Sunday, August 30, 2009

When The Boss is A Bully

I was once seeing two young women for therapy during roughly the same time period, and the differences in how they each handled very difficult bosses were instructive.

Carla could tell a good, amusing, entertaining story about the boss she assisted and how insane he was. Eventually, Carla stopped entertaining me and exposed how deeply resentful she really felt. But Carla was so good at being perfectly accommodating that her boss considered her indispensable, and came to depend on her more and more. While Carla was complaining bitterly to me in therapy, at her office she was smiling and entertaining and placating her boss without any setting of limits.

Carla also had a boyfriend whom she complained about, yet she couldn’t stand up to him, even though we agreed he seemed to endlessly avoid real commitment. As we explored further, the pattern and its history became more visible. Carla had been daddy’s girl until Carla was a young teen, at which point her father stopped being interested in his family and found a young girlfriend, bought a motorcycle, copped out of paying for Carla’s college expenses, and so on. It seemed that Carla was used to being in relationships where she gave her all, but ended up not getting much in return, especially if she tried to get her needs recognized. She kept working harder at being the perfect daughter, the perfect girlfriend, the perfect assistant. She had become used to being the one who did all the giving, and couldn’t see that she repeatedly got stuck in involvements with people who responded to her ambivalently, as her father had, and balked if she asked anything of them. Luckily for Carla, a friend gave her name to another company, and she left her underpaying job for a much better situation. But Carla still needed to learn to believe in herself enough to form healthier, more mutual relationships. As confident as she was in her talents, she lacked confidence in her sense of authority and entitlement in relationships.

Another patient I’ll call Andrea had grown up feeling that her parents had her back at all times; and that they trusted and admired her. Andrea was working on important issues in therapy, but confidence in what she deserved in her relationships wasn’t one of them. After an initial good year at her job, Andrea’s boss began playing her off against a co-worker. The boss was always demanding more of her, but would make himself unavailable to Andrea when he knew she wanted anything from him, and wouldn’t go to bat for her with the higher ups when it would have been appropriate to do so. In her second year, after a holiday bonus that fell short of what Andrea knew she deserved, she started looking for work and quickly found a far better paying job. She was careful to communicate with her new potential employers what her salary requirements and expectations would be, and what her hopes were in terms of office environment. Andrea and the company heads who interviewed her hit it off beautifully. She started her new job full of excitement and hope.

Angry, selfish, demanding, sadistic – whatever flavor of craziness a boss might come in, it’s likely that anyone who works will encounter a bad boss sooner or later. If you are constantly frustrated about your boss, and you’re not finding ways to make your situation better, you may be part of the problem, and professional help may be advisable. When so much of life is our work life, doing whatever it takes to make work better should be a no-brainer.


I met Lauren, an attractive middle-aged woman with warm, deep blue eyes, for a perfect cappuccino at Didier Dumas’ in Nyack the other day. She had called to tell me about the support groups at the Mental Health Association in Valley Cottage, for people with bipolar disorder and for their friends and family. I asked her to tell me how she got involved, and here is what she said:

She met Josh, her second husband, after being introduced through a dating service. They talked on the phone and he seemed very interesting, very well-mannered. She had divorced at a fairly young age, and raised her now-grown children as a single mom. Josh had raised four children, all Ivy League grads, now with families of their own. He was divorced after a 27 year marriage, and he continued to work in the highly specialized medical field in which he had been quite successful. Lauren and Josh began dating, and soon Lauren learned that Josh’s career had been marked by a series of repetitive conflicts with colleagues; that he needed a lot of attention; that he could at times be inappropriate and demonstrate poor judgment. Lauren continued to date him because in spite of the “issues,” he was also sincere, kind, loving, generous, adventurous, and fun.

Lauren and Josh were married for about a year, when Josh’s strange behaviors escalated. Lauren needed to tend to her ailing elderly father, and as she became less available, Josh became increasingly resentful. He made big messes in the house and didn’t clean up; he’d be banging around working on projects in the middle of the night; he’d easily get angry to the point of screaming. It escalated to the point where Josh seemed completely out of control. Lauren laid down the law and got him to see a psychiatrist; the psychiatrist arranged for an inpatient hospital stay. Bipolar disorder, which should have been diagnosed when Josh was in his 20’s, was at long last identified, and medications were prescribed. Josh started acting like himself again.

