s music and appreciated it.  Music is for me like air.  If there’s not music playing around me, it’s playing in my head.  My musical tastes are what others would call eclectic.  Jewel’s music made it on my likes list – which is much shorter.  Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story is her story of growing up and being grown up.  I would have never found it except through my research on trauma and the book The Myth of Normal, which references it.

The soulful stories that exist in Jewel’s songs come from deep exploration and much trauma.  Her challenges with her parents are at least an order of magnitude more than mine.  (See Fault Lines for more about that.)  Her story is about struggle, loneliness, heartache, and ultimately triumph.  What intrigued me about the book more than any other thing is how she found a path of growth instead of one of numbing.  (See Transformed by Trauma for more on growth post trauma.)  Never Broken is an opportunity for her to share her love of people and compassionate desire to minimize their suffering.

A Few Parallels and Lots of Differences

I won’t go into the complete story, because the book does a wonderful job – and it’s her story – but I will say that there were times that I felt resonance with Jewel’s experiences and other places where we clearly walked radically different paths.  I left home at 18, not 15, and I’ve never been homeless.  And at the same time, there were echoes that were deeply stirring as I considered feelings of loneliness, making strong decisions, figuring it out, generational trauma, divorce, and more that resonated.

As I share my story woven with hers below, I do so as an example of how we all face traumas – some are the same as each other.  Some traumas we face are uniquely ours.  However, we can view traumas as similar enough to connect and support each other.


I related in my review of Loneliness that being alone and being lonely aren’t the same thing.  I’m no expert on Alaska but my visit and the feedback make it clear that there are times when people are alone.  However, Never Broken doesn’t talk about loneliness in that way.  The loneliness that Jewel speaks of is that sense that you’re not understood.  It’s the sense that the world you live in is foreign to others and almost as if you speak a different language.

In Straddling Multiple Worlds, I share a few aspects of how even being in multiple worlds instead of one can be alienating and difficult.  The reason for your disconnect could be that you’re struggling to get by in a world of the affluent, or that you’re thinking in ways that aren’t “normal.”  Feeling like you don’t fit in is deeply alienating and ultimately lonely.  It’s even more separating and lonely when you have the courage to stand for your convictions.

Strong Decisions

There are a few very key, defining moments in my life that I know were important.  One was when I was in Boston and visited the Church of Scientology.  (I explain this in my review of The Paradox of Choice.)  Another was the time I decided that I could be afraid but that I refused to live in fear.  Jewel rightly points out decisions in her life that made the difference.  She explains about her decision to be honest in her writing when she couldn’t be with people.  She also explains the decision not to take someone up on a proposition even when the money was sorely needed.

These sit alongside her decision to not drink or do drugs.  She aptly states that you can’t outrun your pain.  You must go through pain – not around it – and not run ahead of it.  It will always find you.

These are simple decisions that are hard to make.  (See How Good People Make Tough Choices for more.)  I deeply admire people who find the courage to make these hard choices and live true to themselves – or as true to themselves as any of us get.  (See Find Your Courage for finding this kind of courage and how to enable it in others.)

Figure It Out

One of the greatest gifts that I’ve received from my upbringing is the belief that I can do anything I set my mind to.  Obviously, there are limits.  I’m not going to be a test pilot or an astronaut at this point, but within reason, I can do almost anything.  The idea that you can figure stuff out comes from a sense of necessity.  For Jewel, it may have been that Alaska requires it of everyone.  I’ll certainly buy that, given it’s still a relative frontier.  For me, I don’t know where it comes from.  Maybe it was just seeing my dad figure things out and make things work.

In some circles, it might be called self-esteem or self-confidence.  However, that doesn’t really capture it.  It’s not that you don’t know you’re going to try and fail and try and fail again.  It’s that you know if you’re willing to work at something, eventually you’ll find a solution.  Carol Dweck would call it a growth mindset.  (See Mindset.)  Angela Duckworth would use the word Grit.  Roy Baumeister would say Willpower.  Rick Snyder would call it hope.  (See The Psychology of Hope.)  Margie Warrell might call it courage.  (See Find Your Courage.)  Whatever you call it, it’s a force to be reckoned with.

Generational Trauma

Trauma is whatever you struggle to process and integrate into your understanding.  (See The Body Keeps the Score.)  Sometimes, it’s things that should have never happened to you – but they did.  From the point of view of the person whom trauma is inflicted upon, it’s hard to recognize that the people who are the perpetrators of the trauma have had their own trauma in their lives.  It doesn’t excuse or make right their behaviors, but it does help you accept them as an unfortunate but natural consequence.  (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more.)

The greatest gift that we can give future generations is to break the cycle of trauma.  We can do the hard work to achieve the personal growth that allows us to prevent the ripple of trauma from moving forward.  Jewel notes the work that she and her father have done to dampen the impacts of generational trauma.


I explained in my review of Divorce both its causes and its consequences.  Since then, I’ve written about The Progression of Parental Alienation and The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable.  It addresses what Jewel calls “The Disneyland Effect,” where parents try to “win” the children by giving them things and experiences to become their favorite.  Cruelty isn’t what it does to the other parent.  Cruelty is what it does to the children who are “forced” to decide between two people they love and who love them.

Emotional English and Worthy of Love

We have formed unspoken beliefs about emotions – whether they’re good or bad.  The trick is that most emotions are what the Buddhists would call non-afflictive.  (See Destructive Emotions.)  Sometimes, we need to work around what we learned as children and accept our emotions.  (See Emotion and Adaptation and How Emotions Are Made for more.)  The greatest tragedies I’ve seen are related to people who believe that emotions are bad instead of teachers that are sent to keep us safe.

Sometimes our emotions are so compartmentalized, hurt, or broken that we can’t experience love the way that we should.  (See Anatomy of Love, Daring to Trust, and The Art of Loving for more.)  Until we can accept that we’re worthy of love and learn to love ourselves, we’ll find it hard to accept love from others.  (See No Bad Parts for more on accepting all the pieces of us.)  In The Science of Trust, John Gottman, relationship guru, explains the things that get in the way of relationships – and being loved by others.

Digging Back to Your True Self

You are not broken.  You’re just buried in the trauma, pain, armor, and busy-ness of life.  That’s a fundamental message of hope.  Too many people see the things in their life – including their behaviors – and they’re tortured by the shame of not being enough.  Somehow, they missed out on the magical elixir that would allow them to be a normal human being.  Somehow, they feel as if they’re broken beyond repair.  The view that it’s not you who are broken but rather that your true self is buried beneath other things is freeing.  You can, given time and effort, dig yourself out.  If you’re broken, there’s no telling if you can be fixed – or not.

Hard Wood Grows Slowly

There are lessons in nature.  One of them is the nature of trees.  There are, of course, many different kinds of trees that grow at different rates.  Many of the things we have that are made from wood – like the 2×4 studs in our home – come from pine.  Pine grows quickly, but it’s easily broken.  Quality furniture, things that are meant to last and be cherished, are made from hard woods – and they grow slowly.  The slow, hard path isn’t the one that people want to know – but it is the one that is lasting.

I’ve read plenty of books about how to get there quick – and why you need to do it.  Launch carries the subtitle, “The Critical 90 Days from Idea to Market”.  Traction caries the subtitle, “How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth.”  I believe in hard work.  I believe in making decisions that lead to the long-term results I want – even if the short-term results aren’t great.

Jewel recounts her deal with Atlantic Records.  Little up front, just enough to get her off the street.  The largest back-end deal made at the time.  She’d get more if she sold more.  It’s a perfect example.  I did the same thing when I made my deal to sell courses through Pluralsight.  The largest back end available with almost no advance.  I wanted a way to make the long-term work, even if it meant working harder in the short term.

Angels in my Life

Jewel recounts stories of what she calls everyday angels.  (A term her fans coined.) They’re people whose words or deeds helped her at a critical moment.  They helped her to grow.  These people may have realized the impact they had – or they may not have.  Either way, the impact was made by “Indian Uncles” and concerned friends.  We all have these everyday angels in our lives.  They don’t arrive on a beam of light, nor stand with a blazing sword before us.  Instead, they come into our lives to enrich it.

I’ve had several of these people myself.  Some have stayed for the better part of my adult life.  Many have come for a time and are no longer an active part of my life in the physical sense.  However, they’ve shaped my path and lifted me up in ways that aren’t possible to explain.

We (Terri and I) try to be everyday angels.  Offering our home for people to stay with us.  Making all the Extinguish Burnout materials free.  There are dozens of small and large ways that we try our best to bring more everyday angels into existence, using Gandhi’s guidance to be the change we want to see in the world.

Audiences Don’t Care If You Sing Correctly

They want to feel something.  It doesn’t matter if you get the words, the melody, or harmony right (within reason).  What they care about is that, when they leave, they’ve experienced (or felt) something.  For over a decade, I ran live sound at church at least one weekend a month.  I learned so much about production with great people.  I realized how little what we wanted to do mattered compared to what we actually did.  The people in the audience didn’t know what was “supposed to happen.”  They just wanted to feel like it happened with them.

I learned so much about how bass can connect people to a rhythm.  Kick drums and electric bass keep the time.  If you dump more of that into the house (the sound that goes to the audience), you synchronize them to what is happening on the stage.  A weak voice can be amplified.  Short reverb can cover a vocal talent who is struggling to finish a set.  A good equalization can make the difference between hearing the vocals and having the piano (or the guitar) running all over the place.

I was lucky enough to begin to see the big waves that we were creating to unite people and help them feel connected with one another – our fundamental human need.

It’s this experience that made Jewel’s discussion about having the right band make so much sense.  Drummers have click tracks to tell them how to keep time – but it prevents them from adjusting to the natural tempo of the crowd.  Counting measures works when you’re playing a specific song a specific way, but it prevents you from doing the chorus again when the crowd starts to sing along.  I so appreciate good “crowd work” (reading the crowd and adapting).  I loved that Jewel related both the benefits and the struggles.

Tightly Packed Day

In the maid’s quarters in a house on Center Avenue in Bay City, Michigan, an alarm has been going off unheard for 20 minutes.  It’s the kind of wake-the-dead alarm they can hear in the kitchen two floors down, but I’m just starting to stir.  I’d get up and go to high school before heading out to work and finally ending my day at the local college.  My high school work was light.  Work was 20 hours a week.  I was carrying 10 credit hours a semester at college – filling all my weeknights.  I spent 15 weeks sleeping maybe four hours a night, and I was doing my homework and studying in other classes and during every scrap of time I could find.

I can identify with “I had a tightly packed day, and went about it with a starving man’s mentality, devouring everything in sight.”  I can also identify with “I was too busy surviving to cry in Anchorage.”  There were no margins.  There was nothing left.  I had every moment spoken for.  I carried the Thoreau quote, “Who can kill time without injuring eternity” on my lips everywhere I went.

What is too easily dismissed in my experience is the value it brought.  I knew that I could do it.  The memories of these times have reminded me that even in very busy parts of my life, it will end.  It is a defining moment when I can point to hard work and the payoff.

Bifurcated Sense

Some of the people who seem the most confident are those who are mostly deeply insecure.  Their image of confidence is an illusion they project – to others and themselves.  There is a split between the person they want to appear to be – even to themselves – and their deep-seated fears.  This projection itself drives people to experiencing impostor syndrome.  The resounding question is, “When will they find out that I’m not really who they believe I am?”

The more common experience of a bifurcated sense of being is an oscillation.  It’s the result of the inner battle of the mind.  One moment, there’s a self-correction to combat the overly critical inner voice.  The next moment, the inner critic is going after the voice that elevates parts of you to the grandiose.  Sometimes, these battles are epic, as the parts of your psyche fight for control.  No Bad Parts would speak of our hurt places, the protectors, and the exiles locked in a battle for control.

My language is integrated self-image.  It’s a way of viewing our self that accepts the good and the bad instead of trying to argue for all good or bad.  Instead of each part of us feeling invalidated, it can be acknowledged as a part of the whole.  (See Braving the Wilderness for more.)

