Better Out Than In

We have often heard the lament “hurting people hurt people”. That simple phrase resonates for many of us who have experienced being hurt deeply by the people we were trying to love; or whom we believed should unconditionally love us.

Where we become stymied is that we are not sure who to attend to — the hurting people or the hurt people. As a result, we haven’t effectively helped either. The problem just keeps perpetuating.

A few months ago, I wrote a Daily Gummy of Wisdom putting a twist on that old lament. It was “healing people heal people.” This insight came from personal experience as well as from stories I heard shared in my book club, with family and friends and most recently from strangers in a poetry writing class I am taking.

I do marvel at the healing that begins to take place when just one person makes space to listen to another’s story without judgement and most especially when they listen carefully enough to discover a knowing connection. This is precisely why support groups can have such a profound helping impact. There is a foundational promise that we can speak without interruption, that we can pour it all out — and that others will listen with all their human instincts. Everyone that is under that tent has had a similar life event that brought them in. The event is the catalyst for connection; for it is connection that heals.

Our stories and our hurts are better out than in.

I offered the metaphor of a splinter in my last post entitled Feeling Our Way Forward. If we ignore a splinter embedded in our skin, it never stops hurting. It can even fester and get infected as our body wants to eject this foreign object. We can go about our normal days, but every time we bump it, it is painful and serves as a reminder that we need to attend to it. It is the anticipatory pain of extraction that becomes an obstacle; and for some outrageous reason we think it will magically go away if we ignore it. We will not have to experience that brief extraction pain. But day in and day out, we come to discover that this is not true. And if someone else bumps our tender, painful finger, we blame them for their carelessness. That embedded splinter is also taking away our joy — even our ability to feel the softness of a consoling pet.

Eventually we face the truth — that splinter is indeed better out than in. Yes, the extraction does hurt. We may even feel some residual discomfort as though it is still embedded in our skin, but the healing is already starting. Our body is busy attending to the healing process and relieved that it is no longer doing a daily triage on something we refused to address.

A piercing splinter is an apt metaphor for our emotional wounds. Our emotions are better out than in.

In his book, Permission to Feel, emotional scientist Marc Brackett, makes this incredibly clear:

“The irony, though, is that when we ignore our feelings, or suppress them, they only become stronger. The really powerful emotions build up inside us, like a dark force that inevitably poisons everything we do, whether we like it or not. Hurt feelings don’t vanish on their own. They don’t heal themselves. If we don’t express our emotions, they pile up like a debt that will eventually come due.” – excepted from Permission to Feel, pg.13, Author – Marc Brackett, Ph.D.

Every single book I have read in recent months about emotional health, parenting, longevity and health span cites this one compelling factor: We got emotions all wrong and we only started to understand this in the 1980’s.

Just think about that — up until a few decades ago, we just kept ignoring and dismissing emotions all together. And even now, with more research, we are too slow to respond and integrate.

So let’s circle back to the lament that “hurting people hurt people” and take action to attend to both the hurting and the hurt. The escalating emotional and mental health crisis is proof positive that we can no longer ignore our emotional splinters. Everyone deserves to be attended with compassion, non-judgment and assistance to pull the hurting out.

We cannot address what we do not not know, yet there is growing evidence that not integrating our emotions was a huge mistake — a catacylsmic snowball rolling down debris-covered hill.

Remember when you were a kid and there was just a small dusting of snow on the ground, but you just had to make a snowman. You’d start with a tiny snowball and begin rolling it around the yard. As the fresh snow clung to that baseball sized snowball, it grew in size. It left behind a little swath cleared of snow, revealing green grass, brown decaying leaves and broken twigs. And that growing snowball — well it was mostly snow but it also had a lot of those decaying leaves and broken twigs projecting from it. That is what has been happening from one generation to the next with all our unprocessed emotions — they were the decaying leaves and broken twigs that got passed along with eye and skin color. The snowball full of emotional projectiles.

Unprocessed and unexpressed emotions have piled up; we are still carrying and paying the overdue debts of our ancestors.

