Ask “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” This is a compassionate way to approach anyone with a different view. A homeless heroin user who walks into the Emergency Department yet again without a mask, seeking prescription drugs, is often marginalized by the medical staff who have a “What’s wrong with you?” attitude. If they can look at this person through a trauma-informed lens, asking instead “What happened to you?” and beginning to understand the patient’s likely history of abuse and neglect, they can take another perspective, perhaps talk to the patient about treatment, treating them with dignity, rather than scorn and ignorance.
As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Diane N. Solomon.
Dr. Solomon originally received her Master of Science in Nursing from Yale, becoming a Certified Nurse-Midwife devoted to women’s empowerment and health. After two decades of practice, she returned to Oregon Health & Sciences University to become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Dr. Solomon also holds a certificate in psychoanalytic psychotherapy and a Ph.D. in Nursing. With a private psychiatric practice in Portland, she is also a health policy advocate, promoting the NP role and NP solution to primary and behavioral healthcare through systems-level change, organizational consulting, engagement, action, and collaboration. She volunteers as adjunct faculty at OHSU, on the Boards of Oregon Nurses Association, Nurse Practitioners of Oregon, the Oregon Wellness Program, and most recently on the Governor’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
As mentioned in your piece on leveraging the power of gratitude, when I was a child, I had life-threatening asthma. This was in a time when asthma therapies were much more primitive than they are today. My mother or maternal grandparents had to pick me up from school at a moment’s notice several times a week so I could come home and use the “breathing machine” (nebulizer). A malpracticing allergist treated me with anabolic steroids (yes, the ones athletes use illegally!) and hormone shots which didn’t particularly help my asthma, but definitely stunted my growth. I’m well under five feet, while my parents and brothers are much taller. I still get comments about my “great arm definition.” I appreciate the compliments and I do work out, but that muscle definition is really because of those childhood steroids!!
By the time I was in high school, I had been poked, prodded, hospitalized so many times, and when I was 14, nearly died. I remember hanging onto life tenaciously in the operating room, barely able to breathe, and letting go, letting myself lose consciousness, only when I felt secure I was going to make it. That lifetime interface with the medical system gave me an understanding of good healthcare and bad, both technically, in terms of medical treatments, and humanly, in terms of compassion, understanding, and what it means to truly touch a patient, on every level.
Also, I grew up with three wonderful older brothers. People assume my brothers must have coddled me and treated me like a princess. Far from it! I was the youngest and only girl, and they didn’t feel comfortable with my smarts or my opinions — which were as good as theirs! So I grew up anxious about their approval, but learned to be scrappy and strong, as well as an ardent feminist — I was a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine at age 12.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Because of my intimate experiences with illness and the healthcare system as a child, I thought I wanted to become a physician. But the nurse practitioner model of relationship-based healthcare — vs. a medical school model of disease treatment — was much more aligned with what I knew to be most healing. So, I devoted my career first to healing in women’s health, then to general mental health and wellbeing, and now to all that as well as advocating for better health policy to fix an ailing healthcare system.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m actually in the midst of an exciting but honestly anxiety-provoking transition. I have taken care of patients — from cradle to grave, physically and emotionally, one-on-one, for over 35 years. I’m excited to move beyond micro-care of individual patients to macro-care of groups of individuals and entire systems we use to provide health and mental healthcare. I know I’ll use my talents and experience in healthcare policy, writing, mental health, and passion to inspire others. I strive to be a wise mentor who encourages hope and change. What that completely looks like, whether a podcast, book, blog, faculty position, speaking or what have you remains to be seen. That’s where both anxiety and excitement come in. I’m grateful for the excitement of a new path, but also for the opportunity anxiety presents — I get to work with fear daily and, at my best, transmute worry into positive energy.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I think many women my age lacked great female mentors as there was a scarcity mentality of only enough room at the top for perhaps one woman, if that. I preferred working for and by myself early on to avoid judgment or competitiveness I didn’t want to fall prey to or participate in. As corny as it may sound, I’m extremely thankful for my parents. They weren’t perfect — no parents are or should stive to be! — but they reflected faith in me and my abilities, and that is precious. My mother wanted me to marry and let myself be financially supported by a husband, which I scorned, but she also exuded pride in my intelligence and capacity to do whatever I wanted. My father, on the other hand, never held a double standard for next to my brothers, and that still keeps me stiving professionally step after step in my career.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
