A Better Way to Argue (sitting back to back)

I came across some notes from a Masters Seminar in couples therapy I’d taken about mid-way in my graduate studies. Rather than let them gather dust somewhere, I thought I put them up here on the Blog for future reference.

Back to Back Conversations

The central concept is this: Often when sitting back to back in the heat of an argument, we can hear ourselves and our words far more clearly and objectively.

Most of the time, in the heat of arguing, it’s in our human nature to try to always win an argument, being completely rational or irrational. Same thing happens to most of us on relationship discussions. In one case the woman was Chinese and the man Ecuadorian. The cultural differences were legion. So too, the opportunities for insight.

I came up with the idea of sitting (or standing) back-to-back whenever a discussion heated up and dispute resolution was the goal.

By doing this back-against-back thing, you continue the discussion as if you were still arguing face to face. But … after a couple of minutes, the passion and yes, the irrationality, dissipates and the discussion most likely ends with a happy outcome.

What happens is that the arguing becomes significantly more objective. You no longer have another person in front of you that you’re trying to reason with, apologize to, persuade or convince about something. Instead, you’re more vulnerable because you’re talking to nobody in front of you. Your voice resonates, and you can pretty much listen to your own voice and think, “Well, I do have a point!” or maybe, “Damn, I’m full of shit, this is wrong. I am wrong.”

Back to back. Try it sometime. The crucial conversations of our lives might be better served!

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To Sleep, Per Chance to Dream (of more productivity!)

The rule seems to be, as you age you get less sleep. Not that you don’t NEED sleep, but because there is something about aging that alters the sleep cycle. I have seen numerous articles of late about how Americans (and others) are increasingly insomniant. Partly because of the innumerable devices we leave at the bedside, partly because of the seeming anxiety imparted by modern life, but largely (in my view) because we see sleep as somehow “getting in the way” of our overall productivity.

Balderdash. Sleep can only enhance productivity and from this day forward ought to be included in our definition of overall productivity.

From a recent article at CNBC, I learned that while business leaders such as Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg and Arianna Huffington all have packed schedules, you won’t catch these executives burning the midnight oil. Instead, they are stepping up in favor of getting a solid night’s rest.

Jeff Bezos

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos makes a point of getting enough sleep every single night. “Eight hours of sleep makes a big difference for me, and I try hard to make that a priority,” he says. “For me, that’s the needed amount to feel energized and excited.”

Adequate rest not only leaves Bezos invigorated for the day to come but allows him to continuously make sharp, thoughtful choices without suffering from decision fatigue. That’s what can happen when choices become harder as a day goes on and you deplete your finite store of energy.

“Mostly, as any of us go through our lives, we don’t need to maximize the number of decisions we make per day,” Bezos explains. “Making a small number of key decisions well is more important than making a large number of decisions [not-so-well]. If you shortchange your sleep, you might get a couple of extra ‘productive’ hours, but that productivity might be an illusion.”

Eric Schmidt of Google’s Parent, Alphabet Inc.

While many powerful leaders pride themselves on how little they can sleep, Alphabet’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt says that “the real secret is the most successful people have awareness of what their body needs and sleep whenever necessary.”

Schmidt points out that getting enough sleep permeates every aspect of your life, including your eating habits, decision making skills and “physical and mental ability to do almost everything.”

“If one is too tired to consider the butterfly effect of their actions, they could set themselves up for quantum chaos,” he writes. “We all know that feeling when we are awake, productive, full of energy and happy to be alive. Those are the days when the fabric of life twists and turns in our favor, being productive is easy, and nothing can stop you.”

Bill Gates

In 1997, Bill Gates wrote about how he envied people who can survive on only three or four hours’ worth of sleep, but he has since changed his tune. [Editor’s note: I can recall being in Albuquerque when Microsoft was still a babe and seeing Mr. Gates asleep at his keyboard.]

Gates admits that, although he can give a speech without much sleep, he is unable to think creatively if he isn’t well-rested.

“I used to work all night in the office, but it’s been quite a while since I lived on catnap,” he says in a Microsoft FAQ. “I like to get seven hours of sleep a night because that’s what I need to stay sharp and creative and upbeat.”

Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says it’s important for business leaders to take steps to ensure their employees are getting enough sleep.

“We have to acknowledge that not everyone can get the sleep they need,” Sandberg says. “So many people out there, so many single mothers and others, work multiple jobs, and we don’t have the safety net we need for people to make sure that they can take care of their own health, and that we help take care of them.”

“It’s incumbent upon all of us who run companies, and all of us, to make sure that people can make ends meet and have the ability to get a good night’s sleep,” she adds.

Arianna Huffington

After collapsing from exhaustion and breaking her cheekbone 10 years ago, Arianna Huffington realized that she need to make some changes in her life.

“That was the beginning of my realizing that millions of us are living under the collective delusion that we need to burn out in order to succeed,” she says.