Getting the medications right took about six months. Lauren stood by Josh even though she was wounded, feeling self-protective as Josh recovered. At the same time, she learned everything she could about bipolar disorders, she became a walking encyclopedia on the subject. She learned about the mood swings, from manic highs to dark, depressive lows. The highs involve distorted and dangerous thinking, and self-destructive behavior – extreme irritability and anxiety are common; as are grandiose, euphoric states. The depressions are dark, deep, agonizing. These moods can be mixed, they can alternate, they can be separated by relatively normal periods. Lauren had seen it all with Josh.

Lauren made it clear she wouldn’t be Josh’s nurse or his mother – he would have to be responsible for his medications, for monitoring his behavior, for staying in therapy. And he would need to take responsibility for his impact on her and on the others around them.

Josh and Lauren (not their real names) attend both the Bipolar Group and the group for Friends and Family of people with Bipolar disorder, at the Mental Health Association of Rockland in Valley Cottage. For information on the Bipolar group that meets on Tuesday nights please call Leslie Davis at (845) 638-2576; for the Friends and Family group please call Donna Davidson at (845) 613-7086.

As I left Lauren and told her I would tell her story in this column, she couldn’t help becoming tearful. “I’m so grateful,” she told me. “People need to know about this illness, how to treat it, how to get support.” Lauren, thank you for having the generosity and the courage to share your story; I know it will be greatly appreciated.

© Daniel Shaw 2008


If you were the one without a partner at your family gatherings this season and you weren’t happy about that, you are not alone. A lot of people I talk to are despairing because they have tried and tried, and they still haven’t found a partner. They wonder what they are doing wrong; they wonder if all men/women are just like the last disappointing, unreliable person they dated.

Of course there are many factors that might cause someone difficulty in finding a partner. One problem I encounter quite frequently is unconscious ambivalence – deeply conflicted feelings that are not fully recognized.

I often get astonished stares from people when, after lots of listening and exploring about what is going on with their unsuccessful dating, I question if perhaps they might be more ambivalent about wanting intimacy than they realize. I’ll point out that they have a history of choosing ambivalent, passive, commitment-phobic partners; they have a history of staying with someone too long, even when it didn’t seem right from the get-go; and that they display many other behaviors that suggest that without realizing it, they are making the same bad choices again and again. Then there are the relationships in which both people continually feel like the victim of the other – I’ll save that one for another column.

Working through ambivalence, I will typically explore three areas:

1. Desire. Do you really want intimacy? What were your parents like with each other? What were you like with each of them? Based on your parental models, does intimate relating evoke fears of being smothered? being dominated? being neglected? being expected to be perfect? being constantly on the defensive? Even though you truly want a committed, intimate relationship, there can be another more hidden part of you that fearfully anticipates repeated hurts and disappointment. When these kinds of fears are not conscious, they have an undermining effect on the fulfillment of our desires.

2. Entitlement. If you believe we are all born deserving love as our natural birthright, are you sure you still believe you have that right? If not, what changed? Was your love and affection for your parents welcomed with tenderness, or was it ignored, even rejected? Was love given to you conditionally, begrudgingly, stingily? Were you led to believe that you were never good enough, and therefore didn’t deserve love? Were you expected to meet all your parent’s needs for love, but made to feel guilty about wanting anything for yourself? Now as an adult, when dating, do you make yourself like a commodity, an object to be chosen or rejected? Why aren’t you entitled to choose?

In order to exercise your right to choose, and not remain stuck in the helpless, passive position of waiting to be chosen, you need to flush out the old negative messages and work on internalizing new ones - mesages that support you to believe deeply that you are good enough to have the right to love and be loved. If that reminds you of Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character, so be it: Stuart Smalley had the right idea (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”).

3. Hope. Do you feel hopeful, confident and optimistic that you will find love? Can you find a way out of discouragement and disappointment, out of fear and anxiety? I recommend you stop thinking that you are being singled out by unseen powers for endless punishment – you’ll never prove it. You are better off working toward developing patience, and the hopeful, optimistic conviction that you have as much right as anyone else to find happiness.

If you are stuck in repetitive, discouraging relationship patterns, don’t give up. I’ve seen again and again that people who are willing to work hard at clarifying their desires, overcoming fears, and building a healthy sense of entitlement and hope, can succeed in finding and sustaining love that lasts.

