Why You Can’t Stay in a Toxic Environment if You Want to Thrive

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The title of this article specifically refers to thriving, which is very different than surviving. What we know about humans is that we can survive incredibly difficult environments. We can survive trauma. We can survive malnutrition. We can even survive situations specifically designed to break our spirits and bodies—think concentration camps or solitary confinement in prisons. However, we cannot thrive in those environments. The reason is fairly straight forward. Our wellbeing is not just about attitude. Environmental inputs matter. A lot.

We can learn skills to mitigate stress. Our bodies can adapt, at least for a while, to inadequate nutrition. We can even learn to survive torture. However, to thrive, some foundational inputs have to be in place. For example, if we have access to healthy foods; if we have secure housing; if we have relationships with people who care for us and have our best interests at heart; if we have work and other activities that provide purpose and opportunities to learn and grow, then we can maximize our potential—and thrive.

Understanding the power of inputs is really critical because we often attempt to deal with circumstances, relationships, etc., that cause us pain and suffering by trying to apply tools to deal with the pain and suffering rather than by trying to change the inputs that are hurting us. Sometimes, such as with complex trauma, we develop pathologies that compromise our ability to advocate for ourselves. Sometimes it’s more simple. My father, who was a clinical psychologist, used to say that, “Some people prefer the certainty of misery over the misery of uncertainty.” We just prefer the devil we know or we fear change more than we fear a debilitating status quo. On the other hand, because inputs are so important, if we do truly want to thrive, in many cases, we will have to make environmental changes to things that affect our wellbeing.

As a former CEO, and current organizational consultant, and a psychotherapist who works with both individuals and groups comprised of people who are being genuinely hurt by the organizations they work for or by relationships in their lives, it is clear to me that, although we can use interventions to improve our ability to regulate emotion or tolerance for distress or mindfulness or interpersonal skills, that is often not enough to progress from surviving to thriving. We can decrease both the frequency and severity of psychological symptoms such as depression or anxiety or obsessive thoughts, but ultimately, true liberation often requires that we remove or separate ourselves from the inputs that cause our symptoms. We can often survive a toxic workplace, narcissistic partner, dangerous neighborhood, etc., but we cannot thrive in those contexts. Enduring just takes too much emotional and physical bandwidth and our mind-bodies absorb the toxicity like a like a body of water absorbs toxic chemicals. Moreover, in the same way we can’t clean up a toxic lake unless we stop the noxious chemicals pouring into the water, we can’t heal a damaged soul until we remove the poisons in our workplace, relationships, domestic lives, etc.

Obviously, there are situations in which people cannot alter their environment appreciably because they are dependent on someone else for basic needs, or they do not have full mobility or freedom of movement. Those are tragic situations and some are, at least temporarily, intractable. Relatedly, in many cases, the negative effects we experience from toxic environmental factors weaken us to the point that we do not believe that we have options that we actually have. One of the insidious products of noxious psychological environments is often the detrimental impact on our own sense of agency. In fact, the most toxic people in our lives actually want to steal our agency! It’s a means of control.

So, what do we do? First of all, not everyone is in a position to make substantial life changes in a given moment, but most of us do have options if we are willing to risk what we have for what we might have. And, sometimes, altering inputs in our environment such as leaving a job or ending a relationship, may initially make things worse in some ways before they get better, but that is often necessary in order to get to a place where inputs are additive rather than subtractive to our wellbeing.

Relatedly, we may have to redefine what “success” or “normal” means or what role money or status plays in our lives, etc., but once we redefine those things, then many options become available that weren’t visible or available before. This process is often directly connected to identity. In other words, we stay in toxic places or debilitating jobs or with toxic people because we have tied who we are to the role we play. For example, I counseled an executive who had achieved the heights of “success” based on Western values of wealth and power and status. However, he had basically sold his soul to his work and the growing dissonance was beginning to cripple him emotionally, not to mention cause substantial physical health issues and compromise his personal relationships. It wasn’t until he was able to accept that success might be about something other than money or status or power that he was able to let go of things that he had been led to believe were almost sacred. Importantly, he also had to let go of his very identity and validity being tied to his job. Of course, if he had to make a mid-six figure income or have a C-Suite job or live in a million-dollar home, then yes, his options would be limited. But once he realized that success might be related to living his values, being there for his family, and making a positive difference to others in the world—even if that meant living a less materialistic life—then many choices became possible.

Moving on from subtractive, if not toxic, inputs, can also be achieved over time. Start with incremental change. Address individual parts of your life one at a time. End a toxic relationship, then leave a demeaning boss, then move to where you really want to live, etc.

It also helps to approach change from a more productive context. Instead of asking yourself, “What do I want my next job to be?” or “Who do I want to have a relationship with?,” ask yourself, “What do I want to be true in my life—that will help me thrive—and what roles do my work or relationships or where I live play in achieving those life truths? And maybe even more importantly, these questions have to be asked in the context of who do I want to be rather than who/what do other people say I should be.

