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Posted by on in Parenting Dynamics

1. We are all living growing beings.

2. Growing people make mistakes.

3. Anger and punishment inhibit growth.

4. Well thought out consequences promote growth.

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MIRROR - I see that you are feeling.................

VALIDATE - I can understand how you might feel...........

EMPATHIZE - I might feel the same way in your place............

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You don’t have to keep living in the world you were born into!

 Our self-image, worldview and basic trust are formed in early childhood.  The family that we are born into is the basis upon which we develop our worldview as well as the people from which we develop our self-image.  Those of us who are born into horribly dysfunctional families create a view of a horrible world!  What else can a child utilize in order to form it‘s view of the world?

 The infant arrives into this world having spent nine months in a state of bliss, assuming a healthy pregnancy.  Shortly after birth, the newborn experiences a state of deprivation for the first time.  Although the infant is unable to “think” about it’s dilemma, it is believed that the infant is aware on a cellular level that the situation demands attention and the child initiates “problem solving”.  To the newborn baby, “problem solving” consists of kicking and screaming.  That is problem solving at its most primitive level.  Ideally, a caring adult shows up and with a tender voice and gentle hands the caretaker proceeds to identify the problem and fix it.

This situation is repeated hundreds of times in the coming months and years and over time the infant may begin to trust that things are going to be “all right” even in the face of hunger or other deprivation.  This is the beginning of “basic trust”.  This basic trust is developed and strengthened every time a caring adult responds to difficult situations and mistakes with love and tolerance.

While the child is, or isn’t, developing basic trust, it is also developing a world view and a self-image.  The familial atmosphere the child experiences in the first months and years is the world the infant has to come to terms with.  The child doesn’t lie in it’s crib speculating about the environment, it just experiences that environment and it is on that environment that the child bases all of it’s responses.  These responses are deeply entrenched in it’s unconscious by the time the child is introduced to the wider world outside of it’s family.  This world view is generally resistant to change without  professional assistance.

The infant’s self image is shaped by the way the caretakers relate to it.  If the caretakers relate to the infant as if it is precious and valued and wonderful, then those characteristics become incorporated into its self-image.  .  If the caretakers treat the infant as if he is resented and an unwanted intrusion into the caretakers world, then those characteristics are incorporated into the infants self image.  This resultant self-image tends to be life long and resistant to change without professional assistance.

The combination of basic trust, self image and world view are the principle determinants of the world we live in and they tend not to change over time.  Since they are deeply entrenched in the unconscious mind where they are not readily examined or modified, most people die without altering conclusions that they reached before they were four years old.

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Posted by on in Individual Dynamics

Ego is another word for how you see yourself.  Syntonic means harmonious.  Something that is ego syntonic is consistent with the way you see yourself.  Dystonic means disharmonious.  Something that is dystonic is inconsistent with the way you see yourself.

A few years ago, the winner of the Miss America contes told a reporter that she had matured late physically and had really never dated through out her high school years.  Although she had begun to develope in her senior year, she was focused on graduation and didn’t take time to respond to the enquiries of any interested boys.  After she graduated she got a job.  Her new employer sent a picture of her and filled out an application for her to be in a beauty pageant.  She was accepted and won the pageant.  The winner of that pageant went on to the next pageant and so on.  Not too long after that she found herself being crowned Miss America.  Having never been seen as particularly attractive in high school, this was a very ego dystonic experience for her.  She reported that when someone commented on how attractive she was, she still had an impulse to turn and look behind her to see whom the person was talking about.  Being sought out for her beauty was ego dystonic for her at the time of her crowning.

Even though an attribute may be positive, it still clashes with our self-image when others see us in a way that is at odds with the way we see ourselves. Ego dystonic experiences are usually rather uncomfortable. People who lose significant amounts of weight routinely report this.  Even though the new attention may be positive and desirable, it can take time before the new attention stops being jarring.  Thus, people in pursuit of desired changes must be prepared to deal with the stress of the discomfort of ego dystonicity. This can require consciously overruling our unconscious desire to avoid discomfort of any kind.  Cutting out or drawing a picture of our new ego state and posting it on our bathroom mirror is one way to begin the transition process.  Over time, the new changes become integrated into our new self-image and they become ego Syntonic.

Dr. Kate Brizendine, a noted change manager, says that in the cocoon, there is no caterpillar and no butterfly; there is only cosmic mush.  This would be ego dystonic for the caterpillar.  But the process is underway and the butterfly will emerge to fight its way out one wet wing at a time. By then it’s new self will be ego syntonic.

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Posted by on in Individual Dynamics

Pain can take many forms from mild to intense but it is uncomfortable in all of its forms.  Human beings tend to become angry when they are uncomfortable. In fact, expressing anger is one way of verbalizing discomfort.  It is important to remember that anger is not a primary emotion.  Just as a scab is nature’s way of protecting a physical wound, anger is nature’s way of protecting an emotional wound.  Once the wound has healed, the scab or the anger drops away.  It is no longer needed. 

In the case of emotional wounding, sometimes the trauma is too much for an individual to tolerate.  This is especially true when the person involved is too young to acknowledge and constructively address the issues causing the trauma.  In such cases the person may wait until they are an adult and have become psychologically stronger before examining and treating childhood trauma.  In the meantime, they are apt to practice avoidance techniques such as denial or addictive behaviors.  Unfortunately, when feeling pain and anger, we often forget to use logical problem solving skills.   Humans seem capable of intense feelings and intense concentration, but usually not both at the same time.  Generally speaking, people in pain become angry.  Most angry people don’t utilize higher levels of reasoning.  Therefore, people are most apt to make mistakes when they are in pain.

