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Tig and DawnThe Sons of Anarchy recently finished its 6th season on FX. For those of you who are fans—and there are millions of you out there—there are scenes that are indelibly etched into your mind. One of those scenes is without a doubt the opening episode of the 5th season where the character Tig is forced to witness the brutal murder of his own daughter, Dawn. Those of you who watched this amazing episode saw what I consider an Emmy-worthy performance by Kim Coates in the role as Tig.

In anticipation of this scene, and knowing that I was a psychologist, Kim asked me to discuss it with him. He wanted to know what a person like Tig would go through psychologically in witnessing the brutal murder of a loved one. When I have the opportunity to work with actors of his caliber I never presume to coach them on how to act. But what I can do is help them understand how the mind works—in this case under catastrophic conditions. I’d like to share with you a little bit of what we talked about and then comment about the three ways we all react when threatened.

Tig is the sergeant-at-arms at his motorcycle club. He is the “muscle” and when necessary, literally the executioner. So you would think a tough guy like Tig could take anything. The “beauty” of this scene, written by Kurt Sutter, is that this tough motorcycle club member experienced something so unbearable that even he completely breaks. One important factor to consider in this scene was that Tig was chained (as he watched his daughter doused with gasoline and set ablaze). If he had been able to fight, Tig certainly would have tried to save his daughter. But what does someone who bullies his way through life do when he is powerless to do anything?

There are three ways mammals react. I talk about these three ways in my book, Follow the Yellow Brick Road: How to Change for the Better When Life Gives You Its Worst. So for our purposes here, I’ll use characters from the Wizard of Oz to make it memorable:

  • Lion is a typical reaction. It is the angry reaction. We lose our temper; we yell at someone and maybe—in worst cases—become physically aggressive. We say things that are hurtful.
  • Tin Man represents the adapting reaction. We give into the other. We cave in to their demands, we collude with their negative behavior and surrender our perspective, adapting to their arguments.
  • A third way of reacting is Scarecrow. It is the avoidant reaction.  In this reaction we avoid conflict, circumvent issues and hold our breath hoping that it will all go away.  And if we can’t physically run, we shut down like a plug that is pulled. This reaction is non-relational, passive and detached.

I explored with Kim what it would be like, as Tig, to be totally powerless to save his “little girl.” Tig’s instinct would have been to fight and so he tried. He pulled on the chains that bound him. He yelled; he screamed.  If unchained, he would have taken bullets en route to rescue his daughter and kill the bastard who was conducting this horror. But he couldn’t. And with no alternatives, he did something very unlike Tig. When there were no longer any viable Lion (fight) options, he went Tin-Man: He begged and pleaded. He desperately appealed to his captors. He offered himself up instead, as a sacrifice. “Take ME,” he implored. (I can’t imagine what it was like for Kim to go so deeply into that place of vulnerability and weakness.)

When that didn’t work, Tig found himself unconsciously in a Scarecrow scenario. I talked to Kim about how children who are severely abused use Scarecrow. When they are too little to fight the big perpetrator, and when begging and pleading will not stop their violation, little children often dissociate. I explained to Kim that it was like a mental “circuit breaker” built in the mind to protect a person from a psychological surge that is just too much to bear. In these cases the circuit breaker pops and we psychologically and emotionally go “offline.” We go numb; we disconnect. Anyone who has experienced that scene (no one watched the scene) will hardly forget the fully broken man who numbly watched his daughter die before his out-of-focus eyes.

I did not have to tell Kim how to play Tig in this scene. He is a natural and gifted actor—he knew. But what was helpful—and hopefully is helpful to the reader—was to know that when presented with an emotional/relational challenge we tend to move to our most familiar reaction style (for Tig it was Angry-Lion), then to our less familiar reaction style (for Tig it was Adapting-Tin Man) and finally, when all else fails, to our last resort reaction style (for Tig it was Avoidant-Scarecrow). It is important to note that not all reaction sequences are the same. For example, sometimes we try to run first (flight) and if that fails we fight and finally adapt (appease) to the threat.* In what sequence do you tend to react? If you think about it, you are likely to react differently depending on the situation.

