Meet the Sages (and Get A Free Poster!)

In recent years there’s been a surge of interest in ancient philosophers. Three of my favorite books in this vein are Expect the Unexpected Or You Won’t Find it: A Creativity Tool Based on the Ancient Wisdom of Heraclitus by Roger Van Oech, Breakfast With Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day by Robert Rowland Smith, and The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’m going to add to this growing body of literature by introducing the ancient writers of Hebrew wisdom literature. These sages said many interesting and often astonishing things, especially given how long ago they wrote. For example, two millennia before Freud and modern psychotherapy the sages wrote, “Many are the purposes of a person’s heart; one with wisdom draws them out.” There are things that go on in a person’s psyche about which we are simply unaware. In 2011 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote about this in Thinking Fast and Slow (read my summary here). Over one hundred years before that (1902 to be precise) William James said this about consciousness and perception, Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different, ” (Varieties of Religious Experience). These are all fancy ways of explaining what we mean when we say…
  • “Perception is reality”
  • “Appearances can be deceiving”
  • “My brain has a mind of it’s own”
  • “There are two sides to every story”
  • “Life is not always as it appears to be”
Woe to the person who doesn’t know that their consciousness can be altered an a variety of ways or that our minds can play weird tricks on us. Even neuro-scientists remind us that feelings of being right are not necessarily right. Click here to read an interview with Robert Burton, author of the fascinating book, On Being Certain. Which brings me to a free gift I have for you. The sages were preternaturally aware that things like emotions, health, hunger, sleep, and other factors trick us. I’ve collected (and drew faces for) thirty of their sage warnings that remind us that we can’t always trust our thoughts. You can download a free 8.5″ x 11″ color printout of this poster by clicking here. (Signed 13″x 19″ color posters are available for $30 (+$4.99 shipping in USA) on Amazon; small size posters are free to readers of this blog). The brilliance of these sage warnings is that being skeptical of our cherished beliefs will lead to open mindedness, mental flexibility, and a willingness to contemplate alternative ideas. This is often our focus when doing mediation or therapy–when emotions or other mood altering factors hi-jack our brains we don’t think rationally or clearly. I hope this handout (poster) will inspire careful self-reflection.

Betrayal and Self Anger (5 of 10)

Self-CriticismAnger and betrayal go together. There’s anger at the betrayer, of course. And anger at their affair partner, of course. But often there’s also anger at one’s self:

  1. “How could I be so stupid to not see this coming?” 
  2. “How could I be so gullible?” 
  3. “If only I had been more alert this never would have happened. I will never trust again and therefore never be tricked again.”

Here’s how some people deal with self-anger.


1.  “How could I be so stupid to not see this coming?”

Answer: “Because I’m not God. I can’t read minds. I am not stupid; my betrayer simply was a good liar.”

2.  “How could I be so gullible?”

Answer: “Store clerks who unwittingly accept counterfeit money are not gullible; they’ve been tricked. When my partner betrayed me I got tricked. If I was naive and ignored the warning signs I will forgive myself, learn a valuable lesson, and move forward.”

3.  “If only I had been more alert this never would have happened. I will never trust again and therefore never be tricked again.”

Answer: “My partner didn’t cheat because I wasn’t alert. My partner cheated because they’re a cheater. My decision to choose to ever trust anyone again will be based on my desire to be close to anyone again, based on my risk tolerance, and based on my capacity to love.”

Tomorrow: Betrayal and Fear

The Risk of Re-calibrating Buckets (4 of 7)

Green Eyed Funnies.9

When I ask couples what originally drew them to each other they say, “They meet my needs and I want to meet theirs.” Sounds great to me. Those buckets are evenly calibrated.

When couples hit their thirties and forties however, unresolved stuff from the past shows up. This means evenly calibrated buckets become uncalibrated. Needs, and the willingness to meet their partner’s needs, change. Either the bucket of one grows to gargantuan proportions (excessive neediness), or unresolved stuff from the past drills holes in their bucket (guilt, selfishness, trauma, anger), or unresolved stuff in the other partner reduces the size of their deposits (mid life crisis, unrealized dreams, greener grass syndrome).

As the saying goes, “Marriage doesn’t create problems so much as reveal them.”

Re-calibrating buckets means managing neediness, plugging leaks in the bucket, or increasing the size of the deposits.

  • Things get complicated if one party gets desperate, clingy, and needy expects their partner fills their bucket.
  • Things get complicated when one party quits trying to fill their partner’s bucket.
  • Things get complicated when one party decides to become less dependent.
  • Things get calibrated when couples hammer out expectations what.

