Are Gadgets Killing Self-Awareness?


I heard a snippet of an interview on NPR tonight with a man who believes that the extensive use of gadgets is leading to a lack of creativity. He thinks that creativity requires quiet time to think and that the constant distraction by electronic media may lead to fewer moments of inspiration.

Of course, many commentators have noted that kids growing up today, with their faces interacting with screens and not with other people, will likely lack interpersonal skills and fail to develop essential emotional connections with others. It is shocking to me to watch a line full of people at a coffee shop who cannot spend 60 seconds waiting for their latte without letting go of their phone. God forbid they actually make small talk with the person in front of them.

image0093968Studies have shown that just having a short conversation with others can help a person feel connected and can improve mood. Even prosaic comments about the weather or the long line can make us feel we are part of a shared experience, and can affirm our sense of belonging, even if it is just to the tribe that waits in long lines at coffee shops on snowy days. We are not so different, you and me.

But if we never share vents about the snow storm or pleasantries about the excellent espresso, how do we remind ourselves that we are similar? How do we feel attached and experience the universality of experience that is human existence? Without reminders of our human alikeness, we may start to believe we are different. And different equals alone. And alone can equal depressed or anxious or insecure based on thoughts of self-judgment and shame.

But the big problem that I would like to address with this over-focus on cell phones is that it may lead to a lack of self-awareness or mindfulness.

Being able to observe and gain control over thoughts and feelings is mindfulness. In mindfulness, we learn that just because we feel an emotion or have a thought does not mean we have to react to it or believe it.

However, it seems that repeatedly and automatically reaching for a gadget in response to a ping will teach us the opposite: I am a automaton to this device and to my emotionally needy search for social affirmation through it.

As with creativity, self-awareness needs stillness. To be mindful, we cannot have a mind full of distraction. Inner peace is not learned by being constantly distracted and pulled out of our centeredness and into our gadgets, especially if those gadgets bring messages of social drama, social rejection, and social shaming. If every 30 seconds an email pings up or a social media “like” pops up with its red number, when are we going to have time to just “be?” To merely be quiet in mind, perhaps also in body. To allow our thoughts to settle, our fears to recede, and our inherent peaceful calm to surface.

Seated, silent meditation can be a wonderful tool to gain mindfulness and stillness. But I am a big fan of integrating mindfulness and self-awareness into micro-moments during one’s day.

If after you meditate the remaining 23 hours plus of your day is spent in impulsive, thought-less reactivity to a machine, that seems as if it may undo what value the seated meditation brought to you. Contemplatives know that ideally we bring self-awareness and calm to our entire lives.

One of the tests of emotional maturity and emotional intelligence is the ability to be alone. Alone with our selves and our thoughts. That means alone without the interference of a gadget to distract us from that aloneness.

Put down the device. Connect with others, connect with your creativity, connect with yourself, connect with your self.

A Final Lesson from Reilly


As she has done throughout her life, today Reilly taught me a lesson —  one final lesson on bravery in the face of loss. I am sad to report that at the age of ten and a half, Reilly died today of pancreatic cancer and her soul passed from her earthly body.

To those who have read my book, “Pack Leader Psychology,” you know that this German Shorthair Pointer with the improbable Irish name has been my muse and teacher. The working title for the book was “Lessons from Reilly,” showing just how important Reilly has been in my personal growth and my journey toward becoming a human pack leader. It is no overstatement to say that Reilly’s lessons have guided me in completely transforming my emotional, personal and professional life. Her lessons even gave me a framework for explaining and understanding human psychology and behavior that I use every day as a psychotherapist.

IMG_0487Her attributes are difficult to describe and might sound like the over-the-top ravings of a distraught owner, but everyone who met her was instantly awed by her old soul, her regal character and her steadfastness. Many people instantly referred to Reilly as “The Queen.”  Not because she was a haughty, high-maintenance show dog, but because she had an implacable, fearless, matter-of-fact quality.

