May 18

“Whole Again” After Abuse: Jackson McKenzie Quotes

Contained within Jackson McKenzie’s 2019 Whole Again: Healing Your Heart and Rediscovering Your True Self After Toxic Relationships and Emotional Abuse are strong quotes to help you heal. The following are some I’ve selected.

Note: References to C-PTSD below are about complex PTSD. See this link or this one if you’re unfamiliar with the diagnosis.

You’re so preoccupied with trying to make sure you’re reasonable and seeing all perspectives that you fail to throw in the towel when people are blatantly mistreating you. Oftentimes you notice something seems “off” for the longest time, but you feel guilty and dismiss it because the person is nice to you, or because they aren’t rejecting you.

…(T)he best gaslighting victims are those who doubt themselves.

Their partner can say and do unacceptable things on a daily basis, which the codependent will try to explain and understand (“they had a difficult childhood!”). But the moment codependents make a single mistake, they berate themselves for it, obsess over it, and wonder if they’re crazy. For this reason, they come up short in relationships, over and over again. Because they’re unable to recognize that the balance is skewed, and unable to recognize that they’re not getting what they deserve from a healthy relationship. Their self-doubt keeps things forever skewed in their partner’s favor.

How to Win Against an Abuser? I get this question all the time, and my answer is always the same: Don’t try to win. As soon as we engage in this win/lose mentality, we abandon our hearts and forget what’s really important: vulnerability and love. Yes, absolutely you should remove toxic people from your life, but it should be from the perspective of self-love, not “winning.” As long as we maintain this false illusion of control, we’re still connected to the person in our psyches. A hallmark of C-PTSD is fantasizing about gaining some power over an otherwise powerless situation.

If at any point your forgiveness process convinces you to invite an abuser back into your life (or even talk to them), this is not the kind of forgiveness we’re looking for. It will actually impede your own progress.

People cannot go from abusing and manipulating you one day, to magically being healed a week later. This is simply impossible. Especially when this change occurs as a response to possible abandonment or rejection, there’s just no chance this is authentic change.

Codependent forgiveness is this fantasized tear-filled beautiful reconciliation where everything is magically cured by love and compassion. As with most codependent issues, it’s focused on other people. Their problems. Their childhood. Their past. You think you understand them so much, maybe even more than they understand themselves! You make up excuses and reasons for them, your heart melts, you take them back, and then they hurt you again.

C-PTSD sufferers who experienced abuse may engage in mental arguments with their abusers long after the abuse has ended. Most people with C-PTSD experienced ongoing abuse from someone (or multiple people) who repeatedly betrayed their trust, and blamed them for this betrayal. They were made the scapegoat of someone else’s shame, which eventually caused them to absorb this shame themselves.

Dysfunctional Healing Approach: C-PTSD causes the sufferer’s thinking to become very rigid and analytical. This was (at some point) a necessary survival skill in order to identify threats and stay safe. However, once the threat is over, those with C-PTSD may still have a lot of trouble “feeling” emotions, and may end up trying to “think” them instead. As they begin recovery, they are likely to use this same analytical and rigid thinking against themselves, embarrassed or impatient by their inability to get in touch with their own feelings. They are also likely to have an extremely negative reaction to the idea of forgiveness, equating that with “letting them win,” and seeing forgiveness as something that abusers use to keep hurting victims.

May 10

“Toxic Positivity” a Trend That’s Got to Go

In the midst of a rising tide of social hatred, a seeming countertrend, toxic positivity, has also infected this culture. As defined by mental health professionals Samara Quintero, LMFT, CHT, and Jamie Long, PsyD, thepsychologygroup.com, this phenomenon is defined as:

…the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.

What, then, is positivity without toxicity? Dani DiPirro, blogger at Positively Present:

Positivity is about assessing the situation, understanding your feelings, looking to see if there’s anything you can do to make the situation better, and, if there’s not, doing what you can to make the most of whatever the situation is. It’s not about pretending. And it’s definitely not about happiness.

A new book by therapist Whitney Goodman, Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy, expands on this topic. From the publisher:  

Every day, we’re bombarded with pressure to be positive. From ‘good vibes only’ and ‘life is good’ memes, to endless advice, to ‘look on the bright side,’ we’re constantly told that the key to happiness is silencing negativity wherever it crops up, in ourselves and in others. Even when faced with illness, loss, breakups, and other challenges, there’s little space for talking about our real feelings—and processing them so that we can feel better and move forward.

But if all this positivity is the answer, why are so many of us anxious, depressed, and burned out?

