Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Language Psychology

E Primed

The late psychologist, Albert Ellis, who I studied under at Rutgers University, showed his genius when he developed the concept of e primed, an idea that has its roots in the work of the philosopher, Alfred Korzybski.  In his clinical work with patients, Ellis observed that when patients rated themselves on the basis of their actions, they would often become depressed or anxious.  This negative emotional state came from the consequence of these patients not always attaining a satisfactory result in some task they had undergone.

Ellis employed semantics, a philosophic area of study that Korzybski created, in defining e primed.  He labeled e primed all the words in the English language minus the verb to be in all its uses and conjugations.  E primed written as an equation then becomes:  E (all the words in the English language) – e (verb to be) = e’ (e primed).  We are often shaped by the way we use language.  In adapting Ellis’ technique in my private practice, I have helped many of my clients overcome their negative feelings, such as anxiety or depression.

Let me illustrate how this works:  Clients may be suffering from depression when they see me because they have failed an exam in school or one for a job promotion.  Frequently, because they see themselves as failures, the origin of their depression arises from the clients’ view of themselves: Their verbal description of themselves is:  We are failures.  Note, the use of the verb to be, as expressed by “are,” reduces the behavior of their failing the exam to their identity that easily leads to self-judgment.  In revising their use of language from being failures to having failed the exam, I help them eliminate evaluating themselves.  Rather than them saying they are failures, I  have them change the structure of the sentence to they failed the exam.  Here the verb, fail, replaces the noun, failure, and makes failing the exam an action rather than an evaluation of self.  They now can see more clearly that they are not failures because they failed an exam.  I inform them that they are underestimating the complexity of their personality in defining themselves on the basis of one failed exam.  I have helped many clients by employing this technique that relies on semantics or the meaning of certain words in the context of their use.

When I worked at a bilingual clinic, I studied Spanish and became conversant enough to communicate and do therapy in Spanish.  In studying Spanish, I observed a fundamental difference between the English and Spanish languages in how the latter expresses the verb to be.  In Spanish there are two equivalents to the infinitive to be:  Ser and Estar.  Ser is employed when expressing a more permanent condition such as:  The boy is Mexican or he is a boy or she is a girl.  Estar is used to express a more temporary condition and/or location or place such as:  He is depressed or she is at home right now.  So, someone that is depressed would say:  Estoy deprimido(a), rather than soy deprimido(a), the latter of which indicates a permanent state rather than a transitory one.  In English, this would translate to I am depressed that implies a fixed state as it identifies the person with depression.  One can circumvent in English this pitfall by saying “I feel depressed” rather than “I am depressed.”  In Spanish, however, by using estar to describe the depression rather than ser, the speaker recognizes that the depression one is experiencing is of a tentative, rather than enduring nature.

In addition to encouraging clients not to evaluate themselves, Ellis believed that the use of the verb to be resulted in labeling people without their really knowing them.  He maintained this often leads to prejudgments that may be laced with negativity and hatred.  In this latter case, both Spanish and English have the equivalent use of the verb to be.  As in English, when one is called an American, likewise in Spanish, the verb, soy, indicating permanent action is expressed by:  Soy Americana(o).  Given the current political climate in America, Ellis would have claimed, as both less pejorative and less prejudicial, for one to say:  America has racial problems, rather than America (or Americans are) is a racist country.  The former avoids labeling and oversimplifying the several contrasting features implied in the word American.

In summary, the use of e primed in thinking about oneself, decreases the probability of overgeneralizing a situation that could lead to a negative emotion such as depression or anxiety.  Furthermore, the language of e primed reduces the likelihood of detrimental views by others of one’s ethnic group, religion, race or nationality.






Literature Psychology

In Praise of Hamlet


It has been said that next to the Bible there have been more critiques and analyses about Hamlet than any other literary work.  It is Shakespeare’s longest work consisting of more than 4000 lines and a favorite of many famous actors.  I was lucky enough to see it in 1964 when Richard Burton played Hamlet on Broadway.  The next time I saw this great play was in California with Nicole Williamson as the lead.  Because I had not read the play when I saw Burton’s performance, I made sure to have read it prior to seeing it in California.  My familiarity with the characters and plot made the production starring Williamson much more enjoyable to see. Without an understanding of the language with its many nuances, I found it difficult to follow all the action the first time I saw the play.

Since that time, I have reread it and seen different movie versions of it.  Because the play was written over 400 years ago by a man who had a remarkable vocabulary, reading it on one’s own, with minimum explanation, is not advised.  Most works of Shakespeare have available annotated interpretations of the lengthy soliloquies and dialogues that comprise the five acts.  Some authorities on Shakespeare have speculated that the death of Shakespeare’s only son and his father, both occurring about the time he wrote Hamlet, may have influenced the saturnine pall that permeates the main character and play.

I will not give an exhaustive analysis of the play but rather sketch this essay around some of the points that I deem salient to life, itself, thereby, in my opinion, making it a work well worth reading.  The play begins with Prince Hamlet back from his studies at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, appearing in black mourning clothes, still grieving his father, the late King of Denmark, who had died less than two months earlier.  Hamlet, unlike prior Shakespearean protagonists, is a profound thinker, and as a scholar, might be considered a Renaissance Man.

In his first soliloquy, Hamlet says: “Frailty, thy name is woman!”  The Prince is incensed at his mother’s rash decision to marry Claudius, his father’s brother, so soon after the death of his father.  Hamlet is hurt by his mother’s lack of moral sensitivity in the abrupt manner by which she forgets his father.  Meanwhile both Horatio and Marcellus, friends of Hamlet, have seen what they believe to be the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.  Against their advice, Hamlet, feeling compelled, follows the beckoning Ghost of his father determined to comprehend its purpose.  It is then that Marcellus utters that most famous line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”  This statement symbolizes the decay that comes from the marriage of Claudius and his sister-in-law of which the Church would consider incestuous, and it foreshadows the tragic consequences to come.

When Hamlet sees the Ghost of his father, the latter reveals that he has been poisoned and murdered by his brother.  Because Claudius is now the King of Denmark, a society that is not a democracy, Hamlet will need to act alone if he is to avenge the death of his father.  Although he respects the divine spirit of his father, Hamlet’s strong conscience will not permit him to act until he can verify, independently, what he has just heard from the Ghost.  In formulating a plan, Hamlet instructs his friend Horatio not to be alarmed when he will “put an antic disposition on” to conceal his intentions of trying to fathom whether indeed his uncle has poisoned his father.

Rather than allay his uncle’s suspicions, Hamlet’s odd behavior arouses the King’s attention, and he forms a spy network around the Prince to investigate the cause of his sudden madness.   Polonius, the King’s Chamberlain, believes it might be related to Hamlet being lovesick over his beautiful daughter Ophelia.  Hamlet now gives–what is perhaps the most famous lines in the English language–his soliloquy that starts:

To be, or not to be: That is the question.

