Trauma-proofing Yourself

For days, I’ve had this itchy feeling.  I’ve heard of people who can smell rain coming.  Well, that’s me – except I can smell trauma coming. 

It’s probably explainable.  We take in an extraordinary amount of data with what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls ‘system 2’, which is the system in our brains we like to call the ‘gut feeling’ or intuition.  Intuition takes tiny thousands – maybe millions – of morsels of information – the expressions on faces, the behavior patterns of those around us, scents, our own feelings, the situation at hand, compares them to information already in the data bank, past outcomes from similar experiences, and spits out an expectation of an outcome.  

So here is what my system 2 is telling me.  A new phase of this collective experience has already begun, but we have about two weeks before it hits us hard.  The losses – and the feelings – are about to get real. 

In 1998, I went to live in Bosnia because I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to live in a place that had experienced war.  I can now. And since then I have seen our country, to the extent that we can infer anything about Americans as a cohesive group, with different eyes. We are, in a word, a little ‘soft’.  It’s not true of all communities in the United States.  Some, like undocumented Americans and black families who suffer police violence, have developed strong skills for coping with untenable situations.  What I mean by ‘soft’ is that so many of us – especially middle and upper class white Americans – haven’t been inoculated with enough of the experiences that might toughen up a person just a bit, to help that person steer through tragedy, grab wisdom on the way, and come out the other side without haven’t latched on to a case of raging PTSD. 

Mental health gets affected by difficult experiences.  Many who are suffering make art, write stories, grow closer to their families – there are silver linings.  But a portion of the population will suffer too much. Much like Coronavirus, they won’t have a mild case. What is worrying me – what is giving me that itchy feeling – is that I fear another parallel of the Coronavirus – that our mental health needs will way outstrip the resources of the mental health treatment available.  I’m talking about for you and me, our kids – everyone you know. 

And it’s somewhat preventable. 

There is a book by Peter Levine called Trauma-proofing Your Kids: A Parent’s Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy &  Resilience..  In it he talks about how the nature of trauma is this:  being overwhelmed by a scary situation you didn’t expect.  And the feelings get stuck. 

Americans, by and large, do not expect tragedy. 

We expect low unemployment rates and thousands of movies at the touch of a finger and an LOL surprise doll at my doorstep within 24 hours.  

So, I’m left in the difficult position of wanting to prepare you for tragedy.  I want to march you toward the tragedy just a little bit – though I know you’d rather avoid it – because I want everyone I can help to avoid a raging case of PTSD (trust me – the prevention is worth a pound of cure.) 

Here goes: 

What you are scared of, is scaring you for a reason.  Because Covid-19 could happen to you or someone you know and it could be life threatening.  Your brain is telling you to prepare – that’s why you’re feeling so anxious. So stop running to the next television show, indoor activity or homeschool plan and just sit with that.  For just a minute. Right now. Just breathe. 

OK – notice where you feel that fear.  It might be a churning in your gut, an elephant on your chest, a tightness in every muscle.  Just notice. That. Right now.  

Acknowledge it.  Say hi. Say, “OK feeling, Hi, I see you.”  Just do it. What do you have to lose? 

You may then notice another feeling come up.  Because underneath fear is usually sadness. Before you can get to the sadness, you may be mad at that fear for bothering you.  For not going away because you want it to.  Or just mad at the situation. Just notice all of it. And start to think of a place in your house where you can go and cry.  Or scream into a pillow. Or pound your fists on the bed. Because if you feel the need to, at all, you need to. You need to get it out of your body.  Because you’ve lost a lot already. And you need to practice how to let that move through you. You want to get good at it. 

Next week you might lose more.  Even hearing about a friend losing someone they love creates a feeling of loss in an empathic person.  You. So let those tears flow whenever they want to come for whatever rhyme or reason they come – or no reason at all.  And really, if you have the courage, let them flow with your people. With the ones you love. The tears will stop. When they need to stop. 

It is so great that you’re keeping your kids busy with fun activities.  So keep weaving those in. But leave space for the crying. This is their moment in history too.  Don’t think they don’t feel it. They’re like radio towers picking up the frequencies of the emotions around them.  And if they start throwing tantrums – even the big kids – slow down, sit down and say, “How’s this all going for you? Because it’s a lot for everybody.”  

Great.  OK. That’s how you avoid overwhelm.  By letting the feelings move through frequently so there isn’t a backup. 

Here is how you keep yourself from being surprised by the coming wave of feelings.  You accept that they are going to happen. You don’t overblow the threat but you don’t underestimate it either.  Play with that. Try to find that middle place of knowing it will be a lot and knowing that you can’t know exactly what it will be like.  Accept that it will hurt. And that’s OK. You’ve experienced hurt before and you’re still here.  

There is a second thing that Peter Levine talks about which is really important to consider if you are to steer away from trauma.  The meaning you make about it really matters.

