Category Archives: Writing

That time when I conducted a scientific research study designed to test the effectiveness of using hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum and transport 18 people to the future so they could fill-out perfect March Madness brackets.

Flower in Bricks

You can probably tell by the title of this post that I’m pretty stoked about scientific research right now.

I typically don’t do much empirical research. That’s why it was a surprise to me and my colleagues that, about six weeks ago, I spontaneously developed a research idea, dropped nearly everything else I was doing, and had amazing fun conducting my first ever March Madness bracket research project.

My research experience included a roller coaster of surprises.

I somehow convinced a professor from the Health and Human Performance department at the University of Montana to collaborate with me on a ridiculous study on a ridiculously short timeline.

My university IRB approved our proposal. Seriously. I submitted a proposal that involved me hypnotizing volunteer participants to transport them into the future to make their March Madness bracket selections. Then they approved it in six days. How cool is that?

I managed to network my way onto ESPN radio (where we called the study ESP on ESPN; thanks Lauren and Arianna) and onto the Billings, MT CBS affiliate (thanks Dan).

And, this is the teaser: with only 36 participants, the results were significant at the p < .001 level.

Damn. Now you know. Scientific research is so cool.

Of course, there’s a back-story. While you’re waiting in anticipation to learn about those p < .001 results, you really need to hear this back-story.

Several years ago, while on a 90-minute car ride back from Trapper Creek Job Corps to Missoula, my counseling interns asked me if I could hypnotize someone and take them back in time so they could recall something that happened to them in a previous life. I thought the question was silly and the answer was simple.

“Absolutely yes.” I said, “Of course I could do that.”

Questions followed.

My answers included a ramble about not really believing in past lives and not really thinking that past life hypnotic regression was ethical. But still, I said, “If someone is hypnotizable, then, I’m sure I could get them into a trance and at least make them think they went back to a previous life and retrieved a few memories. No problem.”

Have you ever noticed that once you start to brag, it’s hard to stop. That’s what happened next, for several years.

Somewhat later in another conversation, I started exaggerating bigly. I decided to extend my imaginary prowess into a fool-proof strategy for generating a perfect March Madness bracket. I said something about, “Brains being amazing and that you can suddenly pay attention to the big toe on your right foot and, at nearly the same time, project yourself not only back into your 7-year-old self, but forward in time into the future. That being the case,” I waxed, “it’s pretty obvious that I could hypnotize people, break down the space-time continuum, and take them to a future where all the March Madness basketball games had been played and therefore, they could just copy down the winners and create a perfect March Madness bracket.”

Through this process, I would turn a one-in-a-trillion possibility into absolute certainty.

I enjoyed bragging about my imaginary scenario for several years. That is, until this year, when, I decided that if I was set on bragging bigly, I should also be willing to put determined it was time to put my science where my mouth is (or something like that). It was time to test my hypnosis-space-time-continuum hypothesis using the scientific method.

We designed a pre-test, post-test experimental design with random assignment to three conditions.

Condition 1: Education. Participants would receive about 20 minutes of education on statistics relevant to making March Madness bracket picks. My colleague, Dr. Charles Palmer, showed powerpoint slides and provided insights about the statistical probabilities of 12s beating 5s and 9s beating 8s, and “Blue Blood” conferences.

Condition 2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation. The plan was for Daniel Salois, one of my graduate students and an immensely good sport, to do 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation with this group.

Condition 3: Hypnosis. I would use a hypnotic induction, a deepening procedure, and then project participants into the future. Instead of having everyone fill out their brackets while in trance, I decided to use a post-hypnotic suggestion. As soon as they heard me clap twice, they would immediately recall the tournament game outcomes and then fill out their brackets perfectly.

Unfortunately, on short notice we only recruited 36 participants. To give ourselves a chance to obtain statistical significance, we dumped the progressive muscle relaxation condition, and just had the EDUCATION and HYPNOSIS conditions go head to head in a winner-take-all battle.

Both groups followed the same basic protocol. Upon arrival at the College of Education, they were randomly assigned to one of two rooms (Charlie or me). When the got to their room, they signed the informed consent, and immediately filled out a bracket along with a confidence rating. Then they received either the EDUCATION or HYPNOSIS training. After their respective trainings, they filled out a second bracket, along with another confidence rating.

