Tag: "Compassionate Identity"

Keynotes, Workshops, ReachUP! 2021

Keynotes, Workshops, ReachUP! 2021

 We have struck gold!”        “Pure Perfection!”        “Extremely well-presented”

“What a fabulous speaker!”      “Spellbinging speaker!”

Some comments from participants in workshops and keynotes given by John Woodall, MD, selected as one of “The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2013” by Newstime.

Keynote: “We’re Not Waiting: A New Vision for a Resilient America.”

John Woodall, MD

With moving and uplifting examples from work with young people after 9/11 in New York City and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, this keynote is a wake up call  to actively promote resilient unifying strengths in families, schools, communities, businesses and institutions of higher learning when the crises of our time create a pull toward extremism and despair.  Powerful and transformative, this electrifying keynote presentation offers participants a life-vision and a guiding compass as we enter a challenging decade.


Decades of hard-knocks clinical and field experience give substance to “walk the talk.”

With invaluable and effective tools in hand, participants become agents of resilience and hope.

“As the confusion of our time pulls more people to despair and extremism, we will need growing numbers of competent leaders who can speak to our common humanity and show the way to a practical and inclusive vision for the country.  This is the promise of hope for America and the lesson from 9/11 we need to carry forward into the next decade.”


“The crises of our times are pulling people to despair and extremism.”

In an increasingly complex world, how do we create dynamic unity between diverse people to release our undreamed of potential to solve the problems we face?

From expert consultation and partnership with the US State Department running trauma response programs in the Balkans, to work with the City of New York after 9/11 and state and local agencies after Hurricane Katrina to create resilience building programs for kids, to convening the “Resilient Responses to Social Crisis Working Group” at Harvard University,  launching the Unity Project in northern Uganda or plunging in to aid his home town of Newtown, CT after the horrific tragedy there, Dr. John Woodall has led a series of initiatives transforming crisis into opportunities for united growth in families, communities, businesses and entire cities, regions and countries.

Dr. Woodall’s unique experience informs his call for the nation to identify despair and extremism as dangers to our personal happiness and to the stability and health of our democracy.  His call is for all of us to participate to develop leaders who can unite us around the best of human nature and to fulfill the real promise of America as the hope of the world.

Go Green Peace Trees launch

Launching the Unity Project in Lira, Uganda at 3 schools with city officials and youth.

The crises of our time are increasingly pulling people to divisive extremism and despair.  The result has been a near paralysis of governance, rising social tension and difficulty getting our private lives to work.  Young people, in particular, want no part of a world plagued by division, despair and extremism.  In an increasingly complex world, how do we create dynamic unity to release the undreamed of potential we all have to solve the problems we face in our families, schools, universities, businesses, the country and our beleaguered world?

Drawing on extensive clinical know-how, field work in crisis areas around the world and the finest academic centers, Dr. Woodall weaves the best of his vast practical experience with cutting edge research in the neurosciences, psychology, human development and organizational systems to present a very human and richly informed path out of the troubles we face.

Click here to see the many organizations that have taken up this spirit of service in Newtown.

Providing a variety of services to the people of Newtown, CT.


Whether the focus is on individual transformation, couples and families,  community organizations, academic settings, business or professional organizations, his approach is refreshingly alive and intimate while offering a practical vision of hope and the tools to make that hope real.  His presentations are intelligent without sounding academic.  Passionate and hopeful without being preachy or naive.  He makes his subject matter come alive in a very accessible way so that anyone can feel like positive change is possible in their life.


People walk away admitting that they have been transformed. ”

* Keynote addresses are easily adaptable to the needs of particular audiences.


 What people are saying:

“John is a wonderful man.  He should be bottled and shipped.  There is not a corner of the “civilized” world that does not need to hear his message.”

“It was wonderful!  John seems to “walk the talk.”

“…he is able to reach those from 1 to 92.”

For more information on Dr. Woodall’s availability for Key-Note addresses,

e-mail:  infowoodall@gmail.com

Click here for a fascinating radio interview with Dr. Woodall on building resilience in families.



“The Resilient Power of Unity”

Inspiring, transformative and practical, Dr. Woodall shows how to move vision to action.

Working globally to create cooperation and unity. Here, Palestinian and Israeli youth.

Unleashing the power of unity is the brightest promise of America.  Undreamed of resilient potential is released when the key principles of dynamic unity are applied in a group.  What we need in America is far more than diversity training.  No student should leave college and no employee can be considered competent in the 21st Century without the experience of dynamic unity with others to serve as a vision for their life’s work and a guide as to how to bring out their best and the best of others.  This fun, inspiring and hands-on interactive workshop begins the transformation of the school, family, business and university culture toward a new level of competence using the resilient power of dynamic unity.


What people are saying:

“This was the most helpful class I have ever taken.”

I am hoping I can remember every little morsel of information from the day.  You have a great message to convey…”

“This workshop has so much to offer.  This is my second time to sit through it.  I’ve learned just as much or more this year!  GREAT!”

“I’m excited to take the knowledge I gained and put it into action.”

“I found the workshop to be very inspiring and was especially impressed by your genuine warmth towards everyone who attended.”

For more information on Dr. Woodall’s availability for workshops for your organization,

e-mail:  infowoodall@gmail.com


Transformational programs for youth:

Reach UP! 2021


Partnership with the City of New York to build resilience in kids after 9/11.

Dr. Woodall founded the Unity Project to launch a global movement of competent young leaders experienced in creating united and resilient communities.

In response to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and to sustain the transformation process of an institution over time, Reach UP! 2021 offers the unique service learning methods of the Unity Project that give the ongoing means to help young people develop the resilient skills that promote the experience of dynamic unity.  Young people take charge of their lives to build toward a vision of a compassionate world in 2021.   Linked to youth worldwide through an online learning community, dynamic unity is modeled and reinforced through service to others.