So when important people offend or challenge us (like a spouse, a boss, child or an avenging crime-boss), the first step in managing our own reactivity is to identify that we are reacting and how we are reacting: Angry Lion (Fight), Adapting Tin Man (Freeze/Appease), or Avoidant Scarecrow (Flight).  Once we do that we are halfway there.   The second half of the process will have to wait for a follow-up article.

Thank you Kim for your outstanding performance.

_____

*Dr. Elias Porter describes this sequence in his Strengths Deployment Inventory.

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emotional intelligenceThere is much–albeit not enough–talk in the business world today about emotional intelligence (EI) and its importance in understanding what makes leaders transcend to the next level. There is less discussion of EI as it pertains to matters of love—couples, parenting, friendship. From what I know as a psychologist who is interested in neurobiology, I do not think of EI independent of thinking about the brain. Daniel Siegel, M.D., is one of the cutting-edge leaders in this new area of study called “Interpersonal Neurobiology.” Dr. Siegel, in an article for the Psychiatric Annals in April of 2006, wrote the following (I recommend reading it slowly):

An interpersonal neurobiology view of well-being holds that the complex, nonlinear system of the mind achieves states of self-organization by balancing the two opposing processes of differentiation and linkage. When separated areas of the brain are allowed to specialize in their function and then become linked together, the system is integrated. Integration brings with it a special state or functioning of the whole, which has the acronym of FACES: Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized and Stable. This coherent flow is bounded on one side by chaos and on the other by rigidity. In this manner we can envision a flow or river of well-being, with the two banks being chaos on the one side, rigidity on the other.

The focal point in this paragraph is on the idea of a “complex non-linear mind” that is “integrated.”  Integration comes about when the special functions of the brain work well (differentiation) but are also connected and communicative (linkage). As a result we get FACES.  When we consider these five functions of an integrated mind, also think of a leader, partner, parent, friend—who has all these functions working together as well:

  • Flexible … the ability to bend without breaking
  • Adaptive … ability to adjust to different conditions
  • Coherent … clear, logical, and forming a whole
  • Energized … having vitality and enthusiasm
  • Stable …  firmly established, not easily upset, not likely to give way

This is how Siegel describes a mentally healthy brain-mind. It is a mind that “flows” optimally between chaos (disorganization) on one side and rigidity (over-organization) on the other. What I find compelling is that these five (FACES) brain-mind functions aptly describe an emotionally intelligent leader (partner, parent, friend) as well. Emotionally intelligent people apparently have healthy, integrated brain-minds.

Who would not like to be married to (or have as a parent or friend) a person who is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energetic yet Stable–in other words, emotionally intelligent? Likewise, who wants people in their organization–not the least of which a leader—who possesses the opposite attributes of being inflexible if not rigid, unable to adapt, incoherent (confused, unclear and illogical), depressed, unmotivated or unstable? Having someone like this to follow (be married to, parented by and/or friends with) would be at best unpleasant and at worst damaging.

We can’t choose everyone in our life, of course. We get to pick our partners and friends. (Unfortunately we do not get to pick our parents.) We don’t always get to choose our workmates, but organizations can choose employees and leaders. So if emotionally intelligent leaders have healthy or integrated brain-minds and these integrated brain-minds make for transcendent leaders, how do we get a few of these brains into our organization?

I often argue that it is easier to hire a star employee rather than develop one. That is why I spend a good bit of time in my consulting practice helping organizations hire best-fit (emotionally intelligent) people. It is relatively easy to find someone who has the right education, training and even experience–especially in this current “buyers” market. It is much harder to find someone who is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized and Stable . . . someone who has a healthy brain-mind, someone who is emotionally intelligent.

But it is not possible to hire an entirely new company full of integrated emotionally intelligent people. We have to work with the employees (and owners) that we have. This begs an important question: Can we retrain the brain?  Fortunately the answer is YES, however it is a qualified yes. It is not easy, and not everyone is willing or capable of retraining his or her brain. Siegel and other neurobiologist agree that the brain is “elastic.”  What they mean by that is that—although difficult—we can recondition the brain: build new and better brain-mind integration. How does one do this?

