Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Internalized Misogyny

Misogyny – hatred, dislike or mistrust of women .  You could think of it as femi-phobia, similar to the way we use the word homophobia.   Women have fought hard throughout the previous century, and are still fighting, to leave behind their  status as chattel, and enjoy the same rights that men (not including slaves) have always taken for granted.  As that awful old cigarette ad used to say, women have “come a long way.”
But in my work as a therapist with women from every walk of life, I often encounter a subtle, sometimes very unconscious kind of gender-based self-denigration.  I have come to think of it as internalized misogyny.  It takes many forms, and here’s just one example.

A patient of mine, Erika, of whom I am tremendously fond and admiring, is an artist, with Ivy League higher education degrees, a terrific résumé, a great intellect, and a funny, warm, down to earth personality.  She anticipated the arrival of her first baby, whom she knew would be a boy, with tremendous excitement, and in his first year, was thrilled with what a great baby he was.  Two years later, she learned she was pregnant again, this time with a girl.  The pregnancy was nothing like the first – she was miserable the whole time.  She had nightmares and day-mares, unable to stop herself from imagining that her daughter would be an impossible baby, and an even worse adolescent.

Some time after her daughter arrived, she came back to therapy and told me about her younger brother’s wedding.  Unlike Erika, whose every move as a child was monitored by her adoring but very demanding parents, Tom, her brother, was left alone to develop his own style.  Never a great student like his sister Erika, he did his own thing, travelled the world after high school, lived on a boat with his girlfriend, and eventually, following his own timeline, became successful developing a computer business. 

What moved Erika deeply about her brother’s wedding was the way he and his bride created the wedding they truly wanted – a joyful, thoroughly original and beautiful wedding like no one else’s.  Erika’s wedding, by contrast, had been all about what her mother had wanted. 

Erika realized that she had spent too much of her energy growing up preoccupied with trying to figure out what her mother needed and wanted, trying to please mother, guilty and anxious about her impact on her mother.  Her efforts to create a mother who could be happy always failed.  Her brother was the opposite.  He didn’t assume responsibility for his mother’s feelings, and his mother seemed to be content to just let him do his own thing.

My point is that many women pass on a subtle or not so subtle message to their children: if you’re my daughter, you must make me happy; but if you’re my son, all you have to do is make yourself happy.  These daughters grow up feeling guilty and conflicted about their own desires, their own self-interest; while their brothers grow up free to become their own man.  If this daughter isn’t subjugating herself, she’s a royal pain; but if this son goes out and does his own thing, well, boys will be boys.  Erika was able to realize that even with her own child in utero, she was beginning the cycle all over again, imagining her daughter as a royal pain that she wouldn’t be able to control. 

Early in my work with Erika, I realized she was incredibly inhibited about imagining what kind of life she really desired.  She’d found a great husband and had yet to have kids.  But she was terribly stuck in her work as an artist.  I asked her to bring in a drawing that would represent her deepest desires.  What she brought in, with much shame and embarrassment, was a drawing of herself sitting by a house where she was sipping coffee on a sunny patio.  I was kind of stunned to realize that it was excruciating for her to feel entitled even to having a home where she could sip coffee on a patio.

Now, after her brother’s wedding, something had clicked.  Now she knew where she wanted to live, how she wanted to live, and what she wanted to do as an artist.  She knew what she wanted, and she felt entitled to work toward creating it – and her husband was thrilled.  Most poignantly, Erika knew that she would have the chance to raise her daughter in the same way she wanted to raise her son:  to become a person who could be free from guilt and shame about desire and self-interest; a person who knows who they are, what they want, and is able to figure out how to create a good life.  Finally, Erika believes that that is the model she herself can provide for her children.  I’m so happy to be able to say, you’ve come a long way, Erika.        

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Like so many other puzzling weaknesses in the design of humans – knees come to mind – addiction is a weakness we can all become susceptible to under the right (i.e., wrong) conditions.  Addiction is ubiquitous:  there are over thirty different twelve step programs, each addressing a different addiction – the original, of course – alcoholism; but also gambling, debting, narcotics, marijuana, sex, and many others.   Just in terms of dollars and cents, government estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States—including health and crime-related costs as well as losses in productivity—exceed half a trillion dollars annually.  And that’s just addiction to substances – not shopping, food, or “love,” just to name a few others.

