vulnerability in relationships

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The more couples therapy I do (and the longer I’m married!) the more I believe that the key to healthy relationships is the willingness to be vulnerable. When you’re willing to be vulnerable with a partner, that’s when the clear and honest communication of needs and boundaries comes out. When you know your partner’s needs and boundaries, that’s when you can engage in nurturing behaviors. Being vulnerable enough to ask for what you want from someone is opening an opportunity of your needs being met.

You must be vulnerable to have empathy. It is an emotionally disorienting risk to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and see how the situation feels for them. You may discover, through empathy, that you were wrong. If you have had negative role models that didn’t allow for being wrong and saying sorry in relationships, it takes courage to try something different, and say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” It gets easier, especially after the first time. (On the other side of the equation, receiving sincere apologies graciously and not continuing to go off on a person is always nice.)

Expressing anger in a relationship takes a lot of vulnerability. In a functional relationship, there is room to express anger, and within that room, anger is expressed in the most charitable and least vicious way that can be managed at the current moment, given the anger.

To grow in a relationship, vulnerability is mandatory. We have to communicate changes to partners so that we can embrace it together. Paradoxically, we sustain the most emotional hurt from being rejected, abused or manipulated during those moments when we are expressing and experiencing our own emotional vulnerability. There are people who hone in on it and exploit it, twist it around, use it against those they supposedly love.

And the scary thing about this carnival ride is that early on in relationships sometimes you don’t always know which thing you’re going to get: rewarded for being vulnerable, or rejected for it. If you’re in a long-standing relationship and you start to increase the level of vulnerability and truth-telling and you are met by shaming, blaming, deflection, and contempt, well, you and I both know that’s a bad sign. A little defensiveness is normal, but eventually that wears down and the partner steps forward with an action demonstrating a commitment to hear you out and understand you. If you are just starting out in a new relationship and vulnerability is met with shaming, blaming, deflection, and contempt; well, thats easy. Walk away, and let the person fix and heal themselves instead of you thinking your relationship is going to do it. But if you’re already deeply in it, and the person is displaying highly toxic behavior at your most charitable attempts at truth telling (when you air your grievances in an adult manner that are not bitchy digs disguised as honesty) then this heralds some work to come. The relationship will need an overhaul in the form of therapy or some other radical way of restructuring communication, boundaries, expectations and behavior.

Assuming your partner is open to you being more vulnerable and is just displaying the regular garden variety defensiveness and grumbly resistance, try to be respectful in your communications. Remember that it might be hard for them to know what you want because you don’t know yourself. You might be reading this thinking of yourself as the open and vulnerable partner in the relationship while your partner is the one who gets defensive, but if you got a little more vulnerable with yourself you’d see that you can be pretty defensive yourself.

It’s funny that vulnerability is associated with weakness, because owning it and sitting with it–both your own and that of others– takes such strength.

the impostor complex

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So many smart people have impostor complex! OMG.
(I just worried about whether you’d think I was professional if I used OMG. Then I thought, that’s what I wanted to write, so that’s authentic. Then I thought, maybe you’d think I was being authentic by using OMG. Then I worried if you would think my authentic self used slightly dated text language and was awfully uncool.)


If I had a dollar for every talented engineer, tech writer, programmer, artist, writer, parent, YOU NAME IT, who has sat in my office and felt like a fraud, I’d be taking a dollar-bath.

If you’re reading this and on some logical level know that you’re smart, but emotionally somehow always talk yourself into believing that deep down you are a stupid stupid head full of stupid stupidness and that you are just a big kid playing at whatever it is some temporarily duped individual hired you to do, and that any moment some smarter and superior person will find out the deep dark secret of your terrible stupid headed stupid ness and incompetence and mediocrity, listen up.

Yes you, who likes to call your successes “flukes.”

Who thinks people compliment your work because they feel bad for you and have to.

Who knows it’s ok to ask for help intellectually but feels like your question is something you should know and that everyone else knows too.

I just want you to know that there are so many people who feel this way. People with good jobs with lots of responsibility. People who speak eloquently. People who perform and get raises.

You’re not a fraud. You’ve got the right. And you can do this.

You might not believe it now, but eventually the two worlds of your negative self-concept and the expectations of those who believe in you and find you competent will collide. With what attitude will you face this collision?

