Client’s Corner

Clients Corner explores the subjective experience of being-in-the-world, and the struggles, successes, failures, and modes of adaptation that characterize this experience.


I noted in part one that feelings are signals that provide information about the world, not facts. As signals, feelings are more like open-ended questions than absolute signs of what is. The path to emotional literacy involves first recognizing the presence of feelings and then being able to make sense of them, interpret and decode them. If only this process was as simple as reading road signs.

Images of self and others carry us through life. Known by different names: life scripts, archetypes, internal self and object representations, these images design the stage of our experience, create the conditions for conflict as well as the obstacles that prevent resolution.  They determine what constitutes our successes and failures.  They inform our judgment about others, determining those who we trust and those we distrust.

We carry these images as an emotional-cognitive lens through which we experience and interpret our reality.  We believe in the reality of our reality.  And this reality is mediated by our feelings.

These images of self and others trigger reactions to experience that interfere with self-reflection, the ability to step back and think about what one is feeling and experiencing. While there are many ways to describe what psychotherapists do, helping individuals learn how to recognize, tolerate, understand, and communicate their feelings is a critical aspect of the work.  This path to emotional literacy involves the development or fine-tuning the capacity for self-reflective functioning.

I am working with a man who after many years of being adrift in the cross currents of his feelings, is gradually acquiring the capacity for self-reflective functioning.  He has been married for over 25 years, a marriage that until recently, had been characterized by tension and an unswerving capacity for mutually creating conflict.

He described to me the following observations that capture the uphill battle that most of us encounter in the development of reflective functioning.  He became aware that his way of coping with situations that bother him was to withdraw into himself and ruminate about it. He also realized that when he withdrew, he would perceive his wife as indifferent and not wanting to talk to him.  These unchecked perceptions led to a simmering resentment that characterized his underlying feelings toward his wife and fueled his reactivity.

Over time, my client began to question his feelings of distrust and resentment, and his perception that his wife was indifferent. He realized that he had been walking through his marriage carrying inaccurate images of his wife that he had believed wholeheartedly.  These images triggered his negative reactions that had led repeatedly to insoluble arguments! This recognition represented a profound paradigm shift in his understanding of his marriage.

As my client became more conscious of his feelings and how he distorted his experience, he recognized both his need to be more open with his wife and his fear that that she would not be receptive to his vulnerability. He described the following incident that represents an important step in the process of developing a self-reflective function.  He and his wife were discussing going out for dinner.  My client sensed (felt) that his wife didn’t want to have dinner with him and felt hurt. He became caustic, said something nasty and walked out of the room.  He realized that he was over-reacting and returned explaining to her that the reason he got mad was because he was feeling insecure. He quickly left after saying this, failing to hear his wife’s apology that she offered when she realized that she had hurt his feelings.  He returned to his wife who now was hurt because he had walked right passed her, and was now angry at him.

While the development of a self-reflective function can be described in a step-wise manner, reality belies the simplicity of such formulas. However for heuristic purposes, it does help to outline those elements that are involved self-reflective functioning.

  • Step one is recognition. This involves noticing that one is feeling something.  While this might seem self-evident, many of us move through our daily lives ignoring feelings as one walks over fall leaves on a New England lawn.  In this mode of getting through life, the knot in our stomach, the tension in our neck, or the skin-crawling sensation so characteristic of anxiety is ignored or minimized.
  • Step two involves the capacity to tolerate feelings.  Rather than acting, avoiding, distracting, or minimizing, one experiences the feeling.  One notices where one holds the feeling, its strength, whether it changes over time, and the thoughts that accompany them.
  • Step three is designation. This involves understanding that feelings are communicating important personal and social information: they are interpersonal signals.  As signals they call for reflection, rather than action, though reacting occurs so automatically.  The reflexive response to most feelings is flight or fight.  Anxiety like the monsters in dreams tends to trigger flight response. While anger tends to generate action, often precipitous action. Depression, at least clinical depression, extinguishes both reactions. The simple question that one can ask, what is the feeling trying to tell me, initiates the process of designation.
  • Step four is reflection.  It follows designation like steamed milk in cappuccino. This most difficult step challenges us to go against the grain of our reality, experience the vulnerability of not being certain,  and take a critical stance toward one’s opinions and judgments.  Am I over-reacting?  Are my feelings distorting the situation? Does what the other says about me have validity?
  • The final step is consolidation.  This process takes months, often years. Why is it so difficult to develop a self-reflective capacity? Why is it so hard to deal with feelings? People are afraid to feel their feelings, afraid of losing control and being vulnerable, afraid of the pain involved in feeling their emotions, afraid of others, afraid of feeling the sense of loss, afraid of failure, and most afraid of the shame that is associated with feelings.  Individuals have been socialized to minimize, deny, overcome, and privatize their feelings. They have developed defenses not only to manage feelings but also to buttress their self.  The process of change threatens these familiar and self-protective strategies.  No wonder change is so threatening and so difficult.

