Tuesday, January 17, 2012


One sign of an emotionally healthy individual is that they respect the power of human emotion. Most people are acutely aware of their thoughts. Many are unaware of the root cause of those thoughts. In most instances, thinking comes from feeling. We think because we feel. Our feelings form the basis for our thoughts. The more we are aware of the emotional root cause of our thoughts, the better we understand ourselves and our behavior.

Here is an example of how we can get lost in our thinking and end up in a state of depression. A child who is raised with little nurturing or attention will reach their own conclusions about life without the aid of an adult's perspective. Children are egocentric and believe they are the cause of all the life events around them. If mom or dad is unhappy, then the child wonders what they did to cause that reaction. If a parent does not reassure them that it has nothing to do with them, the child will walk away damaged from that event. If this occurs on a regular basis, the child will learn to blame themselves for everything that goes on. In the absence of an alternative explanation, they will internalize the fault and blame.

A child raised with neglect will grow into an adult who has little trust in themselves and blames themselves for everything. The self-blame will take the form of character attacks on themselves. They will describe themselves as weak, lazy or unmotivated, all character traits that explain why they do what they do. They will try to fight the thoughts of being lazy or weak with motivational self-talk that starts a battle of thoughts within their own mind. When they don't win the battle to try to believe in themselves, they become unable to function well and use this inaction to support the idea that it was their fault in the first place. This process becomes a prescription for the hopelessness and helplessness that we call depression.

The missing ingredient in this mental battle of thoughts is the fear that is the root cause of the original doubt. The fear is based on the pattern of childhood failures to please or succeed that is only understood as evidence of stupidity or inadequacy. The fear is based on a misunderstanding of the failures and has no truth in it. It is an irrational fear that was never reduced through the reassurances of an attentive parent. The adult who does not see the fear or who believes the fear will engage in the mental battle of thoughts and never look for the root cause. Even as adults, they will blame themselves for any failure despite all attempts to overcome their problems. They will never face the fear that runs their life and learn to ignore it's representation in thinking and acting.

The solution is to understand emotions as the root cause of all thinking and acting. A person cannot fight emotion with thinking. You can't think your way out of your feelings. You will only end up kidding yourself. When you can identify the root cause, you can learn which emotions to trust and which emotions to ignore (see prior blog on Family vs Natural Self). When you can learn to doubt your doubts, you will learn to trust the emotions that represent the truth and feel more in control of yourself and your life.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


A stable sense of who we are is a vital force within every human being. You will often hear people say, "I can't do that. That is just not me". We make choices based on how we perceive ourselves and feel secure when our choices match how we see ourselves. We feel secure when our responses are internally consistent. They match our predictions. The security of the match between what we say and what we do keeps our anxiety low and enables us to build self-confidence. We work hard to stay internally consistent. It makes us feel emotionally stable and healthy.

The opposite is also true when we confuse ourselves either by our internal reactions or our actions. We become highly anxious when our sense of self is threatened. We don't know what to believe, lose confidence in ourselves and our reactions, and our anxiety turns to panic. We can't make decisions, can't even make sense of any problem, and most importantly, can't solve any of the dilemmas that we face. We become riddled with hopelessness and helplessness and filled with anxiety. Failing to believe in ourselves, we turn to others to tell us what to do.

Emotionally healthy people realize that confusion is a fact of life. Life is neither stable nor secure. While we all may want to feel secure inside, that is often not the case. The Natural Self and Family Self are always battling for your attention. The idea of a "Real Self" is difficult to sort out amidst the many competing voices within. In fact, we can sell out our Natural selves out for the stability created by listening to the voice of the Family Self. We can feel internally calm when we listen to our parents rules and live our lives by their principles. Honoring our Natural Selves is harder. We must often stare down our guilt and shame to honor our anger. Even if you can push yourself to listen to your natural anger, there is a backlash of doubt grounded in guilt or shame. It is rarely easy and often a lonely experience.