If we are all just playing at being grown-ups, then let’s play! Bring the sense of “play acting” into your work and use it to create a sense of wonder and levity. Faking isn’t all that different from showing up and doing your best given the information you have and doing your best to keep learning the new things you need to learn in order to become more competent. It’s ok to feel like a child at dress-up when you’re doing your job sometimes. It keeps us humble to not know everything. But like a child immersed in make-believe, you can forget yourself and your insecurities in the play, and rise to the occasion and become that which you feel you’ve just been pretending to be.

My original point though is simple. I see a lot of very bright and capable people who are suffering from various degrees of impostor complex. My experience has led me to realize that impostor complex is a lot more common than I had thought before. It has helped me relax my judgments about myself, and I wanted to communicate on a larger level that if you feel this way, you’re really not alone. Awesome people get their moments of feeling this way and still achieve amazing things. Feel the fraud and do it anyway.

Impose yourself.


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I recently read in one of my online Continuing Ed courses that breathing exercises really do work to manage anxiety, but that people aren’t usually consistent enough in practicing their breathing exercises daily or doing them long enough during the anxiety episode to effectively calm themselves down.

So, from the “things you already know are good for you but don’t do department,” consider these tips.

Set a timer and practice a breathing exercise for three minutes.

Try simple breathing exercises, the ones you’re most likely to do.

How about these?

1. Take a normal inhale. Draw out the exhale as long as you can. Focus on the long exhale, slow and smooth. It can help slow you down if you make an ssssss sound. Put your hand on your belly and feel your belly slowly hollowing as you exhale all of the air. The deeper you exhale, the more naturally your lungs will fill on the inhale.

2. Breathe in for four counts. Hold for four counts. Exhale for four (or six) counts.

3. Breathe from a place of mindfulness. Just become aware of what your breathing is, right now, and how this translates to your mood or what else is going on in your body/mind. Breathe into the tight places, breathe into the emotions. Allow the breathe to loosen up tight places and shift your emotions. Attend the breathe and allow it to inform you what to do next.

In my CEU course I read the suggestion that you do some breathing whenever you are waiting for something-water to boil, toast to toast, to get to the front of the line at the post office, being on hold with the bank, etc. I love this, because some of these times, like the last two examples, can be aggravating and deep breathing is useful just in dealing with being in the situation.

That’s enough from me. You can google fancier breathing techniques with all the philosophies and methodologies attached till the sacred cows come home. (And please do! It’s a fabulous way to spend undirected time on the internet.) But my intent is more simple: just to remind you and get you started, by suggesting something small.

new certification

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I’m proud to announce a new area of focus and certification in my private practice. Dr. Karyl McBride, creator of the training I took, specializes in daughters of narcissistic mothers and is the author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, a self-help classic I recommend often.

Narcissism, narcissistic abuse, and issues unique to adult children of narcissistic parents are a growing area of clinical interest for many of us. Women and men who were raised by narcissistic parents are often high achievers or have lots of potential, but are plagued with issues of feeling not good enough, second-guessing themselves, feeling fearful to put themselves out there, fearing rejection, having difficulty navigating friendships and romantic relationships, anxiety, and depression. A lot of times the patient comes in for these issues and the therapy process uncovers that there was a parent, often a charming, larger-than-life person who may not appear particularly abusive to the outside world, whose behaviors resulted in a shaky sense of self in their adult children. Children of narcissist parents are expected to take care of their parents’ needs, not the other way around.

One of the scariest things adults do in therapy is critically examine their childhoods for fear of disrupting current bonds with their parents (even in memory) even if those bonds are, in reality, quite shaky and disappointing.

As a therapist I set my intention to create a safe space for the adult children of narcissists to take all of the time they need to examine this issue and how to move forward and live a fuller and more confident life.

For more information and online support for adult survivors, here are some good resources to start.

how the patient sees the therapist

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It serves me as a therapist to find out what beliefs about therapy and therapists new patients bring when they first visit my office.

Is the fact that this person is in therapy proof, within their worldview, that “things must be really bad”?

Do they inflate the power of a therapist beyond what is truly helpful in their own lives? Did they have a past experience with a therapist that might be hard to match? Is the client quite accustomed to stay in the type of dependency that is positive in some phases of therapy but not a good place to stay overall? Are they so used to the constancy and everyday-ness of therapy that they don’t expect to have any breakthroughs or to do any work that would truly challenge the status quo?

