Archive for the ‘Therapy Insights’ Category

Introspection Part 5, Your inner narrative

Sunday, February 18th, 2018

Now that you have some tools for accessing your inner self (See the previous blog post, Introspection Part 4), what are you supposed to do once you are “in there” (looking around within yourself)? Answer: find your “inner narrative”—the story you tell yourself about you and your world. That’s really it. Sounds simple, and it can be, but it can also be very difficult to identify the parts of the story that matter to you, that influence your outlook, your feelings, attitudes, values, and your responses to various situations. The good news is that you get to explore these stories as often as you want and as long as you want because you are constantly full of stories!

We all tell stories. All the time. We tell stories to others. We tell stories to ourselves. We do it so often, we mostly don’t know we are doing it. We also constantly revise our stories. The further we move from any given moment, the more our story of that moment is likely to change, as it becomes integrated into the larger story of our lives. You tell yourself stories about what you did today, yesterday, last week, last year. The story you tell yourself (and others) about what you did earlier today is slightly different than the story that was running through your head earlier today. The story you tell yourself now about yesterday is different than the story you told yourself about your day while it was still yesterday. The stories you tell yourself about last year are considerably different than the stories you were telling yourself during last year. See what I mean? Memory is a funny thing. It is complicated. Memory is partly retrieval of our perceptions in any given situation and partly pieces of a larger puzzle we edit to make fit the larger story of our lives. How we feel about that memory, the information it provides us now, which parts of the situation we retrieve—these are all very dependent on the story we tell ourselves about that situation, why it happened, why it is important, and our place in it.

One of my favorite stories about the importance of stories comes from a time when I was a trial attorney. John, a more senior colleague, and I were meeting with the executives of a company, pitching to them the ideas we (John) had about how we would conduct this large case if they gave the case to us. I was fairly young in my career then, essentially John’s “Sherpa” (carried the stuff and got it set up for him). I sat in silence as John made his presentation. John spent the better part of two hours or so going over in fine detail all the likely and possible twists and turns of how the case would proceed to trial once we filed the lawsuit. The meeting was almost over. The presentation was complete.

The executives had asked all their questions, and seemed satisfied with John’s answers. We were wrapping up. Then the CEO asked a final question. He did not ask John. He directed the question to me (remember, up until this point, I hadn’t said much of anything). He asked, “Michael, if you were me, is there anything you would you ask that we haven’t already asked?” In my ignorance of the politics of being subordinate to John, I made the mistake of giving an honest answer. Looking back, I can now see I was supposed to say “I can’t think of a single thing—I think John covered it all brilliantly!” The problem was that John hadn’t covered it all. John had actually failed to cover the most important part of what he should have been explaining to them: the story of their case! I told the CEO (something like the following), “I would want to know, once we get to the trial, how are you going to win this for us, what story will you tell the jury to convince the jury they should decide in our favor?” Silence. Oops! The client redirected my question back to John. John recovered well, as I recall (or at least that’s the story of this situation I tell myself now). He then spent some time explaining how he would reframe the complexities (it was a very complicated case) in a way the jury could digest, understand and believe. The point of my story here is that John had become so focused on the details of the lawsuit, he overlooked the client’s basic need —to be able to get in front of a group of people (the jury) and tell a story about why the client had been wronged and needed to be compensated (given substantial sums of money) to make things right. FYI, we did get the case and the client did get the money they needed to be satisfied.

What is a “story?” At its most fundamental level, a “story” is nothing more than a link between two causally related events. I just took a break from writing this post. Here’s the story of the break. I was feeling shaky, typing with more typos than usual. I had begun to lose track of my thoughts. Something was off. I kept going, though, because I was on a roll and didn’t want to lose my momentum. Things got worse, to the point that I could no longer ignore what was happening. I realized my blood sugar was low (I have Type 1 diabetes). Then, I remembered when I woke up a few hours ago, my blood sugar was at “almost perfect” (perfect is “100” and mine was “113”) and I’d had nothing to eat or drink other than coffee. So, I got up and grabbed a small glass of Mango juice. Now I am back writing. This is the story of my break. In it, I have described to myself (and now you), what prompted the break. I have also told myself the perceptions (more typos), feelings (annoyed), physical symptoms (shaky and weak), observations (memory of earlier normal blood sugar), and attitudes (I didn’t want to stop until I had to). These are the “inner states” I was having during the time of the story. I have made causal connections between those inner states and the likely causes (low blood sugar), and then what I did to respond to and modify the cause (drink mango juice) and the effect (my stability). The result: satisfaction after an interlude of minor difficulty.

You tell yourself similar stories all day, every day. They are not always so mundane or casual. They are most of the time though—mundane and casual. As time goes by, stories become connected to each other. We integrate the stories. We give them greater meaning than they might have had in the moment, as they become part of a larger whole. We form attitudes about them. And then those attitudes in turn change the stories we tell, the parts of the stories we recall. Over time, these attitudes, coupled with the patterns we remember, help us to form meanings about the stories, what those stories mean to us in our larger lives, as part of what we are, who we are, the kind of person we are and the kind of lives we have. I can’t say I will remember this one particular story about needing to take a break to get a cup of juice. I can say that this kind of story is one that occurs daily, sometimes several times per day. Over time, it wears on me. I add up the annoying aspect of having to “always” take breaks, check my sugar, etc. Of course, I am not “always” having to do this. It is a nuisance, to be sure. The way I tell myself the story of my diabetes effects the way I remember the important parts of each of the isolated incidents like the one that happened just now. The way I tell that story and the parts of each of these related I remember then can have a profound affect on how I feel about having diabetes, and even what it means to be “me” as a person with diabetes.

Nearly all therapy approaches have in common getting at the way you tell yourself stories of your self. Three of the most popular therapeutic approaches come to mind that will demonstrate this: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Narrative Therapy and Psychoanalysis. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teases out the logic you use in making causal connections between your perceptions to test your capacity to recognize “mistakes in thinking” that can then be “corrected” once identified so you don’t continue to make those “mistakes” to your detriment. A simple and very frequent example of this is when a client takes an “all or nothing” approach to a situation. Say Jennifer has been told by her supervisor that she is getting a promotion, but it will mean changing locations. She fears that she may now lose her job because she doesn’t want to change locations. Jennifer has made the “mistake” of assuming that she has only two choices: take the promotion (and transfer) or lose her job. It hasn’t occurred to her that she could very well just say to her supervisor that she’d prefer to stay in her present position if it means she can stay in that location. The story Jennifer is telling herself about her supervisor’s announcement, what it means, and how it will affect her, all have a significant impact on how Jennifer thinks she can respond to this situation going forward, even to the point of having considered taking a position she doesn’t want due to the way she has told herself the story of her situation.

Psychoanalysis focuses on the way your childhood development, including the relationships you formed during early and later childhood, continues to influence your way of being in the world now. Narrative therapy takes this a step further (and closer to the point of this blog post) by emphasizing that it isn’t only the actual way you developed as a child that influences you now—it is also the story you now tell yourself about your development—that profoundly affects the way you see and feel about yourself and your life now. I regularly use narrative therapy in my practice. It is consistent with my belief that the stories we tell ourselves about our whole lives, all the way from our early childhood to the lunch we had today, become part of an integrated story of ourselves that directs our perceptions, attitudes, values, interactional patterns, choices, and behaviors—everything we are and everything we do. How’s that for a unified theory of the self!

Let’s get back to the point of this post: once we figure out how to look inside ourselves (Introspection, Part 4), what are we supposed to be looking for? Stories. Messages. Linkages. Connections. Plot lines. Subjective experiences and your reflections on those experiences. Ways of seeing the world. Ways of seeing yourself in the world. Ways of seeing yourself interacting with others. The stories you tell yourself about those relationships, those patterns of interactions. Start asking yourself, in any given situation you might remember: “Why do I remember it this way?” “Are there parts to this story that I might not be remembering, or remembering fully, or accurately?” “How do I feel about this story?” “What does this story I am telling myself about this situation tell me about myself, about the situation, about the other people in the story?” “Can I change the story?” “Can I change the way the story tells me about myself?” “Why do I tell myself this story and not another story about this situation?” “How is my story the result of influences from others, now, and in the past?”

A story has many events in it that follow one another in a sequence. This is the plot of the story. The specific events are “plot points.” We chose which plot points to focus on and which to dismiss. How we make these choices is dependent on many things, including previous similar stories and on how we are told by others to identify and connect the plot points. Once you begin to see how you do this internally, you will have a much greater chance at directing this process going forward, instead of continuing to allow the messages others have given you about how to do this to control how you do it. The most important point in this whole discussion is this: just because you do not know you are telling yourself a story doesn’t mean you are not telling yourself a story. So, if you are telling yourself stories about you and your life (and you definitely are), it would be a very good thing to know what stories you are telling yourself and why.

Here’s a possible story.  It could even be about you (but maybe not). Let’s say it is Sunday afternoon. You recount your morning. Your morning included getting up, getting the kids to various activities (sports, gymnastics, etc.), then you picked up around the house, did some laundry, and prepared a nice lunch for the family. A productive morning. Something to feel good about. But you don’t. At first, this morning looks a lot like yesterday morning, and yesterday you felt great about the first part of your day. Now, let’s say you were raised in a family that went to church every Sunday, without fail. It was a really big deal. Your spouse doesn’t care about church. It’s an argument if you insist. So you don’t insist. You go to church now only on the holidays. Your mom and sister tell you they miss seeing you at church, wish you would start going again. So, you feel bad about your morning. You did many good things, but in your mind, you didn’t do the one important thing you should have done: gone to church. This is an important part of your story about your morning. It is the thing you are focused on—the one thing missing, the one plot point that should be there, but isn’t. Now that you know this, you can begin to think about which is more important: going to church or letting go of that as an influence on how you should feel about Sundays, and therefore about your life. Knowing this will also influence your behavior. Will you now risk more conflicts with your spouse, or will you resign yourself to the differences you each feel about church and just go to church alone. Either decision is fine, but at least you have greater awareness of something that has meaning for you that has been missing in your life.

Here’s another example. It’s the story about Theresa and her body. Theresa is 48. She is relatively fit. She takes a “spinning class” (stationary bike) twice a week at the gym. She eats fairly healthy, allowing herself only a few desserts per week, and tries to stay away from processed foods when she can. At her recent annual physical, her doctor had only good news about her health, including her cholesterol levels and blood pressure. She has much to feel good about with her body. She doesn’t. She doesn’t like to look at herself in the mirror, especially without clothes on. She fears the scale, and weighs herself once per week, only because she thinks she must. Robert, her boyfriend, tells her she looks great. She thinks he means it. But, still… she feels bad about her body. It isn’t up to her standards. Whenever Theresa thinks of her body, when she sees herself in the mirror, or imagines what Robert sees when they are in bed together, she almost becomes queezy at the thought, shrugging it off as quickly as possible. She is dreading spring break with Robert in a few weeks because she will need to find swimwear that doesn’t look terrible on her. Theresa doesn’t realize that, with each of these thoughts—of herself in the mirror, with Robert, on the beach—she is superimposing on that image what she looked like twenty-five years ago. Theresa thinks she should still look like she did when she was 25. Of course it isn’t rational for her to compare herself at 48 to the way she looked at 25. More than that, though, is the standard she held for herself when she was 25. Back then, she ate very little, went to the gym three or four times per week, and was thinner than what was really healthy. Back then, and now, she held herself to the standards set by Victoria’s Secret, Hollywood, and billboards adorning our freeways with photoshopped women less than half Theresa’s age, all telling her, “if you don’t look like this, you are not how you are supposed to be [insert many other very negative messages].” If Theresa could see more clearly how she is telling herself the story of her body and age subject to the influence of marketers who want her to feel this way so she buys their products, she could begin to accept her body and her age with more grace, and without terrible and unnecessary guilt and shame. This is a simplistic explanation of a complicated problem for many people, especially women, in our society, so I don’t want to trivialize it. Yet, more awareness of this complex set of stories are part of recovering from these constant negative influences.

Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves can reveal reasons we have certain kinds of lingering moods. Someone who tends toward depression might simply tell stories that are overly focused on the negative aspects of their experiences. Someone with anxiety might focus mostly on those possibilities that could be potentially harmful outcomes. If either of these people were able to fill in their stories with more balanced perspectives, their moods might begin to improve quickly and dramatically. A client just helped me think about this (you know who you are).                                                                                    .

When you “go inside yourself” through introspection, look for your “inner narrative.” Start looking at what happens in your life and how you feel about what happens. Start identifying the plot points you remember. Start figuring out why you choose those plot points as your focus, including how you relate them to each other. Think about plot points in the situation that you are not including in your story. Once you have done this, you can ask yourself if your choices about the plot points you remember and connect are choices you want to continue to make. Are they really “your” choices, or are they choices others have told you to make? You get to decide, but only if you know what you are deciding. Your stories become “intentional” (it is your intent that informs how the story should be told, not the intent of others). Once you engage in these practices on a regular basis, you won’t merely have an “inner narrative,” you will have an “intentional inner narrative.” An intentional inner narrative allows us to throw out things like debilitating shame, inappropriate guilt, useless bitterness, and longstanding resentments. When we do this, we begin to clear a path toward accepting ourselves as we are, not as we think we must be or how others want us to be. This is the ultimate goal of introspection and an intentional inner narrative: self-acceptance, which is the topic of the next post in this series of blogs on introspection.


Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)

Introspection Part 3, Why do we avoid our inner lives

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

I hope I made a convincing case in Part 2 of this discussion on introspection—that exploring your inner life has some very tangible (and intrinsic) benefits, including predictability and flexibility (in how you interact with others). I hope I also made it clear that, without introspection, there is really no way for a person to change their patterns of interactions. Thus, without introspection, without a willingness to engage in meaningful self-exploration, a person will be stuck exactly where they are. They will not learn, grow, change, or be more likely to have what they want for themselves or from others.

