You are here: Balance Your Success »


10 Ways to Make Your Holidays Special

  1. Write something very personal to those closest to you.
  2. Take time to purchase holiday cards that speak to the uniqueness of the person your addressing.
  3. Prepare or purchase foods that you know will please others, tailor your choices to those who you will be with.
  4. Make a toast before your main meal that honors the elders at your table.
  5. Include in your comments poignant stories of the history of the family.
  6. Watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” sometime during the holiday season.
  7. Open gifts with your favorite holiday music in the background.
  8. Choose music that enlivens the spirit and is holiday focused.
  9. My favorite is Karaoke at the end of the day; you’d be surprised how much fun it is for all.
  10. Don’t be inhibited, get up there and sing and dance. Make a video for golden memories.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.
Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive  Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience

We All Have A Theory of Love

We all develop a theory of love based on our early experiences. Often these theories are quite inaccurate. Some believe if they acquire wealth and status they will be loved. Others believe if they are pleasing and compliant they will win the love of those they desire. Still others think if they are aggressive they can talk people into loving them, being relentless in the pursuit of love.  Some believe if we acquire love. Ironically none of these approaches work but we hold on to what we consciously or unconsciously have learned and we seldom realize the futility of our beliefs. The irony is that even if we did not like the way we saw love expressed these behaviors create a familiarity with certain types of people that profoundly influences who we choose to love.                                                                                                                

Where Did It Start?

If you were born in a family where your mother doted on your father you come to believe that this pattern is a form of love. If you were born into a family where one of your parents was always over-doing and desperately trying to please you may come to believe that this tendency brings love. The pattern you witnessed thousands of times before you reached adulthood became embedded in your psyche and dominates the way you try to maintain intimacy. We are extremely impressionable early in life. All human beings want to be loved so whatever relationship patterns you experience gets recorded in our young minds as the way to obtain affection. These patterns are very difficult to change without awareness and the courage to try new behaviors.

 Ralph’s Story

Ralph grew up as the youngest of five children, his father was aggressive and often frightening when he would take one of his tantrums. Ralph was close to his docile mother but always wished she would stand up to his father and make the atmosphere in the house calmer. Ralph’s dad wasn’t a bad person but he was a critical person. He nevertheless was his father’s favorite, probably because he tried the hardest of his siblings to please his dad. He would tolerate his father’s negative mood just to be with him as he derived some sense of connection by doing what his dad asked of him with energy and compliance.

  Ralph married someone very similar in temperament to his dad and he adopted a pleasing role with her. Eventually he developed an anxiety disorder as he couldn’t stand the lack of reciprocity in the marriage and ultimately they agreed to divorce. He remained a very involved father with his son, trying very hard to not repeat the sins of his father.

 Familiarity Breeds Repetition

Ralph has worked extremely hard to overcome the patterns he developed in his family, especially the non-productive, inaccurate theory of love he possessed. Being in a group therapy situation where all members are examining the unsuccessful theories they have constructed gave Ralph the sense that he was not alone. He discovered that many good, compassionate people have lost their way due to misguided attempts to find love. He realizes now that we all tend to gravitate to what is familiar even though it has caused us pain. It is human nature to be attracted to what we have experienced in our own families even though it is not a rational choice. Love is constructed through emotional learning not reason. We need to essentially unlearn what we recorded early in life.                                                     We also need to be keenly aware of our state of mind when we meet potential partners, it is especially important to factor in the variables that may cloud our vision. If you were recently divorced, experienced a death in your family, lost your job, or maybe you were diagnosed with a chronic illness, all these situations make you vulnerable and short sited. Of course the greatest contributor to poor relationships is our distorted theory of love.

  The Steps to Real Love

1)    Know your state of mind.

2)    Understand the behaviors you learned in your own family about love.

3)    Be dedicated to unlearning the patterns you know are misguided.

4)    Have the courage to try new, constructive behaviors, such as being assertive if you are typically submissive, becoming less intense if you typically overreact, etc.

5)    Expand your capacity for empathy; it’s necessary to enter the world of your partner to maintain closeness.

