Friday, December 29, 2017

Go with the flow

A friend recently asked me about listening and I said I'd give him a few pointers.  I thought of an acronym GWTF. 
Here it is:


G is for GET: let them GET their feelings off their chest.  Feelings are like a river, so let them flow!  You don't need to do anything other than GET out of the way.  Make room.  Be receptive.  Most of the time all we need to untangle our feelings is someone willing to GET them. 

W is for WITH/HOLD: WITHHOLD (refrain from) expressing your own point of view, feelings, opinions, comments or reactions, especially negative ones (criticism).  Do HOLD the person with your quiet presence, your eyes, your arms.  Show them you are WITH them. They will feel held and heard.  That is doing a lot!

T is for TIME: take the TIME they will need to get out all their feelings.  Don't rush them, interrupt, stop them or give advice, especially when you feel like you have to do something.  Don't. You will merely block their flow.  And the more you do that, the longer you will be there! Be a conduit not a dam, and the river will come to rest all by itself.  Give it TIME.

F is for FEELINGS: if you must do something, FEEL.  Feel what they feel.  Picture yourself in their shoes.  Guess what emotions they might be experiencing.  You can even say (when they have stopped sharing) "you must FEEL X, Y or Z".  Let them correct you if you are wrong and don't take it personally.  Remember!  It is not about you.  If all else fails, nod sympathetically and say "uh-huh" or "I hear you".

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

don't shoot!

Much of the work I do consists of helping people identify their emotional triggers.  I try to get them to go from reactivity to reaction.  My motivation is largely due to the tragically pervasive outcome of not owning reactivity: shooting the messenger.  This is so distressing to me, especially when the messenger is a loved one, turning love into murderous hate in a heartbeat! Ironically, the real messenger usually turns out to be ourselves, the stories we're telling ourselves that drown out what our loved ones are really saying.

Say your girlfriend raises her voice and pleads, "Please don't go out again with the boys tonight!"  You hear her trying to control you when, in fact, she is earnestly asking you to stay with her.  You pick up the tone but not the content of her message, triggered by your own childhood story which comes projectile vomitting forward as the voice of your own wretched mother giving you grief and making you feel bad for wanting to play.  You experience this as a personal attack and, before you know it, you shoot back, "You're a control freak!" and leave slamming the door.

Say your son has forgotten his homework again and he just sits there staring at you when you ask why. He shoots you a glance that reminds you of your father's silent treatment when he tried to get the upper hand on you, and you shoot back, "Wipe that smirk off your face! You should be ashamed of yourself."

I hear examples every day... I have shot back myself... a switch is flipped and we see the very ones who love us most as threats, treating them like enemies when, most of the time, they never say half of what we hear coming from their mouths.

It is so damaging.

In a nutshell, we need to stop and reflect, slow down, and hear the stories in our heads, owning them before acting them out on someone else.

How do you stop violence?

When you get triggered, don't open fire.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

enabling, disabling and re-engaging

Anybody can be 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

Today I met a mother whose college-aged daughter had become belligerent and rude. When the daughter asked for something like a glass of water, the mother either complied, bringing it to her with a "Here you go, dear," or denied the request explaining that she was just too tired to get up from the couch at the end of her long day.

In the first scenario, the daughter rarely thanked the mother and, sometimes, didn't even acknowledge her.  The mother felt invisible, like her daughter was acting all entitled.  But if the mother did not comply, the daughter pressured her relentlelssly, sometimes even treating her to a litany of explosives which criticized and demeaned her.  The mother was appalled at what she perceived to be her daughter's lack of empathy.

She knew, "I'm an enabler" but her alternative strategy, to disengage, seemed to be doing more harm than good. What to do, she wondered...

The mother came from a family where you either cared for others or looked after yourself. She never learned how to engage needy others without enabling them. Not surprisingly, the mother's two gears for dealing with her daughter's requests were: enabling or disengaging. Lo and behold, she created a monster!

