“Emotion turning back on itself, and not leading on to thought or action, is the element of madness.”

~ John Sterling, 19th Century Scottish Poet


A therapist, if he is worth his salt, understands himself and others well enough to be objective about life’s experiences. To be objective about life’s experiences requires that a person understands five essential truths to being human. Anyone can learn these truths and in applying them to his life become his own therapist. It is a useful exercise to become your own therapist.

But can you really become your own therapist? Well, yes and no. First the no…

No, I don’t think you can become your own therapist just as I know you can’t become your own accountability partner or sponsor. Humans are relational beings. We are alive and thrive because of others. To think that we can single-handedly solve our own problems is the cause of our problems.

As a therapist myself, whenever I ask a client about his or her recovery plan – whether from drugs, alcohol, or sexually acting out – a little flag pops up in my mind whenever I hear action steps like, distract myselfremind myself of my worthsnap a rubber band on my wrist, journal, praymeditateread my Bible. All of those activities have value and worth, but all of those activities are solitary.

What makes change so difficult is that it requires we begin to trust others and if an inability to trust others was the original cause of the acting out behavior then the process of change requires a lot of vulnerability…with people.

Yes, those people include accountability partners and sponsors. They can also include therapists, real therapists. A real therapist is a licensed professional who is bound to certain legal and ethical requirements, chief among them confidentiality. At a minimum you can trust that what you say to a therapist stays with that therapist. And since humans are relational beings, the more we can trust others with our real selves the more we can begin to accept our real selves. In other words, “what’s shareable is bearable.”

But the more you work with a therapist, and the more you get interested in the ways in which you operate in the world and the ways in which all humans operate in the world, the more you gain the skills of a therapist. And the more you gain the skills of a therapist the more you can stop and reflect on any given situation, especially emotional, and take stock of what that experience is before acting on it.

Becoming your own therapist means that you are not always immersed in your experience of being human but have learned some skills in transcending the experience.  You are curious about it instead of being a victim to it. You can consider the pieces of a given conflict before acting out based on the past.

Another term for this is mindfulness. But what are you being mindful of? What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be your own therapist? Here are those five essential truths that can help guide you:

  1. You are the product of evolution.
  2. Your brain evolved to maintain connection to others.
  3. Connection to others is guided by your emotions.
  4. When your emotions motivate you to connect, there are only four options.
  5. The fourth way of connecting is the true objective of your spiritual life.

Wow, big claims. Hopefully I have your attention. Let’s hit each of these points in turn.

You Are the Product of Evolution

I do realize that I may have lost a few of you by making this statement and not just on religious grounds.

Religiously, of course, many believers challenge that humans evolved from simpler life forms and believe that God created humans as humans currently are today. On the other end of the spectrum are evolutionists who may see this statement as such a no-brainer that it doesn’t warrant any further consideration.

Whichever point on the creation/evolution spectrum you may find yourself on, failure to take this reality seriously undermines your ability to navigate your experience as a human being and relegates you to a mere subject of life instead of an actor in it.

The science on evolution is clear. And while one may wish to debate on when, where, and how humans first began their evolutionary process – whether billions of years ago from a single cell or six-thousand years ago when the Jewish calendar began – empirical data on how human genetic material adapts to its environment, that is, evolves, is unavoidable. Most relevant to this discussion is the understanding scientists have made of what is called your “genotype” and “phenotype”.

Your genotype is all of the genetic material you carry from your ancestors, some 20,000 genes that can determine anything from eye and hair color to intelligence. [1] Your phenotype is the unique expression of that genetic material. In other words, while you carry all of the genetic possibilities of your ancestors (genotype) only specific genes are turned on or off to determine who you are as an individual (phenotype).

What does this have to do with being your own therapist? Two things.

First, we didn’t choose the genetic material we inherited. We simply did not. We didn’t choose our biological sex organs, our race, our height, the quality of our muscles, aspects of our intelligence, or our tendency toward addictive behavior. Both our genotype and starting phenotype were determined for us. Above all else we need to accept this reality.

Does this mean that we are predetermined and cannot change? Not in the least! (Read on.) But it does mean that we are very marvelous and complex creatures, products, possibly, of billions of years of evolution. Or maybe we were created some six thousand years ago (or somewhere in between). Either way, our best bet in life is often wonder over control, awe over self-judgement, curiosity over self-hatred. In many respects, this is where our faith lives live (more on this in a bit).