We hypothesized that both groups would report an increase in confidence, but that only the EDUCATION group (but not the HYPNOSIS group) would show a statistically significant improvement in bracket-picking accuracy. We based our hypotheses on the fact that although real education should help, there’s no evidence that anyone can use hypnosis to transport themselves to the future. We viewed the HYPNOSIS condition as essentially equivalent to raising false hopes without providing help that had any substance.

IMHO, the results were stunning.

We were dead on about the EDUCATION group. Those participants significantly increased their confidence; they also improved their bracket scores (we used the online ESPN scoring system where participants can obtain up to a maximum of 320 points for each round; this means participants got 10 points for every correct pick in the first round, with their potential points doubling in every round, and concluding with 320 points if they correctly picked the University of North Carolina to win the tournament).

Then there was the HYPNOSIS group.

HYPNOSIS participants experienced a small but nonsignificant increase in their confidence. . . but they totally tanked their predictions. We had a participant who picked Creighton to win it all. We had one bracket that had Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State in the final. We had another person who listed a final score in the championship game of 34-23. When I shared these results to our research class, I said, “The HYPNOSIS participants totally sucked. They did so bad that I think they couldn’t have done any worse if we had hit them all on the head with a 2 x 4 and given them concussions and then had them fill out their brackets.”

So what happened? Why did the HYPNOSIS group perform so badly?

When told of the outcome, one student who had participated offered her explanation, “I believe it. I don’t know what happened, but after the hypnosis, I totally forgot about anything I knew, and just wrote down whatever team names popped into my head.”

My interpretation: Most of the people in the HYPNOSIS group completely abandoned rational and logical thought. They decided that whatever thoughts that happened to come into their minds were true and right.

It’s probably too much of a stretch to link this to politics, but it’s hard not to speculate. It’s possible that candidates from both parties are able, from time to time, to use charisma and bold claims to get their supporters to let go of logic and rational thought, and instead, embrace a fantastical future.

Another faculty member in our department offered an alternative explanation. She recalled the old Yerkes-Dodson law. This “law” in psychology predicts that optimal arousal (or stress) is linked to optimal performance. In contrast, too much arousal or too little arousal impairs performance. She theorized that perhaps the hypnosis participants had become too relaxed; they were so under-aroused that they couldn’t perform.

It seems clear that the hypnosis did something. But what? It wasn’t a helpful trip to the future. Some friends suggested that maybe they went to the wrong year. Others have mocked me for being a bragger who couldn’t really use hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum.

What do you think? Do you have any potential explanations you’d like to offer? I’d love to hear them. And, if you have any ideas of which scientific journal to submit our manuscript to, we’d love to hear that as well.

The Morning of November 9, 2016

**This is only a semi-coherent first reaction to the Presidential election. Read if you want. Be aware that I channel a little Albert Ellis at the end.**

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In four hours I’m supposed to teach a three-hour course on advanced theories of counseling and psychotherapy. The topic today is emotion-focused therapy for couples. It’s a good day to focus on emotions. I have more than a couple of them bouncing around inside me.

Maybe that’s why I made my way to a coffee shop at 5am this morning. That’s abnormal. But today is abnormal; the new abnormal.

Back in college a fellow student who was from Nepal explained to me the meaning of the greeting, “Namaste.”

“It means,” he said, “I salute the light within you.”

It’s a sad and painful morning. I’m not sure about the light in me. Instead, mostly I’m certain that yesterday and last night was a cosmic mistake. It feels like sexism, racism, and hate have triumphed over “. . . all men (and women) being created equal.” I feel this, even though I’m a White, heterosexual, Jewish-Christian-Agnostic male. Given my privileged status, it’s hard to comprehend the pain this vote has caused women and minorities.

But I can imagine it.

When I woke up to sounds on the street at 3am, my mind created evil agents of Donald Trump gathering outside my home to take me away. It was the sort of paranoid thought that can come in the night—even to those of us who are well endowed with safety and privilege. It makes me wonder if that what’s it like for my Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Mexican, and Muslim friends and students?

Late last night I got a text from a wealthy White Christian man who described himself as in tears. “What’s happening to our country?” he asked. And then he wondered what he could tell his children in the morning. He had put them to bed with kisses and the anticipation that they would awaken to the first woman President in the history of the United States.

