Relationships: Take a look at your closest relationships and do an honest gut check on what source the love is coming from: Do we truly love the other we claim to serve, or in some way/form/fashion are we distorting it and “loving ourselves by loving the other”? That is, look for the “secondary gain” we are getting and see if there is a more pure form of love now to give back after correcting that.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kevin Fleming.
Kevin J. Fleming, Ph.D. is President & CEO of Grey Matters International Inc., an international neuroleadership consultancy and coaching firm. A trusted advisor to top-performing executives, athletes, and celebrities, he combines cutting-edge neuroscience with a concierge model of care to help leaders and their families achieve sustainable change. Learn more at www.greymattersintl.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Well, I used to be a regular hourly shrink doing countless dialogues with people and their problems….until I realized there was strange collusion taking place. No matter how mediocre I was, people kept coming back. I felt like I was merely describing the water to people while they drowned and calling that success. People liked the time together, and yet I wasn’t sure things were “changing” for them. This got me wondering: what if therapy could be actually reinforcing non-change in people, all the while giving them the feeling of change? This was intriguing to me. And for folks who did evidence change, what if the changes were the first-order type? (First-order change is the kind of change that is more akin to becoming less depressed vs more depressed, while second-order change is the ‘good irrational’ type of transformation, like giving mercy to a perpetrator of violence.) I began to wonder if there was some unconscious interplay here that was giving some other type goal above and beyond behavior change, giving them what they said they wanted but not what was needed, or what was needed/wanted — but not on a level that was essential for sustainable, long term, heart/mind/body/soul-type change?
And so, to be clear, this is NOT to say therapy per se is not helpful for some people, some of the time, with some issues and with the right fit of a person. I just realized that I was not content with that type of reality or odds. Something was bugging me more and I knew I had to go after another model of behavior change that fit what I felt was my vocation: helping people not just with what they said they wanted, but with what they didn’t know they needed…a sort of vocational call to those people seeking not just what was sensible, rational, right, important, but what was essential and of the 2nd order type of change. This type of passion of mine was not going to get caught inside the “happiness addiction” we see everywhere now, but was going to make the case that contentment/peace/joy was not mere state-based, emotional, pleasure-centered or ego-based, but of a radically different type of existence.
So you can see that my company is not for everyone. This I realized once I made the leap out of my familiar clinical setting and start working on the vision that is now Grey Matters International, Inc. I have been blown away by the growth and popularity of my company now attracting clients on five continents. It is as if the “misaligned” client is only that way on the surface, with all the defenses and rationalizations we all carry on our exteriors. Through cutting edge neurotechnologies, the introduction of research on self-deception, behavioral economics/neuroeconomics insights, and other fresh ways of working with peoples’ intractable problems of life and work and relationships, people gain access into what they didn’t know they didn’t know and make a 180 on their transformational paths. I love seeing this stuff with people, as readers can see here.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Good question. This is hard to say, for everything about the people and experiences of Grey Matters is beyond interesting. But I would have to say when my first book somehow got in the hands of some Middle Eastern C-levels and I found myself being asked to keynote to a “who’s who” audience of leaders in the Middle East with cabinet members from the King of Jordan’s cabinet in attendance. To this day, that for sure was a fascinating highlight.