Brain Science – Episode #1

The fundamentals of being human

Humans are designed to feel, connect, and we all struggle

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In this inaugural episode, Mireille and Adam explore what it means to be human at the most basic level. Our goal is to explore the inner-workings of the human brain to better understand our humanity. What are we capable of? What are the common experiences of life we all share? We start by asking the question, “what are the fundamentals of being human?”

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Designed to feel

As humans, we are fundamentally designed to feel. Feelings aren’t facts but they are feedback. When we can consider our feelings in conjunction with other data, we’re apt to make wiser decisions. Whether our feelings or they don’t, they’re still feedback.

  1. We have a complex brain, a mind, and relationships (brainstem: the Reptile brain + limbic system: the mammalian brain and the neocortex: the Human brain.
  2. We have emotions.
  3. We are energy-based beings (electrical current makes us tick). Neurons that fire together, wire together.
    a. Where attention, energy flows—we feed whatever it is we focus on. Happiness/changes in how feel can be modified in part by what we choose to focus on. Example - getting a job.
    b. Dan Siegel says it like this “Where attention goes, neuro firing flows, and neuro connections grow.”

Designed to connect

As humans, we are fundamentally designed to connect and be connected with others. When we don’t have a community wherein we can be our authentic selves, we’re apt to struggle more than we would without them.

  1. Is connection or touch with other humans required?
  2. Attachment is 100% learned - it is not genetically determined. That brings hope because we can modify our relationship as we, too, change.

We all struggle

As humans, we do not get the option to opt out the struggle. We may not be able to pick our struggles, but, nonetheless we all struggle.

Adam says “Admit the struggle. Identify the lie. Seek the truth.”

As it relates to coping, the value of naming our struggles is so important. It involves more aspects of the brain when we put words to our struggles so that we’re better able to cope.

Transcript

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It’s interesting having worked with people over so many years, because I think there’s some common things or threads that start to emerge… One of those things is really just what it means to be human, and I would contend that there’s these fundamentals that all people struggle with; and that part of when they come in to see me, where they’re at is that they don’t know how to reconcile some of these things. Either they’ve learned maladaptive coping skills or strategies, or they just sort of are trying to not have things be true that are in fact true.

One of those, I would say, would be fundamentally we’re designed to feel… And it’s ironic, because people actually have feelings about feelings.

I’d agree with that…

Right…? I think about it with crying, and going “I don’t want to cry anymore, because that’s an indicator of weakness.” And if we’re sitting with a friend, we’ll be like “No, no… That’s not weakness.“But if you’re sitting in front of your boss, you’re like “Yeah, that’s weakness…”, right?

For whatever reason, there’s feelings about the feelings, but the bottom line is nobody gets to actually opt out of feeling. So with that, we’re also all designed to be in relationship. We are fundamentally hard-wired to have social groups, and this sense of attachment. And because I’m sort of a geek when it comes to research, what researchers have found is that attachment - which that’s what we label how we relate and connect with others - is 100% learned… Which means our genetics don’t actually contribute to how we learn to stay in proximity with other people… And with that, that we all develop ways to manage the threat of the loss of a relationship, but nobody gets to opt out of going “I need to be in relationship with others.”

Think about it within the context of the prison system - why is it that the punishment for prisoners when they don’t fall in line is isolation?

Yeah, it’s true.

Right? That wouldn’t be significant if in some way that doesn’t actually harm our brain.

It’s almost like we need to have that echo from another human being to let us know that we’re there, we’re alive… Or just some sort of feedback loop. I’m not really sure how to describe that.

Well, it really is this sense of being “with.” I can’t fight battles on my friends’ behalves, or on my kids’ behalves. But the simple fact that I know of what’s going on makes the difference, because I would contend it sort of like - I help them hold that weight emotionally. That actually leads me into the third thing…

The third thing that I would say in regards to the fundamentals of being human is that we all struggle.

Oh, yes.

Big-time.

