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The best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines detachment as a “lack of emotion or of personal interest.” Many of us strive for this experience in order to try to escape that which is painful, frightening, or out of our control. “If I could just not care so much,” we think, “then I would be okay.”


But how could we possibly strive to not care, when caring is at the essence of what makes us human? It seems at the core of our very nature, and in fact, people who are fully detached are frightening in their lack of empathy and compassion. Those who are not psychopathic but desperately seek detachment frequently become involved in addiction or addictive behaviors as they attempt to force their minds and hearts into an unnatural place of escape.


The author John Burnside describes this problem eloquently. “To imagine that one can simply withdraw, and somehow achieve peace, or wisdom, or detachment, is a mistake,” he states. He goes on to write that “to practice detachment one must be in the world, in the chaos of emotions and needs and conflicts that make up ordinary life. If the world is sometimes disappointing, so be it: a just life is one that must be lived in the midst of disappointment.”


Here Burnside gets at something similar to what the 12-step program Alanon terms “detachment with love.” Alanon is a program which originally arose out of a need for family members and friends of alcoholics to learn how to live healthy lives in spite of the pain of having someone in their life suffering from alcoholism. It has since become a place where many seek help to become free from any type of codependency.


When Alanon members speak of “detachment with love,” they are talking about responding to the world with choice, rather than acting from anxiety; in other words, being responsible for ourselves and to ourselves, rather than attempting to control others around us. From this perspective, we cultivate the ability to care deeply about a another person without being controlled by or invested in how another person responds to us. We remain attached, but not overly so.


The great sage Maharishi Mahesh Yogi explained misunderstanding about detachment as an attempt to force the mind into disinterest, rather than as a natural outcome from cultivating a different experience of life. He explains that the mind remains attached to things or experiences as long as it remains unfulfilled, but as soon as it becomes contented, attachments to lesser experiences lose their charm and the mind naturally becomes detached from them. In other words, a person becomes detached from a hut when they move into a mansion. Transcendental Meditation is the technique he offered as a way for the mind to move naturally into a state of both fulfillment and witnessing; ie detachment.

When speaking about detachment, the teacher and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh stated that “detachment and calm give us a larger space, inside and outside of us. This space, we can also offer it to those we love.”
An example of this would be the ability to forgive. The act of forgiveness is the practice of letting go of the suffering caused by someone else’s wrongdoing (or even our own); a practice that repairs relationship and also allows us to become free from pain. Without inner fulfillment, and the space created from detaching with love, it’s hard let go of that suffering and forgive. In this way and many others, the space we create through detachment with love, and the ensuing freedom it provides, allows us to be more fully loving, and ultimately more deeply attached.

Samantha Smithstein, PsyD


The Most Wonderful Time For a Beer: 10 tips to control holiday drinking

The holidays can be a time of festivities, joy, family, and friends. It can also be a time of stress, material consumption, and lots of drinking. As someone anonymously put it, “What does alcohol have to do with Christmas? One makes the other bearable.” Whether at the company party or over dinner with the family, the holiday season introduces many opportunities to drink. In fact, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, the distilled spirits industry makes more than 25% of its profits between Thanksgiving and New Years.

For some, the added stress of the holidays or painful memories about family can trigger compulsive drinking (as well as other compulsive behaviors). For those who already engage in problematic drinking, the stress can worsen drinking behaviors.

Abstinence from all alcoholic beverages may be the best strategy. But for those who don’t want to abstain or who simply want to be mindful of how much alcohol they consume, moderation is key.

Tips for moderating:

  1. Drink on a full stomach. Pair your wine or beer with delicious cheeses. Don’t forget snacks when planning a cocktail party. Plan for dinner before heading to the company holiday party.

  2. Plan your night before you start drinking. Think about how many hours you will be partying and set a limit for how many drinks you’d like to consume. Remember it takes approximately one hour to metabolize one drink. And one drink is probably less than you think: a 12 oz beer, a 5 oz glass of wine, or 1.5 oz of 80 proof liquor. Tell someone supportive about your plan—a spouse, friend, coworker, or family member. Ask them to check in with you halfway through the night to help keep you accountable.

  3. Count your drinks. If you’re drinking beer, keep the bottle caps in your pocket or purse to help you keep count. Keep pennies in your left pocket and move one over to your right pocket each time you have a cocktail. Send yourself a text each time you get a new drink.

