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The Talk (About Sexual Harassment and Assault)

The summer I was 13, I was sexually assaulted in a hotel lobby. My little sister sat in the booth across from me as we colored. The hotel clerk, who’d chatted my family up the day before, came over to our table and asked if he could show us how to draw something. He slid into the booth beside me. A minute later he ran his hand up the inside of my bare thigh.

This wasn’t the only time I was sexually assaulted. But it’s the one I told my 12 year daughter about. When she gets older, I’ll tell her more.

I told her this part of my past when I had The Talk with her about sexual assault.

The phrase “The Talk” usually refers to the one that many black and brown parents have with their sons, teaching them to be polite, to keep their hands on the steering wheel, to minimize risk of getting killed by the police. It’s The Talk that addresses the frailty of the African American male body, so disturbingly and beautifully described by Ta-Nehisi Coates here.

We need to have The Talk with our daughters too. About sexual assault and harassment. This became abundantly clear to me during the 2016 presidential race.

The Access Hollywood recordings ignited a powderkeg of outrage, shame and humiliation far too many women have lived with in silence for far too long. Including mine. Between ages 10 and 23, I was sexually assaulted, groped, and harassed several times physically; verbally more times than I could ever count. The harassment continued later in life. And I’m not alone.

Why talk with my young daughter now? Because the majority of American sexual assault victims are young. While 1 in 6 American women has been the victim of attempted (2.8%) or completed (14.8%) rape in her lifetime, the age group with the highest rate of sexual assault is age 12-24, and 66% of those victims are age 12-17. One in 6 girls (and 1 in 9 boys) will be sexually assaulted before age 18. The US Department of Justice states approximately 1.8 million adolescents have been the victim of sexual assault. And 82% of all juvenile victims are female. Underreporting is widespread; these numbers are likely much higher.

How can we parents send them out into the world as if sexual assault is not going to happen?

The toxic statements we heard on the Access Hollywood  recordings this fall enraged me, and re-ignited feelings of powerlessness and fear. But the outpouring of truth from women around the world empowered me. And that’s when I knew that simply crossing my fingers and hoping my daughter won’t have the same experiences I’ve had was not an option.

Every day, I see the walking wounded in my therapy office.
I know what to do as a therapist. I help people heal. But how does a mom talk with her daughter about this?

I had to find a way, even if it wasn’t perfect. I wanted to at least protect her from the shame and isolation that so many girls and women experience. I wanted to plant the seeds of healing. Above all, I wanted to protect her emotional self.

And it went better than expected. Ever since, I’ve thought what a huge difference it can make if parents everywhere began this conversation with their girls.

So how did I do it? See below.

1. Begin with an “in” — the news.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault became part of our national conversation last fall. Take advantage of this.

“Honey, tell me what you’ve been hearing about the things Donald Trump said about women. What have you heard?”

Yes, she heard about the Access Hollywood recording, even if she didn’t know the exact wording. She thought Trump was “dumb” and “mean.” “He thinks he is better than all girls,” she said. “He doesn’t treat people nice. I feel sorry for those women he hurt.”

My heart sunk, because I know what she doesn’t yet know. “Those women” may well be her, in the next decade.

I wanted to gently help her make the connection between what she’s hearing and her own life.

2. Be specific and personal about sexual assault.
We started by discussing unwanted touch. I told her I hope it never happens, and it should never happen…but it does happen to many girls and women, and it may happen to her. And I talked about my own life, the summer I was 13, in that hotel lobby.

Other assaults impacted me more than this (as bad as it was). But for now, this one allowed me the emotional equilibrium to have The Talk.

I told her about her aunt, who was at an outdoor high school party when a boy she knew peripherally from her high school class, out of nowhere, shoved his hand down the front of her pants, touching her private parts. She was walking to her car, with others nearby, and felt totally safe until that moment. (As a side note, I never heard this story until I told my sister I was writing this article.)

My girl was really paying attention now.

I told her that my friends and my clients share stories of assault in places they didn’t expect — at a city park in broad daylight, in a train station, at a music concert when they were with their friends, by a family friend on a camping trip, or at a sleepover. It can, and does, happen anywhere.

3. Ask questions, listen, and assess.
When I asked my daughter what she would do if something like this happened to her, she said “I would punch them and get away from them fast!”

