Agony in adults

The person in the grip of an old distress says things that aren’t pertinent, does things that don’t work, fails to cope with the situation, and endures terrible feelings that have nothing to do with the present.

~ Harvey Jackins

(Continued from “Agony.”)

I can only guess, of course, whether someone with whom I am working received adequate attunement from their mothers.

But occasionally I meet people who make me suspect that might have been the case.

They tend to be people who seem forever at war with their feelings.

Like Alan, a quiet man whose marriage is failing because he’s so disconnected emotionally, who works all day and then goes home to pore over paperwork at his kitchen table, so turned inward that he can barely sustain a conversation in session, and whose frustrated wife complains that “even when he’s there he’s not there.”

Or Bonnie, a chronic people pleaser who always looks tired, seems surrounded by people who discount or abuse her, and who worries constantly about falling back into the suicidal depression which overwhelmed her twenty years ago.

Or Cate, an attractive educated woman who keeps drifting into relationships with emotionally unavailable men, spends months trying to get them to love her, then blames each failure not on the man but on her own unworthiness.

And Dustin, a recovering alcoholic stuck in a ten-year affair with a married woman who gives him less and less time and attention, but whom he refuses to leave because “she’s the only woman who’s ever made me feel like someone loved me.”

Harvey Jackins’ phrase —

endures terrible feelings that have nothing to do with the present

— is a perfect description of each of these people.

Each is trapped in what I’ve called the Kid Trance: an emotional life dominated by how they felt when they were helpless children.

The Trance is an agonizing place to live.

Its defining characteristic is a tendency to perceive and treat ourselves as we were perceived and treated by our parents.  If they abused or neglected or judged us, we abuse or neglect or judge ourselves.

And if our parents had no clue about how to deal with difficult feelings, we too are left essentially clueless.

What we do, then, is retreat into the ways of coping we discovered as children.

We may disconnect and distract ourselves from feelings, like Alan.  Or exhaust ourselves trying to win love and emotional feeding, like Bonnie and Cate.  Or cling desperately to someone we think capable of meeting our emotional needs, like Dustin.

There’s another reason the Trance is agonizing: shame.

Psychologist Russell Carr writes,

In the absence of a sustaining relational home where feelings can be verbalized, understood and held, emotional pain can become a source of unbearable shame and self-loathing.

Whether it comes from being actively discouraged from identifying and expressing feelings (Big boys don’t cry) or from lacking a model for even noticing them, the inability to process feelings cannot help but leave us feeling flawed, broken, inadequate, and cut off from other human beings.

Why cut off?

Because, in our shame, we won’t see relationship as a safe place in which to feel or reveal ourselves.

We may not even believe in the possibility of what Carr calls a sustaining relational home.

And this is one serious wound.

“Trauma is a basic fact of life,” writes Mark Epstein.

It is not just an occasional thing that happens to some people; it is there all the time.  Things are always slipping away….  The healthy attachment of a baby to a “good-enough” parent facilitates a comfort with emotional experience that makes the challenges of adult life and adult intimacy less intimidating.

Relationship is the adult’s secret weapon for handling such challenges, a life jacket to keep us afloat, a safe harbor to which we can retreat from storms.

Without it we can’t help but feel adrift, vulnerable to emotional waves that threaten to drown us, “traumatizing us again and again as we find ourselves enacting a pain we do not understand”(Epstein).

And with no life jacket or safe harbor available to us, we have no choice but to turn, inevitably, to the illusion of control.


Russell Carr is quoted by Epstein (see below).

Mark Epstein.  The trauma of everyday life.  New York: Penguin, 2013.

Harvey Jackins is quoted by John Bradshaw, in Homecoming: Reclaiming and championing your inner child.  New York: Bantam, 1990.






There is no cell of our body that does not have a wounded child in it.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

There is another kind of unfinished emotional business which predates the kind I just described (see “Shit”) and prevents us from feeling and functioning like grownups. 

It is rooted in the way our mothers responded to us when we were infants.

Mark Epstein explains it in his book The trauma of everyday life (Penguin, 2013), drawing on the seminal work of British child analyst D.W. Winnicott.

Here’s a simplified version of his explanation:

One of the most important jobs a mother has is to teach her child how to identify and handle feelings.  She does this by modeling a combination of empathy (Oh, you’re having a feeling) and reassurance (Everything will be fine).  Anyone who spends any time observing mothers with their children sees this happen over and over. 

Oh, you’re wet and uncomfortable?  Here, let’s get you changed. 

Oh, you’re hungry?  Let’s warm up your bottle. 

Oh, you hurt yourself?  Here, let mama kiss it.  

And so on.  This ability to pay attention to and respond appropriately to the infant’s emotional experience is called attunement.

“In this state,” Winnicott writes,

mothers become able to put themselves into the infant’s shoes, so to speak.  That is to say, they develop an amazing capacity for identification with the baby, and this makes them able to meet the basic needs of the infant in a way that no machine can imitate, and no teaching can reach.     

Mom’s attunement is essential to the infant because it models for the child how to attune to itself.  The basic message is Here’s what you do with a feeling: You respect it.  You pay attention to it.  You figure out what it’s telling you, and you respond.

Attunement provides a kind of emotional container — an experience of holding, attention and safety — which the infant absorbs and, eventually, learns to provide for him/herself.  

But what if the mother is unable to attune to her infant? 

What if something else is occupying her attention or draining her energy?  What if she is exhausted, or sick, or depressed, or frightened, or angry, or being abused, or self-medicating with some substance?

“An infant who is held well enough is quite a different thing from one who has not been held well enough,” writes Winnicott.

You see two infants: one has been held…well enough, and there is nothing to prevent a rapid emotional growth, according to inborn tendencies.  The other has not had the experience of being held well and growth has had to be distorted and delayed, and some degree of primitive agony has to be carried on into life and living.

What Winnicott calls primitive agony is the experience of being left all alone to deal with incomprehensible and uncontrollable feelings.

This is not an experience that simply drains away over time.

Instead those afflicted carry it into adulthood, as I understand it, in two forms.

One form is a chronic background anxiety, which occasionally erupts as a fear of breaking down, “losing it,” going crazy.

The other form is an inability to deal healthily with their own feelings.

(To be continued.)


Mark Epstein.  The trauma of everyday life.  New York: Penguin, 2013.

Thich Nhat Hanh.  Reconciliation: Healing the inner child.  Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2010.

D.W. Winnicott.  Babies and their mothers.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1988.



Whatever we don’t own, owns us.

~ Carl Jung


Among recovering people, and in the lexicon of nearly every therapist I know, the single most common word used to describe unfinished emotional business is shit.

Not surprising.  It’s a good metaphor.


Actual shit is a waste product, what’s left undigested after our systems process nourishment.

Emotional shit is what’s left undigested after human beings process (or can’t process) emotional experiences.

Actual shit is smelly and unpleasant.  So is emotional shit.

Actual shit, when it collects inside you, makes you very uncomfortable.  So does emotional shit.

Releasing actual shit is an enormous relief.  Ditto the emotional version.

The biggest difference between them is that most people instinctually know what to do with actual shit.

They know they need to expel it from the body on a regular basis.  And they know that if they don’t they’ll get sick.

But many people don’t know that about emotional shit.  They think the way to handle it is to hide it, keep it inside, store it up.

Then they don’t understand why they go around feeling shitty.

They’re emotionally constipated.