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Too many to say! But, I would say it was the lesson about not just being honest, but practicing a radical, “four standard deviations out on the bell curve” type of honesty. For there is an antiseptic, safe type of honesty that pervades our culture these days. A sort of honesty that is defined just as the mere absence of a blatant, reality-violating, “This is not a table in front of me” type of lie. What if we just don’t do that kind of violation stuff, we are honest, sincere, good, virtuous people. That’s BS. I realized early on there are uncharted waters of courage and transparency that I needed to swim out to — beyond the buoy — if I was going to start a company with the high bars that I stated earlier in this interview. And so, the way I got into these waters was with a client session I was doing; I got very tired all of a sudden, the kind of narcoleptic-type tired where you feel you’re going to suddenly fall asleep. While they went on talking, I struggled to “fake it to make it’ and plowed through, championing all the non-verbals of engagement and mirroring techniques I could do with a challenging consciousness. This went on for a bit, and apparently the “automatic behaviors of the good Doc” didn’t mess up too bad, for at the end of the session they said: “That was brilliant, Dr. Fleming; thank you.” At that moment, I startled myself awake as if 10 cups of coffee were thrown down the hatch. And then it hit me: I had a choice to make and I was at a crossroads. Do I take the compliment and run? Or do I fess up? Then, to me, there was another choice moment: If I fess up, what does that mean about the time spent, the relationship with my client, and the moral responsibility I had? All this processing went seemingly lightning-fast through me and suddenly I said: “Well, Albert Einstein is brilliant. So let’s be fair to those fellow brilliant minds out there. While I am appreciative of the compliment, not only was I not brilliant, I was arguably unconscious at a level of responsibility for my role.” I proceeded to tell her of my human moment and fessed up to my dozing and faking it through with my counseling 101 techniques. I then said, “Given this, not only are you not going to pay, I am going to write you a check for the time I took from you. Or if reality doesn’t lie, we don’t have to correct it but look at it together: Why didn’t I speak the truth earlier on, and why is ‘brilliant’ used so glibly and easily in this culture — do we know what distinctions we should be made between what we should really be going after and what we blindly accept? To me, this all could be info for us to take our work up a notch. Are you game, or do you want your money back?” She said no one has ever been that level of honesty with her, and without doing that she never would have accessed a pattern in her life with men — that she overdoes it for a validation dynamic she has just grown accustomed to and never would have thought of changing it…until now. Probably because most of these men took the freebie compliment and ran with it, or at least did not forcibly push it back into their hands. Needless to say, this blew the doors open on our work and was actually one of the most transformational clients I ever had to this day. It taught me to always question whether the “honesty” we do really is the deepest level of sincerity. With our self-deceptive brain biases, chances are we aren’t wired to lead at this level at first swing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
No doubt it would be my wife. Not many guys get a chance to be an entrepreneur — especially right out of the gate while starting a marriage and having kids. She knew early on that getting fired from regular jobs would likely be my fate, given the kinds of questions, dialogues, and ideas I would taint our regular dinner conversations with. (I can still see all the eyes roll with my deep discussions, the things that I always seemed bugged by in human nature, and what needed ‘fixing’…all while they just wanted me to pass the salad dressing!) But my wife? She knew what she fell in love with was the same part of my personality that had to leave a lot to travel and build the dream. It was two sides of the same coin. And I never would have the ability to found and grow my company without her belief in me and her taking the “hits” on the homefront when I was gone traveling at times when it was quite challenging. (We have four kids, so it’s not a small household). I feel we don’t really take the “whole coin” in our life and since there are always other shiny coins grabbing our attention, we can miss the “both/and” nature of relationships and its sacrifices and joys. And I guess I am just grateful my wife “got it.”
