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“When Children Feel Safe, Seen, and Soothed (Most of the Time), They Develop Security.” Interview: D

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute. Dan is also a New York Times bestselling author, neuropsychiatrist, and interpersonal neurobiologist. Dr. Tina Payne Bryson is a psychotherapist and the Founder/Executive Director of The Center for Connection, a multidisciplinary clinical practice, and of The Play Strong Institute, a center devoted to the study, research, and practice of play therapy through a neurodevelopment lens. She is a New York Times bestselling author whose books have been translated into over forty languages.

Their new book is The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired.

Their new book is The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired.

I couldn't wait to talk to Dan and Tina about happiness, habits, and relationships.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Dan: As daily as I can, missing some days but making most, I do a simple practice called the Wheel of Awareness. For me, this way of differentiating elements of consciousness from one another and then linking them has been a powerful way of feeling lighter in the face of all the heaviness in the world, and generating not only energy and clarity, but also a feeling of wholeness and joy. I’ve offered this now to nearly 47,000 people in person in workshops around the world, and the response when people take on the Wheel as a regular practice is similar.

One thing that is interesting is that the three “pillars” of mind training that research show make our health better (decreasing inflammation, improving immune function, enhancing the ways our heart communicates with our head, reducing inflammation, and even repairing the ends of our chromosomes—our telomeres—each contribute to not only our health, but slows the aging process!) as well as leading to the growth of integration in the brain—the best predictor in terms of neural function and structure of our well-being.

Tina: I spend at least one day a week, most weeks, with my best friend. Until we pick our kids up from school, we usually exercise and eat lunch together, and then, we play and are productive, but whatever we need to do, we’re doing it together. We often run errands, grocery shop, hit the post office, cook, shop, or help each other with projects. And sometimes we go to Costco (because we each have three teenage boys, but no one should ever go alone there—I definitely require a therapeutic companion to walk in the doors!), or we do “mean purge” where we go to each other’s houses and help each other go through a closet. We call it mean purge because we are brutally honest with each other and say things like “Just no. You should never wear that again.” We laugh and laugh and laugh and talk and listen, and I look forward to it every week, definitely making me happier and healthier.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Dan: Happiness is a skill you can develop, not just a function of your temperament or circumstance.

Tina: I’ve never thought about that question! For me, happiness and negative emotions are often not mutually exclusive. If I’m feeling sad, or worried, or anxious, I often also can feel happy.

Happiness and gratitude are so intimately intertwined for me that those two emotions are hard to separate in my emotion or physiology. When I’m happiest, I’m present to the gratitude I feel, and when I feel grateful, I am happy. And because this is the case, even when I’m going through something unpleasant or even devastating, and all that is between, if I can notice what I feel I grateful for, I can still feel a contented happiness. I grew up with parents who cultivated gratitude, and they explicitly appreciated moments all the time, and it’s very much a part of who I am.

My college son, who is several states away, became ill last spring and didn’t seem to be getting better, so I flew to lay eyes on him and help him recover. He was so ill that he was hospitalized and his life was in danger. I was there, bedside for days, by myself (and just in touch with my husband and mom via phone), worried about him. Very worried. And exhausted. AND I was so grateful that he called me, that I was there with him, that I trusted my instinct to go to him, that there was available healthcare. So even while I was sad, and worried, and in moments angry at some of the medical professionals, I could still feel grateful, so I could still access happiness with all the other feelings.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

Dan: Many things. The “mind” as a term, for one. Our fields that deal with it—psychiatry, psychology, philosophy of mind, education—don’t have a definition of what it “is.” Many descriptions exist, but no definitions. How surprising! This finding has then lead to an effort to offer a working definition, one that then gives rise to a way of building a framework based on all the fields of science, from math and physics, to psychology and anthropology, that we call “interpersonal neurobiology.” There is an “inter” aspect to our mind, and an inner, personal aspect to it, too. That view, of an inner and inter, has been a powerful perspective to take to the many fields that deal with happiness and health, for example, like parenting, education, mental health, organizational functioning, and even climate challenges. It’s been, and continues to be, an intriguing journey.

Once we can wrestle with a working definition of the mind, we can then make a working proposal of what a healthy mind is, and how we can cultivate one. These are the ideas that are embedded in the professional, public, and parenting books I write.

Tina: I am intrigued by the continual emerging science that explores the brain and nervous system, and how they change from the experiences we have. Specifically, what I find most intriguing is that as complex as the brain and human development are, there is a fairly simple finding from decades of many studies that relational experiences have a significant impact on how we develop and who we are. The science indicates that one of the best predictors for how well our children turn out is that they have secure attachment to at least one person.

