Karuna Counseling’s Newsletter Articles

September 1, 2009

Heaven and Hell and the Evolution of Human Consciousness in One Short Article




Yin Yang


Claire N. Scott, Ph.D.

The mind is its own place, and in itself
can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.


This is a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I use it at the beginning of my auto-biographical statement on our Karuna website.

To tell the truth, I’ve had concerns about it ever since I posted it because it can be perceived as harsh and blaming depending on how you look at it.  For example, the quote can be taken to imply that if you’re in pain about something, it’s only because of how you’re looking at it – if you’d just look at it differently, it could be heaven instead of hell.  But is that true in every situation?  Shakespeare suggests it is in his line: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” But what about the death of a loved one, or a crippling accident caused by a drunk driver, or physical assault?  Doesn’t the sentiment in the quotes seem like “blaming the victim” in those incidences?

Given these issues, I’d like to talk about why I chose that particular quote and what it means to me.  My primary intention in choosing the quote was to emphasize (1) the importance of perception on reality, and (2) the importance of the meaning we ascribe to the events of our lives, and (3) to highlight how powerful our thinking is in terms what it can create.

Most people are familiar with the two images below that emphasize how perception can change with perspective.

vase face young old

In the image on the left, can you see the chalice?  Can you also see two faces looking at each other?  The chalice appears in white against a black background.  The two faces appear in black against a white background.

In the image on the right, can you see the young, attractive woman?  Can you also see the old lady?  To see the old lady, focus on the young woman’s necklace and let it become the old woman’s mouth. Let the young woman’s ear becomes the old woman’s eye.  Can you see it now?

Try going back and forth quickly between the two versions in each picture. Can you get to the point where you can see both images equally at the same time?  (Do you have a headache yet?)  Most people have trouble with being able to see both images at once.  They can shift back and forth very quickly, but it’s difficult for the mind to hold both images at the same time.

Let’s bring this concept of differing perspectives to the mental level.  Think about a time a friend of yours let you down – say, they didn’t return your phone call in a timely manner, or forgot an appointment with you.  What meaning did you give that event?  Some possibilities are:

1.     “What a jerk. How rude. Some people have no manners.”  In other words, you blame the other person.

2.     “Oh no, did I something that offended her.  I bet she’s upset with me.”  In this case, you blame yourself.

3.     Ambivalence. You vacillate back and forth between who’s to blame.  “I can’t believe she forgot me like this. How rude. But maybe I’m expecting too much.  Everybody forgets once in a while.  But she really should keep up with things better – especially if they matter to her.  I wouldn’t do this to her.  She really is so rude.”  (This can go on for days, weeks, months, and in some cases even a lifetime.  Like going back and forth between the images above, it will probably give you a headache.)

4.     “I wonder if ____ got my message.  Maybe she’s just busy.  I’ll call her again in a day or so if I don’t hear from her.”  Here you attribute a neutral meaning to the event so neither one of you has to be the bad guy.

Consider what feelings might come as a result of each thought.  If you tend to think more like #1, you’re going to spend a lot of time angry, self-righteous, and critical of others.  If you think more like #2, you’re going to spend a lot of time worrying, blaming yourself, and reinforcing your negative self-image.  If your particular flavor of hell is ambivalence, #3, you’re likely to drive yourself crazy going round and round in circles.  An unenviable by-product of 3 is that you’re also likely to drive everyone around you crazy as you try to get 100 reality checks from other people to decide who to blame.  If you think more like #4, you’re going to spend a lot of time getting on with your life with feelings of peace and equanimity because there’s nothing to blame anyone for – what a heavenly mindset.

So what about you?  Do you tend to create more of hell or heaven with your thoughts?

full empty question rainbow

I could now go on to tell you about how our childhoods set us for this kind of dualistic thinking.  I could explain how the fear of being wrong/bad leads to the defense mechanisms that make us want to project the blame.  I could explain how ambivalence, though often agonizing, is actually a step in the right direction because ‘staying in the tension of the question’ at least keeps the mind open. The mind tends to close once we think we have the answer.


I’d rather talk about this issue from a larger perspective, i.e., how the penchant to engage in more hellish than heavenly thinking is not totally our fault.  We are, after all, also a product of our evolutionary stage of existence.  The physical plane of existence into which we (humans) were born forced us, for the sake of our survival, to make dualistic distinctions between danger and safety, friend and enemy, life-enhancing and life-threatening.  This plane of existence also had opposites to which we had to accommodate ourselves:  day and night, summer and winter, wet and dry, hot and cold.  Dualistic thinking was necessary to cope successfully with life on this plane of existence.  Our tendency to see things dualistically has keep us safe and well for millennia  — even lending itself to the invention of the computer which employs a binary operating system of zeros and ones much like our own dualistic mind.

Our dualistic thinking is such a part of our current state of being/thinking that we hardly notice it.  Black/white, good/bad, right/wrong, success/failure, smart/dumb, ugly/pretty, top/bottom, pleasure/pain, true/false, win/lose.  Our level of consciousness, evolutionarily-speaking, has been fraught with dualistic distinctions.  This plays out in small things and large.  Either the friend in the example above is bad, or I’m bad.  Either she is at fault or I am.  If we alter our thinking at all it is likely to vacillate back and forth between the two.

Dualistic thinking can be found at the global level, too, often in ways that no longer serve us well on our island home.  Christians good, Muslims bad.  Straight people good, gay people bad.  This political party good, that one bad.  This skin color good; that one bad.  This kind of thinking can often lead to a literal hell on earth – divisiveness, judgment, disconnection, separation, conflict.

Does a higher, more “heavenly” level of consciousness exist, and if so, how might we participate in actively ushering it in?





You probably know that a dog’s ability to hear and smell exceeds that of a human.  You probably also know that there are ranges on the light spectrum (e.g., ultraviolet) that the human eye cannot see.  Did you also know that the human eye can only perceive ¼ of what it sees?

What if there are levels of consciousness that we can’t apprehend yet either – levels that exist outside the bandwidth we can recognize?  Or said a better way, levels of consciousness that lie as undeveloped potential inside us.  Many of the great avatars of the past stressed the importance of transforming our minds, transcending the usual dualistic mindset of the times.  Consider Buddha’s non-attachment to outcome, Jesus’ “love your enemies”, Gandhi’s passive resistance.  Perhaps avatars were so misunderstood in the past because their level of consciousness exceeded the current level of human consciousness.

Kabir, a well-know 14th century Indian philosopher, poet and songwriter, suggested that:

We have subtle subconscious faculties we are not using.  Beyond the limited analytic intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities; intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity; aesthetic, qualitative and creative faculties; and image-forming and symbolic capacities.  Though these faculties are many, we give them a single name with some justification, because they are operating best when they are in concert.  They comprise a mind, moreover, in spontaneous connection with the cosmic mind, the total mind we call “heart.”  (Quoted in Bourgeault, p. 36; italics mine.)

