All posts by kellen

About kellen

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Certified Life Coach who has worked in the mental health field for more than 15 years. In my years of working with other people I have developed various ideas and opinions which I will be sharing both here and at my blog site, This work is about healing, empowering, and gleaning wisdom from the journey. May you find something here to help you with yours. Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to diagnose, treat, or replace legal or medical advice from a local professional. All references to people, named or otherwise are entirely fictional.

Home for the Holidays: Dealing with Toxic Families

Blood may be thicker than water, but you can’t drink it.  We are told throughout our lives that family is the most important thing.  I constantly find myself working with clients who are deeply entrenched in the dynamics of toxic family systems.  Helping them navigate these turbulent waters can be difficult, but well worth the effort.

  With the holidays approaching, family dynamics became more and more salient as we arrange Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas parties.  Families often put us in the difficult position of choosing between family loyalty and maintaining our own healthy boundaries.  Family dynamics are heavily influenced by cultural values.  Some cultures put a very high value on the closeness of and loyalty to family while others do not. If you come from a culture which places a high value on familial loyalty and your family is fairly toxic this can create a real bind to your own mental health. 

What does a toxic family look like?  Toxicity in families can take as many forms are there are families, so it would be impossible to list them all.  I will list some of the more common forms I see, but you can be your own best judge.  In general, if your peace of mind is compromised during interactions with your family there are at least some unhealthy dynamics in play.  If you are a mature, intelligent, functional human being until you reunite with your family, then you turn into a quivering blob of angst and incompetence, you probably have some toxicity going on. Learning to maintain healthy boundaries can help you separate yourself a bit from the deep eddies of family dynamics that can literally pull you under. 

Family Roles

Family roles kick in when we reunite with our families of origin.  If you were always the "problem" child at 17 you may still be put in this role even though you are now 45.  You may feel you have grown out of this and moved on, but the family has some need to keep you in the scapegoat role.  If you are the hero in the family you may feel enormous pressure to keep up your facade of being competent and successful despite feeling otherwise.  The lost child of the family may have grown up to be a competent and outspoken adult.  But when at home with the family they disappear into the wallpaper.  If the family system has a Victim-Persecutor-Rescuer script in play you may get sucked back into that role or game.  Now add in a few spouses who don’t understand why your behavior has suddenly changed or why you have started treating them differently and things get really dicey.  Add in a history of substance abuse, domestic violence or sexual abuse and things may get completely out of control. 

Toxic families often have very enmeshed or diffuse boundaries.  This is how you get sucked in.  Learning to say "No" can help you create or reestablish a healthy boundary between yourself and the family role or script.  Does your family’s Christmas start in November with a lot of drama?   "Well I won’t be there is so-and-so comes."  "I can’t believe you invited what’s-her-name!"  "Do you know what your sister said to me?" 

Drama is usually at least a 3 player game.  And it requires you to get sucked into at least sharing, if not carrying, someone else’s emotions.  If one family member is talking to you about a problem they are having with another family member, that is a red flag.  If there is a lot of emotion behind it, that is a second red flag.  Why aren’t they addressing the problem with the person they are upset with?  Why are they telling you?  Are they wanting you to fight the battle for them?  Do they aim to turn you against the other person?  Are they scapegoating one member?

Just Say "No"

Before I continue it is important to say that you should always use your own judgement when dealing with family issues.  If you come from a very violent or dangerous family you need to carefully consider whether it is safe to interact with them at all.  If your family dynamics are so toxic that saying "No" or standing up for yourself puts you at serious risk of mental, emotional, sexual, physical or verbal abuse think carefully before continuing.  Your safety should always come first.  Some families are so toxic that interacting with them at all can be a danger to your mental or physical safety. 

Even in families which are only mildly toxic, changing family patterns can be very difficult.  Old habits die hard.  It is important to remember than you cannot change others, only yourself.  Work on your own behavior and maintaining your own boundaires – not in trying to "save" or "correct" someone else. 

If you find yourself in a "triangle", one person is coming to you to complain about another and possibly turn you against the third person, redirect the conversation back to where it belongs and refuse to engage.  "Mom, if you are upset with Mary you should talk to her about it.  Telling me does no good."  And change the topic.

If family members threaten not to come to a holiday event, so be it.  It’s their loss.  You can’t control other people.  You also cannot allow them to control you.  Just say "No" to getting hysterical about it or being manipulated by it.  I have one colleague who finally had enough after years of family members threatening not to come home for Thanksgiving if so-and-so was going to be there.  She just said "No" to being dragged into that game.  She decided she was going to have a Thanksgiving dinner at her house – period.  And whoever wanted to come could.  And whoever did not come was fine too.  So be it.  But whether anyone came or not, there would be a Thanksgiving dinner served at 12:00 noon.   When she announced her decision to her family chaos and drama immediately ensued.  People threatened not to come.  Some said they couldn’t make it to her house and tried to change the location of the dinner.  Some said they couldn’t make it at that time and tried to change the time.   She shrugged it off.  Thanksgiving dinner would be served at her house at 12 noon.  Come if you like.  But families don’t give up so easily.  About half of them refused to come.  The half which did come tried to engage her in disparaging the ones who did not come.  She said just said "No".  She would not engage in scapegoating people who were absent.  Some tried to come early or late in an attempt to push the time earlier or later.  She just said "No".  Thanksgiving dinner was served at 12 noon.  Thos who were early had to wait.  Those who arrived late and were served cold leftovers.  But guess what happened the next year?  They still tried to have power plays and suck people into old dynamics.  They still tried to change the time or location or who would be allowed to come.  Those things die hard.  But she held her ground.  And the next year, they knew she meant it.  So they huffed and they puffed – but they showed up – on time.