How do so many of us get into the addiction mess?  Poverty, mental illness, childhood trauma – these are commonly recognized predictors of addiction. On the other hand, there are more than a few addicted millionaires, from what I’ve seen and heard.  My own experience of working with addicted people is that in every case, no matter what the addiction, no matter what the demographic, an addicted person is someone who has great difficulty with healthy needs – knowing what they are, knowing how they can be met, and believing that they can be met.

For example, Marty is a successful high level executive, handsome and healthy, a church going man who loves his wife and kids very much.  When his wife discovered a trail of internet porn sites on his computer, she was horrified and he agreed to give up his habit and go to therapy.  She didn’t understand why, when they were sexually active, Marty was still looking elsewhere. 

I soon learned that when he was in high school and his older brother died in a drug-induced accident, Marty started drinking heavily until he too almost had a fatal car accident.  His parents were hard working people who weren’t talkers, especially where feelings were concerned. Once his brother was buried, no one really talked any more about him.  Marty straightened out after his own brush with death, did well in school, and worked his way up. 

Marty got very good at pleasing others, his bosses and clients, and he’s a good provider, a good husband and father.  His own needs and feelings are the last things he thinks about, if at all.  So at night, when he was done being terrific at work, and his wife and kids were in bed,  he would feel restless, exhausted and hyper at the same time, and the lonely, guilty pleasure of viewing porn would help him end the day and get to bed. 

Porn was a quick substitute for meeting needs that he couldn’t identify, let alone articulate.  It had just gotten easier, more reliable, to get a quick fix that didn’t involve having to give anything, or making actual connection with anyone.  It didn’t occur to him that his real needs -  the underlying needs all humans have, for intimate connection, for affirmation and support, for recognition and encouragement from the ones we are closest to – could be acknowledged, verbalized, and met – and not by his computer.  The marital therapy work Marty and his wife eventually did helped consolidate his understanding, and helped his wife feel closer, too.

Addictions are tough to kick, and sometimes medical solutions, such as detox and rehab for alcohol and drug dependence, are necessary.  But for most addicts, once the habit is kicked, the hard part really begins.  Many recovered addicts can get good at meeting the needs of others – and some may stay sober by trying to deny their own needs altogether.  The harder part is learning to acknowledge your own needs, letting people get close, and letting people love you.  As a member of the human race, you’re allowed to have needs, and not be held down by shame.  Feeling worthy enough, being able to be vulnerable enough to invite others to meet your needs is a big part of recovering from addiction – and recovering the capacity to love and be loved.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010



One of my favorite Norman Rockwell paintings is of a mother and father tucking their two small children into bed.  It's a perfectly typical scene, except that when you look closely at the banner headline on the newspaper in the father's hand, you see the words "BOMBINGS" and "HORROR." 

I was born 11 years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent war which Rockwell is referencing in that headline, but my son was born just a couple of years before the attack on the Twin Towers.  In terms of capturing the depths of concern a parent feels for their child's safety, Rockwell's painting could not be more heart-stopping or more eloquent.

Yet it's not just in troubled times - like those we seem to always be living in these days, now that our televisions bring us everything that happens everywhere 24/7 - that we worry about our safety and the safety of our loved ones.  If a child is lucky, her parents worry from the moment she is conceived - will she be healthy; will the birth go well; will we be able to afford all that she needs and all that we want to give; will she grow up well; will no tragedy befall her or us...  The list of worries is endless, from cradle to grave.

But it won't help our children if they come to know us as endlessly worried, fearful, anxious people.  If we model fear, mistrust and suspicion of anything that lies beyond the tight little circle of what we can control, we could grossly limit the sense of possibility and wonder that life on earth can still offer, battered and torn as our planet and its peoples may be.

One of the things I have learned from being a psychotherapist and working with people who have been traumatized in various ways, is how devastating the absence or the loss of the sense of safety can be.  Whether this breach of safety occurred early in childhood, through neglect and abuse - in which case the very people the child most needed for safety are the ones who have most endangered and betrayed him ; or whether it has occurred later in life - divorce, loss of employment, unexpected loss of a loved one - safety becomes for a traumatized person something that can feel eternally out of reach. 

Helping a traumatized person means helping them feel safe enough to open up, to trust and to feel, so that a healing process can take place, so that hope and desire can be revived.  But if things are too safe - if they are not asked to challenge themselves, to learn to open up to new perspectives and new possibilities, then a traumatized person cannot move out of that narrow, crampled circle consisting only of what seems controllable.