[00:04:06.27] And we don’t always get to pick the way in which we struggle, but we all struggle. So some of it I would say we actually participate in the choosing of that, and going, you know, if it’s how I spend my money, or if I’m abusing this thing or that, that there’s a way in which I participate in it. But some things we don’t. I wouldn’t say that we participate in the struggle of grief sometimes. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and it doesn’t mean that somebody did something, or you did something per se to cause that grief, but… Struggle.

Yeah. I see that in humans, and I don’t really see that anywhere else. I don’t look at my fish tank and see my fish struggling; I don’t look at my dog or my cat, or the squirrel outside struggling. It seems very akin to being human, right? I didn’t really consider how much people struggle, but you struggle in many different ways; not only do you struggle physically, but emotionally and mentally with learning new things, or with dealing with relationships, or being in a relationship, or like you had mentioned before, the grief of losing somebody, being broken up with, or losing a loved one.

Yeah, and I think about it in terms of - while other life (animals and sorts) would “struggle” to stay alive, that’s much more based on survival, and not struggle, in the same way. Struggle - an example I think of is like my brother and I; so I’m a twin, and when we were in elementary school, he was diagnosed with both ADHD and a learning disability. In school, he just struggled all the time. Everything was harder for him… Whereas I can’t read enough, and love to read, and that’s my idea of vacation, just reading more, by myself - that would never be what he would select, because it’s just hard for him. His brain doesn’t work in that same way, so now he has other obstacles all throughout his life as a result of that learning disability.

So for somebody else, the struggle could be totally different. It might be that in their family history it’s a substance abuse problem, or loss. You’ve just lost a lot of people and you’re struggling with how to navigate that… Or it might be health - their health, your individual health, or someone you love. I think, honestly, trying to navigate one’s health overall is a significant struggle.

It’s also like you’re trying to comprehend life. The struggle really is a comprehension problem. You’re trying to make sense of what you think is happening, what your truth is, in a sense; what’s true to you, what’s really happening. And the struggle is that comprehension process. But I also think of it like - as we approach these different topics of being designed to feel, designed to connect, or the fact that we all struggle, it’s almost like we’re enabling those that would listen to this show the ability to know truths about being human, and then therefore being able to enable or offer empathy to others, because of these truths.

[00:07:40.00] Right, and I think that’s really a significant lie, when we do struggle… That we’re like “Oh my word, nobody’s ever struggled like this. I’m all alone in this, and now I can’t find a way out.” That actually isn’t gonna help us do that struggle any better, and that’s why even looking at these things and going “You know, I do feel the way that I do and I have these emotions around this situation or experience, but also where are my people, who do I walk alongside me in life in order to navigate this struggle?” Fundamentally, we’re all gonna struggle more when we don’t know. This is why being able to name things really makes a difference.

In the field of neuroscience we sort of say “Name it to tame it.” What I mean by that is when we’re able to put words to our experiences, it changes the way in which we navigate it.

This might be a weird example, but I always think of The Little Mermaid; and if you haven’t seen it…

It’s been a while.

[laughs] …I’ll remind you. There’s a scene in it when Ariel, as a mermaid, is eating, or goes to eat with humans… And she picks up the fork and she’s like “Oh look, it’s a dinglehopper!” And then she proceeds to use it to brush her hair… Which we all know a fork is not designed to brush your hair, nor is it named a dinglehopper. It’s a fork, and it’s an utensil we use in order to feed ourselves. So obviously she’s going to struggle, in a certain way, if she continues to think that that’s what it’s used for.

And so, in our lives, if we can say, for example with emotions, “Look, crying in and of itself doesn’t mean that I’m weak. I can not like it, but emotions - it’s a reflection of sadness. So I’m sad.” And I can take it further and go “I’m sad because I lost a loved one” or “I’m sad because things aren’t going my way, or I’m frustrated and I continue to try to make progress towards this goal, and I just keep hitting an obstacle.” Those things help us be able to navigate it differently, because then I can take the next step and go “Who or what can help me take the next step, or move in some way to then change how I feel?”