  4. Drink a full glass of water between each alcoholic beverage. Keep yourself hydrated and keep hangovers at bay!

  5. Dress up a non-alcoholic beverage like a cocktail. Cranberry juice with a lime looks just like a Cape Cod. Same goes for Sprite and soda water. If you’re drinking beer, refill your bottle with water. No one will know the difference! Here are some tips from bartender Mike Hagan.

  6. Lighten up! Turn that glass of wine into a spritzer with some soda water. Go for that 3% beer! Instead of a shot of tequila, how about adding some ice and ginger ale? If you start with a cocktail, consider switching to beer. The lower alcohol content will be absorbed more slowly.

  7. Arrive late to the event or leave early. Seeing others sloshed may motivate you to moderate. And it will likely be very entertaining! Make an intention to mingle for 30 minutes before you order a drink at the bar. Set the tone for the night.

  8. Sip, don’t gulp your drink. Go ahead, get snobby about it. Describe the notes of that IPA on your nose (“Ah, yes. It smells of a warm summer day frolicking in the grass.”)  and on your palette (“And tastes of toasty, roasted hops.”) Make believe you have a blog about artisanal cocktails and write a mental review of each drink you have. Be mindful about the experience the drink is creating for you. Is it sweet or sour? Cold or room temperature? Does it conjure memories?

  9. Pay attention to self-talk. Are you trying to convince yourself to drink more because “it’s the holidays” and you “deserve it?” Check in with yourself before each drink. Do you really want another one? Will it get in the way of any plans you’ve made for the rest of the evening or tomorrow?

  10. Don’t forget to have fun! Focus on your friends, family, coworkers, and the setting. Let the experience engross you. Dance!

This should go without saying, but please do not drink and drive. It is estimated that 1,200 people will die this holiday season due to drunk or buzzed driving. Always designate a sober driver or make other arrangements to get home after a night of drinking.

If you think you have a drinking problem or are struggling with moderation, there are many ways to get help. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism offers information and resources on their website. Find a therapist who specializes in evaluating and treating substance abuse to understand your best treatment option. You can also find support at Alcoholics Anonymous and Moderation Management meetings in your area.

The holidays may be a stressful time, but they are also a wonderful time to share with the people you love—including yourself. Make the most of this time with those you care about. Create an intention to connect with someone over the holiday; that may even be yourself.

Jennifer Fernandez, PhD

How to Overcome Barriers to Forgiveness

This article was written by Linda Graham, MFT and was reprinted with her permission.

It’s hard to let go of the suffering caused by someone else’s wrongdoing. What barriers stand in the way of forgiveness—and how can we overcome them?

Laurie and Jamie sat in my office a few months ago, locked in an impasse all too common in couples therapy. The previous week, Laurie discovered that Jamie had done the seemingly unforgivable: He had had a brief fling with the new administrative assistant in his office while Laure was out of town visiting her ailing father. Jamie was genuinely remorseful, but he also carried a grudge of his own about Laurie’s repeated overspending on their credit card, despite his many requests to stay within their agreed upon budget.

We all know how painful it feels to suffer these kinds of hurts, betrayals, or abuse—and to have this pain harden into lasting grudges or resentments. I’ve spent 20 years helping couples like Laurie and Jamie recover a sense of trust after they have violated their vows or broken their agreements. In that time, I’ve found that helping people understand each other’s underlying motivations is crucial to repairing a rupture between them.

But I’ve also learned that helping people forgive each other is essential, even when there is good reason to resist. Indeed, study after study has suggested that being unable to forgive these past wrongs can wreak havoc on our mental and physical health.

Forgiveness is the practice of letting go of the suffering caused by someone else’s wrongdoing (or even our own). It does not mean excusing, overlooking, forgetting, condoning, or trivializing the harm or jumping to a premature or superficial reconciliation; it doesn’t necessarily require reconciliation at all. Instead, it involves changing our relationship to an offense through understanding, compassion, and release. Two decades of social psychology research have repeatedly demonstrated the emotional, physical, and social benefits of forgiveness. True forgiveness repairs relationships and restores inner well-being.

Yet we often find it hard to let go, forgive, and move on. According to research, even when we can feel compassion and empathy for the person who harmed us, we can remain stuck in fear or hostility for days, months, even years.

Why is something so good for us so hard to do? That’s the questions Ian Williamson at New Mexico Highlands University and Marti Gonzales at the University of Minnesota have explored through research on the psychological impediments to forgiveness.