Let's face it - control is just an illusion.  Some of the wealthiest people I've met live in a constant simmer of fear and distrust.  Much of what we call health - confidence and strength - is based on the ability to lightly compartmentalize and maintain a modicum of denial.

Whatever successes we do or don't achieve, however much control of our survival needs we have or don't have, in the end, I believe that being able to love, to love and be loved, is the most essential ingredient in the sense of safety.  It's in connection, human and for some divine, it's in learning to trust and to love, that our only real safety lies. 

Some weeks after the World Trade Center attack, singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky was riding the subway in Brooklyn, and she took note of the way that people and children were behaving much as they had done before the attack - people just being people, all part of the human community.  She ends her song, "Brooklyn Train," with these lines:

"Williamsburg bridge,
Sun hits the train as
It rises over the city again.
Nobody speaks,
Everyone stares.
Remembering all that
Used to be there.
And only the living
Know what loss means,
Riding together on this
Morning train.

Down below on iron veins,
Rolling waves of subway trains.
Rails of mercy
Cross the lives of men,
Safe in the body of
New York again.
Safe in the body of
New York again."

© Daniel Shaw 2010

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Jealousy and Envy

I worked with a man who finally, after years of what seemed like an endless cavalcade of failed romances, found the love of his life.  She was different from all the others  – she was more mature, thoughtful,  patient, and had no penchant for histrionics.  At every therapy session he reported another week of steady gains in bliss. 

I knew there would be a shoe dropping soon, and sure enough, one week, with sadness, anxiety and shame, Joe told me that he’d gotten jealous.  Anne had not texted that day for a number of hours, and when she did call him, she made it brief because she was with a friend having coffee.  Joe had spent many lonely hours that day obsessing, spinning elaborate, twisted explanations for what it was she was doing and why she wasn’t calling.  By the time they talked later that night, he was spewing  out angry accusations. 

Joe is smart, handsome, hard working, responsible, artistic, sensitive.  But he spent most of his childhood and adolescence with parents who repeatedly told him what a bitter disappointment he was to them.  No amount of success in his adult life has erased the impact of trying to grow up while enduring his parents’ harsh, angry attacks.  Convinced that a woman he loves is betraying him, he forgets that his greatest fear, mostly unconscious, is of being what he felt like as a child:   unlovable.  His jealous accusations and mistrust could push a less determined woman than Anne out of his life.  But Joe worked hard to deal with his fears and insecurities, and not project them, not turn them into paranoid jealousy and fantasies of  betrayal.  Joe and Anne are working things out.

Envy is something else altogether.   I worked with an extraordinarily creative woman who ran a very successful design business.  She had a wonderfully rich life in many ways, was well liked by friends and employees, enjoyed a great marriage.  It looked like she had it all… so why was she never excited, happy or proud about her work?  Why was there only a painful emptiness about it all; why was she unable to feel as if she wanted any of it or found any of it enjoyable?

Sandra’s father was a very successful man in a highly creative field.  He spared her the brutal belittling he repeatedly gave her brothers and her mother.  The one or two times in her life that he said something admiring of her are etched in her memory;  otherwise he was silent and absent.  Her dreamy mother, obsessed with every New Age philosophy and therapy, was a beautiful woman who never left home without looking like a page out of Vogue.  Mother seemed to encourage Sandra’s talents, but fundamentally, it was always about mother.  Sandra was chiefly meant to be her mother’s admiring mirror. 

Bursting with every kind of talent, Sandra was exhibiting her first drawings in major shows as a teenager.  But instead of pursuing an art career that would put her in the spotlight, she worked out a way of hiding in plain sight.  She designed all kinds of things that sold with great success, but which almost no one knew she had designed.   Unconsciously, she could not risk any kind of show of fulfillment, because bringing attention to herself would be too reminiscent of her mother’s vanity and self-absorption.  Further, she couldn’t resolve the guilt she felt about her brothers and her mother.  Why did father abuse them and spare her?   It was as though being successful made her too much like her abusive father; and made her the object of the others’ envy and resentment.  So she allowed herself  success – but not fulfillment, not happiness. 

