Category Archives: ideas

Personal House Rules

I think often we have unspoken rules about how we want to conduct our lives. It can be confusing for someone to automatically know that -you-should-take-your-shoes-off-when-you-come-inside-the-door.  Then when the person doesn’t quickly act in the way we are expecting, we are confronted with a choice. We  let the new person know the expectations directly or we sadly can  stay silent and be upset that they didn’t do it right.

This is the same thing that we do with the rules of self, we expect  that everyone will know how to we want to live our lives, what works and what doesn’t, how to treat us, what our boundaries are, and the very best way to show us love. This is mind reading  at its best. It is all so obvious to us.

I have a saying that I use with clients a lot “If it is obvious, then you need to say it out loud.” We are so accustomed to our own mind and beliefs that it seems a given, but if it is that ingrained within us that means it is pretty important. Hence, saying our ideas, expectations, and  boundaries out loud not only makes sense but also creates a much more open dynamic.

The approach of letting others know what your personal house are allows everyone to have a framework of interaction. You get to avoid a lot of the messy parts of stepping on each other’s toes.  Everyone decides if the structure is workable and provides an understanding of the boundaries. It sound so simple but that is exactly what we so often miss, stating that which seems like a default to our own system.

I really love the idea of putting your house rules out for everyone to see  (physically like photo above or state directly). Consider wearing your expectations with a badge of honor that you want others to know about from the start. Be proud of who you are and what you want from yourself and others!


The Beauty of Not Knowing

There seems to be a lot of pressure on knowing  in our culture.  One somehow has to have it all figured out and already 100% knowledgable about everything. This is so perplexing. Why would you want to have nothing left to learn? Wouldn’t it be terribly boring if you had nothing to challenge you, push you, or help you grow?

Sure there are instances where having as much knowledge as possible is best for a given situation. However, the general expectation that a person should know every word in the dictionary, have read every book already, or remember be up on every current detail, seems a bit much.

What is wrong with not knowing? What about the sheer pleasure of learning, exploring, or discovering something new? We love that scientists are curious and interested in creating that which has never conceived of previously, yet when it is the rest of us a negative slant appears.

Imagine  you are having a conversation and someone responds to something you say with, “Oh I haven’t heard about that. ” And then follows with various questions about the topic. Do you really consider someone who is interested in learning dumb, stupid, or foolish? The answer of course is … most likely you would enjoy that the person was eager to hear what you had to say and wanted to understand. Then why would you be so concerned if you did the same thing?

Most of us enjoy sharing information when asked and rarely negatively judge another for asking for more information.  The critical self talk actually strangles our ability to do the very thing we are hoping we are projecting (wanting to already know). How are you ever going to learn it if you claim you already know it all already?

You know what it is like when you can sense that someone is pretending to know what you are talking about when they obviously do not.  You wonder why they are pretending. You wonder why they are so afraid to ask or not know. It is in that moment that the  negative judgement of the person often arises. Again the very thing we often fear, happens only when we pretend to already know it all.

There is so much to be gained by asking questions, not knowing, and allowing others to teach you.  It can be a beautiful thing to share the connection of expanding your knowledge in the presence of another person. Be brave and admit to someone today that you don’t know and feel proud of yourself for doing so!

Nature + Nurture + Choice

In therapy, there is a lot of talk about being a good or bad person. Intellectually, we know that such shallow judgement calls do not apply to a majority of us. We are intricate and complicated in our conscious and unconscious drives.  Our understanding of morality often feels internally objective and externally subjective. Scientific research continues to mirror the findings that reality shows us daily.

We can also be contradictory in what we believe for ourselves versus what we believe others should do. Yet, we still come back to an extreme dichotomy of expectation for good and bad. There is very little middle ground when we are proclaiming our ethics. However, when we begin to push upon these stark concepts in therapy, quickly it is discovered that what is really going on is a messy generalization of thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is normal for humans in current society.  We take all the data and crunch it down into bite size pieces so we can actually live rather than be immobilized.