There is a way to feel more stable inside in spite of all the confusion. It begins with a true recognition of what you believe in and how that differs from the way you were raised. Feeling like you have "two sides to yourself" is normal and to be expected. Identify the emotions that come from the Natural Self and use them to protect your Natural Self from harm. Natural anger, sadness and joy are the principle emotions of your real self. Shame and guilt are the emotions that tie your self to the family. When there is an internal conflict, look for the emotions behind your thoughts to identify the anger or the guilt. This is not easy as there is typically high anxiety associated with the conflict. When you can separate the two reactions clearly, follow the thoughts and actions that are consistent with your natural emotions. Lastly, be prepared for a backlash of shame and guilt. Ride this reaction like a wave. It will crest and fall over time. By riding through the backlash, you can stay the course, choose your reactions that represent you, and enable your Real Self to be clearer to others and yourself.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Many people use the phrase, "Trust your gut" to imply that an emotionally healthy person is strong enough to trust how they feel and stand up for themselves. I agree in part but with some reservations. If "trusting your gut" means trusting the emotions from the Natural Self (see prior blogs), then I agree. The emotions from the Natural Self are pure and are the voice of the truth within.

But that is not the only source of emotion. There is also the emotions from the Family Self that contain all the unhealthy elements and human weaknesses of the parents who engineered the rules of the family. The primary emotions of irrational fear, guilt and shame are part of your "gut" as well. Those are the emotions that can't be trusted and form the basis for unhealthy choices and imbalances in relationships.

The key to "trusting your gut' is discernment. Discernment is a process of examining one's emotions to determine where they came from. This is no easy task as it requires you to separate the competing emotions in the middle of the fear that gets triggered when the internal emotional battle begins. In addition to fear clouding the issue, the relative strengths of the emotions of the Natural and Family Self create another point of confusion. The emotions of the Natural Self like joy, sadness, anger, rational fear, are low level experiences. They don't feel loud inside. They are calm and natural. Emotions from the Family Self are loud and tough to ignore. They overpower the calmer emotions and scream loudest to be heard inside your mind. They confuse you with their strength because it is easy to believe that if you feel so strongly then it must be right. Difficult to discern at that moment is that what you may be feeling says more about how right it was to your mom and dad than actually how right it is for you. You would first need to check with the truer emotions that talk a softer talk to find out if there is truth in the stronger reaction. If they don't match, trust the calm voice within. It is often the source of truth. The other becomes loud because it is mixed with the fear of breaking the rules under which you were raised. It is a truth according to mom and dad and not necessarily yourself.

A third point of confusion that corrupts discernment is telling the difference between thoughts and feelings. If you are angry at someone, and say "I think you are a jerk", you can't defend it by calling it a feeling. I have heard many of my patients do exactly that. They defend a thought, a conclusion, or a character attack by saying "That's just how I feel and you can't deny me my feelings". The person is correct in that feeling states change over time and can't be treated like facts. However, it is equally confusing to defend a thought as a feeling. Calling somebody a "jerk" is not a feeling state like mad, sad, guilty or afraid. However, it is equally confusing to defend a thought as a feeling. It does not promote good communication or problem solving and typically results in more anger and hostility.

To summarize, trust your gut after you have discerned where the emotions originate. There is truth in your gut if the reactions come from the Natural Self. If not, ignore your gut especially the louder it screams. Truth never needs to scream. It stands alone and waits for you to listen.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Most people believe that anger is a destructive emotion. In a prior blog, I made the case that natural anger is your best friend. It is the reaction that lets you know that a problem exists. Without it, you would not know when to protect yourself from harm. It is like physical pain. It lets you know that you have been harmed and need to defend yourself.

