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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


Letting Go and Being Okay

For our Pathways Institute Ask the Expert blog, we asked parents for their stories, with the idea that it would be helpful for parents to hear from other parents about their struggles and transformations. We asked: What has this journey of parenting kids with learning differences meant to you? How has it transformed you? This is the response from one of our parents. She requested to remain anonymous out of respect for her children.

I grew up in an alcoholic family system where there was one crisis after another. In-between there was a fair amount of numbness and once in a while good times.  I spent time in therapy, at first trying to get control of my own self-destructiveness, then surrendering to the reality of needing help. I learned to be able to deeply think, wonder and take the time that I needed to understand myself. I was challenged to understand that drama, and emotional upset were different from being present and being in real contact with myself.  I learned to meditate and continue to do so daily –  I highly recommend it.

When I turned 30,  I was no longer terrified of intimacy. I got married and by 32 had a daughter and a son. I couldn’t have asked for more, I was truly happy and felt on the right path for life.

Then, when my son was young, he was diagnosed with dyslexia.  I was told he should go to a school that specialized teaching dyslexic boys. This was hard to hear but thankfully the school was in the same town we lived!  I told myself, “this dyslexia thing is just a little hiccup. Things will be fine.” I thought my son would beat this thing called dyslexia and perhaps be the next Steve Jobs, Charles Schwab or Sir Richard Branson.

During my son’s first year in the special school, my mother was diagnosed stage 3 breast cancer while caring for my father who was in the late stages of  ALS.  I believed I would be fine and I could handle all of it.  But I just couldn’t. My family was fractured and I felt completely out of control about everything and kept wanting to scream:  “WHY ISN’T ANYONE LISTENING TO ME AND LETTING ME BE IN CONTROL?”  Somehow, in the middle of all it all and in a moment of grace, I was reminded of Al Anon something I had done before and I went to a meeting.

It took a while for me to get clear-headed in Al Anon and watch my self-righteousness cool down, soften and  slowly peel away by listening to the wisdom, generosity of spirit and great humor of the group members.  I started to realize I needed to surrender the “people, places, and things” I couldn’t control, and a shift happened: things greatly improved for me with my siblings and parents.

But as things got better with my family, I realized I was not done with my work in Al Anon. I was still in a battle of wills: my will versus reality regarding my son and dyslexia. I realized I needed to stay in Al Anon years after the family crisis had abated because I was treating dyslexia like alcoholism and my son as if he were an alcoholic.  I was trying be in control an uncontrollable situation.

My son  was making progress in school but it was slow and no one was telling me he was going to be the next Steve Jobs.  The experts were saying that he was struggling to accept his learning difference, which is why he is so angry and anxious all the time.  He needed therapy, additional tutoring and massive amounts of patience from his parents.  I wasn’t very good at patience; I would get upset, angry and anxious.  I would try to force solutions.

There were times when my son behaved like a PTSD survivor.  He would be given an assignment in math and by the time he got home he couldn’t remember how to do the problems.  He would descend into anger, escalate, perseverate and explode in rage, because his brain was having  a brown-out and sometimes a full black-out.  I would  panic and think, “I have to do more of this and more of that, find people who can help him.” I would email the teacher, upsetting my son and creating serious problems in my relationship with him.

Gratefully, in Al Anon I learned to not talk to the dyslexic kid when the dyslexic kid is doing homework.  I learned to  breathe, walk away, and stay calmly,  “I’m sorry homework is so hard for you.”  I have learned to calm down because there  is nothing I can “do” and more importantly I now have faith that my son is okay and going to be okay even in the middle of his struggle. Our son has the help he needs, is allowed to appropriately express his feelings and thoughts about how hard having dyslexia is at times, and is loved no matter what.  I have begun to understand that I can never protect both my child from the suffering and struggles that come with life, including this one.

I am also now learning that I need to come to terms with being OKAY even if others in my life are struggling or suffering.  Being okay doesn’t mean I am uncaring about another’s struggles , in fact there are times that I am involved in trying sort out my son’s learning problems and participate in the process supporting or  finding a solution. It just means that I don’t have to join the suffering.