The Huffington Post founder started researching the intersection of sleep and productivity and even wrote books on the topic: The Sleep Revolution and Thrive.

Mark Bertolini

Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini values rest so highly that he created an incentive program that pays employees to get more sleep.

“If they can prove they get 20 nights of sleep for seven hours or more in a row, we will give them $25 a night, up $500 a year,” he said in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in 2016.

Bertolini believes that sleep is crucial to performing well at work. “Being present in the workplace and making better decisions has a lot to do with our business fundamentals,” he told “Squawk Box.”

“You can’t be prepared if you’re half-asleep,” Bertolini said, saying he has the numbers to back up his assertion that better sleep can lead to bigger profits.

Satya Nadella

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, follows in the footsteps of the company’s founder in more ways than one: Like Gates, he also makes getting good sleep part of his routine. Nadella says that he wakes up at 7:15 and gets at least eight hours of sleep per night.

While a 7:15. wake-up call might seem early to some, it’s postively indulgent compared to some of Nadella’s fellow Silicon Valley executives. As the Huffington Post points out, it’s several hours later than Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, who has been known to rise as early as 3:45 a.m.

So, there you have it: Several eminent business minds are telling you to get your sleep! Well, not Tim Cook. I imagine he has to get up at 3:45 because he hasn’t yet learned how to delegate whatever it is that he does at 3:45 to someone else, but that’s his business.

For me, it begins at 9pm and ends between 6 and 7am and those 9-10 hours are some of the most productive hours of my day!

How about you?


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Invest in Friends that Make You the Happiest (Discard the Rest)

Those old, dead, white guys who founded our country some 250 years ago had it right, in my view, when they coined the phrase “the pursuit of happiness.” Turns out, happiness is perhaps the most subjective thing we can imagine and at that, it is fleeting.

What makes us happy one minute may disappear the next. And when we have seemingly achieved “happiness,” it can be snatched away, leaving us back in the hunt, back in pursuit. Nothing about happiness can ever be guaranteed and no amount of income tax and the tasking of our government to deliver happiness will ever work. Ever.

Hence, “the pursuit of happiness.”

Hence, “fleeting.”

One thing is for certain, however, and that is that who you surround yourself with can make the biggest difference of all. Those so-called “right people,” those who are additive to your life and not “life suckers” as it were.

Therefore, according to Dr. Moran Cerf of Northwest University, the best way to boost happiness is to be very picky about who you spend time with. Indeed, this may be the most important decision in the “pursuit of happiness” that you can make.

Choosing the right friends is important because close relationships cause our brainwaves to resemble those of the people we spend most time with. This means you start becoming alike and picking up their desirable behaviors and ways of seeing the world without being conscious of it.  According to Dr Cerf the best way to achieve long-term satisfaction is to surround yourself with the right people.

The more we study engagement, we see time and again that just being next to certain people actually aligns your brain with theirs. This means the people you hang out with have an impact on your engagement with reality beyond what you can explain. And one of the effects is you become alike.

Therefore, choices matter: The right friends contribute to right choices.

Years ago, I lamented the explosion of choice in everyday life. McDonald’s, for example, long the bastion of the simple menu, succumbed to market pressures and tripled their available options. Indeed, it takes something like 8 different menu pages to display what you can order, up from the one-page approach they’d long held.

Let’s face it, decision making is one of the banes of modern life. We are faced with innumerable choices throughout the day and candidly, it is debilitating. Dr. Cerf, on the other hand, believes that for a happy life people should minimize decision-making altogether. And choosing the right friends contributes to making the right choices.

Dr. Cerf points out that we believe making the right choices – such as choosing the right clothes or the right places to go on vacation – will make us more satisfied with our lives. And when it comes to which restaurant to visit, or what to order once there, the most important decision isn’t on the menu at all! And that is the decision who to go with!

Turns out, when people spend time with each other their brainwaves start to resemble one another. This means you will naturally pick up their behaviors and way of seeing the world without being conscious of it.

If people want to be make life improvements, such as reading more or getting better at cooking, they should spend their time with someone who has those desirable traits.

This means the people you hang out with actually have an impact on your engagement with reality beyond what you can explain. And one of the effects is you become alike.

Researchers have previously suggested this ‘neural coupling’ is a key part of communication.  If we are on the same wavelength as someone else, we can anticipate what they might say and therefore understand them better. This in turn has an evolutionary advantage as it means we work better and faster as a team.

Impacts upon students in a college course.

In April researchers from New York University and Utrecht University found people’s brainwaves sync up with their colleagues at work. They used electroencephalography technology (EEG) to record the brain activity of students and their teacher over the course of a term. This is a non-invasive method of recording the electrical activity of the brain using electrodes placed on the scalp.

