The Progression of Parental Alienation

I was recently in a conversation about the toxic effects of parental alienation and how it tears apart relationships and harms children. The folks I was discussing it with didn’t have answers either. They practiced family reconciliation therapy, but that didn’t always address the root of the problem. After the conversation, I sat to ponder what causes parental alienation and came up with this model for stages the parental alienation process follows. I don’t offer a solution. I offer up this framework, so that it may be better understood from the point of view of the parent who is doing the alienating.

Phase 1: Self-Justification

The parent who will ultimately be the alienating parent needs to justify their decision to divorce the other parent. Most of the social constructs don’t allow for a parent to divorce for their own needs/desires when children are involved. There’s the “we stayed in it for the children” expectation. So, if they split from their spouse, they must justify it somehow. They could use generally accepted reasons to divorce: adultery, abuse, or abandonment. Of course, if there’s no adultery to cite, and it doesn’t seem easy to manufacture, they can’t use that excuse. Similarly, when the other parent is actively seeking custody, trying to interact with the children, and even win custody, the abandonment story won’t play. They’re left with abuse as the only acceptable reason to divorce – one that’s hard to disprove.

After all, abuse can be emotional abuse. It can be threats. It can be anything. So, as their ego works to justify their decision, it progressively transforms normal memories into memories of alleged abuse. This is just stage one. My guess is that this actually happens pre-divorce filing, because, again, it’s the justification for the action.

Phase 2: Hypervigilance

OK, now you have a parent who has decided the other is abusive based on their recollection and no evidence. They become hypervigilant about abuse of the children, even with no previous evidence. In their mind, the other parent is now abusive – and the abuse had to include the children, because that only further justifies their decision. Now the parent isn’t telling the children the other parent is dangerous or abusive, but they behave as if they are. They’re unreasonably fearful of the other party. They become protective of the children. They ask the children about what happened with the other parent – and may even go to places where the other parent is likely to take the children, because they feel as if they’re protecting the children by watching out for them. By this time, the parent doing the alienating might reach levels of paranoia. They have a belief that’s ungrounded on facts. Therefore, it’s nothing for that belief to continue to unreasonable proportions. At this point, the parent doing the alienation may seek to engage the court system in a protective order (baseless or not) o,r they may seek counseling support for their position.

Phase 3: The Children Becomes Hypervigilant

Phase three is when the children pick up on this. Divorce for children is a traumatic and unsettling experience, so their defenses go up immediately. They become hyper-sensitive to their parents and their emotions. They seek to minimize the risk to themselves. When a parent acts like a victim and engages in behavior that leads them to believe they’re fearful, they’ll pick up on it and mimic it. They believe that the right and normal behavior is to fear the other parent. At this point, alienation has set in – and it may be that the parent causing the alienation never said a single word to that effect to the children. The children “caught it” from the environment.

Phase 4: Reinforcement

Stage four is reinforcement. The parent now sees the children acting defensive and fearful – at least in their presence. They expect that this is the behavior the parent expects, so they give it to them. After all, they just got rid of the other parent – what’s to stop them from getting rid of the children? (I’m not suggesting that any of this is conscious, just that it fits patterns of thought.) So now the parent has the justification they need. It’s not built on “facts” that are solid – it’s built on the echo chamber created between the children and the parent. The system is feeding itself at this point.

Rigidity and Reunification

While this process isn’t grounded by facts, it becomes sufficiently powerful that the parent who is doing the alienatingare unlikely to listen to reason. Professionals ask questions like: “Has the other parent ever done anything to give you cause for concern?” The alienating parent responds with vague answers – and sometimes completely fabricated answers that seem true to them. In the absence of evidence, it’s prudent for everyone involved – lawyers, counselors, judges, etc., to consider it. There’s no way to know if it’s real or imagined. It’s apparent that no amount of reality or logic is enough to dissuade the alienating parent from their perception. It is self-protecting. Anyone who doesn’t agree with their version of the facts is now out to get them.

Standard reunification therapy involves children having a good time with the alienated parent. It’s designed to create a progressively more positive environment – but, interestingly, this would necessarily create a discontinuity. They must behave one way with the parent doing the alienation – even if they’re OK with the parent that is being alienated. I think the therapy is right… but it’s interesting to me what it must cause.

A Possible Path

I think, in some cases, it might be possible to get the alienating parent to see the fact that they’re not remembering reality correctly. I think it would require interviews with their family (people they’d expect to be loyal to them) and get them to admit that they didn’t have serious concerns about the other parent – presuming that they’ve not joined in the justification process already. They have their own reputations to protect as a family after all. Maybe the parent doing the alienation could be asked for photographic or video evidence of the concerning behaviors. Even if you can get them to realize that it’s not true, it would cause the secondary problem of causing their justification to evaporate – and I’m not clear what they might do in that situation.

I don’t have answers. I was just trying to think through the systems to see what might be happening. I think that, for the mental health of the children, it’s necessary to break the cycle, and just working on their perception may not be enough.

Book Review-Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success

I’m no stranger to books about change, whether that change is focused on an organizational or a personal result. It turns out that changes occurring at either a personal level or an organizational level still require a personal change. That is, organizational changes come through changing individuals. That’s why Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success can be a powerful tool, both personally and professionally.

Self-Influence

The authors of Change Anything previously wrote Influencer, in which they lay out their framework for change targeted at other individuals. In Influencer, the question is how to motivate others rather than how to motivate yourself. Influencer addresses the same perspectives and approaches from the lens that the change needed to happen is “out there” rather than “in here.” The truth is that most change is “in here.”

Consider Dave Ramsey’s quote: “Winning at money is 80 percent behavior and 20 percent head knowledge… Most of us know what to do, but we just don’t do it.” Most of the time, we know what the right answers are, we just fail to do them.

Elephant Paths

My favorite mental model of all time comes from Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, which was picked up by Dan and Chip Heath in Switch. The rational rider sits on top of the emotional elephant, who wanders down the path. Our conscious, rational rider isn’t in control – the elephant is. However, more frequently, neither the elephant nor the rider care that much, and therefore we take the default answers.

Nudge focuses on how we can change the path – the default answers – thereby impacting great change. Making healthier choices easier and unhealthy choices harder has a profound impact on how many people eat healthy, because, all too often, we’ll choose the easy answer.

White Knuckle Change

In twelve-step programs, they call it “white-knuckling it.” They’re talking about the addict who goes “cold turkey” and commits to never using again. Old-timers wait patiently for this to fail, because they know that no one has the kind of willpower to sustain that forever. (See Willpower for more.) Central to Change Anything is the awareness that willpower isn’t the only solution to change – and, as solutions go, it’s lousy, because it’s so prone to failure. We forget that willpower is a precious and exhaustible resource that we should protect.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be determined to make the change, it’s that we should create systems for our success rather than our failure. A lot of that is about changing our environment.

Dulaney Street

As criminal rehabilitation programs go, Dulaney Street is one of the best. Despite the average recidivism rate of 66.5% after three years, 90% of Dulaney Street participants aren’t reconvicted. The program isn’t perfect, but the results are impressive. (See Change or Die for extensive writing about this program.)

The way it works is that it changes the environment. Ex-convicts realize they’re all in it together. Dulaney Street only works if they continue to make it work. Their peers and friends all want everyone to succeed. They’re allies instead of enablers. The new members of the program are assigned someone to look after them, and, shortly after their arrival, they’re assigned someone to look after. This pulls them out of their own heads and helps them make decisions that are about the greater good rather than just their pleasure. (Being Mortal explains how the need to care for someone or something impacts life spans in long-term care facilities – so the effects of this approach are far-reaching.)

Deliberate Practice

To make a change in your life, you’re most frequently going to need to learn some sort of a new skill. The skill may be tiny, but it will take deliberate practice to get good at it. A long time ago, I treated myself to the purchase of a pinball machine. For years I played it and made only marginal improvements. One day, I decided to be very deliberate about my playing. I started practicing one shot until I could get it with almost certainty. I then moved on to a different shot and practiced it until I got really good at it. The result was that, overall, my performance shot up. I had stumbled onto the idea of deliberate practice. In Peak, Anders Ericsson explains that deliberate practice is what makes top performers the best at what they do.

In the context of change, deliberate practice is the deliberate attempt to develop skills that lead to the change. Deliberate practice breaks down large changes into small skills, and then practices those small skills with feedback from a coach until they’re almost automatic. Here, the value of a coach who can provide objective feedback about performance can be invaluable.

Carefully Crafted Ignorance

It’s not that we don’t know, as was illustrated by Ramsey’s quote above, it’s that we choose not to be aware. We carefully construct a field of ignorance around ourselves so that the negative consequences of our behaviors are blinded from us. If we smoke, we think that the Surgeon General is a quack (or all of the supporting research is phony – or, better yet, we don’t believe it actually exists). If we’re overweight, we ignore the long-term healthcare costs.

The process of our ignorance may be unconscious, but it’s not passive. (Passive ignorance is also a possibility. See Incognito for how our mind passively lies to us/itself.) It is an active decision by our ego to allow us to maintain our bad habits despite the evidence that these bad habits are often literally killing us.

