Why Good Relationships are Key to a Happy Life

a9999.jpg Good relationships are the cornerstone of mental health and well-being. They are a vital part of being able to withstand the vicissitudes of life. If I were to think of the hardest times of my life, my friends and family’s support made all the difference. Their support, love, and comfort=priceless. The people in my life who I know are with me through thick and thin…truly one of life’s greatest blessings. Reflect on your own hardships and the most trying moments of your life. Who were the people who stood by your side and helped you make it through? Who had your back no matter what? What relationships have endured the test of time? The fact is it is easy to be there for someone when times are good. It is when times are bad when we see the true colors of everyone in our lives. Sadly, it is during tough times when the people we may have thought cared about us may reveal they do not care as much as we had previously assumed. The pain of this truth can be tremendous. a13.png As painful as this may be, it makes you all the more appreciative of all the supportive, loving people in your life. You recognize the value these relationships are to your well-being. That is what this post is about–the importance of nurturing good, healthy relationships. And the responsibility you having in doing so. It is all too easy to neglect our relationships. Life happens–marriage, kids, careers, running a household. Listen, I get it! You are busy. You can only juggle so much! But if you were to think of the happiest moments in your life–the majority of them most likely entailed being surrounded by ALL the people you love most. Weddings, parties, baptisms, graduations, housewarmings, anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, vacations. Happy memories are usually the times we spent with the ones we love and cherish the most. In our fast-paced, always on the go world, it has become all too easy to forget that a happy life runs parallel with loving, supportive relationships. We are social animals. We are designed to be connected to others. As an extremely individualistic society, we often think what will bring us long-lasting happiness are results of our individual pursuits. Our career success, our financial success, our individual goals. But our communal goals are shown to bring more long-term happiness. We are all in this together, let’s not forget. Our relationships are a source of much of our joy in life. Our families, our circle of friends, the colleagues we are close with. Research shows close, supportive relationships bring more happiness than fame or money. These are the people we laugh with, cry with, share with, vent with, help with. Our close relationships bring much of the happiness we experience on our journey through life. Yet at the same time—-what is it that cause of the most unhappiness in our lives? Our relationships. a4 Much of the state of our relationships are a reflection on us. Our actions, our thoughts, our behavior. OR our inaction, negative thoughts, negative behavior. We are a large part of our relationship problems. The problem is–many people do not want to take ownership of this fact. It is much easier to blame the other person than look at how we contribute to problems in our relationships. Many of us don’t want to do our part. Let’s be honest. We put care and effort into the things we value. If you value a certain relationship, you will put in the effort to maintain it, protect it, and keep it. If you were to reflect on your relationships that you have lost throughout your life, at a certain point, if you were honest…you stopped putting in the effort. You stopped caring. Maybe with good reason–you outgrew the other person OR this was a relationship with a person who had not treated you right but you had tolerated for far too long. Part of life is loss and this includes losing relationships that no longer serve us. Or maybe it was the reverse situation. The other person showed you they didn’t care. They didn’t put in effort. They didn’t value you or the relationship. They forced your hand into walking away. aaaa.jpg If you were to reflect on the relationships you lost along the way, can you pinpoint a time when you felt the cons outweighed the pros of maintaining it? I think if we are honest with ourselves we can. Or can you pinpoint a moment when you realized the other person didn’t care to maintain the relationship? Any relationship in my life that has survived the test of time I have put effort into maintaining. The other person has put the effort in as well. It takes two. Relationships with family members, friends, my partner. I value these relationships and I do what I can to support the individual and the relationship as a whole. If you want to be mentally healthy research says having meaningful relationships will help you to fight off feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger. Having people to share your concerns, hopes, fears, and challenges with help you stay connected and stable. Close relationships fight off feelings of loneliness. Loneliness is a silent killer. Social isolation is shown to lead to depression. Being connected is a fundamental human NEED. We all need to feel a sense of love and belonging. The reality is if you want the benefits of supportive relationships you need to CHOOSE to put effort into being a supportive, healthy person. You get what you give. It very much takes a choice to invest in the relationships in our life. The truth is our relationships are very much a choice. Our behavior is a choice. Our relationships are a reflection of our choices. William Glasser, the father of choice theory, says virtually all our behavior is a choice. He posits that most mental health issues, including depression, arise from problems in one’s relationships. a6 I think in popular psychology this concept has played out to a large extent. Many psychological theories focus on the issues that arise from unhealthy relationships with one’s parents. Oedipus complex. Electra complex. I can say that I have seen as a clinician direct correlation between people who have bad relationships with their parents and their mental health.As a society we jokingly refer to this as having “mommy issues” or “daddy issues” but there is far from a joking matter. Our relationships, especially key ones like the ones we have with our parents, impact our mental health. Our relationships have a profound impact on our lives. This is why people who are often in unhealthy or abusive relationships tend to suffer a whole host of mental health ailments. The people we spend the most time with can build us up or break us down. a3 It is also why people from dysfunctional families tend to develop anxiety, depression, and other disorders. Our relationships have a direct impact on our mental health. This is why it is so important to be choosy with who you allow into your life. Who we have relationships with is indeed a CHOICE. It is a choice to keep unhappy relationships in our lives. a5 It is also a choice to manufacture problems in a relationship. There are ways of behaving that we bring into our relationships that can either enable healthy, happy relationships or destroy our relationships.
Seven Caring Habits Seven Deadly Habits
1 .Supporting 1. Criticizing
2 .Encouraging 2 .Blaming
3. Listening 3. Complaining
4. Accepting 4. Nagging
5. Trusting 5. Threatening
6 .Respecting 6. Punishing
7. Negotiating differences 7 .Bribing, rewarding to control
I ask you to reflect on your behavior in your relationships. Which side of this chart do you find your behavior is more aligned with? When it comes to our relationships, far too many of us are winging it! We are on autopilot without any conscious thought to how we approach the people we love in our lives. In choice theory, the emphasis is placed on the individual. Personal responsibility is at the forefront. We, and we alone, are responsible for our behavior. An underlying assumption of the theory is that we cannot change other people and that the only thing we can control is ourselves. Again, you may be thinking that this sounds obvious – of course, we can’t change other people! But the reality is many of us are always trying! Control. It can become a problem for us if we begin to lose control of ourselves and attempt to exert control over others. As long as we insist on controlling people around us, we will create completely unnecessary suffering in our lives. Often when we are upset, instead of looking at how we are feeling and behaving we look at others. The most unhappy people point the fingers at others for their pain and unhappiness. a7 Many times, the way people try to remedy relationship problems is by attempting to change others. But what if we instead focused on changing ourselves? Something we can actually be successful at. If we change our behavior, it will certainly impact the response we get from others. ab.jpg If you want to have happy, healthy, enduring relationships you need to look at YOUR behavior and how you behave in your relationships. Is your behavior driving people towards you or driving people away from you?