If your family engages in name calling, making fun of people, labeling or disparaging others – just say "No".  If they do this to you or your children don’t laugh and go along or explode and cause a scene.  Walk away.  Refuse to participate in it.  Draw the line.  And tell them, "I don’t allow people to talk to my children that way."  "Please don’t call me that anymore.  It’s not funny."  If they don’t stop, walk away.  Go to another room or leave the area.  Refuse to go along with it.  You may have to leave the event all together to convince them you are serious about it stopping.  So be it. 

If your family is so toxic it is a threat to your safety you may have to completely disengage.  If the family Christmas erupts in violence your "No" may have to be to the invitation to come at all.  There is no excuse for violence and you should not be expected to participate in or be subjected to it.  If Dad is a roaring drunk and ends all holidays meals by breaking up the furniture and eventually hitting someone, why would you expose yourself, your spouse or your children to this?

Stop being at the mercy of family dynamics.  Figure out what games are being played, what dynamics are at work and take responsibility for what part you play in them.  Then make choices about how to deal with – like the intelligent, mature adult you know you are capable of being.

For more articles on mental health issues please see my blog at:


How to Help Someone Grieve

A client, who recently lost a brother, asked me how she could help her mother who was still grieving the loss of her son.  It was an excellent question.  American culture does not teach us how to grieve.  A not-so-uncommon approach is to go to the doctor and get an antidepressant to avoid feeling the pain.  But this only delays the inevitable.  It does not help you to grieve.  And it does not help the person you care about to grieve and move on.  How do you help another person grieve in a healthy way?

 Just listen.  Most people will not be willing to do this and if you can it will be a great relief to them.  Seeing someone in pain, especially emotional pain, makes many people uncomfortable and they will try to "cheer up" the grieving person in order to stop their own discomfort.  Others may try to turn the conversation to a different topoic or shut down the grieving person’s talk about their pain.  If someone you love is in emotional pain, listen.  Let them talk.  Hear their pain and don’t try to cheer them up or shut them up.  Let them have their pain and feel it. 

If their pain is the result of something traumatic or sudden, they may need to tell you the same thing over and over in order to get it out.  Other people may be saying to them, "You should be over this already" or "You’ve told me this already".  They may not understand the need to tell it again and again.  When I worked with Katrina survivors they would tell me over and over about the day of the flood.  They needed to tell it to get it out.  If someone you love experienced a sudden or catastrophic loss, listen and listen and listen.  Let them say it again and again until they are through with it. 

Don’t put a time limit on their grief.  People will sometimes say, "It’s been three months already.  You should move on."  Grief can easily take a year, or more, depending on the severity of the loss.  If they have lost someone to death or experienced a divorce a year is well within reason.  Birthdays and holidays have to be experienced without the loved one.  The yearly anniversary of the loss will also be painful, and may continue to be painful for a few years to come.  Ask what you can do to help and let them tell you what they need.  If they want to be cheered up or distracted get specific information about how they would like to do that.  If they want to grieve in private, let them.  If they want a ceremony, help them plan it. 

Understand that they may have many different emotions about the loss, not just sadness.  And they may move through different emotions at different times as they process the experience.  They may initially be in shock or denial, not quite grasping what has happened and continuing as if nothing has changed.  They may move through a period of anger at the person who died for leaving them, or at God for betraying them.  They may experience fear as they try to figure out how to carry on without the one they lost.  Let them express each emotion and work it out in their own way. 

Don’t guide, follow.  Let the person who is grieving determine what is best for them at the time you are with them.  They may need to cry one day, rage the next and be distracted the next.  Ask what they need from you.  They may not know, but if they do, honor it. 

The grief process is complicated and painful, but coming out on the other side can leave the person who experienced the loss with many good things; an increased appreciation for life, renewed appreciation for the people who were there for him, stronger coping skills for dealing with future problems, or an awareness of inner strength they did not know before.  Let the process happen and don’t try to thwart it with good intentions.  You may find that during the process, you yourself have grown as well.

Read more articles about Grief , Depression and Trauma at my blog:


Mindfulness and Childhood Trauma

The hot new concept in psychotherapy these days is "mindfulness".  At least the word is new.  It means "staying in the present".  Most concepts are just old concepts revisited with new jargon.  This concept is an important one and I’m glad it has been resurrected.  Many of us grew up learning to be out of touch with our bodies, our senses and our emotions.  People who experienced trauma as children and those who lived in repressive households are especially susceptible. 