Constipation produces all sorts of symptoms, like anxiety and depression and anger and addiction.  Also high blood pressure, headaches, backaches, gastrointestinal distress and exhaustion.  Also arguments and violence and child abuse and divorce.

What has this all to do with what I call the inner Kid?

Because this is the main way inner Kids gets wounded.

We’re not born constipated.  We’re born healthy little animals, able to trust what our bodies tell us and automatically expel waste products.  Then in childhood we begin hearing messages like Quiet down and Big boys don’t cry or Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about.  Surrounded by giants on whom we depend for food, shelter, love and security, we have no choice but to follow such instructions.

Voila.  Constipation.

And why, exactly, does emotional constipation make us feel shitty?

“When feelings are denied or kept inside there is typically a buildup of physical tension,” Paul Foxman explains.

An accumulation of such pressure leads to anxiety, due to fears of losing control emotionally.  That condition also triggers anxiety because of its physiological similarity to the fight/flight response, which is normally associated with danger.  Thus our personality creates a paradox in which we deny feelings to prevent anxiety but experience anxiety when we deny our feelings.

One more consequence of constipation is worth noting:

It makes it impossible to feel like an adult.

Being adult means being strong and healthy enough to be yourself.   That includes being able to notice your feelings, even the smelly ones, and take responsibility instead of hiding them.  Taking responsibility means learning to express feelings in appropriate ways, ways that leaving you feeling stronger, not constipated.

Hiding feelings is what kids do.  So no matter how old we are, to the extent we feel compelled to hide our feelings from others, we are going to feel like kids inside.

Adults can, in the jargon of recovery, own their shit.

There’s more to adulthood than this one ability, of course.  Owning your shit doesn’t automatically make you a grownup.

But you can’t start growing up until you start owning your shit.



Foxman, Paul.  Dancing with fear: Overcoming anxiety in a world of stress and uncertainty.  Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996.

Weak and strong

All of us start out weak in the hands of the strong.

~ Allen Wheelis


So why is understanding the Kid part so essential to understanding ourselves as adults?

Because it reminds us of where we came from, and what happened to us there.

It reminds us that we started out helpless, totally dependent on the big people around us.

That we had no choice about adapting to those big people.

That this adaptation occurred not just on the surface of our personality, but seeped down to the very core of us.

That, like a lie you tell so often you come to believe it’s true, this adaptation came to feel not like something we did but something we are.

In other words, that it left us confused at the deepest level.

“We are hypnotized from infancy,” writes Willis Harmon.  “We do not perceive ourselves and the world about us as they are but as we have been persuaded to see them.”

“Nearly all human activity is programmed by an ongoing script dating from early childhood,” is how Eric Berne puts it.

“We build up our selves out of our defenses but then come to be imprisoned by them,” Mark Epstein explains.  “This leaves us feeling dissatisfied, irritable, and cut off.  In our misguided attempts to become more self-assured, we tend to build up our defenses even more, rather than disentangling ourselves from them.”

That last quote points to the main reason we need to understand the Kid part of us:

Until we do, we can’t understand how we — or people we care about — get emotionally sick.

By sick I mean afflicted with the most common symptoms people bring to therapy: anxiety, depression, addictions, unhappy relationships and parenting problems.

I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t suffered from at least one of these.

They all flow from the childhood adaptation I’m talking about, one which splits us into two selves — one public, one private — and starts a war between them.

This self-splitting is called neurosis, and I’ll say more about it later.

Here it’s enough to point out what should be obvious: that a personality at war with itself is unlikely to be a very healthy or happy one.

Adult health and happiness depend on rewriting the script, emerging from the trance, and escaping from the defensive prison to which childhood consigned us.

You simply cannot be an emotionally strong adult so long as you’re carrying around a weak wounded Kid inside.

Or as Carl Jung put it, “Whatever we don’t own, owns us.”


Berne, Eric.  Quoted in James, Muriel & Dorothy Jongeward. Born to win: Transactional analysis with Gestalt experiments.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1971.

Epstein, Mark.  Going to pieces wihtout falling apart: A Budsdhist perspectrive on wholeness.  New York: Broadway Books, 1998.

Harmon, Willis.  Old wine in new wineskins.  In Challenges of humanistic psychology, ed. J. Bugental.  New York: Magraw-Hill, 1967.

Jung, Carl Gustav.  The portable Jung.  Ed Joseph Campbell.  New York: Penguin, 1980.

Wheelis, Allen.  The path not taken: Reflections on power and fear.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.





Inner casualties

When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults.

~ Brian Aldiss


For thirty years I’ve been talking to clients about what I call the inner kid. 

Occasionally one asks what I mean by the term.

“It’s that part of you where you store unexpressed feelings, unmet needs, unresolved conflicts and unanswered questions,” I usually say.

They usually nod.

Not one has ever said No, I don’t have one of those.

That might seem odd, given the lack of attention and respect we generally pay to this most secret part of us. 

Then again, it doesn’t.

We all know we’re damaged, wounded and crippled in some way. 

The inner kid gives us a way of talking about it.

“In every adult there lurks a child,” wrote Carl Jung in 1934,

an eternal child, something that is always becoming, is never completed, and calls for unceasing care, attention, and education.  That is the part of the human personality which wants to develop and become whole.

Other writers echoed Jung’s view of the child as the source of all human potential and authenticity:

[The Child is] that part of each of us which is ultimately alive, energetic, creative and fulfilled; it is our Real Self — who we truly are. (Charles Whitfield)

It is who we are when we were born, our core self, our natural personality, with all its talent, instinct, intuition and emotion. (Margaret Paul) 

All the people we call “geniuses” are men and women who somehow escaped having to put that curious, wondering child in themselves to sleep (Barbara Sher) 

The most potent muse of all is our own inner child. (Stephen Nachmanovich)

Most of the time, though, when we talk about the Kid inside, we define it in terms of how it gets damaged.

In order to survive in our world we have all denied the Child within to one degree or another.  And this is also abuse.  (Lucia Capacchione)

When the Child Within is not nurtured or allowed freedom of expression, a false or codependent self emerges.  (Charles Whitfield)

There is no cell of our body that does  not have that wounded child in it.  (Thich Nhat Hanh)

That is why we dread children, even if we love them.  They show us the state of our decay.  (Brian Aldiss)

This view of the Inner Child as a casualty has become nothing less than a cliché, embraced — or at least wrestled with — by hordes of people trying to recover from all sorts of emotional maladies, everything from addiction, anxiety and trauma to depression, spiritual crises and bad relationships.

Why do we discover this essential part of us only through suffering?

Once we’ve discovered it, what should we do with it?

Are the damages done to my inner Kid even repairable?

If so, how can I repair them?

Those are questions I’ll answer here in coming weeks. 

I’ll do it by exploring five premises to which thirty years of practicing therapy have led me:

1. Everyone carries a kid inside.

2. Everyone’s inner kid gets wounded.

3. Wounded inner kids become what we call adult children.

4. Adult children are addicted to control.

5. By fighting this addiction we can heal the inner kid and start living like grownups.

As I said, the idea of an Inner Kid has become nothing less than a cliche of recovery.

That’s a good thing, I think.

Because it is the single most useful metaphor I know for understanding human beings.


Cappacchione, Lucia.   Recovery of your inner child.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Jung, Carl Gustav.  The portable Jung.  Ed Joseph Campbell.  New York: Penguin, 1980.