It is not unusual when I ask a relatively new client, why do you think you are feeling anxious or depressed, to hear responses like “I don’t know,”  “I’ve been feeling this way a long time,” or “it just comes upon me at certain times of the day without reason.”  With exploration, we are often able to identify a set of circumstances that have contributed to the unpleasant feelings.

It seems that the ability to understand feelings is lacking in many and in others it is a fragile tool that is all too easily compromised in the heat of interactions.  I can’t count the times my wife and I have had the following exchange:  “Why are you angry at me?  I am not angry at you!  You are angry at me!” This exchange happens in many homes across the country reflecting the ease at which individuals misunderstand themselves and others as a result of projecting their feelings onto others. Individuals walk through the world of interpersonal relationships believing that people are angry at them, disappointed in them, or scorning them without ever substantiating these feelings. The combination of misunderstanding and not recognizing feelings is central to the difficulties that individuals have navigating their lives and the interpersonal conflicts that arise.

Many individuals live with feelings deposited in their body as sensations, somatic aches and tensions that leave little trace of any psychological significance. They experience hurt as anger, depression as tiredness or physical sickness, and anxiety as tension, physical conditions that lead them to the ER or their general practitioner.  What is difficult and allusive, but critical to understand is that feelings are signals that communicate important information that registers as sensation in body and conveys information about how one feels in the social world.

Recently I began to reconsider this lost ability to understand feelings as I was reading a rather dense book on the art of reading a poem. I did an Amazon search on the topic  “the art of reading feelings.”   Amazon produced a dazzling array of titles that had one thing in common: they were all geared toward very young children.

The connection between these two art forms is both coincidental and telling.  The rarefied art of reading poetry rests on the centrality of ambiguity and uncertainty in the construction of poetry and the requisite need to have what Keats referred to as “negative capability” in understanding it.  He described this capability in the following way: “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason — ” This art is a sensibility cultivated over time with practice. The “negative” represents the capability of dealing with negativity, those unresolved tensions that don’t simply resolve into solutions.

The lost art of reading feelings speaks to a relic encased in our personal history that people tend to ignore, minimize, and deny.   Happiness, sadness, fear, and anger are the four primary feelings. Guilt, shame, anxiety, resentment, jealousy develop later. Most preschoolers are fluent in the language of primary feelings. They feel things intensely and express their feelings uninhibitedly. By the time they have passed through elementary school, most have lost the ability. As adults, most approach the world of feelings with distrust and shame. This art of reading feelings is also a sensibility and a capacity that has atrophied through the process of development. In some trauma has severely damaged this ability.

One can describe this atrophy as leading to emotional illiteracy, the difficulty in attending to, processing, and understanding one’s emotional state. The crowning achievement of emotional illiteracy is what I call the concretization of feelings, where what is felt about an experience is not only a compressed version of that experience but it is understood to be the reality of that experience. In this mode of experiencing feelings are experienced as facts.  If I feel that you are angry with me, you are angry with me. If I see the sneer in your face or hear scorn in your tone, you are feeling scorn. The achievement of certainty comes at the cost of experiencing interpersonal reality in its full, diverse, and often contradictory states. In contrast to Keats idea of “negative capability” that apprehends life through the broadest lens, concretization reduces experience to its smallest tolerable unit.

