One of the most important things that you can develop in your life, and in your relationship, is your resilience - the way that you bounce back from the challenges that life throws your way. How do you recover in a way that leaves you even stronger, more connected, more inspired than before? In today’s episode, we’re talking with Dr. Peter Levine, creator of Somatic Experiencing, author of the bestseller Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, and co-author, with Maggie Kline, of Trauma-Proofing Your Kids. Peter and I explore exactly how to build your own resiliency - and how to also help your partner, and your kids become more resilient.
Please enjoy this week’s episode, with Dr. Peter Levine, on Relationship Alive! We’ll show you how to tap into the language of sensation, which gives you a window into the deepest parts of your brain and body. We’ll explain how to show up for others in your life, to support them in the most effective way possible. And you’ll discover how to help children access their innate ability to heal as well.
Here is a link to Relationship Alive episode 29, my first conversation with Peter Levine: How to Heal Your Triggers and Trauma
Peter’s author page on Amazon
FREE Relationship Communication Secrets Guide
Peter Levine’s website
Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute (to locate certified SE practitioners)
Relationship Alive Community on Facebook
Amazing intro/outro music graciously provided courtesy of:
Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Sattin. How do you foster resiliency in yourself and in your partner and if you have kids, in your kids? When it comes to relationship and how we are in the world, there's perhaps nothing as important as how resilient we are because let's face it. Life sometimes sends problems our way or things that are challenging. And if you're expecting everything to be a cakewalk, then life is going to be really hard for you.
Neil Sattin: On the flip side, if when things go wrong, you think, "Oh, my goodness, it's over now," then things are also going to be hard for you. In order to get through anything that happens to you and come out the other side stronger and more vibrant and to bring that same quality into your relationship and to bring that same quality to, if you have kids in your life, the way that they respond to the world. That is what we are going to talk about today.
Neil Sattin: In order to do so, we have brought back one of our most esteemed guests to the Relationship Alive podcast. His name is Dr. Peter Levine, and he is one of the world's experts on how to heal from trauma. He was first on the show back in Episode 29 and if you're interested in checking that out, you can go to http://www.neilsattin.com/trauma and you can hear all about how to heal your triggers and trauma in relationship.
Neil Sattin: We're not going to cover much of that material. We're going to try to cover new ground here. I invite you to listen to Episode 29. In the meantime, it's not a prerequisite for today's conversation and we are going to dive deep on the topic of resiliency. If you want a transcript and guide for this episode, you can visit http://www.neilsattin.com/levine as in Peter Levine and that's spelled L-E-V-I-N-E or you can text the word "passion" to the number 33444 and follow the instructions and I will send you a link where you can download that show guide and transcript.
Neil Sattin: In the meantime, Peter Levine, thank you so much for joining us today. It's great to have you back here on Relationship Alive.
Peter Levine: Thank you. It's good to be back. I enjoyed the last time.
Neil Sattin: Well, it's always exciting to be able to chat with you and you are someone who has been on the forefront of figuring out how we heal the things that keep us stuck. And there's nothing that I think defines resilience more than the ability to get unstuck when you're going through something.
Peter Levine: Indeed, I like that. I think that's right on it. It's about when we get stuck, somehow knowing we can handle it because of an inner sense in our bodies, in our organism and that we can also receive and give support at times that are really challenging.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. I'm inspired by in your book, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past, which I happen to have here right in front me. You talked about this location in the brain where resides our capacity for wanting to persevere through adversity.
Peter Levine: Wow, you obviously have actually read it. Yeah, that is central to healing from trauma, and also for being able to stay in a supported intimate relationship. There amazingly are areas in the brain, specific areas that appear literally to be involved with the will to persevere in the face of significant obstacles.
Peter Levine: If you think about it, it makes sense because we wouldn't be able to survive as a species if we didn't have that capacity. I don't say it's the same as resilience but it's a big important component of resilience. In working with people who have been traumatized for 45 years, and I think back on it, I think really my job is to help them enlist that capacity, connect to that capacity and by doing that being able to move forward in difficult times. But I think they're very closely related, this will to persevere and resilience.
Peter Levine: I also see resilience as an autonomic exercise and what I mean by that is when we're in states of fear, our autonomic nervous system gets activated in particular ways and that really affects our whole perception of the world and our cognition really because it's strong ... But it's a foundation for many perceptions. And if we're able to experience ourselves, for example, our heart rate increasing and then experiencing it decreasing, we're doing an autonomic exercise.
Peter Levine: This is something that couples can do with each other by just being present when one of the members is feeling frightened. “It's okay, and so what happens now and what happens next? And is there anything about that? Is there anything else about that?” To be there with the person, to help them move through the stuck places is a great gift and I really believe that in one way or another, most, maybe even all successful couples have some degree of this capacity.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and in the interest of increasing that and maybe even getting a little bit more detail about what you were just mentioning, I'm thinking now because as I mentioned before we jumped on the interview, I just read your amazing book, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents' Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience. One of the things that I loved about the book was not only feeling way more resourced in terms of how I show up for my own children but also you stressed the importance for parents of being able to understand the language of the body so that you can have those communications with your children and help them understand the language of the body.
Neil Sattin: But one thing I'd love for you to talk about is how there's this way of communicating about sensation that is how these deeper parts of our brain actually perceive the world that's not about ... Because I think the temptation, if I were sitting with my partner would be, if I were saying “what's next” and “what happens next” we would be caught in these zoo of thoughts and feelings. I love bringing it down to the deeper level of sensations. Can you talk a little bit about that and why it's so important to develop a vocabulary around sensation in your body?
Peter Levine: Yeah, for sure. All of our emotions have sensation-based components. Indeed many emotions, particularly difficult emotions, are a combination of physical sensations and cognitive thoughts or beliefs. And together, they drive an emotional state such as fear or rage and if we are able to become aware of the sensations that actually underlie those emotions, then we are able to allow the sensations to change, to transform and also noticing the thoughts that are involved, and doing that has the sometimes miraculous way to actually change our emotions.
Peter Levine: Because one of the things about difficult emotions - called negative emotions - is they just have a tendency to keep going and keep going as much as we can understand them or understand our thoughts about them. Really, it's difficult to change them and I really believe my experience is that again, the way that we can change the ... One of the ways that we can change these difficult emotions is by the alchemy of working with these sensations, the underlying sensations and also sensations of goodness.
Peter Levine: In my major book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, the key is in both. And restoring goodness also is a sensation, a feeling of felt sensation of resilience. When I say goodness, I don't mean like a good child, a good spouse, a good so forth and so on. I mean, more of the Buddhistic understanding of goodness - that it's a feeling of wholeness and a feeling like this, like wholeness, are some of the most important antidotes again for these difficult emotions and sensations, that allow us to move through them because we have this innate capacity to heal.
Peter Levine: Originally, I studied this in animals and how they rebound in the aftermath of prey animals and predation but it's led me to a more general understanding that there is this profound instinct similar to the instinct to persevere - they're related, I'm sure, to heal - that we yearn healing. And in a way, in relationships, I'm sure as you and many of your speakers have noted that we tend to pick people with similar traumas or complementary traumas. At first, we're very much in love, which is often the first phase of a relationship, but then what happens when the stuff hits the fan, how do we deal with that in a collaborative way, in a corrective way?
Peter Levine: Again, this is so important in restoring resilience because co-regulation is tremendously important. I'm looking forward to it and later this month, there's a big Evolution of Psychology conference in Anaheim and I'm on a panel with Sue Johnson. I think you've interviewed Sue and if any of your readers don't know, Sue is the leading person in understanding the emotions that go on in couples' dynamics and really has a strong emphasis on co-regulation.
Peter Levine: What I'm saying is that we need both co-regulation, of course, but we also need the tools for our own regulation, for our own building of resilience. I see the two blending together very nicely.
Neil Sattin: Taking a step back, I guess just to-
Peter Levine: Let me go back, one other thing.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, go ahead.
Peter Levine: We're talking about with our children. By learning to read their bodies and helping them connect with their sensations, we are building a tremendous reservoir of resilience that they will add skills that they will carry for their whole lives. Again, one of the things that as parents that we need to be able to do is when there's ... In the inevitable fall or God knows the ride to the emergency room, we need first to take care of our own sensations and emotions because children are incredible mimickers. They will pick up the emotion of the parent.
Peter Levine: You know, anybody who's flown in an airplane in the last 25 years, what do they call them? The cabin personnel, they make the announcement that in the unlikely event of depressurization, the oxygen mask will come down. If you have a child or somebody infirm next to you, put the mask on your face first and then put the mask on the child. In other words, calm yourself first so that the children are not picking up the fear. Or very often, the parents override the fear with anger and they're very angry at the child. Again, children will pick this up.
Peter Levine: If we learn to take care of ourselves, self-regulation, we then can impart that capacity or support that developing capacity in our kids. When I work with kids when there's been a relatively acute trauma, sometimes, it just takes a few minutes of play and they go right to the place where they are stuck in their bodies. I just help them move through that and then, they're off back to play again.
Peter Levine: These tools are tremendously important and probably a quarter of the book or the eighth of the book, I guess, probably is about exercises to help the parents maintain this resilience in the face of the catastrophes that will befall the children and the parents. It's a given. Kids, especially when they get into the more active phase around 18 months, 2 years where they're just scooting everywhere and climbing and falling and pulling flower pots down on their sweet little heads. They get terrified but again, if we hold our own center and then help the child contain those difficult emotions and sensations, they will calm often surprisingly quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes.
Peter Levine: The way you support children, it's age-dependent. The way you support a baby who's tremendously upset is way different than the way you support a four-year-old. With a young child, you're going to be holding the child and rocking the child. With the four-year-old, you're going to sitting by child's side and maybe placing your hand as we suggest in the book, on the child's back until the breathing reestablished itself, the spontaneous breathing reestablished itself.
Peter Levine: The amazing thing, I think, the side effect of this is that kids start doing it for themselves and many of the children that I've worked tell me how they've done it in their school when something happens to one of the students. They sit there and they're with the student in that way. Actually, when I was designing the cover of the book with North Atlantic, I wanted it to be red. It has a picture of children in the middle. This is not red, but the rest of the cover is red and the idea, please forgive me, is Mao Zedong and the way he wanted the red book, well, he insisted that the red book be in the hands of everybody in China that had his sayings.
Peter Levine: The idea here is that every parent could have this book and could share it with other parents. One of the things that I think geopolitically is that when we're in a fearful state, any leader, and we've had ample evidence of this, who says there's an enemy out there. They want to attack us. They want to humiliate us. They want to take our jobs away and I am the only person that can protect you. No names mentioned.
Peter Levine: That's going to grab a lot of people. But if you're not in a fearful state, then you don't buy into that. You really think about it. I'm hoping also that this book in the next generation will give us more citizens, more democratic citizens allowed to or what's the word I'm looking for? Empowered, really, to make effective action.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, as I was reading the book for one thing, and actually this brings me to a question because I was reading it and I was, of course, thinking, "Wow, I wish I had read this before my kids were born." I want to fill in a gap or two but perhaps before we do that, I'm just going to ask you this question which is, let's say, my son. He's going to turn 11 in a couple of months, but there are things that I remember having happened with him. When he was two and tumbled down the stairs or three or four years ago, he jumped off a swing set and ended up breaking his arm. These are some traumatic events in his life. I'm wondering, and this is obviously going to have some bearing for adults as well. How do I know if those things are lodged within him as trauma? And if so, what's a way to invite him into releasing that?
Peter Levine: Well often, you'll see it, 11 is an age where you can really also talk to the child-
Neil Sattin: Definitely.
Peter Levine: And sometimes, we're sitting around. We'll say something like ... Maybe even if we're at the top of stairs or something like that and I would just maybe sit down with the child and saying, "Gosh, I remember when you fell down these stairs when you were two years old. Do you remember anything about that?" If the child very quickly says no, then you have a good indication there's something there. Or, if they say yes, if they reflect and then say yes, then it's an opportunity, really a wonderful opportunity to explore that.
Peter Levine: What I sometimes will do is, for example, if the child was falling, I'll hold the child or put my hand on the back of the child and hold the child and let them fall into my hand gradually and then to see what happens as they have this controlled fall. Because again, you have your hands, they're not going to fall. But they have the feeling, the sensations of falling. That may bring up images or sensations that were associated with the earlier event when they tumble down a flight. I guess, it was a flight of stairs. I think that was just an assumption I made.
Peter Levine: In games, in play, in just talking, 11-year-old, you were able to say again, "Remember, a couple of year ..." When was it that happened, a couple of years ago?
Neil Sattin: Well, that and the stairs, that was a long time ago, but I know he remembers it because it's come up before in conversation.
Peter Levine: Well, I would again make a game at it with a falling game. Sometimes, I'll do it just holding them with my hands, letting them slowly fall backwards, for example, or forward. You can do either one, and then I'll put a really big, super big pillow or combination of pillows and then they can begin to ... I'll let them down part way and see if they want to play the game where you release them and they fall into the pillows.
Peter Levine: At first, there may be some fear. You might see it in their eyes or their heartbeat might increase. They might tense a little bit, but you see when you continue with this controlled falling and they're falling into the soft cushions, the kids love it. And very often, it's something simple like that which is all that's needed. Something simple like that.
Neil Sattin: Where would it come in, for instance, just using my son as an example. Let's play a game. Let's do this thing, and let's say I notice something in him, where would it come into ask him or to invite him to name the qualities of sensation that he's feeling within him?
Peter Levine: Well, again, if you talk to him, "I wonder if you remember the tumble you took down the stairs when you were really little, when you were about two years old." If the child says yes, then the sensations are going to be right there. If they're not remembering it, you can say, "Well, when you just even think about that, think about how it might have been for you. Is there any place in your body that you can actually feel that?" Again, most children will point to some part of their body.
Peter Levine: Then, you take it to the next step. "Okay, and you feel that sensation. Does it have a shape? Does it have a size? Does it have a color? What does it feel like?" And so forth. You start asking these what I call open-ended questions.
Neil Sattin: What is it about naming those sensations that's so important?
Peter Levine: Well, of course, the most important thing, of course, is feeling the sensations, being in contact with the sensations. But naming them is also important, because that's a way that the child can reference them in the future. It's kind of like a flag attached to the sensation. "Okay, this sensation has a name. The next time I have this sensation, I have a name and when I have the name, I can also notice the sensation." You're shifting back and forth.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and that reminds me of how important it is for all of us really to have the experience of moving through - which is part of what contributes to resiliency - is knowing that the pendulum swings the other way.