6)    Pay attention to your feelings and when you feel discomfort in the relationship express assertively and directly.

7)    Never be deceitful, dishonesty destroys the spirit of intimacy

8)    Don’t expect your partner to make up for your childhood hurts, that growth can only come from your own efforts.

9)    Spend more time learning about your partner’s character than about their resume.


Work hard at discovering the inaccuracies of your theory of love and commit to understanding and implementing each step above.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.

Is Sex Necessary to Sustain Intimacy

In my last group therapy session members were discussing their levels of happiness in relation to all aspects of their lives.  This particular group ranges in age from mid-forties to mid -fifties. One of the women who was recently divorced said her major frustration in life is not having a sexual partner. “I haven’t had sex in more than a year, she kiddingly made light of the situation but we could all tell she was genuinely frustrated. As members began to open up she was surprised to hear that some married members do not have sex regularly. Two of our male members said they basically live in celibate marriages. Her reaction, “I don’t think I could stay married, why do you stay in such a negative situation”. Ironically the two men who currently have celibate marriages have been married the longest. One indicates that he has gained a new understanding of his situation over time. “My wife struggled with her weight all her life, as the years went on she felt more and more unattractive despite my telling her she looked good, I still love her but I have never been able to change her mind. Then menopause came early and the lights went out completely.  I admit I have been angry with her for a long time but through couples sessions I realize that it is not personal, it is something she is working on and I finally have come to believe it is not about me. I have hope for the future because I know we love each other and we’re both trying”.

                                    Sexual Desire is Complicated

    In my practice the story above is a very common, particularly as people age. There are a multitude of reasons as to why people become distant sexually. Unresolved conflict, ill health, poor fitness, depression, anxiety about body image, alcohol or drug use, sexual abuse and of course hormonal changes are all influential factors. In addition a person’s history with affection within one’s own family is a very important factor.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            One of our group members is a person we all admire tremendously. He is not a driven or self absorbed person, his character is outstanding and his devotion to people in his community is quite impressive. He was divorced several years ago and his second marriage has been the best relationship of his life. However his wife has never had strong sexual desires and as she has aged her desire for sex has diminished greatly. Ron has periodically talked of his longing for her and how rejected he sometimes feels. He has periodically brought up the subject with her and he ultimately feels uncomfortable as his wife usually ends up feeling terrible. She loves him deeply and realizes she is disappointing him in significant ways. Ron knows his life loves him. They communicate well except for this very touchy subject, and have both been very committed to their children from both of their previous marriages. In our last group session he was asked how he copes with such infrequent sexual contact. “I don’t know really, I try to focus on the other aspects of our relationship. My wife is a very affectionate person, we cuddle on the couch and in bed so it’s not like I can’t feel her interest. I think of how wonderful she has been to my family, my dying father, my daughter over the years and I love how committed she is to the students in her class. I should talk to her more about our sexual relationship but I just don’t like hurting her. All in all I cope by knowing she is the best thing that ever happened to me. Do I wish we could make love occasionally? Of course but for now I have to look at the whole picture”.

                                        What is the Answer?

Sexuality in the early stages of a relationship is easy, takes very little skill and is usually filled with idealized projections of who the other persona is and how they will change our lives. As time goes on reality sets in and those who use sex for functional reasons often become disenchanted quickly. Sexual intimacy for them is not about loving it is about satisfying needs to lift self worth.  They seldom remain engaged long enough to truly love the essence of another person. They move on to another fantasized person who will temporarily serve as an anti-depressant.

         What about those individuals who come to truly love their partner. What do you do when sexual intimacy is lacking and emotional distance is growing? How do you decide to go on if you know intimacy may not be a major part of the relationship? These are extremely complicated questions for sure and they will take time and patience to answer accurately. It is most important to ask yourself if you are allowing for intimacy to develop. Examine your own behavior first and with the help of your partner try to be honest and open as to what you bring to the relationship that may hinder intimacy. For instance,  many people underestimate the need for relationships to be fostered and not taken for granted. If you don’t water the plant it withers, love is no different. After you have worked out your part with clarity you are in a better position to access the level of genuine love in your relationship. If it is truly absent it will be easier to make decisions. For instance my two patients above love their wives and thus they have decided to remain committed and will continue to work on the possibilities.

