January 4, 2021

Metaphor about your brain – part 1 of 3

by Rod Smith

 A helpful metaphor* 

Think of your (human) brain as three living boxes, placed one inside the other, residing inside your skull. 

Mammals get the “inside” two boxes. 

Reptiles, poor things, get only one, the very inner one.

The smallest box, the stem, doesn’t think. It works. Protects. It reacts. It’s humorless. 

The Stem is not the “feeler” or “thinker.” It has no room for such nonsense, actually, it never even thinks about it. 

Every time you want to EXPLODE, when you get anxious, feel like hiding, or hitting, your stem is trying to dominate! 

The greater your anxiety, the more your inner-reptile will want to break out.

The stem, your primal, instinctual, reptilian center, serves to protect you and keep your vital organs running. It will throw you under a table if there’s an explosion and put you into attack mode if you (or someone you love) are threatened. Turtles, snakes, polar bears, and dogs have stems. Their stems serve them similarly. Your stem is not creative; it doesn’t have the brains to be. It’s not “reasonable” – it is not supposed to be. 

You might have had to invite a friend, on occasion, to step out of his or her stem. 

But be careful, stem-bound men and women are humorless! 

They bite.

If you want to punch someone who disagrees with you, or run away from all “stupid” people, you are probably, in that moment, stem-bound. You’ve allowed your stem (your Reacting) to dominate. I’d suggest you shift gears (shift boxes) before you hurt someone or lose your job. 

When you find you are overly reactive you have to tell your stem “to get back in your box! Do your job. Stop trying to think.”

I’ll continue this metaphor tomorrow.

*I am deeply influenced by Rabbi Friedman, Peter Steinke, and Murray Bowen. All have written profoundly on these matters. Peter’s book “How Your Church Family Works” was my primary influence in revolutionizing how I see and understand my own thinking. I give Peter full credit for any resemblance you may see to his work. While it is neither copied nor “lifted”, one cannot read something and love something so much without it reverberating in one’s work.

January 3, 2021

Is this you? How do you cope?

by Rod Smith

Four scenarios – let me know how you thrive in tough circumstances….

It’s one thing to be single and lonely – there’s at least some expectation that if someone is alone he or she might occasionally feel it. But to be married and be lonely must surely come with unimaginable pain. If this is you, please let me know your coping strategies. 

Place “loneliness” in the email heading.

Feeling caught or trapped in the middle of any relationship triangle can grind a person down. If it’s you, your children, and their other parent, or you, your parents and your spouse, or your boss and the other employees, whatever the trap, let me know how you nonetheless cope. 

Please place “feeling trapped” in the heading.

If you are the sober party in a relationship dominated by addictions, let me know how you cope. What specific strategies do you have to keep yourself functioning in a place of stress and pain? 

Please put “living with addictions” in your heading.

Some people always think they love others more than others love them. They initiate everything and end up feeling that if they did not initiate things there’d be no relationship. If this is you, please let me know how you cope. 

Place “initiator” in the heading.

Email: RodMFT@mac.com

January 3, 2021

Cajoling and remaining neutral

by Rod Smith

Most people know every action will get an equal and opposite reaction 

This knowledge does not seem to stop the parent of an adult son or daughter from trying to “push” and “pull” an adult son or daughter out of a relationship the parent may think is unfit or unhealthy. Pushing, pulling, coercing, will result in resistance. Accepting, embracing the relationship paves the way for open conversations. Coercing closes dialogue. 

Loyalties are invisible, often confusing

The loyalties which connect people will often make “no sense” to outsiders or even insiders. Thus, if anyone “messes” with a pre-existing relationship, even if invited, he or she will pay the price. This is one reason healthy stepparenting is so extraordinarily difficult. The stepparent will always in some ways be an “outsider.” Attempts at “getting between” parent and child, or child and parent, will carry a price tag, even if intervention is invited. As tough as remaining neutral – staying out of the middle –  maybe it is your best call if you are a stepparent, even if you are recruited, begged, to intervene. 

There are always anecdotes to prove me wrong. I get them a lot. 

These are general family systems observations. 

Stepdad’s interventions may work when Johnny is 3, but it is when Johnny is 13, 23, and 33, that “staying out of it” right from the start will pay rich dividends.  

