Interrupting the Cycle of Pain

If you have experienced chronic pain, you are not alone. Each year millions of Americans seek treatment for chronic pain, pain that continues for more than six months. Chronic pain is no longer viewed as a symptom, but as an illness in itself. Things we take for granted, such as eating, sleeping, dressing, walking, laughing, working, and socializing may be lost to a person with chronic pain. Frequently, no physical cause can be established, or the initial injury has healed, but the pain persists and generally worsens over time. Nonetheless, each person’s pain is both real and unique.

It is important that the patient is believed. Some doctors do not take the patient’s physical complaints seriously and blame their treatment failures on the patient. An occasional headache, stomach ache or muscle spasm may occur in reaction to a stressful situation, but the symptom usually resolves quickly, sometimes just from the doctor’s reassurance that there is nothing seriously wrong. However, when pain persists, more often the patient’s emotions are a reaction to the physical pain, rather than the reverse.

The cycle of pain involves the physical body and the mental/emotional body; symptoms of each reinforce the other. The body and mind experience injury and pain as a threat, sending the sympathetic nervous system into a fight or flight response, involving electrical and chemical changes that alter heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, body temperature, and muscle tension. Pain signals to immobilize the affected area. The body tightens, the breath shortens, and a “whole” mental/physical reaction sets in. Accompanying emotions, ranging from mild concern to extreme fear – fear of pain, disability, loss of function, or even death – exacerbate the pain. So the patient seeks medical attention and receives hope, medication, and/or treatment, and then usually improves. But if pain returns, so does fear, anxiety, guilt, and anger. When the pain is not relieved, or only temporarily abated, there is greater alarm, setting up a negative feedback loop, perpetuating emotional reactivity.

Certain personality types experience chronic pain as especially difficult. For those who see themselves as strong and invulnerable, their entire self-image is threatened. Pleasers, and people who have been abused, tend to react to pain passively. Their feelings of helplessness and victimization paralyze their ability to help themselves and seek effective professional care. Others blame themselves. In fact, interviews with amputee Israel soldiers revealed that nearly all blamed themselves for their injury, thinking, “if only I had . . . (behaved differently),” despite the fact that the enemy was clearly responsible. Perfectionists and over-achievers also fall into this group. They think in all or nothing terms, and feel like failures when they are not productive and at their best. In time, there may again be an improvement and more activity.

Usually, with the lessening of pain, the patient is overactive to make up for lost time, followed by another flare-up. Now, s/he becomes increasingly focused on the pain and fearful of physical activity, instinctively guarding the affected part of the body, and alert to anything that might trigger another episode of pain. When the pain doesn’t relent, the patient enters a stage of constant anxiety. This hyper-vigilance contracts not only the mind, but also the body, which increases the pain. In some cases, just thinking about and describing the pain increase muscle tension. Restorative sleep and the body’s PH, blood flow, hormones, and brain chemicals are negatively affected, compromising the body’s ability to regulate homeostasis and pain.

Eventually, the patient’s mind, body and entire life contract, making relaxation and healing nearly impossible. This is why early intervention to reduce the patient’s pain and anxiety is vital in order to interrupt the cycle and to avoid long-term chronicity and debilitation. Without relief, muscles lose tone and posture is altered in the patient’s attempt to avoid pain, contributing to muscle spasm, weakness, imbalance, and shortening. The pain begins to spread, as the myofascial sheath tightens around regions of the body, restricting movement and sending pain from head to toe. Over time, muscles atrophy, bone deteriorates and the immune system weakens, making the body vulnerable to disease.

The patient becomes caught in a downward spiral of depression. A once-active person is now lonely and withdrawn from normal social life, and may have even become chemically dependent as well. The emotional and physical strain of frustration and the loss of confidence, work, and social contacts result in low self-esteem, grief, and hopelessness, all of which magnify the patient’s perception of pain. Patients often search unsuccessfully for doctors who can alleviate their misery, while simultaneously are distrustful and phobic of pain and change. Unconsciously, they may be seeking confirmation that no one can help.

To extricate patients from this morass, a comprehensive plan addressing their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs is required. Medication alone can be detrimental, because it builds dependency on the drug and doctor, without encouraging the patient to become actively engaged in learning skills to understand and reduce their pain and live a fuller life. The first essential ingredient is a support system. The caregivers’ personality and ability to generate a safe environment are just as important as their professional experience.

Today there are numerous allopathic and alternative treatment modalities available. Many may provide only temporary relief or none at all. Only the patient can assess whether a treatment is both suitable and effective. Commitment to treatment may be difficult, particularly when there are pain flare-ups. These flare-ups should be normalized as an inevitable part of the healing process, particularly when the patient’s activities begin to increase.

The patient must take an active role in determining what works and what doesn’t, both in terms of treatment and the patient’s own activities. Through journaling and discussion, s/he can be helped to sort this out and to incorporate the positive into his or her life. A corollary principle is that patients learn to focus on what they can do, rather than on what they can’t, and at the same time, not deny their limitations, and do too much. When patients participate in their recovery, they regain a greater sense of control, and feelings of helplessness and depression diminish.

Finding pleasurable activities within the patient’s limits is very important. Small steps, such as listening to music, arranging flowers, helping someone else, or enjoying a special food, movie or book serve as a distraction from pain, and gradually lift the patient’s self-esteem and mood, which further reduces pain. Creative activities that stimulate the intuitive “feminine” or “yin” side of the psyche, are particularly relaxing and healing. Pleasurable and soothing sensations, such as gentle massage, holding, rocking and stroking, activate the patient’s own healing mechanisms and remind and reassure the body that it is safe to relax, in the same way that a horse whisperer tames a wild horse. This begins to break the cycle of anxiety and create a safe internal healing environment.

Relaxation techniques, including breathing, sounding, biofeedback, hypnosis, and visualization are all useful in calming the body/mind. Of course, good nutrition and adequate sleep are essential. It’s vitally important that patients understand and express their feelings, ideally in individual psychotherapy as well as in a group. Patients who have been isolated need individual support to “en-courage” them to re-enter the world and reach out to others. They can benefit from group interaction. Cognitive-behavioral changes, along with improved communication skills, build self-esteem and reduce emotional reactivity in interpersonal relationships.

As patients become more hopeful and assertive, they experience less pain and are better able to find and benefit from effective treatment. Increased social activities and a daily exercise regime, in order to build endurance, strength, and flexibility, should be encouraged. As the patient’s mood normalizes and pain lessens, s/he can eliminate unnecessary medications, but even if patients continue to experience pain, they needn’t suffer and can learn to lead fuller, more rewarding lives. Though this challenge may seem daunting, these goals are attainable over time. I know. After fourteen years of chronic pain, and unable to walk for four years, I regained my ability to walk, even dance, without pain.

Copyright, Darlene Lancer, M.A., MFT, 2001 Published in Many Voices, February, 2003

Relationship as a Spiritual Path

What makes us “spiritual” beings? The concept of spirituality is derived from “spiritus,” meaning vitality or breath of life.  When we are connected to that force, like an electric charge, our soul awakes; the more we stay connected to that energy, the stronger and more alive is our soul. Our relationships present a constant opportunity to tap into this power.

Spiritual Principles

Consider spiritual ideals, such as faith, truth, surrender, patience, and compassion.  As we practice these principals in our relationships, they have a synergistic effect, reinforcing one another and strengthening us.


that we will not disintegrate from loneliness, fear, shame, or rejection allows us to risk separateness from our partner.  Faith in a higher power makes it possible to surrender our well-being and self-esteem to something other than another person.


With faith, we gain the courage to be truthful at the risk of losing the relationship.  This builds a more resilient sense of self. Honest expression of our vulnerability also allows unconditional love to be present, generating healing and strengthening the soul. Reciprocally, when unconditional love is present, it is safe to tell the truth. Each time we risk being vulnerable, more freedom and trust grow in the relationship. Our ability to risk grows, and we achieve deeper levels of self-acceptance and compassion.  Our anxiety and the need for defensive behaviors that cause problems in relationships lessen. In this way, we become more present, and our lives become more rich and vital.


Acceptance and the ability to surrender require patience, which comes from faith. If we want to relinquish manipulating and controlling our relationships, we must have the confidence to wait.


Compassion develops from surrendering the demands of the ego, from self-knowledge, and ultimately from self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is essential for satisfying relationships, in that we can only accept and have compassion for our partner to the degree to which we accept and have compassion for ourselves. We begin to understand our partner’s struggles and become less reactive, making it safer for both to be vulnerable.


Relationship can be an exciting path to the unknown. It is a path of self-discovery and ultimately the divine, as we open ourselves to one another. This requires courage. Our fears and defenses get activated, and we end up hurting the relationship in our attempts to maintain it. But if realize that we are both on a path of mutual discovery, open and honest communication can replace attempts to manipulate and control.

When our attitude is one of acceptance, rather than clinging and expectation, then unconditional love is possible. The relationship becomes a haven for two souls to experience themselves and each other in a space of love, respect, and freedom.

As we learn to give loving, non-interfering attention and communicate truthfully, a safe, healing environment of unconditional love is created, where we can let down our defenses. Being in its presence feels exhilarating if we are not trying to hide. Such intimacy supports our wholeness. By risking defenselessness, we begin to see ourselves and others more clearly, and our past conditioning and emotional blocks are released.

We uncover who we truly are, our divinity, in the intimate presence of another and realize that we are enough – that our wholeness and self-acceptance don’t depend on what others think, but on self-awareness. We discover that our defenses, which we thought kept us safe and made us strong, only fortify feelings of inadequacy, and become obstacles to intimacy, growth, and real inner strength. Trusting our vulnerability, we hesitatingly walk through our fears. They evaporate and we become stronger.

Such a relationship requires two people committed to a spiritual process, a willingness to experience the pain of working through old programming, and trust that if we are honest with each other, a healthy relationship will flourish, and an inappropriate one will end.

