Boundaries and Bridges




IVR Pre-work: Getting started with IVR Self-therapy

Identity-Values-Reflection is a self-help therapeutic process that can guide a person towards healing. This article is a general starting point for individuals struggling with complex injury. Complex injuries include:

  • Mental illness
  • Healing after personal loss, grief, breakups, etc.
  • Healing from longstanding physical illness that have an emotional, spiritual, or psychological component
  • Workplace injury that never fully heals
  • Trauma

For a general introduction in IVR, please see What is Identity-Values-Reflection therapy.

IVR self-therapy doesn’t substitute for working with licensed professionals, including counselors, physicians, physical therapists, chiropractors, coaches, etc. IVR self-therapy can complement working with these individuals. IVR self-therapy is another tool that can be used.

This article is a starter for helping people deal with personal injury. It is not intended for interpersonal issues (parenting, workplace communication, relationship problems, etc.).

This Article Contains:

General Steps of IVR self-therapy
(Pre-work) Goals of healing: What does healing look like?
(Pre-work) Understand Cycling
(Pre-work) Understand the three core domains: Identity, Values, Reflection
(Pre-work) Commit to healing
(Step 1) Identity / Purpose
(Step 2) Values and Feelings
(Step 3) Reflection and Listening

General Steps of IVR self-therapy

Here are the six steps to IVR self-therapy. There are three steps to complete before beginning. This is your pre-work. These steps will help you get started:

  1. Goals of healing: What does healing look like?
  2. Understand cycling
  3. Breaking down three core domains

After this pre-work is done, then there are three steps of IVR self-therapy. These three steps are repeated throughout the healing process until healing is completed:

  1. Identity/Purpose
  2. Values and Feelings
  3. Reflection and Listening

(Pre-work) Goals of healing: What does healing look like?

Before we begin, we need to establish some core goals to focus on. Here are a list of core goals that can be modified to a person’s particular situation.

  • Make understanding one’s injury/illness the primary goal. Read Apex Values: All Roads Lead to Understanding to understand why understanding leads to healing. Remember that healing is, at least in part, a feeling that cannot be forced. We cannot make ourselves feel like we’ve healed. By contrast, understanding our injury/illness is entirely within our power to accomplish.
  • Work towards understanding the full story of the injury/illness, which includes understanding predisposing factors, different individuals’ contributions to the injury, and post-injury reactions. What factors put a person at risk for becoming injured/ill in the first place? How did individuals involved contribute? How did post-injury reactions negatively affect and delay healing?
  • The work of understanding the injury/illness is a nonjudgmental process. Avoid assigning blame. Instead, focus on intentions, contribution, and impact.
  • Work to understand the purpose behind one’s feelings. Unresolved negative emotions surrounding an injury/illness tell us that healing is incomplete. As we make progress, those negative emotions should improve over time. See Feelings Have Purpose.
  • Work to understand how values play a role in healing. How do values affect the choices that are made?
  • Work to understand the social, psychological, spiritual, scientific, and moral domains of healing. Healing a complex injury is never just about one of these domains.
  • Using a reflective process, put together the “third story” of the injury/illness. This involves seeing how individuals’ habits have contributed to positive cycling, negative cycling and/or co-dependency.
  • Work towards establishing a genuine fit between individuals involved. This means eliminating fit distortions. See Do We Fit Together?
  • Let connection be the cure. Reconnect with individuals involved, including support individuals, one’s inner self, and people directly involved in the injury/illness. This may involve reconnecting with people with whom you may have harmed or been harmed by. When you cannot reconnect directly with important individuals, proxies can be used.

This is the basic work of healing a difficult injury/illness. In following these steps, a person should see progress over time. That progress is seen in one’s own feelings along with reactions from others as relationships become healthier.

Healing is a rhythmic process, rather than a linear one. Set expectations accordingly that there will be good days and bad days. See the 3-Step Rhythm of Healing.

From the outset, we do not know exactly what healing will look like. Acceptance is an important final stage of healing. Acceptance follows understanding.

(Pre-work) Understand Cycling

If a person is already making measurable progress towards healing, then they are involved in positive cycling. Chances are, such a person has a fairly positive attitude towards their situation that is absent of blaming, splitting, attacking, judging, and cynicism. They feel well-connected with loved ones, their inner selves, and the world at large. They have a lot of healthy habits and support people. They work towards healing by putting in a moderate amount of effort each day. While recognizing that nobody is perfect, they still believe in the good intentions of people. They can see measurable progress over time towards their goals. Read Guild to Positive Cycling to understand why things are working for these individuals.

So often though, people become stuck. Their healing is delayed, slowed way down, or it can even go backwards. Remarkably, some people’s injuries can worsen over time, even though the inciting event is over. This can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating as there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer why.

Negative emotions can tell us when healing is delayed or when we are regressing. In the past, the medical field has falsely believed that negative emotions, like anxiety, anger and fear, were the problem. The medical field often treated such emotions as pathological, as something needing to be suppressed or eliminated with treatment.

In IVR therapy, we will use our emotions. Our emotions will give us clues and guide us towards healing. That does not mean that we act on every knee-jerk emotion. We do not give in to every bout of anger, for instance. Instead, we listen carefully for the hidden meaning beneath our emotions. It is that hidden message that will guide us.

In IVR, we will examine a person’s habits to see how they may be affecting healing. There may be unhealthy habits that are impeding the healing process. Most often, these unhealthy habits were learned behaviors that once served the person well. However, the habits have become detrimental to the current situation. We don’t look at any particular behavior as being bad or wrong. Instead, we see the behavior as being problematic for the particular situation.

We will use an inquisitive, nonjudgmental approach to separate out unhealthy habits from healthy ones. We will conduct small behavior experiments to see which types of behaviors work best for our situation. We will reserve judgment until the outcome of those experiments is known. We can then use that evidence to determine which habits work best for healing a particular situation. Then, we can redirect the person’s energy towards those healthier endeavors.

So often people get stuck in difficult habits that impair healing. These difficult habits create a type of cycle. We do something, with all good intentions, and this has an impact on ourselves and the world at large. Then, in response, someone or something outside our direct control, reacts to what we have done. This reaction has an impact on us. Then the process will repeat itself to create a habit. If, over time, the sum total of behaviors and impact is positive for our healing, we call this positive cycling. However, when the sum total has a negative impact, this is negative cycling. If there is minimal change in healing over time, this is co-dependency.

Recognizing negative cycling and co-dependency is critical. A person needs to be able to differentiate these unhealthy phenomena from positive cycling, which leads to healing. Here are some general tips to identify co-dependency and negative cycling in yourself or a loved one. Keep in mind, co-dependency and negative cycling are closely related. Differentiating between the two isn’t as important as recognizing their existence.

Co-dependency: Healing is stagnant and incomplete. There is not a clear answer for why this has occurred, but a person generally doesn’t feel good about it. On the surface level, they may have accepted where they are. But when diving beneath the surface, there are often many simmering negative emotions.

We can start to suspect co-dependency in a relationship by a few common traits: lack of spontaneous positive feelings, lack of understanding or awareness, defensiveness, criticizing behavior, inflexibility, and/or stonewalling.

In co-dependency, there is typically a denial that a problem exists. The person has created an effective veneer over the problem, shielding it from outside scrutiny. They may use positive emotions defensively as a way to deflect attention.

Despite its profound impact, co-dependency may be very subtle and difficult to detect. Suspect co-dependency in these situations:

  • You have strong feelings that you don’t understand or don’t make sense.
  • You or a loved one exhibits behaviors that don’t make sense.
  • You or a loved one doesn’t appear to be acting genuinely. For instance, there is a mismatch between behaviors and words. Or behaviors are inconsistent over time.
  • You feel a sense of disconnection inside yourself or with a loved one.
  • There is unresolved conflict.
  • You don’t feel heard or understood.
  • You find it difficult to communicate with an important individual or loved one.
  • There are power struggles over important issues.
  • There is attacking behavior, withdrawing behavior, frequent criticizing behavior, identity attacks, and/or inflexibility on important issues.

Negative cycling: A person involved in negative cycling is regressing. They are getting worse over time. This is a common, challenging phenomenon.

Many of the problems present in co-dependency can be seen in negative cycling: lack of spontaneous positive feelings, lack of understanding or awareness, defensiveness, criticizing behavior, inflexibility, and/or stonewalling. However, these problems are often taken to a higher level. Criticizing behavior transforms into contempt, disgust, blaming and identity attacks.

In negative cycling, there is no effective layer of defense or denial that can hide the issue. Instead, when the issue is brought up, the person is instantly charged up and emotional about their problem. They agree it is a big issue and will readily grab onto it to make their opinions known. Their emotions run away with them. They find it difficult to speak rationally about the issue or listen to people whose perspectives and opinions may differ.

Often there is splitting behavior. The person will split groups of people into allies and adversaries along fault lines of the issue. Allies will be assigned overly positive emotions, especially trust, respect, and benefit-of-the-doubt. Adversaries will be assigned overly negative emotions including distrust, contempt, disgust, lack of benefit-of-the-doubt regarding their intentions, and disrespect.

A person engaged in negative cycling will often use logic and reason to justify their arguments rather than emotional impact and values. They may minimize the impact of emotions on their own decisions and behavior, when in fact it is certain emotions that have gotten them carried away.

Positive cycling: A person engaged in positive cycling will display certain qualities. There is genuine openness to listening to people of differing views. Rather than splitting into allies and adversaries, there is desire towards genuine reconnection of these individuals through mutual understanding. They do not work to manipulate or convince one side to abandon its views. Feelings and behavior reflect this: flexibility, lack of intense negative views towards those of opposing views, lack of personal insults, lack of contempt and disgust, and extension of benefit-of-the-doubt. Discussion includes exploration of values and feelings alongside logical arguments. They share some insight into their own emotions and the emotions driving others involved.

Read the Guild to Positive Cycling to learn how to differentiate between these three phenomena.

Three core domains to breaking down your problem: Identity, Values, Reflection

All complex injuries and illnesses will follow one of three paths: healing, stagnation, or regression towards worsening illness. Each of these three paths is a type of habit. A person learns the habit of healing, the habit of stagnation, or the habit of regression.

Luckily, each of these three habits has common features. These common features will define which habit the person has learned. We can break down the habit into its common features for the purpose of eventually breaking the habit and replacing it with newer, healthier habits of healing.

