Monday, January 31, 2011


Our individual psychology is based on the family unit into which we are born. If the purpose of the family is to grow and nurture the children, then the individual is raised to believe in their own reactions to deal with the world. There is no conflict between their own needs and the needs of their parents. The goal is to teach the child right from wrong and to trust the child's reactions to the world. I call this family system a People-Centered Family. In this type of family, everybody matters, and each reaction, regardless of whether it is a parent or a child, is treated with dignity and credibility. Right from wrong is understood as a dynamic concept involving the parents and the child, rather than the imposition of arbitrary rules from the parent. Parents teach as well as learn from children. Parents work together honestly to set reasonable boundaries that are agreed to by both parents. Personal freedom has high value, with individuality and talents nurtured to their fullest.

The People-Centered Family is the true American family. The idea that "all men are created equal" is fostered by respecting the opinions of all concerned. The potential harm from an abuse of power is minimized by the parents having respect for each other and making joint decisions. Just like the system of appeals to a higher court in American law, children are encouraged to check with their partner for a second opinion. It is not seen as an attempt to split the parents but is accepted as a means to honor the truth. Family members pursue their rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" with respect for the needs of all concerned.

One would hope that American family units would reflect the American core values of freedom and individuality to make the family system compatible with the national interests. Unfortunately, that consistency does not exist. The vast majority of American families are parent-centered. In this system, there is a hierarchy of power, where "honor your father and mother" and "children should be seen and not heard" are the basis for the family. The opinion of children is seen as "backtalk" and disrespect for elders. Encouraging the opinions of others, especially the children, is seen as promoting anarchy and irresponsibility, and contributing to raising selfish children with no respect for authority. Rules are cast in stone by the parents with no room provided for unreasonable rules. It is a system where "do as I say" is law and the reason that the child misbehaves is irrelevant. There is no recognition of unreasonable rules or the misuse of power. Parents needs come first and foremost and the job of the children is to keep the parent's happy.

Each of these two different family systems promote a very different personal psychology. In a parent-centered family, the Family Self is very strong, driven by the requirement to please mom and dad. Rules of behavior come from the outside, and the mere threat of disapproval evokes great fear, shame and guilt. Roles are created for each child to prevent the exposure of marital conflicts that can threaten the marital bond. With the Natural Self suppressed, anxiety, guilt and shame internally dominate in people raised in this type of family. The Natural Self is suppressed with high anxiety generated by situations where the family truths could be exposed. Anger that promotes a challenge to the system is highly feared. People are raised to follow the rules and do as they are told.

In the People-Centered Family, there is congruence between the needs of parents and children. When conflicts arise, anger is prized as the recognition that something is wrong and that denial may be operating. The Natural Self is validated and becomes stronger with each conflict situation that is resolved in a reasonable manner. Because denial is present in all relationships, there is pressure to live a role that supports the Family Self. However, when the conflicts surface in the People-Centered Family, the conflicts are acknowledged and resolved to the benefit of all concerned. People raised in the People-Centered Family have high self-esteem, strengthened from the continuous validation of the right to dissent and react.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see....Martin Luther King Jr.

Human emotion is very difficult to experience and even harder to understand. We feel because we need information for our survival and need to connect to others for our well-being. The strength of a feeling helps us separate important from unimportant events. These emotions are experienced directly without the need for delay or use of defenses. Emotions tied to relationships are more complex and can be as contagious as a virus. We feel because feelings tell us what is happening with the connections to others. We read others emotions because they signal what is going on within that person to know how to connect to them. We understand them because their emotions trigger emotions within us. We react to their emotion with our own.

Our history of relationships is embedded in our emotional reactions to others. As a child, we are a blank slate. The rules of connection to our parents are laid down in a time of high vulnerability when we believe everything that we are told. The conditions of love are held in place by strong emotions. Do as our parents wish and you feel good, Break the rules and we feel great fear, guilt and shame. We know how to act in a relationship because we learned those rules in the relationship to our parents and store them in our memory for future reference.

