Throughout our conversation, Dr. Grant talks about his upbringing and how growing up in a very intellectual environment enticed him to enjoy learning and constantly pursue self-development. He kindly shared tools he uses to motivate self-help readers and self-development seekers, like the GRAFTS assessment or the 40-20-40 model.
Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, and we have a very gifted guest with us today. He grew up in a culture and family immersed in self-exploration, psychoanalysis, psychology, growth and change, science, and curiosity. Early on, he felt the desire to become a therapist, before that a scientist. And as he grappled with his own challenges and inner forces, he followed a meandering path from physics to psychology, from surgery to psychiatry, and ultimately entered psychoanalytic training in private practice in 2002. And with over 20 years in private practice, he’s developed a creative, results-driven approach to help his patients understand themselves, identify and break down limiting patterns, and realize their most fulfilling and complete potential. And it is his personal mission to help others and, through this, change the world for good. And that is why we are going to get along so well. Welcome, Dr. Grant Brenner.
Dr. Grant Brenner: Oh, it’s a pleasure to see you and please call me Grant. And I’d love to meet that guy you described. He sounds pretty good, actually.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, we’re going to have a lot of fun stuff to visit with our listeners over today. And before we get started, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Grant. In this pursuit, Dr. Brenner is the co-founder and former CEO of Neighborhood Psychiatry and Wellness. He is a board-certified psychiatrist and psychotherapist at a private practice in New York City and an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science from Mount Sinai Beth Israel. He is an entrepreneur, author, teacher, speaker, and not-for-profit board member based in Manhattan, New York. So, I’ve been really excited to get into this. He’s written a number of books. Here are just a few of them: Irrelationship: How We Use Dysfunctional Relationships to Hide from Intimacy, Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships, and the most recent sequel, Making Your Crazy Work For You: From Trauma and Isolation to Self-Acceptance and Love. So, let’s jump into this, Grant. Tell us, if you don’t mind, about your background, including any turning points in your life and how did you get to where you are today?
Dr. Grant Brenner: I grew up in suburban New Jersey in a well-resourced community, and came from a family with a fair amount of adversity in the family. I’d say that the most obvious thing is that my mother was ill from when I was quite young, probably about a year old, and passed away when I was nine after a grueling battle with cancer. I have a sibling with a significant developmental disability who’s an older sibling, and I had some thankfully non-life-threatening but significantly painful medical problems, orthopedic problems as a kid. And I was a little bit of an outlier, as you may figure out from my biography, even as a kid I had plenty of friends, but definitely not a mainstream kid. And I did experience a fair amount for a while of bullying and teasing, which certainly taught me a lot about compassion and leadership and just how to be a decent person. And through a combination of external support and also my own assertiveness I stopped that bullying early in junior high school. I grew up in a very intellectual environment, my stepmother, who my father married when I was 11 or 12, had a few PhDs in a number of different fields and was my fifth-grade English teacher. And she really enriched me tremendously. I remember one summer I went away on an exchange program to live in Brazil. And I ended up living with a surgeon and his family. It turned out that they had wanted an American exchange student, so he could practice medical English. So we talked about surgical oncology for an hour every day. And it was a very, very interesting cultural experience. But what happened was, it was in the mid-80s, and all the people my age, I didn’t know this was going to happen, but in the middle of the summer, a couple of weeks into my exchange program, they all just vanished because they had to study for state exams.
Dr. Grant Brenner: So I ended up spending a lot of time with the other kids in the surgeon’s family who were a bit older. That was fun. I ended up going to a weightlifting gym, kind of like a Gold’s Gym. It was in southern Brazil. So don’t think like Rio, think sort of like Northern Italy type of terrain. And I was pretty bored. So my stepmother sent me a huge box of books, and they were things like Gödel, Escher, Bach, which is a famous book by Douglas Hofstadter, and The Mind’s Eye, which is about consciousness philosophy. And I was reading all this anthropology, and I think even at a younger age, I had started reading Freud and Jung synopses that I found in the bookstore in the mall. So I was really processing a lot of what had happened as a kid and spent a lot of summers studying and working and kind of thinking through things. Not sure if I answered your question, but this gives you a flavor of what it was like for me. And I was also very much into computers and complexity science, and I read tons of science fiction and literature, just played video games as well. So it was a pretty diverse experience in suburbia anyway.