If introspection is so important (and it is), why would anyone want to avoid it? At its core, one word: pain. Okay, well its actually three words: fear of pain. Emotional pain. The justifications, reasons, and explanations I have heard from many, many people about their desire to avoid “unnecessary” or “pointless” introspection are all window dressing, melarky, and excuses to avoid the real truth. The same thing goes for those who claim they are just not “introspective,” as if it is in their nature to have little or no self-awareness, that they were born that way. Not true. It can’t be. We humans are built to be introspective. If we are not, it is because we have, perhaps without realizing it, decided not to be.

Avoidance of self-exploration can really only have one reason, the desire to avoid the uncomfortable states and insights that would come with it. The specific nature of discomfort, emotional pain and difficult insights are greatly varied among individuals, but they all account for why people avoid introspection. Put it this way, can you think of any other honest reason to avoid getting to know yourself? If you could know yourself, what other reason would there be to avoid it? I know this is circular logic, but I also think it is effective in explaining my reason for believing that we avoid introspection, not ever because it is useless or pointless, but because we don’t want to feel and see what it makes us see and feel. I will even say that the thing we most want to avoid by avoiding introspection and self-awareness is this: inadequacy. We do not want to be in a state of realizing or concluding how and to what extent we are not the kind of person we think we should be.

Think of introspection as a kind of “inner mirror.” We are looking at ourselves, if honestly, as we actually are, not as we want to think we are. If we see who we truly are, we are bound to see things we don’t like about ourselves because we all have imperfections, character defects, flaws, or whatever other name you want to use to describe the issues that come with the complexity of being human. And actually, that’s part of the point—to see the things we don’t want to see but need to see in order to change them. It is not unlike stepping on a scale. We may not want to do it, because we might see that we need to make some changes to lose weight, but we won’t really have a good idea of how much weight to lose (or maybe we won’t need to lose weight) until we step on the scale. Our inner mirror, introspection, can be a very painful experience, even when things in our lives are going relatively well.

The pain we fear as part of introspection might come in the form of memories that tell us about unresolved issues from our past (remorse), friends or family members we have lost and won’t be getting back (grief), or career changes we’ve been meaning to explore but haven’t acted on (confusion and fear). If we allow ourselves to experience the remorse of unresolved issues, we might feel the needed compulsion to take the action necessary to resolve them. Feeling grief over lost friends might encourage us to reach out to other friends, or make new friends. Confusion and fear about career changes might remind us why we feel so stuck in our current job and generate ideas about how to solve the “stuckness.”

Deep introspection, though, is not so much about what we happen to be thinking or feeling about any particular situation or issues. This is important, but it is not the most important part of introspection, or the part that makes so many people avoid it. Going deeper, if introspection is to have a lasting value, will be about exploring at our core level who we are as a person. This can be very, very difficult. It requires an acknowledgment up front that there is always room to grow, there are always problems with who we are; no one is perfect. It requires some level of humility—an acceptance of our own limitations, imperfections. Many people simply do not want to entertain these things, primarily, I think, because they wrongly assume that humility is synonymous with humiliation or shame. They mistakenly think that accepting that they are limited (and of course they are, we all are), means they will end up in some kind of downward spiral of inadequacy. They fear that they will discover some aspect of themselves that cannot be overcome, changed, and that it means they are somehow permanently or fundamentally flawed or broken. Such people usually already suspect this is true, or believe it to be true, so like a wound that has never healed, that still causes pain, they try to ignore it, as best they can. Not good. Like any wound that will not heal and is ignored, it will fester, and this includes emotional wounds as well as physical wounds.

It’s always a shame to think of someone living their entire lives with unaddressed and therefore unresolved pain about their very nature. Not necessary, completely avoidable, and so sad. I say this, having worked in the prisons for many years and met many people who you might think can never overcome feeling bad about themselves for what they have done. With very few exceptions, we can all become better than we were, better than we are, if we are willing to look at who we are, what we have done, and what we need and can do to make the kinds of changes that will redeem us, if not to others, then at least to ourselves. But, we must believe this is at least worth trying, that it is at least a possibility. Many of us, unfortunately, do not. So they drink, smoke, gamble, etc. to dim, to numb, to avoid, the pain of what they will not face, or believe they cannot face.

Let’s move out from the person whose fears of pain and feelings of inadequacy are the main reason for avoiding self-exploration. I’m not backing off on that thought. But, let’s take this person “in context” (where he is in his life, where he comes from). In this case, there’s a reason I use “he” for our imagined introspective-avoidant person. In context, most men are told from a very early age that exploration of feelings is something to be avoided. Boys are told in myriad ways that attending to their feelings at all is not acceptable, is bad—that it makes them weak, unwanted, excluded, and likely to be a target of aggression by other boys. Parents tell their boys, “stop crying.” A boy who cries on the playground when injured is considered “a wuss” (or worse). He is a “poor sport,” a “baby,” “spoiled,” (or throw in some kind of homophobic attribute). As boys, we all learn very early, very quickly, and in some very severe and ugly ways that expressing our feelings is something to be avoided at all costs wherever possible. And if expressing feelings is bad, what could possibly be the point of exploring our feelings? To what end? Here’s another thing about introspection. We cannot express feelings without experiencing them. We can have feelings without experiencing those feelings (think, denial). It is impossible, though, to genuinely express a feeling without experiencing that feeling. Can you cry, real tears, without feeling sadness or pain? No. At some point, I will write a whole blog post on this issue, but just consider this a reason that men don’t express their feelings—to do so would require them to experience the feelings they are expressing, and they have been told in no uncertain terms they aren’t supposed to do either.

How likely is it that a boy subjected to this kind of harsh normative warning against being aware of and expressing his feelings, again and again, for years on end, at home, at school, at the playground, wherever he goes, is going to be comfortable with exploring and expressing his feelings when he grows up? Not too likely. What a shame. A crime, even. I’d even say it is amazing that any men in our society ever grow up to be able or willing to explore their feelings in an honest, transparent and consistent way. Every man who does so is overcoming a powerfully negative message against expressing their feelings or working through them. Talk about swimming upstream. It can only be done with tenacity, fortitude and a deep inner strength. To all men willing to give this a try, I can only encourage you in whatever way makes sense for you. To all of you, congratulations. You have my sincere admiration and respect. I can only tell you, from where I stand, it is worth the (often very difficult) effort to overcome what you have (wrongly) learned about self-exploration, weakness, what it supposedly means to be a man (and hide your feelings), and all of that garbage. Tragic, really, that we continue to do this to our boys and men. What a shame. What a waste. Completely unnecessary.

Let’s zoom out again to explore other reasons we (not just boys and men) avoid introspection. If our imagined person is either a woman or a man, her or his family of origin (who she or he lived with as a child) might have had their own normative rules (“you better not…”) against the expression of feelings. “Don’t air your dirty laundry!” “Keep it to yourself!” “Children are to be seen and not heard!” Or, in a more mild or subtle way, just growing up with parents who never role modeled how to express feelings, which is its own way of sending the message that neither should anyone else, including the children. Zooming out even further, this family may come from a cultural background that has its own prohibitive messages and rules about expressing any kind of negative feelings, especially in public, which could apply equally to males and females, or could be more directed at either one. The point here is that there are forces outside of us that might strongly inhibit our capacity and desire to be introspective, and I wanted to acknowledge that part of the issue.

The lengths we go to avoid introspection and self-awareness and the harm it often causes is really astounding. I addressed this in Firewalking on Jupiter, “Mental Health, Part 2,” which bears repeating here. What happens if you refuse to engage in self-exploration when you really need to do so, continuing to avoid the issues in your inner life that need to be addressed? Drug addicts continue to use drugs to escape, with all the trouble that comes with addiction. Victims in an abusive relationship continue to be abused. Past trauma continues to haunt its victims, controlling their decisions and causing problems in their current relationships in ways they do not understand and cannot control. Family childhood issues like mistrust, honesty, secrets, denial, feeling unwanted, impossible expectations, are projected onto current work or home situations that make life difficult without it having to be so difficult. If a person is unable or unwilling to address serious issues of their inner selves, the behavior they use to avoid those issues (e.g. alcohol, drugs, gambling, workaholic, unstable relationships, etc.) can itself be highly destructive. Even if people are not engaged in highly destructive behaviors of avoidance, those issues will continue to have a negative impact on their lives until they are understood and addressed.

Where do we go from here? Now that I’ve identified some of the reasons for avoiding introspection, from prohibitions against it growing up, or avoiding emotional pain, to simply not having had role models to show you how, I will provide in the next blog post a number of useful tools to help you get started on introspection and then describe ways to sustain the process for a lifetime of self-discovery and personal growth.


Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)


Introspection Part 1, What is introspection?

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

A friend recently read my book, Firewalking on Jupiter. He liked it. He thought it was useful in a variety of ways. He thought the book did a pretty good job of explaining how to address different issues you might need to address depending on who you are and what you discover about yourself—things like guilt, anxiety, anger, shame, loss, lack of meaning, and identity. I do not take it for granted that someone who reads my book will enjoy it or find it useful, so it was nice to hear all of this. Then he said something I hadn’t heard before, or thought about really at all. He told me the book made the assumption that those who read it already know what introspection is, how to do introspection, have sufficient self-awareness to identify their issues, and are fairly far down the road of believing in the value of both introspection and self-awareness.

I will admit, I was stunned. I realized right away that there was no part of the book that actually went through the process of what introspection is and how to do introspection. My oversight is based on two circumstances. First, I had been engaged in the various acts of introspection for so long in my own life, I made the mistake of assuming those reading my book would already be well acquainted with it. My long history of doing introspection goes all the way back to when I was a teenager, in drug treatment, learning about the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (I’ll get back to that in a later part of this series of blog posts, as part of my explanation for how to do introspection). The other reason is that I had been practicing therapy with clients for 10 years when I put the book together, so I made the mistaken assumption that my audience would be people already engaged in therapy, either with me or someone else, well on their way to understanding how to incorporate introspection into their daily lives.

This, then, is the first in what will be a series of blog posts that will explain the basics of introspection, including what it is, how to start, how to maintain it, various tools you can use to help you along, and also the benefits of introspection, which is greater self-awareness, hopefully leading to positive change and growth.

Let’s start by defining “introspection.” defines “introspection” as: the “observation or examination of one’s own mental and emotional state, mental processes, etc.; the act of looking within oneself.” In its simplest terms, introspection means “self-examination” (on an emotional, mental, and perhaps spiritual level). At some basic level, we all engage in self-examination all the time. We must. We are constantly having conversations with ourselves inside our heads. By participating in these conversations, we are at some level “looking within one’s self.” Are we really paying attention to the conversations though? Are we asking ourselves why the conversations we are having at any given moment are headed in one direction, and not another? Have we considered other aspects of our inner self that might help explain why that particular conversation is happening at all? Only when we take the time, the energy, and the “stance” of stepping outside of our internal conversations to look more closely at them are we truly engaged in the act of introspection. We aren’t just “having” the conversation with ourselves. When we are introspective, we are “examining” that conversation and the other inner states that underlie or influence that conversation.

It has always seemed helpful to me to think of our minds as having at least two primary layers: the conscious layer (what we are aware of at any given moment) and the unconscious layer (the murky place where thoughts and feelings come from before we are aware of them). When I think of these layers, I also like to think of thoughts and feelings, ideas, moods, and perceptions as things that “percolate” within us. Think of the conscious part of yourself sort of hovering above some water. The water is murky, not clear. You can’t really see too far under the surface of the water, but you can tell there are things moving around under the water. There are constantly bubbles “percolating” to the surface, and then ideas and thoughts and perceptions and feelings inside these bubbles emerge, coming to the surface for you to consider, to explore further, or ignore.

A related idea for how we exist within ourselves is to think of two kinds of selves within each of us. There is the “observer” self and the “observed” self. The observer self can sort of see or watch what we are thinking, feeling, or doing. The observed self is the part of us that is doing the thinking, the feeling or the doing. Imagine any activity you’ve done, and this will be true. Let’s say you are gardening. You are planting a small tree. You are completely engrossed in it, thinking and feeling little else other than the act of digging a hole, putting the dirt aside, putting water in the hole, removing the roots from the container, separating them a bit, putting the roots in the hole and adding soil around them. This whole time, you might be having momentary and fleeting thoughts about other things, including how you will spend the rest of your day, a walk or a bike ride later, dinner plans, but they come and go with little attention. Your mind hasn’t even been paying attention to your thoughts, either about the tree or anything else. The observer part of you has essentially merged with the observed part of you. There is something even sort of relieving about this kind of work due to the very fact that it is so engrossing. You are giving your observer self a break. Then, you pause from your work, you assess what you’ve been doing. You realize your back is aching, wondering if you should have asked for help in light of the size and weight of the tree and the difficulty of maneuvering it into the hole and holding it upright while refilling the hole. You begin to wonder why you didn’t ask for help, what this says about you, and your relationships with others. Now, the observer part of you has kicked back in, or it has left its merger with the observed part of you and become separate from it again, where it begins to assert to you what it observes.

In both of these ways of describing our “inner conversations,” the percolating idea and the “observed” and “observer” self idea, introspection is about paying attention with intentionality. In the percolation idea, introspection means intentionally deciding which of the bubbles that just percolated you want to pay attention to, to follow, to understand, to expand upon, and which bubbles to ignore, and thereby also gain an understanding of why certain bubbles should be attended and others ignored, for your own personal growth and change. Similarly, in the “observer” and “observed” self analogy, introspection means actively and intentionally deciding what you are observing, of bringing back to your conscious awareness the various acts of planting the tree, why you are doing it, how you are doing it, rather than passively allowing your observer self to fade out and then back in at will. If we decide when we want to pay attention or not pay attention to how we are thinking, feeling or doing, we are doing what some call “mindfulness” practice, which is an important part of introspection. If we are paying attention to our thoughts feelings and actions in order to explore these things and gain a better understanding of ourselves, we are engaged in the act of introspection.