The path of intimacy is littered with emotional potholes and stones. Whenever we find ourselves expressing pain or distress in the context of a relationship it may be a sign that we’ve stumbled into a pothole of feelings or tripped on an emotional stone.  The next time you feel anger, take time to notice the pain beneath it.  See what you can do to heal the pain, and the anger will evaporate on its own.

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Posted by on in Parenting Dynamics

A mistake is any behavior that causes deterioration in the quality of one’s life!  Sometimes the undesired outcome is immediately evident, as when you hit your thumb with a hammer.  That behavior is generally recognized as ill advised rather quickly while at other times an undesired outcome can take a long time to materialize, as with cigarette smoking.

Human beings are born with an internal guiding device designed to create a life of satisfaction and enjoyment.  Every behavior is automatically evaluated in terms of whether it brought pain or pleasure.  Behaviors that bring pain are not generally repeated; though, admittedly, there may be a few slow learners among us!  But it would require a mental illness to cause a person to repeatedly choose behavior that brought us PAIN!  How many times have you stuck your finger into a wall outlet?

We begin life as a helpless infant and our earliest attempts to gain personal satisfaction are poorly conceived and impulsively implemented.  Those poorly conceived and impulsively implemented behaviors are usually done in the general company of adults (parents) who are supervising the infant. 

And sometimes these behaviors cause inconvenience or distress or even PAIN to those adults.  Until we have matured and developed to the point of understanding the nature of all behavior (subject to pleasure principle), parents have a tendency to become angry when inconvenienced or in PAIN.   Angry parents can be damaging to infants.

As children begin life, they see their parents as Gods.  After all, the parents are, relatively, HUGE.  Additionally, they can read minds, predict the future, see through walls, have eyes in the back of their heads and can understand mysterious forces that baffle a small child.  And they have the power of life and death over the small child.  Having God be angry with us when we are small can be pretty frightening and makes a big impression that we don’t quickly forget.  An angry God who makes negative demeaning statements about who we are is real big stuff!

The combination of a critical angry God at a time when we realize that we’ve made a mistake can be devastating.  In fact, a child who has just made a mistake is very much in need of a forgiving tolerant God.  (Perhaps we all are! Having a tolerant and forgiving parent doesn’t necessarily mean that mistakes don’t have a consequence.  They do.  God may forgive us for hitting our thumb with a hammer but that doesn’t mean that our thumb doesn’t hurt!  Children can be held accountable for their mistakes without being demeaned or devalued.  It may not be easy for a frustrated parent to watch their tone, but it is important.  A demeaning tone can be a form of child abuse.

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A baby tends to experience the world in one of two ways; the world is pleasant and he is happy or the world is unpleasant and she is very unhappy.  There are few gradations or subtle variations.  The child may be either content or in a rage.  The world and the people in it are either good or bad.  This condition continues for years (sometimes for very many years).

This situation is seen with six year old Robert and his friend John.  Robert and John are neighbors and they are inseparable.  Any time you see one, the other is likely near by.  They play together every day and often eat lunch together and sleep over at each other’s houses.  They plan to grow up and be firemen together or astronauts.

One day Robert goes next door to find John.  When John comes to the door he tells Robert that he can’t play with him.  John’s cousin from out of town has come to visit.  He has brought some neat games with him but they are for two people only and so John can’t play with Robert today.  Robert comes home in tears and loudly proclaims John to be a no good ratfink and he will never like John or play with him again.  He hates John!!!  John has gone from being his best friend to his worst enemy.  This is splitting.  The day after John’s cousin goes home, he and Robert are playing happily together again. 

As Robert gets older, he will learn that the world is not so simple. The world is not just black and white.  There are shades of gray.  A classic question relates to the man who steals a loaf of bread for his starving children.  Would it be more wrong to allow the children to starve or to steal the loaf of bread?

Hopefully, adults learn to suffer the inevitable disappointments and unhappiness of relationships without seeing the world or the people in it as “bad”.  The ability to understand other people through empathy and identification is essential to successful relationships.

However, when stressed, anyone can regress to an earlier ego state and engage in splitting.  This is routinely seen in political strife.  Reagan pronounced the USSR as an “evil” empire and currently some in the Muslim world are described as evil.  Those same people describe us as evil.  This is known as “demonization” wherein the person who is seen as behaving outrageously is written off as a bad person.  In a sense, this is a lazy person’s attempt at understanding a problem.  We all want to understand.  Not understanding is very stressful.  We don’t like being “in the dark”.  So we grab at an easy solution. The other person is bad.  There!  That explains it.

The opposite of splitting behavior is to cultivate mature and genuine understanding on a deep level.

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Posted by on in Parenting Dynamics

Verbal and non-verbal messages given to a young child by the parent or other trusted adult are accepted as gospel and stored directly in the storage bin of the child’s unconscious.  Long after the child is no longer consciously able to recall the words of the parent or trusted adult, the message remains in storage and plays subliminally during times of stress.  A negative introject is like a splinter in the soul.

Introjects could be compared to the plant fertilizer stakes that were sold at supermarkets and drug stores.  Popsicle sticks had been dipped in liquid fertilizer until the stick absorbed the liquid and then hung up to dry.  Then they were packaged and sold to the consumer to take home and put in the soil of their potted plants.  Then, every time the plant was watered, the plant stake would release fertilizer and feed the plant.  Every time a parent acknowledges a child’s effort it is like fertilizer to the child.  Years later, during times of stress, that child (now grown) will play that message subliminally and   will feel heartened.  Acknowledgement, praise and messages of love form positive introjects.

Now imagine that Popsicle stick being dipped in liquid poison and dried and packaged to put in your plant.  Every time the plant was watered it would release toxins.  That would be the equivalent of a negative introject.  Calling our children names or yelling at them or generally treating them with disrespect creates negative introjects.