December 31, 2020

Listening, Empathy, and Challenge

by Rod Smith

Incomplete thoughts re Listening, Empathy, and Challenge – as promised 

Listening to another, really listening, is evidence of love. It’s love in action. Being heard is being loved. Listening, and being heard, holds therapeutic power in itself. It stands alone. But, being heard does not necessarily lead a person to desired change. 

Change comes from being heard and being challenged and responding to the challenges. 

Empathy is identifying with another so accurately that both parties know what at least one person is experiencing. Empathy is impossible without Listening. 

It’s as if they  – Listening and Empathy –  go hand-in-hand for a long walk. Listening leads, guides, pulls, until they are strolling side-by-side. 

When I know you empathize with me, or are empathizing with me, I’m aware that you know, as much as is humanly possible, what it is like to be me. When you hear me and empathize with me I know you experience my world almost as I experience it. We are together. I am not alone. My world feels safer because you are safe and you are with me in my world and you understand. 

Empathy, too, stands alone. It, too, in itself, is powerfully therapeutic. 

Empathy in itself, too, does not necessarily lead to desired change. 

Change comes from being heard, understood, and from responding to challenge. 

Challenge – to recall our metaphor – is the third sibling to Listening and Empathy. I think of it as an older brother or sister.

Listening and Empathy are a powerful duo but Challenge can help to seal the deal. Challenge pulls them both along toward new adventures. Listening without Empathy is nothing more than an interview. Empathy without Challenge leaves me understood, accepted, warm, comforted – all good things. Empathy with Challenge gives me hope, helps me to see the possibility of greater health and the joy of seeing and embracing new options. 

There are therapeutic encounters – expensive ones – that go on week-by-week and year-after-year that reek with beautiful empathy and where the client is fully heard. 

Then, the client leaves warmed all over but, unChallenged. 

Empathy without Challenge is (somewhat) useless if it is healthy change you wish to see.

December 30, 2020

Some things are impossible

by Rod Smith

There are some things a person simply cannot do for (or to) another person, no matter how much commitment there is, how deep the love may be, or how noble the goals. This is so even if the helper is overflowing with determination, and the helpee is hungry with need. This is especially true when people are in love, a time when people are most inclined to be convinced in their power to change another person.

It is impossible to make another person:

  • Love you, want you, need you, miss you, or trust you.
  • Love, want, need, miss, or trust someone else.
  • See, feel or think in a certain manner for an enduring period.
  • See the light, or get some sense into their lives.
  • Lose or gain weight, save money, want, or not want sex.
  • Use or stop using drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or bad language.
  • Become healthier.
  • Be happy or fulfilled, be angry, want change, succeed or fail at anything. 

The above are “inside” jobs. Until the motivation is self-generated within the one in need, the helper will work harder than the helpee and ultimately drain the helper of all enthusiasm and energy.

December 28, 2020


by Rod Smith

Empathy is a lot easier to define than impart. 

“Getting to” empathy is not easy. 

Also, Empathy has two very close siblings: Listening and Challenge. 

The three travel together as a package deal. 

It would be a “therapy joke” to suggest they are codependent but, while they are distinct, they function together, much like fingers on the same hand. 

Empathy is not something a person can use when needed like a spatula. 

Like listening, it’s first a skill, then, a life-style. It’s not a trick or formula, a way to get what you want. Using any interpersonal skill to get what YOU want is called manipulation or domination or intimidation, siblings from a whole other family.

Empathy is the beautiful, artful consequence that grows within a person who has sought to understand him or herself and his or her struggles, failures, successes, and therefore finds it easier to enter the experience of another, than one who has not. 

Self-knowledge, self-acceptance, are the keys that release or withhold you and me from empathy. 

No matter how extensively trained or confident, you and I cannot enter the world of another at greater depth than we have dared to enter your own. I’ve met unschooled “losers” with more empathy than trained professionals. I’m sure you have too.

Empathy and sibling-Listening, are somewhat (not completely) useless, without the third sibling: Challenge. I will try to say more about that in a few days.    

December 28, 2020


by Rod Smith

I write often about integrity. It is important to me. 

It was not always so. 

Over the years I have had to do a lot of costly mending. 

Some breaches of my integrity have hurt others, some perhaps beyond repair. I remain hopeful. 

Integrity is often reduced to a matter of keeping your word or paying your debts on time. 

