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.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


One of the popular misconceptions about emotional health is that a person needs to get over their past in order to be healthy in the present. The past to which they refer is the impact of their parents, the way that they were raised. Healthy people are thought to be people that have moved beyond their history to deal with the present in a reasonable way. Unhealthy people are thought to be stuck in the past, over-reacting with extreme sensitivity to issues that are not as important as they feel.

My 27 years of experience as a practicing psychologist has led me to believe that the past is always present and can invade every reaction that we have with other people. This position is consistent with psychodynamic theorists who have written extensively about this phenomena. The parental relationship creates the blueprint for many of our emotional reactions to events. The past is present everytime we jump to a conclusion before we check out what the other person meant. These jumps reflect assumptions that say more about our relationship to our parents than they say about the person in front of us. We go on "auto-pilot" and believe our reactions because the auto-pilot settings are programmed through out interactions with our parents at an impressionable age. Our emotions are stored in our memories and dumped into the present anytime a present circumstance reminds us of a past circumstance. In that sense, we are influenced by our past and cursed by it at the same time. We need history to prevent making the same mistakes, but are cursed by the strength of the emotions that come from history. It is not easy to be a human being.

I believe that emotionally healthy people recognize that the past is always present and look to separate the present from the past. This process requires us to process our emotions before we act on them. The key to being healthy is to start with the idea that our internal reactions are always dual. It is rare that there is a simple single reaction. There are almost always competing internal reactions. The problem is that each of the reactions are not equal in intensity and internal volume. Our guilt and shame can often overpower our right to be angry. We can often hide our mad behind our sad and call it "hurt". Our fears confuse us and make the process of separating our emotions nearly impossible.

This duality of emotion is our salvation and the key to being a healthy human being. By learning that the truth often lies in our anger and not in our guilt and shame, we learn to harness our anger and use it to solve a problem. We become stronger internally, learn to stand up for what we believe in and represent ourselves fully and completely. Healthy people know this is not an easy task, take on the responsibility and work to manage their emotions. Most importantly, healthy people understand that the past is a present trap into which they will fall if they are not eternally vigilant.