When a normally compliant partner chooses no longer to be overly responsible, or to prop up their overly dependent partner, the wounded partner reacts and says, “Hey, you’ve changed!” Which is true. Their partner is choosing to manage their life in a healthier way.

And when an overly dependent partner gets more demanding, needy, and controlling their partner may say, “Enough! I’ve got limited resources and catering to your every need isn’t good for you, for me, or for the kids.”

Continuing to comply with a demanding spouse in hopes they’ll back off is like throwing meat to a lion hoping they become vegetarian. It doesn’t work.

When one party in an enmeshed relationship chooses to make adult choices, stable but dysfunctional bucket calibrations get out of whack. It can so threaten their partner they’re on the cusp of (or have already crossed into) screaming matches, increased drug and alcohol abuse, or domestic violence.

So, be forewarned: choosing to recalibrate buckets (AKA individuate, differentiate, set boundaries) must be handled cautiously, carefully, and with help.

Next: How To Manage Your Half Empty Bucket

Helping Kids Understand “Roles” in Family Disputes (plus a free book)


When I was a kid I was enamored of the Jay Ward 1960’s cartoon, Dudley Do Right of the Mounties. The three main characters have stayed with me all these years (decades!).

Snidely Whiplash the bully, Dudley Do Right the hero, and Nell Fenwick the victim.

When a family experiences stress or anxiety they cope by taking on roles to avoid pain. People put on different roles for different situations. A person can play two or more roles at once. And the roles balance a family like a child’s mobile. In most family fights there are three people….

The Bully: He or she is the “bad guy, the “bugger,” the mean one who starts everything.

The Victim: He or she is the innocent one, the one who is bugged, the one who needs and expects rescuing, feels blamed for everything.

The Hero: He or she is the helpful one, the one who catches the bad guy, the one who rescues the innocent one.

I like using this handout with families (kids age 8 to 18 and their parents) because it gently nudges people to examine their role in conflicts. Here’s a free book that helps kids (and parents!) understand these three roles. If it’s helpful please post comments on my blog. Thanks!

Click here: Kids Book on Family Fighting

Yours for a more harmonious world….


Five Interventions That Calm Anger

A new client once looked around my office and asked, “Where’s the bucket?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “You know, the place where I’m supposed to spill my guts.”

I laughed and reassured him there were no buckets. He looked at the Anger Reduction Gadget! sitting on the counter and said, “What’s that? A coffee maker?”

I said, “No, that’s an object lesson on how to control anger.”

He said, “That’s why I’m here, to work on my anger. How does it work?”

Here’s what I told him.

Anger begins with something or someone pushing our buttons. It’s important to be aware of our buttons so we can avoid places where they are pushed or be prepared when they are. These are also known as triggers, sensitivities, or trip wires.

Something pushes our buttons

Something pushes our buttons

Once pushed we “filter” that activating event through our perceptions, grids, frames, and lenses. In the Anger Reduction Gadget! this intervention is symbolized by a carburetor screen. The button pushing doesn’t make us angry, the stories we tell ourselves about those irritations is what makes us angry. This is good news because if you can’t stop the button pushing we can tell ourselves different stories.

We filter our circumstances through our beliefs.

We filter our circumstances through our beliefs.

Some stories we tell ourselves are guaranteed to make our blood pressure rise, symbolized here with a pressure gauge. Psychologists call this the cognitive approach to anger management. Our perceptions (cognitions, thoughts) trigger or inhibit hormones that make us anxious, depressed, sad, or in this case, angry. My unscientific estimate is that 95% of our emotions are due NOT to our circumstances but how we think about those circumstances.

Emotions build up pressure in our bodies.

Emotions build up pressure in our bodies.

Why do angry people scream, yell, hit things, or kick chairs? The chair didn’t do anything wrong! People explode because all that built up pressure feels uncomfortable. By discharging the built up hormones we feel better. Of course, everybody else is ducking for cover because we look like crazy out of control people. By the way, the reason zebras don’t get ulcers is because when they see a crouching tiger they expend their built up hormonal fear energy by running for their lives. If stopping button pushing or changing our stories doesn’t calm us down, go for a run!

Our bodies feel the tension like a finger in a vice.

Our bodies feel the tension like a finger in a vice.

