The Search for Certainty

Because our brains are organs designed to recognize patterns, predict danger and keep us safe and functional, they seek certainty. We would like to be a able to predict problems so we can avoid them, or if that is not possible, solve them or reduce their impact. Our success in this effort is relying on our capacity to be certain about what is going to happen. This urge to be sure underlies much of how we organize our lives and how we perceive reality.

When we believe we have found some aspect of reality about which we can be certain, we are less anxious, we feel grounded instead of floating in uncertainty. Uncertainty is draining and anxiety provoking.

Because of this anxiety, we are relieved when we think we can know something for sure. WE have scientific studies that show one thing, and then studies that show the opposite. We develop strong opinions about what we read and we resist evidence to the contrary.

It is difficult to live with the reality that there is not much we can know for sure. We have evidence that things point in one direction, but proof as we see it, does not exist regarding human nature. Our minds and bodies are multi-determined, changeable, and vulnerable to influence. Our lives are a game of continual improv–changing our behaviors, beliefs, and emotions to respond to the changing understanding we have of the reality in front of us.

We can learn from other people’s experience and knowledge, but no one has the secret answer to long life, happiness and good relationships. Things change; we change. Our effort to be thoughtful about what we see and what we know, our careful reflection on what matters to us, and our compassionate response to the people around us can help us live in a way that is synchronized with our ideals, and, overall, lead to the good life we want. We just have to accept that there are no guarantees.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Be With

Culturally, here, in the United States, we have a strong sense of responsibility for our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings. This is a great ideal because it creates motivation, creativity toward change, and ownership of our experience. Sometimes we react against this ideal because we understand it is not 100% accurate. We cannot always control what happens to us, and we have difficulty reconciling our sense of agency and responsibility with the circumstances of chance, fate, or luck. Sometimes we feel victimized by life. We work at understanding that while we cannot control everything, we do have a great deal of influence on how our lives unfold. In other words, it still matters that we take responsibility and do our best.

One problem with this view of personal responsibility is that when something happens that we do not want to have happen or when we have feelings that we do not want to have, we–and everyone else around us–believe we are responsible for those accidents of fate and for those unwanted feelings. In other words, if we are angry, depressed, anxious, irritable, frightened, disgusted or otherwise in an unwanted emotional state, we blame ourselves and other people blame us as if we have failed to regulate our lives.

The people around us may feel personally attacked, or personally responsible for how we feel, or we may feel that they are responsible for how we feel. In other words, unwanted experience becomes damaging to our relationships because we believe there is some cause in ourselves or in the people around us for the bad state of mind. As a result, We become emotionally isolated both in our minds and in real life.

This all leads to the concept that being in a bad mood is normal. And it should be allowed. And we should be willing to “be with” a person who is in a bad mood, or with other people when we are in a bad mood. Nothing is required. We need not cheer up. We need not cheer the other person up. We are conveying the understanding that we care about that person and that we care about ourselves, and that is not only when we are in the “right” frame of mind. It’s a simple notion, but not always obvious.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


This past week I have been teaching about addiction in class, and as always, I ask my class how many people know someone personally who struggles with addiction. Almost every hand goes up. Then we talk about what we know about substance use and misuse. For this post, I would like to give you the resources that I give my class in case you know someone who has this kind of distress.

First, watch Johann Hari’s wonderful TED talk “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong.” His explanation is very different from accepted views. Hari is an investigative journalist who has expanded his findings in his wonderful book “Chasing the Scream,” which is a history of the “drug war” in this country and the world.

Currently more researchers are becoming interested in the phenomenon of natural recovery: the decision by someone who is misusing substances to stop. It turns out that most people with addiction problems stop using their substance on their own in their 30’s or 40’s without help or intervention. This result of research runs completely counter to current views by most treating professionals, as well as lay people. Substance users themselves believe the standard myths.

One of the first people to study substance users outside of institutional settings is Patrick Biernacki. His book, which is the result of his interviews, is “Pathways from Heroin Addiction.” Biernacki used anthropological methods to find and interview people who are not visible in social institutions like hospitals and treatment centers because they do not use them.

One voice has been constant and persistent: Stanton Peele. He has written a number of books and has a website with an online program for people who wish to stop using substances. It is inexpensive and well-researched and can be done online at home.