Buddha believed that our usual human approach to thinking led to “dukkha” — meaning suffering, struggling, chronic dissatisfaction and just plain misery.  Many “new thought” Christians and students of mystical Christianity consider “sin,” as it originally translates from the Greek, to mean missing the mark or missing the point.  Eckhart Tolle suggests that “to sin is to miss the point of human existence.  It means to live unskillfully, blindly, and thus to suffer and cause suffering.” (Tolle, p. 9)

Some teachers from the wisdom school of Christianity assert that heaven is not a place you go to after you die, but rather a state of transformed consciousness.  They suggest that Jesus’ phrase “the kingdom of heaven” is his own favorite way of describing a state which today we would call a non-dual or unitive consciousness.  Contemporary mystic, ex-monk and public policy attorney Jim Marion suggests that it is “not a place you go, but a place you come from — a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place” – into heaven.  (Quoted in Bourgeault, p. 30.)

Ken Wilber, who is one of the most widely read and influential American philosophers of our time, postulates nine levels of consciousness.  Consider this quote from him:

Are the mystics and sages insane? Because they all tell variations on the same story, don’t they?  The story of awakening one morning and discovering you are one with the All, in a timeless and eternal and infinite fashion. Yes, maybe they are crazy, these divine fools. Maybe they are mumbling idiots in the face of the Abyss…. But then, I wonder. Maybe the evolutionary sequence really is from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit, each transcending and including, each with a greater depth and greater consciousness and wider embrace. And in the highest reaches of evolution, maybe, just maybe, an individual’s consciousness does indeed touch infinity—a total embrace of the entire Kosmos—a Kosmic consciousness that is Spirit awakened to its own true nature. It’s at least plausible. And tell me: is that story, sung by mystics and sages the world over, any crazier than the scientific materialism story, which is that the entire sequence is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing? Listen very carefully: just which of those two stories actually sounds totally insane?  Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, p. 42-3.

One way to try to advance our level of consciousness beyond the dualistic stage is to learn to consider the nature of our reality from a different perspective.  To some this means trying to eliminate all forms of negative thinking – to insist on the triumph of good over evil.  But consider this response to that approach by Cynthia Bourgeault.  A student had asked how God could allow human atrocities.  Bourgeault replied:

Can’t you see that judging only makes it worse. By trying to stop the black – to make it all white, all good; by saying that this we can accept and this we must reject, you keep empowering that cycle of polarization that creates the problem in the first place…. (T)he orientation that cleaves to the light by trying to deny or reject the shadow…only ends up empowering the shadow and deepening it.  The resolution doesn’t lie in collapsing the tension of opposites by canceling one of them out.  Something has to go deeper, something that can hold them both.  (Bourgeault, p. 123; italics mine.)

So what will help with this evolution of consciousness besides not participating in dualistic distinctions?  My favorite choice of the moment is meditation.  Why?  Because it lets us experience how our “monkey mind” jumps around all over the place without our permission.  Because it teaches the observation of mental events (thoughts) as opposed to identification with them. Because it teaches us enough mental discipline to realize we can become the container for our thoughts rather than the victim of them.  Because it teaches us how to practice staying in the moment which is the only place reality can happen.

In his bestselling book A New Earth:  Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckart Tolle asserts that humanity is on the cusp of an evolutionary shift in consciousness:

What is arising now is not a new belief system, a new religion, spiritual ideology, or mythology. We are coming to the end not only of mythologies but also of ideologies and belief systems.  The change goes deeper than the content of your mind, deeper than your thoughts.  In fact, at the heart of the new consciousness lies the transcendence of thought, the newfound ability of rising above thought, of realizing a dimension within yourself that is infinitely more vast than thought. You then no longer derive your identity, your sense of who you are, from the incessant stream of thinking that in the old consciousness you take to be yourself. (Tolle, p. 21-22)

But who are you then, if you are not who you thought yourself to be – not that voice in your head, not your thoughts?  You can learn to become the one who sees the thoughts, the one who has awareness over and above thoughts.  You become the space in which thoughts happen.  You are, indeed, the vehicle through which Life is lived.

Suggested reading:

Bourgeault, Cynthia.  The Wisdom Jesus:  Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message. Boston:  Shambala Publications, 2008.

Hollis, James.  What Matters Most:  Living a More Considered Life.  New York:  Gotham Books, 2009.

Ladinsky, Daniel, Ed.  Love Poems from God:  Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West.  New York:  Penguin Compass, 2002.

Marion, Jim.  Putting on the Mind of Christ:  The Inner World of Christian Spirituality.  Charlottesville, VA:  Hampton Roads, 2000.

Muktananda, Swami.  Play of Consciousness:  A Spiritual Autobiography.  South Fallsburg, NY:  SYDA Foundation, 1978, 2000.

Tolle, Eckhart.  A New Earth:  Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.  New York:  Plume, 2005.

Wilber, Ken.  No Boundary:  Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth.  Boston:  Shambala Publications 1979, 2001.

Wilber, Ken.  Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World.  Boston:  Shambala, 2006.

Williams, Mark; Teasdale, John; Zindel, Segal & Kabat-Zinn, Jon.  The Mindful Way through Depressions:  Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.  New York:  Guilford Press, 2007.

Yogananda, Paramahansa.  The Autobiography of a Yogi.  Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1946, 2000.

June 11, 2009

How To Get The Most Out Of Therapy

Filed under: 2009 Articles,Darby's Articles — karunacounseling @ 7:49 pm
Tags: ,

By Darby Christopher, LMSW

If you’ve been to enough therapy sessions, or seen enough therapists, chances are you’ve had some great experiences that produced feelings of gratitude and hope, and you may have also had some not so great experiences that resulted perhaps in frustration or disappointment.

What makes therapy a satisfactory, or even highly satisfactory, experience? Does it happen by chance, or is there more to it than that? Are there ways to intentionally enhance the experience?

Therapists have debated and researched these questions for decades. Time and again, research points to the significance of the relationship between the therapist and the person in therapy. Factors such as the type of therapy used to engage a particular problem and the experience of the therapist can also make a difference, but the connection between the therapist and client is paramount.

What does the therapist bring to the experience?

The therapist’s job is to bring focused attention to the person in therapy during a session. Careful listening, empathy, and a non-judgmental attitude are all crucial. A therapist also brings training, knowledge of different types of therapies, an ability to see the big picture, and helpful questions or feedback.