Darlene Lancer, Copyright, 2007
See the 2019 revised blog post of this article.
First Published in Whole Life Times, February, 1992

Growing Through Divorce

At least half of us have or will, somehow, survive divorce. Although divorce no longer shameful as it once was, many people still feel guilty about their “failed” marriage or marriages. In any case, divorce is painful. It ranks just above death in the severity of stress and is often combined with other stressors, such as marital discord, serious financial problems, a move, single parenting, multiple losses, and litigation, all at once. Divorce is a life cycle crisis that is unpredictable, and unlike other transitions, there still is no social protocol for the divorcees and their friends – no greeting cards, no rules, nor role models for the spouses, grandparents, and stepparents. This ambiguity aggravates an already stressful situation. Divorce presents a crucial period of increased vulnerability and heightened potential. The process, though difficult, can be an edifying experience when carried out with conscious awareness. This is not easy when emotions run high, but it is extremely rewarding, because, in the long run, you feel better, and secondly, you learn from the experience and don’t have to repeat the same mistakes.

Divorce is a process of several stages: Cognitive, emotional, physical, legal, and spiritual. Although this might be the most desirable order, it is not always, or even usually, what happens. This is why we see the “Divorce Court” melodrama -couples who are trying to make the legal separation while they are still emotionally caught up in the drama of their relationship. They haven’t separated emotionally, though they may be physically apart. It is the emotional separation that is the cornerstone for transformation, which I will discuss last.

Prior to the cognitive stage, the family has lived with marital problems for some time, and often in denial. Marital discord may have increased, or it may have gone underground, while maintaining the facade of an intact family. The couple may have avoided their problem, and focused on work, a new baby, a child, or some other problem. If they didn’t seek therapy, one or both spouses began to protectively, emotionally withdraw, which upsets the family system even more. Gradually one or both spouses become willing to risk going into the unknown and pain of divorce – it appears preferable to the pain they are already in. To the extent this determination is made with emotional consciousness, that is with an awareness of their grief, guilt, and fears, the more they have begun to emotionally unbond from their spouse, and the better prepared they are to move through the next stages.

The cognitive or mental separation is not so much a decision to divorce, as a setting of intention. It usually long precedes the actual decision, as well as the emotional and physical separation. Generally, people set goals or a course of intent, before they are emotionally and physically ready to carry them out, such as a job change, a move, or even getting out of bed in the morning. This intent sets the keel in a direction for events to follow.

The cognitive separation may seem relatively painless, but it usually follows a long period of frustration and unhappiness. The intent to separate may or may not be expressed, or even consciously acknowledged. Some will protest that they never wanted a divorce, blaming it on their spouse, all the while precipitating or allowing the marital break-up, and provoking or permitting their spouse to carry it out. In other cases, it is amazing to see the synchronicity with which couples agree to divorce; often each silently comes to their moment of resolve, only to hear the words uttered by their spouse.

The open acknowledgment of this intention and the decision to divorce marks the beginning of the physical and legal process of separation. Once the decision is verbalized, the coping behavior and degree of crisis experienced will vary depending on the degree of preparation. Naturally, it is optimal if the family can and has been talking openly, and can problem-solve the anticipated changes and solutions without anger. If so, they probably were already in therapy, or they will manage without it. More often, there is high dysfunction and open communication never existed or has previously broken down. Where there is no talking, the fear and anger are intensified and reactivity escalates.

If the decision wasn’t gradually and mutually arrived at, the spouse left will be less prepared, and experience greater anger and depression; the one leaving feels guilty. Both still have ambivalent, though often unconscious, feelings of love and hate which intensify their reactivity. At this point, confusion sets in, old roles and rules and parenting begin to deteriorate.

The physical separation is simply that; however, couples may continually reunite until the emotional divorce is complete. Although some couples separate with no intent to divorce, usually physical separation is a necessary precursor to completing the emotional separation. In some cases, separation may, in fact, be a defensive reaction to the need for emotional connection – a sort of cold turkey abstinence. Often neither spouse wants to leave, and the question of who will vacate the family residence is frequently the first heated legal dispute. Both may be in denial about the actual consequences of their decision to divorce, may not have emotionally separated, and may not be prepared to undertake a new life on their own. Especially if one spouse still wants to be married and is angry or feels like the victim of his or her mate, s/he will resist any change in lifestyle, and demand: “Why should I have to move out (or lose my home); it was he who found someone else?” or “Just because now she wants to be independent, why should I give up the home I worked so hard for?” They are unaware that they also have contributed, either actively or passively, to the deterioration of their marriage.

Sometimes a court hearing has been calendared on this issue before the couple is ready to separate. The adversarial win-lose nature of the legal system often divides spouses into two camps. This is also when the divorce becomes public to family and friends, whose reactions may be supportive or may further polarize the couple. Where children are involved, the ultimate custody arrangement should be taken into consideration in deciding who should vacate the family residence, because the short-term arrangement will impact the final decision. More importantly, it is disruptive and stressful for children to move, so that unnecessary moves back and forth should be avoided.

Moreover, there are financial ramifications as to mortgage financing and whether the residence will be sold. Consequently, unless a spouse or children are in physical danger, it is preferable to continue the hearing and prolong legal intervention until their new reality has been integrated and emotional reactions are more manageable. This allows sufficient time to adjust to the idea of the physical separation, as well as to sort out these other issues.

Divorce may be the most traumatic crisis in this person’s life. Confusion, mood swings, and strong emotions, such as fear, guilt, lust, rage, jealousy, resentment and grief are “normal” during this period. Such feelings naturally obstruct the thinking process and make it difficult for a spouse to make wise decisions. Individual psychological counseling can provide support, facilitate decision-making, and accelerate a successful adjustment to the future.

Professional help is particularly indicated if there has been domestic violence, substance abuse or children are at risk, or where a spouse shows signs of major depression, such as sleep and appetite disturbances, prolonged crying, apathy, and difficulty working. Marital counseling can also be valuable, either to salvage the relationship or to help the couple achieve clarity in their decision to end the marriage, and to emotionally separate in a manner that will facilitate the legal process, stabilize their relationship, and maximize their post-divorce adjustment. In fact, whenever possible, it is advantageous to utilize other professional resources. If a spouse is confused or indecisive regarding his or her anticipated financial needs, a consultation with a financial planner or accountant is a must. There are numerous free support groups, such as Divorce Anonymous, Alcoholics and Cocaine Anonymous, Al-Anon, Parents Without Partners, Parents Anonymous (for child abuse), and others.

Upon separation, feelings generally are still ambivalent; many couples attempt to reconcile from one to three times, and sixteen percent continue to have sex. More than two-thirds would call their spouse first in a crisis. This creates a constant state of disequilibrium. With one parent coming and going, the family cannot reorganize to establish new roles and boundaries in regard to money, living space, household responsibilities, dating, and parenting. Once the family does so, the new system will resist reentry of the non-custodial parent.

Initially, some spouses may experience separation as a relief from the family tension. Parents often reverse roles. One who was over-functioning becomes irresponsible; the under-functioning spouse tries to be the perfect mom or dad. After a few months, the legal and economic realities of legal fees, maintaining two households, dividing property and determining child custody and visitation arrangements increase the stress and emotional reactivity. In the first six months of separation, women are more prone to symptoms of depression, such as poor health, loneliness, work inefficiency, insomnia, memory difficulties, and increased substance abuse. Studies show that men feel empty, guilty, anxious, depressed, deep loss, and strong dependency needs of which they were theretofore unaware. Although initially, the person left feels worse, over time the impact is the same on both spouses.

During the first year both parents continue to feel anxious, angry, depressed, rejected, and incompetent. Women feel more helpless, vulnerable, and low self-esteem, while men tend to work harder, sleepless, and function ineffectively. These feelings are more intense in older spouses and longer marriages. Both spouses have almost twice as many car accidents and three times as many traffic citations as before the separation.

Domestic disorganization continues sometimes after the first year or longer until boundaries and new rules are established, redefining a new, non-intimate, co-parent relationship between the parents and independent parental relationships with the children. The custodial parent may take on dual parenting roles, and the children, particularly boys, challenge the new regime, especially single mothers. Children may fill-in adult responsibilities. The non-custodial parent must adjust to the lost time with the children, as well as loss of control. In more dysfunctional families, the system may close out one parent entirely. This appears to be a good solution to constant conflict, but it actually causes the parents and children greater stress and depression and may have a severe impact on the children’s development.

Although stress reaches a peak at eighteen months, particularly for women, who may still experience daily mood swings, by the end of the second year, the legal and economic issues are usually settled. Adjustment will be greatest where the family has been able to establish a bi-nuclear, co-parenting arrangement. This will depend on the parent’s emotional reactivity to each other and ability to maintain a child-centered relationship. By now both spouses begin to seek sexual relationships, which is particularly difficult for the single parent of young children. When a parent remarries, it is helpful to the children if the stepparent is integrated into the parental system with the ex-spouse.

The legal dissolution is the socio-economic and cultural separation. As a lawyer and therapist, it is at once apparent to me that unresolved emotional conflicts fuel adversarial posturing. The legal divorce can be a long, drawn-out battle, in which couples stay connected through their anger by breaking agreements and violating court orders, or by taking either intransigent or ever-changing positions.

The emotional separation is the difficult period where couples get an opportunity to work through their karma – hopefully, learn lessons they need not repeat. This process may commence prior to the cognitive separation, and may not necessarily lead to divorce. In fact, if these changes are worked through as a couple, they may actually result in a more healthy and satisfying relationship. It is when the marriage is not flexible enough to absorb the changes, or when either or both partners discover that their needs will not be met by the other, that the unbonding process continues towards further separation.

The task of emotional separation involves unbonding the romantic and dependent aspects of the relationship and mourning those losses. This is the stage where the process of growth and transformation unfolds. It includes the disengagement of the couple’s games, role definitions, and family expectations. This means really understanding why they selected their partner, why they stay, and understanding the “dance” they both do over and over that doesn’t work. Growth comes from taking responsibility for participation in the marital problems, rather than blaming their mate or themselves, and, finally changing that “dance.” It may mean seeing their partner clearly for the very first time, and it means risking new behavior, some of which may be very scary. It is also risky because it will undoubtedly meet resistance from their mate, since they are changing the dance steps, and refusing to do the old routine.

It will be different for everyone, but some examples of new behavior might be for a passive spouse to get angry, or for a volatile partner to good-humoredly walk away from an argument; for each to ask for what they really want and need from the other; to do something important for themselves, even though their partner is against it; refusing to any longer tolerate some unacceptable behavior of their spouse that they’ve complained about forever; to take a solo vacation; or to refuse to do something they felt obligated to do, but have always resented. So in emotionally unbonding, people really do become different, in the sense that they have a choice of new responses and behaviors.

