Seven Simple Lessons on Happiness Defined by a Defiant Dog Named Ben.

We can not solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it.
— Albert Einstein

Seven Years ago in August, I adopted a rescue puppy named Ben. He turned eight a couple of weeks ago. Not treated well by his first owner, he and his brother were surrendered to a shelter. The original owner reclaimed Ben's brother, leaving Ben alone and feeling abandoned,  when he was first adopted by another.  He had difficulty adjusting to his first adoption and was returned to the shelter the very next day.  I was fortunate enough to adopt him that very next day. Though it's been a tough road at times dealing with his severe separation anxiety and reactive aggressive behavior, he's given me so much joy and I admire his defiance, which is perhaps better called " resilience".  While I could make a list of dozens doggy behavioral lessons on happiness that Mr. Ben has taught me, here are seven simple ones.

 1. Take time each day to play .

Ben Loves to play. Every morning after his walk and breakfast, he searches for a ball for me to throw to him. If he can't find one, he then grabs one of my shoes instead. Catch or catch me if you can has become a big part of our morning routine.

Adults need to be silly, laugh and play. It releases endorphins and actually can help them to be more productive at work and more at ease with others. Woking too hard or always being on the go, stresses the adrenals and leads to anxiety and depression.

2. Take time to rest.

Ben loves to go for walks- short ones though. Once he tires out, he just plops himself under a shady tree.  He has no particular exercise agenda (unlike his owner) and he listens to what his body needs.  When he needs to slow down or stop, he does.

Just as people need to take time to play, they also need to sleep and take time out in their days for rest. Believe it or not, just ten minutes of mediation a day or a fifteen minute power nap can be a wonderful reset for one's mind, body and soul.

3. Ask for what you want.

There's a park that I often take Ben for walks. At the beginning of the loop there’s an inlet to the pond, and oooohhhh how Ben loves to swim. We have a routine when he goes swimming: I throw out a stick for him to fetch – and off he goes…paddling with a mission, head above water and tail wagging the whole time.    Each time we approach the inlet, without fail, Ben runs down the sandy beach, wags his tail and waits. That's his ask.  Ben doesn't assume I know what he wants, (though I do), so he makes sure to ask me each and every time we approach the pond.

When people come to therapy, particularly when they are having difficulty in their relationships, I notice that they often assume the "other" should always be attuned to what they want and deliver on it.  It's an assumption that can cause a lot of strife and disappointment when expectations aren't met. I encourage people to ask from their hearts what it is they want rather than expect the other will just know.

4. When you can't get what you want, find a way to come to terms with it.

There's a rule in my home: if Ben goes in the pond – he then goes in the tub for a bath. This doggy momma doesn't have time for a fluff and buff bath routine every day, so Ben doesn't always get to go for his much coveted swim.   Though he always asks, when I know he’s not going swimming on a particular day,   I say “no” and then keep walking.  He waits for a few seconds with sad eyes hoping I will change my mind, but soon finds a way to let go, and follows me for the rest of his walk.

People can't always get what they want from another. Yet some have a hard time tolerating when things don't go their way.  Certainly one can always ask again from their heart, but if another doesn't want to oblige, it's best to respect theit wish. If the other obliges because they feel guilted or pressured, then resentment will build over time.  


5. Make sure your actions match your words and surround yourself with those who do the same.

When I ask Ben if he wants to go for a walk, we take one. When I ask him if he wants to eat, I feed him.  Imagine what it would be like for him if I only followed through on what I said only some of the time? Would he feel loved and secure?

No, he wouldn't.

When someone follows through on what they tell the other they intend to do, it says that they are a person of integrity and that the other matters. It shows that they care. When they don't, the opposite is true on all counts. Now, no one's perfect and life happens. When things get in the way and force a change of plans, explain that to the other and find a way to make it up to them. It feels good to make other's happy and others feel happy and respected when people in their life do the same. It builds trust and deeper intimacy and It's win win.

6. When someone's actions don't match their words,  know it's not about you.

Dogs take everything personally. Their limbic brains are much bigger than their human companions and they don't have a prefrontal cortex that helps them use logic and resort to higher reasoning. One of the reason's Ben has anxiety and PTSD is because he didn't know that his former human had problems and took them out on him.

Here's where humans have dogs beat. Yes, it hurts when people don't do as they said they would and sometimes, one may never know the reason why they didn't. Learning not to personalize  others behavior and lack of follow through can help build one's self esteem. It can also create enough space for one to calmly ask the other what happened rather than react harshly -which will only shame or push the other away. If necessary, not personalizing an other's behavior can then make it easier to walk away from those who's actions consistently don't match their words .

7. Above all else: "To thy own self be true." 

Dogs are incapable of being inauthentic. They show us who they are all the time. Their sometimes bad behavior also lends a clue as to what happened to them. When a stranger approaches Ben and he feels uncomfortable, he growls and barks. He can't pretend he feels what he doesn't and he won't warm up to someone until he feels safe, secure and happy with that person.