Ultimately, however, neither the therapist nor the person in therapy can “make” anything happen. There is no exact formula, because each therapeutic relationship involves two complex, unique individuals. The process is largely intuitive, and involves myriad subtle but important factors, such as communication cues, experiences in past relationships and values. Each session is a little like getting in a canoe together to travel downstream. The therapist knows something about canoes, paddles and how to navigate different types of water, but has not been down this exact river in this exact same way before.

What can the person in therapy can do to enhance the experience?

First and foremost, the person in therapy can trust their intuition. Listening to how the process feels and working from within this space is most beneficial. If therapy is flowing intuitively, “how to” suggestions may actually get in the way by putting us in our rational, thinking mode, rather than in the wisdom of the heart. If this is the case for the reader, perhaps this is as far as you will want to read this article!

Other times, however, we may feel a little lost or unsure of where we are in the process, or maybe we have fallen temporarily out of touch with our intuition and would benefit from some guidance. Or, we may simply be new to the process of therapy and would appreciate some thoughts from others who are more familiar with this territory. If any of these scenarios apply, the following suggestions may be of benefit.

1. Spend some time thinking about what you want out of therapy. Some of us want a safe place to tell our story or process a particular issue, and others want advice or suggestions. Some want  help figuring out our own solutions to a particular problem, others want deep work in the unconscious, and still others of us want someone to witness whatever is happening in our lives, no matter how grand or routine.

If we know what is most important to us, we can endeavor to stay focused on this material during a session, and communicate this desire to our therapist. (To help us get in touch with what matters to us, the scale included in this newsletter might be helpful.)

2. If we feel like we aren’t getting what we want out of therapy, we need to say so! This can feel a little intimidating for some of us, but the reality is our therapist will welcome this information. Once this information comes out, our therapist will work with us to determine if a different course of action will work best, or if we would be better off seeing someone else or doing something else. Either way, we will have helped bring about a desirable outcome.

3. Pay attention to how you are feeling during sessions, and consider communicating this information to your therapist. Sometimes in therapy we may begin talking about an issue in our lives, and a feeling in our body may emerge that would not only like our attention, but may be giving us a clue as to what is going on inside us on a deeper level. This suggestion contrasts with suggestion number one above, but a general rule is, if something in our body or psyche is clamoring for attention during a session, it is worth checking out.

4. When you are contemplating what to talk about in a session, and you are trying to decide between a topic that feels safe and a topic that feels more scary and vulnerable, consider going with the more vulnerable option. Often the greatest healing and freedom comes when we reveal a part of our self that we think might not be ok, and then discover that it is not repulsive as we had imagined, but is either a hidden wonderful part of who we are or valuable information in understanding ourselves. This is called our “growth edge,” and we can benefit by gently pushing ourselves to take risks.

However, caution is also warranted. If something feels too frightening or your intuition questions how safe you are, it might be best to process the fear feeling first, without revealing any information. For example, you might say to your therapist, “There is something I have thought about sharing with you, but I feel very anxious when I think about saying it out loud.” You and your therapist can then process the risk versus the benefit of revealing the information. You may ultimately decide to disclose the information, or you may determine that the best course of action is to not share it or to wait and revisit the issue at a later time. Either way, you will likely experience the satisfaction of knowing you honored your feelings and allowed trust to grow between you and your therapist.

5. Practice self care between sessions. Therapy is an investment of emotions, energy, time and money. To get the most out of our investment, we need to take some time during the week to focus on our selves. Journaling and meditation are both great ways to stay connected to our deeper self during the week, and may yield important information to process with our therapist.


By choosing to invest in therapy, we have chosen to place a high priority on uncovering and polishing the jewel that exists in each one of us. Another metaphor that works is to say that we value keeping the window of our souls clean. Many of us are giving up material possessions or making other sacrifices to do this work. Engaging in therapy intuitively and/or consciously assessing how to get the most out of our sessions can enhance the therapeutic experience. How fortunate we are to be able to do this work.

What Clients Want from Therapy: A Survey

Filed under: 2009 Articles,Darby's Articles — karunacounseling @ 7:43 pm
Tags: , ,

Name: ______________________________             Date: __________________



After reading each statement, please circle the number that most accurately reflects your view, with 5 meaning “very much agree,” and zero meaning “don’t agree at all.” If your answer is “none” or “don’t know,” you may leave the question blank, and offer your comments below if you would like.



1. One of the major values of therapy is having a place to tell my story and process what has happened during my week.


            0          1          2          3          4          5


2. I want my therapist to be proactive with me. If she has a “bag of tricks,” I want her to use it.


            0          1          2          3          4          5


3. I welcome trying new and different types of therapies, even if they may make me a little uncomfortable.


            0          1          2          3          4          5


4. I like it when my therapist gives me advice, and that is partly why I go.


            0          1          2          3          4          5


5. I want my therapist to be “client centered,” meaning that she follows my lead.


            0          1          2          3          4          5


6. I generally already know what I want to talk about and what I want to do during a session before I get there.


            0          1          2          3          4          5


7. I would like for my therapist to check in with me often about how I think the therapy is going, and ways we could get the most out of our time together.


            0          1          2          3          4          5




March 6, 2009

How Does Therapy Help Me?

Filed under: 2009 Articles,Darby's Articles — karunacounseling @ 5:02 pm
Tags: ,

Can therapy be helpful to me?

Choosing to get professional support is a significant decision and an important step in increasing your overall well-being and life satisfaction . The reasons for starting therapy vary greatly.
They can include life transitions, sadness or worry, relationship difficulties, old patterns, low self-esteem, spiritual crises, increased self-awareness, and grief. Therapy is also helpful for specific concerns such as anxiety, depression, gender identity, trauma, abuse, sexual orientation, and addiction.

How does therapy work?

The first step begins with you taking a look  at your life, relationships, and your general mood.
Are there areas that seem to cause you difficulties? Are there areas that could use some shifting?
Sometimes people don’t know what needs attention, but they know that they are not as happy as they would like to be. Either way, contacting Karuna will be your next step.

You will set up an initial appointment that will include a questionnaire about your history. This
will give the therapist a chance to get to know you some and it will allow you to start to get
to know your therapist. You will have a chance to ask some questions and you can get some support in setting initial goals.

The next few sessions will allow you to continue to establish a safe environment and allow you to
talk about some of your concerns. As you feel more comfortable the therapist may start to include some other techniques listed previously, and she may start to give you more skilled feedback.

Therapy works on many levels. You may notice some relief by simply having a supportive space to explore your concerns, feelings, and needs. Therapy also may lead to behavioral changes, such as improved communication and self-care. Finally, with deeper healing, old patterns evolve into new and healthier life choices and greater life fulfillment.

