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Controlling Your Anger with a Hiss

Everybody gets angry. It’s a normal, biological protection mechanism that gets triggered when we believe we’re being mistreated or that the world is operating against us. It is also an expression of fear and deep hurt. 

Anger is a difficult emotion because its intensity can get expressed at top speeds in destructive ways: we yell, say mean things to people, we punch walls, slam doors, throw things across the room, etc. These forms of expression are scary, can damage important relationships, and are ultimately detrimental to our sense of wellbeing. 

Anger can also cause us to retreat. Many people downplay their anger and internalize it because they are afraid it will hurt someone or something important to them. But internalizing anger can be just as destructive as expressing it intensely. We end up trapping the anger in our bodies and not protecting ourselves from the thing that hurt us in the first place.

Meet Sam

Sam is a thirty-seven-year-old man who walked into my office fuming. He had just found out his wife, whom he loved dearly, was having an affair, and he was profoundly disturbed by the news. “Who is she?” he asked himself repeatedly. “What is this marriage?” The world he knew was crumbling, and he felt profoundly angry.

During our sessions, he would list all the ways he had been a good husband, a good dad, and a good provider. As he did, I could feel the anger raging inside him. He would clench his fists and raise his voice. The injustice of it all made him furious, and his anger was an expression of all his confusion, pain, and disappointment. “It is not fair!” he would shout. 

When he first heard the news, Sam’s impulse was to insult his wife and treat her as a lesser person, someone who was deficient in honesty and authenticity. During the session, he would rattle off all the hurtful things he wanted to say to her and all the ways he wanted to retaliate against her and teach her a lesson. 

He was outraged, but he was also scared. He worried that if his wife knew the extent of his intense anger, it would destroy her and ruin whatever was left of their relationship. To his credit, Sam was looking for a way to share his anger but not let it get too destructive.

I told Sam a parable I learned about The Snake and the Swami.

On the train to Vrindavan, a Swami sits beside a common man who asks him if he has attained self-mastery, as the name “Swami” implies.

“I have,” says the Swami.

“And have you mastered anger?”

“I have.”

“You mean you can control your anger?”

“I can.”

“And you do not feel anger?”

“I do not.”

“Is this the truth, Swami?”

“It is.”

After a silence, the man asks again, “Do you really feel that you have controlled your anger?”

“I have, as I told you,” the Swami answers.

“Then do you mean to say, you never feel anger, even–”

“You are going on and on–what do you want?” the Swami shouts. “Are you a fool? When I have told you–”

“O, Swami, this is anger. You have not mas–”

“Ah, but I have,” the Swami interrupts. “Have you not heard about the abused snake? Let me tell you the story.”

And so the Swami began:

 “On a path that went by a village in Bengal, there lived a cobra who used to bite people on their way to worship at the temple there. As the incidents increased, everyone became fearful, and many refused to go to the temple. The Swami who was the master at the temple was aware of the problem and took it upon himself to put an end to it. Taking himself to where the snake dwelt, he used a mantra to call the snake to him and bring it into submission…The Swami then said to the snake that it was wrong to bite the people who walked along the path to worship and made him promise sincerely that he would never do it again. Soon it happened that the snake was seen by a passer-by upon the path, and it made no move to bite. Then it became known that the snake had somehow been made passive, and people grew unafraid. It was not long before the village boys were dragging the poor snake along behind them as they ran laughing here and there. When the temple Swami passed that way again, he called the snake to see if he had kept his promise…The snake humbly and miserably approached the Swami, who exclaimed, ‘You are bleeding! Tell me how this has come to be.’ The snake was near tears and blurted out that he had been abused ever since he made his promise to the Swami. ‘I told you not to bite,’ said the Swami, ‘but I did not tell you not to hiss!'”

This story helped Sam distinguish between destructive and necessary responses to his anger. In the end, Sam was able to make a firm yet the wholehearted request of his wife to stop hurting him and to pay attention to how her choices caused him deep pain. This restored his pride without destroying the emotional bond that was left between them, which was important to Sam.