How to Eat an Elephant?

Big goals are hard. You can’t see if you’re really making progress, and you’re not sure how you’ll possibly accomplish everything. The way to make a big change is to make many smaller changes. You can’t expect everything to change all at once. You’ve got to be able to make many smaller changes that, when added together, accomplish big things.

One challenge, even after big goals are broken down into little goals, is in tracking to ensure that you can feel like you’re making progress. If you can’t point to something and say definitively that your small changes are working, you’re not likely to persist long enough to make the big changes.

Redefining Normal

What’s normal for one person at one time is different for another person. Though we treat normal as a fixed point, it moves. Consider the habits of two different families for the holidays – or how your normal changes in your own world. It may be normal for you to go visit your parents until you have your first child, when normal suddenly becomes staying home and snuggling around a fire.

By consciously redefining what normal is, you can shift your behavior without requiring huge amounts of willpower. Once you’ve redefined what normal is, it no longer requires willpower or commitment to maintain that new normal. Being intentional about what the new normal is can make the process of defining a new normal happen quicker.

Where We Fail

There’s a fear that we’ll struggle with a change for a long period of time only to fail at the end. However, the road of failures isn’t littered at the end but instead is jammed up at the beginning. It’s rare that we get all the way to the end and realize we’ve failed. It’s more often that we abandon a change very early.

Are there activities that you started that you thought were going to be a part of your life forever? Maybe it’s a passion for scuba diving, a new fascination with martial arts, or learning to become a private pilot? For most of us, we get started with this new hobby and get sucked into it for a while. But then, relatively early, something happens, it breaks the magical spell, and we stop the activity all together.

We don’t need to fear that we’ll fail at the end. We need to consider how we can make a change and make it stick for a few months, and we’ll be much more likely to succeed in our changes.

Finding the Levers

The way we accomplish change in our lives and in the worlds around us isn’t by finding one approach or pulling one lever that magically makes our lives take a turn. Instead, the magic is in finding the right set of things that we can use in concert with one another to make changes easier. While the change process may rely upon the firm commitment to make the change, it is just the beginning.

It takes using tools for change to make the process more manageable. We can’t white-knuckle change, and we can’t expect that one small thing helps us change a major part of our lives. However, someday, if we’re willing to keep trying, we may find that one small thing – or a few small things – makes it possible for us to Change Anything in our lives.

Book Review-The Four Loves

I’ve for some time recognized the three words in Greek used to describe love – eros, philos, and agape. C.S. Lewis’ count of The Four Loves, therefore, was interesting and confusing. Effectively to the three above, Lewis adds storge, which is somewhere between liking and the kind of love and concern you have for someone who happens to be related to you – like family.

Liking and Loving

Early on, Lewis points out that, while Greek has several words for love, English at least has retained two words – like and love – where French must function with only one – aimer. While I appreciate the sentiment that English retains greater precision then French for this area, I’m equally concerned that liking and loving are not the same thing, and though they may be on the same continuum, they’re still miles apart.

If the degree to which you love someone were simply liking them, then storge doesn’t quite fit. In this context, you may seriously dislike a family member, but they are, of course, family. There are still things you’ll do for them. It seems like there’s a chasm between liking and loving. Perhaps it’s the degree to which you’re willing to do something for someone.

What is Love?

I suppose that, before we can get to describing different kinds of love, it’s important to understand what we mean by love. In my review of How Dogs Love Us, I summarized love as the choice to do something for someone else. In this context, perhaps, then, liking and loving are not all that different. Storge is a measure of connection and our willingness to do something for another person.

In my post The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I explain how the willingness to do things for others takes many forms and has many levels, including a willingness to do for others what you wouldn’t do for yourself.

Gift-Love and Need-Love

The first distinction that Lewis makes is between gift-love and need-love. Gift-love is the desire to do for others. It’s for someone else’s benefit. It might be viewed as compassion (see My Spiritual Journey and Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism for more on compassion). Need-love is, in Lewis’ description, the drive that pulls someone who is needy into the arms of someone who can fulfil that need.

I’m not so sure of this distinction, as it seems like need-love is not love at all but rather dependency disguised as love. It’s incredibly difficult to infer intent. That may be why the armed forces now included the commander’s intent with the detailed instructions given to troops. (See Competing Against Luck.) Kahneman calls it “fundamental attribution error” when speaking our propensity for inferring intent from another person’s actions. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Despite the difficulty in inferring intent, it seems like intention is the first criteria that Lewis uses to separate love into different types. If we’re less inclined to punish those who we believe have no malintent in their actions, shouldn’t we be less inclined to accept love from those whom we believe are “loving” us based on their own selfish needs? (See The Blank Slate for more on our disinterest in punishing when we can’t infer intent.)

Fair-Weather Friends

No one wants fair-weather friends. What’s the point of feeling loved and cared for if it disappears when you need it? We’ve all experienced people who come to us when they think that they can get something from us but disappear when we’re in need.

We judge intent – correctly or not – when we meet others. We silently assess whether these people will be with us when we’re crushed and unable to provide anything to them. Sometimes we get the judgement right, and the friends are there when you need them – and sometimes we get it wrong.

My big problem with need-love as Lewis describes it is that, if it comes solely out of weakness and dependence, I wouldn’t call it love at all.

Friends and Lovers

There are obvious differences between friends and lovers. (At least there are if you’re willing to exclude “friends with benefits.”) While lovers can – and should – be friends as well, there are differences. A curious difference is that lovers tend to talk about their love for one another, where friends rarely speak about how they feel about each other. We place friendship in a completely different category than our feelings for our lover (eros). So, while we may greatly value – and need – friends, we’re less likely to communicate this with them. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on our need for friends.)

Performance-Based Love

Though most of us don’t want fair-weather friends, many of us have learned performance-based love. We believe that those who love us won’t love us if we fail to be the star athlete, powerful CEO, or amazing musician. Somehow, when we fall short of perfect, we’re left in the situation of being unlovable.

When you shine the light on the discrepancy between our aversion to being a fair-weather friend and our belief that others in our lives will treat us this way, we must either accept that the world is filled with unethical, amoral people – or the more likely solution that performance-based love fear isn’t well-founded. Certainly, some people may have a performance-based love for us that will evaporate when we’re no longer performing, but surely most people will continue to care for us, even if we falter.

In the end, we may find that The Four Loves helps us understand that we can be loved simply for being ourselves, not because of the ways we help others or how we perform.

Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited

It was October of 2013 when I wrote the post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy. While the post is an anchor post, there are a few things that deserve some clarification. (If you’ve not read it yet, now would be a good time, since the rest of this post builds on what is there.)

First, I failed to adequately express that trust leads to perceived safety that allows vulnerability. It was one of the places where I had the curse of knowledge (see The Art of Explanation for more). To be vulnerable, we need to feel safe. This is the primary concern that I have about Amy Edmonson’s work as described in The Fearless Organization. The premise is that you can make a psychologically safe organization, and therefore everyone will be courageous and bring their whole selves. There are so many external factors that influence your feeling of safety that I can’t accept this conclusion. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make our organizations more psychologically safe. I am saying I think it’s not enough. I believe that Brown’s work on helping individuals to be more whole themselves is also required. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness for more.)

Second, though the post explains that trust isn’t a single thing and that trust and trustworthiness are often confused, it doesn’t go far enough to explain the nuances of trust. Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order goes further in explaining how the focus of trust can both be shaped and itself shape entire societies.

Third, in my discussion of vulnerability, there was an underlying current of appropriate vulnerability. But I never clearly articulated that, when it comes to psychological vulnerability, there are some who’ve not earned the right to hear your story. Vulnerability needs to be earned through trust built on the backs of smaller disclosures. John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains that there are bids for attention, and these bids make a big difference. The way we make ourselves vulnerable to others is with small bids for them to build trust. They’re an opportunity for us to take an appropriate risk to see if the other person is worthy of trust.

The Relationship Between Trust and Vulnerability

It’s a catch-22. You must have trust to be vulnerable. You must be vulnerable to build trust. From a single, causal perspective, there’s no good solution. One requires the other. The trick is that it’s a systems thinking problem, not direct line causality. We’re taught to think in a single-iteration causal kind of way. We’re not taught to think about things that influence success. (See The Halo Effect for more.) We fail to realize that we don’t have positive control, we have degrees of influence on the outcome. Trust leads to more vulnerability and vulnerability leads to more trust – in the general sense.

Systems thinking gives us the second part of the solution for this conundrum. Systems are iterative. They keep going, and the outputs feed back into the inputs. The language of systems thinking is stocks and flows. We have a storehouse (stock) of trust that can cause us to be more vulnerable (a flow), and the outcome of that vulnerability – when it’s honored – is greater trust. If you want to learn more about systems thinking, see Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Though The Fifth Discipline popularized the idea of systems thinking, Thinking in Systems is more complete coverage.