During therapy you may have times of discomfort and you should talk with your therapist about
the new feelings that you may experience. Other times you will notice relief, an increased sense
of peace, or even a sense of feeling stronger in the world.

As you reach your goals and feel more sense of accomplishment, you and your therapist will evaluate when will be a good time to stop therapy or simply take a break. It is our job to help you become independent, but with the knowledge that support is available when you need it.

March 3, 2009

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Filed under: 2009 Articles,Abuse & Trauma Recovery,Molly's Articles — karunacounseling @ 3:19 pm
Tags: , , , ,




By Molly Keeton, Ph.D.

Trauma is a word that we use and hear often, but what is trauma? It is usually defined as the experiencing or witnessing of an event(s) that is threatening or dangerous and out of one’s control. Trauma usually involves a feeling of helplessness. Many people serving in the military experience trauma, as do individuals who survive a natural disaster, serious accident, or personal assault. While these are common examples of trauma, experts generally agree that what makes something traumatic to a person is determined by their response to it, rather than whether someone else considers it “traumatizing”. For example, a student who was humiliated by a parent or teacher while growing up may have experienced a trauma.

The best way to determine if an event was traumatic in your life is simply to look at the impact it has had. Do you continually think about the event, even when you do not intend to? Do you sometimes experience the feelings that you felt during the event or even feel as if you are experiencing the trauma again? Do you avoid reminders of the event by steering clear of certain places, people, or topics of conversation? Do you have nightmares related to that event? Do you find yourself on edge, expecting danger, or responding differently than others to certain events (for example, a veteran may hit the floor when they hear a car backfire, thinking that it is a gunshot. Or a woman who has survived sexual assault may be untrusting of all men)?  Are these symptoms getting in the way of your relationships, goals, sense of peace and safety, or general life satisfaction? If you answered yes to even a few of these questions, you may be dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that may occur after a traumatic event. While these responses are normal and expected after a trauma has been experienced, PTSD occurs when they go on for weeks, months, or even years after a trauma. 

Trauma can have dramatic and long reaching effects on an individual’s life. Learning more about the neurological processes involved may provide information about why trauma impacts us the way it does, increase empathy for oneself and/or others, and promote awareness that healing can occur.  


Development of the human brain

The human brain contains three distinct parts that developed in this order: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the cortex (or neo-cortex). Higher level functions, such as planning, developed later than the more primitive capacities, such as aggression. 

The reptilian brain

The oldest and most primitive part of the brain. Primary task is survival. Controls breathing, balance, and temperature regulation. Acts out of instinct.

The mammalian brain

Includes the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain. Involved in the control and expression of emotion, the body’s response to danger, and the processing of short term memory. Primary focus is also survival.

The cortex (or neo-cortex)

The most recent area to develop within the brain. Allows for higher level thinking, analysis, logic, and intellectual pursuits. Cortex is always overridden by reptilian and mammalian brains.



(From http://website.lineone.net/~bryn_evans/Triune_Brain/triune_brain.htm)

Despite how humans have evolved, the primary task of the brain remains self-preservation and propagating of the species. The functions of the reptilian and mammalian brains will always override the neo-cortex, as our very survival is dependent upon this. Because threat has a far more immediate and powerful consequence than reward, the brain is overdetermined to sense and respond to danger.

The brain receives data from the outside world through the five senses. This sensory information comes in through the thalamus and is directed either towards the limbic system or the cortex. If threat is perceived, the sensory input goes first to the brainstem and midbrain (limbic system). In this case the limbic system attempts to match the data against information and patterns that have been stored from past experience. If threat is perceived or if the data matches a template for danger, the alarm response of the brain is activated. The limbic system is quite complex and contains many different structures. For our purposes, we will focus on two of these structures: the amygdala and the hippocampus.


The Amygdala

The amygdala is the part of the limbic system responsible for processing and assigning emotional value to incoming sensory information. It is a tiny, almond shaped structure at the core of the limbic system. It is over 50,000 years old and was designed to protect us from threats such as a saber-tooth tiger. The amygdala functions sort of like a pass-fail exam. When trying to decipher between something that might bring pleasure and something that might bring death, every piece of sensory data must be quickly sorted into only one of two categories – safe or unsafe.

If the amygdala perceives a threat, it immediately springs into action and does not wait around for the cortex to analyze the data and return a verdict (i.e. “that man reminds me of someone dangerous because he has a similar hairstyle, but he is very clearly not the person who hurt me in the past). Although the limbic system and cortex have many interconnecting neurological pathways, communication to the cortex may be cut off in this moment of danger. When the potential for severe injury or death is imminent, there is simply no time to stop and make logical evaluations or interpretations. Remember that this system evolved to protect us from tigers and other such predators. It would be a waste of precious time if in the midst of being charged by a tiger one stopped to compare it to other tigers in that region, estimate its size or velocity, or begin planning the best strategy for escape.  

Before any conscious awareness has occurred, the amygdala activates the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which enlists every area of the brain and body to respond to the threat and deactivates all non-crucial bodily functions, such the digestive and immune systems. The amygdala also determines the best response to a threat, including the fight, flight, and freeze responses. If the limbic system perceives that there is enough strength to defend oneself, then fight will be chosen. If adequate time, strength, and distance to allow for escape is perceived, then flight will be chosen. In both cases it is the sympathetic branch of the ANS that responds, resulting in increased respiration, heart rate, oxygenation of the blood, and blood flow to the muscles for mobility and strength.

If time, strength, and distance are not determined to be sufficient or if death could be imminent, then the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This branch is associated with resting and relaxation and leads to the freeze response.  This can be seen in nature when a mouse being attacked by a cat goes limp, oftentimes resulting in the cat losing interest and the mouse surviving.  As a teen I participated in a 3 week wilderness course where I was given similar advice. If I encountered a bear and was within close enough range to see it, there would be no way for me to outrun that bear. Outfighting it was obviously out of the question. My best defense would be to drop to the ground and hope that it would get bored of me before inflicting too much bodily harm.  This is VERY important information if you are a person who ever blamed yourself for how you responded to a trauma. Your reaction was not a thinking process and was not up to your conscious mind. It came from an instinctive part of your brain that is very, very old and very well programmed to protect you from any avoidable danger.


The Hippocampus

The hippocampus is a structure in the limbic system that is associated with learning and memory. The hippocampus stores memory of time, place, and space in time. It organizes memories in a chronological way. Because of the heavy activity of the Limbic and autonomic nervous systems during a traumatic event, traumatic memories are believed to get stuck in the lower and mid portions of the brain (reptilian and mammalian brains) where they cannot be accessed by the frontal lobes of the neo-cortex. While normal, non-traumatic memories get filed away in various places of the cortex, traumatic memories are not processed or integrated in the typical way.  

