Respect is one of those vital abilities we can start learning in our childhood. It’s obviously not binary (“yes I’ve learned it” or “no I haven’t”). It’s on a continuum and we can always keep improving.

Some groundwork:

There’s a term called complementarity in systems theory. When people say “opposites attract,” they’re talking about complementarity. If one partner loves the pizza portion and the other partner loves the crusts, that’s complementarity.  It’s like puzzle pieces: if the one piece is caved in, it will fit perfectly with a piece that sticks out.  Symmetry is where the puzzle pieces go together because they have the exact same straight lines.  In symmetry, both partners simply love pizza, period.

Complementarity is where there’s a perfect opposite-ness.  Symmetry is where there’s a perfect same-ness.

They are the reasons we fit together as we move through the world.  They create a certain balance in a relationship (not necessarily a healthy or sustainable balance, but a balance nonetheless).

Back to respect.

Respect is one of the lines around our personalities that determine the shape of our puzzle piece and what kind of people we fit best with.

Since it’s an ability (like everything else) it’s not a static line.  It’s a skill.  The line can be moved.  In addition, it potentially aims in both directions:  an “inward” respect (self-respect) and an “outward” respect (towards other people, laws of nature, etc).

A quick and rough template to make the respect-skill visible:

Regarding adults: it can be summed up by being ok with difference – not being offended if someone has a different view – not trying to conquer the other person’s view to make it more like your own – not feeling an automatic need to change/hide your own view if it meets opposition.

Regarding parenting: it’s not trying to control your child. You still want to shape your child, yes, but you shape them best by controlling what’s in *your* control. You don’t try to over-power them. You leave them a sense of choice with a clear description of things *you* will do (or not do) depending on what choices they make. This teaches them respect. It teaches them worth: the worth of others, relationships, decisions, and self-worth. It teaches them creativity and responsibility: how their choices create results. It teaches them to look for feedback loops, many of which come from nature. It makes them thoughtful and full of care. If you use your power to over-power your child, you create a funky shaped puzzle piece; a shape that has a hard time learning the skill of respect.

Please notice how, in both examples – the adulthood one and the parenting one, it’s about the use of power.  Respect, power, and violence are a part of the same package.

Done with groundwork.  The main point I’d like to illustrate:

If we didn’t learn a large dose of respect in childhood, we have some work to do in order to re-balance. We’re probably either too “respectful” of other people (letting people harm us) or we’re too “respectful” of ourselves (doing harm to others).

They’re both in quotes because it’s not a balanced, healthy picture.

There’s harm!

In ultimate respectfulness, when our respect-ability is pulsing vitally in both directions, we are careful (1) not to harm others and (2) not to be harmed.  If our puzzle-piece-shape is one of the two versions in quotes (even though it kind of looks like “respect”) there’s too much harm happening.  Those are shapes that leave us lonely, confused, and/or hurt because we can’t nestle up comfortably in the puzzle.  One of our primary needs isn’t met: a sense of belonging.

The point of these words is to show how deceptive those two versions are.  They look like respect… but they aren’t whole.  They aren’t balanced. And we can really mess ourselves up by leaving the respect-skill underdeveloped (leaning heavily in one direction) because it’s a skill that goes right down into one of our primary needs.


Indirect vs Direct Coping – How Do They Fit With Avoidance?

Sometimes therapists will “teach coping skills.”  I was about halfway through grad school, all jazzed up about counseling, when I changed from a behavior modification service (BHRS) to a therapy service (FBMHS).  Excited about the opportunity to work more deeply with people, I remember vividly being surprised when I heard several of my colleagues talk about “coping skills.” It took me a while before I had the ability to articulate why this was rubbing me in a weird way.

“Teaching coping skills” is a collusion of avoidance.

Therapists teach coping skills for the same reason clients avoid confronting their situations:

It’s a fear of not being able to change the problem – a fear of being consumed by the problem, in essence killed by the problem – a feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness.  Those are all really good reasons to avoid a problem!  If there’s a chance it’ll kill you, by all means avoid it!

So when people talk about coping skills, they’re often agreeing that the best idea is avoidance and maintenance of the status quo.

Let’s closely examine the concept of “coping” and let’s break it down into two categories:  “indirect coping” and “direct coping.”  It’s important to be skilled in both categories and it’s also important to see the difference between the two so you can choose mindfully and make sure you’re not settling for less than what you’re capable of.

