Making Sense of the Senseless

How can we make sense out of tragedy, trauma, and loss? How do we move forward in the face of unthinkable events?

Coping with tragedy, trauma, and loss

It’s Memorial Day in the U.S., which is celebrated with 3 day weekends, BBQs, and the opening of swimming pools. The true meaning of the holiday, however, is much more somber. It’s a day dedicated to remembering those who died during military service, for honoring their sacrifice and that of their loved ones. For me, personally, it marks the anniversary of my brother’s unexpected death 11 years ago. This year, in the wake of events centering on violence in schools and in my neighborhood, it feels particularly heavy, weighted by the unnecessary loss of life and those who must carry on with broken hearts. 

I intended to write this week about supporting someone with mental health issues to close out Mental Health Awareness month. That’s a worthwhile topic, and one the Peak Mind community asked for. I just can’t bring myself to do it, though, given everything else. 

Instead, I find myself thinking about how we make sense out of tragedy, trauma, and loss. How do we move forward in the face of unthinkable events?

I don’t have the answers for addressing the systemic issues that lead to such horrific tragedies as war and school shootings. I don’t even have all of the answers for how to cope with the fallout of these events or the loss of a loved one or the myriad other bad things that can leave scars on our lives. I do, however, have a knowledge base that sheds some insights, and I’m willing to share some of my own experiences on the off-chance that it helps someone find hope in the darkness. 

Understanding what causes tragedy and trauma

It’s human nature to want the world to make sense. We like nice, neat explanations for events, and we want our cause-and-effect to be linear and straight forward. We like to think that good things happen to good people and that people who do bad things are evil. We like to think that it won’t happen to us and that there is always a clear, easy to understand reason why things happen.

We like to think the world is just and logical. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

When things happen that violate our idea of how the world works, our foundation gets shaken. We desperately need things to make sense again.  

In the aftermath of tragedy, our minds look for an explanation. They want to assign blame. If we can finger point to something that is clearly at fault, better yet if that some one or some thing is evil or greedy or broken or flawed, it restores our sense of balance. It rights the topsy turviness that happened in our worlds. 

The issue is that it may not be that simple. 

The assumptions we make about who is to blame may be faulty or myopic. They may not take into account all of the possible contributing factors. As tempting as it might be to put all of the blame on one person (or group) or one factor, my experience is that it’s rarely that simple. 

We need to understand what happened in a way that allows us to move forward. That likely means that we must expand our thinking and question our assumptions. We must side-step faulty logic that leads to inaccurate or unhelpful conclusions. We must be intentional about meaning making because the story we tell ourselves about what happened, why it happened, and what it means about us, others, and the future will greatly shape our path.  

It’s not black or white

There is a kind of therapy called DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) that is based on the concept of dialectics, which are two opposing things that are both true.

Dialectics are hard for our minds to navigate because they seem contradictory. Logic holds that if one is true then the other is not. Yet, they both are. The challenge is to simultaneously hold these contradictions and seek the broader truth, the one in which they both exist. We must resist the urge to throw one out in the interest of simplicity. We must resist the EITHER OR and embrace the BOTH AND mentality instead. 

Today, I am embracing the dialectics. I find myself torn between seeing the world as utterly f*ed and seeing the incredible opportunities ahead, between being angered, disgusted, and devastated by the realities that our world is terrible and simultaneously awed and grateful for the wonder of that same reality.

Bad things happen to good people AND there is justice.

People are suffering AND there is beauty in the world.

We are on opposing sides AND we can collaborate.

I will never be the same AND I will find a way to have joy again.

Feel your feelings

It’s normal to feel a range of emotions following a foundation-shaking experience. We may feel sad, angry, guilty, anxious, confused, disgusted, and/or dozens of other ways. We may feel like we are going to be crushed by our pain or feel a strong urge to numb. As difficult as it may be, we must feel our feelings but not wallow in them. We must make space for them but not be buried by them. We will not be able to heal otherwise.

I remember walking in the hospital parking lot with my dad while my brother was on life support. “Do you want a xanax?” he asked me. “No,” I told him. “This is supposed to hurt.” 

I’m not a masochist, but I am a psychologist. I had spent years at that point teaching people how important it is to experience rather than avoid even the most difficult, painful emotions. I am not judging my father for needing a xanax in that moment. I have no idea the magnitude of a parent’s pain in the face of losing a child. I’m not a parent myself. All I know is that I viewed my pain as important. It signaled to me how much I loved my brother and how much my world was being devastated. And in that moment, I had the capacity to hold my pain and weather the storm. In the moments since, I have continued to embrace the pain when it arises, to acknowledge that love and pain are two sides of the same coin, and to use that pain to fuel some of my actions and efforts. 

In the face of personal or collective tragedy, it is important that we feel our emotions, that we heed their message, and that we consider what they are directing us to do. Perhaps that means finding a way to honor our lost loved ones, finding a way to take meaningful action to affect real change, or finding the courage to experience joy again even with the heartache.