Nachmanovitch, Stephen.  Free play: Improvisation in life and art.  New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1990.

Nhat Hanh, Thich.  Reconciliation: Healing the inner child.  Berekely, CA: Parallax Press, 2010.

Paul, Margaret.  Inner bonding: Becoming a loving adult to your inner child.  San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1992.

Sher, Barbara.  Wishcraft: How to get what you really want.  New York: Viking Press, 1979.

Whitfield, Charles.  Healing the child within: Discovery and recovery for adult childre dysfunctional families.  Pompano Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1987.



Evidence of children


The child is in me still and sometimes not so still.

~ Fred Rogers

Yesterday I argued with a family member.

We’re not especially close.  (The argument, in fact, was just an exchange of angry texts.)  We don’t see each other often, and I’m not especially concerned about what this person thinks or feels about me.

So I was surprised at the strength of my reaction to the fight.

I was upset.  I felt like crying.  I was also furious.  I couldn’t stop raging, replaying the argument in my head over and over.  I was also confused.  What this my fault?  Was I missing something?  Nor could I stop imagining what would happen if we were to resume it in the future.  What would I say?  How would X answer?  How would I feel?

I did this so much I couldn’t sleep.  I  mean, at all.

So at 3:40 AM I’m lying in bed and wondering Why the hell is this happening?

And my smarter self answered,

Because you feel like a kid.


This happens every day in my therapy office.   It’s just not me it usually happens to.

It happens to the wife who hates her husband and is desperate to end their marriage but looks at me helplessly and says, “But I don’t know how to start.”

To the mom whose daughter bullies her and to whom she cannot reply because she’s afraid she’ll lose the girl’s love forever.

To the husband who vents endlessly in therapy about his wife’s drinking but finds her anger so unnerving that he has never said a word to her.

To the adult son so desperate for his father’s love and approval that he bites his tongue whenever Dad launches into a racist political harrangue.

To the boyfriend whose fiance makes all the couples’ decisions unilaterally but who doesn’t complain for fear she’ll break their engagement.

To the nurse who’s afraid to seek a better job because of how scared she gets in interviews.

To the teacher who’s worked herself into chronic health problems by overworking and never saying No to any demand.

To the therapist whose need for clients to like her is so great that she regularly extends their therapy hour, reduces her fee, comes in on weekends, and takes crisis calls at all hours of the night.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

I imagine you’ve seen versions of it yourself.

Maybe you’ve lived those versions.

Anxiety.  Terror.  Sadness.  Helplessness.  Bewilderment.

Regression to the most vulnerable emotional state you know.

Evidence of the kid you carry inside.


First in a series about inner kids, adult children and control addiction.

Watch this space.



Kids + wounds + lessons: An invitation

The way we were treated as small children is

the way we treat ourselves the rest of our life.

~ Alice Miller 

Dear friends and fellow monkeys,

I’m inviting you to share your responses to an upcoming series of blog posts.

The posts will be about adult children*, which is the subject of a book I’m writing.

The premises of this book are that

1. Every human being carries a child inside them.

2. Every inner child gets wounded.

3. People who bring these wounds into adulthood are what we call adult children.

4. We are all adult children.

5. This means we all carry three sorts of wounds:

~ disorders of identity (confusion about who we are),

~ disorders of feeling (confusion about how to handle our emotional lives), and

~ disorders of relationship (confusion about how to deal with other people).

6. We can heal these wounds by relearning how to be healthy human beings.

Of course, none of these ideas is particularly new.  There’s been a stream of books about inner kids and adult children and emotional healing since the 1970s, many of them excellent.

But mine (working title: Monkeytraps for Adult Children) will be the first to organize these ideas around the theme of this blog and of all my books: control addiction.

In the coming weeks I’ll explore them in posts that will eventually become book chapters.

How can you help?

Give me feedback.

People who work with me or read my first book know what I mean by feedback.  It’s a communication skill I teach in group therapy.

It’s not just offering opinions, criticism, judgment, diagnosis or advice.

Instead it’s an attempt to go inside yourself and answer questions like

How do I relate to what I just read? 

What memories came up while I was reading it? 

What was I feeling? 

What am I feeling right now? 

That’s right.  An emotional response, not an intellectual one.

What’s in it for you?

Several things, I hope.

Giving feedback can help us identify our own unfinished business and unhealed wounds.

It may even bring long-buried issues and needs into awareness.

It can also help us to identify and express feelings which, if left unaddressed, might cause anxiety, depression or other problems.

Hearing feedback can help reduce a sense of isolation, guilt and shame by illuminating our commonality with others.

Then too, I’d hope anyone who shares feedback here would derive satisfaction from knowing they contributed to a book whose aim is to help people heal emotional wounds just like theirs.

I’ll publish the first post shortly.

Please consider joining the conversation.


You can share feedback publicly or privately. 

Public feedback can simply be posted in the Comments section following each blog post. 

Private feedback can be sent to me at



*What’s an adult child?  See “Inner kids and adult children.”

The case against me

She ended the relationship six weeks ago and has been struggling ever since.

Doubt, self-blame, anxiety and depression are the signs of the struggle.

This is not the first time she’s gone through this.

Not the first time for me, either. 

Most of my clients are women, and many of them react in just this way when an important relationship fails.

For some the reaction lasts for months.

For others, years.

It’s my job to help them transform that reaction into a healthier, more self-loving one.

So I expect that the email I sent her is one I’ll will save and use again and again. 

It’s about how her Inner Kid experiences relationship problems.

Here it is:

Not sure this will help, but here’s something to consider while battling your demons:

(1) Until it finally heals — that is, develops a clear and realistic perception of itself — every inner Kid operates out of a distorted perspective which may be thought of as an inherited bias.

(2) The Kid inherits this perspective mainly from its parents, which it absorbs and accepts as The Truth — however distorted it may actually be — on the unconscious level.

(3) It then sets out to confirm this perspective by gathering evidence in support of it.

For example, say the parents tell the kid she’s “stupid.”  The kid will then go through life noticing all the stupid things she’s said or done or thought and adding them to the pile of evidence.

Evidence that she is not stupid will be discounted or ignored.

Think of this as building a case against yourself in the courtroom of your mind.

(4) The payoff for this seemingly self-defeating behavior?

There are two, both unconscious.

Building the case against myself

(a) reduces my confusion.  (I don’t have to figure out what I really am — I have all this evidence that I’m stupid — case closed);


(b) allows me to stay attached to my parents.  (Whereas, if I come to see them as unreliable or rejecting or pathological, I may be left feeling abandoned and entirely on my own).

I suggest that the above explains what you have been doing since your breakup.

The bias you inherited is a view of yourself as flawed, inadequate and unloveable.

You are using (even distorting) the “evidence” of your failed relationship in support of this biased view.

You have been doing this your whole life, so it feels true and normal.

It’s actually distorted and self-destructive.

The people who care about you recognize this.  That’s why our feedback about your relationship is so different from the feedback you’ve been giving yourself.

But until now our view has lost in court to the inherited bias — i.e., to your imaginary need for parents you have, in fact, outgrown.

The solution?

Grow up psychologically.

Which means develop — with the aid of people whose opinions you trust — a more realistic and compassionate view of yourself than you inherited.


(PS: The technical name for inherited bias is introjection.  For a further description, see “Identity and introjection” on the Psychology Today website.)


Why everybody tries to control everything



“So what the hell is codependency?” asks a man in the back row.

He’s wearing a brown corduroy jacket and he sounds annoyed.

I’m not sure how to answer.  I’m in over my head here.

I’m a new social worker, six months out of grad school, working for a clinic on the east end of Long Island.  My new boss has decided I should run the weekly Family Education Series, basically a crash course in alcoholism and how it screws up families.  And tonight the topic is codependency.

I know my subject well enough.  I’ve worked as an alcoholism counselor.  I’ve treated hundreds of codependents.  I can diagnose one in the first five minutes of a conversation.

But when it came time to prepare this talk I found I couldn’t define the word.

At work we talk about codependency all the time without ever stopping to explain what we meant.  And when I looked into my half-dozen books on the subject I found each defining it in a different way.  One was:

A specific condition characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependence on another person, activity, group, idea, or substance. [1]


An emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules. [2]

A third:

A multidimensional (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) condition manifested by any suffering and dysfunction that is associated with or due to focusing on the needs and behavior of others. [3]

A fourth:

A recognizable pattern of personality traits, predictably found within most members of chemically dependent families, which are capable of creating sufficient dysfunction to warrant the diagnosis of Mixed Personality Disorder as outlined in DSM-III [4],

which sent me off to yet another book to learn what the hell that meant.

Finally I came to codependency maven Melody Beattie, who explained that a codependent is simply

a person who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior. [5]

A fine definition.  Until you notice it describes just about everyone.

Having no idea which definition to offer my workshop, I cleverly decided to present them all.

So here I am, having just done that.  I’ve distributed a handout with the five definitions on it, and read them aloud, and am now looking at a roomful of blank faces.

“So what the hell is codependency?” asks Corduroy.

Everyone giggles.

I giggle too.  (Inside I’m thinking Shoot me now.)

Then something happens.

Something clicks in some back room of my head.

And I relax, and I hear myself answer,

“Addiction to control.”

I have surprised myself.  I’ve never thought of it this way before.

But Corduroy starts asking questions, and I find answers bubbling out of me, and suddenly it’s all making a new sort of sense.

I tell him I see codependents as traumatized people, convinced their survival depends on controlling “their” alcoholic’s illness.  So they do things like hide booze and avoid dad at certain times of the day and lie to his boss about why he missed work or to the neighbors about why he fell asleep in the driveway.  And from all these experiences they come to see control as a way of coping generally, and set about applying it to everything and everyone in their lives, to the point where it makes them sick.

“Sick how?” Corduroy frowns.

Anxious and depressed, I tell him.  But also worried and tense and irritable, and unable to relax or have fun, or identify and express feelings, or trust anyone, or like themselves.  Also self-medicating with food or work or rescuing other people or whatever else they can think of.

And now Corduroy is nodding thoughtfully, and so are others in the room.

And I know I’m onto something.


After the workshop I go back to doing therapy with clinic clients.  Mine is a typical outpatient caseload, filled with the sorts of problems every therapist faces: anxiety, depression, addictions, bad relationships, parenting problems.

But now something’s changed.

Have you ever bought a new car — a new Honda, say — and take it out on the road, and wherever you drive you see other Hondas?  Suddenly the world is filled with Hondas you never noticed before.

This is happening to me.  Suddenly my caseload is filled with control addicts.

The clients haven’t changed, I have.  It’s like I’m wearing new eyeglasses.  My vision has refocused or sharpened or something, and now I can’t help seeing how relentlessly, compulsively and self-destructively controlling they all are.

They? I mean We. Everyone.

Controlling, I find, is the universal addiction.  It’s everywhere I look.  Not just in codependent clients, but all of them.  Not just in clients, but in my colleagues and friends and family.  And on the nightly news, and in whatever I read or watch on tv or in the movies.  And of in myself.

Like a red thread in a carpet, the idea of control snakes through every problem, every motive, every personality, every emotional life.

Why is this?

I had always assumed that dysfunctional families created codependency.  But now I find the red thread running everywhere, which must mean either that (a) all families are dysfunctional (an arguable premise) or (b) the urge to control is hardwired into us, rooted in some deep part of our brain that can’t help rejecting what life hands us and trying to replace it with what we prefer.  Or (c) both.  Or (d) something else entirely.  I don’t know.

I spend the next fifteen years studying the idea of control.

I hunt for books on control (there aren’t many), then for books on related ideas like desire and power and addiction.  I buy lots of books.  I start reading everything with a highlighter in my hand, scribbling big yellow Cs alongside the parts that relate to control.  Half my books start to look pee-stained.  I buy more books.  I start typing out control-related passages I like and collect them in a computer file which as of today runs to 200 pages.

I discover Buddhism, which turns out to be all about control addiction (except Buddhists call it attachment).  I try meditating.  I hate it.  Well, not hate it exactly, but resist it like hell, to the point I’m unable to sustain a regular practice.  Apparently the control addict in me just can’t stand to sit and listen to my own thoughts, to that anxious internal chatter Buddhists call monkeymind.

I begin reshaping my approach to therapy around the idea of control.  I teach my clients to notice when they’re monkeytrapped – i.e., caught in situations which tempt them to control what they cannot control, to hold on when they should let go.

I start a blog called Monkeytraps.  I write posts about control addiction and ways to recover from it.  I write posts about my own addiction, and the part I think of as my inner monkey, whom I name Bert.

People read the blog and write comments.  “You’re writing about me,” is a familiar reply.

And the new therapy seems to work.  I am struck by how many clients tell me, as they become less controlling, “It’s so much easier.” 

I decide to write a book.


Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop was published in December 2015.

It’s based on four lessons I learned from my study and clinical work:

(1) We are all addicted to control.

(2) This addiction causes most emotional problems.

(3) Behind all controlling is the wish to control feelings.

(4) There are better ways to handle feelings than control.

I call these lessons the Four Laws of control, since they seem true of everyone I meet and seem to operate pretty invariably.

We can’t help but follow these laws, whether we realize it or not.

Just as, whether we realize it or not, we can’t avoid living lives shaped by the universal addiction.


This post previously appeared on Lisa Fredericksen’s Breaking the Cycles (


[1] Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, ChoiceMaking: For co-dependents, adult children and spirituality seekers (Health Communications, 1985).

[2] Robert Subby, Lost in the shuffle: The co-dependent reality, quoted in Whitfield (see below).

[3] Charles Whitfield, Co-dependence: Healing the human condition (Health Communications, 1991).

[4] Timmen Cermak, Diagnosing and treating co-dependence (Johnson Institute, 1986).

 [5] Melody Beattie, Codependent no more (Harper/Hazelden, 1987).

The Kid Trance and adult relationships



We are all in a post-hypnotic trance induced in early infancy.

~ R.D. Laing


Every human being emerges from childhood in a trance.

Its defining characteristic is a tendency to perceive and treat ourselves as we were perceived and treated by our parents.

If they loved and accepted us, we love and accept ourselves.

If they abused or neglected or judged us, we abuse or neglect or judge ourselves.

Garbage in, garbage out.  As with computers, so with children.

All this is pretty much inescapable.

And as adults most of us walk around hypnotized much of the time without realizing it.

Adult relationships, though, tend to trigger our awareness of this trance.

This happens because, in our need for our partners’ love and acceptance and approval, we tend to confuse them with our parents.