Sandra hadn’t made any of these connections from the past to the present – her unhappiness seemed like an inexplicable punishment.  Once she began to make sense of how she lived in fear of the envy of others, and in guilt about surpassing others, she could begin to see a way toward being able to enjoy and take pride in what was rightfully hers.

We are all challenged to recognize the impact of jealousy and envy in our lives – those feelings  are within us and all around us, and not always in ways that are obvious.  We’re all susceptible to these feelings, but for some, freedom to enjoy life – or in Freud’s famous phrase, work and love - can only come when the roots and meanings of our envy and jealousy experiences can be illuminated.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dating Without Drama

Over the years, I have counseled many people who were going out of their minds because they kept getting into bad relationships and not getting into good ones. Some people are confused about the difference between being in love, on the one hand, and hysterical, chaotic, sadomasochistic drama, on the other - although there usually is some overlap. Here are some common errors and some more productive alternatives.

You are miserable, lonely, hurt, frustrated and frightened.  You are alone again; or you have been with someone for ‘x’ number of weeks, months, years, and you’ve been unhappy just about the whole time. Your fights are repetitive, no one has discussed marriage or it keeps getting postponed, your sperm is slowing down or your eggs are drying up, you’re not having sex, or you’re having great sex but fighting bitterly in between every short-lived reconciliation. You try to travel together and one of you ends up flying back early, alone. You invite your girl/boyfriend to meet your parents and she/he decides not to show up at the last minute. You blame everything on your partner, and vice versa. You talk about going to couples counseling, but it never happens.

This is not a great place from which to start having that great relationship you say you want. You - yes, that’s spelled Y-O-U -- have to change.  You have to get clear that you are a worthy, valuable human being, entitled to love and be loved. Your sense of unworthiness may be so deep and so unconscious that you don’t even know it’s there - but it’s why you’re lonely, or why your relationship is lousy. Get your self-esteem together, start working on repairing the relationship you are in and commit to it, get into that couples counseling already – or get out of it and start fresh.

So let’s say you are starting fresh, ready for a new relationship. Having followed the advice above, you now believe in yourself, you have fully worked through your hidden self-doubt and self-loathing, you have reinforced your belief in your strengths, your goodness, and your worth, and you are not unduly focused on your flaws and weaknesses. And you are crystal clear: you want to get into a great, healthy, strong, happy, successful, intimate relationship. If you aren’t really crystal clear about that - you haven’t changed enough yet. If you experience repeated frustration and disappointment in getting to this healthier place, consider consulting a mental health professional for some deeper self-understanding.

But let’s say you are in fact clear. Good, now start dating. You have to tell everyone you know that you are looking to meet someone. If you are 30 or over, you probably need to use the online dating sites. You might need to use online dating even if you’re younger, but the older you are, the more useful those sites tend to be.  Forget bars, for the most part. They’re more for hook-ups than relationships, and you need not to confuse the two.   

Next, you have to be a smart shopper. Yes, you are being chosen, or not - but you are also choosing. Be the chooser, and be picky. If someone turns you down, keep moving. And if someone is into you, it doesn’t mean you have to be into them. You either are or you aren’t - and if you aren’t that into them, the sooner you decide to keep looking elsewhere, the better. You can spend 6 months trying to figure out if you really want to be with someone or not - but if you’re honest with yourself, you probably knew it wasn’t a go from day one, and you let fear and guilt stop you from saying “no thanks.” And then you spent 6 months with the wrong person, when you could have had 25 dates during that time, one of which might have yielded someone you would have been crazy about. And now that person is no longer available, because you were wasting your time not breaking up with Mr./Ms. Wrong!  

Yes, you need to be really attracted to the person you fall in love with - but maybe some of your requirements - like no back hair, or extra large breasts, or a minimum of $3 million in conservative investments, and other overly-specific demands - maybe you need to be a little flex on some of those things. And bear in mind, you’ve probably already had horrible relationships with people you were intensely attracted to, or people who seemed to be able to provide you with everything you wanted, so physical attraction or plenty of dough, by themselves are not enough. Is this person kind, supportive, excited about you and your dreams and goals - and vice versa?  Do you share common tastes, preferences, interests?  Do you imagine enjoying the same kinds of activities and lifestyle together? 

Keep looking for the right person, don’t give up. Don’t get entangled in relationships that are either lifeless, or full of drama from the get-go. Believe in yourself and the goodness of the love you want to give. Good luck in your search - and vive l’amour!