Peter Levine: That's right. Yeah, I call that pendulation, because no matter what we're feeling ... What we tend to do when there's been a difficult sensation is we recoil from it. We try to push it away and by pushing it away, it actually makes it seem stronger. That which we resist persists. If you have a sensation that's coming up, imagine your hand moving upwards and your hand is in a fist, your arm moving upwards and you take the other hand and you put it over that hand that wants to move up. Well, then it's going to push harder against your upper hand and then your upper hand is going to push harder against it. It then seems like this is going to be overwhelming and we lose resilience.
Peter Levine: However, when we're able to experience the sensation and that it moves through, that it increases and it decreases, that it contracts and it expands. It contracts and expands and expands and expands. This is the expansion, which I talked about when I say goodness or wholeness. Again, I think it's very deeply related to resilience. I think we're talking about many, many, many of these different states and processes that increase a resilience.
Neil Sattin: When a child is able to get related to that inner sensation, and I think this is true for adults as well that when we're sitting with our partner and able to say, "Okay, like right now, I'm feeling this constriction in my chest and this heat in the palms of my hands. There's tension behind my eyes like I almost want to cry." When you can get really related to that sensation, then you can-
Peter Levine: I'm sorry, to which sensation? The sensation of?
Neil Sattin: To all of those, I guess, like those things that are happening in your body. Like one, just like you were saying earlier, when you feel those states again, it can remind you like, "Oh, I've been here before," and “I know what's going on” so there's that. But then, there's also ... And you talk about this in terms of pendulation, if you can get acquainted with the sensations of goodness and what that feels like in your body as well.
Peter Levine: That's right.
Neil Sattin: Then that really connects you with that full range of experience and how you move from one to the other.
Peter Levine: When you experience goodness, it stays with you and it really helps you get that whatever you're feeling, whatever the sensations are, they will change. But the bigger reservoir of goodness we have, the more resilient. A study was done, oh, gosh, I don't remember by whom or when. I think Bessel told me about it, Bessel van der Kolk, that if a person, a child has had tremendous trauma in their lives, neglect and abuse, that child will actually fare okay - in other words, you'll be able to work with that person - if one adult in their lives has cared about them and loved them unconditionally.
Peter Levine: In a way, that's amazing. Again, I think that's something that contributes to that reservoir of goodness and resilience that somebody really reflected our feelings and our states and imparted upon us that gift of being seen, of being known, of being cared for, of being loved. It's very important.
Peter Levine: Again, most people that you see have had, I believe, one encounter with that reservoir of goodness and so, sometimes actually with adults but possibly also with children, to remember together that person. When you remember that person, how does it sense in your body? How does it feel in your body when you see the picture of grandma and how she would, when you were sick, she would come and put her hand on your forehead and reassure you. These are valuable. These are lodestars that help us return to our own capacity for resilience and wholeness.
Neil Sattin: One thing that strikes me too is that that is why relationship can be so profoundly healing and allow people to reach new levels of their own thriving in life is if you're able to find that in partnership or your partner is willing to see you unconditionally and hold space for you and accept you in your vulnerable moments, then that allows your system to do what it needs to do to evolve past the things that-
Peter Levine: Right, right. Yeah. Well, unconditional love is not necessarily a given.
Neil Sattin: That's true.
Peter Levine: Hopefully, it's a given between a parent and a child. But I think that just being sufficiently centered and caring can catalyze healing. I don't think there's any question about that. I think it's really important that couples sort of work out a ritual of sorts where if one person needs something, that they can communicate that. And then the other person, their job is to try to be there for that person. And it should be relatively equal. Each person should have a relative number of things.
Peter Levine: Although, particularly, I'm thinking about couples where one of the spouses is coming back from Afghanistan or Iraq. They're very, very traumatized and it's very likely, and hopefully that their spouse, their partner is going to be able to be there for them in those difficult times. I can't tell you how healing that is. It's not easy because a lot of times, because of the fear, the spouse becomes like the enemy. It's almost like you're expecting them to throw a hand grenade at you. So, it's tricky.
Peter Levine: If people want, they can go to ... It's on YouTube, and it's called Ray's Story, Peter Levine's Somatic Experiencing, where I work with a young marine who was blown up by two of these IEDs and then lost ... I think his best friend died in his arms just before that, and how we worked with the shock of that. And then, how we worked together with he and his wife and their new child. And at that time, it was really helping her develop the skills to be with him and to not pursue him when he really needed to withdraw.
Peter Levine: I think it's a short documentary. It's about 20 minutes. I recommend looking at it because it really talks a lot about this. Because when you're highly traumatized, your resilience is very, very low and vice versa when your resilience is higher, the trauma has less of a corrosive effect. But then again, I think it's also important that there'd be some kind of equality that ... I guess I'm saying that one person doesn't become the therapist for the other person, that there's reciprocity - which you have to have in a relationship, of course.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I have some faith in the pendulation in relationship as well where that reciprocity may not have to all be at the same time, that most likely if one partner is having their moment where they really need to be attended to, the other partner will have their moment at some point down the road.
Peter Levine: Yes. You can pretty well be assured of that.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And even when people aren't coming back from war zones, and I think the fact that your work is so helpful for people who are suffering such severe trauma, that's like a testament to just how powerful your work is. And at the same time, when you're hijacked and kind of triggered by your emotions and whatever is happening with your partner, you're going to feel like your partner is out to get you. I think that one of the biggest things for partners to realize is to establish like, "Oh, I'm actually safe with you," like, "You're not out to get me or get something from me." Sometimes, there are some reckoning that has to happen for that to actually be true-
Peter Levine: Indeed.
Neil Sattin: For people to renegotiate how they even come together in partnership.
Peter Levine: Absolutely. Again, the idea of making a ritual out of it and because of pendulation, no matter what we're feeling, it may transiently ... It may temporarily feel worse but if you're able to stay with it and maintain an observing presence, it will shift. And often, this observing presence is fostered by the support that we get from our partners.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Can we talk for a moment about what that looks like? Because I think there's a danger in being the witness whether it's with your partner or with your kids of maybe intervening too soon. What does that process actually look like where something stuck gets resolved?
Peter Levine: Well, let's just say it's a heterosexual couple. The husband comes in and he's had a difficult day at work. It's not a trauma per se, but he failed to get a promotion. The person got the promotion who he felt didn't deserve it, and he's really angry. And he comes home, and there were toys gathered all over the floor, no different than any other day when he would be returning home. He's angry, and he yells at the kids, "Dammit, pick these toys up! You always leave toys in the middle of the room," something like that.
Peter Levine: Let's say the spouse is able to maintain her center and then she can approach her husband and say, "Yeah, it seems like something is upsetting you. And I'd like to just offer myself of just being here so that you can feel what you're feeling." But again, this has to be a pre-agreed upon ritual that you give the permission. You empower the other person to do this for you. Again, because when you're angry, sometimes the tendency is to snap at the partner, not just the kids but the partner.
Peter Levine: Again, we have to find a way that we have some rules and regulations built into it.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. I like a code word sometimes in a time like that.
Peter Levine: Sure. "Okay” or “leave me alone right now."
Neil Sattin: Right. I was thinking more like something even kind of like one partner comes in and says, "This is a ..." I'm just going to make something up here. "This is a Oriole moment," or "This is a Blue Jay moment," or, "We're in code Cardinal for Red"
Peter Levine: Oh, I see. I didn't know what an Oriole moment is back then.
Neil Sattin: Right, just a way like some pre-arranged designation so that the partner doesn't have to say, "Wow, you seemed really triggered right now."
Peter Levine: Oh, got it. Got it. Okay, good idea.
Neil Sattin: If I can say, "Code Cardinal," then the other partner, "I would love to hold space for you right now. I would love to just hear what's going on with you." Then - takes a little bit of the edge of.
Peter Levine: Right. "Can I just be there with you?"
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Peter Levine: No, code word is a good idea because each person probably knows what word is most likely to work for them and not be reactive to it.
Neil Sattin: Good point.
Peter Levine: Yeah. I think that's an idea. I think that's a great idea. I know some couples, when the other couple is really like anxious and getting ready to, in their perception to snap at them, I had couples that just say, "Eggshells." That's it, and often, they laugh together but not always. You're concerned. You're noticing that you are walking on eggshells. Maybe that's useful.
Peter Levine: But anyhow, let the person pick their own. That's the one that's more likely to work and nothing is going to work all the time. That's another given. There are times when it won't work and you don't want to be discouraged by that. That's just the nature of-
Neil Sattin: Resilience.
Peter Levine: Resilience, of building resilience. It doesn't happen all at once. It doesn't always seem to happen “increase, increase, increase” because sometimes, you're feeling more resilient and then, something happens and it feels like you're less resilient. But the overall movement is towards greater resilience. Again, I think that's just part of how we are built. That's part of our evolutionary advantage, is to have this kind of resilience.
Neil Sattin: Right. And yet so often, it doesn't happen. People do get stuck in trauma or couples get stuck in a pattern of how they interact with each other. I'm curious getting back to our example of the husband who comes home, the partner says, "Could I hold some space for you?" What's likely to happen next?
Peter Levine: Well, let's say a favorable outcome what I've seen many times. Again, let's just say it's heterosexual couple. The husband is coming home and he's obviously activated. Just by being there and being present and saying, "I'm here," saying it verbally and non-verbally, "I am here. I am here for you." Often, the tears will just start flowing from the spouse's eyes, from the husband's eyes, tears of relief and tears of gratitude. And that's another part that's really important in resilience, is not the belief in gratitude but the inner experience of gratefulness, of gratitude.
Peter Levine: Again, that's something that we can cultivate together because it's really what we want. We don't want to be angry and withdraw and isolate ourselves and become more angry. We want to be able to move through it. If people are in a relationship, they're committed to a passionate relationship. If you are committed to that, then you have to be able to work with these difficult emotions. Otherwise, there won't be the passion. The passion will die as these emotions get more and more suppressed.
Peter Levine: I think if people are committed to a passionate relationship, then they also are committed to being there for each other with these difficult emotions.
Neil Sattin: Tears are normal to experience?
Peter Levine: Tears, even sometimes, you'll see shaking and trembling and spontaneous breaths. Sometimes, there'll be even, of course, sobbing. When they're sobbing or even when there's just the tears, very often if the spouse or the partner says, "Can I hold you?" Or, "I'd like to hold you." And they give some kind of a non-verbal cue that it's okay, just holding the person when they're in that emotional pain. God, how liberating that can be to be literally held?
Neil Sattin: Right. And this really challenging because sometimes when your partner is in pain, it's hard to know, like to know what am I supposed to do in this moment. Being willing to make an offer like that. How would I know if I'm holding space for my partner and they're crying and shaking, like how do I know if everything is okay versus like things are not okay?
Peter Levine: Again, no matter what the emotion is, if you're helping to hold the space including holding the person, and I'll put in the question like, or statement like this, "I'd like to hold you. Just nod if that's okay." So, they don't have to think because they will, "Is it okay if I could hold you now?" Well, then the person has to start thinking about it, which takes them out of the feeling. But if you're able to do something like that I just described, "I really would like to hold you. If that's okay, just nod or just look at me for a moment."
Peter Levine: Then, to be held ... Because almost all of us who have been traumatized have not been held in those critical times when we should have been held - but it's never too late to have a resilient childhood. It's never too late to have a happy child because the child not only lives within us but that child's ability to rebound, to be resilient also lives within us.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and I'm wondering, what does it look like? Like how do these things ... How would it typically resolve? Because I think one thing that a lot of us can feel a lot of fear going into tears and I want to offer this because if you're listening to the show, and maybe you're thinking like, "Oh, God, I got some tears to shed," or like I want you to have a sense of, that there is another side like what does it look through when you get through the tears? What does it look through like if you feel yourself starting to shake? What's on the other side of the that and how do you know when you're getting there?
Peter Levine: Yeah. Again, almost any sensation where the person … It's in a safe enough situation and the person is able to stand back enough to observe them. I can barely ever think of a sensation that didn't become more good, more glad, more whole. It's just our nature, and it's a skill. You have to practice. It doesn't happen all at once, so a couple shouldn't feel frustrated if it doesn't work at once. And if the spouse that's in the distress barks at you, just to feel your own body, of course, and remind yourself that you're not the target, that they're angry at somebody else.
Peter Levine: And then again, sometimes, the partner will say something like, "Maybe it seems like you just want to be alone right now, and if you need me, I'm here. And so, let's just talk a little bit later," because again, a lot of times and again, I know this is like stereotypic but it's also true. A lot of times, the men don't want to deal with it then. We need some more time just to be with ourselves and then we can reach out for support and help. It would be great if it didn't happen that way, that we're always open to support but we're not. We're not. We need also to acknowledge and respect that.
Neil Sattin: Right.
Peter Levine: Again, to know because if you have ... As your relationship grows and as trust continues, those skills really build. And I've seen clients, where they're just really angry at each other at one moment and then boom. They're in love with each other again, and again, and again. It does take practice. It does take appreciating that nothing is going to happen perfectly. Nothing is going to happen all at once. That it's a gradual process of deepening as relationships are about deepening the connection and deepening our skill to be with ourselves and to be with the other.
Neil Sattin: In the How to Trauma-Proof Your Kids book, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids, you talk about offering children the opportunity to tell the story of what happened.
Peter Levine: Well, that's usually after you've gone through first the bodily reactions.
Neil Sattin: Yes.
Peter Levine: The crying, the shaking, the trembling, the spontaneous breaths, and leaving time for that to settle. And then, I know a number of parent who told me and say that happens like just before dinner. Well, then they'll have the family dinner together and then afterwards to sit by the child and say, "Wow, you know, when you fell off your bicycle, that really scared me. God, I bet it really scared you. Do you remember? Do you remember what it was like to fall off?" And then the child, if they want, can then start talking about the content of how scary it was, about how they couldn't get their breath, but then they could get their breath when they were crying just then.
Peter Levine: Yeah, it's fine to talk about it but again to at least separate it in time with moving through the shock part of it and moving towards a more beneficial sensations, more supportive sensations.
Neil Sattin: Right. You've moved from shock. Maybe even numbness into really tuning into the bodily sensation and the things that are uncomfortable in a moment-
Peter Levine: That's right.
Neil Sattin: And by being there, it initiates the process. I think this is what you're talking about that by attending to that sensation, there's a natural mechanism at work that invites it to evolve to a place of release, which is going to feel good in the end.
