Ask Dr. Rick About:

Relationships

When talking with others I’m very focused and mindful of the topic, but not of my conversation partner’s experience. Any recommendations?

Traditionally, mindfulness is defined essentially as sustained present moment awareness of everything in the field of experience. You are present rather than absent, recollective rather than forgetful.

In this light, we can be in flow while also being mindful, but the metacognitive aspects of mindfulness – a little bit of paying attention to attention, aware of awareness, to remain mindful – do tend to pull people out of flow unless they develop the capacity to integrate flow and mindfulness.

In your case, you might explore what it is like to be really passionate and engaged, including intellectually, while also continuing to keep a bit of awareness for the overall situation, including the reactions of other people.

I notice that you have a lot of offerings on how people can improve their relationships. Can I suggest that you consider offerings for people who don’t have family or fulfilling friendships, who are alone and perhaps lonely?

I appreciate you raising these issues of isolation and loneliness, in the larger context of the disruption of social bonds in America (i.e. the pandemic). I totally agree with you about their realness and impacts, including on the brain.

In The Strong Heart program, the emphasis is on skills for any kind of important relationship (not necessarily family or intimate partner). Though still, if one does not have many relationships at all, there is little in that program that would be relevant.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Resilient, and related online programs, there is quite a lot of material about doing whatever is possible in a relatively isolated life to build up a genuine sense of connection, and internalize these experiences. This of course does not change tough conditions, but it does address what we can do ourselves in those conditions. More broadly, most of the content I offer is about internal practice of one kind or another that is not connected to any kind of relationship.

Loneliness and isolation are tough, truly tough to deal with, and a sadly widespread issue.

What advice would you give to parents whose teenage child is experiencing relationship issues in school: being bullied because of physical appearance?

I think it’s really important for the adults to find out quite concretely what is going on, and then for the school authorities to make it very very clear to the kids involved, and usually also to their parents, that bullying won’t be tolerated at all, full stop. Kids do not “work it out.” Bullying is cowardly oppressive behavior by people with more power against people with less power, and it can leave scars for a lifetime. Teachers and other school authorities typically don’t like to get involved with this – it’s messy – but, too bad, they have to. Justice requires the exercise of authority, in any setting.

Meanwhile, you can help the teenager develop inner resources to reduce the impact of the bullying, like a strong sense of being cared about by others, of personal worth, and of recognizing that the bullies are frankly full of shit and talking out of their own feelings of inadequacy and meanness.

Can you use the HEAL process to heal attachment issues?

You can use the HEAL process to internalize any beneficial experience, growing more of the good inside. So for attachment issues, you could use it with experiences that originate in actual here-and-now interactions or relationships with others. And you could also use it with experiences that you create by recalling past interactions and relationships, as well as with experiences of your own caring, kindness, respect, support, friendship, and love flowing out from you, since love is love whether it is flowing in or flowing out. Personally, I like the many options that this approach gives one, especially if the actual relationships in one’s life today are not that conducive to having key experiences targeted at old wounds.

How does one more forward, and not cling to the attachments of sentimental things? (I was asked if it was ok to paint over the height markings from our children on a door jam from many years. Although I was trying to ignore my feelings and be tough, when asked a second time, I broke down in tears.)

A beautiful, dear, and touching question.

Maybe in the upper reaches of enlightenment people get so equanimous that painting over their children’s growth chart is just a big “whatever, dude.” But, I think it is perfectly fine to cherish and take joy in and value certain things.

If we lose any of these things, sure, we should try to not over-react, and try to take them in stride. Sometimes there are ways to hold onto things we love in other forms.

But to imagine that we should not value some things is utterly unnatural. At all levels in the physical architecture of the body or the information-processing architecture of the mind, there are goals and their pursuit. These are values, built into the body and mind. Trying not to have values is itself a value. The only question is whether our values are good ones, and pursued in good ways.

And to me, sentimental objects from raising our children are pretty darn valuable.

You write: “Is it painful to feel love because it stirs up old frustrated longings…so that you dial down the love to suppress the longings?” Where can I find answers to this enigma?

