Archive for January, 2010

The People’s Therapist is of course strictly non-partisan.  It is hardly my place to take sides in political matters, and I am loathe to betray a hint of bias in these pages.


How could anyone NOT admire our magnificent President, Barack Obama, as he faced down those ignorant Republican hacks in Baltimore last week?

The most striking feature of the President’s performance, beyond his clarity of purpose, intellectual stamina and firm grasp of the issues, was his perfect calm under pressure.  There’s a reason they call him “O-calma.”

The Republicans hurled their snide partisan attacks, distorting the facts in their own inimitable way.

Obama stood at the podium, holding his ground, even smiling, and reached out in friendship and cooperation.  His face expressed perfect equanimity.  When a brief lull came in the Republican attack machine, he explained why it wasn’t about politics – it was about action.

He was masterful.  It reminded me of the Buddha.

I’m serious.  Here’s why.

When Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, renounced wealth and privilege and left his father’s palace to wander as a monk, one of the first disciplines he sought in his path to enlightenment was meditation.

Following the meditation practices of his time, the Buddha embraced three refusals.

First, the refusal to move.  He learned to sit perfectly still.

Second, the refusal to breathe.  He mastered slowing his breaths until they were barely detectable.

Third, the refusal to think.  He cleared his mind of all extraneous distraction so he could sit in perfect peace.

These refusals were designed to promote calm – to permit an inner space to exist, where he could be strong within himself.

Like a mighty tree – the wind blows, the storms howl, the seasons change.  But you are stillness, firmly rooted in the earth.

A self-barrier, an invisible boundary, protects you from attack, granting you the space to contemplate all paths and decide on your direction ahead.

Young children have no self barrier – they spill their emotion in all directions and confuse other’s emotions with their own. But an adult can learn to contain his feelings, and to insulate himself from the attacks of others.  He can find a place of serenity within.

I have no doubt that Obama felt anger at the Republicans’ hypocrisy.  Perhaps he also felt fearful of the immense challenges ahead in his administration.

But, like the Buddha, his self-barrier remained intact.  Within, he located a place of calm. The clamor and tumult outside only strengthened his resolve to walk the Middle Path – the path of moderation.

There is a useful lesson in the President’s grace and his dignity.

Let’s save the planet from environmental dangers.

Let’s treat immigrants with the respect and gratitude they deserve.

Let’s provide every American with decent healthcare.

Let’s give LGBT people equality, which is all they ask.

Let’s work to establish understanding, and peace among nations.

This isn’t politics – it is an expression of our best selves as humankind.

We can follow the path of the Buddha, and remain strong within ourselves.  We can refuse to be drawn into fear or anger.

In so doing, we can make the world a better place.

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That word, “co-dependent,” gets batted around a lot.  I have patients who confidently alert me to the fact that one of their friend’s is “co-dependent” because she’s too needy and can’t leave her boyfriend alone. Or because he seems to need a relationship in order to feel good about himself.  Or because she keeps breaking up and getting back together.  Or because he argues a lot with his partner.

“Co-dependent,” used this loosely, ends up being a grab-bag term for anyone who isn’t ready for a relationship but ends up in one anyway.  That seems too vague to be really useful.

And is it even called “co-dependency”  or is it “co-dependence”?  Does it get a hyphen – “co-dependent” or is it just “codependent”?

I can’t answer all these questions – and I’m not really sure how to spell it, either.

But co-dependency (however you spell it) is real, at least as I define it.  It is a specific syndrome occurring within relationships that is fairly common and worth understanding.

For the record, here is The People’s Therapist definition of co-dependency:  it’s when you express your own need for care by lavishing care on someone else.

That’s it.

In worst case scenarios, I’ve had patients who have taken care of other people for decades whom they don’t even like.  One patient cared for a man whom she hardly knew for years, just because she couldn’t seem to kick him out of her life.

In more subtle cases, relationships are thrown out of balance as one partner gives and gives and the other falls into a dependent stupor, hardly bothering to lift a finger to participate.

It is an odd syndrome.  It seems strange that someone would voluntarily offer so much to someone who seems to offer nothing in return. But like all neurosis, it has its own logic.

Co-dependents grow up in a world in which they are taught not to ask for care.  Maybe their parents are busy with problems of their own, or distracted with other children.  One of my patients who fell into the co-dependent pattern had a younger sibling with severe health issues that distracted his parents, and made it awkward for him to ask for care for himself.  For whatever reason, the co-dependent learns that the best way to attract positive attention, and a few crumbs of the care he needs, is to offer help to others.

It relates to something I call “the birthday party syndrome.”  As a child, birthday parties are a big deal.  Some parents throw elaborate parties for their kids.  Even for kids who aren’t so fortunate, there is the hope of this day being special, a time to be celebrated – one day when you are the center of attention.

But as we grow into adults, our parents drop this duty, and the task of celebrating our birthdays devolves onto ourselves.

We all want to be celebrated, but for many people, arranging for your own birthday feels wrong, forbidden.  So you have to trick other people into celebrating it for you.  Instinctively, you concoct a tactic – you’ll celebrate other people’s birthdays for them!

So you throw birthdays for all your friends, pulling out the stops.

And then you wait.  Surely, they couldn’t forget you.  Surely, they must remember your birthday.  Maybe they’ll throw a surprise party. Maybe  that’s why they’re all acting like they forgot.

And then you realize there is no surprise party.  They simply forgot.

That’s because, instead of spelling out your need for care directly, you attempted to do it indirectly – through co-dependent behavior.  You lavished care on others in a desperate attempt to attract attention for yourself.

For some co-dependents, caring for someone else seems to be an attempt to care for themselves by identifying with the recipient of their care.

For most, it is a frustrating, unsatisfying life lived like a silent cry for help.

One of my patients would go to singles bars and end up going home with whoever walked up to her. She couldn’t say no – she felt obliged not to hurt his feelings.  She ended up dating some of these guys for months, going through the motions for his sake, unable to face rejecting anyone.  She eventually decided to avoid dating altogether, staying home by herself – anything to avoid getting sucked into co-dependence again.

The key to beating co-dependence – like so much else in life – is awareness.  Once you understand where this pattern started, and why, you can break it.  No one should have to subordinate his own needs to everyone else’s.

You can only share yourself in an effective way when your own needs are being met – when you have a sense of abundance in your life, and can share it with others in a way that brings both of you joy.  It’s like the oxygen mask on an airplane:  you have to put it on yourself before you can help the child sitting next to you – or you’ll both suffocate.

Co-dependence can be a hard habit to break because it dates back to early childhood.  That child who learned to give care in the hopes of receiving care was fighting for his life.  He needed care for himself in order to survive.

As an adult, you can move past the old fear, and the old patterning.  You are independent and self-sufficient now, and you can address your own needs.  A balanced, healthy partnership is about two equals caring for one another.  Care moves both ways – caregiving and care-receiving – nourishing both partners in the process.

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My patient was beside himself.  The younger woman he’d been dating was jerking him around, he fumed.  Last week, when he was finally out on a date with someone else, starting to enjoy himself, she’d left him an open-ended text message, asking what he was up to and whether he wanted to get together sometime.

Suddenly, in the middle of this date with another woman, he could think of nothing but her, and his hopes were once again raised that their relationship could be what he’d long desired.

Feeling too distracted to wait, he interrupted the date and hurried to the men’s room to reply to the text.  She answered right away, proposing that they go see a movie together the next day.  He dropped all other plans to be with her.

The next day they ended up returning to his place where, to his surprise, things turned steamy.  They had terrific sex, and he was asking himself afterward if this meant they were back together as a couple.  That’s when she started gathering her things to leave, and delivered a speech about how she didn’t want this to “mean anything” – just “no big deal.”

Since then several days had gone by, he hadn’t heard from her, and things were right back to where they were before.  He hesitated to contact her to ask her out again, since she’d made it clear in her speech that she liked to be the one to contact him, not the other way around.  So he didn’t know what to do.  Meanwhile, the other person he was dating was calling and asking what was wrong and he didn’t know what to tell her.