In a recent study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, Williamson, Gonzales, and colleagues identify three broad categories of “forgiveness aversion.” Traditionally, ideas for helping one person to forgive another have implied either expanding one’s empathy or compassion for the offender or “distancing,” not taking things so personally. But their research on forgiveness aversion suggests another approach: Forgiveness comes not necessarily by appealing to kindness or compassion but by addressing the victim’s fears and concerns. Williamson and Gonzales’ research suggests how to work with perceived risks to forgiveness and to move toward forgiveness in a safe and genuine way.

Below I offer a brief tour of the three barriers to forgiveness, along with ways to overcome them, drawing on research and my own clinical experience with hundreds of couples and individuals. Understanding these barriers to forgiveness can be very useful to clinicians and to anyone who has ever struggled to forgive—in other words, most of us.

Barrier #1: Unreadiness

The first block is “unreadiness,” which Williamson and Gonzales define as an inner state of unresolved emotional turmoil that can delay or derail forgiveness. People can feel stuck in a victim loop, ruminating on the wrongs done to them by another person or by life, and be unable to shift their perspective to a larger view, to find the meaning, purpose, lessons, and possibilities for change from the events.

Who is most likely to experience unreadiness? Williamson and Gonzales found that people’s tendencies to be anxious and ruminate on the severity of the offending behavior reliably predicted an unreadiness to forgive. People showed more reluctance to move toward forgiveness especially when they held a fear that the offense would be repeated,

How can we overcome the barrier of unreadiness?Williamson and Gonzales’ research validates the folk wisdom that “time heals all wounds” and establishes the importance of not rushing the process, not coming to forgiveness too quickly. Certainly the passage of time is an important factor in helping people get some distance from the initial pain, confusion, and anger; it helps the offender establish a track record of new trustworthy behavior and helps the victim reframe the severity of the injury in the larger context of the entire relationship.

Over the three months that I worked with Laurie and Jamie, I saw them confront and ultimately overcome the barrier of unreadiness. In taking that much time, Laurie was able to place Jamie’s transgression in the context of a 17-year marriage that had already survived even greater challenges than Jamie’s one night of out-of-bounds behavior. And over time, Jamie was able to trust the turn-around in Laurie’s spending habits, relaxing his vigilance about her every move.

Tips to Overcome Unreadiness

1. Recall the moment of wrongdoing you are struggling to forgive. “Light up the networks” of this memory by evoking a visual image, noticing emotions that arise as your recall this memory, notice where you feel those emotions in your body as contraction, heaviness, churning. Notice your thoughts about yourself and the other person now as you evoke this memory. Let this moment settle in your awareness.

2. Begin to reflect on what the lessons of this moment might be: what could you have done differently? What could the other person have done differently? What would you differently from now on? When we can turn a regrettable moment into a teachable moment, when we can even find the gift in the mistake, we can open our perspectives again to the possibilities of change, and forgiveness.

Barrier #2: Self-Protection

The second block to forgiveness is “self-protection”—a fear, very often legitimate, that forgiveness will backfire and leave the person offering forgiveness vulnerable to further harm, aggression, violation of boundaries, exploitation, or abuse.

Who is most likely to experience self-protection? People who have experienced repeatedly harmful behavior, and lack of remorse or apology for that behavior, are most likely to resist forgiving the offending party, according to the research by Williamson and Gonzales. In fact, they found that even the strongest motivation to forgive—to maintain a close relationship—can be mitigated by the perceived severity of the offense and/or by a perceived lack of sincere apology or remorse. Refusing to forgive is an attempt to re-calibrate the power or control in the relationship.

According to their study, one of the hardest decisions people ever face about forgiveness is: Can I get my core needs met in this relationship? Or do I need to give up this relationship to meet my core needs, including needs for safety and trust? The ongoing behavior of the offender is key here. If the hurtful behavior continues, if any sense of wrongdoing is denied, if the impact of the behavior is minimized, if the recipient’s sense of self continues to be diminished by another, or trust continues to be broken, or the victim continues to be blamed for the offender’s behavior—if someone experiences any or all of these factors, then forgiveness can start to feel like an impossible, if not a stupid, thing to do.

How can we overcome the barrier of self-protection?“Victims may be legitimately concerned that forgiveness opens them up to further victimization,” write the researchers. “Intriguingly, when people perceive themselves to be more powerful in their relationship, they are more likely to forgive, perhaps because they have fewer self-protection concerns in their relationships with their offenders.”