Steve Shallenberger: What a background, Grant. I mean, in other words, what you’re saying is just the run-of-the-mill childhood. What a way to get thinking about life. We’re gonna have a lot of fun talking about that in our interview and how that’s impacted you, especially in what you’re doing today. I can’t wait to hear about some of your thoughts. One of the things that you’ve talked about and worked on is something called GRAFTS. And what is the GRAFTS assessment? How can we use it? And how can it be a benefit to us?
Dr. Grant Brenner: That’s a great question. I’m talking about my background and it’s very complex. There are many layers. The human mind is very complex. So how do we make sense of it? So in our relationship model, we came up with a simple mnemonic, like a shorthand, which is GRAFTS for common childhood patterns. And these are things that kids would typically do when their parents are not there for them in some kind of way. And these are behaviors that I’ll spell out in a second, that are designed to accommodate or adapt to parents who aren’t fully available as secure attachment figures. So GRAFTS stands for, and imagine this is a kid who’s trying to be all these things in order to kind of keep their parents happy. One of my co-authors, Mark Board, calls it a human antidepressant. GRAFTS is Good, Right, Absent, Funny, Tense, and Smart. So being good is being a good boy, making sure you do your chores, and not causing trouble. Being right is families where there’s a lot of litigating. People will argue over who’s right and who’s wrong, correcting each other. That can certainly backfire later on in life, as can all of these things. Being absent is like staying out of the way. “Dad is in a bad mood tonight, let’s just avoid him.” And that’s how you keep a person from getting angry. The kid is doing the parenting work. It’s called parentification. Being funny, everyone knows the entertainer. I think about Jim Carrey. If you look at his interviews, he talks about learning his skills as a comedian growing up, and that’s an experience I had. I’m not as good as Jim Carrey, of course, but I did a lot of imitations and accents, and I still like to joke. People do sometimes ask me if I do stand up. The last two are Tense and Smart. Tense is just walking on eggshells all the time, which is a way of, say, mirroring an anxious mother. Kids do that, kids are kind of emotional echo chambers, as are grown-ups significantly. Though, as grown-ups, we can learn to bound that. And the last one is Smart, getting good grades, being smart. I was inclined in that direction; hence, all the reading. And having older siblings, too, I would pick up their textbooks. I remember reading their sixth-grade science books when I was in second grade and reading about static electricity in ancient Greece and just loving stuff like that. But it’s also a way to protect oneself. You can find solace and companionship in reading as well, of course.
Steve Shallenberger: Absolutely. So, how do you use the assessment? What age should take this assessment? What’s the purpose of it? And how would it be helpful?
Dr. Grant Brenner: Most of our books are designed for a motivated self-help reader. So if you look through the structure of all of the books, it’s organized as a hybrid of instructions, psychoeducation, as they call it, clinical illustrations, like fictionalized case studies drawn on real clinical experiences, no confidential information is shared. And then at the end of each chapter are exercises. So it’s a hybrid between a self-help book and a self-help workbook. And then, typically, the person reading through it would keep their own journal. We encourage people to keep their own notes. And the exercises are quite structured. And GRAFTS is just one part of them. The basic framework starts with education and self-knowledge, and this is supported by research. This is a user manual for the human mind. It’s a trauma-focused theory, but we talk about trauma, we talk about normal developmental experiences, attachment theory, neuroscience, some biochemistry, social psychology, and cognitive psychology. We really try to give a 360 digestible view of psychology. And then the other thing we start with is self-compassion because a self-compassionate stance will enable learning and curiosity. And kindness toward oneself actually has very positive effects on the brain that helps people get out of their stuck patterns. And then we go into more structured things, GRAFTS is one of them. GRAFTS is a way of structuring developmental ideas because it’s just a list of patterns, basically. And then we would tell people, “Okay, which of these do you recognize in yourself? When have you used them? And what might you do different?” So that’s similar to cognitive-behavioral therapy, that’s one example of how an exercise would use the GRAFTS framework, and then there are other tools beyond that as well.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, great. That’s a good background on it. Thank you for taking the time. Is there a way that people can find the GRAFTS? Where would they find it?