In the next part of this series on introspection, I will discuss the benefits of introspection. Later, I will discuss more about how to actually do introspection, including various tools to help you improve your capacity for introspection, like writing, creativity and deeper conversations with ourselves and others.


Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)



Sunday, October 1st, 2017

I am always thrilled when a client brings an insight to me that reflects an understanding of their issues at a fairly deep level, especially when they are able to use language they find helpful to explain how they use their insights to address their own difficulties. So, please, if you are either a client now or might some day plan to be a client, I hope you’ll express your insights in our sessions in whatever language you find helpful.

Recently this happened when a client noted in her first session that she had struggled with “hypervigilance” for years as the result of previous trauma in her life. When she used the word, she immediately began to explain what she meant by the term, perhaps believing I didn’t understand her use of the term, especially in relationship to her experience of trauma. I stayed silent, appreciating her need to explain herself, but then when she finished, I let her know that I’d been introducing the term to clients who suffer trauma for years. She was pleased about this. I was pleased she had given it so much thought.

I introduce the term “hypervigilance” to trauma victims who so often know they experience it, they know it is unusual, they know it can be very uncomfortable, and that others might react to it very negatively. What trauma sufferers do not often know is that they are not alone in this experience, that they are not weird, and that in fact hypervigilance is a very normal and understandable reaction to the experience of trauma, especially when that trauma occurs in childhood, and is experienced repeatedly.

I suspect that part of the reason for writing this particular blog post is so that, next time it comes up (and it will), with a client who suffered from trauma and now experiences hypervigilance, I can just print this out for them, ask them to read it, and save us both the ten minutes it would take me to explain it, so we can move into a deeper discussion of its impact on them.

So, what is hypervigilance? Here’s what Wiki says:

Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect activity. Hypervigilance may bring about a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion. Other symptoms include: abnormally increased arousal, a high responsiveness to stimuli, and a constant scanning of the environment.

In hypervigilance, there is a perpetual scanning of the environment to search for sights, sounds, people, behaviors, smells, or anything else that is reminiscent of activity, threat or trauma. The individual is placed on high alert in order to be certain danger is not near. Hypervigilance can lead to a variety of obsessive behavior patterns, as well as producing difficulties with social interaction and relationships.

This is just one website that gives hypervigilance a generalized definition, but it does get the point across. As a beginning point to the topic of hypervigilance, one aspect of it that comes across from the Wiki definition is that it is a “symptom” that one “suffers” as the result of anxiety or stress. Later in the Wiki article on the topic, it specifically mentions that it is a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other forms of anxiety. So, in a word, hypervigilance is a bummer. It is tiring, exhausting even. It often causes its subject to be restless almost all the time (ergo the word “perpetual” to describe the “panning” of the environment). It is a taxing thing to have all this heightened awareness, and then to react with a startled response when that awareness encounters an actual sign of danger. The Wiki article also does something very important in describing hypervigilance by noting that it is not the same thing as “paranoia,” although the article doesn’t really explain the difference. Paranoia is a delusional state in which the person believes that someone or others are attempting to hurt them in some way, that danger exists, even when in objective reality (the reality we see but they don’t) no one is actually trying to harm them or wants to harm them. Hypervigilance is not delusional. It is a state of readiness in case objective reality becomes harmful. A person who experiences hypervigilance without paranoia doesn’t see things, hear things, or believe things that are not there. He or she is just more attuned to all of the things that are actually there, even when the rest of us might ignore them as no big deal.

Here’s a kind of funny story (I say “kind of funny” because it could have turned out very badly, but didn’t) about my own experience of hypervigilance many years ago to give the term and the idea a real world scenario. I was an attorney and had been working at the same law firm for several years. So, me and the guys, we got comfortable with each other, or so at least one of the other lawyers thought. He pulled a “bro” move on me (you know, like when a guy kind of gently punches another guy on the arm to say, aren’t we glad we’re both guys, and friends, and all that). Well he did that while partially behind me and on the side. My hypervigilance and startle response kicked in automatically. I saw his fist coming toward me from the corner of my vision. Without thinking about it at all, I ducked, turned quickly, grabbed his arm, swung him around and tried to restrain him. He turned red, started yelling expletives at me, and I immediately let him go. Fortunately, my own experience with hypervigilance has simmered down quite a bit over the decades since that story.

Fatigue, anxiety, worry, startle response, constant levels of edginess and tension; these are all the unfortunate side effects of hypervigilance. As the story above demonstrates, inappropriate behavior or responses caused by the hypervigilance can be a serious problem. In therapy, trauma sufferers seek to find a place in the external world, and in their inner lives, where they able to find a reprieve, a rest, a break from their hypervigilance, as part of their healing process. This is addressed more deeply in the two chapters about the important role of safety in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter. Clients who suffered trauma also often tell me that their level of hypervigilance fades considerably as they work through their trauma. This makes sense, especially because their healing process is partly based on the recognition that they are no longer in the situation in which the trauma occurred and they have begun to see that they have power and ideas to prevent that trauma situation from re-occurring.

I’m not a huge proponent of the idea that “everything happens for a reason.” If that were true, then all the terrible things that have happened to all the people who have suffered terrible things, happened for some good “reason.” No. Terrible things happen. People are traumatized. They are abused, raped, thrown away, killed, and all kinds of other really awful things happen to them. So, terrible things happen. After they have happened, rather than trying to find a reason for it, my approach is to address it, in a safe manner, taking all the time you need, and if possible find some good, not in the thing that happened (there is no good there), but in how you can later use what happened for some good.

Now let’s get back to hypervigilance. I will use myself again as illustrative point. I was a trial lawyer. I liked going to trial (even though I was often very nervous about losing or doing something wrong or stupid in court). When I was in the courtroom, I often found myself doing this: watching the other lawyer questioning the witness, while also watching the jurors watching the judge’s reaction to the witness, while listening to my client tell me his or her observations, while taking notes about what the witness was saying, while reviewing documents that had been introduced as exhibits. All this at the same time. I often found myself paying attention to every person in the courtroom, including those coming into and leaving the courtroom. I was watching their body language, facial expressions, tone of speech, and then used it all to my advantage. I now use hypervigilance as a therapist, to help me pay attention to the same kinds of information. I might be meeting with a couple, or a family, and while talking to one of them, watching the others in the room out of the corner of my vision, to see if their body language or facial expression, or breathing changes, so I can get a better sense of how everyone is reacting to everyone else in the room. I even pay attention to the way I am sitting, talking, playing with something in my hand, while watching how a client reacts to this, not as a test, but as something I can’t really help doing, so I do it to collect information for my client’s benefit.

The point here is that hypervigilance is a bummer. A major bummer. It is tiring, and nerve-wracking, and its cause sucks, because it is the result of experiencing trauma, which just means terrible things that continue to scare the hell out of you, either as the subject of those things, the witness of those things, or both. Hypervigilance can be reduced by healing from the underlying trauma, so the experience of hypervigilance is no longer caused by the trauma itself and does not retrigger previous traumatic experiences. Hypervigilance can also be used in positive ways to enhance perceptive capabilities when that can be useful, but only when you become aware of the reasons it exists, when it is happening, and how to channel it as a positive force in your life.


Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)



Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

You can only coast in one direction.”

In case the meaning of this statement doesn’t sink in right away, take a moment and think about it. Imagine you’re on a bicycle. You’ve stopped pedaling. You’re coasting. This won’t last long unless you are going down, only down. Going straight or uphill, you’ll stop coasting pretty quickly. Sometimes, you can coast and coast and not realize you’re coasting at all, not realize that the slope of your direction is down. You seem to be just taking it easy, relaxing, not having to put much effort into your ride. Meanwhile, you have lost elevation, you have been going down the whole time, without realizing it. When I am on a bike and realize I’ve been coasting for a long while, I start to think, “somewhere along the way I am going to have to pay for all this easiness with a part of the ride that will require me to pedal back up a big hill.” I only hope the hill back up isn’t too steep. Coasting on a bike is meant as a way of describing complacency and its price.

Microsoft Word defines “complacency” simply as “satisfaction.” If that’s true, there isn’t any problem with complacency or coasting. Satisfaction is good, where it is appropriate. But what if you are satisfied when you shouldn’t be, when your satisfaction is based more on lack of effort or interest, or because you aren’t paying attention, and you should be paying attention because all is not well, at least not anymore. A more robust and meaningful definition of complacency is provided by Merriam-Webster online. There, complacency is defined as: 1 : self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies. 2 : an instance of usually unaware or uninformed self-satisfaction.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

So, the problem with complacency, and coasting, is that you might think everything is just fine, when it actually isn’t, but you aren’t doing anything about it. You are fine with how things are because what you’re doing is easy, effortless, and you think that must mean things are good, or at least okay. This is human nature. We all do it. But it’s not good, for two reasons. First, the longer you coast (stay in your complacency), the more difficult it will be to change direction (you have to go up that big hill). Second, while coasting, you could be moving in different, more interesting or worthwhile directions, but you aren’t because the direction you’re heading in is easy. You are taking the path of least resistance, which over time is almost never a good idea because you end up settling for much less than you might otherwise have had if you’d been more proactive, more strategic, taken more risks, used more effort.

This idea of coasting first came up in therapy with a guy who was trying to figure out if he wanted to stay in a marriage he’d been in for many years. During one of our first sessions, after describing the parts of the marriage he found most troubling, I asked (something along the lines of) “how did things get this bad for you?” He said, “Well, you know, you can only coast in one direction, downhill.” He then went on to explain the incremental and insidious downward trend of his marriage. He explained how a marriage which at first had so much potential, with someone he respected so much, had evolved over years into one in which he dreaded coming home, avoided all unnecessary communication with his wife, and was seriously entertaining infidelity or divorce. He told me he’d been coasting in his marriage for years, just going to work, coming home, not paying much attention to how things were going, and then recently realized he no longer wanted to speak with the person he had previously loved more than anyone.

I guess I am in a definitions mood. So, let’s define the word “insidious.” Google defines insidious as “proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects.” That about captures my use of the word. Merriam-Webster adds this to the definition of insidious: “developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent.

As an aside, I tend to look up the definitions of words frequently. Its an old habit from when I went to college after having missed much of high school due to my “extra-curricular” activities (drugs, etc.), so I had a lot of catching up to do. I am glad I developed the habit of looking words up, first out of necessity, and now because I don’t want to be afraid of any word I don’t understand or am not sure I am using correctly, and it is so easy now, just hit the “Google” button, type in “define (insert word)” and BOOM, there you are, word defined!

Okay, back to the topic of coasting. Now that we’ve defined “insidious,” see how coasting, complacency and insidious tie together? We think we are doing well, things are going fine, we are moving along, lots to see and think about, and all with very little effort on our part. We might even believe that coasting is a good thing. And to be sure, sometimes it is, for a short period of time, when we need a break, when we deserve to “sit back and enjoy the ride.” After a while though, coasting downhill becomes treacherous, and lures us into complacency, into thinking everything is fine, when things are not fine, and maybe haven’t been fine for a long, long time. At some point, we’ve gone down far enough that it can be difficult to remember what it was like when we started to coast.

The analogy of coasting is useful for understanding and working through many different kinds of life experiences. The most obvious place, like I explained above, is in relationships. But think about your job, right now. If you’ve had your job for a long time, how has it changed, become better, more engaging, more satisfying? Or, is it possible that the job has instead been just enough, that it has been relatively secure, where your main goal is not necessarily change, promotion, greater responsibility, but job security, risk avoidance, staying low on the radar to avoid being the target of a layoff during yet another reorganization. Even if this isn’t true for you, there’s pretty clear evidence it is true for most people. Aren’t you stunned a bit when you hear on the news that the average wage of Americans has actually stayed the same or fallen in buying power over the past twenty, thirty years? How can this be? I can’t say. I am not an economist or a politician. The point here is that maybe complacency has its dangers for our whole society, that we’ve all been coasting together, downhill.

Coasting can also be a problem with things we want to do with our lives aside from relationships and jobs. We might have projects we want to complete, but never get around to starting, or finishing. We might have self-improvement goals that we give up on, whether it is our education, our physical fitness, travel, or some other achievement. If we look back and ask, “why haven’t I done that (insert thing you didn’t do) yet?” The answer usually includes something like, “it was just easier every time I thought about it not to do it, to just keep doing what I was doing, to coast.” If you wanted to lose weight and become more fit, every time you woke up and thought, “after work, I am going to the gym, if even just for an hour.” Then when you got home from work, fed the dog, let him out, started to make yourself something to eat, you nestled into your home life, didn’t want to go out, easier to just stay home and go to the gym tomorrow. Not a problem. Really. Not a problem on this day or that day. It is a problem, possibly a huge problem, when it is nearly everyday, for weeks, months, years on end. The problem is the slow process of gaining weight, of losing our initiative, interest, direction, until it can feel like its just too much to deal with, becoming overwhelming, and then worst of all, you resign yourself to your situation, to continuing to coast, indefinitely. The longer you coast, the more difficult it becomes to change direction, to take a left, and another left, and go back up hill to get to where you were, to improve, to gain ground on whatever your goal.