In short, we are often told how critical our own attitudes are for shaping how we feel about our lives—and there is truth in that. I’ve found that three pillars of wellbeing, and of thriving, are attitude, behavior, and environment. However, I’ve also found that attitude and behavior by themselves cannot overcome constant environmental inputs that make us sick or crush our souls. At some point, if we’re being poisoned on a regular basis, we have to remove the poison, or we can’t heal, let alone thrive.

A Recent View On Leadership

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I’ve recently had an opportunity to observe two leaders, both women, demonstrate qualities that reflect core elements of what is needed in leadership today—elements that we feature in the Transformation Collaborative’s™ Leadership Discovery Program. It’s truly a pleasure to watch.

I mention their gender because my sense is that women, when allowed to play to their strengths, are more naturally attuned to how leaders bring value in today’s environment, which has become far more about empowering success in others, than it is about traditional male attributes of dominance, unilateral decision making, confidence over competence, devaluation of emotion, and other traits that, over time, tend to alienate people more than support engagement and personal growth.

In traditional organizations, women have historically had to act more like men, which is not only problematic in terms of the behaviors women have had to emulate, but also because those behaviors often engender deep dissonance for the women themselves. Traditional models of leadership were and are arguably misplaced even in previous operating environments, but today, particularly with Gen Zers and millennials, who have chosen not to buy into much of the nonsensical expectations and compromises of earlier work environments, traditional models of autocratic leadership are not just ineffective, but often detrimental, both to organizational outcomes and the people in them. Beyond generational issues, we are all living in a socio-economic system that, by design, creates chronic stress and conspires against wellness. Employees bring that distress and resulting mental health challenges into the workplace, which has a direct impact on the kinds of leadership choices that generate engagement and productivity vs. those that exacerbate disconnection and limit employee contribution.

At the Transformation Collaborative™, we believe that leaders in today’s environment generate the greatest, most valuable outcomes by maximizing human capital, including mining leadership capacity in others, by supporting their personal growth, self-discovery, emotional intelligence, health, wellness, & resilience, compelling people leadership, and commitment to supporting success in others in the context of clearly defined moral imperatives—i.e., doing what’s right actually matters. While both men and women can lead in the way described above, it is probably clear to most readers that, women, if allowed to follow their intuition and natural proclivities, are much more closely aligned with the leadership values and traits identified by the TC than are men. One can question how much of that is innate vs. socialized, but the end result is that women are typically more attuned to things such as emotional intelligence and supporting growth and self-discovery in others. They are more naturally empathetic and nurturing (and socialized to be so) than are men, and as unusual as those concepts sound in the context of traditional leadership, they have become critical to effective leadership now and in the future. Relatedly, my sense is that, typical organizational dynamics aside, women are more comfortable achieving success through others and feel less need to take credit for what those around them achieve than are men.

As both an executive and a psychotherapist, I have experienced the irrational and detrimental attitudes toward simply being human in organizations fostered by traditional leadership models and I’ve seen the devastation in individuals who’ve lived, in some cases, entire lives, in denial of their most basic humanity. In men, traits such as empathy and vulnerability have traditionally been seen as weakness and it’s probably impossible to calculate the damage that has caused for men and the people around them. Although people of any gender can be deeply wounded when they are forced to sacrifice authenticity for acceptance, in my counseling practice I regularly see the devastating effects on men, often who have been seen (and seen themselves) as bullet-proof and hyper-masculine, who eventually can no longer sustain the dissonance and pain of denying their reality and their humanity. I mention this not just because I observe it, but because it’s germane to any discussion of leadership today.

It’s one thing for leaders to develop traits and choose behaviors that are simply ineffective. It’s another thing entirely to follow a path that is actually damaging, both for the leader and the organization they lead.

Back to the two female leaders I’ve had the pleasure of recently observing, their primary focus on people, rather than process or “numbers,” has resulted in deep engagement and commitment to their respective organizations on the part of people who work for them. In some cases, this goes beyond employee retention and includes a human connection that engenders deep gratitude and loyalty. In a time of dramatic turnover, “quiet quitting,” and what Gallup has noted is a crisis of disengagement among employees (less than a third of American employees are engaged at work), it is absolutely essential that leaders support human needs in others if their organizations are going to succeed. No leader, no matter how technically talented, driven, committed, etc. can come close to achieving what the people they are leading can collectively accomplish given the right support. And if those people are not engaged, then the organization will only achieve a small fraction of what would otherwise be possible.