But there is an alternative.

The mother could make her service to others dependent on their respect. She could do this by enabling civility, at the very least by inviting them to say "please" and "thank you" before and after doing something for them.  This disables rudeness without disengaging, a pretty simple way to turn this mother's situation around.  She may not be able to control her daughter, but she is always in charge of herself.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

crossing the line

Either you're right or you're in a relationsip

Much of the literature advises “no contact” with a person who is abusive.  Sometimes I think I should do this with my husband.  Other times I’m not so sure.

I see a pattern in my life.  I've been the victim before.  Actually, I've been thevictim a lot! My boundaries have been violated by friends, family, colleagues... so I must be the common denominator.

My partner is working on himself. He is becoming more self-aware and the incidents of verbal abuse are getting fewer and farther between. He is in an anger management group and starting to look at his behaviour.

I don’t want to blame myself when my husband crosses the line (the literature calls this “blaming the victim”) but doesn’t every conflict have two sides?  Shouldn’t I be owning mine?

It’s easy to lump “abusers” into one pile and “victims” into another, and say never the twain shall meet.  This might be the only recourse in a relationship where the abusive person is so defensive that there is only ever one side to every disagreement. Your boundary is not really being crossed because, in the abuser’s mind, there is no “you”, just an annoying voice that needs to be quashed, controlled or silenced. It is a no-win situation and no-contact may be the only option.

But sometimes a black-and-white solution like no-contact is not the only answer.  In fact, in the majority of conflicts, even when one partner becomes abusive, the dynamics are usually more nuanced.  Both sides may need to do some work on maintaining boundaries.

Like you, I have noticed that most victims are repeat defenders just as most abusers are repeat offenders.  Without blaming the victim, I wonder: are victims possibly missing cues that might forewarn them of violence?

I recently read that victims of physical violence tend to push back on their abusive partners. Maybe they are misreading or ignoring a potentially abusive situation and failing to back away before it escalates? This may be especially true in a relationship where there is a pursuer-distancer dynamic.

“Distancers” get easily overwhelmed by strong emotions.  They need downtime to self-regulate (hence the famous dictum to “breathe”, “take a time-out” or “count to ten”).  The “pursuing” partner, rather than back away when the distancer becomes unavailable, attempts to bridge the gap by getting physically closer or asking what is wrong and trying to fix the problem.  The distancer, threatened by the encroaching pursuer who seems to be ignoring their need for space, feels warranted in pulling further away or pushing back harder and begin at this point either to sulk and go silent, or raise their voice and yell at or insult their partner.

Distancers often feel it is unfair to be called out for “abusive” behaviour. They see their partner as having provoked them. While pursuers do not deserve to be blamed for their partner’s violence, they may need to do their work on containing their emotions rather than acting them out.  They may be just as impulsive as their abusers.

So, to answer your question, it is quite possible you both need to work on your side of the conflict, even if only one of you resorts to verbal or physical violence.  When you work on your dynamic together, you become allies rather than opponents and stand a much better chance of managing conflict before it gets to the point where someone crosses a line.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Caring and compassion, chaos or control?

My husband is a very kind, protective person but, once in a while, he flips and becomes unbearably bossy.  He gets on his high horse and starts to comment on my life and how I should live it.  It could be as stupid as telling me how to organize my kitchen while I’m cooking, or how to load my fork so the food won’t fall off it when I’m eating.  It’s kind of cute.  Until he goes as far as to tell me how to be a better parent to my kids (who are not his) or gives me all kinds of unsolicited advice on my choices with friends, colleagues, family or money.  He starts out sweet and caring but, if I tell him I did not ask for his advice, it escalates and becomes chaotic very quickly.  He can get so worked up that he ends up giving me these patronizing lectures that sound almost angry.  If I continue to push back or (God forbid) cry because I feel like a scolded child, he tells me I can’t take criticism and accuses me of taking things too personally. 

