“Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also–if you love them enough.” -George Washington Carver
I’ve been a psychotherapist for over thirty years. I have long ago lost count of just how many of my clients have commented–sometimes with appreciation, other times with disbelief–on how they don’t know how I do what I do. How can I possibly listen to so many terrible stories, they wonder. These comments invariably emerge after a patient has shared a deep dark secret.
I reply with my genuine feelings–I am constantly grateful and feel deeply privileged to do what I do. Although I do hear horrible stories at times–those of violence and pain, rife with injustices and betrayals–I also bear witness to the healing that can come when people reveal certain secrets about themselves or their loved ones that they thought they had to carry alone.
People keep secrets for a variety of reasons that are not necessarily good or bad. Each individual, family, and culture has spoken and unspoken rules about privacy vs. transparency. I am not suggesting that it is better to tell everyone everything.
But there are some secrets that become toxic when not revealed to anyone, ever. Underneath toxic secrets there is some fear that keeps that person from opening up. Sometimes the fear is justified but often it is misplaced, magnified or completely false. What are some of the reasons all of us keep information buried inside even when we desperately want to tell someone?
If you were one of the lucky people, raised in a happy loving family, you’ve most likely emerged with many of the skills and strengths necessary to form lasting healthy relationships…and you are probably NOT reading this blog right now.
Unfortunately, far too many people were raised by parents filled with good intentions but plagued by bad, sometimes destructive habits from their own childhood upbringing. These ghosts of the past, if not recognized, can haunt our families.
Our histories pack a powerful punch when we’ve buried (or tried to bury) old feelings as a way of avoiding the pain associated with them. Unfortunately, the unfinished business from our childhood and previous relationships also tends to get projected onto and then played out with our partner and/or our children. It is sad but true that the people we love the most in the world become the unwitting victims of this process.
Our emotional brains allowed us to survive as a species. We had to learn–and then be able to respond very quickly–about what or whom to approach and when to run like hell. Memories, especially ones with strong emotions, get wired into our brains without our awareness. Events that remind us of an emotionally charged experience from the past then trigger the same thoughts, feelings and body memories.
The emotional mind reacts to the present as if the past event were happening again. The combat veteran who leaps into the closet at the sound of a door slamming is instantly back on the streets of Iraq running for cover. Luckily, most people don’t suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a severe syndrome now widely publicized and better understood. But our brains are wired the same. Every one of us has our “emotional triggers” or “buttons” that move our emotions to the foreground and our clear …
Parenting is one of the hardest jobs around. Especially here, especially now, in our rapidly moving, constantly changing modern world. Most parents seek out this job willingly and joyfully with the best of intentions. Doesn’t everyone want to raise happy healthy children who grow up into competent independent adults? Of course. So what goes wrong?
It is easy to pick out the parents who are not doing their jobs. These are the parents who have too many problems of their own to contend with–like substance abuse, severe untreated mental illness, domestic violence or highly conflictual marriages, inadequate physical and emotional resources–so that they are clearly unable to provide the nurturing and supervision that all children need. Anyone can understand why children raised in unsafe and chaotic environments are at risk for developing emotional or behavioral problems.
But what about the kids who come from loving homes with well-meaning parents who shower their kids with attention, affection, guidance and opportunities of all kinds. Can you ever love a child too much? Probably not. Can you smother a child with too much love and attention? Yes indeed.
Parents today are far better informed about the importance of forming strong secure attachments with their infants. Babies need to know that their caregivers will meet not only their survival needs but their needs for touch, empathy, and connection. But with every passing year, children also need the freedom to explore independently in order to develop a sense of autonomy.
Finding the balance between the two is an exquisite dance of moving apart and then moving together again, like breathing in and breathing out, stepping forward and stepping back, leaning in and letting go. In my experience as a family therapist, I am seeing more and more parents struggling with the desire for too much closeness, and as a result producing kids–particularly teens and young adults–drowning …
What if you turned on the news to the following headline…FREE new technique–with no known side effects–is found to improve the mood of 88.8% of users!!! Would you be curious or do you already know what it is?
Touted throughout history, described by Aristotle, Freud, and modern day psychotherapists of many theoretical backgrounds–the answer is allowing yourself a good cry. Weeping helps almost everyone, young and old, male and female.
Not All Tears Are the Same
Our eyes produce three kinds of tears–each of which serves a different function. Every time we blink, our eyelids produce continuous or basal tears to keep the surface of our eyes protected and moist and also necessary to help protect us from getting infections of the eyes.
Reflex tears, like basal tears, are 98% water. Their production is triggered when a foreign object or something irritating gets into the eye by accident, acting like a natural eye shower to keep our eyes clean.