An indirect coping skill is if my boss makes me angry and I go home and sprint a mile to blow off steam – or my dog dies and I have a beer – or my sister yells at my child so I beat up a punching bag. These aren’t necessarily unhealthy. Exercise is good and sometimes a beer really hits the spot. The only downside to indirect coping is if we never consider direct coping.  Indirect coping skills don’t actually change anything about the problem that’s causing the need for coping.

To go a step further, sometimes indirect coping skills can cause a more serious problem when it turns cyclical: being tired so I have a cup of coffee – being broke so I take out a loan – being mad at my boss so I yell at my wife, etc.

Direct coping skills, on the other hand, is a confrontation of the problem: an approach to the thing that’s causing the discomfort. It could be internal or external.

External: approaching the boss or the sister and trying to come to a resolution. Doing “chair work” to my dog and saying how much I miss him and I hope he had a great life.

Internal: searching myself to see why the boss bothers me so much. What are the self-concept messages that get activated? Examining myself to see if I have unresolved things with sister from before my child was even born.

Again, neither coping style is inherently better than the other. When we’re functioning optimally, they’re usually intertwined: like an indirect coping skill (deep breath) in order to gather my thoughts in order to do a direct coping skill (approach my sister to ask her to consider the impact she’s having on my child).

Let’s go back to the therapy side of things. We often utilize indirect coping skills when we don’t believe we have a fighting chance against the actual problem. If I feel hopeless that I won’t be able to create any change towards my sister, I won’t take the risk. If I feel inadequate in my interpersonal skills or in my value as an employee, I won’t approach my boss in order to try and make change. So when therapists “teach coping skills” (usually meaning the indirect kind), they’re often accidentally communicating to the client: “I don’t think you (or I) have what it takes to solve the actual problem and make things lastingly better for you.” Bummer, right? This is also closely connected to the difference between intervening to “treat the symptom” versus “treating the problem.”

The last crucial piece is the very-hard-to-reach attitude of viewing problems as opportunities. This is so difficult to do in real life. It’s much easier to type about while drinking coffee.

It goes something like this:

Each problem is an opportunity. Each problem is a lesson about yourself to teach you where you’re vulnerable to get your peace, joy, and grace stolen. Each problem shows you the perfect template for the exercises you need to do in order to strengthen the whole of your personality. Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is a great resource to keep this part of you burning.

In sum, it’s important to recognize the difference between “direct” and “indirect” coping. And it’s important to really ask yourself how much change you think you can make.  If we only do indirect coping, we’re still spending a lot of energy… but the overall configuration doesn’t change.  Are you avoiding certain exercises? Are you selling yourself short? Is it worth the risk? Is there a growth opportunity if you directly confront the problem?

Common Factors vs Evidence Based; a Q & A

I’m not proud of how little I’ve posted here over the last several months.  I’m hoping to be able to combine some energies from some different contexts and be able to put more up here.  For example, this post is a Q&A from an MFT student about the similarities, differences, and overlap between Evidence Based versus Common Factors approaches.  I also do some writing for some different services here and I could start placing them on the blog as well.  I also love getting theory-based emails.  And it makes sense to start uploading those here too, instead of writing back to one person at a time.  Stay tuned.  I hope there’s going to be an increase in production in this area.


Here’s the Q & A:



1. In your practice, do you tend to follow an Evidence-Based approach to selecting treatment options or a Common Factors approach?

I honestly hadn’t heard the term “Common Factors” in a long time so I had to google what that meant. Once I got the refresher, I still felt a little at a loss about how to answer. So #1 is going to really pull from #10 in order to make sense of an answer. I fully identify with gestalt. Here’s a run-down of the love story. In my last semester of undergrad, I had one professor for two psych classes. One of them was Family Systems and the other one, although I forget what the class was, had us read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I learned I loved both of these things: Existential Psychology and Systems Theory. The same professor taught in the MFT program in Grad School so I followed him. He taught the very first course in the MFT program, Counseling Theory, during which he made the following comment: “Don’t ever say you’re eclectic. If you say you’re eclectic, it means you don’t actually know anything. Pick a theory (or two) and dive completely into it until you completely understand it.” Being like a baby bird with its mouth open ready to be fed, I took this to heart and started diving. I still get a little judgmental twinge whenever I hear a therapist say they’re “eclectic.” So I kept studying Systems Theory via the MFT program and my love for existential therapy grew as I started studying Irvin Yalom extracurricularly. (That same professor in that same course also said: “If you think you might want to practice from an existential perspective, you should be thoroughly on your way if you read “Existential Psychotherapy” by Irvin Yalom.” I’m pretty sure I ordered it as soon as I got home.)