                                      Empathy creates Intimacy

   In order to maintain intimacy in any quality long term relationship we have to go beyond physical attraction to encompass the heart and soul of the person we have committed our lives to. Empathy leads us from the initial superficial connection to a deep, heartfelt relationship that involves knowing and loving the whole person. When we love and accept our partner’s imperfections we also find ourselves more acceptant of our own limitations and shortcomings.

     It is foolish to assume your sexual relationship will remain the same as when you first met. Many people long for the return to the initial infatuation phase.  It is far more fulfilling when we actually experience the depth of love that goes beyond imagination to a reality that is supportive, dependable and expansive. Ultimate intimacy is when two souls join together as one. As we have seen this may or may not include sexual intimacy. In any event when you establish this kind of depth you are in a much better position to judge the relevance and importance of sexuality to you and your partner. In my experience when couples love deeply and empathically they find a way to re-engage affectionately and often reach a satisfactory level of sexual intimacy.

                                          Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

                                 Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

The Estrangement of the American Couple


American couples are increasingly growing distant in a society driven by image, fears of ageing and the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world.  According to the World Health Organization we have one of the highest rates of depression, stress, anxiety, addictions, diabetes and obesity in the civilized world. Our children reportedly have the highest rates of childhood diabetes and obesity, and the depression rates for children are two and a half times what they were a few years ago. Eating disorders and substance abuse are common not atypical in today’s schools. Each week we spend 22 hours less with our children than parents 20 years ago; we are essentially becoming ESTRANGED from our children.                                             

                              Money Can’t Buy Love

We are spending more than ever before, with the national savings rate at the lowest point since the Great Depression. Studies have proven that compulsive spending and financial insecurity causes estrangement in our marriages. Our competitive nature drives us to spend what we don’t have in order to be on par with our neighbors and associates. We are in a contest we don’t enjoy, can’t win and can’t seem to stop.

                           Stop Aging to Secure Love                                                   

We lead the world in money spent on cosmetic procedures; we spent $14 billion on these procedures in 2006 with one billion being financed. One third of the people having these procedures had a household income of less than $30,000. The obsessive pursuit of beauty causes additive behavior which has also been proven to cause estrangement from those closest to us. Our society is increasingly fostering unhealthy relationships that are based on appearance rather than encouraging the process of learning how to establish and maintain genuine love.

                                Loving a Fantasy

             The pornographic industry has grown exponentially as it offers, along with sex chat rooms, a quick fix to the chronic problem of emotional distance in long term relationships. Americans spent $13 billion on pornography in 2006, every second we spend $3,075 on pornographic sites .Spouses who pursue porn on a regular basis ultimately feel estranged from their partners as no one can compete with the idealization of porn figures. These idealized images foster perfectionism and a false sense of what love and intimate sexuality really mean.

                         We’ve lost that Loving Feeling

          Couples from all walks of life tell me on a daily basis how they long for the “in love” feeling they had in the early years of their courtships. Estrangement has been defined as a state of indifference where there had formerly been love, affection and friendliness. Many couples have come to believe that sexual relations dwindle simply because of years spent together. The facts point more in the direction of couples losing intimacy by buying into a fast paced culture, a culture of estrangement that stresses beauty, money and an anti-ageing formula of success. We are becoming a society that lacks relational integrity- the capacity to place relationships with family, friends and community above the need for image and status.

                             Performance Addiction

          ESTRANGMENT is, in part, the result of the cultural forces outlined above that have been absorbed into the psyches of many individuals. These forces have been identified by other theorists but not in terms of how they deteriorate levels of intimacy in our long term relationships. They leave many with a feeling of indifference to those they once “fell in love with“. Americans long for closeness they lost long ago. Unfortunately we are looking in all the wrong places. Many have fallen prey to what I call Performance Addiction-the belief that perfecting appearance and achieving status will secure love and respect. This irrational belief system is hardwired early in life and reinforced by cultural expectations. Performance addicts tend to value achievement over character and status over relationships.   

