You must meet the outer world
with your inner world
or existence will crush you.
~ Mark Nepo
Two months after I published my post-election post (“Surviving Trump”) a reader wrote to complain that he found it inappropriate.
“Inappropriate in what way?” I asked.
As I listen to people on the news, in my neighborhood, at work or elsewhere on this island (Maui), I hear people expressing their fears with such certainty that “this or that” is going to happen. In your post it had a similar feel. Growing up in an alcoholic family has shown me this kind of uncertainty and therefore fear. At a time when I am seeking surrender and self-acceptance, your writing has helped me to see that my perception of myself has not been very kind or truthful. As I practice the 12 steps of ACA, I see that they very much mirror your teachings not only in your blog but in your book. The “Trump” piece just didn’t seem consistent with the teachings.
I recall a story a client told me about her childhood. (I’ve heard it from many clients, actually, different versions but all the same.) She described the anxiety that filled her every afternoon when she realized her alcoholic dad was on his way home. She never knew just what bad thing to expect, sarcasm or yelling or hitting or more drinking. The uncertainty itself was unbearable.
A kid like this faces two problems. How does she protect herself from Dad? And how does she defend herself against her own crippling anxiety?
I wrote “Surviving Trump” because people who hate or fear Trump face the same two problems.
How do we oppose what he represents and threatens to do to us and people we care about? And how do we defend against the anger, anxiety, confusion and sadness this man’s election creates inside us?
For many of us, Dad’s home.
Of course, these are the same problems everyone faces. We all face a scary world in which nothing is certain except that everything changes. And we all have to find a way, in the midst of this uncertainty, to create some peace of mind for ourselves.
These problems are especially acute for those of us who grew up in homes without a safe place we could internalize.
For us, recovery is all about creating our own safe place. Yes, we have a responsibility to do what we can to improve the external world, to participate in the life of our community. But we must also fortify our inner world, so we have somewhere to go when the external becomes too threatening.
“Surviving Trump” suggested three ways of doing that. Don’t eat garbage meant limit your exposure to emotional toxins. Throw the OFF switch meant reduce your projecting. And All politics are personal meant look inside for whatever old stuff is being triggered.
If I were writing it today I’d add another:
4. Use this for practice.
In my book I compared practice to walking.
You’re out for a walk and you come to a fork in the path. The right fork goes uphill and the left fork goes down. Why fight gravity? you ask yourself, and you take the left fork. Further on you come to another fork and the same choice: right fork uphill, left fork down. Again you take the path of least resistance. You bear left. You keep walking and making the same basic choice. At the end of the hour you find yourself deep in a valley. Now you have to climb out.
Given where we are as a nation, I have four years of practice ahead of me. I can (and probably will, sometimes) let my own fear, anger and craving for control drag me downhill. Or I can turn uphill and practice alternatives to control addiction: detaching from what’s beyond my control, listening to my animal body and its feelings, and being myself with other people. I can continue to work on being in the world but not of it. I can keep climbing out of the valley.
Take a walk with me.
Two weeks from Christmas, and it’s cranking up now.
But it started a month ago.
In session after session I heard uneasy anticipations.
The holidays are coming (sigh),
I’ve got the family coming for Thanksgiving,
followed by an eye roll.
There’s real anxiety here. For some, it approaches panic.
This happens because, around now, a particular myth takes on a terrible importance:
The myth of the Big Happy Family.
It’s a myth with the power to yank us right out of our comfort zones and twist us into emotional pretzels.
It forces people who normally don’t speak all year to sit side by side in living rooms and pretend to find each other endlessly interesting and amusing.
It makes people who secretly hate, fear or distrust each other pretend to a bond of mutual love and affection.
It’s kind of nuts.
And it can do real damage.
For control addicts (that’s me, and probably you too) the holidays are a setup, a virtual invitation to relapse.
How do we relapse?
Let’s count the ways:
~ We imagine ideal holidays and try to manufacture them.
~ We remember traumatic holidays and try to compensate for them.
~ We notice relationship problems and try to disguise them.
~ We notice feelings that don’t match the holiday mood (resentment, jealousy, anxiety, rage) and judge ourselves for feeling them.
~ We associate with people we really don’t like, then suppress or deny our inevitable discomfort.
~ We use the holidays as a benchmark to measure our progress through life, then try to conceal our sense of disappointment or inadequacy.
~ We mask our awareness of all the above by eating or drinking or drugging or spending too much, then wonder why we end up feeling empty, lonely and mad at ourselves.
The Big Happy Family is an aspirational myth. Like Santa Claus, Heaven or the United Nations, it describes how we wish things could be.
