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The Mind of the Bully-The Empathy Solution

Not long ago a patient of mine pleaded with me to find time to see her son in consultation. Marie is a single mom raising two boys, ages 19 and 16. She has been divorced for several years, her alcoholic husband hit her one too many times and she left him when the boys were quite young.

Her oldest son Nathan has had a very troubling life, often acting out in school, quite aggressive and extremely disrespectful of authority. He quit high school in his junior year, has drifted throughout the country and eventually found what he has come to call his new family, the infamous group called white supremacists.

I agreed to see Nathan and our one time consultation proved to be invaluable in my further understanding of the mind of the bully. Nathan proudly let me know that he has beaten blacks, Jews, gays, Italians, Puerto Ricans etc. He made it clear in the early moments of this consultation that he and his fellow supremacists were the only ones who were truly protecting American values.  His initial story was not uncommon, I am sure you have heard these descriptions of violence in the name of distorted views of justice.

The Real Story-The Hidden Injury

    Nathan was particularly prideful about his hatred of blacks; he talked of how they were truly inferior, less intelligent than whites, living off the system as he continued to ramble on about their destruction of white society for several minutes. I listened for the most part as he ranted. At one point he commented that he knew I must agree with his views.” After all my mom said you’ve been at Harvard and “there aren’t many blacks walking around in Cambridge”. I of course informed him there were many black professors at Harvard and in particular several who were noted for their brilliance in the medical school.  He argued and again I just let him vent. After I was able to calm him by listening attentively I slowly asked him if he would give me an honest answer to an important question. He proudly said of course as I knew he would not want to convey retreat. I asked him if he thought he would score higher on an IQ test than one of my black colleagues if I could arrange for testing in a few days. He fumbled for an answer and for the first time I could see his exposed vulnerability. “I’ve never been school smart; it doesn’t matter anyway on the street”.

I then complimented him for answering honestly. He was surprised as he did not exactly answer my question. I mentioned that he revealed his answer without many words and although he was feeling angry I could tell he was an honest person. Nathan, at this point, had calmed down somewhat and I knew I had his attention. I then asked if I could ask a second question and he agreed. His pride seemed to be pushing him forward.

                               The Scene of the Crime-the Original Story

I asked Nathan how it came about that he developed such hatred for blacks. He went on tell me how he grew up in a poor neighborhood outside of Boston. He was one of the few white kids on his street and he was taunted and hit on the bus repeatedly by black kids who were older and stronger. He felt totally humiliated day after day. “I told my old man what was going on but he was always too drunk and never did a dam thing about it, my mother was too scared herself and eventually we moved but not after me learning what these n……were really all about”.

The Bully was Bullied

As Nathan told of his early suffering and how his rage developed he began to mellow, at one point his rage turned to tears. The origin of his hatred was clear, there is always a story of hurt, humiliation and damaged self worth behind feelings of rage. We ended our conversation that night and I never saw Nathan again. His mom moved to Florida to take care of her elderly parents shortly thereafter. A few months ago I received an email from Marie saying Nathan had left his so called friends and was living with the her and his grandparents. She said things were still quite difficult, his temper could erupt at any moment but he was enrolled in an IT school to gain certification as a technician. She also mentioned he seemed to be benefitting from conversations with her father, an ex marine who had great respect for what violence can do to a person’s life.

                                               An Ordinary Human Being

You may think of Nathan as unusual and in many ways despicable. After all he took delight in bullying and beating innocent people. He is however not so unusual in terms of the development of a bullying personality. Aggression fosters aggression, empathy fosters empathy.  Nathan, like many other abusers, was abused himself. He lived with unbearable humiliation, lacked the support of a stable family to help him cope and as a result eventually feel prey to the seduction of the supremacists. They initially offered him connection, support and a family structure that seemed to guarantee him safety and security. They united with him in rage toward a common enemy as they superficially built up his self esteem. They praised him for following their dictates and rewarded his bullying under the disguise of protecting white people who were being robbed of their independence and rights.

I am reminded of the classic studies by psychologist Stanley Milgram when he was determined to understand how seemingly ordinary people could commit atrocities such as those perpetrated by the Nazi’s during the holocaust.