So grad school progressed and I continued studying and loving existentialism and systems theory. Embarrassingly, I remember writing, “I don’t think there’s a lot of literature/research regarding the integration of these two theories,” and I wondered if that would be a niche for me in the field since they were my passions.

In an absolutely separate process, I had a different professor towards the end of grad school who said, “I’m Nick Hanna and I am gestalt. I follow the work of Irvin Yalom.” This was a little mind blowing for me since I hadn’t equated “gestalt” with “Yalom” before. Nonetheless, I was actually more struck with Dr. Hanna’s presence and I strongly wanted to possess whatever it was he had.

Several classes later, I had another professor and I thought, “hmm. It seems like you have some of whatever Dr. Hanna has. I don’t know what that is, but I want it.” Sure enough, about the halfway through the class, she said, “I’m gestalt.” “Ah ha!” I thought, “I’m on to something!”

A third class: a different professor: I’m thinking, “you haven’t mentioned it yet, but I can smell it on you. You have that thing, don’t you?” So I stayed after class one day and asked her if gestalt was an influence on her and she said, “absolutely, how did you know?” I said, “I have no idea.” She said, “I have the head of the Gestalt Institute of Pittsburgh on speed dial and it’s the time of the year for enrollment. Would you like me to give him your information?” Goodness yes. So I finished the MFT program and immediately attended the Gestalt Institute. The program was largely experiential, so I had to feed my theory-obsession extracurricularly. Turns out, gestalt is the integration of quite a few things, most notably systems theory and existential-phenomenology. Who knew? So all of my passions started channeling into a passion for gestalt.

So, to return to Question #1, gestalt doesn’t usually come to mind when people are naming “evidenced based” therapies. Personally, I don’t really have value for that term because I believe anything can be cooked up in a lab. And I think there’s a danger for therapists to be too “evidence” focused because then they’re thinking too much about the labs and not enough about people, nature, and life.

But I also wouldn’t have called myself “Common Factors” because that sounds more like “eclectic.” That said, I consider gestalt a *whole* theory and whenever I study things like Motivational Interviewing, DBT, REBT, Rogerian, Mindfulness-Based, EFT, and certainly CBT, I see them as clearly fitting with gestalt, just emphasizing certain *parts* of gestalt. Put everything together, form a whole, and you get gestalt.

So I suppose if I had to smoosh all these thoughts into one sentence and answer the question, it would be: “I am Common Factors because gestalt is integrative of all things and yet it hasn’t spent time in labs to make people see it as ‘Evidence Based.’”

2. Why have you chosen the approach you use? Why have you not chosen the alternative?

I do what I believe is best. It seems like “Common Factors” acknowledges there are truths that are pulled from a wide variety of camps. The danger of dogma is we may miss out on truths because they don’t have the right label as a source. It seems like “Common Factors” invites truths from whatever the source and ties them together. This aligns with where I am but, like I said, I wasn’t very sure of the term so I don’t know if I’m thinking about “Common Factors” correctly.

3. Have you spoken with colleagues about this topic? What option do they follow in their approach to choosing treatment options?

Yes. Some people are obsessed with evidence-based and I wouldn’t refer my close friends and family to them. I think there’s something to be said for focusing more on the torment in the soul and the fear of loss/change/death rather than focusing on what’s happening in a controlled environment somewhere else. I prefer therapists who focus on their clients.

4. What factors do you believe contribute the most to effective therapy in general? In other words, what actually contributes to changes a client (individual, couple or family) may make during the course of therapy (or soon thereafter)?

The first several things that come to mind are: empathy / understanding / acceptance / movement / choicefulness. I think that’s what we give to the clients so they can take it with them when they go. I think change happens from a spiraling exploration of those things, leaving clients with an increased sense of self (which could be synonymous with an increased sense of options or an increased sense creativity/efficacy). I appreciate the way the question is worded where the “client” can be the individual, the couple, or the family. I’m glad you’re in an MFT program. I think they do the best prepping as far as clinical skills.

5. Can you explain a little more about the significance of each of the factors you just mentioned?

I think we seek therapy when we have too strong of a sense of stuckness with too strong of a fear of change/loss. That’s a rock and a hard place.

