On Knowing the Self



In his mystical novel, Demian, Hermann Hesse observes, “…nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself”.  According to a very nice lady who called me this week, it is women, more than men, who do not want to take control of their lives and to know their own minds.

She was calling in response to another article wherein I said that conscious living places one in the driver’s seat of life.  She said the women she knew wanted men to steer, to make the decisions and, essentially, to run their lives for them.  In her view, it’s the men who belong in the driver’s seat.

It came out that she was calling from one of the high-end senior living facilities in our neighborhood and that the women she knows are mostly wealthy widows.  I made the point that I thought things had changed and that younger women and those who don’t have wealthy husbands are more likely to want equal power and to have a strong say in charting their own course and that of their families.

I have to say, though, that I believe Hesse’s words apply just as much to women as to men and that what he said is basically true.  Most people don’t want to know themselves that well.  In fact, they fight self-awareness tooth and claw.  It’s too scary, too uncertain.

Most people don’t have any awareness of the secrets they hold from themselves and the lies they tell themselves everyday.  This doesn’t make me pessimistic.  The course of evolution is relentlessly forward.  We have a long way to go and we stumble more often than not.

Denial may persist but truth will out once we realize how benign it is.  The illusion that we are separate from each other persists and we nourish it in many ways.  But once we have our little egos squared away and feel genuinely good about ourselves comes the answer to all important human questions: more love, more love, more love.




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Age of Children and their Divorce Reaction



There are many factors that contribute to a child’s

response to their parents’ divorce.  It’s hard to predict how

any one child will react but a major factor is the child’s

own developmental level.

Pre-school children take everything personally.  Having

seen their parents’ relationship come apart, they may

conclude that other relationships will too.  This may cause

them to worry about being abandoned with no one to take care

of them.  Even routine separations like going to day-care or even

to bed may become filled with dread of loss or death.

There may be a regression to an earlier stage of

development, more dependency, reversion to the security

blanket, nightmares, lapses in toileting skills, more crying.

Grade-schoolers understand better what is really going

on.  Their primary reaction is grief and yearning for things

to be different.  They may have feelings of deprivation, beg

for gifts, worry about hunger and loneliness.  Children this

age usually don’t take sides but feel divided in their

loyalties, sometimes as if they, themselves, were splitting

in two.  That hurts!

Pre-teens are more likely to feel angry, to align with

one parent and blame the other.  Often, they will make

attempts to patch things up, work out compromises, bargain

with each parent.  It is not unusual to see somatic symptoms

such as headaches, stomach problems or asthma brought about

by stress.

Teenagers are likely to react in a self-centered way.

No surprise there.  They voice concerns like, “Will I still

get a car?”, “Who will pay for college?”, “What will my

friends think?”.  Sometimes they pull further away from both

parents as though trying to grow up faster.  Other teens

regress and misbehave.  They may begin to doubt their own

future success in love, sex and marriage.

Obviously, individual differences as well as differences

in the way parents get their divorce done have a bearing on

children’s adjustment but developmental stage is a major




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Common Family Dysfunctions



The most universal trait among dysfunctional families is

an inability to manage intimacy.  Intimacy may be defined as

the sharing of feelings.

To function intimately one must first be a self and

express it.  Second, one must appreciate (or at least accept)

the self-expression of others.

Intimacy is about identifying, accepting and expressing

feelings; dysfunction is about not identifying, not accepting

and not expressing them.

In dysfunctional families we see behaviors which

serve as substitutes for intimacy and which encourage the

suppression of feelings.  Addiction to alcohol, drugs, food,

work, sex, relationships, gambling, spending and religion are

all ways to fend off unpleasant emotions or to manage the

loneliness that comes with emotional isolation.

Abuse, whether physical, emotional, verbal or sexual is

common in dysfunctional families.  Abuse always involves

disrespect and a violation of personal boundaries.

Individuals are not valued except insofar as they contribute

to the maintenance of rigid roles that protect the family

from real feelings.

Vague, indirect communication designed to disguise

meanings is typical.  So are closely guarded and unspeakable

secrets, lack of privacy, coercive or manipulative control

tactics, rigid rules and a deep suspicion of outsiders or

anything different.

These traits are passed down through the generations.

People tend to parent as they were parented unless they make

a conscious choice not to.