Whether its in a relationship, at the job, with our personal selves, the way out of coasting must include first recognition that you are actually coasting, and you don’t want to continue coasting. This is where people usually come to therapy, when they have gone down the slow road long enough to realize they are not where they want to be, and now they don’t know what to do to stop coasting. Good, so far. Now, for hope. When we’ve coasted long enough to realize it isn’t good, when the insidiousness of it is no longer subtle, but obvious, clearly troubling, it can be difficult to have hope of change. I try to encourage people to do two things in this situation, just to get things moving in a better direction. First, I ask them to remember when things were better, when they weren’t coasting, but challenging themselves, when they were pedaling their bikes, putting effort into getting to where they wanted to be. They always can do this, but might need help with some encouragement and direction. Second, I help them chart a course to where they’d rather be. I ask them to describe this to me, to imagine again being where they want to be. We then set up milestones to measure the progress. We don’t try to charge straight uphill. That’s too much, and not at all necessary. Think of a hiking trail with switchbacks to get you gradually up to the ridge. We measure each turn to help see progress, which provides further encouragement.

I guess there is probably a third ingredient to making these kinds of changes in therapy, in a client’s life, and to sustain the change. Moving away from coasting to an energetically lived life, also requires a fairly significant change in attitude about struggle. To move away from coasting to a more self-directed pursuit of the kind of life that we can enjoy with meaning, we have to give up on the easy road and we have to embrace struggle as a necessary component of a life truly lived, a life we want to have, rather than the life we happen to have. Let me say that again because it is just that important: we have to embrace struggle as an unavoidable part of having what we want in life.

Life requires energy. We cannot live without food, fuel. Relationships, including friendships, a marriage, jobs, goals of any and all kinds also require energy—they all require effort, work, struggle at times.  We might wish they didn’t, but to function well over the long haul, they do. If we truly want to have what we value, we have to put effort into it. Coasting in life will never get us there. It is certainly okay to coast for a while sometimes, when you’ve earned it or when you’re worn out from struggle and effort. Then, for a time, enjoy the break. But pay attention, because if it lasts too long, you are likely no longer taking a break, but avoiding the effort of making the kinds of changes and challenges and risks that will bring you the rewards of a truly satisfying life, instead of one which has the appearance but not the reality of satisfaction, which is complacency. So, notice when you are coasting, give yourself permission to coast, for a while, but only a while, and then start putting energy back into the things that are important to you, so you can have what you really want and not merely have what happens to be there.


Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)


Defiant Morality

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

I have for some time been considering how to approach more directly my thoughts on morality—on what is “good” and “bad” when it comes to human decisions, including their behavior, beliefs, attitudes, and judgments. I have wanted to write about this topic directly, but have hesitated. The problem has been that is in my nature to mistrust any pronouncement of moral authority. I can very much relate to those who tell me they have been subjected too often or with too much intensity or self-righteousness the moral thinking of others in their lives–sometimes it is a parent, or an older sibling, a preacher, or, God forbid, a previous therapist! I abhor the idea of hypocrisy, and even more stingingly, I abhor the idea of myself as a hypocrite. Put this all together and I have set myself up for what will be a very difficult, and maybe impossible task: to write about my own sense of right and wrong, while completely avoiding any normative statements (“you should… or should not…”) and thereby forcing my own ideas of right and wrong onto anyone else.

I feel an even keener sense of responsibility to refrain from espousing my ideas of right and wrong within my position as a therapist for fear that clients and others will give it far more credence than it deserves, because after all, it is just my opinion and I am just some guy. So much of my work as a therapist hinges on my strong belief that people have it within themselves to make much better decisions for themselves and the people they love than I or anyone else could decide for them. The last thing I want to do after all these years of doing this work with others is to then suggest, “oh by the way, in addition to having it within yourself to make good decisions, you should also listen to me about what is right and wrong and adopt what I say as the answer for you.” Obviously, that just won’t do.

As a beginning to addressing this dilemma (of wanting to address ideas of right and wrong without telling others how they should be), I have come up with some guiding principles; a skeletal framework for myself in how I should go about resolving this self-imposed dilemma.

  1. No moral statement or precept from me should contain this kind of definitive moral judgment: “you should do this or not do that if you want to be a good person.”
  1. I make a strong assumption that no one wants to hear what I think they should be like. Or rather: I don’t want the reader to care what I think they should be like. Or even stronger than this: I want them to not want to care what I think they should be like and to resent any attempt on my part in telling them who I think they should be.
  1. All reasoning should be able to withstand a new moral imperative: can I imagine that all people would want to be or act this way? Only then is it a moral precept or structure worth writing about or considering. (This is actually a paraphrase of the “categorical imperative” created by Immanuel Kant).
  1. A rule of thumb to test the above imperative is this: if in viewing your life as a whole does the proposed action or state make it more likely that a person will feel good about the kind of person they have become and are becoming?
  1. Ideas about morality I share should be able to appeal to an individual considering such thoughts as a way to improve their overall sense of life satisfaction. In other words, an individual reader of my thoughts on morality should be able to imagine themselves implementing the ideas in their lives in a way to achieve positive personal growth, regardless of the extent to which the moral thoughts might also benefit others or be “good” in some other respect. (See my chapter, “Selfishness and Love,” in Firewalking on Jupiter.)

The generalized nature of these guiding principles will suffice as a cautionary starting point for the time being and can act as a set of self-imposed limitations for sharing my thoughts on morality in the future.

For now, though, I want to mention, just mention, a thought I’ve been having about how to fit a way of thinking about morality within this kind of framework—what to call it and think about it. Here’s a preliminary thought I’ve been toying with: I call the idea “Defiant Morality” (note the capital letter for extra and ironic authority). Defiant Morality begins with this proposition: if we could jettison, and I mean completely rid ourselves, of all external influences about right and wrong, about what kinds of actions, decisions, ways of being in our lives are morally okay and not okay (I know we can’t, but just for the sake of discussion assume we could), what would be left in our thoughts about what makes a thing morally right or wrong? For each of us, I assume the answer would be at least slightly different—but maybe not quite as different as we think.

For Defiant Morality, a way to move beyond a thought experiment into a way of being, of acting, of deciding is this: first decide what you are not willing to do, before deciding what you are willing to do. What lines will you refuse to cross? No matter how someone else might try to compel you? In the extreme: if handed a rifle in Nazi Germany and told to shoot innocent civilians or be shot yourself, what would you do? Closer to home (and reality): if your supervisor at work tells you to do something you know, and he or she knows, is blatantly dishonest, will you refuse? Will your answer change if your only other option is to be fired? Will it matter if being fired could be a career-ending decision, or you have a family to support?

When I used to work in the prisons, a short-handed way of describing a morality that begins with only you and your thoughts, and what you will not do, was this: “if it feels wrong, it probably is, so don’t do it.” Of course, it isn’t always that easy though. If it were, there wouldn’t be a need for books and discussions going down through the centuries trying to figure all this out.

As a family therapist, I have encountered something like the following many times. Jenny comes in to see me because her marriage to John is failing. She tells me she is having an affair and feels very conflicted about it. I ask her to tell me how she got to this point. She tells me she’d been dissatisfied with her marriage for years, that she’d met a guy at work who felt the same way. She didn’t want to leave the marriage because they have two kids, and she thought she should just stay in it and be lonely, dissatisfied, and put up with it until the kids were out of the house. After a few years, this began to wear on her. When she discovered Dave at work was suffering the exact same dilemma, the solution seemed easy for both of them. Now that the affair has been going on for more than a year, she finds herself suffering from increasing symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, some of the anxiety is about her husband or Dave’s wife finding out or even worse, that her kids would find out. The depression is more confusing to her. She likes Dave, but doesn’t love him. She enjoys her time with him as much as she can. Through therapy, she hopes to find out why this isn’t enough, why she is increasingly depressed. There could be many reasons, all of which we will explore together.

Most of the time, people who have long-term affairs end up suffering from some level of depression if the affair doesn’t end or the marriage doesn’t end. Why? The affair doesn’t solve the original problem, which is an unsatisfying marriage you’ve given up on but refuse to leave. The affair just makes the initial problem worse, by adding guilt, fear, and broken trust with your spouse to the equation. Most of the time, when people have affairs, like Jenny, it is a slow, evolving, unintended process. They might spend years lonely, isolated, feeling trapped before they cross any lines beyond the marital boundary. Then, an unanticipated situation presents itself: Dave, or Jenny, depending on your perspective. Someone you know, or meet, seems like a possible solution to the dilemma you’ve been facing—whether to stay in a marriage and be lonely and sad or leave the marriage and cause untold pain and financial hardship to yourself and others. They make a rash decision, or they slide from an emotional support to something more, and then into the affair.

What if, in each of these cases, the lonely married person said to themselves, before the “unanticipated event” (they meet either Dave or Jenny): “One thing I will not do is have an affair, it is not open for consideration.” People do this. And when they do, they force themselves to either do what can be done to fix the marriage, or they often leave, because no other choice is available for finding the kind of attention, sexual satisfaction, and connection that is not coming from the marriage. By telling themselves what they will not do, they force themselves to make only a narrow set of decisions that might be more difficult at the time, but less onerous down the road. They also prevent outside influences (a disappointing marital relationship coupled with a discrete opportunity to obtain affection and connection) to make their decisions for them.

There are many similar situations we encounter in our lives that might actually be easier in the long run to deal with if we were willing to exclude certain choices that seem easier in the moment. How many people do you know, maybe you yourself, who have stayed in a job or career they hate for years and years, because they let themselves think things will get better, that either they will eventually accept it, or something will change that will make the job easier (a nasty boss retires). What if that person (or you) said to herself or himself, “I will not let myself be miserable for extended periods of time, not for any job!” (and you said this before you were miserable). Then, if you find yourself in a job that is untenable, and not likely to change no matter what you do, you won’t stick around. You will start looking for another job, or go back to school. You will seek out support for change from those in your personal life. You will already have announced to yourself and those in your personal life that this is the kind of person you are: someone who has self-imposed limits on what you are willing to tolerate in any job. You will make a better choice for yourself because you’ve already told yourself what you will not do. You will exercise Defiant Morality.

The idea of Defiant Morality is a work in progress. Not only is it incomplete in my mind as I write this, I can see ways that it cannot be a complete way of deciding what to do in many situations. That’s okay. It’s just supposed to be a starting point. Even more than that, it’s just something to consider as a way to put aside all kinds of potential external influences on the way we think about right and wrong, good and bad, all of our moral judgments, until we decide for ourselves, intentionally, which of those influences we want to adhere to and which are not appropriate for us as individuals based on who each of us is and how each of us decide we want to live our lives.

If “Defiant Morality” is a starting point for developing a moral structure for yourself that is not dependent on external influences making those decisions for you, then maybe an end point, or goal to move toward, is another set of moral principles I call “Defining Morality” (note the nice alliteration between the two principles). Defining Morality will be the specific subject of an upcoming blog post.


Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)


The Location of Morality

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

I am in the mood to offer a very ambitious thought and then try to explain it, knowing the thought is far too broad and complex to have any hope of an adequate explanation in just a few pages. It is likely that the subject will occupy my thoughts to some degree for the rest of my life as I try to noodle out the implications of it. This is a work in progress, and this is my first attempt to put it to writing. So don’t be too surprised if my thoughts about it change quite a bit over time. I might even decide to contradict myself on some points I currently believe. I am open to rethinking this from scratch.

Just so you know where this is going before we actually “get there,” I had originally planned to call this post, “The Location of Morality in Mental Health.” I couldn’t get past what I thought my reaction would be if I came across an article with that title. I might think, “hmmm, a therapist squaking about morality, sounds kind of religious or self-righteous to me…” Or, I might think the title meant, “how ‘morality’ fits within the mental health field.” Both sound like pontification to me, which I find repugnant in the extreme, regardless of the source, and most especially if I am the one doing the pontificating! I don’t really mean either of these things. To avoid these interpretations, I extended the title to “The Location of Morality Within a Person’s Mental Health.” That was too long for Google, so I left it at Morality and a Person’s Mental Health, hoping it doesn’t sound grandiose. The topic is the way a person’s moral structure fits within her or his mental health and overall life satisfaction.

Here’s the the thought. The basis of all emotional concern is this question: “Do I have the capacity to cope with the difference between how things are and how they should be?” For the purposes of this writing, I will refer back to this as “the question.”

Let’s break the question down into its various parts. It is a question about yourself “Do I….” The next part is about your “capacity to cope.” I chose this particular phrase very specifically for two reasons. It is not just a question about how or what you are. It is a question about whether the kind of person you are has it within you to “cope” or deal with reality as it is, precisely when you recognize that reality is not now how you think it should be. I used the word “cope” instead of “change” because the question is meant to cover both those situations in which you might be able to change reality to make it what you think it should be and also those situations that cannot themselves be changed, which means it is you that must somehow change in order to address reality that seems wrong (for example, coming to accept the death of someone close to you as part of your grief process). Finally, the last part of the sentence, “the difference between how things are and how they should be” is actually a question about morality, or about what we do when our personal morality (how all things in our world, including people and our relationships with them, “should” be) collides with our current way of being in the world (a world “as it is,” which often doesn’t seem to care much about our personal brand of morality).

In the context of mental health or mental illness, this question is usually observed as a version of self-doubt. I’ve said this about many other emotional states, and it bares repeating here with self-doubt: all human emotional states exist because they are effective ways to respond to some kinds of circumstances, and are therefore healthy in the right context (See my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, Part Two: Choose Your Feelings). Self-doubt is also no exception as an emotional state that is prone to becoming excessive, or to occur in situations in which is not only ineffective, but destructive. Everyone asks “the question” in some form or another all the time, maybe many times a day, whether or not they are conscious that the question is being asked. It is imperative that we ask the question. Without doing so, we risk ignoring adjusting our responses to a reality that is not acceptable, or which, at the very least, needs to change (according to us) if it is possible to change. In that sense, self-doubt forces us to find whatever internal resources we possess to adequately address a situation that might seem at times difficult to the point of perhaps being insurmountable. Taken too far, though, this kind of self-doubt can become devastating when it turns inward and spirals into feelings of worthlessness, despair, shame or prolonged inadequacy (when we tell ourselves we should be able to change reality or ourselves to cope with reality, but conclude that we cannot).