Being out of touch with your body is a great loss because our bodies serve as very, very sensitive radars which alert us to things going on in the world around us.  They warn us of dangers, allow us to experience pleasure and provide us with a sensory rich experience of the world around us.  Our bodies communicate stress, discomfort, pleasure, pain, grief, happiness, wariness, fear, contentment and more.  What deprives us of this rich store of information and how do we tap back into it?

Trauma(s) during childhood

A primary defense mechanism of children who are traumatized (physically, verbally, mentally, emotionally, or especially sexually) is dissociation.  Dissociation is the process of separating your awareness of what’s going on from your body’s signals.  Mind you, everyone dissociates a bit.  I usually do it in rush hour traffic traveling a familiar route.  I realize I have passed 3 exits on the interstate and don’t remember how I got there.  This is dissociating.  Some people call it daydreaming or spacing out.  A certain amount of dissociation is normal.  But people who have been abused do it to the point that they they are totally out of touch with their bodies and miss important signals and events.  This is especially typical of sexually abused children who often "space out" or "leave" their bodies while they are being molested.  As adults they are often still dissociated from their bodies and the messages their bodies receive.  This dissociation leaves them floating through life feeling disconnected and out of touch.  It deprives them of the comfort and pleasure their body is able to provide.  Most importantly, it cuts them off from the vast wealth of sensory information their body provides them about the world around them and the people with whom they interact.  They are suddenly having a panic attack and don’t know why. 

Repressive families

Another source of disconnection is living in a family which represses its members.  If you were raised with Cleopatra, Queen of Denial, you may have grown up being told you didn’t see what you saw, you didn’t hear what you heard and things weren’t happening which you thought were happening.  I grew up in a house where things "didn’t happen".  I thought I saw anger and heard yelling and deduced a fight was occurring.  However, I was told that "nothing" was happening.  Growing up this way I learned not to trust my bodily sensations and impressions.  I did not trust my sight, my hearing, my feelings or my judgment.  I disconnected from my sensory impressions and my instincts.  If I sensed that something was "not right" I ignored it and stayed in the situation by denouncing my instincts as "irrational".  After all, this is what I had learned.  My instincts obviously misguided me as a child since they told me things were happening which the adults said were not, so they must be flawed and untrustworthy.  This is what happens when a child’s perception of events is denied and replaced with fabrications.  When their instincts tell them that dad is not really "sick" but drunk, that mom does not really "have a headache" but is fuming and angry they are corrected and told their instincts are wrong.  They learn to distrust their feelings and perceptions.  They learn to rationalize that everything is "lovely" and to distrust anything which tells them otherwise.

Turning yourself back on

In order to be healthy, happy and whole you have to get back in touch with your body and listen to its messages.  It has a wealth of information if you are willing to listen.  How do you do this?  Simply by asking and listening to its answers and relearning that they can be trusted.  When my clients start intellectualizing about something, agonizing over which way they should "logically" go along a path I often ask them what their "gut" says about it.  When they stop and listen to their own bodies, they often find they already know the answer, they just weren’t listening to it or honoring what it said.  When clients ask me what I think, I refuse to answer them.  They don’t need me to tell them what to do.  I will not always be there.  They need to learn to listen and trust their own intuitions.  That will serve them for the rest of their lives.

Learning to listen to yourself

Take the time at least once a day to sit quietly and commune with your body.  Start at the top of your head and move throughout your entire body.  How does it feel?  It is tight here?  Loose there?  Queasy?  Fearful?  Calm?  It is warm?  Cold?  Just right?  Does it have pain?  Where and how much?  Is there some way you can move or stretch to make it feel more comfortable?  What does it need?  Is it hungry?  Tired?  Thirsty?  What emotions does it feel?  Boredom?  Stress?  Sadness?  Contentment?  What does it see?  What does it hear?  What do you smell around you?  What do you feel on your skin?  What can you taste?  What is your body trying to tell you?

Take your body out and walk it around.  Take it to a museum, to a park, for a walk along a garden path.  Pay attention to how it feels from your head to your toes.  What emotions come up?

Become more aware of your body throughout your body.  The more you practice, the more tuned in to your body you will become.  How does it feel right now while you are reading this?  What does it need? 

And when you experience a disturbing emotion.  Don’t try to shut it down.  Listen.  What is happening?  What is your body trying to tell you?  What is wrong?  Or right?  Experience your emotions and learn to value them.  In the American culture we learn that emotions make us weak.  This is so wrong.  Emotions make us strong.  They give us clues about what is happening around us and how we need to react.  Are you feeling fearful?  Stressed?  Sad?  Wary?  Listen.  Something is happening that you need to attend to and perhaps protect yourself from. 

With age comes wisdom, sometimes

The older I get the more attention I pay to my instincts and my body’s messages.  In my 20’s I used to intellectualize and "outsmart" them.  I was also running much too fast to stop and listen to my body’s signals. Because instincts didn’t speak to me in concrete, rational ways I tended to discount or minimize their messages.  My instincts don’t tell me that someone is lying, they simply say, "hmmmph".  They do not tell me that someone is a sexual predator, they simply say, "yewwwwww".  My skin cringes and my stomach tightens.  Because they do not produce language they can be easy to dismiss. Yet they have their own language and it is the most important language we possess.