Dr. Milgram designed an experiment where some individuals were told that they were helping researchers to find ways to improve memory. They were divided into roles of teachers and learners. Learners were to memorize a set of words, teachers would administer the testing. In actuality the learners were actors implanted by Dr. Milgram. Teachers were to deliver and electric shock for wrong answers, beginning with 15 volts. The control panel of the electroshock machine was labeled slight shock to danger to severe shock. Even though the learners were shouting “ I can’t stand the pain” at 450 volts, once the experimenter stated that he would assume all responsibility two thirds of the teachers continued to elicit shocks to the very end of the scale. This result shocked the researchers themselves but proved that ordinary, decent people could perpetrate acts of violence and cruelty.  This experiment has been duplicated many times indicating that when people shift their sense of responsibility to an authority they are capable of doing immense harm. Nathan had shifted his sense of responsibility to group leaders, freeing him to unleash his sadistic side without evoking his conscience.

                            Human Beings are born to Care not Hurt

Numerous studies indicate that we are genetically programmed to care for each other. If however were abused, neglected or humiliated the capacity for empathy withers and we are left with a sense of helpless rage toward those who inflicted suffering on us. I was asked recently by a reporter if empathy can be taught. I answered in seconds, “absolutely”.

In conducting group psychotherapy sessions over the years I have witnessed many individuals develop this capacity even if it was under-developed for most of their lives. Human beings cannot resist empathic attunement. Even Nathan, with all his rage, began to soften as he felt understood. I saw in his eyes the hurt humiliated boy who desperately was searching for understanding, belonging and safety. When we don’t feel secure and safe we are vulnerable to being manipulated by predators and we are vulnerable to forming long lasting prejudices that fuel resentment and chronic unhappiness.

                                             The Societal Factor

If as a society we want to reduce bullying and aggression we have to place more emphasis on teaching cooperation and less emphasis on idealizing the win at all costs attitude. We reward the aggressor in many instances on a regular basis. Professional athletes and celebrities act with disdain for human life and we forgive them because they perform and achieve on high levels. This attitude promotes valuing status over character and achievement over quality relationships.  If our goal is to become rich materially at the expense of becoming poor spiritually we will continue to witness acts of terror. Our young people will continue to take their lives as they envision no hope for fairness and equality in a society devoid of empathic understanding of differences.  Developing and expanding our innate capacity for empathy is the salve our society is in desperate need of, let us all place our inherent goodness as the guiding motivation to living and behaving with compassionate and tolerance. Our youth is in need of rescue, it is a critical, immediate need we are responsible to fulfill.

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

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

Basic Goodness in our Troubled World

Goodness is defined as the best part of anything. Goodness is surely the best part of human beings. It is when we act with kindness, generosity, strength and integrity. Henry David Thoreau said that “goodness is the only investment that never fails”. It never fails because when we engage others with an attitude of goodness we produce what we are biologically and spiritually programmed to do. We produce the hormone oxytocin, which has been called the hormone of compassion which is elicited when we bond through the relational qualities that goodness embodies. We all possess basic goodness but depending on how resilient we are in facing day to day challenges this inherent quality can recede into the background of our lives.

What interferes with our basic nature?

We probably all remember being told to “be good” by our parents and those of us raised in one of the major religions remember being told to “do good” in the service of others. Over time these phrases have been taken for granted and have seemed to have lost the basic message they were intended to deliver. If we do not appreciate the value of goodness we are unlikely to live from this perspective. Human beings are kinder to each other when we feel safe and secure. With the rise of aggression in our culture, the threat of terrorism, the increase of bullying in our schools and in our workplace we find ourselves in a position of fear. Fear creates anxiety, anxiety creates distorted thinking and ultimately distorted thinking creates an inflexible, overly simplified view of the world. These recent changes in our culture have promoted a lack of good will toward others and fostered more self absorption and less outward giving.

                                        Black and White Thinking

Studies have proven that when we feel secure bias and prejudice is markedly reduced. Perception and mood are closely related, when we feel understood and secure we are more likely to perceive accurately and more likely to do good rather than do harm.  Social psychologists have long established that avoidant or anxious individuals will bolster their own self worth by imagining that their group, whether ethnic, religious or otherwise is superior. This defensive posture creates rigid thinking, the black and white perceptions that promote simplified theories of human beings and their affiliations. Rigidity protects a fragile sense of self; it creates an artificial road map that gives an insecure person answers and direction to life complexities. Establishing a world view on anything but the truth will ultimately create more and more fear. Anxious people avoid new ideas and new ways of thinking, while avoidant people run from new challenges, both fearing loss of self esteem if they give up their entrenched beliefs.