When regression and stagnation occur to impede healing, there are three common features that we can readily identify. There is identity disconnection. There is some type of identity crisis. A person questions their purpose and their relationships with others involved. There are misplaced values. This means that the person will favor the use of certain values over other important values. Finally, there is impaired thinking as a person attempts to cover up their guilt and shame.

When healing occurs, we naturally find three important pieces involved. First, there is a focus on identity, which typically involves repairing relationships and understanding purpose. Second, there is a reconnection along shared values. Finally, there is a listening process where each individual works to understand feelings, intentions, contributions, and impact.

The beauty of this three-step process, called IVR, is that you don’t have to do everything well. At least not at first. Doing one of the three steps well is enough to kickstart the process towards healing. Each step feeds in on the next. Each step creates a natural progression of building trust and connection. Doing one step well will increase the likelihood of success at the next step.

Another way of looking at this is to understand that both co-dependency and negative cycling require you to be doing all three steps poorly. These problems are a habit that requires all three of identity disconnection, impaired values, and impaired thinking. To break a bad cycle, you need only interrupt it at one step. An interruption at one stage is enough to disrupt the path of the cycle.

(Pre-work) Commit to healing

At this point, a person is nearly ready to begin. They should make a final commitment to healing. Ask an honest question? How much is healing worth to you? How much time is it worth? How much discomfort is it worth? How much energy?

To be effective, IVR self-therapy requires time, discomfort, and hard work. There are no shortcuts. Make a commitment in terms of time, discomfort, and hard work.

If this is an important issue to you, I recommend committing at least 20-30 minutes a day, at least five days per week, to active healing. On this website, I have provided sample exercises. Each exercise should be relatively uncomfortable. The person may need to set aside additional time for rest and recovery.

I don’t recommend doing these exercises right before bed, as it may keep you up thinking about them. Do them earlier in the day and give yourself that time to recover before going to sleep. However, if you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your problem, feel free to do one of the exercises for 10-15 minutes to help get difficult emotions off your chest. Then do something relaxing for an additional 10 minutes so that you can hopefully resume sleeping, if more sleep is needed.

These exercises may only be the beginning of the healing process for you. Healing may require additional help and resources. You may benefit from personal counseling, couples counseling, group therapy, physical therapy, meditation, etc. Any of these modalities would count as active healing modalities so long as you are the one doing the majority of the work. However, seeing a chiropractor, massage therapist or acupuncturist is not active healing if they are doing most of the work to you. Seeing a chiropractor, massage therapist or acupuncturist might be effective resting modalities to supplement the active work that you are doing. See a physician if you feel like you would benefit from additional help and support, such as medications or support devices, to aid in healing. Avoid self-medicating with alcohol and marijuana.

To maximize your likelihood of success, don’t neglect other aspects of your health. Make sure to get regular physical exercise, budget appropriate time for sleep, schedule time for connection with family and friends, eat a healthy diet, and avoid starting new bad habits (smoking, alcohol, frequent marijuana use, etc.). Do additional reading on subjects related to healing (see my bookshelf for ideas).

Through IVR therapy, a person can expect to better understand their problem. With understanding comes connection and healing. A person can start at any of the three steps. Each step can offer varying degrees of complexity, depending on your situation. Anyone new to this process should begin by picking out exercises from each of the three steps. Go through all three steps, then repeat the process.

(Step 1) Identity / Purpose

In the Identity Step, we work on a few core concepts related to identity. We look at how connection and disconnection affect healing. We identify 5 core individuals who can be effective supports for us during a period of intense healing. We work on inner cohesiveness and being genuine through our lives. We evaluate our purpose in life as it relates to an injury or illness. We look at how our identity changes over time and how this can lead to crisis. Finally, we piece together the narrative of our own personal story.

(Step 2) Values and Feelings

In the Values Step, we dive into our feelings to uncover hidden messages behind them and reveal our purpose. Next, we will use core values to begin to channel those feelings into healing. We will uncover personal blind spots–values that have either been over-utilized or under-utilized. We will create safe spaces for healing to occur. We will evaluate and reinforce appropriate personal boundaries. We will build bridges to people we may have become disconnected to.

(Step 3) Reflection and Listening

In the Reflection Step, we will revisit judgment, blame, and cynicism. We will look at how impaired thinking may have led us away from understanding in the past. We will turn our focus to understanding contribution, intention, and impact. We will reveal sore spots that may be triggering of strong emotional reactions. We will uncover habits that we hadn’t yet realized were problematic.

Listening is the primary tool of this step. We will listen to the stories of others. We will weave those stories into our own personal story to create a “third story” that encompasses the entirety of what is happening with us. This “third story” is the story of understanding. As we tell it, it begins to shift towards the positive direction of healing.

Continue reading

Guide to Positive Cycling

Positive cycling is a process that builds towards understanding. It involves moving in tandem with your partner(s) towards that goal. Your partner(s) can be your spouse, your family members, your co-workers, your friends, someone who has hurt you in the past, or even other aspects of your inner self.

Positive cycling can be intuitive. Our inner senses and feelings exist to help us with this process. We must actively engage by listening to our feelings and the feelings of our partners. In doing so, we put together two different stories: one representing our own perspective and one representing that of our partner(s). We use our feelings to fully understand each of those stories. We immerse ourselves in the stories as if we are walking in the other person’s shoes.

There is a rhythmic process to the telling of these respective stories. It is like a dance of two people. On the surface, each story is told in bits and pieces in turn. Little by little, they are unveiled. We get the facts and the timeline. Then we switch and allow the other person’s story to go forward. These are the steps of the dance. But far more happens beneath the surface. It is there that complexity unfolds. New possibilities blossom as we start to see how each story intersects. We begin to see how our behavior affects that of the other person. We have more influence on the other person than we originally thought. We learn that communication is more than just words. With each word comes an emotion or mix of emotions. Those emotions carry with them all kinds of things: feelings of hurt, feelings of protectiveness, feelings of caring, aggression and threats, etc. We get a better feel for where boundaries are. Finally, we work to clarify if the fit is correct.

Your goal is to achieve understanding for yourself. A secondary goal is to help your partner(s) also understand. But you can’t force this. You have to inspire them to want to understand your story and the greater picture–the “third story”– the pattern that has developed.

Through this dance, we begin to see old patterns of behavior for what they truly are. We see them not as personal defects, inherent to each individual, beyond change or redemption, targets for condemnation. Instead, we see them rather as habits that have formed. We suspend blame and instead offer grace and compassion for the past. Each person was acting with their best intent at the time the habit originated. They were not aware of the full consequences. Then each person became complacent in their habits over time. Understanding reveals those old habits for what they truly are. Often, they are impediments to true connection.

Positive cycling is all about working towards understanding. To do that, we need to understand understanding. We will use a Why-How-What framework to break down understanding into its component pieces. We will look at the Why, the How, and the What of understanding. Positive cycling is all about working through these three parts, over-and-over again. We experiment at each stage, then we test our experiment in the next stage. We learn the consequences of our actions and make adjustments over time. We are emotional scientists.

Do this enough, and you will start to develop some common sense rules for building understanding (for positive cycling). Like growing a garden, there are things that understanding will need to grow. Here we will begin to develop some core rules for positive cycling. Those rules will hopefully seem intuitive and simple, at first. Learning how to correctly apply them will take practice.

Do this enough and you will see that as positive cycling builds towards understanding, it also brings with it certain advantageous side effects. It also builds self-esteem, sense of empowerment, freedom from fear, sense of connection, realization of purpose, strengthening of values, flexibility and others.

Positive cycling is a repetitive cycle. It is a new type of habit. Just like any habit, we work at it every day. It takes practice, then it becomes easier. We have to watch out for complacency over time.

This Article Contains:

Growing a Relationship
“The Why” of Understanding – build towards 3 core identity concepts of understanding
“The How” of Understanding – 3 core values of understanding
Gaining Motivation
Building Bridges
Establishing Healthy Boundaries – Seven Common Mistakes Made
“The What” of Understanding (Reflection Step)
What are raw spots?
What are the 10 core rules of positive cycling?
How do we co-author a “third story?”
How do we probe for higher levels of fit?
How do we adjust for changes in fit?
What is co-dependency?
What is negative cycling?
22 common cynical traps
An example of positive cycling – a couple’s weekly check-ins

Growing a Relationship

This can also be understood if you consider the relationship between two individuals. Imagine the relationship as a living thing, like a plant. In positive cycling, the plant is growing and will one day reach its full potential. Some plants are small. Others are big and monstrous. But each plant has an ingrained potential, based upon its genetics, that can’t be changed. That ingrained potential is fit. Fit can’t be changed no matter how hard the individuals try. Our goal through positive cycling is to reach that highest potential.

Here we will briefly touch on Negative cycling and co-dependency. Co-dependency is a type of stagnation. Two or more individuals get locked in a habit where personal growth and greater connection no longer becomes possible. The individuals are far away from their potential state of connection, based upon fit. This means that a great deal of growth and connection is possible, yet the partners behavioral habits prevent further growth from occurring.

Consider the plant again. In co-dependency, the plant is stuck. It is parched looks sickly. It has enough nourishment to keep it from dying, but it certainly isn’t growing, and I wouldn’t want to eat the fruit, if there is any. Alcohol addiction is a terrific example. A loveless marriage is another.

If you further remove what little nourishment exists, then stagnation turns into negative cycling. The plant starts to die.

Negative cycling is when two (or more) individuals get locked in a destructive pattern of behavior that undermines mutual understanding. They create a vicious cycle. Mutual understanding decreases over time. This is a remarkable, yet common phenomenon, where people actively unlearn what they have learned. They are not forgetting anything. Instead, they are actually destroying what they know. How does this occur? Understanding is replaced by cynicism–the suspicious belief that the other person is out to do you harm and/or doesn’t have any respect for your values. Sadly, negative cycling is pervasive in everyday society. American politics, the American news media, and social media are consumed by it. Getting wrapped up in those negative forces is all too easy. They become like a drug that we addict ourselves to. But look around. You will see it in people that you know and in their relationships. It isn’t hard to spot. We will teach you how to identify it.

There are no real “secrets” here. All of this, once you get it, should be common sense. You should be able to look back and say that you knew these things all along. You just needed someone to free up what you were holding back. All we’re really doing here is teaching you how to listen to your own feelings.