In other words, people sometimes have understandable fears that offering forgiveness will be (mis)interpreted by the offender as evidence that they can get away with the same behavior again. People very often need to learn they have the right to set and enforce legitimate boundaries in a relationship. Forgiveness can also involve not being in a relationship with the offender any longer or changing the rules and power dynamics for continuing the relationship.

Only when Laurie stopped her overspending and came to respect Jamie’s limits on their monthly budget could Jamie relax his need for self-protection and offer genuine forgiveness for Laurie’s past transgressions. When Laurie could again trust the sincerity of Jamie’s remorse and apology over his betrayal, and trust that indeed the behavior would never happen again, she could relax her need for self-protection and forgive.

How to Set Limits

1. Identify one boundary you’ve been reluctant to set with the person you are struggling to forgive.

2. Clarify in your own mind how setting this limit reflects and serves your own values, needs, and desires. Reflect on your understanding of the values and desires of the other person. Notice any common ground between the two of you; notice the differences.
3. Initiate the conversation about limits with the other person. Begin by expressing your appreciation for him or her listening to you. State the topic; state your understanding of your own needs and of theirs.
4. State the terms of your limit, simply, clearly, unequivocally. You’ve already stated the values, needs and desires behind the limit; you do not have to justify, explain or defend your position. State the consequences for the relationship if this limit is not respected.
5. Negotiate with the other person what behaviors they can do, by when, to demonstrate that they understand your limit, the need for it, the benefit of it.
6. At the end of the specified “test” period, discuss with your person the changes in the relationship, if the limit was respected, or the next step in consequences if the limit is not respected. You may have to repeat this exercise many times to shift the dynamics in your relationship.

Barrier #3: “Face” Concerns

The third block is “face” concerns—what we might call the need to save face in front of other people and protect one’s own public reputation, as well as avoid threats to one’s own self-concept—i.e, feeling that “I’m a pushover” or “I’m a doormat.”

As social beings, we’re primed to not want to appear weak or vulnerable or pathetic in front of other people. We will protect ourselves from feeling inner shame in many ways, which may include a reluctance to forgive. Researchers have also found that hanging on to a grudge can give people a sense of control in their relationships; they may fear that forgiveness will cause them to lose this “social power.” If our concerns about saving face foster a desire to retaliate or seek vengeance rather than forgive, we may need to re-strengthen our inner sense of self-worth and self-respect before forgiveness can be an option.

Who is most likely to experience face concerns? People who feel their self-worth has been diminished by the offense, or who experience a threat to their sense of control, belonging, or social reputation, or even feel a need for revenge, are more likely to experience the face concerns that could block forgiveness. “To the extent that victims fear that they may appear weak by forgiving, and are concerned with projecting an image of power and interpersonal control, they should feel more averse to the prospect of forgiving,” write the researchers.

How can we overcome the barrier of face concerns? Very often people who have been hurt by another need to recover their own sense of self-respect and self-worth to create the mental space where forgiveness looks like a real option. We need to develop and maintain an inner subjective reality—a sense of self—that is independent of other people’s negative opinions and expectations of us. Good friends, trusted family members, therapists, or clergy can be very helpful in functioning as a True Other to someone’s True Self—they’re figures who can help generate a more positive sense of self.

How to See Yourself

1. Sit comfortably, allowing your eyes to gently close. Focus your attention on your breathing.

2. When you’re ready, bring to mind someone in your life in whose presence you feel safe. This person could be a dear friend, a therapist, a teacher, a spiritual figure, your own wiser self.
3. Imagine yourself sitting with this person face-to-face. Visualize the person looking at you with acceptance and tenderness, appreciation and delight. Feel yourself taking in his or her love and acceptance of you.
4. Now imagine yourself being the other person, looking at yourself through his or her eyes. Feel that person’s love and openness being directed toward you. See in yourself the goodness the other person sees in you. Savor this awareness of your own goodness.
5. Now come back to being yourself. You are in your own body again, experiencing the other person looking at you again, with so much love and acceptance. Notice how and where you feel that love and acceptance in your body – as a smile, as a warmth in your heart – and savor it.
6. Take a moment to reflect on your experience. You are recovering a positive view of your own self again. Set the intention to remember this feeling when you need to.

