O ONE is an island, according to the old saying, and so
it should be recognized that no psychological
problem is ever a purely individual problem.
Therefore, any psychological distress felt by an individual has roots in
society at large.
American society certainly offers ample opportunity for psychological distress.
In a permissive, self-indulgent society, there is little use for self-discipline
and self-restraint. Lacking traditional values of integrity, personal responsibility,
and honesty, culture loses sense of moral direction, and anything goes. When anything
goes, nothing means anything, and all paths lead nowhere. And right in the middle of
nowhere you are sure to find distress, anxiety, and depression.
This does not mean,
however, that all psychological problems can be solved by changing society.
Although political activists work to spread this ideology through social media, for
the sake of mental and spiritual health the individual must be responsible for
recognizing and transcending—or “seeing through”—all the social illusions that
can lead a person astray. Many persons have been brought to psychological and
spiritual disaster by believing that they can change, control, or be responsible
for anyone else.
In fact, any
attempt to control the behavior of another person is just an
unconscious attempt to control—that is, keep hidden, rather
than face up to and heal—your own inner life, a life that to some persons is so
embarrassing and shameful that they are terrified of anyone catching a glimpse of
it. Nevertheless, until you have made peace with yourself you will never be able to
live in peace with anyone else. So, as much as you might like to change others,
you can’t change anyone but yourself. Then, it can be hoped, your example might
influence others to change themselves.
This is how it
works in life, and this is how it works in a family.
In the early part of the 20th century, the psychologist
Carl Jung noted that children tend to live out the
unconscious conflicts of their parents. And, as Family
Systems Theory teaches, all too often a child will be marked as a
“problem,” the “scapegoat” or “black sheep”
of the family—the Identified Patient, in Family Systems
language—when really the entire family is locked into some dysfunctional
pattern of interaction.
A truly stunning
example of a child “acting out” a family dysfunction can be seen
in the 1964 movie, The Chalk Garden. I won’t describe the plot
of the story here, so go rent the movie. But the basic problem is that parents
often have children because of their own desires: they need to feel loved
and they believe that a child’s helplessness will be a source of love;
or perhaps they have in mind a particular role for the child to fulfill.
As a result, they end up expecting that the child will grow up to be totally
obedient to them as a sign of love. But the child feels suffocated by the
parents’ desire and tries to find his or her own destiny. This search
for independence only marks the child, in the parents’ minds, as
disobedient, ungrateful, and unloving. Love quickly turns to hate and disaster
the clinical disorders of infancy, childhood, and adolescence, such as the
Disorders (e.g., stuttering),
Attention-Deficit and Disruptive Behavior
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or
bedwetting), as well as the general Sleep
and Sleep Terror
Disorder) can all have origins within the overall
In such cases,
it’s always easiest to medicate the “Identified Patient” and
then forget about the rest of the family. It would be far better, and more
clinically appropriate, to ask some specific—and painful—questions
about how the child’s symptoms may be reflecting parental conflicts
and family anxiety.
How many people ever contemplate the psychological
meaning of marriage?
its origin in the concept of a man and a woman giving themselves to each
other for life in order to bring new life into the world: to
have children and to create a family in which the children are raised to
honor such values as self-discipline, compassion, kindness, and mutual cooperation
by which society as a whole can grow peacefully. Marriage, therefore, is an
act of service, not a psychological “right” to seek out a
“relationship” with another person so as to soothe a fear of emptiness.
But when children learn only to seek what feels good in the moment, then society
degenerates into a culture of insanity—as is happening right now.
across cultures and through the ages, the concept of marriage has been
perverted into a mere economic contract
that simply guarantees the closed transmission of wealth, status, and power.
The concept of “family” is irrelevant to this kind of marriage,
except in so far as children serve as necessary and vital agents of the hereditary
transmission of property. Keep in mind that none of this ever has had anything
to do with romance—or love.
When most people
today think of marriage, however, they think of
love. Even though they might talk about committed
relationships, to what is the “commitment”? Free sex? Financial
security? Self-indulgence? What sort of commitments are these? When marriage
is just a commitment to economics or lust there is no place in it for the
moral or spiritual welfare of children or
The real commitment
of an indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman for the sake of their
natural children is the glue that has held human society together for ages.
Altering this concept is like someone remodeling a house who decides that
removing a load-bearing wall will give the house more openness—but as
soon as the wall is removed, the whole house collapses.
And so here is
precisely where the psychological problems
The great philosopher
Aristotle said that “To love is to wish good to
So if you think about it, all the moral decisions about marriage and family
actually derive psychologically from love—real
love, not the “love” of popular fantasy. Adultery, abortion,
divorce, and euthanasia, for example, all defile love through a focus on
personal pleasure and convenience, at the expense of the dignity—and
even the life—of another human being. And what is depression and trauma
if not the despair of seeing life turned into a piece of
contemporary culture tends to think of “love” as a way to find
personal fulfillment in life. That is, each person in a
“relationship” expects the other to fill up the existential void
in his or her life. Ultimately, this is
impossible, and so when there are problems,
the conflicts are usually about one person complaining of not getting what
he or she wants. In this situation, only one psychological solution can be
possible: Take responsibility for your own
life satisfaction. True love is about giving,
not receiving. If you’re mainly concerned about getting pleasure or
security, you’re being selfish, not loving.