I recently published a blog post “Learning What We Need to Teach.” That post was inspired by the work of Dr. Dan Siegel who wrote The Power of Showing Up, Whole Brain Parenting and No Drama Discipline. One of the fastest ways that we can implement real change is to teach our children that emotions are an integral part of who they are and how they learn about life. We need to teach them a vast and nuanced emotional vocabulary. We are the training wheels for this integration of big unwieldy and at times, scary, emotions for our children and their developing brains. But we cannot teach what we ourselves don’t know. It would be like us suddenly trying to teach our kids to speak a foreign language fluently. We might only know a few familiar phrases in Spanish or French. We are hardly skillful.

Can you imagine what it feels like for a small child to have big emotions wash all over her, out of the blue? My young granddaughter was standing in the bathtub, trembling with crocodile tears running down her cheeks. She was so angry at her brother and was yelling at him. She also had enough self awareness to recognize that her voice had changed and that scared her – what was happening? Her changing voice took precedence over her anger. In that moment, my granddaughter was feeling a natural and normal chain reaction that happens when emotions hit us.

That present moment is a teaching opportunity.

Her anger was simply an emotion that told her something wasn’t right. Her brother had not been respectful about her bathtub toys. Her anger was legitimate. Her anger caused her body and developing brain to react. Her heart was racing, the tears were flowing, her voice was amplified. All that happened in a split second. She was caught in an emotional vortex — angry at her brother and she was scaring herself with her own voice; one she didn’t recognize or like. “What is happening to me?” she asked me. “Why is my voice changing?”

Being the training wheels for these moments is a game-changer for everyone. It is how we integrate emotional awareness.

Step 1 of being the training wheels is to remain calm. We co-regulate each other and if we can show up calmly for our kids when they are overcome with emotions, it is soothing. Their heart rate will slow, their labored breathing will return to baseline, the tension in their tiny bodies will release. When we are initially learning how to be the “training wheels” this first step will seem like it takes an eternity. That’s just an illusion however. It actually takes much less time than we realize.

It is when we respond to our child’s normal and right-sized “out of control” emotional chain reaction with our abnormal, outsized adult emotional reaction that things escalate and can become unwieldy. Step one — stay calm. You are a first responder.

Step 2 is naming the emotions that our child is feeling. Name them to tame them. This is how we organically build our child’s emotional vocabulary. It not only helps them to have this valuable reference point for self-identification of their own emotions, it builds connection and empathy with others. If a sibling expresses “I am so angry right now” a child instinctively knows what anger feels like to them. They can relate.

At the risk of losing the flow of this lesson in “training wheels”, I will pull a strong thread from what we know is so helpful in support groups. It is empathy. It is being able to listen to someone’s story and have a basic human understanding of what they must feel like, using our experiences as the connector.

So when we help our children label their emotions, we are giving them context from their own emotional experience to be able to relate to others. They will intuitively know what anger or envy feels like. We are building their emotional vocabulary and cultivating their ability to help themselves and others in emotional discomfort.

I’m guessing that it is beginning to feel pretty obvious right now that if we had been raised this way, with a deep appreciation for our emotions and tools to help us express and manage them, our own lives would have been greatly improved. Stick with me — there’s more.

Back to training wheels – Step 3. Normalizing the emotions is powerful. Emotions are neither right nor wrong. They are simply a form of information. Anger is nothing more than a newsflash that something is important to us.

Even if that something important is just a few bathtub toys, it matters. It matters to my granddaughter who was very clear about what was important to her in advance. Anger was just a normal and appropriate reaction.

As for her voice changing, she just needed to be reassured that this too was natural. That our voice does change when we are angry and it won’t last. You should have seen the look of relief that washed over her precious face at that breaking news. Did you know that it feels very scary to small children when emotions are coursing through their little bodies. Of course they are worried that they are changing and just like imagining a monster under the bed, they are fearful that it is for real and forever.

Step 4 of being emotional integration training wheels for our children is helping them become aware that emotions often come packaged with other feelings. Anger can be accompanied by disappointment, confusion, envy, a sense of unfairness. Just as we would double check that there are no little fragments remaining from a splinter we removed, we should do the same for our emotions. Invite some exploration of the accompanying emotions. We are often deeply touched by what we learn when we really listen to our distressed child.