“The Why” of Understanding (Identity Step)

We have already gone over why understanding is so critical, compared to other values like love and happiness. Here we start to break down the critical “Why” pieces of understanding. When we work towards mutual understanding, what are we actually trying to build? What does it mean to understand ourselves and others? What does understanding look like?

Each social situation will have a different picture of understanding. For mental illness, we may be trying to understand our feelings, ourselves, and our place in the world. For a relationship in distress, we may be trying to understand each other better and the bad habits we’ve both been engaging in (surprise, this is probably not the bad habits you’ve been blaming each other for!). For someone struggling at work, we may be trying to figure out if the value fit is right.

We must first ask “What needs to be understood?”

In each case, there are three common pieces:

  • (Shared) Identity
  • (Shared) Purpose
  • (Expected) Connection

There is a shared identity that should fit between partners. Two people are co-workers, partners, friends, family, etc. We are trying to strengthen that shared identity along with strengthening each person’s individual (separate) identity. See What is My Identity for more work on understanding your individual identity.

From that shared identity, there should be a shared purpose. The partners should agree on what they are working towards. Are we building a romantic relationship, a family, a friendship, a collegial relationship, a business relationship, etc? What values is the relationship based on?

Finally, there is an expectation of connection. What level of commitment do we expect in this relationship? Are we becoming best friends or casual acquaintances? Are you looking for a casual hook-up or a long-term relationship that may build towards marriage? What level of commitment is important to you in marriage? What is the role of family and other pieces that impact the relationship? In essence, what does success look like? Both sides must agree on this from the outset, or else the fit isn’t right.

This is Identity work. Here you agree upon shared identity, shared purpose, and expected connection. There’s no sense going further if you can’t get this part right. But don’t worry. If you make a mistake here, we can correct your mistakes in subsequent stages. After all, we are still experimenting. We may not know if the fit is right until later. Just do your best getting this as close as possible. Make sure you both agree before moving on.

Allow your feelings to guide you. If you don’t know what they mean, working to understand them is another great place to start. They will tell you what fits and what doesn’t, what is important to you and what isn’t. Your feelings come from the impact of your identity with the outside world. Trust them. Where do you feel connection? Where do you feel disconnection?

These three pieces (shared identity, share purpose, expected connection) need to be agreed to at the outset. If you don’t know how to begin working towards positive cycling, this is the place to start. Talk it over with your partner(s). What is your shared identity? What is your purpose? How will you connect over time? What type of connection are you building towards? Burn these questions into your minds. You will come back to them over-and-over again.

Remember to set reasonable expectations. You must fit this partnership in with the other important things in your life. Not everything can be in the “most important” category. Be honest about where this partnership fits. Read here to learn how to create a value hierarchy for your own life. Failing to understand fit is one trap that snares people in negative cycling.

Through positive cycling, our goal is to achieve the state of greatest connection, over time, given the fit. This may be hard to get at first. Keep in mind the growing plant analogy from the previous section.

Now try another analogy. Imagine climbing a mountain. Imagine two people who agree to climb the mountain of understanding. It is a big mountain. We can never get to the very tip-top, because tip-top isn’t stable and will probably send us tumbling down. But we can get close. Remember, you can never fully 100% understand the other person. You are not them. Don’t expect them to get EVERYTHING about you. Give them the grace that they are trying and gaining in understanding over time. Keep your expectations in check.

And so, instead of aiming for the tip-top, instead we will try to get to the highest safe, stable flat landing place. This highest place is the state of greatest connection. It is here that we can safely build a home on solid foundation. It is here that understanding encompasses all those things we strive for: love, connection, respect, admiration, balance, safety, healing, reconciliation, etc. We feel these things as we move up the mountain and after we arrive.

Some couples make it there. Many fall short and “settle.” Building a home down the mountain, far from the peak, is co-dependency. Their connection is stale and inflexible. Here it’s pretty easy to catch the faults in the relationship. How do we know they’re stuck in this place? The couple’s mutual bad feelings towards each other make that plain. Here you will find criticism, contempt, disgust, gossip, stonewalling, bitterness, etc.

This contrasts with another couple who, although at the same place, is still climbing. The couple is filled with positive energy as they see progress over time. The gains in understanding fill them up and keep them going. Even though they high to climb as the stagnant couple, their progress makes them feel good. They might even feel in love. Their connection is growing. This feeling of love is fleeting, however. If they stop climbing, it will evaporate quickly.

This also contrasts with the couple that is tumbling down the mountain, out of control. This couple is caught in a pattern of negative cycling. Bitterness, contempt, disgust, hurt and other negative feelings give way to cynicism. Their relationship is circling the toilet. Their connection is rapidly deteriorating, possibly hanging on by a thread.

The How of Understanding (Values Step)

Here we use our moral values to perform some type of action. We harness our feelings, which are a type of energy, to propel us forward. Our values will channel those feelings towards our purpose.

Imagine that feelings are the wind. Our values become the sails that we use to capture the wind and drive us through the waves. Again, we are experimenting.

We may go the right way or the wrong way. We will have opportunities to correct the course later on.

There are many types of feelings and values. Figuring out how to pair feelings and values together and use them takes some practice. It isn’t always easy to do. But with some practice, it becomes intuitive. It is, after all, what we teach our children to do in elementary school. It is something we already know how to do, we just so often choose not to do it. Seeing the ramifications of those poor choices is important in IVR.

First, we need to recognize three types of values. We have bridging values, boundary values, and motivation.

Key values:

  • Bridging values: compassion, create safe spaces, listening, acceptance, tolerance, play, curiosity, imagination, grace
  • Boundary values: sanctity, respect,
  • Get to work values: motivation, courage, goal-setting

Building Motivation

Motivation is the easiest. Here is where we need to find courage and motivation to get going. This is probably hardest to do if you’re feeling tired and unmotivated. Getting motivated, then, is like trying to plough into the wind. Instead, try going a right angle to these feelings. Harness the feelings via understanding. How?

Feelings of fatigue, tiredness, and poor motivation come from somewhere. Get to the bottom of them! Ask them what they have to say. Are they being driven by some type of fear? If so, what are you afraid of? Or is it pain and hurt? Or disconnection?

Rather than put all your energy into fighting poor motivation, instead you could build new walls or extend new bridges. You could work to bandage up a wound. Learn to protect yourself from past abuses. Work to reconnect with others.

There are so many tools out there to help with motivation. Figure out what works for you. Maybe its finding courage. Maybe you need someone to yell at you, like a coach or drill sergeant. Maybe you need a group of friends to hold you accountable. Maybe you need to trick yourself with small rewards. If you still struggle with motivation, try Gary John Bishop’s UNFU*K YOURSELF.

Bridging values

Bridging values involves extending bridges of connection to others. There are many different types. With each one, we are basically communicating to the other person, “I care about you.” It really is that simple. Here are a few examples:

CompassionCreate compassion by asking for help or extending it.
AcceptanceAccept the person for who they are, not who we want them to be.
Safe spacesCreate a common space, free from judgment, where listening can occur.
Active ListeningListen first, then speak.
Tolerance Tolerate differences in values and beliefs
Play Reconnect through something pleasurable. Be adventurous!
Curiosity and imaginationBe curious about what’s going on for them.
GraceAllow mistakes.

When is it wrong to extend a bridging value? When is it wrong to communicate, “I care about you.”?

Listen to the other person. They will tell you when.

If they are hurting you, being aggressive or violating your boundaries, then this is the wrong thing to do. If they are running away from you, then this is also the wrong thing to do. If they run, don’t chase! If you do, they will hurt you next.

If this isn’t intuitive, imaging working with a cat. If the cat is hissing or has its claws flared, you probably know to leave it alone. If the cat runs and hides in a corner, you should also know not to chase it and corner it. Cornering the cat will make it desperate. Instead of communicating, “I care about you,” you’ve inadvertently communicated, “It’s time to fight.”

Many parents make the classic mistake of cornering their children. If your child runs in anger to his room, don’t chase him. The worst thing you can do is to enter, uninvited, and corner him. This is harassment and abuse. Do this enough and he will be thinking dark, intrusive thoughts about how much he hates you and wants to hurt you. These cynical thoughts are natural and protective. There’s no reason to be afraid of them. Just give him space and they will stop. Remember that people, like animals, respond to the communication of behavior, not of words. Respecting his boundaries is the easiest way to communicate, “you are safe” and nullify his fear.

When someone runs away, instead of chasing, you should refocus on yourself. Build your own boundaries. Leave an open door to a safe space where the two of you can reconnect later. Be patient and accepting.

Establishing Healthy Boundaries – Seven common mistakes

Boundaries are probably our most important value set. The prerequisite to any functioning relationship is that both parties feel safe. Boundaries are critical to safety.

When someone hurts you, that means you need a stronger boundary. Reinforcing that boundary may be as simple as communicating that you’ve been hurt. If they respect your boundary going forward, you’ve done enough.

If they fail to respect the boundary, then you have more work to do. Now you have to create space between yourself and the other person. You are obligated to get away from them. As you do so, continue communicating what you are doing and why. This is as simple as saying, “You are hurting me, and as a result, I’m trying to get some space between us.”

As simple as this all sounds, people make all kinds of mistakes with this. Such mistakes lead to negative cycling very fast. Although we can’t cover them all right now, here are some common mistakes:

  • Not recognizing that you are hurt.
  • Failing to communicate how you are hurt.
  • Failing to create adequate space.
  • Being judgmental, critical, or cynical, rather than assuming good intentions.
  • Attacking the other person’s identity. In other words, displaying contempt and disgust towards the other person.
  • Violating the other person’s boundaries in turn. An “eye for an eye” doesn’t work in everyday social interactions. It only normalizes boundary violations as behavior that becomes acceptable for the relationship.
  • Not recognizing personal raw spots. Not understanding these and communicating them.

These mistakes will trap the relationship in co-dependency or negative cycling. The last one, not recognizing personal raw spots, is probably the most common mistake.

What are raw spots?

We all have raw spots. Raw spots are places of previous injury and trauma. When someone else touches the spot, it hurts. Often, the person doesn’t realize they are touching a raw spot. The pain they are causing is inadvertent. Yet the pain is so great, that we lash out. Our reaction is extreme. The punishment we cause is disproportionate to the crime, so to speak.