As an adult, those memories and emotions become the road map to tell us how to act in all our relationships.When faced with a choice as an adult that may require us to break these rules, we experience a level of anxiety that reflects the level of demand by parents to follow the rules. We feel fear because we face a choice of following the rules or breaking the rules. Break the rules, and we encounter the negative emotions. Follow the rules, and the anxiety disappears. Internal conflicts appear when the rules are unreasonable and designed to keep parents from emotionally overloading rather than protect the child.

Anxiety is created in the child by the knowledge that a given rule doesn't make sense but is required by the parent to remain connected . The level of anxiety reflects the sum of our experiences in our relationships. In that sense, we are a human time machine. We experience the history of our lives in the level of emotion we experience. We never live solely in the moment. The past is always present in the level of our emotions every moment of our lives.

In order to manage our emotions in a healthy way, it is critical to understand that the past is always present. We cannot "just get over it", as some people often ask me, because we would have to eradicate our memories from our brain to react only in the moment. While it is a nice idea to think that we can be solely in the moment as some New Age treatments suggest, I do not believe we are built to process our thoughts and feelings in that way. It is contrary to our psychology and biology and puts us at risk to ignore the rules of relating that we have learned.

Memory is the reason we can flood with emotion and "over-react". The meaning we assign to a given event is based on our history with significant others. The new event reminds us of how we were treated in the past, and the emotions all rush into the moment. Internal defensive reactions are triggered that minimize the overwhelming emotion, but suppress the natural reactions that conflict with the family rules.

Slowing down this process to discern past from present emotion is one of the goals of psychotherapy. Reviewing the patterns in relationships, and the continuous repetition across all relationships, increases the person's awareness of the patterns and reduces the need for the defenses. Through retrospective review and learning, the person becomes emotionally healthier because they can anticipate the strength of their emotions, know when to trust themselves, and when to suspend their judgments to better sort out their emotions. The person becomes less afraid of their own emotions and learns to use them to solve problems and promote healthier relationships.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Many of my patients will use the phrase, "I need to find myself" as an explanation for the problem that brings them to my office. They will also refer to their confusion about their behavior, saying "It feels like I have two sides to me". When I ask them when they first realized that they have two sides, I get different responses. Some say that they have felt an internal conflict for as long as they can remember. Others will say that they didn't realize it until they got married and had to explain their actions to their partner. Some will refer to adolescence when they had to make choices to do what they parents said or not. Still others will refer to internal conflicts to deal with sexual feelings or strong angry feelings. They will sometimes refer to it as the "angel and devil on my shoulder".

For most of our waking moments, we do not feel split in two. We think, feel, and act in ways that make sense to us. Sometimes we think about what we do. Other times we just react and move on. We typically feel fine on our own unless we are in a conflict with someone. Our problems show up when we have to deal with other people. Our two sides, our internal conflicts, emerge when we are faced with reactions from others that disturb us or expose our emotions to ourselves. Differences of opinions with others, especially close family members, result in emotional reactions that are very strong and distressing. Differences threaten the connection. Resolving the differences can strengthen or weaken the bond. I would also argue that when people do not feel fine when they are alone, they are dealing with reactions that are the residual of the disturbance created by significant others.

The "two sides of you" show up when conflicts erupt. The choices to accept or challenge the difference evoke fear about hurting others or the bond between you. This fear or anxiety is the signal that a threatening reaction is present. It is frightening because it is a reaction that has caused loss of connection in your past, learned from the reactions of your parents to your behavior. If the natural anger in the child in response to some problem is discounted, denied or punished by withdrawal or silence by the parent, the anger will be hidden to maintain the connection to the parent at all costs. The real cost in this case is the need to hide one's natural emotional reactions, a loss of connection to the real self expressed in those reactions. When a problem emerges, this natural reaction occurs, followed by anxiety and a defensive reaction to hide the anger to reduce the anxiety. Examples of defensive reactions include denial ("I didn't do that"), rationalization ("I did it because...."), avoidance ("Let's not talk about that right now"), shaming ("I can't believe you said that to me"), or rage ("Shut up, you *%#^). In each case, the person is driven to avoid owning a reaction that evokes fear, guilt, or shame. Their behavior enables them to avoid feeling the shame or guilt. The need to reduce the anxiety drives them to act to keep them comfortable.

