(This is going to be another brief + tips oriented review of IFS concepts; be sure to read the 101 post if you’re totally new to this)
Not all parts that can exist inside you are naturally there or equally fleshed out. Circumstances in life will strengthen one or another, but like the saying about the two wolves inside us, you can also intentionally “feed” specific parts to make them stronger, and there’s one part in particular that your whole system benefits from having strong.
Some call it the Ideal Parent Figure, others the Ideal Future Self, Inner Champion, Inner Mentor, etc. Their roles are subtly different based on the internal system they’re part of, but are still broadly those of Mediator, Comforter, and Encourager, whose primary value is their endless compassion for you and your parts.
Self-compassion is crucial to IFS, not as a prerequisite but as the primary ingredient for true acceptance of your parts/who you are, productive forgiveness for your mistakes, and a dignity that no one and nothing in life can take away from you. When you unconditionally love yourself, all sorts of healing and growth becomes possible, and you can create much stronger boundaries between yourself and harm.
Developing and feeding these inner parts can look similar, but experimentation can help find which works best for you. For this post I’ll just give brief advice for the first two:
Ideal Parent Figure is often a source of compassionate mediation between your parts. It helps you bring the Exiles in from the cold, soothe Anxiety’s fear of being ignored, understand Anger’s justifications, relax Firefighters’ vigilance, etc. Those who had abusive or distant parents often don’t know where to start with constructing this, unless they’re lucky enough to have met a friend’s parent or other mentor in their life who can serve as a model. Fictional characters can work too; Mr. Rogers is an example of someone widely considered a “platonic parental figure,” and many have found comfort and self-compassion by internalizing his “voice” and perspective to help replace some of the more harmful self-talk and their own (often well intentioned) imperfect parents left them with. You can also use this Protocol to help visualize what having a part like this could actually look like.
Ideal Future Self in many internal systems (my own included) serves identical purposes to the IPF; it’s particularly useful for those who had no sense of “parents” as a distinct emotional category, positive or negative, by instead drawing directly on your aspirations. Constructing and feeding your Ideal Future Self is done by thinking over and writing out what a version of you with all the skill and wisdom that you hope to develop would say if they were around and freely able to give it to you, all in a compassionate way. Your ideal self would not judge any shortcomings and failings you have, because they remember your journey and all the difficulties you struggled with along the way. They serve less often as the mediator for your other parts (those without “parent” as emotional category are more likely to act as their own internal mediator), and more a source of encouragement for you; they believe in you, and care about you, and are waiting for you, no matter how long it takes. This means that you can also develop them by writing to your past self, and telling them what you wish someone had told you, particularly in your darkest moments. Like with the IPF, it can often be very healing to deliberately imagine yourself hugging your past self as you deliver the words, and similarly imagine your future self using soothing touch as they comfort and encourages you.
Psychologically, whatever this part is called, it acts as a container for all the things you intellectually might believe, but still have trouble emotionally accessing at all times, particularly at your low points. Samples of the sorts of things they would often say include:
“You don’t have to be perfect to deserve love and kindness.”
“I know it’s hard, but I’m proud of the progress you’re making.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your wants/feelings, even if they’re confusing.”
“You made a mistake, but it doesn’t have to define you.”
“You can get through this. I believe in you.”
“It’s okay to hurt. I’m here. We’ll get through this together.”
It’s okay if you don’t believe these just yet, or if there are other voices shouting the opposite. The purpose of taking time to better build up these models and strengthen these parts is to help make these feel more real, particularly if you have memories of times they did feel true and spend time meditating on those experiences.
Once these parts are solid enough, they make practically every other aspect of emotional integration easier. It’s quite literally like having a perfect ally travel everywhere with you, ready and waiting to step in and help you whenever you need a steadying hand and comforting word.
(For further reading, here’s a good overview for why self-love and self-compassion is so powerful, with more good resources at the end.)
(The following is my own understanding and practice of IFS, and may include elements that conflict with the standard model. In an attempt to keep these brief I won’t be going into much theory, and focus on what seems to work best for myself and my clients)
Internal Family Systems is a form of therapy that treats psychological or emotional difficulty as the result of disagreements between the “parts” that make you who you are. Sometimes these parts make themselves known as (disagreeing/discordant) thoughts, other times as (conflicting/painful) emotions.
There are many forms IFS can take, and it can be valuable for many purposes, but the most straightforward one is simple “emotional integration,” which is to say, conversely, feeling more like a unified individual rather than struggling with emotional turmoil over some looming decision or past action.
The path to integration looks something like this:
This is not always linear progression, as emotions and parts might shift or grow nuanced over time. It’s also uneven; you can have one emotion Integrated, while struggling to Accept another and having trouble Identifying a third.
Most people who struggle with emotions/parts are either trying to skip ahead, or mistakenly believe they have succeeded at one step before they actually have. It’s also not always fully in our control. It can take time to process things, particularly traumatic things, and that’s okay.
There are skills that help with each. Meditation and mindfulness techniques help with Acknowledging. Gendlin Focusing helps with Identifying. Eliminating “shoulds” helps with Acceptance. Note that eliminating “shoulds” includes eliminating “shouldn’ts.” Parts are what they are, even if confused/traumatized. Healing starts with compassion toward your part, or yourself for having it.
(This can, admittedly, be tricky if those shoulds and shouldn’ts feel like they’re coming from other parts! But your “core self” can then differentiate itself from the part that’s expressing the should, and accept both parts, the same way writers learn to harness their inner critic rather than silence or be cowed by it.)
Learning conflict mediation helps with Managing. Systems theory, cybernetics, NVC, reflective listening, double crux, all that fun stuff. Again, these are learnable skills, and it doesn’t take much more work to apply them to your parts instead of others; just extra imagination and honesty and self-compassion.
Finally, Integration comes from practice, patience, and trust. As I said, it’s not always a steady progression. We encounter new things, life gets messy, parts get out of sync. But trust yourself, be patient with yourself, practice the skills, and the rest of you will be ready and waiting to re-integrate until you feel like unified again.
I often think about what makes a good therapist, and find it a hard question to answer in an organized and concise way. What’s far easier, and maybe as helpful to anyone looking for therapy, is the reverse question. So, in the style of CGP Grey’s 7 Ways to Maximize Misery, I hope this list of what makes for a bad therapist can help you find a good one.
A bad therapist lacks all curiosity.
They assume that their education or experience or inherent wisdom means they just know what the client means and wants and needs, even if (sometimes especially if) the client disagrees. They rarely use reflective listening or Socratic questioning, and instead of reserving assertions for psychoeducation and normalizing, instead tell the client precisely what they think is wrong, what mistakes the client is making, and/or what the client needs to do to improve, all stated with confidence rather than as hypotheses. If your therapist does all this within the first session, run away.
A bad therapist will not respond well to negative feedback.
They expect their therapy style and modality to be perfectly suited to any client, and are not willing to adapt or learn how to best help their client. This isn’t to say all therapists and clients are suited to each other, but if reports of dissatisfaction are turned back on you with accusations of projection or “resistance to treatment,” that’s a great flag to find another therapist.
A bad therapist pathologizes constantly.
Anything unusual about the client, from their hobbies to their fetishes to their philosophy, is suspected of causing dysfunction regardless of whether it actually does. These therapists conform to the broader culture they’re embedded in, and act as agents of social control on all manner of moral issues, from sexuality to family dynamics to choice of profession. If your therapist speaks in cliches such as “Family always forgives” or “Marriage is a sacred bond,” find a more open minded one.
A bad therapist pushes their worldview onto the client.