This lesson is much harder for humans. It's not easy to live authentically as choosing to do so may  mean letting others down. A mentor once told me that at some point in the life span, everyone must choose between the following seemingly impossible dilemma, which boils down to this: "If I choose what others want for me, I betray myself and if I choose what I want for myself, then I betray others." 

While there are those who believe it's "nobler to suffer", I believe Shakespeare's Polonius had this one right. To thy own self be true. The human heart is filled with wisdom and when one follows it, they follow the ultimate lesson on human happiness- which in the long run, has a positive trickle down effect on those around them.  The same holds true for when they don't. When people follow their hearts and learn to disappoint others in a compassionate and loving way, it actually IS in everyone's best interest because it allows them to do the same. Inauthentic living never amounts to genuine happiness.

So there it is, seven simple lessons on happiness.  

The irony is, none of those lessons are easy.

 Most have to make time to play and they often don't believe there's enough time in the day to do that.

Most need to take time to rest and they are worried that they won't get everything they need to get done if they do.

Many need to learn to ask from their hearts what they want and accept that sometimes they can't alway get it. This requires the courage to be vulnerable and grieve the disappointment.

While most want to have their actions meet their words, sometimes they can't and then they  avoid explaining to the other the real reason they didn't. This avoidance only leads to hurt, distrust and more avoidance: not down the path of happiness. It's also hard not to take another's lack of followthrough personally, because it really does hurt.

Yet, when people master the last lesson: To thy own self be true- the hardest lesson of all, all the other lessons fall right into place. If they consistently practice lessons one through six, then lesson seven becomes easier too.

When all of these lessons get practiced consistently, then one can truly say that "life is good!"


7 Simple Ways to "Shape Shift" Your Life When You Feel Down for the Count

"Nothing is impossible. The word itself says I'm possible" - Audrey Hepburn





Albert Einstein shamelessly stated, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” A renegade physicist most known for his equation E=MC2, he believed that energy could not be created nor destroyed, “ just changed from one form to another.” His ideas spoke to the heart of the culturally diverse and timeless fascination of “Shape Shifting”.

“Shape-Shifting” means “the ability of a being or creature to completely transform its physical form or shape.”*  A common  theme in ancient mythology and shamanism, it involves a magical transformation from one state to another -often from human to animal.  In the modern era, “Shape Shifting” has become a widely used metaphor for variety of genres.

Sports is one such genre. Remember the  Boston Bruins 2011 playoff series ? Fans road the rollercoaster of constant come from behind wins (accompanied by Jack Edward’s historic commentary) from the quarter finals in Montreal all the way to Lord Stanley's Cup in Vancouver.  The B’s “shape shifted” again and again until they emerged victorious. Then there was Malcolm Butler’s against all odds and ergonomics game winning  interception in Super Bowl XLIX .  With :26 seconds left in the game and Marshawn Lynch inches from the end zone, Seattle Seahawk players and fans began celebrating the seemingly inevitable game winning touchdown.  The Patriots  then “shape shifted” and dashed the Seahawks’ hopes.  In 2017 they did it again. Down 23-3 in the third, the Falcons smelled victory.  Tom Brady marched down the field and showed the world once again, that miracles do happen- sometimes.  What seemed fated to be an epic loss “shape shifted” into  one of the most legendary Super Bowl victories to date.  

“Shape shifting” happens in psychotherapy too -though in this genre,  most  keep bragging rights to themselves.  People come to therapy when they feel down for the count and desperately seek to transform their lives.  While therapy may not be for everyone, almost everyone has found themselves at some point in time in dire need of change. If you can relate to that sentiment, then here are seven simple “shape shifting”  techniques you can practice on your own to begin turning  your life around.

  1. Ask yourself the following question: If anything were possible and nothing mattered, what does my heart long to be, do or have?  The sky's the limit, so be brave. Right now this secret desire gets to live privately and safely within the walls of your imagination. No one has to know about it, except you. Feel what happens in your body when you do this. Compare that “in the body feeling” with your feelings towards your  current situation or  whatever it is you think you should  be do or have. Notice the contrast. Without thinking, kinesthetically feel which thought or idea makes your heart lift.

  2. Focus on what does lift your heart,  imagining yourself being, doing or having it.  Sense and   feel what happens in your body.

  3. Allow the parts of you that tell you why you can’t or shouldn’t be, do or have this to come forward. Sense and feel them in your body.

  4. Send all those naysayer parts of you lots of compassion. Contrary to what many people say, pushing aside or ignoring fears doesn’t work. Those parts of you have important messages and concerns that need to heard. They have good intentions and are trying to protect you from deeper held beliefs and fears in your inner system.  Listen to all their concerns and  then channell Aaron Rodgers’ invitation for relaxation towards them all.

  5.  Allow the deeper fears to emerge in their own time and way. (If this becomes overwhelming, than you may want to consider psychotherapy.) Listen with compassion to all your pain - every last drop of it-and allow it to dissipate.

  6.  Shift your focus back again to what makes your heart happy and feel what happens again in your body.   

  7. Wait and Listen. Allow yourself to be guided by your heart’s intuition and follow its lead by taking whatever inspired actions it asks of you.

