Thursday, April 28, 2016

how to deal with anxious thoughts

Clients besieged by anxiety often ask me how to stop bad thoughts. My answer to them is always the same: you can’t.  Don’t even try.  By giving them any attention at all you empower them, lending them more room in your head to bully you with.

So DO NOT try to stop bad thoughts.  

Just turn your attention elsewhere, starving bad thoughts of attention while feeding your mind friendlier thoughts; not “positive thoughts” which you do not believe, but pleasant memories, comforting truths or reveries.

Finally, if anxious thoughts keep bugging you, breathe them in, imaging you are purifying the air like a fire-breathing dragon in reverse.  This is a form of Tonglen, a powerful Buddhist practice which reminds us that we are bigger than whatever thoughts besiege us. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


It is a common theme in my office: one partner brings up an old wound and the other accuses her of “rehashing” the past, often responding (angrily), “I’ve already told you I was sorry”, “THAT again!?”, or even “You seem to take pleasure in bringing that up over and over.”

The offending partner not only fails miserably at empathy but attacks the victim all over again.

What is going on here?  The defensive partner is feeling attacked.  Sometimes this is because the wounded partner is venting AT rather than TO him; but, more likely (in my experience), he has convinced himself that her goal is to criticize him, or that she is taking some kind of sadistic “pleasure” in holding the past over his head and watching him squirm.  No wonder he lacks empathy for the pain she is sharing!  He is making it all about himself.

She probably does not enjoy revisiting her wound any more than he does.  In fact, she is probably not “rehashing” it at all; it is rehashing her, coming up on her again her like the aftershock of an earthquake.
This is what wounds tend to do. 

The victim has no control over aftershocks or decides when they come, their duration or intensity; their impact can sometimes be even worse than the initial shock, especially if the victim went numb the first time round.  

If your partner keeps revisiting a past wound, it is probably because she has not healed from it.  When she shares it with you, she is not seeking revenge (what good would that do?), she is hoping you will apply the salve.  Accountability is part of that, so is empathy, and making amends.  If you cannot do this, maybe the two of you are not in the relationship you thought you were.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

passive aggressive you say?

Passive aggression is under-diagnosed as a relationship problem by marital therapists; maybe because we dismiss it as a “milder” form of aggression, or because “passive aggression” is the default position of many husbands in reaction to their wives’ over-functioning, or maybe our attempts at “therapist neutrality” translate in our offices into benign neglect of victims.

Whatever the reason, passive aggression is a form of exploitation; and we should not ignore it more than any other form of aggression.

It keeps targets on the hook of lateness, interrupted plans and broken promises or other ways of going suddenly incommunicado, repeatedly provoking feelings of abandonment, exasperation and betrayal, often made worse by the denial of any personal accountability by the saboteur.

Passive aggressors are constantly explaining their (in)action, apologizing for yet defending their blunders with excuses that boil down to some variation of “it wasn’t my fault” (the car broke down, the bus was late, I got an important phone call, other priorities came up, etc.) which, in their eyes, makes them beyond reproach.

Targets are trapped in a Catch-22: if they do not discharge their aggressor of responsibility, or insist on holding him accountable, or if they get angry-- watch out!  He will turn the tables and accuse them of groundlessly attacking him, or engage them in an endless debate on the philosophical meaning of the word “responsibility”, baiting them with hooks that go deeper and deeper, a kind of psychological torture.  But- woe is she who complains- for she will be accused of “reactive abuse”, an explosive but futile attempt at self-defense.

No wonder targets exhibit the same symptoms as battered women: hyper-vigilance, anxiety and depression, insomnia…

Colleagues, wake up!  Please.  Let's be proactive against passive aggression.