There is a lot of beautiful meaning being made right now.  “We’re all in this together” is one of them. “We’ll get through this”, is another.  So, keep those, but watch yourself for other meaning you might be making that doesn’t serve you.  Like, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” Because actually, yes you can. You can believe it.  You don’t want to, but you can. It’s really, really intense – maybe more intensely emotional than you’ve ever experienced –  and you need to lean on whomever you can to support you while you get through it. Even if it’s through a screen. 

Here are some other meanings you might try to apply: 

You can’t always get what you want.  But you just might get what you need.  And that’s actually enough. (Didn’t someone say something like that once?)

You’re being called to try a new way of relating to yourself and your feelings.  You can be the kind, supportive partner, parent, friend to yourself, that you have always needed.   One who stops, listens all along the way and doesn’t try to fix it. There is nothing to fix. All your feelings make sense.  You can make it through all these feelings. 

When you come out the other side, you may feel like your life is very precious and you may feel driven to do purposeful things to help others and the planet.  

And here is my personal favorite: 

You stand on the shoulders of giants.  People around the world and over time have come through disasters, with wisdom and love intact in their minds and primary in their hearts.  You have all the tools they had, right inside you.  

So take it one slow step at a time.  One felt moment at a time. This too, one way or another, shall pass. 


Special thanks to Emilia Robinson for drawing my attention to the white privilege I wrote from in the previous version of this article.  

Let’s Do Social Distancing – With Human Connection

Social distancing, has quickly become a household term.  As a therapist, every time I hear it, I think of how important it is that we slow the pace of Covid-19 infection.  Then I think of the mental health implications of social distancing. Reading the news every day, I see dozens of headlines about the effects of Covid-19 but precious little about mental health is ever mentioned.  Why, in 2020, are we still primarily reacting to one obvious health concern without seeing the complex health context within which that concern rests? Could this be a moment to consider health as a more complex experience? 

Two things concern me about social distancing.  When you’re ensconced in a loving family, it seems clearly prudent.  Maybe even nice. But if distancing means one is home alone, that distancing quickly becomes isolation.  And isolation becomes loneliness. 

Loneliness feels awful, but it doesn’t just feel awful. It suppresses immune function.  In a 2015 interview with NPR, Steve Cole, genomics researcher at UCLA pointed out that, because evolutionarily we relied on each other for survival, the brains of human beings read loneliness as a mortal threat. The article said, “norepinephrine cascades through the body and starts shutting down immune functions like viral defense, while ramping up the production of white blood cells…this surge in these pro-inflammatory white blood cells…(which are) highly adapted to defend against wounds, (happens) at the expense of our defenses against viral diseases.”


At the expense of our defenses against viral diseases.


So, we just might avoid Covid-19, but if we don’t – if a germ gets past our plan to avoid them -, our immune systems may not be primed to fight it.  And we can avoid this by keeping social distancing from becoming social isolation. 

The second is that by social distancing without a plan for how to prevent the spread into mass isolation, we might be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  From one life-threatening health concern, to another. Because in addition to suppressing our immune systems, isolation causes depression. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.  In 2018, 48,344 Americans died. So, while we are taking crucial steps to protect against the spread of this virus, we are flirting with the possibility of more deaths by suicide with no public conversation about it at all

Everyone I talk to right now is astonished at the levels of fear we are living with.  Between the stock market tanking, the president dithering, the neighbors discriminating against coughs and nationalities, it is quite the wild ride. But I also see a beautiful humbleness.  I see people concerned about elderly and the already infirm. I see people laughing at the sheer unthinkableness of it all. There is community. There is – despite the social distancing – connection.  If you’ve ever been through a hurricane or an earthquake, you recognize what is happening. It’s what happens when there is a weather event. We talk about our experiences. We lean on each other. 

Of course, we should follow the recommendations of the WHO, the CDC and state and local officials.  But also, the best parts of ourselves need to come out of hiding in the face of this pandemic. We can be afraid but at this point, it’s not helping us to stay healthy so perhaps we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  When we are afraid, our fight or flight response is online and our ability to think creatively is off. And creative thinking is just what we’re going to need here if we’re going to not just survive, but thrive. 

This morning I woke to the news that our governor, Kate Brown, had banned gatherings of 250 or more.  Our school system followed suit and shut down all non-essential gatherings. For my family, this meant one thing.  My 4th grade daughter, who had been working harder than ever in her life for two and a half months, would not get to perform in front of an audience in her school play that night.  It was devastating to her – and to the other 70 kids desperate to show what they had learned to do. Covid-19 had hit home.

The community could have just said, “woe is me” and left it at that.  But they did something else. First, they felt their sadness for some hours and accepted it.  None of that, “it could have been worse” or “we shouldn’t think of ourselves, we should think of protecting people’s health.”  Because grief will find its way out and the opportunity to perform in front of a packed house is a loss. Then by midday, they sprung into creative thinking.  Before the end of the day they had hatched a plan for the kids to perform the play the next day, to an empty theater, with a videographer. It won’t be the same.  But it will be a way for the kids to connect with their families around their hard work. A way for the grandmothers who have to stay home to see those kids shine.  It will be a way to lessen the pain of distance. It is something.  

