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What is Empathic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

 

The new combination of CBT, the power of empathy and the addition of how to change brain chemistry naturally is an integrative therapeutic method I have developed over the last 35 years. This unique psychology perspective will provide you with the most comprehensive approach to balance your mental and physical health while reducing stress significantly.  CBT corrects distorted thinking and empathy calms the emotional brain so we can use this capacity to perceive others and ourselves accurately and thoughtfully. How we perceive is directly related to how much stress we accumulate. In addition this approach teaches you how to produce your own natural brain chemicals that create calm, focused energy to do and be the best you can be. These three components produce a synergy that enhances our lives and releases our potential.         Studies indicate that Americans have fewer friends; trust has decreased as well as the degree of empathy shown to others, while prejudice has increased and race relations have deteriorated.  Half of Americans lie awake at night due to job stress and three quarters indicate they suffer from emotional or physical stress symptoms daily.

We have become a society that places a great emphasis on achievement, status and appearance and far less on character and relationships. Many people have learned how to achieve, but they do not know how to love and make lasting deep friendships, and this lack of love and relational connections is the missing ingredient that plagues their lives. Our political climate, with presidential candidates emphasis on aggression, insults, lying and lack of integrity is symbolic of the lack of empathy, low trust and high stress in our current society.

 

The Three Components of Empathic CBT

Empathy

Empathy is the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another. Empathy is not an emotion or a feeling but a capacity that is innately present.

We are born with this capacity, and if not developed, it will atrophy like an unused muscle. In recent years, research on empathy has exploded. We now know we have empathy neurons, called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons send messages to our limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. The empathic connection then releases the neurotransmitters dopamine (creating a sense of desire), endorphins (pleasure and relaxation), and oxytocin (compassion and connection).

We also know that stress, both acute and chronic, impairs empathic accuracy, as worry about stressors draws a person’s intellect away from deciphering behavioral cues in everyday interactions.

Because empathy is truth oriented and gives us the opportunity to perceive clearly and objectively, it is the ideal complement to Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

The deep emotional learning that holds onto past hurts—the brain’s negative feedback loop—can only be released and understood permanently with empathy. When we are hurt we are emotional and stressed, cortisol is released, which records our experience in a deep part of the brain. We then perceive similar situations to the ones that hurt us through our old emotions, not through our thoughtful, more accurate empathic lens, thus making for distorted perceptions. We put old faces on new faces.                                                               We can correct distorted thinking with CBT techniques, but the emotional part of the brain will return to negativity over time if the situations that hurt us deeply are not understood and resolved on both the emotional and cognitive level. Several outcome studies have indicated that CBT is effective in the short run, but traditional talk therapies are more effective in the long term. Combining the use of empathy with CBT assures the best outcome with the least amount of time.

Brain Changes

Do you remember every time you were hurt deeply in your life? I am guessing your answer is yes. Do you remember each time you have been given a compliment in your life? Probably not. Your hurts are stored in the emotional center of the brain, buried deeply so you will be protected in the future. Problem is they lead to theories about human nature. A negative view of life is formed as a result of hurts experienced in childhood or adolescence and this negative view is re-activated when you are stressed in adult life.  A negative view creates cognitive bias, and you live your life believing the distorted fictional story you wrote about yourself at a time when you could not possibly see yourself and you’re potential accurately.

This negative perspective creates stress and the stress hormone cortisol is prevalent in your system. High levels of cortisol kills neurons in the memory center of the brain, the unfortunate result is your ability to think clearly or creatively is compromised. Cortisol also binds negative memories, making for a stubborn entrenched view of yourself that is not very flattering.

Empathic CBT will teach you how to change neurochemistry naturally, producing the hormones that provide a calm, focused state of mind rather than those that cause distress and discomfort.

CBT

CBT has been documented as being effective with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, low back pain, substance abuse, fibromyalgia and some personality disorders .There has been less evidence-based research on stress and CBT.

One of the criticisms of CBT, despite its overall success, is that the changes created may not endure due to the lack of focus on emotionally conditioned learning, which we know is quite difficult to extinguish. Empathic CBT addresses this issue comprehensively so that the emotional, conditioned negative learning can be understood in depth and changed in lasting fashion.                                          De-Stressing Your Life

Empathic CBT will take you on a journey that has the potential to affect both your thinking and emotional brain. First, empathic CBT will provide exercises that will allow you to uncover the origin of your learned reaction to stress, especially focusing on how you typically perceive that leads to stress. Secondly, empathy exercises will help you see yourself and others accurately. Lastly CBT will then help you reverse false beliefs and as you perceive yourself and others more clearly you will become calmer and more relaxed as you learn to produce feel good chemicals rather than stress hormones. You will now be in a position to perceive accurately rather than projecting worry forward based on old conditioned ways of responding.  Empathic CBT will free your mind of old views that have produced stress and compromised your life. In the process you will uncover positive aspects of your personality that have remained hidden under the clouds of stress and old conditioned ways of relating.          Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D, Ph.D.

               Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience. www.balanceyoursuccess.com

 

 

 

 

 

What The World Needs Now……………..

I am a clinical psychologist in private practice and I see a diverse group of clients every week. Most of my clients are not mentally ill but are highly stressed by how they respond to the world we all currently live in.  It is inevitable that people raise the question of politics in my individual, family, marital and group therapy sessions.

Politicians tell us that we have a binary choice to make, many feel it is between a candidate who lies versus one with an apparent personality disorder. Our future they say is the hands of one of these individuals.

I vehemently disagree. Our societal troubles are far deeper than these two individuals.  We know that Americans have fewer friends, trust less, while empathy for others has decreased. Let’s bring this political dilemma down to an individual dilemma.

Do you lie? Do you blame others when you make a mistake? Do you become overly defensive when questioned if someone is being critical? Do you slander your colleagues, friends, spouses, relatives and most importantly your children if they disagree with you? Do you value achievement more than integrity? Do you value appearance more than character?  These are all the questions this election has brought to the forefront. It is not just about electing a leader. It is about YOU being a leader. A leader in ever interaction you have.  It is about communicating with tact, honestly and most importantly with empathy.

Empathy is a capacity we are born with. It is the ability to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another. It is different than sympathy. Sympathy rushes in to console, it is immediate, reactive, based on our previous experiences. Empathy, in contrast, takes time to gather the facts, no sound bites, only the gathering of truthful facts. No assumptions like “he’s Muslim, she’s Christian, he’s Jewish, she’s an atheist” therefore we know all about them.  Empathy is part of our genetic endowment, but if it is not practiced it atrophies like an unused muscle. Our world, with terrorism, bigotry, hatred, and mounting attempts to segregate one kind of individual or one country from another is in critical need of an expansion of empathy.  When we open our eyes and expand our view we not only become a change agent, we produce chemicals that make us live longer and happier. Stress produces the opposite; the stress hormone cortisol reduces empathy and creates biased, black and white thinking.

We cannot afford, in these crucial times, to continue with pessimism and helplessness. YOU can make a difference, right now, this moment. Don’t wait for politicians to be the leaders of the change, you are the CHANGE, we are the CHANGE.

Bottom line-all human beings want two things-to be loved and respected. Take either away or deprive a person of both and conflict results. When we slow down, calm ourselves and truly try to understand each other we find that beyond race, religion, country and culture we all are more alike than we ever realized. Beyond the surface of every human being we find ourselves, and that is our connection to humanity.

Human beings, all human beings, possess goodness. Empathy uncovers our true self, lying and slander covers over goodness like a circle of clouds on a dreary day.  Our world is not dreary, it is filled with good people but each one of us has to work to uncover the goodness in each other to survive with hope and happiness. Develop your empathic capacity and you will feel alive, free and connected to the world with hope and renewed energy. We need an empathy movement more than a political movement.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience.

 

Anger Makes Love Invisible

One of my patients is a divorced dad with a 17year daughter. He loves his daughter dearly and often worries about her-self care and the level of supervision his ex-wife provides. Recently his ex-wife and daughter went to Disneyland for a school vacation. He was called one evening when his daughter let him know she had passed out twice in the amusement park. She assumed she was dehydrated. His daughter became impatient as he quizzed her about her day, what she ate, what she drank, how much sleep she got etc, She commented, “Maybe next time Dad I won’t call”. He got angry and proceeded to lecture her about her poor eating and sleeping habits.

The following week he received a text from her saying she was going to a drive in movie with friends. He asked what time she would be home as he was concerned since she was scheduled to play in two basketball games the next day. She mentioned the movies would be over at 1:30am so she should be home by 2am or so. He immediately felt angry and sent a text to her and her mother expressing his frustration. He went to the games next day, could barely control his anger, and when the games were over he lost his temper in the parking lot. He threatened to stop child support, implying that his ex-wife was self centered as his daughter slammed the door before him as they drove away.
Later in the day he collected himself, feeling remorseful he sent his daughter a text message apologizing. His daughter responded by saying, “Dad, no one has the right to talk to another human being the way you talked to Mom”.

Needless to say my client entered our session with tremendous regret and pleaded with me to him find a way to re-establish his relationship with his daughter. I remarked that I realized how hurt and worried he was and I knew that in a calmer moment he realized that when we begin an interaction with accusatory anger it is likely to go poorly. It makes the other person defensive and seldom produces an exchange of useful information.

I commented that he might want to talk to his ex-wife in person; after all she had no history of being neglectful to their daughter. Most importantly he had no idea what was really going through her mind in Florida, his anger precluded any discussion of depth and blocked his capacity to be empathic. He realized in subsequent conversations with his daughter that she feels uncared for when he gets angry. She didn’t realize that his emotion actually comes from a position of love not easily seen behind his cloud of aggression.

My client grew up in a household where his father would frequently be impatient and dictatorial with his mother. He felt diminished each time his dad would approach him with anger rather than with understanding. It’s ironic how we often repeat the patterns we dislike the most growing up. He couldn’t see his father’s love behind his aggression; his daughter feels the same way. Fortunately my client comes to group coaching to change this pattern, I applaud him for having the courage to reveal his mistake and for his commitment to change an old story that has caused him pain for many years.

