In the early 1980’s when Oprah Winfrey first came on the scene as a talk show host, like other shows such as Donahue and Geraldo, she was under pressure to have sensationalist and exploitative programs to show people at their embarrassingly worst to grab viewers and ratings.
By the mid-1990’s she had such clout that she dared to push back against tabloid-type shows and transitioned to more uplifting and positive shows. Those positive shows which also included celebrities, politicians and spiritual leaders lasted through 2011, when it went off the air as she simultaneously launched the cable network OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.
After 2011 and because of the challenges OWN faced, Oprah became known as a big-hearted but tough and even-handed businesswoman. Who wouldn’t become that way, given all the people in her orbit who depend on her for something?
Many who worked with her have described her as tough, smart and not suffering fools gladly.
But then came a recent episode of 60 Minutes where Oprah serves as a special contributor. Her report on childhood trauma featured the work of psychiatrist Barry Perry and St. A’s in Milwaukee who use an approach known as Trauma Informed Care.
The method focuses on a child’s experience first before providing treatment. Oprah describes how the shift moved from looking at a child with a “What’s wrong with you?” approach to “What happened to you?” approach.
By doing that, the conversation shifted from a judgmental and even accusatory to a curious and compassionate approach. By doing that, children have felt safe enough to drain the traumatic abscess inside them.
In freely sharing their experiences into what amounted to an empathic drain — analogous to the drains that are put into people after surgery that allow wounds to heal from the inside out — they were able to recover from their deep traumatic wounds.
Now watch the 60 Minutes Overtime segment below:
You’ll hear as Oprah describes how this particular episode has been life-changing for her and has caused her to approach all relationships differently. Instead of confronting people who misbehave with “What’s wrong with you?” she now asks, “What happened to you?”
And the point for those in the WorkingNation community?
If you have a loved one who is out of work, sullen, non-communicative. If them acting that way causes you to say impatiently — or at the very least think — “What’s wrong with you?” (which will only make matters worse), follow Oprah’s lead and ask, “What happened to you?” and then “just listen.”
Before Freud was summarily dismissed many years ago, the father of modern psychology did have some helpful concepts.
One idea was called Ego Psychology, where he divided the psyche into Id (our impulses), Superego (our consciences and source of guilt) and Ego* (our ability to see reality clearly). His simple directive from this body of work was:
“Where Id is, let Ego be.”
That meant that whenever and wherever we felt irresistible impulses, replace them with reason and acting rationally. It is not a bad approach to life, but not given much credence in today’s psychological community.
I bring that up because a parallel adage that Oprah might have us follow that she is now following and has changed her life might be:
“Where judgmental and accusatory is, let curious and compassionate be.”
* Ego from Freud’s POV had more to do with being reasonable and rational and is not to be confused with the common contemporary meaning of being arrogant and condescending.
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Dr. Mark Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.
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