Feeling Proud

When your sense of self is disrupted, it’s hard to be proud.  What are you proud of?  The constant storm of emotion and thought that pervades your existence?  Even when you’re working hard and you’re being rewarded for that hard work, it’s difficult to accept it.  It’s disconnected from your experience somehow.  Jewel’s graduation may have ended with her throwing away her diploma (she’s not sure).  Here’s a symbol of achievement – in her case, a monumental achievement – but it couldn’t be accepted, because it wasn’t consistent with her internal view.  Some of the rationalization was that she wasn’t in a position to have much stuff – but that was a rational lie (which she acknowledges).

Behind the rationalization was the quiet reality of parents who couldn’t give Jewel what she deserved.  A mother who was absent and a father battling with his own demons didn’t have the capacity to support her in ways that would remind her that she was good – that she was enough.


The opposite of scarcity isn’t abundance.  The opposite is enough.  (I gave a talk on this topic Enough Scarcity in 2017.)  Feeling like we’re “enough” is a common challenge.  Brené Brown talks about it in I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), and Gabor Mate explains his struggle with it in The Myth of Normal.  The key question is enough for what?  The tragic answer that cannot be spoken is often “to be loved.”  It’s tragic, because it’s a sign of a fundamental lack of understanding about what love is.  Love should be your birthright.  It’s not something to be earned, bartered for, or taken.

In English, the word “love” is overloaded.  Consider that, in Greek, there are three words that are all translated to love in English – agape, philos, and eros.  I’ll dispense with eros because it’s romantic or physical love.  (See Anatomy of Love for more on this kind.)  Agape, global love, and philos, brotherly love, are the two most commonly considered, and the line between them isn’t always as distinct as we’d like.  (See My Spiritual Journey for more of the Buddhist perspective.)  C.S. Lewis also speaks of different kinds of love in The Four Loves.  When we speak of love in English, we’re often not clear.  In the context of “enough,” the meaning of love is “to be cared for.”  Parental love is what it might be called.

Parental love is supposed to be unconditional caring.  Too often, children don’t experience love from their parents in this way.  It’s often inconsistent.  Sometimes, instead of love and care, they receive cruelty and abuse.  As a result, their perception of whether they are enough or not is often hampered if not destroyed.

Underneath the need for love, we see a need for safety and our avoidance of death.  (See The Worm at the Core for more about how death drives us.)  We equate love with safety, because we only became the dominant biomass on the planet by our unique ability to work together.  (See The Righteous Mind.)  One might slip here from love to acceptance as a more basic form.  If they accept me, they won’t expel me from the community.  This would be catastrophic.  While in today’s world, we aren’t ejected from communities like we once were, the fear still lingers.  At some level, we wonder whether we’ll be left alone to die if the community doesn’t accept us.

More than any other creature on Earth, we’re unconsciously aware of our need to be connected.  That’s why loneliness can be so frightening.  (See Loneliness.)  Like much of life, it is our perception of loneliness, unlovability, and acceptance by others that matters.  The objective truth isn’t the point.  Consider, for a moment, the number of celebrities who have died by suicide and how they are loved – or at least accepted – by so many.

Support and Solidarity

The opposite of loneliness is finding the person who wants nothing from you but believes in you.  You feel heard and seen not for what you can do for someone but because they understand your struggles at a level that most aren’t capable of.  There’s a song by JJ Heller, “What Love Really Means”.  The chorus contains the words, “Who will love me for me // Not for what I have done or what I will become.”  It’s in this sentiment that I believe we move from just acceptance to love.

Acceptance is fundamentally rooted in a belief that you subscribe to the same social norms that I do – or that I believe your deviances from what is socially acceptable are offset by what you may be able to do for me.  This may be a clue to the tragedy of artist suicide.  For them to express their creativity, they must necessarily deviate from the norm.  (See Creative Confidence for assurance we can all be creative.)  Innovators face similar asymmetry.  They are lauded for their innovations and criticized for their disruption and deviation.  (See The Disruption Mindset, The Innovator’s DNA, The Art of Innovation, and Unleashing Innovation for more.)

When the balance for innovators is in favor of the benefits, they find acceptance.  When their ideas are more disruptive than valuable, they’re summarily dismissed.  The support that they feel is conditional.  We’ve seen a gradual deterioration of loyalty over the years.  (See Exit, Voice, and Loyalty for more about loyalty’s importance.)  Robert Putnam spoke about the societal decline in Bowling Alone, and Francis Fukuyama spoke about corporate loyalty decline in Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order.  In short, we’re seeing an erosion of real support and solidarity over the long term – and that’s why when you find it, it’s so special.

Innocence Traded for Wisdom

For a commercial project, I reviewed a book in progress recently.  It was focused on the loss of innocence and the tragedy that it was to lose your innocence.  I pushed back, because I believe that we’ve lost our innocence long ago.  I believe that we have our first event, and when we experience it, we’ve lost our innocence.  It’s our first heartbreak that takes that innocence.  However, a key point that was missing that Jewel relates eloquently is that innocence is traded for wisdom.  It’s a beautiful reminder that when we lose something, there is often something else there to take its place.  One of the pieces of wisdom I hope you’re able to take away is that, no matter what has happened to you, you’re Never Broken.

Book Review-The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture

I was speaking with a friend when Gabor Maté’s work came up.  The friend had seen a session and suggested that Maté had some good insight into trauma.  That’s what led me to the oddly-titled The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture.  It’s odd, because the fundamental premise is captured by a quote of Eric Fromm from The Sane Society: “The fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”  Normal is what we expect, but maybe we should expect better of ourselves, others, and society.

Not Knowing

When someone is doing something that we know doesn’t work, the question should be whether they know it doesn’t work and they’re ignoring the research – or they don’t actually know.  In medicine, the average time for an innovation to be widely adopted is 17 years.  I’ve never seen a timeline for mental health – and perhaps that’s because they’re never adopted.  So, there’s plenty of room to not know.  There’s the time between the first published report and subsequent reports that either refute or confirm the initial observations.  During the cone of confusion with conflicting reports, a failure to follow a particular path is similarly reasonable.

However, at some point, we know that something we’re doing isn’t working – or something that could work isn’t being done – and we’ve got to wonder why.  The unfortunate answer is human nature.  We’re lousy at statistical thinking.  (See The Signal and the Noise, Noise, and Superforecasting.)  We’re convinced that we know better because of our own biases.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So and Thinking, Fast and Slow.)  We can be swayed by the people we interact with to change our perceptions.  (See Going to Extremes.)  However, in the end, we must accept that we know that we’re lying to ourselves and others when we’re failing to follow what has been well-established.  (See Telling Lies, Change or Die, and Immunity to Change for more.)

This is the sad state of mental wellness today.  We don’t know our practices, we don’t do what we know to be true, and we often lie to ourselves that our experience is more relevant than well done statistical research by multiple parties.

Defining Trauma

Maté’s definition of trauma is, “Trauma is not what happens to you but what happens inside you.”  In other words, anything can be traumatic or not depending on how you process it.  Care must be exercised here not to say that someone who believes something is traumatic is more or less mentally healthy than another.  Our preference for a favorite color is no more of an indicator about who is or isn’t mentally healthy.  Seeing the impact of an automobile accident fatality may be a trauma – or not – to a first responder based on their experiences and unknowable similarities to other fatalities.

What matters is not finding blame nor judging the other person for not being “strong” enough to “handle it.”  The truth is that when you’ve traveled the world enough, you realize that everyone has their own trauma, and new events can activate old traumas in very odd ways.

Bessel van der Kolk, of The Body Keeps the Score, defines trauma as such: “Trauma is when we are not seen and known.”  I disagree.  While not being seen and known can be a trauma, I don’t think all traumas are this.  I believe that all traumas are about loss – material or not.  Peter Levine points out, “Certainly, all traumatic events are stressful, but not all stressful events are traumatic.”  That’s how I feel about requiring trauma be about not being seen.

Big and Little “T” Trauma

There seems to be some hidden competition in some people.  My trauma is bigger (or smaller) than yours.  It’s not atypical for Terri and I to hear from others that they have no right to share their trauma with us, because ours is greater.  We’re quick to point out that all trauma is trauma.  There is no such thing as a small trauma.  It’s something that the person needs to work through.  It may be deceptively hard or easy to resolve, and you won’t know by looking at it from the outside.

There is one aspect of trauma that is important and that is whether it’s sustained.  A one-time event tends to cause less damage than systemic traumas that are recurring and that the victim feels they’re powerless to escape from.  Consider the first responder who must choose to face traumatization every day on the job in exchange for their pay and their mission to help others.

The Pause Between Stimulus and Response

One of the best things about being human is the choice on how to respond.  In Emotion and Adaptation, Richard Lazarus explains the difference between a stressor in the environment and stress in terms of how we respond.  When we cultivate this pause, we create the opportunity to choose our response instead of just reacting to the stimulus.  It was Paul Eckman’s study of microexpressions that led me to understand that the startle response is different – it’s wired in.  However, our other emotions are processed differently.  (See How Emotions Are Made.)  The result is that we have a wide degree of influence over our emotions by changing the way we evaluate the stimulus in the environment.

Shame as Fundamentally Deficient

“Contained in the experience of shame,” writes the psychologist, Gershen Kaufman, “is a piercing awareness of ourselves as fundamentally deficient in some vital way as a human being.”  I contrast this with Brené Brown’s work, which I summarize as saying that shame is “I am bad.”  The difference here is in magnitude.  Brown’s work is clear that someone isn’t “fundamentally deficient” – rather they are currently or situationally deficient, something that can be rectified.

Shame separates us from humanity.  Our belief that the trauma we experienced was our fault – or we are to blame – separates us.  It takes effort and often support to reconnect with others.  The first step is often the need to reestablish compassion for ourselves.  By separating ourselves from humanity, we’ve separated ourselves from the normal compassion that we offer to any other member of the human race.

Mind and Body

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky explains how stress impacts the bodies of humans and animals alike.  In his work, the relationship of chronic stress and the negative effects on inflammation, immune response, and digestive problems are clear.  There is no doubt that there’s very little separation (if any) between the mind (our consciousness) and the body.  That being said, I resist those who would push the pendulum too far, as I explained in my review of The HeartMath Solution.

With cautions firmly in place, it’s clear that the way that our minds work – particularly as it relates to stress – has a very real and powerful impact on our bodily health.  When we fight our natural responses – like suppressing our emotions instead of working through them – we necessarily impact our bodies in negative ways.  People who say that all illness is a failure to meditate enough, have enough faith, or lighten their hearts are wrong.  All of life is probabilities.  A healthy body and healthy mind are a protective factor for disease, but it’s not a perfect defense.  Because someone needs medical attention doesn’t mean they’re bad.  Someone who needs mental health attention isn’t bad either.

It’s in the Genes

One of the insights into genetics over the past few decades has been epigenetics.  That is how the environment activates or inactivates genes in ways that change outcomes.  You may harbor a particular allele for a gene that could be harmful – but only if the environment activates it.  This new awareness allows us to more clearly see the complicated interactions between genes and environments and recognize that even a person’s genes aren’t necessarily bad – it can be that they’re ill suited for their environments.  (See The Blank Slate for a primer on epigenetics.)

The Line Between Healthy and Ill

We tend to think in absolutes, blacks and whites.  However, as The Halo Effect explains, life is probabilities.  At any given time, we’ve got dozens of microorganisms replicating inside of us.  Should one of them become overly successful and reproduce in sufficient quantities before being squashed by our immune system, with or without the assistance of modern medicine, we’d call ourselves ill.  However, the number of microorganisms that qualifies as ill isn’t a magical – or even knowable – number.  We’re constantly in a state of repair and protection.

Part of the argument is that the better our mental health is, the more resistant that we’ll be to these organisms – which, owing to the immune system responses to stress, this is accurate.  However, the path to this space isn’t as clear.  We know that meditation can help – but we don’t have that all figured out, either.  (See Altered Traits for more.)

Enough of Something that Almost Works

Vincent Felitti’s astute remark about addiction that “it’s hard to get enough of something that almost works.”  It’s important to recognize that we’re likely to continue something when we believe that we’re “almost there.”  In some contexts, it’s the sunk-cost fallacy.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.)  Maté isn’t a stranger to addiction.  His colleague, Bruce Alexander, wrote the excellent The Globalization of Addiction.  For the casual reader, it’s important to recognize that addictions are coping skills that have progressively come to control the person – rather than the other way around.