I tell him his way of talking hurts me, and have tried asking him to talk about himself and his feelings instead of criticizing me and mine (to use I-statements as you have suggested), but he says I am playing the victim, or the therapist, and that he should not have to use special words or phrases to express his opinion.   He says I am being controlling!  But I feel like he is the one trying to control me.  The conversation goes round and round.  It’s crazy-making…

He has ADD and OCD.  Sometimes he uses cocaine.  Maybe there is a connection?  Or maybe he is a just a hopeless control freak. 

He is the one being controlling!  I do not think that is your husband’s intention and, yes, there is probably a link to his ADD and OCD, and cocaine; we’ll get to that later…

One of the reasons I-statements are so important is it puts the emphasis on the speaker and his opinions and feelings rather than on you and yours.  Relying on you-statements puts the listener on the defensive as your husband is doing to you, “the accused”!  He is pointing the finger instead of talking about himself.  If you feel criticized it is because you are being criticized.  No wonder you push back!

Lovers and parents can both get into this “high horse” mode when they are worried about their loved ones.  One of my good friends told me that when he was a boy his sisters would berate him when they worried about him.  If he cried they’d just dig in deeper, trying to get him to man up, like your husband is doing to you now.  They probably cared.  They just had a helluva way of showing it. 

As a parent I have surely fallen into the same trap when my kids have done things that upset me, like forgotten their homework. “How many times do I have to remind you to double-check your agenda?” If my son or daughter would push back on me, “I don’t have time”, or say, “Stop telling me what to do!” I would just get more exasperated and respond with something like, “Well you should make time!” or “I’ll stop telling you what to do when you start doing it by yourself!”  I wanted to inspire and encourage them but it always came out angry!! 

This is definitely a learned thing.  My parents did it to me and theirs to them and so on and so on… We learned to express concern by sermonizing but to our loved ones it just feels like strong-arming them into submission.

As for ADD and OCD, you’re right, it would make it even worse.  ADD is an impulse control problem, and OCD resolves anxious feelings by trying to do something about them!  So if someone has both ADD and OCD tendencies, when they worry about their loved ones, their impulse is to say or do something to get them or the situation under control, quick!  It is more than an impulse.  It is a compulsion that bypasses thoughtful action because of an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Add cocaine to the mix and, well, you have someone who is going to be even more emotionally labile, even though he may be using coke to help get his emotions under control.  It’s a vicious circle because of course it is not just avoiding the problem, it’s making it worse.

Your husband needs to understand the triggers for his impulse control issues (always going back to childhood) then develop a plan of action for dealing with his feelings other than by avoiding them with drugs or acting on them by controlling you.  He will have to practice the plan, putting it into action until it becomes second nature.  He can do it!  And you can help him.  But he needs to own his part, stay planted in his feelings and reach out to you rather than tell you what to do.

Finally, in terms of being a “control freak”… I am not very fond of that term or in agreement with claims that people who are controlling relish power over others.  That is a rare perversion of the human spirit.  I think it is more accurate to say that controlling people feel easily controlled and, when they feel helpless, deeply and genuinely want to do something about it.  They just haven’t learned how.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

How to deal with an abusive so-called "borderline" girlfriend

Subsequent to our conversation, my friend from the previous post asked me as a therapist, "How should I have dealt with my girlfriend?"

It is challenging, if not impossible, to deal with someone who is not well-differentiated, i.e. anyone who does not see herself or appreciate you as a separate human being. You will be blamed for how they feel and, the more narcissistic they are, the more frantically they will attempt to empower themselves by degrading you.

At the beginning of his relationship, my friend's girlfriend would say "you upgrade me". A more narcissitic person would never admit that she felt inferior. She would just flatter you... until she flipped, and then she'd begin to degrade and discard you. These are very primitive defenses that even professionals have a hard time disturbing.