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in seeking counseling with me:


Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC


590 Franklin Ave.

Suite 2

Nutley, NJ 07110



Beware of Aggressive Personalities: The Wolves Who Feast on Sheep in Our Increasingly Narcissistic Society

Have you ever felt something was just not right with someone? You can’t quite put your finger on it but something feels off.

Yet outwardly this person seems benign enough. So you let it go.

Then as time passes little things start to happen. An inappropriate remark here. A cutting comment there. Repeatedly doing things that just don’t sit right with you.

You know this behavior isn’t normal but you scratch your head trying to figure out the motive for the behavior. Knowing you did nothing to harm this person, you can’t understand why they are behaving and acting in this unsettling way.

Meanwhile, you can’t quite put your finger on it but you recognize things in your relationship are being done subtlety. In an underhanded way. Against you. You can tell something is not right about this person but they have a way of appearing good but not truly being good.

It is also hard because as a person with a good conscience, you WANT to make excuses and justifications for other people’s bad behavior and not think the worst of them. I know I am guilty of this. You cannot understand why these people are unprovoked, not being threatened, yet are acting in an aggressive manner.

And oh, the excuses, the lengths we will go to, just to not have to face down an unpleasant truth.

OH, the rationalizing. You probably have heard the same justifications tossed around. Psychologists used to have many go to justifications for poor behavior: A bad childhood. Bad parenting. Bad relationships. Insecurity. Or as a defense mechanism.  We look to make excuses for others because we don’t want to believe that some people just aren’t good people. For someone with a good conscience it may not even feel fathomable that someone in their life may have a disturbed character. Therefore, many of us try to rationalize away other people’s inappropriate behavior.

But this strategy does not work in the long-term.

Because this does not explain the people who treat others poorly for no reason other than to gain advantage over them. Something that is becoming increasingly common in our ME first society.  The reality is there are people who mistreat others just because they enjoy the act of dominating others they interact with. These people are not in a defensive posture but are posturing to gain advantage. 

These are people who are not neurotic or on the defensive, but victimize or try to dominate others just for their sheer pleasure in doing so. These people need to be at the top of the hierarchy. They want others to know they are a force to be reckoned with. This is the basis of much literature by George Simon who wrote in great detail about the increasingly disturbed characters in our everyday lives.

It is very similar to the ways cat behave. (Got to love cat analogies–because who doesn’t love cats-unless you are a dog lover). When a cat is threatened, it displays “reactive” aggression. It’s tail puffs up, its back arches. It doesn’t want to fight, but it is willing to if it must. It is trying to scare away the threat. This is the category many of us fall into. We hate conflict, but if someone mistreats us, we will be forced to speak up.

But then there are the aggressive personality types this post is about. These people are more like a cat that spots a mouse. The mouse isn’t aware, it is unsuspecting. The cat isn’t provoked. The cat simply wants to eat the mouse without knowing it is coming. This isn’t about fear. This is about a pure desire to victimize or dominate, a concept hard to wrap our mind around to most of us.