In this context, it’s easy to see how anything that almost works could become an addiction.  Anything that quells the fear, anxiety, and disruption of a calm mind is a welcome friend when nothing else works.  Certainly, the traditional substance-based addictions get priority, but we’ve long given up the pharmacological theory of addiction.  (At least, if we’re reading and accepting the research, we should have.)

Women are Unexploded Bombs that Need Defusing

Michael Klein, former head of the family practice department at BC Women’s Hospital in Vancouver, told Maté, “You learn in a very biased environment that sees childbirth as scary and dangerous.”  It’s not hard to understand that, with this perspective and training, doctors would tend to do caesarean section deliveries instead of natural childbirth.  Natural childbirth is akin to letting the timer on the bomb click down to zero.  Of course, a different view recognizes that the birth of a child particularly is a rite of passage.  (See The Rites of Passage.)  It’s a period of changing relationships to each other and to life for both the mother and the child, and in addition to the medical needs of both, there’s a need for connection.

Too many women believe that their medicalized birthing process was a trauma.  It’s not surprising in the context of knives, being ordered what to do, and restraints, that it might be considered as such.  How did we take such a precious moment and privilege and turn it into something that is traumatic?

Doesn’t Play Well with Others

I can’t recall whether I was told that I didn’t play well with others on a report card or whether it was just a fear of mine.  I do know that, in the context of Maté’s beliefs that “plays well with others” means “conforms to society’s expectations,” I’ve failed miserably.  I was building circuits and soldering by the time I was 11 years old.  When I’d fumble and burn my fingers, my teachers would be concerned and call my mother.  In today’s culture, I’m absolutely certain that we’d have a visit from child protective services.

That’s just one of a hundred ways that I was different from the norm – and why I had and sometimes still have trouble relating to others.  It’s common to have people ask me about sports teams or what sports I’m interested in.  I shrug a bit and say that it’s not me.  Friends who have known Terri and I for years still forget that we really don’t watch television.  Occasionally, we’ll watch a movie or, even less frequently, a series.  If you ask us what we have watched, you’re likely to be disappointed – because we haven’t.  (Conversely, if you ask if I’ve read a non-fiction book your odds are substantially better.)

It’s My Fault

There’s a trap when your parents aren’t good.  You can decide that they’re not good people, but they’re the people that are responsible for taking care of you.  Conversely, you can decide the poor treatment that you’re receiving is because you’re a bad kid.  While the second seems worse, it’s much better, because there’s something you can do about it – you can be better.  It’s an awful weight on a child, but it’s better than accepting that your parents aren’t good parents.  You need them.

The controversy has been raging for decades about whether to spoil the child or to let them cry themselves to sleep (to simplify the argument).  I cover this in good detail in my review of Parent Effectiveness Training.  Here, I believe we need to find some balance.  We need to help children, particularly young children, know that they are loved, heard, and supported.  We need to let them know that they will be safe and okay.  Conversely, we do need to allow them to learn skills like self-soothing.

However, the more interesting aspect of the discussion is the need to avoid performance-based love when interacting with our children.  (See The Road Less Traveled for more.)  When we withhold affection until the child does something that makes us feel or look good, we send the unconscious message that we don’t love them – we love what they can do for us.  This makes it hard for them to develop self-esteem and recognize that they are inherently worthy of love.  (See Words Can Change Your Brain for more.)

Consumer Culture

“Viewed from a corporation’s bottom line, one could not imagine a more desirable consumer profile than those who can’t get enough of what they don’t need but feel they must have.”  We’re all, as the book Happier? explains, looking for a way to become happier and marketers, are selling it.  They’re not selling products or features but rather the idea that some thing will make us happier than we are today.

Here, too, I’m not normal.  I don’t care about brand names, and I never have.  The cool kids could do what they do.  I was going to do what I did.  I live in the same house I’ve lived in for nearly 25 years.  It’s not uncommon for my vehicles to be over 10 years old.

However, Maté’s point is that much of the world is caught on a hedonistic treadmill, believing that the next thing will be the thing that unlocks perpetual happiness and joy – despite decades of evidence in their own lives that it doesn’t work.  Consumerism almost works – and is its own form of addiction.

Not Mental Illness, Injured

Maté shares some of Darryl Hammond’s story, including a visit with Dr. Nabil Kotbi, who reportedly said, “I don’t want you to call what you have a mental illness. You have been injured.”  This is the heart of much mental illness.  It’s an injury that we weren’t able to address.  When the underlying trauma has been addressed, the mental illness not only abates but may disappear entirely.  If we change from asking “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”, we may find that the answers are much more productive.  (See Restoring Sanctuary for more.)

The Lack of Biomarkers

Mental health has postulated for some time that there should be clear medical markers for problems, and once those markers are found, it will make diagnosis easier.  A simple lab test or procedure like an X-ray, it was promised, would identify the specific problems opening up their resolution.  However, we have not found these markers – and I seriously doubt we will.  In my review of Descartes’ Error, I explained that some problems may be biological (hardware) but others may be conditioning (software).  In either case, software can work around hardware issues.

I’m reminded of John Nash and how he found strategies to validate that the people he was interacting with were real people and not delusions.  (I cover this more in my review of Incognito.)  Rather than looking for the medical source of all problems, we should be looking at the ways that we can help people build better lives.

Normal or Disease?

“A University of British Columbia study looked at the prescription records of almost one million B.C . schoolchildren over an eleven-year period and found that kids born in December were 39 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than classmates born the previous January.”  This leads to the question: is ADHD really just age-appropriate behavior?  There’s definitely a growing consensus that we’re overmedicating children for ADHD when they may be doing age-appropriate behaviors.

How many other things have we turned into a medical (or mental) diagnosis that is completely appropriate for someone’s age?  It’s a scary thought.  It’s particularly scary when you consider the number of people on SSRIs and how few of them are in the suggested therapy.  (See Warning: Psychiatry May Be Hazardous to Your Health.)  We need to use medications to allow us to proceed through therapy productively – and then to stop them.  The research supports this, but few people read the research.

Sensitive People

It’s a gift.  It’s also a curse.  When we look at the people who struggle, suffer, and die by suicide, they are disproportionately represented by the artists and the people who are sensitive.  Opening yourself up to all the emotions available to you can be an amazing experience, and it can also expose you to raw suffering.  The trick is to find ways of opening yourself up and being as sensitive as possible while remaining inside the space that your coping skills can handle.  Too little emotional reception and expression, and you risk a psychotic break, as your emotions finally break through.  Too much sensitivity, and you may not be able to moderate the feelings into a consistently safe range.

Sense of Control

In our bid to protect the parts of ourselves that are hurting, we aggrandize ourselves and seek to assert that we have control over things – all things.  However, as Compelled to Control explains, control is an illusion.  We never really have control over anyone else and often barely control ourselves.  Kurt Lewin backs this up with his observation that behavior is a function of both person and environment – we can’t even control our own behavior all the time.  (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality for more.)

This sense of control provides us with feelings of safety, and we’ll go to great lengths to protect it.  It’s the only way that we can feel as if we won’t be hurt any longer.

It’s Not Worth It

In our work with burnout, we zeroed in on feelings of inefficacy at the core of burnout.  (See Extinguish Burnout.)  It’s the mismatch between what we’re putting into something and what we’re getting out.  The problem is that our expectations and the results are rarely in harmony.  Instead, we put in massive amounts of work and have little to show for it.  It can feel disheartening, demotivating, and just bad.  It’s a pathway to depression, and the research supports that burnout inventories are often early predictors for future depression.

Tragically, some people begin to believe that life is not worth it, it’s too hard, and they’re not good enough to keep on living.

Am I Enough

Ask people who are in helping professions if they’ve done enough at the end of their careers, and their answer may be yes.  But if you ask them “Are you enough?”, the answer may be more difficult.  There’s a subtle but important difference between I’ve helped so many people and I’m good enough as a human.  It separates the results, which may be positive, from how we feel about ourselves and our lives.  The results can be terrifying.

If we’re honest, we all struggle with “Am I enough?”  It’s a constant source of question in myself and is shared by those who trust me enough to share their struggles.  We forget – or discount – that we’re enough simply because we exist.  We forget that the question itself is bad.  Maybe someday I’ll get consistent at reframing the question to “Am I loved?”  The answer – even if it’s just by the dog – is always yes.  That should be enough, but if my friends and loved ones are any indication, getting there is harder than it seems.

Not As I Would Have It

Many people have heard the serenity prayer – at least the first part.  The part that’s often dropped includes “taking the world as it is, not as I would have it.”  It’s important, because it’s a grounding reminder that we must take reality for what it is – even if we don’t like that reality.  We can’t will our dead loved ones to life.  We cannot change what is merely by our thoughts.  It’s hard to accept realities you don’t like.  However, it’s harder to live with a perception of the world that isn’t real.

The thing is, while normal may be a myth, there is some objective reality out there – one that we are best to align ourselves with.  If we want to reduce the friction and see the world as it is, we may just see that there is an illusion called The Myth of Normal.

Book Review-The Rites of Passage

Every culture has rites of passage.  In The Rites of Passage, Arnold van Gannep seeks to explain the commonalities and differences between the rites of passage in cultures across the planet.  I was first introduced to the work while reading William Bridges’ Managing Transitions.  It’s appropriate, because Bridges uses the same model for change and transition that he saw in rites of passage.

Some, like Robert Lewis in Raising a Modern-Day Knight, have attempted to keep these rites and rituals alive in today’s world, because they believe that these rites are important to our development.  Van Gannep points out that there’s no research to indicate there’s any less need for rites today than in previous times – though his words were written in 1908.

The Core Types

Van Gannep defines three key kinds of rites:

  • Preliminal/Separation – These are about embarking on the journey of transition.
  • Liminal/Transition – These represent the time during transition or change.
  • Postliminal/Incorporation – Reintegration into the group. The completion of the separation or transition.

These are the phases of Bridges’ change model – with different labels.  They represent the highest order of archetypes for the rites.

The Characteristics of Rites

The more specific list of characteristics of rites, as van Gannep perceives them, are:

  • Animistic – Related to the spirits/essences of a person.
  • Dynamistic – Based on the concept of transferring or conferring power.
  • Contagious – Based on the idea that characteristics can be transferred.
  • Sympathetic – Based in reciprocal action, including like-on-like, opposite-on-opposite, etc.
  • Positive – Designed to produce a positive impact for the person or people performing the rite.
  • Negative – Curses and prohibitions.
  • Direct – Intended to confer the benefits (or consequences) immediately.
  • Indirect – Intended to influence over time.

It’s important to note that these are not mutually exclusive.  Each rite can – and probably does – have multiple of these characteristics.

Life Periods

Although van Gannep acknowledges that great attention has been paid to the rites associated with puberty, he proposes that rites occur with the passage between stages of life.  While each culture defines the transitions differently, they typically have rites to separate one from another.  Perhaps one of the most common contemporary set of stages for development is Erikson’s stages as he lays out in Childhood and Society.

One of the challenges with other views of these developmental stages is the failure to distinguish between the physical and social transitions.  In most cases, van Gannep explains that the rites are about the social transitions and are often decoupled from the physiological changes that occur – like puberty.

Importance of Changes

Even the change of seasons wouldn’t be marked except that it has economic impact on the society.  Agrarian societies have festivals and events that would mark the transitions of the seasons, but largely because they signaled an economic change for the society.  Spring as a period of investment.  Summer as a period of tending.  Autumn as a period of reaping.  Winter as a period of dormancy, rejuvenation, and waiting.

If we accept this premise, then we expect that rites of passage are about the change in economic status of the individual members of the society.  Often, the rites are built around a degree of independence or interdependence.  It’s this changing relationship with the society that the rite signifies.


One of the most common rites across culture is “breaking bread.”  That is, the process of sharing a meal with someone is a way to incorporate them.  This process is affirmed as an incorporation rite in van Gannep’s work.  However, he also identifies many cultures where the incorporation of strangers includes sexual intercourse between the male visitors and the females of the group.  This often included the wives, sisters, or daughters of the host.  While polygamy is generally shunned in contemporary culture, it was and still is common in many societies.  (See Anatomy of Love for more.)  Van Gannep makes the point that this “loan” is often the equivalent of a shared meal.