(Oh baby girl, I thought. We have to talk about what usually happens. Freezing is the most common response.)

But first I said that I loved her response and that she had every right to defend herself. “Would I get in trouble if I hurt them?” she asked. No, I answered, you absolutely can defend yourself. I told her about the self defense class I took in my late 20s, DC Impact, and told her I’d like her to take a self defense class (like this one) too.

Assess her capacity to handle the conversation. During The Talk, I frequently stopped and checked in with her to see how she was feeling and what she was taking in. For as long as she seemed calm and attentive, we proceeded.

4. Educate her and reassure her.
I didn’t quote statistics, because I didn’t want to alarm her. I just laid the groundwork for awareness and shame protection.

“It happens to lots of people,” I said. “It can happen in public, and it can happen in private. In the daytime or in the nighttime. It can be a stranger, but a lot of the time, it’s someone you know and may not expect.” (In fact, 71% of perpetrators are known to the victim.)

“Most women I know have had some kind of experience like this,” I said. “But many men are good and kind and respectful and would never ever hurt girls or women.” We talked about all the men and boys she knows who respect and empower women and girls. We talked about how they demonstrate love and respect, kindness and support.

Right now, she’s entirely sure she knows who to trust. Her confidence, and general high self esteem, give me confidence she’ll avoid sexual assault. And I hope this talk will give her the awareness and presence to make her a less likely target.

But if she is a victim someday, I want to lay the groundwork now to help her avoid the shame and isolation that follows.

5. Talk about common reactions, guilt and shame.
I went back to her confident statement that she would punch an aggressor and run away. As a therapist who works with shame and trauma, I know this is unlikely to happen.

“I love that you’d protect yourself, honey. And I want you to whenever you can. But I want you to know that a lot of the time, when people get SURPRISE ATTACKS on their body, they freeze. They feel like all the power drains out of them. Their mind does one thing, and their body does another. Sometimes they can’t even remember what exactly happened. Then they get mad themselves for not reacting differently.”

My daughter nodded, taking this in. I told her I have clients who feel ashamed, and never before told anyone they’d been assaulted. That almost all the time, they feel guilty, and they are mad at themselves for being paralyzed, for not doing or saying the right thing — the thing that would have made it not happen, or the thing that would have made it better.

It’s normal to freeze, I told her. “Your brain and your body don’t work together, in part because you can’t believe it’s happening. So if that ever happens to you, I want you to remember: it’s not your fault if you freeze, and I don’t want you to feel guilty about it.” In this way, I hope to preemptively disable the landmines that get buried in sexual assault, described so brilliantly by the writer Craig Childs here.

Then we talked about what she would do. Her list: tell a friend, call me or her dad, talk to someone she trusts. I told her I will always be here for her and help her, no matter what. I said that because even though she knows I love her and will always be there, I wanted her to know that it would still be true if she were a victim of assault, and it would still be true even if she felt ashamed.

6. Model your strongest moral position; lay groundwork to heal trauma.
The rest of the world has strong messages, but you as her parent have the strongest and loudest voice of all. Use it.

Some things may seem self-evident but need to be said, loud and clear, to your child.

“No matter what,” I said to her, “No one has the right to touch your body without your permission. Ever. Ever. And if they do, I want you to know that it is wrong, it is illegal, it is a crime, and it is not your fault.”

I told her that even though she’s nodding now, it’s possible that if it happens to her, she might not react the way she expects to, and that’s normal. “If it happens to you, you might freeze. You might feel like it’s your fault. I’m telling you now, it’s not your fault. You might feel ashamed. But it’s the other person who should be ashamed, not you.”

I told her if it happens to her, I hope she would tell someone right away, and get help. I told her I would like to be one of the people she tells. I told her I would understand what she’s going through, and that I would help her.

7. Model your strength and healing.
If you’ve been in therapy, share it. If you’ve done sexual harassment training, share what you learned. If you’ve taken a self defense class, talk about it. A former boss of mine once hired an expert on sexual harassment response who met separately with the women and men. In our session, she modeled specific ways to respond to street harassment, something that was really life changing for me.

My daughter loved hearing my stories of calling out harassers on the streets of Washington DC when I lived there. (“Making kissing noises at me as I walk down the street is sexual harassment. I don’t like it; no woman likes it. Stop harassing women!”) Just knowing one smartass or assertive comeback is a great tool to have in your pocket; I’ve felt safer and more empowered ever since. I want that for my daughter; I want that for all girls.

