6 Ways to Discover and Choose Your Core Values

Knowing your values can guide your actions and give you inner peace.

Posted Nov 04, 2018

“What Should I Do?” Everyday Values Dilemmas

You’ve planned to have dinner with your friend on Friday night. On Friday morning, the guy you’ve been crushing on asks you out for the evening. Do you say yes and break the date with your friend?

You just got a raise. Should you bank it for retirement or make your life more comfortable now?

You wanted to get a head start on an important report for work later this evening. But your child has had a tough day and could benefit from your attention. Should you prioritize work or family?

Life presents an endless series of decisions, large and small, that require you to make difficult choices. While many factors are involved, the critical factor in deciding may be your core values. These values tell you what kind of person you are, or want to be, and provide guidelines, or even imperatives, for your actions.

But how do you know what your core values are? This blog will reveal six ways to discover and choose your core values.

Values: A Definition

First, what is a “value” anyway?

Values “are the principles that give our lives meaning and allow us to persevere through adversity,” according to psychologist Barb Markway and Celia Ampel in The Self-Confidence Workbook. I love both parts of this definition—that values stand for our most meaningful ideals and also that they inspire us to keep going when the going gets tough.

You’ve probably learned many of your values from your parents, your teachers, your religious leaders, and the society around you. You’ve also probably rebelled against some of those values at times or changed your mind as you’ve learned more about yourself and your world. But it can be helpful to decide—or re-decide—the top 6-8 values that mean the most to you right now and to have a shorthand label for those principles. That’s where the information below comes in.

Choosing Core Values

If you are not sure about your own core values, or if you would like to clarify which of your values are top priority now, here are six options.

1. Choose your top 6-8 values from a wide-ranging list of values.

To do this, you need a good list.

Dr. Russ Harris, author of The Confidence Gap and other books, has generously provided such a list and other free resources at his website here (You’ll need to scroll down a little bit to see the list.) Or you could use a similar list on p. 28 in The Confidence Workbook. Or just use the mini-list that follows, making good use of the “Other” option at the end of the list:

Financial Security; Compassion; Health/Fitness; Nature; Accomplishment;Creativity; Dependability; Loyalty; Beauty; Bravery; Gratitude; Love; Connection/Relationships; Learning; Leadership; Survival; Self-Preservation; Security; Adventure; Family; Work; Success; Calm; Freedom; Other___; Other ___.

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Now use one of these lists to select your top 6-8 values. Yes, you can change your mind. In fact, it’s natural to modify some of the values on this list as you face new and challenging situations. However, other values represent enduring ideals that you would only change under duress.

I did this activity recently using the Harris list, despite thinking beforehand that I already knew my values pretty well. It turned out to be enormously useful to put specific labels on my vague ideas of my core values. Among other things, I learned I put a high value on many of the “C” values, such as “compassion,” “creativity,” and “connection.” Sometimes when I make a choice, I now say to myself, “Hmm. You decided to write a new blog instead of going out for coffee. That was ‘creativity’ winning out over ‘connection.’”

Note that sometimes your choice is not between “right” and “wrong” but between two cherished values, as in my situation above.

2. Think of three to six people you most admire or love. Consider why they are so important to you.

Values can be personified in people that you love and admire. You can use this simple two-step process to uncover the values that you associate with your significant others and role models:

Step 1: Identify and write down six people who are important role models or valued connections for you. Step 2: Think of the values they embody. For example, your list might include: “my grandfather for his acceptance and love,” “my wife for her honesty,” “my colleague for his listening skills,” and “my friend for his loyalty,” to name a few.

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Dr. Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, suggests that you uncover your values by naming your heroes. For example, why do you admire, say, Martin Luther King, Jr.? Is it because he fought for social justice? Is it his commitment to non-violence? His kindness to others? Identifying the specific values embodied by your heroes can inspire you to adopt those values for yourself.

3. See a career counselor.

Your values are a major determinant of career choice, work decisions, and career transitions. For example, you may value “financial security,” “helping,” or “being my own boss (autonomy).” Each of those values might lead you down a different career path. That’s why career counselors have a large toolbox of strategies and inventories (self-report tests with no right answers), including values inventories, to help match their clients to a compatible career area.

4. Use an online values inventory.

You can find various values inventories online. One free online values inventory is located here (https://www.lifevaluesinventory.org/). The authors, R. Kelly Grace and Duane Brown, are experts in wellness and career development. Although I’ve never worked with this particular inventory before, I agree with the authors’ idea that clarifying your values can “serve as a blueprint for effective decision-makingand optimal functioning.” (The inventory looks so intriguing that I intend to take it myself—it’s actually on my list.) By the way, if you are concerned about confidentiality (and I hope you are), the website states that the information you supply will be used for ongoing research, but your name will not be linked to your data.

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5. Observe yourself and learn.

As you live your life, be mindful of the choices you make. For several days, consciously put a label on the values behind your key decisions at work and at home. Pay particular attention to whether the values you chose above are reflected in your daily life. If not, what values are you expressing or living by as you go through your day? Are there patterns? What can you learn about what you want, what you are willing to give up, and what is non-negotiable in your life? If you experience a lot of dissatisfaction with your choices, you may not be living up to your values or you may need to re-evaluate what is most important to you.

6. Focus on the bitter and the sweet in your life.

Dr. Hayes suggests that you learn about your values by thinking back to both the sweetest and most painful moments of your life. These moments could direct you to what you care about most. For instance, what were the peak experiences that might reveal key values? If you won an award for teaching, consider that “leadership” or “motivating others” might be significant values. What were the most painful experiences? If you know the pain of being excluded by others, you might realize that “compassion” is one of your primary values.

Difficult Choices and Difficult People

As mentioned above, there are times when two cherished values will be in conflict. Knowing why you are choosing Value 1 instead of Value 2 in that instance can be helpful in resolving any inner conflict you may feel. And certain values may rise to the top in particular situations. For example, during an emergency, “survival” may become the value that guides your actions. Values will also shift over time as you fulfill your various goals—for example, once you achieve a comfortable degree of “financial security,” that value may recede into the background and other values may take its place.

Sometimes you’ll have to defend against difficult people—such as psychopaths, extreme narcissists, and master manipulators—who seem to be guided by negative values. With such people, it can be a challenge to stick to the positive values highlighted in this blog. Then there are the people who pay lip service to “core values” and “family values,” but whose choices betray their words as just empty rhetoric.

Observing yourself and being honest about what you see might keep the phrase “core values” from becoming a cliché. You can’t be perfect and you’ll often need to compromise, but you can aim for the integrity that a values-driven life can provide. As Dr. Harris sums it up in The Confidence Gap: “True success is living by your values.”

Know Your Values, Know Yourself

“Values” is one of 6 key elements to knowing who you are, as I explain in this blog. The others are: interests, temperament, biorhythms, life goals, and strengths. But of all these, knowing your values is the royal road to self-knowledge because values choices both reveal and build character as you act on them. Your values are even more important than your goals, as Dr. Harris points out, because you might not reach your goals, but you can almost always choose to live by your values.

A Preview of Coming Attractions

This blog has focused chiefly on identifying your values so that you can make better life decisions. But there’s much, much more. Although hard to believe, knowing your core values can help you reduce stress, communicate with more compassion, increase your self-confidence, and power up your willpower. The next blog will reveal the research behind those benefits and how you can utilize it for yourself.