Dr. Grant Brenner: So we don’t have it formatted, though it would be a good idea, and we’ve talked about it of having that as a kind of an online assessment tool. Right now, you can find it on our Psychology Today blog. If you search on Psychology Today for your relationship or relationship sanity and GRAFTS, there are a number of good descriptions, and sometimes on our social media, and of course, in the books. It’s in every book in detail.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, this is helpful. I’m glad you went through it and what each one meant. So the idea is you go through assessing what might be a strength for you or something that you ought to watch out for so that you have good mental health. And it contributes to greater happiness as you’re working on these things.
Dr. Grant Brenner: Yeah, it gives good self-knowledge. And as I said, there could be a table where you go through specific examples, but I can give a specific example of something that sometimes can work and sometimes can backfire. Let’s say being good, being very agreeable, and being a people pleaser can be a huge strength in personal relationships and professional relationships. But it can also be a downside because it’s hard sometimes for people to say no, or they don’t want to cause problems so they keep something important to themselves and then find out later that they ought to have said something, say it’s a work issue that they anticipated but didn’t want to upset someone so they kept quiet. So being agreeable is a pro and a con. People who are agreeable tend to do better in life as a personality trait, but people who are too agreeable can be taken advantage of or can self-silence.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, these are very interesting. Like the right you described, that’s where people maybe an argument or a discussion about ideas, and then getting into thought of really being more curious and being a good listener rather than right and wrong and trying to discover and understand, I presume.
Dr. Grant Brenner: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why we have this compassion-based focus because that applies to oneself and to other people. And if you’re a compassionate listener, then you see the whole landscape. It encourages something that psychologists called mentalization, which is being able to see things from multiple perspectives, both from your point of view as well as from other points of view. Being right sometimes is really helpful. If you’re a litigation attorney, that can be helpful. If you need to stick up for yourself in the boardroom, that can be helpful. If you argue all the time over little things, not going to be helpful. So you have to know how to pick and choose. And that’s a higher level type of executive function than getting locked into one behavior. The problem is when people get locked into a developmental pattern, which we call brain lock in our books, and they become stuck and they keep using the same approach when it’s not the right one.
Steve Shallenberger: Very interesting. Thank you for taking a couple more minutes on these. Because there’ll be a transcript of this podcast, people can actually look at the acronyms, what they mean, and be thoughtful about how they impact our lives. Let’s just talk about trauma for a minute. How can one use their trauma for good? I mean, nobody really likes it. But unfortunately, in the course of life, we all experience it. So how can you use trauma for good?
Dr. Grant Brenner: That’s a great question. And it is good to have a transcript because a lot of these ideas, you’re not going to get on one pass. And I know we live in the age of “too long didn’t read.” But there are some things that take time, and trauma is one of those things. It’s such a complicated subject. And it means so many different things to so many people. So if you look at the trauma literature, then trauma, you know, you’ll see it has objective and subjective definitions, meaning that you can measure trauma, like how many adverse childhood experiences did someone have, there’s an ACE scale that’s quite famous now. And then people can have something that to one person didn’t seem like a big deal, but to another person is something they are just struggling with. The way to make use of trauma most effectively, and I agree with you, I don’t think anyone wants trauma. And of course, I’d never recommend that anyone seek trauma in order to gain wisdom. I think that would be quite unhealthy.
Steve Shallenberger: We’ve all got plenty of it. We don’t need to seek it out.