                                      To Do Good We Must Feel Good

If we have a solid sense of self we are far more likely to be gracious to groups other than our own. We emerge with greater tolerance of differences when we have been loved, respected and understood in the early parts of our lives. If we received the empathic resonance all young people crave we grow with optimism and with an excitement about learning new and novel ideas from new and novel people. It begins in our families. If our parents had friends of diversity, if they were open to learning new possibilities to replace less functional ideas we are likely to value and feel happy when learning. This is the opposite experience of those who grew up in insecure households where the enemy was outside and the only good people remain inside. Goodness then takes on a distorted meaning promoting the idea that we should only be and do good to our own, not those unlike us. If you talk to any early childhood educator they will tell you it takes only a few days in the initial school year to identify the empathic children who love life, love learning and most importantly love making friends. Knowing how to express goodness makes us happy, more energetic and more resilient. We have more skills to manage daily living. We are not limited in our pursuits of knowledge and we are not limited in the array of people we can befriend. Young children feel the way we feel but they don’t think the way we think, therefore learning must take place by doing and feeling. When learning is recorded on a visceral level it is embedded in the deepest part of our memory bank. Experience shapes our early outlook of ourselves and the world, children pay far less attention to what we say and far more attention to what we do.  The old saying, “ do as I say not as I do” is an hypocritical message based on myth not on the true realities of how  learning actually takes place. We are the models, the teachers who must convey a sense of excitement about doing good for all people.

                                             Teaching Goodness

To uncover the basic goodness in each of us we must make a disciplined effort. We must recognize that goodness is part of our being; it is at the heart of our humanness. We have to move away from excluding anyone based on bias and prejudice. Goodness is not just for those who adhere to the Judeo-Christian ethic or the Buddhist or Muslim ethic or for that matter goodness is as much inherent to atheists as to any group. We are all born with this inherent capacity. But what if we have been raised to believe that one group is superior to another, or that several of our thinking patterns are superior to others. I can assure if you think your education, race, religion, vocation, income, or location make you superior you are profoundly mistaken and doomed to a life of superficial relationships.

We teach goodness by the way we live, not by holding on to fixed ideas to shore up our sense of self. Be honest with yourself, acknowledge situations and people who threaten you and go about resolving these issues rather than punishing innocent people for being their authentic selves. You will never be comfortable in your own skin unless you have the courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable and discover where you need to grow and learn. In many instances we need to un-learn mistaken positions we have held on to defensively. Old hurts are recorded deeply in the brain; we are programmed to remember what caused us fear. Fear creates rigid thinking which leads to false theories and inaccurate judgments. Re-evaluate your past with today’s wisdom and in the process you will release your dormant innate goodness. Thomas Paine, one of our Founding Fathers when asked about his philosophy of life, replied “My country is the world, my religion is to do good”. Our world would surely be a better place if his words became synonymous with our actions on a daily basis.

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

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


Suffering Unleashes Goodness

A few weeks ago I was talking with one of my patients about his recent release from the hospital where he was treated for a major infection. He was telling me he had to get home to cook the turkey for Thanksgiving. He was bringing the meal to his elderly parents, his mother is recovering from her second bout of breast cancer and his dad is currently struggling with the effects of Leukemia. Joe also mentioned that he invited a few of his workers to dinner as he knew they had nowhere else to go for the holiday as their families were far away.

I met Joe some time ago when he was referred to me for stress related work problems. He had a thriving construction business, owned several rental properties in addition to a beautiful home on Cape Cod. He son was turning 8 and his wife complained of his working seven days a week and not being a very tolerant husband. Joe has always been a perfectionist, holding himself and others to very high standards. He had trouble maintaining employees as he often drove them as hard as he drives himself.  His anger would often get the better of him, leading to physical altercations on a few occasions. Nevertheless he impressed me as well intentioned and in many ways good hearted.  I could tell early on he was not someone who would be easy to work for or live with. His intolerance for anyone who didn’t see things his way seemed to be a characteristic of his black and white thinking. He once told he had no room for the gray in life, “you either step up and do the work or get out of the way” was his motto.

Out of Despair Kindness Arises

       One rainy day Joe’s entire life ironically changed for the better. He fell off a roof and became paralyzed. He was used to scaling buildings, walking great heights and using potentially fatal power tools. On this day, he was in a hurry to make a dentist appointment. His attention dropped, his foot slipped and the next thing he knew he was on his back struggling to breathe.