I first built the Anger Reduction Gadget! (ARG!) for foster kids in DSHS workshops. During what I’m sure was to them a boring lecture I needed something to hold their attention. I’d ask for a volunteer to put their finger in this toy vice and gently apply pressure. The message here is sometimes our bodies feel the tension before our brains realize it. By getting in tune with our bodies we can pause and ask, “What was the trigger?” “What is my story?” “What emotion am I feeling?” and “Where in my body do I need to relax?” It’s up to us what to do with that build up energy–we can either freak out or channel it into productive solutions. In the ARG! this is symbolized by an African Thumb Piano. We can either use our anger to play a beautiful tune or go nuts and make chaotic noise.

Do we channel our anger energy into making beautiful music or chaos?

Do we channel our anger energy into making beautiful music or chaos?

It’s helpful to remember “E” for energy + “motion” for action = “E” + “motion” = Emotion. They give us energy we need to take action. This is what Mothers Against Drunk Drivers do, crime fighters do to catch bad guys, and zebras do to flee tigers.

Now you’ve got five ways to interrupt the anger sequence: watch for trigger, change your story, identify the emotion, relax your body, and channel the emotion into actions that promote justice, solve problems, or avoid disaster.

And no buckets in sight!


Click here for additional free resources on ANGER.

Why Do People Interrupt Us? Why Do We Interrupt Others?

"How dare you interrupt my three hour harangue!"

“How dare you interrupt my three hour harangue!”


“Who’s there?”
“Interrupting cow.”
“Interrupting cow wh-”

It’s maddening when people interrupt us. But before we get angry it’s a good idea to consider various reasons why people interrupt. Here’s a list, ranked from most benign to most harmful.

1. They’re enthusiastic, excited, and eager to bond with us during a lively exchange.
2. They want us to know they understand what we’re saying.
3. They’re afraid if they don’t speak up as soon as a good idea pops into their head they’ll forget it.
4. They’re not mean or stupid, just unskilled in matters of public discourse.
5. They’re late for an appointment and communications are rushed.
6. They’re unhappy being held hostage by us and are trying to make an escape.
7. They’ve felt criticized for being stupid and interrupting proves they can read our mind, remember the story we’ve told before, or complete our sentences for us.
8. They’re reacting emotionally to the buttons we’ve pushed because we like it when they get emotional. If we’ve felt ignored by them negative attention is better than no attention.
9. They’re tired of us jabbering non-stop hour after hour and they’re trying to get a word in edgewise.
10. Their active brain gets bored during long pauses in our delivery.
11. They’re more concerned about correcting us than listening to us.
12. They’re rather be right than polite.
13. They don’t care about our input, only theirs.
14. They’re insensitive bores who lack the common courtesy taking turns speaking.
15. They’re intentionally trying to drive us crazy.

This list is important because when we interrupt we typically claim items toward #1. When others interrupt us we typically assume items toward #15. Here’s a novel idea: next time we interrupt let’s entertain the possibility that we do so because of items 11-15. If others interrupt us let’s assume it’s because of item #1.




Three Marks of Maturity, or, What Lizards Teach Us About Growing Up



One of my fondest memories of fatherhood is the times I took our kids lizard hunting. Those outings were low cost, no license necessary, high adventure events. We nearly always caught a lizard or two! I didn’t realize it then, but those alligator lizards we chased years ago were rich lesson material. Here are three things lizards teach us about growing up.

Lizards are cold blooded and get their heat from external sources.

Growing from childhood to adulthood means learning how to exist without over dependence on others. A mature person will be “warm blooded” and sustain themselves without an excessive need for others to give them a sense of worth, value, or significance. If you know someone whose mood depends on other’s moods, whose sense of worth depends on others’ validation, or who are clingy, suffocating, and smothering, they’re like a lizard who gets its heat from others.

Lizards have primitive brains with no capacity for abstract reasoning. 

Do you let the emotional part of your brain dictate your decisions? Is the voice in your head that says, “REACT WITH PANIC!” louder than the voice that says, “SLOW DOWN AND THINK CLEARLY?” If so, you’re thinking like a lizard. Lizard brains hate change, fear everything, and feed anger. Abstract reasoning allows us to take a deep breath, think clearly, and make rational, not childish, knee-jerk, lizard-like choices.

Lizards have only one option when in a conflict: flight. 

Rather than negotiating, fighting, or learning the art of compromise, lizards sense danger and run! Thy shed their tail when caught by a predator to distract the predator and escape. Grown up people are not conflict avoidant. They don’t flee at the first hint of conflict. They negotiate, fight for what’s right, and know when to compromise and when to back off.

My goal for the week: give thanks I wasn’t born a lizard . . . and pray I don’t live like one.