Meanwhile, experiment with living the “values-driven life.” Does living by your values increase your sense of satisfaction with yourself and your life?

© Meg Selig, 2018. All rights reserved. For permissions, click here.


Harris, R. (2011) The Confidence Gap. Trumpeter Books: Boulder, CO, p. 146.

Markway, B. & Ampel, C. (2018) The Self-Confidence Workbook. Althea Press: Emeryville, CA, p. 28.

Selig, M. “Know Yourself: 6 Specific Ways to Know Who You Are,” psychology today,

Hayes, S. C. “10 Signs You Know What Matters,” Psychology Today, Sept/Oct 2018, p. 53 ff.

Psychology Today · by Meg Selig is the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.

Who’s Responsible For Your Happiness? | Psychology Today

Source: StockSnap/Pixabay

When it comes down to it, we marry for one reason: we think that we’ll be happier than we would be being single. Human beings crave happiness and will do whatever we think will bring more of it into our lives. When we marry, we long to feel better with our partner in our life and believe that if we stay together, we can create even more happiness. We partner with someone who seems to be good for us. In reality, when people partner, they are both young and immature, and neither partner is willing to really try to find out why they don’t have the desired level of happiness in their lives to begin with.

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We may know that life is better, easier, and less lonely when we were with each other, except when it isn’t. At those times, it is tempting to assume that it is because the other, who is selfishly withholding whatever it was that we want at the time—intimacy, appreciation, sexattention, or understanding. Or we felt that the other was giving too much of what we didn’t want—advice, criticism, control, judgment, resentment, disappointment, or distance.

It isn’t until we are well into our marriage that it becomes clear to us that our individual happiness is up to each of us. As long as we hold the other person responsible for providing fulfillment, there won’t be an end to blame, resentment, and self-pity. There’s a huge difference between enjoying the happiness that our partner brings into our life and on the other hand seeing it as their job to make us happy. Unfortunately, too many of us enter into marriage believing that we will magically be redeemed from the unhappiness of feeling unloved, unworthy, lonely, insecure, or depressed. The belief that “love heals all wounds” is still disturbingly pervasive in our culture, and it is a myth that needs a proper burial.

When our happiness requires something from another person, what we have isn’t love: it’s codependence. Country music songs not withstanding, real love isn’t about being “so lonesome I could die” or being “nothing without you” or feeling that “you’re my world, you’re my everything.” This may be the stuff of romantic ballads, but in practice it’s a surefire prescription for excessive dependence, which fosters control, resentment, and unhappiness. The more capable we are of creating inner happiness, otherwise known as joy, the happier we will be with another person.

When we take responsibility for healing the unloved places within ourselves by accepting and internalizing our partner’s love, true healing and happiness begins. Paradoxically, though we may not become truly happy without someone else’s love, their love alone is not enough to fulfill us. What their love can do is to ignite the spark of self-love buried deep in our hearts so that we can recognize, feed, and nurture it until it becomes a roaring fire that ultimately burns up the shame, insecurity, anger, and pain that have been the sources of our unhappiness. When two individuals interact in this way, they can experience a depth of joy beyond what either had imagined.


When Nightmares Disturb More Than Sleep

When Nightmares Disturb More Than Sleep

Psychology Today

An occasional nightmare is not the same as nightmare disorder.

Posted Dec 30, 2018

The Garden of Earthly Delights
Source: Hieronymus Bosch [Public domain]

Several years ago, while visiting Madrid, I had the opportunity to visit the Prado Museum, one of the finest art museums in the world. It was there that I was able to see the original and world famous “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch. While this work is displayed in Spain, Bosch was born and lived in the area of the modern-day Netherlands in the late 1400s and early 1500s. I spent most of the day in the museum, yet only began to take in the vast collection of amazing art. But hours could have been spent pondering this amazing work of art, alone. Generations of art historians and psychologists have tried to understand the bizarre imagery and symbolism contained in it. One might wonder from what source such a vision arose.

I first saw copies of this painting as a child and immediately had the sense that they somehow were the imagery of dreams. And for the right-most panel, nightmares. The right panel has always caught my imagination as a deeply disturbing representation of hell itself, as seen through the lens of a nightmare. It seems to have some deep, almost archetypal quality to it and has inspired other artists to attempt to depict their own versions of a terrifying hellscape — one that would embody the worst nightmare you could imagine. During nightmares, our deepest fears and most repugnant images emerge and can, if only briefly, be remembered upon awakening. Sometimes the memory can linger for years. When awakening from the nightmare, we are in a shaken state that quickly turns to relief as we realize that the imagery was “only a dream.”

Nightmares are experienced as long and unpleasant dreams that cause fear, anxiety, or sadness, although we most often think of them as being anxiety dreams that include intense fear and a sudden awakening. Anyone can have a nightmare at any time, but most often these occur during times of increased stress, insufficient sleep, use of REM-sensitive medications, or as a symptom of PTSD (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). One of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD is, in fact, “recurrent distressing dreams in which the content and/or affect of the dream are related to the traumatic event(s)” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). As I discussed in the past, most nightmares pass quickly and leave the dreamer shaken, but relieved, and sleep usually returns fairly quickly.

But sometimes this doesn’t happen, and nightmares affect more than just one night’s sleep. The negative emotions experienced during the nightmare may persist, even lasting into the daytime. This can leave the person feeling sad, worried, or anxious. The nightmares may occur repeatedly and be very long and be accompanied by extremely negative emotional states that are well-remembered. When these repeated, intensely distressing nightmares affect occupational or social functioning, they become a sleep disorder known as “nightmare disorder” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Nightmare disorder is not diagnosed if the nightmares are the result of drug abuse or medications that have been prescribed for other illnesses. Also, for the diagnosis, the impairment of the nightmares cannot be explained by other psychiatric or medical disorders. In the case of co-morbid conditions, the diagnosis is only made if and when the nightmares themselves are so significant that they require treatment independent of the co-morbid condition.

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For example, in the case of PTSD, nightmares are frequently present and would be considered a part of the PTSD. It is possible, however, that the nightmares could continue after the PTSD has been successfully treated. If nightmares continue and require treatment, nightmare disorder is diagnosed. Likewise, if the nightmares preceded the onset of PTSD, a separate diagnosis and treatment would be appropriate. Nightmares can be co-morbid with many illnesses, including heart disease, pain, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer. They may also appear during medical treatments, including dialysis, or during withdrawal from drugs that have been abused.

Some nightmare-like experiences that occur at night are distinct from the standard nightmare. For example, dysphoric dreams are common following the loss of a loved one, but usually have a different kind of emotional impact than nightmares. The emotional tone is often one of loss and sadness, not the fear and anxiety that would be experienced with nightmares. REM Sleep Behavior Disorder is a condition in which the person moves and acts out dreams. Patients may call these experiences nightmares and their content may indeed be nightmarish, but they are caused by different brain processes and require different treatment. People with narcolepsy often have nightmares, but their daytime sleepiness and other symptoms are caused by the narcolepsy and are not primarily the effect of the nightmares.