Raw spots are places where we still have a lot of work to do. It is our responsibility to care for our own raw spots, not that of our partner. We need to work towards healing, which requires greater personal understanding of the past injury. We can communicate the existence of raw spots, and a caring partner will be sensitive to those. But we must also take care to apologize whenever we lash out, especially if we violate the other person’s boundaries in turn. Hopefully the partner will apologize for touching one inadvertently. Hopefully they will display caring, curiosity, and listening whenever they realize they’ve found one. Again, the goal here is not to assign blame, but to build greater understanding.

“The What” of Understanding (Reflection Step)

This step is all about reflection. What are the results of our actions thus far? How did the other person respond?

Ultimately, we want to know if our efforts built understanding or diminished it. Everything thus far has been experimental. It’s ok if mistakes were made. We will have opportunities to course correct.

Reflection is all about listening. We listen to ourselves and to our partners. We listen to our rational selves and to our emotions. We ask lots of questions.

  • What were the costs of our actions?
  • What benefits were achieved?
  • What did we learn?

We must also recognize that understanding is a moving target. We have three goals:

  • Understand yourself
  • Understand others
  • Be understood

Every time we are successful with one piece, we need to start thinking about the next one. We cannot stick to the previous value. We must be prepared to change up in the next go-around. Even if something worked well, we can’t go back to it just yet. We have to be flexible and try something new. After all, learning is not about doing the same thing over and over again.

Reflection is a great opportunity to correct previous mistakes. If we made an error in the Identity Step, we can fix it here. It is here that we might realize the fit isn’t good, and that two people are better off friends than romantic partners. It is here that we question our values. Did we choose the right one? Do we need to explore new values?

The IVR Cycle

Each of these three steps creates a cycle: Identity-Values-Reflection. Each step builds upon the next. With each revolution, we should learn something. Over time, a pattern will emerge. We will learn if we are gaining in understanding, losing in understanding, or remaining stagnant.

Key to note here is that each step of the IVR cycle is self-correcting. If we are negative cycling or stagnant in co-dependency, that means that we are failing at all three steps. We are failing to understand our identity, our values, and failing in reflection / listening. Efforts put towards any of these three steps can help kick-start us back into positive cycling.

10 Core rules of positive cycling

The goal here is to keep the rules few, simple and intuitive.

Even though there are ten rules below, each of these rules is really an application of a very simple concept. We need to have awareness of our environment, the environment being everything that is not in our direct control. The environment includes other people around us, our past, also our own present subconscious mind (our feelings, memories, our Identity, experiences, abilities, etc.) Next, we become aware of what is in our control (our values). We use our values to maneuver across our environment towards mutual understanding. We are not here to battle or change the environment, but rather to use its energy to our advantage.

Here are the 10 rules:

  1. Keep mutual understanding as the primary objective. There is no other singular objective besides understanding. All other objectives are secondary.
  2. We do not attack, judge, or criticize people for things that are outside of their control. These things include their identity, feelings, and core values. Instead, we work to point out how the choices they make (their behavior) impacts us. Do not battle a person’s feelings. Instead, channel them towards your mutual purpose (mutual understanding). If you channel them effectively, they will naturally work with you.
  3. Judge another person’s behavior as being problematic only when they violate your boundaries. Keep in mind, just because someone causes you discomfort or inconvenience that doesn’t mean they’re violating your boundaries. Judgement should be withheld. Only point out the impact of their actions.
  4. Work towards understanding each person’s personal story and the full pattern of the “third story.” This requires seeing many revolutions of the cycle to the direction determine fit, contributions, and the direction of cycling. From there, you can judge the cycle, on the whole, as positive, as negative, or stagnant (co-dependency).
  5. Listening is your most important tool (value). When you get stuck, try listening to someone you haven’t listened to in a while. Make sure to listen to the persons’ behavior, including emotional state, not just their words.
  6. Give grace. If all parties are working hard towards mutual understanding, remember that everything is an experiment. Expect everyone to make mistakes as part of the process. Grace should be given so long as understanding remains the mutual goal.
  7. Keep thoughts and conclusions that you reflexively make as hypotheses to be tested. Don’t assume you know what the other person is thinking or feeling. Best to ask.
  8. Remain genuine by always keeping your identity, values, and beliefs in concordance with each other. Your feelings will tell you if there is discord between these elements. Work to resolve this discord.
  9. The three most important ingredients for positive cycling are time, listening, and effort. Avoid complacency and channel cynicism towards a productive endeavor.
  10. Take extreme ownership of a negative or stagnant (co-dependent) cycle. Everyone is responsible for arresting a negative cycle or helping to break free from co-dependency. When it becomes clear we are in one of these situations, we judge the cycle as being problematic (not the people caught in it) and work to identify everyone’s contributions to that cycle. It’s best for each person to start with their own contributions.

I purposely kept the number of rules few and simple. This isn’t really about memorizing rules. Instead, the goal is to understand them. Do that, and you should easily and intuitively know the following:

  • the difference between being honest vs being vulnerable vs oversharing
  • how to be genuine
  • positive vs negative cycling,
  • the purpose of feelings and what they mean
  • how to listen
  • how to put together a “third story” even when you don’t have a lot of information
  • how to clarify and separate what is controllable vs not controllable
  • the difference between working with someone and “using” them
  • how to kindly divert someone, who is causing you injury, from further violating your boundaries without attacking them

Co-authoring a “Third story”

As both stories get told, as both parties feel heard and understood, the “third story” reveals itself naturally. It grows organically like garden. It doesn’t belong to one person. It is the story of the relationship.

In the “third story” is contained all the feelings, wants, hurts, values, observations, thoughts, and identities of the participants.

The “third story” is also a story of habit. Chances are the partners engage in a lot of good, productive, healthy habits together. There are lots of things to celebrate and admire.

But like any garden, it needs pruning and care. There are bad habits growing there also. Bad habits are small at first, growing from seed. We never know what they will look like, what they will turn out to be. Over time they take shape and soak in sunlight. We thoughtfully gaze upon them. It’s not that they don’t deserve love and compassion. They, too, are reverent. They, too, demand life. The problem is that they’re choking the garden. And so, they must be carefully trimmed down or moved to a new place. Eventually, we learn, through careful listening, that a weed is not a bad thing, an evil thing deserving of judgement. It is just a plant misplaced.

The garden itself changes over time. Beautiful plants sometimes die. We want new things to eventually grow there. So, we honor the soil by tending it.

We never choose exactly the way the garden should look. It grows the way it wants to grow. We are only there to nurture it. We are caretakers. We are there, always, to admire the beauty, the awe, the wonder.

Probing for higher levels of fit

Understanding is never over. We never “achieve it.” We can never stop. Remaining connected requires battling complacency or else you will inevitably slip down.

What if we think we’ve achieved a decent level of connection but want to go higher? We can certainly probe to see if the fit is right. Make sure, before you do, that your values line up. Your shared values should support a greater fit. Verifying this, feel free to probe for the opportunity.

Consider friends Nick and Nicole who want to explore the possibility of developing a romantic relationship. Nick remembers that listening is probably his greatest probing tool. Adventure, play, curiosity and imagination are additional tools that go hand-in-hand with listening. Nick listens to Nicole person to see if she is open to the possibility of a greater fit. He listens to the point that Nicole feels heard and understood. In turn, Nicole begins to display her own curiosity and asks Nick more intimate details about himself. As they share an emotional vulnerability, their connection grows.

Adjusting for changes in fit

Fit changes over time. This is normal and natural. A great example is when children grow up and leave the home. Their connections to their parents change. Their relationships with their teachers change.

As fit changes, so does independence and dependency. Often people gain greater independence. Sometimes they begin to lose independence due to infirmity. At each case, individuals should be supported in maintaining the greatest agency which they can manage.


In positive cycling, it is important to recognize and actively avoid both co-dependency and negative cycling. Positive cycling is as much about avoiding these two problems, which can easily ensnare a person, as it is about doing the right thing.

Modern psychologists struggle to come up with a comprehensive definition of co-dependency. The definition seems to change depending on the situation. For example:

  • “[Co-dependency is] a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person manifesting low self-esteem and a strong desire for approval has an unhealthy attachment to another often controlling or manipulative person (such as a person with an addiction to alcohol or drugs).” (Mirriam-Webster)
  • Alternatively, “[Co-dependency is] dependence on the needs of or on control by another.” (Mirriam-Webster)
  • “Codependents, busy taking care of others, forget to take care of themselves, resulting in a disturbance of identity development.” (Joaquin Selva)
  • “Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one person assumes the role of “the giver,” sacrificing their own needs and well-being for the sake of the other, “the taker.” (Psychology Today)

There are many issues with these definitions of which we can’t get fully into here. The biggest question is that in a relationship where one person is dependent on another, how do we distinguish between healthy dependency and (unhealthy) co-dependency? Only Joaquin Selva’s definition comes close to addressing the issue as being one of a disturbance of identity development. But none of these definitions get at the root cause of co-dependency. And so, as one might imagine, there is a wide degree of disagreement in the medical literature about co-dependency. Some characterize it is as a personality disorder, while others question whether it is a problem at all.

All relationships involve dependency. If there is no dependency, there the relationship is nonexistent. And so, the problem with co-dependency isn’t dependency. The problem is whether two people grow together and become better people over time, which is the cardinal sign of a healthy relationship.

Consider a healthy child-parent relationship. Such a relationship would meet the 2nd Mirriam Webster definition and the Psychology Today definition of co-dependency. Certainly, there are some unhealthy parenting relationships that probably should be categorized as co-dependent. How do we know the difference? How do we separate out the healthy parenting relationships from the unhealthy ones?

What about relationships where someone has mental or physical illness and becomes dependent on another person; the caregiver sacrifices much to care for their partner. Who are we to say that this represents a “disturbance of identity development?”

I offer an alternative, simple definition for this common phenomenon: Co-dependency occurs in a relationship where individuals are mutually dependent upon each other and there is stagnation of the relationship’s growth, preventing it from reaching its full potential.

The issue with co-dependency is not the existence of mutual dependency. Most healthy relationships involve some degree of dependency. What separates a healthy relationship from an unhealthy one is the stagnation of growth over time. The relationship itself never blossoms into its full potential.

The definition also gives us two root causes for co-dependency: complacency and enabling. Two or more people become complacent and stopping feeding their relationship. Or they only provide it with just enough sustenance to keep it from deteriorating further. In essence, we have relationship laziness. As a result of this complacency, individuals enable each other’s individual faults, rather than encourage personal growth.

