Still Recovering from Toxic Religion: Pass That Buick in Love

It’s OK to keep evolving.

Here’s a story about being inspired and suppressing it.

This morning I got behind a slow-moving Buick on a major thoroughfare. I encountered the same dark green Buick, ten minutes before, when I was crossing a downtown street. On foot, I got up close and looked inside at three senior women – all probably in their eighties, peering out the car windows as if thoroughly lost and overwhelmed by the traffic. Now, as I now rode behind them, they slowed and stopped at every side street.

I felt bad for them – they seemed lost and confused and I’ve been there myself many times. But I also chomped at the bit – just because the sun was shining and I wanted to sail down the street, unfettered, toward Mama Jean’s Famous Tuna Salad. I thought about passing, but then got a stab of guilt. Why? What’s wrong with blowing by the Buick with a smile and a wave?

This felt familiar: feeling inspired to race ahead into a sunny adventure whilst holding back, tucked behind someone who isn’t ready to race ahead. Then I thought . . .

Why do I still do this? Hold back, feeling guilt for wanting to pass someone or say ‘no-thank-you’ to an unwanted offer or avoid a conversation I know will drag me down . . . ?

I was raised to think other people’s feelings were more important than mine . . .

 . . . that I was selfish and arrogant if I needed to be my age or to just get the hell out of someplace that didn’t feel good.

I learned in my family, my church, my Church of Christ school, that if someone is upset by your behavior, that must mean you’re doing something wrong . . . and if someone feels inferior in relation to you, you should always modify yourself, so as not to offend.

While I’d love it if everyone felt warm and fuzzy, I just can’t make that happen and stay sane.

(Yes, I used to try.) Sometimes, we just want to drive a little faster. We get inspired and seek to create or take care of ourselves instead of prioritize someone else’s perceived needs. Be a selfish ten-year-old or a teenager with her own opinions. Grow into an actor or poet when our original life script says, “blend in and be quiet.”

Being inspired doesn’t make us arrogant.

It’s creativity . . . the Divine spark . . . at work in our lives, pressing us forward into growth.

It amazes me how lifelong is this process of getting free from toxic religion. I need a special 12-step group for this. But the Buick represents yet another layer to shed. A very co-dependent layer. My stifling won’t help anybody live better . . . or help them be inspired.

Pema Chodron says when she sees someone on TV who is suffering, she takes a breath, gives a nod of respect and love in their direction . . . a kind of brief meditation for their well-being. And then she resumes her day. If I apply this to my friends in the Buick, I can pass them with love.

Move far away to follow your dreams. Love someone  your parents don’t want you to love. End a relationship that drains your life force. Start a business, take a risk, or make a mistake. Surging forward into sunshine makes us evolve.

It’s okay to shed the guilt and go.

Contact Deborah


Listen to ReConceive: a Healing Podcast


ReConceive: a Podcast about All Kinds of Healing

Melissa Sundwall, Deborah Cox, and Shauna Smith-Yates, The Cast of ReConceive

My dear friend, Melissa Sundwall, a great therapist who also happens to be a lot younger than me, says: “Let’s do a podcast.” And I say, “What’s a podcast?” That literally happened. About a year ago. So we teamed up with Shauna Smith-Yates, owner of The Bodysmith, and hatched a bunch of deep conversations about healing. All kinds of feeling better and living better.

Now, we’re nine episodes into the creation of ReConceive – a conversation between  two trauma therapists and a fitness coach and all kinds of interesting healers. If you work in the helping/healing arts, you might be our next guest on ReConceive –  or you might just hear that next new idea you need to keep you moving forward on your path to joy.

Here’s how that path has been unfolding for me.

Getting Out of Ruts (Learning to Think Differently about Healing)

I used to be a therapy snob. I thought you needed a Ph.D. to be helpful. I thought only psychologists understood human behavior. Only psychologists should test our true inner states. The DSM held the truth about distress and non-distress. Behavior, thoughts, and emotions were the only focal elements to produce lasting change. I really believed that.


