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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.

Book Review-Becoming Trauma Informed

Everyone has experienced trauma.  Some situation has exceeded our capacity to cope.  As professionals, friends, and community members, we’ve encountered others who are overwhelmed by life.  Becoming Trauma Informed focuses on helping us respond to those situations better.  Instead of pushing back, ignoring, invalidating, or dismissing the trauma the other person is feeling, we can learn to accept, explore, validate, and support people through the trauma.

Naming It

One of the myths of working with folks who are experiencing or have experienced trauma is that you have to have them name it and explain it.  The myth goes that you can’t support them if you’re not aware of what they’ve been through.  This is simply not true.  As someone who is responsive to another’s trauma, you don’t need to know the details of the rape, suicide attempt, war, or any of the other traumas that may be present in their lives.  You don’t even need to agree that it would be trauma for you.  You only need to know that, for them, it was trauma.  Just like you don’t get to tell someone else what they’re feeling, you cannot tell them what is and is not trauma.

Do you need to understand the feelings that they have as a result of the trauma and the triggers?  Yes.  But you don’t need to know – and you may not deserve to know – the actual details of the situation.  Those are the private domain of the traumatized person that they may or may not be ready to share.  When you move to the understanding that they own the trauma experience and they get to choose how and when to share it, you’re in a better position to support them.

I can tell you that some close friends have had trauma that I’ve never directly asked them to relate to me.  In some cases, they believe they’ve shared the story, because so many others have requested or demanded the full story.  They speak to me as if I know the full story – and I don’t correct them.  I don’t have any need to know the whole story to support them.

Distorted Identity

While it’s convenient to speak about trauma as a one-time thing, it rarely is.  Most of the time, trauma is a pattern that people see repeatedly in their life.  While some will blame the victim for finding abusive relationships, we thankfully rarely do this with children.  Still, the pull to blame the victim for their repeated traumatization is powerful.  The problem is that, even without blaming the victim, repeated trauma fragments a person’s identity.  They can’t integrate the thoughts of the trauma with the rest of their life.  That’s a part of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as was exposed in Transformed by Trauma.

No Bad Parts speaks of our psyche in terms of parts or fragments that are either protectors or exiles.  Some parts of our personality develop to protect other parts that we must exile.  Much of that work is about returning the exiles to our core personality.  It’s about integrating ourselves together again.

Integrating is one challenge.  Removing distortions is another.  Understanding Beliefs and How We Know What Isn’t So both address distortions of our thinking – and, to some degree, what can be done about it.  Neither, however, directly address trauma.  The Body Keeps the Score speaks about how our bodies encode trauma in ways that are not immediately apparent.  One of these ways may be a distorted identity.

Perceptual Fragments

James Pennebaker’s work Opening Up explains that PTSD may be an inability to process a traumatic event.  In my review for Transformed by Trauma, I walk through some of the work that makes up what we know on PTSD.  These disconnected fragments of memory are sometimes triggered by seemingly unrelated events in the same way that we see a stick on the ground and believe that it’s a snake.  The startle response is driven by our amygdala, and it’s recognition of a pattern that may potentially be threatening.  (See Paul Ekman’s work for more on the startle response in Nonverbal Messages and Telling Lies.)

Monitoring Motivation

Sometimes, people will say that others aren’t motivated.  That’s technically incorrect.  Everyone is motivated by something.  The commenter is really saying that the others aren’t motivated by the same things.  (See Who Am I? for Reiss’ excellent framework on motivations.)  Miller and Rollnick, in Motivational Interviewing, make the point that the question shouldn’t be “Why isn’t this person motivated?” but rather “For what is this person motivated?”  It’s similar to the way that Immunity to Change approaches the question by asking what’s preventing the change that is desired.  It can be as simple as the person’s rational aspects knows they should, but their emotions are unable to sustain the effort necessary.  (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for the rational-emotional-default/Rider-Elephant-Path model.)  It’s also possible that we’ve not developed the willpower necessary to sustain the effort.  (See Willpower for more information on the limits of willpower.)

Delusional Beliefs

More than the simple cognitive bias that believe we’re better than we really are, a large percentage of the population describe delusional beliefs.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more on believing that we’re better than we are.)  Somewhere between 10 to 25 percent of the general population will hear voices, and up to 70 percent will describe delusional beliefs.  Hallucinations in particular are common in the following:

  • Trauma
  • Bereavement
  • Sleep Deprivation
  • Solitary Confinement
  • Hostage Situations
  • Sensory Deprivation
  • Waking

Trust and Safety

Trust is critical for those who have been traumatized – that is, all of us.  We need to know how we’re going to be able to protect ourselves and who we can trust is a big part of that.  My Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited post covers how trust functions in detail.

Tools for Trauma

If we want to become trauma informed, we need to know to interact with others with trauma in ways that allows them to heal.  (See Hurt, Hurtful, Hurting for more on the need to heal oneself.)

  • Maximize Choices – Always seek to maximize the choices where you can. Some things may need to be done, but in places where there is flexibility, allow it.  Collaborate with the person to allow them to define what they want.
  • Listen – It seems silly, but we often get so wrapped up in our own worlds and what we have to get done that we don’t always really listen to what the other person is saying.
  • Seek to Understand – The impossible goal is to fully understand the other person, but we should endeavor to do our best to understand the other person. This includes:
    • Whole Person – Who the person is as a person, not just the reason we’re interacting with them.
    • Experiences – The experience they have had from their point of view.
    • Context – Their broader context, including what else is going on in their world that we may not be aware of.
  • Respect Choices – The more we can respect that the choices others make are theirs, and we can’t control those choices, the better off we’ll both be. (See Compelled to Control for more.)
  • Validate Experiences – Where possible, validate that their experiences are theirs and that they do make sense – at least to some degree.
  • Encourage Self-Advocacy – Encourage the person to recognize their strengths and their ability to self-advocate.

In the end, we won’t be perfect, but that isn’t our goal.  Our goal is Becoming Trauma Informed.

Book Review-Trauma-Informed Healthcare Approaches

Everyone has trauma.  Everyone has experienced something that has hurt them and from which they need to recover – and they may never recover completely.  There may always be that soft spot in their soul where they were hurt so deeply that no healing can find its way.  Trauma-Informed Healthcare Approaches seems to transform healthcare organizations in ways that minimize the retriggering of those who have been traumatized and to heal their hurts.

The Meaning of Trauma

Before we get too far, we must deal with the fact that we use the word “trauma” to apply to both the event and the outcome.  The bike accident is a trauma, and so, too, are the lacerations (cuts) that are sustained as a part of it.  This is important, because when we’re speaking of trauma-informed healthcare, we’re speaking of a system that recognizes and responds to the outcomes.  The emergency department is there to address the event, but the whole organization needs to respond to the outcome and support the healing process.

In Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting, I explained the difference between actions designed to hurt, feeling hurt, and the climb out of hurt.  Trauma is much the same way.  There’s the event, and there’s the need to recover from it.

Ruptured Relationships

One of the problems with trauma is that it ruptures relationships.  It can be that quickening of pulse as you get into the car after an accident or the sweaty hands when you see a German Shepherd.  It can also be a response to a person who traumatized you – the feeling when your ex calls on the phone.  The goal for trauma-informed care is to facilitate the healing of relationships to people, animals, and things.

