Enemy or ‘straw man’?

Lisa Tolliver Therapy Louisville KY Narcissists Christian Integrative Counseling

Do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend?   Abraham Lincoln

If you’re near middle age — or even if you’re not– you may recognize the band in this image: Public Enemy.  For the past several months many factors have had me thinking about enemies, and how we make differences into terms on the basis of which we look down on, or hate, others.  This is all tied up with our own self image, and how secure (or insecure) we are in ourselves.   Partly, this comes from stories I keep hearing from the clients I see, but even more so, from the zeitgeist one can hear underneath our news stories.  It seems we humans are always tempted to make others into capital “O” others– Others who are “less than”, pitiable, tainted, or The Enemy.  Lately this tendency in the culture seems out of control. I’m struck by how much effort it takes to police our own psychic boundaries when we’re trying to create worth by denigrating an Other.  And by contrast, by how peaceful our frame of mind can be when are able to grow a healthier sense of self.  Then we can trust our own worth, and let go of making enemies of others.

In this frame of mind, I was reading back issues of a quarterly on psychology and spirituality I’ve lately found. I came across this essay by psychologist and professor Roy Barsness, PhD.  I found it insightful, and have decided to post an excerpt, below.  

It was September 11, 2001. The world sat stunned by a violent attack on our nation. For a few days, the world stopped and our vulnerability and grief held us ever so gently. The physical attack was also a psychological one, and the narcissistic injury became too much to bear, burning deeply into our national psyche, revealing to us our insecurity. Thus, we created our own image of the other and went to war. Our invincibility was injured, and we discovered we were as vulnerable as others in this world. Soon our humility turned to injury.  We forgot our commonness and went to battle to prove our prowess. I will always wonder what would have happened if we would have found a way to respond in humility.  Where would we be today if we had cooperated with other nations to sort out the state of affairs in the world and to discover ways to build bridges, instead of destroying them?

As columnist George Will wrote:  “It is a peculiar kind of patriot today that says that by this war, America “will get its pride back.” Since when has American pride derived primarily from military episodes?  A nation that constantly worries about its pride should worry.  It is apt to confect military occasions for bucking itself up, using foreign policy for psychotherapy.”

What we did at that moment, nationally, is what we do personally every day, creating an other in order to do harm. Psychologist William James chillingly tells us, “[that,] the hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way.”  Pride is insistent in fashioning an opposite in order to define itself. The bondage to pride is that the other must always be kept in their place. Consequently, pride is competitive; it objectifies the other and harms by demeaning them. The other is made different and less-than. We create the other in our own negative image to deny the reality of our co-humanity, deceiving ourselves from the reality that we are more human than otherwise. When we look at pride from a psychological perspective, it is always within the dynamics of the interpersonal (for example, the harm done to others in negating their participation in identity formation). This is compatible theologically, for the self that denies God also denies that which God has created, negating both God and the other in the understanding of one’s own identity.

If you’d like to read Barsness’ entire article, here is the link:


Ordinary narcissism: True & false specialness

We are never so defenseless against suffering, as when we love. -Sigmund Freud

Narcissist counseling therapy, Lisa Tolliver, M.S. LPsyA, Louisville KY 40207

As all of us know there are many deaths that befall us in our lifetime — the most feared, perhaps, being our physical death. So wounding is the loss of someone we love, so painful as we rest him or her back into the care of mother earth, that it overshadows all other pain. But there are other ‘little deaths’ that befall us in life. To have one’s reputation subject to slur and innuendo is a loss, to forgo the presence of former friends, – usually because of small but hurtful misunderstandings — is even called the death of a friendship. Obviously to experience a major financial loss can be experienced as a death. But there is a more ominous killer among us, a killer that can alienate us not only from our friends but also from the struggle to make our way in our very complex world. A killer which can distract us from the struggle to find what makes us REAL, in life, rather than just reactive. It can close us off from what opens our minds to mystery rather than to mere formulas. Like a mutating virus, this menace has many forms: one of which analytic depth psychology speaks about as the ‘defense of specialness.’ It is also characterized by the shorthand term ‘narcissism.’
Narcissism is the excessive need to be noticed. It seen in an excessive need to be right, to be adored, to be always the best. The unexamined conviction, for example, that only by holding absolutely to one’s own interpretation of what is going on in the world does one thereby achieve some kind of lasting personal significance. There is something truly profound in the human quest for truth, yet simultaneously tragic when we are convinced we 100% have it. Narcissism is ultimately, as Freud noted, an attempt to avoid suffering. The problem, of course, is that it only brings more suffering. And it closes us off to love.
The goal of a liberal education, throughout history, has always been to bring such a paradox to full consciousness. When one does not appreciate the complexity of human experience, one can easily experience sharp suspicion if someone, for example, questions one’s worldview. Narcissistic righteousness dismisses alternate opinions. This is a tendency we see at play culture-wide, now, as social dialogue has grown increasingly shrill and polarized.
And you don’t have to be a narcissist to suffer from this. All we humans are subject to falling sway to our own, small, narcissism at times. But if you, or someone you know, has this wound as their primary approach to the world, then you know how limiting and disabling it is. And you also know that the first hurdle the sufferer must clear on the way to recovery is simply realizing, much less admitting, that they have the problem.
Those who live with narcissists can find help in such approaches as that devised by Wendy Behary, LCSW in her book, Disarming the Narcissist.
But as I mentioned, everyone is prone to the growth of “small N” narcissism. And pervasive social media use makes us more susceptible. So, can we protect ourselves from such a psychological virus? Narcissism closes us off from the world, and from other people. So, certainly to allow ourselves to be truly known & loved by those close to us, offers some protection. To allow ourselves to be fully known by another is healing, in and of itself. And it counters narcissism because we know that the other loves us, warts and all. Because of all of who we are, not just the parts we think are acceptable, or ‘perfect.’ This is something we receive in a good, long-term therapeutic relationship, as well as in caring friendships and, of course, from spouses. And, as well, the love we absorb from those who love us for who we are mirrors the love of our Creator, for us. Everything in creation is special, not because of what it does, but because it was called into being by the One whose love is infinite. We can receive this love, but we can’t bottle and hang onto it.
As many thinkers have noted, we humans are prone to try to ease our existential anxiety by ‘stealing immortality’– By seeking certainties, or power, that give us the illusion that we aren’t mere contingent human beings. But by so doing, we close ourselves off to life. Here in this holiday season, a commitment to stay open to love, right in the midst of our vulnerability, can go a long way toward bringing true happiness & contentment.

