My Personal Highlights from Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”

This image was taken from my visit to the exhibit “Auschwitz: Not long ago, Not far away” at Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri.

I think it was Lessing who once said, “There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.” An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.

page 20

If I had to answer, “What does it mean to be trauma informed?” in one sentence, I would answer with the quote above. An “abnormal reaction” viewed outside of the context of “abnormal situations” can lead to very skewed assumptions–that the individual is overreacting, crazy, off their nut, delusional, and so on. I once read that typically when we react out of proportion to an event it means one of two things: it is related to a (big T) trauma experience or a family of origin injury (little t trauma). Part of trauma work is normalizing trauma reactions, exploring how they were useful at the time, and modifying the ways they show up in unhelpful ways today.

Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative. It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys.

page 44

Often times when exploring a client’s support network they will make comments like, “My friend is going through a hard time too, so I don’t want to be a burden.” or “Their problems are so much bigger than mine”. While there is something to be said for having perspective on what ails us, suffering is suffering. It does (if we allow it) consume our mind and steal our energy. To hear a holocaust survivor essentially say, “All suffering matters” is simultaneously humbling and validating. I appreciate that he added that small things can cause great joy. These “small things” can be a respite in dark moments.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity-even under the most difficult circumstances-to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.

page 67

Whew! It ultimately comes down to choice. On the other side of suffering can be: deeper meaning in life, bravery, dignity, selflessness, moral values, and worthiness. The question is can I choose to suffer well? Can you? I can tell you one thing- we are surely capable! I see countless clients practice this daily and see the other side of suffering.

A very strict camp ruling forbade any efforts to save a man who attempted suicide. It was forbidden, for example, to cut down a man who was trying to hang himself. Therefore, it was all important to prevent these attempts from occurring. I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both used the typical argument -they had nothing to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them (page 79).

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude (page 79-80).

He who knows the “why” for his existence will be able to bear with almost any “how.” (page 80)

page 79-80

This is such a good question: What is life expecting of you? You are the only “you” that will ever exist and you are responsible for your existence. What purpose is in your pain? Could someone else benefit or be encouraged by your experience? Could the power of your story point another towards healing? What and who is impacted by your love and affection? What have you/ do you still have to contribute to the world?

I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

page 105

In a class I attend at the gym one of the instructors frequently says “time under tension” as a reminder that spending time under tension produces change in the body and strengthens muscles. This is true in many aspects of life. Trials, storms, tension, and pain produces things in us. It is when we are outside of our comfort zone where we grow the most (see previous post on the window of tolerance). The discomfort of “struggling for a worthwhile goal” can lead to freedom from strongholds, a stronger sense of self, emotional intelligence, building immunity against dysfunctional patterns, and more—making enduring the tension worth the meaningful outcome.

I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a give moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logo therapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.

page 108-109

Much of my time in session is spent in conversations around responsibility- the responsibility we have to others, the responsibility we have for ourselves, the consequences of being overly or underly responsible, and what we are and are not responsible for. We are not responsible for things outside our ability to control or influence, so this removes the past and the future. We are responsible for our life in the present moment. In the Christian life, we are responsible to honor and glorify God with our lives. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 states, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” What is the specific meaning of your life at this given moment? The specific meaning of my life at this given moment is writing this blog post to hopefully encourage and point you to the truth that your love, your actions, and your suffering has meaning.

But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.

page 138

Have you heard the phrase, “If you chase it, it will run”. I often say this to clients who chase their own healing. Their active participation in growing, learning, and applying new awarenesses is absolutely commendable and to a degree their initiative is required for healing to take place. However, we can chase healing so hard and so fiercely that we entirely miss experiencing the process. I think the same can be said for happiness.

In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.

page 150

As finite beings, we easily minimize any positive impact we have. We maximize any negative impact or potential that has not yet been fulfilled. In the hearts and minds of those around us our good deeds and love expressed is stored and treasured. Our sufferings weathered with dignity and courage model the power of resilience to others and mark us as trustworthy. We can, as bizarre and paradoxical as it sounds, come to treasure our pain points.

Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning (pp. 3-165). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

For a link to purchase this book, check out My Recommended Reading Library page!

Hope in Healing Attachment Wounds

Attachment refers to the early bonds children form with their parents/caregivers. The style of attachment that is established in childhood affects bonding in adult relationships. The adult relationship that is most influenced by early attachment patterns is (arguably) that of a significant other or spouse.

John Bowlby’s Four Attachment Styles

Attachment Style Caregiver’s RoleChild’s Experience
Secure Attachment: This is the ideal attachment styleThe caregiver provides a warm, loving, consistent, and safe environment while also encouraging the child’s autonomy. The caregiver implements a structure of engagement that the child can trust and depend on. The caregiver is tuned into and responds effectively/attends to the child’s internal world and needs.The child feels loved and cared for without fear of abandonment. The child feels confident that his/her needs will be met in a timely manner. The child can confidently develop healthy relationships. Conflict does not threaten feelings of security in their relationships.
Avoidant Attachment The caregiver is neglectful and dismissive. Physical and/or emotional needs of the child frequently go unmet.The child learns to expect that his/her needs will consistently go unmet and, therefore, learns to cease expressing their needs/emotions and avoids intimacy. (with no intervention) As adults these children will still desire belonging and connection because we are all innately created for relationship, but they may sabotage or flee when intimacy begins to develop. They may struggle with rigid, impenetrable boundaries.
Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment The caregiver’s engagement is really inconsistent and unpredictable. For instance: on one occasion the caregiver may see and respond to a need of the child and at another time when a similar need shows up the caregiver may ignore the need or even lash out at the child for having the need.The child does not know what to trust and frequently fears abandonment. (with no intervention) As adults these children may struggle with indecision and a severe lack of trust in themselves due to internalizing their inconsistent upbringing. They will likely have a hard time setting boundaries and wrestle with guilty feelings when they do because sometimes their needs were met.
Disorganized Attachment, aka Fearful-Avoidant: believed to be the most difficult type of insecure attachment The caregiver’s engagement is a combination of both Avoidant and Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment. The caregiver is likely abusive and is simultaneously a source of safety and a source of fear.The child will likely express erratic and aggressive behaviors and experience bouts of anger and rage. The child will have great difficulty adapting to the caregiver’s rapidly changing engagement. This may be demonstrated by excessive clinginess and dependency quickly followed by rejection. These children are at an increased risk of experiencing dissociation (see later post on dissociation) to cope. (with no intervention) As adults these children are more likely to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In their relationships they will have intense levels of distrust, with those that they do trust-they believe that they will inevitably be harmed by those they trust, and they will experience constant fear of abandonment.

