They might be an alien…

They might be an alien…

If you haven’t read the Crazy, Stupid, Awful blog, go ahead and do that first. 

. . . . . . 

For fun, to help a couple who has a deeply difficult time understanding the other’s internal logic, I gave them an assignment to watch a sci-fi or fantasy movie for a date night, or even a family movie night. I requested that it be something neither of them had seen, and that they let me know what it was, so that I could make sure I watched it before we met again.

I suppose this could work with any kind of movie, but I thought the extra distance element might help. 

So, when we got back together, we spent several minutes talking about what makes sense in the movie that would NOT make sense in Real Life? And then taking it to the character level (which is why it might work with any kind of movie). When this heroine does this amazing thing at the end of the movie – does it make sense? (Yes, if the movie’s any good.) And would it make sense if any other character did that amazing thing at the end? (No, if the movie’s any good.)

And then we go through what we learn (that is, what the movie writers, directors, and editors teach us) about each character so that their behavior makes sense. In a well-done story of any kind, the writer has to give you certain pieces of information so that the characters’ actions are understandable. And because writers try to give readers/watchers at least a few different main characters (with different background, motivations, etc.), most stories will work for this exercise. 

Now, if your partner is an alien, you need them to teach you what things are like “on their planet” or “with their species.” You need them to teach you, as if they are the writer/director/editor of a movie about them, what you need to know about their biology/neurology/history/experiences/culture in order to understand why they – as a character in this story – do not behave in the same way you do. And you need to simultaneously realize – YOU are not the earthling. You are not the holder of all reality, and that’s where the sci-fi/fantasy thing helps more, I think. 

I don’t think this is specifically a lot different than any kind of empathy or phenomenological understanding or perspective taking work, but it was helpful with these clients who really struggle. And now they have a language to say to each other, “That’s not really how it works with my species” or “How is that different on your planet?” that is giving them a little more space to talk about their differences in a friendly way.

And they had a fun date night. 🙂 

Comment below: How do you help clients who really struggle with this?!







The Most Important Question – The Scrubbing Bubbles Story

The Most Important Question – The Scrubbing Bubbles Story

Sometimes, therapy is REALLY easy and short.

But first, let me tell you a story. 

So, I was cleaning the kitchen tile grout when I moved into my new house. (Yes, those are my actual kitchen tiles, in progress. ACK! And it is beige grout, not white, just so you don’t get all judgey on me! Haha! ) This is how that went: Squat, Spray, Wait, Scrub, Spray, Wait, Scrub, Rinse, Heave-off-of-creaking-knees-to-move-two-feet, Squat, Spray, Wait… for FIVE HOURS. And then, something happened that I thought was a complete disaster. … Halfway through my kitchen, I ran out of spray. 

“Oh no!” I thought to myself. “Now I’m going to have to change sprays and use the crappy spray under my sink that is not the special spray I bought for cleaning tile grout and it’s going to be so much more work and so much more time… WAAAAAAAH!” But I decided to do that (rather than, I realize now, going to the store and buying more, which possibly could have saved me a bunch of time, but I was messy and sweaty and cranky and didn’t want to.) So, I huffed out a breath and got the other spray out from under my sink. 

It was a miracle spray. WHAT?! NO squatting – the spray stream was awesomely direct and I could spray every grout line standing up. NO waiting – by the time I got back to my initially-spray tile, it had already done its work. Almost no scrubbing – this spray was amazing effective! I finished the rest of the kitchen in under an hour.

So much pain and effort and time saved, by just trying something different that was already at my disposal, even though I thought it wouldn’t work.

Some of the ways this has shown up in therapy:

  • How’s your sleeping?
  • Have you recently changed medications? 
  • Are you sure that’s necessary? 
  • Did you tell them that out loud? 

I probably could have titled this “The Most Important Question – What have they tried so far?” But then, that would have been too easy and short, right? 

Comment below: What have been some of the wildly easy “fixes” that have made a big impact for your clients? 





Trees and Taproots

Trees & Taproots

You know how I like to have metaphor-ready stuff in my office. (See the other Office Supplies posts here, here, here, and here.) This is a drawing of a real tree that exists and even thrives, despite a meager attachment to its later (non-primary) supports. 

