What we Really Want – Redux

A new look at what can be accomplished in groups.

In my travels I’ve met people with varying opinions about bamboo.  Some love it.  It grows fast.  It’s tough and strong, durable; doesn’t break down for a long, long time.  For this reason, it is a good choice as a renewable resource.  A woman I met in Mexico told me she was dedicated to removing bamboo that had been planted and become a nuisance.  She teaches people what can be done with bamboo, and she finds new homes for the plants when she can.  So inspiring, the things people find as their calling in life.

I was thinking about this woman when I was working in a new garden patch in my back yard.  Last fall, I decided to reclaim a patch of earth from a particularly stubborn, tenacious grass that grows back there, which has been serving to cover the ground quite well for decades, requiring nothing but sun and rain and an occasional trim.  But I decided to put in a garden, with watermelon, basil, parsley, mint, greens and tomatoes.   And now I am face to face with this plant – grass, bamboo’s second cousin – that has root systems deep and well established, intertwined and strong and formidable.  It meets the blade of my shovel like iron.  It snickers at my attempts to remove it.  So I get down in there with my hands.  I can find the roots when I get under them, when the soil is damp, and when I’m not in a hurry.  Exerting myself in this way, connecting with dirt and plants really does something for my soul.

In the office, I’ve been fielding more requests for support groups and other types of groupwork.  That is where a lot of my creative energy has been going as of late.  The pattern that is showing up in my one-on-one work has been the particularly tough, entrenched impact of intergenerational trauma that is blocking real progress and growth in the lives of my clients.  It shows up as stubborn and tenacious and sometimes appears impermeable to change.

The feeling is of being really mired in something that keeps sucking one in.  It’s requiring me to take a different look at the way I can offer myself in service to them.  Just so you know, it’s always mutually beneficial because my clients always mirror me and help me move through the processes I desire to work through as they do their work, and they always inspire me, whether they realize it or not. 

I’m noticing that this new shift in the work I’m called to do demands a new level of humility.  It demands that I continuously search out new resources.  I am pushed to continually search for the right tools, and to make care for myself a sacred priority. 

The really good thing about this is that the kind of trauma my clients are bringing to me these days responds to Systemic and Family Constellations Therapy.  

And that is what I want to tell you about now.  Here is a brief description, in case I haven’t already shared this with you.  Over the next weeks, I plan to share on some various themes that I’ve come across in my studies as I’ve been working toward certification.  I’m proud to say that yesterday I completed and submitted my application for Advanced Certification as a Systemic and Family Constellations Facilitator.  I also bought and planted those herbs and greens in my little garden patch, and now it’s raining.  I look forward to seeing what comes of this new vision – of working with others in groups to make real shifts in our experience, to removing obstacles to our being truly generative, vibrant, and expressive of who we came here to be.  I hope they have a short acronym for Systemic and Family Constellations Therapist Facilitator, Advanced!  I’ll share the certificate here once I get it!

My most recent vision is this:

To more powerfully perform from a place of embodiment so that I can stimulate and support the change that is desired; to collaborate with others to bring about not just a quick fix but transformation in the felt sense of people that I work with – that we finally know what it feels like to be held, to be supported in community, and believe that there is Something Bigger that we can lean into.  And that joy and peace are our natural state, and that it is available to us in these bodies on this earth.  To know what it feels like to be supported to move toward what we want, what we desire, what we need to make this life truly matter.  And to celebrate all the movement (large and small) toward this goal.

Playing With Subtle Energies: Explaining the Unexplainable

Hello Friends,

Many years ago I was introduced to this mysterious, powerful, and beautiful therapeutic modality called Family Constellations. Immediately fascinated and enchanted, I sought out a group or a therapist here in the Midwest, and had my own constellation done. I had to drive all the way to Sedalia, MO and the group that assembled there was quite small, yet still powerful. That therapist has since passed on, and I’ve moved forward in my life as well. In Mexico, I learned that Family Constellations work is extremely popular, and most of the therapists I met had been trained in it, use it in their therapies, and many offer regular groups. In 2013 I attended a 5-day “congress” about Family Constellations in Acapulco, Mexico, attended by a huge number of people, with speakers from all over the world, and my adventures south of the border kicked off that way – in the realm of the magical, Explicando lo Inexplicable (Explaining the Unexplainable). I began attending these groups in Guadalajara as often as I could. Often they brought me to tears, even in Spanish, because they worked with something much older and much more powerful than words. And I could feel things shifting and reaching greater integration in my body, a deeper, very resonant feeling that my problems are not so unique, and that so many of them have been passed down, from past generations. In the world of Family Constellations, things can be put right though. Repairs can be made, and it is a truly beautiful and awe-inspiring thing.

I’m telling you about this now because I have a desire to play with the subtle energies of this therapeutic modality, and as I am still learning how groups in general work, I won’t be charging what most constellators charge. And I want it to be available, even for people who have limited resources. Contact me if you want more information, if you think you and a few people in your community might like to set something up. We need anywhere from 8 to 18 people, and a place that is quiet and large enough for us to move around in.

I can see how my exposure to Family Constellations as well as my training and background in CranioSacral Therapy both shape and affect my EMDR practice, and I now use a kind of hybrid of all three with my clients. We have started a constellation group in Columbia and our first four circles have been extremely powerful. Having the ability to take my work into a group context excites me no end. I’ve included a couple links so you can check it out below. Let me know what you think.


Rupert Sheldrake talks about Family Constellations and the morphogenic field. You may want to Google that topic and follow your own curiosity.

The swirling blue on white figures in the image I include with this post make me think of the “as above, so below” phenomenon that we see in nature, and the correspondence between different planes of existence. Here, I almost see both the neurons that make up any living organism (or a brain!) and the humans that make up any living community. The design was part of the 2013 Constellations Congress I attended in Acapulco.

Learn about the Zulu origins of Family Constellations here.