The emotional conflict between the spouses and these old behavior patterns really represents the inner unresolved conflicts that they carry from childhood, which get played out between them. So changing the old patterns of responding is also scary, because they were learned through interactions with their parents at an age when they believed they had no other choices, such as the risk of standing up to an abusive parent. Unresolved pain and anger toward a parent can keep a spouse tied to a similar mate. One woman kept marrying men who had affairs, until she was willing to face her buried feelings towards her father, who had been unfaithful to her mother. Sometimes the behavior is directed toward the children. One couple had no complaints until the children arrived, when the father began abusing the children, repeating the abusive parenting he had received. It is working through these conflicts that frees us from repeating them in another relationship.

If the unbonding process is not successfully traversed, a premature physical and/or legal separation is no growth at all. The couple’s emotional connections will undermine the attempts to separate. This stems from the struggle to separate from their parents – an uncompleted earlier task. The divorce may be their first act of that separation. These couples are highly reactive and co-dependent. Many are still “married,” years after the formal divorce, if only to maintain contact through court battles, or alternatively, ritualistically celebrating holidays together (“for the children’s sake”). Rather than go through the pain of separation, couples persist in having ambivalent feelings and repeatedly try to reconcile over many years. Such couples are deeply emotionally and sexually bonded and maintain idealized images of one another.

One couple, divorced many years, lived in separate houses on the same property, but the reality of each other fueled their continued legal hostilities and helped to keep them apart. Some couples maintain the bond by depending upon their ex-spouse for physical or emotional support. Another pair lived as neighbors, but could not separate too far, because she needed to rescue him from his depressions, and he needed to drive her around. Sometimes these spouses complain that their mates are verbally abusive, but they nevertheless maintain contact by subtle encouragement or by not setting limits. One woman clung to the hope of reconciliation, despite the fact that her ex-husband repeatedly told her how happy he was with his new mate; and despite her anger, he confided in his ex regularly, drove her to appointments and helped her with chores.

Part of working through the emotional divorce is accepting and mourning the losses that accompany divorce. Divorce represents loneliness, change of lifestyle, imagined losses of what might have been, and of memories of what once was, as well as real losses on every front, such as a home, family, children, financial, and often friends and in-laws. It may entail a move to a different city or school, a job change, or a homemaker going back to school or entering the workforce for the first time. These changes are also stressful, because the transition to the unfamiliar provokes anxiety and fears. Divorce can also shatter a spouse’s self-esteem and identity, as a wife, a husband, and possibly as a father or mother.

In order to bolster their self-esteem, some difficult spouses continue to argue, resisting compromise and escalating disputes. They are really fighting for validation because they feel disrespected or devalued. Rather than taking responsibility for their contribution to the marital break-up, which would threaten their self-esteem, they project all of the bad onto their spouse and see themselves as good and superior. Sometimes both spouses feel victimized and see the other as all bad. They act self-righteous and are unwilling to accommodate the needs and schedules of their spouse and children. Unfortunately, too often attorneys become pawns and act-out their clients’ rage.

Divorce also rekindles the pain associated with past losses, such as an abortion, a death, immigration, or their own parents’ divorce. One man so idealized his father, who died when he was only four years old, that when his son reached four, he not only divorced, but moved out of state. The proximity to his ex-wife was not as painful as the hidden painful memory of his father’s abandonment and the prospect of tarnishing his father’s reputation by meeting his own son’s needs. Many times, there have been both a prior loss and a lack of separation from a parent, as in the case of a woman who was overly close with her mother following the death of her father. With such spouses the threat of loss is overwhelming. They may create disputes and obstacles to settlement in order to postpone the divorce, thereby avoiding their grief, feelings of helplessness, emptiness, and abandonment. Anger helps them to separate, yet on-going fighting is a way of staying in contact.

Often, spouses fluctuate between attachment and separation, sometimes being compliant, then resistant. They cannot cooperate without feeling they are giving up a part of themselves. For example, everything can be agreed upon but one insignificant item – one piece of art, or custody on Halloween. One couple had everything worked out; the father would pay for the children’s daycare, named in the agreement. When the facility unexpectedly went out of business, dad refused to pay for an alternative daycare and instead wanted to take custody.

This endless struggle for control over every last detail represents the spouses’ last-ditch effort to avoid the finality of the marriage and the pain of separation and abandonment. In therapy, spouses can work through their fears of separation, and earlier losses. They learn to distinguish the earlier trauma from the present and resolve their anger and grief towards their parents, which helps them to heal and move on. Much of this work can precede the physical and legal divorce and smooth the way.

When a couple consciously works through the emotional divorce and unbonding, the drama subsides and marital structure gradually falls away, although they may still esteem one another, or love each other in the spiritual sense. The spiritual stage is distinguished from the emotional separation, in that strong emotions, either positive or negative, are absent; instead, it is marked by feelings of unconditional love and caring. Generally, by the third year most spouses have formed new lasting relationships, and emotional functioning has returned to the pre-divorce level. The non-custodial parent has become more comfortable with the children, more assertive, or has become more distant, and the custodial parent shows more consistent discipline and affection. The children return to the normal process of growing up, unless the parents are still at war, which arrests their emotional development.

During times of transition, it is helpful to contemplate the Chinese ideogram for crisis, which represents both danger and opportunity. Loosening our attachments to the things we hold most dear allows for more space and flow within us, the possibility of new experiences, and the opportunity to meet as yet unknown and parts of ourselves. Carl Jung is reported to have congratulated his friend when he was fired, saying, “Let’s open a bottle of wine; this is wonderful news; something good will happen now.”

Copyright, Darlene Lancer, 2004 Growing Through Divorce (abbreviated version) first appeared in The California Therapist, July, 1991; (Adaptation for Attorneys: Understanding the Process of Divorce – And the Perils of Family Law, Family Law News and Review, Feb., 1992)

Parenting after Divorce

  1. Tell your children the truth, with simple explanations. Tell them where the other parent is.
  2. Refrain from bringing up grievances or speaking derogatorily about the other parent to or in front of your children.
  3. Don’t discuss financial, legal, or other disputes with your children.
  4. Refrain from saying anything, which might discourage your children from spending time with the other parent, and from pressuring them to take sides.
  5. Reassure them that they will be taken care of, and be safe and secure; even though marital love may end, parent love endures.
  6. Spend as much time as possible with each child individually.
  7. Keep agreements you make with the other parent, and be reliable and prompt, enabling the children to feel they can depend on and trust both parents.
  8. Avoid scheduling activities for the children, which may conflict with the visitation schedule, and if unable to keep the scheduled arrangements, notify the other parent as soon as possible.
  9. Don’t use your children to get back at or send messages to your ex-spouse. Children in the crossfire get terribly wounded.
  10. Children may feel responsible for the divorce or may try to bring parents back together. Let them know they are not to blame and that your decision is final.
  11. Divorcing parents may feel guilty and overindulgent. Set limits with your children.
  12. Continue to be the parent and seek other adults to fill your relationship needs. Don’t allow your child to become “man of the house” or “little mother”.
  13. Arrange for both parents to be notified and be authorized to act in an emergency. Keep the other parent, school and daycare advised of your current residence address and telephone numbers.
  14. Avoid arguments, fights, and threats in the presence of your children, as they frighten and damage them.
  15. You will continue to be parents throughout your life, so not only honor your agreement, live up to the underlying spirit of cooperation, making an effort to set aside your personal feelings towards the other parent and maintain an attitude of tolerance and flexibility.
  16. Be patient with yourself and your children. Know that at this difficult time you are entitled to reach out for help and support.

The Relationship Duet

The Dance of Intimacy

The relationship duet is the dance of intimacy that all couples do. If one partner moves in, the other backs-up. Partners reverse roles as well, but always maintain a certain space between them. The unspoken agreement is that the Pursuer chases the Distancer forever, but never catch-up, and that the Distancer keep running, but never really get away. What is happening is a negotiation of the emotional space between them. We all have needs for both autonomy and intimacy – independence and dependency, yet we simultaneously all fear both being abandoned (acted by the Pursuer), and being too close (acted by the Distancer).

Thus, we have the dilemma of intimacy: How can we be close enough to our partner to feel secure and safe, without feeling threatened by too much closeness? The less room there is to navigate this distance, the more difficult the relationship. The greater sense of self a person has, the more flexible and comfortable s/he is with greater distance and greater closeness. There is less anxiety, and hence less demand on the relationship to accommodate a narrow comfort zone.


Research suggests that intimacy problems originate in the early relationship between the mother and infant. Babies and toddlers are dependent on the mothers’ empathy and regard for their needs and emotions in order to sense their “selves,” to feel whole. To an infant or toddler, emotional or physical abandonment, whether through neglect, illness, divorce or death, threatens its existence, because of its dependency on the mother for validation and development of wholeness. Later, as an adult, being alone or separations in intimate relationships are experienced as painful reminders of the earlier loss.

If the mother is ill, depressed, or lacks wholeness and self-esteem, there are no boundaries between her and her child. Rather than responding to her child, she projects, and sees her child only as an extension of herself, as an object to meet her own needs and feelings. She can’t value her child as a separate “self.” The child’s boundaries are violated, and its autonomy, feelings, thoughts, and/or body, are disrespected. Consequently, the child does not develop a healthy sense of self. Instead, the child discovers that love and approval come with meeting the mother’s needs, and tunes into the mother’s responses and expectations. The child learns to please, perform, and/or rebel, but in either case gradually tunes out its own thoughts, needs, and/or feelings.

Later, intimacy may threaten the adult’s sense of autonomy or identity, or he or she may feel invaded, engulfed, controlled, shamed, and/or rejected. A person may feel both abandoned if his or her feelings and needs are not responded to, and at the same time, engulfed by the needs of his or her partner. In co-dependent relationships where partners lack self-esteem, true intimacy isn’t possible, because the fears of nonexistence and dissolution are so strong, and because there are not two separate, whole people coming together.