In my 40’s I hope I have grown wiser.  I’ve learned to listen to these visceral, wordless feelings.  The more I listen, the more I realize they are very astute and very wise.  What initially feels like a "???" turns out to be someone whose information tends to vary slightly from the truth.  The person who causes a deep sense of wariness in my gut turns out to be someone who is emotionally dangerous.  Paying attention to when and where my body tightens up tells me when I am stressed and where I am carrying it.  Listening to my body also helps me make healthier choices.  My body doesn’t actually crave a Diet Coke.  It is thirsty.  And I have found that hydrating it with water actually satiates that thirst where Diet Coke only causes it to crave more Diet Coke.  I noticed the other day that my mouth wanted more chocolate, but my stomach was saying it had had quite enough, which tipped me off that I was now feeding something other than my body’s needs, perhaps an emotional need.  My body doesn’t actually need a drink at happy hour or a muscle relaxer, it needs to stretch those tightened up muscles.  30 minutes of yoga actually works out the stress and relaxes me instead of merely numbing me to the discomfort. 

Listening to my body and its messages not only gives me a fuller sense of living, but protects me from things long before I can detect them intellectually.  I feel more connected to myself and to the world around me.   It also teaches me that I can be trusted.  My body and its signals can be trusted.  And that makes me feel safer and more grounded as I move through life.  It gives me more confidence in me.  And that makes me feel better in general.

Find more articles about mental health at my blog:



Shake Up in the Psychiatric Field

"The psychiatric field is about to experience an earthquake that will shake its intellectual foundations."

This statement was made by British psychologist Oliver James in a recent article by The Guardian

I hope James is right.  I fear he is not.

James is referring to new research which suggests major psychiatric disorders are not biological but situational – a response to a childhood trauma.  Why is this going to set the psychiatric community on its ear? 


 Because it totally redefines the cause of psychological disorders.  Current psychiatric thinking is that disorders are biological.  If psychiatric disorders are biological, then they are permanent and will require lifelong treatment with psychotropic medications.  But recent studies are questioning this belief. 

There has been a quantity of research studies in the past few years which show that childhood traumas can lead to major psychiatric disorders (like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) later in life.  They also show that these traumas are "dose-related".  In other words, the earlier the trauma, the more traumas which occur and/or the more repetitions there are of traumatic incidents the more severe and predictable are the psychiatric symptoms which are manifested in adulthood.  These findings may very well rock the psychiatric community. 

The current theory is that psychiatric symptoms are "abnormal" malfunctions of the human brain which must be treated so that the person can be more normal.  Psychiatric symptoms are viewed as a "disorder", a disease, a malfunction, something which is inherently wrong.  They are considered to be: 1) biochemical imbalances in the brain, 2) permanent and 3) requiring a life time of psychiatric medication. 

What if they are not a biological malfunction?  What if they are trauma reactions?  This will totally redefine the problem.  Trauma reactions are not abnormal.  They are not a malfunction.  They are not a disease.  They are normal responses in normal people to an abnormal situation.  These symtpoms do not need to be treated as an illness or disorder, but processed and experienced.  Patients may be healed and sent on their way rather than chemically straight-jacketed for the rest of their lives. 

If the problem is not a "chemical imbalance" you cannot treat it with a chemical solution.  You cannot medicate a trauma reaction.  You might temporarily employ medications to reduce symptoms while the client works through the trauma, but it is only temporary and does not address the problem.  The only permanent fix for trauma is to process it through therapy, not medicate it.  The medicating of a childhood trauma is futile at best and potentially harmful due to the high risk of side effects and the altering of the brain’s natural chemistry. 

Also, if the problem is situational and not biological, these disorders are not permanent and will not require a lifetime of treatment.  They are transitory if the trauma reaction is treated and the client can hope to return to a functional life.  Dr. James’ statement is therefore no exaggeration. 

This could rock the very foundations of modern psychiatry and there could be some serious repercussions.  Psychiatrists might be forced to examine their desire to medicate everyone rather than provide psychotherapy.  Big Pharma will have a serious dent put in their marketing schemes if everyone does not require a permanent psychotropic fix for the rest of their lives. 

For these reasons, I fear Dr. James might be wrong about the effect of this research on the psychiatric community.  These findings may be buried and their proponents hushed.  It would not be the first time.  Freud, as far back as 1896, proposed that many of the symptoms he found in his female patients were the result of childhood sexual abuse.  Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, in his book, The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, makes a coherent argument that the psychiatric community turned its back on Freud, froze him out and forced him to recant.  I fear the same fate may await modern researchers, only the stakes this time are much higher.  The idea that psychiatric symptoms are the result of trauma only caused a conflict of idealology in psychiatrists of the 19th century.  In the 21st century this idea will be economically costly for the pharmaceutical industry and it has been repeatedly shown that they exert a heavy influence on the psychiatric community.  I wonder if they will not use their fiscal muscle to shut this information down.

