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.

It Is through Feeling that We Find Ourselves

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Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

E.E. Cummings, from Spectator magazine, 1955

E.E. Cummings shared the wise words above in a “Poet’s Advice to Students.” Although he wrote those words nearly 70 years ago, they somehow feel particularly relevant today. Maybe it is mass media, which was nascent in the 1950s or maybe marketing or maybe social media which seems to fill just about all the space we have, but I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that we are under assault with messages hounding us to be like others or like some perverse notion of what is desirable/normal/expected.

It is not by chance that people with many followers on social media are referred to as “influencers” rather than as communicators or supporters or content providers.

I think that Cummings figured something out decades ago which is that our feelings cannot be owned by others. Can “influencers” make us feel certain things? Yes, but that is a reaction based on our insecurities designed to elicit behaviors. It is not a feeling that defines us. The feelings that define us are those generated internally; they are sacred. They can be shared, but they are not for sale.

To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

Cummings could not have known just how hard the battle would become. For many of us, it is not just a battle to be ourselves, but a battle for survival; a battle for our souls, the manifestations of which are often despair and hopelessness, but also self-discovery, liberation, and empowerment.

Much of the work I do with clients ultimately ties back to “Who am I?” and “Why do I matter?” Healing, then, often requires emancipation from, to paraphrase Cummings, “a world that is doing its best, night and day, to keep you from being yourself.” That emancipation comes from the courage to feel and the courage to claim oneself back.

The sublime and grace inherent in the human experience is that, even in the face of relentless, often brutal attacks on the self and self-worth, we possess the resource to battle back, to reclaim ourselves, to heal. I am grateful to be part of that journey for so many people who have entrusted and honored me to share that journey with them.

Five Foundational Components of Mental Health and Wellbeing

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Although there are many factors that contribute to mental health and wellness, there are several that form the basis, or foundation, of wellbeing. One is biological (sleep), three are mental (mindfulness, self-compassion, and gratitude), and one is psychosocial (human connection).

Why do these factors matter?


Of all the factors affecting physical and mental well- being, adequate sleep consistently has the biggest impact. Others include diet and exercise.


Mindfulness supports equilibrium between the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic nervous systems and provides the awareness necessary to support other interventions.


Self-compassion is critical to addressing many mental health issues and is essential for addressing trauma and shame. It supports better self-concept and counter-acts negative self-talk.


Gratitude provides healthy perspective on life events, supports resilience, and mitigates against worry and frustration.

Human Connection

Connection with others is central to the human experience and meets the foundational need for acceptance and belonging. It also supports purpose and resilience, while boosting mood.

Assessment of Foundations of Mental Health and Wellbeing

I sleep at least 7 hours per night.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I engage in a daily mindfulness practice.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I practice self-compassion daily.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I note what I’m grateful for at least weekly.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I connect meaningfully at least weekly with someone who cares about me.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

Total score from each item _____ (A total score of 10 or less suggests that you are not effectively employing tools that can positively affect your mental health and wellbeing.)

Plan for any item scored 2 or lower:

Sleep __________________________________________________________________________________

Mindfulness ____________________________________________________________________________

Self-Compassion _________________________________________________________________________

Gratitude _______________________________________________________________________________

Human Connection _______________________________________________________________________

If you’d like a consultation on better understanding the foundations of mental health and wellbeing in your own life, you may email me directly at wkp@wallacekpond.com or complete a brief contact form here.

Making More Money to Find Happiness: A Really Bad Idea

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“There are two ways to get richer: One is to make more money and the second is to discover that more of the things we could love are already at hand.”

Alain de Botton

Most of us who have chosen the first path described by Botton have discovered that even when we do make more money, there comes a time, usually decades into the pursuit, in which the internal dissonance of that quest starts to get in the way. For some of us, it’s just a nagging sense that maybe we’ve compromised more than we wish we had. For others, it’s a full-blown crisis. Either way, we ignore this wake-up call at our own peril.

To put it mildly, we’ve been sold a bill of goods. We live in a system in which some minimal amount of money is required to meet basic needs and a little more than that for access to modest opportunities and comforts. However, the research is clear that as income increases, its contribution to happiness decreases and we actually encounter a new set of stressors, challenges, and demands that compromise our wellbeing and our happiness.

