therapy

Wounds That Boomerang and How to Stop the Re-Enactment

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“If you bring out what is inside you,

what is inside you will save you.

If you fail to bring out what is inside you, 

what is inside you will destroy you.”

The Gnostic Gospels

I have experienced this truth over and again as a therapist treating sex offender behavior. The question has always been why would anyone sexually abuse another, whether adult or child? The answer is always found in a desperate need for control, and re-enactment of being wounded, dominated, and helpless at a vulnerable time in life toward someone else. 

A common scenario is that one guy marries a woman who has a young female child. The intimacy-disabledness in his previous relationship was never addressed and worked out. So he brings that forward into this new relationship where he has become a step-parent. He repeats the same intimacy disability in that he feels one down to his partner, cannot connect at a deeper level, can’t please his partner sexually or be pleased himself, avoids conflict and only knows to dominate or be dominated by his partner. 

Things don’t work out. But, he does feel a special kinship to the stepdaughter. With her, he feels empowered, helps her with homework, becomes her confidante, and engages her in physical horseplay. To his spouse, this is everything that her previous partner would not do. 

So she is devastated when she finds out that her new partner has been molesting her daughter, watching her undress, etc. In shock, she wonders where did this come from?

He is also fearful, wishing he had never gone down this path. Now forced to do therapy he uncovers unresolved neglect/abandonment and no one to meet his needs as a child. He traces the lack of control he experienced as a child to his inability to be empowered in an adult relationship. He acts out his insecurity through attempts to meet his needs with a child through domination and control.

Does everybody compensate for childhood needs in their adult life in this destructive way? Of course not! However, none of us got through our childhood unscathed. If we do not face and address our own childhood pain of being broken we will relive the break in some form of re-enactment later in life!

The various ways of re-enacting are numerous. Whether pain and suffering have a proper place in our lives or whether we become cornered and trapped in the pain and suffering depends on an individual’s efforts to integrate the painful experience into life experience which later becomes a source of wisdom.  It has been my experience in treating trauma that what is not integrated is repeated. It is repeated through compulsions (addictions of all types) and all kinds of controlling behaviors that create intimacy disability. Not every person who has been sexually or physically abused sexually offends another. Yet for sure, everyone who has been abused in childhood will re-enact that abuse in some way as they go through the stages of life, if not addressed. There are many ways to act out the hurt and pain in hidden ways that are subconscious to the individual and acceptable to the culture. Behaviors such as workaholism, male machismo, being a social “player” and perfectionism are all examples of facades that hide many types of abuse manifested in early childhood. 

Consider the following:

1. Face, feel, and accept: Stopping the cycle of re-enacting painful experiences requires that you access the courage to face what is. Most of us won’t do this until the pain of not facing reality is greater than the pain of embracing truth. You will need to declare a personal jihad face to your own demons. To do so means that you must experience the feelings that have been creating discomfort. Leaning into the feelings is the only way to get through them and accept the reality of what is. Short of that you will tend to seek revenge to avoid facing your own shortcomings. Rather than distract yourself with schemes to get back at others who have hurt you, face your demons and find the acceptance that will create a sense of connection with others. 

2. Integrate or disintegrate:  When you are not willing to look at your part of a problem in relationship, you re-enact ways that you have been controlled as a child into a use of power to control others in your adult life. You may bully with intimidation, act like a victim, or shut down and sulk. All of these and many other strategies represent ways that you disintegrate trust and connection in adult relationships.

Integration incorporates past experience with present encounters and helps to create a different future. Integration involves recognizing how past abuse impacts present response. It includes redirecting shame carried to the caregiver who gave it to you in the first place and to the hurtful behavior you engaged in the here and now. Once you have stalked the shame to its source and redirected it to behavior, instead of self, you will be better able to integrate the wounding experience with a grounding of self-empowerment. Every time you face your own pain and brokenness you interrupt the need to re-enact old destructive behaviors in the here and now. When you don’t, you repeat the suffering and pass it on to others. 

Facing and cleaning the wounds from the past will integrate your life experience with others and strengthen the bonds between you and the world around you. Ultimately, what you refuse to face inwardly will get acted outwardly into the world around you. It will require courage for you to address your historic pain.

Chaos and the Big Sleep

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“Everybody is somebody—but on any given day there is somebody who feels like nobody. At the end of the day, the question is “Does anybody care enough to walk alongside the one who feels like nobody long enough to help them feel that they are somebody again.” —KW

You can’t change the way you grew up. Mary Main, a professor at UCal-Berkeley suggests that people learn to engage in a cohesive coherent narrative of their life. What I think this suggests is that if you are an addict it is important to not just look back and identify all the acting out you have ever done. But dig in and look at the relationships with people in your life that connect to why you do what you do and who you are. It’s sort of like making sense of the chaos and learning to connect with yourself in this endeavor.

Chaos makes this hard to do. People who grew up with crazy chaos often carry a little crazy with them their entire lives. Chaos puts to sleep the awareness of living life through healthy alternatives. The way you survived is what you replicate later in life. Your habits for survival are tattooed on your bones.

Therapy teaches you to talk about your chaos. You can learn a lot intellectually about what happened—the abandonment, the disorganized attachment, and all the systemic dynamics about your dysfunctional past. But most of us who grew up in craziness will die with some of it still inside. Sometimes I wonder if this is why I will die an addict.

I, like many addicts, grew up in an environment that was so dysfunctionally complicated that it is exhausting just to talk about it, and I have been talking about it for years. Every abuse headline is connected to subheadings that guaranteed crazy living for mere survival. It’s been said that addicts learn to embrace the improbable and ignore the obvious. Is there any other way for an addict to survive a complicated abusive past? The web of instability is so complex that to endure required that you fall asleep to healthy behavioral options and live in a trance-like state to what is real.