What people are saying:

“What a feast to the imagination!  I found myself totally absorbed….  It is a very comprehensive guide to enlightened decision-making based on solid principles.  It is practical and just sufficiently conceptual, coherent with the use of the bowl metaphor, simple to understand … without the compromise of depth or quality.  With the design you have successfully modeled Out-of-the Box thinking for the students and the Advisors here.  Wow!”


“People are always willing to give me a ‘map’ ‘here’s what to tell students about the dangers’ — now, with the Unity Project there is a resource for HOW to get there!  What I needed was a CAR.  From now on the journey will be easier with some reliable transportation.”


“The two fingered table exercise WOWed the SADD chapter at BFHS at about 7:25 this morning.  Can you say emPOWERED!?!?!?”


“I am very excited about John Woodall’s Unity Project. It’s a realistic and appealing approach to strengthening and increasing “resiliency” in children. It is realistic and appealing because it meets the needs of a wide diversity of children, hooks them in, and engages them in interpersonal exercises that demonstrate the power of group support. I highly recommend the Unity Project for any middle and secondary school organization that is interested in increasing student involvement and the “resiliency” of all its students. Many young people who lack the ability to endure tragedies and crises now have a means to adapt and move on.

Thanks Dr. Woodall!”


“I have been pursuing a much needed classroom initiative like The Unity Project during my thirty years in the teaching profession.  I am eager and energized to begin this new initiative in my high school this year. It is a new vision on the horizon which is exciting.

It is thorough, well-thought-out and easy to follow.  John is a pleasure to work with and explains everything so well with a professional attitude and respect for all.”

For more information on bringing the Unity Project to your youth organization, contact:



More Comments from Participants in Dr. Woodall’s programs:

“Dr. Woodall speaks to the business of challenge, challenge in life and the resiliency with which we can discover the hero inside to meet and resolve those challenges.”


Dr. Woodall is gifted to see inside people’s turmoil and pain, and not only see it, but understand the root,”

“When you can understand the root, there’s usually a solution. He seems to be able to speak several languages. He’s able to transcend boundaries and reach many different groups. He’s not just focused on one group, one age, one religion or one gender – his field and perception is so broad, he’s able to hit a lot of different areas.”


“As a physician and a psychiatrist, a “diplomat” and a founder of social programs toward unity and self-discovery, he manages in a very unique way to combine the medical with the neuro-scientific with sociological and spiritual well-being. We don’t often come across this authoritative combination. He gives you concrete solutions – ways to change behavioral patterns – not just fluff. This is not about a revival, it’s not about a lecture or subject matter – it’s about a process. People walk away admitting that they have been transformed. ”


“I think Dr. Woodall has an innate ability to cut to the heart of the matter, across gender, religion, socio-economic barriers, to allow the person to see that there is a choice to empower them in their lives.”


“For me, I think he offers the opportunity to take ownership of our lives. In this world today, there are a lot of helpless feelings that the government is too big, the world is out of control, and when you walk away from being in a workshop with Dr. Woodall, you feel that you can make a difference in your life and in the lives of those you love.”

Related posts:

  • On ReachUP! 2021, the Unity Project’s initiative to build a national vision of compassion and cooperation and reject extremism, click here.
  • To discover the Compassionate Identity in response to the challenges of life, click here.
  • To learn more about the Unity Project, click here.

All Rights Reserved, John Woodall, MD,©, 2011

John Woodall, MD(copyright), 2011

"Everyday Heroes" by John Woodall, MD on PBS

“Everyday Heroes” by John Woodall, MD on PBS

Here’s an interview aired on PBS station WSRE in Pensacola, Florida, on a show called, “Conversations with Jeff Weeks.”

It offers some of the key features of the resilience principles used in my workshops and in the Unity Project.


Compassion, the Prize and the Price

Compassion, the Prize and the Price

With Martin Luther King Day upon us, this piece on his college room-mate’s study of his non-violent methods of social change will be something to uplift your spirits. Enjoy.

I really like Chuck Willie.  You would too.

Chuck and Martin before they became “Dr. Willie” and “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Chuck was Martin Luther King’s classmate at Morehouse College.  You know what became of Dr. King.  Dr. Willie has his own  illustrious record.

I met Chuck when he was the Chair of the Board of the Judge Baker Children’s Center at Harvard University.  I was on the faculty at Judge Baker at the time.  A more approachable man than Chuck is hard to imagine.  With his many remarkable achievements, his combination of humble affability and excellence in achievement make him a gem of a man whom I highly value and simply love to talk to.

Chuck participated in the interfaculty working group I put together at Harvard after 9/11 on “Resilient Responses to Social Crisis.”  We were looking at what the absolute best responses might be to that horrible event and ones like it.  We were particularly interested in how to do this on a large scale.  That’s where Chuck has special insights.

One of his many areas of expertise is how to create effective grassroots social action.   Like Dr. King, this was the burning question before all Morehouse students of his generation and even now.  Chuck came to study the methods of his former classmate, Dr. King, and offered our group his insights.

It was after one of our working group meetings that Chuck came up to me to give me a synopsis of Dr. King’s methods.  He told me how the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 was a perfect example of how to mobilize a group of people to be their best. (Check out this tune by the Neville Brothers in honor of Rosa Parks.)

“Every Monday night, people from every part of Montgomery would come together at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. King was pastor.”  Chuck said.  “They would basically be involved in two actitivites.  On the one hand, they would listen to sermons and speeches about the “Beloved Community.”  They would talk among themselves, read the Bible, study from other sources, all of this to get a clear idea of what “The Prize” was they were after.”

“You see, they needed to have a crystal clear vision of what it was they were being asked to do.  In this case, it wasn’t only their own liberation from the oppression of Segregation and Jim Crow.  They wanted much more than that.  They were going to liberate their oppressors from the shackles of their prejudice and hatred.  In that way everyone could be free.  Their goal was the ‘Beloved Community.'”

