The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Social vs. Physical Distancing: Why It Matters

Social connection and social distancing during COVID-19 coronavirus pandemicThis article was originally posted by Amy Banks, M.D., on April 12, 2020, on her Wired for Love blog on Psychology Today.

To protect ourselves, our families, and our communities from the devastation of the coronavirus health experts are strongly encouraging everyone to “socially distance” — to stay 6-10 feet away from other people.

I am concerned — not by the strategy but by the way people are enacting it. The few times I have ventured out to a grocery store or for a walk around my neighborhood, I've seen people not only keeping distant from one another but also seeming afraid. They pass each other on the street or in a store without looking at each other or exchanging greetings.

It’s as if we were each locked in a personal bubble that no one can enter. The threat of COVID-19 and the stress it induces can understandably cause individuals to become terrified and myopic — to turn inward in an attempt to stay safe. While a week of that may be more stressful to some than others, months of this type of social isolation is dangerous. Research clearly shows us that our physical and emotional health and well-being are dependent on loving relationships and physical touch. To weather this pandemic, we need one another.

Weeks ago, my colleague and friend, Roseann Adams, LCSW, recognized that the national strategy of social distancing was a double-edged sword. She identified that social distancing can be a threat to all of us as it leads some people to socially isolate potentially causing further stress and, over the long haul, impairing our bodies’ immune system. In fact, strict social distancing may set us up for other illnesses.

Within the first few days, she was encouraging people to physically distance with social connection. Differentiating physical distance from social distance acknowledges the virus’s malignant ability to be transmitted from person to person but also acknowledges that the virus has no power over our ability to support and nurture one another in this time of extraordinary threat.

Think about the power of social isolation in society. Solitary confinement is considered the worst punishment a human can receive. In fact, most civilized communities consider it a form of torture. The physical and emotional toll it takes over time includes a worsening of mental health issues, an increase in self-injurious behavior and even suicide.

Isolating individuals is perhaps the most common first step domestic abusers use to gain power and control over their victims. He or she begins to control who you can see, where you can go, what you can wear. When a person violates the rules set by the perpetrator the punishment is harsh and swift.

Social distancing, as it has been presented, can feel like that. In fact, in my work with trauma survivors during this time, I have heard people describe feeling trapped and threatened again. That is not sustainable. Becoming socially isolated may keep the majority of us alive, but not well.

By naming the national strategy as physical distancing rather than social distancing and emphasizing the need for human connection we can stay safe from the virus but also hold onto the heightened need we all have for one another right now. Each of us needs an extra dose of being seen and held within our connections during this extraordinary time. Perhaps now more than ever we must be intentional about giving our neural pathways for connection a workout.

In fact, we need to go out of our way to make eye contact, wave, move, or loudly say "hello" from behind the mask. This gives our smart vagus nerve and our mirror neurons a workout. Literally, the sound of a friendly voice and seeing the eyebrows of another person raise in greeting stimulates your social engagement system, which in turn sends a signal to your stress response system to stand down. Those moments of interaction may make the difference in the long run as to how we, as a society, survive the pandemic.

The human nervous system is amazingly adaptive. Our brains will adapt to social isolation over time, but the burden of stress the isolation causes will lead to long-term health problems. As a society we will not be well at the end of all of this — not because of COVID-19 but because of the message we take in that being with others can be dangerous.

That is why each of us must do our part to not only stay physically six feet apart and to wear masks but also to go out of our way on the street, in the grocery store, through FaceTime, Zoom, or whatever platform you can use to reach out to one another. We all must know that nurturing the relationships we have and reaching out to others who may be isolated is as essential to surviving the pandemic as physical distancing.

Let’s add another important directive to our national policy of containing the coronavirus — to reach out each day to three other people — to check in on them, simply hear their voice, or share the pain or joy of the day. This is a wider strategy to not only survive the pandemic but to keep our humanity alive.

Amy Banks, M.D., is a senior scholar at WCW and founding scholar of the International Center for Growth in Connection, which began as the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at WCW. Dr. Banks has spoken throughout the U.S. on the neurobiology of relationships and is the co-author, with Leigh Ann Hirschman, of Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships.

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Guest — Sougata Sarkar
To stand by in such moment of crisis.....is something all we need....great choice of words...liked it
Saturday, 02 May 2020 18:08
Guest — Arshad
Right now the whole world is struggling with Corona. The whole world is looking for a cure for this virus, but until it can be sol... Read More
Wednesday, 13 May 2020 22:16
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When Getting Along Is Not Enough

Maureen Walker When Getting Along is Not Enough bookIf conventional wisdom is to be believed, women are notoriously good at getting along. Cultural pundits, from scholarly theorists to political wags, suggest that women are better suited and somehow more prone to connect with others for good. This notion may have a certain surface appeal, particularly to those of us who want to promote healing in a world marred by mortal violence and near-normative violations of human dignity.

However, women who dare to change worlds know that getting along is not enough. Just getting along allows us to be friendly neighbors, cooperative colleagues, best friends, and maybe even intimate partners. But it is not enough to allow us to build authentic, in-depth connections that bring out the best in ourselves and others, and in our society as a whole. In order to do that, we must delve deeper and ask ourselves hard questions—particularly, as we honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., around the issue of race.

After the 2016 election, analyses and demographic parsing revealed entrenched racialized divides among women. Race emerged as an undeniable constant: as a signifier that gives meaning to our lives, shaping our beliefs about who we are, who we can be, and how we should be regarded by others. Furthermore, race delineates the parameters of belonging and determines the measure of worth we accord others—how we perceive their credibility and deservingness, and how we enact power in our relationships with them.