We need lots of somethings.  Video helps us connect now more than ever.  Let’s use it with people we would normally see.  So what if it feels a little goofy? Senior centers are cancelling all their activities.  Hollywood Senior Center is asking people to make phone calls; have kids make cards. Call your local senior center and connect – it helps you and them.  The vagus nerve which controls our emotional resiliency is toned by humming or singing. Turn up the music and sing – call your elderly parents and sing together.  Imagine this: every time we wash our hands – we make it a point to connect – to remind someone that, just like eating and sleeping, we need to have a human interaction every day. 

Do you think I’m doing this for my health?  Yes.

How Mercy Corps can make amends

On Tuesday, The Oregonian outlined allegations made by Tania Culver Humphrey of serial childhood sexual abuse by her father, Ellsworth Culver.  The abuse is alleged to have begun when Humphrey was a preschooler and continued through high school. Culver was one of the co-founders of the global humanitarian organization, Mercy Corps.

My name is Bridget Geraghty.  I am a clinical social worker in private practice in Portland, Oregon.  I treat mainly trauma, and have a specialty in treating childhood sexual abuse.  In 1999-2000 I worked for Mercy Corps in Bosnia. At that time, Ells Culver was still alive and representing the organization.

From 2005-2016, my husband, Jeremy Barnicle, worked in a number of leadership roles at Mercy Corps.  For eleven years, Mercy Corps was central to our lives. We have many dear friends who are part of the Mercy Corps community.  Our family has been deeply moved by Humphrey’s disclosures and our hearts go out to her and her family. As a mental health professional with a Mercy Corps connection, I would like to share my perspective on ways Mercy Corps might attend to the opportunity they are being offered.

It is my belief that the vast majority of Mercy Corps staff work in humanitarian aid because they are true humanitarians.  Mercy Corps has helped millions of people around the world and I personally know people who have risked their lives on a daily basis to bring support to vulnerable populations.  As an expert in treatment of childhood sexual abuse and a person with knowledge of predatory behavior however, I know that a humanitarian aid agency – like a church or a school – would be attractive to a predator looking for access to children and a “beyond reproach” reputation to cover his behavior.  According to the outline Humphrey offers, she was being abused for several years before Mercy Corps was founded. By all appearances, Ells Culver – a very sick man – was masquerading as a humanitarian among truly dedicated people. 

I watched the Oregonian’s video piece Thursday evening.  It contained compelling descriptions of events, and many corroborating stories by the brave women – and her ally husband – who supported her.  The piece was largely about how actively she sought help and how little she was helped by certain men in leadership at Mercy Corps. But why would people be so unlikely to help? 

It is in the nature of human beings to recoil from disgusting behavior.  There is little that is more disgusting than the idea of a father consistently preying upon his tiny daughter to satisfy his insatiable compulsion.  Although I am an unflagging advocate for survivors of childhood sexual abuse – as I believe they are the most heroic among us – I am ashamed to admit that I too noticed myself looking for places where Humphrey’s story might be exaggerated.  It was like a reflex. The fact is no one wants to believe it could be true. As a therapist, I spent four years teaching non-offending parents of child survivors how to avoid their children being “offended” again. I met mothers whose partners had left physical evidence of abusing their children and those parents still refused to believe it happened.  I can tell you that it is astonishing what people will turn a blind eye to in order to avoid that level of disgust. It is quite possible that we human beings simply do not have the adequate brain wiring to cope with the feelings such a devastating truth could bring. 

Although it is incredibly rare for allegations of childhood sexual abuse to be found to be untrue, they are almost always discounted or disbelieved by some stakeholders.  And thus the victim is left further victimized. Unlike most stories of childhood sexual abuse, these allegations against Ells Culver have been corroborated beyond doubt. It seems that those at Mercy Corps who were given the chance to listen and use their power to bring some consequences to Culver or some reparations to Humphrey simply did not wish to hear.  They chose to let this woman suffer from a lack of support than to take on suffering the unknown consequences of facing the problem. 

If you haven’t experienced being sexually abused by someone you trusted when you were too vulnerable to protect yourself, then you cannot understand the impact.  In order to help you understand, I would say this. However bad you think it feels, it is way, way worse. Imagine the most shame you have ever felt. The most terror.  The most confusion. The most revulsion. The most sadness. The most rage. Imagine feeling treated like an object that someone might just throw away on a whim. It is worse than all of those combined.  So at any point, when a victim of such abuse finds the strength to keep themselves alive, much less come forward with their story, they deserve our deepest of gratitude. They are, perhaps, the truth tellers who will set us free.