Rx for Parents With Children

If you are married or partnered with children, answer this: when was the last time you went out on a date with your partner, without your kids? If you have to think about it for more than fifteen seconds, you may just have identified one of your biggest problems as a couple.

When two people make a life together and include having children, they take on innumerable responsibilities. In our commendable efforts to be good, loving, responsible parents, we often forget to plan ahead – to the time when those kids will grow up, start their own lives, and fly the coop. I’ve noticed that many people whose partnerships are hitting the rocks are just at the point of approaching or having to adjust to an empty nest. Again and again, I hear that their life was all about the kids. With the kids gone, they don’t know who they are as people, or as a couple.

The big joke you always hear about married couples and life partners is that their wedding rings have cut off all sensation to their genitals (rim shot sound effect, please). But let’s be honest: happy unions aren’t just about having more sex. You can’t rely on sex alone to create the sense of being recognized, seen, heard, acknowledged and appreciated. Those are the things aside from sex that most partners crave, whether they admit to it or not. What does create the sense of being deeply known and appreciated is the time that a couple puts aside for each other, through the years, to be alone together, to open up to each other, to depend on each other and trust each other.

That is why it is so important to stop making excuses for not hiring a sitter, or having appropriate friends or relatives take the kids for a night or two on a regular basis. Using children as an excuse to avoid deeper connection with a partner is an easy trap to fall into, and a hard one to get out of. If you haven’t been dating your partner; if dating your partner feels like cheating on your kids; if you’re avoiding acknowledging pent-up frustrations or resentments; if you’re having arguments or important discussions on the fly, by e-mail, or when you’re half asleep; if you’re not finding the time to speak and show your love and appreciation because you’re assuming that it’s understood – don’t be surprised that you feel disconnected.

The best way to draw closer and stay closer to your partner is to regularly take time for just the two of you, out of the house, without the kids – at least once a month, but preferably more. You don’t have to dress up, you don’t have to put any pressure on yourselves. Yes, now and then, plan something wildly romantic and special. But for your regular, recurring dates, keep it simple. Don’t always make it a movie or a show, where you barely get to talk. Just go someplace casual where you can hear each other. Maybe you’ll have an argument that you needed to have to clear the air; maybe you’ll be quiet because you’re just calming down and relaxing; maybe you’ll stop worrying about the kids for a minute and take care of each other a little. In whatever way it happens, you can tell each other all about yourselves, and just be the two of you again -- the same two people, more tired, older but still recognizable, who were once so wildly, crazily in love with each other.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It Ain't Over 'til It's Over

In my experience, people these days are in too much of a hurry to "move on" and "let go." It seems that most of us have a natural tendency to minimize the importance of experiences that have been emotionally difficult. We want to stop hurting quickly, and we don't want to feel embarrassed or stigmatized by difficult aspects of our past or present. What happens when we think we've reached closure, and we really haven't?

Not too long ago, I asked a woman who was having some marital problems about the most significant events she could tell me from her life story. She mentioned several things, including a teenage car accident; but for the most part, she was at a loss. Everything had been quite normal, she told me; her family was intact and there was nothing unusual to report.
When we spoke the next week, she told me with considerable surprise that when she told her husband about the session, he asked her if she had remembered to discuss the sudden, premature death of her younger brother when she was in her teens. How, she wondered, could she have left something so significant completely out of the story?

She and I have come to understand that her parents' mute, unbearable grief was so intense that after her brother's funeral, no one in the family tended to say much about it – almost as though they were ashamed. Everyone tried to go on about their business, and dropped the subject. Did her subsequent heavy drinking in high school, and the car accident that followed, perhaps have something to do with how quickly everyone in her family had tried to "move on" and "let go?" And her marital problems now, the distance she feels from her husband - could it have anything to do with her old habit of pushing feelings down, avoiding thinking or talking about what's painful?

"What's the use of getting into all that now?," I'm often asked. "That was 30 years ago. What good will it do to bring up all those feelings?" For the people who ask these kind of questions, "those feelings" too often never had a chance to be known, articulated, expressed – and thereby processed, digested, made bearable. Buried feelings about painful experiences reverberate in people's lives, and when unprocessed, come back to haunt in ways that are not always obvious. Rushing by the painful times, pushing the painful feelings away, doesn't really work out in the long run. As one of my favorite sages – Yogi Berra - once said, "it ain't over 'til it's over."