She loved hearing about DC Impact, the full-impact, “model mugging” course I took. I told her about RADkids, and she’s all fired up to take it now. Classes like this take advantage of adrenalin-fueled learning, with realistic fight scenarios and fully padded martial arts instructors. Developed by a woman black belt who couldn’t believe she was raped even though she had mad martial arts skills, it utilizes situational learning, patterning responses into your muscle memory, like riding a bike. These classes are physically and emotionally empowering. And if you’ve been the victim of assault, they are particularly helpful in making you feel strong again.

8. Remind her of her rights (and share your anger).
Our daughters have the right to be blissfully unaware of sexual assault, but this right is not yet fully realized in our society. I told her it makes me so mad that we even have to talk about this. That it’s not fair. I told her I love her very much, and that part of me wishes I could be with her all the time to protect her, but another part of me knows she has every right to be carefree, without her mom hovering over her as she’s developing into a young adult. I want her to be independent and silly and have fun and feel free. And I want her to be smart (although it pisses me off to no end that I have to add that in.) We talked about the balance of fun and carefulness.

I hope you, too, will have The Talk with your daughter. If you’re like me, coming to terms with the idea that more than likely, your daughter will suffer assault, unwanted touch, and/or harassment in her young lifetime, please have The Talk with her. If you want to protect her, have The Talk with her. If you want to safeguard her mental health and protect her from the predictable shame, the silencing, and all the somatic symptoms that accompany carrying a horrible secret, please, have The Talk with her.

The Talk may or may not protect my daughter’s body. But I’m confident that it has already protected her psyche.

I’m more hopeful for my daughter and our girls now then I ever could have been for myself. Social media allows us to witness for each other on a massive scale. Serial abusers — despite being famous, wealthy, and intimidating — no longer can hide behind the shame and silence of individual victims. When we talk, we connect, naming behaviors and empowering survivors. Predatory contempt doesn’t have to scare us in the same way anymore. As awareness grows and shame decreases, our tolerance for sexual abuse plummets. The personal does, indeed, become political.


Meet Cindy!

Please welcome Cindy Martin, the new part-time Administrative Assistant at Wolcott Psychotherapy Associates. When you call or email for an appointment, Cindy is the skillful and kind person who will contact you. She abides by HIPAA standards and will honor and protect your confidentiality. Cindy helps run my business smoothly by screening my calls and emails, contacting clients, scheduling appointments and alerting me to any issues or questions you may have. Inquiries are typically answered within 48 hours. We’re thrilled to have you Cindy!


Anxiety and Six Easy Ways To Interrupt the Stress Response


Do you feel stressed out? Anxious?

Is it hard for you to relax? Do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? Feel panicky sometimes? Heart racing? Hard to take a deep breath? Does all this make it hard for you to function the way you’d like to?

The number one complaint I hear from clients entering my office for the first time is anxiety.

No doubt, we live in a thoroughly stressed out world. And as a result, many of us are anxious.

And anxiety feels awful. But luckily, it’s one of the easiest to treat mental health concerns!

All it takes is a little education, and some willingness to make some simple changes…changes that seem so small they’re easy ignore.

Anxiety doesn’t come out of nowhere. And yes, there are several possible contributing factors – genetics, family modeling, specific traumatic events, over-stimulation.

But the main reason you have anxiety is uninterrupted STRESS.

Now, stress is a normal part of life. Can’t live without it. Our “flight or flight” response has evolved us into a sophisticated, competent species. We get a lot done. And for the most part, we stay safe doing it.

Feeling stressed is appropriate for new and/or periodic/infrequent experiences. For stressful events, like an exam, or a first date. For avoiding a car accident. For pulling ourselves or a loved one out of danger.

Physiologically, our breathing gets shallow, the blood vessels in our extremities narrow, and our arteries dilate, allowing more blood to the brain. Cortisol, the stress hormone, surges through our body along with adrenalin. We’re ready for action.

We’re supposed to feel that surge of anxiety, allow it to propel us over the hump, the obstacle, or the scary experience…and then the stress is supposed to drop back down to our baseline. Fairly relaxed, open, unworried.

In other words, we’re meant to use stress…not let stress use us.