A religious therapist who insists that “God works in mysterious ways,” or an atheist who dismisses spiritual comforts are not only unlikely to help their grieving client of the opposite beliefs, but can cause extra harm by making them feel alienated and unheard. Finding a therapist who matches your worldview can be valuable, but any competent therapist should be able to leave theirs at the door.
A bad therapist can’t remain objective.
They triangulate with parent or child or spouse against child or parent or spouse, or they identify too strongly with the client and start to act more as a friend, focusing on comfort to the detriment of growth. Sometimes objectivity requires pointing out that some mistakes are one-sided, but if you don’t feel like your therapist is making an effort to include everyone’s perspectives, find another one.
A bad therapist will insist that their model is the only one with value.
These therapists view all of mental health through a single lens, the causes and solutions to illness forced into the mold they developed during their education or personal experiences. While an expert in a specific modality can be invaluable, a professional should always be ready to refer a client elsewhere if they encounter a problem in treatment, rather than blame the client and insist they’re not understanding or not trying hard enough.
A bad therapist is okay with therapy lasting forever.
They make no effort to set concrete goals or give the client the tools they need to move on without them. If within a month you don’t have a good sense of what it would take for you to feel satisfied ending therapy, or at least reduce the frequency of sessions, then it’s worth bringing it up yourself to see if the therapist has a sense of direction or goals in mind. Vague and subjective goals are better than nothing, but ideally there would still be some observable change that can act as a metric of growth.
A bad therapist can’t properly balance uncertainty and responsibility.
This is the kind of therapist who attempts to hospitalize their client due to non-critical self-harm, or for simply talking about their suicidality, rather than because there is imminent and specific threat to life. Unfortunately there is little you can do to predict that your therapist is like this ahead of time, but you can at least get a sense for how well they understand the limits of confidentiality when they explain it to you; a good therapist should clarify this distinction so their client feels safe being open about how they feel.
They think therapy is about talking, not doing.
A large part of therapy is talking, of course, but it’s been a century since Freud borrowed the phrase “Talking Cure” and ran with a model of therapy aiming purely for catharsis. Therapy should be doing more than just venting and processing; it should also involve learning new tools to be practiced between sessions. If you’ve gone to a handful already and your therapist still hasn’t assigned you any homework, start asking for some.
I hope people find this helpful; as I said, it’s not a great guide to help finding a good therapist, but I’ve heard enough horror stories in my professional life by this point to at least try to minimize the amount of bad ones people waste their time, money, and emotional energy with.
For a lot of people, therapy can be a confusing, mysterious thing of questionable value. Many have tried it when they were younger, and felt that at best it was only of minimal help, while for others it actually made things worse. In many cultures, therapy looks very different from how it’s practiced in the “western world,” and the concept of mental health itself is often treated with suspicion or dismissal. I’ve known many people who, even while not being skeptical, were still confused about what the purpose of therapy actually is, or what situations warrant seeking a therapist out.
In my practice as a therapist, I often reorient myself to the basic core of therapy, which to me is about helping people get unstuck. Sometimes the thing you’re stuck on is a recurring and disruptive emotional state, other times it’s some harmful interpersonal dynamic, and other times it’s a pattern of behavior. Whatever the specifics, there is some aspect of the client’s life that is not going the way they would prefer, and the therapist’s job is to help them find a way to change that.
What the therapy provides also varies; good therapy can create space for honest expressions of emotion, provide new perspectives or insight, and offer new “tools” for the client to use in their lives, specific behaviors or mental motions that help move past the stuckness.
Those skeptical of therapy often wonder: can’t people just talk to their friends or family if they need emotional support? Aren’t there self-help books they can try? And of course they can, and should try those things! For many people, the majority of their difficulties do not require a therapist.
Which means therapy is for what’s left. Those things that seem truly intractable, the things that you feel stuck on, which other resources have failed to help resolve.
But I’d like to demystify therapy further, and better yet, I think by better understanding what therapy is meant to do and how, people can get some of the value that therapy can provide even without going to see a therapist.
Because while much of the change in therapy comes from the therapeutic relationship itself (which is why first finding a therapist that you feel comfortable with is half the battle), for a large portion of clients I’ve seen, even just changing the frame of the problems they experience, or changing the way they view themselves in relation to their problems, actually makes the problem less sticky. A new frame can reveal more levers to pull and knobs to turn, or new vistas of the mind to explore and inhabit, that can help make the problem more manageable.
So that’s the goal of this essay. By teaching the history of the different philosophies of therapy, I want to teach you how, if you change the frame, you can change the problem.
Ask people to describe what therapy involves or “looks like,” and most who haven’t been in therapy will say something like “one person lies down on a couch and talks to the therapist, who takes notes and asks questions like ‘How does that make you feel’ and ‘Tell me about your childhood’ and ‘How do you feel about your mother?’”
This is largely the result of Hollywood Therapy, but it’s rooted in the origins of therapy, which is Freudian—what’s now called Psychoanalytic Therapy.
Sigmund Freud was the progenitor of applied psychology; the idea that we could study the way people think and feel and act, and use it to directly help them “improve” in some way. He was inspired by his mentor, a physician who helped alleviate a patient’s untreatable illness by just asking questions about her symptoms. That patient coined the term “talking cure,” and Freud took this concept and ran with it, dedicating his life to the idea that many ills people suffer are psychological in nature rather than physiological, and that just talking about them can help reduce or remove them.
Freud had a lot of ideas of his own, however, and while many them turned out to be nonsense, he also had some that turned out to be true, or at the very least, useful, such as the concept of a “subconscious,” or the idea of dividing a person’s mind into subagents (in his case, Id, Ego, and Superego). As the arrow above indicates, Freud cared almost exclusively about the past; he believed that by studying one’s childhood, the way they were raised, their early environment, or the origin of a certain dysfunctional behavior, you could identify all sorts of traumas or stresses that cause dysfunction later in life. Once identified, he believed the client would gain a feeling of “catharsis” that would start the path to healing.
Here’s where I admit that I have something of a bias against psychoanalysis.
In my view, Freud was a philosopher first and foremost, rather than a scientist. He had interesting ideas that seemed logical to him, and a scientific frame of mind, but while he pursued the application of these ideas with an admirable gusto, his documentation did not seem to aim its rigor at testing which of his ideas were true. I’m unaware of any hypotheses Freud generated that he then went on to falsify. (If you know of any, please do share them!)
Far from an attempt to bash the man, I do admire him a great deal. It’s hard to be the first person to basically invent an entire field of science and do it all perfectly such that you are simultaneously the person observing reality, coming up with ideas, and dispassionately testing those ideas, all while trying to do work as a clinician. But I believe most modern schools of therapy have picked out the gems of his work and left the rest to history lessons.
That isn’t to say this branch of therapy is all worthless. While catharsis alone generally doesn’t solve most people’s symptoms (psychosomatic illnesses like his mentor’s patient’s are in fact very rare), delving into one’s past can lead to insights into their current problems, and many do report feeling better about their problems when they have a chance to talk about them (again, credit to Freud, this would likely have been very encouraging to him when he began his work).
(A modality is a method of therapy that has a specific structure to help a client reach wellness. More than a specific intervention, modalities often include multiple interventions, as well as a particular type of relationship between client and therapist that dictates whether the therapist acts as more of a guide, partner, or authority. Each modality operates on a particular hypothesis of how therapy can help clients with certain problems.)
In any case, while psychoanalysis as practiced by Freud and his ideological descendants (Carl Jung, Anna Freud, Erik Erikson) focused so much on the client’s past, new discoveries in psychology led to therapeutic modalities that focused instead on influencing the client’s future.
Enter, the Behaviorists.