“So, on the one hand, they needed to have this goal, this Prize, clearly fixed in their minds with all of its benefits and moral value.”

“On the other hand, in order to make a mature ethical choice, they had to understand in the depths of their souls what the cost would be, what “The Price” was to pay for that “Prize.”

Their families could be harrassed or harmed, crosses burned on their property, fire hoses turned on them, attack dogs set loose on them.  They could be beaten with clubs.  They could be killed.”

“They had to look these costs straight in the face and decide for themselves if that Prize was worth paying that Price.”

Rosa Parks

“Over the course of time, by going over the Prize and the Price in every possible way, turning their options over and over in their minds and weighing in their hearts what this all meant, every one of those people was able to make a deep personal commitment to that Prize and accept the Price they would pay to get it.  This allowed them to make a deeply personal ethical choice that rested at the core of their being.

After nearly 13 months of this, it was as though there were thousands of Dr. Kings.  If he had been killed then, that boycott still would have gone on and succeeded due to the deep clear-eyed personal commitment of all involved.”

Rosa Parks after her arrest.

To make the important decisions in our life, we need to get clear on the Prize we are after and the Price we pay for it. A lot of parenting, especially of a teenager, is all about this.  Of course, the Price is not only what we might have to sacrifice for our Prize, but also the price we pay for failing to choose.  Difficult times give us the motivation to look for the best of what we can be.

A Rigid or Weakened Identity prevent us from seeing the best of that Prize.  They dim our vision of the Prize and rob us of the confidence to choose.  Or worse, they tragically energize us to make mean spirited or “small” choices as Jimmy Dunne described in another post.

A Compassionate Identity opens up the horizon of possibilities for us.  We can begin to see the best of what we can be.  Our choice can then be better informed.  If from a Compasionate Identity, we lay out that Prize to someone who is in a difficult situation, we offer them a way to hope, a way to the best in themselves.  If we also lay out the Price that will have to be paid to reach that Prize, we give them the chance to make the best choice to make that hope real.  We fire their determination to achieve something higher.

This is the goal of the Unity Project, the ReachUP! USA initiative and this blog.

Related posts:

If you missed the first post on the Compassionate Identity, click here.

Susan Dunne and “What Sue Remembers

A wonderful story from the Balkans:  “Compassion, Fantastic Coffee and My Shock

All Rights Reserved, Copyright, John Woodall, MD, 2011

Please feel free to post this to your Facebook or blog. Subscribe through e-mail.  Most importantly, let’s hear your thoughts.  Comment below.

Compassion and What Sue Remembers

Compassion and What Sue Remembers

Click here if you missed the last post on Post-Partisan America.

I knew I wanted to meet Sue Dunne after I met her son, CJ.

His Dad and I had an interview scheduled in his office on a Saturday morning in mid-town Manhattan.  Jimmy Dunne’s story is quite moving and inspiring.  He has gotten a lot of attention for his handling of the reconstruction and phenomenal growth of Sandler O’Neill & Partners after 9/11 and the firm’s loss of 66 people that day in the South Tower.   I told a small part of Jimmy’s story in a previous post.  But, it was meeting CJ that showed me that this was a family story.

Our coffee cups were pretty close to this big.

Sue and I met in the Dunne’s lovely home on the East River in Manhattan.  She greeted me at the door with an enormous cup of coffee in her hands.  A few seconds later, I had one in mine, too.   (She offered me some coconut milk to go with it.  Ordinarily, I would have said “no.”  But, I thought, “What the heck,” and accepted.  It was delicious.  Try it if you get a chance.  You’ll like it.)

The conversation naturally flowed while we settled into the living room.  We turned the exchange to CJ and his Dad and the reason for my coming to see her.   “Like his Dad, CJ has a lot of presence, especially for a 16 year old.   There was something else that was there, too.   He has an ease with adults that is refreshing and a sense of deep confidence.  I liked him.  He showed a genuine interest in the life of his Dad and a sense of grit and heart and desire for excellence that was striking for his age.  He’s still young, but these are great signs for the future.”

I finished plugging in and turning on my computer to record our conversation as I continued,

“These are the same qualities I saw in his Dad, but with a different flavor.  So, I figured the difference had to come from his Mom.   I know that most stories of success are really family stories.  So, seeing CJ and interviewing Jimmy, I knew I needed to speak to you to get a better picture of Jimmy and that time around 9/11.”

We jumped right into the deep end of our conversation talking about the days immediately after 9/11, when Jimmy, now the only surviving Principal of the three that directed the firm at Sandler O’Neill, had to come up with a way to support the families of those killed that day and, in parallel to this, rescue the firm from collapse.

Entire departments of the firm were depopulated.  All of the records of their business dealings were gone.  They had to reconstruct who their clients were and the contacts developed by now deceased colleagues, establish what the contractual arrangements were, rebuild their information technology support, find qualified replacements for those lost and a host of other crises, while also tending to the human calamity they faced and the unspeakable loss to the families of their loved ones.

Bereft families had to tend to immediate issues about insurance, house payments, what to do about kids in college and a thousand family issues couples struggle with together.  Many families turned to Jimmy to help them figure these matters out.  All the while, the steady cadence of memorial services and funerals continued for months along with the utterly exhausting shock of it all.

Sandler O’Neill decided to extend payment of salaries to the families of the deceased.  A foundation was established to provide for the families’ health insurance and kids’ educations.

Sandler was the first firm on Wall Street to do this.  The conventional wisdom at the time and the best advice of experts was that firms should not do this for the families.  That it would undermine the capitalization of the firms, thereby weakening their business positions and their reputations for financial stability in the market.  Jimmy, with absolutely no guarantee of success, did it anyway.  Sandler O’Neill and Jimmy Dunne became the role models for the rest of Wall Street and earned the well-deserved esteem they wear today.