As people of good conscience, we do not like to think other people can be social predators. We like to think it is anger or fear motivating bad behavior.

This simply isn’t true with these aggressive personalities.

As time passes, you slowly start to see this person does not seem to adhere to the same social boundaries all the rest of us follow. They cross lines most of us would be mortified to cross.

Later you may start to feel, this person does not seem to care how their words and actions impact others. 

aggress 3

I am not talking about the passive disregard you may experience from a self-absorbed person, a person who is not against you, but is simply living their life for themselves. If they hurt you, it wasn’t intentional, but a byproduct of their own pursuit of their self-interests.

What I am talking about is different. A person who is actively, not passively,  disregarding you. A person who goes beyond not simply caring but actively wants to manipulate, hurt, and DOMINATE those who they come in contact with.

These types of people are becoming commonplace in the current social and political landscape we are living in. Narcissism in on the rise, aggressive behavior is being rewarded, and overstepping the boundaries of others is seen as righteous. In many ways, it almost seems to get ahead in this world, you need to behave aggressively.

I read a book in graduate school called, “In Sheep’s Clothing” which centers around these predatory personality types. It changed the way I approach my role as a clinician and how I conceptualize the why behind maladaptive behavior.

Social dominance is real and it is a concept that is often misunderstood by therapists and the general population alike.

Dominance is a characteristic of having power or influence over another.  It is the desire to win over others, even at great cost.

A person with an aggressive personality type looks at life as a game-where there are winners and losers. (Even our current President preaches this philosophy). These aggressive personality types approach relationships that in order for them to win, you must lose. And they are determined to be the winner even at your expense. Most of us who are not this way find this hard to understand. We do not look at relationships as competitions and may find it hard to grasp this mindset.

A book written in the 1960s by Thomas Harris on transactional analysis touched on 4 personality types:

~I am okay, you are okay (ideal)

~You are okay, I am not okay

~I am not okay, you are not okay,

~I am okay, you are not okay

It is this last perspective I am touching on here as it has become so prevalent in modern-day society.

The unsettling reality is many of these aggressive types walk among us in our day-to-day life. Aggressive personalities see themselves as superior to others and entitled to treat others as less than. For them life is a game, which they are determined to win, at all costs.

Even in a situation where sitting back and taking a more subordinate position would be beneficial to these types, they just can’t will themselves to do it. They aggress at the expense of others but also at the expense of themselves. 

People like this are openly at war–with themselves and most people around them.

Domination to them is second-nature. Even if they have a civil facade they show to most of the world at their core is a ruthlessness that lacks any empathy.

Empathy is the cornerstone of any authentic relationship. You cannot have a genuine relationship with someone who lacks empathy.

The thing is these people will openly defy social norms—-even though they know what is expected of them. They don’t care to abide by the rules the rest of us play by because they feel they are above them. They can’t stand to acquiesce to anyone else’s demands or expectations.

Now, we all, from time to time, will slip up and violate social norms. A slip of the tongue here or doing something without thinking–we are human after all. What I am talking here is patterns of behavior.

We all know such tough, callous people. It is hard to maintain relationships with these types unless you are willing to completely set aside your needs and values.

An example of this would be if you were dealing with someone who has been mistreating you–making rude comments, asking inappropriate questions, not respecting your boundaries, not carrying their share of the workload, whatever the situation may be. You decide to speak to them about their behavior in hopes it would help better the relationship.  You think by bringing their behavior to their awareness, things might get better. You may say, “I have experienced you doing xyz to me. It makes me feel hurt and disrespected. I do not treat you with disrespect and I would appreciate if you would treat me with the same respect I bestow upon you.” Maybe you cite examples of behaviors that led you to this point (note you are discussing the behaviors and actions, not attacking the person-i.e. separating the behavior from the person). This is an example of being assertive, not being aggressive.

Now in this example, with a healthy functioning person with normal levels of empathy, they would feel bad that you have felt hurt and disrespected by their behavior. They would feel bad if they did something wrong to you. But this is not the case with these aggressive, predatory types.


The thing is with these types of people it is not awareness that is the problem. You see many of us make the mistake that therapists do–thinking lack of awareness is the problem. Yet with these aggressive personalities they ARE aware, they just don’t care. 

In fact, they are now most likely going to be committed to treating you even worse for calling them out on their bad behavior. For them, having their way is all that matters. They will be furious at you for having the audacity to call attention to their behavior. They will think you are cruel for pointing out their behavior. They will think if you really care you would accept them for how they are and not make a big deal about their actions–that they are not as bad as you are making them sound. They will say things to you with such conviction, you start to doubt yourself.