As Freud is to Psychoanalysis, so Ivan Pavlov, of dog fame, is to Behaviorism. Pavlov discovered and experimented with classical conditioning, the idea that you can pair different stimuli to influence responses. This discovery was a great boon to pet owners, but also has direct applications to therapy. One example is addiction treatment, where for example the sight or smell of cigarettes or beer is paired with something that will evoke disgust. It also led to desensitization therapy for phobias, where pairing progressively more frightening stimuli with techniques and context that help relax the client can alleviate the fear response.
These ideas were expanded by Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner, whose work is called operant (or instrumental) conditioning. Rather than just pairing stimuli together to affect responses, their experiments showed demonstrable effects on learning and behavior through reinforcement and punishment; in therapy the idea of using positive reinforcement to incentivize desired behavior is often helpful for children, particularly those with developmental issues.
I don’t have much to say about Behaviorism. For some things that people come to therapy for help with, it just works. For others… not so much. I think understanding the mechanisms of Behavioral Therapy is valuable for any clinician, but there’s some obvious flaws with taking it as the only avenue toward better mental health.
Unlike psychoanalysts, a straw-Behaviorist doesn’t care about your past, and talking about your traumas or “deeper issues” would often be considered a waste of time. Instead the focus is on your symptoms. No symptom, no problem, right? Just apply the right type of reinforcement to increase positive behaviors and the right type of punishment to decrease negative behaviors, and all’s well…
…for some people, at least. Behaviorists had a lot of success in some domains, particularly when the “why” of the problem didn’t actually matter to the client or issue, but obviously struggled with others. After the first World War, clinicians formally recognized PTSD, or “shell shock,” for the first time. Unfortunately, attempts to treat soldiers through psychoanalytic and behavioral therapy often failed, and so many psychologists turned clinician to help figure out how better understanding the present feelings we have, and how they impact our behavior, can lead to mental health.
Which brings us to Existential Therapy.
Rather than having a single founder, the Existential philosophy of therapy was converged upon by a wide range of psychologists and clinicians, many inspired by the writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Scheler, Heidegger, and Sartre. These writers’ attempts to redefine our understanding of not just what it means to be human, but an “actualized” human, a healthy, thriving, happy human, were believed to have great value in clinical efforts to help those in need.
But among that foundational pantheon, the first of the Existential therapists was Otto Rank, a student of Freud who later split with him over Freud’s beliefs that a person’s “formative years” are what determine who they become. Instead, Rank believed that human development continues throughout our lives, requiring continual negotiation and renegotiation between dual yearnings for individuation and connection.
For such heresy he was excommunicated by the psychoanalytic world, but he nevertheless influenced his own “family” of psychologists, including Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, who’s more well known as the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and Abraham Maslow, of hierarchy fame. These psychologists focused not so much on what happened in someone’s past or how to influence their future, but on their now. What do people feel like they need, that they lack? How does the client experience “need” at all? What relationship do they have with their hurts and wants, and what would be necessary for them to feel fulfilled? How do those different needs and wants conflict with each other, and how can they be better brought into harmony?
Existential therapy also marked a new dynamic between client and therapist; rather than a top-down hierarchy, where the clinician is the “expert” and the client the “patient,” what became known as client-centered therapeutic practice began to form. It placed both therapist and client as equals; the clinician has the education and skills, but the client is the expert on their own lives, of what they think and feel, and so the Existential therapist’s role is more that of a facilitator to the client’s growth.
This may seem like polite semantics, but most people who’ve been to both kinds of therapists can tell how big a difference it makes if, upon disagreeing with their therapist on something, they’re treated not like a stubborn mule who is “resistant” to change, but rather a person with agency, whose motivation to improve is taken for granted by their therapist. The philosophy also emphasizes the importance of a therapist who is willing to listen, encourage, and support the client’s personal journey to better mental and emotional health, as theclient defines those things.
Under the light of Existential Therapy (and its more upbeat twin, Humanistic Therapy) there grew many techniques to help clients better understand themselves, including Carl Rogers’s “reflective listening,” which has become a staple of good therapy from every philosophy, as well as techniques to better interface with our emotions, such as “focusing” by Eugene Gendlin, which I personally have found to be one of the most generically effective tools to teach practically every client I’ve had.
Time to admit to another bias, in case it’s not clear; I’m a huge fan of existential/humanistic therapy. In my experience it has a wide “range” in what it can successfully treat, and its frame makes up an integral part of what makes modalities effective in general.
But it’s not the form of therapy I was formally educated in, and it’s not the latest form of therapy that was developed. There’s one last dimension that even existential therapists failed to engage in, and if you’re following the theme of the arrows you might have guessed it: the opposite of focusing on ourselves is focusing on everything else.
Enter Systemic Therapy (also known as Family Systems Therapy, or just Family Therapy), born in the 1950s from a very powerful need; the need for better marriage counseling.
In the post WWII era, if a husband and wife wanted to save their marriage, they would go about it thusly: the man would have his counselor, and the woman would have her counselor, and both would see their counselors separately. If they went to a fancy clinic dedicated to marriage counseling, the two clinicians would be coworkers, seeing their clients individually, then consulting on the case between sessions, or even mid-session before returning to their clients.
If that sounds crazy, just remember that this was the 50’s, when people still thought smoking was good for you. The idea was that a client’s relationship with their therapist was sacrosanct, and must always be preserved as a space of utter one-on-one privacy that would allow them to be completely frank, without worrying about their spouse’s presence, or their therapist telling their spouse anything spoken of in confidence.
Eventually some therapists in California realized how absurd this was, not to mention ineffective. They suggested a new way to practice marriage counseling, where a single counselor (or even two) spoke with both clients together, in the same room and at the same time. That way a therapist could observe their interactions and mediate their discussions directly.
Their clinic said no.
So Don Jackson and his colleagues left to form the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, where they developed their own modality of therapy, one that involved not just the individual patient, but sometimes romantic partners, family members, even friends if the problem called for it.
They weren’t the only ones; Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, Virginia Satir, and Jay Haley all developed modalities based on the idea that, to help a client overcome dysfunction, the therapist should focus not just on the client, but the system they’re a part of, whether that be their family, their work environment, their culture, or even their country, all at various levels of abstraction.
(There isn’t going to be a test on all the names I’m throwing at you, but if I went into every single modality we’d be here all day, and this way you have an easy way to look into them on your own if you want.)
The study of cybernetics and communication theory were also prominent influences, particularly by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who believed that all forms of communication are adaptive, and rejected the concepts of linear and dualistic thinking for studying systems.
The “systems” being referred to in these therapies can be any context you’re a part of, individually or simultaneously: family system, school system, work, friend-group, even cultural and religious. According to Bateson, being part of any system leads to inherent and unavoidable communication between you and the other parts, implicit or explicit, which affects the other parts of the system and how they behave, which further affects how you behave, and so on. Additionally, there can be no divide between an interactive observer and participant of a system; by observing the system directly, the therapist becomes a part of it.
This understanding led to a philosophy that takes the humility of existential therapy even further, and improved clinicians’ ability to map the impact of one part of a system on the others, such that many modalities do not even identify anyone in particular as “sick” or “healthy,” but rather views behavior patterns themselves as dynamic or stagnant, and focuses on how change can propagate through the system by nudging elements of it. By understanding how everyone’s actions and reactions affect each other’s behavior, the client and clinician have more surface area on the problem to try and find solutions, more levers to pull and handles to grip from.
A big reason why this lens can be so valuable is that when you start working with groups rather than individuals, you have to address the fact that often times, not everyone involved in therapy has the same desire to be there, let alone incentive or drive to change. Of course, that was true before couples or entire families were being invited into a therapy room at once, but now the therapists were actively working to address it rather than just assuring whoever cared enough to be in the room that the problem was other people, and not them.