This means that
you have to look carefully at your own life and stop
blaming others. If you are not satisfied with your
life, it’s probably because you are not living up to your inner potential
or are in one way or another betraying your life values. This can be a hard
lesson to learn, but be honest—an adulterous
sexual affair, for example, is just a perverted attempt to avoid the real
In 1997, a prominent psychologist wrote an article which
appeared in an American psychological journal. The author reviewed several
commonly held beliefs about psychology, and one of his claims was that the
brain is quite resilient to the effects of trauma. He noted that rats which
had been subjected to trauma as infants developed into apparently well-adjusted
response  to his claim in which I noted that, unlike animals, we
humans have language—along with a memory system with which to process
it—and that trauma has a unique linguistic way
of lingering in our unconscious minds. Humans, just
like rats, may give the appearance of being well-adjusted, but, as any
experienced mental health clinician has seen over and over, many of the seemingly
“well-adjusted” individuals walking around in our society are tormented
by inner lives of emptiness and self-destructive
Professor, physician, lawyer—they all say the same thing to me: “I
feel like mush inside.”
And most of them, as children, saw their families shattered by divorce or
adultery—often the “adultery” of child sexual abuse.
We take divorce so much for granted today that it is hard not to find
someone who has been divorced or who has married someone who has been divorced
or who has parents or relatives who have divorced. And like that prominent
psychologist, we brush it off and say, “It doesn’t matter.”
But it does matter.
Children need to have both a mother and a father who will protect them, care
for them, teach them, and guide their feet through darkness into the way
of peace. Even the trauma of losing a parent to death
is less a trauma than losing a parent to divorce, for in divorce a parent
essentially says to a child—and to a spouse—“My personal desires
are more important to me than is your welfare. This family is nothing to
me, and you are just an object to be moved around like a pawn in my
self-indulgent search for happiness.”
Laboratory rats have only cheese and mazes. What can they say about trauma?
Children, however, have phobias, eating disorders, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs,
sex, unwanted pregnancies, sexual diseases, abortion—and suicide, and
guns—to “speak” about their traumas.
And yet we continue to look at divorce and say, “It doesn’t
We all need mothers—just as almost every animal in this
world needs a mother. A mother’s role, right from the child’s conception,
is to nurture a child so that the child can develop strength and inner security
through emotional honesty. To do this, the mother must hold the child in her arms,
providing comfort and tactile security, so that the child can experience the bliss
of resting peacefully in total surrender to gentle love. Then, as the child gets older,
the mother must provide the child with hope and encouragement as the child explores
and encounters the world.
If the mother fails
in her task by being emotionally cold or distant, or by being critical rather than
supportive, or by being manipulative rather than understanding, the child will be
crippled, at the least, with a terrifying sense of emotional emptiness and, at the
worst, with a terrifying sense of being hated. Still, all is not lost, because the
father, if he does his job, can “fill in” the lack left by the
And here we come to
the role of a father.
A father must “come
between” a mother and the child to sever the child’s natural bond of
dependence on the mother and to lead the child out into the world so that the child
can develop his or her talents and take up a meaningful, productive life of honesty
and integrity. In doing this, though, the father does not “eliminate” the
child’s need for a mother; instead, the father redefines the child’s experience
of a mother.
experience the delight of being fed and protected when they are helpless
infants. In fact, if they don’t experience it, they die. And the delight
of this early infantile experience, which makes no demands on us and leaves
us free simply to enjoy it, is at the root of our adult yearnings for a
“utopia” in which all of our needs are taken care of
But to function
responsibly as an adult, a child must pass beyond this care-free infantile
state of dependence. If this task fails, the child will remain neurotically
dependent on maternal protection and will be afflicted with doubts and anxieties
about assuming personal responsibility in the world. Moreover, the child’s
talents will either remain buried in fear or will
be expressed largely through an unconscious grandiosity.
And, in its most severe manifestations, alcoholism and drug addictions can
develop in adolescence and adulthood, because all addictions have their roots
in a desire to escape the demands of personal responsibilities and return
to an idyllic feeling of care-free bliss.
A child, therefore,
has three essential tasks which must be accomplished under the guidance of
1. To learn
how the world works.
The father must
teach the child not only about the abstract—and often
dangerous—dynamics of social relationships beyond the family itself
but must also provide instruction in the practical rules governing the physical
world, including honest, productive work in the world.