Bringing these concepts together is Gary Klein’s work about the mental models that we use to make decisions – including decisions like whether we should be vulnerable or not. What Klein discovered was that people build mental models in their heads. They simulate situations and decide on courses of actions based on those simulations. (See Seeing What Others Don’t and Sources of Power for more.)

When we make the decision to be vulnerable, we make that decision based on the probability that our vulnerability, and therefore trust, will be rewarded or we will be betrayed. The more that our trust is rewarded with a correct prediction – and we’re not betrayed – the more our model will predict that trust is the right answer.

Building Trust with Ourselves

An important aspect of trust is how we trust ourselves. The degree to which we trust ourselves influences how much we trust others and the degree of safety that we feel and therefore how willing we are to be vulnerable. Everyone has some degree of mistrust of themselves. Some trust themselves more and some less, but everyone has some level of doubt.

Like any form of trust, trust is contextual. You may trust yourself to get to work on time, but you may not trust yourself to forgo the chocolate cake for dessert. Your trust – or lack of trust – for yourself will influence how you trust others. It’s often been observed that we get the most frustrated with others for the things that we ourselves struggle with. Our goal is to increase trust with ourselves so that we don’t burden our trust of others with our lack of trust for ourselves.

Commitments

The way to build trust is to create and meet – or renegotiate – commitments. This applies to our relationships with others and with ourselves. If we find that we’re not meeting our commitments to ourselves, we’ll begin to trust ourselves less. (See Building Trust: Make, Renegotiate, Meet for more.) It may seem odd to be making commitments to ourselves, but we do it all the time – we just don’t do it formally.

We say, “I’ll take the trash out in the morning” or “I’ll find time for me (self-care) tomorrow.” When we don’t do these things, we reduce our self-trust. It’s natural to have some degree of forgetfulness, and that’s why self-acceptance is important. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.) However, you can’t put all the cards in the acceptance basket. We must find ways to improve our ability to meet our commitments to ourselves (and to others as well).

For probably a decade now, I’ve had a reminder on my phone to take out the trash Wednesday at 6:30 AM. Generally speaking, I know I’ll be awake, and I know the trashmen don’t come until at least 8AM. The result is that I don’t have to worry about meeting my commitment to take the trash out. In fact, I don’t even make this commitment to myself anymore. It doesn’t even come up, because I’ve got a system to support it.

I don’t have a reminder system to support my self-care. However, with exceptions for temporary situations, I generally make time for self-care. I’ll forgo it to support a sick child or if I need to help a friend. However, since I typically meet the commitments that I make to myself, I’ve got more than enough acceptance to believe that I’ll resume my self-care soon. Often, I’ll renegotiate to “I’ll find some time for me (self-care) next week.” Given the level of trust I already have, it’s easy enough to accept the renegotiation.

Bad Commitments

I’ve worked with some friends who have struggled with a self-trust that is very low. Many have come from the depths of addiction and have made so many commitments to themselves about what they’ll abstain from – and they find they cannot – so they relapse. The most challenging issue isn’t that others have lost their trust of a friend or loved one impacted by the relapse. The most challenging issue is the fact that they’ve lost trust in themselves. They’ve developed learned helplessness, or they’ve lost their sense of control (or hope). (See The Hope Circuit for more.)

The climb out of this spot is long and hard. Twelve-step programs start by admitting there is a problem, admitting that the person is not capable of saving themselves, and, more importantly, that someone can. (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.) The first two steps seem like they’re tearing down the person’s sense of hope – and, to some extent, that’s true. They’re there to ensure that the person is ready to address their addiction. The third step externalizes the hope that things will get better. This transfers the weight of correcting the situation externally and allows the addict to focus on being themselves. By believing that someone or something else can help you, you can regain the hope you’ve lost.

For an addict to claim that they’re not going to relapse, without support, is wishful thinking. At the point that they’ve identified themselves as an addict, they’ve already demonstrated it doesn’t work. When they make that commitment, they’re making one they’ll miss – and further erode their trust. That’s one reason why addicts make commitments for the day. “Today, I won’t drink” is a powerful commitment. It is more likely to work, because it’s not forever. Even when there is a relapse, the addict can retain some level of trust, effectively saying, “Of the 365 commitments I’ve made not to drink over the last year, I’ve only missed the commitment twice.”

Still some commitments are bad commitments to make. Commitments made from reason – like New Year’s Resolutions – that must be carried out by our emotions and willpower aren’t the best choices. You can frame this from the point of view that our willpower is an exhaustible resource, which frequently fails when we’re tired or hungry, or from the idea that our emotions are in control. (See Willpower for more on willpower and The Happiness Hypothesis for the fact that our emotions are in control). Either way, making commitments to yourself that you’re likely to not meet won’t help to build self-trust.

Commitments and Trust

To proceed through trust, vulnerability, and intimacy, we must first practice with ourselves. We must trust ourselves – and that means meeting our commitments to ourselves, whether they’re made explicitly or implicitly. We must learn to accept ourselves and recognize and accept our vulnerability, because we’re all vulnerable in one way or another. All of this is so that we can know ourselves more and more. (For more on knowing ourselves, see my thoughts on integrated self-image in Rising Strong, Schools without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries. Also, see my thoughts on stable core in How to Be Yourself, Dialogue, and Resilient.)

Ultimately, as social creatures, we yearn for connection to others. To connect with others, we need to first connect with ourselves. The path that we use to find our way to others is one that we must first travel alone.

Are Your Children Living Their Lives – or Yours?

Jane always wanted to be on the cheerleading squad. However, Jane’s mother was working two jobs, barely keeping things together for Jane and her brother. It just wasn’t possible. Bill was an all-state football star in high school. He made it through most of college on a scholarship until he was injured and had to stop playing.

Jane’s successful in her marketing career, and she and her husband have two children. They can afford for them to be in sports and activities – and they’re insisting their children do them. Bill’s son has just started junior varsity football, and Bill’s already pushing for another generation of football stars in the family.

There’s no problem with wanting your children to succeed – all parents do that. There’s no problem in supporting them in the things they’re interested in and encouraging them to do their best. However, parents need to be cautious that their goals for their children aren’t about reliving their glory days or living a life they never got to live.

Never Lived

If you ask people about their regrets in life, it’s rare that they speak of something they’ve done. More frequently, you hear about a chance to be courageous or try something new that they decided against. Those missed opportunities carry a special weight and pain for most of us. (See The Top Five Regrets of the Dying for more.) It’s no wonder why Jane might feel a longing that she never got to be the cheerleader she dreamed of because of the circumstances.

It seems harmless at first. Jane starts to see her daughter becoming a cheerleader and revives a dream within herself that she had long decided would never happen. Most of the time when watching her daughter cheer for the team, Jane feels pride. However, every now and then, she slips into a moment where she feels like she’s watching a movie of herself being out on that field cheering for the team.

That’s not a problem though. It’s reasonable to want to dream about something that you missed. It turns sideways when it stops being about what the daughter wants.

Living Vicariously

Over time, it’s possible for Jane to integrate a part of her ideal life through her daughter’s activities. She brings cheerleading back not through herself directly but through her daughter. Jane’s identity as a person starts to include “mother of a cheerleader.” It’s not quite the same as “former cheerleader,” but it’s close enough. It’s enough to make her believe that something she thought she had lost is now regained.

Slowly, every win for her daughter is a win for Jane. When the team makes it to the state championships, it’s like Jane has done something good, that she’s a part of it. She leans in and helps make costumes for the team or organizes transportation for the meets. She becomes an integral part of the cheerleading team’s support – and thus the team itself.

Momma Knows Best

Anyone who has had children in activities knows that there’s going to be a time when they complain. They’ll find it’s hard and decide they want to quit. It might be a long practice, getting corrected by the coach, or just exhaustion from too many practices and not enough sleep. Parents have learned how to address this with caution by first understanding and then helping the child understand the implications of their choices about their feelings. It’s a good opportunity to teach delayed gratification – offering up that they’ll enjoy the win with the team if they can stick to it. (See The Marshmallow Test for more about delayed gratification.)

But what happens if the threat of leaving cheerleading threatens Jane’s identity? She’s a part of the team. She’s got friends wrapped up in the other team moms. She’d no longer be a “mother of a cheerleader.” She’ll lose her identity – again.

As a result, instead of a supportive parent exploring how this will impact her daughter’s life, she’s threatened, and lashes out that her daughter “must continue” with cheerleading whether she likes it or not. After all, momma knows best.

Family Failure

Failures are impossibly hard, too. When Jane’s daughter makes a mistake, it’s like Jane made it. Somehow, if Jane had done something different, then her daughter wouldn’t have made a mistake. Somehow, it’s Jane’s fault. The problem is, Jane’s equally sure that she knows it’s her fault, and she doesn’t know how to solve it.

There are at least two things wrong with this. The first is that mistakes are a normal and expected part of life. Beating yourself – or your daughter – up over a mistake isn’t the right answer. Trying to learn from mistakes is great. However, you can’t learn from something if you’re not the one doing it.