John Bowlby (psychologist, psychoanalyst, and founder of Attachment Theory) maintained that attachment is a BIOLOGICAL process. In other words, in infancy and childhood we do not choose who we attach to. We form attachments because it is necessary for survival. The attachment style established speaks about the caregiver NOT the child.

So, where is hope when insecure attachment is present?

“Another important implication of attachment research is that it’s possible to develop a secure state of mind as an adult, even in the face of a difficult childhood. Early experience influences later development, but it isn’t fate: therapeutic experiences can profoundly alter an individual’s life course. Further, therapists can learn from attachment researchers’ hard-earned insights into human development which features of relational experience are the most effective at optimizing well-being. When parents are sensitive to a child—when they pay attention to and tune in to the signals sent by the child, make sense of these signals and get a glimpse of the child’s inner experience, and then respond in a timely and effective manner—children are likelier to thrive. The essential features of a therapeutic relationship mirror this process in many ways. 
The brain continues to remodel itself in response to experience throughout our lives, and our emerging understanding of neuroplasticity is showing us how relationships can stimulate neuronal activation and even remove the synaptic legacy of early social experience. Developmental trajectories are complex, often having “islands” of positive relational experience, even within largely negative histories. Through therapeutic relationships and reflective practice, one can make contact with these islands—the “angels” in the nursery, to quote developmental psychologist Alicia Lieberman—and cultivate their growth to the benefit of parents, children, and adults alike. In this way, clinical practice can use the power of our attachment relationships to cultivate deep and lasting change throughout the lifespan and even stop the transmission of disabling early experiences across the generations.”

This direct quote was taken from an article titled “The Verdict Is In: The case for attachment theory” from Neuroscientist and attachment researcher, Dr. Dan Siegel’s blog. The full article can be found here: (if the above link is not working, try the following link to lead you to the full article)

Lets break this down…

Early experience influences later development, but it isn’t fate: therapeutic experiences can profoundly alter an individual’s life course.” This means that just because one may identify with one of the three insecure attachment types- it does not mean that they are doomed to forever have insecure attachments. Research supports this fact!

The essential features of a therapeutic relationship mirror this process in many ways.” This demonstrates a critical piece of why therapy works and produces change= the therapeutic relationship. The relationship established between counselor and client is a major conduit of healing. In the therapeutic relationship attachment misses and wounds can be reclaimed (through attunement, empathetic understanding, validation, warm presence, and especially through repair attempts when misses occur in session). The client can understand and experience what secure attachment looks and feels like and expand on this outside of sessions. (As a counselor I have to step back and say WHOA! What a powerful gift I get to participate in!!!)

relationships can stimulate neuronal activation and even remove the synaptic legacy of early social experience.” THIS. IS. HUUUUUGGGGEEEEEEE! This is neuroplasticity! In layman’s terms: our brains are plastic, moldable, capable of change and growth. Our brains can un-learn old ineffective, dysfunctional patterns and pathways and re-learn and replace this with healthy, effective patterns and pathways. Healthy and secure relationships in adulthood hold the power to change old defaults. In really layman’s terms: you can absolutely teach an old dog new tricks!

clinical practice can use the power of our attachment relationships to cultivate deep and lasting change throughout the lifespan and even stop the transmission of disabling early experiences across the generations.” THIS. IS. MEGA. HHUUUUUUGGGEEEE! Not only is there hope in how can we develop secure attachments in adulthood even when beginning from insecure attachment, we can learn and grow healthy bonding patterns within the therapeutic relationship, we can remove neuronal synaptic imprints of old relational learning and replace it with learning that promotes safe connections and intimacy—we can also make a positive impact on future generations!

Psalm 130

A song of ascents.

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.

Scientific research is catching up to what we know in Jesus: Redemption (from our sins and the sins of others against us) is possible and we can be active agents in cultivating a life of abundance even when the starting line of life was fraught with adversity.

Window of Tolerance

Photo by Alessio Cesario on

The window of tolerance is the space in which an individual is able to function most effectively. When our coping mechanisms are overwhelmed we jump outside our window. Individuals who battle issues such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD (among other presenting issues) typically have a more narrow window of tolerance- that is seemingly small stressors may take the individual outside their window. When we are outside of our window of tolerance we go one of two ways, and we can vasalate between these two directions.