Van Gannep cites several places and ways that homosexuality was incorporated into society and into rites of passage.  As I mentioned in my review of After the Ball, the admonishment of Sodom was likely as much about the failure to respect the wishes of the host as it was the homosexual contact that the Biblical story implies.  Put into the broader cultural context, it makes sense that the refusal of the host’s daughters is a very important slight.

Betrothal, Marriage, and Divorce

It’s clear that bearing young was important among tribes – even those that practiced polygamy.  In some cases, husbands were provided rituals to ensure the first born was theirs.  In other cases, a woman couldn’t be married until she had given birth to at least one child.  Sometimes, a child born from sexual activity during the betrothal but pre-marital phase was shunned – in other cases, no negative connotation was attached.

In short, the ideas varied.  However, the keys seem to be that sex post-betrothal was relatively common.  Marriage was a public, social custom, and it was the betrothal that led to physical union.  As was discussed in Anatomy of Love, marriage is a way of binding the father to the commitment to raising a child.  Divorce was a way to dissolve that binding – sometimes less easily than others.

Cycles of Repetition

One of the most revealing things about rites of passage is that they replicate.  They’re largely similar across cultures.  They occur from generation to generation.  Rites of incorporation are similar between marriage and adoption.  There are the archetypes like Joseph Campbell found in his analysis of myths.  (See The Power of Myth.)  Some rites even tie to others, with the participants regaining the same marking and mutilations that they had during the previous rite (if they weren’t permanent).

Just like seasons, there’s a cycle to life.  As we navigate, it’s good to know The Rites of Passage.

Book Review-The Power of Myth

It’s not exaggeration to say that Joseph Campbell is a legend when it comes to mythology.  The book, The Power of Myth, comes from a series of interviews that Campbell did with Bill Moyers while Campbell was in his eighties.  The legendary journalist that Bill Moyers is, he so carefully prepared for the conversation you could easily believe that Moyers had been a student of Campbell’s for years and that you were sitting in on a disciple being educated by a master after having been apart for a time.

The Teacher

Campbell had been a university professor for decades.  As the book opens, a vignette of his classroom exposes you to the copious reading assignments that his classes carried, until you discover that the reading assignments were for life – not for his classes.  His goal wasn’t for you to learn everything during his tutelage.  Instead, he left for you a path to guide continuous learning over a lifetime – something he deeply valued.

We’re then transported to Campbell’s graduation and the five years he couldn’t find work due to the Great Depression following the stock market crash.  You discover that he camped in Woodstock, NY in a place without running water, all the time reading, studying, and learning.  It’s impossible to describe the grace and ease with which Campbell navigated the myths of various cultures and was able to draw out both similarities and differences.  It’s no wonder, given that one of his earlier works was The Hero with a Thousand Faces (which I’ve still not managed to read yet).  In it, he does this comparison of both similarities and differences.

The Experience of Being Alive

Unlike others who’ve focused their lenses towards finding the meaning of life, Campbell insisted that his goal was to expose and engage in the experience of being alive.  The shift is from an academic answer to an unknowable question to the practicality of how to live life abundantly given what we know today.  Seeing that science and religion weren’t at odds but rather twins that help us to understand life better, he was focused on experience – despite being a prolific and powerful academic.

Mythology, he explains, is “the song of the universe.”  It’s the echoes that happen in different cultures across the planet with no way to communicate with one another.  The patterns emerge of the reluctant hero, their mentor, the trials, and the setbacks, before the eventual return to society.  The hero brings with them an elixir that resolves some thing that had grabbed their society.  Their struggle – and sacrifice – wasn’t for glory but rather to serve others.

In the modern, and particularly Western, world, we’ve separated ourselves from our connection with others and with nature.  Robert Putnam explains the erosion of social capital in Bowling Alone, while Sherry Turkle beams in the message of connected and disconnected at the same time through Alone Together.  To be alive, we must be connected with nature and others – a fire that is flickering out in our rushed and disconnected world.


We land quickly in a place where all the world religions begin to harmonize around caring for others.  We see echoes of the work of Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind as we learn to work together.  We skip past Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene through the competitions architected by Robert Axelrod designed to demonstrate The Evolution of Cooperation.  Ultimately, we arrive at the Give and Take of Adam Grant and ask the question, Does Altruism Exist?  Campbell’s answer is yes.  Through religions, myths, marriage, and rituals, we give ourselves up to the broader idea and let go of our selfish ego.  Francis Fukuyama explains in Trust how our societies relate differently to individuality and trust.  These are the same messages that Campbell offers.

He places the need to follow one’s bliss besides the need to connect with and submit to others – at least some others.  He explains how marriage, both in the arranged sense and the more modern, loving sense, is a commitment to one another more than the grip of amore.  He even dances around the idea that one can be in a marriage – committed relationship – and be in physical attraction to someone else but falls short of saying anything so scandalous as adultery or polyamory.  (See Anatomy of Love for more on polyamory and Daring to Trust on marriage or love as a commitment.)

The Meaning of Sin

Moyers would guide the conversation back to Christianity and the relationship of myths to Christianity knowing that this would interest his audience.  Campbell explains how Hell might be the place without God – that Hell may be defined by its lack of God.  He doesn’t discuss the fact that sin – from a biblical-linguistic perspective – is separation from God.  (See Growth Has No Boundaries.)  However, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that Hell is that eternal separation being based on the initial separation of sin.

Campbell can acknowledge that there are four inconsistent tellings of Jesus’ life and problems with the biblical stories – like where the wives for Adam’s sons originated from – and makes observations that Jesus is supposed to provide everlasting life – as would the fruit of the second forbidden tree in Eden.

Intending to be a Man

Campbell makes the point that rituals are more important for boys than girls.  In many cultures, when the girl has her first menses, she becomes a woman.  Boys, however, need something to mark the change.  He also makes the point, however, that even baby birds know when they can fly, and so, too, should boys who don’t have a ritual to move them forward.

Acquiescing to Death

Moyers put to Campbell a question about understanding death – to which he quickly responded that you don’t understand it, you acquiesce to it.  You accept it as a part of life.  It’s not something to be overcome but rather something that should be accepted.  Death is clearly a key thing that people need to understand.  The Worm at the Core and The Denial of Death both explain the power that death holds over us – even when we don’t realize it.

No More Out Groups

We’re supposed to have compassion and concern for those that are a part of our group.  When God says, “Thou Shall Not Kill,” he doesn’t mean those with the competing religion on the other side of some river.  He means your people – his people.  Campbell makes the point that there should be no other or “out” group on the planet any longer.  He reveres Buddhist monks, and in particular the Dalai Lama, for their ability to be compassionate to everyone – to remove anger from their hearts.  The Dalai Lama’s perspective is slightly different, having written that even anger can be non-afflictive.  (See Destructive Emotions, A Force for Good, and Emotional Awareness for more.)

Head and Heart

The other dimension woven throughout is the connection between logic and reason to emotions.  Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis speaks of the emotional elephant and the rational rider.  (Also see Switch.)  He explains that it’s emotions that are in control, and reason is just deluding itself.  Campbell has a similar sentiment speaking of the power of ritual and myth to engage us and to help us escape the mundane, material world that we live in.

However, in the end, Campbell makes the point that, in the ideal situation our reason and our emotions would have a relationship with one another – each listening to the other at times.  We sometimes lean into intuition and emotion and other times allow our runaway emotions to be soothed by the calm voice of rationality.

Since Campbell is no longer with us to lead us through understanding of myths, we’re left only with this story – one of his stories – to discover The Power of Myth.

Book Review-Restoring Sanctuary: A New Operating System for Trauma-Informed Systems of Care

Sanctuary is a place of safety.  It’s a place where the weak and wounded can grow and heal.  It’s the way that we should describe every system designed to help people, but all too frequently, those places we turn to for help are the very ones that harm us.  Instead of healing our wounds and helping us to become more whole, they traumatize us in new ways.  Restoring Sanctuary: A New Operating System for Trauma-Informed Systems of Care is a manual for how to transform organizations into the places of safety we wish they were.

What’s Wrong with You?

It’s the wrong question.  It is accusatory and blame filled.  It devalues the person.  Yet it’s the question that we all too often ask.  It’s the question that implies judgement and creates separation.  The right question is, “What happened to you?”  This question invites understanding.  It invites awareness that all of us have been traumatized in different ways.  It’s aware that our traumas cause us to respond in ways that appear to make no sense.

By shifting the question, we shift the attitude and reduce the judgement.  We create opportunities to connect.  The #metoo movement was a simple way that others could share their experiences of sexual exploitation or objectification.  It was a way to connect rather than divide.  As humans, we’ve conquered the planet because of our connection, so constantly moving towards connection is no small matter.  (See Mindreading and The Righteous Mind for more.)

Viral Violence

Violence in all its forms is like a virus.  It replicates and reproduces.  Dawkins in The Selfish Gene famously created the concept of a meme – a self-replicating idea.  Violence is that, and it’s quick.  The language we use is that “a fight erupted” or started quickly in the same way that a virus often seems to move from relatively low levels to overtaking its host in a short amount of time.

The heart of this observation is the need to curtail violence in all its forms.  This starts as a commitment to avoid restraints and other use of physical force but extends to forms of psychological violence as well.  Psychological – or emotional – violence are coercive forms of control, manipulation, and mental harm that humans all too frequently use on one another.

Traumatic Reenactment

It’s hard to reduce violence when that’s all that those you’re working with have ever known.  They’ll naturally try to replicate what they’ve experienced not out of malice but out of a failure to understand that other options even exist.  Often times, when people have been traumatized, they’ll repeat that trauma, in part because it’s what they know and in part to try to understand it better.  Albert Bandura is famous for his experiments showing that people who witnessed violence were more likely to inflict violence.  In my review of Moral Disengagement where he discusses this, I push back, because he sometimes overplays what his research found.  That being said, those who have experienced the trauma firsthand are definitely more likely to replicate that behavior.

Trauma Processing

There are numerous ways that people cope with their trauma.  There’s a great deal of therapeutic benefit to art, music, dance, and other forms of expression.  These coping strategies can help to down-regulate people’s sympathetic nervous systems, leading to more peace – and the opportunity to directly address the trauma that they’ve faced.  However, what James Pennebaker found, and what he explained in Opening Up, is that only by being able to verbalize the trauma were people positively impacted in the long term.  In his experiments, he discovered that writing about a trauma – whether or not it was ultimately shared – had a powerful, positive impact on trauma in the long term.

If we want to help people process their trauma, we must first deal with the sense that the trauma is overwhelming.  At some point, we’ll need to help people put their experiences into words.  If we can’t articulate an event, we can’t consider it to be a “past” event.

Fear Conditioning

Once we’ve been sufficiently frightened by something, we’ll develop fear every time we approach it – and if we don’t successfully complete the attempt, we’ll reinforce the fear and trepidation that we feel in similar situations. It’s one of the mechanisms that feeds PTSD.  We get triggered by something and shut down.  Because there’s no successful resolution, we reinforce the very feelings that we hope would go away.

The reverse of fear conditioning is called desensitization, and it’s the technique that Albert Bandura pioneered for reducing people’s phobias.  (See more of his work in Moral Disengagement.)  The technique involves progressively exposing people to closer approximations of their phobia while maintaining relative safety and reinforcing progress.

Democracy Power

Democracy is a commitment to the common good, community, and to equal voice free of self-interest.  By these standards, the American form of democracy fails rather mightily.  Instead, we find ourselves caught in the traps of power and coercive influence.  However, that doesn’t stop individuals and organizations from striving towards the ideal.  Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and to no other concept is the statement more apt.

What’s not obvious about democracy is how it promotes perceptions of safety.  Viewed from the lens of The Fearless Organization, what would it be like to believe that every one of your coworkers and managers only had the best intentions for you?  It would be the answer to Does Altruism Exist?  Of course, it does, and democracy is the exemplar.

It’s easy to call for democracy but much harder to implement.