Now let’s go back to the phrase at the beginning, right before “the question.” I said something very bold—that the question (“Do I have the capacity to cope with the difference between how things are and how they should be?”) is the basis of “all emotional concern.” I do not mean that every emotion invites “the question.” Joy, happiness, contentment, satisfaction, peace, bliss, relaxation, and serenity all imply very strongly that the question is not appropriate to whatever circumstances give rise to those kinds of feelings. These feelings imply there is no “difference between how things are and how they should be.” We experience these kinds of feelings when we believe things are exactly how they should be! That’s why I added the word “concern.” We are not concerned when we are happy. By “emotional concern,” I mean experiences that are typically called “negative emotions.” I don’t like the connotation that emotions that cause us concern are necessarily “negative.” So I just leave it at “emotional concern,” because those feelings we normally call “negative” should cause us concern—in fact, that is their purpose—to make us concerned, to get our attention and in that sense are not “negative” (unless they become so extreme they become debilitating or limiting) and are in fact crucial to our overall well-being.

Now, here is the whole point of this topic—the location of morality as it relates to mental illness (or emotional distress). Wondering if “the question” is at the base of all emotional concern, I have slowly begun to form the opinion that human existence carries with it three distinct but interconnected layers to address the question and what it means for us. At the “top” is the layer of thinking or rationality, which is the process of interpreting perceptions to describe reality or how things currently “are” and for strategizing about how to move toward how we think things “should be.” At the bottom layer is “morality” which is a set of beliefs or attitudes about how things “should be.” In the middle layer are “emotions,” which are internalized subjective mental states that tell us how seriously we should take the difference between how things are and how they should be (or in the case of “positive” feelings, telling us there is no difference—that we and the world are exactly where we and the world should be).

The beginnings of this way of thinking about emotions, thoughts, and morality first appeared when I wrote the chapter, “Choose your anger,” in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter. I wrote that anger is a “moral feeling”—that we feel anger when we perceive someone has done something to us that we think is wrong, when they have caused us a “moral injury.” After putting the whole book together, I took a break. I took a step back. I wanted to get a big picture look at my work as a therapist, the work of my clients, not only as individuals working on individual issues, but as a group, of all of us working toward something that makes us better, makes our lives better. So, what’s the commonality. Is there a way it all fits together? I think there is, and I have a glimpse of it. Just a glimpse, but maybe also a framework, a skeletal structure to tie it all together. I will continue to need the help of clients, friends, colleagues and many others to help me fill in the details of this skeletal structure.

The basic ideas for the layered framework of thoughts, emotions and morality came out of a text exchange I had with a friend after I finished Firewalking on Jupiter. We were discussing the origins of emotions; their source and purpose. I mentioned anxiety and self-doubt as two examples of emotions that seem clearly to provide us with information that things are not well in our world at that time and prompting us by their very discomfort to try to figure out how to make things better for ourselves. I plan to write more specifically about the advantages and disadvantages of self-doubt as part of this framework in future writings. Immediately after the text exchange with my friend, I began to think about all feelings and their purpose. I cannot yet think of any feelings that do not fit into this framework of emotions sitting in a middle layer, mediating our thoughts and our morality. Like I said, though, this is still a work in progress. It is admittedly half-baked and not really quite ready to “pull from the oven” (of ideas). Still, try it for yourself, think of any feeling that gives rise to emotional distress—guilt, sadness, loneliness, anger, resentment, boredom, grief, etc., any “negative feeling;” I think you’ll find just like I have—they all tell us something very important about how we need to change our situation or change our response to our situation. By “situation” I mean just about anything you encounter in your life: a new relationship, a job, a fight you had with your mother, someone cutting you off on the freeway, a grave social injustice, a perceived slight by someone you consider an important friend. Feelings on the positive side tell us there isn’t anything we need to do to change our situation or responses and they reward us (with feeling good) for having created or finding a situation which is (for the moment) just as it should be.

Before I finish, I want to say a word about how to view emotions along a spectrum. As an example, anxiety is at one end of a spectrum toward “urgency” or “very serious”—we need to do something right now so things quickly become the way they should be. At the other end of the spectrum might be acceptance or serenity—the difference between how things are and how they should be is serious, and there may even be a desperate desire to change things, but we conclude we do not have the requisite resources to make the change, so all we can do is change the way we experience the situation internally.

As I said at the beginning of this post, these thoughts are a work in progress. I will need to think about this some more and will keep you posted as I do. I hope you will think about it too and let me know what you think. If you are a current client, feel free to bring it up in therapy if you feel so inclined. Or, whether you are a current client or not, feel free to send me an email with your thoughts about this topic (my email is listed on the “Contact Us” page of this website).


Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)


Therapy, Part 3, the process of therapy (with me)

Monday, June 24th, 2013

The process of therapy is different for every client.  All clients have different needs, goals, issues, personalities, levels of development, self-awareness and expectations.  It is important for me to cater my approach and processes in therapy to the individual needs of all unique clients.  No one approach fits everyone. At the same time, there are common elements to the overall enterprise of therapy, or “how it works” (when I am the therapist) that I will try to share here. I have provided some of my thoughts on exploring symptoms, identifying causes and proposing and implementing solutions in the blog: “Acknowledging the problem isn’t enough.”

At first, I consistently use a couple of tools and a general structure to enhance the intake process in therapy, which can then set the stage for ongoing therapy. For the first two to three sessions, I prefer a free-flowing conversation with a client.  We talk about what is particularly causing them distress right now in their lives. I want to make sure they are more or less okay, that they are not in danger of hurting themselves or being hurt by someone else.  Also, I want them to know how it is going to feel for them to be able to talk to me about what happens to be troubling them at any given point in therapy.  I want the whole thing to feel as natural as it can.  This is how most of our sessions are going to be down the road, so I don’t want the first few sessions to be too structured.

During the third or fourth session, I engage in a more structured “diagnostic interview.” This is one of the rare times I use a form—one that covers many specific areas of a person’s life. Usually, this interview takes about one session, but it can sometimes take up to three entire sessions, depending on the depth of the information the client wants to provide and whether the interview brings up issues the client hadn’t previously considered.  The point of the interview is two-fold. First, I need it for my licensure ethics (I need to have in everyone’s file a diagnosis with some objective basis to make sure my diagnoses are accurate and appropriate).  Second, it compels me to cover a wide array of topics, to make sure that in my zeal and curiosity to get to the heart of the client’s current problems I am not overlooking something very important in some other area of the person’s life.

The first question on the “diagnostic interview” asks about the “presenting problem,” which essentially means: “tell me what was happening in your life and inside you that made you decide to come to therapy when you made the decision.”  Although I also ask this question on my client intake forms, the way the client describes the problem often changes quite a bit by the time they’ve had the chance to discuss it with me in the first few therapy sessions. Reviewing the presenting problem helps us move into the second structured part of the therapy process: goal setting.

I can think of many examples when I have discovered something that informed the rest of my therapy work with a client that neither they nor I had thought about until I asked it during the diagnostic interview.  A common example comes from one of the areas I ask about: “developmental history.” During this part of the interview, I ask the client if anything significant happened to them as children that might be an important influence on the issues that brought them to therapy, or just something they think I should know about them from their childhood.  It could be an accident, a medical illness, a traumatic event.  If I didn’t ask these questions, I might not find out that a client who’s married to an alcoholic grew up without their father around because he died of alcohol poisoning, or that my client was adopted, or spent time in a foster home, or was diagnosed with ADHD in the third grade.  Any of these kinds of issues could end up playing a role in the cause of the client’s problems and also be a part of the solution.  There are also many times when clients report nothing unusual in this area of questions, so we just say “nothing noted by client” and move on to other areas.  I do not make assumptions either way—that a client does or does not have significant childhood issues that might be relevant to the therapy they now seek later in life.

In addition to providing information I might otherwise miss without it, the diagnostic interview also includes more positive areas of inquiry.  I ask about spiritual beliefs, social life, and personal values.  A person might have had some kind of spiritual connection or social community in the past that they found very important but have lost touch with it. These could become valuable tools for them to consider when we start thinking about specific ways to improve their current situation.  I also always ask clients to think about internal strengths they might have that will help them achieve their goals in therapy.  If they can’t come up with anything (and sometimes they cannot) I help them.  In the process, they begin to see themselves as equally important in the process of therapy. They begin to see themselves as their own therapists, even if they wouldn’t say it this way (I do).   I ask clients to tell me about important personal values as well. They may consider things important in their lives that are very different from the way I prioritize things in my own life.  It is important that I be open to and ready to consider their lives from their perspectives, not from my perspective.

Actually, there is a third reason I want to do this “Diagnostic Interview” with every client. It helps the client see me as a collaborator, as someone who is not “conferring” upon them some kind of therapy voodoo.  I am just some guy. We are in an office. We are talking about a client’s real problems. We are both doing our best to come to terms with their problems and solve them. There is no mystery here.  My “diagnosis” is just a best guess to what we should call the problem.  Is it “depression,” “anxiety,”  “ADHD,”  “Bipolar,” “substance abuse,” or some combination of these, or should we call it something entirely different.  I make my professional opinion known, it is out in the open for the client to see, and then we discuss whether it is accurate, whether I’ve made a mistake, and need to rethink the problem and what to call it. We do this together, so there is less chance of a misunderstanding, so the client is an equal participant, so there is no therapist (man) standing behind a curtain pretending to be the “Wizard of Oz.” There is no curtain, there is no wizard.

As we move through the diagnostic interview, I read back to my clients the answers I have written on the form so they know exactly how I am describing things.  We even often look together at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the book insurance companies require us to use to diagnose client mental health issues).  This is a further way for me to be transparent, so clients can take ownership of and contribute to their own understanding of one way the mental health profession might view the issues they have come to address.

Like a diagnosis, my ethical requirements as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist also require me to have some kind of a “treatment plan” for all clients. This is a stupid name for the form, but I didn’t create the requirement, so I have to use this kind of language.  It is stupid because I don’t really view therapy as a way to “treat” people, like I am a doctor with some “medicine” to “treat” a skin rash. Client issues in therapy are serious, and can even be life threatening, so I do not take my role lightly.  On the other hand, the idea of therapy as “treatment” seems to invite a lack of humility and an “above (me) and below (client)” mentality that I find offensive and destructive.

We create the treatment plan right after we complete the diagnostic interview, usually in the third or fourth session. Like the diagnostic interview, I use the “treatment plan” form as another way to involve the client, to encourage the client to take ownership of her or his own therapy, to create with the client in their own language specific goals the client wants to achieve.  We both co-write them. They give me ideas, I share with them possible ways of writing the goal that is consistent with what they want, and then I write what they tell me sounds accurate.

The most important part of the goals sheet (“treatment plan”) is called “Discharge Criteria.” Again, stupid language, but it invites a very important question, maybe the most important question in therapy.  “How will you, the client, know you are ready to be done in therapy with me at this time in your life?”  I add the “at this time in your life” to leave open the possibility that the client could find themselves ready to be done in therapy with, but then later decide they want to come back for some other issue or because the issue has recurred in some way.  Either way, when a client answers this question near the beginning of the therapy process (around the fourth session), it gives us both a guide, a direction, a point to reach, like a lighthouse in the fog.  It tells me and the client the direction we should be headed, so we don’t end up in a quagmire, a swamp, a therapy wilderness spending countless sessions heading nowhere. This is not good for the client, and would be frustrating for me.  I want clients to know they are making progress in dealing with their problems, by giving them something they can use to measure their progress, whether the issues they brought to therapy take a few months or a few years to address.

Every once in a while, in between sessions, I look at these goals sheets and ask myself what I am doing to help the client move toward the place that will tell them they are ready to be done.  I also bring it up from time to time in session to ask the client to tell me how they feel about the progress they are making and whether we need to be doing anything differently for therapy to be more effective for them. Sometimes we come up with ideas about how we need to revisit goals we’d left behind. Sometimes we add goals that will help them achieve completion of therapy.  Sometimes the client realizes they have accomplished a goal and are close to being done in therapy.

After completing the Diagnostic Interview and the Treatment Plan, sessions are (mostly) as free-flowing as they were for the first two to three sessions.  I try not to bring any preconceived ideas of how any given session should be structured.  There are exceptions, but in general, I want to know at each session what the client wishes to discuss. A client might want to bring up a specific situation that occurred since their last session. We might spend the entire session on this one situation.  In the back of my mind, though, I will try to see how this situation fits into the overall therapy goals we’ve created, which is a kind of structure we might not have had during the first couple of sessions before we created goals.  Sometimes the topic of the session will fit neatly into a pattern the client wants to change. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to fit at all.  In either case, I view it as part of my role to connect dots in the clients issues during each session to try to find patterns they might not see or recognize.  When we talk about these connections, the client will often have an important insight that I hadn’t seen at all. This process of self-discovery wouldn’t happen if I didn’t encourage an open free-flowing process.  Part of the reason I am simultaneously paying attention to the client’s needs in the moment and thinking of the big picture of the client’s goals is that I don’t want to fall into the trap of losing track of why the client is in therapy.  Not every session will or needs to be directly related to the goals we created, but in general I want to know and want the client to know that we are steadily working toward change they want to bring about in their lives, the change they sought when they first came to therapy. I want the client to view every session as a valuable opportunity to move forward in their process of personal growth.

In the end, when clients “graduate from therapy” (I don’t know what else to call it), they are able to articulate how they were able to get to the place that tells them they are ready to be done. It is a wonderful thing to watch a client come to the conclusion that they are ready to be done in therapy. I am gratified when a client can say why they are ready to be done in therapy—they can then look back at our therapy work knowing they accomplished important new self-awareness and change in their lives.