Reilly exemplified that essential pack leader quality that I write about in my book:  She did not need the approval of others. She loved and was loved, she obeyed and was obeyed, she respected and was respected, but she never did so to earn acceptance. That is because she knew and loved and accepted and respected herself, which is the most essential personality trait of a pack leader.

IMG_0550As I write in my book, “If you don’t love yourself, you will try to manage others as a way to get them to like you,” “When you have nothing left to prove, your fear of disapproval goes away,” and “The journey to fearlessness starts with self-acceptance.”

Only when you know and honestly accept yourself can you be accountable for your behaviors. This in turn allows you to grow and progress emotionally and personally. Without acceptance and accountability people are not able to learn from their mistakes and this leads to many personality problems and relationship difficulties that we often label as “mental disorders.”

IMG_0581Reilly’s traits were always pure pack leader.

She was authentic: Reilly generally was on her own mission in life and did not manipulate with tail wagging or licking to earn approval.

She was strong and vulnerable:  She could ask for help and would routinely stop while hunting, lift a paw, and look directly at me, signaling a need for a thorn to be removed.

She was stoic and dependable: Throughout many months of cancer, she never complained or showed pain. Several years ago a deer kicked her and cut open the flesh on her jaw, which required emergency stitches. It wasn’t until months later that I realized that kick had also broken a rib, because Reilly had never winced or slowed down during her recovery.

IMG_1234She was full of joy and lived in the moment: Fetching or going for a walk were all the reason she needed to become energized and playful.

She was a supreme athlete: She gave 100% on every walk, run, hunt or frisbee catch.  She could jump 6 feet into the air from a standing start and once did a 15-foot broad jump in a foot of snow. She ran and walked thousands of miles with me and would have run all day every day if I could have joined her.

IMG_0180She was smart and intuitive: I never had to verbalize lessons such as staying in the yard, she just seemed to automatically know and obey my wishes.

She was an excellent teacher of my new dog, Hope, patiently allowing this over-eager dog to follow, idolize and learn by example.

She was calm, confident, trustworthy and unflappable, traits that she showed me were essential for pack leaders.

This eulogy could continue for many more paragraphs, as Reilly was an amazing and awe-inspiring dog to me. Reilly was a great leader who taught me to be a leader, but whose humility allowed her to also be a follower.

But now I must move forward with learning my final lesson from Reilly on how to manage grief and the loss of this tremendous friend, muse, and teacher. I am sad at losing Reilly, but I also know that her lessons will continue to be taught as I live my life as an example of a pack leader and as I teach her lessons to my patients to help them live more authentic, self-compassionate, self-accepting lives.

Thank you for being part of my life, Reilly, and I send your soul on to its next journey.

Reilly West

July 24, 2004 – December 27, 2014

Reilly laying portrait


The Best Gift Parents Can Give Their Children

giftOn this Christmas Day, I believe the best gift parents can give their children is the ability to manage shame. Teaching a child to experience and respond well to the feeling of shame is a life lesson that will affect every relationship and social involvement for your child — a major predictor of and driver of emotional health.

How your child responds to shame will affect the quality of her friendships, the success of her marriages, her career and academic success. And this, in turn, affects her mental health for two reasons, both as cause and effect.

First, we know that close, emotionally connected relationships provide a sense of security and belonging that is essential for emotional health. Bonded relationships are so important, research has found that the physical health of married people is better than that of singles.

Second, an inability to properly manage shame is at the core of nearly all behavioral issues that we now label as “mental disorders.” Anxiety, depression, and personality disorders are all caused by overwhelming, unmanageable feelings of shame. The person does not know how to respond appropriately to feelings of shame and acts them out in two main ways: as anger and blaming/shaming others or as self-shaming. These dysfunctional responses often cause rifts in relationships and even destroy relationships, which affects emotional health.

shame artWe can see shame’s effect on couple relationships quite clearly. Conflicts in couples when one or both members have difficulty managing shame either quickly escalate or the couple mutually and unwittingly decides to avoid conflict.