Anger is often a cover up for hurt, disappointment, loss and the lack of faith in oneself to successfully resolve conflict. We all need to increase our awareness of the anger cycle or else we alienate those we truly wish to bring closer.

Re-Discover A Child’s Goodness

Every Saturday morning I go to a spinning class with our two daughters, which is truly the highlight of my week. On the way to the gym this morning the girls were asking me about a book proposal I am working on regarding how we are born with  goodness and how it withers or flourishes depending on what we are taught and the quality of our early relationships. I was mentioning how prejudice is taught, destroys goodness, and is not a natural way a child sees the world. Alaina, age 28 and our youngest, is a kindergarten teacher and immediately related a fun story that spoke to the openness of a child’s mind.

Alaina teaches in the same building in her hometown where she first entered school herself. The other kindergarten teacher in the building was Alaina’s first teacher ironically.  Alaina’s colleague is in her late fifties and on Friday was teaching a lesson on prejudice using the life of
Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of how things used to be, and how he helped millions overcome discrimination. As she spoke to the children she said, “Years ago when I was your age black people had to sit on the back of school buses, couldn’t drink from the same water fountains and couldn’t eat in the same restaurants as white people”.  The teacher could see little Jenny thinking deeply as she was discussing how unfairly people were being treated back then—Jenny then raised her hand and innocently asked “So wait…you were black when you were a kid.” Alaina then said mthat the best part of teaching young children is that they have little conception of prejudice. She has children from Australia, England, Japan, China and India in her class. They don’t see color as something that matters and when they talk about different religious holidays the children seem genuinely curious and interested. “They are naturally good to each other, and the ones with the greatest empathy are always the children who have the most friends and seem the most comfortable”. Alaina said these experiences remind her of the
wonderful movie “The Help”. She recalled how much the children in the movie loved “the help” and only began experiencing prejudice as they began modeling their parent’s behavior.

We all, at one time, possessed the open-mind andinquisitive nature Jenny displayed. We need, as a society, to return to the time when we viewed all people as equal, when our views of those seemingly different than us did not stop us from finding out who they are, what they are like, and what is the common ground between us. Inherent goodness opens doors, prejudice closes doors and allows goodness to wither, onlybeing expressed to a rare few.
Goodness comes from a pure heart and is expressed through the empathy we feel for others. Extensive studies at The Prejudice Institute in Baltimore affirm the obvious fact that children and adults who feel good about themselves feel good about others, and want to do good for others. In these studies 60% of children ages 11 and older had not yet developed a positive attitude about themselves. Poor self concept made children more prone to prejudice and lessened their desire to be giving. Our responsibility as adults is to rid ourselves of prejudice so we don’t pass on distorted thinking to our children and at the same time we need to foster their self worth by displaying our goodness within and toward others.                                                                                                                                                                                            How do we return to a pure state of goodness given how life’s experiences have changed the way we perceive and interact? How do we counter a societal trend to be self absorbed and self serving rather than being selfless and giving?

How do we Re-Discover Goodness?
We are born with goodness and also with the potential for destructive impulses. If goodness is fostered by the important people in our lives we move into the world without bias and prejudice and our world view is expansive. We can then relate to a diverse group of people and we are healthier and happier as studies indicate. If we are taught prejudice and bias we become narrow thinkers, more fearful and anxious and are only comfortable with those in our small group. We then tend to classify people as to good or bad. People can be trusted if they are in our tribe, religion, culture and political group, those outside are to be feared and not trusted. We are programmed physiologically and neurochemically for altruism, empathy and goodness. All mammals are programmed for cooperation in order to survive and thrive. Goodness is then good for us physically and spiritually as it is necessary on several levels. When goodness is fostered early in life instead of narrow thinking we feel good, are happier and we want to be giving to others.
As this potential develops we move beyond our group and want good things for our community and the world at large. We care about all people because we are all people. We see ourselves in others throughout our society and world.
This natural progression occurs when we stop trying to correct what is wrong with us and start discovering what is right with us. When goodness is rediscovered we naturally extend ourselves to others.

Good Relating
As adults rediscover their goodness they realize that in order to be and do good we need to develop our relationship skills as the ability to relate is the vehicle by which goodness is transferred from one soul to another. Thus becoming a better listener, being able to be present and maintain focus as well as being able to be truthful in a tactful, assertive way becomes important in transmitting goodness to others.

Recent studies have indicated that empathy, the heart and soul of the expression of goodness, is withering in our current society. A recent study at the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research found that college students today are 40% less empathic than they were in 1979, the largest decline coming in the last decade. We have become more self indulgent and as we gain materially we seem to be losing our perspective on the value of goodness and giving.
Numerous studies have indicated that as people acquire more wealth they become less compassionate, less ethical and more driven by greed (National Academy of Sciences, 3/12).