You see these types of people do not want to be accepted for who they are. These personality types want to be excepted for who they are. They want to be the exception to the rule. They don’t care if you love them or loathe them as long as you overlook their behavior–so they can continue to act however they want to act–rude, inconsiderate, disrespectful but without any consequences.

If you won’t allow this you are the evil, bad one.

If you stay out of their way, you may never have a problem with them.

These people can be coworkers, family members, in our extended friendship circle.

aggressive 2

The thing to realize is people with good consciences want to make fair, honest judgments. Thus when a person with impaired conscience is called on their behavior they know that you don’t want to see them as evil or bad. They will distort, deny, and rationalize their behavior knowing we want to buy into what they are selling.

These people can talk the talk and walk the walk to get out of a tight spot.

The problem is their behavior will NOT change because they do not want to change.

These people want to be in control, to be top dog, the alpha–anyone who gets in the way of this pursuit will experience the scorched earth these people will go to in pursuit of winning (I am sure a certain politician is coming to mind here).

However, submission of any type to an aggressive personality is impossible, even if it would benefit them in the long-run. Most healthy functioning people recognize sometimes we need to humble ourselves to losing a battle to win the war. With these aggressive personality types they cannot give an inch. These people submit to no one, but expect others to subordinate themselves to them, no questions asked.

These people want their way, regardless of who gets hurt, and will fight to the end, regardless of the cost to themselves and those around them.

What is most dangerous about these types of people is we often do not recognize them as such until after the damage is done.

While these are people who can be very brazen, they can also be very charming and likable, as long as you do not openly speak out against their my way or the highway attitude.

As the title of this article references the increasingly narcissistic society these types operate in, one such problem with these dominant personalities is there are social benefits to behaving in such a manner. It seems in a society that emphasizes wealth and power, these personalities that must win at all costs are increasingly likely to be found. We can see this playing out daily in the current political and economic landscape.

The fact is we live in an increasingly narcissistic society that fosters character disturbed behavior.

What are the characteristics of a narcissistic society?

~Focus on self and the individual, instead of a communal focus

~Excessive striving for status, position, superiority

~Overvaluing externals: stereotypical beauty, money, power, success

~Undervaluing people who work in less lucrative professions that benefit society (teachers, police officers, public service)

~Valuing money and power at the expense of all else

~Instilling a sense of entitlement in children

~Lack of gratitude


We can see these values playing out clearly in politics. But it is harder to accept in our day-to-day lives.

Too many are people in our society are not insecure at all, not hung up enough, or shamed by their poor behavior towards others.

My hope is that being armed with this knowledge you can better protect yourself from the people who can and will harm you and you never saw it coming.



How We Manage Our Shame


In a previous post, I discussed shame and how OTHERS may try to shame us, the reasons why, and how shame has its roots in one’s upbringing.

Equally important is how we are able to manage our own feelings of shame towards ourself as it is pivotal to our well-being. Shame can undermine our relationships and often runs our lives without us even knowing. Shame is a silent killer if you are not able to recognize its powerful presence in your life.

Everyone experiences shame. For healthy people, the shame they feel passes.

For others, shame is an emotion they try to cover up with other emotions-anger, aggression, passive aggression, rage, envy, jealousy, anxiety.

Shame is something we may to try to project on other people–terrified of being judged we may attempt to point out the faults in others to keep the spotlight off our own imperfections.

Perhaps we become self-deprecating. We may shame ourselves as a way to acknowledge our faults and failures before anyone else can point them out.

narc 1

Shame can also be such a fundamental part of our experience that it shapes our sense of self and identity.

Many people who struggle with shame develop into one of the two distinct personality types: the narcissist or the codependent.  (A codependent cannot be a narcissist, but a narcissist CAN also be codependent). These personalities are based on an undefined self. In both, shame and control are intricately tied together. Narcissists and codependents rely on OTHER people for their sense of self.  Each of these personalities place a lot of importance on what other people think of them.


The only way to over come these shame based personalities is to give up your attachment to control, you will find your shame disappearing.

For narcissists, they hide their internalized shame with an outward expression of arrogance, contempt, rage, and criticism towards others. Narcissists lack empathy.  These are people who very much live in fear of being found out. Narcissism is the mask they use to cover up their deep-rooted feelings of self-loathing and toxic shame.


Narcissists are famous for unloading their shame onto others with insults and put downs. By making others feel bad about themselves, a narcissist can ease their own pain. Shame is the cause of their aggressive, mean-spirited behavior.

This shame based personality type truly feels they are right and you are wrong and that you are an idiot in comparison to them (obviously you feel GREAT being in their company).

A narcissist will battle to the death if they feel their sense of self (their false sense of self) is challenged. Narcissists can dish it out but hell hath no fury like a narcissist scorned!

narc e

Another shame based personality type is the codependent. Codependents try to control their internal feelings by controlling other people, events, and circumstances.

codepndent 2

For codependents,  their shame is also internalized, but expressed outwardly in a different form than the narcissist’s.  Similarly, a codependent’s sense of shame leads to other painful feelings and destructive behavior. With codependents, their shame plays out in care taking, passive aggression, people pleasing, control, resentment, and non-assertive communication. Codependents can’t speak their minds and similarly to narcissists, have a tendency to blame others. Often they are martyrs who are proud of their giving, self-sacrificing, long-suffering, and a selfless devotion to you (something they will hold over your head when it suits them).