We can have desires for love (in many forms, including simple decent treatment of us by others) that reach all the way back to infancy.  Sometimes these desires – wishes, hopes, needs, wants, longings – are tended well by others even if not perfectly. And sometimes they are not – perhaps traumatically, though more often by lots of little disappointments and mistreatments that accumulate over time in emotional memory. Naturally, the brain associates the longing for love to the pain we feel when it is not given appropriately to us.

So then when today that longing is stirred up, even in simple ways like meeting someone who might become a friend, the brain/mind quickly associates that desire to the (understandable) expectation of pain…so then we withdraw in one way or another – unless we are conscious of this process, and with self-compassion and insight can “step in” inside our own mind to remind ourselves that this is now not then, and that we can indeed open a bit and see what happens and if it goes well, keep opening a little more, step by clear seeing step.

Does mindfulness mean being submissive? What is the difference between allowing someone or something to take advantage of you vs. letting go?

When we sustain a mindful awareness of outer events or inner experience, we are actually doing the opposite of submitting to them, in the sense you mean. We are recognizing them as facts – like them or not, they exist – perhaps with a sense of acceptance or serenity, but not letting them control us.

In fact, when we fight with them – like getting angry at having certain thoughts – they are controlling us. And, with the perspective and wisdom that come from awareness and investigation, we can be strong, forceful, even passionate in speaking truth to power – both out there, and (often more importantly) inside our own heads.

What we let go of mainly are our unhelpful, unhappy reactions to things. We don’t let go of recognizing and standing up against injustice, or let go of our legitimate interests.

The main things that take advantage of us are our fearful, angry, self-doubting reactions to things.

Check out my chapter on kindness and assertiveness in Buddha’s Brain, or the slide sets on relationships on my website, and see what you think.

How do I relate to colleagues when they are not meeting my expectations?

Compassion can live alongside discernment, performance expectations, and assertiveness. You can have compassion – the basic wish that they not suffer, usually with feelings of sympathetic concern – for your colleagues, and you can restrain and release any ill will toward them (including any righteousness or disdain), while also making skillful choices about what you might say and how you might say it.

Does the brain develop primarily due to the influence of relationships?

While the social dimension to life is profoundly important, it is just one of several major influences on the developing brain, especially past the first birthday. For example, the brain is incredibly shaped by a young child’s interior sensations, their engagement with sensorimotor experiences, and by their interior reflections (largely nonverbal) about their world and their self.

When going through the “Link” stage of your HEAL process, should my positive thought be one of love from others, even those I feel betrayed by?

It is natural to continue to be bothered by negative thoughts and feelings long after a loss and psychological injury that’s as large as the one you experienced. In my model of the three ways to engage the mind – let be, let go, let in – sometimes it take many months, or even several years, to get through the first two of these. Try not be overwhelmed by the pain.

Then, on the basis of truly letting be and letting go, you can now let in most effectively, such as internalizing positive experiences of feeling cared about by others (e.g., friends, children), and feeling worthy and good in your own being. Then the linking step of holding both positive and negative in your mind will be most effective.

More generally, it helps me get free of my own suffering in relationships when I can see the suffering in others and have compassion for them. This does not mean I approve or let them off the moral hook, just that I also recognize their own pain and difficulties. Besides being benevolent, this seeing of the suffering of others paradoxically helps me feel less upset.

What advice can you give to someone whose partner abuses drugs or alcohol?

Alcohol is a problem. If a person can’t do it moderately they can’t do it at all. The AMA considers the upper limit to be 2 drinks/day for men (note that a “drink” is pretty small: 1.5 ounces of liquor or 5 ounces of wine or 8 ounces of beer), or 14 drinks a week. If your partner is past 14 drinks/week routinely and won’t stop, that’s alcoholism.

Are you going to Alanon meetings and/or seeing a therapist experienced in this territory? If not, you should. Also read a good book or two. The core theme is to be compassionate but individuated from the addict.

Your partner’s drinking is about him or her, not you.