Nightmare disorder usually causes significant daytime emotional distress. This may be the most significant problem for people with the disorder. And when there are frequent disruptions of sleep, the impact can be even greater. This is particularly true for people who develop sleep avoidance due to fear of having nightmares. In my experience, the fear of going to sleep due to the fear of having terrible nightmares is the worst symptom for most patients with this disorder. It is especially problematic, because, as noted above, lack of sufficient sleep is a factor in the occurrence of nightmares. It is easy to see how a vicious cycle of nightmares, sleep avoidance, decreased sleep, increased stress, further nightmares, greater sleep avoidance, and so on can happen. When sleep is affected in this way, other symptoms appear that result in impairment of daytime functioning. These include difficulty attending and concentrating, daytime drowsiness, low mood, irritability, and anxiety. For those afflicted, nightmare disorder can seem like a hellish merry-go-round ride that you just can’t stop.

Fortunately, there is help available. In the next post, I will address some methods that have been successfully used to treat nightmare disorder, including medication and psychotherapeutic interventions.


American Psychiatric Association, (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.

New Study Shows Most Americans Are Lonely

If you are feeling lonely, you’re not alone. A recent study involving 340 San Diego County residents of various ages has found that loneliness is shockingly widespread. The study suggests that there is a 76% prevalence of moderate to severe loneliness in American society. This is a bombshell statistic. After all, our country has enshrined the pursuit of happiness in its constitution and prides itself on having a high standard of living (twelfth in the world), which apparently doesn’t equate with living well. What went wrong?

The hopeful news in this study is that there is an inverse relationship between loneliness and wisdom.

Those who possessed six components of wisdom experienced less loneliness — namely: general knowledge of life; emotion management; empathy, compassion, altruism and a sense of fairness; insight; acceptance of divergent values; and decisiveness — the ability to make quick, effective decisions when necessary.

The authors of this study suggest that more research is needed.1 But it makes intuitive sense that the antidote to loneliness is to develop an inner life, which is the purview of Western psychology and Eastern approaches to spirituality.

The American dream of achieving a successful, happy life clearly has some flaws. It appears to me that chief among them is the longstanding societal belief that the key to happiness is through external pursuits rather realizing that it’s an inside job.

What We Want and How To Find It

Dr. Dilip Jeste, the senior author of the study and a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, has defined loneliness as “subjective distress,” that is, “the discrepancy between the social relationships you want and the social relationships you have.”

We have a longing to be seen, understood, and accepted. We desire the pleasure of connecting, a sense of belonging, a tender intimacy with another human. Such meaningful connections are less likely without wisdom qualities that include empathy and compassion.

If our personality has not developed in a way where it is natural for us to extend empathy and understanding toward people, they won’t be inclined to feel safe with us; they won’t come toward us. We may be left feeling lonely without realizing that we’ve become a person who doesn’t know how to soften and relax with people — generously extending our attention and caring, while also letting inothers’ caring.

Another antidote to loneliness is developing the wisdom quality of emotion management, which refers to self-regulation and self-soothing. This includes having empathy toward ourselves. We need to deal wisely with the instinctual fight, flight, freeze response when we get emotionally activated.

Relationships trigger our deepest fears (of rejection), shame (not being good enough), and hurts (feeling abandoned). If we don’t know how to deal with the emotions that relationships and life bring up in us, we’ll either act them out (lashing out) or internalize them (shutting down and retreating). Not dealing skillfully with our emotional life contributes to our isolation. Sadly, our education system is not geared toward helping us develop emotional intelligence, although there are now innovative, research-based educational programs, such as the Toolbox, that address this serious gap.

The longer we delay developing wisdom qualities, emotional intelligence, and a rich inner life, the more we set ourselves up for loneliness.2 We’re also prey to the well-documented health risks of loneliness, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression, and cognitive decline.3 Old age is challenging enough. If we haven’t pursued Socrates wise dictate, “know thyself,” then we’re additionally challenged.

Psychotherapists and philosophers (lovers of wisdom) have encouraged us to know ourselves, which fosters inner peace and provides the foundation for close, meaningful relationships. Investing in therapy or pursuing inner practices that help us connect with ourselves, such as meditation, yoga, Focusing, or other paths toward befriending ourselves can become invaluable resources to foster our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.

We all feel lonely sometimes. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It is heartening that research is confirming the obvious — that the best antidote to loneliness is developing an interpersonal life nourished by qualities that include empathy, compassion, and caring about others.

Social Implications

I’m curious about the social implications of this important study. One takeaway for me is that reducing loneliness, which is a step toward finding happiness, is not a matter of pursuing our own private pleasure or success to the exclusion of how we affect each other. As we know, many powerful business people and notable politicians who have competed, dominated, and “won” are among the most miserable, lonely human beings on the planet. They’ve gained the world, but lost their own souls.

We might look good, but the important question is how good do we feel inside? If we’re honest with ourselves, are we fairly happy or dogged by a nagging loneliness, which we try to avoid through drinking, spending, or other addictive habits?

Is maintaining the pure form of capitalism and hands-off competition the best system for achieving the happiness we desire? Or is it in our collective best interest to make prudent adjustments that include wise regulations and oversight? How can we create conditions for an economic, social, and political system that fosters qualities of compassion and kindness? Many people would accept that our society is dysfunctional, but what are steps toward a cure?

Studies have consistently shown that European nations, which arguably have more concern for the collective welfare, have the highest levels of happiness. According to the UN’s latest Human Development Report, six of the seven happiest countries in the world are European. ((Here are the 11 best countries to live in around the world. (2017). The Economic Times. Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/slideshows/nation-world/here-are-the-11-best-countries-to-live-in-around-the-world/the-netherlands/slideshow/57875327.cms))

For me, this study raises vital, yet neglected questions: how can we create conditions where people feel more connected and less isolated? What needs to happen in our inner and outer lives so that we not only have the right to pursue happiness, but also have a fair shot at achieving it?

psychcentral.com · by John Amodeo, PhD · December 27, 2018


Six Tips for Holiday Survival – Sex and Relationship Healing

Whether we’re addicted, the loved one of an addict, or a “normie” (if there is such a thing), the holidays can be incredibly stressful. Thanks to social messaging (movies, TV, commercials, etc.) we feel like we need to be perfect—more so than usual even—during this supposedly joyful season. We think we need to cook the perfect meals, put out the best decorations, buy the most awesome gifts, and be the life of the party at all times (without going overboard and making fools of ourselves). And when one tiny little thing doesn’t go as planned, we feel like a failure. Our shame kicks in, and we think we’re unlovable, unwanted, burdensome, and a drain on everyone else’s enjoyment of the season. If we’re addicts, this puts addicts at risk of relapse. If we’re loved ones of addicts, it puts us into “control freak” mode. Even normies find themselves on edge.

Below I have listed six tips that can help all of us not only survive but thrive during the holiday season.