Transformational Spring Reading – Hold Me Tight

I have been thinking about belonging, and the various points in my life when I felt I more or less belonged.  At this particular phase where I live a rather secluded life due both to personal choice and the more recent COVID-19 pandemic, all of my attention is going toward taking care of my most basic needs, I set up my daily schedule so I can get all of that important self-care stuff in like I never have before.  My house is set up so it can be as efficient as possible.  If I didn’t make a concerted effort to do it, I assure you, it wouldn’t get done. 

The quality of my life, of my future, depends on how well I meet my basic needs.  This was also true when I was an infant.  Like all infants, I had many needs and obviously a good many of them were met because I survived, right?  I am here writing this blog post.  But as I am getting more clear on my unmet infant needs now, my home was set up primarily to meet everyone else’s needs because either they were providing the income necessary to put a roof over our heads or because they were attending to one urgent emergency after another, juggling financial hardship and probably postpartum depression, leaving me not feeling particularly safe or cherished.  The home was not set up to make sure that my unique needs were well met. 

I have more clarity about this today because of a book I’m reading called Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, by Dr. Sue Johnson (a little hint as to what I was needing and not getting).  The book’s basic premise can be summed up with an acronym, A.R.E., which stands for Accessible, Responsive, and Emotionally Engaged. The level of belonging I felt in my family of origin was directly proportionate to the degree to which I felt that my caretakers were accessible, responsive to my needs, and able to emotionally engage with me. 

The quality of my relationships and my adult life have been a reflection of the absence of the accessibility, responsiveness and emotional engagement that nobody but me was even aware of.  Through this lens, I can finally see what it was that caused me to create relationships where I did not feel connected or safe.  And now that I am in the process of parenting myself well, I am experiencing what it feels like to be safe and connected, if only to myself.  And it is with great joy and anticipation that I can say that I feel as though a whole new world awaits me.  As a result of the ongoing dedication I have to caring for myself well, and books and other resources such as this, I am broadening my vocabulary, my capacity to experience new things interpersonally and educating myself about what is possible when we feel truly attuned to, and are accessible to our tender selves, responsive to our own needs, and committed to staying emotionally engaged with ourselves – uncomfortable emotions, vulnerable needs and all. 

I see a very different life opening up for me, where the dialogue involves a whole lot of listening to and paying attention to what delights me (even if that sounds silly or selfish), and at the same time offering myself an environment that provides safety, along with the structure and tangible practicalities that are necessary to meet the more typically recognized needs like adequate rest, good enough hygiene, sufficient exercise, hydration, routines that ensure that my spiritual needs are met, human connection and remedial care that my body requires after a lifetime of neglect.  A lifetime of not being sure that I was the kind of person who could get attuned to, responded to, and emotionally engaged with – at least with a parent or a primary partner.   Holding it all together on the outside is a very different thing from feeling that sense of safety and true belonging on the inside that is a result of strong bonds and healthy intimate relationships, whether it is the mother-infant dyad or the couple who knows how to stay calm and listen and offer assurance when his or her partner is experiencing intense emotions or an automatic reflex that harks back to an earlier traumatic moment.

Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, by Dr. Sue Johnson is a godsend.  It is just the material I needed to catapult my healing work forward.  I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to experience more depth, connection and oxytocin in intimate relationship.

“…once distressed partners learn to hold each other tight, they continue reaching out to each other, trying to create these transforming and satisfying moments again and again. I believe that A.R.E. interactions turn on this neurochemical love potion honed by millions of years of evolution. Oxytocin seems to be nature’s way of promoting attachment.”

– Dr. Sue Johnson in Hold Me Tight

Attached – A Book Review

Attached.  The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love.  By Amir Levine, MD, and Rachel S.F. Heller, MA

I found reading Attached to be a tasty experience.  So tasty in fact, that I read it again before putting it down.  It was very much like eating a cookie.  I raced through, devouring each crumb, excited to have found a book on attachment so easy to read; that the authors so clearly had researched and taken due diligence to present.  I learned a great deal while reading it, not just enjoying each nibble, the richness of its texture and balance by myself, but I also shared and reflected with other people – therapist friends and relatives who were reading it alongside me.  How exciting to see such a phenomenon as attachment come so fully onto the public stage in such a palatable form as this!  And by the time I had read it twice, I felt myself changed somehow. 

Since I am a psychotherapist, I found that Attached gave me heart, and a good many angles through which to enter the topic of relationships and help my clients move toward deeper intimacy and satisfaction in theirs.  Equipped with these tools and this knowledge it is easier to emerge from past failures with a sense of hopefulness and courage to try again.

I have always been intensely interested in relationships.  Long before I became a social worker or a psychotherapist I was devouring literature on intimacy and connection.  And as a person who has failed at relationships enough times to write ten books, I am especially grateful for Levine and Heller’s book.  I believe that it provided exactly the right ingredients and precisely the right texture and crunch.  I no longer identify as one of those poor, insecurely attached blokes who are not relationship material.

After finishing Attached for the second time and taking a separate, two-week webinar on attachment with my sister, and beginning to follow another phenomenal relationship, intimacy and dating expert, Ken Page, I can now say, with some certainty, that I am not as dysfunctional or broken as I previously thought.  In fact, I might even go so far as to say that I have a predominantly secure attachment style.  And yes, I was missing the cues that could have saved me so much time and heartache, had I come across this book decades ago.

What I’d like readers to know is that if they’ve failed at relationships, it may not be because they are jerks or incapable of empathy or are somehow broken.  It’s because they are still acquiring the basic skills to recognize a healthy, life-affirming relationship and what it actually feels like to be in one.

The thing I find missing in virtually all of the popular approaches on dating and intimacy is the concept of the emotional flashback, which should not be confused with attachment style, though does contribute to many of the behaviors this book talks about.

As you learn and grow and partake of the popular literature, make sure that you don’t over-identify as an avoidant or ambivalent or disorganized person.  What happens to me, and it may happen to you too, is that the prospect of new love, and the hope of connecting deeply is so moving and so tantalizing that I can lose my balance if I am not adequately caring for myself and tending to my important needs.  Intimacy serves as a portal into our deepest wounds, for better or worse, and as we become more mature connoisseurs of sweets, we gain important tools and discernment about which desserts leave us with a belly ache and which ones actually leave us feeling stronger, more ourselves and deeply, truly satisfied.