Peter Levine: Yeah. We will always, always open, almost always open to release given an adequate amount of support.
Neil Sattin: Right. What I loved too is you talked about the importance of time in between questions, so when you're asking like what are you sensing or what comes next to just leave space there.
Peter Levine: Yes, that's right. Adults tend to be linear time, this, then that, then that, then this, then that, then this, then that, like a long straight trajectory. Kids don't do that. They're much more with what the so-called aboriginal people called circular time. And children are like that. They get up in the morning. They have their breakfast. They go to school. They come back. They have milk and cookies, milk and Oreos. They go out and play. The parents call them for dinner. They come and they eat. They play. They go to sleep. They wake up. They get dressed. They have breakfast. They go off to school. It's a very different relationship of time. It's a much more right brain way of relating to time.
Peter Levine: Yes, adults will often tend to rush things when you need pauses, and the children will give you clues about that. One of the case examples I give or the examples I give in Trauma-Proofing your Kids is a play where with Sammy who had a fall, cracked his ... had to go to the emergency room for stitches and so forth. And then, we were playing the game of rescuing Pooh bear. Pooh bear was in the hospital. Each time, he would give us very clear signals of what he needed then, and our children give us these cues if we're paying attention. And in order to pay attention, we have to be able to be relatively comfortable within ourselves. Again, this is something that the parents can practice with each other, and it just spreads to the child, and it spreads to the child's playmates, and it spreads to the whole village as it were.
Neil Sattin: Peter, you've been so generous with your time and your wisdom as before. I have one more question for you, if you don't mind that, that just sprang in with what you just said, which is ... For one thing, I'm impressed by your faith in our ability to heal, to get to a place of goodness and wholeness. And what you said about the children, that they can communicate to us exactly what they need if we're willing to pay attention and offer space. And I'm thinking as an adult, how do we recognize the signs within ourselves of what we need in a given moment?
Peter Levine: Well, that takes practice because again, when we're in a scary or a vulnerable moment, our early pattern may be to withdraw. But again, we can unlearn that and learn new ones. When you talk about faith, well, I guess I could kind of relate to that. I could relate to that, but it's also 45 years of experience in seeing this happen thousands of times.
Neil Sattin: Yes.
Peter Levine: I guess I know it because of experience. I guess if you want to call that faith, okay, we have to call it faith, but it's just ... The human being never ceases to amaze me. I think we're all like this meadow of different colored flowers, and there were all moving from our roots to our stems, to the flower, to the bud, to the flower and opening and opening and opening. And I think opening is basic human need, a basic human drive.
Peter Levine: I think Anais Nin said something like this, "When the pain of tightening into a bud becomes more than the pain of opening as a flower, then we will open." And there's some truth to that, of course, but I don't think it's just pain that brings us towards opening. I think it's just this innate capacity, the desire to open, to be fully alive, to be able to say, "I'm alive, I'm here, I'm real. I'm here, I'm alive and I'm real. I'm alive and I'm here." That's what everyone wants.
Peter Levine: Again, faith, it's observation. I was trained as a scientist and a lot of that is about observation. Yogi Berra said it this way, "You can observe a lot just by watching." And I would say that. Again, in the book, we give a number of different exercises for the parents to help them get more in contact with their inner sensations and their own resilience.
Neil Sattin: And I would like also, following on your metaphor, I would love for this conversation to plant the seed, that pain isn't required to get you to this place of blossoming. That knowing that it's possible to blossom will hopefully help you invite your partner, invite your children, invite yourself into that experience.
Peter Levine: Exactamente as they say in Brazil. Exactly.
Neil Sattin: Well, Peter, thank you so much for being with us today. Your books, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids, Trauma and Memory, Healing Trauma, Waking the Tiger, so many classics that are just completely inspiring, both in the level of recognizing what's possible but also understanding what is happening within us and in the world around us. It's such an honor to be able to talk to you and to share your work with the world.
Neil Sattin: As a reminder, if you want the show guide and transcript for today's episode, you can visit neilsattin.com/levine, as in Peter Levine. You can also text the word passion to the number 33444 and follow the instructions. And we will have links as well to Peter's work, to his books. Peter, what do you think is the best way for people to find out more about what you're doing in the world? Is there a particular website you'd like them to visit?
Peter Levine: Yeah. There's the website of my training institute. It's www.traumahealing.org. And there are lists of therapists and you can find that, for example, therapists that specialize with children or with relationships. And then I have a website with different information of where I might be giving a public lecture or something like that or some videos that are available. That's www.somaticexperiencing.com, or dot org, I think.
Peter Levine: Yeah, you can get material there. And apparently, although, I've never seen them, people tell me there are a number of interviews or lectures that are available on YouTube. So, I guess if you just YouTube my Peter A. Levine, it will come up with a bunch of stuff.
Neil Sattin: Great. I think-
Peter Levine: And it's delightful to talk with you again, Neil, really. I so much appreciate what you're doing because really we are designed to be in relationship, and to keep our relationships alive. That's the real task. It sure is for me. Okay.
Neil Sattin: Thank you, and your work has been so helpful in my life. And I know the thousands upon thousands of listeners who listened to our first conversation together. So, really exciting to talk to you. Thanks, Peter.
What makes the difference between a mediocre relationship and an amazing one? Your principles. They help you navigate the tough times, and help you excel in the easy times. In this series, Chloe Urban and Neil Sattin discuss these core principles so that you can incorporate them into your own relationship. In this first episode of the series, Chloe and Neil talk about how to move away from the script of what you're "supposed to do" so that you can find the energy of what is actually happening in your relationship. They also discuss the first principle, which gives you a recipe for how to support your partner in a way that doesn't invite codependence.
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When you’re in a “Yes” brain state, everything seems possible - you’re courageous, resilient, and creative. When you’re in a “No” brain state it’s nearly impossible to learn, grow, or interact in a positive way with others. This yes/no brain state impacts everything you do - how you meet the world, and, if you have children, how you show up as a parent. So how do you cultivate a “Yes” brain state in yourself? How do you teach the children in your life to recognize the signs of being in a “No” brain state - and, even better, show them how to shift back into a “Yes” brain? Today we’re talking with Dr. Dan Siegel, founder of interpersonal neurobiology and co-author (along with Tina Payne Bryson) of the new book “The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child.” His strategies for understanding your own reactivity will transform your relationships and your parenting. You can also help the children in your life understand their own emotional world, and show them how to come back online after big emotions get the best of them.
Here is a link to episode 57 with Dan Siegel: Mastering Mindfulness in Your Relationship
Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host Neil Sattin. How do you show up when there are kids involved? In other words, how do you bring what we know today about attachment and the best way to parent children into the context of your relationship so that whether it's your own children or you're entering a relationship where children already exist, you know the best way to show up to help kids interact with you in ways that are positive and to help them have successful outcomes? In other words, have lives where they feel happy and fulfilled and like they really know themselves well. These are the questions that we're going to cover in today's episode and we're going to talk about it in a way that not only gets at the heart of how we parent, but also how we ourselves show up to the equation. So we're not acting on our children or with our children mechanistically or like behaviorists trying to get them to do the right thing and jump through the right hoop. We're bringing to bear everything we know about our own emotional makeup and how we interact with the world to help our kids also have positive, alive interactions with the world, 'cause that's what we're all about on this show.
Neil Sattin: In order to have this conversation, we're going to be talking with Dan Siegel, who is returning to the show after his last episode, which was all about mindsight. Today, we're going to talk about his latest book which is just coming out, co-written with Tina Payne Bryson, called "The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity and Resilience in Your Child." And I have to laugh at that a little bit only because I feel like on this show we're often talking about how to cultivate courage, curiosity and resilience in each other and in ourselves in our relationships. So who better to have on this show than Dan Siegel, the father of interpersonal neurobiology, which is at the cutting edge of the science of how we relate and how the way that we relate affects our brains, our biochemistry and our ability to be healthy and alive and effective in the world and not crippled by anxiety or depression or disconnection. So Dan Siegel, thank you so much for joining us again today on Relationship Alive.
Dan Siegel: Neil, it's an honor to be here with you.
Neil Sattin: Great, great. I think a great place to start is at the end. And I like to start there only because sometimes it helps provide a really nice context for the overall conversation. And by the end, I'm thinking about the end of your book where you start talking about what is it that we're really after in children? How do we measure success and I'm wondering if you can talk for a moment about the kind of culture clash that's happening in terms of how we encourage this kind of external success and sometimes we're missing out on the internal success that The Yes Brain is all about.
Dan Siegel: Well Neil, you've picked up on, I think, one of the central issues that Tina Bryson and I really wanted to address in The Yes Brain book and in our work as teachers and clinicians and in our life as parents and partners with our spouses, this idea of thinking deeply about what success is for ourselves and for our kids, is at the heart of a strategy for how you parent because if you're just going along with what in modern society you hear is a measure of success like what your numbers achievement is, like what kind of elite college you get into, or your bank account alone or the number of cars you have, or these things that you can measure in numerical ways that give us a feeling like, "I could always do more. I don't have enough fans on my social media page. I didn't get enough hits when I put out that photograph." You can always feel like there's someone who's doing better than you. We even have a set of circuits in the brain that are ready to give us a comparative stance toward other people and if success is measured by these very common, contemporary culture ways of saying, "Yes, I achieved this bank account and yes, I have this kind of car and yes, these are the number of things I have." Then it's a treadmill that continually leads to a feeling of inadequacy and I gotta do more and more and more and more.
Dan Siegel: In contrast to that kind of treadmill that goes nowhere but that most of us get on, even as parents thinking about what we want for our kids, in contrast to that, think about the idea that someone could develop an internal compass that gave them a feeling of incredible gratitude for being alive, for the privilege of having this journey that we call a lifetime for the honor of connecting with other people. For the excitement of having curiosity for what the world and life is all about, for the way we can have this courage to actually try new things beyond what we're just given. And when life doesn't go the way we may have expected it to go, we have the resilience to bounce back. So that resilience and creativity and courage come from an internal compass, that you can help construct in a child as you parent them in a certain strategy that we call a 'Yes Brain' strategy.
Dan Siegel: So in The Yes Brain book, what we've done is give a way to parent with discipline, with structure, so sometimes people hear the word Yes Brain and they'd go, "Oh, permissive parenting." And that's not at all what we mean. What we mean is that you as a parent have the opportunity to understand that the brain can get into a No Brain state. And that's where you're feeling threatened, where you feel inadequate, where you activate these survival reactions of fight, flight, freeze and faint, the four Fs, that come along with the reactive No Brain state. And in that No Brain state that comes when you say, "No" harshly several times, is the thing I do in workshops. That shuts down learning and shuts down your access even to connecting not just with other people but even to your own internal compass.
Dan Siegel: And in contrast, that you can cultivate a Yes Brain state which is where a person feels open to new experience. Aware that life is about challenges and disciplined effort, and that sometimes what you accomplish with your effort isn't what you expected, and we call that a disappointment, some people call that an un-success or a failure. But instead of collapsing with that experience, you rise up and say, "Wow, here's an opportunity for more learning, for me to try again, for me to learn new skills." And then when you do that, there's where you get the courage and resilience, and really the ability to say, "Let me try things in new ways," which is what creativity is.
Dan Siegel: So when we use those phrases, you know, creativity and courage and resilience, we don't use them lightly. We're literally defining them very carefully, talking about what's the brain state that enables them, and then giving parents strategies for basically creating a Yes Brain state, which develops the trait of courage, the trait of creativity, the trait of resilience, and that's what the whole approach is about.
Neil Sattin: Now, are parents going to be able to create, or cultivate, a Yes Brain state for their kids without getting to know a Yes Brain state for themselves?
Dan Siegel: Well, the first step is exactly like you're saying, Neil. It's about having the insight to feel inside yourself when you're reactive, that's the No Brain state versus when you're receptive, that's the Yes Brain state. And so the first step is to know yourself. And in a book I wrote, Parenting from the Inside Out, with Mary Hartzell, that book was all about the research finding that parents who do have self awareness, and especially awareness of how their own past shaped their present experience of being alive and their present experience of parenting. Those parents are actually the ones most likely to have a relationship with their child that cultivates security. Secure attachment is the best predictor of what we can do as parents to help our children have resilience, basically.
Dan Siegel: So, when you look at that research, it shows that yeah, exactly like you're saying, "Self awareness is the starting place." And then once you have that self awareness, then you say, "Okay, well, that's my inner reflective skills, now what do I do with my parenting actions?" And that's where you get onto the Yes Brain approach where we say, "Okay, your goal as a parent is, he has to know what a Yes Brain feels like and a No Brain feels like, so that you learn from the inside out." How... If you are doing things with your child that are repeatedly creating a sense of threat, or your child is coming home from school and feeling that threat state. Not from anything you did but from what happens with their peers, or teachers, or being on the internet. There are all sorts of things that create a No Brain state. Whatever it is, your sensing it in yourself is the starting place so you can then sense it in your child.
Dan Siegel: And then when you sense that fighting, fleeing, freezing or fainting, No Brain set of re-activities, then you can teach them how to move from a No Brain state to a Yes Brain state. So instead of being shut down in either rigidity or chaos, you actually allow them to transition into a Yes Brain state. And we teach these very practical steps on how to do that, so now your child is in a receptive Yes Brain state where learning happens, openness to new things happens, connecting with others happens, and even developing this internal compass which is basically a feeling in your gut and a feeling in your heart that gives you this literally felt experience that directs you even beyond words in your mind or beyond the thoughts you might have. It's kind of an internal compass, is what I call it, that is directing you to the true north of things that matter to you and things that are important in your relationships with others.
Neil Sattin: So perhaps a great place to dive in would be to talk about the different characteristics of The Yes Brain and how we actually can... Some actual strategies as parents for helping children understand these concepts and then to put them into practice. And I really think this is great because so much of the work that we're doing here in relationship has been about helping people recognize when they are triggered. And we had Steve Porges back on the show in episode... What was it? 34, to talk about Polyvagal Theory and basically what's happening in our brains. But what I love about your book is that it makes it really practical to see not only how it happens in a child, but also ways to talk about it that get you some place else so you're not feeling trapped by your biology. So maybe we should start with balance. That's the first concept that you talk about. And so how do you convey what balance means?
