Friday, December 21, 2012

When Tragedy Strikes

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.   We all worry about our children’s safety, do all we can to make their world predictable and safe.   Sometimes we worry too much.  Then we need to reassure ourselves that, for the most part, the world is safe and tell ourselves our children will be okay.   We come to terms with the reality that we cannot control every environment in which they’ll find themselves; and that in any event we must allow our children experiences that foster independence and the ability to meet life challenges.    We struggle to balance giving them appropriate protection with encouraging them to be self reliance.   And then we’re faced with an incomprehensible tragedy like happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School and all balance seems to be lost.

 In this kind of situation we’re struck by our vulnerability.  Our sense of control evaporates.   Suddenly everything feels less predictable.    We want our loved ones close by; we try to supervise more; we shift to a hyper vigilant mode that lasts for weeks or months. 
Some of us will not even want to think about this.   We’ll find our anxiety for our own children too intense to contemplate this kind of tragedy.   This happens in trauma.   The traumatic experience overwhelms our usual capacity to cope.  We experience fear and helplessness.  We also share the collective grief, and empathize with the parents who have lost children.
At the same point we wonder what might have been done to prevent the tragedy.  We search for reasons that will help make the world will feel more predictable again.   So we won’t have to accept that sometimes there are no good reasons.   But sometimes there is no fairness or justice.  Sometimes horribly evil things happen.  

Yet, if there is some way that another tragedy can be prevented I hope as a society we can actively accept our collective responsibility to find the means that will provide more safety for our children.  The obvious focus is on guns.  I certainly hope we can ban assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips and insist on background checks.  The research shows that when these limits are in place, as has happened in other countries, mass shootings diminish.   Nicholas D. Kristof has an excellent op-ed piece on this.  Another focus is on who is committing these acts.  Adam Lankford in another op-ed piece talks about the three factors that identify suicidal mass killers.    First, they often struggle with a mental health problem; second, they have a sense of being victimized; and lastly they have a desire for fame.   We should be doing a better job identifying troubled individuals, and offering services and support for them and for their families.  Tragic deaths involving guns is a community problem.  It is and one that needs immediate attention.   It is the very least we can do for our children.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Truth is Written All Over Your Face

Emotions show on our face.  We are, in fact, hard wired to recognize how others are feeling by observing their faces.  Researchers tell us that non verbal communication is between 60-70 % of the impact of a message, and that facial expressions are a major indicator of how a person is feeling.

There are 43 muscles in our faces.  When we make facial expressions we are sending information about ourselves.   The way we contract or expand our facial muscles sends clues about our emotional state, our physical state and our credibility. 

A frown is a universal sign of sadness or annoyance, while a smile is usually seen as a sign of friendliness.  Yet, our facial expressions are not always genuine.  For example, there’s a difference between a false smile and a real smile.  The difference lies in the tiny wrinkles that appear at the corners of the eye during a genuine smile.  Dr.Paul Ekman, who has become an expert in the detection of lying, says that “everybody can voluntarily make their lips smile, but very few people can contract the muscle that surrounds the eyes.”

Dr. Ekman, devised a system for assessing the facial display of each of our emotions.  The TV series, “Lie To Me, ” was  based on his work.  The show’s main characters, Dr. Lightman (Tim Roth) and Dr. Foster (Kelli Williams), are deception experts, called in on difficult cases to see if they can decipher when someone is lying.  Their approach includes not only direct observation, but the slowed down film footage of the person under investigation.   These stills show the inconsistencies between a person’s verbal expression and their involuntary body language, voice or gesture.  These body expressions, displayed in microseconds, can’t be hidden, even voluntarily.  On the show, they become the key to discovering whether someone is covering up the truth.   

I found the series fascinating.  It presents a very clear picture of how someone can be saying one thing, while the body is saying something else.  You might be interested in seeing how the facial muscles change in each of our most basic emotions.   Check it out here.  Or see a clip of the Lie To Me Series.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

What About Compassion?

My previous posts have been about sharing some of the thinking that went into writing my book, Let Your Feelings Show, but today I’m taking a detour to share with you an article my son, Jeff, wrote for Rolling Stone.  It’s in the current, July 8th issue and is about a group of middle class Americans who have lost everything.  It’s made me think a lot about our collective responsibility to one another and our capacity to be kind and compassionate, or callus and uncaring. 