Healing the relationships is sometimes desensitization, as Albert Bandura first explained.  This is done with a carefully controlled set of circumstances that makes people feel safe while moving closer to the area of their trauma.

Vicarious Traumatization

Experiencing someone else’s trauma by hearing their story has multiple names.  It’s sometimes called vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue.  (See Is It Compassion Fatigue or Burnout? for comparing burnout and compassion fatigue.)  The fact is that listening to other people’s trauma all day takes its toll on you.  It’s hard to be fully open to others’ emotions and not pick up some of the residual.  That’s one of the reasons why it’s particularly important that people who are in caring professions learn how to manage their trauma effectively.  They’ll be receiving it consistently and will need to effectively process it before doing their next shift.

Revealing Traumas

Sometimes, it’s not yet time for someone to reveal a trauma.  It’s too new or too raw, or you’re not perceived as safe enough.  This places healthcare workers in the delicate position of needing to allow people to avoid discussing their trauma – and to signal care and concern that makes it safer for the person to be able to share in the future.

There’s no one answer to how to address this with patients – and people.  It’s a combination of the allowing and reaching into the discomfort enough that there’s a chance to resolve it.

Wayfinding through Trauma

The best thing that organizations can do is to make it easier for people to find their way through trauma.  This means sending clear signals that it’s okay to discuss, recognize, and work through trauma.  Simple things like allowing space for sharing and providing trauma-specific resources can go a long way to discovering many Trauma-Informed Healthcare Approaches.

Book Review-Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts

Everyone finds places where they’ve made a mistake, done wrong, or inadvertently harmed someone else, and an apology is called for.  At some level, everyone needs to learn how to better apologize, to heal the hurts that they have caused.  Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts is a way to learn more about how to do that – and what prevents us from doing it.  Harriet Lerner’s work is familiar to me: having been referred to by Brené Brown, I’ve previously read The Dance of Connection.  When I was doing my post, Anatomy of an Apology, I didn’t know that she had written about apologies.

I’m happy to say that she didn’t disagree with anything I said – but she did add more than a few enhancements that make sense for anyone struggling with apologies.

Why Apologize?

Perhaps the best place to start is to understand why we care about apologies in the first place.  It’s simple: we want to maintain relationships.  Whether it’s the damage that permeates families when there’s an argument that splits the family, like discussed in Fault Lines, or simply friendships or community relationships that are blocked by hurt feelings, we need to find ways to rebuild relationships after a harm has been done.

Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace explains one of the reasons that we want to apologize to others: to address a betrayal.  However, that’s far from the only reason.  Anything that causes the other person pain or frustration is a reason to apologize.

Apology Math

As humans, we have a tendency to want to apologize for precisely the amount of the pain of a disagreement – as we calculate it.  However, as a comedian once said, “Anyone that believes that relationships are a 50/50 arrangement doesn’t understand women or math.”  When we try to calculate the amount of the situation that we’re responsible for, we’ll invariably calculate it differently than the other party.  As Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So, we all believe we’re better than we really are.  It’s a better strategy to work on an apology that allows for the concept that the other person may believe more of the situation is ours to own than we believe.

Ifs and Buts

“I’m sorry if…” and “I’m sorry, but…” are both non-apologies.  I called out “but” but not “if” in my post.  There’s a nuance to “if” as a part of an apology.  It indicates that the person issuing the apology either doesn’t know what they’re apologizing for – or they’re unable to accept that it’s your truth and thereby validate it.

No Golden Ticket

Another challenge with apologies is when the party issuing it expects that it’s an instant ticket for forgiveness, like it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card that they can pull out and use at any time.  This confuses both forgiveness and how it differs from forgetting.  Forgiveness cannot be demanded; it can only be offered.  The person issuing an apology cannot expect forgiveness – though sometimes that is the implicit ask when an apology is offered.

Lerner is careful about forgiveness.  She shares that forgiveness need not be binary yes or no but rather a continuum between yes and no – or zero and 100.  Her perspective on the reason for forgiveness and how it works is nuanced, and in all candor, I’m not entirely sure that I understand the distinction that she’s trying to make.  I’ve always looked at forgiveness as a willingness to let go of the transgression and move forward.

There are several versions of a story of Buddhist monks, who were traveling and came upon a woman who asked to be carried across a river.  One monk did; the other monk, after some time, confronted the first about having broken his vows to never touch a woman.  He replied that he had only carried the woman across the river, and the second monk had carried her for much longer.  Inherent in this is acceptance or completion.

The assumption that things will be the way they were before – which is another common expectation – also confuses forgiveness with forgetting.  Forgiveness doesn’t require that we trust the other person again.  We need not trust them in the same way or to the same degree.  It only means that we need to move forward.  Ultimately, the desire for forgiveness is to return to the same level of trust that happened prior to the incident.  While this may happen, it doesn’t have to if the situation warrants a change in trust.  (For a comprehensive understanding of trust, see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.)

Responsibility, Remorse, Restitution, and Reassurance

Lerner quotes John Kador from Effective Apology with, “We apologize when we accept responsibility for an offence or grievance and express remorse in a direct, personal and unambiguous manner, offering restitution and promising not to do it again.”

While this may be the most effective apology, I rarely see it in real life.  Often, the reassurance that the person will avoid doing it again is missing.  You’ll notice that I weakened Kador’s word “promising,” because I don’t believe it’s right to make promises that people can’t keep.  In some cases, a promise is too strong a commitment, particularly when the offense is minor.

Otherwise, it’s important to take direct responsibility.  In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), we see the impact of half-hearted acceptance of responsibility.  Remorse is carried by the words “I’m sorry.”  Restitution is also missing from most apologies, as there’s very little can be done when we’re speaking about hurt feelings.  Obviously, if there’s a tangible loss for which restitution can be offered, it should be.


Sometimes, we’ll receive a criticism for which the person may desire an apology through our actions but in ways that would be unanticipated and unfair.  I volunteered for years with a twelve-step program where there were different types of addicts and hurting people.  Once of the things we were constantly monitoring were the complaints from people about triggering comments and media.  With regularity, we’d trigger someone in the audience with a song or a media clip or the presenter for the week.  (See The Coddling of the American Mind for what triggering is.)  It became a very complicated dance.

In some cases, the offending element was clearly over the line.  For instance, I was at an event that was honoring fallen heroes, some of whom died by suicide, and a song that was promoting suicide was played.  (The good news is that I was apparently the only person in the audience who caught it, having been conditioned to look for it.)  More frequently, we weren’t sure whether the element could reasonably be considered triggering.  We ultimately learned to walk the line together to share content that we needed for the rest of the audience knowing that we would get some complaints, and we’d talk to them individually to work through them having been triggered.

The tricky part from the apology perspective is to acknowledge the feeling, say we’re sorry we caused it, and offer restitution in the form of conversations to help them become less triggered – which is good for them.  Missing would be reassurance we won’t do it again – because, in some cases, we knew the media was on the schedule in the future.

When others offer criticism, we can honestly share, “I’m sorry I didn’t see it that way.  I’m sorry it was offensive to you.  Thank you for the feedback, it’s the only way I can try and prevent this in the future.”