Is therapy a valuable and useful tool, but for other people? Is their participation in the process not only proof that “things are really bad” but also that they “shouldn’t need all of this extra help” because they’re “perfectly capable of working through” their own problems? By the way, I think that therapists are prone to falling into this trap. Helpers make some of the worst helpees.

Did the patient have a bad experience with a previous therapist? How did that affect trust? Were there any serious ethical violations? Did a previous therapist work within a certain modality, and what about that way of working was helpful and what was not?

Are they there because a partner wanted them to? Were they given a ultimatum? Are they there but not there? Do they want to know about my credentials and level of education? Do they mistake my credentials and level of education and call me Doctor? (How quickly do I correct them?)

None of these things “means” something definite, but within the context of the patient’s history, affect, and story, they provide powerful clues of how to establish the therapeutic relationship. If my ego requires they be in a specific place in terms of how they view me, then the therapy usually runs into trouble. If I remain curious to their perceptions and open to them changing, and finding ways to get to the common ground of two humans in the room, it is usually a good start.

the things I can’t control

I was going to post earlier. In fact I’d just polished up what I thought was a nice piece on impostor complex when I did something wonky on my computer and deleted the post instead of publishing.

That sucked. I liked it. I didn’t want to let it go. But it was gone and all the computer tricks I knew didn’t get it back.

Allowing this relatable experience to guide me, I thought it would be fun to write about all of the things I can’t control. Some of them I wouldn’t want to, but some? I totally would if I could.

I can’t control traffic.

I can’t control what people think of me.

I can’t control mistakes I’ve already made, I can only try to correct them.

I can’t control the fact that I’m aging.

I can’t control my friends.

I can’t control my family.

I can’t control mortality.

I can’t control loss.

I can’t control fear. I can only listen and respond to it.

I can’t control the fact that my husband just interrupted me and that it resulted in me spacing on what should have been the rest of this sentence.

I can’t control all of the bad things I’ve done to my health, I can only move forward.

I can’t control the stupid things I did when I was younger, I can only be grateful it was before YouTube.

I can’t control whom or what I love and who does and does not love me.

I can’t control the seeming phenomenon that people tend to schedule less psychotherapy during the summer.

I can’t control politics. I can only vote and raise my voice and take action.

I can’t control other people’s feelings.

Indidividually each of these items can drive me crazy, but writing them out as a list is liberating.

With all of the things I cannot control out of the way, I can dig deeper into focus on my own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions, and the empowering-yet-intimidating agency that gives me.

I can control the way I respond to my thoughts and emotions. I can control how I say things. I can control how I spend my time. I can control my attitude.

I can’t control the loss of that blog entry.

But I can write another one.

story and voice

I had a talk with an old friend this weekend about storytelling and voice. I was having some writer’s block, just not sure what to say, and she reminded me of all of the ways that we humans tell stories, big and small. She reminded me that we tell stories via Facebook posts and Tweets, through making videos.

It got me thinking about therapy, and how what I do is collect and sift through people’s stories with them, and together we collaborate to create meaning. Meaning-making heals. Meaning allows suffering to not be in vain. We get the moral of the story and can move on.

I have a client who is a singer. I believe they are a good one: context cues point that way. But this person is struggling with what to do next creatively, and things didn’t work out with the latest band. The client’s voice teacher told them: if you don’t believe in what you’re singing, you won’t care about what you are doing and you won’t sound very good.

Brenè Brown introduces her book on shame I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t), with the idea that shame is what holds us back from telling our stories. It’s not hard to see why: we live in a culture of victim-blaming, and the truth-tellers often become the scapegoats. We are also a distracted culture, and a lot of times we listen to the wrong stories, the ones that have been told too much and keep us feeling bad, or the ones we tell ourselves that start with “I’m not good enough.” This lessens our ability not only to share who we are but to listen to others.

Therapy is such a powerful medium for me because I create a safe container in which someone can work through shame, tell their story, make meaning, and find truth. In the sealed container of the therapy room the client gains the safety to find their voice. The storytelling heals the soul. An observation I’ve made from the beginning of my therapy career is that as a client starts to heal, they have a greater capacity to hear the stories of others. This kind of empathy and compassion can affect the culture and even heal the world.