For the record, this is even more amplified for our teenagers. It is only when we become more skillful listeners that our adolescences open up to share what is under the surface. Be patient, don’t lecture or fix — just listen.

The bottom line is that so many of us grew up without an understanding of the integral role our emotions play in helping us build lives that are strong, healthy, supportive, connected, resilient and meaningful. We blamed emotions for getting in the way of our living a good life. If we could just ignore them, turn them off, shut them down, then we would be happy.

If we had only known that our emotions were the very first and most integral part of our human experience, we would not be awash in shame, blame, loneliness, judgment, dissatisfaction, addictions and estrangements. Emotions didn’t cause these issues — in fact, they are both the prevention and the cure.

I watch my grandchildren today – who are being raised with integration of their emotions into their developing brains and I marvel at their self-awareness, their growing confidence and resilience and most impressively their emotional navigational skills. They are so attuned to their emotions that they can anticipate when a situation might arise where they feel their “jealousy rising”. Rather than ignore it, they name and come up with a plan to address it. From birthday celebrations, to board game competitions, they can hold both their own feelings of envy and a stronger desire to pour joy on each other.

Just the other day, my granddaughter told me that sometimes she really prefers to stay in her mood for a while. She is not afraid to be with her strong emotions and to really feel how they show up in her body, and how long it takes for them to fade. Can you imagine having that much enlightened engagement with your feelings when you were a kid? She is processing her moods, her feelings in real time – without self criticism or parental judgment.

Can you imagine having an inner voice that was trained in curiosity, non-judgment and self compassion? That is precisely what is happening for my granddaughter when she sits with her feelings; she is training her inner voice to be a supportive internal best friend.

Hurting people hurt people – and usually this is unintentional. We simply were not taught and shown by example how to use our emotions in the positive ways they were intended. Our emotional health impacts our quality of life, our physical and cognitive health and our ability to care for ourselves and others in vastly beneficial ways.

We literally pushed away what we needed the most — emotional awareness and emotional intelligence.



Feeling Our Way Forward

When I was a teenager, I stood in my grandmother’s sunlit kitchen watching this tiny spry woman skimming cream from the top of a quart glass milk bottle. The bottle was as weathered as she was, no longer crystal clear glass, but almost opaque from the innumerable times it had been filled at a dairy, topped with a cardboard stopper, packed in a crate, delivered in a truck, placed in a metal silver box on the front door step, retrieved before the sun rose, its contents separated — cream for coffee and milk for oatmeal. My grandmother was about to turn 68 — for the 5th time according to my calculations. She preferred to stay lodged at 68 rather than admit to entering her 7th decade.

This confounded me. I marveled at the fact that someone could live to their mid-70’s or beyond. (Remember I was only a young teen and even 40 seemed old to me at that time,) Yet what transfixed me even more was all the changes that my grandmother had seen in her lifetime. I was so eager to hear her stories, to find it incredulous that her electric refrigerator had once been an icebox! Imagine having ice delivered to your doorstep just as the familiar milk was now delivered. She drove a big black Buick now, but what was her first car or mode of transportation? And that black and white TV that was the focal point of her tiny living room — what was it like to experience a TV for the very first time?

My grandmother rarely stopped her never-ending forward momentum to pause and reflect on these wonders. She’d wave her wrinkled hand at me as though swatting at a fly, smile and tell me to set the table for breakfast. I do believe my grandmother possessed a lot of wisdom from all that she had witnessed and experienced in her seven decades, but she was reluctant to reflect. What’s done is done was her motto.

Now I am the grandmother in her seventh decade. My six year old grandson held my gaze as he marveled “Gigi, it’s amazing that you lived in the olden days and you are living in the here days now.” Unlike my grandmother, I am equally in awe and I melt at my grandson’s observation. I will be an open book for any questions that my grandchildren have about all that I have witnessed and experienced in my life.

The truth is that I am so grateful to not only witness, but to be actively engaged in the profound changes unfolding in my lifetime that will be transformational for generations to come.

My own personal growth journey, started about 8 years ago, had me unpacking nearly 6 decades of emotional baggage, rummaging through long-forgotten but pivotal events that occurred not only in my life, but in the lives and experiences of my family’s prior generations.

