Breaking Whole: How Surviving Trauma Makes Us Extraordinary

I often get asked how I manage to work with clients who have experienced deep, wounding traumas. “How do you hear these stories all day and not lose faith in humanity?” The question comes from colleagues and friends, who look at me with what seems like a combination of pity and admiration. Here’s the truth: my work with trauma survivors is a privilege I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. The best way I can think of explaining this is through metaphor. The visionary J.K. Rowling created a literary icon in Harry Potter, who outlived both of his parents and spent his childhood fighting dark forces. Each year, he traveled to Hogwarts, the school at which he learned to cultivate his own strength. While heading up to the Hogwarts castle during his fourth year, something unusual happened:

Here stood the hundred or so horseless stagecoaches that always took the students above first year up to the castle. Harry glanced quickly at them…then did a double-take. The coaches were no longer horseless. There were creatures standing between the carriage shafts. If he had had to give them a name, he supposed he would have called them horses, though there was something reptilian about them, too.

‘I was saying, what are those horse things?’ Harry said, as he, Ron, and Luna made for the carriage in which Hermione and Ginny were already sitting.

‘What horse things?’

‘The horse things pulling the carriages!’ said Harry impatiently. They were, after all, about three feet from the nearest one; it was watching them with empty white eyes. Ron, however, gave Harry a perplexed look.

                                                                        (Rowling, 2003, p. 196-197)

The bat-winged horses were first visible to Harry Potter as he returned to Hogwarts after battling terrifying forces that were much more powerful than himself. He felt different, altered, and he wasn’t sure why.

This happens to us non-fiction characters too. We go through traumatic events that alter the essence of our beings forever. And once that happens, we learn to see the extraordinary. What changes us is not only death itself, but also the threat of annihilation. When we are defenseless against a fist that is stronger than ours, a gun held to our heads, the sensation of being ripped in two, those things remain carved into our beings. We, as a human race, often do not want to think about this sort of violence. It may be overwhelming to admit that humans are able to damage other humans in those ways. Those experiences are what psychologists call trauma.

If you’ve been there, you may recognize it as the time when everything around you suddenly looked different or went dark. You might have felt like you couldn’t feel your body or hear your thoughts. You may have thought you were breaking into pieces and that you would not survive. You might remember feeling numb, frozen, or unable to move. You might have a hard time remembering it at all. The memories, when they come, might be in flashes of sounds, smells, or images. This is called dissociation.

There is actual scientific evidence that trauma often causes dissociation, that is, the separation of parts of our consciousness such as thoughts, feelings, sounds, images, and physical sensations (van der Kolk, 2015). Imagine, for a moment that the human brain is a sparkling crystal sphere made up of thoughts, feelings and experiences. Then, when trauma occurs, it brings a hammer down onto the crystal, splitting off the shards of the human self. Memories might come apart from the rest of the brain; sights and sounds might get disconnected in shards of their own. The traumatized individual still has all the parts of himself or herself within, but those parts are fragmented, dissociated from one another. People describe it as “I felt like I was out of my body, watching myself from above.” “All I saw was the knife, and then it’s blank after that.” When the brain shatters into parts, it is able to protect the inner self during times of danger.

Harry Potter experienced brain-altering trauma when he faced the Dark Lord who had murdered his parents. During that battle, Harry used all of his inner resources to make sure that darkness was defeated. However, he was forced to watch helplessly as his friend died right before his eyes. After returning to Hogwarts, Harry was shocked at his ability to see the bat-winged horses that seemed invisible to those around him. One day, he stood in the forest, watching and listening as Professor Hagrid began a class about magical creatures.

A pair of blank, white, shining eyes were growing larger through the gloom and a moment later the dragonish face, neck, and then skeletal body of a great, black, winged horse emerged from the darkness…A great wave of relief broke over Harry. Here at last was proof that he had not imagined these creatures, that they were real: Hagrid knew about them too.

“Don’ worry, it won’ hurt yeh,” said Hagrid patiently. “Righ’, now, who can tell me why some o’ you can see them an’ some can’t?”

Hermione raised her hand. “Go on then,” said Hagrid, beaming at her.