Along the way, from first session, through the diagnostic interview and setting goals, and ultimately to the point of knowing they have reached their own “criteria for discharge” (they have done what they came to do in therapy), clients struggle through issues that I have touched on in many different blogs on the process of therapy in general and with respect to many different therapy issues. These include blogs on Fear (Fear and Safety Part I and Fear and Safety, Part II), Shame (Part I and Part II), Permission, Acknowledging the problem, Client History in Therapy, What “I don’t know” means in therapy, the concept of mental health (What is Mental Health Part I and Part II), Solutions, Process and Substance, taking on new perspectives and thinking “outside the box” (Thinking in Thirds), Co-dependency, Conflict, Part I, Part II and Part III,  What is “verbal abuse,” Situational Identity,” and many other topics that clients often find helpful in thinking about how therapy works for them.  I have also written several other blogs about my ideas of my role as a therapist. These include, The Relief of Humility, My experiences as a therapy client, and 12-step Recovery and Therapy.

If you read these or any of my other blogs, you will quickly learn that I do not make a distinction between what I think works in therapy for my clients to make their lives better and what I think works for me in my own life.  How could I?  I firmly believe in the proposition that I would not ask my clients to do anything to solve their problems that I wouldn’t be willing to do to solve a similar problem in my own life.  It just so happens that I have had many of the same kinds of problems in my life that my clients experience in theirs.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  Just because I am the therapist and the client is the one coming to me that day with a problem, doesn’t mean I wasn’t in their shoes as a client.  I was.  And I might be someday again.  I am just some guy and I am not standing behind a curtain.  I am not the Wizard of Oz.  No mystery.  Just a guy who brings care, concern, education, and trying my best to be valuable, helpful, supportive and careful with clients who come to me hoping to make real change in their lives.  This is the process of therapy, at least it is what the process of therapy is with me.

Copyright 2013, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)

Therapy Part 2, the kind of therapist I am

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

What kind of therapist am I? There are many different kinds of “therapy.”  There is “physical therapy,” “massage therapy,” “art therapy,” and the list goes on.  Technically speaking (and I do not like this term because it is sounds so weird), I am a “psychotherapist.”  Would you want to call yourself a “psychotherapist?” I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but much of what I do is similar to some of the things they do.  Unlike a psychiatrist, I cannot and do not prescribe medications.  Unlike a psychologist, I do not administer psychological tests (I suppose I could if I wanted to, but I am not trained for it, and am not interested in it).  Of course, not all psychiatrists prescribe medication and not all psychologists administer tests, and even those that do, don’t necessarily limit there activities to just these things.

So, I am back to “psychotherapist.”  Yikes.  Okay, well my professional background calls me a “Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.”  Some people think this means I am essentially a “marriage counselor.”  Not true. Sure, I see married couples pretty often, but I don’t do “marriage counseling” with them (counselors give advice, and generally speaking I do not give advice, I ask questions that help clients find their own answers). I will discuss this distinction between “therapy” and “counseling” in more detail at some other point. Besides, although I am myself married, and I think marriage can be the basis and definition of a beautiful and deeply meaningful relationship, as long as the right to be married still in most places excludes some people who love each other and wish to be married, I find the word “marriage” in my license kind of offensive.  At least it is legal here in Minnesota now. That’s something.

I could call myself a “family therapist.”  Actually, this is what I usually say when someone asks, “what do you do (meaning, I suppose, “how do you pay your bills and spend your weekdays”)?”  I say, “I am a family therapist.” Sometimes, the person who asked me what I do will give me a vaguely confused look, but seem to be more or less satisfied that I answered the question.  Here’s the problem: while its true I am trained as a family therapist, and I do see families together, most of the time I see just one client at a time. This is not “family therapy.”  It is “individual therapy.”  The reasons I see mostly one client at a time are somewhat complicated, and have something to do with the way our society treats therapy as a medical intervention (which means insurance companies view therapy as treating something medically wrong with the individual I am seeing and it is my job to find out what is wrong with them and “fix” the problem).  I go along with this because it is partly true—most of my clients do have serious problems they want to resolve in therapy—and because most of them couldn’t afford therapy unless insurance were willing to pay for most of it.  So, I am a “family therapist” who sees some couples, some families, but mostly individuals.  For the rest of this discussion, I will restrict my thoughts to how I view individual therapy and reserve for separate discussions how I view therapy with couples and  therapy with families.

When I went to school to become a therapist, I had to decide, do I want to become a psychologist?  A Licensed Clinical Social Worker?  A Psychiatrist?  Or a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist?  These were the four main kinds of credentials that would allow me to practice therapy in the widest possible venues (including being able to submit claims for my sessions with clients to their insurance companies).  I decided on Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in part because the basis for the “approach” or the philosophy behind it seemed to make the most sense in the context of “psychotherapy” (there’s that word again).  Marriage and Family Therapy is a field that basically believes that the best way to help people achieve a psychologically and emotionally healthy way of living their lives is to incorporate how we function in our family relationships, or put another way, how well our families function as units, and how well we function within them.  That’s a very broad and generalized statement, but seems to capture the gist of the underlying premise of Marriage and Family Therapy as a way of seeing therapy. Anyway, this seemed pretty legitimate to me.  I just “made sense” to me.  I mean, doesn’t it make sense?  Its not the whole story of how well we function in our lives, but it seems to be a good starting point.

There are many different “schools” of family therapy, each with its own ideas of how to gauge whether a family is functioning well and how to apply different ideas and techniques in therapy to bring about changes toward more healthy functioning.  I found some of these approaches and ideas helpful, some were bizarre, some seemed useless, some I still use today, after practicing therapy for over ten years, including family systems theories, narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), experiential therapy, existential therapy, and solution focused therapy.  I still believe I made a good choice in deciding to become a family therapist for my credentials.  It has served me and my clients well, but it is only a small part of what I have come to know is important for providing clients the help they need in therapy.

I am the kind of therapist who tends to be pretty engaged, talking a lot, asking a lot of questions, probing, curious, even directive when it is appropriate and might be helpful. This is just the kind of person I am.  I am not going to and do not want to change this part of myself in order to be a therapist. That would be fake. And I would fail.  I have participated in many sessions with clients in which I said almost nothing the entire session because during that particular session, the client needed to talk most of the time.  If a client needed that to be the case during most of our sessions, that kind of therapy approach wouldn’t work for me, and so I wouldn’t be a good fit for that client.

If a client really doesn’t want the kind of approach that is consistent with who I am as a person, it is better for them, and for me, if they find someone who is more passive, quiet, taking a more reflective stance.  This is why I am up front about this on my website, other marketing materials, and it is also pretty obvious right away when you meet me.  I say things like “I tend to be more direct and proactive than most therapists….”  How do I know this?  Clients tell me this.  They repeatedly tell me their previous therapist(s) were far more passive, mostly listening, encouraging, supportive, but not adding a lot or giving too much feedback.  I make no judgments about this kind of approach.  It is probably helpful in many cases.  It just wouldn’t work for me.  Fortunately, most clients who come to see me already know this from my materials so when they contact me they have probably decided this kind of approach is something that they think will be a good fit.  On the other side of the equation, if a client doesn’t want, need or like this kind of approach, I will likely never hear from them because they see it in my marketing materials and then will contact someone who fits their needs better. I think this is just fine.  I want clients to find what works best for them.

Many of my past and even current clients would probably be surprised to here me say this: I bring a considerable amount of self-doubt into most sessions. I am always a little nervous every time I leave my office to go out to the lobby to greet my client for that session.  I have doubts about whether I will know what that client needs from me on that day, whether I will know what to say, how to feel about myself and them, how to be present for them in a way that is real and open to whatever they might happen to have going on with them. I am often not even sure how to start the session, how to open up the dialogue, whether I should say something or let them speak first.  I really mean that I go through this thought process most of the time before and at the beginning of sessions.  This is still true after ten years of doing therapy.  Here’s the thing, though:  I want it to be this way.  I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.  I trust my doubt.  I find it inspiring.  It isn’t fake.  I don’t “try to be doubtful.”  It is not some kind of contrived state, the “not knowing” mindfulness thing.  It is real, natural, and actually sometimes pretty uncomfortable. The (usually) slight anxiety I bring into each session keeps me alert, honest with myself, appropriately humble and open to my limitations, my lack of knowledge about that client on that day.

There is a scene in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (it’s in either the book or movie, I can’t remember which, or maybe it’s in both) that captures this sentiment of not knowing so well.  At the beginning of the book, the main character, Tom Joad, runs into the local town minister. They walk together for a bit, catching up on what’s new since Tom went to prison.  Much later in the book, they run into each other again at a labor protest.  The minister is there as a protestor, a labor agitator.  Tom asks him why he isn’t preaching.  The minister says (I’m paraphrasing based on my memory of the scene), “A preacher man, he got to know, know the answers.  I ain’t got the answers no more, Tom, alls I gots is questions, so I can’t be a preacher man no more.” Like him, I am no preacher.  I do not have “the answers” to anyone’s problems.  I have ideas.  I have questions.  I have care, concern, and curiosity.  I have limited but helpful knowledge based on education and experiences about human behavior, motivations, and interactional patterns in relationships.  I use these ideas and knowledges as a basis to observe and listen to clients tell me about themselves and their life situations. I offer these observations to clients to see what fits for them.  Much of the time, my questions, ideas, and knowledge are right on the button.  Other times, they are not.  It is always up to the client to decide what fits and what doesn’t.  I actively encourage clients to feel free to tell me when my ideas and observations do not fit with their understanding of themselves.  Being wrong and being right are both important parts of getting to know the client.  When a client tells me I am wrong, it helps us both understand the client in a different way by exploring why it is wrong.  I try very hard to not let my own ego (thinking I need to be right to be okay with myself) get in the way of what the client needs to increase their understanding of themselves and create new coping skills for whatever bothers them. After all, as a therapist, I am not in the session for me, I am there for the client.


Copyright 2013, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)


Therapy Part 1, what is therapy

Monday, April 29th, 2013

What is therapy?

As a therapist, I continually ask myself basic questions about therapy.  What is “therapy?”  When does therapy work?  How do I know it is working?  What is the ultimate point of therapy?  Am I doing all the things I should be doing to help make the process as valuable and beneficial to my client as it can be?  What kind of therapist am I?  These are important, complex, and not easily answered questions.  I am sure I will need to repeat these questions to myself and my colleagues for as long as I am a therapist.  I hesitate to think what might happen, how inattentive, lazy, or just plain ineffective I might become if I decided I knew the answers to these questions completely.  Let’s just say I know myself well enough to know this is not very likely! I don’t trust and am not all that interested in definitive answers to these questions.  I trust an evolving process which keeps me attentive and interested in my own internal processes and the process of doing therapy with clients that teaches me every day in every session something new about therapy, myself and my clients.

So, then, what is “therapy” (by this I mean “psychotherapy” not any of the other kinds, like physical therapy, etc.)? Therapy is a process in which therapists and clients (individuals, couples, and families) engage in private meetings that are comfortable enough to allow them to work together to explore, identify and propose possible solutions to emotional and mental health issues faced by the clients which the client considers, modifies and implements all to bring about the changes desired by the client.

This simple description means that therapy has the following basic and essential components:

1)   Therapist(s);

2)   Client(s);

3)   Privacy;

4)   Trust or “comfort;”

5)   Client desire for change;

6)   Therapist expertise in facilitating helpful process

7)   Exploration of problem;

8)   Identification of causes;

9)   Proposed solutions; and

10) Implementing solutions.

It is surprising, isn’t it, that what seemed like a fairly straightforward process has so many parts.  I could probably even identify more details, but this list seems to illustrate the point: therapy has many varying and important components.  Like I said, the questions at the beginning of this discussion are complicated and difficult.

None of the other components in therapy make any difference at all unless the client both wants to make change in their lives and has some basic level of trust or comfort that the process is likely to lead to the kind of change she or he is seeking.  Now that leads to other questions, like how does the client know what kind of changes he or she might want in their lives?  How can the client begin to trust the therapist has the kind of skills, knowledge, abilities to help the client identify those changes, and how they can be achieved?  A client could, for example, trust that a therapist is genuinely interested in their well-being, is passionate about their work, will keep things confidential, will not judge them, cares about them, but still not know or be sure or trust that this particular therapists understands their issues well enough to really help them.

The best I can say for now is that, first of all, and obviously, not every therapist is going to be right for every client.  Second, therapy is an evolving process. At one point in a client’s life, he or she might benefit from a therapist who is “client-centered,” who is mostly a sounding board, offering little feedback, and offering mostly care, support, and quiet empathy.  This might be just “what the doctor ordered” when a client is in the middle of a transition period.  This approach might be woefully inadequate later on, when the client has moved beyond that transitional or emotionally traumatic situation, and now wants to look back at it in detail to understand why it happened, and how they need to do things differently to avoid a repeat of that situation. At that point, they might want a therapist who is far more probing.  The same therapist could do both, but maybe not. The client needs to be as open and aware as they can be to determine what their needs are, and whether their therapist can meet those particular needs.

Hopefully, the therapist will be equally aware and open about how they approach therapy in general, and what ideas and methods they might be able to utilize to help clients find the solutions that work best for them. Just as not every therapist is going to be able to meet the needs of every client, not every client’s problem is the kind of problem any particular therapist might be well-suited to help solve. I tend to avoid working with young children, knowing there are those therapists out there who are better able and more interested in providing such services. Don’t get me wrong, I like children and always enjoy when clients bring their children into sessions so I can meet them, or in case they are part of the issue, or the client couldn’t find a sitter.  After working with children in the first several years of practice, I found myself not being all that good at it, not knowing how to help them in ways other therapists seem to know.  Part of knowing what you do well is knowing what you don’t do so well.  So, when someone asks me to see their child under the age of 14, I refer them to therapists who are better able to meet those therapy needs. I also refer to other therapists those whose primary therapy issue when they contact me is an eating disorder.  Again there are specialists out there who really know what they are doing with this issue, and I am not one of them.