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
First and foremost, to understand that burnout is a brain-based phenomenon at its core. The neurophysiology behind what happens to the executive function centers and our self-regulation systems is literally a shutdown-type thing of our nervous system. Porges’ work from the polyvagal theory side of things really has taught us that there is more than the “fight/flight” response that kicks in under stress but also what is called a “parasympathetic freeze state,” a sort of dissociative thing involving low vagal tone and a compromised social engagement system — all the while keeping head above water (barely). Because so much of our society accept the bare minimum of “presence” by people (case in point: think how many times people seem okay talking to another while the other checks their phone), the parasympathetic freeze state doesn’t get called out easily and is ignored by our absorbed attentional systems. Usually, it is the spouse that contacts me for they sense something is “off” and there is usually accompanying anger/emotional reactivity and self-medication (drinking or porn is what I am seeing most commonly). My advice is not just to do “stress management techniques.” Sure, it has a helpful role here and there, but it’s important to really seek some serious neuroscience-based technologies to shift the brain’s electrophysiology, for it is at this level of autonomic activation where the brain is “stuck” and needs help. And in terms of avoiding this type of burnout situation again? Well, people don’t like when I say this word, but it is key: Boundaries. We live in a world where we can have everything we want when we want it, many times instantaneously. There are costs to getting what we say we want and everything can’t be equally important. I teach my clients how to have the right problems.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
To me, this is a difficult question because what is fantastic for one culture, may not be for another. To me, it is about truly knowing the “bubbles above the heads” of your employees, for we are all — as Dan Ariely would say — “predictably irrational.” With that baseline of humanity, building a culture full of that reality takes not just intelligence but wisdom that, sadly, most of the leaders I have worked with aren’t really incentivized (unless they are naturally inclined to) to care that deeply about. For I believe most leadership programs don’t discern well the fact that what we say we want may be influenced by fear and a “This is as good as it gets” orientation. And when we give leadership assessments and culture change processes to these brains in our organization, we get compromised data — but at least it is measurable, right? I say this tongue-in-cheek, for that, is all I hear about what matters. Yet if you miss human nature your data is skewed, no matter how pretty the graphs and pie charts are. The best cultures, in other words, are created by leaders who know this inherent part of human nature and counteract that natural “gravitational pull” of fear, compliance, double-blind thinking, parasympathetic freeze state nervous systems of probably 80 percent of their culture with an asymmetric level of “truth-telling” that I simply don’t see a lot of in business. Take that example above of that dialogue with that client where I was falling asleep on them. Tell me how many CEOs would be that radically honest? ……Exactly. (Sigh). And no, I am not an exceptional human being. Let’s face it. My accountability structures are less complex in Grey Matters International, Inc. — essentially a company of one — than those of a multi-billion-dollar organization. But isn’t it up to the top leadership to create those systems that don’t intrinsically and extrinsically work against what they say in their “leadership retreat” or to their executive coach that they say they want?
I don’t think most leaders get the level of addiction wiring in our brains that we fight every day. It isn’t about drugs and alcohol that kills us first, but the need to be right, in control, brilliant, good, virtuous. And ironically the folks with that need are the farthest from the real deal.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
You are spot on. It is a spectrum…somewhat. Certainly not binary, true. But my problem with that word “spectrum”? It is still linear-implying and inadvertently constraining. Two ends of a line. Right? I would say wellness is more akin to getting outside two dimensions. It’s more like a 3- or 4-D type evaluative process. Let me explain:
As we have hopefully gathered from the above stories, the level of wellness desired is contained by our assumptions around how radical we want to go. Is “wellness” a body mass index number, a number of calories or carbs consumed, how many fights we have with our spouse, or some measures of symptoms noted on a checklist for depression/anxiety? These are all decent, good, and nothing “wrong” with any of them. And of course, they all point to some level of our “wellness” with self, body, relationships, mind, etc. with some sense of a “high” or a “low” number or indication. Right? But none of these measures touch on higher consciousness-based areas of wellness, per se. I would say the estimations above are sort of “necessary but not sufficient conditions” to wellness, as how Grey Matters International, Inc. defines it. For what if wellness at least includes other dimensions, such as mercy-giving when not being explicitly asked for it; giving more than what was asked for; or giving more “laser focus” to what someone needs versus what we think they said they want; or in realms of body/physical — eating less not for any medical benefit (i.e., intermittent fasting), but for some modulation of sensual passions in general. And in the realm of the mind, what if it means loving a certain sense of suffering? Or examining heart-based intentions that can be very different underneath “two good behaviors” we think are similarly right/good by the world’s standards. To me, there is a case to expand wellness outside the self-implied constructs of how we have approached wellness. For I believe it is paradox: the more we leave in the surrender-ego realm, the more the self in balance actually comes back.
