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Q's & A's

HE NEEDS TO GET AWAY FROM ABUSIVE PARTNER

Q: How do you help a man get out of an abusive relationship? It mostly mentally and verbal, but does take on physical aspects as well. He keeps leaving and returning to her (11 years now). Friends and family are very concerned as they have two young children who have witnessed a lot of drama.

A:I don't think I have the answer you are hoping for, but here it is: "You don't."

All you can do to encourage anyone to take better care of themselves is to love them (which really means just accepting them as they are, staying with them if that's comfortable for you and if you want to, etc.).

You can give your opinion, of course, but it isn't likely to change things. People learn in their own good time. We (including therapists) can encourage change, and we can stand with someone while they decide, but the decision is always theirs - and it always happens only when they are ready for it. Eleven years is a long time, so that shows something strong is keeping him there - and a few words aren't likely to change much.

Of course if the children are being physically abused or if they are witnessing violence, you could call child protective services in your area. But, if things aren't really awful, they aren't likely to be of much help since they do have so many situations that truly are awful.

Wish I had some magic answer for you, something that would make him care enough about himself and his children to leave if that's necessary - or at least something that would get him, or the couple, to go to see a good family therapist. But if there was magic, there wouldn't be any need for therapists.

WANTS CLOSENESS

Q: I have realized by looking over my life that I have an inability to bond and be close with people. People around me always seem to have stronger relationships. I always seem to feel so distant. I know it comes from my father, because that's how he is. Can I change this?

A: Sure, this can be changed. We can change anything. Everything is always changing. (For instance, by writing this letter you show that you are strongly aware of this problem - and I bet that has already led you to be noticeably closer or more distant to people during the days you were waiting for my response.)

But more to the point is the question of how to begin to get closer to the people in your life. Here are some examples:

1) Know that you weren't born the way you are. You learned to be as distant as you are.

2) Know that if you had more closeness in your life, as a child and more recently, you wouldn't be so afraid of it. Your task now is to arrange for more such experiences.

3) Notice that you have always regulated the degree of closeness or distance in your relationships, and that you can regulate it in any direction you choose in the future.

4) Know that you wouldn't be this way unless you feared closeness - always, or just in certain situations.

Some concrete actions you might consider:

Join a counseling or therapy group. Learn how others regulate closeness in their lives.

At least once per week, tell someone something more personal about you than you ever have before. Notice what happens to the relationship. And at least once per week, ask someone something that seems "a little too personal," and notice what happens to the relationship. When things get better, and even when they get worse, you will be learning.

Think about what your father's life was like. Do you know what might have led him to be so afraid of closeness? Did you have similar experiences, or are you just modeling his behavior ("if he did it, maybe I should do it too"). If you've had similar experiences, then you'll need to deal with your fears in therapy. If you didn't have such experiences, you can relax and start to trust your own life experiences rather than his.

Bottom line: If you gather experiences now that you should have had as a child, you can form a new "family of friends" and surprise yourself with how quickly you can overcome the deficiencies in your childhood.

AFRAID TO FEEL WEAK?

Q: I'm in an openly communicative, mutually loving relationship. But I'm still haunted by anger about abuse I tolerated in my previous relationship. Rationally, I recognize self-esteem, codependency, and dual disorders issues (I'm in therapies and AA, clean and sober for years!)--but emotionally my resentments are consuming me! Advice?

A: I wonder what you mean about your resentments "consuming" you. And for the purposes of this response I'm going to be assuming that you mean that you are angry much of the time and that you find yourself sometimes taking your anger out on others unfairly (when maybe they've done something small to irritate you but you respond with more anger than seems reasonable to you and them).

First of all, being angry about abuse is a good thing, not a bad thing. But if the anger is still with you years later, then anger isn't your problem. Some other feeling that you don't want to admit you are feeling is the problem.

This other feeling could be one or more of these: You could be:

1) Afraid and not wanting to admit it to yourself. (Since we feel weak when we are afraid, and we'd rather feel strong at such times, we sometimes tell ourselves we feel 'strong and angry' instead.)