Oh, also worth noting that therapy up to this point was still a LONG process, often expected to last years. Systemic Therapy made a push toward briefer, more effective interventions, creating modalities like Solution Focused Therapy, which combined Systemic and Behavioral principles to bring about real, lasting change within 4-6 months.
So, that’s the four cardinal philosophies I’ve sort-of-made-up as a labeling scheme to map all therapy onto. Now we get to the meat of the matter; how can just knowing about them actually help?
II. Case Study
“You have to help me,” Marge, 55, says during her first session. “It’s my husband. He’s become obsessed with model trains!”
Sidebar 1: An important thing to note is that the client said she needs help, but highlighted her husband as the focus of therapy. Some equivalent of “fix my spouse” (or “fix my kid”) is nearly as common, in my experience as “fix me,” and often times the spouses in question aren’t always in the room. So we work with what we have.
“I can see you’re worried about him,” I say. “What does ‘obsessed’ look like? Are you running out of money?”
“Well, no,” she admits. “We can afford it, but… every month he’ll order hundreds of dollars worth of new models and tracks, and after work he goes down to the basement. He spends hours down there, every day!”
I nod. “Yeah, it makes sense why that might be concerning. Is he skipping meals? Staying up all night?”
“No, no. He’s sleeping fine, he’s still eating… but it’s quick, you know, he’ll pop out of the basement for ten minutes, wolf down his food without looking at it, then go back to his trains for another six hours. That’s not normal, right?”
Sidebar 2: “Normal,” along with “healthy,” is perhaps the most loaded word in therapy.Unless the client is insistent, or we’ve formed a strong therapeutic relationship, I try to avoid giving any kind of verdict on either, and instead use the therapist standby ofansweringaquestion with a question;in this case not ‘what is normal,’ but rather:
“What would you consider to be the ‘normal’ things he does do?”
“You mean like work?”
“Yeah, and beyond that. Is he still seeing his friends?”
“Yes, once in a while he’ll go out for some drinks with them.”
This is evidence that he’s not a shut-in. “Feel free to say it’s too personal for now, but just to check, does he still want sex?”
She blushes. “Not often, but, yes. Sometimes.”
“Okay. Does he talk about other things, or is it all trains all the time, now?”
“We barely talk at all, now, not like we used to.”
“What was the last conversation you had with him?”
“Oh, about the kids.”
“You have children?”
She smiles for the first time. “Yes, two. Both married, one with our first grandchild on the way.”
“Congratulations! And he’s still interested in them, and the grandchild?”
“Oh, yes. He put off our vacation so we’d be around the first few months.” Her smile is gone now. “Which normally I’d be in favor of too, but… there’s some sort of convention nearby around then that he’s still planning to go to.”
“A model train convention?” I guess.
“Yes, I’m telling you, he’s just…” She shakes her head, seemingly at a loss for words.
Sidebar 3: “Pathologizing” is the perception that any action or view that is unusual is automatically a sign of illness, despite no evident dysfunction or suffering. In decades past, previous versions of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual labeled things like homosexuality a mental health illness due to a mentality that didn’t distinguish between “normal” and “healthy.” Newer versions of the DSM have eliminated most of those, and there’s a concerted effort among (good) psychologists and therapists to distinguish real pathology as something that causes direct suffering for the patient.
At this point, I might feel an urge to say “Okay, so… what exactly is the problem here? Just because your husband is spending hundreds of dollars and hours a month on model trains doesn’t mean he needs therapy. If it’s not affecting his sleep, or his appetite, or his work, or his social life… maybe he just likes trains, and that’s okay? It’s far from the worst hobby, and if it makes him happy, just let him like trains!”
I wouldn’t say this out loud, however, at least not in the first session, because even if I’ve become at least reasonably sure that the husband is okay, to say something like that would be dismissive of her experiences .
Regardless of what her husband is doing, she is clearly unhappy. And while she might think she can be the client but not the patient, the truth is, from a systemic lens, there is no distinction. The system she lives in, her marriage, is clearly dysfunctional for her in some way, as evidenced by how she’s suffering enough to come to a therapist. Perhaps her husband is too, in a non-obvious way that will be revealed through further questioning, but for now the focus would best be shifted to her.
There are a number of lenses through which to focus, however, and each might approach the problem in such different ways that they essentially become different problems.
A psychoanalytic therapist could delve into Marge’s past. Was her father distant with her, perhaps obsessed with his work or a hobby of his own? Did she have older siblings that left her out of their play? Was a childhood friend killed by a train? (Probably not that last one.)
A behaviorist could focus on the husband’s actions and develop strategies to reinforce or punish the ones she likes/dislikes. This would be pretty manipulative if the husband isn’t on-board, however, so instead the therapist might focus on ways to associate her husband’s hobby with positive emotions and experiences of her own.
An existentialist could help Marge delve into the emotional experiences she’s having, what she feels when she thinks of her husband in the basement or buying new models, and what needs she has that aren’t being met. The goal would be either to dissolve the problem entirely by reframing her expectations, or teaching her new tools to manage her mood and satisfy her emotional needs.
A systemic therapist could help by examining the overlapping systems she’s a part of; her marriage, her family, her social circles. Did she and her husband used to do more things together? What was their marriage like when the kids were still part of the household? How often does she spend time with her own friends or hobbies? Perhaps there are ways she could better communicate to her husband what her needs are so he can understand how she’s hurting, or examine what behaviors of hers might be reinforcing her husband’s without even realizing it.
While individual modalities might lack scientific backing, I believe the broader philosophies can each be suited to different types of problems. That still means that if a therapist only sees the world through one or two lenses, they might not be able to help their client as well as someone whose approach is the better fit.
Perhaps more importantly, each client can respond better to a different philosophy, even if they present with nearly identical problems. For some, just getting down to brass tacks and tackling the symptoms is their ideal, while for others, digging deep into their psyche is what they want and respond well to.
This is part of the reason why one of the major tenets of good therapy is “stay curious.” The more the therapist starts assuming they know what to expect from a client based on their presenting problem, no matter how often they’ve seen it before, the more likely they are to jump to conclusions about treatment that end up being a poor fit.
A therapy modality is more specific than a philosophy; it’s not just a framework for what leads to dysfunction and how to correct it, but also a bundle of specific interventions and pathways, some more rigid than others, to lead the therapist and client from first session to last. Here’s just a few examples that I use regularly:
Cognitive Behavior Therapy is a mix of Existential and Behavioral. It focuses on the looping interactions between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and how they reinforce each other such that altering one can alter others. (Dialectic Behavioral Therapy leans even more into the Existential side, with extra attention on mindfulness and mood regulation.)
Solution-Focused Therapy is a mix of Systemic and Behavioral. It helps the client identify their strengths and resources in their social systems, as well as how those systems reinforce their behaviors or symptoms, or can be altered to better reinforce more desired ones.
Narrative Therapy is a mix of Systemic and Existential therapy. It asks the client to present the narrative of their life, identify the ways the story they tell themselves and its framing is influenced by the broader systems they’re a part of, then explores the way their narrative makes them feel while teaching techniques to better interface with those feelings.
And here’s a handy-dandy diagram that lists just a few of the different modalities, techniques, and interventions used in therapy. There are many more that exist, and there may be different ways of practicing each of these that bump them from one section of the diagram to an adjacent one, but I believe every modality and strategy of therapy can ultimately be placed somewhere on this image, depending on how much they focus on understanding the client’s past, interfacing with their thoughts and emotions, altering their behaviors, or adjustments to their environment/relationships.
(This is in no way a “complete” image, as there are dozens of different modalities and it would need to be massive to fit them all, but I figured it’s better to just publish with some listed and update it over time.)