Imagine a primitive
society of forest dwellers. To teach the child how the world “works,”
the father must take the child out into the depths of the forest and show
the child how to survive and eat by using weapons, building fires, and making
shelters. Now, the modern world may not be a forest anymore—though it
is often enough called a jungle—yet the forest metaphor aptly describes
the process by which a father must teach a child “how the world
2. To learn
Yes, a child
will more-or-less “trust” a nurturing mother. This sort of trust,
though, is a necessary part of mother-infant bonding for the sake of the
infant’s physical survival.
A deeper trust requires
that the child grow to depend on and respect the father, a person different
from the mother from whom the child originated; that is, the father is a
different body and a different gender from the mother. The
father—and only a father—can therefore teach the child to enter
the world and encounter difference confidently. But, to be a successful
teacher, the father must teach this from the place of his own faith and
obedience. In other words, the father must live from his heart by the rules
he teaches to his children. In this way the children can learn to trust him
through his own integrity. Otherwise, the children will see him for a
hypocrite and will disavow—openly
or secretly—everything he represents.
3. To learn
to trust oneself.
As a child receives
instruction from a trustworthy father and develops a sense of confidence
under the father’s compassionate guidance, the child will then be able
to function more and more independently, assimilating the father’s external
guidance into an internal, psychological confidence.
First the father
builds a fire, saying to the child, “Watch me.” Then the father
encourages the child to build the fire. Finally the child goes off into the
forest alone, and builds a fire on his own, confident in what he learned
from his father.
all of this about the role of a father, look about you and see how many fathers
fail miserably in their responsibilities. How many fathers are absent from
the family because they are emotionally insensitive to their children’s
needs? How many fathers are absent from the family because they are preoccupied
with work or sports? How many fathers are absent from the family because
of divorce? How many fathers are absent from the family because their adultery
draws them away to another woman? How many fathers are absent from the family
because they are preoccupied with their own pride and arrogance? How many
fathers are absent from the family because of alcoholism? How many fathers
are absent from the family because of illness? How many fathers are absent
from the family because they were nothing more than sperm donors in a moment
of lust? How many fathers are absent from the family because a woman decided
she didn’t need a man to have a child? It can go on and on. And it
in which single mothers are the norm, rather than the exception. What do
you see there? A male disrespect for women, low educational performance,
social disobedience, violence, drug abuse, prostitution, and a general lack
of social opportunity.
And the sad thing
is that when a father is absent—whether physically or emotionally—his
lack causes a personal lack in the children. Lacking understanding of how
the world works, lacking trust in others, and lacking trust in themselves,
children—whether they be boys or girls—become lost, insecure, and
confused. They lack confidence. They lack real faith. They lack a spiritually
meaningful future. They lack life. All because their fathers were
though, that all of this lack resulting from the lack of a father
is, in many cases, largely unconscious.
Yes, some persons
are truly crippled—both emotionally and socially—by the lack of
a father, and their lives become dysfunctional and stuck. And sadly, some
of them die in childhood from
But other persons
are able to keep up a surface appearance of functionality; they hold jobs,
they get married, and they have children. Yet under the surface of normality
a deep secret of anger and
victimization is buried. Here are the dark
roots of symptom after symptom of secret resentment for the
In the unconscious,
however, the anger gets distorted because it is difficult for children to
accept being angry with a father from whom they
still desire a sign of love. To protect themselves from the threat of their
own anger, then, the children distort that anger by turning it against themselves
to ensure that they do nothing.
Addictions (such as alcoholism, drug addiction, obesity, smoking,
marijuana use, video games, casinos, etc.) allow them to feel filled when
they are really empty; thus they feel nothing.
Argumentativeness prevents them from accepting truth, which includes
the truth that the father has failed them; thus they accept
late for appointments and meetings
prevents them from having to wait; thus they wait for
Immodesty (whether as revealing clothing, gaudy make-up, tattoos,
piercings, etc.) prevents them from respecting their own bodies; thus they
disorders prevent them from discovering
a world that seems hidden from them; thus they discover
confusion (often expressed by forgetting
things or as difficulty with math) prevents them from engaging with the the
signs and symbols of life; thus they engage with
Procrastination prevents them from stepping out into the world they
don’t know how to negotiate in the first place; thus they accomplish
preoccupation whether as self-created
mental fantasies, pornography, lust, or sexual acts, prevents them from
experiencing emotional intimacy; thus they are intimate with
Suspiciousness prevents them from having to trust a world they fear;
thus they trust nothing.
In the end, all
these nothings, taken together, lead to the nothingness of
death: symbolic death, which keeps a child
emotionally disabled as punishment for his or her anger, and real
death—through slow self-sabotage or through outright suicide—by
which the child, in making herself or himself the “missing one,”
draws attention away from the truth that the father has been missing from
the child’s life all along.
There is no current
psychiatric diagnosis for this collection of symptoms, so I have named a
psychoanalytic diagnosis: Ira Patrem Latebrosa (hidden anger at the
father). This is an anger at the father that so cloaks itself in invisibility
that a person afflicted with it will deny that it even exists. Yet it does
exist, and the evidence above proves it, like tracks in the snow that reveal
the presence of an animal lurking nearby.