  1. Create a Gratitude List. Gratitude and happiness are linked. After researching happiness for nearly two decades, psychologist Brené Brown identified one primary difference between happy people and unhappy people: Happy people are grateful for what they have. It doesn’t seem to matter to them what they have (or don’t have); they’re grateful either way. Gratitude begets happiness. Period. So, if we’re feeling down, a great way to get out of that is to write out a 10-item gratitude list. This helps us focus on the current moment and the blessings in our lives, rather than on what’s not going perfectly or what might go wrong in the future.
  2. Connect. One of the best ways to overcome stress, depression, anxiety, and feeling triggered during the holidays is to engage in seasonal activities with other people, especially family and friends. Instead of buying gifts on our own, we can take our spouse or our best friend. Instead of baking and decorating 12 dozen cookies on our own, we can ask our kids to help. Instead of hanging twinkle lights alone, we can help our neighbor hang his and let him help us hang ours. Sure, all of these activities might take more time with the “help” of family and friends (and the cookies might not be as well-decorated as we’d manage on our own), but at the end of the day the holidays are not about speed and perfection. They’re about love and connection.
  3. Do a Daily Check-In. Most recovering addicts already know that acronym HALT, which stands for Hungry, Angry/Anxious, Lonely, and Tired. They know that if they’re experiencing one or more of these conditions, their risk for relapse is elevated. So they eat a sandwich, talk to a friend, take a nap, or engage in some other healthy activity that reduces their feelings of stress, anxiety, and isolation. This check-in can benefit non-addicts, too. During the holidays it’s helpful to add a few other questions, such as: Am I keeping any secrets? Have I told any lies? If so, do I need to rectify this? Do I have any unrealistic expectations regarding the holidays? If so, what can I do to combat this? Do I have a workable plan for dealing with holiday disappointments? If not, what can I do about this? Am I expecting others to behave a certain way during the holidays? If so, what can I do to combat this? These check-ins should be done in the presence of another person—a 12-step sponsor, a friend in recovery or therapy, a family member, etc. Usually, when we do our check-in, the other person can respond in kind. In this way, we get our secrets out, we get useful feedback, and we feel more connected to a person we care about.
  4. Relax. During the holidays most of us seem to think our lives should be a non-stop string of parties, dinners, events, and shopping sprees. But we also need to go to work, keep the house, care for the kids (who likely have an increased number of activities to navigate), and just plain do life. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by this and to forget about self-care in the process. Most of us find it helpful to set aside some time (at least an hour) every day for rest and relaxation. Meditation, yoga, reading, watching fun TV (not the news!), going to the movies, napping, and taking a leisurely walk are highly recommended. We also need to get enough sleep, to eat reasonably healthy meals, and to get our usual amount of exercise. Caring for ourselves in this way keeps us on an even keel despite holiday stressors.
  5. Double-Down on Recovery and Healing. The holidays are not a time when we should cancel or skip 12-step meetings, therapy, or other forms of support. In fact, this is a good time to double-down on recovery and healing by attending our usual meetings and therapy sessions plus a few extra. Remember: This is where we go for empathetic understanding and support, and we need those things more than ever during the holidays.
  6. Let People Be People. We can’t control other people. Sure, we want our friends and family to be continuously joyful and well-behaved, and we do our best to make that happen. But they’re going to think and feel and act however they choose to think and feel and act, and there’s not much we can do about that. If grandma lets our youngest child eat ten of her famous espresso-chocolate cookies and now we’ve got a Tasmanian devil running around the house, we can get mad, or we can take pics of our crazy child and post them on Facebook. If our neighbor decorates his house like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation, we can worry that our decorations are inadequate or we can be glad we’re not paying his electric bill. Etc. Other people are going to do what they do, and we need to let them. During the holidays, more so than ever.

At the end of the day, maintaining sanity during the holidays is incredibly similar to maintaining sanity throughout the year, but on steroids. In short, we need to recognize that the emotional and psychological triggers we struggle with year-round are likely to be more frequent and more intense during the holidays, especially with spiked eggnog and over-the-top office parties and badly-behaved fellow shoppers and all of the other holiday not-so-niceties exacerbating our usual daily challenges. As such, we need to stand up for ourselves during this difficult time, stepping up our self-care in ways that mirror the emotional and physical stress the season brings us.

3 Recovery Killers That Could Be Keeping You from Freedom

Is Recovery from Porn Possible?

“The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10a). It should be no surprise then that these three recovery killers we’ll talk about come straight from the father of lies–Satan himself.

Jesus on the other hand came to give us life. He said it like this, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b).

There are more than three recovery killers, but with years of experience as a recovery mentor and educator, I’ve seen that the three we talk about here are at the top of the list. Without understanding how these assassins can kill your recovery, it would be nearly impossible to confront and stop them. My perspective comes primarily from working with men, but these also apply to many women in recovery.

Porn Recovery Killer #1: Pride

Pride likes to call the shots. It says it knows best how to handle your recovery. Speaking to the danger of being led by pride, Proverbs 16:18 says,“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

In the early years of my recovery process, I embraced the self-reliant method of pursuing freedom. I suffered my bumps and bruises during those years.

As God revealed my pride problem, I began to surrender the “I can do this myself” mindset. I realized this attitude had landed me at a suicidal point in my life and I decided to try it God’s way.

I pasted Isaiah 66:2b to our bathroom mirror as an everyday reminder. It says, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (emphasis mine).

This following statement may be challenging for you to hear, but experience demonstrates it’s true: “The proud cannot be taught.” A pride-filled heart tends to think it knows all.

At its core, humility is a position of our heart, and that heart can be taught. As the verse in Isaiah above indicates, God looks with favor upon a humble and contrite heart and spirit. Humility opens the door for heart change–lasting and enduring heart change. Without heart change there is no life change and no ability to be truly set free.

Porn Recovery Killer #2: Minimizing

The definition of minimizing is to “reduce (something, especially something unwanted or unpleasant) to the smallest possible amount or degree.” I’m not a master of too many things in my life, but I had this down to a science during the first few years of my recovery. I’m still prone to do this with non-porn related areas of my life. By God’s grace, I’ve been given clear conviction on that subject.

Minimizing sounds something like this, “Hey, I only looked at porn for 30 minutes this week. Last week, it was an hour!” This is not to diminish progress, because any progress is good. But this self-talk is dangerous in that it sounds more like justifying the behavioral sin rather than confessing it and repenting.

Minimizing is a form of justification, and to a wounded, traumatized wife, it’s defensive talk. I promise that it will not be received well, nor should it be. Defensiveness is a different dialect of the same minimizing language.

No matter how painful it may be, take the position of honesty and fully accept responsibility. It comes from a place of humility in our hearts and mind.

Porn Recovery Killer #3: Isolation

Your greatest need in life is to be fully known and fully loved. Fear and shame work together to keep porn users in isolation and away from anyone or anything that can open their eyes to their greatest need.

Adam and Eve attempted to hide from God in the garden. Why? Genesis 3:9-10 says, “But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.’”

Satan, the deceiver and father of all lies, has been using fear and shame to drive us into isolation and away from God since the creation of mankind. And we keep buying the lie. Yet in the Genesis 3 account we see God as he is–the pursuer, grace-giver, and protector of his children. He sent his only Son, Christ Jesus, to redeem that which became broken in the Garden of Eden.

Addiction thrives in isolation and the opposite of addiction is community. In community, we can begin to have our greatest need met–the need to be fully known and fully loved.

Follow God’s Example – You Can’t Do it Alone

Even God lives in community as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Albeit a mysterious community, it is a perfect example of what being fully known and loved looks like for his children whom he dearly loves.

After all, he loves us all so much that he bought us back by the shedding of the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s one and only Son. And, it’s an open invitation to become part of the greatest eternal community, the family of God. John 1:12-13 says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Step into the community of God, set pride aside, walk out of isolation, and begin one of the toughest journeys of your life–the journey to recovery, freedom, and new life.

Rethinking How We Measure Addiction | Psychology Today

It’s no secret that people who tend to drink a lot or use drugs excessively may struggle with addiction. So, it’s not an illogical jump to presume that for people to no longer have an addiction, they must not drink or use drugs at all anymore. Right?