Some of the Mercy Corps men described by Humphrey were cruel.  Telling a survivor that “it’s not what happens to you it’s what you do with it” is cruel.  I was deeply saddened however to hear of the bystander behavior of some of the other men accused in Humphrey’s story.  Bystanding is not a neutral stance. Desmond Tutu told us, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

I know some of these men personally.  I know they believe themselves to be good people.  Some of them are surely experiencing a dark night of the soul over this.  As I consider that, I think about how, in my work, I bear witness to the darkest of thoughts and feelings.  And consistently, I see this: The darkest hour is just before dawn. But, mark my words, you’ll only see dawn if your eyes are open.

It is a grave mistake to behave – as Mercy Corps’ representatives did – as if Ells Culver’s sins were confined to his home.  The Oregonian’s piece includes an account of a friend of Tania’s finding graphic pornographic photos of brown girl children in Culver’s desk drawer.  We know from research on offenders that it is the nature of predatory behavior that it will be practiced whenever the chance is available. No one wants to grapple with the probability that he practiced his sickness anytime he had the chance and while “helping” in the field he was also helping himself to vulnerable children. As a sexual predator, whom we know, at a minimum, stood photographed with his hands on the shoulders of refugee children, his very presence could have felt predatory.  His intention, his glances, possible leering or groping. These alone can be damaging because of how deeply confusing they are. Mercy Corps has – all along – had a responsibility to the children it calls beneficiaries, to make sure they are safe.

Tania explains how watching her father go off to foreign countries – where he “enjoyed having his picture taken with the children,” while coming home and raping her, made Mercy Corps, throughout her childhood, appear to be this powerful entity that was complicit in her abuse. Mercy Corps grew during that time, in part, due to Culver’s actively growing the organization. 

Culver, like most offenders, duped a lot of people.  But “I didn’t know”, “I couldn’t be sure” or “It happened before my time” are thin excuses.  We all need look at where our power to do the right thing lives, and use it. I believe I am using mine by writing this letter.  I was glad to read today that Mercy Corps staff used their power by demanding change in the way the organization is managed. Shortly afterwards, Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, resigned.  Neal is a friend and a person whose commitment to the organization I have admired greatly. I feel deeply for him as I see him revisiting how to use his own power. I also see that he has chosen to make way for change to come and I applaud him for doing so. 

Humphrey came forward because she knows she deserves to be believed.  She kept herself alive and continued to speak until she was heard. So many victims cannot bear the silence and the complicity of others in keeping their abuse secret that they take their own lives.  As Neal Keny-Guyer said recently, Mercy Corps failed her. But she did not fail in bringing the story into the light.

It can feel like there is no way good enough to respond to Mercy Corps’ role in this tragedy.  There is so much that Mercy Corps can do though to face the ugly parts of its history and honor the sacrifice of Tania Humphrey.  It is up to her to heal – and she is doing a beautiful job. But it is up to Mercy Corps to acknowledge the fullness of what is alleged here and its own role in keeping a survivor from experiencing a necessary step in her healing by being believed. 

Here are a few ways Mercy Corps might consider honoring Tania.    

  •     Mercy Corps could consider paying Tania reparations. At the minimum, the full cost of her therapeutic interventions over the years should be tallied and paid to her.


  •     Mercy Corps should ask Tania Humphrey if there are specific measures she would like to see taken and consider them carefully. 


  •     Mercy Corps should consider conducting a full independent investigation, in the field, of the programs that were visited by Ells Culver from 1981-2004, where he would have had access to children.  Female beneficiaries, that could be located and who were children then, could be invited to share any concerns they had about their interactions with Culver.  This would be done with the utmost consideration for the beneficiaries, holding the goal in mind that they be offered the chance to tell their stories, receive, at the minimum a formal apology and culturally-appropriate mental health treatment for any traumatic experiences uncovered.


  •     Mercy Corps could spearhead an initiative – in collaboration with other organizations already working in this area – to research the nature of sexual predation as an illness and support identification and early treatment of offenders.  Childhood sexual abuse as a public health problem is common, deeply damaging and extremely misunderstood.  Research and treatment of pedophilia and predatory behavior is sorely under resourced around the world. Much more understanding is needed if true progress in prevention and treatment are to happen.


  •     Exploitation thrives in environments that privilege one group above others. Mercy Corps should make a plan for gender and racial equity on the board and in leadership with a goal of 50% women and people of color by 2025.


  •     Mercy Corps should hire an external consultant to assess the ways that Mercy Corps’ culture may be operating under a paradigm of colonial white, male privilege that values judgment over emotion, secrecy over transparency and hierarchy over diversity. 


  •     Mercy Corps could support treatment for survivors on a multitude of levels, but initially by offering free meeting space to support groups and conferences for survivors of abuse and for treatment providers in its beautiful public meeting space.


  •     The shame belongs to the offenders, not the victims.  Mercy Corps could hold an annual art showcase for survivors of sexual abuse at the Mercy Corps Action Center to invite survivors to come out of the shadows and into the light. 