Although the notion of race itself may be a biological fiction, it is a political reality, one that has functioned as a pernicious strategy of disconnection, violence, and violation. Whether through collusion, co-option, or coercion, women are deeply implicated in sustaining the norms and systems of racial disconnection.

Women of good will (and that, I believe, includes most of us) regularly enact racialized ideologies in real life. Indeed, these ideologies may be in large part cultural legacy, implicit yet potent, unknown even to ourselves. We can begin to know how race shapes our relationships by observing our habits of disconnection. For example, what are the feelings and thoughts we dare not express to someone of a different race—even when that person is dear to our hearts? Certainly not all feelings and thoughts are meant to be shared; some are private and rightfully so. There is, however, a distinction to be made between privacy and secrecy.

Privacy may represent thoughtful restraint, in service of further growth in the relationship. Secrecy, on the other hand, is a habit of disconnection that functions to protect and preserve a preferred image or narrative. Such withholding creates “dead zones” in a relationship. We might observe how and under what circumstances we create these “dead zones.” How big and unnavigable do we believe them to be? How readily do we criticize “them” and what “they” are like when we are in same-race company? What parts of ourselves and of our experience do we withhold in order to preserve and protect the appearance of connection, rather than allowing ourselves to be more fully known and present in a relationship? This is a habit of disconnection that stifles our desire for connection and belies our intentions to engage the richly textured realities that define our shared humanity.

I wrote When Getting Along Is Not Enough as an invitation and a guide for remaking the meaning and function of race in our lives. One of the practices that enables this transformation is what I call “disruptive empathy.” The two words don’t flow easily together, intentionally so, because empathy is not an easy skill. We tend to think of empathy as demonstrations of niceness, kindness, and caring—laudable actions all, but not stand-ins for growth-fostering empathy.

A popular metaphor that more accurately captures the disruptive dynamics of empathy is “walking a mile in another’s shoes.” To walk in another’s shoes implies at minimum the willingness to shed our own. This process is disruptive because it requires a certain level of willful de-stabilization. Specifically, we have to loosen our attachment to the narratives about self and other. We must be willing to be surprised and accepting of parts of ourselves we previously found embarrassing or shameful. In other words, the anchoring value of disruptive empathy is courage, not comfort.

I like to describe disruptive empathy as a dynamic process facilitated by three intentions: awareness, respect, and compassion. Here are just a few of the questions that facilitate the movement through this experience.

Awareness: What am I feeling and thinking? Desiring? Remembering? Is there a cherished narrative or image that I want to shield from scrutiny?

Respect: What is the purpose of this encounter? Am I trying to win? Placate? What might happen if I risk genuine curiosity about this other person?

Compassion: How did this person come to be where she is in this encounter right now? What aspects of our shared humanity is this encounter revealing? Under what conditions do I speak, interpret, and behave similarly?

When Getting Along Is Not Enough is not a mandate for forced harmony. It is an invitation to shed the illusions that allow us to settle for the appearance of harmony, rather than richly textured and authentic connection. It is an invitation to transform the life-limiting imagination of who we can be and how we must engage each other as racialized beings. This book is intended to help us on a shared journey of healing and ask: How might we dare to change worlds? Who, together, might we become? And most important, are we willing?

Maureen Walker, Ph.D., is a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women and a founding scholar of the International Center for Growth in Connection, formerly the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute. She is the author of When Getting Along is Not Enough: Reconstructing Race in Our Lives and Relationships, a book that offers a roadmap to personal transformation and cultural healing to repair the damage wrought by racism.

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Connected Teaching – An Approach for Classrooms, Communities, and the Workplace

connected sequence of paper dollsA recent family conversation reminded me of my (long-ago!) elementary school experience of learning who my teacher would be in the coming school year. I remember the sense of anticipation – who will be my teacher?.

Now, decades later, I am a college professor, and with each new semester, I begin working with new groups of students. I have related anticipation (not as intense, for sure, but related) as I wonder about each new group of students. Will they be excited to learn? As we meet each week for class, will they arrive prepared and ready to discuss the topics of the day?

Who we learn from or teach with is important because we all learn through and in relationship. And I propose this is true not only in school (at any level), but also in the workplace, communities, and other settings. Relational Cultural Theory (RCT) helps us understand this more deeply.

Relational Cultural Theory

Many readers of this blog are familiar with Relational Cultural Theory (RCT), developed by Jean Baker Miller and her colleagues in the Wellesley area and later the Stone Center at Wellesley College, now part of the Wellesley Centers for Women. For those new to the theory, RCT is a human development theory based on the idea that we grow in and through relationships. This challenges many predominant developmental theories which suggest that adults are at higher developmental stages when they are independent or don’t feel they need others. RCT is clear, we are at our best when we engage in growth-fostering relationships.

RCT and Education

While RCT was initially developed and used primarily in clinical settings (e.g. psychotherapy and social work), scholar-practitioners have also applied RCT in other domains including organizations, social justice, and education. For example, RCT is foundational in the WCW program Open Circle, which provides social and emotional learning curriculum and professional development for elementary schools.

RCT and a broader relational approach can also help us become better and more resilient teachers (whether we are in formal educational roles or teach as leaders and supervisors). RCT helps us understand how relationships and even single interactions can be powerful conduits for teaching and learning. Additionally, an RCT lens helps us explore power, cultural context, boundaries, and mutuality in teaching.

Connection and Critical Feedback

For example, the concept of mattering helps us understand the teaching and learning relationship and gives us an important tool for assessment. An essential element of assessment (whether one is a teacher assessing student work or a supervisor conducting staff evaluations) – is being able to deliver critical feedback.