Have you ever wondered why is this such a common belief informing traditional treatment approaches? According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 56 percent of people age 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol in the past month, while 9.4 percent of the population age 12 or older have used an illicit drug in the past month. Interestingly, less than 15 percent of the adult population report that they have not had any alcohol in their lifetime. This tells us that absolute non-drinkers are actually in the minority.

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What does this mean for people struggling with an addiction? It’s at least possible that lifelong abstinence is a ridiculous expectation. We’re asking people with an alcohol use or substance use disorder (who rely on alcohol for a slew of reasons) to quit when we know that between 56 to 85 percent of the population continues to drink. It could be said that we’re setting people with an addiction up for failure.

Measuring success in recovery only by how many consecutive days someone is sober is like measuring diabetes treatment outcomes by the last time someone had a doughnut—it’s not an adequate method. In fact, it’s outdated and unrealistic.

How common is addiction?

According to the NSDUH, more than 20 million people have a substance use disorder, and within that group, more than 15 million have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Almost 10 million men account for an AUD, compared to 5.3 million women. Only 6.7 percent of all adults with an AUD received treatment in the past year.

It’s clear from these statistics there are a lot of people struggling with addiction and only a small percentage are receiving any form of help. In a previous article, I talked about shame and stigma as a major barrier to treatment, and I believe abstinence (the requirement to quit alcohol and drugs) before entering traditional treatment programs is just as much of a deterrent.

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How do we currently measure addiction recovery success?

At present, essentially the only factor that matters in measuring recovery success is abstinence. “How many days do you have?” is the recovery battle cry de jour.

This is the core of programs like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), which measure months sober and participants are encouraged to submit to a higher power to address “defects of character” and make amends for past problems. Twelve-step treatment programs nearly unanimously reject reduced drinking as a potential outcome for participants. The expected outcome is complete abstinence.

The Betty Ford Consensus Panel (2007)1 put forth a contentious definition of “recovery” as consisting of three parts: sobriety, personal health, and citizenship. Sobriety, in this context, refers to complete abstinence from alcohol and substances while personal health refers to improved physical well-being and citizenship refers to living with others respectfully. This definition, however, has been widely criticized as no other illness is measured for recovery status on the construct of citizenship.

Nevertheless, academics have been arguing for more nuance and better measurement for over a decade. For instance, McLellan, Chalk, & Bartlett (2007)2 define “recovery” as consisting of three domains: substance use, employment/self-support, and criminal activity and Sanghani and colleagues (2015)3 assert that “Addiction treatment and recovery are multifaceted processes, and treatment success cannot be determined by a single metric.”

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It’s time for the whole field to catch up.

Why is measuring sobriety an outdated measure of recovery success?

Measuring recovery success by months sober is an outdated and narrow way to measure the success of recovery. Here are some reasons why:

  1. It prevents people from seeking help. To begin with, some people don’t want to give up alcohol completely. I’ve worked with many clients who wanted to get a better handle on their drinking but didn’t want to quit altogether. Discounting every other area of improvement because alcohol was not completely missing from their life can devalue their motivation for change.
  2. It can also prevent people from seeking help following “failed” attempts because they feel guilt, shame, or defeat, thus prompting them to keep their distance from traditional treatment facilities. These people can be difficult to reach for follow-up treatment. The number of times I’ve heard of people who feared being re-labeled “newcomers” is staggering, and the concept makes no sense—suggesting that the recovery of someone with years of sobriety who has had a drink is equivalent to that of someone who has just begun their process makes no sense without deeper examination.
  3. When we measure recovery success as an absence of relapse, we are setting people up for failure. Estimates suggest that as many as 80 percent of people struggling with an addiction who seek help and complete an addiction program will relapse after treatment (many within 30 days). And those are the people who actually complete the program. What does this say about current treatment programs and what does it say about the trajectory of addiction? As Sanghani and colleagues write in their paper, “Relapse rate cannot serve as the sole indicator of recovery success, lest the industry as a whole be interpreted as widely ineffectual.” We need to move away from outdated measurements of recovery success.
  4. Finally, we should not view addiction as solely a problem with alcohol or drugs. It isn’t and never was. There are many more variables that should be accounted for like quality of life, daily functioning, criminal involvement, social integration, and more. What if an unemployed man who drinks seven nights a week and is cut of from his family and arrested regularly is able to cut down his drinking a bit, maintain a job, earn an income and keep a roof over his head while staying out of jail? Shouldn’t that be measured as success compared to the alternative—a man who is in jail, has no job, money or home? The answer is a resounding yes.

The point of recovery is to allow people to achieve a way of life in which they are happier, more satisfied, and operating as functional members of society. As helpers, if we are only measuring their success by consecutive days sober, we aren’t giving them a lot to be hopeful for.

What modern approach should we take to measure recovery?

Instead of only measuring one’s consecutive days abstinent, here are additional ways we could measure recovery:

  1. Percentages of abstinence over a period of time. For instance, a person who has been abstinent for a year (365 days) and then drank for a weekend (3 days) would be said to be 99 percent sober over the last year along with currently having 0 consecutive days sober. This would immediately acknowledge BOTH the victories and the struggles instead of the current system that only focuses on the “failure.”
  2. Overall quality of life. There are many areas of life that deserve attention when a person is entering recovery and they include relationships(family and romantic), employment, mental well-being, criminal involvement, fun and recreation (yes, life is lived to be enjoyed AND be purposeful), personal growth and more. As it currently stands, it is assumed that working on abstinence will automatically confer benefits in all of these areas. But this is a false belief as I point out in my book. We know individuals in recovery who are abstinent and yet miserable. It takes work to address each of these areas of life.
  3. Criminal justice involvement. Many people who are new to recovery have found themselves tangled in criminal behavior. While they’ve typically been judged as being deviant for these reasons, it is often heavily influenced by the fact that the drugs they are using are illegal and so is the act of procuring them. Being able to pull yourself away, even if imperfectly, from this way of life should be celebrated. This is also where maintenance drugs (like methadone, suboxone, etc.) should be celebrated because they allow many people to kick the “drug-free” can down the road while getting their life in order. That effort should not be denigrated.

To be sure, I’m not advocating for people to binge drink and pass out every night as long as they can hold down a job. For some reason, this is one of the retorts I typically get to articles like this. But if people can get to a point where their drinking or drug use is no longer a problem, or is at least less of an obstacle in their life, shouldn’t we celebrate that success?

A major false assumption is that these approaches—what is believed by traditional recovery advocates to be the “easier softer way”—set people who are addicted up for failure. The problem with this thinking is that the underlying belief is that people will choose these alternative approaches instead of the more traditional abstinence-only ways. But that isn’t true in the least. And we know that because 85 percent of people who struggle with addiction don’t seek help and among those who do, more than 90 percent “fail” by current measures within a single year. Giving options is the ethical, appropriate, and right thing to do.

A personal treatment plan that includes personalized goals and more nuanced measures of success can make the client feel more connected to the treatment provider and less resistant to treatment. This, in turn, will open the communication channel between staff, clients, alumni and treatment centers to follow-up or receive additional help.

In Summary

Everyone always marks their recovery by saying how many days in a row they’ve been sober, but there is so much more to recovery and more nuanced ways to measure. This is the foundation on which my IGNTD Recovery Program has been built, to promote individualized treatment for people with an addiction in a shame-free, abstinent-free package that is accessible to all.


