Coaching to Build Rat Park
Updated: Sep 24, 2018
Professional Coach, MSW, RSW
Bruce Alexander, a Canadian psychologist, was the first to question why some people become addicted and others don’t. Well…..he was the first to look at why some rats become addicted and others don’t. Many of us have never questioned the theory that drugs are addictive because of their intrinsic properties; or the conclusion that if you try them, you are guaranteed to become addicted. And any first year psychology student can tell you about all the experiments in which lab rats were given a choice between water and water laced with cocaine and opted to consume the laced water until they overdosed. These studies served as additional evidence to support the War on Drugs and gave rise to campaigns like Just Say No of the 80s. The conclusion was that chemical hooks of drugs make them so addictive that people, like rats, don’t stand a chance in resisting them. Until Bruce Alexander came along and disrupted this perspective. With wider view, Alexander saw what many overlooked. Rats, like humans, are social creatures. Many labs were set up so that the rats were living in small and cramped cages. They lived in close proximity to each other but could not see or touch each other. In fact, the only stimulation they got was when the experimenter would deliver their food or water or change the tray underneath them. So Alexander started to wonder what affect quality of life might have on the rats’ desire to use drugs. So he created Rat Park. He filled the cages with stimulating mazes, balls to play with and other rats for companionship (which resulted in plenty of rat babies…) He then presented the rats the option to use drugs. And do you know what happened? None of the rats got high.
So I ask you: What does your cage look like?
Although interesting, you may not think this has anything to do with you. You aren’t a rat. You aren’t addicted to cocaine, how does this connect to your life?
We are in the middle of a mental health epidemic or what others are calling a crisis of disconnection. The average number of close friends (defined by who you would discuss important matters with, not how many facebook connections you have) a North American adult has has been steadily decreasing. Brené Brown points out “we are the most overweight, overmedicated, in debt adults in all of human history.” You may not be overdosing on cocaine, but chance are, you are engaging in some form of emotional numbing. Maybe you binge watch Netflix, maybe you shop too much, maybe you lose hours scrolling through social media collecting likes. If we are honest, we’d admit, we all do it from time to time.
Let’s go back to the rats. What was different about rat park compared to the first bare cage? The rats were stimulated. Their environment was engaging. Maybe some rats even derived a sense of purpose from completing that challenging maze. But most of all- there was connection. There were other rats in there with them to form a little rat park community. We are desperately missing this. We, as humans, are hardwired to seek out a place where we belong. And many of us turn to our workplaces to find it.
This is why I left the world of mental health and addiction and turned to professional coaching. Although I found my psychotherapy work deeply rewarding, I often reflected on the never ending demand. I could see 35 clients a week and still have a waitlist. Like Alexander, I needed to take a wider view and make a bigger impact. So together with Raechel Pefanis, we launched our little company Red Maple Professional Coaching with the lofty goal of re-humanizing workplaces. We want to help people be more than just professional at work. I want to help people show up to work as whole people. I want workplaces to have more candid conversations. I want it to feel safe enough to talk honestly about the limiting beliefs and blind spots that keep us small and risk averse. I want to help people leverage their unique talents so their work becomes purposeful and holds deep meaning for them. And most of all, I want to help workplaces be a rich source of connection for people. I want to build rat park.