Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


I'm working on a book, which should be out end of 2013 or 2014, to be published by Routledge, in the Relational Psychoanalytic Series.  It wil be called "Traumatizing Narcissism" I think.  And what I realized, working on my final chapters these last few weeks, is that I have been writing a book about freedom.

Psychological freedom - what is it?  It's not mania, it's not being Robin Williams or Tina Fey, who seem to have an endless supply of wildly brilliant and hilarious free associations ready to spring forth at any moment and make you split your sides laughing. I bet they are awesome people, complicated, no doubt, but so cool.  I love that, but I'm thinking of something else.

I'm thinking of the difference between feeling like a subject or feeling like an object.  This is subtle stuff, but if you've been in enough miserable relationships, you might start to get it.  When you are concerned with what kind of object you are for someone else - are you who, what, where, and how they want you to be? - you eventually burn yourself out from getting used.  You've stopped knowing who you are, how you feel, what you need - you've just been obsessed with what you think the other person thinks of you.  Eventually, your rage and contempt for the other person, for using you and taking advantage of your selflessness, becomes impossible to hide.  Things go downhill from there.

Making yourself someone's object is a form of self-enslavement.

Tending to your own subjectivity - your sense of yourself as a subject - is a creative act, an act of self-definition, an act of freedom.  As the parent of a teenage boy and an almost teenage girl, I'm noticing all of this self-defining stuff they're doing - much of it aimed at not being like me - and it's pretty rough going at times.  But I love it, I'm proud of them, and I want them to figure out who they are and not try to be what I think they should be or try to force them to be.

Anyway, hope you'll all keep an eye out for the book - maybe a year from now it will be in print!  I'm writing about object/subject, about narcissism and how traumatizing narcissists only want other people to be their objects, and to be objects they can control.  And I'm talking about finding yourself as an adult without your subjectivity intact - and what it takes to find it, grab hold of it and have faith in it.  I'm excited.  Wish me luck!

Happy Freedom Day!


Friday, May 4, 2012


It took forever, but I finally got around to writing this piece about avoidance (insert rim shot sound effect here).

We can all laugh a little (or not) at our universal human tendency to avoid doing today what we can put off until tomorrow. But there are times when a compulsion to avoid can seriously derail us from our purposes. We avoid not just what we need to do, but what we need to say and what we need to feel.

I worked with Paul, who turned 30 in the second year of our work together, for about five years. He was rising up in an investment banking career, and when we first met, he was agonizing over whether or not to marry his girlfriend Joyce. Joyce had waited two years thinking Paul would come around, because he did love her - but he dragged his feet at every point in the relationship whenever taking it up a level was indicated. He stated repeatedly that he wasn't ready, he didn't know, he wasn't sure. Joyce, her clock running out, apparently thought that meant there would eventually be a yes while she could still have children. Heartbroken, Joyce finally moved on, and Paul went through the exact same dance with 2 other girlfriends he stayed with for more than a year each. I'm not sure who was more frustrated, Paul or me. It was hard for Paul to see the selfishness and the cruelty of his choices - he saw himself as a victim of an incomprehensible paralysis that could not be understood or cured, and he was adamant about not seeing it any other way. Finally, Wall Street crashed, and Paul had to stop seeing me. I'd like to think that Paul finally figured himself out - and if not, maybe his ex girlfriends have created a cautionary website about him - "Beware of Eligible Bachelors Who Won't Break Up With You But Won't Marry You Either Dot Com"

Then there's Ellen, who is a very attractive artist, just turned 30, who is emotionally scarred by serial long term relationships that have ended very badly. Observing Ellen as she goes through her dating process, I notice that she gets interested in someone and allows the relationship to proceed, but she sees a bunch of red flags, and knows that he's probably not the guy she would want to end up with. She turns out to be right, but unfortunately, she doesn't end the relationship early on - acting as if she's more into him than she really is, she thinks it's better having him around than having no one. Recently, she was seeing Mark, whom she liked sort of, but didn't see as marriage material. Mark was clear that he was looking for a mate, and after spending a few weeks together, Mark broke up with her. Even though Ellen wasn't all that into him, she was more hurt than she had expected to be.