The Goodness Renaissance Project
We are living in a time of anxiety and uncertainty, feeling that we have lost our way. Goodness is the way. A true rediscovery of goodness is not just an option, it is a necessity. The Goodness Renaissance Project is an initiative to help people begin the process of rediscovering what we came into the world with and have lost. My hope is that this international effort will be the beginning of a goodness movement that will continue to increase by numbers daily, becoming a powerful force for placing good behavior and good
actions at the foundation of our society. Please join us in this most important undertaking at http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

 

 

The Mind of the Bully-The Empathy Solution

Not long ago a patient of mine pleaded with me to find time to see her son in consultation. Marie is a single mom raising two boys, ages 19 and 16. She has been divorced for several years, her alcoholic husband hit her one too many times and she left him when the boys were quite young.

Her oldest son Nathan has had a very troubling life, often acting out in school, quite aggressive and extremely disrespectful of authority. He quit high school in his junior year, has drifted throughout the country and eventually found what he has come to call his new family, the infamous group called white supremacists.

I agreed to see Nathan and our one time consultation proved to be invaluable in my further understanding of the mind of the bully. Nathan proudly let me know that he has beaten blacks, Jews, gays, Italians, Puerto Ricans etc. He made it clear in the early moments of this consultation that he and his fellow supremacists were the only ones who were truly protecting American values.  His initial story was not uncommon, I am sure you have heard these descriptions of violence in the name of distorted views of justice.

The Real Story-The Hidden Injury

    Nathan was particularly prideful about his hatred of blacks; he talked of how they were truly inferior, less intelligent than whites, living off the system as he continued to ramble on about their destruction of white society for several minutes. I listened for the most part as he ranted. At one point he commented that he knew I must agree with his views.” After all my mom said you’ve been at Harvard and “there aren’t many blacks walking around in Cambridge”. I of course informed him there were many black professors at Harvard and in particular several who were noted for their brilliance in the medical school.  He argued and again I just let him vent. After I was able to calm him by listening attentively I slowly asked him if he would give me an honest answer to an important question. He proudly said of course as I knew he would not want to convey retreat. I asked him if he thought he would score higher on an IQ test than one of my black colleagues if I could arrange for testing in a few days. He fumbled for an answer and for the first time I could see his exposed vulnerability. “I’ve never been school smart; it doesn’t matter anyway on the street”.

I then complimented him for answering honestly. He was surprised as he did not exactly answer my question. I mentioned that he revealed his answer without many words and although he was feeling angry I could tell he was an honest person. Nathan, at this point, had calmed down somewhat and I knew I had his attention. I then asked if I could ask a second question and he agreed. His pride seemed to be pushing him forward.

                               The Scene of the Crime-the Original Story

I asked Nathan how it came about that he developed such hatred for blacks. He went on tell me how he grew up in a poor neighborhood outside of Boston. He was one of the few white kids on his street and he was taunted and hit on the bus repeatedly by black kids who were older and stronger. He felt totally humiliated day after day. “I told my old man what was going on but he was always too drunk and never did a dam thing about it, my mother was too scared herself and eventually we moved but not after me learning what these n……were really all about”.

The Bully was Bullied

As Nathan told of his early suffering and how his rage developed he began to mellow, at one point his rage turned to tears. The origin of his hatred was clear, there is always a story of hurt, humiliation and damaged self worth behind feelings of rage. We ended our conversation that night and I never saw Nathan again. His mom moved to Florida to take care of her elderly parents shortly thereafter. A few months ago I received an email from Marie saying Nathan had left his so called friends and was living with the her and his grandparents. She said things were still quite difficult, his temper could erupt at any moment but he was enrolled in an IT school to gain certification as a technician. She also mentioned he seemed to be benefitting from conversations with her father, an ex marine who had great respect for what violence can do to a person’s life.

                                               An Ordinary Human Being

You may think of Nathan as unusual and in many ways despicable. After all he took delight in bullying and beating innocent people. He is however not so unusual in terms of the development of a bullying personality. Aggression fosters aggression, empathy fosters empathy.  Nathan, like many other abusers, was abused himself. He lived with unbearable humiliation, lacked the support of a stable family to help him cope and as a result eventually feel prey to the seduction of the supremacists. They initially offered him connection, support and a family structure that seemed to guarantee him safety and security. They united with him in rage toward a common enemy as they superficially built up his self esteem. They praised him for following their dictates and rewarded his bullying under the disguise of protecting white people who were being robbed of their independence and rights.

I am reminded of the classic studies by psychologist Stanley Milgram when he was determined to understand how seemingly ordinary people could commit atrocities such as those perpetrated by the Nazi’s during the holocaust.

