Respecting the Fine Line Between Creativity and Fiction

Fiction is the domain of novels and screenplays, but it has a way of slipping into other creative pursuits, like planning entrepreneurial endeavors and evaluating our businesses, as well as planning and evaluating our lives.

The reason for this potential slippage—which can cause us to put less than solidly-factual and rational foundations under what we build—is probably partly neurological.  We human beings are moved by the energy that fiction can kindle.  Creative, but reality-based imagination probably requires the activation of nerve centers in the brain that flirt with those that generate pure make-believe.

In the realm of creating fiction we are free to take big leaps toward our dreams and to imagine meeting our goals without the intrusion of realities that would slow us down or weigh us down.  There is a dashed line that connects the notion of raising large sums of capital for a limited idea and morphing into a superhero and winning the day, against all the odds.  Our minds are capable of suspending disbelief and being recruited into illusions that make us feel magical.

In the realm of imagination that serves the creation of non-fiction—like a real business or real preparation for a career—there are realities that must be respected.  There are hurdles that—properly—weigh down those huge leaps we can take toward imagining the fulfilment of our dreams.  There are troubling details that make us check our compelling ideas to make sure they are worthy ideas.

This is why working on oneSELF is so important to the creation of an inspiring non-fiction project, of any kind.  Because the creator must be as expansive in his or her thinking as possible, yet as invulnerable as possible to slipping into fantasy. True and strong foundations must be built, even for very moving projects.  And if the creator has developed a habit of avoiding the painful paragraphs or pages or chapters in his or her own life story then he or she will be more prone to avoiding the painful, often solvable problems with whatever they plan.

To solve problems, they must be seen.  That’s why the imaginative, non-fiction thinker and doer in business (or in any endeavor) is a transformational thinker, not a Transformer, of the fictional superhero variety.

Dr. Keith Ablow


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In cities across America, under cover of darkness, often wearing masks, looters are smashing windows and stealing merchandise from shops.  Our cities teem with those whose rage and lack of regard for the underpinnings of our society are manifest.  As I saw the throngs carry off clothing and watches and electronic equipment, I found mySELF thinking about what cannot be stolen from a shopkeeper, or the team that runs a company with many stores or from the good and decent residents of cities and states who must now watch funds diverted from other needed projects, in order to clean up their streets and attempt to keep their residents safe.  And these words came to mind:

Courage, Faith and Truth Cannot Be Looted

Courage, faith and truth cannot be stolen because they reside in the sacred, core domain of the individual.  These qualities are eternal and are also the antidote to our nation being dismantled and not resurrected.  Because our country was built upon these qualities.  They are inextricably woven into the narrative of our nation, and they are indominable.

Ultimately, what constitutes being an individual versus being part of a mob is the story of these riots.  Individuals hoping to change the hearts and minds of other individuals engage in discourse, use powerful symbols and work for change in methodical, productive ways.  There are no true individuals who respond to the tragic murder of a man of color by smashing windows and stealing expensive clothes and watches.  Those are lost souls who have no confidence in themSELVES, who have been emptied of their authenticity and who think that there is no difference between wearing a stolen sweatshirt and one you worked hard to buy.  But there is a world of difference, and there always will be, which is why looters can never get anything from a store that they truly need.

Take it from the legendary psychoanalyst Carl Jung:

Ultimately, everything depends on the quality of the individual, but the fatally shortsighted habit of our age is to think only in terms of large numbers and mass organizations, though one would think that the world has seen more than enough of what a . . .                      mob can do . . .  A million zeros joined together do not, unfortunately, add up to one.


Dr. Keith Ablow


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The Four Conversations that Changed You

We human beings are extremely connected to one another—so much so that even one conversation can change your life.  But I think that it can be very instructive and healing to think of four conversations you’ve had that impacted you:  Two of them positively, and two negatively.  These conversations may have occurred recently, or many years ago.  Recalling them now can bring back the positive energy the great ones conveyed and allow you to remind yourself to be on the alert for (and rid yourself of) negative messages that the discouraging or damaging ones may have left you with.

Give yourself a bit of time for this exercise.  I chose the word “exercise,” intentionally, by the way.  Bringing back these important discussions with others will strengthen your sense of self.  It’s like a short visit to a metaphorical gym for the mind.