This was the last straw, he insisted.  It was like running in a maze.  He was going to cut this young woman off once and for all. This was it.  He’d give her an earful.  He didn’t care if he never spoke to her again.

I could see why he was angry.  Clearly, the young woman he’d been dating was ambivalent about their relationship, and it felt like she was sending him mixed signals.  One minute she behaved as if they were together.  The next she said she wasn’t sure. Then, when he was convinced it was over and crawled off to lick his wounds, she would appear out of nowhere, as though nothing had happened.

It might be she was simply too young.  He was more than 20 years older, and he knew what he wanted – commitment.  She had less experience with relationships and avoided the topic, and it was causing a lot of friction.

He told me he wanted to confront her with his anger – burn bridges, end it, have it over with and done.

I suggested something better:  enforcing boundaries.

Burning bridges – discharging anger in an attacking way and cutting off communication – is destructive and creates hurt and misunderstanding.  I proposed using direct communication instead:  telling her what concessions he was willing to make for their relationship – and where he drew a line.

We spent some time together exploring precisely what his boundaries were.  Interestingly, the more we defined his needs, the more sympathetic he grew to hers.

He began to realize that, to some degree, she had communicated her own boundaries to him.  She didn’t want commitment, at least not now.  She was willing to date him, but with the understanding that it was entirely open.  She didn’t know where she stood, and she couldn’t pretend she did.  She was still feeling her way and wanted the freedom to do just that.

It was his turn to decide where his boundaries lay, and to communicate them back clearly and actively.  He’d been avoiding that task, he realized, because he’d been hoping her boundaries would shift to suit his own desires.

He decided to write her a letter.  In it he explained his boundaries.  He communicated clearly that they were at different stages in their lives, and that a committed relationship was his first priority.

He didn’t feel that he was rushing her – they’d been dating for over six months.  And his purpose wasn’t to threaten or to pressure – it was simply to tell her where he stood.

If she didn’t wish to commit to him, that was her choice, but he was going to discontinue their romantic relationship so he could move on.  He needed space to find what he really wanted, and that meant asking her to please stop treating him as though he were just a guy she was dating.  He wasn’t.  He couldn’t be.  He needed more than that, and he wanted to find someone who could provide it.

The act of composing this letter brought my patient a measure of resolution, and relief.  Just organizing his thoughts into a piece of direct, active communication brought him further along the path to understanding his own needs.

This was his best self, his most conscious, authentic self, speaking through that letter.  No one could ask for more than that.  He respected himself for doing the hard work – containing his anger, examining it, and putting it into words.

It wasn’t about burning bridges and never speaking to her again.  It was about enforcing boundaries – expressing his own needs in a way another person could hear and understand.

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The recent arrest of the actor, Charlie Sheen, on domestic violence charges will make for a very brief, very important post.

I have no idea if Mr. Sheen is guilty of these charges, or what actually happened during this incident.  I only mention it in order to raise the vital issue of domestic violence.  Violence between partners and families happens.  It is all too common, and it can devastate lives.

Here’s what you do if someone with whom you are in a relationship turns violent towards you:


That’s it.  Pack your things and go.  Or kick him out and change the locks.  It’s over.

If you need to, call the police, or request an order of protection to prevent this person from returning to your life.

Sound harsh?

Think about it.  You deserve a partner who treats you like gold – who cherishes you and celebrates you and adores you.

No one – NO ONE – deserves to be violently assaulted.

If someone has assaulted you violently, that person is in no place in his life to be in a relationship with anyone, least of all you.

He might be ready sometime in the future, but he needs to find the help he needs to change.  That will take time, and that is his job, and he will have to tackle it on his own.  It is no business of yours.

You cannot change someone from within a relationship.  You can stay or you can leave.  That’s it.

With something as serious as domestic violence, you must leave.

If you feel an urge to blame yourself, or explain it away, or return to a relationship with an abuser, there is a serious problem that must be addressed in your own therapy.  It could be a return to feelings you had during previous abuse, during your childhood.  I don’t know – that will have to be explored.

But you cannot return.  You must leave, and stay away, and not look back.

Okay.  That was easy.  Shortest post yet.

And one of the most important.

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How does psychotherapy actually work?

Good question.  The answer is interesting and has to do with how your brain works.

The basic idea of psychotherapy is that you take emotional content from a primitive part of the brain and bring it to another more sophisticated, thinking part, where it can be examined and understood.

Here’s a quick primer on the design of your brain.

Due to quirks of evolutionary history, the human brain contains three distinct parts, which evolved separately.

In the center, there’s a small, rather rudimentary brain.  It resembles the brain of a lizard.

Wrapped around that, a second brain evolved much later – the paleo-mammalian brain.  It resembles the brain of a dachshund, or any other warm-blooded animal.

Sitting atop these two brains, there is the cortex.  That’s the grey, wrinkly stuff that you probably think of when you think of a brain.  It’s much larger than the other two brains, and is unique to humans, having evolved only very recently.

Like all higher animals, you have five basic emotions:  anger, fear, caring, hurt and happiness.  They exist entirely in the two more primitive parts of your brain – the lizard and dachshund parts.

Your thoughts – and your sense of awareness – exist only in the outer, sophisticated brain – the cortex.

There’s a reason for this.  All animals feel some emotions, but only humans have higher consciousness.  We alone think. (Actually, it could be argued that dolphins and some higher apes do too, but I’ll set that debate aside for now.)

Anger and fear reside in the innermost, lizard brain, because they reflect the primitive fight or flight instinct.  Faced with a ferocious predator, a tiny lizard needed to reflexively know whether to get angry and fight, or get scared and flee for its life.

The other three emotions are located in the paleo-mammalian brain.  That’s because they relate specifically to childcare instincts.

A lizard lays eggs – lots of eggs, and it doesn’t invest much time in caring for its young.  But a mammal bears only a small number of live young, and its off-spring are helpless for a period after birth.  So while a lizard might ignore its own large brood of young (or even dine upon a few of them), a mammal, with its small number of helpless off-spring, developed three important emotions related to childcare:  caring, hurt and happiness.

These emotions, located in the paleo-mammalian brain, lead the parent to care for its young, love them, and find happiness in caring for them, or hurt if they leave before the parental bonds are detached.

That’s your emotions, explained.  Now for psychotherapy.

Speech, and communication in general, including non-verbal communication like art and dance and music, are located in the cortex.  Psychotherapy is talk therapy.  A therapist’s goal is to get you to put your feelings into words.  In neurobiological terms, the idea is to take emotional material from the two inner, primitive parts of the brain – the lizard and dachshund parts – and translate them into speech – forcing them through the neural passageways of the cortex.

In essence, the thinking you is forced to process material from the feeling you.

In Freudian terminology, the two inner brains are the “unconscious” (the superego and the Id) and the outer cortex is the “conscious self” (the ego).  By funneling primitive brain activity into communication, therapy forces the unconscious into consciousness, integrating the self.

It’s a bit like an intellectual holding a conversation with a lizard and a dachshund, which is why the process isn’t always easy, and can take a while.

In any case, it’s better than living unconsciously – walking around thinking you know what’s going on while a lizard and a dachshund are secretly operating the controls.

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We found out last week that Tiger Woods has checked himself into a posh rehab center for sex addicts.

This raises the issue of whether sexual addiction really exists.  I think it is a fair question.

After all, we’re all sex addicts, to some degree – sex is a normal, necessary human drive.

Sex also seems harmless.  It feels good, and if you use a few sensible precautions, no one has to get hurt.  With other addictions, like alcohol or drug abuse, kicking the habit entirely seems like a sensible goal.  But except for a few monks and nuns, no one abstains completely from sex.

So maybe it’s like food – moderation is the goal, controlling your appetite so you don’t get fat.

But that doesn’t seem right either.  No one can say how much sex is enough for another person.  Maybe you like it every night. Maybe you like it every month.  Maybe you like it two or three times a day.  That would appear to be nobody else’s business.