                        The Path to True, Lasting Love 

     Performance addicts believe they can perfect their way to happiness. They must return to the “scene of the crime” when they first started believing that performance would be the answer to their longings for love. Awareness of this original story is necessary so that old dysfunctional beliefs can be replaced by learning new behaviors that  foster authentic intimacy. This transformation takes time, patience and dedication.

        True happiness, love and respect come when people have developed high relationship skills, especially the capacity for empathy. Recovery from the estranged state only comes when we learn in our hearts and in our heads that relationships are in fact the key to gaining what has been missing all along.  True love and sexual intimacy is based on uncritical affection, not on the constant comparing and contrasting yourself and your spouse to others, the hallmark of a performance addict.                                                                      

Once we identify the means to regain lost love we can restore a feeling of hope in our ongoing relationship.  I have witnessed many poignant stories unfold as couples re-gain intimacy and restore balance to their lives and families. These individuals have learned how to know and love a real person rather than chasing misguided cultural myths. Rather than remaining estranged, they have learned how to maintain relationship integrity in the most complicated time in our history. Our current climate is emotionally disturbing; the methods we have adopted for salvation have increased alienation. Interpersonal closeness is the only reliable tool to establish a resilient personality in the face of difficulty. Rather than being driven by the cultural forces and early conditioning that have driven us apart we need to establish the relational path to regaining love and a sense of optimism going forward.

                       Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.d., Ph.D

                     Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High-Achieving Life.


Coping With the Micro-Manager

If you are in the unfortunate position of being managed by a micro-manager you are likely dealing with a very insecure person plagued by perfectionism and narcissism. People who have difficulty delegating and trusting those who work for them are like an anxious mother who watches over her children so much she creates tense, unhappy children.

                  How to do you avoid daily anxiety with Mr. Micro?

In order to work for a perfectionist it is important to understand his attitude stems from a fear of not measuring up to others. It is not personal to you that your manager focuses on every minor mistake you make. He or she can’t tolerate themselves when they make a mistake. Perfectionists fear that if they make a mistake they are a mistake. Your goal is to try your hardest to not internalize this standard as it will cause you undue stress for sure. Perform to your best ability, but always remind yourself that if you do not please your micro-manager it is more likely because he or she is not pleased with themselves, it’s not really about you. So step one is understanding the root of perfectionism. Remember if you take the bait it means you have the same problem. One perfectionist working with another creates unrealistic expectations that lead to chronic disappointment.

                               What role does Narcissism play?

    Narcissists have a fragile sense of self and they have great difficulty being in reciprocal relationships. Their relationships are based on function, not mutual caring and respect.  They look to you to behave in ways that will shore up their sense of self. It is very important to understand that despite the compliments you may receive one day their self serving attitude will very likely return the next day.

   It is very difficult to be in this position but if you are to survive with success you can’t internalize the lack of genuine appreciation you receive. You have a job to do, this is not family and it will never be so with this type of individual. When you clearly know what to expect you will be less surprised, less emotional and therefore less effected by Mr. Micro.

                                   What is a Silent Victory?

I often counsel my corporate clients who are in this unfortunate situation to rely on silent victories. A silent victory is when you know how to manage a situation successfully for your purposes while the irrational individual you report to has no idea of what you’re really thinking and feeling. For instance, one of my clients was reporting to such an individual and he became so distressed that he had written a letter of resignation. Even though this is a company he had loved working for and has been with for over 5 years. He received a promotion and the VP he began reporting to made his life a complete nightmare. I convinced him to hold the letter until we could discuss what his job really meant to him. He had great respect for his direct reports and the sales team he had assembled, he loved the products they were selling and truly believed they were cutting edge in the marketplace. He loved his family dearly and the income he earned allowed them to live a very comfortable life. Ultimately this meant it was worth weathering the storm, always reminding himself of the variables we just outlined and most importantly realizing that the man he reported to was suffering himself even though his irrationality caused much distress. He began to react to his boss with less emotion, always using the tools he had acquired to remind himself, in the heat of the moment, of the silent victory he was attaining. Ultimately he was able to move to a different division and life is again good at work, he is thankful he didn’t make an impulsive mistake.