If you’re having trouble identifying the four conversations, think of the people you feel most fortunate to have (or have had) in your life and the people you have felt least supported by.  Then, try to remember the exchanges between you that were either high points or low points.

I picked the word “exchanges,” intentionally, too.  The positive and negative messages that people convey to one another are a little like software patches.  They can integrate with our self-concepts in wonderful ways or destructive ways.  The Four Conversations is about embracing, again, the “software upgrades” and getting rid of the “software viruses.”

Once you have identified The Four Conversations, distill them down to the central messages that made you choose them. Maybe someone recognized a core talent of yours—and told you, directly.  Maybe someone convinced you of their unconditional love for you.  Maybe someone told you that they’d heard wonderful things about you from one of your parents, and you’ve never forgotten how warm that made you feel.  On the negative side, there are almost certainly conversations that—wrongly—made you doubt yourSELF, made you feel unworthy or made you wrongly second-guess a decision or direction in life.

We are, all of us, products of each and every moment we have lived, to this very moment.  Coming up with your Four Conversations is just one way to make sure that what impacted you, very positively or very negatively—and may be continuing to affect you—doesn’t go unnoticed or forgotten.

Dr. Keith Ablow


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The Real Way to “Leave the Past Behind”

So many people—millions of people—believe that the way to “leave the past behind” is to turn one’s back to it and march into the next pages and chapters of their life stories.  There is a natural human tendency to avoid complex parts of our narratives.  And that tendency is triggered in an especially strong way when these narratives include confusing, painful paragraphs, pages or chapters—whether they unfolded in childhood or adolescence or during a divorce or when a business faltered.

In truth, turning one’s back to the past doesn’t work.  Because the troubled times we remain part of our stories, whether we want to ignore them, or not.  Left to smolder underground, they will affect the present and the future.

I sometimes imagine people intent on running from the past as having a rubber band attached to their backs.  You get the metaphor:  More and more effort to escape results in more and more force dragging those folks back to the places they are trying to flee.

The reality is that there’s no need to flee.  In fact, the right way to leave the past behind—the only way—is to turn around, face it and learn from it.  Then you’re free.  No more rubber band attached to your back.  Clear sailing.

It’s easier than you think.  Too many of us worry that thinking about our personal histories will get us lost in the past.  That fear is a paper tiger.  When we look at those parts of our stories that we most feel like turning away from, we don’t get lost.  We find ourselves.  That’s because the core of us is pure potential.  Processing the past, learning to shed the negative patterns that took root there, unleashes that potential.

No one knows how this unleashing of potential happens, but I believe it is powered by the fact that we are—each and every one of us— possessed of goodness, purpose and potential.  Those are the treasures waiting to be unearthed when we dig deep for the sources of our pain and, by facing them, restore ourSELVES to the people we were meant to be, from all time.


Dr. Keith Ablow


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God (or the Universe, if you prefer) created you for a particular journey, with a unique purpose and destiny in this life.  It is encoded not only in the double helix of your DNA, but in the infinite helix of your soul.  That is why becoming your true self—and manifesting the treasures that flow from it is a pure form of prayer, not an exercise of ego or a display of arrogance.

Why does this journey to the self-seem so daunting?  I believe the answer, at least in part, lies in the fear that we will be unacceptable or unloved or “unsuccessful” if we take it.  What assurance do we have that speaking our minds, expressing our love or pursuing our creative passions won’t leave us without “enough?”  Perhaps, we fear, we will be ridiculed for charting a course that leads to poverty.  Perhaps we will be ostracized.  Perhaps what we manifest will be imperfect or unworthy.  Perhaps we will look back and think of ourselves as foolish to have believed in our selves.

We are tempted to “buy” insurance by spending our time on endeavors more certain to win acclaim from others, success by the numbers and safety by following in lock step with expectations.