Coping Strategies

Our defenses are the way as children we learned to behave in order to feel safe, without risking this abandonment or annihilation. As adults, these behaviors create problems and result in miscommunication. For instance, if you repress your anger to ensure closeness, you stand a good chance of alienating your partner, unaware that you may be expressing your anger indirectly. If you ignore your partner in order to create distance, you inadvertently devalue him or her, creating another problem.

Change and growth come in discovering your coping strategies and learning new responses and behaviors. Ask yourself: How do I create space in my relationships? How do I protect my autonomy? Do you criticize, blame, emotionally withdraw or use substances (e.g., food, drugs, alcohol) to create space, be left alone, or lessen intense feelings. Or do you avoid closeness or openness by joking around, showing off, giving advice or by talking about others or impersonal subjects? Do you get overly involved with people outside your partnership (e.g., children, friends, affairs), or activities (e.g., work, sports, gambling, shopping)? These activities dilute the intimacy in the relationship.

n the other hand, ask: How do I create closeness? How do I ensure that I will be loved and not abandoned? Do you try to create closeness by giving up your autonomy, hobbies, friends or interests, by never disagreeing, by being seductive, or by care-taking and pleasing others?

When these behaviors are operating without awareness, you are not coming from a place of choice. When this happens you cannot communicate effectively, nor take into consideration your needs and the needs of your partner. Instead, the relationship is based upon unconscious manipulation of one another to meet your needs. This can trigger your partner’s defensive reactions.

Disowned Selves

Relationships can serve as mirrors for unacknowledged or “disowned” parts of ourselves. Often people attract their opposite into their lives to make them whole. The Pursuer is unconscious that s/he is also afraid of closeness, but relies on the Distancer to achieve enough space for the Pursuer’s needs for autonomy and independence. Similarly, the Distancer is afraid of abandonment, but cannot experience the wish for emotional closeness as his or her own. S/he would feel too vulnerable, so s/he needs a Pursuer to satisfy her or his intimacy needs.

The Distancer says of the Pursuer: “She (or He) is too demanding, too dependent, too emotional, or too needy.” And wonders “Can I love? Am I selfish? What I give seems never enough.”

The Pursuer says about the Distancer: “He (or She)is selfish, inconsiderate, inflexible, emotionally withdrawn, has to have things his way.” And wonders “Is there something wrong with me? Aren’t I lovable (pretty, thin, successful, smart) enough?”

They each blame one another and themselves. The Distancer feels guilty for not meeting the other’s needs, and the Pursuer feels angry for not getting his or her own needs met. In reality, the Distancer judges the part of him or herself that is needy, dependent, and vulnerable, and the Pursuer judges the part of him or herself that is selfish and independent, but each sees the part they don’t accept in themselves projected onto the other. Both need to embrace the dependent and independent, feminine and masculine, parts of themselves.


The key to breaking this polarization is by becoming conscious of our needs and feelings, and risking what we fear most. It requires awareness of our coping behaviors and resisting the impulse to withdraw or pursue. It takes tremendous courage not to run when we feel too close, and not to pursue when we feel abandoned, but instead, learn to acknowledge and tolerate the emotions that arise. This may trigger very early feelings of shame, terror, grief, emptiness, despair, and rage. With the help of a therapist, these feelings can be separated from the present circumstance, in which as adults our survival is no longer at stake. As the feelings are worked through, a less reactive, stronger sense of self develops, one that is not easily threatened or overwhelmed.

Partners can learn from each other and acknowledge and embrace their disowned needs. The Pursuer can emulate the Distancer’s ability to set limits, to take care of his/her own needs, to prioritize, to be less personally involved. The Distancer can learn from the Pursuer’s flexibility, ability to reach out and ask, to feel others, and to blend boundaries. Each person must take responsibility for him or herself, rather than relying on their partner to take care of his or her needs for closeness or distance. The Pursuer must risk saying “No,” and tolerate the anxiety of separation, saying, “I can’t help you – I need to be alone.” The Distancer must risk saying, “I miss you, I need you.” In the movie, “The Doctor,” William Hurt plays a busy, successful doctor, whose wife feels neglected and abandoned. It’s only when Hurt gets brain cancer that he finally acknowledges and risks telling his wife that he needs her.

Each must learn to ask for togetherness and space directly, without feeling guilty, or controlling or blaming each other. When each is able to say, “Yes” and say “No,” without the fear of being overwhelmed by intimacy or abandoned by separation, they won’t trigger each other’s defensive reaction. When they are conscious of their individual needs, they can acknowledge their partner’s needs with respect. They can empathetically hear each other, and wait to have their need satisfied: “I understand and hear your need and its importance to you, but this is also important to me — can we find a way to compromise?” As couples do this, they will have more authentic intimacy, instead of being locked into an unconscious duet of approach-avoidance.

Relationship can be an exciting path to the unknown. But it requires courage – courage to open yourself up and to experience pain. The rewards are worth it, because it is a path of self-discovery and ultimately the divine as we open ourselves to one another. Just as the transition from dependence to independence can be frightening, so is the transition from independence to interdependence. Yet, it is an essential process in order to heal our wounds, become free of our past, our conditioning, and our defenses, to allow us to truly live in the present.

Copyright, Darlene Lancer, 1992

Recovery in the Twelve Steps

How They Work

Many therapists do not understand the Twelve-Step recovery process, unless they have participated in a 12-Step program. Although they may encourage their clients to do so, they may feel perplexed or intimated, or act patronizing. Often, therapists don’t realize that the 12-Steps are not merely an antidote for addiction, but are guidelines for nothing less than a total personality transformation. Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was influenced by Carl Jung, whom he wrote seeking treatment for alcoholism. Jung replied that the cure would have to be a spiritual one – a power equal to the power of spiritus vivi, or alcohol. He thought that addicts were “misguided ‘seekers for the spirit,’ …in the world of Dionysus, the god of renewal through the light from below, from the earth rather than from the heavens…” (Whitmont, 227)

The Twelve Steps provide a spiritual remedy. They outline a process of surrender of the ego to the unconscious, God or a higher power, and very much resemble the process of transformation in Jungian therapy. Jung believed that unity and wholeness of the personality, which generates a sense of acceptance and detachment, occurs when both the conscious and unconscious demands are taken into account – when not the ego, but the Self, is at the center of consciousness. (Storr, 19) He wrote that his life was “a story of the self-realization of the unconscious,” and rediscovered, as suggested by the 12 Steps, that God was “a guiding principle of unity.” (Storr, 24-25)

The following is a summary of how the Steps work; however, any linear description is misleading, because, like transformation, the process is circular. Although these Steps apply to numerous addictions, whether to a person, a substance (e.g. alcohol, drugs, food), or a process (e.g., sex, gambling, debting), the focus here is on alcohol and drug addiction and the family members who are in a codependent relationship with the alcoholic/addict.

Facing the Problem

The beginning of recovery is acknowledging that there is a problem involving drugs or alcohol, that there is help outside oneself, and the willingness to utilize it. This also represents the beginning of hope and trust in something beyond oneself (such as a therapist, sponsor, or the program). Invariably, it has taken years to face the problem, but by opening a closed family system, and learning about addiction, denial starts to thaw.

The first part of “working the First Step” is an admission of powerlessness. Step 1 reads: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives have become unmanageable.” (Other words, such as “food”, “gambling” or “people, places and things” are often substituted for the word alcohol.) The substance abuser begins to understand s/he is powerless over drugs or alcohol, and the codependent slowly learns that she or he cannot control the substance abuser. The struggle not to drink and the codependent’s vigilance over the addict begin to slip away. Gradually, attention starts to shift from the substance, and, for the codependent, the substance abuser to focus on oneself. Before taking this Step, endless therapy sessions are spent by the alcoholic, wondering, “Why do I drink?” and the spouse complaining about the addict’s behavior.

There are deeper and deeper levels of working the First Step during recovery. The first stage is the acknowledgment that there is a problem with a substance; second, that it is a life-threatening problem over which one is powerless; and third, that actually the problem is not only with the substance, nor with the substance abuser or others, but lies in one’s own attitudes and behavior.


The acknowledgment of powerlessness leaves a void, which formerly was filled with a lot of mental and physical activity trying to control and manipulate the addiction or the substance abuser. Feelings of anxiety, anger, loss, emptiness, boredom, and depression arise. The emptiness that was masked by the addiction is now revealed. It is an awesome realization when you acknowledge that you or your loved one has a life-threatening addiction, subject only to a daily reprieve, over which you are powerless. Now, with a modicum of trust, and either out of desperation or faith, one acquires a willingness to turn to a power beyond oneself. This is Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, it states: “Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power–that One is God.” (p. 59). That power can also be a sponsor, therapist, the group, the therapy process or a spiritual power. In working the Steps, reality itself becomes a teacher, as one is asked to continually “turn over” (to that Power) an addiction, people and frustrating situations. More and more, the ego relinquishes control, as one begins to trust that Power, the growth process and life as well.


What has been happening up until now is an increasing awareness and observation of one’s dysfunctional behavior and addiction(s) – what is referred to as “insanity” in the Second Step. This is a crucial development, because it signifies the genesis of an observing ego. With this new tool, one begins to exercise some restraint over addictive and undesirable habits, words, and deeds. The Program works behaviorally as well as spiritually. Abstinence and forbearance from old behavior are accompanied by anxiety, anger, and a sense of loss of control. New, preferable attitudes and behavior (often called “contrary action”) feel uncomfortable and arouse other emotions, including fear and guilt. From a Jungian perspective, one’s “complexes” are being challenged:

“We regard and approach life in the light of our childhood values and conditioning, that is, in the light of our complexes. This would explain why our sense of being and of security are so tied to our familiar, personally-actualized frames of reference…Every challenge to our personal habit patterns and accustomed values is felt like nothing less than the threat of death and extinction of our selves. Invariably such challenges evoke reactions of defensive anxiety.” (Whitmont, 24).

Group support is important in reinforcing new behavior, because the emotions triggered by these changes are very powerful and can easily retard or arrest recovery. For the very same reasons, family, friends, and lovers may resist change in order to preserve the system’s homeostasis. The emotional discomfort may be so great that the substance abuser may revert to drinking or using.