Anger, and coping with anger, can be a big problem for
many persons. Part of the problem, though, is that most of us don’t
understand the difference between feeling hurt and getting
We all feel hurt or
irritated when someone or something obstructs our needs or desires. The obstruction
can be something ordinary, such as what a child experiences when told that he or she
cannot eat ice cream before dinner; it can be something more serious, such as someone
being late for a meeting; or it can be something that might bring us to the boiling
point, such as a rude driver who suddenly cuts in front of us.
Unlike the feeling of
irritation, though, anger is not an emotion; instead, it’s a
desire to cause harm. For many persons, this statement is counter-intuitive and confusing
because it contradicts popularly held, but psychologically incorrect, cultural
Consider here that emotions
serve to inform us about our spontaneous reaction to the reality around us; we are not
morally responsible for our emotions, and therefore we are not bad for having emotions.
In its true psychological sense, though, anger refers to the desire to hurt the
cause of an injury; and revenge refers to accomplishing that hurt. Therefore, unlike
emotions, anger and revenge are both acts of free will for which we are morally
Because anger is not a feeling,
it is possible to “be” angry even though you do not feel anything. This is the problem with
unconscious anger: you don’t feel angry, so, even as the anger works
its poison in you, you believe it isn’t even there.
Revenge, too, has its way of
being hidden from direct awareness. Although it can be enacted openly and actively through
hostility, cursing, sarcasm, sexuality (pornography, promiscuity, adultery, masturbation,
etc.), or disobedience to authority, it can also be enacted secretly and passively through
passive-aggression as well as through self-sabotage—for example, drug use, alcohol abuse,
gluttony, obesity, smoking, suicidality, or the inability to
achieve goals (i.e., fear of success).
Anger has no fitting place in
a family because, to be healthy, a family should be oriented toward love, growth, and mutual
support, not revenge and hostility. But when parents fail to understand and guide their
children’s emotional experiences, the children will be fearful of the unknown, and they will
be overwhelmed with negative beliefs about themselves:
I don’t matter.
I have no right to succeed.
I am worthless.
I am bad.
Without my father’s [or mother’s] love I am doomed.
And resentment and anger will stain their lives.
In contrast to all the dysfunction
of anger, then, we have another option. That is, when we are hurt, we don’t have to fight back,
trying to hurt others as they have hurt us. To do this, though, it is
necessary that you admit openly to yourself the truth of how you have been injured;
furthermore, it is necessary that you then endeavor to feel the entirety of the emotional
pain caused by the injuries. Many persons unwittingly block this healing process because
they cling to a false belief that they are responsible for and therefore must protect
those—such as their parents—who injured them. Sadly, rather than protecting anyone, this
unwillingness to admit the truth only drives the hurt into the unconscious
where it stews in hidden resentment that causes psychological complications of anxiety and
depression, family enmeshment and loss of personal autonomy, and
As sure as there are marital problems, there are many couples
who resort to violent confrontation. Those who seek to console, to understand,
and to love are strong in wisdom, and violence has been said to be the last
resort of the weak.
people claim differently, domestic violence is not so much a political problem
rooted in “male domination of women” as it is a psychological problem
rooted in an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own life.
Granted, there are some persons—male and female—who are so filled
with frustration and anger
that they will attack anyone—including children, and pets—without
provocation. But just as often there is provocation, and violence becomes
a sly family dance. There are even some people so good at subtle provocation
that they always come off looking like innocent victims. It’s a dirty
diagnosis called Intermittent Explosive
Disorder is characterized by several
discrete episodes of failure to resist aggressive impulses that result in
serious assaultive acts or destruction of property, and it describes
a sort of aggressiveness that is way out of proportion to anything that could
have precipitated it. For example, a family member might go into a rage because
the mashed potatoes have lumps in them. Or someone might throw a punch and
start a fight after he accidentally bumps into another person who then says,
“Watch where you’re going!”
Unfortunately, this diagnosis, like any other psychological
diagnosis, tells us little, if anything, about
the underlying reasons for the behavior. It really amounts to nothing more
than a fancy way of describing a bad temper in a person who cannot manage
anger, forgive others,
or live with true peace of
Even in a case
that seems “political”—say, for example,
the wife wants to work outside the home and the husband does not want to
allow her—the real problem derives from a lack of loving communication.
The woman harbors anger and frustration toward her husband and criticizes
him at every opportunity; the husband feels threatened, rejected, and humiliated,
often triggering traumatic memories of abuse he suffered as a child. And
violence erupts because real communication has degenerated into a power struggle.