Consider a child who doesn’t know how to tie his shoes. It is far quicker for the parent to just tie the shoes. And so, the parent never takes the time, care and patience to teach the child. The child remains unnecessarily dependent on the parent. This creates emotional neediness, poor self-esteem, and resentment. The child may whine to the parent that she can’t do other age-appropriate things for herself even as she watches her peers be successful in these tasks. Both individuals blame each other. If the parent later on encourages the child to tie her own shoes, she responds by saying, “You don’t care about me.” The parent’s own self-esteem struggles as he wonders why other parents taught their children these skills some time ago.

The definition that I offer for co-dependency is broad, simple, and encompasses many different types of stagnant cycles, including substance abuse.

Within the definition, we see that feelings again become all-important. If a relationship is progressing towards its potential, feelings surrounding the relationship will be positive. If the relationship stagnates, there will be negative emotions on all sides. We will see bitterness, resentment, and poor self-esteem. Relationships become fixed into place. There is loss of social mobility: for instance, children who don’t grow up in relation to their parents or parents that stop growing their own independence in relation to their children.

Using this definition, we can distinguish parenting relationships as healthy or co-dependent. Are children growing up as expected? Do parents maintain their own healthy identities outside of the parenting relationship? If so, feelings surrounding the relationship will remain good. If not, expect resentment, blaming and poor self-esteem.

Next imagine a relationship involving an ill individual and a caregiver. This relationship can be co-dependent or healthy. How do we distinguish between the two? Simple. We rely upon the feelings of those involved to tell us. Does the caregiver see their efforts as a sacrifice, or are they being genuine in providing care? This will inform us if the relationship has reached its potential or if it has fallen short. If the ill individual stops progressing in their healing process, this will inevitably cause resentment on part of the caregiver. They will see their efforts not as genuine caring, but as a needless sacrifice.

Let’s use our definition to imagine the common signs of co-dependency:

  • Poor boundaries
  • Self-sacrifice of one’s own identity (as opposed to genuine giving)
  • Lack of listening on part of the partners (loss of imagination, curiosity, possibility)
  • Bitterness, resentment, expression of grievances
  • Contempt and disgust
  • Defensiveness
  • Loss of social mobility
  • Inflexibility
  • Blaming

Different people react to co-dependency differently. Often, one partner goes emotionally flat and robotic. This typically pairs well with another partner who becomes the opposite: highly emotional and erratic. They become like a boiling pot that inevitably and frequently will blow its lid. These are coping strategies. Another coping strategy is to develop high anxiety and walk on eggshells. Here are some coping strategies that suggest co-dependency has taken place:

  • High anxiety. Partners walk on eggshells around each other.
  • Suppression of feelings due to fear that the relationship could further deteriorate. Often one partner goes cold or robotic. They exhibit poor emotional expression.
  • Erratic behavior that doesn’t make sense. There is a mismatch between behavior and words which indicates the person is no longer genuine.
  • Neediness and enabling – one person does things for the other who otherwise should be capable of doing them for themselves.
  • Being overly critical
  • Stonewalling

Each of these coping strategies is a response to fear. People are trying, in unhealthy ways, to prevent further deterioration of the relationship. The relationship is stable. It may not be good. But at least it’s not getting worse.

Unfortunately, without much effort, co-dependency typically leads to deterioration over time. The deterioration happens slowly though. Partners stagnate at one level for a while. When enough resentment and bitterness has built up, they will drop down to another rung on the ladder. And so, co-dependency is a slow slide in the negative direction that occurs over years or decades.

This contrasts with negative cycling, which is a rapid deterioration over weeks or months. In negative cycling, the fear of deterioration is gone. Partners have abandoned their coping strategies, listed above. They are in full fight-or-flight mode. Each person is only looking out for themselves. In co-dependency, the relationship is still important to both. In negative cycling, the relationship is abandoned.

Negative Cycling

Negative cycling is a rapid process of relationship deterioration. Here we unravel previously understood parts of the relationship. Mutual understanding decreases quickly.

An example of negative cycling is when one person betrays another. This creates such intense, hostile feelings that sends both sides spinning out of control.

Consider two people who get in a car accident with similar injuries. One person focuses on positive cycling towards healing. Eventually they do heal without any lingering feelings. The other person gives in to bitterness and negative cycling. For that second person, the accident becomes traumatic. They are let with a chronic injury that crosses the physical, psychological and spiritual domains.

The primary mechanism for negative cycling is giving in to cynicism. A person questions another person’s intentions and values. They inevitably conclude that the other person is a bad person, deserving of punishment. This faulty conclusion destroys the possibility for mutual understanding.

Positive cyclingPutting in effort towards understanding.connection, healing, respect, honesty
Co-dependencyGiving in to complacency, which leads to enabling. stagnation, poor self-esteem, blaming
Negative cyclingGiving in to cynicism.bitterness, resentment, disconnection, contempt, disgust, delusional thinking

In each of these three processes, there are feelings of doubt. A person should, on occasion, question the value of any relationship. They should also, on occasion, question the intent of their partner(s). Doubt is a normal, healthy feeling to have. Without doubt, we become unbalanced and delusional.

Doubt is supposed to be channeled towards effective listening. This requires work. When we fail to do the work, doubt leads to complacent behavior. When triggered by a potentially traumatic event, like injury or betrayal, doubt becomes cynicism. Cynicism is simply an extreme version of doubt. Again, cynicism should prompt a person to reach for listening. Failing to do so, they give in to cynicism. Cynicism becomes bitterness, resentment, disconnection, contempt, disgust, inflexibility blaming and delusional thinking.

Cynicism is the underpinning of negative cycling. Giving in to cynicism is antithetical to understanding. Instead, we need to recognize that cynicism is only an extreme form of doubt.

Much can be said about negative cycling. Like all cycles, it is a type of habit. There are a few key points that I will make here, which can hopefully help the reader understand positive cycling better:

Negative cycling is a type of theft. One group is stealing from another. Usually, the emotional theft exceeds any physical theft. For instance, an armed robbery may only take a small amount of money but leave the person feeling fearful and suspicious for the rest of their lives. Or consider one spouse betraying another. Or consider one group of people robbing the dignity of another. All of these processes typically lead to negative cycling unless a great deal of effort is put in to stop the downward spiral.

22 common cynical traps

Here are some common cynical traps. Any of these could snare a person into negative cycling. Avoiding them is parament to maintaining a path of positive cycling.

Consider these to be the deadly sins of understanding. The first four are perhaps the most common errors people make without realizing they are wrong. Fixing and judging are the sins that I commit the most and have had to work very hard to stop.

Each of these problems is a type of theft that undermines mutual understanding. To truly understand the problems, look closely at what is being stolen. Then look closely at how this is happening. We are using one value to rob from another value. Next look at why. There is a cynical belief underlying that theft. Find the cynical belief.

For instance, in fixing, we are impatiently fixing somebody else’s problem. There is a cynical belief that they are unable to solve things for themselves and also that our “fix” ought to be their “fix.”

ComparingA person minimizes another person’s hurts (or other emotions and experiences) through direct comparison. “My trauma is worse than yours, and so yours isn’t worth exploring.” Can include comparing material goods, relationships, abilities, people, groups, etc. Comparing robs people and experiences of their inherent beauty and dignity.
FixingRather than work together towards common solutions, a person works only towards the solution that satisfies them. Even if the “fix” benefits the other person, because they were robbed of their agency in the process, there is resentment. In other words, while it’s ok to fix things, people are not things. Instead, we must empower people, through patience and love, to help themselves.
Blaming / judgingBlaming / judging is a defense mechanism that leads to disconnection and cynicism. This happens because blaming others erodes their self-esteem and undermines understanding. Blaming robs one person of the ability to tell their story and robs the other the ability to listen. We remove the ability to have healthy disagreements.
Not being genuinePutting on a fake smile or going through the motions. This includes most types of lies, lies by omission, or deception. Certain lies would be excluded that are both harmless and genuinely intended for the other person’s benefit, such as making children believe in Santa Clause. Fibs and white lies, intended to spare someone of harm, are not excluded.
Singular focus (other than understanding)A singular focus on one particular value or objective, other than mutual understanding, will lead to negative cycling when taken to the extreme. Any other value, when left unbalanced and allowed to grow to excess, produces negative cycling. This includes love, compassion, happiness, respect, etc. Consider that the consequence of having a singular value focus is to split the population into people who agree with you and those who disagree. This split undermines the possibility of mutual understanding going forward. Instead of being a good listener, you become a “persuader.” This change in roles puts the other side immediately on the defensive. It quickly becomes all-or-nothing thinking, identity attacks, and other problems listed below.
StonewallingRefusing to engage in meaningful conversation that would lead to understanding even though a safe space for such conversation has been established. Stonewalling is different from simply creating space from someone. It is healthy and normal to break off a relationship with someone, inform them you are doing so (rather than ghosting), and then opt for no further contact. Stonewalling occurs when you maintain a relationship but refuse to talk.
DefensivenessA posture of avoiding challenge or criticism. This occurs when we fail to interpret another person’s intentions correctly (fail to listen) and instead interpret their intentions only from the lens of how they affect us. We can also fail to recognize the complexity of both their intentions and the feelings driving those intentions. This includes failing to recognize that their feelings may be muddled, and their intentions may be mixed.
Identity attacksAttacking someone’s identity erode their self-esteem and activates their defense mechanisms. This will backfire when they reciprocate by attacking your identity in turn.
All-or nothing thinkingThe “my way or the highway” approach.
Zero-sum gameMy gain is your loss.
Ego trap (narcissism / sycophants)Falling into the extreme love of self or putting another person on a pedestal.
Fear of changeHere a person can prevent growth by giving in to fear. This leads to fixed mobility within a social hierarchy. For example: not allowing children to grow into adults, not allowing an amicable divorce to proceed, a university present refusing to eventually step aside, a congressman on his sixth term, etc.
Forcing change too fastForcing change too fast will also precipitate negative cycling. This creates an excess of fear, which undermines listening, patience, generosity, and grace.
Feelings vacuum (no energy, no connection)Focusing only on logic and reason creates a feelings vacuum. We need feelings to truly listen, empathize and understand what others are saying. Without feelings, we become flat stagnant, and disconnected.
Reason vacuum (no moral values / lack of integrity)An excess of feelings that are unbalanced by logic and reason leads to emotional dysregulation. People become erratic. They succumb to their feelings. Remember that feelings are energy. Without reason to guide those feelings, we simply go where the wind blows us.
Temporal focusThis involves being stuck on either the past, the present or the future. A hyperfocus on one leads to a neglect of the others. This will eventually lead to cynicism as understanding deteriorates. Consider someone who is stuck on their trauma of the past who allows present relationships to atrophy. Someone who focuses only on the present moment will build up moral debts that will eventually come due.
Fickle, unstable boundariesOtherwise known as “being a doormat.” Not protecting and reinforcing one’s own personal boundaries. Or allowing those boundaries to be fickle according to convenience (rather than according to true value flexibility).
Extreme trust / skepticismThe person develops extreme trust in one group that is balanced by extreme distrust in another group. With all relationships, there must be healthy amounts of both trust and skepticism. Any relationship going too far in one extreme will inevitably cause cynicism and negative cycling.
IntoleranceAn intolerance for emotional discomfort and inconvenience leads to cynicism. Such a person may (mis)interpret every inconvenience as a type of boundary violation. This produces emotional fragility and inflexibility. Anyone that questions their line-of-thinking is suspected of having ill intent.
VictimhoodAn extreme type of comparing, this focus on one’s own loss erodes understanding. This hyperfocus on one’s own pain creates resentment. Resentment further feeds victimhood, and it becomes its own vicious cycle.
ConformityAn intolerance for identity differences
DisrespectFailing to recognize the importance of another person’s core values.