“The only people who can see thestrals,” she said, “are people who have seen death.”

                                                            (Rowling, 2003, p. 444-445)

Harry saw the bat-winged horses, known as thestrals, because he had experienced death. He had seen someone die and he had fully accepted, understood, and internalized the experience. The loss had opened his eyes to things he had never seen before.

In my work with survivors of war, abuse, and terror, I have come to believe that when traumatic events shatter us into pieces, our very beings expand to hold all of those pieces. And in that space between the shattered parts of ourselves, that’s where superhuman strength grows. That’s where the extraordinary is planted. That immense pain, fear, and sadness can be the edge that makes us different and celestial and able to impact others in a whole new way.

Trauma is the most painful, terrifying, tragic part of our human reality. And traumatic horrors have produced some of the most giving and understanding angels who light up our world.  Trauma may allow us to see the bat-winged horses in our lives, those things that may be invisible to those without enhanced vision. We may develop finely tuned radars for detecting people with pure hearts. We may develop a sixth sense about which people don’t have good intentions. And we can use those perceptions to protect others, to ensure that we guide them away from darkness. We can find the rays of light in the people around us and help them shed their limitations so that their souls shine through. We may feel more, see more, love more, bleed more, be more than we were born to be, because trauma broke through the limits of our beings and created space for beautiful, unencumbered strength.

This is why it is my absolute honor to work with people who have survived the unthinkable. I get to bear witness as trauma survivors collect the pieces of pain and turn them into something greater than the sum of its parts.

If this resonates because you are one of the dear souls who can see the bat-winged horses, know that you might just be absolutely magical.


Rowling, J. K. (2003). Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. NY, NY: Penguin Books.

Say Something, I’m Giving Up On You

Alexis hugs a pillow to her chest as she swallows hard. “Doc, I know you want me to tell him how I feel, but…It’s like there’s a block in my throat.” She seems to choke on her words when she senses conflict. She describes a fight she had with her boyfriend over dinner last night, and how it ended with her crying while he asked, “What did I do? Just tell me!” as he watched her withdraw into herself. Alexis knows that her voice hasn’t been the same since high school when a supposed friend violated her space and left scars deep within her psyche. Even though many years have passed, she still freezes when she feels threatened in her relationships, hiding behind a curtain of long brown hair and silence.

If you’ve ever loved someone who has been through the burning flames of physical or emotional abuse, there is a possibility that he or she has developed a complex posttraumatic stress disorder. In short, once an individual has been forced to endure the prolonged and repeated infliction of pain at the hands of someone they trust, they may have a hard time trusting anyone again. They may experience symptoms of complex trauma such as problems with emotion regulation, impulse control, focus, dissociation, and interpersonal relationships (van der Kolk, 2014). And the very nature of those symptoms means that it is often impossible for the sufferer to speak about what they are experiencing. Instead, they may shut down or react in defensive anger.

What they may actually be trying to communicate is:

1. When I feel threatened, it is hard for me to speak. The key word in that sentence is “feel.” You may not have actually lifted your hand or said something hurtful, and yet you may have triggered a fear that is mired in his or her past. Survivors of trauma often have overactive adrenal responses to threat, which means that when they register a threat to their emotional or physical safety, the blood rushes from their brains down to their extremities, readying their bodies to fight or flee. These involuntary protective mechanisms place a very real limitation on the biological functions necessary to communicate (Perry, 2009).

2. When I do speak up and tell you how I feel, know that this was a Herculean effort. Steven Porges (2011) identified as a dorsal vagal complex to severe threat, during which the brain shuts down non-essential functions like speech, and lowers metabolism throughout the body, leading to an internal collapse in a state known as “freeze.” This often appears as complete shut down: silence, lack of facial expression or interaction. Therefore, when your beloved survivor does try and speak in moments of conflict, be sure to listen, validate, and honor those words. As Alexis said to me during one tearful session, “just…just treat my words like little butterflies. If you crush them, they’ll die forever.”