The 11th step in Al Anon is “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Meditation has given me an important coping and resiliency tool, and where I have learned about and practice detachment. Detachment isn’t disconnection or disinterest.  Detachment is the ability to say to myself, “Let go. There is nothing to carry, nothing to become distraught about.”

I use to think that I wasn’t allowed or entitled to experience real joy, freedom or happiness if others and in particular if my son was struggling.  What kind of parent would have a good day while their kid was struggling with reading?   I would sink into GUILT.  But I now realize not only am I allowed to be free of guilt and experience the good stuff in life, my son who struggles with learning needs to see that I  am okay.  In fact he deserve to see that I am not taking on his learning struggles psychologically and emotionally.  He needs to experience me creating positive interactions with him.  Otherwise, if I’m an anxious mess, a negative downward cycle begins to corrode our relationship – we are on a sinking ship together.  When I keep a sense of humor and my deep sense of gratitude, and keep moving forward, it gives him the feeling that he’s just a teenager and I’m just his mom, and everything will be okay. It gives him hope, and the balance we both need.

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.

Yeah Right: The Day to Day Reality of Life with a LD

I recently sat down for coffee with a parent of a teenager with learning disabilities.  She told me her daughter has the “kitchen sink” when it comes to LD.  She went on to say that her daughter has a reading disability and an unusual ADHD presentation. Unusual I asked?  She said, “My daughter had been diagnosed fairly young with ADHD but several neuro-psychologists and psychiatrists still feel it’s not quite accurate”, she sighed, “even the experts are confused.“ Her daughter has short term memory deficits, extremely slow processing speed but her working memory is okay and her long term memory is superior.   Her daughter was transferred in second grade to a school that specializes in teaching kids with dyslexia and attention issues.  “This was the best decision we ever made. The school emphasized helping kids develop resiliency through acceptance of their LD, encouragement and building on their strengths.”  I thought it sounded like this family had a great outcome to a challenging set of problems.


Last week I was able to talk to her daughter, a high school sophomore and ask her about her experience and what it was like to have a learning difference.  “I hate having a learning disabilities because it make learning hard and sometimes I still worry about getting through high school and college.” You can imagine my surprise as I had preconceived ideas that she would talk about how great things are now.   She said that going to the  K-8 school was probably the best thing that happened but then she relayed a recent story.  She said that she was telling her current favorite English teacher about her K-8 school and how the teachers at that school always said that dyslexia was gift.  She lit up with laughter while telling me that her current teacher responded, “Yeah right”!  I asked her why that made her light up?  She told me that she understood why the school and teachers talked to the little kids about their “gifts”.  She remembered wanting to give up when she was in third grade and that positive message helped her to keep going and trying, but she said it wasn’t the whole story.  She felt it was important that teachers don’t sugar coat the challenges of having LD and they needed try harder to understand LD kids and be real with the older kids with LD.  She said that gifts came from dyslexia but dyslexia itself wasn’t a gift, it made learning so hard and still even now many teachers don’t understand and care about how hard it is for her to learn.  She told me,  “Many teachers seem clueless about what it’s like to have short term memory problems and how hard I have to work, repeat, repeat repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat and repeat to get things into my brain.”  After she shared all of this, I could only imagine how relieving it was for her to have her favorite teacher get it and her with that exclamation of yeah right.


This made me think about how important it is for all of us to remember and appreciate that all  kids have an inner psychological and emotional world.  Therefore it is essential that we support, accept, work with, appropriately and accurately accommodate kids with LD and their families in the reality of what it is really like day to day living with learning disabilities.  If we only focus on the negative such as neurological deficits then we will miss the blessings and gifts;  but likewise, if we only look for the positive such as strengths, then we will miss the challenges and even the suffering of the individual.  We have to have balanced approach and become interested in the whole child and the entire experience of what their life is like as they navigate learning and living with a learning disability.

Elizabeth Corsale, MA, MFT

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

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

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

(Re)Defining Justice

Restorative Justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”

– Howard Zehr, 1990

Restorative (or Reparative) Justice is based on the Native American principle that criminal behaviors are offenses against human relationships and that after these behaviors are committed, there are both dangers and opportunities:

  • The danger is that everyone emerges further alienated, more damaged, disrespected, disempowered, feeling less safe and less cooperative.
  • The opportunity is that injustice is recognized, equality is restored and the future is clarified. So that participants are safer, more respectful, and more empowered and cooperative with each other and society.