Does sexual addiction exist?

In my experience, it does.  It’s a bit like marijuana addiction.  Plenty of people have sex – or smoke pot – without any detrimental effect.  It isn’t innately addictive.

It only becomes an addiction when you decide there’s a problem.

Usually, the indicators are:

1) you’re no longer enjoying it the way you used to; and

2) you don’t feel in control of your behavior.  In other words, it becomes compulsive – you can’t stop.

I’ve worked with sex addicts who cruised online for hours, exhausted, but unable to leave their computer. Some patients set up endless series of anonymous hook-ups, staying up all night until they were so physically exhausted they lost their jobs.  These patients didn’t look forward to the sex anymore – they felt compelled to repeat the same weary pattern.

Typically, with sexual addiction, it isn’t the sex act itself that you’re craving.  It’s the feeling of being pursued by someone for sex – catching a stranger’s attention, and making him want to have sex with you.

Think about it.  When was the last time you had someone’s positive attention focused entirely, like a laser-beam, on you? Probably back when you were a small child, and then it was a parent’s attention.  It made you feel important, loved, cared for – the center of someone else’s world.

As an adult, you rarely get that sort of focused positive attention – except when someone is pursuing you sexually, trying to get you into bed.  It’s hard to compete with a sexual pursuit.  It brings an affirmation, a high, an ego boost that can feel terrific.  All they want is you, now, right away.  The focus is entirely on you.

Once the sex is over, though,  you crash.  The other person’s interest fades, and you realize you hardly know him.  You might even feel awkward in his presence and just want to be alone. It’s a bit like a hang-over.

A sex addict, like any addict, runs to what once felt really good – especially when he gets angry and feels deprived in other ways. He keeps searching for the easy high of being pursued for sex – trying to escape again into that good feeling.  It becomes like a drug.

After a while, like all drugs, it stops working.  If you do manage to attain the high again, you crash even harder afterwards.

That’s sexual addiction.

The treatment – which Tiger is presumably undergoing right now – is similar to the approach you’d take with any other pattern of addictive behavior.

First, there’s an intervention, in which the people in his life let him know how his addiction has harmed them.  Certainly his wife, and maybe the other women he’s been sleeping with, could confront him with how he’s hurt them by lying and betraying promises.

Then, fellowship is created.  Tiger goes to a place – a rehab center or a 12-step group – where he can meet other people who share his problem, and exchange stories and experiences.  He is educated about his addiction.

Finally, self-awareness.  He is encouraged to be honest with himself, and own up to how he’s been living, and decide for himself whether he wants that pattern to continue.

I haven’t met Tiger Woods, and I cannot say for certain if he is a sex addict.  He might just be a guy who needed to get out of his marriage and do some dating and decide what he wants in a relationship.

Only Tiger can decide if he has this addiction, or whether he’s going to address it.

But that’s the nature of any addiction – no one can make these decisions for you but you.

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Patients often arrive at my office complaining of feeling “stuck.”

“Stuck” means you’re caught in a stasis, balanced on the fulcrum between anger and fear.

On one side, there’s anger – frustration at not pursuing your dreams.  We all have dreams – that’s what drives us forward.  It is the most human thing in the world, and what makes living possible.  In the end, we all know where we’re headed (oblivion).  But we have the amazing human ability to ignore that, for the time being, and concentrate on that carrot dangling from a stick.  We want to chase it.

On the other side, there’s fear – old predictions from our past that warn us not to take risks.  Sometimes it’s what psychotherapists call an “introject” – an old voice, probably a parent’s – telling you that you can’t do it, that you shouldn’t expose yourself to the possibility of failure.

So you freeze up.  Stuck.

If you want to get un-stuck, it’s time to take a reckoning of your life.  Sound daunting?  Let’s make it easier.  Every life consists of three elements:  playing, working and loving.  We’ll take them one at a time.

Playing:  this is the fun stuff – enjoying yourself and relaxing.  Your hobbies.  The major challenge here is making friends – overcoming social anxiety and building a support system of people you trust and respect.

Do you have a network of friends you can count on?  Are they truly friends – people you can say anything to, and who feel the same way about you?

If not, social anxiety could be the issue, and it’s time to start thinking about becoming more conscious of your feelings around being with other people and sustaining an authentic contact with them.

Working:  despite rumors to the contrary, work is not something you do for money – you do it because it is a fundamental part of human life.  Your work reflects your essence.  It is what you “do” with your life, and what you leave behind you when you’re gone.

To know the work you want to do, you have to know who you are.  Discovering your work can be one of life’s most difficult challenges, but it must be tackled head-on.  Only you know who you are, and only you know your true calling.  Making that discovery can be the result of a long, honest conversation with yourself, and an exhaustive exploration of the world outside.  Eventually, when you find yourself smiling, and getting excited about getting down to work – you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Loving:  A satisfying relationship must be balanced – two whole people, not two half people, walking down a path together as equals, toward a mutual goal.  There must be attraction, trust and respect.  If you don’t have the relationship you want, or simply aren’t having fun in your current relationship, there could be a problem.  It might be time to ask yourself why you are where you are, relationship-wise, and whether it’s more about being stuck than addressing your needs.

Ironically, one of the reasons people get stuck is that they rush things.  Playing, working and loving are best addressed in order.

Your play – your hobbies and interests, and your friends – will lead you to the work you love.

Your work will help you discover who you are, and build your confidence to go out into the world to meet a partner.

If you try to skip a step – rush into a career before you’ve discovered what you enjoy doing for fun, or hurry into a relationship before you’ve found a satisfying career and know who you really are – it could contribute to feeling stuck.

Where can you get un-stuck?  Psychotherapy is designed to get you talking to yourself, hearing yourself, responding to your own needs.  If there’s anyplace in the world where you can get down to the work of breaking a stasis, it’s sitting in your therapist’s office, putting your thoughts and feelings into words.  If you’re feeling “stuck” – it’s probably time to call your therapist.

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Dear and Brad and Angie and Madge:

I think it’s great you have chosen to adopt children who needed homes.

But I want to make sure you know what you are getting into, so you can do it right.

Here are some pointers on adoption.

First of all – please do not fall for the myths.  An adopted child doesn’t come from “heaven” or a baby store – he is someone else’s child.  That birth parent – usually due to terrible circumstances – has done the unthinkable, and abandoned his child to someone else’s care.

That is a tragedy.  In an ideal world, no child would ever have to be taken from his parents.

Your adopted child will feel this separation at a cellular level – even if he was removed from his parents at birth.  He will live with the pain of that trauma his entire life.  He will want to understand what happened, and he will have fantasies about his birth parents, and feelings about them, including anger at them for what they’ve done, and fear about what it might say about him, and his ability to find the love he needs.  This is normal and natural and unavoidable.  It is your child’s right to have these thoughts and feelings.

Your job isn’t to erase your child’s trauma.  It is to help him process it, and to support him through a recovery into a new life with you.

Please don’t ever utter that old line about adopted children being special because they are chosen.  That’s nonsense – and it minimizes the reality of an adopted child’s pain.  Adopted children are special because their parents gave them up.  They are wounded, traumatized children who need extra care because of what they’ve been through.

As you process your child’s trauma with him, please do your best to be honest and open.  Never, ever lie to him.  If you can include his birth parents in his life, please do.  He has a right to know the truth, and to try to maintain whatever relationship he can with the parents who brought him into this world and share his genetic material.  If you feel threatened by the presence of his birth parents, please recognize that this is your problem, not your child’s.  Deal with it on your own.

Be aware that adopted children often display two responses to their situation:  hyper-compliance and testing behavior.

The hyper-compliant child realizes he’s not with his “real” family, so he plays along, but he doesn’t trust it.  He’s on his best behavior because he doesn’t want to receive another shock, and another dislocation.  He tries to be everything you want him to be – no trouble at all.  Along the way, he may neglect his own needs in his attempts to please you.