When money is connected to work, as it is for almost all of us, there is almost always a direct correlation between how much money we make and how much additional time we dedicate to that pursuit. Unfortunately, the research cited above also makes it clear that above a certain income (typically less than $100,000 annually), time is a much stronger predictor of happiness than money, as is the way we spend money. For example, money spent on experiences and on other people predicts more and longer lasting happiness than does spending money on objects of desire, particularly objects that simply reflect luxury or status. So, for many of us, the pursuit of money is really a Faustian pact in which the more successful we are with that quest, the more factors come into our lives that mitigate against our search for happiness. Not so ironically, as wealth increases, so do difficulties in relationships. Research suggests that as wealth grows, people engage in less healthy interpersonal behavior, have less time for healthy, non-work, non-finance activities, develop fear of losing their wealth, and become vulnerable to making personal and moral compromises in the interest of maintaining and growing their wealth.

The effects of a quest for more and more money are usually insidious, sneaking up on us over time. It is only when we are forced, by dissonance, mental health issues, relationship problems, etc. to look back over “how we got here,” that we recognize just how much time, effort, intellect, and spirit we’ve dedicated to activities and people that, in retrospect, often didn’t align with our own values, desires, and wellbeing. And, equally insidious, in most cases, money turns about to be incredibly ephemeral. We can go from “rich” to “poor” in a strikingly short period of time with just a couple of unfortunate circumstances.

Of equal importance, we’ve also been sold a bill of goods related to happiness itself! Research suggests that happiness is somewhat ethereal and vulnerable to so many factors, that even in ideal situations, it is hard to sustain. It probably makes more sense to focus on having purpose, which is more sustainable over time, and is even less correlated with money. And—big bonus—purpose is not only more resilient than happiness, while negative events typically compromise happiness, they can give more meaning to life. In short, 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. In other words, we can feel good about ourselves and our lives regardless of whether or not we feel “happy” in a given moment, which sounds like a heckuva lot better thing to shoot for.

If you’d like to join a small group discussion on October 28th at 2pm Eastern time about how you can begin to shift from a pursuit of money (and dubiously happiness) to a pursuit of purpose, fill out a contact form here.

Foundations of Mental Health and Wellness: It May Be Simpler Than You Think


The three most critical factors for wellness are diet, exercise and sleep. They account for about 80% of our longevity, with insufficient sleep impacting cognition, immunity,  obesitydepressionanxiety, and even heart failure and dementia.

If you could do one or two things to improve diet, exercise, and sleep what would they be?

Mental Health

Like physical health, mental health is a product of multiple domains which often influence one another. For example, lack of sleep can cause both physical and psychological harm. Three of the most effective things we can do for our own mental health beyond diet, exercise, and sleep are mindfulness, self-compassion, and gratitude.

If you could do one or two things to support mindfulness, self-compassion, and gratitude, what would they be?

For a more comprehensive understanding of your current state of wellness you can complete a wellness inventory here or here. If you have any questions about supporting your wellness and mental health, please contact me here.

How Our Ancient Brains Have Let Us Down

To paraphrase Alain de Botton, while humans have achieved remarkable advancements related to technology and life-span, we aren’t much evolved emotionally since we dwelt in caves. As a result, we are ill-equipped psychologically to deal with much of what is threatening us in the contemporary world. For example, long ago we developed a powerful fight or flight response, that instantly co-opts our endocrine, nervous, cardio-vascular, muscular and other systems. This process works brilliantly when activated to avoid a predator. Unfortunately, it’s activation is wholly ineffective and usually detrimental when the “threat” is related to a relationship, work conflict, financial stress, or global pandemic. Unfortunately, our otherwise very capable brains often can’t tell the difference.

It is a cruel truth that there simply is no comparable neuro-endocrine response designed for typical modern “threats” and stress. In fact, the part of the brain that we really need for most of today’s problems, the frontal cortex, actually gets subordinated by the fight or flight response from our older, mid-brain, and our powers of analysis, prediction, problem solving, and restraint become anywhere from compromised to totally “off-line.” In effect, for most contemporary threats, the fight or flight response is a false alarm, which in the absence of an actual need to run or go to battle, manifests as anxiety, which perpetuates the cycle, and can even lead to a state of hyperstimulation that does not return to normal.