How to deal with someone like this in a relationship... Well, in my opinion, the only way to respond is to draw very clean lines while reminding yourself constantly, like my friend tried to do, what is "mine" and what is "yours". People in abusive relationships tend to be empaths who get caught up in the abusive person's projections, so it is good practice for us to step back and not take the verbal abuse too personally. Calling out "criticism", "blame", "swearing" helps you identify where someone is crossing the line. You can also put up your hand and say "stop" (as recommended by Beverly Engel; author of the best book on emotional abuse IMHO). 

Finally, drawing boundaries may help you deal with abuse, but it may not help your abuser. He or she is the one who needs to deal with their abuse. 

As a friend reminded me last night: abusive individuals are like vampires who can suck their victims dry. They don't need your help.  What they need is a stake through the heart, preferrably driven by someone they can be accountable to. And since you will almost always be seen through the smoke of their own projections, that person is unlikely to be you...

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Is my Girlfriend Borderline?

I just broke up with a woman I believe is borderline. 

I thought from the beginning she was too much; I even told her (and all my friends) she was raising major red flags by being too nice at the beginning, like she was trying to buy my love with kindness. Then at some point she started to snap unexpectedly. At the first sign of conflict, if you can call it that (it was more like her feeling contrary in a random sort of way), she would lose it and, if I called her out on her rudeness or tried to calm her down by inviting her into a civil dialogue, she'd call me names. If I protested she'd get even worse and a couple of times she shoved me because I did not, to use her terms, "back off". She blamed me for "provoking" her and over-reacting.  She'd say things like "If you would just let me be, give me space, I'd be fine..." And it was true... for a while. But her moodiness always got the better of her and she'd have another outburst for some random small thing and I would be pushed away and blamed again. Maybe someone else could keep their cool and handle her; I sure couldn't.  Is she borderline or abusive or what?

I don't know about labelling her, but she sounds really fragile and yes, her behaviour would qualify as abusive even if her intention is not.

I saw her as fragile too; and quite endearing when she was sweet. She wasn't always mean. Sometimes she would feel bad about her behavior and try to make improvements in how she communicated.  She became less verbally abusive overall. Still, she would regress suddenly and violently and withdraw more and more frequently from what appeard to be sheer overwhelm-- with life, with me, with herself. I found it very sad!

Sounds like you empathized with her.  Must have been hard for you?

Oh... it was terrible for me. I could never predict when she would blow since she was unable to say directly what she needed or what went wrong.  Actually she always looked like everything was peachy keen (I'd even say she was chronically over-chipper) until WHAM! like a child having a tantrum, she'd lose it. She could not seem to identitfy or get ahead of the irritants in her life and prevent letting them get the better of her and, when I would try to help she'd get even more upset, tell me to mind my business and accuse me of not "reading the signs", of prying or trying to be her mother. The list of insults and criticisms never ended and in fact was getting longer by the day.  I could never do anything right. It made it hard to relax around her; and that is when I started to realize I couldn't do it anymore, even if I loved her. 

How did it end?

She got moody yesterday and lost it on me in a restaurant, telling me to "shut up, stop talking and back off", and again blamed me for not acting the right way when she was feeling irritable. Something in me finally broke. I had already warned her I was reaching my limit, feeling like I had to walk to eggshells all the time, and that I was runing out of steam. I had invited her several times into therapy with me but she wouldn't bite... Yesterday on the way home in the car I told her, "You're right. I am intense, I do react. I care about you and feel badly that you are triggered. But I want us to talk civilly. I will not let that expectation go.  If you want to be with me, you need to stop abusing me. This won't go away on its own.  We need help"  She told me to f**k off; that I was heavy, negative and critical, that she just needed her space but I was too stupid to get that.  I quietly drove her home. When she opened the door, she simply said she was tired of fighting with me.  And that was it.  Didn't even say goodbye..