As you might expect Joe went through a profound depression after the accident. Joe’s wife eventually filed for divorce, continuing a time in his life that seemed like the worst nightmare possible.

I lived through Joe’s depression. I visited him in a Boston hospital after I learned he was paralyzed. His first words to me were, “Doc, can you believe this happened to me? What am I going to do? I could lose my business. How will I support my family? This is crazy. I can’t live like this! You know I can’t!” I cried when I left his room. I felt empty with a deep sense of sadness as I drove home, wondering how I could help Joe and how he could ultimately help himself.

How could this man, in his late 30’s, very successful, two homes, real estate, land purchases, see it all come crumbling down and recover? His wife had left him. Two years later his father developed leukemia; then his mother discovered she had breast cancer. The only friend he felt understood his plight was a fellow paraplegic he met in rehab. Unfortunately, his friend committed suicide shortly thereafter, not being able to cope with the life of a paraplegic. We started our journey with a momentous mountain in our path.

The first two years of our meetings were filled with grief, anger and despair. I listened as Joe told me how much he missed walking, running and skating. He’d been a stellar athlete and a very physical man all his life. How could he ever work out again? How could he regain his business? Would he disappoint his son?  He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to teach him how to hit a baseball, fish, ski, etc. Would his ex-wife’s new boyfriend take his place in his son’s heart? All these fears filled his mind, all based on a loss of complete control.

He constantly asked me what I thought about regaining his business, how could he continue his role as a father and whether he would ever drive again. We found a physical therapist who would train him to condition his upper body so that he could move more adeptly in his chair. He called truck manufacturers to see if a vehicle could be made for him to drive. We talked about how he could train men to be part of his construction business. He eventually trained two men, and he even had them hoist him up on to the very roof he’d fallen from to face his fear and most importantly, “to finish that goddamn job.”

We made a plan to call old customers to let them know he was back in business. He asked the baseball commissioner of his son’s league if he could coach his team. Last spring they won their division and his son could not be more proud of his dad.

Today, Joe’s business is again successful. He goes to job sites daily and works out at a gym three times a week. He has made his home handicap accessible and has become a great cook. He had abandoned his church after the accident, but today he and his son attend every Sunday morning. “It gives me such a good feeling to be there with him.” He has unleashed the kindness that had been buried within him for years.

Goodness Changes the Brain

A few weeks ago, after one of our individual sessions, Joe remarked, “I am a better person as a paraplegic.” “I turned my life around; I’ve come to believe that people are basically good. So many strangers have cared for me, given me their best to help me get better; they made me a more compassionate person. I was always so hard on people; I never realized how difficult it was for me to trust anybody.”

The tragedies of Joe’s accident made him slow down and reflect as the circumstances overwhelmed him with emotion. He was not known for expressing feelings readily. Loss of control can be a blessing. It can actually lift a burden one has been carrying all through life.

Joe tried so very hard to control all aspects of his life—his work environment, his wife, his son, etc. He always thought he was doing the “right thing.” He never realized that people could not relax around him. They worried he would be easily displeased or that they would disappoint him if they didn’t make that “all-out” effort he encouraged.

Today he has learned how to listen rather than using his old style of lecturing. He can tolerate vulnerability rather than giving anyone who has a doubt a pep talk. He understands human frailty in a way he never considered before. As a result, people feel closer to him and he feels closeness with many people he never experienced closeness with before.

People who remain open to new experiences and who expand their social circle have an expanded capacity for learning. Their brains develop new neurons. They find life interesting, not a chore. They like to find the novelty in every situation and “mix it up” a little, as opposed to the routine predictability I often see in many of my adult clients.

Joe lives near the church where I rent space to do my group sessions. After group on Friday mornings, I meet Joe at his home for our weekly session.

One Friday morning I was early and arrived before him. I talked with Ronnie, a recovering drug addict who is staying with Joe—not because Joe needs help, but because Ronnie needs to put his life back together. Ronnie lost his job, his wife, his driver’s license and most of his friends because of cocaine; and he is having trouble figuring out how to adapt to the circumstances of his life.

When Joe arrived, he roared up on the motorcycle he had custom-outfitted for his particular disability. He had come from the lake where he was overseeing the construction of a dock at a camp for handicapped children so they could learn how to kayak and water ski. Last winter, Joe went skiing on a special ski with his young son in Aspen. He also won a deep sea fishing contest with his son in Canada this past summer.