Dr. Grant Brenner: It’s a slightly different topic. And yet people do tend to repeat trauma, and that’s a different subject. And why would that be where they sometimes seem to gravitate toward it, such as people who get into “bad relationships” over and over again; intellectually, you don’t want it but you keep sticking your hand in the flame. One of the things that’s helpful in thinking about how to work with trauma is to have a compassionate mindset and a growth mindset. And two concepts that come up there are resilience and post-traumatic growth. Resilience is well-studied. People with early trauma, or even trauma later in life, do better if they have resilient responses. And resilient responses are pretty well understood on a research level. In terms of actually trying to do the things that encourage resilience, that requires planning. And trauma can interfere with planning, trauma can kind of take over the brain. And that’s part of why people repeat stuff. And then post-traumatic growth is a related but newer concept that goes alongside resilience, which is when and how do people generate wisdom from adversity? It doesn’t always happen and it doesn’t always need to happen.
Steve Shallenberger: How can our listeners, how can people cultivate a healthy, resilient response? What are some of your thoughts on that?
Dr. Grant Brenner: So, there are resilience factors that you can modify or “control” and there are ones that are more innate. So it’s good to have a sense of how intrinsically resilient you are. So that’s good to be having that baseline. And you approach that with a positive coaching attitude not looking for faults. Some people are just prone to anxiety. People who have a neurotic personality have some genetic differences. The modifiable traits are the ones that we can work on and the ones that we can change. You can learn optimism, so you can train up optimism, that’s kind of a cognitive approach. But you can do that through different kinds of meditation, including compassion-based and gratitude-based medications. You can cultivate cognitive flexibility through practice essentially slowing down and considering multiple possibilities, optimism and cognitive or mental flexibility go hand in hand, taking care of oneself physically promotes resilience. So sleep, social activity, eating properly, exercise, doing recreational activities, using distractions that are generative. All those things are really helpful. Social relationships are particularly important in a specific way for resilience. So building healthy, secure relationships can be challenging depending on the nature of the trauma, and sometimes not as challenging. So building social networks can be helpful, and challenging oneself to learn new things. So that can also promote neural plasticity, growth of the brain or mind. So it’s good to try new things, learn new things, learn a language, take up a new hobby, and a lot of times that will get people unstuck as well and improve mental flexibility. Those are a few things. People can also look up online something called the resilience prescription, which is from Dennis Charney, who is the dean at Mount Sinai and a resilience researcher, and it’s a really good one-pager.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, excellent. That was a great response. I love the things that people can work on to create greater health and the ability to leverage and learn from trauma and turn it into something that helps us have a better life, a happier life, just because you appreciate it. How about self-identity? What are some practical things that someone can do to develop a healthy, positive self-identity, which is so important for happiness, hope, joy, and really being productive?
Dr. Grant Brenner: That’s a good question on the heels of resilience, and something that I didn’t talk about as much in the resilience piece comes up here as well, which is, well, number one, if there is some kind of trauma, which often is grief or loss, it is important to make room for normal feelings of sadness and the grieving process. And that also ties in with having a coherent sense of self or a good self-identity. So, I think developing that self-identity starts with self-knowledge. It starts with giving yourself a lot of room to reflect. That mentalization sounds kind of geeky; self-reflective function is an easier term for that. So, you make room for yourself. And I think ultimately, the goal is to become your own best buddy. People talk about self-parenting; I think that’s a part of it. But really, as we get older and we go throughout life, there’s one person who’s always going to be there with you. And that is you. So, I would encourage people — this is kind of a funny, almost hypnotic shift — to think of yourself as another person. And a lot of times what we see are people who are down on themselves treat other people differently and better than they treat themselves. So, give yourself the same rights and benefits that you give other people.
Steve Shallenberger: Sometimes the person we’re hardest on is the one in the mirror. Cut ourselves some slack here. We’ve got a lot of good things in us and a lot of talents, skills, and potential. So, you’re saying recognize those, and that’s part of forming this self-identity, which is good.
Dr. Grant Brenner: And a lot of times, people think about being compassionate, resilient, or kind to themselves as being weak or soft. But treating yourself well often means being firm and holding yourself accountable. It’s just learning to do it in ways that work better. Because on average, most people don’t respond that well to harsh criticism. It may work for a while. There are people who are listening, they’re going to say, “Yeah, that’s what I do. I thrash myself.” And that can work for a while. But for some people, they hit a point where it stops working. And then a lot of times, they don’t quite know what to do because they’ve got these kind of GRAFTS behaviors. And then it’s time to shift gears right and take stock.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s terrific, Grant. One of the things we rarely talk about on this show, anyhow, specifically is going a little further in this on what we’ve been talking about. And that is, how can someone find or learn more or be more aware of their personal or professional blind spots? Because we all want to become our best, and sometimes we’re limited by what we simply don’t know. What’s your experience there? How can we become aware of our blind spots? And whether they’re positive or negative, and improve from them.
Dr. Grant Brenner: My first answer might not surprise you, but it’s to ask other people and really listen to their answers. And especially people who are overly self-sufficient — which a lot of people who had tough childhoods learn to be — super self-sufficient or counter-dependent, is what it’s called, will try to figure out their own blind spots by themselves. And then, like you mentioned a mirror earlier, then you’re standing there with a mirror trying to see the back of your own head. And that can be helpful — like therapy can help, there’s one person in therapy, group therapy can help — but people do 360s or you talk with friends and loved ones and you make it clear to them that you’re really curious, that it’s safe for them to tell you what they think. And you want to have guardrails on that conversation so that you know if it starts to get too much, you can say, “That’s good for now. Let me take that into consideration.” And in our work, we talk about something called the 40-20-40. I don’t know if you have that in your notes, but it’s a communication process that facilitates essentially compassionate speaking and listening. So the idea here is I get 40% of the airtime — we’re not doing this in the podcast as much — but I get 40%, you get 40%, and we get 20%. And the rules are the rules of nonviolent communication. When I speak, I speak from the heart with the goal of being understood from compassion. And when I listen, I listen to understand and not to formulate my rebuttal, not to formulate my counter-argument. So you can do that 40-20-40 in any conversation or in your own self-dialogue.
Steve Shallenberger: Who’s the 20? And what’s the 40? Go over that one more time so we’re sure we got that nailed down.
Dr. Grant Brenner: The 40-20-40. Now, imagine a romantic couple, just for starters, though you can use it with other people. Person A gets 40% of the airtime, of the emotional time, the relationship time, person B gets 40%. And then they have a middle, which is the 20. And that 20 is for the relationship. So, by analogy, the relationship is like a pet or a child. The relationship is something that two people need to nurture and cultivate. It could be 18, it could be 35. But the idea is that we’re making sure that there’s that third as a noun — like the third is the relationship. And that can be true for 10 people. It doesn’t have to add up to 100 every time. It could be like a bigger pie. But that’s basically it. You get 40, the listener gets 40, and then the people together get at least 20.
Steve Shallenberger: That’s brilliant. I love it. It gives direction and a positive way forward on what you’re talking about, recognizes the relationship, and builds that together. It’s not one or the other. So that’s a nice model.
Dr. Grant Brenner: It encourages mutuality. It actually works. And we’ll actually use a timer. So you do three-minute turns or five-minute turns. And you learn so much from doing it. Because a lot of people, myself included, don’t know how long they’ve been talking. And in couples therapy, they call that grandstanding or stonewalling. So, this makes sure that everyone has a say.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, that’s good. I did want to say, I’m glad that you brought up blind spots. And before we go into this last part in our interview, I’m grateful for the fact that you said, “Listen, sometimes just inviting others to give feedback.” Have you found a comfortable way to start that conversation? Because sometimes maybe people are really vulnerable about this, and not always so secure in finding about their blind spots. So, any tricks of the trade you’ve learned that help you bring something up?