I think it’s about all that and much more. 

It is about being integrated. It’s being unified within. 


It’s about you and me bringing all of who we are to all of what we do and all of what we stand for. 

It’s welding the body (physical), heart (passions), head (thinking), spirit and soul (the core of life and identity) into one focused life. While people are more complicated than dividing them up into neat portions and parts, to do so is an attractive trend.  

Integrity is investing all of our “components” or “parts” into who and what we are and into what we do with our lives. 

Perhaps you have discovered that whatever you do with one “part” of you impacts all the other “parts” of you. That’s why when you get your body “in shape” you feel better all round and even think more clearly! 

Sadly, it also works in the other direction. 

Integrity (holiness) is about living in such a manner that they all work together for our individual and for our communal good. 

December 24, 2020

Wife won’t accept teenage son

by Rod Smith

“I have been married for 11 years. I have a teenage son born before I met my wife. My wife has not accepted my son. I sent him to boarding school to avoid creating an unbearable environment. Now, she is refusing to have him visit. I am at a loss when he asks me when he is coming to visit his siblings. This is causing a rift in our marriage.” 

Your wife wants a husband, your son wants a dad. The boy wants to come home to his siblings. None of these unique, distinct, overlapping relationships, needs to impinge on or overtake each other. It’s possible to have them all. 

While your wife’s issues dominate you will live on egg-shells, your son will live in growing confusion, and your marriage will deteriorate. Until you provoke a healthy confrontation your son will lack a dad and your wife a husband. 

I will suggest your wife’s resistance to your son has nothing to do with you or son. His presence in your life evokes something within your wife that predates you. Her apparent inability to embrace your son (and now you) is deep, deeper than you and your son. She needs help from “outside” the family.

Tell your wife the boy will visit regularly. If your wife is willing to learn to be a mother-figure to a boy, he will help her find whole new avenues of growth and love. This won’t happen while you help her by hiding him from her. 

December 22, 2020

Two gifts that cannot be purchased or wrapped

by Rod Smith


You know it when you experience it or witness it. It can be faked or used to manipulate, but not for long. Kindness can be as subtle as easing the load of common and difficult human interactions. It’s helping a stranger who needs it. It can be dropping a note to a friend in need, acknowledging someone’s grief. Listening can be all the kindness someone may need. 

Kindness can also have profound consequences: saving someone from bankruptcy or helping another find a job during difficult times. 

Kind people usually don’t have to spend time preparing gifts of kindness. It flows out of them, no matter what the season. 

It’s an expression of who and what they are. 


People who are aware of their wants and needs and dreams and desires and who are aware of the degree of impact their lives have on others are comfortable to be with. This comfort, born of self-awareness, is a gift to others in itself, an all-season thing that also cannot be wrapped on unwrapped. 

This one is more difficult to fake. 

When you are with an aware person he or she accepts you as you are and you experience no pressure to give anything in return. Their self-acceptance lets you off the hook. They spend no effort trying to change you or coerce you or make you “fit” because they are not trying to doing any of those things to themselves. What a gift!

December 16, 2020

Divorce theme – conflict and a child

by Rod Smith

Divorce theme #4 – impact on children

My pre-teen son is a victim of “our” divorce. He cringes when his dad and I talk because it quickly escalates. Before the divorce he tried everything to keep us together. Now he tries everything to keep us apart. He shudders when we fight. 

Your image of a fearful child is surely sufficient to motivate you to keep the child away from your skirmishes and to reach a place where they do not have to occur at all.

Your boy is connected to both of you. The disconnect will, as you have so graphically portrayed, will tear him apart. 

Try to remember there was a time you loved the boy’s father enough to marry him. This may be of little comfort when you are desperate but it may help to see the “big picture” when you are most desperate. 

Your son miraculously embodies both parents. When you reject each other you are both in some ways rejecting your son. No matter how much the connection between you and your ex has disintegrated you can do your part in engaging in respectful behavior.

That part is about you, no matter how your ex behaves.  His behavior is up to him, your is up to you. While you think you are “causing” each others behavior you are not yet unhitched. You divorce may be final but your connection is still “live.”

Mature parenting demands the adults sacrifice for their children AND develop strong and meaningful lives as if they were not parents at all! 

I know it is difficult. It is difficult in the best of circumstances, and much more so when there has been a divorce.