Wise advice can also be found in the words of Ecclesiastes: "There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." These different times that the Prophet speaks of are the times of our lives. Moving on and letting go doesn't have to mean pushing feelings away, keeping things on the surface. Moving on happens when we are living fully, awake and filled with feeling, through all the different times, up or down, that the unfolding of our lives will bring.

© Daniel Shaw 2007

The Joy of Imperfection

It's summertime – is the living easy yet? Stress all gone? Not yet? Not surprising. As the Buddhists say (pardon my paraphrase): if you're born a human, then you've got stress – no exceptions. Luckily, many folks manage life's normal level of stressful ups and downs with some measure of acceptance.

There is a particular kind of stress, though, which many people experience, that can be subtle and which often goes unidentified: the stress of having to be Perfect. That's Perfect with a capital P.We can all be a bit perfectionistic at times, but "capital P" Perfectionists are more extreme. It's not just that they are unduly frustrated by flaws, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and - heaven forbid - mistakes. It's that good isn't good enough, great isn't good enough, and even excellent isn't good enough. Nothing is good enough, and someone always has to be blamed for that.

Perfectionists have a rigid expectation of their own Perfection, and a tendency to devalue their own achievements, no matter how considerable. They alternate between being judgmental of others, and of themselves. For the Perfectionist, being "good enough" is a cop-out, a lazy person's excuse for not trying hard enough. The result of this attitude is not greater productivity: it's exhaustion. Like Sisyphus, they feel like they're always pushing a boulder up a hill – or they make the people around them feel that way.

Perfectionists can't stop judging, and it is always the same verdict: "Guilty of not being good enough." In my view, unless you're being paid to be a judge, or unless you're a criminal, then you should not be living in a courtroom, where someone is always being accused, put on trial, condemned, sentenced and punished. Contrary to the Perfectionist's beliefs, conscious or unconscious, imperfection is not a crime, and neither is it a sin.

For some who drink or drug too much, their substance abuse can be a way of shutting up the accusatory voice of their inner slave driver - the inner task master that never stops judging. Their drug of choice provides some relief, but only temporarily, of course, and at much too great a cost.

I once worked with a gifted and intelligent man, whose life seemed charmed to those who knew him socially, but who was grinding himself down with his relentless self-criticism. I asked him, even though I knew what his answer would be, "What if you won the Nobel Prize? Then would you be good enough?" We both agreed that, Nobel in hand, he'd still find a way to trash himself. I am pretty convinced that, in spite of our imperfections, we all have the right to feel that we are basically good enough – to live, to love and be loved. I hope he came to feel that way, too.

So it's summer. Time to bask in the joy of imperfection. If you're having a summer vacation this year, see if you can make it a break from the constant stress of Perfectionism. Appreciating and enjoying what is good enough, in one's self and in others, while knowing that nothing is ever Perfect, is actually a vacation from stress that you can take any time, any place.

© Daniel Shaw 2007


April Showers Bring May Flowers

“Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers that bloom in May…”

So goes the ‘20s Al Jolson tune that became a theme song of the Depression era. My mother, who grew up during the Depression, would sing it to herself in our Bronx apartment kitchen at times when she was down. Mom sounded a lot like her favorite singer, Mildred Bailey. In our house, singing tended to lift the spirits.

April showers bring May flowers: so corny, and so true. We don’t know joy in life without also knowing sorrow. Joy and sorrow go hand in hand, like night and day, shadow and sun, showers and flowers. Yet I’ve noticed that some people persist in thinking that there is something wrong with them because they aren’t constantly happy. The truth is that no one’s life - rich, poor or in between - is without some measure of painful disappointment.

I’ve had a beef for a long time with all those different large group seminars that promise so much success and fulfillment as long as you keep coming back and paying for more and more seminars. Yes, we can all use more support, more motivation, more encouragement. But we can’t live in a state of hyper positivity all the time. At least I can’t – can you? Post-Jolson, the Rolling Stones put it well: you can’t always get what you want – no matter how positive your thinking.

It seems to me that part of leading a healthy life is developing the capacity to bear disappointment – in life, in ourselves and in others. To bear – it’s the opposite of collapsing under the weight of something. To bear disappointment, sorrow, guilt, means to be able to go on living productively and creatively – to affirm life, even while bearing the knowledge that life is hard, nothing is perfect, and our time is short.

