Distinguishing Wise Discrimination from Aversive Judgment*

In my line of work, particularly with couples, the old adage, "Would you rather be right, or happy?" comes to mind a lot. When large differences exist, as is frequently the case between partnered individuals, digging in our heels and claiming rightness (or the other person's idiocy) becomes oh-so-easy when we feel like our perspectives or even our selfhood are being threatened. That to me is the key: we jump into right/wrong, good/bad stances when we feel afraid. Fear is a natural emotion that arises when we feel unsafe. To fight, flee, or freeze makes perfect sense if our lives are really on the line, such as in instances of violence, abuse, and neglect. However, individuals in intimate relationships frequently resort to this "reptilian brain" reaction when our experience of threat feels real but is not actually true.

The classic pursuer-distance dynamic captures such emotional reactivity. One person starts to see danger signs flashing in the midst of conflict and so begins to retreat (i.e. flee) from the scene. The other person becomes emotionally flooded with a fear of abandonment and chases after the other, raising her voice and refusing to let the interaction come to a halt (i.e. fighting). The fleeing partner, now feeling like a hunted animal trapped in a corner, threatens to leave the house or the relationship and/or explodes in rage. When all is said and done, both people feel ashamed, spent, and remorseful. Sound familiar?

Psychiatrist Dan Siegel helps us to understand the evolutionary history of our emotional reactivity via his brain hand model. He also offers an alternative to going reptilian: pausing long enough to identify the fear and not immediately react to it. When we can calm our nervous systems enough to recognize we are actually safe, such as through deep breathing exercises, we can reengage the more recently developed part of our brain that has the capacity to empathize, cooperate, problem-solve, and be creative.


In contrast, when we react to fear by making others or ourselves bad or wrong, we're using aversive judgment, or what Tara Brach calls "an aggressive force that separates." The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines aversive as "tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus." When we use aversive judgment, we make others and ourselves (when the judgment is directed inwards) noxious and punishing entities. In other words, we reinforce a perception of the world as an inherently dangerous place where enemies lurk around every corner. In such a world, war and the establishment of hierarchies composed of "better" and "worse" people become the answer to conflict.

Tara Brach reminds us that this us/them, superior/inferior mentality is also an evolutionary artifact. When we lived in small groups, the framing of outsiders as threats to our survival could and did strengthen internal group cohesion. With our twenty-first century brains, however, we have the evolutionary potential to recognize our interconnectedness and feel compassion for the suffering of others and ourselves. We therefore can practice working with, not against, our fears and so choose not to violate others' or our own dignity when we feel endangered. We can remain whole.

Not reacting to our fears does not mean we tolerate harm to others and ourselves. This is where wise discrimination comes in. We can acknowledge that those who cause suffering are themselves suffering and decide the best course of action is to direct our attention elsewhere or leave the relationship. Standing up for ourselves and acknowledging another's struggles are not mutually exclusive phenomena. Nevertheless, how we take stands matters a lot if we are committed to stopping the war. If we decide to make another bad or wrong for their actions, we're back in the land of aversive judgment. A nonviolent approach, in contrast, asks us to investigate our own unmet needs in the relationship and communicate our desire to honor our own value rather than violate it for the sake of staying in relationship with someone who mistreats us.

At the end of the day, being right versus happy does not quite capture the stakes of social interactions. I would rather deepen my understanding of the human condition so as to be able to recognize quickly that when we harden, whether by becoming self-righteous or emotionally disengaged, we are trying to protect ourselves. Until we can detect and make visible the soft underbelly beneath the daggers and shields, we will not forge authentic connections and a sense of belonging, both of which, in my experience anyway, are the sources of our greatest contentment. To borrow from Brene Brown, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

* This post draws heavily from Tara Brach's wonderful talk "Part I: Evolving Toward Unconditional Love."

Elementary Kindness

What I want is so simple I almost can't say it: elementary kindness.

--Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

Lately I have heard many stories of dismissal and rejection. What frequently makes these recounted experiences all the more heartbreaking is the source of the denunciation--a family member, partner, friend, or other loved one. Given that our brains are like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones, we need to focus on and savor the positive experiences in our lives to counteract the harm caused by such forsaking messages.*

Happily, elementary kindness abounds if we pause long enough to notice and absorb it on a daily basis. Moreover, and particularly as adults, we can choose to actively seek out people who readily honor their own and our inherent value and worth. Even when acceptance, appreciation, and generosity are in short supply within our immediate households and communities, we can remind ourselves of their existence by finding them elsewhere.