Difficult Women – Book Review

Roxane Gay’s title, Difficult Women, speaks to any woman who has felt difficult to love.  I had long since owned that title and studied the qualities that made me “difficult” in relationships.  I had searched tirelessly to identify the conditions to which I might attribute this unfortunate state of affairs.  So when my sister, the day before her wedding, gifted me this book and began to explain her intention, maybe for fear that I would feel labeled or defensive, I waved her off.  Thank you!  I told her.  I love it already.  Gay’s writing pulled me in from the very first paragraph.  Her voice captures all the ways women might be considered difficult in intimate relationships yet at the same time looks deeper at who they are and why.  We come out of this reading experience so much richer for having explored these stories with her.  They are fiction – products of Gay’s imagination.  But for me, each is a window into a rich and ornate chamber of its author’s mind.  This book leaves me so much richer, with a stronger sense of how a woman might be loved well, even if temporarily.  It leaves me with a broader vision of how a woman can allow her difficult self to be loved and why that might add value to her life.  It leaves me with a clearer personal understanding of the complexity of myself, love and relationship and the natural grit and beauty of coupling in its infinite forms.

And I feel a little less difficult after having read this book.


Other books by Roxane Gay I plan to read:

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

An Untamed State

Bad Feminist


& several comic books in Marvel’s Black Panther: World of Wakanda series


“I vigorously encourage women and people of color to be ambitious, to want and work for every damn thing they can dream of. We’re allowed to want, nakedly, as long as we’re willing to put in the proverbial work….I am ambitious because I love what I do, not simply for ambition’s sake. Ambition is what allows me to take creative risks and try things I never thought I could do. Ambition makes me a better thinker and writer. Ambition makes me.”                       — Roxane Gay

The Body Keeps The Score – Book Review

One of my favorite things to do is reading good books.  I finished reading Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score some months ago, but it has taken me a while to report on it.  Besides having gleaned 25 pages of quotes, I’m feeling the need to go back and re-read the whole thing.  This was a book of serious ahas.  Van der Kolk is himself a survivor of early relational trauma – a fact of which he was unaware until well into his professional career.  Currently the Medical Director of the Trauma Center in Boston, he is also a Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University Medical School and serves as the Co-Director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress Complex Trauma Network.  You can read more about him here.

“Trauma,” says van der Kolk, “drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past.”  Its effects are profound and lasting when it occurs before we have language to describe it or even hope to get the help we need.  But, “like a splinter that causes an infection, it is the body’s response to the foreign object that becomes the problem more than the object itself.”

I love this book because Van der Kolk gives me words for things I had no idea how to talk about before.  And he validates suspicions that have nagged at me for decades.  For instance, when I was 24 and had already ditched my first husband and abandoned my three-year-old son, I was puzzled by the lack of pain I felt.  What was wrong with me, anyway?  I had many explanations, some of which had to do with depression, being clueless about what I was going to do with my life, and feeling incapable of caring well for a small child while trying to do all those things that I had been taught that a husband was supposed to do.  Van der Kolk calls this “Numbing.”  In describing what one survivor of developmental trauma experienced, he says, “He desperately wanted to love his family, but he just couldn’t evoke any deep feelings for them.”

Numbing may keep us from suffering in the short-term, but long-term is another matter.  “…though the mind may learn to ignore the messages from the emotional brain, the alarm signals don’t stop.  The emotional brain keeps working, and stress hormones keep sending signals to the muscles to tense for action or immobilize in collapse.  The physical effects on the organs go on unabated until they demand notice when they are expressed as illness.  Medications, drugs, and alcohol can also temporarily dull or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings.  But the body continues to keep the score.”

“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system.  The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life.”

The seemingly endless path of breadcrumbs leading me back to my own trauma included my status as “stimulus seeker.”  Though I am most likely on the mild end of this spectrum, survivors of trauma don’t feel quite alive if they aren’t in the middle of some kind of chaos.  Says van der Kolk, “Somehow the very event that caused them so much pain had also become their sole source of meaning.  They felt fully alive only when they were revisiting their traumatic past.”

“That is why so many abused and traumatized people feel fully alive in the face of actual danger, while they go numb in situations that are more complex but objectively safe, like birthday parties or family dinners.”

All of this is determined at a very physical level.  “If an organism is stuck in survival mode, its energies are focused on fighting off unseen enemies, which leaves no room for nurture, care, and love.  For us humans, it means that as long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, play, learn, and pay attention to other people’s needs.”

Among van der Kolk’s research-based conclusions (and things to think about as you consider this idea he’s calling developmental trauma):

  • Exposure to stress relieves anxiety.
  • Addiction to trauma may be characterized by the pain of pleasure and the pleasure of pain.
  • Immobilization is at the root of most traumas (your heart slows down, your breathing becomes shallow, and, zombielike, you lose touch with yourself and your surroundings).
  • It is especially challenging for traumatized people to discern when they are actually safe and to be able to activate their defenses when they are in danger.
  • All too often, drugs such as Abilify, Zyprexa, and Seroquel, are prescribed instead of teaching people the skills to deal with distressing physical reactions associated with repressed emotion.

Real healing, he says, has to do with experiential knowledge: “You can be fully in charge of your life only if you can acknowledge the reality of your body, in all its visceral dimensions.”  Here, EXPERIENCE, not UNDERSTANDING is what we need.

“…neuroscience research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention.  When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.”


“Treatment needs to reactivate the capacity to safely mirror, and be mirrored, by others, but also to resist being hijacked by others’ negative emotions.”

“…the great challenge is finding ways to reset their physiology, so that their survival mechanisms stop working against them.  This means helping them to respond appropriately to danger but, even more, to recover the capacity to experience safety, relaxation, and true reciprocity.”

Mindfulness, or the ability to hover calmly and objectively over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, is one of the primary tools van der Kolk teaches his patients.  This ability allows us to then take our time to respond,” he says, which “allows the executive brain to inhibit, organize, and modulate the hardwired automatic reactions preprogrammed into the emotional brain.  This capacity is crucial for preserving our relationships with our fellow human beings.”

