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July 2015

by Carl Shubs, Ph.D.

We all want a happy life, and we do our best to make that happen.  But sometimes we repeat old patterns that don’t get us what we want and we feel stuck.  And sometimes we want incompatible or unrealistic things.
The basic questions I explore with people who see me for therapy are:  What works?  What doesn’t?  And why?  Often, people are too embedded in their way of thinking about something or approaching a problem, and they are stuck in a rut with it.  Talking with me helps them explore alternative points of view, regain their perspective, and often develop a new and different relationship with their feelings.

For some people, our focus centers on the fears that stop them from doing something.  Often, someone is afraid either to reach out for what he wants, whether it is a relationship, a particular behavior that he wants from someone, or a goal he has for himself.  Alternatively, someone may be scared to have boundaries, set and enforce limits, and say “No!”

Some people are afraid that they will be punished just for wanting or desiring.  Their life experience may have taught them (however unconsciously that may have happened) that others in their life could not accept their wants and needs and would retaliate against them (emotionally and/or physically) if they were to express such feelings.  They may also have been degraded or ridiculed for such thoughts or feelings. When they experience any need or desires, including feeling passionate or dependent, those feelings trigger internal alarm bells that signal “Bad things will happen if you allow yourself to feel this!”  Similar kinds of lessons may be learned regarding other feelings, such as sadness, fear, hurt, anger or jealousy.  In self-protection, they learned to shut down (whether consciously or unconsciously) and live by the survival law, “Thou shalt have no needs.”  That a huge price to pay for emotional and relational safety and security.

Alternatively, in our very early years, our primary orientation is very self-centered, as is expressed in such childhood beliefs as, “The sun comes up in the morning so I can play”; “If I don’t get what I need from mommy or daddy, it’s my fault;” or “Mommy and daddy are getting divorced because of me.”  These are normal thoughts and feelings for infants and young children, and the lessons of self-blame that children may take from such experiences can be severely damaging and even debilitating.  Those interpretations of experience may be the foundations of such identities as “I’m not worth having something good;” “I don’t deserve something good;” or “I’m not good enough.”  These basic self-concepts can easily become deeply engrained, sometimes persisting throughout adulthood, even despite evidence to the contrary and despite a cognitive awareness that those statements are not true.    It is not uncommon that people live their whole lives in ways that are designed to avoid having their low self-esteem confirmed.

The opposite pole of being afraid to assert one’s needs, vulnerabilities, or desires is the fear of asserting one’s limits.  This is the fear of having boundaries, saying “No,” and establishing consequences if those boundaries are crossed.  In the absence of having clear lines about what is and is not acceptable and what are the ramifications that will happen to the one who crosses those lines, this may result in manipulating, pleading, or even begging.  Often, people are afraid to hold themselves accountable for being indefinite and not enforcing consequences, with the result that they deceive themselves into seeing themselves as having boundaries and being assertive, when instead they are only complaining.  Similarly, people are often afraid to hold others accountable for their transgressions, frequently because they fear that they will be retaliated against or abandoned.  This typically leads to the person’s progressively shrinking their boundaries and passively allowing others to encroach on them and even hurt them.  Such behavior is also self-perpetuating because it has the effect of communicating to others that it is acceptable for those others to behave in those ways.

An illustration from my practice may help to illuminate how these scenarios occur.  Naturally, I have changes people’s names and specific circumstances in order to protect their confidentiality.

Mary came to see me because she was having panic attacks at work and her job performance was suffering.  She was well educated and had a high level position in a large company.  She grew up as the oldest child in a poor single-parent family.  Her father’s physical and cognitive limitations meant that she had to take on the role of parent to her siblings and also to her father.  She did that job well and was very proud to have done so.  Family was extremely important to her.

At work, she was overloaded and without the support of management, despite their assertions of support.  In contrast, when she took the job many years ago, the corporate environment felt like the kind of supportive and enriching family that she wanted to be a part of.  As these discrepancies were revealed through our discussions, she was able to recognize how she was clinging to the illusion that the corporate family she had originally been happy to join had become dysfunctional and was not treating her with the care that she felt she deserved.  She was also fighting to preserve her identity as someone who can get the job done, no matter what it is, as she had done in carrying the burden of family responsibilities when she was yet a child herself.  In addition, she was fighting to preserve the illusion of her company as a good family.  She was also fighting against facing the painful loss of that caretaking corporate family, which was reminiscent for her of the loss of a caretaking childhood family.

As she was able to face these realizations and to mourn those losses, with her defenses dropped and with all of the feelings that surfaced for her, she no longer felt trapped.  Her panic rapidly evaporated, she felt empowered, and she felt “like I’ve got myself back.”  She was unstuck.

In contrast, John has been stuck in dealing with his “inner critic” for many years.  He has gained greater clarity regarding the nature and foundation of his critic, he has increased his tolerance for and acceptance of his deep feelings, and he is able to get free of the critic for periods at a time.  Yet, he has been unable to sustain significant longevity in that battle.  He remains stuck in his fear and avoidance of accepting that his parents were unable to give him what he needed, and he continues to cling to an overriding fantasy (which  he acknowledges is irrational) that he can get back their acceptance and support, though they have been dead for decades.  For now, he is stuck feeling alone, helpless, and a “failure.”

As people talk with me about the dilemmas in their lives, and we examine the challenges they are presented with, people are able to gain a greater understanding of the binds that they feel themselves to be in.  They are also able to have support in working through and dealing with the deep hurts that they may carry, and may have to encounter. if they are to get unstuck, like Mary did.


Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D., is a psychologist in independent practice in Beverly Hills. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. You can contact Dr. Shubs at (310) 772-0520 or His website is

Copyright 2015 by Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D.


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