Why we need to feel safe AND vulnerable at the same time

I was asked this question recently by someone who is a member of a nudist colony:


Yes,  you read that correctly..


“What is the neurobiological reasons people enjoy social nudism?
What is its social impact?”


Many of you know that I LOVE getting asked new questions,
so I was very excited to explore this topic and see how it relates to neurobiology.


This may seem like an unrelated to the science of mindset
and empathy, but similarly to those topics,


the deepest root of this question is about
a sense of safety and vulnerability:


the two most critical ingredients every human needs to grow and evolve
(and have access to the brain architecture
needed for self-awareness,
so that we can shift our mindsets and behaviors).


(FYI:  please feel free to ask me ANYTHING and I will LOVE giving neurobiological background to whatever topic you come up with!   I am in the planning phases of a podcast, so we could cover your questions there!)
Here’s my answer to the question about nudism:



A sense of safety is our absolute most primitive, foundational state
that must occur before any other brain activity can really happen.

Safety is a relative term, though: it’s based on each individual’s experiences.

When we feel safe, our most evolved system of interaction comes online
– it’s called the ‘social engagement system’.
It’s actually a cranial nerve that allows us to
express our voice (vocalization),
use facial gestures and
tense our middle ear muscles in order to hear a human voice.
We use this system to let others know two things:
our internal state, and our intentions.

This is called the Polyvagal theory –
it was discovered and coined by one of the most brilliant minds I admire: Stephen Porges.

When we feel safe, our most evolved brain architecture
is also accessible for us to be ‘conscious’
of what is happening, and create what we call
‘explicit memories’.


This is very different than what happens
when we don’t feel safe.

When we don’t feel safe, for example, with another person,
we attempt to first use our social engagement system –
we will use words and facial gestures to create safety.
If this doesn’t work, our next, lesser evolved system
comes online – our ‘mobilization’ system,
aka fight or flight.
If we have experiences trying to use either of these systems
and they aren’t successful in creating safety,
our most ancient system is then recruited,
– the fold or freeze system,
which is embodied by the ‘shame posture’…
Our folding over, heads bowed, in submission.
This is a system that we do everything to avoid being in
because it is almost like a resignation to whatever the threat is.
(The shame, or fold/freeze posture in mammals can often be fatal
because the heart actually stops, or the predator gets us).


That was a long way to say –
that we do everything possible to avoid shame.

And one way to do that is to seek to feel
vulnerable and safe
at the same time.

If there is one area that we are born loving
and then learning to feel shame about,
it is our bodies

– and in particular our nudity and sexuality.
(Much of this due to the societal influences,
including the dominance of religious doctrine over the millennia).

One way we can ‘create safety’ with each other
is to attempt to use our social engagement systems
during situations where our more ancient systems would normally come online.

So – ‘play’ is our way of using our mobilization (fight/flight)
but with vocalization and facial gestures.

We can play a sport or game, or other adrenaline-inducing activities:
adrenaline rises, blood flow to our skeletal muscles increases,
but we know we are ‘safe’ to use that system with those other humans.
(p.s. – All mammals engage in play – rough housing, chasing, etc.)


And so – the nudist situation would lead me to hypothesize
that it is a way of ‘creating safety’

using the social engagement system (talking, eye contact, facial gestures)
in a situation that would normally induce feelings of shame.

This gives us a sense of control over our nervous system –
which is incredibly empowering
because our nervous system can often be influenced by
unconscious triggers.

The more we make those unconscious triggers conscious,
the more power we have over our life experiences.

​​​​​​Now… This does NOT mean I am promoting
social nudity in your workplace or classroom..

BUT what I will propose is the idea that you find some way
to allow for vulnerability and safety at the same time.

This could take the form of you – as a leader
– talking about feeling nervous or embarrassed,
about how you have no idea what you are doing sometimes.
Things like improv,
spoken word,
creating some type of art
(which can be using words or objects)
That lead your staff to feel ‘like a beginner’,
Like they have no idea what they’re doing..
But they’re doing it in a space that welcomes
Their vulnerability of being a novice or expert
And that expresses feelings
– whether they are sad, nervous, joyful, raging, embarrassed, hopeful.

Find some way to allow for the people you are leading
to shed layers of what they think is the ‘approved of’ version of them.

