Monthly Archives: June 2014

Renter in a small room

One reader responded to Twelve Truisms by asking me to explain #8: When deciding what you truly need, trust the body more than the mind.
I wrote back,
The body is where feelings live.
And the function of feelings is to inform us about what we’re experiencing.
By “feelings” I mean both physical sensations (hunger, fatigue, pain) and emotional reactions (mad, sad, glad, scared).
Attending to these cues is essential to physical and emotional health — to knowing what we need and taking effective steps towards getting it.
Yet each of us is trained to ignore these essential messages on a regular basis.
Don’t pee in your pants, find a toilet. Don’t eat that, it’s not dinner time. Big boys don’t cry. Don’t take that tone with me, young lady. Stop giggling, you’ll disturb people. You can’t nap now, the workday’s not over. Never let them see you sweat.
This is called socialization, and our living together with other people makes much of it unavoidable.
But if we become overadapted – get too good at obeying social cues, and regularly ignore messages from our animal bodies – we end up needy, sick and cut off from ourselves.
Or as John Conger writes, “Many of us have lived like renters in a small room of a house we consider barely habitable. Disembodied, we have dangerously compromised the fabric of nature that supports us.”
So any effective therapy must teach people to listen to their bodies, and base more of their choices on what they hear.

Twelve truisms

 Over time every therapist develops a set of working assumptions that he or she brings to each new case.

Here are some of mine:

1. It is healthier to express feelings than to hide them.

2. Unexpressed feelings lie at the root of all emotional problems.

3. Secrets make us sick.

4. Problems in current relationships tend to echo problems in past relationships.

5. What we don’t get from our parents we will seek from our partners.

6. Being deprived in childhood of attention, acceptance, approval or affection leaves us chronically hungry for the same thing as adults.

7. When trying to understand some feeling or behavior, look for the underlying unmet need.

8. When deciding what you truly need, trust the body more than the mind.

9. There is no such thing as a totally grown-up human being.

10. The greater your need to control things in your life, the less in-control you’re likely to feel.

11. The more you try to control other people, the more you force them to control you back.

12. The price of more control in one part of your life is less control in another.


Not my job

Recently I posted this observation:
(6-20-14 TW) The more responsibility you take...
And one reader wrote back, “Please say more about this.”
Okay.  Here’s a metaphor drawn from my work with victims (the self-defined kind) and blamers:
Think of responsibility as a circle you draw around yourself.
Everything inside the circle belongs to you.  Everything outside doesn’t.
By “everything” I mean both bad stuff – problems, demands, risks – and good stuff – solutions, rewards, opportunities.
Some people draw a small circle as a way of avoiding the bad stuff.
It’s their way of telling themselves “Not my fault” or “Not my job.”
They believe the small circle will protect them.
But it’s actually a trap.
Because you can’t solve problems that aren’t yours to solve.  So the small circle makes you feel helpless.
And the more demands you avoid, the less capable you become. So the small circle is weakening.
And the more risks you avoid, the fewer opportunities life offers. So the small circle leaves you feeling deprived.
So instead of safe on a cozy island of invulnerability, small-circle folks find themselves afloat in a sea of helplessness, weakness and unmet needs.


The third paradox

(READY) The price of more control in one part...


wishbone 4“We walk into the restaurant and sit down and right away I’m in trouble.  My mother — she always does this — wants to switch tables.  And my husband absolutely refuses to move.
“And I’m in the middle.  They’re both looking at me, and I can’t please both of them, and I feel like a wishbone.”
She turns to me.
“What do you do?”
“Leave them at the restaurant, go to McDonald’s and get a cheeseburger,” I say.
The group laughs.  But I’m not kidding.
Often the only way out of such dilemmas is what I call healthy selfishness.
Healthy selfishness — listening to yourself, and putting yourself first at least occasionally — is indispensible practice for any codependent serious about recovery.
Without it you live a kind of wishbone existence, perpetually suspended between the pull of your own needs and preferences and the pull exerted by others.
You may hate hearing this, though.   Because if you’re a codependent you probably see selfishness as some sort of sin.
But here’s the thing:
Most people who see selfishness as sinful were taught to do so by selfish people.
By parents, maybe, who preached unselfishness but at the same time made it clear they expected you to put their preferences first always.  Or by partners, who delivered the unspoken but persistent directive Don’t take care of your self.  Take care of my self instead.  
Sinners in sheep’s clothing.
So in recovery your choice is between continuing your wishbonish existence or become honestly, courageously sinful yourself.
Guess which I’m rooting for?
Enjoy your cheeseburger.