The testing child is also distrustful.  If his own birth parents disowned him, why should he trust you?  So he tests you. If you claim to love him just as much as your birth children, then how will you react when he smashes a toy, or refuses to obey you?  He wants to know if your love is real – if it is the truly unconditional love he needs so badly. He may attempt to drive you away in the process of testing your love.  There could be some tough times ahead as you struggle to enforce boundaries in a way that communicates love and safety.

Raising a child is never easy.  With an adopted child, you’ll have a slightly different task – one laden with unique challenges.

If you do it right, you’ll bring joy to the life of a child who needs you.  And a special joy to your own life as well.


The People’s Therapist.

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Rage is helpless anger.

If anger finds a productive outlet, it can achieve great things (See Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, et al.)  King and Gandhi believed their words could be effective agents for change.  There was a receptive audience somewhere – white Northerners, the British public – who would listen, and perhaps embrace a new direction.

But when you feel no one is listening, you lose a sense of efficacy, of control over your environment.  So you go into a rage.  Instead of turning your anger into words, you go into action on unexamined feelings.

Rage is essentially a temper tantrum.  Just like a frustrated toddler who throws a fit because he can’t have his way.

There is nothing more destructive.  Especially when the phenomenon takes place on a large scale – affecting an entire culture.

Mass rage occurred in China from 1966 to 1976, during the so-called Cultural Revolution.

China was humiliated during the 19th and 20th centuries by the fact that it had somehow slipped a couple hundred years behind the Europeans in terms of technological advancement.  This was a temporary situation – China led the world in technology for eons, and they caught up quickly.  But the humiliation and helplessness of those years led to a feeling of rage that exploded in such bloody events as the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 (a civil war triggered by religious fanaticism) and the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1901 (an outburst of violence by ultraconservative forces against foreigners.)  The ultimate scream of rage was the Cultural Revolution, in which the Chinese, lost in a cult-like worship of Chairman Mao, turned their fury upon themselves, destroying their educational system, smashing their monuments and treasures – and losing an entire generation of human achievement.

It hasn’t only happened in China.  Hitler somehow convinced the German people that they were “humiliated” during WWI, and used it as the trigger for a convulsion of violence against innocents that resulted in the virtual destruction of Germany as a nation.  American Southerners convinced themselves that they’d been “humiliated” during the American Civil War, and used that as the pretext for a bloody outbreak of violence and oppression against innocent African-American citizens during the late 19th century – around the time Mark Twain termed the USA “The United States of Lyncherdom.”

Exactly the same thing is happening today in the Muslim world, and we can only hope they get over it soon.

The pattern is familiar – the “humiliation” of the Muslim nations by foreign occupiers, a deep sense of helplessness and the fall-back into conservatism and reaction, clinging to backward traditions and rejecting anything new that might smack of acculturation.  Then comes the violence – always the violence, officially focused outward on the forces of change, then turned inward, producing cruel persecutions of helpless minorities, and – ultimately – an orgy of self-destruction.

In the end, rage always results in harm to yourself.

The Chinese Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution destroyed their own institutions, persecuted their own intellectuals, dismantled their own universities.

It was a source of amazement, during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, that the rioters were burning their own neighborhoods.  They weren’t burning down Hollywood, they were burning down South Central.

Muslim reactionary fanatics – so-called “terrorists” – destroyed the World Trade Center.  But most of their continuing violence seems aimed at other Muslims, mostly within Muslim countries.  If some young man wrapped himself in explosives and blew himself up in a crowd in the USA, it would be a national trauma.  But this awful event appears to occur on a weekly basis in the Muslim world.

The answer?  A familiar one in the world of psychotherapy:  put your feelings into words.  Don’t go into action on unexplored emotion. Contain the feeling, and investigate it.

Humiliation is when someone tells you something true about yourself that you’ve avoided seeing.  It was hard for the Chinese to own up to falling behind in technology, especially when they’d always led the way.  And it was hard for white Southerners to own up to human slavery being a heinous crime, or for Germans to accept that an imperial age had passed Germany by, and that their boundaries would be limited to those of a mid-sized European country – not a world empire.

It must be tough for the Muslim world to realize that it is due for some self-examination and fresh thinking around issues like democracy, freedom of speech, the treatment of women and separation of church and state, where they are clearly falling behind the rest of the world.

These are truths that need to be heard, and processed.  Instead of lashing out in violence, they could put their upset into words, and achieve personal growth.

If only someone in the Muslim world believed we were listening, and would open up – take that risk – and tell us what’s upsetting him. Perhaps he could write an article, or give a speech, or start a movement – a peaceful movement – that would bring attention and understanding to what Muslims are experiencing around the world.  He could answer the question on everyone’s lips after 9/11 – “why do they hate us?”

Then perhaps we could understand what their upset is really about, and bring this horror to an end.

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A patient told me she couldn’t get over a guy she’d been seeing.

He was no good for her.  He didn’t even seem to want to go out with her.  But she couldn’t let go.

“But I love him,” she explained.

Well, in a manner of speaking.

She was in love with him like a child – the way a child loves a parent.

A child’s love is based upon dependency.  A child loves whoever takes care of him, because he cannot take care of himself.

When a young child says “I love you,” he means “I worship you and you are all-powerful and I depend upon you utterly and you are everything and I couldn’t survive without you.”

It’s the same way religious people relate to their chosen god-objects.  It’s no coincidence they often kneel before statues or altars and refer to “Lord” and “Almighty” and “Heavenly Father,” and so on.

If you live in an island with a volcano and it erupts and burns down your village, you can respond as an adult, and take up volcanology research.  Or you can regress under the stress into a child, and talk to the volcano as a parent-object, asking what you did wrong to make it angry, and trying to please it.

A child is so utterly dependent upon a parent that, if he displeases the parent, he will always locate the fault within.  He will not think – oh, it’s just a volcano, they erupt sometimes.  It must be about the child, something he did – his fault.

My client was relating to the guy she was dating the same way.  And she was beating herself up pretty bad.

Adult love is very different from child love.  It begins with loving yourself.

Then you add three ingredients:

Attraction, Trust, and Respect.

That’s what it means to love someone else, romantically, as an adult.

1.  You are attracted to him.  This is simple enough.  The common mistake here is trying to ignore sexual attraction and turn a friendship into a romantic relationship.  You cannot go out with the guy you SHOULD go out with.  You have to go out with the guy you WANT to go out with.  “But he’s so nice” is not a reason to date someone.  You have to be into him, too.

2.  You trust him.  If someone values you, his attention is focused on you.  Monogamy is the clearest manifestation of a mutual fascination.  But even in the early months of dating, before monogamy enters the picture, trust is already an issue.

Are you worried he might not call?

You shouldn’t be.  You should trust his interest in you.  If you don’t, there’s probably something wrong.  If you value yourself, you will find someone who values you as well.  And if he values you, he won’t leave you wondering if he’s going to call.

3.  You respect him.  The best relationships contain a note of mutual awe.  You think your partner is pretty darned terrific – and he returns the compliment.

Happy partnerships are a bit mysterious – they are secret clubs, with only two members.  We don’t know what Napoleon saw in Josephine, or Gertrude saw in Alice B, or John saw in Yoko – but these famous partners were clearly fascinated with their spouses, and their fascination was returned.

A mature, respectful relationship between equals might seem pretty dull stuff compared to the headlong thrill of worshipping a parent-object like a child.

Yes, it is a bit calmer.  Far less drama.

But believe me, it has its pleasures.

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How can you choose a therapist who’s right for you?

Here’s what to look for:

1. Your therapist should be actively engaged. I was surprised,  years ago, when I read an account by Theodor Reik, an early psychoanalyst, of his analysis with Freud.  The founder of psychoanalysis didn’t just sit there, stroking his beard like a sphinx.  That’s a myth.  Reik described their work together as a 50/50 give and take, a conversation about what Reik was thinking and feeling.

Another myth is the “strict Freudian.”