Well, since you said “feel”, let’s go deeper into that. Of course, we’re human, and we’re designed to feel, but how (in the world) are we designed to feel? Why are we designed to feel? What is it about us that makes us unique in the fact that we are designed to feel?

Well, it’s helpful in this regard to understand the way in which the brain is designed, and I should say the human brain… So when we talk about humans, there’s three key structures that we talk about in regards to our brain. That involves our brain stem, the limbic system, and then the neocortex.

Our brain stem is really only responsible for essential functions, like breathing and heart rate. A parallel to this is if you think of the brain stem as the reptile, or reptilian brain; think lizard or turtle - they can’t self-reflect; they’re really just going about their life with trying not to die. To feed themselves and not die.

Eat and not die. That’s their life.

Correct. But we have that part of the brain, the brain stem. Above that – well, let me give you a little visual to help you as we walk through this.

So if you put your hand up, like you’re being sworn in - so hold your right hand up beside you, and then fold your thumb across the palm of your hand, and then take your four fingers and fold them over the top of your thumb. In this analogy, your wrist would be synonymous with your brain stem, and then your thumb would be synonymous with what we call the limbic system, or the mammalian brain, which is associated with mammals. And then the four fingers on the front is part of our neocortex, but more specifically the frontal lobe, or prefrontal cortex. So it’s one portion of the neocortex. That is what makes us human.

[00:12:15.01] We sort of joke and say “Put your lid on”, which is like “How can I manage my emotions? I put my human brain on.” When we look at emotions more specifically, the seat or the emotional center of the brain is actually in that mammalian brain, so your thumb. It involves two key brain structures - your hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, as well as the amygdala. And that amygdala is what is the key part of the brain responsible for emotions.

Now, bear in mind - and please, as we talk through this - the brain is always more complex than specifically saying “Oh, this part of the brain only does X, Y and Z.” That’s what we know for now, and research always adds to or modifies that.

So there are ways in which the frontal lobe - we always say sort of the right prefrontal cortex - also involves emotion as well, but the primary emotional center in the brain is that amygdala.

So this is why when I say “Name it to tame it” it is so critical, because language is – you know, while animals can converse, they all have a language, so to speak, but it’s not human language, like words. So when I put on my prefrontal cortex, so I put on my neocortex, I can use words to help me manage the emotions. So I’m living much more like a symphony of all of those different brain structures working collaboratively, not in opposition.

I guess that’s why certain brain injuries might happen - you wreck your bicycle, or something like that… I did that when I was four years old; I got a concussion…

I never had any memory loss. I actually did for a couple of days I think, because I woke up in the E.R. and I was like “What’s going on?” But the symphony aspect of what you’re saying there is that if one system isn’t working properly, are you saying that because of that, if you have a symphony, you obviously have the woodwinds, you’ve got the various instruments that totally make up this gigantic symphony…

…if one aspect of that becomes injured in some sort of way, then it doesn’t sound the same anymore. Is that the same, what you’re saying here for our brains?

Sure, but this is what is the coolest thing about our brain - it’s capable of being modified. We always say “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” So a thought, at the most fundamental level, is a neuron. And that’s just another word for the cell in the brain. And so once information or once we take in data, and it gets to a certain threshold in the brain, that neuron fires along, and then connects with other neurons to create a neural network.

So if there’s an injury, what can happen is that a neural network gets modified, and so… It’s like you hit a wall, and now that information won’t travel the same way. You can actually build new neural networks, but like anything else, it takes time to develop that new route or pathway in the brain.

Yeah. Is that why maybe some memories get lost completely, because they become “orphaned” from ever being reconnected?

Well, memories are an interesting thing, because… You know, ironically, whenever we retrieve a memory, we actually are then changing that memory…

Oh, really?

Yeah, because we’re recalling it, and it’s not happening live; it happened in the past… But I’m recalling it in the current moment, and now it has a different feel; or I got new information, and then it might get banked.

[00:16:04.09] New associations… It’s wild to think about how we can – that’s part of believing your own personal truth, your memory, and how my version of a story and your version of a story, even if we were both perfectly fine eyewitnesses - coherent, able, whatever - that your version of it and my version may be very similar, but not the same.