“I was trying to support my husband any way I could.”  Sue began with a raw tenderness for old and dear friends who had passed away, some friends whom Jimmy had known since his teens.  “Jimmy needed me.  I needed to go out to our friends.  My days were spent going to funerals.”

“It was a Wall of Black!  9/11 was just black.  It was just the darkest of the dark.”  Sue said of that time.

In that blackness, Sue described a surprising respite.  It was what she felt while at the memorial services and funerals.

“The feeling was so peaceful.  Going to those funerals with people feeling the same way.  We were able to share their lives.  You got to hear about their lives from people who really loved them.  You never wanted to leave.  It was safe in there.  You heard so many wonderful things about people you loved very much.”

We talked about the challenges of raising kids through all of this.  I recalled my experience in the Balkans during and after the war there.   When given the chance, kids would want to draw a picture over and over of their experience of what happened.  Of course, this is the effort of a child with limited language skills to try to understand what they had experienced.  The issue becomes one of helping the child find words to not only describe what happened, but to have a way to give meaning to the loss in a way that frees up their motivation to build their future in a positive way and not paralyze them with fear or rage.

“I spent the first 3 months going to funerals.  I wanted to get out there and let them know we were there for them.  Trying to do what we could…  We needed to get out and support them as much as we could.”

I thought, this was a real sign of who this woman is.  She didn’t have to “get out and support them,”  but she “needed to.”  This is the heart of a leader, the heart of a caring friend.

“I was delighted I could go.  It was a privilege.  It was hard for me to stop.   I loved being there supporting the families.”

I asked Sue about any lessons she picked up from those days.  Was there a way to summarize what she learned for CJ or another teenager?  What would she say?

“It sounds so simple, like such a cliche, but it’s important to live your life to the fullest all the time.  Be there.  Show up!”

“You don’t want to be in the position where you say to yourself  ‘I really should have showed up more for this person.’  Or, sit there and blame others.  Or, sit there and blame Muslims.  It’s about helping other people.  Getting going with your life.”

This is the mystery and the beauty that’s so often found after such a terrible event.  Sue found a great comfort learning about and appreciating the humanity of those who were lost. These memorials were a straight path to the pure uncovered love that people felt for those lost.  Being present for this kind of sharing exposed the link that connects us all, a link that is often hidden by the turmoil of our day. In a time of crisis, some people help us see that link by their care, their presence. Sue showed up not only for Jimmy and her kids, but very personally for scores of families.  Sue remembers the love.

The next post explores getting clear on the Prize and the Price to, like Sue, make a choice from our Compassionate Identity.

Related Posts:

A wonderful story from the Balkans:  “Compassion, Fantastic Coffee and My Shock

Sue’s husband, Jimmy, is talked about in this post:  “Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne.”

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The "Weakened Identity"

The “Weakened Identity”

(Click here if you missed Part 3.)

Bob is a Vietnam Veteran.  I was his psychiatrist.  We met weekly for a few years at the trauma clinic at a VA Medical Center.  Bob is a good family man that anyone would be happy to know.  But, he suffers still with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD).

This post is not about PTSD.  Most of us will never face what Bob had to.  His case illustrates, however, in the extreme the features of a “Weakened Identity” that the rest of us may exprience to a much less intense degree.  The sharp relief of his exprience can inform our own much less intense one.  His growth is also an example of a pathway from unsuccessful to successful suffering and the “Compassionate Identity.”   We’ll use Bob’s case to go over some of the brain science and psychology that define a Weakened Identity and how these relate to the anatomy of both extremism and civility.

Bob had been very idealistic as a teen-ager.  He enlisted in the Marines at 18 to give himself to a cause he felt was worth fightng for: liberty and the defeat of oppression in the world.  He was stationed along the border with North Vietnam in Quang Tri in the  “I Corp” region of South Vietnam.

If your life depended on it, could you read what is in these eyes?

He recalled to me one of several terrible episodes in which, while on patrol, a woman approached his fireteam carrying a bundle that looked like it might be a baby.  But, the men had heard that other units had suffered serious casualties in similar situations when the bundles turned out to be AK-47s or plastic explosives.  Knowing this he and other men in his unit had been forced into an impossible dilemma.   After repeated calls to the woman to back away from the men, they felt they had no choice but to shoot her.  Whether she was carrying a weapon or not, the fact that he was in the position to even have to consider shooting a woman brought home to him that it was not so easy to tell himself he was fighting for liberty and to end oppression in the world.  The world was nowhere near as black and white as he had thought.  There were difficult decisions that had to be made in life.  In his case, a wrong decsion resulted in someone being dead.

Bob is not an evil man.  He is not a weak man.  Far from it.  He is a very decent man that you would be proud to know.  He has been through the most wrenching of human experiences: war.  No one told him that, in the 20th Century, 90% of casualties of war are civilians.  He did not expect to be in the position to have to kill civilians.  This devastated him.

After this horrific event, he wondered if there could be any good in the world.  Could there be a loving God who would allow such a thing to happen?  He wondered if he had been kidding himself all along believing that there could be good in the world.  Or, at the very least, if there was good in the world, he felt he certainly had nothing to do with it.   He felt that he had no right to strive for anything good in his life, if there actually was anything good to strive for.

This caused him to feel alone and uncomfortable around other people.  It was as if he was putting on aires pretending to be interested in what people’s lives were about.  Nothing held any real worth to him.  He felt that the things that he experienced most strongly in his life were overpowering feelings like despair and guilt, not to mention the horror he felt when memories of his experience haunted him at night.

How could he share what was most real to him with another?  He thought he was doomed to be alone in the world as no one would ever want to know of the internal world in which he lived.  How could he share with someone else feelings that were so overwhelming to him and so negative, feelings  for which he often couldn’t find words?