If someone is hyper-aroused, no new learning can take place because their system is overwhelmed and hyper-active. Imagine a wind up toy being overly wound up- it may hit a nearby wall, but the wheels continue to rapidly spin. Hyper-arousal is the direction in which one may exhibit the following reactions:

  • excessive anger and aggression
  • the “fight or flight” response
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • shaking/tremors
  • racing/chaotic thoughts
  • impulsivity
  • blame
  • denial
  • anxiety
  • hyper-vigilance (increased awareness and sensitivity to surroundings- may frequently scan the environment expecting hidden dangers or threats)
  • emotional reactivity


If someone is hypo-aroused, no new learning can take place because their ability to be present in the here and now has been hijacked. Imagine how a computer responds when you open up too many tabs- it stops functioning and freezes because it cannot process the high volume of information. It then requires some kind of intervention or the closing of tabs to re-calibrate. Hypo-arousal is the direction in which one may exhibit the following reactions:

  • mind spacey or zoned out
  • the “freeze” response
  • overly compliant
  • memory issues
  • emotional and or physical numbness
  • withdrawal/disconnection
  • shut down
  • lethargy
  • feeling absent/ on “auto-pilot”
  • flat affect
  • dissociated (see future post on dissociation)
  • inability to think clearly/disabled cognitive processing

What does it look like within the window of tolerance?

Within the window of tolerance one can regulate their emotions and self-soothe. The individual is oriented to the present moment, or has an awareness of the here and now. They are able to think clearly and have an awareness of their feelings simultaneously. The individual has a sense of safety, and can give and receive empathy. Some characteristics of someone within their window of tolerance include:

  • calm
  • engaged
  • connected
  • able to make decisions not based entirely on feeling state (feelings are processed and influence decisions, but do not drive decision making
  • grounded/stable
  • curious/open
  • assertive
  • flexible/adaptable
  • sense of control and options
Photo by Olya Kobruseva on

So how do I widen my window of tolerance?

If you are hyper-aroused it may help to allow your body to move. For instance, for those who experience tremors, try to not restrict the tremors and instead intensify them. If your hands are slightly shaking make large movements with your hands and arms. If necessary, move your entire body for as long as it feels right to. Then intentionally slow your movements down. If you can make things bigger, you can make them smaller. This usually results in slower and clearer thinking. If one of your behaviors is impulsivity, then set a boundary of time before you make a decision. For example: “I will not respond to the message until one hour has passed.” “I will wait 24 hours and see if I still feel the same way about this issue as I do now.” This allows time to cool down and ensure you are not making a decision out of a temporary feeling.

If you are hypo-aroused it will be helpful to do a grounding or mindfulness exercise to engage your mind and body in the present moment. A popular tool is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Notice 5 things you can see and say these 5 things out loud, notice 4 things you can touch and feel the textures of each 4 things, notice 3 things you can hear, notice 2 things you can smell, and notice 1 thing you can taste. This exercise engages your 5 senses to help you to feel more present.

Emotional regulation tools will be beneficial for either type of arousal. These may include: progressive muscle relaxation, box breathing, breathe in a positive message and breathe out what is distressing you (for example: on the in-breath you may say internally “I am capable” and on the out-breath you may say “I breathe out any self-doubt,” yoga/stretching, journaling, walking outside, or even taking a drink of water or having a mint (salivation illicits a relaxation response as it involves the parasympathetic nervous system).

For prevention to jumping outside your window: SELF-CARE, SELF-CARE, SELF-CARE. The thing you do to recharge and pour into yourself on Saturday will not maintain you until the following Thursday. Do you charge your phone every evening? Even if it has not lost all of its charge from today? For most of us the answer is, yes. We continually plug in the charger because we may not know how long it will be before we can charge it again, or we may use up the battery more on one day versus another. The stressors of life are inevitable. We need to recharge ourselves consistently, so we can face life’s battles energized and well-resourced.

Photo by Julia Avamotive on

-One final note-

Did you know if your window of tolerance for distress is narrow that your tolerance for positive emotions is also narrow??? This means you will encounter barriers to fully experiencing joy, peace, cheer, pleasure, play, excitement, compliments and encouragement from others, amusement, inspiration, affection, hope and more.

Take a look at these DSM-5 criteria for the following presenting issues:

Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar I and II: markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all activities most of the day, nearly every day, feelings of worthlessness.

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD): feelings of hopelessness or self-deprecating thoughts, decreased interest in usual activities.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world, markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): chronic feelings of emptiness

Finally, though not within the diagnostic criteria, anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure) can result from other presenting issues such as Anorexia Nervosa, substance and alcohol abuse-related disorders, Anxiety-related disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and more.

The only way to the other side is through.

Helen Keller

To widen your window of tolerance for positivity and pleasure, you must widen your window for processing distress. Be encouraged! You are well able, capable, resilient, strong, and created to go “through”! Equipping yourself with emotional regulation tools and self-care will serve you well on your journey.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

The age old question.  Don’t we all ask it at some point?  Do we really want to know the answer? 

As a counselor who works with good people of which obscenely bad things have happened to, I admit I have asked the same question.  For believers, this question can shake one’s faith and lead one to question if God is actually good.

I don’t claim to have an answer, but when I consider the power of resiliency, the desire to ask why subsides as I contemplate the wow!

If you could sit in a counselor’s room for any length of time you would undoubtedly witness the wow!=resilience, bravery, victory, and strength.  These words don’t usually reside in the same societal narrative as “mental health” “therapy” or “counseling” but THEY SHOULD.  

When we focus on the why we give too much power to the negative circumstance.  Yes bad things happen and in no way am I dismissing that gravity of these bad things.  They are bad, often they are far worse than bad–but–when our narrowed focus gets fused on why we give up our authority to pursue the what.