Restorative justice is a process designed to try to “make things as right as possible” for everyone involved.  That includes: repairing what has been broken, making society safer, attending to needs related to the behavior, and making amends.

Traditional criminal justice seeks answers to three questions: What laws have been broken? Who did it? and What do the offender(s) deserve? Restorative justice instead asks: Who has been harmed? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these?

Restorative Justice can take place in a diversity of settings, including neighborhood courts, schools, therapy groups, and nations. The 12-step community has also attempted to address the need for restoration through steps 8 and 9: making a list of the persons harmed and making direct amends to such people whenever possible. Making amends is different from an apology – one is simply an acknowledgement and expression of regret, whereas the other attempts to create restoration. Sometimes people also talk about “living” amends, which has to do with choosing to live differently so as to not create more harm.

Restorative Justice, or making amends, doesn’t require forgiveness. Forgiveness is a step that the victim(s) may or may not be able or willing to choose. Instead, Restorative Justice seeks to restore and heal, so that everyone may move forward less broken, and more whole.

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.

This is your brain on dope(amine)

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for movement, pleasure, motivation, and cognitive processes, such as learning. For the purposes of understanding its role in addiction, let’s concentrate on pleasure and motivation.

Whenever we do something that propagates the advancement of our species, dopamine is released in order to motivate repetition of the action. When we sleep, eat, and have sex dopamine is released in our brain and the message is, “That was great, do it again!” We also release dopamine whenever we find something pleasurable. Be it 18th century poetry, heroin, or Radiohead, our brain will release dopamine to encode the stimulus as something that brings us pleasure.

Dopamine not only serves to categorize the good things we encounter in life, it also programs our pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in judgement and decision making) to alert us when the pleasurable stimulus is available. If your brain cells could talk, it might sound something like, “OMG! There’s a flyer on that lamppost for a Radiohead concert. Go look at it!” In other words, we become hyperaware of opportunities for engaging in behaviors that bring us pleasure. In fact, a study on people with alcoholism found they were more likely to spot alcoholic beverages in a busy photograph than people who don’t have problems with alcohol.

When we consume substances, it makes us feel good because our brains release dopamine, but drugs elicit a higher amount of dopamine release than is necessary. This is part of what causes experiences of euphoria and feeling high. Sometimes the amount of dopamine released is so great, the chemicals in our brain become unbalanced and we may experience hangover or withdrawal. In time, our brain regains chemical equilibrium. However, if one abuses substances, the brain may develop a tolerance (meaning the person needs to use greater amounts to get high) or dependence on the substance as a source of dopamine. If one becomes dependent on a drug, it may take some time for the brain to regain equilibrium and the person may experience extreme physical discomfort and emotional distress when they aren’t using. The period of re-calibration depends on the amount, type, and frequency of the drug used. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to be under medical supervision and receive support from friends, family, and a mental health professional if you’re dependent on a drug and want to stop or decrease your use.

The mechanism of tolerance is also evident in impulse control disorders, such as sex addiction, kleptomania, and compulsive gambling. Although it doesn’t appear that persons with an impulse control disorder undergo the same intensity of withdrawal that persons addicted to substances experience, there can certainly be a period of re-calibration of dopamine receptors during which a person feels irritable and agitated after stopping a behavior.

Based on the information presented here, we can conclude that we are all hard-wired to potentially become addicts and you may be asking yourself, “If this is true, why do some people become addicted and others don’t?” This is a really good question and the answer is “We don’t really know.” We can predict the likelihood of someone becoming an addict based on factors such as first age of substance use and family history of addiction, and we know that a lack of social support and coping strategies (especially when coupled with mental illness) can also lead to addiction, but there is no conclusive answer to date.

The best ways to prevent addiction are to educate yourself about the substances you use (or to abstain from substance use altogether) and to be mindful about the choices you make. If you have a mental illness, ensuring that you are getting appropriate treatment and maintaining social support are good preventative measures.

Jennifer Fernandez, PhD

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