In the escalation scenario, fights often begin when one partner accuses the other of some fault. (“You forgot to pick up the milk.”) An emotionally secure person can recognize the truth in this statement, calmly accept her forgetfulness and promptly and graciously apologize to repair the problem. A shame-avoidant person is so afraid of being criticized, she will quickly and unthinkingly lash out at her accuser, usually with a return volley of unrelated, often irrational, accusations. (“Yeah, but you didn’t text me until 3 pm and I left work at 5 pm so I didn’t have time to really think about it…”) I call this “zig-zag” arguing. When a person can’t accept blame, she often shifts the topic or blames the partner rather than admit fault.

The partner may then react emotionally to the irrational accusation (which is hard not to do when it is so irrational), and a fight has begun. The accuser then responds with more accusations (“You are so irrational! That makes no sense! You just forgot the milk. Admit it! And you always forget when I tell you things to do. You always ignore me.”) and the shame-filled person again feels she must respond with lashing out because she is afraid of admitting to those feelings of shame. In these type of scenarios, it is easy to see why shame is considered a primary emotion, because it is very often acted out as fear, or a secondary emotion.

Many times in therapy when I try to explore the emotions of couples in this type of fight, they are unable to recognize or admit to the primary emotion of shame. They have never learned to feel or have learned to ignore shame, so they bypass that feeling and go automatically and unthinkingly to responding with fear. This type of emotionally driven response is very unhealthy for relationships. Emotions are wonderful signals, but we should use our cognitive brain to control our responses to them.

Managing feelings of shame takes emotional strength and strength of character. A person must have a strong sense of self-worth and self-acceptance, which speaks of emotional awareness and resilience. She also must have learned how to make good choices and exercise cognitive control; rather than lashing out in anger when shamed, she must understand that she should be accountable for her own behaviors and respond in a pro-social way by apologizing or accepting fault.

So how do parents give the gift of emotional health to their children? By modeling their own ability to gracefully be wrong. Kids watch parents and absorb what they see, especially when learning social skills. Parents must consistently behave in ways that show they can handle shame. They must apologize and accept responsibility when wrong. They must not automatically lash out in anger when confronted. They must show remorse and attempt to mend relationships rather than insist on always being right or having the last word. They must also not avoid conflict as a way to manage uncomfortable feelings.

Shame is a pro-social emotion, as are empathy, compassion, love and kindness. Shame signals us to correct our behaviors so that we can continue to be accepted by others and fit into society. If we are unable to recognize or accept feelings of shame, how can we learn from our mistakes and misbehaviors and adjust so that others find us personally likable? We can’t. The inability to be wrong signals others that we are not good relationship material. Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who is never wrong? That means I am the one who is always wrong, even if the facts don’t support it. Without an ability to feel shame and admit to our own personal faults, we lack the fundamental and essential pro-social skill of personal accountability.

The ability to admit fault, apologize, accept blame and learn from our mistakes is how we repair relationships. Without the ability to do this, relationships will constantly be filled with drama and turmoil, rather than closeness and connection that is essential for our emotional health.

What better gift could a Pack Leader Parent give than the gift of emotional health?

Finding Power in Our Brokenness: What a Hindu Goddess Can Teach Us About Self-Acceptance

Hindu goddess Akhilandeshvari rides her crocodile.

Hindu goddess Akhilandeshvari rides her crocodile.

A Hindu goddess named Akhilandeshvari offers great insight into the path of complete self-acceptance — a path that I have taken that led to transformation into a Pack Leader personality. Her name translates to “The Never-Not-Broken Goddess” — a double negative that is unsettling to grammarians and confusing to ponder. But rather than being a goddess of weakness and brokenness, her message is about the the power of imperfection, confusion and uncertainty.

Rather unexpectedly, she is happy in her brokenness. She shows us the opportunity of being broken into pieces by both disaster and great fortune. Rather than rushing to attempt to heal, she purposefully keeps herself broken wide open, creating and fragmenting and recreating herself endlessly.