Neither partner has approached the problem from a position of empathy and
unconditional acceptance of the needs of the other. And when empathy is lacking,
everyone, including the children, suffers.
mandates that when a psychotherapist or any other mandated
reporter has knowledge or suspicion of it, the “unjustifiable mental
suffering” of a child witnessing family violence is to be reported as
who get violent have been abused in some way as children. When a child is
abused, he of course feels very helpless and vulnerable, and so
unconscious defenses work very hard to keep this feeling
under “control” by pushing it out of conscious awareness. When
that child grows up, he may feel the unconsciously motivated need to control
and manipulate everyone in his home; whenever he feels insulted, all the
old vulnerability “leaks out,” and he can resort to violence out
of pure frustration for not being able to do anything else. (Remember:
Violence is the last resort of the weak and powerless.) In the end,
he “loses control” because he never had it in the first
So, if you are
prone to violence, the real “cure” in all this is in (a) admitting
your old emotional wounds, with therapeutic help; (b) recognizing when those
wounds are being triggered by a provocation; and then (c) mustering the
self-discipline to walk away from the situation before the tension builds
to violence. This is an emotional process, not an intellectual process, so
you don’t learn it by reading about it; you learn it from encounter
with others in a safe setting.
The most effective
treatment for men who are prone to domestic violence is group education and
treatment in a men’s group, rather than individual psychotherapy. Many
domestic violence programs offer such treatment for men, whether they come
voluntarily or whether they are mandated into treatment by the court after
being arrested for violence.
domestic violence is illegal
(Penal Code 273.5), period. It’s considered a
crime against the state, regardless of whether the abused person presses
charges or not.
As for those
who are abused by violent offenders, there can be many reasons why a person
gets involved with someone prone to violence. Sometimes it’s a matter
of having been abused as a child and unconsciously
seeking out the “familiar.” Sometimes it’s a matter of being
attracted to the illusions of control and power in another person that on
the surface seem protective but that only mask the underlying aggression
and violence. And sometimes it’s a matter of having a
rebellious and argumentative nature of one’s
own that “plays off” the hostility of another.
In any event,
once subjected to violence, a person can begin to perceive the violence from
the perspective of an external locus of control
and can then make the tragic mistake of trying to appease the offender.
Unfortunately, this only makes the victim all the more susceptible to further
manipulation by the offender.
The only real
solution then is to (a) seek physical safety; (b) learn to recognize the
dark human capacity to harm
others in order to make oneself feel powerful; (c) encourage the
offender’s healing through proper treatment; and (d) work to achieve
one’s own capacity for forgiveness, and, if
Whenever parents are violent, with or without provocation,
there is always the possibility of child abuse—and even animal abuse.
Families can be very good at hiding their “secrets,” so it might
take an alert physician who notices a child’s injuries, a teacher who
notices a child’s neglect, a veterinarian or animal control officer
who notices a pet’s neglect or injuries, or a dentist who notices facial
injuries, to uncover the hidden violence in the
And, with or without violence, child sexual abuse can be another hidden secret
of even the most apparently upstanding families. The
is characterized by recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual
urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a child or children
generally less than 13 years old. Technically, though, this diagnosis cannot
be made unless the fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically
significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important
areas of functioning. It’s an open question how much most child
molesters are distressed by their behavior—unless it be the distress
of worrying about getting arrested for their crimes.
unconscious dimension, pedophilia is really a sort
of sexual vampirism in which the adult seeks to cheat his or her own emotional
death by preying on the vitality of young innocence.
Through my clinical work I have seen that fantasies related to pedophilia
are “fueled” at the core by feelings of unconscious anger. The
pedophile, lacking an innocent childhood himself, craves to devour the innocence
of his victim child, and, in devouring it, to defile it. To his conscious
mind, all the pedophile sees is desire, and he might even interpret this
desire as “love,” as the name pedophilia (from the Greek
paidos, a child, and philos, loving) suggests. But, ironically,
in its deep unconscious reality pedophilia is nothing but envious hatred
for the good and the innocent.
And when priests, rabbis, and ministers molest children, it only goes to
show how much they are caught in the grip of false
spirituality. Instead of seeking divine sustenance through spiritual
denial of self, they choose to deny the good in order to glorify their
own perverted emptiness.
(bruises; burns; internal injuries;
(lack of medical or dental care;
lack of food; lack of sleep; inadequate hygiene; unsanitary living conditions;
(belittling; screaming; threats;
inconsistent parental responses; family violence; etc.)
Note that even
dog bites can be a sign of emotional maltreatment. Why? Well, remember
that dogs are pack animals and are very sensitive to each other’s status
within the pack. A dog that bites a child may perceive the child as being
lower in status than itself because it has witnessed the child being maltreated
by other family members.
(sexual contact between minors and
non-minors or between minors; sexual exploitation such as pornography or
contact can refer to penetration (genital, anal, oral); fondling; kissing
and/or hugging in a sexual way; and “showing” the genitals.
