What is Resilience? Hero Making. Here’s how.

In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice….It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.  Viktor E. Frankl*

Resilience is bending but not breaking under stress, or:

…the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences. American Psychological Association

My family had a mantra, “It’s not Cancer,” which we used to put things in perspective to cope with whatever it was. Except sometimes it was cancer and sometimes it was worse; for example, the sudden death by stroke of my dad when I was 15 years old.

That was pretty bad but, typically, we humans do go on. The famous study on the relative happiness of lottery winners v paraplegic accident victims is pretty good evidence of that. Victims were found to experience even more pleasure in mundane daily life activities than the lottery winners, rather than the other way around.

The SEEDS of resilience include: Social networks, Exercise, Education, Diet, and Sleep. Surely we know by now (whether we do it is another matter) that taking good care of ourselves under life changing stress is a good way to help us bounce back.

But some people do more than bounce back. Some overcome their adversity to leap tall buildings in remarkable ways. JK Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, Nelson Mandela…come to mind. And, of course, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who, after losing his entire family in the Holocaust, gave us lessons for spiritual survival that I reflect on and share with my clients practically everyday.

One woman I know,** we’ll call her Melissa, was involved in a difficult situation with a man she dearly loved. Melissa had struggled for years to accept and understand the situation from his perspective, even though she felt throughout that the situation as it was being conducted was inconsistent with her own deeply held values. What we resist persists with all its might. So, in one session this woman, who was typically kind of snarky when in pain and rarely wept, surprised herself when she finally began to cry.

When asked what her tears were trying to say, she realized who she was and what sacrifice she would need to make to be true to herself and everything she stood for down to her toes. That is, she knew in that moment that, despite her true love, she would have to give up all of her hopes and dreams about a life with this man.

In that moment, Melissa became her own hero – Joan of Arc. She did not burn at the stake, but her suffering did, as she took a stand for her values and women everywhere who may suffer corruption in similar ways. This is the meaningful sacrifice that Frankl said makes suffering not be suffering anymore.

Melissa now has fewer and fewer waves of sadness. Attachment is physiological as much as it is anything. So in the early stages of love lost we may even feel sick, until we heal and get well. She is tending to the SEEDS of resilience noted above; social supports, plenty of rest, and so on. But what has helped to up level her mood and her life more than anything else is the meaning she grafted onto this life changing adversity in love, which she would no longer deny nor avoid.

The miracle for Melissa was in the meaning – meaning that could not be given to her, nor imposed on her – but rather meaning that had to spring from deep within her, from the depths of her soul about the woman she was.

So here is another favorite Frankl quote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Practice, Practice, Practice…and see what happens.

For help with this or something else, Contact Me at:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

Phone:   202-617-0821

* Viktor E. Frankl. Man’s Search For Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Washington Square Press (1959). https://www.amazon.com/Search-Meaning-Introduction-Logotherapy

** Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.



The Truth about Lying


“Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at. We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends, and loved ones….Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.”*

Good grief. My daddy always said, “Honesty is the best policy.” I believed him, have lived my life accordingly, and been proud of it. Now we hear that everybody’s doin’ it, even those of us who say we’re not. One study found that  92%  of people who said they didn’t lie admitted they had when asked if they had lied in the past week.

I’m sorry, to the best of my knowledge, I still don’t think I do. I did swear to god about something important once and later on changed my mind. But I meant what I said when I said it, so I don’t think it counts as a lie. Open to the idea that I am lying to myself  about lying somehow, I took a test to determine what kind of liar I am, only in none of the sample situations would I have ever resorted to lying in the first place, not at all necessary, other skills to use, if we can even consider lying a skill.

Researchers actually do. They consider it part of emotional and intellectual development when a child learns how to lie:

From about age 4 on, children lie for many of the same reasons adults do: to avoid punishment, to gain an advantage, to protect against an unwanted consequence, and even to boost self-esteem….to demonstrate power, to maintain privacy, or to protect a friend…. recent research has shown that lying plays a positive role in normal development. Essential human skills — independence, perspective taking, and emotional control — are the same skills that enable children to lie.

Most kids eventually learn that others may stop giving them what they want, or want to be with them at all, if they tell so many lies that lying goes from something they do to something they are: Liar. So they develop other kinds of skills, conflict resolution and negotiation skills, let’s say, before even knowing that’s what they are. And then there are those who just get better and better at lying.

Look, would I lie to save the life of someone I loved. You bet I would. And my heart goes out to people I know** in situations begging for some tampering with the truth, e.g., parents waiting for the right time in a child’s life to tell the child the truth that they are going to part. Our need for truth and trust is just as human as the human ability to lie. Unfortunately, the more we lie, the easier it gets for the brain (amygdala), then the more we lie and there goes any trust that might have been possible had we found another way.