3. I might have sudden extreme reactions that only make perfect sense if you understand how they happen. Imagine being plunged into a boiling hot bathtub; you would most likely scream, “Ouch!” Now imagine that the pain receptors in your body have been damaged, and you are in the tub, watching time pass by for a while before you notice third-degree burns on your body. Your scream may be sudden, and loud, and disproportionate to your seeming relaxation just moments before. This actually makes perfect sense if you factor in those damaged nerves.

MRI studies show that adult women who have been abused as children have hippocampal regions that are 18 percent smaller than those of a control group (Vythilingam et al., 2002). This means that the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions is compromised. The survivor may not know how to read her own internal signals that tell her she is starting to feel hurt or upset. This makes sense because she has learned to ignore her own gut instincts. Therefore, when she finally realizes, with a jolt, that she feels afraid or hurt, she may react impulsively in a manner that seems extreme for a given situation.

4. I might blame myself for things that I have not caused. There are times when I will deny my own needs to reduce or avoid conflict. Object relations theory is an organized way of understanding relationship dynamics (Klein, M. as cited by Kernberg, 1988). The theory posits that infants use projective identification to cope with neglect or abuse. If babies could string sentences together, it might sound like this, “Well my mother is ignoring my cries. It is too dangerous and painful for me, being so tiny and helpless, to believe she doesn’t care about me. So instead I’m going to decide that I’m a bad baby and she is a wonderful, loving mother.” The self-blame is a way for the infant to maintain the necessary illusion of a safe and loving caregiver.

Object relations theory begins in early childhood, but without intervention, those patterns of belief can last way into adulthood. In real time, this means that you may see your loved one blame himself for any conflict in your relationship, even when you are the one at fault. As the concerned wife of one trauma survivor described, “When I get home from work in a bad mood, and he feels the stress radiating off my body, he darts around the house cleaning everything in sight. I don’t get it.” Well, that’s because on a completely unconscious level he might blame himself for your mood.

5. Please do not diagnose or label me. You may think you know what your partner has been through as a child, or you may recognize that s/he has some of these symptoms. Remember that trauma can only be diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional that has performed a comprehensive clinical evaluation. It is possible for children and adults to survive unthinkable conditions without developing trauma diagnoses. It is also possible for people to develop trauma symptomology from incidents you may not think are “that bad.”

6. If you are not up to the task, gently let me go. It is not uncommon for trauma survivors to unconsciously replay the past by choosing partners who have their own relational challenges. This creates the potential for cycles of abuse to continue on and on, hurting both partners in the process. You might feel yourself beginning to fray at the seams and act in ways that do not make you feel proud. You may realize that you are increasingly sacrificing your priorities and needs and feeling resentful as a result. These are signs that it may be time to let go or take a break so that each of you may pursue individual paths to healing.

All those among us who try to open their hearts following abuse: they are true heroes. We can honor the bravery of complex trauma survivors by tuning into their needs and creating a space for connection and trust. Within that secure space, we may get to see incredible strength, the kind that can inspire us to be better versions of ourselves. And when we embrace those who have survived the worst sorts of mistreatment, we can ensure that hate will not win in the world around us.


Kernberg, O. F. (1988). Object relations theory in clinical practice. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly.

Perry, B. D. (2009). Examining child maltreatment through a neurodevelopmental lens: Clinical applications of the neurosequential model of therapeutics. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14(4), 240-255.

Porges, S. W. The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2011).

van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. NY, NY: Penguin Books.

Vythilingam, M., Heim, C., Newport, J., Miller, A. H., Anderson, E., Bronen, R., … Bremner, J. D. (2002). Childhood Trauma Associated With Smaller Hippocampal Volume in Women With Major Depression. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(12), 2072–2080.

Put Your Own Spin on It: How Cycling Can Lead to Psychological Balance

Sara Gluck, PhD, LCSW


It’s just me and the resistance knob now. That small dial that will determine how easy or hard this bike ride will be. The spin class instructor cues, encourages “TURN IT TO A PLACE THAT MAKES YOU PROUD!” My ego pushes me to break the stationary bike, to cycle beyond anything I’ve ever done before. My gut cringes and begs me to get in tune with what feels right to me. I search myself for the truth.