Faith, of course, is the antidote to needing insurance of any kind.  Faith would have us listen to the voices inside us, even when they only whisper about our truest path in this life.  But faith can be hard to come by when we encounter relationships and live through events that make us question whether we are worthwhile, whether we are loveable, whether we are deluding ourselves by believing in ourselves.  For all but a few, these imperfect paragraphs and pages and chapters of our life stories begin to unfold in childhood.  We struggle to find ourselves amidst the dynamics of family.  Some of the children and teachers and neighbors and friends we meet tell us, in one way or another, that expressing ourSELVES is risky business.  We live through events, including loss, that remind us the world can be a dangerous place that can break our hearts.  And we can easily forget that the preface to each of our stories—every one of us—has been edited for eons.  There are no mistakes.

Faith implies the willingness to experience pain on the path back to oneSELF.  The bread crumbs are there, but following them means exploring and understanding how we lost our way.  Yes, that can feel uncomfortable, but it is far less painful than you might imagine.  And it is, ultimately, essential, liberating and life-sustaining.

You were meant for this:  The ultimate journey to your core self.  Only that will do.  Only that will bring you home, safe and sound.

Dr. Keith Ablow


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Why Does it Often “Hurt” to Create?

Part of the joy of my work is that I have had the privilege to talk to people from, quite literally, almost every walk of life. And there’s a theme that comes through when I listen to creators—whether painters, film directors, visionary entrepreneurs, or writers (and many others):  The creative process isn’t always pure pleasure; more often it is, in fact, painful.

Effort against resistance seems to be an inherent facet of bringing things into this world.  It’s part of birthing anything of value.  A baby.  An idea.  And, yes, your true SELF.  (You knew that’s where I was headed, didn’t you?)

I remember that when I was starting a charity fundraising company called Causemo, we hit a point in our planning when we needed to rethink fundamental elements of how the company would operate.  My co-founder noticed the pained expression on my face and said, “This is supposed to be the fun part.  You don’t look like you’re having fun.”

I was, actually.  But the process hurt, at the same time.  It felt a little like running a few miles feels to me.  I want to do it.  I don’t really want to stop.  There are certainly times it is enjoyable.  And there are certainly times it is painful.

I think there are a few reasons why any worthwhile creative act involves some amount of struggle.

First, our nervous systems include some amount of “noise.”  This may literally be a result of the way nerve cells connect across fluid-filled synapses, generating electrical activity between them. Getting a pure signal may require neurological “effort” that feels like work.

Second, and perhaps more important, our life stories create “noise” because the pages and chapters include stressful, even traumatic, times, relationships that may have directed us away from our core selves (the seat of creativity) and negative patterns of thought, emotion and behavior that interfere with manifesting the very best of ourselves.

Getting it “right,” especially when the art we seek to create is ourSELVES, in pure and powerful form, will, therefore, always feel like some amount of work.  But there is a great deal of joy in the process, even as the work unfolds.  Because we are then engaged in the most important creative process there could ever be—manifesting our greatest potential and greatest sense of being self-actualized in life, both personally and professionally.


Dr. Keith Ablow


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Commit to Living Your Most Powerful Life This Memorial Day

Today, as America remembers its fallen soldiers, who died defending liberty, I can’t help thinking that they died in service to the opportunity each and every one of us has to become SELF-actualized.  Without liberty, our ideals and ideas and inspirations would be choked off; we couldn’t become the people we were meant—by God or the Universe—to be.

Seen this way, the men and women who fought and died at Normandy, in our quest to free the world from the horrors of The Third Reich, were fighting and dying to give you and me the opportunity we have today and every day to manifest as much of the good within us as we possibly can.  On D-day alone more than 53,000 American soldiers died. Casualties topped 200,000.  In an almost unfathomable scene that will always make me think of God parting the Red Sea to allow the Hebrew people to escape slavery in Egypt, the waters near the shores of Omaha and Utah beaches, where American forces landed, turned red with blood.  Could there be any more stark symbol of the sacrifice made by Americans to bring forth the truth about how deeply the human soul yearns for freedom from tyranny—for the freedom to be?

During World War II, we lost 416,000 heroic Americans.  In World War I, we lost more than 116,000.  In Vietnam, over 58,000 Americans gave their lives.  Over 33,000 died in the Korean War.  All told, more than 1,260,000 Americans have died in wars.  The pain they and their loved ones experienced fighting for your right to live in freedom and my right to live in freedom—and all of our children’s and their children’s—is an eternal example of how much pain human beings will endure in service to making it possible for each of us to fully express him- or herSELF.