Practice this simple technique three minutes a day, three times a day for three weeks, three months or three years and watch your life begin to transform. You CAN “shape shift” anything in your life IF it’s what your  heart truly  desires. If it’s not, then It won’t happen no matter how hard you try. Trust that your heart has an inner wisdom in wanting what it wants -whatever that may be.

While Shakespeare’s Hamlet tormented over “Whether tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and many have followed in suite, I believe there’s a better way. What lifts your heart- at least the essences of it- IS what you are supposed to be, do or have. When you surrender to that and set your intention to allow for what you really want to flow into your life -you will discover some really good news. What makes you happy- when pursued in a kind, compassionate and loving way- is  always in the best interest of the greater good.  

Why not give it a try and see what happens? .

You never know what dreams may come.

1.My book: Finding Hope in the Crises: A Therapist’s Perspective on Love, Loss and Courage,  will be hitting the bookshelves this spring. Be the first to know by clicking here.


2. To learn more about my psychotherapy practice in Sudbury, MA, click here.

The Homecoming: Why it's never too late to be true to yourself.

“So you can doubt. And you can hate. But I know no matter what it takes:I’m coming home.” - Skyler Grey


“What about anacondas?” I asked. “Isn’t the Amazon Scary?”

He paused for a moment and smiled at me before he answered. ‘It’s the safest place I’ve ever been,” he said while pulling out his phone to show me a picture he took of a Jaguar swimming away from his boat.”

After a  2 & ½ hour shuttle ride to the Liberia airport in Costa Rica, listening and learning from this man about his thoughts on Shamanism, the Mayan ruins in Guatemala, the Pachamama Alliance, the Amazon, and of his former work life involving unsavory business deals that effected the global economy, this man assured me that visiting the Amazon was a must.  “Don’t worry” he said, as we exited the car and grabbed our luggage, “ the Amazon IS safe.”  He looked at me one last time before we parted for good and said “but love... now that’s scary”.

“Did he just do a little door knob therapy with me? ” I wondered as I walked into the airport and searched for the Jetblue Terminal. Tracing the threads of our conversation over and over in my mind, I finally remembered that I did tell him that I was a therapist. Perhaps that’s why he said what he said when he said it, just as many of my clients do at the end of session? They reveal  their deeper truths as they are literally walking out my office door- which allows them to say what they need to say, while avoiding any real exploration of it.  This man shared with me a deep vulnerability and then left.    

As I stood in line waiting to pick up my boarding pass for my flight home to Boston, unable to shake my curiosity, I decided to buy and read his book.  After perusing the chapter about his childhood,  I understood what he meant.

Like many clients I see, he grew up having to do what others wanted him to do- which became a part of his adult relational reality.  His own wants, needs, ideas and desires, if they deviated from what his family approved of,- were not permitted.  He developed what therapists call “a false self” -one that organizes around pleasing others and their realites- denying the authentic yearnings within. Yet, he always acted out his deeper wishes- just in destructive ways; dropping out of the school his family wanted him to go to, having affairs, ending his marriage, etc.  It made perfect sense to me why love felt so scary to him.

When people fall in love, they are often falling in love with parts of themself that they see in the other person.  Sometimes, they can only experience those parts of themself through that other person - at least initially. In a way, lovers become each other’s muses, inspiring their true nature and deep creative passions. If these parts are lost parts - exiled because they were never permitted and deemed unacceptable by those close to them, then the euphoria of being “in love with another” can quickly turn to panic - as the primitive implicit memories associated with the negative consequences of being authentic begin to surface.  For many, like this man, Love WAS scary.  And for those whom it still is, until healed, it will remain so.  When this is the case, people then chose relationships that reenact the model of love they are most familiar with- and sometimes find partners with whom they feel safe with but empty.   The lyric from O.A.R..’s song shattered “all I can feel is the realness I’m faking” speaks to that reality.

Yet the lie (false self) can not become the truth no matter how hard one tries to make it so and the call to authenticity will always be there as long as we are alive and have air to breathe. Some have the courage to take a deep breath and answer it and some do not - but the “phone” will never stop ringing -even when silenced.  

It will not quit.

Rather it will wait patiently for you to surrender to the sound of the song your soul sings.

The man I shared the shuttle ride with did answer his call-at least professionally - as he changed careers and is now dedicated to helping people all over the world live in economic fairness and in alignment with the earth’s natural resources. The draw to the amazon was his therapy and his experiences with nature and people who live connected to nature and her rhythms, helped him connect to his own.

He writes about how Shamans literally saved his life. “Shamans”,  which means medicine men or women are healers of the mind, body and spirit.  

Therapists are too.

But if you are not quite ready to answer the phone call home to yourself, here’s a pre therapy tip that will prepare you to feel safe for the “some day” trip to your inner amazon.  Find a quiet place to sit or lie down and close your eyes. Bring one hand to your heart and another to your stomach. Scan your body for tension and see if all the aches, pains, tensions and knots would be willing to soften just a tiny bit- more if they’d like. Relax your jaw and allow yourself to breath in through your mouth without even trying to.  Just wait and yield to the breath when the body needs air and inhale. Then allow the exhale.