The Internet, for example, has an abundant supply of reminders about the intrinsic goodness of human beings. I recently came across a compilation of photos that went viral and included this letter from a father to his son:

Credit to Viralnova

"I've known you were gay since you were six. I've loved you since you were born." In these 16 words, I hear so much elementary kindness: I love you as you are. I want you to be your authentic self. We belong to each other. You are safe with me. You matter.

That same compilation contained the following photo and caption:

Credit to Viralnova

I just wish I knew how the young man shown above experienced this show of solidarity. This image reminds me that we do not need to upend institutions to challenge discrimination and injustice. We oftentimes do need a sense of humor and a willingness to believe that small acts of kindness--rooted in an intention to honor everyone's dignity--can ripple outward in unimaginable ways.

Each day has 86,400 seconds. That is a lot of moments to refocus our energy on giving and receiving the kind of elementary kindness that makes us want to get out of bed in the morning, and make the world a little safer for the expression of our authentic selves.


* I'm borrowing from neuropsychologist Rick Hanson here and highly recommend the many resources available on his website.

Living from the Inside Out (aka Healing Self-Doubt)

Lately I have been paying attention to how much I quote other authors on this blog. I could attribute this behavior to my academic training, during which we learned both to avoid plagiarism and to honor our forebears and contemporaries by citing their work. I do like to give credit where credit is due, but I would be leaving out a large chunk of the story if I ended it there. A fuller picture of my quotation devotion involves self-doubt. My own healing has sprung from acknowledging and investigating, with tenderness and patience, a tendency (a compulsion, really) to live from the outside in. From early childhood to the present, I have taken in countless messages, from multiple individuals and contexts, that the external world decides the value of my being. These external missives have infiltrated a lot of inner space and, after enough time, have started to feel like my own voice. The unsolicited advice and commentary include statements like,

"You can do better. I'm disappointed with your performance."

"Don't look, dress, or talk that way. What will other people think?"

"Your way of thinking doesn't make any sense. There's no room for it here."

"Don't get too big for your britches!" (Old school, I know, but I love the saying.)

"If you would just follow our rules, your life would be easier."

I am going to venture a guess--without quoting a published author, mind you--that I am not alone in having doubted my ability to look inward for validation, insight, and clarity. The problem with living from the outside in is that we leave our sense of well-being to whichever way the wind is blowing, thereby creating opportunities for that wind to knock us right off our feet. We give up our power to nourish ourselves and determine our own sense of accomplishment and happiness.

Searching my outer landscape for answers has become such an automatic, unconscious habit that unlearning it has required disciplined practice and, more importantly, kindness. Although I now have internal and external resources to interrupt the taking in of messages that are not helpful to me, I did not start out that way. So when I think of the four year old who learned that defeating her peers in musical chairs won her a delicious individual-sized cake, I do not want to beat her upside the head for taking away from that experience the following lessons: the quality of her performance before an outside audience determined her worth, and there was simply not enough cake for everyone to have some. I do want to tell her that who she is matters more than what she does and that definitions of success can include more than winning prizes and approval from the people in charge. I also want to relay to her that despite the scarcity model all around her, she is sufficient as she is and can encourage others to believe in their own sufficiency, too.

Things get a little more dicey when I look back on an older self, but compassion remains more helpful to realizing an aspiration of living from the inside out than criticism, disappointment, or blame. In the realm of my quoteaholism, for example, I can choose to listen inwardly and find that below the shame I feel about my ongoing urge to prove I know enough to publish written words lies piles of self-doubt. Intimately studying their contours, I come to understand that I did not emerge from the womb this way. I learned to master self-doubt as I focused my attention on the workings of the external world and tried to belong to it, with little access to outside voices reinforcing a message about the intrinsic value we all share. Taking in this bigger picture, I can recommit to the aspiration to remember others' and my own inherent preciousness. I can then practice going inward for answers, having decided not to reject my own experience, and seek counsel from others who share the intention to honor everyone's dignity, including our own. Slowly by slowly, I can become less reliant on external "experts" as I carve a life's path, trusting my body's insights, the ability to pause, and learned skillfulness as guides. Replacing old beliefs with new ones, I can determine that the words sought from within are worthy of sharing with the outside world. We are interconnected after all, so the authenticity of the words turns out to matter more than the source.


What if we stopped mistaking habits for defects?

Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.

--Mahatma Gandhi

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "Mental disorders are common in the United States, and in a given year approximately one quarter of adults are diagnosable for one or more disorders." A little digging reveals that this percentage came from a 2005 journal article, which based its survey questions on criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. I like to imagine what the findings might be if someone asked the "9,282 English speaking respondents aged 18 years and older" who took this survey between 2001 and 2003, "What if your disorders are patterned behavior rooted in a false core belief?" To spur reflection, I might even give them the above quote and a list of such beliefs. The following is one list I found in Charlotte Kasl's writing (which comes from other work about the nine Enneagram personality types):

1. There must be something wrong with me.

2. I am worthless.

3. I have an inability to do...

4. I'm inadequate.

5. I don't exist.

6. I'm alone.

7. I'm incomplete, there is something missing.

8. I am powerless.

9. There is no love--it's a loveless world.

Moving from a distant thought experiment about over 9,000 anonymous survey respondents in a study conducted 10 years ago toward an inquiry into the possible connections between our own patterned actions and one or more of the abovementioned false beliefs is harder, scarier, and more vulnerable. However, to borrow from Madeleine L'Engle, "To be alive is to be vulnerable." So here goes...

My personal favorite is false core belief #4. When I have not been able to pause and replace that belief with one grounded in connection, love, and belonging, it has become a destiny in the following ways :

I'm not enough.

Internally: "I should be better than I am." "I'm not going to be able to realize my life goals."  "I can't trust myself to make wise decisions." "I'm a bad person." "I'm not loveable."

To the world: "I don't know what I'm doing." "I'm so sorry I can't do anything right!" "This is all my fault." "I'm a failure." "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."

I try to make up for my insufficiency by striving, doing, fixing, managing, controlling. I shoulder responsibility for situations to which I contributed but for which I am not entirely responsible. I keep apologizing and making repairs long after most of the people implicated in my supposed "misstep" have forgotten about it. I add more to my overflowing plate. I withdraw.

I value sadness (i.e. melancholy). Solitude (i.e. isolation). Busyness (i.e. workaholism). Self-soothing (i.e. drinking alcohol).

I am depleted, depressed, lonely, overwhelmed, exhausted.

What's the point in taking a journey down that gloomy road? For one, I can trace back to the core belief and more quickly unhook from it because I know that what feels real and manifests in my life in real ways is often not true.* I also understand that my reality is interpreted, which means I can reinterpret and create a new reality rooted in different beliefs, thoughts, words, actions, and values.

Beliefs in connectedness, belonging, and love can seem abstract and sentimental when we have not had much experience generating a destiny from them. For those of us not surrounded and filled up with those beliefs in our childhoods and other cultural contexts where we have spent the bulk of our time, how do we bring them to life?

I recently read Andrew Solomon's chapter on transgender children in Far from the Tree. A mother in there, Carol, illustrated an acceptance, appreciation, and love for her child that I believe we can learn to offer to ourselves, as adults, in the service of generating more wholehearted destinies. So far as I can tell, replacing a false core belief with a life-giving one requires paying the kind of attention to ourselves that Carol paid to her daughter Kim:

[Solomon] said, "Do you wish that Paul had just been happy to be Paul and had stayed that way?" Carol said, "Well, of course I do. It would have been easier for Paul, and for the rest of us. But the key phrase in there is 'happy to be Paul.' He wasn't, and I am just so glad that he had the courage to do something about it. No, if he had been happy to be Paul, anybody would wish for that, but since he wasn't--I can't imagine the courage that it took. I had somebody say this weekend, 'Carol, Paul died, and I haven't finished mourning that.' I don't feel that. Kim is much more present to people than Paul ever was. Paul was never rude, he just wasn't totally present. We didn't quite have his attention." She laughed, then said with adoring emphasis, "And look what we got! Kim!" And grace seemed to be both the cause and consequence of her happiness in that emphatic declaration.

* As Tara Brach said, "We pay attention so that we can begin to loosen that thick cluster that really can define our lives."

We Belong

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

--Brene Brown

While creating a song list for a certain upcoming celebration, I remembered Pat Benatar's "We Belong." Now the song lyrics do not depict a particularly reciprocal or mutually beneficial relationship. But the song's title. Now that is something I can get behind.