Families are systems.  This means that each member is

affected by every other.  Even if only one member is

dysfunctional, other members will take on dysfunctional


There is no choice about this.  Everyone goes along

because they have to.  The only other options are

dissolution, disablement or ejection.  And those are not

escapes.  You can’t escape your family because they’re in

you.  All you can do is out-grow them and become a self

capable of intimacy.




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Parentified Child

LOST CHILDHOOD: the tragedy of the caretaking child

      It is in the interest of every child to have a parent who is reliable, nurturing and mature.  Not every child is so fortunate.

Often a child will take on adult roles in an effort to make up for a parental deficit.  This is quite common where one parent is missing or dysfunctional due to divorce or drug/alcohol abuse.

What this appears to be is a child who is mature beyond his years.  That child may be a great help to the other parent, perhaps an older child who looks after the younger ones while Mom works.  A child may also act as an emotional support, confidante and pseudo-partner to a parent who is spouseless or in conflict with their mate.

The parentified or spousified child may seem a willing, even eager, participant in this “role reversal.”  There is glory and honor in helping a parent in need and the child may delight in the “specialness” and privileges inherent in the pseudo-adult role.

But if children become stuck in this position over time, they are likely to pay a high price—-the loss of their own childhood and an inability to recognize their own needs and to seek satisfaction of them from other people.

The chronically parentified child appears to be highly functional because he or she is so good at taking care of others, being the mature one, sacrificing for the family.  Scratch the surface and you’ll likely find a young person who is depressed, unsure of who they are and what they want, feeling they’ve missed out on something important, and unable to give and receive love freely.  They keep hoping for a reward that never comes.

Childhood is for self-discovery, carefree dependency and learning to receive love just for being who you are.  Caretaking is a job properly reserved for real adults.  Those who do it best have been well cared for as kids.

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Positive Aspects of Divorce



While divorce can be a hardship for kids, it can also be

the best thing you could do for them.  Put simply, there are

some marriages that just don’t deserve to live.  If you can’t

or don’t want to fix it, maybe you should put it out of its

misery.  Your kids might just thank you for it someday.

In fact, a rotten marriage or a lousy parent can

constitute an undesirable role model for a kid.  When

conflict and violence dominate a family, divorce is a welcome

relief.  It can mean personal safety, perhaps for the first

time in years.  It can mean that we stop being victims.

When one parent calls a definite halt to irresponsible

and damaging behavior from the other they show their kids

that respect and responsibility are indispensable family


When parents can be honest about the damage their bad

marriage is doing to their kids and do something about it,

the message to the kids is, “I care about you.”

Just because a divorce is positive doesn’t mean it isn’t

painful.  But there are things that are worse and more

damaging than the pain of loss.  Living in denial for years

is probably more destructive.  It teaches kids to ignore

reality and to accept dysfunction as normal.  It teaches them

not to trust their own perceptions.

Often, after a divorce, a child will experience a better

relationship with a parent than they did before.  Indeed,

some parents are more available to their children after a

divorce than they have been throughout the marriage.  When

the dysfunctional marriage ends the child may be able to see

their parent’s true nature for the first time.

Some divorces are worse than others.  The same divorce

may be worse for one spouse than it is for the other.  The

one being left may suffer more than the leaver.  What is

positive for one partner may be negative for the other.  The

child, observing this, learns that two apparently opposite

viewpoints can both be true.  Also, that you can love two

people who don’t love each other.




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Intimate Communication



Intimate communication is a two-way street.  Not only

must you listen in a way that makes your partner want to talk

to you, you must also talk in a way that makes your partner

want to listen.  Otherwise your conversation may reach a


Of course, you want to be true to yourself and tell it

like you see it.  It will help if you keep your partner’s

needs in mind as well.  And then there are the needs of your

relationship.  For the exchange to be really successful you

must serve the needs of all involved including yourself, your

partner and your togetherness.  Here are ten tips:

1.  Show that you understand your partner’s viewpoint

before you express your own.  Try to do

this without being either presumptuous or


2.  Be the world’s leading authority on everything you

say, i.e., talk about yourself, what you think, feel

and perceive.  That way you never have to argue

about the “facts”.  Be subjective.

3.  State your feelings clearly if they’re relevant to

the issue.  Remember, feelings are emotions, not

judgments or assessments.