At this point, even the government is beginning to look at this phenomenon of natural recovery. The National Institutes of Mental Health is calling for more study.

Because of the public policies which date back many decades, most people have a very specific, formulated view of substance use. There is no doubt substances–both legal and illegal– can be dangerous and destructive. But the truth is not what people have been educated to believe, and those accepted views are damaging to substance users and the people who care about them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Internal Motivation versus External Motivation

The reasons we do what we do may lie within ourselves, based on our ideals and values, or they may lie outside of ourselves, based on fear, reward, or concern about what other people think. The distinction is useful since what we practice we become good at. Building internal motivation, like building muscle, makes what we do easier later.

Some tasks we cannot get ourselves to do without some reward–tasks that are repetitive and feel meaningless but must be done, for example. We construct external motivations in order to encourage ourselves to do them. We do not need to worry about undermining our internal motivation because the task itself is mundane and our internal motivation is unlikely to build. It would be difficult to imagine such a task, but perhaps there are some.

There are then all the other tasks, projects, work, and play that we do, which do have value to us and the world. There is something to be said for getting in touch with our internal reasons for doing what we do and using those reasons to move us toward what we want to accomplish. The added benefit is that we strengthen our capacity to use our internal motivation in the future.

If you reward your child for doing homework, the child comes to believe that he or she is doing schoolwork for the reward and not out of a joy in learning or a sense of accomplishment. Instead of building the child’s internal motivation for learning through the joy of mastery, you are undermining the child’s trust and respect for his or her own mind. In the same way, if you see your work as something that you must do even when you don’t want to, you are undermining your natural motive to make effort, create accomplishments, and express yourself in the world.

The ideas of motivation, will, determination, and conscientiousness are qualities of mind that cannot be directly measured or apprehended. Instead, they are ways of understanding the process of managing life, relationships, and work. That process permeates all aspects of our lives and creates our perspective about ourselves and our world. Even when we are faced with challenging problems or tasks, we can trust in our own capacity to rise to the occasion, to do our best, to be true to our ideals. We come to trust our own process.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Activity of Psychotherapy

Like any new activity, engaging in psychotherapy to become intimate with ourselves takes practice. It is a two person activity. It is not something a therapist does. Not therapeutic skills. Each time we experience a new part of ourselves, we make a new decision whether we can tolerate knowing about it. There is always a moment of hesitation and choice. And that is the moment of courage. Sometimes we can gather the strength and momentum to go forward and sometimes we have to pause and build it.

There will be missteps. The therapist will miss things or be off base. We will back up or avoid things. We will feel misunderstood. The therapist will have opinions and biases. This joint activity, like any duet, will give us more knowledge, more information. How do we handle being with another person. Do they have to be perfect? Do we?

The relationship is important but it is important because of what it does not what it is. It allows us access to ourselves as active agents. What do we do about fear? What do we do about the imperfections of another person? Can we remain engaged even when there are those missteps?

However idiosyncratic each person is, a relationship reflects the patterns of interacting that each person has learned. Which part is me? Which part is them? One way we learn is by noticing what is the same as in other relationships and what is different. If each relationship I have ends in disconnect and isolation, it cannot always be the other person’s fault. Can I tolerate seeing what part is my own perspective and action, regardless of my felt intention?

How can we get a more accurate understanding the reality of our lives without being misled by our own distortions? The only way to get a view from the outside is through the reactions and reflections of another person. Of course that person has his or her own distortions. Ideally, what the therapist’s training brings is the capacity to reflectively consider possible realities without an agenda and practice in being present in the service of another person’s personal development. And most importantly, for both people in a relationship, the capacity to stick with it and care about what happens.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When Your Mind is at Odds with You

It is fairly easy to believe that whatever mind state we find ourselves in represents who we really are. But we also know that at different times we feel like different people. Sometimes we feel competent, at ease, compassionate, expansive, and powerful. At other times we feel inept, tense, irritable, contracted, and helpless. These two are only a sample of the many mind states we can inhabit. Which one is the real me? Our minds generate experience with associated affects and thoughts as a means of making sense of the world. Sometimes we have experiences and our minds interpret those experiences, and sometimes our minds apply their own versions of reality to the experiences we have. In other words, sometimes we learn from experience, but sometimes we force experience to fit in with what we think we already know or feel.

