Book Review-The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Failure is a gift? Well, yes. In The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, we are indoctrinated into the world of raising children and how we must sometimes allow failure to happen. We must accept that our children aren’t perfect and can’t be perfect any more than we are. Failure is a gift when it allows us to discover our perseverance. It’s a gift when it helps our children learn their ability to overcome the frustrations in their life. It’s a gift when it allows us to accept ourselves and our children as who they are.

Intrinsic Motivation

We believe we understand motivation. We’ve seen Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We’ve learned about carrots and sticks – or rewards and punishments. We’ve heard about how huge bonuses have motivated people to work under insane conditions to crush a goal and win the day. The problem is that much of what we know about motivation is just wrong. It does work – to a point – for those people whose lives are filled with meaningless repetitive tasks. It doesn’t work with what Richard Florida calls “the creative class” of workers. These are workers whose jobs are non-routine. They require heuristics and creativity to work. (Richard Florida is quoted in Theory U.)

Much of this awareness of how motivation does and doesn’t work was covered in Drive, which The Gift of Failure references. The more that we provide external motivators, the more that we destroy any internal, intrinsic drive that was in the person. It’s not that external motivation doesn’t work long-term, it’s that it breaks the engine for long-term motivation for the kinds of situations that we are facing in the world today.

Intrinsic motivation is essential to long term success. Carol Dweck describes in Mindset how we can see ourselves as fixed and unchanging, or we can see ourselves with the ability to grow through our hard work. We have a huge capacity for adaptation and growth but that growth is fueled through the intrinsic motivation to try and fail. When intrinsic motivation is gone, so is our desire to grow.

Ericsson explained in Peak that it takes purposeful practice to become the top of our game in any chosen arena. Flow is the vehicle through which we can achieve peak performance and that comes through the balance of our skills and the challenges at hand. (See The Rise of Superman, Flow, and Finding Flow for more.) If we’re not willing to stretch a little (4%) to become a bit better, we never will. The major roadblock on the road to success in life is the fear of failure.

Fear of Failure

In Rising Strong (my review has two parts: Part 1 and Part 2), Brené Brown asks the question, “What would you do even if you knew you would fail?” This question demonstrates the power that the fear of failure has over our lives. It has the power to stop us in our tracks. It has the power to prevent us from moving forward or even trying. In Find Your Courage, the true reason for the fear of failure is exposed.

The real reason that we fear failure is because we confuse failing at something and failure as a person. We have somehow attached a performance-based view of love and our value to our lives and can’t afford to take the risk of failing at something because we might be labeled a failure. (See The Road Less Traveled for more on performance-based love.) So pervasive is this illusion that the book we’re discussing is titled The Gift of Failure – not The Gift of “Failing”.

The Search for Significance explains that parental love is not supposed to be conditional. It’s not supposed to be performance-based. By getting caught in this trap of performance-based love, we’re making our children believe that their worth is only defined by what they can do. So, what happens when they can’t do anything valuable?

This is not to say that we should praise them even when they don’t do anything valuable. Rather, it’s saying that love is unconditional. They’ll be supported. As Dweck points out in Mindset we shouldn’t be constantly praising them – particularly for innate abilities. We should praise them for their hard work and celebrate their failures as much as their successes.

A Brief History of Childhood

It’s impossible for us to fully understand childhood and parenting as it was a hundred years or more ago. We, incorrectly, assume that the views on children and parenting have been stable; however, nothing could be further from the truth. Even with echoes of sayings like, “children should be seen and not heard,” we can’t quite believe that the way we’re trying to raise our children today isn’t the same as it used to be. Even with our parents quietly voicing their concerns with the hectic schedules that we keep for our kids, including their extracurricular activities and all the work towards college preparation, we somehow don’t believe that childhood and parenting were different.

It’s hard to remember that, in early colonial times, parents could expect to lose one of ten children, and that in many places the mortality rate was many times that. It’s hard to imagine that outbreaks of smallpox could wipe out 20% of the population in a few short years. The focus wasn’t on emotional well-being, competing for the top rung schools or jobs. This was a fight for literal survival.

As things progressed, the need for focus on survival faded, and names of children began to diverge from being names from their family, including aunts and uncles but mostly moms and dads and grandparents. Parent mortality was still high and one of your two parents – perhaps the one you were named after – would be gone by the time a child was of marriable age.

Children were working, too. One-sixth of the children between ten and fifteen were employed. Children were useful because they could squeeze into tight places that adults could not. Gradually, we shifted the laws to prevent child labor and created laws to require childhood education. We swung from expendable tools to help the family survive to children who could lift themselves up and perhaps reach back to help their family if they made it.

Permissive Parents

As we moved into the 1940s, the change in parenting “rules” prompted several books on how to parent. Instead of parenting being a thing that just happened, it became something that you needed coaching and professionals to help you with. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book, Baby and Child Care, became a roaring success, and everyone wanted to follow his leadership on how to raise safe, well-adjusted children. He stated, “We need idealistic children.” His style was very permissive. The style was sometimes labeled as neglectful.

His advice spawned a whole generation of individualistic children who didn’t learn the same lessons of working for the common good that their parents had learned. (See America’s Generations for generational differences.) Later in his life he expressed some regret for not providing more guidance towards working together for the common good. (This is recorded in Finding Flow.)

Through Spock’s advice, the balance of power changed. Instead of the parents being the authority to be respected, they became the servants for their children. Instead of children recognizing that they are alive only because their parents decided to create them – and therefore there should be some reverence – they became ways for parents to relive their lives and potentially relive it in a different way. If only they could get their children to accept that the parents’ view of life was the right one.

Enmeshment

The psychological condition of enmeshment is when a person can’t see where they end and another person begins. This is particularly common with parents who struggle to maintain appropriate boundaries between themselves and their children. With parents restructuring their lives in the service of their children, it’s little wonder why they might need to feel some greater sense of ownership – not just responsibility – for the outcomes that the children are achieving.

When Johnny wins the 400-meter dash, Dad can feel proud not just of Johnny but of himself. When Suzi becomes the county fair pageant queen, mom can finally feel vindicated at her loss from twenty-some years prior, when she lost to someone who has become an archrival (at least in her head). Instead of the sense of pride that their children are succeeding, they personally feel like they’re succeeding.

In Emotional Awareness, the Dali Lama speaks of how Buddhists regard pride as a negative (or afflictive) emotion, but makes a distinction that there is a pride in others that is non-afflictive. He makes mention that Yiddish is the only language he is aware of that has a word – naches – that distinguishes the feeling of pride for someone else without personal attachment. This is, per the Dali Lama, a good thing. Of course, the Christian tradition regards pride as the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins.

The problem is that when you’re living your life partially or totally enmeshed the boundaries between you and your children don’t exist. You look at each thing that the child does as something that you’ve done, and instead of being proud of what someone else has accomplished, you are proud of yourself. Instead of feeling warm-heartedness for them, you find some level of external validation that you’re a good mom or dad – and that you’re a good person, all at the same time.

Life on Life’s Terms

One of the phrases from the serenity prayer is “Taking this world as it is, not as I would have it.” That is the heart of living life on life’s terms. We can’t change the circumstances of our world. We can’t prevent the fact that we’ll all fail – and yet not be failures. We cannot deny the essential realities of life without diminishing our lives. We must live life on life’s terms – not ours – if we want to be happy.

This means that we need to be adaptable. We need to be able to accept our failures and redirect into a healthy response of growth. By attempting to deny our failures and to ignore the consequences, we are attempting to live life on our terms – and in the end, that never works.

Failure is Always an Option

When Dr. Glaser wrote Schools Without Failure, he wasn’t saying that no one should fail. He was trying to prevent the systematic disengagement of students through external labeling and a fixed mindset. He wasn’t saying that children couldn’t and shouldn’t fail. He was saying that students shouldn’t be labeled as failures. He was encouraging us to find more delicate ways of allowing children to fail. The end result was the development of grit. (See Grit for more.)

Being Strict

Holding kids accountable is no fun. It’s no fun to have to be the “bad guy” (or girl) and keep the kids from electronics or a game or something else. It’s not fun to apply the consequences that were clearly communicated when they’ve stepped outside of the lines. The Gift of Failure admits that kids don’t always build the closest bonds with parents who are “strict” and hold kids accountable, but at the same time acknowledges that some of the best parents are those who find a way to be strict and loving at the same time.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown says, “I believe that understanding the connection between boundaries, accountability, acceptance, and compassion has made me a kinder person.” She goes on to say that her mind was blown when she realized that the most boundary-conscious people that she met were the most compassionate. In short, the way to cultivate compassion is to recognize where the boundaries are. The better parents understand how to hold their children accountable while maintaining acceptance of them. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Finding Failure

Heading out on a journey to find failure may seem like a bad plan. After all, failure will find you. However, setting your course towards failure means that you’re striving, trying, working, challenging yourself, and ultimately developing intrinsic motivation. By setting your course towards failure, you can ensure that you won’t ignore it, minimize it, or give it more credence that it’s worth. Failure is truly a gift, because it allows you to grow, so long as you don’t believe that you’re a failure because you have failed. If you’re still looking for a way to walk through the nuance of failing without being a failure, perhaps you need The Gift of Failure.

Book Review-How Will You Measure Your Life?

The question is simple enough. It seems like a question that I’ve answered before. However, somehow the meaning question – How Will You Measure Your Life? – is one that I, like others, thought I had answered but somewhere got interrupted. I was in the middle of writing the answer of my life and I got distracted. I’m glad that I got back to looking at the question through the lens of Clayton Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon’s work.

Lost Along the Way

It’s hard to believe that our careers and our lives are like boats adrift on the ocean without solid wind to drive our sails. However, many people find themselves drifting off course with little understanding of how to get back to where they need to go. The Halo Effect spoke of the probabilistic nature of our lives. While someone might have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, Edison thought differently. Small changes eventually led to the incandescent lightbulb. In Extreme Productivity we spent most of the book hearing about Bob Pozen’s life: how he’s used strategies to get ahead in his life, only to find out at the end that his life is filled with the same random connections and dumb luck that has fueled our own lives.