6. Do the important factors change based on the needs of the clients? If yes, how so? If no, why not?

No, because the tension between homeostasis and novelty is universal and natural. Those two forces *are* the needs of the client. And there’s fear of death and a striving for preservation on both poles. Too much homeostasis is a loss of all and too much novelty is a loss of all. Therapy is helping the client enjoy the dance between those two forces and poles.

7. How important do you believe the therapeutic relationship/alliance is for your therapeutic outcome? What aspects of the therapeutic relationship are particularly important?

The therapeutic alliance is what differentiates us from self-help-books. It is of utmost importance. I think this is universal across all counseling theories but each theory would have a different answer for which aspects are important. This would be the “Battle for Structure” (Whitaker) and each theory emphasizes how to create the structure (relationship/context) they believe is most helpful. For me, it’s important they start to believe I am truly of service to their best interest. This often means there’s a directional change: at first they think I will tell them what’s best for them and then they learn they will tell me what’s best for them… and I will be listening closely.

The other huge reason the therapeutic alliance is important is the efficiency of the energy usage. If a client is using energy to defend against me, that’s wasted energy because I wasn’t the original problem that brought them to therapy. If there’s a true therapeutic alliance and they trust where I am coming from, then they (and we) can use *all* of the energy in order to tackle their psychological configurations and their original problem.

When I’m working with supervisees, I use the analogy of cleaners coming into your house, taking the milk out of the fridge, spilling it on the floor, and then using their time to clean it up. Even though there’s work happening and they’re cleaning, it produces a net effect of zero. A strong therapeutic alliance ensures our energy is used to tackle the things that matter… the things that brought them to the office in the first place.

8. To what extent do you believe hope and expectancy impact the outcome of therapy?

They need to have enough hope and expectancy to make it to the office and then we need to have enough hope and expectancy to energize the movement.

9. If you had to make an educated guess as to how important your theoretical model(s) or techniques are in determining the success of therapy, what would you say (scale from 0-100; 0= not important, 100 = the most important factor)?

Since it is 100% of what I am, 100% of what I do, and 100% and what they get, I’d give it 100. I have judgment for the word “technique.” It sounds too disconnected from the organic flow of energy and the depths of the I/Thou. “Technique” sounds more like “text-book” which sounds like “self-help book.” We can be better than that. Clients benefit when we are more than that.

10. What is your general theoretical orientation? How did you develop this approach?

Long-winded #1

11. What is one piece of advice that you can give me about developing my own counseling approach/theoretical orientation that may help me become the most effective counselor that I can be?

There’s a perfect reason each person is exactly the way they are. Don’t try and take that away from them. Explore them and learn them. This will help them learn themselves and will make them more able. Don’t *try* and change them. This is violence. Don’t be violent. Learn them. They will change in the process. At the center of gestalt is a concept called the “paradox of change.” When you connect fully with what exists as is, change happens naturally. This is the good type of change (learning/assimilation/integration/flow). If you’re aiming primarily at change rather than the whole, it will strengthen the force of homeostasis and then change will be more actively (naturally) resisted. Then the therapist will get frustrated with the client (even though the client is actually resisting in a beautiful, healthy, self-preserving way), the client will get frustrated with the therapist and themselves, and self-concepts will be split and damaged for them both. That’s not good for anyone. An understanding of the complementary yet polarized forces of homeostasis and novelty is crucial and it’s important that we see the whole of the client, not just violently pushing for the change of a part. This can be avoided very simply if you, as the therapist, genuinely have the intent of learning about the client. This, to me, is the respectfulness towards the client within the I/Thou approach coupled with the understanding and respect of the very powerful forces within nature (existentialism + systems). The change that happens when we have this respect and intent is very true and complete.

In short, don’t try and change the client so that you feel good about yourself. Learn how to explore *with* them. Then they will change and you *both* will feel good about yourselves. Therapy can be very fun and rewarding for both of you. A very strong clinician and I were joking around the other day and we agreed, “if you get ‘compassion fatigue,’ you’re doing it wrong.”

Exploration, Choice, and Payoff (an examination of the phrase, “I’m good at helping others but I can’t help myself.”)

I’ll occasionally come across the phrase, “I’m good at helping others but I can’t help myself.”  I want to break this down a little bit and highlight a few concepts.

If we hold the first part of the phrase under a microscope, here’s how it looks: “I’m good at listening to a person’s situation, making an assessment of their available options, and then giving them advice about what they should do next.”