The concept of mattering helps us remain positive and focused on the other person’s growth and development as we prepare and provide critical feedback. Offering critical feedback can be frustrating (for example, when we believe we explained an assignment clearly and imagine the student wasn’t listening) and stressful (e.g. when the receiver is resistant or defensive). By reminding myself that students and their learning matter deeply to me before I engage, I’ve been able to get myself in a good space for providing sometimes-difficult feedback on papers or in person. I believe that at least some of the time, someone receiving critical feedback will be more open if they sense that the teacher or supervisor is coming from a place of respect, care, and hope for improvement. In part, this is about the energy and affect we bring to the interaction. Additionally, a sense of mattering helps us frame the feedback with a sense of hope and belief in the recipient’s ability to learn and grow. So mattering helps us position ourselves for the interaction and frame the message.

Mattering is just one example of how a relational approach to teaching, supervision, and leadership can fuel teaching and learning in a variety of settings. The following questions help us continue to explore:

How have important relationships shaped your learning? How can a relational approach help us:

  • navigate generational differences in the classroom and workplace?
  • balance availability, authenticity, and boundaries in the age of social media and 24/7 access?
  • be more resilient through the lows and highs of teaching and leading?

Harriet L. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Connected Teaching: Relationship, Power, and Mattering in Higher Education and Lead Scholar for Education as Relational Practice with the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, a legacy project of the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a professor of psychology and counseling at Carlow University.

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‘It’s Not in Our Head’… and yet Pain is in Our Brain:

Pensive looking woman of colorWhy Racialized Exclusion Hurts and How We Can Remain Resilient

Going into your home while Black, waiting in a coffee shop, playing with your child, styling your hair, swimming, cooking, flying as a doctor while Black…living while Black. And as such, being subjected to undo questioning, demeaning and sometimes life-threatening reactions  - you name it, we have seen it. And we feel it…which means our children do as well.  A starkly sobering example in recent weeks with the news of a 9 year old Black girl who committed suicide, no longer able to cope with the racist taunts she faced from peers at school.
 
Each of these widely known and growing incidences of exclusion, harassment and race-based violence impose criminalization of everyday behaviors onto people of color and others in marginalized groups.  These attacks have and continue to have a cumulative impact that injures psychological and physiological well-being. Evidence regularly grows about the impact of racial trauma and race-related stress on our emotional and physical health. What may not be as widely known is how racialized exclusion and violence show up in the brain.

Our neurobiological network is wired to connect. Which is why... Read full article on EmbraceRace.org

This article was originally published on EmbraceRace.org and is shared with permission. Karen Craddock, Ph.D., visiting scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women, is an applied psychologist, action researcher, and strengths-based practitioner. She is director of Strategic Initiatives & Network Engagement at Embrace Race.

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#MeToo—Changing Brains, Relationships and Power Dynamics

This blog was originally posted on Psychology Today and is reproduced with the permission of the author.

Amy Banks, M.D.The #MeToo movement is giving a viral voice to women (and men) who have been the targets of violence and harassment. It is a social change campaign that I never thought would happen in my lifetime. Honestly, when it first started to spread on Facebook I thought it might be cathartic for the people who joined, but I didn’t anticipate it having wider social change potential. My bad—because I temporarily forgot about relational neuroscience and the power that can be unleashed when groups of individuals come together and support one another.

What does the #MeToo movement look like through the lens of relational neuroscience? A few studies come to mind that might help shed some light on interpersonal dynamics across power differences. Check-out "The Cookie Monster Study" as described by Dacher Keltner and his colleagues at University of California at Berkeley.

For those too busy to watch the five-minute video, here is a summary of the study. The researchers brought three individuals to the social science lab and told one of them that they were in charge—essentially giving that person power over the other two. While the group was busy with the assigned task of writing boring university policy, the researchers brought out a plate of four cookies. Initially, each of the three participants ate one cookie each, leaving one on the plate. Interestingly, most of the time, the person given the power eventually ate the fourth cookie. In Dr. Keltner's study taking the fourth cookie correlated with having power and also with a decrease in activity of the mirror neuron system (the circuits in your brain that produce empathy and allow appreciation of the impact of your actions on others). Further, as the researchers watched the behavior of those given power, they observed that the people in charge ate differently. They chewed with their mouths open and occasionally had little pieces of food dropping out of their mouths. Dr. Keltner describes this change in the level of interpersonal awareness as the "paradox of power"—the qualities that often bring someone to power, like empathy and the ability to listen to others, diminish once a person is in power.

Kelner's research and theory suggests that for many people simply having power over others decreases the activity in the part of the brain needed to understand the impact of your behavior on others. Just the opposite of what is needed to be an engaged, respectful leader.

The potential corrupting and disconnecting impact of power is an enormous problem in Western societies where success is often culturally prescribed as gaining power over others and obtaining more resources than those around you. In the US, the myth of individual success is promoted in business, politics, and sports. This model of capitalism is great for making money but not great at creating cooperative, balanced human beings. In fact, one of the "benefits" of making it to the top of the power hierarchy has been a blissful ability to do whatever you want to whomever you want, and because your empathy pathways may be immobilized by power you don’t have to feel the pain you are causing. Essentially, the abuse of power goes hand in hand with power over others, the dominant organizational model in our country. Because power over environments is everywhere, most people have witnessed power abuse at work or family gatherings, in religious communities and on sports teams. Sexual harassment and abuse has been and continues to be ubiquitous which makes the rather sudden rise of the #MeToo movement all the more stunning.

Amy Banks, M.D., is a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships.

