Bonsai people

There’s a reason shrinks talk so much about childhood.

It’s because we’re all bonsai people.

You sculpt a bonsai by wrapping wire around the tender trunk and branches of a sapling, then bending it into aesthetically pleasing directions.

In our case, the wire that bends and shapes us is childhood experience.

Unmet needs.  Unexpressed feelings. Unresolved conflicts.  Unhealed wounds.

Even when the visible wire is removed — decades pass, parents die, kids get big — its effects remain, for good or ill.

The child is father to the man.  

The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.

We’re all bonsai people.

Off center

Occasionally a client will find herself (it’s usually a woman, but not always) in a bad marriage she can neither repair nor escape.

In such cases I suggest she move the marriage off center.  This means

Make it small.  Reduce its importance. Stop seeing it as the center of your emotional life or the definer of your worth as a person. Demote it to the status of Evil Necessity — just as you would with an annoying boss you tolerate in order to keep doing a job you love.  Then set about balancing it with meaningful work and loving friendships and interests that feed you and bring out the best of who you are.  As much as you can, take steps to get your emotional and spiritual needs met outside this marriage. That will make it even smaller and move it further away from your emotional center.      




Like women (see Tranced), men are socially programmed for relationship failure.

Be consistently strong, brave, confident, independent, stoic and self-sacrificing, they’re taught. Never show weakness, fear, self-doubt, confusion, sadness or need.  

In other words: Thou shalt be John Wayne.

It’s an impossible standard, of course (even John Wayne wasn’t John Wayne), but most men accept it, internalize it and feel like failures when they can’t measure up.

Result 1:  Wayned men carry secret feelings of inadequacy and guilt.

Result 2:  The pain these feelings cause makes them chronically angry.

Result 3:  Often they bring this anger to their relationships with women, whom they blame for “making” them feel this way.

Result 4:  Wayned men and Tranced women often combine to create split-level relationships.

Result 5:  Then they teach their sons and daughters to do the same.


 control box 3

The punishment for an addiction is the addiction itself.

Sure, addiction has other painful consequences.

But the worst part is living the life of an addict, one of compulsion and fear.

This is especially true for control addicts, who find themselves constantly scanning for — and constantly finding — triggers for their addiction.

For when you believe you need control in order to feel safe and/or happy…

and life insists on remaining uncontrollable…

…life itself turns into one big continuous trigger.


Our culture trains women to be codependent — to lose themselves in relationships by putting the needs and feelings of others ahead of their own. Be endlessly loving, giving, accepting and patient, they are taught.  Do this, and you will be appreciated and loved.

I call this basic training The Trance.

The usual result of trance-induced behavior is not love or appreciation but something resembling a hostage situation. Many women end up in relationships with narcissistic partners only too willing to take all they have to give and then demand more.  Instead of angry and rebellious these women feel inadequate and guilty, convinced that their partner’s unhappiness is their fault.

Recovery for such women is about waking up from The Trance and creating relationships which treat them not as prisoners, but as people.



Submitted to The Practice Corner:

So it’s three months since we broke up, and Saturday he calls me and asks me to lunch.  And I’m feeling stronger and curious about how it would feel to see him again, so I say yes.  We go to lunch and he’s really nice and I’m enjoying myself.  After lunch he asks if I want to take a walk on the beach and I think, what the hell, so far so good, so again I say yes.  And again he’s really nice and I’m enjoying the attention.  So somehow we end up back at my place and he ends up staying the night.  Also the next night.  And now I want him to leave, but the old fear is back – I don’t want to make him angry at me.  So I tell myself tomorrow’s Monday and he’ll have work and leave on his own.  But Monday he takes the day off, and when I go to work he stays at my place.  Then I talk to him by phone and he tells me he’s doing my laundry for me.  “Please don’t,” I say, because he always does it wrong.  Then I come home and find he did it anyway and put all my hang dry delicates in the dryer.  “I asked you not to,” I say.  And now he goes off, screaming and cursing, just like he always used to.  This always happens, I do something nice and you don’t appreciate me, you think you’re perfect, you’re just a critical bitch, and so on.  But this time it’s different.  “I want you to leave now,” I hear myself saying.  I’ve never said that to anyone.  Inside I’m shaky, but I sound surprisingly calm.  He stops screaming, looks at me like I’m speaking Martian.  “Leave now,” I repeat.  He starts to argue.  “Just leave,” I say, louder.  He leaves. 
Afterwards I realized what all this was: a test.  He was testing me to see if his old tactics still worked.  Maybe I was testing myself by seeing him again.  Whatever.  I passed.