There is nothing wrong with that.  That’s what some therapists do.  And it helps some people.  The downside is the frustration in the second part: that they “can’t help themselves.”

Here’s how the frustration looks under a microscope: “When I examine my own situation, I usually come up with advice for myself about what I should do.  But then I run into some serious difficulty in following through with the plan.  I can’t get myself to do what I should do.”

So let’s check this out.

It’s a problem of exploration, choice, and payoff – and ultimately, like everything else, energy flow.  To put it another way, it’s an insight problem followed by a stalemate of energy and behavior.

Whenever we fully want to do something, we move into it with grace, ease, passion, interest, care, eagerness (and many other really positive sounding words).

Whenever we partially want to do something, the behavioral flow loses some of its power and force.  The more partial it is, the harder it is to follow through with the task.  If I partially want to get my paperwork done but I partially want to go to bed, it’s going to be pretty hard to get my paperwork done.  If going to bed ends up trumping the paperwork (51% bed, 49% paperwork) then I’m going to bed.  I might not be able to sleep because some of me still wants to have my paperwork done.  Makes sense, right?  It’s pretty straightforward: desires come in percentages.  Some desires compete.  The largest one wins.  Unfortunately (in this culture – for most people – and arguably even due to the human condition) the times when we have a desire that has 100% fullness are rare.  Desires spend most of their time in conflict with other ones.

There’s a big difference between a “should” and a “want.”  A “should” is an encryption.  It keeps you from knowing the exact number of the percentage of “want.”  It conceals/hides the valuable data.  That’s why we encrypt things… to conceal the actual data.

People become a lot sturdier and free-flowing once they explore their personalities, find the “shoulds,” and become hackers: unencrypting them and uncovering the valuable data of the actual percentages.  Some “shoulds” become high-percentage-wants and they’re so much easier to flow with.  Some “shoulds” become low-percentage-wants and they can be more easily disregarded.  The tougher ones are when the percentages are close (like my bed-to-paperwork example).  When the percentages are close, that’s where we’ll feel stuck because any movement will be the loss of a huge chunk of energy/desire.  If I choose the 51% winner, that’s 49% of myself that’s not on board.  That’s a big loss of fuel!

So let’s head back to the “I can’t help myself” example.  Let’s also define “advice” as a “should.”  When we ask someone for advice, we’re saying, “please assess my situation and tell me what I should do.”  The sticking point ends up being a less-than-full evaluation of the wants.  So whenever someone says, “I can’t help myself,” they’re saying, “I’ve assessed my situation and given myself advice (shoulds) but I can’t get myself to behaviorally follow it through.”  This makes sense now, right?  There are encryptions.  The behaviors won’t flow unless there’s enough “want juice” flowing into it.

So here’s where it gets more complex because, if we want to rearrange the stalemate and create movement, we would need to develop the insight into functions.

Every whole wants to preserve itself – whether it’s a whole culture, a whole nation, a whole business, a whole pattern, a whole family, a whole creature, whatever.  An animal will gnaw off its leg if it’s trapped and it can’t think of a better way to preserve the whole.  Each human being is a whole.  We seek to preserve ourselves.   Every choice has a function of self-preservation.

So when we run into a problem where we can’t quite get ourselves to do what we think we should, we’re battling against a self-preservation desire that’s larger than the encrypted should.  Rather than beat yourself up about why you’re not following through, it’s much healthier to try and move downwards into your personality and start to look for the payoffs to the choices.   Give yourself more credit.  At the roots of you, there’s a perfect reason why you’re doing what you’re doing.  If you can’t quite see it yet, give yourself some time to fully examine your desires, your hopes, your fears.  Try to move into the confusion/frustration (where the encryptions live) in order to map out those parts of you.  They are obviously strong enough to influence you, so you might as well spend some time there.  You might as well try to ally with those strengths rather than beat yourself up about not being able to overpower them.  All the parts of you have vitality.  All the parts of you are attempting to serve you for the greatest good.  The goal is to tap into all of your vitality so you can move as one beautiful whole.

Once things are mapped out, they make perfect sense.  You make sense.  The world makes sense.  Give yourself some credit and some time.  Keep exploring.  Keep mapping.

Psychological Debt, Saturation, and Autonomy

I believe happiness is earned.