The second point is that Jane does not have control of her daughter. She’s not responsible for what her daughter does – good or bad. She can take pride in her daughter’s successes and comfort her in the mistakes and failures, but she’s not responsible. (See Compelled to Control for more about controlling others.)

The Message of Love

It doesn’t take Jane’s daughter long to feel like she’s more loved when she’s cheering – and doing it well. After all, Jane’s entire demeanor changes based how her daughter is doing. As a result, Jane’s daughter learns that love is conditional. Love is performance-based. (See The Road Less Traveled for more about performance-based love.) To her, people are loved when they’re doing well, and aren’t lovable when they’re failing.

A belief that we’re loved just because we are who we are provides some degree of inoculation against the momentary struggles that might overwhelm us. When love isn’t intrinsic and is instead a result of performance, there is no such inoculation. As a result, a child can feel fear, loneliness, and sometimes hopelessness.

Life on Repeat

Bill’s son was football star at his high school. He wasn’t all-state like Bill, but he was a star player, and Bill knew it. Football had become for Bill a bit of a tradition. After all, it felt like it was in the genes. He had a bloodline that knew how to play the game and play to win. Bill figured that if he could be all-state, then perhaps his son could play professionally. He remembered his dreams of making it and how they were smashed by the bad hit during college.

Bill longs for those glory days. He felt powerful and important. Bill feels like, in some ways, his best years are behind him. He’s got a good enough job, and he likes his wife, but somehow he doesn’t feel as alive as he once did.

Old Movies

When Bill’s son suits up, he remembers his early games and triumphant victories, the friends that he had – or at least he thought he had. For a moment, Bill gets to play the old movies in his head where he was the star and he gets to forget a little bit about how his life is today.

In one sense, Bill’s watching his son play. In quite another sense, he’s watching himself play in an old movie. He needs to keep watching the movie to feel a bit more alive.

But Tradition

Bill’s son has never been the rough and tumble type. He’s more of a bookworm who would be just fine burying his head in books for hours – or days – at a time. He knows that his dad is pleased when he plays, so he does it. His heart’s not in it, though, and it shows. He feels a sense of obligation to fulfil the family tradition – even if it’s not what he wants for his own life.

Bill’s son is caught between the person that he wants to be and the person that his family expects him to be. He cannot form his own identity and learn to be himself because he was always fighting off his family expectations.

Falling Out

What happens to Bill’s identity when his son finally reaches the point where he can say that he doesn’t want football to be a part of his identity? Bill has become wrapped in his son’s success much like his own. He’s sacrificed both in terms of time and money to ensure that his son had all the resources he needed to become the best football star. There were training camps and individual coaching and equipment. It all had to come from somewhere.

But now that’s all gone. It’s like a part of Bill is removed. It’s like his son is ripping out his heart – though that’s not the intent. Bill’s son wants his own identity, and that means taking it away from his father.

How could Bill react when he’s losing a part of himself? Clearly, not well. The problem isn’t with the reaction when he loses his identity. The problem is taking on his son’s identity in the first place. The conversation, depending upon whether Bill’s son is in high school or college, can cause a real family feud.

Driving the Wedge

It just seemed like an argument to Bill. He said how it was going to be and expected his son to toe the line. The problem is that Bill was miles away. His son got a scholarship at a university in another state with a great coach and a winning team. It meant that he really had a shot.

That is, until after the argument, when Bill’s son really shut down. He went from initial lineup to being benched most games. The coach decided that the scholarship wouldn’t be renewed next year, but no one told Bill. Bill’s son decides to take a break. He tells his dad he’d going to live off-campus and then finds a job at a coffee shop and doesn’t go to school at all.

The end is an unfinished college degree, a set of lies that Bill’s son tells him, and a life in a state that Bill’s son may never come back from. Tragically, it’s because Bill’s identity was wrapped up in his son’s successes. He was reliving the life he had through his son, and his son had finally had enough. He stood up to Bill, but Bill couldn’t hear it.

Tragedies

Both stories are tragedies, where children are deprived of their own dreams and identities in service of their parents. It’s not that every football star or cheerleader has these stories. For many, they are their own dreams – which may or may not be shared by their parents. However, in these cases, where the children want one thing and the parents are trying to live through them, the results are devastating.

Sometimes the result is a suicide, but, more frequently, it’s a distance in the relationship as the parents feel as if their child has betrayed them – all because they wanted to live their life, not their parent’s life.

When you’re cheering for your child, rooting for their success, and reveling in their triumphs, it’s hard to not take on a bit of that in your identity – but it’s absolutely necessary for your mental health and for theirs.

Book Review-Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed

I’m still in awe. I’m in awe of the organization that was the Lockheed Skunk Works. Ben Rich – who took the helm after Clarence “Kelly” Johnson – mixes personal stories of triumph and frustration into a compelling read in Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed. I’ve made no secret of my love for the SR-71 Blackbird. (See my review of The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird.) However, what I couldn’t fully convey is my appreciation of the organization that created it – and much of the technical wizardry that moved us from late to the game to generations ahead of the competition. What Johnson and Rich accomplished at Skunk Works is simply remarkable by any measure.

Kelly Johnson

The stories of Kelly Johnson are remarkable. He was willing – sometimes too willing – to go toe-to-toe with generals and as quiet as a jet engine about getting what he felt he needed – and only what he needed – to be successful. With credits for the first US Jet fighter, the first super-sonic jet fighter, the U2 Spy plane, and the SR-71 Blackbird, he was the preeminent aerospace engineer and businessman of his era. No one could touch his results – and it’s a good thing, because he needed the results to keep people working with him.

The Skunk Works started without its nickname in a rented circus tent next to a plastics company, whose noxious smell would keep the undedicated but curious away. It was about that time that cartoonist Al Capp named an outdoor still in one of his comics “the Skonk Works.” The cartoon made its way to the tent, and it led to the new name for the secret team working on America’s first jet fighter.

Ben Rich recounts the technical skill of his predecessor and friend. Kelly, it seems, intuitively knew how things would end up. He’d estimate the results of complex calculations that would take Rich or the team hours to do. The world before computers, the calculations were done by hand, and that took time. Armed with his trusty slide rule but rarely bringing it out, Kelly had developed a feel for how things worked. (This is the kind of experience that Gary Klein would discover in fire commanders and other experts. Find out more in Seeing What Others Don’t.)

U-2 (Not the Band)

Before Johnson left the helm in Rich’s capable hands, the U-2 spy plane was already flying. Its advantage as an aerial reconnaissance plane was the fact that it had a service ceiling (maximum flight altitude) of 70,000 feet. None of the airplanes or surface-to-air missiles at the time could reach it at that height. It gave the United States the ability to spy on the activities of Russia with impunity until a fateful day in 1960, when Russia was finally able to down the U-2 piloted by Gary Powers. In the four years since its first flight, the U-2 had revealed the true scope of the Soviet threat and invaluable intelligence on what they were up to.

Shortly after the U-2 entered service, it was clear that it was just a matter of time before the Soviets would be able to shoot it down. It was at that time that the push came from Kelly to create an aircraft with an even higher service ceiling and, more importantly, was much faster. Where the U-2 cruised sub-sonic, the aircraft that would eventually become named the Blackbird would travel at three times the speed of sound.

Rich the Technician

While a substantial portion of Skunk Works is dedicated to his time as a leader of the organization, he had to prove his technical chops, and the place where this really shone was in propulsion. In the end, he was able to create the engines and engine control systems that allowed the Blackbird to fly. They weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, only being 84% fuel efficient – however, that was 10% better than any other design at the time, and it was good enough. The pilots hated the unstarts that happened when the engines stalled, the fuel special to only the Blackbird, and all sorts of the other special requirements, but the engines could maintain Mach 3 at 80,000 feet. It’s something that we’ve never repeated in any other aircraft. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more on this amazing aircraft.)

The Age of Stealth

The Blackbird was already a stealthy airplane. Its radar signature was more akin to a Piper Cub than the 140,000-pound, 108-foot behemoth that it was. It was bigger than it looked on radar, but radar could still see it. (Besides, Piper Cubs don’t fly at 80,000 feet!) The next challenge was to make an airplane that was effectively invisible to radar. For that, the Skunk Works got a bit of accidental help from Moscow. Pyotr Ufimtsev, the chief scientist at the Moscow Institute of Radio Engineering, authored a paper titled “Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction.” It held the secrets to stealth with a set of equations that predicted the amount of energy that would be reflected to the source based on the shape of the object.

This was the second time that Russia had helped our efforts. Through much misdirection, the CIA had managed to acquire most of the titanium needed for the Blackbird from Russian suppliers when the US supplier couldn’t produce enough.

These advances in stealth technology were easily as important as the advances that the Blackbird brought to aviation. It would take a great deal of risk, immense courage, and determination, but the results would be worth it.

Hopeless Diamond

Armed with a primitive computer and equations, Denys Overholser would come up with the shape that would be called “the Hopeless Diamond.” It looked nothing like something that would fly, and the fellow engineers at the Skunk Works were quick to point that out. However, in the end, the team knew that stealth would be the name of the game, and they reluctantly agreed to make it work – if the predicted radar signatures could be produced.