The Attack

Sometimes, the criticism rises above the simple and moves into a character attack.  These are obviously more challenging.  Instead of saying that we’ve done wrong, they’re saying that we are wrong.  They’ve crossed the land of guilt and moved on into shame.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more about the differences between shame and guilt.)  Here, Lerner shares wisdom and stories that affirm that an apology need not be immediate.  A simple response that conveys that you want to understand the feedback and process it before responding is sufficient.

The problem is that we can apologize for what we did but not who we are.  It will take time and processing to separate the characterizations from the events that caused people to make those characterizations.

The Listening

Lerner explains that even the most heartfelt apology may fall flat if the person receiving the apology doesn’t feel heard or believes their concerns were not understood.  Having been on the receiving end of someone trying to apologize but refusing to take the time to understand what it was that they did that was hurtful, it intensified the hurt and moved us further apart rather than closer together.  Instead of bringing us closer together, the failed apology moved us further apart.

It moved us further apart, because it was a strong signal that my relationship wasn’t even worth understanding my pain.

The Deception Box

The capacity of the human mind to deceive itself is impressive.  It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which one can warp their perceptions to allow them to accept their actions and maintain the personas they have for other people.  In Leadership and Self Deception, the situations that lead to self-deception are called “boxes.”  Once someone enters a space where they’re not honest with themselves, they’ll often continue the distortions and attacks on others.  Lerner explains that once we become defensive, it’s hard to get back to a place of openness where we can hear others and can respond more wholly.

When inside the boxes, it’s also hard to know yourself.  When you “believe your own press,” you can’t hear your faults or opportunities for improvement.  You can’t express yourself to others at a level that exceeds your own understanding of yourself – and that can be seriously limiting.

Accepting Inevitability

Sometimes, there isn’t an apology to be offered.  The person who was harmed may have cut off communication to protect themselves from further harm or may simply be unable to hear an apology at this time.  The person who is willing to apologize must realize that there are times when the apology could be harmful – and times when we’ll be prevented from offering it.

Ultimately, the decision to make an apology where we’ve wronged someone – or where there is a rift – is the decision about whether we want to continue to be right or whether we want to be in a relationship.  This is at the heart of Lerner’s other book, The Dance of Connection.

No matter what the circumstances, we can all find useful information in the question Why Won’t You Apologize?


Book Review-Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust

I’ve learned that, in legal encounters, apologies are often avoided.  Over the years, I’ve occasionally encountered situations where I’ve got contracts that are materially breached by larger entities.  The degree to which the breach caused me harm could be questioned, but the fact that they violated the terms of the agreement couldn’t.  In truth, when I confronted them on the issue, I didn’t want any restitution, I wanted them to agree to not repeat the transgression.  However, instead of an apology, I got stonewalled, and it was frustrating.

In Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust, John Kador explains how to do an effective apology and, more importantly, why we don’t always do them.  Stonewalling may be a very bad thing to do to a relationship, but it’s something that lawyers have been taught to do.  (See The Science of Trust for more on stonewalling.)

Legal Apologies

There’s a funny thing about apologies when it comes to legal conflicts.  Attorneys are taught not to show their hands to their opponents and certainly not to give them things they can use in court to their client’s detriment.  Apologies are treated as acts of admission and therefore reduce the burden of proof for the opposing counsel.  However, the research is emerging that apologies are often much less costly than arguing it out.  We’re finding that not only are the plaintiffs – or wronged parties – much less aggressive in their demands, juries are more compassionate to those who seem contrite.

Despite the fact that 34 states have laws prohibiting the use of doctors’ statements of regret against them, malpractice attorneys still often recommend that their clients not apologize – and, more frequently, route all communications through the attorneys.

Perfect Truth

Apologies are both a perfect solution to imperfection and a signal that we’re more interested in relationships and truth than our ego.  Apologies aren’t easy, but they’re an essential ingredient to a life that is aligned with finding truth instead of accepting our perceptions as if they’re fact.  It’s a critical resuscitation of relationships that are struggling under the weight of hurt.  As imperfect humans, we must accept that we are going to make mistakes.  What matters is how we handle them.

Compassion for the Victim

The center of an effective apology is the compassion for the victim.  That is, we must first recognize the harm caused to the victim, and then we have to have a desire to provide some form of restoration for them.  Too often, we view apologies as a ticket to instant forgiveness.  It isn’t.  We twist the apology to support feeling good about ourselves.  We take the focus away from the important issue that someone has been harmed – and, as someone we’re in a relationship with, we care.

Outcomes Not Intent

Explanations – in general – complicate apologies.  The reason for that is simple.  The victim was hurt, and that’s what matters.  They’ll have to heal, but they want to believe that they won’t be hurt again.  (See Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting for more about the pathway of hurt.)  In general, explanations don’t matter, especially if the intent was hurtful – to hurt the person intentionally, that’s worse, because it implies that it’s the character of the person and therefore it may happen again.  It gets harder as we move away from intentional hurt and towards unintentional hurt.

The next level of evaluation is whether the outcome was reasonably foreseeable.  Could or should you have foreseen the harm you might cause when you took – or failed to take – the action?  This is often where things break down.  We live in a random, probabilistic world where outcomes are never truly certain.  (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic nature of our world.)  We also live in a world with diverse experiences, where it’s not possible to know what everyone who we will interact with will have been through.

Shared Experience

Decades ago, if you wanted to have something to talk about, you could talk about what was on television last night or what the community concert was like.  These helped to synchronize us by giving us all one relatively common experience that we could build from.  NBC had “must-see TV.”  Before that, the world of three television channels (if you were lucky) meant that everyone basically saw one of three things.  Today, we have time-delayed viewing of television, so we don’t know what someone has or has not seen – except for major sporting events.  That doesn’t even address the fact that people are watching YouTube and TikTok, and the variety and reservoir of content is vast.

It’s becoming harder and harder to find shared experiences and therefore a shared understanding of what might cause someone harm.  In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff tackle trigger warnings and the relative absurdity that happens when we try to prevent people from ever being unsettled by content.  Apologies are the way we get around that.  We simply say, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t realize that would be upsetting to you.  What can I do next time?”

Prediction Engines

We are, at our core, prediction engines.  We use our massively expensive brains to predict a future that we expect to see.  Our brains, in fact, use somewhere between 20-30% of our body’s glucose (energy) while amounting for only 2-3% of our body mass.  Our brains’ abilities are keenly focused on not just basic pattern-matching type prediction, which we share with other animals, but also the ability to forecast the future and, importantly, predict the behavior of others.

We’ve emerged as the dominant life form on the planet by our ability to work together.  Our cooperation and our predictive capacity are twin benefits of our brain.  (See The Righteous Mind for more.)  That has allowed humans without extensive fur, thick skin, powerful claws, or sharp teeth to thrive.  It turns out that the ability to work together is more evolutionarily important than any of those attributes.  (See The Selfish Gene, The Evolution of Collaboration, and Does Altruism Exist? for more on evolution and the forces.)

Prediction, while being a fundamental aspect of consciousness, is far from perfect.  The Signal and the Noise and Superforecasting both lay out the challenges with predicting the future – and offer some help with what can be done to improve it.  However, neither of these really reach the depths of exploring the problem of prediction as Noise does, which lays out how our judgement is flawed.  Of course, Noise isn’t alone in this – How We Know What Isn’t So, Predictably Irrational, Incognito, The Tell-Tale Brain, and many more illuminate these problems.