That isn’t to say that planning a strategy for where we want our lives to go and positioning ourselves in that direction is futile – it’s not. While we may be lousy at predicting what will make us happy (see Stumbling on Happiness), we should try to figure it out – because we’ve still got better odds when we’re shooting for something. In the end our lives, and where we end up, aren’t actually about the destination. It’s about the journey. I mentioned my trip to Mt. Rushmore and the powerful push towards understanding that life is about the journey in my reviews of Changes That Heal and Introducing The Psychology of Success. Sometimes getting a little lost and experiencing the journey isn’t bad – as long as you remember to get back on track at some point.

The Fallacy of Sequencing

Too many people make initial decisions to sequence their life so that they can build a strong foundation for themselves, and then get lost along the way with no clear path about how to get back to what they really want. Do you want to know a secret? I know how much money it will take for you to be happy. It’s roughly twice what you’re making now. I know this because, for all but a handful of people, this is the number that they want.

So as gifted people start their careers to put a financial base underneath themselves, suddenly they find that the stable financial base must be larger and larger. Each time they almost make it, the need for stability gets larger. Adding to that, it’s hard to turn away from people rewarding you with financial incentives if the alternative is less money and higher purpose.

The Fallacy of Planning

If we know that life is about change, probabilities, and that we’ll likely not end up where we intended, why then does it make sense to plan at all? After all, 93 percent of all companies must abandon their original strategy because it proved to not be viable. It would seem that, with these odds, you shouldn’t try for anything at all. However, there is a reason that I learned a long time ago from hunting.

I was learning to shoot with a bow and arrow. I was happy to hit the deer target that had been set up for me. I felt good to be able to hit it at all until my uncle helped me understand the importance of having a narrow target. By having a narrow target (right behind the deer’s shoulder blade) I started to shoot better. Instead of being happy with just hitting the deer, I got specific.

Did I hit my target as often as I hit the deer when that was the target? Nope. However, when I changed my goal and I got specific, I got the ability to use valuable feedback to refine my aim, and as a result I hit the deer more often.

Life is like this. We need to have a specific, narrow target so that we can get realigned. We need feedback from others about what we’re trying to do, so that we can refine it and end up with the right target – for now. So, while you can’t plan out your life, it doesn’t mean that planning is meaningless.

It’s a Job

In How Will You Measure Your Life?, the path wanders through innovation, product marketing, and other topics. One of the interesting stops is learning how people buy products. People buy products to do a job. There’s something that we want and the product – or service – is designed to meet that need. The more we know about the specific need of the person, the more we can design a solution for that problem. The book walks through how to make milkshakes better and recognizes there are two very different needs that milkshakes are hired to do. In the morning, they’re something to keep the commute interesting and provide enough sustenance to prevent mid-morning tummy grumbles. In the afternoons and evenings, it’s something that parents can say yes to after a day of saying no to their child all day.

One product – a milkshake – with two different and, in this case, competing needs. The daily commuter needed a milkshake that they could take their time with and savor during their commute. The parent wanted a milkshake that the child could finish quickly. Two relatively opposite objectives. Finish quicker – or finish slower. This is the challenge with aggregating data. The Black Swan, in conversations about unexpected events, exposes the challenge of averages and their inherent hiding of the details and uniqueness of the data.

Outsourcing Core Competencies

Another sidestep from our measuring our life is the discussion of how some organizations, like Dell, sometimes end up outsourcing so much of what they do that they eventually outsource their core competencies. That is, the thing that made the organization great eventually becomes something that you rely on other organizations to do.

In our personal lives, this has an interesting implication. What are the things in our life that we need to keep because they power our uniqueness, and which do we need to let go because they’re something that someone else can do better, faster, cheaper? An easy question is whether you should do your own lawn maintenance or not. If it’s something that brings you joy or energizes you, the quick answer is keep it.

However, what if you, like me, perceive it to be a chore that must be done? It’s just one more burden of an overburdened life. I can do my lawn maintenance. I am “qualified.” I even have all the tools. However, if I don’t find it enjoyable, should I pay someone to do the work instead of me? Should I outsource this activity so that I can do something else? In my case, the answer is yes. I’d rather write an article a month to cover the cost of doing my lawn maintenance rather than doing it myself.

In the case of lawn maintenance, for me, it’s not a core competency. Writing, on the other hand, is. If I could take a few hours and “crank out” an article and make enough to pay for the lawn maintenance that month, which is a better use of my time? Of course, this assumes that I can get the article assignments.

Breaking the Shell

The chick is struggling to break out of its shell. You can see its struggle. You can imagine yourself in their position. You would want help. Shouldn’t you help the chick break free from its shell? Only if you want to sentence it to death. You see, chicks need the struggle to break out of their shell, just like we as humans need our struggles. (See How Children Succeed for more about our need for challenges.)

It turns out that, if we don’t have challenges, we never develop the toughness that’s necessary for our long-term survival – and for our ability to thrive. If you’ve not been able to struggle, then you’ll grow up believing that others are there to remove all the barriers in your way. It turns out that this self-centered approach to life isn’t good for your contribution to society – or to your happiness.

Happiness Worth Devoting Yourself To

Happiness is hard to come by. Finding lasting joy is a life’s work, and one that many have tried to capture directly or indirectly in their writing. (See Stumbling on Happiness and The Happiness Hypothesis for two direct approaches to finding happiness.) Time and time again, studies reveal that people are in relationships are happier. Married people report being happier on average than their non-married friends. That is to say, those in marriages had an intimate connection with another human being. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on Dunbar’s work on social connections.) Certainly, some marriages are dysfunctional and doesn’t provide that connectedness, but on the whole, this connection added happiness to both lives.

If we look back at John Gottman’s work, as described in The Science of Trust, we find that he identifies “Make Life Dreams Come True” as one of the key foundations to sound relationships. How Will You Measure Your Life? describes it as “the path to happiness is about finding someone who you want to make happy, and someone whose happiness is worth devoting yourself to.” One key to how I’ll measure my life is my relationships – with my wife, with my family, and with those who I have the privilege of spending time with. Spiritual Evolution remarks, “Nevertheless, on their deathbeds more people probably rejoice in having raised children than in having achieved precious moments of meditational Nirvana.” The One Thing quotes from The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Second on that list is “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends – too often they failed to give them the time and effort they deserved.”

Jobs for Experiences

When you’re searching for your next opportunity, there are all sorts of variables to consider. You can consider the financial gain you’ll get. The authority that you’ll have. Perhaps it’s stability that you crave and that you’re seeking. (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality for Reiss’ 16 factor model for understanding peoples’ motivations.) One of the useful and longer-term views is to look at the next opportunity from the lens of whether it will create the experience that you want in your life.

Once you’ve determined what you want in your life, you can start to architect your decisions on the path that is most likely to lead to that goal. You may not become a famous author or a motivational speaker, but if these are your aims, there are steps you can take to get closer. You can join writing workshops to learn the skills necessary to become a better writer. You can take classes to become a better speaker. (Or do something crazy like take a class on stand-up comedy like I discussed in my post I Am a Comedian.)

My Measuring Sticks

For me, I’m not looking to keep score. Somewhere along the line, I missed the class on status being important. I’m quite happy to drive an average car. I’m happy in the home that I share with my family. I’m going to measure my life based on the way that I can positively impact others. My wife, my family, and my friends are the way that I’m going to measure my life.

To get there, I’ve got to continue to make money through work, but I’ll do that too from the lens of trying to help others. That, is how I’m going to measure my life. So How Will You Measure Your Life?

How to Not Get Sucked in and Everything You Know is Wrong

In my volunteer work, I recently put together a set of presentations for leaders that I wanted to make available for others as the program matures. That meant going into the studio and recording the sessions for posterity. The sessions are “Everything You Know is Wrong” (30 min) and “How to Not Get Sucked in” (20 min).

“Everything You Know is Wrong” is designed to address the certainty with which we believe that we know what we know. In the volunteer work we’re doing, we have teenagers who are sharing their perspective on their home situation and their life. I wanted volunteers to be suspicious of what the teenagers are saying, and more broadly about the certainty with which they believe what they know.

“How to Not Get Sucked In” is the main event and it explains how you can volunteer without becoming too attached and too sucked into someone else’s world. I explain what compassion is – and, more importantly, what it isn’t – so everyone can know how to keep from getting sucked in.

The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable

No one really wants to be held accountable if you get right down to it. I’m not saying that we don’t hold ourselves accountable or that we don’t want to hold others accountable – I’m saying that we don’t like having to be accountable. (A corollary to this is that we all want control but we don’t want to be controlled, as I mentioned in my review of Compelled to Control.) However, we know that we need to learn the discipline to hold ourselves accountable and to teach this accountability to our children. Despite this need, too many parents fail to hold their children accountable, and in doing so they create struggles for their children down the road.

I want to walk through a model for why parents don’t hold their children accountable and what the long-term impacts of that are.

Why Accountability?

Before getting into the systems and factors that drive the desire for a lack of accountability, it’s appropriate to consider why we care. Why does it matter that people are held accountable? As it turns out, it matters because without it we can’t maintain stable social relationships. Societies are built on trust. (See my review of Trust for the economic impacts of trust, and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more on trust and its relational impacts in general.)

Accountability is applying consequences when someone doesn’t meet a commitment. The consequences for failing to meet a commitment can be as simple as disapproval or can involve much more tangible losses. Few people would argue that, if someone were to break the terms of a legal contract, they should be held accountable to address the losses of the other party. But how far does this expectation extend?

When a friend promises to you they’ll be there and they aren’t, do you discuss it with them? If they just say they’ll commit to being there, do you discuss it? A promise is a stronger commitment than just committing to being there. Comments like “I’ll try” or “I think I’ll make it” are weaker statements that don’t rise to the level of commitment; therefore, there’s no need to hold someone accountable to a comment.

