Big men do cry – and it saves lives

Offshore_oil_drilling_inspection

No man is an island

We’re guarded. We’re fearful. We’re so angry at each other because we don’t see each other, really.

-Roger Fox, son of Rick Fox, asset manager for Shell’s Ursa deep-water oil rig

Though much has changed in recent times, the message that “boys don’t cry” is still powerful in the lives of men. But in a story reported by Invisibilia, some of the toughest men of all – oil rig workers – received an intensive course in vulnerability. The fascinating part is why.

Claire Nuer, a leadership consultant, teamed up with Rick Fox, an asset leader for a deep water rig for Shell, to get the men that would work there in better touch with their feelings. As the men – and therefore the company culture – transformed, Shell’s accident rate dropped by 84%.

As Nuer had predicted, training these men to be open and vulnerable helped them communicate better, ask for help more often, and not try to do things alone out of pride or over-inflated self-reliance. “Part of safety in an environment like that is being able to admit mistakes and being open to learning — to say, ‘I need help, I can’t lift this thing by myself, I’m not sure how to read this meter,'” says Robin Ely, who wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review. “That alone is about being vulnerable.”

The process was far from painless. I was deeply moved reading about these men’s experiences – the toughness that was instilled in them, the hardships they experienced growing up, and the ways this work transformed their relationship with their families and with themselves.

Tommy Chreene, who had a tough reputation, broke down and wept before the group as he talked about his son’s terminal illness. “I was weeping like a baby,” he says. “And nobody ever come to me and said, ‘Aw, you big crybaby.’ “

Fox himself transformed his relationship with his son, Roger, before putting Nuer’s work into motion with his staff.

I’m so grateful my son did not have to wait till he was 40-something years old to have the experience of being able to question his own habits and his own way of thinking about things,” Fox says. “My son is a beautiful human being, and I cannot get enough of being around him.

I am constantly amazed by how much more we can achieve, and how much stronger we are, when we are vulnerable than when we are closed off. Thanks to one of my clients, a man among many dealing with old messages around toughness and self-reliance, for pointing me at this article.

The Christmas miracle of expectations

expectations

Image by Kate Brady via Flickr

It’s Christmas Eve today, for those who celebrate the holiday, and at this time of year, there’s often talk of miracles. I don’t generally go in for that sort of thing, but I do go in for wonder, curiosity, and the excitement that discoveries having nothing to do with the supernatural can bring. This week, in a season when expectations can have an awful lot of power, I want to draw your attention to an episode of Invisibilia, a show that investigates the invisible forces that shape our lives.

In this episode, titled “How To Become Batman,” our hosts follow a man who has been blind since the age of three, who nonetheless learned to ride a bike and indeed navigates the world just as a sighted person would. It’s his belief that the way sighted people treat the blind – they ways in which they expect blind people to be helpless – take away an incredible amount of functionality they could have if they were shown alternatives.

The section that really caught my attention was the opening, in which they introduce the idea of how profoundly expectations affect outcomes.

It starts with an experiment with rats, in which a scientist labeled basically identical rats as smart or stupid, then let lab techs work with them on mazes. To a rat, the ones the people thought were smart performed much better than the “stupid” ones. The subconscious ways in which the techs touched the rats, as well as what they expected from the rats given their beliefs about the rats’ abilities, changed the way the rats behaved.

It’s obvious if you think about it: workers, children, athletes, soldiers, anyone moving under someone else’s authority – the degree to which they excel can vary wildly depending on what those authority figures – bosses, parents, coaches, officers – expect from them. Over time, negativity from those who “handle” us the way those lab techs handled the rats can leave us unmotivated, unfulfilled, even disabled. But when we offer encouragement, belief, and support for others’ efforts, it’s amazing what we can achieve.

Whether you celebrate or not, I wish encouragement, hope, and support to you in the new year.

 

Tsarnaev, heartbreak, and the violence borne of suffering

Image by Rebecca Hildreth on FlickrLast week, the federal courts sentenced young Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his crimes in the Boston Marathon bombing. I don’t talk politics much here, but I will say on the record: I was hoping against hope that it would be life without parole. I hoped – and even believed – that we were better than this now. That we would give this young man – hell, this boy – a chance to grow up, to reflect, to be alone with his thoughts and out of the public eye for years – and perhaps, to find redemption.

But we’re not so good at that, as a species. Even though Martin Richard’s family, who had the ultimate loss in this tragedy in the death of their young son, said that they did not want the death penalty. Apparently, our sense of revenge was more important than responding to that family’s plea to not take another child away from this world.