Note that the above definition applies even if a child says the experience
was pleasurable or non-threatening. On the purely physical level, some aspects
of coercive sexual contact can feel pleasurable to a child. Moreover,
men who have been abused as children are particularly apt to deny that the
experience was abusive because many cultures socialize boys with the false
belief that males should be always eager for sexual activity. But abuse is
abuse, simply because using a child for erotic pleasure strips the child’s
vulnerable ego of its dignity and humanity and makes the child’s body
into a mere object; this experience leaves the child with the life-long
psychological scars of guilt and anger and of feeling
unconsciously like a piece of
Guilt results from childhood psychological wounds of family
dysfunction. Parents all too often fear real love
themselves and shrink from the time and the hard work it takes to teach their
children real love. So the parents resort to using guilt to control
their children, constantly telling the children that they are “bad”
and threatening the children with the fear of punishment.
Now, if this
happened to you, in your inability to understand just why your parents were
so mean, you most likely came to believe that something must really be wrong
with you and that you really deserved everything that happened to you. Thus
you cultivated a secret shame—and guilt—yearning to be punished
for being defective. Furthermore, you would have become angry at your
parents because of their dysfunction—and then you would have become
so terrified of your anger that you secretly desired to be punished for
your anger. Call it a sort of double masochistic whammy.
you do (or feel or think) something “bad” you don’t want to
admit it or seek help because you are terrified of the scorn that will be
inflicted on you if anyone discovers your
secret. And so you do anything to
hide from discovery, while your secret festers
in the dark depths of your heart. Moreover, in this forlorn state, you are
far removed from real love because all the good
you do for others is motivated unconsciously by the desire to appease others
to keep them from abandoning you if they should discover your real thoughts
bad enough for a family to be burdened with guilt over all the mistakes and
injuries that have occurred in it over time—even across generations.
But the narrow psychological path out of guilt is more painful than the guilt
itself. It’s a classic situation in which the cure is more painful than
the symptom. That’s why alcoholics and addicts, for example, remain
stuck in their addictions. The cure is too painful
compared to the relative ease of denial and
self-destruction. For the dreaded cure is nothing
other than repentance, penance, and
this, you need to realize that any damage that was ever done to you has in
turn led you to damage others. Those who are hated learn to hate; those who
are abused learn, if not to abuse, at least to hold on to
anger, a lack of trust, and an
unconscious desire for
But if you allow
yourself to step outside your own identity and
to feel sorrow for the pain others experience because
of the damage that you have done to them, then you will be ready to find
healing from the damage that was done to you in
the first place. In other words, it’s the sorrow for others—out
of true love—that makes it possible to accept
that terrible, painful “cure” for your own guilt.
When an adult wants to heal from childhood emotional abuse,
and if the parents who inflicted the abuse have no intention of changing their
abusive behavior, it will often be necessary for that adult to detach from the
family to find protection from continuing family abuse.
In this case, keep
in mind that a family system is like a living organism that will do anything to
maintain its equilibrium. If family members sense that one member is trying to
alter the system’s equilibrium by detaching from its abusive patterns, that member
will be perceived as a threat, labeled as a “black sheep,” and much pressure,
such as manipulation with shame and guilt, will be applied to draw that member
back into the family dysfunction.
you seek to detach yourself psychologically from your family’s abuse, the
retaliatory threat from other family members may be so great that you will also
need to disengage from the family physically, so that you will have some “space”
for your own growth. It’s critical, though, that this physical separation be done
for the sake of your healing and growth, not out of anger
or hatred for your family. When you leave your family because of anger or hatred
you are really hiding from emotional pain, not growing emotionally.
Note also that if you
disengage yourself from your family physically but falter in the work of
psychological detachment from your need for their approval, you will fear to speak
the truth. Hence you will always be in danger of sabotaging
your own freedom because of your fear of being left alone if
you hurt someone’s feelings. The irony is that in your fear of speaking the truth you
really are hurting someone: yourself.
What exactly does it mean for a parent to love a
From my clinical
experience, I have learned that most parents do not know the true answer
to this question. Most parents will say something like, “Well, I tried
my best, so that means I loved my children.” This really amounts to
more of a defense than an answer. The defense hides a truth, and the truth
is not pretty, for the truth is that the parents failed to give their children
everything the children really needed.
“to love a child” does not mean simply to give the child every
“thing” he or she needs. Why? Well, to give the child every
“thing” he or she needs is impossible. No parent can do this, and
it’s foolish to even think that it’s possible.
Real love, though,
is possible because real love is not about giving “things.” Real
love for a child means that a parent is willing to go to any
lengths—to do anything it takes—to be emotionally genuine with
the child. That is not easy because it means that the parent must give everything
of his or her own being.
if, during a family crisis, a father were to take his son to a sporting event,
the father would be implicitly saying, “This is how I hide my emotional
pain behind illusions of grandeur and triumph.” In contrast, if the
father were to take his son for a hike and were to talk about his current
helplessness, acknowledging what the son needs from life and admitting that
he cannot provide those things for the son right at the moment, and explaining
how a dedication to acts of patience, kindness, and forgiveness will get
them both through a difficult situation, the father would be offering a profound
model of healthy coping skills.
that I said that real love is possible. Yes, it’s possible, but it’s
also rare. It’s rare because most adults are too terrified to be emotionally
genuine, and they are too terrified to look psychologically deep enough inside
themselves to become emotionally genuine and to give of themselves
honestly in real love. Why? Well, most adults have
suffered the emotional pain of having parents who were not emotionally genuine.