  •     Finally, anything that had been named after Ells Culver should be renamed after Tania Humphrey.  Tania Humphrey’s resiliency in the face of adversity most closely reflects the spirit of Mercy Corps’ beneficiaries.  She is the true hero here and should be treated as such.


It is my strongest hope that Mercy Corps – and all of us – can grow from Humphrey’s demonstration of bravery, perseverance and honesty.  She has done a powerful thing for survivors everywhere. Let us take this moment of darkness to consider what she has also done for all of us.  She has reminded us that the right thing to do is often the very hardest thing to do and that often –  we need to do it anyway.  Let us become better community members, friends, parents and leaders by following her example.



Fathers: Say “I Love You” To Your Sons

Try an unscientific survey. Ask your male friends how often their fathers said “I love you” when they were growing up. Whatever frequency they report, cut that in half. That’s probably what really happened. Men today know that they were supposed to hear it from their dads. They also know that they didn’t. The real problem is that they don’t know what to make of the consequences.

What are the consequences? What’s the big deal about “I love you?” Everything. When parents say “I love you,” kids learn that they are loveable. To be clear, when I use the word “loveable,” I don’t mean it in a puppy-dog, America’s Sweetheart way. I mean feeling worthy of love by the people who matter to you. Feeling loveable in childhood is the bedrock for healthy friendships, work/life balance, partnerships and parenting behaviors in adulthood. In short all the things that matter in life.

Women need to feel loveable too, so why am I focused on men? Because boys in our culture are simply not seen as loveable in the ways that girls are. They are considered to have behavior problems because they tend to be more physically active. They are dressed less imaginatively so they don’t get noticed as often. They are given less positive feedback by families in general. And on top of all that, the ‘Myth of Masculinity’ in our and many other moderns cultures is grounded in competition and aggression. Love doesn’t thrive in an environment ruled by either of these things.

So if you’re a dad raising a son, why should you bother to push yourself to say these words? What exactly does saying, “I love you” do for their lives as men?

1.  Boys can develop a belief that they are attached to someone – firmly – simply because that person loves them. At least one parent – preferably two – has got their back no matter what. Boys learn they can rely on that connection. It is unconditional – they don’t have to do anything to earn it or keep it. Having that unconditional love as a boy means that in adulthood they won’t be as likely to work compulsively to get approval. Men who don’t feel loveable seek approval – think promotions, more money, whatever feels like a “win” – as a proxy for feeling loved. Validation from others feels ever so slightly like love and they need that feeling like they need air, food and water. If they didn’t feel unconditionally loveable as a boy, they think these “wins” are as good as it gets. Boys who feel loveable become men who know that “winning” is not love.

2.  Boys can learn that love is a powerful force – one that keeps people choosing each other through good times and bad. Too many men don’t understand what love is. They think that romantic love equates to frequent sex or coldly harmonious cohabitation or praise from their partners. They don’t feel connected by the powerful pull of attachment because – having not felt an unconditional attachment to their dads – they don’t know how to create it. Even if they have partners who reach out again and again with bids for connection they either miss the chance to accept those bids or they outright reject them in favor of other activities or people.   An attachment with a partner – or for that matter even a friend – can only stand that neglect so long before it becomes brittle and breaks. Boys who feel a powerful connection to their dads understand deep in their bones the importance of meeting another person’s bids for connection. And they do meet those bids. Making them bonded, emotionally-stable adults, far more capable of resilient relationships with others.

3.  Boys can find that long-term, healthy attachment with their partners feels familiar and valuable, not dull. When their partners put out a bid for connection they pick it up most of the time. They even put out bids back. By comparison, men who don’t feel lovable don’t love others very well. They are preoccupied, they take their partners for granted.  They stay away too much working or act overly focused on hobbies.   They unwittingly communicate that their partners are not lovable either. When men know what it feels like to feel loved, they can spot unconditional love when it’s coming their way and give it back.

4.  Boys become men who can receive love, but they can also manage to set their own needs aside to take care of their partners. Men who don’t feel lovable have a hard time stepping up to meet their partner’s needs. They feel overwhelmed hearing about their partner’s upset feelings. They don’t want to listen so they try to solve the problem or criticize the partner. They ignore the partner’s needs out of emotional overwhelm and a fear that they can’t meet those needs.

As if these weren’t enough to damage a partnership, men who don’t feel lovable often seek extra-marital affairs. Approval from a new person is so pure, so unadulterated by the responsibility to take care of that person’s emotional needs. Once in an affair they find themselves swept up in how good it feels to be appreciated. Remember: feeling loved is as important as air, food and water and appreciation from a new object of affection feels life-giving. The only problem is this:  they can’t see that person as a human being. That person has one job: to make him feel loved. Once the affair partner starts expressing needs that require some personal sacrifice, the affair isn’t quite as compelling.  Then, that person gets left behind too.