As I was steeped in this personal development work, I began to notice correlations and coalescence of the sciences, psychology, modern medicine and mental health along with Brene Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability, Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion, and Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset and neuroplasticity. Suddenly things were beginning to feel very inter-connected and the common denominator was emotions.

Did you know that we never really studied emotions until the late 1980’s? This startling revelation blew my mind.

For all the discoveries, advancements, inventions and societal changes we have witnessed for centuries, the most transformational evolutionary breakthroughs are happening in this very moment – and it has everything to do with integrating our emotions into our human operating system. Nothing could be more impactful for all of mankind.

My grandmother’s generation, like those that came before her, knew next to nothing about the integral value of our emotions. “Psychological science was firmly entrenched in a “cognitive revolution” reveals Dacher Keltner in his latest book, Awe.

“Within this framework (of cognitive science), every human experience, from moral condemnation to prejudice against people of color, originates in how our minds, like computer programs, process units of information in passionless ways. What was missing from this understanding of human nature was emotion. Passion, Gut Feeling. What Scottish philosopher David Hume famously called “the master of reason” and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman termed “System 1” thinking. — excerpted from Chapter 1 of Awe by Dasher Kellner (renowned expert in the science of human emotion)

That old saying that “hindsight is 20/20” really rings true as I reflect back on how emotions were banished from one generation to the next. Old parenting models reinforced that “cognitive revolution” so we just kept stuffing our skeletons in the closet, and filling our human basements and attics with old baggage and unhealed emotional wounds.

We compounded the problem when we banished emotions from our human operating system. All those unprocessed emotions and related traumas got passed along from one generation to the next into our genes. So not only did we grow up witnessing and then modeling dysfunctional behavioral patterns, we actually carried generational emotional baggage in our genes. We were predisposed to perpetuate dysfunctional patterns. Here are salient pivot points that we are learning about our genes and their generational impact:

Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.

Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence. But they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.

Consider this: The first human disease to be linked to epigenetics was cancer, in 1983.

We are witnessing the big reveal right now — as our emotional health has hit the charts in revelatory ways. In just a little over three decades, we have advanced the ball on human evolution by recognizing that we got emotions all wrong.

Human beings are hard-wired for connection. The critical component of our motherboard that facilitates and integrates that lifelong need for connection is emotions.

Without this integral component, we have faulty, dysfunctional operating systems. Our immune systems malfunction and we get physically and cognitive sick. We have poor emotional regulation because we never got an owner’s manual. We struggle to make and keep relationships healthy and strong. We cannot teach our kids because we don’t know what we don’t know. They mirror us and we get mad, frustrated, discouraged and weary.

It should not be surprising at all that our teens are struggling with loneliness and depression. Imagine how many generations of unresolved emotions and trauma they are carrying in their genes. Technology and social media has exacerbated the problem as we become more socially disconnected while staring at our addictive screens instead of each other.

The bottom line is that we can all participate in this emotion revolution by embracing the need for integration of our emotions into our human operating system. We don’t think twice about upgrading our phones or devices. And when we get our children their first phone, we are not giving them a wall mounted rotary dial model. Why then would we have them operating on a partially installed top shelf brain/body/nervous system?

In prior blog posts, I have shared how inspirational it is to have prominent, respected younger men and women taking the lead by being so real and vulnerable in their podcasts, books, Ted Talks and social media platforms about their own emotional health journeys. There is a lot of generational baggage being unpacked these days to make room for a much healthier and more connected way of living.

Yes, it is incredibly sad to hear about the traumas and dysfunctional emotional underpinnings that people have endured. It is also not surprising to discover that these stories are not as uncommon as we think and have been the root cause of addictions, broken relationships, chronic and life threatening health issues and poor quality of life.

What I do know is that this is exactly how the healing begins and the evolution takes root. Unpacking unprocessed emotions is like having a splinter. We know it’s there. We can ignore it, but we will feel the pain every time we bump up against it…and over time it just might get infected. When we pull that splinter, we may still feel a little residual pain, but the reality is that the healing has already begun.