Since children are so fragile and parents are so human, perhaps some negative introjects are inevitable. Even if one’s parents are perfect, there are still Aunts and Uncles, Grandparents and neighbors, teachers and community people to contend with.

Generally, no one gets out of childhood with out some negative introjects.  If they are sufficiently numerous or painful, one can  see a professional who can help remove them.  Negative introjects are removed much the same as wood splinters are removed.   They can usually be located by following the pain.  Once located, they are dug out and removed through counter programming and reframing.   Susan Forward wrote a book that can be very helpful in that regard.  It is called Toxic Parents and I recommend it highly.

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The newborn infant arrives with no assumptions and very few skills.  Sucking, grasping, crying and pooping pretty much cover the talents of a newborn.  During the first weeks, months and years of it’s life, the infant has direct experience of the immediate environment that makes up its world.  Since the young infant has no ability to think in the classic sense, this experience is simply channeled into its awareness as “experience”.  (Since thinking is not part of the repertoire of a young child, it is always unfair to criticize a young child for not “thinking before you act”.) 

In the initial weeks, months and years of its life, the child is learning what kind of world it lives in through direct experience.  A healthy child born into a family of mature responsible adults who are ready, willing and able to meet the incessant demands of an infant learns that the world is tolerant, nurturing, gentle and loving.  A child born into an impaired family may learn that the world is harsh, unpredictable, hostile and unforgiving.  

As the child gets older, it continues to learn.  The child learns how to tell which shoe goes on which foot and whether the pants zipper goes in the front or the back or the side.  He/she learns (by trial and error) how to hold a glass of liquid without spilling.  The child also learns what to expect when errors are made.  The child learns whether an error means that he is a learning newcomer who isn’t expected to be perfect or that he/she is a foolish idiot.  In some worlds (families) mistakes are seen as occasions to receive punishment while in other worlds (families) mistakes are seen as learning opportunities and accepted as normal for a young growing child.

These things and countless others are all encountered by a child before he/she achieves the ability for high level abstract thinking.  
All that learning simply becomes part of the child’s awareness of the world.

As the child does begin to develop rudimentary abilities to think and reason, there is much more to learn.  The child learns to talk and walk and tie his shoes.  As these behaviors are learned and then repeated innumerable times,  they become automatic and no longer require our conscious attention.  Over time, they become unconscious.  Our unconscious is like a big storage room where we file all the behaviors that we’ve learned by heart.  When the situation comes up that requires that behavior, it is called up and delivered from our unconscious file room automatically.  That is why, when driving, we see tail lights come on in the car in front of us and we have our foot on the brake before our conscious brain even registers what is happening.

When you get up in the morning and put on your shoes you tie them without conscious thought.  It’s automatic!  

By the time we reach adulthood, the majority of our day to day behaviors  have become automatic (unconscious).  The only time that we need to use our conscious brain is when confronted by a new situation for which we may not have yet developed a satisfactory response.

If life is working to our general satisfaction, there may be no real need to examine the effectiveness of our unconsciousness.  However, if we are troubled by the turns our lives take or the roads we seem to be traveling down, then it may make sense to examine unconscious programming. The unconscious can be re-programmed.  It tends to take time and can be somewhat uncomfortable, but it is doable.  The problem is that the re-programming can only be done from the conscious and we are only in the conscious for brief periods of time.  In a sense, when we are behaving consciously, our unconscious is constantly looking for a chance to step in and take over for us.  It is our loyal and faithful servant. 

Fortunately, there are techniques we can use to assist us in re-programming.  The hard part is to become conscious about whatever behavior we wish to change.  Several years ago I worked with a family that consisted of a single parent Dad and his sixteen and thirteen year old daughters.  I made weekly house calls and we held a family meeting at each session.  At one such meeting Dad reported that he was at his wits end regarding his thirteen year old daughter.  He stated that his morning chores included getting himself ready for work, preparing his lunch and fixing breakfast for all three of them.  Invariably, his daughter would enter the kitchen and in a very whiny voice she would insist that he brush and braid her hair.  This typically occurred while he had a frying pan in his hand.  I invited him to respond to her next such request as follows:  “Either change the tone of your voice now or return to your room until you can. Either choice is okay with me.”  I asked the daughter if she could work with that and she said she could.  When I returned one week later, both father and daughter reported that mornings were much more pleasant since they had used the new behavior. 

I congratulated them both on their success and we went on to other business.  The following week when I arrived, I asked them again how the mornings were going.  Father said that the mornings were horrible and that his younger daughter was about to drive him crazy with her whining.  When I asked if he was still using the program that we had agreed on, he said that he had completely forgotten about it and mornings were back to being stressfully chaotic.  He agreed to return to the program that had been so successful before.  The third week I again asked about the mornings and he again said they had been horrible.  Once more he had forgotten to use the program that had been so successful before.  After inquiring for two or three more weeks and hearing that he’d forgotten each time, I stopped asking.  I don’t know that he ever did use that successful program again. He could not remain conscious of the behavior he wished to change.

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Posted by on in Marriage Dynamics

A primary relationship is one of the most sought after commodities in the world. We all seem to want to have a special relationship that takes precedence over other relationships. When life becomes difficult and painful, having another person to share the difficulties of life can minimize our pain. At the same time, having another person to share the joys and pleasures of life can enhance those joys. Some joys can seem empty without some one to share them. Primary relationships often evolve into marriage. Marriage can be a structure that shelters us. Once established, we live within the confines of the unique marriage we create. No two marriages are alike. Like any other structure, there are rules and guidelines that can help us build a healthy nurturing marital structure in an unpredictable and unstable world. Although marriage can be a source of comfort and solace and joy, it is not a problem-solving tool. In fact, once the honeymoon phase wears off, marriage actually can create more problems than it solves. We may think of marriage as a garden that produces the fruits of companionship and comfort. However, like any garden, it is essential that we nurture our marriage. We must be willing to pull the weeds that would otherwise choke the delicate plants of honest communication and trust which lead to true intimacy.