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Re-thinking Self-esteem

If there is one notion that’s likely to receive nearly unanimous validation in contemporary culture, it’s that self-esteem is a good thing. While there may not be agreement on what is it or how to do it, its elevated placement in Maslow’s hierarchy has led to the notion that it is something we should all have, and that we should have enough of it. In fact, not having enough self-esteem is cited as the root of all sorts of social and psychological ills. When low self-esteem is cited as the cause of a particular objectionable behavior, the explanation seems more accusatory than diagnostic. For example, there are few cultural indictments more shaming to parents than to have a child with “low self-esteem.” It is no wonder then that cultivating self-esteem has become a central, even if implicit, goal in parenting and therapeutic practices. Consequently, what started as a developmental construct has taken on the valence of a cultural meme, with a taken-for-granted acceptance of its meaning and import. Left unexamined, any construct, even one with all the apparent virtue of self-esteem, can take on the central distortions of the dominant culture. The problem for Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) practitioners--parent, teachers, and therapists alike--is that something gets lost in translation when self-esteem becomes a proxy for the Separate Self: when it is defined as an individualistic and privatized commodity. When the construct of self-esteem is imported into a Separate Self developmental framework, the near inevitable result is the cultivation of expression of power-over practice.

Let me explain. Power-over practice does not require intentionality; oblivion to context is sufficient. Such was probably the case when I observed two young boys (presumably siblings) soccer-kicking a cereal box through the crowded aisles of an upscale grocery store. The boys were having a grand time, while two adults (presumably parents) stood by with bemused “boys-will-be-boys” smiles. The store employees stood tight-lipped and hapless, not daring to interrupt this unfettered assertion of want and will. The shifting configurations of observing adults (me included) expressed our shared un-ease through furtive glances at each other, almost certainly unanimous in our disapproval of “parental over-indulgence.” It has since occurred to me that what we witnessed could have been tinged with no small measure of parental fear. It could have been that the parents could not risk re-directing this uninhibited behavior for fear of depleting the boys’ supply of self-esteem. What became clear is this: when the “Self” is disconnected from community, an impulse is treated as an imperative, and simple desire can become a demand. We commonly understand self-esteem to mean feeling good about oneself. But what if “feeling good” can only be achieved by getting what I want when I want it at the expense of others?

I could not help but be reminded of something that my grandmother Donnie would say to young people in our family. If anyone one of us dared to violate her standards of good grooming or “respectable” behavior, she would say: “Don’t go out acting like you don’t have people.” At the time, her counsel was little more than an irritation. “Having people” could mean anything from representing your family by working hard in school to properly ironing a ruffled blouse. It’s a safe bet that my grandmother never heard of Maslow, and I’m guessing she lived the better part of eight decades without ever using the words “self-esteem.” She did, however, know a lot about respect, reverence, and dignity. What we now call self-esteem is what my grandmother expressed as self and other--awareness. Her version of self-esteem was awareness of connection to community. Further, it meant appreciation for the care that community bestows, and an obligation to represent that care in the world and to the world. Put plainly the lesson was this: how you go out into the world is not just your private business; your behavior reflects on and has consequences for the communities from which you come.

Self-esteem as a construct is not likely to go away, nor perhaps should it. However, it may look decidedly different if it were conceptualized from a more relational perspective. When I think back on the admonition from my grandmother, “having people” translates into three relational practices: appreciation, acknowledgement, and agency.

Appreciation involves knowing that the beginning of being is relationship. Furthermore, wellbeing and accomplishment are made possible through the contributions and often the sacrifices of others. This practice engenders a sense of self-worth, distinctly different from the illusion of self-sufficiency. In other words, to practice appreciation is to is live the nuanced distinction between being worthy to receive and being entitled to receive.

Second is acknowledgement: cognizance of and responsiveness within the relational-cultural landscape. As members of a marginalized community, this level of consciousness was essential for survival. This practice is akin to what RCT scholar Yvonne Jenkins first referred to as social esteem. By introducing the construct of social esteem, Jenkins challenges the notion of self-esteem as a privately held property and responsibility. In her framework, questions of being, belonging, and mattering cannot be effectively addressed without cognizance of the social-political context within which they arise. When African American elders talked about “having people,” they were saying that oblivion to context is not an option: that we were responsible to for discerning how personal behaviors might impact communal experience. In no small way, this consciousness contributes to the development of anticipatory empathy. (Being allowed to kick someone else’s property through a crowded grocery aisle actually deconstructs this quality of relational consciousness.) Acknowledgment as a relational practice enables clarity and intentionality in navigating the complex interdependencies of a stratified cultural landscape.

One of the foundational tenets of Relational-Cultural Theory is that the purpose of being in relationship. Having a sense of agency then is to claim our responsibility as co-creators of human possibility. I can think of a no more telling example of this perspective than a conversation I had with a young Indonesian man a few years ago. He told me that as a member of a religious minority in his country, he knew that he had to work twice as hard to get half as far: precisely the advice that I had heard growing up in a racially stratified culture decades earlier. Interestingly, this belief did not engender defeatism or victimhood. Rather, it confirmed the obligation to community: to advance the contributions of preceding generations and to provide “uplift” for future generations. Further, it instilled confidence in our ability and obligation to make the world a little bit better for others.

To infuse the notion of self-esteem with a more communal perspective does not eradicate personhood; rather it enlarges it. A culture that overemphasizes the primacy of the individual creates obsession with self-possession and fear-riddled autonomy. In contrast, a relational perspective insists that self comes to fuller expression through action in relationship for the precise purpose of enlarged capacity for responsiveness in relationship. There is an alternative to the version of self-esteem that manifests as “I should say, do, and get what I want when I want it.” Imagine the possibilities for cultural transformation when self-esteem (feeling good about oneself) manifests as “We belong. We can. We matter.”