How Can You Take Control of Your Anger?

1. Notice what’s happening physically.

Noticing our physical reactions to anger can slow down intense reactions and give us time to process our feelings. 

Here’s an experiment: Try to remember the last time you were angry. What was happening, and how did you feel in your body? Did you sweat? Did your muscles tighten or your fists clench? Were you filled with adrenaline? 

The range of physical reactions to anger seems to vary based on its causes. You might clench your teeth when your computer is being too slow or get red in the face when a driver cuts you off on the road. Not surprisingly, our most intense physical feelings of anger occur when someone hurts us emotionally or treats us poorly. 

But if we know that when our teeth start to clench, it means we are getting angry, we can mitigate an intense reaction. We can say to ourselves, “Oh, my teeth are clenched. That means I’m getting angry. I should find a way to back away from the thing that’s making me angry and think about a way to solve it before it overwhelms me.”

Even this small moment of mindfulness on your part will reap loads of benefits. The more you recognize what’s happening in the body, the better you will begin to read your emotional triggers and start thinking constructively about how to change the situation.

2. Take constructive action. 

As in the case of Sam, constructive action uses our anger to appropriately attend to a situation that is hurting us. 

One form of constructive action is asserting our needs. Asserting our needs can be difficult because we fear we won’t be taken seriously or that it’ll make people stop loving us. But done well, asserting our needs can alleviate the behavior that is angering us and shows others that their actions are hurtful. Sam told his wife how he was feeling and what he needed from her, which was met with respect.

Try this: Imagine putting your anger into your backbone—that part of you that is sure of yourself, knows what it is you need and isn’t afraid to say it. From your backbone, approach the issue with a clear head and a calm but firm tone. For example, say: “It’s important to me that you share the chores with me,” or “It’s important to me that you don’t tease me when I’m serious.” 

These types of assertions, which stay away from placing blame and correlate directly with our needs and not our anger, are usually well-received and respected.

Another way to take constructive action is by setting boundaries. Setting boundaries basically draws lines for people, so they don’t cross over into territory that hurts us. You can say: “I don’t want you criticizing me or calling me names. If I am doing something that is bothering you, let’s talk about it, respectfully,” or “I do not like it when you borrow my things without asking.” 

If you get pushback, just stay calm, firm, and repeat your statement until you are heard.

Constructive action can also take the form of no action at all, especially when there is nothing that can be done. Getting angry at bad drivers can be frustrating, but the only thing we can control in that situation is our reaction to it. 

Take a few deep breaths and recognize that it’s better to stay silent than to rage at the world outwardly. 

Doing this is a form of self-compassion. You are acknowledging the useless toll anger has on you, and you are choosing not to engage in it, saving yourself and those around you a lot of tension.

In some cases, therapy can be an excellent form of constructive action, especially if our anger is inappropriate for the situation at hand. If someone makes an honest mistake and we yell at them for it, this can be a tip-off that old anger hanging around from childhood is to blame. Most likely, the old anger never got expressed and is trying to find its way out of your body, exploding in inappropriate ways. 

If this is happening to you, it’s best to address the anger together with a therapist who can help you attend to the old issues, feel the feelings in a safe environment, and move on.    

The final say.

I hope this information helps you better handle your anger. Just remember, anger is a normal and an essential emotional response that keeps us protected from situations that work against us. How we process and constructively attend to that anger is what’s important. Think of Sam, the Swami, and the snake the next time you feel your blood start to boil!



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What Your Anxiety Is Trying to Tell You?

Just like the doorbell rings to alert us to the arrival of a guest, anxiety tells us that some core emotion buried within us is pushing to be expressed.

Take, for example, Heather, a 35-year-old women who has been working in a law firm for the past five years. Heather came to my office a year ago. When she first stepped inside the door, she smiled softly and looked at me with kind eyes. This was the first time, she had visited a therapist’s office, and I could tell she was feeling nervous. I heard it in her shallow and restricted breath and saw it in her wide eyes, as she began to tell me, that her anxiety was making it hard for her to enjoy things, that used to bring her joy and relaxation.