And model what it looks like to really be who you are
– embrace your weirdnesses,
those things that don’t seem to fit with anyone else.


What a RARE thing to feel…
And yet we all need to feel it,
the more the better:
Safe AND Vulnerable
Now, let me hear from you:
How are you, or could you introduce periods of time in your organization for staff to feel both safe and vulnerable at the same time?

If you’re a teacher, how could you do this for your students?

I would love to get some great discussions happening
– you are all joining from many different countries all over the world,
so it would be wonderful to hear all of your perspectives!

Post your comments and questions!

Neuroscience for new mindsets

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Why do I think thoughts that make me feel bad?


The brain doesn’t know which thoughts
make you feel “bad” or “good”.

To the brain, thoughts are just electro-chemical pulses used to react to your environment.

There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thoughts.

Unfortunately, though, this means that we have thoughts that make us feel bad
– even if that doesn’t seem to be what we want.

How does this happen?

Your brain created pathways a long time ago
that affect how you see the world

Continue reading…

Forget the growth mindset (for a moment): where do fixed mindsets come from?


Enthusiasm is building about ‘growth mindset’ and how it helps students persevere and stay open to new challenges.

But what about the ‘fixed mindset’?  Why do we have them?  Where do they come from?

And what can we do help students push through their fixed behaviors and fears of failure?


Find out here in my article for BAM Education Radio blog here!






Growth Mindset Goal-Setting Workbook – free pdf!

don't just stand there

I created this recently for a group of teachers, and wanted to pass it along to you.


It’s a mini goal-setting booklet to help strategize how you will
spark growth mindsets into your classroom this school year.


There are three points of focus that are backed by research
to help motivate students to become more self-regulating,
persistent and conscientious when it comes to their academic
and out-of-school behaviors:


1) Celebrating Mistakes
2) Praising Process
3) Cultivating Purpose (specifically: “self-transcendent purpose”


The workbook has links to downloadable activities,
a summary of how these three pillars improve student performance, and
space for self-reflection and goal-setting.


Subscribe to get the Growth Mindset Goal-Setting Booklet

Neuroscience for new mindsets

Get free new tools every month on how to use neuroscience to spark emotionallly intelligent innovation.

We respect your privacy.


(if you’re already a subscriber, check your inbox!)


Based on cutting-edge research from Harvard & Stanford University, my own research
and my personal experience with direct counseling to young people,
I feel very strongly about point #3:


‘Self-transcendent’ purpose is about a recognition of a contribution
you are making to something or someone other than just yourself.

I think this sense of purpose is one of the most powerful,
transformative catalysts that can change a young person’s trajectory.


It is becoming an important focal point in my own work,
and reflects this uplifting and fun-to-watch TED talk by Simon Sinek,
The Golden Circle: How Great Leaders Inspire Action


If there are any of you out there who would like to explore this concept further with me, please email me!


Let me know if you have any suggestions for tweaks I can make to the goal-setting workbook make it more useful to you!

Teacher empathy reduces school suspensions: 7 keys to growing today’s most important skill


A recent study from Stanford University showed that training teachers to have more empathy
towards students reduced school suspensions by more than 50%.


And guess what? The training for teachers consisted of a mere two online sessions – a 45 minute and a 25-minute session.


Empathy is also rated as “the most valuable thing they teach at Harvard Business School“.


Tony Wagner, Expert in Residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab, lists Empathy as an essential skill
that helps students become innovators (he even talks about it on twitter)


So how can we bring this to our school?

Here are a few suggestions inspired by a paper from the Harvard School of Education


1. Model empathy


2. Teach what empathy is and what it isn’t


3. Practice it


4. Discuss how and why students should expand their circle about who they care about
(watch my youtube on what this does in the brain)


5. Make school/classroom climate and emotional safety a high priority


To help you with a few of these points, here are 7 keys to understanding what empathy is,
what it’s not, amd why it matters.


What is empathy?


#1) Empathy is not a behavior. It’s not a strategy.


It’s a way of seeing.


It’s seeing someone as being more like you than unlike.


#2) Empathy is not sympathy.


As Brene Brown puts it, sympathy is the feeling of “you poor thing”, which puts you
as the ‘strong one’ and them as puny and weak.


#3) Empathy is about the feeling of “me too.” “I’ve been there”.