While this may seem like a cruel joke of nature, there is a good biological reason for it. When the limbic system perceives a threat, it activates the ANS to release hormones to enhance the fight, flight or freeze response. These hormones not only activate the body to physically respond but also supercharge the memory function of the brain (it should really only take one run in with a shark for the body to imprint that this is a dangerous situation). The amygdala is basically sending a strong message that whatever just occurred needs to be remembered and remembered very well. In this state of arousal, the body continues to release hormones such as adrenaline, which, over time, can damage connections within the brain (it can also cause damage to the heart and the immune system). Research has also shown that adrenaline can ultimately shrink the hippocampus – further reducing its ability to place memories in time and space.

The brain is constantly in the process of receiving data, interpreting and analyzing it, and creating action based on that data. It has an enormous capacity to store information and use that information over time. The human brain increases its efficiency by creating internal representations of the external world, or templates. These associations generalize to future events. For example, when I see a door, my brain instantaneously recognizes this and sends a message to my muscles about how to respond. From time to time I may come upon a door that looks nothing like any door I have ever seen in the past, but still my brain can compare it against the template it holds for doors and respond appropriately. This is true of all sensory input, whether it comes in through site, sound, smell, taste, or touch. The sense of smell has been found to make particularly powerful associations in the brain. This is especially evident with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – oftentimes a familiar scent can trigger the autonomic nervous system faster than anything else. (If you look at a diagram of the brain, you will notice that the olfactory bulb, which is responsible for sense of smell, is located within the limbic system).


Brain Plasticity

The brain is modified by all experiences, whether they be positive or negative. This is because it has plasticity, meaning that its architecture and pathways of communication can be modified over time. Some areas of the brain, such as the cortex, have more plasticity than others. It is relatively easy to learn the concepts being presented in this paragraph (cortex) but quite difficult to learn to ride a unicycle (reptilian brain). The brain develops and is organized in a use-dependent fashion. It is commonly accepted that “neurons that fire together, wire together”, so the more a neural system is activated and used, the more it will adapt over time. The greater the activity within a neural system, the more the system will develop capabilities related to that type of function. This is true for playing the piano, learning a second language, or responding to a threat – more “practice” means the response becomes more engrained. Once a brain area is organized, it is has less plasticity and is less receptive to incorporating new data (again, it is harder to learn to play the piano as an adult than as a child).


Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

The activation of the autonomic nervous system (increased heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, etc) in response to danger is a normal, adaptive, and protective biological function. However, PTSD may occur when the ANS continues to engage once the threat is no longer present, leaving the body in an active state of arousal. This may occur if trauma is ongoing, as in repetitive abuse throughout childhood, or when a person is somehow unable to return to a sense of homeostasis and calm after exposure to trauma.

When the brain stores a memory within the limbic system instead of processing through to the cortex, it seems to just float in the hippocampus so that it can be easily accessed. To set the ANS in motion, the amygdala requires only a 10 to 20 percent overlap between a template for danger and a current sensory cue. This is why a seemingly innocuous cue (such as the smell of smoke for someone who has survived a fire) can send the body into fight, flight, or freeze mode. In some cases, a person may be responding to a cue that they are not consciously aware of, such as the slump of another person’s shoulders. Due to the mind-body connection, the amygdala may also interpret danger when the ANS is aroused for some other reason. For example, if heart rate was elevated during a traumatic event, later acceleration of the heart rate (while exercising) can signal danger to the amygdala.

From the standpoint of survival, it is preferable for the brain to over generalize signals of danger than to under generalize. But emotionally speaking, this can wreak havoc on a person’s life. Traumatized individuals may be more vulnerable to making false associations and interpreting danger in an environment where none exists. Due to plasticity, the more the autonomic nervous system is engaged, the more this pattern becomes ingrained. The more this pattern is ingrained, the more the ANS will be set off. This is the cycle of living with PTSD. In addition, an experience that sets off the body’s alarm response can alter the sensitivity of that alarm response. Over time, even non-sensory cues (remembering the event) can signal the amygdala and lead to an emotional response of fear.


Brain Plasticity – the good news

Although the brain has less plasticity as it ages and organizes, it can always be altered in significant ways. It is possible to re-train the Limbic System to become less reactive, meaning living with less fear and being triggered back to a trauma less often. Current research is finding that the most effective therapies for clearing trauma involve not emotionally reliving or re-experiencing the trauma but just the opposite. To help move traumatic memory out of the Limbic System, a person must be able to revisit the trauma without activating the Autonomic Nervous System. New methods for working with trauma effectively are constantly being discovered. Some of these methods may have a client talk through aspects of the trauma while keeping the Limbic System calm (clinical hypnosis, Rapid Resolution Therapy). Other methods, such as EMDR and EFT use eye movements or tapping on acupressure points to help the body release the trauma. It is believed that all effective trauma treatments work on a neurological level by creating new neural pathways within the brain. If you are dealing with an unresolved trauma, I encourage you to talk with your therapist about some of these and other techniques.

When traumatic memories get triggered and the ANS becomes activated, there are ways to help calm your system. Just focusing intently on the breath can be extremely helpful (please see the breathing exercises on the front page of this newsletter).  Activities that help to redirect you away from your emotions and towards purposeful relaxation of the body, such as yoga or Tai Chi, can also be effective. Sometimes doing a physical task can not only redirect your thoughts and feelings but also help to engage different parts of the cortex. This could be gardening, artwork, or something mechanical. Tasks that use both hands may be especially effective because they engage both sides of the brain. Many people with PTSD have found that practicing mindfulness and meditation can also reduce their symptoms. While it may be difficult to get into a meditative state once the ANS is activated, regular meditation is one great way to alter the limbic system’s level of reactivity. 


In Conclusion

I hope that the information in this article has been informative and that in understanding the brain better, you will have greater compassion for the impact trauma has had on your life or the life of someone you know. If you find that reading about this topic is emotionally challenging, I encourage you to speak with your therapist. If you are not currently in therapy but are interested in starting this process, please consider contacting Karuna or any other therapist for an appointment. 




National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

The National Institute of Mental Health




Rapid Resolution therapy


Book Recommendations

As a general rule, it is best for trauma survivors to avoid reading passages containing explicit description of other people’s trauma. Such material can unnecessarily trigger one’s own trauma experience. Be cautious, and feel free to step away from any reading that causes discomfort. If you believe that the material is worth learning about, please discuss it with your therapist or consider having a friend or partner read the information and relay the important aspects to you.  