In the early 90s, I lived in rural Oregon as a young mother of two daughters. During the off-season, a trip to the grocery store was sometimes the most social opportunity I might have in a week! I knew the cashiers by name, they were kind to my kids, we asked after each others’ families, and so on. At the time, there was a statewide anti-gay ballot measure coming up in the near-term election. I wore a pin protesting the measure everywhere I went, a little circular “HATE” emblazoned in red, with a line through it (as in “no HATE”!). One day, checking out at the Safeway, the cashier was as friendly and chatty as ever. She was young and, like the majority of people in town, probably not educated beyond high school and a conservative churchgoer. She glanced at my pin and suddenly her face grew imperceptibly darker, subtly but substantially grave. I knew in that moment that she and her family would support the anti-gay ballot measure. I witnessed her struggle beneath the changes crossing her face. I knew she loved her children as much as I loved mine, and was a good person, even if her values and beliefs were 180 degrees opposite. Since that day, it became much easier for me not to demonize others as “they” or “them” simply because they have differing beliefs. That cashier was misguided, but she was not inherently bad as a human. It forever changed the way I look at those with polar-opposite views. Even though I may want to — and may try to — educate them to change their beliefs, they are just as worthy of respect as I am.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. Abrams, a Jew, was able to bring the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, and Tutu, an Anglican Christian, together for a week, ask them whatever he wanted, listen, and scribe. I read this book shortly after it came out in 2016 and, among many wonderful, accessible practices anyone can use and enjoy, the Dalai Lama talked about how he comforts and reassures himself when he is suffering (yes, he suffers too!). The Dalai Lama reminds himself there are seven billion fellow people on our planet in the moment of his suffering, and he imagines how many of them must be suffering in the exact way for the same reason as he, at the same point in time. I love this story, and when I remember to use this as a practice, it helps me feel I’m not alone, and able to tap into a vast, timeless web of humanity, full of joy as well as moments of suffering.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Because of my history growing up as the only girl with three raucous, sometimes intimidating, relentlessly teasing older brothers (with the exception of the one who grew up to be a psychologist, who was often a protector), I’ve always appreciated Nietzsche’s “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” But as I’ve aged and devoted myself to mental health and wellbeing, I prefer to focus on positive thoughts rather than negatives that may have almost (literally or figuratively!) killed me. My last marriage, to an alcoholic/addict who relapsed, brought me to Al-Anon, for which I will be forever grateful. Some of the most helpful “Life Lesson Quotes,” are 12-step ones I try to remind myself of whenever necessary: “One day at a time,” “Live and let live,” “Take what you like and leave the rest,” and “Progress, not perfection,” are great starters.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Several years ago, Fortune magazine featured their pick for the 50 greatest leaders. I don’t remember any of the leaders, but I do remember what impressed me far more: the distillation of “new leadership” into three precepts:
- Acknowledge reality, but inspire hope
- Bring people together in person (pandemic-speak equals zoom)
- Build bridges
To me, these three ideas are touchstones for all I aspire to as a leader. I editorialize them like this:
- Tell the truth, but always offer strong inspiration for hope — it exists!
- There is no substitute for human, face-to-face connection, and when people over-rely on email/text/phone, they may save time, but they lose their goal
- Create links — between people, ideas, networks — and it will forward your every priority
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
At the risk of sounding trite, people don’t talk to each other enough anymore! Social media allows us to say things we would never say face-to-face. Snarky, short barbs that wound, yet don’t force us to see the changes that pass over someone’s face when we’ve hurt them, like I witnessed on the cashier’s face that day at Safeway decades ago. There is nothing wrong with social media — or any media — but if we don’t sit down with each other, acknowledging one another’s humanity, talking face-to face, it becomes all too easy to write each other off as not as good, or not as deserving of respect as we are. That’s just plain wrong.
I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?