If we accept that life will always bring disappointments, sorrows and regrets, then it really makes sense to invest in developing the habits of appreciation and perseverance. As the pre-Jolson poet so wisely put it, “gather ye rose buds while ye may.”

It was uplifting to read recently of the 96 year old writer, Harry Bernstein, whose first novel was recently published to tremendous critical acclain. The book was rejected dozens of times, and then lay on a publisher’s desk for a year before someone picked it up and decided to give it a shot. Talk about never giving up!

We probably all know how hard it is to experience a crushing disappointment, at a personal level, or even at the global level – the world can sometimes seem, especially these days, awfully rotten. It’s not always easy to resist the temptation to crawl into bed and pull up the covers. Maybe sometimes, at our darkest times, crawling into bed is the best we can do.
But then come those spring flowers – first there’s crocus and daffodil, then forsythia , then the lilacs, magnolia, apple, cherry - the annual succession more and more fragrant as the summer draws closer. It’s worth getting out of bed for, every time. Winter will always come back - but faithfully, undeniably, thankfully - so will spring.

Spring Cleaning

Well, we made it through January and February, and for many of us, the hope of spring does at last begin to stir the heart. For others, though, hope barely flutters, because the winter months have been painfully SAD - which stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. For some, this time of year is excruciating. Rather than bringing hope, the end of winter is marked by shutdown, numbness, irritability, a sense of disconnection, apathy, and worst, despair.

Depression, seasonal, situational, or chronic, is a grim illness, because it convinces you that you are not ill, but rather that you are simply weak, lazy, and unworthy. If that's the cruel way that you've been thinking of yourself, then that is the depressed part of you talking. Depression is not a moral failure - though it does lead one to feel self-loathing. Most of us can get somewhat depressed from time to time, but chrnic depression is a powerful disease that eats at the soul and sucks the joy out of life.

The late writer William Styron used the phrase "darkness visible" to refer to his lifelong episodes of depression (it was also the title of his extraordinary memoir on the subject of depression). Styron, and many other highly accomplished, productive people who have spoken publicly of their struggles with depression, have shown exceptional courage to do so. Even in this confessional age of Oprah, many people consider their depression, or the depression of a loved one, as something to be hidden, a secret shame they hope will go away if it is ignored.

More recently, people go to their family doctor and ask for Prozac, or the latest anti-depressant they've heard of. Sometimes with medication, they experience enough relief from the worst of their depressive symptoms so that they carry on. But to attempt to get rid of depression solely in this way is an error, in my view. Yes, depression can be biological, but rarely is it purely a matter of genes. In all my years of practicing psychotherapy, I have never met a depressed person who didn't have significant cause for depression - usually, unrecognized, untreated trauma of one kind or another. Trauma can ensue from a discrete episode, such as an assault, a rape, the witnessing of a horror. But trauma can also be cumulative - examples might be growing up feeling unseen and unloved; or feeling that one never lives up to others' expectations, no matter how unreasonable those expectations may be; or being systematically dominated, controlled or belittled in a relationship. Untreated trauma, discrete or cumulative, is at the heart of depressive illness, and there is still no better way of treating it than through talk therapy, or therapy combined with medication prescribed by a qualified mental health professional.

With good psychotherapy, the root causes of depression can be unearthed. A therapist can be a compassionate witness to your personal history, a history that you may have tried to forget, or get rid of, or render meaningless. Therapy can help you put your history in perspective; learn to live with and bear the losses you need to mourn; and find the courage to make new choices, seek new opportunities. Many people know this, and yet refuse to seek help, believing they can change themselves. Certainly some can, but on the other hand, I've known people who bounced in and out of depression for 50 years before they really got serious and sought help.

Victor Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps, and went on to become a renowned psychoanalyst. He wrote: "When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves." For those who make good use of it, psychotherapy is still one of the most effective ways of changing oneself. If this has been one more depressed winter for you, begin your spring cleaning by getting help from a licensed mental health professional. If someone you know is depressed, tell them to get help. Getting help is a sign of strength, not of weakness; the decision to get help for depression is a sign that you can find the strength to overcome it.Daniel Shaw, LCSW, practices psychotherapy in Nyack, New York, and in New York City. He can be reached at in Nyack at (845) 548-256; and in New York City at (212)© Daniel Shaw, LCSW, 2007

You Say You Want a Resolution

Another New Year is here, and it’s time to make those resolutions. Lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier, be less irritable, spend more time with the kids, get out of debt, have more fun, more sex, more vacation… Self-disclosure: If I actually remember half my resolutions the day after I make them - let alone eventually achieve them - I’m lucky.