The 12 Steps provide help in Step 3. Here one is asked to relinquish the ego’s central position as director, and to turn one’s life “over to the care of God as we understood God.” This is the practice of “letting go” and “turning it over,” meaning that one cannot control outcomes, others’ attitudes, and behaviors, nor daily frustrations that can trigger a relapse.

In Jungian therapy, the individual “comes to change his attitude from one in which ego and will are paramount to one in which he acknowledges that he is guided by an integrating factor which is not of his own making …named the Self – a ‘God-image,’ or at least indistinguishable from one.” (Storr, 19). The idea of surrender can be particularly frightening to someone – like many addicts – who have been traumatized by abuse or neglect. Building trust is a process, but as faith gradually grows, so does the ability to let go and move towards more functional behavior.

Inventory; Building Self-Esteem

Now with a bit more ego awareness, self-discipline, and faith, one is ready to review one’s past. This is Step 4. It requires a thorough examination (“a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”), with a view towards uncovering patterns of dysfunctional emotions and behavior, called “character defects.” The “exact nature of our wrongs” is then “admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being,” in Step 5.

For Jung, the shadow “is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego personality” (Storr, 91), and “no progress or growth in analysis is possible until (it) is adequately confronted.” (Whitmont, 165) “The shadow personifies everything that the client refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly and indirectly – for instance, inferior traits of character and other incompatible tendencies.” (Storr, 221) Awareness of the dark aspects of the personality, an essential condition for self-knowledge, requires “considerable moral effort,” and “painstaking work extending over a long period.” (Storr, 91). Individuals conscientious in working the Steps often do a few inventories with one or more sponsors over several years, each time experiencing greater honesty and insight.

Jung felt redemption was possible only by facing one’s “final guilt,” or “blackest shadow.” (Storr, 279, Whitmont, 226)) whether in therapy or with a sponsor, the process of self-disclosure in a non-judgmental environment required by Step 5 further develops self-esteem and an observing ego. Through conscious acknowledgment of one’s imperfections, one discovers his or her frailty and humanity. Guilt, resentments, and paralyzing shame begin to gently dissolve, and with it, the false self, self-loathing, and depression. For some, particularly people in therapy, this process involves recalling childhood pain and grief work, which is the beginning of empathy for oneself and others.

Self-acceptance and Transformation

The encounter with the shadow brings unavoidable conflict and pain. Following an acknowledgment of dysfunctional emotional and behavioral patterns, the person is still faced with the realization that awareness alone is not enough. Change doesn’t happen until old habits are replaced with healthier skills, and/or until the purposes they served are removed. With greater awareness, old behaviors become increasingly uncomfortable and no longer work.

This is the process of surrender described in Step 6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” It is similar to Step 3; however, Step 3 is more of a conscious decision and is usually associated with surrendering control over situations or things outside of oneself, while Step 6 underscores the psychological process of personal transformation that evolves throughout recovery. This Step represents a further development of self-acceptance and opens the door to change. Ideally, the person continues, pursuant to Step 10, to examine their patterns and “defects” with a sponsor or therapist as they show up on a daily basis, to better understand their feelings, motives, consequences, and other options.

Like the movie “Groundhog Day,” attempts to change can become frustrating. For as long as one furtively tries to change, and blames oneself in the process, no movement occurs – not until one gives up, in despair. Step 6 asks that one give up control and ego-clinging, and look for a source beyond oneself. Jung knew there was nothing to be done, but to “wait, with a certain trust in God, until out of a conflict borne with patience and fortitude, there emerges the solution destined.” (Storr, 281) Then one is “entirely ready.” There is a parallel in Jungian therapy, where a critical point is reached:

“We then discover to our dismay that our attempts to solve (our problems) by an effort of will avails us nothing, that our good intentions, as the saying goes, merely pave the way to hell…We are faced up against a paradox that discipline and conscious effort are indispensable but do not get us far enough in our really critical areas…A resolution of this seemingly hopeless impasse eventually occurs by virtue of the awareness that the ego’s claim of a capacity to control rests on an illusion…Then we have come to a point of acceptance that initiates a fundamental transformation of which we are the object, not the subject. Transformation of our personality occurs in us, upon us, but not by us. The unconscious changes itself and us in response to our awareness and acceptance of our station, of our cross…(We) are aware of our limitations, not merely intellectually but in the depths of our bowels, in our feelings and in our despair… The point of hopelessness, the point of no return, then is the turning point…The ways of resolution are usually those which conscious reason could never have discovered.” (Whitmont, 307-308).

This process of working with the shadow leads to the modesty needed to form relationships. “The perfect have no need of others, but weakness has, for it seeks support…” (Storr, 399-400) It is this humility in relation to God that is required by Step 7, which states: “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.”

Compassion for Others

The review of one’s shortcomings in Step 5 reveals one’s effect on others, and awakens empathy for those one has harmed. Steps 8 and 9 suggest that one make a list of those people to make direct amends to them. Jung advises that where it is not possible to restrain the expression of the shadow, we can at least mitigate it with an apology, rather than blame the other person. (Whitmont, 168) This builds humility and compassion, and self-esteem.

Tools for Daily Growth

Recovery and spiritual growth are never completed, but a continual process. The 12 Steps provide tools for this ongoing process. Steps 10, 11, and 12 are referred to as maintenance steps, and it is recommended that they are commenced early in recovery.

The 12-Step Programs emphasize moral behavior – doing the right thing. Rather than wait until one feels like doing the right thing, it is often said to: “Take the action, and the feelings will follow.” Jung believed that faith alone was empty and that the patient needed “justification by works.” He needs “to do the right thing…with all his might.” (Storr, 281)

Step 10 recommends one take an on-going inventory, and when wrong make prompt amends. This promotes self-responsibility and integrates awareness of the shadow on a daily basis to keep the slate clean in relationships with others.

“Guilt feelings…have to be dealt with by converting them into rational responsibility, by promoting the realization that a law of cause and effect is operating. When someone feels he is wrong or something is amiss, he does have something to do with it and it is his own personal responsibility to act and to control himself – even to change himself.” (Whitmont, 281)

Step 11 recommends meditation and prayer to improve “conscious contact with God.” This strengthens the relationship to the Self and increases Self-awareness. It promotes new behavior, by reducing reactivity and anxiety accompanying change, and by increasing tolerance for the experience of emptiness, which supports the Self as old behavior and ego structures fall away.

Step 12 recommends doing service and working with others, which reduces self-centeredness and enhances compassion. Additionally, sharing what one has learned is self-reinforcing. This Step also suggests practicing these principles in all areas of one’s life. This is a reminder that spirituality and growth cannot be practiced in only one segment of our life, without contamination from other areas. For example, dishonesty in any area undermines serenity and self-esteem, affecting all of one’s relationships. It also protects against the tendency of many people to switch addictions to deal with the anxiety and depression that can accompany abstinence.

Copyright, Darlene A. Lancer, 2004
Published in The Therapist, November, 2004

Alcoholic Anonymous World Services, Inc. (1976). Alcoholics Anonymous. New York, N.Y Storr, Anthony (1983) The Essential Jung, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University

Press.Whitmont, Edward C. (1969). The Symbolic Quest. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Light My Fire

Stimulating Seven Chakras

The creative life force sleeps within each of us like a coiled serpent, waiting to be unleashed to evolve humankind to the next level. Ancient Tantric practices awaken this energy, called kundalini, using the body, breath, sound, and visualizations to speed its journey to God-realization, not over many lifetimes, but potentially in your lifetime. People have three bodies: the physical body and its consciousness; the astral or subtle body, experienced as feelings and emotions; and the causal body, expressed as intelligence and wisdom. The seven chakras act as energy transformers for the three body/minds, each governing different functions. As each of the chakras is activated, the body/mind is purified, matter is spiritualized, and your consciousness is expanded. Gradually, energy moves from darkness, the negative pole, to light, the positive pole, and full consciousness at the seventh chakra. The process has been compared to psychoanalysis.

First Chakra; self-preservation

Muladhara chakra, at the coccyx, is a negative pole. At this level, you are wedded to establishment values. Security and self-preservation are predominant themes. Primitive energies, such as fright, fight, freeze, fawn, and flight are prevalent responses to being attacked or injured physically or psychologically. You experience intense global anxiety threatening annihilation. This chakra is related to paranoia, addiction, and extreme pathology, which may cause aggressiveness toward others. In the average person, such fears are more latent, but may nonetheless affect your life. Where these impulses are disowned, they are projected onto others as being hurtful. Growth begins as these fears become conscious, integrated, and transmuted. When unconscious impulses or memories are brought into conscious awareness, more energy is made available for higher functioning. When the sleeping serpent gradually awakes and rises up, you may begin to feel sensations of floating, bliss, and tingling and warmth at the base of the spine. Clairvoyance or clairaudience may appear.

Second Chakra; sensual pleasures

The second, Svadhisthana, is below the naval in the sacral nerve plexus above the genitals. Your senses and nervous system become more sensitive affecting you physically and emotionally. The focus is more on sexual and sensual pleasures, rather than defensive self-protection. Hence, there is greater interaction with others, albeit as sexual objects, and a wider range of emotion, although you are still controlled by unconscious impulses and appetites. These procreative energies are very powerful, and if not expressed, sublimated, or directed upwards, they can be physically and mentally very uncomfortable. Meditation and Tantric sexual practices provide methods for channeling the kundalini to higher centers.

This chakra is considered the seat of the unconscious, and once opened, you may be flooded by powerful emotions, often conflicting. All of your past conditioning and patterns are revealed ane acted out, and, if not analyzed or worked through with increasing consciousness, the kundalini will descend. Higher transpersonal levels of consciousness can only be attained after your personal subconscious has been successfully explored and integrated. There are warnings that unless you have sufficient ego strength, character, and faith in God, that the energies unleashed can cause great harm to the individual, from inappropriate romantic or sexual attachments to a mental breakdown. Knowledge of the astral body and increased power of intuition are aroused at this chakra. Often prophetic dreams and spontaneous telepathic experiences may occur.

Third Chakra; power

The third, Manipura, is near the solar plexus. Issues here revolve around control and power and the necessity to provide for your personal needs in the world. The challenge is to assert yourself effectively in the world without controlling, dominating or submitting to others. When Manipura awakens, you become aware of your soul, gain some control over emotions, and thereby begin to exercise influence beyond your own karma. Certain traditions consider this the beginning of spiritual evolution, because of the tendency for kundalini to descend if you have not survived the challenges of the second chakra. Here you may also experience digestive problems as the body is being purified. There are greater ESP abilities without ego involvement.

