Category Archives: control

Kids in closets

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I once bought a battered old paperback copy of Andre Malraux’s Anti-Memoirs because of a single sentence I found on its first page.

There is no such thing as a grown-up person,

it read.

That struck me as a great truth.

Forty years later, it still does.

Every client I meet in my therapy practice confirms it.

Yet it’s one of those obvious truths — like the inevitability of aging or death — that everyone tries to ignore. 

We all want to forget the Kid we carry inside us.

Partly this is because we need and want the world to see us as fully grown-up.

And partly it’s because of what I call the worst curse — the sense that we can can never escape the pains and anxieties of childhood.

So we hide our Kid, even from ourselves.

We keep our Kid in the closet. 

We lock the door.

And we yell at our Kid should it try to escape.

Unfortunately this only perpetuates the curse.


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The worst curse

Of all the curses we carry from childhood into adulthood, one is especially destructive.

That is the curse of feeling like a kid inside.

I’m not referring here to childish joys, to spontaneity or play or freedom or imagination or exuberance or silliness.

I’m talking about feeling surrounded by giants.

Feeling vulnerable, like the nearest giant could easily squash you.

Fragile, like one dirty look from a giant can make your heart crumble.

Powerless, unable to protect yourself or choose what you want.

And on the edge of terrified, like your survival depends on the kindness and protection of big people.

We all remember those feelings.

Many of us still carry them now.

Maybe not always.  But certainly more often than we’d like.

Like at moments of uncertainty or challenge or stress, when — no matter how old or big or accomplished we are — inside we feel just like little children.

We’re embarrassed by these feelings.  

What’s the matter with you? we scold ourselves.  Grow the hell up. 

We do this instead of telling others how we secretly feel. 

Which is a real shame. 

Because if we did we might discover just how many of the grownups around us also suffer from the worst curse.

 

 


Curses

I don’t believe in magical curses. 

I do believe in psychological ones.

As they appear in therapy, psychological curses are false beliefs absorbed in childhood by a kid too innocent to know better.

You’re stupid, his father tells him over and over.  So he believes it.  He may be bright as Einstein.  No matter.  He’ll start to feel, think and behave like a stupid person.  Because that’s what dad told him he is.

The world is unsafe.  People are not to be trusted.  Relationships will disappoint you.  I run into such curses every day.

You’re not enough.  You won’t succeed.  You’re unlovable.  These are among the most poisonous curses of all.

How to lift such a curse?

Insight usually isn’t enough.  That’s because insights (Ah, I see how I came to believe that) usually come to the Adult part of the personality.

And it’s the Child part that’s cursed.

What the Child requires is a corrective emotional experience. 

The kid who feels unsafe needs safe relationships.  The kid who feels unlovable needs to feel loved.

Without such experiences, curses can last lifetimes.

 

 


Spiral

 (Reposting by popular request.  Happy New Year, everybody.)

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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?”    


The John E. Trahan Memorial Fund

 

 

The John E. Trahan Memorial Fund

 

John E. Trahan (33) was a loving and devoted father, husband, son, brother, brother-in-law, nephew, cousin, friend and coworker, and all he has left behind in this world are both devastated and heartbroken. 

Almost 20 years ago, at the age of 14, John was struck by a car while out riding his bike in Rocky Point, NY, where he lived most of his life. This accident left him without a spleen and with a weakened immune system. When John suddenly became ill with an infection this December, no one could imagine how quickly things would progress, and that his life would be taken away in just a few days. John passed peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones, on December 14, 2017. 

John leaves behind a beautiful, young family. His wife Trish and he were busy building a wonderful life together with their four children Declan (4), Mason and Hadley (2), and Harper (5 months).  The sole provider for them all, John worked steadfast as an ambitious,  well-respected CPA. 

The outpouring of love and support for John’s family during this time of grief and mourning has been overwhelming, and they are all so thankful and comforted in the knowing that John touched so many lives with his kindness and good heart. 

This fundraising effort has been started in hopes that it can help John’s wife Trish and their four children in the difficult months and years that lay ahead without him; that it can help to alleviate some of the stress of financial burdens and let Trish focus on continuing to raising their children as planned. 

To donate, click here.


Everyday monkeytraps: Changing me

1.

I feel inadequate.

2.

This is an uncomfortable feeling, so I try to change myself.

3.

When I try to change myself, another part of me rises up to resist the change.

4.

The parts that resists change is usually stronger than the part that wants it.

5.

Being unable to change feels like failure.

6.

I feel inadequate.

 

~ From Monkeytraps in Everyday Life:

A Guide for Control Addicts (in press).


One handcuff

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Besides weekly therapy, she paints, plays piano, is active in the peace movement, attends a support group and wonders why she’s still depressed and anxious.

I tell her it’s because she goes home every night to a loveless marriage to a alcoholic husband.