(6-20-14 TW) The more responsibility you take...


“I’m working on it,” he says.  “Almost there.”
He’s telling me, for the tenth time in ten weeks, that he’s almost ready to end his bad marriage.
“No,” I say.  “You’re camping.”
He knows just what I mean.  It was one of his sessions that inspired Resigned, which compared discouraged clients to mountain climbers who camp on the side of the mountain.
“I know,” he says sadly.  “But I have to keep climbing.  I’ll never be happy otherwise.”
“Have I ever told you about the Paradoxical Theory of Change?” I ask.  “It’s an idea from Gestalt therapy.  It says As long as you try to change yourself, you stay stuck.  But accept yourself as you are, and change happens automatically.”  
“I don’t get it,” he frowns.
“Sometimes trying to change feels less like growth than self-abuse.  Not I deserve more, but I’m not good enough as I am.
“I think that’s happening here.  The Adult part of you says I’ll never be happy here, so I better get on with ending this marriage.  But the Kid part says Hell, no.  Divorce scares the crap out of me.  I’m not going anywhere.  Sound about right?”
He nods.  “And the Kid wins the argument.”
“Always.  And you’re not going anywhere without that Kid.  Nowhere good, anyway.  So maybe you should listen to him.”
“I shouldn’t just drag him along?”
“No.  He’s had a lifetime of that.  Stop pushing him.  Accept him as is, for now.”
“Let him camp?”
“For now.  Let him build a campfire, roast a marshmallow, get a good night’s sleep.  You’d be surprised how strengthening real rest can be.
“And the mountaintop will still be there tomorrow.”





“Which jail would be easier to escape from,” I ask.  “One where they feed you, or one where they starve you?”
We’re in group, where two women are describing their inability to end abusive relationships.
“I kicked him out two weeks ago,” one says.  “Now I can’t stop texting him.”
“Me too.  Every hour,” the other admits.
“What are we, crazy?” the first asks me.
I reply with my question about jails.
“The jail that starves you,” the first woman answers. “Because you’d want to escape more.”
“But motivation’s one thing, strength’s another,” I say.  “And how can you escape if you’re too weak to run away?”
They look at me.
“That’s what’s happening here. You’re not crazy.  These relationships have just weakened you to where it’s hard to escape.”
“Weakened how?” asks the second.
“Starved of acceptance, approval, affection, respect — everything that makes someone strong enough to stand on her own.  The same thing happens in dysfunctional families, which starve you emotionally as a way of keeping you attached.”
“Yes, on some level.   Abusive partners and dysfunctional families know just what they’re doing.  They know each time you knuckle under you become less confident, less able to escape.  It’s why they discourage you from entering therapy, attending self-help, even taking meds.  Those things might make you stronger. And they need you weak and dependent.
“Because — more than anything else — your weakness is the lock on the jailhouse door.”


The second paradox

(6-16-14 MT) The more you try to control other people...

The first paradox

(6-15-14) The greater your need...


A dysfunctional family is one whose members can’t get their emotional needs met.
It’s easy to create one.
Just follow a few simple rules:
1. Don’t talk about problems.  It only makes everyone uncomfortable.
2. Don’t express feelings openly.  Same reason.  Why upset people?
3. Don’t communicate directly.  Whenever possible, use another family member as a messenger. Children are especially useful for this.
4. Harbor unrealistic expectations of each other.  Especially of kids, who’ll try their best to meet them anyway.
5. Don’t be selfish.  Hide or minimize your own preferences, feelings and needs.  Expect others to do the same.
6. “Do as I say, not as I do.”  Demand honesty while remaining defended, for example.  Or condemn substance abuse with a drink in your hand.
7. “It’s not okay to play.”  Be serious all the time.
8. Don’t admit mistakes, limitations or weakness.  Pretend that perfection is a reasonable  goal.
9.  Never apologize.  It’s a sign of weakness.  (See rule #8.)
10.  Blame.  It’s so much safer than responsibility.

Men: The freedom-wound

This last wound operates in two spheres, public and private.
In the public sphere men are expected to sacrifice their freedom for others: to go to work for the family, to go to war for the nation.
Where historically a woman’s role in the family required her to remain emotionally alive and responsive, a man’s role requires just the opposite.
 Our culture maintains — and rightly so — that men are more efficient workers and warriors when they are not inconvenienced by tender feelings….   [For example, a man] rarely has the luxury of working when it pleases him or selecting only those tasks he enjoys. The weather, the economy, or his boss dictates what he does, when he works, and how long he toils. Historically men have had to put aside what they really wanted to do and spend most of their waking hours providing for their families. This has required them to shut down their senses, dampen their emotions, and focus on the task at hand.*
Provider and Protector.  That’s our assignment, and woe betide those who can’t measure up.  To fail is to be less than a Real Man.
Inevitably, of course, this public role seeps into the private sphere, where men — no less than women (who since the advent of feminism are much better at talking about it) — lose their freedom to be the human beings they really are.
That’s what this whole series has been about — the ways in which men’s needs get denied or neglected, which in turn robs them of  their emotional and psychological freedom:
~ how the mom-wound splits them off from their feminine side and confuses their relationships with women,
~ how the dad-wound deprives them of deep masculine knowledge and the chance for healthy, nurturing connection with other men, and
~ how the feeling-wound buries their deeper selves, without access to which no human being can experience real joy, confidence or integrity.
It’s as a result of these four wounds that
Most men don’t have a life. Instead we have an act, an outer show, kept up for protection. We pretend things are fine, that everything is cool, and sometimes we even fool ourselves. But ask a man how he really feels or what he really thinks, and the first thing he thinks is, “What am I supposed to say?” The average man is deeply unhappy, but he would be the last to admit it.**
* * *
What to do about all this?
Well, I’m a therapist, so my answer grows out of that context.
At its best, therapy is about going past surface appearances to deeper truths in an atmosphere of safety.
That’s what men need to do, with themselves and with each other.
This was a more popular idea some years back, when the Men’s Movement was begun in hopes of freeing men in the way feminism tried to liberate women.
The interest may have waned.  The need remains.
Men still need to open this can of worms and start to untangle them.
We need to finally learn how talk to each other about what we don’t usually talk about, in places that make that a safe risk to take.
We need to have the courage to at least attempt this.  And we need to seek out other men with the same courage.
Our health and our happiness depend on it.
So do our sons’.
So do our wives’ and our daughters’.  Because finally the wounding of men and boys is inseparable from the wounding of women and girls.
It’s never been easy to be a human being.  And men can’t avoid getting hurt by life any more than women can.
But all this suffering-in-silence?
Enough already.
*Marvin Allen, In the company of men.
**Steve Biddulph, The secret life of men.

Men: The feeling-wound



By popular request I am republishing this series on men, 

The Four Wounds, which first appeared here four years ago

and elicited the most comments of anything published

in Monkeytraps.  Third of four parts. 

So the typical man loses his mom, and then he loses his dad.
And these losses leave him with a pile of painful feelings.
And, if he remains typical, he probably carries these feelings around inside him, unhealed and unconscious, for the rest of his life.
Because of the third of the four wounds.
 The feeling-wound
Loss of feelings is the wound most obvious to therapists. Most men arrive in my office unable even to identify what they feel, much less express it.
But they don’t come to therapy for help with feelings.  They come the way you go to a dentist when a toothache gets intolerable. Their symptoms — anxiety, depression, addictions, ruined relationships, chronic anger, a pervasive sense of despair or bewilderment — have simply become too painful to bear.
And then there are other problems that flow from the same wound.
~ American men, on average, live for five years less than women do.
~ They have twice as many vehicle accidents, twice as many fatal heart attacks, three times as many deaths from injuries, twice the deaths from liver disease.
~ Over 90 percent of convicted acts of violence are perpetrated by men, and men account for over 70 percent of the victims.
~ Over 90 percent of prison inmates are male.
~ In schools, 90 percent of kids with behavior problems are boys, as are more than 80 percent of kids with learning problems.
~ Men and boys commit suicide at five times the rate of girls and women.*
Despite all this pain, it takes real courage for a man to enter therapy. He’s been taught since boyhood that needing help means he’s failed, somehow, at manhood. (He is not taught that such failure is inevitable.)
Loss of feelings is the main complaint women make of men. I could retire tomorrow if I had a nickel for each time I heard a wife or girlfriend complain “He never tells me what he feels.” But most women misunderstand the problem. They seem convinced that men know what they feel, and simply choose to withhold it. They don’t realize that the blank look a man gives you when you ask how he feels isn’t dishonesty or secrecy. It’s ignorance.
The fact is, most men wouldn’t know a feeling if it bit them on the butt. Ask a man what he’s feeling and he’ll tell you what he thinks.  Poke through his answer for some hint of one of the four basic emotions — mad, sad, glad, scared — and most of the time you’ll end up as clueless as when you began.
But he’s not lying.  He’s not even hiding. He’s numb.
He learned to numb himself long ago, in self-defense.  Maybe it began the first time he got hit in the face by a basketball, and his eyes filled with tears and his teammates saw the tears and giggled. Lesson 1 for all boys is: Bite your lip, suck it up, or you’ll be sorry.  You learn this fast if you want to survive boyhood.
But if you hide your feelings regularly enough, eventually the day comes when you forget where you put them. So many of us go through life in a state of emotional numbness.
And others of us can identify one feeling only: anger.
Now, men’s anger has legitimate roots. Behind all anger is pain, and men’s wounds produce plenty of that. But being forbidden to acknowledge (even to recognize) emotional pain as such — or to relieve that pain by grieving or crying or talking — leaves many men condemned to a sort of chronic, lifelong pissed-offness.
This, of course, has other consequences.
Many men misunderstand why they’re so angry, and unfairly blame their jobs or their wives or their children. Often their anger scares away those they most love, increasing their loneliness and desperation. Finally, they may believe they have no right to be as angry as they are, which leaves them guilty and trying to conceal it.
As a result most angry men face a lose-lose choice: (a) act out your anger (and risk ending up isolated, divorced, fired or arrested), or (b) hold it inside (and get anxious, depressed, drunk, stoned, or workaholic).
A song lyric reminds us, You have to be carefully taught. Most men are carefully taught to never answer the question of feelings.
Most of us are taught to never even ask the question.
Next: The freedom-wound
* Source: Steve Biddulph, The secret lives of men.
ed by Bill Moyers for the documentary “A Gathering of Men.”

Men: The dad-wound


By popular request I am republishing this series on men, 

The Four Wounds, which first appeared here four years ago

and elicited the most comments of anything published

in Monkeytraps.  Second of four parts. 

Men lose their fathers too.
We accept it as normal now.  But I’m told it was not always thus.
Before the Industrial Revolution sent fathers off into factories and offices to make their livings, boys grew up seeing, hearing and smelling what grown men were all about.
Sons working alongside fathers in fields and workshops absorbed a felt sense of adult masculinity by means of psychological osmosis.  More than mere instruction or role-modeling, this transfer of male energy provided a sort of emotional road map, a path the son could follow out of his mom-dominated boyhood.
Robert Bly describes the process:
Standing next to the father, as they repair arrowheads, or repair plows, or wash pistons in gasoline, or care for birthing animals, the son’s body has the chance to retune. Slowly, over months or years, that son’s body-strings begin to resonate to the harsh, sometimes demanding, testily humorous, irreverent, impatient, opinionated, forward-driving, silence-loving older masculine body. Both male and female cells carry marvelous music, but the son needs to resonate to the masculine frequency as well as to the female. *
Then society changed.  Men went off to work in offices, and boys went off to be educated in classrooms, mostly by female teachers.
And sons stopped hearing their fathers’ music.
Like mom-loss, this caused permanent damage, in the form of three specific deficits:
~ Men are left hungry for fathering.
This hunger is experienced, when we acknowledge it, as a craving for male attention and acceptance and praise.  We need those things the way a plant needs sunlight and water.  Without them, something inside us dries up and shrivels.
Father-hunger can also be felt as a physical one.  I remember being twelve years old and standing next to my sweaty basketball coach and feeling a strong impulse to hug him.  The impulse startled me, partly because I didn’t even like this guy much, and partly because the urge seemed to rise from such a deep place inside me.  At the time my own father was physically and emotionally missing in action, and I realize now that some part of me was reaching out for an emotional food it was lacking.
(I didn’t act on the impulse, of course.  Big boys don’t hug.)
~ Men end up estranged from other men.
Without dads to model male nurturance and connection, we’re left in basically competitive relationship to other males.
And without the ability to talk honestly about our experience — without the knowledge and validation that comes from hearing what other men really think, feel, fear and desire — we end up suspicious and scared of each other.  We expect other men to reject the inadequacy we secretly feel.
The bridges between men are basically burned. We may have male friends during boyhood and adolescence, but most men I know are trying to navigate adulthood without any real male friends.
~ Men are starved for healthy models. 
Many of us derive our ideas of manhood from models offered by, god help us, popular culture: John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway, Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump, Jack Kennedy and George Bush Jr., Barry Bonds and Tupac Shakur.
Without real men to learn from, we absorb these cartoonish models into the deepest parts of ourselves.
Then we either try to copy them or consider ourselves failures for being unable to.
One last word about male education, or the lack of it:
Once upon a time there were established ways of turning boys into men.
Traditional cultures provided initiation rituals which helped boys cross the psychological threshold from childhood into manhood.
Usually this involved some ordeal or testing.  Kikuyu boys hunted lions using only a spear.   Native American braves undertook vision quests without food or water.   Australian aborigines went “walkabout” in the wilderness for six months at the age of thirteen.
Often initiation involved visible changes to the body, like circumcision or scarification.  Afterwards the initiate was transformed, inside and outside.  You could look at him and tell he’d been initiated.
He was also accorded full adult status by his community, given all the rights and responsibilities of a full-fledged man, could marry, own property, vote in council, go to war.
We have nothing like that now in ordinary civilian life.  (Military boot camp and gang initiations belong to fairly limited subcultures.)  The closest I know of is the Bar Mitzvah, the day after which the 13-year-old initiate returns to living with a mom still reminding him to pick up his socks.
Thus many men never experience themselves as mature, or as (in Robert Moore’s phrase) fully-cooked.
Regardless of education, income or accomplishments, they go through adult life feeling like half-baked impostors, burdened by a chronic sense of inadequacy and self-doubt and wondering when the hell they’re going to finally feel grown up.
And when they never do, they decide it must be their fault.
Next: The feeling-wound 
*Robert Bly, Iron John.

