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Verbal First Aid and Motorcycles!

Biking Article
Montana Cross RiverUsing Your Head After A Crash.

It’s dusk in the desert and you’re relishing the open space and the glorious solitude. The sun hangs heavy as it bursts into shards of color across New Mexico skies. It’s been a perfect ride. You and your riding companion come around a tight turn as you head down into a canyon, thinking only of where you’re going to have dinner, when the lead rider hits a patch of sand and high sides into a wall of granite.

You manage to stop in time, but your friend’s bike tumbled over an embankment and while he is thankfully still on the road, he is not moving. His leg is bent at an angle not meant for human bone. He is conscious but in shock.

You’re alone. It’s nearing dark. What do you do?

If you’ve managed to reach 911 and they’re on the way, what do you say when every moment and every word counts?

This is an all-too familiar scenario for riders. It happens in the country, in the city and all parts in between. Some people, mostly those who have been specially trained to handle critical events, have the skills to approach a situation like the one above with great calm, self-assurance and compassion. Most of us, on the other hand, slip into emotional shock along with the one who is injured. There’s an old wisdom about target fixation: Never watch someone go down, because that’s where you’ll wind up. It is true on a number of levels.
But, even when there’s nothing you can do besides wait for the ambulance, there are things you can say—and ways to say them—that can help your friend survive. Words, when used strategically, can be a most powerful medicine, helping us to lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, or stop bleeding.

Lt. Samuels (*name changed, story true) sat behind a large, conspicuously clean desk at a Westchester, N.Y.  police station. He was cool, composed, and seemed as uncluttered mentally as he was physically. The awards on his book cases and certificates on the wall attested to a long, successful career. “I paid my dues,” he smiled as he scanned the room and the work it represented. As he saw it, however, his career really started in Vietnam when he was only a teenager serving in the U.S. Army. It was there, assigned to an armored car division sent deep into the jungle, that he learned what it took to survive physically, mentally, and emotionally.

He was on a mission in the Delta, it was summer and the temperature outside had reached upwards of 115 degrees Fahrenheit before noon. Inside the tank it was at best unbearable under normal conditions. On one particular day he still remembers with stunning clarity, it was life-threatening.

“It must have been 130 or more inside. It was hot in a way I had never experienced before. I couldn’t stop sweating, couldn’t drink enough, couldn’t just get up and go to the bathroom. I was burning up. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I was literally burning up and I had to lower my body temperature somehow or I was going to die.  Funny how it didn’t scare me. It was just as clear to me as the coffee in front of me now. It was a fact. I had no air conditioning. I couldn’t get out of the tank. There was nowhere to go except a POW camp, if I was lucky enough to get caught and not killed right away. I remember thinking that I should have been panicking. Instead, I was utterly, crystal clear. It was in the space of such a small moment that I realized it was completely up to me. Whether I survived or not was between me and my own mind.” The lieutenant sat forward, his body compressed with the intensity of the experience, still vivid in him.

“For some reason, I thought about something I’d heard about some monks in the Himalayas, how they went outside in sub-zero temperatures and howling winds to meditate and never suffered any ill effects. They raised their own thermostats. And I figured if they could do it that way, I could lower it. To this day I don’t know exactly what I did or how I did it, but I imagined cool water inside me and around me, like I was dunking myself into a cooler filled with ice or skinny dipping in the lake back home. And hell if it didn’t work. I’m here. I never forgot that,” he sat back. “This,” he pointed to his head, “was my greatest weapon of all. And it has served me ever since, no matter what or where the battle.”

What he used without knowing it at the time is a simple protocol called Verbal First Aid. It is based on the simple notion that the images we hold in our minds are held in our bodies as well. What we think is what we are. What we feel determines how we heal.  Dr. Larry Dossey, one of the foremost proponents of mind/body medicine, has written, “Images create bodily changes—just as if the experience were really happening. For example, if you imagine yourself lying on a beach in the sun, you become relaxed, your peripheral blood vessels dilate, and your hands become warm, as in the real thing.”

If this is even partially true, it is an astonishing statement.

The case to definitively establish the link between mind and body was opened almost 1,500 years ago when Hippocrates wrote that a person might yet recover from his or her belief in the goodness of the physician. It was continued in 1912 when one doctor reported that tuberculosis patients who had previously been on the mend, when given bad news (e.g., that a relative had passed away) took sudden turns for the worse and died. And today the data supporting the connection between thoughts and health, indeed between mental images and survival, are mounting.

Brain scans have shown that when we imagine an event, our thoughts “light up” the areas of the brain that are triggered during the actual event. Sports psychologists conducted one study in which skiers were wired to EMG machines and monitored for electrical impulses sent to the muscles as they mentally rehearsed their downhill runs. The skiers’ brains sent the Bille instructions to their bodies whether they were doing a jump or just thinking about it.

