By Kevin Cook
This is part of the introduction to my forthcoming book Brain Magic: Transform Worry & Procrastination Into Action & Joy.
Now that I’ve laid the groundwork for the Giant Obstacle (persistant, negative worry thoughts) and the IRS (intrusive rumination syndrome), I want to briefly introduce another core concept we’ll be working with in this book: trauma ceilings. I devised this term to describe how past emotional experiences stored in our bodies, mostly from childhood, become the Giant Obstacle and the IRS in our daily lives. They can act like a ceiling on our goals and accomplishments because they limit what we are willing to try and how much we are willing to persist in the face of setbacks and adversity. For an introduction to the neuropsychology of trauma, please see the section “Words, Names, and Meanings.”
People often identify with a particular personality type or the way their parents raised them and their siblings to describe their actions. “Well I’m shy, introverted — and thoughtful to a fault — because my mother was that way” or “I’m loud and competitive, but hopelessly disorganized, because I came from a family of nine where it was speak up and fight or get left out.”
And there is nothing wrong with taking personality tests to identify traits or simply looking at yourself and your upbringing. We can all find potentially inherited temperaments and behaviors to explain who we are. But what if something has been holding you back for years and you feel like if you could only overcome it, your life would be so much more fulfilling?
For instance, you need to become more organized, or change your eating habits, or learn to cold call strangers. But you avoid new behaviors and learning that would have you create these new habits you want. You experience more than procrastination when thinking about the changes. You feel nauseous, or sad, or anxious enough to seek a soothing distraction like food, alcohol, TV or simply the immediate relief of surfing your phone.
I would argue this is not really a “personality” issue. Because you clearly want to do or be something different and yet you have natural resistance that is seemingly impossible to overcome. And yet it’s not, and you know it. It’s a behavioral habit that can be altered, even if it is tied to your personality.
The ways that I experienced this that really stand out were 3-fold…
Dealing with rejection
Selling to strangers
Being organized with goals and finances
I did not like being frustrated. So anything that seemed like I wasn’t going to be good at, I considered it futile to try. And I hated futility. I wanted everything to be clear and controlled, like when I earned my pilot’s license at age 17. Flight instruction is a model of clarity, structure, order, systems, rules, routines and repetition. I’ve never found anything else that matched it. And I miss it. I need that kind of professional hand-holding, structure, and permission to fail within strict limits that I can control — primarily because it doesn’t involve the whims of other people. Even emergency maneuvers training felt within my control because I didn’t have to rely on others, just the plane, the weather, and my own skills and knowledge.
This rigidity showed up in several experiences for me. In 2016, I tried to write a math book for teens called Math Is Alive! and I followed the idea of John Lee Dumas who had raised $500,000 through crowdfunding for his idea to publish a special type of journal. I thought “Surely I can raise $50,000 for my idea to help kids who hate math learn to love it!” I hired a professional videographer and made a great 4-minute video introducing the concept and the cause of “story-based math.” My story was that I was “allergic to algebra” as a teen, but I later taught myself probability and statistics in my 30s so I could become a trader. And I used stories of math discovery and applications in technology, gambling, and finance to do it. But I was lucky as a white male immersed in the culture of money at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. I wanted to reach kids who wouldn’t be so lucky and help them before their 20s steered them away from jobs and education where they could fall in love with math and science.
So for Math Is Alive! I built a beautiful IndieGoGo page with stories, science and technology images, and the dream of helping kids love math so they could get farther in life, with or without college. I told everyone I knew (well almost). I promoted on Facebook and Twitter and even made FB ads. And it was a complete bomb. I raised only $500 and ended up returning that money because I was so disappointed in the lack of interest in my passion project.
I was so dejected, even hurt, that I didn’t go near internet marketing for years. I took it personally that the world didn’t see value in my mission. And I became bitter about it.
But as the wounds healed, I slowly started to realize that the world didn’t care that much. Sure, lots of people were becoming instant successes with authentic mission marketing on YouTube or being wildly passionate about something on Instagram. But they were the exceptions to the rule, which is… that it takes a lot to get noticed. And maybe some luck. I saw that it was the luck part that bothered me the most. Because that meant some success was undeserved, whereas I had something truly special to offer that I had worked for decades to craft. It also meant that I had to work harder and risk more absurd futility to get noticed. And that was a painful risk to me.