While growing up, Heather experienced the normal fears of a child. She worried about the dark, about robbers, not being liked by friends, and she feared that the family would run out of money, since her dad left.

Unfortunately, because her mom was overwhelmed by raising a big family alone and by caring for Heather’s younger sister, who had a chronic health issue, none of Heather’s normal fears were processed with a knowing adult.

In fact, when Heather expressed her fears, her mom reacted by telling her to grow up and be strong. Instead of helping Heather, her mom turned the tables and said she needed Heather’s help with all the responsibilities around the house. Heather, of course, loved her mom profoundly and did not wish to burden her, so she trained herself over time to repress her fears and manage on her own.

As it is most often the case, repression of fear leads to anxiety. We push down a fear, but the energy of it stays with us, resulting in a generalized anxiety. This is what happened to Heather. And because anxiety is quite uncomfortable itself, Heather tried to repress it as well. She coached herself to avoid situations that triggered her worries. While repression can soothe the immediate effects of fear, ultimately those fears get stored in the body. By repressing her fears and anxiety, Heather was filling herself up with many unmet negative and scary emotions.

During her teens, social anxiety set in, and Heather began to experience physical stress from all her repressed emotions. Neck pain, muscle tension, headaches, shortness of breath and occasional panic kept her home from school and allowed her to avoid going places with her friends. When the anxiety felt this pervasive, Heather discovered she could distract herself from her emotions by playing games on her phone.

The problem is that core emotions that are essential to the human experience and to healthy growth and development—sadness, anger, fear, and even excitement—get blocked by anxiety because we have learned from our cultures, families, or peer groups, that these emotions are not welcome. Heather, who seemed to have found a way around her need to process her emotions with her mother as a child, was now trapped in a terrible cycle of repression, anxiety and avoidance. She didn’t feel good, and she was unhappy, unable to enjoy life.

In our work together, I taught Heather some breathing techniques to help soothe her immediate anxiety, and I helped her see the connection between her anxiety and the powerful survival mechanisms that she acquired growing up.

Now, Heather has learned that when she feels anxious, there is something she can do to ease her pain and confusion. She slows down by tuning into her body and anchors herself with breath. Once she feels anchored, she looks for the underlying core emotions that are being blocked by her anxiety. When she locates them, she understands them more fully and gives herself the positive, tender attention that her mother was unable to give her when she was young.

This relieves the anxiety in the immediate, but it also keeps it from coming back so intensely the next time. Eventually, the anxiety disappears because the core emotions are being dealt with.

If you are experiencing anxiety, working with a therapist to understand your unique story of repression can be very helpful. Your therapist can teach you important breathing techniques and show you how to process the fears and emotions the anxiety is blocking.

Like Heather, you deserve to be happy and enjoy life!



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To err is human. But now, you must apologize.

Sheila was backing out of her parking space, at the grocery store and accidentally hit another car.

Bob screamed at his boss, for making him work late on Friday night, date night.

Karla was gossiping, about a colleague, via email and accidentally sent the toxic message to the person, she was insulting. 

All three, needed to apologize, but only the driver, Sheila, knew how to handle the awkward situation.

As she jumped to the other driver’s assistance, she said, “Are you all right? I’m sorry, that I hit you. Here is my insurance information.” In one breath, Sheila stated her mistake, expressed her regret, and tried to make amends. And yet, few adults are that graceful – or honest – in the act of apologizing.

In my last post (Are you sorry), I gave some examples of lame apologies, ones guaranteed to make the situation worse, instead of better.

Today let’s focus on apologies that are truly helpful, with help from psychologist Harriet Lerner. In her book, “Why, Won’t you apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts,” she offers pointers:

1. The best apologies are short and sincere. They have a single purpose, which is to open lines of communication. Once, the two of you are talking, there is plenty of time to address underlying issues, if there are any.