Wise mind

One of the concepts I appreciate from DBT is called Wise Mind, which is the overlap of logic and emotions. When we operate from Wise Mind, we acknowledge and feel our feelings but are not ruled by them, and we listen to and are guided by logic but are not irrational, cold, or devoid of feeling. Finding this place of inner wisdom in the aftermath of tragedy or loss is important. Feel your feelings and take their message. Challenge your assumptions and faulty logic, but do let reason guide you. Take your next step with your head AND your heart. 

The choice point

Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote a famous book called Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he says “Between every stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Modern day psychologists often refer to this as the Choice Point. This is the fork in the road. We do not necessarily get to choose what happens to or around us, but we do get to choose what we do in the face of it. We get to choose who and how we want to be. We may not get to choose what we feel, but we can choose to feel it. We may not have the power to affect the change we want to see in our world, but we can decide to point fingers and play the blame game or we can take meaningful action. We can choose to go down the path of nihilistic despair or the one of growth and strength, if only we have the courage. We can channel our pain into a life that is worth living, even in a world that doesn’t make sense

“Between every stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Victor Frankl

Using Emotional Intelligence to Set Compassionate Boundaries 

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We all know that we need to set boundaries in our lives in order to protect our own time and energy, but wow can it be hard to do! Sometimes we feel selfish for cutting other people off and not allowing them the time, energy, and resources we know we just can’t provide.  

However, as tough as it can be to set boundaries, it’s absolutely necessary. 

In this episode of the podcast, we’re speaking with Carley Hauck. Carley is a learning architect, leadership development consultant, author, speaker, and serves as adjunct faculty at Stanford University and UC Berkeley Haas School of Business teaching on the subject of leadership and business as a platform for positive change in the world. 

In this episode, Carley talks about: 

  • The power of naming our emotions and how it can help us move through unpleasant emotions. “Name it to tame it” 
  • Emotional intelligence & the fact that there are no unacceptable emotions 
  • What compassionate boundaries are and how to set them 
  • The role anger plays in setting a boundary 

Finally, Carley gives a step-by-step way to approach setting compassionate boundaries to begin using them as a way to protect yourself, particularly in times that are as volatile and ever-changing as our current situation. 

The bottom line, you are an asset to everyone in your life. And because of that, you need and deserve some protection. Setting intentional, compassionate boundaries is one key way to do just that. 

Take part in Carley’s 2-part free workshop at 

When we encounter relationships, with partners, friends, and family as well as co-workers it’s hard to be assertive without offending. Carley helps set healthy boundaries, brings balance, copes with toxic people and enjoy rewarding relationships with partners at work and at home. His book on boundaries goes beyond the common power struggles (anxiety, depression, burnout) and successfully express yourself in order to achieve work/life balance. His methods help us set boundaries, find peace, and grow as people, co-workers and friends.


Emotional Intelligence: Sifting Through Grey Emotional Sludge

The term Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and the emotions of people around you. It’s not always black or white, though. 

Pop quiz. What color is this?

Most people will say grey.

But, what if I told you that this grey paint is actually composed of 4 other colors mixed together. How easy would it be for you to figure out what those 4 colors were?

Pretty tough, right?

This simple paint example actually illustrates a powerful principle of emotional intelligence. Let’s dig in a bit further.

Emotional Intelligence

A psychologist named Daniel Goleman pioneered much of this work, and his book on emotional intelligence shows that emotional intelligence has 5 different facets:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social Skills

While these are all the levels of emotional intelligence, today, we’re going to dive into the most foundational facet: self-awareness. (PS – If you want more info on all of the facets from Goleman himself, you can check out his book.)

Grey Paint

Self-awareness in the context of emotional intelligence simply means you’re consciously aware of the emotions you’re feeling.

Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it?

In actuality, it can be very difficult, particularly when we’re experiencing multiple emotions at the same time.

Think back to a situation you were in that was difficult. Emotional. Complex. Maybe it was a particularly rough fight with your significant other. Maybe a friend betrayed you, or you had a big struggle at work. Think back to how you felt.

Many times, these particularly challenging and difficult situations can bring with them a mix of unpleasant emotions: fear, anger, jealousy, regret, sadness, annoyance, etc.

Imagine each of these emotions has their own color. When they’re pure and un-mixed, you can clearly see each color. But, when you mix them together, you’re left with an indiscernible grey that just feels bad.

If you imagine a situation where envy (green), regret (yellow), sadness (blue), and anger (red) all mix together to form a grey, emotional sludge, you can begin to see why self-awareness in the context of emotional intelligence gets difficult. Once the paint colors are mixed together, it can be hard to sift the colors back out.

Unless you sift the colors back out, you can’t acknowledge each, individual emotion and begin to unpack what it’s trying to tell you (self-awareness).

Sifting the Paint

The good news is that you can become a pro at sifting paint, or unpacking complex combinations of emotions. The key is to practice in times when your emotions aren’t so mixed. When you’re feeling pure anger, pure sadness, pure envy. 