Right. It’s actually interesting, because the research they’ve done with eyewitness testimony is that it is actually pretty unreliable.

Is that right?

It is, because of the way in which people see things, which is exactly what you’re talking about. You can even see this just through the vantage point of either siblings… You’re raised in the same home, you sat at the same dinner table, but what you remember occurred and what your brother/sister remembers is not the same thing. Well, you’re not the same people, you don’t have the same exact background, and too you might have chosen to focus on one aspect of that interaction or experience than another.

And back to the feelings, the way you would remember it would be based upon how it made you feel.

Yeah, and this is the coolest thing about that limbic system part of our brain, with our feelings - the one thing that we know is that the bigger the emotion, no matter whether it’s positive or negative, we are more apt to remember that, because it works more like a vacuum seal. So I have an experience, I have a lot of emotions surrounding it, my brain is like “Oh yeah, bank that. Hold on to that, vacuum-seal it, so you can recall that for later.”

And you mentioned neurons, and it sounds like energy of some sort… And I understand we’re energy-based beings; that’s also core to how we are. You mentioned I think in a previous conversation - because we have lots - this analogy with the neurons firing this excitement. I think you used the carnival example. Can you recall that?

Yeah, so neurons operate by what we call the “all or none” principle, which means they either fire or they don’t. So because I tend to see things in pictures, I think of it like the game at the carnival, where you take the hammer and you hit the metal thing, and whether or not it goes all the way up and hits the bell and rings - that’s sort of how neurons work. Unless it reaches that threshold of excitation, then it won’t fire and it won’t move on or connect that neural play.

This is how we actually can change how we think… Because we can look at focusing on something else; we can say “Where attention goes, energy flows.” So the more I keep my attention on one thing, that’s what is going to be reinforced. So I’m choosing the channel in my brain that I wanna focus on, and if I don’t have that same electrical current or running that same play, I’m refocusing my attention; then that electrical energy isn’t there. That embedded network or learned network in your brain dies off, or has less power, so to speak.

Imagine thinking about the way you drive to work. I can’t really use that with you, because you –

I don’t drive. I do drive, but I just don’t drive to work.

[laughs] But so you drive the same route to work, and it becomes so habituated - I’m sure this has never happened to anyone - that you get home and you’re like “Holy cow, how did I get here?”

“I don’t remember that entire drive.” So it’s been so habituated, that neural network is so strong that you’re like “This is just what we do”, and sort of on autopilot you just do it.

[00:20:00.17] That happened today, actually. We were driving somewhere – it was last night for dinner; and I’m getting ready to make a left, and Heather is like “No, you’re gonna go straight here.” That happens often, by the way… But the point was when I’m at this particular stoplight I tend to make a left, because I’m going into Tomball, and not onto the highway to go to the Woodlands, or whatever. So my brain is like “When you’re here, you should be making a left”, and so I habitually was like “Left turn signal, gonna make a left”, even though I know where we’re trying to go.

Right. Because your brain has just been well-practiced. So if your attention isn’t on where you were switching gears to go “Oh yeah, today we’re going this way”, then you’re just gonna do what’s been automated.

In that same thing, I’m gonna take this a step further and tie it back over to that feeling, and going - so what can happen is we get conditioned around certain emotions, and be it reinforced or sort of punished, and say “Oh, I was criticized, I was bullied whenever I cried” or “It made me feel bad when I wore this outfit, or when I did math and struggled in school…”, you name it. So now I’ve wired a network as based on that emotion, that says “This is how it feels to do math. This is how it feels to struggle in this way”, so then I’ve now associated a negative emotion with a particular experience, behavior, subject, setting, etc. which just gets automated; it’s like “This is now what I learned to expect in my world”, which isn’t always true, right?

That’s right.

It might have been true when you were in third grade, it might have been true when you were in junior high or high school, or it could have been true in your early twenties, but it doesn’t mean that that is always only ever true.

