Since changing careers at 40 from marketing for architectural/engineering firms to human services, I have learned one simple truth: the answers to the dilemmas we face are within ourselves. I began working with domestic abuse victims (mostly women) and their children; I never said anything, but I could not begin to understand why someone would return to a person who had hurt them, as many of them do. Studies have shown that the average abuse victim will leave more than five times before they leave for good, if they make that choice. It bothered me to see the children dragged back and forth, and to be honest, it still does.
Later, I worked at a residential treatment center (RTC) with children and adolescents. Some of the kids were grappling with issues related to sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, some had dual diagnoses too, some had mental illnesses such as bipolar or depression, some had personality disorders, some had conduct disorders, some had brain chemistry problems because of fetal alcohol affects or their mother had used drugs while pregnant.
I still thought that by approaching matters logically and authoritatively–e.g, if your typical behavior pattern is not working for you, then this is what you need to do–solutions would be found and life would improve for them. But I was still thinking in a goal-directed, marketing planning meets objectives sort of way and forgot to take the whole human person into account. And I forgot that these are thinking, feeling people with life experiences and upbringing and the whole mess of input that shapes our reactions and behaviors.
So after one frustrating interaction with a very bright girl in the RTC, I did some thinking. And I decided to shut up for a while and listen to the kids. The less I said the more they wanted my opinion; but I still rarely gave it. Instead, I would ask them what had and was working for them and why. I would ask what had not and was not working for them and why. And many of these kids started answering their own questions. They were able to look at the economics of opportunity in a sense and understand that whatever action they did take, that meant that there was one they had rejected, and therefore perhaps an opportunity that was lost. They began to look at a bigger picture and weigh gains versus losses. Some were starting to use what psychologists call wise mind, when there is balance between the logical and emotional sides of the brain.
I’m working with domestic violence victims again and still using the techniques I learned with the kids. I believe that we have the answers to many of our problems in ourselves, but we have to be willing to be quiet and learn to look at unvarnished truths to find the start of a direction. And I will always believe those kids I met were some of the bravest people in the world.
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