I’ve been making fun of – and letting go of -that paradigm a little bit every day for the past twenty years. Leaving snobbery and separateness. Exiting jail. Changing clothes.

I moved my psychology office into The Bodysmith – nearly two years ago. It felt like my happy place. My place of movement and laughter. I started wearing workout clothes to do therapy and nobody objected. It was like a conversion experience.

Then, I became a patient and started sampling therapies:




traditional nuts-and-bolts behavioral counseling

craniosacral therapy

cardio workouts . . . Core Barre . . . Pilates . . . yoga

energy therapy


neuromuscular therapy

nutrition coaching . . .

. . . Each kind of work produced a benefit I could feel: more energy, less worry, vanished pain . . . just like taking antidepressants, except better.  And as I placed myself into the capable hands of these practitioners, I realized: THESE PEOPLE KNOW STUFF. And, it’s all the same work. We’re multidimensional beings who need attention to all our dimensions. While at one moment, you need to talk about it – the next moment, you just need to sweat it out.

Working Across Disciplines to Feel Better

Me, Shauna, Melissa, and all our boxing coach massage yoga energy healer spiritual guide family counseling chiropractic friends are all doing the same thing. We each focus on our particular piece of the puzzle: one foot, one heart, one trauma story at a time. In each part lives a tiny whole person and a tiny whole world. In other words, Pilates teachers are psychologists. Yoga instructors are physicians. Neuromuscular workers are spiritual guides. It’s all one thing.

That’s what ReConceive is all about. Conversations about healing from every different angle: The art angle; The spiritual angle; The brain angle; The muscular angle…..

Do you teach or mentor? Do you help people meditate or pray? Do you tend a community garden? Do you run with six-year-olds? Do you get middle-aged people to dance for the first time? Please write and let me know if you’d like to be part of this conversation.

Contact Deborah

Visit Beyond Studio and Nurture Your Inner Crazy Aunt

Beyond Studio makes me appreciate my wild inner self. The one inspired by my favorite aunt.

You know that aunt of yours . . . the one your parents didn’t want you visiting because you came back from her house wanting to sleep outside in your hammock and you wore your plaids and dots together and your cowboy boots with your dresses and refused to eat red meat?

I think it’s time to be her.

Where did I Unlearn the Wildness?

When I was in the second grade, at Lipscomb Elementary in Nashville, Tennessee, I told my classmates I could write their names in Spanish. No, I didn’t speak Spanish. I took each of their names and scrambled the letters and gave them back with a little accent mark at the end. They loved it. They stood in line to have me write their Spanish names on little pieces of card stock and embellish with purple crayon swirls. Until after a few days, one of them figured out my secret and started writing everyone’s names in Japanese. The jig was up.

The memory mortified me at age seventeen and twenty, but now I love the pre-entrepreneurial spirit I showed in that enterprise, even if I was scamming my peers.

Later, this unconventional child got stomped out of me at Christian school. This excerpt from Wife Material shows a fourth-grade Elizabeth, the fictional girl based on my real self, learning to suppress everything natural about her personality as a new student at Waltham Academy.

From Wife Material . . .

Mrs. Crandall sat at her desk in the beige polyester, one of three outfits she rotated
through each week, watching the flow of children for several long seconds while my jaw locked
and my abdomen tightened. She cleared her throat as the last child exited to the hallway. Then
she swiveled her eyes to me.

“Lizzie,” she began, “I understand you’ve been making nasty noises.” Her voice thickened
with breath. “On the playground.” She clucked her tongue like she’d just eaten peanut butter. “Is
this true?”

Heat-rash at the backs of my knees. I memorized her beef necklace while blood beat
against the inside of my face. I sputtered stupidly. There was no air. My brain reviewed the
scenes of hysteria with Abbie, the loud, forced-air sounds, giggly confessions of Saturday
morning-fabric-store flatulence, following our moms at a safe distance, hiding behind bolts of
crushed velvet and muslin, the crotch-grabbing and the laughter and Mr. McHail. Crandall
cleared her throat and spared me.