Only time will tell.  In the meantime, please feel free to read other articles reviewing this research:

"Schizophrenia and Trauma"
"Bipolar Disorder and Trauma"
"Childhood Abuse, Depression, Anxiety, Mood Swings, Bipolar Disorder and Trauma"

See more articles about mental health at my blog at




Building Self Esteem through Self Care

Many people ask me how to build self esteem.  I think one of the most important aphorisms I’ve heard was spoken many years ago by Dear Abby, "We teach people how to treat us."  So this is where you begin, with good, healthy self care.  When you care for yourself you communicate to yourself and others that you are worthy of care.  What constitutes good self care?

Several years ago I wrote a checklist for childhood trauma survivors who needed to learn how to reparent themselves in healthy ways, as opposed to the neglect and abuse they had received at the hands of their parents.  These same rules apply to all of us.  That article is below and applies to anyone, whether you have been abused by others, or neglected by yourself. 

Self Care 101

A lack of self care can be the first indicator that the trauma is getting the best of us. Many survivors of abuse are taught to sacrifice their own wellbeing to satisfy the needs of an abuser. As adults some survivors act out the abuse they suffered as children by repeating the abuse over and over. In order to fully heal you have to rewrite the script that was handed to you. You are no longer a victim of abuse. You are not longer an object to be used for the pleasure of others. Replace the hurt that was inflicted upon you with loving, nurturing self care. This will communicate not only to yourself, but to others around you, that you are worthy of respect and kindness.

1. Sleep

Sleep is more important to your body’s ability to function properly than food or water.Your body repairs itself when you are sleeping deeply. Failing to get enough sleep impairs your body’s ability to function and, if severe enough can actually result in your system starting to break down. Your thinking and emotions are particularly susceptible to lack of sleep. Sleep is often a very big problem for trauma survivors, especially survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Many children are abused while they are sleeping. Making your world safe enough for you to be able to sleep is crucial.

2. Eat

The eating habits of the modern human are often deplorable. How many times have I been working with an anxiety ridden trauma survivor only to find that they are downing coffee and energy drinks all day? Caffeine and anxiety often don’t mix well! Neither do high sugar products. Sugar and caffeine will temporarily boost your energy and make your neurons fire a bit faster, but they both end with a crash. The crash can often leave you feeling worse than before and you may resort to more coffee or candy bars to boost you back up. Caffeine and sugar also artificially boost you way up. This boost can also boost your anxiety or your hypervigilance and may increase the changes of a panic attack.

For energy it is better to mix quality proteins with complex carbohydrates and quality fat so your body has a steady source of fuel throughout the day instead of a massive jolt, then a crash. The neurotransmitters your brain makes to calm you (like serotonin and dopamine) and to provide you with energy (like norepinephrine) are made from amino acids which are in proteins. Providing your body with enough water to be properly hydrated also insures that all systems are firing properly since dehydration results in clouded thinking and fatigue. Good self care requires a good healthy diet so your body has the nutrients it requires to function well.

3. Exercise

Exercise releases dopamine and endorphins which calm and soothe. However, I have found that different kinds of exercise work differently for everyone. Some people do best with high energy cardio workouts. The extra endorphins and the fatigue which results is very calming for them. Others are only agitated more by high energy workouts and find it increases their anxiety. Calming workouts like yoga, tai chi or qi gong work better for them. Some people like to workout best in the air conditioning, while others don’t like to be around other people and/or prefer fresh air and sunshine. Experiment with them all and see which works best for you. Whatever you choose, it should be enjoyable and pleasant and should calm you in the long run.

4. Socialize

Developing a support group is essential to good self care. Having people around you with whom you can confide and lean on during those difficult periods is important. It is also important to foster relationships built on honesty and trust. Having a friend or loved one who will pull you out of your shell and take you to a movie when you need it or confront you when you are not taking care of yourself is crucial. Friends and loved ones should be there when you are sad, help you see the light when you are lost and let you vent when you are angry. You should be able to get a “reality check” from them. They should be able to tell you the truth, with compassion. Cultivate relationships with people who give as much as they take – and be sure to reciprocate!

5. Play


Learn to play. Experiencing trauma is learning to see the world as a dangerous place. But the world can also be a tremendously fun place. Garden, play games with your kids or your dog, go to an amusement park, enjoy a special movie, play, opera or concert with a special friend or loved one. Take time to entertain yourself. Laughter is especially therapeutic. I once had a client in the throes of a devastating divorce. He purchased the entire DVD set of an old comedy sitcom he enjoyed and watched a few shows every night. In order to be healthy it is important to exercise your sense of humor. Laughter can truly be the best medicine.

6. Soothe

Touch is a very basic human need and it deeply affects us. Most survivors of abuse have experienced some form of violence against their bodies. Learning to enjoy the sense of touch again is crucial. Whether it is a massage, a yoga workout or a warm bath, take back the good feelings your skin and body are capable of generating.