2) Sad and not wanting to admit it to yourself. (Same logic. We feel weak when we are sad. But in this case the tenancy to cover the sadness with anger is probably a pattern that existed prior to this abuse. And of course many people end up in abusive relationships because they've been 'trained' in previous relationships - particularly in childhood - to expect abuse. If you are covering sadness with anger you might be having trouble admitting to yourself that you've been sad since the much earlier abuse.)

3) Happy but not wanting to admit it to yourself. You could be feeling a lot of joy in your current relationship but you are just afraid enough (because of the past relationship) that you don't want to trust the 'wonderfully weak' and somewhat 'defenseless' feeling of joy.

You could also be using your anger to cover excitement, shame, guilt or any other feeling.

What to do:

1) Admit that you wouldn't still be SO angry about the abusive relationship if you didn't keep reminding yourself of it.

2) Notice the actual moments when you catch yourself remembering the abuse, and ask yourself which of the other feelings you are afraid to acknowledge when you remind yourself of the abuse.

3) If you have trouble admitting to the other feelings, that's what you'd be wise to talk with your therapist about.

Of course there is always a lot of anger that comes along with giving up an addiction. If you still have really strong urges to drink or use, you might find that this is the culprit. If so, know that it's good to face that you are angry about giving up the addiction, and notice that as soon as you face that you are angry about it the urge to drink will be a lot less strong. (You might also notice sadness about the loss of the alcohol, fear of facing life's issues without it, or the joy of having it under better control - each of which would make you acknowledge that you reel weak sometimes.)

Remember that we become addicted to something because we want to avoid our feelings. And whenever we have any feeling that "consumes" us, we should know it's just another sign that there's some other feeling going on that we'd rather not face.

Hope this is helpful. It's kind of complicated, so please read it slowly 'with your heart.' It might be wise to show this letter to your therapist too, for discussion.

And even if you don't know which other failing you are avoiding, you can get comforted by your loving partner, your friends, and your therapist as long as you realize that you are just afraid to notice that you feel weak sometimes - like we all do.

GUILT, SHAME AND ABUSERS

Q: I understand what you are trying to say, but I feel this kind of therapy puts the emphasis on sympathy for people who do wrong instead of on the people who get hurt by them. Shame and guilt are like physical pain - a signal to yourself that you have done something wrong. How can someone know that hurting others is wrong if they feel they are excused because no matter what they do, they shouldn't feel shame? That seems so unfathomable to me.

A: I think I know how confusing this can be, and I was very confused about it myself for years. But....

I like to tell about an exercise I did for ten years while teaching college students and doing workshops for other therapists. I asked every person in these classes to write down the ten things they've felt most guilty about in the last year and to not show their list to anyone. I then asked them to cross off anything that they've stopped doing UNLESS the only reason they stopped it was because the opportunity for doing it just didn't exist anymore. None of these hundreds of students ever had even one thing to cross off! (And I double-checked with each class after our discussions to be sure.)

Guilt and shame don't change behavior. Taking responsibility for our actions does. When we realize that what we are doing is hurting us - not emotionally but in terms of lost relationships or financial problems or jail time - then we can change.

Most people raised in our guilt-ridden culture feel a lot of guilt about a lot of things, but they keep doing them because they don't realize how much they are hurting themselves by hurting others or taking advantage of them in various ways.

A mild example: Suppose you eat too much and you are overweight and worried about your health. Does feeling guilty about it stop you from eating too much? No. But if your doctor tells you that you will die soon if you don't cut down, you will find that you can take responsibility for each bite you put in your mouth and you can lose weight much more easily.

A horrid example: Think of a person who beats their children and their spouse. They usually feel quite guilty about it after they are finished, but they also claim that they couldn't help it (they don't take responsibility) and they continue to use this excuse and do such things for years. And if they ever do stop it, it's because those being mistreated got away from them, or because they feared jail or some other unacceptable consequence.

I know it's really hard to understand in our culture but guilt doesn't change behavior. Responsibility does.

PRETENDS HE'S AMAZING

Q: By pretending to be the most amazing person in the world, I can get myself into a state in which I feel and act as such! It's great, but I can only sustain it for no more than a day. Can I make it permanent? If so, how?

A: Can't be done.

We live in the real world, not the best possible world we can imagine.