Maureen Walker, Ph.D. is director of program development at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Wellesley Centers for Women.

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Stopping the Pain of Social Exclusion

Everyone Needs to STOP the Pain!
Everyone Needs the Pain to STOP!

“Hands up!” The universal symbol of surrender, sign of protest, and signal for self-selection to take action. All of these are integral in stopping the pain of social exclusion.

Human beings are built to function physically, emotionally, and spiritually in supportive groups. This simple fact has recently been supported by neuroscience research and helps explain why individuals and groups of people that are marginalized or socially excluded often suffer from higher levels of chronic health problems and shorter life expectancy.

SPOT Social Pain Overlap Theory1: How and Why Social Exclusion Hurts All of Us

Being part of a group is so critical to humans that our nervous system literally uses the same alarm (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) to register the danger and distress of physical pain or injury AND social exclusion. This neuroscience finding requires that we stop bifurcating pain into physical and emotional and start realizing that pain is pain and that social exclusion and marginalization are forms of violence that impact individuals and whole groups of people.

Social Pain forms – Covert and Overt

Social pain occurs in a number of different forms, some obvious, some not so obvious. The not so obvious may be hard to see, they are insidious like the background noise or the air we breathe. They are chronic assumptions about who we are and what our interests, strengths, and weaknesses might be. They are assumed by others and attached to our identities such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender.

These subtle daily attacks or microaggressions can have devastating short- and long-term impact. For example, Native or Indigenous Americans constantly having to combat broad assumptions about cultural sacred practices, misuse of regalia, offensive displays of imagery in athletic team mascots, or even the ongoing challenge to defend one’s very existence.

The obvious forms of social pain are glaringly obvious, often flagrant and extreme. Black men and women being stopped by police, detained or harassed, and imprisoned at sweepingly disproportionate rates compared to White people; too often resulting in violence and even murder.

Both the subtle and blatant forms of social pain emerge together and take place across a range of areas including reliable public safety, access to and quality of healthcare, education and jobs, affordable sustainable housing, and more. Both institutional and personal marginalization is the bedrock for social pain to occur in all of its many forms.

Psychological Resistance to Marginalization

What we know is that people who have been and are being marginalized have always pushed back in ... READ FULL ARTICLE>>

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"E" Is for Energy

The Dopamine Reward System—Friend or Foe?

Dopamine is trending as the most popular neurotransmitter. And why not? There are days I think it rules the world or at least the day–to-day activities of my friends and family. The craving you have when you smell the coffee brewing in the morning—thank dopamine. That elation you feel throughout your body when you fall hopelessly and deeply in love? Again, dopamine. The thrill of a shopping spree at the mall, the desire for the second and third glass of wine at dinner. You guessed it, dopamine. Dopamine seems to be everywhere giving people a little rush of pleasure and energy when we need it most. So what’s the harm? It’s a natural, biologically based chemical that provides energy and motivation.

The harm is best understood by remembering the infamous rats in Skinner boxes back in the 1950s. Scientists put electrodes into the limbic system (feeling centers) of the rats’ brain and sent a little shock to the area when the rat entered a particular corner. The theory was that if the shock was unpleasant enough it would cause the rat to stay away from the corner. Enough shocks and the rat’s brain would wire the corner with the aversive stimuli. However, a strange and unexpected thing happened when the electrode was placed in the nucleus accumbens (a dopamine pathway that is part of the limbic system)—the rats did just the opposite. Instead of avoiding the corner, they went back to get the shock over and over and over again. Up to 700 times an hour! In fact, this was so compelling to the rats that they opted for the stimulation over food. The rats could not describe “craving “ to us, but certainly, the repetitive nature of their dopamine seeking made it clear that this was something they “needed” to do. The increase in motivation and energy that dopamine provides can be a good thing, but when your brain gets wired to compulsive behaviors that stimulate the dopamine reward pathway (addictions) then your life can be as out of control as the poor rat in Skinner’s Box.

So dopamine itself is not the problem, nor is the dopamine reward system. Dopamine is simply the carrot on a stick designed to give a reward to life-sustaining activities like eating healthy food, having sex, drinking water, and being held in nurturing relationships so that you would keep doing these healthy things over and over again. The problem is how we stimulate the dopamine pathway. In an ideal world—one that understands the centrality of healthy relationship to health and wellness—the dopamine reward system stays connected to human connection as the primary source of stimulation. Unfortunately, we do not live in this ideal world. We live in a culture that actively undermines this precious dopamine-relationship connection. We raise children to stand on their own two feet while the separate self is an American icon of maturity. It is making us sick.

This disconnection is a set-up for addiction as we search for other sources of dopamine. The “other sources” look shockingly similar to the list of common cultural complaints—overeating and obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, consumerism, chronic hooking up. Not only do these addictive, destructive behaviors get paired to the dopamine reward system but they create a feedback loop of isolation that pushes people towards more addictions.

Without healthy relationships we each become like the rats in Skinners box—seeking dopamine from all the wrong places. Let’s rewire our brains for the healthy relationships and connections that reward us with positive energy and motivation.

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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"R" is for Resonance

The Four R’s – Reading, ’Riting, ’Rithmetic, and Resonance

Do you have someone in your life that “gets” you? I do. My friend Angel and I see each other every six weeks or so but each time we get together I am struck by the resonance we share, the ability to jump back into a conversation as if no time has passed. How does that happen? When I heard about the discovery of mirror neurons I thought I had found the answer.