For example, I grew up in a large family. The ubiquitous presence of sexual abuse impacted our family in every dimension. There was sexual abuse perpetrated by pastors and leaders at our church. There was sexual abuse that was pervasive in our family. The church I grew up in was a cult. There was patriarchal domination of men toward women in our home and church. In a cult, church life and home life environment become one. You must develop the capacity to fall asleep to the reality of what surrounds you just to survive. When I shared my sexual abuse by the pastor of our church to responsible leaders, they concluded that my parents who had attended the church for 40 years were troublemakers and shunned them for 3 months. You would have thought that victims treated in this way would sever relationships and find another church to attend. My parents didn’t. They went to sleep about the reality of what happened to their children and to themselves. Once, many years later I asked my mom about the church shunning her and my dad regarding the sexual abuse and she responded that it never happened. Of course, it never happened when you fall asleep to reality.

My parents fell asleep to the injustices that intruded their lives because they were overwhelmed with the history of abuses that took place in their own family of origin. If you don’t face and address injustice, the only way to survive is to fall asleep to the realities of abuse and domination that penetrate you and the people you love.

My parents ignored what was going on in their family by singing gospel songs like “When We All Get to Heaven” or “Victory In Jesus” in order to ignore the hell on earth that had pervaded every aspect of their lives. How is this so different than the way our society ignores the lies and deceit proffered by politicians, religious leaders, and cultural icons about what is real? Rather than sifting, sorting, and researching truth, most of us choose a media service to do our thinking and fall asleep to the incongruence of our own hypocrisy and those who lead us.

For those who choose to no longer ignore the emperor who wears no clothes, waking up takes commitment to truth and honesty. It also takes time. The effort to wake up requires that you stop doing what keeps you asleep. It’s no wonder you are sleepy if you keep taking sleeping pills.

You will need to stop your own crazy thinking like trying to do more to keep from being less. Slowing this locomotive down is no small task.

You will have to address your mistaken beliefs that exist and have created blocks to intimacy with yourself and others. Mistaken beliefs have been tattooed in your heart as a way of surviving the craziness of your childhood. When you do more and have more it is difficult to accept less and think you are more. Material gain is like booze. There’s nothing wrong with either one as long as you respect that both can make you drunk. Driving your life drunk is scary whether you are intoxicated with booze or the disease of more.

The only way to stop the chaos is to wake up from the big sleep. Nothing changes until it is real. When craziness is complex, waking up means to slow life to examine the inconsistencies, face your hypocrisy, and address your incongruence.

People talk about making America great again. Yet, if everybody, who knew somebody who felt like a nobody, was willing to walk alongside to wake them up from the chaos and craziness, maybe that would hold promise to a great future for the first time. Together, we can be somebody once again.

Wake Up Calls: The Reality of Relapse in Recovery

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Thirty-four years ago I was a neophyte in the recovery world. Determined to overcome my addiction, I did everything my sponsor told me to do. I read every book I could get my hands on and listened to audio tapes that would help me stay sober. I did everything my therapist would suggest. I was all in. On one occasion, I engaged in regressive therapy to resolve painful past events. The therapist was a specialist in uncovering unresolved painful events in life.

The session itself was very emotionally charged and plunged into significant past emotional trauma. When the session was over, I recall leaving the therapeutic setting feeling pretty raw emotionally. I was experiencing a lot of vulnerability. Even though I had established a significant length of time in sober living, I found myself in a kind of trance cruising and searching for a way to act out in my addiction. What I learned was that uncovering pain from past traumatic experiences creates increased vulnerability and a high risk toward relapse unless sufficient self-care is administered before and after trauma work. I learned to practice bookending my therapy sessions with connection and accountability with support people before and after therapy sessions. 

For sure, relapse is not necessary for addicts in recovery. Yet, learning to address lapse or relapse behaviors is imperative toward building long-term recovery. There are high-risk zones and pitfalls in recovery that addicts must be alert to avoid the backsliding into old destructive behaviors that are common for many. 

Wake-up calls are life experiences that take addicts by the nap of the neck and shake them with the reality that they are facing major relapse unless something dramatically changes quickly. I hear wake-up stories all the time. It may be a sex addict in recovery who shared that he was on his way to acting out with an escort when his car broke down on the way. He decided to call his sponsor instead of following through with his destructive act out. As a result, he determined to re-engage his program. He was saved from the slippery slide of relapse by way of a wake-up call in a random mechanical failure. I have listened to alcoholics and drug addicts share similar near misses around relapse. For one getting lost trying to find the location of a dealer and the other who drove to her old neighborhood bar only to learn that it had closed because of a COVID outbreak, represented indelible near-miss wake up calls that are often shared in recovery circles.

For sure, cravings for the dopamine hit that comes from addictive urges is an everyday possibility for addicts in recovery. Engaging in addictive act out can be like turning on a fire hose of dopamine to the brain of an addict, triggering euphoric response. The level of dopamine rises with anticipation and spikes when addicts act on their addictive urge. Living without the hit is tough. Usually, an addict will feel worse before he feels better. As a result, many addicts will live on the edge of their recovery program and bash boundaries around their addiction behavior. There is a certain rush just being near an addictive environment. Thus, the old adage “if you hang around the barbershop, you’re gonna get a haircut”. Inevitably, unattended high-risk behaviors will cascade you over the falls of addictive behavior. 

Wake-up call experiences in life can be utilized to help get your attention before relapse.