5. Boys can learn how to pass love on. Boys become men, who then become fathers, who then teach a whole new crop of men how to live. If you know a little boy with a father in his life, you only have to see how he looks at his dad to know how hungry boys are for love and attention. Too many men are busy struggling through their own upset feelings – feelings they can’t manage because they didn’t have unconditionally loving, reliable attachments to their fathers – to even see the look in their little boy’s eyes. Men who felt attached to their dads manage stressful feelings better, are more available to their sons and find joy in being with their boys. They teach the boys, “I love you,” “I believe in you,” “I can rely on you to do things,” and “I’ve got you no matter how many mistakes you make along the way.”

So, Fathers: if no one said it to you, I am so very sorry for your loss. But you have a chance to heal yourself and break the cycle of male detachment. Start saying, “I love you” to your boy and when you do, expect to feel a little sad.   You are entitled to your grief; you deserved more from your own father.


Quickly, Mindfully

Picture this: Seattle, 2001. I’ve just finished a lunch hour yoga class at a downtown gym and, in earshot of the instructor, I start rolling up my mat and muttering about how I need to rush back to my admin job at the insurance company upstairs.   I can see her corkscrew grey-blonde curls and pale calm face as she turns to me and says, “See if you can move quickly, but also mindfully.”


This seemed like a crazy idea. I chewed on it as I scurried back to the elevator bank, watched my heart rate quicken and my breath grow short. Clearly, I could do the “quickly” but what was this “mindfully” all about?

For the next 16 years, I chewed on that idea. As I ripened into a therapist, I often wondered, is it possible to be quick and also mindful? That tiny exercise, given to me by that yoga instructor, has been a regular experiment in my life and has helped me grow into a person who can watch herself without judgment, much of the time.   Or at least more of the time.   There has been progress.

That mindful noticing has shown me some things about how I do life:

-I’ve noticed that often – when I’m trying to learn something, like being more mindful – I like to let perfection be the goal.

-I’ve noticed that when perfection is the goal I ignore any progress I’m making.

-I’ve noticed that when I do notice the progress, I tell myself it’s not good enough.

– I’ve noticed that when I ignore or shame my progress, I never get so much as within spitting distance of perfection.

Those insights have been beyond helpful. And they came simply from noticing myself.

During that 16 years, mindfulness has taken over as an American buzzword for how to manage our stressful lives. And as a therapist in 2017, it is almost neglectful to treat a client without discussing mindfulness.   We have apps like Headspace and Smiling Mind to help you meditate. You can sign up for a steady feed of Deepak Chopra emails to keep you focused on your most mindful life choices. Heck, you can do yoga, Nia, Tai Chi, Pilyogarobics for goodness sakes and I’m sure they will all get around to talking about mindfulness. But what exactly is it?

Today I told a client, “This is how you do it. Slow down and watch yourself feel and think and act. Name each thing you notice, without judgment.”

“Oh,” she said knowingly, “without judgment.” As if this was the key to the kingdom.

Then, I told her, “Yes, and if you begin to judge, watch yourself judging.   You can say something like, “there’s me judging.” Or, “there’s me judging myself for judging when I was trying not to judge.”

And that, my friends, is it.

Let’s notice the urge to complicate mindfulness.

Let’s notice the thought that we need to be perfect at mindfulness to begin practicing being mindful.

Then, – en route to our next destination – let’s see if we can move quickly, but also mindfully.

How to Survive a Malignant Narcissist

Many, many women – and far too many men – know what it feels like to live under the thumb of a malignant narcissist.   This is the truth: A very small portion of the population is devoid of empathy and stalks other humans like prey, uses them for their own purposes or merely dehumanizes and neglects them.   They do not relate. They do not change. They do not see the light. Ever.

Survivors of malignantly narcissistic fathers or stepfathers, mothers or stepmothers; survivors of abusive siblings or partners know this. Whether consciously or subconsciously. We know, on a cellular level, in our bodies as well as our minds, what it feels like to be controlled by that certain type of person. Some of us have been, for whole lifetimes, bereft of the words for this feeling. Without a name or a label for it. But we know it in our bones.

Now, with the promise of a malignant narcissist at the helm of our country, that feeling is present for all of us. The ones for whom this is not their first rodeo – the survivors – the trigger this election has unleashed is profound and relentless. Every news story rings with the danger. He is here. He is powerful and he is unchecked.

Trauma therapists know that after a trigger come the automatic reactions. Muscle tension, shortness of breath, intrusive thoughts, surges of fear, relationship disruption, failure to perform basic self-care, numbing, dissociation, self-blame, generalized fear, rage, feelings of powerlessness, anhedonia (the inability to enjoy things.)

All these descriptions render clinical the special flavor of that trigger experience. That feeling in our bones, the painful scars of abuse survived, tingling with presence. Like the way a rainy day makes a formerly broken bone ache. That rainy day is here. And it is not going away.

