Connect to your resources. No one ever taught you that your brain has an overactive fight-or-flight fear reaction, so your brain will keep sending fearful messages — i.e. messages that you’re not good enough or that you are going to be hurt by other people, regardless of whether or not these thoughts reflect objective reality. Our “deification” of the brain has caused us to ascribe erroneous power and wisdom to these reflexive and fear-based thoughts. As a result, the world becomes an inhospitable place to live. How can we not feel lonely such a world?
I had the pleasure of interviewing Helen Kramer. After graduating Cornell University in 1967 with a BS in Child Development, Kramer attended Graduate School at Brooklyn College and The New School for Social Research in NYC. She attended The Gestalt Center where she taught and supervised professional psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers. Kramer has presented at conferences, including The American Humanistic Association of Psychotherapists, the first International Gestalt Conference and developed training programs at The University of Georgia Graduate School of Psychology, and the Cleveland Gestalt Center. She also organized gestalt conferences and trained therapists in Rio de Janeiro and San Paolo, Brazil. While maintaining her private practice she served as a consultant to “Self-Help,” an organization providing psychological services to Holocaust survivors and developed a program for educators working with special needs children and their families. She developed stress-reducing programs at Booth Memorial Hospital for dental residents, and middle managers and designed a program to improve communication between emergency room nurses and doctors. As a staff member at the Gestalt Association for Practicing Psychotherapy, Kramer lectured and trained therapists at universities in the US, Canada, Europe and South America. Kramer is author of Liberating the Adult Within: How to Be a Grown-Up For Good: Overcome Emotional Dyslexia — the biological short circuit that keeps you stuck in unwanted patterns. Helen’s book helps readers understand the roots of their problems, and showing how the childish states of dependency, distortion, and fear can be transformed into the adult states of interdependency, awareness, and confidence — without years of therapy. Kramer worked as a consultant to 60 Minutes, 20/20 and was profiled in New York Woman. Kramer has appeared on Oprah, Today in NY and Good Day New York. Kramer is a frequent guest on WBAI’s radio show, “Take Charge of Your Health.” She has written articles for Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, New Woman, the Daily News, Family Circle and Newsday.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Helen! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?
Since I was a little girl, I was always interested in what made people tick. My sister, who is only 10 ½ months younger than I, reminded me that when we were little children, she wanted to watch cartoons, and I wanted to watch a television program that featured Dr. Joyce Brothers, a leading psychologist. My fascination with the human psyche remains highly active to this day. Given current political and social conditions, I am endlessly curious about how to identify the issues that keep us from evolving personally and socially into the joyful, loving, and peaceful beings we are meant to be. I believe that all human beings seek fulfillment, and my professional life has involved an in-depth study of the physiological, psychological, and social issues that interfere with our functioning at our best. It has always been my belief that human beings, like all living organisms, have only one drive, and that is for mastery — to be the best that they can be. My inquiry has led me to discover six major obstacles to our fulfilling this drive for mastery. Identifying these interferences has allowed me to develop specific tools to liberate myself and others from these interferences. My quest has revealed a number of physiological limitations that were previously misidentified as psychological.
I self-identify as an educator, as opposed to a psychotherapist, because I believe that people need to be educated so that they can overcome all limitations, those due to physiological issues in the brain and those due to condition patterns so we can attain the emotional serenity and peace we desire. I have developed specific tools that help people transform any pattern that is causing them pain or discomfort. I also teach people communication skills so that they can express themselves in ways that are truly satisfying, allowing them to reach their goals with greater ease and pleasure.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Early in my career, when I was looking at one of my clients, I had an amazing insight and realized that everything I learned in my training as a psychotherapist was incorrect. I intuited there are evolutionary issues related to the design of the human brain that have kept us from living the fulfilled lives we all desire. This insight helped me to understand that we have a brain that’s designed for survival and not for quality of life. For most of our time on the planet, we lived in mortal danger and had to have a quick fight/flight and freeze response for survival. To respond quickly, danger signals had to bypass the cognitive centers of the brain. Unfortunately, the brain hasn’t evolved to tell the difference between stress and mortal danger, so stress signals get sent to the fight/flight/freeze part of the brain, causing us to react with the part of the brain that we hardwired in painful and traumatic memories from childhood. Because until recently, we didn’t know how the brain worked, we interpreted these reactive and ineffective responses to stress with psychological labels such as masochism, self- sabotaging, or neuroses. We didn’t know that when we are stressed, our cognitive functions are bypassed, and we end up responding with the brainpower of a very small, frightened child.