IV. Change the Frame, Change the Problem
I like collecting lenses through which to view the world. Each is like a different kind of mental map that I can use to navigate the territory of reality, and just like different types of maps (some simplistic and cartoonish, others realistic and highly detailed) can be more or less useful for different purposes, even maps that I know are not literally correct can still have value.
Overall this post is an ur-map, my ur-map, of different maps I’ve learned about in the field of therapy. I don’t mean to present it as “the one true way to view therapy,” but I’ve found it very helpful, and I hope others can too. It’s also worth keeping in mind that it has many of the biases you’d expect from someone educated in an American college program that focused primarily on one particular philosophy.
Still, I think if more people were aware of the different lenses through which therapy can operate, they would better be able to navigate the sorts of problems that might lead them to a therapy office, maybe even help them find their way without going to one.
Next time you feel stuck in a particular way of thinking about your problems, a particular frame through which your problem seems insurmountable, try changing it. You might find it a lot more tractable than it seemed before.
A large part of therapy for many people is learning how to create “healthy boundaries.” Whether adults or children, with friends or family, we often find ourselves having our desires ignored, our time undervalued, and sometimes even our bodies mistreated again and again, despite our attempts to express our preference against such things happening.
People who admit to having poor boundaries often look upon those that do not and wonder what the secret is. How do those people get treated with more respect? Why aren’t they mistreated as often?
There are plenty of potential answers in this space, from demeanor to status to power dynamics, but the most important thing to recognize is that when we talk about social boundaries, they do not exist as barriers that physically stop people from ever violating them.
All “having strong boundaries” means is that when someone pushes past a line you draw in the sand, or even just stumbles past it accidentally, you’re willing to push them back, gently or not. That’s it. Do that enough times, and voilà, you have boundaries.
Ideally, those pushes take the form of calmly stating your desires, and following through on consequences if they’re not respected. Unfortunately, if certain lines are crossed often enough, sometimes enforcing a boundary involves getting really, really mad, shouting and storming out and slamming the door, because anything less than that is just ignored. If the boundary crossed is a physical one, sometimes “pushing back” includes literal pushes.
And part of why some people have a harder time building and maintaining boundaries is that they have been conditioned to not ever do things like that, or the people violating their boundaries have power over them. Enforcing your boundaries is always an unpleasant thing to do, and sometimes it can be a dangerous thing to do.
But if you’re never willing to do any of those things, and you feel frustrated that people don’t seem to respect your desires or needs… this may be a large part of why.
Try not to push too hard at first, and don’t push thoughtlessly, but I’m here to tell you it’s okay to push back. The how and when might be complicated, but the will to protect yourself even if it upsets others others is the necessary first step.
There’s a danger mode that society has been engaging in for years (decades/centuries/millenia?) that simply denied trauma. It was ignorant of trauma, or acted as if it didn’t exist, or verbally repudiated it. People were expected to tough out bad things that happened to them. Men especially were not allowed to express it, except (eventually) if it occurred as the result of war.
The pendulum has swung somewhat, and I hear rumblings of worry about whether we’re treating trauma too seriously. If we’re over-correcting and making things out to be more traumatic than they “really are,” and to what degree trauma is the result of people being told that something that happens to them is “traumatic” or is made a big deal of. This second failure mode concerning trauma is the worry that someone will fall off their bike, scrape their knee, and be taken to the hospital amidst parental tears and shock, thus cementing a lifelong fear of bikes or intolerance of pain.
While I think this second failure mode is probably true for things like how offended or outraged people get by things, I don’t think it’s in our sight-lines just yet for “actual trauma.” Over protective parents are a thing, always have been. If a kid falls off their bike, they are much more likely to cry if their parent freaks out. And yes, to some degree how society treats a thing will inform how people react to it. There are some people who are sexually molested or emotionally abused and essentially move on from it without ever telling anyone, or seeking professional help. This is particularly something you’ll hear from people who are older, and grew up before modern perspectives on trauma or awareness of abuse or rape was as prevalent as it is. There’s a fairly famous older man who got in some hot water for saying something like “Well, I was raped a number of times at the male boarding school I went to, and it sucked, but that was just a thing that happened. The older boys would do that often to the younger ones. It wasn’t the end of the world.”
People will look at accounts like this and be somewhat reinforced in believing that the response to traumatic events is moderately, or even largely, to blame for how traumatic it is.
But the thing to remember about trauma is that by its nature it is anti-correlated to reports and disclosures. You will hear more from the people who recovered from traumatic events or were not traumatized by bad events more often than you will those who were. This is axiomatic to what it even means to be traumatized by something vs not.
On top of the other points, like how no two situations are alike, and no two people are alike, and so making a general rule out of anecdotes is dangerous, it’s also hard to think of people who are actually traumatized by the response to a thing versus the thing itself. My experience is that Eddie Kaspbraks are really, really rare in real life, even in less stereotypical, absolute incarnations.
What I do run across instead, and quite often, are stereotypical incarnations of people who have spent years, if not decades, bottling up their trauma and appearing to all observers, even close observers, as if they’re okay, or as if the behaviors that they have that are harmful to themselves or others are just the result of who they are, and not what they’ve gone through, until something comes out and sheds light on dark machinery. Part of that just comes with the territory of my field of work, but even outside of it, that seems to be far more common than the inverse situation.
And when people who go through events others might call traumatizing, but who were not traumatized by it by some combination of factors that are so far unknown, see such people, I worry that their conclusion will be that this is proof that trauma is the result of low willpower or resilience or “grit” or whatever.
The pendulum may well be swinging toward society being too sensitive to traumatic fears and causing more harm than it’s preventing in highlighting bad experiences as “traumatic.” But so far I don’t know that I’ve seen enough evidence to conclude that for sure, and I hope we get better metrics and tools to determine if that’s in fact what’s happening before we start encouraging a narrative that might make those who suffer from trauma feel in some way as if it’s “all in their head,” like society used to.
This is a quick summary and mash-up of the sorts of things I often tell kids about arguing with adults, particularly their parents and sometimes their teachers.
Quick disclaimer, a lot of what I’m talking about here is using generalized assumptions, like that your parents are mostly responsible adults, and love you, and have some sense of fairness, and are not suffering from mental illness, and are not in some altered state of mind due to drugs or alcohol. This may not be the case for all of you all the time, and I’m sorry about that. For those of you it does apply to, try not to lose sight of how lucky that makes you. It doesn’t always seem like much, but it at least might allow some of this advice to come in handy.
Before talking about how to win arguments, it’s vital to understand power imbalances and learning to lose. When you learn self-defense, one of the first things they teach is learning when not to fight at all. If you take a martial arts course so you can go around beating people up, you’re going to get in trouble one way or another. Similarly, you have to be capable of recognizing arguments that are winnable and those that are not, so you can pick your battles.
Your parents have power in your house, and you don’t. Your teachers have power at school, and you don’t. That means sometimes you have to be ready to lose an argument, even if it means admitting to and apologizing for something that wasn’t entirely your fault, or being the bigger person and apologizing first even when it’s not fair. When you’re older and driving, and a cop pulls you over and tells you you were speeding when you know you didn’t speed, would you argue with them? What do you think would happen next? Arguing with adults as a child can be similar. This does not mean you should not have any pride, or just always admit to things you didn’t do to avoid arguments. It just means that sometimes the real time to fight is later.
If you forget that you’re arguing with someone who has more power than you, you’re more likely to say or do things that will get you in trouble. On the other hand, if you learn to pick your battles, you can earn trust by admitting defeat on things, which will be important in arguments that you can potentially win. Kids who always drag every argument out no matter how many times their parent says “no” quickly lose the impact of fighting hard for something when it really matters and might make a difference.
