Friday, February 18, 2011


Most of us have had the experience of watching our spouses lose themselves when challenged by their family.We witness how behavior from one's parent is tolerated when the same behavior from anyone else would be met with anger and demands.
It's like we become children when we go home again.

This transformation occurs because of the irrational nature of the bond between parent and child. The power of the parent is grounded in the dependency of the child. The child is a blank slate who looks to the parent as an idol that protects them from harm and teaches them about life. At an early age, the parent is a god who can do no wrong. The child follows the master, the imprint is created and is held in place by strong emotion. This is the basis for the Family Self.

As discussed in an earlier blog, the Natural Self is born out of the experiences of the individual rather than the parents. If the parent says something is right, and the person does not feel it is right, the emotional conflict pits the emotions of the Natural Self (joy, sadness, anger) against the emotions of the Family Self (fear, shame, guilt). The person must choose which path to follow, which set of emotions is the true expression of themselves. This choice is made even more confusing when all the emotions are experienced internally as belonging to the person and not seen as a reflection of the parental imprint. Separating those emotions to make different choices is the emotional work of the individual to believe in oneself.

Managing these competing reactions is extremely difficult in the face of family pressures. Due to the power of the bond, every interaction as an adult or child with one's family is significant. Each interaction serves to validate either the Family Self or the Natural Self. There is no such thing as a neutral reaction to the family. EVERY SINGLE CONTACT WITH ONE'S FAMILY MAKES US WEAKER OR STRONGER. Our spouses provide testimony to that power whether we see it or not. As a patient recently said to me, "I can't believe that my husband who runs a large corporation is so afraid of disappointing his mother, and he justifies it over and over again".

Helping your spouse to grow their Natural Self and believe in the significance of what they see or feel is vital to the health of a marriage. It is the basis for learning and growth of each partner. Supporting the Natural Self and helping to disable the Family Self promotes the well-being of each spouse. Of course, this process requires that both partners invest the time and energy to understand the difference between the two sets of reactions. In many cases, this awareness is limited and the two sets of reactions are fused together. For example, a person may feel guilty and believe that they have done something wrong because they feel guilty. They actually may have done nothing wrong other than to violate one of the rules that governed the family system. They can't tell the difference between feeling an emotion and believing what we feel. Processing life experiences together helps to illuminate the patterns and increase awareness of the differences between those reactions. This work of defining the two selves and the emotions that are attached is the most important task to maintain the emotional health of a marriage.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


There is a popular position in the general public that one sign of emotional maturity is taking responsibility for your behavior. The corollary to this position is to stop blaming your parents or the way you were raised for your problems. In fact, people who adhere to this belief wrongly blame therapists for promoting this position, and may even believe that psychotherapy promotes irresponsibility and denial of accountability.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Psychology theory is grounded in the idea that the relationship to one's parents form the blueprint for all relationships. That fact does not shift responsibility for behavior. It merely acknowledges the incredible power a parent has over a child, the strength of the imprint of the parent that continues throughout the life of the adult. We are not talking about traumatic events here, but the continued pressure to maintain a connection to one's family that is vital to life. This pressure exists not only on the child but is reinforced lifelong by the demands made on the adult child by the entire family throughout the duration of the adult's life.

As I have discussed in prior blogs, the source of anxiety for the adult is the emergence of the conflict between the Natural Self and the Family Self. When what we want to do conflicts with the way we were raised, anxiety is triggered followed by a wave of guilt/shame to get the person back in line with the way they were taught. Because we were all raised by imperfect parents, some of the rules that are imprinted within us are not rules of reason. They are rules designed to prevent the emergence of truths that may threaten to disrupt the marital bond. The rules are not rules of reason, and the guilt that supports them is not reasonable and irrational. The emotions that are triggered can be strong and overpowering. Breaking free of them is hard, but is essential to give voice to the Natural Self and the demand for truth and emotional honesty. The stronger the voice of the Natural Self, the stronger will be the person's self-esteem.