Dan Siegel: Right. Well, the first thing to say in terms of people who love acronyms is I'm kind of an acronym nut, so the whole book is an acronym of... Especially if you like cheese, it'll be easy to remember, it's Brie cheese. So the first of B-R-I-E, I don't know if you noticed that Neil, but is balance. And here the idea is just to start with I think that beautiful way you introduced this segment of our conversation is the sense of awareness we have of our internal state. In our interpersonal neurobiology series, Steve Porges has two books in our series, one is the Polyvagal Theory, the other is the Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory, both beautiful books. And the idea is that you have a physiological state, which we can describe in a moment. And the key to making this practical in a parent's life is for you as a parent, or 'cause you were just talking about a relationship with... Close relationships, with you as a partner to become aware of what that internal state is.
Dan Siegel: And a state basically means a pattern of energy and information flow that's happening. And we can talk about an inner state; so the internal milieu of your whole bodily system, including what happens in your head. So when we talk about the brain, it's really the embodied brain. It's never just the head alone. Even though we're all excited about the brain, 'cause we can now look beneath the skull. But it's really the embodied brain. But you even have a relational state, you can call that an interstate, but you'll probably think it's a highway going between Tennessee and another state. So these inner states and interstates are patterns of energy and information flow. So for example, in the relational world, I work with two wonderful researchers at MIT, Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge, and we're studying something that we call generative social fields.
Dan Siegel: And in this work, what we're trying to do is identify relational fields - that is social connections, relationships, that we call a social field - that have a generative quality to them. That is, they promote curiosity, they promote creativity, they promote compassion, anything with a C. It's good stuff. I think they're what are called integrative fields. Integrative means you honor differences and promote linkages. That's my take on it, for the work Peter, Otto and I are doing. And if you look at it that way, you say, "Well, what is it really comprised of?" And from an interpersonal neurobiology point of view, the field I work in, energy and information flow is something that happens between us as well as within us. So you can look at a field, which is energy and information flow patterns, flow is change, information is a pattern of energy with symbolic value.
Dan Siegel: Energy is this process that has CLIFF variables, another acronym that's contours, locations, intensities, frequencies and forms. And other aspects to it too, that you can look at how literally energy is being shared within a relationship. And then within us, we also have these energy and information of flow states. And these are the inner states, that Steve beautifully described in The Polyvagal Theory, that could activate the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve or the ventral branch. And you can also look at how not just the parasympathetic but the sympathetic system is involved, and to say it very... In an outline kind of way, when we're threatened, a system that Steve calls neuroception, that is constantly looking for, "Am I safe? Am I not safe? Am I safe? Am I not safe?" The neuroceptive monitoring process ascertains even without consciousness, "Right now, I am not safe. I am being threatened." And when it does that, it can go down one of two major pathways. One is an activating pathway that turns on the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. That's a branch that comes down from the head brain into the body.
Neil Sattin: And that's fight, flight, right?
Dan Siegel: That's fight, flight, freeze even. The freeze part is tightening up your muscles to figure out, "Should I fight or should I flee?" [chuckle] So it's like giving yourself temporary paralysis. It's a very activating system. I know in the past, everyone called that the third part of the system. But actually what Steve, and Pat Ogden and I did in a book I wrote called The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology - we wanted make it clear for people that there's actually four Fs. That you have an activating freeze, which is sympathetic, but then that is like the accelerator, but the fourth F is fainting or feigning death, which is when you activate the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve, you shut down heart rate, you shut down blood pressure, and literally, if it's extreme enough, you faint. And there's all sorts of benefits to collapsing, because basically, carnivores don't eat dead meat. So that if they think you're dead, and you fainted, they'll throw you around but they won't eat you, and you'll survive. The other is the telephone booth phenomenon, whereas we don't have telephone booths for the most part anymore because if people heard of bad news on a telephone call, and you fainted but stayed sitting up, then it would be terrible for you. So, that's not good. So you want to, if you're not getting blood flow going to you and you're fainting, you want to be flat.
Neil Sattin: Oh, so if you're in a phone booth, keep the door open before... [chuckle]
Dan Siegel: Keep the door open for sure [chuckle] absolutely. So anyway, those are just funny little stories, but the bottom line is you have this parasympathetic, dorsal branch of the vagus nerve that shuts you down, collapses in the faint... A faint situation when you feel totally helpless, that's one response to threat. And the other three are activating, freezing up; thought, fleeing or fighting. So the bottom line, any of those three are all threat reactions either shutting down or activating you to temporarily paralyze yourself, or run or fight. And these states are not open to new learning. So, when you move from those reactive states of a threat, which you can induce in a workshop, let's say by saying no, or if you're a parent and you're constantly screaming no at your kid, you're always creating a No Brain state. So a Yes Brain state is when your neuroceptive system, that's Porges' term, is assessing, "Okay, I'm no longer threatened." And then turns on Steve's beautiful phrase of a social engagement system that then relaxes your muscles instead of getting ready for fight or getting ready to run or tighten you up or collapsing you.
Dan Siegel: You actually improve the way you're relaxing into what's going on. You're more receptive to what's happening. The bandwidth of sound that you can take in is much broader. You're open to engaging, not just with others but even with yourself, and you're ready to take risks and try out new things. And that's what learning depends on, and creativity depends on, and curiosity is nourished by this Yes Brain state. The Yes Brain state is the receptive, open, connecting state that we want to relate to our children and how we want to relate to our partners. And it's where optimal learning takes place. So as a parent, when you learn to feel the difference in yourself and in your partner and in your child of a Yes Brain versus a No Brain state, you learn to create that balance of a Yes Brain state. That's the balancing part. And the resilience of the BRIE acronym is you learn that when you're in a No Brain reactive state of either chaos or rigidity that tend to come with those states, you learn to help a person move from those reactive states of no, the No Brain, to the receptive state of a Yes Brain. And that's what resilience is - how you come back into this optimal receptive Yes Brain state.
Neil Sattin: So in an ideal world with our kids, one, how are we opening them up to this awareness of what's happening within them? And two, what is our task, when... 'Cause how many times have you witnessed or maybe experienced this yourself, where your child is going offline, [chuckle] they're getting really frustrated or whatever it is, and the impulse is to want to intervene right there and say, "You know, you shouldn't do that or you shouldn't hit your sister or whatever it is"? And what you've just explained is exactly why children aren't going to be receptive to anything that's trying to explain to them why they should or shouldn't be doing whatever it is they're doing in that moment. So how do we invite our children into this knowledge, and how do we show up as parents when we start to sense that our children's neuroception is telling them that they're not safe for whatever reason?
Dan Siegel: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Let's start with the first part of your question, which is just so clear and so elegant. The idea is as a parent to remember that there is no such thing as perfect parenting. There just isn't. And why in all my parenting books, I always put the ways I've goofed up as a parent and my kids are always dismayed.
Dan Siegel: In their terms, why am I sharing what a jerk I can be, [chuckle] 'cause I tell them, I want people to know, that no one does perfect parenting. Even if you're writing books on it, have your degrees in this area, you're board certified, blah, blah, blah. It doesn't matter. There's no such thing as perfect parenting. So we need to support each other on the journey, because when you've made a rupture to the direction you're trying to take, it's really important to make a repair. So that's the place to start. And you say, "Well, what's this whole rupture repair thing all about?" And so you start with this idea of a No Brain state. So, as you're saying Neil, if your child or an... You could translate everything we're saying, by the way, for a close friendship or a romance or anything. We're talking about the teaching part about it. That maybe a little different in parenting. But connecting it's the same fundamental issue. So when your child enters a No Brain state, fighting, fleeing, freezing, collapsing - they tend to go towards these rigid or chaotic states that can induce in you - as the parent - a similar state as you're present for them and attuned to them. That attunement is focusing on their internal world, you can begin to then resonate with that.
Dan Siegel: Now, if you've not taken the time to become more skillful at being self aware- and what self aware means is nothing fancy - it means, what's your body's state right now? Are you reactive - in a No Brain state? Or are you receptive in a Yes Brain state? That's the first question. And if you're in a No Brain state, there's no good parenting that can happen when you're in a No Brain state. So you need to use your own balance and resilience and get yourself back into a Yes Brain state no matter what your child's doing. Now that's a skill you can develop, and we teach you how to develop that in the book, which I can talk about in a moment. But in terms of directly connecting with your kid, you need to make sure you yourself are in a Yes Brain state first. Now, they keep on screaming or yelling or whatever they're doing in their reactive No Brain state, you need to realize that's going to start inducing frustration in you. If you're in public, it may induce a feeling of shame. You may start getting angry and frustrated, both with your kid and with yourself. And in that social situation, if it's public, you can start losing your temper, even though you don't want to. And even in private, you can feel like, "Wow. I'm at my wit's end. I can't do this anymore."
Dan Siegel: When you get to those kinds of places of No Brain reactivity in yourself, you need to take a break. And depending on the age of your kid, if your kid is not hurting herself, and can be left alone, you need to go for a walk, take a stretch, get a drink of water. You need to get yourself back into a Yes Brain state. So that's the first thing to say. A lot of our meltdowns in parenting, a lot of the ruptures that happen are when we ourselves are in a No Brain state, and we try to parent in that state. It is not possible. And what people tend to do is, they justify their behaviors, hitting their kids, squeezing their arm, cursing at them, demeaning them. And they say, my kid deserved it. And you see, and I've seen this even in my friends, this kind of rationalization, that what they've done in that No Brain state, which in that state felt right, and then they remember that they did it. They then, when they're out of that state, justify it. And it is the saddest thing, because it actually is not very helpful to their kid. And it's actually creating this prison for themselves as they continue to rationalize that what they've been doing and this pseudo-strategy for parenting that's coming from this reactivity is okay. They think somehow it's a sign of strength.
Neil Sattin: Can I ask you a quick question about that actually?
Dan Siegel: Yeah. Yeah.
Neil Sattin: Because I think, I hear from some parents this notion that "I can't let my child see that I'm uncertain". Or "I'm supposed to be providing safety for my child, so that's going to be setting harsh limits. And even if they're freaking out, it's like me being really clear and direct with them". And what I'm hearing from you suggests that maybe that's not entirely true. That there is a way to maintain a child's sense of safety and at the same time be a fallible human as well.
Dan Siegel: Well, let me ask you something and let me ask your listeners who have asked you those very important questions. When your child gets to be an adolescent and has learned from your role modeling, do you want them to be the kind of adolescent who does something at a party, and then says, "Well, for me to look like a strong friend to my friends, I've gotta say that what I did was absolutely right, even if what I did was actually wrong, and I can learn from it?"
Neil Sattin: Right. I'm guessing the answer is, no, I would want them to have an internal moral compass that helps them do what they really, truly think is right in a moment and not be ruled in that way by the need to not stand out or to... Yeah. Or just to be in a reactive place when they are making choices or not really even making choices.
Dan Siegel: So exactly. An internal moral compass, an internal compass is what you can role model for your child. So if, as happens to all of us, you get reactive and are reacting from a No Brain state rather than responding from a Yes Brain state. I'm emphasizing the term 'Reactivity' versus 'Responsivity.' When you're receptive in the Yes Brain state, you're able to respond in a flexible way. When you're reacting in a No Brain state, it's coming like a knee-jerk reflex. So we all can get into those No Brain states. If all your child is learning is that sometimes you're acting like a complete jerk and making no sense and then standing up for what you did in that jerk state you were in, then all they're learning is that you're kinda out of your mind.
Dan Siegel: Seriously. And they can't make sense of it. I'm serious about that. And in contrast, if you say, "Hey, what I did 10 minutes ago, what I did yesterday, what I did two hours ago... " Whenever you got yourself back into a Yes Brain state. "I just want to tell you, I think what I did was a mistake. I was really frustrated and I was coming from a... " And now you have the language for this. "I was coming from this No Brain state of reactivity, and any human being can do it, it's the way the brain works. So it may not be my fault but it is my responsibility to reconnect with you and say, 'I think what I did was wrong. And I'm going to really try to learn it. Let's try to understand from that experience.'" Now in all of that stuff, I didn't say, "You made me act like that, you stupid kid."
Dan Siegel: 'Cause any parent can do that, and most parents do do that, and that's not helpful. You're the adult. So our kids are learning to be in life by pushing on boundaries. And so coming back to the main thread of this question you're asking, it's so beautiful, is what you can do is learn yourself what a No Brain versus Yes Brain state feels like. Sense that in your child, so that you're role modeling for them, that you're a human being too. And if you pretend like you're not, you're just creating this... Literally, a delusion - a belief that's not consistent with reality. So if you try to pretend like you're not a human, unless you are in fact a cyborg robot.
Dan Siegel: But if you are a human being then you are a human being, so to pretend like you're not one doesn't make any sense. So goofing up and making a mistake is human and then making a repair of that mistake is heartful humanity. And so, what you want to do is be that full human being. So now what you're doing is you're role-modeling for your child that you're aware of these two states. Now you can very directly, and we do this in The Yes Brain book. We teach you how to understand that in yourself, and understanding your child, and even to teach you how to speak to your child about this, 'cause every child should know about their brain. So you say, "Look, what happened five minutes ago is really hard. I think you were in a No Brain state. You were reactive like that, and I understand why 'cause I got reactive too. We were both really tired, we were really hungry, and we were both frustrated. It was raining, we wanted to go to the zoo. And now we were stuck in the car, and you didn't want to put on your seatbelt. And I got frustrated and yelled at you, and then you said, you definitely wouldn't do it, so I forced... " You know, all the stuff that happens in parenting.
Dan Siegel: So you can tell the story of the experience with the framework that you understand people's behavior in a No Brain state is quite different from a Yes Brain state. So what you're doing in that communication is you're saying to your child, "Behavior is shaped by the mind beneath the behavior; and the mind is shaped, in part, by the state of mind you're in, which is created by either a No Brain or Yes Brain state. So when you're feeling reactive and not open to what's going on, all sorts of things can be said that can be harmful to others or even to self. And so recognizing that that was the state driving it allows you to move from this No Brain state of reactivity and learn the skills of how to move to a Yes Brain state of being receptive." And listen, the fun thing about this, I gotta say, and it was really beautiful to have Carol Dweck write an endorsement for the book 'cause Carol Dweck has done beautiful work in the mindset of what she calls a fixed versus growth mindset.
Neil Sattin: Yes.