Codependents try to be puppet masters pulling strings behind closed curtains. They are super focused on others. Their desire to feel needed is intertwined with the desire to feel important.

Codependents vacillate between feelings superiority and inferiority. Shame can come out as jealousy, envy, or judgement of others. By diminishing others, a codependent gets a superficial boost to themselves and get to hide their feelings of shame from their self.

If you are ruled by shame you may find yourself isolated–from family and friends. You may be cut off from your own authentic feelings which for you are too scared to feel.

Both narcissists and codependents hate to feel their feelings and the subsequent vulnerability that expressing our true self entails.

Vulnerability is very threatening to narcissists and codependents alike.


Codependents and narcissists as you can see are BOTH sides of the same coin.

Outside of the more extreme personality types of narcissism and codependency, shame can present in others way in our lives. Shame can affect how we function in relationships.

If you struggle with shame and control, you may find you either under-function OR over-function in your relationships.

While most people understand that balance is key to a fulfilling relationship,romantic or otherwise, it seems that many of us can’t escape the trap of either under-functioning or over-functioning.

Signs you overfunction in your relationships:

~You worry a lot

~You struggle with controlling behaviors

~You do for others what they can do for themselves

~You love to give advice (feeling a sense of responsibility for others and how things turn out)

~You are concerned with managing your image

~You moralize (moralizing is the tendency to harshly judge certain behaviors)

~You triangulate (triangulating is a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, instead using a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle)

~You overparent—both your kids AND other adults (taking care of others is a way to keep you from having to pay mind to your own issues)

~You take on the role of care-giving

~You try to change others

~If someone does not stay in sync with you/agree with you (how you think, how you feel)–you can’t be friends or in a relationship with them

Signs you underfunction in your relationships:

~You set goals and don’t follow through

~You let your partner make the decisions

~You ask numerous people for advice rather than make decisions on your own

~You let others do for you things you can do for yourself

~You struggle with addictions-food, alcohol, drugs, etc.

~You frequently are physically or emotionally ill

~You become less competent under stress

~You are underemployed

~You self-sabotage

~You zone out to tv or video games

~You seem lazy or unmotivated to others

Whenever someone is underfunctioning, someone else is overfunctioning.


Narcissism, codependency, overfunctioning, and underfunctioning all have their roots in shame based feelings. These are ways our feelings of internalized shame manifest in our lives.

Shame and control go hand in hand. When you give up your attachment to control, and instead choose compassion toward yourself and others, you will find your shame dissipate.

If you explore it carefully, if you navigate shame with compassion, you find the comfort that comes from no longer hiding from yourself—or keeping yourself hidden from others and the world.


Dysfunctional Families: Who They Are and How to Overcome Yours

dysfunction 2

Ever wonder if you were raised in a dysfunctional family? There is no real guide to determining if a family is categorically dysfunctional, but here are some questions to ask yourself:

~If people tell you that you are like your mom or dad do you get upset and hope it is not true?

~Do you have a history of struggling with depression?

~Do people in your family always “react” to the choices of other family members? Dramatic reactions in fact?

~Have you said something hurtful (or many hurtful) things to someone in your family and wish you could take it back?

~Is your family quick to blame?

~Do you feel guilty standing up for yourself?

~Have people in your family said things to you that were just plain cruel?

~Do you feel angry often?

~Do you constantly people please?

~Are you a perfectionist?

~Do you struggle with your self-esteem?

~Do you self-medicate? Alcohol, drugs, food, sex?

~Is your family judgmental and critical of others?

~Do you relate to others with dysfunctional families? Alcoholic parents? Divorced parents?

~Is your family competitive with each other?

~Do you believe you will be (or are) a better parent than your parents?

~Is there on-going conflict in your family? With different members? Across the different generations?

~Do you struggle with anxiety?

~Is it hard to communicate in your family?

~Does it feel like there is a hierarchy within your family? Where some members are more important than other members?

~Do family members gossip about other members? Lots of third-party conversations?

~Growing up was your home life unpredictable? Did you move a lot? Switch schools frequently?

~Do you feel afraid to disagree with your family outright because risk of rejection?

~As a kid, did your parent feel more like a friend than a parent?

~Does your family hate change? Are new members welcomed in? Are adult children encouraged to be independent?

~As a kid, were your parents overly strict? Overly permissive?

~Is there a lack of diversity in your family? Are differences of opinion tolerated?

~Do you fear being abandoned?

~Did one (or both) of your parents leave you as a child? Physically or emotionally

~Is it hard for you to trust others?

