Monthly Archives: March 2014


“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.



Beware of comfort.

Sure, it feels good.

Sure, you deserve it.

But because it feels good, comfort tends to interfere with more important things.

Honesty.  Courage.  Loyalty.  Love.  Growth.  All require us to move beyond comfort.

Then too, because it feels good, comfort is addictive.  The more you have, the more you want.  Eventually that’s all you want.  Or, if you’re not careful, all you can tolerate.

Finally, love of comfort is the royal road to control-seeking, especially the dysfunctional kind.

It sends you chasing the illusion that you can make things as you want them to be.  Which stops you from learning to live with things as they are.

So sure, enjoy comfort when you can.

It feels good.

And you deserve it.  Of course you do.

Just beware of it too.


All my fault

I am seven years old, and it’s all my fault.

What is?


Everything bad.

That Daddy drinks.  That Mommy hits.  That Daddy and Mommy fight.  That neither of them ever hugs me or says I love you.

That we don’t have enough money.  That we move a lot.  That our house burned down.

All my fault.

Don‘t tell me I’m wrong, either.  I don’t want to hear that.

Because the alternative is too scary to think about.

The alternative is to think of the world as a place where bad things happen.  And you can’t see them coming, and you can’t prevent them, and you can’t escape.  You’re helpless.

I‘d much rather feel guilty than helpless.

I’d much rather believe that if I get better grades, or keep my room clean, or never make too much noise, or  never talk back, that everything will be fine.

I’d rather believe that, even if believing it makes me feel guilty and hate myself right now.

And even if it makes me grow up to be a guilty adult who feels responsible whenever bad stuff happens.

Because if it’s all my fault, well…

Maybe I do have some control.


[9] 121. Control is a teddy bear FINALll

Dandelion fights

dandelions 3

They fight on my sofa.

The themes are familiar.  He never listens to me.  She won’t stop trying to control me.

Thirty minutes, this goes on.

Finally she breaks down and sobs, and he stares angrily off into space.

 “Do you guys have a lawn?” I ask.

Betty wipes her eyes, looks at me.  Bob, suspecting  I’m crazy, frowns.

“With dandelions on it?” I continue.  “What happens when you mow dandelions?  Right.  They come up again tomorrow.  Because to remove a dandelion you have to dig up the root.

“This is a dandelion fight,” I say.  “You keep having it for the same reason you can’t mow dandelions away.  You’re not getting to the root.”

“What root?” Bob asks.

“Two roots, actually.  One’s emotional: how you feel right now.  You guys never talk about that.  Betty, what are you feeling right now?”

She sniffles.  “Like he doesn’t love me at all.”


“Like a worthless piece of shit.”

They look at each other in surprise.

But I plow on.  “The other root is transference.  What’s familiar here?  What does this fight remind you of?  What other relationship? When have you felt like this before?”

I already know the answers.  Betty’s dad was an alcoholic who ignored her.  Bob’s mom was a narcissist who treated him like furniture.

“So that’s a dandelion fight.  You keep having it because it never addresses what you’re really feeling inside, and where those feelings really come from.

“You’ll keep having it unless and until that changes.

“And if it doesn’t change – if you never find a way to get at the roots — there’s a danger these fights will develop into something nobody ever wants.”

 “What?” Betty asks.

“A dandelion war.”


spiral framed 2

She’s a new client, looking around my office.

“I like your pictures,” she says.  “But what’s that?”

She points to the rusty bedspring on my wall.

“A metaphor,” I say.

“For what?”

“Recovery.  It’s the recovery spiral.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Most people think of recovery as a linear process.  They think you start off down here, at All fucked up, and recoveryclimb straight up to there, Perfectly fine. 

They think there’s a straight line between those two points, and that any deviation from that line – relapses, setbacks, mistakes — means some kind of failure.”

“Doesn’t it?”

I shake my head.  “Not if you see recovery as a spiral.”

“Emotional growth means moving in a circle.  The points of the circle are the issues or problems we’re working on — parents, money, work, sex, feelings, communication, control, whatever.  And you go around and around the same circle, facing the same issues over and over.

“But each time you go around you’re a bit higher on the spiral.  Meaning you know a bit more than the last time around.  And you’re a little bit stronger.  And you have more resources, both inside you and outside.

“And that’s recovery.

“If you’re lucky, there’s no end to it until you die.  There’s no There there, no Perfectly fine end pointJust learning and growing as long as you live.

“So when someone comes to me all discouraged and says Oh god, I fucked up or I’m so embarrassed that I’m still struggling with this I show them the spiral and explain what it means.

“And then I ask, ‘What do you know now that you didn’t know last time you were here?’

“And they can usually find something.  And then they can think of their relapse as a lesson, not a failure.”

She frowns, looking at my wall.

“Where can I get a rusty bedspring?”    


UNPUB -- 189.  Feelings will stay bottled up [D]xxxxxxxx


Think of feelings as energy.

Hold them inside, and they build in intensity.

Hold them in long enough, and eventually they reach a sort of critical mass.

At that point two things can happen.

One is explosion – an unregulated discharge in the form of yelling, or crying, or violence.

Explosion relieves the pressure, but tends to leave you feeling out of control,  embarrassed, even frightened.  (It’s also frightening to people around you.)  Which leads to a new round of holding-in, buildup, and explosion.

Not a great solution.

The other option is implosion.  Successfully contained emotional energy turns against the container.  The result is discomfort, both emotional (irritability, anxiety, moodiness, depression) and physical (fatigue, indigestion, headaches, muscular tension, and vulnerability to a host of physical ailments).

The more successfully you avoid feelings, the more likely you’ll develop symptoms that have no apparent cause.

Think of these symptoms as a message from your body:


Please listen.

Because feelings will stay bottled up for just so long.

Apple v. tree

apple tree 2 w NO eyes & chain




One reader writes,

Thirty years I worked in the business my dad left me, building it up for my son.  Now I want to retire and my son wants to do something else.  What the hell have I been working for?  He’s also engaged to a girl I don’t like.  Whatever happened to family values?

My reply:

I don’t know you or your son.  But I work with lots of families, and this sort of question comes up often.  So I’ll answer from that context and you decide if my answer is relevant.

I think a healthy family is one in which all members can get their needs met — not always, maybe, but most of the time.

I think any family that requires a member to sacrifice himself or herself to the needs of the family is unhealthy.

I think some families (they’re called narcissistic families) are set up unconsciously to meet the needs of the parents, even at the expense of the children.  And if one comes from such a family, that arrangement seems normal.  Parents just expect kids to put their feelings and needs aside for Mom or Dad’s sake.  It may even seem like love, or duty, or “family values.”

Personally and professionally, I see it as something else.

So I suspect you need to decide if that’s the sort of family you came from and are trying to recreate now. Sounds like that’s at least a possibility.

I should add that I think the parent’s job — like that of the teacher, doctor, or therapist — is to put himself out of a job.  To raise a kid strong and healthy enough to separate, take care of himself, and not stay tied to the parent indefinitely.

If you stayed tied to your father until he died, you may see it differently.

But there’s a big difference between staying connected to your parent by choice and staying connected because the parent refuses to let you go.


Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you, 

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

~ Kahlil Gibran


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