I read an article by Parker J. Palmer a few days before the verdict, in the amazing On Being blog. Entitled Heartbreak, Violence, and Hope for New Life, it is built around the repeated refrain, “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

It tracks the idea that as individuals, and indeed, as a nation, we often don’t know what to do with our suffering, and so lashing out feels like the only option. It happens with the cycle of abuse, when a child who was beaten up grows up to beat up her own kids. It happens when we turn violence against ourselves or others in response to grief and pain. As Palmer writes, “We turn to noise and frenzy, nonstop work, or substance abuse as anesthetics that only deepen our suffering. Sometimes we visit violence upon others, as if causing them pain would mitigate our own. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and contempt for the poor are among the cruel outcomes of this demented strategy.”

We do it as a nation, as when after the few weeks of solidarity and heartbreak that followed 9/11, we went to endless war.

And we did it this week, when we decided that our response to the suffering we experienced after the Marathon bombing should be the death – irrevocable and state-executed – of a a young man who could yet, with time, be healed.

Suffering breaks our hearts — but there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.

I hope that if you are reading this, if you are suffering today, if your heart is breaking, that it is able to make room, to expand, to be supple and strong.

Rewiring your brain out of pain

When I was about 17 years old, I remember getting sunburned on my face. I particularly hurt on the skin around and under my eyes, but being out with family at the pool in the complex where my grandmother lived, I needed to hang out for a bit longer. I was reading a book – Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as I recall – and was having a hell of a time concentrating on it. But lying face down on a beach chair, I began a chant inside my head. It doesn’t hurt, I kept thinking. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt.

I remember my astonishment when I realized, a few minutes later, that in fact it didn’t. I returned to my reading and, as I recall, the pain did not return.

People have been using the expression “mind over matter” for ages, but research is coming around more and more to the idea that this process is quite literal. A recent article in the Daily Mail sensationalizes it somewhat (it is, after all, in the Daily Mail), but the implications are clear: with practice, we can rewire our brains to ignore pain, so that it does not become or stay chronic.

One of the basic principles of neuroplasticity, as the ability of the brain to change and adapt is called, is that neurons that fire together, wire together. It is by this mechanism – the brain making associations, sometimes between seemingly unrelated things – that habits form, thought patterns become ingrained, some sexual proclivities develop, and trauma keeps hold of us over time.

With pain, the grooves in the brain can become very deep. “The role of acute pain is to alert us to injury or disease by sending a signal to the brain,” says Dr. Norman Doidge in the article. “But sometimes an injury affects the body and the nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. As acute pain continues, these neurons become hypersensitive, firing more easily with less stimulation.” Opioid drugs like morphine and oxycodone can increase this effect over time, driving the neurological grooves deeper until even a small stimulus can trigger pain, even in areas of the body that weren’t directly affected by the injury.

Another doctor who studied this phenomenon after his own severe injury, pain specialist Michael Moskowitz, “realised that many of the areas in the brain that fire in chronic pain also process thoughts, sensations, images, memories, movements, emotions, and beliefs – when they are not processing pain, that is.

This explains why, when we’re in pain, we can’t concentrate, tolerate certain sounds or light, or control our emotions well, because areas that regulate these activities have been hijacked to process the pain signal.

Working from the knowledge that two parts of the brain process both pain signals and visual signals, he developed a way of using visualization to overcome the pain when it arose. Focusing on an image of his own brain in pain, he then imagined the areas of pain getting smaller and smaller. By repeatedly telling the brain to process this visual image rather than focusing on the pain itself, he achieved a reduction of pain in 3 weeks, a major reduction in 6, and a near-pain-free existence after a year.

These findings, which he has begun putting into practice for patients for several years with surprising success, dovetail with the work that Synergists and other bodymind therapists have been doing for some time. Because awareness is the first key to change, getting clients to focus on different parts of their bodies, on their pain, on their emotion, or on whatever is happening inside them and describe it in detail can help the client regain some control over bodily responses to stimuli. By observing our state in detail, we can then take action to change that state.

I’m again remembering a certain demo session that Ilana Rubenfeld ran in our training, with a classmate who had been in a serious car accident more than 20 years ago, and sometimes still had pain from it. In that session, she helped him rewrite the memory: starting the process of rewiring the part of his brain that had built a groove around that event, a groove that kept saying remember, and helping him to remember it differently, to tell the brain that in fact it had been a near miss, to let those pain signals stop firing at last. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt.

I’m looking forward to learning more.

Listening to your heart may be more literal than you think

A man in Brazil, having received a cardiac implant, found – not all that surprisingly – that his body image shifted: he had the odd feeling off having a heart in his belly rather than his chest. But rather more surprisingly, the introduction of the implant “seemed to have markedly altered certain social and emotional skills,” according to David Robson at BBC Future. The article that came out this week, “The mind-bending effects of feeling two hearts,” delves into recent research that shows that our hearts – and body-awareness in general – have a more profound effect on our emotional functioning than even the poets may have known.