4.  As early as possible, state the positive assumptions

and expectations you have about your partner which

are relevant to the issue at hand.

5.  If you want your partner to change, be specific and

talk about their behavior, not their attitude,

motivation or character.  Avoid generalizations like

“always” and “never”.

6.  Ask for what you want, clearly and without malice.

You have the right to ask for anything but that

doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.  If you do, it

will be a gift, not an obligation.

7.  Keep it simple.  Don’t dump all your opinions and

requests on the table at once.  Avoid overwhelming

your partner and it will be easier for them to


8.  Don’t delay addressing issues.  Deal with things as

they arise.  That way, you avoid a backlog of gripes

as well as the fear, frustration and anger that tend

to build up around unexpressed feelings and

requests.  Fear and anger are the enemies of good


9.  Do not try to communicate when you’re feeling out of

control.  Instead, wait until your emotions subside

a little so that you can communicate clearly and

without threat or hostility.

10.  Once you’ve communicated your feelings, try to be as

positive as possible.  People tend to get defensive

when they feel attacked.  To avoid this, talk about

yourself and your hopes and expectations for a positive

result from your conversation.


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When to Pull the Plug on Love



It was Woody Allen who said a relationship is like a

shark; it must keep moving forward or it dies.  I think this

is true with one important difference.  A relationship can

live dead for a long time.  Many people decide to stay in

relationships that are stagnant or destructive.  They have

their reasons.  Usually, their primary reason is fear, whether

they know it or not. And fear is paralyzing. Moving through fear takes courage, a willingness to face the consequences, whatever they turn out to be.  In the final analysis, it’s a choice we make, consciously or

not.  Even refusing to choose, retaining the status quo, is a choice.

Sometimes the options don’t seem very appealing.  Life might be even more difficult without the relationship.  Why jump from the frying pan into

the fire?  And then there’s the fear of loneliness.  Even

lousy company can be better than no company.  And who’s to

say someone better will come along?  And, for those of us who can’t tell bad love from good, at least we have someone to love us, if you can call it that.

For those who are willing to take the leap, though, and

risk aloneness, how do you know when to give up?  I think

that depends on how much the relationship is worth to you and

what you’re willing to go through trying to save it.

I maintain that there’s always something you can do to

improve a relationship–if you can find out what that is and

if you’re willing to do it.  But you may not be able, without

cooperation, to improve it enough to make it worthwhile to

you.  If you’re the only one growing in your relationship it can be boring, if not frustrating.

If your partner wants the relationship enough to join

you in trying to fix it, there’s no limit to your potential

for satisfaction.  But you both must be willing to grow.  And growth is often painful.  Perhaps that’s why you haven’t done enough of it yet.  Another reason might be that you didn’t know it’s necessary.  Well, it is if you want to change.

Even small changes can help a lot in increasing the liveability of your relationship. Assistance in this project is readily available from marital therapists and in bookstores.  Trouble is, many wait until it’s too late before consulting a therapist.  By that time, maybe the love is gone and you just don’t care enough anymore to give it your best shot.  Man/woman love is pretty fragile and, once damaged, can defy repair.  Also, although the information you need is readily available in your local bookstore, many people won’t study it hard enough to make any difference.  This takes some concentration.

If your partner resists your best efforts, you may be

beating a dead horse and, you know, a dead horse just won’t pull.  You will have to decide if it’s worth it to continue or whether you’d be better off alone.


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Dancing Together Enhances Love Life



Want to jumpstart your tired romance?  Why don’t you try ballroom dancing?  When you take your partner in your arms and move to the music you may rediscover some of the chemistry that brought you together in the beginning.

Dancing is one of the few activities a man and a woman can do together that involves coordinated physical motion.  To do it right, you have to cooperate, be sensitive to each other and communicate, especially nonverbally.  You can talk if you want to but you don’t have to.  You’re listening to the music, feeling it, allowing it to guide you.

At the same time, it takes some discipline.  You have to learn the steps and practice them.  Ballroom dancing is a sport.  It can be as athletic as you want it to be.  Or it can be gentle, calm and romantic.  In either case, you have to master the basics to get the full enjoyment.  Once you’ve begun to learn, it becomes practically effortless.  The combination of music, motion and an attractive partner in your arms can transport you to the fringes of ecstasy.  Going on to full ecstacy is up to you!