When the stress ends, if we’re intentional about our body’s need to recover, breathing returns to normal (full, deep belly breaths, not shallow upper chest breaths). Cortisol and adrenalin drop back down. Blood vessels resume their normal functioning.

Our bodies can and do recover from stress.


Unless we get swept into the “doing, not being” current. Unless we’re over- scheduled and under-rested. Unless we are relentlessly hard on ourselves. Unless we’ve forgotten how to relax.

And apparently, a lot of us have forgotten. Stress that’s supposed to be intermittent becomes chronic.

In our busy and over-stimulating world, anxiety surges, and then before it can come down to baseline, it surges again. The stress level gets high and stays high, and then climbs ever higher with each new stressor. We don’t come down to baseline. We live in a chronic state of stress. We’re so used to it, we hardly notice.

But when we experience this kind of chronic stress, we never come down from our state of hyper-arousal. And over time, guess what happens? Chronic stress turns into an anxiety disorder.

That’s right: anxiety comes from, in large part, the fact that we don’t let our bodies recover from the natural spikes of stress that we experience in daily life.

Fast forward a little, and that’s when we end up with something off the following menu of anxiety disorders:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety Disorder)


I want to share Six ways to interrupt your stress response.

Put these in your back pocket, print out the list, or keep it on your phone for reference. (Because when you are having a moment of intense anxiety, that’s the same moment you won’t be able to remember any of these tips).

1)  Breathe. This is the quickest route to interrupt the stress response and head off an anxiety attack. Sit down, close your eyes, put your hand on your belly, and take a deep enough breath that you feel your belly rise and fall. Focus on getting air into the bottom part of your lungs, not just the top third where most of us like to breathe. Count to 4, in and to 4, out.

I advise my clients to start and end the day this way: 3 (or more) deep breaths before you get out of bed in the morning, and 3 (or more) before you go to sleep. And then build from there, doing it during the day, in your car at a red light or when sitting in a meeting. Get your body back in touch with the way we’re supposed to breathe.

2)  Alternate tensing/relaxing muscle groups. Sit comfortably, and then raise your legs straight out in front of you, flexing your feet and tensing your leg muscles. Hold for a few seconds, then drop your feet back to the ground. Do a couple times. Take a deep breath in-between. Do the same with your arms, flexing your hands. Then your shoulders: shrug them up to your ears and drop down. Notice the warmth you feel as your blood rushes back into your extremities. That’s good, oxygenated blood, helping get rid of the stress hormones and bring you back into balance.

3)  Have a micro-meditation session. One of the misnomers about meditation is that it has to be a significant amount of time. Not so! Just sit, close your eyes, and do a quick body scan. You’ll probably notice your jaw is tight. Move it around and maybe yawn. Let your tongue float in the middle of your mouth. Now take some deep belly breaths. Don’t try to control your thoughts or achieve a blank mind. Just notice them, along with the noise in the room or outside, and anything else your senses pick up. Just notice, and breathe. Voila! You just meditated. Even 1 or 2 minutes will lower your stress level and interrupt the climb up to anxiety.

4)  Stretch. Stand up, open your arms, raise them above your head, bend over and reach for your toes. If you have a foam roller, lay down on it with your spine along the length of the roller. Open your arms and move them, really expanding your chest. Roll back and forth and break up some of the tension in your back. This also helps blood flow, oxygen, and the relaxation response

5)  30-second hug. Study after study shows that physical contact lowers our stress hormones. After just 20 seconds, your body begins to release oxytocin, a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and increases the bond we feel with others. Make a concerted effort to get and give more hugs in your life. Connection is a great antidote to stress. And that leads to…

6) Connect with others. Isolation increases stress. Connection, with people we like and who like us, mitigates stress. I love the quote by Anne Lamott:  “My mind is a neighborhood I try not to go into alone.” Connecting with others gets us out of our unhealthy thought patterns, makes us laugh, makes us feel like we’re not “terminally unique” and reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously. All good for interrupting the stress response that leads to anxiety.

So there you go: 6 easy ways to interrupt your stress response and get you on the road to anxiety disorder prevention.

I’d love to hear: What are your favorite ways to de-stress? Click on the title of this post to open up the comments below.