My mind has an internal dialogue that runs along at the pace of my pedal strokes. I know that I can force myself to do physical work that is past my breaking point, but that it will probably leave me lying on the ground, breathless and unable to move. I can also keep that resistance knob turned toward the left, toward a lighter road that is fast and painless. However, if I don’t honor my actual level of ability, and I let myself speed downhill, I might lose an opportunity to build endurance and strength.

The instructor continues to prompt, “Do not let fear drive this! Allow your confidence to be bigger than your fear! Exhale obstacles out of the way! Now SHOW. YOUR. TEETH!” Gosh, if I wasn’t motivated enough before, now I really want to push the effort harder.

I know that it can be dangerous to ignore my gut feelings about what is actually right for my body. I know this deep in the core of my being, where I have borne witness to the pain of so many people who have been pushed past their limits. They end up in my office with anxiety, depression, panic, disordered eating, or addictions. Peter, for instance, is a law student who stumbled onto my couch with a brutal hangover, asking me to “cure” his panic disorder so he could go back to working all day and studying through the night. Sophia, the teenager who accepted the role of mediating between her divorced parents, lifted her sleeve to show me where she secretly sliced into her arms when it all became too much. Amy, the mom who raised three amazing children, fell into a deep depression when she no longer felt needed.

Peter, Sophia, and Amy each reached a breaking point at which their self-denial was no longer adaptive. It can happen to any one of us. Over the course of our lives, we are so often told what to do, how to think, who to be. We’ve been lectured on what we “should” aspire toward. We’ve taught ourselves to ignore the voice within, the one that bangs its little fists up against our throats and begs us to speak. We may have become really good at lying to ourselves over time. We might drown out the protests of our gut instincts with the constant dinging of our inboxes or the prattle of our small talk. Eventually, our inner voices might just curl up in the fetal position and take a nap, hoping we don’t completely wreck our lives before we are ready to hear them again.

Back on the bike, I struggle to set my pace. Thankfully, my instructor today is the intuitive Christine D’Ercole, master instructor at Peloton Cycle, who knows exactly when to say things like, “Just find the rhythm. Are you able to close your eyes for long enough that you can hear your SELF?”

I take a breath and remember that the amazing thing about the human brain is its plasticity, i.e. its ability to change as we alter our thoughts and actions. It may take an enormous amount of courage to allow ourselves to relax in the present moment, tune into the rhythm of our own breath, or speak our truth. And if we do any of that, even once, we have what it takes to be productive in a way that is energizing. We can avoid physical and emotional burnout.

Over the time that we worked together, my fierce warriors learned to set some boundaries. Peter accepted his panic and anxiety as signs that he was headed toward a crash. He began to set specific study hours, and made sure to set aside one night each week for socializing with his friends. Sophia learned to tell her parents that she would no longer pass messages from one to the other. Amy realized that it was permissible to take care of her own needs, and that she could find purpose outside of her changing role as a parent. Those small changes were enough to move their stress levels from burnout-inducing to challenging.

“Be deeply aware when I keep telling you to turn the resistance up, you gotta know when to STOP. You gotta know when to say NO.” I finally exhale deeply.

I look at that little dial on the bike, the one that will determine whether I get stronger or whether I break down in injury. I think of all the times I lost touch with my inner voice and pushed myself toward destruction. Then I remind myself to look deep within, to shed the judgment, and to find my truth. I land a couple of rotations on the wheel below my initial planned effort. But I still feel my heart rate increasing and my muscles working hard and I know that I’ve found my own ideal personal effort level.

Finding Your Balance:

If you are not a spin junkie, you can still learn to tap into your internal resistance knob. Just close your eyes, observe what goes through your mind, and take note of the sensations in your body. Be aware of the way in which you talk to yourself. When you hiss, “I have to relax,” all that your brain hears is your demanding tone. Instead try, “I am allowed to take this time to relax,” or, “I deserve to honor my own needs in this current moment.”