In test after test, the design met the radar signature goals. From wooden models on poles making it clear that the poles had a higher radar signature to actual flight tests where radar technicians couldn’t find the aircraft at all – even when they were told where to look – the Hopeless Diamond became the aircraft named “Have Blue” and eventually the F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter.

In the end, the stealth work was so effective that the helmet that the pilot wore had a bigger radar signature than the aircraft itself.

Have Blue (F-117)

It was eight years after initial operating capability that the F-117 would prove its worth. It was still an ugly aircraft to most people. Even though Johnson pushed Rich away from the aircraft for some time before finally being convinced, Johnson and the aircraft had something in common. They both delivered results and, in the end, that’s what mattered. It took the Gulf War in 1991 to demonstrate the power of a stealth aircraft with precision bombs.

Until then everyone had to rely on tests and the dead bats in the hangars. That’s right, the bats were running directly into the F-117 and falling dead. The aircraft was difficult to see, even to bats’ echolocation system.

Air Superiority in Baghdad

At the beginning of the war, Baghdad had more protection than Moscow, with some 16,000 missiles and 3,000 antiaircraft emplacements. It was designed to be a fortress. The generals planning for the gulf war had to wonder how long it would take to grind down the air defenses such that the full stage air combat and domination could begin. The planners worried about what the losses of aircraft and personnel would be to acquire the air dominance they needed to win the war. They didn’t have to wait long.

At 3AM local time on January 17, 1991, the power of the F-117 was clear. The first wave of ten F-117 arrived at Baghdad to blind firing of the antiaircraft emplacements. They were blind firing because they knew something was coming, but they couldn’t tell where it was. The second wave of twelve fighters came in an hour later. With the support of a handful of Tomahawk missiles, Iraq was out of the war on the first night. Their communications centers were in rubble, and major strategic targets like power generation were already offline.

Through the entire course of the war not one F-117 aircraft was hit by enemy fire. When you expect to lose 5-10% of your aircraft in the first month, losing none sends a powerful message. The combination of stealth and smart bombs could not only hold their own, they could make it safe for the rest of the air force to fly.

Support

The video of bombs destroying their targets made for great public relations and great television. Small delays might have been required to let the Iraq anti-air defenses to overheat their guns and become vulnerable, but eventually they all did. They all succumbed to the precision bombs that the American public would watch with their evening news. Pilots would brag that commanders could tell them whether they wanted a bomb in the men’s room or the lady’s room, and they’d oblige. Sure, they were confident, but with their success, you couldn’t blame them.

The Challenges of Success

The Skunk Works had done it. They had demonstrated air superiority time and time again. However, this set the stage for some startling losses – not from our enemies overseas but from our own politicians.

It pains me to say that the SR-71 is no longer in operation. It was the victim of politics. Though it was described as too expensive and unnecessary, it filled an operational niche that hasn’t been filled. If you want to get a picture of an enemy position at a specific time of day, you could have it. While satellites provide reconnaissance, they don’t give you the ability to pick the time. You have to wait for the next overpass – and hope that there isn’t a cloud over the one piece of real estate you really care about.

There were other projects that were scuttled because they didn’t seem to make sense. The stealth direction was great, but the move towards unmanned drones continues. Even failed projects like Tagboard, which was designed to use drones to spy on enemies, leave a legacy.

The problem when you build technology so substantially superior to your competitors is that you don’t have anything left to innovate on, so the teams that created such amazing airplanes are forced to look to other ways of keeping in business. The things that make stealth so amazing also don’t help your career if you’re looking for the next star on your lapel. It’s better to command more people and equipment – that you can talk about – than it is to own the program that will allow you to own a war.

Projects like stealthy ships never made it to be a substantial part of the arsenal. Instead of working on the strategically important projects, people at all levels chose projects that would provide some level of advancement while being much more visible. The result is that the operations at the Skunk Works aren’t what they once were. While I’m sure there are classified projects going on at Skunk Works that weren’t discussed in the book, Rich makes an important point that the things that were classified in 1964 probably aren’t worth knowing about in 1994.

The Skunk Works was an amazing place at the time. While I’m sure it’s still great, I can’t help but think that, without challenges to address, it won’t be the same.

The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children

There are as many ways to raise children as there are grains of sand on the beach. Each child is an individual, and each situation is different. Despite these differences, we can apply what we’ve learned from psychology and neurology to inform our opinions about what our parents did right and what they did wrong – so we can make our choices about how we’re going to try to raise our children.

The practical implications of the challenges face parents every day. Should I say yes to that sweet request for some candy before dinner? Where’s the line between helping and enabling, and which side of the line does the act of bringing their forgotten homework to school fall? How does any parent navigate the difficult waters of supporting their children and giving them the right amount of struggle and consequences?

The answers aren’t easy, but there are paths towards less struggle and more success.

Participation Trophies

It’s painful to not win. It’s difficult to accept that we didn’t win. We didn’t get the slot or the trophy. It’s a natural extension, then, to want to – as both a parent and a leader of children – reward participation. After all, didn’t Woody Allen say that 80% of life is just showing up? Shouldn’t we reward that? According to the research, no.

If everyone is going to get a trophy in the end, then why should I even try? Intrinsic motivation is a powerful force for getting things done, but it’s too easy to disturb. By providing everyone with the same or similarly-valued reward, there’s no drive to perform well, to study and strive. It turns out, if we make the decision that everyone gets the same result, we destroy intrinsic motivation. (Learn more in Drive.)

Consider that communism failed not just because of corruption but because of the lack of drive resulting from removing the incentive to do better. If your performance doesn’t impact what you’re going to get, why try?

In raising our children, we should strive to show them results from their hard work – so they’ll want to do more hard work. We don’t want to reward just showing up when our children didn’t really put their all into it.

The Need for Struggle in the Animal Kingdom

It’s an act of kindness to help a chick out of its shell as it struggles to break free from the bonds that protected it for its first few days of life. After all, the shell is now holding back the chick from experiencing the broader world. There’s a problem with this act of kindness, however. In many cases, it dooms the chick to death. The reasons given for the “poor outcomes” (the convenient euphemism for death that is often used) are varied, from failure to allow the chick to properly separate from the egg, to not enough time to absorb nutritional materials, to not developing strong enough muscles. Whatever the cause, interfering with the process of the chick hatching has relatively universal poor outcomes.

Of course, chicks are not children. One might reason that nature made an exception, and it’s normally a good thing to help animals (and children) out of their struggles. The look into the reptile world doesn’t add much hope to this idea. Consider coming across sea turtles hatching on the beach. It seems tragic that the baby sea turtles struggle to find their way to the sea. Shouldn’t you help them? The simple answer is, again, no. Sea turtles have a sophisticated magnetic orientation system that needs to develop. Interfering with their process of getting to the sea as babies somehow disturbs the development of this system. (I’ve not found any coherent explanation of exactly why this is the case.) The result is that the “helped” sea turtles will end up dying as they swim in circles. Their location system doesn’t work, so they can’t figure out where they are – or how to get to where they need to be. (Whether you accept this story or not, stay well clear of sea turtles. They’re a protected species and you should not interfere with them, because the law says you shouldn’t.)

Struggle in Humans

I understand skepticism. I can hear the voice saying that this may be appropriate for the rest of the animal kingdom, but surely it’s not the same for children. To combat this thought, we head to a nursery school associated with Stanford University and the work of Walter Mischel. The experiment wasn’t particularly profound. Tell the children you’re going to walk out of the room while a tempting treat sits in the center of the table. If they leave the treat until you come back, they’ll get that treat plus another. The experiment was designed to test how long the children would wait before consuming the treat.

It wasn’t until years later when the children were enrolled in school and in their careers that the real value of the experiment began to appear. The children who were able to wait until the researcher returned had measurably better lives across several scales. How is it that a simple test about how long someone could wait for a treat could have such profound consequences to their lives?

It seems that the ability to delay gratification is a keystone skill. This skill can be applied to a variety of life situations and improve their outcomes. If this is an important skill, how can we teach it to our children? Would you believe we need to make them struggle – and succeed with it? That’s the central message of The Marshmallow Test – so named because marshmallows were one of the sugary treats that his team offered to the children.

By creating opportunities for children to try to delay gratification – and succeed – we improve their ability not just in delaying gratification but in life as well.

Willpower

The kind of self-control and delayed gratification that some children in Mischel’s experiment were able to demonstrate might also be called willpower. That is, the ability of their wills to overcome their desires. It turns out that willpower is an exhaustible resource, and it’s intensely taxing to the brain. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength make the point that willpower is like a muscle in many ways.

Exercising literally tears down our muscles until they’re incapable of doing the things that they’d normally do. After a day of squats, walking up the stairs might be replaced with an embarrassing but necessary crawl. However, what we know about muscles is that they repair and rebuild themselves in a way that leaves them stronger. Nassim Nicholas Taleb would say that muscles are Antifragile. That is, the struggle and setbacks make the muscles stronger. Taleb is clear in his warnings that systems need challenges to increase their strength.