Giving is a Survival Skill

A number of scientific studies as of late have indicated that being a giving person, an individual with a warm heart who extends himself or herself to others derives significant psychological benefits. Goodness stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, releases the feel good chemical dopamine,  and as a result this kind of empathic attunement is thought to protect our species by fostering cooperative efforts. Joe derived the benefits of giving as he was forced into a state of vulnerability. He learned through his tragic accident how vulnerability increases interpersonal capability. It would have seemed impossible to him to imagine loosing the use of his legs and immerging a happier person. It is a fact I have been privileged to witness. When we are open and honest with ourselves we can be open and honest with others. In the process we discover goodness in ourselves we can share with the rest of the world. It is surely a protective, connective process that allows us to remain healthy and vibrant. The opposite is true when we remain isolated and pre-occupied with our self interests to the exclusion of others.

In my experience leading group therapy sessions over the years I have continually noticed that when people become involved with other members in an empathic way they begin to feel better. The cure for depression and anxiety is not within but between us, as we enter the world of another we take a mental vacation from ourselves while influencing our neurochemistry positively.

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

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



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.

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.



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.

Where to turn for help!

       In recent weeks I have had several clients ask me what the difference is between executive coaching, psychotherapy, positive psychology coaching, and supportive psychotherapy. In general many people don’t know the difference between coaching and therapy and find it difficult to decide who to call to successfully reach their goals.

     Due to limited space I cannot describe the differences among these modalities in detail but let me outline a few key distinctions that may clarify the direction you might want to pursue.

   Psychotherapy that explores how the past relates to the present is called psychodynamic, basically exploring the cause and effect of life circumstances. Supportive psychotherapy is more present based, does not delve into the past because the client may not be resilient enough to cope with deeper work, or because the individual does not require more than a supportive relationship to attain their desired outcome. Certified coaches and positive psychology coaches’ focus on present issues related to lifestyle, work situations, health, and personal issues with clear strategies to achieve positive results.                                 

Many clinical psychologists use both psychotherapy and coaching modalities. They decide through a comprehensive evaluation which modality is best suited to a client’s needs and capabilities. Several psychotherapeutic methods focus exclusively on the present akin to the present focus of coaching approaches. Certified coaches are also trained to focus on present oriented strategies and are taught to refer clients to licensed mental health clinicians when history seems to interfere with current functioning.

     In my view there is one major issue that differentiates practitioners and the approaches they use: when to explore the past and when to focus exclusively on the present and future. I have found over the years that clients are often indecisive as to which direction they should pursue. I have interviewed people who think they want coaching when in fact they really need to work out historical hurts that are hampering their current life. On the other hand I have worked with people convinced they need to be-labor the past when they really need to be strategizing on how to establish a healthier lifestyle in the present. Unfortunately if you place yourself in the hands of an inexperienced practitioner you could be headed down the wrong path for a very long time, wasting your resources while experiencing a disappointing outcome.

     So what are the indicators telling you which way to proceed? If you have written a story about yourself that is negative in nature it will dominate your life experience and rob you of ever reaching your potential. If you received an adequate amount of empathy early in life, emerged with a positive story about whom you are and what you are capable of, you don’t need to focus on the past. My golden rule is if the past is interfering with the present it needs attention, if the past is not a factor in terms of current dilemma’s then it is not necessary to focus on history.

   How do you know if the past is interfering in your current life? It is quite difficult to determine alone, as one of my European clients recently remarked, “The camel never sees its own hump”. Ask those close to you if they see a pattern in your behavior. Patterns, good or bad, reveal historical learning’s and certainly reveal the story you have written about yourself over time.

     A client of mine was referred a few months ago by his HR department because he was having difficulty working for a female manager and was not advancing within his department. According to the HR representative his manager is a person who speaks with authority, is known for being a powerful strategist with a no –nonsense approach to those who work for and with her. My client wanted a brief coaching experience to develop better strategies to cope with what he considered her “cold, arrogant and uncaring behavior” as well as his belief that she was limiting his potential. He wanted strategies to address his superior successfully but had little interest in exploring his past or considering how his personal roots may be related to his current perceptions.