It’s been my experience, both personally and with the people I work with in my psychotherapy practice, that making a resolution to achieve something, to change something in yourself, can be quite challenging for many of us. Rather than being resolute, many people disappoint themselves and others because they are chronically irresolute - the condition famously, tragically suffered by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

How can we understand ambivalence, the tendency to obsess, to ruminate endlessly about a decision only to find ourselves repeatedly stuck in the same place? I’ll present two very brief examples:

Ted is 33, smart, handsome, and on the partner track in a good law firm. He dates, meets someone he likes, and gets involved in an exlusive relationship. After two years, the girl makes it clear that if he doesn’t want to marry her, she will break up with him. This is the third relationship he’s had like this - in a row. He thinks he can’t move forward because he can’t decide if he’s settling rather than finding someone he is absolutely sure about. When we get down deeper, he realizes that he fears that in any intimate relationship that he commits to, he will be forced into a submissive role, as he was all through childhood by his intimidating, highly controlling father.

Sally is a successful photographer for a magazine. The young intern assigned to help her is driving her crazy - he does sloppy work, he is defensive, feels inappropriately entitled, and acts like he is doing her a big favor. Sally values being respectful and helpful to subordinates, and can’t bring herself to handle the intern. Instead she agonizes in therapy sessions about what the right thing to do would be, all the while continuing to put up with the Intern from Hell. I eventually hear about Sally’s mom, a child-like woman that Sally was always more like a parent to than a daughter. If Sally ever had a protest or a complaint about her mother, and she had good reason to have many, her mom would burst into tears, feeling so hurt and victimized by Sally. For Sally to assert herself always meant that she would end up feeling profoundly guilty, as though it were selfish of her to consider her own needs rather than everyone else’s.

What’s next for Ted and Sally? They have to use the insights they’ve gained in therapy to act, to force themselves past their fear and their guilt, to stop repeating the same patterns they got stuck with and are stuck in. They need to resolve to be resolute. Encouragement and support in therapy and from others will only go as far as their own openness to growth and change, to making an internal shift, a resolution.

And perhaps what needs to be recognized is that whenever we make any choice, we gain the thing we choose, but we also lose what we did not choose. There is no way around that one - it’s a fact of life. If you’re waiting to know what the perfect choice is, you’ll be waiting indefinitely. We can make good choices, but not perfect ones.

So another New Year is here. There are only so many new years any of us will live to see. My New Year’s resolution is to answer Hamlet’s question. To be or not to be? To Be! Yes! To Be.

Happy New Year!

Daniel Shaw, LCSW practices psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in Nyack, New York and in New York City.
Nyack: (845) 548-2561; New York: (212) 581-6658

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Family Functions and Dysfunctions

‘Tis the season for families to gather together, and for some, these will be warm, happy times, filled with glowing Norman Rockwell tableaux and plenty of lovin’ from the oven. If that unambiguously describes your holiday season, count your blessings, and read no further.

For the many people still reading: don’t be embarrassed, you’re not alone. The holiday season is stressful, and not just because of the ever-looming threat of weight gain. Many families, even the most together ones, get increasingly anxious as the time for holiday gatherings draws near. Perhaps you worry about some of the following questions:

- who will drink too much and get mean or inappropriate this year?;
- which sibling will be scapegoated?; which siblings will fight and will it come to blows?; who will mom and dad defend and who will they blame?;
- how much criticism will you have to take? how much being ignored can you stand?;
- are mom and dad going to snap and bite at each other the whole time? will they finally get divorced this year?;
- is this the year you’ll finally come out of the closet? Or is it better just to go on deflecting the questions?
- which of your divorced parents gets what time from you?; which of your kids will be with you? which ones, if any, will be speaking to you?

I could go on. If I left you out in the above, I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

I suggest that instead of greeting the holidays by going unconscious and numb - and then coming back to your regular life and getting depressed and having fights with your friends and loved ones and wondering why - that you instead take some time to consider what you need to do for yourself to stay sane and healthy over the holidays.