We all struggle as adults to give voice to this Natural Self. We all especially struggle in the face of the pressures that can be generated by parents and siblings alike. The conflict is created by the truth that the Natural Self realizes and the demands from the Family Self to make excuses or justify parental weaknesses to keep peace in the family. The family generates the greatest pressure on an individual because of the irrational strength of the parent-child bond. It is the greatest test for the person's belief in themselves. Pass this test and we can take on any relationship problem that we will ever face. Fail this test, and we doom ourselves to believe in our guilt and shame, deny our true selves, and live a life of high anxiety.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Emotions are contagious. We feel what others feel because their feelings generate similar feelings within us. Think of how we feel when we are in the presence of an anxious person. We start to feel anxious ourselves. That same thing can happen when somebody gets angry with us. We start to feel afraid. That can happen even if the anger is not directed at us and is directed at somebody else or even a situation. Most of us feel anxious in the presence of anger no matter who or what has created the reaction.

This internal reaction creates a problem in our relationships. When others cause our own reactions to stir, we too often feel disturbed and uncomfortable, low level signs of an internal conflict within us about the right to be angry. If we do not embrace the anger within our own Natural Self, we will try to shut down the anger expressed by another. We will not identify with it and help the person to direct it to its proper source. We will try to shut down the reaction from the other person to stay comfortable within ourselves. In short, we don't like to feel because it makes us uncomfortable.

There are numerous ways that people distance themselves from the other person's reactions. The first and most obvious is that we don't listen on an emotional level. We change the subject, tell a story about ourselves to distract, or don't respond at all. Alternatively, we may discount what the other person says ("That's not true...You're wrong"), shame the other person into silence ("How could you think that way..."), deny any wrongdoing ("I wouldn't do that"), preach at them ("You shouldn't feel that way"), or scare them into silence by flying into a rage.

Notice that each of these defensive reactions is an attempt to prevent us from feeling our own emotions. On the surface, it looks like the other person is being silenced. On a deeper level, we are silencing our own reactions. The fact that we can't listen is evidence of the presence of our own fear. This fear gets in the way of feeling close to others. Closeness is promoted through empathy and validation. We exchange reactions with others because we are confused. We can't tell if our reactions make sense, if we are over-reacting or under-reacting, or if we even have the right to react.We turn to others to reduce the doubt.

When we are healthy, we want to listen. When we aren't afraid of ourselves, we can empathize and connect to what the other person is experiencing.We can validate what we see as truth in their reaction, and help them to reduce their own internal confusion about their own reaction. We can feel connected.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Our emotional lives are very confusing. We need our emotions to tell us the meaning of the exchanges in our relationships. At the same time, we learn early on to hide those emotions to avoid disapproval or emotional distance. We bury beneath the surface of our experiences the very reactions we need to survive. In essence, we learn to be afraid of ourselves. In that sense, our emotions are like a treasure. We hide them to survive our childhoods, and spend a lifetime as adults trying to get them back.

It is interesting to note that we are often most affected as adults by the emotions we don't feel. Our defenses minimize or hide those emotions that cause us distress. This occurs when there is an experience that exposes a conflict between the emotions of our Natural Self and the Family Self. Since we all have been raised to experience disapproval when we get mad, we will experience high anxiety at the presence or mere threat of the exposure of our anger at someone. The flash of anger internally will quickly give way to fear. The fear will trigger the release of shame and guilt from the Family Self that reminds us of the need to hide our anger to avoid doing damage to a relationship. Unfortunately, it also robs us of the fuel to solve the problem that caused the anger to emerge in the first place.

There are different levels to the flash of anger. In some cases, the person truly never feels the anger. The defenses act so quickly that they literally can say that they don't feel angry. If their defense is to hide anger behind sadness, they will say that they are hurt and not angry. They literally do not feel the emotion that is below the surface of the sadness. They completely hide the mad behind the sad. If the defense is denial, they will only feel fear and not sadness. They will not feel the anger that is beneath the fear. Others can endure the presence of the anger for a brief period of time before the floodgates open and they experience the guilt and shame of breaking the family rules.