    Ultimately he humored me and told me about his family background. His alcoholic mother, an attorney who was noted for being feared in court as well as being feared by her passive husband was the dominant figure in his early childhood. My client grew up feeling anxious in his mother’s presence due to her unyielding perfectionism which was made worse by her lack of affection. My client witnessed his father taking a helpless stance and retreating with obvious dissatisfaction. You get the picture as to how his old story could dominate his current thinking and perceptions. Without re-writing his fictitious account of himself, particularly the chapter that indicated he would be humiliated in the presence of strong woman he would be doomed to continual anxiety and doubt about himself.

     Often there is resistance to exploring the past for fear that one will get lost in an un-ending maze and never emerge with clarity. Conversely there is often fear from those who dwell on the past that they will be expected to change and be held accountable if they move forward. There is a time to encourage people to take action, to develop coping strategies to improve their lives and there is a time to re-visit the past and discover and conquer those aspects of our histories that are inaccurate and holding us in a fixed, unproductive position.

   A seasoned clinician can help you determine the direction that is best for you. Remember, we often want what we don’t need and need what we don’t want. I encourage those of you who realize you’re not reaching the place in life you truly desire to seek consultation in an effort to obtain objective feedback to gain clarity regarding the dynamics that may be holding you back from the happiness and satisfaction you deserve. If I can be of help in your pursuits please feel free to contact me directly.

Image Love

     Performance Addiction is the belief that perfecting appearance and achieving status will secure love, happiness and respect. It is an irrational belief system hardwired early in life and reinforced by cultural expectations, especially American cultural expectations.

     As a result Performance Addicts have great difficulty maintaining intimate relationships. None of us fall in love with a real person initially; we fall in love with an image. In the obsession and compulsion of romantic passion we escape from time, we escape from responsibilities and the binding and blinding effects of sex delude us.

   The binding part is pure physical attraction-lust, raging hormones, and sexual excitement. The blinding component is a screen of illusion obscuring the love object, the partner who is the target of sexual devotion. He or she is not perceived as a real person. The partner is a source of escape and ecstasy, an object of desire. This is what I call Image Love.

                                          Love’s Illusions

     The emotional part of the brain has a powerful influence on relationships. If you have Performance Addiction some of the characteristics that attract you to a person are probably written in stone in your brains emotional center.

    Given the importance of achievement to performance addicts it’s not surprising that sex itself has become a performance issue in many marriages. Expectations of sexual performance are set high. What if you can’t meet those expectations? The problem can often be resolved through understanding your unique belief system. A negative story created early in life can drive performance and create unrealistic expectations of yourself and others.

     Sexual intimacy is an expression of uncritical affection. How can you be uncritical if you are perfecting your own performance while judging and evaluating your partner?

                                      What Is Love Really?

Performance addiction can be unrelenting in its demands for comparison, measurement, and competition-and none of these is a component of love. Loving is quite different than being “being in love”. “In love” demands only brief acquaintance to establish emotional connection. Loving derives from sustained intimacy, the prolonged journey of knowing another’s soul. If you have Performance Addiction you may find it very difficult to make the transition from being in love to loving. Whenever you lose faith in the promise of relationships, you are likely to substitute performance measures and become obsessively driven and isolated.

                                     Loving a Real Person

         If you and your spouse/lover were meeting for the first time today, would you choose the same partner again? In other words, given what you know now, when image love is long gone, would you make the same choice? And if not, do you have clear reasons as to why you would make a different choice?

        Your response reveals a great deal about how you feel about yourself and your current relationship. No love relationship is an easy road leading to ever deepening commitment. The level of empathy shared with a spouse tells a great deal about where your relationship has been and is likely headed.

                                       Daring to Meet in the Middle

        Initially we are drawn to each other to make us more complete people. We are attracted to an aspect of the other’s personality that is under-developed in ourselves and very developed in our partner.  As we become more interested in developing the skill we admire we can move past image love. Achieving that balance, as pragmatic and un-romantic as it may seem, just might be the key to lasting love.

      In the final analysis, true love is dependent on our ability to place relationships with those close to us above our quest for image and status.

What is a Spiritual Learner?

What is a Spiritual Learning

 The spiritual learner is someone who realizes there is something beyond ourselves that influences and accounts for life events—an intangible that cannot completely be explained. For many this is the work of God; for others it is the work of the “Universe;” and for others it is simply an undefined spiritual experience. A spiritual learner is a person who takes in information from diverse sources, and in terms of religion, he or she is a person who realizes and accepts that all the major religions have made worthwhile contributions. A spiritual learner is an open-minded person who expects to continue to gain wisdom about the human condition throughout life. He or she expects to revise theories and change perspective as new learning takes place. He or she is not wedded to one way of thinking, one psychology or one religious orientation. This is important to living a balanced, healthy, high-achieving life because we are constantly faced with new situations that require that we adapt and change.  