It might seem wrong and not nice, when you’re supposed to be spontaneously creating all those Hallmark/Kodak moments, to be using prescription anti-anxiety medication; or sneaking calls to your therapist or 12-step sponsor; or looking over the plane and train schedules you brought with you in case of the need for an emergency premature departure. You’re right. Reality is not always pretty.

So if you know that Day 5 is always when it hits the fan, then plan in advance to leave on Day 4. If drink 4 is when you start losing control, stop at drink 3. If you need to stay home this year, then by all means take a year off, and give yourself some time to sort things out. Any of the options above make more sense than allowing yourself to be pulled, yet again, into a destructive group regression, turned into a child again, assigned a role to play that you long ago outgrew. As the poet wrote, “good fences make good neighbors,” and similarly, good boundaries, not too loose, not too rigid, but just right, are at least one element of what makes good families.

Remember, nobody’s perfect, including you, and no one’s family is perfect. How do you balance your love and your anger, your need to connect and your need to be your own person? No easy answers. Use the support you have from those you trust, and make the best of your particular imperfect situation. Find warmth and make warmth wherever you can this season. Happy Holidays, and see you in the New Year!
© Daniel Shaw, 2009

Daniel Shaw, LCSW, practices psychotherapy in Nyack and in NY City.
Reach him at (845) 548-2561 in Nyack,
at (212) 581-6658 NewYork City
by e-mail:
and now blogging at:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Making Up Is Hard To Do

Most of us have had - and some of us still have - the fantasy that if someone really knocks your socks off, and if they are a scintillating, fantastic person with no problems, then they will make a constantly delightful, always exciting mate, and life will be one big high, all free and easy, for evermore.

Sorry to break the news, but it just doesn’t happen like that, at least not to members of the human race. The fact is, we're all - emphasis on the all, including men, women, straights, gays, and others - fallible, sensitive, vulnerable people, with blind spots and weaknesses. It's exciting to meet someone and feel that old sexual chemistry; but when you get really close, sooner or later the other chemistry inevitably kicks in - the chemistry of buttons getting pushed.

Nobody pushes buttons like those we come closest to. It's a fact of life. When we're born, we start pushing our parents' buttons, and they push ours, and from there on, you can be assured that later in life, anyone you become intimate with will eventually push your buttons, and vice versa. And that especially includes the one person you were most sure was in no way like either of your parents.

That's because, in any couple, both parties bring their relationship history with them - meaning that how we saw our own parents relate to each other, and how we related to our parents, is deeply rooted in our psyches. Once the initial potency of the chemistry between new lovers begins to cool down, our buried relationship history will usually turn up like a bad penny and get acted out, in one way or another.

That is the point where the real work of intimacy begins. Intimacy is not about never having fights and always having good times. Intimacy is about recognizing that we are always vulnerable to each other, always needing one another, and always capable of hurting one another. It's about learning to respect that vulnerability while being more and more honest with each other. It's about making it through hard times, each other's hard times. And it's about learning how to have fights that end - not somewhere in the middle with nothing resolved, but all the way to a point of better understanding and deeper connection, with real apologies and forgiveness.

That's how intimate trust and mutual appreciation deepen and grow. When human beings get close, we inevitably come into conflict. Personal growth for couples comes through struggling, over time, to learn how to negotiate conflicts. Repetitive arguments are signals that each member of the couple - not just one, but both - needs to grow, change, bend. Couples who get really good at repairing the disruptions that inevitably arise between them become able to breathe clearer emotional air. When a couple has learned well how to make up, how to apologize and to forgive, they have more than just fun - they have love.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You're A Narcissist - In A Good Way

by Daniel Shaw, LCSW

These days I hear the term “narcissist” thrown around quite casually, and what I think people usually mean by it is “it’s always all about him,” or “she’s so vain,” or “he’s selfish.” Psychoanalysts since Freud have been referring, for the last 100 years or so, to the Greek myth about the beautiful boy named Narcissus, to try to describe certain traits of human nature. The story goes like this. Narcissus was cruel and cold to Echo, a nymph who loved him. He hurt her so much, she withered away until only her voice remained. You can still hear her ghostly “echo” when you call out while hiking in the hills. One day, Narcissus saw his face in a pool of water and got stuck gazing at his own awesome beauty. He got so enchanted with his exquisite reflection that he stared at himself until he wasted away and died. The pretty, fragrant spring flower we call Narcissus grew up from where he decomposed.