We weren’t taught that this mechanism is physiological and not psychological. Without this understanding, we have used pathological labels to describe the ineffective and reactive behavior that results from this evolutionary limitation in the brain. Nobody wants to suffer. We can all learn how to override this evolutionary limitation and stop blaming ourselves and others for this evolutionary glitch. Our emotions don’t make sure as we age chronologically, but we can learn how to transform all the patterns of emotional reactions that got hardwired into the brain when we were young children
Because of our lack of understanding of how the brain works, we have been “pathologizing” and judging ourselves and others for a biological reflex that allowed our species to survive when confronted with life-and-death situations. This judgment has created feelings of unworthiness and loneliness because whenever we exercise the “judgmental muscle,” we are diminishing our own humanity and the humanity of others. We may temporarily feel better by seeing somebody else as “lesser,” but in doing so, we fundamentally create distance and aloneness. Criticizing and judging inadvertently forecloses the opportunity for the true connection we so deeply desire. Authentic connection naturally flows when we are truly compassionate and empathic both to ourselves and others.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
I experienced something quite ironic many years ago. I had a good friend that was a well-known celebrity, quite revered by many people. When he was not on camera, he was quite shy and socially uncomfortable, causing him to drink quite a bit. One day one of my clients came in reporting that she had had a dream about him and expressed her longing to be more like him. I chuckled to myself and said inwardly, “If you only knew the real story” — also an example of the old saying, “be careful what you wish for.” I think she would’ve been incredibly disappointed if she really became more like him.
I saw that she had projected feelings of confidence and self-assurance onto the “persona” of this celebrity and these qualities she wanted to develop in herself. Part of the irony was that, in reality, she led a life that reflected greater social ease, but her projections allowed us to give her the tools she needed to become more self-assured, creative, and liberated. This story has stayed with me, and I’ve repeated it to many people, including myself, as a reminder that we don’t have to long for what other people have — we can attain it ourselves with proper help.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My work is based on my fundamental belief that nobody wants to suffer and truly believing this, I have dedicated myself to identifying the interferences to our leading fully actualized lives. I don’t believe in the “pathological” model human behavior and have developed many tools that people can learn to overcome whatever is preventing them from leading fulfilling lives. I’ve always been interested in creating opportunities to share these tools so that people can remove the impediments to more abundant lives.
Earlier in my career, I hosted groups four nights a week because I felt that the group environment provided a supportive community-enhancing group members opportunity for growth. I used to say to people there, “we need to support each other in being counterculture.” I believe that compassion is the most powerful and essential support we can learn to provide for ourselves and each other. Unfortunately, when our culture became a 24/7culture, I could no longer do groups in the early evening because people were working so much later. As a result, I have brought these tools into co-working venues, professional settings, and I have developed a series of free salons and workshops, allowing people to come together and support each other’s evolution.
Some of my most gratifying work has been with parents not only giving then the emotional skills that they desire but helping them to teach them to their children said that they don’t have to suffer unnecessarily. Children are like sponges open to receiving help and information that allows them to feel at their best what feels best. It is thrilling to provide parents with the skills and tools they need so they can fulfill their desire to be loving and helpful parents.
I have spoken in so many different settings and have been wonderfully surprised to discover how welcoming, open, and receptive people are to creating greater compassionate connection for themselves and others. My experience is that by creating truly supportive communities, we can enhance our own and each other’s quality-of-life. We can bring greater creativity, joy, and compassion to ourselves, our personal and professional relationships, and can participate as better global citizens.
Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?
In my experience, loneliness or aloneness can be uncomfortable, but what makes it so painful is the feeling that there is something wrong with us, and that’s why we are alone. It is impossible to have a good quality of life if we feel that we are fundamentally unlovable or unworthy. My experience has taught me that all of these feelings and hardwired patterns can be transformed and wired as new, more expansive, and loving patterns.
In the long span of my career, I have seen dramatic changes and our culture and the world. American culture has always valued independence but often wasn’t aware of the need for interdependence. Without realizing how many human beings need community and support, we have created an imbalance in our quest for independence and autonomy.
The world has become more complicated because we have more demands on us than ever but with less support. The word I hear more than any other from people is the word “overwhelmed.” Not only do people have an enormous personal or professional “to do” list, but they also feel overwhelmed by dealing with political and global issues. Feeling overwhelmed is obviously stressful and does lead people to get triggered into reactive patterns causing more eating disorders, substance abuse, obsessive and compulsive behavior, as well as depression and anxiety.