What does this mean for a person out riding in the mountains who suddenly finds himself stuck in a downpour and unable to get out before dark when the temperature is expected to fall nearly 40 degrees? How does this help someone with an asthma attack in the middle of a lake or a rider with a broken leg one hour from the nearest town?

What some people claim is that it can mean the difference between life and death because the words we say (to ourselves and to one another) do matter, especially when we are afraid, in pain, or in shock. By saying the right words in the right way we are able to speak directly to the body, reduce an inflammatory response, help to slow down or stop bleeding, change the way an event is interpreted so that it is experienced differently IN the body.

What Can We Do, What Can We Say: Verbal First Aid in Real Life

According to medical experts, anxiety (or fear) and pain are inextricably woven together for the vast majority of people. A great deal of human discomfort comes from our anticipation of it and our perception of it. Unfortunately, there is nothing marketed as vigorously in this country as is fear. If we’re not scared to death by a headline, it’s a radio report, a movie, a video game, or a television show. We’re literally bombarded by images and ideas that promote fear. We are propelled by it and sold by it.

If the science is correct, the good news is that we can change it on every level—from the conscious to the autonomic. When we alter our thoughts, are soothed by a kind authority, or are assured that we are in good hands, we can begin to feel the changes in our bodies—the softening of muscle fiber, the opening of bronchial tubes, the quieting of pain, the start of healing. This is why so much of Verbal First Aid in the field is directed to the alleviation of anxiety through the development and utilization of rapport. In rapport, a person will feel, “She understands me.” “He is going to help me.” “I’m safe, now.” When we feel understood, our anxiety is reduced. And when anxiety is reduced, pain is relieved. Even if we are entirely alone, clinicians and scientists agree that what we say to ourselves matters and we can direct our thoughts so that our chances for survival are enhanced.

Whether you’re speaking to yourself or to someone else on the trail, how you approach someone mentally and emotionally is at least as important as the medical expertise you have, according to Winnie Maggiore, former Asst. Chief of Placitas Volunteer Fire Brigade, paramedic, former Asst. D.A., and now a malpractice defense attorney. “We saw the Bille things in the wilderness that we saw locally—snake bites, mountain bike wrecks, breaks, falls, cardiac conditions—but the injuries in the wilderness feel worse to the patient in that he’s away from familiar surroundings. Most of what we had to do in rescues was anxiety management. The first step is to let the person know you have the expertise to help. This conviction allowed us to say ‘do this’ in a way that motivated compliance.”

The other major ingredient in dealing with crises, according to Maggiore, is giving people some sort of control over what is happening to them. “When we were just learning emergency medicine, we were given a course in hypnosis so it could be used in pain control, because it could be all we’d have to work with out there. The worst part for patients was being out of control so put them back in control as much as we could, gave them something positive to focus on. Panic is a patient’s worst enemy.”

People normally want to reassure with blanket statements, e.g., “you’re fine.” When this is obviously untrue, it’s the sort of statement that breaks rapport. It’s better to say, according to the experts, that the worst is over and you’re there to help. Your caring presence is the cornerstone of the healing process. If you don’t know what to say, say nothing and listen as you wait for help or do standard first aid. Your care can do more than you might imagine.

The following are just two examples of ways we can talk to someone in distress so that they are calmed, their pain is reduced, and they are moved steadily towards healing.

Asthma Attack .

Bill and his son, Jake, went for a dirt bike ride up a trail that was almost never used. Bill was sure his son had his inhaler with him. Jake was sure dad had it with him.

It was a rugged trail that required more physical exertion than either had expected. When they finally made it up to the first crest, Jake was starting to panic from the tightness in his chest. When they realized they’d forgotten it, Bill was smart enough to take a deep breath himself so that when he turned to his son he was calm, focused, and sure-footed.

Bill:                 Jake, I can see you’re breathing but that it’s a little tight?

Jake:                (Nods, but can’t speak.)

Bill:                 Sit with me here and lean forward like this. Put your head forward like this so your bronchial tubes can open and smooth out. [At this point, Bill’s voice drops in pitch and slows down so that it’s soothing and controlled. He “paces” his son’s breath with his own, carefully so as not to hyperventilate, just enough so that there is a joint rhythm. As he speaks to his son, his breathing slows down just a little bit at a time, “leading” his son back to normal breathing.) And as you do, you can remember very clearly how your inhaler feels when you take a puff on it, a little cool, a little tingly and how it opens you up pretty quickly, you can remember how it feels when it’s working…a little more open now…a little more open, a little cooler, until you can get a really good deep, slow, even breath…


A High Side at Five

When we get a whiff of twisting and turning mountain roads, open vistas and the winds of freedom that fill us, it’s easy to take off on an impulse and forget basics: water, first aid kit, cell phone.