Increasing “interoception,” or self-awareness, is another important feature of recovery, van der Kolk says.  “Because traumatized people often have trouble sensing what is going on in their bodies, they lack a nuanced response to frustration.  They either react to stress by becoming ‘spaced out’ or with excessive anger.  Whatever their response, they often can’t tell what is upsetting them.  This failure to be in touch with their bodies contributes to their well-documented lack of self-protection and high rates of revictimization.  And also to their remarkable difficulties feeling pleasure, sensuality, and having a sense of meaning.”

Noticing and then describing what they are feeling is a process van der Kolk helps his patients learn.  He begins the process by helping them talk about what is happening in their bodies, “not emotions such as anger or anxiety or fear but the physical sensations beneath the emotions: pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, caving in, feeling hollow, and so on.”  He also works on “identifying the sensations associated with relaxation or pleasure…their breath, their gestures and movements.”  He asks them to “pay attention to subtle shifts in their bodies, such as tightness in their chests or gnawing in their bellies, when they talk about negative events that they claim did not bother them.”

“…many programs (that try to help traumatized people) continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking,” van der Kolk says.  He provides some ways to engage this part of the brain in his book.  Among them are:

  • Yoga
  • Theater Programs
  • Breath Exercises (Pranayama)
  • Chanting
  • Martial Arts
  • Qigong
  • Drumming
  • Group Singing
  • Dancing

“Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level we barely exist as individual organisms.  Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe….Most of our energy is devoted to connecting with others.”


A few more nuggets I thought you might appreciate:

  • While you need to be able to stand up for yourself, you also need to recognize that other people have their own agendas. Trauma can make all that hazy and gray.
  • (As infants) our most intimate sense of self is created in our minute-to-minute exchanges with our caregivers.
  • Children’s disturbed behavior is a response to actual life experiences – to neglect, brutality, and separation – rather than the product of infantile sexual fantasies.
  • Our lives consist of finding our place within the community of human beings.
  • Babies can’t regulate their own emotional states, much less the changes in heart rate, hormone levels, and nervous-system activity that accompany emotions.
  • Learning how to manage arousal is a key life skill, and parents must do it for babies before babies can do it for themselves.
  • Securely attached kids learn the difference between situations they can control and situations where they need help.
  • Kids will go to almost any length to feel seen and connected.
  • Traumatized parents, in particular, need help to be attuned to their children’s needs.
  • Dissociation means simultaneously knowing and not knowing.
  • Early attachment patterns create the inner maps that chart our relationships throughout life, not only in terms of what we expect from others, but also in terms of how much comfort and pleasure we can experience in their presence.
  • It’s not important for me to know every detail of a patient’s trauma. What is critical is that the patients themselves learn to tolerate feeling what they feel and knowing what they know.
  • Rage that has nowhere to go is redirected against the self, in the form of depression, self-hatred, and self-destructive actions.
  • Eradicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-quarters.
  • Social support is a biological necessity, not an option, and this reality should be the backbone of all prevention and treatment.
  • As long as people are either hyperaroused or shut down, they cannot learn from experience. Even if they manage to stay in control, they become so uptight that they are inflexible, stubborn, and depressed.  Recovery from trauma involves the restoration of executive functioning and, with it, self-confidence and the capacity for playfulness and creativity.
  • In order to recover, mind, body, and brain need to be convinced that it is safe to let go. That happens only when you feel safe at a visceral level and allow yourself to connect that sense of safety with memories of past helplessness.
  • Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.
  • Antipsychotic medications such as Risperdal, Abilify, or Seroquel can significantly dampen the emotional brain and this makes patients less skittish or enraged, but they also may interfere with being able to appreciate subtle signals of pleasure, danger, or satisfaction.
  • As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. Hiding your core feelings takes an enormous amount of energy, it saps your motivation to pursue worthwhile goals, and it leaves you feeling bored and shut down.

I highly recommend this book.

Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body In the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

Timing Is Everything – A Book Review

Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg is one of those books you see on the shelves of people who are serious about effective communication.  Everywhere.  I kept seeing it.  But when I picked it up it didn’t speak to me.  Now I know why.  What broke the ice, I think, was reading the NVC Workbook, by Lucy Leu, which was incomplete by itself but was enough to motivate me to try Marshall’s book again.

I was already mid-epiphany in my personal life – regarding noticing that when I got analytical, critical, judgmental or when I started comparing myself to others I was actually feeling vulnerable underneath – when I came across this passage:

“Our attention is focused on classifying, analyzing, and determining levels of wrongness rather than on what we and others are needing and not getting.  Thus if my partner wants more affection than I’m giving her, she is ‘needy and dependent.’  But if I want more affection than she is giving me, then she is ‘aloof and insensitive.’  If my colleague is more concerned about details than I am, he is ‘picky and compulsive.’  On the other hand, if I am more concerned about details than he is, he is ‘sloppy and disorganized.’”

That helped me solidify my epiphany and make it a regular part of my mental health maintenance.  Now, when I notice myself judging, comparing, criticizing, or analyzing, I can stop and gently ask myself: What might I be feeling vulnerable about?  Underneath all this chatter, might there be a story that wants to be told?  What, from my past, is this reminding me of?

Marshall Rosenberg is quite a revolutionary, and as it turns out, he’s an excellent writer too.  His book explains how people can communicate with one another more effectively by using a lens of compassion – turning feelings into desires and needs.  Looking back, the reason I could not access his message from the very first time I picked up the book was that I was still very confused about what my needs actually were, I was not clear enough on who I was to be in touch with what I desired, and I was completely cut off from my vulnerable emotions – that is until they built up so much that they overwhelmed me, and I lost control.

When you are at the right developmental stage, this book is a virtual jewel.  I’ve been digesting it since I finished it in March, when I was on the beach with my daughter in Cuba.  Here is another snippet:

“It is my belief that all such analyses of other human beings are tragic expressions of our own values and needs.  They are tragic because, when we express our values and needs in this form, we increase defensiveness and resistance to them among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us.  Or, if they do agree to act in harmony with our values because they concur with our analysis of their wrongness, they will likely do so out of fear, guilt, or shame.”