Others use distractions to prevent them from experiencing directly the emotions that are driving them. Sex, drugs, alcohol and gambling, when done to excess, are all means to numb ourselves from the feelings that are active within us. Each of these activities create pleasure and cause the release of tension, all healthy for the individual if they aren't looking to hide emotions from themselves. If these activities are driven by the need to not feel, they need to be overdone to suppress strong emotion. The person who smokes marijuana daily, the person who gets drunk on a regular basis, the person who spends money they can't afford to lose, the person who is driven to distraction by the pursuit of sex are using pleasures to hide from themselves. In each case, the pleasure keeps the fear of feeling at bay.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I have many patients who have recognized that they act very differently with the people that they love. They are confused by the fact that they can be very assertive and comfortable with strangers or friends, yet can act passively with their partners. A strong independent female corporate executive goes silent at home while she raises the children and cares for the house while her husband sits on the couch and doesn't lift a finger. She doesn't tolerate her employees not doing their jobs. Why would she tolerate a similar action from her partner at home? A policeman who has no problem telling others to follow the rules barely talks to his wife at home. Why does he act one way at work and another way at home?

The answer to both these problems has to do with the effects of love on our emotions.
When we play a role at work, we act consistent with the requirements of the job. We have an excuse to do what the job requires. It is not our fault. We have an excuse. We act because we want to keep our jobs. There is no irrational fears about being rejected. If we do our job, we keep our job. There is less personal responsibility and accountability. In sum, our jobs make us do it.

That is not the case in personal relationships, especially where love is involved. The more we love someone, the crazier we can get. That happens because a love relationship evokes the requirements to act that we learned from the first people we loved, our parents. We learned the rules of love from them. The more we love, the more we are required to treat our partner like our parents. Since all parents are just some good and some bad, they teach us some good rules and some bad rules. When we love, we follow those rules both good and bad, without realizing it. We go on auto-pilot and act like we learned to do in our first relationship. We follow the patterns that we were taught.

We can see these patterns emerge in a variety of ways. One is the assumptions that we make. Assumptions are based on fear. We don't like the way we are treated and we emotionally register that something is wrong. However, when we start to interpret why the other person did what they did, we start to jump to conclusions that may not be reasonable or fair. We believe them before the other person gets to explain themselves.Since we don't yet know the reasons for our partner's actions, and have already acted on our fears, our reactions can only be based on what we have learned in our families. We fear that we are being treated the way we have always been treated and believe it before we even check it out. We fear that the old family pattern is repeating. Love brings that fear to a fever pitch because we care the most about the people we love and want to maintain the connection. We fear losing them, yet react in a way that ensures that they will want to get away from us. We don't mean to, but through fear and assumptions, we push away the very people that we want to be close to.

A second indicator that bad love rules may be operating is when we are unable to listen.Bad rules are based on fear of rejection. Fear is being exposed whenever our voices get raised or when we cut off our spouses before they finish what they are saying. Those actions expose the fear that we will not be listened to or taken seriously. We fear feeling that we don't matter or what we have to say is unimportant. Notice again that we act on that fear by not listening before the other person even has the chance to explain themselves.

A third sign of fear is the triggering of our defenses. Fear calls up our defenses to protect us from the possible exposure to guilt and shame. We deny what we do, minimize it or excuse it away, blame the other person or somebody else or silence the other person through shame or physical threat. Defensive exchanges raise the temperature of the exchange and the potential for damage to the relationship. I am not talking about the act of raising our voices because we are being ignored. I am talking about a level of defensiveness that causes people to act in mean or hurtful ways that damage trust and love. Defenses can only be reduced by addressing the fears upon which they are based. Reassurance that the old assumptions aren't operating help to reduce the irrational emotion and promote a more loving exchange.