There are studies that show the therapist’s technique is definitely not the most important factor in determining the success of therapy.  Before learning about these studies, I had found this to be true when I was a therapy client, so I had some personal observations that confirmed the truth of this.  Those studies show that the most important factor is client motivation for change.  Check!  The second most important factor is the nature of the relationship between the client and the therapist. Check!  A distant third factor is the kind of techniques or approach of the therapist. Check!  In my years in and out of therapy (see my blog on my experiences as a therapy client), the most effective by far was a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Not because he focused on how to help my family function better—he never met anyone in my family, only working with me as an individual client for several years.  My therapy with him was effective because of the kind of therapy relationship we established. The rest, his training, his therapy approach, his ideas about psychotherapy, were a very minor part of what made our therapy so helpful.  He was open-minded, sensitive, didn’t try to tell me who I was, and he also seemed to just “get” me.  This was exactly what I needed at that time in my life with those issues I brought to therapy.

A good match between the client and the therapist means the client believes that this particular therapist is well suited to be able to understand the client, their problems, and the therapist will have some good ideas about how to help the client move through those problems so they can understand themselves better and make the kinds of changes that they deem necessary to solve their problems. This will also reinforce the client’s motivation for and belief in the possibility of positive changes.  Maybe, then, a partial but pretty good answer to the question, “what is therapy” is this: Therapy is a relationship between a client and a mental health professional in which they are both invested in exploring the client’s mental health issue in a way that feels safe and productive so the client can try different ways of resolving the issues with the help of their therapist.  It’s not a complete answer, but it’s a pretty good start.


Copyright 2013, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)

The Gift of Therapy: My own experiences as a therapy client

Monday, April 9th, 2012


During one of the first few sessions, clients sometimes ask me if I have been in therapy myself. Not surprisingly, they find the question awkward because they both want an answer and consider it important and because they are not sure if it is okay for them to ask. As with almost anything in therapy, I think a client should ask what they think is important for them to know about me, and then I will hold myself responsible for telling them whether I am willing to give them an answer. Sometimes the answer is no, I do not want to share that information. That exchange itself can be a good therapeutic moment, even if the client didn’t get what they wanted, because I try as hard as I can to ensure that they know I still wanted them to ask, because they couldn’t have known I didn’t want to share the information they wanted from me until I told them. And much of the time, if I think sharing the information will be good for the client, I will gladly answer their question So, this blog is a way to avoid all of that awkwardness, if possible, by answering the question about me and therapy in advance of the first session of all future clients (that care to read this blog): yes, I have been in therapy. In fact, I have been in therapy multiple times, at several different points in my life. Sometimes the therapy has not been helpful, and has even been a real turnoff, and at other times, it was a godsend. I have no magical answer about why it worked sometimes and at others did not. I can give you some clues though, in case you want to know.


First, let me share with you a couple of real turnoffs that will tell you a lot about when and why therapy definitely did not work for me, and which still inform much of what I do in my own therapy practice—to help my clients stay as far away from those kinds of experiences as possible.


When I was 11 or 12, my father took me to a therapist. I can’t tell you what prompted my dad’s exercise in self-help. If I had to guess, someone else told him to do it (like a school or the county). I didn’t want to go, I remember that. It didn’t seem I had much choice though, so I went. I think I thought it was like going to the doctor (first mistake). The guy gave me the whole speech about confidentiality, telling me everything I told him would go no further. I trusted him (second mistake). After telling him all the kinds of things my dad had been doing to me (basically, beating the crap out of me), this guy didn’t believe me, told me he thought I was making it up, and then told my dad (third mistake). Guess what my dad did to me when we got home? Yup, he beat the crap out of me.


Fast forward four years. I’m 16, trying to stay off drugs. Back in school after dropping out for almost a year. Depressed. Bored with school. Hating myself. Not wanting to go back to drugs, but not sure what I wanted to do. I had a good foster mom (bless her heart, for real). She strongly suggested I give therapy another try, knowing what happened before. I trusted her (not a mistake). I went. Nothing terrible happened. Nice guy. Good looking, I think. Nice hair, nice smile, nice office, nice compliments toward me. I didn’t buy it. Seemed to good to be true, or just not very helpful. So, I went for a while, then started missing appointments, then stopped going. Good in a way, because it helped me get over my fear of therapy, and therapists. It also left me feeling therapy was pretty useless.


Okay, one more lame therapy story (I’ll try to put you “there” by telling it in the present tense, like it just happened). I was going through a very painful breakup in my 30’s. I was really sad. I call a clinic in Uptown, Minneapolis. They have several therapists, one is available for a session that day (hmmm….). Okay, I need to talk to someone, anyone. I go. I start to tell him what’s grieving me. I want to say he interrupted me in mid-sentence (doesn’t that sound dramatic), telling me I smelled like cigarette smoke. Um, yeah, I say, cause I smoke (I did back then). So? Well, he launches into this ten minute lecture about how smoking leads to depression, and all kinds of health issues, finally suggesting the answer to what ails me is smoking. He kept at it, despite my assurances that this was not a topic I wanted him to talk about. I knew smoking was bad, and I didn’t care. That was the problem, not the smoking, but the not caring. He wanted to set up an appointment but asked me to promise to quit smoking immediately. I didn’t do either. I never went back, and smoked at him in my mind for about two weeks. By then, I’d gotten a grip on my grief.


Along the way, though, in my late twenties, I had the very good fortune to meet a great therapist, who also seemed to be a great person. Craydon worked at a nonprofit therapy center for poor people in the skid row part of San Francisco (which is where I lived when I was a poor student living there). At the end of our second session, after telling him some details about my childhood, and that much of it was from what others had told me because I could remember virtually nothing from before I was about 12, Craydon paused, looked over his notes nervously. Then he said, “Okay, Michael, I need to tell you that I just graduated with a Master’s Degree in therapy, and I don’t even have my license yet. Based on what you’re telling me about what has happened to you, I do not think I am qualified to work with you. You really need someone with a lot more experience and education. I will need to talk to my supervisor, who has a license, and a Ph.D. I think you should see him, he will be much more able to tell you what you need to do to get a handle on all of this.” (I am paraphrasing here).


His complete sincerity, compassion and humility were so refreshing, like nothing else I’d seen in a therapy office before. I told him I thought he would be perfect. I said I wanted to work with him because he didn’t try to tell me who I was, what I needed to do, he just wanted to listen, to talk with me, and that was exactly what I needed. He smiled, and agreed to try. I saw Craydon every week for an hour and a half for three years, until with a license, his own office in a nicer part of town, more confidence, and no less compassion, he told me, “I think you are close to ready to being done in therapy, Michael.” He was right, for that part of my life, for what I was trying to do then, which was to make sure I understood how the violence inflicted upon me as a child still worked its way through my mind. I’d just become a father before starting therapy with Craydon and was very worried that I would do to my new son what my father had done to me. Now that my son is an adult, I wish I could find Craydon to tell him how much he did for me and for my son—I did not end up becoming to my son what my father was to me, cruel, mean, or violent. This is the power of therapy, and is part of the reason I am now a therapist, because I have seen what it can do at the right time with the right person in my own life.


I have since then, from time to time, sought out therapy to address more specific situations. I have been more selective about who I see because I have learned the importance of the kind of connection you can make with a therapist, either positive or not. Sometimes even when the connection is really good, and the therapist highly competent, the work doesn’t go well. Some time ago, I saw a family therapist to try to save my marriage. The therapist was highly recommended by someone I trusted very much, who is herself a really good therapist. Despite our marriage therapist’s insights, knowledge, and skill, she was not able to help us figure out how to save the marriage. My sadness about the end of that marriage might never completely go away, but I still feel very satisfied that I found a good therapist to work with us. I can look back and honestly say, if she were not able to help us, that’s a pretty good sign that the marriage needed to end, despite my sadness about it.


It doesn’t take a long time to obtain the benefits of therapy if you know what you want, and are willing to do the work to get it. I saw a therapist during a very difficult time in my son’s life, when I was struggling to figure out what I was supposed to do to help him, feeling both helpless and some despair. I saw a sharp attentive solution focused guy. After three sessions, he said, “what seems to be bothering you is that you know you are in a ‘no-win situation’ but won’t accept that is how it is. So, my suggestion is that you remind yourself as often as you can by telling yourself, ‘this is a no-win situation.’” As simple as it sounds, he was absolutely right about what I was doing, and his suggestion worked very well, as long as I kept telling myself the truth—that I was in a no-win situation and had to accept it for what it was. I did not need to return to that therapist.  I had gotten what I needed in a short time because what I needed was very specific, very contextual.


As a person who now provides therapy to others, I feel very fortunate to have had a well-rounded basis of experience as a therapy client. I have learned from these experiences some basic and powerful ideas about what works and what does not work. I try to use these experiences in the therapy I practice with my clients now, so I can help them avoid the foibles of my predecessors while hoping to give them some part of the almost miraculous benefits that have been given to me by some of my therapists over the years. Who I am as a therapist now, and what I have learned works for me as a therapy client, does not apply to everyone, and that is how it needs to be. We need to find what works for us, for whatever issue and whatever time in our life we decide to seek the help of someone else in therapy.


Copyright, 2012, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)


Our Christmas Miracle

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

This is a story of a Christmas Miracle about our precious little dog, Julian.

For those of you who do not celebrate Christmas, either because it is not consistent with your culture or belief system, or because you for other reasons simply choose not to participate in this holiday, please bear with me. I actually believe Christmas can be a time for giving and connection and feeling good about fellow humans. The more cheesy me also likes the bright lights on houses at a dark time of year, shiny ornaments, and the surprises lurking under colorful and cheerful wrapping paper. I remember as a child that, no matter what might be happening in my life (insert references to physical abuse, poverty, alcoholism, police, chaos, etc.), really cool stuff sometimes happened at Christmas.  My great aunt Delores used her 100-year old foot-powered sewing machine to make us stuffed animals with used clothes that looked unrecognizable as anything other than the very sweet gifts of an elderly woman who cared. Or the St. Vincent De Paul society bringing to us new and shiny gifts we would never have seen without its help.  So, even now, Christmas brings me smiles, fond memories and hope each year, as I look back on and forward to the possibility of good things happening in otherwise dark days. This year, the Holiday Season brought something of a miracle to me and my family.  It’s a great story, with all the right (and true) ingredients: a small, helpless furry little puppy, a bitter cold night with snow and wind, wolves, foxes, cars rushing by, danger, new friends, an outpouring of support, lost hope and sadness, and in the end, something that seemed impossible but true.


A Theme for the Holidays: Stay frosty, stay flexible

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Last year, I wrote my first blog about the holiday season, in which I gave my take on how we can best address whatever might come up for us when we spend time with our family over the Holidays.  I feel this need to say something again this holiday season, maybe as a kind of annual part of my own holiday ritual, by putting out something about what I’ve learned from doing therapy with clients over this past year. I guess it’s a chance to do a recap on some themes that have come up in therapy.  I also know for many of my clients that the holidays are a trying time, in part because expectations for them and from their families are different than any other time of the year. So a holiday blog seems like it might be a way to help people think about their options for how to experience the holidays in a less difficult, more enjoyable way. I also fully recognize that my clients and others come from vastly differing cultures and traditions when it comes to the Holidays, with some spending many days with their families, to those who have little or no tradition and spend little or no time with their families during what others call the Holidays.  So I try to make these blogs pretty general, yet still useful, as best I can.

The general theme of this year’s holiday blog is actually two-fold: (1) stay frosty and (2) stay flexible.  “Stay frosty” is an attempt at a catchy reference to the Holiday season; so in that sense is a little tongue-in-cheek.  It is not meant to encourage you to stay aloof, distant, detached, or alone (as in “stay cold”). “Stay frosty” is a military term that I remember first hearing in the second movie of the Aliens series of movies.  It basically means, “be on the lookout” for unfriendly situations.  Simply put, it means “be aware.”  I am using it to describe the importance of being aware of your own mental and emotional status as you spend your holidays, and be aware of the mental and emotional status of others.  The Holidays are a time of often heightened expectations by family members from other family members.  You might be expected to act in certain ways you during the Holidays that are only true at that time of year (e.g. more involved, more committed to events, or even just interacting with people you do not see at any other time (old uncle Charlie) etc.).  This can cause confusion or resentment within families because the rules have suddenly changed or have reverted to rules you haven’t had to live by for years in your now mostly separate life.  Staying frosty about your own feelings about these changed rules and about others changed expectations will help you make decisions about how to respond to these changes in ways that will accomplish what you need or want from the event without later regretting it.


12-Step Recovery and Therapy, Part III: Using these ideas with clients

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Many clients come to therapy because A.A. wasn’t enough for them to stay sober.  Many other therapy clients struggle with issues that bear little resemblance to an addiction of any kind, let alone an addiction to alcohol or drugs. Yet, many of these clients have benefited greatly from thinking about things and exploring their lives and themselves in ways that stem from the same kind of approach used by A.A. and similar 12-step programs for alcoholics. I hope I don’t sound like a one-trick pony—like a guy who learned the 12-step approach and now offers that, just that, to anyone and everyone, thinking it’s a one-shoe-fits-all kind of thing.  That is not me at all. There are many modes of therapy; many tools, approaches, philosophies, theories, any one of which or any combination of which might be the best for any particular client in any particular state. The 12 steps are just one approach and there are many others I use every single day as a therapist.  I am only making the point that the 12 steps are often not enough for those who are trying to stay sober and the 12 steps can also be helpful for those who are not even in therapy to stay sober or because someone in their family is struggling with sobriety.  I try to incorporate all of these various tools into the way I help people in therapy, and do not limit my approach based on whether someone is in therapy struggling with addiction or some other mental health issue.