When my grandson tells me that it is amazing that I lived in the old days and I am here now, living in these present days, I can look at him and see him growing up in a world where he is a fully integrated human being, experiencing life with emotional meta vision and a self awareness that simply was not possible before. Oh yes, I have seen and experienced a lot in my lifetime, but just you wait — the best is yet to come.


LISTEN TO THIS MARCH 3rd 2023 EPISODE WITH LEWISHOWES – Prepare to be amazed at what you learn from Lewis about the profound benefits of unpacking emotional baggage and trauma – and then helping others do the same.

Nuggets of Wisdom

I started collecting inspirational quotes in my teen years and to this day, I am still fascinated by them. One day, my friend told me that the little nuggets of wisdom I shared with her about mindfulness were like inspirational quotes for her. I laughed and said that my little homemade quotes were like daily gummy supplements for self-awareness. My daughter told me that she likes them because it the perfect way to squeeze a little mindfulness into her crazy busy day keeping up with two young children.

So, I am launching a new component to my blog posts — and aiming to share my Nuggets of Wisdom twice a month.

This first one came to me when I realized that all too often, we inadvertently interrupt others and pull their attention away from the present moment. Just taking a few moments to take stock of a present situation may be all that is needed to realize our comment or story can wait a bit. Don’t break the spell of a mom reading a book to her child, or your partner engrossed in meal prep, or a friend taking a moment to gather her thoughts.

Those moments when we pause and just observe another being focused in their own activity is an opportunity to witness another’s joy, fascination or vulnerability.

We’ve all got behavioral patterns that we unconsciously fall back on– things like avoiding conflict, being a control freak or being a consummate helper, not asking for help. Just like a good purge of clothes that no longer fit or are outdated, a purge of these old conditioned patterns free us up to fully embrace our current life and the person we are striving to be.

I’ve often described this processing as gaining a lot of real estate in our lives for new growth opportunities, richer experiences and more contentment.

Too often we ignore our intuition. Paying attention to our “gut instinct” will usually point us to the best choices. Our best friends and trust buddies will be honest with us, and help us see the blind spots we may be missing. They are good at holding space while we sort things out. Road blocks may be invaluable signs that something isn’t right for us, or that we aren’t quite ready. New beginnings are the springboard for learning, growth and resilience. Fresh starts are like a blank canvas ripe with opportunity.

Any habit that we wish to change does require commitment and daily practice. It’s fun to work on enhancing a personal quality that we want to let shine. I truly believe it is easier than breaking a bad habit too.

Replacing being judgmental with being curious was a quality I worked on. It really shifted my perspective and honed my empathy for what others were dealing with in their own lives.

What quality do you want to expand?

This might be my personal favorite — put a little gratitude in your attitude!

No matter what is going on in our lives, we often have so much to be grateful for, but we are so busy focusing on what’s going wrong that we overlook the obvious.

Take a moment to think about one or two things in your life that you are truly grateful for – and if it just happens to be a person in your life, tell them! A little note, a text, a hug or making them a cup of tea will be a blessing that goes both ways.

I hope you enjoy the Nuggets of Wisdom. I’d love to hear from you with comments, ideas, and your own nuggets of inspiration and wisdom.

Red Flag Insights

I’ve often shared how a relationship breakup put me on the personal growth path in my 60’s. While moving on from a broken relationship was challenging by itself, trying to understand why I ignored red flags and held on so long to an unhealthy dynamic proved to be the hardest part. It also became the most profound pivot of my life.

Today as I was listening to a Being Well podcast, I found myself feeling so “heard and understood” by Dr. Rhonda Freeman. Learning how the brain is impacted in our relationships explained a lot of the mystery that kept both me and my partner in unhealthy cycles. Repetitive patterns and the release of brain chemicals that “reward” us play significant roles.

Turns out that Dr. Rhonda Freeman also went through a similar relationship and breakup as me. She had the same experience afterward with friends and an unhelpful counselor that I did. She also had a strong desire to learn from the lessons which resulted in her turning to personal growth resources to find her healing. Dr. Freeman discovered that this foundation in her very own field of expertise — neuropsychology. While her main focus had been dementia, she now applied the science and tools to healing from a dysfunctional relationship.