Still, I hear over and over again about the guilt, shame, fear, and tremendous hardship that person has placed upon themselves. True, many of these personal scripts are based on experiences that were extremely unpleasant. The brain wants to flag things that don’t fit into a generic mold and the exceptions become the highlight reel in our brain as the rules to live by. Again, this is normal so that we can determine things with the whole flight or fight. Let us not forget that choice plays a large role in forming us as well. That pesky little thing that allows us to move and shift depending on our own needs and desires.

Everything becomes so confusing when we measure who we are based on any one of these factors alone. Look, I’ll say this directly– researchers don’t fully understand what makes us who we are. Understanding humanity is in its earliest form. Basically we have no idea really what it going on in detail. However, we do have a crudely drawn sketch. This vague look at the hows and whys we do what we do is enough to push each one of us into contemplating some serious questions about ourselves.

A wonderful example of this is based on a documentary I just recently watched  about Good and Evil.  Without giving it all away, as truly it is fascinating. We might have a genes, background, and even tendencies towards things that make things hard on us. It is still each one of us as individuals that can make the choice to live differently.  A person can be predisposed, have terrible experiences, and yet still make choices that will put them on a path towards positive growth. If one really must focus on a singular idea, that will make the largest impact, it is personal choice.  What we tell ourselves on a daily basis and the actions we take matter in how we create the relationships around us. Nature and nurture both matter and even beyond those factors, for the majority of us, we can choose to live a healthier stronger life.  The choice is really up to you.

Finding the answers

Clients want answers. I want answers. We all want answers! It is a given that we are curious to find out what is going on within us. And I’ll say something that one is probably not supposed to say as a therapist, “I wish I DID have the answers” perhaps better said: I wish I had the ability to quickly allow other people to find the exact answers they want for themselves. I really do. I wish I had THE right answer for each person that comes with insight, introspection, and curiosity. I would love to place my magic-therapy-wand (patent pending) upon their heads and grant them the wish of pure personal understanding.

I’m not morally or ethically opposed to the idea of helping this way. The reason being is that I believe that the answers differs for each person. I have yet to see any person exactly match the other in how they come to understanding of themselves and the world around them. That is what is awesome and frustrating about how insight and choice works.

There is no right answer that works for everyone. Even as you read this, there are people who will differ with the premise that there is no specific answer for everyone. See what I mean? What works for you may not work for another. You can have shared values, ideas, and methods of expression and still come to your path in a totally unique way.

So when you come into therapy and hear me tell you that I can’t give you the “right answer” I’m not just pulling out a therapy cliché.  It is true. I don’t think that I can nor should provide the answer as to who you are and what you want and how to get there (save the magic wand possibilities now being tested in a secret lab). It is up to each person to dive deep, discover your own personal ethos, and move ahead in the face of it all.

Embrace that you may not have the answers right now… but that part of the adventure is seeking for them!

Avoiding planned obsolescence

Did you know that the light bulb was originally built to last much longer than it does? Apparently, the technology and lifespan was created to be more than 1000 hours pushed into the marketplace as the standard.  The Phoebus Cartel  put pressure on manufacturers to keep the longevity of the light bulb limited. They basically became rich by strong arming the industry into not allowing innovation and competition to thrive. The idea was to intentionally make a poorly designed product to stop working as a way to sell more units.

A term was coined for the concept of creating a product to become inoperable after a specific time period: “planned obsolescence.” The idea took hold and the 1950’s spawned a new generation of goods under a time constraint.  The demand for an item is inherent when the product will stop working and new one is needed.  Hence, this provided marketers with an essential way to spur on sales with the illusion of a better product always right around the corner.

Everyday we are bombarded with notions to replace the poorly created goods we already have for other poorly created merchandise, without a second thought. There is always a newer product that will help take away the inconvenience of the one we already have that doesn’t appear to function properly. Is it any wonder that we have no idea how to have lasting relationships?

I’m not saying that marketing or even planned obsolescence is to blame for our inability to connect on a deeper level. However, the world we live in does influence us and if we continue to substitute one bad item for another, well you can see how a slippery slope can be created within your psychology.

If a person has a personality quirk, makes a mistake, gets sick, older, or even just says something we don’t like, it is pretty deeply ingrained in American culture to simply find another person. We even have relationship concepts for this like “starter marriage. ” But the problem I have with this replaceable notion of relationships is the same that I have with planned obsolescence: where is the personal responsibility of the individual to make sure they are really getting something better?