Well you let her know that if she stayed with you, you had expectations that would not go away.  You chose, and allowed her to choose, a path forward. You have gone your own directions now I guess.  It is very sad and I am sorry for you both. I know you will get over it.  I am not sure she will, but I hope so.

I have faith in her.  She can do it.  Maybe just not with me.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

mind the gap

A colleague is counseling the husband of my friend.  He has not met with my friend but apparently feels qualified to diagnose her as “borderline”.  My colleague (a psychologist) thinks my friend has abandonment issues and has in fact suggested that her husband end the marriage for his own mental health.

This infuriates me.  As a couple/family therapist I am trained to look behind the client’s narrative at the hidden perspectives it may eclipse.  Even with that training, I can only hypothesize, speculate and surmise about someone’s perspective if they’re not in the room.  There will be gaps.  If my advice is based on a bias, as in the case of my colleague, it will be misguided, if not harmful, to my clients and their significant others. 

Without the input of persons’ attached to our clients, therapists cannot see the big picture.  We are not qualified to give third part diagnoses or relationship advice based on assumptions which fill in the gaps. 

We should get out of the way.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

getting sober

I had the good fortune of speaking to the wife of my dear friend today.

She told me about what it was like for her as her husband struggled with getting sober.  She was really happy he was committed to the process, she said.  She was very proud of him.  But she felt unhappy.  “I’m always waiting. I’m always second. Before it was to his addiction and now it is to his recovery. I’m as imprisoned by his addiction as he is.” 

My friend's wife was beginning to understand the meaning of co-dependency; when you enable someone just by waiting for them to change. She came to the conclusion that she couldn’t do it anymore, “I will lose myself”, she said, “I have lost myself. I cannot wait any longer.”  She wasn't going to leave him, just stop waiting for him to get on with her life.

Often codependents are reenacting something learned in childhood, maybe a struggle for independence which leads to a lifetime of waiting for others to set us free.  The funny thing is: when you stop waiting for others to change, they start taking more responsibility for changing themselves. You leave the prison together.

Monday, August 14, 2017

take heart

A dear friend is struggling with an addiction.  He has remarkable self-awareness but still slips and falls sometimes.  Like we all do...

Today he was angry at himself.  He said he didn't know why he kept failing. He knew what his goal was, he explained, but felt like a "loser" for not being able to reach it.  "I want to win", he said, tearing up, "I have been working on this for years and I should know better".

Rarely have I seen such ruthless honesty, and I found him brave.  He didn't choose his life, his challenges or his addiction- but he was facing them all and choosing freedom.  I had only admiration for his quest.  Yet he was so hard on himself.  Talk about setting yourself up for failure.

Then I realized that part of the "loser" mentality was framing sobriety in terms of a battle you win or lose.  I saw something else and told him: courage.

The root of the word "courage" is heart, the ability to face obstacles especially when you feel pain or fear.  It is not winning.

It's keeping on keeping on.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

calling all men

The other day on Facebook, someone posted a sexist comment on a friend's timeline, something to the effect that he was sending him a dozen naked pitounes for his birthday.  Beyond the comment being insulting to the man, I thought it especially humiliating for his wife.

The comment was met with a few likes and guffaws by men but the large majority of the man's friends remained silent.  Only his wife attempted a humourous reply to the effect that pitounes would be promptly disposed of.

I was outraged and wanted to get up on my soapbox. But I knew it would do no good, just as the wife's comment did no good. I felt helpless and simply "liked" the wife's comment.  Weak.

I spoke to a male friend and asked why other men didn't speak up.  He said it was the woman's battle to fight, that she needed to defend herself; that it would take something away from her dignity if men intervened on her behalf.

Hm.  I imagined the woman flailing her skinny arms about in protest while a dozen churlish men laughed in her face.  It didn't look very dignified to me, let alone a battle she was winning.

We think it is the victim's battle to fight oppression.  It is not.  It is the bystanders'. The victim's cries can be strong and rational and brave but, unless others stand with her and outnumber the bully, the oppressors win.