I have a brilliant friend I’ve known since childhood. For many reasons, she did not have the benefit of college and had to begin working right away. She is white and successful but lives in a fairly conservative border community with relatives who ascribe to conspiracy theories. After Trump’s election, she confessed she was afraid to meet me for lunch, she didn’t know how it would go. Over salmon Caesars, I listened. It was really important to me to hear why she believed what she believed about, say, immigration. It was an honor to get out of my ideological bubble and hear from someone I love who is bright and thoughtful but doesn’t share my opinions. Then, she listened to me. She admitted she didn’t know many of the facts I shared, and that stretched her thinking. I admitted it was hard to talk, but I was committed to it, that communicating and not shutting each other out was much more important than feeling correct in my views. We were skittish but had trust, love, and desire to understand one another. That trumped divisiveness, big time. And shows the value of two of the three leadership precepts: build bridges, get together in person.
In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?
In my psychiatry practice, the holidays are busy. Every year I’m thankful I’m Jewish, so I can help frantic (Christmas-celebrating) clients navigate the shoals of family conflict that’s rife around the holidays. This is true in the best of times, let alone the 2020 holidays, mid-pandemic, when families had conflict about distancing and healthy safety as well as politics. I recommend people choose a menu of self-care to set themselves up for success: Can they stay separately from family so they have an escape? Or at least know they can take a time-out to another room? Do they have hobbies or habits that will help with resilience — exercise, good sleep, walking the dog, volunteering to get away to the store, reaching out to friends for a break, knitting, or Parcheesi? And I believe in mantras. We are often so emotionally “hooked” into family patterns and dynamics that others throw us a (loaded) rope, and we reflexively pick up the rope and are into an argument before we know it. Don’t pick up that rope! Use mantras to gently, firmly, stop the conversation: “Wow,” “Mm-hm,” or, “That sounds rough,” are all non-committal statements that give you an escape to avoid a conversation you know won’t go well. Or, one of my very favorites: “I’m sorry, that’s just not helpful right now.” After using your mantra, don’t say anything else to fill in the empty space in the air! This takes practice and is scary at first, but then exhilarating because it so often works.
How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?
On the subject of mantras, all of them work in the workplace as well. And until some neutral ground can be found between parties, mantras are a good way to help people calm and settle for a while, which is critical if positive bridges, with respect and tolerance, are going to evolve at work or home. I stole a favorite mantra from the Artificial Intelligence voice who cut me off if I forgot or mis-keyed my password too many times while accessing voicemail. In a lovely, understanding voice, “she” would say, “I’m sorry you’re having trouble,” then disconnect. I recommend using those exact words in just as calm a voice to disconnect from co-workers, family, or friends to help everyone calm down before trying to engage in a more positive way.
I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?
The easiest way for us to fall into “small mind,” when we aren’t thinking of anything but ourselves and our own survival, super defensively, is to think in very black and white terms. For instance, “There are only two kinds of people, Republican or Democrat,” is a classic example. We are way more multi-dimensional than that! None of us would want to be described as just a Republican or Democrat, there’s much more to us. Trying to remember that everyone has many sides, and that they love their children (parents, siblings, cousins, spouse) as much as we do, can allow us to take a breath and hopefully move into “big mind,” which holds space to allow another’s equally valid perspectives.
Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?
I don’t think social media is the culprit, but the fact is, we can and do turn into much worse people on social media. Long before road rage was a thing, my mother used to say, “People turn into monsters when they get into their cars.” She meant, if they are safe in a car and don’t have to face you, people can be much meaner than they would be in person. The same is true with social media. Don’t say anything on social media you wouldn’t be willing to say in person!
Another essential of keeping one’s sanity and not falling prey to triggering by social media is to put a sensory diet into practice. People with autism, including my son, use a sensory diet to prevent overstimulation. Social media gets all of us overstimulated! Don’t go down the rabbit hole. Set a timer, then turn away and turn it off.
What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?
Again, a sensory diet is critical. Social media outlets use algorithms to suck us in and keep us doomscrolling for as long as possible. We’re better than that, we can make our own decisions! Once more, turn away and turn it off. Listen to or view something that isn’t so triggering. It’s an addiction, that sense of stimulation we get from “experts” foretelling doom — don’t let them keep you addicted. You can say no to media outlets!
Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?