Caring for the Child Within — A Manual for Grownups

By Jane Rowan


Outgrowing the Pain: A Book for and About Adults Abused As Children

by Eliana Gil (Author)


Outgrowing the Pain Together

by Eliana Gil (Author)


An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s ‘Normal’

by John C. Friel Ph.D. (Author), Linda D. Friel M.A. (Author)


The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Revised Edition)

by Wendy Maltz (Author)


January 4, 2009

Compassion and the Open Heart


 By Micky O’Leary, Ph.D.

 “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” 
~The Dalai Lama

People come to therapy for a host of reasons, but the thread that unites them is the overwhelming desire to feel happier. After all, who among us does not want her or his life to be more peaceful, joyful, and rewarding? So we seek help, hoping to find a way to heal from the experiences and relationships that have alienated us from ourselves and others.

It is human nature to want to avoid pain. And it is a fact that none of us can.  Yet it is this very pain that can lead us to our higher selves. As we experience our own losses, hurts, disappointments in this life, we are acquiring the essential elements for a loving, compassionate relationship with ourselves and others — if we choose it.

Most of us know others whose lives have been inordinately difficult. Regardless of the challenges we have faced, there are those whose journeys seem far more painful. For some people their pain becomes hardened and surrounds them like armor. They grow bitter or cynical and self-protective, hoping to guard themselves against further pain. Ironically, their self-protection only serves to hurt them more as they become isolated from the love and support that could ease their burden. However, there are those who seem to absorb their pain like a sponge, and their heart grows fuller and softer in the process. They learn that their pain can be an opening that allows them to move beyond their own experience to connect with the hearts of others. They grow in compassion.


 Compassion is Ecumenical

Compassion is the basis of all major religions. It is the essence of  “The Golden Rule” and figures prominently in spiritual teachings across the ages. According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, compassion “is a profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering.” A person acting with compassion will not only feel a shared sense of suffering with others, but will attempt to do something to help that person feel better.

Karuna is the Sanskrit word for compassion. If you look closely at our online home page, you will see that it describes the aspiration “to find a way to be truly helpful to oneself and others.” That definition is particularly significant because it emphasizes the need for compassion toward ourselves, as well as others.

Compassion for ourselves begins with understanding our humanness. Pema Chodron, in her book Start Where You Are: a Guide to Compassionate Living, writes that compassionate action begins with loving kindness for oneself, which then leads us to loving kindness for others.

 “As the barriers come down around our own hearts, we are less afraid of other people. We are more able to hear what is being said, see what is in front of our eyes, and work in accord with what happens rather than struggle with it….the way to act compassionately, is to exchange oneself for other. When you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, then you know what is needed, and what would speak to the heart.” 

I am often struck by the way some people talk so disrespectfully about themselves. They think nothing of referring to themselves as “silly,” or “stupid,” or “an idiot.” Often surprised when I point it out to them, they will acknowledge that they frequently say such things because they feel the need to reprimand themselves for their behavior. However, they will also agree that this pejorative self talk does little to change their behaviors and much to reinforce their feelings of inadequacy. 

That kind of insensitive behavior, whether intentionally hurtful or automatic and unconsidered, does nothing to evoke a sense of peace, joy and/or happiness in that person’s life. Moreover, similar thoughts and behaviors directed at others, again whether there is intent to hurt or not, add to our unhappiness, even though we may experience a sense of satisfaction in the moment.


“Selective Compassion”

Most of us feel compassion in some situations. We find it easy to care deeply for a friend or loved one who has suffered a difficult loss or is undergoing a painful illness. Often the first thought in such cases is how to help that person. We may also feel compassionate toward those who have suffered a major disaster and volunteer time and money to assist them.

It is far more difficult to feel kindness and compassion toward the co-worker who gossips about us, the driver who abruptly cuts in front of us, or the politician whose platform directly opposes our own beliefs and values. In these instances we may feel judgmental and critical, and justified in doing so. But true compassion is not selective. It does not distinguish between those who deserve it and those who do not. When we decide that one group deserves compassion while another group does not, then our compassion is flawed.

Nor is compassion a sign of weakness. It is not a passive acceptance of abuse nor does it mean that we will gladly accept whatever anyone wants to do to us. Instead, it is described by Sharon Salzberg as: 

“the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal. To develop this mind state of compassion …is to learn to live, as the Buddha put it, with sympathy for all living beings, without exception.”


Compassion and Happiness

Compassion is one of the few things that can bring immediate and long term happiness to our lives. If we want our world to be a happier, more peaceful place to be, then compassion is one of the quickest routes. In struggling with choices and decisions in our lives, it often seems as if there are too many variables to make sense of. How can we know what is best for us? I find that many questions resolve themselves if I can ask myself what is the most compassionate action I can take in a particular situation? What can I do that will create the greatest sense of happiness and well-being in my life and the lives of those around me? Moreover, the most compassionate action I can take for myself is usually the most compassionate action toward others, as well.

In addition to the spiritual and emotional benefits of compassion, there are physical benefits. Some scientific studies have shown that people who practice it produce 100 percent more DHEA, a hormone that counteracts the aging process, and 23 percent less cortisol, the “stress hormone.”

Compassion is called a practice because it requires our ongoing attention and dedication. And there is no shortage of opportunities to incorporate it into our lives. We can begin by increasing our awareness of it, thinking about it in our interactions with others, and reflecting on it at the end of the day. In this way, it becomes a part of our daily lives.


How to Practice Compassion

The Dalai Lama offers the following practice as a simple way to increase loving kindness and compassion in the world:

1. Spend 5 minutes at the beginning of each day remembering we all want the same things (to be happy and be loved) and we are all connected to one another.                                                               

2. Spend 5 minutes — breathing in – cherishing yourself; and, breathing out – cherishing others. If you think about people you have difficulty cherishing, extend your cherishing to them anyway.

3. During the day extend that attitude to everyone you meet. Practice cherishing the simplest person (clerks, attendants, etc., as well as the “important” people in your life; cherish the people you love and the people you dislike).

4. Continue this practice no matter what happens or what anyone does to you.

These thoughts are very simple, inspiring and helpful. The practice of cherishing can be taken very deep if done wordlessly; allowing yourself to feel the love and appreciation that already exists in your heart. As this practice becomes a part of your life, it can become a way of life.

Or, as the Dalai Lama also said, “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”


Recommending Reading

Chodron, Pema. Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. Boston and London: Shambala Publications, 1994. 

The Dalai Lama. An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life.  Nicholas Vreeland, Ed.) New York: Back Bay Books, 2002.








November 9, 2008


Filed under: 2008 Articles,Claire's Articles,Mind-body-spirit Integration — karunacounseling @ 5:37 pm
Tags: ,

by Claire N. Scott, Ph.D.

As we come to the end of the year, it is a good opportunity to take time out to reflect on the year just past, remembering all the things it held for us. The following questions are offered as a way to facilitate that reflection — and perhaps stimulate your thinking to ask yourself questions of your own.