In short, the Transformation Collaborative™ is passionate about its leadership model because it is based on building leader capacity to drive transformative change & innovation, value creation, deep employee engagement, sustainability with a focus on human factors, and organizational health & wellness. We don’t see “employees” or “labor” or an expense line on a P&L. We see people, who, at their best, not only succeed professionally, but thrive as valued, valuable human beings! Leaders who can contribute to that achieve something far beyond traditional measures of success. They also create meaning and purpose for themselves, which doesn’t depend on external validation and is far more sustainable than traditional markers of success.

Note: Because all organizations operate within a societal context that still values money, growth, power, and competition, and typically defines “success” within the same framework, leading based on the humanistic model described above requires no small amount of courage. It requires leaders to take the long view, which most boards, investors, etc., do not, regardless of what they say, and it requires leaders to achieve operational metrics indirectly, by empowering people, who then achieve metrics as a result of their commitment, engagement, sense of purpose, etc. In brief, in the myopic, short-term, numbers driven, zero sum context in which many organizations operate, leaders can be punished for doing the right thing, even if they ultimately also achieve performance goals. It can be a lonely journey, but being a force for good is a much better way to live.

What I’ve Learned as a New Professional Counselor

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The article linked below is from the October, 2023 edition of Counseling Today, and reflects some of my key takeaways from both my graduate counseling program and the first 1,000 hours or so of my counseling experience. The path to becoming a psychotherapist included my own mental health journey, resulting in me becoming what we often refer to in the field as a “wounded healer.”

“About a year into my healing journey, I started to think seriously about becoming a counselor. This career choice was not something I had considered before, but after I found myself in need of and benefiting from psychotherapy, I wanted to help others who found themselves in similar situations. “

What People Who Enjoy Life Have in Common

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I wrote an article last fall in which I said that the pursuit of happiness may be misguided in the sense that even if we find it, it tends to be temporal. And that is particularly so if that “happiness” is connected to money or other material possessions. A more meaningful pursuit may be to find purpose.   On the other hand, we do observe people who seem to be “happy,” or at least content with their lives. To the extent that it is possible to live happy lives, what does research tell us leads to such contentment? And what doesn’t provide that outcome?   It appears that there are a handful of things that people who consistently enjoy their lives have in common.  

Attitude Not surprisingly, one of those things is simply their attitude about their lives. This is complicated because none of us wakes up in the morning and says, “Today, I’m going to be a pessimist and think my life sucks no matter what happens.” Our attitudes are influenced by many things, external and internal, but the really interesting thing is that for people who can see life through a more positive lens, they actually feel more content regardless of the circumstances! My father, for example, was an eternal optimist, despite many data points to challenge his perspective. He faced many successes and difficulties, some severe, in his life, but he always verbalized that he was incredibly fortunate and that there was some level of positivity to everything that happened. He did this consistently and hearing himself say it did, in fact, influence how he actually felt. Even for those of us who default to a glass half empty perspective, probably the simplest way to support a positive attitude is by noting gratitude.  

Social Connection We are social creatures and genuine connection with others not only supports contentment, it also supports physical health. Studies show that loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day in terms of cancer risk! Importantly, the power of social connection can be fully realized with a single, meaningful relationship or even multiple, “casual” connections such as pleasant conversations with someone at the supermarket, with an Uber driver, etc. Regardless, we are deeply wired, for evolutionary reasons, to connect with others, and doing so affects our neurochemistry, which affects our emotional state.  Key point: although online interaction can provide some meaningful social connection, it does not provide the same neurochemical benefits that face to face interactions and physical touch do.

Limited Stress Interestingly, the absence of stress is highly predictive for contentment, while the chronic presence of stress, like loneliness, not only mitigates against happiness, it actually makes both physical and psychological illness more likely! Similar to attitude, stress is strongly correlated to how we feel about or react to a given circumstance. Two different people may face the same situation and one person is crippled by stress and the other feels little or no stress at all. People who experience healthy levels of stress tend to do two things. First, they limit the stressors in their lives that they can control such as exposure to toxic people, workplaces, etc. Secondly, they tend to be good at self-calming and self-regulation through practices such as meditation, breathing, yoga, etc.  

Physical Activity I wrote a recent article about the ongoing collective decline in mental health in which I noted that from an evolutionary perspective, we have spent almost all of human history living very active lives, mostly outdoors. Now, many of us live sedentary lives, mostly indoors, for which we were not designed. Extensive amounts of time on social media also negatively impacts happiness. The research is overwhelming that exercise and other physical activity not only promotes physical health, but that is has substantial implications for emotional and cognitive health as well. Physical activity also helps the body metabolize stress, which, like meditation, turns out to be critical in helping our mind-body return to homeostasis. The good news is that what is required to support contentment and wellness is very doable by most people. It does not require hours per week in the gym. It can be walks or gardening or recreation.  