If accountability is applying consequences only when there is a commitment, the easy answer is to not make commitments. Unfortunately, there are many implied commitments that happen in the course of interacting with other people. Children have an implied commitment from their parents that they will be taken care of at least until 18, and frequently beyond that. Barbers have an implicit agreement that they’ll deliver a reasonable haircut for the money you pay them. There’s a commitment that the barber will meet processional standards.

Social Commitments

Whether we like it or not, we’re social creatures. We exist in relationship to others. When we’re not connected to others, it causes serious health issues (see Emotional Intelligence for more on the 1987 Science article). The size of our social networks is related to the size of the neocortex, as Robin Dunbar pointed out – and humans have a large neocortex. (See my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more.) Our ability to influence others is strongly connected to our social connection with them. (See Influencer and Diffusion of Innovations for more.)

As inherently social creatures, our commitments to one another are interwoven in the fabric of our relationships with each other. We build trust by making commitments, and it’s these commitments that we must – unfortunately – be held accountable to. (See Building Trust: Make, Renegotiate, Meet for more on how building trust is accomplished.)

By holding ourselves and our children accountable to our explicit personal and implicit social commitments, we can develop the skills that will help our children be effective in this world.

Parental Distraction

One of my favorite stories about holding children accountable revolves around a trip on a subway: a father and his young children get on the train and the children quickly begin playing games and being loud, to the frustration of the other passengers. The man seems completely oblivious to the havoc that his children are creating on the train. One of the other passengers, who had become quite frustrated with the man’s failure to hold his children accountable, approaches him in anger, and asks the father why he doesn’t do something about his children’s behavior. The response was a stuttering, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. We just came from my wife’s funeral and I just didn’t realize.” In a moment, the frustration and anger melts away and is replaced with heartfelt compassion.

This story poignantly demonstrates that there are times when a parent might be so distracted by their own inner world that they’re simply incapable of noticing the impact that their children are having on other people. The implied social commitment of not allowing your children to disturb other adults is relaxed not due to malice or incompetence but instead because of an inner struggle.

While there are certainly cases where we might not accept the distractions as reasonable, few people would find fault with the father who has just lost his wife. However, many people would find fault with a father who was lost in Facebook or his phone while his children ran amuck.

Unfortunately, parents are all too often involved in their own lives in ways that make it difficult for them to see and understand how their children aren’t meeting the societal norms and should be held accountable.

Parental Time

Our generations are growing up with a greater awareness of their rights and entitlements and less of what Tom Brokaw recognized in “the greatest generation” as commitment to each other and society. (See America’s Generations for more on generational differences.) Parents have traded the quantity of the time they have with their children for the supposed quality time – which all too often isn’t quality at all. It’s just the few minutes that the parents spare for their children.

Certainly there’s a need to rest and recharge. With seven children, it’s impossible to be focused on all of them at every moment. However, there is balance between the entitlement that a parent should be able to have alone time and the need to be present and persistent as a parent. Some time to oneself and with one’s spouse is important, but too much of it looks a lot like shirking duties as a parent.

Parental Friendship

Sometimes the barrier to holding children accountable isn’t a lack of awareness or attention to them, but rather a lack of conviction to the parenting process. Parenting children is hard work. I’ve never found anyone who’s willing to argue this point. Everyone knows that it’s a difficult, tiring, and often thankless job. If you do your job as a parent well, you have no guarantees that your child will actually like you – or that you will like them.

Too many parents seek a friend in their child above being a parent. They’ll happily fulfill the duties of parent as they understand them until it conflicts with the ability of the child to be their friend. It’s hard to tell children no if the result is that you won’t be liked. It’s hard to enforce consequences for their actions – to hold them accountable – because it will necessarily mean negative feelings.

All too often, these parents aren’t complete inside. They’ve got holes in their soul where they’re missing friendship from other adults or are trying to get to a relationship they never had with their parents. Often in this mess there’s a confusion between liking someone and respecting them.

They never respected nor liked their parents, and rather than hoping that their children will respect them as a parent, they settle for being liked, and in the process, prevent the hope that children will respect them. We only respect people who can make the right choices, even when those choices are hard.

Parental Strength

Sometimes those hard choices are simply too hard for a parent to make. Their internal perspective and position doesn’t allow them to feel strong enough to make the tough calls. Sometimes this is a physical perspective: they fear what will happen if their child strikes out at them physically; but more frequently it’s the strength of conviction that they must be a parent first.

Perhaps it’s the lie that our children need our friendship more than they need us as a parent. After all, teenage suicide is on the rise, isn’t it? Unfortunately, teenage suicide rates are alarming. However, is the cause of these suicides because their parents held them accountable, or are there other causes? Sometimes, it’s the belief that there’s nothing wrong with not holding our children accountable. In other words, what’s the worst that could happen? Unfortunately, the worst that can happen is that our children learn that they can get away with anything and their ethical base is eroded.

Vulnerable Child Syndrome

Another variant of why parents won’t hold their children accountable is described as the “vulnerable child syndrome”. (The name comes research conducted by Green and Solnit.) Consider a child who has a kind of cancer that has a reasonably high incidence of mortality within the next five years. How hard is it to get a child to meet a commitment – particularly an unpleasant one like brushing their teeth if you know that they’re likely to die soon? How powerful is the pull at the parent’s heart strings to let the child not do what they’ve been asked to do?

How much does it really matter anyway? In this case, it does matter. There’s a change in the infection risk based on whether they’re brushing their teeth or not, but even knowing the increased risk for infection won’t be enough to escape the grips of heart strings when your child is suffering and you can’t make it stop, so you sure don’t want to add to it.

Similar situations happen when a child loses a parent. No one wants to hold the children accountable because they feel sorry for them. How terrible it must be to lose a parent – we can’t make them eat their vegetables. It’s as if the relatives believe that they can compensate for the loss of a parent by offering them no vegetables and a desert at every meal.

While this is well-intended, it misses the fundamental need of children to have structure and control around them. (See Parent Effectiveness Training for a complete discussion on appropriate control of children.)

Parental Guilt and Shame

Perhaps the most unsettling reason why parents don’t hold their children accountable is because of their own guilt and shame. (See Daring Greatly for a discussion of the differences.) Parents are ashamed of something they’ve done, and as a result they’re unwilling or unable to hold their children accountable. Often after a divorce (for more on divorce see my review of Divorce: Causes and Consequences), parents will have trouble holding their children accountable, because they feel guilty about the divorce. They believe they’re to blame for the divorce; so how could they hold their child accountable for acting out when they’re really the one to blame?

The reason why this is so unsettling is because it easily leads to a negative feedback loop. As the parent feels more guilt and shame because of their initial issues, which get added to as the children become unmanageable, they feel more guilt and shame, making it more difficult to hold the children accountable and further perpetuating the cycle.

Outcomes for Children

If someone told you that a test involving a marshmallow administered to young children could be an effective predictor of success in life you might be inclined to laugh. However, the famous “marshmallow test” run by Walter Mischel did just that. (The test is widely covered in Mischel’s own book and in books like Willpower.) The ability to delay gratification and wait for two marshmallows instead of eating the one in front of them has proven to be an effective predictor of many things, including success, later in life. How can such a simple test provide such insights?

One answer is that it measures the ability for a child to delay gratification, and which is necessary for many other situations in life, where the better you are at delaying gratification the more successful you’ll be.

Take a moment to think about social skills – the kind of skills you develop when you’re held accountable to your commitments. This is one small sliver of the broader concept of emotional intelligence: the ability to form relationships with others and connect with them. Emotional intelligence, too, has been identified as a predictor of success in life – more so than IQ.

While there have been no focused, hard-science research on holding children accountable that I’m aware of, the supporting skills and the presumptions of what you’ll teach children by holding them accountable have been shown to indicate greater success in life.

If, then, you choose to not hold your children accountable, you’re more likely to stifle their chances in life – and no one wants that, do they?

Book Review-A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World

It was December 17th, 2012 when I finished reading A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World. Three days before my birthday and four days before I found out that my now ex-wife had filed for divorce. I had known it was coming, but we had an agreement that we’d wait until after the new year and our son’s birthday before filing. It’s little wonder that I put my review of the book aside. I had read it to try to heal my heart from the damage that the marriage had done.

I wanted to get closer to God, but I was deeply conflicted because I was clear about how “God hates divorce.” (If you want to see biblical perspectives on divorce, see my review of Divorce: Causes and Consequences.) The book was a great view of how to find peace in prayer and how to keep the noise of everyday life at bay. Just as I mentioned in my review of Intimacy Anorexia, my thoughts were too personal and raw to share at the time; however, with the passage of several years and after having found love again, I feel like I can write how I was able to find A Praying Life.

What Prayer Is

It seems fitting that, if you’re going to talk about praying, you should start by explaining what it is. Clearly, prayer is a conversation with God. It’s a way to communicate with your Creator. However, what most folks don’t realize is that in Greek, which the New Testament is written in, “prayer” is the exchanging of wishes for faith.

We often casually say that we don’t have enough faith. We believe that faith is something that we generate internally; however, faith is always a gift from God. Prayer is how we exchange our hopes, fears, desires, and wishes for that faith. So, when we believe that we don’t have enough faith, we should pray more – not less.

What Love Is

It was during this same dark time that I read God Loves You: He Always Has and He Always Will. (I finished that book on December 22nd of 2012.) I was struggling to understand God’s love for me personally. Both A Praying Life and God Loves You encouraged me to evaluate what God’s love was – and what it meant to love everyone. I brought this discussion of love together with a discussion of hope and faith in my post Faith, Hope, and Love.

While it’s possible to enumerate romantic love (eros) separately from our familial or brotherly love (philos) and compassion or global love (agape), this doesn’t explain what love is. It doesn’t help us to love one another. Love isn’t, in fact, a feeling. It’s action. It’s a commitment that we make one person at a time to the other people in our lives and to the people of this fragile planet. Love is more powerful and amazing than anything that we as humans can experience.