Here are a few considerations:

1. Roll up the welcome mat to addictive behavior. If you don’t want to slip stay away from slippery places. Often I listen to sex addicts share that they are hit on constantly. One will tell me that I was minding my own business and she came up to me and began flirting and throwing herself at me. What was I to do? Or I have heard complaints like I was sitting alone and he just came to me with warmth and a smile so I had no choice but to be nice to him. It’s almost as if helplessly they are unable to prevent these high-risk people and situations from happening. It’s not as if sex addicts are the most drop-dead gorgeous people who have to tolerate being hit on. Most people don’t live a life where they are constantly badgered by sexual invites from others. Substance addicts complain the same way. Everywhere I go I am being offered a drink or asked if I want to score, some will say. The answer to these challenges can be unraveled by taking an attitude inventory. First, am I serious and committed to ending the addictive behavior? If so, then eliminate the high-risk behavior by rolling up the welcome mat. Stop communicating availability in terms of the environment you hang out, the conversations you have with others, and the energy about the addictive behavior that you communicate. Simply put, shut down the energy that you are available for sexual intrigue if you are a sex addict and turn away from addictive environments while spurning the encouragement of those who would invite you to use or sit in high-risk scenarios. When you eliminate slippery places you likely will not slip. 

2. Decide you are going to be all in with recovery. Seriously embrace the AA saying “Half measure avail us nothing. We ask for his care with complete abandon”. Many addicts who attend 12-step meetings enjoy the community and gain from the insights shared. Fewer take the insights seriously toward life transformation. There is a difference between attending 12-step meetings and being all-in. Following through with boundaries, commitments, and program work requires an addict to abandon half-hearted attempts at recovery tasks. All in is a plunge experience. It is like cliff jumping. You put yourself into a position so that when you take the first step there is no turning back because of your complete abandonment to whatever it takes. When you compromise, make excuses, make commitments, and don’t follow through, you exemplify half-measures that never work. It’s like getting a prescription from your doctor and drinking the water while leaving the pills for treatment on the table. If you are blaming others for your downfall, keeping secrets about your thought and behavior life, and giving negative voices free rent in your head, this is the evidence that you are not willing to go to any lengths to create the sober life you want. In the presence of many new approaches and technology for healing, the only way to emotionally grow yourself up and address addiction will be through complete abandonment in your recovery program. 

3. Wake-up calls are never heard when you are stubbornly stuck in refusing to accept life as it is in the present moment. Denying the reality of what is in your life is a setup for relapse even when there are wake-up calls ringing all around you. There are many experiences about recovery that are not pleasant. The discomfort of real consequences from addictive behavior can be an intrusive reality that is shoved in your face with no reprieve. Loss of job, family, and esteem can be repressive. The whirlwind of addictive behavior always includes unfair treatment and unfair judgment. Consequences and restrictions can seem overwhelming. Yet, you will not find peace and sobriety until you can accept the limitations and implications of your addiction behavior. “This too will pass” will only be true for you through surrender when you can concentrate less on what needs to be changed in the world around you, and more about what needs to be changed within you and your attitudes. Acceptance is an age-old process that paves the way toward long-term sobriety. Without it, the phone will ring off the wall and you will never answer the wake-up call in recovery.

4. Wake-up calls are a reminder to understand the underlying conditions that come from unresolved family-of-origin issues that have been incompletely addressed. Questions like “After so much time in recovery sobriety, why did I so quickly reach for my addictive behavior”? “Why do I struggle so much with behavior and attitudes that sabotage closeness to people I love”? “Why do I procrastinate facing the fear of my childhood or addressing Step 4 work”?are all about the underlying conditions of unresolved family of origin issues. Relapse is about losing who you are and forfeiting your potential for who you are meant to be. Relapse gives you the opportunity to claim lessons from the past and to reclaim your truth. If those underlying conditions aren’t treated, the return of those symptoms may cause you intense discomfort that can trigger you to go back to using. That’s the primary reason there is such a high rate of relapse among people who have become dependent on addictive behavior. It has less to do with the addiction and more to do with the original causes that created the dependency. There is a wake-up call for each of us who are tempted to walk only to the first oasis in the desert and camp out for the rest of our days. The wake-up call is to go the distance all the way through the desert to the other side. That other side is the peace that comes to those courageous enough to address the unresolved family of origin issues that trigger the addiction.

5. Wake-up calls require that you learn to bushwhack with accountability. Bushwhacking is a term that applies to a way of hiking in the wilderness. There is no trail. You just go—through thickets, over boulders, aimlessly moving into the adventure of the woods and great outdoors. It is a very uncomfortable way to travel. It may be a shortcut or may not be. What is involved is an adventure and exploration of the forest. Recovery growth engages a form of bushwhacking. Going deep always includes an uncharted course to follow that embraces getting out of your comfort zone. It calls for you to acknowledge your inconsistency. It requires that you own your incongruence. It demands that you admit your hypocrisy. It summons you to submit to the accountability of community to draw you back from these human frailties to be true to your heart. This is the wake-up call that curates relapse prevention and cultivates the character of long-term sobriety.  

Red Alerts to Relapse

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Terry was clearly stuck in his recovery program. He had been doing weekly therapy for 5+ years. In the beginning, his sessions were life-saving. He clung to every word his therapist uttered. He would often tell his recovery buddies that his therapist saved his life and that he wouldn’t be able to remain sober without his counselor’s guidance. 

Over time the newness and glitz of insight began to fade. Terry noticed that he lacked enthusiasm to employ interventions suggested by his therapist. He began to isolate and not talk much about his feelings to anyone, including his therapist.  Fantasies about masturbating to old images of internet nudity popped up with intense euphoric recall. At first, he allowed the inappropriate thoughts to linger. He would try to distract himself to avoid further dwelling on them. However, without consultation and accountability, he began to fuel the behavior by surfing “eye candy” on the internet, described as women wearing scantily clad clothing. It wasn’t frontal nudity but the images did trigger uncontested sexual arousal. From there was a short slide to masturbating to full-blown pornography. Terry had identified that this behavior was clearly against his values, and historically he had been powerless to stop his compulsive engagement with porn. Of course, he kept it all secret from his recovery peers and his therapist. He was stuck!