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

Even in sanctuary, democracy isn’t the only answer.  In places where there is little need for innovation and autonomy, democracy isn’t the right answer.  If everyone had their say in every decision, nothing would ever get done.  The powers of the organization to resist disruption would be absolute.  (See The Disruption Mindset for more.)  The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a way of looking at how conflicts are resolved along two dimensions: assertive and cooperative.  One would think that the authors of the instrument would prefer the most assertive and cooperative, but they didn’t; they recognized that sometimes the best answer is a compromise.  Sometimes, the best answer isn’t the best answer.

This is in stark contrast to Jim Collins’ work in Good to Great, where he views good as the enemy of great.  The key to understanding where this is the right advice and where it may make more sense to find balance is found in The Leadership Machine, which explains that there are too many skills for any one person to master.  Said differently, “You have to pick your battles.”  You cannot afford democracy in every aspect of the organization.  We have to be selective about the democracy we create and allow it at the maximum extent for the maximum effect while recognizing the realities of life.

Anxiety Provoking Freedom

The Innovator’s DNA explains that some of the best creativity comes with constraints.  The Paradox of Choice explains that the more options we have, the more paralyzed we become.  Work Redesign tells the story of Ralph, who, long ago, decided to not rock the boat; as a result, when he’s approached with the idea of more freedom and responsibility, he recoils.  He reacts with anxiety, because the additional freedom and responsibility means that he was wrong to have given up so long ago.

We often are so busy looking for higher levels of organizational redesign that we forget that not everyone is at the same place in their journey as we are.  (See Reinventing Organizations for more.)  We fail to realize that there are people who really do just want a job where they’re told what to do and there’s no question about whether they’re doing the right thing or not.

The Commitments

The prescribed sanctuary commitments are:

Despite acknowledging that democracy isn’t possible in every situation and may be anxiety inducing for some, Restoring Sanctuary describes the lack of these commitments as non-democracy.  I struggle with this characterization.  Rather than framing these commitments in terms of democracy and non-democracy, I’d simply describe characteristics and anti-characteristics of democracy.

Not Invented Here and Buy-In

It’s well established that the concept of “Not Invented Here” leads people to avoid buying into an idea.  (See In Search of Excellence for one of the earliest references to this concept.)  However, the real issue is that no work has been done to help them buy into an idea that was created externally.  (See Buy-In for ideas.)  Too often, an external mandate is delivered without a story – and therefore no way to understand why the answers are right.  (See Wired for Story for more about the need for story.)  It’s not necessary for everyone to have a say in everything that happens, but they do have to make sense of it, and when you don’t provide a story, they’ll make up their own.

Moral Distress

I soundly criticized Maslach and Leiter in The Burnout Challenge for confusing compassion fatigue and moral injury.  They’re as distinct and different as night and day.  Moral injury and its precursor, moral distress, are critical to protecting everyone’s sense of self and their sense that they can live to their values.  Laying it out plainly, moral distress happens when people feel pressured to operate against their values and beliefs.  Moral injury occurs when they give into that pressure and violate their beliefs.  In Beyond Boundaries, John Townsend explains that permanent boundaries define who we are, and if we violate them, we’re changed afterwards.  (See also Boundaries, which Townsend wrote with Henry Cloud.)

When we pressure people to behave in ways inconsistent with their beliefs, even if they don’t cave to the pressure, we’re doing damage to our relationship with them, and we’re consuming their psychic energy.  (See Willpower for more.)

Bullying, Microaggressions, and Accountability

Bullying in any environment is toxic to the healthy relationships that we’re trying to create.  Addressing bullying is more than just ignoring it, not reacting, or quietly dismissing it.  It’s more than the leader’s responsibility to prevent it.  In Trauma and Recovery, I shared the story of Kitty Genovese, who was raped and murdered while 38 of her neighbors failed to help her or call the police.  We cannot afford to believe that addressing bullying is someone else’s problem to resolve.  We have to all stand up to it.

As a privileged white man, I’m occasionally labeled with microaggressions – which I apologize for regardless of the circumstances.  (See Effective Apology and Why Won’t You Apologize? for tips on how to do this.)  At the same time, I challenge the concept as it’s generally accepted.  I didn’t call out this aspect in my review of The Coddling of the American Mind, but it was covered.  The distinction that was made is that aggression is intentional – and microaggressions are generally not.  To be clear, I’m not saying it’s okay for someone to be hurt – I’m just trying to find the balance that people should accept that they may be overreacting to innocent comments.  A quick correction and apology should be enough.

In a world where we are overly sensitive to even reasonable comments, we stop being able to see what rises to the level of bullying and simultaneously lose our resolve to hold everyone on the organization accountable for their behaviors.  If they slough off, we don’t want to confront them for fear that we’ll be labeled aggressive or bullying.  Kim Scott in Radical Candor addresses this by saying that “it’s not cruel, it’s clear.”  (See Management and the Worker for more on social loafing.)

Being Heard

It was years ago.  My ex-wife and I were in a counseling session with a wise counselor when I inserted a profanity into a message dripping with anger.  Profanity isn’t my thing, and he knew it.  When my ex-wife turned to him to ask him what he thought, he responded that it sounded like I didn’t feel like I was being listened to.  He was right.  For me, I started turning up the emotional volume. People who have mental illness and severe trauma don’t have the capacity for such fine-grained adjustment.  In too many cases, their responses turn verbally or physically violent.

The starting point, for me, for preventing violence starts with hearing the person you’re with no matter how difficult that is.

Emotional Labor

Some people lift heavy things for a living.  While few shovel coal these days, many lift boxes and move them from one place to another.  Other heavy lifts aren’t so easy to see.  They’re the emotional burden that first responders take on.  It’s the way that the nurse of a dying patient must retain composure as she helps the family process the event.  It’s even the waiter or waitress that must keep a smile on their face when they’re afraid of being evicted.  If, as Robert Cialdini explains in Influence, a mint can make a big difference in tips, how much more powerful can a smile be?

We should not underestimate the toll that this work takes.  I explain in How to Be Yourself that holding a gallon of milk next to your core is easy – holding it out to your side at shoulder level is decidedly not.  This holding of who we are and what we’re feeling separate from the way that we’re reacting is hard – and exhausting – work.

Don’t Do Something, Just Sit There

When trauma and tragedy strike, our natural reaction is to do something.  Anything.  The wrong thing.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s something.  The problem is that we weigh differently errors of omission (doing nothing) and commission (doing something).  (See The Lucifer Effect for more.)  The truth is that often it’s listening that both restores people and provides the information to do the right thing – to do the thing that will make a difference.

One of my most persistent frustrations in the suicide space is that people keep doing things that don’t work.  We have research that demonstrates it doesn’t work, but rather than do nothing – and conserve resources – we must do something.  I was in a conversation the other day with a coalition of people who are working to address suicide.  We were discussing a program that has been out for 15 years and has failed to deliver even modest results.  I suggested that we didn’t need to bring it to our state.  I felt as if I were asking to slay a sacred cow.  Sometimes, doing nothing – and learning – is the better answer.

Stories Will Be Made

As leaders, part of our job is to tell the stories about why we’re doing what we’re doing.  Not everyone will see the market forces operating on the organization or understand the need for change and transformation.  Instead, they’ll see what they’ll lose as the changes happen.  If we don’t write the narrative, they’ll create their own – less generous – narratives, and the grapevine will show us how effective it can be at strangling a good idea and formal communication.

If you want to create a sanctuary, you can’t be quiet.  If you’re trying to work with people who have had trauma (i.e., all of us) or serve those with trauma, we know the challenges and the ways that we’re not supporting each other or those we serve well.  It may be time to start Restoring Sanctuary.

Book Review-Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

It would be easy to dismiss Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror for a wide variety of traumas, because it is very focused on domestic abuse.  There’s a clear focus on this tragic type of trauma – but it’s not the only kind of trauma.  It would be an error to dismiss what can be learned from this book so quickly.  While the details about the traumas themselves are varied, the challenges that trauma creates are similar regardless of what the actual cause is.  After all, trauma is whatever someone says it is – if it’s trauma to them, then it’s trauma.  It’s about overwhelming their capacity to cope, and that is at the heart of the challenges it creates.

(Note: This blog post is one of the longest I’ve written.  Because of how the content is laid out, I decided against splitting it into multiple posts.)


Set in a Sherlock Holmes London of the 19th century, we hear tales of ghosts who haunt the living because their stories – their true stories – haven’t been told.  They’re prevented from leaving the mortal world completely until the truth can be known.  In this quaint picture of life back then with its gritty realities glows lanterns and lamps, which are fed by gas.  These gas lamps provided light for the night.

In the 21st century, the term gaslighting has taken on a radically different and more than slightly sinister tone.  It originated from the 1944 film, Gaslight, in which a man manipulates his wife into believing she’s insane.  Thus, today, instead of pushing back the darkness, the gaslighting that we discuss encourages darkness and doubt.  It’s the intentional attempt to make someone believe that something didn’t happen – or it didn’t happen the way they remember it.  Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, and it leaves its victims questioning their grip on reality and which of their memories they can trust.

One of the common tactics in domestic abuse and control, gaslighting has reached a form of mastery with some individuals – much to the dismay of everyone who believes that it’s not fair to wage psychological warfare on those you supposedly care about.

There are some who would claim that the atrocities – the genocides that have happened didn’t really happen.  They deny that the truth is the truth until they’re forced to accept it because of overwhelming or irrefutable evidence.  This is what Thomas Gilovich explained in How We Know What Isn’t So.  We willingly take in information that agrees with us, but we only accept information that doesn’t agree with us when we have no other choice.

She Was Asking for It

An important cousin to gaslighting is the idea that the victim wanted to be victimized.  When stated in these direct terms, it becomes obvious that no one wants to be a victim.  It has been used as an excuse for intimate partner violence (IPV), rape, and countless other crimes.  Victims don’t “ask for it.”  However, perpetrators need to find a way to excuse their inexcusable behaviors, and the only way to do that is to shift the blame from themselves to the victim.

The power to justify our own behavior, to believe what cannot be true, is strong – even when it’s moving in the wrong direction.  Luckily, some progress has been made on this front – but blaming the victim is still way too common an occurrence.

Shell Shock

Hysteria was a woman’s disease.  The disassociation, problems with sleeping, and flashbacks weren’t for men, particularly not strong men who fought along the front lines of war.  That was the thinking until soldiers started coming back from the war who were physically fine but mentally scarred from their time.  It wasn’t public knowledge, but as much of 40% of British soldiers returned from the front of World War I were returning due to their mental wounds rather than their physical wounds.

It’s not something you tell the public when you’re putting on the image of the most powerful nation on the planet.  You don’t want the public to know there’s something wrong – something seriously wrong.  However, it was finally acknowledged that there was something sending boys home that wasn’t something that you could see as they walked down the street.  The term became “shell shocked.”  Something about the horrors of war had broken something inside their brain.

Eventually, it became accepted that it wasn’t because these men were inferior or because they weren’t good enough.  Ultimately, it became truth that these brave men were being afflicted by what they saw or did and their inability to integrate it into their broader views of the world.  Unquestionable bravery could be overcome by overwhelming fear.

Protective Factors

Helmets protected men from brain injuries – at least, the kind that came from projectiles.  However, there were other protective factors for shell shock.  The best protective factor seemed to be the group with whom the person was deployed and became to depend upon for everything.  Often, they’re called a band of brothers – or in World War I, it was more often fox-hole brothers.  Either way, when people faced unimaginable things with their group, they responded and recovered better.  Separated from their group, the situations weren’t as good.

Once the group disbanded – or when they became separated – there was another factor that seemed to form a protective bubble around the person.  That bubble was caring.  Even small, genuine concern for the person and their story, experiences, and life was often enough to change the trajectory of their life in a positive direction.  Simply listening and caring made a real difference.

Incest and Rape – Oh My!

The statistics are crushing.  One in three women were sexually abused as children, and one in four women have been raped.  It’s a crushing tragedy where our families, streets, and communities aren’t safe.  We violate a woman’s body so that she feels as if she has no control – not even of her own body.  What’s worse is the complicit relationship that society has and continues to have in this problem.  It’s hushed.  It’s swept under the rug.  It’s not discussed.  It’s hidden from sight.