How to Spot — and Handle — a Sociopath

195HTed Bundy. Jeffrey Dahlmer. Danny Rolling. Jim Jones. David Koresh. Charles Manson. Hannibal Lecter. Aileen Wuornos. Norman Bates. Names you probably think of  — real and fiction — when you hear the word “sociopath”.

But did you know that we ­cross paths with sociopaths on a regular basis  — and often don’t even know it?

All serial killers are sociopaths. But not all sociopaths are serial killers.

In fact, many researchers believe that 1 in 25 Americans fit the criteria for sociopathy. One in 25! Think of all the people you have met in your life. Average one in 25. That’s 4% of the population, or about 12 million Americans. Hard to believe, right?

Well, maybe not.

Sociopaths wreak havoc in people’s lives in quiet ways, too. In fact, that’s how most sociopaths work.

Have you ever known someone who left you feeling confused, devastated, or chilled – maybe all at once? Maybe it was a romantic partner you think back on and describe as evil. Maybe it was a boss whom you describe as psycho. Or that domineering neighbor.

The vast majority of sociopaths don’t kill. But they make people miserable. And they tend to get away with an awful lot.

Wouldn’t it be nice to recognize a sociopath before they do their damage?

And, once recognized, wouldn’t it be great to know how to deal with one?

Sociopathy is surprisingly difficult to see.

In her book The Sociopath Next Door, clinical psychologist and former Harvard faculty member Martha Stout, PhD, gives us a great roadmap for conceptualizing, understanding, and avoiding sociopaths.

First, shift your Hollywood version of the sociopath or psychopath (the terms are interchangeable) – a cold-blooded serial killer – to the actual definition of a sociopath.

Sociopathic characteristics include powerful charisma, charm, spontaneity, chronic manipulation, intensity, and risk taking.

Sociopaths are good at making you doubt yourself. Making you do things you wouldn’t normally do. Making you do things for them. Making you feel crazy.

Sociopaths like to win, they like to dominate.

But the defining characteristic of a sociopath is a person who has no conscience.

What does this mean? No empathy. An inability – not a choice, but an inability – to care or even think about the feelings of anyone else. An ability to move through life with complete disregard for their actions: no remorse, no capacity for shame, and no guilt.

Sociopaths can, because they are unhindered by guilt, manipulate their way to the top. It could be Wall Street. It could be the local school board. It could be the homeowner’s association. It could be government. It could be their relationship with you. It could be any role. Which top depends on the sociopath’s particular ambition, desire, talent and smarts.

And one of the most difficult things about dealing with a sociopath is when you see it….but others around you don’t.

Many sociopaths live their lives relatively undetected – except, perhaps, by those closest to them… and only then, sometimes, to those who have learned to identify a sociopath.

Sociopaths use many tools. They are described as charming, with an almost animal-like charisma. They have magnetism, an affinity for danger, spontaneity. They inspire a feeling of familiarity: “I just felt like I’d known her forever!” They establish intimacy quickly. They use “we” statements. They use seduction. They create distractions with social/professional roles: animal lover, humanitarian, benefactor. They engage in gaslighting – making you doubt your perceptions of reality.

Sociopaths are expert in identifying an easy mark – they can pick out the most trusting, decent person in the room. They use their victim’s goodness and capacity to trust against them. Crocodile tears are a favorite method. They are masterful at evoking pity and have incredible acting skills. In fact, sociopaths have an especially strong fondness for evoking pity.

Pity is carte blanche. Good people will let pathetic individuals get away with, sometimes literally, murder.

And when we pity, we are emotionally defenseless, emotionally vulnerable.

All sociopaths are violent – some emotionally, and some physically as well. For help in protecting yourself from violence in general – including sociopathic violence, I strongly recommend Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear. This book discusses the predictability of violence – great for avoiding sociopaths. In particular, I like his Pre-Incident Indicators (PINs), which reads like a menu of sociopathic characteristics:

