How to Sit with Painful Emotions

When I am feeling sadness, I actually feel it in my chest. It sits heavy on me. A friend of mine who is a trauma therapist tells me this is actually a “good” thing. She tells me that some people are not in touch with their emotions. This causes health problems, among other things.

Unprocessed grief, pain, sadness, or trauma never goes away. You can do your best to ignore it, but unprocessed pain will not be ignored. There are people in the world — you may know some of them — who say things like, “Don’t let it bother you,” or “Quit being so emotional,” or “C’mon. Let’s go have a drink. You’ll feel better.” None of these ideas is helpful with respect to processing something painful such as the death of a loved one, a painful break-up, or old pain from a personal traumatic childhood event.

The world is full of people who think they can white-knuckle themselves into ignoring painful emotions. Unfortunately, they will never succeed in pushing away the pain. The pain will always remain until it is allowed to be felt and processed. Experts in the fields of psychology, co-dependence, trauma, and addiction recovery know this and have powerful tools to help those who are brave enough to face these painful emotions. Think of it in the same way as the pain of lifting weights in order to develop strong muscles. There are no quick fixes, but there are tools you can use to become stronger and happier. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to believe the experts over people who have very little self-awareness or who foolishly believe that a person should just “snap out of it” when trying to process a painful life event.

For your own good health, don’t ignore what your “self” is trying to bring to your attention. Unprocessed pain does not drown in alcohol or disappear because a person does their best to ignore it. Here’s a link to an excellent article about how to sit in your painful emotions in order to move through them and leave them behind.

How to Sit with Painful Emotions


13 Reasons Why

If you enjoyed the novel or the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, you will want to read Julie Butler’s debut novel entitled Paper Girl. Butler’s novel exposes the perfect storm of cruelty, misunderstanding, and manipulation that contributes to a young girl’s unspoken raw pain. The music of Kurt Cobain is central to the book’s story line.

Butler is a long-time fan of Kurt Cobain, the front man of the group Nirvana. She, like millions of others, understands what it’s like to feel “stupid and contagious” (lyrics from Nirvana’s teen anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). Although the author understands all too well the debilitating power of “The Bully,” as she refers to depression in the novel, she has spent many hours combing articles and Cobain biographies in an attempt to understand his specific pain and where it may have begun. How did Cobain’s illness and addiction develop and ultimately cause him to end his own life?

Paper Girl will make you feel Nikki’s pain. You will cheer for her on every page. You will understand how cruelty and the inability to fully be yourself in the world contributes to unbearable pain for those who are paying attention. In a way, the author is a bit envious of those who don’t notice the homeless or the elderly. At times she has wished to be unfeeling and oblivious to the ways in which people cause harm to one another. Below is a quote from Michael Stipe during Nirvana’s induction to the Hall of Fame.

“It is the highest calling for an artist…to expose our struggles, our aspirations, our desires…Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl were Nirvana…Nirvana defined a moment, a movement for outsiders: for the fags; for the fat girls for the broken toys; the shy nerds; the Goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky; for the rockers and the awkward; for the fed-up; the too-smart kids and the bullied.” (Michael Stipe)

Be Careful with Your Children

Children are not meant to be tiny clones of us. I’ll say it again, because it’s critical that you get this. Your children are NOT meant to be tiny clones of you! Ouch. That realization can be a painful one at times. You, as parents, want to show your beloved children how to live in this world. You want to influence their decisions. You want to give them good advice. You want them to like the music you like. You want to influence them politically, spiritually, and socially. After all, you have been charged with their care and well-being. Shouldn’t they be formed in your image? These little people belong to us and it’s our job to make sure they turn out right. Not exactly. Your children don’t actually belong  to you. Possessions belong to us. Money belongs to us. Car keys belong to us. But not children.

In order to be a truly great parent, you must realize that your children have their own purpose in this world. Their individual life is sacred and must be supported and validated by you. So many parents get this wrong. They believe that, somehow, these little humans belong to them and that it is the their job to mold the child into what the parent wants the child to be. This could not be further from the truth. Discard this lie. It is, in fact, a lie. This is where so many of us, as parents, go wrong. When we view these small humans as “ours” and as little people who need to grow up to be just like us, we rob our children of the life they were intended to live. Think of your child’s life as a wild flower. You don’t really know what it’s going to look like or be like once it is grown, but you still water it and give it sunlight and love. You don’t try to make the wildflower be a rose or a tulip or a sunflower. You just let it be what it was meant to be. One of my favorite quotes is by poet Kahlil Gibran. Wiser words were never spoken:

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and thought they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”

It is a sacred job to be a parent. Be careful with your children. Think of each person’s life as a sacred spiritual journey. Only the Universe knows what your child’s purpose is for this human experience. Your child’s life is a sacred instrument in the world. Your jobs are to keep them safe, allow them to experience the consequences of life, and to validate their feelings. One example of validation is when a young child comes to you and says, “Adam is being mean.”