A client who I have been seeing for several years in psychotherapy illustrates how naturally one concretizes feelings. He has complained that his wife ignores him and treats him disdainfully. When asked what she does, it is difficult for him to describe, except to say that they argue a lot. With exploration, he describes how he often feels anxious and helpless.  He regards these feelings as unmanly and unacceptable, and feels contempt for himself when he has these feelings.  This sets the scene for what often erupts into an argument.  He will approach his wife on a mundane matter.  He will notice something in her tone or gaze that suggests disdain and react to her defensively and angrily without being conscious of his underlying feelings of contempt toward his helplessness. He believes with conviction that she feels disdain for him without recognizing his own self-contempt.

Feelings are signals that provide information about the world, not facts. As informative as feelings can be, they frequently mystify and misinform.  As signals, feelings are more like open-ended questions than absolute signs of what is. The path to emotional literacy involves first recognizing the presence of feelings and then being able to make sense of them, interpret and decode them, a capacity that is essential to anyone who aspires to live in his or her own skin and wishes for intimacy with another.

Part two will discuss the development of emotional literacy.

Shame binds and dictates, blinds and slanders. Shame holds two in a broken embrace. Shame weakens attachments, kills potential, and ends lives. It is the master magician who makes the moment interminable.

Shame acts as if it precedes Being which translates into: “I suck therefore I am!”

The face of shame hides its eyes from the world. The feet of shame walk in the margins and gutters of the world. The tongue of shame speaks of unworthiness. The body is disfigured: too small or too large. Achievement, gratitude, and joy slip through the cracks in the self. The mask of shame wears the thin smile of normality and with an element of luck the sneer of excellence.

Shame lives as clearly in the window paned-towers of Wall Street as it does on the planes of the Kalahari, and as it did in that prosaic moment in the garden.

Shame mistakes the false self of defectiveness for the true self and weaves a dream-like veneer that is taken for Reality! The simple tragedy of shame is that it wants to be other than itself. It drives itself to extreme lengths. It swims against the current of being and the textures of life in tantalizing pursuit of this other self. It gauges the world with an instrument of impossibility whose gravity is a force beyond measure.

The future of shame is an endless repetition, a flat line, a cracked pitcher. Like the proverbial frightened dream-figure who cannot move, or the mythological prisoner enchained, it stands fragilely in the presence of beauty, and destitute by its encounter with chance.

Shame goes to therapy as it goes to the bar. It enters the consultation room with one hand extended and the other withdrawn, its fingers crossed in fear and disgust. Shame engages the therapist with small talk and the desire to change: its need for help an open wound. Shame brings to the table a plenitude of rage that surrounds the pain. It can only seem to ask for help, and as quickly reject it. Shame is anchored in the conviction of defectiveness that dresses every wound, and shadows every movement. This belief that can appear as humility is shored with contempt.

Shame presents difficulties, tests, and temptations for the therapist. It extends a mirror for therapists to reflect upon and sets a stage upon which the two can play, with the preferred role assumed by the therapist.

Shame softens within the tenderness of a patient psychotherapy. When effective, psychotherapy secures its role as a beacon whose illumination glows in presence and wanes in absence. In time, in the face of all that has been remembered and forgotten, and through repetitive movements that seem like a glacial dance, Shame releases shame. It staggers forward across the emotional precipice of unworthiness and surrenders to a warmth that learns empathy for itself.

I write these words as I climb my wall of shame erected by the pain of my faults. I can see from my small perch across the wastelands a reflection of a better being, beckoning sometimes in the form of a lover, other times a dream, and ever mysterious as if seeded by a spirit.

Recently, two clients weeks asked me the same question in response to my suggestion that they need to forgive themselves.  “How does one forgive oneself?” For a moment I was silenced. I didn’t have an immediate answer.

One client remarked that he couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of self-forgiveness;  “It is such a cliché,” he said. It was not my intent to prescribe clichés as solutions to complex and painful psychological states.

To each client I said the question was an excellent one that required further thinking. I realized that the superficial way we as a sanctioned healing profession bandy the prescription “forgive yourself,” reveals a larger dilemma that is weighted down by cultural values. A quick palliative would be a disservice. As a profession we must question our impetus for quick cures and recognize the presence of external pressures, cultural and economic, along with internal pressures that might lead us down soothing but misleadingly easy paths.  Psychotherapists neither administer absolutions nor wave magic wands.