There’s no such thing as a “strict Freudian.”

Freud wasn’t strict – or grim and serious all the time, either.  He was adventurous, exploratory, flexible, and constantly questioning what he was hearing and seeing, and what he believed was going on.  No one wants a therapist who acts like a punishing father-figure, or just sits there and nods.

That doesn’t mean your therapist should be talking about himself all the time and distracting from your joint task of exploring your thoughts and feelings.  Every good therapist knows that sometimes his job is to shut up and listen – especially when a patient is full of feeling and needs to get something out.  But you should be working together.  Actively.  If you ask him “what do you think?” he shouldn’t just say “what do YOU think?” back at you.  That’s a cop-out.

2. He should enjoy what he does. Every therapist has to look at the clock sometimes.  But if he seems to prefer looking at the clock to looking at you, it’s a problem.  This isn’t a job you do for money – trust me on that.  You do it because you were born with a strange gift – like mathematics or playing the violin – and you feel drawn to it.  And because you love it.  I hope to die sitting in that chair, listening to a patient telling me his thoughts and feelings (or maybe right after he’s left – I wouldn’t want to traumatize him.)

3.  He should welcome all your feelings – including your anger at him. A good therapist needs you to trust him enough to tell him the truth, even if the truth is that you’re unhappy with the work he’s doing.  He doesn’t need you to love him.

It is his honor and privilege to have your trust, and share your secrets.  You pay him.  That’s enough.  He’s not your guru.  He’s your therapist.

4. He should admit his mistakes. We all make them.  Nothing shows you can trust a therapist like his admitting he isn’t perfect.  If he gets something wrong, or chases an idea that’s off the mark, or just has a bad day – you should be able to say so, and he should be able to own it.  No one’s perfect – not even The People’s Therapist.  But any therapist becomes a better therapist if he’s willing to admit he’s human.

5.  He shouldn’t just be the President of Hair Club for Men – he should also be a client.

A good therapist has put in his own time in that other chair, and shed a few tears and had some anger too.  That’s how you get to be a good therapist.  You don’t learn most of it in classes, or from a book.  You learn it by doing it.  A good therapist has had his life profoundly changed in positive ways by psychotherapy.  He wants to share that opportunity with you.

5. He should be a bit of a kook. The best therapists are a little nuts – but good nuts.  Part of the joy of living is reveling in your own uniqueness – enjoying being you.  Lena Furgeri – my first therapist -dresses in flowing purple dresses and lots of big jewelry.  I love it.  She loves it.  She loves opera, too.  She’s a lot of fun.

Freud was a bit of a kook, too.  His office was filled with weird little statues and doo-dads from various primitive cultures.  He loved that stuff.

He was also hopelessly addicted to cigars.  And he was willing to chase any crazy idea if he thought it might lead him to somewhere useful.  He knew you have to get lost sometimes if you’re going to find your way to someplace new.  He came up with a lot of theories, and some were doozies.  Others changed the path of human thought.  But he had to be a little nuts just to take the risk of “thinking different.”

6. He should be a non-conformist.

Psychotherapy is improvisational.  Every patient needs a different therapist, which means every therapist has to be a different person for each patient.  A good therapist loves that challenge.  But you can’t improvise if you’re just reading the notes on the page.  You have to break free, and be yourself.  The best improvisation – think of jazz – balances an established structure with freedom and personal expression.

That’s why your therapist should be a gangsta.  He shouldn’t be afraid to drive close to the edge, take risks, stretch a bit.

The so-called “gangsta rappers” – folks like N.W.A., Eminem, Lil’ Kim, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, 2Pac, the Wu-Tang Clan, Slick Rick and The Notorious B.I.G. – are a loosely-aligned group of musicians and poets whose work has combined a mastery of rhythm and verbal fluency with a desire to surprise their audience and challenge its assumptions – often by taking on sacred cows in ways designed to stir controversy.

In this sense, they’re not so terribly different from other musicians and artists, poets and comedians over the years who have intentionally challenged the “acceptable” in order to show us truths about ourselves – people like Jeff Koons, John Cage, Sam Kinison or Allen Ginsberg.

Your therapist should be like that – willing to take the critical and philosophical tools of psychotherapy and apply them to your life, and your world – the world you live in right now – in a way that makes them fresh, relevant and powerful.

Freud was bucking societal norms just by admitting he was thinking about the stuff that fascinated him – sex, the unconscious, primal drives.  It’s amazing he was able to get away with it, let alone found a new profession.  He was clearly a gangsta.

Just for the heck of it, I’ll close with a musical selection by one of my favorite non-conformists:  Frank Zappa.

Zappa broke plenty of rules.  A brilliant musician – a child prodigy – he took doo-wop music as seriously as symphonic music, and wrote both, as well as pop songs, art songs, chamber music, jazz and outrageous parodies, like his classic, “Valley Girl.”  Zappa did his own thing.  There’s no doubt he was a gangsta.

Here, then, for no apparent reason other than the sheer fun of it, is a Frank Zappa composition titled “Sofa” as played by – you guessed it! …a Bavarian brass band:

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The other day a patient posed a simple, but troubling question:  “What am I supposed to do with all this anger?”

This guy had plenty of good reasons to be angry.  His childhood was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

But that all happened decades ago.  Both his parents were long dead.  He wondered if he was wrong to still feel this way – if it was time to move on – forgive and forget.

I didn’t think so.  I told him what my first therapist, Lena Furgeri, told me years ago when I asked for advice on how to handle my roiling emotions:

“Keep coming,” Lena said,  “and keep talking.”

You can’t just forget your feelings.  And I’m not a great fan of the term “forgiveness” either.  I’m not even sure what it means.

There’s an interesting documentary, from 2006, called “Forgiving Dr. Mengele.”   It’s about Eva Mozes Kor, a woman who, as a child, was tortured by Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor at Auschwitz, during hideous experiments he performed on prisoners.

Eva Mozes Kor says she “forgives” Mengele for what he did to her.

This statement has triggered controversy and outrage.  You don’t forgive a Nazi.  Mengele was a monster.

Or do you?  This leads us into a metaphysical morass, attempting to chart the contours of sin and forgiveness.  Perhaps the Catholic Church can attempt such a mission, but that’s not my job as a therapist.

My work is comprehending human emotion.  And I know you can’t just forget anger because you decide to “forgive.”

Anger must be metabolized.

The focus is not on the person who caused your anger, or his actions.

It’s about you – and your emotions.

To metabolize anger you must not fear it.  You must contain it – feel it, study it, learn from it – but not succumb to the temptation to go unconscious and act on it.

When you act unconsciously on anger you “act out” – discharge aggression.  Or you act in – shutting down and refusing to act.

It is tempting to act out (or in) because discharging aggression feels good.

We don’t often own this truth.  But pay attention when you hear that something bad happened to someone you don’t like.  You’ll catch the corners of your mouth pulling up.  You are smiling – a primitive simian indicator of pleasure.  Unconscious sadism is a powerful force. Smashing things is fun.  Violent movies are fun, too.  Most of us are angry most of the time, about something.  Anger co-exists with other emotions, and it doesn’t have to have a logical explanation – it just is, and it gratifies you.

There is a good evolutionary reason why discharging anger feels good .  It’s the same reason sex feels good:  because the animals who were aggressive (and enjoyed sex) lived to reproduce and pass on their genes.

But in the modern world, discharging anger can get you into trouble.  “Losing your temper” – a euphemism for acting out unconsciously by discharging aggression – is like getting drunk.  It might feel good at first, but there’s always a hang-over.  We all know how easy it is to vent anger at the person who happens to be nearest to you, usually the one who cares the most and least deserves this treatment.

The mass unconscious discharge of aggression is commonly known as war.  At some level, it feels good too.  And leads to untold horrors.

That’s why metabolizing anger is a better strategy.  You put the anger into words, and start to understand it.  This process converts raw emotion into communication.

The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote,  “Let life happen to you.  Believe me: life is in the right, always.”