Weakness

In western cultures, we rarely speak of weakness. We don’t speak of hardships as opportunities to build character. Brené Brown says that we “gold-plate grit”, and thereby diminish its importance and its relevance. Certainly, there have been times in my life when I’ve been beaten down, when I’ve been worn, and when I’ve been weak. These times can be times of celebration if I allow them to be the ways that God reassures me of his presence. These can be times when I am reminded of how I can’t do this alone. I need God’s strength and power to carry me.

I won’t say that this is easy. I won’t say that I relish my walks through the wilderness. I won’t say that I feel like I always turn to God as much as I should. However, I do know that God leads EVERYONE he loves through the wilderness.

Identity

Somewhere along the way, I learned to be myself. I learned to be the authentic self that I am. I don’t try to project an image that I’m someone else. I don’t attempt to appear better than I am. Nor do I try to think more highly of myself than I should. I realized that if I wanted to be intimate with others – to truly connect – that I’d have to be vulnerable, and that meant that I’d have to be my real self. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more on this progression.)

It seems like this should be easiest with God – but it isn’t always. If you know that you have an omniscient and omnipresent God, then it should follow that he already knows the complete truth about you since the moment of your birth. Yet, sometimes we think that we should somehow appear better for God than we are. We dress in our “Sunday best” to go to church. While this can be done out of respect and reverence, it isn’t always. It’s sometimes just a way of demonstrating what we’ve done and accomplished to others, including God.

However, the funny thing is that we’ve accomplished nothing without God. Even when you don’t feel his presence in your life and in your actions, the raw materials we’ve used to accomplish whatever we’ve done are the raw materials that he provided. We couldn’t possibly have accomplished anything without him.

The problem is that when we fail to be ourselves – our true selves – it’s impossible to be in an authentic relationship with God.

Feelings

I’m a believer in Johnathan Haidt’s model of the Rider-Elephant-Path and the implications of the relationship between our emotions and our rational selves. The model is, in short, that we have a rational rider sitting on an emotional elephant walking down the default path. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for more on this model.) One of the components of being authentically you is the acceptance that we all have emotions.

Feelings are friends. Feelings are the expression of our emotional elephant into our consciousness. It’s our elephant getting the rider’s attention, so that the rider can know what the elephant knows. I know that some of the mentally healthiest people I know have developed a relationship between their elephant and their rider so that there’s no tension between rationality and feelings.

When you can safely acknowledge your feelings, and accept them as legitimate while not necessarily accepting their accuracy, you build that relationship between the rider and the elephant that transcends anything that makes sense to the rider.

The Mission of the Heart

In church, you often hear of the “mission field”. We hear about the places that missionaries are working to ensure that everyone has been able to hear the great news about Jesus. The challenge is that these places seem so far away and unreachable. We often forget that the mission field is all around us. We forget that our neighbors are struggling to find their way. Our family is lost in how to develop better relationships with one another. Our co-workers wonder if they’re loved by their families.

The truth is that the mission field is truly all around us. The mission field is more than just bringing folks to Christ. The mission is to help lift the hearts of those whom we touch every day. We can be God’s hands and feet as we touch others’ hearts.

God is more concerned with the matters of the heart – where our heart is – than our physical conditions. Jesus spoke to the Pharisees about their hearts. He looks much deeper than our outward appearance into where our hearts are. Often, the Bible speaks of how God loves a “cheerful giver”, or how Jesus implored us to check how we felt in our hearts and whether we’ve violated God’s commands in our hearts.

The mission of our lives may be to heal our hearts from the wounds inflicted by this sin-filled world. The Bible says that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). We have the opportunity to heal our hearts and the hearts of others by focusing on love. The Buddhists would speak of cultivating compassion and that this is the path to Nirvana. We need to simply seek love and to be loved to heal our hearts – the hearts that Jesus came to reach.

Be Still

One of the most difficult things today is to learn how to be still. For most of us, life has become an overstimulated, continuous stream of distractions as we go from one distraction to the next. Rarely do we get the opportunity to pause and reflect on our lives or just be. We’re bombarded by advertisements and notifications from emails and social media. We’re constantly worried that we’re not going to make it, that we’re not enough, and that we need to do something. (See Daring Greatly for more about being enough.)

Learning to connect with God necessarily means prayer – and that means finding a way to be still and create space for the conversation with Him. God speaks in a whisper. He speaks in the softness of a gentle wind. If we allow ourselves to be constantly distracted and constantly bombarded by distractions, we don’t create the space to hear His still, soft voice. Of course, God is capable of communicating more loudly – but I generally find that I’m not happy when He must speak with such a loud voice.

Writing Your Story

One of the hardest things for me to understand and accept when I initially read A Praying Life was that there is a story to my life. It felt like my life was ending, or at the very least pausing. It was hard to see around the bend to where I’d be four years later. It was hard to see that this was the center of the story, the climax of the conflict. When you can frame your situation in terms of not an endpoint but a milestone on the journey of life, your entire attitude changes. Bitterness becomes waiting to see what God has in store. Aimlessness becomes wondering what amazing things are to come. Attempts to control are replaced with submission to His will.

The most amazing thing about my life today isn’t what has happened in the past, but the opportunity to see what God has planned next. If I can maintain A Praying Life and in that remain connected to God, I truly can’t imagine what great things He has planned.

Book Review-The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird

My reading list has been described by many, including my wife, as positively boring. I read about so many topics that most people would use to put themselves to sleep. However, this book is different. This book is about my positively all-time favorite aircraft. It flies (or flew) faster and higher than missiles. Growing up, I’d hear stories of the “Blackbird” and I was in awe. That’s why I read The Complete Book of the SR71 Blackbird – but there was a twist.

The twist was that I needed to verify a comment that I had heard long ago. That comment was that the SR-71 leaked fuel like a sieve while on the ground. There was some discrepancy about whether that was truth or not, so I had to find out for sure. But before I get there, I should explain how the airplane came to be.

Russia and the U-2

It was 1956 and Kelly Johnson’s team at Lockheed had created the most sophisticated reconnaissance plane ever known: the U-2. It flew so high that it was thought that ground-launched missiles wouldn’t be able to reach it – at least for a few years. It was only a few years later (1960) that a U-2 was eventually shot down inside of Soviet airspace. It was quite an incident in Cold War history. However, even before the U-2 was shot down, Kelly Johnson’s team was at work on the successor.

If you know your aviation history, then you know that Kelly Johnson took a team aside and separated them from the main bureaucracy of Lockheed, and ultimately took on the moniker of Skunk Works. This was an adaption from the comic strip Li’l Abner, by Al Capp, where Skunk Works was a dilapidated factory. The advanced development program’s (ADP) initial location was near a malodorous factory, and eventually the combination of the smell and the popularity of the cartoon caused the nickname Skunk Works to stick.

The initial aircraft from which the SR-71 was adapted was the A-12. This was to be the replacement for the U-2. Instead of just staying one step ahead of the enemies, Johnson and the team decided to innovate in multiple areas to give the aircraft the ability to be serviceable for the long term. They did that. The first flight of the SR-71 was December of 1964, and its last military operational flight was in 1997. A 33-year run for a spy plane is beyond impressive: it’s unprecedented.

Higher, Faster, Less Visible

The way that the aircraft managed to be serviceable over such a long period of time was that the innovations drove it in three key areas.

First, the aircraft had a very high operational altitude. In fact, the service ceiling was 85,000 feet. This is well into the stratosphere and the limit for the range of jet-powered aircraft. Missiles had an effective operating ceiling of 60,000 feet. In short, the SR-71 was designed to fly higher than missiles could reach.

Second, the aircraft holds the speed record. Operational maximum cruise was Mach 3.2 (3.2 times the speed of sound). Speeds more than Mach 3.2 were possible by the SR-71; but due to heating of the skin of the SR-71, speeds above Mach 3.2 were rare. Even against the fastest-moving and longest-range contemporary missile, the Soviet R-37, the missile must be fired within 185 km to have the slightest chance of hitting the SR-71. The missile travels a maximum range of 400 km at speeds up to Mach 6. This assumes that the firing aircraft is at the same level of flight and that the SR-71 isn’t over the service envelope of the missile.

Third, the SR-71 pioneered stealth technology. It’s the original way to be less detectable to enemy radar. Its body and coatings gave it 1/10th the radar signature of a F-15 fighter. Even if the missile could get as high as it was flying, and managed to catch up with it, it would have to find the SR-71, which wasn’t going to be an easy task.

These advances made the SR-71 an aircraft that was never shot down by an enemy. Every loss was due to mechanical failures or pilot error. That’s impressive for a fleet of aircraft that logged over 11,000 mission flight hours – and a total of over 53,000 total flight hours.

Vulnerabilities

However, ultimately, the SR-71 was vulnerable. It was vulnerable to politics, budgeting, and the perception that it was cheaper to gather reconnaissance from satellites than from the SR-71. The aircraft that was never shot down ultimately was shut down. In fact, the program was shut down twice. In 1997, the program succumbed to political pressures and funding issues.

Other aircraft and drones were delivering real-time reconnaissance and the SR-71 could not. Its systems were never updated to support real-time transmission of data, and the lag in getting the data back from the aircraft became increasingly untenable in a world where we wanted the information now.

Satellites and drones didn’t risk human life, and they provided quicker access to the intelligence that the military community was now demanding. Besides, the cost of the custom JP-7 fuel was expensive.

Leaking Like a Sieve

To make the SR-71 work, there were numerous challenges; but none more impressive than designing an engine that would work like a jet on takeoff and transition to a ram jet engine in flight. Put simply, a jet uses a fan to compress air and create the literally explosive thrust. Once you exceed a certain speed, this isn’t efficient any longer and it’s not necessary. It’s possible to use aerodynamics to create pressure through the air coming in.