First discovered by accident in 1998 by scientists studying arm movements in monkeys, mirror neurons were originally described as individual, specialized brain cells with the sole purpose to help us “get” or read other people. They were thought to be unique among brain cells because of their ability to multitask—registering actions, feelings and sensations all in a single specialized cell. I loved this! My heart already believed that relationships were central to health and wellness and these mirror neurons could be the proof my brain needed to believe that humans are “hardwired to connect.” But, even as I was sharing the news with others, I felt a little worried. How could Angel and I click so easily when I struggled with many other relationships in my life?

Also, when I looked at my friends and family, I noticed I was not alone. Everyone I know has some variability in his or her capacity to read others and to be read. So, if we’re hardwired to connect, what explains the variability? Is people-reading something we learn how to do or are we blessed with the hardware to automatically understand what others close to us are doing or feeling? Turns out, it’s both.

As babies, we are born with reflexes to connect with others. Watch an infant for a few minutes and you can see the vast amount of energy devoted to connection. The wiggling and writhing invested in finding the nipple of a full breast, the waving of a tiny, unsteady hand in search of a finger to wrap around or the neck to grab hold of. These reflexes are a pretty good start for connection, but, are not nuanced enough to allow an infant to “read the room.” A baby may become fussy when held by a distracted, tense mother but could not “know” the mother arrived home from work exhausted and irritable after being up all night working on an important presentation.

Researchers are now describing a mirror neuron system rather than unique mirror neurons. This is a more complex, efficient, and coordinated wiring of existing of neural pathways that communicate the actions feelings, and sensations of those around us. It is the way these pathways become interconnected through experience that really counts in clicking with others and making sense of relationships. Imitation plays a key role. Each of us literally “knows” other people by mimicking them internally. This mimicking is concrete. If I watch you walk toward the door with your hand out, I “spontaneously and automatically “know you are going to open the door and leave. I do not need to ask. Deep in my brain, the area in the prefrontal cortex that plans and executes the physical movement of walking out the door is being stimulated. Though I am not moving, the same nerve cells are firing. When you touch the door and pull your hand away quickly and shake it a little I “know” that the door was quite hot from the pounding sunshine on the glass. My somatosensory cortex that creates sensations fires and my hand feels a low-grade sense of heat and smoothness from the window window. That is added to the immediate mix of how I am reading your experience. And finally, you walk through the door and a large smile crosses your face as you fall into the arms of a loved one. In my brain and body the nerve signal has now traveled through the insula into my “feeling centers” in my body and I feel a similar joy and lightness. I “know” you are with someone you love. All of this has happened in the blink of an eye and without you sharing any of your experience with me. My brain and body uses itself as a template to have a shared experience with you and the closer our life experiences internally have been, the more resonant we feel.

But imitating is not the whole story. Grown-ups must name feelings and experiences accurately when you are little so that when you name them in others later they match. You fall down and skin your knee and your parent says, “Ouch, that hurts.” The pain in your knee and the tears running down your face are paired with being hurt. A friend knocks over your block tower and the energy surging through your body and the tension in your eyebrows and face gets paired with a teacher saying, “You feel angry because Tom knocked over your blocks.” It seems like an easy process except that many people don’t know what feelings feel like in their body. Even as adults, well-meaning parents can mislabel a child’s experience and potentially confuse the development of the mirror neuron system.

Here’s an example. Ten years ago my pre-school aged twins and I were in a terrifying accident. I had driven the one-mile route to school mindlessly for a couple of years. On this day, as we approached a four-way intersection, another van turned left and hit us almost head on. Both vans were totaled and immediately chaos ensued. The front airbags in our car deployed filling up most of the front seat and giving off a pungent, rubber smell; the engine hissed and sent water and steam spraying into the air. Within minutes the local rescue teams arrived en masse—fire, police, and ambulance sped to the accident with blaring sirens and lights. In the midst of the overstimulation, I crawled into the back seat and looked directly into the trusting, scared faces of my children and said, “Everything is fine”—a delusional thought if ever I had one. My son looked right back at me and said, “Everything is not fine, this is a bad accident. “ A reality check for sure, I immediately backtracked and agreed that it was a bad accident and that it was scary.

We develop these pathways for accurate reading in the context of being accurately read by others! When I tell my children everything is fine at the same time their bodies are registering that things are dangerous, their developing people-reading pathways are getting a mixed message. Done often enough, as is often the case with childhood trauma or domestic violence, and the person’s mirror neuron system wires in an inaccurate and confusing way. They drift into isolation as their capacity for resonance is diminished.

A cultural belief that human development should be towards increased levels of separation and individuation can create a mirror neuron system that is not accurate. If I am busy “hiding my feelings” from you for fear of being seen as weak or needy, or if I believe that being impacted by another person’s feelings or experiences diminishes my strength, then chances are my mirror neuron system is not getting the stimulation needed to develop the essential human capacity of resonating and reading others and being read. And the impact of this is far reaching. Human beings are built to be healthiest in mind and body when in strong connections with others. Connection and cooperation are part of the everyday lives of most people and a strong mirror neuron system is essential in each and every one of life’s negotiations. It is high time that we add the fourth “R” to the basic skills taught in education—reading, ‘riting, ’rithmetic, and resonance!

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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"C" Is for Calm--Four Ways to Click

Twenty-five years ago, when I was studying the human nervous system in medical school, I learned that the body has an automatic system running in the back ground 24/7—the autonomic nervous system—like the system that runs in the back ground of your computer updating time and date without needing to be asked. I was taught that the autonomic nervous system had two branches with opposite functions. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) keeps you awake, alert, and engaged in life when it is running at a steady level, while the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) helps you relax and rejuvenate yourself after a period of activity.