This blog post will be short, as today is the actual day of my wedding. I write this morning both because I cannot sleep and because being surrounded by dear friends and family from near and far gives Brown's words more weight than ever. Despite my roller coaster emotions during the last few days, I feel so much gratitude for this life I have. I also understand more deeply the importance of daring greatly during the time we have on this earth. As Brown wrote,

Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It's about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It's even a little dangerous at times. And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there's a far greater risk of feeling hurt. But as I look back on my own life and what Daring Greatly has meant to me, I can honestly say that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing that I'm standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.

May I have the courage today to show up and let myself be seen, imperfections and all, so that I can experience not only the love all around me but also the sense of true belonging of which Brown speaks.

Since people keep telling me I can do as I wish on this day, I might as well close with some Rumi!

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.

They're in each other all along.

Going Back to the Triangle

My, oh my, am I hearing a lot of blaming these days! A Time article title sums up the current U.S. blame game: "In New Poll, Americans Blame Everyone for Government Shutdown." Although I have already written about the Karpman triangle (also called the drama triangle) elsewhere, I know I am yearning for a reminder of what life can look like when people are "proactive rather than reactive, self responsible rather than blaming."* The triangle serves to clarify how we get stuck in vicious blaming and shaming cycles within our private and public relationships. Using the triangle, we can unmask an issue and respond to it in more skillful ways. So back to the triangle I go!

Credit to Thompson Dunn for this image.

Psychiatrist Steven Karpman introduced the triangle in the 1970s. Essentially, the triangle's three points represent the following roles that adults play when engaged in relational power struggles: persecutor, rescuer, and victim. The persecutor seeks to control others via anger, criticism, and blaming, without recognizing the fear driving this abusive behavior. The rescuer tries to control the situation by being helpful, nice, and strong, not seeing that when we try to rescue others from their problems, we prevent them from drawing on their own strengths and resources to resolve issues (i.e. we treat others as victims). The victim also seeks to control others by assuming a position of overwhelm or paralysis in the face of managing his or her life. As victims, we want others to rescue us or whip us into shape.

Importantly, these roles portray a sliver of who we actually are, even if we have grown comfortable in one of them over time and, thus, seemingly inhabited it forever and always. These roles are also dynamic. In other words, we may assume the role of victim in one situation and persecutor in another or morph into a new role when our feelings change about the situation. For example, the rescuer may get tired of saving the day and explode at the victim, thereby shifting to the persecutor role for at least a little while.

The primary problem with hopping on the triangle is that we give up our power. We forget about our capacity to utter the following words,

I'm responsible for what I think, do, say. If something bothers me, it is my problem. If you can do something to help me with my problem, I need to tell you, because you can't read my mind. If you decide not to help me, I'll need to decide what I'm going to do next to fix my problem. Similarly, if something bothers you, it is your problem. If there is something I can do to help you with your problem, you need to tell me. And if I decide not to help you with your problem, you can work it out. You may not handle it the way I might, but you can do it. I don't need to take over.

In current U.S. society, I perceive a lot of persecutory public speech, whether on Facebook walls or CNN. I also sense a lot of self-rescuing via various disengagement strategies, such as drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, taking prescription pills, over-eating, and watching TV or playing video games for hours on end. These strategies often come to the fore when we are feeling overwhelmed and just want Calgon to take us away (aka assuming the victim stance).

Staying present, engaged, and self-responsible is hard. Really hard. But the benefits of manifesting this aspiration overwhelmingly outweigh the costs to others, ourselves, and our planet. Those benefits include a sense of connection and belonging--of feeling seen, heard, and valued and that we are part of something larger than us.** Such a sense of connection and belonging ultimately removes the thrill of persecuting, rescuing, and staying in the one-down position. In Robert Taibbi's terms, when we step off the triangle, we "can be responsible and strong, and yet honest and vulnerable. [We] can take risks, are not locked in roles, and, hence, can be more open and intimate."

Leave it to a 16-year-old young woman to show us what leaving the triangle behind can look, sound, and feel like. As Malala Yousafzai said in response to Jon Stewart's question, "When did you realize the Taliban had made you a target?"

I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, 'If he comes, what would you do Malala?' Then I would reply to myself, 'Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.' But then I said, 'If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat that much with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.' Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that 'I even want education for your children as well.' And I will tell him, 'That's what I want to tell you, now do what you want.'



* This quote and the next comes from Robert Taibbi's Doing Couple Therapy. I also drew heavily on Taibbi's book in the following portrayal of the Karpman triangle.

** See Brene Brown's Daring Greatly for more on the human need for love, connection, and belonging.