Tag: "Weakened identity"

The Rigid Identity

The Rigid Identity

The comforting unity immediately after 9/11 didn't last long.

Remember how closely knit the country felt in the days immediately after 9/11?  There was a palpable sense of unity.  The shock and horror of that day uncovered a deep sense of our connection to each other.

A friend of mine who worked in New York City told me how driving home that day, no-one drove past the speed limit.  No one passed anyone else.  People would look into each other’s cars  to acknowledge their fellow human being.  I recall getting e-mails from friends around the world stating that they, too, were Americans that day.

The common loss uncovered our common humanity.  In a world of pain, it was comforting.

And then it all changed.

It took about 2 weeks.  Comments in the news and on blogs started to appear that certain people were not patriots.  Simple differences of opinion led to accusations of others being “traitors.”  Our President told the world, “You are with us.  Or, you are against us.”  Engaging in basic discussions that need to occur within a democracy to analyze the nation’s options became grounds to be accused of treason.

Over time, people’s anger has taken a much more strident tone and found form in extreme partisanship.  This extremism has its roots in what I call a Rigid Identity.

We invest emotional "chips" in the various parts of our identity.

A “Rigid Identity” is a bit like the game of roulette.  Imagine a roulette table with the various numbers spread across the board.  Each number is a different part of our identity.  We might “invest” ten chips of emotional attachment on being a brother or sister;  twenty chips on being a mother or father or spouse;  three chips on the Republican or Democrat number,  several on  our ethnic group, some on our bowling team, several on our religion and on our friends.  Together this spread of “emotional chips” defines our overall emotional attachments in our identity.

When something bad happens, like 9/11, there is a tendency for some to take all of these emotional chips and place them on one number, say, the black 22.  All of our emotional investments get concentrated on that one identity.  It might be our religion, our political party, our ethnic group or a sports team.  We become a hyper-Christian, a hyper-Jew, a hyper-Muslim.  We become a hyper-Republican or a hyper-Democrat.

This becomes a problem when the various “uber-groups” start talking to each other.  Once we adopt a Rigid Identity, all of our judgments are filtered through this lens.  Everything with our group is the ideal good.  Other groups are seen as inherently wrong, evil, ignorant, untrustworthy, immoral.  Worse, they can be seen as sub-human and dangerous .  This sets the stage for conflictual styles of problem solving and ultimately, violence.

So, one Rigid Identity trys to dominate another Rigid Identity.  Or, they try to recruit or dominate those with a Weakened Identity.  Unlike those with a Weakened Identity, those with a Rigid Identity have no uncertainty.  They are convinced of the ultimate and absolute right of their group.  They have no doubt.  Unlike those with a Weakened Identity, those with a Rigid Identity are highly motivated to have their group succeed.  They define problems in terms of survival.  As  a result, they see there is no compromise in their group’s point of view, because to do so challenges survival itself.  All problems are cast in absolute terms.  This absolutism is confused with virtuous principle.  Since a person with a Rigid Identity feels as though survival itself is at stake, to entertain a doubt or alternative views risks death.  Stubborn closedmindeness is confused with courageous fidelity and commitment to principle. There is no nuance, only black and white.

It’s not only true in partisan politics.

The same basic neurological and psychological forces are at work when couples argue, political partisans argue or fans of different teams argue.   Remember in the last post, we talked about how the brain responds to threats?  Our survival instincts kick in and commandeer our brain.  When we think we are facing a threat, all of our brain functions are geared to either fleeing from the threat or fighting it: the Fight or Flight Response.  (see link for a great explanation)

When our emergency survival system is activated (i.e. the Fight or Flight Response)  adrenalin ( the English name) or norepinephrine (the American name) kicks in and commandeers our brain to control our thinking, feeling, our body and behavior in order to deal with the threat by fleeing or fighting.  When a person is more prone to fighting then fleeing, their system activtates the part of the brain called the “amygdala” and other centers to color all of their experiences with the strong survival emotion of anger.

When anger is activated in the brain, it acts as a filter for every activity of our thinking, feeling, body and behavior.  All of our perception and thinking is directed toward identifying threats.  When we are angry and argue with someone, everything they say we see as proof of their incompetence, their moral weakness, their evil intentions, their manipulations.  We are not thinking of anything else, other then our moral virtue, our humanity, our logic and good intentions. In fact, the dictatorial control of adrenaline and the amygdala over our brain will not allow us to think in any other way.  Our brain is not geared to cooperative and creative social exploration when we are angry.  It is wired for battle and the elimination of the perceived threat.

One of the worst things that can happen when we are being threatened is to be uncertain about what the threat is.  Ambiguity and uncertainty are not well-tolerated by the brain.  For many of us, ambiguity and uncertainty are experienced as a kind of threat that must be eliminated.  (In fact, a good definition of “paranoia” is the lack of information when the possibility of a threat exists.  A Rigid Identity is a little paranoid.)  The brain will work overtime to label a particular person or group “the enemy” in order to eliminate the anxiety caused by uncertainty and ambiguity.

This is not a good thing most of the time.  When we are surrounded by hungry tigers, striking out with a stick at everything that approaches us might be a good idea.  But, in a social situation, this same instinctual survival mechanism is disastrous for good relations, for creative and effective problem solving and even good health.