                           Empathy, the key to Business Success!

    We have essentially been talking about developing the capacity for empathy to guide you in your professional and for that matter in your personal life. Empathy is the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another. Without empathy we tend to personalize our responses when we are treated poorly, we start to doubt ourselves and life becomes miserable at work very quickly. Empathy allows us to know who we are dealing with and how to approach that individual so that we can maintain success in the midst of conflict.

    Once we can read the other person accurately we can develop strategies to cope more effectively. We see beyond the surface and begin to develop a map for survival.  When we recognize the dynamics involved in the micro-manager personality, likely perfectionism and narcissism, we can better understand what approach in any given conversation will lead to a positive outcome.

                          Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.

                      Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.



Matters of the Heart aren’t Rational

       When I was studying at a psychoanalytic institute many years ago I heard the saying “we all marry parts of our mother and father”. At the time being a single man I thought this idea was a bit extreme. Now after 30 years of treating couples and from my own personal experience I can say it is not so farfetched. Of course it stands to reason that we are attracted to what is familiar, particularly familiar behavior. People often wonder why they pick people to love who ultimately present them with the same conflictual issues they experienced in their families. It seems paradoxical but in fact it makes good sense. We return to the scene of the crime whenever we have not resolved old issues, whenever we don’t understand how our emotions regarding love developed.

   Babies learn to love their parents without knowing if they are beautiful, handsome, intelligent, rich or poor. It is not an intellectual exercise. The memories of these early experiences, when we are cognitively not able to discern what appropriate behavior is and what it is not, are recorded deep in our psyche without our awareness. We remember experiences based on feel far more than experiences based on fact.

                                             But Love Should Make Sense!

    Intelligent people often become disturbed because they falsely believe that because they are intellectually quite capable they should be able to pick the right love partner. Not so I am afraid. Bill Clinton by all accounts is quite intelligent, has a highly developed capacity for empathy, yet he had an affair with an intern in the white house. We all know quite capable people who seem to make ridiculous choices in love relationships. When we fall in love all reason goes out the window. Why? Because matters of the heart are not governed by reason. Until we understand the story we created in our minds about ourselves and love early in life we are governed by those initial experiences.

                                              Returning to the Scene of the Crime

     Let me give you an example. Recently I began working with a woman in her mid-thirties who was referred to me because her marriage was falling apart. She called shortly after her husband was arrested for a DUI, driving under the influence. She is an attractive, intelligent woman who one would think would have been able to choose a good life partner. Marie’s husband by all accounts is an active alcoholic. The irony that troubles her most is that when she met Paul she was determined to pick someone unlike her father. Her dad, who she loves dearly, is also an alcoholic. She has tried to rescue him throughout her life; he has never accepted treatment, refused to go to AA and to this day remains active and a constant worry for Marie. So why would she return to the scene of the crime if alcoholism caused her so much pain?

                                              Matters of the Heart Bring us Back in Time

   We return to our past behavioral patterns that were emotionally hard wired if we have never worked on understanding our story and resolved past conflicts. Today Marie realizes she denied the extent of Paul’s drinking because unconsciously she was returning to the past in an effort to emerge with a different result. She could never facilitate her father becoming sober but with her rescue mentality she felt, and I accent “felt”, she could finally be effective in saving a man in distress. She had always been the one trying to help her dad, and even today she is the only one of three sisters who remains in contact with her dad.

                                      Everyone has a Unique Love Story

   Marie’s story is fairly straightforward and not complicated to understand. However many of us have more complicated stories that result in confusion in terms of who we choose to love. Make sure you spend time getting to know yourself in relationships with others before you make love choices that could bring you back in time in an unfortunate way. It’s complicated for sure but when you’re in empathic relationships with rational others, when your able to give and receive feedback openly we are all in a position to learn a great deal about the story we carry forward to new people.

        If you are interested in learning more about this subject please read chapter 7 in The Curse of the Capable, Learning to Read Between the Lines-Intimacy.