An extension of that is situational awareness, particularly of status imbalances. Parents and teachers don’t just have more power than you, they also demonstrate status differences that are socially reinforced between adults and children in general. If you’re not polite or don’t show respect, even if you have a good reason not to, adults will often get more upset with you than they would if another adult did the same thing.
This is especially true if other adults or children are present: if you are rude to your parents around their friends or while out in public, their embarrassment will often make them more angry with you, and they may feel like they have to be more strict or else be seen as “bad parents.” If you contradict or are rude to your teacher around other students, they may feel as though they have to respond with stronger punishment to show that they are in charge and that the other students have to respect them. Do not forget the social context you’re in when arguing with adults. Try and be polite and respectful, even if you are angry, or you will make arguments even harder to win.
With those two things in mind, the most important thing to remember when arguing with anyone is different priorities and values. It is almost impossible to win an argument with anyone if you do not understand their perspective, including what they want or care about, and why. When arguing with your parents, you have to recognize that they have different concerns and goals than you do. To use some simple examples and generalize a bit, they want you to be safe, your grades to be high, and your chores to be done, likely in that order. Most parents don’t care how well you do in your video games, or how much you want to spend the weekend with your friends. This is not the same thing as not wanting you to be happy: I didn’t list that above because happiness is hard to measure, while those other things are not.
The point is that their priorities are often skewed toward what they believe is best for you and the family in general, right or wrong, and yours are more often skewed toward what will make you happy. A more severe example is that, compared to how much your parents want to be able to afford the bills, they may care very little how much happier you will be if you get to eat out, or can have those shoes or clothes you want. To reduce conflict and improve your ability to reach compromises or win an argument, it helps a lot when you can demonstrate that you understand what they want and don’t shy away from it just because it is not what you want. Show that you actually can take their priorities seriously, and it can be a lot easier to build up the trust needed to convince them to give you leeway sometimes.
You will almost always be entering an argument with reputation. You are going to be judged by what you’ve done or failed to do in the past. More, you will often be judged by what they believe you’ve done or failed to do in the past, regardless of whether you argue that they’re wrong. And even more than that, you may be judged by what your siblings or classmates have done, mistrusted by association. It’s not unheard of to be judged by what complete strangers do that your parents heard about and are now worried you will do.
All of which sucks. But the one thing you have control over is your behavior, and how well you have earned trust on your own. I can’t promise that everyone will always care about this, but I have often seen how much arguing with bad reputation is like fighting on quicksand. Your behavior sets an expectation of you, and that expectation will either be in your favor or against you. Trust is important in arguments. If you make a habit of saying you’ll do something and then forget to do it, you lose the trust needed to negotiate in future arguments.
So when you’re trying to decide whether to do something or ignore something that will upset someone, particularly your parents, you have to weigh not just the short-term gain you get by doing it, but also the long-term difficulty it will cause you in future conversations and arguments when your parents or teachers are unable to trust you as much as you or they might want.
Building up all that trust is important, because it’s the cornerstone of any negotiation. This is the actual work of winning an argument with adults. It may not seem like negotiation is the right word for all kinds of arguments, and it may not be for every single one, but you might be surprised by how many arguments ultimately can be described as negotiations, or can be reframed as one to help reach a positive conclusion.
Kids often argue with their parents about what they’re allowed to do, or what they want, and if the parent is resistant, it’s usually because they are being asked to give something up or compromise something they want, even if it’s invisible or not a big deal to the kid. When you ask to stay up late, from their perspective you’re actually asking them to risk your health or ability to get up on time tomorrow morning, or to risk an argument and being late to school, or make them late to work. Even if it’s on a weekend, you’re asking them to let you change your sleep schedule, which may carry over to Monday morning. These are the things you are negotiating for. These considerations are what parents often think about all the time.
You have to have something else to offer in return, and I’m not talking about something like money. It might be extra chores that you offer to do, but you can instead also offer your well-being in other ways. If you’re doing well in school, you have more leeway to say something like “I really need some extra time to relax after this week.” What I’ve observed is that parents are easier to talk into the things their kids want when the kid has good grades, does their chores, and is well behaved in general. This probably seems obvious, but it’s worth reiterating that these are things your parentswant for and from you, and so they are what you have to negotiate with. This also extends to more important arguments about, say, your future career, or your romantic lives, or your religious choices. These are areas where what you want to be happy and what your parents want for you are at odds because of different expectations about the world and different information.
Arguments like these, including those about some scientific fact or political belief, can also be framed as a negotiation of sorts: the thing you’re negotiating for is often respect. Parents want to make sure that you understand and respect their knowledge and experiences and perspective (whether it’s wrong or not), and offering them that respect as best you can, doing your best to make sure you show that you understand where they’re coming from, can often help a lot in such arguments, even if you still end up disagreeing forever. Which is okay too: it’s normal for parents and kids not to agree about everything. Something worth keeping in mind is that narcissistic or entitled parent may very often just end the conversation at “that’s what I want/deserve” or “that’s just the way it is,” and may not respond well to even simple, unthreatening questions.
There are some arguments that you will never win with your parents, but also should never feel the need to lose, either. In those cases where your mental health is at stake, where your parents are showing signs of being obstinate, entitled, abusive, or narcissistic, your job isn’t to win the arguments, it’s to survive long enough to gain your independence, and then, if you choose, create boundaries to ensure your emotional wellbeing.
In Chapter 20 of The Origin of Species, Red uses a mental flowchart to identify why he’s so upset at something Psychic Narud said to him. People have asked what it’s from, so here is a rough draft of that flowchart in its entirety. I came up with it as a way to help clients improve awareness of what upsets them and work through why, and you’re welcome to use it as you will. (You may need to view image in a new tab to read it.)
If confirmation bias had an image, it would be something like this:
How many black dots do you see in there? If you’re like most people. chances are you see 1, maybe 2. Until you move your eyes. And then you see another 1, maybe 2. And the first ones you saw are gone.
There are 12 black dots in that image. At most you can probably only see a fraction of them at a time. And yet your mind convinces you that it can see the whole image perfectly… so much so that it helpfully fills out the grey intersections where the other dots are, leaving them empty. Don’t mind them. Nothing to see there.
If your brain can trick you into only seeing one or two of the dots on this image at the same time, you can rest assured it can trick you into thinking you know more than you actually do about data that isn’t even all in front of you at the same time, let alone data that isn’t all the data in the world about that topic.
That’s the trickiest half of confirmation bias. Not just focusing on data that confirms what you believe, but ignoring evidence that goes against what you believe, so thoroughly that something in your mind filters it from your senses or memory before it even reaches “you.”
There’s nothing wrong with having a belief without having all the data concerning it. We’re imperfect beings, and can’t go through life having 0% confidence in things just because of unknown unknowns.
But believing something isn’t the same as being 100% or even 90% confident that it’s true. You can believe in something and acknowledge that you’re only 70% confident in it, or 53.8% confident, as long as you know of things that would increase or decrease your confidence if brought to your attention.
Unfortunately most people don’t think that way. They don’t talk about their beliefs in probabilities. Even if they acknowledge that they “might be wrong,” they’re confident that what they think is true. And research has shown people to be overconfident in their beliefs again and again and again.
Thanks to empiricism and reason, we do have good reasons to believe certain scientific and philosophical ideas. They’ve been vigorously tested and used to make correct predictions about the world. They’ve been used to change things in our external, shared reality. It’s okay to be confident in things like “I exist” and “things in the world can be measured.”
But things like political beliefs? Beliefs about people you’ve never met? Beliefs about systems you’ve never studied?
Lower your confidence in all of those. All of them.