Feelings are like that – even anger.  You  have to trust them.  Let them in.  Let them happen.

No one can say when you will be ready to move past these feelings – that is up to you.  But the organic process – the metabolizing of feeling – is necessary and unavoidable.

Eva Mozes Kor may or may not have forgiven the horrid Dr. Mengele, but she has metabolized her anger, turning it into words that achieve good for mankind.  She has devoted her life to speaking publicly on the events of the Holocaust, teaching the importance of tolerance and understanding.

In this regard, she resembles another angry person who metabolized his anger to make the world a better place:  Martin Luther King.

Dr. King felt a passionate anger at the injustice of racial segregation.  Like Eva Mozes Kor, he chose not to act unconsciously and discharge his anger in violence.  But he didn’t forgive and forget either.

He metabolized his anger into words.

Inspiring words.

Don’t fear anger.


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Groucho Marx once said he would never join a club that would have him as a member.

That’s how one of my patients seems to run her romantic life.

Somehow she always seems to chase the guys who don’t want her – but has no time for the guys who do.

This is a common syndrome, which therapists term “the seductive-withholding love object.”

Here’s how it works:

My patient, like plenty of people, had parents who were impossible to please.  Hers were especially so.  Her father was a cold, distant math professor; her mother a schizophrenic, lost in a maze of paranoid delusions.  They were less interested in their daughter than they were in themselves.

But children are parent-pleasing machines.  They are the product of evolutionary forces that ensure that the child who best pleases his parents is the most likely to survive – and so pass on his genes for parent-pleasing.

If a child cannot please a parent, he has failed in his evolutionary mission.  He places the fault within, and blames himself.

Later in life, he unconsciously continues his hopeless childhood mission – trying to win over people who withhold love.

That’s why my patient chases seductive-withholding love objects.

This syndrome leads to a lot of pursuing people who aren’t interested in you.

Even worse – you end up ignoring attempts at closeness from people who ARE into you.

If you are used to chasing seductive-withholding love objects, you will probably respond to an accepting, interested love object with anxiety or disgust.  You will wonder why someone would want you, when you are clearly not lovable – and it will make you nervous, to try to live up to their positive image of you.  You might also feel a twinge of disgust for a person who would openly pursue someone like you, whom no one should truly want, since even your parents turned you away when you came asking for care.

That’s a bad situation.

What to do about it?

As always, the answer in psychotherapy is AWARENESS.

If I said you were standing in a pot of water over a fire – you’d probably jump out.

Being made aware of your situation might convince you to change your behavior.

One final thought.  The seductive-withholding love object is a powerful force in human societies – in fact, it’s how the military turns young people into fighting machines.

That tough-as-nails drill sergeant who treats the new recruits like dirt?  Yup – a seductive-withholding love object.  They’ll do anything to please him.

By the time he grudgingly acknowledges that they might be okay after all…he’s got them hooked.  And so does the military.

They’ll obediently follow orders, even if it puts their life in danger.

Anything to locate approval and love.

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This week a patient complained he wasn’t sleeping well.  He said he was feeling like a hypochondriac – obsessively worrying about his health.  He’s young, and perfectly well, but suddenly every little ache and pain was bubonic plague.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is usually effective for anxiety, so we did a little CBT exercise together, in which you:

1. identify the cognition;

2. reality-test the cognition; and

3. formulate a soothing counter-message.

This sounds simple enough, and it makes good sense.  Anxiety is caused by cognition – predictive thoughts.  You predict that something terrible is going to happen, and that triggers a freak out:  your pulse races, you start to sweat, you can’t sleep – all the standard symptoms of anxiety.

So…first step:  identify the cognition.  The prediction that was causing his anxiety was the thought that his sore throat was caused by herpes.

Second step:  reality-test that thought.  He’d already checked with his doctor and online.  This was not herpes.  Herpes in the throat is a rare condition and would produce different, and far more severe symptoms.

So far so good.

Step three:  formulate a soothing counter-thought.  I asked my patient to tell himself what we both knew – this is just a sore throat, it isn’t herpes.  Relax!

That’s where we ran into trouble.

My patient insisted it wouldn’t work.  He couldn’t help it, he said.  He just kept worrying about his health.

I said he could help it – we can all control our thoughts, if we set out to.  He just didn’t want to.  Some part of him was enjoying scaring himself.


Scaring yourself, oddly enough, can be soothing.  By telling yourself you are expecting the very worst, you assure yourself you are prepared for it.  That is intended to calm you down.

Consider what truly scares you.  It isn’t just scary monsters.  It’s scary monsters jumping out of nowhere and saying “boo!”  What scares you most isn’t what you’re expecting – it’s what you aren’t expecting.

So you try to expect everything.

That’s why you have nightmares.  Your unconscious mind brings you the very worst, in an attempt to calm you down by assuring you that you’re ready for it.

Fear is an ancient emotion, located in the amygdala, a primitive part of the brain, near the center.  Fear evolved early, as part of the fight or flight instinct.  Little animals needed fear to tell them to run from danger, just as they needed anger to tell them to fight for their life when a predator had them cornered.

When you are under extraordinary stress, like a mouse being hunted by a cat, you become hyper-alert, in an attempt to assure yourself you aren’t going to be taken by surprise.

But you can’t stay hyper-alert forever.  Soldiers who are in combat for long stretches can develop PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – a condition in which the brain is harmfully affected by trying to stay hyper-alert for too long a stretch.

My patient grew up in a world where nasty surprises happened all the time.  His father died when he was young.  His mother, an immigrant, raised him alone, amid poverty and discrimination.  As a boy, he was picked on constantly and never felt safe in his neighborhood or at school.  Now, as an adult, he was attempting to stay hyperalert so he wouldn’t be taken by surprise again.

I urged my patient to switch from dwelling solely on fear to giving his other most primitive emotion a try – anger.  Instead of constantly staying afraid, he could stand up to what scared him and fight back.  His new attitude could be – there’s nothing out there I can’t handle.

Like in Aliens, when Sigourney Weaver grabs the really big flame-thrower and says to the monster “You want to take me on?  Bring it, bitch!”  Every horror movie ends like that.  Someone – a long survivor, maybe – has finally had enough of being picked off one by one by the ax-murderer, and decides to fight back, even against the odds.

My patient liked that approach.  He’d survived plenty already in his life.  He could handle whatever came his way.

Heck, even if it were herpes (which is wasn’t) – he’d deal with it.  Whatever happened, he’d be okay.

Better to fight back than to live your life afraid.

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The People’s Therapist is a big Stevie Wonder fan.

Here’s one of my favorite songs, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love),” from the legendary 1972 album “Talking Book”:

You can see what makes it a classic.

First – it’s Stevie Wonder.

Second – who can resist a song whose chief lyric is “I believe when I fall in love this time it will be forever”?

We all want to find perfect love – and have it last forever.

But listening to this song feels like a guilty pleasure – there’s something that nags at you, even as you want to go along with it.

In reality, it’s impossible to know how long a relationship is going to last.  You can “believe” all you want – but no one can predict the future.

Stevie married his first wife in 1970, divorced in 1972, then, after multiple relationships, married again in 2001.  He has seven children, the product of what Wikipedia describes as “his two marriages and several relationships.”

For Stevie, where relationships are concerned, I think it’s fair to say “it’s complicated.”

That’s true for most of us.

Relationships are organic – like plants.  No one knows whether they’re going to flourish or wilt, and there’s only so much you can do to control them.  You can’t pull on a leaf and make it longer – it has to decide to grow that way on its own.

I try to avoid valuing a relationship based on its longevity.  We all know people who have had meaningful relationships that lasted only a few years.  And we all know couples who have been miserable together for decades.

At some point, what matters most in a relationship is not whether it lasts forever, but whether you enjoy being in it.

When I treat couples, I ask them right away:  “How much of the time, as a couple, are you having fun?”

I’m not trying to be flippant – it’s an important question.