Manny and Janice took off on an early Sunday morning, the first of spring. It had been a long winter and while they remembered to charge their batteries, they forgot just about everything else. Manny and Janice pointed their bikes west, Janice leading, and kept going until a deer ran in front of Manny. Reflexively jamming on his front break, he went head over hind end until he wound up in an intimate embrace with a hundred year old oak.

When he was finally able to gather his wits, he saw Janice standing over him. Even though neither had a first aid kit, Janice knew Verbal First Aid.

Manny:            How’s my bike?

Janice:             It’s fine. It’s just taking a nap. That was some acrobatic act.

Manny:            Did you get it on video?

Janice:             Yeah, with the camera in the back of my head.  (She smiled.) I’m going to help you    now, Manny. I can see that you’re talking and thinking just fine.  Let me see  how the rest of you is.

When he stood up, though, they realized he had a deep laceration from a piece of metal

That had been left on the side of the road and blood was pouring down his leg.

Manny:            Damn it! It’s really bleeding.

Janice:             It is and that’s actually a really good thing so that it cleans out the wound. As soon as you’ve cleaned it through enough, you can stop [Janice emphasizes “stop”] the bleeding.

Manny:            Damn it. That was so stupid.

Janice:             It happens to everyone. I know you’ve gotten cut before and you’ve stopped the bleeding before just like you’re stopping it  right now. [She wraps her bandana around it and applies pressure.] You can hold it tight like this. Y’know even as we’re sitting here, it’s already starting to heal and the bleeding has slowed to a stop.

Manny:            Damned if it hasn’t!

Janice:              So… we can either wait for a car to pass or you can sit on the back of my bike…and we’ll ride into town.

Manny:            I’ll hitch.

Mental survival—regardless of where a person is, whether that’s in the extremes of battle or a cross-country ride—is often a matter of recalling or being made aware of the resources one already has. As Lt. Samuels learned the hard way, the mind is the greatest weapon of all.




People to Watch: Hudson Valley

Judith Acosta PhotoThis was one of the best welcomes I have ever had, or could hope to have. While I’m still missing New Mexico terribly, this article about Verbal First Aid, The Next Osama, and my general practice as a psychotherapist and homeopath certainly took some of the sting out.

Hudson Valley Magazine People to Watch 2012!


Praise or Parenting?

Do You Substitute Praise for Parenting?

Now in Huffington Post

I was at the dog park recently and watched as a middle-aged man played with his young son and their dog. They were throwing around a ball and running back and forth. The dog and the kid returned back to dad, each with the same expression, awaiting the same response: “Great job!” And they got it every time no matter what they did.

It was pretty sweet, really, and I couldn’t help but smile when the boy and the dog both got patted on their heads at the same time, but it made me wonder a bit about how we praise our kids and how we confuse unconditional love and unconditional approval.

A while back (in the early ’80s) when I was just starting out, there was a group for women on the West Coast that was dedicated to the fostering of self-esteem and empowerment. These are good things… up to a point. But those were the times we were living in, and the terms were being thrown around like rice at weddings. Anyway, the women were told to use the word “yeasting” to imagine themselves growing full of their true “selves.” Given what we know about the power of imagery and how words translate into physiologic responses, can you guess what happened?

Take a moment.

Are you laughing yet?

They developed yeast infections. I kid you not. Whether they had any real improvement in their self-worth, I can’t tell you. No studies were done and no further reports were given.

Can We Praise Too Much?

Parents struggle with this issue all the time because somehow in our society we have transposed love and approval. We have been infused (“yeasted?”) with the notion that if we don’t praise and empower our children at every turn we are somehow failing them or burdening them with battered egos, poor economic futures and a long life of traumatic relationships.

Praising, which is a marvelous thing when it is merited and sincerely given, has become as freely distributed in the schools and playgrounds as cake at a birthday party. “You’re so wonderful!” has become not just common, but culturally “requisite.” Chic Hollywood moms show the world their baby bumps, or parade their infants as they breast feed for the paparazzi. It would seem that what we do has become less important than who sees us doing it and the image it creates for us. And the media surely perpetuates this.

Is this the same as love or as parenting? To answer that for myself, I had to backtrack for a moment and recall who we all are at the most elemental levels.

We are, first of all, sentient and aware from day one. Studies have indicated that babies are not only aware but have preference recall from while they were in utero.