Working Together

Working together is a complicated process.  It turns out that we can read people’s minds – something we call “theory of mind.”  (See Mindreading for more.)  However, we can’t read people’s minds with absolute certainty.  Instead, we can only approximate what we believe that the other person is thinking.  Our predictive capacity is based on our shared experience.  As we move to less and less shared experience, we’re increasingly less likely to be able to predict what is in someone else’s mind.

“You Should Have Known”

It’s one of those phrases that sets my hair on end.  Someone says, “Well, you just should have known.”  I wonder, exactly how?  The answer is rarely forthcoming, and the reality is that we can’t expect others to know what’s inside our heads.  In fact, when we do, it’s like we’re setting a trap for them.  If they miss the cue, or they guess incorrectly, then it means they don’t care about us or love us.  John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains how we have sliding door moments, where we can turn towards someone, away from them, or against them.  Turning away is to ignore the other person – not necessarily intentionally – and against them is to snap back.

What’s interesting is that, by saying that the other person should have known, we’re positioning a conflict on unreasonable grounds – and that’s just not fair.

Judgement – Understanding vs. Agreement

Topping the list of things that separate us from relationships and each other is judgement.  When we judge that someone is doing something bad, we shun them and separate.  However, if want to get through an argument or apologize, we need to avoid judgement.  Instead of looking for agreement with the other person – judging them positively – we need to stop and focus on understanding.  To achieve an effective apology, we need to understand how the other person felt – even if we don’t agree that those feelings are reasonable.  We can accept that their understanding of the situation is their understanding – even when it doesn’t match reality.

We do, of course, need to make the decision about whether we try to bring reality into the situation if their perception doesn’t match reality – but often times, this makes things worse.  Tom Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So that they don’t attempt to openly accept disconfirming evidence.  Instead, they move to “must they” accept it.  That’s a very high bar that’s hard to meet.

The Five Dimensions

Kador proposes that every effective apology has the following five dimensions:

  • Recognition – Acknowledgement of what hurt the other party.
  • Responsibility – The actions (or inactions) that led to the other party’s harm.
  • Remorse – The acknowledgment that the other party’s harm wasn’t right.
  • Restitution – An offer to compensate the other party for the harm they felt.
  • Repetition – A commitment to prevent or avoid future harm.

The lack of any of these dimensions puts the apology effectiveness at risk.


One of the questions that comes up when someone apologizes is whether they have remorse – or whether they simply regret getting caught.  This doubt comes from the lack of trust in the repetition.  When someone doesn’t express any intent to stop the behavior – or the expression isn’t believed – then we’re faced with the idea that the person doesn’t regret the action or the harm that it caused but rather that it was discovered.  This often occurs when there’s a breach of trust such as infidelity.


The expression that the behavior won’t happen again is often a stumbling block to the apology.  There are some places where it’s impossible to say that you won’t make a mistake again.  Consider, for a moment, that you have friend who is transitioning gender, and you use the wrong pronouns in your conversation with them.  You can certainly commit to continued efforts to prevent using the wrong pronoun – but providing a guarantee that you’ll never use the wrong pronouns again is unrealistic.

Conversely, if there’s a behavior that clearly violated moral boundaries, it is expected that one would commit to preventing another offense.  In the extreme, if someone murders another person, it’s reasonable to ask that they commit to not murder anyone else.

Reasonable Expectations

Whether directly stated or simply implied, the apology creates an expectation that the person apologizing will not repeat the behavior.  In the interest of the relationship, whatever the expectation set by the apology is, it should be met.  Failure further erodes trust, even trust in apologies.  We have a saying “Sorry, not sorry” that describes this condition.  Someone speaks an apology without any intention of changing (or even monitoring) their behavior.

Ultimately, an apology is an attempt to recover a relationship.  Sometimes this means that we have to give up the sense that we’re right – but it always means that we need to consider the impact of the act and the apology on trust.  (See The Titleless Leader for more on “right or in relationship” and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more on trust.)


The timing of an apology should be set by the person who was harmed.  They should be able to find conditions that makes them the most comfortable.  Twelve-step groups believe the person who has been harmed should control the conditions of an apology (amends) and when it should be made – including the possibility that “never” is a valid answer.  (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.)

Ain’t No Thing

If someone makes the effort to do an honest apology, the recipient shouldn’t dismiss the apology.  Telling the apologizer that it’s “no big deal” or “don’t worry about it” dismisses their commitment to the relationship.  Certainly, letting them know the apology is accepted is good.  However, dismissing the apology may be dismissing their honest attempt at improving their own behaviors.


It’s important to note two things about forgiveness.  First, forgiveness isn’t a given.  Second, forgiveness isn’t forgetting.  A good apology, Kador explains, shouldn’t ask for forgiveness.  It should be entirely focused on the harm that was inflicted.  When you ask for forgiveness, you necessarily shift the focus from the victim to you.  That’s not how it’s supposed to work.

Forgiveness isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.  It doesn’t mean that the other person won’t be suspicious or observant in the future.  It’s just the release of the relational poison.

That’s the best hope.  If you can remove the relational poisons, then you’re doing an Effective Apology.

Book Review-SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

It’s time to draw the line between the dots.  SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed is the final missing piece that connects the dots between Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, The Evolution of Cooperation, Does Altruism Exist?, and Adam Grant’s Give and Take.  It’s the bit that explains how givers – cooperators – can end up on both the top and the bottom.  It’s the part that explains how defectors can get the best of cooperators – or be rooted out by the cooperators depending upon the conditions.

Mutation and Selection

All the way back to Darwin, we’ve believed that the survival of the fittest that drove evolution is based on a set of twin ideas.  On the one hand, we have mutation – that is, changes from a single standard into multiple variants.  On the other hand, we had selection pruning away those variants that weren’t the best, most adaptive, and most effective in a given environment.  Where mutation diverges, selection converges.  It’s an elegant expression of a fascinatingly complex process that takes place over generations – but it’s incomplete.  If we leave only these two forces, then we’re stuck with Dawkins’ Selfish Gene.  There’s no room for cooperation.

That’s why we need to accept that cooperation is a third principle that is added to the first two.  It drives evolution as well but in a subtle way.

Survival of the Fittest Group

To explain how evolution might have favored cooperators, we’ve got to think on multiple scales.  We must think that groups of cooperators will succeed or fail.  We start with the prisoner’s dilemma and understand that the best scenario is for both parties to cooperate with each other.  From there, we must admit that the defector has the upper hand when dealing with a cooperator.  In that case, eventually, the defectors will populate a group well if not detected and removed by other means.

Consider two groups: one consisting of mostly collaborators, where the defectors have been mostly discovered and removed (expelled); and another, where the collaborators didn’t develop this capacity and were therefore all but eliminated.  The overall productivity and capacity of the group that has an abundance of cooperators will likely win a competition against a group of defectors because of their enhanced capacity.  It’s a case of to the victor go the spoils.  (See Human Capital for more.)


This, of course, relies on the idea that the cooperators have learned how to detect cheating.  As I mentioned in Does Altruism Exist?, the odds for learning to detect defectors may be long but they’re not impossible.  There are two ways that this detection can function.  The first is memory, and the second is reputation.  Direct reciprocity requires that players remember who has defected on them and who has not, so they can make a prediction about whether the other person will defect again.

