Six women, crying.
All moms or grandmothers, and all worried about a kid.
One kid is gay and her parents are rejecting her.  One’s being fed junk food and left alone all day with tv.  One (a big one) is a germophobe whose marriage is in jeopardy.  One (another big one) drinks too much.  And the last flies into rages when he can’t get his way.
Anxiety, frustration, guilt and helplessness slowly fill the group room like a swimming pool.
And behind each story is one question: What can I do about this?  And the same frightened answer: I can’t do anything.
“Okay,” I say finally.  “Ready for some good news?”
They look at me.
“Not the answer you’re looking for, probably.  And not where you’re looking for it.  Not out there, among the people you love and want to rescue and the problems you hate and want to solve.”
I get up from my chair and go to a mobile hanging in one corner.  It’s my Seafood Mobile, all fish, crabs and starfish.  I flick a tuna with my finger. The whole mobile bounces.
“This is a family,” I say.  “See what happens when one member’s in trouble?  The trouble migrates throughout the system.  Affects everyone.  Got that?”
They nod.
“Now watch.”  I hold the tuna between my thumb and forefinger.  The mobile calms down.  “This is what happens when one member stabilizes or heals.  That healing migrates throughout the system too.”
I sit down again.
“You’ve no control over these problems.  But you also have more power than you know.   You can be the calm fish.  You can help stabilize the system.
“Remember when you were kids?  Remember the adults that helped you the most?  They weren’t the anxious, angry or desperate ones. Not the ones who scolded or punished or rescued.
“They were the ones who reassured you, encouraged you, praised you, helped you feel good about yourselves.  Who modeled calmness, acceptance, or faith.  Who helped convince you – because they really believed it – that Everything Will Be Okay.”
“That’s what you can bring to your families.
“Your kids and grandkids are each in their own little rowboat.  You can’t row it for them.  Can’t stop the storm or calm the waters.  You don’t have that kind of control.
“But if you learn how to calm yourselves without controlling, you can offer them a safe harbor.  Model faith that Everything Will Be Okay.  And provide an emotional space where they can pull in, drop oars, catch their breath, regain hope.
“Not a small thing.”


CARTOON -- cross 4
“I’m tired and angry and depressed. And I’m getting married in two weeks, and I can’t even enjoy it.”
Twenty-four years old. Chronically codependent.
“All I do is work.  Except on weekends, when all I do is chores or errands or obligations.  Birthday parties, engagement parties, christenings, family dinners.  There’s no end to it.”
“And still can’t say No?”
Shakes his head sadly.
“Doing anything to take care of yourself?”
“Taking Good Friday off,” he frowns.
“And spending it…”
“Chores and errands.”  He sighs and looks at me.  “What can I do?”
“Invent a holiday,” I say.
“A what?”
“A new one.  Use Good Friday to start.
“Call it Decrucifixion Day.”
“You know,” I say, “there’s a kind of insanity so common that nobody notices it.  It’s the insanity of ignoring our bodies and the messages they send.  We don’t eat when we’re hungry, or rest when we’re tired, or pee when our bladder is full.  We put off our needs to do something More Important.  We crucify ourselves on the cross of time, or money, or success, or what we call Being Responsible, or pleasing other people, or an endless To Do list.  That’s how you feel, right?  Crucified?  Tortured, unable to free yourself?”
He nods.
“Decrucifixion Day changes that.  Make it an annual event.  For just one day of the year, climb down off the cross.
“Sleep late.  Walk on a beach.  Take a bath.  Read.  Watch old movies.  Eat ice cream.  Get your fiancee to skip work and take her to a motel.
“For just one day, be good and selfish.
“Good and Selfish Friday?” he grins.
“Exactly.  One day.  Call in sick.  Unplug the phone.  Ignore the mail.  Block all cell calls.
“Feel free for a day.
“One day.  The world won’t end.  Really.
“And the cross will still be there tomorrow.”


“Of course I love my son,” replies the abusive father.  “You think I don’t?”
“Depends on what you mean by the word love,” I say.  “Are you talking about a feeling or behavior?”
“I don’t follow.”
“I believe you feel love for your son.  But love’s not just a feeling.  It’s behavior.”
“Behavior,” he repeats.
“A specific set of them, actually:  Attention.  Acceptance.  Approval.  Affection.  The four A’s.
“How good are you at those behaviors?”
He is silent.
“Look,” I say.  “I’m not trying to make you feel bad.  I know something about your background.  I know your own dad used to hit you too.”
He looks at me.
“And it’s pretty hard to give what you weren’t given.  Hard, without a healthy model, to be a healthy parent.”
“I want to,” he says.
“Good,” I say. “Then the question to start asking yourself isn’t Do I love my son?
“It’s Does my son feel loved?”