We slip back into the Kid Trance, where how we feel about ourselves depends on how we are seen and treated by someone else.

This is both an awful and a wonderful thing.

It’s awful because of it how feels.  It’s never fun feeling like a vulnerable, self-doubting, dependent kid in a grownup’s body.

It’s wonderful because of the opportunity it offers.

Because adult relationships provide a second chance — a chance to awaken from the trance, to revisit distorted conclusions about ourselves and our worth as people, and to redefine both in light of a more adult awareness.

We do this mainly by practicing what kids cannot do:

We act like ourselves.

We tell the truth.

Express feelings.

Assert needs.

Set boundaries.

Act authentically.

This is not easy work.

It can be scary to be ourselves.

It’s especially scary if our past attempts at doing so were met with criticism or conflict or rejection.

Easy, no.

Just necessary.

Since the alternative is to remain permanently hypnotized.


Change your gravel


Six months ago he came in so wired and anxious we needed to walk the neighborhood for forty minutes before he could sit and talk comfortably.

Now he tells me, “I feel better.”

“Good,” I say.

“I sleep better,” he says.  “I’m less tired.  I worry less.  And I stopped snapping at everyone.”


“Yes, but confusing,” he frowns.  “Because I don’t know why I feel better.”

“Why do you think?” I ask.

“Well, it has something to do with this,” nodding at the two of us sitting together. “Because nothing else has changed.” 

I know what he means.  He still hates his job, remains unsure in his marriage, still struggles with the legacy of growing up in an alcoholic home.

“And what about this” — I imitate his nod — “helps you feel better?”

“Well, talking,” he says.  “I never knew just talking could help so much.  But beyond that,” and he shakes his head.  “Do you know?”

“I know how I see it,” I say.  “I can tell you that.”


“Therapy’s not mysterious,” I say.  “All a therapist has to offer is two things.  One’s a safe place to tell the truth —  that’s the talking part.”

He nods.

“The other is a new way of seeing things.”

“Seeing things how?”

“Imagine a small pond with black gravel on the bottom,” I say.  “Now imagine that every day you throw a piece of white gravel into that pond.  What happens over time?”

“The white gravel collects,” he says.   

“And if you do this daily for years?”

“Eventually the white gravel covers the black.”

“That’s just what is happening with you.”

He thinks about it.

“So the pond is me.  And the black gravel is…wait, I know.  It’s Plan A.

God bless him, he’s read my book.

“Right.  For six months you’ve been replacing the feelings and beliefs you carried out of childhood — many of them unconscious — with stuff that works better.  Ideas that allow you to think, feel and function in healthier ways. 

“Think about it.  What do you believe now that you didn’t six months ago?”

He’s quiet for a while.

“Three things,” he says finally.   “Holding in feelings made me sick.  That’s the first one.  The second is that I didn’t cause dad’s drinking or my parents’ shitty marriage.”  He pauses.  “And the third is that being anxious and depressed all these years doesn’t mean I’m weak or stupid or a failure.  And that there are other people like me out there.”

“Bravo.  You’ve changing your gravel.” 

“I guess so,” he says thoughtfully.  “Changes everything, doesn’t it?”



If this, then that

Control means the ability to dictate reality — to edit people, places and things according to our needs and preferences.

It is the single most important idea in our lives.


Because, more than any other, the idea of control shapes our emotions and behavior, our relationships and personalities.

Because what we believe about control — even when we’re unaware we believe it — determines how we feel and how we act.

For example:

~ If I think control is always a good thing to have, I’ll feel deprived whenever I can’t have it.

~ If I think control is always necessary, it will become my priority, and I will seek it regardless of consequences.

~ If I believe my safety depends on having control, I will feel anxious or panicked or overwhelmed whenever control is impossible.

~ If you and I both want control at the same time, we’re going to have a problem.

On the other hand,

~ If I remember that control is often impossible and/or unnecessary, I’ll feel less driven to seek it in all situations.

~ If I know I can feel safe even when I don’t have control, I’ll work harder at learning healthy alternatives.

~ If I’m aware that humans get addicted to control, I’ll be more careful about when and how I go about controlling, and feel more satisfaction when I am able to cope without it.

~ If I know that controlling can wreck communication and destroy relationships, I’ll think twice before trying to control you, or using it to solve problems that crop up between us.

Whenever I meet new clients I listen carefully for their view of control, since more than anything else it summarizes how they see themselves and their relationship to reality.

The more they experience reality as threatening or doubt their ability to cope with whatever life hands them, the more they see controlling as both good and essential.

The safer they feel, or the more they trust their coping ability, the easier it is for them to see controlling as a problem, or to to imagine feeling safe and happy without control.

My job as their therapist almost always amounts to helping them move from the first camp into the second.


Decoding 2: I feel different



(Decoding the laundry list, concluded.)

If I’m an adult child,

(10) I feel different from other people.

This comes mainly from how I overcontrol my emotional life.  I don’t trust or listen to feelings so much as judge them. Since I judge them, I don’t share them with anyone else.  Since I don’t share them, others don’t share their feelings with me, so I never discover that we feel essentially the same way.  Trapped in this closed loop of feeling > judgment > more feeling > more judgment,  I’m forced to the inaccurate conclusion that I’m different from everyone else.

(11) I’m either super responsible or super irresponsible.

This comes from how I manage my anxiety.  Since I don’t understand that my anxiety comes from emotional constipation (i.e., holding feelings in), I blame it on external stressors, like the stuff I have to do in my life.  Sometimes I try to be all over that stuff (super responsible), and sometimes I try to try to forget or ignore it (super irresponsible).  Unfortunately neither approach works for long.  Hyper-responsibility leaves me anxious and exhausted, while hyper-irresponsibility leaves me anxious and guilty.  So I swing like a pendulum between these two unhealthy extremes, confusing the hell out of myself and the people around me.

(12) I’m extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that my loyalty is undeserved.

This comes from doubting myself and the evidence of my feelings.  Childhood left me convinced I was permanently flawed, so when things go wrong between us I blame myself.  (If you hurt my feelings I decide I’m oversensitive.  If you ignore or neglect me I tell myself Stop being so needy.  And after I lose my temper with you I may worry Am I crazy?)  My sense of self-worth is so low that I figure I’m lucky to have any relationships at all, and so must work extra hard to preserve them.  This damaged view of myself that keeps me in relationships long after a healthier person would have escaped.

(13) I’m impulsive — i.e., tend to lock myself into a course of action without thinking through alternatives or consequences.

This, too, comes from how I manage anxiety.  I’m impulsive because I lack self-awareness (for example, that I’m constipated) and the ability to defer gratification.  Instead I grab for the first choice I think will bring relief.  (Boss yelled at me?  Quit the job.  Boyfriend didn’t call?  Drive by his house.  Girlfriend forgot my birthday?  End the relationship.)  In recovery I’m learning, though, to take a breath, consider my options, process my choices with a safe person, and that there are better ways to reduce anxiety than leaping without looking. 

 Part 14 of a series on

monkeytraps and adult children.

Read part 1 here.

Decoding 2: I grew up scared


(Decoding the laundry list, continued.)

As an adult child,

(5) I have trouble relaxing or having fun.