It’s a lovely aspiration.
But it’s dangerous to take such myths too literally.
Because to do so creates denial of how things really are.
And that’s rarely a good thing. It stops us from dealing with life on life’s terms. Makes us ignore our own feelings, needs and preferences. Tempts us to try to control people, places and things instead.
And that way lies madness.
Or at least a holiday that feels like a picnic in a minefield.
May you live in interesting times.
~ Traditional Chinese curse
As we near the end of this horrible, terrible, not-very-good week I find myself having more and more conversations with friends and clients whose mental health took a nosedive on Tuesday.
They are angry, or anxious, or depressed, or grieving, or bewildered, or all of the above.
One client sent me an email describing these feelings, asking, “Should I worry? Or is this the new normal?”
I answered, “I don’t know what the new normal is. But if Facebook is any barometer, you’re not alone.”
That fact has actually helped me more than anything else. Yes, I spend way too much time on Facebook. But this week it really helped me to hear how many people were upset by this clusterfuck of an election. And it helped me to go there and gnash my teeth in public. Misery doth love company.
But I’m also a therapist, and Monday starts a new interesting week, and I expect to be faced with a good deal more misery to come.
Hence this short guide to surviving whatever the hell comes next.
1. Don’t eat garbage.
Garbage means whatever makes you sick. Sick means angry, anxious, depressed or hopeless. Listen to your feelings, and go in the direction they point. Change the channel. Avoid Fox. Avoid Facebook, or at least block anyone whose postings dismay you. Move to another seat, away from the bigmouth who’s gloating. That’s not rudeness, it’s self-defense. Feed yourself good stuff instead. Good food, good music, good friends. Spend time with like-minded people, those who feel the way you do. Even better, take a vacation from politics. (They’ll still be there when you return.) Walk in the woods or on a beach. (Alongside the majesty of nature, politics shrivel in significance.) Drink wine. Drink hot cocoa. Watch Frank Capra movies. Read good books, ones that expand your mind and soul. Or trashy novels that provide delicious escape. Bake cookies and eat them with cold milk. And if you have grandkids, play with them more (which is just what I’m doing right after I finish writing this).
2. Throw the OFF switch.
On the projector in your head, I mean. Yes, terrible things may happen, and no, we don’t want them to. But they haven’t happened yet. And obsessing won’t prevent them. If you must do something, do something constructive. Get political and work to elect progressives. Send money to Planned Parenthood. Join a Black Lives Matter march. Go out of your way to be friendly to the Muslim woman you meet in the produce aisle. Stick a safety pin in your collar. (Unaware of the Safety Pin movement? Scroll down to the bottom of this page.) You’re not helpless; there are many opportunities to do good, and to feel good doing it. But the one thing you should not do is sit in a corner listening to the insane chatter of monkeymind.
3. All politics are personal.
This is something I know but keep forgetting when I go on Facebook and encounter Trump supporters. I forget that we believe what we believe, love what we love, hate what we hate and fear what we fear for subjective reasons. That my political opinions, like a lawnful of dandelions, have roots sunk deep in my personal history, experiences, relationships, aspirations, disappointments and woundings. Deep stubborn roots, many of them hidden even from myself. That my unawareness of these roots only strengthens my faith in my own rightness, and your wrongness if you disagree with me. Hence my self-righteous anger at you. And hence the saying “In politics, as in love, we are often astounded by the choices of others.” I’ll try harder to remember all this next time I’m astounded.
For more info, Google #safetypin or search
for Facebook posts under that hashtag.
The safety pin drawing at the top of the page
is by Jessica Jacks-Turkus.
Three days after the election of Donald J. Trump.
People marching in the streets.
Clients coming in anxious and depressed about the fate of the nation.
They, like I, fighting off scary projections about what will happen now to minorities, to Obamacare, to Planned Parenthood, to SCOTUS.
What happens with Russia, and ISIS, and abortion rights, and guns in our schools, and Rudy Giuliani as Attorney General.
And the KKK and American Nazis, who seem poised to go mainstream.
And I’m trying my damnedest to be Buddhist about this whole thing.
Because projection is so dangerous.
It’s so easy to scare ourselves shitless.
This Zen story helps me to remember that.
I hope it helps you, too.
There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
(Sixth in a series. You can read the last post here.)
Liz is nervous about entering my therapy group.
“But I don’t know why,” she says.
“I do,” I answer.
“There’s a secret reason for this feeling most people don’t realize,” I say. “When we enter a new group situation we expect the group to treat us as we were treated in our family of origin.