But assuming one “gets” the broader expansion of wellness, then let’s go into the 5 steps — for they each to me represent a meta-cognitive “spin” on core content areas that traditionally make up wellness realms. Each turns commonly accepted ideas on their heads to shake out any parts of us locked in a comfortable half-truth:
- Food/Drink: Get rid of alcohol for more than just a mere “detox” period measured in only days, weeks or 2–3 months.
- Mental Health: Find out where the “spiritual narcissism” is inside the things we do for ourselves in the name of self-care, and adjust one aspect of it to be “more real.”
- Relationships: Take a look at your closest relationships and do an honest gut check on what source the love is coming from: Do we truly love the other we claim to serve, or in some way/form/fashion are we distorting it and “loving ourselves by loving the other”? That is, look for the “secondary gain” we are getting and see if there is a more pure form of love now to give back after correcting that.
- Spiritual: Do a tally of one’s spiritual exercises, decisions, behaviors, practices (if at all present — now make a lot of these invisible or anonymous or a notch more self-sacrificing in some way. (My experience with spiritual life “development” is there are tons of insidious forces that rob a truer level of growth all the while making us feel content with where we are at…think Phariseeism.)
- Exercise: Don’t just increase workout times or change up routines for more muscle-building — investigate more the “larger system” of biophysical wellness decisions. Look for the dissonance-reducing decisions inherent in our “health plans.” That is, do we work out TO be able to drink more, eat more, indulge more? Look for forgotten root causes underneath the architecture of the health behavior “house” we have built. Find the leaks.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
This is a great question. According to the Institute of Economic Affairs, the chances someone suffers depression after retirement goes up 40 percent. So for sure, mental wellness is paramount for folks — regardless of their nest egg. Why? Because, as Freud said, “to love and to WORK” are two fundamental aspects of humanity. Saving up to live comfortably or making retirement “equal” maximizing leisure doesn’t seem to ward off this risk. For example, one of my clients made a fortune by selling his company, had multiple homes everywhere, and still he felt that “nagging” inside that something wasn’t right. The adage I use in my company — that success does not mean happiness — this guy was the poster boy. Even with all the trainers, cookbooks, doc prescriptions, wellness coaches, medicines, ameliorating externals he could throw at it, it seemed to be for naught. I seemed to be the only guy in his network of “resources” that was saying that there was a flaw in the systemic nature of all his methodologies, of how they all linked together. It wasn’t that they all weren’t independently “flawed,” but perhaps they were all sharing the same assumptions. It made me think of Einstein’s quote: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Said another way, they all seemed too rational, too effort/performance, linearly based. In fact, research had shown in behavioral economics that having more opportunity/choices breeds more anxieties, another symptom “behind” his more existential depression. So we decided to counteract these forces not with more of the same but almost a paradoxical notion: deciding to surrender and let go. When I told him this, it was so wild what happened: I meant “let go of the attachment towards having to control/change the feeling,” but when he heard it he paused, was silent for a while……and then with a lightbulb above his head that seemed to be as perceptible as the visceral exchange I was having with him, he said, “My attachments are weighing me down and I need to get rid of my comforts.” I thought he was kidding. But he wasn’t. He radically changed his environment — got rid of a lot of material possessions, scaled-down, simplified. It was as if his psychological space to note or assess changes on these other needed health/wellness dimensions were “crowded” by a dopamine-hijacked reward system of pleasures. Once those neural networks of “maximizing” were amped up, the networks for “satisfying” were not able to be accessed. And it was those networks — being satisfied and content — that was what he needed to be the “neural soil” for his decisions of health objectively to take root. Great stuff.