While I did not have that field of expertise, I did have a keen fascination in neuroscience as well as a budding interest in mindfulness — and that led me to discovering Dr. Rick Hanson. The profound pivot for me was turning my attention inward and committing to some major changes. For most of my life, I’d always been about helping others, so this was a complete 180 for me. It was Dr. Hanson’s book, Hardwired for Happiness that jumpstarted the process.

Listening to the podcast today revealed the complex impact of an emotionally dysfunctional relationship on the brain. Suddenly a lot of pieces started to fall into place for me as I gained clarity about red flags and why my healing from that relationship took several years. I found Dr. Freeman’s honesty about her own relationship experience to be comforting and reassuring. She too had missed the red flags. She too had kept doubling down on efforts to salvage a fraying relationship. There is such a strong influential pull in romantic relationships fueled by our innate need for belonging and connection, that we can often override and overlook what should seem obvious.

Even Dr. Hanson confessed that he was once “talked into” following a cult-like group at one point in his life and in spite of his background, he too was completely affected and bamboozled by the influential power of the group. He pointed out that because we humans are by nature empathic and compassionate, we are also vulnerable to being influenced and drawn into relationships with others that are not so healthy. Sadly, emotionally dysfunctional relationships are all too common these days.

It’s not that unusual to have blind spots to the red flags. We may just dismiss them or explain them away. It can happen to anyone. We get flooded and overwhelmed by strong influences. Dr. Hanson cautions us to have a deep appreciation for the power of social conformity, acceptance and openness to being manipulated by others.

Once the conversation established how we find ourselves getting pulled into unhealthy relationships, it then turned to what is needed in the aftermath. How do we heal? What lessons do we learn and how do we develop our awareness and attunement to red flags and our own unconscious patterns?

Dr. Rhonda Freeman explained the double whammy of recovering from dysfunctional relationships. Not only do we have to heal from the pain of an emotionally dysfunctional relationship, we also have to address the shame that accompanies it. Shame we put on ourselves for allowing ourselves to be pulled into such a dynamic and shame from others. Very often well-meaning but misguided friends will also shame us. “How could you get into this relationship? Why did you accept that behavior? How did you miss those red flags and long-standing behavioral patterns?

As I listened to Dr. Freeman’s stories about her friends who took a “tough love” stance and told her to “get over it” and “just move on”, it resonated deeply with me. The tough love approach can do more harm than good and often only causes additional heartache. Now I understood why I felt so awful back then and even avoided friends who doled out their tough love advice or thought I should dive headfirst into a new relationship.

As Dr. Hanson pointed out, you need a trusted friend to fill the emotional void that is inevitable after a breakup. This is a key element to healing — because it is the emotional void that can cause rumination, longing and extended suffering. It is much more supportive to have a trusted friend who will hold space for you and be willing to listen without judgment. You need a reliable friend who can curl up on the couch with you and watch a movie, make you laugh, offer grace to you as you take time and space to reflect, to recover.

While this was not covered in the podcast, it was only through a lot of deep introspective work that I realized some aspects of my former relationship had triggered memories and emotions buried deep in me from my childhood experiences with my mother. Oddly enough, this started to come out in my journaling. I would have missed many opportunities to go deeper with my personal growth work had I not stuck with it. The breakup actually served to be quite cathartic for me.

Once I was more aware of those old emotional layers, I committed to healing them as well. It is why I now have a daily practice for my mental health and well being. In fact, there have been many aspects about my former relationship that became gateways to learn more about how the brain functions, childhood trauma, depression, emotional intelligence, addictions, neuroscience and the enneagram.

While my partner may not have had narcissistic issues, I believe that emotional disregulation and old behavioral patterns contributed to relationship dysfunction that feels remarkably similar to what was discussed in this Being Well podcast. He often described himself as a delicate flower — and I now understand that this was how he felt about the fragility of his ego. I often felt like I was walking on eggshells around him, never knowing what passing comment would trigger him. This led to more guarded conversation than light-hearted banter.

Our approaches to life’s challenges were quite opposite –I’d head for a walk in nature to clear my head and he’d curl up in bed, in the dark, for hours and often emerge heavier and sadder. I’ve come to understand that his enneagram characteristics predisposed him to hang out with deep dark emotions, often ruminating about the past. It was his comfort zone – a soothing mechanism that did not serve him well.