2. What to say? State your trespass. Say you’re sorry and that you’ve learned your lesson. Here’s an example: “The comment, I made was offensive. I’m sorry I was insensitive, and it won’t happen again.”

3. Short and simple will not suffice if that thing that you did was a major betrayal. In those cases, “I’m sorry” is a good first step — for a long-distance run. Step two, is listening to the anger of the wounded party. “There is no greater gift, or one more difficult to offer, than the gift of wholehearted listening to that sort of pain,” Lerner says

4. How to bear a long recitation, of your sins from the person you hurt? Recognize your defensiveness. Ask questions, about whatever, you don’t understand. Find something, you can agree with. Apologize, for your part. Let the offended person know, he or she has been heard. Thank, him or her for sharing. If you see things differently, say so. Draw the line, at insults.

5. If you simply can’t bring yourself to apologize, keep working. Keep trying. Lerner says, “Tendering an apology, one that is authentic and genuinely felt, helps the other person to feel validated, soothed and cared for. It also restores, a sense of well-being and integrity, to the one who sincerely feels, he or she did something wrong.”

If you still can’t apologize, Lerner doesn’t approve, but she does offer a sliver of comfort. You can still change and improve your behavior, she says.

Actions do speak louder than words.



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Are you Sorry??

Are you sorry? Then avoid these traps when apologizing.

Barbara was tired that Friday afternoon at work, and she looked forward to going home, putting on her pajamas, and spending the evening watching TV. But just before quitting time, Lucy dropped by Barbara’s desk. Lucy was lonely. She asked could she come over for supper.

Reluctantly, Barbara said yes, and they agreed on a 7:30 p.m. dinner. But 7:30 came and went, and Lucy didn’t knock on the back door until 9 p.m.

“I’m sorry”, Lucy said as she breezed in. “I ran into an old boyfriend, and we had a few drinks.”

By that point, Barbara was furious. When she appeared in my office a few months later, still angry, I had to tell her that botched apologies are common, and they can poison relationships. That’s one reason self-help books on apologies are so popular.

My favorite, the one I’ve been carrying around with highlighter in hand, is “Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts,” by psychologist Harriet Lerner.

She says some apologies are done so poorly they’re almost worse than no apology at all.

When you need to admit that you were in the wrong, do you know what NOT to say?

Here’s a list:

1. Do not ramble on and on or try to explain why you did what you did. Give the offended party space and time to consider your short and sincere apology.

2. Avoid fake, blame-reversing apologies that sound like this: “OK, I apologize. I’m sorry that you’re so upset.” The offended party will be madder than ever.

3. Apologies that begin, “I’m sorry if …” or “I’m sorry but…” are non-starters, too. Just as you shouldn’t shift the blame, you shouldn’t make excuses for your poor behavior, either. 

4. It is possible that your trespass was so serious — the list of possibilities is long and grim — that the offended party doesn’t want to hear one more word from you. Respect that. This is not the time to ease your guilty conscience.

5. Assuming that the injured party would appreciate an apology, don’t under-do or over-do. Though the two responses seem very different, the problem is usually the same — low self-esteem. Lerner explains, “The more solid one’s sense of self-regard, the more likely that person can feel empathy and compassion for the hurt party and apologize authentically.”

Some of these examples may dredge up memories of conflicts in your life that are still unresolved. Just know that you are not alone.

Apologies can be so much more complicated than that short sentence, “I’m sorry.”



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Grab Control of Chronic Stress — Your Body will Thank You

Grab Control of Chronic Stress

When Joanie first came to see me, she seemed like a person in total control. She had a lucrative law practice, a loving husband, three adorable children.

Nevertheless, she was recovering from her third pounding headache in as many days. When I asked if anything in particular was worrying her, she had a one-word answer.


She told me she was anxious about deadlines at work, her husband’s recent health scare, even the kids’ science projects. Things big and small were keeping her awake at night.

“I wonder,” Joanie said. “Could stress be making me physically ill?”