Laurie and Jamie had kept their struggles private from friends or family, so they didn’t have strong face concerns about social reputations. But they did need to move beyond the shaming-blaming behaviors prevalent when they first came into couples therapy. They had to work on not taking things so personally and on feeling appreciated and worthy in each other’s eyes again before they could move toward forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not easy. It takes sincere intention and diligent practice over time. But overcoming reluctance, even refusal, to forgive can be facilitated by understanding these specific aversions to forgiveness, and by implementing strategies to address these barriers skillfully.

Originally published at Greater Good.

How Does Addiction Happen?

This article was written by Jennifer Fernandez, PhD, from the Pathways Institute.

Although we don’t fully understand addiction, there are lots of theories that attempt to explain it. The most popular one is the disease model. It explains that addiction has a biological origin that causes changes in the brain. This model also accounts for the heredity of addiction, or genetic predisposition. Studies of twins who have been separated at birth show that they are likely to develop addictions, despite growing up in different home environments.

You may have also heard addiction described as a hijacker of the reward center of the brain. Brain imaging studies show that overuse of drugs or compulsive behaviors “hijack” the reward system and can lead to changes in the brain that make it difficult to experience pleasure as one did before.

Then there’s the self-medication hypothesis. It posits that people use drugs to help them cope with physical and/or emotional pain. It helps explain why people turn to specific drugs or compulsive behaviors to help them deal with things like depression, chronic pain, trauma, or grief.

But the best way to explain addiction is as a biopsychosocial phenomenon. We know that addiction has a biological component. It causes temporary and permanent changes in the brain and body. We also know there is a psychological component: an inability to cope with distressing emotions. The social component of addiction is related to peer culture, as they influence what you use, how you use it, or how (not) to deal with your emotions.

In the question about nature versus nurture, the answer might just be nature and nurture. Drugs affect us biologically and we may even be genetically predisposed to those effects. In addition to that, your parents, family, friends, or lovers may have modeled addictive behaviors or inability to cope with emotions in a healthy manner.

Jennifer Fernandez, PhD

Warning: Being Bad Can Feel So Good

Recently, researchers Nicole Ruedy, Francesca Gino, Celia Moore, and Maurice Schweitzer, at the University of Washington, the London Business School, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania published an article titled The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior in the The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Conventional theories of moral behavior and decision making assume that unethical behavior triggers negative emotions, and indeed, when participants in the study were interviewed before the study, they themselves reported an expectation that if they were to act unethically, they would feel guilty about it. These theories help support the idea that we are internally motivated to do the right thing, because it makes us feel bad not to.

But when put to the test, so to speak, the people who cheated actually experienced an immediate boost in emotion, which the researchers termed a “cheaters high.” The researchers went on to say that once people have this experience, it may be difficult to resist future unethical behavior, especially when someone can “derive both material and psychological rewards” from the behavior.

Those of us working in the field of “process addictions” or compulsive behaviors (such as compulsive stealing or sexual behavior, gambling, compulsive eating, etc) are certainly not surprised by these results – it validates the behavior we see all of the time. Indeed, many of the people we see are they themselves flummoxed by their own behavior – they don’t understand why they continue to repeat a behavior they don’t feel good about and goes against their morals, beliefs, and even self-image, and wreaks havoc in their lives.

The short answer, which these researchers have validated, is that they do it because in the moment it feels good. It gives the person a boost and if that person is feeling depressed, anxious, having difficulty coping, can’t assert what they need and want in a healthy way, etc. this little boost is a way to escape all of that, for a moment. And the escape works, which is why when all of the negative feelings return (which they always do, in addition to the feelings of shame due to the behavior), eventually the desire to do it again comes back, and thus the compulsion is born.

This important study helps to explain how and why motivation, behavior, and feelings don’t always align with morals and values. It also helps to make a case for treatment for people who compulsively repeat these behaviors; they need help with a transformation that will give them a deeper, longer-lasting experience of happiness, so they can give up the “boost” of the “cheater’s high.”

Samantha Smithstein, PsyD

Ask the Expert: Why Was My Son Referred for Psychological Testing?

My son was referred for psychological testing? Does this mean there is something wrong with him?

First off, there are many reasons why your son may need psychological testing. A child can be referred for testing because he or she is having interpersonal difficulties, be depressed, not be able to sustain attention in class, or have trouble with academics as a result of a learning issue.

It may be the case that your son is struggling with a kind of internal turmoil that psychological testing can help to clarify. While there might not be a severe problem with him currently, getting psychological testing can help ensure that he gets the help he needs so that future difficulties can be minimized. Good psychological testing should include highlighting strengths, clarifying difficulties, and increasing self-advocacy.