For many of us, our vulnerability to fight or flight false alarms is related to previous, unresolved trauma, neglect, violence, etc. The most important thing for getting through the current morass, as well as supporting brains that did not evolve for this life, may be our willingness to explore in our own pasts what we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. The most important skill we can probably learn is to re-regulate ourselves once our amygdala has gone bonkers and the false alarms are ringing.

For more information on how to address modern problems with an ancient brain, click here.

The Impending Collapse in Higher Education

Image credit: Money Magazine

I first wrote articles in 2017 and 2021 about the decline in traditional higher education. You can see them here and here. Back in 2017, higher education was six years into an enrollment decline with ballooning student debt, an increasingly unstable business model, and looming disconnects between what colleges and universities provided students vs. what that actually needed. By 2021, as the pandemic was nearly a year old, the landscape began to get more complicated with continuing enrollment declines, worsening demographic trends, increasingly negative public opinions about higher education, crippling student debt, further diminished ROI for students, and an increasing number of post-secondary alternatives to college. Even by 2019, before the COVID crisis, about a third of all colleges and universities were already operating in the red with additional enrollment and revenue declines still to come.

What’s happened since then?

Well, the underlying fundamentals have gotten quite a bit worse and it is arguable that a substantial swath of the higher ed industry may be vulnerable to collapse. No, that is not hyperbole. It simply reflects multiple underlying realities related to consumer behavior, market shifts, increasing student attrition, unsustainable business models, and substantial moves away from college degrees as credentials for employment. A good private sector analogy would be store front retail. For perspective, over 1,200 institutions, mostly for-profit, closed between 2010 and 2019. Between 2016 and 2019, 86 non-profit colleges closed or merged and another 53 met the same fate in the 2019-2020 school year alone. The rate of closures and mergers is accelerating and shifting from the for-profit sector to non-profit schools. This trend will increase substantially over the next several years as institutions have exhausted pandemic funding and other short term cash management initiatives.

As of 2022, there are now 4.1 million fewer students attending college than in 2011 and 1.4 million fewer just since 2019, which is a decline of 10% since the pandemic began. In fact, enrollment declined by 662,000 students again just since spring of 2021! In terms of consumer behavior, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in percentage of high school grads intending to attend 4-yr college from 71% in 2019 to 48% in 2022 and many potential students have simply abandoned traditional college programs altogether in favor of high value, short-term, industry focused options.

Going forward, demographics alone will likely decrease college enrollments by another 15% by 2029. And those students who are enrolled are far more fragile, both financially and in terms of general wellness, than even ten years ago. For example, three million students leave college each year because of a time-sensitive financial crisis of $500 or less. While many eventually return, many do not, and there are currently 39,000,000 dropouts in the U.S., which is up nearly 9% since 2018! Additionally, in the first six months of 2022, 41% of community college students and 32% of bachelor’s degree students reported considering leaving school due to mental health issues. As of late 2021, 70% of college students say that affordability has affected their enrollment plans. And although the perception is that most families have weathered the pandemic financially intact, 36% of parents reported having taken money from their children’s college funds to compensate for pandemic related financial challenges. In fact, the median family income in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, is more than 10% lower today than in 2007! When we combine financial/economic, mental health, and family issues, the situation is potentially bleak, not just now, but for years into the future.

On the contrary, non-credit / non-degree programs are growing. For example, enrollment in coding boot camps grew by 70% in 2020 and as of May, 2022, over half a million students were enrolled in short-term certificate courses through Amazon Web Services with similar numbers from Grow with Google, Microsoft Education Center, and other very large purveyors of non-college, post-secondary education. This doesn’t even include the millions of people taking industry delivered entry-level and upskill training in the workplace. AWS alone has committed to provide upskilling courses to 29 million people who don’t work for Amazon – no that is not a typo – by 2025 for free. Moreover, a survey conducted during the pandemic found that 63% of adults who were out of school said that if they did pursue an educational program, they would prefer non-degree skills training or certificates rather than a degree program at any level, so it’s clear that given a choice, much of the student market is rapidly moving away from college degrees as a preferred option within the broader post-secondary ecosystem.