Ellen avoids ending relationships that aren't right, because she is convinced that having someone around short-term is a better bet, and easier than holding out for someone who could be long-term. Yet the failure of each short-term relationship leaves her sad, lonely and despairing.  Paul avoids marrying women he loves because he imagines there might be someone else whom he would love more, who would be so perfect that he would have no doubts and no fears. And when the girlfriend finally gives up on him, he feels guilty, lonely ashamed and stuck.

The kind of avoidance I speak of here is deeply rooted, in childhood experiences of disappointment and the sense of powerlessness. Deep down, as ambitious as they both are, there's a pernicious part of Paul and Ellen that doesn't really expect anything to do with them to turn out well. Sadly, without being at all aware, they set up their lives in ways that ultimately confirm their unconscious low expectations.

The moral is: Do avoid: self-pity, not knowing what you really want and how you really feel, not listening to your gut instincts, never resolving your ambivalence about whether or not you're worthy and capable. And, as a corollary, do Not avoid: overcoming fear.

© 2012, Daniel Shaw, LCSW

Thursday, February 2, 2012


I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who didn’t feel envious.  Not you, of course.  You are a very kind, generous, loving person, and you are very content with what you have, very grateful, not boastful, all that good stuff.  I even know that you are aware that even the most glamorous, successful, seemingly happy people have their troubles and woes, that the grass may always seem greener but really it isn’t, and all that.  I know you remind yourself of this as much as possible, and you really try not to succumb.  But face it – you feel envy, I know you do.  We all do.
So look, a little envy – not a big deal.  This one’s house, that one’s garden, car, job, clothes, kids, money, pool, friends, hair, abs, boobs, waist, golf handicap, biceps, all the other body parts, someone else’s spouse, someone else’s unmarried status. . .  Don’t try to tell me that one of those things didn’t ring a bell.  You know what I envy?  People who don’t like sweets.  In fact, I hate people who don’t like sweets.  Not really… but sort of. 
Why envy matters, and it really does, is that for some people, envy is what spoils everything.  It’s as though they’ve got a Hank Williams-inspired bucket with their self-esteem in it – and their bucket’s got a hole in it.  Nothing that goes in stays in – it’s empty the minute it gets filled.  For this kind of person, it’s hard not to envy everyone and everything.   What’s sad is that often, these people are admirable – competent, talented, generous.  They can have so many good qualities, and even be recognized, praised and admired – and still, none of that stays with them.  It’s almost as though their preferred self-state, their default, is the one that says I’m small, you’re big; I’m nothing, you’re something. 
When someone has this kind of envy problem, it’s usually more complicated, because lurking behind the self-deprecation and envy, there is often a hidden sense of superiority and contempt of those they envy  And when those people they envy crash and burn, oh, the schadenfreude!  “See?” we say?  “All that money and beauty, and look what happened!  Tsk tsk tsk.  I’m glad we’re poor and homely looking, aren’t you?”  Yeah, right.

Well, as Abe Lincoln once said, "It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues." We all have to work on dealing with envy. It's good to realize how corrosive it can get, if you let it. The only cure for it, when it gets chronic, is to recognize that there is a conflict going on, one that isn't clear. I see this quite often, in so many of the people I work with in therapy. The conflict is this: One part of you knows you are worth paying attention to, caring about, worthy of being respected, loved and cherished. Another part, that feels inadequate and without power, perhaps representing experiences of being belittled, is unfortunately working overtime to disagree, to hold on to feelings of worthlessness and shame.
It's that second part that throws a wrench in the works, a stealth saboteur voice in your head that contradicts every good thought you ever have about yourself. If that inner conflict between the voices in your head - where one says "I'm good" and the other says "No, you're not" - is not made conscious, envy is bound to become obsessive. It's like you are forever straddling a fence - and we all know what that feels like. Aside from not choosing which side to stand on - are you worthy of love, care and respect, or not? - sitting on top of a fence hurts like the dickens. And that pain is what it feels like when the feeling is envy.