The big lie


In Mein Kampf (1925) Adolf Hitler explains the propaganda technique known as The Big Lie.

Most people, he writes, never think to fabricate “colossal untruths,” and so never expect others will have the gall to do so.  This makes them gullible — so gullible that

Even though the facts [disproving the lie] may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation.

Some families promulgate Big Lies, too.

I know this because there’s one lie with which therapists struggle every working day.

I wrote about it here not long ago (All my fault).

The lie is,

A family’s problems are

caused by the children.

This lie is usually told by parents, who may believe it themselves.  (Often because their parents taught them to.)

Some deliver it directly.  I wish you were never born.  Or Why do I drink?  You’re why I drink.

That’s rare, though. More often the lie is delivered indirectly.  If I wasn’t pregnant, do you think I’d have married your father?

And sometimes it’s delivered nonverbally, with not words but behavior.

A sigh.  A sniff.  A look.  Averted eyes.  Angry or rejecting body language.  Even comments meant to be overheard.  That kid will be the death of me.

How can children defend against this?

They can’t.

Kids are like sponges.  They absorb whatever poison they’re soaked in.

So if you’re a parent it’s worth taking time to examine how you explain, in the privacy of your mind, your own family’s pains and problems.

Because, accurate or cockeyed, your conclusions will probably become your kids’ conclusions.

And in some cases, the lie they end up living.

Empathy, or projection?


One reader writes, after reading my recent post Empathy:
That’s helpful.  I never saw the connection between listening to me  and being sensitive to others.
But I’m still confused about something.  What’s the difference between empathy and projection?  And how can I tell if I’m doing one or the other?
Good question.
Empathy and projection are often confused.
But there are three big differences.
~ Awareness.  Projection tends to be unconscious, an automatic reaction.  We don’t even know we’re doing it.  But empathy takes some conscious effort.
~ Focus.  My projecting is really about me.  My empathizing is really about you.
When I project I confuse what’s happening in my head with what’s happening in yours.  I project my own thoughts and feelings (usually stuff I’m not acknowledging) onto you, just as a movie projector throws images on a screen.
But when I empathize I’m trying to imagine my way into your shoes, and to answer the question How would I feel if I were you? Not always easy.  Scared or self-preoccupied people often find it impossible.
~ Motive.  Projection comes from anxiety and is essentially defensive, where empathy is a sort of emotional gift.
When I project I’m usually trying to stay out of trouble.  Boy, she looks pissed.  What did I do?  Was it what I said about her hair?  I project my own feeling (anxiety) onto you, as if what’s happening in my head is happening in yours (anger).  I try to read your mind in order to protect myself.  What can I say to calm her down?    
But it’s when I feel strong and safe enough to shift my attention from me to you – from my feelings and needs to yours – that I can be genuinely empathic.  Thus empathy’s a mental expression, not of fear, but of sensitivity and caring.
Bottom line?
When I project, I confuse you with me.
When I empathize, I use me to understand you.


She wants advice about how to reach her troubled-but-defensive son.

‘What if I say X?” she asks.  “Would that work?  Or what if I say Y?”

And each time I ask, “What happened last time you tried that approach?”

Her replies vary, but amount to the same thing.  “He ignored me,” she says, or “He shut down,” or “He got angry.”

We go round and round on this until she sees the real problem:

Lack of empathy.

Empathy is the ability to be aware of and sensitive to another person’s feelings.  It means being able to answer the question How would I feel if I were you? 

An essential relationship skill, it has roots deep in a skill essential to self-care:

Sensitivity to our own feelings.

Think about it.   If you don’t know how (or were never permitted) to treat your own feelings with sensitivity and respect, how can you treat the feelings of others any better?

And if you try anyway (as this mom was), at best you’re faking it.  You’re guessing.

So learning empathy always starts with the homework of learning to listen to yourself.

You can’t give away what you don’t have.

Seven kinds of power (part 2)

Continued from Seven kinds of power (part 1).