Mindfulness People that enjoy their lives tend to spend more of their attention and effort in the present. The therapeutic definition I use for mindfulness is simply: awareness, in the moment, without judgment. Because content people spend less time regretting the past or worrying about the future, they are able to notice what’s happening in the now. This is really important because much of our stress, and almost all of our worry, are related to things that aren’t actually happening in the moment. In fact, the more time we can live mindfully in the present, by definition, the more our feelings will be unencumbered by regret and worry.  

Purpose and Control Not surprisingly, people who have found purpose in their lives and some level of control over how they live, tend to be more content and satisfied with their lives. While happiness supported by the factors noted above can be real and worthwhile, it tends to be less sustainable and resilient to environmental challenges than purpose, which tends to better endure life’s ups and downs. As for control, the research suggests that being able to spend a meaningful amount of time how we want to spend it is far more valuable than money related to our wellbeing. In fact, some of the least happy people in society are those who have earned large amounts of money, but have sacrificed their time and relationships in the process.  

So, whether we use the word “happiness” or “contentment” or “enjoyment,” etc., there are people whose sense of their own lives tends to be more positive than that experienced by other people. We know that factors such as attitude, social connection, limited stress, physical activity and mindfulness support a greater sense of wellbeing and, thus contentment. We also know that once our basic needs are met, that neither money nor status nor material acquisitions correlate with happiness. And, as I noted in my article on happiness vs. purpose, “when we pursue purpose and meaning in our lives, we are more likely to experience alignment between our values and our behaviors and feel more satisfied with our life, both of which are probably more valuable and sustainable than happiness in isolation.” Even if we manage to achieve a kind of contentment, having meaning in our lives might be the more powerful objective.

The Insidious Power of Othering and Tribalism

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An elderly member of my family, who has identified with one church or another for most of her life, recently stopped attending her church because her pastor was showing too much love for folks who don’t look like or live like she does. He was being too…. Christian.  

This pastor was advocating a New Testament love and acceptance for those in the LBGTQ+ community, immigrants, people of color, people of different political persuasions, people who have sinned (everyone), etc. Apparently, he was too committed to Jesus’ message.  

So, how does someone who has been a “Christian” all her life, who has accepted Jesus Christ as her savior, abandon a church and a pastor for showing too much Christian love? In short, she was in church for about an hour a week, but watching and listening to right wing media for dozens of hours per week.  

Over the last few years, I have observed her shift from a relatively open-minded, loving Christian to a “Christian” who fears immigrants and Democrats, believes LGBTQ+ citizens are immoral and dangerous (out to convert the rest of us), the COVID vaccine was made with microchips and has killed tens of thousands of Americans, the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and various consumer products are made with “baby-parts.”  

It has been both fascinating and horrifying to watch this devolution in a once-loving, rational person, who also happens to be a close family member. It is also a case-study in the power of othering and ensuing tribalism through hate. My personal sense is that she first had to be made to feel fear before she could move on to hate, and the Youtube videos, far right and conspiratorial websites, and news channels she watches were more than happy to oblige. If nothing else, they have a deep understanding of human psychology and frailty.  

Equally fascinating, the same media bubble has convinced her that government programs and policy that support the poor and otherwise disadvantaged folks are part of an evil, socialist plot, even though she herself is able to live a relatively stable life because of Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and subsidies for utilities, transportation, and even the internet through which she accesses the messages telling her all of these services are part of an evil, socialist plot. That is the power of tribalism. If facilitates a kind of mental gymnastics that makes it possible to criticize, if not hate, other people who benefit from social services and subsidies, but somehow makes it okay for oneself (and others in the same tribe) to benefit from the same evil plot—all without any apparent dissonance.  

Being able to observe this process with a family member, and individuals around her who have gone down the same path, has helped me understand how this kind of manipulation can lead to extreme outcomes such as overt cruelty and even genocide. If othering and tribalism are severe enough, it becomes possible to not only exile others, but to even kill those who are different, because, they’re not just “different,” their differences are seen to pose an existential threat.

Observing this radical change in a person so close to me has been like a violent car wreck that I’d rather not see, but can’t turn away from. It is both macabre and fascinating at the same time – sociopathology in real time.

Our Collective Mental Health is Tanking. What’s Going On?

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As a relatively new psychotherapist practicing since 2021, I’ve had a front row seat to what’s going on with our collective mental health. Based on my personal experience, empirical data, and discussions with my more experienced peers, some who’ve been practicing for over 40 years, we seem to be more psychologically fragile now than at any previous point in modern American history, and this is even more acute for young people. Anxiety, depression, ADHD, and suicidality are at all time highs across American society—and many other countries as well. For young people, the numbers are staggering with the CDC noting a 66% increase in depression and a 72% increase in the number of adolescents actually planning suicide between 2011 and 2021. The World Health Organization reports that one in every 100 deaths worldwide now happens by suicide. The number would be higher in the U.S. if it were not for so many gun deaths. So, what’s going on here?  