Pronounced ah-ka-LAN-desh-va-ree, the deity’s name has several translations. Wikipedia (1) explains it as Supreme Goddess (“Eswari”) who rules (“Aand”) the Universe (“Akilam”). Another website (2)  states “akhila” means bridging of a gap or an unsolvable problem, or completeness.

She is often compared to a spinning, multi-faceted prism, which fractures light yet creates beauty: “She dances and spins and breaks herself into shards of light, tossing out new possibilities for herself like flower petals from a cherry tree.” (3)  She rejoices in the unknowing, the fragility, the confusion and changes her identify willingly.

I have decided she should be the goddess symbol for those of us who work in mental health care: a symbol of trauma, grief, suffering and also positive change. She feels these states and lives them, as all good therapists should do, resonating with their client’s felt experience. She is the role model for personal transformation, but does not force others to engage in change. A website describes this aspect of the goddess well: ”She uses trauma and pain as tools — joyfully, purposefully — to attain her own liberation. And she teaches us that we can do the same.” “We meet her in our grief, in the aftermath of trauma and catastrophe — and our interactions are so personal we rarely speak of them,” says one spirituality website.

When I learned of Akhilandeshvari her message had a special resonance for me. I, too, have used my trauma and pain to grow, change and reinvent myself, changing careers to become a psychologist later in life after my second divorce. Before that I reinvented myself many, many times, with careers as a journalist, freelance writer, golf instructor, screenwriter and others. Throughout these life “zig-zags” I was often harsh and judgmental toward myself:  “Why can’t you figure out what you want to be or do? Why do you move so much? Change jobs so much? Try so many new careers? Why can’t you sustain a relationship?” Now I realize perhaps I was embodying akhilandeshvari. Akhilandeshvari is about freedom from routine, from old habits and wounds. The gift of destruction is new potential for growth

Now in my later life, after significant personal growth and self-acceptance, I am actually very happily never-not-broken.  I am happy for my reinventions, failures, and stumbles, knowing that I may have been breaking and fracturing, but in that confusion was also light. And that light was guiding me to a better place where I now work with patients to embrace their fractured lives and selves and guide them toward self-acceptance and self-compassion. Therapists should not rush in to force quick change and encourage a patient to “move on.” What is most helpful is an embracing of emotion, of full experiencing of the strong thoughts and feelings that many patients avoid.

Many patients have high levels of self-judgment and spend a lot of emotional energy mentally berating themselves, as if trying to fix what they view as broken. This leads to problems we label as “anxiety” or “depression” or “OCD.” I work to help them shift toward seeing themselves as accept themselves as “never-not-broken.”

Akhilandeshvari immediately struck me as significant when I read she is usually depicted as riding a crocodile. Crocodiles represent our reptilian brain where we feel fear. She rides on her fear rather than rejecting it, which in therapy is what we should do — embrace our deepest, frightening emotions. I do quite a bit of education with therapy patients on the power of fear, how we often react with fear to emotional threats, and how to become mindful and both embrace and manage our fear.

She teaches to stay on top of our survival fears, and not be reactive. In learning to be a Pack Leader, I learned to be fearless. I learned to become mindful and to stop automatically reacting with fear to change or rejection or disapproval by others or by myself. I have no fear of the disapproval of others and this has brought me fearlessness in relationships. And this self-compassion and self-acceptance is at the core of how I now help therapy patients reduce anxiety and depression, which are caused by the fear of rejection by others.

In addition, many years ago I had a powerful dream in which my totem animal was revealed to me — an alligator.. For me the alligator symbolized my need to honor my primal nature, trust my primal instincts, and conquer my fears. And this is what it means for Akhilandeshvari. “The very survival-fear that keeps most of us chained to the known and routine is Her flying carpet!” (3)

When I overcame my fears and embraced my primal powers of intuition and emotion I came into my own as an authentic person. I also learned great skills that I now use daily as a psychologist.