I wish we all had that level of insight-making capabilities, especially at the times we most need it.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
Absolutely. My approach here is something most parents don’t seem to “get.” That is, there is a natural law, so to speak, a hierarchy of systems that the brain goes through when we try to change behaviors. Certain things must be removed before certain things added. But in our culture? We go nuts doing it all despite whether that “all” creates conflict in inhibitory versus excitatory systems of the brain. We are too non-discriminant in our choice-making around health/wellness, thinking that “all things are created equal”….or…..” more is better”…..or… “doing something is better than not doing something.” These meta-laws, so to speak, create chaos for a brain, especially a developing teen-based brain that is most susceptible to creating consequences to/for these misalignments. So, what I work with mostly with pre-teens and teens is to look at hyperarousal, overstimulation, addiction, and boundaries. These four things first need to be modified before any significant traction can be made with traditional go-to categories of health behavior change areas. They work against rational efforts made, no matter how logical. Why? Technologies that these kids are wired into will hijack a brain’s autonomic nervous system, which can activate threat/cortisol and leave signals that prevent true relaxation response. And living as if pleasure is everything in a boundariless way will further their confusion — for these kids want that and still want the “things” that aren’t attainable by that stuff (i.e., Parents? Think about those meltdowns in the living room at night when all their decisions aren’t working for them but at the moment they are convinced they are right.). In essence, the key here with this population is teaching one skill and one skill only: self-regulation. And this allows the brain to relax naturally when it needs to under times of stress — something these kids feel inside way more chronically than we did as kids.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Hands down, the book that changed me radically was “Boundaries” by Cloud and Townsend. This book taught me the difference between what we think IS and what actually IS with reality. What I realized after reading this book was how people needed more of an understanding of the “natural laws” of things. That is, I realized after reading their work that the law of gravity rarely gets constantly argued with, messed with, critiqued, analyzed, countered, picked apart. Why? Because it just is. It works the same all the time regardless of your feelings, psychological history, pains, wounds, social media profiles, money, or achievements. And I realized there are certain relational physics that are similar to the laws and principles the authors taught in this book — but we all ignore these laws, for much of the world’s reward systems actually give us temporary illusions that make us feel we can. So much of our pain relationally with others is actually self-created. Getting people to “see” this and detox off of the persistence of their rightness — that they can fly and ignore the law of gravity — is a lot of what my work is about. Too many stories to tell here of how we all idiosyncratically make our comfortable “rightness” in our illusions, but at the end of the day I help people or I help people have more problems. If we are suffering in a relationship, chances are we are ignoring boundaries in some form and fashion.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)
Fascinating question. To me, the most amount of good would come from seeing the world from a non-addiction lens — something nearly impossible with how our world is, how much we can get, how fast we can get it, and with whatever preference we desire. When our world has this level of immediacy and action geared towards our satisfaction, it is very hard for “rational wisdom” to get traction. You can put all the best gurus in the world on a podcast, speaking to humanity for a 24/7 course on our errors of thinking and sadly we will all stay attracted to the self-sabotaging decision. My game-changer plan would be to short-circuit this madness from the get-go and teach people to stop playing the game in the first place. And to me? The spiritual/religious realm is where the secret sauce lies, for there are addiction-countering ideas that really center around losing of self AND at the same time holds a hierarchical value structure that can short-circuit primal pleasures.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I have mentioned it above, but for sure, the most profound moments of my life and work — be it clients, marriage, friendships, family — all center around the need to look beyond the automatic response within us of seeking first-order change solutions when a problem demands a second-order solution. So Einstein’s quote, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” would be my pick. And it worked itself out in my life when I was trying to approach my marriage as a newlywed, 15 years ago, in a first-order manner. I had met my wife with the full air of Dr. Fleming as the primary persona, since all my education was what I knew and I had the lack of humility at full throttle, thinking my expert knowledge in the human transformation was the key ingredient in a successful marriage. Until one day my wife, choking on all the benevolent misguidedness about how to love, finally confronted me with, “Hey…I signed up for Kevin, not Dr. Fleming. When you figure out who he is, let me know. We can start our marriage.” Wow. What a profound forcing of me from first-order-land to second-order-land. One either resists and shames/belittles the other person with psychobabble or sits in quiet and receives. Takes in. Sits with it non-defensively. To me, my Catholic heart helped me do this receiving, integration part. Nothing from my Ph.D. training taught me that. And I am forever grateful for the changes that ensued…all from my “non-expert” part of me.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!