Your initial response might be to say, “No, he isn’t. He’s just trying to let you know…” Be very, very careful when your children come to you and express their feelings. You are the person who can most validate their feelings. If you do not validate their feelings, they will grow up lacking strong self-esteem and a solid identity. When you say, “No, he isn’t…” what your child “learns” is that her perceptions and feelings are incorrect and that she cannot trust herself. She then begins to doubt her gut instincts.

A better course of action would be to respond with something like, “I’m sorry, sweetheart. What happened?” This allows your child to feel heard and to learn that you are a safe place to come when the world is hard. Letting her know that you care about her feelings will cause her to open up to you and share more of the painful experience. It’s really what adults do when they pay a therapist to listen and validate their feelings during a mid-life crisis, for example. By validating your child’s feelings, you are allowing your child to express the hurt. Most of the time, children (and adults) don’t need answers. We just need a friendly listener.

Once your child has expressed her emotions and has had the opportunity to explain the details of the painful situation, you may then try to steer them in a good direction or help them see the truth of the situation if the truth is different than what they experienced. In any event, it is crucial that you first are actively listening and validating them. You will not regret it.


Do you include others?

Regardless of your religion (or the choice to have no religion), it is important to be inclusive in your daily life. You can increase the light and goodness in the world by widening the various “safe” circles in your day. I always try to include others any chance I get. Have you ever been on the other end of this scenario? Have you ever been the new student at school? Have you ever walked past a group of students who are laughing and joining together in a non-inclusive manner? It feels lonely.

Are you a student? When you walk the halls of your middle school or you eat lunch in your high school cafeteria, there are many opportunities to spread goodness. Be brave! Speak to someone who looks lonely or who looks like they might be struggling. Did a student drop their books? Be brave! Help them pick up the books. Share your smile with them. Is a new student looking lost in the cafeteria? Is someone sitting alone at the lunch table? Be brave! Say, “Hi, I’m ______! What’s your name?”

Find a way to connect with people who might not be part of the popular group. If you start practicing this inclusion each and every day, you will become more comfortable doing so. There are so many hurting and lonely people in the world. All kinds of clubs and groups are established for the purpose of grouping us together with people who are the same as us: country clubs, sororities, political groups, unofficial groups of cliches who don’t welcome others. The list goes on and on. Personally, I am uncomfortable associating in these types of groups. I always want to include others who might not have the money to join the country club or purchase the “right” clothing.

As human beings, we must support one another in brave ways. I live in a part of the United States we call The Bible Belt. I don’t typically see Christians behaving in ways of inclusiveness. This hurts me deeply. It’s as if we, as Christians, want to build walls to “keep out the bad people,” or “protect our clean selves from those who are dirty.” You might not be a Christian, but you may know something about Christ. Christ hung out with “unclean” people. The message of the gospel is “the good news.” The good news is that God loves us and accepts us and wants us to treat each other with respect and kindness. When Christ walked this earth, he welcomed people of all class status. That’s the whole point! Are you Buddhist? Muslim? Jewish? Agnostic? It makes no difference what belief system you hold — be brave! Include others you encounter throughout your day. Be on the lookout for opportunities to give away your smile or your assistance and kindness.

How We Establish Who We Are

Do you ever feel that you are not being yourself? Is there a mask you wear in order to be “acceptable” to the world? What about your true self? That wonderful person wants and needs to be expressed. It can be hard to let that person be known to the world if you grew up in a toxic environment. Daily journaling is a great help to those of us who are recovering from trauma. Morning is the best time for me to journal. I find that I can think clearly in the morning without the threat of other people’s junk in my head. Your best time might be in the middle of the day or at night. It doesn’t matter what time you set aside to journal. The important thing is to do it on a regular basis. Your inner wounded self needs a safe place to express herself/himself.

Here’s another excellent post from

How We Establish Who We Are

We form our identities to separate ourselves from other people and have a sense of continuity of ourselves. But one of the main purposes of forming an identity is to establish a positive sense of self.

A healthy sense of self allows us to function well in society. Individuals with a healthy sense of self form and maintain positive relationships. They have a sense of autonomy and confidence. They take initiative and trust that things will work out well.

These are all things that adult children of narcissists struggle with.

So how are identities formed? Identities are built in part through exploration and experiences. Adolescents explore different roles and measure the reactions of others to their experiences, appearance, or different ways of acting or talking.