There’s too much pain and sadness and suffering in the world. But there was too much pain and sadness and suffering in the world last week. And there will be too much next week.

I hold vivid memories of suffering through Reagan’s election, and George H. W. Bush’s election, and George W. Bush’s election. Those were difficult times. In each case I was certain that an evil force on the planet had somehow made it possible for the less honest, less compassionate, and less competent candidate to win.

But this is worse.

Even so, I refuse to believe that the majority of Americans are sexist and racist. I see too much kindness. I hope that Donald Trump is only a temporary phenomenon. I hope his existence will motivate us to swing the pendulum back toward justice, kindness, and empathy.

I’m reminded of the alleged words of Jesus, “Forgive them father, they know not what they do.”

Somewhat irrationally, I still have faith.

I have faith in the possibility that, as Jesus said, many people do not know what they’ve done. I have faith that although Donald Trump won the vote, that most people are not inherently sexist and racist at their core. I have faith that we can reach out to, reason with, and love our enemies, even when they’re our neighbors.

I will also follow the advice that I give people for coping with crisis.

  • Take care of yourself.
  • Look around and do what you can do to take care of others, your family, your friends, and your community.
  • And, don’t do anything stupid.

After I woke up at 3 a.m. and shook off my paranoid thoughts of evil Trump agents outside my door, other words emerged.

“Don’t mourn.”

An old memory was knocking at my door.

“But I want to mourn,” was my response. “I want to mourn. I need to mourn. I want to feel the pain for myself, and for my community of friends and family who have had their hopes crushed.”

“Okay. The voice conceded. “Mourn briefly. Do not linger.”

I recognized that this message wasn’t necessarily mine or God’s. It sounded like Joe Hill, the old union activist. He was saying,

“Don’t mourn. Organize.”

Then I was up. I had my hour of mourning. It was 4am. The sun will rise. I will teach my class.

But more important, I will focus. I will organize. I will, in Freud’s words, “Sublimate my emotions.”

I will whisper “Namaste” to everyone I see. I will salute the light within them.

Even though, right now, it’s so fucking hard to see the light.

 

Professional Writing 101: Dealing with Rejection

This is how it goes.

You read, gather background information, do research, and carefully write a manuscript. You put in so many hours or days or weeks that you lose track of how much time you’ve put in—which is a good thing. You re-read, edit, get feedback, revise, and do your best to produce an excellent manuscript. You upload it a portal where it magically finds its way to a professional journal editor. Then, because you can only submit a manuscript to one journal at a time, you wait.

A month passes.

You keep waiting.

If you’re lucky, you hear back from the journal editor via email within two months. You click on the email with a mix of anticipation and dread. Then, ta-da, you learn your manuscript was REJECTED.

The editor is polite, but pointedly informs you that this particular journal doesn’t recognize the magnificence of your work. To add insult to injury, your rejection is accompanied by critiques from three different reviewers. These reviewers were apparently named by Dr. Seuss: Reviewer 1, Reviewer 2, and Reviewer 3.

Some rejections are worse than others. Maybe it’s because your hopes were too high; or maybe it’s because the journal’s impact factor rating was so low. Getting rejected when the journal has an impact rating of “0” can bring down your self-esteem to a similar level.

And then there are the reviewers.

It’s important to remember that reviewers are busy, fallible, human, and unpaid volunteers. They’re also purportedly experts, although I’ve had experiences that led me to question their expertise. Many appear to have a proverbial axe to grind. Perhaps because they experienced scathing critiques in their professional childhood, they feel the need to pass on the pain. Sometimes they just seem obtuse. I’ve wondered a time or two if maybe a reviewer forgot to actually read the manuscript before offering an off-point “review.”

If you sense bitterness, it might be because over the past several years I’ve experienced an extra-large load of rejections. When the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) rejected my manuscript in less than a week, I was disappointed. But because the NEJM is the most prestigious journal on the planet, I didn’t linger much on the rejection, because rejection was expected. But when a decidedly less-prestigious professional group rejected all my proposals to present at an annual conference, I was deeply hurt, saddened, and angry. Reading the reviewers’ comments didn’t help.

At one point last summer, in a fit of self-pity, I decided to count up my two-year rejection total. I got to 20, had a flash of insight, and stopped. It was like counting cloudy days. My advice: Unless you’re especially serious about depressing yourself, don’t count up your rejections. If you’re into counting, put that energy into counting the sunny days.