“If our family provided safety and acceptance, we unconsciously expect that from the group. But if our family abused us, we expect the group to abuse us too. If our family was critical or judgmental, we expect the group to be the same. If our family ignored or neglected or dismissed us…. You get the point.”
“Jesus,” mutters Liz, who grew up in an alcoholic family. “No wonder I’m nervous.”
“Right,” I say. “This makes group pretty scary for some people, at least when they start.
“But it’s also an opportunity for real therapy.
“Group provides a chance for what I call a corrective emotional experience. When we find that the bad thing we expect to happen doesn’t — that this group is actually nothing like our family, that here we can actually be ourselves and still feel safe and get our needs met — the kid inside us begins to heal.
“And we come away from group feeling just a bit more adult.”
That last word — adult — is a good way to describe the most adequate any of us ever feel.
True adulthood is much rarer than we suppose. It’s one thing to grow up in external, superficial ways; it’s another to feel adult inside. We look at others living their apparently grownup lives — with their grownup bodies, jobs, houses, money and accomplishments — and think surely they must feel like grownups. But all the people I know well admit to feeling anything like that.
They feel like kids wrapped in adult bodies.
They look forward to feeling as old as they actually are.
We feel this way because of the famous Inner Child you’ve heard about. This is the part that never entirely grows up. I see it as a collection of wounds — unmet needs, expressed feelings, unanswered questions, unresolved doubts.
We each have a Kid inside, whether or not we talk about it.
And most of us treat the Kid pretty badly.
“Most adults are ashamed of the Kid,” I wrote in Monkeytraps.
They perceive it as a weakness, a flaw or vulnerability. When the Kid makes an appearance — gets scared or cries, for example — they’re embarrassed. Shut up, they tell it. You make me look ridiculous. Shut up and go away.
This is no accident. It’s the result of being parented by adults who largely forget what it felt like to be powerless, puzzled, and surrounded by giants. And of schools which cram kids into classroom, ignore their needs for freedom, fresh air and play, regiment their behavior and test them into obedience. All of this taught them This is how you treat a kid.*
In therapy we have to decide what to do with this part of us.
I tell clients there are three steps to healing the Kid.
First, you stop the abuse. You bring the Kid out of the closet, stop calling it names, stop shaming it when its feelings come up. This takes a conscious decision and, usually, some external support like that provided by a therapist or therapy group.
Second, you get to know the Kid. What are its needs? What are its wounds? What didn’t it get when you were its age? What scared or traumatized it? Answers to these questions are essential to understanding what triggers the Kid now. Again, to do this work seriously requires a conscious decision, and external permission and support.
Third, you help it grow up. You do this by helping the Kid do things most kids are not permitted by the giants that surround them: tell the truth, express feelings, cry, rage, swear, be funny, be silly, be selfish, play, say No, ask for help, ask to be held. You look for ways to listen for what the Kid needs and, if possible, provide it.
These three steps make up the process of what I call adulting.
The goal of adulting is not to eliminate the Kid, or even get it to grow up all the way. Neither is possible. Each of us is fated to carry some childhood wounds forever. This is sad, and normal.
No, the goal of adulting is simply to help us treat the Kid with compassion and understanding, and to heal what wounds that we can.
It is not.
Such work is necessary to reduce the long-term emotional crippling every kid suffers when compelled to follow a Plan A.
We all have work like this to do.
Sadly, most of us will never do it.
We won’t take the time, won’t see the need, or, most probably, will just be too scared.
“To suffer one’s death and to be reborn is not easy,” wrote Fritz Perls.
Still, neither is the alternative, which is to go through adulthood feeling less than adult.
And so inadequate. Not enough.
Which, as I’ve been suggesting throughout this six-part series, is nothing more than a destructive and unnecessary lie.
*Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (Lioncrest, 2015). Available at amazon.com.
(Fifth in a series. You can read the last post here.)
If you want to feel like an adequate human being, there is no more valuable emotional skill than detaching.
Detachment is a form of surrender, the ability to stop trying to control reality and still believe things will be okay.
“Surrender is the moment of accepting reality on the unconscious level,” writes Stephanie Brown.
The individual knows the deepest truth, regardless of wishes or explanations to the contrary. Defenses used in the service of denying that reality (denial and rationalization, defiance and grandiosity) no longer work…. When true unconscious surrender has occurred, the acceptance of reality means that the individual can work in it and with it.” 
Surrender is essential to sanity. “Think about it,” I suggested in Monkeytraps:
Imagine someone unable to ever surrender control. How could they drive on a freeway? Fly in an airplane? Eat in a restaurant? Let their kids ride a school bus? Permit a dentist to drill their tooth? Or a surgeon to remove their tonsils? Trust a therapist with their secrets? Stay sane during a hurricane? 