Dan Siegel and I, in our book The Power of Showing Up, describe secure attachment with “The Four S’s”. When children feel safe, seen (being known and understood), and soothed (being helped to feel calm and good again) most of the time (not perfectly), they develop security (where their brain wires to expect that people will see their needs and show up for them). This can guide us as parents—parenting isn’t easy, but showing up and being present is something we can all try to do. This is also applicable in all of our relationships—when we don’t know what to do or how to respond, we can turn to the 4 S’s to instruct us—we show up, and when we are having a hard time, we can seek out people who will help us feel the 4 S’s.

As mammals, we’re driven to get close to someone else to help us survive. It’s hard to do sometimes, but I love the simplicity and clarity of it.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Dan: Yes—when I turned 40 over two decades ago, I realized that though I was trim, I wasn’t fit at all. I was lost in my head and lost in my relationships with my patients in therapy and at home with my kids and my wife and my friends and my dogs. I love walking around, but I didn’t know that my body needed to be pushing its aerobic meter a lot harder, and to use weights to combat loss of muscle mass and bone density. So, since then, I’ve been an avid exerciser. I love to exercise, actually. I don’t know if its all the physiological change that happens, endorphins and other substances that are deeply rewarding, or if it’s the time I have to just be with the exercise. It feels great to have a regular (five day a week) exercise routine that includes the gym, the pool, bike riding, and hiking. It’s also a time to listen to books or papers I need to read—so it’s a win-win-win situation. In fact, that’s where I’m headed after I finish writing this to you.

Tina: I got Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Fibromyalgia at age 23, right after I got married, and dealt with significant, chronic pain and exhaustion for about six years (sometimes so severe that I couldn’t walk without help). Fortunately, when I got pregnant for the first time, a lot of my symptoms went away, but I still dealt with ongoing health issues, was in graduate school, and had three kids, so I never exercised regularly until I was about 37. It was really hard to get started, and I hated it (I still very much don’t like exercising), but I was successful in gaining this habit because I did it with friends and I went to a scheduled class that I knew they’d be attending as well. I still go to that class, and the social aspect of it makes me hate it less, and it makes me more accountable knowing that they’re counting on me, too.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Dan: Gretchen, we did the LA Live Talks a while back, and as your interviewer I told you that I loved the approach—and I’m not sure if it came up then, but it was clear from reading the book and then discussing this on stage with you that I am solidly in the Rebel and Questioner divisions, one foot in each camp. They go well together, actually, and as a psychiatrist and developmental attachment researcher, I can see how there is a blend of experience and in-born temperament likely at play to place me there. I love these divisions and try to use it well at work. You’d need to ask Caroline Welch, my wife, how that works out in our marriage, or my now-adult kids what that was like for having a father who rebelled and questioned everything.

Tina: I major in Obliger, and minor in Upholder. I identify with both, and am working on cultivating a little more Questioner/Rebel in my life.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

Dan: The world’s intense needs, escalating as they are, have come directly in contact with what we at the Mindsight Institute, do—help people strengthen their minds and build resilience in their lives so they can be happier and healthier individually and relationally and bring that out into the world too. This convergence means we have a lot on our plate—and we build on the science framework of interpersonal neurobiology to offer practical ways of creating more well-being. I don’t know if this full life is “keeping me” away from healthy habits or happiness, but it certainly makes it challenging sometimes to just hang out and relax, which is where my growth edge is these days.

Tina: Yes. What gets in the way of healthy habits, particularly sleep and exercise, is saying yes to too many things. I’m super committed to being with my boys when they’re home, so my work is relegated to school hours and after their bedtimes (or while they’re working on homework, but that’s usually when I’m making dinner). Because I love my work, am driven, overcommit, and tend to be an Obliger, I may skimp on sleep or exercise or self care or time alone to take care of others or to get things accomplished or to not miss out on fun or connecting time with others. When I travel for speaking, sometimes several times a month, it’s even more challenging. I’m still working on it!

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Dan: Yes—when I was almost 20, a horse-riding accident (the saddle went to the horse’s belly and my feet stayed in the stirrups) led to my being dragged a long way on stones. I nearly died, but survived with some significant injuries that gave me an existential shift, sudden, into the fragility of life, and the precious gift of being here, alive, awake, able to connect, and deeply grateful for each day, each moment really. That was a bolt, for sure—a kind of shock that woke me up from a prior life of fretting about small things, which I try not to do, and embracing the large perspective that we have this one life and can live it fully here, fully present, for the journey.