In the ballroom, the man and the woman both have a role to play.  The man leads; the woman follows.  It’s clear, specific, immutable.  That’s just the way it’s done.  The man decides where to go and how to get there.  He does it in a way that is gentle and sensitive, but firm and decisive.  Elegance is a goal but, in the beginning, rhythm, fluidity and fun are enough.

The woman must read the man’s body, moving with harmony, graceful acquiescence and sympathetic attention.  A women dances better when the man has a strong lead;  strong, but not too strong.  This frees her to express her natural femininity and to flow with the music and the dance, itself.

Ballroom dancing is a metaphor for loving, sensual harmony.  The roles are traditional and a bit old-fashioned.  But both men and women enjoy the traditional roles in dancing.  The music, the motion and the physical closeness don’t hurt either.

Couples need to have things they can do and enjoy together.  The whole business is quite romantic.  If you could use some more of that in your life, give it a try.


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Your Partner is Inviting You to Grow



If you love or are loved by someone, then it is likely that you feel pushed or pulled by them at times.  Perhaps they expect something from you that you don’t feel capable ofproviding.  Or maybe they criticize you so that you never feel quite accepted by them.  It may be you who wants something you’re not getting.

This makes you feel hurt and/or angry.  You want the problem fixed.  It makes your life more difficult and less rewarding than it could be.

Whether you realize it or not, this is an opportunity for you.  Your loved one is needling your boundaries, pressing you to open up to them, hacking at your resistance to change.

You have a choice here.  You can see it as their problem and resent their demands.  Or you can look at yourself and see if there is some need for you to grow.  None of us is finished yet.  We all have room to improve.

Only a loved one has the power to aggravate you like this.  And it is love that will challenge you the most to do what you could never do before.  Only those who love or are loved ever feel this kind of pressure.  If it weren’t for love it wouldn’t matter.  You could just walk away.

Someone who knows you well and spends time with you, someone who cares what you do, who has a personal stake in your behavior is well positioned and qualified to jerk your chain.  And you’re going to feel it.  It probably won’t feel good.  And when they hold the mirror up to your face and show you yourself, you will see your defects and we all have them.  You will be expected to be accountable for yourself.  This is perhaps the biggest challenge with monogamy (aside from having to give up all the other possible lovers in the world, that is.)  This can feel like an attack as your partner criticizes and attempts to make you over.  You don’t have to cave in but you do have to respond and it will help you a lot if you can see things from your partner’s point of view when asked to do so.  Try having some compassion for their plight.  Don’t imagine this is easy!

Love doesn’t require that you sell yourself out or rigidly defend your boundaries against attack.  But love does require that you allow yourself to be affected.  Love does require your presence as a person.

Next time your loved one tortures you, try asking yourself if there’s a lesson in it for you.  When you’re up against your own limits you might be able to see beyond them.

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The Meaning of Life



People who follow one of the major religions don’t have to worry about finding the meaning of life.  It’s spelled out for them. The major religions all prescribe the same attitudes and behaviors: treating others kindly, being honest and faithful, respecting parents and elders, obeying the laws, observing moral behavior, etc.

For those who don’t practice a religion, orienting oneself in the world is more problematic.  The moral force of religion has diminished greatly over the past century.  This, while the complexities and ambiguities of life grow ever more complex and ambiguous.  We face more choices with fewer guidelines. We still need spiritual growth.

Secular people need a compass, too, or they won’t know where they’re going.  How do you find the purpose of living if you don’t have a religion to tell you what it is?  And what happens to you if you lack understanding of your life’s purpose?  The path of least resistance beckons.  And that’s not necessarily the best path to travel.

Personal and emotional maturity might be a reasonable goal for the secular individual.  This means cultivating the self, learning the lessons of life, reaching one’s own potential. We have a “higher self”, even if we have no God.  Our higher self wants us to be better.

Living in the world, doing business, having relationships and loving, we have opportunities to learn and grow.  Allowing our experiences to affect and change us, we continually replenish ourselves, gaining wisdom and awareness.  Eventually, we figure out what’s important and cultivate that which matters to us.  If we look for our best self along the way and try to express that, we discover the virtues of maturity: patience, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, generosity, wisdom, courage and faith.  These bring us peace and fulfillment at last.  Do we need a higher goal than that in this life?







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