Fourth Chakra; heart

The fourth, Anahata or heart chakra, is midway between the nipples. When Anahata is fully awakened, you are detached from your emotions and have transcended karma. Feelings are less contaminated by needs and addictions. You are aware of your emotions and karmic patterns, but can exercise free will to fulfill your wishes. Now the soul can more fully guide your choices and actions. Having tamed basic survival instincts and needs (at the first three chakras), there is energy available to focus on self-realization. Hence, this chakra is considered the intersection between the earthly and the divine, as well as the left (yin) and right (yang). This is represented by the symbol of the cross and also the six-pointed star comprising two triangles, you pointing up and you pointing down. Your consciousness is increasingly in the spiritual rather than in the physical world.

With the heart-opening, you often feel stabbing pains in the heart area. Eventually, this is accompanied by a surrender of the ego’s struggle for control, and a willingness to be guided more and more by the soul. In the Jungian sense, there are greater balance and relatedness between the ego and the self. As a result, there is less inner conflict and more harmony between you and others, as well as less projection and splitting of good and bad. As you become more integrated and whole, there is less attachment to and demand on others, and greater caring, responsiveness and respect for others. You are able to give, without a need to receive or manipulate others for personal gratification. An optimistic attitude toward life develops, and this is considered essential to maintaining kundalini’s evolution. Psychokinetic and healing powers arise, and synchronicity and wish-fulfillment begin to occur.

Fifth Chakra; creativity

The fifth, Vishuddhi, is at the throat and thyroid gland. Vishuddhi is associated with soulful expression and creativity. This requires the ability to set aside the ego and allow the higher self or creative intelligence to be expressed verbally and artistically. Similarly, the throat chakra regulates the ability to receive nurturing from others and from the divine. Gradually you achieve a sense of trust and security, knowing that unlimited sustenance emanates from an inner transpersonal source. In contacting the unknown and trusting spirit to rise up and create, you nurture yourself in the act of creating. You begin to function in the world with greater detachment, connected increasingly to the spiritual realm. It is also said that this center regulates our sense of time and space, whether we experience time as moving slowly or quickly, influencing the rhythm of our life. Hearing may sharpen, and eventually, telepathic powers develop.

Sixth Chakra; higher wisdom

The sixth chakra, Ajna, is between the eyebrows near the pineal and pituitary glands. The pineal gland is associated with sight and light. When this chakra is activated, you may see light around the forehead. Insight and intuition are heightened. You are able to contact your higher wisdom or inner guru. The inner vision attained takes you beyond the physical dimension and beyond the limitation of time, space and causality. You feel connected to nature and the whole universe. This wisdom represents a coming together of two kinds of knowledge, the intellectual and feeling. The two left and right, feminine and masculine nadis or channels, join at the Ajna chakra, symbolized by the caduceus.

Seventh Chakra; cosmic consciousness

The seventh, Sahasrara, is the “soft spot” at the top of the head, the positive pole. When kundalini activates this chakra, the Gate of Brahman open and divine energy enters, symbolized by the crown, halo or light. At first, you experience headaches and brief moments of samadhi; this further activates all of the other chakras. With practice, the duration and effects increase. When fully active, duality disappears, and you attain cosmic consciousness, samadi or enlightenment.

God is experienced as a state of being; there are no longer unconscious feelings or thoughts, nor separation between self and the perception of feeling or thought. You become pure consciousness, bliss, and have a profound understanding of self and the true nature of all things and all dimensions. Sahasrara gradually closes after spirit enters at birth, and then reopens for it to exit at death. The astral body is then able to leave the physical, traveling into other bodies and dimensions, and in rare cases, adepts can prepare for their time of death when their consciousness will leave their body permanently. Orthodox Jews wear a skull cap to protect this area, while some monks shave in order to leave it exposed.

The order that the chakras awaken varies with each person’s karma and nature. It is important that you study with an experienced teacher and not try to hasten the process, for many suffer physically and mentally from this powerful force, unable to live a normal life, and never experience the anticipated benefits.

Copyright, Darlene Lancer, 1997
Published in Whole Life Times, Oct. 1991

Body and Soul

Sex and Spirituality

With the Sexual Revolution, a la “Playboy”, now behind us, as well as the Victorian attitudes which it rejected, perhaps we are ready for a new conception of sexuality, one not dividing, but embracing, both body and spirit. With few exceptions, such as the Tantric tradition, for centuries both Eastern and Western religious leaders have warned of the dangers of the flesh and exhorted abstinence and restraint in the furtherance of spiritual ideals. (1) Particularly in the West, the separation of the body and spirit, and matter and energy, permeates not only our theology, but Cartesian philosophy, medicine, and science. It is only in recent decades that medicine has become more holistic, and physics has acknowledged the interchangeability of matter and energy.

A holistic attitude towards sex would incorporate the body and spirit, the physical and the divine. It so happens that both the path and the experience of mystical bliss parallel that of lovers’ sexual ecstasy. It is not surprising that many saints refer to their relationship with Jesus as if he were a lover. I’m suggesting that the spiritual experience is neither exclusive, nor preferable, to the sexual, but that it is merely an individual choice as to whether one finds the divine alone or shares the experience with another. In fact, each such experience only enhances the other.

Freud was revolutionary in proposing that healthy sexual expression is necessary for healthy psychological and emotional functioning. Wilhelm Reich realized the opposite was equally true; that if a person is emotionally healthy, he will be able to express himself openly and spontaneously, and this will generate a fulfilling, ecstatic orgasm. He postulates that surrender is the necessary prerequisite for total orgasm, as opposed to a mere release of muscular tension. “Orgiastic potency is the capacity for surrender to the flow of biological energy without any inhibition…”(2) In order to achieve this, in the late sixties sex therapists began recommending non-demand pleasuring, warning that too much focus on orgasm only leads to performance anxiety and the loss of spontaneity.

Starting with the premise that the sexual response cannot be willed, Masters & Johnson introduced the “sensate focus” method in the treatment of sexual problems. This therapeutic technique of mutual touch was developed “…expressly without pressure to `make something happen’ sexually.”(3) In fact, they discovered that removal of a goal-oriented concept in any form is pivotal for recovery. Thus, this method teaches the participants to: ” ‘think and feel’ sensuously and at leisure without intrusion upon the experience by the demand for end-point release (own or partner’s), …without the demand for personal reassurance, or without a sense of need to rush to `return the favor’.”(4)

It turns out that these are precisely the instructions for the proper attitude in meditation and in one’s relationship with God or a higher power. Buddhist teachers counsel that enlightenment will not come by the effort of one’s will, that one should sit in meditation for its own sake, and although a certain amount of desire is necessary for a disciplined practice, desire itself can be an obstacle. Trying to control or make something happen may yield fleeting pleasurable experiences, but is self-defeating in the long run. Focusing on techniques and a goal, whether orgasm or enlightenment, only takes us further from awareness of the present and the joy of the moment.

The writings of Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan Lama of the Nyingma Buddhist tradition, could as easily be contained in a lovers’ sex manual: “So, during meditation, do not have expectations. Do not try to get anywhere or achieve anything…too much attention only produces tension.”(5)

“…Although we must make some effort in the beginning, once meditation is entered, there is no need for further effort…There is no need of will in meditation. The common idea of willing is to make an effort. Most people find it hard not to make an effort, not to do something in meditation. But will does not help…As soon as we try to force the mind, our meditation is disturbed.”(6)

Not surprisingly, Masters & Johnson come to the same conclusion, in describing the dilemma of impotency and being caught in the role of spectator:

“Apprehensive and distracted by his fears of performance, he usually forcefully initiates some form of physical sexual expression, and immediately takes a further step toward total sexual dysfunction by trying to will his sexual response, thereby removing sexual function from its natural context.”(7)

The sensate-focus method is the sensual prescription for abandoning self-consciousness to the present for what Thartang urges in meditation:

“Letting go of all thoughts and images, letting them go wherever they will, reveals there is nothing behind…not even a `me’…only an immediate, genuine present. In other words, there is no flow of time, no past, present, or future. Everything is in the moment.”(8)

“In meditation we make our closest contact with our experiential side, where enlightenment, higher consciousness, is found. When we pass directly into any moment, when we dissolve the forms or `clouds’ of concepts and yield to pure experience, we discover our great resource, enlightened space…This understanding is true integration, a genuine connection of our whole being with the reality of experience, with the `now’ which is unlimited by time or space.”(9)

Thus, it is in the giving up of control, not trying, nor willing – the shedding of the ego’s desire, and its opposite, fear, that the boundaries of self and other fall away; one enters an I – Thou relationship, whether communing with God or with the soul of another. Whether lovemaking or in meditation, it is a physical, emotional, and mental surrender and opening to this emptiness, moment by moment, with no holding on to the moment experienced, nor anticipating the next. Through such spontaneous surrender, one enters a timeless emptiness that at once becomes full of joy and ecstasy. Tarthang continues:

“Open all your cells, even all the molecules that make up your body, unfolding them like petals. Hold nothing back: open more than your heart; open your entire body, every atom of it. Then a beautiful experience can arise that has a quality you can come back to again and again, a quality that will heal and sustain you.

“Once you touch your inner nature in this way, everything becomes silent. Your body and mind merge in pure energy; you become truly integrated. Tremendous benefits flow from that unity, including great joy and sensitivity. The energy flowing from this heals and nourishes the senses. They fill with sensation opening like flowers.”(10)

In the Christian tradition, when speaking of infused prayer, St. Teresa could be depicting sexual union, as she describes the faculties rejoicing without knowing how they rejoice – the intellect ceases to reflect and instead rests in the presence of God (or one’s lover). (11) She also writes that we can do nothing to procure this experience, but that man must open his whole soul to God; total submission of the will is necessary for perfect union. (12) As in surrendering to a lover, she urges fully trusting and disposing of oneself to God, with an attitude of “I am Yours, I do not belong to myself any longer.” This represents the longing of the soul “to love, to be loved, to make love loved.” (13) In this state of immense depth and openness, God then unites man to Himself and in this intimate union expands and transforms him,(14) as lovers are transformed by their sexual union, when they have fully surrendered, as Reich advocates.