When you’ve reached the point where you know what you value (Equality, Justice, Health, etc) but are not quite positive about what the right things to do to achieve the optimal balance of those values in the real world are, you’re a bit closer to understanding what you think you know and why you think you know it.
If you’ve reached solipsism, dial it back. That way lies madness, and insufferable, pointless arguments.
“Sorry is the Kool-Aid of human emotions. It’s what you say when you spill a cup of coffee or throw a gutterball when you’re bowling with the girls in the league. True sorrow is as rare as true love.” -Stephen King
Inside Out was a movie about a young girl named Riley who has five anthropomorphized emotions: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear. The emotions each played an important role in keeping Riley safe and happy, though it took the plot of the movie to teach everyone what function Sadness served: to signal to others that you are not okay, that you are not happy with things as they are, that you need help. Sometimes it’s an emotion that tells you that, so you become motivated to change things.
Surprising as it may be to some, this is not an obvious thing. There are many people who do not understand it, and even understanding it, have trouble integrating it into their behavior and worldview. One group of such people are children or teenagers who experience grief and don’t receive the proper support. They can often act in destructive ways, to themselves and others, until they receive help processing their own emotions and the changes in their lives. Another group are adults who were handed too much responsibility at too young an age, and, later in life, have trouble expressing sadness or hurt. This is especially true when the people causing them distress are simultaneously those that need them to be fine. Others are adults who were conditioned at a young age against showing any weakness or vulnerability, either as a method to control them or a misguided attempt to strengthen them, and never shook off that conditioning.
Like any emotion, sadness can be overtuned or undertuned to the point of dysfunction. But the reason the movie was valuable is that it shined a spotlight on an emotion many people don’t understand as well as they do Joy or Anger or Fear, an emotion that can make them inherently uncomfortable to talk about or express.
If I were to write the sequel to Inside Out, it would be about Riley growing into a teenager with a host of new emotions, and the focus of the plot would be learning about Guilt.
Like Sadness, Guilt is an emotion that causes discomfort. We actively try to avoid actions that we know will cause it, and subconsciously try to explain our actions or thoughts in a favorable light to assuage it, a process misnomously referred to as “rationalization.”
Guilt , when felt too much from too many things, or instilled by abusive parents or dysfunctional belief systems, can lead to self-flagellation and undeserved repentance that limits growth and makes happiness seem itself a poison.
But without Guilt, we end up with a world of dangerously static people. Guilt, properly felt and understood, leads to change. Guilt, properly acknowledged and reacted to, leads to growth.
What Do I think I Know, and Why Do I Think I Know it?
When I was too young to understand rational justifications for behavior, Guilt was the emotion that led to the most memorable moments of personal growth. When I was at summer camp we used to throw crab apples at each other for fun. One that I threw accidentally hit a girl near the eye. Her wails led to an intense sensation of guilt that did far more to deter me from repeating the action than any punishments the camp counselors devised. When future games of throwing crab apples commenced, I found something better to do with my time. Well, probably not better, but less likely to hurt others.
That was an accident. Once in elementary school, I hurt someone out of cold, calculated anger. The PE teacher randomly divided us into two teams and sent my group to the field first. When we switched, I ended up at the back of the line for kicking the ball. Someone had to be there, and that day it was me. It had been a long, hot 30 minute wait to get my turn to kick, and I was counting down the minutes before I knew the bell would ring. Finally, with moments to spare, it was my turn. I positioned myself, watched the bright red ball come bouncing toward me, and just as I prepared myself to kick it, one of my classmates ran in front of me and, laughing like a loon, sent it sailing over the field.
The bell rang before the ball could be returned, and as we walked back toward the school buildings, my eyes locked on the back of the ball-kicker’s head. My “righteous” rage thinned to a laser point, and I strode up to him from behind, tapped his shoulder, and sucker-punched him in the face as hard as I could.
I can’t remember if I got any satisfaction in seeing him curled up on the ground and screaming in pain. I only remember the guilt afterward, as I promised myself I would never do that again.
And I didn’t. But that doesn’t mean I never hurt someone again.
My older brother used to beat me fairly often when we were young. Our relationship got a lot better after I moved out for college, and better still after he left for the military, but while I was young he would hit me for all manner of things, sometimes in frightening rages, other times just as a playful form of expressing annoyance.
It wasn’t until my best friend broke down in tears and told me he wanted me to stop hitting him that I realized I’d adopted my brother’s behavior. Not in anger, just “playful” punches on the arm or slaps upside the head. It was like someone had shined a light on a dark corner of my mind, illuminating machinery I hadn’t even known was there. I began to cry too, and promised him I would stop. And I did.
I cried again years later while reading Ender’s Game for the first time. “I’m just like Peter,” Ender thinks at the end of the first chapter, crying over the boy he beat. “Take away my monitor, and I’m just like Peter.” Becoming my older brother was my greatest fear as a child.
Hurting people isn’t the only thing to be guilty about, of course. I used to steal all the time as a child. Magic card packs from toy stores, food from supermarkets. Eventually I got caught, threatened with jail, fingerprinted, and released without a trip to the police station. I felt miserable the whole ride home. My mother’s recriminations stopped at “next time don’t get caught,” but my own continued all the way to my bedroom. While there, I lay on the covers and stared at the ceiling. I knew I had to fight my urge to steal, kill it completely dead, before it landed me in more trouble. So I identified each and every one of the irrational thoughts I’d been repeating to avoid Guilt at stealing, my “rationalizations,” and discarded them.
It’s not fair that we’re poor and can’t afford things. If everyone who was poor stole society would collapse, and I’m not literally starving to death. Discard.
I’m stealing from large stores and national companies, not individuals. They won’t even notice the loss. Individual people work at these stores and rely on them doing well to maintain their job or get better pay. Discard.
I’m very kind and generous to others. It balances out. Helping others does not justify unrelated actions that harm others. Discard.
By the time I left my room that evening, I had resolved never to shoplift again. The community service and special classes I had to attend were superfluous: my desires for self preservation, and guilt over the people I was hurting, were strong enough to fuel change, and I was thankfully rational enough to leverage them into the right changes to my thinking patterns to be effective. The urges to steal were still there, but they were easier to resist every time I did, until they ceased almost completely. I haven’t shoplifted since.
All this isn’t to say I’m perfect. I got into a fight a couple years ago and hurt someone more than was justified by the circumstances. I still occasionally fill my water cup with soda from the fountains at fast food places. Guilt only works as a mechanism for change when it’s genuinely connected to an action, and that disconnect between actions that are intellectually recognized as wrong, but don’t emotionally result in guilt, is what confuses so many people who struggle with change, either in themselves or others.
How Does This Knowledge Help?
Besides the value in understanding guilt’s role in helping us grow, there’s also the value in understanding what its absence in others signals.
In my line of work, and often through my extended social circle, one of the hardest challenges I see people struggle with is emotional abuse. Because it isn’t as overt as physical abuse, and because by its very nature it turns one’s own thoughts and feelings against them, it’s important to understand how valuable guilt is to changing someone’s behavior and helping them grow, so that you can also identify why those that lack guilt, won’t.
Narcissists exist. They can be parents. They can be siblings. They can be friends. Whether it’s due mostly to biology or social factors, this reality has to be confronted and addressed at some point in many people’s lives. Narcissists aren’t sociopaths, or psychopaths. Just people who cannot help but primarily see the world in terms of their own wants and needs. And of course people can fall on a spectrum for narcissism. But those at the extreme end can be frighteningly hard to know how to deal with… especially if they’re someone close to you.
In systemic therapy, all behavior is examined through the system it’s a part of, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. When someone emotionally abuses their spouse, we ask “What is that spouse doing that’s allowing that behavior to continue?” Not because we’re blaming the spouse for being abused, but because everything people do communicates something to those around them, and either reinforces or punishes the actions of those around them. If you can’t make someone want to change (and you often can’t), sometimes you have to change what happens if they don’t.