One could imagine thousands of potential traps that cause cynicism and negative cycling. Any excess or deficiency in a common, important value leads to cynicism. Anything that detracts from mutual understanding as a core purpose will cause a person to go in that direction. Any giving in to an emotion, especially a strong one, is also problematic.

Each of these traps involves three common elements. There is disconnection, weaponization of values, and delusional thinking. Disconnection replaces shared identity. We attack other people’s identity using our own values, which we have transformed and perverted into weaponized form. Finally, delusional thinking replaces genuine listening. We use delusional thinking to cover up the negative impact of our actions.

As we continue to cycle downwards, the problem exacerbates. We see further disconnection and erosion of shared identity. People become increasingly fixed on certain values, which they use in weaponized forms to attack the identity of others. Finally, greater delusional thinking is required as the negative impact of collective actions worsens.

Here we see the contrast between negative and positive cycling. Each cycle creates a spiral as it gathers inertia. Positive cycling spirals towards understanding, while negative cycling spirals towards greater cynicism.

Positive Cycling

Negative Cycling

An example of positive cycling: a couple’s weekly check-ins

Here is one example of positive cycling. A couple, whose relationship has been in distress for some time, decides to practice better listening. After learning about one partner’s infidelity, they went through a year of therapy. They got everything out. Now, both people understand each other better. There is still a lot of healing to be done. But overall, both people feel much better.

To maintain positive cycling, every week the couple has a dedicated date night away from the kids. They dress up and go out. They spend the entire night together without their phones. They spend part of the night talking about serious things that are important to each. They explore feelings. They carefully ask questions about raw spots. They spend other parts of the night being playful and having fun. Sometimes it’s bowling, sometimes skiing, sometimes pickleball, sometimes they’re at an arcade, miniature golf. They avoid static activities like the movies.

Healing occurs slowly over time. Each person understands their role in what happened. They uncover blind spots and misplaced values. They unravel bad habits and relearn how to do things in healthier ways. They truly come to know each other and connect.


Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and into Your Life
Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love


  • Mirriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed 2.23.23. online
  • Joaquin Selva, 9/2/23. “Codependency: What Are The Signs & How To Overcome It” Accessed online on 2.21.23 at
  • Psychology Today. “What Is Codependency?” Accessed online 2.21.23.
Continue reading

What is Identity-Values-Reflection therapy?

IVR therapy is a form of therapy for kids, teens and adults. IVR therapy can help us better mental illness, family dynamics, relationship issues and issues at the workplace.

IVR therapy is a self-help therapeutic model. This website contains a host of free online tools for individuals, couples, and families. People are complex. Here we will explore that complexity. We will learn to understand our feelings and their purpose.

IVR is a framework for social problem-solving. IVR provides us with tools to diagnose and treat these problems. But human problems are complex, and often the solutions can be quite complex. The IVR framework can also help people seek appropriate treatment from other outside sources. Using IVR, people can identify which types of resources are likely to help. IVR can also help people weed out solutions that are unlikely to help.

Much of the principles and core beliefs in IVR will seem like common sense. That is purposeful. Our goal here is to not overcomplicate things. Everything should seem intuitive. We are trying to unlock the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

There are deeper layers of IVR that can start to become very complex. These deeper layers will start to incorporate other disciplines into healing, including: moral psychology, physics, mathematics, spirituality, poetry, and medicine. For individuals looking to heal common problems, it may not be necessary to dive into these deeper layers. However, at these deeper levels, we can begin to see elegant and imaginative solutions to some of society’s most thorny issues like systemic racism, abortion, political polarization, etc.

Who can benefit from IVR?

IVR can be used for any type of social problem-solving. We will focus on specific types of problems here in this website including parenting, relationships, mental illness, workplace issues and burnout, recovering from illness and trauma. However, principles learned here can also be applied to other social issues including politics, racial justice, moral injury, etc.

What are the core beliefs of people utilizing IVR?

  • Feelings have purpose. As such, mental illness is not actually a disease. These patterns of feeling ill (anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc.) represent the body’s attempt to heal itself. With proper listening and application of IVR principles, a person can break free of their conflict. That does not mean there is no role for modern medicine in treating overwhelming emotions. Instead, the role of medical treatments needs to be re-understood not as a cure but rather as tool for healing, much like an ankle brace would be used to help someone after a sprain.
  • All relationships form a circular pattern. A relationship can be stagnant–that is to say it can be stuck in co-dependency. Or it can cycle in one of two directions: towards increasing (positive cycling) understanding or decreased (negative cycling) understanding.
    • Towards increasing understanding (positive cycling)
    • Towards decreasing understanding (negative cycling) – yes, it is possible to unlearn important things over time if you are consistently following the same bad habits.
  • We all contribute to the circular pattern of social interaction. This means that rather than blame others when things go wrong, we must look to our own individual contributions. Contribution, rather than blame, should be our primary focus.
  • Our own behavior has a dramatic influence on the behavior of others. Rather than point to what someone else is doing wrong, we seek to understand how we are influencing them to make the decisions they are making.
  • Healing requires that we work towards understanding.
  • With understanding also comes other aspects of healing: forgiveness, acceptance, love, connection, trust, generosity, imagination, curiosity, tolerance, and happiness.
  • We do not choose or control our feelings. We can use them, like energy, to drive towards our purpose.
  • We choose and control our values. We use moral values to channel our feelings towards our purpose. We should avoid getting stuck in using the same value over-and-over again. Instead, we must be flexible and learn to use a spectrum of values.
  • Learning which value to use when is an important part of living. This is a trial-and-error process. This trial-and-error process constitutes a rhythm of healing. We must, at times, move backward, so that we can later move forward again. Setbacks and mistakes are inevitable.
  • Because mistakes are a necessary part of learning, forgiveness and grace are key parts of IVR. We must allow mistakes in ourselves and others. We should expect everyone involved to learn from their mistakes over time. This is accountability.
  • Time is a critical ingredient to healing. Change doesn’t come instantly. Feelings change slowly over time.
  • We use active listening as a key piece of reflection. We must understand the impact of our actions so that we can learn from them over time. This allows us to proceed with positive cycling and gain in mutual understanding over time.
  • The IVR cycle is self-correcting. For a conflict to persist, there must be problems in all three domains of IVR. We must have issues in identity/purpose, values, and reflection/communication. Therefore, improving any of the three domains of IVR will help us heal in all three.

What are the three domains of IVR?

IVR breaks down relationship issues into one of three domains:

  • Problems of identity and purpose
  • Problems of values (not channeling feelings effectively)
  • Problems of communication (not listening)

How does IVR help?

Healing from difficult injuries takes time and often involves many setbacks. So how do we know if we’re on the right track?

Using IVR, we can learn the difference between positive cycling, negative cycling, and stagnation (co-dependency). We can determine if we’re on the right track towards healing or not.

If we’re headed in the wrong direction or stagnating, IVR can help us understand why. Through that understanding, we can seek out effective change.

What other types of therapy does IVR draw from?

IVR draws its inspiration from many wells. It also, at times, will seem similar to many other types of effective treatments. Here is a list of some of those resources. See my bookshelf for a growing list.

Next: Apex Values: All Roads Lead to Understanding

Continue reading

Crossing the relationship threshold

“The quality of your life ultimately depends on the quality of your relationships.” 

Esther Perel

What is a relationship?

In relationships, relating to another person is like walking through a door. We cross a threshold. We go from one world to the next. It doesn’t matter if we’re relating to a spouse, a friend, a store clerk, or ourselves.

To be with someone else is to be in a new space. What will we find there? Will the place be hospitable and remind us of home? Will it be exciting and new and full of adventure? Will it be frightening and awful? Will it meet us with contempt?

When we cross through that door, we are no longer on familiar turf. We venture into the unknown. We risk much because anything can happen. We can be awed with beauty. We can be hurt. We can experience loss.

“Each person is always on the threshold between their inner world and their outer world, between light and darkness, between known and unknown, between question and quest, between fact and possibility.  This threshold runs through every experience that we have, and our only real guide to this world is imagination.  One of the lovely things a person can do for another person is to awaken the power and sacrament of their imagination, because when you awaken someone’s imagination, you are giving them a new kingdom, a new world.”

John O’Donohue, Walking in Wonder

Sometimes crossing through a gateway is as easy as donning a new pair of clothes.  Sometimes it is harder, like traversing a river or sailing an ocean.  We travel far from home to get there. We find ourselves unprepared for the journey.

In relationships, the person we relate to enters that new space with us. They, too, are crossing through a door to join us. They are also venturing into the unknown.

We are all travelers.  We may not notice the journey when things are going well–when connection is easy. When things feel like home, the doorway may be almost invisible as if it wasn’t there.