Take a little scan of your life. Work. Family. Self. You might find that thinking about one or more of these things leads to an incredible feeling of exhaustion. Honor that. Accept that. Ask yourself, which part of my life doesn’t feel right? Are there areas in which I am pushing myself too much? Am I taking some things too easy? Where do I need to adjust my effort? You might feel the urge to block out the feelings that arise. You might, at this point, be reaching for your phone so you can scan your messages. That’s ok. If you allowed your inner self to speak, even just for a moment, you’ve already begun to find your own personal truth.

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Not So Plain Jane

by Sara Schwartz Gluck, PhD, LCSW

“JANE, 17 – Ripe with young womanhood, lustrous dark skin and flashing eyes – hurries through the crowd.” Ross Putman, a Hollywood producer, recently released descriptions of female characters from actual scripts he has reviewed. He couldn’t help but notice that the physical attributes of those characters were an integral part of the plot lines that were laid out by scriptwriters. In an act of courage that validated feminists everywhere, Putman released quote after quote verbatim via twitter (@femscriptintros) changing nothing but the character names, which he switched to JANE.

“JANE, 22, makes her grand appearance. She is a breathtaking young woman, a vision of natural beauty.”

If it weren’t so blatantly sexist, it may actually be laughable. Why is a woman’s appearance the first thing that is prioritized? What if Jane were not breathtakingly stunning? What if Jane, the female lead in any storyline, would be in her mid 30’s, with crow’s feet around her slightly tired eyes, a rounded stomach, and a brilliant mind? Well, then maybe she would be appreciated for her internal qualities, instead of being viewed as an object. But that would likely make viewership decline, create a drop in ratings, and gross less profit.

“JANE, with lengthy blonde hair, enters. Attractive in an effortless way, she carries an alluring and yet forward charm behind a bold smile.”

The media at large often wants us to believe that women must meet certain standards of beauty in order to be worthy of love, of happiness, and of being noticed at all. These standards are often unrealistic. How many people can look devastatingly gorgeous while succeeding at a demanding career, being stuck in a rainstorm, or even more simply, being a mother to young children? Oh, and that beauty must be effortless in order to count- it cannot be admired if it the character is shown spending an hour on hair and makeup. No, the flawlessness should never be marred by messy, behind the scenes effort.

So many researchers have shown that the unrealistic portrayal of the ‘ideal woman’ that is shown on screen is very harmful to women. Women who are exposed to images of idealized women are more likely to develop low self-esteem, eating disorders, and body image problems. The challenge is that almost all of us are exposed to perfect long legs, impossibly thick lashes, smooth silky hair, and rosy, pouty lips on models and actresses each day. It can be difficult to separate our own values from those that are subtly planted in our psyches.

The first step, as Ross Putman showed this month, is awareness. Simply noticing the way that women are objectified on screen is a powerful beginning. And then, let’s question and critically analyze the media that we see. Let’s allow ourselves to disbelieve the myth of effortless physical perfection. As a media researcher, I tend to watch TV with a cynical commentary that goes something like this:

“So, she just woke up and her hair is mussed in perfect ways and her skin is glowing. Hmm, I wonder how many hair and makeup people it took to achieve that look?”

“She just ran up to the door through a blizzard and the only effect of that was that her face looks radiant while her nose miraculously does not start running and her hair stays shiny and in place- that’s hilarious.”

“She is a successful FBI agent and her stomach is completely flat and toned- I wonder how many hours she would get to work her abs each day if she really had that job, instead of being a paid actress in the role.”

That’s all it takes to start the process of change- just being mindful of the subliminal messages that are being shown, and allowing ourselves to see them for the contrived illusions that they are.

Helping Your Child Make the Most of Their Time in Psychotherapy

by Dr. Sara Schwartz Gluck, PhD, LCSW: Clinical Director, Five Towns Wellness Center

It has been my honor and privilege to have been entrusted with many child clients over the past decade. These children have made it to my office for many different reasons- anxiety, ADHD, behavioral problems, and changes in their family structures, just to mention a few. In recent years, I’ve noticed that parents have become even more educated about the benefits of early intervention services, and have begun to bring their children in for treatment when small warning signs begin to emerge.