First, humans have always struggled with some level of mental health issues, particularly manifestations of depression, anxiety, more rarely schizophrenia, and some level of what we refer to as personality disorders. That’s the deal with human beings: Environmental inputs generate psychological outputs. But something qualitatively different is going on over the last decade or so, particularly on the extremes of the life span, with both young folks and the elderly experiencing higher levels of mental “illness.” The challenges are even more alarming for LGBTQ+ youth, who attempt suicide at 4 times the rate of their “straight” peers, not because they’re queer, but because they are ostracized for being queer.  

Some of the growth in contemporary mental health problems could be explained by better, and therefore increased recognition of issues that have always been there, but previously hidden by ignorance, stigma, and cultural values that diminished the significance of mental health in relation to physical health. For example, the Affordable Care Act, which finally required insurance companies to cover mental health conditions, dramatically increased access to mental health care in the last several years. However, the potential reasons noted above would only explain a small part of the increase in the societal-level mental health challenges we are facing today. In short, in many ways, the past was more brutal, but also more simple. Even in rarely recent times such as the cold war, for example, absurd nuclear drills in schools were frightening, but also temporary, and for most children, left behind after the school day. Today’s version of that, “live shooter” drills, represent real, concrete threat, that generate genuine fear. There have been nearly 400 actual mass shootings in American schools since Columbine in 1999.

It is much more likely that the sudden, dramatically greater prevalence of mental health issues across all strata of society is explained by a genuine, quantitative increase in psychological “illnesses” similar to what we are seeing with diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and earlier onset cancers, for example. In all cases, the causes are likely environmental, and in many cases, the same environmental inputs cause both physical and mental health problems. Importantly, I put illnesses in quotes because troubling psychological symptoms are only illnesses or disorders when viewed through a medical, pathology-based, lens that separates individuals from their experience and environment. When viewed more holistically, the symptoms are what we would expect as a natural, predictable, even adaptive response to psychic threat.

As this relates to mental health, there is likely a “perfect storm” of factors that have frankly never been experienced all at once since humans have been on earth. To be clear, over human history, we have faced, horrific, existential crises, both natural and manmade, including everything from volcanoes burying entire settlements and cities to war, genocide and slavery. The “victims” of these crises experienced PTSD, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and a host of other psychological and somatic symptoms long before we had names for them. With some exceptions, such as colonialism, slavery, and generational oppression, one difference now is that most of the existential crises we’ve experienced in the past were relatively limited in both geography and time, and typically much less ambiguous. Another difference is that only recently has basic human survival been consistent enough that we actually have time, over extended lifespans, for other complicating variables to present themselves in our lives. As an example, for most of human history our entire life spans encompassed a few decades. As a result, there were no “midlife” crises as we experience now, nor did people endure the challenges of what now qualifies as old age. And the time over which we had to manage relationships was a fraction of what it is now. There was no work stress or divorce court or bankruptcy. Yes, as noted earlier, life was very hard and there were existential threats, but we were biologically designed for those situations. The fight, flight or freeze response, for example, was brilliantly designed for momentary physical threats. It is frankly a lousy system for addressing the “threat” of an accusatory email or loss of a job, yet that’s the system that gets triggered when we feel an emotional threat. Anxiety, after all, is just fear based on a false alarm.

As with other examples such as diet, the sudden attention on mental health reflects a kind of privilege as well. For people who have lived under endemic racism and other kinds of oppression, there has always been a higher incidence of both physical and mental health problems, worsened because the very nature of being second class and othered within myriad societal structures has also diminished both the recognition of health problems and access to healthcare! It may simply be now that more privileged members of society are being exposed to environmental factors that compromise mental health, such that it now receives recognition it has not had in the past. If so, what are these factors?  

Since the increase in mental health problems for many Americans (and globally) is empirically documented, it is helpful to identify environmental factors that are also objectively different. A good place to start may be the dissolution of societal institutions that historically provided collective support and identity in less divisive and tribal ways than we see today, keeping in mind that these experiences are far different for “mainstream,” privileged folks than less privileged and, of course, oppressed members of society.  

Examples include things like places of worship, public schools, and neighborhoods. Although these same institutions were sometimes powerful sources of “othering,” as well as segregated protectors of privilege for many, they were also often sources of stability, support, and predictability across societal strata. It is arguable that what remains of such institutions today is as much about deep tribalism and isolation as about supporting the collective good.  