Secondly, while we may want to cut ourselves some slack for being human, we also need to recognize that, believe it or not, we can alter and nudge our phenotype (what genes are turned on or turned off) in healthy and adaptive directions.

For instance, it has been found that use of addictive drugs can selectively turn off genes related to voluntary control and turn on genes related to behavior that leads to addiction.[2] The opposite is true – the longer we abstain from our substances of abuse, the more our bodies become accustomed to abstaining down to our very cells.

This is not only good news for us, it is good news for our children as how we interact with our environment before our children are conceived determines the nature of the genes we pass down to them and succeeding generations. If you don’t want your kids to have to struggle with compulsive and addictive behavior, your recovery doesn’t just affect them based on example; it affects them based on the very genetic material that you pass down to them.

Your Brain Evolved to Maintain Connection to Others

Many aspects of evolutionary theory are touchy subjects, especially among believers. I get that. Maybe we evolved from a single cell billions of years ago and maybe we didn’t. Regardless of that fact, it is undeniable that humans, among other species, have evolved, and not just randomly. They have evolved as a consequence of their interactions with their environments.

This is observable, as I have pointed out, from a genetic (cellular) level in how certain genes are turned on or turned off depending on what traits are adaptive (useful) for the environments in which we live. This is called epigenetics, if you wish to learn more. In looking at epigenetics, and in looking at the shared neurobiology and behavioral traits among humans and other mammals, it is clear that a big part of the evolutionary process for humans includes connection.

Jaak Panksepp was a neurobiologist who did extensive animal and human research on the neurobiological sources of emotion. Through his studies on mammalian brains he found there to be seven primary emotional systems.[3] These emotional systems are deep in the midbrain, below the “thinking” part of the brain (the neocortex). These systems are primary, meaning that they motivate mammals to behave certain ways before they can “think” about it. The two systems that are most relevant here are the CARE and PANIC/GRIEF systems.

The CARE system is a cluster of brain regions that motivates all mammals not only to nurture, especially the young, but to bond with young and mature alike. This CARE system, while more active among females, is also present and engaged within males. Neurochemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine,[4] and cortisol[5] engender mammals to be highly attuned to the distress of others. That knee-jerk response we all have when a child cries? That’s the CARE system alerting other systems in our brains to reach out, to comfort, to connect.

Just as there is a neurobiological system functioning to attend to the needs of others, there is another system within mammalian brains closely tied to the CARE system that seeks that care. The PANIC/GRIEF system, another cluster of brain regions sharing some of the same regions as the CARE system, functions to seek others out.

When mammals are isolated, in distress, or frightened, pain is registered in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC).[6] To alleviate that pain, the PANIC/GRIEF system kicks in through a release of hormones and neurochemicals to motivate mammals to seek out loving, caring others. The touch, or even the simple presence, of others triggers the brain to release endogenous (created within you) opioids.[7] These natural pain killers are like heroin; in fact, the receptors that receive the endogenous opioids are the same ones that receive heroin.[8]

The CARE and PANIC/GRIEF systems, as well as the dACC, evolved within the mammalian brain as a means by which mammals would remain connected to others from infancy to old age. Why? Because connection means survival![9] No mammals live independently of each other, but instead live in families, groups, packs, herds. Without family mammals are both very vulnerable to threat and miss out on the cooperation that allows for the sourcing and storage of food and the building of shelter.

Community isn’t just a good idea; instead, we are physiologically designed for it, all the way down to the most essential, and deep, parts of our brains. With connection we feel good, are light, and thrive. Without connection we feel anxious, depressed, and, in worse case scenarios, suicidal.

Connection to Others Is Guided by Your Emotions

In many respects this is where the rubber meets the road. Many of the clients I see clinically have little understanding of their emotions and what they are there for. At best they are vaguely aware of the differences in emotions from excitement to anxiety, contentment to depression. At worst they have little ability to label what they feel and instead allow an uncontrolled flow of neurochemical reactions to dictate their behavior.

As noted, these midbrain systems like CARE and PANIC/GRIEF do not want you to think about your emotions. They just want you to act in order to survive.[10] If on vacation in a foreign country you can’t find your family members, a burst of adrenaline (anxiety) tells your fight or flight system (HPA-Axis) to start seeking them out fast or else you could get lost.[11]

That is a very simple example with direct causes and effects. But what makes our psychological experience often so confounding is that sometimes we can’t understand why we feel anxious or depressed (or other emotions). If we’re lucky, we just know that we feel this way, and often chronically.