What can I do to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped or can’t accept what is offered?

I find myself thinking about the wisdom of people I know who have much more experience than I have with this territory. They stay centered and kind while also establishing clear boundaries, understanding that they can speak truth as they see it from their heart but ultimately cannot make anyone do anything. They also do what’s possible to bring in more resources, such as competent professionals.

I notice that you have a lot of offerings on how people can improve their relationships. Can I suggest that you consider offerings for people who don’t have family or fulfilling friendships, who are alone and perhaps lonely?

I appreciate you raising these issues of isolation and loneliness, in the larger context of the disruption of social bonds in America (i.e. the pandemic). I totally agree with you about their realness and impacts, including on the brain.

In The Strong Heart program, the emphasis is on skills for any kind of important relationship (not necessarily family or intimate partner). Though still, if one does not have many relationships at all, there is little in that program that would be relevant.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Resilient, and related online programs, there is quite a lot of material about doing whatever is possible in a relatively isolated life to build up a genuine sense of connection, and internalize these experiences. This of course does not change tough conditions, but it does address what we can do ourselves in those conditions. More broadly, most of the content I offer is about internal practice of one kind or another that is not connected to any kind of relationship.

Loneliness and isolation are tough, truly tough to deal with, and a sadly widespread issue.

What advice do you have for a young man who feels insecure about his body and wants to connect with women?

I suggest you get a good therapist and work through these issues. You describe what sounds like “body dysmorphic disorder,” a catch-all term for irrational beliefs that some or all of one’s body is ugly, broken, tainted, etc.

Also, under their exterior, many young men have the same self-doubts as you do, including about intimate parts of their body. I know I did.

I also suggest, with respect, that you think in terms of connecting with young women as a kind of ladder, let’s say twelve steps, with a happy marriage at the twelfth step and casual conversation as the first step. Take it one step at a time. Get comfortable at one step, and then gradually open to moving just one step higher. Don’t focus on steps way above you.

In this context, notice and allow young women to have a positive response to you at the step you’re on. Take in this positive response and the good feelings it creates in you. Use this ‘taking in’ (see my book, Buddha’s Brain, for more on this practice) to fill you up gradually, bringing confidence and slowly healing your old pain and insecurity.

In my model of the ladder, here are the steps (don’t take this too seriously, I don’t):

  1. casual conversation
  2. friendly encounter, like having a real good talk and sense of connection
  3. specific get together, like going to get a cup of coffee after class to keep talking and hanging out together [note that up through this step, things can still be totally platonic, though maybe there is a brewing sense that some chemistry, some warmth for each other, maybe some attraction, could be possible]
  4. clearly warm vibes or event that goes beyond platonic connecting: could be a depth in conversation, or doing something together that goes beyond casual friends like having dinner together or going to hear a band together [note that so far there has been no physical contact other than maybe a casual touch on a shoulder or arm for emphasis while talking, or a casual friend hug]
  5. basic affectionate touch: could be holding hands in a movie or while walking around campus at night, or cuddling on a couch at a party, or a quick kiss
  6. extended kissing
  7. foreplay
  8. sex
  9. being a couple
  10. living together
  11. engagement
  12. marriage

This is about wise view, seeing reality clearly and not being deluded by the legacy of beliefs from childhood. And it’s about being receptive, receiving the gift of women being drawn to you. And they are drawn to you already even if you don’t see it.

You say that the brain has powerful, natural capacities toward intimacy. What, then, do you believe causes some of us to isolate ourselves or feel alone?

Many reasons. Sometimes the longing for closeness led to pain in the past, or we saw this happen to others, or we simply worried that it could happen to us.

The trick now is to risk the dreaded experiences related to intimacy in thoughtful, appropriate ways that are likely to succeed. Then, when things go well (as they usually do), really take in the good of this experience, to help your brain gradually learn that it is OK to get closer to others.

Can “Taking In The Good” help in relationships?

