Let’s Make an Effort to Be More Reflective and Less Reactive

On the evening of April 25, 2017, I attended UCLA Friends of the Semel Institute’s Open Mind Lecture: Dr. Regina Pally The Reflective Parent.

The Institute described the program as follows:

Figuring out how to raise happy, healthy, and successful kids can be overwhelming. Parents often find themselves wading through tons of conflicting advice. Books that outline a ‘right way’ of doing things can leave even the most dedicated caregiver feeling discouraged and inadequate when real life doesn’t measure up. An experienced psychiatrist and founder of the Center for Reflective Communities, Regina Pally serves up something totally different in The Reflective Parent. She argues that the key to successful parenting is to have a strong relationship with your child. This requires parents to slow down, reflect, and recognize that there is no one right way to parent.

Pally synthesizes the latest neuroscience research to show that our brain’s natural tendencies to empathize, analyze, and connect with others are all we need to be good parents. Each chapter weaves together discussions of specific reflective parenting principles like ‘Tolerate Uncertainty’ and ‘Repair Ruptures’ with engaging explanations of the science that backs them up. Brief ‘Take Home Lessons’ at the end of each chapter and vivid examples of parents and children putting the principles into action make this a practical guide for anyone looking to build loving, lasting relationships with their kids.”

On her website, Dr. Pally explains what, why and how “Reflective Parenting is the best way [for parents to achieve their goal of wanting] their child to be happy, healthy, get along with others, and do well in school.”

As a mediator and attorney who works with parents and families, I thought my clients could possibly benefit by my attending that program, in addition to my interest in what seemed consistent with my understanding of what makes people tick.

In the Introduction of her book The Reflective Parent: How to Do Less and Relate More with Your Kids, Pally describes the sources of her knowledge as follows:

“The book draws on what I learned from my pediatric, psychiatric, and psychoanalytic training; my clinical work with patients; my studies in neuroscience; my personal experiences; and most recently my involvement with the nonprofit organization Center for Reflective Communites (CRC), whose mission is to promote healthy child development by strengthening the relationship bonds that children have with all the people who care for them. Through them, I learned that a parent’s reflective capacity is the factor most closely associated with healthy child development and can be protective against the negative impact of stress and adversity. CRC’s guiding principle is that what matters most in life is relationships and that being reflective strenthens the relationships we have with all people in our life.”

In her book, Pally says the following:

“Reflective parenting means understanding that everything your child does and says is motivated or triggered by something going on inside their mind, such as a feeling, an intention, or a belief, and that the same is true for you. Everything you do or say is motivated or triggered by something going on inside your mind. Reflective parenting involves two-way perspective-taking, in which you see the world from your child’s perspective as well as your own. Being reflective enables you to do all the things that research shows are associated with children doing better throughout their whole life….

“Reflective capacity is technically defined as a mental skill in which the mind is able to recognize (a) that all human behavior has meaning in terms of what is going on inside a person’s mind, such as their feelings, desires, intentions, motivations, and beliefs, and that this applies to one’s own behavior as well as the behavior of others; (b) that all people have a mind that is subjective, separate, and private; and (c) that what is in one person’s mind may be the same or may be different from what is going on inside someone else’s mind….

The mind is inherently subjective. Each mind views the world in its own way. Because the mind is both hidden and subjective, even being reflective will not ensure that you will always fully understand your child. When we reflect, all we can really do is make a good guess or inference as to what is probably going on inside another person’s mind. We may be right. But we are not always right. That is why reflective parenting emphasizes that misunderstanding is possible and common, but by being reflective, a parent is more likely to figure out and clarify misunderstandings when they occur.”

As I was reading her book, the following sentence popped out at me because of information contained in my last article titled You Think You’re Helping, Do You?

“When parents are not reflective, they tend to be more reactive.”

My article contained an excerpt from Thomas Digrazia’s book Mediating Family Disputes and Avoiding Adversarial Violence which quoted Dr. Dan Siegel, although Digrazia misspelled Siegel’s name. The excerpt is as follows:

According to Dr. Daniel J. Siegal, a neurological and child psychiatrist, in his book called, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, from a physiological perspective when the nervous system is receptive and an individual is centered in the prefrontal lobe, facial muscles and vocal chords relax, normal blood pressure and heart rate are enjoyed. We are more creative and open to what the other person is stating or proposing. By contrast, when the nervous system is reactive, we are in a limbic or survival mode, physically and emotionally. According to Siegal, in a reactive state, ‘…we distort what we hear to fit what we fear.’ This causes us to hear (which is a physical act) without listening (which is a neocortical, cognitive event).”

The connection between Pally and Siegel is by no means coincidental, by the way. In fact, in the Acknowledgments section of her book, Pally said, “I am grateful to Dan Siegel, who first got me involved in learning about the brain and for his support of the reflective work I do.”

In any event, it’s long been known that “although theoretically distinct, fears and generalized anxiety appear to be highly interrelated.”