Relapse is predictable and probable in recovery from addiction. Preparing to manage relapse is an essential modus vivendi for every addict in recovery. Those without a plan to address relapse are individuals who are inevitably vulnerable to a long-term slide into old and familiar destructive addictive behavior. 

In recovery, building lengthy sobriety is a worthy admirable goal. However, I have learned that what is more important than never having left the center of recovery is having skills to return to the center. Bringing yourself back to center is a skill set that requires discipline and conditioning. 

You will need to learn to manage your inner critic whose intent is to discredit and undermine who you are and every effort you have ever made to achieve sobriety or fulfill a worthy goal in life.  

Here is a list of desirable skills that will help you tame your inner critic and return to center whether you are an addict in relapse or simply out of balance and need help getting centered.

#1: Condition yourself with focused breathwork. It is important to slow things down when you drift from center. We often don’t because it is uncomfortable to reign in your energies when your mind is racing, your heartbeat is pumping fast and your breathing is short. The good news is that breathwork is simple, not complicated. When you concentrate on the breath it is difficult to fail. 

You may not be an accomplished Wim Hof or other noted breathwork gurus, but you don’t have to be them in order to achieve benefit. Simply close your eyes and inhale and exhale to the beat of every second— one thousand one—one thousand two, etc. As you breathe, notice the rise and fall of your stomach as you inhale and exhale. When you are distracted in thought, simply bring yourself back to focusing on your breath without criticizing yourself for the distracted thought. It will calm you. 

There are many gurus to help you. I suggest that you utilize Apple Music, Spotify, etc, and download Jason Campbell’s music which is a musical arrangement designed to help you breathe. Just exhale and inhale each time you hear the bells or chimes. When the arrangement is over, notice how your breathwork helped you to slow your mind and heart.  This is a simple exercise that requires regular daily discipline.

#2: Focus on what you love in life. When your inner critic is activated, you magnify everything you ever did wrong, including all the flaws about your life. For many this experience is paralyzing and accelerates anxiety. Rather, practice focusing on things in life you love. It can be a sunset or sunrise, the beauty of trees, and all forms of plant life. It might be the energy of a small child playing on swings at a public park. It might be a kind act that you witnessed as it unfolded toward an elderly person. Practice being grateful for all the things you love about the life that exists around you. It will take your mind off the mistakes you made and serve to help you return to center. 

#3: Simply, do the next right thing. As I write this I sit on a plane, that I barely made, from Nashville to home in Phoenix. It was an early flight and we had spent time with my sister during the weekend. We got up extra early to make the flight. All was well until my sister noticed that she had locked her car keys in the condo and that she did not have keys to get in to get them. We were stuck. She apologized prolifically but we were stuck. Doing the next right thing meant calling an Uber which took an eternity to arrive. We made the flight albeit I was the last person to board the plane. I had to adjust my attitude and accept the reality that I could not do anything about the predicament except focus on doing the next right thing. Cursing the predicament, victim posturing about life, or running around like a chicken with my head cut off would not resolve my dilemma. When your inner critic tries to have its way with you, simply focus on doing the next right thing. 

#4: Practice acceptance without dwelling on feelings of inferiority. Whether you want to admit it or not you are no less valuable after a relapse than before. You gave up your sobriety, not your value. You are an unrepeatable miracle of God whether you have relapsed or not. The challenge is that your inner critic is persuasive. It will convince you otherwise by beating you up over mistakes you made. 

You must understand that you will never beat yourself up to a better place. So, why not practice acceptance? Accept that you are a mistake-making person. Accept that relapse happens. Accept that when you make a mistake that hurts someone else, repeated apologies are not necessary and tend to bury you in the hole of shame. Simply accept the circumstance as is and let go. Surrender promotes acceptance which provides peace that will lead you back to the center of your life. 

#5: Practice forgiveness. Forgive those around you who have hurt you by first forgiving yourself. When you have relapsed there is a tendency to lash out toward others and the universe with anger. Anchor yourself in your predicament. Realize that you have done to others what they have done to you, not necessarily in like kind but in principle. Therefore focus on forgiving yourself first. Forgiveness means that you have embraced the pain that you have caused when you wanted what you wanted when you wanted it, and you have consciously chosen to not hold your egregious behavior against yourself. Seldom is this one and done. It is a discipline that you must invoke on a regular basis and walk in the opposite direction that your inner critic would suggest. Rather than beat yourself up for flawed behavior, practice self-acceptance and treat yourself with love. Forgiveness requires training. When you do the daily work of self-forgiveness, you can forgive those who have hurt you. Essentially, you will let yourself out of your own emotional prison. 

#6: Cultivate the art of reframing life experience. The art of mental reframe is powerful. Rather than wallowing in the shame of failure, relapse, or forgetful mistake, reframe your thoughts so that you can participate in the best part of the party of life for you. Lamenting and shaming won’t change anything! Look for the meaningfulness in your mistake, failure or relapse. Concentrate your focus on that! Initiate a pattern-interrupt by reframing your experience that empowers you to climb out of the mud hole of relapse. Don’t let your critical voice dominate. Rather reframe your struggle into precious lessons that promote self-acceptance and personal peace. In this way, you can make real meaning out of every red flag experience in your life. 

The Rendezvous with Traumatic Relationships

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Take time to think about times you felt hurt earlier in your life in ways that resurface over and again. Traumatic relationship experiences have a way of recycling throughout the course of life. For many, trauma is like being lost in the woods and walking around in a circle. It is deja vu all over again.