You are imbued with a destiny to fulfill in life and with the God-given instinct to live with purpose.  That is what our men and women died for in war and that is what every member of the Armed Forces serving today—or who has ever served—is fighting for or has fought for.  For freedom.  For YOU and ME, in the fullest incarnations imaginable.

On this Memorial Day, may you commit to becoming your true and full SELF.  Then your life will be a tribute to every life lost by American men and women brave and true enough to serve on the ground, in the air or at sea.


Dr. Keith Ablow


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noun: narrative; plural noun: narratives

  1. a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.

Every one of us is a story—a series of connected events.  That word—connected—is key, because it is human nature to avoid thinking about the events that are most stressful or painful or that simply seem inconvenient.  And that deprives us of the immeasurable power that those very events would yield, were we to glean from them all the life lessons they hold.

No one does very well, in fact, trying to move on without the critical parts of his or her life story accessible to the conscious mind.  Why is that?  Well, imagine this scenario:  You open a book to page 131, read through to page 261, then try to write the next three chapters.  First of all, those next three chapters will lack consistency and authenticity, because the author (you) has been deprived of the main character’s backstory.  Second, the author would naturally be vulnerable to feeling anxious and despondent and ill-equipped to pen the best chapters.  He or she might rightly protest, “But I don’t know what happened from page one to one-hundred-thirty-one.”  Exactly.

Now, consider this:  What might those 131 pages contain?  They might well include key insights into toxic relationships that led to needless self-doubt.  They might include unexpected losses that made the hero of the story irrationally anxious that all could be lost at any time.  They might also include wonderful gifts and talents that the main character left behind, thinking that they weren’t supported by parents or teachers or friends.  And they might include the certain knowledge that it took real energy and courage and resiliency and creativity to get through some of the toughest pages and chapters of that story—power that could be tapped, again, once recognized and rekindled.

See, that word connected is critical because we are—each and every one of us—a story.  And the most powerful version of that story is the non-fiction version.  Wringing the fiction out of the narrative takes some work and some time, but it is well worth it, because it leaves a clear runway to reach new heights in life.

So, why do people avoid doing the work?  They consciously or unconsciously worry it will be daunting.  They think it is better to “let sleeping dogs lie.”  They worry looking back is wasteful and that the future is the only horizon.  And they could not be more wrong, on every score.  Reclaiming one’s true self is the most important and most restorative work of a lifetime.  Far from destabilizing one’s life, it reinforces the foundation and sets the stage to build the strongest, most expansive and most meaningful parts of one’s existence.


Dr. Keith Ablow


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Developing a Third Ear

The “third ear” is something counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists spend their careers refining, but others can benefit from developing, as well.  It’s the concept, first introduced by the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, that human beings can train themselves to listen not just to words that are being spoken by others, but to the deeper meaning behind what is being said—or not said.

The underlying theory is that people often convey important messages about what they are thinking and feeling “between the lines” and that by being both a participant and an observer of conversations, you can “hear” those messages.

This is sometimes referred to as “listening to yourself while listening.”

An example might help.  Years ago, I worked with a woman who was struggling with low mood and relationships filled with conflict.  She spent almost all of our first session describing the complex relationship she had with her mother, a woman who had always made it plain that she was ambivalent about having had a family, rather than devoting more of her time to her career.  And I noticed that I had an uneasy feeling that her initial description of her relationship with her mother might expand to fill that hour and the next one, too—not because the time was absolutely needed, but because other subjects were being avoided.  I “listened” to that sense of unease and then thought about what seemed to be missing from the hour.  At a natural break in the conversation, I said, “I notice that you haven’t mentioned your father at all.  Not once.  Can you tell me about him?”

That question proved to be critical, because the woman’s relationship with her father was profoundly chaotic—so chaotic, in fact, that my client had been attempting to avoid talking about it, entirely.

If you can develop your own third ear, you will not only have a profound tool to connect with others more deeply and meaningfully, you will be training yourself to listen to your inner voice—your instincts and intuition.