Scientists have been trying to answer that seemingly simple question — and understand the interplay between body and mind — since the days of the ancient Greeks. Researchers still have much to learn, but this much is certain:

Heart disease, cancer, adult-onset diabetes and Alzheimer’s — the modern maladies that will be the death of most of us — can be caused or complicated by stress. But as harmful as chronic stress can be, not all stress is bad. In fact, some situational stress can be life-saving.

Joanie looked confused, so I told her about Dr. Robert Sapolsky.

The Neuro-endocrinologist and Stanford University professor begins many of his lectures on stress with a word from high school biology — homeostasis. It comes from the Greek words for “same” and “steady” and refers to any process that living things use to maintain stability.

That internal steadiness is desirable, Sapolsky says, unless, for example,  you’re being chased by a lion. Then the situational stress, leading to the secretion of adrenaline and other hormones, will give you energy, bolster your immune defenses and help you think more clearly. With luck, you’ll escape. And even though your body is not in homeostatic balance during that tumultuous time, the automatic stress response is completely appropriate.

The problem, Sapolsky says, is that it doesn’t take physical danger for many of us to experience chronic stress reactions. An argument with the boss,  a traffic jam keeping you from an important assignment, even a painful memory from childhood can trigger the chemical responses. React that way often enough, Sapolsky says, and you run the risk of damaging your cardiovascular system, your nervous system, or even causing brain damage.

Another leading expert in the burgeoning field, Dr. Esther Sternberg, says the interplay between  our emotions and physical health, mediated by stress, also can affect our susceptibility to depression, arthritis, AIDS and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Sternberg, who studies the connections between mind, body, stress, wellness and the environment, comes to many of the same conclusions as Sapolsky: a well-timed stress response can save your life or the life of others. But a chronic cascade of hypothalamic, pituitary and adrenal hormones can be dangerous.

Most of us lead stress-filled lives, even though we encounter very few lions.

To best cope with the stressors we face every day,  Sapolsky, Sternberg and experts at the American Psychological Association offer these suggestions: 

Take a break from the stressor

It’s tough to escape a big work project, a crying baby, a disappointingly large credit card bill. But give yourself permission to step away, if only briefly.You can’t abandon your child or even avoid those bills, but taking a few minutes for yourself is important. 


Even a 20-minute walk, run, swim or dance routine can change and improve your mood. 

Vent to a loved one, someone you trust

Knowing that you can occasionally share your burdens can be a vast relief.


It will help you relax and focus.

Maintain perspective.

If someone cuts you off in traffic or grabs your parking space, don’t allow him or her to upset you. It’s not worth your good health.

I wish you and yours a happy and low-stress new year.



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Beating up on yourself this holiday season? Stop! Give yourself the gift of self-compassion.

gift of self-compassion

Amelia, a struggling young actress, plopped down on my sofa. She’d never been to see a therapist before, but she had to find out why she was so depressed.

“I’m a great daughter and a great friend,” she told me. “When the people I love are down or in trouble, I know how to make them feel better. The problem is I’m not nearly that nice to myself. When I have some sort of reversal, I’m self-critical and self-blaming. I have to learn to take better care of myself, or I’m not going to make it.”

It took me a moment to respond because Amelia had so perfectly described a self-destructive habit that too many of us share.

We are lovely to friends and family. But when we talk to ourselves, we blame, we shame, we guilt until we have convinced ourselves we’re failures as human beings.

My present to you this holiday season is the antidote to all that self-flagellation — the gift of self-compassion. It’s the salve I have recommended many times, yet clients struggle to believe that they deserve it.

Take it from me and Dr. Kristin Neff — we do.

Neff, an educational psychologist and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says self-compassion means treating yourself with the same kindness, care and compassion that you would show others.

During an interview with The Atlantic in May, Neff said:

“One component of self-compassion is self-kindness, which is obvious in a way. But it also entails a recognition of common humanity—in other words, the understanding that all people are imperfect, and all people have imperfect lives. Sometimes, when we fail, we react as if something has gone wrong—that this shouldn’t be happening. … But it’s not ‘poor me.’ “It’s well, ‘everyone fails.’ Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human.”