One time, back when I was immature and impulsive, I received an insensitive and insulting rejection from a low tier journal. My response: A hasty, nasty, and indignant email lambasting the editor and his single reviewer for their poor decision-making process and outcome. Sending the email was immediately gratifying, but, like many immediately gratifying things, not reflective of good judgment. I never heard back. And now, when I see that editor at conferences, it’s awkward.

More recently, I responded to a rejection from a high-status conference with humility along with a gentle inquiry about re-consideration. Less than 24 hours later they discovered “one more slot” and I was in! It was a paid gig, for an excellent conference, and at a convenient venue. Bingo. Let that be a lesson to me.

Last month I received a different sort of journal rejection. It was an invitation to “Revise and Resubmit.”

Put in romantic terms, revise and resubmit is lukewarm and confusing. The message is, “I kind of like you, and you have potential, but I’m not ready for a commitment.” But if you’ve been casting out and reeling in a raft of rejections, revise and resubmit is a welcome flirtation.

I had submitted a manuscript focusing on suicide risk assessment to a reasonably good journal. It was a good manuscript. In fact, Reviewer 3 recommended publication. But Reviewer 1 spoiled my day by offering 23 substantial and picky suggestions. The editor, who wrote me a long and rather nice email, decided to go with Reviewer 1’s opinion: revise and resubmit.

Given that I’ve been reviewing the suicide risk assessment literature for a couple decades, I assumed I was well-versed in the area. But when I read through Reviewer 1’s suggestions I was surprised, humbled, and eventually pleased. Reviewer 1 had many excellent points.

Looking back and forward, I think this is what I like best about submitting manuscripts to professional journals. Basically, you get a free critique and although some reviewers are duds, others are experts in the field who provide you with a fabulous educational opportunity. There’s always so much more to learn.

The moral of this story and blog post is that the attitude we have toward rejection is far more important than our fragile egos (at least it’s more important than my fragile ego). In response to the revise and resubmit verdict, I’ve graciously accepted the feedback, engaged a co-author to help me, and we have now systematically plowed through the 23 recommendations. The result: Last week we re-submitted a vastly improved manuscript.

Now we wait.

Although I have hope for success, I also realize that Reviewer 1 may have a bit more educational feedback to offer. But this time around, I’m looking forward to it.

 

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What Brain Science Says about Becoming a Better Professional Writer

This piece on professional writing is in anticipation of our upcoming John Wiley & Sons sponsored ACA presentation on April 1 in Montreal titled: Writing for Publication: Insights and Strategies

The “Decade of the Brain” started way back in 1990. It’s been over for more than 15 years. So you would think everyone could get over it and move on. But obviously that’s not how things pertaining to the brain work. Too many neuroscientists, journalists, and other people are happily riding along on the brain science bandwagon to just let it go. Most things would be perfectly satisfied with their own decade and the attention that goes with that, but the brain is a selfish organ and obviously interested in hogging all the decades. And so the brain discoveries just keep rolling in and eager journalists keep on writing and talking about the brain, which is why the popularity of neuroscience is now officially off the map. Neuroscience’s reach has far exceeded its grasp, but such is the nature of popular things. Just think about bell-bottoms.

We still know very little about the brain. That’s partly why neuroscience excites people. The excitement is more related to our collective brains collective imagination of what neuroscience might be than neuroscience reality. This has turned neuroscience into a projective test (think of the Rorschach Inkblots). There’s some vague information or structure out there and so everyone takes some of it in, blends it with their unique personality and past experiences, and then projects hypothetical possibilities about brain science onto the blank canvass of reality. Then voila, people start talking about ridiculous things like male brains and female brains and teen brains.

I say all this as a balancing introduction that will help me not sound completely trite and ridiculous when I write,

Coming up next: What brain science says about how you can become a better writer.

Let’s pause and self-reflect here. This statement is both bad writing and bad science. It’s bad writing because I’ve transformed (through grammatical magic) the inanimate field of brain science into an entity that has something to say. It’s bad science because the first rule of becoming a better writer, although supported by neuroscience, is such numbingly basic common sense that it’s inappropriate to gift it the charade of scientific authority.