Potentially greater differences today include influences such as the internet, social media, perpetual digital tethers, and the effects of late-stage capitalism. There has been some form of media for the last few centuries, as well as peer pressure, but at no time in human history have we, particularly younger people, been exposed to such ubiquitous, often toxic digital content, with—and this is critical—almost no extended respite. Previous, analogue media was not only physically fixed in time and space, presenting limited daily exposure to consumers, but there were no such things as digital algorithms designed to play on human psychological frailties and neurochemistry, driving us into ever more divisive, tribal bubbles and content purposely designed to make us feel inadequate. That dynamic feeds mental health vulnerabilities and it changes our behaviors, often leading to actions that hurt us and those around us. Although it is difficult to prove causation between specific social media exposures and subsequent mental health issues, three likely outcomes of extended exposure are social anxiety, depression, and decreased self-esteem. This is frankly a mass experiment, the likes of which are unprecedented in human history, and the problem is not just the effect of digital media itself, it is the displacement of interactions and behaviors that are no longer happening, but that have been central to human wellbeing over millennia. In short, constant engagement with digital media and other elements of economic culture designed to separate us from ourselves and each other, preempt other activities that might support in person, in the moment, human connection and mindfulness, not to mention physical activity, thus exacerbating technology’s inherent dangers. As Gabor Maté notes in The Myth of Normal, “by its very nature, our social and economic culture generates chronic stressors that undermine well-being in the most serious of ways, as they have done with increasing force over the past several decades.” If we think in evolutionary terms, about 99% of hominid existence has taken place primarily outdoors and with significant physical activity on a daily basis. Even if we think only about the existence of humans as a species we recognize today, merely 5% of that history has taken place under some kind of “civilization.” We are simply not wired for the indoor, sedentary, technology mediated, capitalist lives we currently live. As Maté succinctly notes, “The evolutionary crucible that formed who we are and what we need was subject to very different conditions than our own.”  

Another challenge we see with many youth today is a profound struggle to differentiate from parents and to confidently make decisions on their own, which is not surprising since all Gen Zers and younger millennials have never experienced extended periods of time disconnected from electronic devices, and by extension, their parents. How can they possibly learn to be comfortable by themselves and to make decisions in the absence of parental influence? Ironically, this parental influence is often connected to fear and control rather than the nurturing that would actually benefit young people. Moreover, their brains are being fundamentally rewired for a real-time, never-off, digital existence in which virtually every element of their lives, including their most intimate relationships, are mediated through technology! While we don’t know for sure exactly how constant connection to digital devices relates to decreasing mental health, we can assume that a profound shift in how humans interacted for millennia, as well as unceasing messages that we are not, and cannot be, enough, is in some way central to psychological distress, including manifestations such as eating disorders and suicidality. We do know, however, the mechanism that keeps us constantly checking our devices (and so do the inventors of those devices and content): It activates the same dopamine reward system that both chemical and other behavioral “addictions” activate.  

In addition to all of the factors noted above, the last 15 years or so have also forced all of us to deal with “unsolvable,” global, existential threats beyond our control. Gen Zers, for example, have only known a life of climate crisis, economic crisis, political division and manipulation, police brutality, a global pandemic, and serial wars, both involving American troops and other nations. One could even argue that the fact of having a narcissistic president precipitated vicarious trauma in some individuals who witnessed daily anti-social behavior perpetrated by the most powerful person in the country. And importantly, 24/7 mass and social media have made exposure to the external threats noted above inescapable for most people.  

Relatedly, it is only recently that American society, via millennials and Gen Zers has called “BS” on previous generations, peeling back centuries of self-serving denial. Despite silly, last gasp claims to the contrary, privilege is real. Patriarchy is real. Systemic racism is real. Capitalism has winners and losers, and profound inequality. Duh. All of those things can be true in a country worth living in and defending. The problem related to mental health is that it is exhausting and debilitating to see what’s obvious, yet be consistently gaslit by powerful elements of society that what you see and know to be true is just a “woke” political agenda. Even the concept of woke was stolen and repurposed! It’s possible that no previous generation has had to carry more dissonance than young people today.  

One other factor that bears exploration is the extent to which our new level of comfort with discussing mental health is also a potential element in a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m aware that this point will be highly controversial among some readers, but there is a clinical argument for why a focus on trigger warnings and safe spaces may be counterproductive. A principle of cognitive behavior and exposure therapies is that avoidance of triggers actually validates the perceived threat in our minds, thus worsening the effect of the trigger and mitigating against resilience. In other words, a common treatment for anxiety, phobias, and other fears is to face them, i.e., “touch the ghost,” such that they lose their power over us. This often begins through imagining the threat, then progresses to actual real-life exposure, but either way, it may be that our efforts to protect ourselves from uncomfortable stimuli may make us more rather than less vulnerable. Relatedly, when we resist distressful feelings, that act of resistance itself can actually increase the discomfort. In fact, a principle of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is that the difference between pain (unavoidable human experience) and suffering (avoidable anguish) is acceptance. However, to be clear, I am not suggesting that individuals with untreated trauma should just “suck it up” and face their demons in uncontrolled settings. It is always preferable to directly treat trauma in a safe, supportive environment as a precursor to subsequent environmental exposures. Moreover, there are some situations, such as facing an abuser in real life, that may never be helpful. Having said that, our inclination to protect ourselves and others with trigger warnings and safe spaces may be counterproductive.  