My general rule is that they should be having fun more than 50% of the time.  Otherwise, it’s trouble – and I begin to question why they’re sticking it out.

In an existential sense, having fun – being happy – is what life’s about.  We’re here to experience joy, and our relationships should be a source of that happiness.

There are a lot of things I could say about relationships – that they should be balanced, that partners should treat one another as equals and relate as adults, that they should be two whole people pursuing a shared goal, that a healthy relationship requires attraction, trust and respect between the partners.

But the most important thing – the starting place – is that you should be having fun.

The truth is most relationships end in break-up – and that’s not necessarily a disaster.  It might be an evolution to something different. People grow and change over time, and having several loving relationships – like Stevie’s – might not be fundamentally better or worse than having only one.

It’s having fun, together with a partner, that really counts.

Here’s another song (lyrics by Eddy Arnold, performance by the incomparable Nat “King” Cole), called “Sometimes I’m Happy.”

I think gets a little closer to the truth of what relationships are really about:

Sometimes I love you.

Sometimes I hate you.

But when I hate you.

It’s ’cause I love you.

That’s how I am

So what can I do?

I’m happy when I’m with you.

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Pretend for a moment that you have been captured by terrorists.  They shackle you up in their torture chamber, where you are confronted by their fiendish leader.

“So,” he sneers, “Are you going to cooperate?  Or are we going to have to make you cooperate?”  And he emits an evil cackle.

At this juncture, you are faced with two options:

Behave nobly, and stubbornly refuse to have any part in this travesty; or

Break down and sob like a child.

I suspect you’ve played this scenario through your mind at one time or another.  Hollywood represents our collective unconscious, or at least our collective imagination, and this set-up arises with predictable regularity in action thrillers (including every James Bond movie ever made).  It seems sensible enough to ask yourself what you would do in this situation, all the while knowing perfectly well  you’ll never know for sure (unless – god forbid – it ever happened.)

The real question is – why do those two options spring to mind as the only alternatives?

The answer is that you contain two selves – the adult and the child.  Under stress, you can either resist the urge to regress and stay conscious as an adult.  Or you can permit stress to regress you, go unconscious, and return to the young child.

It doesn’t take terrorists to trigger this voyage back to infancy.  The collapse fantasy, as I call it, lurks as a temptation in our minds most of the time.

One of my patients recently found himself on his knees, weeping and pleading with his partner to take him back.  Her response, as you might imagine, was disgust and horror that this man she’d respected had collapsed before her eyes into a helpless child. His adult self might have realized you sometimes have to step away if you want someone to follow – but the child wanted what he wanted and was going to scream until he got it.  Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Later, filled with remorse, he told me he didn’t know what came over him.  When a patient tells me something like that – some version of “I don’t know what came over me” – I know he’s describing unconscious behavior.  And when we go unconscious, the child – and the collapse fantasy – tends to take over.

Once the child’s in charge, here’s how things operate:

He experiences solitude as abandonment.  An infant abandoned even for a moment in his cradle, if he registers the slightest need for care, will scream as though in mortal danger.  For all he knows, he is.  He is utterly dependent.

He goes victim and broadcasts his upset.  He perceives his scream as his only means for survival.

He is impulsive and pleasure-seeking.  He wants what he wants.  Now.  Put a shiny toy in front of an infant – he wants the shiny toy.

Essentially, the child is an infant – your earliest incarnation. The temptation to regress into that infant state is strong because it reproduces a time when you received total attention and care.  All you had to do was register your desires – any impulsive desire – and it would be satisfied.  Mom would come running – someone would come running – if you only yelled loudly enough.

My client, stressed by his partner’s stated desire to leave the relationship, succumbed to the temptation to regress, and began relating to his partner as an infant to a parent – weeping, crying, begging for the care he needed.  He entirely forgot her needs – which only drove her further away.

The collapse fantasy haunts us – especially when we’re under stress.  In fact, “nervous breakdown” is a code word for the collapse fantasy in action.  That’s when you announce you are overwhelmed and can’t take it anymore – you are giving up…and they cart you away to the looney bin. I’ve run into this syndrome mostly with younger patients – adolescents or people in their early twenties.  They “lose it” and do something crazy, or make a half-hearted suicide attempt – whatever it takes to end up in a mental hospital.  At that point, in the vast majority of cases, they realize they’ve made a mistake (mental hospitals are not relaxing places.)  That’s when they begin to see that the collapse fantasy doesn’t work as a life strategy.  The help you really want – mommy – doesn’t arrive.

Why does the collapse fantasy present such a strong temptation? Consider the trajectory of your life, for a moment, in terms of loss.  As you grew out of childhood, the first, profoundest loss was the total, unqualified attention of a parent.  Have you ever watched a young child at a playground calling for his mother to watch him do some trick on the jungle gym?   “Mommy.  Mommy.  Mommy!  Mommy!!  MOMMY!!!  MOMMMMMMMYYYYYYYY!!!!!”  …until she finally breaks off her conversation, turns, and acknowledges him with a wave.

As adults, we have to parent ourselves, and assume responsibility for our own needs (as well, perhaps as the needs of our children and even our parents.)  That can feel overwhelming.  It’s no wonder we unconsciously long for a return to the past.

The good news is that adulthood brings benefits as well as losses.  It’s a trade-off in some respects, but independence can be sweet.  It feels good to make your own decisions, and rely on your own judgment. If you’re not busy screaming for someone else’s attention all the time, you can begin focusing attention on yourself – and give yourself the care you need.

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Two famous pilgrimages:

The Journey to the West – the legendary voyage of the Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, to India to bring the Sutras back to China and establish Buddhism there.

Another, less celebrated Journey from the East – Freud’s parents, Ostjuden (Eastern Jews), emigrating in a horse cart from the ghettoes of East Galicia to Vienna.

The Silk Road channeled a rich current of human activity across Asia from China to Europe.  Along with the merchants and their caravans of camels laden with spices and luxuries, ideas flowed back and forth across the continent.  In the center, there was India.

It was in India that the powerful concepts of Buddhism originated, then spread East, to China, and West – ultimately, perhaps, to Freud’s office in Vienna, where so many of his ideas about living more consciously seem to echo Buddhist philosophy.

I’ll touch on two issues:  first, why Buddhism doesn’t have to be intimidating, and second, some interesting stuff it has to say about our daily lives:

You don’t have to think of Buddhism as just a religion.  The ancient India of around 500 B.C.E.,where the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, lived, was a lot like the historically contemporary Ancient Greece – the existence of a pantheon of gods and goddesses was taken for granted.  Buddha wasn’t interested in being a god – there were already plenty of gods.  His goal was achieving human enlightenment – a condition of peace and serenity.  Over thousands of years, Buddhism spread all over Asia and splintered into a thousand different schools and practices.  Some of them espouse devotional practices, complete with temples and incense and kowtowing before fat, smiling statues.  You can disregard much of that, and concentrate on the ideas.

To give you a taste of what I’m talking about, here’s the most famous single story in Buddhism.  There are a dozen variations, but this covers the basics.  See if it doesn’t leave you thinking:

The Buddha was born a wealthy prince.  Upon his birth, a fortune-teller issued a prediction that the young prince would eventually renounce all his wealth, and become a monk.  To prevent this, his father, the king, ordered that Siddartha be prevented from leaving the walls of the palace.  For 29 years, the prince was permitted to see only wealth and beauty.

Finally, perhaps on an impulse – some say a mischievous god was involved – Prince Siddhartha escaped for the first time outside the palace walls. Almost at once, he saw four famous sights, which changed his life forever:

He encountered an old man, and learned that he would not remain forever young.

He saw a leper, and learned of the existence of suffering and disease.  

He saw a corpse, and knew that one day he, too, would die.

He met a monk, and realized there were other paths to joy than the pleasure garden within the palace walls.

From that day forward, the Buddha became a monk, devoting himself solely to the search for enlightenment.

I told you this was a powerful story.

Opening your eyes to the world around you, and the emotions you carry within, stirs something in the human soul, which could change your life forever.