A recent experiment asked participants to count their own heartbeats, without putting their hands over their hearts or having any other aid in perceiving them. About 1 in 4 people get something like 50% accuracy; some folks are not very good at perceiving what’s going on inside of them, as I have observed in my own practice. A few, though – also around 1-4 – can achieve an accuracy of 80%. This ability, incidentally, is called introception, a word I’ll definitely be adopting.

After this, the groups were asked to do a series of tests around emotional awareness. The results were astounding:

People with more bodily awareness tend have more intense reactions to emotive pictures and report being more greatly moved by them; they are also better at describing their feelings. Importantly, this sensitivity seems to extend to others’ feelings – they are better at recognising emotions in others’ faces – and they are also quicker to learn to avoid a threat, such as a small electric shock in the lab, perhaps because those more intense bodily feelings saturate their memories, making the aversion more visceral.

In another study aimed at looking at intuition, people who had a more accurate sense of their hearts followed their intuition more. They were asked to pick cards that would win them money if they matched the color of a card on the table. “The game was rigged so that you were slightly more likely to win from two of the decks, and lose if you picked from the other two. Dunn [the researcher] found that the people who could track their heartbeat with the most accuracy would tend to pick from certain decks, whereas those with poor interoception were more likely to choose at random.”

It is not so much that the hunches the more body-aware people followed were always right – quite the contrary. It is more than they tended to follow their hearts, as the saying goes, more often. People with increased body awareness are being found to have richer emotional awareness as well, resulting in a richer experience of life. And those with reduced bodily awareness – including those with certain neurological flaws in the connection between the body and the brain – can suffer everything from depression to depersonalization disorders.

Naturally all of this is exciting for someone who works primarily on helping people increase their body awareness. It is also no wonder that Rubenfeld Synergy can be so powerful: tuning in to the body’s sensations can unlock emotions that are lying dormant and allow them to flow when they have been trapped.

What happens when you listen to your heart?

What if we could not waste one more moment hating our bodies?

Image by Andrea Perrish-Geyer

Image by Andrea Perrish-Geyer

A moving column in CNN last month revealed the thing that the dying often regret the most: all the time they spent hating their own bodies.

Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain, shared her experiences of talking with the dying. A 75-year-old woman dying of cancer just wants one more piece of caramel cake. But her diet, even in her last days, is being severely restricted.

‘Everyone told me — my family, my school, my church. When I got older, magazines and salesgirls and boyfriends (told me), even if they didn’t say so out loud. The world’s been telling me for 75 years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat and then for being sick.’

She looked up and this time tears trembled along her bottom eyelids.

‘But the one thing I never did understand is, why does everyone else want me to hate my body? What does it matter to them?’

Even in this very article, the ironic click bait that comes in the midst of this statement is a linked line that says, “The link between fat and cancer.” It seems that nothing, not even an article explicitly about how we should appreciate our bodies more, can escape fat-shaming.

But Egan makes the read worth it.

What does it mean that so many voices out there insist that the body is something to despise because it is too fat, sinful, ugly, sexual, old or brown? That we teach each other, in thousands of blatant and quiet ways, to think we are shameful? That our bodies are something to be overcome, beaten into submission or to be despised?

How do these voices telling us that we are supposed to hate our bodies affect our notions of how we care for the sick, disabled, elderly, children, mothers, soldiers, workers, immigrants, men and women? What we believe about our bodies affects how we treat other bodies, and how we treat each other’s bodies is how we treat each other.

How we treat each other’s bodies is how we treat each other. How we treat our own bodies is how we treat ourselves. How can you treat your own body with more gentleness, more forgiveness, more enjoyment, more dancing?

Hugs, but only if you want them.

More and more articles lately on consent culture and how to raise a generation of people who are secure in their own bodily autonomy, and respect others’ as well. Here’s one I liked this week: Why I Will Never Tell My Daughter to Give You a Hug.

In short: forcing kids to hug and kiss or be hugged and kiss when they don’t want to is a seemingly innocent part of an overall culture where we’re made to believe that our bodies are not our own.

If there’s one thing I’d like every child on the planet to learn and internalize, it is this:

Your body is yours. It is your home, your best friend, and the physical instrument of your will and your heart. If someone violates it, that is wrong.

In my work with clients, I try to help them connect with that place in themselves where their bodies – which they may see as burdens, as betrayers, as sites of pain, as limiting lumps of clay – are in fact their healers, their guardians, their homes, and their places of possibility. Having and feeling control over when and how you are touched is a huge part of the process of bringing a body back together with the mind that inhabits it.

Contact me if this sounds like something you could use help with. I look forward to hearing from you.

“It should not take everything you have to turn down someone’s offer for sex.”

This article today struck me as important enough to post about here, touching as it does on consent culture, rape apologism, and most importantly, the clarity that we need to have with ourselves and others if we are ever to move beyond blaming victims and demonizing perpetrators to a model of restorative justice.