It is common for a person to make resolutions or commitments but find that when it comes time to live up to them, he or she no longer feels the same kind of investment in that direction. Sometimes this has to do with short term desires versus long-term desires. What do I want right now and what do I want for the future? We might give in to short term desires only to be disappointed in ourselves because we gave up our long term desires. There is a disagreement between me and me.

Of course at the heart of the matter is our own clarity about our deepest ideals and how to align our choices and our actions with those ideals. When we use other people’s opinions as a measure of ourselves, we are in conflict with our own deeper selves. When we use our short-term desires or our wish to avoid feeling bad as measures of our choices and actions, we also lose sight of the more important, deeper, meanings that make our lives feel satisfying. Ultimately, the only way to evaluate how we are doing as we go along is to look into our own minds and measure ourselves against the ideal self we are trying to grow into.

This focus can be distorted if it is used as a self-criticism based on some kind of perfectionism. It can work against us if we use our ideals as a source of inner pain and disorganization. Instead, we reflectively examine our experiences, which include the reactions of other people, and we use our wish to grow as a reference point for decisions and actions. We are becoming someone that is evolving out of who we are right now. And we just need to know that we are going in the right direction, even if we have a long way to go to reach the state of being our “own perfect person.”


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Factors in Relationships

I am currently reading Leslie Greenberg and Rhonda Goldman’s wonderful book “Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy: The Dynamics of Emotion, Love, and Power.” Their complex formulation of the structure of intimate relationships is a very worthwhile perspective. They posit that couples’ relationships have 3 important components: attachment, identity, and interest. The emotional responses of each person can arise from any of the three components.

Attachment is the experience that the relationship is safe and that it is a haven in times of trouble. Attachment relationships are initially created and modeled on those with parents, but other relationships can have attachment functions as well. When we have difficulty, we turn to the people who care for us for reassurance, support, and protection. These attachment relationships are fundamental to a sense of well-being. Without a feeling of safety, we do not have the courage to explore the world and take risks to try new things. Most therapy for couples focuses on the attachment component of the relationship.

What this book adds is an explanation of the importance of the identity, or autonomy, component. While the experience of safety in a relationship is crucial, it is insufficient for optimal functioning. Identity is about who each person is separately from the other. One of the important parts of relating to any other person is being willing to know that person as he or she is, endorse and promote his or her ideals and aspirations, and allow that person a separate life. This entails allowing that person to own (have) his or her own struggles, challenges, pain, and failure as well as accomplishments and success. It involves being available to understand that person’s experience as a separate experience; offer whatever reflection, reassurance, and support that he or she wants or needs; and standing apart as an accurate and encouraging witness.

Relationships are about the balance between intimacy and autonomy. Each person has unique wishes for involvement and separateness, and part of the art of relating is knowing about these individual wishes and allowing them to regulate the relationship. There will be mismatches to be sure. One person may want more involvement and the other may want less. This may result in negotiating and experimenting. The good will of assuming good intentions and bringing good intentions goes a long way. Allowing the other person to be as he or she is and trusting that person to be responsible for his or her own ideals and growth frees us to enjoy getting to know another person as he or she really is.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thinking Like an Alien

Every once in a while it is helpful to take some time to listen to what our own minds can come up with. There are several ways to do this. The main thing is that we are trying to avoid derivative thinking: that is, taking ideas that we have read or heard, using perspectives that have been given to us, and fashioning solutions that are just reworking other solutions from somewhere else.

This is tantamount to Elon Musk’s idea of first principles thinking. Instead of assuming any facts or historical solutions are accurate, we ask ourselves: If there were no limits of time or space, money or expertise, how might we go at this problem? Much like an alien visiting the earth, we try to avoid assuming we know anything about the situation and see if we can look at it with fresh eyes.

Anthropologists do this when they visit another culture. They don’t know why the people of that culture do what they do, so they ask them and they try to understand how it all works together. They cannot use the assumptions of their own culture because they do not apply. We can be so embedded in the ways we see the world that we cannot invent new perspectives, processes or solutions because we only rehash the old ones.

We can energize our thinking by asking questions about what the goal is: What is the real problem we are trying to solve? What are the characteristics of the outcome that we want? For Musk it was inventing an electric car. This meant figuring out how to power the car in a cost effective way. He started with the problem of automobile design. He could have started from the problem of human transportation.

So first, we have to be able to define the problem we are trying to solve. Then we have to take time to generate ideas. This is the old technique of brainstorming, but that often becomes another way of rehashing. There is no substitute for taking uninterrupted time to allow our minds to float. Surprisingly, what floats up are often new ideas that are unexpected even to ourselves.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pay Attention to the Cause, Not the Symptom

If we were to identify our inner experience as either wanted or unwanted, pleasurable or painful, we might think of unwanted inner experiences as signals that some part of our lives needs attention and possibly change. In other words, our inner experience could be seen as a guide toward better self care-taking or toward what might result in our growth, inner or outer. The unpleasant inner experience is the messenger. The Buddhists say that if you see someone pointing at the moon, you are supposed to look at the moon, not at the finger of the person pointing toward it. Sort of the same thing: The important thing is the message, not the messenger.

What happens often, though, is that we try to alleviate the unpleasant feeling without thinking about the message it carries. This approach leads to forms of pain relief that stop us from feeling the bad feelings, but ultimately do not change the reality of what is not working in our choices, behaviors, or thoughts. Of course we want to feel better but there can be a pause where we allow ourselves to be curious about why it is that those bad feelings are getting generated in the first place.

Because so many of our assumptions about our inner states rest on the idea that our brains are broken, our chemistry is off, or we are somehow defective, we do  not respect the information that those feeling-states are pointing toward. We assume there is no good reason for how we are feeling and that the bad feelings themselves are the problem. The damage of this view is not only that the causes remain unaddressed but that we have profoundly disrespected our own minds. Over time we turn toward other people to tell us what to do and how to think and we rely on chemical intervention to regulate our inner states.

There is nothing good about being in pain. It makes sense to try to feel better. It is just that if we are only concerned with feeling better and do not make some effort to understand the causes of those feelings, we may be ignoring an important message. Our perceptions are an attempt by our minds to let us know about parts of our experience that we have not thought about. We may be distorted in our understanding of those perceptions, but it does not mean the perceptions themselves should be thrown out.

The balance is in respecting our own experience and also being willing to listen to other perspectives, question our assumptions, and make effort to understand in a more nuanced, complex way what our experience is trying to tell us. We choose the people we listen to, we are open to different views, and at the same time we respect that our own minds have a privileged and reasonable perspective on our own unique lives.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Even though we do not always want to admit it, some of the advice from previous generations is accurate. When I think about the people I talk with every day, I see that everyone has difficulties, unexpected losses, and internal conflicts of one kind or another. Some people seem to withstand distress with less destructive outcomes than other people. From what I can see, the basic difference is an internal decision of determination. People may have similar kinds of loss, but the people who tell me “I am determined to make my life the best it can be, no matter what,” seem to do much better.

We have many cultural expressions to encourage determination: “Hang in there.” or “Never give up…” This persistence in the face of stress is a kind of wisdom that we have heard from our parents and grandparents. It seems simplistic and also obvious. The interesting point, though, is that determination is not about our emotional state. It is not about what we think we can do. It is not about our resources or capabilities. It is about an internal type of commitment to ourselves and our own well-being.

A while ago I was talking with the father of a young adolescent. She wanted very much to be an artist, but she was really in the middle of the class in terms of talent. Her father was struck with a sincere admiration of her spirit as she has persisted over years to become good at what she does and she is now working with some of the best teachers. He thought maybe because she was coming from behind she had to try harder and maybe that is why she did so well. It was surprising and delightful for him to watch her.

The researcher Carol Dweck at Stanford has spent a career studying people’s understanding of what they can do. She says some people think you are naturally good at things and so when they have difficulty, they believe they are not good at what they are doing and they stop. But other people recognize that capability is developed through effort. When something is difficult, they feel gratified by making the effort to develop themselves because they believe growth comes through effort. She calls this a growth mindset. In other words, if something requires effort, this type of person believes he or she will gain something from the effort.

So, really, it is a matter of deciding what we want to grow in ourselves and persisting in developing those parts. The persistence comes from determination, not motivation, not feelings or ideas. It comes from making a decision to conquer a challenge. We get to choose where we put our hours, and then, having decided what is important, we get to pour our energy into those pursuits.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment