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The Psyches of Schwarzenegger & IMF Chief

May 20, 2011

This week on NBC , I gave an interview on the first dogs of summer: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the IMF head, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. What is it about these alpha males that leads to their infidelities?  As I said on air, these guys get a lot of practice.  Practice at abuse of power, practice at abuse of trust. Their brand of infidelity is more spectacularly outrageous than the anguished kind I see in my office.  There are affairs, and then there are predators.  How do you get to be a predator on the prowl?

Let’s begin with the notion of practice. Absurd as it sounds, the more you practice what was once a high-risk behavior, the less risky it feels. No doubt you’ve had this experience when you first learned to ride a bike. At first it was terrifying. You were afraid to fall; you needed the guiding hand of a parent  to balance you. Finally, you felt the exhilaration of flying down the road under your own power. Then you tried no hands. Then you tried tricks. See how it goes?

So these alpha dogs practice the slippery slope leading to betrayals of trust; then get used to it; minimize, rationalize and justify it. The combination of practice, based on countless opportunities, many dependents, no one to hold you accountable, and a cadre of followers invested in protecting you, leads you to believe that the rules are just guidelines, to borrow a phrase from Pirates of the Caribbean.  Mix in the psychological factors that have driven you to seek a high public profile:  narcissism, a sense of your own specialness, a lack of empathy for others, a risk-seeking personality, and voila you have an ethics scandal.

The universal poll in my office this week was 100% disgusted by Schwarzenegger, but a split vote on the IMF chief. The split? American vs. European sentiment. Europeans commonly regard us as Puritanical, and have prided themselves on their open attitudes towards sexuality. The  typical European translation is: no rules for the guys. I believe that’s changing, as women gain more economic power, as the case in the U.S.  Another sign?  The French also have a word for these guys: chaud lapin. Translation: hot rabbit. Now we get to see how fast they can hop.

Coping with Job Loss (You Are Not Your Title)

May 4, 2011

Tonight on Fox News, I’ll be talking about how to cope with job loss. The past couple of years reflect an historically high level of job loss and unemployment. With any loss, there are stages of grief and recovery. The first stage of job loss involves managing your feelings.  Following a job loss, it’s normal to feel demoralized, rejected and even angry. Don’t angrily jump ahead to a job search, because that’s not going to help you or your search.

1. To cope with loss of self-esteem, anger  or rejection…DEPERSONALIZE the job loss.  Fight the loser stigma. Remind yourself, you’re not alone in the boat, this has been an historically difficult economic time, and many competent, well-qualified people have lost their jobs.
2. Remember: You Are Not Your Title. You’re a human being, not just a human doing. We get so focused on achievements, from grade school on, that we forget to emphasize our signature personal strengths. What are the qualities you like about yourself, and what activities are your passion, are meaningful, or are enjoyable to you?  Turn those strengths into your “elevator pitch,” when looking for another job.  Are you a good team player? Are you a hard-worker, good at getting along with people, good at taking initiative?  What kinds of skills will translate into other jobs or even changing careers?
3. Involve your family and friends. Don’t shoulder it alone. Keep your friends and family in the loop. Let them know your plans. Reassure children, so they don’t imagine the worst. Make time for family fun.
4. Keep Healthy (and keep your spirits up). Get plenty of sleep. Exercise. Regular exercise reduces the risk of depression or lethagy. Practice relaxation and slow breathing when you feel stressed. Resist the comfort of junk food–it’s a feels good, bad for you temptation.
1. Develop a routine…Remember that looking for a job is a job.  It’s helpful to map out your day with a schedule for job search, personal breaks, and a schedule to stay connected.
2. Stay connected–don’t isolate yourself. Jobs convey crucial social connection in addition to their financial importance . Now that you’re not in day-to day-contact with fellow workers, stay connected.  Network with your co-workers, meet for lunch, meet on linkedin or other social media sites.  Visit job sites (, the public library, newspaper listings) to search the listing of job titles that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Your next job could be a job that’s new, since many jobs are no longer for life. Broaden your horizons. Write down your specific skills, then your general skills that could translate into another job or career.
3. Create a monthly newsletter about a topic you know well, and send it to potential employers. Putting your name in front of people repeatedly helps you stand out.  Put your links below your signature in emails.
4. If your next job is a lateral move or less money, don’t catastrophize–remind yourself–this is temporary. Nothing lasts forever–not even this economy.
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What Tiger-Mother Forgot: The Child You Didn’t Expect

April 29, 2011

There’s a faulty premise underlying the Tiger-Mother. For those seeking relief from Amy Chua‘s rant about the amazing results that controlling, driven parenting yields (über achievers), now there’s  Bryan Caplan  to offer relief. The latest author,  dubbed the Anti-Tiger Mother (forget the gender–it’s the gist that counts)is refreshingly research-based; albeit research that’s a rehash of the 1998 book, The Nurture Assumption.  This equally faulty premise suggests that parenting doesn’t matter. If you’re interested in things like your child’s later achievement, her healthy living, educational success, fear not.  Nope, with a cursory nod to nurture, those highfalutin’ goals are best met by genetics.

Here’s my gripe with all of the Tigers. First, the ideas are obvious (though flawed), and the discussion has gone on ad nauseam. But more importantly, these books miss the entire category of children for whom attentive (rather than neurotically driven) parenting is an absolute necessity. Those are kids who didn’t get such a good deal of the genetic deck. One out of 5 boys has an attention deficit disorder (proportionately fewer girls). Currently about 1 in 100 children is diagnosed with a pervasive developmental delay and/or on the autism spectrum. Other kids  inherit a vulnerability that shows up  later, in their teens, with mood disorders, others with addiction problems. These kids need great parenting. These kids teach you what it means to be a parent.  But no one expects this bad deal of the cards for their kid.

For a glimpse of what it means to have a child you didn’t expect, I highly recommend Priscilla Gilman‘s new book, The Anti-Romantic Child. Ms. Gilman, a former professor of English at Vassar, writes poignantly, heartbreakingly, yet hopefully about what a diagnosis for your child means.  Benj, her first son, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age three. What follows is a lesson for all parents in the humility and ego-loss when no matter how hard you try, you can’t control your child’s achievement. Instead, you become a parent, in the truest sense of the word.  A parent whose joy comes not from bragging rights, but from the dedication of seeing a child overcome adversity. Amy Chua and Bryan Caplan should read this book. You should too.

Parents: To Test or Not to Test–Home Drug Kits

March 29, 2011

Wednesday (3/30/11) on the 10 p.m.  TV29-FOXNEWS channel, I’ll be a discussant on the pros and cons of at-home drug testing. Parents can now buy at-home drug testing kits, from around $15-$30. Here’s the pitch to worried (or suspicious) parents of teens:  “I really care about you, and by buying this kit, you now have an excuse with your friends to avoid drug use, because you’ll get caught. ” What’s wrong with this pitch?

Buying a drug-testing kit as an insurance policy is a bad first move. You can put lipstick on a pig, and say it’s out of love, but what that drug kit really says, is “I don’t trust you.”  Have a calm talk instead. Expect to have ongoing conversations. If you suspect substance use due to behavioral or academic changes, talk about that. If you want your kid to open up to you, you have to demonstrate your ability to deal with stressful topics in a calm manner. Expect your teen to initially deny and minimize any use. If your suspicions lead  you to decide to test your teen, go to the pros.

Why the pros instead of at-home?

1) Think about the relationship—do you really want to play cops and robbers with your child? Parents try to control what they can’t trust, but with power you get rebellion.

2) Do you really want to supervise a urine collection, by standing in the same room while your adolescent pees in a cup ?

3) Because if your child wants to con you, they’ll go to google and type in how to con a drug test and 900,000 results pop up in 1 minute. I’ve treated substance abusers and there are very clever ways to get around an at-home test.

4) Plus there are false positives (Ibuprofen can come up as marijuana use); Nasal decongestants can come up as amphetamine use.

5) Learn as much as you can. Go to, or call the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol & Drug Information (1-800-788-2800).

6) Take your own personal inventory about substance use. What’s your family’s history of problem alcohol or drug use? Are you within the AMA guidelines for either men and women for alcohol use?

7) Set clear rules in your family about drug and alcohol use, and let your kids know that you’ll enforce those rules.

Just say no doesn’t work. Tune in on Wednesday to hear more about this important topic. And please add your comments.


The 3-Year “Gl-itch”

March 19, 2011

Tune in tonight  (Monday, March 21 at 5:45 p.m.) for my interview on TVFox29 . The topic is relationships and the 3-Year Glitch.  American marriages are fast-tracking what used to be known as the 7-Year Itch,  down to about three years.  The  phrase “7-Year Itch” was immortalized  by the 1955 Billy Wilder film, starring Marilyn Monroe.  The phrase came to represent a lull in marriage when husbands were more vulnerable to the wiles of a Monroe temptress (sorry ladies this was the 50’s and Brad Pitt wasn’t on the scene yet).  Some think that the phrase represents the average number of years that couples stay married. There are lots of statistics on divorce out there, but here are the facts: It only takes 3-5 years to wreck a marriage–that’s if the occupants are hot-heads. The next spike in divorce occurs at years 18-20, when the train’s been off the tracks for too long, and one or both partners are worn out from an ongoing marital problem.

What about lulls? There are  lulls in marriage, at years 4 and  8. Lull Year #4 is just life.  The honeymoon’s over, and routine has taken the place of mad passion. Lull Year #8: New roles as parents. Nothing like 700 hours of sleep deprivation in the first year of a child’s life for a passion-killer. These lulls aren’t necessarily from problems, but sometimes simple BOREDOM. Boredom leads to niggling complaints such as:

1. You’ve gained weight.

2. You left your dirty socks and underwear on the floor.

3. More snoring, no romance, less sex.

4.More drinking.

5. In-law problems.


Remember what you did in courtship:

1. PAY ATTENTION to your partner. HANG-UP, GET OFF-LINE, and spend more than the average 12 minutes of interacting a day.

2. Pay compliments.

3. Try something new. Take turns being responsible for fun.

4. Make a date night.

And remember…itches pass if you don’t scratch.

Sheen & Qaddafi: What’s With Them?

March 13, 2011

Last week I was so preoccupied by the news coming from Libya, that I scarcely paid attention to the other lunatic of the moment, Charlie Sheen. But a social encounter last week prompted me to write this blog on the topic of addiction and mental illness.  What’s wrong with these two guys, and is there anything to learn from them?

Qaddafi fits the profile of a borderline personality disorder: someone who can typically function in a rational manner, but under conditions of extreme stress (as in now), may totally believe his own statements that “protests are fueled by people slipping hallucinogenic drugs into Nescafe of the drug crazed children, but all the people love him.” According to Dr. Jerrold Post, professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, “This man is more often than not a rational calculator,” Post says, “but he calculates according to a different calculus than we in the west might.” For example, Post says “the courage to stand up to a superior adversary,” is an extremely important sign of leadership.  Outside intervention would likely fuel his distortions. However, as Post suggests, the number of rising defections will hopefully trump Qaddafi’s mental state.

How about Charlie Sheen? Charlie has a well-known substance abuse history, with prior emergency hospitalizations and rehabs, some dating back 10 years. I’m like any other of the armchair therapists who has no direct knowledge of Mr. Sheen, only glimpses of the tiger-blood ramblings, and rants against AA.  Still, it’s obvious that his alcohol and substance abuse histories have taken their toll. It takes about 20 years for alcohol dependency to become a full-blown addiction (unless you’re mixing it with other substances, which is often the case). Alcoholism is often co-morbid with other mental illnesses–most frequently Bi-Polar Disorder (also known as Manic Depressive Disorder).  Often the patient is both in denial about the alcoholism and the bi-polar disorder, until something close to total “nervous breakdown,” and less often organic brain damage (confusion, significant memory problems) emerges.

The good news for the Charlie Sheen’s of the world is that there’s plenty of help available. There’s AA, NA, medications to treat both Bi-Polar disorder and to reduce alcoholic cravings.  The AMA releases general guidelines if you’re in doubt about your own drinking: For Men, a maximum of 14 servings of wine (5 oz.), beer (12 oz), or hard liquor (1.5 oz) a week, and no more than 4 drinks at a time (5 is considered binge drinking). For women, half that. In my clinical experience, those are generous guidelines.  My suggestion is that you understand what function alcohol or any other addictive substance is serving in your life, and rather than drink when stressed, figure out another coping mechanism.


Online Dating Scams (and how to avoid them)

January 23, 2011

This week I was interviewed by NBC News for a follow-up story on online dating scams. They’d run a story a few weeks before by a woman who’d gone on fallen in love, “lent” her online lover $16,000 and after a few months also been persuaded to send nude pictures. She was the victim of a scam. The reporter shared with me that the responses to her story ranged from sympathy to “How could she be so dumb?”  Here’s how (and how to avoid the same fate):

How Can You Be So Dumb?

Don’t be so smug. Very few people can tell a sociopath from a charming, sincere person (especially without meeting them).  While not all of the 25% of married, but “single” wannabes on dating websites are sociopaths, this statistic does let you know that you can’t always believe what you read . And when you’re vulnerable enough to fall in love,  your brain chemistry isn’t your friend. Your serotonin levels goes down (making you more obsessive–“when will I get the next email, the next text, the next call?”).  Your oxytocin level goes up (making you more trusting).  It’s what makes the world goes ’round, and what makes people easy pickin’s for the determined scam artist. Sociopaths most often target women over 50 for these dating scams. But it can happen to anyone.

Here are some tips to avoid becoming a victim:

1. Don’t give out personal information. Stick with what you’d  be comfortable telling a stranger.

2. Remember that online dating is efficient, but don’t become invested before you’ve met in person, and spent time with the individual.

3. If they put off meeting in person, put them off.

4. Good excuses: “I’m out of the country on business; I’m working two jobs,” may be true, but these excuses may simply be designed to keep you invested.

5. Never send money. Never e-send nude photos–they can be used to blackmail you.

6. Dating services don’t police their members–that’s your job.

Visit websites that help protect you:


Stop the Insanity: Children’s Birthday Parties

November 14, 2010

Last month I was interviewed for an article on extravagant birthday parties. For kids. The author of the piece, Vicki Glembocki, is a Mom of young children, and no doubt has begun to experience the anxiety-laden self-comparisons to uber-motherhood that have seeped into the pressure cooker we call childhood.  When Vicki asked me to comment on the phenomenon of the carnival-style, limo-driver, no expense spared birthday party, I suggested she ask parents one question.  “Whose needs are you meeting?”

Parents sometimes delude themselves with the notion that “We’re doing this for little Jimmy or Janey.”  You may be throwing a birthday bash for your child, but meeting your own needs instead. The adult motivations may be simple:

  1. Because you can.
  2. Because that’s the crowd you run in.
  3. To give your child an unforgettable day.
  4. Not to disappoint your child’s expectations.

Or the adult needs may be more complex:

  1. To assuage your guilt that you work so much.
  2. Because your parents couldn’t afford much of a fuss, and you want your child to feel very special. It’s your version of a redo of your own childhood.
  3. Because it reflects on what a loving parent you are.

But lost along the way is what a child needs. A child needs to feel safe and emotionally attached to a parent, parents and family members. One-time fancy events don’t create connection. It’s the day-to-day experience of emotional give-and-take that matters most between parent and child.  And the over-the-top extravaganza that screams, “My child is the center of the universe,” can backfire for children. Children already start life in the indebted column, the “After all I’ve done for you,” lesson which begins with the labor and delivery stories we tell children. It doesn’t help a child grow up if parents have done too much. How are you going to ever measure up to that set of over-sized expectations? You’ll either grow up with unreasonable expectations or remain Daddy’s little girl forever, passing along the lop-sided imbalance and tradition to the next generation.

So stop the insanity. And if you need help there’s now a Facebook group–“birthday party loot bags are stupid!” It’s a start.

BOO!…Be Afraid Of…the kids?