Communicating honestly and respectfully is a vital consideration in a healthy marriage. Trust is a prerequisite for healthy intimacy. ANY behavior that diminishes the other person’s trust is destructive to the marital structure. Destructive behaviors include the use of a disrespectful tone of voice, name calling, intentional infliction of distress (i.e. silent treatment, intentionally hurtful words), lying and criticizing (as opposed to sharing insights or observations with loving intent) etc. Being human, any of us are apt to slip into these behaviors at times. They are always a mistake, however, and all mistakes need to be addressed if we wish to avoid long-term damage to the marital structure.

To help illustrate this, I compare the structure of your marriage to the structure of your home, specifically the kitchen. Imagine that you are pouring a glass of orange juice and you spill some on the kitchen counter. That spill leaves a mess and needs to be cleaned up. If you don’t clean it up, it stays and becomes increasingly sticky, gathering more dirt as time goes on. Messes add up and the kitchen eventually becomes less and less habitable. When we damage our partner’s trust without cleaning up the mess, eventually, the marital structure becomes less habitable. As the marital structure deteriorates the inhabitants become increasingly unhappy and may resort to backbiting and generally graceless behavior. The following guidelines can help avoid such unpleasantness.

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If you see an acorn on the ground, would you be shocked to later find an oak tree growing there?  We see the seeds of violence and cruelty all around us.  Yet we act shocked and even outraged when the resulting trees cast life threatening shadows.  We currently live in a veritable forest of violence.  This violence and fear are then shamelessly marketed by our media, which we buy.  In one way or another, we are all partially responsible for this debacle.

Although it is painful to be treated as if you are unworthy as a human being, that is how people routinely treat each other.  Some husbands and wives speak to each other with harsh tones and sarcastic words on a routine basis.  I often witness needy impressionable children being yelled at and called demeaning names by their parents and other adults.  It is clear that people in pain tend to become angry.  Many people routinely bury their pain and anger in mood altering drugs or express them through mindless crime or even self inflicted violence.  Suicide is the ultimate expression of a person in pain.  Even though most gun related violence is directed toward ourselves, there is enough other directed violence that police wisely feel obligated to wear bullet-proof vests.  

Scores of children who don’t fit in with their peers are attacked by word or deed.  They are bullied and humiliated on a daily basis, sometimes by other kids and sometimes by unthinking or frustrated teachers and administrators.  Most children witness or experience such behavior before leaving elementary school. 

In misguided attempts at discipline, children are routinely belittled and threatened in their homes by the very people who are supposed to nurture them. In many cases children are taught not to express pain or distress.  When they finally snap and run amok, we are at a loss to explain their behavior.  They have been required to hide their pain for so long, they don’t even know it is there.  Later they express rage instead.  

We live in a world where people who make mistakes or commit crimes born of their pain, despair and suffering are imprisoned in conditions that range from harsh to inhumane.  Mistakes and misbehavior seldom receive scrutiny regarding what led up to that behavior.  Instead blame and harsh condemnation for the actions may be followed by punishment that can border on draconian.  Punishment is supported by many as an attempt to get at the roots of violence, despite studies showing that punishment is rarely an effective deterrent.  

We spend enough money on police and jails and our courts and our armed forces to feed and house millions as well as treat their emotional distress.  We don’t treat their emotional and physical distress as soon as it is discovered.  Instead we wait until they break a law or act out with violence.  Then we spend huge sums of money to isolate them in a community of other violent behavior specialists in the form of both guards and inmates.  We are willing to spend money on housing violent offenders under horrible circumstances where they will receive continuing messages about being unworthy and unacceptable in our world.   Eventually, we release most of them to return to a world where they will be in worse shape than before.  Often they are then closely scrutinized and held to a more difficult standard than the general population.  

This borders on intentional cultivation of violence.  A research experiment with these parameters would be banned by any university ethics committee as inhumane.  

We recreate our violent culture every day.  For the most part, we are unable to even envision a world without violence.  We sanction violence in many forms.  Our media has learned that we will pay for reports on violence.  Our newspapers and television news feature reports on violence on an almost hourly basis.  Verbal and physical violence permeates our movies.  Our world won’t change until we change our attitude and our response to people who have been taught to hate themselves and others.  Until then it would be folly to expect any significant reduction in crime and general mayhem.  People who are in pain will act that pain out.  If no help comes, they act it out in larger ways until someone responds.  If they have to hurt someone in order to be acknowledged, then that is what they will do.  As a nation we are actively and passively planting, cultivating and nurturing violence.   Then we loudly deny our part in it, blaming and condemning the violent crop we have planted, fertilized and nurtured to maturity in our well-intentioned ignorance. 


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Posted by on in Individual Dynamics

When people look at me they see a sixty-year-old man and that is whom they relate to.   But last year I was a 59-year-old man and that man is still part of me.  And the year before that I was a 58-year-old man and that man is still part of me.  Earlier in my life I was a 30 year old man and before that I was a 20 year old and before that I was an unhappy 15 year old and before that I was 13 and 12 and 11 and 10 and so on.  All of those people are still part of me but one cannot see all those people when one looks at me.  People only see the 60-year-old adult that stands before them.  A person has to get to know me quite well before they could learn about all the people that I’ve been and, in some ways, still am.  This is true of all of us.