That’s what we do in psychotherapy.

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One of my patients came to me last week looking like he’d just been through a war.

He plopped down in a chair and began to weep.

It didn’t take me long to realize he’d been “dumped.”  At least, that’s how he characterized it.

But I don’t believe getting “dumped” exists.  Here’s why:

First, the obvious reason – you don’t want to go out with anyone who doesn’t want to go out with you.  It doesn’t make any sense, and even if you could go out with someone who doesn’t want to go out with you, it wouldn’t be fair to the other person to to you – you both deserve better.

Second, a partnership is a system of two.  Nothing is unilateral in a partnership.  If your partner “dumped” you, and you’re surprised, that means you’ve been ignoring signals and your partner has been colluding with you in not bringing you his honest feelings.  You’ve been in a conspiracy together to avoid something you both have to face – the organic reality of what you have, where your relationship really is.

Why do people do this?  Because they are acting like children – regressing, under stress, into the child they still are inside and relating to their partner the way a child relates to a parent instead of as an equal, another adult.

A partnership must have balance – the balance that comes from two whole people – not two half-people – coming together to share a walk down the path of life.  You share a common goal – that shining city far away down the path – and you choose to walk there together, and to enjoy one another’s company along the way.

To exist in a successful partnership, you must first learn to love yourself.  A child cannot love himself because he doesn’t know himself – he looks to his parent to tell him who he is, that he is good, that he is worthy of love.  If a child is rejected, he feels he has failed in his evolutionary mission to survive by pleasing his parent, and so he places the fault within himself and concludes he must be bad, unloveable.  But an adult is different – he is self-sufficient, and he can be his own parent – tell himself he is worthy of love.

We all wear a price tag around our neck – and we assign the price.  That price tag shouldn’t say “best offer accepted” – it should say “one millions dollars.”  Otherwise you will be giving yourself away for too low a price to someone who doesn’t deserve you.

That’s why you need to love yourself in order to parent yourself.  And you need to parent yourself in order to separate from the child and become an adult.

You must be an adult in order to join forces with another adult and share experience together, as equal partners.

An equal partner in a balanced relationship cannot “dump” another equal partner.  That would violate the laws of physics.

So no – my patient wasn’t “dumped.”  No one ever gets dumped.  You just find out you have some work to do on yourself before you enter another relationship.

Most of that work is learning to love the child you once were – and still are.

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The clip at the bottom of this post is a performance of an excerpt from the Art of the Fugue, by Johann Sebastian Bach.

There are a few reasons why this music opens emotional floodgates.

This piece was written under astonishing circumstances that speak to the essence of what it means to work and to be human.

Bach wrote the Art of the Fugue at the very end of his life as the culmination of his greatest achievement, which was perfecting the art of contrapuntal music.  A fugue (the word means “flight”) is a musical work in which parts are assigned to different “voices” which weave in and out of the piece in “counterpoint” to one another.

The Art of the Fugue is the longest and most complex collection of fugues every attempted, written by the greatest genius of contrapuntal music who ever lived.

Bach didn’t write this work because anyone asked him to, or because there was any particular demand for fugues or counterpoint at the time.  In fact, fugues were out of fashion.

The Art of the Fugue was written because Bach loved his work, and sought to create an expression of his best self – the most authentic self, the person he could be when fully conscious and expressing what was best in him.

How do I know that?

Consider the fact that this fugue, like several in the Art of the Fugue, is based on a four-note theme that spells out Bach’s name:   B♭–A–C–B♮ (‘H’ in German letter notation.)  Yes – he literally wrote himself into it.

Another point to consider:  If you’ve listened to the clip below, you’ll notice this final fugue of a long, involved series is not only astonishingly complex – the highest mastery achieved in the art of counterpoint – it is also unfinished.

That’s because Bach died while he was writing it.

Bach’s son, the composer, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, scribbled a note in the original autograph of this final fugue:

“Über dieser Fuge, wo der Nahme B A C H im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben.”

(“At the point where the composer introduces the name BACH (which in English notation is B♭-A-C-B♮) in the countersubject to this fugue, the composer died.”)

Yes – Johann Sebastian Bach turned his name into music, then he put down his pen and died.

This is that music.

There is some controversy over this story.  It is possible that Bach lived on a few more days, and worked a bit more, dictating or correcting fragments of other pieces.  Musicologists and historians have debated these matters.  But there can be no doubt of Bach’s intention. He wanted to die working, and to leave this intricate, haunting series of notes as his last will and testament.  This is Bach’s soul, translated into music – a fugue, the musical creation he mastered above all others.

The music itself?  It moves the way a mind moves when deep in purest thought.

To create, to DO SOMETHING, is to assign meaning to our time on this Earth.  We are human – we chase dreams.  Dreams of creation.  That is our work.  That is what our work represents.

If you are not fulfilled by the work you do – if you are feeling lost, unsatisfied, uninspired – listen to Bach, and dream.

Find your inner voice, and express it through creation.  That is your best self making itself heard.

In the meantime – here is a fragment of beauty:  the work of a genius, left to ponder for the ages:

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Dr. King would have turned 81 this week – an excellent opportunity to discuss ageism, an insidious form of  discrimination.

The starting point in any discussion of discrimination is why difference is an issue at all.

Some of your discomfort with difference derives from sheer inexperience.  It has been proven that a witness in a courtroom will more  accurately identify a defendant of his own ethnic background.  Most of us are used to seeing faces that look like our own.  Faces that are different tend to blur into sameness.

Another basis for discrimination is what psychotherapists call “transference.”   That’s when you transfer an expectation based on an earlier encounter into a prediction about future encounters.  If you are used to seeing Asian men deliver restaurant food and spot an Asian man carrying a bag from a Chinese restaurant, you might assume he’s delivering it.  That happened to one of my patients last week when he showed up at a friend’s place with take-out.  The doorman called up a delivery.  My patient was a guest, not a delivery man – and he felt insulted.

Transferences can crop up anywhere.  If you grew up in a world where African-American people, or Jews, or Muslims, or any other group, were supposed to be dangerous, violent, money-grubbing, untrustworthy or whatever, you might carry an unconscious assumption from that early programming.

Some of the worst discrimination arises from what you fear in yourself.  Think of the “straight-appearing” gay man who disdains the effeminate gay man.  Or the “bourgeois” African-American who looks down on the “ghetto” African-American.

Seniors face all three sources of discrimination.  They are unfamiliar, since our society tends to shunt them aside, separating them from the mainstream of younger people.  There is also transference – the images of older people in the popular media are often misguided and condescending, leading you to make assumptions about older people you meet in the real world.  And finally, you fear old people because you fear growing old yourself.

A few years ago I introduced a new member to one of my psychotherapy groups.  She was 77 years old.  No one else was over 50. The new member’s arrival triggered discomfort, especially in the youngest members, who expressed it by becoming flustered and telling her over and over again how terrific it was to have her join us.  Their response felt out of place and condescending – like it was all about her age.  Instead of the bright, prickly, opinionated, vain, complicated person in front of them, they seemed to be seeing a small child.

Over time, the group confronted this issue and explored unconscious feelings.

But their initial – and bizarre – reaction was all too familiar to the 77 year-old.

She shared powerful examples with us of ageism in her daily life:

  • If she went to a restaurant with younger girlfriends, a waitress always seemed to ask “oh, is this your mother?”
  • If she went out to shop for clothes with younger friends, the clerk told the younger people they looked great in their outfits, then, if she even noticed her, added, “even you look great!”
  • When she went to President Obama’s inauguration, a man chased her down and insisted on asking her age, then exclaimed “You’re terrific!” for no apparent reason.  This was typical – people are always telling her they “love” her  for no apparent reason.

Enough.  Let’s listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man we’re honoring on his birthday.  I hope, if he were still with us, he would be treated at the age of 81 as the man he truly was – not some crazy stereotype about older people based on ignorance, misguided assumptions, and fears of death and dying.

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