Willpower is like muscles in that the more you exercise it, the more capacity you build. It’s not that you ever get past the fact that it has limits. However, with work, you can build your capacity to the point where you rarely see the edge of your capacity.

When we deprive our children of the kinds of challenges that they need to develop their self-control, self-restraint, and willpower, we are necessarily limiting their potential.

The Story of Struggle

If you’re not yet convinced that our children need struggle, let me tell you another story. This story is the story of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s the life’s work of Joseph Campbell, as he researched the hero stories and myths from cultures across the globe. In the end, Campbell discovered an underlying pattern in every hero story. It wasn’t the ability to fly, or magical powers, or strength, or any of the expected results. The pattern was one of struggle, as the hero started from their ordinary world and were compelled to face a challenge. Every hero struggled. Every hero was transformed into their future state through this struggle.

Without the struggle, there was no hero. There was only some lost person who didn’t know their path or their capabilities. The struggle and transformation take two dimensions: the outer dimension and the inner dimension. If you’ve seen the Star Wars movie series, you’ll recognize the struggle and transformation of Luke Skywalker as he wrestles with who he is.

I’m not suggesting that your child needs to be a hero in the classic, mythical sense, but the same forces forge the character of children as create heroes. If we deprive our children of struggle, we make it harder to find themselves.

It’s a Matter of Mindset

I was about eight or ten years old when I stumbled onto a secret of mazes. I loved them. I’d solve books of them. I wasn’t particularly good at them, I just enjoyed them. One day I accidentally solved a maze backwards and I discovered it was so much easier than trying to solve the maze from the front. Over time, I realized that mazes are designed to present their challenges to those approaching from the start. The traps aren’t designed for those coming at the problem from the end to the beginning.

Consider a major problem of a truck stuck under an overpass on a busy road. The traffic is snarled, and experts in the structural engineering of the bridge are brought in to evaluate if would be possible to raise the bridge. The manufacturer of the truck is called to engage the truck’s engineers and see if there is a way to reduce the height without destroying the structure of the truck. In the end, a child stuck in the traffic snarl wonders why they don’t let the air out of the tires. The way we think about problems shapes the kind of solutions we can consider. In Drive, Daniel Pink explains how “functional fixedness” prevents us from seeing things in ways other than the way they are initially framed or we expect.

Our children can become stuck, too. They can believe that they’re good at math or writing or art – or whatever we’ve told them they’re good at. The problem is that this just isn’t so – at least from the perspective of being fixed in time. If they’re good at something and invest more time in purposeful practice, they’ll get better. If they leave the skill alone, it will atrophy. We as humans aren’t really born with skills that make us talented. We may have subtle interests or advantages that cause us to invest more attention, and the compounding of this upward spiral of improvement makes it seem like people have some inborn talent.

Carol Dweck explains in Mindset that we should avoid fixed mindset – thinking that someone is good or bad or something – and instead replace it with a growth mindset, which recognizes that anything that we will become better at anything we work at. This aligns with the work of Anders Ericsson as explained in Peak. It turns out that purposeful practice makes us better. Steven Kotler explains in The Rise of Superman that we’ve all got the potential to do something “superhuman” if we’re willing to work at it enough.

Overcorrection and Opponent Processes

Sometimes the ways that we find greatness is through struggle. Einstein was no “Einstein” in school. He struggled. He ascribes his prominence not to his gifted talents but rather to his persistence. Somehow, in his struggle, he found a way to overcorrect and become very, very good at what he did. In psychological terms, this is called “opponent processes,” and it describes what happens when we apply a pressure on someone.

The key to coaching and mentoring is finding the place where struggles can be created in ways that cause the opponent processes to kick in. We endure a short-term pain to accomplish the long-term goal of gradually improving. In too many cases, we’re unwilling to allow our children to experience pain and too quick to reward them on the other side.

This attempt to provide them some struggle can break down, however, if they don’t feel safe.

Psychological Safety

There’s something special about some rats. Some of them were licked and groomed just a bit more by their mothers – just enough to change the way they responded to the world. As Paul Tough explains in How Children Succeed, the research showed that the rat pups were more adventuresome and appeared to be less stressed.

Children, in order to learn from their stresses and not be crippled by them, need to understand that they are safe. Failure isn’t just an option, it’s a certainty. When children know that failure is OK if they try again, they learn that they can learn – and that changes them permanently. Any change in a person is hard; just ask someone who works with addicts.

Motivational Interviewing

It was an odd collection of folks. Some well-meaning church people, a few addiction recovery folks that work with teens, and some parents concerned that their children, if not yet addicted to anything, seem to be slipping away from them. The children have reached the critical teenage years, and their conflict with their parents is growing.

The traditional ways of thinking about the problem don’t work, according to one of the addiction counselors. He suggests a book called Motivational Interviewing. The short version is to create space for the addict to question their own situation and outcomes and ponder how things might be different. The set of techniques and approaches build psychological safety with the addict, which is a key issue – if not the key issue – with helping an addict understand the damage they’re doing to their lives.

Somewhere deep inside, the addict realizes the painful outcomes they’re creating, and at least a part of them wants to change. That piece needs a chance to surface and expose what the addict already knows with the rest of the consciousness. Motivational Interviewing helps to build the skills necessary to create the psychological safety to change – or attempt change. It does this, in part, by recognizing the value of individuals and helping to even the scales of psychological value.

Psychological Value

Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues discovered that humans are more focused on negatives than positives. As he relates in Thinking, Fast and Slow, losing $100 is more impactful than a $100 windfall. Understanding this allows people who care to counter the ego’s defenses that want to not admit that you are a slave to something – which is what addiction is. By helping the addict learn how to dwell in the negative outcomes, the scales become a bit more balanced or even shifted, hopefully to help the recovering teen.

Not an Addict

You may be saying that your child isn’t an addict. I hope that’s true. However, the same factors that drive addiction are present in weaker forms in the rest of our lives. We can’t wait to have the new car, so we buy it on credit. We want to get the grade without doing the work, so we cheat the system. Your child isn’t a bad child, but they may be getting caught up in bad patterns. To counter that, we need to accept a few basic principles:

  • Pain and struggle are necessary – It’s not nice to have, but it’s a necessity to grow up properly.
  • Delayed gratification is critical – As a keystone skill, it makes so many other things possible. Where you can, it should be taught and coached into children.
  • Mindset – Children must know that their results are most strongly influenced by the work they put into things.
  • Psychological Safety – Failure is essential and so is trying again. Children must know it’s OK to fail.
  • Psychological Value – Children must be able to see their intrinsic value and understand how to leverage the pain of poor choices to make better choices next time.

If they can get these, then they’re headed down the right path.

Book Review: The Last Lecture

I can’t remember when I first heard about The Last Lecture (as the lecture). It’s been years ago now. However, I do know that it was Jeffrey Barnes’ retelling of a story in Beyond the Wisdom of Walt that brought me back to it. It was one of many simple stories with a meaning. In this case, it was a salt and pepper shaker that Walt Disney World replaced after Randy Pausch and his sister bought, then broke, them.

The Real Last Lecture

It’s a thing in academic circles to prepare a lecture like it’s your last. If you could choose anything, what would you lecture on? It’s an entertaining series that Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) started, but little did they know that fate would intersect with their series. It turns out, for Randy Pausch, it would be his last lecture. His pancreatic cancer was no longer in remission, and this would be the last shot to leave his mark at the university and on the world.

The title of the talk was “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” and it explains how Randy’s life, though cut short, allowed him to achieve many of his childhood dreams. As of this writing, the video has over 19 million views. The popularity of the talk spawned Randy to work with a writer to further capture some of his remaining time.

For the Children

An impending death has a way of focusing your attention on what’s truly important. In Randy’s case, he was leaving behind his wife and young children. He wanted his children to know him as much as would be possible. Certainly, his wife, family, and friends would share his character, but it could never be enough.

I can understand this feeling, because, when we lost my brother, I could not help but weep that my nieces would never get the chance to know him like I knew him. They’d never understand the richness of his character.

It turns out that the talk was a twist. At one level, the talk was designed to inspire students and faculty at CMU just like the series was set up to do. However, if that was the only value to the lecture, it probably wouldn’t have happened. To prepare the lecture, Randy had to make the difficult decision to shift his focus from his wife and children. That’s a decision that would have been impossible to make knowing you had only months to live – except that the lecture was really his legacy for his children. It was a way that he could expose his core beliefs in a way that would be relatively immune to the effects of time and the fading of memories.

So, the lecture was a way of leaving himself for his children, and, as it turns out, so is the book. Captured as conversations between Randy and Jeffrey Zaslow, they took place while Randy was exercising, trying to stay as healthy as possible right up to the end. In a way, Randy found a way to extend his life beyond his life.