When we are alienated from our needs, like many who experienced early relational trauma, we were not encouraged to have a strong sense of self, or we were shamed when we overtly expressed our desires or unpleasant feelings.  What’s tragic about this is that when we are alienated from our needs, we are deprived of what we most need to grow socially and emotionally: sustained human connection.  As Rosenberg points out, “…the more we are able to connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond compassionately.”

In modern, Western society, women are particularly vulnerable to being socialized to put others first.  As Rosenberg says, “Because women are socialized to view the caretaking of others as their highest duty, they have often learned to ignore their own needs.”

Safe human relationships have been shown to be the most powerful tool for helping people overcome early relational trauma.  These relationships can be built in a therapy setting, but are just as powerful between people who have an adequate level of recovery, adequate attunement with their own feelings and needs, and the language to talk about it.

I’d like to create contexts where people can practice with others this skill of connecting feelings with needs, and communicating in ways that others are likely to have compassion for them, instead of feeling assaulted by their neediness or negativity.  This often happens to people who have unresolved early relational trauma, and when others respond to their judging, complaining, or neediness by defending, retaliating or distancing.  This sadly validates their early programming that people cannot accept them with their vulnerable emotions and backlog of unmet needs.  Validation might feel good, but as they say in Al-Anon, “Would you rather be right or happy?” Nonviolent Communication is a book that offers a framework for blasting through the early programming, and forging authentic connections between people, organizations, and nations.

“All criticism, attack, insults and judgments vanish when we focus attention on hearing the feelings and needs behind a message….behind all those messages we’ve allowed ourselves to be intimidated by are just individuals with unmet needs appealing to us to contribute to their well-being.”  Rosenberg believes this applies to everyone.  And his ideas are now being taught in mediation trainings all over the world.

(Former United Nations Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold) “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is happening outside.”  Rosenberg says that “If we become skilled in giving ourselves empathy, we often experience in just a few seconds a natural release of energy which then enables us to be present with the other person.”

Rosenberg’s Four Steps to Expressing Anger

  1. Stop and do nothing except breathe.
  2. Identify the thoughts that are making us angry.
  3. Connect to the needs behind those thoughts.
  4. Express our feelings and unmet needs.

I highly recommend this book.


Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD  Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion. Encinitas: Puddledancer Press, 2000.

Becoming Attached – Book Review

Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love, by Robert Karen, PhD.  Oxford University Press, 1998

Robert Karen’s book, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love, took a while to read, but what a treasure!  It gives an overview and history of attachment theory.  Explains in depth the destructive practices that had been adopted early in the industrial revolution, as parents increasingly were called to work outside the home and nuclear families became the norm.  It connects the dots between early attachment wounds and unmet needs and patterns of relating in adulthood.  Robert Karen locates himself in the material, describing himself this way: “I believe I had an anxious attachment to my mother, which was perhaps mainly ambivalent but had certain avoidant features and looked more and more avoidant as I got older.”

After having read this book, I can better understand some of my odd behaviors as a child and young adult, and my patterns with adult partners and potential partners.  Why did I bite that girl in the bathroom in 4th grade?  I remember chomping down hard, and I felt I could have taken it off.  It wasn’t her I was mad at; I don’t even remember what she had done.  But that was a terrifying, out-of-control rage I couldn’t put into words.  Even as an adult, why did I suddenly feel so infuriated with my sister, Tracy, when I was dependent on her to step in and help; when she was all-out engaged in fixing the situation when my children were being abducted and I was so terrified I’d never see them again? What could explain my identification as “utterly uninterested in affection” and at the same time internally so utterly starved of physical and emotional connection and touch?  Why was my response to my mother “I know,” since at least age 10, and why the unmistakable force behind it?

I can better understand how I had lived so long without a secure base, and how I learned to find comfort most reliably in being alone, since being with loved ones cost me so dearly in terms of emotional and energetic expenditure.  Why I have undermined being given to “in a truly loving way… at every turn; indeed (being given to in this way) feels perversely unacceptable.”

I can better understand my disconnectedness from feelings of loss and vulnerability when it came to “close” others.  Why I have never been able to use a coherent narrative to talk about what my childhood was like, what my day was like, or even about an idea I’d like to share.  How I jump around without finishing my sentences, and am difficult to follow.  How I have difficulty recalling much of my past.  As a person recovering from intimacy disorder, I can look back over my life and notice a suspicious lack of benefitting from the highly-touted idea of companionship and comfort others seemed to be benefitting from around me; the wild vacillating between feelings of superiority to others and feeling too weak, too desperate, and too ashamed to approach anyone for love and support.

I can better understand “what went wrong.”  The origins of unhealthy narcissism, and the thread it weaves into our family and others.  In short, I can better understand to what I might attribute my intimacy problems, when my parents so clearly loved me and provided me with so much.  And among these pages, too, I have access to the scientific data that attempt to identify what children actually need to form secure attachment with their parents, and what that even looks like.

How strange, when I read the words “the usefulness of their anger.” But, as I’ve intellectually known all along, anger has a healthy interpersonal function.  Reading these words help me integrate and process so much.  Included in this book are also how addiction and enmeshment fit into the attachment puzzle, and how we can approach resolution and repair.  For me, there is clearly much to learn and internalize, but this book provides a grounded and comprehensive discussion of the attachment literature.