“You shouldn’t be laughing about nasty things,” she said. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I replied, thinking of Bible story sinners who covered themselves in sackcloth and
ashes. My limbs wilted and wobbled as I fell off the moral high road. All those seventeen
classmates were no doubt disappointed in the new girl who drew horses and laughed at farts. I
wanted so much to be like them: muscled, perky, and pain-free. They had such exquisite control
of themselves.

What was good about me and my friend making rude noises on the playground? We were bonding in our hilarity and our humanness. Just like today. Therapists need to shake loose from the clinic, get a little crazy, bond over lemon curd, draw naughty pictures, hold meetings in the sauna, bring their dogs to work, and paint the floor.

Beyond Studio Team


Beyond Studio and My Inner Crazy Aunt

Bonding over the zany makes me appreciate Sesame Street and Tim Kreider cartoons. It makes me appreciate my wacky yet oh-so-smart therapist friends at Beyond Studio, where I get inspired to make finger puppets and decorate chandeliers with dangling Barbies and race cars. Beyond Studio is a place for combining the serious and profane. I love catching people in delighted confusion, especially when they think they’re supposed to be in a solemn office. And who cares about being correct? Skill can Kill. Rightness is overrated in its ability to produce joy. We lose so much when we try to be good. We (therapists) have more fun, find more love, and experience more exuberant life when we cut loose and open our silly, rude ideas to the world.

Thank you Auntie!


Help for Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers

Protect Your Daughter-Self

Narcissistic mothering is not a happy subject. But sometimes we need to call it out, label it, protect our daughter-selves from narcissistic influence, so we can let it go and move forward into the beauty that lies ahead.

When your mother thinks you’re her . . .

When your mother sees you as all the negative parts of herself, you get criticized for things that, (a) are not under your direct control, (b) are inherently normal, or (c) are completely fabricated and have nothing to do with who you really are. A narcissistic mother wounds you by refusing to see you. So you grow up thinking you’re either really bad – or invisible – or both, an ugly double-bind that paralyzes your creativity and passion.

I’m immoral and wrong . . . so I better be careful not to reveal this awful person inside (who my friends like).

I’m selfish and ungrateful because I don’t visit or call enough . . . so I better see/call her and allow her to criticize me (even though I’d rather have a hot stick in the eye).

I’m arrogant because I want good things . . . so I should tamp down my desires (while we’re at it, I should join a convent).

I’m lazy because I don’t do what she does . . . so I should try to be more like her (even though I have no desire to be like her).

I’m not the daughter she wanted . . . so why does she want me around (oh yeah, to criticize)?

On the other hand, a narcissistic mother sometimes tells you you’re the most talented or beautiful thing in the world, which is triply confusing because you know, reasonably, that can’t be true . . . especially if you’re invisible and awful. She delivers these confusing messages because to her, you’re a mere extension of herself. She cannot see you as a separate and unique person with fascinating abilities and vulnerabilities. So you’re left not really getting good feedback about who you are in this world. If you grow up with this lack of appropriate mirroring, you may either work excessively to prove your existence and worth – or resign yourself to invisibility in one or more areas. I’m a disappointment . . . I can’t be what she wants . . . I’m a failure.

When your mother thinks you’re a slut . . .

If you feel kind of sleazy or ashamed when you’re around your mother, she may have criticized your sexuality. Let’s say she spied on you with your high school boyfriend and then shamed you for that passionate kiss. You may try to hide your true self from her view and play a very straight-laced role in her presence. (This is a role I have played around my mother for decades.) You feel her being too interested in your private life and you know it’s emotionally treacherous to allow her access to any part of this. You feel her judging you from a morality standpoint. You know she doesn’t respect your judgment, no matter your integrity. You’ll never be quite clean or proper in her eyes.

How to Heal from Narcissistic Mothering

Here’s a bit of their advice, for any of you who, like me, have grown up or even lived half your life feeling like a whore, a failure, or an arrogant bitch.