It is one thing if you end a relationship (for just about any reason) and learn from it, grow, and integrate changes which allow you to pursue someone of higher calibre. It is another thing (read: unhealthy) to ditch one relationship only to find yourself in the exact same dynamic you were in the last time it didn’t work. This is essentially planned obsolescence in relationships.

Individuals are not taking the time to put in quality emotional work into understanding themselves, research their own patterns, and then seek a relationship that reflects a higher level of integration. Instead, they just swap one bad relationship for another and then complain about it. This is a lament we hear daily if it is not about a piece of technology equipment it could easily be about someone’s romantic partner.

Want to avoid planned obsolescence within your relationship? Here is what you do, it is simple really, it just requires a bit of self honesty and effort. You decide that what you expect from yourself and a relationship is of more worth and higher quality than before. You make a conscious choice to examine who you are and what you want, then you look at ways to better strengthen yourself and interactions, and then you actually get to know someone and see over time if they meet your standards. Finally you decide to more fully invest within the relationship.

It is a process and not necessarily an easy one at that.  It is easy to fall for the shiny marketing of a quick new alternative relationship. However, I assure you that waiting for quality understanding within yourself and taking the time to learn more about the other person will allow for a much higher level of satisfaction and longer relationship lifespan.

And just for information sake, planned obsolescence still exists today often seen in examples likes printers, ipod batteries, and yes… still for light bulbs.

Extreme Coupon Madison Therapy Style

I’m intrigued by the people who are extreme coupon-ers. They look through papers, read online, gather from others, and print off hundreds of coupons. They pay attention to sales, double coupon days, and hunt down rebates. They place the coupons into binders, categories, and create shopping lists for each location, all this before they even go shopping. Once home from the store, they organize their products in stock piles. Here is a clip if you are curious to see a bit about it.

Did I mention, I find this whole process fascinating? There is so much psychology involved with the desire to find a bargain, looking at how the systemic nature of marketing impacts choice, and then of course the mind-set of the person that would go this extreme. Still, watching this from afar I realize that I’m simply speculating… until… recently.

I was out for a walk and came upon a garage sale. I immediately noticed that the items being sold appeared to be new household based and were organized rather precisely. It felt right away like this person was really orderly or maybe just maybe (I was beginning to get excited) into couponing!

The photo doesn’t really do justice to the level of detail that was put into the display of the items, but it at least gives you an idea. There was tons of stuff put into sections, row after row for easy viewing.

Of course, it had to be asked if the woman was a into using coupons. Her face instantly brightened and sure enough, she began to talk about the process. She spends about 20 hours a week couponing and has her own tips and secrets. She spoke about her personal stock pile and how the tv shows represent things a bit differently than the average person. When asked if she had any coupon friends, she explained that she hasn’t been able to find any people in the local area.  She was working on clipping and organizing ads while multitasking the garage sale and the conversation. We probably could have talked about the psychological details of couponing but somehow it felt like it would shift the emotional experience.

I left pondering why this felt like something special, as if I had stumbled upon a moment made just for me.

When you go about your life and you do what you always do, you don’t expect that a personal adventure could occur. It doesn’t even come into consciousness. You take your walk, feed the pets, make some dinner, clean up, watch a little tv, read a book, and go to bed. It really is the same old routine. We all need this day-to-day process for emotional structure. It is the down time our minds need as the basis of stability to deal with any unexpected problems that may come up.

And yet, we get so lost in the mundane we forget that something unique like an extreme coupon-er could be right around the corner on your walk.  Being open to unexpected excitement, beauty, or even confusion might just be the very thing that makes you smile. These tiny moments of pure bliss are something to be on the look out for. I’m asking you to consider that when you are open to a moment being transformed from ordinary into extraordinary, you have created an opportunity for personal joy to exist.

I certainly don’t expect everyone to secretly (not-so-secretly in my case) wish they could meet an extreme coupon-er and ask them lots of questions. However, each one of us has our idiosyncratic tendencies and they make us fascinating. This way we are interesting to one another! Hence, it matters when we take the time to indulge in the experience of momentary gratitude in experiencing something wonderful.  It is okay to bask in the absurd. It is in fact, it is the very existence of these quirks that make us giddy (I think fondly of Anderson Cooper taking pleasure in one pun after another, as a wonderful recent example).