I’d been traumatized as a 4 year old when my mother locked me in a dark attic as punishment for running home from pre-school after an incident with a bully. So the last place you will find me is in a darkened room if the sun is shining. Since I did not understand his innate preference for sitting at length with his heavy emotions in the dark and he did not understand my need for sunlight and energy, we were both blind as to why our responses to adversities were so different. He felt unsupported because I could not stay in the dark where I unconsciously felt scared and very uncomfortable.

At the onset of our relationship, I mistook his deep pool of emotions for vulnerability and a capacity for empathy. I have subsequently learned from enneagram educators who share his type that this is a common misconception and a frequent cause of relationship issues. HIs self-focused actions often caused me and others hurt and confusion. It was his lack of remorse and understanding about his impact on others that baffled me the most. Surely if he himself could feel emotions so deeply, he must be able to understand another’s feelings. There was a disconnect about what he needed and what he was able to reciprocate. I chose the word “able” intentionally here. I know he was “capable” but I believe that unconscious behavioral patterns created his blind spot.

I’d seen the poor coping skills early on in our relationship, but chalked it up to the aftermath of a troubled marriage that ended in divorce. Especially because it often seemed to be most apparent whenever he and his ex had a disagreement about matters relating to their children. He was a doting dad who cared deeply for his children. But over time, I witnessed his struggle with emotional regulation and poor coping skills cropping up in many areas. It seemed that he really struggled to make any distinction between what should have been a 1 or 2 on the radar screen. Everything got a response as though it were a 10. This was an exhaustive pattern for both of us. I urged him to work on it so that we would have some reserve for the bigger milestones and adversities that life would surely bring us. This conversation sent us back to couples counseling.

Recently I have learned through Dr. Bruce Perry how the bar for our emotional stress regulation gets set in childhood. While I do not know my former partner’s full family history, I have some clues that might explain why he innately struggled so much with emotional regulation. While I did implore his family members to learn more, no one seemed to really have any answers, just the observation that ” he’s always been that way. ”

The very thing that brought us together — golf — was the final blow in our relationship. Instead of us having fun and enjoying our mutual passion for the game, each round was filled with his drama, poor sportsmanship and blaming others over bad shots.

That was when I took stock of the bigger picture and recognized that the behavioral patterns I experienced were not confined to our relationship. They were prevalent in his men’s golf groups, some friendships, with a prior girlfriend and at the very end, even with a cherished family member. It was in that moment that I asked him if this is how he really wanted to live his life. A few months after we broke up, he moved a new partner in with him.

Here is why I think that it is imperative to share as much information as possible about the tools and research that support mental health, self-awareness and personal growth. During our relationship of 6 years, we saw 5 couples counselors. We never made any significant and sustainable progress. Looking back, with the knowledge I now have, I can see where there were some big clues disclosed by each of us in our sessions, but no counselor ever picked up on them or suggested that we do some solo counseling. My partner was also treated for depression but again it was limited to dispensing medication. Even his long time friend and family doctor would just shake his head and say the he was the most complex guy he ever knew. The stress overload he carried surely contributed to a string of serious health issues.

We have to find better ways to support people who have healing to do from childhood trauma, who need help to rewire their neural pathways so they can be free from rumination, chronic low-grade depression, high levels of anxiety and PTSD. Unresolved trauma or loss can be so overpowering that it affects the quality of our lives. Dr. Bruce Perry explains that unprocessed trauma and poor emotional regulation will stay with us all through adulthood and will result in a cascade of relational problems and serious health issues. I’ve witnessed this reality in my own family and this relationship.

It is the very reason that I have shifted my focus to broader outreach and awareness of mental health for both children and adults. I will continue to share resources, research and tools to support each of us in healing. As I recently heard on a podcast with Dr. Dan Siegel — “it is not our fault that trauma happened, but it is our responsibility to recognize how it impacts us and others.


Being Well Podcast – Recovering from a Relationship with a Narcissist

Being Well Podcast – Depression and the Brain

YouTube Interview with Dr. Dan Siegel – The Power of Showing Up