  1. Surround yourself with those who know you and love you. Avoid contact with those who induce a feeling of guilt or shame or anxiety – the sense you should work harder to prove yourself.
  2. Do lots of self-care to offset the criticism.
  3. Have a witness when you need to open emails or listen to voicemail messages from your mother.
  4. Read about how other people have learned to cope.
  5. Cultivate a spiritual practice, like meditation. This will let you get in touch with your deeply wise inner being.
  6. Call or text someone who sees you as good whenever you start to hear your mother’s words running through your mind. Share those words and get the reaction of a trusted friend.
  7. Find a mentor – particularly someone about the same age as your mother. Let her nurture you. Learn what you really needed as a developing child and give thanks for the opportunity to find it now.
  8. Meditate on what your life would be like if you had a mother who could really see you for who you are. Let that image become vivid and detailed. Enjoy the feeling of it.

Sometimes harsh religion amplifies the narcissism in our families and delivers us mothers who erode our natural self-love. My novel, Wife Material, is about this very process in a fundamentalist family. A narcissistic mother suffered the disruption of her own early mother-child attachment. Know that this is NOT your fault . . . or even hers.

Contact Deborah


Joy Lessons from my 5-year-old Niece

Lessons from Linde

I recently took a road trip with my sister and her kids. While we drove and swam and hiked and visited, I got a good dose of anti-depressant wisdom from my five-year-old niece. Linde inspires me because she is full of joy and incredibly herself: no apologies, no pretense, no matter what’s in the evening news. (People in EMDR therapy spontaneously connect with more playfulness and joy, what five-year-olds have in abundance.) Here’s what I learned.

  1. If you’re mad at someone, make up a silly name for them and use it as much as possible. You polka-dotted poom poom! You noosey nooner! It disarms people in a way that also makes them want to laugh.
  2. Every day, present someone your arm or your neck and ask them to tickle you lightly with their fingertips.
  3. Revel in your own skin. Luxuriate in the feeling of your body as it touches fabric or fur or water. Enjoy the feeling of your hair grazing your shoulders. Take every opportunity to run or bounce or wiggle, especially with a glow stick or while wearing a bee costume.
  4. Keep dancing till everyone else drops. Be the first on the dance floor and the last to leave, whether you have a partner or not. Stopping to go to the bathroom is over-rated.
  5. When someone aims a camera at you, assume you’re beautiful and work it.
  6. Make up stories and recruit your friends to play characters. Give them costumes. Dance around them and sprinkle fairy dust.
  7. If you don’t have an answer to a question, just meow.
  8. Don’t give up on people. If you’ve been turned down for an arm tickle, go back in fifteen minutes and try again. Assume they want to snuggle, but carry a stuffed fox or turtle around just in case your important people are busy.
  9. If you don’t like what’s on the radio, sing your own song. It helps if you close your eyes and pretend you’re the only one there.
  10. And finally, when you’re really angry or scared or disappointed, have a good cry or maybe scream. Let it all out, as loudly as possible. Then take a nap and wake up ready to jump on the bed.


Contact Deborah

Relax and be an Imperfect Parent


Imperfect Parenting

We’re imperfect parents, but we so want to get it right.  Am I providing enough security? Am I being consistent? Will he absorb my disappointment in myself? Will he absorb my anxiety? Am I telling her enough of what she needs to hear? Will she be self-conscious like me?

We try to be conscious parents. We want to do it better than our parents did . . . because we know more than they did and our little ones deserve the benefit of all that knowledge.

But this unrelenting conscious attention to our parenting can block our awareness to the beauty right here. It robs us of the gentle moment where we could share a laugh or notice the uniqueness of our child. Constant anxiety about our parenting also prevents us developing ourselves as autonomous adults, something our kids need us to do . . . so they can be free to do the same.

What I want to offer today is what I am literally learning, right now. Self Care is our most powerful parenting tool, and yet it’s the thing that seems most irrelevant. You want me to sit in the hot tub while my daughter fails chemistry?  Yes. I want you to relax. Do whatever you need to do to slow down thought and be in touch with your body – for 15-20 minutes. Here are some thoughts to help you embrace your imperfect parent self.

Relax and . . .