Life Lessons from the Dying

Bronnie Ware reported on what she found with her palliative care work in The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. However, The Last Lecture doesn’t seek to relay five profound observations about life. The goal is, instead, to save the stories and lessons that Randy held dear in his own life and those he wished to preserve for his children. The result is a series of short stories that shine light on some aspect of his life that was important for him.

Hard Work and Coddling

There are a few statements that recur across the chapters and in ways that punctuate the important to Randy. One of those starts early in the book with, “It saddens me that many kids today are so coddled.” He returns to this point later when explaining that his dad believed “manual labor was beneath no one.” He explains that Coach Graham instilled in him a sense of needing to work hard. He discovered that feedback about how you’re doing means that other people care.

Whether it was Coach Graham or his father, somewhere he found a yearning to work hard. While he admits that, at times, he was a workaholic and didn’t take time to relax, the life he enjoyed came from his not hard work.

Brick Walls

At one time or another, all of us have run into brick walls. Some door slammed in our face right as we arrived there. We’ve tried to be able to do something, and we failed. We’ve pounded our head into the wall until our forehead was flat. Randy believed that brick walls were there for a reason. Brick walls are an opportunity for us to demonstrate how badly we want something.

I’ll agree with the opposite assertion – but not necessarily that we should go charging through brick walls all the time. Randy himself quotes his father providing advice about navigating life, saying, “Just because you’re in the driver’s seat doesn’t mean you have to run people over.” In my experience, brick walls are sometimes placed there to help you remember to not run over people.

The opposite, I agree, is true. If you see a brick wall as a signal that you should give up, shut down, and never try again, you’ve missed the message. Brick walls – challenges – aren’t put in your way to cause you to shrink, cower, or give up. They’re there to shape your path. Sometimes, as Randy says, you need to demonstrate how much you want something. Other times, you need to look for other ways to accomplish your goal.

Randy knew this, as he wanted to experience weightlessness – because he wanted to be an astronaut as a child, as I did – but was turned down at the last moment for a ride on NASA’s zero gravity plane. He had created a situation where his students would do an experiment on the aircraft but was told that student advisors weren’t allowed to ride along. It looks like a brick wall. However, the solution was to become the member of the press documenting the trip – which was allowed. You can decide whether he ran through the wall or found a way around it.

Inspiration

Inspiration is a word that is thrown around with abandon today. People seek to inspire their organization, their coworkers, and their children. However, for most, this is an empty statement. They no more know how to inspire others than they know how to build a rocket. However, Randy believed that inspiration was the ultimate tool for doing good. He sought to bring together worlds and inspire students with the possibilities that the new computer technologies were creating.

Everyone who lives a great life must have a purpose, something that they’re trying to accomplish. For Randy, it seems like the answer was giving others the gifts that were given to him, including inspiration.

The Short Cut: Hard Work

Randy offers up a shortcut to life. It’s simply two words: hard work. It may not feel like much of a shortcut, but when you evaluate the alternatives, it can certainly feel that way. For Randy, he simply worked hard, and he attracted his dreams. He prepared, and the opportunities eventually came to him – even if he occasionally had to encourage them.

I Had To

In the end, Randy reports that he didn’t do The Last Lecture because he wanted to. He did it because he had to. I understand the “had to” when it comes to being true to living your life authentically. Maybe you’ll find some of the answers that you need to live as yourself in The Last Lecture.

Book Review-How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain

It’s no secret that I love dogs. I’ve spent most of my adult life with one or more canine companions. For the last 13 years, I’ve owned my own company, and the dogs have their own airlock doggie door system to get into the office. My love for our dogs and the dogs of our friends isn’t a secret. However, Gregory Berns was able to answer a different question. Do dogs love us? How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain walks us through the journey that Berns walked to answer that question.

What is Love?

Before one can embark on a journey to discover if dogs love us back, one first must understand what love is. Or, at least, one must decide what will settle for love, since poets, philosophers, psychologists, and neurologists have been trying to answer this question. Rather than create a large definition of love with its many facets and complications, one of the researchers on the team summed it up with “Love? I’d settle for codependence.” Though, in human relations, codependence has developed a bad rap, it’s a reasonable way to approximate the relationship with dogs.

I decided to look back at the book reviews and posts that I’ve written that included the word “love” in the title or subtitle. The books that jumped to the top were The Art of Loving, The Road Less Traveled, Daring Greatly, and Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness. The post Faith, Hope, and Love also surfaced prominently. In the end, the perspective that seemed to be the most relevant was that love is a choice. It’s a decision to sacrifice your needs and desires for the needs and desires of someone else. That’s what dogs seem to do when you ask them to stop chasing a squirrel to return to you – however, do they do this out of fear for the repercussions or based on their true desire to please you? That’s an interesting question that Berns tries to answer.

Ethical Considerations

Dogs have been used in research for a long time. Famously, Ivan Pavlov did research with dogs to learn that he could condition the dogs to salivate when a bell rang. He, according to Berns, however, didn’t have an affinity for dogs, they were just a part of the research. To figure out how dogs loved us, it would require a different approach. Instead of being objects used for the purposes of research, they would be active participants.

Strangely, there wasn’t a solid precedent for how to treat dogs as the primary subjects of the research. There are guidelines for how to perform research on adult humans – and even for getting parental consent for research on children – but no one had ever done an informed consent for dogs. After crossing boundaries for informed consent and animal research, the path was finally cleared to get an informed consent for family pets to be the subject of research.

The Approach

To figure out if dogs love us, the plan was to scan the dog’s brain with a fMRI. This creates an image of what is happening inside a brain by creating an electromagnetic field and then measuring the minute changes in this field that are created by the mind of the person – or, in this case, dog – inside the machine. The machine itself is very sensitive and only works if the subject is positioned correctly and remains completely still. Even for humans, this can be challenging. The machine is loud, and, for many people, it can trigger claustrophobia. Training a dog to go inside of the machine and stay still for the required period of time would prove to be challenging.

The machine itself was calibrated for humans, and a dog’s brain is different. Even getting the machine to process a canine brain was a hidden challenge that needed to be solved – but not until the dog could be trained to get in the machine.

Training

The training of the two dogs used for the initial test proceeded like normal dog training might, using praise, treats, and a clicker. The clicker is just a tool to help the dog know they’ve done something that the owner wants immediately. The dog learns that the click means a treat, so the trainer can signal when the exact behavior desired has been accomplished.

The fMRI machine had two key components that had to be conquered. The first is the tube that sometimes triggers claustrophobia in people, and the second was the “birdcage” where the head goes. As it turns out, dogs have little concern about running through tunnels, so that was the easy part. The difficult part turned out to be getting the dog to place their head in the birdcage in the same place reliably.

After making some molds that shaped to the dog’s head so that they laid their head down in the exact same spot, things became easier, but not before more than a few fMRI images didn’t turn out so well.

Dog Brain Maps

Having gotten the dogs trained well enough to get a consistent location, the images of the canine brain were forthcoming. However, no one had built the kind of comprehensive map for dogs that exists for the human brain. It was necessary to make some guesses about where things were – and to address the elephant in the middle of the brain. Or, rather, to recognize that the olfactory bulb in dogs was substantially larger than in human brains. That makes sense, given that dogs’ noses are substantially more sensitive, but it does mean that there wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence between a human brain map and a canine map.

Still, with some work, the general areas became apparent, and a picture emerged. The picture first showed that dogs had mirror neurons.

Mirror Neurons

We’ve known about mirror neurons since the work in the 1980s and 1990s with macaque monkeys. The monkey’s neurons would fire whether performing an action or watching the action be performed – even when the object of their observation wasn’t of the same species. In other words, they fired whether they were looking at a monkey doing the action or a human. The implications are profound. At some level, watching another animal perform an action causes you to think like they do.

Since the initial research, the awareness of mirror neurons has expanded to encompass mental rehearsal of actions as well as observations of others. Mirror neurons are believed to be at the heart of our ability to simulate what is in other’s minds. This is called theory of mind, and it’s the subject of the book Mindreading. The upshot of what Berns and his colleagues saw was that dogs had theory of mind for the humans that were giving them instructions.

Packs and People

Much about what people think about how to train dogs and relate to them comes from the study of wolves – called lupomorphism. The idea is that dogs and wolves are essentially the same animal separated by a bit of selective breeding. The models for how we came to adopt dogs as our constant companions isn’t clear. Cave paintings don’t show dogs helping us to hunt (apparently the picture of a dog with a duck in its mouth wasn’t painted on any walls they could find). Conversely, it’s unlikely that a wolf could have lived off the scraps that friendly humans might have provided as enticement for them to stay. If they’re not helping in the hunt, it’s unlikely that it would make sense for humans, who struggled for survival, to part with the precious food they needed. The result is an unclear picture of how our relationship with our canine companions really came to be.

However we came together, the prevailing thought is that dogs treat us like pack members. That is, we’re just a part of their pack, and they make no distinction between the humans in their world and other dogs. However, Berns et al.’s research showed something different. When exposed to the scent of dogs they knew and dogs they didn’t plus humans they knew and humans they didn’t, the pattern of neuron firing was different – very different. While the dogs showed they could recognize the difference between familiar and unfamiliar, they made a distinction between the people they knew and the dogs they knew.