                                                Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Strategies to Cope with Irrational People

We all encounter people who are irrational. We are all are irrational due to life circumstances on occasion. If you lose a night’s sleep due to the flu, having to get up in the middle of the night to soothe a crying child, or work too many hours you can feel depleted and your tolerance is low. This kind of irrationality is common and shouldn’t be taken very seriously.

     A second type of irrationality is embedded in a particular dysfunctional way a person perceives. There are individuals who typically are irrational, not due to the type of circumstances in their lives but rather their personality style consistently perceives inaccurately, it is part of their character.

   How do you cope if this individual is your boss, your boyfriend, your relative and God forbid your spouse?

    Our nervous systems talk to each other, as one voice intensifies it raises the blood pressure of the other person in addition to releasing stress hormones, all of which can cloud our thinking and reduce our ability to respond with reason. Whenever you hear someone begin to escalate try to teach yourself to respond slowly, wait and think a moment before you talk. If you are reactive you become part of the problem. If you consistently personalize the other person’s remarks, rather than understanding their personality, it often means they have evoked sensitive areas in your story you never resolved. The following example may help clarify my point.

                                         One Couple’s Ongoing Impasse

   I met with a very bright man yesterday who was telling me he can’t cope with his wife’s ridiculous criticisms that are based, in his opinion, on her perfectionist personality. “Once she starts I can’t resist and we end up yelling at each other over and over again in front of our children”. He needed to understand his role in this conflict before he could manage the emotional heat successfully. After some exploration it became clear that her perfectionism was insulting his perfectionism. “I try to do everything right all day, I always succeed except with her, I can’t stand being criticized, she brings me down to my knees”. It’s easy to understand in this example that he can’t resist and slow down his reactions because he feels his self esteem is being threatened, his view of himself is being damaged.

                                  Don’t Accept Every Invitation to the Party!

     The example of my client should clue us into the idea that it takes two to tango. If we can’t resist losing our temper it almost always means we are being reminded of our negative story that we never re-wrote. My client is reminded each time his wife criticizes him of the home he grew up in where he always felt driven by his parents to perform better and better. He is an accomplished attorney, professional pianist, avid cyclist and studies the trumpet in his spare time to prove his worth. Problem is he never felt loved for just “being”, he only felt loved for “doing”. His wife is threatening his image as he re-visits his old view of himself and this makes him livid. He can’t stand the old feeling of not being loved for who he is rather than what he provides.

                                              What is the way out?

Follow these steps: 1) Slow down your reaction, and if you can’t take notice of the old story your repeating and seek help to expand your awareness and change the old view of yourself  2) Acknowledge the other person’s emotion without taking responsibility for their actions, for instance you can say, “I am sorry your offended but I didn’t intend to hurt you”, 3) Set limits, despite indicating you regret your friend is hurting be clear as to what you consider reasonable. “I am sorry your hurt but I don’t accept you yelling at me”, 4) Stick to the facts, no matter how unreasonable the other person becomes, “ I am simply asking you to stop yelling, to come to work on time, etc”, don’t get sidetracked into other topics 5) once you know a person is irrational consistently prepare by not expecting a sane dialogue, you are the only who can keep the conversation civil, 6) if all else fails, if the emotional irrationality continues, de-invest, walk away, don’t provoke just indicate that the conversation is not productive and you’re not going to continue further.

       Finally, and most importantly, if you continue to over-react even though you know the other person is being irrational, accept responsibility that it is your past sensitivities that accentuate the dilemma.  My client will never be free until he works out the hurt he experienced in the past and comes to know the truth about himself in the present. Why is this so very important? One compelling reason is that we often, unconsciously, choose love partners to repeat the old story. What I call “returning to the scene of the crime”. A formula for ongoing unhappiness.

                                          Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.