In a study at the University of North Carolina, pregnant women read aloud “The Cat in the Hat” twice a day to their unborn children. A few days after birth, the newborns were outfitted with special nipples that let them signal their approval of what they were hearing. (This is based on the data that sucking behavior is a reflection and direct measure of interest.)

The newborns were then given the opportunity to hear a different story than they one they’d heard in utero. They quickly realized they could change the story by changing the speed of their suckling. They vastly preferred what they heard in utero. Not only that, but they preferred it the exact way they heard it: by their mothers as opposed to other females, read forward rather than backward.

Translation: Children are listening and watching and interpreting what we do, what we say and how we do or say it, even when we think they’re just dribbling.

Secondly, we are all pack animals. We need to know we belong. That includes love, but requires more. In order to truly belong, we must be able to participate. This entails that we also know and follow the general rules — what we can do, what we can’t do, what we have to offer and where our place in the pack is.

Guidelines and standards, when used lovingly (and I can’t overstate the importance of “lovingly”), are necessary for good character. It’s the same as lifting weights for good bone density. If we never have to lift more than we think we can, we never will. We simply get weaker and weaker.

The third and perhaps most important is that we are all — again, from our first breaths –hard-wired to seek safety. That is where parenting really comes in.

Safety is everything to a child. It allows him to grow, to question, to create, to make mistakes, to actually become empowered, to learn and finally to understand the workings of the world so he can function and build new relationships outside the family.

Unconditional praise or approval is, by definition, the absence of limits, standards and expectations. And if there are no limits for a child, there can be no safety.

The problem is that, like poor Ali McGraw in “Love Story,” we think love means never having to say, “I’m sorry,” or, “Please don’t do that,” or, “That was wrong.” Love often means precisely the opposite.

Children who are raised to think it’s all “okay” and that they’re “just wonderful,” no matter what they do, are given a message that is actually contrary to our best intentions and their deeper needs — that they are limitless, constantly central to whatever is going on and always right. All of this breeds the very thing we don’t want: narcissism.

For more intuitive children, it also resonates as a lie. I remember one young girl when I worked at an elementary school. Her mother wanted her in the school band. She bought her a brand new, expensive violin. She hired a private tutor. She became her daughter’s greatest cheerleader. But the child had no interest and no pitch. She used to come crying to me in my office that she wanted to quit, that she couldn’t do it. But her mother insisted that she could be anything she wanted to be, that she was terrific, that she only need apply herself a little bit more.

“I know I can’t play. I can hear myself,” the child told me. “Why can’t she?”

Are Standards Punitive?

Standards of behavior don’t negate love. They may very well help express it. The reality is we are not all created equal. We have equal rights under the law, but I know without a doubt that I can’t play basketball. I can’t fly a plane. I can’t do neurosurgery. I’m not the same as you. You’re not the same as me. We each have gifts. We each have deficits. That is what we all share. That is the true nature of our equality — that we are not the same.

Children know this until they are taught otherwise. They see it from their first birthday party, their first foray into a playground, their first afternoon at daycare. Some kids run faster than others. Some speak earlier, some speak later. Some kids sing like angels from the time they can breathe. Other kids can see deep into the netherworld of mathematics, as if they were reading a milk carton. Some kids are born with the gift of compassion.

Whatever their gift, they usually know the difference between a brilliant performance and a lousy one. It’s not just because we say so. They can feel it.

The issue is, how we walk them through the reality that already exists?

I remember one teacher from fifth grade. His name was Mr. Sperber. He was the strictest teacher in the school and he taught grammar. We all loathed it, all the diagrams and conjunctions, but we learned it. And we behaved. Granted, this was not the most creative or expressive episode of my life, but because of him, it was one of the most disciplined and important. I learned what I was capable of doing, even when I didn’t “feel” like it. I learned respect and diligence. And I knew the pleasure of well-earned praise. When he said, “good job,” he meant it. There were no effortless “atta-boy’s” in that class. But when praise was given, it felt awfully good.

Just the fact that I remember him when I can’t recall one of the other teachers in all those years of school is evidence enough for me of his impact.

Suzanne Brown, an economist and the mother of two grown boys (aged 20 and 25), felt that her kids needed her approval, and she gave it unstintingly when they accomplished something: “When Ben was little, and did something well — be it put a puzzle together or kick a ball — I would say, ‘You must feel really great about that!,’ or, ‘Wow, how does it feel to get a 100 on your spelling test?’”

She added:

I think people become confident because they build on success … It seems to me that parents often fail to recognize that parenting is about raising a self-sufficient, value-centered individual. It is not about how they look to the outside world, it is about how the children function in the outside world. As parents, we tend to think our kids need to make us look good, rather than we need to look good to our kids, and set examples for them to live by. I tell each of my boys that I am so very lucky that, of all the little boys in the world, I got to be the mom of the very best ones.