Students were asked how much they liked each other and the teacher, and also reported how much they liked group activities in general. The results showed a positive correlation between a student’s ratings of the course and the student’s brain synchronization with her classmates as a group.

In other words, the more a student’s brain waves were in sync with those in the classroom as a whole, the more likely she was to give the course a favorable rating.

The researchers also found that pairs of students who felt closer to each other were more in sync during class, but only if they interacted face-to-face just before class.  This suggests that having face-to-face interaction before sharing an experience matters – even if you’re not interacting in the experience itself.

Not only do friends make us happy, but bonds between friends get much stronger with age.

Eventually, they can even outweigh the benefits of family relationships, according to another study published in June. Friendships play a key role in health and happiness – especially as we get older, revealed dual studies involving thousands of participants around the world.

These relationships can ‘make a world of difference,’ researchers say, and even affect how we respond to illness.

The research, from Michigan State University, included two studies: one on relationships and self-rated health and happiness, and another on relationship support/strain and chronic illness.

Friendships become even more important as we age, so, it’s smart to invest in the friendship that make you happiest.

Is say, surround yourself with life-givers and discard everyone else.

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How Would You Like People to Describe You? (Avoiding Backdoor Braggadocio)

I work with clients whose answer to that question is always in the negative. They will say things like, “Oh, they probably think I’m a boor,” or, “uninspiring.” Vocabulary aside (after all, you don’t hear the word boor used in everyday conversation), I am struck by how quickly they self-immolate.

Long ago I coined the term “backdoor braggadocio” to explain this behavior. To wit, we engage in self-deprecating talk as a way of inviting people to say, “now, now, that’s not true. You are terrific!” I have certainly been guilty of it in my life, but had it beat out of me by some rather talented therapists, good friends, and my wife.

The goal, of course, is to arrive at a list of the words you’d like people to use when describing you – a list that neither engages in backdoor braggadocio nor trumpets strengths we do not possess. In other words, a list of “real” things, the real ways that people would describe you.

Fair warning: Such a list can be painful to behold.

In my list, I have the word “terse.” At first, the word terse can be off-putting, for it is the second definition from the OED that people seize upon: abrupt. The first definition is the one I prefer: sparing in the use of words. Without question, in most of my encounters with people, I am sparing in my use of words. Ergo, terse.

There are times when I am indeed abrupt, but it is not on my list. If I am abrupt, it is not my intention to be so. I would hope that abrupt is not a word people would use to describe me.

Anyway, all of this comes in handy when you are building out a new self-image or engaging in the repair of an old one. Or, perhaps most importantly, when you are interviewing for a job! Engaging in the exercise of listing the words can help you when asked the typical platitudinal interview questions that uninspired interviewers resort to.

You know the ones of which I speak. For example, “How would you describe yourself?” Honest to God, I cannot think of a more banal question. If you interview at Microsoft or Google, you will never get that question. They are more likely to ask you what “banal” means.

But if you do get asked that question, avoid answering it in a hasty, canned way, lest you end up sounding like everyone else. Instead, spice up your answer! Tell them about your recent strengths finder inventory (I have posted about this before) and the resulting top five strengths you carry with you.

I think of how I might answer the following question, “Do you consider yourself a hard worker?”

Now, on the surface, that is a softball, closed-ended question, to which even your basic idiot would answer a simple “yes.”

Instead, I would urge you to summon up your list of the words people have used to describe you, and fire back, “Well, I am often told that my energy is infectious, and not often in a good way either. I work as many hours as it takes to get a job done right, and because of my Activator Strength (from the strengths inventory), I am often the first to get moving on a project.”

Can you see how you took a stupid question and turned it into a referenceable answer?

Maybe not so stupid, after all:

Interviewers ask this question for a couple of reasons: to hear where you place the emphasis in your description and to see how quickly and creatively you can think on the spot. Don’t give the interviewer the same answers everybody else gives. Think about new ways to get your message across and sell yourself. Spice Up Your Answers. — Joanne Richard

Make a list of personality traits that describe you. Determine the qualities you would like people to remember after having met you. And if some of the words you use are, well, stretch goals of a sort, then all the better! This is how change occurs!

Finally, all of this goes to a healthy sense of self-awareness. And self-awareness is nothing more or less than the residue of self-reflection.

Try it sometime – you might be surprised by the person you see in the mirror!




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More on Resilience









Somewhere in my Internet surfing, I came across the above graphic on resilience. I love the way it puts the skills into six simple domains. I especially like the part about composure and the skill of remaining calm and in control.

You might ask, “Control of what? Haven’t you always said, Dr. Russo, that we should relax and know that nothing is under control?” Well, yes dear reader, I have said that. The point is to remain calm and in control of yourself.

Following last week’s post on Resilience and The Little Engine that Could, a client of mine sent this along. It is from a daily email entitled the Christian Relationship Devotional. It was written by Karla Downing.