These are just some possible signs of dysfunction in the family system. You may relate to some, none, or many of the aforementioned questions. Dysfunction exists on a continuum. If you relate, don’t feel too bad–most families have some level of dysfunction inherent in them– which is usually passed down from generation to generation.

Nobody comes from a perfect family.

Yet in dysfunctional families, every member has a role. The rescuer, the victim, the persecutor. For every rescuer there is a victim. For every victim there is a persecutor. So starts the triangulation of these “roles.” Dysfunctional families frequently engage in triangles.

Triangulation is when instead of members talking directly with each other about problems, they bring an outside person in to intervene in a conflicted or stressful relationship, in an attempt to ease tension and facilitate communication.

Let’s say brother A tells brother B he would like brother C to help out more with their sick father who needs a lot of day-to-day assistance at home. Dad is getting older, with more severe health issues, and can use all the support he can get from ALL his sons. When brother B goes back to brother C and gives the message, then brother C will wonder why brother A didn’t just come and ask for himself.

There is always a manipulation tactic within triangulation. Brother A might not like to ask brother C or he might know brother C will say no so he hopes brother B can be more convincing than he was when he asked the last week. Or maybe brother A realizes the only way to get brother C to do what he wants is to put familial pressure on him. When both brother A and brother B ask brother C, then brother C might feel even more pressure to comply.

Dysfunctional families triangulate to coerce other members to do things they rather not do. They also use it as a way to manage conflict. People who triangulate will call this “venting” but the healthy way to deal with conflict is to talk about it directly with the person you are having conflict with. The problem with triangles it is usually prevents, rather than invite, the resolution of conflict.

Venting and complaining about family disintegrates all three relationships within the triangle. Trust fades for someone who talks about others behind their backs. Respect also lessens for someone who listens complacently to endless fault-finding.

dyfncutin 5

Triangulation is also extremely unhealthy when children are involved. The wife who confides in her young son about the troubles in her marriage. The father who shares his worries about finances with his tween daughter instead of speaking directly to his wife.  In dysfunctional families we often see parentified children-where the child is expected to act as the parent and the parent acts like the child. The oldest child may help his siblings off to school, makes lunches, helps with homework because the parent, for whatever reason, is unavailable–whether physically or emotionally. Often a parentified child acts like parents to his OWN parents. The parentified child usually takes on the role in an attempt to keep chaos at bay and keep the family unit functioning and together. Later when the parentified child grows up they usually pick a spouse who is dependent–so they can continue to play this role of parent to their spouse.  This is a clear example of boundary problems and unhealthy roles within the family system.

Another common problem in dysfunctional families is the lack of self-differentiation. Murray Bowen, who is the father of this concept, made it one of the cornerstones of family systems therapy.  Self-differentiation has two tenets: that you are able to separate your feelings from your thoughts AND you are able to distinguish between your experience and the experience of those you are connected to.

Being self-differentiated is being able think for yourself and act according to your own values. When you are self-differentiated you able to disagree with the choices of a family member without trying to get them to change.  The less differentiated you are the more impacted by others’ thoughts and opinions you will be. A highly differentiated person can maintain a solid sense of self even under considerable stress and anxiety (Bowen). People who are self-differentiated are not reactive and are able to make decisions independent of the input of others. At a lesser level of differentiation, a person is dependent on the input of others to make decisions and function. A person with a low-level of self-differentiation will exhibit many symptoms of stress and often act destructively under pressure. Even intelligent people can be poorly differentiated (Bowen).

When you are self-differentiated, you still care about your family and want to be connected to them. Yet you are able to limit the chaos and are not be enmeshed with your family. Enmeshment is when you are defined by the family system and look to it for your happiness rather than to the outside, larger world. When you are enmeshed, your sense of identity is wrapped up in your family. You are not able to recognize where you end and they begin. This psychological boundary does not exist in dysfunctional families.

In unhealthy family systems, it is hard to differentiate because differences are not tolerated. If you are conservative and your family is liberal you are mocked. If your family is athletic and you rather read than play a sport, you are teased.  If Christmas is always at sister Susie’s and you want to have it at your house, you are met with resistance. Change is not welcome in dysfunctional families-of the individual or the system as a whole. In this type of family differences are not celebrated. Lots of shame permeates the family system.

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In dysfunctional families, members are made to feel guilty if they don’t visit enough, call enough, come home enough.  In such families, alliances are often being formed. These alliances are ever shifting. Alliances form because members are expected to choose “sides” on every issue. In healthy families, members don’t gang up on others, pick sides, or insert themselves into conflict between other members. These are all symptoms of an unhealthy family system at play. Remaining neutral in the face of conflict is a sign of maturity and self-differentiation.