This puts forth the idea that we should be on the look out for something to make us up-on-tip-toes-happy! It is crucial to be available to individually tailored magical moments occurring in our lives. Allow yourself to be silly, have preferences, be unusual, and giggle when you happen upon something you love!

Side note — if you want to learn a realistic way to be a coupon-er, check out this girl’s how-to video series!

Sick System Identification


Often times  people who have experienced trauma and/or abuse get into predictable patterns.  After trauma the mind has to find a way to “become okay” with what has happened otherwise it will just shut down. Hence,the brain will  select, edit, and delete ideas and emotions as necessary to move forward.  From this perspective, it becomes clearer that they will associate interactions with other people in a similar way that they did during the negative experiences.  The mind wires together in a way that creates a system of unhealthy actions and response together with love and care. It is as if the mind got confused along the way (which it did typically based on the abusive situation) and started thinking that being in an interaction that is chaotic and/or manipulative is the way affection is shown.  The how and why this pattern was created makes sense _and_ being able to identify its parts is a crucial part to changing towards healthy dynamics.

There are many therapeutic approaches to working to shift these patterns, but I haven’t often seen a discussion of this within regular conversation. Issendai has thoughtfully expressed how the trauma mind-set can create relationships that are unhealthy. She puts a concrete perspective on what the attributes are that contribute to what she calls a _sick system_.  In reading her thoughts, I would ask you to remember that a person can both create these dynamics directly or respond to them..   One can see they have been in relationships where they were treated in a negatively manipulative way and/or understand they tend to create elements of this pattern in their life.  The point is to look at the patterns and work to shift them into something that is stronger and healthier.


Sick Systems by Issendai

So you want to keep your lover or your employee close. Bound to you, even. You have a few options. You could be the best lover they’ve ever had, kind, charming, thoughtful, competent, witty, and a tiger in bed. You could be the best workplace they’ve ever had, with challenging work, rewards for talent, initiative, and professional development, an excellent work/life balance, and good pay. But both of those options demand a lot from you. Besides, your lover (or employee) will stay only as long as they want to under those systems, and you want to keep them even when they doesn’t want to stay. How do you pin them to your side, irrevocably and permanently.
You create a sick system.

A sick system has four basic rules:

Rule 1: Keep them too busy to think. Thinking is dangerous. If people can stop and think about their situation logically, they might realize how crazy things are.

Rule 2: Keep them tired. Exhaustion is the perfect defense against any good thinking that might slip through. Fixing the system requires change, and change requires effort, and effort requires energy that just isn’t there. No energy, and your lover’s dangerous epiphany is converted into nothing but a couple of boring fights.

This is also a corollary to keeping them too busy to think. Of course you can’t turn off anyone’s thought processes completely—but you can keep them too tired to do any original thinking. The decision center in the brain tires out just like a muscle, and when it’s exhausted, people start making certain predictable types of logic mistakes. Found a system based on those mistakes, and you’re golden.

Rule 3: Keep them emotionally involved. Make them love you if you can, or if you’re a company, foster a company culture of extreme loyalty. Otherwise, tie their success to yours, so if you do well, they do well, and if you fail, they fail. If you’re working in an industry where failure isn’t a possibility (the government, utilities), establish a status system where workers do better or worse based on seniority.

Also note that if you set up a system in which personal loyalty and devotion are proof of your lover’s worthiness as a person, you can make people love you. Or at least think they love you. In fact, any combination of intermittent rewards plus too much exhaustion to consider other alternatives will induce people to think they love you, even if they hate you as well.

Rule 4: Reward intermittently. Intermittent gratification is the most addictive kind there is. If you know the lever will always produce a pellet, you’ll push it only as often as you need a pellet. If you know it never produces a pellet, you’ll stop pushing. But if the lever sometimes produces a pellet and sometimes doesn’t, you’ll keep pushing forever, even if you have more than enough pellets (because what if there’s a dry run and you have no pellets at all?). It’s the motivation behind gambling, collectible cards, most video games, the Internet itself, and relationships with crazy people.