Other forms of surrender are faith, tolerance and trust — each in its own way essential to adult functioning, emotional balance and peace of mind.
But detaching is especially valuable for people in difficult situations or going through troubled times. It’s the ability to take a step back , to disengage emotionally, to refuse to dance with a painful experience. To say, “No thanks, I’ll sit this one out.”
And this ability is vital to control addicts, whose deep sense of inadequacy stems from the habit of fighting battles they simply cannot win.
Like Anita, who got arrested when she could not stop stalking the boyfriend she thought was cheating on her. Or Barbara, whose rage at her husband’s affair finally drove her to swallow a large bottle of Excedrin (I’ll show him). Or Carl, who after the 9/11 bombings stopped going to work and stayed glued to his TV screen, because watching CNN made him feel he knew what was happening and so could protect himself and his family. 
I think of detachment as the ability to unglue myself from the stickiness of the world. You know what I mean. The world pulls at us constantly, demanding our attention, energy and caring. Always things to do, problems to solve, people to worry over.
Some pulls are important and necessary and it would be irresponsible to ignore them. But control addicts can’t distinguish necessary from unnecessary, healthy from compulsive. They try to do everything, solve everything, worry about everybody. Then they fail, and get exhausted. And feel inadequate.
They’re not inadequate, of course; just unrealistic. They keep trying to do the impossible.
To feel like an adequate human being, you need to stop doing that.
To unstick yourself from an endlessly sticky world.
(To be continued.)
 Treating the alcoholic: A developmental model of recovery (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1985), 15-16.
 Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries to control everything and how we can stop (New York: Lioncrest, 2015), 239.
 Ibid, 251.
(Fourth in a series. The last post can be read here.)
The next step towards adequacy must be to start unwashing our brains.
This series began with two posts that described how men and women are typically brainwashed — forced into meeting expectations which leave them emotionally dwarfed, frustrated and needy.
The polite term for this brainwashing is socialization.
Socialization is that process by which individuals are trained to adapt and conform to their social environments. We are socialized by being taught — and eventually coming to perceive as our own — a set of rules, norms, values, behaviors and customs by which our tribe defines a person as normal.
Anyone who wants to survive socially and psychologically has no choice but to accept these basic cultural assumptions.
Unfortunately, they often conflict with our needs as human beings.
As a result we become split into two selves, one private, one public — which then proceed to war with each other. This internal war is called neurosis.
How this happens was outlined fifty years ago in a book by two sociologists titled The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in the Individual and Society (Harper Colophon, 1964). Its authors ask an interesting question: Why are Americans so hungry for the approval of others? Their answer: Because they have been taught to disapprove of themselves.
The adjusted American lacks self-approval; that is to say, he has not developed a self-image that he can believe is both accurate and acceptable. To do so he would require successful techniques for creating an accurate and acceptable self-image through honest introspection, candid association, and meaningful activity. The patterns to which he has adjusted do not include such techniques. Instead, the culture abounds with misdirections, which the adjusted American acquires.
What “misdirections”? Most thoughtful observers would agree they include the value we place on things like money, success, possessions, consuming, celebrity and emotional control.
Pursuing these goals virtually forces us into lifestyles of deprivation and neediness. Pursuing money and success, for example, interferes with our needs for relaxation and time with loved ones. Valuing celebrity and emotional control pushes us to win the approval of others instead of self-approval.
Perhaps above all, [the adjusted American] learns to seek self-acceptance indirectly, by seeking to substitute the good opinion of others for self-approval…. Half-certain of his own inadequacy, he attempts to present himself to others in an appealing way. When (or if) he has won their approval he hopes that they will be able to convince him that he is a better man that he thinks he is.
Thus (a) we are socialized into pursuing the wrong goals, which (b) leaves us needy and unhappy; but then (c) we misread the cause of our neediness (I’m doing something wrong, we think), and (d) conclude that we are inadequate.
As a therapist I see the cost of socialization every day in the emotional problems clients bring to therapy:
~ How it erodes each person’s connection to his or her true self.
~ How, over time, this becomes an inability to even know who that true self is — what one really thinks and feels, needs and values.
~ How the person’s self-awareness gets replaced by preoccupation with other people see them.
~ How self-care gets replaced by compulsion to manipulate other people, and how self-acceptance gets replaced by an insatiable craving to feel valued of by those others.
~ How this sad, self-defeating cycle gets unconsciously repeated in how they behave with and parent their children.
What to do about this?
Can we unwash our own minds?
Can we raise kids uncrippled by socialization?
(To be continued.)
the next book in the Monkeytraps series: