Monthly Archives: September 2014

Group anxiety

Most people are anxious when they first join a therapy group.

Some take a long time to get over their anxiety.  A few never do.

Usually they don’t understand why.

It’s because on some level they expect to be treated in group as they were treated in their family of origin.

If they were abused or neglected as kids, they expect the group to abuse or neglect them.  If they were controlled or criticized or rejected or shamed, they expect the same treatment again.

For this reason even the idea of group is terrifying to some.

But it’s also what makes group such a powerful therapeutic tool.

Because when an emotionally wounded person joins group and nothing bad happens — when instead they receive the attention, acceptance and caring their family couldn’t provide — they have what’s called a corrective emotional experience:

Some deep part of them starts to realize they’re not kids anymore, and that not everyone is like the people who disappointed or hurt them when they were.

It’s a realization I’ve seen change lives.


The Costanza Method

A man she’d just met asked her out for coffee.  “I really wanted to say No,” she tells me.  “So I said Yes.”

“Things are going so badly for me lately that I’ve decided to do the opposite of what I normally do.”

“How’d the date go?” I ask.

She grins.  “Best date of my life.”

She’s stumbled onto the Costanza Method.

Seinfeld viewers know the episode where inveterate loser George Costanza dramatically improves his fortunes by doing the opposite of everything he would normally do.

Funny, and psychologically true.

I often encourage clients to do the same.

If you’d normally say No, try saying Yes.

If you’d normally say Yes, try saying No.

If you’d normally bite your tongue, this time say something. 

If you’d normally say something, this time shut up. 

If you’d normally avoid an experience, try jumping into it with both feet.

Like that.

We’re anxious creatures.  One way we try to control our anxiety is by limiting our experience to the known, the familiar.

So easy to fall into ruts.  So easy to stay there.

But if you want to practice surrendering control — or just to grow in flexibility, creativity and courage — there are worse ways than the Costanza Method.

Becoming therapeutic

I read somewhere it takes a decade to become a confident therapist.

It actually took me longer than that.

I started out bright but clueless, enthusiastic but blundering, well-intentioned but insensitive to both my clients and myself.

I spent years misreading, misunderstanding, making mistakes, stubbing my toes and occasionally hurting others in the process.

Then I needed to learn how to forgive myself for all that sloppy learning.

Eventually, though, I reached the point where, most of the time, I could care for other people and still enjoy being who I am.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad way to summarize the process of becoming a grownup.

Rabbit hole

down the rabbit hole:  a metaphor for adventure into the unknown. ~ Wikipedia


So here we are, at the edge of the rabbit hole.

She’s not saying so, but she thinks her therapist is crazy.

I’m her therapist, and I’ve just suggested she try giving up control.

For a control addict the idea is unthinkable. It’s like I’m suggesting she let go of the life preserver that keeps her afloat.

Forget that controlling has never really worked for her.

Forget that the more she tries to control stuff the more anxious and desperate she feels.

Control, she’s convinced, is the solution, not the problem.

It takes most clients months, even years to move away from that idea.

But I’m undaunted, because I have an ally in this:


Reality will teach her (if she lets it) what I already know: that

the more control you need, the less in control you tend to feel;

the more you try to control other people, the more you force them to control you back; 

and that

getting control in one place usually requires you to give it up in another.

Living a life based on these truths can be unnerving at first.

To do it takes courage, lots of trust in your therapist, and no small amount of trust in yourself.

But the luckiest addicts — those who can muster that courage and trust — get to enter the rabbit hole of recovery, and the adventure of a life beyond chasing control.




Submitted to The Practice Corner:
After yoga class I like to walk at the park nearby.  It’s one of my favorite times, when I feel clear-minded and enjoy being with myself. Not always easy to arrange.
Today I’m sitting on a bench lacing up my sneakers when a woman from the yoga class comes up to me.
“Oh,” she says brightly, “you’re walking?  Want company?”
No, I scream inside.
But I also feel my heart drop into my stomach.
Such a familiar trap.
I’ve spent my life saying Yes to such requests, mainly because of what my mind does at such moments.
Be nice, it whispers.  What’s the big deal?  Don’t hurt her feelings.  Don’t make her angry.  You can walk alone tomorrow.  Be nice.
I hate my mind sometimes.  It usually wins these arguments.
But this time, this time I breathe, and take my tiny courage in my hands.
“Most people complain I walk too fast for them,” I say.  “So, no, I guess not.”
“Okay,” she says, “Bye.”  And goes away.
I pass her later, walking in the opposite direction.  We nod at each other and smile.
Best walk I’ve had in months.
~ Shared by S.P.  (9/14/14)
Archived in Tales of Responsibility


The Practice Corner is an occasional series of true (but cleverly disguised) stories told by readers working actively to free themselves from compulsive controlling. Read more here.

Divorcing parents

Divorce brings out the best and worst in parents.

In some it elicits restraint, courage, self-awareness and self-sacrifice.

In some it provokes denial, self-pity, rage and manipulation.

The best parents work to understand the suffering of their children.  The worst become preoccupied with their own pain, anger and grief.

The best make softening the damage to kids their priority.  The worst see divorce as war, and the kids as weapons.

Some divorcing spouses do and say awful things to each other, and get spiritually smaller day by day.

And some manage to come out of the divorce stronger, wiser, kinder, and better parents.

I also notice that, over time, a sort of simple justice tends to emerge.

It happens regardless of who gets custody, who has more money or goodies to offer, and despite all attempts to prevent it:

Kids gravitate away from the unhealthy parent, and towards the healthier one.

They don’t do this consciously.  It’s not really a choice.

It’s more like a tropism – a spontaneous and involuntary reaction rooted deep in the instinctual part of the child.  The part that knows what the kid needs, and where to find it.

Like how plants know to turn towards the sun.


Frogs tossed into boiling water will leap right out again.

But frogs placed in cool water raised gradually to a boil will remain until they are thoroughly cooked.

I know plenty of cooked frogs.

They’re people who stayed too long in bad jobs or unhealthy relationships.

They’re not stupid, and they’re not self-destructive.

They just didn’t pay attention.

They didn’t listen to their feelings, which exist to provide important information about what they were experiencing.

Like most of us, they thought of pain and discomfort as bad things, experiences to be avoided.  So they found ways to ignore, numb or deny those bad feelings.

They forgot (if they ever knew) that pain is essential to survival.

That we need it to warn us of both obvious dangers and subtle threats.

That we ignore it — even the tiniest of twinges — at our peril.

And that to ignore it long enough is to risk ending up cooked.

The work

Whenever a new member joins one of my therapy groups I ask all the current members to introduce themselves.

And in the course of doing so I ask each one to define what they’re working on in group.

identifying and expressing feelings,

not losing myself in relationships,  

giving up compulsive controlling,  

trusting people,

risking vulnerability,


coming out of hiding in group

are some of the answers I get.

Occasionally a member can’t answer the question.

When that happens, I take it to mean somebody hasn’t done their job.

It might be me.  It’s the therapist’s job to help clients define their work — their issues and what they must do to resolve them — and then help them stay focused on it.

Or it might be the client.  Some clients come to therapy not to work, but to be comforted or rescued or parented.  Some spend years avoiding the work they need to do.

One thing’s sure, though.

Unless and until the work gets defined, it can never get done.

Unhappy marriages

Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

With unhappy marriages I find the opposite to be true.

Unhappy marriages tend to be stunningly similar, at least in the sources of their unhappiness.

The three most common are baggage, responsibility and communication:

~ Baggage.  Each partner brings a history of unmet needs, unexpressed feelings and unhealed wounds to the marriage, which then collides with the baggage their partner brings.

~ Responsibility.  Both partners have trouble either seeing or owning (or both) their own contribution to problems in the relationship.  More often they slip into blaming their partner instead.

~ Communication.  Neither partner knows how to talk about underlying feelings and where they come from, so the real issues eroding the relationship never get addressed.

All serious problems.

All solvable.

But usually not without an outsider’s help.




I’m stuck.

Part of me says Yes, do it.  Do it now. 

Another part says No, I can’t.  Or No, I’m scared.

Gestaltists call this stuckness impasse: the point at which you stop yourself from moving forward because you’re afraid you won’t survive the attempt.

Scared, for example, of ending the marriage.  Quitting the job.  Starting the business.  Writing the book.  Expressing the feeling.  Telling the truth.

Such stuckness always involves old fears, triggered in some part of me that hasn’t grown up.

That part so clearly remembers being dependent, helpless and/or scared of punishment that it hasn’t discovered I’m grown up now, and in charge of my own life.

 “We are continually projecting threatening fantasies onto the world,” Fritz Perls wrote, “and these fantasies prevent us from taking the reasonable risks which are part and parcel of growing and living.”

The surprising thing about an impasse?

It’s almost always imaginary.  It doesn’t exist in reality.

Push back against the fear and it tends to vanish, like a nightmare does when you turn on the bedroom light.


Most people feel secretly unpermitted to be who they really are — feel what they feel, think what they think, believe what they believe, want what they want — and to base their lives on those emotional realities.

When therapy works, it’s because it has given someone permission to do those things.


It is generally recognized that an addict’s recovery begins the moment they hit bottom.

Bottom, of course, is that point where some internal scale tips and the pain of addiction outweighs their fear of giving it up.  It’s the moment they stop denying, surrender to reality, and become willing to do whatever it takes to get better.

But bottoms are necessary for everyone, I think.

Change can be scary and confusing. Change can hurt.  It’s not easy to change your life.  Possible, but never easy.

So we all avoid changing like we avoid the dentist.  We wait until the tooth hurts too much to ignore.

This explains why — at least in my experience — the people helped by therapy just a little vastly outnumber those who are helped by therapy a whole lot.

Members of the latter group aren’t smarter, necessarily.  Just braver,  more honest and more persistent.

If you find yourself in this group, congratulations.

I admire your willingness to do this important inner work.

More power to you.




When assessing if someone is addicted — to either a substance (like alcohol) or a behavior (like controlling) —  I pay close attention to the level of chaos in their life.

Addicts are uniquely vulnerable to chaos, mainly because they don’t know how to deal with feelings (except to numb them temporarily).

Since life is full of feeling-triggers, it tends to hand the addict one emotional problem after another after another.

Thus (a) life triggers feelings, which (b) trigger the addiction, which (c) causes the addict new problems, which (d) trigger more feelings.

And the addict lurches from crisis to crisis, living a life that feels increasingly chaotic and out of control.


I spend my days talking with men and women about relationships and relationship failures.   And I find their views on the latter to be oddly gender-specific.

Men often say something like “God, was she crazy.  Am I glad to be done with her.”

Women often say something like “God, I hate myself.  I can’t believe how badly I screwed up.”  Or “I’m so stupid.  How could I have picked him in the first place?”

Sometimes the same woman says both.

All this has less to do with who really screwed up than with how the genders view relationships.

Men are socialized to see work as their main responsibility.  So their ideas of success or failure in life are all tied up with doing their job and making money.

Women are socialized to see feelings and relationships as their main responsibility. So when someone’s unhappy or a relationship fails, women feel, well, responsible.

Both views are lopsided, of course, and terribly unfair.  It takes two to tango, and it usually takes two to screw up a relationship.

Which explains why I spend so much time trying to get men to take more responsibility for relationship problems, and women to take a bit less.



Dance 2Conflicted couples tend to have the same fight over and over.

Ask them, and they’ll tell you just how it goes:

Who initiates. How their partner responds. How it escalates.  How long it lasts.  How it ends.  How they both feel afterwards.

I call this pattern The Dance.

The Dance repeats itself because it’s largely unconscious — rooted in hidden feelings that never get directly expressed (I’m scared you don’t really love me) and unresolved issues that don’t get identified, much less resolved (this is just like how my parents treated each other).

And for this reason, when they come to therapy, Dancing couples need more than a referee.

They need a translator.

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