Something special is happening in the mind of the dog that’s reserved just for people and speaking personally I know there’s some sort of special affinity for dogs – even if I can’t explain exactly why.

But What About Love?

It depends upon what you mean when you say love. The patterns were certainly there, that they knew what their masters wanted, and they desired to please them. The dogs were reading their masters with a level of interspecies theory of mind that no other animal has yet been discovered to possess. So, in the best approximation for a philosophical question that science can muster, the answer seems to be yes. Of course, you’ll have to make your own decision about How Dogs Love Us. For my part, I don’t need much evidence that my dogs love me – I don’t care if a scanner shows it or not. I can see it in their eyes – and they can see it in mine.

Book Review-Recovery: Freedom from Addictions

Sometimes you stumble into things, and you’re not quite sure how. I used to have book deals sent to my email and occasionally there would be a discount that made the book interesting. That was the case with Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions. I didn’t know the author, but the topic was interesting enough to buy the book and start reading.

As it turns out, the author has some level of fame. Russell Brand was apparently a comedian, big thing on MTV, and married to Katy Perry for a few years. He’s also an addict – now a recovering addict. He writes his version of the twelve steps, his story, and his perspective on the program that he needed – and that changed him.

Backstory

I wrote Why and How 12-Step Groups Work last year as a primer on the program and an attempt to help folks accept that addicts aren’t bad people, and * Anonymous groups aren’t scary. They’re places where people are connected and given the relationships and skills necessary to battle their addictions.

I share that addictions aren’t the problem, they’re the solution. The addiction is a way of coping with life that’s become out of balance and has taken control of the addict. It’s the spiral that, once it gets started, feeds on itself by distorting the world until people can’t see outside of the bubble of addiction.

Brand admits to his own disconnection with reality (and himself). As I explain in How to Be Yourself, figuring out who you are isn’t easy. From my perspective, Brand just landed in the right set of circumstances to get caught up in addiction. Starting in comedy can do that to you. When I did my study of standup comedy (see I am a Comedian for more), my research led me to an understanding of the drugs and sexual adventures of some famous comedians. Even cursory review of the news stories about comedians since that time will make it clear that it’s easy to get connected to addictive things.

What follows here is a mixture of Brand’s thoughts and my own experiences around the program that has helped so many people.

Step 1: Admitted Powerlessness

Brand’s quotes for the steps are much more colorful than mine. However, he adequately explains that the first step is admitting that your life is out of control. Most folks assume that you must admit powerlessness to the addiction, but, in truth, the admission is that what’s going on in your life isn’t working. It doesn’t technically require that you admit you’re an addict.

The idea that your life isn’t working can become a budding awareness that you’re not comfortable in the still quiet of the night. It can be that you recognize you move from one distraction to the next. It can be a faint glimmer of awareness that whatever you’re doing is gaining more control over you, or it’s there to numb some other part of you that hurts too bad to face directly.

However, whatever this thing – or, often, more than one thing – is in your life that was designed to help you cope has become your master. You depend on it to get you through the day, and that isn’t OK.

Step 2: Higher Power

It’s one thing to know you have a problem. It’s quite a different thing to believe that someone or something can “return us to sanity.” That is, there is a solution – it’s just not me. When we are self-centered and require that it’s always our way, we’re bound to have problems.

By giving it up and accepting that we’re not actually the center of the universe, we have the possibility of accepting that we don’t have to have the answers. Sometimes people get caught up on accepting the Christian view of God as their higher power, but it’s not really required. Stories in the program include sponsors telling sponsees that they can have their higher power until they discover their own – and they can make a doorknob their higher power if that makes them feel better. The point is simply that there’s a way out – not necessarily that you subscribe to a particular view. (If you’re struggling here, look at The Book of Joy, where the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu discuss, among other things, their respective faiths.)

Step 3: Turning Over

Still a different decision is the decision to turn things over. Steps 1-3 are a progression that, from the outside, may seem simple, but most folks are used to controlling their lives. As a result, letting go of that control can be hard. So, even after you can acknowledge that you don’t have the answers and someone else does, letting go of your life isn’t easy. Brand says, “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in charge of my own destiny.” I can say that he’s not alone. We all want to believe that we’re in control of our lives. (For more, see Compelled to Control.)

Step 4: Moral Inventory

If you want to pick the step that frightens people who are new to the program, it’s going to be step 4. Making a list of the things that you’ve done wrong isn’t easy. There plenty of reasons for that, and, despite the jokes, no one has ever run out of paper. Brand lays out an effective way to get these moral lapses on paper and acknowledges that it isn’t easy. You’ll be tempted to gloss over things, justify others, and often not see the root set of issues that lead to the poor choices.

What isn’t always shared is that this is a part of the process itself. No one gets this right the first time. They don’t figure out everything wrong they’ve done, evaluate every action with clarity, or “ace” the test. That’s because step 4 isn’t a test. It’s a step. It moves you closer to where you want to be.

And, in truth, step 4 isn’t the powerful step. That is step 5.

Step 5: Tell Someone

It’s not enough to just write down the things you’ve done wrong, you’ve got to tell someone. It should be someone safe, and it should be a time when no one is rushed. The key thing that people get out of this is relief. To some degree, we’ve hidden ourselves away from others. We didn’t want other people to know the bad things we’ve done. We didn’t want them to know how evil we can be at our core.

Most of the time, the response to a step 5 with someone who has been in the program for a while isn’t surprise, rejection, or concern. The response to someone doing a step 5 is often, “Is that all?” It’s meant as a prompt to continue, but also an acknowledgement that, whatever the bad things are, they don’t make the person a bad person. In truth, most addicts have a hole in their soul that makes them believe they’re not good enough to be loved or liked. That’s not truth, but it’s the lie they believe, because they’ve never told people the whole truth about who they are.

Step 6: Character Defects

While step 4 was focused on the things that you’ve done, step 6 is focused on the parts of you and your character that caused you to do them. Rather than looking at the top of the problem – the results – step 6 asks you to look for what was going on inside that caused you to want to behave that way.

Step 7: Replace the Defects

With the list made, the addict often finds that some of the things that led them to bad choices are parts about themselves that they like, at least a little. So, step 7 asks you to be ready to let go of what you like for the life that you’ll love. It’s a hard swap, just like moving to a new city in a new home for a “better” new job is amazing – and heart wrenching. You love what you’re going to get, but you hate to let go of what you have.

So, too, our character defects arise from a part of who we believe we are, and letting go isn’t easy.

Step 8: List of Wrongs

Between the 4th and 6th steps there’s been a lot of focus on the negative things that we’ve said or done and why. However, the focus has been on being able to expose to ourselves our true nature and that the true nature isn’t bad – it’s just done some bad things or made some bad choices. We’ve focused on integrating into the human condition and accepting that we’re all broken. Step 8 asks us to focus our thoughts differently. Instead of making it all about us – it’s all about what we’ve done to others.

The list of wrongs is designed to be sorted by person and is about what we’ve done to them – not what they may or may not have done to us. While it’s all too tempting to focus on what they did to provoke us, this step calls for us to own our part in the situation.

Step 9: Make Amends

If you’ve wronged someone, and there is a way to make amends to them in a way that isn’t harmful to them, step 9 calls us towards that action. The sticky part here – beyond the desire to run away and hide rather than apologize and make amends – is the bit about as long it won’t harm them.

There are also cases where it’s no longer possible. Consider someone who has died or someone you’ve lost touch with. In those cases, you can find alternative ways to relieve your burden of the wrong by writing them a letter and burning it, or whatever means you feel like is a way for you to let go. (If you’re struggling with a death take a look at On Death and Dying and Top Five Regrets of the Dying.)

For those whom making an amends would cause harm, you can use the same strategy. You can relieve yourself of the burden for now – and if the time ever comes that you need to address it because the circumstances have changed, you’ll be well prepared.

Step 10: Daily Inventory

Once you’ve gotten thus far, you’ve relieved yourself of the poison that you’ve built up, and now it’s important to create a pattern of living that doesn’t allow the poison to build. There will still be relapses and bad days, but the point of the final three steps – particularly step 10 – is to ensure that these incidents don’t create a change in direction in your life.

The idea is that every day you evaluate your day in the context of the wrongs you’ve done, the character defects that have revealed themselves, and the people to whom you need to make amends. By practicing this daily, there is no need for the massive efforts that took place in steps 4, 6, and 8.

Step 11: Conscious Contact

Whether you call it being centered, connected with nature, a commune with God, or anything else, there’s something to being a part of instead of apart from. Steps 1, 2, and 3 led you to getting connected to a higher power – whatever that is. Step 11 reminds you to stay connected.

Step 12: Take it To the Masses

Step 12 is the give-back step. It’s about helping others who were in the same spot as you to find their way back into connection with others. In the context of Brand’s story, it might be writing a book on Recovery. For others, it may be as simple as offering to help people when they’re struggling with addiction.