Below I include some of my very favorite quotes:

“There is another implication here, too, perhaps especially for the ambivalent child, whose hurt and rage and hatred are so volatile and so quickly unmanageable: He never develops the sense that mom is there to contain his overwhelming emotions; that he can have a tantrum; that he can hate her and feel as if he and mom are through, but that she will be soothing and convey the sense that the tantrum will soon pass without causing permanent damage and that even his wish to annihilate her will not have devastating consequences.  In other words, even if his extreme negative feelings are too much for him, they are not too much for her; she can (in Winnicott’s words) “hold” them, and through his relationship with her he will learn to manage them one day himself.” (Pg 222)

And this: “He doesn’t feel he can be openly angry with her, despite the fact that anger, according to Bowlby, is the natural response when a child’s attachment needs are thwarted.  Experience has taught him that his anger will only cause her to become more rejecting.  And so he has learned to turn himself off.  At the slightest hint of pain or disappointment, he shuts down his attachment system and experiences himself as having no need for love.  Unlike the ambivalent child, whose attachment antennae are always up and receiving and who seems to have no defenses to ward off painful emotions, the avoidant child, Main believes, has made himself deaf to attachment related signals, whether they are coming from within himself or from someone else.  He avoids any situation and perhaps any topic that has the potential for activating his attachment needs.”

Even later on, as a child who seems to have accepted life on the edge of human connectedness, who seems to many observers to prefer detachment, the prospect of further rejection is too terrible to risk.  The predominantly avoidant child cannot be warmly affectionate with his mother or go to her when in need. But by keeping his attachment system dampened, he is at least able to stay near her without risking more pain or ruining the connection with his disappointment and anger.  Thus, despite appearances, the strategy of the avoidant child still seems to serve the purpose of preserving proximity.  Psychologically, he is firmly in his mother’s orbit, his thought, feeling, and behavior shaped by the claims of that relationship, but, like Jupiter or Uranus, he abides at a distance that affords him little warmth (Pg 224).

Karen touches on how in our society secure attachment is more the exception than the rule, and how motherhood, as we think of it, is not the best explanation, but rather modern Western society’s growing individualism and the pressures of achievement at the expense of connection.

And as I suspected, he says that there is hope; successfully parenting one’s children, being in partnership with an emotionally healthy adult and effective therapy can all repair anxious attachment and heal attachment wounds.  Read more gleanings from this great book here, or get a copy for yourself at Amazon.com.

Closer Than You Think – Book Review

Closer Than You Think, by Trina Brunk is a practical guide to knowing one’s self and dealing with a whole host of existential questions that come with living as humans in these times.  She writes with clarity, wisdom and flow, telling the truth about intimacy and our relationship with the beloved.

But besides being practical, and serving as a guide, this lovely piece is a song – the soundtrack to the soul’s coming back into the body, after a lifetime of exile – and finally learning to stay there.   Enjoy this quote:

The skills to cultivate are not self-denial and heroism, but depth of presence, patience, and staying connected in the face of suffering, in the face of accepting that we can’t always make it better for those who suffer.

The magic and directness of this book told my story, and I suspect it will tell pieces of yours as well, in a way you have not heard it before.  It connected me more firmly with the comfort that is available to all of us, in the form of higher and often less apparent forms of guidance, assistance, and unconditional love.

Chapter 6 made me weep, but first it invited me to read it twice more.  Trina’s book, Closer Than You Think, is a wild, exhilarating ride.  It will have you holding on to your seat.  So. Much. Fun.

Buy her book here!

Are You Wired For Love? – Repost

Various similarities stand out among happy, successful couples.  These things are reflected in great literature and are assumed to be what normal relationships are made of.  Happy couples regard their unions with mutuality, deep commitment, kindness, and respect.  The culture they create together is playful, safe and nourishing.  In his important book, Wired For Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship, Stan Tatkin refers to healthy attachment as a tether.  He says, “Partners who create and maintain a tether to one another experience more personal safety and security, have more energy, take more risks and experience overall less stress than couples who do not.”

This tethering is the idea I’d like to talk about first, here, as the primary connection or bond that can be created between partners.  In his book, Tatkin describes what he calls a “couple bubble,” in which a couple can agree to certain principles which guide their attitudes, behaviors and priorities, and actually allow them to “build synergy in [their] relationships, such that [they] are able to operate together in ways that are greater than if [they] each lived as essentially separate individuals.”

While it’s hard to argue the advantages of such a theoretical safe haven, my concern about such an agreement is that so many individuals who have experienced relational trauma 1) do not bring their full, embodied selves to the relationship because they do not know how, and 2) do not have the social or emotional development necessary to agree on the principles and comport themselves accordingly.  One need not look far to see the relationships that create more stress than they relieve; that leave their members doubting their value, feeling unsure, unsafe, and unlovable.  The elusive bond is not experienced, and the mental constructs that support it cannot be held in place.  The couples who find themselves in this unfortunate situation match or mirror one another in their unpreparedness; neither of them can understand what is actually going on, and so it is beyond their capability to support one another and create this safe bubble.  It goes without saying that the environment of these unions is anything but safe.

In this important book, Stan Tatkin distinguishes between various attachment styles, which can describe the different kinds of dances people engage in in their relationships.  ANCHORS, he says, are securely attached.  They readily attach and are able to navigate healthy relationships.  Characteristics of the two different insecurely or anxiously attached styles are bulleted below.  See if either of these styles describes you.

  • Often feel intruded upon by others
  • Feel trapped, out of control in response to closeness
  • Fear too much intimacy
  • Fear being blamed
  • Don’t believe much in the value of being soothed, comforted or protected by someone else. After all, we’ve figured out how to do that for ourselves, and others can be such a bother.
  • Prefer to have control, i.e., if I withdraw first, I don’t have to fear being abandoned
  • Fear being abandoned by a partner
  • Fear being separated from a partner
  • Experience discomfort in response to being left alone for too long
  • Feel that they are a burden
  • Elevating someone to primary attachment status makes that person dangerous
  • Overly sensitized to the anticipation of rejection
  • Often copes with this by rejecting a partner
  • Want to be tethered, but either don’t expect it in return or are unwilling to give it in return.

As even Tatkin points out, to date there is no evidence that being in relationship is inherently better than being single.  For those of us who are “islands” or “waves,” and being in relationship is actually more stressful than not, it is probable that the couple bubble is not our best option.  We’ll look at how we might use certain pieces of the idea, however, and implement them in our other relationships so as to achieve some of the benefits that lifelong partnership provides, but not to us – yet.