But why? Why was it so painful? I realized that I had worked hard my whole life to be smarter to make up for the fact that I wasn’t popular. And I wanted that equation to matter. I wanted to tip the scales with my knowledge and tenacity for learning. And that way, I wouldn’t have to risk rejection. I also didn’t like to see people getting promoted because they were just the loudest or most obnoxious. Why should someone get more attention for that when I was working so hard to actually know important things. It felt like high school all over again. And I vowed not to play that game. But again, at the core it was the rejection that mattered most.
The fear of rejection was deep seated. It seemed deeper than what you would consider normal for the average person. So I thought about it as I studied trauma and suddenly it was obvious. I had deep experiences as a child of being told I wasn’t good enough. One experience in particular made me feel worthless on multiple levels physically and emotionally (that’s the story coming up in Chapter 5). And what the trauma research shows is that these early experiences get stored in your nervous system forever. Listen I’ve been as skeptical about all the “inner child” work for as long as I can remember hearing it mentioned. But now I knew this was real. I was that scared little boy who felt worthless in so many situations in my teenage and adult life that I can’t begin to count them. So I had been actively avoiding rejection for decades and barely knew it.
Where this showed up after my 2016 book “failure” was in my 2020 book failure. I’d had an idea ever since the 2016 presidential election that people were too easily influenced and agitated by what they saw on TV about politics and candidates. The country was in the midst of the worst division since the red-baiting McCarthy era — probably worse than that. My idea was not so much that we could educate adults about the “neuroscience of beliefs” but that we could equip youth to understand their minds, and the tools of propaganda and statistics, so that they could not be hoodwinked by the games of political agendas. Because the biggest danger was not who got in the White House but what might put anyone there. I’m referring to the coming age of artificial intelligence. And I chose as my book title the idea of futurist Ray Kurzweil that in the next few decades, AI would be equal or surpassing human intelligence. Before the Singularity was also about what we needed to do as a society make certain our youth were equipped for jobs of the future — after AI automation could potentially eliminate half of the jobs we see around us now — that would require high technical skills, reasoning, and creativity.
Books that inspired me here were Huxley’s Brave New World and historian Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus where he painted the picture that the wealthy, as always, would control advanced technolgies like AI and gene editing and without productive work, the masses would be mere servants living on UBI (universal basic income). A good discussion of what might happen when AI can create its own propaganda and win elections can be found in MIT physicist Max Tegmark’s book Life 3.0 where the program Prometheus takes over.
I was so excited about my ideas for Before the Singularity that I googled “book grants” to see if I could find an edge to justify to my family why I’d be spending all my free time writing. To my delight, I found that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) had a special program called Public Scholars for non-academics to publish works of nonfiction in areas of history and the arts. The grant was for between $30,000 and $60,000 depending on whether you had a full-time job at the time. And the deadline was coming up in just five weeks in February. I scrambled into action, getting the outline and summary in the proper format and two personal character references, including my psychologist sister, Dr. Dawn and a respected executive in the Chicago futures industry. I submitted everything online and I was sure I had a great shot for such an important topic. We had to wait until August of 2020 to hear the finalists.
I didn’t win any of the 25 awards. I was crushed, and it wasn’t about the money. It was about my idea and whether anyone would see the beauty and power of it. I was looking for external validation. “Please acknowledge that I’m smart and inventive and hard working to encourage me to keep going.” And so I gave up on that project too because “nobody wanted it.” All that inner dialog instead of just finishing the damn books and seeing what would happen. That was too much work. And this reveals another intertwined layer of this “trauma ceiling.” I was afraid of trying too hard and having it end up wasted or futile. Or worse, being ridiculed. And layered within that was a poor relationship in my marriage where I constantly felt the pressure of not being a good enough provider.
We’ll discuss the idea of trauma ceilings that could keep one from finishing books (I had 4 others half-complete on my shelves and harddrives before I finished this one) or big goals. And I’ll also talk about how I learned that I had been using food my entire life to control my emotions — another trauma response from childhood that carried into adulthood and became the basis for other addictions like beer. It’s one thing to know what you might be afraid of that’s holding you back — your trauma ceiling — and another to be trapped in behavior loops of escaping stress, fear, and anxiety with food and beer as I did for decades, completely unaware of what I was doing or what I was running from.
And after we dissect the structure and impacts of trauma ceilings, we’ll look at several solutions, including what I call the Values Breakthrough.