Five essential points Goodman makes in Toxic Positivity (per nextbigideaclub.com):

  1. Positivity can hurt. “…Positivity itself isn’t toxic. It becomes toxic when used at the wrong time and with the wrong topics. Toxic positivity denies an emotion…”
  2. Complaining effectively“’Having a place to vent’ is actually one of the most common reasons people ask to work with me…To eliminate complaining is not the answer—what matters is improving how you complain…”
  3. Listen, understand, validate, and empathize. “…When you don’t know what to say to someone who is struggling, strive to include these four ingredients in your communication…”
  4. Intent matters. Impact matters more. “…I want you to know that there’s no perfect thing to say. Everyone has their own preferences and sensitivities…”
  5. Stop trying to be happy. “…I know, it sounds counterintuitive, but research shows that the more people see happiness as a goal, the less happy they are…Instead of pursuing happiness, I want you to pursue fulfillment through a value-driven life. A value-driven life makes room for the fact that living in accordance with our values doesn’t always mean feeling happy, but it is in alignment with who we are and what we want.”

“She goes on to argue that relentless encouragement to look on ‘the bright side’ can be a form of gaslighting,” states the Publishers Weekly review, “and even that toxic positivity perpetuates oppressive systems and prejudice (‘discrimination with a smile’). Further elaboration: 

 She backs it all up with copious amounts of research, examples from clients she’s worked with (unfortunately, though, too few of them), and her own life experiences….In a genre dominated by the upbeat, Goodman’s realism both stands out and takes the edge off; as she says, ‘It’s OK if you don’t always say the right thing; you’re not a Hallmark card.’ Goodman matter-of-factly challenges genre status quo, while maintaining respect for its readers.

Apr 20

Enmeshed Family System Vs. Distant: How to Deal

Having recently binged Six Feet Under (2001-2005), one of the best TV dramas I’ve ever seen, I’m left with a myriad of thoughts about its depiction of mental health issues and therapy. One major theme, for example, involves being the adult children of therapists—but that’s a topic that’s already been covered on this blog. One topic I haven’t covered, though, is the concept of an enmeshed family versus a distant family.

Although this post is not specifically about Six Feet Under, series viewers may recognize that the therapist Chenowiths (Robert Foxworth, Joanna Cassidy), the parents of adult kids Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) and Billy (Jeremy Sisto), are said to represent an enmeshed family system.

On the other hand, the funeral directing Fisher parents (Frances Conroy, Richard Jenkins), with adult kids Nate, David, and Claire (Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Lauren Ambrose), represent a distant or disengaged or detached family system.

Enmeshed Family

Margaret R. Rutherford, PhD (Psychology Today) describes some aspects that can be representative of the poor boundaries of enmeshment:

One parent shares too much; another one lives through a child’s success. A child gets the message that it’s not OK to be independent. Instead, you’re expected to be a parent’s confidante. Your life isn’t your own. It might never occur to you not to include your parent in your daily comings and goings or even your decisions.

Dr. Pat Love‘s 1990 book The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life is cited by Rutherford. (Emotional incest is Love’s term for enmeshment.) From Love’s website:

…(T)hey rob their kids of the experience of learning and teach them to be helpless, dependent, incompetent, and entitled. If this doesn’t alarm you enough, over-functioning parents rob children of two of life’s most important skills: emotional regulation and mastery. When parents ease a child’s anxiety by taking away all stress, struggle, responsibility, delayed gratification, the child learns that other people have to alter their behaviors in order for the child to feel calm. They fail to learn emotional regulation—one of the most important skills in life.

Sharon Martin at Psych Central offers some suggestions for breaking free from the effects of enmeshment. (Go to the link for further details.)

  1. Set boundaries.
  2. Discover who you are.
  3. Stop feeling guilty.
  4. Get support.

Distant Family

One of the few experts online who describes the distant, detached, or disengaged family, Maryann Paleologopoulos, MSW, LICSW, says the following about this type:

…frequently characterized as having poor communication both in frequency and quality and has no established patterns or norms to provide effective support and guidance to one another. Family members tend to be isolated from their overall family system, or may form small and isolated pockets of connection within the larger system. Some members of a detached family system are ambivalent to engage or confront one another in order to offer or receive support for fear it will be considered intrusive or a burden, while others may see it is as easier to be avoidant and seek the path of least resistance when situations arise.

Possible effects from being raised in a distant family, per Paleologopoulis, include but are not limited to:

  • a compromised ability to achieve healthy relationships
  • sense of victimization
  • people-pleasing and conflict avoidance

Various forms of therapy can help, of course, but she cautions that it is challenging work to change the ingrained patterns developed early in life.