1. The Betty Ford Institute Consensus Panel. What is recovery? A working definition from the Betty Ford Institute (2007). Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 33, 221–228. doi: 10.1016/j.jsat.2007.06.001. Sourced: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17889294

2. McLellan A.T., Chalk, M., & Bartlett, J. (2007) Outcomes, performance, and quality – What’s the difference? Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 32, 331–340. doi: 10.1016/j.jsat.2006.09.004. Sourced: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17481456

3. Sanghani, R. M., Carlin, A. L., & Moler, A. K. (2015). Assessing success–a commentary on the necessity of outcomes measures. Substance abuse treatment, prevention, and policy, 10, 20-20. doi:10.1186/s13011-015-0017-https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4432513/

How Couples Survive Marital Infidelity | Psychology Today

Infidelity in long-term relationships can be devastating. Trust is destroyed, and resentment takes over between partners who once deeply cared for each other. After one partner catches the other in an affair, it often seems that nothing in the marriage can ever be the same again — that the rift can never be repaired. It’s true that such serious damage to a relationship takes a great deal of time to fix, and there is no simple or straightforward “roadmap” to recovery. Every case is different, and each suffering spouse will walk an independent path toward resolution.

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However, a few generalizations nearly always apply. First, the cheating partner must cut off all contact with the other party — that is, the person with whom he or she had the affair. Both partners — the one who is unfaithful, and the one who is betrayed — must also commit to putting serious effort, energy, and time into the relationship. Don’t expect a clear and straightforward healing process, either, because the path to resolution is likely to be complicated. Each partner must also be aware that he or she played a unique role in the circumstances leading to the infidelity; conflicts in marriage are always shared, and can never be fully attributed to one partner or the other. Seen this way, although one partner may have acted out the infidelity, both took part in the relationship problems that led to that point. Each of you will need to become serious about introspection. You’ll also need to parse out the multiple ways the affair has damaged your relationships — not only with your spouse, but with other family members, such as your children or your in-laws.

Source: Rolands Lakis / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

For the partner who has been betrayed, self-care is essential. You will, by necessity, need to make your personal recovery a priority. Emotional damage often comes with physical consequences, such as susceptibility to illness, or the loss of motivation and opportunity cost that comes with deep internal distraction. Spouses who’ve been betrayed may experience a damaged sense of self, or may even question their value as human beings. These betrayed partners must recognize that the affair was not fully their fault. They must apportion responsibility for it in new ways, enabling them to recognize the flaws in their behavior without bullying or punishing themselves. It will help immeasurably to be compassionate with yourself and to spend time with people who sympathize with and care about you. (If you’re not sure whom to speak to, consider finding a support group, or seeking group therapy with others who find themselves in the same boat.) Taking good care of your health is also absolutely necessary; in other words, don’t “treat yourself” in ways that might cost just as much as they help.

Clear and open communication, about intimate and difficult topics, is another indispensable aspect of recovery from an affair. You and your spouse must promise to be completely (yet gently) honest with each other. Together you need to accept the reality of what has happened to the formerly trustful environment of your partnership. Ask your spouse questions — lots of questions — so that you can understand his or her decision-making. (However, try to refrain from asking for details about sexual encounters; this tends to generate indelible and very unpleasant mental pictures.) Each of you will need to ask yourselves what you could have done to stop the sequence of events that led to such a serious breach of trust.

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When expressing your emotions to the partner who betrayed you, carefully choose which emotions to express directly, and which ones to articulate in words. Tears, for instance — in response to sense of loss and the pain of a broken promise — might be the best way to communicate those feelings to your partner. But on the other hand, acting out your anger directly can be problematic. It’s all too easy to lash out at the person who has caused you so much hurt by breaking his or her vows, but in doing so, you’re likely to say something you regret. This will probably cause your spouse to become defensive, which will make him or her quite angry at you, in turn. Instead of yelling or cursing your partner, try explaining how the betrayal felt. This can make it easier for the betrayer to feel empathy, and to react to your feelings more openly. It may also help bring to the surface the feelings of sadness or guilt that the unfaithful partner is likely to feel. You are entitled to this empathy, and you’ll need to feel it — but at the same time, your spouse will need patience and understanding from you, too. Do your best to let go of resentment. When you hear an apology that feels real and genuine, and you feel ready, you can accept it.

There will likely be times when your partner expresses remorse for his or her actions, which you will feel tempted to throw back into his or her face. Don’t do it! Don’t succumb to the impulse to relentlessly punish your partner. At the same time, however, don’t feel you must be open to his or her remorse before you’re ready. Try not to withhold forgiveness, but don’t offer it until the time is right. Many resentful, angry spouses whose partners have cheated will make a habit of repeatedly bringing up the infidelity, constantly needling their partners. This will become self-defeating, as it eventually converts the betrayal into the focal point of the relationship. Instead, your goal should be to understand why the infidelity happened, and to do that, you’ll want to listen to your partner’s explanation without criticism. Try to grasp what your spouse has learned from the infidelity, and how he or she would like things to change in the future. (Simultaneously, you can ask yourself these same questions.) And in the end, “infidelity talk” will be difficult and wearisome for both of you, so it usually helps to set a limit on how long you’ll talk about it, each day.

The road to recovery is not an easy one — particularly because marital infidelity may actually be less of a problem than the longstanding disagreements that lead up to it. Look for the deep causes behind the strain in your marriage, and try to use your newly open channels of communication to explore them. Make a mutual commitment to genuine dialogue, based on trust and acceptance. And as you work to recover, try to spend time doing “normal,” enjoyable things again, without talking about the affair; after all, if your goal is to feel normal again, you’ll need the practice. Similarly, at some point — when you’re ready for it — you and your spouse should become intimate again, because the closeness of sex can be an integral part of restoring a damaged marital connection. Ultimately, affairs that don’t end marriages do succeed in changing them, and forcing them to evolve into something new. The marriage you once had is over now; it led you both to a painful and difficult place. If you and your partner can put in the time, honesty, and empathy to reconnect, though, in some ways you will be marrying each other again — forming a new partnership, based on new assumptions and a new sense of trust.


Alman, I. (2011, February 7). Sexual Desire Disparity: When One Wants & the Other Doesn’t (Web page). Retrieved September 20, 2018 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sex-sociability/201102/sexual-desire-disparity-when-one-wants-the-other-doesnt

Bercht, A. & Bercht, B. (2011). Ten Strategies for Surviving Infidelity. Retrieved November 21, 2018 from https://beyondaffairs.com/when-you-first-find-out-about-an-affair/ten-strategies-surviving-infidelity/

Elder, S. (2007, May 1). Surviving Infidelity Is Hard to Do. Retrieved November 21, 2018 from https://www.webmd.com/men/features/surviving-infidelity-hard-do#1

Finn, K. (2017, April 10). How to survive infidelity and restore your relationship. Retrieved November 21, 2018 from https://drkarenfinn.com/divorce-blog/surviving-infidelity/440-how-to-survive-infidelity-and-restore-your-relationship

Harrar, S. and DeMaria, R. M. (2006). 15 powerful steps for surviving infidelity in your relationship. New York, NY: Reader’s Digest

Heitler, S. (2011, November 1). Recovery from an Affair. Retrieved November 21, 2018 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201111/recovery-affair