Change Your Negative Life Story

I try to teach my clients and those close to me that negativity is a learned perspective. When we are growing up we are all exposed to views of the world that are not objective or reasonable. Anthony, one of my group clients grew up with parents from two different countries who met in Europe during the last world war. Even though they have been living in the United States for over 50 years they still consider themselves to be suffering from prejudice from American neighbors and former co­­‑workers. Anthony grew up hearing Americans are greedy, selfish and biased against all foreigners. His parent’s pessimism pervaded much of their thinking and he was often told to shy away from anything unfamiliar. Basically their view of life was to take no chances and never stray from family as “outsiders” could not be trusted. He realized as time went on that his parents assertions were mainly based on their own insecurities and unwillingness to trust.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Despite knowing this reality as an adult he has remained an untrusting person, very afraid to take chances and afraid that he will be ridiculed if he reveals his true nature to anyone. His first wife eventually left him as she could no longer tolerate his unhealthy attachment to his parents and his un-willingness to make friends and socialize.

      Anthony, interestingly, is a member of one of my group sessions where 4 of the 10 members were born in other countries and all immigrated to the states in the last several years. Anthony was initially surprised that these individuals did not experience the bias he expected. In fact three of them were recruited by American companies, helped to find housing and were graciously received by their colleagues. They had difficulty of course, adjusting to a new culture but none spoke of the bias that Anthony had been taught to experience. It wasn’t just the fact that members from other lands had a different experience that eventually made the difference in his world view.

        What changed his pessimism into a reality based view of life?                                                     First and most importantly he developed trust in myself and group members. As he said “I can see and really feel how you all care about each other, at first I thought you were all playing a role but over time I realized you were complete strangers at one time, from all over the world and now you have come to truly like and respect each other, you’re like a family of friends”.

        Eventually, based on this established trust, Anthony was able to systematically examine his views of life and their accuracy. He essentially was able to obtain a consensus view based on objective feedback rather than the hard wiring he adopted from his family. This is the critical juncture for change. We can only change our old story by having the courage to take in objective feedback in the present. I have seen this process result in profound changes in many lives. It is not simple or easy, it requires the courage to change based on your faith in the well meaning of others trying to help you move forward in life while leaving the biases of the past behind. Anthony and many others who are truth seekers, what I call “spiritual learners” arrive at a place of comfort within and with others that is truly life saving. One of my previous blogs describes the “spiritual learner” concept and chapter 16 in “The Curse of the Capable-With an Open Heart and Open Mind-The Spiritual Learner” is a more complete reference for you as well.


We don’t earn acts of Grace!


      I was cycling the other day, near our summer home along the beautiful coast of Maine with a wonderful long time friend. As we passed thunderous waves he turned to me and said, “You work so hard you have earned this, I’m so glad for you”. He was surprised that I disagreed that I “had earned this” and immediately thought I was being self critical. He was mistaken in that I wasn’t feeling self critical at all, just realistic from my point of view. I know many people, friends and clients, who have worked as hard as I have and they have died of prostate cancer, breast and uterine cancer, and some are terminally at the moment. They have earned this good fortune as much or more than I.                                                            I think when we grow up with a negative story about ourselves we tend to have a punitive self voice. We believe that our fate in life is due to our achievements, our successes and when things don’t go well we feel less than, as if we failed and didn’t perform as well as we should. This attitude puts us at the center of all life circumstances, it makes us mistakenly think our lives and the lives of those close to us are exclusively dependent on our actions. We are therefore never in a position to accept acts of grace. Grace comes are way not because of what we do or what we don’t do. It is a variable some believe is directed by God, others believe it is the Universe directing our fate. I will leave the potential debate as to the causal agent of grace to theologians who possess far more wisdom than I in this matter. 

        The critical point for our purposes is that we are often not in control of the circumstances that effect our lives. When self criticism is an integral part of your self voice is it hard to accept that you are not always accountable for the direction of your life. If you were held overly accountable early in life, made to feel unrealistically responsible for others this tendency can be crippling and needs to change for you to feel emotionally liberated.

       Life, to a certain degree is like the weather. It is a beautiful day today, sun is shining, and the sea is glistening. I have been given, through grace, a beautiful day. I didn’t earn it, nor would I be responsible if it were raining. I am, of course, not implying that we have no control, just that we do not have ultimate control. We need to be able

 to distinguish what comes under our roof and what does not. I refer you to chapter 5 in “The Curse of the Capable, Loosen the Rains and Lift the Burden-Control” for further study if you wish.

Are you Preoccupied or Selfish?