Neff says self-compassion also involves mindfulness.

“We have to be willing to turn toward and acknowledge our suffering. Typically, we don’t want to do that. We want to avoid it, we don’t want to think about it, and want to go straight into problem-solving.”

During my research, I found a more light-hearted take on self-compassion from The School of Life, which is an institute based in London and focused on emotional intelligence. Their five-minute video on YouTube is a gift in itself, with sketches and a script that will make you laugh. But the underlying message couldn’t be more serious. The video begins by acknowledging that we’re all so adept at self-criticism that the end result can be depression and underperformance.

“We might simply lose the will to get out of bed,” says the ironic British moderator.

Call the perfect cure what you will — self-compassion, self-care, a 30-minute bubble bath, or, as the moderator says in his wonderful British accent, “a corrective.”

“We’re suspicious because this sounds horribly close to self-pity,” the moderator says. “But because depression and self-hatred are serious enemies of a good life, we need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious, and fruitful life.”

How to ban those self-destructive voices in your head? I heartily embrace this School of Life, 15-minute exercise, best performed in bed or bath. 

  1. Think about scale when you consider the task at which you just failed. It was actually very hard, almost impossible. 
  2. We all have tricky family histories. Maybe you weren’t equipped to handle the disaster that just befell you. It’s not all your fault.
  3. Too often we compare ourselves to people who are rich, famous and brilliant, too. Far more common are routine, run-of-the-mill failures. That’s what we call normal.
  4. We tend to believe that we are in control; we control our own luck. But too often, that’s not the case. We’re not in control or to blame.
  5. Your achievements are just a part of who you are. While you’re relaxing these few minutes, try to remember the people, the voices of your childhood. They loved you for who you were, not what you accomplished.    
  6. This most recent crisis, the one that has you in bed talking to yourself, seems like it’s going to last forever. Not true. While you’re feeling blue, however, indulge yourself. Rest. That’s what you need most of all.

To all of you out there reading my blog, I wish you happy holidays. And don’t forget the bubble baths.



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Mending fences: How to heal shredded relationships after a damaging presidential election

empathy and the election

Rob and Mary have supported each other through health crises, career ups and downs, the raising of five children. But even they have one subject that they cannot discuss without thoughts of divorce —America’s 2016 presidential election.

The Hamptons and the Smiths have always been great neighbors. Until that Saturday morning in October, when the couples stopped speaking.“Obama’s a Muslim,” Bob Hampton had said, and Sue Smith had screamed, “You’re a fool.”

Two women relax over coffee — until Susan says a former boss once tried to grope her. Martha freezes. Her husband was once accused of making inappropriate advances to a female employee. He said — and Martha believed — that he was innocent.

A long and divisive political campaign has left some friends, some families, and big segments of the United States deeply divided. How to repair the damage? How to begin the healing? 

In my office, I am teaching clients one word to take to heart — empathy. Other therapists, including Houston’s own Brené Brown Brown, are touting the power of empathy, too. As she defines it, empathy is the ability to understand what someone is feeling and to reflect back that understanding.

If empathy sounds simple or easy, it is neither. Brown writes, “We can fake empathy, but when we do, it’s not healing or connecting. The prerequisite for real empathy is compassion. We can only respond empathetically if we are willing to be present to someone’s pain. Empathy is the antidote to shame, and it is the heart of connection.”

That means that Rob and Mary have to stop plugging their ears when the subject of presidential politics come up; they must try to understand what the other is saying and why. Mary, who is pleased with the election’s outcome, has to reach back and remember the many times her candidates have lost. Then she can be truly empathetic.

The Hamptons and the Smiths also have to remember that they were once valued friends. They’ve helped raise each other’s children and fed each other’s pets. No one in the foursome is “bad,” or uncaring or racist. They’re just trusting different news sources and viewing the candidates through different lenses at this moment in time.

And Martha and Susan have to remember that there are at least two sides to every story, including and especially the conversations about sexual assault that are  taking place around the country. As Brown says, “We can only respond empathetically if we are willing to be present to someone’s pain.” She also says we have to choose curiosity, connection and courage over walking away or shutting down.