Dan Siegel: And in the fixed mindset it's like, "I am a fixed way and my behavior just shows it. Whether I succeed or not in a race or with friends at a party or with the way I perform on a test, that shows my innate talents that can't be changed." Whereas a growth mindset says, "Hey, I have these things I do." All those things I just described. "That come from my effort, and the skills I've learned, they come from disciplined ways of learning. So if I don't accomplish what I think I was going to accomplish in a race, or get the score I wanted to on a test, or have a successful outcome at a party where I didn't know many of the kids, I can use that as a disappointment for sure, okay, but then let that inspire me to learn the skills in a more disciplined way so I can try again." That's a growth mindset.
Dan Siegel: And what Carol Dweck beautifully wrote about was that these are skills, "The Yes Brain" approach are skills that parents can use. And they're also, by the way, the skills that are beneath "Grit" - Angela Duckworth's work - that allows you to see how a child can have this kind of perseverance in the face of challenge that requires a growth mindset that you can then see the strategies for building grit and a growth mindset.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so I'm wondering if we could just tackle something specific for a moment, because I'm imagining a situation that many parents have multiple times, which is being faced with their child in a state of frustration or disappointment. And you talk beautifully in "The Yes Brain" about this balance as a parent between being differentiated because you want your children to have their experience, but also staying linked to them and feeling with them. So that might be a great way. If you could illustrate, what would you do with a child who was feeling really disappointed about something? What's a way that you could approach that that would foster their own growth in developing some of this, I think that would be more like resiliency, which you talk about as expanding their ability to handle disappointments and stressful situations without going into the red zone of fight, flight, freeze?
Dan Siegel: Right, exactly, exactly. So if you take the four of those things, the BRIE components of balance, resilience, insight and empathy, let's do an example that illustrates all four...
Neil Sattin: Great.
Dan Siegel: With what you're inquiring about, about a frustrating experience. So let's take that example I gave you. You're going to the zoo and it starts to... You have pouring rain, so you can't go to the zoo. Your child, let's say seven, he was so excited about going to see the panda bears and now he can't, and it's really, really raining, so you've gotta have an alternative plan. And he is really angry, he won't put his seatbelt on the back seat, in his car-seat, and you're just frustrated beyond belief because you wanted to see the pandas too, and you're both hungry 'cause you were going to go have lunch in the zoo, or all these things. Okay.
Neil Sattin: Right, and now you're getting frustrated because your child is not putting their seatbelt on and not listening to you and not enabling you to move on to the next thing.
Dan Siegel: Exactly, exactly. And so you get out, you're getting wet, you're trying to reach over there and he's pushing on you 'cause he's in a fight mode, and you're trying to buckle that seat and then he hits you in the face. Whatever is going to happen, this can happen.
Neil Sattin: Right. Clearly, neither you nor I has ever experienced this before. [chuckle]
Dan Siegel: No, no, never. I'm talking about theoretical people. And so now he hits you in the face and so now you grab his arm, and now you're screaming, and he's crying and he's looking terrified of you because you look terrifying, and neither of you want to be doing this, but this is what's happening. [chuckle] This is Parenting 101. So it's really hard, it's the basics. Okay, so you take a break, you close the door so he doesn't get wet, you don't continue with what you're doing because you recognize you're really doing stuff that's not so good, and maybe you get the umbrella and go for the walk around the car, but you don't abandon him, maybe go sit in the front seat and say to him, "Joey, let's both take a couple minutes just to calm down, let's just focus on your breathing," and he's screaming, yelling, but you do not interact with him, but you're in the car. So you're not abandoning him, but you're getting yourself back into the Yes Brain state. We call it the green zone, green for go.
Dan Siegel: So once you're really in that green zone, you check in with yourself. How's my heart doing? How are my muscles doing? Is my jaw clenched? You look for, I call it SIFTing the mind. So the S is the sensations in your body we just went over, the I are any kind of images, so maybe you're seeing red and maybe you're really furious, and maybe you're thinking of images of how you've spoiled him because you take him to the zoo all the time or whatever. Feelings of frustration or anger. Thoughts. "God, I've done a terrible job. This is horrible," or, "This is what my father always did with me. I've made a big mistake in becoming my father." All these things. So you're SIFTing your mind.
Dan Siegel: And now, as you sift through this stuff, you're naming things so you can tame them, because what the studies show is that when you name an emotional state, you can actually regulate it. So this is the insight part of BRIE. And now you're going to do the E of BRIE, the empathy. You're going to say, "Well, of course he was frustrated." He entered a No Brain state 'cause he was hungry and tired; maybe he had a sleepover the night before at a friend's house or something. And you both didn't expect it to rain and he loves going to the zoo with you, so of course he's really disappointed. He's seven. He's not 47 like you are; he's seven.
Dan Siegel: Okay. So, now once you get yourself SIFTed through, you get back into the Yes Brain state. He's still kicking or whatever he's doing. So here's the move. You connect before you redirect, and what you're doing there is you're able to say to him, "I can understand why it would be so frustrating for you that we couldn't go to the zoo." And then you pause. Now, in that moment what you're doing is, instead of reacting to his reactivity by saying, "Stop yelling! Stop screaming! It's okay, blah, blah, blah," you're actually attuning to where he's at. I remember this with another acronym, PART. You're present for Joey, that's the P. You're attuning, this is the A, which means focusing attention on his inner world, not just his kicking legs and his screaming voice. You're attuning to his inner mental state. In this case, he's fighting back 'cause he's in the No Brain state. He's really mad and upset 'cause he's really disappointed, so he feels threatened because he didn't get to have his time with you, all these things. That's attuning.
Dan Siegel: Resonating is, you are being shaped by his internal state. Maybe initially it was too much and you've lost differentiation because you became him. Now you can resonate without over-identifying with him, and that's fine. You can feel that frustration. And the T of PART... So presence; attunement is focusing on the internal world; resonating is feeling, some of his feelings not becoming him. T is trust, and now trust is created, 'cause you say, "Joey, of course you were frustrated, of course it was so hard. I even understand why - it's not okay but - you hit me in the face, 'cause you were feeling so mad, because I didn't recognize how frustrated you were. I get that."
Dan Siegel: And then you just sit there. Now in that moment, what's happening to energy and information flow that's within you and within him, is you're becoming joined, because you're not judging his state, you're not trying to teach him a lesson, you're not trying to criticize him, you're just being with him. Instead of being alone, you two are now together. And if you look at the mathematics of that, basically two separate systems becoming joined, as differentiated and now linked, allow the whole system to do what's called "increased complexity." Basically it's becoming more integrated, and the thing that's really fantastic about that is it becomes more regulated.
Dan Siegel: So instead of being alone in his frustration and fear and fury, he's now joined with you, and in that joining things start to shift. And in that joining, he moves, little bit by little bit from No Brain reactivity to Yes Brain receptivity. And now, in the joining now, you can then problem-solve together. "We both got really in a No Brain way, didn't we?" "Yeah, we really did." He starts to cry, "But I really wanted to see the pandas." You go, "I know. I did too. Gosh! Oh, my God! I just realized there is a panda movie at the movie theatre. We can go to the movies, if we can get in 'cause maybe everyone is going, so we don't know we can - but why don't we go get some lunch first, see when the movie is playing and let's go to the movies." "Okay, dad, that's great."
Dan Siegel: And so what you've done there is so many things. You've taught him how he can go from reactivity to receptivity, so that's the resilience part. You've taught him how to feel the joy and the balance, that's the B part. You've taught him that when he's now joined with you and can reconnect and redirect his focus of attention. The insight is, you've taught him that you were aware you would become reactive. And you're teaching him to become aware of his own state by saying, "Yeah, I guess you were in that reactive state when you hit me. You didn't want to hurt me but you hit me." And then the E, the empathy part is, you're teaching him that you can look beyond the outwardly manifested behaviors, at the mind driving the behaviors.
Dan Siegel: And so often parents don't learn that skill, and yet it's a mindsight skill that's at the basis of... The way we teach an internal compass is, by ourselves, tuning into the internal experience of our child, and then the child learns to focus not only on the internal states of others but on their own internal state. So when we come back to that first question, Neil, would you want your adolescent to have an internal compass that drives their moral decisions? And you said yeah, the answer is yes. This is how you do it. You get them in touch with their internal state beyond just outwardly manifested behaviors. That's the key. Mindsight skill-building, is the basis of a Yes Brain strategy approach and being real. You are a real human being who is in the real position of being a parent.
Neil Sattin: Well, and I notice with my own son that the more that I show up that way, joining him first and then doing problem-solving, then I've just seen his whole emotional state really flourish and blossom just from adopting that approach more and more, and I've even... I was experimenting a little bit more aggressively while I was reading "The Yes Brain," and what I love about this work is that you illustrate it so clearly in the book, and it's not a very long book, it's a really easy read, and it's really practical and has very immediate effects in terms of the lightness, that I was perceiving anyway, in my own children.
Dan Siegel: Exactly. Well, this is the thing that's so incredibly rewarding for Tina and for myself is, we get together and we think, "Okay, where have our parents in our workshops been asking questions? And what could Tina and I do to try to articulate in a very simple way?" And believe me, it is hard to write a short book [chuckle] 'cause often I write long ones. So to really write in a short way for busy, tired parents, something that actually has immediate, practical things you can do and also a conceptual framework that we're trying to build in this library of books. We have "The Whole-Brain Child", "No-Drama Discipline" and the others down the pipe that parents can take in, and instead of them being just separate things, it builds this kind of mindsight approach to parenting.
Neil Sattin: Well, Dan, I really appreciate your work and Tina's work with this book, and I just have so many questions I could ask you but we've reached the top of the hour and I want to honor our time commitment that we made. For you listening, if you're interested in finding out more about Dan's work and mindsight, you can listen to episode 57 of the Relationship Alive podcast. You can also download the transcript and the action guide from this episode if you visit neilsattin.com/yesbrain, and we will have a link to Dan Siegel's website, this book, his other books, so that you can get all the information that you need about Dan Siegel and his work. In the meantime, Dan, so much to talk about - so I hope we have the opportunity to chat again in the not too distant future, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Dan Siegel: Neil, thank you and thank you for all your wonderful work in bringing me this material for the world out into access for everyone.
Neil Sattin: It's my pleasure. You're most welcome!
Check out Dan Siegel's website
Read Dan’s latest book (with Tina Payne Bryson) The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child
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How do you separate fact from fiction when it comes to creating and sustaining sexual desire? In this episode of Relationship Alive, our special guest is Emily Nagoski, author of the New York Times bestseller "Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life." Her work has been cited by both John Gottman and Esther Perel as a must-read for understanding how desire works, and how to nurture a sexual connection over the long term with your partner. Emily Nagoski and I dispel some modern-day myths about sexuality, and then we reveal some of the new science to help you create more pleasure in your life. And, as Emily says, "Pleasure is the Measure!"
Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Sattin. What if everything that you've been told about sex and desire was wrong? Or maybe not quite wrong, just missing really important bits of information that would help you understand the big picture. As it turns out, there's a lot that we've come to know through science about what turns us on and what turns us off. But this information is relatively new and hasn't quite made it out to the mainstream or the cover of Cosmo, at least not yet. How do you know if what you're experiencing is normal? And what can you do to discover more about who you are as a sexual being and to find more connection and sex in your relationship, without creating pressure on yourself or on your partner? Today's guest has many of the answers to these questions.
Neil Sattin: Her name is Doctor Emily Nagoski and she's the author of the New York Times bestseller "Come as You Are", which John Gottman says is the best book he's ever read on sexual desire and why some couples stop having sex. Esther Perel also refers to Emily's work. So, if John Gottman and Esther Perel, who, at the moment, come from different camps on the question of sexual desire, if they can agree on Emily Nagoski's work, then you know that she's done something truly magnificent. There's gonna be a lot to cover and, as usual, we will have a detailed transcript and action guide for this episode available to you at neilsattin.com/normal. Or you can text the word Passion to the number 33444 and follow the instructions to get your copy. Emily Nagoski, thank you so much for joining us today on Relationship Alive.
Emily Nagoski: I'm so excited to talk to you.
Neil Sattin: So let's start at the very beginning.
Emily Nagoski: Very good place to start.
Neil Sattin: Exactly. Where did this book come from for you? It's about desire and it's about understanding what makes us tick. And in particular, it's written for women and about women's sexuality, though there's so much relearning for men to do as well. And I'm wondering if you can just create our garden here for us for this conversation. Where did this book come from and why was it so important for you to write it?
Emily Nagoski: Sure. I'd been teaching sexuality in some form and some context, for at least 15 years when I started teaching a class called Women's Sexuality at Smith College. Smith is a women's college so I had a class of almost entirely women, 187 of them. And Smith students are not ordinary human beings. Smith alums include Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan, and Catharine MacKinnon, and my favorite, Julia Child. And so the very first day, I'm teaching the anatomy class, of course, I just start with the anatomy. And a student raises her hand and says, "Emily, what's the evolutionary origin of the hymen?" And 15 years I'd been a sex educator, I had never even wondered the answer to that question. So I knew it was gonna be an intense, interesting semester. And it really was. They pushed me really hard. I shoehorned in as much science as I could into this beginner level class. After a semester of really hard work, my last question on the final exam was just tell me one important thing you learned. It can be... Just take the question seriously, you can have your two points no matter what you say. Just tell me one important thing you learned after all this cutting edge science.
Emily Nagoski: And I thought they were gonna say the evolutionary theory, or attachment theory, or arousal non-concordance, or responsive desire, or any of these other things. And more than half of them, of 187 extraordinary students, more than half of them just wrote something like, "I'm normal. I learned that I'm normal. Just because I'm different from other women doesn't mean I'm broken. I can accept my sexuality as it is, and my partner's even when it's different from mine." I'm grading final exams with tears in my eyes thinking, I don't know what happened in my class, but I think it must have been something extraordinary and I wanna do it again, and I wanna do it on a much bigger scale. And that's the day that I decided to write "Come as You Are." And five years after that is when "Come as You Are" actually got published.
Neil Sattin: And I love these... There's so many quotes from your book, and one thing that I really enjoyed about reading "Come as You Are" is that literally every chapter revealed something new. So while it all builds on itself, at the same time, I felt like I was walking through a labyrinth and around every corner I found some amazing gem, which is just so exciting when you're reading a book. But this quote toward the end really was powerful for me. And all it is, is this, "The sexuality you have right now is it and it's beautiful, even especially, if it's not what you were taught it should be."
Emily Nagoski: Yeah.
Neil Sattin: And that really hit me hard because I think so often we do get lost in thinking it's supposed to be some other way. And when we learn to tune in to what is actually happening in our bodies and accept that, and then use that as the springboard for what happens next, there's so much power in that moment.