In this morning’s group session one of our members abruptly announced he was going to take a three month trip across country with his wife and would be leaving group. Members were astounded as we have a guideline that when someone is going to leave they pick a date, and give advanced notice so we can go through a compete process of saying goodbye. This entails giving and receiving direct feedback, settling any leftover conflicts etc so the ending will feel and be complete. I have been through this process many times with clients and I have noticed over the years that the way people end, in essence how they deal with loss, is quite predictive of how their life will go in the future.

   How we cope with endings, how direct or indirect we are in our communication says a great deal about our ability to maintain closeness, intimacy and friendship. Rob is a very good person but highly self critical despite being enormously successful in his business, which is why he can afford to take such long vacations. He has suffered, by his own admission what I call “The Curse of the Capable”. He masks his insecurity and vulnerability through his achievements. This method has worked for him in business but certainly not in marriage and with the relationships in his life.

   Rob’s inability to let people know in advance that he was leaving fits with a number of difficulties he encounters in his life. He had difficulty telling his dying father that he loved him, he has difficulty telling his adult children how much he cares, turns his head away from whomever he is addressing when he is saying something positive that could bring about an intimate feeling. He struggles, in essence, with the fear of not being good enough in the eyes of others. He has difficulty taking the chance of being vulnerable, a necessary step to maintain intimacy, because of his irrational personal story that views vulnerability as exposing weakness and insecurity. He was afraid he would disappoint people if they knew in advance of his departure, he didn’t have the faith in himself to believe he could state his intentions and emerge with a positive rather than a negative outcome. Ironically we are all happy for him that he is finally leaving work and making a giant step to enjoying life.

   He told the group that he thought we knew he was leaving since he had mentioned on different occasions about taking such a trip. He mentioned that he had this conversation in his head so many times it felt like it actually took place. Another common dynamic of those who are preoccupied is that they have meetings in their minds so often they start to act upon these meetings as if others actually attended. The other result of being preoccupied is a person like Rob thinks about a particular issue so much they expect others to appreciate their efforts and understand their needs when do they finally let others in on their obsessive thought process at its conclusion. One of the women he has helped considerably told him she was very disappointed that he did not have the concern to inform us, or have the trust in group members to let us in on his plans. Another member, a fellow business owner who has felt considerable camaraderie with Bob, echoed her sentiment but added, “I think below the surface Rob you are a very selfish man, I think you tend to want things your way and don’t consider how you affect other people”.

      I interjected at the end of the meeting that I think there are in fact, two kinds of selfishness. One is based on truly not caring about people, individuals who are narcissistic by nature and use other people simply for the self interested function they have. The other, particularly for people who suffer from The Curse is based on being preoccupied. Rob is not a good listener for instance; he is often planning his response as a person is talking to him. He is so worried about his image that he is rehearsing his response rather than listening. Like many who are preoccupied his memory and concentration are compromised which leads to people close to him feeling un-important and not heard. People, like group members, end up feeling that he is self centered and selfish. I think, through knowing Rob for some time, that this is a surface explanation and does not speak to the anxiety he is experiencing on a deeper level. He is not a man who does not care; he loves his wife, his children and truly cares about group members. His preoccupation however, a common dynamic among achievers, makes his relationships less than satisfying. The irony is that when he relaxes, pays attention, gets involved beyond himself, people find him loveable and kind. Rob must change the old story in his mind that says love and respect is dependent on achievement to the realization that achievement is important in life but ultimately without the relationship skill of empathic listening life will always feel like something is missing.

   As group ended we could all see Rob felt awful, several people encouraged him to continue phone sessions with me and to not perseverate on the negative comments exclusively. He certainly had a strong tendency to cement criticisms in his mind. As I walked out of group with him, everyone was waiting in the parking lot. They all hugged him individually and made him make eye contact. As he walked away with tears in his eyes, I asked him how come he didn’t hug me. He returned, looked directly at me, and gave me a huge hug and said “ I wish I had the courage to let people in more, I am still afraid of the outcome, guess I just didn’t want to feel vulnerable, I love everybody in this group, including you”. As I walked away I said to myself,” This is not a selfish man!”