An adolescent may try out for sports, discover he has athletic talent, and develop an identity as an athlete. Another may excel at scholastic activities and develop an identity as a brainiac.

Adults play a role in the identity formation of adolescents. Coaches, teachers, aunts and uncles can all contribute to an adolescent’s identity. But perhaps the adults who play the most significant role are the adolescent’s parents.

How Parents Affect Who You Are

Adolescent identities are influenced considerably by their relationships with their parents. When there is a healthy relationship between an adolescent and his parent, he will feel free to explore different aspects of himself. He will experiment and get feedback from his parents about his beliefs and behaviors. Meanwhile, healthy parents provide adolescents with:

  • A sense of autonomy
  • The ability to set and achieve goals
  • Confidence to pursue opportunities
  • Confidence that people respect him
  • A sense of initiative
  • The ability to approach people who can benefit them

Unfortunately, as narcissism’s child, you unlikely had parents that supported you finding your own separate identity. Any move you made to establish a sense of self separate from your parents was likely met by rage from your narcissistic parent.

There are consequences for the adolescent who feels his parents will reject him for identity exploration. He is likely to feel less confident in trying on new roles. He may be so afraid of his parent’s reaction that he does not explore at all.

Where healthy parents provide their children with the attributes listed above, narcissistic parents leave their children unprepared to meet the world.

The adult child of a narcissist rarely feels autonomous. Having faced a lifetime of criticism, he is often terrified by the idea of making a decision. No one taught him how to set a goal and how to work towards it.

The adult child of a narcissist constantly interprets comments and feedback from others as criticism. She has no confidence that people respect her in any area of her life. She puts off decisions and opportunities until her chances for something positive fade away.

Adult children of narcissists often lack the skills to enter healthy relationships. They may find themselves living with abusive or narcissistic partners, one again forsaking their chances at forming a strong sense of self.

This can lead to depression and anger about their lives. Still, they lack the ability and knowledge to improve their lives. They wait for their lives to get magically better. But just like the man who puts his fate in the hands of a leprechaun trap, their wish for a better life does not manifest.

Empty Praise

cropped-annajulie1.jpgWe’ve all heard people say, “I want to give my children all of the things I never had growing up.” While this is a normal feeling, it’s not always the best parenting behavior. My parents raised me with lavish praise at every opportunity. Their intention was noble, and I believe they did this because they felt a lack of praise in their childhood. Therefore, when they had the opportunity to raise a child, most likely they wanted to give me what they felt they did not have growing up.

Unfortunately, their endless praise of me backfired, and I wound up feeling extremely insecure in spite of all the positive strokes. This was always so very confusing to me. How could I feel insecure when my parents were so supportive of me? After many months working with a therapist, and my involvement with other personal growth programs, I became stronger. I learned to value myself for things I can control – like kindness, empathy, listening skills, hard work, etc. Before my recovery work, the insecurity I felt was perplexing. I soon began studying something called “empty praise.”

By praising a child for something they have no control over — such as appearance or natural ability — parents inadvertently create praise “junkies.” These children grow up with very little internal sense of their strength and abilities. Very often, these same children have been protected from failure and have not only been spared the experience of failure, but have also been spared the strength and self-reliance that comes from trying and failing and then trying again. Below is an excerpt from Amy McCready’s article on Huffington Post, “Mistakes Too Many Parents Make When They Praise Their Kids.” McCready eloquently articulates the “empty praise” scenario.


Praise, like sugar, can be tricky — and sometimes it shows up even where we don’t intend. For instance, when we label or compare our kids, we’re praising them, or worse, belittling them, often without realizing it. By claiming an “athletic one” or our “funny one” or the “shy one,” we highlight abilities (or inabilities) through comparison, and package all of our children into neat little boxes. Even more subtle is the designation of a go-to kid. We all have one — it’s the child we trust to carry the full salad bowl to the table. He’s the one we “go-to” when we want something done quickly and without a fuss. Relying on the go-to kid is a type of praise that can be just as damaging as its overt counterpart — not only because kids pick up on everything (even the fact that Javier always gets the cool jobs), but also because with it, we unknowingly tell kids that they are their label and can’t control who they are or what they do. Ouch!

The antidote: Even if you know Molly could have a career in modeling, or Charlie would rather mail himself to Siberia than speak in front of an audience, resist the urge to label Molly as “the pretty one” and compare Charlie as “my shy kid.” While you’re handing out family tasks, divvy up age-appropriate jobs equally so everyone gets a chance to drop (or successfully transport) the salad bowl, using plastic if you’re truly concerned. And who knows? Maybe with encouragement Charlie will someday find himself on a stage addressing thousands, without even having to picture them all in their underwear.