You Had a Toxic Parent, But Your Siblings Say They Didn’t | Psychology Today

Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

“How is it possible that my older sister’s view of our mother is utterly different from mine? She is Mom’s staunchest defender and advocate. Heaven forbid I say anything negative about her, or I absolutely get attacked. She says it’s all in my head. Is it?” —Leslie, 44

“The party line is that Dad is a great guy and that his way of talking — laced with contempt and put-downs — is just the way he is and that it’s my problem that I’m too sensitive and that I need to man up. Mind you, I am the oldest of three sons and my father’s namesake to boot, and his criticism of me is never-ending and withering, despite the fact that I am the most successful male in the family by far. He’s not nearly as tough on my brothers, but I wouldn’t call his treatment of them much better. It’s created a terrific rift between us, because I’m not taking the old man’s garbage any longer.” —Ted, 41

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Of all the questions I field from unloved daughters and the occasional unloved son, among the most poignant are those that focus on the fractiousness of siblingrelationships when a toxic parent is at the helm, especially an unloving mother; some of these relationships are contentious in childhood, but many are simply distant and detached until adulthood. Mothers who are controlling, combative, hypercritical, or high in narcissistic traits usually orchestrate relationships among and between siblings, especially if they play favorites and engage in scapegoating, as many do. When a mother is center-stage in this way, and her children are reduced to orbiting planets, self-interest can easily trump whatever comfort or camaraderie could possibly be derived from sibling ties. The children who are trying to stay in a mother’s good graces or, alternatively, under her radar, may tattle on sisters and brothers as a matter of course, as well as engage in blame-shifting and scapegoating. The following story is fairly typical:

“Our mother was a puppeteer, and the three of us all had specified roles to play. I was the troublemaker, my younger sister the baby, and my brother was the Boy Wonder. Mom always needed someone to blame when anything went wrong, and that someone was always me, even if my brother was actually responsible. I was dumbfounded when I got married and saw that my husband was actually close to his brother and sister. I actively dislike both of mine and have as little to do with them as possible.” —Jill, 51

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Under healthy circumstances, sibling relationships run the gamut from close to detached, but other patterns emerge in the dysfunctional family where every child tries to cope, if maladaptively, with circumstances that are far from ideal.

Differential treatment, personality, and defenses

Playing favorites happens in almost every family — Parental Differential Treatment is so common that it even has an acronym, PDT, for ease of reference in research — but when it’s part of a dysfunctional family, the damage tends to be long-lasting, especially since the favored child or children are likely to have a very different vision of their mother than the child who’s been picked on, marginalized, or ignored. Even if the home is chaotic, and there’s a fair amount of yelling, each child will prioritize — focusing on either staying out of the line of fire or holding on to a favored spot, no matter what. (In households where the abuse is meted out to every child, sibling relationships can become extremely close or, as psychologists have it, closely identified. These connections are called “Hansel and Gretel” pairs after the fairy tale popularized by the Grimm Brothers. This article is not about that.)

All children tend to normalize their experiences, believing that what goes on at their house goes on everywhere, until the pivotal moment at which some adult children begin to recognize toxic behaviors or, more likely, begin to see their own inability to thrive in the world. It can happen in therapy, often sought not because of childhood experiences, but because of problems in adult life, such as a series of failed relationships, a pattern of choosing partners who are emotionally unavailable, and the like. It can happen because the adult child is exposed to other families which throw the peculiarities and dysfunction of her family of origin into high relief; it might be an empathic sister-in-law or a mother-in-law who is genuinely pleased to have the daughter she never had who will spark recognition. (Yes, cultural tropes to the contrary, this happens. Readers have written to me about it.) Sometimes, a significant other — a close friend, lover, or intimate — will point out how damaging her mother’s treatment is.

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Yet not every child in the family will necessarily have that moment of epiphany, in part because there are many forces stacked up against the recognition itself. There’s the tendency to normalize, which is intertwined with the need to belong to your family and, of course, to be on the receiving end of your mother’s love. There are maladaptive coping methods, such as dissociating from the emotional racket so that you can go along to get along, and blaming yourself for your mother’s treatment of you.

A number of studies have shown that there’s a significant difference between a survivor’s labeling an act or acts as abusive and researchers’ definitions of abuse. For example, in a large sample of 11,660 college students conducted in 1994, only 26 percent of those who had experienced severe physical punishment or mistreatment — some of it even requiring medical attention! — were likely to label it as physical abuse. How can a person experience abuse, especially at the hands of a parent, and be so loathe to call it out for what it is?

That’s what researchers Rachel E. Goldsmith and Jennifer Freyd explored, looking at whether people who had been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused had trouble identifying their feelings; not surprisingly, they did. But additionally they found that those who’d been emotionally abused — by the researchers’ definition — weren’t likely to call their treatment abuse. What could explain that? The researchers point to the fact that since children are essentially trapped in their childhood homes, they develop ways of dealing with an abusive environment. These strategies include denial and dissociation; keeping threatening information out of consciousness does make coping with the day-to-day stress easier, but it also prevents recognition years later. But their insight into why children are more likely to attribute their treatment to their “badness” is even more valuable; self-blame, they write, “inhibits the thought that a caretakercan’t be trusted and may help to create an illusion of self-control.” Again, what’s more scary than realizing you’re unsafe with the very person entrusted to take care of you?

The researchers’ second study, this one conducted with Anne DePrince, used two intervals, several years apart, to ask participants about identifying abuse; interestingly, they found that those who did label childhood experiences as abusive at the first interval showed more psychological stress at the second than those who didn’t. Why would psychological stress increase over time with admission, the researchers wondered? Their surmises yield more insight into why denial (and self-blame) are unconscious efforts at self-protection.

The researchers point to the fact that, at the first interval, the subjects were college freshmen, just recently out of their abusive home environments, and hadn’t yet had time to make sense of their childhood experiences. That said, it’s also possible that asking them the question — were you abused? — acted as an intervention, prompting the first step of recognition and thus inducing psychological stress. They note, too, that even therapists tend to focus on symptoms, such as anxiety or depression, without tracing these symptoms back to their roots.

There are thus many factors at play which begin to explain why siblings living under the same roof with the same parents may emerge into adulthood with such irreconcilable views of their parents. There’s no question that how a child adapts to his or her circumstances, what strategies to cope are adapted, as well as his or her personality are also part of the mix.

Take the example of two brothers, a scant 15 months apart, with their stay-at-home mother and their successful-but-binge-drinking father. Their father didn’t drink at home; he simply disappeared, leaving his wife and children to wonder and worry. The two boys dealt with these circumstances differently, despite their proximity in age; even though they were only one class in part, it was the older brother whom the younger looked up to as a guide and continued to through adulthood. But it was the older brother who took his father on, and the younger one who dissociated, telling stories of an idyllic childhood and only commenting on the painful of aspects of his upbringing when pressed. Their visions of childhood are markedly different. How close are they? It depends on which brother you ask.

