All posts by Brett McDonald


After Michelangelo - Adam and God

tissue paper snow covers honeyed logs

creaking timber as I make my way toward the pre-dawn night

layers of walls, doors, light, back to shadows murky depths

inky black soot smudged upon burned glass

flames engulf in their impatient dance

settle to burn a less transient ember

shadows loom large, shifting with fickle suddenness

whispering flesh across wood equally smooth

I am swallowed in my search

the abrasive canvas blank and dry

my pen impeded, sifting through tables and textures

to quiet my mind and ease the constipated strain

unfurl the tongue that binds my will

freed through the capture, release me as I am yet unbroken

my body bakes in the burning glow

A singularity of reason

rocks sift water as trees sift the wind

above as below, without as within

the thorns of age slowly press my flesh

Time is unfair, beauty deceptive

Driven by the agony of self-pitying remorse

I seek a new plane

To transcend the despair of parity

the rot that sets in so befouling my labored illumination

the immortal mind drowning in the pedestrian smear

Does Hell lack patience in wait of my death?

Is Heaven no more than a brush away?

The self-proclaimed great mind caring not for reality

painful this state of mediocrity birthed from within

having reached for a glancing touch the hand of God

forcefully retracted in startled shame

at the nothing that meets my grasp

embarrassed, both prophets and fools

Self is do, self is be.. and more on zombies


zombie 108

You can never value a river for being what it is in a particular moment, because as soon as you prevent it from changing, from moving and flowing, it ceases to be a river. The same is true with human beings. If you say “I like you” or “I love you” just the way you are in a moment, you are really denying what it means to be human. We are always changing, we are always recalibrating, interacting, building and engaging–it is the nature of being human. It is the nature of self. When you stop the ‘do’-based part of yourself, you are dead and you don’t have to worry about whether you like yourself anymore because you are either in heaven (in which case God loves you enough for the both of you) you are reincarnated (in which you are not you anymore and you don’t have to worry about whether you liked the old you) or you are nothing (with nothing to worry about) or some other variation of the afterlife (I actually would prefer to be a zombie so I refuse to be cremated, and zombies always have high self-concept). What.
According to RET, ‘self’ is actually two distinct things–one dimension is ‘do-based’ and the other dimension is ‘being-based’. Part of how we feel about ourselves is defined by the ways that our performance is perceived, the outcomes we generated, the money we made, the ways we fulfilled our roles in life and got the ‘to-do’ list done with quality and efficiency. Ever had a time in your life when you felt like a ‘loser?’ You didn’t get the good grades you were hoping for, you haven’t worked out in awhile, you’re having a bad hair day, the house is a mess, you forgot to take Billy to his soccer practice and your boss told you to improve the quality of your work because you are falling behind…etc.? You ‘feel bad’ about yourself on these days. Or maybe you have a day where you won the big race, earned the most points on the math quiz, did the perfect cheer on the cheer team, got a promotion, were awarded’ best worker’ at work, took care of all the household chores and finished up that big project with flying colors and every hair in place. You ‘feel good’ about yourself.

            Here is the flipside to that coin. You go on a yoga retreat with your girlfriends and you spend all day talking about your lives, your loves, your losses, your wins. You go on a walk alone in the wildflowers, come back and have a glass of wine on the patio while the sun sets, listening to your favorite music. You spend the day playing with your family, ping pong and monopoly, then a long conversation with your sister. You go skydiving and have a picnic lunch under an oak tree in the fall, you make love with your wife afterward. You take the afternoon off to walk along the river, sit down and read your favorite book of poetry, then you visit that antique mall you’ve had your eye on and end up wandering for a couple of hours just lost in the smells and textures and history of the place. You ‘feel good’ about yourself after these types of experiences, even though you didn’t necessarily get anything accomplished in a tangible way, finding value in the process or experience of something that is need-fulfilling makes you feel good about yourself. Or, conversely, you spend all your time at work, when people ask you to go out to lunch, you decline because you have to get that report in. The only spare time in your day is spent vigorously exercising or taking care of the kids, making dinner, cleaning the cat box, you and your husband haven’t had a date night in a year, you won’t allow yourself to take any time for what you enjoy because it feels wasteful and that time is too precious for your busy schedule to accommodate it. Then, without warning you break down and cry in your driveway for half an hour because you hate your life. You ‘feel bad’ about yourself.