Here are some questions to ask yourself while listening to others, in order to exercise your developing “third ear”:

  • I know what we are talking about right now, but is there anything we are avoiding talking about?
  • Why do I feel bored (or anxious or angry or a little bit lost) listening to this individual?  Is he trying to make me cut this meeting short by tiring me out?  Am I resonating with his anxiety?  Do I have the sense he withholding the truth from me—or himself?
  • If I do feel confused, what is it that doesn’t “add up” about this discussion?
  • I’ve asked the same question a few times and can’t seem to get a clear answer.  What might this woman’s motivation be for being evasive?

Depending on what your intuition and instincts tell you about the underlying dynamics potentially at work in the background of a discussion, you can issue invitations to help the person open up more.  You can also ask direct, but empathetic questions open doors to get to know the other person far more.

Here are some examples:

I know you were running late, so we only had half our time to meet.  And maybe it was just the train schedule, but I felt myself sort of wondering if there was any topic you were avoiding bringing up—by cutting our time short.  I want you to know you’re free to schedule, again, if something more is on your mind.

I felt myself wanting to give you a pep talk while you were going over the goals of the project.  Are they worrying you?  Do you have what you need to meet them?

You’ve been so quick to tell me that you have everything covered for your appointment with the doctor.  If there were one thing I could have helped with, that surprised you out of the blue, what would it be?

Developing this sort of “third ear” is a natural outgrowth of the Pain-2-Power process because P-2-P is all about not dodging and weaving around the complex pages or chapters of one’s own life story.  And that journey to the center of oneSELF increases one’s skill and hunger to not remain on the surface of any story.

Dr. Keith Ablow


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Avoiding the of Seesaw Repeated Toxic Relationships

I have noticed a negative pattern in many of the clients I work with.  And I want to share it with you, so that you can think about whether it is operating in your own life and try to overcome it.  Here it is:  When a person’s early life history (childhood or adolescence) is marked by a difficult relationship with a parent (or both parents), that person is very likely to respond in one of two ways, as an adult—either by reproducing that relationship with others or by forging completely opposite, but still polarized and painful, relationships with others.

Put simply, when we grow up on a seesaw, many of us will either hold fast to the seat we’re in or run to the one opposite us.  Too few of us find equilibrium at the fulcrum in the middle.

Think about this example: I worked with a man whose father was an authoritarian who took far too much control of his son’s life.  You can picture his son sitting in the seat of the seesaw that was always in the air.  His father vastly outweighed him, emotionally.  So, the man I worked with had come up with an unconscious strategy to avoid being overwhelmed, again.  He chose to marry someone who was so meek that she posed no threat at all of overwhelming him.  She was too dependent on him and too unsure of herself.  What’s more, he chose a business partner who fit the same mold.

You can probably predict the problems that ensued.  These unconscious accommodations to his past pain only set him up for more.  His marriage was lacking because there were times he found himself needing emotional support, but learned that his wife was ill-equipped to give it.  After all, she was probably very unsettled seeing him as anything other than the strong, in-control partner in the relationship.  That was part of the unspoken marriage contract.  Similarly, when he was met with challenges at work that required bold thinking and the willingness to take control during a period of chaos, he was the only one able to summon both.  It was exhausting.  His partner was looking to him for strength, not able to be the source of it.  That was part of the unspoken business contract.  And that left my client feeling alone and very burdened when the business faced any significant challenge.

In order to avoid making similar choices in the future, it was crucial for my client to see clearly how his relationship during childhood and adolescence with his father was “contaminating” his choices of relationships as an adult.  Once he was able to SEE that dynamic and feel some of the pain from being shut down as a kid, he was able to avoid reproducing it.  He started inviting his wife to be more “present” in the relationship, and she took him up on changing their psychological “contract.”  He grew, and she grew.  He actually negotiated adding a third partner—a real partner—at work who was at least as much of a take-control person as he was.

Are you holding on for dear life to the seat of the seesaw you sat in as a much younger person?  Or, just as concerning, have you leapt all the way to the other seat?  If so, it’s time to find equilibrium.  It’s time to find your center.  It’s time to turn your pain into power.



Dr. Keith Ablow


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