It certainly is a vicious cycle: the less support we have, the more we get triggered into the above behaviors, the more we judge ourselves or are judged by others for having these difficulties. Getting treated this way makes us feel worse about ourselves, creating feelings of unworthiness, jealousy, loneliness, and anxiety. In my work with individuals and groups, I teach people how to “evolve” the brains so that stress signals go to what I call the “adult” part of the brain. Simultaneously, I teach them how to respond with compassion to themselves and others when fearful patterns get triggered, or we see behavior we don’t think is productive.
To understand and transform this epidemic of loneliness, we need to understand the origins of our feelings of loneliness. As infants and young children, we are so dependent and vulnerable. If we don’t receive consistent, loving connection, we are prone to experiencing painful and dangerous feelings of loneliness. Children perceive their parents as omnipotent because, in contrast to their feelings of vulnerability, their parents seem to be all-powerful. Children can’t see their parents as having limitations and therefore feel as if their parents could love them if they were only lovable. Consequently, they experience a lack of love as rejection — an indication that they are fundamentally unlovable and unworthy.
Our addictions, compulsions, obsessions, anxieties, and depression are fueled by this painful feeling that we are unworthy. As I said earlier, the brain can’t tell the difference between stress and danger. Thus, as adults, when we are stressed by too much aloneness, these signals go to the fight-flight-freeze part of our brain where our traumatic childhood memories of feeling unworthy and abandoned were hardwired.
Unfortunately, we have a very “imperfect storm.” Our feelings of unworthiness from childhood are triggered by the impossible expectations placed on us, which is exacerbated by our cultural tendency to blame ourselves and each other for our difficulties instead of providing appropriate and compassionate support.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?
The changes that have occurred in this country and across the globe have left us more complicated issues and less support to deal with these issues. We have been focusing on how to be more successful, more beautiful, with more money in the bank, and didn’t realize that as social beings, we need support and compassion to deal with both the mundane and significant problems facing us.
Nobody taught us that giving and receiving support and compassion are what make us strong. We are all pushing to do more, be more productive, and accomplish more. As a result, we are losing our humanity and our sense of connection to one another, our environment, and the planet. In this pushing and striving, we are disconnecting from ourselves, creating a more profound sense of loneliness.
On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?
We’ve been given models of “success” that are antithetical to being connected to ourselves and others. Everyone I talk to expresses that they are feeling “overwhelmed,” which translates into living in fight-or-flight all the time. Our cortisol and adrenaline are ramped up, causing physical illness, anger, depression, anxiety, and compulsive and addictive patterns to deal with all the stress we are feeling. Remember, when we are in the reflexive fear part of our brain, we don’t connect well to our cognition and therefore tend to be irrational and create more stress and loneliness.
We are living like hamsters on a wheel, running faster and faster, creating more stress and disconnection. Without knowing how to connect to ourselves and each other with compassion, we end up trying to feel better by pushing ourselves to do more, becoming even more critical of ourselves for not attaining unrealistic goals. And even if people reach these goals, they don’t feel good because their well-being is contingent on how they are performing, moment-to-moment. Most people are judging and criticizing themselves and others because we have been socialized to believe that these behaviors motivate when they are contributing to greater feelings of loneliness. People are so used to being harsh with themselves that they have no awareness of the consequences of this constant, critical messaging. The only way that I can make people aware of how damaging their self-criticism is to ask them if they would say the same thing as they say to themselves to a precious child in their life or a close friend. With that perspective, most people are horrified by this thought and can’t imagine saying those things to somebody they love, yet they are constantly diminishing themselves with critical messages.
The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.
1. People lack awareness on how we can function optimally — i.e., changing the brain to reduce undesirable reflexive reactions that don’t reflect our adult resources. As we rewire our brains, we can send stress signals into the higher centers of our minds; we can actually problem solve successfully. Until we reduce and even eliminate these hardwired reflexive patterns, we are going to behave in ways that only creates more stress.
When we respond with these hardwired patterns, we feel out of control and diminished, and this increases our sense of being undesirable or unworthy, which only contributes more to our feelings of loneliness.
2. People blame themselves and others for reflexive brain patterns. We have a brain that evolved for survival and not quality-of-life. We are not responsible for the incomplete evolution of our brains and is only diminishing us and our ability to connect to others when we blame ourselves and others for these unprotected responses. Whenever we criticize ourselves and others for these behaviors, we foreclose the opportunity to connect deeply to our common humanity. I would say that whenever we use the judgmental muscle, we will turn it on ourselves and also project other people are judging us as we judge ourselves. This judgement becomes an endless cycle, again, robbing us of an opportunity to see ourselves as biological organisms with physiological patterns that we can transform. None of us want to suffer.