So, if you find yourself with someone whose primary life strategy is lying, since all that lying can drive us crazy, if it is possible for you to do so, rather than lose your sanity, you can run for the hills. And, if and when you may feel tempted to lie a little yourself, take a deep breathe and ask yourself if, in that circumstance and with that person, lying really is your best and only shot. This you can Practice, Practice, Practice…and see what happens.

For help with this or something else, Contact Me at:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

Phone:   202-617-0821

* “Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, National Geographic, June, 2017 http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/06/lying-hoax-false-fibs-science/

** Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.


Everybody’s Got A Story. What’s Yours?

“ [P] erception includes a multitude of assumptions….For instance, confirmation bias — noticing evidence that affirms one’s world view, but disregarding contradictory evidence….contributes to preconceived ideas that keep us locked into a narrow perspective on our personal and social reality.”*

Wait, so the truth is that we don’t (actually can’t) tell, nor even know, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Meaning that most if not all of what we think of as truth is no more than the sum total of the stories we create and tell. The above quote is from a story in Nature about stories in Deviate, a new book about the stories we tell ourselves that we live in as if they are true. Here’s some more:

“…neural networks that make sense of what we ‘see’ are fed by a relatively small stream of information from the eyes. About 90% comes from other parts of the brain, allowing us to recognize faces, identify danger or read a sentence such as ‘W at ar ou rea in ?’ despite the omitted letters. That you probably didn’t read that as ‘What are you dreaming?’ is the result of priming your attention to a context of reading. What enters the eye is often an insignificant part of the story.”*

This idea that the brain tells itself and us stories about most of what it ‘sees’ reminds me of the story about the Ten Blind Chinese Men asked to say what an elephant is. As more than an aside, I’ve seen this story as the 3 men, the 6 men, the 10 men, the 7 men, and sometimes but not always the men are Chinese. Stories morph over time, a point to which we will return, but you can click here for a nicely illustrated version of 6 blind Indian men and an elephant. In it, the blind man holding the trunk says an elephant is a pillar. The blind man holding the ear says an elephant is like a big fan. Each perceiving only what he can perceive is 100% certain that he is right and the other is wrong. And each is telling the truth and right that what is perceived is like a pillar or a fan – but inaccurate and incorrect in describing an elephant as either one. Perception is everything and can be grossly untrue.

Another famous example of how faulty human perception can be is the Harvard Gorilla Experiment. Participants are asked to watch a video of 3 people in white shirts and 3 people in black shirts passing a ball, and to keep track of how many passes the white shirts made. What gets completely missed by half of the participants is that a gorilla-costumed person enters the scene, looks right at the camera, thumps his chest, and after 9 seconds leaves. Participants said, and I’m sure believed to be true, that they would never miss anything like that, only to find out that, lo and behold, half of them did! The experimenters concluded that we are not only missing a lot of truth but have no idea how true for us it is that we are living more in our stories than in what we think of as truth.

And what about science altogether, thought by so many to be the epitome of truth. Not even counting the more conscious and deliberate fudge factoring to make data fit a scientist’s hypothesis, one need only consider the discoveries of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein to know that what we hold true can become untrue over time. Seems that the best we can do is to tell ourselves stories that morph into new stories once new perceptions render the old stories unhelpful and false. This is why it is said that eyewitness testimony is not as truthful as we would like to think. Studies show that the story morphs over time. So, for example, if there is a weapon at the scene of the crime, the eyewitness may be more likely to focus so much on the weapon (like the white shirts in Gorilla Experiment) that other relevant and important details of the crime are forgotten, distorted, or missed at the time. It was also found that an eyewitness story could be altered simply by the modification of a single world in the interviewer’s question. Once again, more about the stories created and told than what we like to think of as truth.

Why, why, why? What is the point of all this illusion, deception, revision, and incomplete information in perception. Why hasn’t evolution or god or the universe or someone fixed this problem? Maybe because it helps us. We cannot possibly process all the stimuli in and around us. It’s too much. You already know what overload feels like. Can you even imagine life without the Selective Attention we use in the moment to help control the flow of information and keep us sane. And can you even imagine having to remember every single detail of everything that ever happened to you in the past exactly as it happened to you. Einstein said we should never have anything in our heads that doesn’t need to be there. It appears that what does need to be there is the right amount and kind of information to arrange into a story with enough meaning to help us move forward in our lives in the best possible way.