C.S. Lewis writes after his wife’s passing, “But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good.  The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting.  If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.  But is it credible that such extremities of torture be necessary for us? Well, take your choice.  The tortures occur.  If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one.  If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary.  For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t.  Either way, we’re for it.”

C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”

So, perhaps the what, or maybe it is better said- for what (purpose)- is the more critical question than why.

Some “for whats” I have witnessed as a clinican include:

“For” an awareness of His Glory and presence.

“For” a break away from the dysfunction of generational issues.

“For” a positive and effective change that ripples through future generations.

“For” a clear and confident sense of self-efficacy.

“For” a deep compassion to facilitate healing in others.

“For” an accurate and full understanding of intimacy, the ability to express and experience it, the knowledge of the dangers that obscure it, and the capacity now to protect it.

“For” the opportunity to reframe one’s belief about themself and the strength to denounce the lie.

“For” belief in one’s worthiness.

We can ask and focus on the why or we can pursue the “for what”: “Either way, we’re for it”

ABC’s of Affairs

“Pain is the usual incentive for change, but hope is a necessary partner.”

Emily Brown

Affair Recovery clients are a population I really enjoy working with. Their marriage is in crisis, the pain is raw, BUT what an incredible healing experience to witness as they grow through the following “ABC’s”

A: The first “A” is Avoidance.  To some extent all affairs contain some level of avoidance.  This avoidance may be avoiding conflict (trying to keep the harmony), avoiding painful emotions (stuffing them down or numbing), avoiding intimacy (likely because at one point in time it was not safe or acceptable to be close and intimate), or even avoiding reality (being invested in the mythical fantasies/expectations of marriage).  Whatever the avoidance, it must be brought out of the darkness that it hibernates in.  This requires a great deal of emotional safety.  If the vulnerability underneath the avoidance has been exposed and then dismissed, shamed, or made fun of (other words exposed to an emotionally unsafe environment) then avoidance will likely be perpetuated.  Much of therapy at the beginning is purposed for creating a safe environment to face what has been too painful or too feared to face before.  Even then relapses occur and we bump into avoidant patterns again; however, we are not doomed for failure.  We must also add awareness, which brings us to our second “A.”

The second “A” is Awareness.  Awareness is key when therapy gains are not firmly rooted and old patterns pop up, as previously stated.  Awareness is also needed when it comes to feelings identification, ownership, and regulation.  Both spouses need to identify their feelings and effectively manage them independently.  Depending on the other spouse to regulate one’s emotional experience will not bode well because that spouse may not be available to serve in that capacity.  In addition, dependency may very well be an element that helped to create the opportunity for an affair to occur in the marriage in the first place.  Awareness is also needed to identify the generational patterns.  To prevent the transmission of patterns experienced in their families of origin, both spouses need to be aware of how their patterns look similar to those of their family’s and practice differentiation (see previous post!). 

B: “B” is for the Balance needed for processing the meaning of the affair itself with the marital issues that precipitated the affair.  For the betrayed spouse, the affair is the issue.  For the spouse involved in infidelity, the marital issues are the problem.  For healing to take place, and to cultivate a marriage where there won’t be an opportunity for a future affair, both the affair and the marital issues must be processed.  Both spouses need to own the miss-steps they took in the marriage, which brings us to “C”

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C: “C” is for Changing perspectives to a shared definition about the affair.  When spouses are able to own their contribution and collectively define how it took both of them to get where they are in their marriage, the intensity of the emotional charge they feel dissipates and makes room for work to be accomplished.  Therefore, “C” is also for Changing dysfunctional behavior.  It took both of the spouses to get here.  It will also take both of them to get out.  When each spouse can identify and own their part, they can move forward in practicing new ways of engaging.  Because systems adjust to change, as one spouse changes the other also responds with change.  Which brings us to the last “C” Commitment.  At this level in the process both spouses now have all they need to choose the marriage, and as with all life’s storms, they are likely stronger for it.  Many couples share that in a weird way they are thankful for the affair because it led them to the quality of marriage they now have and enjoy.

This post has been gleaned from information presented in Emily Brown’s book “Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment” (see My Recommended Reading Library page).

The Well-Differentiated Self

Differentiation is a concept developed by Murray Bowen.  It is one of the founding principles in Bowen’s Family Systems Theory.  The following is my personal description of a well-differentiated self and an explanation of why its so important to be differentiated.

My personal definition of differentiation: The ability to be connected and engaged fully with “we” while simultaneously exercising an established, whole, and defined “I.”  Its a balance between “we” and “I”- not enmeshed/codependent, and not detached/cut off- it is a healthy space in the middle.

A well-differentiated person is:

  • someone skilled in emotional regulation – because of this is able to experience and express emotional experience effectively and carefully assess thought process
  • someone who utilizes principles/beliefs/values help guide decision making 
  • someone who is able to act selflessly because of choice not due to pressure or feelings of obligation and without self-sacrificing 
  • someone who can manage their own anxiety 
  • someone who is assertive not aggressive 
  • someone who is flexible and adaptable not a pushover
  • someone who more often responds instead of reacts 
  • someone who can connect to others without losing “I” (their identity)

A poorly-differentiated person is:

  • someone who engages in active or passive attempts to control others (bully or chameleon)
  • someone who depends on the acceptance and approval of others (bully will pressure others to conform to their ways, chameleon will ascribe to the ways of others and engage in people pleasing)
  • someone who experiences frequent disagreements that threaten their sense of security 
  • someone with patterns in rescuing (losing “I” in fixing/saving others) or manipulating (perspective that others hold greater power in “I’s” functioning, so “I” is lost in becoming fused with the management of others)
  • someone who is led by emotions-emotions heavily influence and guide decision making
  •  someone who’s dependence results in chronic anxiety 

So- Why is it important to be differentiated?