It is familiar for some to consistently pick emotionally unavailable people to partner with and then wonder why they cannot connect or get their emotional needs met. This pattern becomes solidified throughout life. They marry someone who is emotionally unavailable to them. They work for a dysfunctional organization, they allow that employer to use them, thinking that if I go above and beyond then I will be appreciated. Eventually, they quit both the marriage and the job and then go find another job and partner and reenact the same dysfunctional relationship without realizing what is happening. Unresolved validation and unmet developmental needs from earlier times in life are played out in unhealthy repetitive relationships throughout life. As a therapist, I listen to people who are now in their fourth marriage relationship, all with abusive addicts who are emotionally unavailable!

Here are a few suggestions for ending this destructive relationship pattern.

#1: Drain the pool of pain by scrubbing the wound. As long as you clutch past hurtful experiences you will sully your present relationship experiences with misgivings. You must scrub the wounds of past experience and drain your pool of pain. It feels like wallowing in yesterday’s misfortunes. But, it is not. Attempting to ignore or avoid the pain will take you back to wallowing in yesterday’s mud hole. By scrubbing the wound, you embrace the pain and give back the shame that was perpetrated on you by a significant person in your life. You simply grieve the loss of protection and kindness, calling out the shameful message with the decision that you will not be dominated by the accompanying mistaken belief but instead, choose to move forward and act with self-empowerment. This experience is not a one-and-done event but a chosen lifestyle. Metaphorically, putting down the stones you throw or the gun you grasp for protection is the only way to give up the storyline that creates unhealthy relationships. You will begin to heal by establishing relational boundaries that empower healthy connections with care and love in relationships.

#2: Lean into the pain. This suggestion seems far-fetched! But, think of the Chinese handcuff. I remember as a young boy sitting in church trying to work my way through another long tedious worship service. In my pocket, I had a Chinese handcuff. I took it out and began to explore. So, I put my left and right index fingers into the ends of the handcuffs. The handcuffs were cylinder in shape and made of a straw-like material that was flexible. The more I tried to pull my fingers out the tighter the cuffs held me. A surge of panic struck and I pulled harder. But, the small cuffs would tighten further. But, then when I did the opposite and leaned my fingers into the middle of the problematic cuff, the small casing slackened and I could gently and slowly work my fingers free!

With relationship challenges, often the pulling in panic only handcuffs you further and tightens the grip of fear in your life. Running from the pain only deepens and complicates matters. Trying to think your way through only thickens the mental wool that snares you. Geniuses like Einstein or Edison when befuddled and stuck would take a break or take a nap and in surrender to the problem they discovered a solution. Leaning into the pain is facing what is real and allowing it to be, without panic. Sitting with the pain provides the eventual solution. Leaning into the problem that is gripping you will allow you to work your way free.

#3: Practice Forgiveness. Many of you have experienced painful past trauma. It was indescribable. The struggle to survive and the enduring suffering will never be forgotten. Sometimes it seems that if you heal it will mean that you will allow what happened to evaporate from the memory of those who need to be held accountable for your agony. So you believe the only way is that you must commit to reliving the awful experience daily or your suffering will be for naught.

However, you do not need to define yourself by past trauma. To give up this part of your storyline, you will need to forgive those who were responsible and those who could have intervened but did not. Without forgiveness, you will remain stuck in resentment which is a cancer that grows and will dominate your existence.

Forgive means to give and to receive. You begin with receiving forgiveness. Often people wonder what I need to forgive, it was the other person who hurt me. However, it is important that you be able to identify in principle, not in like kind, how you have hurt others like you have been hurt. The one who hurt you wanted what they wanted when they wanted it, right? Think of a time that you wanted what you wanted, when you wanted it, regardless of its impact on others. Seek forgiveness for that. It might be something as obscure as forcing your way while changing from one lane to the next on the freeway. It’s not about comparing whose selfish want is greatest but just owning your own selfishness and forgiving yourself, which means not holding it against yourself. To do this you must sit with the awareness of how your hurt impacted others. This is defined as scrubbing the wound. Being able to sit with the pain of another because of your selfish behavior is necessary to create forgiveness of self. Once you do this you make a conscious choice to not hold your selfish behavior against you.

Now, for the one who hurt you. Once forgiven, you offer the same to the one who egregiously harmed you. Forgiveness does not mean you forget what happened. Rather, it means that you will not hold it against the other person but walk in the opposite direction of resentment to the freedom of thought about the past hurt. Rather than hate, you send positive loving energy to that person. You do this so you can be free from your own emotional prison. Forgiveness is a daily action before it becomes a reality of feeling. Seldom is forgiveness a one-and-done experience in life. You practice forgiving the one who hurt you every day, as it comes up.

You don’t have to engage by making friends with the person but letting go and walking away from resentment is your responsibility. When you learn to lean into the pain and scrub the wound through forgiveness you will end your rendezvous with trauma and stop building intimate relationships with emotionally unavailable people.

Tire Tracks

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Alex had been cheating on Alice from day one. Secretly, he hired strippers at his bachelor party and never made it through his honeymoon without cheating with someone he met at the pool of the resort where he and Alice stayed during the week after the wedding. It didn’t stop. He slept with Alice’s best friend, hired hookers when on the road for his work, and was hooked on porn over the years.

Alice caught him looking at porn on his phone late one night and suspicioned there was more but was afraid to confront him. Then, one evening Alex’s phone rang and Alice picked it up thinking it was their daughter needing to be picked up from volleyball. But it wasn’t. It was a strange female voice who asked for Alex. When the person recognized that it was not Alex she hung up. Triggered with suspicion, Alice checked his texts and phone messages. She discovered a ton of graphic sexting texts between Alex and a woman named Lisa. She checked the phone number and figured there were over 75 phone calls to this one woman’s number. She called the number on Alex’s phone and the same voice of woman answered the call and Alice hung up without saying a word. She burst into tears because she knew what she had been dreading for quite some time. 