Resilience is being able to competently meet life’s challenges. It makes you able to adjust to life’s demands and weather the difficulties.

Resilient people have good support systems, good stress-management skills, a positive viewpoint, and high self-confidence.

What are some of the skills resilient people have learned? Well …

  • They have learned how to reach out to people that are supportive. This gives them additional support when they need it which helps them to respond to more effectively to problems. Cut out the life-suckers and surround yourself with life-givers!
  • They look at things optimistically rather than pessimistically. Looking at the positive gives them confidence when facing difficulties. Moreover, they know, instinctively, that it is HOW you look at events in life that matters.
  • They know how to problem solve. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by problems, they hit them head on and figure out what can be done rather than focusing on what they have no power over. Remember that to be overwhelmed is to be fearful. And we have learned from the wonderful Dr. David Rast, to be grateful is not to be fearful.
  • They know themselves. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses gives you an advantage because you can maximize the things you do well and then get additional support for the things that are hard. Remember the words of Dirty Harry Callahan, “A man has GOT to know his limitations!”
  • They are adaptable. They adjust to things by making necessary changes rather than wasting time upset about the things that they cannot change.
  • They know how to feel their emotions and yet manage how they express them, so they don’t create more problems by emotional reactivity. In other words, they know how to respond and not to react.
  • They know how to take care of themselves. They recognize their needs and proactively find ways to meet them. This isn’t ego. This isn’t a me-first approach to life. It is simply the knowledge that without self-care they can be of no help to anyone.
  • They have good self-control. This gives them confidence in meeting challenges and for doing what it takes to take care of themselves. My clients and readers will know that I am not a big fan of that notion of “self-esteem.” Instead, I have always labeled it as a function of self-control.
  • They trust themselves to know what they need and to respond to problems wisely. Go ahead – try it. TRUST YOURSELF to do right.

The moral of the story is this: If you don’t have resilience, begin working on the skills in the six domains that you need to develop to become resilient. The list above is a great starting point.

Thank you, Karla!

— Dr. Russo


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Resilience – Having Lost at Love (and The Little Engine that Could)

If we can love deeply, and most of us can, then why shouldn’t a break-up take months or even years to get over? And, for that matter, what does “get over” really mean?  Maybe we never get over it, but rather somehow incorporate it into our collection of experiences, all of which leads to a kind of wisdom about loving and living.

“I regret that we are born with two lives,” said Karen Blixen (author, Out of Africa), “the life we are born with, and the life we learn with.”

If you are living, then you are learning. Simple as that. And some of us learn how to live differently from others. That knowledge about living, and the concomitant faculties that develop within us , is otherwise known as “resilience.” It is the certainty that whatever may happen has happened to us, or to someone else, at some other point in time.

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

There is nothing new under the sun. This stoical ability to live with what happens in life, and to “make do” – that’s resilience.

I have been reading a new book by Megan Jay, PhD, entitled Super Normal. You may have seen an article about it in The Daily Mail. Put simply, the book is a nice survey of what we have come to know as that oddly enviable ability to not let very much bother you – not in any deep semi-permanent way. “Enviable” in the sense that (it seems) everyone else can get through life without getting bothered, but not us.

Dr. Jay argues that resilience is not a trait we’re born with, per se. It is probably true that some children are socialized early on to self-soothe in ways that other children are not, but that does not mean that that ability to soothe cannot be learned.

“Working through grief is an internal struggle for everyone,” she says, and indeed it is. And grief is precisely what we feel when a loving relationship has somehow, inexplicable gone terribly wrong. When we see others seemingly bounce back after adversity, it is not that they are somehow superhuman, but rather, that they have learned how to coach themselves.

For example, why was it that in a year-2000 study on East German political prisoners, some developed post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), while others did not?

The answer, according to the study’s author, Dr. Anke Ehlers of Oxford University, was simple: “those who did not develop PTSD were mentally coaching themselves through the ordeal.”

In other words, they were like the little engine that could:

A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill. “I can’t; that is too much a pull for me”, said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the grade and down on the other side. “I think I can”, puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, “I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can.” It reached the top by drawing on bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”

Those prisoners thought they could, and they did. They had, to put it simply, a positive mindset. Where that positive mindset came from is anyone’s guess, but you too can develop it. In the words of Dr. Jay,

We do not know why some political prisoners can steel themselves through the torture – or, at the other extreme, some people can motivate themselves to get out of bed an hour earlier for a run in 50-degree cold. But it can be learned!

Here are five (5) concrete things we can do to bolster that positive mindset:


    We do not “bounce back” after adversity. Instead, we “battle back.” Without question, it is a struggle up the hill, like The Little Engine that Could. You must fight back against the bad feelings that come at you. And that fight takes time. In other words, resilience needs time to sharpen its saw, to be able to cut through the pain. It does NOT mean you aren’t resilient if you don’t feel better the next day. It only means that you are capable of deep abiding love. And digging out will take time. Handling bad situations well is not natural and emotionless.