  1. Know you’re a good-enough parent.
  2. Know you’ve got a good-enough kid.
  3. Take good care of yourself. Your kid needs you to be healthy and happy.
  4. Do what brings you joy. This will show your kid how to do the same.
  5. Let your child push against you. It’s his job to resist, disagree with you, think you’re full of crap. Breathe and let it go.
  6. Let your child hear you laugh, a lot. Let them see you cry. Allow them to see your humanness.
  7. Find good attributes in your spouse or co-parent. Your kid needs to know the positive you see (or saw) there.
  8. Let your kid fail, screw up, and experience disappointment. It’s painful but essential to her sense of self.
  9. Know your child has his own path and own inner compass. You have no ultimate control . . . nor should you. If you try to exert false control of their personality and choices, you can really make a mess of things and restrict growth in both of you.
  10. Trust that your kid loves you. They have to love you. They will always love you, even if they don’t like you.

We Are Enough.

Contact Deborah

“I’m unattractive & I Don’t Deserve Love”: Change Negative Beliefs with EMDR

By Scot Campbell from Charlotte, NC, USA [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I have a few Negative Beliefs . . .

I did some dumb things in my teens. I backed the family car out of the driveway, into our neighbor’s car (which had exited his driveway a second ahead of mine). I waited tables at a church banquet and spilled iced tea down the back of a well-dressed Sunday school teacher. I sat at the piano in complete paralysis, unable to remember an entire section of my Chopin Polonaise as the audience waited . . .

When I think of this chain of horrors, I want to hide and disintegrate into the soil, never to be seen again. I feel like . . . I’m a failure; I’m a disappointment.

Those two beliefs, until pretty recently, dominated my life. I never fully relaxed for fear I might bomb another important event, thus reinforcing my status as a disappointer.

Negative Beliefs sound like . . .

I’m not (good) enough.

I’m unworthy.

It’s my fault.

I’m a bad person.

I’m unsafe.

I can’t trust.

I’m insignificant.

These beliefs come from adverse experiences, especially repeated ones that happened when we were very young. The traumatized brain grabs these explanations – unless someone helps us understand and talk about what happened. So maybe your logical, adult self knows that these are false . . . but the emotional or child part of you FEELS they are true anyway.

Maybe you have old Negative Beliefs that could be interfering with your life now.

So, when you think of your worst problem  . . . the thing that causes you the most grief and heartache and anxiety:

  1. What does it look like?
  2. How does it feel when you think of it?
  3. Where do you notice that emotion in your body?
  4. What does it mean about you? . . .

There it is.

EMDR targets those old ways of viewing and experiencing our selves. It causes us to reprocess, or metabolize, old information that once got stuck in traumatic form in our bodies and it lets new information replace it.

I do the best I can.

I did the best I could.

I’m okay now.

I’m good enough.

I’m enough as I am.

I’m a good person.

I’m beautiful and I deserve love.


Contact Deborah


Transition and EMDR: No such thing as a wrong turn.


By Khunkay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Spring brings rebirth and color and joy. It also brings pollen, tornadoes, and allergies. My life transitions like the seasons, and even though it scares the crap out of me, I know it’s a good thing.

Something gets stale, stuck, or sour and I know it’s time to think differently. I get an urge to do something – an urge I ignore at my own peril. If I ignore my urge, the message of my higher self, I tend to get sick or depressed. EMDR helps me clear the cognitive clutter and make a change.

Maybe I need to:

Cut my hair

Nurture a child (fur baby or human)

Say yes to a trip

Leave a job

Leave a relationship

Lose my religion

Seek the company of a certain friend

Start a new venture

Get rid of things I’m not using

Change my behavior in relation to someone

Change my behavior in relation to myself

Get into therapy

Complete something I’ve postponed

Abandon a task I thought was essential

Trade couches with someone

Grieve and let go of an old belief that blocks me from growing

There’s always a reason for the urge. It comes from a place I can trust.