For example in enmeshed families, there tends to be a lot of drama because everyone feels entitled to opine and react on the decisions of other members. For example, son A decides he is going to move across the country for a job. In an enmeshed family, the parents may take this as a betrayal and personal affront. They may feel he is abandoning the family. Mom and Dad share their hurt and disappointment with son B instead of sharing how they feel DIRECTLY with son A.

Therefore, son B may pick a fight with son A to express his disapproval and as a way to align with the parents. Son B and the parents are forming a coalition to try to impede son A’s decision to move away. When Son A responds in a level-headed, non-reactive way to his parents and brother, calmly stating why he is choosing to move, he is met with anger and rage. His parents and brother take his calmness and composed demeanor as a sign he does not care or love them.

In unhealthy families, chronic anxiety exists. When you self-differentiate and are non-enmeshed you are much more relaxed and calm. This is viewed as a threat to other family members who are still in a state of enmeshment. In toxic, immature families becoming more mature, less reactive, and less anxious is viewed as you don’t care, you don’t love me, you are cold.

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The blurring of self is normal in a dysfunctional family. If you come from a family riddled with dysfunction, the idea of personal boundaries may seem foreign to you. You are used to living in a bondary-LESS environment.  A person’s willingness to accept your boundaries and limits show where their level of respect is for you AND how emotionally developed they are. In a dysfunctional family it is hard to negotiate with other members the amount of separateness and closeness you feel comfortable with because compromise is not something rigid family systems can do.

Dysfunctional families can be cult like. Oftentimes family members are not even aware of the dysfunction or in denial about it. Things are never discussed. Third party conversations run rampant. Direct communication does not exist. Expectations are never questioned. It is just the way it is.

All dysfunctional families want to maintain the status quo. This is what we always done, this is what we will always do is the family motto.

How to Begin to Differentiate from Your Family

1)Uncover your family’s rules and paradigm.

2)Ask if you believe the rules you have been following blindly since childhood. Children follow their parents unquestioningly, adults do not. It is appropriate when you are the child to look to your parents to affirm your identity. As an adult, this is unhealthy.

3)Stop needing your family for things they can’t provide. The mother you never had. The father you always wanted. It isn’t going to happen. Stop waiting on this. The sister you always wanted to love you a certain way–who doesn’t, can’t, won’t.  This is a time to begin the acceptance process.

4)Reflect on what YOU believe. YOU. Stop handing your emotional power over to your family. Be who you want to be not the role your family expects you to be.

5)Understand guilt, shame, and transference of anxiety is NOT caring. It is the norm in dysfunctional, undifferentiated families. Stop holding onto these feelings-it only revictimizes you.

6)Resist the urge to rescue others.

7)Do for yourself what your family could never do for you.

8)Be mindful. This is not about blaming your family. This is about acceptance. This is you being you while being connected to your family. This is not about disconnection. This is about healthy connection.

Accept while you may have changed that we can’t change others unless they want to change. This is a time of opportunity for you. Instead of perpetuating the cycle of dysfunction, you can change the future—when it comes to breaking the cycle with your children and the next generation.


The Psychology of Shame: How It Destroys

When was the last time you felt shame? Maybe you were embarrassed in front of your boss, or you felt guilty because you didn’t get done what you promised. Perhaps you can think back to being a child and being told, “Shame on you!” Or another classic version, “You SHOULD be ashamed of yourself!” Whatever it was, you’ll remember it wasn’t a good feeling.

Shame can be a way to teach lessons that we think someone needs to learn. Naturally during childhood, it is commonplace for the adults in our lives, such as our parents and teachers, to teach us lessons about right and wrong. Times were different a generation or two ago. Children were to be seen not heard. These adults likely meant well, but may have used shame to try to teach good values, not realizing they were instilling the genesis of inadequacy. We now know, from years of research, that shame is not an effective way to implement a change in children’s behavior.  You are bad, you are stupid, why can’t you be like your brother. These types of messages hurt and are ineffectual.

If we can see that shame is not effective in modifying children’s behavior, we must be mindful that the same holds true for adults. You see in life many things bother us- people most of all. Our natural response to this is to blame the other person and try to fix it. And by “fix it” this usually means change THEM (not try to change ourselves because YEAH, RIGHT).  We  attempt to alter the person into something we consider “right” or at least something that will not bother us. Thus you can see how we all, consciously or unconsciously, try to influence how others in our world behave.

Having “influence” is commonplace in politics and the professional world. Perhaps you have even read Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Trying to exert influence is a very real factor not just in our professional relationships but our social relationships.  We all remember as teens having the one friend our parents referred to as a “bad influence.” Nowadays, as the case may be, you recognize yourself trying to “influence” your husband to eat better. Or maybe when you try to “influence” your kids to get their homework done. Or being the friend who tries to “influence” your other friends to go to the gym (and skip happy hour). Maybe you’re the son who tries to “influence” your mother to get an in home aide to look after her. In both direct and indirect ways, we all are trying to be influential in our own right.