It can be very difficult for parents to welcome an outsider in to help their child with emotional difficulties. I am in awe of each parent who is able to put aside their own feelings of inadequacy, of shame, of guilt, and show up in my office to ask for help on behalf of their children. As a parent myself, I know how hard it can be to admit that sometimes we cannot meet all of our child’s emotional needs. Sometimes we just don’t have the necessary tools, practically or emotionally, with which to ease our children’s pain. And it takes a superhuman level of strength to trust a stranger with our children’s mental/emotional well being.

This is for all of you superhuman parents out there, all who have taken the step of choosing to begin the process of psychotherapy; here are just a few tips about how to make sure that the time and resources you invest in the process are maximally helpful to your child.

  1. Your attitude determines your child’s attitude: If you are calm as you bring your child into session, and if you project a sense of confidence in your child’s therapist, it’ll be easier for your child to feel calm and positive about therapy. When parents come into session with furrowed brows, or asking lots of anxious questions, I can almost always sense that their child is also anxious about being there. When parents view the therapist as a friend, a collaborator, a kind helper, then children are more likely to open their young minds to the idea of treatment.
  2. Do not use therapy as a threat or a punishment: Please don’t say, in moments of anger, “THIS is why you HAVE to go to therapy!” or “I’m going to tell your therapist what you just did!” This makes children see their therapist as a disciplinarian. Even if the therapist is kind and nonjudgmental, children who have been exposed to threats related to therapy will likely treat their therapist with the same wariness as they would a school principal.
  3. Communicate with your child’s therapist: If you have a question or concern about your child’s treatment, it is your absolute right to bring it up. It is important that you understand the treatment plan that your child’s therapist is using. In addition, most therapists find it very helpful when parents provide a quick weekly update regarding their child’s therapy-relevant successes or challenges. This can be done at the start of session, or by email prior to the session, based on your mutual arrangement with the therapist. Make sure to attend regular parent sessions as well, so that you can ask questions and ensure that your child’s home and therapy environments are both supporting his or her progress.
  4. Make sure your child is physically ready for sessions: I have had children seem very restless and uncomfortable in my room, and when asked, they say they missed lunch, or came straight from school and haven’t had a snack yet. Sometimes they really need to use the restroom but don’t want to waste precious play therapy time. It is hard for kids to focus when they are hungry, tired, or are in any other physical discomfort. If your child’s session is at 4:00 PM, you may want to consider picking him or her up from school at 3:30, instead of 3:45, to allow time for a snack and restroom break. I hate to waste parents’ time and money on searching the office for a snack for a child who is just too starving to participate in the session.
  5. You may need to make some changes in your life in order for your child to change: Try to keep an open mind about this. Sometimes parents have a very understandable wish that the therapist will “fix” the entire problem during a 45 minute per week therapy session. We call that the “dry cleaners” fantasy- wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could drop our children off at therapy, and then pick them up all pressed, polished, and happy? In real life though, there is often no magic cure or instant solution. If there were, you probably would have been able to find it on your own without the help of a therapist. Therapy works best when you are ready to make small changes along with your child. Even something as simple as setting aside several moments per day to do therapy “homework” with your child is an effective way of reviewing the skills learned in session and helping your child learn to use those skills in real time. The more involved and invested you are in your child’s treatment, the easier it will be to achieve the treatment goals.

And most importantly:

  1. Celebrate small successes: If your child is able to take one concept or skill learned in the therapy room and apply it in a single real-life situation, that means that s/he is capable of change. When you show your pride, you allow your child to recognize success and continue to work toward further change.

Once you’ve begun the treatment process, you are no longer alone. Signing your child up for psychotherapy sessions allows you to have another person on your team to support your child’s growth and happiness. As the traditional African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Welcome to the village. Come on in.



Who Wore It Best?

by Dr. Sara Schwartz Gluck, PhD, LCSW

“You look great in that dress! Sooo skinny!”

I’m sure you’ve heard that type of comment in any situation where 2 or more women are present. The ultimate compliment- so skinny! When I hear this, it’s usually tinged with just a little bit of envy, like a green sliver peeking through the cloud of admiration. I call it the “jealous compliment.” Weird thing, comparing ourselves to the people around us. Without even realizing it, we scan the room and decide how to feel about ourselves based on how everyone else looks on the outside.