These defensive reactions form the self that is based on the requirement to obey mom and dad's rules even if the rules are wrong. I call this set of reactions, the Family Self because they exist to keep you attached to your family. This set of reactions competes internally with the initial natural reactions to drive your behavior. This set of reactions I call the Natural Self, because they are unfiltered by the need to maintain attachment and exist to represent the person's perceptions and opinions. Because no parent is a perfect parent, every person universally will be exposed to some degree of parental denial and be required to hide their natural reactions as a child. As an adult, they will have exchanges with others that expose the hidden emotion, anxiety and opposing defensive response, creating the experience of having two sides.

Welcome to the human experience of the conflict between the Natural Self and Family Self, the "angel and devil" within us. To add to the confusion, we have traditionally thought of the devil as the bad influence, the one that causes the anxiety. In fact, the devil is often the good guy who is trying to get you to honor yourself, while the angel is trying to silence you. No wonder it is so confusing to be a human being!


Emotionally healthy people know that they often don't know why they do what they do. They accept that being a human being is very confusing and bewildering. They know, for example, that they can act differently when they are in love than they do with a friend. An adult knows that they can return to being a child whenever they visit their family. Emotionally healthy adults know that they hide their feelings in the moment, and only later are able to admit the truth about their emotional reactions. From the experiences that they can't explain, they accept that knowing oneself is a journey. Healthy people know that discovery of the emotions that drive our actions is a process that evolves over time and and revealed through experiences in many relationships.

In contrast, emotionally unhealthy people attempt to ignore or deny the emotions behind their actions. They are only aware of their thoughts, and use their thinking to explain why they do what they do. When they are confronted with the fact that their actions and words do not match, they become defensive. They discount what the other sees or feels, blames them, shames them, silences them or outright attacks them. They know that they are disturbed by the opinions or reactions of others, but make no effort to understand why they are disturbed. They run from the experience, using their heads to explain the disturbance. There is no integration or understanding of the differences in reactions, leaving the relationships to be superficial and distant. Learning and growing together, the mark of a deep relationship, is avoided. Parallel play together, the mark of superficial relationships, becomes the definition of the relationship.

Understanding this disturbance is critical to learning about our emotions and becoming emotionally healthier people. Differences in close relationships cause distress and discomfort. Spouses sometimes see their partners emotions more clearly. The partner is disturbed by the perception. You can try to discount your spouse, but it will hurt the relationship and create resentments. Children too often see their parent's emotions before their parent can admit them to themselves. As a parent, you can be disturbed by this reaction and choose to hide behind the veil of "respect your parent". It is far easier to focus on the child's bad style of delivery than the truth in what they are saying.

In sum, disturbances are necessary to learn about yourself. While they are difficult to tolerate, they are necessary to understand to build close relationships. Of course, you can always take the path of defensiveness and denial, even if you can convince yourself of the reasonableness of your reaction. Just don't be surprised when your relationships fall apart.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Most people generally believe that emotionally healthy people have strong self-esteem. What it is and how you strengthen it is poorly understood. Self-esteem is based on trust and belief in your emotions and perceptions. It is an inner sense that you are right in what you see, even in the face of differing opinions and reactions from others. It is formed by validation from significant others, especially parents that confirm the worth of their child's reactions. Continued validation from those you value as an adult increases the feeling of self-worth.

True self-esteem is not based on accomplishments or performance. Good grades, a raise or promotion, lots of adult toys, professional recognition and other forms of external praise are positive events, but do not form the basis for self-esteem. When they do, the self-esteem is transient and only as good as the last accomplishment. I call this "contingent self-esteem". It is contingent on continuing the pattern of success. There is no capacity to handle failure, or human weakness. It is brittle and needs to continuously be fed. When failure occurs, it breaks down completely with little capacity for recovery and rebound.