In a very real sense of the word, we are all composites of all the actual people that we’ve ever been.  That can be quite confusing to people who only know about the person they have come to know in their time together.  Unless they think to ask about the other person’s past life and past experiences, someone may not know another person as well they think they do.  Sometimes another’s behavior may surprise you because it may not be consistent with the way you see that person.  But the behavior can be quite consistent with an earlier version of that person and current events may have triggered an association that evoked the earlier person.  The easiest parallel I can draw for that is the Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome.

As long as current events continue to relate principally to the current adult person, there may be no surprises.  However, certain situations tend to evoke earlier versions of the person.  These situations can include marriage and parenthood.  Being a spouse and being a parent tend to touch us in the deepest parts of our core.  Therefore, those situations have a greater likelihood of triggering responses from earlier versions of us.

As time goes on and we grow and mature, we add new layers to ourselves.  These new layers are increasingly sophisticated and (hopefully) increasingly loving and kind.  New acquaintances and strangers only scratch the surface of who we are and we generally relate to them from our newest most mature layers of ourselves.  Our children and our loved ones touch us in our core, at our deepest layers and we are more likely to react from a deeper, less mature layer of ourselves.

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Posted by on in Individual Dynamics

Babies are thought to divide their experiences into two categories.  These are ‘things that they like’ and ‘things that they don’t like’.  Experiences they like and are experienced as pleasurable are differentiated from experiences they don’t like and are experienced as unpleasant or painful.  This behavior tends to continue in to childhood and can remain into adulthood.  This is also called black and white thinking.

For many people, however, a class in high school or college leads to the realization that life isn’t always so clear.  For instance, a student might be asked whether stealing is bad or good.  The student would be likely to answer that stealing is bad.  Then the question might be asked how they would judge a man who stole a loaf of bread for his starving children.  This might be the first time the student has been aware of the presence of grey in the world of black and white.  Most of life’s situations aren’t black and white even though we may wish they were.  

Labeling situations as bad or good doesn’t really move us any closer to a true understanding.  Simply judging something allows us a false sense of understanding that doesn’t really move us any closer to a deep understanding of the issue.    


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It seems clear that Freud was right when he spoke about people being governed and directed by the “pleasure principle”.  That basically means that people automatically make choices designed to create more pleasure and less pain in their lives.  When people are questioned about what they want, their answers can range from a newer car or a bigger house to more and bigger toys or a nicer work environment.  But……….the ultimate outcome of such desires would be in increased levels of peace, joy and satisfaction.

People are actually programmed to create just those qualities in their lives.  That is the natural outcome of informed choices guided by the pleasure principle.  However, there is one big catch to this programming.  

The tools and guiding principles of life for all of us are those which were taught to us by word and deed in the family we grew up in.  This means that if we grew up in a family wherein the adults had achieved a life of peace, joy and satisfaction; then we are in pretty good shape.  But for those of us who may have been raised by parents who have not been able to create a life of peace, joy and satisfaction for themselves, it stands to reason that they were not able to pass the tools by which one gains peace, joy and satisfaction to their children, namely us. 

The good news is that there are other ways to learn how to create the desired life we want.  We can read some of the many books on the topic, we can attend lectures and workshops on building the life we want, attend community institutions that promote peace and love  and, finally, we can find a psychotherapist we feel comfortable with and get direct weekly feedback on our search for the life we want.  This is also the life to which we are entitled for ourselves.



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There seem to be two specific situations that can trigger irrational behavior as a result of intense prolonged stress. One is marriage. The other is parenthood.  Intense prolonged stress tends to lead to irrational behavior.  Since the state of marriage can persist for a very long time and the state of parenthood persists for the rest of your life, it is not surprising that these conditions can produce both stress and irrational behavior. Let’s take a quick overview of this situation.

The task of parenting is incredibly complicated.  It seems like from one moment to the next your child sees you like a God to be worshiped, a hero to be emulated, a servant to be berated, and then a jailor to be resented.  And through all this you are supposed to remain constantly composed and understanding.

The newborn infant arrives with a temperament, a body and the ability to grasp and sucked.  Their conscious understanding of who they are and where they are is a blank slate.  During the first few months of life the child begins to determine who and where they are.  I am not talking about the child finding out that their name is Robert and they live in Los Angeles.  They are discovering what kind of world they have dropped into and whether they are valued and treasured or resented and unwanted.  Is the world welcoming or hostile?  Is it comforting and nurturing or is it harsh and unkind?  Long before they are four years old they are no longer wondering about these things.  They know.

Each of you went through this same process.  You arrived on this planet with no tools and no understanding.  You had specific basic needs and you had a problem any time one of those needs wasn’t being met.  Those needs included hunger, thirst and comfort. (If you can imagine suddenly finding yourself in a foreign place where nothing you saw made sense and you couldn’t speak or understand the language or the customs, you have a vague idea of the enormity of the difficulties facing a newborn infant.)   Any time you felt hungry or thirsty or uncomfortable, you had a problem. And crying, kicking and screaming were your only problem solving tools.

Inevitably, shortly after arrival, you were faced with such a problem. You expressed your distress in the only way you knew how.  Hopefully, a caring sensitive adult showed up and, by the process of elimination, managed to remedy your distress.   Ideally, that process was repeated every time you faced a distressing situation.  As time went on, you learned and matured and mastered increasingly difficult tasks like buttoning your shirts and tying your shoes and walking and talking, etc. You also learned how to act in different situations.  You learned how to act like you care and you learned how to act like you don’t care, depending on the situation.  About the time you reached ten or eleven years old you had the basics down pretty well.