Sometimes relationships are rocky. Sometimes we encounter someone quite unfamiliar. The environment on the other side of the door seems hospitable. When things don’t go well or when they break down, we start to question. We wonder if we made the right choice going through that door? Does this new place want us? Will it cause us injury? Will it chase us away? Or worse, will it trap us?

How do we break down a relationship?

Relationships are complex. Each journey into the unknown has 3 parts:

  • Purpose / intention
  • Competence
  • Worth

These three parts make up the three legs of a journey: the beginning, the middle and the end. Let’s look at a relationship between a man, Greg, and his spouse, Linda, to see how the parts fit together.

We start here with the major aspects of Greg’s life. Greg has five major identities. We will separate his relationship to Linda so that we can understand it better. We see a circle made up of two arrows connected Greg’s Self to his Spouse, Linda.

Next, we remember that relating to someone is like crossing a doorway. Before Greg gets to Linda, he must cross through. Once we add a doorway, we now see three arrows. There is the first arrow, the journey before crossing the door. There is the second arrow, which makes up the journey on the other side of the door. In this middle leg, Greg interacts with a new environment containing Linda. Finally, there is the return home. Greg is on his own again, returning to his familiar self.

To break down a relationship in distress, we need to understand each leg of the journey. Before we cross through the door, we are in familiar surroundings. We are home. We are well-protected. Nothing can surprise or scare us. We call this the familiar self. We know exactly what, where, and who we are.

As we cross through the door, we go into the land of the unfamiliar. Here is where we expect to encounter our spouse. It is here where we use our values to do something.

Finally, we return back to the familiar self. We return to safety. We know exactly where we are going.

Each of these three legs is quite different. Each of them is filled with different sets of feelings. Understanding the types of feelings that we might encounter is key to knowing what may be going wrong or right along the journey. Remember, feelings are information with purpose. We also use different sets of values in each step. Values are the tools that can be used to make something happen.

To see what went wrong, we must examine each part individually.

No human being is ever actually there. Each of us is emerging in every moment.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Step 1: The journey away from the familiar self

Step 1 is the identity / purpose step. Here, we make a choice. We will engage with one of our identities (spouse, family, job, hobby, etc.) for some particular purpose. We cannot engage with all of our identities at once. We must choose one. And we have a motive for doing so.

This is the most difficult step. It sets everything else in motion.

Just like any traveler, we bring things with us along the journey. Most people don’t realize this part. We bring along our abilities and past experiences.

We also bring along our thoughts and feelings:

  • Do we feel good about the person with whom we are about to engage?
  • Do we feel connected or disconnected?
  • Do we hold the person up on a pedestal?
  • Do we trust them or are we already skeptical?
  • Do they seem familiar or unfamiliar?
  • What do we think about their motives? Are we cynical?
  • How flexible do we intend to be in the coming negotiation?
  • How do we feel about ourselves?

These thoughts and feelings help to make up our biases. They are preconceived notions that will alter how we interact in the next stage. Often, we are completely unaware of this “baggage.”

Our feelings towards the other person may be positive or negative. Some of them are aligned with our purpose and make things easier in the next step. Others may be contrary to our purpose and will likely hamper us. The more we are aware of all of these feelings, the easier the next step will be.

Step 2: Competence

Step 2 is the values step. We will use values to accomplish a task. Here we will be judged based upon our competence in performing the task.

We start step 2 by crossing the door. We have our feelings and preconceived thoughts with us. Our feelings will energize us. They get us moving. They are essential. Our thoughts may aid us or be a burdensome weight on our backs.

Thoughts and feelings that are contrary to our purpose will inevitably slow us down. It will take extra energy not to be derailed by them.

We can still use the feelings that at first seem contrary to our purpose. These feelings are energy, after all. All energy can be converted into useful energy with the right tools (values). Imagine a sailor that faces an unfavorable wind. Rather than plow ahead in the direction he wants to go, he is instead forced to zig-zag. The net direction will still be the same. However, it will take more time (and effort) to get there. He will cover more ground.

Likewise, we can take any type of energy and channel it. Negative, positive, aligned or misaligned–it doesn’t matter what type of energy. We only need the right type of tool. Values are our tools. Find the right value, use it correctly, at the right time, and we will succeed. Doing so is considered competence.

Here in step 2, we meet and negotiate with an unfamiliar person. Likely we won’t get to do everything we want to as quickly as we would want it. Neither will they. We must pick-and-choose. We must be flexible.

Just like we came into the negotiation with our feelings and preconceived thoughts, so did the other person. They are likely to catch us off guard with their energy and other “baggage.” Their intent and purpose may be aligned or contrary to ours.

There are two primary types of values: bridges and boundaries. There are many subtypes and mixed types. Understanding how these values work is key to channeling the types of energy we are given. We must use those energies to navigate any hurdles in the way.

It is also unlikely the other person will use the same value we have chosen. We must find a way to make our value complement theirs. If they intend to set sails, we can row.

More than likely, they will set their sails towards a particular direction that is not the way we want to go. Again, we can use our own tools to complement their action so that the final outcome is that both parties are partly satisfied.

There is a rhythmic dance to the process. If the other person pushes too hard, we must reinforce our own boundaries. If they are too soft, we can extend our bridges to meet them.

Sometimes we encounter a seemingly impossible situation. There is a magic there when we convert a misaligned energy to overcome a seemingly impossible hurdle. Especially when the person we are negotiating with a difficult partner whose intentions at-first seem contrary ours. There is a magic to picking the correct value and navigating these challenges.

We won’t know if we’ve chosen correctly until the final step–the return home.

Step 3: The return home

Step 3 is the reflection step. We reevaluate our intentions in step 1. We reflect upon our competency in step 2. Finally, we examine our worth.

Of this, worth is probably the biggest piece. Worth is the way our partner and society at-large think about us. How do they value our contributions? Would they engage with us again? What do we think about our own performance? Worth will inform our self-esteem. Do we feel valued and appreciated? Do we value and appreciate ourselves?

In the return home, we always bring something back with us. We bring memories of new experiences. We learned something about our interaction with our partner in step 2. We form new thoughts and judgments. Did we grow as a result? Is it possible that our personal growth contracted?

There will be knee-jerk reactions to what happened in step 2. How close was the outcome to what we had desired? How close did we come to meeting our original expectations? What new feelings arose as a result? Are we angry, sad, satisfied, fearful, etc?

These feelings naturally will give rise to new thoughts, conclusions, and judgments. We will have observed our partner’s actions and the impact that had on us. This impact will give rise to new feeling. From those feelings, we will conclude many things. We will assume we know what our partner values. We will naturally assume we know their intentions in the previous stage. We will then judge our partner’s actions and intent.

It will take energy not to allow our knee-jerk thoughts to run away with themselves. We have to remember that these thoughts and judgments are subject to cognitive biases. They are unlikely to be fully correct. In fact, they are highly likely to be wrong. They need to remain hypotheses and not be considered facts. We will have opportunities to correct our cognitive errors later.

Out of these feelings and thoughts will come a sense of connection (or disconnection). How has this changed? Are we more trusting of our partner? Or do we trust them less?

Now that we are back in the land of the familiar self, we can prepare to undertake another journey. We go back to step 1. We can choose which identity we will engage with. Our changing trust and sense of connection will inform this choice. Our intentions and expectations will change as a result of our previous journey.

Examining relationships

Now that we’ve seen all three parts, we can begin to diagnose issues with relationships. Relationship problems will come from one of these three stages. Often, for longstanding relationship issues, the partners struggle at all three stages. Here are some common problems at each stage:

Step 1 (Purpose / intention) aka “the Identity step”

  • Have we chosen the right identity for ourselves in this relationship? What is the role we and our partner are each playing?
  • What is our intention (purpose) in this relationship?
  • What is our value hierarchy? Where do we value this relationship in relation to other aspects of our lives?
  • What preconceived feelings, thoughts, sense of connection, sense of trust, and other baggage are we bringing into the relationship? How does the past inform the way we are going to interact?

Step 2 (Values / Competence) aka “the Values step”

  • What values did we use drive our actions?
  • What values did the other person use to drive their actions?
  • What was the resulting impact?

Step 3 (return home, evaluate worth), aka “the Reflection step”

  • What knee-jerk thoughts and conclusions did we come to? What did we infer about the other person’s intent?
  • (Deep dive into impact) – What was the impact on each of us? Who bore which costs of our collective action? Who received which benefits?
  • How has impact affected our sense of trust and connection? What other feelings arose?
  • If we had this to do over again, would we take the same action (use the same value) or try something different next time?

As we examine relationships in this way, we use a three-step process. We first prepare for the journey (Identity step). We undertake the journey (Values step). Then we return home (Reflection step).

Human beings do this intuitively without realizing it. When things go well in our lives, we proceed through the steps effortlessly. One step flows into the next.

When things go wrong, we typically get caught at one of these stages. Breaking them down can help diagnose the problem. Doing this is the basis of IVR therapy (Identity-Values-Reflection therapy). Teaching people how to do this on their own is the purpose of this website.


There are many take-aways from viewing problems as a three-step cycle. A few of the key ones are listed here:

  • The cycle is typically repeated. And so, we are allowed to make mistakes, especially at first. In fact, making mistakes is part of the process.
  • There is no right or wrong way of doing things. Everyone values things differently. Such differences are assets, not liabilities.
  • We can become stuck in a cycle of doing the same thing over and over again. Judgment, lack of listening, and inflexibility are three common ways that people become stuck. IVR therapy can help people become unstuck from these situations.
  • Feelings provide the energy for the cycle to move.
  • Values (especially listening) help to channel our energy in a positive direction. Most complex problems require a host of values to solve. Values are like tools. Solving difficult problems is similar to a carpenter using a bunch of tools to build something. You can’t just use the hammer.
  • Cynicism (believing the other person has ill intent) is toxic to the cycle. Cynicism is an easy way of skipping through the cycle without doing the work of actual listening. Giving in to cynical impulses is an easy way out. It is a theft of the other person’s dignity. We also rob ourselves of perspective and connection. Repeating this mistake over and over is called negative cycling. Negative cycling eliminates possibilities, shrinks imagination, and diminishes understanding. As human beings, we contract over time.
  • The end goal of IVR therapy is understanding. We strive to understand the complex interplay between past experiences, preexisting feelings, connection, trust, identity, values, thoughts, contributions and impact. Seeing how these pieces influence each other moves us towards understanding.
  • The process of moving towards understanding, called positive cycling, opens up our imaginations to solutions of mutual benefit that previously seemed impossible.

