Why do I think thoughts that make me feel bad?


The brain does not 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

Your first thoughts about the world came from what was around you.

As a child, you probably got the same messages over and over again

For example, if as a child, you grew up in a household
where there was a lot of yelling and fighting, you may have had the thought more than once
that “the world is a negative, angry place”.


It may have even been more subtle, like

“people are easily irritated by me,”

“I’m the reason people are unhappy”.


Each time we have a thought, cells in our brain send ‘pulses’ to each other.

It could look like this:

X –   –   –   –   X

The more we were around those people,  the more those cells continue to ‘talk to each other’.

X- – – – – – – -X


Since we’re in the same environments over and over again, those cells tend to ‘talk to each other’ a lot.

The brain then starts to ‘invest’ in those pathways by sending white fat to cover the connection between those cells.


That white fat covering (called myeline) makes it so those cells have faster connections and are the first to activate when we are in different situations.


This means that… if, say, you were around really stressed out or angry people growing up…

there’s a good chance you have opinions about yourself based on those stressed out/angry/ depressed/anxious people’s beliefs about life and you.


Because you were around them a lot, you may have these ‘thick connections’
in your brain related to negative thoughts about yourself.

These pathways are not the ‘truth’ about you –
they were just created based on you reacting to the stress/anxiety of other people around you.


When you are really upset, there’s a good chance
you’re having negative thoughts that are coming from the past
– and those ‘thick connections’.


One way to lower the stress that comes from all of that ‘negative’ wiring is to simply be more aware…
you can do that just by asking this question the next time you get really angry or depressed about something:

“is my reaction to this event based 100% on what is happening only in this moment…  Or is it possible that part of my reaction comes from stuff that happened before this that makes me think this thing is worse than it is?”

This video explains this idea even further!



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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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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!