 It is important to understand that all human behavior is governed by the “Pleasure Principle”.  Basically, everything we do is designed to bring more pleasure and less pain. As we get older and more informed we develop a more sophisticated understanding of what brings pleasure and what brings pain.  For a two-year old, pleasure and pain pretty much only exist in the immediate moment and the idea of tolerating a little pain now to avoid greater pain later is completely beyond their grasp.  For a two year old, the idea of passing up a treat now so that they will have an appetite later just doesn’t make sense.  If it were up to them, no two year old would ever get an inoculation.  All they know is the next moment is going to be painful.                                                                  

Similarly, when confronted by an adult about misbehavior their first instinct is to avoid any painful consequence.  So they may lie. The ability to tell the truth about a misdeed or, better yet, to resist the impulse for misbehavior develops at an older age.  By the time we reach adulthood we have learned that it can be far better to face mildly unpleasant situations now to avoid more unpleasant situations later.  This is why we pay our income taxes, go to the dentist and go to work when we may not feel like it.  We have learned that not paying our income taxes and avoiding the dentist and avoiding work has more serious consequences down the road.  Most adults don’t go to work because they find it pleasurable.  They go to work because they find the paycheck pleasurable.

Now let’s return to our preteen.  Most children can run and talk and catch a ball and hold a conversation by that time.  Then, they get blindsided by puberty.  All of a sudden, they can’t walk right or talk right and their whole world seems to have changed.  The stress they feel often gets passed along to their parents in the form of sullen and/or defiant behaviors.

Actually, we all live in two worlds simultaneously.  One is the world inside our skin and the other is the world outside our skin.  We experience stress if either of these two worlds contains unresolved conflict.  For the adolescent, both of those worlds are in disarray.  Hormonal changes in the inner world cause temporary turbulence.  Their bodies are not the same as they were just a year ago and that can be genuinely unsettling.  Additionally, their peer group social interactions have shifted significantly.  The social pecking order for both boys and girls changes in a number of ways.  Girls begin to focus on the impossible feminine ideals represented in the media and they look at boys in a new way.  Whereas they used to see boys as noisy rambunctious intruders, boys begin to seem interesting and somehow even exciting.  Boys that used to see girls as hopelessly inept at sports and over focused on the intricacies of relationships now experience strange stirrings and they take a new interest in developing relationships with them.  Both boys and girls experience confusing body alterations.  Taken as a whole, these things add up to a general social upheaval.  This understanding can help explain the pain, unhappiness, moodiness and occasional churlishness of many teenagers.

Add the increased adolescent willingness to take risks and push limits and we can see why teens become more likely to experiment with things like alcohol and recreational drugs.  At puberty there is a shift from seeking identity within the family to seeking identity outside the family and within their peer group. I used to think that peer pressure meant a group of peers would try to persuade a friend to do something that they didn’t want to do.  Now I realize that peer pressure is simply a reference to the powerful need to belong.  If an adolescent’s friends use drugs and alcohol, the chances go up that the adolescent will indulge also.

It has become increasingly evident to the psychotherapeutic community that the principle attraction of alcohol may be in its ability to provide relief from pain and unhappiness.  The same holds true of recreational drugs.  Remember that these are teens we are talking about.  They may be considerably more sophisticated than the infant they once were, but the pleasure principle still motivates their choices and they still focus pretty much on the here and now.  A great many teens think that when you talk about the future, you’re talking about next weekend.  Anything beyond that just isn’t terribly relevant for them right now.

There are many things that a parent can do to increase or decrease the likelihood of a teen getting into drugs or alcohol.  If we want to increase the likelihood, we can make it clear that we see the teen as a major source of disappointment.  We can address them with anger and scorn and tell them they are stupid and hopeless.  We can refuse to listen to them and ridicule their ideas.  We can criticize their friends and give them severe punishment for any infraction of the rules without taking the time to listen to them or understand why they did what they did.  Looking for an explanation for their behavior we may simply conclude that the child is “an idiot” or “no good”.  This behavior increases the pain level of the child and, therefore, their susceptibility to drugs and alcohol.

If you want to decrease the likelihood of your child getting into drugs or alcohol you may want to acknowledge their strengths and express appreciation for their positive attempts and their accomplishments.  You could make it clear that you love them and that you will be there for them in times of difficulty. Being there for them doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically defend them when they’ve been involved in wrong doing.  It means that you’ll always love them and want the best for them and support them when they try to improve themselves.  It means that you’ll never attack them by word or deed no matter how upset or angry you may get.  Since you are human and you make mistakes, it means that when you do behave badly and say something mean to them, you will regret it and offer them a sincere apology.  By acknowledging our mistakes and taking responsibility for them and apologizing for them, we model that behavior for our children and we teach them how to take responsibility and apologize for their mistakes.  I have visited with parents who have never offered their child an apology.  Perhaps they are amazingly competent parents. Unfortunately they have not modeled how to deal with the inevitable mistakes that most of us make.

All adults have negotiated these developmental stages I’ve been talking about and you all did the best you could.  As you withdrew your primary source of identity from your parents to your peer group, you were working on developing your ability to relate to the opposite sex and exploring the complexities of increasingly adult relationships.  Mistakes were made.  Hopefully you were able to learn from those mistakes.  For most of us, adult relationships are very exciting and can be extremely rewarding.  As we aged and matured, our relationships aged and matured and became more committed.  Eventually, a child was produced.  And that child was born helpless and unaware; the same as you were.  And it’s guided by the pleasure principle too.  Now we have two adults and one infant under the same roof and they’re all guided by the pleasure principle. They’re all pain avoidant.  

It has become very clear that identical twins cannot live under the same roof without conflict. Two adults of opposite genders from different families and with different temperaments stand absolutely no chance of a conflict free life.  Now add a frightened pleasure driven infant to the mix and it seems very likely that God must have a sense of humor.  It helps a lot if you have one too.