How do you do all this? It’s incredibly easy:

Keep the crises rolling. Incompetence is a great way to do this: If the office system routinely works badly or the controlling partner routinely makes major mistakes, you’re guaranteed ongoing crises. Poor money management works well, too. So does being in an industry where the clients are guaranteed to be volatile and flaky, or preferring friends who are themselves in perpetual crisis. You can also institutionalize regular crises: Workers in the Sea Org, the elite wing of Scientology, must exceed the previous week’s production every single week or face serious penalties. Because this is impossible, it guarantees regular crises as the deadline approaches.

Regular crises perform two functions: They keep people too busy to think, and they provide intermittent reinforcement. After all, sometimes you win—and when you’ve mostly lost, a taste of success is addictive.

But why wouldn’t people eventually realize that the crises are a permanent state of affairs? Because you’ve explained them away with an explanation that gives them hope.

Things will be better when… I get a new job. I’m mean to you now because I’m so stressed, but I’m sure that will go away when I’m not working at this awful place.

The production schedule is crazy because the client is nuts. We just need to get through this cycle, then we’ll have a new client, and they’ll be much better.

She has a bad temper because she just started with a new therapist. She’ll be better when she settles in.

Now, the first person isn’t actually looking for a job. (They’re too stressed to fill out applications.) The second industry always has another crazy client, because all the clients are crazy. (Or better yet, because the company is set up to destroy the workflow and make the client look crazy.) The third person has been with her “new” therapist for a year. (But not for three years! Or five!) But the explanation sounds plausible, and every now and then the person has a good day or a production cycle goes smoothly. Intermittent reinforcement + hope = “Someday it will always be like this.” Perpetual crises mean the person is too tired to notice that it has never been like this for long.

Keep real rewards distant. The rewards in “Things will be better when…” are usually nonrewards—things will go back to being what they should be when the magical thing happens. Real rewards—happiness, prosperity, career advancement, a new house, children—are far in the distance. They look like they’re on the schedule, but there’s nothing in the To Do column. For example, everything will be better when we move to our own house in the country… but there’s nothing in savings for the house, no plan to save, no house picked out, not even a region of the country settled upon. Or everything will be better when she gets a new job, but she’s not applying anywhere, she’s not checking the classifieds, she has no skills that would get her a new job, she has no concrete plans to learn skills, and she doesn’t know what type of new job she wants to take. Companies have a harder time holding out on rewards, but endlessly delayed raises and promotions, workplace upgrades that are talked about but never get enough budget, and training programs that are canceled for lack of money work well.

Establish one small semi-occasional success. This should be a daily task with a stake attached and a variable chance of success. For example, you need to take your meds at just the right time. Too early and you’re logy the next morning and late to work, too late and you’re insomniac and keep your partner up until you go to sleep, too anything and you develop nausea that interrupts your meal schedule and sets your precariously balanced blood sugar to swinging, sparking tantrums and weeping fits. It’s your partner’s job to get you to take your meds at just the right time. Each time she finds an ideal time, it becomes a point of contention—you’re always busy at that time, or you’re not at home, or you eat too early or too late so the ideal time shifts or vanishes entirely. But every so often you take your meds at just the right time and everything works perfectly, and then your partner gets a jolt of success and the hope that you’ve reached a turning point.

Chop up their time. Perpetually interrupt them with meetings, visits from supervisors, bells and whistles and time clocks and hourly deadlines. Or if you’re partners, be glued to them at the hip, demand their attention at short intervals throughout the day (and make it clear that they aren’t allowed to do the same with you), establish certain essential tasks that you won’t do and then demand that they do them for you, establish certain essential tasks that they aren’t allowed to do for themselves and demand that they rely on you to do it for them (and then do it slowly or badly or on your own schedule). Make sure they have barely enough time to manage both the crisis of the moment and the task of the moment; and if you can’t tire them out physically, drain them emotionally.