Marital Mind Reading



Sensing what others might be thinking or feeling is a good social skill. But believing we know for sure what another person thinks, feels, wants, or needs is dangerous.

Four examples of mind reading.

1) If your spouse is silent and you say, “You’re mad at me!” that’s mind reading.

2) If your spouse is late getting home and you say, “You’re cheating on me!” that’s mind reading.

3) If your partner forgets to buy milk and you say, “You did that on purpose!” that’s mind reading.

4) If your partner cleans the kitchen and you say, “You don’t think I’m capable of doing this myself!” that’s mind reading.

Two factors that fuel this bad habit.

1) anxiety.

2) depression.

Two ways to look at this phenomenon:

1) negative mind reading leads to anxiety and depression. Who wouldn’t be depressed if we thought our spouse had such negative feelings, motives, or thoughts?

2) anxiety and depression lead to negative mind reading. Looking at our partner’s through a negative lens colors everything negatively.

Two things make this habit highly vexing.

1) the tendency for the mind reader to conjure up negative motives, negative thoughts, or negative intent in their spouse.

2) the tendency for the mind reader to believe they are absolutely, 100% correct.

Two reasons counselors find breaking clients of this habit very difficult.

1) Nobody likes to be told their beliefs might be wrong. The mind reading client then reads the mind of the therapist, “He’s minimizing my fears,” “He just doesn’t get it.” “He’s a jerk.” “He doesn’t know my spouse as well as I do. I KNOW I’m right!!”

2) If the spouse is not guilty as charged this means the mind reader has issues to work on. It’s much easier to blame others for our unhappiness.

Two ways to get out of this dysfunctional pattern.

1) drive each other so crazy with false accusations, negative spins, and erroneous mind reading that one of you leaves. You can’t mind read if there’s no mind around to read.

2) Get so fed up with poor communication that one of you admits, “My interpretation might be wrong.”

Two ancient Proverbs on this topic.

1) “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.”

2) “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.”

Four practical things a mind reader can do to break this habit.

1) Check the accuracy of your speculations, “I have a feeling you’re mad. Am I right?” If they say no, believe them.

2) Get in the habit of coming up with alternative explanations why your spouse does what they do. “He’s silent because he’s problem solving.” “She cleaned the kitchen because it was messy.” “He was late for dinner because of traffic.” “She forgot the milk because the kids were distracting.”

3) Look inside yourself and see if mind reading is a subconscious plot to provoke your spouse, reinforce negative self esteem, feed your anxiety monster, or conjure certainties in a world of uncertainty.

4) Look at the lens through which you look at life. If it’s negative, change it. If we can’t change our spouse we can change our view of our spouse.

Some Thoughts About Anger

anger cartoon NYKR

A while ago I received the following email.

Hi Mr. Johnson, I am a reporter for Klipsun Magazine at Western Washington University. I am writing an article on anger management and I would love to have your point of view on the subject. Such as, how to handle anger, why it happens, and gender differences….Thank you so much for your help, (name).

Hi, (name). Here are some thoughts re. your great questions.

1. How does anger management develop?

A person either realizes their anger is not serving them well and undertakes a plan of self improvement on their own initiative, OR family and friends convince them to get help, OR (worst case scenario–violence) the court requires people to get their anger under control. Once the angry person is on board with the goal of reducing their anger I work with clients to engage in three tasks: 1) list all the benefits of controlling anger (rather than it controlling us); this keeps us motivated when the battle gets hard. 2) Track the five stages in the anger sequence [trigger, thought, physiological responses, emotion, and action]. By identifying and separating these five stages we get more power over them. 3) Work on the primary culprit in anger, namely, our thoughts. The counseling term for this is cognitive therapy.

2. How can anger management be maintained?

Keep reviewing the benefits of conquering anger–lower blood pressure, less cost for broken items, fewer doctor bills for broken hands or feet for hitting or kicking stuff, longer lasting friendships, more free time in our brains to use for productive stuff, etc.

3. What is the difference between getting angry and having an anger management problem?

Getting angry is a good and proper response to injustice, cruelty, oppression, etc. Think MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. They channel their anger and hurt into traffic safety laws, etc. If I had the magic ability to make all anger vanish I wouldn’t use it. We need anger to inspire battling the things that need battling. But there’s a thin line between healthy anger and problematic anger. Anger becomes a problem when we’re angry in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with the wrong people, for the wrong reasons (this is my paraphrase of a quote from Aristotle). Anger problems can creep up on us and because of denial or cluelessness we don’t know why we lose friends, get in so many fights, or need so many prescription drugs (or alcohol) to calm down, etc. So when family and friends suggest we may have an anger problem it’s a good idea to consider that what they’re saying might be correct.