Reputation requires a social capacity where someone can learn about another’s reputation – that is, the aggregate of their interactions with others.  If I can assess reputation, then I can use that as a proxy for my prediction of the other person’s behavior.

It’s important to pause here to say that these reputational forces are woven into humans deeply.  They’re at the heart of Diffusion of Innovations and the power of social marketing (see Guerrilla Marketing and The New Rules of Marketing and PR).  Since we’re using this information to predict behavior, we can’t ignore the ability for people to manipulate our prediction processes, as explained in Predictably Irrational, Noise, The Hidden Persuaders, and Influence.  Detection is hard because the defectors get better at hiding their defection.


However, there’s another evolutionary issue that must be addressed.  That is, once a defector has been detected, they must be punished.  In the indirect sense, their reputation does that.  It prevents them from taking advantage of others, but that’s not enough.  For that, we need to recognize the research around the ultimatum game, where two people are given $10 to split.  The first one gets to determine the split, and the second one decides whether both parties will – or will not – receive the money.  Consistently, when the first person splits the money unevenly at about 7/3 or 8/2, the second person decides to punish the first’s greediness by denying both the money.

From a strictly economic standpoint, this makes no sense.  However, it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective where defectors – the greedy – need to be taught a lesson.  It’s generally accepted that the punishment to cost to punisher ratio needs to be about 3:1 – which lies between these two splits.

With detection and punishment, we have the possibility of preventing defectors from overtaking a generally generous group.  Vengeful punishment can pave the road of amicable cooperation.

The Makeup of Groups

This all presumes some makeup of groups.  First, there must be groups rather than one big mass of interacting actors.  Second, the groups must be sufficiently long-lived to allow for memory and reputation to take hold and defectors to be punished appropriately – that is, until they change their ways or are expelled from the group.  The key here is that cooperators need to be able to defend themselves against the defectors.

It’s also necessary to recognize that being a defector isn’t necessarily a persistent trait.  It can be that the punishment of the cooperators can convert a defector into a cooperator – exactly as we’d expect with reinforced behavior modification.

Mistakes and Generosity

The problem in any real-world situation is that we can never be sure of the other person’s intent, nor can we always assign reputation to the right parties.  We assign character traits to the other party when they were just learning.  In short, in the real world, we have to tolerate mistakes – our own and the other party’s.  As it turns out, even in the purity of computer simulations, you’re better off occasionally forgiving an offense.  Generous tit-for-tat is better than tit-for-tat and other strategies, because it occasionally forgives someone who defects against it.  It will never forget a cooperator but will occasionally forgive a defector.

The simulation result of this is that it prevents “death spirals,” where the two programs alternate between being generous and being a defector.  By occasionally giving an extra bit of trust, it stops the cycle and allows both parties to get the greatest benefit.

Simple Math, Complex Concept

The simulations and work on mathematical formulas revealed one consistent truth.  It says that when the ratio between the benefits of cooperating divided by the cost is greater than one plus the group’s size divided by the number of groups – then and only then cooperation will flourish.  Let’s tear that apart.

The ratio of benefit to cost must be greater than one as a baseline.  It’s got to have some innate value to cooperate in the first place.  In a traditional prisoner’s dilemma, with the following truth table, the ratio of benefits to cost is 1.2.  This can be calculated based on the total of 12 for years (for both parties) based on both possibilities of the other party compared to 10 total years for cooperation.

Cooperate Defect
Cooperate 2/2 5/1
Defect 5/1 3/3

What this says is that cooperation should flourish when the ratio between group size and number of groups is less than .2.

While all of this is quite abstract, it says that when group sizes are small, and there are many groups, the benefits of cooperation will likely cause it to flourish – in part because finding defectors is easier and because there are opportunities for inter-group competition.

Virus in our Genes

Evolution isn’t tidy.  In fact, it’s quite messy.  If we go back the primordial soup that existed on the planet Earth, there were plenty of building blocks from which things could start to replicate into patterns – that is, until those building blocks were consumed.  This required a different kind of replication approach – one which was more complicated.

The line between inanimate and animate life in the course of replicators isn’t clear.  However, we do know that the formation of the sort of programming language of genetics – RNA and eventually DNA – crossed us over into the place of individual cells, which contained all the pieces they needed to replicate on a whole new level.  The leap at this level required several different components of different replicating molecules to come together to work together and we’re not exactly clear how that happened.

It’s presumed that more replicators found themselves working together – because cooperation was good for their ability to survive and continue replicating.  These eventually became bounded inside of a membrane that we would today think of as a cell.  While we think of viruses as invaders today, it could be that these very same chunks – or ones just like them – became a part of us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

Bacteria in our Bodies

Most of the cells on the planet – and even in our bodies – are bacteria.  The truth is that our bodies aren’t pure human.  Our bodies are constantly trying to keep the bacteria in check in a delicate dance of cycles, rhythms, and defenses.  This is one of the reasons why stress’ tendency to turn down or turn off our immune system often spells disaster.  When the natural systems that we have to help us maintain the balance gets out of whack, it’s very difficult for us to recover.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the impacts of stress.)

Many of the most challenging diseases of our times are those that are classified as autoimmune.  Those are the ones where our own immune system starts attacking parts of the body, and the results are devastating.

Optimum Mobility

One of the challenges in defining the success of cooperators is their ability to address or avoid defectors and that requires a level of mobility that is neither too low – where they’re trapped – nor too large – where they cannot discover who the defectors are.  There’s a delicate balance between too much and too little.  It’s much like Richard Hackman’s explanation in Collaborative Intelligence in the need for groups to have a certain level of permeability – but not too little nor too much.

Levels of Religion

One of the most fundamental premises of evolution is that evolution operates at multiple levels.  Cooperation is beneficial, so it’s no surprise, given Richard Dawkins’ discussion of memes in The Selfish Gene, that the world’s religions are by-and-large recipes for creating greater cooperation.  They encourage us to work together and help us to become better SuperCooperators.

Book Review-Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others

It’s an important question.  Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others answers it.  Even the Dali Lama and Paul Ekman couldn’t come to a conclusion in Emotional Awareness.  Richard Dawkins argues that there is no “true” altruism in The Selfish Gene.  Robert Axelrod counters in The Evolution of Cooperation that cooperation at least may be adaptive.  Adam Grant in Give and Take explains that givers (those who would be considered cooperating or altruistic) are at the bottom of the pile – and the top.  Clearly, there’s more than meets the eye if there’s such confusion about the space.  It’s on Adam Grant’s recommendation that I picked up Does Altruism Exist? – so I could explore the space and the dynamics.

It’s All About the Motives

So, it’s not like people are denying reality.  They know that sometimes people do things that don’t benefit themselves directly.  The tricky part for those who deny altruism is the motivations.  They argue that altruism must be based on altruistic motives – and that can’t involve benefit to the person.  Even Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene shows where, in some cases, it’s possible that it’s statistically better to save others rather than yourself from a genetic perspective.  Consider a case where you could save four of your biological children but would lose your own life.  This is better for a gene, whose purpose is to reproduce.

The definition of altruism that David Sloan Wilson likes best is the one from William Scott Green: “Intentional action ultimately for the welfare of others that entails at least the possibility of either no benefit or a loss to the actor.”  There is, in this, no mention of motive.  Perhaps there’s a reason.  It’s impossible to know what lies in the hearts of others.  Often, we don’t even know ourselves what motivates us.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on this.)