What is even more confusing about the "self" in self-esteem is that I believe that all people have two selves. Many people will say, "I have two sides to me and can't tell which one to believe". This phrase reflects the existence of the two selves, what I refer to as the Natural Self and the Family Self. Each self has an identity and a set of emotions that flow from that identity. The Natural Self is grounded in a belief in one's natural reactions associated with the primary emotions of joy, sadness, and natural anger. It is reinforced by parental validation of those perceptions and reactions. A second self, the Family Self, is formed in response to denial of parental emotions. When the parent's response is different from the child, the child is forced to abandon the belief in their own reaction and buy the explanation given by mom or dad. Their own reactions become fused with fear and reinforced with guilt and shame when the parent withdraws if the child protests. In sum, The Family Self is based on an identity grounded in acceptance by others and a denial of oneself. It is formed to please parents and stay connected to the family.

We all have those two selves within us because we all come from imperfect people who deny their imperfections to varying degrees. We all have the two competing reactions within us, the reactions from the Natural Self and the Family Self. The healthier the parents, the greater will be the validation given to the Natural Self. In very unhealthy parents who raise children in a family with a high level of denial, the Family Self will predominate and the Natural Self will be weak.

The Family Self is the source of anxiety, doubt and fear. People with high identity with this self have actually abandoned their Natural Self and fused it with their Family Self. They have literally thrown themselves away to stay connected to the family and win their parent's approval. They have low self-esteem as the fear of being abandoned and going it alone make them do what others want to survive.

Fortunately, you can't eliminate the Natural Self. It is based on the truth within, and the truth can' t be hidden. While the natural reactions can be easily ignored and overrun by the reactions from the more powerful Family Self, they will always flash before they are hidden.By looking for the flash, and learning to honor those reactions, everyone has the ability to strengthen their Natural Self and improve their self-esteem. Facing the fears of the Family Self is difficult, but each episode where you hold onto your inner beliefs in the face of others reactions enables you to validate yourself and enhance your self-esteem.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


One mark of an emotionally healthy person is a belief and trust in the naturalness of their perceptions. When problems occur in relationships, there is a natural reaction in a person. I call this reaction, Natural Anger. It is your backbone and sense that something is wrong. You may be being mistreated, lack trust with the individual, or feel an imbalance in the give and take of a good relationship. Natural Anger is not loud or harsh. It is quietly strong. It is not grounded in assumptions, accusations or rage. It simply registers inside you that something is wrong.

Giving voice to that Natural Anger reflects your belief in yourself. If the other person denies the problem, blames you for the problem, or attacks you, they are attempting to silence your Natural Anger and replace it with fear, guilt or shame. If your Family Self is strong, you will listen to your doubts and go silent. If your Natural Self is strong, you will continue to give voice and not back down.

Conflicts within a family are the strongest test of one's belief in your Natural Self. Because you are confronting relationships that are highly significant, the emotions are the strongest that you will ever have to confront. If you can win the struggle to hold onto your Natural Self, and stare down the fears that provide fuel to the Family Self, you can learn to be an individual within your family. If you can conquer your fears in the family system, you can face them in any other relationship in your life whether it be your marriage, your children or your work.

What happens when you run into the the family denial over and over again? Is it healthy to continue to debate over and over, and when is it healthy to retreat? After some time of giving voice to your perceptions and beliefs and facing continuous discounting of your reactions, distance becomes the healthiest choice. Distance does not have to be permanent, but is necessary to avoid the continuous conflicts and harm that can occur from being treated like you do not matter. In order to manage the backlash of guilt that inevitably happens when you take the distance path, it is critical to announce the distance. Otherwise, the other family members will claim that you never gave them a chance or never explained yourself fully. To face the guilt of withdrawal, you need to act in a fair and reasonable way. Announcing your retreat satisfies the requirement to be fair.

Families evolve over time and rarely stay the same. New experiences of new life, adding new members or death become new opportunities to expose the truth and challenge the denial. Healing can occur and will be expressed with true sorrow for the harm done by the denial, and a commitment to challenge the denial in the future. If both contrition and reparation are made, the distance path can be abandoned, and the voice of your Natural Anger has a chance to be heard.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Emotional health is not achieved by blaming your parents for your own problems. It is also not achieved by blaming yourself for the way you were raised. There is harm done with both unhealthy approaches. As a psychologist, if I were to have to choose the lesser of the two evils, I believe there is more harm done from self-blame than the immaturity of waiting for someone else to fix their problems in order for you to fix yours.