All of this left him emotionally exhausted.  Without anything good he could believe in, he couldn’t develop any meaningful goals for his life.  Without a valued goal, he had no reason to be motivated.  Without motivation, he could not develop new skills to create a sense of competence in life.  His sense of worth as a man was devastated as a result.

Bob felt as if he had no center in his life.  Adrift, he wondered what would become of him.  His life was characterized by despair and isolation.  This is the part of the experience of many who have suffered a severe trauma and developed the symptoms of PTSD.  A lesser version of this is also common to many people without PTSD who feel confused about the suffering in their life.

Bob’s experience is an extreme.  It is something to keep in mind when an opportunity to be a friend to a veteran arises in your life.  But, what Bob experienced in capital letters, many of us experience in smaller measure.

This sense of feeling diminished as a person I call a “Weakened Identity.”  One if its chief characteristics is a difficulty identifying with a goal in life.  The weight of a previous experience has shaken one’s sense of value in the goals by which one might have directed one’s life.  Bob’s idea he was fighting for freedom and human dignity were shattered by his own bitter experience.  This collapse of his life’s goal was, for Bob, a collapse of the world view that gave him meaning and purpose.  With a collapse of his sense of purpose, there followed a paralyzing loss of motivation.    Without motivation to strive for a goal, there was no impetus to compel him to develop new skills, to venture to enter relationships and explore deeper levels of intimacy and trust.  His personal growth was stalled.

Control of our lives should come from our thinking cortex, not our lower brain structures.

An underlying fear and anxiety are two of the other key features of a Weakened Identity.  Fear is the arousal we experience from the survival emotion that is directed at a particular threat.  Anxiety is that same arousal but without a clear threat.  These survival states become filters of perception that cause to see the world in a way that maintains their existence.  Fear begets our tendency to create reasons to stay afraid and to see the world as a frightening place.  When anxious, we tend to see the world as anxiety provoking.  Over time, these unregulated “hyperarousal states” paralyze our capacity to grow.

There are structures deep in our brain that are the engines of these unthinking survival emotions.  One of them is called the “amygdala.”  Among other things, the amygdala is like a switchboard relay station for survival emotions like fear and anger.  When the amygdala is activated, it completely takes over control of the the way the brain processes information.  It colors our experience with strong survival emotions like fear and anger.

Remember that song, “When you’re similing?” My Mom used to sing it to me.  The song tells us that when you smile, the whole world smiles with you.  When your laughing, the sun come shining through.  But, when you’re crying, you bring on the rain.  Neurologically, when you experience a strong emotion, that emotion becomes the filter for all of your thinking.  So, if you are sad, everything you experience is processed as proof of why you should be sad.  If you are angry, whatever the person you’re speaking to says is processed as proof of how evil they are.  Ever been on a laughing jag?  Every stupid thing is hilarious.  The more stupid, the funnier.  Every strong emotion becomes a filter for all of our experience.  So, we stop experiencing the world for what it is, and instead, see the world through the filter of our emotions, which reinforce themselves by making all of our thoughts justify them.

Louis Armstrong did a great version of “When you’re smiling!”

Emotions also act like the topics in a file cabinet for our memory.  When you are sad, everything you experience is filed as a memory for “sad.” We remember something much more clearly if it is associated with an emotion.  It’s a positive feedback loop.  You feel an emotion.  The emotion colors all your experience to justify that emotion.  Your memories are then laid down in the brain with that emotion attached as a kind of memory jogger.  If you feel that emotion again, the memories associated with it return.  If you remember something, the emotion it is filed under comes back, too.  Again, emotions reinforce themselves.   Sadness will produce more sadness; fear, more fear; anger, more anger; love, more love, etc.

This neurological wiring of our brain makes sense if you are running from or trying to fight a lion that wants to eat you.  In order to stay alive, you need to remain very motivated and focused on how everything might be a potential threat.  Your strong emotions of fear or anger keep your motivation up and focused on the threat.  But, if you are trying to make a marriage work and raise kids, keep a job and have friends, this mechanism is destructive.  We need another mechanism.  If we are not aware that we need to turn off our survival mechanisms, we may be perpetually surprised as to why our life is not working.  It’s a matter of over-active and unchecked survival emotions getting in the way.

When we are able to make a choice to calm our emotions, the cortex begins to exert a braking influence on the amygdala.  We can choose to calm down, to quiet our fear and extinguish our anger.  This choice is the key.  The survival mechanisms of the brain, fear and anger, are in their full glory and ready to go right from birth.

A choice is like a push-up. The more you exercise a particular choice, the more the neural circuits that support that choice are strengthened.

But, our higher cortical reasoning requires exercise.  These higher cortical functions are not fully developed at birth. The pieces are there at birth, but they are not in working order at birth.  They require the exercise of choice to bring them into their full expression.  The more we use them, the more they become our ‘default” way of operating.  Each choice reinforces the neural networks that support that choice.

If we choose one way of being, the neural networks associated with that choice are strengthened.  The neural networks of those choices we don’t make become weakened.  In the same way a muscle gets bigger and better coordinated with exercise, neural circuits that we choose to use become more robust with each choice.   Our “natural” fear and anger come spontaneously, without thinking, without a choice.  If we let them reign unchecked, they only get stronger.

We have other categories of emotions as well, feelings, like calm, compassion and empathy.   In times of stress, these emotions that connect us to others may not arise spontaneously.  We may have to resist our angry and fearful emotions with thoughts that allow for bonding emotions to arise.  This requires the exercise of choice.  If we don’t practice through the exercise of choice, these bonding emotions do not develop.  In fact, they may feel unnatural and foreign.  The higher cortical functions that allow for reciprocal living with others, our civilized self, are only possible to sustain when we quiet our survival emotions of fear and anger and practice these bonding emotions.  These higher cortical functions are like gems in a mine.  We may be sitting on top of a mine filled with gems, but decide that making the effort to dig for these gems is unnatural and too much trouble.  We are poorer as a result in the quality of our relationships and the problems we create for ourselves and others through the fearful and angry responses we bring to our lives.