Put another way, brain science can’t talk; people talk. But if brain science could talk, and you asked it, “What can I do to become a better writer?” it would likely respond with something like:

The first rule to good writing is WRITER’S WRITE. This is what literary and professional writers have said over and over for centuries and you didn’t need me, brain science, to tell you something you already knew. (see also: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2013/09/04/professional-writing-for-us-professionals-who-may-not-quite-be-writers-yet/)

If there’s one thing we know from brain science (and common sense), it’s that practice leads to improvement. Neuroscientists might say it this way, “Your behavior directly influences your brain structure and chemistry; when you repeatedly practice something, you’re actually creating specific neurons and neural pathways to make that something easier.” Common sense (if it could talk) might say, “Repeated practice generally leads to skill development.” Speaking (apparently) on behalf of common sense, the renowned science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote:

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

The take home message here is simple. If your goal is writing success, then you must make time to write.

There is, of course, a caveat to this general brain-based common sense rule. Yes, practice leads to improvement, but there are always exceptions.

Sometimes, even when you practice with great effort, consistency, and sincerity, you don’t improve much. The good news about this exception is that in the world of writing there are usually fascinating reasons for why diligent writers aren’t improving . . . and I’ll get to that important content at some point in the future. For now, remember this: The first step to becoming a successful professional writer involves taking Bradbury’s advice—which I repeat and elaborate on below:

  • Write every day
  • Read intensely
  • Get feedback
  • Engage in self-editing—produce a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th draft
  • Schedule more time to write
  • Identify your target audience and then learn more about them
  • Deal with multiple distractions
  • Reward yourself
  • Get more feedback so that you can be certain that you’re not rewarding yourself when you should be engaging in more self-reflection and scrutiny
  • Read your 4th draft aloud to yourself, then read it aloud to someone you trust to get even more feedback
  • Find somewhere to submit your precious manuscript
  • Hope for the best, but prepare for rejection
  • When you get your rejection, stay calm and integrate the feedback into your writer-identity
  • Revise your manuscript again, read it aloud again, get feedback again
  • After dealing with your neuroses, improving your manuscript, and gnashing your teeth, find the courage and strength to face your fears and resubmit your precious manuscript to somewhere that will recognize its greatness
  • Hope for the best, but prepare for rejection—again
  • Repetitively do all these things to help your brain structure and chemistry develop itself and you into a better writer who has a better chance of writing success

Before moving on I should say that I realize Bradbury was advising fiction writers and fiction writers fall within the literary writing domain. This is an important distinction. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably busy juggling numerous professional activities. These activities might include a combination of teaching, research, service, attending classes, clinical practice, supervision, and more. Traditionally, writers with literary ambitions only juggle their daily writing and reading with a job delivering pizza or waiting tables. It’s likely that you have a more rigorous and full professional life. This is one good reason why your immediate goal shouldn’t be to publish your first novel or personal memoir. You probably don’t have time for those more ambitious goals; most human services professionals who write novels and memoirs do so during sabbatical or after retirement. For now, our goal for you and your goal for yourself should be to begin taking small steps toward becoming a professional writer. The best-selling novel will have to wait.

John hanging out with Robert Wubbolding

With Wubbolding

Neuroscience New Year’s Resolutions for 2016

In case you forgot or never knew, 1990 to 2000 was championed as the decade of the brain. You would think one decade would be enough, but judging by how much of a darling neuroscience is in the media, it looks like the brain will be hogging the whole 21st century too. And so in celebration of our perpetually “New Brain Science,” I’m offering six neuroscience-based New Year’s resolutions for 2016

1. For years, the Dali Lama has been advising everyone to develop a “Loving Kindness” meditation practice. Even if his advice doesn’t change the world, having a consistent loving kindness meditation practice can change your brain. Mindfulness meditation strengthens a region in the brain called the insular cortex, an area broadly linked to self-control and good judgment. This makes 2016 a good time to start meditating. We could all use a little more self-control and good judgment.

2. You should sit down for this one. Or stand up. And then sit down again. This is because scientific research supports brain-body connections. Exercise facilitates everything from sleep to sex. If you want a sharper brain for 2016, then stand-up and get walking or stretching or running or lifting or dancing your way to clearer thinking.