You need power to fight power!

When it comes to sexism, men have the power.  Period.

Men, without you as allies, feminism will remain a muzzled and muted truth.  Would you please flex your muscles and mouths and stand up for us!

Monday, July 31, 2017


That is the word a friend used to aptly describe her response to losing her elderly mother: stunned, like by a bee that at first pricks and burns you, the sting of death soon numbs and even renders unconscious.

From the old French estoner, astonished... stoned!... it's hard to think or even breathe. Stunned.  An anaphylactic reaction to unprotected death.

They talk about the stages of grief, healing and "acceptance"; yet there is no recovery of how things used to be.  It is more like a gradual coming to (if you come to at all, because some never do); waking up to life with missing parts. You're "in shock", they say, as though you are missing something.  But, really, it is a new normal.

We think of grief as a chapter in life, as though loss were a moment on the continuum of something greater, but birth and death both dissolve in a mystery somewhere in the heart of that numbing, dumbing, stunning fact "your mother is dead".  That is the unavoidable truth.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

communication; two sides of the mirror

There are two parts of good communication: sending and receiving.

Most people think receiving, otherwise known as listening, is the hard part and, in a way, it is; because in order to really listen, you have to put yourself aside.

Mirror listening is one way to do this.  By pausing to reflect back the messages we receive ("You said X, Y and Z"), we remain present to the person who is sharing an experience without being swallowed by our own.  We show the speaker we "got" him or her instead of contaminating his message with our own reactions in the form of interruptions, questions or comments, or any other verbal and non-verbal reactions to what is being shared.

By eliminating reactivity, mirroring connects people in conflict, and tension just melts away.  It is very soothing to be heard in this way.
But listening is just one half of good communication. The other half consists of course in successfully sharing or sending a message.

Any thought or feeling can be shared but, if we want to maintain connection to another human being, we must take great care in how we share, using a form that neither hurts nor offends the person we are talking to.  (It is in fact the form, not the content, of the message which is most important).

This can be done using I-statements which indicate that we know that everything we share (every thought, impression, feeling or reaction) belongs to me and me alone, and is a mere reflection of my own subjective experience, and not a fact I am imposing on you or something you have to agree with.  (Questions and you-statements, i.e. "why are you asking me now?" or "you are talking too much" instantly deflect attention away from me and can create conflict and disharmony, especially when experienced as attacks or criticism, which they usually are).

To show you humbly acquiesce to the reality and separateness of another human experience, it is necessary to both put yourself aside to mirror someone else and use I-statements to describe what is going on in yourself.

There are two sides to good communication: sending and receiving.  But the hardest part is humility.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Look after me and I will look after the rest

Recently, an exhausted caregiver came into my office wanting desperately to understand what well-meaning friends and family meant when they urged her to look after herself.  She said that she was confused because, if she looked after herself she was not looking after her loved one, abandoning her role as caregiver and, in her own mind at least, not caring for him.  She simply could not do that. 

Similarly, she found herself unable to delegate.  She said, “If I ask for help, and someone steps in for me, I will not be there for him.  I have to be there for him”.  She teared up, at a total loss.

Caregivers cannot just set aside their dependents without ceasing to be who they are.  They are attendants to someone else’s needs, other-centered, not self-centered.  For a caregiver to care for himself is… an oxymoron.  He cannot focus on himself.  It may not be for a lifetime, but it may well be for the duration of someone else’s life. 

Our conversation reminded of what my old mentor, Robert Misrahi, said about responsibility; that it comes from the word respond, to answer.  When one answers with one’s heart, it is a complete, whole person kind of experience.  It is an embodied gift, not the dry, robotic and rather empty offering which comes from a sense of duty or impersonal obligation.

If you are a caregiver and a friend asks you to look after yourself, explain that you cannot do that right now but maybe your friend can look after you a little so you can continue to be there for someone else.