The better question might be “where do we do this?” We do it in the Middle Prefrontal Cortex. It is the at the crossroads between the emotional limbic system and the thinking cortex and it has to do with things like emotional balance, empathy, insight, fear extinction, intuition and morality. One key way to effect and eventually develop this part of the brain-mind is through awareness. When we raise people’s awareness we increase the proper functioning of this important region of the brain.

There are different ways to raise awareness in a business environment: the use of assessments, targeted workshops and especially one-on-one coaching.  But there are other ways to affect this region of the brain-mind. Stay tuned, I will discuss them further in part two of this article. For now, I hope you are encouraged to understand that we really can increase emotional intelligence and thereby improve relationships with everyone who crosses our life path.

Please let us know your experiences with emotionally intelligent (or lack thereof) bosses or leaders, as it pertains to FACES. And remember, EI is intelligence you can live with.

EnvyOne of my friends is now in Europe, all his expenses paid by his employer. (Oh yeah, did I tell you that he went with his wife and they are paying all her expenses too?) Another friend just released a book which is well on its way to becoming a national best seller (see Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, by Dr. Enrico Gnaulati). I have two friends who just retired in their 50’s and will never have to worry about money again. So do you think I am happy for them? To be honest, the envious part of mind wants an all-expense paid trip to Europe with my family. I want to have a bestseller so I can retire and never have to worry about money again.

What do you envy? Do you envy your friend who can eat anything she wants and is still as skinny as a rail? How about the guy at work who used to report to you who was just promoted again? Or how about your friend who is (apparently) happily married and expecting her first baby and you have not had a good date in months (okay years)? Do you envy those people who have the Midas touch—everything they do turns to gold?  We can envy anyone who has more (money, looks, happiness) than us; we can envy anyone who has less (body fat, bad luck, marital troubles) than us. The list of things that we can be envious about is as long as things in the world that we can possess or acquire or experience—but don’t. And the list is long.

Envy Happens! Envy is a basic human emotion—a state of mind to be exact. It is reflected in some of our earliest literature, for instance religious texts. In the well-known Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, the author of Genesis writes that eating of the forbidden fruit would make the couple like God. Embedded in this narrative is a story of envy. They envied God and who would not?—Which of us would not want to be described as all powerful; all knowing? But what really seemed to piss them off was that they needed God. According to British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, we are prone to envy anyone on whom we depend. Why? Because we are not all powerful and all knowing and we do in fact need others.

Envy unchecked is very destructive. Envy hates.  Envy wants to hurt if not destroy the envied. This is also seen in the Genesis story of Cain and Abel. If you remember the story, Cain envied his brother Abel and as a result murdered him. Sometimes the expression of envy is huge; many wars have been started because one group wants what another group has. However, more often the expression of envy is more “civilized” showing up as resentment, backbiting and passive aggressive behaviors.  And when we envy, there are often serious feelings of inferiority lurking in the shadows of our self-concept.

The opposite of envy is gratitude. Envy wants what others have, what others do and what others experience. Gratitude “wants” what we, in fact, have, do and experience. (You heard the expression: Do you have what you want or want what you have?) Gratitude accepts and appreciates—the “AA” of a healthy mindset. We are most centered when we accept who we are and what we have. However, it is not easy to be content when there is so much feedback out there showing us what we lack. It takes a mature mind to transcend an attitude of scarcity to have an attitude of gratitude. Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with wanting to have more. But if you cannot be grateful with the good you currently possess—and yes there is good in our lives—then you can never be truly happy even if you possess the envied things. (We all know of celebrities who apparently have everything most people would ever want but live seemingly unhappy lives.)

I have struggled with envy my whole life. I grew up in a very poor family and often heard my father talk about all the rich people who had it easy. I still struggle with being content with what I have and where I am in life. However, as I have worked through issues in my own personal therapy and lately in my mindfulness practices, I find myself more content and yes—even at times grateful—for my life as it is now. I want more and will get it. But gratitude is not about the future; gratitude is about the NOW. So I choose to be happy for my friends who are retired at 50, traveling in Europe, and a successful author. I am truly glad for them, as I am glad for all the good things in my life. And I hope that you find that quiet, sober place in your mind and heart that appreciates what you have NOW this Thanksgiving and for the other 364 days of the year.

If you have a moment, please share with us what you find yourself envying and/or what you are personally grateful for.  Happy Thanksgiving!