            These examples reflect two discreet categories of self. The first is called self-esteem and the other is called self-worth. They exist independently of each other, they are mutually exclusive and cultivating one does not cultivate the other. By saying this, I am proposing that we rid ourselves of the ‘bucket’ technique in defining self-concept. Until now, psychology has not had separate categories of self-concept. The thinking was, one either felt ‘good’ about the herself, ‘bad’ about herself, or somewhere in between. By splitting this dimension in two, we can more accurately and comprehensively define not only what components make up self-concept, but what actions and experiences fortify or deteriorate each category of self.

            Self-esteem is the way you feel about your performance, the tangible value that is garnered by your efforts, your accomplishments, your talents and skills and abilities, your role obligations and the degree to which you produce results. It is the feeling that you are valuable, lovable, worthy and deserving of respect because of what you do. Self-esteem is cultivated through nurturing needs on the achievement exchange.

            Self-worth is the value you have just for being you, for experiencing life, for participating in the process of existence. It is your sense that you are valuable and lovable and worthy of consideration and respect just for who you are, independent of what you produce or the tangible goals you reach. Self-worth is only cultivated through nurturing needs on the experiential exchange.

Happiness is not painless

The concept that anxiety, depression, frustration, sadness and shame are negative outcomes of bad mental health is a linear and not complete picture of the human emotional process. Yes these are painful manifestations, but it is not our pain that makes us sick. In fact, pain can be fuel for the internal and social processing that allows us to build self-worth, build self-esteem and build relationship intimacy. The dysfunction from pain comes when our feelings are not processed appropriately, when they are left to ferment in the human mind, and when our behaviors function to avoid pain, but not nurture the pained individual. When you think about it, the times that families and friends bond the most are when they are facing adversity or tragedy together. That is when there is the most opportunity to exchange energy and feel intimacy. Happiness is not the absence of pain. And yet we confuse lack of conflict with relationship happiness. A relationship that is void of conflict and pain is void of relational energy exchange, and therefore is most weak. This is not to say that couples and families who fight the most are the most healthy, but rather that having a certain amount of adversity and contention can be the fuel for the relational energy exchange that families and couples need. This contention also sometimes reflects a couple’s willingness to share feelings and thoughts, instead of repressing opinions so that the peace can be kept. It is whether or not we are on the same side of this adversity which determines whether the adversity will make us stronger or weaker.

Weak and needy are two different things


sportswomen at the start

How ‘needy’ do you think a starting quarterback on an NFL team is? How needy is an Olympic gold-medal athlete? I would say very needy, and for good reason. When we expect high performance from someone, we recognize the need to invest in that performance. This is why we have special diets, nutritionists, coaches, physical trainers, special equipment, gear, medicines, and physical therapy for someone who is asking their body to perform at a high caliber. No one would ever accuse Richard Sherman of being ‘weak’ because his body is high-maintenance.

Yet we do this all the time with our emotional and psychological selves. Our worlds are becoming more demanding with fewer restorative resources and less support. We expect more from ourselves than ever before, in terms of what we have to navigate socially, professionally and experientially every day. So why do we resent ourselves so much for having psychological and emotional needs? We fear that others will think us weak if we express vulnerability or expect them to nurture us mentally. The truth is, if you were going to run a marathon, you wouldn’t expect yourself to do so having not eaten for 2 days, only slept 1 hour, totally dehydrated and somewhat hypothermic…so why do we expect our minds and emotional systems to perform at a high caliber unless we are caring for ourselves accordingly.

Essentially, you need to give to your mind what you expect out of your mind. Your ability to remain focused, intentional, intuitive, attuned and solution-focused hinges on the upkeep of your psychological systems. This perspective will yield much stronger results than the other, so called ‘strong’ and independent orientations.

Spend your mind wisely


New technology and children

The cover of Time magazine features the new iwatch, and reads “never offline”. What happens to us when we are never offline? It’s not so much that being online is bad for you, but rather that it takes time, attention and energy away from things that could be good for you–like YOUR LIFE. All mental, social, behavioral, emotional and many physical illnesses are the result of unmet needs. In order to resolve these problems we must look at where our total energy, attention, attunement goes to, and ask ourselves, “is this need-fulfilling or not?” If not, then what you are doing is jeopardizing your psychological health, because it is costing you energy that should be devoted to those social and internal exchanges that fulfill the needs of yourself and those you love.

Think of it this way: If you had $100 to spend every day, you would want to budget that money to first go toward those things you can’t do without (food, shelter, clothing, maybe medicine, something to drink, safety necessities, etc.) for yourself and your family.Only when you have purchased all these necessities should you be looking at spending the money on expendables. Your mind and social system operates in a very similar way. You have a finite amount of time, energy and focus every day, and you are tasked with distributing it toward things that fulfill your needs and the needs of those around you. If you don’t budget accordingly, or if you don’t balance your expenditures, you will leave unfulfilled needs. Unfulfilled needs equals depression, anxiety, eating problems, loss of self-concept, relationship distance and conflict, behavioral problems, etc.