What has been said here about our instinctual survival responses and emotions applies to habits of thinking, feeling and behaving.   These habits are our biases.  You can think of “bias” as habitual neural patterns in the brain that wire our thinking, feeling and behaving that are reinforced by continual use.  These become our default neural patterns.  We think they are the “truth” because they seem so very natural, spontaneous and obvious to us.  But, they are really only our habitual ways to think, feel and act.  Anger and fear come naturally, for instance.  But, they persist in our character because we refuse to choose to change them.  The Compassionate Identity, which embodies the sum of all the gems we possess of higher cortical civilizing functions, is only possible with choice, repeated choice in spite of natural feelings of fear or anger.

If we make the choice to calm our survival emotions, the amygdala will let go of our thinking and allow us to think creatively without reverting to biases in our thinking, feeling and behavior.  The vast potential of our cortext is then opened through this exercise of will.   The neural networks we liberate, if exercised over and over by repeated choices to calm fear and anger, will result in a personality style like that of  Dr. Ruhe‘s mentioned in the previous post.  The discipline of his repeated choices led to a character that eventually found the pull of fear and anger virtually extinguished.  His mental capacities, as a result, flourished in a lifetime of productive creativity that was directed towards service to others.

If we neglect this choice, the neural circuits of our survival emotions only strengten their grip on our thinking and problem solving.  We become the prisoners of the grip of our own amygdala.  But now, instead of it enhancing our survival, it is the cause of our estrangement from others and the undermining of our integrity.

The confidence to exercise will is exactly what the person struggling with a Weakened Identity lacks.  A general tone of anxiety can predominate this person’s thoughts, feelings and actions.  Preoccupations with real and imagined threats grip the mind.  A general feeling of worry and fear of bad consequences plague the assessment of every situation and paralyize decision making.   Planning becomes difficult.   One’s actions might be ineffective as an over-aroused brain pushes us into poorly thought through desperate activity that misses the mark that was intended.   A form of some or all of these dilemmas are present in a Weakened Identity.

Rekindling the resolve to make different choices is the way out of this dilemma.  The final posts of this series deal with how that can be done.  The Unity Project is a methodology to do this with kids.

Spinning wheels.

Our thinking can turn this ineffective emotional and mental spinning of wheels into a false virtue and cause us to devalue anyone who acts with certainty.  We can consider them to be dangerous unthinking zealots.  The very idea of certainty itself becomes entirely suspect.  We see this on the Left politcally, when there is an accusation of extremism levied against anyone with a conviction.  There is an important distinction between a moral conviction and blind zealotry.  This distinction is sometimes lost to the person with a Weakened Identity.  Just as the desire to carefully consider options and question what appears to be certain can wrongly be seen as moral weakness by a person with a Rigid Identity.

There is real wisdom in the hesitation in the Weakened Identity.  Questioning certainty is fundamental to reciprocal relationships and innovation.  In the Weakened Identity, however, we see this questioning in its paralyzing extreme.  In excess, these important strengths lead to a paralysis of motivation and a lack of clarity about noble goals in life.  With nothing to hold as a worthy goal and no sense of capacity to reach for anything noble, nihilism and self indulgence become two extreme back-waters of the Weakened Identity.

These points became the themes of my work with Bob.  Helping him restore a capacity to choose.  They were small choices at first, exercising new neural circuits and dealing with the awkwardness of developing new habits.  We dealt with coping with the anxiety caused by the attempt to make new kinds of decisions; how to tolerate anxiety and ambuity without falling into fear and despair.  We explored new ways of seeing himself that did not stem from highly charged impressions taken on during the worst part of his life.  We worked toward a balance between assertion and tact, resolve and reflection.  He still deals with symptoms of PTSD.  But, he has a roadmap out of his paralysis, a map he uses daily to exercise his will to grow in humility and wisdom.  On balance, Bob is successfully meeting the challenges of his suffering.

I should say that the constructs of a Weakened Identity and a Rigid Identity are my own abbreviations for complex styles of personality with many features.  It is hard to find a person who is exclusively one or the other.  In fact, the two tend to reinforce each other.  More on that in my upcoming book.  I also must point out that a Weakened Identity is not a pathology.  It is an abbreviation for a style of approach to one’s struggles in life.  It is helpful also in that it provides a way to think about how fear influences our social life, especially in contrast to a Rigid Identity.

Next, we’ll take a look at the Rigid Identity, how it is constructed and operates.  It’s destructive elements and the seeds of strength it contains that can be helpful in a Compassionate Identity.

In Part 5: Extremism to Civility: “The Rigid Identity” we’ll get at the roots of extremism that come from a Rigid Identity.  Then, we can move into what liberates our greatest potential: our “Compassionate Identity.”  We’ll cover that in the 7 subsequent posts.

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All Rights Reserved, John Woodall, MD, Copyright, 2011.

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The Three Identities: Weakened, Rigid and Compassionate

The Three Identities: Weakened, Rigid and Compassionate


“What do we do for kids in the city?  Do we send them all to therapy?”  This was the question one of the Commissioners asked me as I sat with officials of the City of New York at City Hall shortly after 9/11.  They had asked me to help them think through how to respond to the tragedy.

“Absolutely not!” I said.    “To label them mentally ill brings up all kinds of problems.  First, the mental health system is barely able to handle its current load, let alone imagining what would happen if we flooded it with hundreds of thousands of new cases.  Second, the kids don’t see themselves as mentally ill.  They are scared, confused, angry and grieving, but these aren’t illnesses.  There are better ways to deal with these real issues outside of a health care system.  There are cultural and educational means to address them.  Third, if we were to describe the kids of the City  as needing mental health services, we create a sense of dependence.  A patient is weak and in need of a professional.  Just when we need to be mobilizing the population in a positive way, we would be telling kids they are sick and need to be dependent on a handful of professionals in understaffed and underfunded mental health care centers.   To be certain, some percentage of the kids of the city will need mental health care, maybe 15%.  But, these can be dealt with within the existing mental health care system.  What is needed instead, is a rapid and large scale public movement that mobilizes the best in ordinary people toward a common and uplifting goal.”