Emotional tears are composed differently and include an endorphin and natural painkiller called enkephalin. “Emotional tears contain higher concentrations of proteins, manganese, and the hormone prolactin which is produced during stress-induced danger or arousal,” says Dr Carrie Lane of the University of Texas. This difference explains why “crocodile tears” (the type used for manipulation and trickery) are not the same as real ones.
Crying Helps Us Heal
Dr. William Frey from the University of Minnesota is a biochemist who has been studying crying for over thirty years. He found that emotional catharsis helps shed both stress hormones and toxins. Simultaneously, crying stimulates the body to produce endorphins which not only help reduce our experience of pain but also help turn up the volume of our immune system.
Tears can make us feel better and physically stimulate healing at the same time, which is a pretty powerful combination. If you find this subject fascinating, check out Frey’s book, Crying: The Mystery of Tears. Frey is a believer in what is dubbed “the recovery theory” which hypothesizes that we literally cry things out as a way …
If you don’t know exactly what I mean by contempt, it is disdain for another, openly acting patronizing, insulting, and disrespectful. Contempt is criticism with a twist. When I have contempt for another, I put myself above them. It is criticism with a holier-than-thou attitude mixed in.
Who could possibly act this way? The answer is: we all do. Hopefully, not very much.
On the other hand, if you grew up in a family where your parents had lots of contempt for each other or for people who were different-racially, politically, religiously, ethnically-then you probably picked up this bad habit without even knowing it. If you want, as most of us do, to have close, loving relationships, it is essential that you know about contempt, and that you do your best to eliminate it from your arsenal of emotional weapons.
Many of the couples that come to me for therapy love one another and are trying to practice good communication. They usually have no idea how often contempt creeps into their relationship, particularly in times of disagreement and difficulty. Or how much damage it can do to an otherwise happy marriage.
The Face of Contempt
The psychologist Paul Eckman is probably one of the world’s foremost experts on human emotions and how they can be seen in facial expressions and body language. (If this interests you, watch reruns of the TV series Lie to Me, based on the application of Eckman’s research to uncover liars).
Eckman studied contempt in both Western and non-Western cultures around the world, and believes it is universally communicated in the same way. When a person feels contempt for another, the corner of the lip on one side of the face is tightened and raised slightly and the head is tilted slightly back. It is even easier to spot when it is accompanied by the rolling of eyes.
Eckman classifies contempt as …
Stan and Tiffany came to see me for marriage counseling after an argument over the children erupted into a shouting match. Although they were each embarrassed that they had screamed and used foul language, what confused them the most was what they had said to one another in the thick of the fight. Both of them had said cruel, blaming words, and they had been unable to reconcile and feel close again afterwards.
When I pushed for more details, Stan had said things like, “You’ve turned out to be just like your mother–I don’t know why I thought you were different–but you’re not! I don’t even like you anymore.” Tiffany hadn’t minced words either, screaming “I hate you–you’re not a man, you’re a child who throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. Don’t touch me!”
Stan had stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him. He slept on the couch, and neither had been able to talk things out any better in the morning. When I probed them each to tell me where they were stuck, they both said essentially the same thing, Each of them was afraid that the cutting words shared that night were the other’s deep truth. “If that’s what he/she really feels about me, how can we stay together,” they asked me.
Stan and Tiffany, like most couples, have never been taught about what happens when emotions take over the driver’s seat and grab the wheel. What they had experienced that night was what Dan Goleman named “an amygdala hijacking.”
Here is what happens when emotions take the wheel: The seat of emotions is in the old part of the brain called the limbic system–the part we share not just with all our fellow mammals but with reptiles. Animals in the wild and our early human ancestors had to be vigilant in order to survive, constantly searching for something to eat and, at the same time, desperately avoiding being eaten.
Similarly, humans are wired …
As a psychotherapist, I am constantly struck by how little the average person knows about emotions– both why we have them in the first place and what we are to do about them when they cause us pain and suffering. Dealing with emotions-our own and those of our kids and partners-can be one of the more painful, frustrating, and ultimately fulfilling parts of being in a family.
After the groundbreaking classic bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, by clinical psychologist Daniel Goleman came out in 1995, the world came to the shocking realization that just being smart (having a high IQ) did not necessarily lead to success in work or in relationships. In fact, being intellectually gifted is very different from being emotionally mature. Don’t you constantly see glaring examples of smart people doing stupid things? I certainly do.
Our emotions, if denied and repressed (buried deep) OR if given free rein (boiling over) can lead us down some dark and dusty paths. On the other hand, if we learn to be more aware of what we are feeling and learn how to express our emotions in constructive ways, these very same emotions can help us build deeper intimacy and empathy. Feelings are an essential part of our humanity, and once understood, we can begin to work with them so they don’t get the best of us.