In a prior blog, I talked about the two sources of human emotion, the Natural Self based on reactions to what feels good or bad and the Family Self that is based on the way we were raised. I discussed that anger stems from the Natural Self and guilt/shame stem from the Family Self. The basis for guilt/shame is displeasing your parents. The problem is that the way we were raised is filled with our parent's own imperfections. The rules that we were taught can often be wrong or not apply to a given situation. The Natural Self's reactions tend to be pure and based on honesty. Anger is the voice of the truth within. If it feels wrong, it is wrong regardless of what we were told by anyone. What exactly is wrong needs to be discussed and confirmed by all people involved, but you can count on the fact that something is wrong.

The problem with the emotions from the Natural Self is that they can become confounded by memories that cause emotions to flood from history and join with the reactions in the present. Anger is a perfect example. At it's lowest level, you can trust your anger. If you hold it back, it mixes with old unresolved events and begins to build. When it finally explodes out, it has turned to rage. Rage is destructive for many reasons. It is no longer directed at solving the problem. Rage is directed at silencing the person and hurting them if necessary. Strong defensive reactions, attacking a person's character, interpreting others without their permission, jumping to false conclusions that are defended despite another's opinion are all examples of rage reactions.

When it dies down, rage easily turns to guilt and shame for doing harm to another. Each episode confuses the person even more about the validity of their initial anger. The bad style prompted by rage makes one lose the value of the content. They become more afraid of their anger, hold it back when it appears, and feed the process that ends in rage. Holding back the natural response only starts the cycle all over again.

Rage is anger gone bad. It is not natural and certainly not your best friend. Anger at its lowest level is your best friend. Trust it, respond to it, and you can avoid the rage that hurts us all.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Who would have thought that referring to your parents as your "best friends" would be a bad thing? Turns out that it is as it signals that the person's psychological development has stopped. The harm comes in that the person is unable to honor their own reactions when the parent's imperfections, insecurities or weakness show up. To not react the person must disconnect internally from their annoyance and find a way to excuse the behavior. Rather than give themselves the right to give voice to their reaction, they become overly concerned with protecting the parent from distress, and find a way to excuse bad behavior. In short, their guilt trumps their anger.

The normal development path follows a different course. Children idealize their parents because they are dependent on them for survival. They see themselves through the eyes and reactions of their parents. They feel good when they please mom and dad and feel distress when mom and dad disapprove of what they do. They learn to hide their own natural reactions and trust mom and dad's reactions more than their own. They are too young and vulnerable to trust themselves, especially without mom and dad encouraging and validating the truth in the child's reactions. The child learns to please to survive and protects the parents as a means to protect themselves.

This connection based on idealization over time gives rise to the process of learning that mom and dad are each imperfect people, only some good and some bad. Each is capable of giving love and equally capable of doing harm. During the adolescent rebellion, as a result of comparing one's parents rules and actions to their friend's parents behavior, the child starts to listen to their own reactions and challenge mom and dad. If the parent accepts the challenges, and validates the child's reactions, then the child starts to develop an independent sense of self. They feel strong in their beliefs in what they see. They learn to listen to themselves without discounting others and learn the art of negotiation and compromise.

Unfortunately, it doesn't often end this way. Many parent's succumb to their own insecurities, and take too personally the bad style of the adolescent. Being yelled at or ignored is not easy, and not a self-respecting style. A secure parent helps the teen to separate their style from their content. A statement ,"if you curse at me again, you lose the car and cell phone for a week" is followed by "Now tell me why you are so angry so we can work it out". An insecure parent will yell back, retreat, or severely punish the teen without caring about the problem that got the bad exchanges started in the first place. They will focus on the demand for respect rather than solve the problem. In this case, the teen feels ignored and they retreat, only to act out even stronger when the next problem emerges. This pattern leads to isolation and distance in relationships, the exact opposite outcome that neither teen or parent wants.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


I have previously discussed the existence of the two selves, the Natural Self and the Family Self. Each of these selves serves a different purpose. The Natural Self exists based on reactions to the world, what feels good and what feels bad. The natural emotions that emanate from this self are the simple emotions of anger, sadness, joy and realistic fear. The Family Self is made to survive the family experience. The emotions that stem from this organizing principle are guilt, shame and irrational fear. Anxiety signals the existence of a conflict between the emotions of the two Selves. The individual must choose which set of emotions to listen to amidst the internal competing voices that represent these two poles.