Dr. Milgram designed an experiment where some individuals were told that they were helping researchers to find ways to improve memory. They were divided into roles of teachers and learners. Learners were to memorize a set of words, teachers would administer the testing. In actuality the learners were actors implanted by Dr. Milgram. Teachers were to deliver and electric shock for wrong answers, beginning with 15 volts. The control panel of the electroshock machine was labeled slight shock to danger to severe shock. Even though the learners were shouting “ I can’t stand the pain” at 450 volts, once the experimenter stated that he would assume all responsibility two thirds of the teachers continued to elicit shocks to the very end of the scale. This result shocked the researchers themselves but proved that ordinary, decent people could perpetrate acts of violence and cruelty.  This experiment has been duplicated many times indicating that when people shift their sense of responsibility to an authority they are capable of doing immense harm. Nathan had shifted his sense of responsibility to group leaders, freeing him to unleash his sadistic side without evoking his conscience.

                            Human Beings are born to Care not Hurt

Numerous studies indicate that we are genetically programmed to care for each other. If however were abused, neglected or humiliated the capacity for empathy withers and we are left with a sense of helpless rage toward those who inflicted suffering on us. I was asked recently by a reporter if empathy can be taught. I answered in seconds, “absolutely”.

In conducting group psychotherapy sessions over the years I have witnessed many individuals develop this capacity even if it was under-developed for most of their lives. Human beings cannot resist empathic attunement. Even Nathan, with all his rage, began to soften as he felt understood. I saw in his eyes the hurt humiliated boy who desperately was searching for understanding, belonging and safety. When we don’t feel secure and safe we are vulnerable to being manipulated by predators and we are vulnerable to forming long lasting prejudices that fuel resentment and chronic unhappiness.

                                             The Societal Factor

If as a society we want to reduce bullying and aggression we have to place more emphasis on teaching cooperation and less emphasis on idealizing the win at all costs attitude. We reward the aggressor in many instances on a regular basis. Professional athletes and celebrities act with disdain for human life and we forgive them because they perform and achieve on high levels. This attitude promotes valuing status over character and achievement over quality relationships.  If our goal is to become rich materially at the expense of becoming poor spiritually we will continue to witness acts of terror. Our young people will continue to take their lives as they envision no hope for fairness and equality in a society devoid of empathic understanding of differences.  Developing and expanding our innate capacity for empathy is the salve our society is in desperate need of, let us all place our inherent goodness as the guiding motivation to living and behaving with compassionate and tolerance. Our youth is in need of rescue, it is a critical, immediate need we are responsible to fulfill.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

Basic Goodness in our Troubled World

Goodness is defined as the best part of anything. Goodness is surely the best part of human beings. It is when we act with kindness, generosity, strength and integrity. Henry David Thoreau said that “goodness is the only investment that never fails”. It never fails because when we engage others with an attitude of goodness we produce what we are biologically and spiritually programmed to do. We produce the hormone oxytocin, which has been called the hormone of compassion which is elicited when we bond through the relational qualities that goodness embodies. We all possess basic goodness but depending on how resilient we are in facing day to day challenges this inherent quality can recede into the background of our lives.

What interferes with our basic nature?

We probably all remember being told to “be good” by our parents and those of us raised in one of the major religions remember being told to “do good” in the service of others. Over time these phrases have been taken for granted and have seemed to have lost the basic message they were intended to deliver. If we do not appreciate the value of goodness we are unlikely to live from this perspective. Human beings are kinder to each other when we feel safe and secure. With the rise of aggression in our culture, the threat of terrorism, the increase of bullying in our schools and in our workplace we find ourselves in a position of fear. Fear creates anxiety, anxiety creates distorted thinking and ultimately distorted thinking creates an inflexible, overly simplified view of the world. These recent changes in our culture have promoted a lack of good will toward others and fostered more self absorption and less outward giving.

                                        Black and White Thinking

Studies have proven that when we feel secure bias and prejudice is markedly reduced. Perception and mood are closely related, when we feel understood and secure we are more likely to perceive accurately and more likely to do good rather than do harm.  Social psychologists have long established that avoidant or anxious individuals will bolster their own self worth by imagining that their group, whether ethnic, religious or otherwise is superior. This defensive posture creates rigid thinking, the black and white perceptions that promote simplified theories of human beings and their affiliations. Rigidity protects a fragile sense of self; it creates an artificial road map that gives an insecure person answers and direction to life complexities. Establishing a world view on anything but the truth will ultimately create more and more fear. Anxious people avoid new ideas and new ways of thinking, while avoidant people run from new challenges, both fearing loss of self esteem if they give up their entrenched beliefs.

                                      To Do Good We Must Feel Good

If we have a solid sense of self we are far more likely to be gracious to groups other than our own. We emerge with greater tolerance of differences when we have been loved, respected and understood in the early parts of our lives. If we received the empathic resonance all young people crave we grow with optimism and with an excitement about learning new and novel ideas from new and novel people. It begins in our families. If our parents had friends of diversity, if they were open to learning new possibilities to replace less functional ideas we are likely to value and feel happy when learning. This is the opposite experience of those who grew up in insecure households where the enemy was outside and the only good people remain inside. Goodness then takes on a distorted meaning promoting the idea that we should only be and do good to our own, not those unlike us. If you talk to any early childhood educator they will tell you it takes only a few days in the initial school year to identify the empathic children who love life, love learning and most importantly love making friends. Knowing how to express goodness makes us happy, more energetic and more resilient. We have more skills to manage daily living. We are not limited in our pursuits of knowledge and we are not limited in the array of people we can befriend. Young children feel the way we feel but they don’t think the way we think, therefore learning must take place by doing and feeling. When learning is recorded on a visceral level it is embedded in the deepest part of our memory bank. Experience shapes our early outlook of ourselves and the world, children pay far less attention to what we say and far more attention to what we do.  The old saying, “ do as I say not as I do” is an hypocritical message based on myth not on the true realities of how  learning actually takes place. We are the models, the teachers who must convey a sense of excitement about doing good for all people.