If there was a quick and simple one-size-fits-all solution to getting people to change negative behaviors, the world would look like a very different place. People are complicated, and different enough from each other that, even with generally applicable incentives and behavior models, finding just the right lever to pull or button to push can be the work of hours of intensive exploration and analysis.
But over time we’ve generally learned what doesn’t work, and that knowledge is worth spreading. The word “enabling” is tossed around fairly often, and is an important concept to understand when it comes to battling addiction. But people don’t just enable each other’s alcoholism or gambling obsessions. People also enable each other’s selfishness or cruelty, usually because we don’t realize how we’re doing it.
And that’s where the presence or lack of guilt is so important.
Shame is an external form of guilt. If someone is acting selfishly, or callously, or dishonestly, shame done right can shock them into better self-awareness. It’s an extrinsic motivation, an outside incentive that can help lead to change even if the person doesn’t want it. It’s not the ideal mechanism, but it can be a vital starting point.
Unfortunately, as a tool, shame’s natural state is a mallet. It’s hard to wield with the precision necessary to constructively affect behavior. It’s also far too often wielded in the name of ego rather than compassion.
Shaming someone for their religious beliefs (or lack of them), their sexuality, their hobbies or interests, or because they reflect poorly on the shamer, are all done far more often than the “constructive” forms of shaming. It’s this widespread destructiveness that’s given “shame” and “guilt” such negative connotations, where it’s considered wrong by many to impose your beliefs or morals on another’s actions.
Let’s focus on that distinction here:
Destructive shaming frames the issue as outside the person’s control. It often manifests in contempt, shouting, and belittling. It tends to either incite self-loathing or defensiveness, neither of which lead to positive changes.
Examples: “You always do this. You never do that. Why do you do that? Why are you like that? Are you lazy/stupid? You’re a horrible person. You’re pathetic.”
Constructive shaming focuses on appeals to the actor’s better nature, and their stated or ostensible values and desires to not harm others. It manifests in frank but calm language, is surrounded by support, and followed by a positive goal.
Examples: “I want to make sure you know how much this is hurting me/them. I know you don’t want that. What do you think might be causing this? Is there anything I can do to help?”
Constructive shaming is not a magic bullet. People who repeatedly act in their own interest at the expense of others, or at the expense of themselves, have spent years learning to “rationalize” and justify their actions, and, at a more advanced level, learn to cycle through self-recrimination as a method of assuaging guilt.
Enablers are often sought out at this point. The guilty party will admit their shameful acts to people who are “safe,” friends or family that they know will offer empty platitudes as support, like “You’re a good person” and “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy.”
Telling someone they’re a good person when they made an honest mistake is helpful. Telling them they’re a good person when they repeatedly do things “good people” don’t is not.
Telling someone they deserve to be happy is important when they keep putting other people’s desires over their own. Telling them they deserve to be happy when they repeatedly put their own desires first at the expense of others is not.
And yet this is what makes up a lot of a friend-group’s or family’s interactions when someone expresses guilt. They want to help. They want to signal support. These are admirable desires, but they have to be measured against history and desired outcomes.
If a friend calls you to berate themselves over cheating on their significant other while simultaneously fishing for support in how unhappy they are with their SO, recognize that distinction between support and enabling.
If a sibling laughs about how they can’t remember their “crazy hijinks” of the night before because of how blackout drunk they got, laugh with them if you want to, but see if that laughter is covering some deeper issue.
People often hide their own concerns for their safety and wellbeing, or their fear of judgement/shame by others, in humor or a casual assurance that everything is fine. Expressing guilt becomes a form of guilty pleasure, a signal to attract comfort from others, and receiving comfort and absolution from others makes it easier to continue the same behavior.
The first step in changing that behavior is often changing the responses to it. Every part of a system has some affect on the other parts of the system, and if you can’t directly change the behavior of Part A, you can try to alter it through the behavior of Part B, or through the response of Part B through Part C.
Maybe there’s a better way.
As I’ve spoken about this with people over the years, I’ve heard and thought about what actually makes guilt a positive force instead of a negative one, and found another frame on it that I like. When you feel guilt because you want to be a better person, there is often buried in this unpleasant feeling a sense of ambition for yourself or compassion for yourself and others; a wholesome and heroic desire to do good.
When I’ve tried leaning into this frame, I’ve found it surprisingly useful not just to hone in on what I want to change about myself and why. It also produces a much more “positive energy” to fuel my actions, leading to more motivation in whatever act I end up doing.
I think finding this frame and learning to lean into it can create a powerful inner generator, one that makes the steps between guilt -> growth much smoother and easier. To create or reinforce this generator, ask yourself things like Why do I wish I’d done something else? and Whose wellbeing am I looking out for?
“Healthy” shaming by others can also a form of compassion; an expression of what they want for you, or what they want for themselves if the thing you did caused harm to them. It’s easier, warmer, to step into someone else’s compassion for us and themselves than shame, and I think it might be just as powerful.
When trying to change your own behavior, lean into guilt/compassion. Focus on it, remember it, and ask others to provide the external sources of it of your future self if necessary. Don’t let the guilt consume you: use it as strength and motivation to become the best version of yourself.
When trying to change someone else’s behavior… well, that’s where things get complicated. Always try to change people’s behavior through kindness and understanding first. When that fails, “tough love” is sometimes necessary, assuming you have the right relationship with them and temperament to ensure it’s done properly.
But sometimes love isn’t enough.
Idealistic Me wants to believe that everyone can change, when they’re ready and if they have the proper support. Pragmatic Me recognizes that, time, effort, and resources are limited, and that if someone does not want to change, sacrificing good people’s time and effort and value to enable bad actions is not just irrational, but immoral.
Even the worst human in history might change and grow and become a better person with a thousand years of life to live. Unfortunately, for now we only have a handful of decades to work with, and for many, that’s just not enough.
To make things worse, there are many ways society pressures people to persist in helping those that abuse them and others: “they’re family,” or “true love is unconditional,” or “friends are meant to support each other.” These too can be the tools of an abuser, to turn someone’s guilt against themselves and keep them trapped in servitude.
For those that cannot be guilted, cannot be shamed, who wear their selfishness on their sleeve or repeatedly promise change without demonstrating it, often hiding behind tears and dramatic acts of attention-seeking self-destruction, the best option is often to simply cut them out like a cancer.
And this is always easier said than done, a bitter path to take, full of its own facets of guilt that need to be examined, acknowledged, and in this case, often discarded.
But that’s another post.
In the meantime, recognize how important guilt/compassion are to change your own behavior, when you need to. For guilt, there’s a certain point where not judging yourself, not leaning into the pain your mistakes cause, is just as wrong as putting yourself into a self-hate spiral, especially if it cuts you off from the compassion you can feel for your future self and those around you.
From where I’m standing, until you can put the behaviors behind you, the ones that make you harm other people, the ones that make you harm yourself, I don’t think it makes sense to forgive yourself for the pain you cause.
Become a better person first. Use whatever tools you can, including guilt, to get there. And once you’ve got a handle on it, then forgive your past self, because you’re not that person anymore.
And at the same time, recognize how important a lack of guilt in someone else, their lack of compassion for others, is as a signal that they’re not ready to change.
Don’t let guilt become a cage you lock yourself in, and don’t let others who lack guilt use your love for them against you. Narcissists and emotional abusers don’t need to trap you in their own dysfunction: they know exactly how to take guilt and make into a prison that you’ll build for yourself, deflecting any shame aimed at them and handing it back to you, brick by brick.