As with any psychological exercise, I would add this caution. If you find yourself feeling unduly overwhelmed or distressed by your answers to any of these questions, it might be helpful to talk about your thoughts and feelings with a friend or family member who can give you support. If you feel you need to talk with a professional, there are several options available to you: you are welcome to contact one of the therapists at Karuna (404) 321-4307; or you may prefer to talk with a clergy person; or your personal physician; or you could contact your local county mental health center.

With that caution having been said, I hope you’ll find this exercise beneficial and even have some fun with it — maybe stir up some good memories, get things into a different perspective, and perhaps learn some interesting things about yourself in the process.

What was my greatest accomplishment(s) this year?

What was the biggest disappointment of the year?

What was the highlight of the year — what gave me the greatest joy this year?

What was the most frustrating situation of the year?

What was the best surprise?

What was the biggest relief?

What was my worst blunder?

What are the moments I wouldn’t want to have missed?

What, if anything, do I wish I had done differently?

Who was the most interesting new person in my life?

What was the most difficult thing I had to do this year?

What was my worst experience?

What was the most unusual experience of the year?

What person/book/experience/movie, etc. had a big impact on me? Why?

What was the area of greatest growth for me?

What area(s) need the most growth/development in the future?

What am I most thankful for?

Who were the people who were most important to me this year?

What was a kindness extended to me that meant a lot to me?

What was a kindness I extended to someone else that meant a lot to me?

What do I want to invite into my life in the upcoming year?

(Try this exercise instead of New Year’s Resolutions. The answers to this question can be used to create a graphic representation of what you want to invite into your life during the upcoming year , e.g., a collage of pictures, a drawing, a list of key words — which can then be displayed somewhere you would see it occasionally to remind yourself what it is you **really** want.)

November 5, 2008

Coping with Holiday Stress

Filed under: 2007 and earlier,Not by Karuna — karunacounseling @ 8:30 am
Tags: ,

By the American Psychological Association

The holidays can be fun, but they also can be a source of great stress — and no wonder. The holidays are often depicted as a magical time when people reconcile and dreams come true.

How Can You Deal With Continuing Family Problems During The Holidays?

Being realistic is the first step. If you have bad feelings about someone, try and avoid him or her and not make an issue of it but don’t pretend that all is well. This will enable you to feel true to yourself and less stressed out.

Do Financial Pressures Stress People Out to the Point of Ruining the Holiday Spirit?

Knowing your spending limit is also a way to relieve holiday stress. People believe that they have to go out and buy gifts because it’s the holidays, even if they can’t afford to do so. Not only is it stressful to feel that you have to buy everyone an expensive gift, but you’ll be stressed for the rest of the year trying to pay off your bills. You can show love and caring by getting something that you know is meaningful and personal for that person that doesn’t have to cost a lot.

How Do Time Pressures Affect People Around the Holidays?

People shouldn’t have to put their lives on pause or totally rearrange their schedules either because of the holidays. Learn to prioritize the invitations you accept and don’t feel that you have to go to every holiday gathering.

How Does a Person Deal With the Holidays When He or She Has Just Experienced A Recent Tragedy, Death or Romantic Break-up?

If you’re feeling really out of sorts because of any chronic or current stressors, like a death or recent romantic break-up, you may want to avoid some of the festivities because they are so out of sync with how you’re feeling. Try to tell those around you what you really need, since they may not know how to help you, and ask for their understanding if you decline an activity.

How Do You Cope With Kids Who Want Everything For The Holidays and Have No Sense of What Things Cost?

Parents need to tell their children to be realistic. It is OK to say to your child that a certain toy is too expensive. And even Santa Claus has limited funds and has to choose what to give because he has a very long list. You can also tell your children that Mom and Dad and Santa Claus will try to choose the most suitable present for the child. Children have to learn that their wish is not someone’s command and to curb their desires for instant gratification.

What Are Some Good Coping Strategies?

Take stock of your expectations and make sure they’re realistic. Don’t expect more of this time of year than of any other. Take a break from holiday music and television specials if you find that they’re turning you into “Scrooge.”

Most people dread the holidays because their inner experience is so different from what is being hyped. You should trust your own instincts and don’t try to be what you’re not. Keep up your normal routine and know that this day will pass too.

If, however, you are unable to shake what you think are “holiday blues” your feelings may not be about the holidays, but about other things in your life. If you need help in sorting out or dealing with this issue, a psychologist is a person with the training to help you do so. Call one of Karuna’s therapists.

Thanks to Dorothy Cantor, Psy.D., a private practitioner in Westfield, N.J., and a former president of the American Psychological Association.

(c) Copyright 2004 American Psychological Association

Documents from apahelpcenter.org may be reprinted in their entirety with credit given to the American Psychological Association. Any exceptions to this, including requests to excerpt or paraphrase documents from apahelpcenter.org, must be presented in writing to helping@apa.org and will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Permission for exceptions will be given on a one-time-only basis and must be sought for each additional use of the document.

November 3, 2008

Questions for Reflection at the End of the Year


Claire N. Scott, Ph.D. 

As 2008 is nearing its end, it is a good opportunity to take time out to reflect on the year just past, remembering and considering all the things it held for us.  The questions that follow are offered as a way to facilitate that reflection — and perhaps to stimulate your own thinking about questions you want to ask yourself.  An article similar to this was first published in our Karuna Newsletter several years ago, and it seemed a good time to revise and repeat it as we come to the end of such an eventful year.  In the previous version all the questions had a personal, psychological flavor.  That is mostly true again this year, but I’ve also added a few questions related to how external world happenings may have impacted you personally.  The world seems to get smaller every year.  We are more aware than ever of how events and decisions on the other side of this island home can impact the air we breathe, the food we eat, the cost of gas, and our sense of security. 

Some of the following questions are designed to help you recall good memories, interesting events and people.  Some are just for fun.  Some might put things into a different perspective for you.  Some questions might trigger insights or help you learn some interesting things about yourself.  And some are designed to be thought-provoking and even challenging.  In the last regard, I feel compelled to add a small caution:  if you find yourself feeling unduly distressed or overwhelmed by your answers to any of these questions, it might be best to put the questions aside and talk about your thoughts and feelings with a friend or family member who can give you support. If you feel you need to talk with a professional, you are welcome to contact one of the therapists here at Karuna (404) 321-4307, or you may prefer to talk with a clergy person.  If you don’t have other resources, you could also contact your local county mental health center. 

Mostly I hope you enjoy this process, and find it useful.  I’ve been doing it for several years and I enjoy going back and seeing what was going on in my life and in myself in previous years.  You may not get through all these questions in one sitting.  Take you time.  Notice the questions you want to skip or the ones that stop you.  Hold it all in compassion – no judgments.  It’s good to take time out to reflect on your life, no matter what the answers.