Over the years, I’ve learned these transitions always pay off in joy and growth and prosperity, even when it feels like I’m being shoved through a revolving door and lose my shoe. In fact, even when others disapprove of my change, I grow and my life gets better. I have no regrets for any of the detours or U-turns or shocking, hair-spiking, neon-sign-wearing changes I’ve made. Through EMDR, I’ve learned to pay closer attention to how my higher self talks to me, how transition shows up, and how I can allow it.

There’s no mistake, only my path. I welcome the change.

Read Wife Material

Calm Receptive Mode: Get calm and find the good stuff inside you.

Idea Garden II, Deborah Cox, Flowers Reborn

Your higher self knows how to calm you.

We all want to find calm receptive mode. But not everybody wants to get a massage (although we should – there are people who can make us feel safer and less awkward). Some of us need action. We need to be out in a kayak or running a trail. Some of us meditate and we know it works. We may need some yoga or tai chi. Some of us tap. Or we turn on some Fauré and close our eyes. And I know at least a couple of people who get barefoot and put their feet in the grass and feel the earth beneath them and take big breaths of outside air.

Maybe you’ve tried to get away or go out in nature or just sit still and you got scared. I’ve been there. You started to feel lonely and edgy, even though you knew you needed solitude and quiet.

What am I doing, anyway? Shouldn’t I be doing laundry? I’m wasting time. I can’t do this. I’m full of crap.

So you gave up, started cleaning, turned on the TV . . .

But your higher self knows what YOU need in order to get into Calm Receptive Mode . . . and it may be different from what your spouse or best friend needs.

Calm Receptive Mode = calming our minds enough to know what’s inside us, struggling to get out.

. . . The good stuff we’re waiting for. The part of us plugged in to divine energy understands us completely and wants us to get access to this good stuff: our creativity, our ideas, our epiphanies about how to live more joyously.

Try this tapping exercise:

  1. Tap the sides of your knees, lightly, left-right-left-right, etc., on the spots that feel most sensitive.
  2. Repeat these phrases:

It’s okay for me to be calm.

My higher self knows what I need to quiet my mind.

There is good inside me.

  1. Take some deep breaths. Repeat as often as you can tolerate it.

. . . Let me know how it goes for you.

Contact Deborah



EMDR, Worry, & Letting Go

Holding On & Letting Go

You know, that feeling where you remind yourself to worry? Lately, I catch myself holding certain issues with a death grip; things I can’t control.

  • My loved-one’s health habits.
  • The world’s poverty and greed.
  • Our mass addictions to technology.
  • Someone else’s parenting failures.
  • My child’s future direction.

I catch myself thinking about these things and literally not breathing.

  • What people think when I don’t call them right back or answer texts on Saturday.

Yet, I realize that clutching worries as if they were mine to command only keeps me cramped. The death grip is a self-punishing illusion. I can only take care of me.

  • What really happens to all those used plastic Keurig cups?

EMDR, Bilateral Stimulation, and Letting Go

By Olivier2000 at French Wikipedia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In the olden days, therapists had to convince you it would save your life to relax. Now, with EMDR, your own nervous system pushes through all the information standing between you and peace. You get there . . . sometimes with lightning speed.

Even so, between EMDR sessions, I need tools. My higher self knows it’s okay to let go, get calm, and expect good things. These steps make that happen.

  1. Take a few deep breaths. Read about why this helps.
  2. Notice the beginning signs that these issues are floating away: a feeling of warmth, a slowing of my heart-rate, a change in my breathing.
  3. Repeat the phrase, “All is in divine order,” or “Everything is already okay.” (That second one comes from a principal of a Dallas high school where I worked in the 90s . . . he said it every morning over the PA system, followed with one minute of Mozart as students settled into first period classes.)
  4. Give myself some bilateral stimulation: Tap the sides of my knees or head (at the temples), alternately, while saying something like this:

“Even though I’m worried my anxiety is rubbing off on my child, I know I’m still a good person and I know we can deal with it.”

“Even though I feel uptight when I notice racism being stirred in our country – I know it’s okay for me to relax. I know that love prevails.”

  1. Focus on something beautiful for 30 seconds while tapping.

Everything really is already okay.

Contact Deborah