Most adults were not loved by their parents, and so they are terrified of
loving their children. And so we come full circle: emotionally crippled children
come from emotionally crippled parents.
Note that this
does not mean that parents have to be perfect. We all make mistakes, but
if parents are willing to admit their mistakes and learn from them and keep
trying to do what is good for their children, then real love will be
So, if you—the
parent—want to know what good you have done for your children, look
not to the “things” you did for them but to the way you gave of
yourself genuinely to your children. If anything falls short, then resolve
now to do anything it takes—even enter
psychotherapy—to remedy your failures of emotional
genuineness. In short, be willing to do anything it takes to help your children,
now, while you have the chance.
The beginning of the solution to all family problems is
to realize that just as plants can’t grow in chalky soil unless you
add to the soil whatever is needed to make it healthy, so children—and
husbands and wives—can’t grow unless you give them whatever support
and encouragement they need to become independent and responsible. No one
can grow in the “chalky soil” of pre-existing desires and expectations.
And what a child or spouse needs might not be what you had expected—or
unfortunate, but parents who do not raise their children with truly unselfish
love thereby contribute to the child’s tendency to fall into
perversion in seeking acceptance from the
world—and then these wounded children have their own children who start
the cycle all over again.
it’s important for all family members to be aware of what other members
are experiencing, and healthy
within a family becomes an essential element of this
All too often,
communication becomes unhealthy and takes the form of unconscious
innuendos and hints;
not saying anything at all.
healthy communication is direct, immediate, and clear, and it is a good model
for learning healthy
It depends on Facts, Opinions, Emotions, and
I had an
important appointment this morning, and when I got in the car I found that
you had left it with barely enough gas to get to the gas station. Stopping
for gas made me late.
that none of us should park the car at night if it’s almost out of
experience left me feeling irritated and frustrated.
I need to
be able to leave in the morning without having to deal with unnecessary delays,
and I need the car to have a reasonable amount of gas in it at all times,
no matter who used it last.
that, in most Western cultures, women have been socialized to depend on emotions
as the basis for communication while men have been socialized to depend on
thinking and intellect for communication. This
bias can cause considerable problems. For
a woman might seek emotional support
and a man will offer an intellectual problem-solving response, or
a man might seek concrete information
(“just the facts”) and a woman will offer an emotional
Quite often men
are socialized to be aggressive and hostile in their communication, but when
women try to attain “equity” with men through aggression and hostility,
it only makes matters worse, not better, because then all communication
degenerates into endless arguments and rebuttals, and the underlying emotions
get trampled underfoot on the battleground.
that healthy communication generally involves both emotions and facts,
unless the situation (e.g., an emergency) specifically requires one side
or the other (e.g., emotions) to be suppressed.
A Lesson from
often taken by surprise at how easily and quickly attempts at honest
communication can fall into misperceptions and angry rebuttals.
is a common problem, and it happens to one extent or another in most families.
Despite the parents’ best attempts to protect and discipline a child,
there can be elements in the parents’ words and behavior that leave
the child feeling misunderstood and criticized. With no one to correct the
miscommunication, the parents will become more and more frustrated, the child
will become more and more hurt and angry, and a huge emotional rift will
separate the family.
The child, in
feeling hurt, alone, and frightened, will do and say things to express
disappointment, but the parents will find the child’s behavior
disrespectful, will get offended, and will say, “This deserves the
can be of greatest help just by not taking their children’s behavior personally.
Rather than respond with indignation at what children say or do, it is very
important for parents to think, “This is the way my child is expressing hurt
and fear. It’s a plea for help. This child needs comfort, encouragement, and
protection, not criticism or punishment.” But if the parent takes the children’s
behavior as a personal offense and reacts defensively and critically, it will
only provoke the children into more hostility.
When children act or
speak disobediently, a parent can non-threateningly remind them that their
communication has gotten off track and that the parent is willing to help them
express themselves more honestly. “That was a rude thing to say. That’s
unacceptable behavior. Say it again, but this time say it without anger.” And,
until the child does speak politely, keep repeating, “That was still said with
anger. Say it again, from your heart, politely.” Wear her down with gentle
Have you ever
seen a program on TV about a Mexican dog trainer? In the course of psychotherapy,
several of my clients have told me about the program. It all seems to begin
with a family whose dog is out of control. Everyone grumbles and says,
“This dog is bad news. It needs medication or something!” Then
the dog trainer comes in, works with the dog, and in a short time—with
appropriate discipline and
is gentle and obedient. It all proves the point that the dog’s behavior
was the result of the family’s misguided attempts to control it!