That’s because I grew up scared.  I never knew what to expect.  (Will Dad hug me or hit me?  Will Mom reassure me or tell me what I did wrong?  Will they get along or argue?  Will I be accepted? Criticized? Abused? Ignored?)  Such uncertainty is rife when a family member is alcoholic, but it exists in all families to some extent.   Uncertainty made me hypervigilant.   I learned to scan constantly for threats, signs of tension or anger or conflict or other trouble.  I did that so long I lost the ability to do otherwise, to drop my defenses and relax or just play.  I became an adult who is chronically braced against imminent danger.  

(6) I take myself very seriously.

This flows directly from the last item.  Fear makes you pretty damn serious.  Fear hijacks your attention, steals your energy, keeps you preoccupied and wary.  And since one of the things I’m most scared of is criticism, I’m forever worried that others will judge me.  (Dance?  Play?  Act silly?  God, no.  I’d look like a fool.)  I worry about that, on some level, all the time.

(7) I  struggle with intimate relationships.

Intimacy means being able to be yourself with another person and allow them to do the same with you.  It requires dropping your defenses and surrendering control.  It requires faith, both in other people (I trust you not to hurt or betray me) and in myself (I am basically lovable and can take care of myself).   I never developed that faith.  So showing another person who I really am feels like skydiving without a parachute.  Frankly it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone can do it, or would want to.

(8) I over-react to changes beyond my control.

I spent childhood reacting to events that were scary or stressful.  This left me experiencing the external world as dangerous.  And I concluded that the only way to feel safe was to control those external events — the people, places and things in my environment.  A logical conclusion, but psychologically disastrous, since it made me hypersensitive to everything I couldn’t control.  And every life is filled with the uncontrollable.  So now, to the extent that I rely on control to feel secure or confident, my internal life feels not safe but chaotic.

(9) I constantly seek approval and affirmation.

All kids need large helpings of the four A’s: attention, acceptance, approval and affection.  Kids who get enough feel loved and lovable.  Kids who don’t feel holey — emotionally hungry.  I didn’t get enough, so now my hunger compels me to seek feeding in the form of approval and validation.  Unfortunately I seek it in self-defeating ways.  Since I feel unlovable, I don’t believe I deserve feeding.  So instead of revealing my true self to you I hide the parts of me (like anger and self-doubt) I think you’ll dislike.  I try to fool you into loving me.  As a result whatever love or approval I do get feels meaningless, since I had to lie to get it.  I remain holey, and so compelled to seek approval and affirmation again and again.

(To be continued.)

 Part 13 of a series on

monkeytraps and adult children.

Read part 1 here.

Decoding the laundry list



Three decades of knowing and working with adult children (not to mention six decades of living as one) have made it impossible for me to read the thirteen laundry list items as anything but iterations of control addiction. 

For example,

As an adult child

(1) I guess what normal is, then try to imitate it. 

I don’t feel normal (whatever that is).  I feel different, inadequate, anxious.  I assume these feelings are unique to me, and that if you knew about them you’d judge me.  So I hide my feelings and fake normalcy.  (I won’t let on how much a change in plans disturbs me, for example, or how nervous I am in social situations.)   I do this to control how you perceive and react to me.

(2) I have trouble following projects through from beginning to end.

This is mainly because of how I handle discomfort.  All projects turn uncomfortable at some point, demanding we do things we’d rather not do.  I don’t know what to do with such feelings — that it helps to vent, for example, or ask for encouragement or advice.  Instead I try to make them go away by interrupting what I’m doing.  (I call this “taking a break.”)   Thus my bedroom remains unpainted, my graduate degree unearned, my book unwritten, and I may never lose those last ten pounds.   

(3) I lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. 

Since the truth (like how I really feel about myself or about you) makes me terribly uneasy, honesty feels dangerous.  It feels much safer to conceal and manipulate the truth.  I’ve been doing that for so long that now it’s a habit.  I overcontrol the truth because it gives me the sense that of being able to control you and how you see me.   

(4) I judge myself without mercy. 

Childhood taught me to expect others to criticize or reject me.  This was so painful that now I anticipate it and do it to myself before you can.  I’d rather abuse myself than feel victimized.  (Kind of like quitting a job before they can fire you.)  And judging myself without mercy saves me from being surprised or disappointed should you ever do it.  In this way I manage both my expectations of you and my own chronic anxiety.

(To be continued.)


Part 12 of a series on

monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.

Four laws



Twenty-five years of practicing therapy have led me to four conclusions:

1. Human beings are addicted to control.

2. This addiction causes most (maybe all) of our emotional problems.

3. Behind this addiction lies the wish to control how we feel.

4. There are better ways to manage feelings than control.

These are the Four Laws of control.*

Adult children really need to understand them and how they function.


Because at the root of all the adult child’s emotional problems — anxiety, depression, addictions, struggles with relationships and communication and intimacy — is a dysfunctional and futile pursuit of control.

“This is very simple to understand,”Janet Woititz writes, explaining why adult children over-react to changes beyond their control.  “The young child of the alcoholic was not in control.  The alcoholic’s life was inflicted on him, as was his environment.”

Living in an unsafe unpredictable environment is so scary that such kids grow up addicted to chasing what they never had — a sense of safety and structure and peace of mind.  And they do this mostly by trying to control people, places and things.

Of course, Woititz is describing children of alcoholics.

But can’t the same can be said of all children, regardless of background?

What child has control?

What child isn’t largely helpless in the face of his parents, his environment, and forces beyond his understanding, much less his control?

What child doesn’t grow up as an adult with at least some unfinished business?

Which is why I say we are all adult children.

Let’s look at how this affects us.


*The Four Laws are explained in detail in Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries to control everything and how we can stop (Lioncrest, 2015).


Part 11 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.

What’s “control addiction”?


At the heart of all the adult child’s problems lies control addiction.

What’s control addiction?

Let’s start with two definitions:

Control means the ability to edit reality — to make people, places and things the way we want them to be.

Addiction means the compulsion to repeat a certain behavior in order to achieve a particular gratifying — but ultimately unhealthy — experience.

Thus control addicts are people who

(a) feel compelled, over and over and over again, to edit reality according to their preferences, and

(b) experience intolerable discomfort or anxiety when they cannot.

We are all control addicts.


Can’t relate?

Think of it this way:

Moment to moment, control addicts carry around in their heads a picture of the reality they want.

And they constantly compare that picture to the reality they have.

Anything they do to bring those two realities closer together — to change the one they have into the one they want — is what I call controlling

It’s controlling whether they do it in speech, behavior, or in the privacy of their imagination and dreams.

Their controlling may be obvious or hidden, conscious or unconscious, choiceful or compulsive, creative or destructive, healthy or unhealthy.

Note that this description covers a vast range of human behaviors.

I’m controlling when I mow my lawn, balance my checkbook, steer my car, swat a mosquito or help my kid do homework.

I’m controlling when I brush my teeth, salt my eggs, change channels, vote in elections or post selfies on Facebook.

I’m controlling when I pursue a goal, a degree, a job, a raise, a sale item, a cure for cancer or a sexual partner.

I’m controlling when I rage at bad weather, slow traffic, dumb commercials, rude waiters or lying politicians.

I’m controlling when I lie, hide my feelings, pretend to agree with you, worry that I’m fat or guess what you think of me.

I’m controlling when I try to get you to agree with me, hire me, understand me, respect me, kiss me, forgive me or do me a favor.

Also whenever I judge, criticize, manipulate, persuade, coerce or abuse you.

Not to mention whenever I anticipate, plan, ruminate, fantasize, worry, project or obsess.