And to be clear, the exodus away from traditional higher education is not just about cost. It is about perceived value. A great example is Calbright College, a publicly funded institution in California, that literally can not give away free certificate programs paid for by the state. After somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000,000 of public funds spent on startup and operations, and close to three years of operation, the institution enrolls about a thousand students and still hasn’t conferred even a thousand certificates.

The simple fact is that the market changes and disruptions impacting much of higher education are so profound that in the absence of foundational changes in both funding models and consumer behavior, neither of which are likely, there simply will not be enough demand over the next decade to support all of the thousands of colleges and universities operating today. About a third of the wealthiest and most exclusive colleges and universities are likely to continue operating with viable financial models for the foreseeable future—although with less exclusivity at the bottom of that elite group. The other two thirds will exist on a spectrum of risk, with many simply unable to survive in their current state, or at all, and with others operating as “zombie” institutions, technically alive, but shells of their former selves. Keep in mind that nearly one third of all colleges were spending more than they were taking in before the pandemic and many have exhausted most of the short-term tricks for preserving cash (layoffs, borrowing, elimination of sports teams and academic majors, delaying maintenance and accounts payable, etc.). And of more recent concern, the federal pandemic relief via the CARES act, roughly $50 billion dollars for higher education, has been disbursed and mostly spent. This substantial cash influx papered over cash crises and even insolvency at many institutions, but no more is coming and those institutions that were at greatest risk will soon be unable to operate.

As noted earlier in this article, the notion of at least partial collapse of the higher education system is not alarmist hyperbole. There simply are not enough students with enough money to support all of the institutions that exist now and that will get worse, not better, over time. For institutions of higher education (IHEs) existing somewhere on the risk spectrum, those with the most compelling need to reinvent themselves are those in moderate peril. The “code blue” schools will not have the resources or time to change and the most elite won’t need to. In short, a substantial number of IHEs whose survival horizon is several years out must aggressively begin the process of reinvention now, before it’s too late.

Note: The data in this article come from a variety of primarily governmental and some private organizational sources, all of which have been vetted by the Transformation Collaborative™.

Whatever Else You Do, It’s About the People

Unsurprisingly, according to Gallup, employee engagement levels in early 2022 have fallen to less than a third of all employees, with nearly one fifth actively disengaged. Gallup also found an eight-point decline in the percentage of employees who are extremely satisfied with their organization as a place to work and an even sharper drop in the number of employees who believe their employer cares about their wellbeing.

The areas of engagement reflecting the greatest declines relate to having clear expectations, the tools to do the job, the opportunity to focus on what they do best, and a connection to their organization’s purpose.

On the other hand, Gallup also identified a number of organizations whose employee engagement is more than double the national average, so called “exceptional workplaces.”

What separates organizations who are losing employee commitment from those that are excelling? As is often the case, it is not rocket science, but it does take a clear, dedicated approach on the part of leadership.

Excelling organizations:

  1. Make decisions, and especially difficult decisions, based on values rather than short term wins, convenience, fear, etc. As such, employees know what to expect and what their employers’ stand for.
  2. Embrace flexible work environments based on how that flexibility will directly benefit employees.
  3. Prioritize employee wellbeing and focus on the whole person. The pandemic has dramatically ripped the band aid off the notion that people stop being human at work.
  4. Customize communications based on locations, technology/media, accessibility and other elements that keep employees not only informed, but participating.
  5. Empower and upskill managers for the jobs they have now, not the ones they used to have. This includes a focus on supporting employees through coaching, resources, flexibility, collaboration, etc.

While the last two years have not been “normal” by any stretch of the imagination, a shift to viewing people as long-term competitive assets rather than expense lines on a P&L, started in enlightened companies and organizations before the pandemic, which has positioned them with a clear competitive advantage as they transition into the next normal, whatever that is.

We know that engaged employees are:

"far more productive and the work they do tends to result in greater performance, particularly around outcomes that are most important to the organization. They also tend to be more resilient in the face of challenges, have a greater sense of their own efficacy, are able to work with less direct supervision, manifest a more internalized sense of accountability, and are more likely to feel that they are an important part of the organization.”

Sounds like a pretty good payoff for simply doing the right thing.