The reality is we all want some level of control over our lives and to be influential in the lives on those we surround ourselves with. Whether we try to use our influence for good or bad is up to us.  There are many ways we try to exert influence. Shame can be a tactic people use to influence the behavior of others. It is also the base of most destructive behavior.

The experience of shame is universal. It is a powerful state of being. We all have experienced “shaming” behavior in our day-to-day lives.  The boss who says they are disappointed in our proposal. The friend who said they would never wear that. The waitress who says they can’t believe you can eat all that (this one actually happened to me–I CAN eat all that and I did!) The thing about shame is it is not really an effective way to influence behavior. Shame can only work if the person truly cares what we think of them.  Thus shame may work with our spouse but it will not work with our coworker who can NOT care less what we think of him.

We all to a lesser degree have been on the receiving end of shaming behavior Many times it is innocuous in the way it is meant or delivered.  The waitress, the friend, or your boss may have meant nothing malicious by it. Yet shaming is also a technique used by abusive people to distract from their own bad behavior.  Perhaps you experienced toxic shame before– someone belittling your achievements, ideas, efforts.  Trying to make you feel less than just as you are. As a clinician, I see shame as being a common abuse tactic experienced by clients, many who have survived abusive relationships. All types of relationships can be abusive not just romantic relationships. In hearing the stories of those who have struggled with this form of abuse, it has shown me how abusers often rely on shame, as a tactic to keep victims down. Shame can be an attempt to silence people who are not strong enough to stand in the strength of their voice.

Brene Brown, who has done extensive research on shame, has called it a silent epidemic.

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The truth is shame has the potential to be one of the most painful emotions we can experience. Shame is not that something you did was bad. Shame is you ARE something bad. Inferior. Inherently flawed. Less than.

When someone tries to make you feel like you should be ashamed of yourself, they are expressing contempt.  Shame is a way to diminish another.  It is a way of showing the shamee that to destroy you is a non-issue.  Thus when someone is trying to tell you shame on you what they are REALLY saying is shame on me. Because when someone tries to shame you, they are trying to transfer their hurt and pain onto you. Shamers are projecting their OWN shame, their own painful emotions. Attacking another is a way to disown the uncomfortable feelings they are experiencing. Abusers do this often to people they perceive as weaker. Unless you have a developed, strong sense of self it will be a struggle to not OWN the STUFF being thrown at you, when someone is offsetting their pain.

(Keep in mind,  we often shame ourselves–different post with more on that to follow).

There are many ways we try to shame OTHERS–teasing, eye rolling, name calling, sarcasm, yelling, expressing disapproval. Some people even resort to public shaming-to humiliate their victim to others—online posts, group texts, Instagram pictures—the Scarlet Letter-ing of our time. This type of behavior is extremely common during the adolescent years but still prevails amongst adults who have not developed passed an adolescent on an emotional level. Such behavior gives the shamer a feeling of superiority and communicates to the shamee a sense of unworthiness.

Anyone who is trying to shame you is not open to communicating with you in any real or meaningful way. The shame game is a way to manipulate and punish.

The only way to win in these situations is to not play.

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As a therapist, I have witnessed the powerful way that shame can fuel rage in children and adults alike. Whether this anger is directed outward at others or inward at oneself, this anger can act as a distraction from experiencing shame and the feelings that come along with it. Often when triggered by shame, we feel other self-conscious emotions such as discomfort, inadequacy, guilt, embarrassment.

Many of us can shake off the feeling and keep it moving. But others find it incredibly difficult, and it affects how they turn out.

Shame may work in the short-term but it comes with more detriments than benefits. It will hurt the relationship between the shamer and the shamee in the process. Being shamed causes us to lose respect for whoever OR whatever it is shaming us. Shame is at the root cause of many relationship problems. 

People who try to shame you are trying to get what they want at your expense.  Shame is a way to try to control others, by trying to trigger their need for connection, with the threat of disconnection. Such behavior is designed to get you to act according to someone else’s rules. Shame is a way of shutting the other person down.

The sad thing is there will always be people who try to shame you.

No matter what you do right or wrong, you don’t deserve to be humiliated or made to feel ashamed. If someone wants to make you feel this way,  recognize you are not dealing with a healthy person.

It is natural for decent people to find certain behavior unimaginable. You can’t imagine anyone can act in such a manner or say such a thing. Shame can be good in this sense–it is the “I couldn’t live with myself if I acted like that, did that, thought that” feeling.  Healthy shame is necessary.

Underneath shame there is a desire to be heard, validated, understood, and loved. On a continuum shame is at one end and feeling supported at the other.

Shame is not a productive emotion. If we are empathetic people we usually do not want our words to cause harm. Words are powerful. They can build up our relationships with others. Or tear them down. I have a sign in my office that says:

“Think before you speak: Is it….true? Is it….helpful? Is it….necessary? Is it….kind?”

Here’s to the practice of being mindful of our words BEFORE speaking them.