That’s right.  All those behaviors stem from the urge to swap my current reality for one I think I’d prefer.

All those and infinitely more.

Our craving for control is inevitable and unavoidable, the mother of all motives, the psychological sea in which we all swim.

Perhaps the best way to describe its enormity in human psychology is to describe its opposite:

The opposite of controlling is the ability to say nothing, and do nothing, and trust that things will be just fine anyway.

How often can anyone do that?

How often can you?

We are all control addicts.

Part 10 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.




The core symptom

The White Temple, Thailand

If on first encountering the Laundry List you found it confusing, you’re not alone.

Fortunately I can simplify it for you.

Because behind those thirteen traits is one core symptom that explains all the others.

It is hinted at by item number 8…

You over-react to changes

beyond your control.

…and item number 13:

You tend to lock yourself

into a course of action

without thinking through

alternatives or consequences. 

This creates confusion,

self-loathing and

loss of control over

your environment.

At the heart of all the adult child’s problems lies control addiction.

Part 9 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.



The laundry list

In 1983 Janet Woititz offered a list of thirteen traits typical of adult children.*

Her description came to be known in recovery circles as The Laundry List.

If you’re trying to decide whether you possess such traits, it’s still a good place to start.

Below is a revised version.

If you’re an adult child,

1. You guess at what normal is, then try to imitate it.

2. You have trouble following projects through from beginning to end.

3. You lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.

4. You judge yourself without mercy.

5. You have trouble relaxing or having fun.

6. You take yourself very seriously.

7. You struggle with intimate relationships.

8. You over-react to changes beyond your control.

9. You constantly seek approval and affirmation.

10. You feel different from other people.

11. You’re either super responsible or super irresponsible.

12.  You’re extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that your loyalty is undeserved.

13.  You’re impulsive — i.e., tend to lock yourself into a course of action without thinking through alternatives or consequences.  This creates confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over your environment.  You also spend large amounts of time and energy cleaning up the mess.

Part 8 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.


*In Adult Children of Alcoholics (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1983).

Inner kids and adult children

The first time I heard the term adult child it made no sense to me.

It seemed an obvious contradiction in terms, like jumbo shrimp or compassionate conservative.

Twenty-five years of practicing therapy taught me to see it differently.

Now I understand that adult children are people who look like grownups on the outside but inside feel like kids.

That the Kids inside are collections of unmet needs, unexpressed feelings, unresolved conflicts and other unhealed emotional wounds.

That this part gets triggered by stress, and suddenly the adult feels exactly like the scared inadequate helpless kid he or she used to be.

Adult child was a term invented in the 1970s to describe the problems of people who grew up in alcoholic homes.

But since then it’s become obvious that a person needn’t have grown up with an alcoholic parent to carry the symptoms of an adult child.

Such symptoms can be caused by abuse, or neglect, or illness, or some other loss or trauma.

But they can also be caused by being forced to grow up too fast (Big boys don’t cry), or hide feelings (Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about), or cave under peer pressure (Try it, don’t be a baby), or falsify who you are in some other way.

This is called socialization, and it happens to all of us.

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting,” wrote the poet e.e. cummings.

I suspect cummings would have agreed with Malraux that there is no such thing as an entirely grown-up human being.

That each of us carries inside us a damaged inner Kid.

That we spend our lives trying to heal that Kid’s wounds.

And that, as a result, we are all adult children.

Part 7 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.


Unfinished business


So if you grow up holey, you have what therapists call unfinished business.

Of which unmet emotional needs are just one sort.

Others include

Unexpressed feelings.   We love to believe that the pain, fear, anger and grief we experience in childhood go away when we grow up.  Yeah, no.  They go into storage, lie waiting to be triggered, and resurface (usually in inconvenient ways) during moments of stress.

Unresolved conflicts.  Didn’t get along with dad?  You may feel unsafe around male authority figures.  Butted heads with mom?  Older women may make you uneasy or irritated.  Bullied or betrayed by siblings or extended family or friends?  You may find it difficult to really trust adult partners or coworkers.  Again, we want to believe we’ve put all that behind us.   Then we’re surprised to find someone who makes us feel exactly like we did around Aunt Sally.

Unanswered questions.   Are feelings safe or dangerous?  Is it safe to be honest?  Can I really get my needs met in relationships?  Did my parents really love me?  Am I lovable?  Am I adequate?  Hell, who am I anyway?  What do I really want?

Ungrieved losses.  Maybe someone died, or moved away, or you had to move yourself and leave friends behind.  Maybe you were sick or injured or had a learning disability or were abused.  Maybe you struggled in school and came out feeling stupid or inadequate.   Maybe bad things happened to your family and you lost your sense of security or safety or normalcy early on.  And maybe you believed, for whatever reason, that it wasn’t okay to talk about any of these things, or express your feelings without getting judged or shamed for them.

Unrelieved guilt.  Two sources for this.  One is the common run of mistakes, failures, stupidities and humiliations that all flesh is heir to.  (I may never get over getting myself kicked off the soccer team by talking back to the coach.)   The other source is internalized feelings.  If you carry anger at a parent, for example, that anger is nearly impossible to discharge safely while you’re still a kid.  (Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.)  So you bury it, carry it around inside, and it comes to feel — surprise — like guilt.  You feel like a bad son or daughter (Look at all they’ve done for me) when in fact you’re just angrily constipated.

Unhealed trauma.  Traumas don’t always come in obvious packages.  Besides experiences we all recognize as traumatic — loss of a loved ones, car accidents, serious illness, or abuse — there are common occurrences that shock our systems so badly we are affected in long-lasting ways.  These range from natural disasters to dental procedures, physical injuries to public humiliation, academic failure to being the victim of bias, hospitalization to being painfully teased.

Think of all these sorts of unfinished business as unhealed emotional wounds.

Such wounds usually lie at the root of the symptoms that bring most people into therapy: anxiety, depression, addiction, communication problems and unhappy relationships.

I call them the Big Five.

Everybody I know has at least one of them.

Put another way:

Everyone has unfinished business.

Unfinished business is the inevitable price of having once been a child.

Part 6 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.




Inner abuse creates perpetual pain because it leaves us holey.

Holey means riddled with emotional holes.

The holes are unmet needs.

How does this happen?

First, notice how it’s supposed to go:

We’re supposed grow up in a family healthy and nurturing enough to meet our basic emotional needs.

Those needs are the Four A’s: attention, acceptance, approval and affection.

The 4 A’s are the components of love.

If we get enough of these components, we fill up in childhood, just like kids fill up with good food.

And we enter adulthood feeling like reasonably solid people, reasonably valuable and lovable and (this is critical) able to love ourselves. 

Which means able to feed ourselves the same emotional food — attention, acceptance, approval and affection — we got from our family.

On the other hand:

If we grow up in a dysfunctional family — one burdened by abuse, addiction, mental illness, overstressed parents, or parents who dislike each other or their children —  several things happen:

~ We grow up hungry, with unmet emotional needs that appear as holes in our confidence and self-esteem.

~ We grow up ashamed, having concluded that we’re unworthy of emotional feeding.  If my family didn’t love me, our Inner Kid reasons, I must not be worth loving.  (That’s how inner Kids think.  Like real kids, they think everything is about them.)

~ This shame makes us bury our true self — our Kid — out of fear that others will also find it unlovable.