Research shows that well-differentiated people are more resilient and better positioned for authentic connections!  They have a wide window of tolerance which means they are capable of managing a number of stressors without exploding or imploding.  

Well-differentiated people are also able to identify and respect their needs, as well as, the needs of those around them.  Though it sounds like it might mean seperatness, differentiation is not synonymous with isolation.  In truth, differentiation is an essential ingredient for intimacy.  If there is a whole and defined “I” and a whole and defined “you,” then there can be a whole and defined “us” where connection can be experienced at depth. 

What can you do to pursue a well-differentiated self?

  • Grow in independent emotional regulation.  “Feelings are real, but not always true”: first identify your feeling experience, then-write it out, work it out artistically, work it out physically, work it out spiritually.  Examples: journaling, drawing/crafting, going on a walk, praying.  Also helpful: guided imagery, grounding, doing something for someone else, gratitude journal.  *Remember: It is important to reach out to others for help and share experiences.  Humans were created to belong and connect.  The danger is dependence.  We are more empowered when we learn to cultivate our own happiness rather than looking to others to make us happy or needing them to make us feel better.

  • Stay in the here and now.  Anxiety is often sourced in ruminating over hurts/stressors of the past, or worries about the future.  If this feeling is influencing decisions, then what is happening in the present is entirely missed.  “You can only experience joy within the boundaries of today”-Sarah Young

  • Invest in your independence.  Find a (one or more) hobby/passion/interest/goal that is just for you and you alone.

  • Celebrate and appreciate differences.  Identify strength and worth in attributes you hold that are different than those you know and strive to see strength and worth in other’s qualities that are different than yours.  It’s tempting to believe that things would be easier if others see and behave as we do, but this assumption dismisses the beauty in humanity and how everyone is uniquely themselves.

  • Take ownership of growth-areas.  These in NO way appraise you as holding less value.  This ownership is actually empowerment toward responsibility for self and maturity in not attributing blame to others.

  • Learn what boundaries are, when to set them, and how to maintain them.  This can be difficult because when a new boundary is set, most react by resisting acceptance of the boundary.  It is important to know and believe that “no” is a boundary word, not an unloving word.  Boundaries are a way to define an “I” and then provide the opportunity for others to honor “what is me and what is not me.”

Thanks for reading!

What is EMDR?

“Anything that keeps you from being a shooting star is either a memory or a lie.” -Deb Kennard, Founder of The Personal Transformation Institute
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Have you ever had a photo taken of you that you despised? No matter how many people told you, “You look great! What are you talking about?” or “I like that picture of you!” you still do not like that photo? What we believe about ourselves holds the greatest power.

EMDR Therapy is a well-researched and highly effective treatment originated for trauma survivors. One crucial part of EMDR Therapy, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is taking a negative cognition (perhaps one knows that they are enough, but they do not feel enough) and reframing it to a true positive cognition. This empowers the client to not just change, but maintain a new perspective of themselves.

EMDR can be difficult for some clients to buy into as it is quite different from traditional talk therapy. However, in my opinion, it is a much kinder way to treat trauma while getting to the core of the distress.

The first step in EMDR is establishing resources to help with emotional regulation. This way, when encountering a stressor, a client is well equipped with a variety of tools to manage it more effectively. Next, the client is asked to bring up disturbing memories. These memories may be big T trauma such as an act of violence or abuse, or they may be little t trauma such as harsh words a parent said or an embarrassing event that happened at school. Little t trauma is little not in that it is less impactful, but it is often less obvious. After memories are identified, clients proceed in a structured process to desensitize the emotional charge connected to the event and aid the brain and body in reprocessing the trauma adaptively. This is done with bilateral stimulation or BLS. BLS stimulates both hemispheres of the brain and can be done visually with eye movements, tactile with tapping, or auditory with tones. This enables the client to be both grounded to the present and an observer of the event being reprocessed. One of the best parts of EMDR is that details are not necessary for healing. Often only a few words or short phrases are needed. This protects clients from re-traumatization or retelling the trauma narrative. The last step of EMDR involves looking at the future and reprocessing any roadblocks that get in the way of one responding confidently in the way they desire.

Clients are frequently astonished with the change they see in themselves and how it has a rippling effect on their relationships. Many leave therapy stating they feel stronger, more empowered, and hold a greater sense of self-efficacy.

Below are some quotes I have frequently received from clients who chose to try EMDR Therapy:

“It feels like the trauma is being erased.”

“The memory feels far away and distant.”

“I feel like I have a foundation we are building on.” 

“The eye movements help to dissipate the trigger.”

“I feel like we are healing the core of the trauma with EMDR when in talk therapy I have only got to the surface and been re-traumatized.”

“I know I have all the resources I need now.”

“I have always been triggered by this memory.  Now I don’t feel any charge with it.  The emotion is gone.  I didn’t know how heavy it was until I had relief from it.”

“I am constantly more appreciative and impressed with how what we are doing in here helps to improve my daily life.”

“I am more secure and confident in myself.”

“The trauma doesn’t define me.  It’s lost its power.”

“I don’t know how I have never heard of this before.  It is life changing!”

If you are considering EMDR Therapy, I cannot recommend it enough! Check out the EMDRIA (EMDR International Association) video below for more information. Thanks for reading!

The Codependency Coaster

“But, the heart of the definition and recovery lies not in the other person-no matter how much we believe it does.  It lies in ourselves, in the ways we have let other people’s behavior affect us and in the ways we try to affect them: the obsessing, the controlling, the obsessive “helping,” caretaking, low self-worth bordering on self-hatred, self-repression, abundance of anger and guilt, peculiar dependency on peculiar people, attraction to and tolerance for the bizarre, other-centeredness that results in abandonment of self, communication problems, intimacy problems, and an ongoing whirlwind trip through the five-stage grief process.”

