Thank you, Thing

~~~ thing 2aMy favorite part of The Addams Family (ABC, 1964-66) was the character named Thing.

Thing was a disembodied hand that lived in a upholstered leather box.

It scrambled across tabletops like a spider and performed small services for members of the family, like answering the phone or playing castanets.

“Thank you, Thing,” Morticia Addams would coo.

In recent years I’ve created my own version of Thing.

Mine’s not a hand.

Mine’s a whisper in my head.

There have always been whispers in my head, as I’m sure there are in yours.  One is the bully Gestaltists call Top Dog, always ready to judge, prod or criticize.  Another is the whiny Underdog, forever complaining (It’s too hard) or making excuses (I try my best) and promises (I’ll do it tomorrow).

For decades these guys were my constant companions, engaged in endless battles of Should vs Can’t that Fritz Perls called “the self-torture game.”

So the topdog and underdog strive for control.  Like every parent and child, they strive with each other for control.  The person is fragmented into controller and controlled.  This inner conflict, the struggle between the topdog and the underdog, is never complete….  There is no end to the self-torture, to the self-nagging, self-castigating.  It hides under the mask of “self-improvement.”  It never works.  (Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, 1969).

Thing’s voice is different.

Thing’s voice is soothing.

Thing forgives my mistakes, limitations and sins.

Thing reassures me, encourages me, and reframes problems in ways that let me be gentle with myself.

Thing gives me permission to listen to feelings and give myself what I need.

Thing is the voice of a parent I never had. 

I began hearing it only later in life.  Partly it’s the voice of my own therapist, who years ago encouraged me to stop self-torturing.  Partly it echoes my wife and children, who love me as I am.  And partly it’s the voice I myself use with clients when trying to teach them self-compassion, self-forgiveness and self-care.

It was nice to discover, after years of self-torture, that I could grow my own Thing.

Thing is good company. 

I wish we’d had more time together.

I wonder who’d I be now if we had.

Oh well.  Better late than never.

Thank you, Thing.


I work with lots of parents.

They tend to fall into two groups.

One group focuses on behavior.  The other focuses on feelings and needs.

The first group talks about expectations, rules, discipline, misbehavior, respect for adults, grades, appearance, accomplishments and success in the future.

The second group is more apt to ask questions and to be confused.

The first group tends to be convinced.  It pretty much knows what it wants from its kids, and how it wants them to be.

The second group tends to be curious.  It’s still trying to learn how its kids tick, how they feel and what they need.

The first group is apt to say things like “I don’t like that s/he does that.”

The second group is apt to say things like “Why does s/he do that?”

My job with the second group is to teach empathy – to draw on their own emotional experience as a guide to future parenting. I do this mainly by helping them remember what worried, scared, overwhelmed and comforted them when they were their kids’ age. Also by learning to listen to themselves now, to their own feelings and needs, and to respect what they hear.

My job with the first group is get them to join the second group.


In group. “I have insomnia,” Teacher says.  “Every morning I wake up at three.”

“Since when?” I ask.

“Last week.”

“Do you know why?”

“Sure.  Testing starts soon.  I lie there worrying about how my students will do.”  She frowns.  “The thing is, the damn tests are ridiculous, and I know it  Everyone knows it.  And I know I’m a good teacher.  And yet I can’t stop worrying about how my kids will do on these meaningless tests and what sort of evaluation I’ll get.  And I get so mad at myself for losing sleep over this.  I feel so stupid.”

“Me too,” blurts Store Manager.  “I know I’m a good manager.  My boss tells me I’m the best they have.  But whenever it’s review time I get crazy.  I’ve never had a bad review, not one, and yet each time I worry this will be the first.”

“God that’s familiar,” says Wife.   “I feel like that whenever my inlaws visit.  I keep imagining my mother-in-law is judging how I cook, how I keep house, how I raise my kids, how I wear my hair, for gods sake.  And yes,”  she turns to Teacher, “it keeps me up the night before they visit.”

“Does she criticize you?” Teacher asks.

“Never.  She loves me.  And I know that.”  Wife shakes her head.

“Steve, what the hell?” Teacher asks.  “Are we stupid, or crazy, or what?”      

“None of the above,” I say.  “You just have more than one part.

“You have an adult part and a kid part.  The adult part knows you’re a good teacher or store manager or that your mother-in-law really does loves you.  But the kid part, she’s hungry.”

“For what?” Store Manager frowns.


“But why?”

“Because you didn’t get enough when you were kids,” I say.  “Kids who get enough absorb it.  They store it up.  Then later they can give it to themselves.  Kids who don’t get enough enter adulthood insecure and hungry.  They usually hide their hunger, even from themselves.  But it plays like background music behind everything they do.  Secretly they seek approval everywhere they go.  And when they think they’ll get the opposite, they panic.”

The three are quiet.

“Okay,” Teacher says finally.  “So what do we do?”

“You start feeding yourself,” I say.  “First, admit your need for approval — to yourself. 

“Second, take it to people you love and trust.  I suspect they have no idea how hungry you are.  Let them know, like you just did here. 

“Third, be brave.  Ask them for what you need.  Ask for reassurance and validation and encouragement.  Do you guys ever do that?” 

They shake their heads.  

“Isn’t that codependent?” Teacher says.

“No.  Hiding your need, that’s codependent.  So is lying awake worrying about it.  So is knocking yourself out to be the perfect teacher or manager or daughter-in-law.  Perfectionism is what kids do to get approval. 

“But owning a need, and asking for help?  That’s healthy.  That comes from the grownup part.” 





The God part

Since this week I have grandparenting on my mind, I thought I’d republish this, my first post on the subject.

So now I’m a grandpa.  Which is odd, considering how inside I continue to feel like an adolescent.  But it does make for some interesting experiences.

Here’s one:

I’m babysitting Wyatt, who’s five months old.  He’s in his ExerSaucer, wobbling back, forth and sideways, drooling and gurgling at the brightly colored plastic sea creatures hanging around him.

I’m only half paying attention.  As usual, I’m lost in my own thoughts.

Then I notice he’s silent. 

I look over and find him staring at me.  

Just staring.

I stare back.  The moment lengthens.  He holds eye contact.  Doesn’t move.  Doesn’t blink.  Doesn’t get bored or embarrassed or nervous, as an adult would.  Just stares.  Smiling at me.

I smile too, but he’s making me nervous.  This moment of raw contact feels uncanny, like something beyond normal human experience.  I feel an urge to end it, to look away, or joke, or take a picture with my cell phone, or create some other distraction.

Instead I stare back.

And the thought comes, It’s like looking at God.

Years ago a client surprised me by abruptly asking “What’s a therapist’s job?”  A simple question, the sort that catches you flatfooted.  I felt really stupid.  I had to think.

Eventually I told her that I saw my job as similar to Michelangelo’s.  Michelangelo reputedly defined the sculptor’s job as freeing the statue from the stone. 

“By the time we’re adults,” I said, “we’re all crusted over with fears and defenses.  The therapist’s job is to scrape away the fears and defenses and free the person trapped inside.”

The person inside.  The natural, unafraid, undefended part.  The God part.

Sunday school taught me to think of God as resembling Charlton Heston in a bathrobe.  That was a long time ago.  Lately I’ve come to think of God as something more like The Force in Star Wars — a sort of energy which animates and organizes things, makes grass sprout and wounds heal and babies grow, holds things together and makes sense of life’s pain, loss and chaos.

And when it comes to people, I think of God as the part of them that gets buried in the course of getting educated and socialized.  The part therapy tries to unearth.  The spontaneous, curious, fearless, loving part we all carry around inside us.  The God part.

The part that’s staring at me now.

god part 3

~ April, 2013


Maybe it’s coincidence.  But Thursday I had my first granddaughter,