Approval and encouragement and praise are cause for joy. I love giving it. I love receiving it. And occasionally, I really need it. But it’s not the same as the deeper need for love, which can be given unconditionally, wholeheartedly and needs no approval at all.

The Worst Is Over Rated on Goodreads

Beth Pearce
Mar 22, 2008

Beth Pearce rated it 5 of 5 stars

Recommends it for: carol

Actually, I just re-read this book, which I first read in 2005 for job-related purposes. Re-reading it for practical, daily purposes enriched it for me. I love this book.

I have this childhood story that I carry around about my sister getting her finger caught in the blender. Out of 3 family members watching, one started screaming, one started running up and down the stairs and my other sister unplugged the machine. Yes, we were all young, but our initial responses to an event say a lot about our reactions to situations and carry forward in life. Have you felt you heart rate go up, or flushed in the face, or that you are holding your breath in reaction to someone’s verbal aggressiveness? All of these reactions are embodied and affect our health on all levels. That is the basic premise of this book. While it systematically addresses situations of first aid, caregiving and even dying and how our choice of words directly influences the situation, it is excellent for use in our daily lives. So, the next time I am panicking about a situation, I’m going to recite to myself that the worst is already over.

Verbal First Aid and Classical Homeopathy

This is an excerpt from a recently published article in Homeopathy Today (2010). It was truly one of the best editing and writing experiences I’ve had. The people at HT are some of the best I’ve worked with.

Verbal First Aid and Homeopathy


Judith Acosta, LISW

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Leo F. Buscaglia


I recently listened to a CD of a world-renowned homeopath taking a case. Even though I was not in the room with her, I felt her compassion. She asked questions gently but probingly, she was never judgmental, she shared moments of good humor and made it clear by her tone and phrasing that she understood her patient’s suffering. She was available for his questions and answered them with an eye towards educating and healing him.

Listening to her, I recalled the first time I went to a homeopath, also very well known. His manner was quite different: cool, clinical, terse, impatient. He gave the impression that he wanted me to give him answers so he could find the remedy and be done with it. I was brand new to homeopathy and didn’t understand what to expect from  our first meeting, not to mention the treatment. He gave me absolutely no information and would not tell me what remedy he gave me, which is especially unnerving to someone used to the world of conventional medicine. When I called a week later, worried that some of my complaints had gotten worse (this turned out to be an “aggravation,” a temporary worsening of symptoms that actually signals that the remedy is working), he said, “Well, if you want to ruin it with antibiotics, I can’t stop you.”

When I compared notes with others who knew this homeopath they told me, “Don’t worry, he’s like that with everybody. He thinks that if he gives too much information or gets too chummy, he’ll be unduly affecting the course of treatment. He just wants to see what the homeopathic remedy is doing all by itself.”

I encourage you to get the archived edition on the Homeopathy Today website.

The Art of Spotting Narcissists

A woman recounted to me a marriage of alternating abuse and abandonment. I asked her how she’d met him and what led her to marry him. She said so innocently, “He was so nice then.” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that.

Admittedly, I was taught to be the same as a young woman. Women in general are raised to be nice and respond to those who are nice to us. I distinctly remember my aunt telling me, “Nice girls don’t speak like that.” (I had entered an adult conversation with a strong opinion of my own and called an elder to task on his point of view.) And I can’t tell you how many times I put myself in danger because it wouldn’t have been “nice” of me to walk away from a man who was trying to talk to me, even though I knew in my body that something was terribly wrong. I was very lucky. Not all are.

We can all remember being told that someone we knew (or knew of) had gotten in trouble, been arrested for drug use, or in some way found with their pants literally or figuratively down. And we can all remember saying, “How could that be? He was so nice!”

We can all recall the television interviews of neighbors and co-workers after some ghastly disaster sends them all reeling into the streets with their pajamas on, some shooting spree or child molestation. And all of them have the same comment: “I don’t understand it. He was such a nice, quiet guy!”

Bundy was so nice, women got into his Volkswagen ignoring or failing to even notice that there was no front seat. Charles Manson, psychotic that he was, still sweetly lured the innocent and isolated into his cache of horrors.

What’s Nice? What’s Good?

Over coffee, my friend and colleague, Kevin Rexroad, M.D., attempted to define the terms. Even though I’m a psychotherapist and Kevin’s a psychiatrist, it wasn’t as easy as we had expected. We had both had recent personal experiences with narcissistic individuals who made the difference vividly and viscerally clear, yet it was hard to quantify.