The other interesting aspect of the engine is that it needed a fuel source with a very high ignition point. Flying at Mach 3.2 – no matter how high you are – creates a great deal of friction that will heat the skin of the aircraft. Look at the following figure:

The SR-71 needed a fuel that didn’t have a low flash point. Thus, the development of JP-7, a fuel unique to the SR-71. This higher flash point required an ignition system that leveraged Triethylborane (TEB) which explodes in the contact of air. So in addition to the JP-7, the SR-71 had to have TEB to ignite – or reignite the engines should they stall. In addition, even with JP-7, it was necessary to fill the fuel tank voids with nitrogen to prevent oxygen getting in and creating the opportunity for the JP-7 to ignite.

The net effect of the need for such a high temperature aircraft would mean that there had to be a plan for things to expand during flight, both due to the lack of atmospheric pressure but also due to the heat on the surface of the SR-71. While on the ground, the JP-7 would leak out of many small gaps in the tanks. Thus, the comment that the SR-71 leaked like a sieve on the ground. In the air, these small gaps closed as the materials heated and expanded.

I was looking at my photo for describing the SR-71 in my presentations and realized something very odd that was only apparent to me after seeing other photos in the book. Take a look.

I didn’t initially understand the lighter colorings on the top of the wings, until I realized that this flight, obviously going more slowly so that it could be photographed, was showing the JP-7 getting siphoned out the top of the tanks on the SR-71 by the low air pressure on the top of the wings. The SR-71 leaked like a sieve when it was cold – not just on the ground.

A Dream

I don’t have a prayer of flying an SR-71. Even if the program were still in operation, the people that had the opportunity to fly the SR-71 were the absolute best in the aviation business, bar none. Though it lacked the action that some pilots longed for, it was still an assignment that a select few would be allowed to get. The requirements physically, as a pilot, and psychologically were immense. I have deep respect for those who had the opportunity to fly her.

I’d love to just fly the simulator of the SR-71. While, undoubtedly, I’d not do well, just experiencing what it would be like to be flying in the fastest aircraft ever made would be worth the embarrassment of not doing it well.

The story that I remember most was the one from the reconnaissance mission over Libya after the US had bombed terrorist training camps of Muammar Qaddafi. The SR-71 was piloted by Brian Shul, and it completed its mission despite being fired at by some surface-to-air missiles that we hadn’t knocked out. He literally completed his reconnaissance pass before punching the throttle forward to outrun the missiles. He reported that the aircraft achieved Mach 3.5 while evading the incoming missiles at 80,000 feet.

This story (or the initial reports of it) created dreams of fast flying aircraft that were invulnerable to enemy defenses. It was then that my fascination with the SR-71 Blackbird took hold. It’s 30 years later and I’ve finally read the rest of the story. I’ve finally read The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird. It might have removed the mystery from the aircraft, but it still hasn’t removed the wonder.

Book Review-Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood

It’s been several weeks now since I got to attend a knighting ceremony. The queen wasn’t present and I wasn’t in a castle. It was my friend who was knighting his son. This ceremony and symbolic act of recognizing him as a man I would find out later from a book Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood. I was curious what else the book had to say about raising boys, so I started reading and learning about knighthood.

The Meaning of Knights

We’ve all heard stories of knights in the middle ages. They wear shiny plate armor and ride in on a white horse. They joust and play games, they rescue damsels in distress, and they slay dragons. Wait, perhaps I slipped out of history and into mythology and lore somewhere along the way. That’s one of the interesting things about knights. They move from being a real figure in history into a mythical legend.

That seems to be in no small part because of the code of conduct they lived by – the honor that they carried so close to their hearts. Knights learned how to uphold a set of moral ideals that most of the people of the time couldn’t aspire to. As a result, knights eventually became nobility. Like the lords they served, they were set apart.

As a result, knights are the superheroes of the middle ages.

Of Pages and Squires

How does one become a knight? You start as a page. At this stage, you’re instructed on the basics of becoming a knight – not just the mechanics of weapons, but also the chivalric code of honor that a knight is expected to uphold. In this entry level position, you’re trained by squires – until you are promoted into that rank.

Squires continued their training with knights – or, more accurately, one specific knight – who refined the mechanics of weapons and clarified what it meant to uphold the code of honor. In a classic apprentice, journeyman, and master approach, pages became squires and squires became knights. (For more about the apprentice, journeyman, master progression, see my post.)

The moment that a squire became a knight was a big deal – it was a ceremony.

Ceremony

Somewhere along the way we’ve lost our love of ceremony. Teenagers are skipping their graduation because they don’t want to “waste their time.” We treat life transitions as if they’re just something that happen. We don’t demark them with a feast or banquet or ceremony. In our hurry up, get it done and move on to the next thing world, we’re not interested in recognizing others for their hard work.

When you don’t have a clear ceremony to recognize the achievement, how does one know when they’ve achieved a goal? Sure, a piece of paper is nice and it appeals to your logical side, but where is the emotion of accomplishing the goal? Where’s the pride? Even the Buddhists, who are widely regarded as not having an interest in attachment or pride, acknowledge that pride isn’t all bad. (See Emotional Awareness
for more on the views on pride.)

Young men and boys today rightly struggle to when know they become a man. Is it when they learn to drive? Turn 18? Turn 21? Get married? Have sex? The problem with trying to help boys and young men know when they’re a man is that there’s no one defining event that truly turns a boy into a man. There are multiple different yard sticks to be measured on. The challenge is how do you know which yardstick to use?

The Meaning of a Father

It’s no secret that children need their parents – both their father and their mother – and that there’s a large number of social issues that come from fathers being absent. (See Our Kids for more on the importance of fathers.) A son not knowing when he becomes a man isn’t the biggest issue. The biggest issue is a son not knowing what it’s like to be a man. The biggest problem is that our sons don’t know what the code is that they’re to live by. The example that a father sets can serve as a guidepost or a lighthouse as to what they should do themselves.

There are a set of values – unique to each father to some extent – which need to be passed down to our sons so that they can know what their personal code of honor should be. I’ve softened this from the single view of one code of honor because of my awareness that we’re all different and have different values. (See The Normal Personality and Who am I? for more.)

Code of Conduct

Despite the need to apply our own “coat of arms” to the process of developing an honorable code in our children, Raising a Modern-Day Knight offers these suggestions for the foundation:

  • Loyalty “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).
  • Servant-leadership “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27).
  • Kindness “What is desirable in a man is his kindness” (Proverbs 19:22).
  • Humility “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
  • Purity “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:12).
  • Honesty “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25).
  • Self-discipline “Have nothing to do with worldly fables. … On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
  • Excellence “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win” (1 Corinthians 9:24).
  • Integrity “He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9).
  • Perseverance “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Galatians 6:9).

This seems like a good place for us to start.

The Fellowship of Knights

Ultimately, it’s more than a father or a code of conduct that helps a boy become a man. A father has the potential to be the largest influence on a boy in his journey to manhood, and the code of conduct that he sets forth will be the foundation for how the son forms his own values; but the influence of the outside world and particularly the other noble men in his life shouldn’t be understated.

I’m thankful for the powerful friends I have who can also help my sons learn how they need to conduct themselves. I don’t mean powerful in terms of money or prestige. I mean powerful in the sense that they have a strong sense of the men that they want to be. I appreciate their friendship with me and by extension their watchful eye over my sons.

While we no longer live in villages where everyone could support the growth and development of our children, it still takes a village to raise a child. It’s just that today’s village is much more virtual. The days when all the neighbors knew where the children were and were watching over all of them are gone. We’re locked inside our own little worlds so it’s not the same, but the need for other powerful men in the lives of our son remains. (See Bowling Alone for being locked away in our own little worlds.)

Recognizing the Need

Fathers: our sons need us. Even when they push us away. Even when they tell us we’re a bad father. Even when they tell us that they don’t like us. They’re still listening and watching. Keep up the fight. Call in reinforcements if you need to, but don’t give up on your sons. If you recognize the need perhaps it’s time to decide how to create your own ceremony, so that you can go through the process of Raising a Modern-Day Knight.

Book Review-The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer’s

It’s a thief. It steals. It steals the things which everyone holds dearest. It deprives us of what we believed we could never be deprived of. It’s a cruel and ruthless villain without remorse, as it takes the best and brightest among us and clouds them in confusion and contradiction, dimming or diminishing their light before the end of life. This villain is Alzheimer’s Disease and one of our dear friends has become its victim. She is an amazing woman who is being robbed of her identity, her memories, and her history.

That’s what caused me to read The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer’s, and what has caused me to decide to continue to seek more information. I want our friend Mary back. Not the shell that the disease has left behind, but all of her. Unfortunately, The End of Memory doesn’t answer all the questions but it does clear up some misconceptions about the disease.

Prevalence

Who is going to get Alzheimer’s disease? That’s a terrifying and confusing question. More women seem to have the disease; however, the disease gets progressively more common based on age, and women live longer than men. It’s estimated that it impacts 10% of people over sixty-five and nearly 50% of those over eighty-five. There are numerous other factors that impact whether you’ll get the disease. For instance, a mutation of “presenilin 1” seems to cause early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In fact, James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, had several sections of genes where indicators were for Alzheimer’s, so that no one would know what his genetic risk factors were. The risk factors aren’t isolated to one gene or one chromosome. In fact, chromosome 21 – the one associated with Down’s Syndrome – controls the production of Amyloid Precursor Protein (APP), which as we’ll see plays a major role in Alzheimer’s. Presenilin 2 is another marker for early onset Alzheimer’s disease, but genetically speaking it’s far and away from Presenilin 1 – and chromosome 21.

The last and perhaps most interesting gene is apolipoprotein E or APOE. There are three variants of this gene. The variant APOE2 reduces the risk for Alzheimer’s substantially (but not dramatically) for the roughly 7% of people that have it.

While genetic markers can account for a non-trivial portion of Alzheimer’s cases, it falls way short of a majority vote into whether you’ll develop the disease or not. The way that you know if you have the disease – besides the obvious cognitive impairment – is the presence of plaques and tangles.