                                             Teaching Goodness

To uncover the basic goodness in each of us we must make a disciplined effort. We must recognize that goodness is part of our being; it is at the heart of our humanness. We have to move away from excluding anyone based on bias and prejudice. Goodness is not just for those who adhere to the Judeo-Christian ethic or the Buddhist or Muslim ethic or for that matter goodness is as much inherent to atheists as to any group. We are all born with this inherent capacity. But what if we have been raised to believe that one group is superior to another, or that several of our thinking patterns are superior to others. I can assure if you think your education, race, religion, vocation, income, or location make you superior you are profoundly mistaken and doomed to a life of superficial relationships.

We teach goodness by the way we live, not by holding on to fixed ideas to shore up our sense of self. Be honest with yourself, acknowledge situations and people who threaten you and go about resolving these issues rather than punishing innocent people for being their authentic selves. You will never be comfortable in your own skin unless you have the courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable and discover where you need to grow and learn. In many instances we need to un-learn mistaken positions we have held on to defensively. Old hurts are recorded deeply in the brain; we are programmed to remember what caused us fear. Fear creates rigid thinking which leads to false theories and inaccurate judgments. Re-evaluate your past with today’s wisdom and in the process you will release your dormant innate goodness. Thomas Paine, one of our Founding Fathers when asked about his philosophy of life, replied “My country is the world, my religion is to do good”. Our world would surely be a better place if his words became synonymous with our actions on a daily basis.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

 

Suffering Unleashes Goodness

A few weeks ago I was talking with one of my patients about his recent release from the hospital where he was treated for a major infection. He was telling me he had to get home to cook the turkey for Thanksgiving. He was bringing the meal to his elderly parents, his mother is recovering from her second bout of breast cancer and his dad is currently struggling with the effects of Leukemia. Joe also mentioned that he invited a few of his workers to dinner as he knew they had nowhere else to go for the holiday as their families were far away.

I met Joe some time ago when he was referred to me for stress related work problems. He had a thriving construction business, owned several rental properties in addition to a beautiful home on Cape Cod. He son was turning 8 and his wife complained of his working seven days a week and not being a very tolerant husband. Joe has always been a perfectionist, holding himself and others to very high standards. He had trouble maintaining employees as he often drove them as hard as he drives himself.  His anger would often get the better of him, leading to physical altercations on a few occasions. Nevertheless he impressed me as well intentioned and in many ways good hearted.  I could tell early on he was not someone who would be easy to work for or live with. His intolerance for anyone who didn’t see things his way seemed to be a characteristic of his black and white thinking. He once told he had no room for the gray in life, “you either step up and do the work or get out of the way” was his motto.

Out of Despair Kindness Arises

       One rainy day Joe’s entire life ironically changed for the better. He fell off a roof and became paralyzed. He was used to scaling buildings, walking great heights and using potentially fatal power tools. On this day, he was in a hurry to make a dentist appointment. His attention dropped, his foot slipped and the next thing he knew he was on his back struggling to breathe.

As you might expect Joe went through a profound depression after the accident. Joe’s wife eventually filed for divorce, continuing a time in his life that seemed like the worst nightmare possible.

I lived through Joe’s depression. I visited him in a Boston hospital after I learned he was paralyzed. His first words to me were, “Doc, can you believe this happened to me? What am I going to do? I could lose my business. How will I support my family? This is crazy. I can’t live like this! You know I can’t!” I cried when I left his room. I felt empty with a deep sense of sadness as I drove home, wondering how I could help Joe and how he could ultimately help himself.

How could this man, in his late 30’s, very successful, two homes, real estate, land purchases, see it all come crumbling down and recover? His wife had left him. Two years later his father developed leukemia; then his mother discovered she had breast cancer. The only friend he felt understood his plight was a fellow paraplegic he met in rehab. Unfortunately, his friend committed suicide shortly thereafter, not being able to cope with the life of a paraplegic. We started our journey with a momentous mountain in our path.

The first two years of our meetings were filled with grief, anger and despair. I listened as Joe told me how much he missed walking, running and skating. He’d been a stellar athlete and a very physical man all his life. How could he ever work out again? How could he regain his business? Would he disappoint his son?  He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to teach him how to hit a baseball, fish, ski, etc. Would his ex-wife’s new boyfriend take his place in his son’s heart? All these fears filled his mind, all based on a loss of complete control.