3. People are not taught to transform their loneliness into power. Instead of blaming yourself and others, I recommend that you thank your brain for its good intention to protect you and let your brain know that you are perfectly okay. I had a patient named Susan with reflexive patterns like anticipating rejection in social situations. Truly understanding that these thoughts had no objective meaning, we worked together to allow her to overcome paralyzing anxiety. Instead of being upset with herself for being phobic, she was able to see that she was not creating these thoughts — they were simply reflexes. The more she was able to take the power back from these reflexive thoughts, the more comfortable she became and was able to see that this was a reflex and not something that she was deliberately doing. In reality, we don’t have to stop these thoughts; we just have to learn to see them for what they are.
Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.
1. To transform loneliness, replace it with loving connection for new patterns. As I mentioned, the brain has evolved for survival but not for quality-of-life. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait millions of years for the brain to evolve so that we can enjoy the quality of life we deserve and desire. Recent research in neuroscience has taught us how we can all speed up the evolutionary process. When neuroscience studied brain mapping, they wanted to see what part of the brain was responsible for finger movement.
Scientists found that there was one particular region of the brain that had grown larger in pianists when compared to the normal population. But the fascinating discovery that occurred during an experiment in which they asked people to imagine that they were playing the piano, but in reality, these people never moved their fingers. What they found was that when participants imagined moving their fingers was that the brain reacted as if they had actually played the piano. Imagining finger movement affected the brain as if people were actually playing the piano. From these experiments, we learned that the brain doesn’t know the difference between actually doing something and imagining that you’re doing it.
To rewire our brains so that we are not constantly reliving painful experiences, we need to extinguish those memories and replace them with fulfilling and positive experiences. Specifically, you can replace feelings of loneliness and alienation by resurrecting memories of times when you felt a loving closeness with either a pet, a warm, nurturing place in nature, or a happy time with a friend or relative. The memory can be retrieved from childhood or can be more recent.
It is important to enter the memory, using all your senses so that this is an alive experience. When you are seeing, feeling, and hearing the experience of closeness, you are producing feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones and creating new neural pathways to replace the old painful ones. As you enter a loving and peaceful memory, be aware of your bodily sensations. You might feel a warmth in your chest, or relaxation in your shoulders or a smile on your face.
2. Connect to your resources. No one ever taught you that your brain has an overactive fight-or-flight fear reaction, so your brain will keep sending fearful messages — i.e. messages that you’re not good enough or that you are going to be hurt by other people, regardless of whether or not these thoughts reflect objective reality. Our “deification” of the brain has caused us to ascribe erroneous power and wisdom to these reflexive and fear-based thoughts. As a result, the world becomes an inhospitable place to live. How can we not feel lonely such a world?
These fearful thoughts trigger what I call “phantom emotions,” which are emotional patterns from when we were children. When these memories get triggered, they bring up the intensity we felt when we were young, vulnerable children. These phantom emotions do not reflect our reality today as adults. Unfortunately, we didn’t learn that our brain, to protect us, will keep us living as helpless children re-stimulating feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and unnecessary pain.
I recently met with Joan, a 75-year-old woman who had recently decided to separate from her second husband. She told me that she had abandonment issues because when she was a baby, her mother had to go to the hospital. That trauma in infancy got hardwired into her brain. Whenever her personal and professional relationships suffered, she went into painful and dramatic feelings of abandonment as if she was still that young, helpless infant. My experience with Joan is an unfortunate example of how our brain’s program for survival prevents us from evolving our emotions. Our cognition matures naturally as we age chronologically, but unfortunately, our emotions stay the same. The persistence of intense and dramatic language and feelings are one of the painful consequences of our survival brain.
To teach Joan how to evolve her emotions, I asked her to resurrect memories of loving connections with friends and times when she felt very creative in her work. It took a while for Joan to experience these memories because she, like most people, could talk about a loving memory with her friends, but not feel the loving connection. For the brain and nervous system to be rewired, we have to actually feel things; thoughts alone do not accomplish this rewiring. As Joan began to feel herself as a rich and resourceful human being, her depression and loneliness lifted.
3. Have Compassion for Yourself. It’s important not to be angry with ourselves for these reflexive patterns that perpetuate loneliness. Whenever we are triggered into obsessive, addictive, or compulsive behaviors, or whenever we feel anxious or depressed, it may be because the survival part of our brain has gotten triggered. Nobody taught us how to transform this reflex.