The Characteristics of Altruism

If altruism exists, then what are the conditions that allow it to emerge?  After all, the tragedy of the commons is a frequently used example where bounded rationality of individuals can lead to tragic results for the group.  (See The Difference for more.)  How do we encourage the opposite?  The answer may come from Garrett Hardin in his article about the tragedy of the commons.  The proposed conditions are:

  • Strong group identity and understanding of purpose
  • Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs
  • Collective-choice arrangements
  • Monitoring
  • Graduated sanctions
  • Conflict resolution mechanisms
  • Minimal recognition of rights to organize
  • For groups that are part of larger social systems, there must be appropriate coordination among relevant groups

Given this set of constraints, it appears that prosocial, altruistic behaviors become more common for the good of the group.

Managing the Scale

It may be easier to scale up from Richard Dawkins’ genes to the scope of animals to see how altruism is baked into each of us.  If the individual competitors are the cells in our body, then we can begin to see how altruism doesn’t just occasionally happen – but builds on symbiosis.  The heart, lungs, liver, kidney, and other organs are all in a symbiotic relationship with one another.  None of them can exist without the others.  Each performs a special, differentiated function that the others require.  The network of dependencies ties all of them together inside the context of the animal’s body.

With this lens, we can see that cooperation and symbiotic relationships evolve with parts of the body.  Where it gets interesting is in the role of the immune system.  In the immune system, many of the cells are designed to directly encounter pathogens and engage them in “battle.”  In many of these skirmishes, the immune cell is destroyed.  It quite literally ceases life to combat infection from an invader.  This moves from symbiosis to altruism at a cellular level.

Selfishness Beats Altruism within Groups

All things work at multiple levels.  Inside a group, the selfish win.  Groups that are altruistic as a whole beat out more selfish groups.  It’s at this level that altruistic groups win – not inside the group itself but in competition with other groups.  While directly looking inside a group, it would be hard for us to see a reason for altruism to arise given the advantage of being selfish.  It’s only while looking at the inter-group dynamics that we begin to see that groups with higher degrees of altruism win – thereby preserving altruism.

Prohibitions Against Cheating

One of the key controls that more altruistic groups seem to develop is a prohibition against cheating.  In the ultimatum game, it’s the reason why people punish others.  When the balance gets too far out, it triggers our protections against being taken advantage of.  (See The Selfish Gene.)  This mechanism protects the altruistic from being crushed from within the group before the group can experience the intergroup benefit.

One could easily argue that the probability of developing prohibitions against cheating are very long.  It’s a specific interaction pattern that needs to be developed, and it’s not particularly likely that it will occur.  However, when we move the scale of time out to infinity, we can begin to see that not only can it happen but it will happen.  And because of the utility, one of the times that it does happen it will stick and be present from that point forward.  While we don’t know when humans – and some other animals – learned to punish cheaters, we know it allowed more altruistic groups to develop and for them to win against less altruistic groups.

Systemic Ethics

On the surface, it seems that we want ethics that are embedded into every individual – and certainly we want moral and ethical people.  (See Moral Disengagement for more on morals.)  Ethics, on their surface, seem to be cleanly defined.  However, as Kidder shows in How Good People Make Tough Choices, ethics are often tradeoffs.  Jonathan Haidt, which Wilson credits with his sharing of ethics being system based, explains in The Righteous Mind that the foundations of morality are common to everyone, but the way that we behave when they’re placed in conflict isn’t always the same.  Our societal values and perspectives shape the way that we respond when the foundations are in conflict.

It’s for this reason that we must accept that, while ethics are executed through individuals, their context is set at a collective or societal people.

Prohibited Behaviors, Not People

Forgiveness is an aspect of the broader set of skills that altruistic groups develop.  It’s not that people aren’t excluded for behaving poorly.  However, there must be a way for people to return to the group and the group’s good graces.  The thing that the group must prohibit is the behavior – not the person.  The regaining grace varies from situation to situation and culture to culture, but the concept of forgiveness plays an important role in the ability for individuals to learn the values of the group – and for the group to remain intact.

Belief in Ability

In a random system, the idea that the people that survived knew what they were doing – or know what they’re doing now – is fallacy.  The Halo Effect makes a key point that the world we live in is probabilistic – not deterministic.  That means that it’s not A+B=C but rather that random combinations of A and B often lead to C.  Because of this, it’s entirely possible that completely inept people rise to leadership or fame – and that people with great capabilities, capacity, and value are left in the struggle.  It’s natural to believe that people who are successful got there by talent.  The Organized Mind shares how we’re experiencing too much information and we’re taking ever increasing short cuts to cope.

One of the shortcuts is that if someone was successful before, then they’ll be successful again.  We ignore the work of Lewin that says that behavior (and, by extension, results) is a function of person and environment.  (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality.)  We know the conditions are different, but we expect that the person’s agency will drive the results we want regardless.

The Invisible Hand

Adam Smith believed in an “invisible hand” that guided the markets.  It can be that his invisible hand wasn’t some god-like force but was instead higher-level selection functioning in the market in ways that tended to offset lower-level abuses.  It can be that Adam Smith’s invisible hand is the answer to Does Altruism Exist?

Book Review-Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment

It would be nice to be perfect.  The idea that we’d never make a mistake, never be wrong, and never have to apologize has its appeal.  For most of us, it’s just an appeal.  For some of us, it is an expectation, and it’s one that leads us to a perpetual road of disappointment.  Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment is a book about people who feel the need to be perfect – even with the understanding that no one can be perfect.

Striving for Excellence

Before breaking down perfection into types, it’s necessary to address the rather obvious tension that exists.  On the one hand there, is achieving excellence – that is, the best possible outcome given the circumstances – and on the other hand, we must accept that we’ll fall short of perfectionism.  It’s not bad to strive for excellence.  Anders Ericsson explains in Peak that it takes a lot of work to reach the upper echelons of any endeavor.  Steven Kotler explains in The Rise of Superman how many of these peak performances can look superhuman.

When we’re talking about perfection and the need to consider that perspective, it’s not all bad – not by a long shot.  However, there are ways of pursuing perfection that are more – and those that are less – harmful.


It’s called maximization, and it’s a need to have the absolute best.  It doesn’t allow that you made the best possible decision for the time.  It’s being frustrated that the price of a television dropped weeks after you bought yours.  The problem with maximization is that we know people who maximize in more areas of their life are less happy.  (See The Paradox of Choice for more.)  The good news is that none of us maximize in every aspect of our lives – we couldn’t, because we’d exhaust ourselves.

Instead, we choose a strategy called “satisficing.”  This approach is a “good enough” approach.  We spend a few minutes looking for reviews and clues about what the right answer is, and we make the decision without fear that the decision we’re making isn’t the absolute best solution possible.  Instead, we’re weighing the tradeoffs in time and happiness of figuring out the perfect answer versus finding a good enough answer.

Perfectionists sometimes have other-focused perfectionism and that leads them to maximization strategies more frequently – approaching, but never reaching, all the time.

Self or Other

One key distinction in perfectionism is the dimension of self versus other.  This operates along two dimensions.  Where is the source of the perfectionism, and what is the object of the perfectionism?  When we have other-oriented perfectionism, we maximize more.  Other things and people need to be perfect for us to be okay.  When we’ve got internal-oriented perfectionism, we expect only perfection out of ourselves, and we can ruminate on our foibles and failures.