He constantly asked me what I thought about regaining his business, how could he continue his role as a father and whether he would ever drive again. We found a physical therapist who would train him to condition his upper body so that he could move more adeptly in his chair. He called truck manufacturers to see if a vehicle could be made for him to drive. We talked about how he could train men to be part of his construction business. He eventually trained two men, and he even had them hoist him up on to the very roof he’d fallen from to face his fear and most importantly, “to finish that goddamn job.”

We made a plan to call old customers to let them know he was back in business. He asked the baseball commissioner of his son’s league if he could coach his team. Last spring they won their division and his son could not be more proud of his dad.

Today, Joe’s business is again successful. He goes to job sites daily and works out at a gym three times a week. He has made his home handicap accessible and has become a great cook. He had abandoned his church after the accident, but today he and his son attend every Sunday morning. “It gives me such a good feeling to be there with him.” He has unleashed the kindness that had been buried within him for years.

Goodness Changes the Brain

A few weeks ago, after one of our individual sessions, Joe remarked, “I am a better person as a paraplegic.” “I turned my life around; I’ve come to believe that people are basically good. So many strangers have cared for me, given me their best to help me get better; they made me a more compassionate person. I was always so hard on people; I never realized how difficult it was for me to trust anybody.”

The tragedies of Joe’s accident made him slow down and reflect as the circumstances overwhelmed him with emotion. He was not known for expressing feelings readily. Loss of control can be a blessing. It can actually lift a burden one has been carrying all through life.

Joe tried so very hard to control all aspects of his life—his work environment, his wife, his son, etc. He always thought he was doing the “right thing.” He never realized that people could not relax around him. They worried he would be easily displeased or that they would disappoint him if they didn’t make that “all-out” effort he encouraged.

Today he has learned how to listen rather than using his old style of lecturing. He can tolerate vulnerability rather than giving anyone who has a doubt a pep talk. He understands human frailty in a way he never considered before. As a result, people feel closer to him and he feels closeness with many people he never experienced closeness with before.

People who remain open to new experiences and who expand their social circle have an expanded capacity for learning. Their brains develop new neurons. They find life interesting, not a chore. They like to find the novelty in every situation and “mix it up” a little, as opposed to the routine predictability I often see in many of my adult clients.

Joe lives near the church where I rent space to do my group sessions. After group on Friday mornings, I meet Joe at his home for our weekly session.

One Friday morning I was early and arrived before him. I talked with Ronnie, a recovering drug addict who is staying with Joe—not because Joe needs help, but because Ronnie needs to put his life back together. Ronnie lost his job, his wife, his driver’s license and most of his friends because of cocaine; and he is having trouble figuring out how to adapt to the circumstances of his life.

When Joe arrived, he roared up on the motorcycle he had custom-outfitted for his particular disability. He had come from the lake where he was overseeing the construction of a dock at a camp for handicapped children so they could learn how to kayak and water ski. Last winter, Joe went skiing on a special ski with his young son in Aspen. He also won a deep sea fishing contest with his son in Canada this past summer.

Giving is a Survival Skill

A number of scientific studies as of late have indicated that being a giving person, an individual with a warm heart who extends himself or herself to others derives significant psychological benefits. Goodness stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, releases the feel good chemical dopamine,  and as a result this kind of empathic attunement is thought to protect our species by fostering cooperative efforts. Joe derived the benefits of giving as he was forced into a state of vulnerability. He learned through his tragic accident how vulnerability increases interpersonal capability. It would have seemed impossible to him to imagine loosing the use of his legs and immerging a happier person. It is a fact I have been privileged to witness. When we are open and honest with ourselves we can be open and honest with others. In the process we discover goodness in ourselves we can share with the rest of the world. It is surely a protective, connective process that allows us to remain healthy and vibrant. The opposite is true when we remain isolated and pre-occupied with our self interests to the exclusion of others.

In my experience leading group therapy sessions over the years I have continually noticed that when people become involved with other members in an empathic way they begin to feel better. The cure for depression and anxiety is not within but between us, as we enter the world of another we take a mental vacation from ourselves while influencing our neurochemistry positively.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

Author of the Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

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The Holidays are Coming…

Holiday Stress Tips

It’s that time of year again and many of my patients are already anticipating the pressure and emotional turmoil that each of our families bring to the holiday table.

One of my clients just left a session saying, “I love them all but they drive me crazy”. I asked her what behaviors specifically drive her crazy. She talked about her uncle who drinks too much, her mother who is a perfectionist and has to have “everything just right”, making everyone uncomfortable. She talked of her husband not helping enough with her sons on Christmas morning, the cousins who talk to load, each too much, sing off key and the aunt who makes the same horrible cake every year and on and on. We were both laughing at this point as Marie is incredibly funny and of course her Spanish family sounds so similar to my Italian family that I couldn’t help feeling right at home.