If, with your $100 budget you buy a $90 skateboard instead of paying rent and buying food…you’re going to be in trouble. Or maybe you pay $90 in rent and there is nothing left for the other areas of need…you’re going to be in trouble. Emotionally and psychologically we suffer when we are imbalanced or in deficit in how we meet our needs.

So the iphone is a similar to that skateboard you want to buy. Yes it’s cool, it feels good, it’s fun, but can you afford it? Can you afford the time and attention and effort you take away from yourself, others around you and your life so you can ‘never be offline?’ Is that a good thing for our society? My guess is no. We struggle more than ever with our family relationships, emotional wellbeing and physical health because we are so committed to putting energy toward things that don’t meet our needs. Technology provides ways to disrupt your ability to understand and meet your self-needs and the needs of those around you. It disrupts the ability of others to attune to you and meet your needs.

In order to stay well and meaningfully care for others, you must be present. Be judicious and conscientious about your attention, time and energy. Life doesn’t happen online, so to me, ‘never offline’ means ‘never living’. These inventions are really just ways to stop living without having to die first. Bad juju.

Kill your television, save your mind

Use your head 2

Maybe I am highly distractable, but I haven’t had cable in over 15 years because if the TV is on, I can’t seem to not look at it. I think that is the idea…we have a society that is run on commerce, and therefore we are saturated with commercials. As a specialist in eating disorders, I am very familiar with the correlation between media exposure and anorexia/bulimia, but lately I am thinking about media and mental health on a broader scale. I believe media not only causes us to suffer from eating disorders, but it also causes us to suffer from depression and anxiety more frequently as well. From my perspective, the manifestation of eating pathology is fueled by media, not because of the thin ideal, but rather because of the role obligations imposed upon us by advertisers. A company sells you its product by convincing you that you would be a better person if you bought the new iflabber 3.0. Imbedded in that ad are a lot of messages about what it means to be a good enough ‘you’. The ad floods your mind with images that replace your sense of your own needs with new information. Suddenly what you thought was real is no longer real anymore, and what is real is that you (or those you love) have been needlessly suffering because you haven’t bought the product they are selling. Commercials have a very insidious and effective way of hijacking your attunement to yourself. So think about how many commercials and ads we see over the course of a lifetime. What are the cumulative effects of this constant derailment? Well, on a global scale it involves a less mentally healthy population. I’ll explain why.

Mental illness of all types stem from unmet needs. Unmet need result when a person’s attunement and nurturing of the self is derailed. Media interferes with our attunement and subsequently erodes our ability to nurture ourselves. When we internalize messages about what it means to be ‘good enough’ as a person, we inadvertently adopt a focus on needs that are interojections from the outside and are not our own. Commercials and ads teach us what to value, what to pursue, what to invest in, even if those endeavors do not speak to the needs of our selves or the needs of those in our social sphere. (I don’t need love, I need “Illegal length lashes!”) The energy that we would be devoting to understanding our own needs and the needs of people we love is replaced with attunement toward those things media says we should value. Suddenly, the genuine needs we have are eclipsed with artificial needs–needs that we attempt to fill with energy that is now not going toward the fulfillment of genuine needs. Unmet needs leads to depression, anxiety and eating disorders, relationship problems etc. So if you want to be more mentally well, kill your television.

Preventing is better than venting


late for work

What an interesting play on words–“vent” and “prevent”. I was thinking about this dynamic the other day while listening to a client talk about how exhausting it is becoming for her to respond to her husband’s chronic stress.

“It’s like he doesn’t see that he needs to delegate tasks, he needs to not commit to things that are going to stretch him too thin, he doesn’t take care of himself and then when all this builds up, he comes home and vents it all to me. I try to support him as best I can but it seems like as soon as he is starting to feel better, something else comes along that makes him all frayed and frazzled again!” Marsha exclaims.

“Have you tried meeting him at the door with a double shot of whisky, wearing pink lingerie doesn’t distract him enough?” I ask.

“Brett, you know how teddies chafe me!” We both have a chuckle.

Marsha brings up an important point that we all need to consider. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of bitching. So often we are caught in a reactive cycle, where we engage with our work and those around us in a way that dysfunctional and uncomfortably comfortable, leading inevitably to the negative outcomes that misaligned interactions yield. Instead of making needed adjustments, we react instead. We drink, smoke, escape with TV and video games, we moan and complain, we overeat, we compensate with mind-numbing exercise or whatever makes the pain lessen. Instead of reflecting on our patterns of interaction that create the stress in the first place, we simply do what we have always done expecting different results. Unfortunately, our loved ones are often caught up in this cycle with us. We end up repeating the same arguments or endlessly seeking the solace that ultimately drains those around us.