Put out into the Deep

Wellness Integrative Therapy Louisville KY 40207

We often say we want to grow. The question is are we willing to do what it takes. It’s easy to read books or hear talks or read blogs. It’s hard to look within, take stock of ourselves and quietly apply ourselves to genuine change, genuine soul work. It requires movement away from what we’re used to, surface, and descent into what we are not used to: in other words, depth.

When we stay on the surface, stuck with where we’ve been and not letting go and changing – deepening – then misery results. When we are willing to look deeper, then yes– we often do come in contact with our pain. But also it’s then that the gateway to transformation and change opens.

How silly we can be as a species. We know there’s another way, the way of truth to self, to the holy and to depth of experience, yet we resist be-ing with ourselves. We don’t set aside time to be away from endless distractions.

So it goes, with our daily life. Surface or depth? When we’re in pain, we’re willing to consider things we haven’t. We’re willing to open up and see so that we’ll feel better, so the pain will stop. But, the telling really comes in the daily living. To be able to choose depth, to choose to be fully present and take off our blinders– No matter what others say or how they pressure us. This is depth. Surface bids us go for the tepid pat on the back, rather than risk being with our depths. But being with our depths can bring all the difference.

Waking up recently, I remembered a dream. It spoke of forces from my past, professional groups demanding allegiance, old dysfunctional relationships demanding conformity, friends who demanded adherence to “this way or that” of seeing things. In the dream, I saw from a distance what had once been so up close and personal and I suddenly had more clarity, and felt more freedom of choice. A breath from the flow of all things swept through me, and I turned and left the scene, ready to move on with my life and new decisions regarding surface or depth.

Fear of success, your brain chemistry, & the deep soul.

Fear of success; failure; depression; shame; Louisville KY Therapy
“I have lost so many opportunities. They’re like trains I just LET go by! How did I let this happen to me?!”
What pulled at ‘Julie’s’* mind was all the choices in her life she had not dared to make. She felt saddened by a potential that she had never dared to grow. Her friends told her to get help for depression; Julie knew she felt ‘down,’ but somehow thought it wasn’t simple depression. She felt that she had tremendous creativity, passion, and energy that was held back somehow. “It’s like it’s trapped behind a brick wall,” she said. “I don’t know whether I’ve been more afraid that I’d fail, or that I’d succeed,” she said. And then, with a pained expression, “Does that even make any sense?”
I assured her it did make sense. And I agreed with her that she wasn’t just suffering from a ‘simple depression.’ Fears of success and failure often go together. The description Julie gave sounded like what depth psychologists know as “the refusal of your calling.” It’s a sign that there is an unlived life potential within you. Having the sense of a calling is both exhilarating and frightening. It’s a new idea to many people in these days where the culture seems awash both with inspirational messages and cynical ones. The cynical messages tell us that everything is meaningless, and we are doomed to fail. The inspirational messages tell us we can achieve absolutely anything we want, and that getting what we want is a simple, uncomplicated matter. Both messages, taken at face value, are false.
One of the insights of psychology (as well as all major world religions) is that nothing in life is a completely simple, uncomplicated matter. Everything has its shadow side, and every journey has its twists and turns. Every gain risks a loss. Some losses are inevitable, and must be mourned. We human beings are complicated creatures indeed, fearfully & wonderfully made. In this light, having some fears of success begins to make sense.
Steven Pressfield, in a recent book, puts it this way:
We know that if we embrace our ideals, we must prove worthy of them. And that scares the hell out of us. What will become of us? What if our friends and family no longer recognize the ‘new’ us? What if we wind up alone, in the cold void of starry space, with nothing and no one to hold onto?
These are powerful fears. Could it be that following our deepest goals touches such primal fears as this?

Survival Instincts, and the Pain of Independence
In fact, there is evidence in favor of Pressfield’s statement. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, discovered that people unconsciously tend to conform to the viewpoint of the group of which they are part. Furthermore, people who did not conform to the opinions of the group showed a different pattern of brain activity. They had heightened activity in the amygdala, an area in the brain associated with anxiety and survival-related fears. The amygdala is one of the earliest brain structures to have developed as mammals evolved bigger brains, and it is, among other things, concerned with our survival. So, for example, if a prehistoric man just last week escaped a sabre-tooth tiger attack, it is his amygdala that fires off the command to “fight or flight” when he again hears a rustling in the brush and sees an orange and black-striped hide. Dr. Berns’ research indicates that the deepest part of our brain may view it as life-threatening when we take a stand ‘on our own’ against or in contrast to our peer group. One popular writer has named this reaction “the pain of independence.” It’s the cost of following our calling and not following the herd. Is it any wonder, then, that many people fear success as much as failure?

Seeking Support to Move Beyond the Fear of Success
Many times there are gifts hiding in what we would call symptoms of depression or anxiety. In some people, these ‘low’ or jittery feelings are masking the frustrated voice of our own calling. Along with our fears of separation from the group, many of us also fear, underneath it all, separation from our deepest selves. The psychiatrist C.G. Jung called this the “fidelity to the law of one’s being.” In other words, we feel psychic pain (such as depression and anxiety) when we aren’t living fully the life we should live. Our psyche signals us when it needs nourishment, just as our stomachs send us uncomfortable signals (hunger pains) when we are starved for food.
There is a bridge across to the other side of fears of success. One of the helps of psychotherapy is that we find a companion to help us navigate across this abyss. The presence of an understanding other not only feels good to us, the reduced isolation also helps our amygdala not to fire off such strong warning signals as we explore scary inner territory. Thus we are more likely to be able to hear the voice of our calling above the voice of fear.

** Note: Names and other identifying details of client’s stories have been altered to protect confidentiality. Photo in header is by David Preston on Unsplash

In honor of Pride Month

Therapist LGBTQ Pride Louisville KY 40207 Counseling

In honor of June being Pride Month, I’m sharing these wise, strong, and moving words from a colleague out west. Her name is Paula Stone Williams. I’ve edited lightly to help this read easily for those who don’t know Paula or her life story. I hope you find this as moving and inspiring as I do.


Today I will take you on a little journey into the life of a transgender woman. It will not be what you might imagine.

My day is rather like the average day of any female who lives in a nice house in a small town in the foothills of the Rockies. I ride the trails on my mountain bike or pedal the roads on my touring bike. If it’s Monday, I go for a long run. If it’s Tuesday, I see counseling clients throughout the day and enjoy staff meeting and a relaxing lunch with my co-pastors at Left Hand Church.

Saturdays are a little different. I sleep in, mow the lawn, run for 45 minutes, then head to church where we set up for services while the worship team practices their set. After church a bunch of us go to dinner before I head home to watch Saturday Night Live. Yep, pretty simple, the ordinary life of a woman in one of the nicer locales on planet earth. And oh yes, I forgot to mention, absolutely no one, ever, treats me as anything other than the tall white woman I am. Which is what makes me forgetful.

A wedding invitation came in the mail the other day. It excluded me. I have been informed I should not attend a few weddings and other milestone events in the past couple of years. I was even disinvited from my high school reunion. Until these social slights occur, I forget there are these peculiar spaces from which I am excluded.

I also forget about the troll-driven venues on which I am vilified. Then a friend reminds me, “Have you seen the 3,000 YouTube comments about your TED talk?!” I tell them no, I have not seen them. I have no masochistic tendencies.

Last month I turned down an invitation to speak at a Christian university where I was asked to share the stage with a second speaker who believes, “being transgender is not a thing.” The school was shocked when I declined their invitation. I asked if an African-American speaker would be inclined to share the stage with a person who said being black, “wasn’t a thing.” I don’t think they got it.

Of course the truth is that every single day I interact with these people. I see them at the grocery store, the corner Starbucks, the local shopping center. They have no idea they are talking with a transgender woman. They talk and laugh and joke like I am a normal human.

I sometimes want to reveal that I am transgender, but I never do. I figure it is already hard enough for them to get up in the morning and have to be who they are. We’re all just trying to get by.

If you tend to see me favorably, as most of my readers do, you need not lose sleep over my experience. It is what it is. I rarely take it personally. My life is rich and full and filled with committed people, including people of faith, whose generosity knows no bounds.

I feel sorry for those who are afflicted with Hardening of the Categories. It can be cured, but first you have to want to get well, and a lot of people have no interest in getting well. They are happy living inside their self-imposed quarantine.

You know, those folks could go ahead and send their invitations. They need not worry. I am not inclined to go where I am not wanted. I get the lay of the land. I know I am not welcome in only one kind of place in America, evangelical spaces.

Of course, it does seem kinda ironic that every last evangelical website opens with the tagline, “Where Everyone Is Welcome.”

People are strange.

Paula’s original post may be found on her blog at: https://paulastonewilliams.com/2018/06/05/4731/