Want to become more powerful?
Here are seven ways to do it:
(1) Detach.
Let go of what you can’t control anyway. That may be a situation, or a person, or that person’s behavior. If it’s a person you love, you can detach with love, as they say in Al-Anon. Detaching doesn’t mean you stop caring. It just means you acknowledge your limitations. And when you do that, an enormous relief often follows.
(2) Refocus.
Start by shifting your focus from outside — people, places and things — to inside — your own needs, thoughts and feelings. Happiness is an inside job, and most of the answers you need are there.
(3) Take care of yourself.
Stop overcontrolling yourself, and learn to listen to your body instead. Hungry? Eat. Tired? Sit. Rest. Maybe take a nap. (Naps are great.) Lonely? Seek out safe people. (More on this below.) Angry? Scream (into a pillow, maybe, so you don’t scare the neighbors). Sad? Let yourself cry. It’s how the body naturally relieves tension, and it helps.
(4) Educate yourself.
You’re not crazy; your pain means something. Your job is to find out what it’s trying to tell you. Education can take many forms, from Googling alcoholic family or codependency toreading self-help books (start with Janet Woititz’s Adult Children of Alcoholics or Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More), or listening to tapes (try the library), or talking to a friend, or attending a self-help meeting, or finding yourself a good therapist. After his first Al-Anon meeting one of my clients told me, “It was like a light coming on in a dark room, and suddenly I could see all the furniture I’ve been tripping over.”  Why live in the dark if you don’t have to?
(5) Get support.
No one gets through life alone. (Even if you could, why would you want to?) Seriously consider checking out a self-help program, like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or CODA. You’re probably scared of that first meeting. That’s okay; everyone is. Go anyway. It won’t kill you, and you can’t know beforehand what you’ll hear. A good meeting can save your life and your sanity.
(6) Listen to feelings.
This is a big one. Living with an addict usually requires hiding your feelings, sometimes even from yourself. But feelings are essential. You need to get them back again. Hang out with people who are trying to reclaim their feelings, and who can keep you company while you’re trying to reclaim yours.
(7) Have faith.
Develop your spiritual life. No, you don’t need to join a church. You don’t even need to believe in God. You do need to believe in something bigger than you, something you trust even when you don’t understand it. Call it Nature. Call it The Force. Al-Anon calls it Higher Power, but you can call it what you like. I used to reject the idea of God, but I always believed in psychology. Then I heard Scott Peck suggest that it’s not unreasonable to replace the word God with the word unconscious. That permanently reframed the idea of God for me. I realized there was some intelligence inside I could listen for, and which would guide me if I let it. (I might doubt the existence of God, but who can doubt the existence of that voice? That part that Knows Better?) So that gave me something to trust. Hey, we all need some invisible support.

Seven kinds of power (part 1)


(In session today a client reminded me of this post, originally published two years ago.  “I could stand to read that one again,” she said.  So here it is.  I’m so codependent.)


If you love an addict, or live with one, or depend on one in some way, you are probably in, as the old saying goes, nine kinds of pain.
And I’m guessing that, whether or not you realize it, the very worst of these pains comes from being confused about the difference between power and control.
No, they’re not the same.
In some ways, they are opposites.
One difference is: power is possible, but control is usually an illusion.
Another is: seeking power can set you free, while seeking control can make you crazy.
Let me explain.
Control (as I define it) means the ability to dictate reality. To get life itself — people, places and things — to meet our expectations.
Power, on the other hand, means being able to get your needs met. To take care of yourself. To not just survive, but to heal, and grow, and be happy.
Here’s an example of the difference:
Imagine your rich uncle dies and leaves you control of his multinational corporation. So you wake up one morning the CEO of Big Bux, Inc. You go to your new job. You sit behind a huge desk. Four secretaries line up to do your bidding. You have tons of control. You can hire and fire people, buy things and sell things, build plants or close them, approve product lines and advertising campaigns, manage investments, bribe congressmen, you name it.
How do you feel?
If you’re anything like me, you feel crippled by anxiety. Bewildered and overwhelmed by your new responsibilities. Disoriented. Panicked.
Anything but in control.
Interesting, no?
There are two other interesting differences between control and power.
~ Control looks outward, mainly at other people, places and things. Power looks inward, to your own feelings and needs. So control-seeking pulls you away from yourself, away from self-awareness and self-care.
~ Control operates paradoxically. The paradox goes like this: The more control you need, the less in control you feel. Which means if you depend on getting control to feel safe and happy, you don’t feel safe or happy most of the time. Chasing control is a lot like chasing a train you can never catch. Power, though — rooted in healthy, intelligent self-care — is a real possibility.
Want to become more powerful?
Here are seven ways to do it:

(To be continued.)