I choose anxiety and depression as two examples here because, for those people who are working on having less negative emotion and more positive emotion (like happiness and joy) it is these two emotional states that the person is learning how to navigate.

Anxiety means that we feel out of control, out of control in maintaining connection to key relationships that provide us with a sense of safety and survival.[12]

Depression means that we feel hopeless, that we will never feel connected and we will always be alone and vulnerable to life’s dangers.[13]

The reason why our emotional experiences, especially in relation to anxiety and depression, can be so confounding is that, on the surface, there isn’t necessarily a direct cause and effect relationship between our emotions and the state of our human connections. We can be surrounded by people yet, as the saying goes, “feel alone in a crowd.” Why?

These midbrain systems, the seat of our felt sense of the world (versus our logical sense of the world, which is found in the neocortex), largely develops within the first few years of life.[14] This means that by the age of five our sense of human connection – what is safe or dangerous, approachable or avoidable – has found its baseline.

The “implicit” memory of these midbrain systems makes what happened fifteen, twenty, even fifty years ago feel like it’s happening now.[15] As a result, we tend to respond to people throughout our lives in ways that we responded to our first intimate attachment figures, either accommodating, attacking, or avoiding them in an effort to ensure that the relationships remain stable.

And “stable” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy! “Stable” just means familiar.  How we knew to maintain the ever-so-precious warmth of connection as children is how we will maintain the ever-so-precious warmth of connection when we grow older, even if how we do so is destructive to ourselves and others.

When Your Emotions Motivate You to Connect, There Are Only Four Options

Karen Horney (no jokes, please) was a German-born psychoanalyst. Among other contributions to understanding human behavior she pointed out what may seem rather obvious once described. All humans, when faced with interpersonal conflict, respond by either accommodating, attacking, or avoiding the person with whom he or she is in conflict; but instead of using those terms, Horney stated that we either move towardagainst, or away.[16]

Which of these three coping mechanisms we unconsciously employ is determined by a mixture of disposition (genetics) and childhood experience.[17] Regardless of how they developed, it is anxiety that unconsciously drives the choice because, as I pointed out, connection is of primal importance to the mammalian brain. 

When we feel the threat of disconnection from significant people in our lives, adrenaline tells us to do anything in our power to maintain that connection. The path of least resistance is to move toward, against, or away (we’ll get to the fourth option in a moment).

People who move toward are pleasers. They have learned, since a young age, that to maintain connection, and thus decrease anxiety, it is best to accommodate the person with whom they are in conflict, make things better, bend, twist and contort themselves in ways that deny themselves for the sake of keeping the relationship going.

People who move against are aggressive. They have learned, since a young age, that to maintain connection, and thus decrease anxiety, it is best to attack the person with whom they are in conflict, dominate them with words or deeds, pin them down either literally or figuratively so that, out of fear, others remain in place so that the aggressor, quite ironically, feels the warmth of connection.

People who move away are isolationists. They have learned, since a young age, that to maintain connection, and thus decrease anxiety, it is best to avoid the person with whom they are in conflict, to run away, hide, and ignore the problems and keep the relationship maintained through avoidance.

I discuss this topic in much more detail in the post Non-Violent Resistance in Intimate Relationships: A How-to Guide. Please go to that article for an in-depth, and practical, discussion.

Needless to say, with these three main coping mechanisms, there are quite a few combinations of coping styles that mashup to create the social systems in which you live and function – family, work, local communities. Disentangling these combinations can be confounding, so confounding and overwhelming that most of us unconsciously choose to remain stuck in our ways of relating, and the longer we remain stuck the stronger the neurological connections in the brain get – as well as the dysfunctional social systems in which we are set – and the less hope we feel that anything will change. And the less hope we feel that anything will change, the more depressed we become.

So, what’s the way out, the way toward change, the way out of depression (and addiction)? That would be the fourth way of connecting.

The Fourth Way of Connecting Is the True Objective of Your Spiritual Life

To my knowledge, Horney never addressed the fourth way of connecting, but plenty of spiritual leaders throughout human history certainly have. The fourth way of connecting is the opposite of moving toward, against, or away; it is finding and knowing your place in relationships and society and holding that position regardless of the ways in which people either move toward, against, or away from you. The fourth way of connecting is remaining in the center; the fourth way of connecting is nonviolent resistance.