~~~me and callie

and then yesterday I felt the urge to go update my profile on Psychology Today — specifically, the paragraph describing my Tuesday night women’s group, which now reads:

Most women are trained to be codependent — i.e., to take better care of others than of themselves — as a way of winning approval and love. This group is for mothers, daughters, wives and single women tired of losing themselves in relationships and ready to make their own needs and happiness a priority. We focus on giving up compulsive controlling of other people and replacing it with emotional support, healthy self-acceptance, and realistic self-care.

One benefit/curse of becoming a grandparent is that you take the long view of things.  You look at this hatchling, and then you look down the metaphorical road and anticipate what she’ll experience.  Projection being what it is (the product more of fear than of hope), I imagine Callie struggling with the same stuff as the women I know, the mothers, daughters, wives and single women trying to grow past their conditioning and give birth to themselves. 

After two decades of working with women I’ve decided I hate what we do to them.  I hate what we do to men, too. In Monkeytraps (the book) I wrote,

Most men are raised to function as machines.  Most women are raised to function as hostages.

Men are taught to sacrifice their emotional selves.  Women are taught to sacrifice their independence and autonomy.

Men are expected too be tough, brave, and self-reliant.  Women are expected to be endlessly accepting, sensitive and giving.

Men are taught to stuff their feelings and work hard.  Women are taught to stuff their feelings and give until it hurts.

It’s a crock of shit, this training. 

But it’s so universal and so unconscious that we all get infected by it and grow up emotionally lopsided.  Then we spend our lives blaming ourselves for being inadequately machinelike or inadequately giving.

The luckiest people I know have someone in their life telling them (ideally, while they’re young) not to believe the lies.  That men and women are meant to be just that, human men and women, not machines or bottomless wells of self-sacrifice. 

That it’s our right to not grow up lopsided.

And that, if we have grown up that way, it’s our right to work on undoing our lopsidedness. 

If not for our sake, then for the sake of hatchlings yet to come.






Monkeytraps Podcast, Chapters 4, 5 and 6: Chameleon, A Controlling Person, & Internal and External

~~~ PAPERBACK 2 jpeg

Now up:

The Monkeytraps Podcast,

Chapter 4: Chameleon (1:37),

Chapter 5: A Controlling Person (2:04),

Chapter 6: Internal and External (2:18),

all here.

~~~read by the author


* * *

Missed something, or

want to hear it again?