Dr. Grant Brenner: It often takes work to get to that point. So, I think starting with someone who you feel very safe with is important. And you can even role-play practicing it. And you have to it appropriately. You don’t want to go to the wrong person and ask them to give you feedback, maybe it’s not good from an HR point of view, who knows? But once you decide to do it, I think practicing with someone who’s safe, getting their feedback, find what works for you. And also, make sure you’re in a good state of mind. People are going to be nervous sometimes when they have these conversations, but it becomes muscle memory. What would I say? I’m a spontaneous person. So, I don’t necessarily have something that I would tell everyone to use. But I might work through a few different ideas and see what fits right for someone. But for listeners, let’s see, I might say, “I’m working on understanding myself better so I can be a better friend, better in the workplace. I understand that it can be hard for people to see all of their own blind spots. Would it be okay with you if I asked you a couple of questions at some point or get your feedback about what it is like to work with me or be in a relationship with me?” So, I would start off with something like that. And I think one of the important things to point out here is to get the person’s consent and maybe schedule the actual conversation for later. So, we don’t want to put people on the spot. We want to kind of say, “Would it be okay?” and then “When might be a good time?” If it is okay. And then you might want to give some more guidance about what particularly you’re looking for or just to have it be open-ended.
Steve Shallenberger: Thank you. That is really wonderful advice. Once again, I’m glad we have the transcript because that’s the kind of thing, the underlying. “Let me get that out and practice that a little bit and get good with it.” And if someone came to you and said that to you, what have you found is the best way to respond?
Dr. Grant Brenner: I think, in a direct, psychologically safe, and in a candid but compassion-focused way. And I think it’s important to start with things that feel perhaps less challenging and do the same kind of thing with the person. By the same kind of thing, I mean check in with them, ask their consent, “Hey, well, one thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes you don’t let other people speak. How do you feel about that? What do you make of that? I have a few other observations, would you like me to share them with you?” And then it might require more than one conversation or it might be quicker. Or you might say, “Would you like me to send you an email with some of this feedback.” And so forth. So, for me, it’s always kind of a concierge process, but it’s always based in mutual respect, safety, kindness, honesty, and ongoing consent.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, I’m always amazed at how fast these interviews go. We’re at the end. Any final tips you’d like to provide for our wonderful listeners here today?
Dr. Grant Brenner: I think the main thing that I like to remind people of (and not in a kind of superficial way) is something like I would call “deep self-care,” which is really grounded in again, compassion for oneself and others. And people who didn’t have the greatest experiences growing up, if they were mistreated or neglected, they often carry that with them. And so learning to have a rational amount of self-compassion, number one, isn’t weakness; it actually tends to make people stronger through their ability to deal with their vulnerabilities and their strengths, but also updates the operating system, like a computer metaphor. So if you have a self-blame operating system, compassion-based practices can be like an update.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, this has been a delight. So, this is Dr. Grant Brenner, and tell us how people can find out about what you’re doing.
Dr. Grant Brenner: I’m on social media. My Instagram and Twitter is @GrantHBrennerMD. And then my website is www.GrantHBrennerMD.com, and there’s a resources page that lists those books. And if you Google my name, you’ll get a bunch of things. And then my Psychology Today blog is called “Experimentations.’ I’ve got over 12 million views now and approaching 300 posts. And it ranges anything from talking about trauma-informed work to reviewing neuroscience research to talking about how to deal with things like self-blame.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, these are important subjects for all of us, especially in the pathway of Becoming Your Best, which is so hopeful, and how nice to have resources like you, someone that’s really thought about it, and really deeply researched it, and being willing to share with others. So it’s been a delight to have you on the show today.
Dr. Grant Brenner: Thank you, Steve. It’s a real pleasure talking with you, and I can’t wait to get your book. It sounds amazing. We scheduled pretty quick so I will read it and learn from it, no doubt.
Steve Shallenberger: You’re so gracious. What a delight to have you here today. Thank you.
Dr. Grant Brenner: Pleasure meeting you. Take care.
Steve Shallenberger: And to all of our listeners, we’re so grateful for you. We honor you and we’re privileged to have you join this show and wish you the best in your pathway of becoming your best and blessing your life and other people. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, signing off. Have a great day.
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Dr. Grant H. Brenner
Board-certified Physician-Psychiatrist, Author, and Speaker