Codependent No More, p. 34

I have not yet found a description more accurate or profound than the one above of what codependency really looks like.  The sad and unfortunate piece of codependency is that the codependent becomes so absorbed into another human being (typically an unsafe and hurtful person) that they believe even their own healing resides in that other person.  By the time they get here, even if the drunk stops drinking – the drug addict stops using – the narcissist finds another audience – the dysfunctional behavior changes—the codependent patterns will remain until the codependent becomes empowered enough to stop abandoning him/herself.  They in NO WAY are responsible for the horrible things done/said to them.  The wounds are real and valid.  They are, however unfair or unjust it seems, accountable to their own healing.

“Codependent behaviors or habits are self-destructive.  We frequently react to people who are destroying themselves; we react by learning to destroy ourselves.”

Codependent No More, p. 37

Sometimes I ask clients, “Do you feel like you are a barometer for each other’s feelings.  If one of you is feeling something do you frequently find the other is feeling it too?  Do you absorb the tension in the room?”  This flags me to a possible codependent dynamic at play.  Codependents find themselves heavily burdened with fixing or solving another’s problem that then results in a deeper issue accompanied by a brokenness that consumes them.  They become so consumed that they can no longer identify what they need.  They deny what they need or see themselves as not deserving of what they need.  Something must be wrong with them to need… such and such.  They are either overly responsible for others, underly responsible for themselves, or both.  They’re invisible.  They think they know how they got here, but the truth is they frequently see their pieces of the puzzle inaccurately or they don’t see the pieces at all. 

“It (detachment) is not detaching from the person whom we care about, but from the agony of involvement.”

Codependent No More, p. 55

A mark of recovery for someone who struggles with codependency is when they are able to say “That (issue, problem, consequence, circumstance) is not mine and I don’t have to make you bad for having it or even for trying to put it on me.  It makes sense that you would expect that of me because it’s what I have continuously done in the past.  I’ll take what is mine, but I won’t make what is yours’ mine.”  Detaching in love is possible, even when others do not respond positively to the boundary that has been newly set.

“We need to keep sacrificing our happiness as well as others’ for the good of some unknown cause that doesn’t demand sacrifice.”

Codependent No More, p. 94

Codependents are repeatedly told they are crazy.  Crazy for feeling the way they feel, thinking the way they think, having the opinions they have, caring as much as they care, controlling as much as they try to control, hoping for something different, and more.  What is actually “crazy,” or perhaps a better word for it is insane, is this cycle of sacrifice and the expectation of maintaining “happy.”  Albert Einstein is quoted to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  Codependents are very aware of what is pleasing to those they care for and what is not, what has influenced a change in another’s behavior and what has not (this is an attempt at control).  They try different things again and again, but not really because every one of them is a sacrifice.  In regards to the expectation of “happy,” happy is a temporary feeling.  Happiness is not: constantly maintainable, a therapeutic goal, a foundation of which to make a big decision on, or dependent on something or someone outside of us (we cultivate our own happiness).  On that warm and fuzzy note, we will move on to the next quote.

“Another problem with repressed feelings is they don’t go away.  They linger, sometimes growing stronger and causing us to do many peculiar things.  We have to stay one step ahead of the feeling, we have to stay busy, we have to do something.  We don’t dare get quiet and peaceful because we might then feel these emotions.  And the feeling might squeak out anyway, causing us to do something we never intended to do:scream at the kids, kick the cat, spill on our favorite dress, or cry at the party.  We get stuck in feelings because we’re trying to repress them, and like a persistent neighbor, they will not go away until we acknowledge their presence.”

Codependent No More, p. 145

Avoidance is another part of the insane.  Try something different.  As the chapter this quote is found in suggests: feel your feelings.  Relief and healing wont come until you do.

“Codependents are indirect.  We don’t say what we mean, we don’t mean what we say.  We don’t do it on purpose.  We do it because we’ve learned to communicate this way.  At some point, either in our childhood or adult family, we learned it was wrong to talk about problems, express feelings, and express opinions.  We’ve learned it was wrong to directly state what we want and need.  It was certainly wrong to say no, and stand up for ourselves.

Codependent No More, p. 181

Codependents were trained at some point to understand that passivity is protective, and it likely was.  It may have been what they needed to do to survive a drunken screaming match, an embarrassing scene, or a physical blow.  Recovery is reframing this understanding and taking power back.  It’s learning to be assertive and the necessity of creating and maintaining boundaries.  Most of all, recovery is believing in one’s own worthiness and expressing that belief.

“Even if we deal with our characteristics, we may still lean toward frogs, but we can learn not to jump into the pond with them.”

Codependent No More p. 127
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Awareness is key.  We can deal with what we know, we can’t deal with what we don’t know.  Ultimately, you are accredited with the responsibility to make decisions about your life and that includes who you choose to spend your time with.  If you are self-aware and well-differentiated (see future post!), you don’t have to “jump in the pond,” or absorb/react to the dysfunction, whatever it may be.

Thanks for reading.  I hope this was helpful!  All quotes are found in:  Beattie, M. (1986). Codependent No More (pp. 1-238). Center City, MN: Hazelden. Check the “Recommended Reading Library” tab for a link to purchase this book.