    You are not unlucky at love. Luck has nothing to do with it. Or, I suppose it does, if you define luck (as I do) as that which resides at the intersection of preparation and opportunity. Past performance is NOT an indicator of the future, unless you are incapable of reflection and learning (which I doubt that you are).

    That said, you must recognize that your past cuts both ways. Dr. Jay says,

    “For people who go through a lot of break-ups, they might think, “why does this keep happening to me? What’s wrong with me?”

    Or, if you grow up with an unstable family, you might think you will never find happiness*.

    That doesn’t have to be the case, and it’s important to look at how your past is casting a shadow over your present. Oftentimes when people go through hard times – and I think break-ups are a perfect example of this – people don’t remember or recognize how they got through it before. We don’t give ourselves credit for those times!

    Therefore, when life delivers adversity, stop and think how you made it through adversities in the past. How did you get through it when you lost your job? Or after your other break-ups?

    My belief is that all people are far more resilient than they realize. They get sucked into the woe-is-me syndrome that Facebook and other social media sites seem to encourage. There is a tendency to focus on only the bad things that happened, and not on how you made it out.

    Stop and think: I have done this before. What was it that I did that got me out?


    Quite frankly, this is all about avoiding the woe-is-me reaction. Period. But, it takes work.

    There is ALWAYS someone far worse off than you, and in those moments of self-pity, stop to think about those people.

    Then, stick to whatever plans you’d made for the day, or the week, or the coming month. Dr. Jay calls this “the steeling effect.” Sticking to plans, or even making new ones, steels your psyche. In other words, summon up whatever determination has gotten you through similar circumstances in the past.

    That combination – avoiding self-pity and sticking to plans – is powerful. You will STILL go through the pain (remember, loving deeply means hurting deeply) but the combination is like a light at the end of the tunnel.


    Something, anything, that does not involve emotion. Maybe it’s your run in the morning; or, cleaning the house; or, changing the oil in the pickup. Whatever is it, just make sure that it is something that can leave you feeling satisfied and accomplished. It will take your mind off of feeling defeated. You are strong – period. Keep thinking that.


    Resilience is fighting back against what’s gone wrong – it doesn’t mean you have to do that alone. Strong people who got through tough times successfully always have at least one person that they say helped them through it. Being strong means letting others help you be strong. And talking to someone worse off than you will remind you that we’ve all encountered adversity.

And stop feeling sorry for yourself.

* The Founding Fathers of our Country saw it as the “pursuit of happiness,” thinking that happiness is subjective and at all times, fleeting. For more about that pursuit, for having loved and lost, see this wonderful article.
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An Open Letter to My Clients – Past, Present, and Future

In my work as a Distance Counselor (using the precepts of tele-mental health), I am often asked by my clients if they e-mail me too much. My answer is always, no. I make it clear that they are free to email me at any time about any subject whatsoever! The fact is, I enjoy reading their mails. Moreover, I believe writing is astoundingly therapetutic.

In the late 1980s, psychologist James Pennebaker developed a form of writing therapy called expressive writing. When you engage in expressive writing, you write about your deepest thoughts and feelings without concern for spelling, grammar, or sentence construction. It is free-flowing and unfocused self-expression.

Although not everybody benefits from expressive writing, recent studies have shown that expressive writing helps anxious individuals perform better on tests. We’re not sure exactly why this is, but one leading theory is that writing about test anxiety “offloads” worrisome thoughts, thereby freeing up mental resources to concentrate on the test.

Moreover, my clients often ask whether their words and expressions are repetitious. No, I reply, they are not. And I ask them not to worry about repetition – this is not a class where there’s a right or wrong answer, or points taken off for verbosity.

Therapy is all about getting things OFF your mind and into the “therapeutic space” between counselor and client. We do that so we can examine them in an analytical way; holding them up to the light of day, so to speak. Often, our concerns, problems, etc., will seem somewhat irrelevant in the process. Or, they may be truly significant. Only in that way can we begin to re-story our lives.

They will invariably ask if the are annoying me, to which I reply, “You cannot annoy me. At age 60, I am way beyond that. My clients interest me and only rarely do they give me pause. I am all about listening.”

Just as invariable is the notion (in their writings and through their spoken words) that they, my clients, feel as if they will “never move beyond [their] problem.” Frankly, my conclusion is that that we rarely move beyond our problems in any sort of geographic or philosophic way. In other words, we cannot “move” physically and hope that our problems won’t somehow follow us.

And, philosophically-speaking, the best we can hope for is a categorization and some sort of psychic compartmentalization of our problems. For example, the tremendous heartache, which I felt at age 30 when my then-girlfriend, Cheryl, announced that she was moving on to another man and getting married, is still with me. But it has been categorized, if you will, into one of those “life events” that taught me innumerable lessons about myself and the world. She and I can and do reminisce about our experiences some 30 years ago and can laugh about them now. I tell my clients, “You too will get there.”