~ We bury the Kid by keeping it in the closet, so others remain won’t see how needy we are.  (Emotional neediness, the Kid believes, is a sin.)

~ And we bury the Kid by being mean to it, sending it abusive messages (Your feelings don’t matter, etc.) that perpetuate both its neediness and its shame.

~ Finally, we don’t give the Kid what it needs most: our own attention, acceptance, approval and love.

The result of all this is a lifetime of holeyness and emotional pain.

Part 5 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.

Inner abuse

Child photo: Anthony Kelly

So closeting your inner Kid perpetuates the worst curse,  that feeling of being a kid trapped in an adult body.

Why is that?

Because it’s abusive.

Abusing the Kid inside has the same effect abuse has on a real kid.

Stop a moment.  Think of a child you know personally.  Imagine that child’s face, and voice, and how it moves, and the emotional energy it emits.

How would that real kid react to be locked in a real closet?

How would it affect him/her to being ignored day after day?  Or being told over and over Shut up, or Go away, or You’re being silly, or I don’t care what you want, or Your feelings don’t matter?

How would you feel if you heard an adult saying those things to a real child?

Inner child abuse teaches part of you — arguably, an indispensable part — to feel unvalued, unheard, unloved and unlovable.

It is a source of perpetual pain.

And if part of you is in perpetual pain, how can the rest of you feel much better?

Part 4 of a series about monkeytraps and adult children.

Read part 1 here.




Kids in closets

I once bought a battered old paperback copy of Andre Malraux’s Anti-Memoirs because of a single sentence I found on its first page.

There is no such thing as a grown-up person,

it read.

That struck me as a great truth.

Forty years later, it still does.

Every client I meet in my therapy practice confirms it.

Yet it’s one of those obvious truths — like the inevitability of aging or death — that everyone tries to ignore.

We all want to forget the Kid we carry inside us.

Partly this is because we need and want the world to see us as fully grown-up.

And partly it’s because of what I call the worst curse — the sense that we can can never escape the pains and anxieties of childhood.

So we hide our Kid, even from ourselves.

We keep our Kid in the closet.

We lock the door.

And we yell at our Kid should it try to escape.

Unfortunately this only perpetuates the curse.

Part 3 of a series about monkeytraps and adult children.

Read part 1 here.

The worst curse

Of all the curses we carry from childhood into adulthood, one is especially destructive.

That is the curse of feeling like a kid inside.

I’m not referring here to childish joys, to spontaneity or play or freedom or imagination or exuberance or silliness.

I’m talking about feeling surrounded by giants.

Feeling vulnerable, like the nearest giant could easily squash you.

Fragile, like one dirty look from a giant can make your heart crumble.

Powerless, unable to protect yourself or choose what you want.

And on the edge of terrified, like your survival depends on the kindness and protection of big people.

We all remember those feelings.

Many of us still carry them now.

Maybe not always.  But certainly more often than we’d like.

Like at moments of uncertainty or challenge or stress, when — no matter how old or big or accomplished we are — inside we feel just like little children.

We’re embarrassed by these feelings.

What’s the matter with you? we scold ourselves.  Grow the hell up.

We do this instead of telling others how we secretly feel.

Which is a real shame.

Because if we did we might discover just how many of the grownups around us also suffer from the worst curse.

Part 2 of a series about monkeytraps and adult children.

Read part 1 here.



I don’t believe in magical curses.

I do believe in psychological ones.

As they appear in therapy, psychological curses are false beliefs absorbed in childhood by a kid too innocent to know better.

You’re stupid, his father tells him over and over.  So he believes it.  He may be bright as Einstein.  No matter.  He’ll start to feel, think and behave like a stupid person.  Because that’s what dad told him he is.

The world is unsafe.  People are not to be trusted.  Relationships will disappoint you.  I run into such curses every day.

You’re not enough.  You won’t succeed.  You’re unlovable.  These are among the most poisonous curses of all.

How to lift such a curse?

Insight usually isn’t enough.  That’s because insights (Ah, I see how I came to believe that) usually come to the Adult part of the personality.

And it’s the Child part that’s cursed.

What the Child requires is a corrective emotional experience.

The kid who feels unsafe needs safe relationships.  The kid who feels unlovable needs to feel loved.

Without such experiences, curses can last lifetimes.




 (Reposting by popular request.  Happy New Year, everybody.)


spiral framed 2

She’s a new client, looking around my office.

“I like your pictures,” she says.  “But what’s that?”

She points to the rusty bedspring on my wall.

“A metaphor,” I say.

“For what?”

“Recovery.  It’s the recovery spiral.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Most people think of recovery as a linear process.  They think you start off down here, at All fucked up, and recoveryclimb straight up to there, Perfectly fine. 

They think there’s a straight line between those two points, and that any deviation from that line – relapses, setbacks, mistakes — means some kind of failure.”

“Doesn’t it?”

I shake my head.  “Not if you see recovery as a spiral.”

“Emotional growth means moving in a circle.  The points of the circle are the issues or problems we’re working on — parents, money, work, sex, feelings, communication, control, whatever.  And you go around and around the same circle, facing the same issues over and over.

“But each time you go around you’re a bit higher on the spiral.  Meaning you know a bit more than the last time around.  And you’re a little bit stronger.  And you have more resources, both inside you and outside.

“And that’s recovery.

“If you’re lucky, there’s no end to it until you die.  There’s no There there, no Perfectly fine end pointJust learning and growing as long as you live.

“So when someone comes to me all discouraged and says Oh god, I fucked up or I’m so embarrassed that I’m still struggling with this I show them the spiral and explain what it means.

“And then I ask, ‘What do you know now that you didn’t know last time you were here?’

“And they can usually find something.  And then they can think of their relapse as a lesson, not a failure.”

She frowns, looking at my wall.

“Where can I get a rusty bedspring?”    

The John E. Trahan Memorial Fund



The John E. Trahan Memorial Fund

John E. Trahan (33) was a loving and devoted father, husband, son, brother, brother-in-law, nephew, cousin, friend and coworker, and all he has left behind in this world are both devastated and heartbroken.

Almost 20 years ago, at the age of 14, John was struck by a car while out riding his bike in Rocky Point, NY, where he lived most of his life. This accident left him without a spleen and with a weakened immune system. When John suddenly became ill with an infection this December, no one could imagine how quickly things would progress, and that his life would be taken away in just a few days. John passed peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones, on December 14, 2017.

John leaves behind a beautiful, young family. His wife Trish and he were busy building a wonderful life together with their four children Declan (4), Mason and Hadley (2), and Harper (5 months).  The sole provider for them all, John worked steadfast as an ambitious,  well-respected CPA.

The outpouring of love and support for John’s family during this time of grief and mourning has been overwhelming, and they are all so thankful and comforted in the knowing that John touched so many lives with his kindness and good heart.

This fundraising effort has been started in hopes that it can help John’s wife Trish and their four children in the difficult months and years that lay ahead without him; that it can help to alleviate some of the stress of financial burdens and let Trish focus on continuing to raising their children as planned.

To donate, click here.

Everyday monkeytraps: Changing me


I feel inadequate.


This is an uncomfortable feeling, so I try to change myself.


When I try to change myself, another part of me rises up to resist the change.


The parts that resists change is usually stronger than the part that wants it.


Being unable to change feels like failure.


I feel inadequate.


~ From Monkeytraps in Everyday Life:

A Guide for Control Addicts (in press).