What was my greatest accomplishment(s) this year?

What was my biggest blunder of the year?

What gave me the greatest joy this year?

What was the biggest disappointment?

What was the best surprise?

What are the moments I wouldn’t want to have missed?

What, if anything, do I wish I had done differently?

Who was the most interesting new person in my life?

What was the most difficult thing I had to do this year?

What was the worst experience of the year?

What was the most unusual experience?

What book or movie had a big impact on me? Why?

What was my coolest new purchase of the year?

What was the biggest waste of money?

What newsworthy event(s) had the biggest impact on me personally (e.g., the presidential race, global warming, Iraqi war, Olympics, gasoline crunch, plight of refugees, green issues, etc.), and why?

Do I experience the world differently than I did a year or two ago?  In what ways? 

What do those differences mean for me personally?  Have they or will they change how I live and the choices I make?

Who were the people who were most important to me this year?

What was the area of greatest personal growth for me?

What area(s) need the most growth/development in the future?

What am I most thankful for?

What kindness was extended to me that meant a lot to me?

What was a kindness I extended to someone else that meant a lot to me?

What do I want to invite into my life in the upcoming year? (See exercise below.)

Consider trying this exercise as an alternative to making New Year’s Resolutions.  Ask yourself the above question and use your answers to create a collage of some sort.  It can include pictures, drawings, photographs, words – anything that represents what you want to invite into your life during the upcoming year. 

What you create can then be displayed where you will see it occasionally to remind yourself what it is you really want.  I once heard that given as a definition of self-discipline.  I’ll make it big so you can use it in your collage if you like.



P.S.  I was supposed to have a book to go with this article, and there probably are some good ones, but the truth is some friends and I came up with this idea at a party one night and it has gone through several revisions and variations since then.  

October 13, 2008

12 Tips for a Healthy Relationship

by Claire N. Scott, Ph.D.

There are literally hundreds of books on how to improve relationships. Relationship difficulties are the most often cited reason that people decide to come into therapy. While relationships are one of the most rewarding things in life, they can also be one of the most challenging and heartbreaking. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned from some of those relationship books and from almost 20 years of doing couples therapy. (The primary source for the research cited is The Marriage Clinic by John Gottman, Ph.D.)


Research has found that the most significant factor in determining satisfaction in a relationship is the quality of the friendship between the two people — and this is equally true for women and men. Obviously that makes it important to devote time and energyto strengthening the friendship between you and your partner. How? Spend time together, listen, be empathetic about sorrows and enthusiastic about joys, tolerate foibles, forgive faults, support dreams, be available when you’re needed – in short be a good friend.


Conflict is a natural part of any close relationship. People have different needs, wants, values, priorities, temperaments, histories, energies, moods, rhythms, styles. What is unusual is not that people have conflict, but that they ever manage to work through it sufficiently to actually want to be in each other’s company for any length of time.


That magical, wonderful, knock-your-socks-off feeling of being in love will fade. It’s inevitable. There’s no feeling like it, and it’s wonderful while it lasts, and it will fade. Ideally, the “pink cloud” feelings you have for each other can mature and grow into a beautiful, lifelong loving companionship – but that takes work – keep reading.


Be careful how you confront your partner. Remember the difference between a complaint and criticism. A complaint is an objection you have to how something is going – or not going. Criticism is an attack on your partner’s personhood. Example: a complaint might be, “I get so aggravated with you when you don’t call when you’re going to be late.” That line can be turned into a criticism by adding, “How can you be so selfish?” or “What’s the matter with you that you always do that?”


Old saying – still true: YOU GET MORE FLIES WITH HONEY THAN YOU DO WITH VINEGAR . Remember when you have a complaint that you’re asking your partner to change to please you. Chances are they’re going to be more likely to accommodate you if you act like you like them!


Be “influenceable”. Research also shows that happier relationships are those in which each person is open to being influenced by the other. Don’t hang on to being so right that the only place left for your partner to be is wrong.


Examine your beliefs about what you think couples and families do for one another? If you believe, as I do, that loved ones supportone another in “becoming” what one wants to become, then the attitude you bring into partnership is likely to be one that will help both you and your partner grow and flourish.


Power: Only in relationships where both partners have equal, open power can true intimacy exist (meaning the experience of being open, vulnerable, and able to share one’s innermost thoughts and feelings). The old topdog/underdog setup may have worked in a way, but the result was NOT intimacy.


Even the best relationships have some irreconcilable differences . Not all problems can be solved. If you want to keep your partner (and your sanity), you might have to decide that that quirk that drives you mad is actually an endearing idiosyncrasy. If that’s impossible, keep working on the irreconcilable differences, but with gentleness, respect and good humor. (Though this is a tangentialremark and fodder for a different article, how can we possibly expect nations to live peaceably with their differences if we can’t even manage it in our closest relationships?)


Repair attempts . This is a term coined by John Gottman that I particularly like. It refers to the times one or the other partner makes some conciliatory gesture. It could be a joke to lighten the mood in an argument, a gentle touch, a request to table the conversation till there’s time to cool down, a silly grin, an “I’m sorry” or “boy did I screw up”. Sometimes the timing can be off, and the receiver is just in no mood to hear it, but it’s helpful if the attempt is at least acknowledged. Take a second to smile at the joke or return the touch. Repair attempts can lower the volatility and improve the atmosphere in the room. It doesn’t mean the disagreement has been resolved; it’s just a little breather to remember you love one other.


Accept that reality is subjective. We can only see the world through our own eyes, and not all eyes see the same . Studies on eyewitness testimony attest to the unreliability of eyewitness accounts. When I was a campus counselor years ago, I once counseled two people individually for two months before it became evident that they were roommates in conflict with each other! Their respective descriptions of what was going on was so different that the accounts bore no resemblance to each other. I’m still having that experience with couples today.


How do you know when your relationship could benefit from couple’s counseling? Two clues: (a) if your disagreements keep having the same flavor and you feel like you keep going round and round and getting nowhere, and/or, (b) if you’ve tried everything you can think of and it feels like nothing works. Sooner is also probably better than later. Relationships with a long history of hurt, resentment and hateful words are difficult to heal. John Gottman’s research highlighted four indicators that a relationship is in serious trouble: the presence of high levels of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. These things are deeply corrosive to a relationship and can leave it eroded beyond repair if not addressed.

This list is obviously not exhaustive – I haven’t even touched on sex and money. If you would like to read more about relationships, some books I recommend are: Soul Mates by Thomas Moore; Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver; Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix; Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner; Conscious Loving by Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.