She confronted Alex about the call but he denied and lied about anything inappropriate. She stayed with it and laid out the enormity of detail that she uncovered and finally, after hours of adamantly denying and gaslighting Alice, Alex broke down and admitted that he had been having an affair with a woman named Lisa who worked at his company. He piecemealed his history of sexual misbehavior. It wasn’t till a month and a half later when through intensive therapy and an extensive sexual history polygraph that Alice learned that Alex was never faithful to her throughout their ten years of marriage. 

She determined that the only way she would remain in the marriage would be that he move out, go to inpatient treatment recommended by his therapist, and do whatever they recommended.

This is a common story for therapists who work with compulsive sexual betrayal. The stories vary and some relationships are able to heal betrayal brokenness while many are not. Addictive behavior is often concealed in deceit and secrets. In time, compulsive infidelity is discovered by partners and other family members. It is always traumatic for everybody.

Healing around betrayal is difficult and dicey.  The trauma that is incurred impacts both the betrayer and the betrayed. The hurt is multifaceted. 

Therapists treating broken trust have a number of considerations to assess when administering treatment. There are established guidelines for counselor support. However, while there are similarities that are common to all partner betrayal, no two betrayal responses are the same. Couples whose relationships have been riddled with compulsive infidelity with long-term dishonesty have a number of considerations to assess.

1. The compulsive betrayer must prioritize the following in order for healing to be effective: Cut off all contact with the affair partner immediately. This includes text, email, phone calls, and face-to-face visits. If the affair partner is in a working relationship with the compulsive betrayer, contact must be only about business with a commitment to gate all nonverbal energy communication. Preferred accountability about this dynamic would be with a recovering person who also is working a program. The betrayer must prioritize stopping the runaway train going down the track of their entrenched compulsive sexual behavior that has been in existence for a long period of time. Individual treatment is an absolute must. Promises to stop fade away all too frequently for the one who refuses treatment intervention. 

2. The partner must engage treatment for damage created by the betrayal. All too frequently the partner refuses treatment favoring that their betraying partner be the “identified patient”. It is familiar to hear “I am not the one who struggles with lying and infidelity. Focus on the betrayer. They are the culprit. This is like getting run over by a big mack truck and laying on the side of the road with tire tracks across your back. The paramedics are called and when they arrive they tend to the driver, put them in the ambulance, and whisk them to the emergency room for treatment, leaving the victim who was run over lying on the side of the road. It makes no sense. Betrayal breaks the heart and the spirit of every victimized partner. Induced trauma requires long-term partner treatment for recovery. Codependent responses are always triggered by underlying trauma. It must be treated and will not heal without it. 

3. The 3-legged stool approach. I prefer the 3-legged therapeutic approach. Every stool must have solid legs in order for the stool to be stable to safely sit. I find it most helpful that when treating betrayal trauma that each party in the relationship do individual therapy and that the couple also engage therapy as a couple, ideally with three different therapist involved (one for each of the 2 individuals and one for the couple together). I have experienced good success when it is done concomitantly.  There are exclusions when situations are exempt to this approach. That said a three-pronged approach has proven most helpful in healing. 

4. Triage priorities in treatment. Betrayal is chaotic and crisis is not uniform and predictable. Careful consideration and guidance is needed in treating the betrayer, the betrayed partner, family, friends, and extended community depending upon the roles people have in those communities. Both partners will need to embrace their wise-minded adult within, and if this is absent carefully accept the guidance from an experienced counselor to triage treatment based on your specific and unique needs. 

Destructive behavior, broken hearts, and tire tracks across the back caused by betrayal can heal. However, it is a long journey that insists that both partners embrace the healing journey. One or the other being the “identified patient” will impact prognosis for healing and will stymy healing. Addict betrayal is not only about relational infidelity. Addicts betray their own values and the trust of those around them who are counting on them to work a program for healing.  It is crucial that the entire family treat the addictive behavior from a family systems perspective. Each family member will need to address the impact of trauma that warps perspective and undermines trust.

The Art of Conflict Resolution—Every Addicts Challenge

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Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict -alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.” —Dorothy Thompson

Most people try to avoid conflict at all costs. It is a dreaded predicament in human relationships.  Thinking about what you said has kept many people awake at night. Couples whom I work with in therapy play games, lots of different types of games, in order to avoid conflict. It is common for one or both to be passive, passive-avoidant, or passive-aggressive to avoid addressing conflict.  

In every organization, there are unspoken rules that govern the way to deal with conflict.  It is important to know the rules, unspoken and unwritten, within the organization in order to navigate conflict. You will need to know who has the power and what is expected within the organization when there is disagreement. Unspoken assumptions usually result in hurt feelings. People who don’t know the cryptic rules in the game of conflict often find themselves scrambling for a light switch in a dark room, trying to figure out the blueprint for conflict resolution.  It can be frustrating and humiliating. 

Conflict requires direct communication.  Contrary to common consensus, fighting is an important component in the cultivation of healthy connections through communication. The operative understanding is a focus on fair, not unfair, fighting.  Agree on the subject, share concrete observations, thoughts, and interpretations, clarify feelings, emphasize wants, needs, expectations, listen, summarize, and you have a great start toward conflict resolution. The more direct you are the better the possibility of resolution.

Conflict requires rules for fair fighting. You create them with the person you want to communicate.  You can make the rules with one or many, depending on the context. The governing principle is preserving an “I care about you” environment.  If you don’t care about the other person don’t have the conversation. Fight fair rules include avoiding name-calling, voice tones, body language, words that connote condescension, domination, interruption, finishing sentences, grand exits, anger/rage explosions, threat talk, etc. Each entity can determine its own rules to guide the communication about conflict. The idea is simple. Not if, but when a rule is broken, the conversation is stopped until the offending party makes amends for the infraction and then you continue. With highly contested issues, the conversation may go slow. However, it often results in a shortcut, given the prospects of unfair fighting.