Another woman comes to individual sessions every Monday and group every Wednesday and can’t understand why her self-esteem and her  confidence aren’t improving. 

I tell her it’s because she spends every Tuesday and Thursday with her narcissistic parents who abuse her emotionally and drain her psychologically.

A man who divorced his wife eighteen months ago sits on my sofa and rages endlessly at his ex for her selfishness and for not loving him adequately.

I tell him he may be divorced legally, but emotionally he’s as married as ever.

All three live in prisons of their own creation.

Because hanging onto an invalidating or abusive or toxic relationship while telling yourself you’re “handling it” is an exercise in denial.

It’s like handcuffing yourself to the bumper of a truck, then telling yourself you’re actually free because only one hand is handcuffed.

One handcuff is enough to keep you trapped.

Forever.

More than enough.

 

 


Trap.

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Song:

What’s the use of wings


Everyday monkeytraps: Avoidance

1.

I’m scared of X.

 

2.

Because I’m scared of X, I avoid it.

*

3.

Because I avoid X, I never discover what X is really like.

*

4.

I’m scared of x.

 

~ From Monkeytraps in Everyday Life:

A Guide for Control Addicts (in press).


Everyday monkeytraps: Anxiety

 

1.

I’m scared all the time.

 

2.

I’m ashamed of being scared all the time.

 

3.

Because I’m ashamed I hide my anxiety.

 

4.

When I hide my anxiety it grows.

 

5.

When I hide my anxiety nobody knows I need reassurance, so nobody reassures me.

 

6.

I’m scared all the time.

 

~ From Monkeytraps in Everyday Life:

A Guide for Control Addicts (in press).


Noted with pleasure: The empathic envelope

Often our first thoughts are, “How am I damaging my child?” “What irreparable harm have I caused by this action?” ” What’s the one right thing to do?”  We picture our child in twenty years on a therapist’s couch or in a support group complaining bitterly about us or — with a little imagination — exposing to millions our toxic parenting on some “Donahue ” of the future.  With all these concerns, parents are in danger of becoming parent-therapists, not parent-people; child-bearing technicians, not human beings.  And the absolutely central fact that parenting is learning how to connect with kids is being lost.

Fortunately, when you get past all the “shoulds” and “should nots” in childrearing connecting is not such a complex and mysterious business.  I think the same dynamic exists in all families where parents stay connected with thier children, and where children grow into healthy adults.  regardless of age, economic group or whether the family is intact, the most successful parents I have met over the years have one thing in common: they attempt to provide for their children what I call an empathic envelope. 

The empathic envelope is like a container around your kids and your family, a boundary between your family and the outside culture.  Theoretically, as the parent, you are in charge of this container.  It is made up of your values, your expectation, and your ways of being with your children.  It is the feeling you get visiting someone else’s house and immediately experiencing the difference between your family and theirs: the values, the kind of language that is allowed, the habits and the rituals they have.  Forget for a moment whether you agree or not — every family just feels different.  And this differentness is a crucial fact of life for your children.  It gives them a sense that they belong somewhere, that they are held by their parents in a safe and secure place:  “This is my house, I know what to expect.  I belong.”

~ From Parenting by heart: How to stay connected to your child in a disconnected world by Ron Taffel with Melinda Blau (Addison Wesley, 1992).


Noted with pleasure: A box of monsters

 

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It is helpful to realize that when we are stuck, blocked or hurting, there is usually a very good reason.  And because there is usually a good reason, we would be wise to uncover it at a pace that is in keeping with our ability to integrate what we discover. What may appear at first to be a jungle of useless weeds maybe weeds that stabilize a steep slope.  When we uncover these painful places in ourselves we might view our discovery like an archaeologist wanting to understand the significance of the find while being careful not to destroy the site in the process of excavation.  Or as a wonderful Jungian analyst once told me, “We have to unwrap the psyche slowly, Donna.”  When we have just found a fox full of monsters, we may need to let the monsters out of the box one at a time lest we scare ourselves to death.  Maybe we need to listen to what each of these monsters has to say.  At first we might be able to take only brief peeks at this box of monsters without succumbing to terror.  This is not a call to examine every facet of our personal archaeology or to become mired in it, but a suggestion that we gently let our insight unfold in a way that can be endured.

~ From Bringing yoga to life by Donna Farhi (Harper SanFrancisco, 2003).


Noted with pleasure: On perfectionism

When I was twenty-one, I had my tonsils removed.  I was one of those people who got strep throat every few minutes, and my doctor finally decided that I needed to have my tonsils taken out.  For the entire weekend afterwards, swallowing hurt so much that I could barely open my mouth for a straw.  I had a prescription for painkillers, though, and when they ran out but the pain hadn’t, I called the nurse and said that she would really need to send another prescription over, and maybe a little mixed grill of drugs because I was also feeling somewhat anxious.  But she wouldn’t.  I asked to speak to her supervisor.  She told me her supervisor was at lunch and that I needed to buy some gum, of all things, and to chew it vigorously — the thought of which made me clutch at my throat.  She explained that when we have a wound in our body, the nearby muscles cramp around it to protect it from any more violation and from infection, and that I would need to use these muscles if I wanted them to relax again.  So finally my best friend Pammy went out and bought me some gum, and I began to chew it, with great hostility and skepticism.  The first bites caused a ripping sensation in the back of my throat, but within minutes all the pain was gone, permanently.