While conflict is stressful and inevitable, a clearer understanding of conflict dynamics can help manage stress.  Every person on this planet is a unique individual with a unique history and unique preferences and styles. When the other person has a different perspective or problem solving style, it doesn’t mean that anyone is wrong.  It just means that they’re different.  There are three general responses to conflict. They are attack, defend or seek understanding.  If we say to the other, “That’s a stupid idea!” we are attacking. The other person then has three options.  That person can attack back, “No, you’re stupid”, defend, “I am not stupid”, or seek understanding, “Why do you say that?  What did I do or say that caused you to attack me?”  The first two approaches generally invite conflict escalation while the third response can lead to peaceful resolution.  People generally experience attack as painful, which leads to anger.  While the impulse to counter attack is understandable, it is generally unproductive.

Unfortunately, sometimes we feel threatened when we are confronted with someone or something different.  Some of us might remember when a singing group called the Beatles showed up.  The public reaction to male long hair was truly astounding.  The public outrage was palpable.  Today we see male corporate officials and schoolteachers with long hair and even ponytails.  Sometimes we still act with outrage when confronted by someone or something different.  But our children all want to grow up and become individuals.  It is their mandate to grow up and individuate.  Part of how they do that is to become pointedly different from their parents in some way.  Doesn’t it seem like each generation has a tendency to find music that their parents don’t like?  And to dress in a way that defines them as different?  Notice their hairstyles and the way they wear hats and the clothes they choose.  Part of that behavior is to prove that they’re different.  Much of adolescent behavior is simply trying out various role behaviors to see how they feel and if they fit.  If we criticize, the child is more likely to defend, hold on to and prolong the behavior.  Of   course, if the behavior is truly dangerous, then we have a conflict.  The child’s safety is the only true bottom line.  Genuinely dangerous behavior requires the parents to set firm limits. But if the behavior isn’t dangerous or morally reprehensible, sometimes we do ourselves a favor by not getting drawn into an unnecessary conflict.  The chances are good that by the time they enter the work force they will have adopted a more acceptable style of dress.  And when they get their own place, they can listen to whatever kind of music they want.

Now I’d like to talk a little more about parenting.  Each of us actually has two parts. We can operate out of either of these two parts.  These are called the conscious and the unconscious or the learning part and the storage part.  The conscious part of us is what we use when we are learning a new task.  Once we’ve learned that task, the learning is transferred to our unconscious (storage) part.   Then we are able to do that task automatically, even without being conscious that we’re doing it.  

A good example is our driving.  When we were learning how to drive, we had to pay close attention to what we were doing.  Paying attention is a conscious activity and we paid very conscious attention to our driving.  After we’d been driving long enough, we began to relax and trust that we knew how to drive.  Years later we are able to drive in heavy traffic while we contemplate other things like what bills must be paid right away and which can be postponed.  Or we may be thinking about what may have prompted our child’s behavior lately.  By that point, we are driving unconsciously.  We automatically put on our brakes when we see a light turn yellow or red and we notice someone riding a bike and the pedestrian stepping off the curb.  

As it turns out, the vast majority of our behavior is automatic.  All reactive behavior is automatic.  The ability to react automatically is nature’s way of helping us survive.

Our ability to respond automatically allows us to perform very complicated tasks that would be too complex to perform otherwise.  Playing a concert piano is an example of automatic behavior.  The artist has practiced that piece so often that they could perform it in their sleep.  

Marital behavior and parenting behavior are other examples of automatic behavior.  Have you had the experience of saying something to your spouse or child that you may have wished you hadn’t said?  If you are human, then you’ve probably had that happen to you.  That is an example of automatic behavior.  Changing automatic behavior is difficult but possible.  Such behavior is unconsciously generated and operates much like a computer program.  The unconscious can be reprogrammed.  This reprogramming needs to originate from the conscious part of our minds.  Such reprogramming is initiated by intent.  In other words, we must want to change our behavior.  Once the decision to change has been made, we need to build in a support system for that change.  The support system can include telling others about our intended changes and asking for support and encouragement.  We might also print out reminders or post ‘sticky notes’ where we can see them often.  The goal is to keep this intended change in our conscious mind where we can exercise choices about our responses to the behavior of others.  

It is important to remember that any new behavior is uncomfortable in the beginning, and we have an automatic tendency to avoid discomfort.  Unfortunately, some of us were raised in families that punished mistakes and ridiculed anyone who made a mistake.

These people may grow up into an adult that can’t look at their own behavior to see if a mistake was made.  They may automatically experience self-criticism and humiliation if they think they made a mistake.  This aversion to seeing a possible mistake hinders their ability to learn and profit from their errors.

Bringing our behavior patterns to conscious awareness and working out new responses to every day scenarios is initially stressful.  As new behavior becomes second nature, however, stress is greatly reduced.  The benefits for parents and children in consciously developing workable behavior strategies can ultimately reduce stress levels for generations to come.  Consciously developed interactions between family members can enhance comfort and reduce stress.


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1. PLEASURE PRINCIPLE-- All people always act in ways intended to bring less pain and more pleasure.      

2.    During the first five years of a child’s life parents are almost totally in charge of the consequences of their child’s behavior.  Behavior that brings negative consequences tends to get discontinued while behavior that brings positive consequences tends to be repeated.

3.    Disciplined parents responding thoughtfully to their children’s behavior are able to shape that behavior.

4.    Parental inconsistency, lack of parental teamwork and emotion based reactive behavior undermine attempts at getting compliant behavior.