3. Last year might have been the year of the gut. There’s been plenty of talk about the “gut” being our second brain. Of course, this isn’t about growing your gut or striving for a dad-bod. It’s all about digestive health. The best way to get your second brain to support your mental health is to feed it whole, fresh foods, probiotics, and fermented foods (like kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchee), while avoiding the evils of eating highly processed white sugar/white flour.

4. Exercise is great and good sex may be better, but loving and gentle touch is the bomb. Make 2016 the year—not only for consensual hugs and kisses—but also for shoulder and neck and foot massages. You can even put brushing each other’s hair on your “this-just-might-improve-my-mental-health” to-do list.

5. In 2015 sleep research was hot. It’s more obvious than ever that sleep deprivation is generally bad for your brain; it contributes to clinical depression, suicide, accidents, and illness. Finding a way to sleep well in 2016 means turning off your screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime, cutting out the caffeine after 2pm, and establishing a steady personal and family sleep routine. Sleep is the new black.

6. For those of us in the helping professions, the biggest neuroscience news is all about what psychotherapists call empathic listening. Turns out, listening in an effort to understand others grows the brain in ways similar to mindfulness meditation. That means the more you practice listening with empathy, the more you’ll grow that all-important insular cortex . . . and the more you grow your insular cortex, the less likely you are to engage in violent behaviors that threaten the planet. So if you want a more peaceful planet, put empathic listening on your New Year’s resolution list.

There’s one big principle that underlies all of the new brain science: Whatever behaviors you rehearse, practice, or repeat, are likely to strengthen your skills and grow your brain in those particular regions. What this means is that if your goal is to be a couch potato for 2016, you should spend lots of time couch potatoing so you can develop mad skills in that area, with a neurological net to match. On the other hand, if you want a healthy brain and body and awesome friendships and romance in your life, you should engage in the activities listed above—especially the mindfulness meditation and empathic listening—and you’ll grow a brain and skills that just might bring health, love, and peace in 2016.

Note: I submitted this awesome resolution list to a couple newspapers just before the New Year, but only got rejections. And so I decided to submit it to myself and, voila!, it got published right here on my very own blog (smiley face). Please share and pass it on so that all the newspaper editors who keep rejecting my work start feeling the deep regret they deserve.

Outstanding in Field

 

Writing about Writing . . . Feedback Please?

Over the past several days I’ve been inspired to pursue a new project that focuses on writing about professional writing. This is the sort of thing that happens to me when I’m facing a big list of imposing writing projects . . . I decide to add one more.

But the good news is that I’m having fun and producing lots of words on this topic. My latest method for generating words is to go for a long walk with my cell phone. Then, I dictate email messages to myself through my cell phone and send them. Pretty cool. Over the past two days I’ve “written” almost 8,000 words.

There are some problems with this system, however. In particular, if there’s any wind, or if I don’t enunciate perfectly, my phone is inclined to misquote me. The result: In the moment I feel exceptionally articulate and then I when I get home and read the emails I’ve sent myself, I sound somewhat less articulate. Here’s an example:

1 thing keep in mind is: your trickster is not my sister. What is means is that are in your obstacles 4 demons are unique to us as individuals. You wear the standard prescription for all riders. Beware the single strategy you overcome writers block. He wear even if we say it, love 1 message to manage your picture.

You can imagine my disappointment at receiving this message from myself, I’m sure. If that preceding paragraph wasn’t absolutely hilarious, I might be furious at having lost whatever profound message I was trying to communicate with myself. But I have to say that reading these emails from myself makes for excellent entertainment.

This reminds me of a dream I had back in grad school. It was amazingly profound . . . but I’ll skip that and get to the point of asking you for feedback.

If you’re a current or recent graduate student, please send me your answer to one or more of the following questions:

1. What emotions and thoughts do you experience when you turn in a paper to a professor (or, better yet, a thesis or dissertation committee)?

2. When you get lots of “constructive feedback” what thoughts and feelings do you experience? This might involve you receiving a paper back with a low grade and/or lots of “red ink.” Can you share an example of what you think or feel in response to that situation?

3. When you get positive feedback, what thoughts or feelings does that trigger? Can you share an example?

4. After you’ve gotten negative or constructive feedback, how do you find the strength or courage to send in another draft or turn in the next assignment?