“With nice,” he mused, “it’s usually so nice that a part of me knows it’s too nice to be true. Good is different. It has a more obviously average quality about it.”

I defined that further. Good is humble. There is no pretense. No boasting. No need for approval or accolades. It does what it does because it seeks to do the right thing. Period.

So, on a rather large Starbucks napkin, I drew two columns.

Good People

They understand the battle against evil but never take pleasure in its defeat, rather sadness in its necessity.
They have consistent integrity.
They say what they mean and mean what they say.
Good men and women are warriors of a sort. They do not tolerate injustice but also do not seek to punish or exact revenge.
They are temperate of mind and heart.
They have substance.
They are responsible in that they respond to others.
They are appropriately (not helplessly or cunningly) selfless.
They are empathic without being passive.
There is no pretense in them, and they are willing to be good without seeking approval or awards of any kind.
They are the last ones to see themselves as good and definitely the last ones to tell anyone they are.

Super Nice People

They are “charming.”
They interact with a pseudo-intimacy, behaving as if they’d known you personally for years.
They engage you on their terms only, even if you don’t realize it.
They can seem very passive and quiet.
They relate to you on the surface and let you in only so far.
They do not respond to your needs but gloss over them in a way that makes you wonder what you needed that for.

They are very intent on pleasing others or ingratiating themselves into a social network.

They need to maintain a persona or a position in a social circle at all costs because how they are seen is more important than who they are.                                They manipulate.
They are like perfume — very sweet but often used to cover what is deeply offensive.
They have no compunction about lying to get what they want so long as they are nice about it.
And, they will inevitably tell you how good they are.

As I wrote that last one, I told Kevin, “I know one woman who is constantly telling me (and anyone else who will listen) how humble and spiritual she is.”

He called her statements “self-contradictory.” But only someone who is paying attention can see that. It stunned me to think of how many people actually took (and continue to take) her at her word without taking the time to look and see the incongruity of a person boasting about their humility.

As we scrolled through the list, we realized that almost all sales were based in “niceness.”
“It’s like the old pharmaceutical reps,” Kevin recalled. “They’d come in and give you a pen and be super sweet and figure you now owed them something and had to write scrips for whatever meds they were selling.”

In The Gift of Fear (1997) Gavin De Becker wrote, “Charm is another overrated ability. Note that I called it an ability, not an inherent feature of one’s personality. Charm is almost always a directed instrument” (p. 66).

He suggests we see charm as a verb rather than a noun or adjective so that instead of a man being so charming, we can see him as trying to charm us. He likens niceness to a decision and warns us that it is not the same as a character trait. It is a strategic form of social interaction. Niceness is conscious and deliberate. It is a social skill that is turned on and off, a vehicle for self-enhancement. Niceness is persuasive.

Perhaps it should not go without saying that a nice man may in fact be a very good man. Not all charm is a cover for sadism or cruelty, although very often it is. Good and nice can coexist. A good man may be quite charming and engaging. But not always. Only in the right circumstances and for the right reasons. In the choice between what is right and what is “nice,” a good man will choose what is right. He knows that true goodness is a grace bestowed in brief moments. Sometimes a good man will say and do things that may offend, hurt someone’s feelings, or even lead to battle.

I imagine Chamberlain thought he was being quite nice with Hitler. I don’t believe anyone in Czechoslovakia would have thought it was very good.

Narcissism and the Niceness of Wickedness

Nice can’t be discussed without at least mentioning narcissism. This is especially the case with unsolicited and seemingly inappropriate niceness.

Narcissists are very nice until they don’t get their way. They are great charmers and can get most people to do and accept things that they wouldn’t in their wildest dreams imagine themselves doing or accepting. Narcissists are often very adept con artists.

Narcissism, in psycho-therapeutic parlance, is a term used to indicate a superficial personality type with a hyper-inflated sense of self to compensate for a grievously wounded core. They need a huge amount of support and reinforcement or applause to feel that they have any existence at all. These are people you will often find in the media, in Hollywood, in politics, in positions where they are leading, lording over, or performing for many people. We may understandably expect them there. But we will also find them in car dealerships, in schools, and in our neighborhood associations, because a narcissist is simply someone who puts himself in the center of the universe and fully, comfortably, and syntonically expects you to do the same for him.

As a result, what they want is paramount in any relationship — intimate or fleeting. They are people who don’t accept “no” for an answer easily because it so threatens either their plan, their sense of self-worth (which is actually quite flimsy), or both. In order to keep things moving where they want them to go, they will manipulate with sweetness and charm. If that doesn’t work, they will lie. And if that doesn’t work, in many cases (though not all) they will rage. Sometimes that rage is malignant and can result in profound emotional or bodily harm to others.