5.    It is as important to teach children how to think as it is to teach how to act!  For instance,    “This is too hard.  I’m stupid!”  could become “ This is challenging so  I will ask for help!”

6.    Children focus on relatively short-term goals.  Adults can focus on short term or long term goals.  As we age and gain in wisdom, our choices reflect greater maturity.

7.    Although we aren’t in charge of what the world brings us, we are in charge of how we respond to what the world brings us.  Such responses can be informed choices or automatic reactions.  This is very important!

8.    Parental responses to misbehavior that do not uphold the child’s basic sense of value and worth will not lead to healthy future behavior!

9.    Behaviors that enhance the quality of life get repeated.  That’s healthy human nature.


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A long-term staple of emotional problem solving has been the understanding that when stressed, people move toward a “fight or flight” response behavior.  Such behavior seems to have been programmed into the human nervous system as an automatic response since the beginning.  When stressed, one’s body automatically prepares for combat or flight.  Our adrenal gland dumps adrenaline into our bloodstream, our heart rate increases, our breathing deepens, the flow of blood through our body redistributes itself from the midline of our body to our extremities and we basically prepare ourselves for strenuous physical exertion, i.e. to go to war or to flee a threatening situation at high speed.  This understanding has not been challenged until recently when a female grad student in Minnesota examined the structure of previous experiments that documented the fight or flight behavior and she noticed that all the studies had been done with males exclusively.  Even the lab rats were male!

This student then set up similar studies using females and found that the results did not hold for females.  When stressed, females were likely to engage in behavior that she named “nest and befriend”.  Women were likely to confirm and cement relationships and pay attention to their living quarters when stressed.  They connected with close friends and initiated new friendships or paid attention to cleaning and decorating.  These behaviors helped them deal with the stress of conflict!

These findings are particularly pertinent when we look at how conflict is handled in intimate relationships.  While all people find conflict stressful, men and women respond to conflict in very different ways.  Some men get angry and verbally “attack” their partner while others, realizing the foolishness of “attacking” their partner attempt to “flee”.  They may leave the house or head for the garage.   While this might be a good idea in terms of giving them time to cool off, it may not work well for the partner who needs to affirm the relationship in order to quiet the anxiety related to the experience of conflict.

Now we may have a man who wisely heads for the garage to avoid doing or saying something he may regret and when he gets there he finds his partner may have tearfully followed him out so they can “talk”.  Faced with the inability to “flee”, he may say something hostile and the conflict escalates!  Understanding how men and women handle conflict differently can help avoid escalation.


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Consequences are instructive!  They teach!  All behaviors have consequences.  Have you ever hit your thumb with a hammer?  The pain is a consequence!

Punishment can be divisive and polarizing.  Punishment is the intentional infliction of pain and/or distress.  It builds resentment and does not encourage cooperation.

Most of what we learn we learn by making mistakes.


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Imagine that a child asked you to take him to ride on a roller coaster and you agreed to do that.  The child would likely be very happy.  Now picture you taking that child to an amusement park and getting in line to buy the admission.  The child might fuss a little about the wait but you could explain that the waiting is part of what has to be done in order to ride the roller coaster.  Now you are in the park and you both walk to the roller coaster that can be seen from afar.  The child is probably getting excited and is quite eager to ride.  There is a sign that states that there is a 90 minute wait in line.  At this point the child might have become rather upset and fussy because he WANTS TO RIDE THE ROLLER COASTER.  You might be tempted to say,” Look, you are the one that wanted to ride the roller coaster.  I have already ridden the roller coaster several times and have no need for further rides.  I am indulging you by investing the time and money and effort to give you this experience that you wanted and I don’t want to hear any more fussing and complaining.  Amusement parks are not all rides and fun and excitement.  Waiting in line is part of the deal.  There can be no roller coaster if you are not willing to wait in line.”

Now the child has to make a decision.  He hadn’t necessarily realized that waiting was part of the deal.  How could he have known if no one had thought to tell him ahead of time?  Knowing ahead of time what hardships may be involved in an undertaking allows us to be prepared and removes the element of unpleasant surprise.  Knowing about the wait, we might still choose to ride.  Not knowing can take much of the pleasure out of the experience when we are finally confronted with the unpleasant reality of the wait.

Although a great many of life’s blessing and opportunities may include periods of unpleasantness, they are less apt to derail us or sidetrack us if we know about them ahead of time.  People that climb mountains or go on long hikes know ahead of time that there will be periods of discomfort and that simply becomes part of the over-all experience.

The greatest adventure and the most thrilling ride we’ll ever take is life.  But for those of us who haven’t been told about the waiting and the occasional unpleasantness, the difficult times can be misinterpreted to mean that we aren’t doing it right or that somehow we are not worthy of a better experience.  That would not be true.  Even Mother Theresa may have had to wait at the pearly gates for St. Peter to fetch the key.


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Does she/he embarrass you with bad names and put downs?

Does he/she look at you or act in ways that scare you?

Does she/he try to control what you do, who you see or talk to or where you go?

Does he/she try to stop you from seeing friends or family?

Does she/he take your money and make you ask for money?

Does he/she make all the decisions?

Does she/he tell you that you are a bad parent or threaten to take the children away?

Does he/she act like abuse is no big deal?

Does she/he say it’s your fault or deny doing it?

Does he/she destroy your property or threaten your pets?

Does she/he intimidate you with weapons?

Does he/she shove, slap or hit you?

Does she/he force you to drop charges?

Does he/she threaten suicide or threaten to kill you?





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  • Charles Gustafson, MFT
    Lic.# 5983
    599 S. Barranca, Suite 224
    Covina, CA 91723
  • 626-966-2662

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  • 599 S. Barranca, Suite 224
    Covina, CA 91723
  • 626-966-2662