Monthly Archives: April 2014


Slumped on my sofa, he seems surrounded by enemies.

He tells me what his girlfriend’s doing to him, and what his ex-wife did,  And how he was abused by his last boss.  And by his father and mother before that.

I believe everything he tells me.

But the more he talks the weaker he sounds.  It’s like he’s shrinking before my eyes.

Which illustrates the risk in blaming.

Blaming is an explanation.  It explains pain and problems by pointing to someone or something outside us and beyond our control.  Not my fault, blaming says.  I didn’t cause this.

Which may be true, and is often comforting in the moment.

But in the long run it‘s a dangerous way to see things.


Because you can’t solve a problem that’s not yours to solve.

When we blame we give away responsibility.  When we give away responsibility, we also give away the solution to problems.  We give away power, which I define as the ability to take care of ourselves

And powerless people solve nothing.

Somebody once compared blaming to swallowing poison and waiting for the other guy to die.

Feeling stuck?  Need to fix something in your life or relationship?

Move past blame.

Take more responsibility.







Secret language

We’re driving together, my wife and I.  I crack the window for fresh air.  Ten seconds later she touches her shoulder, as if to ward off a chill.  I close the window.
I turn up the radio for a Bach cello passage.  Her sigh is barely audible.  I turn down the music.
We’re married 38 years.  I know her moves, she knows mine.  (For example, I have a special cough that reminds her I hate Frazier reruns.)
We share a secret language.
Pretty normal.  All couples find such ways to communicate with — and yes, control — each other.
We signal feelings, preferences and reactions to our partner, and our partner adjusts accordingly.  Secret-language messages fly back and forth between us all day long.  Couples together a while speak it automatically, even unconsciously,
It’s mostly harmless, even helpful.  Saves time, energy, strengthens our bond.
But some people depend on secret communication because they don’t know how to express themselves in an unsecret way.
Most couples I see for marriage counseling lack this ability.  Usually they grew up in families unable to model healthy emotional communication.  They’ve no clue how to talk about feelings.  Secret language – what therapists call acting-out — is the only one they speak.
They also tend to expect others to intuit their meaning.  If you really loved me, they rationalize, you’d know how I feel.
But that’s silly.  My wife and I love each other.  We still can’t read each other’s minds.
Back in the car I notice a tinge of resentment.  That Bach I turned down is Yo-Yo Ma playing the deep, gorgeous prelude to the First Cello Suite.
“I’m turning this up,” I say.  “It’s short.  Okay?”
“Sure,” my wife says.
Most relationships are ruined not by what we express, but by what we hold back.

NEW: The practice corner

Like any addiction, addiction to control is a bitch to recover from.
Hard enough to imagine surviving without doing the stuff we’ve always believed was absolutely necessary.
It’s even harder when we have no models to guide us.  How do you practice healthy alternatives to controlling if you’re not even sure how they look?
To help with that, we’re introducing a new feature: The Practice Corner.  It will be an occasional series of true (but cleverly disguised) stories told by readers working actively to free themselves from compulsive controlling.
Below is the first.
The Corner will be divided into three sections: Tales of Surrender, Tales of Responsibility, and Tales of Intimacy.  (If you’re not sure what those words mean, here’s a brief explanation.)
We hope you find these stories helpful.  Feel free to respond, if you like.  I’m sure their authors would appreciate that.
And we’d love to have you contribute your own.
Because nobody recovers alone.
~ Steve & Bert

* * *

Carry permit
I’m sitting in a faculty meeting and the chairperson turns to me and I know what’s coming.  Last week she asked me to do extra work I really really don’t want to do.  Being me, I told her I’d think about it.  Now she says “So can you take on that project we spoke about?”  “No, I decided against it,” I say.  She blinks.  Then she turns to the person beside me and asks them to do the same project.  I’m amazed at how easy that was.  I look across the table to a friend with whom I’d shared your recent post Gun, the one about the power of being able to say No.  I raise the tip of my index finger to my lips and blow imaginary smoke away from an imaginary muzzle.  My friend grins, then presses her lips together to keep from giggling.  Thanks for the carry permit, Steve.
~ Shared by A.P.



My favorite part of The Addams Family (ABC, 1964-66) was the character named Thing.
A disembodied hand that lived in a box, Thing scrambled across tabletops like a spider and occasionally performed small favors for members of the family.
“Thank you, Thing,” Morticia Addams would coo.
In recent years I’ve grown my own version of Thing.
Mine’s not a hand, but a voice in my head.
There have always been voices in my head, as I’m sure there are in yours.  One’s the voice Gestaltists call Topdog, always ready to prod, judge or criticize.  Another’s the voice of Underdog, who whines (It’s too hard), makes excuses (I try my best) and promises (I’ll do it tomorrow).
For decades these guys were constant companions, engaged in endless Should vs Can’t battles 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, even my sins.
Thing reassures, encourages, 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 taught 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-care and self-compassion.
Thing’s good company.  I wish we’d had more years together.
I wonder who’d I be now if we had.
But hell.  Better late than never.
Thank you, Thing.