An example of emotional harm is a simple story: Jane was once married to a narcissist. The ex-husband, Charlie, regularly demeaned and verbally abused Jane while they were married. He cheated on her. He had literally no empathy and no respect for her needs. This continued past their divorce. Some years ago, Charlie had their son call Jane to demand that Jane let Charlie and his new girlfriend stay at her house until their new home was painted, knowing that Jane was terrified of losing the affection of her son. She allowed herself to be manipulated and humiliated this way because she was made to feel like the perpetrator every time she tried to say no. Unlike narcissists, people who are trying to be good often have consciences and more highly developed senses of guilt.

An example of physical harm is something we hear about nearly every day in the news. It is a particularly malignant form of narcissism that extends into sociopathy or psychosis. A woman or child is abducted by someone who looked so “normal” or seemed so “nice.” They are deliberately and skillfully lured in with requests for help, invitations to look at a puppy, or by making small-talk and not letting it end in a normal fashion and pushing themselves on people who are timid or afraid of hurting someone else’ feelings.  As De Becker points out, narcissists do not accept the word “no” because they need control.

It was about a week after the terrorist attack in New York. I was walking my dogs — two large and not-terribly-benign rescues who loved me and were initially cautious with everyone else — down the small, winding street that led to our home. It was not a through street, so strangers were usually quite noticeable.

It was 7:00 a.m. when a man in a silver Jaguar pulled in front of us at a diagonal, blocking our passage. He stopped and got out of the car. A sheep dog was in the back of the car with his paws on the top of the seat peering out at us. The man walked toward us wearing an FBI hat (ridiculous looking) and a silver running suit. At the time I was working with an NYPD group (POPPA) as a counselor, and immediately I committed his license plate to memory.

I put my hands forward in a “stop” position as my dogs started barking and twitching. He didn’t stop quickly enough, and I knew something was amiss.

“Hi there!” he chirped sweetly. Anyone would have said he was being quite nice. “I just moved into the neighborhood, and I was hoping we could get a play date for the dogs…”

He would’ve kept talking and he was slowly moving closer and closer. Amazingly, my two barking and animated, 80-pound dogs didn’t deter him. So I did.

“Get back in your car now. They’re not friendly, and neither am I.” (Actually, they were both quite friendly with people they trusted. They were clearly on alert.)

“You don’t have to be like that!” he said and nearly pouted, trying to make me feel awful for hurting his feelings and rejecting him.

“Yes, I do. I’m warning you. They don’t take to strangers,” I moved forward with them and slackened my leashes so the dogs could lunge forward.

He stomped off after he gave me a tongue lashing for being rude. Mind you, I didn’t feel all that good about being “rude” at all and wondered for a day or so whether I had been too quick to judge or if I was just plain ol’ mean — until I found out that his plates were from a town about 100 miles away and nowhere near where we lived. So much for welcome to the neighborhood! If he had not been looking to perpetrate some harm, he would never have been so indignant about being told “no.” If he had been a good man, he would have realized he’d overstepped a boundary and apologized (and meant it).

Narcissism is unfortunately one of the marks of success in modern Western culture. If you are sufficiently self-important to be important to others, you’ve made it. You’re on the cover of Time or People or Us. (Ironically, for a narcissist there is no “us.” It is the epitome of the royal “we” in which their “I” includes everyone else.)

Sounding the Cultural Alarm: Discernment

In 1940 C.S. Lewis was already sounding the alarm about this radical change in modern society. He stated emphatically that kindness (or niceness) was not the measure of goodness, just as apparent cruelty was not the measure of evil. For as Russ Murray points out in his blog, someone can be quite nice and have the most base of intentions, citing as an example how Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Doctors do the opposite all the time: they reset broken bones, suture ruptured skin, and remove decayed teeth using methods that sometimes cause awful (albeit temporary) pain in order to facilitate proper healing. Is it nice? Hell, no. Is it good? Until we have better means, yes, it is very good.

Because our culture puts such a premium on niceness, charm, and pleasure, ordinary, good people are put at a disadvantage when it comes to discernment. A narcissist can appear quite innocent because she has so mastered the technique of ingratiation, so much so that she can make you feel that you have somehow committed a terrible injustice by denying her X or Y or Z as she positions herself as the victim.

As Gavin De Becker points out, this failure to see behind the mask of niceness can make the difference between life and death. World-wide, the crime records attest to the danger. A woman who can’t say “no” to a nice stranger’s unsolicited offer to escort her to her car at night, even though she doesn’t like him, may wind up filing reports of assault, rape, and attempted murder. This is not to blame the victim, rather to point out how charming that charm can be and how carefully we need to pay attention to the differences.