Emotional health is promoted by taking responsibility to manage your own emotions and behavior. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it is very confusing. Emotions come from two sources. One set comes from the Natural Self, where the primary emotions, joy, sadness, and anger are located. When a parent validates a child's natural reactions, the way you are raised is consistent with your own Natural Self. When the child sees the parent's emotional reactions, and is met with denial by the parent, the child becomes confused. They are now required to bury the belief in what they see and replace it with doubt and fear in order to be accepted and valued. This is the origin of the Family Self, where fear, guilt and shame lie.

An easy way to consider the difference between the Natural and Family Self is that the emotions from the Natural Self come from the inside, while the emotions of the Family Self come from the outside. They come about as a result of interactions with your parents, and are internalized in order to survive the relationship to them. Confusion arises because all our emotions are experienced as internal reactions, and feel like they all belong to the Natural Self. I often hear patients tell me, "That is not me. I could never do that..." and feel they are reflecting what is in their Natural Self. In fact, the phrase most likely reflects the fear of an experience that results in guilt and shame from breaking the family rules of behavior learned from interactions in the family. We have an imprint of the family experiences within us, and confuse those reactions with the truth we know within us. I firmly believe that the truth lies within all of us, and if we take the time to discern our emotions, we can tell the difference between real truth and the truth according to our family.

The truth is that our Family Self reflects negative part of the way we were raised. The positive experiences are integrated into our Natural Self because they feel real and do not raise doubt and fear. Parental denial of weaknesses and fears cause natural anger in the child. If the parent silences the child through guilt and shame ("You are an ungrateful child.....How could you do something like that.....You are a bad kid, etc"), the child gives up their anger and replaces it with guilt and shame. Anxiety or fear is the signal that anger is present. When the adult child experiences natural anger, anxiety is often the felt reaction, rather than the anger. Fear, guilt and shame replace the natural reaction. The Natural Self becomes fused with the Family Self.

In sum, listening to the emotions of your Natural Self promotes emotional health and self-worth. This is especially necessary in your primary relations as the connections are the strongest and the battle between the Natural and Family selves is the most confusing. Challenging family members who deny the truth about the family problems is necessary to honor your Natural Self. There is a difference between asking your parents to assume responsibility to drop their denial and blaming them for your problems. The difference is that the accountability you bring to your relationship to your parents enables you to be more honest and learn to work with their good and bad sides. They are not expected to be perfect, only human. However it is equally important to hold them responsible to manage the power of the parent and the potential for harm if you deny yourself. When parents be open to learn about their own emotions from the reactions of their children, and children, especially adult children, can voice their reactions honestly, problems can be solved and the emotional health of all family members can be promoted.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Emotional health is based on emotional awareness. Emotion that is denied or suppressed causes people to act out their emotions or store them in their body. Emotions that are recognized tell us vital information about our connections to others, especially whether the relationship is in or out of balance.

Anger is universally the most difficult emotion to feel. Aristotle was the first to bring this to people's attention many years ago. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he issued Aristotle's Challenge: "Anyone can become angry - that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not easy". Aristotle implies that anger is universally hidden from ourselves, and that people can easily flood with anger, resulting in hurt feelings and ruined relationships. Even worse, the person who explodes ends up feeling guilt and shame about their behavior and becomes even more determined to deny their anger. In short, all people are scared of their anger.

This makes perfect sense when you think about the dependency of the small child on their parent. Anger threatens the bond and is accompanied by a fear of rejection and abandonment if the parent disapproves. We all learn to suppress our anger to please our parents.

Some children do not have the option to please the parent. In some cases, due to personality clashes with a parent and/or life circumstances, a child who has no way to fit in with the family becomes the voice of anger in the family, and experiences much rejection as a result. The child becomes the scapegoat to hide the parent's weaknesses or the unresolved problems in the marriage. I call these children, "prophet children". They give voice to the truth in the family. Their anger exists because the parental problem, whether it be favoritism, denial, or marital issues, continues to exist throughout the life of the family.

This is not just past experience. It is very present in the continued relationships as adults. As grown adult children with spouses and children of their own, life experiences provide opportunities to face their own anger. Those realizations create pressure to bond with the truth expressed by the adult prophet child, or attempt to silence the sibling in order to continue the protection of the parent.