She also advises to surrender to tumult and things will work out. This ability to rejoice in the unknowing has been an ongoing journey for me, but so meaningful. Rather than worry and ruminate, I now allow the universe to take care of me and I trust completely that it will.

But as I write in “Pack Leader Psychology,” not everyone can be a pack leader. And Akhilandeshvari’s power is not for the submissive or fearful. “She doesn’t offer a comfortable solution, but an empowered one. She doesn’t give you security, but she displaces your reality so thoroughly that you discover you’ve actually been safe all along.” (4)

So many therapy patients have difficulty placing high expectations on themselves. Akhilandeshvari is about releasing expectations for yourself: You were never not broken, so why expect that you will be some image of “whole” in the future?

“That means that this feeling of confusion and brokenness that every human has felt at some time or another in our lives is a source of beauty and colour and new reflections and possibilities. We are already ‘never not broken.’ We were never a consistent, limited whole. In our brokenness, we are unlimited. And that means we are amazing.” (5)



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Parenting: Dealing with a Teen’s Need to Fit In

Two young girls bullying other young girl outdoorsOverheard in therapy from a teenager to her parents: “You made me look like the biggest retard ever.” First: Apologies for the socially incorrect statement. But what does this say about teenagers? (Other than that this comment has not changed in the past 4 decades since I was a teen!)

It signifies that their biggest fear is the fear of social exclusion, a fancy way to say they don’t like to feel left out.

Teenage brains are actually heavily wired to focus on social inclusion, acceptance, belonging or fitting in. There is actually a biological and evolutionary reason for this. In our ancient past, to find mates who were not biologically related young adults were often forced to leave their tribes or clans to venture out and attach themselves to a new tribe. What skills would be needed for a solo young adult to approach and join an unknown group of people? Great social skills!

These “pro-social” skills of approval-seeking, caring, submission, compliance, altruism and a need for acceptance would be life-savers in that scary situation for an adventurous teen.  (See, there is an actual reason your teen MUST HAVE that brand of jacket.)

The teen who uttered that phrase in therapy wanted to go to a party and feared being ostracized by her friends if she did not. Her parents, in attempting to keep this teen safe physically, were provoking an emotionally driven fear response in her. The fear response triggers “freeze-flight-fight-fold” responses as a means of self-protection, either from physical or emotional threats.

If parents react to statements such as this one merely as an attack they may lose sight of the fact that the teen is actually acting in a self-protective way to reduce the feeling of fear she is experiencing. Many human emotions and behaviors are a means to reduce a feeling of fear or to attempt to calm or soothe dysregulated emotions. At this point in her life, the fear of being rejected by her peers is surmounting her fear of being oppositional to her parents.

But today, in situations where teens want desperately to fit in, parents may only focus on the statement above as defiance and strive to get the teen to submit and comply. “Don’t disrespect your parents,” and “You’ll do what you are told,” may be phrases parents say to a teen in this situation. But parents would be forgetting an important fact that underlies the teen’s comment and behavior.

I urge parents of all ages of children to always remember that kids act in ways that help to keep them feeling safe or they may act out with defiance when they feel scared. My parenting takeaway is based on the fear response. Ask yourself: “What is my child really afraid of? Is my parenting making my child feel safe or scared?” A scared teen, whose main fear is being cast out of her tribe of fellow teens, will protest anything that increases that fear. Being kept from a party of her peers will trigger fear and she will protest — scream, sulk, sneak out of the house.

Reflective listening is always a great parenting solution. Rather than immediately impose your opinion as a parent, ask the teen what her real concern is. Reflect back to her what you understand — that she is fearful of being called “a retard” and being rejected by her friends. This fear is normal and age-appropriate, so parents should be accepting of the fear and work to understand it, rather than punish it. If the teen feels her fears are understood, it may de-escalate her fear and then her cognitive brain might be able to comprehend her parents’ decision to keep her away from the party. Or maybe not. But at least she will feel heard and understood, which is a great way for the parent-child relationship to be repaired and to flourish, even if there is disagreement on whether the teen can actually go to the party.