Common Shame Experiences of Child Sexual Abuse Survivors

If you are a child sexual abuse (CSA) survivor, or know a survivor, you likely have a close relationship with, or are a witness to shame.  The following are common elements that contribute to where CSA survivors’ shame is sourced. However, the purpose of this post is to re-frame this shame and normalize trauma reactions.

⦿ Not telling a trusted adult about the assault

Some survivors feel ashamed for not ending the abuse by seeking help.  Children are a vulnerable population. Because of where they are developmentally, it is easy to take advantage of this vulnerability.  Perpetrators use this advantage to groom children, manipulate children to think it is their idea, lead children to believe this is normal behavior, threaten children into being fearful of telling (threaten to harm the child, themselves, someone or something the child cares about), confuse children into believing the assault(s) is an act of love and affection, tell children no one would believe them if they did tell, hold children accountable to the “secret,” and more.  Further, the perpetrator is always in a position of power and authority over the child and very likely someone they have a close relationship with. All of these complicated pieces make it nearly impossible for children experiencing sexual abuse to share what’s happening to them. It can be painful as an adult to look back and see opportunities where it would have been possible to talk about the abuse with someone who could have had the power to help. However, retroactively applying adult cognitive capacity and worldview onto the child self results in unfair expectations.  Examining the abuse in the context that it occured will remind the survivor that he/she did what he/she had to do to survive the trauma.  

⦿ Experiencing pleasure during the event

It is not uncommon for what initially felt like violating pain to transform into feeling pleasurable.  Some survivors share that they can remember when the abuse changed into something that was enjoyable. This in no way means that the survivor was a willing participant in the abuse.  Everyone has biological and chemical reactions to sexual activities. Orgasms cannot be controlled as they are an automatic reaction involving muscles, nerve endings, hormones (particularly oxytocin which is a social bonding hormone), blood supply, and more.  Some survivors confuse desiring this sense of pleasure with believing they desired the abuse. Some survivors take it even further and question that since they believe they desired the abuse, was it actually abuse? The answer is yes, it was abuse. There is a purpose behind laws regarding the age of consent (usually 17-18 depending on the state).  A child, adolescent, and early teen does not have the brain development to give consent to sex, or sexual touching. Pleasure does not equate to giving consent. Consent to sexual activities is only possible when ALL of the following are present: when both freely give consent without coercion, both fully understand the physical and emotional consequences, both respect that consent for one event does not necessarily mean consent for all future possible sexual activities, both respect the other’s boundaries, and both have the cognitive awareness and intellectual capacity to offer consent.

⦿ Feeling special and chosen

A number of children who experienced sexual abuse became bonded to their abuser.  Though it was an inappropriate relationship within an inappropriate context, an illusion evolves where the child is elevated to the position of an adult.  The child experiences adult activities and adult conversation. The child can be favored by the abuser and this is shown in a variety of ways through gifts, through grooming tactics, through sharing secrets no one else knows, through being prioritized above other relationships (ex: if the abuser is a father, the child may be prioritized above other siblings), and more.  Some survivors feel ashamed in how they grieved the ending of the social and emotional parts of the abusive relationship when the abuse terminated. This is a common experience as emotional needs were once met by the abuser (feeling valued and important, feeling accepted, feeling connected). We all possess emotional needs that are required to be met within relationships.  It is important to understand that meeting these needs within the context of an abusive relationship are for the purpose of manipulation. The child was manipulated into believing these needs were met with genuine and moral intent, when in truth they were met for a malicious objective. The adult survivor has the choice and the capacity to have social and emotional needs met with a safe person.

⦿ Coping during and after the abuse 

Human survival instincts are described as the fight/flight response.  However, the most dangerous and rarely discussed response is to freeze.  Many survivors hold a great amount of shame about their behavior during and/or after the trauma.  Freezing during the traumatic event is the body and brain’s way of saying, “My coping mechanisms are overwhelmed.  To keep myself safe, I have to shut down and become numb.” Freezing can manifest itself in becoming numb, experiencing dissociation, and repression.  A common kind of dissociation CSA survivors experience is called depersonalization. Dissociative depersonalization can be an “outer body experience” where the survivor escapes the body and views the event from outside his/herself.  Repression is blocking the memory of the event (which usually arises in pieces again when the survivor is in a safer season of life). After the abuse has occured, survivors can negatively cope in a myriad of ways. Some children act out sexually.  Some age and continue numbing and avoiding by means of drugs/alcohol. Others may engage in sexually promiscuous behavior to gain a new sense of control over their bodies. Some turn the anger they feel inward and utilize self-harm. All of these only provide a temporary sense of relief, so healthier and more effective coping strategies must be developed.

⦿ Body memories

Most memories of the abuse are unwelcome, but body memories are those that typically lay outside one’s conscious awareness.  An innocent touch can trigger a reaction that leaves the survivor confused about why it occurred. Many survivors are ashamed of their own bodies as the body houses the location where the abuse occurred and it remains with them at all times.  A large portion of recovery is focused on becoming more aware of body sensations and befriending and accepting one’s body.  

⦿ Revealing the abuse later on in life

We unfortunately live in a society that continues to frequently blame and ignore survivors’ experiences.  Those who decide to reveal their abuse experience, or confront their abuser may be responded to with criticism, disbelief, and/or dismissing the experience.  It can be excruciating to finally accept the existence of the experience for oneself and to share it with another who rejects the truth. The shame cycle is at risk of repeating if the survivor’s healing was dependent upon another’s acknowledgement.  (This is not to say that another’s acceptance of the survivor cannot contribute to healing.) Lasting healing resides within the survivor.