7. Think

Minds need stimulation in order to be happy and content. Boredom is a killer to a healthy human mind. Expose yours to things which stimulate your five senses in a positive way and stimulate you to think. Computer programmers have a saying, “GIGO”, Garbage In Garbage Out. Be aware of what you put into your mind. I had a client who was having nightmares every night. Granted, she had experienced a lot of trauma in her life, but her nightly habit of watching a horror flick right before going to bed did not help. Graphic movies, violent music, loud or stressful work environments, working in a place with a nasty stench. Be aware of what you are exposing your mind to. People who have an endless string of complaints and are negative and draining? People who are violent, abusive or manipulative? Garbage In, Garbage Out. Go to an art gallery. Listen to beautiful, soothing music. Learn to cook beautifully prepared and healthy foods. Try foreign films instead of horror flicks. Attend a lecture on something that fascinates you.

8. Chill

Learn to take things in stride. So much of what we experience depends on our viewpoint. Be patient with yourself and with others. Allow for foibles, mistakes and human error. Address negative thought patterns that cause you to be frustrated, annoyed, irritated or angry with yourself and others. Look at perfectionistic attitudes which cause you to be too hard and unforgiving with yourself and others. Slow down, take things as they come and focus on living in the moment. Many abuse survivors are control freaks with relentless schedules. Learn to trust yourself, those you love and life just a little bit more as you get stronger and safer in your world. Trauma is about being out of control. There was a moment in your life when you were out of control and you got hurt. Being a control freak is your attempt to make your world safer, by insuring that you are never out of control again and therefore are not so vulnerable to being hurt. Learn to recognize this tendency if you have it and take back your ability to trust.

9. Feel

Get in touch with your feelings – and trust them. So many abuse survivors were told that what they experienced wasn’t real, it didn’t happen, they misunderstood it, or they were lying. They often grow up not trusting their own five senses. Get in touch with your five senses. Trust what you see, hear, feel (as in touch), smell and taste.

Then check with your emotions. I call this “checking with your gut”. Abuse survivors are taught to tune out their basic instincts which told them they were in danger or being hurt. Take back this valuable tool. Tune in to your “gut” or your emotions – and learn to trust it as well. Is your gut telling you that this is “wrong”? Then it is. Many survivors attempt to rationalize. “Well I don’t know exactly what is wrong or I don’t have stone cold evidence of what is wrong so I must be mistaken.” You’re not. If it feels “wrong”, it is. Trust yourself. If it feels sad, it is. If it feels infuriating, it is.

Once you tap into your emotions, take time to sit down and feel them. Learn to find creative ways to express them. Write, journal, paint, write poetry, sing, dance. Everyone learns to express themselves differently. Express yours emotions in a way that is comfortable and natural for you. Don’t distrust your feelings or bottle them up. This is what your abuser did to you. Take them back from the abuser and claim them.

10. Maintain a Spiritual Practice

If you are a spiritual person, notice if you’ve kept up your spiritual practices. If you are religious, you may use prayer as a major stress reliever and strategy for emotional health. Going to church may provide a place to socialize and glean support. If you are more spiritual than religious, you may prefer meditation, visualization, music, yoga, tai chi or qi gong for spiritual comfort. Not everyone is spiritual, but if you are, revive your spiritual practices to calm your mind and emotions.

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Power in Relationships and the Scapegoat Role

I’m reading an excellent book by Claude Steiner, Scripts People Live: Transactional Analysis of Life Scripts.  It’s a bit outdated, originally published in the 1970’s, but still has some real gems.  Here is one about power in relationships, "The exercise of power over people for the purpose of harming them seems to have two basic sources."

Steiner says the first source is "scarcity" or lack of resources.  If there isn’t enough of a commodity to go around, a few people will exercise power over the others to acquire the resource for themselves.  Steiner posits that this power may not always be physical, but can be psychic.  Those in power can actually convince the powerless to give up their fair share by accepting the deceptions used by the powerful to justify the oppression.  I think we can all relate to that in the modern world where genocide, racism, religious fundamentalism and sexism is justified to dominate certain resources.  But you can also see this in families.  If mother only has a limited amount of affection to go around she may favor one child at the expense of the others.  She may justify ignoring the other children by convincing them they are undeserving or convincing them the favored child is more deserving. 

Steiner then talks about another kind of power which Fanita English calls the "hot potato".  This use of power is "done as a defense against accusations of worthlessness from within oneself or from the outside".  This negative feeling, or "hot potato" is tossed to someone else.  If the tosser of the hot potato "can make another person feel less O.K. than he does, then, relatively speaking, he is O.K.". 

I see this a lot in scapegoating families.  They are usually a very hypercritical and intolerant lot.  Constant criticism and fault-finding are the norm.  In order to keep people from seeing their own faults (and we all have them) they join together to heap their collective "sins" upon the scapegoat, magnifying that person’s faults (or inventing them outright) and elaborating on them ad nauseum.  If they can keep the scapegoat as the target for the family’s negative energy, they avoid having it directed at them.  You can see this in the recent movie I wrote about, "Pieces of April".  All of the family’s criticisms and negativity are directed at April, leaving the rest of them unscathed.  Their own flaws are quite clear to outsiders, but by magnifying April’s they lessen the impact of their own by comparison.  It’s interesting to note that despite their heaped on criticisms, April seems to be better balanced than her family. 