Emily Nagoski: And in one way it's really obvious that the fastest, easiest way to shut down your sexual well-being is to judge and shame your own sexuality as it - is like is that gonna be a turn on in your brain? For you to hate what's happening in your sexuality, obviously not. But if you can release the judgement and shame and be like "Oh, look, here's my sexuality. Being what it is, doing what it does, I know that I've been given a sort of like phantom sexual self of what I'm told I should be, what I'm supposed to do, what it's supposed to be like, and I know I'm supposed to beat the shit out of myself until I meet that standard, but what if? What if just hypothetically I stopped beating the shit out of myself and just enjoyed my sexuality as it is?" It turns out our ability to stop demanding that our bodies be different and allowing them to be as they are, is maybe the single most powerful thing we can do to maximize our sexual well-being. Is it easy? Nope. But it's almost magical in it's power.
Neil Sattin: And this might be a good time to start with talking about the dual control system. This is something that probably most people don't know about in terms of how they think about their own sexual operating system. Can you speak a little bit to what is the dual control's mechanism and how does that affect whether we're into sex or not into sex, or feeling desirous and aroused or not feeling desirous and aroused?
Emily Nagoski: Yes, absolutely. This is the fundamental hardware between our ears in the way our sexuality functions. It's a model developed at the Kinsey Institute starting in the late '90s, early 2000s, by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft, and it basically posits that sexuality works the way every other system in our central nervous system works. Which is a dual control mechanism. If there's a dual control mechanism, how many parts are there?
Neil Sattin: Two.
Emily Nagoski: There's two parts. Exactly, right? The first one is the sexual accelerator. And if the first part's is the accelerator or the gas pedal, the second part must be?
Neil Sattin: The brakes.
Emily Nagoski: Brake. Exactly. The accelerator is the part most of us are already sort of familiar with... It notices everything in the environment that it codes as sexually relevant. This is all the things that you're seeing and smelling and tasting and hearing and, crucially, imagining, that your brain codes as a sexually relevant stimulus, and it sends that turn on signal that activates arousal and desire. But at the same time that that's functioning, there is also a brake that is noticing all the good reasons not to be turned on right now, everything you see and hear, smell, touch, taste, or, crucially, imagine, that your brain codes as a potential threat, a reason not to be sexually active right now. And it sends the turn off signal. So your level of arousal or desire at any given moment is this balance of how many ons are turned on and how many offs are turned off. Sexual well-being is maximized, that is to say, sexual pleasure in the moment is maximized, when you're turning on all the ons and all of the brakes are turned off. And when I was talking about self-criticism and contempt for your own sexuality being a turn off, obviously, if you're judging your own sexuality, is that hitting the accelerator? Almost certainly not. That's one of the very common things that hits the brakes.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And I think what is confusing is that it's common for us to idealize one and to completely ignore the other. Or, one thing that was really enlightening in reading about these, is that we come with our own set level for these things. So some of us could have an accelerator that's really sensitive and easy to turn on, whereas others may not. And that doesn't necessarily represent a problem that needs to be fixed. And same with the brakes. Maybe you could talk a little bit more about that and why that... Why that's so.
Emily Nagoski: Yeah, there, there are individual differences in the sensitivities of the brakes and the accelerator in each person's brain. As far as we can tell from the science so far, they seem to be pretty set. They're not as set as IQ, but we don't know of any specific interventions to change their sensitivity. Let's just assume they're like personality traits like introversion and extroversion, they are what they are. Most of us are heaped up around the middle. We're just sort of all about the same, but a handful of people, for example, will have really sensitive accelerators, and a person with a sensitive accelerator, vroom, right? That's a person who is easily activated, which can be great under the right circumstances and can be pretty dangerous under the wrong circumstances. If a person is experiencing a lot of negative effects, stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, repressed rage we've all got it, and they don't have good mechanisms in place for coping with that negative emotion - they may begin to use sex as an outlet, a way to avoid experiencing those negative emotions.
Emily Nagoski: And that's where sexual risk taking and sexual compulsivity can come into play, in those folks who have higher sensitivity accelerators. And on the other end of the spectrum, there's the folks, for example, who might have really sensitive brakes, where the least stray thought, stray fingernail, stray noise in the hallway can just shut everything right down. And those are the folks who struggle most with sexual dysfunction, desire disorders, desire differential in their relationship. For most of us though, it's not that our brakes are overly sensitive. It's that we have just a truck load of stuff hitting our brakes all the time and it's much more common. The usual party line about sexual issues is that, well, you should try adding more stuff to the gas pedal. Try role play, and lingerie, and toys, and porn, and fantasy, and all the things, and those are great and you should try them if you like them. Great. And most people when they're struggling with sexuality, it's not because there's too little stimulation to the accelerator, it's because there's too much stimulation to the brake, which is gonna be - some of it - is that self criticism and body shaming.
Emily Nagoski: For some people, it's a trauma history. For some people, it's straight up stress. 80 to 90% of people find that stress and other mood and anxiety issues negatively impact their sexual desire. For some people, it can actually increase it, but that's a different story. And relationship issues, of course are the major factor in things that hit the brakes.
Neil Sattin: What's a good way for someone listening right now to get a sense for themselves of what we're talking about and how it impacts them? Like how do I identify what my brakes are and what my accelerator items are?
Emily Nagoski: Yeah, most people have a good sense - if they just sit down and think about it... I'm interested in sex when these things are happening and I am not at all interested and don't experience pleasure under these circumstances. You can start in a general way with just lists, like what are the things that stress me out that prevent me from being interested in sex? What are the relationship issues that get me stuck so that when I get in bed with my partner, I'm not just getting in bed with my partner, I'm getting in bed with this laundry list of crap, that's just like gunking up the pipes, and you gonna clean out the pipes before you're gonna be interested in sex. Another concrete specific way rather than just generically...if you could think about one really awesome sexual experience you've had, doesn't have to be the best one you ever had, just like a really great sexual experience. Consider what the context was that might have been hitting the accelerator and keeping the brakes off. So what was your own mental and physical state? What were your partner's characteristics? What were your relationship characteristics? What was the setting? Was it in person? Was it in public? Was it over skype? Was it texting and photos?
Emily Nagoski: Was it in the closet at a stranger's house, at a party, against a wall of other people's coats? Or was it in your own bed with the door shut and the kids over at somebody else's house? What was the setting that worked? Other life circumstances is a really important factor. How stressed out and exhausted were you from work and impending nuclear holocaust? What was your overall stress level? And then my favorite relevant factor is that called ludic factors. Ludic related to the word ludicrous. It just means play, how curious and playful and fun could you be? What games were you playing with your partner that were really working for you? There's actually, if you go to my website, there's worksheets, the worksheets are in the book and you can also just download them for free, that walk you through these contexts. I recommend that you think through three great experiences and three not so great experiences, not three terrible sexual experiences just three like, "meh" kind of experiences and look for what wasn't working for you. And when you actually... It takes some time. But when you sit down and take the time to think through what contexts were really working for me. I don't know why that made that sound. Could you hear that?
Neil Sattin: No, what did you hear?
Emily Nagoski: Oh, sorry, my sister is texting me and the alert came on.
Neil Sattin: Okay.
Emily Nagoski: Sorry.
Neil Sattin: That's okay.
Emily Nagoski: It distracted me. Let me go back. It takes a little time to sit and actually think through six different sexual experiences, but people really do have surprising insights. People who really feel like they know a lot about their own sexual functioning, when they sit down and think in this concrete, specific way, will notice things they never heard before. A friend of mine went through it and what she realized... She's in a long distance relationship, and when she actually did get together with her partner, what she noticed was that the expectation that, "Now that we're finally together, we should be having sex." That expectation, that sense of obligation, was absolutely the key to her shutting down her sexuality. And she only figured that out by thinking critically through the factors that were hitting the accelerators and hitting the brakes.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And that's huge, you talk about that particular one like how you feel about whether you are or not having sex, or how you feel about whether or not you should want to have sex in this moment as being another really important factor in whether your accelerator's on and your brakes are out of the way, or your sexual car's coming to a screeching halt.
Neil Sattin: I'm curious to know from, yeah, from your perspective. One thing you just mentioned was the people who do have a really light touch accelerator and the danger for those people that sex could become a compulsion if it's that's easy for them to get turned on and to potentially use it as a way to mitigate and cope with the stress and things that are going on in their lives, and in my experience with my clients, and people I talk to, and in my own experience as well, sometimes that those people tend to find themselves in relationships with people who do not have as light touch of an accelerator, and in fact often have quite the opposite. I'm wondering what do you do, and I think part of this is maybe in what you were just talking about with that, the way that you think about whether you should or shouldn't be having sex, but what do you do to give someone hope who is in a situation - and you describe in your book one of the amalgamated characters, someone named Olivia, a woman who it's really easy for her to get into the mood to have sex and she's with a partner named Patrick for whom it's not so easy. And how do you give a couple in that situation Some hope around shifting that dynamic in a way that, that feels positive for both people?
Emily Nagoski: This actually touches on what has turned out to be one of the most important ideas in the book, which is the nature of desire itself, how desire is supposed to function in our bodies and our relationships. In the case of Olivia, who is the composite character with a sensitive accelerator, she represents about 15% of women who have pretty sensitive accelerators, it means that she also happens to be a person who, when she is stressed out, her interest in sex actually goes up, which is true for, again, about 10-20% of people. And there's not a gender differential on that one. And she's with a partner, as so many of these folks are, for whom the opposite is true. So if they're both stressed out at the same time, Patrick's interest in sex hits the floor and Olivia's hits the ceiling. And that's not in and of itself a problem, but if they start having opinions about which one of them is doing it wrong, that's when things can get really tricky. Because it's... If you don't have a judgement about who's right and who's wrong and you're just like, "Well, our brains are wired differently. That's how it is," And you can rationally negotiate a compromise, great.
Emily Nagoski: But if you start feeling bitter and resentful towards your partner for either being too demanding or too withholding, and you're judging and shaming yourself for wanting too much and being too much, or you're judging and shaming yourself for not wanting enough and not being enough, that's when things get really sticky, which is why the "You are Normal." Mantra comes back over and over the book, You are normal, nobody's doing it wrong. Both people are right and healthy and fine. The emotional weight that we attach to different experiences of sexual desire is just a social construct that we're laying on top of it. You get to feel again, totally normal about the way you're experiencing desire. And the practical solution is just to negotiate. What are we gonna do about the fact that I would like to have the sexy sexes and you are not interested in having the sexy sexes right now? How about we compromise in some way that works for both of us, where you stay with me and put your hand over my heart while I masturbate to orgasm? That way you don't have to do anything you're not into and I get to have the connection and the sexual release.
Emily Nagoski: How's that sound? If we can let go of our judgments of what sex is supposed to be and what desire is supposed to be, that's a perfectly reasonable compromise. That's a really helpful compromise. It's only not helpful compromise if you're like, "But it doesn't conform with my expectations about the aspirational culturally constructed ideal of what my sex life is supposed to be."
Neil Sattin: Right, right. And so this is great because I'm wondering if you can suggest a good way to notice that in oneself. How do I know whether what I want is culturally constructed, or what I actually want, and what would be really important to have on some level?
Emily Nagoski: Dude, I don't know.
Emily Nagoski: That's the million dollar question, right? I would say that the distinction we're thinking about here is not so much what I want, versus how I feel. The word that I use in the book, that comes from John Gottman's research is meta-emotions. There's how you feel. There's how your sexuality... And this is also language I came up with after I finished Come as You Are. I was traveling all around the country and I was talking to students all over, and a student raises her hand and says, "You say in the book, Emily, confidence and joy. Over and over, you use these words, confidence and joy. Can you tell us what you mean by confidence and joy?" And I was like, "No, I have no idea what those words actually mean." And I had to think about it for a long time. And I finally realized that confidence is knowing what is true, knowing that you have a sensitive accelerator and your partner doesn't, or you have a sensitive brake and your partner doesn't, knowing that the context that works for you is one that is really safe, and familiar, and calm, and quiet, whereas the context that works for your partner is one of novelty, and adventure, and risk.
Emily Nagoski: And okay, now you know what's true. Joy is the hard part, and that's loving what is true. Even, as I say in the book, when it is not what you were taught, it was supposed to be true. Even if it's not what you wish were true. Boy, would things be simple if two partners always all the time wanted the same level of sex. Desire differential is the most common reason why people seek sex therapy. Desire differential is also really universal. There is no such thing as two people whose desire tracks the same day-to-day.
Emily Nagoski: Sometimes you have a rough day and your partner doesn't, so you're not interested in sex and your partner is. Some days the opposite is true. There is no such thing as people with exactly the same desire all the time. Just being like, "Hey, that's cool." That's what's true. Fortunately, I also love my partner, and so, we're gonna work it out together. We're gonna have conversations that can be calm and loving and affectionate, because we understand what's true about ourselves, about our accelerator, about the context that work for us, and we love each other and the things that are true about our two different sexualities. There are no judgement, there's no shame, there's just accepting that we are two different people, and it's not just that people vary from each other, it's also that people change over time. When you're in a relationship that lasts over multiple years, you and your partner's sexualities are gonna change and they may not necessarily change along the same trajectories. Joy is loving what is true about both of your sexualities and the ways that they change, whether that feels comfortable and easy or not.
Neil Sattin: And this conversation, I appreciate that you brought up the requirement to as much as possible have it in a loving way, because those desire differentials can create a lot of stress. And as you just mentioned, for most people, no matter where they are in terms of brakes and accelerator, I think somewhere between 80% and 90% of people, that stress it's going to turn the brakes on.
Emily Nagoski: Yeah.
Neil Sattin: Can you talk a little bit about this... How the stress that we're carrying around with us every day... What can we do about that? Why is it so important to do something about it, rather than just sweeping it under the rug or pretending it doesn't exist?
Emily Nagoski: Right.
Neil Sattin: And what's on the other side of doing something about it?
Emily Nagoski: There's a whole lot of telling ourselves not to, in a lot of aspects of our lives. We tell ourselves not to feel that way about sexuality. We try to force ourselves to feel a different way than we actually feel. We fight against the truth and reality, and we do that with our stress too. We tell ourselves that we're supposed to experience, "No, I don't need to be stressed out about that." You try to tell yourself, "Relax, just relax." When your partner, if you're stressed out and your partner is like, "Why can't you just relax? Just relax." Is that helpful? Does that help? Does that make things better?
Neil Sattin: No, right.
