Category: Psychology (general)


The term “re-branding” has become quite popular of late–in the business world, health care, and even entire countries as well as individuals are “re-branding” themselves. I too have chosen to re-brand my practice as East-West Psychological Consulting, and to expand it to include consultation services for corporations, associations and agencies, educational institutions and the like.

But what is ‘re-branding’? And, for that matter, what is ‘branding’?

Originally the stamp placed on cattle to indicate ownership, it has come to signify identity, even personality, of a business, product, or service…or even, an individual. (That leap in application from commerce to personhood might give us pause.)  The term is widely used today. Singapore has recently conducted a branding of the country itself, selling Singapore to the world–carefully crafting its international image. Korea has begun to do the same.

The idea of ‘re-branding’, that we can recreate our business image, or that of our service or product–or country, or self–in the eyes of others is an exciting one indeed. This is an attribute associated with American culture, in fact, at the core of its pioneer roots and tapestry of immigrants: that there is a never-ending option of renewal and re-presentation.

Can we really recreate ourselves in the eyes of others? Do we get endless ‘second chances’? People ask me this all the time. Can I really start over? Can I get people to see me differently? Can I perceive myself in a new way? Once–or many times?

It’s a complicated idea. We are individuals with personalities that are largely developed in our earliest youth. And once we have given a certain impression to someone, or come to believe things about ourselves, it isn’t an easy task to change this. Some would say it isn’t possible.

The optimist in me–even more, the humanist–wants to see endless possibility and the triumph of the spirit over all negativity and adversity.  As a psychologist, I know that this is a challenging prospect.

More than anything, I value authenticity. At our core, we are the self that we have always known, which is one of the mysteries of consciousness–no matter how much we or our life circumstances may change, no matter the new world around us…no matter how much we age. We are who we are, in the center of our being. And this doesn’t change. This is the constant that we carry with us, the ‘self’ that gives us a sense of continuity throughout our lives.

Yet–and this is terrifically important, I feel–we must not only consider the growth that we undergo, mentally and emotionally, and the ways in which our life experiences mold and shape–and sometimes dramatically alter–parts of us; there is also the element of presentation. The self we present to others…and, to ourselves. This is not necessarily a mask, or merely a persona as Jung described; it is also, potentially, another aspect of our genuineness.

If we think of an egg, the shell is just as much a part of it as the albumin and the yolk. Only a tiny speck has the potential to become a living creature, it’s true–but every aspect makes up the egg. So too only a tiny part of us, whether we call it ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ or ‘consciousness’, is so ripe with potential…but all of us, shell included, constitutes the whole of us.

And that shell, the outer layer, is critically important. It is all that most of the world ever sees. Very few, even among those we actually meet, will ever know us beyond the shell. And if we don’t like the shell, we can change it. Effort is required of us. But it is possible.

Does the core self change? No, though aspects can change; our values might shift, or a life experience might cause us to see things in entirely new ways and make major changes in our lives. But all that is just ‘story’, the narrative that surrounds us. The core, that tiny seed deep within that we call the ‘self’, remains constant.

But the shell can change. And it too is a part of us. And that layer is filled with the endless possibility of renewal. Of (re)presentation. Of ‘re-branding’.

This too is genuine. For it is the only part of us that the vast majority of those we encounter will ever know.

Mirror Neurons…and Empathy

Why do we yawn after seeing someone else do so?  Why do babies smile when someone smiles at them–or any of us, for that matter?  Why is laughter ‘infectious’?  Why does a baby copy the actions, and the language, of its caregivers?  And how is it that we can feel another’s pain?  Or…that some of us lack “emotional intelligence”, exhibited to the extreme in those with certain forms of autism, and cannot recognize the emotions of another?

One of the most exciting recent discoveries in neuroscience is that of “mirror neurons”.  Discovered in primates and until now only hypothesized in humans, they are structures in the brain which activate not only upon one’s own action but on that of another as well.  Though not yet linked to cognitive function, scientists are researching the potential connection to imitation and language acquisition — and it’s further supposed that there is a correlation with emotional resonance, or empathy, as well.

In any social group, cohesion is imperative to the group’s function, and is developed in a number of ways: by sharing tasks for the advancement of the group, maintaining a common language and customs, trading goods and skills, group efforts at rearing the offspring, and general social connectedness.  The latter is most recognized in the form of empathy, when members of the group can recognize another’s feelings.  We see this in most if not all species, even plants which recognize one another’s distress signals, for example.  Mothers and their infants, in many species, mirror one another’s gestures and expressions naturally.  This mirroring ability is even seen between species…as any dog owner knows.