So are you saying that your feelings, as they evolve over time, you should always be confirming “Is this still true?”

Well, I would offer up that feelings aren’t facts, but they are feedback. So if I don’t put my lid on, if I don’t actually look at things through a process of self-reflection or repetition, i.e. looking at other data, then I’m apt to just allow my emotions to lead, without considering that there might be more to the story, or maybe that isn’t actually true.

The interesting thing actually with emotions is that they’re actually really important when it comes to connecting with other people… And that route would look like empathy. When I talk about empathy, I wanna distinguish empathy from sympathy… Because I’m a word girl; language matters.

Well, help break that down then. What’s the difference?

So I would say, Sympathy is sort of like “Oh, too bad. It sucks to be you.”

Right, “Bummer.”

But empathy is so much more of like “Wow, I can only imagine if I were you, had your background, and was going through that experience - how bad that it hurt.” Or like “Ugh, I would be so inflamed!” So empathy is much more my ability to see somebody’s perspective from their perspective, not my perspective of someone’s perspective.

Because that comes across – like, I would say sympathy to some degree has more of a component of judgment, whereas empathy is more like “Hey, I’m with you dude. I’m stuck in this elevator too, trying not to panic”, right?

It makes sense, yeah. I like that a lot; the way you break that down is pretty interesting.

[00:23:55.03] And so because we’re fundamentally hardwired to connect, then it means that we’re all going to fare a lot better when we have other people that we can walk alongside with. Think about the kinds of individuals that you relate well with. Usually, you share probably similar hobbies, interests, likes, dislikes…

I think that you’ve said before “your people”, and I don’t know what you really mean by that, but I think it’s probably the people you identify with, the people that maybe even are easy to empathize with… And as you mentioned, likes/dislikes, things like that. You need your people, right? And without your people – you’d mentioned also the prison system, the idea of isolation and how that changes somebody. It could also kind of drive them crazy, because that feedback loop is missing, and they don’t have their people. And I would even say in that scenario, in prison, your people probably are harder to find even… Just because of the scenario.

Sure, sure. That one’s got a whole other layer to it… But even that gets at that sort of gang mentality,

Right. “We have to band together to survive.”

Correct. That’s how we started, was farmer or tribal, right? And social psychologists have actually looked at this in terms of the research, and they go “How is it that tribes can value their people so much, but then sit there and commit atrocities, brutalities against other tribes?” and it’s because, ironically, we all have an in-group and we have an out-group. And if you’re in my out-group, I can assign a different merit or value… Which I think is a little unsettling, honestly. Because I would contend that I don’t care who you are or what you do, you have value because you’re human.

This is why we don’t start testing like “Hm, I wonder what would happen with this drug if I tested it on humans.” That’s the last case after we test in all these other ways, because humans fundamentally hold a different value. And so, why is it that we can’t begin to see everyone with a certain amount of credibility, that says “You don’t have to be like me, you don’t have to think like me…”, but just a fundamental sense of respect, to say “You are human, and therefore you’re in. We’re good.” But that being said, we’re gonna gravitate to finding people who we can sort of get, or we feel like have more of a shared understanding.

One example I think of is, you know, I grew up in the Midwest, both my husband and I - from different states in the Midwest… And we always joke about the difference in the way that people are, where it’s like it can have been years without seeing friends, etc. from back then (because he moved away when he was an adult, and I haven’t been back in years), but there’s just a way in which you interface with these kinds of people.

Meaning that you have a past, and so it’s easy to reconnect, or…?

No, that there’s just a shared sort of understanding. We can even look throughout the country and go “It’s different being in the South.” I’ve lived a lot of places throughout my life; I did my graduate training in Southern California, and so I’ve been on the West… I’ve been on the East Coast, I’ve been in the South, and now the North-West, and there’s just a different vibe.

Somebody was joking about the Pacific North-West people, and how as a general rule we’re – not mean, but we just sort of answer a question and then go back to what you were doing… Whereas if you’re in the South, you ask somebody for directions and they start telling their story, and like “What are you here for?” and then they invite you over to their house for tea, and then they introduce you to their family… It’s just a whole different world. But some of that comes from just a shared sort of way of life, but some of it can come from just interests.