The perspective of being a spiritual learner can be applied to most aspects of life; any fixed way of thinking and behaving that has rendered an unhealthy outcome should be reevaluated. Individuals of this persuasion are not threatened to reconsider behavioral patterns that have become entrenched but may need adjusting, or may need to be totally abandoned. In my family, for instance, the men were all heavy smokers. It seemed like the thing to do and it seemed perfectly healthy for the World War 11 generation. It was endorsed at the time by many doctors and scientists who were paid by the tobacco industry. As a young child I pleaded with my father to stop smoking, but it was to no avail. I could hear him cough every morning; it just didn’t seem like it was good for him but I had no data to support my argument. Ultimately the habit he had found to be his saving grace in World War II took his life at age 66.

My father was just beginning to turn the corner in his thinking. Of course his severe addiction altered his intention on most occasions, but the day he died he was down from four packs of Chesterfields a day to four cigarettes. He was beginning to employ a spiritual learner perspective to his addiction when time ran out. He was entertaining the possibility that his belief about the innocence of smoking was wrong and he was starting to consider an alternate perspective. He realized that his behavior was robbing his spirit of energy (he was sick more often, had shortness of breath as his body was failing him and his spirit for life was diminishing.) 

           Learning Connects Us!                                                                                                                    

In this regard I believe that part of the appeal of Tibetan Buddhism for Americans is the ongoing efforts of the Dali Lama to learn and integrate new findings. He has often stated that Buddhism is an ancient religion with many ancient texts. Yet he has indicated that the teaching of these texts needs to change according to new knowledge. He has displayed openness to scientific knowledge, particularly the neuroplasicity of the brain. This kind of orientation to life makes our days more interesting, increases energy and allows us to be part of a wider world. We are more connected to an array of individuals and experiences. Spiritual learners are invested in discovering and experiencing whatever enlivens the human spirit in a healthy way.

 Being a spiritual learner naturally gives us the tools to rewrite our story; remember part of the definition is “to learn from all credible sources,” including ourselves. This means we now have an opportunity to take in accurate information about ourselves, our beliefs, our career paths and most importantly, our culture, country, and world. We cannot live free of the curse if we are not concerned with people throughout the world. Personal liberation requires an awareness of the fact that certain societies, cultures, and organizations create systems that enslave others If we are self-absorbed and just tend to those closest to us who are most like us, we create a small non-diverse world which limits our personal and spiritual growth. In essence, the well-being of others is our well-being. There is no separation for the spiritual learner. Our story can now be rewritten because we trust the opinions of others, and in a global sense, we trust that those around the world have important insights and wisdom to contribute.

                     A Life of Truth

Spiritual learners rewrite their unsupportive story in on-going fashion. They have developed hope and trust in others and have come to realize that self-learning and learning about the world is endless. It is exciting to have this philosophy in your heart as learning no longer becomes threatening, but rather becomes a constant way of enhancing your sense of self. You become liberated. Open to all those around you, and most importantly you are open to the world at large. You now are a contributor to a better society because you are free to be a genuine participant. No more cover ups; no more need to protect a false story. The greatest feeling is to know the old story is mostly made-up.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Rewriting our story is never just about our rearranging our internal view of ourselves. It is also about rearranging all we have learned that is inaccurate. For instance, baby boomers grew up believing German and Japanese people were evil and despicable. Turns out they thought the same of us and the propaganda of all three countries turns out to be false. Today, many young people are growing up thinking Muslims are violent, despicable, evil people. Some Americans pull Muslims out of their cars and beat them. What a horrible travesty; a misinformed manner of promoting violence and maintaining an unsupportive story of ourselves and many others. Cutting off the opportunity for empathic understanding and vital connections. Remember that any distortion of the truth, in us or with others, leads to self and societal destruction.                                                                                                                             Spiritual learners are committed to the truth about themselves, their families, friends and all those who inhabit our world. We are committed to examining every bias in our minds and hearts so that we live in harmony with the truth. If we are in opposition to the truth for fear and other defensive reasons, we are much more prone to developing and maintaining the curse. Why? Because we are then constantly misdirected in terms of how to feel comfortable within ourselves and in the world; we are always hiding behind mythical beliefs about ourselves and others.