Men: The mom-wound


By popular request I am republishing this series on men, 

The Four Wounds, which first appeared here four years ago

and elicited the most comments of anything published

in Monkeytraps.  First of four parts.  


Twenty years of doing therapy with men has led me to three conclusions about us as a psychological species.
Most of us don’t feel like men at all.  Secretly, we feel like boys.
This feeling is more or less inevitable, given how we are socialized.
We’re all bleeding from the same four emotional wounds.
The wounds are losses.  Most of us spend our lives trying to recover from them.  Most, it seems to me, spend our lives failing.
What follows is a four-part attempt to describe these four wounds and how they drive the controlling behavior of the members of my species.
The mom-wound
Men lose their moms in a way women don’t.
Most of the women I know seem to retain emotional connections to their mothers that their brothers and husbands have not.
Why?  Because at some point most men conclude that they can’t stay too emotionally attached to their mothers if they want to become real men.   (Whatever that is.)
So we cut ourselves off from Mom, emotionally and psychologically, often even while living under her roof.
In so doing we leave behind not just our personal mothers, but all that mothering itself represents: nurturing, caring, affection, gentleness, kindness, empathy.
We leave all that behind to enter the world of men, the world of hunters and soldiers and workers and other big boys who don’t cry.
This damages us in three ways:
~ It splits us in two, forcing us to disown our own capacity for feeling, our own feminine side.
This split sets us off on the familiar but dismal path of self-ignorance and emotional starvation that has been described as “the old paradigm”:

Don’t feel. Die younger than women. Don’t talk. Don’t grieve. Don’t get angry.  Don’t rock the boat. Don’t trust other men.  Don’t put passion before bill paying.  Follow the crowd, not your bliss.*

~ We become terrified of feelings themselves — which, should anyone discover them in us, might expose us as being too feminine.
As a result, our emotional lives come to be governed by fear. Every man I know is secretly scared shitless of being perceived (or, worse, perceiving himself) as not Man Enough.
Often we defend against this fear by overcompensating in the opposite direction.  We become hard, rigid, controlling, stubborn, insensitive, sometimes even abusive or violent.
We may use sex as a means of achieving status or exploiting women rather than expressing love, tenderness or vulnerability.
We may scorn emotional men as “wimps,” “bleeding hearts” or “gay.”
Some of us may even mock or abuse homosexual men, just to prove just how un-gay we are.
Finally, because denying needs doesn’t make them go away (just drives them underground),
~ We transfer our emotional needs to the women in our lives.
Wives, girlfriends, daughters, female friends — we expect those women to heal our wounds, to make up for what we’ve sacrificed.
We do this, for the most part, unconsciously.  As a result neither we nor the women really understand what’s going on between us or why our relationships are so frequently disappointing.
Though women certainly sense it.  At some point in nearly every marriage therapy I’ve ever done the wife exclaims in frustration, “He feels more like my son than my husband.”
Confusion, frustration, hurt and rage on both sides are common.
Many men end up disappointed with and resentful towards the women in their lives without really knowing why.
Many woman end up feeling both inadequate and betrayed at the same time.
And if it goes unacknowledged and untreated too long, the man’s mom-wound can become the invisible rock upon which his relationship gets wrecked, sometimes fatally.
Next: The dad-wound
~ John Lee, At my father’s wedding.

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