Imagining that you change for the better, and that you are already there, can be good for you. It can show you very specifically what you need to DO to improve your life, give you practice at it, etc. But you do need to know that you are only pretending every second of the way, or else you are messing with your own concept of what's real and what isn't.

Eventually, with this kind of practicing, you will probably make some real and permanent changes... but they won't make you "the most amazing person in the world." They'll make you one of us - with our strengths and weaknesses, talents and foibles.... And that's a pretty good thing to be.

Learn to appreciate who you are naturally. Self-acceptance is the most important first step. Then play with changes in this way or in any good, healthy, safe way. And be proud of yourself for the changes as they come, without any goal that is even close to being "wonderful" or "amazing."

ABUSE SUCCESS STORY

Q: Tony, My brother just sent me the link to your web site I am excited (if that's the correct word) about your strategies for healing from sexual abuse that I read so far: daily self -care, psychotherapy, regular source of support, and body work. You are right in stating that the daily self-care is the most difficult.

I am 37 years old and have been struggling for 27 years since I was sexually abused. It took 14 years before this subject was addressed in therapy. It took a major physical breakdown at the age of 24 for me to enter the world of psychotherapy. As a direct result of the abuses my body and mind made a subconscious decision to convert all of the pain, anger, etc. into seizures. It's taken 18 years (just this past August) to get to the point where conclusive data was compiled - through an Epilepsy Clinic's 24/7 Video EEG - that my seizures are non-epileptic and psychogenic in origin. 18 years of taking anti-seizure meds for naught.

I have been in psychotherapy for 18 years, on and off, but mostly on. I have participated in some groups specifically for survivors of sexual abuse, I have taken Karate lessons for 4 years, recently returned after a 2 year absence, and am working towards black belt. I guess your advice on the 4 areas to cover to heal from the abuse has been going on in one shape or another for 18 years now.

With the recent news regarding the origin of my seizures, I have been faced with directly addressing the sexual abuse once again. What is the saying I've heard about healing? Something about going around in a circle repeatedly over one's life until a hurt is healed enough to move-on. I don't think I got that quite right. Anyhow, thank you. Thank you for creating this web site I'm sure I'll be in touch again.

A: Thank you for such a wonderful letter!

I am so proud of you for your natural courage... in knowing all along what you needed to do, and then doing it - even before your actions got confirmed by reading my info. That's the way we work. Our bodies and our brains know what we need to do to heal, and then we fight it off for a while, and eventually we find that we can face it and deal with it and do what will work for us.

Congratulations!!

Tell your brother I said "Thanks" for telling you about my site too!

HOW THIS INFO HELPED HIM

Q: Your topic, "Shame- What you can do about it," started me down a different path in life - one that no longer includes thoughts of suicide. The site in general gave me many mental building blocks that, aside from helping in the interim, made in-person therapy go much faster. This is actually a really important point. I worked an entry-level job at the time (and I was certainly not alone as an entry-level employee in need of help). The insurance coverage was severely limited, and there would have been much more work to do at the end of that coverage had I not been somewhat prepared by the information on your site.

A: Thank you so much for taking the time to tell me about how my site has helped you. I had never thought before about how it can shorten therapy in these times of limited coverage.

IMAGINES SHE'S TELLING HIM OFF

Q: I am 51 year old married female. When I'm angry I talk out loud to myself and have a conversation with the person I'm angry with. Then I imagine that he understands me. This gets embarrassing. Why do I do this. I am a highly sensitive person

A: I sometimes advise people to do this, just to get their anger out and to know it's OK to release it.

You say it's "embarrassing." If you do it when you aren't alone, then I think you should talk this over with a therapist if you think you can't stop it. If you only do it when you are alone, then you are you imagining is shaming you about it?

The biggest problem might be if you only do this when the person you are angry at isn't around, and you don't express your anger at him when you are with him. That could lead to acceptance of mistreatment or even abuse. Anger is there to Protect us.

You don't mention if you read all the info at my site about anger. It's one of my favorite topics because people who try to believe they aren't angry are sure to get depressed. Please read everything about anger and about depression at my site. I think it will be good for you.

CAN'T GET ALONG WITH PARENTS

Q:I lost all rational communication with my parents. Mother is "very angry," father "disappeared". She's yelling at me through the phone telling she hates me, my wife etc. I know there's no way back. Don't want to call them anymore, how to accept the emptiness?