As we have discussed, disconnection is our greatest fear. We will do anything in our power to remain connected even if what we do to remain connected denies our basic human value or the basic human value of others. Anxiety is what drives these choices.

Yet once we make these choices, we often feel depressed because if we have to move toward, against, or away to maintain relationships those relationships are built on conditional love. This is a lonely and hopeless place as, in many respects, this means that we are not truly known; we are only known for whom we are supposed to be.  No wonder so many people turn to substances of abuse!

The first step out of this existential vapor lock is to realize that it is actually happening. That’s no easy feat. Many of us go through life unconsciously participating in these dynamics, unaware of how much they are quietly destroying us. It isn’t until our suffering gets so great that we, hopefully, chose to dig a little deeper into reality to figure out what’s going on. Once we do, we are left with three choices: continue to suffer, end our lives, or change.

If we do decide to change we must realize that the pathway to change is the same for everyone – recognizing your fundamental right to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and provided equal standing in any relationship and then nonviolently remain in the center regardless of how much people move toward, against, or away from you.

It is only reasonable, however, that when people realize the extent to which they have moved toward or away others in response to having been moved against they often move against their abusers or others as a counter response and out of anger. The trouble is, violence only begets violence which means that our only way out of violence, as well as its product – depression! – is to remain in the center and get good at nonviolent resistance.

“Violence begets violence” is not just a nice saying; it is a fundamental principle of reality, seen first in nature and then demonstrated in our human relationships. The third law of physics states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. While not all actions are violent, the reality is that for any object’s motion to exist, it requires another object pushing back on it. For example, objects cannot move on slick ice because the frictionless surface of the ice prevents an opposite reaction to occur.

Human behaviors are like forces in nature. If a person moves against us in violence, we don’t do ourselves or the other person a favor by moving against as well. If we push back, we give the behavior a reason to exist. Likewise, if we support the action (moving toward), or ignore it (moving away), we either magnify the behavior or let it run rampant. Our only option if we want lasting change is to creatively find ways to make negative behavior obsolete. This requires creativity, as not all behaviors are equal, but the fact remains that if you don’t give a behavior a reason to exist, it will disappear.

Again, I discuss this in more detail in Nonviolent Resistance in Intimate Relationships: A How-to Guide. It is also explored in the posts Individuation and Integrity. I won’t get into specifics here, but I do want to address my statement that the fourth way of connecting is the true objective of your spiritual life.

The fourth way of connecting is the true objective of your spiritual life because to engage in nonviolent resistance is to accept three things: life is worth living, we are all interconnected, and there is a limit to what we can control.

To engage in nonviolent resistance accepts that life is worth living because, at its core, it recognizes your fundamental right to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and provided equal standing in any relationship. You matter; life matters. And in this way, there is a path out of depression and anxiety; there is a path toward contentment and excitement. It may not be an easy path, but it exists, and it is available to us each and every moment we choose to recognize our worth and value regardless of what others may say or do to us.

And because interacting with other human beings is necessary to human wellbeing, to engage in nonviolent resistance recognizes not only that we are a fundamental part of the fabric of life but so too are the people with whom we are in conflict. Every time we choose to remain in the center and engage in nonviolent resistance, we not only provide ourselves the opportunity to nudge reality toward freedom and away from oppression, but we allow it for others as well.

Of course, not every human being will choose the same consciousness as we have chosen. This is as much a part of reality as the dynamics of moving toward, against, or away. And in recognizing that other people’s behavior is out of our control, engaging in nonviolent resistance requires that we accept that a Power Greater Than Ourselves is ultimately in charge, not us, and hope that that Power Greater Than Ourselves is ultimately interested in peace, not only for ourselves but for others as well.

Living This Out

Becoming your own therapist is not something that happens overnight, and it is certainly never something you perfect. It is a way of living. It is a way of life. It requires mindfulness, consistency, and patience. And a lot of forgiveness, of yourself, and of others.

It is not easy being human. One thing Eastern belief systems have seemed to get right is the recognition that life is difficult.[18] And if difficulty is the starting point instead of ease you become quite grateful for the things you do have instead of resentful of what you don’t. And in this way, when you recognize that life is difficult, it ironically becomes less so.

It really is a miracle that each of us have the opportunity to inhabit this planet in bodies that have evolved over the course of millennia to be the complex organisms that we are, organisms that can adapt and change. If we’re conscious of this evolutionary mechanism that is within each of us, we have the power to tap into our emotions, recognize what they are telling us about our ourselves and our relationships, and begin to make choices that reflect not only the person we would like to be, but the society in which we would like to live.