Plaques and Tangles

Alzheimer’s Disease is notable because, historically, it’s been diagnosed post-mortem. The victim’s brain was examined posthumously, and the presence of what are called plaques and tangles are supposed to indicate the presence of the disease, as it was with patient zero. However, there’s a problem. These plaques and tangles appear in people without any (even mild) cognitive impairment at the time of their death. Conversely, some patients experiencing dementia have no plaques and no tangles. So it seems that most of the disease’s long history has been focused on the artifacts of the disease, but not necessarily the cause.

Plaques in the Intercellular Space

The first of two diagnostic criteria is the presence of plaques which reside in intercellular space (that is, the space outside the neurons of the brain). Plaques are the clumps of discarded amyloid beta proteins. They come together because their shape makes them sticky. However, what is amyloid beta? Well, it’s a part of the amyloid protein that has a variety of uses in the neurons of the brain. In the brain it is rare in that a protein is created and then sliced up by special enzymes. Some of the frequently unused segments of the amyloid are called amyloid beta. The role of amyloid and the amyloid precursor protein aren’t well understood, but it’s clear that there are many functions.

Plaques have been the target of therapies to improve the results for patients with dementia – and presumably Alzheimer’s disease. Some therapies have demonstrated marked reduction in plaques with no change in the cognitive impairment of the patient. This is bad news for trying to point to the plaques as the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. That means that the cause is elsewhere, perhaps in the tangles.

Tangles: Twisted Girders of the Neuron

Neurons have really interesting shapes. They reach out and touch other neurons via axons. Something has to maintain that shape of the cell. That’s the job of tau. Tau is a protein that allows a neuron to form its shape – and therefore its connection with other neurons. Tau is a normally rigid protein that keeps its shape, thereby maintaining the shape of the neuron. However, tau can also be changed to allow neural plasticity. This plasticity can be accelerated through the introduction of phosphorylate. When in periods of higher learning, the tau experience high levels of phosphorylation, and can therefore change shape.

The problem comes when tau become tangled because of too much flexibility. These tangles are like the twisted girders of buildings torn apart by a tornado or a bomb. The original structure is absent, and all that remains is a mess. In the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease tangles – the mess of tau – are the intracellular indicator of problems.

Interestingly, the rate of tangles nearly directly predicts the level of cognitive impairment for a patient. That is, by looking at the number of tangles, you can reasonably predict the cognitive impairment – except in some outlying cases.

Newness of Alzheimer’s Disease

While digging into the disease, the obvious question might be, when did it start to develop? The answer is a bit trickier to understand, because cognitive impairment was historically seen as a natural consequence of old age. It’s difficult to retrospectively look at the historical records and separate the normal from the abnormal.

The incidence of Alzheimer’s has increased p over the last century; but how much of that is improved understanding of the diagnostics of cognitive impairment, and how much is due to our longer lifespans? In the year 1800, Americans of European descent numbered about five million – fewer than the number of patients with Alzheimer’s disease today. By 1900, it’s estimated that 4% of the population was over sixty-five, and population had grown to seventy-six million.

The key challenge is that cognitive impairment was considered normal. It was what was expected when you became old. Instead of it being recognized as a condition afflicting people, it was the normal. So in trying to look at the records to see if 300,000 or more of people over sixty-five had dementia is like trying to find a polar bear in a snow storm.

Due to improvements in medicine and safety, our life expectancy is increasing by about one year for every four years of time. Notwithstanding some limits to this process, such as the Hayflick limit to the number of times that a cell can divide, it appears that we’re increasing the life expectancy dramatically, and as a result will have a greater number of people who can count themselves lucky to be “old.” While this creates a need for care facilities to care for our elderly, it also creates an interest in preventing the cognitive impairment that used to be “normal” for elderly. (See Being Mortal for more on the care of the elderly.)

Correlations and Questions

Through the study of Alzheimer’s, some very peculiar correlations have appeared. One of the most famous studies of Alzheimer’s was what’s called “The Nun Study.” In this study, many of the members of the Sisters of Notre Dame agreed to be monitored for the development of the disease. From a statistical point of view, this was great because so many of the variables of their lives were similar and therefore could be discounted as contributing factors. One of the predictive factors that emerged was a small bit of writing that the nuns did sixty years before the onset of the disease.

Nuns write a small essay about their desire to enter the sisterhood. The density of ideas in that essay – the natural writing with multiple pieces of information tightly encoded into the few words that they are given – is a significant predictor of whether they’ll get the disease or not. Nuns who wrote dense prose were less likely to get the disease than those whose essays were less tightly packed.

While the prevalence of tangles tightly tracks the progression of the disease, this is an early warning sign that spans decades. It’s been well-studied that Alzheimer’s occurs less frequently in patients that are well-educated.

Interestingly, it seems that it may be the case that education forestalls the progression of the symptoms of the disease. So it appears that education may create a sort of cognitive reserve that can hold back the disease for a while. It’s believed now that if patients with higher education live sufficiently long they’ll encounter the disease and the onset of symptoms will be more rapid for them. In my typical glass half-full mentality, I’ll take the reduction of symptoms and rapid onset as a win.

Unrelated to Alzheimer’s, but complicating the measurement of the progression of the disease, is something called “terminal drop.” This is a precipitous drop in cognitive capacity in the months leading up to death. So is a person suffering from symptoms of the disease, or are they approaching death?

Cynics seem to be more prone to the disease, while those who enjoy regular leisure activities – particularly those which cause a person to be mentally active – seem to build cognitive reserve that helps to protect someone from the symptoms of the disease.

Spread of the Disease

With advances in imaging techniques, we’re able to peer into the heads of patients and see in more detail how the disease is progressing than we’ve ever been able to before; and with this, we’ve discovered some odd “coincidences.”

One of the factors of cognitive processing speed is the myelin sheath. Myelin is a fatty sheath that surrounds neurons and makes them more effective at communication. Myelin is produced by the oligodendrocytes, which are found in highest concentrations in the entorhinal cortex. This is the area most impacted by Alzheimer’s and is the interface between the hippocampus and the neocortex. The entorhinal cortex is one of the last areas developed in the brain, and one of the last areas to receive myelin.

It’s the entorhinal cortex that seems to be ground zero for Alzheimer’s disease. It’s where the disease seems to cause the most damage.

Glucose (Sugar) in the Brain

There are some researchers that are calling for Alzheimer’s disease to be called Diabetes Type III. Diabetes mellitus exists in two forms, both of which impact glucose levels in the blood. Diabetes Type I is associated with the destruction of the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, such that the body no longer produces insulin. Type II diabetes is associated with increased resistance to the insulin being produced. Insulin is important to the regulation of blood glucose levels, because it allows for the absorption of the glucose in the blood.

Glucose is the necessary energy component for us to function, but elevated levels of unabsorbed glucose in our blood is associated with a large number of comorbidities. In essence, our bodies function with a ratio of glucose in the blood that falls in a relatively narrow range. Glucose levels in the blood are constantly changing, but an adult should on average have a blood glucose of approximately 100mg per deciliter. This is measured through a test called Hemoglobin A1c or HbA1c. This measures the average glucose over a three-month period. The HbA1c lab values are typically converted back into an average blood sugar using a standard formula.

Diabetes has long been known as a factor in the development of dementia; however, what has been less clear is whether that was the result of the comorbidities related to diabetes, or whether it’s related to the diabetes itself. Because Alzheimer’s is sensitive to vascular issues, and diabetes has an impact on vascular malleability as well as a tendency to increase cholesterol, the relationship seemed reasonable and no specific cause was identified. However, research is beginning to indicate that the brain’s processing of glucose is impaired with Alzheimer’s.

The brain is a power-hungry organ. Taking up two percent of our body mass, it consumes roughly 20% of our glucose. As we learned in The Rise of Superman, it has a maximum sustainable energy use, and because of that, various areas of the brain may be switched off to accommodate the power needs of other parts of the brain. It’s not hard to believe that even minute changes in the management of glucose in an electro-chemical system could have dire consequences.

Unfortunately, this is where the trail ends at the moment. There is a belief that the disease may be triggered by changes in insulin resistance. There’s a higher rate of dementia in patients with elevated glucose levels (but not yet meeting the threshold for diabetes), but we don’t understand yet how changes in blood sugar impact the processing of glucose in the brain.

Power Loss

A few years ago my wife and I were showering together when she fainted. It was a terrifying experience for me. I’d never seen someone faint so closely. (It’s a small shower.) More than that, I saw the biological equivalent of what I see in my technology work. When a computer reboots, it goes momentarily silent as all power is lost and the fans stop. After that, the fans are on at 100% for a few seconds, and then things resume their normal median fan speeds. My wife’s breathing eerily took on the same pattern. She stopped breathing for a moment, breathed at a high rate of speed for a few more moments, and then settled into a normal breathing pattern. It was my first experience that technology sometimes follows biology.

When meeting with Mary, I was struck by a similar correlation. When a computer has a power supply problem – when the power supply isn’t able to produce all the power the computer needs – the computer is running along fine until you do something taxing to it. Once you ask it to do something which requires just a bit more power, it will reboot. It momentarily goes blank and starts the process of booting up again. Mary’s responses to me looked like this pattern. She’d get triggered into recalling a memory or making sense of the input she was receiving, and would fall out of that train of thought. Moments later when rediscovering the same novel stimulus, she would return to the train of thought and fall out of it at nearly the same place. Even in technology, there are a lot of variables that change the exact place where things fail, though the failure seems to happen at nearly the same time every time it cycles.

While this is a single observation by a non-clinical observer making a relationship to something man-made that has very little to do with the functioning of the human brain, it’s led me to wonder: what if what we experience as dementia is really just the inability of the brain to make the connections it once used to because of insufficient energy?

I don’t believe we’ll know whether the glucose hypothesis is right in time to help Mary. However, it’s something that I’ll continue to be interested in. I don’t want to accept The End of Memory. I’ll keep Mary’s memories and her memory alive in me as long as I’m able.