Her account of surrender is as sensual and arousing as is D.H. Lawrence’s:

“He took her in his arms again and drew her to him. It was gone, the resistance was gone, and she began to melt in a marvelous peace…and she felt herself melting in the flame (of desire)…and she let herself go to him. She yielded with a quiver that was like death, she went all open to him…she was all open to him and helpless! “…her breast dared to be gone in peace, she held nothing. She dared to let go everything, all herself, and be gone in the flood.”…heavier the billows of her rolled away to some shore, uncovering her, and closer and closer plunged the palpable unknown, and further and further rolled the waves of herself away from herself, leaving her…and she was gone. She was gone, she was not, and she was born: A woman.”(15)

His allusion to death and rebirth echoes The Prayer of St. Francis: “…And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

When lovers are fully present with each other, by putting aside their expectations and their fears, and are able to open their minds, hearts, and bodies to the unknown of the moment, there is a surrender of the ego that occurs akin to death. In this empty and timeless space, absent of “self,” the energy flow from both souls merge in a union of love, described by St. Teresa and Tarthang, that is both expansive and euphoric. Such experience is restorative and transforming, whether occurring alone in meditation or prayer or shared with another soul. Reich attempted to explain this commonality as an outgrowth of a functional point of view, as distinguished from a mechanistic one. From the latter, mechanistic and mystical thinking, and religion and sexuality, are incompatible. On the other hand, in functionalism the contradiction is resolved:

“…the common principle of sexuality and religion is the sensation of nature in one’s own organism…In natural religion, religion and sexuality were ONE: orgonotic plasma excitation…Functionalism breaks through the boundaries of the rigid splitting contradiction through the discovery of the common factors in emotion, origin, and essence of sexuality and religion.”(16)

Sex as a mystical experience is far from a casual encounter. It demands a new morality, one borne neither of rigidity nor indulgence, but of strength and vulnerability. It requires a strong sense of self to be vulnerable enough to abandon the ego. Additionally, in order to promote integration of body and soul, sex should be approached with integrity and compassion. If instead, it emanates from selfish motives, solely to satisfy physical needs or to possess or control another, it only strengthens the ego and is destructive to the soul, which, as a result, retreats even further from reality.

Valuable guidance is found in Buddhist sexual ethics. Here the emphasis is not on the sexual act itself; in fact, some schools even recognize passion as a means to enlightenment. In any case, one’s motives must always be ethical; so that a Bodhisattva will take care to never harm or deceive another, thereby not harming him or herself in the process. (17)

Copyright, Darlene A. Lancer 1991
Published in Whole Life Times, Oct., 1991

1. Stevens, John, Lust for Enlightenment, Buddhism & Sex, p.23, Shambala Publications, Inc., Boston, 1990. (Gotama Buddha is reported to have said: “Brother, there is no real delight in passion; real delight is to be free of passion.”)

2. Reich, Wilhelm, Discovery of the Orgone, p. 79, Ambassador Books, Ltd., Toronto, 1967. (He goes so far as to posit that men who equate surrender and femininity will be orgiastically disturbed. Id., p. 82)

3. Masters & Johnson, Human Sexual Inadequacy, p.74, Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1970.

4. Id., p. 73

5. Tarthang Tulku, Openness Mind, p. 114, Dharma Publishing, Berkeley, CA, 1978

6. Id., pp. 34-35

7. Masters & Johnson, p. 65

8. Tarthang Tulku, p. 122

9. Id., pp. 128-29

10. Id., p. 47

11. Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D., The Way of Prayer, A Commentary on St. Teresa’s “Way of Perfection”, p. 83, Spiritual Life Press, Milwaukee, 1965

12. Id., p. 112

13. Id., pp. 114-115

14. Id., p. 99

15. Lawrence, David, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, pp. 178-179. Nelson Doubleday, Inc., Garden City, New York (l928)

16. Reich, Wilhelm, An Introduction to Orgonomy, p. 301, Ambassador Books, Ltd., Toronto, 1961

17. Stevens, p. 140

The Problem of Narcissists

Poor Narcissus. The gods sentenced him to a life without human love. He fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and died hungering for its response. Like Narcissus, narcissists only love themselves as reflected in the eyes of others. It’s a common misconception that they love themselves. They actually dislike themselves immensely. Their inflated self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance are merely covers for the self-loathing they don’t admit–usually even to themselves.

Instead, it’s projected outwards in their disdain for and criticism of others. They’re too afraid to look at themselves, because they believe that the truth would be devastating. Actually, they don’t have much of a Self at all. Emotionally, they’re dead inside and they hunger to be filled and validated by others. Sadly, they’re unable to appreciate the love they do get and alienate those who give it.


All personality traits, including narcissism, range from mild to severe. Narcissism can be viewed on a continuum from mature to archaic. Mature individuals are able to idealize romantic partners, express their talents and skills, and accomplish their goals, while employing only neurotic defenses; a middle group has unstable boundaries and employ borderline defenses; and those highly sensitive to wounding, employ destructive, psychotic defenses and have unstable relationships (Solomon, 1989).

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), first categorized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1987, occurs in 1 to 6.2 percent of the population; males exceed females at a ratio of 3:2 (Dhawan, 2010; McClean, 2007). Although nonprofessionals often label people with NPD who show a few narcissistic traits, clinical NPD ranges in severity from those with only the minimum required five diagnostic traits to narcissists who strongly manifest all nine symptoms. Here’s a summary of the Diagnostic Criteria in the DSM-5:

 Someone with a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (sometimes only in fantasy), need for admiration from others, and lack of empathy, beginning in childhood, as indicated by five of these characteristics:

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance and exaggerates achievements and talents
2. Dreams of unlimited power, success, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. Believes he or she is special and unique, and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
4. Requires excessive admiration
5. Unreasonably expects special, favorable treatment or compliance with his or her wishes
6. Exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve personal ends
7. Lacks empathy for the feelings and needs of others
8. Envies others or believes they’re envious of him or her
9. Has arrogant behaviors or attitudes

In addition to the grandiose “Exhibitionist Narcissist” described above, James Masterson identifies a “Closet Narcissist”–someone with a deflated, inadequate self-perception, a sense of depression and inner emptiness. He or she may appear shy, humble or anxious, because his or her emotional investment is in the idealized other, which is indirectly gratifying (Masterson, 2004). “Malignant” narcissists are the most pernicious and hostile, enacting anti-social behavior. They can be cruel and vindictive when they feel threatened or don’t get what they want.

Early Beginnings

It’s hard to empathize with narcissists, but they didn’t choose to be that way. Their natural development was arrested due to faulty, early parenting, usually by a mother who didn’t provide sufficient nurturing and opportunity for idealization. Some believe the cause lies in extreme closeness with an indulgent mother, while others attribute it to parental harshness or criticalness. This latter position stems from Otto Kernberg’s emphasis on parental anger, envy, and hate, or indifference that expresses veiled aggression. (Ellis, 2009; Russell, 1985)

The two views converge on the underlying psychodynamics. An idealizing, indulgent mother may be unable to experience her child as a separate individual and provide sufficient empathy, mirroring, or opportunity for idealization. Although leniency can result in healthy narcissism, when psychological control is added, like guilt induction and withdrawal of love, a solid self doesn’t develop, because the child’s focus is to gain external approval. Rather than receiving support for an emerging autonomous self, the child learns that love and involvement are conditioned on conforming to parental needs and expectations. (Horton, Bleau, & Drwecki, 2006)

Heinz Kohut observed this in his narcissistic clients who suffered from profound alienation, emptiness, powerlessness, and lack of meaning. Beneath a narcissistic façade, they lacked sufficient internal structures to maintain cohesiveness, stability, and a positive self-image to provide a stable identity. (Russell, 1985) He believed the cause lay in the empathic failure between the caregiver and child. He differed from Otto Kernberg, who thought the pathology began during the oral stage, claiming that it could even begin in latency.

Narcissists are uncertain of the boundaries between themselves and others and vacillate between dissociated states of self-inflation and inferiority. The self divided by shame is made up of the superior-acting, grandiose self and the inferior, devalued self. When the devalued self is in the inferior position, shame manifests by idealizing others. When the individual is in superior position, defending against shame, the grandiose self aligns with the inner critic and devalues others through projection. Both devaluation and idealization are commensurate with the severity of shame and the associated depression (Lancer, 2014).

Although most people fluctuate in these positions, the Exhibitionistic and Closet Narcissists are more or less static in their respective superior and inferior positions irrespective of reality, making them pathological. Arrogance, denial, projection, envy, and rage are among the defenses to shame (Lancer, 2014).

Narcissists defend against shame and fragmentation by feeling special through idealizing (idealizing transference) or identifying with (mirror transference) others. Understanding the dynamics of projective-identification of these states is key in working with transference and countertransference (Lancer, 2013).

Although more research is required, twin studies revealed a 64-percent correlation of narcissistic behaviors, suggesting a genetic component (Livesley, Jang, Jackson, & Vernon, 1993).

Relationships with Narcissists

It’s easy to fall in love with narcissists. Their charm, talent, success, beauty, and charisma cast a spell, along with compliments, scintillating conversation, and even apparent interest in others. Enlivened by their energy, people gravitate towards them and are proud to bask in their glow.

The Narcissist

At home, narcissists are totally different than their public persona. They may privately denigrate the person they were just entertaining. After an initial romance, they expect appreciation of their specialness and specific responses through demands and criticism in order to manage their internal environment and protect against their high sensitivity to humiliation and shame. Relationships revolve around them, and they experience their mates as extensions of themselves.

Many narcissists are perfectionists. Nothing others do is right or appreciated. Their partners are expected to meet their endless needs when needed – for admiration, service, love, or purchases – and are dismissed when not. That their spouse is ill or in pain is inconsequential.

Narcissists don’t like to hear “No” and often expect others to know their needs without having to ask. They manipulate to get their way and punish or make partners feel guilty for turning them down. Trying to please the narcissist is thankless, like trying to fill a bottomless pit. They can make their partners experience what it was like having had a cold, invasive, or unavailable narcissistic parent.

Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat had such an emotionally empty mother, who devotedly bonded with him to survive. The deprivation of real nurturing and lack of boundaries make narcissists dependent on others to feed their insatiable need for validation.

The Narcissist’s Partner

Although their partners feel loved when the narcissist bestows caring words and gestures, is madly possessive, or buys expensive gifts, they doubt his or her sincerity and question whether it’s really manipulation, pretense, or a manufactured “as if” personality. They feel tense and drained from unpredictable tantrums, attacks, false accusations, criticism, and unjustified indignation about small or imaginary slights.

These partners also lack boundaries and absorb whatever is said about them as truth. In vain attempts to win approval and stay connected, they sacrifice their needs and thread on eggshells, fearful of displeasing the narcissist. They daily risk blame and punishment, love being withheld, or a rupture in the relationship. They worry what their spouses will think or do, and become as pre-occupied with the narcissist as they are with themselves. Partners have to fit in to the narcissists’ cold world and get used to living with emotional abandonment.

Soon, they begin to doubt themselves and lose confidence and self-worth. Communicating their disappointment gets twisted and is met with defensive blame or further put-downs. The narcissist can dish it, but not take it. Nevertheless, they stay, because periodically the charm, excitement, and loving gestures that first enchanted them return, especially when the narcissist feels threatened that a break-up is imminent. When two narcissists get together, they fight over whose needs come first, blame, and push each other away, yet are miserable needing each other.


Despite having a seemingly strong personality, narcissists lack a core self. Their self-image and thinking and behavior are other-oriented in order to stabilize and validate their self-esteem and fragile, fragmented self. They share codependent core symptoms of denial, control, shame, dependency (unconscious), and dysfunctional communication and boundaries, all leading to intimacy problems. One study showed a significant correlation between narcissism and codependency (Irwin, 1995). Although more aggressive than passive, in my opinion, they are codependent.

Accommodating codependents and narcissists can be a perfect fit, albeit painful, because the latter’s attributes and aura of success boost the formers’ low self-esteem, which allows accommodators to tolerate emotional abuse. Typically, accommodators aren’t authoritative and prefer a nonassertive, subordinate role, because their own power and often anger are repressed, frightening, and shame-bound. They seek and hunger for missing parts of themselves and idealize new partners’ qualities, which they hope to absorb. This is why two accommodators rarely get together. They’re in awe of narcissists’ self-direction and “strength,” and live vicariously in the reflection of their success, power, protection, and charisma, while unaware of narcissists’ fragile personas and hidden shame (Lancer, 2014).

Accommodators attach to narcissists who appear bold and express their needs and anger, yet themselves feel needless and suffer guilt when they assert themselves. Caretaking and pleasing make codependents feel valued. Because they feel undeserving of receiving love, they don’t expect to be loved for who they are–only for what they give or do (Lancer, 2014). Narcissists are also drawn to their opposite to support their pride and fill their emptiness–partners who are emotionally expressive and nurturing, qualities they lack. They need partners they can control who won’t challenge them and make them feel weak (Lancer, 2014).

Often in these relationships, narcissists are the distancers when more than sex is anticipated. Getting emotionally close means giving up power and control. The thought of being dependent is abhorrent. It not only limits their options and makes them feel weak, but also exposes them to rejection and feelings of shame, which they keep from consciousness at all costs. (Lancer, 2014) Their anxious partners pursue them, unconsciously replaying emotional abandonment from their past. Underneath they both feel unlovable.

For loved ones of narcissists, doing the exercises and using the recommended strategies in Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People can be helpful in dealing with a narcissist. Doing them can also help an ambivalent partner get clearer about whether he or she wants to stay in the relationship.


Narcissists comprise only 2-16 percent of clients and don’t often come to individual therapy (McClean, October, 2007). They see the cause of their problems as external due to their defenses of denial, distortion, and projection, which limit their ability for introspection. Thus, they usually enter treatment to manage an external problem, such as a divorce or work-related issue, or following a major blow to their fragile self. Sometimes they come because their spouse insisted on conjoint counseling, and occasionally, they seek treatment for loneliness and depression. Medication has not been shown to be effective, except to treat associated depression.

Individual Therapy

Many therapists believe depth work should be avoided not only because the narcissist’s difficulties are felt as ego-syntonic, but also because they need to strengthen their defenses against primitive feelings (Russell, 1985). One client who entered therapy during a tumultuous divorce soon quit. He claimed that self-examination lowered his self-esteem and that he needed a drink to get through each session. He resented the analyst’s fees as exploitative, “typical of women,” including his soon to be ex-wife.

Although narcissism is difficult to treat, progress can be made over time. Weekly sessions over a shorter term can improve patients’ functioning and adaptation to reality by gaining some control over their defenses and by working through some past trauma (Masterson, 2004). They can learn to manage their anger, rage, and impulsivity, and although narcissists may feign empathy in order to get close or win others’ approval, subclinical narcissists (without full-blown NPD) have been taught empathy, through using their imagination (put themselves in another’s shoes) (Hepper, Hart, & Sedikides, 2014).

Similarly, narcissists may be philanthropists or volunteers in the community for the public approbation they receive to boost their self-esteem, but they can learn to empathize and be less self-centered by helping others without personal gain.

Psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy are generally used for treating the disorder itself. Treatment of two or more times per week centers on activating the patient’s grandiose self through empathic mirroring until “transmuting internalization” occurs, creating internal psychic structures. The patient may also develop an idealizing transference, attributing perfection to the analyst, in order to use him or her for stability, calmness, and comfort (Russell, 1985).

In comparing Kohut and Carl Rogers, Robert Stolorow described the therapist’s empathic stance in client-centered therapy: “The client thus comes to experience himself as ‘prized’ . . . by the therapist, much as does the narcissistically disturbed patient immersed in a mirror transference” (Stolorow, 1976, p. 29). Quoting Rogers, Stolorow adds:

“The therapist endeavours to keep himself out as a separate person . . . his whole endeavour is to understand the other so completely that he becomes almost an alter ego of the client . . . The whole relationship is composed of the self of the client, the counselor being depersonalized for the purposes of therapy into being ‘the client’s other self.’ (Rogers, 1951, pp. 42, 208) ”

Kohut believed that the analyst should neither interpret transferences, nor defenses, including rage at the analyst who fails to live up to the patient’s expectations or satisfy his or her needs. Instead, the clinician should allow and echo the patient’s “emerging grandiose fantasies of self-glorification, especially the wish to feel special to and admired by the analyst” (parent), which was missed in childhood. (Russell, 1985, p. 146)

Kohut argued that interpreting the transference and confronting clients’ defenses risk being experienced as deeply wounding. This may cause more defensiveness and suppress the transference necessary for transmutation. Kernberg also recommends a supportive, empathic approach, but in contrast, maintains that both positive and negative aspects of the transference should be interpreted; rage in treatment must be confronted in order to preserve the therapy and contain patients’ fears of destroying it and any hope of receiving love (Russell, 1985).

Masterson employs a “mirroring interpretation of narcissistic vulnerability” only when the patient is acting-out in the transference. It’s a three-step process to interrupt narcissistic defenses in order to bring to the surface the patient’s underlying painful affect (Masterson, 2004):

1. Identify and acknowledge the patient’s painful affect with empathy and understanding.
2. Emphasize the impact on the patient’s self to indicate understanding of his or her experience.
3. Identify and explain the defense or resistance, which can be tied to step 1, by observing how it protects, calms, and soothes the patient from experiencing the painful affect. Care must be taken to avoid a narcissistic injury.

Ideally, interpretations focus on the patient’s need to restore strength after feeling injured. With a grandiose narcissist, the therapist focuses on the failure to mirror the patient’s grandiose self. With a Closet Narcissist, the therapist focuses on failures in the idealized object (Masterson, 2004). Over time, continued mirroring and working through manageable disturbances in the therapy build trust in the therapist, so that the patient is now better able to participate in self-reflection and tolerate and ingest interpretations (McClean, 2007).

Other therapies for treating narcissism include transference-focused therapy and Jeffrey Young’s Schema Therapy, which integrates psychodynamic, cognitive, and behavioral approaches. Stephen M. Johnson also advocates an integrative strategy to include affective therapies, such as Gestalt, Reichian, and bio-energetics.

Conjoint Therapy

The goals of conjoint therapy are that partners attain more realistic and empathic object representations of one another and can tolerate each other’s failure to meet their self-object needs (transmuting internalization) (Solomon, 1989). Underlying vulnerability and shame can provoke escalating cycles of defensive maneuvers involving forms of attack and withdrawal (Lancer, 2014). Destructive defenses further deteriorate representations of one another and make therapy unsafe.

Couples can be educated that such tactics erode good feelings and damage their relationship. To build self-awareness and mutual empathy, the therapist can ask them each to talk about how they protect themselves when they’re hurt, what they need and want from each other, and the effects of their current strategies. This can open an empathic dialogue between them about feelings, wishes, and needs, the way they communicate, and their impact on one another.

When a defense is employed, the therapist should interrupt the issues at hand, stating something like, “I think we’re getting to the heart of something that hurts you both a great deal” (Solomon, 1989, p. 159). Then he or she can mirror the underlying hurt, emotions, and needs as suggested by Masterson, above, and guide the partner to assertively express them in a nonthreatening way.

Connecting the couple’s pain to their individual past provides space between them and mutual empathy. It allows projections to be detoxified, retrieved by the projector, and not taken personally by the recipient. They also need help to take responsibility for their individual self-soothing and finding other means of support for their needs.

When narcissists won’t join counseling, their partners may enter individual therapy. The therapist can help the partner de-idealize his or her spouse and build self-esteem, autonomy, and resources outside the relationship. By connecting the client’s yearnings and pain to childhood abandonment depression, past trauma and shame can be worked through to increase self-worth and self-compassion.

Supporting the partner to assertively ask the narcissist for what the client wants and to stop reacting to the narcissist and set boundaries, empowers the client and builds self-esteem. It also reduces denial and awakens the client to the reality of the narcissist’s limitations. Intervening this way intrapsychically and systemically in individual therapy often substantially improves the couples’ interpersonal dynamics.
© Darlene Lancer, 2015
Published in The Therapist, July, 2015

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