“I regret that we are born with two lives,” said the wonderful author, Baroness Karen von Blixen (“Out of Africa”), “the one we are born with, and the one that we learn with.”

That has always seemed to me to be one of those Capital-T Truths, in the sense that we cannot avoid it. Learning is therefore all about repetition and the development of neural pathways, some of which can result in a kind of mental scar-tissue that hurts when touched. But better that we feel the pain in a mental sort of way (thinking here of what we have learned about having touched a hot stove) than to repeat ourselves (thinking here of the definition of insanity: Doing something the same way over and over again, hoping for a different outcome).

People are not stove-tops. We cannot turn them off and hope they will cool down. We must live with whatever personality quirks and attractions they come with, and aim for either a proper dovetailing of both with our own, or side-step such people altogether.

The right relationship amounts to a calculus that delivers a result of 3 out of 1+1. Does that make sense?

Since the only behavior we can control is our own, when we try to control someone else and turn them into something they are not, we are trying to force a 3 out of 1+1. And it will never work. We need to side-step that person and engage with someone else. It is a life-long process and is why, at age 60, I have perhaps 5 truly close friends (one of which is my wife) who have been additive to my life and who have given me 3s, 4s, and 5s (and more!) out of that basic 1+1 equation.

Nota bene: Even our enemies, or those whom we have elected to side-step, will teach us something and deliver a result of 3 out of 1+1. I think back to people who are no longer in my life but who managed to teach me something of such incredible value that I cannot and will not ever forget.

Remember Epictetus here, in the sense that we are charged with adjusting our view of events if we hope to grow. Hard work though it maybe, I have elected to view their impact on my life as a positive one, even if the learnings were delivered negatively, and even though it resulted in the aforementioned side-step.

Those are my thoughts on this blustery Sunday in October in Laramie, Wyoming. Agree? Disagree? I would love to hear from you.

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On Fear, Anxiety, and That Sense of Being Overwhelmed: Working Hard to be a Failure

I have been reflecting on a couple of therapy sessions I had today and upon the homework I’d given my clients. It all began when my first client revealed their feeling of being overwhelmed. Then, later, another client expressed the same feeling. To each I asked, “What are you afraid of?”

That feeling, what we call being “overwhelmed,” is the outward manifestation of two underlying emotions: Anxiety and Fear. Feeling overwhelmed is at base, an anxious response to fear. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, to ask of our clients and of ourselves, “What precisely are we afraid of?”

Well, just like you, I am afraid of failing.

I was overwhelmed as a graduate student, as a businessman, as a father. In fact, I was anxious about my performance in each of those roles. And, beneath that was the fear of failing. As I go about being a professional counselor, there are times when I feel overwhelmed. It is hard to make your way through a therapeutic day without such a response; and without feeling somehow anxious that you are failing.

But, really, truly, what are the chances that I will fail? I would have to do a lot of things wrong to be considered a failure as a therapist. And, as my Parish Priest was want to say, “these would have to be acts of commission, not omission.” Yes, omissions could get me disbarred from the profession as well, but there would have to be a lot of them. And at that, they would have to be seen as somehow negligent in their comission.

Anyway, the homework I gave my clients was to come up with a checklist of what they would have to do in order to guarantee failure. My intention was one of paradox. If I can show you how far away you are from really truly failing, perhaps the anxiety will remit. Perhaps you will see yourself as, well, succeeding!

Here then is what I would have to do to fail at being a therapist (and checklists can be useful even if you never check anything off):

  1. I would have to purposefully and willfully not show up for my client’s scheduled hour.
  2. I would have to actively disengage from the client and be doing something else altogether – like checking my phone for texts, clipping my fingernails, etc.
  3. I would have to repeatedly give advice and, at that, with wanton abandon.
  4. I would have to hit on my client, or worse, engage in sexual activity.
  5. I would have to maliciously do harm and carelessly inflict some kind of cruelty.
  6. I would have to unjustifiably refuse to treat my client or to try and force them to change.
  7. I would have to talk over them and make the session somehow all about me.
  8. I would have to deliberately and without motive whatsoever, engage in inculcating my clients to my values and beliefs.
  9. I would have to engage in provocative acts of any kind; for example, belittling my patients or by engaging in overwrought sarcasm.
  10. I would have to be truly judgmental and engage in a complete negative regard for my clients.

So, as this therapeutic day comes to a close, as I find myself worn out from teaching and counseling, at a time when I would most likely feel anxious and fearful of failure, how did I do?

The answer is, simply, “nothing, nothing on THAT list anyway.”