[00:28:17.20] Another example for me is having grown up more in athletics, and having coached competitive gymnastics for a number of years - I love being around people who are fit, and love to take on a challenge, and be like “Yeah, let’s try a Tough Mudder or a marathon”, or whatever. Whereas other people might be like “No way. I got up and walked to the fridge. That was good.”

“That’s my workout.”

[laughs] Or “Dude, I walked around the block. I parked far out, at the grocery store.”

Yeah. “Second row, man…”

[laughs] But that it makes a difference in terms of, you know, this shared understanding to go – think about the people that you wanna spend your time with; these are people where you don’t have to catch them up and be like “Oh yeah, okay, here’s my entire history” or “This is who I am. This is the context from which I’m coming”, and so now I can say X, Y or Z.

Right. I’m almost thinking like – there’s certain words you’ve used… We said “designed to connect”. I’ve heard you use the word “attachment” before, which has not just its surface-level meaning, but a different meaning in neuroscience… But then I’m also thinking like “relating”. So what you’re describing here is being able to relate with people. So because I’m from the South, or because I’m from the Pacific North-West or whatever, there’s certain things I relate to.

Yeah. I think of shared understanding.

Right. What other words describe connecting though? …that you can think of, that we can identify.

Well, I talked about empathy, and going there is a sense of feeling understood… Like, I don’t have to give a whole explanation that I sort of share something and you have a sense of how that might make me feel… And to care about that. Connection is really about finding ways in which there’s support, too… To say “I know you’re going through a hard time, and I’m here for you.”

Where I live, there’s a huge military population, and so we have a lot of families where – husbands, generally speaking, but some wives too are out to sea and raising kids in that 0 to 5 age, when spouses are gone for 3, 6, 12 months at a time. And they’re home. They’re doing their life, trying to raise kids, and it’s very isolating, because they need to go by the kid’s nap schedule… Or they don’t, and then they suffer in other ways.

Right. The backlash.

Yeah. They’re trying to figure out “Who can I do life beside?”, and if somebody needs to watch my kids or I have a doctor’s appointment, like… A lot of them don’t have family nearby, because this is a duty station; it’s not where they live full-time.

The other thing that’s really important when it comes to connection is touch. There’s some research which really shows how just the fundamental of embracing another – I forget if it’s 20 seconds or what, but having a longer embrace, like a hug… The way in which it helps buffer stress; it reduces arousal and reactivity because there’s touch. You can hear the testaments of widows, women or husbands who’ve lost their significant other, and just how much they missed being touched, because they used to have the embrace all the time.

[00:31:59.14] We can also see this in parenting. You hold babies, they’re close to you. That touch. And some years ago there used to be orphanages, and the challenge was that these babies, these infants weren’t tended to, and when they didn’t have touch, they didn’t survive.

Because touch is that crucial.

Touch is that crucial.

It’s probably a feeling thing too, but there’s a chemical process that’s happening there, too. I know that’s a thing with newborns; there’s the concept of skin-to-skin, or the idea of the mother holding the child within seconds, and what a big impact that makes on the child for the rest of their life, that initial attachment.

Yeah, because think about it - they were confined to this itty-bitty space, totally tethered to mom; and now, “Oh my word, there’s just all this space, and I’m not confined… And where’s my human?” Because skin feels different than other things. Not to mention hearing the heartbeat… Because think about how infants actually hear the mother’s heartbeat for nine months.

And then it goes away for that moment of the birth process; they’re out, they get cleaned up, whatever, the suction, and they let them cry… There’s certain processes that happen, that the doctor and the nurses feel good about, and then they’re like “Okay mom, healthy baby - here you go. Congratulations!” That 30 seconds feels probably like a lifetime to the baby.

Yeah. And we’re talking with moms, but it can be dads, too. Just the value of touch… And I would say just the proximity; I think about when people aren’t well, and you find out a loved one is in the hospital - where do you wanna be?