If you’re currently a professor somewhere, consider answering one or more of the following:

1. What thoughts or feelings do you have to deal with to get yourself to write something?

2. How do you react to or deal with rejection? For example, if you have a manuscript or proposal rejected, what do you say, do, think, or feel? What do you do to “bounce back” from rejections of your written work?

3. How do you react to success? For example, when you have a paper accepted or get positive feedback, how does that affect you?

4. What helps you write well . . . or in what situations are you likely to write efficiently.

Thanks for thinking about this with me. I appreciate it. And I’ll even appreciate it more if you send me an email answering some of the preceding questions. Send it to: john.sf@mso.umt.edu

And . . . I’m confident that whatever you send me will arrive in better shape than the emails I’ve been sending myself.

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My Adams State University Chi Sigma Iota Initiation Speech

It’s an honor to be here on this excellent almost-spring-day in Alamosa, Colorado. Thanks to Jazmin, Chris, and Lori for inviting me here and arranging this visit. I’m so touched about this that I wrote a song especially for this event. And so you’ve got that to look forward to.

When it comes to giving speeches and workshops, one of my former professors used to say this: If you ask me to give a 15 minute talk, I’ll need all day to prepare; if you ask me to talk for a couple hours, I’ll likely need a couple hours of prep. But if you want me to talk all day . . . I’m ready.

This is why I have some verbatim notes here. Tomorrow I’ll be talking all day and therefore be way more spontaneous. Today, I need a guide to keep me focused.

The first thing I’d like to report is that the profession and discipline of Counselor Education is doing well . . . and maybe even booming. Just last night at the University of Montana we held our live group admissions interview for our CACREP-accredited Clinical Mental Health and School Counseling M.A. Programs. We have a total of 18-20 openings for these degrees and 71 applicants. About 45 applicants showed up for a 2 ½ hour group interview. After the interview, late into the night, we were discussing the applicants and one of our current students who was helping with the process exclaimed, “Thanks for letting me be a part of this. This was like Fantasy Football in February.” We took that as a compliment.

This is why I LOVE being a Counselor Educator. I don’t love it for the Listserv, or the ACA convention, or the status and prestige of being a Counselor Educator and teaching at the University of Montana. I love it because every year I get to spend most of my time teaching the kindest and most respectful graduate students on the planet; students who are deeply committed to helping others and to making the world just a little bit better place for individuals, couples, families, groups, schools, and communities. I have the honor of teaching these great people and maybe partly because we teach them how to have awesome listening skills, when I teach, they actually look like they’re listening to me. This is the best job ever.

And so thanks for letting ME be a part of THIS Excellent Day and CSI Induction Ceremony. It’s definitely better than fantasy football in February.

What I hope is that this is not just an initiation ceremony . . . it should also be a celebration . . . which brings up an important question: “How shall we celebrate?”

Well, of course, there should be dancing . . . and singing . . . and maybe some slam poetry . . . and of course, high fives all around, and arms raised in the air, and clapping and cheering (woo hoo) and toasting and smiling and laughing and eating desserts. Let’s do it all!

Counseling is a profession and identity that comes from the people. From way back in 1909, with Frank Parsons publishing “Choosing a Vocation” (with Pauline Agassiz Shaw’s unwavering financial and emotional support), it had become clear that modern citizens from the early 20th Century could benefit from assistance in making important decisions.

Think about that. Where do we learn to make decisions? Not just decisions about vocation and career, but other important life decisions? Did your parents explicitly teach you? Did you take a “Decision-Making” course in high school or college? Did you enroll in a life decision-making workshop? Probably not. Sometimes I think it’s mostly only in graduate school where Counselor Education students get taught how to make decisions and how to help people make important decisions.

This is still a big part of what we, as counselors, do. We help people make everyday life decisions. We help them sort through the thoughts, feelings, impulses, and social and cultural forces that make decision-making so challenging. And we help them make bigger decisions too.

Counseling is a profession with roots back in the early 1900s with Frank and Pauline, but professional counseling is a much more recent development.

Not long before Thomas Sweeney of Ohio University founded CSI in 1983, it was becoming apparent that Psychiatry, Psychology, and Social Work weren’t adequately serving the needs of all the people. In the 1960s and 70s, Psychiatry was mostly taking the BIG PHARMA road, Social Work mostly linked hands with Medical professionals, and Psychology mostly decided to embrace Ph.D.-only training, a sort of scientific fundamentalism, and the pursuit of becoming mini-physicians.