Hamlet recognizes that the dilemma he faces in having to attain justice by committing the act of killing his uncle, King Claudius, is a terribly difficult one.  Perhaps, he reasons, it is easier to face death than having to carry out this dreadful act.  Toward the end of the soliloquy he says:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.

 This sentiment that Hamlet holds is extremely important because Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and Laertes, the son of Polonius, lack the conscience that Hamlet has.  It is far easier to commit evil when one lacks a moral conscience.  Hamlet ends his soliloquy with the following:

The fair Ophelia!  Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remember’d.

Hamlet’s acute awareness of his plan to kill the King weighs heavily on his mind, perhaps causing guilt, and so he asks Ophelia to pray for him.

Up to this point in the play, my view of Hamlet had been distinctly positive.  Not only is he well educated, but he also possesses integrity, that is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.  But Shakespeare does not want us to be too comfortable in our view of Hamlet and, in so doing, we see Hamlet in a different light in the next scene when he encounters Ophelia.  Perhaps the agony Hamlet feels is too much for him to bear or perhaps his view of women, and the world, are too much of a burden for him to accept.  With an air of cruelty and uncaring, he tells Ophelia four different times:

Get thee to a nunnery.

Hamlet’s huge upset with his mother in conveniently dismissing his father, so quickly, to marry his uncle renders him incapable of feeling love for any female.  In a nunnery, Ophelia cannot corrupt others with her beauty, but also, she cannot be maligned by the corruption of others.  I remember being very much annoyed with Hamlet’s rough treatment of Ophelia, with whom in the past, he had shown signs of loving.   Although Ophelia knows that the King and her father, Polonius, are spying on him, she is innocent and not complicit with what underlies the King’s intentions.  She simply believes that they are concerned for Hamlet due to his suffering from lovesickness over her.  When Hamlet lashes out at Ophelia, he is making an unfit generalization of all womankind.  Queen Gertrude, and not Ophelia, would indeed be a much better candidate for a nunnery.

Soon after, when a band of theater players come to entertain the King and Queen, Hamlet sets a trap for the King by altering a scene to imitate exactly how his father’s murder may have occurred.  The play comes from the Murder of Gonzago that Hamlet neatly renames the Mousetrap when he describes it to Claudius.  The scene that Hamlet has the players interpose within the play accomplished precisely what the Prince had hoped for by “catching the conscience of the King” with the latter’s untoward reaction.

But Hamlet’s victory is short lived inasmuch as he misses the chance to slay the King when he believes the latter is praying and, soon after, mistakenly stabs Polonius.  Because Polonius is spying on him from behind a curtain, Hamlet believes he is the King and thrusts his rapier into the body of Polonius.  Now Hamlet has blood on his hands, and we sense that the plot he wove to verify the Ghost’s accusation has suddenly turned against him.  But although he feels the guilt of killing the wrong person, he believes that he is to be the “scourge and minister” of a divine power, namely, heaven.  Hamlet is far from insane, but in an environment where right and justice are turned upside down, he may appear that way to those who are part of the endemic so prevalent in Denmark.

Although Hamlet expresses upset about killing the wrong man, it is clear that he still very much has Claudius on his mind.  Although Claudius does not know how Hamlet found out about the crime he has committed, he recognizes that Hamlet now knows the truth.  Later, there is a funeral for Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, who has been said to have drowned.  The cause of death remains unknown but we know that she knew that Hamlet, the man she once loved, had killed her father, and so, we may surmise that her death may have resulted from her sorrow causing an “accidental” suicide.

Toward the end of the play, Claudius enlists Laertes, son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia, in a plot to kill Hamlet by having Laertes put poison on his dueling foil.  Moreover, if Laertes fails in gaining a point in the duel, he will ensure the death of Hamlet by having him drink from a goblet of wine.  Laertes wounds Hamlet, then somehow in scuffling, Laertes and Hamlet exchange swords with one another, and Hamlet promptly wounds Laertes.  In the midst of this, the Queen drinks from the goblet, meant for Hamlet, and topples over.  When Hamlet becomes aware of the widespread treachery, he immediately stabs the King with the poisoned foil giving birth to a chorus of treason from those present.  But Laertes reveals that the treason belongs to the King and not Hamlet, when upon dying, he says:

He is justly served;

It is a poison temper’d by himself.

Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet;

Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,

Nor thine on me.

Laertes, in dying, regains his conscience after committing the intentional act of murdering Hamlet.  Hamlet’s conscience is clearly on a higher level than both Laertes and the King, the latter lacking any apparent moral conscience when he murders his brother, Hamlet’s father, to become the King of Denmark.  Ironically, Hamlet, as a purveyor of death, allows Denmark to be purged of the rot that had so badly infected it.  Throughout the reading of this play, I felt the untenable situation that Hamlet faced, and I very much wanted him to somehow conquer it as a hero might.  But then the actions he took:  First, angrily telling Ophelia to go to a nunnery, and then impulsively killing Polonius by mistake, made me think differently of him.  Although Hamlet is fallen, he never sinks to the level of the King, and he believes that providence is behind his efforts to free Denmark from the evil that encompasses it.  He achieves this by what he intuitively knows will be his end.  So, perhaps it is best to see him as a tragic hero.

I have touched only on the highlights of this spectacular play but it should be obvious that there is much more than one can read into this work.  From my own experience, I would recommend reading it before seeing it performed on the stage.  It is a difficult work to digest because of the complexity of the language.  Most versions come with notes explaining the passages so be patient with yourself as this is really a piece of great art that requires intensive study.  Of course, it’s much easier to do this type of reading if you are a student studying with a professor that has a keen knowledge of it and can teach it with expertise.  In any event, I would avoid reading translations or abridged versions that will make the task of comprehension much simpler but will lose both the beauty and nuances of the language.  Like anything else we do in life, the more you put into the exercise, be it physical or mental, the more you will get out of it.

Mark Twain understood human nature when he said:

A classic is something everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.

Accordingly, I suggest that you all fight the instincts to never have read what you deep down really want to read.  In the process, I believe you will gain an appreciation taking on the challenge of exposing yourself to one of the greatest gems of English literature.



Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Consulting Psychology Life Lessons Psychology Spirituality

The Serenity Prayer and Beyond


The lines, now recognized as the Serenity Prayer, are rooted in a sermon that Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Reformed theologian, gave either in 1932 or 1933. They are the following:

  • Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped and the insight to know the one from the other.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step programs have adapted it in the following way:

  • God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    Courage to change the things I can,
    and Wisdom to know the difference.

Regardless of the wording, the basic meaning does not change and, I would maintain that these words have had a profound effect on the way people think about things. One of the difficulties I have found people to have is their belief that they are capable of changing situations that they simply cannot. Thus, employees are not likely to change their boss’s behavior just as spouses are not likely to change certain traits their partners may have. The distinction is that they can change the way they react to their bosses or their spouses much more easily than changing how these significant others behave toward them.

An important ingredient in cognitive-behavior therapy is implicitly stated in the Serenity Prayer: You can change the way you think about others but don’t expect others to change for you. This is not to say–you can’t ask your spouse to change a certain type of behavior that you might find bothersome or annoying–without ever arriving at the desired consequences. You may. But generally, I have found that in most situations it makes more sense for a married couple to be able to live with and accept each other’s ingrained differences. Frequently, couples enter marital counseling with each partner blaming the other without understanding how each one’s behavior impacts the marriage.

Another illustration of this could be a student, after studying long hours, performs poorly on an exam. That student may blame her/himself for not doing well. Let us look at this example more closely. If the student did the best he/she could, then perhaps she/he may come to the conclusion that he/she is not particularly skilled in the area that exam covers. But if this is the case, does she/he have to feel badly about himself? Given the above information, I would answer this question with a firm “no.” However, what if that same student did poorly because of intense test anxiety, but she/he would have achieved a much higher score if the experienced anxiety was under control. Because no one of us can perform equally well in all areas that we may partake in, in the first situation it may be preferable for the student to accept this fact and focus on another field. In the second case, however, in which the student is suffering from test anxiety, she/he can change this through techniques involving relaxation and/or meditation with the possible help of a therapist or expert in that subject.

Many people are upset not only by the current coronavirus, but also by the way our leaders are handling the state of the world. I don’t doubt that these people may have the best of all intentions but I consider it unhealthy if their anger is such that they are paralyzed, thereby, preventing them from moving forward. Certainly, if you want change be sure to vote inasmuch as that is an activity within your power. However, changing the state of society is a huge task well beyond the scope of any one individual. Rather than expending so much mental energy in thinking about the impossible, I would advise these people to choose something near and dear to their heart in which their involvement might affect some type of change, whether it be small or large. Here, once more, we see from the Serenity Prayer the importance and wisdom of delineating between what we can change and what we cannot.

Memories Psychology

50th College Reunion

I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia 50 years ago on May 22, 1967, the day I turned 22 years old. I returned with my wife to Philadelphia for my reunion this past May. Wow, 50 years gone. At an earlier time in my life, my mother used to say: “The passage of time.”   Too well do I now know what she meant.

My first year at Penn was perhaps the most unique of all insofar as I met classmates from all over the country and beyond. This was the year before any of us were divided by the social forces called fraternities and sororities. My older brother who had graduated Penn in 1963 wanted to join a fraternity but had been “black balled,” a term used to describe those who were not accepted to the fraternity they wished to join. I remembered how hurt he had been by not being accepted. Although I was asked to go to a number of pledge parties to see if I was an appropriate fit with whichever fraternity had invited me, I clearly remember not having any desire to join or pledge a fraternity. I managed to meet some friends, who like me, never felt the need to become a member of a fraternity. In those days, we were called “Independents” and, I prided myself in claiming that status. Consequently, after my freshman year, I was never going to be in contact with the same breadth of classmates I had met that first year at Penn.

In my sophomore year at Penn, I do remember missing the unique camaraderie of classmates of all different types. The sorority–fraternity system is a way of segregating all of these types out: Thus, if you wanted to join a fraternity you had to be male to start, then you were classified or divided by your religion, and finally, you were classified or divided by how “cool” or how bright you were. Being Jewish, I was most familiar with the type of personalities Jewish fraternities were seeking.

The coolest and most prestigious Jews would pledge Sigma Alpha Mu (SAMI), the less prestigious but perhaps wilder Jewish guys would pledge ZBT or Pi Lambda Phi. The brainy but less cool types would pledge Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and the brilliant nerds would pledge Theta Rho.  I’m quite sure these distinctions existed in non-Jewish fraternities and in sororities for women.   The fraternity-sorority phenomenon effectively segregated students by their own choosing.

Jonathan Haidt, in his article in the Atlantic: The Coddling of the American Mind, points out a recent disturbing trend on college campuses. A first sign of this change actually occurred at the University of Pennsylvania when an Israeli born student could not study because of the noise that was coming from a black sorority group outside of his dorm room window. He yelled at them: “Shut up, you water buffalo.” This was taken as a racial insult, and a complaint was sent to the dean against this student on the basis of the sorority members’ rights being violated. Later, the student was exonerated through a long and arduous process, and subsequently, he filed a lawsuit against the University of Pennsylvania.

According to Haidt, the above incident marked the onset of a new way in how students communicated their feelings and beliefs. Moreover, the Department of Justice and Education in 2013 expanded the definition of “sexual harassment to include verbal content that is simply unwelcome.” In following suit, what is known as “safe spaces” on campuses became prevalent and was extended to the classroom where both professors and students had to be extremely careful in not verbally offending other students. Rather, than teaching students to be more accepting and understanding of other people’s views, Universities are currently reinforcing their desire to avoid areas of disagreement in which they might feel uncomfortable.

To conclude, the University in protecting students from other student’s beliefs that they may find distasteful, is, in fact, creating a greater distance among those same students. When the University turns down a renowned speaker such as Condoleezza Rice because their students may be offended by her political views, these same students are gaining power by playing victim. Whereas fraternities and sororities created segregated living spaces for students, the University, by creating “safe spaces” for students, is segregating students on the basis of their belief systems. College marks a time period when our youth of today, and leaders of tomorrow, are most open to exploring new ideas and attitudes. A University that puts a damper on free speech among its students is closing off students to this very important growth period in their lives.




Life Lessons Literature Psychology

Reflections upon Reading Anna Karenina

When I compare the writing styles of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I view the former as seeing life through the external lens of societal forces impacting the major characters in his story. On the other hand, the latter describes his characters through internal or intrapsychic forces that propel them to act.   As a practicing psychologist, I find Dostoyevsky’s method of character development the more appealing but this is not to say that I did not enjoy reading Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy’s writing style provides the reader with his perception of Russia life during the 1870’s.   The description of Russia during this time allows the reader to see both the political and cultural shortcomings. But in providing a slice of life Tolstoy may go into details that don’t alter or add much to the story. An example of this is the rather lengthy scene of Levin arriving late on his wedding date due to a lack of a cleaned pleated shirt. The detailed description of Levin having to obtain a pleated shirt from his assistant adds little to the development of who he his in relation to the other main characters in the story.

The novel, Anna Karenina, has all the qualities of a grand scale soap opera insofar as its principal characters face love, adultery and then, in the fashion of the Greeks, tragedy. None of the major characters in Anna Karenina are outright villains inasmuch as they commit acts of kindness or goodness as well as acts to the contrary. Soap opera characters likewise can go from the heroic in some episodes to much lesser qualities in later episodes. Perhaps the popularity of both Tolstoy’s masterpiece and soap operas resides in this very complex nature of human behavior where evil and good at different times come from the same hand.

As I read Anna Karenina, I thought about George Eliot’s classic Middlemarch written about the same time Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina. One very significant difference between the two novels was their author’s gender: Eliot’s protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, is introduced early in her life when she is about 17 years old as a naïve and idealistic woman that decides to marry a man much older than she. When Anna is introduced, she has been already married for eight years to a man twenty years older than she.   But although he may be rigid in his beliefs, there is little evidence that he mistreats her or demeans her as there is in Dorothea’s marriage. Eliot resolves her heroine’s marital difficulties by bringing about the death of her spouse, Edward Casaubon. This allows Dorothea the release of her positive energies and the falling in love with a much younger but distant relative of Casaubon, Will Ladislaw.

Anna Karenina’s circumstances are much different: She has the insight to understand she is doing wrong falling in love with Count Vronsky and from the start wants to break it off. But she cannot and we see this love as a fatal attraction that begins to take control of her and becomes all encompassing. She is torn by her passionate love. This results in her diminishing both the character and stature of her husband, Alexei Karenin, causing her to fixate on her husband’s ears as, most repusilvely, sticking out from the rest of his face. Intrinsic to Anna’a attraction to the Count is the fate that binds her love to him much like the fate of that of a Greek tragedy. Anna meets Vronsky at a train station where it is discovered that one of the railroad workers has a fatal mishap that finds him killed at a train crossing. This sets the stage for where and how their relationship will ultimately end.

When Anna’s husband, Alexei Karenin, sees her in the midst of child birth on her death bed, he is able to forgive her and grant her the divorce and right to live with her much beloved son, Seryozha. Dorothea’s husband, on the other hand, writes a codicil to his will stating that she will forfeit all of his wealth if she marries Will Ladislaw. Dorothea chooses to marry Will for the goodness she sees in him, and, in so doing transcends social convention by not doing what others expect of her.  Meanwhile, Anna cannot accept the generous offer her husband makes to her because she does not want to feel indebted to him. Of course, if she accepts the offer we no longer have a Greek tragedy. By her rejecting the offer, she becomes trapped in a relationship, taboo to the norms of the times, with her gradual descent into a Hell. This rejection of her husband’s largesse due to her not wanting to feel indebted to him is difficult to understand given the way Anna acts in subsequent passages of the novel. An example of this is Anna disguising herself in entering her husband’s house to visit with her son on his birthday with the accompanying joy that they both experience. The pain that Anna feels in not being able to see her son, due to her not being divorced, is made very real throughout her relationship with Vronsky.

As I read further, I had hoped that somehow Anna would obtain a divorce, be reunited with her beloved son and live happily ever after. But it became apparent that this would not happen: She sees herself stained, a pariah, having lost all communal and social ties. In feeling entrapped and not being able to travel and interact with family and friends, she started to become extremely jealous of Vronsky and his ability to enjoy himself.  In the past, he would be able to reassure her but as her condition worsened, she refused to believe him, though there is no evidence for her to believe that he was seeing other women. Thus, she became extremely paranoid only thinking that he was cheating on her to the point that she could not and would not believe anything to the contrary. Tolstoy is quite able to let the reader enter her mind and be guided with this paranoid way of thinking in which she seeks revenge on Vronskly by planning her death. Toward the end of Anna’s life, Tolstoy injects a stream of consciousness in the manner in which Anna begins to plot the end of her life. To Tolstoy’s credit, the style of writing changes to closely shadow the paranoia that takes over and grips the tormented mind of Anna.

But there is more to Anna Karenina than her fatalistic death. There is the side story of Konstantin Dmitrich Levin, who often has been considered Tolstoy’s alter ego. In fact, Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, said that Levin was like her husband but without the latter’s talent. In contrast to Anna and Vronsky, the love between Levin and Kitty, the woman he marries has a much happier ending. Although Kitty, somewhat like Dorothea, is young and naïve when we first meet her, she lacks the depth and moral values that the latter demonstrates throughout Middlemarch. In fact, as we come to understand the moral complexities that Levin finds himself in, we wonder what so attracts him to Kitty.

Levin, most notably stands out, from the rest of the characters because of his dubious sense of reality. His doubt is forever present in his interaction with others who appear to have the answer to the economic and political problems that are a part of everyday life in Russia. Moreover, the corruption in government jobs alluded to by Tolstoy throughout the novel, very well could be viewed as the precursor to the subsequent Russian Revolution and the advent of communism.

Throughout the book, Levin is struggling with his ideas never quite coming to a conclusion on his version of truth unlike the other characters who voice more absolute arguments that he cannot fully understand. Implicit in what Tolstoy is saying is that Levin’s lack of understanding is more a reflection of the superficial values held by others in the novel such as the the brother of Anna, Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky and Levin’s own philosophically inclined brother, Sergei Ivanovich.

The last paragraph of the book summarizes Levin’s feelings: He recognizes that he will forever at times act inappropriately with his wife and others and later regret these actions, but above all he will be able to realize that his life will not be meaningless. Rather, he alone has the power to direct his life, while committing these human errors, toward the good.

Life Lessons Psychology Spirituality Sports

One Wave Too Many

When I was a child growing up in New Jersey, my parents would take us to visit an old classmate of my father and his family in Beach Haven. We would rent a cottage in the summer, and it was there that I learned how to body surf. When I relocated to Southern California in 1978, I lived with a cousin briefly. I taught him how to body surf, and so we shared many memorable moments riding waves into shore. It felt good being the teacher, the one with the expertise as to knowing in advance which wave would give you a good ride and when to swim out to it and, at what point to start swimming toward shore just at the moment it was being to break.

Sometimes one can overestimate his/her knowledge and experience. It had been a windy day with signs of a storm very possibly approaching the coastline of Southern California. I’d made plans to meet a friend of mine that I had worked with in the past in Santa Monica on the beach after work. When I met him, there was virtually no one in the water: The waves were breaking madly against the shoreline and to me it was a challenge to swim into them and ride them back to shore. There were no lifeguards on duty because it was evident that the beaches were really off limits to the public that afternoon. The blackening sky matched the black flags that indicated danger and a warning to bathe at your own risk.

If I had been rational, I would have known better. But I was gripped by the fearlessness of youth, although I was already in my mid 30’s. My friend, who was a good swimmer like me, did not want to go in the water, and I chided him for meeting me at the beach and not wanting to take part in the fun. To myself, I said “poor Richard, here he goes being overly cautious once more.” And so I entered the ocean with all caution thrown to the wind. I was a lone body in the surf.

It started off as great fun as I rode some huge waves but suddenly———a wave hit me hard and I did a somersault and as I tried surfacing was hit by another wave that took me under. Now I was out of breath, having swallowed some water before being able to surface. But worse, after I’d been in a wave heading toward shore, an undertow pulled me back out. I found myself in water well above my head, a taboo to those of us that know the ocean. If you can stand in the water, you can usually, without much difficulty, get yourself back to shore, even in severe conditions. Fighting an undercurrent, and caught between two sets of breaking waves—one close, the other farther out from shore—I couldn’t get any closer to the shoreline.

I came to an immediate realization: If I let myself be dragged out beyond the farther breaking waves it would be extremely difficult to get back. What I immediately knew was that I could not let my body be dragged out beyond the waves that were breaking farthest from shore because it would be extremely difficult to get back. I don’t remember there being a rip tide but rather a very rough ocean carrying waves of gargantuan size. I swam desperately, thrashing with swim strokes, perhaps like that of a whale just harpooned. I looked above at the darkening sky, no blue and no sun in sight, and I wondered, for a very brief moment, whether this was going to be it for me!

I no longer tried to ride waves in to shore for fear if I went out too far I would not be able to come back. I swam as hard as I could to get to the waves that were breaking close to the shore. All of this occurred in just a few minutes, but felt like a lifetime of unending agony. I had no idea how to escape the ocean’s wild, untamed ferocity. I felt as if I was being devoured by Nature, then taken to a place I had never been and did not want to enter.

Exhausted, I continued to swim between the two sets of waves and, as I approached the set breaking closest to shore I felt sand under my feet. It was if my prayers had been answered. With both feet on the ground I galloped as a wave hit me and drew me closer to shore. I plunged onto the wave and glided safely on my belly to shore. I lay there for perhaps two minutes, dry heaving water and once more looking up at the colorless sky. A teen-age boy, who perhaps had seen me struggle, came up to me and asked me if I was all right. I told him “yes.” I’d drifted some 50 to 70 yards away from the point I entered the ocean. I discerned a distant figure approaching. As it came closer, I realized it was my friend.

As I thought about my dangerous escapade, I understood: “masculine” bravado? In actuality, it was youthful foolishness. With no life guards in sight, I’d performed on a trapeze without a safety net. It was adolescent but very much male what I had done. If I had been pulled out beyond the farther set of waves, I doubt I’d be here to tell the story. As they were out that day, a helicopter may have sighted me. But the ocean is a huge expanse. Given how tired I was once ashore, how long could have I lasted in the deeps? Would I have been spotted before it was too late?

Never again did I body surf at an unguarded beach.

Life Lessons Psychology Religion Spirituality

Shavout: Reflections on My 70th Birthday and Second Bar Mitzvah

Honored Rabbi Cantor, a person I have enjoyed knowing these last few months and Cantor Sofer, family and friends and fellow congregants, let me first give special thanks to Ted Hirschfeld for the excellent teaching he provided to me on my Haphtarah today. My wife Lisa also deserves special thanks for encouraging and enduring the time I spent learning and practicing my Haphtarah. To those that asked: Yes I did have a Bar Mitzvah on May 25, 1958, on Sunday the first day of Shavuot. Remembering what my mother, may she rest in peace, said to me many times: “Bernard we are a strange people, we eulogize the dead and criticize the living.” As I remembered the sense of exhilaration I felt, going through the process of practicing my Bar Mitzvah some 57 years ago, especially, that very last week, I decided to repeat the process that I had experienced in my early adolescence. In so doing, I wanted you, my friends and family, to join me in this celebration.

Let me begin by going back in time. It is the week of my Bar Mitzvah, 1958, and suddenly out of nowhere, I who rarely ever got sick, had developed a rash that within a couple of days covered my entire face. You can imagine my mother, fraught with fear: Her first thought being that I had German Measles as it was thought contagious and was making the rounds in the neighborhood at that time. Asking if I was okay, I repeatedly told her I felt fine except for the fact that I had a need to itch my face where the rash had spread. My father, as always the optimist he was, told my mother not to worry as I would be fine. But the rash spread and worsened to my mother’s distress and, I continued to feel the need to itch. When my face became covered with red marks my mother decided to have me stay home on Friday and on to the doctor I marched. I did not mind missing school because by this time I was feeling pretty uncomfortable in my own skin. How this could be happening, I wondered, on my Bar Mitzvah week. Why was God doing this to me? What was He trying to say to me?

Ah, how we can sometimes miss the obvious. The doctor immediately diagnosed my problem as a bad case of poison ivy. I had played stick ball with a friend, Marc Goldblatt, who is among us today in the congregation and on our block was an undeveloped lot. I went to fetch a ball he hit into the lot and I had stuck my head into a clump of what had turned out to be poison ivy. I took liberal amounts of calamine lotion and by Sunday my condition had cleared up to the point where I looked like a normal acned adolescent.

On a broader and more universal level, I remember being in the 4th grade in 1955 when I was 10 years old and the teacher saying that the likelihood of Israel surviving was small inasmuch as she was surrounded by its enemies among which was Egypt’s Nasser and, thus would more than likely lose its statehood. Saddened, I talked to my parents about that and they somehow reassured me not to worry. Obviously, the world underestimated the people of Israel as indeed, they are still here, stronger than ever. Besides which, Nasser had to put up with the likes of Hollywood in 1956, when Charlton Heston, as Moses, crossed the Red Sea unharmed in Cecil Demille’s epic: The Ten Commandments.
1948 was a huge turning point in Jewish history when Israel gained its Statehood and became a nation after its battle for independence. It had been 2100 years since the Jewish people had won a battle. when the Maccabees stood up against the Greeks in 163 b.c.e. 2100 years and, here I thought 86 years was like an eternity, when the Red Sox finally won a World Series in 2004. 86 years may seem a long time but compared to 2100 years it is a mere speck of time.

And now what about this holiday called Shavuot. Shavuot is the Hebrew word for weeks and has been referred to as the Festival of Weeks. By custom, we as Jews count 50 days from the 2nd day of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot which would be today. 50 days represented when the grain was ready to be harvested by the farmers. Shavuout is sometimes referred to as Pentecoste from the Greek work meaning 50. Shavuout represents the time, when Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt crossing the Sea of Reeds and entering Mount Sinai in what is now the Sinai Peninsula, receives the Torah or 5 Books of Moses from Genesis to Deutoronomy from God at Mount Sinai.

Today I read a haphtarah. A haphtarah is a series of selections from the books “Prophets” each of which corresponds to the Torah reading of that day. And so, my haphtarah corresponds to the Torah reading of today describing Moses’ journey to Mount Sinai. My haphtarah dates back to the time the Jews were in exile, after being conquered by the Babylonians, and comes directly from Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot he had in which he sees heaven opening up above with four heavenly creatures, each having four faces: 1) Human; 2) Lion; 3) Ox and an 4) Eagle. Each has wings extended upward at once human with other characteristics that are not human where he sees faces of humans and animals combined with wings that appear to turn into the angels of God. When he sees what he believes to be the image of God on a throne above the creatures, he falls to the ground; he then hears a rumbling voice believing that God has made him a prophet with the goal of leading his people back to the Promised Land. Ezekiel has this vision in Babylon after he is taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar who seizes Jerusalem in 598 b.c.e. where Ezekiel was born of a priestly family. The vision occurs in the 5th year of the Babylonian Exile which would have been around 593 b.c.e.

Now in ancient times, when a people were conquered they had two ways of understanding or reacting to being conquered: 1) The people that conquered them must have had stronger gods so let’s accept or believe in their gods and abandon our gods or for Jews their one God or 2) We are being punished because we have sinned against our God so we must correct our sins of the past to once more gain favor in the eyes of our God.

Around this time, carbon dating in areas where Jews lived, were rife with figurines and objects showing that Jews shared the practices of idolatry (idol worship) with other peoples. As a result of his vision, Ezekiel told his fellow exiles that the captivity was but temporary punishment for their disloyalty to God. He rebuked them for their ways and told them that their fellow Jews in Judah (Israel of today) would suffer the same fate if they did not change their ways. And sure enough, Nebuchadnezzar and his armies in 587 b.c.e destroy the Temple of Judah in Israel. Ezekiel has another vision and then is asked to record the date and the event. When the sad news was confirmed, the Jews in Babylon realized that Ezekiel the priest was truly a prophet of G-d: Ezekiel assured his people that they would survive as long as they worshipped God and followed His laws ceasing any practices of idolatry. The result was truly phenomenal inasmuch as after the destruction of the Temple in 587 b.c.e., carbon dating has shown that the Jewish people gave up the practice of idolatry. The giving up of idols and truly accepting a monotheistic God, I believe, to be a watershed in the history of Judaism.

We know from history that in 539 b.c.e. Cyrus, the Good king of the Persians, enters Babylon and gives back to the original cities the sacred objects carried off to Babylon. In 538 b.c.e., the Edict of Cyrus is proclaimed allowing the Jewish exiles to return to the Promised Land. In 537 b.c.e., the foundation of the Second Temple is laid and between 520-515 b.c.e. the Second Temple is erected.

Moses, receiving the Torah or having written it is, of course, more symbolic than historic. There really is no specific date as to when the Torah was written inasmuch as the event itself transcends any one point in time. Modern religious scholars believe that the writing of the Torah started sometime after the reign of King David in 1000 b.c.e. and, it was edited during and after the exile of the Jews in Babylon. With good fortune, when the Jews went into exile in Babylon, they were able to take the scrolls of parchment that the Torah was written on. In the 5th century b.c.e., the Pentateuch or the Torah, that is the five books of Moses, becomes recognized and accepted by all Jews. Ezra, a scribe, was said to have read this accepted version to his people when they have returned to Jerusalem. Acceptance of the Torah is then the binding force that kept the Jews together till present day after other tribes and peoples disappeared from the face of the earth.

So what then is the significance of the Torah? It would take an Irish Catholic, Thomas Cahill, to address this question in his wonderful book: The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. This is a book I recommend to both Jew and Non-Jew to read as it is a fascinating study of the Jewish Bible or the Torah. So now, let me highlight a few of the main points Cahill makes about the Torah that is the 5 books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Most importantly, the Jewish Bible changed history by literally creating history. Prior to the wonderings of Abraham outside of Ur, where he was believed to come from, every religion and culture in ancient times saw the world in cyclical terms with no movement forward. Humans simply followed the cyclical pattern of nature with no event being unique but rather being enacted perpetually. These cycles were marked by: 1) The phases of the moon; 2) the cycle of a woman’s body and 3) the seasons. Humans were believed to have no control of their fate as it was predetermined by their gods. The beer of the Sumerians was good because of its associations with the eternal, with the archetypal goddess who took care of such things. Nothing is considered new. But if everything is a circle repeating itself, there is no such thing as a future. With no future in sight, if all is a circle, there is little purpose to life because the pattern will repeat itself and the future cannot be influenced if everything happens over and over. The Israelites became the first people to live—psychologically—in real time, and they also became the first people to value the New and to welcome Surprise.

As Cahill points out, the Bible is distinctly different from anything else written before or after ancient times, because it lists individuals’ names “including names of women” thereby saying that every one of these persons was uniquely significant. No such listing of commoners’ names exists in pre-biblical literature. Other writings such as the Greeks, for example, have gods and humans mixed with the fate of the characters often predetermined by Fate. The lack of free will in the writings of these ancient cultures is evident, for example, in the famous Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles written in the 5th century b.c.e. In this tragedy, Oedipus, from the outset, is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother.

Rather, as Cahill puts it, the Bible is history, not mythology. Each episode fits into a logical progression of events so that it is told against the background of everything that has come before it giving it a natural sense and unity.

The second transformative Jewish contribution was its understanding of God. The Hebrew God, unlike every god before, “cannot be manipulated,” as this God “is a real personality who has intervened in real history, changing its course and robbing it of predictability.” The Torah’s account is grounded in its monotheism, a concept at the heart of the religion of Israel and promoted in Christianity and Islam.

Third, the Jews gave the world the notion of human freedom on two levels: The first and more obvious is the Torah’s rejection of slavery in the human condition, a reason why black Americans took so much solace in the Hebrew Bible’s Exodus narrative. The other point I discussed above: The Bible’s complete rejection of the cyclical view of life. “We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free but are as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds” in their exodus out of Egypt.

Fourth, through the Ten Commandments, “for the first time human beings are offered a code without justification. Because this is God’s code no justification is required for who but God can speak: Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt not without such authority that no further words are needed.”

Fifth the Jews gave the world a day of rest. “No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest.” Even today you can hear many of us say: TGIF: Thank God It’s Friday. Those people, who work seven days a week, even if they are paid millions of dollars to do so, are in the biblical conception, slaves.

Sixth, the Bible’s “bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.” I would maintain that this principle, especially, resonated with the founding fathers of America as they were said to base many of their ideas of justice and freedom on the basis of their reading of the Bible. Certainly, at the start of the Revolutionary War, America was viewed as the underdog against British forces but we know how that war ended.

