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!

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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…

Better parenting skills may break the poverty-disease connection: what this article left out is as important as what it put in


I just read a Scientific American article called
Better parenting skills may break the poverty-disease connection’.


I think this is an amazing article about how important it is for children
to be in the presence of adults who are self-aware and self-regulating,
and who are aware of the importance of things like cuddling and speaking and reading to children.

I am all for that – in fact, that is the deepest essence of everything I teach:
that we must all become ‘Child Mind Protection Agents’ to help protect
the unlimited potential of children’s minds (and joy) by helping the adults in their presence
(including us)  become more aware of our own fear-based behaviors,
and ‘social-emotional’ (NON-academic) skills that will help children thrive in today’s society.


We need more of this research to happen,
so that we can build more interventions and education to empower parents in those ways.


However, I felt compelled to write about what that article left out.


The article is about how the health of children who suffer
from economic hardship can be improved when their parents’ parenting skills improve.
I first just want to point out that the people who read scientific American
tend not to be the parents in the communities who suffer from economic hardship,
so that message will not reach them necessarily.


My hope – and I believe it’s likely echoed by the author, is how important it is
for the readers of Scientific American to know about how economic stress affects people
– and therefore feel inspired to do something about it.
That would be my greatest hope for articles like this.
We need more people who do have their basic needs met
(and therefore aren’t living in a constant state of toxic stress,
and  have the time and mental energy to read these articles)
to think of new ways to use their talents
to find out how to get deep into the roots about
why poverty and inequality even exist in the first place.



… to not just think about the effects of poverty and inequality
– but why they’re there.
If we only talk about the effects, we can only react.
When we talk about the roots – the deepest roots –
we can find ways to prevent and innovate.



The piece that I believe needs to be added here…
when we constantly report on  how ‘detrimental’ the parenting style is
of people living in poverty or harsh conditions, we leave out how important it is
for the parents of  children who live in middle to upper class socioecnonomic classes
to teach their children (and to empower themselves) to care about others
who don’t have access to the same resources.


I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – it does, I know firsthand..
But I am saying that it’s important to mention it alongside the
talking about ‘bad parenting’ from economically stressed environments.



There is a ‘parenting style’ that is just as detrimental to the well-being of human society…
the ‘parenting style’ of:

“let’s just care about OUR tribe.  As long as our exclusive family or community, or people ‘like us’ are ok,
we’ll turn a blind eye to what is going on around us.
Even worse,  we’ll perpetuate prejudice and assumptions about other classes or types of people –
we’ll say ‘those parents are just not as good at parenting’.
Sure, we’ll acknowledge on a surface level that it’s because they’re stressed out about money –
but we won’t acknowledge the role we play, or the lack of awareness we have
that contributes to the uneven playing field.”



I believe the message of the article is important and loving.
I feel deeply supportive of what it is saying.  This is not a ‘right/wrong’ issue…
it’s about adding more details to help empower as many people as possible.



AND…  Let’s be careful about how we use the terms “better”.   It denotes a superiority/inferiority mindset –
that can be dangerous, as it allows the people
who believe they are “better” at parenting to be off the hook
for looking to only better their own children’s chance at success,
rather than open themselves to all the millions of opportunities
they can create for them and their children to help alleviate the suffering of others,
and contribute to a just and equitable world.



Parenting skills that foster compassion,
awareness of the deepest roots of inequality,
and the desire to relieve the suffering of others
– even when they are different than what we are used to or comfortable with –
would also contribute to breaking the poverty-disease-connection.


Let me know what you think….

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

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(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 ‘serve and return’ relationships helped build your brain architecture

brain light from side

We all want to know that our existence is noticed.


One way to know this is to see that things you do cause a reaction in others.


Once someone responds to your presence, you know you exist.


Harvard calls this the ‘serve and return’.


Everything you do is a ‘serve’ – you say and do things to see how they will be ‘returned’.


When you were a child, you were sending serves to everyone around you,
and based on how they returned it, your brain responded,
and you created beliefs about yourself.


Every one of your relationships is a serve and return relationship. 


Every one in your life is sending you ‘serves’, and looking to see how you return them.


When you are not present, you can’t return their serve.


And when you don’t return their serve, the people in your life will let you know that you are doing this by:

  1. Amping up their behavior and creating more ‘drama’ or a ruckus, or
  2. Withdrawing from you and creating stories about how little value they add to your life.


When you are with someone and glancing at your phone…

when you are thinking about something else when someone is talking…


what you are saying is that:


“Your presence is not enough for me.  I’m afraid of missing something better over there.”


The other person feels this with every cell of their body.


Your biofeedback gives them the signal of your absence.


There is no such thing as partial or half presence.
You are either ‘there’ or not.


This ‘serve and return’ doesn’t just apply to your presence with people.
Your work and art and craft feel your lack of return too.


When you think of a writer writing a fantastic novel,
a scientist discovering a new revelation,
a musician surrendering to a new riff of music…


Do you see them wanting to be somewhere else?
Do you think they are thinking about what else they should be doing?