Highlights, and things I especially picked out because they speak to what happens to us when our bodies are under threat of violation:

If I had a guest coming in from out of town, and I had romantic or sexual designs on them, and I asked if they would be willing to share my bed and their response was “I’ll bring a sleeping bag; I’d like to sleep on the floor,” I would be appropriately chastened (and privately a bit mortified). The message would be abundantly clear. The No is obvious. The No is there.

I would have to be looking for a way to cheat my guest of their clearly stated wishes, were I to abruptly start undressing and caressing them the moment I got them alone. I would have to be looking for a way to wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

I do not believe that most women — that most victims of sexual assault — freeze or shut down when faced with the prospect of coercive sex because they don’t really care what happens next, or because they’re excited to push through the moment for the sheer joy of accusing the aggressor of rape after the fact. I believe that these women, these people, have a finely tuned sense for their safety, that when a woman reports having “a feeling that it would turn into an ordeal if I rejected him,” she is not crazy and she knows what she is talking about.

Pretending that active consent is ambiguous and confusing and difficult to obtain is a pernicious lie that has no basis in reality. It is abundantly clear when someone is eager and ready to sleep with you.

Framing acts of molestation and assault as things that either do or do not count as if it were a bad call in a game of tag (“that doesn’t count! I wasn’t done counting to ten!”) is a troubling — and worse, ineffective — way of discussing rape. It shifts the conversation from “how can we prevent this from happening again?” and “what would justice look like in this situation?” to “how can I make sure that what I did doesn’t fall under the category of ‘it counts’?”

If you stop at shame — if the last thing you mention doing after molesting a younger child is how you spent the evening “crying in the water” — you have not atoned. You have not done right to make up for having done wrong.

Read the whole amazingly good article here.

"It should not take everything you have to turn down someone’s offer for sex."

This article today struck me as important enough to post about here, touching as it does on consent culture, rape apologism, and most importantly, the clarity that we need to have with ourselves and others if we are ever to move beyond blaming victims and demonizing perpetrators to a model of restorative justice.

Highlights, and things I especially picked out because they speak to what happens to us when our bodies are under threat of violation:

If I had a guest coming in from out of town, and I had romantic or sexual designs on them, and I asked if they would be willing to share my bed and their response was “I’ll bring a sleeping bag; I’d like to sleep on the floor,” I would be appropriately chastened (and privately a bit mortified). The message would be abundantly clear. The No is obvious. The No is there.

I would have to be looking for a way to cheat my guest of their clearly stated wishes, were I to abruptly start undressing and caressing them the moment I got them alone. I would have to be looking for a way to wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

I do not believe that most women — that most victims of sexual assault — freeze or shut down when faced with the prospect of coercive sex because they don’t really care what happens next, or because they’re excited to push through the moment for the sheer joy of accusing the aggressor of rape after the fact. I believe that these women, these people, have a finely tuned sense for their safety, that when a woman reports having “a feeling that it would turn into an ordeal if I rejected him,” she is not crazy and she knows what she is talking about.

Pretending that active consent is ambiguous and confusing and difficult to obtain is a pernicious lie that has no basis in reality. It is abundantly clear when someone is eager and ready to sleep with you.

Framing acts of molestation and assault as things that either do or do not count as if it were a bad call in a game of tag (“that doesn’t count! I wasn’t done counting to ten!”) is a troubling — and worse, ineffective — way of discussing rape. It shifts the conversation from “how can we prevent this from happening again?” and “what would justice look like in this situation?” to “how can I make sure that what I did doesn’t fall under the category of ‘it counts’?”

If you stop at shame — if the last thing you mention doing after molesting a younger child is how you spent the evening “crying in the water” — you have not atoned. You have not done right to make up for having done wrong.

Read the whole amazingly good article here.

Some middle ground for treating pedophiles?

This week on Medium, a long article went around that told the story of a 16-year-old boy who realized that he was sexually attracted to young children. Rather than demonizing such non-offending pedophiles, the article follows his efforts not only to stop himself from hurting children, but to help others like him.

The pressure not to seek help in these young pedophiles is extremely strong. Mandatory reporting in this country can land people who have never hurt a child and who want desperately not to in jail. Many therapists do not have any frame of reference for dealing with these sorts of desires, which are more prevalent than many realize.

Some time ago, I wrote about the changes in the DSM-V that de-pathologized BDSM and other types of kinky desires and behavior, with the exception of pedophilia, for which there is really no acceptable outlet. This article gives me a little hope that for those afflicted with these terrible desires, there may be a way out that does not involve harming kids.

Warning that this article contains some disturbing descriptions and deals with an incredibly troubling subject.

You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile. You Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone. What Do You Do Now?