In order to reduce the need for reactive stress-management, and increase the utilization of proactive stress-management, try a few of these techniques:

1: Don’t shoulder all life’s tasks by yourself. Even if others seem unwilling or unable to help, remember they can be trained to be helpful and you have to start somewhere. Delegate more frequently and share the load.

2: Stop over-committing to things that don’t really fulfill your personal needs and goals. Say ‘no’ to baking 148 cupcakes for the school bakesale. Suggest your friend take a cab to the airport 50 miles away. Don’t stay late and work through every lunch just because your work team is behind and are not pulling their share.

3: Self-care is a must. Even when you are busy–particularly when you are busy–it is essential that you nurture your experiential needs. Meditate, get a massage, go to lunch with a friend, listen to your favorite CD while soaking in the tub, take a walk, whatever recharges you. Exercise can be really good but it can end up being yet another goal you are striving to achieve so find other ways to nurture and restore that are process-focused rather than outcome-focused.

I always say that processing and receiving nurturing from others is a critical element of close relationships and it is. Just make sure you balance your needs with the prevention of pain. And remember, when you wife greets you at the door with a drink and a nightie, ignore the drink. If it’s your husband in the lingerie, you may need the drink first.

I’m knowing to die



Ever talk to someone who knows everything? That’s a trick question because you can’t talk to someone who knows everything. People who already know everything don’t listen. Why would they? They already know. Schiller writes “knowledge is death”. I think this means the state of ‘knowing’ involves stagnation, a closing off of the curious outlook required to attune to the world around you. Knowing means there is no reason to investigate further, integrate new information or question your perspective. People who know things go through life with eyes smugly closed, applauding their own awareness while remaining disengaged and unavailable to the world around them. Knowledge is particularly devastating when we think we know each other. First of all, you can never really know a person, not even yourself. People are constantly changing, every day, every moment. You are literally not the same person you used to be, partly because your cells completely regenerate after every 7 years, and partly because your mind goes through a similar continuous metamorphosis. People who say they never change aren’t paying attention or they have numbed and suppressed themselves to the point that that changing part of the mind has simply been lulled to sleep or worse. If you know a person, you stop attuning to them, and therefore you cannot nurture them. Nurturing means a person is aware of your ever-changing needs and takes steps to accommodate your needs. This dynamic is the way we sustain the mind and the way we sustain relationships with each other and with ourselves. So the next time someone says they know you, ask them to reconsider this perspective. The people who care for and mean the most to us in life are those who continuously rediscover us every day. Taking a stance of not knowing allows us to be more open to the nuances and subtleties of the self and others, which means you can respond to needs more efficiently and quickly. My clients often come to me disturbed that they don’t know themselves. To this I say “Congratulations! Let’s bottle that and sell it. Knowing yourself is the last thing you want. Knowing others and being known by them is the fast track to empty exchanges. Always be naive to yourself and your life. Approach your life as if it is undiscovered territory, and you will see that it mostly is. This is when real change happens.”

Emotional horsepower gets a bad rep

Hombre conduciendo un automóvil sujetando un volante.

(I must credit Nietzsche for the inspiration of this article. He said “The man who moves mountains also moves valleys.” This column is my understanding of that sentiment.)

“You’re so emotional!” When people say this, it is rarely meant as a compliment, it infrequently belies a sense of confidence and high esteem. This is because the person who makes decisions guided by extreme emotions has the capacity to make costly mistakes that everyone seems to fixate upon. We hear news of impulsive, destructive and abusive behaviors that come from anger. We see people who are disabled by their anxieties, people who experience severe loss of functioning and loss of relationships as a result of grief and sadness. In the field of psychology, we are often saddled with the task of reducing emotionality in our clients.

Perhaps we haven’t been entirely fair in our perspective of emotionality. In order to look at the flipside of emotion, I must first define what emotion is. To me, emotion is horsepower, plain and simple. It is the force behind which we pursue our needs. There are tremendous benefits to having this force, because without it we would not fulfill any of our needs or goals. If you approached all of your needs with a ‘meh’ attitude, you probably wouldn’t get much done at all. If your lover was imploring you for more affection and you didn’t care, if you had an interest in embarking on a new career but felt no passion toward it, if you were dying of thirst in the desert and it didn’t move your emotional needle, your life pursuits would quickly derail.