How Traditional Gender Role Expectations Can Be Imprisoning for Men

Men are allowed two emotions: anger and happiness

“Rub some dirt on it.”  “Don’t be a sissy.” “Big boys don’t cry.”  “Come on, toughen up.” If you have heard these phrases you have been a witness to the gender socialization of men and boys.  It is expected of men to squash feelings while presenting a stable, stoic, and logical appearance.  Anything but anger and happiness is too vulnerable or risky to display. This message is delivered during childhood. Boys who swallow their emotions are praised for their “strength.”  According to Cassano and Zeman’s 2010 study, fathers deemed emotional experience and expression of sadness in their sons as negative.  This then transferred to their sons who also used negative language to describe their experience. Part of the human experience is the experience of the whole spectrum of emotions.  Our culture socializes men to be ashamed of their emotions and hide their expression. This is imprisoning in that our experience is our truth and if our truth is not acceptable, this translates into a message that maybe we are not accepted for who we are as we are.

Men must maintain manhood status

Men are expected to display their masculinity and make up for the moments where they did not appear as society defines masculine.  The phrase, “You just lost your man card” speaks to this concept. According to socialization, manliness requires a consistent performance to provide evidence, and it can be lost.  To prevent the loss of manhood status, studies show that compensatory behaviors emerge. One study found manhood to be more fragile than womanhood; therefore, threats to manhood may be responded to with attempts at compensation to regain manhood status (like risk-taking and aggression) (Kosakowska-Berezecka, et al., 2016).  In another study, De Visser and McDonnell (2013) found that sexuality, sporting competence, and alcohol consumption all increased perceived masculinity, but alcohol consumption was less of a contributor. These findings demonstrate how men will go to great lengths (sexual promiscuity, heavy drinking, risk taking) to maintain higher masculine capital.

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To be masculine is to deny and devalue any feminine (society defined) qualities

It may very well be that women are the oppressed gender partly due to men’s socialization to reject femininity in themselves.  “You throw like a girl” is a derogatory comment towards boys/men in being compared to girls/women. Feminine qualities expressed by men are frequently interpreted as homosexual.  In fact, research shows that when name-calling, the labels “gay” and “girl” are used interchangeably to represent the failure of meeting masculine standards (Myers, 2012). Taken even further, “Boys reject femininity in order to establish their dominance, and they must continually degrade girls and feminize other boys so as to maintain their status—even as they pursue girls sexually” (Myers, 2012, p. 128).  So how is this imprisoning? First, it is exhausting to constantly be required to prove oneself as masculine and perform to meet masculine standards. This again reinforces the message that a man’s value and identity rests in his ability to be perceived as masculine. Second, in truth, masculinity and femininity are different but not opposites. They are constructs on a continuum and both men and women hold both traditionally assigned masculine and feminine qualities.  Third, no matter your political persuasion, being expected to put down people groups (women and homosexuals) to elevate oneself is taxing on the spirit. Humanity was created for connection and this kind of destructive disconnection conflicts with the core of who we are. 

Men must must not be perceived as weak

There are physiological differences between men and women and one of those is that men are typically built for greater physical strength.  However, negative expectations accompany this. A strong man is expected to be tall, visibly muscular, able to grow facial hair etc. They are also expected to utilize and prove their strength.  The concept of strength is often equated to masculinity. Which as discussed previously is a status that has to be consistently demonstrated and can be lost. A study by Berke, Reidy, Miller, and Zeichner (2017) examined this concept.  After administering a gender knowledge test, men were given gender threatening feedback, or gender non-threatening feedback. Participants were then tested for pain tolerance. Those who received gender threatening feedback endured more pain (through pound force applied to the supinator muscle of the participant’s non-dominant arm) than those who received non-threatening gender feedback.  So, essentially, those whose masculinity was questioned endured more pain to prove their masculinity. Further than that, not meeting masculine standards led men to question their manhood when they had no question prior to receiving the gender threatening feedback. The gendered expectation of strength moves well beyond what is effective when he feels shame for not measuring up to social standards.  Shame says, “something is wrong with me.”

Brene Brown, a shame researcher and author, eloquently shares one reason why gender expectations for men are maintained: 

“Here’s the painful pattern that emerges from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it.  In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust” (Brown, 2012, p. 95).

We are all contributors to the socialization of men and women.  Knowing this fact, we can be empowered to transform into contributors for change.

If you enjoyed this post, please see my previous post on Traditional Gender Expectations for Women.  Thanks for reading!

Berke, D. S., Reidy, D. E., Miller, J. D., & Zeichner, A. (2017). Take it like a man: Gender-threatened men’s experience of gender role discrepancy, emotion activation, and pain tolerance. Psychology Of Men & Masculinity, 18(1), 62-69.  doi:10.1037/men0000036

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly (p. 95). New York, NY: Gotham Books.

 Cassano, M. C., & Zeman, J. L. (2010). Parental socialization of sadness regulation in middle childhood: The role of expectations and gender. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1214-1226. doi:10.1037/a0019851 

De Visser, R. O., & McDonnell, E. J. (2013). ‘Man points’: Masculine capital and young men’s health. Health Psychology, 32(1), 5-14. doi:10.1037/a0029045

Kosakowska-Berezecka, N., Besta, T., Adamska, K., Jaśkiewicz, M., Jurek, P., & Vandello, J. A. (2016). If my masculinity is threatened I won’t support gender equality? The role of agentic self-stereotyping in restoration of manhood and perception of gender relations. Psychology Of Men & Masculinity, 17(3), 274284. doi:10.1037/men0000016 

Myers, K. (2012). “Cowboy Up!”: Non-Hegemonic Representations of Masculinity in Children’s Television Programming. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 20(2), 125-143.doi:10.3149/jms.2002.125