Americans have lived, since the Bay of Pigs without a threat of war on our soil. Many of us have felt deeply trusting and at ease. America is safe. Others of us have traveled and lived abroad.   Our foreign friends told us the tearful stories of narcissists in charge, the effects of hatred and genocide on Bosnia, Rwanda and the like. Precious few Americans are still alive to tell the stories of the Nazi Holocaust, though their families urge generations to never forget. But the survivors of narcissists in this country alone know the score. We know what the narcissist is capable of.

Here is what we know.

Before you reach the place where you accept it, you will fantasize that he will change. You will tell yourself it’s not that bad. You will take responsibility for all the things you have done that made his behavior possible. You will put your head in the sand. You will shut down. You will rage inside and say nothing outside. You will keep to yourself how terrible it feels and only share a version you believe is for public consumption. You will be invalidated by those who only see his charm and magnetism and you will believe you are alone. That you have no power.

You will do this, possibly, for a long time. And each day that you do it, you will feel him erode your sense of self, your sense of agency, your belief in the power of justice to work its magic.

And you will see no way out.

Traumatized people are tired. I work with them every day, so I know. But they are wise. They have been tested. And they have some advice for us during this time. A time that tries men’s souls. So I speak for them when I say this.

There is a way out. Here it is:

Know what you are dealing with.

Do not rest in the fantasy that he will change.

Separate from his voice, resist fear and hatred and protect those who are most vulnerable.

Never, never blame yourself.

You didn’t ask for this.

It was his job not to exercise terror in the first place. It is part of the human compact.

Find your humanity, deep in your core, where it has lived since the day you were born.

Feel your feelings and allow them to guide you.

Fan the flames of courage when they appear within.

Connect with safe people and stand up.

Stand up.


And in these ways, you will be free.

God Bless America.




The End of Toxic Narcissism

I really want to write about narcissism.  What a loaded word!  Our current political climate has recently opened up all kinds of discussion – on social media, in the blogosphere, in the mainstream media –  about narcissism.  I guess it’s helpful to have more open dialogue about how we should – and shouldn’t – treat each other.  In my work, though that discussion with my clients has always been front and center.

All human beings have, at the very least, healthy narcissism.  We all have to value our own needs enough to wake up in the morning and take a shower, feed ourselves breakfast and resist the onslaught of messages about everyone else’s needs long enough to take care of our own.  In my perfect world, every adult could look back at their childhood and say, “my primary attachment figure – the parent person I was closest to – took care of their own needs enough for them to then turn their kind, patient and boundaried attention to my needs.  They weren’t perfect, but they were there most of the time when I needed it.  They saw me and liked what they saw.  They wanted me to feel proud of myself and lovable.  And they gave me the space to learn slowly, making my mistakes along the way.  They reminded me that, even though they hope I’ll strive to learn and grow, I’m good enough just they way I am.”

That’s my perfect world.  The world, my friends, is imperfect.

Across the spectrum from healthy narcissism, is Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  We think it is related to a deeply ashamed sense of self originating in childhood but what we know it is that is characterized by a mask of ultraconfidence  and extreme vulnerability to the slightest criticism.   If that’s how you travel through the world, you’re probably really smooth and really mean.

Many of my clients enter my office with a story of a parent who may not even technically meet the criteria for the full blown personality disorder, but who – when the client was small and helpless – was charming, was never wrong, would not tolerate the client’s childhood anger, frustration or disappointment, who acted as if everything the client did – positive or negative – was a reflection on the parent (see this article for more explanation about how this plays out in families.)  My clients describe feeling sad and scared and never good enough.

Yup.  As you would.

But while those conditions are damaging for a child there is no clear villain in this story.  It would be easy to call the villain the parent and you’d be the closest to the truth.  It’s certainly not the kid.

But who is the kid?  The narcissistic parent was once a kid.  And then they had a kid.  And that kid grew up and had a kid (see where this is going?)  Hurt people, hurt people.  And narcissists, deep down, are very hurt, ashamed children in grown up bodies.   So many of my clients, even as adults, want deeply to heal their parents, to be loved by them, to change their behavior so that the dream of connection can be realized.  They struggle with the notion of seeing their parents as having been wrong in that story.  Why?  Because as I often say, “we are wired to believe our parents.”  So they’re left with that feeling of shame that sounds like, “Something is just wrong with me.”

(For more on that watch this Ted Talk with Brene Brown.)

There is a cycle of shame playing out in the world. Shame happens but if we pretend we don’t feel it, it tends to steer how we treat each other, and with a steady diet of it, it’s toxic. How will it end?  I think I know.  Though the goal is a lofty one, I get to walk toward that goal with my clients every day.  It will be ended by the survivors of narcissistic parenting – the ones who are healthy enough to dig into their own therapeutic work –  saying, “it ends here.”

Here’s what that sometimes looks like in my office:   I start with a bold assumption.  If we want kids to grow up emotionally healthy, parents have to put their kids’ emotional needs first.  No kid is responsible for making their parents happy.  (Sound obvious?  Not if you had a narcissistic parent.)