IMHO, this was a mass exodus from the needs of most people. Helping became much more about the medical model – assessment, diagnosis, and treatment – and less about helping people achieve what most of us really want in our daily lives, good health and positive wellness.

So there was something big missing. People wanted to work with professional practitioners who were empathic, kind, compassionate, and positive, and interested in helping them feel WELL, instead of just helping them not feel sick. This is the breech into which professional counseling stepped. And this is probably why, in a study conducted in the Psychology Department at the University of Montana in 1991, it was reported that consumers rated Counselors as warmer, kinder, more genuine, and more desirable to see than Psychiatrists or Psychologists.

At the University of Montana we have an MSW, a Clinical Psychology, and our Counselor Education graduate programs. Not surprisingly, we have a bit of a friendly competition for graduate students. Don’t get me wrong, I love my colleagues in Psychology and Social Work and I think they do a fantastic job educating their students; I just think their professional disciplines have gotten drawn a bit too far over into the medical model. Consequently, when prospective students ask me what program they should choose, I find it very easy to say, “If you want to learn how to do, I mean, really how to do individual, couple, family, and group counseling, then you should join us in the Department of Counselor Education.” Even the graduate students in these respective programs recognize that Counselor Education students learn these skills faster than other disciplines . . . principally because that’s what we focus on.

This brings me to some concerns for the future.

There will always be medical creep, pharmaceutical creep, and insurance company creep. The medical model is strong and compelling. We have to watch out for that. For example, right now we’re right in the middle of a Neuroscience party that’s dominating popular discourse. This reminds me of a Psychiatrist with whom I worked at a Psychiatric Hospital back in 1981. He said it wouldn’t be long until we were all taking drugs to manage and moderate our emotions and behaviors. Well, mostly he was wrong.

Now we have “brain-based” this and “brain science” that and to be “in the dominant cultural discourse club” we have to put “neuro” in front of every other word or sentence.

But there are some surprising ways in which the medical model and neuroscience don’t provide much guidance or truth.

There’s really no such thing as a chemical imbalance. If you speak Spanish and I don’t, then our unique brains have to be different. The chemical imbalance as an explanation for mental health problems has no particular scientific support.

In addition, the track record of psychiatric medications curing illness is rather abysmal. I’m not saying that medications never work, I’m just saying they work less well than most of the public has been led to believe.

And the majority of the quantitative research published in psychology journals is, to borrow Carl Rogers’s words from 1957, “for the most part, a colossal waste of time.”

My point here is: Let’s be damn good professional counselors, and not try to be like those other professional disciplines. They have their niche; they’re needed in some ways for some things. But let’s stick with what we’re doing well.

As I’m sure you all know, because I don’t have a portable MRI or PET scanner in my office—which wouldn’t allow me to really “see” what’s happening in someone’s brain anyway—there’s really only one good method for me to know what’s going on in my client or student’s brain.

The best way to do this is to sit with the person and listen well and develop a trusting relationship and ask things like:

• What are you thinking right now?
• What do you want?
• What emotions are coming up for you?
• What feelings and sensations do you have in your body?

Being with people in positive therapeutic relationship and sometimes asking no questions at all, is the best brain scanner we’ve got.

And here are a few more important truths:

1. A pill is not a skill
2. There’s no better medicine than a healthy and caring relationship, and
3. The profession that is currently doing the best at focusing on skills and relationships is Counselor Education!

As the EMDR therapists would say, “Let’s go with that.”

Before ending, I’d like to tell one short story; then we can officially start celebrating.

Meeting Jesus at the Portland VA Story: What this psychotic patient wanted and what he responded to was what most of us want and respond to . . . to be listened to . . . and to be treated with respect and as an individual, not as a psychiatric label.

Now let’s begin our official celebration with a song that I wrote especially for this auspicious occasion. Ready? I’ll sing it through first and then you can all stand if you like and join me:

Oh, I wish I were a counselor-in-training, counselor-in-training . . .
Oh, I wish I were a counselor-in-training, counselor-in-training . . .
I think it’d be rather swell
To help everyone be well
Oh, I wish I were a counselor-in-training, counselor-in-training.”

Everybody now . . .

Thanks for listening and my BIG congratulations to all of the initiates and the faculty here at Adams State University.