While we all know the importance of independence, we seem less able to also acknowledge our interdependence.  While individual responsibility helps us all become competent, we also will inevitably experience setbacks, make mistakes or experience bad luck.  When this happens, we each need encouragement, support or guidance.   As a society we seem less ready to face this predictable truth.
Jeff’s story is about folks, like you and me, who have held down jobs, owned businesses, paid their mortgages, and cared for their kids.  These folks have never asked for anything and couldn’t have foreseen the sudden unraveling of everything they have ever worked for: the loss of equity in their homes; the loss of businesses or jobs; or the denial of loans.  They have run out of savings and resources and are now living in their cars, parking overnight in a Safe Parking Program in Santa Barbara, California.

You will be dismayed by their plight, and their multiple struggles to simply survive and by the psychic impact of falling so quickly out of middle class into poverty, which un- hinges their sense of identity and unmoors their lives from a prior sense of security.  Their circumstances remind us of how vulnerable we all are in the face of unpredictable events, and make us wonder if we would have the necessary grit to get through.  

As these folks have found out, you can’t count on social agencies to help you through; their goal seems to be to find fault with you for being there in the first place.  Social agencies might prevent starvation, but they don’t provide the support and resources necessary to allow folks to recover and rebuild.  Rather, they promote a circular struggle for daily survival that degrades and humiliates. 

As a society we need to do better.  We need a system that’s compassionate and acknowledges our shared humanity.  We need a system that offers real resources that allow people to build on their good intentions and desire to be productive.  As social animals we all prosper through cooperation and caring.  We all have the capacity to be compassionate and we should have social agencies that reflect this. 

I truly believe in Gandhi’s saying that:

"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats it's weakest members."

You can also view the discussion of Jeff's article on MSNB.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Do we Have Primary Emotions Like Primary Colors?

Which emotions constitute our most basic ones? That’s not easy to answer since there are a number of different opinions. As far back as Darwin, theorists speculated about whether emotions are innate or learned, and how many are universally expressed. To shed light on this dilemma, Paul Ekman, a psychologist, traveled to Papua, New Guinea and showed members of an isolated culture, the Fore tribe, photographs of emotions in people from another culture. He found that they could reliably name six emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. Ekman was, thus, able to show that contrary to the belief of some anthropologists, including Margaret Mead, facial expressions of emotions are not culturally determined, but are basic or biologically universal to all humans.

I decided to use Ekman’s original six emotions and, based on further research, decided to add two additional ones. Many of our basic emotions are designed to keep us aware of danger, potential harm, or novelty in our environment. Others are more social in nature. Happiness and sadness are often related to our interactions with others. I thought the same was true of shame and love They both, but in different ways, help us to stay connected to others or to be an accepted group member. Dacher Keltner, a student of Paul Ekman, in his book, Born to be Good, talks about the importance of the positive emotions and our deep capacity for kindness and compassion.

Take a look at this You Tube video on basic emotions
Or read an interview with Dr. Ekman.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Expressing Emotions Keeps You Healthy

Even as adults, many of us still may be puzzled by what we’re feeling. Often we weren’t taught to pay attention to our feelings or distinguish between them. Like seeing or hearing, emotions alert us to how we’re responding to events, or to the people around us. Emotions need to be a comfortable part of who we are, a part that we accept and value, rather than hid or deny.   

I thought that if I could create a guide that clearly explains each emotion and its unique purpose, then adults might better help children know why emotions are important. We experience emotions every day, so children need guidance in recognizing them. They need help learning to read faces or body language that signal an emotion. They need help in making distinctions between being tired or angry, or being really afraid or just a little shy. Helping kids slow down and make these distinctions will help them become more aware of themselves and more sensitive toward others. Of course, when adults can comfortably express their own emotions, then children have a model to emulate and will feel freer in sharing their own emotions.      
Dr. Candace B. Pert in her book, Molecules of Emotion:  Why You Feel the Way You Feel,  talks about the importance of expressing emotions this way:  “ My research has shown me that when emotions are expressed--which is to say that the biochemical’s that are the substrate of emotion are flowing freely--all systems are united and made whole. When emotions are repressed, denied, not allowed to be whatever they may be, our network pathways get blocked, stopping the flow of the vital feel-good unifying chemicals that run both our biology and our behavior.”   