Let me conclude on a positive note: Shavuot is a time of gratitude as it is the time when Jews accepted the Ten Commandments from God and the Bible and, it also represents the time of harvest of the farmers in Israel. As a practicing psychologist, I know that gratitude is a very important ingredient of happiness. Those that lack gratitude in their lives are often weighed down by the everyday difficulties that life presents to all of us.

Studies have found that people who are grateful are likely to be happier, hopeful and energetic, and they possess positive emotions more frequently. Individuals also tend to be more spiritual or religious, forgiving, empathic and helpful, while being less depressed, envious or neurotic. And here I may end by saying: Let us all count our blessings.


The Fight

Arthur Kovacs, a long time mentor in my private practice as a psychologist, once told me that “your problem Bernard is not commission but omission of behavior.” I have fought this particular character weakness of mine all my life. I use the word “character,” in this context, intentionally, because it implies a trait that has been with me since childhood, thereby, occupying a more than transient part of my being.

Dr. Kovacs’ comment brought back a vivid memory that very much substantiated what he had to say. I had just graduated high school and, I had procured a light construction job with Union County in New Jersey the summer before I was to start college. Although this was a summer job, the other summer employees had started earlier because they had returned from college about a month earlier than my high school graduation. I remember being assigned to Snuffy’s crew in which we were to do light repair work on bridges. Some of the bigger guys on the crew actually handled jack hammers, but only for short periods of time due to liability issues.  Everyone in the group was cordial and quite helpful to me, the youngest of all of them, treating me almost as if I were their kid brother. However, as luck would have it, after a week of working with that bunch of guys, I was transferred to another unit because I had begun later than the rest and someone, who had started working before me, had requested a transfer to Snuffy’s crew.

I was reassigned to Joe’s crew of three college juniors with myself being the fourth, a group much smaller than Snuffy’s gang of 15. I remember my first day overhearing one of them, Jim, tell his friend Billy that I was a faster and more efficient worker than the fellow I had replaced. It felt good hearing that and, I figured that it would not be so bad working with these guys despite the fact that I had developed a really good rapport with Snuffy’s crew members. The job consisted mostly of sweeping and cleaning the residue left on County bridges in addition to minor chipping and painting. It was toilsome but really not hard work and, I didn’t mind it at all as it paid pretty well for someone, like me, who had just turned 18.

Unfortunately, my honeymoon with those guys ended quickly. Two of them, Jimmy and Billy, were friends and hung out together all of the time. The third, Steve, was a big husky guy who hung out on his own, sort of away from it all, who I made an attempt to befriend.   Jimmy and Billy were both inseparable and impenetrable and, it soon became apparent, that in no way were they going to allow me to enter into their very private circle.

Although I went to an all boys’ public high school in Elizabeth, an urban area, I was very popular with all types of guys and rarely, if ever, had been bullied. In fact, I remember befriending a black football player two years older than I, who was said to be the toughest guy in the school. I’m not sure what he saw in me but I sort of idolized him and, when he responded in a positive way, I felt a boyish sense of pride. Needless to say, my experience in high school did not prepare me for what was about to happen with Jimmy and Billy.

Early on they began to tease me with words that soon after escalated to throwing water at me when I would sit in the truck with Joe, the crew leader. Although Joe was there in body, he was oblivious to Jimmy and Billy’s antics. The two of them had an interesting but very predictable relationship in the manner by which they went about taunting me: Jimmy would perform all of the offensive acts whereas Billy would instigate his friend by applauding and reinforcing Jimmy’s obnoxious behaviors. Why didn’t I react? This is where Dr. Kovacs’ observation hit a vital chord inasmuch as I almost felt paralyzed in not being able to answer back to them in some way. Steve, the other college junior, who was not part of their clique, would tell me “why don’t you give them the finger or do something back like I do?”   Easy for Steve to say that, I thought, he being much bigger than I was as Jimmy and Billy were bigger than I. Although I did not think so at the time, I later came to understand that size or physical build was not really the issue. Rather, it had more to do with an insatiable desire to be liked by all those around me: Having friends, being the popular one, had always meant an awful lot to me. I believed that if I fought back, neither of them would talk to me nor like me: It was this deep fear of rejection that prevented me from acting. Ah, but the mind plays funny tricks on us, does it not? I was afraid that they would not like me but by not fighting back their behavior toward me, in fact, worsened. And yet, somehow I could only imagine that they would like me if I remained passive.

How wrong I was! Each day the frequency of the bullying behaviors increased, and soon, I came to dread going to work. I found myself trapped in a hostile environment that felt foreign to me and, I hoped, with each night, that the bullying tactics of Jimmy and Billy would go away. But things only got worse until at the end of one day my black lunch pail appeared to have a leak. When I opened it up, it was full of water. I remember seeing a group of co-workers that I did not know well, because they worked on different teams, before spotting Jimmy, standing about 30 or 40 feet away from me, staring at me. I felt a pulsating heat under my collar, an anger I had rarely experienced in my life, taking control of my body. I did not fight to restrain it: My boiling point had been reached. I took the lunch pail and running toward Jimmy hurled the water at him. One of the guys standing there in complete awe asked me why I had done that. I did not reply.

We all cheer for the underdog: One of the guys, who had been friendly with Jimmy and Billy, decided to take my side. He beckoned to me: “You can soak him good with the hose. He’s in the group meeting room where the hose is.” As he said this, he led me over to the room where Jimmy was standing, started uncoiling the hose and quickly gave it to me. As soon as he gave it to me, he turned the water on and I aimed the unfurled hose at Jimmy. He ran at me as I doused him with water. For a moment all eyes were on us and, I felt an eerie sensation tickling my spine because I understood that my current behavior had no antecedents. Hell, if I knew how to fight. No, it was not a skill I had developed as I was too popular for that. As our bodies met, a couple of brawny foremen came out and stood between us stopping the fight and, when I was able to gather my wits some, I was quite thankful that they had intervened. As the rational side of my brain began to take over my being, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The next day Jimmy was transferred to another unit. His friend Billy, perhaps both amused and shocked by my gall, told me to be aware of Jimmy because he had said he would seek revenge when I may not be ready for it.   How strange that Billy was suddenly an ally of mine. I do not know if the smile I felt surfaced, but within me, I certainly felt that my actions had caused a chain reaction of people backing me: I was no longer seen as a submissive weakling, but rather now, I was viewed as someone who was willing to risk the consequences of a brave action. No, Jimmy never did seek revenge and yes, I had won the respect of those around me.