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Anxiety, Depression, Mood Swings and Life Stressors

A lot of folks come to see me complaining of anxiety, irritability, depression, mood swings or insomnia and trying to understand what’s causing this change in their emotions and behavior.  It’s sad, but many of don’t realize the effects of stress on our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  It’s also sad that most of us are so out of touch with ourselves that we don’t even realize how much stress we are under or that things we are going through might provoke or increase stress.  There is a simple, free online quiz that will make you more aware of stressors in your life.

Dr. Bret Emery has reproduced the Life Stress Inventory on his website.  The Life Stress Inventory is the same inventory I and most other therapists would hand to you if you came to our offices.  It is a simple quiz that allows you to analyze the level of stress you are under and make you aware of things which might cause stress you might otherwise be oblivious to.  It lists several causes of stress and gives each a score depending on how severe the stressor is.  This can be an important tool in making yourself aware of how much stress you are actually under.  Why would you not know this already?

While most of us realize that getting fired, losing a loved one, getting divorced or having an accident will cause stress, there are a lot of "happy" events which can also cause stress.  An excellent example is retirement.  Most of us would assume that entering retirement is something which should make you happy.  But it can also bring a lot of stress as you are faced with a lot of empty days and without the routine of going to work which has governed a large part of your life for the majority of your life.  Retirement can also bring a great deal of isolation if the majority of your social network was built around your work.  Being pregnant is also perceived to be a largely happy time, but it too can bring a lot of stressors.  Not only is your body undergoing major biological changes, but these changes provoke a lot of emotional reactions to things like huge hormonal shifts and gaining a lot of weight. 

Welcoming a new member of the family (whether a newborn or an aging parent), moving, getting a new job, having a child leave home or buying a new home are usually happy events.  But they can also create a lot of stress as we adapt to major changes.  Humans are creatures of habit and changing those habits means adding stress.  If you make a lot of changes within a short amount of time you incur a lot of stress.  So the fact that you got married in September, landed that great new job in another state in October, moved into your new house (together) in November, celebrated Christmas in December and took a vacation in January may just be what is making you want to rip someone’s head off. 

Try the test and see what your score is.  It is free, you do not sign up for anything or divulge any personal information. 

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Just Feel Your Feelings

She’s about to come out of her skin.  She attributes this to her period and/or her psychiatric medications.  She says that she doesn’t know what is wrong, but she just feels like crying.  Some days, counseling is not rocket science.  It’s just reallllly simple.  "So cry!" I tell her.  If you feel like crying, cry.  It really is that simple.

She breaks into heart-wrenching sobs and tells me how she has lost her husband, her children, her job, her home and even her dog.  "And you don’t know why you feel like crying???" I asked her.

And this woman is not unusual.  I see this all the time.  People are having an emotional reaction to some event or events in their lives, but cannot understand why.  We have become so cut off from our own feelings we don’t even recognize what they are or why we are having them.  We identify them as "disorders".  We say we are "depressed" rather than sad.  We feel "anxious" rather than nervous or scared.  We have "mood swings" rather than being moody or irritable. 

We are taught that being emotional is a "biochemical imbalance" so we look for biochemical reasons.  We try to medicate them, then complain the meds aren’t working.  We have blood work done.  We blame our menstrual cycles.  (Well, some of us do.)  We think that having an emotional reaction to a situation is abnormal and something which needs to be corrected.  This is sad.

Our emotions are what make us human.  To feel is to be alive, even when it hurts.  We only want to experience happiness.  But that isn’t realistic.  To have happiness, we have to have all the other emotions as well;  fear, anger, sadness, nervousness, irritation, frustration, excitement, jealousy, loneliness, boredom, hopefulness and hopelessness.  It’s an all or nothing deal. 

So emote.  Feel.  You will not go crazy.  You will not come undone.  You will not be unable to stop.  You will eventually run out of anger or tears and feel a sense of relief after letting it out.  And maybe you won’t need so many blood tests or medications or yes, even therapy.

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It’s All in the Delivery – How to Deliver Bad News to a Loved One

Though my family has its dysfunction and quirks like every other family, one thing we have learned to negotiate is how to deliver bad news.  Whether you need to tell someone something they don’t want to hear about themselves or whether you need to tell them something catastrophic has occurred, delivering bad news is something we do pretty well.  (You’ll see all the things we don’t do so well on other pages in this blog!)

This system of communication has been developing over several decades.  Through the years these concepts have become abbreviated into a kind of shorthand that tells the receiver what kind of information is about to follow or how it will be delivered – so they can prepare themselves and/or stop it.  I had not previously thought to write about these until I was watching someone tell a family member bad news about their loved one and realized that not everyone has these rules.  Here are some of the examples I’ve thought of so far.  I hope you find them helpful. 

"She’s O.K."