In popular science the SNS and the PNS are associated with their most dramatic functions—the fight, flight, or freeze responses that are activated when a person is threatened. If a bear charges you on a hike or your boss yells at you at work, bam, your SNS fires causing energy and blood flow to be diverted to your large muscles, heart, and lungs. You automatically assess the situation and either gear up for a fight or run like hell away from the threat. On the other hand, if you come across a mother bear with her cubs and she is standing over you ready to pounce and there is nowhere to run or your spouse comes home drunk and mean again and has a history of attacking you, your parasympathetic nervous system might activate causing you to freeze and even fall on the spot as your heart and respiratory rate decrease dramatically and your body’s pain killers flood your system buffering the pain. Neither of these reactions are under your conscious control. You are automatically protected.

What happens, though, when what you are facing is a kind, welcoming face or your favorite pet? Do you need to then rely on conscious functioning, do you need to think about it before you act and engage? According to Stephen Porges, the answer is “non.” He has discovered a third branch of the autonomic nervous system—one he calls the smart vagus nerve—that innervates the muscles in the face, throat, vocal chords, even the tiny muscles in your inner ear. The smart vagus balances the SNS and PNS and gives us automatic responses to safety. Imagine meeting your best friend—chances are your mouth breaks into a smile, your eyebrows raise, and you tune in and listen a little more attentively. You share stories and maybe even eat a meal together. All of these activities stimulate the smart vagus nerve which travels to the heart and lungs and tells the SNS and PNS they are not needed. You feel calmer.

The capacity to feel calm in a healthy relationship is as natural and automatic as the ability to feel terrified in Friday the 13th. It is how we are wired. A culture that teaches “self-regulation” and finding comfort by standing on your own two feet over stimulates your SNS making it harder to recognize a healthy connection. In Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships you can evaluate your neural pathways for connection and strategize ways to rebalance your autonomic nervous system to help you feel responsive and less reactive in your healthiest relationships.

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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Supportive Human Relationships: Often Overlooked in Our Search for Quick Fixes

October 10th is Mental Health Awareness Day.

We live in a time of easy access and quick fixes. People expect to be able to stream a video in less than 60 seconds, to have the entire written history of the world at their fingertips, even to have a complete dinner delivered in under 30 minutes. Given the mind-numbing pace of life, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by my clients’ impatience and disappointment when I offer an antidepressant to treat disabling anxiety or severe depression that takes three to six weeks to kick in. Just 100 years ago they would be resigned to a life of tormenting melancholia. Sure, there are new treatments on the horizon that promise quicker response times. Maybe ketamine will be the Netflix of mental health treatment. Most people overlook the one thing that unequivocally helps our emotional and physical health--supportive human relationships.

The fact that healthy human relationships are central to all human growth and development is not self-evident in a culture that values and promotes separating from and competing with others as the pinnacle of maturity. But research now shows the human nervous system is literally wired to function best when in healthy relationships. If you do not believe it, try a very simple experiment to see and feel the impact of healthy relationships on your mind and body. Close your eyes and think about a positive interaction you have had with a friend or partner. As you play it out in your mind, watch how your body changes. Most people describe an openness in their chest, a smile forming on their face, a lift in their mood. This simple visualization, something I call a positive relational moment, allows you to tap into the healing physiology of connection and changes your neural chemistry just as clearly as Ativan or Prozac--but with fewer side effects! In honor of National Mental Health Day, reach out to others, engage in healthy interactions, and build new positive relational moments. It is perhaps the ultimate win-win in this culture of competition.

Amy Banks, M.D., is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of Four Ways to Click: Rewiring your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships, forthcoming from Penguin Random House (Feb. 2015).

 

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Connections Are at the Core of Social Justice

Empathy and mutual respect provide the underpinnings for societal trust and economic stability. Neuroscience confirms that we are hardwired to be in connection with one another; cultures that create an ethic of hyper-individualism put us at odds with our natural proclivity to relate and connect. As Einstein once said:

“A human being is part of a whole...but he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Many of us live in cultures that pay lip service to “community” but in fact often function in a way that overstates individual competitive accomplishment and uses fear and shame to undermine the power of connection. Jean Baker Miller spoke of the corrosive effects of “condemned isolation,” the feeling of immobilization, isolation, self blame, being overwhelmed and hopeless. It has been said that “Isolation is the glue that holds oppression in place.” (Laing, K. 1998, Katalyst leadership workshop presented at In Pursuit of Parity: Teachers as Liberators, Boston, MA.) If dominant groups can isolate, shame, and silence the nondominant groups, they disempower them and can seize and retain more power for themselves, creating fear and inequality. The antidote to fear and immobilization is connection. Social justice is founded on mutual respect and growth fostering connection.

A model for human experience that emphasizes our separateness works against our sense of basic connection and belonging. It leads us to believe that we should function autonomously in situations where that is impossible. By placing unattainable standards of individualism on us, it leaves us vulnerable to feeling even more inadequate, ashamed, and stressed out. There is abundant data that social ties are decreasing in the U.S.; more and more people feel they can trust no one. (Putnam, R. 2000 Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.) And traditional psychology with its overemphasis on internal, individual problems contributes to our failure, at a societal level, to invest in social justice and social support programs. Rather than addressing the problems in a society that disempower us and perpetuate systems of injustice, we have tended to locate the problems in the individual. Martin Luther King once said, “compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” The powerful then keep invisible the ways in which privilege and power differentials support their success.