I suggest to people when any negative or fearful thoughts arise, they don’t fight these thoughts and don’t blame themselves for having them. Overcoming all of our painful feelings, including loneliness, requires compassion. Remember, your behavior is caused by a survival reflex, so you are not doing this intentionally. Part of my method for change is thanking your brain for trying to protect you, and then reminding this fearful, reflexive part of your brain that you are okay.
You are never trying sabotage yourself, and no matter how often you repeat painful patterns, you are not masochistic. In our culture, we have deified the brain, but the brain has no more wisdom than any of your other physiological reflexes. For example, when your doctor hits you under the knee with a rubber hammer and your leg flies up, this is a reflex that is not under your control. Unfortunately, when our brain reflexes result in emotional reactions, we tend to blame ourselves, making us feel diminished and less worthy. We all have hardwired patterns that are going to be triggered when we feel stress. In the examples I gave above, it is important to replace these fearful reflexes with memories and visualizations that celebrate who we are.
4. Develop an inner voice of love and support. Because our culture hasn’t taught us that power comes from being loving and compassionate, we have become obsessed with becoming powerful by being more physically attractive, having money, or being better than others. But even when we achieve these goals, they are only temporarily satisfying because they are not intrinsically empowering behaviors. Being better than others by feeding our ego only ends up frightening ourselves more. It’s like living on a seesaw — somebody must be on the bottom, and somebody must be on the top. Being on top is unsustainable as we are always vigilant for someone who is going to try to diminish us so that they can feel better.
Every infant and child deserves to be loved unconditionally, treasured, and appreciated for who they are at their core, not for qualities or attributes that are fleeting and temporary. Few people have had this kind of unconditional love growing up. Because our emotions don’t mature as we age chronologically, we keep looking outward for that appreciation and affirmation.
When I work with people, I often make a short audiotape that they can listen to and receive care and support that they can internalize and make their own. As they internalize my supportive voice and resurrect the voices of caring people in their lives, they learn how to feel loved and supported, and how to love themselves. When people learn this technique, they naturally attract and resonate with loving people.
5. To stay empowered, stop judging. To feel good about ourselves and have good relationships with others, we need to know the difference between power and weakness. We are all weak when frightened, and when we are frightened, we end up doing things that backfire. Not because we want to hurt ourselves, but because fear is not a good motivator, and when we are in the fear part of our brain, we have the brainpower of a young, helpless child.
Being judgmental is one of the signs of a frightened person. Only frightened people need to diminish others. A truly powerful person feels their own humanity and enhances their quality of life by connecting to the humanity of others. When I was working with myself years ago, trying to move past my own judgmental nature, I remember being on the subway and looking across at a woman who was wearing garish clothes and makeup. I found myself judging her, but then I looked again and experienced her somebody who woke up in the morning and wanted to look good. I could connect to that what wanting to have a nice appearance feels like, and I realized that what she was wearing did look good to her. By peeling the onion, I saw her positive intent in the morning to look good, so I was able to connect her humanity. When we experience this common humanity, we can’t feel lonely.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want to form a coalition of people of influence — teachers, politicians, social activists, and celebrities — to help us discover the truth of who we truly are at our core. The reality is that inside of you, as well as every person you encounter, is a beautiful, perfect, and loving being, the way we came into the world as precious babies. That essence is our true nature, but it often gets obscured by our conditioning. Layers upon layers of hurt and pain sadly reinforce our fearful reflexes, causing us to relive old pain and become vigilant for getting hurt in the future. It is this conditioned fear that causes us to do harmful things to ourselves and each other. It is this fear that is the greatest pollutant in the universe, triggering us to react with anger, vindictiveness, and alienation. It is our conditioned patterns that obscure the infinite beauty that lives within each of us and every living creature, our planet, and the universe.
To end this epidemic of loneliness, and to save our planet, we need not let this fear-based conditioning obscure the incredible beings who we truly are. We need to be taught that our conditioning has created a lens through which we see the world, giving us a distorted view of the world and ourselves. Without knowing this is a lens, we believe that the projections and distortions we imagine are real. How can we not be lonely if we are constantly living inside our heads, reliving old pain? How can we not be lonely if we don’t truly see the world as it is, or experience ourselves as the resourceful adults we are now?
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Van Jones! The first time I saw him was after the presidential election when he was interviewing Trump supporters. His genuine interest in people’s lives, and his compassion for their point of view, even if he disagreed, was really impressive. I’ve seen him conduct numerous interviews and have never once seen him be anything but compassionate and open, always bringing out the best in people. He is an exemplary role model and a person with a very high emotional intelligence, giving him the ability to find common ground in disparate points of view. His compassion and respect for people allows him to move people closer to one another and closer to mutually satisfying solutions.
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Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!