And this is a remarkable tree. And I think that’s honestly more the purview of motivational speakers – “You too can be THIS tree!!” I don’t think most clients resonate with that kind of thing, because it’s to o easy to say, “But I’m not that strong, special, etc…”

I often talk about plants, trees, nature, etc. in therapy with clients (and, myself having a black thumb in real life, I do sense the irony.) I have a few current clients who are pretty established gardeners and out interactions have led me to at least a lot more successful reading about plants! 

And something I learned recently is that most trees and plants start out life with a “taproot” – a long, primary source of nutrients that tends to head straight down wherever the seeding begins to grow. Some plants keep their taproot forever. Some vegetables, like carrots, ARE taproots! Some plants never establish a taproot. But most trees and plants start out with a taproot and, once they are established in their environment, stop using the taproot for nutrition in favor of their lateral roots. Like this extraordinary tree. 

Certainly, a healthy taproot in a young plant is a great thing. (I am talking about the early childhood environment here, in case that isn’t yet clear!) But a strong taproot isn’t always a great thing – it makes transplanting more difficult and overreliance on it can make plants vulnerable in ways that a strong lateral root system can compensate for. And I think that can sometimes be a really important thing for clients to learn – because most clients didn’t have or don’t have a perfect “taproot” family-of-origin experience. And that’s not the end of their thriving. 

Comment below: How (and how often! ha!!) have you used gardening/planting/growing things/plants as a metaphor in therapy? And as always, share your own metaphors!

Photo Source: This gem was drawn for me by my best friend! Thanks, Lisa!!






“Untangling” Couples/Family Dynamics

“Untangling” Couples/Family Dynamics

I just love it when a metaphor shows up in real life in all its glory – slaps me in the face or lands in the palm of my hand…

Untangling these actual, real-life necklaces, the metaphor of “untangling” family dynamics in session just couldn’t be ignored:


  • Too much stress on the system locks everything up!
  • Sometimes you can see the problem knot right from the start, often you can’t
  • Work on whichever place is most ready to move
  • Be patient, and willing to pause and come back fresh
  • Opening up space takes a gentle “massage” of the whole system
  • Focus on all the strands, but know that the change usually happens in one small spot at a time
  • The main work is a lot of observing the same territory over and over, with gentle optimism
  • Consider small pushes along with pulls, movement can happen in more than one direction
  • Don’t drop it in the middle of the work! haha!
  • Small progress can feel like no progress, or moving backward, but it’s not
  • Anything that promotes space and movement is progress, even if you can’t see the end yet
  • Once things are moving, don’t go too fast – hold the spaces open and go gently
  • A misstep isn’t the end of the world – what gets tangled can get untangled
  • Every once in a awhile, loosen the tension on the whole mess
  • Continually look at the whole system from different angles
  • Be aware…pulling on one strand can cause tightness in others
  • When things are moving, keep an eye on every strand to see what’s happening, or new snarls might pop up in seemingly untangled areas
  • Be close enough to work, but keep your distance – you can’t untangle if you become a strand! Or even if you get too stressed while working on it.

Comment below: Can you flesh out that metaphor even more? What therapy metaphors have “jumped out” at you in the past?






Forest Wandering (A Couples’ Metaphor)

Forest Wandering (A Couples’ Metaphor)

In a perfect world, we go through life with our partners sometimes walking hand in hand, and sometimes exploring within earshot, and occasionally going off on our own but easily finding our way back to each other. Totally in sync, perfect partners know each others’ maps perfectly, and keep them continually updated. 

But sometimes, it suddenly seems like our partner is in an entirely different place – they confuse us because they don’t feel the way we expect or don’t respond how we think they will.  Sometimes that comes out like “You’re obviously wrong!” or “Stop being stupid!” or “You hurt me on purpose!” or “You should have known better!”

We entered the forest at the same place, maybe, but they’ve apparently popped out on the other side in a way different place than we have. It’s easy to imagine they’ve teleported, but it’s not true. They walked, same as us. They just walked a different path. Finding out what it was takes courage and openness. But it’s worth it, to know your partner’s landscape! 

When our partners surprise us, first we need to notice we’re surprised – sometimes that can be hard under the hurt or anger, or we’ve let it go on so long that we’re “used to it” by now because “they’re always like that.” But once we realize that they have some wildly different idea than we do, or that they seem to be acting crazy, or that this ostensibly smart/thoughtful/brave/loyal/etc person that we got together with seems to be replaced by an evil clone… we can do the work. And it’s as simple as, “I didn’t expect that [behavior, response, thought]… will you tell me how you got there?”

Simple, but not always easy. 

Rest assured – our partners VERY RARELY get replaced by evil clones. They probably aren’t crazy, malicious, or stupid. We just have to manage our own negative emotions, snap judgments, and other reactionary reactions long enough to hear it.


Comment below: Have you experienced this your relationship? How have you taught clients/couples to do this process? 





Measuring Sticks

Measuring Sticks

Do you remember Mary Poppins’ measuring tape? When she measures Michael, it reads “Rather Stubborn and Suspicious” and when she measures Jane, it reads “Inclined to Giggle Doesn’t put things away.” And what does it say when she measures herself? “Practically Perfect in Every Way.” 

Clients come in to therapy with their own measuring sticks – and based on their own histories, experiences, biases, fears, hopes, etc. – they have a tendency to believe that their measuring stick is the RIGHT measuring stick. They’re quick to assume that their memory of the last argument, their assumption about their partner’s (or boss’ or kids’) intention, their prediction of the future is practically perfect in every way

One of the biggest and most pervasive challenges in therapy, I think, is getting clients to trade in their rulers. (After all, they’ve been using this trusty ruler since childhood, probably. It must be a good one!) Sometimes, they’ve been using “trick rulers” that just don’t measure the peril or injustice (etc.) in the world in an accurate way. (Yes! Those are real, and I want to buy one for therapy to use in a fun experiential activity, but I can’t bring myself to spend the $25!) Helping clients to recognize that maybe their genetics, physiology, past trauma, or many other factors have distorted their way of measuring may work better in a metacognitive kind of way than just helping them to measure each situation more accurately. 

Sometimes, they’re using their own ruler to judge someone else’s experience instead of using the other person’s ruler. In those cases, even if they have a super “accurate” ruler (which they probably don’t) or they took notes on the last session with their kid, or they recorded the last argument with their partner, or they pull out the email from their boss – they don’t get any close to understand the other person’s experience or intention by judging with their own rulers. 

I think a lot of this dysfunction comes from a generically nice place. When kids are little, they’re often told things like, “Don’t take Cindy’s doll. How would you feel if Cindy took your doll?” Which is probably better than not thinking about Cindy’s feelings or experience at all, but it makes the mistake of assuming that Cindy will have the same or similar experience to us. But what if we have 100 dolls and Cindy only has 2? We may damage Cindy so much, destroy the relationship, and be completely perplexed about why we’ve lost our best friend! What if we love Barbies and would treasure this stolen Barbie in a deeply forbidden, guilty way, but Cindy hates Barbies and wouldn’t really care? Then we miss an opportunity to ask Cindy if we could share or have her Barbie, Cindy misses out on an experience of altruism, we don’t get to enjoy and treasure the Barbie in a shame-free way, and we both miss out on building intimacy. 

Judging the world, and other people, solely from our own perspectives destines us for failures in empathy. Even if our measuring stick is more accurate than someone else’s. 

Comment below: How have you helped clients to use a different ruler or make theirs more accurate? 





Parenting is Like Holding Water

Parenting is like holding water…

This past year I’ve seen a number of families with grown children, or parents with teens or young adults. And one thing that most of them seem to have in common is the challenge of changing the relationship (and themselves!) as their kids develop. 

Of course, as infants, kids are completely dependent, and parents construct all of their experiences. As they get older, they begin to watch TV or read books that we haven’t read, to have conversations with friends and teachers that we aren’t a part of… they begin to differentiate from parents. Parents no longer know all the information, stories, experiences, memories, ideas, feelings, etc. in their kids’ heads. But often they continue to act as if they are constructing their kids’ realities, and don’t think to begin to add mutual self-disclosure to the relationship. Kids are becoming new people, and parents now need to learn who they are. As preteens and teens, of course the divide widens. Peer influences get stronger and this is sometimes when parents suddenly notice that they “don’t recognize this kid!” That’s not the kid’s fault… they’re just developing. It’s the parents (in most cases) who have not updated their maps of their kids as they have grown and changed. 

Many of the parents of teens and young adults I’ve been seeing are trying desperately to hold onto their kids, to continue to construct their realities. They’re trying to hold water. 

Imagine holding your hand under a a tiny stream of water drops. (Better yet, go do this!) When there are just a few drops, you can hold them all in your palm. When the pool of water gets bigger, if you focus on balance and negotiating the tiny changes, you can hold quite a bit for quite a while. At some point, though, the water becomes more than we can hold. At this moment, if we panic, and try to squeeze the water tightly to keep it from running over, it all squeezes out and we lose it all. This is what a lot of these parents are trying to do – hold their kids tightly because they’re afraid of losing them. 

Note that I didn’t title this “Parenting is like TRYING to hold water” …if parents can “hold them lightly,” they can’t hold onto all of their kids, but they can hold some of them, and certainly more than they can if they squeeze. 

By holding kids lightly, I don’t mean necessarily being overly permissive or just being friends. Parents still need structure – a loose, dangling hand can’t hold any water either! I mean everyday inviting your kid into a real, mutual relationship with you – that means a relationship that changes as they change! (and as you change!) And it means accepting their invitations into a real relationship, even when it’s not completely on yours terms (e.g., play time when you’d rather read, listening to music that sounds like noise, caring about “teen drama,” supporting their interests and choices even when they’re not what you would choose).


Comment below: What thoughts do you have about this holding water metaphor? Did you try it experientially? What metaphors do you sometimes use with parents?   





Couples Metaphor – Yoga

Yoga for Couples

Here’s a great relationship metaphor… but be aware that it might not work as well for clients who have no experience with yoga!


What about thinking about your relationship the way you think about your yoga practice?


  • 1) Set your intention. When you’re tuned in to your practice, mindfully present, your practice goes better. You know it does. When you’re just there because it’s Tuesday morning, when you’re checked out because you have a busy day ahead, when you’re there even when you know that sleeping in would have been healthier for you… your practice suffers.
    • Whether this is about the initiation of a relationship, or about a communication within a relationship you have, being mindfully aware of what you are entering into is crucial.
  • 1a) Be honest about that. It does no good to set your intention to “peace” during your yoga practice when you know you’re too worked up, or if it’s a Hot Power Flow class! You don’t need your intention to be the same as anyone else’s, and certainly not “better” than theirs (as if that’s possible).
    • In your relationship, there’s no point in setting an intention you “should” have, rather than the one you actually do have. Those “shoulds” might come from you, your history, your facebook feed, wherever. But it’s worth it to be honest with yourself about what you’re looking for.
  • 1b) Change if necessary. In addition to being honest, you want your intention to be healthy. If you’ve honestly reflected and your intention for your practice is to look better than the person next you, or to make and hold a pose regardless of your injuries… well, that’s why we set our intentions early in the practice – so we don’t waste all of that time and effort chasing something harmful.
    • Likewise, if you can tell that your intention for the relationship – or the argument – is just to win, to be “better than,” to have something you know will be nice now but damaging in the future… it’s time to rethink. Before that argument starts, preferably.


  • 2) Be gentle. We know that gentle stretching increases flexibility safely and – because it doesn’t cause damage – it doesn’t injure us and set us back. Similarly, gently breathing through discomfort and gently encouraging yourself to build strength go a long way toward not just finishing your practice well… but showing up the next day. Being a harsh critic has no place in yoga.
    • When communicating with your partner, always err on the side of gentleness. Clarity is important, yes. But more important is that additional damage doesn’t occur, setting the conversation back further. Going slowly, staying together, breathing through discomfort, gentle encouragement… these are powerful relationship changers, even though they aren’t dramatic.
  • 2a) Don’t expect the same “performance” every time. Every day and every practice is different. Although we tend to grow in healthy ways and make sustainable gains in yoga, what was easy yesterday may be difficult today. For many reasons, a joint may be stiff or a muscle sore.
    • Likewise, there are always multiple factors working in and around us in our relationships. While you can expect pleasant changes over time (in the context of healthy communication and such), it’s a bad idea to “microjudge” yourself or your partner. No need to hold yourself strictly accountable to being exactly the same all the time. 


  • 3) Don’t rush to the end. There is no “end.” There’s no winning in yoga. There’s no “being right.” It’s not a competition. It’s a practice.
    • Work slowly and gently, with the process in mind, more than the outcome. Too often, we’ve already decided the only acceptable outcome for us in advance, but then there’s no space to grow.
  • 3a) Don’t work on everything all at once. Building strength and flexibility in one area certainly benefits other areas. You’ve probably been to a yoga class that emphasized “twisting” and on another day emphasized “warrior strength.” And while that might mean that the overall
    • You needn’t cover all the


  • 4) Namaste. During the whole practice (and at the end), remember to honor the divine light within you, your instructor, and everyone present. It helps to maintain the growth-mindset rather than the competition mindset.
    • At the beginning, at the end, and whenever you need to in the middle of your communication – remind yourself (and maybe your partner) that this is a fully alive human being, deserving of love and respect. Remind yourself that you are, too.
  • 4a) End with peace. No matter what happens during practice, whether your legs were shaking in crescent, you fell out of tree pose, or anything else… savasana is always there.
    • Sometime when you aren’t in conflict, work out a peaceful place for yourself and your partner. Words you can say to reassure one another, something you can do together, or a place you can literally go that is “sacred” and set apart, that doesn’t involve conflict. Then, you always have something to look forward to. Even if that isn’t possible, make sure you have that for yourself, so that you can rest and recover… and come back the next day.


Double Triple Bonus points if you get clients to attend yoga together to enhance the metaphor!

Comment below: This metaphor seems endlessly rich to me! How can you contribute to it?





Explore Colonize Conquer

Explore, Colonize, Conquer

First, thank you to my clients (M&K) who gave birth to this metaphor with me. It has been so powerful, and not just in your lives.


When you meet another person, you aren’t just meeting another person. You’re meeting another person and all of their territory. By “territory,” I mean all of their thoughts, feelings, and neurophysiological responses that are based in the totality of their history and experiences. All of these are fundamentally different from your territory and fundamentally unknowable without that person’s willing guidance.

There are three ways to approach a new territory.

  • As a conqueror.
    • A conqueror knows what’s right and best. They force or coerce to get their own way. They take over – abolishing what was in favor of what they want. They destroy and replace. They wage war – loudly and quietly.
    • You can tell a conqueror by their actions and their language. They are forceful, uncompromising. They listen poorly (distorting) or not at all. They say things like, “yes, but…” and “But I…”
    • Everyone is a conqueror sometimes, whether you wish to think it about yourself or not. So, drop the pride and take stock. Pay attention to yourself. It’s more subtle than you think and it’s sinister. It feels right when you’re doing it. It feels…righteous. Don’t be what you don’t want to be.
  • As a colonizer.
    • A colonizer is pleased with their own way. They know they can bring good things to the new situation. Manners, refinement, worthy (if different) traditions. Changes…but only good changes (or so they protest)!
    • You can tell a colonizer by their actions and their language. They seem accommodating at first, and then you’re surprised when you’ve acquiesced. They listen, but artfully dismiss. They say things like, “I think we should…” and “how about we…”
    • Everyone is a colonizer sometimes, whether you wish to think it about yourself or not. (Oh! Therapists are SO guilty of this, so often!) So, drop the pride and take stock. Pay attention to yourself. It’s much, much more subtle than conquering. It’s (ostensibly) gentler. It feels more right. Don’t be what you don’t want to be.
  • As an explorer.
    • An explorer wants only to be exposed and educated. They do not have pre-formed opinions. They are completely open, and prepared to handle surprises gently and with curiosity and grace. They simply want to know more, hear more, understand more fully and accurately. They have no desire to change what is.
    • You can also tell an explorer by their actions and words. They make space for what is new. They ask honest questions to clarify what is new or unclear. They go slowly, without encroaching. They listen.
    • As therapists, we hope to be explorers. In relationships (romantic, familial, etc.), exploring is crucial. But it takes a lot of work, and self-management…it’s not anyone’s natural instinct.


In theory, you and this other person want (to some extent, at least!) to merge your borders and create “our land.” The ONLY healthy way to do this is as explorers first, then settlers – cultivating the shared land together, harmoniously.



Comment with thoughts on expanding this metaphor, or your own couples’ metaphor!



Metaphors in Therapy

It might just be me, but metaphors are one of the most useful and most enjoyable things I do in therapy. How it develops as session moves forward…it’s so very alive! And it’s the perfect blend of co-creation, client investment, being in the here-and-now, and creating that shared vocabulary and those “inside jokes” that really solidify the relationship.

Metaphor open doors and windows. They grow into fruit-bearing stories. They are infused with energy, like water, like light, like electricity.

Here are some of my favorite, most typically-useful metaphors.

  • Therapy/life as a quest
  • Self as a house
  • Family as an ecosystem
  • Psychotherapy as physical therapy/working out
  • Relationships as a garden

Here’s the thing about metaphors. You need to be open to them – both hearing them in session and seeing them in the world. Have you ever seen the show “House?” Dr. House is an amazing diagnostician in part because he is outrageously knowledgeable and competent. But if you’ve watched the show, you know that a lot of what seems like magic happens because his brain – the sort of white noise that’s always activated – is always open. He’s got the client du jour floating in the background, always, so that when other (seemingly random) things happen, it clicks.

Once I was driving, and saw someone transporting a leather sofa in the back of their truck. I thought, “They’re lucky it isn’t raining!” But then… it became a metaphor for a client that week, who was tempting fate with her vulnerability. Another time, it was writing a stock “thank you note” that prompted a metaphor about a client’s timid, prepared communication and how it was often appreciated in the moment but then forgotten and not incorporated into her relationships.

Yes, be careful. Metaphors only go so far. Also, I know I’m providing you with some “stock” metaphors here, but the other risk is that your metaphor either doesn’t fit the client’s experience or (worse!) they make your metaphor fit their experience, and then it’s not authentic. So, please, invite them to co-create with you!

(And yes, I will do more posts that flesh out each of those metaphors, and more!)

Comment: What are your favorite therapy metaphors?





Emotions for engineers

Emotions (for Engineers)

I know this is not typical, but I’d like to share with you an intensely useful metaphor that I absolutely hate. Hating it is especially difficult for me, because I made it up. It’s just not….me. But it’s wildly effective with some clients – especially the analytical, emotionally restricted, very controlled clients.

Let’s start with this: there are 6 basic human emotions. (I know, some researchers say 5, 7, or 9. Some are currently working on disputes. Of course, there are cultural, familial, and other influences. Maybe that’s a topic for another day, along with the relative absence of really good emotion lists or wheels. Today, we speak of Paul Ekman, the father of universal emotion research.)


And while I most want to write about the varieties of emotional experiencing, primary vs. secondary emotions, emotion constellations, and more, instead I’m going to tell you how I sometimes talk to people about emotions who aren’t as “into” emotions as I am. This may be because they’re truly alexithymic, because they were raised in a traditional male gender role or any of a number of cultural systems that value emotional restriction, or because they’re Vulcan. Here goes:

Think of emotions as an internal indicator about the allocation of resources in your environment. Resources could be anything – money, time, relationships, etc.

FEAR – Fear is an emotion that tells us a resource is in danger. The importance of the resource and the level of perceived danger (in intensity, closeness, and ability to deal with it) will determine whether we feel nervous (like when the resource of social status might be threatened by potentially having poor public speaking performance next week) or terrified (the resource of life/health is threatened by an oncoming 18-wheeler).

SADNESS – Sadness is the feeling we have when a resource has been lost. Again, the level of sadness we feel is determined by a few moderators like the importance of the resource (like a close family member), the irretrievability/irreplaceability (like death as opposed to a job loss), and the “realness” (e.g., we feel disappointment when we perceive a loss of something we didn’t actually have yet).

ANGER – We experience anger when resources are perceived to have been distributed unfairly. When we don’t get something that we believe that we deserve, we feel anger in response. It’s something that we can feel this as a response to someone else being unfairly resourced – an abused child being denied safety and love, the environment being destroyed through improper resource management, our kid not winning the science fair even though their project was definitely better than those other kids’.

(note: people often experience anger or something like anger as a “secondary” or “substitute” emotion when they have learned that other emotions are too painful or not acceptable to express, typically fear and/or sadness. More on this in another post, sometime.)

DISGUST – Disgust occurs when a resource is potentially threatened with corrosion or infection. This can be a physiological kind of disgust, like when we are exposed to an obviously ill person or a rotted food. It can also be when we believe our character/environment might be threatened with moral decay or infection by the presence of contemptible others.

JOY – Joy happens when we believe our resources (again, this includes all kinds of resources – money, love, status, purpose, etc.) are sufficient and safe. If we have just enough and aren’t worried, we feel contentment. We may even feel a burst of happiness or delight when we receive an unexpected resource – a winning lotto ticket or spontaneous hug. (You might prefer to use the word “happiness” for this emotion in general because you believe “joy” is tied up with purpose and meaning. Great; I support that!)

INTEREST – Interest, like all of the emotions, comes in different intensities. For example, curiosity, wonder, and awe are emotions we feel when we recognize that a resource is salient. It often combines with other emotions to tell us how salient a resource is in what way. It acts as a modifier (e.g., telling us whether something is a bit scary, pretty scary, or very scary).


It’s a work in progress, so comments below, especially if you have questions or ideas!






All Hail the Lotus! 

There’s a reason the lotus appears on virtually every psychotherapy (and spa) website from the east to the west of the internet. Not only is the lotus beautiful, but it grows out of mud, so it makes a great therapy metaphor. And you get to quote Thich Nhat Hanh, which is always a plus.

But that is not a lotus, you notice.

Ellis, why do you have a common houseplant on your blog?

Let me introduce you to the philodendron, the underappreciated gardening-therapy metaphor. The philodendron is an ordinary, yet extraordinary, plant.

First, it can grow almost anywhere, in almost any way. It can have roots underground and/or above ground. It can get all of its needs met through the soil, through rain, or even just through the air. It changes its growth methods based on the resources available, its own maturity level, and its changing needs for nutrients and light. The philodendron can live and thrive in almost any environment.

It makes symbiotic relationships with other plant and animal life, wherever it finds itself. This includes its neighbors – nearby plants and the trees on which it sometimes grows. It also includes traditionally undesirable companions, such as ants, trading shelter for the ants’ nests in return for the ants’ protection. Oh, and they have good boundaries – their glossy leaves are a natural deterrent to many insects and larger herbivores, like deer, so they don’t get taken advantage of easily.

When it is time to grow new leaves, the philodendron first creates a small pocket of protection for the new sprout. Once it’s grown enough, this pocket is no longer needed, and it lets it go. When it does, it leaves a tiny scar – a reminder.

There are almost 500 recognized subspecies, and even philodendrons from the same subspecies will look different depending on their stage of life, the specific environment they’ve grown in, and the various resources available.

They’re happy to “stay single,” mate with other philodendrons, or hybridize with other plants. They may enjoy a full life a few feet tall, close to home at the base of a tree. Or they may grow outward, covering tropical forest floors or gloriously wild backyards. Some will grow spectacularly tall, using nearby supports to reach heights of over 1000 feet high. They’re even happy to hang out in your house.

Best of all – I found out about philodendrons because I have something of a black thumb… I don’t seem to care very well for things that don’t communicate verbally. They’re virtually indestructible. And you can trust me, because I’ve even killed aloe vera. More than once.

Now tell me, do you want your clients to be a lotus? Or to be like the incredibly hardy, adaptable, diverse, relationally competent philodendron?

Or, leave a comment with your own plant-metaphor!