Social psychologists have a name for this. In the 1954, Leon Festinger called it the social comparison theory. According to him, it’s human nature to base our own self worth on how the people around us are doing. Hence, the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Way back then, Festinger laid out his idea of exactly how this happens: We look at the people around us. If they are worse off than us (weaker, poorer, less attractive) we are cool with that. If they are better than us (smarter, faster, stronger) we either: Find a way to match up to them (spending more time at work to earn more income) OR find a reason to dismiss them (oh they’re only wealthy because they cheat on their taxes).

The strange exception to this rule is women and body image. When we compare ourselves to unrealistic beauty ideals that we see in magazines or in person, we keep trying to meet those ideals, even if deep down we know it’s impossible. Think about the millions of dollars we spend on makeup, plastic surgery, Botox, and diet products each year, in an effort to make ourselves thinner and more model-like. It’s beyond what seems rational.

My theory is that Festinger could never have predicted this, because he lived before the age of streaming Internet and color screen TVs. There would have been no way for him to imagine exactly how harmful those influences would be. Many of us are numb to the subtle messages we watch and see each day, and we don’t even begin to realize that they are slowly seeping into our minds. The good citizens of Nadroga, Fiji, were completely naïve to our American media in 1995. That’s when the first television sets were brought into the region. Some researchers (Becker, Burwell, Herzog, Hamburg, & Gilman, 2002) took a look at what happened next, and it was frightening. Before the introduction of TV, the native Fijians thought that robust and curvy women were beautiful, and they saw no need for dieting. The rate of bulimia? Zero. Three years later, most of the population had TVs, and 74% of the people surveyed said they felt “too big or fat” at least some of the time. And 11.3% of those said they vomited in order to lose weight. A total of 77% of those who were surveyed stated that television had influenced their body image, and many articulated that they wanted to look more like Western television characters.

1995- BEFORE TV 1998- AFTER TV
Robust body types valued

Bulimia rate- 0%

Body Dissatisfaction: Low

Thin body types valued

Bulimia rate: 11.3%

Body dissatisfaction rate: 74%

While we can’t always control the images that flash before our eyes, what we can control is whether we choose to let the media and advertisers tell us which characteristics are attractive. And we can help our friends, family, and our children by calling attention to things other than how they look on the outside. Next time you feel like commenting on someone’s dress size, try looking a little bit deeper, and saying something that is truly meaningful.

“You look radiant with joy!”
“You seem so confident right now.”
“Your smile just lights up this room!”

Let’s give ourselves a break from the cycle of comparison, and relax in our skin, cellulite and all.


Sara Schwartz-Gluck is Clinical Director at the Five Towns Wellness Center, located in Cedarhurst, NY. At The Five Towns Wellness Center we created a safe, private place to treat an individual’s needs with the specific care necessary to help conquer obstacles to health and happiness. FTWC was established in order to provide comprehensive psychological care to children and families while treating problems such as anxiety, depression, trauma, domestic violence, ADHD, oppositional behavior, and developmental disorders. We provide therapy and tools for living that children and adults can use to better cope with life’s challenges such as divorce, illness, and loss. Our goal is to help our clients develop practical skills and inner strength so they may live their best possible reality.   If you or your child is struggling call us for a phone consultation.  There is no need to feel alone.  At FTWC, we are always here for you.


Self-Perception Among Young Women Relative To Exposure To Sexualizing Visual Media

by Dr. Sara Schwartz Gluck, Phd, LCSW

Popular American media such as TV, movies, and music videos often affects the way people see themselves and the world around them.  This study looked at the ways in which women are shown on screen, and how that affected a group of Orthodox Jewish young women. The media often makes it seem like in order for women to be beautiful, they need to be very thin  and perfect.  Many researchers have studied college-aged women, and have found that when  women watch American media, they are more likely to have low self-esteem and to be  unhappy with the way they look (Aubrey, Hopper, & Mbure, 2011; Wright, 2009). 

