#48: Your ego is not your amigo
On trauma, money, and more
Hello, beautiful people :-)
I’m at the point with my writing where I feel like I want to, and even need to, share something every day. I really hope that what I share will be useful to you in some way, and not spammy. If it starts to feel like too much, please feel free to let me know, and even unsubscribe. You can always resubscribe at a later time. I will not be offended.
I asked myself today, what is something useful that I can share with my readers? And what feels scary for me to share?
Here are a few things that I came up with.
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who just doesn’t seem to get what you’re saying?
This can feel really painful. As social creatures, one of our deepest needs is to be understood, so when our conversation partner doesn’t “get us” it can feel devastating.
Unfortunately, it’s really common. We even have a colloquial phrase in our society to describe this kind of crossing of wires communication: “I feel like I’m talking to a wall.”
In my experience, once the conversation hits this point it’s best to stop because continuing to talk, to clarify, to provide evidence, to reason, and rationalize, only leads to further disconnect as well as anger and frustration because one of our deepest needs, to be understood, is not being met.
In the context of this type of conversation, it becomes easy to blame our conversation partner. We may think that they are stupid or bad at communicating or that they don’t care about us. Or maybe we blame ourselves and think that we should be able to get our point across.
But, what if I told you that there is a deeper reason for our communication gaps? And that understanding this reason may make you more empathetic, lighter on your feet, and remove a brick ton of pressure.
Or maybe you already know this and have already been having better, more free, and more empathetic conversations with your fellow humans. If this is you, then kudos. You are a good human and I commend your awareness. Seriously, thank you. We need more people with this knowledge.
For the rest of us, including myself, who are just starting to learn about the neuroscience of trauma, here’s what I have to share.
In the book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk, a clinical psychiatrist, founder, and director of the Trauma Research Foundation in Brookline, Massachusetts, writes about the prevalence of trauma in our society and how we can heal.
He presents some outstanding facts:
Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.
I’m only about a quarter into the book, but what has been most interesting to me so far - in addition to learning that most people with whom we talk on a daily basis have experienced trauma - is the neuroscience of trauma.
In the visual below, you can see a man getting angry, externally, and all discombobulated, internally. The man is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the caption reads:
Trauma affects the entire organism - body, mind, and brain. In PTSD the body continues to defend against a threat that belongs to the past. Healing from PTSD means being able to terminate this continued stress mobilization and restore the entire organism to safety.
You may be thinking - wait, this man is suffering from PTSD; I’m not a veteran; I wasn’t severely abused as a child; this means I’m good and trauma-free.
Hold your horses.
Van der Kolk writes this:
As human beings we belong to an extremely resilient species. Since time immemorial we have rebounded from our relentless wars, countless disasters (both natural and man-made), and the violence and betrayal in our own lives. But traumatic experiences do leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations. They also leave traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems.
This means that even if you personally have not had severe trauma, previous generations of your family did, and this has left a mark in your mind and body. What’s more is that intergenerational trauma impacts family dynamics and patterns - the way that your parents raised you, from the values they taught you to how they modeled marriage and handled disagreements and stress.
Woof. This is a lot to digest but it’s important that we do because bad communication can tear us apart, but it really doesn’t have to, so next time you talk to someone with whom it feels like “you’re talking to wall,” take a deep breath and tell yourself that they may be dealing with unprocessed trauma. Don’t try to reason with them, but instead invite them to play a game or a take a walk.
I’ll end this section with this piece of wisdom from The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
Sadly, our educational system, as well as many of the methods that profess to treat trauma, tend to bypass this emotional-engagement system and focus instead on recruiting the cognitive capacities of the mind. Despite the well documented effects of anger, fear, and anxiety on the ability to reason, many programs continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking. The last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else involving movement, play, and joyful engagement. When children are oppositional, defensive, numbed out, or enraged, it's also important to recognize that such "bad behavior" may repeat action patterns that were established to survive serious threats, even if they are intensely upsetting or off-putting.
I’m writing at a coffee shop (I >3 working at coffee shops) and my computer battery is going to lose juice soon, and I don’t have my charger with me, so I will write with a little more haste. Please bear with me :)
I want to write another scary thing today, applying what I learned about trauma to challenges that I am experiencing in my own life.
I’ve realized from other folks who are on the same journey as I am, just further ahead, that writing with vulnerability is super important.