As with all great tragedies like 9/11, Katrina, Haiti or Tucson we are presented with a choice.The multiple crises affecting the country present us with significant challenges to our sense of who we are as individuals and a nation.  There is a choice that links the plight of those who are living through the catastrophes of the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, the challenges facing the residents of Mississippi, New Orleans and Vermont since Hurricanes Katrina and Irene and all of us since the horror of September 11, 2001.In fact, it is the choice we all face when we are confronted with any crisis in our lives. It will confront us again if, God forbid, another catastrophe strikes our shores. Knowing what is involved in this choice can guide us through any past or future crisis we face individually or as a nation.

If we did this correctly, we could help these kids become role models of resilience instead of psychological casualties.  They could come out personally stronger and become agents to help make the country stronger and our democracy healthier.

I told them the issue the city faced had to do with the affect 9/11 had on the identity of everyone in the city, and the country for that matter, including the children.   These affects on our identity had far reaching influences on the way we see and relate to ourselves and each other.   I went on, “Generally speaking, there are three identities that result from a horrific event like this.  The first, I call a ‘Weakened Identity.’”

I explained that for some after such a horrific event, there is a corrosive effect on their sense of hope that anything good can happen in the world.   This is one effect of our natural instincts in times of threat to our safety.  Our perfectly natural instinctual survival responses cause us to filter all of our experiences through the lens of our survival emotions: feelings like fear and anger.  This is a necessary and very helpful survival mechanism to help us focus on dangers when our safety is threatened.  But, in social situations over the long term, these unthinking responses are nothing but damaging to our relationships and our ability to effecively solve problems.  The survival emotions of fear and anger help us while a crisis is occuring.  When it is over, we need other emotions and cognitive skills to keep our social and community life healthy.

These latter skills, however, do not come automatically like fear and anger do.  They require deliberate conscious cultivation, modelling and practice.  The problem the city faced was allowing these instinctual survival responses governed by fear and anger to morph into social expressions that would poison the climate for healthy community and effective democratic governance.

In the case of the survival emotion of fear, our perceptions become distorted to see threats everywhere, even where they do not exist.  For instance, when chased by a tiger, the survival emotion of fear plays an important function to help us focus on the threat to our lives and run away.  But over time and when the tiger is gone, if this feeling persists, we will misinterpret harmless movements as being threatening.  Our thinking, feeling and behavior are distorted, as is our motivation to engage in new behaviors and explore new forms of growth.  We become motivated to avoid new thoughts and experiences in life for fear of harm, not to engage them for the growth they may contain.

Other parts of our capacity to perceive, feel, think, exercise our will and behave need to kick in after the threat is gone.  This is so we can reflect objectively on the world as it is now, take allowance for the past threat, but not be caught up in the cognitive distortions caused by fear.  In order to grow and enjoy life, we need to know how to consciously over-ride our fear.

To calm our fear enough to reflect objectively on the current situation requires a conscious choice.  If this conscious choice is not made, the residue of lingering fear distorts our way of being.  This has an exhausting affect on our view of the world.  Over time, it becomes  harder to believe that what we have held to be true and good really amount to anything.   The resulting sense of powerlessness can feed a growing sense of despair in our personal effectivness.  So, with a diminished sense of a vision worth striving for, coupled with a weakening sense of personal capacity, a paralysis of the will sets in that is characterized by despair and disengegement with the big questions in our personal life and our role in the life of  society as a whole.  It is harder to be motivated to do anything positive since no goal seems particularly worthwhile.  As a result, we sabotage our growth by not striving for any worthy goal.

To deal with the pain of this erroneous conclusion that our lives are hopelessly fruitless, we can become caught up in the pursuit of anesthetizing distractions  and dysfunctional behaviors and relations.  When these forces play out in vast numbers of people, the citizenry is disengaged, distracted and disempowered. The tragedy is that this disengagement occurs just as the increasingly complex crises in the country continue to demand higher levels of focused, dispassionate and collaborative attention.

I warned that this fear of the future would show up in young people as truancy, poor school performance, a greater sense of nihilism and preoccupation with distracting and dysfunctional pursuits.  The lack of a believable vision they could adopt to direct their lives, coupled with a lost sense of capacity and competence to move their lives forward would lead to lost opportunity for personal growth and apathy for their personal advancement and the social responsibilities each generation must pick up to fulfill the social contract in a democracy.  I call this constellation of effects that result in a dimmed life’s vision, a diminished sense of personal capacity, the feeling of despair and withered motivation, a “Weakened Identity.”

Natural survival instincts can lead to despair or rigidity in times of crisis.

On the other extreme is a “Rigid Identity.”  Instead of being grounded in fear, however, the Rigid Identity arises from anger.   Fear has the cognitive and behavioral affect of directing us to avoidance of new ideas and others.  Anger, on the other hand, is mobilizing and directs us toward engagement, and unfortunately, engagement with perceived threats that may or may not be there.  Unlike a person with a Weakened Identity that has a dissipated will and difficulty holding a vision of any goal worth believing in, a Rigid Identity is very much the opposite.