Repeat again.

And again and again.

That’s it.

It’s a simple surrender to the rhythm of your breath - and the rhythm of your soul, where all the answers to your questions live- patiently waiting to share their wisdom with you. As the breath slows down, so will the mind. When that happens, you will soon begin to hear the sounds of the rich biodiversity of all the inner voices  and parts inside of you - which at first will feel scary. If that’s the case, just return to the breath and see if you can  trust that all the frightened, shamed, scared, angry, lonely, sad, should, no don’t, but I have to and any and all  parts  of you that constantly contradict each other -have valuable data for you to listen to. They all matter and they can all live in harmony inside of you when and only when you listen to them all and deny nothing of what they have to say. They will then guide you on your journey home to authenticity and your true self.  

That’s when love shifts from scary to rich, alive and exciting.

It doesn’t get much better than that.


My book: Finding Hope in the Crisis: A Therapist's Perspective on Love, Loss and Courage, is hitting the book shelves this spring. Be the first to know by clicking here.




The Courage to Grieve: by Maura A. Matarese, M.A. LMHC, R.Y.T.

"Some day I'll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me" - Somewhere Over the Rainbow


“That Stunk” my father, a widower now five years as I write this said, after we watched episode two, season three of the Starz television series Outlander. In case you aren’t familiar with the series or books, here’s the bare bones of the story.

A world war II nurse named Claire Randall, reunites with her husband Frank Randall after the war ends and they take a second honeymoon in Scotland. When visiting the countryside, they accidentally witness a pagan dance ritual around a set of stones that resemble the prehistoric English monument, Stonehenge.  Mesmerized by the ritual, Claire decides to return to the site the next day and when she touches one of the stones, she’s transported two hundred years back in time.  While relentlessly trying to get back to 1945, she meets Jamie Fraisier, a Jacobite soldier who offers her shelter.  The two end up falling in love (though she resists this for a long time as she longs to go home) and they develop a shared mission to stop the Jacobite rebellion and infamous battle of Culloden, where close to two thousand Scotland highlanders died. Claire, who is from the future knows what happened on the fateful day of April 16, 1746. She hopes that she and Jamie can somehow change history and spare thousands of lives.  When they realize they can’t, Jamie, who believes his fate is to die on the battlefield, sends Claire, who is now pregnant with their child, back through the stones to the future so that she can reunite with Frank.  She does this and she and Frank raise her and Jamie’s child.  Jamie however, did not die on the battlefield that day, though Claire believes he did.  

This episode, appropriately called “surrender” captures the process of grief that both Claire and Jamie experience as they try to readjust to life without the other and it was hard to watch.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross along with David Kessler have written extensively on grief and grieving, outline five stages of the process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, though the stages are seldom linear and many get touched upon and then revisited.  It takes courage to surrender to the process and time to go through it. What my dad sad at the end of that episode was right though- it stinks!

Endings are a part of life. Whether someone dies or chooses to leave a relationship, surrendering to the grieving process is, in my view, one of the hardest things we will ever have to do. Many drink to avoid it, or sleep, or  shop, or eat or smoke pot or do drugs or overworking or engage in excessive sex or exercise to escape the pain.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if grieving were a simple as wishing upon a star and waking up where the clouds are far behind ? Unfortunately, it’s not.

There is, however, a gentler way to surrender to the grief and it take courage to do this.

What if you took some time each day, to close your eyes, follow your breath and notice the sensations in your body.  What if you tapped into your inner reservoir of self compassion and extended it to the various parts of you that may be feeling angry,  sad, lost, lonely or wishing and wanting things to be different than what they are?  What if you honored those parts of you, listened to it’s cry and allowed it to just be whatever it is, for as long as it needs to be? While not fun, being in this kind of relationship with your pain will help it dissipate in an organic way.

Watching Jamie and Claire grieve each other was heartbreaking. Yet they were able to make new meaning out of their separate lives once they did.  Since this is however, an epic romance series, they do eventually find each other again, as sometimes in real life, people do. Regardless, endings always lead to new beginnings one way or the other, as it’s part of the cycle of life.  Eugene O'Neill’s play The Great God Brown describes this perfectly with the verse “ Always spring comes again baring life. Always again. Always, always forever again. Spring again, life again, summer and fall and death and peace again.”  

Sometimes the cycle of life, whether it be the life of a person or the life of a relationship, gets interrupted long before it should. With a lot of love, patience, time and compassion, spring and new life will come again.




Hope: by Maura A. Matarese, MA LMHC, R.Y.T.

When we look outside ourselves we dream. When we look inside ourselves we awaken.
— Carl Jung

Therapists are relentless hope merchants.

We are so because we very much believe in the human capacity to heal and change.

Hope has traditionally been defined as “a feeling or expectation for a certain thing to happen”.  Through this lense, hope is a set up, especially when it comes to relationships because it has a future oriented slant dependent upon external factors.  Renown couples therapist, Toni Herbine Blank writes  about this phenomenological see saw of hope and hopelessness that couples have for each other in her book Intimacy from the Inside Out.  Feeling  hopeful and  up when they believe the other will “ do this” drops to a sense hopeless and helpless when the other doesn’t.

What if,  hope had a present oriented slant?  The Greek myth of Pandora which gave birth to the concept of hope unintentionally does.   In the myth, Pandora, who was the first female human created out of clay, brought a chest filled with gifts for the human race.  It was a trojan horse however, as the gifts inside the chest: sickness, old age, wickedness, immorality and other vices were a revenge package from Zeus. Angry at being tricked by the Titan Prometheus who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans so they could cook their food, Zeus placed these maladies in the chest.   When Pandora, who didn’t know what was in the chest opened it, they flew out of it giving humankind the eternal experience of suffering.  Once Pandora realized what was happening, she closed the chest.  It only thing left in it though, which was hope.

Take a moment to think of something you may want or be struggling with in your life. Now ask yourself the question “What if,  I had an inner resource inside of me that will keep me calm, curious and compassionate no matter what happens ?” While that may seem impossible, it’s not.  What if hope, was an energetic state such as the relaxation response, or the Taoist concept of “flow” that always resided in the treasure chest of the human heart? When connected to that, we  can create space and possibility for what can be - which may be the very thing you want.

The creative possibility starts by looking inside yourself first.




The Traffic Jam

"With one breath, with one flow
you will know
-"Synchronicity"- The Police





Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung (1875-1961) shared a story about a patient who once had a dream about an expensive piece of jewelry which she referred to as a golden scarab. Clinically, he was trying to help her get more connected to her heart, which her rational, logical, defensive mind protected her from, with good reason I am sure of. He struggled with her for quite some time and asked for a little help from the universe which he got on the day she talked about her dream.  As he listened to what she was describing, he heard a light tapping on his window.  He turned around and saw that it was a golden scarab beetle - which were widely revered in ancient Egypt. He pointed this out to his patient who quickly made the connection between her inner world being mirrored by the outerworld.  This synchronistic moment reportedly worked and the therapy began to help her.




“John” was a client I had been working on and off with for several years.  Normally on time for session, he arrived twenty minutes late, seemingly aggravated.  ‘Sorry” he said as he plopped himself on my couch, “I’ve been stuck in traffic for over an hour”. “John” had been feeling frustrated with many things in his life, one of which was an out of state job that he desperately wanted and had been in the works for over a year now. It seemed that each time the company got close to making him an offer, they would tell him that they didn’t have to go ahead yet, but encouraged him to hang in there with them.  Trying to ignore his immediate experience of frustration, he dove into reporting on all the recent developments or lack thereof in his life.



“Being stuck in traffic really sucks” I said, to which he paused, nodded his head and looked at me.  “Can you feel the frustration in your body? “ I asked.  



“Yes, but I really just want to forget about it”, he responded.



“Of course you do” I said, “but why not take a moment to just acknowledge it and see what happens?”.  



He agreed.  He closed his eyes and focussed on the tension in his neck and shoulders. As he followed his breath, his frustration turned to anger and then softened to a profound sadness.  He acknowledged how helpless he felt regarding his current life circumstances and wished things could change.  We spent the rest of the session holding that as he grieved his sense of helplessness.  By the end of the appointment, there was an alchemical shift in the room. Though the therapy in and of itself couldn’t do much to change the external issues in his outer life, his inner life dramatically shifted when he discovered self compassion.  



We joked as he left that evening hoping the traffic jam would be cleared up by now so that he could have an easy ride home.  “It will be what it will be” he said, smiling as he walked out the door.



Two weeks later, John arrived early for his appointment.  I opened my office door to see him seated in the waiting room grinning from ear to ear.  “Guess what happened?” he asked as he entered my office?



“You tell me” I responded as I waited to hear his news.



“They made me an offer last week.  I will be moving out of town and starting my new job in two months”.



He had his golden scarab moment and his inner traffic jam cleared.



Whether or not one buys into Jung’s theory of synchronicity doesn’t matter.  Taking the time to sit compassionately with all of one’s parts and unburdening the pain inside does.  






Because it help us to better manage the inevitable traffic jams we all experience and then find new routes to travel on in our lives.



Implicit Contracts


“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you”- Carly Simon



Narcissistic abuse has become a hot talking point these days.  If you follow social media, particularly Facebook, you may find many articles about this such as “ How to spot a narcissist” , “gas lighting” ( a manipulative technique where someone tries to tell you that you are crazy and are imagining their abuse rather than take any responsibility for it) and even “10 signs that your partner is a psychopath”.  While these essays do have some meat to them and offer sound advice on self care, trusting your instincts and maintaining no contact once you end the relationship, they don’t get to the heart of the matter, which is why people get ensnarled in these relationships in the first place.