12 Step Recovery and Therapy: Part II, my own sobriety

Friday, September 16th, 2011

In the first part of this blog series on 12 step recovery, I gave an introduction of why the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have become a part of my own identity.  In this part of the series, I offer some details about how A.A. works, my own history of sobriety, how I stay sober, and what it means to me know to live a sober life.

A few years ago, I was teaching a ten-week “Healthy Relationships” class to some prisoners at a state prison in Faribault. The class was intended to give the prisoners a wide variety of tools to make decisions about primary partner relationships that would support their personal growth away from whatever brought them to prison. One of the prisoners, a guy who was getting out of prison about half-way through the course, asked me to sum up the concepts in the course that day so he could use the core elements in his life after he left. Rather than thinking about all the tools, jargon, acronyms and other information provided in the course materials we were using for the class, I tried to quickly sum up how I used the same kinds of ideas in my own life.  Surprisingly, what came out of my mouth was something like this: “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself, with rigorous honesty, and do this in everything you do in your life, all the time, twenty-four hours a day, every day, no exceptions.”  I wrote this on the white board at the front of the class.  Some of the prisoners recognized this.  Its core is the fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous.  The rest is stuff from the main book of Alcoholics Anonymous, simply called “Alcoholics Anonymous.”  In AA, we just call it “the Big Book” (it’s kind of big, and blue).


12-Step recovery, Part 1: its influence on my identity

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut, that great American writer and thinker, once said that humanity’s greatest inventions included the United States Constitution and 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (he also included Robert’s Rules of Order—but that seems really weird and isn’t relevant to this blog’s topic).  As someone who was engaged in a legal career for over 15 years, and a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Vonnegut’s admiration for both the Constitution and the 12 Steps hits pretty close to home with me. In fact, that’s quite an understatement, especially the part about the 12-steps. This thought reminds me of something that came up for me while I was recently writing a blog about the problem of “situational identity.” In that blog, I said that a person’s identity is not situational, temporary, or tied to a particular relationship or role in our lives. I suggested instead, the way around the problem is to think about how we stay the same over time, from one relationship to the next, from one time in our live to the next, from one role to the next. For me, one thing that clearly stands out over time is my use of the 12 steps of AA in my life.


The Relief of Humility: “I am just some guy”

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Several years ago, I started saying to myself “I’m just some guy” in therapy to remember I don’t know more about my client than they know about themselves. The phrase was also a reminder that there are other therapists who are just as good or better therapists than I am, and a client is always free to go find someone else. Then, I began reminding clients, “I am just some guy” if I thought it would help them realize that they had it within themselves to make changes in their lives, and I was just there to help out.  Also, using this phrase in therapy helped to relieve myself of the burden of unrealistic and unnecessary expectations for my capacity as a therapist and helped avoid a lack of humility, which would cloud my ability to do what the client needs from me, rather than doing what I need to show that I am a good or great therapist.


How important is your past in therapy?

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

Clients are often (justifiably) concerned about getting stuck or dwelling on their past for months or years as part of the therapy process. Sometimes clients have a concern that therapy might encourage them to rely on their past as “an excuse” for whatever their issues might be in their current lives (“I can’t get my life together because, when I was a kid all this bad stuff happened to me…”). This blog will explain that this is not how I practice therapy, and is not the experience clients have in therapy with me.


Feelings, good and bad, make your choice

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

One of the most important things I think I do as a therapist is to remind clients that their feelings are almost never either all “good” or all “bad.”  When I discuss feelings with clients, I do not merely ask, “how does that make you feel.”  I ask, “what does that feeling tell you?”  “What do you think is the purpose of that feeling in that situation?”  “Why do you think you ended up having that feeling as opposed to a different feeling?”


A Tribute to Abraham Lincoln

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

With Lincoln’s birthday coming up, I want to thank him for his great influence on me, my life, and my therapeutic philosophy.

It might be a bit of a cliché or just plain obvious to be a big fan of Abraham Lincoln.  I mean, who isn’t, right?  Hating Abraham Lincoln would be like hating cute little yellow lab puppies. He was just such a good guy—not to mention that he pulled our great country from the brink of disaster and implosion.  But, actually, that’s not why I love Abraham Lincoln as much as I do.


The Holidays are your time too!

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

For many of us the Holidays are a time of happy memories and family-focused fun. The planning of extended family get-togethers can be a chance to see people we miss and love and only see once or twice a year. For others, it is a time of difficult memories, of disappointments, or just general stress, along with the enjoyable times. Our childhood experiences of the Holidays can play a powerful influence over how we feel about the Holidays in our adult lives. On the other hand, no matter what your memories of the Holidays might be like, this can also be a time of year when you have the opportunity to change your family interactions to heal disrupted bonds or to let go of old perceptions, attitudes and wounds. Whatever the case might be for any one of us, the Holidays are usually a time when we will encounter others in our family that are not part of our everyday lives.


Depression and Anxiety: Flip sides of the same coin, Part 3

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

In part 1 of this series of blogs on the relationship between depression and anxiety, I discuss how they are often related by their both being a response to a difficult task or issue.  In Part 2, I describe how depression and anxiety become such problems when dealing with difficult tasks or issues. Finally, in Part 3, I explain how my clients and I work together to rid their lives of depression and anxiety.

Stop Flipping the Coin: Eliminating Depression and Anxiety by re-thinking the tasks and issues, and our capacity to meet new challenges

Conquering depression is definitely possible, but it requires new thinking about our capacities and the importance or feasibility of tasks that fuel the depression.  Clients are often able to rid themselves of depression after years of struggle by reassessing their abilities to put an end to self-destructive self-fulfilling prophecies, to put an end to cycles of failures that can be avoided by ridding yourself of the belief that an impossible task is worth pursuing.  Sometimes dealing with depression requires us to find new capacities and beliefs about ourselves so we can complete the tasks. We realize that by limiting our tasks to those we can actually accomplish, we are able to do what needs to be done, and we find a new confidence in ourselves. Sometimes dealing with depression requires us to walk away from tasks we thought were absolutely necessary to complete, but then realized they could not ever be completed or resolved, or it simply wasn’t necessary after all.  We stop allowing others to dictate, intentionally or not, what we must “prove” to gain their acceptance, and we accept ourselves as we are.


Depression and Anxiety: Flip sides of the same coin, Part 2

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

In part 1 of this series of blogs on the relationship between depression and anxiety, I discuss how they are often related by their both being a response to a difficult task or issue.  In Part 2, I describe how depression and anxiety become such problems when dealing with difficult tasks or issues. Finally, in Part 3, I explain how my clients and I work together to rid their lives of depression and anxiety.

Heads it’s Depression…

Depression is a kind of slowing down in most cases. People struggling with depression often sleep more, or want to sleep but can’t, and end up fatigued either way. We might lose interest in the things that used to excite us. We become withdrawn, not attending to our social connections. We might eat more, or less. We might isolate from most of our world. We might start thinking about death. Depression is serious business and can be deadly. So, what causes such a disastrous mood to take over people’s lives? In many cases, it seems to be a creeping belief that “I am not capable of doing the things I need to do.” This may not be a conscious thought, but can be a powerful limiting factor underlying our seeming inability to do what we know we need to do. It can last just a few days or weeks, or can drag on for years, always lurking in the background, wearing us down, making it difficult to see what is really possible—overcoming the challenging tasks that caused the depression in the first place.


Depression and Anxiety: Flip sides of the same coin, Part 1

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

In part 1 of this series of blogs on the relationship between depression and anxiety, I discuss how they are often related by their both being a response to a difficult task or issue.  In Part 2, I describe how depression and anxiety become such problems when dealing with difficult tasks or issues. Finally, in Part 3, I explain how my clients and I work together to rid their lives of depression and anxiety.

What’s “The Coin”

Therapists and therapy clients know that depression and anxiety often go together. I’d even say depression and anxiety are flip sides of the same coin. The difference between depression and anxiety often comes down to how we respond to certain kinds of problems, either by slowing down (depression) or speeding up (anxiety) or both (feeling anxious about slowing down when we think we need to be speeding up). I’ll get to the flip sides of depression and anxiety in the next blog, but first, let’s answer the question: what’s “the coin?”


Authenticity–Part 2: Why it is important

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

During my first blog entry on authenticity, I explained what the word and concept of “authenticity” means to me.  I left unanswered the question of why “Authenticity” is important.  My aim here is to take a shot at trying to answer that question.

I want to thank a client who offered to allow me to use a diagram he created after we discussed authenticity  (you know who you are, and thanks again).

View of Self

As you can see from the diagram, authenticity encourages or allows you to expand your own sense of being inside yourself.  When we are not authentic or “real” with others, we must hide within ourselves to create the space necessary to appear to be what we think others want us to be. We also create “perceived holes” within ourselves, hoping that things outside ourselves will fill these holes (another person’s view of us, work, sex, alcohol, etc.).  The more we hide within ourselves, the more likely we are to be disappointed, hurt, lonely, and fearful about the part of ourselves that feels empty–the “holes” or spaces within us left empty by the failure of others to meet needs we can in reality only meet ourselves. If we hide within ourselves, but create an image of ourselves in the likeness of what others want, we also have less reason to expect that others will know what we need. We will in essence be asking them to guess what we need. And when they guess wrong, or even worse, don’t guess at all, we might end up hurt, angry, or resentful.


Anxiety–a story of two powerful mistakes

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Why do we have anxiety? We experience anxiety when we want control over outcomes that are important to us. In this sense, anxiety itself is not a problem. A professor back in graduate school had a saying about anxiety: “without anxiety all rabbits would be dead on the railroad tracks” (if they didn’t jump like mad off the tracks when they heard the train, they’d get hit–and be dead). Just like rabbits, we need anxiety to motivate us to take care of important issues, to avoid certain kinds of problems, to make us aware of potential dangers, to get us thinking really hard about things we need to do and not do.

In fact, like anger and conflict (see my other posts about those issues), anxiety is an inevitable, and often just plain necessary, part of life. So, anxiety is not good or bad, and we need to be sure to separate what’s normal and healthy anxiety from what becomes a problem to deal with in therapy. Anxiety becomes a problem when it is no longer helpful and is harmful to the person experiencing the anxiety. This kind of harm can come in many different “flavors”–as in “panic attacks,” which have a fairly specific set of prescribed attributes including a number of physical symptoms, but which may be related to any number of different triggers, or apparently no identifiable trigger at all. There are forms of anxiety and fear about very specific kinds of situations, which are called “phobias.” Most people are familiar with the more common phobias, including “agoraphobia” (fear of leaving your house or being in public), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and social anxiety (fear of social situations).

The most common form of anxiety among my clients, and perhaps most therapy clients, is given the name “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” which essentially means a lot of worrying about a lot of different topics, that the client finds difficult to control, and which comes with a variety of other symptoms such as sleeplessness, fatigue, irritability, edginess, etc.

As in most of my blogs categorized as “therapy insights” (like this one), I look for common threads among my clients to try to see patterns in how certain kinds of problems occur, and if possible how they can be solved. Anxiety seems to be the result of one or both of two kinds of mistakes about control: (1) “I must control something over which I actually have no control; and (2) I do not have control over something that I need to control.


Anger: is it ever a good thing?

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Of course it is, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it by what clients tell me during their narratives of how they feel about themselves or other family members who become angry.

Listening to an interview on NPR a few years ago, a psychologist said, “anger is a moral feeling.” I can’t remember anything else he said. But it was a bit of an epiphany for me. I have always thought anger was not only not a bad thing, but is often a necessary thing. If ever someone tells me they think anger is not okay, I think of the first time I walked into St. Cloud Prison, looking up to see four stories of bars, many if not most of them filled with the African-American men looking down to see what kind of movement was happening below them. I sometimes ask the person, rhetorically of course, “isn’t it okay to be angry about things that are truly wrong in our world, like racism?” Of course it is.

Anger is not the problem. Anger is merely a result. I’ve lately been thinking that anger is always the result of a combination of some underlying feeling plus some form of perceived violation. I’m still noodling on this, but it seems fruitful. What we may want to pay attention to more than the supposedly “real” feeling underneath the anger (some form of fear or hurt), but instead focus on the perceived violation. What is the nature of the violation that’s been perceived? Is it a boundary violation (some guy cut me off on the freeway)? Is it a personal space violation (two siblings vying for space on the couch? Is it a violation of some rule for conflict resolution (verbal abuse or interruption). Once you’ve identified what kind of violation is perceived, it is often helpful to begin asking whether that perception is accurate, and what besides the immediate events might play into that perception of violation (unmet needs or unfinished business from some previous relationship).

Exploring anger’s causes will help us make good choices how best to use anger when it is needed.

Abuse and Self-Love: stop the myth

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Clients often express either doubts about not loving themselves or outright inability to feel love for themselves, which in all cases has been related to physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse.  Its as if they’ve learned that experiencing this kind of trauma prevents them from loving themselves, which in turn prevents them from loving others and fully engaging in their important adult relationships. The second part–difficulties with maintaining attachments in relationships–is true enough for many abuse survivors. That’s easy to confirm by listening to clients’ descriptions of their relationships. The first part, though, is dead wrong.  We who have suffered serious abuse of one kind or another, and are still around as adults to talk about it, and in particular therapy clients who by their very nature have decided to actually address the abuse, cannot have reached that point without a very large amount of love for themselves. There is no point in denying this fact, and there are many good reasons to accept it, for their own benefit. If people truly convince themselves they feel no love for themselves, the barriers they will have erected around this believe make it very very difficult to address unfinished business and the residual emotions and memories of the trauma. (more…)