Readers of “He’s Just Not That Into You” would no doubt have been delighted by the bad news about Narcissus. “Serves him right, that bastard!” Which, undoubtedly, is a healthier reaction than the nymph’s, a woman who loved too much, evaporated, and became nothing more than a mournful echo.

The truth is, while we’re usually not as bad as Narcissus, we all have some of the narcissist in us. Sure, we do our best not to obsess too much about our hair, our waistline, our wrinkles, and so on - but we end up spending a lot of money anyway, on products that promise to confer youth, vigor and beauty on our too, too solid flesh. And beyond the usual vanity most of us would confess to, we all enjoy, or perhaps only long for, admiration of one kind or another. We all spend at least some time, energy and money on self-promotion, on our “narcissism.” How could anyone ever get anything done if they didn’t have some kind of belief in themselves?

The Narcissus myth, though, points to something darker and more cruel than just the foibles of everyday human vanity, or the very human needs we all have for the maintenance of healthy self-esteem. In some cases, narcissism can be pathological. Such people are abusers, people who need to prove and assert their sense of superiority and entitlement again and again, by persuading others that they are inferior. These abusive narcissists love themselves unconditionally, but others are always unworthy in their eyes, always falling short, always not good enough. Maybe it was a boss, or a teacher; it might even have been a religious leader, or a therapist. It might have been one or both of your parents, or a sibling. If you’ve been around at all, you’ve probably known an abusive narcissist. They are the people who proclaim their own perfection, and according to them, they are never, ever wrong. So if there has been any problem, or disagreement, or mistake, or failure - according to the abusive narcissist, it’s all YOUR fault. With this kind of person, you can never win. And because so often they are charming, seductive, persuasive and charismatic, we want their approval, and we keep trying, over and over, to win it. But according to them, we never seem to be good enough.

Abusive narcissists inflate themselves by sucking the self-esteem out of others - and the most powerful ones can make us feel so intimidated and dependent, we might even find ourselves persuaded that their abuse is for our own good. Abuse from a narcissist family member can be the most difficult abuse from which to recover. When the abuser is a parent or sibling, a spouse or partner – someone whom we depend on and have deep bonds to – their repeated attacks on our self-esteem get under our skin more readily and deeply. All the Greek tragedies are stories of the terrible destructiveness and cruelty family members can inflict on one another. This pain is especially acute, because it is caused by someone one has loved and trusted deeply.

But not all cruelty is the same as abuse. If you’ve ever loved anyone, you know that, at times, it’s possible to be terribly cruel to those you love; in fact, it’s almost impossible not to be cruel, sometimes, to those you love the most. If you’re healthy, you can apologize, atone, forgive. Both of you in the relationship can learn to become increasingly less destructive, more and more loving. But an abusive narcissist will never offer a truly heartfelt apology. The real distinguishing sign of an abusive narcissist is that they cannot and will not admit they ever do anything wrong.

If you are trapped in a relationship with an abuser, and you want to get out, you’ll have to learn to stop believing the abuser’s accusations - that you and only you are the wrong one and the bad one. For some people long used to taking it from an abuser -- even, and often especially, if that abuse happened in childhood long ago – shame, fear, guilt and poor self-esteem can be tenacious. It can take a lot of hard work and support to gain enough faith and confidence in yourself to successfully navigate the rough shoals of life, love and work. Healthy narcissism, enough self-love, can help us learn some of life’s hardest lessons about relationships: with some people, we can experience mutual growth, and constructive, creative collaborations; and with others, no matter how hard we try, we’re always left at the bottom of the win-lose seesaw. A healthy narcissism can keep our self-esteem balanced, and give us enough confidence to pursue our dreams and ambitions, to feel worthy of love and to be loving. And it can help us learn to break free from and steer clear of abusive relationships.

Daniel Shaw, L.C.S.W. Upper Nyack, NY


The following posts are short pieces I have written over the last several years for publication in The Nyack Villager, a little monthly magazine that everyone here in Nyack, where I live, gets in the mail. I cover a range of topics, mostly regarding things that are relevant to the people with whom I work. I hope you will find these pieces relevant too.