I’m not denying that there is great benefit to be had in engaging the muscles that are required to maintain a couple bubble.  People universally feel and act on the need to be tethered, and this could be where your greatest potential for growth lies.  And I’ll submit, as Tatkin points out, if we do not experience the need to be in an exclusive relationship when we are generative and bodily fit, the need to be dependent on at least one other person becomes more obvious and pressing as we near the end of life.  But for others, remaining single, at least for a time, may be their potential for greatest satisfaction and growth.

For many of us, the hard-to-ignore drive to pair up seems to have a biological component, and in many ways, social forces compel us, as well, to be in exclusive, partnered relationships.  The enticement is obvious.  The benefits of being part of a well-bonded partnership include:

  • A durable sense of membership and belonging
  • A consistent go-to person with whom you can relax, feel accepted, wanted, protected, and cared for
  • A consistent go-to person for comfort and immediate care
  • Satisfaction of the human longing for a safe zone where you can let your guard down
  • Knowing that you each have an advocate and an ally against hostile forces
  • The potential for synergy, that makes two greater than the sum of its parts

For those of you who are already in committed relationships, by all means, read Stan Tatkin’s book, Wired for Love, and create a couple bubble.  Working toward this kind of relationship has the potential for profound healing and growth, even if it is never fully achieved.

But people have unique needs when it comes to safety.  What many of us could benefit from understanding, at a deeper level, is that our relationships in adulthood are completely elective.  And it is up to us to decide what works for us.  If we have tried, and have not experienced safety and comfort in intimate relationships, it is okay to admit that.  And it is okay to change up the strategy.

Maybe for some of you out there, the idea of intimacy as a trigger is a new one.  If this is the case for you, it is important to become aware of any strategies you may have unconsciously employed to protect yourself from getting too close.  Whether growing in your capacity to experience intimacy with another is your goal, or you just want to become more connected with your fully embodied self and your heart’s desires, self acceptance is the path.  Accepting yourself exactly where you are is the crucial first step.  What follows is a list of the covert strategies to avoid intimacy I have encountered in myself and through my work with clients (they are strategies because they are used to hide or distract us from our fear, i.e., fear of dependency or vulnerability):

  • Addictions and compulsions
  • Perfectionism
  • Exalting the virtues of independence and autonomy
  • Judging other people who are comfortable accepting assistance and protection
  • Judging other people as selfish when they appear to feel deserving of love and assistance
  • Judging people who do things or think differently than us
  • Exalting things such as being right, accomplishment, power, performance, money, or image over relationship

I propose that those of us who have been relationally challenged take Tatkin’s idea of a couple bubble and use it as a version of our own personal boundary.[1]  Inside this personal boundary, we can commit to forming a safe and reliable partnership with ourselves.  In all the world, we are the one person we know who will be right there with us when we are scared, in pain or excited.  But we have to make the decision to be there for and support ourselves.  Then, with the power and wisdom of our most evolved self, we can agree to work toward an internal culture of safety and comfort.  The language we can adopt might look like this:

  • I will never leave you (I will not abandon myself).
  • I will never purposely frighten you (I will be mindful and not create unnecessary chaos for myself).
  • When you are in distress, I will relieve you, even if I’m the one who is causing the distress
  • Our relationship is more important than my need to be right, your performance, your appearance, what other people think or want, or any other competing value.

In Tatkin’s bubble, the emphasis is less about helping yourself and more about helping your partner.  In this (intrapersonal) version of the bubble, the emphasis is on being sensitive to the parts of you that have been chronically dissociated, or the parts that you have kept pressed out of awareness.  When you have a more holistic relationship with yourself, you will learn to benefit from the wisdom, vision and gifts of these parts that you have been dismissing.  In this way, not only will these formerly exiled parts be accepted and cared for, but they will help you understand your needs and make them easier to meet.

Everyone experiences stress in a different way, Tatkin explains.  He recommends studying your partner and knowing the three or four things that make him or her feel bad, so you can better care for your partner.  I propose that we invest the time necessary to know ourselves this well.  Study yourself to understand the three or four things that make you feel bad.  And then do something about it.  Taking this just a short step further, we can actually work toward reducing or eliminating these four things through effective therapy, journaling, or good self care.

“It’s kind of like running a three-legged race,” Tatkin says.  “If one person falls, the other can’t go anywhere.  So you want to work as a team and hold each other up.”  When we throw our body, or “unacceptable” parts of us under the bus, we end up paralyzed, malfunctioning and stymied.  That’s why it’s important for us to include our bodies in the conversation and be compassionate with all our parts as we learn about their needs and work toward full integration.

The safety zone, or couple bubble Tatkin helps couples develop to ensure safety in their relationship is a “mutually constructed membrane cocoon, or womb that holds a couple together and protects each partner from outside elements.”  Anyone can benefit from developing a sense of committed connectedness with themselves.  It is my opinion that this is a necessary prerequisite to experiencing satisfying long-term relationships outside of us.  Here are a few things that need to happen to keep an “intrapersonal bubble” healthy and intact.

  • Take the time to re-attune after separation. If you find yourself disconnected, tense, or feeling off, check in with yourself to see if you have any pressing needs, i.e., am I thirsty, angry, triggered, tired?
  • Use body awareness to see where you are holding tension, and take steps to release it.
  • Attune to your emotional state. Becoming conscious of your emotions helps allow you to stay in the here and now, and make continual use of real-time sensory information, rather than shifting into past emotional states and essentially reliving relational or other trauma through a triggered state.  This information is readily available to you if you can stay calm enough to access it.  Simply by observing yourself, you can make assessments about your emotional state based on muscle tension, energy level, breath and voice quality.
  • Develop an up-to-date owner’s manual for your various parts. It is quite possible that a part of you is quite comfortable with the idea of meeting someone new, and another part of you is literally terrified of the prospect.  Taking some time to study these parts (or any parts you might have) and understanding what you need to do to stay connected with your larger purpose and goals, while treating each of these parts with the care and respect they deserve is a strategy that can help you stay in the here and now; to ride out a potentially overwhelming situation without needing to shut down the feelings, or to dissociate and abandon your body, and your felt sense.