Therapy is a safe space to tell your story, where it will be listened to and protected. This builds strength to later tell your story when you are unsure of its’ reception.

Next time you’re invited to hear someone’s story: listen! Next time you’re invited to share: share!

It’s like free therapy.


As I end my first week back to work after a two-week, vacation, I’m struck by how difficult it is for Americans to feel entitled to a real vacation.

As we landed in paradise, my engineer husband’s phone (a device he programs software for) died a spectacular death, complete with the screen looking like an etch-a-sketch. When he returned to the office, a few people worried he might have been fired because he was away for so long and he wasn’t responsive to emails. Just today I had a conversation with someone who lamented a coworker’s coming in during his paid time off. It seems as though it’s impossible to really get away unless you can set all sorts of boundaries. I was in contact with patients as well, but they knew I was out of town and the communication was minimal and centered around scheduling.

One of the little vacation goals I had set for myself was to “take a vacation from mirrors and scales.” What that really meant was I just did not want to go through the emotional spiral of caring what I looked like on the beach or in a swimsuit and spending a lot of time stressing about it. I did a pretty good job. Something that definitely correlated with that attitude if it was not directly caused by it was that I didn’t go crazy on junky food or alcohol.

I had some family portraits done on the beach. And I felt good in my skin for them, probably much due to me relaxing about my body. It sounds ridiculous as I type this out to myself, but somehow I got it into my head that if you go on a vacation to a tropical location where you will want to wear as little clothing as possible due to heat and humidity, you need to lose a bunch of weight, and in absence of that you need to cover yourself up and feel lots of shame.

Instead, I had fun on the beach, and if anyone thought I didn’t have permission to be in a suit, I was having too much fun to notice.

In closing, everyone reading this should take as much vacation as they can afford, and truly set aside your worries. Be active, have fun with those you love, tune out from your work responsibilities or put it on autopilot, and just chill. This is what you are going to remember.

lia on mother rising podcast-the importance of touch and getting your sexy back on post-divorce

Listen to get your sexy back

Last week I was fortunate enough to have a chat with Margaret Jacobsen, of
The Mother Rising divorce coaching about the importance of touch when you are going through an important loss or transition such as a divorce.

We discuss the importance of any touch on mental health and well-being, and go on to talk about sexual touch like masturbation, which she likes to call “self love”. At the end we touched on sexual intimacy with partners. I gave a brief safer sex 101, and emphasized knowing yourself and your desires and then clearly communicating those desires to others as you set forth on your new life. It was great fun, and a conversation people need to continue having.

I wanted to add a few things that might have gotten glossed over a bit. If you are interested in buying sex toys in a non-threatening environment, Good Vibrations, which Margaret mentioned, is a great local bay area resource as well as a wonderful online store. There are a lot of places all over the country that serve to create a safe environment for women and men to explore sex toys and related fun stuff, and you can find them by searching for “sex positive” “women-friendly” or “feminist” sex or porn stores.

We also talked about economical ways to get massages in-I mentioned that you could often find massage schools that offer low-cost clinics with their interns. Here’s a link to one locally at the National Holistic Institute “http://”

I also made a bold claim that men are a lot more low-fuss about masturbating, while women tend to put it off and need permission to go there. Is this true in your experience?

Enjoy the podcast!

to the unsung heroes of mother’s day

Because it’s not all champagne and roses for everyone….

Happy Mother’s Day. This Sunday is a day where we sing out loud the praises of the mothers, the women who brought us into this world, gave us their genes, raised us the best they could, and tried to steer us towards happiness. Odes to mothers and their sacrifices abound before and on this day, and to that I say huzzah. It is as it should be.

But I want to sing the praises of the unsung this Mother’s Day, because they deserve to hear this song deep in their hearts. Instead of “you wouldn’t really understand this because you’re not a mom.” Or, “Someday when you have children of your own you’ll understand.” Or, “you don’t have kids? WHY? That is selfish.” Or anything else that is ridiculous, invasive, or self righteous.