Yes, studies show that for most people most of the time – each day, week, month, year, and lifetime – they are having many more positive experiences than negative ones. Of course, there are important and sometimes tragic exceptions that need to be acknowledged, too, such as people at home and abroad living in terrible poverty, or with chronic pain or depression. The problem is that the brain has a feature that worked great for survival in the wild, but today functions as a kind of design flaw in terms of quality of life and long-term health: the brain generally lets positive experiences flow through while capturing all the negative ones.

This is why “taking in the good” is so important: by staying with positive experiences for a dozen or more seconds in a row, we can capture them and weave them into the fabric of the brain and the self.

The noteworthy researcher on marriage, John Gottman, found that happy, lasting couples had at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions (and often an even higher ratio), and found that falling below this 5:1 ratio was a major risk factor for eventual divorce. Without getting into numbers, which could be misleading, the key takeaway point is that much research shows that negative experiences are generally more memorable, more reactive to the body, and more consequential in how we feel and see the world. This is true in all time frames, whether a day or a lifetime.

Therefore, the practical steps are: (A) bear negative experiences when they happen without getting all negative about them (which just adds negative to negative), (B) help yourself get through a negative experience as gracefully and as a soon as you can, and (C) really cultivate positive experiences, and when you are having them, really focus on them to take them in.

Can you help shed more light on how we live ``our Aspirations`` whilst not being selfish?

Check out the Aspiration chapter in Resilient.

In brief, healthy aspirations take into account our duties to others . . . and to ourselves. To simplify, duties are “have to” while aspirations are “want to.” Also check out Mother Nurture and my writings about sharing the load fairly when kids come along.

This said, in many people’s lives (though sadly and often unjustly, there are many exceptions), after handling duties there is still attention and time and often other resources available for personal aspirations – especially when we consider the power of many little moments of practice, and the power of relatively small amounts of time each day – 15 minutes? an hour? – that really add up over months and years.

I was just wondering if you happened to have a “vitamin” for guilt, especially unnecessary guilt.

Great question.

I think the vitamin for guilt is a combination of taking appropriate responsibility for whatever deserves healthy guilt, reminding oneself rationally of what it would be unfair (to yourself) to feel guilty about, and turning attention toward those things that help you feel like a good person.

One of the practices in my book; Just One Thing – Forgive Yourself, goes into this more deeply, so you might like to check that out.

Personally, I do not want to feel guilt past the point that is deserved and productive. Otherwise, it is needless suffering that also reduces my capacity to be of benefit to others.

Will you speak to the process of dealing with a relationship loss?

It is natural for the mind to revisit again and again material related to a loss (e.g., images, longings, thoughts, I-wish-I’d-said). That’s part of the normal grieving process. In meditation and in general, what’s usually wise is to allow the material to be there, take some seconds or minutes to know it for what it is, hold it in a larger space of awareness and interest, and try not to identify with it as “me” or “mine”: it is there in the mind but it is content like any other, such as a sound, sensation, memory, etc. And also for sure bring gentle compassion and kindness to yourself.

In addition to this fundamental mindfulness approach, it can also often be helpful to gently but actively let the loss-related material go, such as focusing on exhaling, reminding yourself that partings are widely common and inevitable ultimately for all of us, bowing to reality as it is whether you like it or not, or mentally saying goodbye to the person.

And helpful to take in, to receive, positive feelings and thoughts of being cared about by others.

I’d like to detach myself enough so that it washes over me instead of attaching itself to me, but I struggle with that. Am I just too emotional?

My too-short answer is that what works for me is to have an underlying sense of well-being in the first place (nurture yourself), plus a knowing that 10,000 causes are creating this moment, most of them impersonally, plus a sense of the person’s suffering, plus a strong sense of a kind of boundary between me and the other person that recognizes that I am OK over here no matter what streams through the mind over there.

With practice, you can really alter this. Your brain will change for sure.

You write that one survival strategy is creating separations. Why? How do humans benefit from the brain creating this separation?