In the same way we can accumulate wealth in a financial sense, we can accumulate happiness. In the same way we can go into debt financially, we can go into debt emotionally.  It’s amazing how getting a new gadget/car/boat with debt is identical to using drugs to feel good: it’s a fake sense of having earned something – or a fake sense of owning something.  Then we become a slave to the ‘something’ because there are certain measures we need to do in order to keep making payments.   This is identical to addiction.  Addiction is a loan with a terrible interest rate.   The happiness that comes from getting high will need to be repaid with interest and you’ll have even less than you did before.

It’s really important to understand the debt concept for your sense of wellbeing.  “Yeah, I’d like to feel better right this second, but am I fully accepting how it’s going to make me feel even worse eventually?”   It’s unlikely to have that thought (but it would be nice).  The more likely thought could be planted afterwards.  It’s in the trust of the cleaning-power of time: “yeah, I feel awful right now as I’m repaying my emotional debt, but I know if I keep making payments and I refuse to go even further into debt and take out another loan, I’ll eventually straighten things out and can build some wealth happiness.”

There are also two other concepts worth noting: ‘saturation’ and ‘autonomy’.

Saturation is one of the saddest psychological phenomena I’m aware of.  It basically means “getting used to how you feel.”   The term is used most often when talking about sleep.  After a small dose of sleep deprivation, we can tell we’re not firing on all cylinders.  We feel groggy and we look forward to catching up on rest.  If we let that level persist, we’ll lose the awareness that our cylinders aren’t firing and we’ll get used to it.  It’ll become the new status quo and we’ll forget we don’t feel very good.  It’s the new normal and we lose sight of better.  Saturation is also mentioned a lot when talking about hydration.  It is literally forgetting life can be better. Isn’t that awful?

For myself, considering the type of work I do, I think about it mostly in terms of substance use rather than hydration or sleep (people don’t generally come into my office and tell me how they’re having a difficult time staying hydrated.. lol).  Whenever I have a full dose of depressants in my blood – or when I’ve slowly built up too much of a tolerance to coffee – I’ll start thinking, “ugh.  This is what a huge portion of the population feels like. That is terrible!”  Fortunately, my compulsive side doesn’t settle for less-than-awesome, so I’ll put some work into shifting the status quo back to where I feel amazing.  Saturation doesn’t have a chance to take over.  That’s not the case for everyone.  That’s why, to me, saturation is one of the saddest phenomena out there.  It’s not on people’s radar and it sneaks in.  My intent in these paragraphs is to put it on your radar, stir up the part of you that wants more, and to encourage you to do the hard work of repaying your emotional debts.

Lastly, to return fully to the analogy of psychological wealth building: ‘autonomy’.

Sometimes when a person starts to catch the scent that the idea of psychological growth is a movement towards autonomy (becoming more “needless”), they will attempt to jump prematurely towards autonomy.  This is a near-perfect analogy to financial wealth as well.  It’d be sweet to be “independently wealthy,” right?   That’s a strong financial goal.  But a person can’t simply immediately choose to be independently wealthy.  We have to get out there and make it happen – working hard – making deliberate decisions – making sacrifices.   We have to fulfill the needs in order to reach the destination of being independently wealthy.  The same is true with psychology.  We can’t just decide to be autonomous.  We have to put the work in to get our needs met… then we are closer to autonomy.   It would actually be an obstacle (or it will completely stop you) on the path to autonomy if you prematurely act autonomous and needless.  It’s analogous to calling your job and saying, “you know what? I don’t need my paycheck this week.  Keep it.”  That’s probably not going to help your financial goals, right?  In the same way, acting autonomous doesn’t help your psychological goals.  The needs need met.  Ignoring them makes them last longer.  “What you resist persists.”

Take care of yourselves.  Repay your debts (don’t take out emotion-loans with high interest rates).  And let your needs move you.







Enabling, Enmeshment, and Fear

[Scenario A]

The A’s and the cliff.  Parent-A is terrified of Child-A falling into the abyss.

When Child-A was little and learning to walk, he was completely focused on simply putting one foot in front of the other.  He was fascinated and absorbed by this new and challenging task. Parent-A could effortlessly spin Child-A around by always holding both hands and redirecting him away from the direction of the cliff.  Child-A wouldn’t even notice the guidance because of his absorption.  If Child-A would misstep and begin to fall, Parent-A would already have both hands in hers and could hold him up to keep his knees from scraping the ground.  “Wew! That was a close one,” she lovingly laughed, helped him rebalance, and they both enjoyed the excitement of the moment.  There was true and beautiful bonding occurring.  Truly beautiful moments.

Once Child-A didn’t have to try so hard to simply put one foot in front of the other, he began to explore more.