I think that something similar happens with our psychic muscles.  They cramp around our wounds — the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliation suffered in both — to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out.  So those wounds never have a chance to heal. 

Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp.  In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us.  They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways.  They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.

~ From Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott  


Noted with pleasure: The other education

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Like most people, life had given her one sort of education.  She had gone to school.  She had taken such and such management courses, worked her way through various jobs, and learned such and such skills.  She had come to possess a certain professional expertise.

But now she was beginning her second education.  This education was an emotional one, about how and what to feel.

This second education did not work like the first one.  In the first education, the information to be mastered walked through the front door and announced itself by light of day.  It was direct.  There were teachers to describe the material to be covered, and then everybody worked through it.

In the second education, there was no set curriculum or set of skills to be covered.  Erica just wandered around looking for things she enjoyed.  Learning was a by-product of her search for pleasure.  The information cam to her indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards, and through the vents of her mind.

Erica read Sense and Sensibility, The Good Soldier, or Anna Karenina and she would find herself moving with the characters, imitating their states of mind, and discovering new emotional flavors.  The novels, poems, paintings, and symphonies she consumed never applied directly to her life.  Nobody was writing poems about retired CEOs.  But what mattered most were the emotional sensations portrayed in them.

In his book Culture Counts, the philosopher Roger Scruton writes that

the reader of Wordsworth’s “Prelude” learns how to animate the natural world with pure hopes of his own; the spectator of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” learns of the pride of corporations, and the benign sadness of civic life; the listener to Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony is presented with the open floodgates of human joy and creativity; the reader of Proust is led through the enchanted world of childhood and made to understand the uncanny prophecy of our later griefs which those days of joy contain.

Even at her age, Erica was learning to perceive in new ways.  Just as living in New York or China or Africa gives you a perspective from which to see the world, so, too. spending time in the world of a novelist inculcates its own preconscious viewpoints.

Through trial and error, Erica discovered her tastes.  She thought she loved the Impressionists, but now they left her strangely unmoved.  Maybe their stuff was too familiar.  On the other hand, she became enraptured by the color schemes of the Florentine Renaissance and Rembrandt’s homely, knowing faces.  Each of them tuned her mind, the instrument with a million strings.  She had some moments of pure pleasure, when she could feel her heart beating faster and a quiver in her stomach — standing in front of a painting, or discovering a new installation or poem.  There was a time, reading Anthony Trollope of all people, when she could feel the emotions of the story in her own body, and was alive to the sensations produced there.

“Mine is no callous shell,” Walt Whitman wrote about his body, and Erica was beginning to appreciate what he meant.

~ From The social animal: The hidden sources of love, character, and achievement by David Brooks (New York: Random House, 2011).

 


Noted with pleasure: The long bag

Let’s talk about the personal shadow first.

When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality.  Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche.  A child running is a living globe of energy.

We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball.  They said things like “Can’t you be still?”  Or “It isn’t nice to try to kill your brother.”  Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag.  By the time we get to school our bag is quite large. 

Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.”  So we take our anger and put it in the bag.  By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota we we known as “the nice Bly boys.”  Our bags were already a mile long.

Then we do a log of bag-stuffing in high school.  This time it’s no longer the evil grownups that pressure us, but people our own age.  So the student’s paranoia about grownups can be misplaced.  I lied all through high school automatically to try to be more like the basketball players.  Any part of myself that was a little slow went into the bag.  My sons are going through the process now: I watched my daughters, who were older, experience it.  I noticed with dismay how much they put into the bag, but there was nothing their mother or I could do about it.  Often my daughters seemed to make their decision on the issue of fashion and collective ideas of beauty, and they suffered as much damage from other girls as they did from men.

So I maintain that out of a round globe of energy the twenty-year-old ends up with a slice….

Different cultures fill the bag with different contents.  In Christian culture sexuality usually goes into the bag.  With it goes much spontaneity.  Marie Louise Franz warns us, on the other hand, not to sentimentalize primitive cultures by assuming that they have no bag at all.  She says in effect that they have a different but sometimes even larger bag.  They may put individuality into the bag, or inventiveness.  What anthropologists know as “participation mystique” or “a mysterious communal mind” sounds lovely, but it can mean that tribal members all know exactly the same thing and no one knows anything else.  It’s possible that bags for all human beings are about the same size.

We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.

~ From A little book on the human shadow by Robert Bly (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988)


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