Visit the

Monkeytraps Podcast’s

homepage on Stitcher Radio

(click on logo)

~~~Stitcher logo

where you’ll find all previous

and subsequent chapters.



Back to back to face to face

~~~ bride and groom silhouetteIn session, with a couple.  He does not want to be here. But she’ll end the marriage unless he comes. I ask questions, make little jokes, try to engage him.  But it’s slow going until he finally says out loud how he sees things.

“It’s like we live back to back,” he mutters.

This triggers an earworm. You know, when you get a song stuck in your head and can’t stop hearing it? Except my worm isn’t a song. It’s a bit of nonsense rhyme from my childhood.

Back to back
They faced each other,
Drew their swords
And shot each other.

The worm plays over and over while I listen to them talk.

It plays until I figure out what the hell it means.

Then I do, and the meaning comes all at once.  And I interrupt the couple to tell them. 

I say,

What you said about living back to back?  I really like that.

It’s a great metaphor for marriage.

Because that’s how we all start out:

Living back to back.

Not looking at the person we married.

Where are we looking? Elsewhere.

Maybe at the past, at old relationships or the marriage of our parents. Maybe at the future, what we expect or want or need things to be. Maybe at our own pathology, our anxiety or anger or grief or unhappiness. The stuff we hope the marriage would heal, the way medicine heals illness.

But not at our partner. Not the real person we married, as he or she is right here, right now.

We think we are. But the person we marry is not the the person we dated.  And marriage is not the dating relationship, saturated with fun and sex and all sorts of idealizations and projections. 

All that’s temporary.  And eventually we realize that. 

And we realize our partner isn’t who we thought he or she is. 

And maybe we realize that we aren’t who we thought we were, either.

That’s where the real marriage begins.

Turning to face the real person we married, and the real person we are, that takes time.

That takes courage.

That takes serious love.

But that, in the end, is the work of marriage.

It’s the work of moving — slowly, patiently, with understanding and acceptance — from living back to back to living face to face.

Monkeytraps Podcast, Chapter 3: Pictures


xxx~~~ PAPERBACK 2 jpegx

Now up:

Monkeytraps Podcast,

Chapter 3: Pictures (1:48),



~~~read by the author


* * *

Missed something, or

want to hear it again?

Visit the

Monkeytraps Podcast’s

homepage on Stitcher Radio

(click on logo)

~~~Stitcher logo

where you’ll find all previous

and subsequent chapters.





1-8-16 Mosquito2

~~~LOGO on white


Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries

to control everything and how we can stop

by Steve Hauptman.

Available here.

Monkeytraps Podcast, Chapter 2

~~~ PAPERBACK 2 jpegNow up:

Monkeytraps Podcast,

Chapter 2: Controlling (2:19),


~~~read by the author

The only time

zzz3 Do nothing

~~~LOGO on white

From Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries

to control everything and how we can stop

by Steve Hauptman.

Available here.


1-3-16 Wired, version 3

~~~LOGO on white

From Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries

to control everything and how we can stop

by Steve Hauptman.

Available here.

Light switch

1-1-16 exad1 A client once described revised

~~~LOGO on white

From Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries

to control everything and how we can stop

by Steve Hauptman.

Available here.

Two families

~~~genogramWe each have two families.

The first we inherit, the second we create.

The first is where we get wounded, the second where we go to heal.

Sorry.   I don’t mean to sound cynical.  

But do my job for any length of time and you can’t avoid concluding that, while healthy families exist, they are rare.

Healthy families are those able to meet their members’ needs for attention, acceptance, approval and affection.

Healthy families understand and practice empathy, respect, loyalty, goodwill, trust.

And healthy families make room for everyone.  No one gets abused, ignored or sacrificed.  No one gets lost.

As I said, such families exist.  But for too many reasons to list here, they are outnumbered by the other kind.

And when the first family is inadequate, the second becomes essential.

Some people, wounded in the first family, give up on people.  They decide relationship is dangerous, something that hurts or disappoints you, not a place to get your needs met.  So they retreat into anger, isolation, intellect, work, materialism or substance abuse.  Some try to make do with a hobby, a tv or a cat.

Others keep returning to their dysfunctional first family, hoping against hope that someday, somehow, this dry well will produce water.

The luckier ones realize they need a second family.

They may start with a tentative connection to a therapist, sponsor or recovery buddy.  Scary stuff, at first.  But as they collect good experiences, their sense of safety and ability to trust grows.  Their new family may expand to include friends or classmates, coworkers or colleagues, members of a self-help or a therapy group.  Eventually it may include their own partner, inlaws, and/or their own children.

That’s what happened to me. 

It’s why, when I published my book, I included this on the Acknowledgements page:


This is no exaggeration.

So yes, first families are unavoidable, often disappointing, even destructive.

And yes, the wounds they inflict can last a lifetime.

But no, they do not constitute our destiny.

Second families are our second chance.




Introducing: The Monkeytraps Podcast



monkeys of the world:


Got 2 minutes?

Use them to listen to Chapter 1 of

~~~ PAPERBACK 2 jpeg*

read by 

*~~~the author*


(More to come in

the weeks ahead.)



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