#metoo as a movement was a way for women to finally stand up and be heard about the sexual abuse, intimidation, and exploitation that happened to them.  Far too many (one is too many) famous actresses tweeted with the tag.  So, too, did women of every station of life, echoing the challenges that society doesn’t want to acknowledge.  We cannot collectively traumatize so many of our sisters without causing injury to ourselves.

Trauma Turmoil

It’s an event that cannot be integrated into our understanding of the world.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s trauma.  Or rather, it’s the first definition of trauma.  It’s the event that creates the challenge that cannot be immediately processed.  However, as I noted in my review of Trauma-Informed Healthcare Approaches, we use the word “trauma” for both the event and the outcome.

When I try to explain post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to others, I say that it’s an inability to process and integrate what someone has seen or done.  Most events in our life are integrated into our beliefs about the world in our sleep.  We find ways to connect the events of the day to the stories of our lives.  In any given day, we’ll use our dreams to make these connections – whether we remember them or not.  Trauma doesn’t rise to the level of PTSD in that our current skills are insufficient to integrate it – it’s just that it momentarily overwhelms our capacity to cope and integrate.

It’s possible – and appropriate – to compartmentalize the processing of trauma that happens to us or that we observe, so we can make it through the moment and do the best possible things.  First responders can’t address their personal sadness at what happened to a child until they’ve addressed the immediate needs of the child.  Nurses who are working in the intensive care unit can’t express their own loss through grief until they’ve completed their duties and attended to the families.

It’s not that delaying processing is bad – it’s bad to never process the event.  The problem is that we’re designed to process what happens to us.  It’s a part of the learning that keeps us alive.  When we try to compartmentalize, cover up, and ignore the traumas that we’ve experienced or seen, it will eventually escape.  It may be a trigger, like a song or smell that reopens an old wound – or it can be that the weight and unhappiness of holding back the trauma eventually drains us of our energy.

Fundamental Beliefs

We all carry with us a set of fundamental beliefs about the world.  These beliefs inform the way we work and the way we interact with others.  We hold countless numbers of these beliefs, from our belief in the general goodness or badness of others to our belief about how traffic will flow.  Some of these beliefs are exactly aligned with reality – others, less so.

As humans, we like certainty.  We like the idea that A+B=C – however, as I explain in my post Practical Complexity, things aren’t that simple.  We simplify reactions that happen 99% of the time into “always,” because the exceptions aren’t that frequent.  This leaves us with the problem of having to address what happens when our predictions are wrong.

Mindreading proposes that prediction is the fundamental purpose of consciousness.  Many others agree using different language, but the sentiment is the same: predicting others’ behavior – and the outcome of events – has been critical to our survival.  That’s why betrayal is so hard to deal with.  It’s a failure of our prediction of someone else’s behavior.  Unlike jokes, which train us for cognitive missteps, betrayal hurts.  (See Trust => Vulnerability =>Intimacy, Revisited for trust and vulnerability.  See Inside Jokes for how laughter is the reward for detecting a cognitive misstep.  Also see Play for the role of learning and safe environments.)  When we’ve been traumatized, we’ve almost certainly  got a fundamental belief about the world or ourselves that needs to be adjusted.

Sometimes, that adjustment is small.  Sometimes, we need to make a larger change; but because we’re Predictably Irrational and are subject to arbitrary coherence, we don’t adjust enough.  Arbitrary coherence means we have a tendency to adjust in smaller increments than the evidence would lead us to.

The real problem is that we have such a small number of interactions that it’s hard to develop good predictions – and make good adjustments.  To become really good at forecasting, we need practice, balance, and detachment – none of those things really apply in trauma.  (See Superforecasting for more about better forecasting.  See Peak for why repeated trauma wouldn’t qualify as practice.  Finally, see what we can do to build better predictions with limited data in How to Measure Anything.)

So, we’re left with a bent, broken, or shattered core belief.  It could just be the result of the probabilistic nature of reality, or it may mean that we’ve got a fundamental flaw in the way we see the world – but we don’t know which.  (See The Halo Effect for more about the probabilistic nature of the world.)

Divine Protection

Our views of the world fall between it being a fundamentally helpful and loving place and a dangerous place filled with people who will only cause you suffering.  It is on the fulcrum of this belief that we make decisions about who and when to trust as well as when we need to protect ourselves.  This has a subtle but ultimately profound effect on the safety we feel – and therefore how we combat stress.  Another way to think about this is that we believe in divine protection or not.  If we believe in divine protection, we believe that we are protected from the evils of the world – and when trauma strikes, it shatters this perception.

Not only do we need to address the trauma that befalls us, but we’re left confused as to how our god would have forsaken us.  Not only did something bad happen to us, but somehow this is a signal that we’re unloved, unworthy, or irredeemable.

One of the keys to integrating the trauma into our understanding of the world is building a meaning around the trauma that doesn’t include our fault, blame, guilt, unworthiness, or unlovability.  Even if the trauma was a result of things we did, that doesn’t mean we’re irredeemable.  This is important in our recovery process.

Compromised Intimacy

Because it’s so important, it’s critical that we address the impact of trauma on relationships and intimacy.  While rape in any form necessarily creates additional barriers to intimacy at a physical level, all trauma separates us from the rest of humanity – as well as a sense of God or the divine.  There are layers to this aspect of trauma.

First, we need to recognize that intimacy is the result of vulnerability, which is built on the feelings of safety that comes when we trust others.  Trauma, by causing us to question who we can trust and whether we’re safe, directly blocks our ability to be intimate with others.  To be clear, intimacy in this context is the state of complete trust, not necessarily any kind of physical relationship.  (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited to better understand this flow.)

Second, we need to address hope.  Hope, as Rick Snyder explains in The Psychology of Hope, is a cognitive framework built on willpower and waypower.  Willpower is in common understanding today, but Roy Baumeister’s book Willpower has a great deal more about it.  (Grit is also an excellent call to persist while explaining willpower.)  Waypower is simply knowing “how” something is going to happen.  Ultimately, this breaks down into those things we know how to do ourselves or that we trust can or will happen through others.  The second part, what can happen through others, is where it gets sticky.  If our fundamental belief of the world switches negative – even for a moment—we can break our fundamental sense of hope and thereby send ourselves into a depressive spiral – where we don’t feel like connecting with others or being intimate.

This is why the intervention of connections, community, and professionals to create a safe, caring space is so important.  With it, it’s possible to believe that the entire world isn’t bad – and therefore the resources necessary to survive the trauma maybe forthcoming.  These simple connections can be immensely powerful.

No Intervention

Often, the challenge isn’t just the trauma but the lack of any protection from it.  Imagine the family of Kitty (Catherine) Genovese.  She was raped and killed in Queens, New York in 1964.  The troubling aspect was that 38 neighbors did nothing during the 35 minutes of her screams before she was silenced by her killer.  (See Blink, Influence, People in Crisis, and The Lucifer Effect for more on the bystander effect, which is believed to drive the inaction.)  Imagine Kitty’s family and the trauma they faced as they learned of these details and came to grips with a world where none of her neighbors would even phone the police.

It changes the world that they live in.  Not only must they accept the tragic world where rapists and murderers could victimize Kitty, but also they have to accept that the rest of the population might not be as good as they believed.  Albert Bandura in Moral Disengagement examines how we can disconnect people from their moral moorings and set them adrift to behave in ways that defy explanation – including failing to protect members of their community.

Sometimes, the degree of anger and frustration is greater with the people who stood by and did nothing than the people who inflicted the trauma on the person.  It’s a greater pain to know that people wouldn’t help.

Competition and Overreactions

Almost everyone has the family member that they know not to share their trauma with.  It will end in one of two ways: a competition for whose trauma is the most traumatic, or an overreaction to the trauma that happened to you.  Somehow, they’ll act as if the trauma happened to them – and their trauma is more important than yours.  This is particularly complicated in the trauma from a death, because that death will impact almost everyone in the family, and some people will feel the impact more strongly.

Let’s dispatch the problem of competition first.  If someone is trying to compete with you about whose trauma is worse, they’re necessarily invalidating the degree to which you feel the trauma and, in some ways, are gaslighting you to say, “It wasn’t that bad.”  Sometimes, you can shut down the competition by simply stating, “I agree, your trauma was bad, it might even be worse, but we’re talking about my trauma right now.”  While this won’t shut down every competition, if you can have the wherewithal to respond by acknowledging their trauma and indicating that it’s not what you’re discussing right now, you may be able to get them to stop.

It’s important to realize that, if they’re trying to compete with you about the trauma you’re describing, they’re likely not a safe person (see Safe People), or they’ve not been able to fully process their trauma and feel as if no one is listening.  That’s why it’s important, when you’re able, to make an attempt to listen to their trauma.  It doesn’t need to be – and perhaps should not be – while you’re sharing your own trauma.

The other end of the spectrum is the overreactor.  It’s not that they’re competing with you about how their trauma is more important, impactful, or worthy of attention.  They’re too busy reacting to their trauma of the trauma that you faced to be present for how it impacted you.  They make your trauma about them and how it changes their life.  You call to tell your parents about your drunk driving conviction, and they begin to explain how it will impact their social relationships with their friends.

Many people have learned that there are some people – frequently family – who are not safe enough to discuss traumatic events with.


As humans, we need connections to other people.  (See The Dance of Connection for more.)  Because we need connection when we feel isolated and alone, we’re vulnerable.  It doesn’t matter whether the separation is real or not.  What matters is that you believe you’re alone.  When trauma rips through your life but doesn’t feel like it has ripped through your friends and acquaintances, you feel separate.  Consider the incest victim who tells no one and is isolated by feeling different.  The statistics say that it’s likely that others in their peer group have faced the same tragic event – but none of them feel safe enough to talk, and thus they’re all alone.

Conversely, their  psychological ego protection mechanisms may seek to elevate the person who doesn’t talk as superior to those who complain and whine about their trauma.  Yet these defenses are necessarily incomplete.  On the one hand, they feel better than others; in other ways, they feel inferior.  They oscillate between too good and too bad but always feel separate, disconnected, and alone.

Community is such a powerful force.  We see the power of community in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Our Kids.  We see the power of community in twelve-step groups.  (For more, see Why and How 12-Step Groups Work.)  We cannot expect to heal from trauma if we feel like we’re the only ones.

The Truly Evil Is Us

One of the more disturbing aspects of trying to recover from trauma is when we realize that the greatest atrocities in human history were sometimes aided by normal people.  Adolf Eichmann was an important part of the machine that committed genocide of Jews during World War II.  He was also judged to be relatively normal – not a depraved monster that everyone wanted to believe he was.  The questions arose about how normal men and women could do such vile things and remain “normal.”  It led to experiments like Stanley Milgram’s simulated shock experiments that had a majority of subjects believing that they were shocking other subjects with dangerous levels of current in the name of science.  It led to Phillip Zimbardo’s much-reported, aborted Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE).  Zimbardo reports the story of SPE himself in The Lucifer Effect, and Bandura decomposes how the processes work in Moral Disengagement.

The net of all this work is that the unspeakable things that some men have done are things that any of us could or would do given the right circumstances.  It harkens back to Lewin and his formula, which states that behavior is a function of both person and environment.  That is, we can’t predict behavior absent from an environment.  (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality for Lewin’s work.)  We see this environmental feedback in the extreme views that some groups develop.  (See Going to Extremes for more.)

Control via Threat

In Chasing the Scream and Dreamland, we discover the fear that can be created by random, capricious acts of violence.  Cartels don’t keep people compliant by a strictly regimented form of consequences.  Instead, they randomly make examples of people to instill fear that any disloyalty may be repaid with torture and death – not just of you but also of anyone you love.  As if torn from a page of the drug cartel playbook, often people are controlled with threats that make them fear for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

If you leave the person who is controlling and abusing you, they may find you and kill you and your children – or they may just as likely go kill your parents.  At least, that’s the story they tell.  It drives fear so deep into a person that it’s hard to shake.  The statistics aren’t much help here.  Roughly 40-50% of the murders of female adults are classified as IPV.  That is, the person who killed them was a spouse, partner, or ex-partner.

The randomness and the degree to which the partner seems to be willing to take their anger, rage, and vengeance makes it difficult for a woman to decide to break away.  Even then, there are far too many cases of the controlling partner finding – and returning or murdering – the one who tried to escape.

Disassociation and Altered Perception

It’s common for trauma patients to start to disassociate with their situation.  It helps to believe that whatever is happening is happening to someone else.  While it’s common, it’s not very adaptive post-trauma.  Teaching people to remain safe and connected to their experiences is an important part of the recovery process.  Detecting disassociation is a skill for both the person themselves – and for those who care about them.

The most common way that people report disassociation is that they begin to look upon the scene not from their vantage point but instead as if they were looking at it from above or from another place in the room.  This is often accompanied by a numbness.

However, this isn’t the only way to detect disassociation.  The trance-like state that disassociation induces also allows for things that normally cannot occur.  The first is that you can accept and believe two contradictory ideas.  It’s possible – for instance – to believe that the Sun rises in the East and also that the Sun rises in the West.  If evaluated together, one is obviously false, but the person who is disassociating never seems to find themselves at this particular crossroads.

Additionally, disassociated people tend to have a broadly based altered perception.  This can manifest itself in a variety of ways – like seeing the situation from another vantage point, as just explained, or by perceiving events radically differently than they could have been.

Consider an innocuous situation where one person feels animosity towards a second.  This person may believe that they were snubbed by the other.  They made a step forward, made eye contact and then the second person dismissed them.  However, the second party has no recollection of this.  This situation took place under a high-resolution camera during the daylight where what transpired was captured beautifully.  There was no motion towards the second person, no eye contact, and no snubbing.  Without video evidence, the first person would have held fast to their beliefs.  (This is a real situation.)

The ways that the perception can be distorted are almost limitless, some able to manifest in the moment and others rewriting memory to accomplish the distortion.  (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more about memory rewriting.)

Keeping Secrets from Yourself

Because traumatized people would prefer to believe that the traumatic events never happened, they’ll sometimes try to pretend that it didn’t.  White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts clearly demonstrates that this cannot be done in the broadest sense.  If you can pull this off in any limited sense, it may provide temporary relief – but ultimately the secrets will become exposed, and you’ll have to deal with them.  While it’s not appropriate to confront every challenge immediately, it should be recognized that permanent secrets don’t really work.

Finding Meaning – Even if It’s Wrong

To power our predictions, we must develop theories of how the world works.  We must find ways to explain what’s happening to us and build models that work with the experiences we have.  (For more on the model building, see Gary Klein’s excellent book, Sources of Power.)  As a child who experiences trauma inflicted upon you by your parents, you effectively have two basic meanings that you can take.  First, that your parents – who gave you life and have protected you up to this point – are really evil and are doing things to harm you.  Alternatively, you can believe that something that you’ve done is bad, and if you simply correct the bad thing that you’re doing, all will be well.

Too often, innocent children pick the second option, but there is a rationality to it.  In the face of evil parents, a child is defenseless.  There’s nothing they can do to stop the infliction of additional trauma.  They’re helpless.  (For more on helplessness, see The Hope Circuit.)  Conversely, if it’s the child that can change their behavior and get different results, they’re holding onto at least a little bit of power and hope.  So, while the second approach threatens their self-esteem, it also empowers them to make changes.

Obviously, the problem is uniformly with the parents as no innocent child deserves to be traumatized.  However, we see this pattern happening in other situations as well.  Rather than accepting the relatively uncharitable view of others, we inflict it upon ourselves because we can – we believe – change our behaviors.  We try to be perfect, because that will stop the trauma.  However, no one can be perfect.  (See Perfectionism for more on trying to be perfect.)

Rational Arguments Don’t Matter

Sometimes, it’s too hard to see someone else’s point of view.  If we accept Jonathan Haidt’s Rider-Elephant-Path model that says that our rationality is a tiny rider on top of a large emotional elephant, it becomes easier to understand how, when our emotions are out of whack, no amount of conversation with the rational rider is going to matter.  (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for more on the model.)  This is one of the very odd effects that happens.  In Going to Extremes, the process of moving towards extreme positions is laid out – including the transition between “can I” and “must I” accept the other person’s arguments.

At the most basic levels, the way we feel is simply the way we feel – reality be damned.  That’s why so much of the best work in psychology has been about gaining perspective, making it easier to look at different perspectives, and taking the most helpful and generally most correct one.

The answer is sometimes to allow the elephant to settle down and give the rider a chance – but only if the person doesn’t have reinforcing messages continuing to drive their emotional response.

Body Containing Trauma

What happens when you can’t find a medical reason for a condition that’s facing someone?  The answer is you either keep looking or you dismiss it as not real.  However, over the past few decades, as we’ve advanced diagnostic tools, we’ve also improved our understanding of the relationship between the way we think and the way our body responds.  We see this in The Body Keeps the Score as well as Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.  The degree to which we’re in stress and fear has a profound impact on the functioning of our immune system, and many of the diseases we face today are autoimmune diseases – that is, the immune system mistakenly attacking the body itself.

There are ways of better understanding stress and fear, including the ideas shared in Richard Lazarus’ Emotion & Adaptation, but whether you understand what’s happening or not doesn’t change the physiological impacts of long-term sustained stress.  In short, the body is damaged by our inability to process and resolve trauma.


If you had to pick a single word to combat trauma, it would probably be empowerment.  It’s restoring to the person a sense of self-agency that they lost through the trauma.  Whether it was a rape or a natural disaster, the trauma disrupts our ideal that we can protect ourselves and our bodies.  By empowering people to take back control of their bodies and their situations, we enable them to process and resolve the trauma.

In clinical settings, this is often about describing things before they’re done, getting micro consents, and offering choices.  They’re simple, small ways that people are being given back control of their lives – control they often believe they lost.

In Opening Up, James Pennebaker explains research he did shortly after the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980.  Two towns were selected: Yakima and Longview.  The recovery of the two towns couldn’t have been any more different.  Yakima was covered in over two inches of ash and sustained damage, but the community came together and ultimately told a story of empowerment, community, resilience – and opportunity to experience a once-in-a-lifetime event.  Longview, which received less than a half-inch of ash, kept a watchful eye on the mountain that they no longer trusted.  Ultimately, with time, the two communities returned to a similar sense of the event – but the difference may have been the ability of Yakima to see how they could make a difference and clean up the mess that the volcano had made of their town.

It’s Not Fair – and It’s Not Right

Life ain’t fair.  That’s not very helpful, particularly after a trauma.  Automobile accidents where the other person is at fault are largely random.  Very little of your driving ability comes into the picture when someone else is at fault.  Is it “fair” that you were the one in the accident?  Not by the definitions that people use for fair.  Of course, it’s equally not fair that someone wins the lottery, but you don’t hear the winner complaining.  In fairness, we believe that people should get exactly what they deserve, but when you live in a world of probabilities and chances, this just isn’t the case at an individual level.  The truth is that trauma isn’t fair.  Life isn’t fair.  There are ways to influence the odds of trauma, but even if you take every precaution, it’s still possible to be the unwilling recipient of trauma.

Trauma also isn’t right.  It “shouldn’t” have happened to someone.  Again, life doesn’t dole out trauma like some of karma.  It happens to good people, and it doesn’t make them any less good.  Trauma is sometimes the direct result of risks someone took – but mostly it’s just dumb bad luck.

Never Back to Normal

Getting back to normal after a trauma isn’t a thing.  A new normal is defined, and that is the way things will be.  Heracles said that a man never steps into a river twice – he’s not the same man, and it’s not the same river.  The idea that we’ll get back to the “normal” of even a minute ago is a fallacy.  However, never is this so obvious as after a trauma, when your foundational beliefs have been questioned.  Once you’ve redefined the way you see the world, even the same places and situations are different, because how you process it and what you bring are different.

When someone is struggling with a traumatic experience, the goal should be to define a positive new normal – rather than trying to get back to a place that no longer exists.

Defining the New You

One of the activities that everyone must do post-traumatic event is to redecide who they’re going to be.  This can be done consciously or unconsciously, but we must reevaluate who we are in the context of the new perspectives and information.  We must decide the kind of person we’re going to be in relation to the world that seems to have changed.  Are we going to let the trauma define us as a victim – or are we going to rise above the trauma and define ourselves by how we recover and continue rather than by what has happened to us?

Trauma is an inflection point.  It punctuates our life’s story with an exclamation point, and we can choose to use that energy to push us forward – or we can avoid it and hunker down.  Or we can decide to hunker down and recover before venturing on again, which is probably the wisest choice of all.


It takes courage to move past fear and into the new world.  Most people think that courageous people move forward without fear – but that’s not truth.  Courageous people move forward in fear with the hope they can make things better.  (See Find Your Courage for more.)  Courage brings with it a risk that things will get worse and a hope that it will get better.

When we confront despair, we make ourselves vulnerable to potential hopelessness – and temporary increased risk of suicide.  However, it’s only by confronting our fears and the despair they can bring that we can neutralize their power over us and move forward.

We must find ways to simultaneously acknowledge the fear and move forward anyway.

Return to Pooh Corner

There’s a song by Kenny Logins titled “Return to Pooh Corner,” which is about him remembering his childhood through his child’s eyes.  Sometimes, we move forward by moving backwards.  Sometimes, we gather deeper understanding as we move back to the starting point and repeat something we’ve done before.  Often, addicts “fall off the wagon” and are crushed that they can’t beat the alcohol once and for all.  However, what they fail to realize is that most addicts relapse.  Our journey to mental fitness isn’t a straight line any more than our physical health is a straight line.

This doesn’t, however, stop the guilt and shame.  Nor can it silence the voice that wonders if you’re one of the “incurable” ones.  Trauma has the same dynamics.  It can be that, after initial treatment, things seem to be going fine until something comes up.  Some trigger trips you up and makes it impossible to get back into a working rhythm.  In these cases, there’s no shame in returning to the place that you were helped – even if it feels as if there should be.  We all work through traumas only to have them resurface years in the future.

Going to Groups

Trauma and Recovery exposes a clearly articulated model of groups that has three stages – and a pre-stage where group work on trauma may not be appropriate.   The first type of group is open and welcoming.  It is designed to reestablish a sense of safety.  The second type of group is a remembrance and mourning group that has an established time limit; it helps people work through the experience of trauma by progressively increasing the degree to which affect (feeling) is connected to and processed for the event.  The final group type is reconnection, which focuses on rebuilding the sense of connection and community that trauma necessarily interrupts.

While the flow and definitions are solid, the more important part of the model is the recognition that there is no one kind of group that fits everyone’s needs.  There’s a lifecycle to grief.  (See Finding Meaning and The Grief Recovery Handbook for more.)  Different group forms work for different people in different places on their trauma recovery journey.

In the end, it’s important to realize that it’s not just the trauma that we should be focusing on.  We need to focus equally on Trauma and Recovery.

Book Review-Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma

Just because you’re in a prison doesn’t mean you’re a prisoner.  It’s the first highlight of a book that seeks to teach the difference between the conditions that you were – or are – in and the way that you process it, label it, and let it change you.  Everyone will face trauma in their lives.  There is no choice in this regard.  However, the question is whether you’ll use this trauma to grow or whether you’ll allow the trauma to crush you.  Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma comes from the Boulder Crest Foundation based in Virginia, and it’s based in some of the best we know about trauma and growth.


It was 2017 or 2018 when Marty Seligman introduced me to Rich Tedeschi.  I was working on our book Extinguish Burnout at the time.  We were grappling with the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how to avoid it.  When I reached out to ask about how one could know whether someone would react to trauma with growth or disorder, Seligman pointed to Rich as the expert.  I had recently read the excellent book, Antifragile, about how things could get better with struggle.  However, it didn’t quite explain how someone could learn to grow from trauma rather than be crushed by it.  In the years since then, Rich has been kind enough to share his wisdom on more than one occasion.  More recently, I read his book, Transformed by Trauma, to even better understand how trauma can help you grow.

Rich has been connected to the Boulder Crest Foundation for years and has helped them integrate the best research and practices into their programs to make it easier to find growth instead of disorder in the wake of trauma.

Five Areas

Growth, rather than disorder, seems to show up in five key areas:

  • Personal Strength
  • Meaningful Relationships
  • Greater Appreciation
  • Richer Spiritual or Religious Life
  • Positive Future

Said differently, people grow into a better relationship and appreciation for life.  They realize what’s important to them, and they’re able to align their life’s course to that connection with the universe of people.

The Disorder

Hysteria is the first organized label for what we now would call PTSD.  It was designated to only affect women, and the ways that it was addressed weren’t good.  It was seen as a fault or a weakness and, as a result, was generally shunned.  This created a problem when 40% of the soldiers coming back to Britain in World War I returned because of psychological problems that would eventually be labeled “shell shock.”  Men, it seemed, were developing something that was thought to be a woman’s affliction – and it seems to come about as a result of the horrors of war.  This exposure had left them with deep psychological scars that could neither be explained nor seen.  The knowledge of this was kept secret for fear that widespread acceptance of this fact would demoralize the soldiers.

The struggle still was in accepting this as an outcome of their experiences rather than a personal defect of the individuals.  The sheer numbers of people made it hard to accept the earlier explanations.

Over time, we’d begin to understand that these disordered responses to trauma weren’t personal or moral failings but rather an inability to process something that they’d seen or done.  We learned that, as sense-making machines, we needed to make sense of these experiences, and it nearly universally required that we adjust our core beliefs – literally the ways we had built our lives.  That’s never easy, but for some, it seemed harder.

In Change or Die, we’re exposed to the idea that asteroids may wipe out all life on the planet.  Rather we’re re-exposed, because most of us have encountered the idea before.  For most, this doesn’t create any real anxiety.  We quickly ignore the thought, since it’s not something we can change.  It’s our ability to ignore this fact that allows us to get up, love, support, and educate our children, and get on with our daily lives.  If we believed the world was generally benevolent, and we based our life on this fact in subtle ways, we’d struggle when an alternative reality revealed itself in the cruelty of others.  Unlike the potential for asteroids, we couldn’t ignore it, because it’s woven into every decision we make.

If the world becomes fundamentally hostile, or even if we have to accept the possibility that some people are hostile, we must change what we do today, and many of the decisions we’ve made in the past would no longer be “right.”  The ripples created by changing a fundamental view – to accommodate new experiences – cannot be understated.

The Numbers

It’s a tragic reality in military and veteran populations that there can be more people lost to suicide than in war.  Suicide routinely accounts for more firearm deaths than murder.  We hear about the mass shootings and are appalled, but we fail to realize that, despite their tragic nature, they represent a trivial portion of the overall firearm deaths in the United States.  When you internalize these numbers, the need for growth from trauma rather than being crushed by it starts to set in.  Too many people are encountering a trauma they cannot process, and they’re choosing to end their lives to escape the pain.  (See The Suicidal Mind for more about suicide as an end to psychic pain – or psychache.)

Program Problems

It’s no secret – though also not well known – that many people who enter areas of mental health are looking for their own answers.  A friend of mine reported that the difference between the counselors and the patients on an inpatient psychiatric ward was that the counselors had keys.  In many ways, the inmates are running the asylum.  However, It’s not just the fact that the people who are supposed to be teaching need to do their own work, it’s that the models don’t work either.

“Catch and release” is the way that it’s described.  You come to a training or an institute, have a good time, listen to others, have an experience, and then you’re released back to your old environment presumably changed forever.  This conceptually denies what we know about learning and recovery.

The research on learning and how we learn is clear.  As adults, we learn differently than our children.  In The Adult Learner, Malcolm Knowles and his colleagues lay out the five things that adult learners need to be able to learn.  However, that’s just the first step.  Further work has been done to evaluate what actually changes perceptions, behaviors, and results.  One of the findings of this work is that we need spaced repetition, so that we’ll retain the information that we receive – and catch and release doesn’t do this.  (If you want to learn more about how we learn, see How We Learn, Learning in Adulthood, and Efficiency in Learning.)

Why We Do It

Given the prevalence of catch and release programs and the clear evidence that they don’t work, one might ask why we still do them.  There are a variety of unsatisfying answers.  “We’ve always done it that way” tops the list, followed by the close cousin, “That’s the way education is done.”  We’ve learned in a very similar way throughout our educational experience, so it’s got to be right – right?

The challenge is that these programs are what people expect, what they’ll fund, and what they know how to measure.  Though most people funding programs like this don’t know anything about Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation, they know they can measure how people feel about the class – their sentiment.  We know sentiment has effectively no correlation to desirable outcomes, but the people writing the checks, either for internal corporate development or from philanthropic foundations looking to make a change in the world, aren’t aware of the need to have a better way to measure effectiveness.

The Power of Listening

On the one hand, most of us have had a conversation with a trusted friend where they listened to us completely.  They didn’t judge or offer advice.  They said few words.  Afterward, it felt like a weight had been lifted off our shoulders.  Somehow, the simple act of listening was powerful.  On the other hand, we believe that listening couldn’t possibly make that big of a difference.  We often fail to pay enough attention to the other person or the listening process.

What professionals know is that the most powerful part of their jobs is to understand other people.  They recognize that humans are necessarily social beings who need each other to survive, and this drives an innate need to be heard and understood by others.  Evolution has primed us towards the idea that if we’re not understood, we’re dead.  For most of mankind’s time, if you weren’t understood, you had to face the world alone, and you weren’t equipped for that.  (For more about our need to be connected, see Loneliness.)

Self-Regulate to Avoid Self-Medicating

What is often missed in our culture of blame is the fact that addictions are solutions to other problems.  They started out as coping strategies that eventually began to control a person – rather than the other way around.  Certainly, addictions are problems that cause other problems, but at their root, they’re solving other internal hurts.  (See Dreamland, The Globalization of Addiction, and Chasing the Scream for more about addiction and how it works.)  What people who have worked with addicts have learned is that if you want to stop the addiction – in the long term – you’re going to need to help the person learn how to respond to trauma better.

The better a person is able to self-regulate, the less they need to self-medicate.  Instead of seeking out a way to numb the pain, they find ways to work through it directly.

The Model

Struggle Well proposes a model that has three factors surrounding a central core of spiritual wellness.  The model can be summarized as follows:

  • Mental Wellness
    • Ability to concentrate
    • Creativity and problem solving
    • Curiosity
  • Physical wellness
    • Fitness
    • Nutrition
    • Sleep
  • Financial wellness
    • Where you live
    • How you live
    • Resources for short, medium, and long term
  • Spiritual wellness (center)
    • Relationships
    • Service
    • Character

Guilt and Shame

Sometimes, our views are permanently affixed to the past and either our guilt about the things that we’ve done or shame about the people that we’ve become.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on the difference.)  There is no problem in accepting the reality of our past, but a constant focus on the past doesn’t allow us to look to the future.  What we’ve done doesn’t define us.  It shapes how others think of us and how we think of ourselves, but it’s not a fixed and unchangeable destiny.

Carol Dweck researched Mindset and found that more adaptive and useful ways of thinking acknowledge that we can continue to grow throughout our lives.  Being bad a math in the past doesn’t mean we’ll be bad at it in the future.  In No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris explains how our subtle desires may result in differences in our abilities and dispositions – but that these remain very malleable to future change if we’re committed to making the change.  Small amounts of interest difference started the ball rolling, and more – but still not insurmountable – amounts of interest and desire can radically change our path.

Hurting People Hurt People

Healthy people help people.  The spiritually healthiest people – those Brené Brown would call “wholehearted” – are focused on how they can help others.  (See Daring Greatly for more.)  The unhealthy people in our lives will stumble around blindly and will hurt us – not necessarily out of malice but rather as a result of their own pain.  We minimize our hurt when we focus on our healing.  (See Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting for more.)

Looking Back on Normal for Them

There are two reasons why people will not look back on their history.  The first reason is because it’s perceived as too painful.  In this space, strategies of desensitization can be helpful.  (See Moral Disengagement for Albert Bandura’s work on desensitization.)  The second reason is trickier.  People don’t look back because they don’t perceive their history as having problems.  In short, the problem is that it doesn’t look bad, because it was normal to them.

The interesting bit is whether it was normal and healthy or only seemed like it because it was all that the person experienced.

One of my high school friends used to sleep in the dryer, because it was the only place in the house that was semi-quiet.  In my own world, my mother struggled financially.  I can remember toast and peanut butter for breakfast, and times when breakfast was a cereal with powdered milk.  Our neighbors received government cheese that they shared (or gave to us).  Our cups were margarine containers.  It was normal to me.  To be fair, growing up wasn’t bad or traumatic – but I’ve come to realize that it also wasn’t the “normal” that other children experienced.  One of my friends in grade school didn’t have a phone in their home – so I was clear that it could be worse, even back then.

I share this, because someone could ask me to look into my past, and I may not find anything that’s interesting – or it could be that others are blocking out aspects of their childhood that impact their lives today.

Integrated Self Image

Struggle Well describes it as, “The treasure that comes from connecting your head and your heart is ultimately a connection to your soul.”  I’ve previously talked about is as integrated self-image in my review of Why We Do What We Do and have explained the relationship between reason and emotion while discussing Jonathan Haidt’s Rider-Elephant-Path model.  (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis.)  The degree of peace we can feel if we begin to teach ourselves to appreciate both our logic and reason as well as our emotion and intuition cannot be overstated.

There’s no aspect of ourselves that has the one true answer.  Instead, like we discovered in No Bad Parts, we need all of the parts of who we are to be the best we can be.

Less About Others

What other people think of me is none of my business.  At first, it sounds odd.  But it’s about me.  How can it not be any of my business?  The answer comes in two pieces.  First, how can you know what other people actually think about you?  We know that people are not likely going to tell you what they really think.  They’re going to sugar coat their perspectives or outright lie to you.  (See Radical Candor for more.)

The second perspective is whether you’d change anything if you knew the truth.  If you knew that some people that you’re interacting with don’t appreciate your gifts and talents, does that mean you’d hide them?  Would you become a different person just to be more well liked by a few people?  You probably shouldn’t.  The saying goes, “Be yourself – unless you’re an asshole.  Then be someone else.”  It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, but it expresses a fundamental truth that we’re best off being ourselves.

Struggle Well reports their motto as, “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it mean.”

Knowing Who to Prune

If you want your plants to grow best, you’ll prune them.  You’ll remove the dead and non-productive parts of the plant, so that the other parts have more nutrients to grow.  Our relationships are like this.  We need the discernment to identify those relationships that nurture us and those that are harmful.  We then need to evaluate pruning relationships from our lives.

It’s the discernment that’s the hard part.  Every relationship has both good and bad.  Some things about the relationship feed us, while others drain us.  How do we know which relationships are positive – and which ones are not?  In addition to the daily ups and downs of the relationships, we need to know that there are also seasons.  When my friend lost his father, I poured more in than I got out.  A friend faces depression, and I carry the lion’s share of the load.  When I lost my son and I needed support, I have no doubt that I was taking more from the relationships than I was giving.

Fault Lines explains the rifts that can happen in family relationships.  In it, we learn that sometimes there are big events that make a big difference.  But there are also small things that, if adjusted, could take a toxic relationship and make it life-giving – if we’re willing to try to find that path.

Goals and Luck

Struggle Well suggests that great leaders have goals and that these goals create success.  Certainly, I concur that goals and work towards those goals are important.  (See The Four Disciplines of Execution, for instance.)  Conversely, I recognize what Jim Collins referred to in Good to Great as the Stockdale paradox.  It’s knowing when to stay the course and when to listen to feedback.  Even Bob Pozen in Extreme Productivity explains that his life wasn’t a straight line.  Goals are good, but we have to be equally willing to adjust them when the straight path isn’t an option.

Louis Pasteur said it best: “Chance favors the prepared.”  That is, we need to do the work that we can to prepare ourselves to take advantage of luck – or opportunity – when it appears.  Goals do that.  Investment in ourselves and our mental health does that.

PhD in GSD

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  He was talking about the people who have earned their PhD in Getting Shit Done (GSD).

The way to earn your PhD is to start by learning how to Struggle Well.

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