Sitting on my bookshelf in my office is a framed copy of Time Magazine from April 14, 1997. On the cover is a picture of Ellen DeGeneres with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay,”
When President Obama awarded Ellen the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2016, he said “It’s easy to forget now just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages 20 years ago.”
I definitely remember. I also came out in 1997 (albeit to a lot less fanfare) and I remember what a great source of comfort it was to have a celebrity like Ellen normalize who I was discovering I was. I remember watching the two-part coming out episode of “Ellen” with my very first girlfriend. Fast forward a year to April 1998 and “Ellen” was cancelled. (My girlfriend and I didn’t last and neither did the show.)
Ellen then didn’t work for three years.
In “Ellen Degeneres: Relatable,” a Netflix special based on her recent stand-up tour, Ellen reflected on her very public coming out experience over 20 years ago. She talks about how many of the people associated with her coming out episode experienced negative fallout or were even blacklisted. Oprah, who played her therapist, received stacks of hate mail. Laura Dern, who played her love interest, couldn’t find work for a year or two.
She also talks about the experience she had that prompted her to come out of the closet. She describes a dream in which she put a baby bird in its cage and the bird realizes there is an open window that had been there the whole time. In her dream, Ellen looks at the bird and says “Don’t leave, you are safe.” The bird responds “I don’t belong here” and flies out of the cage. The next morning, Ellen woke up and decided to come out.
The original Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study provides strong evidence for the link between childhood trauma and adult health outcomes and behavior. But even more than that, the framework offers us an way to translate behavior that is very different from traditional approaches. It challenges us to consider that our own behavior and the behavior of others is adaptive.
As Vincent Felliti, one of the lead authors of the original ACE study, explains, “What are conventionally viewed as public health problems are often personal solutions to long-concealed adverse childhood experiences.”
At its core, trauma-informed principles and practices and a resilience-building approach is really just about integrating that understanding into policies and practices at the organizational or community level.
When Oprah describes the impact of her 60 Minutes segment on ACEs from March 2018, she captures this reframe: “So when I have an employee who is acting out of line or who is just being a jerk, I don’t think ‘What’s wrong with that guy? What’s wrong with that girl?’…I think, ‘I wonder what happened to them. I wonder what happened to cause them to behave that way.’”
There are big and obvious ways in which we all adapt. I certainly adapted my behavior when I was closeted and not ready to share who I was with the world. I contorted myself in all sorts of ways to avoid being “found out.”
There are also more everyday examples of how we adapt. We may listen to audiobooks because we struggle with focusing on the written word. We may set our watch 10 minutes fast because know we tend to run late. Or maybe we avoid going to Target on the weekend because crowds make us anxious.
Ellen sums it up best when she talks about slow drivers: “You don’t know why someone’s going slow. You have no idea. Maybe they’re transporting a bowl of soup.”
Why do we adapt? Our adaptive behaviors usually come from a pattern we developed that kept us safe at one time in our life, emotionally or physically (or both). That threat can be either real or perceived. For Ellen, the threat turned out to be pretty real; she lost her show and didn’t work for three years. For many LGBT youth, the threat of being cut off or thrown out by families is also very real–studies estimate that 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. For me, while coming out was a difficult experience in many ways, the threat of being ostracized by my immediate community was perceived–my family and friends almost universally accepted me.
The way we adapt as adults often reflects something we experienced as children. Maybe we were the kid whose voice wasn’t heard, who as an adult is the loudest person in the room. Maybe we moved around a lot or had a rigid structure at home and as an adult we adapt to that lack of choice with a tendency to be controlling or by over-scheduling ourselves. Maybe we were exposed to a lot of conflict as a child and now avoid conflict as an adult (or seek it out!) We adapt when we feel insecure, unheard, or not good enough. Any way we spin it, we are all humans and we all adapt.
(Let’s just get this out of the way. We still need to hold people accountable for their behavior when they do adapt; more on this next month.)
With all of this in mind, Andi and I are excited to announce the launch of Origins’ #WeAdapt campaign. Our goal is to provide a forum for us all to share the big and the small ways that we all adapt our behavior based on our experiences. We hope that this campaign will support a more compassionate way of understanding one another.
Because what we know based on both the data and what we see every day is that ACEs are everywhere. We are all impacted by ACEs in one way or another. And once you see that pattern—that pattern that helps us understand behavior as an adaptive response—you see it everywhere.
We also know that when we connect and share our stories (and hopefully a few humorous observations or two), we build resilience.
All of our courses at Origins build off the premise that behavior is an adaptive response. In our introductory course, The Basics (available in-person and online), we provide an overview of the foundational concepts behind a trauma-informed and resilience-building approach. In our Resilience Champion Certificate course, we provide a forum to help translate those concepts into practical application.
At Origins, we weave the fundamental assumption that there is a reason why individuals, organizations, and communities act they way they do throughout all of our trainings.
We invite you to join us in this campaign on facebook, twitter, and instagram by sharing your observations (big and small, funny and serious!) of adaptive behavior. We encourage you to share stories of yourself–because we all adapt. You can share our blog and use the hashtag #weadapt when you post. Don’t forget to tag us @originstc.