I have sometimes been horrified when watching people tell someone that something serious has happened to their loved one, i.e. telling a parent their child has been in an automobile accident.  They start by saying, "Jenny was in a wreck, it was pretty bad, her car has been completely totalled", etc.  I would have a heart attack if you said this to me.  In the Von Houser clan, we start with the important sentence, "Jenny is O.K."  Everything else follows that.  This tells the parent that their child is O.K. and prepares them to hear something bad to follow.  But they don’t have to worry about whether their child died in the wreck while listening to the damage done to the car. 

"Enterprise" or "Shields Up" or "Incoming"

The code phrase "Enterprise" or "Sheilds Up" means "put your shields up, I’m about to tell you something you don’t want to hear".  We also use, "Incoming" to announce that criticism is about to tossed in someone’s direction, i.e. "you really were being a jerk the other day".  This is not used to attack, but to deliver constructive criticism.  This advance notice serves two purposes:  1) it gives the receiver a chance to brace themselves for something unpleasant and 2) it gives the receiver a chance to refuse it if they aren’t in a place where they can hear it at this time.  If the receiver says they don’t want to hear it, we honor that and the conversation is over.

Funny thing, curiosity usually gets the best of humans.  Even if we aren’t in a place where we can hear it today, we often go back and ask for it later.  If the car broke down, the kids are sick, the air conditioning isn’t working and we’ve already had a fight with our boss today, we may not want to hear that we were being a jerk at Mona’s party last weekend.  But a few days later when things have calmed down and we are in a better place we often come back and ask the sender what they wanted to say to us about our behavior at Mona’s party.

"Throwing in a Grenade"

"Throwing in a grenade" goes along with "Enterprise" and is more about what happens after the message is delivered.  Most of the people in my family handle criticism better if you deliver it and walk away.  If you force them to acknowledge it immediately their defenses go up and they will deflect it.  If you deliver the message and walk away it allows them to process what you said without having to defend themselves.  Three days later they can then come back to you and acknowledge that they were indeed "being a jerk". 

This process of delivery and retreat is not the same as taking an emotional cheapshot at someone and running away.  It is only used when you are trying to deliver constructive criticism and want to allow the person to hear you, gracefully, without feeling attacked.  Sometimes it is also used as an announcement that negative information is incoming.  The person with the message might say, "OK, I’m going to throw in a grenade here, all right?" and wait for permission to continue.  The understanding is that after they have said their piece, they will retreat and not demand a confrontation until the receiver is ready to discuss it further.  It is left to the receiver to approach the sender and continue the dialogue, if they wish to.

"Swiss Bank Account"

I found this one in a magazine article I read decades ago.  It was written by a man who had developed this method for communications between himself and his friends.  When one of them hit on a topic that was hurtful to another, the buddy could say, "Swiss bank account.  This caused the topic to be stored in a secret account and not mentioned again.  It made it off limits.  And everyone honored that.

Communication is the glue which holds relationships together and its failure can cause the relationships itself to fail.  I hope these "codes" can help your relationships bond a little more tightly.  Please feel free to share any "codes" you use in the comments below.  The more the merrier! 

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Living with a Sociopath

If you have never had a sociopath in your family, you have no idea how much fun you are missing out on.  The technical term for a sociopath is Antisocial Personality Disorder if you want to look the diagnosis and technical description.  But the diagnostic criteria doesn’t do justice to these folks nor describe the mesmerizing effect they have on other people.  

Sociopaths are smooth and charming.  In fact, if "charming" is the first word that comes to my mind when I meet someone I am immediately on guard.  What is all that charm covering up?  Sociopaths are glib and very, very likable.  They know just what to say to reel you in.  They can read you like a book.  The mind games they play are amazing.  Intelligent, independently minded people suddenly become putty in their hands.  This makes the ordinary mine field of family dynamics even more treacherous to navigate. 

Sociopaths have their own agenda.  They do what is best for themselves without regard for the effects on others.  A mentor of mine once said that the sociopaths in our culture can be found in two places depending on their socioeconomic background.  Poor sociopaths are in jails or prisons.  The rich would be in boardrooms, as CEOs of companies.  The jail-type sociopath may rob you with a gun or hit you over the head for what they want, but the more educated and "civilized" sociopaths use entirely different methods that make them less obvious – and more treacherous. 

They don’t usually make bold, head-on attacks.  They are smooth in their words, their deeds and their moves.  They slide through the background, button holing people and converting them to their way of thinking before the "victim" even knows what has happened.  Sociopaths are mesmerizing and intoxicating.  They flatter and finagle.  They bribe and manipulate.  They never declare all out war, but negotiate elaborate diplomatic maneuvers behind the scenes. 

This can make negotiating difficult family situations a nightmare.  I will be talking to a family member who is extremely intelligent and normally quite an independent thinker and suddenly realize that the sociopath in the family has "gotten" to her.  I hear his words coming through her mouth, like a puppet or a ventriloquist.  It’s amazing.  A feminist may start spewing a misogynistic harangue about a female family member.  A liberal may suddenly go off on a tangent about people on welfare.  It’s amazing to watch.  It’s as if they have been possessed.  I keep waiting for their heads to start spinning around and green vomit to fly out.

I’m just grateful we only have one in the family.  Imagine two of them working against each other, lining up family members on their respective "sides".  It would look like a battlefield. 

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