Once each party has been heard, mutual understanding is the common result. Then, two parties can brainstorm separately, then together, a collaboration or compromise that resolves the conflict. It is simple, not easy.

Codependency is a common flaw that disrupts the process of conflict resolution.  Essentially, trying to control what other people think or feel usually accelerates the conflict without resolution. Fearing rejection, desperately wanting approval, and trying to avoid facing difficult emotions are often like pouring gasoline on the fires of stress and tension in a relationship conflict.

Here are a few considerations to prepare you to successfully address conflict:

1. Cultivate a proper attitude toward relationship conflict. If your position is to avoid relationship conflict at all costs, you will most likely be plagued with some degree of intimacy disability throughout your life. If you are charismatic, progressive in thought and manner, and articulate with those thoughts but overwhelmingly concerned with what other people think and can’t stand disapproval, please avoid positions of leadership. Positions of influence require that you stand for principle in the presence of disapproval. It requires that you cultivate acceptance that conflict resolution is a significant responsibility at every level of leadership. Conflict resolution requires that you let go of control of others, places, and things. No small task.

2. Surrender willfulness and embrace willingness.  Addicts are not the only people who want what they want when they want it. Willfulness expresses my way or the highway.  Some people use nice agreeable language to hide their willfulness. It just doesn’t solve a conflict.  An attitude of willingness lessens the grip of control and opens one’s heart to understanding and the desire to brainstorm collaboration and possibility.

3. Let go of power over and incorporate power within and power with.  Power-over uses coercion, force, and domination to accomplish its end. It’s like throwing a 5-gallon bucket of dirt on one small weed, thinking that you have solved your weed problem. Sooner or later, not one but many weeds poke their head to the surface of the dirt. Power-over dynamics creates “haves” and “have-nots” and fuels resentment and discord.  Power within involves people having a sense of their own capacity and self-worth.  Power-with is energy when faced with conflict. It is a concept that sustains community and cultivates conflict resolution. It is a shared power that grows out of collaboration and relationships. It is built on respect, mutual support, shared power, solidarity, influence, empowerment, and collaborative decision-making. It helps to resolve conflict and build bridges within families, organizations, and social change movements across differences (e.g., gender, culture, class). It cultivates the concept of power within.

Conflict is a necessary reality in the community of human relationships. Rather than ignore, avoid, or minimize its presence, may we learn to embrace it and direct its energy toward healing connection in relationships in families, organizations, and communities around the world.

Stuck in Depression and What Do You Do?

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“You don’t understand

depression until you can’t

stand your own presence

in an empty room.” —Unknown

Depression is an epidemic across the world. It is estimated that more than 264 million people suffer from this malady. The late actor Robin Williams once said I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” Tragically, he died having been dominated by depression. 

Depression has been a “friend” throughout much of my life. Many years ago it dominated me. I was hospitalized at one point unable to function. It was like living in a body that wanted to fight to survive with a mind that wanted to die. At times I was tired and scared at the same time. I was dominated by a fear of failure but had no energy to produce. I wanted to be alone but dreaded being lonely. I worried about everything while at the same time caring about nothing. There were times my head felt like an old Maytag washing machine churning and churning with anxiety. Then there were moments when everything felt numb and paralyzed. Depression was like a bruise that never went away. It was like being lost in the woods. The further I walked into the deep woods the more lost I became and the dimmer the light of hope was at the end of the tunnel. I got stuck in mental wool-gathering. Dread, emptiness, anxiety, and panic jammed my headspace. It’s like in the movie The Lord of the Rings where Frodo Baggins is stung and paralyzed by the giant spider unable to move. With depression, I  wanted to talk and scream but all I could do was whisper. I wanted to stay in bed and hoped I would fall asleep before I fell apart. Depression is a wound that is deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds. So, the question is when you are stuck in debilitating depression how do you get unstuck when you feel so paralyzed? Here are a few considerations.

1. Slow things down and sit with what is real. Don’t try to fix depression on the run. People try to avoid discomfort by distracting themselves with activity and daily busyness. For some people it works, if you define “working” as being able to numb out unwanted feelings so that you simply exist. This choice involves running on a treadmill of doing more to keep from being less. You have to be busy 24/7 for 365. Of course, no one can do this so you engage in a cocktail of destructive behaviors. You can make food, sex, alcohol, work, drugs, etc. an additive piece that provides temporary relief.  Some people live and die this way. Others free fall into major depression which stops them cold in their tracks. If you suffer this malady you know that it is powerful and overwhelming. The best choice is to slow the pace of life and sit with unwanted feelings that are underneath the busyness of your life. 

2. Listen to your feelings, they will tell you where your life is out of balance. Most of us learn to avoid what is uncomfortable. Yet, the way out is leaning into the discomfort. Discomfort is there for a reason. Feelings are a way for your body to talk to you. People with depression often experience levels of nostalgia. When you sit with nostalgia you notice that you pine for past experiences. Reflection, about past memories, triggers awareness to create warmth and connection in the present moment. However, the tendency is to wallow in the experience of yesterday without being motivated to provide meaningful connections in the present. The result is chronic loneliness which left untended will fuel depression. There are many feelings that bombard your awareness. Slow your life in such a way that you listen to your feelings. They will tell you where you are out of balance so that you can adjust your lifestyle to create emotional equanimity.