When we have other-oriented perfectionism, we tend to place unrealistic demands on others; as a result, our relationships often suffer.  We can’t help but to criticize, and, as John Gottman explains in The Science of Trust, that’s one of the four horsemen of the relational apocalypse.  Instead of accepting people for who they are, we keep wanting more.  (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)  The Secret Lives of Adults shares how the way that we were bonded to our parents, and this may be one of the factors that lead to other-oriented perfectionism.

Self-oriented perfectionism can have complicated and potentially corrosive effects on our self-esteem.  When we expect only perfect, we can easily be let down as we find that our daily activities fall short of the standard.  This can, and often does, lead to depression and negative mental health effects.  However, it can also lead to greater resilience and a self-esteem that is based on positive accomplishments.  Which happens is driven in part by the gap between our performance and perfect expectations.  Just like the difference between PTSD and Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) are difficult to predict, the results of self-oriented perfectionism are difficult to predict.  (See Transformed by Trauma for more on PTG.)  Similarly, Nassim Taleb in Antifragile explains that it’s the degree and timing of challenges that differentiates between growth and collapse.

Sources of Perfectionism

The sources of perfectionism can be driven either externally or internally.  When we see perfectionism as internally driven, it is more pliable and therefore more likely to be molded and adapted to result in positive outcomes.  We can, for instance, relax our perfectionistic standards for our performance where necessary.

External, or social, perfectionism is more challenging.  We perceive that others expect perfectionism from us, and therefore it’s harder to adjust standards to allow for normal and natural faults and flaws.  In some cases, these expectations are real.  Others do really expect the person to be perfect – either because of their other-oriented perfectionism or because of societal expectations.  Alternatively, these may be misperceptions about others’ expectations.  We may perceive that we need to be perfect to be loved – but that’s not really the case.

Resolving other-sourced perfectionism can be more challenging.  There are three basic strategies:

  • Negotiate – In the case of someone else’s perfectionistic expectations upon you, you can seek to negotiate them, including what reasonable levels of performance should be and what collectively should be done if they can’t be met.
  • Refuse to Accept – If the perfectionism requirements are externally-driven, either through others or socially prescribed, you can refuse to take those on. This is easier said than done, because it may mean that a relationship or connection to culture must be lost; however, it’s still an option.
  • Exit – This is a more direct version of refusing to accept. It means that you sever the relationships and move into a place where those external demands for perfectionism no longer apply.

None of these options are easy – but they are possible when you’re encountering external perfectionism expectations.

Two Scales

While I’ve been introducing perfectionism, I’ve ignored the fact that there are two different, multifactor assessments of perfectionism – and that my description doesn’t directly match either of them.  The two instruments are Frost’s six-factor model and Hewitt and Flett’s three presentations model.

Six Factors

Frost’s model has six dimensions, four of which are self-focused and two are focused on parental demands as follows:

  • Self
    • High Personal Standards
    • Doubts about Actions
    • Concern over Mistakes
    • Organization
  • Parental Demands
    • High Parental Expectations
    • Parental Criticism

The parental demands perspectives can linger long after someone is an adult.  Those external voices often become internalized.

Three Presentations

Hewett & Flett’s model more closely resembles the way I’ve described perfectionism above.  The three presentations are:

  • Self Oriented
  • Other Oriented
  • Socially Prescribed

Here, I’ve simplified the source, because from a response space, the responses to other and socially prescribed are fundamentally the same – though obviously one operates at a larger scale.

Healthy and Unhealthy

In the right degree and with the right makeup, perfectionism can be healthy and adaptive.  It can help us become better humans.  However, it can also be neurotic, causing us mental anguish and suffering.  The real question about perfectionism is whether it’s productive, problematic, or pathological.  Obviously, we want to keep the productive aspects of perfectionism while preventing the problematic and pathological.

The real question is whether the desire for perfectionism is reasonable and realistic.  If you’re willing to adjust the expectations in the face of reality, it’s likely normal.  Conversely, if you’re feeling a compulsion to meet excessively high standards, it may be that you’re operating in the land of neurotic perfectionism.

The Role of Time

One of the keys to the difference between the neurotic and the normal may be the dimension of time.  It’s the difference between aiming for perfection and expecting it, seeking improvement rather than perfectionism right now.  Another factor that needs to be accounted for is that there are variations in all things.  Performance varies as does the felt need for perfection.  If we want to make perfectionism healthy, adding a bit of time may help.

Pride or Hubris

Pride is experienced as a result of a specific action or behavior, whereas hubris is associated with beliefs about oneself.  In Mindset, Carol Dweck explained how a growth mindset is focused on the effort put in and not one’s character.  It’s the difference between pride and hubris.  In Buddhism, there is a belief that being proud of others is positive emotion while pride for oneself is not.  (See Destructive Emotions.)  It may be that the goal is to avoid hubris.

Performance Based Love

One of the parenting factors that can influence perfectionism as adults is a tendency towards performance-based love.  That is, rather than a child believing that they’re inherently loved, they’re conditioned to believe that they are loved for the things that they do.  Love as a concept is important to humans as they develop, since we’re innately aware that we cannot survive alone.  (See The Blank Slate.)  If love is conditional, then our lack of perfection threatens our very survival.  That’s too much stress to have every day.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)

Perfect People Don’t Get Hurt

Extending beyond parental performance-based love comes the idea that perfect people don’t get hurt.  If you’ve been hurt before, and the person who hurt you made it seem like you’re fault, you may conclude that, if you want to avoid being hurt, you must be and remain perfect.  While this seems like a far-fetched idea, many people make victims feel like the oppressor’s bad behavior is the victim’s fault – particularly children.  Statements like, “I wouldn’t have hit you if you weren’t such a bad kid,” as distasteful as they may be, resonate and cause people to believe that it’s only through perfection that they can be safe.

High Performer Problems

For the most part, when we are thinking about those who would be suicidal, we expect them to match Thomas Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of Suicide (see Why People Die By Suicide).  We expect them to be disconnected and feel like a burden.  However, another sad possibility emerges.  People who have perfectionistic tendencies tend to have cognitive rigidity and the same all-or-nothing thinking that leads too many people to consider suicide.

Instead of seeing the great things that they can do, they feel the weight – or burden – of the gap between their expectations and their performance.  That weight may even lead to thoughts of hopelessness.  Most people wouldn’t associate suicide with high performers – but because high performers have larger degrees of perfectionism, and perfectionism may lead to larger gaps between expectations and results, perhaps suicide is a risk for those who are perfectionistic.

Understanding Perfectionism may be the difference between happiness and death.

More Than Physical Trauma

It was 1988 when President Ronald Reagan proclaimed May as National Trauma Awareness month.  The proclamation was focused on traumatic injury.  Since the proclamation, we’ve learned more about the tragic effects of psychological trauma.  We’ve learned that psychological trauma is harder to see and sometimes harder to heal from.

Our work with trauma started when Terri would support children in the pediatric intensive care unit both as a nurse and as an advanced practice nurse.  Out of her experiences with physical trauma and the awareness of the need for parents and children to connect, we created our child safety cards.  At, you can find out more about these cards, which have child-drawn artwork and safety sayings based on CDC vital statistics about child injuries and guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations.