The emotional mind is like a radar system that tries to protect us from harm and aims us in the right direction. When we sense danger, our emotions allow us to react before we have time to think. When we sense something we need (food, comfort) our feelings tell us which way to go forward. This is why they are a necessary part (not all) of making good decisions.
As infants, our emotions helped communicate our needs to our caregivers, and as adults they still help us to know what we like and don’t like. They are …
“To use fear as the friend it is, we must retrain and reprogram ourselves. We must persistently and convincingly tell ourselves that the fear is here–with its gift of energy and heightened awareness–so we can do our best and learn the most in the new situation.” ~Peter Williams
Barely a week goes by these days without some mention of the skyrocketing rates of anxiety in our culture. Drugs are offered as a quick fix but they come with a price. As discussed in a previous blog, most psychotropic medications like Xanax and Valium are highly addictive, and can be very difficult to withdraw from.
In the psychotherapy research, the use and benefits of various cognitive behavioral therapies have been widely proclaimed as the answer. New research from a team led by Elizabeth Phelps, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, now demonstrates how there can be a bit of a slipped cog in cognitive methods. Published last month by Raio et al. with the provocative title, “Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test,” this new research got my attention.
What Is Cognitive Emotion Regulation Anyway?
Cognitive emotion regulation is a fancy term to describe managing one’s feelings by deliberately thinking about them in more helpful ways. For example, millions of people override their fear of flying by reminding themselves that travel by plane is far safer than travel by car. Cognitive therapy teaches consumers to question their fear-inducing beliefs and to substitute them with more accurate appraisals, and these tools have been widely shown in the laboratory to be effective in altering the nature of our negative emotional responses.
However, what this newly published study demonstrates is that even mild stress can derail the ability of someone to use these otherwise effective weapons when they most need them–in real life. “In other words, what you learn in the clinic may not be as relevant in the real world when you’re stressed….Our results …
Would you like to be able to answer yes to the following questions? Would you like your partner to answer yes? Your children?
Do you prefer to be organized and disciplined? Is neatness important to you? Do you have high standards and expectations of yourself? Do you have a need to strive for excellence? Sounds good, but…
What if the questions were these instead…
Do you often feel disappointment after completing a task, knowing you could have done better? Does your best just never seems to be quite good enough? Even when you have performed well, do you feel little satisfaction at your victory?
Perfectionism is a personality trait that psychologists have been studying for the past thirty years. It is used to describe people who set extremely high standards for themselves, striving to be the best at whatever goal they are pursuing. It sounds good–except when it’s not. The big difference is whether the goal is to excel (potentially attainable with dedication and hard work) or to be perfect (unattainable since no one succeeds without trial and error).
Although most people wish they had at least a small dose of perfectionism, there is a fine line between healthy perfectionism and its maladaptive form. Too much of this trait leads to setting goals that are excessively high and is usually accompanied by hypercritical, unrealistic expectations of self and others. No surprise it can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and a slew of other problems.
Psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett, believe that perfectionism comes in different shapes and sizes, each associated with different kinds of problems. Although some of the associated issues may be less severe than others, no perfectionism is trouble proof. The three types they have identified are self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism.
The self-oriented first types focus their need for perfection on themselves; …
In the last blog, we learned about what causes emotional triggers–or even worse–a full-blown amygdala highjacking. Sounds a bit like a terrorist attack–only it’s coming from inside your brain. Just knowing that everyone gets triggered (more or less) will elicit more compassion, both for yourself and for others.
It is uncomfortable and disconcerting when those gnarly buttons get pushed, and out comes some ugly, scary or otherwise unintended reaction–most often directed at or caused by someone you love very deeply. Try not to be so judgmental. One of the things I constantly say to my therapy clients is to be easy on themselves since we all come by our negative reactions and neuroses honestly.
Although most of us might choose never to get triggered, this is an unreachable target. Memory and emotion are connected in the brain. By the time you are reading this blog, countless experiences, both positive and negative have been programmed into your memory. These experiences, combined with your inborn temperament, make you the unique person that you are. So the goal should not be to eliminate your triggers but to learn how to work with them. The goal is to be able to choose how you respond in a given moment rather than simply react, and to be happier and more at peace in the present moment.
Here are some practices that will help you lessen your reactive responses. That being said, they don’t call it “spiritual practices” for nothing–none of us but the fully enlightened ever get to perfection–which is why daily practice is essential to cultivating more inner peace.
Originally associated with Buddhist meditation, mindfulness has rapidly grown in popularity because it is an effective technique to overcome many psychological and physical conditions. The Buddha taught that people should make a day to day …