A person with a Rigid Identity becomes intensely allied to a particular idea: a political party, a national, racial or ethnic identity, a religious belief, etc.  Unlike a person with a Weakened Identity who responds to the sense of powerlessness with diminished will, a person with a Rigid Identity has an intensifed sense of will.  They direct this will to the goals of an identity group that, to them, holds the ultimate answer to the experience of powerlessness over the real or imagined threats they perceive.  Everyone inside this group identity is considered good and principled and everyone outside is considered not just different, but evil, bad, stupid, or a potential threat.  Being more motivated by anger, these indviduals are far more outspoken and interested in organizing then their Weakened Identity counterparts, who  despite being a majority, have neither a well formulated social vision nor the motivation to be outspoken about one.

As an example, I pointed to how, since 9/11, the national discourse had become polarized with Americans calling other Americans “traitors” and “America haters” as examples of this rigidification of identity that occurs in parts of the population that predictably follows in some form after a frightening national event.

The danger, I explained, was that those with a nihilistic Weakened Identity would fall prey to those with a Rigid Identity either being blamed for the nations problems or becoming the objects of recruitment to their increasingly extremist views.   I further explained that the opposing Rigid Identities would battle each other.  This would increase social tension and polarize the social discourse exactly when unity of purpose and reasoned cooperation was most needed to deal with increasingly pressing, interrelated and complex problems.  Worse, the tendency of Rigid Identities to not tolerate the anxiety that comes with moral and social complexity would lead to simplistic, and therefore inadequate assessments of the real problems facing the country.  This would result in the forceful advocacy of inadequate solutions that were likely to make matters worse.

In neighborhoods, this Rigid Identity might appear in youth as increased racial, ethnic, religious or gang tension as groups demonize each other.  That would set the stage for community instability, the increasing inability to problem solve cooperatively and effectively, and create the social atmosphere for potential violence.

One of the city officials from the Department of Education looked at papers in her hands and noted that there had been an increase in incidents of gang violence in the months after 9/11. Everyone who watched the news had seen the name calling between increasingly strident Americans gripped by Rigid Identifications.

“What do we do?” was the question on everyone’s lips. “There is a third response,” I said, “a third identity.  I call it, ‘The Compassionate Identity.’ Unlike the Weakened and Rigid Identities, which arise instinctually as a result of neurologically wired unreflective and automatic survival responses to threats, the Compassionate Identity requires a mature conscious choice.  We come to see the roots of our common humanity in our common suffering.  This allows us to see the potential for united growth with each other when we face a crisis and not only see each other as sources of threat that lead to fearful despair or angry extremism.

But this requires the capacity to calm the survival emotions of fear and anger and reflect on the larger picture.  In the face of the emotional pressures of the immediate trauma, it is hard to learn this skill.  It would be much better to have a core segment of a community that has practiced this kind of response, that understands its features and can speak to its value so that it can be modelled to others in the aftermath of a crisis and give a workable alternative to those who despair and a way to calm the anger of potential extremists.”

Compassion must be chosen after great loss and suffering.

“How do we make that choice?” was the logical next question. “It begins with knowing these responses are there.  Kids need to know what to avoid when the Weakened and Rigid Identities arise in them, as they surely will.  They also need role models of effective applications of a Compassionate Identity that are more than bromides, something that can realistically capture the hopes of suffering and seemingly powerless people.  Compassion has to be seen as the engine of personal and community growth and strength and not a hollow moralizing platitude.  It has to be seen as the foundation of civil discourse and effective problem solving.  It has to be seen as the ground from which healthy democracy springs, the best of the American promise, our generation’s version of the ‘better angels of our nature.'”

“Then, every leader in the city has to state this choice over and over.  They have to be outspoken role models of this choice.  From the Mayor on down they have to steer people away from reflexive despair and extremism and state clearly that the lesson to be learned from this horrible event is that we are all in this together. We all have a role to play and there is no ‘them.’  There is only, ‘us.’  Then, we need to teach the kids the skills they need to live creatively and productively in that kind of community.”**

My experience has shown time and again that no matter how horrific the events we go through, we retain the crucial element of our humanity: our ability to choose our response to what happens to us. In this lies our personal hope.  In choosing a Compassionate Identity, our hope is linked to the hopes of others.  We unleash latent capacities and abilities in ourselves that can be directed to the welfare of all.  We minimize the likelihood of our actions adding to the disunity that paralyzes the national discourse and robs us of our chance to solve the complex and trans-partisan issues we face.

Our personal and national resilience must draw from this choice.  Before the national discourse becomes irretrievably caught up in the despair and disengement of the Weakened Identity and the country is left to those extremists on the Left and the Right with Rigid Identities who will lead us into an abyss of disunity, short sighted and impractical solutions to complex problems and a deepening national paralysis, we must act to vindicate before an increasingly hopeless and agitated citizenry that the best promise of America lies in a practical and effective system that sets free, through the united exercise of a Compassionate Identity, the better angels in each of us.  The Unity Project is one effort along these lines.

This site is an exploration of that choice and the potential it holds for every aspect of life.  This is what I mean by resilience.

Related Posts:

A wonderful story of the choice of a Compassionate Identity from the Balkans:  “Compassion, Fantastic Coffee and My Shock

The classic example of this choice in recent American history is Dr. Martin Luther King.  In this post, Dr. King’s Morehouse College roommate, Dr. Charles Willie, who worked with me at Harvard on the Resilient Responses to Social Crisis Interfaculty Working group, explains:  “Compassion, the Prize and the Price.”

This video demonstrates this choice among survivors of the civil war in Uganda:  “As a Family”

Post-Partisan America explains the tension we feel in the country.

Click here for Suffering Successfully.

All Rights Reserved, John Woodall, MD, copyright, 2011

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*Leaders of The Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) and the Department of Education of the City of New York were present.

**Right there on the spot, we created The Healing Arts Project as the way for the city to do this. This program was carried out over the next few years across the City of New York. That work, and the way it was subsequently refined in pilot schools and in New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina became the theory and methods of the Unity Project. This work was then presented to my colleagues for comment at the Resilient Responses to Social Crisis Interfaculty Working Group I convened at Harvard’s Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative from 2002-2004.