Emily Nagoski: No, it doesn't make things better, right? No, obviously. What has to happen is, instead of trying to just like not be stressed out, you have to move in the direction of the stress, sink down into it, and allow your body to experience it. Stress is a physiological process. It's like digestion. It has a beginning and a middle and an end. And if we don't interfere with it, our bodies will move through that entire cycle in a healthy, normal way that doesn't interfere with our lives. But as human beings with giant prefrontal cortexes and massively social tendencies to wanna control our emotions in order to make other people feel good, we tend to keep the brakes on, on our stress in the same way they keep our brakes on, on our sexuality. And so, we're walking around with all these activated stress response cycles, stress is the adrenaline, and the cortisol, and the hypervigilance, and the muscle tension, and the digestion changes, and the cardiovascular changes, and like your whole body, and your immune system is suppressed.
Emily Nagoski: Every body system is influenced by the fact that these stress response cycles have been activated. And if you just tell yourself not to feel it, those stress response cycles will stay spinning inside your body waiting to finish and they will wait forever. Most of us are walking around with decades worth of incomplete stress response cycles, just sitting like rocks somewhere in our body waiting for us to let them go. Fortunately, there's lots of research that tells us what the effective strategies are for completing the stress response cycle. For example, physical activity. This is the obvious one, because the stress response cycle is designed for us to survive threats like being chased by a lion. When you're being chased by a lion, what do you do?
Neil Sattin: Right, you get the hell out of there.
Emily Nagoski: You run. Yeah. Our bodies do not differentiate between stressors, so your body responds basically the same way to a lion as it does to your boss or to your partner shaming and guilting you about sex, right? It's basically the same physiological stress response. It turns out, dealing with the stress itself, the physiology in your body requires basically totally different things from dealing with the thing that caused the stress. There is the calm, rational planning and negotiating that you have to do with your partner and then there is the dealing with the physiological stress itself. Just because you've dealt with the stressor doesn't mean you've dealt with the stress. Physical activity is the single most important thing that you can do - when people tell you that physical activity is good for you, that's for real-sy, every day, 20 minutes if you possibly can, literally any form of physical activity, even if it's just like jumping up and down in your bedroom, any form of physical activity is helpful.
Emily Nagoski: We know that sleep is effective, creative self expression, writing and painting, music. We know that sleep is effective, did I say sleep already? Oh, and affection. So, calm, trusting, especially physical affection, but it doesn't have to be physical affection, it can just be the loving presence of another human is great. You know what's also great? The loving presence of a dog. You know what's also great? Loving presence of a God. If that's what makes sense for you. Whatever counts as a loving presence for you sitting and being with that presence helps to return your body to a state of calmness so that your body knows this is a safe place to live. I am safe right now. But it takes doing something for real, not just telling yourself.
Neil Sattin: Right. And if you're doing that over and over, especially finding a way to regulate with another with your partner, then that brings about its own level of healing in terms of your right brain coming back online and your ability to operate from the parts of your prefrontal cortex that...
Emily Nagoski: Right. To think critically, to be curious and creative, all of that comes back only when you have reduced the adrenaline and cortisol levels and reduce the threat level so that the creativity can expand instead of being so focused on just survival.
Neil Sattin: Exactly. Just for your reference listening, if you want to learn more about healing trauma and ways modalities that can help with that we did have Peter Levine on the show, the creator of Somatic Experiencing, that was episode 29. So it's something for you to bookmark and listen to later, and he'll be coming back on the show as well. But somatic experiencing is just one. There are all kinds of modalities if you wanna work with a practitioner to help you...
Emily Nagoski: Pat Ogden is another really key person in body based therapy. Pat Ogden and somatic... I forget what it's called. Pat Ogden is amazing and great, and does really, really good work around healing trauma through the body. What I love about body based strategies for dealing, not just with stress but with a trauma is that you don't ever have to have insight. You don't even necessarily have to think about whatever it is that caused the stress or the trauma. It's a different process. You can choose an insight process if you want to, but if you don't wanna go there, if you don't wanna think about it, sometimes you can release this shit from your body without ever having to think about the event that activated the stress. You can just deal with the stress itself without dealing with the event itself, especially if the event is in the past and there's nothing you can do about it now. Body based therapies are wonderfully gentle, indirect, tremendously effective strategy for helping to return your body to a safe state.
Neil Sattin: Mm-hmm, big recommend from me as well.
Emily Nagoski: There's a chapter on stress and love, and the stress section is pretty much entirely based on the polyvagal theory and Peter Levine's work, somatic experiencing, and Pat Ogden's work in the body-based approach to stress.
Neil Sattin: Great. Yeah, and if you wanna learn more about the polyvagal theory, which Emily just mentioned, check out our episode with Steve Porges, which is episode number 34.
Emily Nagoski: And so you've just interviewed my entire shelf of reference books.
Neil Sattin: Basically. That's my goal, Emily. [chuckle] You shouldn't have sent me that photo of your bookshelf, and actually send me more 'cause I don't wanna run out of people. I'm curious if we can talk now about the... 'cause one of the concepts that you discussed that was so fascinating for me was how you broke apart the process of arousal and desire into these different systems in our brain, and there was the enjoying system, the expecting system, and the eagerness system. And I felt like taking it apart like that made it so much easier to understand in a way that's actually practical for people. Can we dive in and just give a little bit more information to our listeners about what I'm even talking about?
Emily Nagoski: Yeah. When you read sort of mainstream popular science journalism about brain science, they'll refer to this thing, the pleasure centers of the brain. And if they do that, it's a pretty good cue that they either don't know what they're talking about or they're simplifying it in a way that's really unhelpful, because it's not just the pleasure center of the brain. And calling it the pleasure center is like calling your vulva the vagina, like there's so much more to it, and if we ignore the other parts, we're ignoring some fundamental aspects of how the thing works. So if we break it down, yes, there's the pleasure part, which is just the part of your brain that responds to whether or not stuff feels good, and that's a little more complicated and we can talk about the ways that your brain responds differently to different stimuli as pleasurable or not depending on the context. Should we do that now? Or should I wait?
Neil Sattin: Sure. Yeah, let's...
Emily Nagoski: Okay.
Neil Sattin: And I'll bring us back.
Emily Nagoski: Yeah, the pleasure piece of it is slightly complicated because the nucleus accumbens shell in your brain has an affective keyboard. Everybody's asleep now, sorry.
Emily Nagoski: So the deal is, if you're in a sort of a neutral mental state and somebody tickles you, meh. If you're already in a fun, flirty, sexy, positive, playful, trusting state of mind and your certain special someone tickles you, that even if tickling is not your favorite, in principle, like that could feel fun and lead to other things happening, right? 'Cause your brain interprets that stimulation as something to be approached with curiosity and pleasure because you already feel safe, and trusting, and playful. But if you are pissed off at your partner and they tickle you, you wanna punch them in the face. It's exactly the same stimulation, right? The same tickling stimulation but the state of your mind is different, your brain state is different and so your brain interprets the sensation entirely different, not as something to be approached with curiosity and pleasure, but as a potential threat to be avoided or even attacked.
Neil Sattin: Right.
Emily Nagoski: And the only thing that is different is your state of mind, so pleasure is not simple. Pleasure is sensitive to the context in which you're experiencing it which is why hot and heavy early on in the relationship, you're in the middle of making dinner and your certain special someone comes over and starts kissing on your neck or whatever. And your knees kinda gets off and you're like, "Oh, that's cool." And things happen. 10 years later, you're trying to make dinner and you've got kids waiting for food and screaming at you and you got 10 years of accumulated frustrations in your relationship. Your certain special someone comes over and kisses on your neck then. You're like, "I'm trying to... Get away from me. What are you doing?" And again, it's exactly the same stimulation, but because the context is different, you experience that sensation in a totally different way, and that is a normal way for us to experience sensations.
Emily Nagoski: The problem is not the way we experience the sensation, the problem is that the context changed. And it's not that the context is broken, that's just life. There's always the solution, we don't have to change us in order to find a solution, we just notice what it is about the context that's hitting the brakes and making our brain interpret the sensation as something that makes you wanna smack the person in the face and change the context if you possibly can to something that makes you interpret this person's sensations as something pleasurable to be approached with curiosity. That's the pleasure component of it. The nucleus accumben shell, woohoo. The second part of this pleasure center is actually the desire part. Eagerness, I called it in the book. Kent Berridge, who's... Have you interviewed Kent Berridge?
Neil Sattin: Not yet, no.
Emily Nagoski: Oh my God, that's the next guy on my shelf.
Neil Sattin: Okay.
Emily Nagoski: Kent Berridge or Morten Kringelbach.
Neil Sattin: Okay.
Emily Nagoski: They're the two key authors on this batch of research that distinguishes between wanting and liking. We talked about what liking is and the ways that it's dependent on context. Wanting is moving toward, is the actual activation, the desire, approach piece of it, not just the liking of, like, "Woo!" Or "Gleh!" Right? The classic example, that I actually cut from the book, so this is a thing that you will not read in the book, just to differentiate between wanting and liking, in an experiment, they gave... I always imagine it as one of those beer hats where there's a bottle on one side and a bottle on the other side and straws going into your mouth, do you know what I mean?
Neil Sattin: Uh-huh.
Emily Nagoski: So they gave one of those to a rat, it's not really like that, but just imagine it's like that. And in one of the cans, there's sugar water, which is delicious to the rat, and in one of the cans with a straw going into the mouth, there's salt water with the salinity of ocean water. How does that taste?
Neil Sattin: Salty.
Emily Nagoski: Yeah, it's gross.
Emily Nagoski: It's just a really innately disgusting flavor, because it's a dangerous flavor, it will give you way too much sodium and make you sick. They teach the rat that certain bells are associated with the sugar water coming in. When they get the sugar bell, they get excited. "Yay, here comes the sugar." And when the salt bell comes on, they go, "Ah! - gaddigah - I don't want the salt." But then they give the rat a drug that reduces their salt level. Now, so this is an animal that has zero pleasurable experience with the salty water. It's gross, they don't like anything about it, but when you deplete their salt levels, they will go over to the salt bell and start pushing it and gnawing on it and trying... Be like, "Make this... " They want the salt desperately because you've depleted the... You have a sodium drive that makes you desperate for salts if you don't get it. If you don't have the right sodium levels, you can literally die. So their whole body is in this huge activated, "I want the salt." Though they have zero experience of liking the salt. Does that distinction make sense between wanting?
Emily Nagoski: So pleasure, liking is the pleasure part, enjoying. And then there's eagerness, there's desire, there's moving toward and they're overlapping certainly, but they are not identical and it is really important that we distinguish it. And then the third component of this mechanism that we usually just call the pleasure center is associative learning, is basically what it is. When I do PowerPoint presentations, I represent it with a drooling bulldog because of Pavlov's dogs. He trained them to drool with a ring of the bell, all you do is you put food in front of the dog, it automatically starts drooling and you ring a bell. Food, bell, drool. Food, bell, drool. And eventually, you just ring the bell and that's all it takes to get the dog to start drooling. Does that mean that the dog wants to eat the bell?
Neil Sattin: No, of course not.
Emily Nagoski: Does it mean... Right, of course not. Of course not. Does it mean that the dog finds the bell delicious?
Neil Sattin: No.
Emily Nagoski: Of course, not, right? It just means that the bell has been made food-relevant. It's associated with food stimuli. So it's now a food-relevant stimulus. Our genital response, blood flow and all the rest of that, is the associative learning component where if you're presented with a sexually relevant stimulus, you will get genital response. This is your activating, this is a sexually relevant accelerator response. It turns out there is a not very relevant overlap, there's not much of an overlap, between what counts as sexually relevant stimulus and what is actually liked, particularly in heterosexual women, so that a person's body can respond to sexually relevant stimulus... In the research, it's almost always different kinds of porn, sometimes it's visual porn, sometimes it's like they're being read an audiobook of an erotic story, sometimes they're even watching bonobo chimpanzees copulating, right? And women's genitals will respond to this, not as much as to the human porn, but significantly above baseline. If their genitals are responding, does that mean they find the bonobo sex like they really want to have sex with the bonobos? Does that mean they like monkey sex?
Neil Sattin: This is so important. This is like one of the things in your book that... Not about bonobos necessarily, but...
Neil Sattin: But this question of how does our genital response correlate to our actual desire, and this might be a great time to talk about non-concordance.
Emily Nagoski: Right. And for a lot of people the answer is, it doesn't - particularly for women. There's about a 50% overlap between genital response, and perceived arousal, or subjective arousal in cisgender men. And about a 10% concordance overlap between genital response, and subjective arousal in heterosexual woman. One of the pieces of research that's come out since Come As You Are was published, is the distinction that this arousal non-concordance appears to be a factor really just in straight women. We have no idea why there's a difference sexual orientation, why there's a difference in gender. It doesn't matter why there's a gender difference. We do have this tendency, like is anybody who's sitting here and thinking right now, "Really, there's that much of an overlap for guys, what's the matter with men? There must be... I mean, that's so strange that they have so much concordance between their genital response and their subjective desire. What's going on with that?" No, everybody automatically thinks, "Really, women have 10% overlap. That's really - what's wrong with women?!"
Emily Nagoski: That's the patriarchy, that's the androcentric model of sexual desire, arousal, and response that all of us got raised in, assuming that the way a man works is the way a woman is supposed to work. And the extent to which a woman differs from a man is the extent to which she is broken, and needs to be fixed. And that's just not true. When a person's genital response doesn't overlap with their perceived arousal, when their genitals are responding, and they're like, "Nope. Not doing it for me" - what that means is that they've been presented with a sexually relevant stimulus that they do not want or like, which we can only understand if we know that this pleasure center of the brain does have these three separate channels that interact, of sexual relevance, sexually pleasurable, and sexual desire. They're related to each other, but they don't necessarily overlap. And we live in a pretend... In a fucked up enough culture that we're presented with plenty of sexually relevant stimuli in contexts where we neither want nor like what is happening.
Neil Sattin: Right. And I would think that another way of looking at the statistic for men, the 50% concordance, is that men have the potential to be victimized by their sexual... By their genital arousal, basically.