To perseverate means to worry, obsess, ruminate, chew on the same thoughts over and over endlessly.

At best, a nervous habit.

At worst, a painful mental compulsion that consumes time, energy and peace of mind.

It’s also a controlling behavior, in that it assumes that going over and over the same mental ground will somehow lead one to feeling better – discover new answers, or yield relief from anxiety.

What it’s not is problem solving.

Problem solving requires behaviors like analyzing, reinterpreting, getting more information, or asking for help. Even giving up can be a kind of problem solving.

But perseveration avoids all these approaches.


Usually the perseverator is scared.  He fears that serious problem solving will somehow make him feel worse.  Scared, for example, that he may find new information disheartening, or that asking for help will make him feel embarrassed or inadequate.

So he persists with perseveration.

Which, after a certain point, is equivalent to chewing the same stick of gum for four hours straight.

You get nothing from it but tired.

Progress note

[] bert panel (print for edit)

Veteran Monkeytraps readers may remember my co-author and inner monkey, Bert.  (Those seeking an introduction should read “Bert’s mission”  or “Bert’s addiction.”)  Bert hasn’t appeared here for a while, but today asked for some space.   He wrote this post last Monday.


It snowed here today, unexpectedly and heavily.  On the last day of March, when all the snowplows have been put away.

So Steve drove to work on roads ankle deep in sloppy wet snow.  Wheels spinning, he barely got up one long hill.  Then fifty yards later he slid off the road into a shrub.  That’s when he decided to turn around.

On the way home he slid off again, banged up over a curb, and heard something snap beneath the nose of his Malibu.  He found his two front tires pointed in opposite directions, like the claws of a lobster.

He called his wife, his son, then his son’s girlfriend.  Nobody answered.

So he walked home.  It took an hour.

He fell once, into a slush puddle.  Fuck, he said, the only time this morning.

I’m telling you all this not to seek sympathy, but because I found my own reaction to Steve’s adventure, well, interesting.

I’m a control addict, see.  We control addicts don’t like it when shit like this happens.  It feels unfair.  Pushes our buttons.  We take it personally.

But that wasn’t happening here.  I didn’t feel angry.  Or guilty.  Or anxious.  Or discouraged.

I wasn’t taking it personally.

After the fall I actually felt cheerful.  I was off the main road now, walking down side streets.  It was quiet.  I noticed that snow, when you don’t have to drive in it, is pretty.

By the time we got home Steve’s shoes and hair were soaked and his side ached from the fall.  Me, though, I’m kicking at drifts like a schoolboy on a snow day.

All very strange.

Later, while Steve toweled his hair dry, I figured it out.  I realized that the stuff he’s been trying to teach clients and writing about here must have finally penetrated my monkeyskull:

That control’s a nice thing to have, but a bad thing to need.

That though we assume more control will make us feel better, that assumption doesn’t work out so well.

That there are better ways of handling feelings than control.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m still a control junkie.  I’ll probably always want more control than is good for me.

But it feels nice to make progress.


Saturday morning, and I’m lying in bed, listening to the old argument.

Should:  You really should get up.

Want:  But I’m tired.

Should:  But you have tons of paperwork.  You could get caught up.

Want:  But I need rest too.

Should:  I know.  But if you got caught up, you could relax.

Want:  That’s stupid.  I’m relaxed now.

Right.  That old argument.

Most of my clients struggle with these two voices in their heads.

For some it’s a chronic, painful problem.

They hear the Should voice as ”responsible” and the Want voice as “selfish.”

So I spend much of my time with them reframing the argument, trying get them to hear Should as controlling and Want as the voice of self-care.

Don’t misunderstand.  I know there are times when adults have to ignore Want and obey Should.  Bills to pay, promises to keep.

But most of us are oversocialized – taught to ignore the former and hear only the latter.  We think we’re choosing when in fact we’re just programmed.

And that’s bad for us.  Bad mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  It can even be dangerous.

Not great for the people around us, either.

Plus this sort of programming can prevent you from ever being happy.

People who neglect self-care always remind me of the guy who says “I’m driving to California, but I’ll wait to buy gas when I get there.”

Gas up now, friend.

Or you won’t get there.