Next, together, we shine light on the childhood violations.  The times when clients were shamed or frightened.  Then we say what may never have been said. “I remember this or that hurt as a little person; my hurt matters; I didn’t deserve it; it wasn’t my fault.”  We ‘right the ship’ a little, right there.

I help clients to imagine their child selves and say (over and again in manifold ways), “I love you; I hear you; I’m sorry you were hurt; you’re safe; I will take care of you now.”

It sounds like just words but actually, it’s a habit you can develop and use as a very effective tool.  I love Kristen Neff’s work for explaining why and how to use it.

We work on how clients can be for themselves and for others – especially their children –  what they needed their parents to be for them.  That part can be hard.  Shame bubbles up about ways they might have hurt their kids that mirror ways they were hurt.  But that’s where shame helps us.  In tiny doses, if we can acknowledge it, it keeps us from doing that “thing” again.   It helps us repair rifts in relationship.  So together, we hold shame gently and let it do its work, while keeping the self-judgement reasonable.   We are all only human, after all.

What is all this?  It is good work.   It can feel too slow.  There is grief.  There is healing.  It’s courageous as hell.

And then there is change.  Change in the ways clients think and feel about themselves.  Change in the ways they talk to themselves.  Change in the ways they tell others “no” and tell others “yes” and tell others, “I love you.”

But the most important change of all is that my amazing, heroic clients can finally say to themselves, “There is nothing wrong with me.”  And by saying so, with compassion at the helm, they break the cycle of shame for their one family.   The goal is lofty.  But I’m sticking with it.  We shape each other by how we treat each other.  It’s darn important.







Have you ever heard the notion, popularized by anthropologist Franz Boas, that there are 50 Inuit words for ‘snow’?  In my practice I like to say that there should be that many words for ‘love’.  Lately, I’ve begun to think there should be that many words for ‘marriage’.

We live in an amazing time for marriage.  It is now possible to get married in the United States, no matter what gender you are or whom you love.  The recent growth of conversations about polyamory (yes, that means more than one person with whom to share amor) have led us to question all kinds of old notions about love and marriage.  And now there is a book by a therapist I love, named Terrence Real, called The New Rules of Marriage.

I am often inspired to write book reviews on my blog so here I go again.  Terry Real captured my heart with I Don’t Want To Talk About It in 2007.  In it he talks about why so many men don’t talk about their feelings.  The New Rules of Marriage expands his reach and makes this groundbreaking statement to women married to men.  “Women, you are not crazy.  It is OK to want more connection.”  (I’m paraphrasing.)  Whew!  It’s really helping me make that point in my couples’ sessions.  Thanks, Terry.

My mentors – beautifully married therapists Rita Resnick Ph.D. and Robert Resnick Ph.D. out of GATLA (Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles) – taught me that human beings are always seeking both connection and separateness.  I love helping couples manage that tension.  But I think what I love most is telling people that marriage – if we want to do it for the extraordinarily long amount of time our culture seems to value – requires some serious work.  Work!

It’s a piece of cake (albeit a tasteless piece of cake) to stay married without any emotional work – so long as you want to stay stuck in all the patterns you bring from your parents’ marriages and your own fears and anxieties.

To stay vitally married is an active process of learning about new tools, sharpening them and practicing their use.  I do believe this.  Even though there is obviously a conflict of interest here.  Such notions will keep me in business helping couples define all their words for marriage.  But having just finished a beautiful session a hour ago with a couple who are rebuilding their marriage after separation and infidelity, wow, what an amazing business it is.




The Brain on Play-Doh

Have you ever thought, “I don’t want to go to therapy and talk about what’s ‘wrong’ with me!”? Yeah, you and the rest of the world. We could say that stigma exists because of the medical model that says you go to docs to get cured of a malady, rather than to improve existing health. By extension, most therapists get lumped in with that medical model and, why not? We want our therapists to understand what is happening to us bio-medically, so if they’re meeting our needs they will be part of that medical model.

As our medical model evolves with modern science however we learn that there is indeed, nothing wrong with us. Everything that is happening in the brain is a reaction to a set of circumstances and sometimes we need to tweak the system – get a tune-up, if you will.

A book I highly recommend by Norman Doidge, MD, The Brain that Changes Itself, will wow you with stories about how the brain continues to change and grow throughout the lifespan, making it possible for the elderly to exercise their memories (not just by playing more scrabble, folks), the compulsive to learn new brain patterns (bye-bye excessive handwashing), and stroke victims to play tennis, ride motorcycles and ski.

Doidge shares how the brain is plastic, meaning that like a blob of play-doh, it is shaped by every experience it has. Every experience. So you don’t escape your experiences (“Oh, that trauma? That didn’t affect me”), but you have endless opportunities to change them!

All intelligent therapists know this and that is why we believe in what we do. We know the brain can keep changing itself as it finds new ways to think, and makes sense of what has already happened. We help people take full advantage of those opportunities to shape your brain into a more efficient machine. Happiness is simply a pleasant side-effect.