  • Forced teaming. This is when a person implies he has something in common with you, claiming you have a shared predicament when that’s not really true.
  • Speaking in “we” terms, i.e. “We don’t need to talk outside…Let’s go in.”
  • Charm and Niceness. This is being polite and friendly to a chosen victim in order to manipulate him or her, or to  disarm their mistrust.
  • Too many details. If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound more credible to their chosen victim.
  • Typecasting. An insult is used to get a chosen victim who would otherwise ignore one to engage in conversation to counteract the insult. For example: “Oh, I bet you’re too stuck up to talk to a guy like me.” The tendency is for the chosen victim to want to prove the insult untrue.
  • Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help to the chosen victim and anticipating they’ll feel obliged to extend some reciprocal openness in return.
  • The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for; this usually means that such a promise will be broken. For example: an unsolicited, “I promise I’ll leave you alone after this,” usually means the chosen victim will not be left alone. Similarly, an unsolicited “I promise I won’t hurt you” usually means the person intends to hurt their chosen victim.
  • Discounting the Word “No”. Refusing to accept rejection. “No thanks, I don’t need help,” the victim says. “Nonsense—it’s no trouble, we’re almost here!” says the sociopath.


So now you have a lead on how to recognize a sociopath, and hopefully red flags will rise when you encounter one.

But what if you’ve now realized you have a sociopath in your life – right now – and want to know how to handle them?

Stout lists “Thirteen Rules For Dealing With Sociopaths In Everyday Life.” I love this list and found it enlightening. Following is a paraphrase of what is written in her book.

1)    Accept that some people have no conscience. And they don’t look like a serial killer. They look like us.

2)    Always listen to your gut and prioritize what it tells you. “In a contest between your instincts and what is implied by the role a person has taken on – educator, doctor, leader, animal lover, policeman, humanist, parent – go with your instincts,” Stout urges.

3)    Practice the “Rule of Threes”. Three strikes = out. One lie, one promise broken, one neglected responsibility – it could be a misunderstanding. Two: could be a serious mistake. Three: you are now dealing with a liar, and deceit lies at the heart of a person with no conscience. Cut your losses immediately.

4)    Question authority. Heed your own anxieties and instincts. Especially around those who claim that by dominating others they are helping a greater good.

5)    Suspect flattery. Know the difference between compliments and flattery. Compliments usually feel good. Flattery feels like too much. Know that sociopaths use flattery to manipulate.

6)    Re-define your definition of respect. Discern between fear and respect. Sometimes the more we fear someone, the more we defer to them and offer them respect. Just because someone causes you to fear does not mean they are worthy of your respect. Separate the two.

7)    Do not participate in intrigue – don’t play the game you’re being invited to play. Don’t compete with, or try to outsmart, or psychoanalyze, or even banter with a sociopath. Your #1 goal is to protect yourself.

8)    Avoid. The best way to protect yourself is to avoid all contact. Minimize or eliminate the sociopath from your life. Although sociopaths are great actors, and can feign hurt feelings, know that they have no feelings to hurt – they are manipulating you.

9)    Question your tendency to pity too easily. Evoking pity is a classic sociopathic tool. If you find yourself pitying someone who consistently hurts you or other people, chances are close to 100% that you are dealing with a sociopath. Related to this: challenge your need to be polite in all situations. Sociopaths take full advantage of our social reflexes. Remember: “No.” is a complete sentence.

10)  Do not try to redeem the unredeemable. Second (and third and fourth) chances are for those who have a conscience. You can’t control someone else’s behavior. Although another favorite sociopathic trick is to defer blame and make other’s take responsibility for their behavior, “You owe me,” is another favorite phrase of the sociopath, know that you are not at fault. Again, learn how to cut your losses quickly.

11)  No cover-ups. Never agree, for any reason, to help conceal the true character of a sociopath. “’Please don’t tell,’ is the trademark plea of thieves, child abusers – and sociopaths,” writes Stout. Do not listen to this self-serving request. Others deserve to be warned more than the sociopath deserves to be protected.

12)  Defend your psyche. Don’t let someone without a conscience try to convince you that people aren’t good. Know that most of us do, thankfully, posses a conscience, and can love.

13)  Live well. It is the best revenge.

Disturbing, isn’t it, to think about one in 25 of us having no conscience. One in 25 people being someone we need to avoid. Disturbing to think about the ease with which a sociopath creates a swath of destruction…and that they get away with it….and all you can do, usually, is steer clear.

But here’s another item I’d add to the list, something I’ve been known to say in my sessions with clients:  14) Time Wounds All Heels. (That’s not a typo. Eventually, karma catches up with bad folks). Sociopaths come to a bad end. For a thorough discussion on this, read Stout’s book. In a nutshell, because of the unrelenting boredom they feel, sociopaths create drama, take massive risks – even, sometimes, kill. It makes sense if you think about it – without human connection, what else is there? Because of their risk taking, it’s common for sociopaths to eventually be murdered, die of an overdose, or in an accident.