Unfortunately, social media is flooded with people posting about all of the wonderful things happening in their life - product launches, vacations, social events, awards - and I’ve been there, done that. The problem is that it creates a lopsided representation of a person. Surely, the person sharing positive things in their life also has plenty of negative, but by not sharing the negative, they are flooding people’s brains with unhealthy comparisons, fueling empty status games, and contributing to mental health problems.
I no longer want to be that person. Instead, I am aspiring to be vulnerable and share real problems, being authentically me - because if I don’t do this, I suspect that in the long term I will 1) fail to establish authentic, genuine connection with people/readers/audience; and 2) my ego will get out of control as it will keep asking me to feed it more positive, happy, things to keep up my appearances.
No, thank you. I am opting to play the long game.
So, with that long prelude, here is a real problem that is most alive for me right now.
Money. Money. Money. On mine and my husband’s mind…🤑
But, first some context from the dungeon of my soul that helped make me into the smart and resourceful person that I am today.
As a first generation immigrant, my parents always encouraged me to work hard, to go above and beyond, to keep my head down and grind.
I know they meant well and had my best interest in mind. Immigrating to a foreign country, especially from an un-humane, isolating, backwards place like the Soviet Union (cue current events: Russia/Ukraine war)… is no joke.
For a long time, my parents were surviving. So when I was 12 and they told me that if I don’t do well in school, I will be a garbage collector, I think they actually really believed it!
There was no other way, at the time. Survival makes your thinking black or white: either your’e good or bad, nice or mean, right or wrong. There’s no space for the gradient and the nuance. But, what I know now is that some of the most interesting and meaningful things in life happen in the nuance, in the ambiguous grey zone, when things are uncertain and messy and weird, and you take a leap of faith to do something uncomfortable and risky.
[Plug in one of many interesting stories here about people who uncomfortably took risks in their life and created a life of meaning and joy.]
^^ lol. I’ll do this later. My laptop is running out of charge!
Thinking about it, black and white thinking is actually kind of like American politics.
You are either Republican or Democrat; pro guns or against guns; a good person or a bad person. There’s no nuance to account for the very complex beings that we are.
This makes me think that a lot of people in America act as if they are still just surviving. Even though we are one of the richest countries in the world!
There’s clearly a disconnect between reality and perceived reality. I hypothesize that this disconnect can be traced all the way back to how our brains are evolutionarily wired. Money is, after all, how we provide food and shelter for ourselves and our families. These are basic survival needs.
So when there is a significant change in cash flow, this can be really triggering to our brain circuitry. We legit perceive threat and alarm bells go off. And since I started to pursue freelance/creative/independent work, our income (cash flow) has, naturally, fallen significantly.
I completely understand that my husband perceives this change as a real threat. If I were in his shoes, I may see myself as the provider of our family, and this means I would need to keep our finances under control.
Keeping finances under control is exactly what he has always done. He diligently manages our finances in the Mint financial app, categorizing expenses and creating a financial model to project future income and spending.
I thank him for caring for our basic survival, for protecting our family from possible financial harm.
But I also want to let him know that with all forms of control come tradeoffs.
Back when I was an over-achieving student and a hard working Consultant, I did well in my little system. I pleased my parents and my teachers. I felt in control. But with that feeling of control, came lots of pressure, and with that came lots of anxiety. I had to maintain my identity of over-achiever and hard worker - the person who would go above and beyond even when no one else would.
And with all of that, came a mental and emotional break.
This morning, my husband sent me a newsletter from Lenny’s Newsletter, a popular newsletter in the tech/product manager community.
In the newsletter, Lenny covered the story of Andy Johns, President of Wealthfront, who at the ripe age of 35 had a heart attack.
He also wrote a Twitter thread about the lessons he learned. It got a whole bunch of likes. Stories like this strike a chord.
Andy’s story is unfortunately not an anomaly. Paul Millerd, a former consultant who transformed his life and embarked on a nontraditional independent/creative path after health issues, provides a whole bunch of stories like Andy’s in his latest book.
I just want to say two final things to my husband: 1) I love you; and 2) the world is always in perpetual flux. Our values and beliefs change. What is important to us today may not be important to us in 10 years. And this is good! The alternative makes you dogmatic and stuck, rather than agile and flexible, capable to withstand the world’s inevitable flux.
Did anyone fathom 20 years ago that we would use a little powerful device in our pocket to instantly hail a car and ride with a stranger who is not affiliated with a “reputable” taxi company?
Speaking of Twitter threads, here is one I wrote, that was published today, for Crypto, Culture & Society - a crypto educational institution.
Take care, everyone. I wish you lots of love, rest, and self-care. <3