Empathy has been shown repeatedly to be the single most powerful element in the bond between therapist and client, and this therapeutic relationship the most important factor in whether a client improves as a result of treatment — stronger than the specific techniques used by the therapist, and equal in strength to the resources that the client has within him- or herself.  Therapists have long used a “mirroring” technique in which they are matching, subtly and with the greatest respect, the body positioning, breathing pattern, vocal tones and possibly even the emotional affect of the client in order to strengthen this bond, to resonate as fully as possible with the person who has come to them for help.

It would seem that we are hard-wired to connect with one another well beyond our conscious efforts.  While the research into the cognitive applications of this structure has only just begun, its implications for emotional resonance — for our ability to not only understand the emotions of another, but to actually experience them — are evident.  To take this one step further, greater understanding of this inherent and largely unconscious ability could go a long way toward building relationships based on similarities, rather than wars based on difference.

Just a thought.

Empathy — and Vulnerability

Being empathetic toward another is perhaps the greatest gift that we can give, and one of the most profound aspects of being human — of connecting deeply with others.  Yet it can also be surprisingly difficult.  Sympathy — “I’m sorry for your pain” — is relatively easy, as it keeps us in the position of control: “I’m sorry that you’re in pain … and glad that I’m not.  I can afford to feel bad for you because it costs me little emotionally.”

Empathy, however, is a matter of identifying with the feelings of another, though in a way that doesn’t detract from what he or she is feeling in order to shift the focus to ourselves. To do so, we must not only understand those feelings but enter into them — that is, experience them ourselves, while maintaining healthy boundaries.  Your pain is not my pain — but it can feel like my pain, if I allow for that, all the while keeping a clear awareness of distinction.  And only then can I truly understand it … and you. The same with joy: your joy / pleasure / happiness is mine as well, and I can feel good on your behalf because I have entered into that feeling with you.

This deep resonance with the feelings of others is critical to relationships, both personal and professional.  It’s the core essence of connectedness, without which we’re isolated.  And that connection with other human beings is what creates community, society, culture … humanity.

And yet: with it comes vulnerability.

I can no longer remain separate from another if I’m empathetic, for there is now a bond between us.  I can no longer maintain distinctions of me/you, us/them, friend/enemy, male/female, young/old, no longer generate an impression of “Other”. This experience of empathy can break down walls and barriers, prevent wars and other skirmishes, bring us together in times of disaster or crisis, increase our acceptance of cultural and religious differences, help us to heal the damage we’ve collectively done to the earth.  I can’t maintain the illusion of control, of separateness, of superiority in the context of empathy.

And this requires a great amount of trust, often in a stranger, in order to allow myself to be vulnerable, to resonate with the feelings of another.  It’s so much easier to remain emotionally distant, feeling far safer and more secure in the core of one’s being.  Yet in order to achieve the greatest potential, individually and as a species, we absolutely must cultivate empathy.  We must take that risk — the risk of being hurt, the risk of appearing foolish, the risk of being vulnerable to another.

It isn’t easy. But it is necessary.


Transformation is hard work.

Many are happy or at least content with themselves and their lives, and aren’t seeking change.  Others are experiencing challenges or conflict, internal pressure to change builds and becomes uncomfortable, and change is necessary and inevitable.  Still others seek out this transformative process either for its own sake, as dramatic metamorphosis is exciting and stimulating, or as a lifelong quest for increasing degrees of personal development and expanding consciousness.

Any way you look at it, making change on a grand scale is still hard work.

To use the most common metaphor for change, that from caterpillar to butterfly, we need only think of what actually goes on in the chrysalis in order to extend this metaphor beyond its beauty and wonder to include the pain involved in true transformation.  It’s significant that the caterpillar places itself in the circumstances of the chrysalis — because of the compulsion of instinct and the undeniable need to transform — rather than being placed there by other creatures or external factors.  Denying the process of change when it arrives would seem not to be an option.

Once in the chrysalis and metamorphic process, the caterpillar must go without sustenance for a period of time and experience the total dissolution of its body before the new self can emerge.   Though it’s wrapped in the protective force of the cocoon, it remains vulnerable to outside dangers.  When it emerges, its vulnerability has reached a pinnacle: the butterfly is wet and cannot fly, is weak from not eating and the tremendous energy outlay required for the transformation, and sheds what appears to be a droplet or two of blood, remnants of its recent and profound change process.

It emerges as a beautiful creature with wings to fly.  But this ultimate transfiguration is not without a price.

Whether we have chosen our transmutations or life has imposed them upon us, we too must go through a similar process.  We must put ourselves into a setting that’s as protected and supported as possible, be willing to go without our usual daily sustenance and activity for the duration of change, and accept that when we emerge into our glorious new state, we will be weak and vulnerable at first.  We leave the protected state just before our change is complete, as the final stage must occur after emergence in order for us to face and surmount our vulnerability.

Any way you look at it, transformation is extraordinary — both in the end result, and in what’s required of us to achieve it.