Book Review-The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful, Resilient, and Connected Teens and Tweens

If you want to get into a real conversation with someone, talk to them about their teenage children. Move past the pleasantries of “they’re fine”. Leap over their accomplishments. Dwell for a bit on how the parent struggles with what their child is doing, what lessons they’re learning, or how their relationship is. I guarantee that this conversation is the most real conversation that a parent will have in a day. I’ve never met a parent that isn’t concerned for their child. (Thank God!) Most of the time as parents we’re wandering in the dark trying to figure out how to not mess our children up too much.

I’m by no means an expert on how to raise teenagers, but a few years ago I got the opportunity to get a crash course on it as I gained six additional children (three of which were teenagers at the time) in one fell swoop. For all seven of my children, I want to be available and appropriately supporting. I want to be what John Duffy calls the “available” parent in his book The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful, Resilient, and Connected Teens and Tween.

Defining Availability

What Duffy calls availability, I might call connectedness. In a world where electronics are the king and being connected has more to do with Internet service than relationships, I can see why availability might be a differentiating term. However, for me it’s all about having a connection, a relationship, with your teenager – no matter how hard this can be at times. Thomas Phelan, author of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12, wrote a foreword and said, “Staying in touch is the essence of what Dr. Duffy means by availability.”

Friends, Parents, or Both

One of the ongoing debates about parenting is whether you should be friends with your children. Actually, it’s not a debate. Everyone agrees. You have to be a parent. You should be a friend. The questions arise when you have to make the decision between whether to be a friend in the situation or whether to be a parent. (See Who Am I? for different value systems in conflict.)

Duffy gets it right. You have to be a parent first. You have to fulfill your responsibilities to be a parent before you’re a friend. Of course, this is easier said than done when you fear that your child will come to hate you – as you may secretly feel about your own parents.

Handling the Hate

I expect my children will tell me they hate me. I expect that they’ll tell me I’m a bad, awful parent. I do this because it makes it easier when they do tell me these things. Knowing that it’s natural for children to have moments when they don’t like that I’m doing my job as a parent makes it easier when they lash out at me – and I know they will. When I don’t react when they try to explain their hatred for me, I steal the power that was there to disrupt the conversation.

The truth is that we are all frustrated with our parents when they discipline us. The bible says, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2) and, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” (Proverbs 13:24) While some people attempt to take this literally, it’s more of a figurative statement about understanding how to establish boundaries with our children and to instruct them in the ways of right and wrong. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” Nowhere in this does anyone say the child will like it or love you for it – but they’ll respect you for it, and that’s a good place to start.

What’s My Fear

Too many parents are afraid of what other parents will think. Too many parents believe that their children are a direct reflection on them. If I didn’t raise my child to be a rock star, an all start athlete, or a four-star general then I’m not a good parent and I have to be a good parent – like my parents before me. Without granting innocence, parents do the best they can to raise their children in a sea of influences they can’t control. That is the world isn’t an excuse for how children turn out but it is a factor that parents can’t control. How the children turn out isn’t a statement of their value as parents or as people.

One of the techniques I used with my son when he was younger and he was being disobedient was I forced him to sit on the floor and calm down before we’d proceed. One day he was disobedient in church and I sat him on the floor “right in front of God and everybody.” Many of the parents walking by appeared appalled that I’d make my son sit on the floor at church. However, it was effective. I didn’t have a problem with him being disobedient for long.

Too often parents are wrapped up in their own fears of inadequacy, and those get projected into their relationships with their children, and the result is an ugly distorted version of reality. Some of these fears aren’t fears about the children at all, but are instead fears that they’ll never become what they hoped they would become. It’s the death of their life’s hope. (See more about hope in The Psychology of Hope.)

My Life 2.0

It was a spring morning in a high-rise office building in New York. I was there to help implement an ecommerce system. It was a short engagement designed to get the client through some tough spots. I was sitting in one of the manager’s offices at lunch and he shared with me that his daughter was playing soccer. When I asked him about her interest in soccer, he responded that she was playing soccer. It turns out, he had narrowly missed a soccer scholarship to his prized university and was bitter about it. As a result, he was going to live his life out vicariously through his daughter. He had already decided that she’d love soccer. She’d go to the college that he didn’t get to go to. She was going to be his opportunity to capture the things that he missed. (See Peak for what can happen when parents push their children too hard into something they’re not passionate about.)

Too many parents treat their children like this. Junior is going to accomplish what I didn’t. Susie will be the beauty pageant queen that mom couldn’t be because her family couldn’t afford the dresses. Instead of living their lives, they’re stealing their child’s life from them.

Holding Environments

There’s a single reference in the book to a holding environment. There’s a single reference to a set of words that have great meaning for me. My friend Paul Culmsee wrote about it in The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices by quoting Ron Heifetz, “A holding environment gives the parties involved a protected space in which they can develop the behaviors necessary to adapt to the specific situation and environment they are in.” A holding environment is a safe space. It’s a safe space to fail. (See Play for the need to be safe to learn.)

This is what we need to do as parents for our adolescent children. We need to create a space which is safe to fail. We need to create a place where it’s ok for us to be disappointed. They need to be able to try and fail. They need to be able to make mistakes, run into parked cars, and learn from them.

Scoop them Up

The way that Terri and I’ve come to discuss how we approach the mistakes that our children make is that we come and scoop them up. We don’t pick them up. We don’t dust them off and ignore what happened. We scoop them up. We lift them up. While there are consequences for falling, they’re not too large, and they never mean that we’re going to abandon them. In fact, if there’s one consistent message that we have is that we’ll always love them – even if we don’t always agree with their choices.

Here, I think there’s a caution. If you completely eliminate the consequences of the action, you risk depriving your child’s ability to learn from the incident. We’re not talking about interfering with the natural consequences of their decisions. Instead we’re talking about how do we demonstrate our love for them while accepting their need to feel the pain of the consequences?

Taking Risks

We need our children to take risks. We need them to stretch. (See Peak for more about peak performers’ need for stretch, and Flow for more about how to get to the highest-performing states you need challenge.) There’s an appropriate concern on Duffy’s part about parents who are “always there for their children” – who don’t allow their children to feel some pain, and therefore they never learn.

Circus performers learn their performances with a net. They know the net is there to catch them. This allows them to take risks and learn new routines. By the same token, they learn not to depend on the net if they don’t have to. Nets can fail. (Just like parents can fail.) They learn that they use the net to learn, but the net may not be there for the actual performance. They need to use the net to learn, not keep the net around forever. It would be ridiculous to see an adult riding around town on their bike with the training wheels still attached.

This is the very real concern about children today – that parents aren’t ever willing to let them scrape their knee by taking risks.

“He Makes Me So Angry”

One of the things that makes me smile a wry little smile is to hear someone say to me, “He makes me so angry!” I shouldn’t smile but I do. I realize that no one has power over another. No one can make me angry. I can choose to be angry in response to their behavior, but they don’t MAKE me be angry. (See Choice Theory for more on the choices that we make.) If we unpack this, in Buddhist thinking, anger is disappointment directed. (I first heard about this through Destructive Emotions.) It’s our choice to be disappointed in someone or something. It’s about the expectation that we’ve created. It’s not about the other person at all.

All too often parents are focused on what the behavior of their teenager is doing to them. While there are certainly situations where the child’s behavior causes direct financial impacts and impacts on your time, however, they shouldn’t be causing your feelings. If your child has this power of controlling the emotions of others, including you, perhaps you should consider signing them up to be one of the X-Men.

Put On Your Own Mask Before Helping Others

During the safety briefing in an airplane, you’ll hear about the oxygen masks and invariably a statement that says, “Put your own mask on before helping others.” This is good practical advice. If you’re spending all your time helping others before putting on your own mask, you may black out before you get your mask on. Caring for teenagers is like this. You have to focus on your own emotional health and how you’re doing before you can help your teenager.

Many parents are focused on helping their child be better without first accepting that they need to work on themselves. Realizing that there are things about your well-being and emotional health that aren’t right is hard. Our ego seeks to defend itself. (See Change or Die for more on The Ego and its Defenses.) It’s hard to admit that we’re not perfect. It’s hard to admit that we’ve got flaws and bruises and hurts. However, we all do have them. We’re all imperfect.

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the problems of our children. It’s too easy to see the ways in which they can improve. It’s too easy to see their problems and not see our own. That’s a mistake. Not that you should give them a free pass because you have your own issues, but that you should acknowledge and accept your part in any of the communications problems that you’re having with them and work on it. Admittedly, your part in communications problems with teenagers may be small, but if you look hard enough you can typically find some.

Emotional Bank Account

In your bank account, you typically try to deposit more money than you withdraw. This leaves you some reserve – and it keeps the banks happier. However, somehow we don’t think about our relationships in the same way. We don’t consider that we need to put in positive investments to be able to extract withdrawals.

The kinds of things that represent deposits vary by person (as Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages points out). Deposits are things which create positive affinity. It’s the kind of interactions that John Gottman recognizes are essential to intimate relationships, as he discusses in The Science of Trust. These deposits create a balance that you can draw from during tough times.

When you criticize, condemn, or complain, you’re making a withdrawal. You’re making yourself feel better at the expense of the person that you’re speaking with. That isn’t to say that every difficult conversation has to be a negative. You can go through Crucial Conversations (as they are called by Patterson and Grenny) with a greater admiration and respect, but that takes skill.

What Kind of Example

Paul Tough, in How Children Succeed, highlights the powerful influence that emotional intelligence and delayed gratification create for children, and how their success is substantially better predicted by these factors than by their intelligence quotient. Duffy agrees that these are key factors in the development of a child. The interesting question is how you teach these skills. The answer, it seems, may be observation. Children – even adolescents – learn substantially more from their parents than they sometimes let on. They learn their values from our values.