It’s about digging deep into your own vulnerable psyche, past the ego, to the place where you can say
“I can see myself feeling just like you are feeling right now.”


It’s about seeing life from their eyes.


When we do this, it becomes natural to, as resilience expert Dr. Robert Brooks puts it,
“rather then deny or dismiss their struggles, see their strengths and beauty”.


#4) Empathy is a strengths-based approach.


Empathy is about seeing a person who is behaving ‘badly’ as someone who is overwhelmed
by their own feelings. And when you can say “I’ve been there too”, it confirms that you know
the other person can handle and survive what they’re going through- because you have done so.


#5) Empathy is a muscle that grows with use.

(just like all other skills and character traits, we can develop ‘high-speed’ brain pathways for them
by intentionally practicing them over and over).


#6) Empathy is not a proclamation, it’s a process of courageously seeing
how alike you are to another person.

It requires you to drop your ego.


The more regularly you can “say me too”, the more you’ll see how much vulnerability we all share as human beings.


Empathy is about allowing yourself to try to feel what another person is feeling to the point
where you gain access to the subconscious parts of your own experiences.


These subconscious memories can then help you come up with the words that
you most needed to hear when you felt that way too.


Which then gives you the awareness of how to say something to someone that can actually
help them move through what they need to.


#7) Empathy is not a ‘bonus’ skill to teach or work on only when you have time.


Particularly in today’s digital world, it should be a mandatory part of curriculum and teacher training.


Increasing numbers of research studies show that a huge factor of student happiness, engagement
and success is tied to a teacher’s ability to empathize.


It’s also considered by top business schools like Harvard and Stanford, as one of the most important skills
to learn for the “Connection and Innovation Economy” that we now live in
(very different than the old industrial economy of our parents and grandparents).


To sum up Harvard’s suggestions about bringing empathy into your school:


Model it. Teach it. Practice it. Discuss it. Make it a priority.


“We are more alike my friends, than we are unalike”. – Maya Angelou


Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever experienced the difference between sympathy and empathy – how did it feel?



Want to spark more empathy and growth mindsets in your classroom or community?

Join the Growth Mindset self-study course!

for educators and parents who want to increase social emotional skills and growth mindsets in young people.

How kids absorb adults’ knee-jerk reactions


You as a parent or teacher, are influencing the neural pathways that will be laid down and become second nature for the young people who are regularly in your presence.


These are not just pathways about things like language and movement, or intelligence, but also pathways devoted to how they respond to life and how they see themselves and others.


For example, through your modeling and biofeedback, they may acquire:

a  “scared to try new things” pathway,

an “easily overwhelmed‘ pathway,

a “seeing the problems not the solutions pathway”,

a “some people are superior to others” pathway,

or a “oblivious to the problems of people less fortunate than me” pathway.


They are watching and learning with every one of your reactions.  And they will continue to teach others what you teach, and probably even amplify it.


For those of you who are not parents, or teachers, reverse this insight and you may be able see yourself – and the patterns of your life – more clearly.


Your parents influenced your neural pathways that have become your second nature, your knee jerk reactions and fixed ways of seeing yourself and others.


With a simple spark of recognizing this and knowing that you can, through your decision and consistent intentional attention, you can erase pathways that don’t serve you and build new ones that do.


You can then model

the “I’ll always try my hardest” pathway,

the “I intend to see the humanity in others” pathway,

the “I’ll seek to innovate my way out of challenges” pathway,

and the “I learn about others’ struggles and experiences so I can help more than just myself” pathway


That’s what meditation, social emotional learning (SEL), emotional intelligence, growth mindsets and mindfulness are all about.  You can google those words, and practice using your intuition to guide you in exploring them further.


If you’re curious about these topics, you can also sign up to the self-study course I offer that focuses on introductory neuroscience, growth mindsets and SEL.


For those of you who are already learning about this intentional way of using the mind, it is up to you to spread the word!


The more of us who learn and teach about this, the more power we have to live life on purpose.  This will help us disrupt the status quo of knee-jerk brain pathways that have been absorbed by us from the people around us who didn’t have the skills or the knowledge to know any better.


Let me know what you are doing to promote social emotional learning, mindfulness or growth mindsets in your home, community or workplace by sharing in the comments!