Happy Mother’s Day to the stepmothers, the women raising other people’s children, often without the full blessings and agency that a biological parent takes for granted. To the women who tend scrapes, feel sad when their step kids suffer defeat, clean up barf, and rush them to the emergency room only to be told they need to go fetch a legal parent, I salute you. To anyone who has felt truly maternal feelings towards someone who needs to point out that you’re not their real mom, I think you should get the massage and the manicure this year.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the women who are experiencing difficulty and hardship conceiving a child. I see you there, my sisters, I feel your pain. Whether you have already had a child and are experiencing secondary infertility, or you’ve never had a child and can’t seem to conceive, or if you’ve had one miscarriage or two or three or ten, or if you’ve had round after round of IVF to no avail, or if you don’t want to call yourself pregnant yet because you don’t want to get your hopes up…or those of you who wanted at least one or at least one more and didn’t get that wish, I am wishing you the most awesome, magical and happy Mother’s Day, and that there can be some part of your day, like the sun on your face or the joke of a friend, that brings you a smile.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the child-free women who play with my child and behave as though her little-child ramblings are unique and novel, because to you who haven’t heard it for the billionth time, it is, and I’m so grateful for the fresh energy you bring to all of the children that you touch.

Happy Mother’s Day to anyone who has taken an interest in my child and delighted in her, not because you felt like you had to, but because you enjoy her. To all the aunties, biological or not, who make kids feel special and give tired parents a break, I give you a tearful, grateful, Mother’s Day hug. All the people who have been polite and understanding if my kids were loud or obnoxious in public places, I love you.

To the woman in the office who covers for the mom who has to rush out and care for a sick kid, Happy Mother’s Day! If the world were more kind, you’d be gifted a shelf of free yogurts and an extra vacation day for your efforts. I don’t work in a traditional office environment, but if I did, I wouldn’t take you for granted and I promise I would not act or feel superior to you or anyone else just because I’ve pushed forth life from my uterus. Because if there’s anything worse than lack of acknowledgment, it’s the lack of acknowledgment coupled with pointless and unfounded condescension. I’m giving a virtual smack to any annoying mothers in your office who do this. PS: thank you for sticking up for the woman who needs to disappear every two and a half hours to pump milk.

And to all the women who have chosen to birth ideas and projects, grassroots movements and crusades to help others, in addition to or instead of birthing actual human beings, I want to celebrate you today as well. You break glass ceilings, provide hope and inspiration, and show women that they are so much more than the ability to create life in her uterus and to procure sperm for this purpose. Those of you who are passionately devoted to your life’s work and know that you cannot balance having a child, or who don’t particularly want to, you seriously make the world a better place and I want to tell you on Mother’s Day that you rock.

And those of you who really wanted a child, but chose not to have one because you knew you didn’t have the resources or couldn’t pursue your other goals or knew that because of your health concerns or mental illness that you might not be able to be there 100 percent, you deserve to come to the brunch. That is a tough call, and you are a grown up, my friend, and I notice and appreciate how clear and accepting you are.

To the single dads doing the work of both mom and dad, happy Mother’s Day.
To the gay dads, single or coupled, who are doing the same, happy Mother’s Day! To the transgender women and men who have either become women and identified as mother or have become men who still will always identify as a mother to those they have brought into this world, Happy Mother’s Day. I hope someone brings you pancakes in bed.

To anyone who has loved a furry, feathery, scaly, or amphibian baby and taken them into their heart and home, especially you doing the rescue work, you deserve a mimosa today with all the rest of us.

To anyone who had a shitty childhood, or a mother who really messed up and isn’t sorry, or lost their mother way too soon, or never had one, I see you too. You are often the one mothering everyone else. I see you and that sad little girl inside of you and I am giving you both a hug. Today is a day to celebrate yourself and all you have survived. Do something nourishing for yourself and honor your inner child as well as yourself as a nurturer.

And to the planet that sustains all of us, because I didn’t do a good job of saying this on Earth Day AT ALL, I would like to wish a happy Mother’s Day to Mother Earth. I am always striving to figure out better ways to take care of you. It seems like the right thing to do in a world where we keep having babies that challenge your ability to sustain us all.

If you are an unsung hero of Mother’s Day, I hope this post makes you feel less alone. The truth is, a lot of us have tunnel vision about what it means to be a mother, what it means to sacrifice and love, and what it means to nurture and care for something or someone and put their needs before yours. You might have to celebrate yourself, write yourself your own note of appreciation, take yourself to the beach. But I absolutely give you permission to do this, because you ARE that important and needed. You are loved. I appreciate you. Happy Mother’s Day.