Monthly Archives: May 2017

Three commandments

In group, and she looks exhausted, pinched and pale. 

She’s talking about how hard she’s been working, and all the people she worries about and takes care of. 

And I’m getting angry.

“I have feedback,” I tell her. 

She looks surprised.  Feedback is a statement of personal feelings, and I don’t usually give those.

“Here goes,” I say.  “When you (A) talk about all these people you care about and take care of,  I (B) get mad, because (C) you’re breaking my Three Commandments.” 

She looks puzzled.

“I know,” I say.  “I didn’t know I had Three Commandments either.  But apparently I do, because I find myself mad at you for breaking them.”

She smiles.  “What are they?”

“What I usually talk about,” I say.  “And everything we work on in group:

1. You must respect your feelings.

2. You must listen to your body.

3. You must collect relationships that feed you, not deplete you.”

“Yes,” she sighs. “Sounds familiar.”

“She’s breaking all three, right?” another member asks.

“I think so.  She certainly looks like someone who is.”

“What do I look like?” she asks.

“Like someone to whom self-care is an alien concept.  Who’s so caught up in trying to control people, places and things that she’s running on empty.  And doesn’t realize it.  And needs people who love her to tell her to stop.”

“Stop,” says another member.

“Please,” says another.

She smiles sadly.  “I’m not sure I know how.”

“That’s okay,” I say.  “We’ll help.  The most important thing now is wanting to stop.

“Everyone who comes into therapy needs to learn these commandments,” I say.  “It’s hard at first, because most of us were trained to believe exactly the opposite: Disrespect your feelings, ignore your body, and Lose yourself in relationships.

“But those who learn them, and can obey them at least some of the time, always end up feeling better.”

“Always?” she asks.

“Always,” I say.  “It’s as close to a guarantee as you’ll get in therapy.”



This will be awful.

“I have a job interview,” she tells me.

“That’s good,” I say.

“I’m scared shitless.”

“That’s not.”

She’s never had a job interview that didn’t make her sick beforehand.  The interviews themselves go fine.  But the days and hours leading up to them are torture.

“I imagine everything that could go wrong, every mistake I could make, every question I can’t answer.  I imagine the person will think I’m stupid or unattractive or unqualified.  I play it over and over and over in my head.  I usually can’t sleep the night before, and I go in there looking like death on a cracker.”

“But the interview usually goes okay?”

“It does,” she sighs.

“Okay,” I say.  “I think I can help.  When’s the interview?


“Good.  Today’s Monday.  Go buy yourself a small notebook and carry it with you.  I want you to listen to yourself, catch yourself projecting, and write each projection down.”

“What’s projecting again?” she frowns.

“Inventing scary stories,” I say.  “There are two types.  One produces stories about the future — I’m going to screw up the interview, I’m going to get fired, My blind date will be a disaster, and so on.  I call that fortunetelling.”

“That’s what I’m doing now.”

“Correct.  The other type involves stories about the contents of other people’s heads — She’s mad at me, He thinks I’m fat, They’re laughing at me behind my back, Nobody will think I’m qualified for this job — that sort of thingI call that mindreading.”

“I do that all the time too,” she muses.

“I know you do,” I say.  “And there are two things to remember about projections.

“First, they feel absolutely real, the way a nightmare does.  You just know bad things are happening or going to happen, right?”


“Second, they rarely come true.  That’s because projections grow out of anxiety — our very worst fears — not any accurate reading of reality.  For example, despite how you feel before interviewing, you usually end up getting the job, don’t you?”


“Yes.  The thing is, when our worst fears don’t come true, we don’t learn our lesson.  We don’t stop and think Wow, I just scared myself unnecessarily.  We just roll on to the next projection.

“That’s where the notebook comes in.  Between now and Friday you’ll list every negative projection, every moment of fortunetelling or mindreading, however small or silly.  And at the end of each day you’ll look at your list and see how many of your awful projections came true.”

“I think I know what I’ll find,” she smiles sheepishly.

“Me too.  Do it anyway.”


I got an email from her today.