“Karen” had been in therapy with me for two years. Her husband “Jack” who was once the love of her life, had for many years now, been showing her his darker side. He often neglected her, raged at her when he was upset and seldom showed any genuine interest in Karen’s wants and needs. When she would withdraw her attention from him and begin to contemplate leaving the relationship, he would then change his tune and start following through on the many promises he made to her. This in turn, offered her some intermittent moments of hope and happiness and she would re-engage with him. Yet once she did, little by little he would switch back to his old behaviors. After a while, she would then start to withdraw again and he would then start to pursue her again.  He offered her just enough of what she needed to get her hooked into riding the rollercoaster of his moods and maltreatment, yet again.  This was their relational contract.  



The contract didn’t start out that way though and generally speaking, in this kind of relationship, they never do.  Karen told me that she and Jack were once very much in love. “We had a chemistry like no other” and “he always felt like my soulmate” she would say, which I am sure is all true. This kind of chemistry however, allowed for the classic “bait and switch” where overtime, and unbeknownst to her, she came to implicitly agree to be in a connection with him that ultimately, was all about him.  Never did she imagine herself to be sounding board for his dreams and disappointments and a psychic punching bag for his rage.  Always trying to fix him or "therapize" him, she lived with chronic knots in her stomach.  Obsessed with how to get things back to the way they used to be, she came to therapy after her friends and family expressed concerns on how her self confidence and joie de vivre seemed lost.  She agreed that it was.


So how did this implicit contract get signed?



Karen grew up in a disorganized household.  Her father, who adored her, traveled for work so he wasn’t around much of the time and her mother, who was a trauma survivor herself, would often rage at Karen when she was a little girl. Karen shared with me her memory of her mother screaming at her for some unknown reason as she didn’t remember doing anything “wrong”.  Her mother’s affect was so intense that Karen remembered wanting to faint in an attempt to get her to stop her and to win back her mother’s love.  “I just wanted her to hold me” she said as she wept silent tears.



As a four year old, Karen did not know how to stand up for herself or even run away. Those are not skills that any small child has. Instead, she developed a belief that it was her job to take care of her mother’s emotional needs. By doing this job which was necessary for her own sense of survival, she denied her own feelings and burdens of fright, anger, loneliness and abandonment that arose during and after one of her mother’s tirades. When she was older and did try to protect herself, her actions were then met with more rage and more neglect.  In many ways, her relational wings were clipped.



So how did this type of trauma manifest in Karen’s intrapsychic system? First, she developed both a panic and fainting disorder as her fight/ flight response lived in constant overdrive for many years.  Second, she found herself in a string of bad relationships, until she met her husband, so she thought.



A couple of days before a session I had with Karen, I learned that a former client I treated for many years when working at a methadone clinic, had overdosed and died. He too grew up in an extremely disorganized household. He was from Medford, Ma or as many homegrown “bean towners” prefer to say: “Medfa”.  A talented artist who dropped out of school because of drugs, he knew how to stand his ground and he never back down from a fight, even when he probably should have.  Unlike karen, who didn’t know what to say when her husband mistreated her,  my former client had just the perfect vernacular of hysterically funny and vulgar push back lines for when someone mistreated him.



He was on my mind during a session with Karen which ended up being a turning point in the therapy. She was trying to find a way to stand up for herself in anticipation of her husband’s next outburst.  I began to tune out as she practiced and played with polite niceties such as “when you do that, I feel….(blah blah blah)”.  Then suddenly, I got hijacked by intense countertransference and interrupted her. I said, just as my former client would have, “No, the next time he acts out, you tell him to go choke on a big fat D**k!”



Silence filled the room.  



Then a spontaneous eruption of laughter between the two of us took up the space and remained there for the rest of the session.



My former client would have been very proud. Karen took his lead and said something to that nature to her husband a few day later when he started up again.  It worked.  Stunned by both her words and assertiveness, he apologized and told her that she was right, he did need to go back to therapy.



Whether or not Karen’s husband can earnestly engage in treatment and learn to become more relational remains to be seen. His declaration could be yet another bait and switch move where he offers her just enough of something that appeases her so that she will get back on the rollercoaster with him, because he can’t tolerate losing her. In narcissistic alliances however, the loss has little to do with the loss of the actual person. It’s more about the loss of an object that supplies the other with a drug like fix.  If a person does leave the alliance, the other may quickly find another empathic partner who will take the previous one’s place.




These alliances are not always so black and white though.  There often can be a continuum of relationality that some people have.  He or she may both genuinely care for the other and see them as an object at the same time.  This is when it gets really confusing. Depending upon where the person is on the narcissistic continuum will have much to do with whether or not this relational dynamic can change. That is why therapy is a must to survive something of this nature.




If Karen and Jack do end up entering couples counseling, which they will need to should they want to remain in the relationship, they may be in constant contract negotiations for a long time.



Yet there’s a creative genius behind Karen’s relational patterns. The four year old parts of her (frightened, angry, lonely and abandoned)  that got pushed aside when dealing with her mother’s abuse for years kept desperately trying to find ways to have their story seen and heard by none other than Karen.  One of their tactics was to find just the perfect partner to contract with who will help them re enact their story.  They are the parts of her and of you for that matter if you can relate to Karen’s story, who signed the invisible implicit contract in the first place.