At a physical level, any living organism needs to create lots of boundaries, both between itself and the world, and inside itself in terms of distinguishing between itself and germs, or distinguishing among different bodily systems and processes. Mentally, organisms – especially the smarter they get, like us – have to distinguish between one thought and another one, one perception and another one, past and present and future, etc. These distinctions are separations. They help us survive. But they also make us suffer since everything is actually highly connected. So this separation-making is tense, stressful, confused in some sense, and cuts us off from wholeness and oneness. Thus suffering. Practice is seeing through these separations, releasing unnecessary ones, and not taking the necessary ones too seriously.

What is emotional blackmail?

For me, “emotional blackmail” has to do with the fuzzy but real line between normal-range efforts to persuade, cajole, influence, warn of consequences, and so on and more manipulative efforts to make someone do one’s bidding. Normal efforts may be unwanted by other people, and could be annoying, weird, or unskillful (the usual messy human stuff) but are otherwise not meant with any kind of evil intent. Contrast this with creepy, intimidating, way-too-pushy, violent, threatening, bizarre, cruel, sadistic, etc. efforts that are simply way out of line. It is the latter that I think of as true emotional blackmail.

Is remorse a good thing?

I think remorse is good for us humans if it is deserved and proportionate and leads to corrective action.

How can you take the high ground and ``stay right when you are wronged`` when dealing with an abusive partner? That high ground to them only signals weakness.

This is a deep and natural question, one that I’ve mulled a lot over the years.

My two cents is that the more abusive the partner, the more important it is to take the high ground, wrapping oneself in a mantle of dignity, strength, and self-respect. Plus the high road may well include very powerful, even fiery words and deeds. And if this just increases their attacks, well, that seems like pretty unmistakable information that it could be good to change the relationship.

Also, the approach I suggest is not very entwined with what goes on in the mind of the other person. If they want to interpret me taking the high road as weakness, that’s their interpretation, not mine. Also, there are many examples of people taking the high road in face of very, very abusive people and governments – and generally that high road is seen as a very strong move by both abusers and onlookers.

I was recently invited to join a social club but I am concerned that I won't fit in. I have difficult psychological disorder and I am afraid of being myself. How can I get over this fear?

The whole notion of “fitting in” is interesting. Here are a few personal reflections on the matter:

  • With others, I try to keep it concrete and specific, not conceptual: Are they treating me civilly? Is there warmth and inclusion? Are they listening? Do I feel bigger or smaller around them?
  • If I am living by my own code – ethical, right speech, not evil, not a jerk, warm, compassionate – then what other people do is up to them. I may need to shrink the relationship if they mistreat me, but not because there is something wrong with me.
  • I find that slowing things down, asking questions, and staying grounded simple and real are very helpful.

Bottom line, you are a good person. Myself included, everyone is weird. Really! We are all quirky. You may have a few more features to your psyche than some people, but so what? Your extra features have brought you much growth and helped you develop much virtue. If another person is intolerant, that’s on them not you. It could be a practical issue to deal with, but there is no blame for you.

I feel very isolated and unconnected to the world. How can one find strength to face challenges without loving relationships and family support?

First, I would suggesting pushing yourself into situations in which you can form new good relationships of various kinds. Some of the best settings are low-key classes such as introductory ceramics and service projects in which good people come together in common cause. I’m a shy person myself and I get what is hard about actually taking this advice, but there is no replacement for it.

Second, there are many sources of resilient well-being that do not depend on relationships. My programs and writings get at this in depth, and I suggest you check out Hardwiring Happiness in particular.

Third, even with limitations in human relationships and relative isolation, you can feel related to the natural world, and you can feel and focus on your own naturally warm and caring heart. Even if love is not flowing in, you can be fed by love flowing out.

How do I handle an adult child who's continually making bad decisions, has drug and alcohol issues and ends up back in jail?

These are just about the hardest sort of situations I know. I’ve never had to live through anything like this myself, so whatever I say is tentative and respectful; there is so much I don’t know here. You may already know everything I say below.