On the  other hand, girls who grow up in the Orthodox Jewish culture often learn that it is best to be  modest by covering their bodies so that they would be noticed for their minds and hearts  rather than how they look (Andrews, 2011).  Some Orthodox Jews even choose not to watch any non-Jewish media at all.  These differences between Jewish teachings and American  media mean that American Jewish women might learn completely opposite things from the  media than what they learn from Jewish books. 

This study of 155 single, Orthodox Jewish  young women included people from colleges, seminaries, and public areas in the state of NY.   The study participants included some who reported that they watched a lot of American  media, and others who reported never having watched any non-Jewish media in their entire  lives.  All of the participants were asked to complete a survey about their beliefs and  behaviors but were not exposed to any  media during this study.

After all of the surveys  were analyzed, there were some interesting results that were found.  When participants  watched higher levels of media, this was associated with lower levels of general self worth  and lower levels of body confidence.  Those who reported higher levels of religiosity were  less likely to watch American media and more likely to have higher general levels of self  worth.  This was the first time that Orthodox Jewish girls and popular media were looked at by a psychological researcher.

To review Dr. Gluck’s full research paper, download here

I Can’t Fight These Feelings Anymore

by Sara Schwartz Gluck, LCSW

So you might think that because I am a clinical psychotherapist, I think you need to “be in touch with your feelings” in order to reach mental well-being. That would be a reasonable, but false assumption. In fact, the pain, sadness and fear I see each day have given me some perspective radically different from what you may expect.

Sigmund Freud was the first to identify “Defense Mechanisms,” which are our minds’ way of coping with stress by blocking it out on some level. Some of those defenses include, denial, rationalization, dissociation, repression, and splitting. In my office, defense mechanisms look like arms folded across ones’ chest, saying “I don’t know” in response to questions, or lots of chatter about any topics other than the reason for the session. When kids and teens are defended in session, its often because they are not in therapy by choice, rather they are brought in by frustrated parents. Their defenses might look like eye rolling, small vicious tugs, nearly invisible kicks toward their parents, or the silent treatment. 

I think of defenses as shields that we hold to protect ourselves from experiencing and feeling pain. Those of us who have been hurt might have donned full suits of armor in the form of multiple defense mechanisms. We might use denial, projection, suppression, and humor to anesthetize ourselves against that which is too overwhelming for our psyches to process. And that’s ok. That’s how we have survived rejection, abuse, trauma, neglect, loss, or betrayal. The defenses are what have allowed us to wake up each morning and live some semblance of normal life.

It’s important that we honor our resistance to talking about certain topics, and to feeling certain emotions. When we honor our defenses we are acknowledging that they have served a purpose and helped us get by. And then, when we feel stronger and safer in our lives, that’s when it is time to question the need for blocking out parts of our experiences. By listening to our inner voices, we can tune in to our needs and recognize when our defenses no longer work for us. For example, the defense mechanism called repression may have worked for a 5 year old whose parents weren’t present, as it allowed the child to push the pain aside and learn to cope with the hard reality. However, when that 5 year old grows into a 25 year old who is in a committed relationship, repression may hinder his ability to express his feelings to his loved one. And when defenses stop working for us, it is time to take a step back and decide whether we want to try a new way of thinking.

Remember, those parts of us that aren’t ready to face reality are valuable parts which have served to protect us. Let’s honor and embrace that about ourselves. And then, let’s be honest about when it is time to make a change.

Chocolate Therapy

Jonathan Cohen, PsyD
Sara Schwartz-Gluck, LCSW

Ben, an overweight 7th grader, struggled to keep up during gym class. He would stand on the side with his awkward classmate, and they bonded over trying to avoid physical activity. When Ben grew older, he was accepted to a few good colleges, but he kept dropping out of school. He hung out with his old friend from junior high, who was unsuccessfully attempting to get into medical school. The two of them took a look at themselves- college dropouts from a small town on Long Island- and decided that the one thing they excelled at was eating. Especially eating ice cream. Ben Cohen and his friend Jerry Greenfield sent $5 to Penn State University for a correspondence course on ice cream making. They pooled their savings and opened a small ice cream store, and named it Ben and Jerry’s. Continue reading “Chocolate Therapy”