I call this process, the Anger Dynamic. Adult children break into factions based on those who protect the parents and those who challenge the parents. Those who protect are required to suppress their own anger at the truth about the damage caused to all by the parent's emotional limitations. The need to suppress their anger makes them carry that denial into all their relationships, leading to emotional issues in their marriages and own families. The prophet children suffer in a different way. They feel like outcasts in their own family, and may live a life of isolation and depression.

Emotionally healthy people join in the Anger Dynamic and face the truth about the good and bad in their parents and family in an open and honest way. Emotionally unhealthy families break into factions that separate relatives for generations to come.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


One of the hallmarks of an emotionally healthy person is the ability to experience multiple emotions at the same time. For example, when a person experiences some loss, the natural reaction is a mixture of mad and sad, a mix of emotions that I refer to as the Twin Sisters. These two emotions, when bound together, enable the person to honor both the good and bad in every person and circumstance. Sad prevents the mad from turning into rage where you don't care what the other person thinks or feels. When you hit rage, you only want to hurt the other person. In the same way, mad helps the sad avoid turning into a depression. They each help to moderate the other. They are Twin Sisters that help each other to maintain the connection in times of threat.

Hurt is the experience described by my patients when the Twin Sisters split and hide mad behind sad. When I ask my patients how they feel when somebody has treated them badly, they will often say, "I feel hurt". When I push and ask them if they feel mad, they say "no" and repeat again that they feel "hurt". They want to crawl into a cave and lick their wounds. In that instance, I will tell them that hurt is mad hiding behind sad and ask them to look for the mad. When I give them permission, they will often quickly tell me what they are mad about, and how they have been mistreated. I work with them to try to integrate the mad and sad so one doesn't have to hide behind the other.

Rage is the opposite end of the spectrum. When the Twin Sisters split and sad hides behind mad, the person says and does things to hurt the other person. This form of split typically occurs when the person has a background of significant emotional, physical or sexual abuse in their family history. The rage is typically followed some time later by extreme remorse when the sad reappears, and the mad becomes buried. This form of splitting is more harmful to the person and their relationships. The person is harmed by increased fear of their own anger. The relationship suffers because trust between the two people is damaged and replaced by fear of not knowing what will come next.

Bottom line, splitting is never good and we need to work to keep the Twin Sisters locked together in all our reactions.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Emotionally healthy people know themselves on an emotional level. They clearly can identify their own emotional reactions but also stay open to the fact that emotion can be easily hidden to oneself but clearly exposed to others. They learn to trust themselves with a grain of salt, using others reactions as the test of the real knowledge of themselves. If others respond differently than expected, they try to listen and learn.

One example of the potential problems with emotional awareness gets exposed between parents and children. For example, a parent will often set boundaries for their children with the belief that they are protecting the child from harm and acting in the child's best interest. Sometimes, the parent does not see their own fears that may be driving their actions.

I recently treated a father who would require his daughters to be home by 10 PM when out on a date. He would explain that only bad things happen after 10 PM and that he was trying to make sure they were safe. His daughters didn't buy it, but he would make them feel guilty for questioning his care for them. Truth is, he didn't want to worry about them while they were out and wanted to go to sleep. He justified his control for his own self-interest by presenting it as caring for their well-being. His daughters were angry about it, but were confused about their right to be angry. They couldn't tell if Daddy cared about them or about himself. They didn't know if they should listen to their anger or their guilt.

I have another case where a mom asked her college age son to keep her aware of his plans while home during Christmas vacation. The son goes to his friend's house, only to change plans and end up at his girlfriend's home. When his mother called him and found out that he was not where he said he would be, she got really mad at him, called him a liar, and told him to come home immediately. The son refused and a big fight ensued.
Mom's care for her son's well-being was certainly based on love for her son. Problem is that she is trying to control his behavior and using caring to hide her control. Her expectations for knowledge about her son's whereabouts was not reasonable. Most teenagers don't make plans. The plans develop spontaneously. Her son did not intentionally withhold information from his mom. His mom jumped to conclusions about why he did what he did. Their relationship suffered from the failure of the mom to know the real emotional base of her reactions and to discount her son's explanation.