  • I’ve seen parents draw boundaries as needed around certain behaviors – e.g., call 911 if an adult child gets physically threatening, not letting the child live with them, not having long phone calls with someone who is drunk – while finding a core of love inside for the person no matter what. Sometimes the boundary takes the form of “we can do X for you (e.g., buy you a basic used car, keep you on our health insurance) but not Y (e.g., bail you out of jail, lie to the police for you).
  • It’s super important that both parents be aligned with each other. Otherwise the adult child splits them.
  • Stay as unreactive as possible. (Yep, very hard). It only pours gasoline on the fire, and can be used to discredit you.
  • Be skillful about the drug/alcohol issues. They seem central.
  • Give him as little to resist as possible (e.g., unwanted advice he won’t take anyway).
  • Taking care of your own well-being (both parents) helps you sustain efforts for your child. Get support from others: minister, friends, relatives, therapist, Al-Anon. Take a breath and focus on your own life, like going for walks, spending time with your own friends, having fun, reading a book, meditation/prayer, going fishing, knitting, etc.
  • Take the long view. Also realize that so much here is just out of your hands.
  • One thing to add is that if parents do set a boundary, unless on reflection it was just not a good boundary (like a rule laid down in the heat of anger), then it is important to keep it, and to back each other up, otherwise it is worse than no boundary at all since it undermines the parents’ credibility.
  • If you and your partner have not sat down with a sensible neutral third party – e.g., lawyer, minister, therapist – to make clear agreements with each other about your child (or at least know for sure what you are in conflict about) – you should do that, unless you can quickly make agreements that stick on your own.

How do you deal with a situation in which a perpetrator repeatedly abuses the victim?

The situation you describe really touches my heart – and yes indeed, it is one of the greatest challenges to the topic of forgiveness.

First of all, whatever one does regarding forgiveness, safety comes first, for oneself and if relevant, for others. So I hope you are doing what you can to get out of a relationship with someone who is abusing you, or shrink the size of it so that it no longer contains abuse.

Second, sometimes a person just can’t forgive, in any way, shape, or form. It’s too early, the wound is too great, what happened seems unforgivable. If that’s true, it’s true. Then around the non-forgiveness could be a disengagement from pouring gasoline on the fire of outrage, resentment, fault-finding, self-criticism, etc. And skillful action as appropriate, such as to enlist the useful aid or support of others.

Third, if the first level of forgiveness is possible – releasing, disengaging from resentment or anger, yet without a full pardon – then a person could help herself to experience and stabilize that state of mind. For example, to do this myself, it helps me to know that a perpetrator has suffered, too (usually at the hands of others). Sometimes it helps to seek justice; knowing that you have done what you can for justice – if only to protect others from the perpetrator – and perhaps knowing that the perpetrator is indeed facing justice of one kind or another, can help a person set down the burden; you did what you could and now it’s out of your hands.

Last, whatever you are doing with forgiveness, it helps to take a good step each day toward your own better life. This helps pull your attention into positive actions and their benefits, and draws it away from the perpetrator and the abuse. As you put steps between you and the trainwreck behind you, it can play a smaller and smaller role in your life. As the saying puts it: “Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.”

Why do humans crave affection and companionship?

The key distinction is between “craving” – as problematic forms of desire – and “attaching” in the ordinary healthy sense of companionship, friendship, love, and parent-child bonding. In the sense of the words I am using here, in a nutshell, attaching is beneficial and craving is harmful.

Humans evolved a highly social brain that naturally attaches in healthy ways. Check out “attachment theory” and “social brain theory” in general and my chapters on “Intimacy” and “Courage” in my book Resilient in particular. And, sometimes healthy forms of attachment go awry, as in jealousy, over-reactions to rejection, or vicious us-against-them conflicts.

How can I simplify the holidays so I actually enjoy myself and my loved ones?

Commit to less. Do as much as possible in advance. Ask others to pick up their fair share of the additional tasks. Don’t get too attached to fixed ideas of how things need to be. Focus on the essentials, the point of the holidays: time off, relaxing, being with loved ones, generosity and gratitude – and if this is meaningful to you, honoring the original spiritual purposes of this time of year.