I write this not in the spirit of schadenfreude, but rather in celebration of our ability, the majority of us, to live lives full of depth, meaning, relationship, and love.

I’m curious to hear: what sociopaths have you encountered in your lives?

*click on title to open comments below


The Essential Five


A client asked me to read When Good People Have Affairs, by Mira Kirshenbaum. It’s a great book and I’ve already recommended it to a couple people. It’s unusual in that it’s written for, and from the point of view of, the person having the affair (rather than the victim—the person cheated on), and from a very non-judgmental and fresh perspective.

Why is this noteworthy? Think about a time you found yourself in a position of being involved with more than one person, or talked to a friend who is. Usually, the shame is so huge it can be hard to discern what to do or make any kind of choice. Kirshenbaum takes this dilemma head on by diving beneath the shame, helping the reader sift out what is really going on, how they got into the dilemma—and then how to compare apples to oranges in making a decision about what to do.

But there’s something else I really like about the book. It’s about choosing a partner, period.

In my work, I encounter folks unhappy in relationships and unhappily single looking for relationships. They’re often mystified why things don’t work out for them, and they blame themselves for being problematic, boring, or just somehow wrong and unlovable. Maybe you’ve felt this way.

But what if the issue is simply chemistry, and no one’s ever taught you the basics of good relationship chemistry?

There are 5 ingredients, Kirshenbaum says, that make up good relationship chemistry. Essential chemistry. If even one of the 5 is missing, the relationship is doomed. As Kirshenbaum states: “The bad news is that you need all five. Though you don’t need a lot of all five, you do need a passing score for each.”

I say the good news is that once you look at your relationships through these 5 ingredients, you’ve got a big leg up on developing clarity about how, when and where to invest in a relationship—and that’s huge!

The 5 are:

* Easy Connections

* Fun

* Safety

* Mutual Respect

* Physical Chemistry

Take a moment to reflect on your relationships, current or past, through the lens of these 5 ingredients.

Easy Connection

It’s as simple as this – do you feel comfortable, at ease, cozy with this person? Can you be yourself? Do you relax in their presence? Does being with them create an environment where you feel that more of yourself can come out and play? Or do you feel tense, on edge, and careful around them, afraid to say or do the wrong thing?

What about talking? Can you speak easily, does conversation flow? Can you talk about things that matter to you? Can you talk about hard stuff? And vice-versa—does your partner have the same ability, feel comfortable as well?

Kirshenbaum puts it this way: “Too often we have only one or the other in a relationship. Things are easy, but we don’t connect. Or we connect, but things aren’t easy. When you have the ingredient of chemistry, you have both.”

Look for both. That’s the key.


Life is hard and stressful for many. Forget fun–most of us are happy if we can just take the stress down a few notches, right? But in truth, fun is the glue of relationships. Here’s the question: in the absence of manufactured fun (like a party, a vacation, a concert, an event) or intensity (great sex, emotionally intimate conversations) – can you and your partner reliably find ways to spend time together that are enjoyable? How much do you really like each other’s company? Kirshenbaum clarifies that it doesn’t have to be fun all the time, or a big deal in any way. It can just be a glance between the two of you, a shared moment, an inside joke. But regular doses of fun, and the feeling that fun can spontaneously emerge, regularly, is essential ingredient #2.


We’re not talking about fear of physical abuse (a deal breaker if that’s in place). We’re talking about emotional safety. Trust, respect, feeling included, comfortable and cherished by your partner.

Do you rationalize away the things that erode safety? I’m talking about the so-called “little” things, like a pattern of not calling when they said would. Making a cutting comment (or a joke that feels cutting) if you put on some weight. Dismissing your suggestions. Asking for advice and then rejecting it. Creating an ordeal if you bring something up to talk about. Putting you down in little ways. Getting really mad if you make a mistake. Or creating an atmosphere where you just don’t know where you stand or what is going on with the other person.

It’s not that you should feel 100% safe all the time. People screw up and step on each other’s toes. Once in a while, they might say something mean in the heat of an argument.

Intimacy can be unnerving, and as my clients always hear me say: “There is no intimacy without conflict and vulnerability!” But in general, you need to feel safe, comfortable, and that you can reliably bet that you won’t be put down, belittled, misled or lied to.