It wasn’t really a “bad” dog and it didn’t need medication.
But the dog trainer knew how to understand the dog’s issues.
Now, I wish that
changing family conflicts were as relatively simple as dog training. Altering
misdirected communication in a family takes a lot of work. But if you’re
willing to try it (and if you can convince everyone in the family to try
it as well), the most difficult of children would turn around like one of
those dogs on TV.
Shows how to turn the emotional wounds
of daily life into psychological growth. Available as a paperback book or
as an e-book.
Has this web page been helpful? Then please help support this
website in gratitude, as a “down-payment” on the success of your
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Rhet. ii, 4.
2. Richmond, R.
L. (1997). The fourth pleasing idea. American Psychologist, 52,
3. Schnitzer PG,
Ewigman BG. Child deaths resulting from inflicted injuries: household risk
factors and perpetrator characteristics. Pediatrics. 2005
“Young children who reside in households
with unrelated adults are at exceptionally high risk for inflicted-injury
death. Most perpetrators are male, and most are residents of the decedent
child’s household at the time of injury.”
Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association,
Animal Cruelty / Human Violence from the Humane
Society of the U.S.
Society on the Abuse of Children “is a membership society
dedicated to serving professionals who work in child abuse and neglect and
thereby improve the quality of services to maltreated children and the adults
who share and influence their lives.”
National Center for
Missing and Exploited Children
on Child Abuse and Neglect
National Committee to
Prevent Child Abuse
Child and Adolescent Mental
“information and discussion about the diagnosis and medical treatment
of ADD/ADHD” and describes “the many social consequences people
with ADD/ADHD neurology not infrequently struggle to cope with.”
from the National Institute of Mental Health
Support and Resources from the National Cancer Institute.
Children and Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General
provides comprehensive information about child development, mental
health disorders (including ADHD), and treatment.
and Adolescent Mental Health Activities from the Center for Mental
Disorder: Diagnosis and Treatment in Primary Care from American
Contemporary Pediatrics® offers many helpful
in Children and Adolescents from American Family
for Effective Discipline from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Children After a Disaster from the American Academy of Child and
Helping children with learning disabilities toward a brighter
adulthood from Contemporary Pediatrics
Health Disorders in Children from THE MERCK MANUAL
on Child Abuse and Neglect
SYNDROME-SILENT ANGEL'S offers information from the perspective
in Adolescents - AACAP Facts For Families from the American Academy
of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).
Disorders and Sleep Problems in Childhood from American Family
disorders in children and teens from Postgraduate
Suicide Attempts in Adolescents from the American Academy of
When parents have a drinking problem from
History of child psychology, testing, psychiatry etc.
provides an overview of the history of child psychology through many
articles by and about the most famous psychologists who worked with
Infant and Child Psychology and Psychoanalysis Resources provides
information about therapy and analysis for infants & children.
Violence - International Resources
Domestic violence: Ways to get help from the Mayo
Family Violence Prevention
Clearinghouse on Family Violence (NCFV), Health Canada
National Coalition Against
Violence Survival Kit
White Ribbon Campaign —Educational Materials: Men working
to end men’s violence against women.
& Bacon Family Therapy Website provides an overview of important
family systems therapists and historical concepts.
Family Systems Theory & Concepts provides a
slide presentation of basic family systems concepts.
Family Systems Theory, family healing meditations provides some
helpful family systems healing concepts.
Guide to Caring for Caregivers from American Family Physician.
(A confusing title! It is a guide for family members who take care of persons
Abuse from Emergency Medicine
for the Evaluation of Dementia and Age-Related Cognitive Decline from
the American Psychological Association.
Depression from Clinical Geriatrics Magazine Online.
Merck Manual of Geriatrics provides numerous articles which discuss
mental and physical aspects of geriatric care.
and diagnosis of dementia from the National Guideline
Marriage and Family
and breast cancer: The scientific link
Matters and Resources
therapy can be hazardous to your marital health
Marriage and Family
for Marriage and Family Therapy provides information and resources
for marriage and family therapy.
of State MFT Licensing Boards provides the regulated titles and
addresses of state boards regulating marriage and family therapists.
Strategic Therapy —from Jay Haley on
Alcoholism and other publications from the National
Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
Canadian Centre on Substance
Abuse is “a non-profit organization working to minimize the
harm associated with the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.”
Drinking and Your Pregnancy and other publications
from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
is a Swedish site with articles, in English, about marijuana abuse.
Use And Dependence (Substance Abuse) from THE MERCK MANUAL.
The Substance Abuse and Mental
Health Services Administration is an agency of the U.S. Department
of Health & Human Services
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology
and its Practice:
Death—and the Seduction
Questions and Answers
Reasons to Consult
Sex and Love
Types of Psychological
INDEX of all subjects
on this website