Enmesh your success with theirs. Company towns are great at this. Everything, from the workers’ personal social standing to the selection of groceries at the store, depends upon how well they do their jobs and how well the company as a whole is doing. Less enveloping companies try to tie their workers’ self-perceptions in with the public’s perception of their brand. People do it by entangling their successes and failures with their partners’, even when they shouldn’t be entangled. A full-grown adult should be able to take his meds without his partner’s help, and there’s only so much anyone can do to make someone eat at the right time and swallow their pills, but he still puts the responsibility for managing his meds squarely on her shoulders. The classic maneuver is to blame all your bad moods on your partner: If they weren’t so _______ or if they did ______ right, you wouldn’t be so stressed/angry/foul-tempered.

Keep everything on the edge. Make sure there’s never quite enough money, or time, or goods, or status, or anything else people might want. Insufficiency makes sick systems self-perpetuating, because if there’s never enough ______ to fix the system, and never enough time to think of a better solution, everyone has to work on all six cylinders just to keep the system from collapsing.

All of these things work together to make a workplace or a  relationship addictive. You’re run off your feet putting out fires and keeping things going, your own world will collapse if you stop, and every so often you succeed for a moment and create something bigger than yourself. Things will get better soon. You can’t stop believing that. If you stop believing, you won’t be able to go on, and you can’t not go on because everything you have and everything you are is tied into making this thing work. You can’t see any way out because there are always all these things stopping you, and you could try this thing but that would take time and money, and you don’t have either, and you’ve been told that you’ll get both eventually when that other thing happens, and pushing won’t make that thing happen so it’s better to keep your head down and wait. After a while the stress and panic feel normal, so when you’re not riding the edge, you feel twitchy because you know that the lull doesn’t mean things are better, it means you’re not aware yet of what’s going wrong. And the system or the partner always, always obliges with a new crisis.

Eventually you’re so crazy that you can’t interact with anyone who isn’t equally crazy. Normal people have either fled, or told you once too often that you’re being stupid and you need to leave. So now you’ve lost all your reality checks. You’re surrounded by people who also live in the crazy and can’t see a way out. You spend your time telling one another that it’s too bad, but that’s how it is, there’s no fixing it, and everything will get better when ______ happens. If anyone does get a little better and says, “Hey, guys, this is crazy, we can all stop now,” they’ve become a stuck cog in the machine. They quickly realize that there’s nothing they can do, and they pull out, leaving you alone with your crazy friends.

Finally you think it’s ordinary.

You fantasize about being suicidal enough to kill yourself. But that’s not all that bad, because you don’t think that way all the time, and you’re not actually trying to kill yourself. You just wish something would come along and make you dead.

One day you hit rock bottom. Maybe you want so badly to die that stepping out of the sick system looks like a good way to commit suicide, or maybe you’re so depressed that you no longer care. Maybe you catch on before then, and realize, as you’re standing there with the pill in your hand and your partner too busy on WoW to swallow it, that this is crazier than crazy and it’s time to make it stop. Maybe the system makes a mistake, and you look at the pattern of people who got promotions and realize that you will never, never qualify for your promised promotion.

Or maybe a door opens, and something magical happens. The position you’ve dreamed of opens up. The school you want to go to offers a new scholarship for people just like you—and the person who runs the scholarship tells you confidentially that with your qualifications, you’re a shoo-in. Your granduncle dies and leaves you $100,000. You can have exactly what you want—if you walk away from the system you’re enmeshed in.

If you step away, two things happen, one after the other:

PANIC! HORROR! THE SKY IS FALLING! I’VE LOST EVERYTHING I EVER HAD AND I’LL NEVER GET IT BACK AGAIN! There’s not enough stress, something is wrong, something horrible is happening and I’m not there stopping it, oh god what is my ex-boyfriend doing and can I save him from a safe distance? I’m responsible! I have to call the office and make sure they’re okay! I have to make sure everything I left was okay, because it would all fall down without me and now I’m not there and it’s falling down and all those innocent people are being hurt and I have to stop it!

…I feel so much better now.

It’s all gone, like someone stopped pounding me in the head with a hammer. I didn’t even know the hammer was there. Why did I let someone pound me in a hammer all that time? What in hell was I thinking? Why did I think any of that made sense?

Once you’re out of the system, it makes no sense at all. None of the carrots they dangled before you mean anything, and you start to truly comprehend just how much stress you were under. You see things you never would have believed while you were in the system. And the relief is greater than you ever could have imagined while you were enmeshed.