The sea manifests freedom: she is the primal dance… the wild divinity of the ocean infuses the shore with ancient sound… Who can tell what secrets she searches from the shoreline?  What news she whispers to the shore in the gossip of urgent wavelets?  This is a primal conversation.  The place where absolute change rushes against still permanence, where the urgency of Becoming confronts the stillness of Being, where restless desire meets the silence and serenity of stone.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Healing from injury

Healing from injury is a journey of crossing.  We cross from our familiar surroundings to someplace new, someplace unfamiliar. This takes courage and openness.

Anytime we make this journey, we should expect to encounter both beauty and loss. There is beauty in finding new places and discovering new connections. We need only be ready to receive it.

There is also loss. We must, at least temporarily, choose an identity in the crossing. To remain authentic to the moment, our other identities must be put on hold. They still exist. They are in the background, observing.

We should also expect that when we return home, we will have changed. We are never the same person who started the journey. We have acquired new memories and feelings. There is a loss of the person who was. We must let go of that person to complete the journey. If we refuse to let go, we become stuck. Our wounds cannot heal.

Letting go of the familiar takes a leap of faith that we will one day return home. We venture out to come back again. We push forward, knowing that we cannot go back. We accept what must be. Forward is the only way. By letting go of the familiar, we too relinquish old feelings. We let go of our regrets, our anger, our guilt, and our grievances. We ride the wave of bitter feelings towards the unfamiliar. In that way, we are transformed.

Healing from a deep injury requires many repetitions of this cycle. We don’t do the same thing each time–that is likely to get us stuck somewhere along the way. Instead, we must navigate complex challenges, maneuvering, learning at each step, feeling the winds and responding to them.

Healing requires connection to the unfamiliar. That is–connection to unfamiliar people, to unfamiliar environments, and connection to our unfamiliar selves.

We cannot escape our entanglement to these unfamiliar beings. Embracing that entanglement will lead to healing. If we run from it, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to be whole. We prolong the wound and let it fester.

Imagination is like oxygen for the journey. We breathe in that oxygen by listening. We listen to the unfamiliar. We must be open. When we inhale, we grow.

As we grow in this manner, we learn to trust along the way. We trust ourselves first. We trust the new boundaries that we’ve built. They will keep us safe from repeating our mistakes. We trust the bridges that cross to new places. We are open now. Open to receiving that which was previously unfamiliar.

We clarify our purpose, we grind out competence, and we cultivate self-worth. We find ourselves awash in awe and wonder. We know we’re on the right path.

Next: What is Identity-Values-Reflection therapy?

Continue reading
Related posts
What is my Identity?
February 5, 2023

What is my Identity?

When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Identity defines who we are, how we think about ourselves, and how the world views us. Identity involves our values, philosophy on life, abilities, beliefs and purpose.

At the core of each aspect of identity is a relationship. I am a mother, child, teacher, runner, friend… Seeing how our Identity works is really seeing how those relationships interact and coexist. It should be confusing.

Identity and Healing

All enduring injuries and trauma involve problems with identity. A person cannot heal from such injuries without addressing issues of identity.

Likewise, most significant conflicts between people involve disagreements and issues of identity. Look at the language that people use to attack each other. The harshest attacks are always attacks on identity. “You aren’t a good parent!” “He’s a lazy worker.” “He’s an addict!”

Identity issues destroy workplace cultures, social fabrics, relationships, and human beings. Consider that most cases (or probably all) of mental illness are probably better characterized as crises of identity. Imagine a person who is chronically depressed as someone struggling with their desire to change careers. Or someone suffering from paralyzing anxiety rather as someone struggling to be a good father. By reimagining these individuals, not as someone suffering from illness, but instead as working through a crisis, we empower them to take back control of their situation.

Understanding identity

Identity is made up of our memories, experiences, relationships and values. At first, these things may seem like a giant, messy knot. How do we begin to separate them out?

Let’s start first with our value hierarchy. Create three circles. Then fill in the circles with what is Most Important, Moderately Important, and Least Important.

Next, imagine that each person and thing that you put in the circles is a separate aspect of identity. Each one forms an important relationship to you. Start with what’s most important to you. Begin to sketch out these separate identities:

  • Mother
  • Spouse
  • Friend
  • Daughter
  • Sister
  • Engineer
  • Runner
  • Artist
  • Co-worker

We can use photos. We can draw pictures or just write names on a list.

Feel free to draw lines connecting people and activities. Let it be messy at first.

We can use photos. We can draw pictures or just write names on a list.

Next, we will tease out a single aspect. Separate it from the others.

Draw two arrows connecting that aspect to yourself. You’ve now sketched out a single relationship. This relationship is one important identity that makes up you.

Notice that I’ve added the “unfamiliar Self” as an element here. There are parts of each of us that we have yet to understand that we do not have complete control over. We each have our own worlds to explore.

Elements of Identity: Relationships, Values, Roles, and Feelings


We see now that our identity is really a group of relationships. Each identity involves us, our Self, connecting to an outside person, group, or thing. When we put all the relationships together, this forms our capital-I Identity.

Each of these relationships has a history to it. There are past memories and shared experiences. We have developed feelings and thoughts about that past. We radiate those feelings outward through the arrows, just as the other person’s feelings radiate back towards us. Feelings are energy with purpose. Feelings form the basis of connection much like the energy that bonds electrons and protons inside an atom.

Feelings drive us, with inertia, through the present. They drive how we act towards the other person.

There is also future potential to all relationships. Where do we expect things to go? What are our hopes, fears and anxieties about that future?


Inside each relationship are values. Values are moral tools that we use to interact. Common values include: caring, listening, advocating, creating space, accepting, courage. There are many more.

Values fall within two general types. We can build bridges of connection to the other person. And we can set appropriate boundaries between two people. Building bridges and setting boundaries are the two basic tools of connection. Our feelings animate and flow through these tools to give them life. For instance, we may feel a great deal of caring towards someone who is in pain. We use that caring to listen to their story.


Within each relationship, we assume roles. Examples include being a parent, a lover, a teacher, an ally, a protector, a healer, a saboteur, a victim, etc. These roles help to define which values we will use and which values the other person will be expected to use. As a healer, we may use listening and empathy as our two primary tools.


There are three types of feelings that we experience when looking at our relationships in terms of identity: competence, goodness, and worth.

Goodness is our intent within the relationship. How do we feel about our intentions towards the other person? What is our purpose here?

Competence is our ability to interact with the other person. Do we have the tools that we need? When we interact, do they generally respond in the manner that we expect? When we listen to the other person, do they feel listened to? When we show empathy, do they feel cared for? When we put up boundaries, do they respect those boundaries?

Worth is the type of energy that we receive back from the other person. Is that energy positive, negative, or a mixed bag? Do they appreciate the relationship? Are we deserving of their time and attention?

Common issues with identity

Why don’t I understand myself?

This is a common problem that takes some work. Chances are there is an identity issue at the heart of it. Here are a few common identity conflicts:

  • One of your core relationships may be at-odds with another. One set of values may be colliding with another.
  • One of your identities may be changing. This can unsettle the balance of your value hierarchy leading to questions of fit.
  • You may be having an issue with a single core identity. You may be questioning your purpose, your competence, or your worth. These things come into question often in marriage or during the long arc of someone’s career. Do my friends like me? Am I a good husband? Am I doing the job I was meant to do? I don’t like where things are going in this relationship. These are common identity questions.
  • Past injuries and trauma can resurface. For instance, someone who had a difficult upbringing may feel like their inner 7-year-old just wants to come out and play again. These past identities will require attention and their own place on the value hierarchy.

What is an identity transition?

Change is one of the only constants in life. As we change, so too does our Identity. Relationships shift within our value hierarchy. Some connections deepen, while others grow weaker. The way we value people and things also changes.

Everyone experiences periods of rapid identity transition at some point in their lives. Puberty and high school is one such period of rapid identity transition. This can be unsettling for everyone involved until they understand what’s really going on. The teenager is transitioning from childhood into adulthood. This is a scary change that will upset the balance of their value hierarchy. Rapid change also occurs for the parents. Parents often project their own issues onto the teenager, when really it is their job to look inward. They need to evaluate how are they going to change from being the parent of a child to being the parent of an adult. This is an unsettling and frightening change for many.

There are other major transitions that come natural for many adults. Becoming a parent or getting a divorce are common changes. The “midlife crisis” is really a common identity transition. A person questions if they are on the right path with their career and/or other major relationships. Changing careers and retirement represent other transitions. Needing to care for aging parents with disabilities and/or dementia is another big change as we can watch our loved ones go from independence to dependency.

What is an identity crisis?

An identity crisis occurs anytime we battle internally over an aspect of our identity. We may fight against an identity transition or question if one needs to occur. We may feel lost, alone, confused, anxious, depressed, or afraid. You may feel inauthentic. Your self-esteem may take a hit. Remember, these are all feelings. Unsettling that they are, they exist to guide a person along the way.

How is identity formed?

Identity formation is complex. It includes all of our past accomplishments, abilities, values, growth, conflicts, and injuries. Each of these aspects may represent its own distinct identity. For instance, a person may be a little league baseball player. This identity from childhood never quite goes away. It can give rise to wanting to coach little league later in life.

Trauma victims may form distinct identities before, during, and after the traumatic event(s). These identities can become so distinct that it is like a tearing apart of the soul. The trauma victim may seem like separate people at times as different aspects of their Self surface.

In the present, we use our tools to exercise our purpose. Always, we look to the future. We question if we are working towards our potential. We question if our abilities and tools are still serving us. We wonder if a change of direction is needed.

Diving into relationships: Crossing a Threshold

We have looked at Identity from a 30-thousand foot view. We asked the question: how do all of our many identities work together to form our capital-I Identity?

Next, we will go down to the surface. We will dive into individual relationships that make up a single identity. What are relationships made up of? How do they form? How do we better understand what’s going wrong when something isn’t working?

We will see that to relate to another person is to cross a threshold. We are walking through a door. We are venturing into unknown territory. We do not know if we have what it takes to succeed on the other side. We don’t know how the other person will react.

Next: crossing a threshold

Continue reading
Related posts
Crossing the relationship threshold
February 7, 2023