So, what does a person do? How do you tell the difference?

When I teach Verbal First Aid to emergency workers, a communication protocol used to facilitate healing in traumatic situations, I ask them what they think their most important tool is. Inevitably the hands go up: the defibrillator, the oxygen tank, the Jaws of Life.

I tell them: No. Your most important and most healing instrument is you.

What makes them — or any of us — healing is at least in part what makes us good: the ability to develop rapport, our integrity and compassion, our benevolent presence and support. To be healing (or good) one must respect the patient (or person) before him and do what is necessary, even if it is not “nice” to deal with the disease or the injury. Part of what is necessary in Verbal First Aid, of course, is dealing with the patient honestly and with a gentle, but firm authority. Manipulating and healing are mutually exclusive.

The Bible defines goodness for us as “an inherent rightness of being.” It never ever mentions niceness. It never equates it with beauty or talent. It never, ever mistakes it for showmanship. (Moses himself had a lisp and timidly refused his mandate by God to lead the Jews out of Egypt.) If anything, it warns us from the very beginning to beware of pretense.

We can start to tell the difference by remembering that there is a difference.

(This article appeared in Huffington Post in November 2010)

Thank you…on Forgiveness and Narcissism.

Dear Judith,

I recently read and commented on your article, “Should You Forgive Narcissists Who’ve Hurt You?” and my life has changed.  I want to thank you.

I always knew something was terribly wrong with my mother.  I’m 50, and I’ve spent my life trying to figure it out and deal with it (what an understatement!).  Your article led me to research Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  My mother, without question, has it.  She is also has Borderline Personality Disorder.  I had known about the BPD, but not the NPT.  After a lifetime of invalidation, finally I’m finding validation that what I experienced really did happen.

Your article was thoughtful and well written, and you raised the question of forgiveness in a way that made sense to me.  Looking into this issue with courage rather than with guilt and anger has helped me realize that I’m stronger than I thought I was, and that ‘healing’ has happened over the years.  I have a lot more work to do, but your article has framed this work in a remarkably positive way for me, and opened a door that I was unaware of.

I am so very grateful to you.


The Next Osama Syndrome

For the first time in Huffington Post, you can read more about the idea behind The Next Osama! This is one of the most important things I’ve ever done and I hope I can share it with all of you. It dovetails perfectly with all the things Verbal First Aid stands for, but takes a look at it from the cultural angle rather than the personal and psychological one.

The reason I’ve done this is because of what I’ve seen in my psychotherapy practice–people who are afraid, truly afraid, and look to all sorts of products to make them feel better: breast implants (so they feel younger and aren’t so afraid of losing their luster or facing their mortality), viagra (so they feel more virile and aren’t so afraid of the normal aging process), more and more insurance (so they’re supposedly protected against everything the insurance companies can make them afraid of).

I will be releasing a host of new articles on this topic–how the culture and particularly the media perpetuate needless, pervasive and viral fear and, not only what this does to us, but what we can do about it!

As they say, stay tuned.

On Real Parenting

This is meant for all parents who need just that small amount of recognition and encouragement to really help their children.

Verbal First Aid in the Real World

I got this lovely letter from a reader at the Huffington Post, who has graciously given permission to reprint it here.

Hi Jude,

Your point about children tending to “interpret things literally, think magically, and respond viscerally” to heal right away, I observed when my daughter, known then as the “Little Princess”, crawled atop a chair and “unintentionally” dove into the edge of a coffee table. Contact point: right eyebrow, which accommodated her explosion of kinetic energy with a half inch gash.

I am an easy-going parent, but watching your kid simulate bungee-jumping sans bungee, even for two feet, heightens your terror alert meter… For those who don’t know, small head wounds produce volumes of blood. I remained calm and said, “Wow, I’ve done that, boom, you hit your head!” then I told her bleeding was a good thing, cleaning the wound and all, and that it would stop soon because of the magic ice. There was more, but the really interesting part occurred at the hospital, she chatted with the nurses and doctors about her situation, never cried (even while they stitched the wound), and the amount of blood was comparatively small. It was a non-event to her.

Did I contribute to her self-healing attitude and actions? Looking back and comparing elements of what I did to your Verbal First Aid… I believe I may have, and if it worked on the “Little Princess” it will work on other kids too.

The best part is that you are modeling beneficial behavior for your kids – how to react to your grandchildren.

Good thoughts!
Lawson M.

That’s precisely how it’s supposed to work. Words lead to thoughts lead to images lead to chemistry which in turn leads to images and reinforces thoughts about ourselves–how we handle stress, healing etc…

Thanks, Lawson.