While it can be a difficult and potentially expensive process, it is important to be aware that the overall goal of testing is to provide preventative and proactive support. This does not guarantee that your son will not experience difficulties, but it can help to minimize academic, biological, and emotional barriers for the time being and even for the long run.

There are other types of testing that may be relevant to your son. If it seems as though an academic issue is the root cause of their emotional distress (i.e., difficulty with schoolwork, leading your son to have negative self-talk that results in depressive symptoms), academic testing may be recommended. If the testing reveals that your child has a learning or attention difference, early intervention can help to alleviate some of the emotional turmoil your son may be experiencing. It is also extremely helpful to have early diagnosis and intervention documented for later when they are needing additional accommodations such as more time on standardized testing.

Regardless of the type of testing, be it psychological or academic, the goal of testing is to understand your son better, and to provide recommendations and strategies to help him flourish and succeed.

Jason Arkin, PsyD

The Myth of the Average

The following is an interview Todd Rose, faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, author of Square Peg, and co-founder of Project Variability. In his recent Sonoma TedX talk “Ban the Average he explains the myth of the average and how it harms kids in the education system by depriving them of learning, and our society as a whole, robbing us of needed talent and creativity.

We found his work to be highly relevant to the work we do at Pathways Institute, where it is part of our stated mission to help all children “function at their highest level and bring their unique gifts to the world.” We began the interview by asking him about the Myth of the Average:


L. TODD ROSE:  The Myth of Average is a belief that’s been prominent in most sciences and in education. It’s the belief that we can use statistical averages to understand individuals. Scientists have come to realize that it’s a myth, and over the last 10 years have been moving from averages to individuals, so for example we’re hearing a lot of things like ‘personalized medicine.’  Unfortunately, education has not quite realized the myth yet, and so what we have is a situation where not only do we accept the idea of designing something for the individual based on the average, we actually promote it.  The myth is that the average is fits for most people, when, in fact, it doesn’t.

Interviewer:  And how does that hurt us?

L. TODD ROSE:  When it comes to designing environments it hurts us in two ways.  As I said in my TEDX talk, the first is that you can be incredibly talented in one area, but average or below average in another. For example, say you’re really gifted in math, but you are an average or below average reader. The way our education system is designed will make it very hard for us to be able to get at your talent, because even in math class many of the problems are reading problems, so the reading problem can mask what you’re really good at.

The second way it hurts us is that someone can be unbelievably gifted in something, but their environment won’t challenge them because it’s teaching to the average. They end up getting on-board and doing only what they are supposed to. In this way, designing environments to averages end up hurting even our best and brightest.

Interviewer:  So how does that play itself out in our everyday world?  How are these problems going to effect all of us, even if they don’t harm us personally?

L. TODD ROSE:  Good question.  To me, the effect of the Myth of the Averages is even broader than education.  It’s really about how we develop our current and future talent pool, and as you know we have big challenges in our society and need all of the talent and creativity we can get.

We already have all the raw talent that we need! If you think about something as big as finding a cure for cancer, we need as many people who have the talent and the work ethic becoming scientists and chasing down this problem as possible.  But if we design our educational environment so that an individual’s limitations make it almost impossible for us to get to their talents, then we are going to lose a whole bunch of talented individuals, and in my mind we’re in danger of losing the cure for cancer.  If we extend this myth of averages all the way it has very serious implications, because when we studied cancer on the average, it led us to conclusions that were not helping us actually cure people.  And since we’ve gone away from average and started studying cancer, individual cancer, we’ve made great progress.

The workforce environment is not dissimilar. We’re trying to get people to be the most productive and effective person they can be. But if the environment is designed around averages, it makes people less efficient, less creative. So, you know, in every sector of society this idea of average has turned out to be a sort of barrier to advancement.

Interviewer: I see.  And so what does Ban the Average mean?

L. TODD ROSE:  Well, to me it’s step one of a two-step process that gets us away from this average and toward helping our institutions become institutions of opportunity that can actually nurture individuals.  So Ban the Average is the first step. It’s about helping people realize the average really is the problem. We can’t move forward until we realize that.