Kid catching

Dad and Son sit on my sofa.  Dad’s telling me why Son received a three-week suspension.  Son, fourteen, stares at the top of his shoes, wishing to be anywhere but here.

Dad explains that Son assaulted another student after learning said student had arranged for two of his friends to beat up Son’s cousin.  Cousin ended up in the ER.  Son sought out the instigator and smacked him upside the head.  For this he received a suspension, multiple lectures by multiple adults, and was forced to attend a disciplinary meeting and express remorse.  Then he was referred to me for therapy.

 I look at Son.  “That why you did it?” I ask.  “Your cousin?”

 He nods, barely.

 “Good job,” I say.

He looks up.  We make eye contact for the first time.  He bursts out laughing.

I look at Dad.  He’s grinning, not at what I said, but at Son’s reaction.

And so the therapy begins.

Grownups forget that kids are surrounded by big people all too willing to catch them doing something wrong.  It’s as if we think that’s what constitutes good parenting, or discipline, or teaching, or something.

But catching and punishing is only one sort of teaching.  And not even the most effective part.

Think about the adults who had a positive impact on you as a kid.  Chances are they were those who caught you doing something right, not wrong.  Who showed you acceptance and approval.  Who made you feel respected and cared about.

 Not guilty.

 Most of us carry around too much guilt as it is.

 Go catch your kid doing something right.


“Never apologize.  Sign of weakness,” barks John Wayne in Fort Apache (1948).
I remember chasing down my son’s school bus when he was five.  I’d said something hurtful (no idea what) and felt so bad I followed him to the door of his kindergarten classroom to tell him I was sorry.
He looked a little bewildered, as I recall.  But he hugged me and ran off to do his five-year-old day feeling, I like to think, a little lighter inside.
It’s a memory I hold onto.
Look.  Apology is one of those simple human tools we use to smooth our path through life, and the path of those with whom we travel.
It’s a sign, not of weakness, but of strength.
Also of honesty, courage, and love.
Also intelligence.   (John Wayne notwithstanding, anyone who reaches maturity believing only weaklings apologize is just plain stupid.)
That said, please note:
Compulsive apologizing is a whole other animal.
We all know people who say I’m sorry reflexively and repeatedly.
That’s not apology, guys.
That’s anxiety.
That’s not I’m sorry if I hurt you.  That’s Please don’t hurt me.
It’s not the voice of an honest adult taking responsibility.  It’s the voice of a frightened kid deflecting punishment.
As such, it’s a good habit to break.
Just as genuine apology is a good habit to practice.


I always ask a new client about her support system.

“Who do you talk to?” I ask.

“Oh,” she usually says, “I have a couple of really close friends that I depend on.”

I hold that answer in mind during our first session, until we’ve explored the problems that brought her to therapy.  Then I ask again.

“Those friends you mentioned.  Do you talk to them about this stuff?”

And the answer I get most often is “No.”

“I’d be too embarrassed,” she’ll explain.

Or, “My friends have their own shit.”

Or, “I don’t want to burden anyone.”

This always makes me sad.

Friendship has been defined as a relationship without control.  I like that definition.

It means with real friends you can be yourself without fearing judgment or rejection.  You don’t have to be cautious or careful or tactical.  You don’t have to pretend or hold back or self-edit.  You don’t have to look good or have your shit together.

That, friends, is what friends are for.

And to the extent that someone can’t feel free in those ways, I have to wonder if her friends are really her friends.


A family reunion, and four generations gather in the kitchen to make dinner. 

“Mom, why do you always cut off the end of the roast before you put it in the oven?” asks Daughter. 

Replies Mom, “Because that’s how my mom always did it.  Ask her.” 

“Grandma, why do you cut off the end of the roast?” 

“Because that’s how my mother always did it.  Ask her.” 

“Great-grandma, why did you always cut off the end of the roast?” 

“Because my roasting pan was too damn small.”


We parents worry endlessly about making the right choices for our children.

We read parenting books, consult experts

We forget that most of what they learn from us they learn by an unconscious trickle-down effect.

That is, not from what we say, from our rules or our lectures.

But from our example.

They watch and listen and absorb like little sponges.

They absorb habits, and tastes, and attitudes.

They also absorb symptoms.

If we’re anxious, they learn anxiety.  If we’re angry, they learn anger.  If we’re controlling, they learn to control.  And if we’re addicted…

You get it.

Hey, books are fine.  So is expert advice.

But the parent who takes parenting seriously eventually puts down the book and picks up a mirror.



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