In summary, based on the work I now do with clients in my psychotherapy practice, I’ve come to believe that modern life may, in some fundamental ways, be simply incompatible with the human psyche, which is foundationally hundreds of thousands of years old and designed for a very different life experience. To reference Gabor Maté, physician, philosopher and writer again, in modern life, trauma may simply be a spectrum of human experience, rather than something that only happens to some people. I suspect he may be right, and would add, that due to everything I’ve described in this essay, what we call complex and “little t” trauma, has become far more common on that spectrum. The combination of chaotic and abusive childhoods, bullying, damaging relationships, and toxic school, work, and other social environments, have conspired to crush our souls. As Maté insightfully notes, “Today’s culture hastens human development along unhealthy lines from conception onward, leading to a ‘normal,’ that, from the perspective of the needs and evolutionary history of our species, is utterly aberrant.” This would explain why I don’t think I’ve seen a client who does not bring some kind of trauma history to therapy.  

The primary takeaway of my experience so far is twofold. One is that our mental health symptoms are simply a reflection of our lived experience. Initially, our reactions and behaviors were rational and effective as coping mechanisms to address psychic threats. Over time, however, many of those same responses have become maladaptive and even pathological. The second takeaway is that regardless of how we define it, trauma seems to have become endemic to human experience, probably because the human experience, as we know it now, is at odds with our evolutionary needs as humans. It’s not an “if,” but “when” phenomenon that certainly varies in severity from person to person, but as my own very wise therapist notes, “no one escapes unscathed.” Fortunately, my work has also taught me that we have effective tools, a therapeutic renaissance really, for addressing our mental health challenges, and more importantly, we humans have an innate capacity for healing if we can just remove the toxic inputs and tap into internal sources of resilience.

Radical Belonging

Image Credit: Kassandra Estrada

In a recent talk about intimacy, the wonderful therapist and philosopher Tara Brach, shared the concept of radical belonging, which she discussed juxtaposed with “unreal othering,” which refers to the highly conditional connection we often have to others. Authors such as Bruce Alexander and Gabor Maté have described the extreme version of unreal othering as alienation or dislocation, in which there is no meaningful connection at all.  

If we want true intimacy in our lives—with other people or even the broader world around us—we need to be open to radical belonging with others, to nature, to the universe. My sense is that this kind of connection is fairly rare because it requires precursors such as vulnerability, acceptance, faith, and sacrifice and it fundamentally contradicts the values of American society which favor status, achievement, competition, and materialistic acquisition. It also takes time. But intimacy through radical belonging provides intense relational elements such as trust, warmth, emotional safety, growth, and discovery among other benefits.  

It is very likely the omnipresence of unreal othering, if not dislocation, that makes so much of the pain and suffering we cause each other even possible. We can only give ourselves permission to hurt others if we see them as other. This doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t hurt people with whom we are intimate; it’s that we don’t purposely hurt people with whom we are intimate. In fact, it is the vulnerability of true intimacy that can provide both sublime human connection and debilitating emotional pain. Critically, however, emotional pain in the context of intimacy is not the same as the suffering that comes from alienation. It is simply a foundational element of being an evolved human.  

I’ve come to believe that our tendency to forsake intimacy for unreal othering is actually a kind of pathology that may have at some point been based on a rational coping mechanism for protecting ourselves from people who see us as other, but it is ultimately a painfully maladaptive approach to relational elements of our lives and existence, because it makes genuine intimacy (and radical belonging) impossible. And, in the absence of intimacy, we fail to experience our full humanity.

Why We Respond the Way We Do When We Get Triggered by Someone Else

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Based on the model by neuroscientist David Rock

When we perceive a threat in a situation involving other people, we usually oversimplify the situation, attributing it to the other person being selfish or our being jealous, etc. In terms of what’s actually going on in our brains, we tend to see the threat through one or more of five domains. This applies to any situation involving a social context (more than one person). The domains are:

  1. Status: how we see our importance relative to others.
  2. Certainty: our capacity to envision the future with some level of confidence.
  3. Autonomy: the extent to which we believe we have agency and control.
  4. Relatedness: our sense of safety and connectedness with others.
  5. Fairness – our sense of the fairness of our interactions with others.

These threat domains lurk in the background of other, seemingly innocuous statements and transactions. This could be with a boss, spouse, friend, sibling, etc. Often, when we feel threatened, we are not aware ourselves that we are assessing the situation through one or more of the five domains. In effect we are subconsciously evaluating the extent to which one or more of those domains does or doesn’t meet our needs and expectations. For example, a comment about our lack of experience might be a threat to our sense of status, or a behavior we see as ambiguous may threaten our sense of certainty about what will be true at some point in the future. Sometimes, the “threat” is real in the sense that one’s autonomy, for example, might actually be threatened. An example would be a controlling spouse or micromanaging boss.