As an insecurely attached child, I learned it was safer not to trust, and so my needs for belonging, safety, and support were not well met.  As an adult, I’ve found the idea of allowing another person to earn my respect, trust, and affection over time extremely seductive.  And through much trial and error, I have learned how important it is to stay conscious and connected to my felt sense, to pay attention to my physical responses to people and situations, and to refuse to turn a blind eye to things that are not acceptable to me.  I have learned to catch myself when I inadvertently hand my power over to another person, to re-member my power, and choose again.  I am learning to separate the seduction of a vague or unrealistic promise from the steady groundedness of my own felt sense, and to take great pleasure in knowing that this is what home and safety is for me.

Another question Tatkin raises is whether it is possible to love yourself before someone loves you.  He points out that we learn to love ourselves precisely because we have experienced being loved by someone.  We learn to take care of ourselves because someone has taken care of us.  Self-esteem and self-worth, he says, are developed through our contact with other people.  He is correct.  But it is not always from inside a couple relationship that we can get these things.  In fact, under certain circumstances, those partner relationships are so unsafe that the overall effect is extreme damage to the self-esteem and self-worth, in which case, we get it where we can, whether it be from authors of self-help books, the Internet, literature or less intimate friendships.  But get it we must, until healthy relating is a norm rather than that elusive panacea that continually escapes us.

Whether we can benefit from being in an exclusive relationship is not always an easy decision to make.  For some individuals, remaining single is the best option because they are wired in a way that makes committed relationships way too stressful.  What keeps people trying is the hope that experience and healing can change such wiring so that the individual can benefit from the safety and comfort of a committed union.

Here is my current checklist for relationship readiness:

  • Unambiguous desire for primary partnership
  • Self knowledge about our personal relational style, and whether having a partner makes sense for us
  • Clarity about what we desire, need and expect from our partner
  • The willingness to fight. This allows the partner to experiment with and learn through engagement how to manage one’s own power, and activates the mental and emotional muscles necessary to negotiate and advocate for one’s self.
  • Ability to attune to your emotional state and to that of another person. Emotional attunement is a state of consciousness that allows you and another person to stay in the here and now during interactions so that continual use of real-time sensory information can be made, and the shifting into past emotional states and essentially reliving relational trauma through a triggered state can be avoided.  Real-time information is readily available to you if you can stay calm enough to access it.  Simply by observing yourself and the other person, you can make assessments about emotional state based on muscle tension, breath and voice quality.
More on Fighting

Tatkin quote: “Couples who are in it for the long haul know how to play and fight well, remain fearlessly confident in the resilience of their relationship, and don’t try to avoid conflict.”  Tatkin says that while self-interests are a necessary given, they exist as part of the greater good of the relationship, such that, “when a fight occurs, nobody loses and everybody wins.”

Smart fighting, Tatkin says, is “about wrestling with your partner, engaging without hesitation or avoidance, and at the same time being willing to relax your own positon.  You go back and forth with each other, until the two of you come up with something that’s good for both of you.  You take what you each bring to the table and, with it, create something new that provides mutual relief and satisfaction.”

Emerging from a life marked by relational trauma, we each have our automatic response: the one that worked for us when we were young.  For me it was freeze and eventual flight.  Having defaulted to the freeze response so automatically, I missed out on the opportunity to experiment with and develop the other three possible responses that would have provided me with an effective fight reflex, that might have allowed me to maintain equilibrium in my relationships (the other stress responses include the cry for help, fight, and flight).

Violence and Abuse

John Gottman, of the Gottman Institute and Stan Tatkin agree that contempt is one of the biggest threats to relationships.  Contempt includes expression of disgust, disrespect, condescension, and sarcasm.  These attitudes, when directed toward the self, threaten an individual’s self-esteem and sense of self worth and severely undermine an individual’s interactions with intimate others.  Whether you want to heal your relational trauma from childhood or nurture a deep and authentic relationship with another person, you owe it to yourself to immediately eliminate all threatening behavior.  Think about this next list in terms of how you treat yourself (in a stressful situation) and past unsuccessful relationships.  Think also about relationships you witnessed as you were growing up.  Threatening behavior includes:

  • Raging
  • Hitting or other forms of violence
  • Threats against the relationship
  • Threats against the person
  • Threats against others important to your partner
  • Holding on for too long and not letting go
  • Refusing to repair or make right a wrong
  • Withdrawing for periods longer than 1-2 hours
  • Being consistently unapologetic
  • Behaving habitually in an unfair or unjust manner
  • Putting ego-based interests ahead of the relationship too much of the time
  • Expressing contempt (devaluation: e.g., “you’re a moron.”)
  • Expressing disgust (loathing or repulsion; e.g., “you make me sick.”)

Finally, lack of physical contact contributes to actual, measurable health problems.  In a study of baby rhesus monkeys, back in 1975, James Prescott found a stronger drive for physical comfort than for food.  These needs are the same for people, and they continue into adulthood.  Directly and consistently addressing one’s need for touch is an important way to clear away the fog of the seduction of pairing off before one is actually ready.  And if one is aware, he or she can take steps to meet this physical need.  According to Tatkin, a minimum of 10 minutes of close physical contact every day can make a measurable difference when it comes to stress management.  If you are not partnered, you can absolutely benefit from cuddling with yourself, or even cradling yourself as you would a baby.  Hugging, holding or being held, dancing, exercises such as yoga and tai chi, being given or receiving a massage, and so on are all ways you can nurture and care for your precious body and let it know you appreciate it.  Notice the effect any amount of physical touch and conscious, loving attention has on your level of stress and on your physical health.  If you can slow down enough, you will notice that such care and indulgence is not only enjoyable, but that it also serves to help your body heal, and as a preventive means to reduce the effects of stress and maintain your health.

In case you were wondering about the re-posts, I recently migrated my blog, and in the process lost a lot of material.  I’m going back to reconstruct the articles that seem relevant.  This one is from July 4, 2016.  thank you for your interest!


[1] I teach a 5-week class on boundaries called Boundaries 101: Learning to Recognize, Honor and Communicate Your Personal Limits.  You can get your copy of the study guide here.