I’m guessing no matter what ethnic background you come from you can identify. At one moment when Marie became a bit somber I asked her how it would be to be without her father, who died of a heart attack in July. She began to tear, and started recalling all the Christmas’s of the past, how she wished she could return with him to those days. I asked if her perfectionist mother, her uncle who drinks too much, her aunt who is the horrible baker and her cousins who talk to loud and sing off key were there. Of course she remembers they were all present. Despite their idiosyncrasies her memories were filled with crazy love despite the imperfections of her family.

Marie is feeling more pressure this holiday season because it will be the first without her father. She is less tolerant of the shortcomings of family members because her loss over rides everything else.

As we age the holidays can still maintain their magic but they also consist of many memories we wish we could re-enact. We all lose people and dreams along the way. Maybe were not in the marriage we fantasized about, or maybe some are alone and wondering if there magical Christmas or joyous Hanukah will ever be with a special someone. Maybe we never quite reached the status we desired, or made the money we thought we would, or maybe we, like all other human beings, are forced to cope with the realities of an ever-changing life. Our dreams have been disrupted and the season and our lives are not quite what we fantasized.

Marie realized as we talked about her Dad that eventually a holiday season will come when all these irritating people will not be present, and she may indeed miss them. After all her Dad was expected to be here for many years to come. He wasn’t perfect but he was her first boyfriend and he truly loved family. He taught her to cherish all family members despite their faults, and family to him was not just blood relatives but all those whom he engaged in a genuine relationship.

Let’s all make Marie’s realization our holiday perspective. Life and family seldom go according to our dreams but we can make awesome memories if we give in to the reality of the people in our lives. We all know what to expect, try to accept or at least develop gratitude for the fact that we are here one more year to celebrate togetherness. It takes little ability to get along with people who act exactly the way we desire. True compassion, empathy and wisdom exist when we give up control and develop a loving heart with the family we were given, not the one we created in fiction. Someone your sitting next to this year may not be here next holiday season, and it could be you!
Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.
Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience

A Christmas Story


It has been several years since my Dad’s passing but there is one Christmas gift he gave that I remember more than any other.  Years later I still feel enormously grateful for the gift he gave me that never faded, never worn out and never failed to be a gift that sustained me throughout my life. I hope all parents will remember the meaning of this story as you contemplate what to give your children this season.

When I was 9 years old I asked for a Lionel train for Christmas. I wanted that train so much that I couldn’t think of anything else. I dreamed about it day and night, imagining what it would look like speeding along its miniature track. Nobody else in my neighborhood had a Lionel. I would be the first to own one, and that I believed would make me special.

On Christmas morning I woke up when it was still dark and tiptoed past my sleeping brother. The stairs creaked in our apartment so I stayed on the edges, hoping to keep the magic moment to myself. A light was on in the kitchen and I peeked in to see my father sitting at the table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. He looked up at me, something shifted in my heart and I knew there would be no train under the tree.

Without a word I ran into the living room and stood before the Christmas tree. Blinking back tears and still believing in miracles I hoped the train would just suddenly appear before me. Maybe I missed it, I thought, picking up boxes and shaking them. Maybe it’s in a closet or maybe it’s outside on the porch.

“Arthur.”  My Father’s voice was gentle as he kneeled down next to me. “We could not afford the train. I’m sorry, because I know how much it meant to you.”

He put his hand around my wrist and squeezed, a gesture he used only when he was discussing issues of the utmost importance. “You may not understand what I am about to say now, but someday you will” he said. “On this Christmas morning, with just you and me in this room, I would like to give you a gift far greater than anything money can buy. I want you to know that I will always love you. No matter what happens in your life, I will always be with you, believing in you,supporting you,cheering for you. No father could ever love a son more than I love you, and that love will never rust or need repairs-it will always be yours, now and for the rest of your life.”

I must have given him a look of doubt and perhaps confusion-How can love make up for a Lionel?-for he squeezed my wrist tighter and leaned toward me. I breathed in the familiar, bittersweet odor of Chesterfields and Maxwell House coffee, mixed with plenty of sugar and cream. “Believe me  Arthur,” my father said, “this will come to mean more than any other gift I could give you, I promise you that.”

This Christmas, many years later, it is still the best gift I could have ever received. His love, even after he is gone, lives inside me in a very powerful way. Try to give the gift of eternal love this season, it is truly everlasting.

What is your favorite Christmas Memory? Please share it via comments below.

Connect with me on Twitter @DocAPC

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.

Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience

10 Ways to Make Your Holidays Special

10 Wyas to Make the Holidays Special

  1. Write something very personal to those closest to you.
  2. Take time to purchase holiday cards that speak to the uniqueness of the person your addressing.
  3. Prepare or purchase foods that you know will please others, tailor your choices to those who you will be with.
  4. Make a toast before your main meal that honors the elders at your table.
  5. Include in your comments poignant stories of the history of the family.
  6. Watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” sometime during the holiday season.
  7. Open gifts with your favorite holiday music in the background.
  8. Choose music that enlivens the spirit and is holiday focused.
  9. My favorite is Karaoke at the end of the day; you’d be surprised how much fun it is for all.
  10. Don’t be inhibited, get up there and sing and dance. Make a video for golden memories.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.
Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive  Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience

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