There are many forms that the Family Self can take, and can be found in the roles that each of us play within the family. Children within a family survive by becoming either a Hero or a Scapegoat. Heroes do what the parents want and work very hard to do what is expected. They typically idealize their parents, and may even refer to them as their "best friends". They excuse mom and/or dad's weaknesses and justify being mistreated as "doing the best that they can". Scapegoats are typically thought of as the "problem children" who act up and cause their parents much heartache. They challenge the parent's directly and ask for accountability for what the parent does wrong.

Heroes sense of self becomes distorted by the need to see the good and deny the bad. Good and bad that register in the Natural Self cannot be heard or they risk becoming a Scapegoat. They mute the natural internal reactions and listen to their guilt and shame. This leaves them without an internal compass. They learn to rely on other's reactions to form their own. If the other is OK, then then are OK., replacing the reactions of the Natural Self with the reactions of whomever they attach to. They fear being alone because they literally lose their bearings for lack of an internal compass. When differences emerge, they get caught defending themselves or trying to convince the other of the truth in their position. They become dependent on another's reaction rather then believe in their own.

In this type of Family Self, the person has what I call a reflected sense of Self. The person must see themselves in the mirror of the other person's reactions in order to believe in their own reaction. They lose themselves in the reactions of others, leading to dependent relationships. Regardless of how miserable the relationship may be making them, they cannot leave because they fear being alone. With their Natural Self silenced to this degree, they feel all alone with nobody to show them the way. They live scared and unable to believe in themselves.

Monday, August 22, 2011


There are three areas of shared experience that are critical to the health of a marriage: time, money, and bodies. In order to be shared, these resources need to be managed with the "two heads are better than one" philosophy. Shared decision making is not to be confused with asking permission from your partner. It is a process to ensure that the right decision is being made at the right time. Done poorly, it can feel like a child asking permission from a parent. Done properly, you feel like your partner's input helps you to make the best decision.

Time is a resource that often causes much distress. When a couple combines their lives, what each does with their time has an impact on their partner who is often left waiting to find out what their partner is doing before planning what to do with their own time. Co-ordination of time is an act of respect that ensures the best use of time for a mutual benefit. Keeping your partner on a "need to know" basis prevents not only a shared experience but hijacks the potential to make a decision together.

Money is often managed poorly by a couple. Too often, the partner who makes the most money yields to the partner who makes less. For a stay at home mom or for most women who make less than a man doing the same job, this process leads to a loss of power and unilateral decisions. The idea is to make the management of money a shared experience so that both parties contribute to the discussion , regardless of who writes the checks. The family budget needs to be a family affair with both partners agreeing on the budget lines including equal individual expense accounts that bypass the joint decision process. This can be for an amount that the couple agrees upon whether that be $5 or $500. Whoever pays the bills is another decision and can be shared or handled by one party.

The sharing of bodies is an experience that celebrate a relationship or can lead to serious disagreements about sex. If the male approaches the female as a sex object, the female will most likely feel used and retreat. If approached with an attempt to understand what is going on in the wife's life, the introduction of sex feels mutual and satisfying to both parties. Conversely, if the female waits for the male to be the initiator, there is a transfer of responsibility for the health of the couple's sex life from the female to the male. The shared experience is diminished in this case and tension often builds.

To summarize, time, money and bodies are marital resources that demonstrate the couple's capacity for sharing and mutual respect. They are barometers of how well exchanges are being handled. Mismanaged without joint accountability, they will become the source of many marital arguments. Done well, these resources will feel shared and support a feeling of togetherness and well being in the couple.