The question is—do you feel safe from being hurt emotionally? And especially when you feel vulnerable—do you feel your partner gets that and takes care of you and your feelings? Emotional safety is essential ingredient #3.

Mutual Respect

Kirshenbaum says that at the heart of respect is whether you believe your partner makes good decisions.

It’s easy to blow this one off, especially if you fall prey to the illusion that your partner has amazing potential. But without respect in the present, your relationship can’t survive.

Your partner doesn’t have to be THE most brilliant and capable person around. But you have to basically like what you see. Today.

Right now: Is your partner a solid person? Capable, smart, reliable and kind? Do you like the decisions you see him/her make? Not just in your relationship but in his/her life? And does he or she treat you as if you are a solid, responsible, kind and smart person just as you are, instead of hoping you’ll change?

Without a yes to those questions, here’s what happens: the relationship can limp along for a while, but you’ll eventually marginalize your partner or they you. So without a yes — keep looking. You need a partner you respect. Period.

Physical Chemistry

Sometimes people congratulate themselves on not being superficial and “not caring” about their partner’s looks or the physical side of the relationship.

But if you make the mistake of minimizing the importance of your physical chemistry, you will be unhappy. It’s not that they have to be the most beautiful specimen or that the two of you have to have the best sex you’ve ever had. But you have to like your partner physically. You have be pleased to look at them, like the way they smell, the way their skin feels against yours, and the way they touch you. Even if you have the other 4 – without this basic physical chemistry, you’ll find yourself repulsed eventually. Remember: they don’t have to be perfect. Just right enough for you, and you for them.

So there you have it. The 5 essential ingredients for a happy, successful relationship.

Personally, it was so interesting for me to think back on my old relationships (before I met my husband). Through the lens of this list, it’s more clear to me now why they didn’t work out. And more clear to me than ever why my husband and I are a good match.

What do you think? Is this a helpful list?

For those of you looking – does this seem like a helpful lens with which to view your choices?

I’d love to hear your comments below!


Coping in the face of Tragedy


The horror at Sandy Hook Elementary is 5 days in the past as I write this. I’ve heard it called “a 9-11 moment,” and that rings true. A sacred line has been crossed, the unthinkable has happened. Our collective innocence, not just that of the Sandy Hook children, has shattered.

What helps?

Information, reassurance, gratitude, and action.

Many wise souls have already compiled wonderful resources for talking to children about violence and tragedy. Although the information below is aimed at talking to children, it is useful for all ages. Thank you in particular to Brené Brown and her blog Ordinary Courage, for this list of links:

An excellent Q&A about talking with children about the Sandy Hook shootings from The Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters.

The American Academy of Pediatrics on School Shootings

University of Minnesota on Talking to Kids About Violence Against Kids

National Association of School Psychologists on Talking to Children About Violence

What I consider to be one of the best articles on talking to children about death (by Hospice)

Explaining the news to our kids from Common Sense Media.

The way you talk to yourself matters. Turn off the news, and seek reassurance from others. It is in community that we feel better, and it is in community that we start to heal. Resist the urge to hunker down in front of your computer, TV, or other device– and instead talk to people who know you.

When you do use media, pay attention to the advice of Mr. Rogers:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for he helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

It’s common to feel guilty. Guilty for your own life, your safety, your distance from the tragedy. That’s what often drives us to saturate ourselves with bad news: “How can I feel ok or even celebrate the good in my life while others suffer so deeply?”

Here’s what the survivors of tragedy actually say about that:

*Don’t take what you have for granted.

*Celebrate what you have.

*Don’t apologize for your life.

*It’s ok to feel joy in your own living child/healthy life/great happiness.

*By honoring what you have, you honor my loss.

Take time to slow down, pay attention, and deeply feel grateful for the good in your life.

Take meaningful action. For some, it is prayer. For others it is writing to their legislator about gun control. For still others, it is a commitment to civil, respectful discourse on Facebook or another forum—participating in a much-needed discussion on how to create a world where this never can happen again.

For me, among other things, it’s participating in the #26Acts movement started by Ann Curry. 

Twenty-six acts of kindness to honor the 26 lives lost at Sandy Hook Elementary.

I encourage you to join me!  And I look forward to your comments.