The phrase “Ban the Average” comes from the Air Force, which gained insight about the Myth of Average 60 years ago, when cockpits, jumpsuits, and instruction was designed for the mythical average person.  They they realized it was a problem, and even though they didn’t really know what the solution was that didn’t stop them from saying, ‘You know what?  We know the average is hurting our performance and shrinking our talent pool, so we’re going to ban the use of average.’ That initial step was enough to make a signal to the market that things were going to change, and it forced designers and entrepreneurs to create better solutions.  So we can talk about solutions, which is ultimately what needs to be done, but until we have the common understanding that the myth of average is a problem we’re not going to get very far.  So Ban the Average is the first step.

Interviewer:  And how does Project Variability fit into this?

L. TODD ROSE:  Project Variability is an enabling organization.  We see this emerging new science of the individual and we have the knowledge that we to be able to create an environment that understands individuals and nurtures individual potential.  At the same time, we’re seeing a massive shift toward technology in every sector of society, from workforce to science, and in education.  So we see a wonderful opportunity to combine those two in ways that enable us to do things that are almost magical, quite honestly, and that won’t actually cost more money. We can do things in education today that we only dreamed of before.  But it requires making good choice.

What we realized as a team was that those choices are rarely going to be made on their own because people in all parts of the current system have an interest in keeping the status quo.  What we’ve decided to do is be an organization that exists solely to initiate the transition from average to individual.  We’re doing it as a messaging campaign: to communicate to the public so people understand what’s possible and what to ask for, to ultimately create the demand. At the same time, we’re going to enable scientists and entrepreneurs to create solutions that will meet the demand. The truth is, is we exist to put ourselves out of business.  We just need to change the demand structure and help create some new solutions. At that point our goals have been met.

We highly recommend you watch Todd Rose’s Sonoma TedX talk “Ban the Average.

And a special thank you to Peter Dippery of Fuse Media for help making this interview possible.

Ask The Expert: Is It Necessary To Test Again?

My son was tested 3 years ago and was diagnosed with a math disorder and now his school is asking for an updated full evaluation because next year we will be applying for high schools.  Why does he need to be tested every 3 years?  What does the full evaluation entail and can’t he just be tested for the math disorder?

Your child needs to be retested every three years in order to determine how the current recommendations and accommodations are meeting your child’s needs. It is hoped that the changes that were put in place based on the initial assessment have helped your child. As your child gets older and advances in their academic career, he or she might need changes to their accommodations. This may include receiving additional time when taking in-class tests or additional academic help with certain subjects. Also, as your child gets older, s/he will have a better ability to not only discuss their difficulties, but also to understand how their difficulties influence them, why they get special accommodations, etc.

The full evaluation will include academic and intellectual testing, which will help compare your child’s potential with how they are performing in the classroom. It will also include academic reports, input from parents, teachers, and your child, and other measures which are designed to better understand and evaluate your child.

Retesting just for the math disorder would not take into account other aspects of your child that may have changed over the past three years. It is likely that he or she will have different strengths and weaknesses. Also, depending on your child’s age, he or she can be more involved in the process and start to become their own best advocate. In addition, as children age, there are more tests available to better determine the specific issue(s) that are affecting your child.This will result in more thorough, complete, and accurate recommendations and accommodations.

Jason Arkin, PsyD

Stealing From Our Children?

It was recently reported that six employees of the San Francisco Unified School District have been arrested for stealing and that they face no less than 205 felony charges stemming from the alleged misuse of an estimated $15 million in grant funding.  The allegations include redirecting money into slush funds, bonuses and non-approved pay increases.  The San Francisco DA reports that approximately $250,000 went towards the SFUSD employees’ personal use.

One of the defendant’s attorney, stated that his client “felt she had the right to do it”.  Currently there are many unanswered questions in this troubling case but one very important question is can it be possible that people are so unclear about what stealing is or are able to justify it to themselves?  Is it so complex and confusing to understand what is and isn’t mine, either professionally or personally?  It may seem clear to some of us, and we can only imagine people in this scenario acting out of pure greed or selfishness. And that may be the case. But people with stealing disorders – as with other addictions or compulsions – often use justifications and twisted logic to rationalize their out of control behavior.

In our years of working with people who have stealing disorders we have discovered that there are many people who steal who otherwise spend most of their time contributing to society and their families in a positive way. These people are therefore very confused about their stealing behavior.  While they are almost always clear that  when they go into a store and steal a watch they are stealing, they are often unclear if it is stealing to taste fruit at a grocery store before purchasing it, take something out of the communal fridge at work without asking, skim a little money from their wealthy employer, or take home office supplies from work.  These scenarios (and even stealing a watch from a store) get rationalized and thinking becomes distorted in the face of emotional reactivity.