From conversations with clients, I know that they want to become more empathetic but they’re not sure how to go about it. I’m fond of an article by social philosopher Roman Krznaric, who has written an entire book titled “Empathy.”

Krznaric lists six habits of highly empathetic people:

  1. They have a great curiosity about strangers, including the people sitting next to them on the bus or selecting radishes at the grocery store.
  2. They constantly challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices and search for commonalities rather than differences.
  3. They put the North American proverb into practice: Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.
  4. They listen to others and allow themselves to be vulnerable.
  5. They are open to the idea that empathy on a grand scale can help bring about fundamental social change. Empathy means even distant strangers can pool resources to help hungry children, drought-stricken farmers or victims of war.
  6. They understand that empathy applies not only to starving children, drought-stricken farmers or victims of war —the usual suspects, as Krznaric says — but those who hold differing views on explosive topics.

Safe to say the election has been explosive. Krznaric counsels that everyone remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi. During the conflicts between Muslims and Hindus leading up to Indian independence in 1947, he was asked if he was a Hindu, “Yes I am,” he said. “I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” 

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Attachment styles — the ties that bind or break

Attachment Styles

Little Betty loved her parents. And while they loved her, too, they didn’t seem to have time for her. They were always rushing. They were always running out the door.

Betty learned to get their attention. But she had to tug on their clothing, wrap her arms around their legs or cry. Betty’s parents didn’t like that clingy behavior. Spare the rod, spoil the child, they said.

From cradle to grave, we all need to feel securely attached to those we love.

When natural attachments don’t form during childhood, that deficit can cause big problems later in life. When couples come to me with problems in their relationships, often attachment issues are to blame.

British psychiatrist John Bowlby, known for his pioneering work in attachment theory, said infants and toddlers need strong bonds with adult caregivers and a safe base from which to explore.

Doctors Phillip Shaver and Cindy Hazan took the research a step further — they made the connection between children who grew up with stunted attachments and adult relationship problems.

Today it’s widely understood that many of the topics couples wrestle with in therapists’ offices— the definitions of intimacy and closeness, responses to conflict, feelings and behavior around sex, ability to communicate wishes and needs, partner expectations — all have to do with their own attachment styles.

It’s important, then, to recognize your attachment style.

Here are the big four attachment styles:


Jack and Carol are so secure with each other that they encourage each other’s interests. Carol is not jealous or possessive when Jack plays golf with his buddies. Jack encourages Carol to have a night out with her women friends. But Jack and Carol are best friends as well as lovers. In times of trouble, they go to each other for comfort. This is the type of relationship successful couples want.

Anxious, preoccupied.

Betty gets insecure and scared that Todd is going to leave her. She constantly looks to Todd for reassurance. And she gets demanding, he pulls away. “See?” Betty thinks. “Todd doesn’t love me.”

Dismissive, avoidant.

Rick and Nancy are fighting all the time. The problem is that Rick is emotionally distant. When Nancy tries to help him or ask why he shuts her out, he refuses to say. He’s like a brick wall. When Nancy gets so frustrated that she threatens to leave, Rick says, “I don’t care.”

Fearful, avoidant.

Mary is a bundle of contradictions — a mix of Betty and Rick. She looks to her new boyfriend, Rad, for emotional and physical intimacy, but she’s afraid of getting too close. She tries to control her ambivalence, her neediness and emotional distance, but she can’t. She is full of fear.

The good news is that couples with attachment issues can hope for improvement.

The key is willingness to look clearly at both strengths and vulnerabilities.

Therapist Sue Johnson, who developed EFT or emotionally focused therapy, suggests that clients look at the patterns that cause friction and stress, discuss them, then work on making the needed adjustments.