He noticed when he walked in a certain direction, Parent-A would stop him.  At first, this was just slightly disturbing… but he grew more and more frustrated.

He got older. He got stronger. He got more frustrated.  Eventually, he engaged her fully.

Parent-A is positioned between Child-A and the cliff.   She began screaming, “stop trying to walk this way!!  There’s a cliff behind me!!”  She has her hands on Child-A’s upper chest and is now pushing him as hard as she can, digging her feet into the earth and passionately trying to keep him from getting closer to the cliff.  When Child-A was younger, she could stop him without using all of her might.   It’s harder now.  Child-A is equally passionate.  Child-A, with all of his might, pushes back at Parent-A, “get out of my way!! Let me be myself!!! There’s no cliff!!!  You’re just trying to run my life!!!”   Child-A digs his toes in and is pushing as hard as he can.  Child-A is able to gain ground, inch by inch, towards the edge of the cliff.  He’s able to push Parent-A backwards.  “Can’t you see the cliff behind me!?!  I care for you and I don’t want you to get hurt!!  You need to stop going in this direction!!” Parent-A pleads with all the love in the world.  Child-A continues to push towards the cliff.  “I am so sick you of you trying to control me!!!  I will get past you!!!”    He can’t see the cliff.  All he sees is Parent-A and her attempts at obstructing his path.   All he feels is her efforts to take away his options.  “Get off of me!!!  Leave me alone!!!”  He grows and grows, becoming stronger and stronger.  He wants to be free.  He wants to have his own life.  He continues pushing, trying harder and harder.  They get to the edge.  Parent-A stops pushing and frantically clings to the shirt of Child-A because her heels are now on the edge of the cliff and she’s leaning backwards, about to fall off.

Her grip on Child-A is the only thing keeping her from falling backwards.

“You…. will… not…. control… my….. life!!!!! I am my own person!!!!  I will do what I want!!!!” Child-A screams and, with one last shove, takes them both over the edge.


[Scenario B]

The B’s and the cliff.  Parent-B is terrified of Child-B falling into the abyss.

When Child-B was first learning how to walk and couldn’t coordinate his vision and his steps, Parent-B would hold his hand and guide him and steer him in different directions from the cliff.  Child-B wouldn’t even notice the guidance.  As Child-B grew, Parent-B would gradually let go of his hand and give him opportunities to balance himself.  Occasionally, Child-B would trip over a rough patch of dirt and he would fall, sometimes hurting his hands and knees very badly.  Hurt, he would look to Parent-B.  Hurting deeply with Child-B, she says, “I’m so sorry that happened.  Please try and watch carefully where you’re stepping.  Sometimes there are rough patches in the dirt.  I care for you and I don’t want you to get hurt.”  Child-B begins focusing on the dirt and eventually masters walking over the rough patches.  When he doesn’t need to focus on his steps so much, he looks outward and begins to explore.  He sees the cliff.  “What is that!?” he asks, in awe of its vastness.  “That’s the cliff,” Parent-B answered.  “People who go over the edge never come back,” she said.  Child-B gazed at it for a moment, took a deep breath, and fully felt its vastness.  Child-B never ventured too close to the eternal danger.


[Scenario C]

The C’s and the cliff.  Parent-C is terrified of Child-C falling into the abyss.

Once Child-C has mastered his steps and has developed a good vision, he asks, “what’s that out there?” Parent-C says, “that’s the cliff.  People who go over the edge never come back.”  Walking freely and masterfully, Child-C strolls to the edge.  He looks over.  He’s intrigued.  It is vast and amazing.  Matter of factly, he says, “I bet there’s something good down there.”  He jumps off.



Taking a Systemic Approach (to yourself)

There’s a phrase that gets used a lot in physical therapy:

“the symptom is the victim, not the criminal.”

This has incredible implications (truth) in our psychological functioning as well.  This post emphasizes and encourages a certain attitude you can take in order to boost your growth and create widespread change.  At the end of this post, I’m going to contrast a “systemic approach to yourself” versus “systemic therapy,” even though they’re definitely made of the same stuff.

So let’s examine “taking a systemic approach to yourself.”

It’s the idea there isn’t a singular thing going wrong.  The more you hunt for a singular thing –  the one root cause to your unhappiness – the one thing that needs to be found and fixed – the more time you’ll spend spinning your wheels and the less time you’ll spend enjoying living and reaping the benefits of your efforts. If you want to create change, the best approach is to try to turn over every rock. It will be rare to find a golden ticket under one of the rocks, but the landscape will look entirely different once you turn over enough of them.