They’re also quick to point out where we’re being inconsistent in what we’re doing from one moment to the next, or how our words and our actions don’t appear to match up to them. (Sometimes our actions do – and sometimes they don’t – match our words.) The best way that we can teach our children is to model the behaviors that we want to see from them.

If we want our children to be available to us, perhaps we have to model to them how to be The Available Parent first.

Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting

I was in a discussion recently where someone mistakenly assumed that I was still hurting because of some hurtful things that were done in the past. Interestingly, the person used the word “hurt” in their message. However, the context was the present tense, and hurt is mostly a past-tense verb. It’s about something that has happened and not something that is happening.

I realized that the difference between hurtful, hurt, and hurting were subtle but important distinctions that had helped me to heal. I wanted to share how I’ve had others do hurtful things to me, how I was hurt, and how I’m no longer hurting.

Hurtful Actions

If we were to be completely transparent, we’ve all done hurtful things to others. Whether we were vindictive, or we were simply inconsiderate of another person, we’ve all done hurtful things to others. My ex-wife chose my 40th birthday to file for divorce. (The same day that she threw a surprise birthday party for me.) I won’t ascribe intent; rather, I’ll assume that she just didn’t consider, or fully consider, the impact of this decision. Certainly there are less spectacular examples of how we have been angry and have harmed others. I’ve done it myself.

Hurtful things are hard because most of us recognize that this is not the person that we desire to be. (Unless your need for vengeance is very high – see Who Am I?
and The Normal Personality for more on the desire for vengeance.) We recognize that we create the harm that we want to eliminate in the world through our own behaviors. We can acknowledge that sometimes we do vindictive things – or careless things – and simultaneously recognize that these don’t represent the person we want to be. Said differently, this isn’t what we want to see on our tombstone. We aspire to greater virtues.

It’s been said that hurting people hurt people. Often we lash out at others because we are ourselves hurting. (The Anatomy of Peace talks about the “boxes” we get in – our hurt – and how we hurt or disregard others when we’re in the box.) Learning to be less vindictive and more compassionate to others often starts with managing how we’ve been hurt.

Predicting Hurt

Strangely enough, there’s not a direct relationship between hurtful actions and someone being hurt. Certainly a large percentage of hurtful actions lead to someone else being hurt, but some hurtful actions don’t harm the other person. Sometimes people feel that their anger and resentment will harm another person, but Nelson Mandela said that, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Sometimes our efforts to be hurtful to others only hurt ourselves.

On the other hand, people are harmed even when the actions are the most loving and considerate. What one person attempts to express as their love or consideration may in fact be harmful to the other person, either because of misperception of the actor, or an undiscovered and covered wound of the recipient.

Despite all of the values and desires-based models for understanding other people, we still can’t accurately how they’ll respond to someone being hurtful – or helpful. Consider an adult whose parents taught them that to accept the help of others demonstrates that you’re weak, and that weak people are to be detested. So a well-meaning person holds the door open for this adult, and they are insulted. Certainly holding a door open for someone shouldn’t hurt them – but it can.

Perhaps more powerfully, there are situations where there is no malice and yet we are hurt. My dog died because of cancer and my brother was killed in an airplane accident. Neither of these hurts that I suffered were caused by someone else, but they were hurts that I felt none-the-less.

Responses to Hurt

People react differently to being hurt. Some people shut down and try to defend themselves from the world. (See Intimacy Anorexia for more on isolating the world from our true selves.) Some people get angry and lash out. Anger is disappointment directed, so they’re focusing their disappointment into a direction. (For more on anger being disappointment directed see Emotional Intelligence or Destructive Emotions.) Some people have become so comfortable with being hurt that they simply walk through it and immediately set on the path of healing.

Those who choose to respond to being hurt by shutting down are creating a pressure cooker. They’ve focused the energy of the hurt internally. The problem with pressure cookers is that there has to be a release valve – something to release the pressure if it gets too high that it becomes unsafe. Unfortunately, all too often pressure cooker folks don’t have a good way to blow off steam, and ultimately explode at the person who has hurt them or is hurting them. The resulting explosion can be productive but frequently is not, as the actual message about the hurt is lost in the response.

Turning the hurt inward isn’t all bad. When used with appropriate safety valves to blow off steam – like good friends or other mechanisms of self-care – it can be a powerful way of dealing with hurt. By capturing the energy from the hurt, it can be leveraged for change in our own lives. It can be removing a toxic, hurtful person from our lives or, more importantly, it can propel us towards self-improvement to make it harder for others to hurt us.

This, too, can be positive or negative. If we do self-improvement to minimize the hurt that others inflict us, that’s good. If we shut down and block other people out, that is bad. Humans are designed to be in relationship with others. As Emotional Intelligence mentioned, isolation is “as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” We can internalize our hurt if we’re able to leverage the energy of the hurt to our betterment and strengthen our ability to connect more authentically with others.

Another approach to hurt is to act out. For some, this is anger and pounding fists on the desk. For others, it’s engaging in activities that release dopamine. (See The Rise of Superman for more on neurochemicals and their purposes.) The activities can be positive, life-giving activities like exercise, or they can be destructive, shame-cycle-inducing activities like compulsive shopping, alcohol, or drugs. These activities numb and hide the pain for a time, but ultimately fade and leave in their wake a toxic cloud of guilt and shame. (See Daring Greatly for more on the difference between guilt and shame.)

Acting out can also be an immediate call to make things better. It can be to immediately evacuate the situation and find a safer place to be. As a result, neither “bottling up” our hurt nor “acting out” our hurt is a best way to address our pain. We have to find our own path to healing that may include components of both – and hopefully avoids the toxic side effects that keeps us hurting.

The Meaning of Hurt

Hurt is a signal that damage is being done. Our muscles hurt after a workout because they’ve been torn apart. However, the pain from our muscles fades in time as the muscles heal themselves. For most of the experiences in our lives, being hurt doesn’t mean that we’ll permanently be in pain. It is simply a temporary signal for us to recognize what is happening.

We describe hunger pains and yet most of us in the US are far from starving. Our hunger pains aren’t “pains” as much as they are signals from our body that it believes there’s a need for more food. It’s our digestive system’s way of telling us that it has capacity to process more food and increase our energy levels.

All that we consider “hurt” aren’t necessarily pains. Some of the hurts that we experience are simply signals. Signals that we need to consider where we are – but not necessarily that we are irreparably harmed.

Recovering from Hurt

No matter who has hurt you, it’s you that are responsible for healing your hurts. It can be your parents, an ex-spouse, a friend, neighbor, or a stranger – no matter who it is, you’re responsible for your healing. No one else can do that for you. (See Bonds That Make Us Free and Changes that Heal for more on healing our own wounds, and Compelled to Control for what can happen if we don’t.)

When the pain is large it isn’t necessarily that we’re going to recover all at once. Recovery is a process. We can start to recover then pause – and come back later. There isn’t one path to recovering from hurt – but whatever path that you choose, it’s healthy to walk the path of recovery

Still Hurting

What happens when you fail to heal yourself – or the hurt is too new – is that you’re still hurting. The length of time that someone will continue to hurt is dependent upon several factors, including the magnitude of the hurt, the general health of the individual, and the efforts taken to resolve the hurt. In the death of another, it’s hard to heal. (See On Death and Dying for the grieving process, and High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for recovering from this kind of hurt.) Betrayals are also particularly difficult harms to overcome. For more on overcoming betrayals, see my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy.

These types of hurts are hardest to recover from because they leave scar tissue. In our human bodies, scar tissue is tissue that didn’t heal quite right. Sure we’re OK and we’re not hurting any longer, but that tissue is particularly sensitive to further damage. Whether it’s a knee that didn’t quite heal right, or a scar on our arms, it’s an unavoidable result of having been hurt.

When you lose someone close to you, you feel their loss at anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and any special thing that you and they shared together. Some of those situations you learn to anticipate and brace yourself for the hurt that will wash over you. Sometimes you won’t see it coming, and you’ll feel the hurt again – but it will be a little less painful each time.

With betrayal it’s hard, because the voice of doubt that we all have in our heads is hard to silence. When I wonder if someone is upset with me and in the past they’ve lashed out at me, it’s harder to stop those thoughts and remind myself that that isn’t the way that they behave. Once trust has been broken, it’s no longer possible to say that this is something that they would never do – because they have, in fact, done it.

The tricky part of being in the spot where you’re still hurting is that if you rush the healing too much, you end up with more scar tissue – that you’ll deal with for years to come. If you linger too long in the hurting, you run the risk of becoming bitter and living in victimhood. Finding the right amount of time to allow the hurt is both personality-dependent and situational. There’s no one time that you should stop hurting and move the pain into the past.

However, the extremes are always bad. If you move past hurt by ignoring it – by stuffing it – you’re still hurting, you’re just not acknowledging the hurt and this causes more hurt to yourself as you’re betraying yourself. It tends to cause your emotions to lash out at you by creating illness or anxiety that’s impossible to locate. It turns out that the relationship between our rational rider and our emotional elephant is critical, even if we don’t want to acknowledge it. (See the Rider-Elephant-Path model in The Happiness Hypothesis for more.)

Victimhood

There are stories that we tell ourselves about our behaviors and the behaviors of others. These stories are natural but aren’t necessarily good for us. We tend to frame stories in terms of three actors:

  • Victim – This is the person who is harmed.
  • Villain – The person (or entity) that needlessly inflicted the harm.
  • Rescuer – The person who lifts the victim out of their despair.

Permanently assigning one of the roles to ourselves or others (i.e. type-casting) isn’t helpful for us. We need the ability to grow and change. (See Mindset about changing our mindset.) If we decide that we are permanently in the victim role because we’ve been hurt, we’ll be stuck.

Victimhood isn’t a bad place to visit from time to time, particularly as we’ve been victimized, but it’s an awful place to live. (See Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Daring Greatly, and Change or Die for more on victimhood.)

Everyone has been hurt and will be hurt again. The best thing to do is learn how to deal with it better.