The good news is, once you see what these parts are up to, you can then take a front row seat to their show, just as Karen did.  With a little curiosity and a lot of compassion that allows these injured parts to grieve and heal in their own time and space, you will be able to rip up that contract and get off the rollercoaster for good.  And if you start to waffle when your partner makes desperate attempts to lure you back in, try imagining yourself saying the crass words of my former client: “Go suck on a big fat d**k”. Allow that energy to fill your body with courage. Next take a long slow deep breath, find some stillness and pause. Then, calmly look your partner in the eye and say these two words.



Good bye.



Opening the Window

“And it goes so slowly on,

everything I’ve ever wanted,

tell me what’s wrong”

- The Replacements, “Unsatisfied”



Nobody likes change.  


Most resist it until they can do so no longer.  Only when “optimal discomfort” ( a clinical term) takes place, do people then begin to embrace what they can no longer deny: something’s got to shift. It’s called optimal discomfort because too much discomfort creates panic and resistance and not enough leads to continued stuckness, a condition many are comfortable in.



This past summer, I took an annual trip to Kripalu in the Berkshires with a friend and colleague who is also a therapist. The rooms there are simple and clean.  There are windows and a fan, but no air conditioning.  Summer days in the Berkshires can be extremely hot and humid and though it does cool off at night, the rooms at Kripalu tend to hold onto the heat from the day.



The first night, I tossed and turned for most of it.  At 2 am, my friend whispered from across the room “you can always open the window you know.  You might sleep better.”  I responded “that would require me to get up” and we both laughed.  Though I was uncomfortable, I wasn’t uncomfortable enough to do anything about it.  



In therapy, many of my clients share their quiet discontent with me, often for a long time before they are ready to make any changes.  This is part of the process however.  My job is to create a space that allows them to honestly explore their level of dissatisfaction, whether it’s with work or a relationship, until they become dissatisfied enough to do something about it hence they experience optimal discomfort.  Sometimes therapy helps people learn to better tolerate conditions that they aren’t ready to do anything about and sometimes it empowers them to be bold and take the risk their heart and soul desires. Either way, nothing changes on the outside, until something changes on the inside first.



The second night at Kripalu, I began to toss and turn again while trying to sleep.  Though the temperature during the day and night were roughly the same as the previous day, something inside of me wanted something different: to sleep better.  So at 2 am, I quietly tiptoed out of bed to open up the window.  I wasn’t quiet enough however, as I heard a voice from across the room ask “what are you doing”?  



“Opening the window” I whispered back and then we both burst out laughing.  Optimal discomfort allowed for me to create space for something new, which in this case was more fresh air and a soft breeze that led to good night’s sleep.



Imagine what optimal discomfort might allow for you to create space for in your life?




A Frog Trapped in a Sewer- By: Maura A. Matarese, MA, LMHC, R.Y.T.

“Free yourself to be yourself”- Iris (hold me close) U2

Ahimsa means non -violence.

In Vedic and Buddhist philosophies, there’s a belief in the equality of all sentient beings. The practice of ahimsa which can also be thought of as compassion and self compassion, extends towards all of them all.

Last month, there was a frog that appeared to be trapped in a sewer on the street where I reside.  Night after night, for the entire month, I would hear it croak loudly from my home office window. As I would walk my dogs by it, the frog seemed to croak even louder, almost as if were pleading for help to escape.  I spoke to several neighbors to get their thoughts on the frog and they too worried that it might be stuck in their with no viable way out. I found myself wondering if there was anything I could do to set it free and it pained me to know that there wasn’t.

As a psychotherapist, I work with many people who, possibly like the frog, feel utterly trapped in their current life circumstances.  They see no immediate way out and often begin to feel resigned to being stuck in their own personal sewer. Being stuck feels lousy. Getting unstuck feels scary, sometimes even terrifying.  More often than not, many prefer feeling the dysthymic sense of stuckness over the terrifying possibility of becoming free. They then  waffle between the two polarities, sometimes for a very long time. This waffling however, is a necessary part of the process should one truly desire the risk, reward and responsibility of becoming a free and individuated self.

One night, after a month of listening to the frog and my own agonizing feelings that I was projecting onto it (who knows, it may have been enjoying its’ time down there) I walked over to the sewer where it lived.  I spent some time sending compassionate energy towards it and waited until its’ croaks and my angst quieted. Then I walked back into the house, knowing there was nothing more I could do.

The next night, I didn’t hear the frog.  I walked the dogs a couple of times by the sewer to check on it.  I feared it may have died.  Then, as I walked the dogs back home and entered my garage, I saw something move out of the corner of my eye.  Lo and behold it was a frog hopping it’s way through an obstacle course of randomly stored and  over stacked stuff.

Seeing it gave me such joy as I imagined the frog found the courage to free itself so that it could be itself.

Six weeks have past since I terminated therapy with the frog (kidding) but what a case study it was!  It reminded me of the power of possibility when we practice and surrender to ahimsa, compassion and self compassion with ourselves and others.

It also made me wonder to myself what would happen if we all dare ask the question: what if?  