What’s it like at your family gatherings?

I try not to play psychologist at the dinner table! Still, learning about how the brain evolved has made me really appreciate how vulnerable we are to feeling stressed and anxious; the brain is tilted in these directions. So I’ll deliberately relax my body if I start to feel stressed, or remind myself about the protections and resources in my life if I start to feel unnecessarily worried about something.

I am having a difficult time understanding your use of the word “fault” in your JOT ``Admit Fault and Move On.`` The word fault seems unnecessarily blaming and critical and I wonder if the word “responsibility” might be easier for your readers to take on.

You’re right, different words can land in different ways for different people. In my own case, I think of “fault” in its ordinary sense, including error, causing harm, and responsibility: “it was my fault that the plate broke since I dropped it on the floor.” Personally, I do have faults: I do make errors that are my own responsibility, many of which cause harms. I can use this word without it necessarily implying any sort of inappropriate remorse or shame.

Separately, my personal view is that I am actually not always doing the best I can, nor are others. I see many times where I could have chosen more wisely; I usually see this in the frame of self-compassion and self-guidance rather than self-shaming, so the seeing of my “fault” in these cases ends up helping me feel better about myself than worse.

Reflecting on the common saying – “They were just doing the best they could” – I think there are two levels of meaning to it.

At one level, the deterministic unfolding of reality, whatever happened was determined by preceding causes, so in this sense there was no “better” alternative to what happened.

But at another level, people have a high degree of volitional choice over the causes they set in motion. In terms of values, some of those causes are beneficial and some are harmful. For example, feeding children is beneficial and starving them is harmful. Feeding children is better than starving them. At this level of choices and values, people who starve children are not doing the “best” they can. In more mundane but more common terms, being patient with my children is more beneficial than getting cranky with them; therefore, when I am being cranky with them, I am not doing the best I can.

At this level of choices and values, there is also the dimension of effort. There is a difference between making efforts to set beneficial causes in motion, and not making much if any effort at all. In common experience, we value efforts to cause the good, such as diligence, conscientiousness, and aspiration. Efforts to cause the good are better than no efforts. In this area as well, someone who is not making reasonable efforts to cause the good – to drive safely, to study for the test, to understand his or her partner – is not doing the best he or she can.

In our personal lives, and in society altogether, if we don’t recognize distinctions between beneficial and harmful, effortful and neglectful, better and poorer – or blur or obscure these distinctions with euphemistic language – that’s a steep and slippery slope toward waiving moral responsibility.

So, in a nutshell, what is true at the deterministic level gets mistakenly applied to the moral level if we say – to use an extreme example to highlight the point – “Oh, Hitler was just doing the best he could.”

I chose that word “fault” deliberately, to be a little provocative. I do think that faults occur in myself and others, and actually our discomfort with seeing and naming them gets in the way of clearing them from the space and moving on. If I drink too much holiday wine and start tossing a beautiful dish up in the air and it falls and breaks on the floor, and my wife says, “Hey, it’s your fault that my grandmother’s dish got broken,” I’d have to agree with her. And if I were to say, “Wait a minute, I was just doing the best I could,” and she replies, “No way, that was far from your best,” I’d have to agree with her in this regard as well!

How does an acceptance of behaving badly help?

We can see our part and make corrections going forward while at the same time knowing and feeling that there is goodness in ourselves. In fact, the making of corrections is an expression of that goodness. I’ve made so many mistakes in my own life! We can be openhearted, and have regrets, and also see the causes of events originating in others as well, and feel our own pain . . . . and focus mainly on what we can do each day going forward . . . and take refuge in this, in doing what we can each day.

My dilemma is wanting to love my parents but being scared of them. What to do?

What I might offer is that one approach is to experience your own lovingness (compassion, kindness, benevolence) as a kind of field radiating from you that includes all beings independently of who they are or what they do. Then your lovingness can also become more individualized depending on the person – leading to more or less closeness with them. But your lovingness itself can be unconditional. Besides the benefits to others, this approach can feel very self-nurturing and uplifting.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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