Apr 13

“Bittersweet” by Susan Cain: Underappreciated Feelings

Many readers who loved Susan Cain‘s Quiet (about being introverted) will no doubt also appreciate her new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. 

Her definition of bittersweetness: “a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. It’s also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired.”

Publishers Weekly expands on the thesis of the book:

Cain handily traverses fields as diverse as neuroscience, popular music, religion, and business management to find instances of the transformation of pain and longing into fulfillment: the music of Leonard Cohen, for example, is ‘a transcendence delivery system,’ and in Michigan, a hospital billing department’s culture of caring for distressed or bereaved employees resulted in collecting bills faster. Though Cain’s panoramic scope covers some familiar ground (U.S. culture’s ‘tyranny of positivity’ has been critiqued before), this ambitious work impresses in its dexterous integration of disparate thought traditions into a cohesive, moving, and insightful whole.

To what ends does appreciating bittersweet feelings bring us? Chris Schluep, Amazon Editor:

It turns out that sadness is the heart of compassion, and compassion is the heart of being human. Cain describes how sorrow and longing are adaptive traits with benefits that far outweigh the suffering they put us through. And they aren’t just human qualities. In fact, sorrow is on par with functions like digestion and breathing—it’s part of the mechanics of living.

Kirkus Reviews offers additional info:

Cain argues persuasively that these emotions can be channeled into artistic pursuits such as music, writing, dancing, or cooking, and by tapping into them, we can transform ‘the way we parent, the way we lead, the way we love, and the way we die.’ If we don’t transform our sorrows and longings of the past, she writes, we may inflict them on present relationships through abuse, domination, or neglect.

To what degree do you show a bittersweet orientation? Cain, along with research scientist Dr. David Yaden and cognitive scientist Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, created a quiz you can take. It’s posted by the author as a Bittersweet excerpt at Mindbodygreen.com.

Apr 06

“Fragile Bully (…Narcissism in the Age of Trump)”

The archetypal narcissist is a crazymaker, at once needy and aggressive, desperate
for love and yet rejecting of it, fragile child and bully. Laurie Helgoe, Fragile Bully

Psychologist Laurie Helgoe, who previously wrote Introvert Power, also has some important things to say in her 2019 Fragile Bully: Understanding Our Destructive Affair With Narcissism in the Age of Trump. In this book she explains how to disengage from people in your lives who display Trump-like behavior.

First, more about the term “fragile bully” from Kenneth N. Levy, PhD: It’s about “…the paradoxical dynamic of narcissism—that the grandiosity and surrounding bravado belies an underlying fragility and brittleness.”

A key statement from Helgoe: “When I talk to clients, friends, and family members who are trying to exit a destructive dance [around a narcissist], two consistent themes emerge: feelings of failure for being unable to fix the fragile bully, and feelings of shame for staying in the dance.”

So, how does one reconcile this dance? Knowledge and advice can be found within the following quotes I’ve selected from a resource on Helgoe’s website:

With severe personality disorders such as borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, it is often the people in the lives of the affected person who suffer. So we can often sense we are dealing with a narcissist by the feelings he or she arouses in us.

Narcissistic characteristics such as grandiosity and a sense of entitlement tend to elicit aggressive feelings—a desire to put the narcissist in his or her place. The narcissist’s lack of empathy may elicit extreme frustration. And on the flip side, the narcissist’s focus on his or her fragility can leave others feeling trapped—trying to “fix” the narcissist so that he or she can be more available. People are also drawn in by the narcissist’s charisma or fragility, gaining a sense of importance by being in the shared spotlight or by the promise of being the fragile narcissist’s savior.

The fragile-bully dynamic leaves loved ones with nowhere to turn: defend yourself, and the partner feels victimized; distance yourself, and the partner feels abandoned; express an independent thought, and the narcissist feels threatened. The unwritten contract is to empty yourself and keep dancing in step with the narcissist’s needs, even when those needs hurt you.

Developing empathy for oneself is crucial to the process of healing and emancipation. It’s also important to make room for the grief of ending a relationship—even a destructive one. The grief may have more to do with disappointment that you were unable to “fix” the narcissist or that you invested so much in a relationship that turned on you.

Narcissism sets up a “you versus me” dynamic, so breaking that dynamic is key. “You are important to me” statements combined with what Craig Malkin calls “empathy prompts”—“I feel/need/want,” help empower the self-absorbed to be cognizant and supportive of the loved one. If such efforts—which may be better accomplished with the help of a therapist—do not work, this may be a sign that the capacity for empathy is just not there.