Questions we often ask ourselves internally, and possibly without conscious awareness—the answers to which result in us seeing a threat or not—are things like:

  • Am I valued by the other person?
  • What degree of certainty do I have about future outcomes related to this situation?
  • Is there room for my autonomy in this situation?
  • Is there a worthwhile place for me in this social construct?
  • Is this process/situation/negotiation fundamentally fair?

Of course, our capacity to assess the situation and respond effectively depends on the extent to which we’ve been triggered by the threat. If we are feeling highly stressed or our fight/flight/freeze response has been triggered, we may literally not be able to “think straight.” To the contrary, if we feel a strong sense of connectedness and being valued by another person, we may not be affected by what would otherwise be highly triggering comments or behaviors.

For our part, we want to avoid doing or saying things that trigger a feeling of threat in any of the five domains in those we care about. Although this can sometimes be complex and nuanced, some simple tools for avoiding threatening others are to first, pay attention to how other people are reacting. This can be facial expression, body language, proximity, tone of voice, etc. Secondly, imagine what words or actions would be threatening to you. If it would bother you, then don’t do it with other people. Basically, if someone your interacting with is behaving as if they’ve been triggered, then ask yourself what domain you might be threatening for them.

Another issue is related to the power dynamics between those involved in a given situation. For example, due to the influence a boss can have over our work lives, we are much more likely to see threats to our autonomy or status related to some statements or behaviors in that context, regardless of whether or not the threat is real. Similarly, if we are feeling insecure with a spouse or significant other, our sense of relatedness or certainty about the future may be threatened.

In short, the notion of domains of threat can be a really helpful way to process what’s behind the triggers we often feel with other people as well as things we might be doing to trigger others. Rock’s model allows us to move past our typical, superficial thinking about the nature of a trigger and it also helps to relieve some of the blame we put on ourselves and other. For tips on how to work more effectively with the five domains in the workplace, check out this Mind Tools article.

A Recent Podcast on Happiness, Purpose, Spirituality, and Midlife Course Correction


We all want to be “happy.” As parents, we want the same for our children, but are we after the wrong thing? It is interesting to note that even when we attain happiness or contentment, it is usually temporary, especially if we associate it with acquiring something. In the end, the reward is short-lived.

Continuous pursuit of happiness may also lead to a cycle of pursuit, short-term reward, and then back to pursuit. In addition to being unfulfilling, it is ultimately exhausting, and it can lead to disappointments and frustrations. 

Research suggests that this is true, but what might be an alternative that could be more effective?

In the Office, Remote, or Hybrid? Some Very Interesting Research from Gallup (and Some Common Sense)

Image credit: Gallup

For the first quarter million years or so of human existence, we only had face to face interactions, so any technology mediated exchanges are going to require adaptation from what we were biologically and socially programmed to do. Not surprisingly, Gallup conducted research years before the pandemic to find out what kinds of work communications and schedules work best. Then the pandemic challenged most of what we thought was possible or advisable.

In person meetings tend to better support social bonding and work commitments, but the nature of the meeting is probably more important than whether or not it is in person or remote. For example, if there is a good, actionable agenda, opportunity for problem solving, access to support, and some social component, then in person is likely to be more productive and more valued by participants, but those same objectives improve remote meetings as well!

There is also some research to suggest that working in the office promotes less tangible, but potentially important activities such as informal, “hallway” conversations, dissemination of information, and even opportunities for mentoring.

Not surprisingly, just as with educational effectiveness, a hybrid model is probably preferable to either solely in person or solely at a distance arrangements, as it provides flexibility and the benefits of face-to-face interaction.

However…. there is a gender component as well. Women tend to value and benefit from the flexibility offered by hybrid and remote work more than men do. Rules requiring 100% in the office work schedules will disproportionately, negatively impact women, which leaders ignore at their own peril.

So, what are the implications for leaders? First, whether folks are in the office or remote or both, if you’re going to require that they participate in group activities/meetings, then those activities must be designed in such a way that both participants and the organization are better off than they would have been without the activity. Getting people together just to report on what they’re doing is usually a recipe for lost time and frustration. On the other hand, get togethers that honor people as social creatures, are driven by an agenda that people care about, offer opportunities for collaboration and solicitation of resources and other types of support, and empower folks to accomplish more than they could without the meeting are a good use of time. Ideally, leaders will facilitate a work schedule and arrangement that yields some face to face opportunities, while also providing flexibility, particularly for female employees. Moreover, the research noted above suggests that there is value in standardizing in-the-office commitments so that employees can plan in advance.

In short, the recent pandemic, now endemic, proved that many arrangements that we previously thought were undoable are, in fact quite doable. The primary challenge of leaders in this context is to identify and maximize what was learned during the pandemic, while also leveraging the most positive elements of pre-pandemic work arrangements and schedules.