October 29, 2010

Goblins and witches are out in costume this weekend.  But for some parents, mischief night continues past Halloween. I counseled three sets of parents this week, who talked with me about being afraid of their kids.  Their fears were different. One father was afraid that his substance abusing teenager might attack him physically. An aging parent  worried about whether (and how) to broach a sensitive topic in hopes that her  adult daughter would open up. A third parent described a child’s verbal abusiveness. The tables had turned on these parents, as had the notion of who was in charge, in control, and in power in their relationships. While children begin life and relationship in a highly dependent position, the asymmetrical relationship fig 1between parent and child can eventually flip to one in which the child, growing or grown, uses the very power of the relationship bond to scare a parent into silence. Unhealed injuries between parent and child can become combustible over time. After all, no matter how hard parents try, children are sometimes emotionally hurt by parents, and perhaps surprisingly to kids, parents also get hurt by kids.

What’s a parent to do? First let’s dispense with the notion that power works. If you use power to win your point with your child, please note that eventually power will be used against you. Remember in all lifelong relationships, it’s trust not power that creates closeness.But by all means: Set limits… drug or alcohol-infused explosions are off-limits. You won’t get anywhere when a substance is in the mix for either parent or child alike.  Next, don’t withdraw out of fear, but engage.  Listen for the softer hurt feelings underneath a child’s angry stance.  Talk about the worries you have for your child. Own up to your own responsibility. Figure out what’s reasonable to expect, and whether your expectations are fair.  If they are, hold your child accountable.Offer kindness and understanding with one hand and limits that are in a child’s best interests with the other. And please consider seeking professional help if the goblins are still flying long after Halloween.

Revenge, Chocolate or Forgiveness?

September 24, 2010

Anger and thoughts of delicious retaliation, show that your brain (when scanned)  lights up in a similar pattern to someone eating chocolate. Long before neuro-imaging, we understood, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Neuroscientists have also demonstrated that we’re all hard-wired for both justice and revenge. If that’s all there were to human nature, “World War IV,” to quote Albert Einstein, “will be fought with sticks and stones.” Moving from the world stage to the personal relationship is the universal experience of being hurt by (or hurting) someone you love.   Then what? Revenge is a short-term strategy, unsuited for salvaging your relationship.

Forgiveness is the better long-term strategy, for the sake of your relationship as well as for your own health (ongoing anger equals ongoing stress). It’s rare that spouses, partners or family members who’ve hurt each other have a 100-0% split on the right and wrong of an injury. Yet people often mount competitive defenses instead of offering apologies. Feeling wronged results in a particular distortion: When you’re convinced of the rightness of your position, you’re far better at counting the stones that have hit you than the stones you’ve launched. I advise people to stop counting stones, and realize that in order to get a fair hearing, you’re going to have to give one.  What most of us want is a true apology.

If you’ve done harm there are key steps to take to earn forgiveness.

•Admit how you’re wrong (even though it’s not 100%). This “easier said than done” principle depends upon your ability for perspective taking, and your willingness to acknowledge the validity of your partner’s position.

•Show remorse. It’s the difference between showing that you feel sorry, and the pro-forma words of a sham apology, “I’m sorry you felt that way,” which is tantamount to saying, “Too bad you’re so sensitive.”

•Acknowledge the harmful, idiosyncratic and sometimes irreversible consequences your loved one has endured.

•Relate empathically over time, in deeds that are meaningful to the other.

If you’re the injured party, there are also responsibilities in accepting an apology. After all, remember that staying angry feels good (like eating chocolate). Staying hurt and angry allows you to remain in power, in control in your relationship. Now you have the leverage of not receiving.  Being willing to receive again is a conscious decision, an over-ride to feelings of mistrust and hurt. What goes into this decision?

•Your willingness to accept partial responsibility, whether to a misunderstanding, or to a more complex pattern of negative relating.

•Your ability to identify specific changes, whether small or large, that you need to claim from your family member in order to heal and to trust again.

•Your recognition that forgiveness isn’t a by-product of moral superiority (“I’m a better person, so I’ll forgive you”), but the result of an ongoing process between people.

Finally, it’s important to accept your humanity.  While anger is a natural expression of feeling unfairly treated and wronged, it’s not good to remain in the chronic fight or flight state that anger and thoughts of revenge evoke. Forgiveness is a choice. You won’t forget. There is no Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that allows you to erase memory. But you can forgive–yourself and each other for what was done to you, by you, and for what you didn’t know, but now have learned.