Again, this isn’t easy, but it’s a hell of a lot easier if we remain in a community of people who have a similar vision. In most of the Western world you can be in any location and find communities based on unconditional acceptance. You can always find it in therapy rooms, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, Co-dependents Anonymous meetings, etc. And if you’re lucky, you can find it within a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque.

It is in these communities where you find the human connection that is required to neurobiologically adapt from chronic states of depression and anxiety to equilibrium and even excitement. Just as it requires time and gradual effort to strengthen our muscles through exercise, it requires consistent exposure to new ways of relating to alter the emotional systems that exist in our midbrains.[19] But they can be altered.

In the rare case where those communities don’t exist? We always have the power to create them. Remember, depression is a product of hopelessness, and when we feel hopeless in finding unconditional love, we always have the opportunity, every moment of every day, to be that station of unconditional love for someone else. It does begin with you.

One central principle of nonviolent resistance is that the ultimate goal is not to change other people but to change and better ourselves.[20] If we focus on ourselves, if we recognize our own power and freedom to create that which is needed for ourselves and for others, we’re less concerned about making people be what we want them to be (a moving against tactic) and more concerned about enriching the soil in which not only we, but the community as a whole, grows. 

In this way, remaining in the center and nonviolent resistance is less concerned with success and more concerned with growth – our growth and the growth of our communities. What is transformative about this perspective is that when growth is our focus instead of success we are faced with countless opportunities. The process of growth is ever-present while success is a perpetually receding destination.

And that is why the fourth way of connecting is the true objective of your spiritual life. A healthy spiritual life is not about expectations. A healthy spiritual life is about making choices that confirm your worth and the worth of your fellow humans and allowing whatever materializes from those choices to materialize. This is about trust, trust that what the Unknown Future has in store for you is much bigger, and better, than what your limited imagination can dream up.

[1] Bryon Kolb and Ian Q. Whishaw, Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology, Seventh Ed. (New York: Worth Publishers, 2015), 41-42.

[2] Kolb & Whishaw, Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology, Seventh Ed, 164.

[3] Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven, The Archeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 34-37.

[4] Ibid., 291.

[5] Ibid., 333.

[6] Naomi I. Eisenberger, “The Neural Basis of Social Pain: Findings and Implications,” in Social Pain: Neuropsychological and Health Implications of Loss and Exclusion, ed. Geoff MacDonald and Lauri A. Jensen-Campbell (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2011), 56-57.

[7] Panksepp and Biven, The Archeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, 325.

[8] Baldwin M. Way and Shelley E. Taylor, “Genetic Factors in Social Pain,” in Social Pain: Neuropsychological and Health Implications of Loss and Exclusion, ed. Geoff MacDonald and Lauri A. Jensen-Campbell (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2011), 97.

[9] Eisenberger, “The Neural Basis of Social Pain: Findings and Implications,” 54.

[10] Panksepp and Biven, The Archeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, 15.

[11] Andrew Baum, Carroll Michelle Lee, and Angela Liegey Dougall, “Social Stressors, Social Pain, and Health,” in Social Pain: Neuropsychological and Health Implications of Loss and Exclusion, ed. Geoff MacDonald and Lauri A. Jensen-Campbell (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2011), 196.

[12] Panksepp and Biven, The Archeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, 340-341.

[13] Ibid., 339.

[14] Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind, Second Ed.: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (New York: The Guilford Press, 2012), 22-24

[15] Elaine Miller-Karas, Building Resilience to Trauma: The Trauma and Community Resiliency Models (New York: Routledge, 2015), 22.

[16] Karen Horney, Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1945), 42.

[17] Jennifer M. Knack, Haylie L. Gomez, and Lauri A. Jensen-Campbell, “Bullying and Its Long-Term Health Implications,” in Social Pain: Neuropsychological and Health Implications of Loss and Exclusion, ed. Geoff MacDonald and Lauri A. Jensen-Campbell (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2011), 227.

[18] The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that to live is to suffer (dukkha).

[19] Elaine Miller-Karas, Building Resilience to Trauma: The Trauma and Community Resiliency Models, 15.

[20] Mark A. Mattaini, Strategic Nonviolent Power: The Science of Satyagraha (Edmonton: AU Press, 2013), 147.

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