I did suggest that forgiveness was not a simple matter of saying, “Sorry self I didn’t mean to beat you up.”  It is an attitude born out of self-examination.  Without self-examination forgiveness is like putting a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. And with each of my client’s, the wounds were deeply embedded in a vast interior region of shame.

We had entered difficult emotional territory.  One client pulled back, retreated into a series of intellectualized questions brined with anger.  The other client went deeper, making connections between earlier wounds and his current malaise.  What differentiates the psychological capacity of individuals for self-examination is a subject for another essay.

The client who explored the question of forgiveness is a single, successful professional in his early 30’s who had been feeling anxious and depressed for many years prior to starting therapy.  I had been seeing him in weekly psychotherapy for about three years.  Recently, he had been arrested for a DUI after having been stopped for speeding.  He was angry and ashamed.  His blood alcohol level was just below the legal limit.  Although he felt that the police unfairly arrested him, his anger was directed mainly at himself. He described how he had been initially polite with the police, but continued calling them “sir” with what he derided as a “pussy bullshit attitude” even after the police had handcuffed him.  He felt that this was unacceptable.

He had a court appearance and had consulted with an attorney.  Even though he felt reasonably certain that charges would be dropped, he described feeling an overwhelming sense of weakness” and that everything was out of control since his arrest.  He was plagued by obsessive thoughts.  Repeatedly, he imagined going to court, angering the judge who then sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

I asked why he thought he was having such thoughts.  He didn’t have a clue. Knowing his history, I suggested that his obsessive thinking represented a punishing fantasy in which he repeatedly victimized himself for acting weak.  He took in what I said and thought it made sense. I wondered why he was so angry with himself for what seemed at worst a minor offense.  At this point I suggested that he might forgive himself.

As we explored the question of forgiveness, he realized that the thought of forgiving himself had never occurred to him; instead he felt that he needed to teach himself a “hard lesson,” a lesson that he had been hammering himself with for many years. His obsessive fantasy represented one module in the lesson plan.

The obstacle to forgiveness is self-hate: hatred for the objectionable and unacceptable aspects of the self. Self-hate is embedded in core beliefs about the self and is often unwittingly administered.  It is unconscious and present in what I’ve described in an earlier blog as negative self-talk, the background noise of self-loathing. The personal obstacles to self-forgiveness are reinforced by cultural values that prescribe a “tough love” regimen for self-improvement.  The essence of this regimen is embodied in the message “Be strong, show no vulnerability, admit no weakness” as you learn the hard lessons of life on your own.

In contrast, self-forgiveness is an integral aspect of personal growth that involves examination and acceptance of weakness, failure, and disappointment.  It entails identifying personal shortcomings, recognizing the subtle judgments, punitive fantasies that characterize one’s reactions, and challenging their veracity.   It calls for an effort to understand these failings within the larger context of ones’ life. To this end Carl Jung said, “The patient does not feel himself accepted, unless the very worst in him is accepted too.”

My client had his court date.  No charges had been filed, and he was feeling much better. He described how the last session gave him the “bonk on the head that he needed.”  He explained how he had not realized how badly he had been torturing himself with his obsessive fantasies until I had pointed it out.  When he stopped the fantasizing, he began to feel better.

Sheepishly, he said that he was beginning to understand what forgiveness meant.  He compared his situation to being in a relationship. “If you were angry at your partner and did not forgive her, you would be stuck, not growing. I was doing that to myself.” With this insight, he felt he had found a new guiding principle. He was eager to put this realization at the front of his conscious mind and wondered what that would be like.

Transforming Negative Self Talk

Part Two: The Road to Healthy Self-esteem

Changing negative self-talk is not simply a matter of replacing negative statements with positive affirmations.  The psychological work involves altering patterns of thinking and behaving that have been intimately connected to one’s identity. The goal is to learn how to view oneself in a more balanced and integrated manner that will lead to changes in behavior and greater fulfillment in life.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

While I will break down the process of changing negative self-talk into three steps, the work doesn’t occur neatly in sequential steps. The statement two steps forward one step back captures the non-linear path of change. The key to this process is commitment and stamina, especially following the inevitable setbacks. Psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists describe this process as “working through.” Psychological change requires an effort that is equivalent to the work needed to learn a martial art or to play a musical instrument.

  • Step one – becoming aware of the problem
  • Step two –  challenging the validity of self-critical statements
  • Step three – taking risks and changing behavior

Becoming aware of the problem involves developing the ability to step back and critically examine one’s thoughts and feelings.  Becoming aware of negative self-talk involves attending to one’s internal chatter and  noticing what one is saying to oneself with the ear of a compassionate observer even  when the last thing that you want to do is be aware of your feelings.  What stands in the way of self-awareness is shame.  We have learned to be ashamed of our feelings of weakness and vulnerability. When we feel shame, we dim the lights of consciousness. At this moment the idea of self-awareness feels like salt on a wound.

The Road to Hell is Paved With Shame

The major challenge in overcoming shame is understnding the need to disidentify with the negative punitive perspective that  has been such a familiar presence.  The recognition that negative self-talk represents only one point of view among many is a good start. Beginning to monitor your internal dialogue introduces the possibility of a personal corrective second opinion.  In fact catching yourself in the act builds up the strength of the observing ego.  It allows one to wonder, “Why am I saying such mean things to myself?”  “Under what circumstances would I ever talk to a friend like I am talking to myself?” When you can reflect on your feelings, then you are  on the road to recovery and  achievement  and far from being lost off road in some desolate woods.

The Power of Negative Thinking

The mind requires self-monitoring and self-correcting in order to keep thoughts in check with the ever-shifting subtle changes of reality.  The second step in dealing with negative self-talk follows from the ability to self-reflect and involves questioning the validity of self-criticism. It might seem counter-intuitive to suggest that questioning how one feels is an adaptive function, but feelings can be misleading.  Feelings are signals that communicate information about the world. They do not simply represent reality. The ability to make this differentiation is a critical aspect of self-reflection.

When you are self-critical, you may view the self and others through a distorted lens. You believe in the “Truth” of these feelings with a certainty that defies logic.  Projection is a powerful and subtle mechanism that underlies this distortion.  If I am feeling stupid, it is likely that I will project these feelings onto the people I am interacting with.  The projection appears as the thought,  “they think I am stupid. “  I will notice something  in their look or tone that conveys a judgment that confirms this feeling.  Ironically under the social pressure to appear smart, I might end up saying something stupid.  Ah, the power of negative thinking!

Feelings need to be examined, questioned and reflected upon.  Questions need to be asked. “What am I feeling?”   “Are my feelings distorting my understanding of the situation?”  “Am I projecting my negative feelings onto the situation?”  This process is deepened by a psychological inquiry into the source of one’s core negative beliefs.  When you understand why you think and behave in a certain, not only do you feel less crazy, but you also can have compassion for your difficulty.

As you observe  and question  your feelings and perceptions, you begin to see patterns. Black and white thinking is a mode of thought that underlies negative self-talk. In this mode there are no shades of grey. You are all good or all bad.  Making a single mistake, no matter how small can be  costly because it is magnified to monstrous proportions and negates all that is positive and good about you. Black and white thinking is grounded in perfectionism that creates unrealistic standards for success.

Developing a balanced, integrated sense of self, in other words, good self-esteem works to dismantle the standard of perfectionism.  It introduces a new standard that is flexible, inclusive, and compassionate. This ability to see the big picture of yourself and accept your strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures  is  the hallmark of good self-esteem.

Beyond the Comfort Zone

The third step entails changing the behavior that has functioned to support negative self-talk. Self-critical individuals tend to be quiet, sensitive to slights, risk aversive, and anticipate negative outcomes. Their behavior often reinforces their subjective reality that in turn further reinforces their behavior.  As you begin to challenge negative core beliefs, you may feel more willing to take risks.  When you move beyond the comfort zone, core beliefs are tested in the great laboratory of life.  And in most situations, individuals are profoundly relieved to discover the fallacy of their convictions.

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Larry Brooks, PhD

Licensed Clinical Psychologist
License # PSY 8161

138 N. Brand #300
Glendale, CA 91203
(818) 243-0839


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