3. Don’t go outside, go inside.  When people hurt on the inside they want to find a quick fix from the outside. There is help from the outside that will take you inside. The following medications have provided relief for millions: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) like Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft are brand names that have been helpful. There are other medications that have also proven helpful. Plant medicines and dissociative medicines like ketamine can also be useful when administered by professionals and not recreationally. The utilization of these drugs and plant medicines, is strategically designed to assist in going underneath the symptoms of depression to address root causation. Ultimately, this is where healing takes place. Looking at the unresolved family of origin, trauma, and grief issues is helpful to drain the pain that fuels the major depression. There are many therapeutic interventions that trained therapists use to help with this process of healing. There is no magic bullet but there is healing for those who are brave enough to go inside.

4. Stop trying to fix other people. Other people’s problems become a tonic to our own existence—a way to get outside of ourselves. World-class performers like Michael Phelps, Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry admittedly have all used performance achievement as an escape from depression. But it never worked. You may not be famous but don’t try to avoid your depression by getting caught up with other people’s drama to energize your life and to escape what you do not want to deal with. Stop trying to fix other people.

5. Live your life in emotional honesty. When you live with incongruence you learn to feel one thing, say another, and end up acting disconnected from what you say or what you feel. You get lost. This makes you vulnerable to depression. People who overcome depression learn to open up and say it straight. It takes courage to be emotionally honest. In treating depression, without emotional honesty, you will drown. People fear disappointing others who are significant to their lives. At the core of healing depression, you will need to practice detaching from pleasing others to be true to yourself. 

Practice these steps and free yourself from the dregs of depressed living. If you are stuck and want help from your depression, reach out. You are not alone. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You simply must ask for help.

Stuck and Stargazed

When I graduated from seminary in 1977 I committed to an intern position at a large church with 24 full-time pastors on staff. I worked 85+ hours a week without compensation for three years. I would work from 7 am till 10 pm each weekday and then help the janitorial staff clean the church from 10 pm to 2 am. Many nights, Eileen and I would sleep in the parlor of the church. We lived off Eileen’s salary which was $9k per year. Why did I do that? At the time, some said because I loved God and the church. But underneath, in my desire to be the best I could be, there was a desperate need to gain the smile of approval from the senior pastor. You might say I was stuck in stargaze. 

I came into my adulthood with a hole in my soul. My dad worked hard at three different jobs to meet the needs of our family of 12 kids. I believed that if I worked really hard then I would get the attention and acclaim that I missed from my dad because of his absence. I wanted this pastor to notice my hard work. Looking back I was stuck in desperation for approval. Yet, I could never get enough. After many years of workaholic ministry, the pastor promised that I would become his replacement. However, I later learned that he made the same promise to five other guys. I felt like a fool. 

In recovery, I was challenged to examine my tendency to reach out to destructive people and believe in their false promises. While demonstrating relationship savvy in most friendship connections, I had a pattern of unwarranted loyalty and allegiance to authority figures in my life. Repeated and unresolved childhood trauma created a pattern of trauma repetition that undermined my emotional health and had to be addressed.

Do you ever wonder why you tend to bond with people who hurt you in your life? Addicts have the propensity to bond with people who are emotionally unavailable. Blindly, they lose themselves in unhealthy relationships that trigger desires to meet their unmet needs. They lose themselves in the intensity of the relationship in hopes that this one special connection will replace what has been missing. It can be a strong affiliation with a person of power at work, an intense alliance with an organization leader, or becoming hooked on a romantic relationship. Individuals frequently marry with a deep-seated desire to work out with their marital partner what was unaddressed in their family of origin. It can be an inward repressed longing that must be recognized before authentic contact can occur in an intimate relationship. 

Trauma occurs during vulnerable and early developmental stages in life and is often unrecognized and invalidated. People become fastened to this nexus of early trauma. There is a tendency to repeat the trauma in later years of life. 

Every child has developmental needs to be addressed. Touch, mirroring value, predictability, knowing that you matter, etc. are just a few developmental needs that must be met in a healthy way. When these needs are satisfactorily met safe attachment is formed. There is an embodied sense of security and acceptance. There is an ability to self-regulate with the capacity to form close connections as well as have separation from those with whom you are most personal.

However, when these needs are not met then developmentally you resemble a chunk of Swiss cheese with holes. There is an intense desire to fill the needs (holes) from the outside by achieving power, position, and control with accomplishment and relational approval. This need is overwhelmingly intense but can only be addressed with healthy attachment on the inside. In the attempt to fill these needs from the outside, you can become like a child who cannot get enough sugar. There is never enough achievement or approval from others.

As an adult, the process of addressing this destructive dilemma is to grieve the losses of deficits suffered way back in childhood. Embracing sadness, anger, resentment, shame, hate, and other feelings associated with loss is both unpopular and uncomfortable. Recognizing these painful feelings as energy streams is important. Moving the energy of unwanted feelings from the original source person to the issue (lack of attachment) and then creating what you want in your life through boundaries and personal empowerment requires accessing the maturity of adult self-parenting. Most times, people need therapy to develop this skill set.

Fritz Perls, who is credited as the father of Gestalt therapy, once said that “nothing ever changes until it is real”. You must come to a place where you recognize that the relationship with a toxic person is an attempt to fulfill a psychological need that was never addressed as a child or grieved as an adult. This is the reason that you never get enough of what you really don’t want in a relationship with a toxic abusive person. The crazy-making experience is that you keep creating the same toxic relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable and abusive.

When these hurtful trauma-bonding experiences are not addressed, people become stuck in their own stargazing experience whether it be name-dropping, preferential treatment toward those perceived as important, or pedestalizing a partner subconsciously hoping they will meet a need within. 

Addicts struggle with looking outside to others to find answers for approval that can only be discovered within. There are no gurus to lead you. The late activist Grace Lee Boggs was right when she declared that “We are the leaders we are looking for”. Trauma bonding is a way of repeating an abusive relationship hoping for safety. Those who are willing to take the courageous steps toward addressing the pain of past trauma