Stress Management

When I lived in New York City back in the ‘70’s, from time to time, I would attend events led by a group called Operation on a Shoestring that involved learning about the unique characteristics of the City. Without a doubt, the best turnout of all the events I ever went to featured a talk on Stress Management. In my private practice, stress has been a key issue with many of my clients.

The prevalence of stress with so many of my clients led me to the question: Why more stress now than in the past? Woolfolk and Lehrer (1984) provided some answers to this question that remain relevant today. In their article, they identified four points of modern living that have increased the amount of stress, we human beings, encounter on a regular basis.

The first point is that modernization is the ordering of life by the clock, a fact that increases time-pressured work. The second point is that inasmuch as modern society is undergoing continuous change, the rate of that change is ever increasing (see Alvin Toffler, 1970) and, even more so, today. An example of this rapidity of change is how the women’s liberation movement changed the way men and women perceived their respective roles in society. A third point made by these authors was that industrialization and modernization in enhancing freedom and material well-being of the individual, certainly a positive outcome, created a situation where numerous choices were available. However, too much choice also can be the root of immobilization. With the expansion of our personal freedoms, the extended family disappeared resulting in individual social isolation. Thus, whereas the premodern world was communal and spiritual, contemporary times have brought a greater individualistic and materialistic consciousness.

To deal with the stress of modern life, the following are some of the techniques I have used in my private practice: 1) Cognitive restructuring 2) Assertive training 3) Conflict resolution and 4) Progressive relaxation. I will briefly discuss how I employ these techniques in assisting clients in overcoming their stressors.

Cognitive restructuring is often the treatment of choice when a client is not handling his/her life situation in the best of all ways. The principal intervention with these clients is to help them better cope with the negative aspects of life, such as job or marital difficulties. For example, acknowledging and increasing their tolerance and forgiveness toward others such as spouses, coworkers and/or bosses or supervisors can very much relieve stress.

In an earlier article I wrote, labeled The Four Point Rule of Assertive Behavior, I defined the characteristics of assertive behavior. I have found in my private practice that clients with a variety of presenting problems improve when they become more assertive in their daily lives. Furthermore, this increase in assertiveness assists them in combating the stress they may face at home or in the workplace. Assertiveness means being the primary and ultimate judge of your own behavior, feelings and actions such as being able to say “No” even under pressure. This ability allows one to reduce the stress of the ever increasing burdens brought on by modernization.

The third technique I may employ is conflict resolution in which I find the most important ingredient to be active listening. Active listening can be extremely helpful in alleviating the stress between partners in a relationship by having each member defer his/her own needs and desires by paying better attention to those of one’s partner. The shift from what I want from you, to how can I give you what you want, reduces the antagonistic behavior of each member by allowing the partners to feel more empathy toward one other.

Finally, techniques such as relaxation training and meditation help to induce a relaxed state. Many are unaware of how the ways we breathe can impact our ability to move from a stress response to a more relaxed one. The importance of facilitating relaxation is that this state is incompatible with other emotional states such as anxiety, one of the principal underlying emotions of stress.

After explaining the process, I often tape the session in my office; this allows the client to return home and play the tape at his/her convenience in both a quiet and comfortable setting at home. I encourage clients to play the tape at least daily, and if they have time, to play it two times per day as a means of reducing the impact of the stressful events of their lives. Finally, I encourage an exercise program that I will assist clients in monitoring when they decide to commit to such a program. The value of exercise has been consistently reported, in both medical and psychological journals, to have a beneficial effect on both the physical and psychological health of individuals.


Woolfolk, Robert and Lehrer, Paul. Clinical Applications. In Robert Woolfolk & Paul Lehrer (Eds.), Principles and practice of stress management. New York: Guilford Press, 1984

Toffler, A. Future shock. New York: Random House, 1970


The Four Point Rule of Assertive Behavior

Although the act of behaving in an assertive manner always carried with it a positive connotation, its exact meaning varied from one speaker to another. However, as a graduate student, studying under Arnold Lazarus at Rutgers University, I learned how to view assertive behavior in a very specific and operational context. The definition comprised four explicit behaviors that could be communicated to other people quite clearly. I refer to this definition as the Four Point Rule; I have helped a great number of my clients in private practice in increasing their assertive behavior resulting in their very much improved self-image.

(1) The first of these behaviors is simply the ability to say No. There have been several books that one can find related to self-improvement that emphasize the importance of an individual being able to say No. People that can’t say No often find that they are promising people things or actions that they really have no intention of delivering. Some reasons why a person will not say “no” are: 1) She/He does not want to hurt the other person’s feelings; 2) He/She is afraid of losing the other person’s friendship and/or 3) She/He may feel indebted to the other person for one reason or another. Of course, the person who responds positively to a request by another but makes a habit of not following through, more than likely, will lose the respect or trust of the other. On the other hand, the person who says “yes” but; deep down really does not want to do what she/he commits to, probably will feel some resentment toward the one requesting the favor.

(2) The flip side of being able to say “no” to someone is the ability to ask a favor from a friend or acquaintance. The implicit risk one takes in asking another for a favor is that the other person may say “no.” A person may not ask for a favor from someone he/she knows well because she/he may not feel worthy of a positive response from that friend. One type of client I have worked with is the shy male who is so afraid of rejection that he will not take the risk of asking a woman with whom he may be attracted out on a date.

(3) This neatly ties in with the third feature of assertive behavior: The ability to initiate and/or terminate a conversation with a stranger. I have helped several single shy males by role playing and, subsequently, giving them the assignment to talk to any two women they may meet during the week. Their goal for the week is to be rejected by these women. This may sound counterproductive, at first, but the paradoxical nature of the assignment makes it impossible for them to fail. Simply stated the client cannot perceive himself being a loser whether he is rejected or not and, this realization in and of itself, has therapeutic value.

(4) The fourth characteristic of assertive behavior is the ability to make positive or negative comments to a stranger or someone you know well. An example of the latter would be a non-assertive spouse who will be always apologetic to his/her partner never being able to express anything negative to that person for fear perhaps that the partner may leave him/her. That person’s mate will probably have little respect for such a partner. Examples of asserting oneself in less familiar situations would be the ability to return a steak not cooked the way it was ordered, at a restaurant, or the ability to tell people talking in a movie theater to quiet down.

Part of this last feature of assertive behavior is the ability to accept positive comments made to you.  I have had several clients that refuse to accept a compliment from friends or family members by claiming that they didn’t deserve it.  Often such behavior stems from the fact that they may have a poor sense of self, thus questioning the truth or validity of anything positive directed toward them.  Being assertive is simply not congruent with a poor self-image or self-concept.

To conclude, when an individual asserts oneself in any of the above situations defining assertive behavior, that person takes the risk of being rejected. An assertive person recognizes this risk and is willing to accept the consequences if, he/she, truly believes in oneself.