Tina: Yes! It was when I attended a conference and heard Dan Siegel speak about interpersonal neurobiology. I was sitting with my mom and grabbed her arm and said “I have a professional crush on interpersonal neurobiology! I have to study more.” The science and framework he shared that day allowed so many of the questions I had in my graduate studies to “click” and come together in a way that made sense. I boldly (not typical of myself at that time) waited to talk to Dan and ended up studying with him for almost 10 years, changed the course of my PhD program, and ultimately my career and life changed dramatically (and amazingly) that day.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?

Dan: I often use “Be Gretchen” but lately it hasn’t worked for me so well. A few I like are these: “It is what it is;” “Be a verb, not a noun;” and “From me to MWe.” (Me plus We = MWe.) And John O’Donohue’s wonderful poem, "Fluent:" “I’d love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”

Tina: I tend to be like a hummingbird—fast paced and zooming everywhere fast. So, I remind myself “Breathe. Slow down. Be present.” And since reading about my leanings to be an Obliger, and a common theme of conflict with my husband, I am now waking up in the morning and saying to myself “Don’t just go along.”

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

Dan: John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara—opened my eyes to deep mystical and poetic senses of life—and one of the most important friendships I’ve had with dear John; and Joanna Macy’s World as Lover, World as Self—a magnificent woman I’ve just come to know writing about how we can be in the body we are born into but also live fully as an interrelated, interconnected, deeply embedded part of nature. Those two, Joanna and John, have had a huge influence on who I am, and who I am becoming; I think they would have loved each other.

Tina: At 19, I read The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. My boyfriend at the time (and now my husband of 25 years) suggested we read it together. A key message from that book had a huge impact on me, that the goal of seeking happiness might make us avoid struggle and pain and so, instead the goal should be growth, which makes us more willing to struggle and deal with pain, which would lead to growth, and perhaps even to deeper happiness.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

Dan: Yes: “Mind” is an important term is so many fields influencing our well-being and happiness. Yet in science and medicine, it is often equated with the brain’s activity only. This is one perspective, one that may not fit with a larger scientific view of our subjectivity, our consciousness, our information processing, and our “self-organization.” Mind may be in part related to the body’s brain, yes, but it is much broader than the brain, bigger even than the body by itself.

A second and related misconception is to say that the self—what many consider a product of the mind—is only embodied. We ask people “where are you?” and they point to the body, naturally you might say. But this seemingly common and benign spatial reference to the body as the sole source of mind, of identity, of self, may also be an error. The self, emerging from mind, may be both fully embodied and fully relational—emerging not only from within our bodies, an inner self, but also from our interconnections, our relational mind.

One way to encapsulate these important ways of considering mind and its self is to say that our identity is not only a “me” that happens in these bodies we are born into, but it is also a “we” that emerges in our connections with people and the planet—with nature. In the viewpoint of interpersonal neurobiology, health emerges from a process of linking differentiated parts of a system. We call that process, integration. Integration is the best predictor of our health and happiness. If this is true, how can our experience of self and of mind be supporting the growth toward resilience and well-being? How can we face the challenges of our planet in the years to come with deep integrity and strength? A starting place might be to help one another move from the isolation of the modern cultural view of a separate, “solo-self” that experiences life in isolation in our contemporary times—isolated from one another, and from nature. One step in this journey toward resilience and well-being might be in cultivating an integrated identity. This would mean a simple but important equation that might look like this: Me plus We = MWe. For this person writing and colleagues on this journey, the MWe sense of integration is a powerful way of joining with one another and helping support an empowered way to cultivate pervasive leadership for each person—helping any given person find the ways to bring more integration and connection into their lives, one day, one moment, at a time.

Thanks for the questions Gretchen. Keep up the wonderful work in the world!

Tina: I feel passionate about helping adults question how we think about kids’ behaviors and how we respond to them. Most adults assume that when kids are acting out and having temporary or ongoing behavioral problems that they are always willfully choosing to misbehave.

Of course sometimes this is true, but a lot of times, especially when they are young, the kids who have the most difficult behaviors are acting that way because their nervous system and brain are having a reactive, stress response. When that happens, the kids don’t want to behave the way that they do, feel badly about it, and even dislike themselves because of it, which in turn feeds the dysregulation.

Behavior is communication about what skills a kid still needs to build, or what they are not yet able to do well. So if we want a kid to change their behavior, we need to change ours. We need to start by being curious, we need to identify what skills the child is communicating he doesn’t have yet, and then we need to rise up to help the kid build those skills.

Kids who struggle need help and support, and often the kinds of punishments and labels we give kids don’t do anything to teach them how to do things with better skill, and often make things worse because they make the kid feel worse about themselves. When we see that our jobs as disciplinarians are to teach and build skills and to help children meet our high expectations and boundaries, and that behaviors are communication about what still needs to be taught, it can help us move away from counterproductive approaches and move toward more effective ones.

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