Right there next to them.

Exactly. Because there’s comfort in touch. And when we can’t touch people, hold people and really have a connection with people, we’re lonely.

Right. A companion even.

Right? I think about this with so many workforces being far more distributed…

And while it’s an awesome advantage and helpful in the workplace, it also has other potentially deleterious effects, of going like “Where’s my people? I’m not touching anybody, I lose the visual data…”, which I think we’ve alluded to this in the past, or mentioned this briefly, about empathy and the role of facial expression. There’s this part of the brain, and we have mirror neurons that help us empathize with other people. And a huge component of empathy is actually facial expression. When I see people, when I look at a face, that contributes to me having a certain feeling experience as well.

Right. Like maybe sitting down for a one-on-one meeting; great conversation, but the person keeps looking down at their watch, or they keep looking at their phone… You know they’re still listening to you, because you know how sound travels, but it seems visually, based on their face and their demeanor that maybe they’ve got other things that are competing for their attention. Or that you’re just not a priority; so you start to feel like “Come on, man… What’s going on here? Be committed to this time with me.”

And it’s not that they’ve said anything, it’s that they’re doing something.

Correct. So you’re paying attention to these visual cues, that then you make inferences or judgments, that then create feelings, that then contribute to choices, which then might bring you closer to or farther from that individual and relationship.

What I’m hearing all along the way is the struggle. This connecting and feeling is a big struggle.

[00:36:06.17] It is. You know, ironically… My husband always says “47 or 7, it doesn’t matter.” You still are trying to figure out how to live beside other people who make choices you might not make, and to stay in connection, as families, and going – you know, we pick the people; we can’t necessarily pick our relatives… We can pick our family, pick the people that you wanna hold close.

In that example, say somebody has their cell phone out and keeps looking, or tapping their fingers, etc. Well, what if you gave them an opportunity by saying “Hey, by the way, what’s up? Are you waiting for a call?” and you enquired, i.e. used your words, and then said “Hey, that just bothers me. I don’t have a lot of time. I took time out of my day, so that we could have lunch or dinner, yadda-yadda, and I’d really love for you to be present with me here.” Then if they can accommodate that, it’s going “Oh, they took the feedback I gave them”, and the next time they either clarified and said “Hey, you know what - I just have to keep my phone out because I’m waiting for this call. But as soon as that comes, I’ll put it away.”

That would contribute to you feeling very different in the relationship with them… Because 1) they used their words; but you did too, and you said “Hey, it really bothers me when you do that. I’m uncomfortable/hurt/fill-in-the-feeling-word”, and now I just created more of the fabric of the relationship.

Wow. I never really considered that, honestly… I mean, it’s happened to me recently, and I never really considered the confrontation, which that’s what it seems like it is, and there’s a way you can approach it, with love and respect or not, this confrontation; describing to this person, giving them a chance essentially to share with you how they feel… Which goes back to the first principle of being human - or the fundamental, at least - being able to feel; you give them a chance to share how they’re feeling about whatever it is that might be competing for their attention. And they might get a chance to say “I’m actually listening to you, but I’ve got this thing going on, so I’ve gotta pay attention.” That might give them a chance to give an excuse that then you can have empathy for, and understanding, and continue on with… And then that negative feeling is now removed, it’s squashed.

Right. What they did is when you shared your perspective and invited them to share theirs, you now built a context for where they were coming from, and you’re like “Oh, so now I have more space, and now we can actually communicate with our words, and it actually brought us closer.” Even you were using the word “confrontation” - ironically, I wouldn’t call that a confrontation.

I would… [laughter]

But we were talking about feelings - clarifying; I’m just clarifying. “This is what I’ve heard you say”, or “This is what I heard you say to me. Is that what you meant?”

“Is that true?” Right.

Yeah. One of my favorite things is just doing the observational feedback of like “Hey, I noticed whenever we sit down you tend to leave your phone out on the table… And I’m just not sure how to make sense of that.”