Paper Girl

My young adult fiction book, “Paper Girl,” is available for sale on Amazon. Nikki, the protagonist, faces many painful events that are, for the most part, invisible to the rest of the world. Shocking twists and turns in the story will keep you cheering for Nikki on every page. I hope you will purchase it today for yourself or for a young person you know who enjoys reading stories such as, “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Looking for Alaska,” and “The Beginning of Everything.”

Much of what Nikki faces is similar to what some people face growing up in homes where the parents are absent. It could be they are absent because of drugs or alcohol, mental illness, or because they are simply emotionally unavailable. Here’s an excerpt from the Big Red Book that states this so well.

“We know of a woman who seemed to love canned potatoes. She felt ‘comfort’ just knowing there was a single can of potatoes in her cupboard….As she began addressing her abandonment issues as an adult, she realized that the canned potatoes meant something more than a fondness for a peeled vegetable in a can. She realized, or her body remembered, that canned potatoes were the difference between going hungry or having something to eat when her alcoholic mother went out for days without coming home….As a child, while feeling fearful and hungry when her mother was gone, she found a can of potatoes. She ate the potatoes and felt full. Her hunger left, and she could sleep. At a young age, she felt comforted by the potatoes for two reasons: She solved her immediate problem of hunger, and she knew she did not need her mother to take care of her. She could now take care of herself. She would take care of her sister, too. She learned to drag a chair to the edge of the stove to warm up soup and drag the same chair to the sink to wash dishes. She no longer had to feel hurt or abandoned by a mother she loved and adored….The canned potatoes represented her introduction to adulthood before she attended her first day of school as a first grader. As an adult, through much work, she realized she had a hunger for her mother’s love; a hunger she could never completely quench….When she finally walked away from the abandoning and loveless relationship with her mother, she felt like her world had ended. She felt guilty and wrong, but eventually found peace and inner strength from the work she did in her recovery program. Through much work she now reaches into her cupboard for a variety of food to nourish her body and soul.”

It Will Never Happen to Me

There is a wonderful book I retrieve from my bookcase occasionally. It is called, “Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Some people call it the “Big Red Book.” In my many years in recovery, this book has provided me so much comfort. The words have helped me feel “okay” in my dysfunctional history and my present struggles. Reading its words is like a clean breath of ocean air.

One of the reasons attending support groups is so very helpful when you are trying to get better, is because the world is filled with sick people repeating the mistakes of their past. We’ve all done it. “I’m going to be different than my parents. I’ll never behave the way they did. Last night was my last drink. Never again.”

If you are one of the many people in the world who is working a recovery program of some type, sometimes after a day at the office, you might need to get to a meeting. You might need to hang out with people who, like you, are trying to get better. Your school and your office and your studio is filled with people who are emotionally sick. If you are surrounded at work by emotionally unhealthy people, you need to fill up your tank by surrounding yourself with those who want to get better. It’s easy to get dragged down when you are trying to get better.

I am so glad I am sober. I thank God every day for my sobriety. But sometimes I feel very different from those around me, like no one understands me. If I’m surrounded at work all day by people who haven’t yet found their path to serenity, it can be tempting to get caught up in their chaos or their stress. These people are still addicted to the “drug” of chaos. I used to be one of those people. I work hard to not fall back into it. God’s grace is a huge factor in keeping me sane. Here are some words of comfort from the big red book. I hope you enjoy reading them.

“Family dysfunction is a disease that affects everyone in the family. Taking a drink is not necessary to be affected….we developed survival traits called ‘The Laundry List.’ Denial can lead us to believe that we have escaped our family dysfunction. Step One of the Twelve Steps of Adult Children of Alcoholics is to realize we are ‘powerless over the effects’ of growing up in a dysfunctional family. The Step calls us to admit that our behavior today is grounded in the events that occurred in childhood. Once we come out of denial, we realize we have internalized our parents’ behavior. We have internalized their perfectionism, control, dishonesty, self-righteousness, rage, and pessimism. We have internalized both of our parents: the alcoholic and the para-alcoholic. The para-alcoholic (the codependent) is driven by fear, excitement, and pain from the inside. The biochemical surge and cascade of inner “drugs” that accompany these states of distress in this parent can impact children as profoundly as outside substances. We believe that the long-term effects of fear transferred to us by a nonalcoholic parent can match the damaging effects of alcohol. This is why many of us can abstain from other addictive behaviors after growing up, but be driven by inner drugs that can bring difficulties as we attempt to recover.”