Further, the myth of meritocracy does a great disservice to most people who do not enjoy privilege at birth. Purely personal effort and personal control are overstated as the reason for individual success. In western culture there is pathological preoccupation with “the self,” “self interest,” individual competition as the source of all success. Our privileged narratives celebrate lone heroes, winning, being dominant, being certain and in control. The need to be in connection, to be part of something larger--a community, nature, and a movement--is often seen as a sign of weakness.

We now know that inequality reduces empathy in a society and reduced empathy in turn contributes to inequality. Physical and emotional distance between the rich and the poor erodes empathy and mutuality. Trust, empathy, and social structures play critical roles in determining not just individual health and happiness but also how well regions and nations perform economically and socially. When empathy is sparse in a culture, the culture itself becomes less stable, less productive, less healthy, and less just. Typically under these conditions there are increases in wealth disparity, violence, and lack of respect for human lives.

A just society is founded on empathy, respect, mutual empowerment. Kindness and connection put the brakes on the chemistries of fear and threat. Practicing empathy and generosity is good for the collective and good for individuals. Our brains thrive when we practice empathy. In a culture of disconnection, discovering that we are hardwired to connect can serve as a source of hope. We currently live with the dilemma of neurobiologies that are wired to thrive in connection and a culture that tells us we must stand alone, that we are autonomous, self-sufficient, and thrive in competitive settings. This is a set up for social and personal failure.

Mutuality is based on respect, a growing capacity to speak our truths, and allowing others to have an impact on us. As Patricia Hill Collins noted, “a commitment to truth requires a politics of empathy; a commitment to truth requires a commitment to social justice.”(Collins, P.H. 1990 Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman). We need to bear witness to one another’s truths; we need to build communities where differences do not sustain stratifications but contribute to building bridges of respect and growth.

Neuroscience is now delivering data that shows us--without a doubt--that we are profoundly interdependent creatures. We have a responsibility for one another’s well-being and we need to foster social programs built on the real facts of our concern for one another and thus fulfill our intrinsic capacity for empathy and caring.

Judith V Jordan, Ph.D. is Director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. A founding scholar and one of the creators of Relational-Cultural Theory, she has published extensively and is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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Interdependency and Mental Health

Comforting

May is National Mental Health Awareness month, a fitting time to be mindful of the suffering caused by mental illness. Even though I am a psychiatrist, working daily with people diagnosed with mental illness, I am stunned by the statistics on the incidence of mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health in any 12 month period, 26.2 percent of adults are diagnosed with a mental illness. That is one in four adults who are experiencing disturbing and often debilitating symptoms--the constant distress of an anxiety disorder, the aching despair of a major depression, the terror of psychosis. The lifetime incidence of mental illness is over 50 percent. These statistics tell us that if you have not been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, someone you know and love has. When you go to work today or even out with friends in the evening, see if you can identify the one in four people who has a mental illness. Don’t be surprised to walk away thinking there are none in your group. Also don’t be surprised to find out that you are wrong.

blogpullquoteInterdependencySo, where are all the people with mental illness? From what I hear in my office, many are hiding and suffering in silence for fear of being stigmatized, pitied, or seen as weak. American, Westernized culture plays a large role in this fear. The pervasive image of an American is a person who is strong, independent, and can “make it” on his or her own. There is no direct media campaign telling people who have a mental illness to stay in the closet, but the chronic cultural myth of the “self made man” acts as a reference point from which we all measure our worth. The more dependent you are on others, the less value you hold. This cultural bias is insidious and contributes to an environment that makes each of us hide our vulnerabilities behind a wall of shame at not being strong enough to manage our day to day lives on our own.

The idea that we are stronger on our own is destructive, dangerous, and undermines our natural physiology that works best in healthy interdependency. Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Jilek Wolfgang, M.D., M.Sc. reports that people who develop a psychotic illness actually heal faster in a non-Westernized world. A stunning finding given that Western societies are known to have the most educated doctors and best hospitals in the world. So what accounts for the improvement? A lack of stigma. In the West, psychosis or the loss of reality testing is seen as the ultimate failure of individual strength. It is frightening and dangerous. On the other hand, in many parts of Africa, extended family and community reach out and embrace the individual with psychosis rather than fearing or shunning him.

Relational neuroscience offers some explanation for this finding. Researchers at UCLA, Eisenberger and Leiberman, have discovered that the pain of social exclusion is registered in the exact area of the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus, as the pain from a physical illness or injury. Because humans are meant to function best in healthy human connection, this area of the brain fires an alarm for things that are life threatening. The chronic pain of an acute physical injury or illness can be lethal, but Social Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT Theory) tells us that being socially rejected is every bit as dangerous. When we stigmatize and ostracize people with mental illness we increase their stress levels, decrease their ability to fight illness, and prolong their healing process.  

The range of functioning in the people I treat everyday is tremendous--from CEOs capable of running a company while having a mental illness to individuals on disability unable to work because of severe symptoms. Almost every person I see is hiding their diagnosis from at least one important person in their lives out of fear of the anticipated rejection. In this month of May let’s all open our eyes and our hearts to see and embrace someone with a mental illness and to support those who are suffering knowing full well that statistics show having a mental illness is not an individual failure nor a weakness. Mental illness is, well, an illness and the best hope for a speedy recovery is the support of extended families and friends. This cultural shift from pathological independence to healthy interdependence holds the power to heal many wounds and to improve the lives of all of us who will experience the pain of mental illness.

Amy Banks, M.D. is the director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. Over the last ten years at the JBMTI, she has been integrating emerging neuroscience information with relational-cultural theory.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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