~ Shared by R.M. (8/16/14)



The Practice Corner is an occasional series of true (but cleverly disguised) stories told by readers working actively to free themselves from compulsive controlling. Read more here.


Healthy relationships depend on faith — not religious faith, or faith in one’s partner, but faith in relationship itself.

Having such faith means seeing relationship as an essentially safe place capable of meeting your needs.

It’s not unusual to lack this sort of faith. Growing up in a dysfunctional family teaches children to see relationship as confusing, unreliable, even dangerous.  As adults these kids tend to approach all subsequent relationships burdened with distrust and fear.

But faith is essential.  Since no relationship is perfect, there are times when every relationship hurts us or disappoints. These times are torment for the faithless, since they have no way to persuade themselves that things will improve.


Not all control addicts look alike.  Some employ narcissistic tactics — directing or demanding or complaining or nagging or criticizing or bullying or coercing.  Their theme song is Me First.  And some rely on codependent tactics — agreeing or pleasing or pretending or appeasing or apologizing or avoiding. Their theme song is Whatever You Say or Please Don’t Be Mad.

When these two types get together the result is a Split-Level relationship, which often resembles that of bully and victim. It’s easy to miss the underlying fact that, despite the different tactics, what you’re seeing is two scared people desperate to control each other.




From Bert’s Therapy, Session 11:

Bert's therapy [FRAMED]

My parents didn’t like me much.

 Read the rest here.


Narcissists are hungry blind people. Hungry, usually, because they didn’t get something they needed as kids — attention or acceptance or approval or affection. Blind, because they’re so busy trying to get themselves fed that they forget other people have needs too.

Pathological narcissists do a lot of damage. But you don’t have to be one to behave narcissistically.  You only have to close your eyes and act like you’re alone in a relationship.


From Bert’s Therapy, Session 10:

[][] Bert's therapy -- chessboard beige

Life’s just like chess.

 Read the rest here. 

Surrender sauce

Submitted to the Practice Corner:


Surrender sauce
Since my wife and I separated I don’t see my kids as much as I like.  This week we planned to have dinner together Friday night.  So Friday afternoon I make a big pot of spaghetti sauce – it’s kind of my thing – with meatballs and sausage.  It smells really good and I’m all excited.  Then the phone rings and it‘s my daughter, sounding nervous, asking if she can go to the movies with her friends instead. While I’m on the phone I get a text from my son saying he’ll be late because he’s gone with his friends to McDonalds.  Now, not too long ago I would have gone ballistic.  Would have turned into a hurt angry raging screaming bastard prick of a dad.  But I’m working hard in therapy on this control thing.   And I hear myself say to my daughter, “That’s okay.  Sauce tastes better the second night anyway.”  Then I text “No prob, c u later” to my son.  Then I fix myself a plate of spaghetti and sit down and eat it, and surprise, the sauce still tastes pretty good. 

~ Shared by T.B. (8/7/14)


Oaks and birches are strong in different ways.  Oaks are thick, rigid and unyielding. Birches are slender and slighter, but supple, tough and whippy. High winds can uproot and kill an oak, while a birch can flex its way to survival.

Which sort of tree do you want to be when you grow up?

Grant me

God, grant me

enough memory

to remember

the Serenity Prayer,

and enough brains

to apply it.


It was Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing and expecting different results.  Any therapist working with couples sees this definition enacted over and over.  Partners will insist on repeating behaviors which experience has proven to be either futile or destructive — controlling, coercing, criticizing, nagging, blaming, guilting and shaming, for example.  Then they wonder why they still feel so frustrated, helpless and crazy.


The primary cause of relationship failure is unfinished business from the past — unresolved conflicts, unhealed wounds, unexpressed feelings, unmet needs. Both partners have them.  Both partners carry this unconscious baggage into their relationship, where it contaminates how they see and feel and react to each other. We all do this, without exception.  The relationships that survive and flourish are those able to face this psychological fact and work with it honestly and bravely.


Diminishing returns

Certain emotional needs seem to be governed by a law of diminishing returns. The more I value comfort, for example, the less comfortable I tend to be.  The more I crave safety, the less likely I am to feel safe. The more I need to feel in control, the less in control I’m going to feel.  And the more desperately I chase after happiness, the further away happiness seems.


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