This post is the encouragement to examine more aspects of your life… to get wider in your efforts.

How many minutes of your day are spent going through the motions? How much doesn’t get a second glance?  How many of your settings are set to default?

Here’s a range of examples:

How many steps a day do you take without feeling your feet on the ground? How many interpersonal interactions are completely routine (and lacking in satisfaction)? How many shallow breaths do you take a day?* More importantly, how many huge ones do you take on purpose? How much of your diet is habitual and hasn’t been adjusted in a while?  How many calories are in liquid form? When was the last time you changed your exercise routine? How long have you used the same mouthwash?   If you wear heels, do different pairs have different lengths?  When was the last time you made a really weird face? How do you normally sit? Which leg is the crossed-over one? When was the last time you crossed over your other leg? How much hazelnut creamer do you put in your coffee? How long have you done that? When was the last time you tried out some different pillows?  When was the last time you imitated your mom?  How different is your Monday morning from your Friday night?  Are you getting something auto-debited that you really don’t need / use?  Do you really like the tv shows you watch? What do you do during commercials?

Sure, your mouthwash isn’t causing your knee pain and your heels aren’t causing your depression, but how fast do you want change to happen?

Sometimes things stick around in our lives for far too long. The only thing that keeps them there is we’re not consciously choosing them anymore. They’ve become default. “Taking a systemic approach” to your self-improvement is taking the extra time to see what default motions could be adjusted. I deliberately put really big things and really small things on that list of questions. Your pillows probably aren’t killing you. But if you want to make some really significant change, the idea is to shake things up and get wider as opposed to having a magnifying glass on a ‘symptom’ and hoping a singular root cause will present itself. There are infinite causes. Things have been in motion for a very long time.  But we can only fully do one thing at a time. Taking a systemic approach to yourself takes thing-by-thing and examines it. It stops looking for the magical thing. It starts looking at moment-by-moment movements to see what can be examined – conscious choice by conscious choice.   This is hard.  It’s easier to wish for a magical thing.

The up-side:  this hard work is a safeguard against helplessness.  When we go directly at a symptom, we are agreeing to a losing battle. Everything else in the overall configuration supports that symptom and there’s truly no way to move it without reconfiguring the connections. We are webs. We are a “system of contacts” (PHG). If we go at a symptom and try to simply remove it from the field, we will eventually feel helpless – because we will lose.

In sum, taking a systemic approach to your development is the effort to get wider. It’s the understanding that everything is interconnected. It’s a commitment to the details, to the smaller things, to the whole of your growth.  We really can’t make this wide commitment to rethink our defaults unless we have the belief (hope) that it will pay off – that it will only be short term suffering and hard work – that we will yield fruit after the labor. That’s the purpose of this post: the encouragement towards that belief – the hope – that hard work pays off.  We pay for it now or we pay for it later.

* There’s a pointed phrase in yoga: “most people breathe just enough to stay alive.”

As promised, some contrast.  More often than not in this blog, I’ll be referencing a “systemic approach to therapy” rather than a “systemic approach to yourself.”  They’re made of the same stuff but there is a contrast that’s warranted.  This post emphasizes an attitude you can take on a moment by moment basis in order to boost your own growth.  I am encouraging you to shake up and second-guess as much as you can handle, even if it doesn’t seem immediately connected to a symptom or a goal.  If a therapist took this hyper-diligent approach with clients, it would be exhausting for everyone.  I literally just laughed out loud.  “Hey, did you notice how we just shook hands?  Maybe we could do that better.  How did I just shut that door?  Was that the best way? How did you engage your hamstrings when you sat down on the couch?  Want to try that again?  How’s your water?  Do you think we should try turning the fridge temperature up or down a few degrees?” Lol.  So when I speak of ‘systemic therapy,’ I’m really talking about the beliefs about symptoms.  It’s the interconnectedness and the embedded-ness of supports/symptoms.  It’s the understanding that a direct attempt at removing a symptom is playing whack-a-mole.  Another mole pops up.

Despite the contrast, the common ground is this:  it’s best when clients take a systemic approach to their own self-improvement (with this wide hyper-diligence) in between meetings and then use their therapists to co-create some different frequencies and find where even newer rocks can be turned over, rocks that wouldn’t have shown up on the radar if someone else didn’t call attention to them.