Here's an interesting Bill Moyer's interview with  Dr. Pert.
You can learn more about Dr. Pert here.

More About Color

One of the most creative responses to my question, "What color goes with each emotion?" came in the form of a poem by an artist cousin of mine: 

Anger is a dark red throbbing, its edges glowing orange-yellow, and this in a dark place.

Fear is a very dark gray with a greenish cast.

Sad is less a color than the blur of whatever colors we see through tear-filled eyes.

Shame is the color of the top of whatever shoes I'm wearing.

Surprise is an unexpected flash of brightness, the hue of which doesn't matter.

Disgust has no particular color; it's a recoil from corruption.

Happy is not one color but the sparkling of many.

Love is all the colors we have of eyes, and skin, and hair.

While thinking about color, I learned that in 1666 Sir Isaac Newton became the first person to use a prism to separate pure white light into the colors on the visible spectrum--the colors of the rainbow. Each color has a unique wavelength that makes it irreducible, unable to be separated into other colors. White is the combination of all the visible colors.

RadioLab recently did a terrific show on color. It covers Newton's color experiments and the sequential emergence of individual colors in evolving languages.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What's the Color of Mad?

“ Colours are light’s suffering and joy.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 I thought it would be fun to give a color to each of the emotions. I wondered how to go about choosing, and so I sent off a questionnaire to family and friends to see if I could find any consensus. I got an interesting array of responses and not much consensus. It made me realize just how subjective our experience of color is.  Here are some of the responses from the questionnaire:

 I see love as red (vibrant), fear as black sad as gray

 I would use the blue for "happy" and the yellow for "sad" (think The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

 I hesitated at blue for sad, because even though "being blue" is feeling sad, I think of blue as a peaceful, happy, and calming color.

Have you thought of changing the  fonts of each emotion, as well as the color?

I think that you should use primary colors for primary emotions. Then there's warm verses cool colors. Primary colors have an intensity that secondary or tertiary colors lack. There's also tone, or the amount of black or grey in a color

 "What is the color of fear?" The best answer went to dark red. I was thinking "black," but probably it wouldn't work graphically.

 Here are the eight emotions in my book:

 Anger,  Fear,  Sadness,  Shame,  Surprise,  Disgust,  Happiness and  Love

 What Color Would You Use For Each  Emotion?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

It Takes A Village

While I was writing, Let Your Feelings Show, I got a lot of input from my family. It’s so helpful to get feedback when you’re writing. Writing is a solitary endeavor and sometime you lose perspective. I was so focused on getting the text accurate, that I hadn’t been thinking much about the reader’s experience. When my son read my first draft, he gave me some invaluable advice. He advised using more examples, stories that kids could relate to immediately. So with his help, I began to develop short vignettes to demonstrate each of the emotions.

Then, my daughter, gave me another invaluable piece of advice. She suggested that I needed to include illustrations. She argued that illustrations would anchor the concepts and, of course, she was right. So Illustrations got added.

My husband was my heavy editor. He flagged the text when my language was too adult or not concise. He checked grammar and patiently listened to multiple revisions. Now, I definitely know why people have editors. I, luckily, had a talented and loving family. Not to mention, friends who’s wisdom and support keep me bolstered and made this book better.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Let Your Feelings Show About To Launch

I’m really thrilled to soon be introducing my book, Let Your Feelings Show. Although, I never set out to write this book, it’s been an exciting journey and I’ve learned a lot. It happened because I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I wanted a book to recommend to parents to help them explain emotions to their children. Although there were books about specific emotions, I wanted a basic primer that explained all the emotions and their purpose. Since I couldn’t find it, I just went ahead and wrote it. It’s almost done and I think it’s a really helpful guide. It lays out in clear language and with examples and illustrations the purpose of each of our basic eight emotions. My hope is that all children learn a language for their emotions and it becomes as common as learning shapes, colors or the alphabet.