Your answer is inside your question itself — once again, our society is not that black and white, all or nothing, one side or the other. In the 2020 election we watched democracy work. Slowly, day by day in fact, after the election, but successfully. Our brains have been operating in “small mind,” red hot with fear and anger for the last few years, and we need to take a collective deep breath and realize there is much cause for hope. We are turning corners with the pandemic, there are signs of unity and understanding, even in politics. The vision and mission of our country was tested, and we are surviving. Hopefully, that survival will even pivot into thriving soon.
Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Ask “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” This is a compassionate way to approach anyone with a different view. A homeless heroin user who walks into the Emergency Department yet again without a mask, seeking prescription drugs, is often marginalized by the medical staff who have a “What’s wrong with you?” attitude. If they can look at this person through a trauma-informed lens, asking instead “What happened to you?” and beginning to understand the patient’s likely history of abuse and neglect, they can take another perspective, perhaps talk to the patient about treatment, treating them with dignity, rather than scorn and ignorance.
- Remember: those polarized from us love their children (and other relatives) too, as the Safeway cashier reminded me. This is another way to increase perspective-taking and compassion, to help us ask, “How did you come to see it that way,” instead of calling out another’s stupidity — or worse!
- “Assume good intent” is a practice that pays off. When someone cuts me off in traffic, I might flare, but then I try to remind myself they may be having a day much worse than my own. Sometimes, I can even think these thoughts before I lean on the horn, not after!
- There’s a saying, “Resentment eats its own container.” When I become critical and resentful of those who didn’t let me speak in a meeting, or ignored my opinion, I remind myself resentment really only hurts me. When I feel the truth that resentment is ultimately against my own best interest, it’s easier to let it go. Why let someone else ruin my day?
- “Pause and respond,” rather than “react and attack.” If someone makes a bigoted or insensitive comment (or worse), I go into “small mind” quickly. Small mind means I need to take a break and use whatever skills I have: ten deep breaths, taking a walk around the block, saying nothing instead of feeling pressed to respond right away. Also, those mantras offer a way to take care of ourselves and others at that time. “Hey, I’ve got to tell you I felt offended by that” is a handy one, and an “I” message, which diffuses defensiveness. (“You” messages — “You are…” “You think…” “You did not…” are a sure-fire way to get defensive juices running).
Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?
Our society has a tyranny of niceness; it’s actually okay to get upset, and normal. There’s so much to be upset about these days! The trick is noticing when we are not nice and taking responsibility for it: “I’m sorry I snapped at you right then, I was feeling attacked.” “I’m sorry I cut you off, I realized it as soon as I did it and wanted to clean that up.” We can’t and won’t always be nice to each other, we’re human. But we can repair when we are less than nice, and that’s what builds healthy, trusting relationships. Again, it’s “progress, not perfection.”
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Absolutely optimistic! I remind people, Americans must have felt much worse about the world — and had more to be fearful about — at other times in our history, like the Civil War or World War II. Human nature has not changed — when we feel afraid, our brains focus on ourselves and our own needs only. When a culture is fear-mongering, we collectively buy the worry about our own selfish needs and can’t easily see that our neighbor is just as deserving as we are, and if s/he fares better, so will we. Now is the time to acknowledge reality but offer hope, build bridges and, as soon as the pandemic recedes, get together in person. That’s true leadership — and healing — in action.
If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?
In Judaism, the concept of “Tikkun Olam” encourages us to each do our part toward healing the world. There is another saying too: “Yours is not to complete the task, but neither is it yours to desist from it.” So, it’s on all of us to do something to make the world a better place, but none of us is responsible to do everything. But the most compelling reason to strive for positive impact is knowing you have touched someone, some project, some community, in a positive way. The science is clear: givers feel better than receivers. So nu, give already!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
A trusted peer and mentor recently let me know I remind them “a bit of Hillary Clinton.” Something about having gifts, and not always remembering everyone else may not possess the same gifts; particularly when needing to move forward slowly enough at times to be “relatable.” That feedback was so insightful and valuable, and one of the best compliments I could ever receive. Whether they meant it as a compliment or not, I’m not sure, but I’ll take it! And if it’s not clear who my dream brunch date would be, it’s definitely Hillary.
How can our readers follow you online?
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/DianeSolomonOR
This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!