And give them a chance to explain it.

Yeah. It’s like the roundabout invite.

Some would call that – so I said “confrontation”, and some would say that what you described was passive-aggressive.

[00:39:44.05] Touché. However, this is part of being an adult and being human. We have to use our own words, and if you feel like someone is being passive-aggressive, you can say “Hey, that didn’t really feel so hot to me. I don’t prefer for you to come in the back door in that way. Just tell me you don’t like it.” Everybody is different, but at least you had the actual interaction with the person around that particular situation… As opposed to leaving the setting, being ticked off or irritated, that like “Dude had his phone there the whole freakin’ time”, right? So you had an opportunity to actually shift your feeling in the actual context of the relationship real-time.

What I’m hearing is that there’s no opt out. As you’d mentioned, you can’t opt out a feeling; you can opt out on how you may wanna feel about something, or change that, but it sounds like you can’t opt out of struggling. You’re stuck with struggle.

So the best thing to figure out is how to cope with the struggle.

Right. And really, that’s so paramount. In my field we talk about two lanes of coping with different struggle. We talk about developing emotional coping strategies, like “Can I journal? Can I meditate? Exercise?” things like that, that actually contribute to me feeling differently. But then there’s also this lane of problem-solving coping, which is sort of like we just talked about with relationship, of going “What could I do or say to modify this interaction? Because I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel good, I don’t want a repeat of this… So what can I do in order to create change?”

You mentioned before naming things being so crucial. Is just naming something – how does that really help somebody to be able to identify what the real problem is? Why is that so crucial?

Because if I’m minimizing things or I’m using some way of distorting what’s actually happening, it doesn’t help me navigate it any better. I could look at Mt. Rainier and be like “It ain’t that big… It’s just a little mountain.” I know it’s a volcano… “I can totally hike that.” But how would that actually help me make it to the top of Rainier, or even withstand any length of time to hike that trail? There’s no way that minimizing that would help me do it any better. And so to acknowledge that there’s training… And that’s really a struggle. So many things in life are about skill acquisition. So if I’m not very good at something, to go “Do I wanna get better?” Because I’m not gonna get better at anything I don’t practice.

Yeah… Wow. It takes learn by doing, in most cases; iteration, patience… There’s so many people who are so hard on themselves, especially programmers… Because you’re often in uncharted territories; on the hourly, on the daily. So having patience for yourself and your own learning process, and understanding that you are gonna struggle - because we’re human - but then figuring out how to get around those, or just giving yourself some slack by saying “You know what, I’m only human.”

[00:43:10.03] Right. And bear in mind that especially if you’re then frustrated because of the emotions that you’re having, like “Ugh, I keep trying to work out this thing, and no matter what, I can’t get past it. I can’t figure out this code. What’s not working?” Actually, the emotions that you have, especially the negative ones, are gonna run interference with your ability to actually both problem-solve and cope… Because it’s like you’re just living like a dog. You’re just in that mammal brain, trying to contend with the emotions, as opposed to the actual problem.

When we’re looking at these ways that we struggle, it really is just true that nobody gets to opt out of humanity… And I would say that’s really a good thing, because we can really enjoy our lives and have some really amazing experiences - relationships, emotions - and figure out how to get better. I’m fascinated by people; that’s really what got me into this field - I’m sort of like a perpetual two-year-old; I always wanna know about why. “Why do they do this? Why does it work this way? Why did they do that?”

It’s interesting, I was having a conversation with a friend recently, and they were just shocked or appalled that somebody did X, Y or Z… And I was talking to them and I said “Really? You’re really that surprised?” And they were like “Yeah.” And I was like “Because I’m not surprised at all, because that’s just what people do.” People mess up. People do things to hurt other people. People do amazing generous things. Human beings are so fascinating, but you have to be willing to be curious, as opposed to trying to push back and be defensive around because you might not like a choice somebody made, or how they affected you, or a feeling that you had. So you have to practice switching the lens to go “Where can I see myself, my struggles in someone else?” and give them permission to be human, just like you.

Changelog

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