Drama and adult sibling warfare

Physical distance and deliberate low-contact can keep sibling relationships on a simmer or low-boil for years, until one unloved adult child makes a move to redefine her relationship to her mother either by direct accusation, challenge, and the establishment of rules or boundaries, or by going no contact. In those families where the mother has orchestrated sibling relationships, this perceived threat to her power and control will usually involve retaliation on the adult who is challenging the status quo, and, often, the other adult children in the family are required to pledge their loyalty and fealty to one side and one side only. Usually, allegiance is to Team Mom at her insistence. Again, the defense mechanisms that function as inner cheerleaders which push adults to join in are normalizing, wanting to belong, avoidance of conflict, and the fact that their family of origin remains of primary importance to self-definition. If you have redefined yourself in your adult life, the old drama might be one you can sit out.

Finally, what each adult considers filial obligation kicks in as well, along with the implications of that Commandment that tells us to honor our mothers and fathers.

The “yikes” factor and smear campaigns

This didn’t happen to me personally, but it’s hard to overstate the vehemence of these family smear campaigns. I thought they might be a rarity until I heard so many stories that it appeared that the silent fade-away was usually the exception. This isn’t just a turf war — it’s also about ownership of the family mythology. The vehemence of retaliatory campaigns cannot be overstated; many seem over-the-top, but trust me, if you read enough of them, as I did for my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, you park your skepticism by the door. Sometimes, the attacks are just renewed versions of old childhood chants: “You’re crazy,” “A troublemaker,” “You were never one of us, or “You’ve always been a liar.” Granted, this is painful, and the daughter (or son) who has chosen to depart from the family script may ache and hurt, but it’s not totally unexpected. (If you are considering divorcing a parent, please read my piece on it here.)

But, but, but . . . There are scenarios — many of them, as I discovered during my writing and on my author Facebook page — that go way beyond name-calling. There were mothers who bad-mouthed their daughters to bosses, colleagues, neighbors, and clergy. There were some who falsely accused their daughters of adultery and called social services about child neglect. And then there were siblings who stepped into the breach, as this story told by Margaret, 50, demonstrates:

“I am a pariah in my family — the crazy one, the mean one. My sister and brother have seen an opportunity for themselves when I went low-contact with our mother and worked it to their advantage, painting me as ungrateful, impossible, and, yes, a narcissist. Which is pretty ironic, given the givens. Family gatherings became even more impossible, and they waged a campaign for our mother to ‘fire’ me. Ironic, because I had been back and forth in therapy on whether or not to go the final step. Long story short: She divorced me. It made it harder on me in some ways and easier in others.”

It will surprise no one that inheritances and property are often part of the script.

The difficult journey of healing

For the daughter (or son) who’s trying to carve a different life out for herself, losing her entire family of origin and not getting validation from the people who shared her childhood add more layers to the complexity of recovery. But as one reader of mine, Devon Carter, put it: “I was my mother’s scapegoat. I morphed into my family’s black sheep. Eventually, I realized that the problem wasn’t what kind of sheep or goat I was, but the sickness of the herd itself.”

Copyright © Peg Streep 2018


Goldsmith, Rachel and Jennifer J. Freyd,” Awareness For Emotional Abuse,” Journal of Emotional Abuse (2005), vol, 5 (1), 95-123.

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How To Manage Your Mental Health During the Holidays | Psychology Today

The holidays can be a joyous time for many, but certainly not all. It may be the most wonderful time of the year for some, but a time of stress or even dread for others. We commonly associate this season with splendid sentiments of happiness and love, and perhaps we do so to a fault. From Thanksgiving preparations until we ring in the New Year, many suffer from unpleasant feelings such as fatigue, tension, frustration, loneliness, sadness, and anger.

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The Holiday Blues, a temporary experience of anxiety or depression, can surface for a variety of reasons from unrealistic expectations and pressures to finances and commercialization. Hence, the first step in handling the Holiday Blues is to reflect on what may be causing your distress. Is it stress? Nostalgia? The looming contact with people you deem toxic? Here are some common causes for the Holiday Blues and how you can maintain your mental health during this season:

“I feel pressured to spend”

Many claim that commercialization causes us to lose sight of the reason for the season. Although our own reasons to celebrate may vary, we cannot deny the pervasive pressure to spend in seemingly every store. Further, the reminders to spend creep into our mailboxes, inboxes, and quickly into our homes. The chatter at social gatherings, the temptation to buy happiness, and the intimidation to keep up with the Joneses do not help either.

If this causes you distress, consider grounding yourself by reminding yourself of your values. Why are you celebrating this season? Whatever you conclude, odds are that gifts are not a top priority. Use your reason to guide you this season. If you are purchasing gifts, plan ahead prioritize, and use a budget. If possible, can you show your love, adoration, and/or appreciation in another creative form? Finally, consider paying it forward. There are plenty of chances to volunteer your time this season, and throughout the year. Contributing to a priceless charitable opportunity may help to lift your spirits.

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“I just don’t want the drama”

This may be a common sentiment throughout the year, however, with an increase of gatherings towards the end of the year, the pressure to see others we are uncomfortable with may intensify. The reasons for conflict are vast, but to avoid a tangent in conflict-resolution let’s focus on self-empowerment.

First, try to be accepting of differences. This in no way means you need to change your opinions, condone the actions of others, or shrink into a domineering person’s shadow. However, the holidays may not be the time to begin a crusade either, especially if it will enhance your distress. Next, choose to be mindful. Tune into your feelings and avoid ignoring them. Holiday parties are often filled with temptation for negative coping (e.g., overeating, binge drinking), knowing and noticing your triggers can help you from being impulsively reactive. Finally, seek positivity. You may find it easier conflict, gossip, and toxicity if you gravitate towards positive people.

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“I don’t want to be probed about my personal life. “

Holiday gatherings can be a great time to reconnect and catch up with family and friends, on the other hand, these gatherings may come with an expectation of sharing that everyone is not comfortable with. Further expectations, social skills, and cultural variables may also complicate matters. When these influences combine, individuals find themselves uncomfortably silenced, submissive, or disengaged.

If you are worried about intrusive individuals, prepare yourself by proactively considering what you are uncomfortable speaking about. This can help you shift topics to what you are comfortable discussing and call allow you to still be engaged. Know your own boundaries and consider what you will need to do to keep them in place. Perhaps you might elect to share your discomfort with a loved one or choose to distract from the interaction altogether by being a helpful hand at the event. When in the conversation itself and someone taps your boundary, you may find a direct and respectful statement to be helpful, however, some may prefer an indirect approach. A clear response may be empowering, nevertheless, honor your needs as simply asking to be excused can also be adaptive while still maintaining your boundaries.

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“I feel helpless when I see my loved one.”

Although the Holiday Blues can be experienced by anyone, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness 64% of people living with mental illness experience the Holiday Blues. Seeing a loved one struggle can be a difficult experience. You may be torn in this process: on one hand, you may want to help, yet on the other, you may want to be respectful of their autonomy. This is not an easy path to navigate. For suggestions on this journey consider reading What To Do When A Loved One Needs Mental Health Help.

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“I miss my loved one.”

With the loss of a loved one what was once a joyful occasion may be a reminder of their absence. The holidays can also ignite unattended grief. If you are mourning the loss of a loved one, embrace your process. Ignoring your feelings does not equate to controlling them. Acknowledging your feelings allows you to honor your loved one. Avoiding your emotions may cause you to become isolated and miss the opportunity to seek support. Further, building the courage to open up to someone else who may be hurting may be a collaboratively cathartic experience. Lastly, consider creating a new tradition to honor your loved one. A few ideas could be listening to their favorite song, watching their favorite movie, browsing through photos, or sharing your favorite memories.