As I also tell my clients, identify the negative dance. Understand the coping mechanisms — the screaming, nagging and stonewalling — that are certainly understandable but also destructive. Instead, seek closeness. Model reliability, consistency, availability. There’s a good chance your partner will follow your lead. At least you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Good luck and love,


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Could it be me? When our own fears and hurts threaten our relationships.

threaten our relationships

“We are never so vulnerable as when we love, and never so hopelessly unhappy as when we lose the object of our love.” ~ Sigmund Freud

Haley met Eric on a sunny day while they were sitting outside enjoying Sunday brunch. Everything about him got her attention: his looks, his choice of clothing, his Bloody Mary, but mostly the kindness in his eyes. When he approached her table, she felt her heart race.

But Haley wasn’t sure if she was excited, apprehensive or both. She was still healing from a painful break up. She didn’t understand what went wrong in the old relationship, and the not knowing scared her. Whenever she felt attracted to someone, she wondered, would he break her heart, too?

Here’s the simple truth — we are vulnerable with those we love.

It is the one relationship where we show up with our strengths and our weaknesses, too. Psychologist Sue Johnson talks about “raw spots” in her book, “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.”

Raw spots?

Sue defines them this way: “A hypersensitivity formed by moments in a person’s past or current relationships when an attachment need has been repeatedly neglected, ignored, or dismissed.”

What is an “attachment need?”

That refers to our human desires for acceptance, belonging, comfort when we hurt, and safety to be ourselves. From the cradle to the grave we all long to feel understood and accepted by those we love. That is why most fights and conversations couples have in my office are not about money, in-laws, remote controls, or divisions of labor. They are about those attachment needs, and the threat we feel when they are not met.

Haley and Eric had an intense courtship and a beautiful wedding. But they never discussed their raw spots. Haley was still afraid of getting her heart broken, and not just because of the previous relationship that had soured inexplicably. Her father had left home when she was only 7. Both she and her mother had been deeply hurt.

Eric had his raw spots, too. Inevitably, he and Haley fought. And when Haley criticized him, he felt he could hear his mother’s nagging voice. She hated his interest in video games and texting, just as Haley criticized him when he focused on his phone messages instead of her.

The love and attraction Haley and Eric felt for one another was unmistakable, yet their fights were intense, too. He felt she was disproportionately angry; she should cut him some slack. She felt desperate and confused. Was this relationship going to go down the tubes, too?

During the sessions in my office, we unpacked all those hurt feelings. Haley and Eric came to understand that the fights were more about their own raw spots than problems with each other. As they healed their wounds and their relationship, the fighting decreased drastically.

What can we learn from Eric and Haley?

We all have raw spots.

You know you’ve hit yours when you go from 0 to 60 over something seemingly trivial. Or, you and your significant other have the same fight over and over. Or, in a seemingly normal conversation, something said bothers you so much you react with anger, confusion or coldness.

To stop and contain these destructive fights, it’s important to identify the raw spots, try to understand them, stop the negative fighting and focus on healing.

For instance, Haley was able to tell Eric that it helped when he let her know that he expected a busy day at the office or that he was preoccupied by a problem at work. Then Haley understood that his preoccupation wasn’t personal; he wasn’t distancing himself from her.

Haley also told Eric that she found his touch and hugs very comforting, and he was happy to hear that. He learned he could comfort the woman he loved and feel better about himself as a husband.

Eric told Haley he needed to know he was a good partner and appreciated affirmation from her when he was thoughtful and caring. He also asked Haley to tell him when she was upset and not remain silent and fuming. He also asked her not to withhold sex because that was an important way that he felt comforted and loved.

Our raw spots are easier to address if we have grown up in a safe, secure home where expressions of emotions and needs were respected and acknowledged. However, in the case of past emotional trauma and possible neglect and/or abuse, the challenge is bigger and requires more patience and perseverance in therapy.

My best advice: Do this work, however long it takes. The reward will be that thing you’ve always wanted – a close and loving relationship.

With love,

Editor’s note: All of the couples mentioned in this blog are purely fictional, but they illustrate some of the problems shared by my clients over the years.

Note: I’m taking a short, summer break, so there will be no blog in August. See you back in September.

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