Unfortunately, unless we consciously choose to turn off our anger, it establishes enduring neural patterns in the brain. More and more, our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are modified to support the reasons for our initial anger.  A tone is established for all of our personal and social experience.  It stays this way until we make a conscious effort to tone the anger down.

When we do make this choice and take positive steps to quiet our anger, gradually the amygdala will relax its grip on the rest of the brain and allow the vast potential of the cortex to become engaged in creative thinking and comprehensive problem solving.

So long as adrenaline and the amygdala have control of our brain, we cannot learn or think of anythng that is not colored by a survival emotion, in this case, anger.  We are not so much thinking creatively when we are angry as we are rehearsing stories we tell ourselves about why we should be angry.  We are engaged in what psychologists call, “stereotypic” thinking.  We are rehearsing a bias, not investigating reality.

You see this when pundits argue on tv.  One will site some facts to make their case.  The other will entirely ignore the facts presented and state their own facts.  (As if “facts” were the property of one group.)  The conversation has nothing to do with finding the truth.  It is about dominating the other.  Actual facts are less important than finding arguments to prevail.  The more rigid the identity, the more immune to facts the person becomes.

Who is offering the information is more important than the veracity of the information.  If a third party confirms our bias, they are seen as correct.  If they contradict our bias, they are labelled as a threat and their information is entirely discounted.  What suffers most when interacting with a Rigid Identity is an impartial examination of the facts.  Consequently, problem solving is ineffective as positions that are presented deliberately exclude information needed for a comprehensive solution.  In this light, a Rigid Identity creates the very instability and uncertainty it hates most.

Roger Fisher

Roger Fisher, the Harvard Professor of Law who co-authored the famous book on negotiation Getting to Yes, has a saying: “Solutions are not the solution.”  By this he means that we can’t enter into an effective problem solving situation with a pre-conceived idea of what the ultimate solution is.  We have to engage in a process of inquiry.  This inquiry is not possible when someone is gripped in a Rigid Identity.

There is much to say about the Rigid Identity. Most of which I’ll have to save for my forthcoming book.  The final point for this post is an important one, however.  It has to do with how our identity determines our sense of what is fair.

A funny thing happened to me on a bus in Israel that makes the point.  I was at a conference in Israel many years ago sponsored by the International Society of Political Psychology.  I was getting on a tour bus with a colleague talking about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  We climbed the stairs discussing preconditions needed to start a sustainable peace process.  I had been making the case that there needed to be effort to create a sense of a common identity before effective and sustainable negotiations could begin.  Moving toward two empty seats, I said, “Our sense of justice is determined by our identity.  Until there is a common sense of identity, they will disagree on what is fair.”

As we sat she said, “huh?”

Just at that moment, a man who was sitting across from us stood up and took his coat off the hook in front of him.  The coat had prevented him from seeing out his window.  He leaned across the aisle and reached in front of the two of us saying, “Excuse me,” as he hung up his coat on our hook, blocking our view!

“You see!  There is it!”  I said.  “He doesn’t see us as a part of his identity.  So, to him, it is perfectly fair to hang up his coat in front of us.  He didn’t think about whether we could see or not.  We do not fit into his calculation of what is fair!  His identity restricts his sense of fairness to what is good for him only.”

Like Michaelangelo's "The Bearded Slave," we can become hardened and enslaved to a Rigid Identity.

And so it is with the Rigid Identity.  A person in this identity posture will not include the values, points of view or needs of others in their equation of justice.  Everyone wants to be on the side of justice.  But, justice is not a one sided proposition.  The person with a Rigid Identity will convince themselves they fight for justice when they make their heated political statements.  They will robe themselves with the mantle of virtue as defenders of justice, and they mean it.  But, it is not justice they defend.  It is entitlement for their identity that they confuse with justice.

Those who advocate from a position of a Rigid Identity add to the problems they say they are committed to fixing by not entertaining new information and insisting on domineering styles of interaction that exacerbate human relationships turning problems into outright conflict.

The preconditions of any real virtue are personal humility and dispassionate intellectual honesty.  These two traits are absent in the Rigid Identity.  Not necessarily out of vice.  But, they have not trained their amygdala to quiet down enough to entertain points of view that do not “prove” their a priori convictions.

The Rigid Identity and the Weakened Identity, we have seen, are natural social outcomes of the misapplication of instinctual responses to threat.  When we say they are instinctual, we mean that they are unthinking, automatic, stereotypic responses, not the result of open, unbiased and dispassionate inquiry.  They are geared to preserve our survival.  In that light, they impose severe constraints on the way we think, feel and act.  If we are not facing an imminent threat they can cause far more problems then they solve.

The next few posts will go into the dilemma posed by the Rigid Identity in balanced problem solving and extreme partisanship.  Then, we’ll explore how we can liberate ourselves from these instinctual responses and move into what makes us truly human, our “Compassionate Identity.”

Related Posts:

The “Weakened Identity” is the mirror image of the Rigid Identity.

The Three Identities: Weakened, Rigid and Compassionate

George Washington: Partisanship is the Country’s “Worst Enemy” is next.

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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.