I have probably committed no small number of errors, of missteps, of omissions, but at no time was I willfully, intentionally, wantonly committing to failing my clients or myself. I may have been cruel, but not without some amount of intentionality and care.* I may have been judgmental, but never about my client, only about their behaviors. And so forth.

I can sleep tonight knowing that I have avoided failure by a country mile.

Whether I was successful or not, well that’s for another list. At least I didn’t fail.

When you feel overwhelmed, ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” If the answer is failure, then know this: You have to work very hard to be a failure. 

* Cruelty is often in the eye of the beholder. I subscribe to the tenets of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, or REBT, which include techniques for the active disputing of my clients’ beliefs. This is often seen as cruel by the patient. After all, they have worked long and hard to hold such beliefs! But it is those same beliefs that are the source of so much trouble. Therefore, I dispute them. I question the client as Dr. Phil might, by asking, “how’s that working out for you?” If done with intentionality, if done with therapeutic care, the idea that I was somehow being cruel soon dissipates.
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22nd Street Road and Rail – the Journey

When we moved to Australia in 2012, I had to dismantle my amazing shelf-layout of model trains in Reno. The shelves ran throughout the second story of our home on Fescue Court. Taking about two years to build, the layout ran through walls, in and out of the attic, through bathrooms, and back into my home office. When my daughter lived with us, I used to wake her up in the mornings by parking a freight train in her room and blowing the whistle.

Computer-controlled, the gauge was “O” and I ran mostly Mike’s Train House trains (“MTH,” a competitor to Lionel Corporation). The trains went into storage for the time we were down under. At one point, I calculated about a $50,000 investment all told. I am down from that now, and they have probably depreciated even more, but such is a hobby!

Upon our return from Adelaide, and now with the new home and its HUGE basement, I have the chance to run them once again! This page will document the “journey” of my collection of 100+ cars, 25 or so locomotives, and a variety of structures and gadgets. Please revisit this page often for newly uploaded photos!

22nd Street Road and Rail Photo Log

Photo LogCommentary
I ordered my bench-work from www.mianne.com, who built it to my specifications. What I wanted, and got, was a hardwood I-beam design with hardwood legs, assembled with cams and cam-dowels much like what you get from Ikea. The entire 8' x 8' setup arrived in two boxes, each weighing about 40 pounds. Amazing!
In this picture, you can see the legs with the levelers installed. You can also see part of the train collection gathering dust along the southern wall of our basement. The levelers were very easy to install, using the pre-drilled hole and then the leveler nut supplied by Mianne. To the right of the legs are the various 4 foot and 2 foot I-beams which, when connected together, will form the lattice of the bench-work itself. Note that the skeletal design and parts does not include the table top, which I will have to buy separately.
Alright, so here is a wider shot of the basement and the assembled cars and locos gathering dust. Among them are the various structures and gadgets that will be set amidst the track once that is laid. This spot in the basement is perfect for an 8x8 layout. It will allow for about 3 feet all around for walk-around train and layout management. The television is there on purpose: While I work away this winter I can catch up on television shows!
I turned around and took this picture of the "other end," the northern end, of the basement, crowded with everything that was moved from the southern end. Stay tuned. We have ordered a super-duper treadmill for that space and will organize the weights accordingly. Along the walls are the books we have decided are "keepers" from 50 years of accumulation by two old academics.
The I-Beams prior to cam insertion. Note the pre-drilled hole. The cam goes into the hole aligned in such a way as to receive the cam dowels (see next picture). Then, they are tightened to achieve a fit that is far better than screw-and-glue, and removable to boot!
Here are three of about 35 I-Beams with the cams installed. In the next picture you will see the leg assemblies with the cam dowels and guide pins installed, ready to connect to the I-Beams.
In this picture you can see the hundreds of parts involved with the bench-work shipped from Mianne. Remember, I had asked for a design that allowed me to take down the bench-work should we ever move again. The days of disposable train layouts are over!
Above I mentioned the cam-dowels. Here is a detail shot of a cam-dowel screwed into a leg, awaiting the guide pins and then the I-Beam connection. They are amazingly easy to screw in; in fact, I could do many of them by hand, with only a slight torque of a screw-driver (a number 3 Phillips head) to ensure a tight fit.
Okay, so here we see all the legs with cam-dowels and guide pins installed. Time for lunch! By the way, the entire thing took about 6 hours to put together, including time for a wonderful lunch provided by my bride.
Watching me all the while were Macy the Schnauzer, and Markie the Cat. "Supervising," I should say. Macy is over 9 years old and doing well. Markie is one year old this October.
Here is a leg with two, 2-foot I-Beams attached. It really is a simple matter of lining up the hole on the I-Beam with the cam-dowel and guide pins, sliding it on, then tightening with a Number 3 Phillips screwdriver. The strength is amazing. When done, I will be able to walk on the bench-work, even at my current "fighting weight" of 320 pounds!
Fast forward somewhat to an assembled table section. There will be two such section, one each in opposite corners of the overall table. In the next picture, I share with you the schematic of the overall table design. Note the combination of 2 foot and 4 foot I-Beams.
Mianne supply a color-coded schematic of the design ordered. Purple indicates the 4-foot I-Beams, while yellow is of the 2-footers. All made with a combination of poplar and MDF board. Poplar, by the way, is grown in managed forests both in the northeast and northwest of the USA (and probably Canada). The wood is hard but with a light grain and therefore highly resistant to splitting. Remarkable.
Halfway! In this picture you can see the juxtaposed tables mentioned above, with the furthest corner completely attached. You can also begin to get a sense for the walk-around space I'll have.
Almost done! I have only a couple of 4-foot I-Beams to add, and then the table is finished. BY the way, I specified an unusually high table - 45 inches high, to be exact - to allow me to work the trains with a minimal amount of bending over, to dissuade the "little ones" from jumping on the layout, and to provide for extra storage beneath. The ultimate table will feature curtain ruffles around the front and sides, with an open back. Curtains are better. You can part them and get under the table for eventual wiring and trouble-shooting.
And here it is! DONE! About 6 hours of relatively easy work. Playing the background was a YouTube video of Mianne's founder, Tim Foley, explaining various aspects of the design. It is without question, the nicest bench-work I have ever had for trains. The table top will be of 1/2 inch poplar plywood. I intend to use a sound-deadening material used by tile layers as the means of minimizing train noise. The exact track layout plan is still in development, but stay tuned. This log will be updated frequently.
And all of it was just in time. On Monday morning, we awoke to two inches of white stuff. No more lawns to mow! Let the winter hobby commence!
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Re-Reading Seneca