Dysfunction Wrapped in a Sentimental Bow


“Don’t fear the reaper.  You’ll be able to fly"-Blue Oyster Cult


There’s a story that has been circulating on Facebook for a few years now.  The headline reads “He told her he was leaving and  she asked him for just one thing.”  The story goes on to say something like (and this is paraphrased) “ Mary and John have been married for 20 years.  They have a 15 year old son. John fell in love with another woman, named Janet and asked Mary for a divorce.”  Mary said, “Ok I will grant  you that wish provided you do one thing for me.  For the next thirty days, I would like you to carry me down the stairs and through the door like you did when we were first married.”  John agreed.  The first few days of this exercise felt awkward to him.  He began to notice that she had lost some weight and seemed frail.  By the fourth week, the feelings of love he once had for his wife came back to him and he ran over  to see Janet to tell her that he did still love his wife and no longer wanted a divorce.  He then ran back home to his wife Mary, only to find her dead in their bed.  Unbeknownst to him, Mary was dying of cancer  The author of the story claims that Mary kept her terminal illness  a secret  to both protect her family from the pain of knowing she was dying and her son from the scar of a divorce.


After Mary dies, John weeps with regret and everyone else weeps for her loss.”


There’s a lot that can be said about this story.  It is a bit of a tear jerker upon first read. Yet, let’s try to ask and answer the following question before we break out the kleenex. Is the author of this story trying to recapture the fairytale Mary once had with her husband John 20 some odd years ago or expressing a sentimentally gift wrapped revenge fantasy because John chose to leave?   For arguments sake and good dialectics, let’s say it’s both and start with the fairytale.


Fairytales and myths predominate our culture and with good reason. They are both poignant and fun.   Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Santa Clause, fill our imaginations with adventure, hope, fear, love and in some cases, can offer us guidance on how to live our lives.  The story of Santa Claus may be perhaps one of the best fables for couples who want to understand the secret for a successful relationships .  Why might that be, you ask? Parents who are attuned to their children’s needs, delight in surprising them with gifts.  Couples who are attuned with each other delight in doing the same.  And though not everyone celebrates Christmas, the theme is universal. Healthy happy couples choose to make the fairy tale real once the honeymoon phase ends. When there are mis attunements between them, they see that as an opportunity to get curious and turn the inevitable empathic failures into a deeper connection. This is how they make Santa real, time and time again.  This is how they create and recreate the magic, even when the demands of work, family and life take over.  Though there’s never a 100% guarantee that making it and keeping it real will last till death do us part, it is the best strategy for getting their, if that’s what both parties want and continue to want.


What I most wonder about in the story of Mary and John is their capacity to reinvent themselves after the fairy tale ended? Were they able to walk down the stairs hand in hand and through the door together as equals and carry each other at different times when needed?  The author doesn’t say. As a psychotherapist, I am going to venture out and say, probably not and they are also not alone in that matter. What we do know from the story is that he found someone else and she is dying and doesn’t tell him.  We also know that she wants to relive some elements of the fairytale with him before she passes.  Who could blame her? Yet the specific tactics the author endows Mary with to help her get what she wants disempowers her. I can’t help but wonder if those same tactics took place in the marriage, reflecting part of the reason their marriage fell apart?


The first tactic is guilt.  Guilt is a powerful motivator, one that can never be underestimated.  She guilts John into carrying her down the stairs each day because he’s leaving her. He did love her once and probably feels bad for hurting her by asking her for a divorce.


The second tactic is secrecy.  Perhaps there was something noble about keeping her illness a secret to  protect her family from the pain of her impending death and her son from the scar of a divorce.   On the flip side, this choice was really rather cruel. Most families would want to know this  so they could prepare for the loss. It is also arguable that Mary had darker motives, choosing to seduce John through guilt and manipulation only to then abandon him with her death.  The proverb “revenge is dish best served cold” might be applicable here.


Wouldn’t it have been nice if the author endowed both Mary and John with courage?  What if we changed the ending to  have Mary say the following when John tells her he wants to leave? “John, I know we lost our way, and I don’t really know why.  I do know that we are both responsible for it and that we never talked about our growing distance.  I regret that and I hope you do too.  I am dying. What I would really like from you is to be here for me during my final days. Do you think you could do that for me?”


Feel the difference?


This would allow them to end their marriage with love. And while I can appreciate that many would like to change the story entirely to have Mary and John stay together and work things out, the author did not write that story.


Endings are sad.  But they are not always bad.  The longing and ache one feels in their soul to live an authentic life is just as powerful a motivator as guilt, though guilt can actually feel more authentic to some. In my clinical practice, I often see people who are polarized between the two. “Should I stay or should I go?”,  becomes the focus in therapy until this polarization dissolves. If one has the bravery and will to get to the heart of the matter, then it will.


There’s a lyric from the Semisonic song “Closing time” that says: “every new beginning starts from some other beginning’s end.  Yet I prefer the Blue Oyster Cult to close out this story to honor both the phenomena of endings and the gift of disillusionment.


Don’t fear the reaper. You’ll be able to fly.