Why do so many psychologists annoyingly tell you to correctly label your emotions? THIS IS WHY!

When you label your emotions in times when they aren’t mixed, sure, you’ll help yourself ‘intelligently’ move through that situation. However, by practicing with these relatively more straight-forward situations, you’ll be better able to recognize each of the paint colors / emotions when they’re all mixed together in more difficult situations.

A Note on Guilt

One of the key things that keeps people from clearly labeling emotions and admitting that is what they’re feeling is guilt. We feel like certain emotions are off-limits or that we shouldn’t feel that way. Envy and anger are two big ones for women; sadness is big one for men (generally speaking).

There are no incorrect emotions. One more time for the people in the back: THERE ARE NO INCORRECT EMOTIONS!!!

You feel the way you feel, and only you get to decide what that is. 

Acknowledging your emotions, admitting you’re having them, figuring out what they’re telling you, and taking thoughtful actions from them is what emotional intelligence is all about. 

Try it!

Give it a try! Next time you experience any kind of emotion (positive or negative), pay attention and label it. Spend some time with it. Figure out what it’s trying to tell you. Do this often. 

These repetitive exercises are exactly what we mean by building psychological strength. You’re intentionally practicing skills that will come in handy when life throws you adversity.


Want even more?

It has never been more important to be psychologically strong. The data coming out of the pandemic is looking grim. People are stretched to the max, worried, and overwhelmed – a recipe for adversity.

Join us in Peak Mind’s flagship program Ascend and begin building psychological strength in 3 core areas: You, Your Mind, Your Life. 

Finally take charge of your mind and make it your best asset, rather than your biggest liability.

Design your life using a proven method that puts you in the drivers seat at the center of your life.

“Emotions are messy and hard o figure out.”
– Spike Jonze

Facial Coding and Emotional Intelligence

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Those who have high emotional intelligence also have a skill of so-called face-coding that gives them significant advantages.

When someone asks you, “How are you feeling today?” How do you typically answer?  

If you’re like many of us, you answer with a simple, “Good.” But, that doesn’t convey nearly the entire story, does it? 

The fact is, we experience incredibly complex emotions, and our ability to recognize our own emotions and the emotions of others is called emotional intelligence, and it’s what we’re focusing on with this week’s guest. 

Those with strong emotional intelligence (EI) can better detect human emotions and some of this is done through facial expression analysis happening subconsciously. Those that want to understand emotional intelligence and why it can matter can evaluate levels of emotional intelligence and even measure it using an emotional quotient (EQ) which some believe matters more than IQ. When we understand and manage emotional recognition, market research shows high EQ leads to more socially-skilled, successful people.

This week, we’re speaking with Dan Hill. He’s an internationally recognized expert on the role of emotions in politics, business, sports, and pop culture. He’s spoken to audiences in over 25 countries, and to capture and quantify emotions, Dan pioneered the use of facial coding (the analysis of facial expressions) with his company Sensory Logic

Dan is also the author of the book “Famous Faces Decoded: A Guidebook for Reading Others,” which we dive into during our conversation. 

We also talk about: 

  • What emotional intelligence is and how it relates to many facets of life 
  • Facial coding and the 23 different emotional markers on our faces.
  • The specificity we can get to when we label emotions. BTW, did you know there are SEVEN different types of anger? 
  • Finally, Dan gives us numerous examples of famous people and their “signature emotions” and how to recognize them in their expressions. 

This was such a fascinating conversation, particularly when you think about it from the context of how strongly it impacts our day-to-day lives. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 


Building Emotional Intelligence with Rich Bracken

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I’m sure you’ve heard about emotional intelligence and how important it is to psychological strength.  

Today, we’re talking to an expert in the domain of emotional intelligence, and I have to say, it was such a deep, actionable conversation.  

Today, we’re talking with Rich Bracken. Rich is a motivational speaker, fellow podcast host, and an expert in the area of emotional intelligence. He travels all over the globe helping people and companies understand what the Emotional Quotient (EQ) is, why it’s important to understand and manage emotional intelligence, why it can matter more than IQ, and how we utilize it to our advantage.

There are a number of levels of emotional intelligence that speak to your cognitive ability, how well you manage your emotions, your ability to learn, and to see the world from another point of view. High emotional intelligence (EI) means more than just being socially skilled, it’s a metric for positive mental health if we pay attention to the right markers.

This is going to be a treat! 

Today’s conversation hit on so many incredible topics, like:  

  • What EQ really is. Rich gives the clearest, most concise definition I’ve ever heard. 
  • How self-awareness is the first step toward developing emotional intelligence 
  • What triggers are, how to identify them, and how to “flip” them 
  • A word of caution about labeling emotions as “inappropriate” (I really learned something here!) 
  • How expressing emotions can deepen our relationships with other people 
  • The importance of reflective journaling, music, and setting good boundaries in developing healthy emotional intelligence 

 I absolutely can’t wait for you to hear this episode because EQ is something that impacts every single day of our lives. Enjoy!