Emily Nagoski: Yes. Yeah. This narrative shows up a lot in stories of sexual violence against people of every genital configuration. The typical model is a person with a vulva being sexually assaulted, and the perpetrator says, "Well, but you were wet. So obviously, you wanted it or liked it." I cannot tell you how many students have told me, "Oh my gosh, this explains that experience I had where I was like, "Eh, this isn't doing it for me," and my partner was like, "No, you're turned on. You're wet." As though a person's genital response tells us more about what they're experiencing than the person does. And the same thing happens when a person has a penis. If blood is flowing to their genitals, they've been taught that that's an indication of who they are. Like their whole identity is tied to that, and it certainly indicates that they must want or like what is happening. But no, it's a reflex. We would never tell someone, if they bit into a wormy old apple, "Well, your mouth watered when you bit into that wormy old apple, so you must have actually really wanted or liked it. We would never do that. When your doctor taps your patellar tendon and your knee kicks out, nobody is like, "But deep down though, you really wanted to kick your doctor." We don't make this assumption with any physiological reflex, except for genital response. And we do it no matter what a person's genitals are, and it perpetuates a lot of myths around sexual violence.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. In fact, I loved your rewrite of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Neil Sattin: Which I can quote here. In the next edition, Emily thinks that Grey should say to Ana instead of... 'Cause he, right, he spanks her, and she gets wet, is what basically...
Emily Nagoski: Yes. She consents to it. She doesn't want it. She doesn't like it. There is not a single word about pleasure. Her face hurts 'cause she's squirming so hard to get away. And then, Christian Grey, the spanker/hero/douche bag, puts his fingers in her vagina, finds that she is wet, and says to her, "Feel this, Anastasia. Your body is soaking just for me."
Neil Sattin: Right. "See how much your body likes this."
Emily Nagoski: "See how much your body likes this." Likes this. "See how much your body likes this, Anastasia."
Neil Sattin: Yeah. So, you're...
Emily Nagoski: And I wanted to say.
Neil Sattin: Yeah?
Emily Nagoski: I want the next person to say, "See how sexually relevant your body finds this. Which tells me very little about whether you want it or liked it."
Emily Nagoski: Did you want it, like it? No? Double crap! Double crap is a thing they say a lot in Fifty Shades Grey.
Emily Nagoski: Let me say that I am a romance reader. I read it with an open mind. It wasn't for me. I value a lot of things the Fifty Shades did for opening up a conversation about erotica and sexuality for women, and it also sold many millions of copies and perpetuated this myth that genital response... 'Cause here's the really bad thing about the book, about this particular aspect of it, is that even though she, in an email, goes on to describe the feeling of being debased, degraded, and abused, still, because he said, "Your genitals responded. Feel how much you like this." She believes him instead of believing what her own internal experience was telling her. 'Cause isn't that what we all get taught, is to believe other people's opinions about our bodies, what they are and what they should be, more than we trust and believe what our bodies are trying to tell us?
Neil Sattin: Yeah and that theme runs throughout your book, of learning how to shed the messages that you've been given and the ideas about how things should be, and learning to more deeply trust what comes out of you, what you know about yourself, and what does give you pleasure and what doesn't, and to bring that to the conversation.
Emily Nagoski: And I'm remembering the question you asked about how do we tell what's socially constructed and what's what you actually want and like. And sort of almost everything is socially constructed. Nobody is born with any innate sexually relevant stimuli other than just plain old genital sensations. Like nobody is born being turned on by cars, or high-heeled shoes, or smoking cigarettes, or power play. That's all learned from culture. That doesn't mean that it's not real for you and it's what you really do want, it just means that that is what you learned, it's what your culture taught you. And some of those things are just sexually relevant. Like your brain has been taught that those are sexually relevant stimuli. And some of them are things that, in the right context, really do give you gigantic pleasure, and you really do desire them in the right context, in one that facilitates pleasure. Somehow my go-to example of this has been if you fantasize about being cornered by five strangers who just want you sexually and so they take you.
Emily Nagoski: If you're alone, safe in your bed, masturbating to that fantasy, in reality, the context is you are 100% safe and in control of that. Whereas if, in reality, five strangers cornered you and wanted to have you sexually, that would be physically unsafe, your stress response would kick in, you would only want to get away, it wouldn't actually be sexy. And the difference is the context. You can, if you wanna create that fantasy for yourself, you can ask five friends to participate in the role play, and communicate really clearly about what everybody's limits are. But that's, again, a really different context from five actual strangers.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so it's important to revisit for a moment... When you were describing context at the beginning, you were talking about all the factors that shape context. It's not just like, "Oh, well, the context is the bedroom's messy and the kids are knocking at the door, so I'm gonna send the kids to Grandma's and clean the bedroom." There's more than just the physical context, there's all of that...
Emily Nagoski: Yeah. The stuff in the here and now tends to be the easy stuff to fix, the easy stuff to address. I heard someone joking at a romance writers' conference, "Characters in romance novels have sex when they're being chased and shot at by the Mafia, and I can't have sex if there's still a dish in the sink."
Emily Nagoski: That's the easy stuff. The difficult stuff is when what you're bringing to bed and bringing to the context is years of shame, or years of judgement and blame, or relationship conflict, or a trauma history, or body shame, or gendered roles and ideas about how sex is supposed to work and if it's not working that way then it's working wrong. Those are longer term projects. And most of them can be undone through simple, daily mindfulness practices. It does take time. In the same way that it took time to get you to this place, it takes time to shift you out of that place and into a different, more neutral, self-accepting, partner-accepting place. But noticing the gunk, as I call it, the gunk that gets in the pipes, and making a decision to consider the possibility that you could live without the gunk and maybe clean it out is the way to clear up the channel, so that when you get to bed, the context is not one that's bringing with it all of this historical shit.
Neil Sattin: Yes.
Emily Nagoski: I've been swearing a lot.
Neil Sattin: You have!
Emily Nagoski: I don't know if that's okay. Sorry.
Neil Sattin: This is an explicit show. It's totally fine.
Emily Nagoski: Oh good.
Neil Sattin: I'm wondering if, before we go, since you just brought up mindfulness, if you could offer just a simple approach to how you've seen mindfulness work. What's something that someone can do that, over time, will effect that great kind of change?
Emily Nagoski: The simplest version is simply... So when you're in the process of a sexual experience, you will notice that maybe body-critical thoughts, or sexuality-critical thoughts, or partner-critical thoughts will enter your mind. You just notice them and are like, "Oh, hey! There's that critical thought. I'm gonna have that critical thought literally any other time that I want. For the moment, I'm gonna put it in the back, and I'm gonna return my attention to the pleasurable sensations happening in my body." And another critical thought will float through your mind, and you'll be like, "Oh, hey look! There's another critical thought. I'm just temporarily, I'm gonna put that in the back, and I'm gonna return my attention to the pleasurable sensations happening in my body." And with practice, over and over, we become really skilled at noticing those emotions before they dig deep, and even reducing the frequency and intensity with which they float into our minds. It makes a tremendous... There's a huge body of research. Another person for you to interview, Lori Brotto, does all this research on the impact of mindfulness on women's sexual well-being, especially women who are in recovery from gynecological cancers, and breast cancers, and other diseases, the impact it has on their relationships and their sexuality, and how to use mindfulness and sex education as a way to maximize sexual well-being in the recovery process.
Neil Sattin: Amazing. Amazing. And I loved how you brought that in your book as well, not only in how you just described, but also in talking about how important it is to see the ways that you do judge yourself and you're critical of yourself, and how all of those responses are turning your stress inward. You're creating more stress for yourself, which is putting the brakes on for yourself and gets you in that negative feedback loop. Versus...
Emily Nagoski: And it takes...
Neil Sattin: Being able to heal it through your mindfulness. Yeah? Go ahead.
Emily Nagoski: It requires the decision to prioritize turning off the brakes. You have to decide that it matters to you and to your relationship that you access your own sexual well-being. The couples who... What we learn in John Gottman's research is that the couples who sustain strong sexual connections over multiple decades are not couples who, hot and heavy, can't wait to stuff their tongue down each other's throat all the time. They are the couples who, one, have a strong foundation of friendship for their relationship, and two, prioritize sex. So they decide that it matters for their relationship that they set aside this half hour when they stop dealing with the kids, and work, and family, and friends, and Game of Thrones, and all of the other things that they could be paying attention to. They stop all that and they just pay attention to each other in this, frankly, pretty silly, fun way that humans do, because it matters for their relationship that they have that time to play, and touch, and connect. It's not the case for every couple that connecting in this way matters for their relationship, but the couples who sustain strong sexual connections, it's what they do. They make the decision that it matters that they cultivate sexual pleasure and curiosity.
Neil Sattin: Well, you're blessing us with a great way to end our conversation, while at the same time reminding me of all the things that we could have talked about. I just wanna say...
Emily Nagoski: We could talk about responsive desire, oh... [chuckle]
Neil Sattin: Yeah, oh my goodness. Well...
Emily Nagoski: Read chapter seven. That's all. Just read chapter seven. They know enough for that to make sense now.
Neil Sattin: Do you have time to give a quick blip on that before we go?
Emily Nagoski: Okay, really quick. Yes.
Neil Sattin: Thank goodness.
Emily Nagoski: The standard party line about desire is that it's spontaneous. It just sort of comes out of the... You're walking down the street. You're eating lunch and... Erika Moen, who is the cartoonist who illustrated Come as You Are, she draws this as a lightning bolt to the genitals. Just kaboom! You just want the sexes. And so you go to your partner with, "I have a kaboom. Can I have the sex? Uh?" And your partner's like...
Emily Nagoski: So, that is, absolutely, one healthy, normal way to experience sexual desire, is to have it just be... Feel spontaneous and kinda out of the blue. And there is another, totally healthy, normal way to experience sexual desire, it's called responsive desire. See, spontaneous desire emerges in anticipation of pleasure. Responsive desire emerges in response to pleasure, bearing in mind that pleasure is sensitive to context and not simple. The way this works, there's really sort of two narratives of how it works. One is the sort of cuddle, snuggle narrative, where you're just sitting on the couch watching Netflix and your partner comes over and starts touching you, and your body's like, "Ah, that feels really nice."
Emily Nagoski: And your partner starts doing other, more interesting things, and you turn and maybe start kissing on your partner, and your brain receives all this stimulation, it's like, "Ah, that feels really nice." And you turn and do maybe some more things, and there's a hand that goes up a shirt, and your brain's like, "That's... You know what, how about the sexy times?" Right? It's kaboom that emerges in response to pleasure. The cuddle, snuggle model. And then there's the Liz Lemon, "Let's do this," model, Where you dump the toys in the toybox, it's 3:00 on Saturday afternoon, you'd said that you would. "You, me, and the red underwear, here we go. Let's just get in the bed and go."
Emily Nagoski: And you put your body in the bed, and you put your skin against your partner's skin, and you remember that you like this. You like this person. You enjoy these sensations. And you allow your body to remember that this is fun and good. That's responsive desire. And all three of those are 100% normal...
Neil Sattin: Normal.
Emily Nagoski: Healthy ways. Right? That's... Many people feel that if you have to set appointments, if you don't already crave it when you get in bed, then there's something wrong. Nope. That's how it works sometimes. Most people will experience all of these different kinds of desire in their life. Some people never experience spontaneous desire. Some people have no experience of responsive desire. What matters is that you just notice that there are differences, and there are changes, and they are all 100% normal. And you can maximize responsive desire. The main way to maximize responsive desire is not to judge or shame it, but simply allow it. You allow desire to emerge from pleasure. My three-word... It rhymes and everything, so you can remember it and tell your friends, is, "Pleasure is the measure." Pleasure is the measure of sexual well-being. It's not how much you crave it, it's not how often you do it, or where you do it, or what you do, or how many people, or even how many orgasms you have. It's whether or not you like the sex you are having.
Neil Sattin: Mm-hmm.
Emily Nagoski: There's this sex therapist in New Jersey named Christine Hyde, who uses this party metaphor, she says to her clients, "If you're invited to a party by your best friend, of course you say yes 'cause it's your best friend and it's a party. But then as the date approaches, you start thinking, 'Ugh! There's gonna be all this traffic. We gotta find childcare. Do I really wanna put on pants on a Friday?'"
Emily Nagoski: But like, you go because you said you would and it's your best friend and it's a party and what happens? Most of the time you have a good time at the party. If you are having fun at the party, you are doing it right. Pleasure is the measure of sexual well-being.
Neil Sattin: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And just as a quick addendum because I love how you suggest this in your book and it's something we've talked about on the show before, sometimes in that context taking sex off the table or making it okay to... That this isn't leading to sex, this is just about exploring pleasure that can, I think... That's one of those things that takes the brakes off. Yeah.
Emily Nagoski: It reduces the performance demand. Yes. Absolutely.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. So...
Emily Nagoski: I have actually started recommending that couples, when they... If they set an appointment, they set a date of like Saturday at 3:00, you and me, we're gonna do something, they set very firm limits on what they're allowed to do. Sometimes, it means not actually touching each other. Sometimes distance is... And this is the reason why I find both Esther Perel's model and John Gottman's model to be helpful, because people vary a lot in what works for them. Some people crave the closeness in order to facilitate desire and some people really long to have distance to have a bridge to cross to move toward their partner. People just have different strategies in the same way our brakes and gas are different. So figuring out what to do in that chunk of time that you set aside for you and your partner to do something or other that feels good, is gonna be different for you versus from everybody else that you know.
Neil Sattin: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So take the time to get to know yourself and what you might actually want in that circumstance.
Emily Nagoski: Yeah. Right.
Neil Sattin: Oh, so many things, and yet we have run out of time. Emily Nagoski, it is so great to chat with you. I think your book, Come As You Are, is really required reading for people to just come to understand themselves as sexual beings in a totally new, actually based on science and not based on fable, way. And especially if you're a woman, especially if you're in a relationship with a woman, and even if you're a man and not in a relationship with a woman, there's just so much in here that I think will help you...
Neil Sattin: And non-binary people too.
Neil Sattin: Yes. And anyone, wherever you are on the spectrum, this will help you come to understand yourself and how that all works within you. I'm so appreciative of your contribution through writing the book. And if people wanna find out more about you, where can they find you on the interwebs?
Emily Nagoski: The main place to go is my website, which is just emilynagoski.com.
Neil Sattin: Great. And we will have a link to that, along with a detailed show guide, if you visit neilsattin.com/normal, though I'm tempted to make it Pleasure is the Measure, but neilsattin.com/normal, or you can text the word Passion to the number 33444 and follow the instructions. Emily Nagoski, thanks so much. Hope to have you back again sometime!
Emily Nagoski: Thank you so much!
Check out Emily Nagoski's website
www.neilsattin.com/normal Visit to download the transcript, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the transcript to this episode with Emily Nagoski
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