Do the stories we live in (star in) always help us to move forward in our lives in the best possible way? No they do not. Sometimes they restrict and ruin everything. Take the women** who tell me their stories that there is something wrong with them or, worse, that they are nothing without a man. This faulty perception is not their fault exactly. Evolutionary psychology might say that women are more and less wired for it. In the Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley tells us that meat is the currency the alpha male chimps pays his allies to keep him in power, sharing the meat not just with male allies, but with his mother and girlfriends too. To the extent we may have behaved similarly, way back when our brains were forming, it’s conceivable that females competed for men to provide meat (iron) to help make and feed their babies, and for protection of themselves and their babies too. That’s one story.

Another story is found in Geoffrey Miller’s, The Mating Mind. Miller tells us that ancestral females would have been much safer in a group of a sisters, aunts, and female friends than with a single male in a nuclear family. He believes that female humans were large and strong as primates, and did not need to rely for safety on males only 10% taller than they were themselves. He adds that many hunter-gatherer women today, when asked, will say many men eat too much, require too much care, and are basically more trouble than they area worth. Okay, that’s a bit of a different story. Which one is true? Doesn’t matter. Look, times have changed. Women can feed themselves and their babies, not all women are even going to have babies, we are no longer on the savannah, and the ways in which people can now live purposeful and fulfilling appear limitless to me – and more dependent on the stories we tell ourselves, and how much we believe them and live in them, than anything else.

Take the people who live in a story that other people have it better, in work, in life. FOMO (fear of missing out), more stories (based on other peoples stories) that can be revised. To revise and improve the story in which we live we have to mess with the mind. But heck, the mind messes with us all the time, so why not. Go ahead and rewrite the beginning, the middle, the end, in whatever ways you like, to bring a smile to your life. For sure, we all have something for which to be grateful, if only that we live and breathe to fight another day – even better to enjoy it. Practice, practice, practice…and see what happens.

For help with this or something else, Contact Me at:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

Phone:   202-617-0821

* “Our Useful Inability to See Reality,” Douwe Draaisma, April 20, 2017. http://www.nature.com.edgesuite.net/nature/journal/v544/n7650/full/544296a.html

** Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.


That’s Your Story; Doesn’t Have To Be.


We make a particular sense of our lives and of our world that allows us to process and retain information and to decide what to do….Our drive for sense-making can make us hostile to alternative points of view that might suggest that our world, and even our lives, makes less sense than we thought.*

It’s our story. Our central organizing principle. Everybody has one. Everybody needs one to function at all. Just as the brain regulates body temperature, it regulates and simplifies sensory inputs so our brains don’t explode. Alright, maybe that’s a bit much, but you all know what too much information feels like. It almost hurts, makes you want to take a nap, or a drink, or a bag of cookies, or something. It’s too much. Our little brains can’t work with all that, but we need something to work with so, by nature and by nurture, our brains pick and choose us a manageable view of the world and our place in it.

The best story I know to illustrate the point is The Elephant and The Blind Men. Six blind men are told that there is an elephant in the village. They all go to the elephant to ‘see’ with their hands what an elephant is. Each touches a different part of the elephant. Here’s what they said:

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

And then they argued, each convinced that he was right. Because he was – but only partly. And herein lies the rub that makes us so unwelcoming, if not downright hostile, to that which we cannot ourselves ‘see’. Six different stories, all of them true and only partly true, as many different stories as there are people in the world, one of which is yours. And just as an actor/actress has a script and role to play, so do we. That is, our story, which gives meaning and coherence to our lives, also directs our action, unless we actively, mindfully, intervene.

Virtually everyone I have worked with has come to our work initially boxed in by a story: “I will never love again…. I’m just not an entrepreneur…. I’m socially awkward…. I’ll never write that book.” ** On and on it goes. And, many if not most of us don’t even know what that story is! But you can. Here is a mini version of an exercise I use in my Managing Your Mind workshops. When you fall still, turning your attention to your breath, belly out on the in breath, belly in on the out breath, thoughts will come. We do not hold them but rather let them come and go like clouds in the sky. Now for this variation, The Movie Room, we again let the thoughts come but this time, before we let them go, we hold the thought momentarily to notice and name it. In this way, we begin to notice recurrent thoughts and patterns, and in so doing can give a title to this movie we have produced and directed as a creation of the mind.

One woman’s movie is “The Planner,” a future oriented default that, when she is not mindful, can hijack her right out of her all-important here and now. Sure, this role of heroine as planner may have helped her at a time when her here and now was largely painful, but she’s worked hard, and she’s made it. She’s where she wants to be now and it would be good if she could enjoy the fruits of all that. So what is yours? What patterns of thought can you notice in your story that may limit your life. Doesn’t have to be your whole story. If you care to, it is possible to reconsider, to edit, to tweak the beginning, middle, ending and live in this newer better one instead. Practice, practice, practice, and see what happens.

To work on this or something else, would love to hear from you:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

* Nick Chater et al. The under-appreciated drive for sense-making, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2015.10.016

**Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.