In our work with people with stealing disorders, therefore, it becomes a priority to help them keep their thinking simple.  In other words, we encourage them to ask questions such as: Does this thing or money belong to you?  Have you already purchased it for it’s full price?   If the answer is “no” and you take it, then you are stealing.  If the answer is “I don’t’ know” then you have to ask if you can have it for free.

People with stealing disorders are often unable to distinguish what is stealing and what isn’t.  Their impulsivity overrides their thinking and their emotional empathy which would allow for them to formulate the question of whether or not a certain thing or money belongs to them.  The impulsivity is often driven by several factors which include: internal and/or external stressors, at times co-occurring mental or medical health issues, co- addictions and the neurobiological dopamine reward cycle taking place in their brain each time they steal.  The urge to get something for nothing feels like a “high” or a “win” but most importantly it is feels really good (and even alters their brain chemistry) and therein lies their problem: people get addicted to it.  When people are addicted they formulate all kinds of defenses, cognitive distortions, rationalizations, conscious and unconscious that allows them to repeat the cycle in order to get the payoff of good feelings again and again.

It is disheartening when we see cases like this and of course can’t imagine how could someone who has spent their life serving the public good get caught up in something like stealing from the very institutions and people they serve.  It is easy in a case like this to be cynical and political in our commentary, and it is possible these people are stealing out of pure greed, lack of empathy, and criminality. However, stealing occurs every day all day, all over this city, country and world, and some of it is by people who can’t help themselves.  There is treatment and help for individuals who compulsively steal and it is our hope that everyone with this problem can get the help they need so we can all live in a safer world.  

Elizabeth Corsale, MA, MFT

Not Getting Clean: It’s A Killer

In his recent book Clean, author David Sheff writes about addiction treatment and why it fails to help so many addicts. The idea for the book came out of his struggles helping his son with his addiction, which led to further research on the state of addiction treatment in the U.S. In a recent article on, he started his article by stating that:

Every year in the U.S., 120,000 people die of addiction. That’s 350 a day.”

He goes on to write that “A growing body of evidence has proved that addiction isn’t a choice subject to willpower but a brain disease that’s chronic, progressive and often fatal.” He then writes that in spite of this, there are a shocking number of treatment programs which do not use techniques that are based on research on effectiveness. He writes that it is crucial that people need to find and utilize these programs which “use therapies that have proved effective in clinical trials, including cognitive-behavioral therapy designed to train addicts to recognize and interrupt the cues that trigger the relapse mechanism; motivational interviewing, a therapy approach widely used to treat many psychological disorders that helps addicts engage in treatment; contingency management, which essentially rewards addicts for clean time; and psychopharmacology.” These treatment programs can also include “alternative” therapies that have been proven effective, such as meditation, acupuncture, and animal-assisted therapy.

Importantly, he goes on to say that “most researchers agree that no single therapy is appropriate for every addict. Often they’re used in concert. An effective treatment regimen may include AA, but only for those patients who are open to it.”

One of the most important points that he makes is about how unregulated rehabilitation is, and how widely the programs vary.  He writes:

Currently there’s a chasm between these and other evidence-based treatments (EBTs) and rehab programs. Every day addicts fall into it, and many never make it out. Most people in need find themselves in the same frustrating position I was in when I was desperate and overwhelmed, shopping for programs and doing the best I could to navigate an unnavigable system that’s also largely unregulated. In many states, anyone can open a rehab program — no licenses or accreditation are required.

This is slowly changing. More people are being educated about the fact that addiction is a disease and therefore requires treatments based on the medical model. The more consumers are educated and demand EBT, the more the billion-dollar rehab industry will adapt and offer it. That is, the industry will adapt or it will die and be replaced. In the meantime, those who need treatment must do the best they can to find programs that offer EBT. The place to start is by receiving an assessment from a psychologist or psychiatrist who is trained in addiction medicine. … A competent doctor can determine the severity of addiction and the presence or lack of co-occurring psychological disorders and prescribe the next step. It may include a brief intervention, therapy, psychopharmacology, an inpatient or outpatient program that offers quality care or a combination of these things.

Sheff’s points are crucial and a matter of life or death for many. For some addiction programs, even “certifications” are simply designed by people who had theories rather than based on research and/or outcome studies. His plea for standard of care for addiction is critical – for the health and well-being, and even life or death, of so many.

Samantha Smithstein, PsyD

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