Hey Steve.  I bought the notebook and did what you said.  The first two days I filled eight pages.  I had no idea what I was doing to myself.  But on the third day I began to calm down (half a page only), and by Friday I was almost relaxed.  (Almost.)  Anyway, I got the job.  Thanks.  🙂  See you Monday.  





“I feel like crap,” he tells me.


“I’m a failure.”

“How so?”

“In every way.  My wife says I’m insensitive, so I feel like a bad husband.  My son’s failing Math and my daughter has social anxiety, so I feel like a lousy dad.  I don’t make enough money, so I feel like a bad provider.  I don’t have time or energy to fix what needs fixing around the house, so I feel lazy and irresponsible.  I’m overweight, so I feel like a physical mess.  And you tell me I’m out of touch with my feelings, so I’m even flunking fucking therapy.”

“Wait a minute,” I say.  “Let’s do this right.”

I reach under my chair and bring out my hammer.

It’s an old hand sledge, five pounds of rusted metal.

“Here,” I say, handing it to him.

“What this for?”

“Give yourself a good whack on the knuckles.”

“Are you crazy?  That would break my hand.”

“Probably,” I say.  “But the pain would go away, and the hand would heal in about six weeks.

“What you’re doing to yourself now — calling yourself a failure and collecting evidence to back it up — that causes permanent damage.  And the pain it creates is endless.”

For anyone who find this parable too metaphoric, let’s be clear:

Beating yourself up should not be mistaken for honesty, or courage, or discipline, or high standards, or determination, or toughness, or personal growth.

It is simple self-abuse.

It consumes energy, kills hope, warps awareness and destroys the spirit.

And those who indulge in it rarely grow into the people they are meant to be.


The dangling man

For months she has been miserable in a relationship with a man she describes as needy, smothering and manipulative.

“I feel like I’m his mother,” she tells me.

“So end it,” I say.

“I can’t,” she frowns.  “He says if I do he’ll kill himself.”

“You believe him?”

“I’m scared to take the risk,” she shrugs helplessly.  “He cries and begs and I feel like a heartless person.” 

She looks at me.  “Am I?  Heartless?”

I answer by telling her, as best as I can remember it, the story of the dangling man.

A guy’s walking across a bridge one night and hears a faint cry for help.  He looks over the railing and finds a man dangling from a rope. 

“Help me,” the dangling man gasps. 

The guy reaches over and grabs the rope, which comes free in his hands.  Now he’s the only thing keeping the man from falling. 

“Save me,” the man begs. 

The guy tries to pull the man up, but cannot. 

“You’re too heavy,” he says.  “You’ll have to climb.” 

“Don’t let go,” the man begs. 

“Okay, but I can’t hold on forever,” the guy says.  “Start climbing.” 

“Just don’t let go,” the man says again. 

The guy looks around for help, but he is alone on the bridge.  He looks for somewhere to tie off the rope, but finds nothing. 

He feels his hands weakening.

“I’m getting tired,” he tells the man.  “What do you want me to do?”

“Help me,” the man repeats.  “Save me.”

“But I can’t,” the guy says. 

“Just hang on,” the man says.  “If you let go, I die.  I’m your responsibility.”

Time passes.  The guy feels his hands weakening, the strength slowly draining from his body, and the impossibility of his situation.

Finally he takes a deep breath. 

“Listen carefully,” he tells the man, “because I mean what I’m about to say.  I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself.  So I’ll hold on, but only if you start climbing.  I’ll even help by pulling up from my end.  But if you don’t start climbing, I’m going to let go.”

“You can’t mean that,” says the dangling man.  “How could you be so selfish?  How could you live with yourself afterwards?  I need you.  I’m your responsibility.”

“No,” says the guy, “I don’t accept that.  I’m responsible for me, and you’re responsible for you.   I’m willing to help, but the final choice here is yours.”

“Don’t do this to me,” the man begs. 

The guy waits.  Nothing happens.  There is no movement, no change in the rope’s tension. 

“I accept your choice,” he says, and frees his hands.

* Adapted from Friedman’s Fables by Edwin H. Friedman (New York: Guilford Press, 1990).


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