Most of the really successful, brilliant, creative, experientially engaged and interesting people in this world are also rather mercurial by nature. Their emotionality is what allows them to build upon all their internal pursuits. So imagine some people are like Ferraris and some people are more like my 2001 Volvo POS stationwagon with car seats in the back (no offense to Volvo, they are great cars that’s why I bought one). The Ferrari has hella horsepower, the Volvo not so much. If the Ferrari is being driven carefully, it can go further faster than other vehicles (big win for the Ferrari). But if is not being driven carefully–the driver is unaware of where she is steering, the alignment is off, there’s mud all over the windshield and the like–it can crash. And when it crashes, it crashes hard. Things blow up, people run in flames from the wreckage, there’s weeping mothers in the street, etc. Now if the Volvo is misdirected, it will still crash, but it doesn’t hit with nearly as much force. It’s a fender-bender, no big deal. Perhaps the air bag goes off (Volvos are also the safest car in the world, practically death-proof). Everyone is OK when the Volvo crashes because it doesn’t go 260 mph, it only goes 40 mph top speed.

Take-home message: emotional people have more capacity to experience heavier damage that results from disruptions in the way they navigate their needs, but it is not the emotionality itself that creates the damage, it is the direction the car is going. If you are speeding down an open freeway toward a self-actualizing goal, extra horsepower is a big plus. If you are speeding toward a brick wall or a school bus filled with small children, horsepower is muy bad. So if you are a Ferrari, be extremely careful in how you drive. If you’re a Volvo, don’t congratulate yourself too much for being better than the Ferraris out there. Yes you don’t smash into things but most people going big places in life don’t get there in a Volvo.

What ails you is your mind


Frustrated medical doctor sitting on floor

Humans ought to be practically superhuman by now. We live in the most enlightened of all ages. We now have the knowledge and means by which to make ourselves as healthy as is conceivable given the parameters of our mortal status. And yet, in a lot of ways, we are as far away from being a healthy population as we ever have been in history. Despite our cultural progress, the affluence of modern Westernized society, despite our understanding the human body, we remain desperately unhealthy. Our physical suffering can be seen in the soaring utilization and cost of health care and health insurance in this country. The toll that medically-related absences take on corporations is high, we are funding social security for disabled people at a rate never seen before, even chronic illnesses in children are on the rise. This seems so counterintuitive, almost oxymoronic, when you look at how much we have advanced medical treatments and preventative courses.

What is causing this insult to all our health endeavors? In a nutshell, it’s the mind. The mind drives the body’s behaviors, it dictates the choices that influence health, and in so many cases these choices are what make us sick. I’m no medical doctor (I just play one on TV), but it seems to me that the vast majority of our physical struggles have psychological origins. We make choices and engage in behaviors that are antithetical to our health, then we seek out treatment for the inevitable result of our poor health choices. The most costly health conditions include heart ailments, cancer, diabetes, and osteoarthritis…all illnesses that have strong correlates to lifestyle. Let’s face it, we eat too much, we smoke, we do drugs, we don’t exercise, we like to eat sugar and salt despite the fact that it is bad for us, we live saturated in stress, we are obese. If there were an illness associated with watching too much porn, we would probably spend billions on that as well.

At the root of the health crisis is a psychological crisis. The $64,000 question is, “how do you get people to do what they know is right with regard to their health?” If you answered that, the majority of our health problems would dissipate, and with it the astronomical cost of health care. But our understanding of the human mind remains rather a mystery, and therefore the resolution of this downward health cycle remains elusive. Despite our wisdom about the body, our ignorance of the mind is still staring us in the face, sabotaging many of our efforts to create a healthier society. There is no system of mind like there is for the body. I believe we could create one, and this system could guide us out of the ‘dark ages’ the field of psychology seems to be stuck in. If we want to prevent illness (both physical and mental) we must develop a system of mind, a better way of understanding why people do what they do, a better way of guiding that course. If we could solve the problem of getting people to actually take care of themselves the way they need to, a huge chunk of the health care crisis and everything that comes along with it would be a thing of the past.

“Prevention” to date involves education, sometimes with a sprinkling of big brother-esque laws and limitations on the unhealthy things we have access to. We tax the hell out of cigarettes, we have drinking and drug laws, some places are even trying to ban big pops and trans fats. We took the vending machines out of schools and set stricter requirements for school lunch nutrition. We urge people to exercise. Although these are certainly positive steps, I see that we must do more. We must take a macro-level approach to psychology to see why our society particularly now is struggling so much with making good choices, when the opposite should be the case. Only when the mind and the body are acting in harmony can we truly achieve good human health, and for now, the mind is fighting us every inch.