How often do you allow yourself to just surrender to being with that person,
or doing just that one thing.


At Thich Nhat Hanh’s monasteries, there is a rule:
You don’t walk and talk.  You stop to talk.  And then you walk.
You don’t eat and talk.  You eat.  And then you talk.


Multitasking is a myth. 


You cannot be doing one thing and be fully present with another.


You can switch back and forth, but the more you do,
the less you sink into the fullness of each moment.
and the less you can return someone’s serve.


What are you bringing to your relationships, to your craft, to your daily activities?
Are you allowing your mind to leave them?  Wondering about something else?


The next time you are with a loved one,
or working on something,
say to yourself :
“what is in front of me is enough”.  
They will feel this.
Be fully engaged with that person
or with the task at hand,
ready for their serve
so you can return it.
How do you return the serve of people in your life?
I would love to know (tell me in the comments section below)…


Other articles:

Where does fear really come from?


When we are young, we are very trusting.


This is a beautiful thing – children are so humble and open to what the world has to offer.


Where this can trip us up is that because our minds are so open, we begin forming beliefs about the world based on the extremely limited ‘data’ that surrounds us.

We aren’t surrounded by billions of opinions.

We are surrounded by a few.

We’re not surrounded by billions of ideas about what is good and bad, what love can look like, or about what our role is and what is good about us.


We are surrounded by a microscopic fraction of all of humanity’s perceptions.


From that microscopic dot, we form our beliefs.


Beliefs – by the way – are simply pathways formed in our brain as it tries to conserve energy and overgeneralizes basically everything into only two categories:


Threat to our life or not a threat to our life.


(fear or love)


According to our primal wiring, there’s no room for a grey area. Everything is either a threat to our life or not. We’re either in a state of love or fear.


So…. based on a microscopic dot of opinions and beliefs about who is ‘good’, about if we are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, valuable or disposable, disgusting or beautiful…


– we divide the world in two.


And then we become afraid of everything that our brain throws into the ‘threat’ category, including parts of ourselves – qualities and feelings that we think are ‘wrong’.


And we start to become afraid.


We become afraid of our own feelings.
And we become afraid of parts of ourselves, of our ‘bad emotions’, our ‘bad’ qualities.

We get scared that because we have angry, irritated, even aggressive thoughts – that somehow that makes us who we are.


We say to “have a feeling”, but then when we describe it we say “I am angry” – as though the feeling describes our entire being – rather than just an element of our wholeness.


How can we be brave when we are so afraid of our own feelings?


Not by trying to eliminate or remove these feelings from existence… but by figuring out how to integrate them all.


Anger is a beautiful emotion that fuels the fight against injustice.
It gives us a sense of boundary that preserves our dignity when someone treads on us.


Rejection, failure and sadness opens our heart to understand another’s pain and to detach temporarily from our ego.


What I am proposing is for us to not be so afraid of talking about the things we are afraid of.
I am proposing to not be so afraid of the ‘bad emotions’ and the ‘bad guys’, and the ‘bad events’ like failure and rejection…
…to look at them more deeply, and to look at how those ‘bad things’ can also be fuel for our growth and deep empathy.


Let’s keep talking about fear and disgust and hatred and rage and anger.


Let’s admit that we have felt fear, hatred, rage and anger. (I know I have.)
(and I believe that when we don’t acknowledge this, those feelings bubble under the surface, and come out as resentment, violence, and illness).


Let’s look at how our small irritations at others are ways for us disguise our own fears and hurts…


AND THEN… instead of shaming ourselves, let’s allow ourselves to see that even when we feel irritated and impatient and angry and afraid and humiliated and aggressive, it doesn’t make us a ‘bad’ person.


Because when we do that, we may have a better chance of loving the parts of ourselves we have disowned.


And when we do that, we have a better chance of showing others how to do this for themselves so that they can channel all the ‘bad’ feelings into passion and warriorship that stands up for truth and brave love.


I’d love to hear if you have ever experienced one of your ‘negative’ qualities as a gift? Or have seen this in someone else? Post your thoughts on the comments section here!


‘Agents of Authenticity’ and the Connection Economy

how am I connected?


The world is becoming more transparent.

Jonah Sachs, author of the Story Wars, calls them ‘agents of authenticity’ – people who will easily report any kind of activity that looks like an abuse of power.  Each person has the ability to spread a message instantly to millions of people around the world.  ‘Agents of authenticity’ are increasing in number and influence.


So even if you don’t care about the well-being of the rest of the planet, the world does.

And even if you don’t care if your child (or students) care about the well-being of the rest of the planet, the world does.

And the world can now see it.

And the world responds.

And even if your child doesn’t care about the well-being of the planet, it will become increasingly difficult for him or her to be successful or rise to the top without understanding how interconnected we all are.


Seth Godin calls our new economy the ‘connection economy’.

The  more we reflect on how connected we are, and how every system we know is interconnected to all other systems, the more innovative we become – and the more we create things that are relevant and remarkable.

Those are the criteria for the ‘new kind of success’ for a new economy that is relying less on industrialism and more on the connections we make with others.