A: That empty feeling isn't necessarily related to whether we get along with our parents. It's related to how well we absorb the love and attention we get from everyone in our life.

It could be that one of the ways your parents hurt you was to convince you that you "needed" them, and that how you get along with "blood relatives" is more important than how you get along with everyone else. This just isn't true.

How you get along with all people is what matters, and when you lose the opportunity to feel loved by certain people you need to move on - and receive what you need from others.

Don't believe you need them.

Get what you need from anyone who treats you well and offers it!

HE EXPLAINS TOO MUCH

Q: My boyfriend wants to explain everything constantly. I have learned how to say "ah hum" and look interested while he is talking. He doesn't hear what I say and seems to be a black-hole for attention. What's this all about? Giving him the attention he wants is too exhausting.

A: Of course it is!

Just tell him directly and repeatedly, "You are talking too much, and I don't need you to explain that to me." Then maybe add: "Is there some other way you'd like my attention?"

If I understand the problem well enough, the key word in my last sentence is probably "repeatedly." It might take a while for him to understand what you don't want, and to break his habitual way of interacting with you. But it will be well worth it for both of you. (For him, he is pushing you away - and he probably does this with everyone, and that means he is probably pushing everyone away. If he learns about this from you he won't be lonely in the future.)

SISTER WON'T PAY FOR MOTHER'S CARE

Q: My parents own two houses but have no cash, no income. Mom (age 60) has a cancerous colon polyp which the doctor says needs to be removed ASAP. She asked for us kids to help. (Total cost $1000, = $250 ea.)

One daughter (with ample money) says no to this and any future requests. The other children pay.

How do I treat my sister?

A: Your letter seems to imply that it's necessary to change your whole current relationship with your sister because of this refusal. I don't agree that it's necessary, but I guess you can do it if you want to.

How did you get along with her before? How often do you see her or talk with her for any length of time? Do you enjoy the time you spend with her and look forward to the next time? - Such questions help you to think about the whole relationship - and what you get out of it - rather than just this recent event.

If you really enjoy her otherwise, it'd be a shame to feel you must change because of this. (But if your sister feels greatly "separate" from the rest of her family about this, my guess would be that she always feels greatly separate.)

I don't think it's your duty to "discipline" your sister by deciding what she "deserves" now. I think you should be more concerned about yourself than that... and base your decisions on how she treats you, how well you get along, etc.

SHE MARRIED A PLAYER

Q: Oh boy. I married one. I was swept off my feet for a year. Got married. Yes, he is very cute and charming. He romanced me for a year. I believed everything he told me (for a little while) then started to get suspicious. By then it was too late. I was already married.

Two years into our marriage I found out he got his ex-girlfriend pregnant, has a 9 month old son and loves her. He also has a woman in France, another in Canada, and three here in the U.S. (that I know of now). I kicked him out but now he is using that excuse as a chick magnet for other women to feel sorry for him. I thought by marrying him, I would "have him" but I was foolish.

Women be aware. Yes they will romance you, tell you everything you want to hear, lie to you blatantly. Don't let the looks fool you or the sex for that matter.

A: You don't seem to need my help now, but I sure wish we could have talked a few years ago.

I believe that whenever we are overly impressed by someone's outward beauty and their performances we are begging for nasty surprises. You've sure had a bunch of them.

But for the people who haven't learned what you have learned, here's what I think they need to know:

1) Make your decisions about your partner and your closest friends based on how they treat you. Period.

2) If they also happen to say all the right things, fine - if they keep showing you that when they give their word it always matters.

3) If they also happen to look really good, that's a minimally valuable and nice bonus.

4) Never even hope to "have" someone. You'll never "have" anyone but yourself.

5) Look for people who want to share their time and energy with you and who would enjoy achieving goals together. Don't settle for anyone who mainly wants you to see how pretty they are and all the wonders they can perform.

6) Know that only real people matter, and that real people have flaws. There are lots of two-dimensional magazines you use when you just want to dream.

Life has taught you well.

I bet you'll find a good one next time!

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Write To Me, I Want To Hear From You!
Tony Schirtzinger, Therapist (Milwaukee) 

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