In 2019, we published the book, Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery, as we recognized the powerful pain that people experience as a part of the hurts in their lives, including burnout.  Since then, we’ve been sharing solutions to vexing problems of mental health.  We’ve seen how medicine sometimes retraumatizes patients, and we are developing programs to help providers at all levels of the healthcare system to understand and respond to trauma in positive, helpful ways.

We also know that vicarious trauma is real.  Providers and first responders are themselves struggling to cope with what they’ve seen as they come face-to-face with the worst that humanity has to offer.  We’re developing programs to help here, too.  We want to provide the best support possible for those who are doing their most to lift humanity up in the darkest moments.

As with our other programs, we start with research – for this program, it means reading what is known about psychological trauma.  In honor of trauma month, we’re posting three weeks full of weekday book reviews.  We begin next week with supporting materials that provide context for understanding psychological trauma.  We speak of perfectionism, apologies, and altruism, so we can speak about their roles in trauma and trauma recovery.

Every day in the following two weeks – the start of May – we’ll be posting trauma-related book reviews along with book reviews that support a deeper understanding of trauma.  In total, we’ll have 15 book reviews supporting the first block of our trauma work.

We invite you to think about trauma not just from the physical impact point of view but also from the perspective of psychological trauma and how we can help people heal from it in the month of May.

Book Review-It’s How We Play the Game

Generally, I don’t read biographies.  For me, they’re boring.  However, Ed Stack became very interesting to me, so I decided that there must be more to him and his book, It’s How We Play the Game, than meets the eye – enough that it was a worthy investment – and I was right.

A Sporting Chance

Ed Stack grew up around his father’s sporting goods store – Dick’s Sporting Goods – and took it from a two-store organization in upstate New York to the retail powerhouse it is today.  The journey, as one might expect, wasn’t straightforward and wasn’t without peril.  Stack recounts the good and bad times in the book.  Certainly, from a business perspective, it’s a reminder of the hard work and luck that allow an organization to grow.  However, that’s not the interesting bit.  The interesting bit is how the experiences shaped the character of a man and, ultimately, an organization in a way that supports communities and helps children develop life skills they’ll need.

When I was growing up, sports weren’t a real option.  Two factors conspired against me.  First, there was always a shortage of money.  I remember breakfast cereal with powdered milk – because that’s what we had.  I remember our cups were recycled margarine cups.  Sure, others had it much worse than I did – but it meant that the idea of spending on sports wasn’t a priority.  A roof, food, and clothes were more important.

The second factor was much more powerful.  My parents couldn’t agree on anything and often consciously or unconsciously put my sister and I between them.  Stack acknowledges that his own parents’ divorce put the kids between them.  In my family, the conversations occasionally came up about doing sports, but the fact was that practices and games would be on the weekends sometimes, and weekends were hotly contested times between the parents.  It was clear pretty quickly that I’d never make it to stay on a team, because I’d never make the number of required practices and games.

To be fair to my parents, I’ve never been particularly interested in or good at sports.  It’s not something that interests me.  I’ve been honored to know professional athletes in many disciplines – baseball, football, and auto racing.  I respect what they have done – without getting so wrapped up in it that I’d believe I ever would have been very good.  (I know I should have a growth Mindset, and that Peak performance is just purposeful practice – but knowing one’s own limitations isn’t a bad thing.)

Foundational Beliefs

Woven throughout the story of Stack’s life is the dedication to the community and the recognition of the value that youth sports bring – even realizing that very few youth will ever make it to play professional anything.  That’s okay.  The foundation of hard work and teamwork is an important life skill – one that Stack credits with keeping him out of too much trouble.

For my part, I agree.  The focus of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation on supporting youth sports programs is laudable.  It’s a good way to support the belief that sports build the kind of character traits that we all want to see in our youth, our adults, and our society.  Just because my son wasn’t good at soccer didn’t mean he didn’t play.  He played enough to learn some lessons and to hopefully develop some character that will serve him later.

The Shot

The truth is that I came to the book because I was curious.  We’re working on some firearms means restriction in the suicide prevention work we’re doing, and Dick’s Sporting Goods was expelled from the Firearms Industry Association (NSSF).  We were working with them to get safe gun storage information in the hands of as many people as possible.  Expelling one of the nation’s largest gun sellers seemed odd.

I learned that it started with the tragedies at Sandy Hook, CT and Parkland, FL.  Stack was touched by the tragedies, and both personally and organizationally took a stand to make a difference in protecting children from mass murder.  They removed all modern sporting rifles – assault rifles – from most of their stores.  They’ve also limited the number of handguns sold across their stores.

The tricky bit is that I can applaud Stack and the organization for being committed to take action to make things better.  I can even say that the moniker of modern sporting rifles is not the way I’d describe them.  At the same time, calling them assault rifles is probably not fair either.  Do I think that they should be as easy to get as they currently are?  I don’t know.  Certainly, Dick’s decision to remove them from the shelves made them slightly more difficult to get –but not in a fundamental way.  What it did was allow the executives at Dick’s to have a clear conscious – and I can respect that.

I’m not interested in entering into a Second Amendment debate.  Much like Stack, I have guns, I enjoy shooting them, and I want others to be taught how to use these tools.  I’d hate for people to say that I’m anti-gun, because I’m decidedly not that.  The nuanced challenge comes in whether the answer was the right answer – and whether NSSF expelling Dick’s makes sense.

As for Dick’s decision, the problem is that I know the numbers, and while the mass shootings are tragedies, they make up a trivial percentage of deaths by firearm.  It’s something that can compel someone to action, but it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of injury and death.  I don’t say that to minimize the suffering of anyone injured in the all-too-frequent mass shootings.  I say it to put things into perspective.  The leading cause of death due to firearm is suicide.  That’s not fundamentally changed in decades.  The non-mass-murder aspect of firearm deaths is a large portion of the remaining.  Accidental shootings and mass-murder are relatively trivial in comparison.

For NSSF, it makes sense.  Someone is publicly moving in a direction against where the firearm manufacturers and industry is going, they shouldn’t be a part of the industry association.  I’m not sure why they’d want to be.  I think the tragedy is that both organizations – NSSF and Dick’s – are aligned in the desire to prevent unnecessary deaths.  They’re both committed to finding ways to stop gun violence.  They just find themselves on opposite sides of a particular sub-group of the problem – and as I explained above, it’s a trivial percentage of the violence that’s happening.  For reference, modern sporting rifles or assault rifles are a trivial amount of the overall industry.  It’s a position and talking point, but it doesn’t move the needle in terms of overall sales of the industry.

Dreams of Greatness

The number of kids that grow up to be professional sports athletes is vanishingly small.  The odds of winning the lottery are also small – but people still play, because they can dream of winning.  There aren’t many people who will make the investments necessary to reach peak performance.  Though Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s research about what it takes to reach peak performance was oversimplified by Malcolm Gladwell, the truth is that becoming the best takes a lot of work – work that most kids won’t invest.  (See Peak for a summary of the research.)

However, what Dick’s sells when it comes to kids is the dream of greatness.  It’s not that anyone really believes that their child will break world records, it’s that they want to have the dream for a while, because it makes everyone feel better.

That’s at least part of the point.  It’s in learning how to play the game that we discover how to hope, dream, and live.  It’s How We Play the Game that matters.

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