redux (adj)brought back
Her husband is alcoholic.  This is her second marriage.  Her first husband was alcoholic too.
 As was dad.
 “I always swore I’d never marry someone like my father,” she says.  “Then I do it twice.  What am I, stupid?  Self-destructive?”
 “Neither,” I say.  “You’re still trying to get dad to stop drinking.”
 She looks at me as if I just spoke Klingon.
 “Kids with a problem parent often grow up to find partners that remind them of the parent.  It’s why kids from alcoholic families marry alcoholics, kids from abusive families marry abusers, and so on.”
 “We’re all stupid?” she frowns.
 “No.  You’re all trying to heal the old wound.
 “First you recreate the scene of the crime by finding someone like dad.  Then you try to fix him.  If you can fix him it’s almost as good as fixing your father.  At least that’s the unconscious logic.  It’s called repetition compulsion.
“Does it ever work?”
I shake my head.  “Not in my experience.”
“How can I stop?” she asks.
“Well, you become conscious of your unconscious motive.  That’s what we’re doing now.”
She nods.
 “Then you grieve the old wound – let yourself feel and express what you couldn’t as a kid.  The helplessness, anxiety, sadness, anger.”
 Her eyes fill.
 “I know.  Not fun.  But essential to putting the past behind you.”
 “Then you start making choices based on your current situation instead of the old nightmare.  For example, you accept that your husband’s drinking – like dad’s – is a problem only he can solve.  You stop trying to control it.  I’ll help with that.”
 “Sounds like lots of work,” she says.
 “Sure,” I say.  “Recovery’s never a walk in the park.
 “Just better than repeating the nightmare.”


 “I’m scared I’m going crazy,” she says.

“Why?” I ask.

“I can’t stop thinking about killing someone.”

She describes a string of homicidal fantasies and nightmares involving the violent demise of her older sister, who abused her when they were kids.

“How do they make you feel?” I ask.

“Like an awful person,” she says.  “And scared I’m losing it.”

“You’re not losing it,” I say. “You’re finding it.”

“Finding what?”

“Your anger.”

I remind her how depressed she was when she began therapy.  “You were internalizing all that anger, turning it against yourself.  Now it’s pointed in the right direction.  That’s growth.”

“Oh.”  She looks relieved.  “So what should I do now?”

“What you’re doing.  Externalize.  Express it here, talk about it to others.”

”Others?  I couldn’t.  I’d be too ashamed.”

So I tell her this story:

A man came into therapy obsessed with Hitler and the Nazis.  Read about them, dreamt about them, couldn’t stop, didn’t know why.  Turned out he’d been abused by his alcoholic father.  I suggested he was obsessed with Nazis because that’s what Dad seemed like to him.  “It’s called displacement,” I said.  “A way of redirecting your anger.”  “That actually makes sense,” he said.  Then I suggested he tell his Al-Anon group about our conversation.  He did, with much fear and trembling.  And looked up to find a circle of twenty people all nodding at him.

Anger’s no sin, no sign of insanity.  It’s just a natural response to being hurt.  A sort of emotional leftover  or sewage.

Our problems come not from feeling anger, but from not knowing how to flush it out of our system.

Or as Buddha said, we’re not punished for our anger, we’re punished by it.




Magic word, No.
As in No thanks, I don’t want to. 
Or No, that’s not good for me.
Solves many problems.
Saves endless energy.
Deflects tons of discomfort and pain.
True, not always easy to say.
Especially if you’ve been denied that right in the past.
Especially if nobody taught you that it is a right.
But that’s what it is.   Everyone has the right to say No.
It’s also a necessity.  Sort of like carrying a gun in a rough part of town.
You don’t have to wave it around or point it at people.  But it’s nice to have on your hip when push comes to shove.
And let’s face it.
There are places and people in your life you shouldn’t visit unarmed.


So group (see Harbor) ends.  And one member follows me back to my office.
“How do I stop controlling?” she asks.
“Wrong question,” I say.  “You can’t stop all controlling.  Better to ask, ‘How do I stop controlling compulsively?
Compulsive controlling is the addictive sort, driven by anxiety and ignorance.  Control addicts are chronically scared but know no other way to feel safe or happy.  They’ve never learned alternatives to controlling.
What alternatives?
Surrender, responsibility and intimacy.
~ Surrender is the ability to stop controlling what can’t (or shouldn’t) be controlled.  It means being able to do nothing and trust that things will work out anyway.  Other words for surrender are detachment, acceptance and faith.  A life without surrender is a tense, white-knuckled life.
~ Responsibility means the ability to respond – to answer a situation or need appropriately.  Often the key to  such answers lies in our ability to listen to ourselves, especially to the body and the messages it sends us.  Most of us are trained to ignore such messages.  But a person who takes care of himself is being responsible.  One who buries feelings or sacrifices himself for others is not.
~ Intimacy is the ability to be yourself with another person and allow them to do the same with you.  It’s the most challenging alternative because it combines the first two.  Intimacy requires that I stop trying to control you and also risk being myself.  Not easy.  But worth the work.  Because intimate relationships are as good as human relationships get.
None of these alternatives is easy, when you come down to it.
But all are worth the work.
Because to the extent we remain ignorant of or unwilling to practice them, we stay hopelessly addicted to control.


[] CARTOON -- Family pathology FINALFINALFINAL


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.

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