Obin Marantz Henig explained the difference between fear and anxiety in Understanding the Anxious Mind as follows:

ANXIETY IS NOT fear, exactly, because fear is focused on something right in front of you, a real and objective danger. It is instead a kind of fear gone wild, a generalized sense of dread about something out there that seems menacing — but that in truth is not menacing, and may not even be out there. If you’re anxious, you find it difficult to talk yourself out of this foreboding; you become trapped in an endless loop of what-ifs.”

While anxiety may not be “fear, exactly,” it does lead to a “reactive state.”

In fact, Marantz describes the how anxiety affects us as follows:

“In the brain, these thoughts can often be traced to overreactivity in the amygdala, a small site in the middle of the brain that, among its many other functions, responds to novelty and threat. When the amygdala works as it should, it orchestrates a physiological response to changes in the environment. That response includes heightened memory for emotional experiences and the familiar chest pounding of fight or flight.”

With regard to anxiety, one of Pally’s principles of reflective parenting is,

“Tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty, and not knowing. This includes accepting that misunderstanding and conflict are normal and inevitable. By tolerating and accepting these things, parents are less likely to react reflexively or rigidly to situations. As explained in Chapter 2, there is no single truth about what is happening, only various perceptions. Life and human relationships are by their very nature a messy business.”

Meanwhile, Pally tells us that while in a reactive state we are not reflective and according to Siegel, “’…we distort what we hear to fit what we fear’ and hear without listening.”

Now, consider how much of such behavior is related to what’s known as binary thinking and how that leads to polarization.

On December 14, 2016, Huffington Post published my article titled Shameful U.S. History Repeating Itself. Reaction to fear was the cause of that “shameful U.S. history”, as it is the cause of history repeating itself.

I her book Daring Greatly, social science researcher Brene’ Brown referred to binary thinking as a Viking-or-Victim worldview. As she described it,

“What emerged from these interviews and interactions was a lens on the world that essentially saw people divided into two groups (ahem, like me and Sir Ken Robinson) that I call Vikings or Victims….

[T]hese folks shared the belief that everyone without exception belongs to one of two mutually exclusive groups: Either you’re a Victim in life – a sucker or loser who’s always being taken advantage of and can’t hold your own – or you’re a Viking – someone who sees the threat of being victimized as a constant, so you stay in control, you dominate, you exert power over things, and you never show your vulnerability.

As I coded the data from these interviews, I kept thinking about the chapter in my dissertation on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and binary opposition (the pairing of related terms that are opposite). While the respondents didn’t all use the same examples, a strong pattern of paired opposites emerged in the language they used to describe their worldview: winner or loser, survive or die, kill or be killed, strong or weak, leaders or followers, success or failure, crush or be crushed. And in case those aren’t clear enough examples, there’s the life motto of a high-achieving, take-no-prisoners lawyer, ‘The world is divided into assholes and suckers. It’s that simple.’

The source of their Viking-or-Victim worldview was not completely clear, but most attributed it to the values they had been taught growing up, the experience of surviving hardships, or their professional training….

Fear and scarcity fuel the Viking-or-Victim approach.”

A great deal of fear and anxiety is caused by a lack of knowledge and the remedy for such fear and anxiety is quite simple — raising the level of one’s knowledge. However, doing so requires empathy and compassion, which involves being reflective.

Pally explains it as follows:

“To have a strong parent-child relationship means being comforting, empathic, validating, understanding, accepting, and supportive of your child. But it also means taking this same approach toward yourself! In other words, in order to give your child what they need, you have to give those same things to yourself. In fact, the most common reason for parents to have difficulty with being comforting, empathic, validating, understanding, accepting, and supportive of their child is that they have difficulty being this way in relationship to themselves.”

It would be a mistake to believe that such advice is limited to parenting. In fact, as Pally explains,

“The ability to be reflective is essential for relating well to others, because it enables us to try to see the world from the other person’s perspective as well as our own and to accept that there is always more than one way to view a situation.”

Back in 2014, Huffington Post published my article The Power of Empathy. Approximately a year later, that article was republished as the cover article by DR Currents, a publication of the Dispute Resolution Section of the State Bar of Georgia. The following year, it was referenced Empathy Conversations – Testing their effectiveness as a policy-making instrument – A Pilot Study by Dr. Lynne Reeder, Director of Australia21, “a not for profit public think tank specializing in promoting new evidence-based thinking about the big issues confronting Australia in a rapidly changing global environment.”

In November 2016, Psychology Today welcomed me to its expert community as a Psychology Today Blogger and titled my overall blog column Empathy and Relationships: Fostering Genuine Open-Mindedness. My debut blog was titled Bridging Our National Divide Demands Empathy and Compassion: Solving problems facing our nation requires empathy and emotional intelligence.

For what it’s worth, reactive governing is no less harmful than reactive parenting.

How about we all try and be more reflective and less reactive?

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