4. What would you suggest to your patients to deal with their anger?

In addition to the steps above, we deal with practical matters like stress relief, healing the hurts, fears, and jealousies behind much of our anger, and capturing those distorted cognitions that fuel anger. “That motorist cut me off on purpose” vs. “Maybe they’re on the way to the hospital to have a baby.” “If a person criticizes me my life is ruined” vs. “Hmm, they’re sure having a bad day,” or “I demand that life be fair!” vs. “Oh well.”

5. What is the difference between female anger and male anger?

To be honest in my experience both genders get angry with only a few subtle variations. Stereotypes bug me but anecdotally I believe it takes longer for guys to calm down once elevated and it takes longer for women to let stuff go. Other than that, both men/women explode, hit, fume, stuff, scream, etc. And the strategies for de-escalating are the same. Here’s a recent blog post on this theme which is only partially tongue in cheek.

Wow! Thank you so much! Anger is an interesting subject, I’ve gotten a lot of different feedback on how people deal with their anger, such as some may yell and others might bottle it up. Again, thank you so much for your thoughts. It has really helped my article. (name).

Annoyances in Marriage, Pt. 3 (and a free book!)

Managing Marital Irritations.cover

Glynn Wolfe might win the prize for history’s most irritable husband. According to his daughter in law, Vikki Wolfe, Glynn left his wife because she ate sunflower seeds in bed. But wait, there’s more. Wolfe divorced another wife for using his toothbrush. But wait, there’s still more. Wolfe is famous for being a wife collector. All counted, he married and divorced a total of 29 wives. Click here for his bizarre story. I’m not sure who needed counseling more, him or his 29 wives!

If you’ve asked your partner to quit eating sunflower seeds in bed or using your toothbrush and they refuse you can do like Wolfe did and file for divorce.

Or, you can become more tolerant of your partner’s irritating mannerisms. If you can’t change your partner, change yourself. Here are some tips.

1. List the things your partner does that irritate you.

2. Ask them to list the things you do that irritate them.

3. Compare lists and negotiate. “I’ll put down the toilet seat if you stay within our budget.”

4. Don’t give your partner negative labels. If you’re convinced your partner is a “self absorbed, cheating, immature, lying, slob” you’ll look for evidence to back up the label…and of course you’ll find it.

5. Re-examine the stories you tell yourself about your partner’s bad habits. Our interpretations play a bigger role in our frustrations than our partner’s behaviors. “As a man or woman thinks, so are they.” Here are some common stories that deserve challenging.

  • “My partner irritates me on purpose.” This might not be true. They could be mindless, automatic behaviors. Don’t you ever do things without thinking? Give grace and the benefit of the doubt.
  • “I take this personally!” If we treat their actions as a sign they don’t care about us, isn’t prioritizing us, or doesn’t love us, we’ve turned a benign action (like how to load a dishwasher) into a moral issue.
  • “If you really loved me you’d stop driving me crazy with all your irritating habits.” To which your partner could answer, “If you really loved me you’d let me do what I do without nagging.”
  • “They should know what I like. I don’t need to tell them.” Maybe it never occurred to your partner that it bothers you. They aren’t mind readers.
  • “My partner is one big irritation.” Is that their only redeeming trait? Won’t you miss that irritating habit once they’re gone? If the marriage is that dysfunctional there are bigger problems than crumbs on the counter or leaving wet towels on the floor.
  • “They don’t respect me.” Maybe they do respect you but just don’t have the same passion for when dishes get washed, bills get paid, or floors get vacuumed. They could just as easily say you don’t respect their way of doing things.
  • “If they don’t load the dishwasher right I’ll leave!” That’s why divorce attorneys call marriage a three ring circus–engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffering.
  • “Reasoning hasn’t worked. Time to explode!” Two wrongs don’t make a right.
  • “I’ll fight fire with fire! If they don’t take out the trash, I won’t talk!” Welcome to the walled off marriage. Hard to be close to someone you punish with silence.
  • “Any request my partner makes is an attempt to control me.” Really? Where did you learn that? From a demanding parent, grandparent, or ex?
  • “Differences are not allowed in this relationship!” Um, oneness does not mean sameness.

Click here Managing Marital Irritations.1 for a free book, Managing Marital Irritations. (This book contains Bible references).