Glancing through a book I have on the life of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (or, most simply, Seneca), I am reminded of all that this great Stoic has to teach us in the modern day. Born nearly 2,000 years ago, this was a man of many contradictions but of considerable wisdom, from which we have much to learn.

Seneca and another famous stoic, Marcus Aurelius, used philosophy to live. They wanted to know how to use wisdom to navigate the inevitable pitfalls of life. The lessons you can draw from these works are timeless — that’s why we still read them today.

Here, then, some quotes, all of which I use in my practice as a therapist and as an executive mentor. And with them, my application:

A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.

Think of that: as the pearl is born of friction, so too the man who wishes to reflect upon his living, his life, and his craft. What, you thought you’d get through this thing we call life alive and untouched? Not gonna happen. The friction of our lives are what grind us to a perfection of sorts.

Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.

We must take the world as it is and hope for the best. Often, when we are confronted with evil, it is our projections that make it worse. Think of the worst person you know and then think of the trials and tribulations of their life.

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.

Of course, this reminds me of what Epictetus had to say about “events” in life, and how we render them good or bad depending upon our view of them. Take a moment to look at a misfortune and consider its silver lining. I assure you that it has one. You are in charge of finding it.

A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.

Intentionality is most nearly everything. Think here of the legal dictate, mens rea, and the requirement that the guilty actor have a criminal conscience. Websters defines mens rea as, “the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused.” I blow through red lights all the time, but most of the time it is not my intention to break the law. Not that simple.

All cruelty springs from weakness.

This one takes some time to truly “get,” insofar as we most often see cruelty as an act of strength. It is, in fact, an act of weakness, for when we think ourselves as weak, we act accordingly. The lesson? Do not ever give away your power.

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

Have you done good in life? Are you – today – doing good? This reminds me of the Eight Fold Noble Path of the Buddhists. Within that Path the idea that right thinking begets right action.

If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.

In other words, do not rely upon the Gods for your sense of “true north,” rely not upon the wind. Set your course and the tiller and hold fast.

He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary.

This goes to the notion of “anticipatory anxiety,” and the incessant worry about the future that we heap upon ourselves. I have thought myself a million times into problems, but never once out of them. Think about that.

Timendi causa est nescire – Ignorance is the cause of fear.

What do you fear? And what about that (whatever) do you not know? The less you know about something, the more you shall fear it. Pure and simple. If you cannot truly know, then do not fear it. ‘Tis a waste of time.

It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.

Seneca predates Jesus and the cross that he carried, and the class with which he bore it to Golgotha. How you carry your burdens in life says much about you.

The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.

Bing Crosby used to day, “I anticipate the worst, hope for the best, and most often wind up in between.” If we reflect upon the trajectory of our lives and then upon those things which might go wrong, we are (as Grandma used to say) prepared. Forget luck, for luck is merely the intersection of preparation and opportunity. The key word is preparation.

And finally …

The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

Yes, the whole of the future lay way out there. But as I write this, my future is slithering past me. If I live for the now, I am living in the now as it was just a few seconds ago. “Waste not time, for such is the stuff of life,” said our Benjamin Franklin.

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